Project Horror, Day 31: Trick 'r Treat


I added this movie to the list at the recommendation of my friends Scott and Rachel, and decided to save it for last.  When I started Project Horror, I decided that the final movie would either have to be a cathartic full-out frightfest or something that would end the month on a fun note.  This movie looked like a fun one, and also one that I wouldn't necessarily get to watch if I stuck rigidly to my categories.

I really enjoyed this movie.  Remember in the '80s when horror anthology movies like Creepshow and Cat's Eye came out?  This is like a throwback to those, with five different stories that intersect together.  Tying all of the stories together is the presence of Sam, a mysterious costumed child who makes sure that people are respecting the traditions of Halloween, or else.  I'm not going to say too much about the individual stories, because it's more fun if you don't know too much about what's coming, but there's poisoned candy, dead children, and hot chicks being followed into the woods...

After an opening scene, the credits play over a comic book styled introduction.  This reminded me of another great show from the '80s, Amazing Stories, and how they adapted old pulp stories for the screen.  It also gives you some idea of what's ahead in the rest of the movie - I actually rewound to this once I'd watched the whole thing, just to see which comic panels fit into which stories.

Somehow this movie played the festival rounds and then went straight to video without a theatrical release.  I really don't understand that decision.  I mean, it's not the Citizen Kane of horror movies or anything, but it's an enjoyable Halloween movie that isn't filled with wall-to-wall torture or yawningly predictable plot twists.  It's got a strong cast, including Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, and Leslie Bibb, so it's not exactly full of no-names.  I'd recommend it to any horror fan.

I give it five Jack-o'-lanterns out of five!

That brings Project Horror to a close.  Please stay tuned tomorrow for my wrap up and final thoughts!

Project Horror, Day 30: The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

Real life offers so few chances to use the word "penultimate," that I just have to seize the opportunity to do it here.  It's the penultimate day of Project Horror!  It's also the final day of The Evil Men Do block, so I decided to end it with a movie that was just outrageously over the top - The Human Centipede.  Have you heard of this one?  It's gained a lot of infamy this year, including lots of reviewers claiming it's one of the most grueling viewing experiences they've had.

I can't really describe the plot in gentle terms, so just be forewarned that if you are squeamish, you may not want to know about this one.  Two American girls are taking a roadtrip through Europe, and have a flat tire one night during a rainstorm.  (And really, right there, you know that whatever happens next ain't gonna be good, right?)  They find a nearby house (you know, like you do) to try and call for a tow.  Sadly, our two heroines do not read German, or they'd have seen that the homeowner is a Registered Mad Scientist.  His specialty before he retired was separating conjoined twins, and he's come up with a plan to go the other direction and join three people into a human centipede, stitched mouth to anus.  Of course, there's only two of them, so the third spot is filled by a Japanese dude.

Let's get the movie's reputation out of the way up front.  Yes, there are some unpleasant scenes, mostly during the surgery, but it's really not as bad as you may have heard.  As is often the case with horror, hearing the premise is more horrifying than the experience of watching it.  The surgery actually happens about halfway through the movie, and the first time that you see the completed centipede it's pretty shocking, but there's still half a movie to go.  It tips its hand way too early, and seriously, by the time you've heard 45 minutes of, um, muffled sobs, you're pretty much ready for it to end.

A few good things... The actor playing the evil doctor was born to play an evil doctor, and his real-life name is Dieter Laser.  Dieter FREAKING LASER!  I also liked the very last scene, which I won't spoil for you, but will spoil another movie in describing.  You know at the end of The Descent when the last woman is sitting there in the cave with certain death slowly closing in on her?  (And yes, I know that she ultimately ends up showing up in the sequel, but forget about that for a second.)  Anyway, the end of this one had that same feel.  One of the girls isn't dead, but things don't look too good for her.

I don't know if I've just watched too much horror this month or what, but this was not as hard to watch as I'd anticipated.  Maybe you notice that this movie's title has "(First Sequence)" in its name.  There's an upcoming sequel, the Second Sequence, that is supposed to have a 12-person centipede.  There's no way I'll be watching it.  (Yes, I probably will, especially if I do Project Horror next year!)

This was a pretty decent movie to end The Evil Men Do with.  I'd give it three centipedes out of five.

Project Horror, Day 29: The Virgin Spring/The Last House on the Left (1972 & 2009)


The final Friday night of Project Horror - the perfect opportunity for a marathon.  A triple header!  With plenty of Diet Dr. Pepper to keep me fueled, I set out to watch three in a row.

Three different films, all with the same story - a young, innocent girl who is loved and doted on by her parents leaves home with a more worldly friend.  On their trip, she is raped, brutalized, and murdered by men who then take some unique possession of hers and later seek shelter at her parents' home.  The parents either find or are offered the item that the killers took, recognize it, and take their vengeance.

Hoo boy...  When I had the idea to do a triple feature, it seemed like a great idea, a way to finish out the month with a bang.  I sort of wish now that I hadn't done it.  Today was a little bit of an emotional day for me anyway, and although I'd never seen any of these, I wasn't entirely unfamiliar with their contents.

Here's the thing - I hate watching filmed depictions of rape.  I know that it's a situation that happens far, far too often in real life, and that in a dramatic movie it can add to the drama or serve as the action that the movie centers around.  I don't have some moral objection to including rape in the plot of a movie.  I just am sickened by watching it more than I have words to tell you.  The Accused is supposed to be one of Jodie Foster's best roles, one that she won Best Actress for, and she's an actress who I really like, but I don't ever want to see that movie.  I don't know if I thought that maybe it would feel different if it was in a horror movie, where the entire point is to be shocking, but it really wasn't.  This was the hardest night yet of Project Horror.

That said, how were the movies?  ("Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?")

The Virgin Spring was very good.  I mean, it's directed by Ingmar Bergman, and the guy just didn't make bad movies.  To be fair, it is definitely not a horror movie, it's a drama and a morality play.  I included it mainly so I could compare it with the other two movies.  The parents in this version are very devout Christians, and they have genuine turmoil about what to do once they know the identity of the men staying with them.  The rape scene, though not explicit, goes a little farther than most films made in 1960 would have; aside from that scene, this was a great movie, and interesting to watch.  It does not treat the crime against the girl lightly, but it also doesn't minimize the ethical weight of the parents' vengeance.  I give this one five flowing springs out of five.

