Monday, October 31, 2011

Dr. Phibes puts your proprietor to the Test...

Dr. Phibes is in...

...and administering a Halloween horror test through the indispensable continuing ed program run over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. And the questions suggest that he's as queer for Dark Shadows as your proprietor, which is no less than Halloween deserves. ONWARD!

1) Favorite Vincent Price/American International Pictures release.

Gonna go with The Haunted Palace, mainly for the post-production gymnastics the film went through to shoehorn it into Corman's ongoing Poe cycle, and for the joy I had seeing it in San Pedro last month. It is a lovely piece of Lovecraftian cinema, though, and Price is just fine in it.

2) What horror classic (or non-classic) that has not yet been remade would you like to see upgraded for modern audiences?

Though many might argue that it's science fiction, The Incredible Shrinking Man is a dandy horror film. Though I'm extremely wary of the notion of Keenan Ivory Wayans and Eddie Murphy remaking it (as has been threatened for years), I'm not averse to a contemporary take on it. In my mind's cinema it retains the original dialogue (including Grant Williams' achingly gorgeous final monologue), and boasts a new Radiohead score.

Another remake I would like to have seen is the proposed Tim Burton/Lisa Marie remake of Bava's Black Sunday. Marie really should have been the star of one of her lover's films - one of those rare instances where I think intimates should collaborate, considering the amazing work she did in others of his films - but it wasn't meant to be.

3) Jonathan Frid or Thayer David?

The 1795 storyline put me in awe of David's incredible sensitivity. But Barnabas Collins is the fucking Man, so I gotta go with Frid.

Believe it.

4) Name the one horror movie you need to see that has so far eluded you.

I won't count movies I've seen on video but not theatrically (would love to catch up with An American Werewolf in London on film, someday) or films that are famously lost (like London After Midnight). I suppose it's a bit strange that I haven't seen the original Friday the 13th, but I feel greater pangs over having seen so few of the giallo flicks on the incredible list posted on Sound On Sight today.

5) Favorite film director most closely associated with the horror genre.

I gotta go with Dario Argento. The stylization of his best films sends me, and even his worst films are quite watchable. This blog was originally to be called the House of Peacocks, located in Brussels, Belgium, as an homage to the man but I decided to change up the name to give it its own flavor.

6) Ingrid Pitt or Barbara Steele?

No damn contest: Barbara Steele. Black Sunday clinches it alone. Plus her eyes are incredible:

7) Favorite 50’s sci-fi/horror creature.

Next week I intend to buy a lush sushi dinner for my host and watch some of the films featuring this creature, on its birthday. Through all of his iterations, my fondness for Godzilla remains unabated.

8) Favorite/best sequel to an established horror classic.

Whether or not Child's Play is an established horror classic is open to debate, but Bride of Chucky absolutely transcends it. Ronny Yu packs the thing with a cornucopia of fine choices, from the blue lighting to Jennifer Tilly's fetishwear to the deployment of a bubble machine during the transformation sequence.

Of all the Hong Kong expatriates who worked in Hollywood following the 1997 changeover, Yu's output may be the most curious. I very nearly picked his Freddy vs. Jason to answer this question - like Bride, it eschews any attempt at scariness to instead focus on artfully crafting a bloody fantasy.

9) Name a sequel in a horror series which clearly signaled that the once-vital franchise had run out of gas.

My threshold for watchability is very low, i.e. it takes a lot to make me want to write off a franchise. That said, per my previous entry, Halloween: Resurrection is absolutely tedious, and (among many other problems) wastes the talents of a former classmate.

10) John Carradine or Lon Chaney Jr.?

With respect, Carradine.

11) What was the last horror movie you saw in a theater? On DVD or Blu-ray?

As of this writing (executed piecemeal, over several days), Nadja was the last horror movie I saw theatrically. And though it doesn't count as a horror film per se, the "Just A Dream" two-parter from the Justice League cartoon offered some surprisingly-strong-for-Y7-rated imagery, and a beautifully nuanced voice performance by William Atherton as John Dee/Doctor Destiny.

12) Best foreign-language fiend/monster.

Rather than repeat myself, I'll say Kayako/Toshio from the Ju-On/The Grudge series. Each of the films has at least somewhat unsettled me, and I think taken together they're one of the most notable bodies of work in the genre of the last thirty years.

13) Favorite Mario Bava movie.

Oh, goddammit. Shit. Black Sabbath, then, for style, variety, genuine scares, real laughs, and that mind-bending coda.

