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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Tuesday Top 10: Favorite Ray Harryhausen Creations

Can I admit something? There are nights I go to sleep sounder knowing that Ray Harryhausen is still out there somewhere. That such a titanic legend of the movies, and of genre entertainment in general, is still with us. The great Harryhausen turned 90 today, and to commemorate the birthday of the screen's most revered special effects man, this week I'm looking back at his greatest works.

The efforts of Ray Harryhausen brought me great joy as a child, and they still do. For example, back in the days before VCRs, I became so entranced by a showing of Jason & The Argonauts on TV that I checked the TV Guide (remember that?) to see what day and time it was, my naive six-year-old brain assuming the network would be showing it again each year, like they did with The Wizard of Oz. So that gives you an idea of how deeply I fell in love with the magic of Ray Harryhausen.

And so, this week for the Tuesday Top 10, I reached back through all my favorite Harryhausen flicks to come up with the specific stop-motion creations of his that thrilled me the most. Happy Birthday to Mr. Harryhausen, and thanks in particular for giving us the following...

10. The Kraken
Clash of the Titans (1981)

Why does the ultimate weapon of the gods rank so low? Well, between you and me, the infamous Kraken has never been at the top of my list because, as impressive as it is, the Greek mythology buff in me was always put off by how it looked nothing like the Kraken as traditionally described. In hindsight, since the Kraken is actually a giant squid, I suspect the change was made so the creature wouldn't too closely resemble the next entry in my list, one of Harryhausen's earlier triumphs...

9. Giant Octopus
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Harryhausen famously created an octopus with only six arms for the sake of manageability, but given the finished product, I can forgive him. The monstrous cephalopod that attacks San Francisco in Robert Gordon's classic giant-monster-run-amok movie is a sight to behold, made even more foreboding by the fact that we only see a bit of it here, and a bit of it there. As a proud Italian-American and sci-fi fan, I can honestly say this movie comes to mind anytime I'm enjoying a little polpo salad...

8. Flying Saucers
Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956)

At least up until Independence Day, this might have been the most iconic alien invasion ever put to celluloid, and the thanks for that is due pretty much entirely to Harryhausen. With all due respect to B-director extraordinaire Fred F. Sears and the mighty Clover Productions, it's Harryhausen's unforgettable fleet of spacecraft that everyone remembers to this day. What also makes this particular effort stand out is it's one of the only times that Harryhausen animated something other than living creatures.

7. Rhedosaurus
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

This particular monstrosity was the one that put Harryhausen on the map as the go-to man in stop-motion animation. And it's a matter of public record that there basically would've been no Godzilla without the influence of Harryhausen's work here, crafting a dinosaur that wreaks havoc in New York City. The final standoff in Coney Island is something to see--hell, every time this thing is on screen it's something to see. Quite literally the granddaddy of all movie dinos.

6. Kali
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)
Technically it's not actually the Indian goddess of death, but rather a wooden idol come to life, but that took nothing away from how much this demonic creature freaked me out. Sinbad and his men face a few different beasties in this, my second favorite Sinbad movie, but the six-armed Kali was definitely the one that most stuck with me.

5. Ymir
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

One of Harryhausen's most creative creations, the Ymir was a Venusian alien that crash-lands in Italy and grows bigger and bigger as the movie progresses. Today the Ymir is practically synonymous with Ray Harryhausen effects, as was proven when a statuette of the creature was packaged with a recent special edition DVD box set of Harryhausen films (which, with any luck, will be mine before too long...)

4. Medusa
Clash of the Titans (1981)

As if the original Harryhausen masterpiece wasn't enough, the Medusa was made even more wondrous in comparison to the ridiculous CGI failure of the recent Clash of the Titans remake. Harryhausen's brilliance came in taking a well-known creature of myth and making it his own--the snake body and bow and arrow, for example, were his concepts. And the manner in which he pulls off her famous mane of vipers is breathtaking, proving once again that the heart and soul he put into his work could outshine anything spewed forth from a computer.

3. Cyclops
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Speaking of classic monsters of myth, here's another one brought vibrantly to life by the master. This was the first time his work would be shown off in a full color feature, and we couldn't possibly have asked for a cooler creature to show off with than this nightmarish behemoth. There have been many Harryhausen creations that impressively embodied the man's artistry, but this may very well be the one for which he's best known.

2. The Skeleton Army
Jason & The Argonauts (1963)

It was very tough not making this my number one, as the sight of this ghoulish battalion of undead warriors is something I will always cherish as a lover of film in general. In fact, talk to any died-in-the-wool Harryhausen fanatic, and it won't be very long before this incredible scene is brought up. The interaction between the human characters and stop-motion figures is particular outstanding, and there's no doubt this climatic combat was the most deftly staged of all Harryhausen effects sequences.

1. Talos
Jason & The Argonauts (1963)

Yes, Jason & The Argonauts is my favorite Harryhausen picture, and so it gets the top two spots on my list. As much as I adore the skeletons, Talos will always be the one creation that best represents the talent of Ray Harryhausen for me, personally. That initial viewing of this movie all those years ago was highlighted most of all for tiny B-Sol by the emergence of this terrifying, towering bronze killing machine. The movement, the design, the sound effects--it all added up to pure movie magic. And that's what the body of work of Ray Harryhausen is all about.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Lucky 13: Week Six: Vampires

The history of horror is populated with a cornucopia of malicious monsters to chill the blood and excite the imagination. But for roughly the past eight decades, one monster in particular has stood head and shoulders above the rest as the most prominent, and the most readily identifiable with the genre: the vampire.

