Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Short-short horror: The Lake

The road ended at the lake edge, descending into the water with no other demarcation or indication that it ended. A speed limit sign was sticking out of the water about fifteen feet from shore. It read "40 MPH."

The Sheriff got out of the car, but she left the key in and the dinging noise grated on Simmons' headache. "Come on," she said, and started walking down the slope toward the water. Simmons didn't want to get out into the drizzle, but it was that or sit in the car with that horrific noise dinging away at his calm like a chisel.

The Sheriff stopped at the waters edge, her hands on her belt, looking out over the water. She might have been looking at the mountain, almost completely obscured in the mist. She might have been looking at a loon. Simmons could hear one calling, though he couldn't locate the bird on the lake. She might have been looking at ghosts, for all Simmons knew or cared. The drizzle was already dripping from his hair into his face, running down his cheeks. It felt like tears.

He stepped up next to the Sheriff and wiped his face. He could see the surface of the road continued on beneath the water, descending into the depths until only the orange double line was visible - and then even that disappeared. "Water level pretty high?"

The Sheriff laughed, a short, sharp thing, almost a bark. "Yeah, yeah you could say that."

He sighed. He hated this place. Hated the dark trees, the almost constant rain, the food - everything. Mostly, though, he hated the feeling like he was always on the outside of the joke, that he was doomed to the isolation of the outsider. He'd had enough of that growing up and had hoped that in his adult life he'd put it behind him. Instead it had gotten worse - adults were just a lot less honest about it.

"So why the hell am I here, Sheriff? Why did you drag me out into the middle of nowhere? Hell this is the middle of the middle of nowhere. I know you didn't want to show me some scenic lake in the rain." He tried to keep his voice flat and devoid of the frustration and anger that were bubbling up. He couldn't afford to antagonize her again.

"Actually, I did want to show you the lake. You remember the map I showed you?" She didn't look at him, which he took as a bad sign.

"Yeah, vaguely." He had only given the map a cursory glance - topographical maps all looked like random swirls to him. He couldn't make them coalesce into any meaningful data in his mind.

The Sheriff pointed out onto the surface of the lake. A line of harder rain was sweeping across the surface, heading their way. Simmons turned up his collar. "That's Rt. 135. It went down into a valley between Chisek Mountain and Gorham Mountain. Around here we called it Sleepy Hollow, after the Irving story. The road went through the town of Starling, basically a wide spot between the road and the river. Maybe 400 people live there. Lived there."

Simmons looked back at the car. The driver side door was still open, but he couldn't hear dinging noise. The headlights were a bright blur in the mist. He looked back to where the road disappeared into the water. "How the hell do you get to Starling?"

The Sheriff drew in a breath. "I guess if you kept driving down the road you'd get there eventually." She pointed further out into the lake. "It's out there somewhere, under a couple of hundred feet of water."

"Oh, oh - like that town in Maine, what was it?" Simmons snapped his fingers a couple of times. "Flagstaff? Yeah, Flagstaff. They built a dam and flooded the whole town. Took months, but they relocated everybody."

"Yeah, like that. Only there isn't a dam here. And the valley wasn't flooded yesterday."

Simmons turned to her, but she still wouldn't look directly at him. The rain started to fall in earnest.

The pic is from the photographer Jason Sexton. You can see his work at http://www.jasonsextonphotography.com/

Friday, September 26, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: The Thing (1982)

The Thing (1982)
"I'm a real light sleeper, Childs."

Great horror movie, or greatest horror movie? 

John Carpenter's 'remake' of The Thing is constantly in my top 10 movies list. Honestly, it rarely moves out of the top 5 and is usually fighting for the top spot with Bride of Frankenstein. It's one of those movies that's become almost comfort food - a movie I can pop in at any time and enjoy. I watch it at least once a year - usually in the winter, when the cold, isolation and snow can really set the mood. (I understand it's a yearly tradition at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station as well.)

"Let's watch The Thing again, before the sun goes down for 6 freakin' months."

My interest in The Thing goes back to 1976 and a comic book series called Starstream. Whitman, an imprint of Western Publishing, decided to take advantage of the burgeoning interest in science fiction by publishing adaptations of some classic sci-fi stories. My grandparents were big Star Trek fans and I'm fairly sure the issues of Starstream I ended up with were probably gifts from them (as were some of the great Gold Key Star Trek compendiums).