14) Favorite horror actor and actress.

Lugosi. The aforementioned Steele.

15) Name a great horror director’s least effective movie.

Clearly recognizing that The Card Player is the least of Argento's features didn't keep me from wishing it were the pilot to an ongoing TV series. I also note that I had kind of a fucked up experience with his most recent film, Giallo, put off as I was by the false spoiler in the film's IMDB page. And that tacked-on ending undermines what could have been Argento's most powerful finish.

16) Grayson Hall or Joan Bennett?

Joan Bennett brings class to Collinwood, but there's a scene toward the end of the first Barnabas arc where Julia is beset by low-tech, ghostly visions. It's basically Grayson Hall just riding a fucking crazy train - for ten glorious, unbroken minutes, the only thing you saw on ABC was Grayson Hall losing her shit. I would LOVE to have been in the studio the day that scene was shot.

17) When did you realize that you were a fan of the horror genre? And if you’re not, when did you realize you weren’t?

God, I don't even remember. I'm not sure it was a single epiphany as much as it was a gradual process. I steadily weathered all of the images that schoolmate Yuri Lowenthal savvily collected as the root of our generation's cinematic trauma (specifically: the daughters in The Shining; the clown in Poltergeist; the sister in Twilight Zone: The Movie [see below]; and Ralphie Glick at the window in Salem's Lot) and just gradually developed a taste for it.

18) Favorite Bert I. Gordon (B.I.G.) movie.

It doesn't boast the giant insects/creatures run amok that most people associate with the Gordon oeuvre, but I thought Tormented was a nicely effective little spook show. Plus it had a fun role for Joe Turkel.

19) Name an obscure horror favorite that you wish more people knew about.

I want to share Bigas Luna's film Anguish with everyone, but need them to not read reviews and to just fucking trust me.

20) The Human Centipede-- yes or no?

I'm going to go with "fuck, no." Not because of its disgusting premise, but because it offers no wit or insight along with its gruesomeness. I've said before that if Tom Six was so influenced by David Cronenberg, then how come his films aren't smarter?

21) And while we’re in the neighborhood, is there a horror film you can think of that you felt “went too far”?

I've no desire to see A Serbian Film. Or to link to it.

22) Name a film that is technically outside the horror genre that you might still feel comfortable describing as a horror film.

Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., in addition to being my favorite of his films, gives me the fucking creeps. Norma Desmond is a glorious mess whose plight transcends camp, and her need to take down others with her is nothing short of vampiric. Terrifying.

23) Lara Parker or Kathryn Leigh Scott?

Like'em both, but Scott gets a slight edge. Not sure why.

24) If you’re a horror fan, at some point in your past your dad, grandmother, teacher or some other disgusted figure of authority probably wagged her/his finger at you and said, “Why do you insist on reading/watching all this morbid monster/horror junk?” How did you reply? And if that reply fell short somehow, how would you have liked to have replied?

Mom would give me this too-pointed glare when she didn't approve of something we'd seen together. I just ignored her. I love her dearly, but when she put that glare on, I ignored her.

25) Name the critic or Web site you most enjoy reading on the subject of the horror genre.

The House of Sparrows would not have opened without the abiding influence of Arbogast on Film and Final Girl.

26) Most frightening image you’ve ever taken away from a horror movie.

27) Your favorite memory associated with watching a horror movie.

The applause that busted out in the Castro Theatre the third time she said "Bastard."

28) What would you say is the most important/significant horror movie of the past 20 years (1992-2012)? Why?

The Blair Witch Project. It established a template and a spirit for 21st century, low-budget, off-Hollywood horror. And, after the hype and backlash, it was scary as hell.

29) Favorite Dr. Phibes curse (from either film).

Beasts (from the first film). Phibes kills a guy by shooting a brass unicorn at him from across the street, for crying out loud.

30) You are programming an all-night Halloween horror-thon for your favorite old movie palace. What five movies make up your schedule?

This is the question I'm most eager to read the responses to.

An American Werewolf in London - Because I've never seen it projected.

Phenomena/Creepers (Argento, 1985) - Likewise.

Anguish - Because I want to feel an audience's reaction to the halfway point again.

The House With Laughing Windows - Wanna fatten the program up with a movie I've never seen.

The Sleeping Car - Never saw this either, though its mention in a trailer for a month of horror on Cinemax back in the early 90s intrigued me. So my horror-thon is framed by David Naughton pictures. Clearly he's pleased.