At this point in the evening, I was still feeling OK.  Then I watched Wes Craven's 1972 movie The Last House on the Left.  Look, I don't expect horror movies to be setting the standard when it comes to gender equality, but when the second line in the movie is a pervy old mailman saying that the girl who lives in the house he's delivering to is a hot little piece of ass, you had best be prepared to watch 90 minutes of misogyny, and that's pretty much what this was.

Craven has gone on to make many great and influential horror movies, but this one... ugh.  He not only dwells lasciviously on the torture heaped onto the girls, there are parts where it seems like he's playing it for laughs.  I don't know what kind of stylistic choice Craven was making when he chose the soundtrack for this movie, but just click this link and listen to one of the musical selections.  It's some kind of honky-tonk jug band corniness that belongs in something like a Muppet movie or a buddy film about guys driving fast cars away from Southern cops, not played over a scene of women's bodies being stuffed into the trunk of a car.  Forget appropriateness and everything else - this is just sloppy directing.

The parents' vengeance in this one is more incidental.  It seemed sort of tacked on to the end so that the movie has some kind of redemption at the last.  There's no real gravity to it.

I don't want to come up with clever icons for this movie, so I'm just using the international symbol for "DON'T," a red circle and slash.  I give it one out of five.

And finally, the last feature of the night, the 2009 remake of Last House, produced by Wes Craven but directed by somebody else.  After my experience with the last one, I was dreading starting this one, but it was a little better.  I'll get the bad out of the way right up front: the rape scene is the most graphic and realistic of all three movies.  It upset me.

But now the good - I thought the rest of the movie worked better.  The girls still meet a bad fate, but it doesn't linger over that.  There's far more focus on what happens once the killers reach her parents' house.  Although it's violent, it isn't gratuitously so.  It's kind of a look at what average people do in extreme circumstances, like in Straw Dogs.  I won't spoil the end, but the filmmakers introduced an element that also added a ticking clock on top of the revenge scenes, and it made this play much more like a thriller.

I'll give this one three microwave ovens out of five (microwaves, because of one of the most memorable death scenes this side of Scanners).

Fathers, sons, and Nesquick


Today was a difficult day.

I learned on Sunday that somebody who I used to be in Boy Scouts with had passed away.  Trey was about four years younger than me, so although I thought he was a good guy, we had never been especially close, and it had been years since I'd seen or spoken with him.  I think the last time I saw him may have been when I sat on his Eagle Scout board of review, and was first to shake his hand when we awarded him his Eagle.

In the time since then, though, I've had the chance to get to know Trey's dad Bill through our church.  When there was a Daddy And Me Campout this summer, he hosted it at his ranch.  Every time I've seen him since then, he asks me about Blake.  Every time.  He knows what a gift a son is, and he cares about mine, just like he loved (and will always love) Trey, and Trey's little brother Dennis, who died in an accident several years ago.

That's what made today difficult, seeing Bill, another father, hurting so badly over his loss.  I wished I knew what to say.  I had no idea what to say.  There's nothing to say.  And I promise I'm not trolling for sympathy here, and I'm not trying to co-opt somebody else's tragedy as my own, but this day hit me much harder than I imagined it would.

Courtney worked last night, and as I was getting the kids ready this morning, I realized that I hadn't seen or heard Jack in a while.  Then I rounded the kitchen corner and saw that he had decided to help himself to a breakfast of Nesquick powder.  That's a little pile of it by his foot:
I was already dressed, in a suit no less, and had to take off my shirt and tie to clean it up, wash all the powder off Jack, and change his clothes.  At the end of that, I found out that Ava had wet herself while wearing the Halloween costume she'd be wearing to preschool that day.  While I cleaned and changed her, and fumed at how late I was going to be, Blake approached me to ask something and I just took his head off.  He completely didn't deserve it.

At dinner, I apologized to Blake.  "I'm so sorry for how I shouted at you this morning, Blake.  I feel really awful about it."

"It's OK, Daddy.  I'll always forgive you and love you."

I don't even want to try and say something funny or deep after that, just that I hope I will never, ever take that love for granted.  And I have to admit that Jack is pretty cute, even with Nesquick all over him.  Heck, especially with Nesquick all over him.

Project Horror, Day 28: Dread


It wasn't enough for me to take Steve's idea to do a month of horror, I also had to lift one of the movies that he chose for his lineup.  Tonight I watched Dread, which he also watched and blogged about.  The movie's based on a story by Clive Barker, so it's automatically got at least a little bit of horror cred.

The story centers around three college film students who decide to do their thesis project about fear, interviewing other students about their innermost terrors.  Through the course of the movie, we also learn about what has left marks on the filmmakers' psyches, and the extent to which it has damaged them.  At the conclusion of their project, one of them decides that he hasn't yet seen the results he wants, and that the project needs to be taken to another, much more extreme level.

The first two-thirds of the movie are pretty heavy on exposition, and don't move too quickly, but when the final third comes, the setup pays off.  For the first time this month, I truly did not see the ending coming before it happened.  I thought I knew where it was leading, so it was a nice feeling to get outsmarted by one of these movies for a change.

My one complaint is with the character Quaid, who decides to push the project further.  His motivation for this becomes clearer as the movie progresses, but the way he interacts with the other characters rings false.  You know in some movies (not just horror, any genre) how there's that one character who thinks that the other characters aren't living life to the fullest/giving their all to a project/truly getting the lessons out of life that they should/etc.  The character who deeply, earnestly, annoyingly believes in something and just can't rest until they have shown the world how deeply, earnestly, and annoyingly they believe in it?  The character who says stupid crap like, "Open your eyes!  Embrace the fear/love/lesson/whatever!"  Like Natalie Portman in Garden State, except that she falls more into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl category.  Anyway, that's this guy in Dread, except that he's pushing them towards their fears instead of their quirks.