Anyway, the very first issue had an adaptation of the classic John W. Campbell story "Who Goes There?" With art by Jack Abel the adaptation was better than average and the monster - with those tentacles and three glowing red eyes - really made an impression on my young self. You can take a look at the adaptation yourself at Diversions of the Groovy Kind: http://diversionsofthegroovykind.blogspot.com/2011/02/science-fiction-theater-who-goes-there.html

I was made aware of John Carpenter's adaptation the same way I found out about most horror movies in the late 1970's and early 1980's - via my friend John's occasional Fangoria issues. Rob Bottin's special effects lived in the space behind my eyelids for a long time before I got to see the finished product. The effect of the two heads melding together made a particular impression.

Oh hey, nightmare fuel, how have you been? Still terrifying?

I must have first seen the movie on HBO, as I remember the gore was not in any way expurgated. Once it was released on VHS it became a regular viewing staple with both my family and friends - forming one of a trilogy of movies we called 'blue lighting movies' (the others were Terminator and Aliens). It was a go-to rental if nothing else was tickling our fancy.

It's also one of the few gory horror movies that my wife likes. Her tastes generally run closer to The Sound of Music and Pride & Prejudice - period dramas and romances, generally. However, she will occasionally surprise me with her enjoyment of things more... well, gory. She loves Night of the Living Dead, for instance. And she loves The Thing. Yeah, she's a keeper.

The Medium
I own The Thing on DVD, but my preferred viewing experience is actually the HD-DVD version. Yes, I'm one of those fools. I have an HD-DVD player that was actually an XBOX 360 peripheral, and I got it pretty darn cheap. So, yeah, I have the thing on HD-DVD. It looks great and has a ton of extras. At some point I'll probably pick up a Blu-ray copy, but not yet.

The Movie
A group of men stationed at a remote research base in Antarctica that find themselves assaulted by a group of Norwegians who are chasing a sled dog across the ice. The Norwegians are killed and the dog is assimilated into camp while a pilot, MacReady, and a doctor, Copper, go to the Norwegian base to find out what happened and offer help if they can. They find a base burned to the ground, all the scientists dead. 

So this is what happens when your research grant is denied.

Returning from the camp with video tapes, papers, and a bizarre half-burned corpse, the men learn that the Norwegians found a spaceship buried in the ice, as well as something else.

Unfortunately for them, this something else is a creature from another world. A creature that can look and act exactly like any living thing. And it's already been in their camp for hours...

For me, this is Carpenter's best movie. By a mile. I enjoy a lot of his films, but this one feels like it's the most realized, the most complete. It was his first studio movie, and I think the budget and schedule really allowed him to do his best work. He had 3 months for principal photography alone - compare that to just 30 days for Prince of Darkness.

Everything just clicks. The cinematography is excellent and Carpenter's use of a roaming camera for interior shots emphasizes the claustrophobia. The music is by Ennio Morricone, one of the rare times Carpenter didn't score a film himself. It's full of moody, downbeat moments and Carpenter-esque electronic notes.  It's one of the few film soundtracks I own. The acting is uniformly excellent, each character given enough moments to sketch them out without being caricatures or fading into the background (an issue I had with the recent prequel). 
"I can't tell any of these Norwegians apart."

Of course the special effects are amazing - even now they stand out as inventive, believable (for the most part) and stomach churning. The effects are probably part of the reason for the lukewarm reception the film received upon release - they're a little too realistic. Now - after shows like the X-Files gave us fairly graphic autopsies and fluke-men - they're not so bad, but at the time people must have felt like they were being punched in the gut.

The biggest part of the movie for me, the reason I keep coming back to it, is the sense of creeping paranoia. None of us know - really know - what another person is thinking. We're all locked inside our skulls. That leads to plenty of misunderstandings and paranoia even when we know the other people we're with are human. Add the possibility that one or more of the people in your group is a monster, a monster that can take you over as well? Those screws get turned pretty fast and pretty tight.

Remember yesterday when we just had to worry about Nauls' cooking? Yeah, good times.

To me, the creepiest moment in the entire film is the moment when Mac goes to the storage shed to ask Blair - a man who realized before anyone else the danger they were all in - if he's seen a missing man (Fuchs). Blair has been isolated from the others after an outburst where he destroyed the copter controls and the radio to prevent the Thing from making it to the mainland. Blair, played extremely well by Wilford Brimley, asserts that "it's not Fuchs." And then: "I'm all right now. I want to come back inside."

