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Tag Archives: Roger Corman

31 Days of Horror!

My wife Jillian and I recently completed a “31 days of horror” challenge in which we watched 31 scary movies in 31 days. We each picked roughly half of the films on the list and tried to focus on watching stuff we’d never seen before. Below are brief, informal reviews of the films that I originally posted on Facebook. They are ranked from favorite to least favorite and I affixed a letter grade to each. I hope this list comes in handy to anyone hoping to do a 31-days-of-horror challenge next year!

Body-Melt

1. NIGHT OF THE DEMON (Jacques Tourneur, UK, 1957): A+
Jacques Tourneur (CAT PEOPLE, OUT OF THE PAST) was a master of cinema and this late entry in his filmography is one of his best. Dana Andrews is a skeptical American professor who travels to England to attend a parapsychology conference and ends up investigating a Satanic cult led by an Aleister Crowley-like figure. Chock-full of remarkable noir-ish visuals and almost unbearably suspenseful set pieces from beginning to end. A masterpiece.

2. SUSPIRIA (Dario Argento, Italy, 1978): A
The most famous of all Italian horror films centers on an American girl arriving at a ballet school in Germany and discovering that it’s run by a coven of witches! There are startling images galore (maggots, a room full of razor wire, attacks by a rabid dog and a bat, etc.) but it’s the bold, stylized color and lighting schemes that truly give this beautiful and surreal film the illogical, uncanny feeling of a nightmare. I’d never seen it before and I’m glad my first time was with the new 4K restoration. Recommended by David Hanley.

3. THE BODY SNATCHER (Val Lewton/Robert Wise, USA, 1945): A
This is what I’m talking about! Boris Karloff is a carriage driver in 18th-century Scotland who provides cadavers — by any means necessary — to a medical school in exchange for cash. The interesting thing is that Karloff’s character, a very charismatic murderer, isn’t the villain. The stick-in-the-mud doctor running the school (who has a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about where the bodies come from) is. Great script and performances and stylish cinematography. The scene between Karloff and Bela Lugosi (reuniting 11 years after Edgar Ulmer’s masterpiece THE BLACK CAT) is an all-timer. So much fun.

4. THE ENTITY (Sidney Furie, USA, 1982): A
This was straight-up the scariest movie of the 31 that Jill and I watched. It’s about a single mother of three who is repeatedly sexually assaulted by an invisible presence in her own home. The attack sequences, accompanied by what sounds like an industrial version of the PSYCHO shower theme, are horrifying. Director Sidney Furie gets a lot of mileage from showing the incursion of evil into a totally banal suburban California setting, and Barbara Hershey’s lead performance is incredible.

5. WITCHFINDER GENERAL (Michael Reeves, UK/USA, 1968): A
Wow, this was an intense and disturbing film! It features what was reportedly one of Vincent Price’s favorite roles and it’s easy to see why: Matthew Hopkins, a real-life self-appointed “witchfinder” who traveled 17th-century England torturing and killing “witches” for money, was the most evil character he ever played. Every one of Price’s line readings is amazing — the unique softness of his voice providing ironic counterpoint to the utter vileness of Hopkins’ deeds. Although not entirely historically accurate, this film nonetheless gets to the heart of the hypocrisy of witch hunts better than any film I’ve seen (aside from Dreyer’s DAY OF WRATH).

6. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (George Romero, USA, 1968): A
I hadn’t watched this in over 20 years so it was a real pleasure to see it again in MoMA’s beautiful new restoration (which George Romero oversaw shortly before his death). Very few popular subgenres descend so definitively from a single movie the way the “zombie film” does from this one. Such a lively piece of filmmaking and such a powerful allegory for American unrest during the Vietnam War and Civil Rights era. The occasionally stilted acting by a cast of unknowns only enhances both the realism and the horror.

7. THE WICKER MAN (Robin Hardy, UK, 1975): A-
A police inspector travels to a remote Scottish Isle in search of a missing girl but the inhabitants are less than forthcoming and nothing is what it seems! I had never seen this much beloved British “folk horror” film before – nor, thankfully, knew any details of the plot – but immediately got what all the fuss was about. Christopher Lee FTW. Recommended by Natalya Oshurkova.