There's something about the vampire's ability to literally drain away human life that seems to resonate at the very epicenter of what horror is all about. From ancient folklore to Victorian literature, and eventually on the silver screen, they have called to us, both terrifying and irresistible. Vampires have been the subject of countless horror films. As challenging as it may have been, our crew--along with the Brutal as Hell gang--have selected our all-time favorites. Read on, and remember, the dead travel fast...

B-Sol on Nosferatu

Not only the greatest horror film of the 1920s, but I believe an argument could be made that it might be the finest horror film ever. However, I'll just say it's my all-time favorite vampire flick, and leave it at that. Pure joy for any true horror fan, from beginning to end, Max Schreck's exploits as the demonic Count Orlock make up an almost transcendent experience of movie viewing. It might be easy and predictable to choose this one, but I choose it for a reason--it is the most frightening movie of its era, and still the most rewarding to watch. Not to mention the best screen adaptation of Dracula.

But despite Nosferatu technically being a Dracula adaptation, Max Schreck's Orlock is an entity all on his own, with a distinct persona and look that virtually transcends horror cinema, if not cinema as a whole. The rising out of the casket, the unforgettable shadow-walk up those stairs. This, readers, is the stuff of cinematic horror immortality. It gets no better.

Fandomania's Paige MacGregor on Underworld

It’s surprising how few vampire films I’ve watched, given how many vampire books and novels I’ve read over the past several years. Fortunately, I’ve managed to avoid the majority of the Twilight franchise, limiting my experience of vampires on the silver screen to the laughable Gerard Butler film Dracula 2000, Robert Rodriguez’ From Dusk Till Dawn, the classic vampire film Nosferatu, and the ever-popular Underworld franchise. For various reasons, I recently reached the conclusion that of this limited selection, Underworld has made its way to the top of my vampire horror movie list to become my favorite movie featuring the blood-sucking undead.

Although Underworld isn’t particularly intellectually stimulating, it is a fast-paced action-adventure horror film with vampires, werewolves (or lycans, as they’re called in the film), and a centuries-old war raging between the two factions. Using the traditional star-crossed lovers theme of Romeo and Juliet, Underworld follows the sexy, self-sufficient vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) as she falls in love with a human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). Unfortunately, Michael was bitten by a lycan and is undergoing the painful process of becoming one of Selene's mortal enemies.

Many people will be surprised to know that Underworld was my first introduction to both Kate Beckinsale and Bill Nighy, two actors that I really like. In my opinion, Len Wiseman's casting in Underworld is phenomenal; Beckinsale is the essence of the vampire Selene, and her porcelain complexion couldn't be more perfect for the role. In addition, Bill Nighy is unbelievable as one of the first vampires ever created, corrupt and cruel and filled with hatred for the lycans. The special effects used to turn Nighy into the blood-deprived corpse as he first appears in Underworld is very well done, but without Nighy's effective acting and powerful presence, the role would've fallen flat.

I also love the visual style that Len Wisemen and his Oscar-nominated cinematographer, Tony Pierce-Roberts (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, De-Lovely), use in Underworld. Everything from the rainy urban landscape and the vampires’ massive, hulking mansion, to the skin-tight black leather that Selene wears and the dark, shadowy complexions of the lycans contributes to the stunning contrast of lights and darks that characterize the film’s cinematography. In addition, the camerawork in Underworld is superb. Establishing shots are often grand urban vistas. Even the use of CGI in these shots is flawless, creating images that convey both the dark, secretive nature of the vampires and lycans while also expressing the enormity of the landscape in which they dwell.

The use of slow motion camerawork during the climactic fight scene at the end of Underworld is genius given the speed attributed to both lycans and vampires in the film. This fight sequence is dissimilar from many of the fight scenes in other contemporary films like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, which often feature images that move too fast for audiences to follow adequately. Instead, Wiseman and his production team used slow motion not only to keep viewers in the loop with regards to the mechanics of the fight, but also to highlight the beauty of the fight choreography itself.

It is no wonder to me that Underworld spawned both a sequel and a prequel, with yet another sequel rumored to be in production. The leading lady is a sexpot with giant pistols and a hunger for blood, the cinematography is breathtaking, and the story of love and betrayal is interesting, if not compelling. I look forward to a fourth installment of the Underworld franchise, and I hope someone talks Beckinsale back into a skin-tight suit of leather for me.

From Beyond Depraved's Joe Monster on Fright Night

Vampires and I kind of have a quirky romantic comedy-esque relationship. One minute I’m fawning over the genre for its brilliance, suspense, and eroticism, and the next I’m pulling the hair from my scalp over the blas√© simplification and mindless exploitation of its powerful themes (hello, Ms. Meyers…). It would be difficult for me to cite a vampire film from the last thirty years that I’ve seen and can call my favorite. Modern flicks concerning the nosferatu tend to just fall flat with me, no more memorable than the last fast-food burger that slithered down one’s throat. Not so, however, with a little film from the '80s called Fright Night.

From the very first time I viewed Fright Night (on a double-bill with Creepshow, no less!), I knew that I had happened upon something magical. If I’m not mistaken, it was the very first modern vampire movie to have been viewed by my young, impressionable eyes. Up until that point I had only been acquainted with the likes of Lugosi, Lee, and the rest of the gang as they creaked their way through cobwebbed castles and crypts. This was an entirely new experience. Vampires in today’s world? My adolescent spine shuddered at the very thought. Not to mention the overt sensuality exhibited by the charming-as-hell Chris Sarandon and his bloodsucking brethren. Seeing the act of vampirism turned into an appealing and sexual act was a giant bombshell that went off in my brain. Like the ravaged wasteland of a real explosion, my perspective on vampires would never be the same again.

