Thoughts on Writing

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DAY 28 OF 31: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)

Published October 28, 2019 by Philip Ivory

It’s hard to believe 20 years have gone by since the release of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999). A pioneer in the “found footage” school of horror, this meagerly budgeted independent film directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez was a huge hit.

Mike is one of three filmmakers who go deep into the Maryland woods to pursue the Blair Witch legend.

Its success was helped by an innovative online marketing campaign, which generated interest in part by suggesting that the film was an actual documentary, and that the three young filmmakers who worked on it had actually gone missing and were the subjects of police investigation.

Of course, none of that was true. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was a total work of fiction, and the filmmakers were played by actors. But the real/unreal confusion created an aura of dread and uncertainty that stirred interest and greatly benefited the film.

In shaky, hand-held footage that was actually shot by the three actors who play the young filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard, whose characters bear the same names), we see the trio set out to investigate a local occult legend — the Blair Witch — which is tied to mysterious deaths at different times in the region’s history.

They interview a few locals about the legends, before venturing out into the woods with their video equipment. And that’s when the story really starts.

 

The woods can be scary, especially when someone leaves weird cult-like stick figures for you to find.

The film plays effectively on the primal fear of being lost in the wilderness.

For that is what quickly happens to the trio. They camp at night only to hear strange sounds in the dark. They march in circles during the day, unable to find their way back to the road and their car.

They bicker. The map disappears, causing a breakdown in morale, which gets even worse when Mike admits that, in a moment of irrationality, he kicked it into the stream.

Josh, showing sings of weariness, will mysteriously disappear.

They discover strange, cult-like stick figures and symbols left in the trees. A warning? Evidently, the three are not alone.

When Josh disappears and the remaining two seem to hear his distant screams at night, it’s clear things have gone from bad to worse.

Soon they are finding bits of human teeth and other grisly tidbits that may or may not belong to Josh.

Heather records an emotional farewell message, apologizing to Mike and Josh for for apparently leading them to their doom.

Mike and Heather are reduced to a child-like state of pure terror, huddling together in the dark.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is not strong on plot, or on character. If fact, the characters can become grating as they harp at each other, casting blame for their increasingly desperate situation.

Mike and Heather end up in a deserted house for the chaotic and frightening final sequence.

Still, the film benefits from the “this is really happening” vibe and the sincere performances of the actors, who apparently were genuinely frightened at points during the shooting.

Other films like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and COVERFIELD found new ways to capitalize on the found footage technique.

But THE BLAIR WITH PROJECT got there before them, and almost made going back into the woods as scary as JAWS had made going back into the water.

 

 

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DAY 27 OF 31: THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

Published October 27, 2019 by Philip Ivory

“I see dead people,” confides Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled, sensitive boy who has been greatly burdened by this terrible psychic gift. So traumatized is he by the terrifying apparitions that appear before him, ghosts who do not know they’re dead, that his mother (Toni Collette) has become alarmed and thinks he needs help.

Cole can’t tell this disturbing secret to his mother. Instead he shares it with Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a psychologist who wishes to help the boy, but who at first does not believe him.

Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis.

Nonetheless, Malcolm is determined to help Cole, partly to make up for a terrible failure Malcolm had with an earlier patient. That patient, a troubled adult who had been treated by Malcolm as a child, broke into Malcolm’s house one night and shot him in front of his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams), before turning the gun on himself. 

This is the set-up of THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), a masterful supernatural drama with compelling characters, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

Cole sees dead people.

THE SIXTH SENSE has become famous for its unexpected ending, which I won’t spoil here, and which makes us look back at everything that came before in a different light. Shyamalan has often tried to incorporate such endings into his subsequent films, with varying degrees of success. THE SIXTH SENSE remains his triumph.

The early scenes in which we get to glimpse the dead people who inflict themselves on Cole are eerie and frightening.

Do the ghosts who appear to Cole just want to frighten him, or is there something else they need?

But the heart of the film is the solid and touching relationship between Malcolm and Cole. Before he can help Cole, Malcolm has to overcome his own skepticism, and believe in the boy’s claim that he can see the dead, and it’s to the psychologist’s credit that he does so.