Naturally, this exhibition would be loaded with at least two horror trailers before each film, and short films scattered as entr'actes. Including Peter Tscherkassky's Outer Space.

So that's a wrap on this, right on time for Halloween! How'd I do, Doctor? ...Doctor?

Oh, never mind.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Some extremely random notes on the franchise:

-The first film is simply a masterpiece. John Carpenter had copped to the influence of Howard Hawks with Assault on Precinct 13, and it's interesting to think what Hawks would have made of this assignment. The thing is buoyed by its mythic antagonist, youthful sister-killer turned embodiment of ultimate evil Michael Myers, and as realistic and well-realized as the town of Haddonfield, Illinois feels, it is but a setting for a highly formalistic exercise in suspense. The movie is a well-calibrated tool with the purpose of keeping its audience on edge. More than thirty years on it remains absolutely fresh and involving, and impossible to skip by on television without being absorbed into it anew.

Credit to the two lead performances: Jamie Lee Curtis is a completely relatable heroine, filled with recognizable neuroses. Her reactions to the mounting terror around her are nothing but believable. Laurie's arc grows richer with each viewing: among other things, knowing what she goes through in the final reel gives significant weight to her assurance to her young charge that "I'm not going to let anything happen to you." Believe it.

Donald Pleasance is at the other end of the innocence spectrum, the sole voice of reason and experience that goes under-heeded until it's too late. Though Michael's an imposing and menacing presence throughout, it's the terrified intensity that Pleasance brings to Loomis that makes the threat real. And dig the little arc of Loomis' stakeout of the Myers place - scaring off the kids from behind the shrub, then seconds later getting a scare of his own from the sheriff's hand. Perfectly executed comic miniature.

Add to all of this the film's substantial musical accomplishment (with Carpenter himself providing the most recognizable and insistent horror movie theme this side of Jaws), plus the invaluable contribution of director of photography Dean Cundey (whose work on this immediately catapulted him into prominence) and you've got a pretty terrific little horror film. Given the quality of the film, plus the insane box office it reaped back (after such a minimal investment) during the first years of the franchise era of American filmmaking, it was inevitable that its forumlae would be copied. And that sequels would follow.

-Halloween 2? Not so good. Mired in an unnecessary deepening of the bond between Laurie and Michael, the film is too much a by-rote slasher. One can't help but be a bit disappointed that the movie abandons both the abstraction and the realism of its predecessor to follow the template of its imitators. There's a sense of fatigue, here - even Pleasance, whose pronouncements gave the first film real weight, is just firing them off over his shoulder, like he's trying to get to the pub at the end of the shoot. Perhaps in response to the growing popularity of the Friday the 13th films, a bunch of gore effects were added outside Carpenter's involvement - the film plays a bit better without them. As to the film's invocation of Samhain (and Pleasance's surprising mispronunciation of same), it pretty much captures the movie's overambition (in explaining too much) and half-assedness.

-Halloween 3: Season of The Witch was a GREAT fucking idea, trying to spin the title into a Michael Myers-less franchise of Halloween-related tales, guided by many members of the original creative team (particularly Dean Cundey, and Carpenter himself present as producer and composer). The story of a sinister plot to unleash a pack of Celtic demons upon the world through a toy company's mask promotion is, um, more than a little muddled, but Cundey's gorgeous photography and some spirited performances more than make up for any problems at the plot level. Special mention to Daniel O'Herlihy, who's on the record saying he didn't think much of the material but that he had fun making it anyway. It shows.

-Halloweens 4-6 were quickly ejected by many fans from continuity, but hold up as a watchable (if over-complicated) trilogy of low-rent horror films that nonetheless have their own pleasures.

For one thing, the credits sequence for Halloween 4 is one of my favorite cinematic depictions of autumn:

They're more entertaining than 2, on the whole, and are mainstays on cable television these days. I must admit that when one of them rolls onto television on my nights in, I wind up watching through. The triptych involving Michael's pursuit of a niece (while being pursued, in turn, by Sam Loomis) while a weird cult starts to manifest around him is undemanding but engrossing. Donald Pleasance takes it very seriously, which helps to no end. He clearly felt a bizarre kinship with the series, stating at one point that as long as Michael kept coming back, Sam Loomis would necessarily be there. Halloween 6 was among his final films, and is, sweetly, dedicated to his memory.