And you know he's not Blair any more.

The movie was dinged at the time for its bleak, nihilistic ending. Two characters sit in the ruins of the camp as the fires begin to die. Either of them could be the Thing. Or neither. Fade to black. I think it's genius, as even at the very end we still don't know - there's no release from the paranoia for us.

The Bottom Line
How much do I love John Carpenter’s The Thing? As a useless theater student I once tried to adapt it as a stage play. I even worked out the fire effects for ‘theater in the round.’ I never got around to showing it to anyone – and that’s probably for the best. Hey, at least it wasn’t a musical.

"You gotta be f&*%ing kidding, kidding, kidding. And jazz hands!"

I actually find it difficult to write anything about the film in detail. It's such a part of my internal film landscape that I don't think of it in concrete terms any more. It's all about mood and visuals and music. And that creepy feeling that comes up on me sometimes when I'm walking the aisles at WalMart, looking at the people walking by. If they were imitations - perfect imitations? How would I know?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Short-short horror: The Island

I remember the first time I saw the island - or didn't see it, actually. The sky at the airport had been hazy, but relatively clear. By the time we reached Stonewood Island, however, a great fog bank had pushed in and the island itself was lost in a deepening luminescent gray. The pilot had been garrulous the whole way out, going on about the price of fuel, lobsters, and his alimony (too high, too low, and obscene), but as the fog got thicker he became quiet, leaving the roar of the prop to fill the space.

The plane was a bright yellow Piper Cub - an ancient but reliable craft - and smelled of oil and Avgas. Somehow over that thick, heavy odor I could suddenly smell the sea, that oppressive, almost rotten-egg smell of the water at low-tide. I looked out the window again, though I'd given up trying to see the water five minutes earlier when the fog had gotten too thick.

For a moment there was just the featureless grey that had so troubled my eyes earlier. With no way of gauging distance my eyes tried to focus on something, anything - pulling patterns out of the chaos like a giant Magic Eye picture. The strain, combined with the smell, set my stomach adrift and I could feel the liquid contents shift and roll.  And then, strangely, there was a lone small pine tree below us – hovering above the fog like some spell had conjured it out of the formless nothing. And then another, and another – and I realized that it was the tops of trees and that the island lay below us.

The pilot sucked in his breath, just loud enough to activate the mike so I only caught the end in a burst of static. He turned back to me and told me that there was no way he could land, that the island was socked in. As he turned back I could see he was relieved and I wondered if it was because he’d made the decision not to chance the fog or because he wouldn’t have to land on the island. 

We banked to our left and pulled around to head back, gaining altitude. As the plane tilted I looked down and thought I could almost see the bulk of the island just beneath the fog, a darker shape within the swirling gray with those treetops pushing up above it like the fingertips of many hands.

That’s what I remember most – the impression of something hidden; something vast, and dark and ominous just below the surface, like an iceberg grown black and heavy with the accumulation of years.

This was inspired by this past weekend spent visiting my wife's folks. They live on Matinicus Island, which is roughly 25 miles off the coast of Maine. It was pretty foggy on the flight back into the mainland and I couldn't help but wonder what it might look like if we were headed out instead.

The original photo is by Terry Eggers and is a lot less creepy. You can see it here: http://fineartamerica.com/featured/island-in-the-fog-eggers--photography.html

Friday, September 19, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: The Mothman Prophecies

The Mothman Prophecies

I've always been interested in weird and mysterious things. I'll go ahead and point to In Search Of as one of the primary influences in that regard, but I think I was fascinated by ghosts, pyramids and the Bermuda Triangle even before Leonard Nimoy's dulcet tones started to explain them to me. When I was a kid I read every book I could find about anything remotely strange or out of the ordinary. 

Of course, I've also always been fascinated by science, by facts and observations. I was equally interested in reading Omni and Scientific American as I was in reading Chariots of the Gods or The Philadelphia Experiment. When I first attended college I was majoring in biotechnology - before wandering (stumbling?) pretty far from that path. 

As a result I've maintained an interest and fascination with the weird and strange, despite never quite getting over my skepticism about it. 