Fright Night is a wild ride, a film packed with homages to those Universal and Hammer terrors, but with a decidedly 80’s flavor. For instance, the vampire’s abode is your typical Gothic house squatting in an impenetrable mist and filled with ghostly antiquities. But a few scenes later we’re transported to a bustling nightclub where the synthesizers blare through the speakers and the dancers have more hair than the members of a werewolf convention. The mixture creates a highly electric and downright fun atmosphere that won’t be forgotten for some time. The powerhouse performances from the ensemble cast bring the movie to a whole new level. I could go on for days about how every role is fully realized and the amazing chemistry that sparks between each actor. Magic like this is a rarity, particularly in horror films. But somehow Fright Night makes it seem like a feat that can be accomplished with a passive wave of the hand.

I love watching movies made by filmmakers who actually love horror movies. The passion and hard work put forth shines in every shot, the loving product of a devoted craftsman. Fright Night is a prime example of just that type of genius. Even though some may see it at worst as only a fair parody of the vampire theme, I actually think it’s one of the sub-genre’s highest achievements. This is how the undead were meant to be seen. Sinister, mysterious, terrifying, and oh-so-seductive (no sparkles included). Fright Night is just the film I’d instantly recommend to anyone seeking a good time with some bloodthirsty friends. It’s everything you’ve been waiting for, with just a little more of a… bite.

Cinema Suicide's Bryan White on Dracula (1931)

My taste in horror trends toward the '70s and '80s, but not even I can resist the baroque charms of Bela freakin' Lugosi as the original vampire. Dracula is a movie that needs no introduction. Lugosi's performance was so intense and profound that even in times when the vampire was represented most commonly by Lestat and Edward Cullen, the cape and brow is still iconic. Slick your hair, throw on a tux and vaguely ceremonial medallion and you're instantly recognizable as Count Dracula 80 years later.

Tod Browning's movie throws most of Bram Stoker's novel out the window and it mixes and matches characters, but the major themes remain. It also represents the beginning of a golden age of horror for Universal Studios where every picture was drenched in crashing thunder and crumbling castles and unmatched performances by legends of the genre. Every god damn frame of Tod Browning's movie is deliberately crafted for maximum gothic. Shots of Lugosi frame his imposing presence perfectly and his intense, burning stare is highlighted frequently by a band of light across the eyes to entrance you exactly as his vampiric stare is supposed to be doing to the cast.

Dracula is fundamentally awesome; the text-book by which all horror films follow and a subtle exercise in how to sneak themes of kinky domination and submission into a movie made in a very chaste studio system. It plays a heavy hand at times, rubbing your nose in its intensity but this expertly crafted horror film is so perfect that it just doesn't matter if it feels excessive. The Count, his vampire brides, his accent and his sinister influence are such incredible storytelling elements and played so perfectly by Bela Lugosi that by comparison, the Harkers and Abraham Van Helsing seem like total downers. Not to put too fine a point on it, I love Dracula.

I'll tell you what else: Mexican Dracula is pretty cool, too.

* * * * * * * * * *

Head over to Brutal as Hell to see what Marc Patterson and his crew have come up with. And if you're interested in taking part in the future, just give Marc or myself a holler.

Week 1: Grindhouse & Exploitation
Week 2: Creature Features & Monster Movies
Week 3: Demons, Witches & The Devil
Week 4: Gore!
Week 5: Horror Comedies

Join us next week, when we get all brainy and tackle the sub-genre of psychological horror!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Psycho Semi-Centennial: The Movie That Changed Everything

Last week marked the actual 50th anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho to theaters. Yes, I know I missed it. Having a feature entitled "Psycho Semi-Centennial" and missing the actual semi-centennial week, I should really be ashamed of myself. And so, to make up for such an egregious lapse, I'm bringing you the return of this year-long feature with a look at the many important ways that Hitchcock's landmark film changed the landscape of cinema forever. Better late than never, I always say...

Starting at the Beginning
As bizarre as it always seems to me, up until Psycho it was common practice for moviegoers to enter at any point during the movie, and stay into the next showing until they got up to the part they walked in on. This disjointed practice went out the window thanks to Hitchcock's vehement insistence that people come in at the start of the movie for the full effect. When they did so, resulting in lines around the block thanks to everyone arriving at the same time, they understood why.

First Flush
This may seem like a trivial matter to many post-modern viewers, but Psycho was the first American film in history to depict a toilet being flushed. Granted, it was only Marion disposing of her note, and not dropping a deuce, but this was a historic moment nonetheless, and encapsulated the frank, realistic tone Hitchcock and his screenwriter Joseph Stefano were going for. In fact, Stefano was adamant that a flushing toilet be shown for this very reason, and wrote the scene specifically so it would be integral to the plot.

Following, as it did, on the heels of the somewhat conservative (on the surface, at least) 1950s, Psycho's shower scene was shocking not just because of the violence, but because of the sheer amount of bare flesh on display. Both Janet Leigh and her body double show off quite a bit for the time, and it reportedly put censors--and more dour film-goers--into a tizzy. While still nothing beyond a PG-13 by today's standards, it was certainly pushing the envelope for a mainstream American film, and to this day viewers argue over how much was actually shown--a testament to the editing skills of George Tomasini.