8. THE UNINVITED (Lewis Allen, USA, 1944): A-
Great, atmospheric ghost story set in the UK but made in Hollywood by the non-auteurist-approved director Lewis Allen. Beautiful black-and-white cinematography and impressive ghost effects (even if the film isn’t actively “scary” by today’s standards). Ray Milland and Gail Russell are very appealing as the central couple. I was amazed to learn that the famous standard “Stella by Starlight” was written for this film (Russell’s character is named Stella).

9. RITUALS (Peter Carter, Canada, 1977): A-
A good reason to do a 31-days-of-horror-challenge is to try and seek out underrated or overlooked gems that you’ve never even heard of before. This Canadian “survivalist horror” movie served that function better than any other title on the list. A group of five friends (all of whom are doctors) go on a fishing trip together and find themselves menaced by an unknown assailant. This is a brutal but very well made film featuring a good script, great performances (especially Hal Holbrook as the lead) and taut direction. Obviously influenced by DELIVERANCE, which it’s just as good as and twice as scary as.

10. THE FOG (John Carpenter, USA, 1980): A-
Perhaps John Carpenter’s most underrated movie, this has to do with ghosts from a leper colony seeking vengeance on the citizens of a coastal California town whose founders deliberately caused their demise a century before. Beautifully shot and edited, the whole thing feels like a feature film version of the kind of campfire ghost story being told by John Houseman in the irresistible prologue. This was the second and final screenwriting collaboration between Carpenter and Debra Hill (not counting the obligatory HALLOWEEN II, which Carpenter didn’t direct) and it’s obvious in hindsight that she brought a welcome female energy to his work that can’t be found in his subsequent movies.

11. ISLE OF THE DEAD (Val Lewton/Mark Robson, USA, 1945): A-
Another Lewton/Karloff joint that I hadn’t seen before. A group of people quarantined on a Greek Island after an outbreak of the plague in 1912 break off into two camps: those who believe in science vs. those who believe in superstition! This has atmosphere to spare and the live-burial climax is terrifying.

12. A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH (Grover Babcock/Blue Hadaegh, USA, 2003): A-
This is a different kind of horror movie: a documentary about what happens to people (and their possessions) when they die with no known next of kin. With cool objectivity, the filmmakers follow several Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office employees going about their daily routines. While the movie isn’t remotely sensationalistic (even if shots of corpses in various stages of decomposition will make this difficult viewing for some), it becomes incredibly haunting precisely because of its matter-of-factness. Recommended by Rob Christopher.

13. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (John Carpenter, USA, 1995): B+
Jill picked this, which we’d seen before but it’d been a while. John Carpenter’s last great film. Sam Neill is terrific as an insurance investigator who loses his mind while looking for a missing horror novelist. The final scene shows Neill’s character entering a movie theater and watching a film titled IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS starring himself and directed by “John Carpenter.” After plunging down this meta-horror rabbit hole there was really nothing else left for JC to do.

14. ANGUISH (Bigas Luna, Spain, 1987): B+
Wow. I’d never even heard of this crazy Spanish-American co-production until Patrick Friel recommended it (and Adrian Martin backed him up). It starts off as a straightforward horror movie about an eye surgeon with mommy issues then unexpectedly transforms into a self-reflexive exercise about horror movies. I greatly enjoyed the Hitchcock homages (to PSYCHO, SPELLBOUND and THE BIRDS in particular) and Michael Lerner’s performance is great though I’m not sure the conceit sustains its cleverness for the entire run time.

15. DREAMS OF A LIFE (Carol Morley, UK, 2012): B+
Inspired by our unconventional pick of A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH, Jill searched for other “scary documentaries” to round out our list and came up with this one and DEAR ZACHARY (see below). This is about a 38-year-old woman who died of unknown causes while wrapping Christmas presents in her London apartment but whose body wasn’t discovered until over two years later. By including interviews with those who knew the woman as well as reenactments of her life (one such sequence owes a debt to CLEO FROM 5 TO 7), this asks a lot of questions about how a relatively well-off young person in an urban environment can end up totally forgotten by society. Scary (in an existential sense) and heartbreaking.

