Giant Windmill On Fire: ‘Brides of Dracula’ at the drive-in in the Year 2013

In what was surely one of the greatest weekends of my life, I ran out to the parking lot a defiant 5 minutes early to Windex every inch of glass on my car, discard my tie, and don my Frankenstein t-shirt for a long drive to The Riverside Drive-In in Vandergrift, PA. See, it was time for the September edition of Drive-In Super Monster Rama, an event I had been anticipating since… well the April Ghouls edition 5 months earlier, but still!

It was the year 2013, I was newly single after 4 long years, and Peter Cushing would have been celebrating his 100th birthday. So I had nothing better to do from dusk to dawn than join my fellow drive-in sleazo horror compadres watching 8 ghoulish masterpieces headlined by the king of Hammer Horror: Peter Cushing. The bill was (in reverse order): Shock Waves, At the Earth’s Core, Asylum, Madhouse, From Beyond the Grave, Frankenstein Must Be DestroyedFear in the Night, and of course, Brides of Dracula.

Brides of Dracula was the spirited, action-packed, and alluringly atmospheric successor to the all time vampire splatter flick champion, Horror of Dracula. Despite the title, Brides of Dracula features about half a zero of a second of screen time for the namesake Count. No, in this movie Doctor Van Helsing (Cushing) squares off against a sinister Baron Meinster (David Peel) and his beautiful but deadly bloodsucking brides.

What did I learn from this movie? Well, pre-Victorian era doctors had business cards, one can nullify the effects of a vampire bite by splashing it with holy water and branding oneself with a cross, the shape of a cross made by shadow and light can light a vampire up like a Walpurgis bonfire, Yvonne Monlaur was a cutie, and the writer director combo of Terrence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster is a win-win for all.

With its lavish interior set design, moody cemetery scuffles with sanguinary fiends, and truly celebratory climax atop a burning windmill (later borrowed by Tim Burton for his masterpiece reinvention of Sleepy Hollow), Brides of Dracula is not one to be missed. Dare I take the risk of sounding elitist and declare: all true horror fans have already seen it. Well, except the new ones. I guess they can get a pass… for now.

 

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Take Your Momma Home Some Fried Chicken: ‘House of 1,000 Corpses (2003)’

As some may know, I was bitten by the acting bug at the age of 14. No wait, disregard that. Not because the statement in itself is not truthful but because I used that old cliched “acting bug” phrase. That implies a level of excitement I can’t really attach to my decision to run about a stage in tights reciting Shakespeare with my Evil Dead t-shirt carefully concealed beneath my armor. Being bit by the “acting bug” conjures up images of that insanely underrated giant squishy monster epic starring Gunnar Hansen of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Mosquito. Or maybe Ticks, starring a young Seth Green. Suffice it to say, the special kind of Lyme disease those suckers would spread is more likely to cause Macdeath than Macbeth.

I’d prefer to dissociate my experience from all oversize mutant insect passion plays righter here, right now, by admitting it was a rash decision made only to appease my teacher, who was head of the drama department. Oh, and to insure my A+ report card that was rewarded with $5 an A and $3 a B from my folks. Looking back on it, a block class structure that meant 4 classes per semester would have earned me a whopping $20. With no bills that wasn’t half bad. That was decent horror flick money in those days. Like on VHS from K-Mart. Now I’m dating myself.

Speaking of which, one of those movies bought with report card money was Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses. How does that tie back into my acting story? Well, after I got the chance to take classes with a Model and Talent company in Akron, OH, I was selected for participation in the International Model and Talent convention in Los Angeles, CA. All based on the strength of my out-of-the-box rendition of  the Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madman TV ad from House of 1,000 Corpses. That would be the first time, as unlikely as that may seem, that Rob Zombie would be involved in a rather big moment in my life. Not the last. In fact, since I needed a monologue to compete with in LA, I raided the Zombie dialogue chambers once more. I selected Otis Driftwood’s deranged incomprehensible cheerleader tirade from his first appearance in the early part of the film. In an announcement that still shatters my universe to this day, it won me 3rd place. My sitcom competition, with a more polished commercial script provided by the judges, won me 1st place but I was more proud of the monologue. I even told Bill Moseley (Otis) as much when I had a chance to meet him at a horror convention a few years later.