No One Is Safe
Psycho sees its central protagonist, the character is which the audience has invested all its attention and interest, killed off roughly halfway into the movie. This was unheard of, and literally threw all traditional standards of cinematic storytelling out the window. If the main character could die so soon, all bets were off. Anything could happen. Viewers knew they were experiencing something truly new.

Let's Talk About Sex
To give you an idea of the level of censorship common at the time, the MPAA took issue with the word "transvestite" being used in the film's epilogue scene. Psycho deals with sexual subject matter in a manner that was very frank and open. Even from its opening scene, showing Marion and Sam enjoying a nooner in their little love nest, Psycho pushes the boundaries. Then you have an antaganist--Norman--whose entire character revolves around psycho-sexual issues. The whole speech given by Dr. Richmond at the end, though admittedly a bit forced and tacked-on, was a somewhat shocking explanation which took some of the more sheltered moviegoers of 1960 into territory they would have been far less familiar with than the average viewer of today.

Mother, Blood!
Hammer Films may have popularized blood in horror with their technicolor '50s spectacles, but Psycho was a mainstream Hollywood A-movie showing it, which was something entirely different. One of Hitchcock's reasons for filming in black and white was to make the gore of the shower scene more acceptable. But the sight of that Bosco syrup pouring down the shower drain helped prepare American audiences for the copious showers of red stuff to come in the future of the horror genre.

Musical Minimalism
The score of Psycho is one of the movies' most memorable thanks to the genius of Bernard Herrmann. Up to then, most Hollywood productions featured epic scores performed by vast studio orchestras, but Hermmann insisted on a pared-down, strings-only score performed by a small group of musicians. And although the John Williams-era of the late '70s brought back the epic score to a degree, the Psycho influence is still felt.

Big Screen/Little Screen
During the '50s, the movie biz did everything it could to compete with the introduction of TV. This usually involved going as big and bold as possible with things like widescreen and 3-D, showing all the things that TV didn't do. Hitch's genius was to go in the other direction. Thanks to his own TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the director gained an appreciation for the sparse, basic, low-budget style of TV film-making, and adapted that to the silver screen, bringing a bare-bones sensibility to Hollywood.

The Monster Next Door
Though not the first horror movie to feature a non-supernatural villain, Psycho certainly set the standard to come, and changed the course of the genre in the process with its depiction of a "real" human being as the threat. Monsters were the order of the day up to that point in time, but Psycho showed that reality-based horror could work--that the creepy guy next door could potentially be far scarier than vampires or werewolves. And although Psycho may not technically be a slasher film (debatable), it certainly set the stage.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Many Faces of John Saxon

Property of Synapse FX
(Link added at the demand of Synapse FX, who threatened to have my entire blog taken down if I did not comply.)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Tuesday Top 10: Horror Movies That Catch a Bad Rap

Film going is a very subjective experience. You have your favorites, I have mine, everyone has theirs, and very often one man's crap sandwich is someone else's filet mignon. That said, there are many horror films I've seen over the years which I've genuinely liked, only to find that my opinion was most certainly the minority one. I'm sure this experience has happened to most everyone.

So indulge me as I share with you some of the horror movies which I feel unfairly get a bad rap. By that I'm not talking about underrated movies--that's an entirely different list. Underrated implies that a movie is of high quality but isn't getting the attention it deserves. I'm talking about movies that are considered by many to not be very good at all, but which I think are far better than the general consensus would have you believe. Allow me to illustrate...

10. Bram Stoker's Dracula
This one has its fierce supporters, no doubt about it. And yet as the years go by, the reputation of Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker adaptation seems to diminish. I remember being completely bowled over by it when I first saw it in the theater--in fact, I went to see it on six different occasions! Gary Oldman gives one of the great horror performances as the Count, and the entire production is lush and epic--a rich cinematic tapestry. Far from perfect, to be sure (I'm looking at you, Keanu), but overall one of my favorite movie-going experiences ever.

9. Nightbreed
For my money, this remains the greatest of all Clive Barker films, and is another flick that held me completely spellbound in the darkened theater when I first saw it in 1990. Such imagination on display, and a vision so wonderfully realized on the screen--not to mention David Cronenberg in one hell of a cameo. I'll take this over Hellraiser any day of the week, and yet for some reason, this film is often talked about as if it were a Barker misstep.

8. The Mummy's Hand
I've discussed this before, but I'm a much greater fan of the 1940s series of Universal mummy movies--the Kharis series--than I am of the 1932 Boris Karloff original. Yes, they're hokier films of a decidedly B-movie variety, unlike the more elegant and expertly made Karl Freund picture. And yet I can't help but find a movie like The Mummy's Hand, the first of the series, to be so much more fun. For one thing, you have a mummy who actually looks like a mummy for more than just the opening scene--featuring one of the most underrated Jack Pierce makeups ever. An early influence on the zombie subgenre, as well.

7. 30 Days of Night
I'm trying to stay away from very recent films since I find that judging films in this way very often takes a little distance of time, but I have to make an exception here. David Slade's 2007 adaptation of the magnificent Steve Niles comic is one hell of a fine vampire film, and I'm baffled by the apathy, or downright negativity, it attracted from much of the general public, as well as hardcore horror fans. It may be a case of lowered expectations on my part, I'm not sure, but amidst so much garbage that has been put out in recent years by mainstream studios, this stylish and intense movie is a standout in my book.