After that, Malcolm goes a step further, and finds a way to help Cole deal with this ability. He advises Cole that, instead of running in terror from the dead, Cole must find out what they are seeking, and help them if possible.

By the end, Cole will help Malcolm too, helping him find ways to reach out to his beloved Anna, who has become increasingly distant since the night the patient broke into their house.

Olivia Williams as Anna, with Bruce Willis as Malcolm.

Osment and Willis are both superb in their roles, providing performance of considerable emotional power. They are given crucial support by Collette and Williams.

That’s hardly all there is to THE SIXTH SENSE. Shyamalan proves himself to be a sure touch with lighting and creative camera setups, knowing how to instill tension and dread throughout. The film’s setting, Philadelphia, is like a character itself, looking stately, imbued with the sadness of history, and starkly ominous throughout.

And then there’s the ending, which if you’re lucky enough to be completely fooled by it (as I was), delivers a wonderful revelatory wallop.

Despite all the dread and gloom, good things develop by the end, including sure signs of healing in the film’s two broken relationships, that between Cole and his mom, and between Malcolm and Anna.

Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette.

THE SIXTH SENSE is a ghost story that has brains and heart, in addition to providing a generous helping of skillfully rendered scare scenes.

QUOTES:

MALCOLM: Once upon a time there was this person named Malcolm. He worked with children. He loved it. He loved it more than anything else. And then one night, he found out that he made a mistake with one of them. He couldn’t help that one. And he can’t stop thinking about it, he can’t forget. Ever since then, things have been different. He’s not the same person that he used to be. And his wife doesn’t like the person that he’s become. They barely speak anymore, they’re like strangers. And then one day Malcolm meets this wonderful little boy, a really cool little boy. Reminds him a lot of the other one. And Malcolm decides to try and help this new boy. ‘Cause he feels that if he can help this new boy, it would be like helping that other one, too.

COLE: How does the story end?

MALCOLM: I don’t know.

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DAY 26 OF 31: JACOB’S LADDER (1990)

Published October 26, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Directed by Adrian Lyne, JACOB’S LADDER (1990) is a metaphysical horror film about a man, Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), whose existence seems to be fractured between several time frames, and perhaps different realities.

We know Jacob served in Vietnam, and we get fragmentary glimpses of he and his platoon members involved in a horrifically violent incident, but we’re not really clear who the attackers are, and who survived and who didn’t.

What is happening to Jacob Singer?

We know also that he’s a postal worker living in Brooklyn in the 70s with a woman named Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña), and this seems most likely to be the “present” of the narrative.

And yet we see this version of Jacob being tormented by images of a past marriage and the dead son he still yearns for. Amid the shifting layers of narrative, feelings of deep sadness and loss anchor the story.

Elizabeth Peña is the woman who loves Jacob. Or is she?

Normal seeming-sequences give way to startling, surrealistic imagery:

  • Jacob finds himself caught in a subway station with seemingly no exit.
  • At a party, he glimpses Jezebel seemingly being ravaged by a monstrous apparition.
  • Later, figures with demonic faces torture him in a nightmarish hospital.

Demonic figures torment Jacob.

Danny Aiello appear as a mysteriously sympathetic chiropractor who seems to be treating something deeper than Jacob’s spinal health.

Danny Aiello is an otherworldly chiropractor.

The thing is, it’s hard to write too much about JACOB’S LADDER without giving the game away. To appreciate it, you’ll need a high tolerance for hallucinogenic imagery and a certain amount of patience with metaphysical mysteries that are not tied up in a neat bow.

An example of the film’s nightmarish imagery.

JACOB’S LADDER is directed with tremendous sophistication and style by Lyne. It’s full of scenes that are both shocking and beautiful. And Robbins gives an appealing performance as an every man whose reality is spectacularly coming apart at the seams.

In JACOB’S LADDER’s otherworldly visions, both angelic and demonic, discerning horror fans will find much to ponder and appreciate.

INTERESTING FACTS:

  • JACOB’S LADDER is partly inspired by the film of OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE, which is based on a famous story by Ambrose Bierce.
  • Roger Ebert wrote that JACOB’S LADDER “evokes a paranoid-schizophrenic state as effectively as any film I have ever seen.”
  • A remake, not seen by this writer, was released in 2019 starring Michael Ealy.

