Beyond the Slimy Wall:
'Tis the Season to be Frightened...
By Stephanie Star Smith
October 28, 2004
We here at BOP are an eclectic group, and our tastes in movies run from the serious cinephiles to the foreign-film aficionados to niche film lovers. Thus was born the idea for this weekly column, devoted to horror films of all shapes and sizes, but concentrating on those B- and C-grade films that mainstream reviewers disdain, but are the bread-and-butter of every spook movie lover's viewing. So come with me as we venture beyond the slimy wall, uncovering the treasures - and burying the time-wasting bombs - that await those who dare to love the scare.
'Tis the Season to Be Frightened...
Yes, it's our time of year again, the days leading up to Samhain and the Day of the Dead, when the rest of the world turns its attention to our year-round delight, horror and horror films. Hallowe'en is fast becoming as popular with the mainstream as Christmas, but for the lovers of the macabre, it has always been our second-favorite holiday (and in some households, it ranks numero uno).
It's also the time of year when everybody and his Aunt Fanny is trotting out a "Scariest Movies" list. And let's face it: most of them wouldn’t know a truly scary film if it jumped out of their closets in the middle of the night. What the hoi polloi view whilst cringing in their seats, barely peering at the screen through the fingers of one hand, we fright aficionados exclaim "Cool!" in between munching our popcorn and wonder how they managed that.
And so, gentle readers, your humble correspondent has decided to jump on the proverbial bandwagon and see if she can't drive it straight to the morgue. Besides, how could I pass up a chance to share my opinion not only on some overlooked gems but a few of the better-known films that are a bit outside the column's mandate?
So settle into your wingback chair, quaff your favorite life-restoring beverage from that intricately-carved silver goblet, and listen to the children of the night as the Slimy Wall Top Ten Hallowe'en Spook Movies rises from the depths to amuse and delight.
10) The Monster Club
Anthologies were once a staple of the horror industry. In the '60s and '70s, the famed English studio Hammer Horror made something of a cottage industry out of the sub-genre, and it seemed like every other month a new anthology hit the theatres. The form fell into decline after the mid-'70s, occasionally surfacing here and there but for the most part, a defunct form. But every now and again the anthology is resurrected, usually very briefly - about one film's worth - and sadly, rarely done well. This little gem from 1980, however, reminds the horror fan of how much fun those vignette collections can be.
The Monster Club stars Vincent Price and John Carradine in the wrap-around scenes, in which a venerable member of the local social club for monsters (Carradine) invites a horror writer (Price) to join him at the club and discover what monsters are really like. Now the concept for this one is what makes it interesting, for its central conceit - and the basis for its vignettes - is that there is a monster family tree, starting with the traditional fiends - vampires, werewolves, ghouls and the like - and then branching out to cover all possible monster/monster and monster/human matings, all with their own names and peculiarities. And it is from these hybrids that the three vignettes are drawn. It's really quite a fascinating premise, and produces some intriguing new monster creations. Of course, the wrap-around ends with a twist of its own, although to be fair, this one was telegraphed just a bit. The only downside, other than the ending you can suss about halfway through, is the club has a house band that insists on playing a song after each vignette and before Price and Carradine again hold court, but the stories of the hybrids make it more than worth seeking out The Monster Club.
9) Son of Frankenstein
I chose this, the third outing in Universal's series featuring everybody's favorite reanimated corpse, for several reasons. It is the final film in which Boris Karloff portrayed the Monster that set him on the road to stardom; it also marked the third screen pairing of Karloff and Universal's other resident monster at the time, Bela Lugosi. But the main reason is the presence of one of my favorite actors, Basil Rathbone, who portrays the eponymous scion.
The latest Baron von Frankenstein returns to his ancestral home from America, aiming not only to claim his inheritance but to clear his father's name. For like many a scientist, Wolf - a traditional German name that is also an intriguing choice by the scriptwriters - believes that it was not his father's theories that were wrong, or that the idea of stitching together body parts and imbuing the resulting creature with life is an inherently bad one, but that Victor Frankenstein was undone by the incompetence of an assistant, who brought him the brain of a psychopath rather than a genius. Wolf soon finds his task will be both more difficult and easier than he imagined; the former because the villagers still have great mistrust of, and even hatred for, anyone bearing the name that is "both famous and infamous"; the latter because it turns out reports of the Monster's death were greatly exaggerated.
