2012 October Horror Movie Challenge: Week One

Every October I go on a horror movie binge. It’s my favorite genre and classics like George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead are responsible for making me love film. Instead of reviewing each film this month, I’ve decided to instead work on a weekly write up with smaller reviews, thoughts and comments on the maddening horror films I’ve decided to watch. Here’s the 11 films I watched during week one.

BLACK SUNDAY (Mario Bava, 1960)
Mario Bava, arguably the best horror filmmaker to ever exist on this dear planet of ours, first blew minds of horror fans with his 1960 gothic masterpiece Black Sunday. The film, which is the chilling occult tale of a witches’ revenge, is filmed in stunning black  and white. Bava’s cold cinematography is part of the reason this film resonates so strong with horror fans. The film now looks better than ever after being given the Blu-ray treatment, meaning Bava’s tricky shadows, luxurious gothic interiors and spooky surroundings are even more impressive to gawk at.

Beautiful shadowy imagery defines Bava’s ‘Black Sunday.’

It is a directorial debut film for Bava that fell somewhere between two different eras of horror filmmaking and sparked his lengthy and successful career. The film itself tells us the rather simple tale of a suspected witch who two centuries prior was put to death and is now returning for vengeance. Barbara Steele fills two roles, both as the witch and as her similar looking ancestor, and does a damn good job of it. But most of all, Bava’s film is remembered for its dark shadows and chilling feel. A must see every October.

THE ASPHYX (Peter Newbrook, 1973)
The only film Peter Newbrook, a veteran of the movie-making business, ever decided to direct is also one of the most peculiar, unique and enjoyable horror films I’ve discovered lately. A whole new audience is about to see The Asphyx for the first time given its new transfer and Blu-ray release which is great news. This is an odd little British horror film about a researcher-type who becomes obsessed with trying to capture and literally detain the “spirit of the dead” or the Asphyx.

Sir Hugo Cunningham, played by the wonder Robert Stephens, is the jolting force behind a lot of what The Asphyx does right. Hugo, who loses his son and soon-to-be wife in a boating accident, becomes obsessed with life, death and immortality. Experiment after experiment lead to great mental and physical pain but also incredible progress. This is an absolutely charming film that doesn’t end in a way you would expect it to. I’m a big fan of the horror film stories that create an unfiltered and insane obsession in people. That is one of the scariest concepts imaginable.

THE BODY SNATCHER (Robert Wise, 1945)
Based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, The Body Snatcher is like film noir goes horror. Wise, who would go on to direct a number of classics like boxing noir The Set-Up, science fiction masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Sound of Music saw one of this early successes with this clever tale of fright. After Wise’s work on the Val Lewton-produced The Curse of the Cat People, the director earned another shot with Lewton and directed The Body Snatcher. Working with talents like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Wise really expertly shot a dark, claustrophobic and shadowy style of horror.

Karloff (left) is the spooky dynamite that makes ‘The Body Snatcher’ as creepy as it is.

But the real star here is Karloff. Famous for playing monsters that took prosthetic and make-up work to make him look scary, Karloff is stripped down to himself for the role of cabbie John Gray, the illegal supplier of cadavers to a local medial school. This is arguably one of Karloff’s best performance in that he needed to rely on himself and his own spooky traits to make Gray as evil of a character as he truly was. No, this isn’t the monster of Dr. Frankenstein, Imhotep or Fu Manchu. Instead, it’s a wholly realized and natural performance, something Karloff should be remembered for alongside the other icons of horror he portrayed.

GRAVE ENCOUNTERS 2 (John Poliquin, 2012)
Yes, the found footage genre is a little played out. Yes, hardly any of us would be sad if it left for awhile. That said, once in awhile a gem comes along. We’ve seen masterpieces created within the found footage genre and I consider the Grave Encounters series, which quickly received this sequel after the first film’s success in 2011, to be one of the better uses of the device.

In the first film we followed a team of television ghost hunters out to find a few bumps in the night inside an insane asylum. They never would expect to find actual ghosts!!!! They did and things happen. The first film is a surprising treat in its own right, so I won’t do much to spoil it, but let’s just say that in this second film, a college film student believes that the first film was actually real, and not a movie, and goes to the location to find out more. Pretty meta, right? In all seriousness, it’s a cool concept and a cool way to make a sequel so quickly. The Vicious Brothers, who created the first film, aren’t behind the camera for this one, but that’s okay because the film retains the same style and does so very well. It’s more of the same madness and frights and that should please all fans of the series.

RE-ANIMATOR (Stuart Gordon, 1985)
I am not sure exactly where Re-Animator fits in the long timeline of the awesome zombie evolution made in the 1970’s and 1980’s when filmmakers from all over the world, namely America and Italy, were trying to find new and fresh ways to spin on the genre. Stuart Gordon did just that with his classic film Re-Animator, a gory and comical zombie romp that has Jeffrey Combs playing the legendary character of Herbert West in this Lovecraft story. West, like other characters I’ve already written about in this entry, becomes obsessed with this research into how to bring the dead back to life. His bright green liquid potion that restores movement to the limbs but not the mind to the brain is now one of the most classic potions in horror film history.

TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (Peter Sykes, 1976)
This ultimately flawed but unique film about the occult relies on a few things: its strange and satisfying plot and the performances of Richard Widmark and Christopher Lee. Lee plays a heretic priest who is molding a young, nubile nun into being the mother or wife or something of Satan. It isn’t really clear, but he wants to sacrifice the heck out of her for devilish reasons. Widmark, who became one of my favorite actors for his charismatic and sometimes evil film noir roles, is an author of the occult type that gets involved in the mess on behalf of a guy that may or may not actually know him. The nun’s father signed some kind of deal with Lee and Satan, apparently, and years later  can’t back out. But he enlists Widmark’s help for some reason.