 

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“I see dead people.”

 

 

DAY 25 OF 31: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)

Published October 25, 2019 by Philip Ivory

“One two, Freddy’s coming for you…

Three, Four, better lock your door…

Five, Six, grab a crucifix…

Seven, Eight, gonna stay up late…

Nine, Ten, never sleep again!”

 

What if the world of dreams provided no refuge from our troubles, but was actually the most dangerous place of all? That’s the brilliant conceit behind Wes Craven’s 1984 horror film, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.

Meet Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), child killer, burnt to death by a bunch of vigilante parents after he got off on a technicality. Now he returns in the dreams of those parent’s offspring, pursuing and slaughtering innocent teens as they sleep.

One of the targeted teens, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), gets pretty fed up at seeing her friends mysteriously murdered, and strikes back, trying to stop this dreamland demon from taking more lives.

Freddy’s coming for you.

On the film’s release, Krueger quickly emerged as a distinctive rival to such slasher film boogeymen as HALLOWEEN’s Michael Myers and FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH’s Jason Voorhees.

While the more familiar name “Freddy” would begin to stick in the sequels, here the killer is mostly referred to as Fred, and he’s a leaner, meaner incarnation, a ghoul of few words not given to the playful witticisms that would later define him and help elevate him to the pantheon of beloved horror characters.

How is Krueger different from those unstoppable killing machines, Michael and Jason? Those two remain eternal adolescents, but Krueger represents the adult world, a dark, twisted version of it, full of sins and dark secrets as seen from a teen’s perspective.

Fred Krueger (Robert Englund) terrorizes Nancy (Heather Langenkamp).

Krueger has his own weird sense of style including the filthy red and green striped sweater, the black hat worn at a jaunty angle, and most ominously, his glove adorned with fingertip knives.

Mostly, Fred has personality, and unlike strong silent types like Jason and Freddy, he’ll talk to you. (“I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy,” he quips, his tongue coming through the phone as Nancy tries to call her boyfriend Glen, played by young unknown Johnny Depp.) And while his wisecracks are kept to a minimum this first time around, artist that he is, he still likes to take a moment to strike terror before serving up the killing blow.

“I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy.”

In one instance, he pauses while chasing Nancy’s friend, Tina (Amanda Wyss), so that she can see him slice off a couple of his own fingers. He seems to be saying, if I’m willing to do this to myself, imagine what I’ll do to you.

The surrealistic imagery made possible by the dream sequences provides for some startling visuals and makes the film distinctive from other slasher films of the era.

It must be said, though, that the rules about how you can die in a dream and what you can physically take back with you when you wake up seem loosely defined and arbitrary. This lends the story an “anything goes” vibe which actually works against the sense of peril for the teen characters.

Johnny Depp as Nancy’s boyfriend, Glen.

It was a terrific concept nonetheless, and Freddy would return in many sequels and a 2010 remake.

One sequel, WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994) imposes a kind of “meta” take on the material, offering Craven, Englund and Langenkamp as real-life film professional versions of themselves, as Freddy tries to leave the prison of being a movie character and bust out into reality. 

And, in grand FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN style, FREDDY VS. JASON (2003) brings the two titans of terror together as allies and later as battling demons. (Who will win?)

It’s been a while since we had a new NIGHTMARE film, but it’s probably a good idea to keep the coffee brewing. Dreamland awaits, and so does that unforgettable character, Fred Krueger.

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DAY 24 OF 31: THE SHINING (1980)

Published October 24, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Stephen King was not happy with the changes that were made in the 1980 adaptation of his 1977 novel. But for many horror fans, Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, despite its differences from the book, is an unforgettable experience, full of iconic horror imagery, nerve-shattering sequences directed with Kubrick’s trademark glacial elan, and vivid, full throttle performances.

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as caretaker for a magnificent but secluded mountaintop hotel, the Overlook, while it closes for the winter, hoping the peace and quiet will give him a chance to finish the book he’s writing.

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) surveys the hotel’s model of its gigantic hedge maze.

With him are Jack’s wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd).

One of the departing staff, Overlook cook Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), meets Danny and senses the boy has a psychic gift similar to his own, which Hallorann calls “the shining.” Hallorann warns Danny that, like burnt toast, bad things can leave traces behind, which Danny might experience due to his “shining” ability.