At some point during my second run at a college degree (made the finish line that time) I discovered that one of my Documentary Filmmaking instructors was also an authority on Bigfoot. That was Loren Coleman, of The Cryptozoology Museum and  Cryptozoonews.com. Not only that, but he wrote for a magazine that specialized in the weird, the esoteric and the unexplained. The magazine was The Fortean Times, and I picked up a copy at the USM bookstore mostly on a whim. (Plus the cover was about something called a 'Goatsucker' - how could I resist?) I've been picking it up on a semi-regular basis ever since.

Is he going to be this long-winded about everything?

This is a really roundabout way of getting to the movie, but bear with me. Because it was in the pages of The Fortean Times that I first read about the Point Pleasant Mothman - a red-eyed, black winged presence that haunted the small West Virginia town in 1966 and 1967. Honestly, it didn't make that much of an impression, however it lodged in my brain as an interesting story. So when I saw a copy of John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies at a used book sale I decided to pick it up. And I was absolutely fascinated by it. The scientist in me maintains his skeptical distance - where is the proof, after all? - but the wide-eyed kid cannot help but be intrigued (and the horror fan can't help but enjoy being thoroughly creeped out).

The Medium
My copy of the movie is from the initial DVD release in 2003. It's serviceable, but nothing special. It's not a movie that would necessarily benefit from a Bluray release, but I would like to see something with more extras - a commentary track would be particularly welcome. I've heard there was a special edition produced, but I've never seen it.

It looks like this was the last feature film directed by Pellington. He's kept busy directing and producing in both music videos and TV (particularly on the show Cold Case), but as far as I can tell he's not directed another theatrical release.

The Movie
I read John Keel’s book many years ago and it’s still one of the eeriest books I’ve ever read. The movie – by Arlington Road director Mark Pellington - is NOT a faithful adaptation of the book, but it manages to capture that sense of creeping unreality.

John Keel is a reporter for the Washington Post. On their way home from viewing a new house his wife, Mary (Debra Messing) sees… something… on the road and crashes the car avoiding it. Though the accident is minor the aftermath reveals that she has a brain tumor. After her death, John discovers her notebook is full of drawings of some dark, winged creature with bright red eyes.

Two years later he gets lost while driving to interview a governor in Virginia and finds himself instead in West Virginia on the Ohio border – a 5 hour drive that has somehow taken him 2 ½ hours. His car inexplicably loses power and he knocks on the door of the nearest house, looking for help. The owner, Gordon Smallwood (Will Patton), greets him with a shotgun and, once the local police officer Connie (Laura Linney) arrives, accuses John of having appeared on his doorstep for the last few nights.

"I want you to explain Movie 23 to me. RIGHT NOW."

This is John’s introduction to the town of Point Pleasant, a place that is undergoing something strange, some kind of manifestation. And when he learns that many people have seen a dark, winged figure with glowing red eyes his interest quickly become an obsession.

Pellington likes to play with your perception in this movie. He blurs images and fades one scene into the next with changes in film speed and focus. He adds strange pieces of audio under scenes as well and is often misdirecting your attention – I’ve seen the film a couple of times but had never noticed that there’s a discrepancy between John’s actions and those of his reflection in one particular scene because the focus is elsewhere (and because he’s already given us a scene where we EXPECT it to happen, and it doesn’t).

The combination of misdirection, pacing and framing leaves you unsettled. Things might not be what they seem. Are you missing something? Seeing something that isn’t really there? The nature of the film reality is off, so our understanding of it is necessarily compromised.

One of the main foci of the film is on coincidence and how seemingly unrelated elements will turn out to be intertwined and meaningful. There’s a sequence where Gordon, who becomes friendly with John, reveals a dreamlike experience he has had where a voice speaks to him from his bathroom sink. When, later on, there’s a moment where the words and numbers are revealed to have predicted a disaster, I always get a chill – even though I know it’s coming. (When my wife and I first saw the film and came to that scene I heard her say “holy shit” under her breath.) It’s not that these moments of synchronicity are even that surprising or original, but the film gives them such weight and import that you can’t help being caught up in them.

This time around I was particularly aware of the sequence of coincidences and their weighted meaning, so when a scene with a former physicist came along where he showed pictures of butterflies and talked about the Greeks and how the word psyche meant both butterfly and soul I was genuinely disturbed, as I had heard almost the exact same set of words in Phenomena (when the entomologist is talking to Jennifer Connelly’s character). The movie had made me consider the possibility that nothing really is coincidental – that what we think of as coincidence is actually a message, an echo of other events. It made me buy into its reality, which was kind of cool and a little disconcerting.