Although Karloff has precious little to do in this film other than appear unconscious most of the time, and Lugosi was already heading down the Master Thespian School of Overacting path, Son of Frankenstein is saved from complete mediocrity by the fantastic sets, a sterling turn by future Professor Moriarty Lionel Atwill as the village's chief inspector, and of course, by Rathbone, an actor rarely given his due. As Wolf progresses from the thrill of discovering his father's creature alive through the realization of Ygor's true nature to the horror of being forced to choose between redeeming his father's reputation or saving his own son, Rathbone gives a riveting, nuanced performance that is a joy to behold. He anchors a film that could easily have gone spinning off into near-parody given some of its hammier denizens, and the happy ending seems not only earned, but a fitting finale to a great series.
Would that Universal had chosen to end the Frankenstein franchise on this high note.
8) Tales of Terror
Actually, any one of the Poe films Roger Corman did for American International would fit here nicely, but I chose this one for its pairing of Vincent Price and Peter Lorre, two of the greats of horror; and its pairing of Vincent Price and the inimitable Basil Rathbone, whose praises I can't pass up a chance of singing.
But this is Price's film, as he plays the central character in adaptations of three Poe stories (four, if you count the bits borrowed from Cask of Amontillado and stuck into The Black Cat). Price starred in nearly all of Corman's Poe adaptations, and it's safe to say that his presence, along with the lush production values, went a long way to making those films the memorable classics they have become.
Of course, it is the third segment, The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar, which is my favorite. Poe's idea that a hypnotic trance could prevent a man from being able to complete the task of dying is a fascinating one, and the little side-drama Richard Matheson grafted onto Poe's tale makes for a marvelous opportunity for Rathbone to play the villain. For before becoming known as the world's first consulting detective, Rathbone's stock in trade was villains, and he gives a masterful turn as the mesmerist whose initial scientific inquiry turns to avarice.
Another interesting note in M Valdemar is the make-up. Valdemar was portrayed as being much closer in age to Rathbone than Price; it becomes nearly spellbinding to note that all the skill of the make-up people can't quite match Mother Nature's own subtle artistry in conveying the passage of time.
7) Phantom of the Paradise
Phantom of the Paradise can perhaps best be described as a rock version of Phantom of the Opera with elements of Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray thrown in for good measure. Now that may not sound like a very appetizing combination, but the execution is nothing short of brilliant, and the score by Paul Williams is beautiful.
The soon-to-be-Phantom is actually a nebbishy sort who happens to be an extremely talented songwriter named Winslow Leach. Leach believes his fortune is made when he's approached by top record producer Swan (wonderfully essayed by Paul Williams) about his songs. Sadly, Swan is a thief, stealing Winslow's music and passing it off as his own. Swan is also not a very nice person; when Winslow protests, Swan's henchmen arrange an accident that is not only perfectly attuned with the film's setting, but is a pretty damned unique method of murder to boot.
Except Winslow doesn't die. However he is, like that other Phantom, disfigured, and decides to go into hiding in Swan's theatre, the better to exact his revenge and force Swan to produce the stolen tunes as the Phantom wishes. This Phantom also finds a songbird who steals his heart whilst performing his music; alas, this Phantom is to be thwarted not by true love, but by about five of the Seven Deadly Sins, as Swan endeavors to purloin the girl of Winslow's dreams, sending the Phantom into the murderous rage necessary to propel the film to its climax. To say much more would be to spoil the surprises woven into the familiar narrative.
Written and directed by Brian De Palma back in the days before he somehow squandered all his talent and was reduced to making very bad Hitchcock retreads, Phantom of the Paradise is a hidden treasure that achieved a modicum of cult status before being dethroned by The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But where that rock horror film went for the funny, Phantom of the Paradise played its horror story straight, and did a great job of both reinventing and paying homage to one of horror's enduring tales.
Yes, I know, this isn't really a spook movie. But given the graphic nature of the crimes, and the absolute shock of the ending, I think we can stretch the point a little bit. Because if Silence of the Lambs can be classified - inappropriately, I think - as a horror film, then Se7en certainly qualifies.
I've mentioned in this column that knowing the ending of a film from the opening frame isn't necessarily a deal-breaker, even in the horror genre. As long as the journey taken in the picture is interesting and a tale well told, the film will entertain. And if, like me, you sometimes don't get around to seeing films until long after they've left theatres and gone on to the home video market, then you've probably run into a number of films where, though you may not have known the exact ending, you had at least an idea of what happens. Such was the case for me with Se7en. I was aware that something happened to Brad Pitt's character, but I didn't know what exactly or how the film got to the point.