What a great monologue it is too. The plot of House of 1,000 Corpses is pretty much the plot of every other city folks lost in the backwoods flick made between 1973 and 1988, which is to say: said city folks do in fact get lost in the backwoods and rather predictably fall prey to a family of dental hygiene-rejecting Southerners with tomahawks, 38s, hunting knives, and a big deformed sibling with inhuman strength. Got all that? Check. Let’s move on.

The most interesting thing about this movie is it was perhaps the first of that new wave of horror flicks to really come home or embrace the conventions and tropes of the genre thought to have been forever ruined by Wes Craven’s brilliant genre dissection Scream (1996). Rob Zombie was obviously unfazed by the media’s perpetuation of the myth that the slasher era was effectively over. This of course, proved to be a terribly premature assumption, and incredible validation on Zombie’s part, with the massive success of Saw the following year. But Zombie got there first. He proved there was still steam in that old  human skin mask engine, so to speak, and gave us what stands today as the last truly great Texas Chainsaw Massacre ripoff to emerge from the American collective consciousness. A film in all ways superior to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake which debuted the same year.

House was made with admirable conviction. It featured a cast comprised of genre fan favorites (Tom Towles, Karen Black, Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Michael J Pollard, Irwin Keyes, and Dennis Fimple) and a spontaneous creative energy that could have only been generated by the collusion of these over-the-top personalities and a writer/director with a serious love for the genre.

This movie has all the necessary pieces of a beautiful nightmare: women in cages, a psychopathic clown, a freak show tourist trap, bunny suits, pit zombies, a mad doctor, Universal Horror film references, an impromptu hillbilly stand up show, spooky underground tunnels, fried chicken, a slime spewing axe-wielding maniac in goggles, and an eclectic soundtrack featuring The Ramones, Buck Owens, Slim Whitman, and a cover of the classic Commodores tune ‘Brick House’ featuring Lionel Richie, Trina, and Rob Zombie himself. Perfection.

Be sure to look out for future stars Walton Goggins (The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight) and Rainn Wilson (The Office, The Rocker, Super).

The principle cast would return 2 years later for The Devil’s Rejects and then, sadly, Zombie lost his film-making mojo. Okay, you got me, The Haunted World of El Super Beasto was pretty good and The Lords of Salem was well-directed even if the story makes about as much sense as someone allergic to peanuts interviewing for a position at Jif. Those Halloween flicks and 31 though? Well, I’ll save those reviews for another day. Enjoy this masterpiece now. 4/4 Stars.

No Grant Wood Painting on This Pacific Isle: ‘American Gothic (1988)’

Yvonne “Lily Munster” DeCarlo? Rod “On the Waterfront” Steiger? Michael J Pollard of Bonnie and Clyde and Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland fame? Take my money.

Sadly American Gothic seems to reside in the “forgotten gem” chapter of history. Ask any self-respecting slasher or 80s horror film fan if they’ve seen this tasty little bit of backwoods absurdity. I guarantee you the answer is “no.”

The setup’s simple enough. A pack of young folks are stranded on a remote wooded island in the Pacific Northwest and, as is par for the course in this type of flick, some really weird shit starts going down. For starters, there’s an old couple (Steiger and DeCarlo) who dress, speak, and live like it’s 1929. Their daughter, who’s obviously pushing 40, parades around in a little girl’s dress, jumping rope, and rocking her “baby.” A little while later, we meet her older but equally pampered brothers who run around the island playing slightly more violent games.

When the stranded youngins fail to live up to the ludicrous puritanical standards of their unlikely hosts, the family decides to off em.’ Prepare for axe swinging, stitching needle poking, unicorn impaling, rope strangling, and rock splattering. In other words, a fun Friday night.