The Bottom Line
The Mothman Prophecies is not an in-your-face horror film. There’s not much in the way of shocks, no gore, no real violence. What it does is create a mood, a growing sense of unease. It makes you interested in the characters and invested in their fate. And if the end of the film is a little TOO tied up, makes a little too much sense? It’s kind of a relief, or was to me the first time. 

Nothing is quite that cut and dried in the book. Things are weird, there’s a general storyline and then things sort of… peter out. There’s no real ending in the book, things just sort of disengage. More like real life, I guess, despite the outrĂ© subject matter.

I highly recommend this film, if you haven’t seen it. It’s a really good psychological horror film that’s not splashy or even particularly sharp – but it’s creepy and eerie and leaves an impression. And read the book, if you get a chance. It’s a lot weirder (and there’s no romance and a lot more UFOs), but you get that same strange mood from it.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Short-short horror: The Parking Lot

Only one light remained, a sole beacon in the otherwise endless dark. Any sense of the larger parking lot was gone, though he could hear a faint 'ping' noise, like a car in which the keys have been left in the ignition. He started toward the light, grateful for any place where the encroaching night was held at bay.

The light flickered suddenly, strobing almost, and he stopped, his heart beating hard in his chest. The light steadied. Brightened.

And Stephen thought of deep sea fish, all bulbous eyes and needle teeth. How they often had a glowing lure that attracted their prey.

The light flickered again, as if in anticipation.

Another pic from my reference folder. Empty parking lots always creep me out.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Short-short horror: The Expedition

The final fate of the expedition remains, despite months spent searching the island, a mystery. No trace has been found of even a single member of the nineteen man expedition. The condition of the huts, demolished as they are, indicates a catastrophe of some kind, though time and the elements have erased any evidence of what that might have been. Manning insists that it must have been a meteorological event - an unprecedented Antarctic storm of some sort - but I have my doubts.

A single photograph was found in the ruins of hut #2, a facsimile of which is reproduced above. The man is expedition leader Norman Hunt-Levy. The skeleton bears a superficial resemblance to that of a sea elephant, though certain morphological differences in the skull structure have caused much consternation amongst the zoological team. On the back is written the words "juvenile - killed by accident."

I found this photo in my 'reference' folder. I have no idea where I got it from, but it seems to be from an Australian Antarctic expedition circa 1901. The skeleton is that of an elephant seal. As far as I know.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: Quatermass and the Pit (AKA: Five Million Years to Earth)

Quatermass and the Pit (AKA: Five Million Years to Earth)
This is another one of those movies that I remember fondly from my childhood. It was first watched, as so many older sci-fi and horror films were - from my grandmother's couch on a rainy Saturday afternoon. For the longest time I couldn’t even remember the name, just the vague plot of a spaceship found buried in the earth during a subway expansion. I’m almost certain I saw it under the Five Million Years title, as that seems to have been the US release title. 

I do remember it creeping the hell out of me as a kid.

Many years later I read a Stephen King novel about an ancient spaceship buried in the forest that comes to influence and, eventually, to control many of the people in a small Maine town. Hang on, I thought, this sounds familiar... The book was The Tommyknockers,  and while it obviously has other influences - Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space among them -  it was the nods to Quatermass and the Pit that stuck out to me the most, and I remember thinking that I wanted to track down the movie that I had seen so long ago.

Unfortunately, none of my local video stores had it - I'm not even sure it was ever released on VHS, at least not in the 1980's. To be fair, I didn't really know the name of the movie at that point either, so even if it was available it's likely I wouldn't have found it. It wasn't until many years later that I came across a DVD copy of Quatermass and the Pit. The name meant very little to me - I was only vaguely aware of the Quatermass name from the final BBC serial when it was broadcast on PBS - but the plot sounded vaguely familiar, and there was something about the monster on the (otherwise uninspiring) cover that also rang a bell. So I took a chance and picked it up - and got to relive a piece of my childhood.

This was the only scene I could really remember.

The Medium
My copy of the movie is the Anchor Bay "The Hammer Collection" release. It's a double-sided DVD with the movie on one side and most of the extras on the other. There's a commentary track with director Roy Ward Baker and writer Nigel Kneale, as well as some trailers, TV spots and a "World of Hammer" episode.

