Horror

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DAY 2 OF 31: FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

Published October 2, 2022 by Philip Ivory

 

After Universal Studio’s success with DRACULA in early 1931, what could be more natural for a followup than to turn to Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic? 

The novel is about a young Swiss scientist who bestows life upon a body he created by appropriating parts from rifled graves and other sources, only to have his creation turn against him and destroy all the scientist holds dear. A couple of silent film adaptations had been done, most notably one produced by Thomas Edison in 1910.

That Universal’s blood and thunder sound version of ’31 was released in November of seems appropriate, since that is the month of the monster’s creation in the novel:

“It was  on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

But what would the filmic monster look like? How would he be brought to life? (Shelley’s narrative provides few details on the procedure.) Director James Whale and electrical effects artist Kenneth Strickfaden contrived to stage an exciting creation sequence, with the table-bound monster being raised to the roof to receive the lightning’s gift of the mysterious life-giving ray that the scientist has discovered. The sequence is a cinematic triumph, its dazzling pyrotechnics effectively “selling” us on the unholy miracle of the monster’s birth.

Meanwhile, makeup artist Jack Pierce, also in consultation with director Whale, created a monster visage that audiences would fear and pity for generations to come. The genius of the makeup was to allow as much as possible for an actor’s expressive face to remain exposed. Struggling actor Boris Karloff won the role of the monster, partly on the basis of the unusual bone structure in his face and his large liquid eyes.

“Karloff’s eyes mirrored the suffering we needed,” said Universal exec Carl Laemmle.

Colin Clive, an actor who specialized in sensitive, high-strung roles, was a perfect fit for the scientist, Henry Frankenstein. (The name is inexplicably changed from the novel’s “Victor.”) His frenzied performance in the creation scene, accompanied by terrifying peals of thunder and an orgy of electrical sparks and buzzes, is unforgettable. (Note: as in DRACULA and other examples of early sound cinema, there is no musical score. These films breathe with eerie stretches of silence, helped by sound effects.)

“It’s moving! It’s alive!”

HIGH POINTS

The creation scene remains a knockout to this day, as does the haunting vignette in which Karloff’s newly born creation reaches above his head for the light descending  from a skylight as if he could grip it in his hands.

Karloff’s monster, quick, agile, clearly not sound of mind, immensely strong and unpredictable, with heavily lidded dead man’s eyes, is instantly frightening, making us feel we are looking upon a thing that should not be alive, but unaccountably is.

And yet the creature is immensely sympathetic, an unwanted child abandoned by his only parent, hated and feared by everyone else based on his grotesque appearance. In his ill fitting black, funereal suit , he carries with him the aura of the grave, evoking a universal dread. With his spasmodic movements, shuffling gate and pathetic, pleading hand gestures, he is one of horror’s supreme characterizations, simultaneously frightening and poignant. Other actors, including Christopher Lee, Michael Sarrazin, and Robert DeNiro have made sincere attempts to portray the monster. With respect, no one even comes close.

The film is a tragedy. Frankenstein, reduced to a nervous wreck by the shattering of his great dream, becomes  a shell of the confident visionary we see in the early scenes. The monster is hounded to a horrifying death, caught in the inferno of a blazing mill.

Clive and Karloff are ably assisted by two holdovers from DRACULA, Edward Van Sloan as Professor Waldman and Dwight Frye as Frankenstein’s hunchback assistant, Fritz. Also helping out are Mae Clarke as Frankenstein’s fiance, Elizabeth, John Boles as his friend, Victor, and Frederick Kerr as his father, the harrumphing old Baron.

The monster of course remains mute throughout the film. Most of the best dialogue belongs to the scientist:

(caressing the coffin of a stolen body) “He’s Just Resting, Waiting For A New Life To Come.”

“The brain you stole, Fritz. Think of it. The brain of a dead man waiting to live again in a body I made with my own hands!”

“Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if no one tried to find out what lies beyond? Have your never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud? And what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. Well, if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.

DEFICITS

FRANKENSTEIN might not seem shocking today. Its monster makeup and Gothic trappings have been absorbed into the culture, its iconography made comfortable by parodies, pop songs and use in Saturday morning cartoons and breakfast cereals. But Whale’s Gothic extravaganza was considered unfamiliar, strong meat when first issued, with its corpse like monster, graveyard scenes, multiple murders and grim, fairy tale like setting.