6. Halloween: 20 Years Later
Talk about a great way to end a slasher franchise! H20 is one of my favorite horror movies of the 1990s, and represented a strong, concerted effort to lift the Halloween series out of the mediocrity in which it had been wallowing--thus rescuing the series in a way that neither Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street was ever rescued (although an argument could be made for Freddy vs. Jason). It was great seeing Jamie Lee Curtis make her return in this, the best-made Halloween movie since the original. Let's just pretend this was the end and Halloween: Resurrection never happened.

5. Alien 3
It's tough to follow Ridley Scott's Alien and James Cameron's Aliens, no doubt about it. But folks, Alien 3 is a very enjoyable horror-action film. Not the classic the first two installments are, but also not the abortion many make it out to be. The young David Fincher was already formulating the style we'd later see in films like Seven, and puts it to great effect creating this claustrophobic and narratively daring film, with some fine supporting performances by the likes of Charles S. Dutton and Pete Postlethwaite. I can go off for an hour about what a crime it was to kill off Hicks and Newt before the opening credits, but I'll play nice this time.

4. House of Frankenstein
There are lots of classic horror fans who bemoan what happened to the Universal films in the '40s. Granted, the B-movie output that comprised much of the '40s Universals were not the sublime cinematic experiences of early era '30s Universals like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. The later Universals were different--aimed at a juvenile audience, and yes, with much of the impact taken away from the monsters over the years. But a movie like House of Frankenstein shouldn't be compared to the work of Tod Browning and James Whale. Drac, Frank and the Wolf Man all in the same picture? Plus, a hunchback and Karloff as a mad scientist? Where I come from, that's called great entertainment.

3. House of 1,000 Corpses
I had the benefit of seeing House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects for the first time back-to-back, and I stand by my opinion that the first one is superior. Yet the second one gets all the attention and love, and the first is viewed as an overindulgent mess. I think this is because Devil's Rejects is a much more conventional and straightforward horror/exploitation flick, whereas House of 1,000 Corpses is completely bizarre and eccentric. I just can't help but be impressed by how one movie could be so depraved and so much fun at the same time. Plus, it has Dwight from The Office in it.

2. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge
I have vocally defended this film in the past, and I will continue to do so until other Freddy fans can appreciate this tragically maligned sequel. I love it because it actually tries to take the series in a totally different direction, while at the same time sticking with the dark, genuinely frightening tone that would slowly be abandoned starting with the admittedly superior next chapter, The Dream Warriors. Freddy's Revenge is an odd, quirky entry that doesn't fit in with the rest at all. Maybe that's why i like it so much.

1. Cabin Fever
I adored this movie when it first came out in 2002, and although my enthusiasm has waned a bit in the intervening years, this is in no way the awful picture many make it out to be. It seems like it's the cool thing to do to bash it, maybe because Eli Roth is just so damn unlikeable and obnoxious, I don't know. But I found this viral variation on the tried-and-true house in the woods formula to be a completely fresh, inventive and original movie with both laughs and scares in equal measure. It's smart horror, of which there's simply not enough. Plus, the ending kills me every time.

Monday, June 21, 2010

TRAILER TRASH: Leprechaun Edition!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Lucky 13: Week Five: Horror Comedies

This week in The Lucky 13, we take a look at one of my personal favorite sub-categories, the horror comedy. There's just something about horror in general that will often provoke a perversely humorous response in us, sometimes even when not intended. Maybe that's why it's so much fun when a horror film overtly embraces the humor that seems paradoxically inherent in the genre.

There are countless great horror comedies worth remembering , and I'd just like to tip my hat to several that have not been represented either here or at Brutal as Hell--gems like Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, An American Werewolf in London and Shaun of the Dead. So many great ones to choose from, but here's a look at our personal favorites...

B-Sol on The Return of the Living Dead

Believe it or not, the film that truly sparked my lifelong fascination with the horror genre was ROTLD. It was the first modern horror film I had ever watched from beginning to end, and as I watched it unfold, I was filled with a combination of revulsion and fascination.

Like most pre-teen boys, I suffered from an acute lack of irony, which naturally led me to take the film quite seriously as pure horror. Almost all the comedy was totally lost on me, which makes it all the more fun to watch it now and be able to laugh instead of shiver. It's amazing how much I didn't appreciate back then.

For me, The Return of the Living Dead was a gateway movie, opening the door to so much more. My next stop was the Evil Dead flicks; then came George Romero; and the rest, as they say, is history. Funny how I saw ROTLD before even having seen the Romero movies they were partially spoofing. It's also pretty amazing to think that a movie that easily could've been a throw-away '80s shlockfest merely aping great horror films has come to be considered a great horror film in its own right, even worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Romero's series.

Marilyn Merlot on Zombieland

So I have to admit when I first saw the preview for Zombieland, I wasn’t much of a fan, and already had decided I wouldn’t see it. I was never into spoofs of horror or horror movies trying to be comedies. Then I started to hear good reviews, and people saying how they really liked it. Now my interest was piqued. And in the end, it really was a perfect mix. Firstly, it had a great cast of characters, which is really what made the movie. A tough/bad ass guy; the nerd just trying to survive; and a pretty girl with edge to her.

What makes you laugh right from the beginning are the zombie rules you need to go by to survive. Those of us who have watched endless zombie movies know these really are important rules. Soon Columbus, played by Jesse Eisenberg, meets up with Tallahassee, played by Woody Harrelson. These two embark on a road journey, meeting up with two sisters, Witchita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). The group sets out together to try and survive the zombie holocaust. The ensuing hijinks include a notorious overnight stay at the Hollywood home of Bill Murray.