British distributors Optimum Home Entertainment had a recent release of the movie (restored) on Blu-ray, but it's region B only and the DVD is long out of print and difficult to find. At the moment, your only (legit) choice in the US is to catch it on TCM (under the Five Million Years title) or buy an expensive copy off eBay - though I have seen it pop up (briefly) on YouTube.

The Movie
Quatermass and the Pit is an adaptation of a 1958 BBC serial of the same name. The adaptation was done by the author of the original, Nigel Kneale - a name that's synonymous with quality British sci-fi. I still haven't seen any of the original Quatermass television shows, something I should probably remedy.

At a place called Hobbs End in London workers adding an extension to a tube (subway) station uncover a number of fossils – an early form of hominid. Scientists are brought in to preserve the specimens (and get the site cleared as soon as possible so construction can continue). In the process of digging out specimens they find some kind of metallic device that is assumed to be an unexploded bomb from the blitz. The military is brought in, but they can’t determine the nature of the thing – it’s certainly not like any bomb they’ve ever seen and doesn’t appear to be made of any type of steel (their magnetic listening devices won’t stick). As they unearth more of the strangely shaped object they also find another skull embedded in the clay within one of the hollows of the ship. As they’ve dated the hominid skeletons to roughly 5 million years ago the question becomes: what is this device and how did it get there?

Why... hello, handsome!

We’re introduced to the title character of Professor Bernard Quatermass when the military is brought in. He’s a scientist who’s in the middle of having his moon rocket project co-opted by the military. For someone with no experience of the character, I really liked this touch – it gave a sense of  Quatermass having his own story, separate from the events of the film. In a few lines you understand he is a brilliant scientist, that he has problems with science being used for military purposes and that he has at least a little bit of political influence.

His foil in the military is Colonel Breen, a man who isn’t completely inflexible, but certainly believes the military knows what’s right. He’s portrayed by Julian Glover who you may remember as General Veers in The Empire Strikes Back or Walter Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

"You'd never catch my AT-AT in such a state, why it's filthy in here!"

The military decides that the device is a German propaganda weapon from WWII, but Quatermass and his allies - the anthropologist Roney who began the dig and his assistant Barbara - begin to believe it’s a spaceship, possibly from Mars, possibly on a genetic colonization mission. 

And it may not be completely dead.

The military will not be denied, however, and you get the distinct impression that it's not just Quatermass that has a low opinion of both the military and the government - Kneale doesn't have a lot of trust in them either. The blind insistence on a conventional explanation leads, predictably, to disaster - and the final acts of the film devolve into scenes of psychic mobs, under the influence of the ship, hunting down unaffected individuals while a horrific vision of their alien masters floats above scenes of destruction.

If there's a down side to the movie it's that the effects are very dated. They were probably pretty low-tech and low-budget even when they came out - and it compares very unfavorably with 2001: a Space Odyssey, which came out the following year (albeit with a significantly larger budget). It has the unfortunate effect of leaving us amused when the aliens are first revealed, when instead we should probably be repulsed and dismayed. 

This is, unfortunately, the least cheesy looking view of the alien.

That being said, there's a certain mood that the movie works hard to create - a growing sense of unease - that still works very well. The acting is quite good, with only a few moments of over-the-top hysteria. Some of the effects are done well, especially during a sequence in which a drill operator is 'hounded' by various telekinetic phenomena, and the climactic sequence involving a crane and a hovering 'vision' of an alien monstrosity is still both exciting and chilling.

The cinematography, editing and - particularly - the pacing are great. It almost feels like a more modern film in its terse dialogue and rapid plot development. The colors are vibrant and clear, as one would expect of a Hammer film, and the set design is top notch.

The Bottom Line
I think this movie is still pretty effective – especially for being made on a shoestring in 1967. It has some genuinely creepy moments and the non-creature effects are done quite well. The limited amount of extras are shot skillfully as things begin to go truly pear-shaped towards the end. There are lots of issues of course – nobody likes to see the Styrofoam ‘grain’ on the rocks that are being thrown around by the ‘psychic awakening.’ However, these are more than made up for in the creepy set-pieces: the exploration of the abandoned housing, the poor contractor chased by ‘demons,’ the whole apocalyptic end sequence.

The choice to make the alien cross-eyed may not have been the most inspired one.