“I think a lot of things happened right here in this particular hotel over the years,” Halloran tells Danny. “And not all of ’em was good.”

Boy, is that an understatement.

Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance.

As the family does its best to shore up the hotel against the winter elements, we sense Jack’s mental health slowly unraveling. Is it just the seclusion, or are the malign forces Hallorann hinted at preying upon Jack’s vulnerable mind?

Things go from bad to worse. Although the hotel’s meant to be empty, Danny claims he was attacked by a woman in Room 237. Jack investigates the room, has his own encounter with a beautiful naked woman who transforms into a decayed and cackling corpse, sending Jack running in terror. And yet Jack tells Wendy he saw nothing in the room.

In the visions the hotel presents to Danny, Kubrick provides startling displays of horror imagery, including an elevator overflowing with blood, and two little girls in dainty blue dresses with British accents that greet Danny in a hallway. “Come and play with us, Danny,” they call.

Danny encounter the Grady girls, who were chopped into bits by their father, the previous caretaker.

Problem being, these girls were murdered decades ago by their father, who like Jack was caretaker for the hotel. Danny, understandably, reacts in utter terror.

Jack, a recovering alcoholic, soon is drinking again, with the help of a ghostly ballroom complete with bar, and a bartender who helpfully tells him: “Your money’s no good here, Mr. Torrance.”

Jack decides that drinking with dead people is better than not drinking at all.

It seems the hotel covets Danny and his “shining” ability, and apparently the best way to bring Danny into the hotel’s decadent embrace is to drive Jack to kill him and Wendy.

More unforgettable sequences:

  • Wendy makes a horrifying discovery that speaks to Jack’s state of mind when she takes a peek to find out how well his novel’s progressing.
  • Wendy uses a baseball bat to defend herself against her increasingly abusive and unhinged husband.
  • An axe-wielding Jack pursues Danny through the hotel’s snow-blanketed hedge maze, in an eerily beautiful night sequence.

 

Sheer terror as Wendy Torrance (Shelly Duvall) tries to save herself and Danny from Jack’s rampage.

Detractors of the film will point to Nicholson’s over-the-top performance, which seems to bring Jack to the edge of lunacy too quickly and easily. And like King, many complain that the film lacks true fidelity to the novel.

It’s not a perfect film, but it’s undoubtedly a brilliant one. It’s one I can’t pry myself away from if I catch it playing on TV, no matter how many times I’ve seen it.

Like burnt toast, THE SHINING lingers.

INTERESTING FACTS

  • THE SHINING received mixed reviews on release, with various critics calling it “ponderous,” “overbearing” and “a crushing disappointment.”  The film’s reputation improved gradually over the decades.
  • ROOM 237 is a 2012 documentary that explores radical interpretations of the meaning of Kubrick’s film and purports to reveal its hidden messages.
  • DOCTOR SLEEP, the film adaptation of King’s sequel to THE SHINING will be released in November 2019.

 

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DAY 23 OF 31: THE BROOD (1979)

Published October 23, 2019 by Philip Ivory

THE BROOD is an early directorial effort by Canadian master of the clinically creepy, David Cronenburg, and remains one of his most striking and original films, as well as an early excursion into what is known today as “body horror.”

Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) is the creator of a new therapeutic technique called “psychoplasmics,” carried out in secret upon resident patients at his private facility.

Oliver Reed, right, is an unconventional therapist.

One such resident is Nola (Samantha Eggar), dealing with extreme anger issues over her divorce from her husband Frank (Art Hindle) and the custody battle over their daughter, Candace (Cindy Hind).

All isn’t well with Raglan’s prize patient, Nola (Samantha Eggar.)

As Nola is subjected to Raglan’s unconventional methods to express her anger, something very strange begins to happen.

Child-size assassins with blank eyes and frightening impish countenances seek out and kill people who are the targets of Nola’s simmering resentment, including each of her parents and one of Candace’s teachers, who Nola suspects is having an affair with Frank.

Don’t be fooled by their size. These somatic projections of Nola’s rage will kill you double quick.