The whole thing winds up in an amusement park, which is the perfect setting to show off both the action and the humor that make the movie work so well. Columbus and Tallahassee's rescue attempt of Wichita and Little Rock is both very exciting and hysterically funny. By the end of the film, all these different characters come together as a dysfunctional family, Tallahassee finally gets his twinkie, and everyone hits the road together…

From Beyond Depraved's Joe Monster on Creepshow

It was within the darkened den of my uncle’s California house that I was first exposed to this film. The glow from the television set illuminated my terrified face. But no matter how great my fear was, I couldn’t keep my eyes from the screen. I jumped like a startled cat when the rotting hand of a corpse jutted from a grave. I shrunk back in terror as a pair of beastly eyes stared out from the darkness of a crate. I got goose bumps as I imagined an army of carnivorous cockroaches crawling up and down my arms. Despite all these feelings of anxiety and shivering fright, I couldn’t deny one thing… I was having an incredibly fun time.

The beauty of Creepshow lies in its ability to illicit both screams and laughs from the viewer’s mouth. In my belief it stands as a true definition of the term “horror comedy”; it contains terrifying scenes that genuinely scare you, but the entire time you sense that the film’s tongue is firmly planted in its rotting cheek. It’s gallows humor with the highest quality noose. You may squirm at the sight of a stinking cadaver trudging through a misty graveyard, but then you’re tickled pink the moment it opens its skeletal mouth and gurgles “I want my CAAAKE!” I’m giggling just reminiscing about it.

Creepshow is a work of deep-rooted love for the genre, a valentine to horror fans and readers of the four-color terrors of yesteryear. The set design and lighting, with its garish reds and blues, gives this awesome anthology the authentic feel of an issue from E.C. Comics taken straight from the newsstands of the 1950s. It includes all the common stories that used to adorn those pages: ironic vengeance from six feet under, evil doers getting their just desserts in the form of their greatest fears, and Adrienne Barbeau getting her bitch face munched off by a furry crate critter! The film also has a dream team of horror luminaries working behind it. George Romero directs the ghastly proceedings, Stephen King provides the highly entertaining tales (and a lunkheaded performance as a mutated farmer), and Tom Savini showcases some of his best makeup work, with reanimated corpses and cuddly monsters.

As the years go by, my respect and love for this film increases with every viewing. I can sit down and watch it, no matter what the time or occasion. It’s as infectious as a zombie bite, its demented glee spreading to the dark cockles of one’s heart almost as quickly as Jordy Verill’s unfortunate gardening problem. From the unforgettable opening piano score to the last frame of revenge by voodoo’s pin, you’ll feel like you’ve finally come home to the ghoulish hilarity that’s escaped you for so long. After all, it’s the most fun you’ll have being scared!

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Head over to Brutal as Hell to see what Marc Patterson and his crew have come up with. And if you're interested in taking part in the future, just give Marc or myself a holler.

Week 1: Grindhouse & Exploitation
Week 2: Creature Features & Monster Movies
Week 3: Demons, Witches & The Devil
Week 4: Gore!

Join us next week as we turn our attention to perhaps the most pervasive movie monsters of them all: Vampires!

VAULTCAST: Exclusive Interview with Novelist Scott Sigler!

A couple of years ago, my dad introduced me to an outstanding new horror novel called Infected. Right off the bat, I became a Scott Sigler fan, and have been one ever since. And so, when he asked me a few weeks ago if I would share the trailer for his new novel, Ancestor, with my readers, not only did I jump at the opportunity, but I also went so far as to ask if he'd consent to an interview on the Vaultcast.

Scott agreed, and now I'm very pleased to share our conversation with you. We cover a lot of ground--from the influence of Stephen King and his trailblazing in the area of podcast publishing, to his fascination with disease-based horror and the possibility of cinematic adaptations. And of course, we also get into Ancestor, which hits bookstores on Tuesday, June 22. Take a listen below, or head to the Vaultcast page, where you can download it.

Get Ancestor now, right here.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Wee-Sol Draws a Kaiju Battle

In the grand tradition of Wee-Sol Draws a Zombie, I bring you my five-year-old son's latest foray into genre-based illustration. This time, he decided it would make his kaiju-lovin' pop happy if he sketched an all-out brawl between Godzilla and his long-time ally/enemy, Mothra, which now hangs majestically in my office:

(Click for a bigger image)

The little guy had some issues figuring out how to get the giant tail to lay just right (lower right-hand corner), but in the end I think he mastered it expertly. When he had a little difficulty visualizing, we decided it might be a good idea to pop in our beloved Classic Media DVD release of Godzilla vs. Mothra, which features a gallery of vintage movie posters. Here was the one he picked to use as inspiration:

How about that, Vault dwellers? To quote one of our mutual heroes, not bad for a little furball.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Some Stuff for You to Read While I'm Buried Alive...

Yes, things have slowed a bit lately here in the Vault o' Horror, but don't fret. The specter of reality may be casting its wearying shadow over my bloggery, but real-life work and responsibility won't keep me from you forever, dear reader. While I attempt to dig myself out at the ol' day job, I figured I'd pass along some links to recent guest articles I've done in other places, in order that you may get your fix of my pretentious blatherings...

Cushing, Lee... Fisher? The Unsung Hero of Hammer's Holy Trinity: Part of my ongoing column at The Blood Sprayer, Waiting for Cthulhu. This week, I bring you an ode to an oft-overlooked but highly influential director, Mr. Terence Fisher.

The Hump-Day Threesome - Euro-Garbage!: FusedFilm.com has a weekly column called Unhinged, and I was recently asked to be a guest columnist for their Hump-Day Threesome feature, in which I recommend three of my very favorite bad movies!