Maybe the most interesting part of this film is the decidedly flawed, guilt-ridden, and somewhat mentally unstable lead or final girl. A refreshing switch up for a slasher. Slashers, as you known, often find themselves at the center of discussions regarding the cinematic oversimplification of women as either slutty, drunken, privileged princesses or soft, naive, concubine domestic types. This movie understands the gray areas. In this movie, girls are equally wacko. Brought to you by the Coalition of Women for Equal Presence in Psychopathic Epics. 2.5/4 Stars.

Clap for ‘The Wolf Man’

The Wolf Man was Universal Studios’ 6th classic monster to hit the big screen (After Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Bride) and the only one to debut in the 1940s.

Technically, The Wolf Man (1941) was Universal’s 2nd attempt at launching a werewolf-centric project after 1935’s tremendously underrated but financially unsuccessful Werewolf of London. That film was markedly different than what would come 6 years later when George Waggner directed Lon Chaney Jr. to strangle folks in a foggy cemetery.  First off, the makeup on Henry Hull’s creature was rather minimalist. The bushy full face of hair, long claws, and lifted arches of the foot are noticeably absent. The wolf wears a hat and coat (as the prime English canine gentleman he is) and appears to be slightly more aware of both his appearance and the perceived immorality of his blood lust. A bizarre flower, found high in Tibet, is the elixir as opposed to silver, a plot point not introduced into the official Wolf Man canon until House of Frankenstein but definitely implied in the climax of the film when Sir Talbot strikes the beast repeatedly with his wolf’s head cane. Most shocking of all, despite the fact that both monsters appear under the full moon, an actual shot of the full moon is nowhere to be found in The Wolf Man.

The Wolf Man likely succeeded where Werewolf of London failed because the name Lon Chaney was on the marquee, albeit with the suffix “Jr.” Because the film was so successful, the character of Lawrence Talbot would later appear in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the aforementioned House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Werewolf fiction would forever be shadowed by the rules and conventions it established. It built an entirely new mythology, inspired by Eastern European folklore but wholly its own. In fact, it had no literary source from which to draw inspiration at all. The first of the Universal Monsters with no pre-existing source material. Frankenstein was adapted from the original Gothic novel, the brainchild of English novelist Mary Shelley. Dracula was culled from Bram Stoker’s late 19th century novel of the same name and had been first filmed during the German Expressionist period as Nosferatu in 1922. Though without authorization from Bram’s widow I might add. The Invisible Man was first a Victorian novel by the great Science Fiction author H.G. Wells and The Mummy was little more than a remake of Dracula, monsters interchanged.

Today, The Wolf Man stands as the most well-known and beloved werewolf picture of all time and it certainly deserves its reputation. Lawrence Talbot, whom strangely enough has not a hint of an English accent though he supposedly grew up in England and has Claude “The Invisible Man” Rains as a father, is back home to visit when he sets his eyes on the lovely shop owner across the street (played by longtime Chaney collaborator and non-fan Evelyn Ankers). He finally talks her into a walk through the park and, after having his fortune told by an ominous Bela Lugosi , is attacked by a four-legged wolf creature. He beats it to death (It’s body reverting to its human form to reveal the fortune teller as the monster) and escapes. Later he discovers it  was a werewolf that attacked him and now, when the full moon arrives, he too changes and begins to fatally maul people in the woods at night.

First, let’s address a few of the glaring issues with the movie. One, why was Lugosi a four-legged wolf and yet Lon is fully bipedal? Second, why does The Wolf Man strangle his victims as opposed to eviscerating them with his claws and fangs? Wait, I think I can answer that second question. This movie was post-motion picture code! We would have to wait 20 years until Oliver Reed became a bloodthirsty beast in Hammer’s 1961 classic The Curse of the Werewolf before we got to see any actual bloodshed on the wolf front. Then there’s of course the whole, “how the hell does Chaney not have a single hint of an English accent” thing I mentioned earlier.