On first viewing, we’re so startled by our first glimpses of these tot-sized killers decked out in children’s snowsuits that we can barely be sure of what we’re seeing. These sudden, savage attacks provide some of the most frightening scenes in Cronenberg’s whole unsettling oeuvre.

It turns out that these child-sized monsters are somatic outgrowths of Lola’s rage, physically birthed from her body and liberated to carry out her unconscious wishes.

Candace (Cindy Hind) becomes subject her mother’s rage in the form of the Brood.

It will be up to Frank, with the help of Raglan who comes to regret his role in creating this horror, to stop the killings and save Candace before she too becomes a target of her mother’s rage.

With Eggar’s portrayal of a deeply disturbed woman willfully giving birth to murderous monsters that are unleashed on those closest to her, it’s hard to think of THE BROOD as a feminist fable. Unless you see it as a feminist revenge fantasy. The best horror films are complicated beasts, hard to pin down to once definitive meaning.

THE BROOD will leave you with plenty to ponder, and shiver about.

INTERESTING FACTS:

  • Cronenberg would go on to direct such genre favorites as SCANNERS, THE DEAD ZONE and the remark of THE FLY.
  • Howard Shore, who served for several years as bandleader for Saturday Night Live, provides the film’s score, one of his first soundtracks. He would go on to provide scores for many important films, including Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS and HOBBIT films.
  • Oliver Reed earned his horror film cred playing the young lycanthrope in Hammer Films’ CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.

 

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“How’d you like some ice cream, doc?”

 

 

 

DAY 22 OF 31: HALLOWEEN (1978)

Published October 22, 2019 by Philip Ivory

“The Night He Came Home” was the sell line for 1978’s HALLOWEEN, directed by John Carpenter. The “he” was Michael Myers, seen in an effectively eerie subjective camera prologue sequence at age 6 slaughtering his sister with a knife on Halloween night for no discernible reason. (Well, except for one, which we’ll discuss later.)

Six-year-old Michael Myers has killed his own sister.

Fifteen years later, Michael escapes from his asylum to return home on Halloween to stalk babysitting teen girls and their friends, foremost among them Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of PSYCHO star Janet Leigh.)

The adult Michael is a looming, ominously silent figure carrying a knife, wearing a blank-faced mask that makes him the repository of all our primal fears.

Psychological horror? Not so much, since we’re given no past trauma, no motivation whatsoever to justify Michael’s murderous behavior. Is the devil or some other supernatural agency behind it all? We’re given no such indication, although Michael’s psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) describes the boy Michael as having had “the blackest eyes, the devil’s eyes.”

HALLOWEEN dares to present us with a figure who represents pure evil, a malevolent force that is neither explained or justified.

Jamie Lee Curtis, P. J. Soles and Nancy Loomis.

Part of the pleasure of the film is Carpenter’s depiction of the naturalistic interplay between Laurie and her two friends, Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P. J. Soles). (Lynda, for instance, adds “totally” to almost every sentence.) They surreptitiously smoke pot and tease each other about boyfriends, and seem like real friends.

In the film’s setting, Haddonfield, Illinois, Carpenter gives us a peaceful, almost idyllic looking suburban town, with fake leaves imported in during filming, which took play in May.

Michael Myers comes home.

That peace is violated by Michael’s rampage, which is rendered in a series of taut sequences in which characters go about their business unaware that Michael is stalking them. He may not be a supernatural figure, but he has an uncanny ability to fade almost invisibly into the background, and then pop up suddenly to deliver the killing blow. These scenes are staged with minimal blood but considerable Hitchcockian skill by Carpenter.

Are Laurie and Lynda targeted first because both like to get frisky with their boyfriends? That’s the same activity Michael’s teen sister was engaging in when something was triggered and Michael became a murderer for the first time.

Much has been made of this “sex equals death” idea, which was played out ad nauseum in the HALLOWEEN sequels, the FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH films and other teen slasher movies of the 70s and 80s. (The more recent IT FOLLOWS riffs brilliantly on this familiar horror film trope.)

And yet if that’s the real reason, why does Michael’s primary target seem to be the more modest and chaste Laurie? Will the fact the Laurie is less sexually experienced than the others help assure her survival?