-Speaking of which, there's also a strange cult surrounding the producer's cut of Halloween 6. I can't speak to the differences between the versions (though this post has been months in the writing, it was only ever intended to be a quick run-through), though I will say that, despite even this cut being a bit muddled (thanks to the film's insanely troubled creative history) there are a few noteworthy pleasures in 6 that make it more than worthwhile, including an engaging supporting turn as Tommy Doyle by Paul Rudd. Rudd brings a little humor and soul to the kind of resourceful, smart male we really rarely see in slasher films, and the film culminates in a THRILLING fight scene between Tommy and Michael. Directed by Joe Chappelle, before his tenure directing THE WIRE.

--The oddly titled Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, like many horror fans, completely ignored the continuity of Halloweens 4-6 and returned the focus to Laurie Strode, seen struggling as a single parent while working as a teacher at a scenic prep school. Save for the omnipresent theme music, John Carpenter's touch is absent from this film, which has a weird Scream-like pacing and look (the casting of various attractive TV-ready young things doesn't help - Laurie and her high school friends in the first film looked, acted, and FELT like late-70s teenagers). But the movie has some of Scream's verve and wit, as well, with Adam Arkin scoring considerable points as Laurie's lovelorn colleague (the TV edit cuts a hilarious piece of dialogue he has with his students, where he cheerfully matches their wrongness with playful sleaze of his own). The film juices the duality between Laurie and her supernaturally evil brother (a confrontation through a porthole clinches it), and Jamie Lee Curtis plays the final reel like it's fucking Medea or something, stalking her brother through the empty halls of her school, and indeed, her very consciousness.

--The rest of the franchise is sadly pretty crap - Halloween 2 director Rick Rosenthal was brought back to helm the profoundly ill-conceived Halloween: Resurrection, which begins with a well-paced but detestable prologue that dispatches Laurie Strode (and, by natural extension, Jamie Lee Curtis) from the series entirely. As if following the example of fans who have therefore decided to banish the film from memory, the rest of the film strives to be absolutely forgettable, with Michael stalking a group of kids filming their tour of his house as part of an internet reality show you know what just fuck this

--Rob Zombie's reboot of the series doesn't interest me a whole lot. His two films continue to call up the things that I admire about aspects of his style (his knack for capturing a very particular and very lively white trash patois and dialogue) while reminding me of all that I dislike about his style (like putting that particular and lively patois in the mouths of damn near all of his characters). And all that shit with the white horse in his second film was just fucking stupid.

And given that I've been handling this piecemeal for more than a year, I think it's time to just publish the fucker. Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 17, 2011


Today's entry in the annual 31 Screams series at Arbogast on Film enshrines a fabulous reaction shot from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, wherein a lady on the street has a completely understandable reaction to the rampaging creature that has suddenly arrived on the scene:

My favorite moment in any of the Jurassic Park films comes near the end of The Lost World, when a Tyrannosaurus Rex is just kicking around suburban San Diego. It happens before the carnage and the chase, and Spielberg takes a quiet moment to just let us take in the sight of, as Arbo would say, A FUCKING DINOSAUR WALKING DOWN THE STREET. It gives us just enough time to project the creature onto our own hometown, and though it offers enough frisson to juice the chaos of the final reel, it's this minute that lingers.

In describing the end of this film some critics mentioned allusions to Godzilla or even BF20KF, but this moment was more like Dali. For all our CGI and jadedness, a dinosaur walking down the street just isn't something we see every day. It's not the huge, effects-laden climactic moments of these movies that really resonate; it's the quiet ones where the makers take a second to let us reflect that yes, if this were actually happening, it'd truly flip our shit.

Monday, October 3, 2011

love goes to a House on fire

To clarify, the House of Sparrows is alive and well, if a bit quiet.

The real house lived in by your proprietor, however, is otherwise.

Not a pretty sight, and a truly unhappy thing to return home to. My apartment is not one of the ones on fire there - I live deeper inside the building, and my immediate living space was untouched by fire. Water and smoke damage, however, have claimed much that was within my living space (though I was able to get in and quickly retrieve some necessary and/or precious things left within).

I'm fine, as is everyone else who lives in the building (and their pets). An incredible community of friends, neighbors and well-wishers has assembled to support us.

At the moment I am sheltered, clothed, and fed (with adjacent house-sitting gigs lasting thru the end of October). I'm hoping the ball will roll toward a quick resettlement - happily, I live in San Francisco, a renter-friendly town that seems to be working hard to accommodate me and my neighbors.

Just dropping a note here, should you find this House darker and quieter than usual in the coming weeks. I had not wanted things to be this way in the weeks prior to Halloween, but it really wasn't in my hands.

I hope you all are well, and safely ensconced this Halloween season.