16. ALICE SWEET ALICE (Alfred Sole, USA, 1976): B+
When a little girl (Brooke Shields in her film debut) is murdered on the day of her first communion, her troubled older sister seems to be the culprit. But is she? As a film, this may not have much to “say” but the murder sequences (perpetrated by a spectacularly creepy masked figure in a yellow raincoat) are scary and potent even by today’s standards. Recommended by Max O’Connell.

17. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (Roger Corman, USA, 1964): B
Although I’ve seen many films produced by Roger Corman (including two elsewhere on this list), this adaptation of one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous stories is the first Corman-directed film I’ve ever seen. It’s a fun movie with two things to recommend it: Nicolas Roeg’s beautiful color cinematography and the way that Vincent Price seems to relish delivering every line of dialogue.

18. THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (Piers Haggard, UK, 1970): B
A farmer in 17th-century England digs up a demon corpse while plowing his field. The grisly discovery has the consequence of turning the village children into a Satan-worshiping coven. Worth seeing for the impressive period detail and some genuinely frightening moments but the script leaves something to be desired – especially the way the local judge abruptly emerges as the hero in the final act.

19. TALES FROM THE HOOD (Rusty Cundieff, USA, 1995): B
Clever anthology in the TALES FROM THE CRYPT/CREEPSHOW mode but the filmmakers here use the horror genre to explicitly comment on racial and social ills. An unhinged Clarence Williams III is fantastic as the narrator in the framing segments. “Welcome to hell, motherfuckers!”

20. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (Terence Fisher, UK, 1968): B
As a big fan of Terence Fisher’s earliest Hammer horror films (e.g., THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA), I was hoping this tale of an astronomical society fronting for a satan-worshipping cult — supposedly the movie that brought the studio into the modern era — would be a deathless masterpiece. It’s not — it’s a little too hokey and lightweight for that (especially in comparison to something like ROSEMARY’S BABY, which came out the same year) but it has its moments and Christopher Lee, as a good guy, is magnificent as always.

21. DEF BY TEMPTATION (James Bond III, USA, 1990): B
A nice surprise! Horror/comedy about a female vampire stalking male “players” in the bars of Brooklyn. The first film to use vampirism as a metaphor for AIDS? Beautifully photographed on a shoestring by Spike Lee’s then-regular DP Ernest Dickerson. Kadeem Hardison is charismatic AF and should’ve become a big star. Crazy that writer/director/actor James Bond III never directed or acted again after this. Recommended by Janina Bradley.

22. BODY MELT (Philip Brophy, Australia, 1991): B-
Jillian picked this outrageous Australian body horror/black comedy, which has something to do with a vitamin pill causing deadly side effects in test subjects. I didn’t fully grasp what was going on on a plot level but it was visually inventive and funny enough to the point where I also didn’t really care.

23. GALAXY OF TERROR (B.D. Clark, USA, 1981): B-
Roger Corman-produced ALIEN knockoff but with more sex and violence. Entertaining trash from beginning to end with a good cast that includes Robert “Freddie Krueger” Englund and Grace “Sarah Palmer” Zabriskie. Recommended by Patrick Friel and Bowls MacLean.

24. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (John Hough, UK, 1973): B-
This Richard Matheson-scripted yarn about paranormal investigators venturing into the “Mt. Everest of haunted houses” is a decently entertaining PG-rated affair. Roddy McDowell gives a very committed and sweaty performance. Recommended by Alan Hoffman.

25. TALES FROM THE HOOD 2
(Rusty Cundieff/Darin Scott, USA, 2018): B-
Same concept as the original – and nearly as good – but updated for 2018 (which means, of course, it comments on Trumpism). Well worth seeing but this gets docked half a letter grade for the didactic Emmett Till segment.

26. HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (Barbara Peeters, USA, 1980): C+
Imagine CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON but with gore and nudity. Relentlessly silly but compulsively watchable. The climax with sea-monsters running amok at a carnival is a riot. Apparently Andy Warhol’s favorite movie. Recommended by Aaron Leventman.

