Horror. Worldview. Faith.

Hell Night – Review

Hell Night – Review

Oct 14, 2012

reviewed by Danny
directed by Tom DeSimone, 1981

The main reason I sought out Hell Night when it was first released was the presence of lead actress Linda Blair.  As ridiculous and horrible as John Boorman’s Exorcist II was, it was good enough to give teenage me a huge crush on Ms. Blair.  I still remember stumbling across the VHS release of Hell Night in the little video store that provided me with most of my cult cinema.  The lurid cover with a painting of the cleavage-showing Blair being dragged off a gothic metal gate by a pair of monstrous hands nearly leaped off the shelves and into my stack of weekend rentals.  Though I watched it often during the 80’s after securing my own copy, I hadn’t seen Hell Night in nearly twenty years when I noticed that it is one of the horror films available for streaming on Hulu.  That, plus the fact that I had dedicated myself to reviewing a coffin-load of films during October, lead me to re-visit this old favorite of mine to see how well it had aged.

Hell Night was one of the slasher films that took advantage of the hunger for the genre generated by the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th,, but the set up for the film is straight out of the earlier horror-film tradition of the haunted-house flick.  Those films often involved a group of people convinced to spend a night in a house with an evil history for a big reward.  Here, four co-eds who are pledging a brother/sister fraternity and sorority are forced to stay in a mansion where a man, supposedly, killed himself after being unable to cope with a multitude of deformed, damaged children.  The prize for staying: membership in the respective Greek houses.  I, for one, would much rather have the cash prizes at the heart of most of these haunted-house flicks.

Our four co-eds are cut from familiar cloth: slut, jock, virgin (Blair), and nice guy.  Added to the potential victim list are the heads of the sorority and fraternity and the fraternity leader’s lapdog.  Of course, the idea is to scare the co-eds.  Also, of course, real threats soon reveal themselves.

It is hard to argue that Hell Night is a standout from the period or even that it is particularly good or original in any way.  Still, even stripped of my nostalgia for the early days of the genre (slashers, not horror), Hell Night is an enjoyable experience.  It has the giddy ultra-violent deaths that are the signature convention of the sub-genre, and they are done pretty well with glorious old-school technical trickery (I think I’ve seen too many digital ghosts lately).  I particularly like the film’s version of the Godfather’s horse head in the bed scene, and the chase through the tunnels under the house is claustrophobic and  convincing.

None of the leads stands out, though Blair exudes a kind of amused indifference during most of the scenes that says she knows that the film isn’t great but she’s enjoying the ride.  I also enjoyed the scenery-chewing, no-holds-barred performance of Vincent Van Patten.  His flip-out when he comes back to the room and finds a decapitated head in his bed is simply the most realistic reaction I’ve even seen in a horror film (Well, maybe second to Bill Paxton’s Hudson in Aliens).

I think fans of slasher films and pre-ironic horror will find a lot to like in Hell Night.  If I was making a list of the top 100 horror films of the 1980’s, it likely wouldn’t make the list, but it would be high up on the list of the films from the period that I enjoyed despite their flaws.  Let’s call it one of my guilty pleasures.

Deranged – Review

Deranged – Review

Oct 4, 2012

reviewed by Hallo
directed by Alan Ormsby and Jeff Gillen, 1974

Deranged is a mostly forgotten 1974 psychological horror film based on the life of legendary serial killer Ed Gein. The movie follows the life of Ezra Cobb (a great name) who must deal with the pending death of his Christian fundamentalist mother who has raised him to hate women. Soon after her death, Cobb becomes convinced she is still alive and subsequently digs up her corpse, places her back in her bedroom, and goes on with life as usual. Well, maybe not as usual because apparently the grief of her death followed by the delusion of her coming back to life made Ezra snap into, well, a deranged lunatic. He begins digging up other corpses to place in various parts of the house and when that no longer satisfies his needs, he goes looking for young women.

This little movie has several interesting tie-ins with iconic horror names. First, the movie was released in February of 1974, the same year the superior film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released. Perhaps surprisingly, TCM was released in October of that year. Most who see Deranged will assume it heavily borrowed from TCM in much of its imagery and content, but both films were operating independently of the other and were released in the same year. It seems that 1974 was the year to begin the “Ed Gein” inspiration for serial killers in horror films. To be fair, Hitchcock started the “Gein” revolution in his 1960 classic Psycho, but since 1974 virtually every horror movie that chronicles the life of a serial killer cites Ed Gein as the influence behind the madness. Deranged is probably the movie among them all which most accurately depicts the historical Gein.