Maria Ouspenskaya delivers an award-worthy performance as Maleva, the old Gypsy woman and mother of Bela, and Patric Knowles, Ralph Bellamy, and Warren William round out the cast most excellently.

As with all the classic Universal Horror films, it has an unmistakably Gothic atmosphere, filled with droopy trees, gaslight, cobble stone, mountains of fog, and a memorable score courtesy of Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter, and Frank Skinner.

If you’ve never seen the original Wolf Man, do so now. Or you’re forever barred from labeling yourself a horror fan. With all the Twilights and Underworlds of the world, you might be so inclined to think you know werewolf flicks. This is where it all began. 4 out of 4 stars.

 

Does This Skin Make My Butt Look Big: Appreciating ‘The Neon Demon’

When reports started pouring in last spring that disgusted audience members were vacating a screening of Nicolas Winding Refn’s newest neo noir-influenced horror film, The Neon Demon, I vowed I would either have my ass in a theater opening day or dive headfirst, covered in barbecue sauce, into a cannibal tribe’s ceremonial bonfire . A cannibal tribe’s ceremonial bonfire? Until now, I never realized what an apt metaphor for the fashion industry that really is. “How intriguing,” I thought, “An auteur Euro filmmaker using Dario Argento-styled photography and a John Cassavetes eye for social realism to examine the dog eat dog (pun intended) mechanics of the most vapid, anti-feminist, ageist, and intellectually-stunted industry known to the capitalist world.”

Think about it. Women and men alike are judged on a combination of genetic predispositions, good luck, the willpower to skip dessert, and usually, but not always, a financial advantage early in life that affords them the time and flexibility to spend hours padding their Instagram with photos of their abs and kale smoothies. Oh, and a healthy dose of narcissism. Be tall, look good in little clothing, and own the world. Until you hit 30 that is. Yet every single model enters the profession with the youthful delusion of eternal beauty and so few cross the brick wall unscathed. As previously alluded to, it’s an industry that is so incredibly selective, judgmental, and competitive that its risk for self-cannibalizing is 100 times greater than the nearest profession.

Of course, that symbolism was either completely lost upon the general public, deemed uninteresting by it, or audiences just weren’t ready to forgive Only God Forgives.  The Neon Demon was Refn’s least successful film stateside by far. I researched the gross numbers online but I probably didn’t need to because I was one of 3 people (the other 2 being a couple) that were in the theater at an evening showing on opening day.

Why wasn’t the film more successful? It had the lovely magnetic Elle Fanning (don’t tell her big sister but I think she’s the one with the most talent), the always reliable Keanu Reeves, the massively underrated Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks (hot off a much beloved and critically well-reviewed TV series), rising star Abbey Lee, and genre staple Jenna Malone. It had a deliciously eccentric  score composed by frequent Refn collaborator and nephew Julian Winding and an original song composed and performed by mega star Sia. My guess is a combination of bad press from Cannes, a general disinterest in Hard R horror films these days, and a rather nonexistent marketing campaign apart from IMDB. Oh, and the fact that it opened against Finding Dory.

All that said, The Neon Demon is easily one of the top 5 films of 2016 in this humble critic’s mind.

Jess, our lead, is a young gal from the American Midwest who’s found her way to Los Angeles to pursue a modelling career. She lives in a sleazy, rather questionable, motel in a bad part of town, owned and managed by a sleazy and rather questionable Keanu Reeves. She managed to make 2 friends, a slightly older good ol’ boy with a pickup truck, a camera, a love of photography, and an innocent crush and a snappy makeup artist who introduces her to the modeling inside world. Jess soon begins making enemies within the culture as her young and natural beauty is boasted and rewarded by photographers and industry professionals alike, at the expense of jealous models near the end of their sadly short shelf lives. As Jess begins to make enemies of even her friends, she stumbles into an even darker and more sinister layer of her profession where the phrase, “beauty is only skin deep,” takes on a whole new meaning.