27. HOCUS POCUS (Kenny Ortega, 1993): C+
Jillian picked this. Kind of cute in an early ’90s/Disney kind of way, and Bette Midler is a hoot (especially when she sings Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ immortal “I Put a Spell on You,” but this lacks the subversive edge that it sorely needs, an edge that someone like, say, Joe Dante would’ve brought to to it.

28. JUST BEFORE DAWN (Jeff Lieberman, USA, 1981): C
This has a good reputation among slasher aficionados and I can appreciate that it’s the kind of thing that’s well done for what it is — but “what it is” (a film about young people going camping and being murdered one-by-one by a large backwoods dude with a machete) will never really be my thing.

29. DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER (Kurt Kuenne, USA, 2008): C
A filmmaker makes a sort of “video diary” about his murdered friend for the dead man’s infant son. This is one of the earliest entries in a still ongoing documentary trend (see THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS) in which admittedly incredible true stories are put across in a thriller-like manner with an emphasis on unexpected developments and bombshell revelations. I was annoyed by the overly-fast cutting and treacly score.

30. SOCIETY (Brian Yuzna, USA, 1989): C-
This cheesy low-budget 1980s body-horror actually has a great climactic party sequence full of impressive and outrageous “practical effects.” But…it’s kind of a dull journey getting there.

31. FREDDY VS. JASON (Ronnie Yu, USA, 2003): D
Jill picked this. It’s very bad, of course, but it does contain certain stylistic hallmarks (e.g., red-and-blue lighting, copious fog) of director Ronnie Yu, who once upon a time made great movies in Hong Kong (e.g., THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR).

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Is the Pizza Cold?: The Slumber Party Massacre as Subversive Feminist Parody

The Slumber Party Massacre will be released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory tomorrow. The following essay is adapted from a lecture I gave about this disreputable film at Facets Multimedia in 2012.

The Slumber Party Massacre, produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in 1982 during the height of the original “slasher movie” boom, has developed a well-deserved cult following over the past three decades. In the words of the critic Dave Kehr, the film seems “fascinatingly conflicted” because of the way it seems to simultaneously, and perhaps hypocritically, fulfill and critique the dubious conventions of the slasher subgenre. Some commentators have dismissed it as just another low-budget horror quickie, while many fans enjoy it as a “so bad it’s good” B-film. Still others see it as an intelligent deconstruction of the slasher, while some — including director Amy Holden Jones — view it not as a horror movie at all but rather as a comedy instead. Through tracing the lineage of the slasher film and providing a close examination of what exactly Jones does with its conventions, I hope to illuminate why The Slumber Party Massacre should be taken seriously even while simultaneously being appreciated for the hoot that it is.

Released in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was the big bang of the slasher, the first horror movie to feature a sexually frustrated homicidal maniac killing young women with a butcher knife. Although other important slashers were made throughout the ’60s and early ’70s (most notably Bob Clark’s underrated Black Christmas), it wasn’t until John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978, which itself owed a huge debt to Psycho, that the modern-day slasher was born. A lean, masterfully made thriller, Halloween was the most profitable independent film of any kind made up to that point and it spawned hundreds, if not thousands, of imitations in the years that immediately followed. All of these knock-offs, however, which tended to ramp up the gore while falling far short of Carpenter’s craftsmanship, were inferior to the original. Over the years, the conventions of the genre eventually crystallized into universally recognized rules: the mentally disturbed male killer picking off a group of attractive young women one by one over the course of a long night or weekend, an isolated and/or claustrophobic setting, the one-dimensional victim characters (the funny girl, the slut, the token minority, etc.) all of whom make stupid decisions (separating instead of sticking together, running upstairs or hiding in the basement instead of fleeing through the front door) and, of course, the lone survivor, who has by now come to be known in unofficial critical parlance as “the final girl.” I will argue that The Slumber Party Massacre was the first movie to come along and not just parody these conventions but subvert their disturbing ideological underpinnings from a feminist perspective.