SATAN BABY!!!!!!

You see, this film is markedly flawed for a number of reasons. But putting that aside, there’s something about it’s glorious and chaotic nature that is so attractive. It’s a 1970’s horror flick, so it already has that going for it. But when you see the film’s conclusion  and the little Satan spawn creature (above) that crawls into something I won’t speak of right here you will understand why this strange film is absolutely satisfying. It is certainly one of the genre’s lost gems.

LISA AND THE DEVIL (Mario Bava, 1974)

This is a film with a lot of history to it. Often considered one of the more personal films Bava ever made, it didn’t even see it’s intended release until after the macabre master of horror passed away. As Lisa and the Devil this is a puzzling, spinning and atmospheric film. Definitely one of the more challenging horror titles I’ve ever seen. It is a film very much representative of the film itself: an endless trip through hell. Lisa, sightseeing in Spain with a friend, gets lost from the crowd of people that aren’t Satan and ends up stranded/trapped at a mansion that is as weird as it looks.

Lisa with some mannequins. It all sort of becomes clear if you watch.

Because this film was so challenging and strange and confusing, Alfredo Leone, the film’s producer, couldn’t find Bava’s film a good market. So they went back and Leone reshot footage that capitalized on the exorcism craze. Titled House of Exorcism the film got its release. Now, I haven’t seen the other version of the film yet, but I’ve heard it’s incredible different and a slap in the face to Bava’s vision. It turns what is a unique, stunning horror film into a generic ripoff. What a shame. See this film in the originally intended way.

CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (Lucio Fucli, 1980)
Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci was also dubbed the “Godfather of Gore.” This is one of the films that would be admitted into a contest to rightfully judge who just is the goriest of them all. The thing is, gore in the 1970’s and 1980’s wasn’t like the gore we often see today. It wasn’t Saw’s “torture porn” style of gore. Rather it was incredibly clever, unique and most of all handmade.

Excuse me miss, there’s something in your eyes. And coming out of your mouth.

This zombie classic is one of my all-time favorites of the genre. It isn’t a very good story (some priest hung himself and the gates of Hell are open and he’s returned to life and is killing everyone) and the film isn’t a zombie invasion like George A. Romero’s classics, but its nuance gore and rather amusing scenes (like MILLIONS of “maggots” being sprayed at four actors through a window) make it a such a memorable film. Heck, the scene where a lady bleeds out of her eyes and spits up her guts and a young pervy freak weirdo gets a drill through his head is enough to make this a classic.

HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (Mario Bava, 1970)
The final Mario Bava film to see a Blu-ray release this month from the great folks at Kino is Hatchet for the Honeymoon, which is possibly one of the coolest representations of early Giallo filmmaking that Bava pretty much created. Giallo, for those of you unaware, is a predecessor to the American slasher films. Just think of it as being more interesting, cooler and visually kinetic filmmaking that shuts the door in the face of most slasher films.

In this one, Bava’s visionary style takes to a bridal making/modeling business of the fanciest sorts. It’s a crazy film because of the spin it puts on Giallo. Often in a Giallo we witness murders, but we don’t know who commits them. It turns the film into a whodunnit of sorts. We’re left guessing, along with the other characters, about who the murderer is. In this film we are introduced to the murderer in the opening sequences. We’re told he kills people. We see him kill people. We don’t really know the true motive, which is the film’s one great mystery. The spin on the genre, as well as Bava’s execution, is enough to make this a worthwhile film for anyone interested in studying Giallo more.

THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (Dario Argento, 1970)
Speaking of Giallo! Dario Argento is like the son Mario Bava didn’t have.  Bava had a son (Lamberto Bava), but he wasn’t as nearly good of a filmmaker as Argento was. In Argento’s first feature film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the Italian filmmaker brings the Giallo genre to a whole new level. It’s actually remarkable that a film as patient and well-thought out as this one is a filmmaker’s FIRST horror film.

Stunning visual imagery is abundant in Argento’s debut film.

After an American witnesses a murder in Italy, he becomes obsessed with finding out who the killer is. The plot isn’t exactly the most confusing (something Giallo’s actually hang their hats on at times), but the execution and construction of the plot and the story is masterful. Argento had a grasp on this filmmaking thing right from the beginning and its fun to see where the brilliance in other Argento films like Deep RedTenebre and Suspiria found its starting place.

THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (Wes Craven, 1972)
Wes Craven’s video-nasty really hit me hard back when I was first introducing myself to horror films. It was among those films that had found such a cult following, had such history and lore surrounding it, that actually sitting down to watch it was an experience itself. I can only think of a few others (maybe Cannibal Holocaust?) that even come close to having the same buzz effect on me.

This notorious story about a band of killers and rapists who murder a family’s daughter and then, at first, unknowingly spend the night at their house, comes just about directly from Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece The Virgin Spring. Bergman’s film, less nasty and more brilliant, shares a similar story that was based on a 13th century Swedish ballad called Töre’s daughters in Vänge. Craven’s adaptation of this story to the modern (at that time) world is incredible.

Davis Hess became a horror legend with his performance as Krug.

What’s more incredible is how much more frightening and shocking this film manages to be than the remake from a few years ago. That remake was fine, not bad at all, but it held back in ways that Craven did not and would not. David Hess, one of horror’s finest talents, turns in a career-defining performance as the despicable Krug. Uncomfortable? Yes. Important? Also yes.

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