Some cuts made at the preview stage, designed to protect delicate sensibilities, hurt the film for decades. For many of us who grew up watching it on television, the fabulous creation scene was marred by a jump cut at its climax, where a crucial but potentially blasphemous bit of the scientist’s dialogue — “Oh, in the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” — was crudely excised. (Hey, it only expressed a major theme of the film.)

Similarly, the famous (or infamous) scene in which Karloff’s monster befriends a little girl, but ends up unintentionally drowning her, was truncated, cutting abruptly as Karloff reaches for her, which allowed for even worse implications than what was intended.  The scene, fully restored a few decades ago along with Clive’s censored line and a few other bits and pieces, remains a touching, heartbreaking episode in the monster’s lonely existence, one tranquil moment of friendship and peace before tragedy and horror reassert themselves.

Despite one or two stuffy performances, including some weak comic relief from the Baron, and a few bits of unexplained plot construction (How does the monster know where Frankenstein lives?), the film remains a powerful experience, maybe not as shocking as it once was, but largely undiminished in its impact.

INTERESTING FACTS

  • Karloff suffered severe back pains the rest of his life that may have resulted from the rigors of his performance, particularly the scenes in which he has to carry Clive on his back through the mountainous countryside.
  • DRACULA star Bela Lugosi was originally assigned the monster role, even trying out his own makeup, before Karloff was (wisely) brought in.
  • Karloff, protective of the monster, played him in two sequels but stopped when he thought the character was being cheapened. He called the monster “my best friend.”

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“My analysis of this soul , the human psyche, leads me to believe that man is not truly one – but, truly two. One of him strives for the nobilities of life. This we call his good self. The other, seeks an expression of impulses that bind him to some dim animal relation with the earth.”

 

DAY 1 OF 31: DRACULA (1931)

Published October 1, 2022 by Philip Ivory

 

The first supernatural drama of the sound era, DRACULA was unleashed by Universal on Valentine’s Day 1931 with the tag line “The Strangest Love Story Ever Told,” perhaps signalling the studio’s unease at peddling such a bloodcurdling tale to a nation in the grips of the great depression. They need not have worried. The film provided a kind of rich Gothic escapism, paving the way for a whole cycle of 30s atmospheric chillers made with artistry and care that drew healthy box office and crowned Universal the king of horror. 

An adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1887 classic, DRACULA also had its roots in a successful stage version, from which the play’s star, Bela Lugosi, was recruited to play the lead. The familiar tale tells of the vampire king’s migration from his native Transylvania … an exotic locale seen to great effect in one of the most eerie opening sequences of any horror film … to London’s teeming metropolis.

The cast of DRACULA: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan and Helen Chandler.

The Count insinuates himself into the company of a group of unsuspecting Londoners, including the wise and virtuous Mina and her perhaps less wise best friend Lucy, who thrills to Dracula’s grand manner and exotic accent.

Lucy is attacked, dies and is resurrected as a vampire herself only to end up on the fatal end of a stake driven into her heart by intrepid and learned expert on the supernatural, Dr. Van Helsing, in a sequence that should have been a horror highlight but takes place off screen. (The film is too reticent in many places, conveying important plot points second hand through dialogue, when we would much rather have seen them directly.) 

Dracula sets his sites on Mina, who is defended by her boyish fiance, Jonathan, sanitarium director Dr. Seward, and Van Helsing, who warns his friends, “The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him.” In the end, Van Helsing and Co. track Dracula to his London hideout and good prevails.

HIGH POINTS

The film offers a classic performance by Lugosi himself, whose authentic accent, strange bearing and bizarre, halting cadences (“I never drink … wine.”) contribute to an unforgettable portrait of evil. I remember being particularly perturbed at the disembodied way Dracula drifts through a London street scene, before settling on a poor flower girl for an evening bite. He conveys the aspect of someone controlled from afar, perhaps an expression of how Dracula is held in thrall to a greater infernal power.  I’ve never seen any other actor in the part hint at this particularly eerie quality.

And while no more than a drop of blood is scene in the film, Lugosi achieves a heightened sense of horror through body language — he’s like a stylized vulture in a bedroom scene as he descends upon his victim –and facial expression. His striking mix of bestial hunger and a kind of pained self-revulsion while in the predatory moment is unforgettable.

Also memorable are Van Sloan as the anti vampire crusader Van Helsing, and Dwight Frye (like Lugosi and Van Sloan, repeating his performance from the stage) as the pathetic fly-eating mental patient who has fallen under Dracula’s sway. Frye in particular has some wonderful moments, including his eerie demented laughter issuing from the hold of a deathship full of Dracula’s victims, and his “Rats, rats, rats” monologue in which he describes the vision of teeming life offered to him in return for faithful service to his master.