Two of the more dubious conventions of the slasher genre are the use of subjective shots from the killer’s point-of-view and the sometimes related trope of not showing the killer’s face until the very end of the movie (if at all). Halloween begins with a legendary tracking shot of epically disturbing proportions as the viewer is asked to peer through the eyes of a character who breaks into a house, steals a butcher knife from the kitchen, puts a mask over his face and then stabs a young naked woman to death immediately after her boyfriend has departed the house post-coitus. It is not until Michael Myers, the character whose point-of-view viewers are privy to, leaves the house that the audience is presented with the first objective shot: the camera reveals that this killer is in fact a six-year-old boy. It should be noted that this opening scene is the only time in the entire movie that viewers are asked to see through the killer’s eyes and, even then, a big part of the reason why is the shock factor of revealing the character’s young age at the end of the scene. For the rest of the film, the audience is firmly on the side of the victims and not the killer (who, after flashing forward 15 years into the future, has escaped from a mental institution and returned to his old neighborhood to finish what he started). Because Myers wears a mask, we also never see his face as an adult until the end of the movie. Unfortunately, many of the exploitation merchants who ripped off Halloween took the “killer P.O.V.” concept from the film’s opening and decided to extend it to their entire movies. The end result, as in Friday the 13th (to name one prominent example), was that viewers were asked to primarily identify with the killer instead of the victims. Some critics, including Gene Siskel, in the classic Siskel and Ebert At the Movies episode titled “Women in Danger,” have persuasively posited that the slasher was a reaction against the rise of the women’s movement in the 1970s.

Both of the above conventions receive a refreshingly original workout in The Slumber Party Massacre, the original screenplay of which was written by feminist novelist Rita Mae Brown before being rewritten by Amy Jones. The Slumber Party Massacre certainly starts off like a typical slasher: Trish, a popular high-school girl, decides to throw a slumber party after being left home alone for the weekend by her parents. The party attendees soon find themselves being terrorized by the splendidly named “Russ Thorn,” a mass murderer who has recently escaped from prison and whose weapon of choice is a large power drill. Atypical for the genre, Jones makes it a point to show Thorn’s face in the movie early on and he comes across as a pathetic, middle-aged sad sack, thus arguably robbing him of the near God-like powers imbued in most movie serial killers. Jones also studiously avoids killer P.O.V. shots — although there are many “false scares” throughout the movie that involve what the viewer assumes is the killer’s P.O.V. but which turns out to be that of an innocuous character instead. While such false scares are, of course, ubiquitous in modern horror, Jones piles them on top of one another in such creative ways (my favorite involves the creation of a peephole in a door) and to such an absurd degree that they end up becoming the film’s strongest parodic element.

The barely concealed subtext of most slasher films is that the mysterious, faceless killer is sexually frustrated at best and impotent at worst; the idea is that he can only achieve release through the act of murder, which most often involves the employment of a big phallic knife. The murder scenes can thus be seen as a symbolic form of rape as it is frequently the promiscuous female characters who tend to die first after inflaming the killer’s sense of sexual frustration through their “provocative” behavior. This often leads to the unfortunate and reactionary moral that these young women have in fact been “asking for it” and that it is precisely their sexual promiscuity that has led to their untimely deaths. The Slumber Party Massacre humorously makes this subtext explicitly clear and then promptly subverts it: in the most infamous shot of the film (and one that inspired the equally notorious poster art), Thorn is seen from behind, his large drill dangling between his legs while a female victim cowers in fear in front of him. When viewers finally hear Thorn speak at the end of the film, he actually says, “You know you want it” to another potential victim. Shortly thereafter, when the women band together and finally decide to fight back, Thorn is killed only after being symbolically (and fittingly) castrated when one of them chops his drill bit in half with a machete. If I’m making this sound “academic,” believe me, it’s not. When seen with a group of people, this climactic scene never fails to produce screams of both fear and laughter.