That aside, though, this movie was pretty solid, and caught me off guard.  Although it's in The Evil Men Do category, it's escapist enough that I still enjoyed watching it.  I give it four fireman's axes out of five.

Project Horror, Day 27: Crawlspace


I went into this movie really wanting to like it.  Klaus Kinski is a fantastic actor, so I was looking forward to seeing something of his that I hadn't seen before.  This is one of his few English-language films, but his collaborations with director Werner Herzog are the stuff of movie legend, as are the sometimes fiery behind the scenes stories.  When he tried to walk off the set of Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Herzog held him at gunpoint and forced him to continue with the film.  He's got a wild-eyed intensity that I thought would play well in horror.

Unfortunately, the movie didn't really bear this out.  Kinski plays the landlord of a small apartment building, where he rents only to attractive young women.  He crawls through the air ducts to spy on them and occasionally kill one of them.  There's also a subplot where a man who suspects Kinski's character of killing his brother via medical euthanasia a few years earlier shows back up on his doorstep.

Kinski is usually so good at projecting menace, but for some reason he chose to play this role in a very subdued, muttering way.  Also, the years between 1986 and the present have not been kind to Crawlspace; it looks very dated.  For most of the movie, the landlord is more annoying than frightening.  It just doesn't really work.

Now, the pros:
  1. Even when he's not great, Kinski can still act more with his eyes than most actors do with their entire body.  His Russian Roulette scenes are the most interesting parts of the movie.
  2. Only 80 minutes long!
  3. The motion picture debut of Tane McClure, who went on to a rich career in late night cable movies.
I dunno - the movie's description made me think I'd be getting something along the lines of H.H. Holmes, but I got something much sillier instead.  I give it two Newton's Cradles out of five (because in this one scene... aw, forget it).

Project Horror, Day 26: Borderland


Tonight we begin the final block of movies in Project Horror, The Evil Men Do.  If there's one group of movies that I fully expect will  unsettle me, this is probably it.  The great Del Close is far more closely associated with comedy than with horror (though he was in the remake of The Blob), but he's got a quote that I really like about the comparison of art and life.

"It's a grim business, this being funny. Every time you come up with a strong satiric idea, the world tops it. None of our reactionary military characters in the past decade could top the real-life line that came out of Vietnam: 'We had to destroy the village in order to save it.'"

It's easy to write off spook films about vampires or zombies, because as frightening as they may be, we all know that the things in them can't touch us in real life.  Depending on where you come down on spiritual matters, movies about the occult and supernatural may have more impact, which is why I think The Exorcist still tops so many lists of the scariest movies ever made.  But when you think about the actual horrors that people visit upon each other every day, right now...  At best it makes the movies pale in comparison, at worst it means that our movies are aestheticizing the violence around us to the point that we don't notice it anymore.  I'm rambling a little bit here, and I know that a lot of it has to do with context and my own hypocrisy - the same stuff that I cover my eyes for in a Pasolini film, I cheer for in a Tarantino film.

Anyway, tonight's movie is Borderland, which is based on true events of about twenty years ago.  Three friends head to a border town on a road trip, and one of them is abducted to be sacrificed by a drug smuggling cult.  His friends try to find and rescue him, only to find that the police are no help and that time is running out.

Here's where I run into the conflict I mentioned above.  This movie was brutal.  The scenes of sacrifice and murder were intense and graphic.  But I also remember when the actual cult killings in Matamoros came to light, and they were even worse and more terrifying.  Just this year in Mexico, police have been beheaded, schoolchildren killed in cold blood, and many other people have simply vanished.  I can't say that I liked this movie or was entertained by it, because even though it's a well made movie and a semi-fictionalized account, the reality is still happening around us and is even more awful.  Even as I found myself thinking that, though, I still caught myself thinking, "Ugh, this is just like Turistas" or "Please, this is so cliched" before I reminded myself that the events of this movie did happen.

Also, I have to admit a prejudice here.  I don't have any good reason for this, but I just really hate Sean Astin (who plays a cult member in this movie) and his stupid fat face.  Every good movie that he's been in, and there have been several (Goonies, Rudy, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy), I have liked in spite of him.  I challenge you to look at his face in this picture and not imagine him saying, "Durrrrrr..."

 Like I mentioned, the violence in this movie is intense and played for full effect.  It does inject just enough of an element of suspense that you wonder how exactly it will play out.  Despite the conflicts I mentioned above, I'm still going to give it three Palo Mayombe cauldrons out of five.

Blake's Project Horror (or, A Breakfast Performance Piece)

Somehow we were all ready to go much earlier than usual this morning, so we decided to have a family breakfast at IHOP.  Blake and Ava got their usual, the Make-A-Face Pancake.  This isn't the Silly Face Pancake that comes with a pre-made face of whipped cream, chocolate chips, and cherries.  This is the one that comes with a banana smile, strawberry eyes, whipped cream nose, and a tube of yogurt for you to fill in any details.

Blake gave his some yogurt hair, eagerly reached for the strawberry syrup, and delivered a totally Bronson-esque "It's breakfast time!" before doing this to his pancake.
"Look, Daddy.  He's dead.  I'm gonna eat him."

Project Horror, Day 25: The Host


Before I begin tonight's review, I have to make a housekeeping note.  In my review for Mondo Cane a few days ago, I mentioned that only it and a movie coming later on the list had won Oscars.  It turns out that was wrong - An American Werewolf in London won the Oscar for Best Makeup, and rightly so.

Tonight's movie was The Host, a monster movie from South Korea.  The monster was kind of like an Asian Cloverfield, by which I mean smaller and more polite.

Actually, there are only some surface similarities to Cloverfield, but I just couldn't help making my awful, awful joke.

The movie starts with a scene inspired by a real-life event, where a Korean worker at a US Army base is instructed to poor a large amount of chemicals down the drain, eventually to end up in the Han River.  Time passes, and a few years later two fishermen notice a mutant fish in the river.  A few years after that, people relaxing by the river notice something strange hanging below a bridge, something which dives into the water, swims to shore, and goes on a rampage.  The rest of the story mainly centers around one family trying to find their teenage relative who was abducted by the creature, and believed dead until she is able to send them a signal.