Kindly bear with me as I tend to the stuff that pays the bills. I've got lots of very cool things planned for the VoH, so stay tuned, Vault dwellers...

Monday, June 14, 2010

TRAILER TRASH: Swamp Creature Edition!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Lucky 13: Week Four: Gore!

Although I may not be one of them, for many, the words "horror" and "gore" are just about synonymous. Let's face it--for many of us, it's why we got into the genre in the first place. There's nothing like some blood and guts to grab your attention, that's for sure; and ever since the demise of the Hays Code some 40+ years ago, horror fans have been treated to some of the most unthinkably grisly imagery imaginable.

This week in The Lucky 13, in conjunction with Brutal as Hell, we take a special look at our favorite splatter flicks--the movies that set the gorehound in us baying for more...

B-Sol on Dead Alive

The early '90s was a heady time for direct-to-VHS horror, with mom-and-pop video store new release racks filled to the brim with disposable frights, packaged in garish cardboard boxes. I can honestly say I might never have discovered Peter Jackson's Dead Alive back in 1992, had it not been for that striking box cover art, still among the most memorable I've ever seen. Of course, once I got the tape home, I quickly discovered that this movie was more than just a flashy cover. As I soaked in the cornucopia of deliciously over-the-top gore and literally laugh-out-loud humor, I found myself asking the question, how have I not heard of this movie??

The best way to describe it based on that first impression would be to say that if Monty Python had ever made a horror movie, this would be it. Off the top of my head, I'd have to call it the goriest flick ever made, and yet the gore is so outrageous that the movie somehow successfully remains a comedy right up to the end. The violence, as insanely graphic/imaginative as it is, is also firmly in the realm of the cartoonish. And quite frankly, I was eating up every erupting pustule, flesh-stripped skull and glistening digestive tract with a spoon.

Dead Alive is overflowing with more classic horror gags than you can shake a severed arm at. Who can forget the infamous graveyard priest vs. zombie kung fu melee? Or Baby Selwyn on the rampage in the park? And let's not forget, Jackson gave us zombie sex back when the guy who made Dance of the Dead was still begging his mommy to buy him Count Chocula at the supermarket. And just when you think the movie has gone completely insane, it takes you bravely into a whole new level of madcap insanity. Cap it all off with what has to be described as the single most bizarre, Freudian climax in movie history, and you have a film that fairly crackles with creative energy, showing the passion of its makers on the screen for all to see. I instantly fell in love with it, and made it the official movie I would use to completely freak out any of my friends who weren't used to horror movies.

From Beyond Depraved's Joe Monster on Aftermath

In this day and age of the horror film, gore seems to be used as more of a positive accommodation, a way to draw the bloodthirsty pre-teens into the theater seats. You can probably spot at least five DVDs at your local retail store that advertise the fact that they’re “COMPLETE AND UNCUT—ALL EXTREME SCENES INTACT!” or something along those lines. I can’t help but find this funny. Instead of shocking and repelling viewers, the gore in horror films is used as a marketing ploy to bring in more customers. One may ask “Is gore ever used to disturb audiences anymore in a horror film?” If you ever had the (dis?)pleasure of viewing Aftermath, you would be completely assured of gore’s damaging power.

Aftermath shows what happens behind the closed doors of an autopsy room when no one is looking. A demented medical examiner (portrayed with brilliance by Pep Tosar) lives out his twisted fantasies with a female victim of a car accident. He lovingly caresses her stiff skin with his gloved hands and gleefully cuts her clothes off. The imagination can fill in the gaps of what comes next. But that’s one of the factors that makes this film so brutal; it doesn’t let your imagination take over. Everything is played out with absolute clinical precision and detail. The camera never flinches as it depicts the horrid defilement of the corpse. It’s all carried out in such a mundane way that you begin to feel as if what you’re watching is completely normal. Tosar goes about setting up his camera, removing his pants, and applying lubricant to his gloves in a way that makes you realize that this isn’t the first of the character’s after-dark routines.

As for the red stuff, it is all too plentiful in this film. Within the span of 30 minutes, Aftermath packs in more gruesome set pieces than some of the “extreme” PG-13 flicks of today have in their entire running time. The very first thing we’re exposed to is the squashed carcass of a dog on a street. It only gets worse from there. Dissections of cadavers are performed with medical accuracy as skulls are ripped open with pliers and slimy organs are shoved inside ribcages. The examiner’s handling of his midnight partner is no better, especially seen in a squirm-inducing moment when he savagely uses a knife to penetrate the corpse. This isn’t delicate material, and director Nacho Cerda doesn’t spare us one agonizing moment.

But despite all the grue and viscera that assaults our eyes during the film, there’s an underlying feeling of beauty that permeates through the bloodsoaked images. The operatic score that accompanies the ghastly proceedings adds to the transcendental sensation. What we are exposed to may be horrible, but Cerda masters his use of stark, clear images and sound to create a work of art. In this way the audience begins to have conflicting feelings over the film. Is it a piece of beauty or nothing more than schlocky trash? In some ways it’s both, and can only be characterized as being beautifully disgusting. This is definitely the movie horror fans should watch if they’re looking for something to challenge both their stomachs and their minds.