Second, the make-up effects and the corpses were created by a very young Tom Savini, a name that is synonymous with horror. Savini, of course, is famous for his work on the Dead trilogy and Friday the 13th. Although this is fairly primitive work compared to what we have become accustomed to from Savini, the effects are nevertheless effective and at times disturbing.

Third, Deranged was co-directed by Alan Ormsby, a name that is sadly unfamiliar to many horror fans. Ormsby was the lead actor and writer for the 1972 cult film Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things. Ormsby has had success outside of the horror genre as well, co-writing the script for The Substitute in 1996 which launched a successful series.

Fourth, this film is worth watching for the performance of Roberts Blossom as Ezra Cobb. Most folks will know Blossom for his creepy little role in Home Alone, but I always think of him as the preacher from the Sam Raimi directed The Quick and the Dead. Blossom not only looks like the historical Gein but perfectly captures the balance between a delicate, harmless, lonely man and a brutal, sadistic killer. Although TCM is a much better film than Deranged in many key areas, the only thing lacking from TCM is a true “Gein” character. Blossom nails it.

Deranged is a horror movie that must be watched and appreciated with its historical context in mind. Although the images and atmosphere of the film are still unsettling today, the content being presented to viewers in 1974 would have been breath-taking. The movie moves along slowly at times, something that is not a good thing with a running time of only 82 minutes. Yet, the realism of a mid-western boy and his mommy who know nothing of life but each other creates a chill that lasts from beginning to end. Deranged is a good movie for horror fans who can appreciate patiently waiting for the visual pay-off while enjoying a beautiful performance from a talented actor. It is recommended as an important and well-done period piece.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil – Review

Tucker and Dale vs Evil – Review

Feb 2, 2012

reviewed by Danny
directed by Eli Craig, 2010

It’s possible I have said this so much it is becoming my mantra, but horror comedies are a very difficult thing to pull off.  To do it well, the director and writer have to mock convention while maintaining a reverence for what is good in the genre.  Well, at least that is what I’m looking for.  It is why the original Piranha worked for me and the sequel not as much.  And, it is the reason stuff like the Scary Movie franchise are anathema to me.  When I got a hardy recommendation of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil from two horror-movie-fanatic friends, I knew that the film likely got the mix of comedy and horror right.  Turns out, they were right.  Tucker and Dale is horror-comedy done right, and it is the best slasher film parody to date (sorry, Student Bodies and Pandemonium).

Tucker and Dale plays on two slasher film sub-types, the killer hillbillies and teenager campout.  Both of those sub-types are ripe for parody, and Tucker and Dale does a good job getting right to it as we are introduced to the titular characters, the two nicest rednecks your ever likely to meet.  Tucker, played by the always great Alan Tudyck,  has just bought himself a vacation home, and he has brought his best bud, Dale (Tyler Labine) with him to help with the “fixer-upper.”  We simultaneously are introduced to a group of college kids on their way to camp out.  This group, led by the arrogant Chad (genre regular Jesse Moss, who, if his career doesn’t quite work out, can already probably survive on the horror convention circuit for the rest of his life).  Dale immediately takes a liking to the beautiful Allison (30 Rock’s Cerie).  In what will go down as one of the most awkward cute-meets in film history, Dale manages to cement in the student’s minds that country-folk are strange and dangerous.  The rest of the plot and humor of the film is based on that misconception as the redneck and college-kid paths continue to cross coincidentally.

The sight gags and specific deaths in Tucker and Dale are too good to spoil.  Suffice it to say that in an effort to escape the “killer” rednecks, the college kids manage to kill themselves in an escalating variety of ridiculous ways.  Just when it is all getting too ridiculous, the film reveals that there is a crazy killer in the mix, and the remainder of the film flips the ratio to eighty percent horror, twenty percent comedy.  There is a real threat in the denouement and our main characters take some real punishment.  I wasn’t expecting the tonal shift, and it was a pleasant surprise.

In the end, Tucker and Dale succeeds because of its tone and some great performances by the four main characters.  Tyler Labine and Jesse Moss are especially good here, with one playing it straight and the other in full scenery-chewing mode.  I highly recommend the film for horror buffs who can tolerate a bit of mockery (and I know not all of us can).