This was a pretty effective movie.  I'd have liked if they'd ratcheted up the tension more in a few places, and if there had been more of the monster, but it keeps you off balance enough that it brings a few good scares.  Much like the monster is kind of incidental to The Thing, with the real story being the paranoia between the other characters, the monster in this movie ends up being sort of secondary to the story, with the family's search and the frustrations of government bureaucracy being the main threads.

I give this three Cup Noodles out of five.

In which the Holwerda boys take a Sunday constitutional

Blake's first report card came recently and told us what we already sort of knew, that he is a really sharp kid academically but needs to figure out how to get himself under control.  I probably could have saved them the printing costs by just pulling out one of my old report cards and Xeroxing it, since they said pretty much the same thing.  I'm finding that the hardest thing as a parent is to see your own weaknesses surface in your kids, and wishing that you could tell them how that particular path will end up, but knowing that they will still have to figure it out for themselves.

That said, one of the biggest delights of parenting is seeing your children's enthusiasms surfacing, and Blake both loves to learn and loves to share with Jack.  Yesterday after nap time, he told me that he wanted to go to the museum and then to the park.  I told him to pick one and, the nerd blood flowing strong among my family, he chose the museum.  The girls were still asleep, so I put on my best dad jorts, loaded up the boys, and went.

This was taken in the N.C. Wyeth Gallery, a permanent exhibit at the museum.  Many of his paintings were made as illustrations for great boyhood classics like Robinson Crusoe, Kidnapped, and The Last of the Mohicans.  Even though my sons haven't read those yet, the appeal of castaways, brigands, and Indians still looms large for any imaginative boy, right?  As you can see, Blake chose his favorite shirt that matches nothing, least of all camouflage shorts.  He's a pair of rectangular glasses frames away from looking like a little hipster.
Wyeth trivia:  Four of his children grew up to become successful artists in their own right.  His fifth child worked for DuPont and invented the plastic soda bottle.  I would kind of love to have eavesdropped on one of their Thanksgiving dinners.

And here is one of my favorite photos that I have ever taken of the boys.  Blake the performer, Jack the appreciative audience - about as good a summary of their relationship as I could ever hope to come up with.  In fact, I like this picture so much, that I have set up a CafePress store just so you, my devoted friends, can proudly wear it on your chest.  I am not kidding.  Christmas is two months away, and this would not only make the ideal gift for anybody you love, but will also help me buy presents for the people I love.  It's win-win.
We'll end this trip to the museum with a look at a piece of Native American art.  In the middle of a gallery of Kachinas and other symbolic dolls, Blake told me that he already knew what one of them was.  Like I said, the kid is pretty academically advanced.  He pointed to a doll and told me that it's from a Dr. Pepper commercial.  Bwuh?  I took a picture so I could show it to Courtney and see if she knew what he was talking about.  Halfway home, I realized he was talking about the Dr. Pepper commercial featuring KISS.


Project Horror, Day 24: Monkey Shines

Only one more week left to go in Project Horror!  I've got another night of Creepy Creatures, five nights of The Evil Men Do, and then I'll be ending the month with one that I choose.

Tonight's selection was George Romero's Monkey Shines.  Although I was aware that he'd done some non-zombie movies, this is the first of them that I've seen.  I've got to hand it to Romero - he doesn't just have an eye for zombies, he's got a talent for horror of all stripes.

The plot is pretty straightforward.  A promising young law student is made quadriplegic after an accident, and is given a helper monkey to assist him around his home.  He and the monkey form a close bond, and the monkey becomes fiercely protective of him, soon even acting out his unconscious desires for revenge.

OK, that sounds kind of silly when I type it out, but this movie was very effective.  There are a few good "jump" moments when the monkey does something unexpected, but the real fear comes from our shared fear of vulnerability.  By the time that the main character becomes aware of what's happening, he's physically helpless to fight against it.  He can see things unfolding in front of him without the ability to stop it.

There was another thing that makes it work, and that's man's uneasy belief that he has some kind of dominance over the natural world.  This is especially apparent in the scenes where monkeys are being experimented on in the lab, but also when the main character tries to appeal to his monkey to stop.  Did you ever see the documentary Grizzly Man?  Werner Herzog directed it, and it tells the story of a man named Timothy Treadwell, a man who made it his personal mission to live among Alaskan bears and share their story with the world.  He also saw his mission as defending the bears, but found out that they actually do a pretty decent job of defending themselves when he and his girlfriend were eaten while their camera recorded.  The thing is, before this happened, Treadwell honestly believed that these bears loved him.  When Herzog viewed Treadwell's footage, he had this to say: "I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature."  That is what makes this movie work.  When it comes down to it, you can't appeal to an animal, because it will follow its instincts.  Just ask Siegfried & Roy.

This was a fun movie, one of the few this month to put a real scare into me.  I give it four capuchins out of five.

Project Horror, Day 23: It's Alive


A few years ago, the Bravo channel ran a show called "The 100 Scariest Movie Moments."  The list had some great movies on it, and I've gone back to it several times for viewing ideas.  I added It's Alive to my list as part of the Creepy Creatures block partly because it was included in the Bravo list, and it looked pretty good when I saw it featured on that countdown.  Now that I've seen it, I think they could have definitely found a better movie to fill that spot on the list.

I'm not going to lie to you, Internet.  This movie was the first this month that actually put me to sleep.  Not just drowsy, trouble keeping the eyes open sleep, but full-on, drool running down my face, waking up to find that the movie ended quite a while ago sleep.  Now, because I have my project, I got up, had a Dr. Pepper and rewound to the point that I last remembered seeing and watched the rest of it, but I wasn't too happy about it.

The setup and the first scare scene were not badly done.  A couple is expecting their second child and goes to the hospital to deliver.  The wife feels that something is wrong, but up until this point in the movie, there's not really any hint of what's to come.  Only when the husband sees somebody stagger bloodily out of the delivery room and drop dead do you get an idea of something wrong, and then you see the inside of the delivery room, where everybody except the mother has been slaughtered.  It's not a bad scene.