While most discerning viewers will “get” Brown and Jones’ feminist angle, they still might be put off by the stilted acting and paper-thin characterization. I would argue however that any attempts to make the characters more “three dimensional” would only make the film resemble the bad horror movies it is deftly sending up (and who really wants to see a movie like this running any longer than its refreshingly fleet 78 minutes anyway?). The filmmakers’ approach to characterization is to take the typical female victim characters of the genre and have them behave more like how we’re used to seeing young men portrayed: these girls play basketball, are obsessed with baseball scores and statistics, look at pornography and repeatedly dominate their weak and ineffectual male counterparts both physically and intellectually. But because The Slumber Party Massacre was produced by Roger Corman, there is also a certain quotient of nudity, another staple of the genre, that must be met. Even in this area, though, Jones arguably succeeds in subverting the convention by making it transparently obvious that she does have a quota to fill. Early on there is a requisite post-basketball-practice shower scene in which Jones’ camera tracks alongside her female characters as they engage in superficial dialogue. At one point, Jones egregiously and hilariously tilts the camera down to show off a character’s nicely shaped ass. It’s as if she’s saying “Okay, this is what I have to do and therefore I’m going to be as obvious as possible in how I go about it.” (Jean-Luc Godard essentially did the same thing with a nude Brigitte Bardot in the opening of Le Mepris.) Similarly, in a scene where two teenage boys spy on the slumber partyers as they change into their pajamas, Jones essentially retards the inherent titillation factor by having the boys speak and act in such a childish manner throughout (“I don’t think we’ve been giving Kim the attention she deserves!”) that it seems as if she is chiding an assumed male viewer.

The Slumber Party Massacre is a fascinating relic of a bygone era, the era of my own vanished youth. Although, like most Corman-produced movies of its time, its initial theatrical release was extremely limited, the film gained new life on home video. At the dawn of the VHS era, when horror movies lived and died by their video box art, the clever VHS-cover artwork for The Slumber Party Massacre soon made the film a cult hit. Although I was a young horror movie aficionado in the mid-1980s and remember the VHS cover very well, I somehow never managed to see the film itself until a couple years ago when it was released as part of a triple-disc DVD set from Shout! Factory (alongside of its inevitable and inferior sequels). I immediately recognized it as the very best of the post-Halloween slashers, not only for its feminist critique but for its goofy humor and warmth as well. Unlike most movies of its kind, The Slumber Party Massacre refuses to have contempt for its characters and portrays them as a group of fun and likable girls instead. This is epitomized by my favorite scene in the film: the hapless heroines, expecting a pizza delivery, open the front door of Trish’s home only to find the delivery boy standing there, dead, with his eyes drilled out. A few minutes later, one of the girls touches his lifeless corpse and remarks that it’s cold. “But is the pizza?” asks another, who then promptly opens the cardboard box and begins to enjoy a slice. Every time I watch the film I feel something like a sense of love for both that character (I would’ve done the same thing, sister!) as well as the women who created her.


Halloween Screening Alert: The Slumber Party Massacre at Facets Fright School!

On the evening of Saturday, October 13th I will be presenting The Slumber Party Massacre at Facets Multimedia as part of their annual “Fright School” series. This will include a short talk about the film as well as a Q&A afterwards. Any of my students who attend the screening can earn up to TWENTY points extra credit. Refer to the extra credit page of your course website for the exact details. Admission is FREE for Facets members and a lowly $5 for non-members. More information, including directions and ticket info can be found here:

Facets Fright School Schedule

Here is the description of the presentation I wrote for the Facets website:

Drilling Into The Slumber Party Massacre

Produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in 1982 during the height of the original slasher movie boom, The Slumber Party Massacre has developed a well-deserved cult following over the past three decades. Some commentators have dismissed it as just another low-budget horror quickie, while many fans enjoy it as a “so bad it’s good” B-film. Others see it as an intelligent deconstruction of the slasher subgenre while some, including director Amy Jones, view it not as a horror movie at all but as a comedy instead.

The story is certainly familiar: a sexually frustrated, power drill-wielding mass murderer escapes from prison and terrorizes a group of high school-aged girls over the course of one long night. This presentation, however, will take a close look at how Jones and feminist novelist Rita Mae Brown, who wrote the original screenplay, slyly serve up the gore and nudity quotient required by Corman while also subverting the genre’s more disturbing ideological implications through careful choices like showing the killer’s face at the film’s beginning and studiously avoiding subjective shots from the killer’s point-of-view. Currently unavailable for rental through Netflix or Facets, this is a rare opportunity to see this horror/comedy gem.

Hope to see you there!


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