I can tell you without reservation that, even if you have some idea of the fate of Pitt's Detective Mills, if you haven't actually seen the film, then your enjoyment will not be spoiled by that knowledge. David Fincher is, in my opinion, quite the hit-or-miss director, but he scores solidly on this one, aided and abetted by the always-excellent Morgan Freeman and an excellent supporting cast. And even if - again, like me - you really don't care all that much for Pitt and never really understood exactly what it is people see in him, you will find him pitch-perfect in this role, and completely mesmerizing to watch. This is a cat-and-mouse game, detective story, murder mystery and morality play all rolled into one, with doses of human frailty and optimism thrown in for good measure. Fincher may well never equal the excellence of Se7en, but man, what an entry on his resumé it is.
5) The Ring
Sometimes the hype surrounding a film during its theatrical run can put one off. What with all the glowing pull-quotes, the breathless BO receipt reports, the urgings of friends that "You'll love it," one can't help but wonder if the film in question can really live up to its advance billing.
In the case of The Ring, it can and does.
Certainly it scores right off the bat for that Holy Grail of horror films, a new and different plot. The idea of a cursed object is not new, of course, and updating the manner of spreading the curse isn't really the essence of what makes The Ring exceptional. It's more the way The Ring builds its story, the way it takes us along on the journey Naomi Watts' character must make in an attempt to stop events in their seemingly inexorable march to a foregone conclusion, that makes The Ring such an outstanding horror film. And let's face it, some of those effects are just mind-blowing; there were even scenes that sent a chill down the spine of this veteran spook-movie fan.
The Ring definitely delivers on the promises made by the buzz surrounding it, and you can cart it home from your local video emporium secure in the knowledge you are in for a fine night's viewing.
But you might not want to answer the phone right after it's over.
Flying killer silver balls, the Tall Man, compacted corpses that perform slave labor in some strange alternate universe. What's not to love about Phantasm?
Phantasm is just creepy enough to be genuinely scary, and laced with just enough humor to set off the gore perfectly. Its story of a boy grieving over the death of his parents who, along with his older bother and their aging-hippie family friend, Reggie, discovers there's something more going on at the local funeral home than preparing the deceased for their final resting place, is fun not just for its unusual concept, but for the bells and whistles used in bringing that vision to fruition. The film also contains what I think is the most cogent advice about gun use ever offered, something it wouldn't hurt a few of the more rabid gun nuts around us to keep in mind next time they go to fetch their favorite firearm.
Having become a hit, Phantasm of course spawned three sequels, and while none quite matched the inventiveness and creep factor of the first, they were all pretty decent as sequels go, and all still sported the Tall Man, Reggie and, most importantly of all, the killer silver balls.
Because when a film features flying killer silver balls, what more could you ask?
3) Dracula (1979)
It's heresy, I know, but I've never particularly cared for Bela Lugosi's Dracula. While I'm sure that Eastern European accent was quite outré in 1931, there was always something missing in his portrayal; the strong presence, the charisma that is such a vital part of the Transylvanian count.
And then there's the sex.
With the Hays Code holding Hollywood in its strangling grip, the sexual overtones of the vampire would have been, out of necessity, muted, but Universal's version of Bram Stoker's novel saw the erotic underpinnings of the story and the character disappear completely. Even the severely straitjacketed Victorian England which spawned both Stoker's and Mary Shelley's creations allowed for sufficient subtext to convey what could not openly be discussed, something the Lugosi Dracula completely missed. Sexuality would not return to Count Dracula until Christopher Lee and Hammer came on the scene in the late '50s.
However, it took this lavish version Universal mounted in the penultimate year of the decade to return Count Dracula to his rightful place as the poster boy for the sex appeal of the undead. And it wasn't just Dracula getting some action in this version; the soon-to-be-bitten Lucy - why the films almost always switch the given names of Dracula's chosen bride and his first victim I'll never understand - is quite the free spirit for a woman living in the aforementioned prim and proper Great Britain under Queen Victoria.
But it is Frank Langella as Count Dracula who steals the picture, as it should be, and he brings the sex appeal by the truckload. He also brings the commanding presence, the charisma, the je ne sais quoi that are essential to a successful portrayal of Dracula. Certainly the sets and costumes didn't hurt, either. Dracula had a castle that was exquisite and a wardrobe that would be the envy of any Victorian dandy. He also had a worthy adversary in Laurence Olivier's Dr Van Helsing; although the grand old man of the theatre was getting on a bit, Olivier's Van Helsing still showed the skill that made him one of the premiere actors of his generation.