Maniac – Review

Maniac – Review

Nov 25, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by William Lustig, 1980

In their initial meeting about the film, director William Lustig instructed actress and the film’s protagonist Caroline Munro to “watch Halloween. . .this is how movies are being made now.”  Such a directorial instruction leaves little doubt to the film’s intentions and design.  And yet Maniac offers something quite different than its Halloween predecessor.

This 1980 slasher/splatter film is follows the life of Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) who is a lonely landlord and demented psychopathic killer.  His small apartment is furnished with mannequins who are adorned with real human hair from Zito’s female victims.  We learn that Frank has a serious problem with women and is unable to be around a female too long without going into a rage and killing her.  After the death, he scalps his victim and take their hair back to his place as a token of his accomplishment.  As the film progresses, we learn that Frank was physically abused by his prostitute mother and he is unable to ultimately discern between her face and the face of his victims.  In a rather chilling climatic scene, Frank hallucinates and believes all the mannequins in his apartment are coming to life to kill him.  The police find him dead the next morning.

On the surface, Maniac seems like a cheap, cheesy, typical 80’s slasher flick.  I suppose in some ways it lives up to that assessment.  But there is more to this movie than meets the eye.  First Joe Spinell delivers a weighty and memorable performance as Frank Zito.  The American-Italian demeanor works perfectly for this troubled soul who lives in the heart of New York City.  There are a couple of memorable scenes where Frank is describing his troubled childhood and they come across as sincere and truly motivational.  Unlike Halloween, we not only get to see what causes Frank to kill, but we grasp a sense of the darkest of human conditions; not being loved.  When Frank meets Anna (Caroline Munro) we see a different side of the serial killer and have momentary hope that things will change.  Those hopes are crushed as we watch Frank slip deeper and deeper into his psychosis.

The movie is also memorable for its gore.  One scene in particular portrays what is perhaps one of the most realistic and graphic deaths I have seen in horror.  It is the infamous “disco boy” death where a young Tom Savini gets his head blown off inside a car.  Frank jumps on the hood, points a shotgun through the windshield, and pulls the trigger.  It really has to be seen to be believed, the realism is simply incredible.

Although Maniac has moments of slowly moving along with the story, the psychological element of Frank mixed with some beautiful gore effects makes this a slasher film worth viewing.  I have heard rumors of a remake (big surprise) and will be interested to see how the actor who plays Frank (perhaps Elijah Wood?) deals with the delicate character of Frank Zito.

The Strangers – Review

The Strangers – Review

Aug 16, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Bryan Bertino, 2008

The Strangers is a 2008 “home invasion” movie starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman.  After turning down a marriage proposal, Kristen (Tyler) accompanies a distressed James (Speedman) back to an isolated house where he had earlier decorated with an abundance of rose petals anticipating a “yes” to the big question.  Why they thought it would be a good idea to follow through with a plan to spend a weekend in the middle of nowhere together after such an alarming denial to marriage is beyond me.  But, they finally arrive at the house.  When James heads back out to pick Kristen up some cigarettes at 4 in the morning (really?), she is visited by three weird strangers and the terror begins.  They torment her, toy with her, and give up endless opportunities to kill just to keep up the fun.  James returns from the store and the rest of the movie is them trying to keep their sanity and their lives.  The movie ends with the couple finally being tied up in a couple of chairs, stabbed a few times, and then killed.

If my above summary of the film lacked any kind of gusto, it is because I found the movie to be dull, slow, and pointless.  The strangers just draw out their torment of the couple for way too long.  About 15 times throughout the film, there will be a “stranger” behind Kristen, easily ready to kill her, tie her up, slap her, poke her in the eye, or anything, but instead they decide to run away, disappear, and then reappear for a similar “scare.”  It just gets repetitive really fast.  The direction was good, but the couple just does too many silly things.  For example, they receive perfect cell phone service in the house (which was refreshing, the writers didn’t opt for the “no service” angle), but their cell phone dies.  Not to worry, Kristen has a charger!  But for some inexplicable reason, when she plugs the charger into the phone and into an outlet, she doesn’t turn it on to make the call!  It is as if she doesn’t realize that cell phones operate just fine while they are plugged in and charging.  Little thing like that add up to a fairly high annoyance level.  The pay off isn’t a pay off at all and the ending leaves us scratching our heads – did we really just watch 1 hour of senseless “teasing” for a lifeless, emotionless finish?  Yes.  Yes we did.