Not since Caligula or maybe Eyes Wide Shut  has there been a more tantalizing, unabashedly psycho sexual, and visually stimulating look into the heart of a cult of the flesh. With murder, necrophilia, Suspiria esque color palettes, and a deeply moving use of suspense and well placed beats of depravity that demand the viewer shower immediately, The Neon Demon rolls into the credits having fully proven its bizarre aptitude to inspire glitter and doom in rooms of light and beauty. 4 out of 4 stars.

A Bond Girl in ‘Slaughter High’

The movie Caroline Munro was too old to make but dammit, she made it anyway: Slaughter High.

Every time I watch the naked swirlie scene, I almost convince myself of my theory that her character is just a young teacher that inappropriately hangs with her students and assists them in pulling pranks, toking dirt weed, and bringing maple syrup to the orgy. Alas, there’s been no confirmation of my theory. In fact, unless the gym coach is also a sad loser that encourages his students’ juvenile pranks, my theory can’t be true because he sees her standing in the shower stall where her friends are dunking poor nerdy Marty and doesn’t call her out or report her wildly unprofessional complicity to the upper faculty. Hell, maybe he is. He barely slaps a wrist and has the gall to scold Marty for the incident. Mostly because he’s naked but that was part of the prank of which he was the victim! My theory must be true!

The plot is rather standard for this kind of movie. The aforementioned Marty is the poor recipient of a lot of humiliating pranks and the worst prank of all ends with his disfigurement. Years later the bullies reunite at their old school where the tragedy occurred. The school closed a few years earlier, though in the flashback sequences it already looks suspiciously rundown. Somebody, uninvited, is there to play the ultimate April Fool’s Day prank on the lot of them: murder.

As they begin to suspect after one of the friends dies via the acid that disfigured Marty, Marty’s back. Will he enact his deadly vengeance on every single one of these seemingly reformed assholes? Well, you’ll just have to wait and see, when you watch Slaughter High.

Best slasher flick of 1986? Nope. Not even close. Best slasher flick of 1986 featuring a disfigured killer in a jester hat? Yeah, probably. Nice twist in the end too. 2 out of 4 stars. Oh, and can someone find a relatively clean print of this glorious hunk of celluloid cheese and give it the Blu Ray upgrade?

 

Makin’ Bacon in the ‘Slaughterhouse’

If you need proof of predestination, look no further than Slaughterhouse (1987). It’s the tale of a down-on-his-luck old man with the surname Bacon and his hulking pig-squealing son who are, surprise, in the bacon making business. Well, they were until they lagged behind the times by refusing to mechanize and were forced to board up shop. Now they’re in over their heads in debt to the bank and have 30 days to get off the property.

Understandably, Mr. Bacon is pretty bummed out and after making one last stand against the local authorities, he discovers a more permanent solution to his problem: send your pig-cuddling screws half-loose meat cleaver-wielding boy on a killing spree.  Of course, if you don’t have a pig-cuddling screws half-loose meat cleaver-wielding boy you’d probably be forced to comply with the mandate, but not Mr. Bacon. See, this is a slasher flick. Compliance is no option. You have to figure out how to assign a flimsy motive to murder real quick and get with the head-lopping.

The lighting and cinematography are actually rather impressive for a flick with a budget smaller than both Halloween and Friday the 13th. The acting’s not half bad either and we know that’s rather unusual for an obscure late 1980s horror picture.

As close as I can figure, Slaughterhouse isn’t more well-known only because it arrived toward the end of the fatigued 1980s slasher boom and had but a very limited theatrical release. Which of course meant no one discovered the movie until they accidentally stumbled upon the big box VHS at their local video rental. It’s well worth a rediscovering now.