“A red mist spread over the lawn, coming on like a flame of fire … Rat, rats, rats. Thousand of them. Millions of them. All red blood.”

DRACULA is memorable for its elegant dialogue, these three tidbits all coming from the Count himself:

(hearing the howling of wolves) “Listen to them. The children of the night. What music they make.”

“I never drink … wine.”

“To die, to be really dead. That must be glorious … There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”

DEFICITS

The film is justly slated for being stagey, not taking advantage of the adventurous sweep of Stoker’s saga, which ends in a desperate race back to Dracula’s castle, a sequence which held great filmic possibilities but wasn’t used. And while I think Helen Chandler is fine as Mina, particularly in a scene in which her eyes light up with bloodlust as she battles to restrain herself from attacking her fiance’s handsome throat, I think David Manners is stiff and awkward as her reliable lover. Comic relief provided by a cockney sanitarium attendant mostly falls flat today.

Director Todd Browning seems a bit sloppy in places, as when those little spotlights for Lugosi’s eyes don’t quite find their mark:

And if you’re really into the minutiae of classic films, check out this ten minute youtube exploration of why an ugly, jagged piece of cardboard can repeatedly be spotted in some of the bedroom scenes:

Caveats and technical deficiencies aside, DRACULA still has wonderful moments of poetic dread and horror, and remains a classic and standard bearer for all monster movies that followed in its wake.

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“You have created a monster, and it will destroy you!”

 

DAY 30 OF 31: IT FOLLOWS (2014)

Published October 30, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Every once in a while, a film comes along that is firmly in the tradition of established horror themes while also being completely original. IT FOLLOWS (2014), directed by David Robert Mitchell, is such a film.

Jay (Maika Monroe), a college student, goes on a date with a guy she knows little about, who calls himself Hugh (Jake Weary). They go to a movie but Hugh becomes frightened when Jay tells him she can’t see a girl he’s pointing out to her in the back of the auditorium. They leave and have dinner together.

Later, the two have sex in his car.

Then, shockingly, Hugh chloroforms Jay, and ties her to a wheelchair, taking her to an abandoned building. He doesn’t hurt her, but makes her wait until she sees a woman walking out of the darkness, coming inexorably toward them. Hugh tells Jay to remember what she has seen and believe in it, then takes her away in his car before the woman can reach them.

Jay (Maika Monroe) is initiated into the horrors of IT FOLLOWS.

Hugh explains that by having sex with Jay, he has passed on the curse he received from an earlier sexual tryst. A mysterious figure will keep walking toward Jay until it can reach her and kill her.

No one else will be able to see it. It will take different forms, sometimes as a stranger, sometimes as someone known to Jay, whatever will allow it to get close to her.

It will always look like someone different.

Hugh tells Jay that if it kills her, it will return to seek him out again. That’s why, he insists, she has to pass the curse on to someone else as quickly as possible.

This is the premise of IT FOLLOWS, startlingly simple, haunting and instantly terrifying. The film would seem to draw upon such past “sex equals death” franchises as the HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH films.

And yet it is original and moody, and follows its own dream logic. It resists easy analysis. Some have described IT FOLLOWS (has any movie had a more witty and fitting title?) as a film about walking STDs, but that seems too simple to me.

Another “sex equals death” teen horror? Or something more?

For once thing, it’s a film about friendship, as Jay turns to her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe), and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and former boyfriend Greg (Daniel Zovatto). They prove to be a resourceful and loyal group, all of whom end up risking their lives for Jay.

Jay’s parents and other adults are mostly absent, unable to help because it would be too much to ask them to believe in the unbelievable.

IT FOLLOWS is in part about growing up in the suburbs, and expresses that sad, lonely aspect of modern life that comes from living so near to other people and yet feeling that, sealed away in their houses, they might as well be a million miles away.

The entity appears behind Jay’s friend, Yara (Olivia Luccardi).

There is a strange timelessness to the film, a deliberate effect on the part of director Mitchell as part of his effort to simulate dream logic. Sometimes IT FOLLOWS feels like it’s set in the 70s or 80s. Other clues point to a more contemporary setting.

Critics almost universally praised the film, although some were less impressed with a climactic sequence in which Jay and her friends try to destroy the evil entity by electrocuting it in a pool.