I’d love to see this movie remade today. I think it could be quite an effective action/horror movie and the ideas still have some depths that haven't been completely plumbed in the intervening years. As it is, this is a great piece of classic British sci-fi/horror and I highly recommend giving it a look if you haven’t seen it. It’s one of my favorites and I try and watch it every Halloween season.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Short-short horror: The Dismal Pool

There was a sound behind them and they both turned to see a small ripple near the middle of the pool, right where the line of distant shadow was reflected in the otherwise still water.

"Oh God!" Sarah moaned, "we're right back at the pool."

"Shut up." Meg turned and picked up a branch from the side of the path. It was partly rotten, but it was better than nothing.

"Can't you see the faces? Oh my god, the faces..."

"I said shut. Up." Meg hefted the branch and then, despite herself, at Sarah's swollen left knee. What was the saying? You didn't have to outrun the bear...

"What are we going to do?"

Meg looked at the daylight, staging a quick retreat up the distant hillside. She sighed, her eyes flickering one more time to Sarah's knee. "Okay, follow me." And she started down the path towards the pool, even as the first ripples reached the shore.

This is a pic I took in Crawford Notch in New Hampshire. There's a parking lot near a place called Flume Cascade. Usually people are just parking to take pictures of the cascade, but if you look carefully you'll see a sign that says "Dismal Pool" that points to a small path down a steep ravine. A few minutes walk takes you to the view above. It didn't really seem all that dismal at the time, but looking at the photo since then I've always thought it seemed a little - creepy. Especially with that little ripple in the center. And doesn't that cliff on the left look a little like a face? 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Short-short horror: The Old House

A few things on a forum I frequent - a thread about inspirations and prompts from images, a short horror poem and and a thread that encourages people to post scary Youtube movies - have been percolating in my head. I've wanted to combine the ideas (in Frankenstein fashion) and write short-short horror stories/scraps/sentences based in photos (or illustrations, pieces of music, that weird shadow in the corner where the light doesn't reach in the basement). I'm hoping to post something every once and a while - feel free to join in, if you want!

Here's my first one:

In the weed-filled backyard the final count was 17 vehicles of various models and ages - including the rusted out hulk of a Model A Ford truck. Some were found to have been registered to people listed as missing, but others were never positively identified as belonging to anyone. The house itself was unremarkable, an aging farmhouse with crumbling plaster-and-lathe walls, rotting floors, and decades of dust, spiderwebs, and silence. The basement was fieldstone with a dirt floor and smelled of motor oil and rotting fruit. No one had lived in the place for ages - though the newest car in the backyard was a 2012 Prius that had belonged to a missing New Jersey couple.

No bodies were ever found.

This is a real house I used to drive by often. It's on Route 1, just north of Searsport, Maine. You can see it on Google maps if you want.

The actual photo above is by a guy named Bob Adams and can be purchased as a print or poster here:

Friday, September 5, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: Re-Animator

I’m not sure why it has such a hold, but Re-Animator remains I movie I can watch again and again. I don’t think anyone’s ever mentioned watching Re-Animator and had me say “nah, I’ve seen it 999 times, let’s watch something else.” I’m always up for it, especially with a group of friends.

I can't pinpoint exactly when I first saw it - it seems like the sort of movie that would have stood out in the rows of direct-to-video slasher flicks that crowded the shelves of the Horror section at my local video store. However, I can't remember ever watching it while I was in high school, so it's likely that I first saw it with my roommates Bill and Chris in the late 80’s.

Our local video store back then had two floors and the horror movies were relegated to the second floor along with the pornos. You got it via a twisting staircase that always sounded like it was about to fall in - I think the owners used it a security device, as they could always tell when someone was heading upstairs. The heat in that small space during the summer was stifling and there always seemed like there was the danger of heat stroke while you perused the videos. The horror movie section was relatively large for the size of the store and it wrapped around the walls to blend, almost seemlessly, into the porn. Nothing was in alphabetical order, either, so there was no warning. You'd be passing by Ghoulies II and suddenly be looking at the cover to Anaconda Jones in the Temple of Boobs or something.

I'm almost certain this is NOT the video store we went to. Almost.

We spent quite a bit of time arguing over what movies to rent. We were college students and didn't have a lot of extra cash. Each of us would stake out a different section of the wall and look for something that looked interesting. Then we'd bring the box back to the others, who would, inevitably, curl their lip at it - "Redneck Zombies? No thanks - how about this one, Cannibal Hookers? No, it's not a Porno."