The rest of the movie, though...  Eh.  It had potential, really.  It was just so campy.  The scenes where you catch a glimpse of the mutant baby make it look like a gnarly Muppet.  The cast are not very good actors.  Even the score is corny, which is weird because it's by Bernard Herrmann, the guy who wrote the scores of many Hitchcock movies, Taxi Driver, and Citizen Kane.

Congratulations, It's Alive, you just got mentioned in the same article as Taxi Driver and Citizen Kane.  It's as high a praise as you're going to wring out of me.  You get two prams out of five.
UPDATE:  I'm coming back to this entry, because a day later, there's a scene that has stayed with me.  When the dad pleads for mercy on his child's behalf, after spending most of  the movie trying to disown him, it hit my heart on a very Dad-level.  I'm bumping this rating up another half point because of it.

Project Horror, Day 22: An American Werewolf in London


One of the rules that I set for myself at the outset of Project Horror is that I only wanted to watch movies I hadn't seen before.  I'm breaking that rule just for tonight, because it's Friday, and it's been a long week, and I'm looking for cinematic comfort food.  If you're looking for horror movie comfort food (and you happen to be in the middle of your Creepy Creatures block of movies), then An American Werewolf in London is the macaroni & cheese that you reach for, baby.

This was one of the first movies that I got away with watching without my parents' knowledge.  We were staying with my aunt for Christmas, and she had cable.  I was sleeping on the living room couch, so after everybody else had gone to bed, I turned the TV on right as this movie was starting.  To a kid whose scariest movie experience up to that point was the banshee in Darby O'Gill and the Little People, this was a huge leap forward!  And that's not even saying anything about Jenny Agutter's shower scene, which I was just the right age to appreciate (that age being anywhere between 13 and death).

Just watching this took me back in a big way.  John Landis made so many iconic movies in the 1980s - Animal House, Spies Like Us, Three Amigos, Twilight Zone, Trading Places, Coming to America, Blues Brothers, Thriller [!] - that watching this really evoked that time period.  Why is he not still at the top of the Hollywood ladder?  Sure, his stuff since the '90s hasn't been great, but I know he's still got it in him.  I've had several beers tonight, but I'm just gonna say it - I love you, John Landis.  Bring that bearded face back here and let me show you.  IMDB tells me you've got your first feature in over a decade coming out soon, and that it stars Tim Curry.  I'm there.

Werewolves don't really capture the popular imagination the same way that vampires do.  What was the last really great werewolf movie that you saw?  What's the last one that had very much mainstream success?  I hear that the Twilight books/movies have a tribe of shirtless, duh-faced werewolves, but that doesn't count, because the series isn't really about them.  I think it's because a werewolf in its monster form isn't sexy like a vampire is.  Landis addresses that in an early scene when the main character is in the hospital after being bitten, and the nurses talk about how attracted they are to him - he's got an animal charm that they can't describe.

Check it out - four paragraphs, and I've barely mentioned the movie.  Did I mention I've had a few beers?

My friend Scott joined me for this one, and he pointed out something very true.  Landis's editing and directorial choices are top notch.  The guy is a great filmmaker, both in comedy and horror.  He also pointed out that tonight was a full moon, which added to the werewolf viewing experience.  The opening scenes of this movie set up the comedy/horror setting so well - two American friends are backpacking through Europe and become lost in the English countryside.  When they're attacked by a werewolf, one is killed, and the other ends up in the hospital for weeks.  David, the survivor, develops a relationship with one of his nurses and moves in with her, but is also tormented by his friend, who is undead until the bloodline of the wolf that bit them is extinguished.  And David is the last of the line...

There's so much to like about American Werewolf in London!  The transformation scenes are the best I've seen in a werewolf movie.  The scene in the pub is a perfect picture of suspicious small towners, a great "Tell 'em Large Marge sent ya'" scene.  The comedy touches are just right.  And the soundtrack!  To this day, I literally can't hear the song "Bad Moon Rising" without thinking of this movie.  It's even got some genuine scares, in the scenes where David dreams.

See this movie.  Or see it again, like I did tonight.  I give it five Slaughtered Lamb Pub signs out of five.

Project Horror, Day 21: The Thing


How have I gone 28 years without seeing The Thing?  Apparently every single one of my friends has, since it was recommended by Kyle, Steve, and Will for this month's line-up.

This was a great movie.

John Carpenter isn't putting out as many movies as he used to, but when he was in his most active years, he turned out some of modern horror's most defining titles.  Prince of Darkness is still a real favorite of mine, and his episode of Masters of Horror ("Cigarette Burns") was my favorite installment of that series.

I included this as the kick-off of my Creepy Creatures block of movies, and it definitely fits that category, but what made this movie truly great for me was not the monster, but the human interactions.  The story centers around a group of men stationed at a remote, isolated Antarctic research station.  Their communications with the outside world have been interrupted for several weeks.  A helicopter from the neighboring Norwegian station comes roaring into their space, piloted by a lone man who is trying to kill a fleeing dog.  It turns out that the dog is host to a creature that can absorb, and then take the form of, any living thing.  As the Thing spreads through the station, the mistrust and paranoia among the crew builds and builds, and this is what made the movie truly interesting for me.

That and the fact that Wilford Brimley is in the cast, and he's not selling oatmeal or diabeetus supplies.  (Yes, I misspelled that on purpose, because that's how he says it.)

My favorite scene is the one that is probably also the movie's most famous one, when the men are testing the blood samples to see which one is contaminated.  Even though I knew how this scene played out, and I knew what was coming, it still got me!  It's a great scene!

I give The Thing five flamethrowers out of five.


Project Horror, Day 20: The Amityville Horror

It's interesting to watch this one day after Paranormal Activity, because they both hit some of the same riffs.  Doors closing on their own?  Check.  Mysteriously swaying chandelier?  Yeah, baby.  Title cards throughout the movie announcing which day of the ordeal it is?  Those, too.  Here's what this movie has that Paranormal Activity doesn't - Margot Kidder in her underwear.  I was always more of a Lois Lane guy than a Princess Leia guy when I was growing up, see.