But Dracula is, in the end, about the vampire and his undying love for a beautiful woman. On this score, Frank Langella stands as the quintessential count; debonair, attentive, and a sensual and constant suitor.
It is so rare in Hollywood to find a truly unique telling of a tale, and it is even more rare in the horror genre. This is less due to the fact that most horror films are based on familiar stories than with the tendency of filmmakers to get lazy, choosing the beaten path for their plots rather than the road less traveled. So when something that is not only different but really, really good comes along, the inclination is to grab tight with both hands and never let it go. It's also Hollywood's tendency to try and recreate that alchemy as many times as possible. Fortunately, sometimes, the filmmaking machine realizes there's no sense even attempting to match a truly distinctive vision and leaves it be.
Identity is, quite simply, one of the better films I've seen in recent years. It's also one of those singular flicks that one cannot discuss very much without giving away the best bits. But this retelling of Ten Little Indians will surprise you not only with its adeptness in handling the pick-them-off-one-by-one plot but in its extraordinary ability to play its cards close to the vest, as it were. And while some may quibble that this is not, after all, a straight-ahead horror film, it is worthy of inclusion in your Hallowe'en viewing for the genuine chills it generates.
I was raised on horror films. I've been watching them quite literally ever since I can remember. The two magazines you could always count on finding in our house were TV Guide and Famous Monsters of Filmland. I delighted in spook movies; I looked forward to Fridays, when Granny and I would take a nap in the early evening so we could get up and watch Creature Features at midnight (hey, I was five years old; in those days, I needed the nap to stay up).
And sure, I've always been a bit leery of all the usual phantoms. I don't go to sleep without making sure the closet doors are shut tight, so the monster in the closet doesn't come get me. I used to get into bed from several feet away, so the monster under the bed wouldn’t get me, but since a dog I had several years ago chased the monster out from under the bed and whose spirit still guards his favorite sleeping space, I'm a bit less concerned. I was the kid who wouldn’t play Mary Worth, because I knew that if we ever called her up into one of my mirrors, I'd be the first case in recorded history that could never get rid of her again.
So every once in a while, a horror film would put a suggestion into my very fertile imagination. For instance, after I first saw The Birds, I became acutely aware that my bicycle route to school was through a number of tree-lined streets; the Monday after that Saturday viewing, as I saw all the birds flocking in the trees, I began to wonder if perhaps there were more of them than usual, and if they had taken a sudden, intense interest in my existence. When I watched the original Night of the Living Dead in the theatre, I scrunched further and further down into my seat the longer I watched the film, making sure that my feet didn't touch the ground, in case the undead came up from the theatre floor. When that devil doll chased after Karen Black, my feet were again curled up under me as far away from the floor as possible, in case any of my stuffed animals got any bright ideas. But none of these fancies lasted for long, and as soon as it came time to lay me down to sleep, I happily trotted off, observing my nightly rituals which insured that I would be safe in my slumber. In short, none of the horror films I watched scared me, although I loved them all.
Suspiria is the exception to this. It is the only film that I have ever seen that scared the bejesus out of me.
We saw it during its theatrical run, and I was so scared when I came home that I left the light on in my bedroom, and bedeviled my poor grandmother until she let me turn on the light in the living room, too. And no, as I explained to her, I couldn’t just close my door and not see the darkness, because then, I'd be trapped in my room with no means of escape. And yet even with those precautions, I was unable to close my eyes until the sun had risen.
This went on for two more nights afterwards. That's how scary this film is.
To this day, I cannot watch Suspiria. I can't even watch scenes from Suspiria that are included in clips specials; I do the classic cover-the-eyes-till-it's-done maneuver, and there's no peeking from between the fingers, either. It's complete blocking of the screen until the scene is over.
Dario Argento has created that rarest of rare films: the horror film that genuinely scares the dyed-in-the-wool spook-movie fan. I have found over the years that I am not the only fan of the genre who has this reaction to Suspiria; in fact, I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't have this reaction.
So that is why Suspiria is my number-one pick for your Hallowe'en film fest. Watch it, if you dare.
But I strongly recommend you lay in a supply of light bulbs and make sure your electric bill is current first.
And as the strains of Night on Bald Mountain resolve into the elegiac grace of Schubert's Ave Maria, I see by the shadows falling from my bust of Pallas that our time is up. Until next time, then, when we will once again venture Beyond the Slimy Wall.