We did have one simple rule when it came to picking videos - it had to have gore or it had to have nudity and IDEALLY it would have both. Re-Animator would have been like the video gods coming down from on high and saying “BOB, BILL, CHRIS – HERE IS THE EXACT MOVIE YOU’VE BEEN LOOKING FOR YOUR WHOLE LIVES.”

The Medium
My copy of Re-Animator is the double-disk release from Anchor Bay that came out in 2007. The picture quality is very good, though not high-def by any means. The extras are pretty fantastic, including two commentary tracks, a 70 minute documentary as well as multiple interviews, stills, deleted/extended scenes, the screenplay and more.  There's a Blu-ray from Image Entertainment that includes most of the extras, but I've never felt the need to upgrade. (FYI - the movie is also available via Netflix streaming.)

One note about the packaging - one of the reasons I picked up this version was because it came with a green highlighter pen shaped like the syringe from the movie. I have no idea where it is now - I can only assume a pale, cadaverous student of the dark arts has stolen it for some nefarious use.

How can you say no to that face? Also, do not try and inject highlighter fluid.

The Movie
Re-Animator is a loose adaptation of an H. P. Lovecraft story, "Herbert West: Reanimator." (The complete text of the story is available on the DVD - and freely available on the internet, as it's now public domain.) The plot follows an idealistic young medical student, Dan Cain, as his life is torn apart by the arrival of Herbert West - a mysterious fellow medical student who has transferred from a school in Switzerland. Herbert, you see, has been dabbling in bringing the dead back to life... 

Dan's fiance, the Dean Halsey's daughter, Megan, doesn't like West from the outset and her instincts prove to be correct. When West is attacked by a cat he's brought back to life, both Dan and Megan are drawn in - and in the aftermath both Dan and Herbert are dismissed from the school.

"Trust me."

Of course Herbert is not one to allow a little thing like being expelled to stop him from his experiments, and he manages to browbeat/blackmail Dan into helping him move on to human subjects. Dead ones, of course. Things spiral completely out of control from that point and just when you think things can't get any worse an ambitious faculty member named Dr. Hill steps in - and things get worse.

Despite my saying that the movie follows Dan he's not really the focus of the movie - though he's obviously supposed to be the audience protagonist. It's Jeffrey Combs as West who is the star, with his manic and inspired performance. From the very first scene (in which we find out WHY Herbert had to leave Switzerland) Combs hogs (and hams) every frame he's in.

Which is not to say the other actors are slouches. I've given short-shrift to Bruce Abbott in the past - calling him the weakest of the cast - but watching the film this time around I realized the he's actually fairly good in all his scenes. His problem is that he shares so much screen time with Combs, and Combs is just so good, that Abbott's performances seem lacking in contrast. Barbara Crampton is great and, in a movie which requires a LOT of screaming, manages to do some of her best work when she's not making any sound at all - her facial expressions are sometimes priceless. David Gale nearly matches Combs in the hamming-it-up department and makes for one of the most memorable horror movie villains ever.

He's a doctor - of course his hands are freezing.

The cinematography is mostly excellent, with good framing and lighting. You'd never know that this was Stuart Gordon's first film, as the camera work and editing are top-notch. The music is very ‘Phsycho’ but, to my ear, manages to be unique enough that I can instantly identify it as Re-Animator in a few notes. The writing is very good, with lots of humor and pathos – and the Stuart Gordon manages to bring out both without going too far into slapstick or maudlin melodrama - for the most part, anyway. There is one scene with Dan and Megan that strays over that line, but it's momentary. 

Of course the gore effects are one of the reasons this film has such a reputation and the majority of them still hold up. There are a few issues if you look for them, but the sheer number and innovation keep you from focusing on the minor drawbacks.  The scenes with Dr. Hill’s headless corpse are incredible (and in one particular scene, incredibly creepy beyond even what you would think possible with a severed head).

I had the same reaction the first time I saw this scene.

The Bottom Line
To my mind this movie remains the best modern re-imagining of a Lovecraft tale. Gordon himself hasn’t been able to repeat his success (The Beyond is fun, but not in the same league, and neither are the sequels.) That’s probably due to the unique position the original story holds in Lovecraft’s bibliography (being a for-hire tale, intentionally humorous in tone), but I’m still amazed that there hasn’t been another adaptation that’s had the success this one has.