Unless you are just a die-hard home invasion freak, this one is very much avoidable.  Not terrible, but not good.

Scream – Review

Scream – Review

May 1, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by Wes Craven, 1996

Note to the Readers:  Scream is nearly fifteen years old and is one of horror’s most recognizable films, so I likely don’t need to say that the review is full of spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film, but I will do it anyway.  Attention:  SPOILERS AHEAD.  APPROACH WITH CAUTION

With the release of Scream 4, I began to become a bit nostalgic for the original trilogy.  I’ve been wondering a lot lately about the effect of time on my perception of the films I have always thought of as genre classics.  I’ve revisited a number of them recently, and while most hold up, many are starting to either show their age or reveal themselves to be less in reality than they were in my memory.  With that in mind, I loaded up the Wes Craven’s original Scream to see how it had held up.  Scream was released in 1996 to widespread acclaim and commercial success.  It left in its wake a mini-explosion of self-referential horror films that featured a lack of quality, shallow understanding of the genre, and dearth of originality. Those films have, unfortunately, tarnished the reputation of Craven’s classic.  Despite its less-than-inspiring progeny, re-watching Scream reveals a film that clearly deserved its original reception.

Scream‘s opening sequence is iconic.  It is one of the most famous opening scenes in horror and the years have done nothing to dim its luster.  The taunting, stalking, and eventual murder of Casey is tense, visceral and disturbing.  We learn quickly that Scream’s killer isn’t the silent, demonic archetype spun off of Halloween’s Mike Meyers and Friday the 13th Part Two’s Jason Vorhees.  The film will get around to recognizing and, to an extent, parodying those films, but in this opening shows a a killer who is smart, talkative, and undeniably cruel.  Had the rest of Scream been awful, this opening sequence would still be considered legendary.  It is just that good.

After that opening, the rest of the film is bound to be a bit of a letdown.  Few films are capable of maintaining that level of suspense for their entire running time.  Scream doesn’t quite pull it off either, but it comes surprisingly close.  The standard exposition reveals a group of only barely likeable characters and our protagonist, Sidney.  Sidney is very likeable.  Despite having lost her mother to a brutal murder and going through the turmoil of a highly publicized trial, Sidney remains grounded and, we will learn, resilient.  Her friends are a different story.  The script by Kevin Williamson gives all the characters very funny things to say and for the most part the actors handle the comedy and the drama well, but not a single character in the film talks or behaves like an actual teenagers—which was likely intentional on the part of Craven and Williamson.  In fact, other than Sidney and her goofy brother, Dewey, none of Scream’s characters seem like real people at all.  They all seem like movie characters.  This would ruin the film’s ability to invoke suspense and horror if not for the fact the Sidney feels real and, surrounded by jerks, remains someone we can root for throughout.

The above thoughts might make a reader think that I disliked Scream’s script. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Fifteen years ago, I loved the one-liners, the subtle spoofing of genre conventions, and the twisty plot.  I still love it all today.  The writing is undoubtedly vastly better than we normally get in genre films.  If it were released for the first time today, I think it would find the same level of success and cultural impact that it had fifteen years earlier.  I just can’t help but feel that Williamson and Craven traded some of the potential impact of the film’s plot for a smarter-than-thou attitude that is both the films legacy and its weakness.

Certainly much has been said about the film’s final plot twist.  It is hard to remember if I had it all figured out back in the day, but I think Craven did an excellent job keeping the audience vacillating back and forth between potential killers.  It wouldn’t have been a surprise at all if either Billy or Stuart were revealed as the killer at the end of the film.  The fact that they were working together and, at least Stuart, had a real, emotional reason for his hatred of Sidney, was effective, if not truly surprising.

Scream manages to keep its status as a classic by virtue of talented artists who are on top of their game.  Williamson’s script is remarkable.  The core of actors, especially Campbell, Lilliard, and Ulrich, are outstanding.  Finally, Craven’s direction from the  iconic opening through to the equally iconic ending is masterful.  I’m pretty confident that if I were to visit the film once again in another decade, I’d find that these elements had continued to age well.

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