I think the sequence works well and gives the friends a chance to join together to try to turn the tables on their unstoppable foe. It provides some catharsis before an ending that is, I think of necessity, unresolved.

In the end, what is IT FOLLOWS about? Sex? The heavy mantle of becoming a grownup? The ever-present knowledge of our own mortality, always gnawing at us, coming a little closer every day?

In the film’s opening sequence, we get a glimpse of the aftermath of a visit from the pursuing entity in IT FOLLOWS.

There’s been talk of a sequel. Let’s hope it never happens.

IT FOLLOWS is a modern horror masterpiece, and — let’s just say it — a pretty impossible act to follow.

 

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DAY 29 OF 31: THE CONJURING (2013)

Published October 29, 2019 by Philip Ivory

THE CONJURING (2013) is notable not only for being a first-class supernatural drama, but also as the first entry in a series of branching films that would come to be known as “The Conjuring Universe,” currently at seven films and counting.

On its release, THE CONJURING stood alone, based on its own merits which were considerable. Expertly directed by James Wan, it presented a familiar story — basically, a family in a house beset by demonic forces — that recalled key plot elements of such films as THE EXORCIST or THE AMITYVILLE HORROR.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play loosely fictionalized versions of real-life occult investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the Warrens.

They are called in to help the Perron family, consisting of Carolyn (Lili Taylor), Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters. Roger is a truck driver who’s frequently on the road.

Squabbling siblings and financial pressures are tough enough to deal with, but the family’s real troubles don’t start until they move into a charming lakeside fixer upper.

The Perron family, with Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston as parents Carolyn and Roger.

It starts quickly. The family dog refuses to enter the new home and is soon found dead. The daughters are assailed in the night by foul smells and violent forces.

An antique music box give glimpses of a ghostly child. A once sealed-off basement traps Carolyn, isolating her from her daughters.

Lili Taylor as Carolyn.

The Warrens arrive and, sympathetic to the family’s plight, begin their investigation. Lorraine’s psychic powers put her at risk of harm from the residing malevolent presence. They also allow her to determine that the home once belonged to a witch named Bathsheba who murdered her own child.

Soon Bathsheba possesses Carolyn, intent on using one of the Perron daughters to repeat the evil cycle.

Unable to wait for the church to authorize an exorcism, Ed, who is not a priest, performs his own off-the-cuff version of the ritual in a desperate attempt to save Carolyn’s soul and the children’s lives.

Carolyn is possessed.

The particular strength of THE CONJURING is the warmth of the characters. Both the Warrens and the Perrons are presented as likable, decent people. In a homely touch, between his investigative and exorcism work, Ed helps fix the Perrons’ rundown vehicle.

While there’s plenty of dread and terror, the film also helps us feel the strength of the Perron family’s love for each other. In fact, Bathsheba is driven out when Lorraine is able to help Carolyn summon the memory of a rare “perfect” day the family once spent together.

We are left with the feeling that, however destructive and dangerous these evil forces may be, good can still prevail with the help of a little faith and friendship. At least for the time being.

The twisted spirit of Bathsheba preys upon the Perron family.

In a side plot, THE CONJURING introduces the doll Annabelle, an object that will be revealed to be a conduit for demonic forces.

Kept secured in a glass case within the Warren home in a locked-off treasure trove of cursed objects and paranormal artifacts, Annabelle is about the creepiest-looking doll ever seen, making a powerful initial impression. (Her story will receive primary focus in ANNABELLE (2014) and other films that tell their own story but are part of the larger Conjuring mythos.)

Say hello to Annabelle. You’ll be seeing more of her.

Rather than build a straight series of sequels, the filmmakers successfully created their own interconnected filmic universe, based upon the semi-fictionalized files of the Warrens’ exploits in demonology.

We hadn’t seen such a thing since Universal teamed up its leading horror characters (Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and the Wolfman) in films like 1944’s HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Clearly eying the extraordinarily profitable Marvel Cinematic Universe, Universal has in recent years made attempts to launch a new series of interconnected “Dark Universe” monster vehicles, through such films as DRACULA UNTOLD (2014), but so far without significant success.

Legendary Entertainment has done better with a successful series of interconnected “Monsterverse” giant creature films, starting with GODZILLA in 2014 and scheduled to continue with next year’s GODZILLA VS. KONG.

Further entries in the Conjuring saga, including THE CONJURING 3 set for release next year, are in the works.

 

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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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