There’s only 1 “stupid moment.” If you’re not too sure what constitutes a stupid moment, let me enlighten you. It’s the moment in just about every slasher flick where you find yourself yelling at the screen because an impending victim does something so incomprehensibly stupid, you want to take the meat cleaver from the killer and get the job done yourself. In this one, a girl gets out of her car, walks 10 feet, sees the killer, and runs back to her car. Logic would follow that she’d lock the door, which she does, and then drive away. Which she doesn’t. She waits for the murderer to smash in the windows with a big rock then crawls out of the passenger side door and runs into an inescapable deathtrap tailor-made for the killer. She was just driving the car three seconds ago! What the hell happened to her keys? Oh, and was Michael Bay and Sheldon Turner watching this flick when they wrote the script to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning? You’ll see what I mean when you get to the final act.

Enough of my babbling. 3 out of 4 stars. Make a BLT, flip this on, and watch the Bacons make some serious bacon.

Dive into ‘The Pool (2001)’

According to cdc.gov, over 3,500 people were fatally, and unintentionally, drowned between 2005 and 2014. I stress “unintentionally,” because one has to wonder just how many people died in pools, during that same recorded span of time, via machete-wielding maniac under the water slide. My guess: millions.

Of course, there’s only one movie I know of that had the guts to address that disturbingly omitted statistic. Yes, I’m of course talking about that classic German teenage slice-and-dice, The Pool.

The Pool! The Pool! The Pooooool! It just sounds so damn ominous. A pool of blood? A pool of snakes? A pool of tears? Nope, just the old rec center chlorine pit where all the aged members of the floatie brigade and the hairless Michael Phelps wannabes go to practice the art of submersion. Only on this particular night, a bunch of hormonal college grads have it all to themselves, where they’ll indulge in a Tijuana cocktail of booze-fueled aggression, risky sex, and machetes to the groin. See there’s one uninvited guest who’s obviously pissed off that his invitation got lost in the mail, so he’s thrown on a skull mask and invited himself.

The most fun one can have with this movie is playing the “hey I know that guy” game. The cast includes James McAvoy (X-Men First Class, Split), Isla Fisher (Confessions of a Shopaholic, Hot Rod, and real life wife of Borat), and Jan Vlasak (who of course made us all incredibly uncomfortable as the touchy-feely German businessman turned serial killer in Eli Roth’s sophomore opus Hostel).

Anyway, despite some shaky dialogue delivered by actors to whom English is not their native language early in the film and the anger you’re sure to feel as 4 healthy young males find it exceedingly difficult to climb into a ventilation chute no more than 6 feet off the ground, the flick keeps you pretty entertained. The killer obviously sat in the front of the class when Jason Voorhees was hosting a surprise lecture on machete-swinging and he’s got a bit of Chucky’s relentlessness when it comes to taking incredible abuse and continuing his bloody rampage like the boss of a killer he is. There’s some brief but noteworthy T&A for all the immature adolescents who intend to chapter bounce or fast forward through the film. With that said, it’s safe to say The Pool delivers all the tropes and tribulations you’ve come to expect from the slasher sub genre. However, I can’t help but think our murderer would’ve been a little more productive without clunky buckled motorcycle boots and leather pants. I mean, his killing ground is, after all, a pool. Not a great choice in swimming attire Skull Face. 2.5 out of 4 stars.

 

A Night at The ‘Opera (1987)’

If there’s one thing worse than genital torture, it’s… well, okay, nothing’s worse than that. Eye torture is definitely a close second though! Dario Argento’s 1987 deconstruction of the classical theatre actor, features loads of it.

See (Pun intended) our heroine of the flick is this young attractive twenty-something named Betty, who’s just landed the most-coveted (and reputably tragedy-stricken) role of Lady Macbeth. Of course someone, maybe a fan, decides to congratulate her by tying her up at night, putting a row of sharp needles under her bottom eyelashes (that will poke her eyes if she dares to close them), and forcing her to watch as he brutally murders other members of the cast and crew. In other words, classic Argento.

If crow eyeball-pecking, scissor tracheotomies, and arson aren’t your thing: run far away from this tasty piece of cinema. Let me break my objective vow for a moment and say, this is, without a doubt, my favorite Italian horror flick of the 1980s. 4 out of 4 stars.