Carpenter himself never had much to say about these ideas, and perhaps to obsess on them is to miss the point. The point being that HALLOWEEN is full of wonderfully scary suspense sequences, punctuated by shocking but not over-the-top gory kill scenes.

The fact that we care about the characters helps give the scare scenes more weight. Curtis’ Laurie Strode is a likable, earnest character, and one who proves surprisingly resourceful and resilient during her final climactic sequence being pursued by Michael.

Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis.

Donald Pleasence is fun in a slightly loopy performance as Loomis, a man so intensely focused on killing Michael that he seems to have forgotten he is Michael’s physician. Lurking in the dark and making goo goo eyes, he’s given to such ripe pronouncements as “He’s gone from here! The evil is gone!”

Carpenter’s minimalist keyboard-based music score is an asset, and the three-note HALLOWEEN main theme is instantly recognizable to any classic horror fan.

Most of the sequels and the sleazy Rob Zombie remake can be safely avoided, although the sequels in which Jamie Lee Curtis returns as star are at least worth a look.

 

 

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UNREAL event at Antigone: Thanks for Support

Published October 21, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Thanks to our students and friends who came out to support our special event last Friday, Oct. 18!

Lela Scott MacNeil

Our teachers at The Writers Studio Tucson had a chance to read from their creative work at a public reading held at Antigone Books on Fourth Avenue here in Tucson.

Richard Leis

It was called UNREAL, and gave our teachers, Lela Scott MacNeil, Richard Leis, Donna Aversa, Reneé Bibby and myself a chance to read selections of poetry and prose that focus on the unusual, the dark, and the unreal.

 

Donna Aversa

This was the program:

Lela Scott MacNeil / reading novel excerpt, Long Night’s Journey Into Day
Phil Ivory / reading flash fiction, Probably Last Meeting of Bluebell Ridge II Homeowners Association
Richard Leis / reading poems, [Aliens are here], Phantom Taste of Apricot on My Tongue, Cities Through Telescopes, City as Fairy Tale, and Burning Baby
Donna Aversa / reading flash fiction, A Little Bit Of Sausage
Reneé Bibby / reading short story excerpt, That Boy

Reneé Bibby

We had a great turnout who came to hear our work and browse at Tucson’s most celebrated independent bookstore.

Phil Ivory

Many thanks to Antigone Books for being such a gracious and enthusiastic host, and making us and our guests feel at home. We’re looking forward to more events like it.

 

 

DAY 21 OF 31: THE OMEN (1976)

Published October 21, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Building upon an interest in all things Satanic set in motion by films such as ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE EXORCIST, and drawing upon the biblical book of Revelations for inspiration, THE OMEN is a chronicle of the birth and early childhood of Damien Thorn.

He’s a chubby-cheeked tot, the doted-upon son of highly born parents, American Ambassador to the UK Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) and his wife, Katherine (Lee Remick). This child of privilege also happens to be the Anti-Christ.

Harvey Stephens as Damien, center, with Lee Remick and Gregory Peck.

Directed by Richard Donner, THE OMEN is slick, handsomely made, well-appointed with A-list stars and opulent sets. It’s most memorable for the shocking deaths that seem to be supernaturally visited upon anyone in the film who becomes too nosey about who Damien really is.

The story’s set in motion when Robert, wishing to spare Katherine sorrow because her pregnancy has resulted in a miscarriage, agrees to a deception suggested by a mysterious priest. A motherless baby will be substituted for the Thorns’ dead child, and Katherine will never be the wiser.

As the baby, Damien, grows into a seemingly happy and healthy child, bizarre deaths happen around him. Damien’s young nanny hangs herself during his fifth birthday party. A new nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), mysteriously appears to take her place.

“I am here to protect thee, little one,” says Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw).

An acolyte of Satan, she’s there to protect Damien so he can grow up and fulfill his destiny, which is outlined neatly in this poem:

When the Jews return to Zion

And a comet rips the sky

And the Holy Roman Empire rises

Then You and I must die.

From the eternal sea he rises,

Creating armies on either shore

Turning man against his brother

‘Til man exists no more.

This poem is recited to Robert by another priest, Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton), who was in on the conspiracy of Damien’s birth. He has repented and wishes to warn Robert. Pretty soon, during a freak storm, a bolt of lightning causes a church spire to fall, impaling Brennan.