The first thing I noticed when I watched this is just how iconic the house in the movie has become.  I've never seen this before tonight, but I instantly recognized that exterior.  The movie opens with a shot of the house during a thunderstorm, with gunshots going off inside.  One year after this multiple homicide, a family buys the house and moves in, only to have strange and unpleasant things start happening, gradually becoming worse and worse.  Flies swarm in the middle of winter, strange noises and voices are heard, and the family's personalities begin to change.  This is also the basis for a classic segment of "Treehouse of Horror," Bad Dream House, which I now present to you in Spanish.

Watching this many horror movies in a row has conditioned me to wait for the final sting, that last scene where they get one more jump or scare out of you, or reveal the twist ending.  SPOILERS FOLLOW - In the last scene where James Brolin goes running back into the house to get the family dog after everybody else is out, I fully expected him to die, or the house to get sucked into some nether dimension or something, so the surprise ending for me was that he actually made it out alive.  I guess that if I'd thought it through, and remembered that this movie was based on a (supposedly) true story, I probably would have realized that he got out in one piece.

I'm not giving this a perfect score, for two reasons that I've already mentioned in other reviews.  One - the curse of the bad child actor.  The girl playing the daughter in this movie is just awful and took me out of every scene she was in.  Two - the "cat syndrome."  I mean, there's literally a scene where a character is sitting there and a cat jumps out and screeches at him.  So cliche...  However, those are small quibbles, and this movie still holds up and makes with some good scares.  I give it four axes out of five.


Project Horror, Day 19: Paranormal Activity


These last several days have been very long, busy days.  I almost considered not watching a movie tonight so that I could go to bed a little early, but I have my project before me, and I can't neglect it.  Did Cal Ripken quit in the middle of his streak?  Did Alexander the Great quit when he had conquered only half of the known world?  To join the company of the greats, you've got to power through it sometimes.

Every few years, a movie comes out whose metastory becomes as much a part of its hype as the plot itself.  With Paranormal Activity, as with The Blair Witch Project before it, the story was about how little the movie was made for contrasted with how much it then was bought for or grossed.  When a studio buys the film at a festival or something, the real numbers are a part of the story, but it eventually gets exaggerated to the point where people are talking about how the crew was paid in Bazooka Gum wrappers, and the studio liked the movie so much that they purchased it with ingots of an element so rare it has yet to be named.  Unfortunately, this kind of hype also tends to lead to an eventual backlash, so if you don't see the movie during that initial flush of excitement, it'll either be spoiled for you when you do see it, or somebody will have talked you out of seeing it.  Somehow I've managed to avoid spoilers on Paranormal Activity for the year or so since it's been released, so I went into this one without preconceptions.

The story on this one is classic haunted house.  A young couple lives together, and the boyfriend decides to set up a camera to record what she's been experiencing at nights.  Ever since she was a little girl, she's felt tormented by a dark presence.  He doesn't actually believe he'll get anything on camera, but it turns out he's very wrong.

A weakness many movies of this type have is what I call the "cat syndrome."  There aren't real scares, just quiet moments that are suddenly interrupted by something loud or startling, like a cat screeching out from under a bed.  This movie doesn't fall into that trap, though.  I worried it would when the presence first made itself known by slamming doors, but by the time it had reached the end and things had escalated, I was very impressed.

Can't make this one any longer.  I seriously just fell asleep typing that last paragraph with my finger on the D key, and woke up with like 15 lines of d's.  This was a good movie that literally left me with goosebumps in its final scene.  I give it four camcorders out of five.


Project Horror, Day 18: The Dunwich Horror


There have been many, many screen adaptations of Stephen King's works, but only a handful of good ones - The Shining, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Stand by Me.  Notice how of the five, only two are horror films?  Try as they might, Hollywood just can't seem to adapt King's horror to the screen very well.

Now take H.P. Lovecraft, the great turn-of-the-20th-century horror writer.  As of this writing, IMDB tells me that there have been nearly 100 adaptations of his work, but I've never heard of most of them, and the ones I've seen have been a mixed bag.  Of course Re-Animator is legendary, and there was a decent episode of "Masters of Horror" based on "Dreams in the Witch-House," but Hollywood has just never tackled his best stuff in a successful way.  Lovecraft is probably best known for his stories of the Cthulhu mythos, tales of races so ancient that the very knowledge of them has been lost to time.  Their evil is so vast and so unspeakable that even to know about them is to have your mind shattered.  The closest a movie has come to capturing that kind of evil is Sex and the City.

Still, hope springs eternal, so when I saw this was available on Netflix I thought I'd give it a try.  It  started out pretty strongly, set the scene, aroused the curiosity...  Unfortunately, that didn't last.  The basic plot: Sandra Dee plays a student who becomes romantically involved with the grandson of an occultist who was killed years before.  He tells her about the Old Ones, a scene which was interesting in how it departed from the original story.  In Lovecraft's stories, they're hideous transdimensional beings of fearsome power.  In this movie, they're wild-eyed people wearing smudgy make-up and raggedy tutu-looking things, kind of like Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City.  Once he's shown her the ancient site where fertility rites are practiced, you can pretty much guess what's in store for her.  The one bonus in this?  Seeing a surprisingly buxom Sandra Dee in a dress with a very revealing cut.

My advice if you want Lovecraft on film is to check out In the Mouth of Madness.  It's not actually a Lovecraft story, but it's so clearly based on his stuff that it's a great watch, and it's directed by John Carpenter, so that's all you need to know.  As for The Dunwich Horror, I give it two Shrieking Bradshaw Heads out of five.

Project Horror, Day 17: BubbaHo-Tep


Between the fantastic Let Me In, the pretty solid The House of the Devil, and now this movie, it's been a very good weekend for Project Horror.

BubbaHo-Tep is a movie that the more I tell you about, the sillier it's going to sound, but you just have to take my word for it.  This movie is a blast.  An elderly Elvis lives in a rundown nursing home in east Texas.  He switched places with an impersonator years before to get a taste of freedom, and missed his chance to switch back, and now he spends his days mostly in bed, reflecting on his past glories.  When the residents of the home begin dying, nobody thinks twice about it.  After all, they're old and infirm.  It's for this exact reason that an undead Egyptian mummy is picking them off one by one, subsisting on their souls.  Well, you know that The King isn't going to take that lying down, and he goes into action with the help of another famous resident of the nursing home, JFK.  Oh, you thought he was dead?  That's what they want you to think.  The CIA replaced part of his brain with a sandbag and dyed him black.

I know I already gave you a must-watch recommendation for Let Me In/Let the Right One In, but I'm going to have to give one for BubbaHo-Tep, too.  Guys, Bruce Campbell is seriously one of cinemas most underrated treasures, and I say that without a single trace of irony or sarcasm.  If you cut him, he would bleed pure liquid charisma on you.  His in-character meditations on life took this movie from something merely fun and raised it to a really thoughtful piece of work.  Bonus info about Bruce Campbell - I have always believed that my friend Will looks like him.  Judge for yourself:

On top of Campbell's performance, the score of this movie is fantastic, with lots of slow, twangy guitar, kind of like the music that they played a lot in early episodes of King of the Hill.  One other thing: it's a silly detail, but I absolutely loved that when the mummy speaks, it subtitles him in hieroglyphics that dissolve into English.

You won't regret taking a chance on this movie.  I give it five scarab beetles out of five.

Project Horror, Day 16: The House of the Devil

Tonight begins Project Horror's five days of Occult & Supernatural.  I'm looking forward to this, because of the movies that can still put a chill into me, most of them fall into this category.

My friends Jarrett and Steve recommended this one.  Actually, Jarrett's exact words were, "I watched House of the Devil on Netflix and it was pretty awesome, and it kind of sucked, so take that how you will."  With praise like that, how could I resist?

I'm going to agree with that assessment, actually.  It was a fun movie, but, well... I'll get to that in a minute.  This movie was made just two years ago, but is shot to look like an early '80s horror film - not just the costumes and props, but the actual look of the movie.  It's not some ironic touch like in a Tarantino film, either; it's done in earnest.

The story is that Samantha, a college girl who badly needs money, accepts a babysitting job at a mansion out in the country on the night of a full lunar eclipse.  When she gets there, she finds out that she'll actually be looking after an elderly woman, but needs the money enough that she agrees to stay.  The rest of the movie involves her making strange discoveries in the house, and becoming more frightened.  SPOILER - At the end, she wakes up from being drugged to find herself lashed to a satanic altar as part of a ritual.  I won't give away the ending, but she does escape only for there to be another twist at the end.

As an homage to '80s horror, this was very well done.  It was fun to watch.  My complaint is with the pacing.  The setup worked well, and the end was fine, but it dragged a little in between.  When it reaches the very last scene, you realize that the movie took about an hour and a half to set up what Rosemary's Baby did in one scene that lasted about three minutes.  It's like chartering a bus to take you home from work, but having it go to Mount Rushmore on the way there.  (This analogy does not apply to residents of South Dakota.)

I give it three goat heads out of five.

Project Horror, Day 15: Let the Right One In (Sweden)/Let Me In (USA)


My first double feature of Project Horror!  I got the idea for this one from my friend Tricia, who recommended watching the original Swedish movie Let the Right One In, and then following it with the recent American remake, Let Me In.  I'm going to split this review into two parts, with the original first.

I loved this movie.  Not as a horror movie, not as a vampire movie, but just as a really fantastic story. It's not only the best movie I've watched this month, but one of the best all year.  With half a month left to go in Project Horror, the bar has now been set pretty high!

Let the Right One In is the story of a 12 year old boy named Oskar, who lives in an apartment with his mother.  He's lonely, bullied by other boys at his school, and struggling with his own identity.  When a girl named Eli moves in next door, they begin a tentative friendship which gradually grows more and more important to each of them.  She encourages him to fight back against the bullies, and he finds that she has some similar interests to his.  As their relationship deepens, Oskar learns more about Eli - as she puts it, she's "been 12 for a very long time."

What I loved about this movie was that in spite of the fact that Eli is a vampire, the movie really isn't about that.  It's about the sweetness of the relationship between Oskar and Eli.  There were so many wonderful little touches, as well.  Watch her eyes throughout the movie - although it never calls attention to them, they change based on her moods and needs.  The movie perfectly captures the tone of so many moments.  When Oskar walks home by himself, surrounded by snow drifts, I really felt his loneliness.  When he asked Eli to go steady, I felt just like I did when I was 12 and nursing my first serious crush on A_____ M_____ (name redacted to protect the innocent).  When he was trying to avoid the notice of the bullies, I felt like I did in fifth grade when I was tormented by a horrid little turd named P__ W________ (name redacted because he's probably still a horrid little turd).

I recommend this movie to anybody, even people who don't normally enjoy horror movies.  I give it five Rubik's Cubes out of five.

Tonight was Kids Night Out at church, and Courtney is working overnight at the hospital, so I got the chance to go and watch Let Me In on my own.  Didn't have to share my popcorn and Icee with anybody!  Actually, that's not a good thing, because I bought a large popcorn.  That bucket was bigger than my head.  Have you seen my head?  It's fucking huge!  Ooh, also there was a great preview for a movie coming out in November, called Skyline.

I don't have anything to back this up with, but I think that in cases where you experience copies of the same work, whether it's a remake of a movie or a cover of a song, you generally tend to prefer the one that you were exposed to first.  I won't embarrass anybody by naming names, but somebody close to me still maintains that Motley Crue's "Anarchy in the USA" is a better song than the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK," and I'm pretty sure it's because that's the one he heard first.  All of that is to say that I did slightly prefer the original movie, but I really think that it's because I saw it first, because Let Me In was excellent.

There are some slight differences, but nothing that steers the plot from the original.  In fact, most of the dialog is even the same.  Two differences particularly interested me.  One was that although you do see Owen's (the boy in this movie) mother, you never see her face.  She's an impersonal entity in his life, not involved with him.  The other was in Chloe Moretz's portrayal of Abby (the vampire).  Perhaps it was my imagination, but she seemed to play the character with a more "knowing" personality than the actress in the original.

And let's talk about Chloe Moretz for a minute.  She is fantastic.  Watch for her, because she's got real talent.  I'm hoping she has parents and managers who will steer her more along a Julia Stiles path and not along a Lindsay Lohan one.