An untimely end for Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton).

Photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner) also tries to warn Robert, and travels with him to Italy to ferret out the truth about Damien’s unnatural birth.  (Hint: a jackal was involved.)

Jennings succeeds in convincing Robert that Damien is the Antichrist and must be destroyed, but Jennings’ reward is to suffer a horrific death involving a sheet of plate glass that decapitates him.

Robert Thorn is helped in his search for the truth about Damien by Jennings (David Warner.)

Even Damien’s mom, frightened of Damien and unable to love him as her own, comes under attack by the unseen forces that protect the boy, especially when she becomes pregnant with an actual child of Robert and Katherine.

Robert comes into possession of the seven sacred daggers of Meggido, the only weapons that can extinguish the life of the Antichrist. Will he have the nerve to use them? Or will Damien kill him first?

THE OMEN is intriguingly structured as a mystery, as Robert works to discover the truth about his adopted son. The mystery element is lost in the subsequent films, each of which stands as a tableau of unfolding elaborately staged deaths.

For this reason as well as for others, the original installment of THE OMEN remains the best, and well worth discovering.

 

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“I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face and, the blackest eyes… the devil’s eyes.

 

 

DAY 20 OF 31: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)

Published October 20, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Attacked by many critics upon its release, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE has grown in stature since 1974, partially based upon recognition that there is considerable artistry to the film’s seemingly chaotic mix of mayhem and madness. It has been hailed by Rex Reed among others as the most terrifying film ever made.

I recall reading a review that said that even the soap bubbles on the van windshield in an early scene came across as ominous. The film builds, with quiet passages, but the sense of dread is omnipresent.

The in-your-face, over-the-top title and the full-throttle action that takes over in the second half of the film distract from the fact that there is careful mood building and even restraint at work, not to mention doses of bizarre humor that almost take the film into the realm of the surreal.

Violence there is, and blood, too, but the film is not quite as gruesome as the title would have us think. The killings are shocking more from their suddenness and bizarre nature than from an overindulgence in actual gore.

Marilyn Burns as Sally.

Directed on a low budget by Tobe Hooper and featuring a mostly unknown but game cast, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE follows a group of young people including Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain). They seek out the old Hardesty homestead but run out of gas along the way.

Seeking help at an isolated farmhouse which contains knick-knacks and furniture made of bones and human skin, the group ends up being attacked one by one by a family of psychopaths who used to be slaughterhouse workers until the old place went out of business. They now have to depend on passersby like the Hardestys to keep their old skills in practice.

Leatherface is an icon of 70s horror.

Most memorable of this crew of cannibalistic crazies is Leatherface, a heavy-built, seemingly retarded man who wears a face mask made of human skin.

Only Sally Hardesty survives the initial series of attacks, and the remainder of the film consists of Sally screaming, fighting, leaping out of windows, and doing everything possible to evade and elude her insane tormentors. She gives a remarkable performance, constantly on the edge of hysteria and sometimes beyond, in the tradition of the great Fay Wray of KING KONG fame.

Meet Leatherface, right, and his family, including comatose but not-completely-gone Grandpa at the head of the table.

Most bizarre is the family dinner scene, in which a seemingly mummified Grandpa is pulled out of mothballs, coming back to life as he is allowed to suck like some obscene infant on Sally’s bleeding finger. There is a kind of dark comedy at work, which only slightly relieves our unbridled horror at the depraved madness on display.

Sally earns our admiration as she continues to fight to survive. Incredibly, she gets away, but we’re left in doubt as to whether she has escaped with her sanity intact.

In an oddly poetic final image, Leatherface vents his frustration at her escape by twirling his chainsaw in the air in a defiant dance.

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s a rewarding and unforgettable ride for committed horror fans and an absolute touchstone in 70s horror.

INTERESTING FACTS

  • The opening narration informing us that the events we are about to see really happened is read by actor John Larroquette of 80s sitcom fame.
  • That narration is an effective mood-setting device but a lie. The events didn’t really happen as shown. The story takes some loose inspiration from the case of infamous Wisconsin killer Ed Gein, whose exploits also helped inspire PSYCHO and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
  • In 1982, Tobe Hooper directed the Steven Spielberg-produced POLTERGEIST.

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