Let Me In was really enjoyable.  It would have stood well on its own, but was fun as part of my double feature, too.  I give it five Now & Laters out of five.

This brings us to the end of the Foreign Horror block!  Tomorrow begins five days of the Occult & Supernatural.

Project Horror, Day 14: Mondo Cane (Italy)


For day 4 of our Foreign Horror block, I decided to spend another day in Italy and check out Mondo Cane (A Dog's World), at the recommendation of my friends Eric and Steve.  This movie has two things that distinguish it from the others on my list so far.  It's the first (and only) documentary I'm watching this month, and it was nominated for an Academy Award.  The category was Best Original Song, but that's still more Oscar nominations than the rest of the list has had so far!

Of every movie on the list, I probably went into this one the most unspoiled.  With other movies, even if you only get a two word description of the plot you're still finding out something about it.  For instance, zombie Nazis, schizo Koreans, or sleepwalking murderers.  All that I really knew about this one is that it's a "shockumentary" about bizarre and grotesque occurrences.  I think that I was expecting something along the lines of Faces of Death (which I also haven't seen).

That couldn't have been more wrong.  In fact, I really don't understand why on the categories Netflix used for this movie, they included Italian Horror.  This is not a horror film.  There are a few unpleasant scenes, but the movie as a whole is more of a travelogue of oddities.  Maybe at the time that it was made, some of its content was more shocking or titillating, but now it just seems sort of quaint.  I was reminded of something an anthropology professor told our class on the first day of the semester during my sophomore year: "For the business majors in the room, please don't treat the people that we're going to study as though we're taking a trip to the zoo."  This movie was kind of like taking a trip to the zoo.

Since it was Oscar-nominated for its music, I'll mention that the score was really good.  Also, this made me curious enough to look ahead at the rest of my planned movies - only one other went to the Oscars.  The movie I'll be watching as part of a double feature on Day 29 was nominated for Best Costume Design and won for Best Foreign Language Film.  Do with that what you will, internet sleuths!  Bonus points if you can then tell me what the second movie of the double feature will be.

Mondo Cane - decent documentary, not a horror film.  I give it three dogs out of five.

Project Horror, Day 13: Cannibal Holocaust (Italy)


Here is the dilemma I face when reviewing this movie - on one hand, I'm glad that I've finally seen the infamous Cannibal Holocaust and scratched the itch of curiosity.  On the other hand, I don't know if I'm entirely glad that I have finally seen the infamous Cannibal Holocaust.  I added this one to the line-up at the recommendation of my friend Eric, who was careful to describe it as "excellent in its own way."

If you're aware of this movie, it's probably for one of two reasons.  One is that it uses the same "found footage" technique that The Blair Witch Project used, and received some renewed attention around the time of Blair's release.  The other is that this movie contains some of the most extreme violence ever committed to film, including castration, impalement, infanticide, gang rape, cannibalism (obviously), and unsimulated killings of animals.  It really is not messing around.

And here, for the first time during Project Horror, I have to examine my own motives a little bit.  A friend of mine wrote a really great article a year or two ago, in which he wished that he had never seen pornography.  Not for any moral reasons, and not because he had any sort of addiction, but because of the cumulative effects of it on one's mind.  He wrote about being a kid, and sneaking a peek at a Playboy for the first time, and how just a glimpse of that magazine was enough to fuel his fantasies for months.  He compared that to how now, as an adult, with access to virtually anything he wishes to view at any time, it takes far more to get any kind of reaction from him.  The entry-level stuff just doesn't do it anymore.

I haven't really been scared by a horror film in a long time.  I was lucky to have protective parents when I was growing up, and saw very few until I was even in college.  Movies that my friends had seen ten years before were new to me, and scared the crap out of me!  But as I watched more and more of them, I got hip to the horror movie conventions, and they had less and less effect.  Sure, every now and then I'll jump a little when they pull out one of the stock tricks (like a cat screeching out from under the bed), but I don't go to bed afraid to turn the lights out that night.  Part of why I finally decided to see Cannibal Holocaust was to see if it would have that effect.  Although it didn't, it also made me realize that the purpose of horror isn't always to scare, sometimes it's just to jab you on a visceral level.  On that standard, the movie definitely succeeds.

It is told in flashback - a renowned anthropologist ventures into the Amazon rainforest to find a documentary crew who had ventured there and never returned.  He finds their remains and their film canisters, and takes the film back with him.  The crew was notorious for staging events for maximum drama in their previous works, and that's what he finds as he watches their footage.  Upon arriving at a native village, they immediately force the population into a hut and burn it down, planning to edit it to appear that this was done by a rival tribe.  This is just the first of many, many graphic abuses they heap upon the tribespeople until the inevitable revenge occurs.  The subjects being cannibals, I'm sure you can guess which form the revenge takes.

I'm going to agree with my friend, and say that this movie is excellent in its own way.  It succeeds in being really horrifying, and that's just what it set out to do.  I give it four shrunken heads out of five.

Project Horror, Day 12: Visions of Suffering (Russia)


I really do not recommend that you watch this movie.

What?  I've got to write more than that?  OK...

I was intrigued by the cover and the description of this movie, as well as the fact that it was from Russia.  Aside from Battleship Potemkin, I can't really think of any other Russian movies I've seen, and that one's 85 years old!

Inception was such an interesting movie, all about the nature of dreams, and when I saw that this movie was about somebody gradually pulled further into disturbing dreams and unable to escape, I hoped that it may go someplace interesting, too.  It didn't.

I don't want to paint with too broad and culturally insensitive a brush here, but you know when something is popular in the US, and then you see it surface someplace else in the world a couple of years later, only much lamer?  Kind of like how disco is still a legitimate, non-ironic part of the culture in certain parts of the world?  That is what's wrong with this movie.  It's like the director had a birthday, and somebody gave him iMovie, and somebody else gave him DVDs of every music video that played on MTV from 1981 to 1985.

I feel like I'm not giving out too many positive ratings so far in Project Horror.  I want to!  I just haven't chosen that great a line-up, maybe.  Well, here's hoping the remainder gets better.  In the meantime, I have to give this movie one hypodermic out of five.