365 Movie Reviews' Spencer Churchill on Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood

The title alone arouses curiosity, and all that are willing to look will find the darker side of gore in the Guinea Pig films. Out of the series of seven doses of shock treatment, the second installment, Flower of Flesh and Blood, always captivated my attention. Flower of Flesh and Blood is dark and confrontational in an almost Mondo-esque way, with a pseudo-documentary approach. The foundation that the film is based on is that writer and director Hideshi Hino was contacted by a crazed fan, and sent a snuff film.

The film itself is not a full length feature, clocking in at a little over forty minutes, but is nevertheless very disturbing. The thing that stands out the most for me is the artistry behind the special effects. Since the vast majority of the film is set in the dingy, torture dungeon, I could not help becoming fascinated with the sheer brutal realness of the effects. If you find yourself becoming equally fascinated with the special effects, I highly recommend you look into the added "Making of" DVD that eventually proved their innocence against claims of snuff.

In my opinion, to an American viewer, this film contains a particularly horrifying element, namely the element of unfamiliarity. I have no idea how the Japanese people handle crimes or violence in general, so there is a great sense of unfamiliarity that haunts me the most. It is this added sense of fear that really puts this film above all other gore films in my book. Those who can stomach the visceral gauntlet that is Flower of Flesh and Blood will find that it is certainly worth its notoriety.

Cinema Suicide's Bryan White on The Story of Ricky

There are gory movies and then there is The Story of Ricky. In 1988, T.F. Mou's World WarII atrocity flick, The Men Behind The Sun, required the Hong Kong film industry to add a new category to its rating system. The hardest rating a movie could get at the time was Category IIB, which was a pretty hard R, but Men Behind The Sun was so incredibly hardcore that it required a new rating entirely. Category III came along and opened the door for producers to go off the reservation and come up with some of the most taboo-shattering movies the world has ever seen. Rapists and cannibals seemed to be the order of the day (and a healthy portion of explicit sex comedies) but in 1991, The Story of Ricky was released, adapted from a Japanese manga, and they added movies about guys punching people so hard their heads explode to that list.

Ricky is a prisoner in a near-future dystopia where the prisons have been privatized. He's in for killing the drug dealer responsible for the death of his girlfriend. The prison population lives in fear of the Warden's Gang of Four, four super powered criminals who eviscerate anyone who so much as look at them funny. As luck would have it, Ricky is also a super powered martial artist, and he's going to stand up to the Gang of Four and the evil Warden... mostly by punching holes in everyone.

The Story of Ricky isn't really a horror movie, but it has blood and guts out the wazoo. It's a stone-cold serious story about a guy in a corrupt prison setting and everything about it is played straight. The moment Ricky starts uppercutting people's jaws off, however, the movie takes a sharp left turn on its way to crazy town. The entire movie, start to finish, is a blur of bloody violence and the overall tone is akin to a Kool-Aid sugar rush. Talking about the violent highlights of the movie makes you sound crazy, or as though you're making it all up as you go along. Ricky punches a fat guy in one side of the stomach and his fist erupts through his stomach lining, resulting a flood of gore as everything falls out. Another scene involved Ricky being strangled by the intestines of a Gang of Four member who had just cut them out on his own. Tops of heads erupt from being hit, brains fall out, Ricky ties his own severed tendons back together with one hand and his teeth! Ricky punches a guy in the face so hard that the movie, in a tribute to Sonny Chiba's The Street Fighter, cuts to X-ray vision so we can see the skull cave under the force. Every gory and outrageous scene tops the last and the film's conclusion inspires peals of hysterical laughter when the Warden finally Hulks out and fights Ricky.

Not too put to fine a point on it, but I'm glad I live in a world where The Story of Ricky exists.

Fandomania's Paige MacGregor on Eden Lake

I can’t say that I chose to watch Eden Lake the first time because I’m a fan of the director or because the plot piqued my interest. In fact, I’d never heard of James Watkins and I decided to watch Eden Lake before I even read a plot synopsis. I can’t even credit my burgeoning interest in the academic side of the horror genre for turning me on to Eden Lake. The reason that I was so determined to watch this movie is both simple and embarrassing, and can be summed up in two words: Michael Fassbender. Little did I know how gruesome and disturbing my latest foray into the world of one of my favorite new actors would prove to be—nor did I expect that I was about to discover what has become one of my favorite horror films—when I popped the movie into my DVD player. In fact, by the end of the film’s 91-minute run-time I positively despised Eden Lake. It was only later, after reflecting on the profound effect the film had on me, that I realized how brilliant Eden Lake really is. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Although the violence and gore featured in Eden Lake initially turned me off, it is that very gory violence that made such a lasting impression on me and later made me realize how well crafted this movie is. It’s true that films like Eli Roth’s Hostel and Hostel II are exceedingly gory and arguably highlight violence for the sake of violence (although yes, an argument can be made that there is purpose behind the violence in those films—but that’s a conversation for another time), but many films of that nature lack a certain degree of authenticity, which Eden Lake possesses. The brutal depravity displayed by the adolescent antagonists in the film is both horrifying and at the same time disturbingly realistic, a fact that contributes to the polarizing nature of the film.

The horror genre has a long history of exploring the concept of children as dangerous or frightening, and Eden Lake takes this notion to a whole new level. Inevitably some viewers will dismiss the actions of the youths in Eden Lake as unrealistic, but in my opinion nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, antisocial personality disorder (the clinical terminology for sociopaths) is diagnosed in individuals over the age of 18 based in large part due to their actions in childhood and early adolescence. In other words, just because viewers might not want to believe that kids are capable of willfully and purposefully slicing and dicing someone like Steve doesn’t mean that it can’t or won’t happen—and it does so much more frequently than you might think, too.

As a person with a profound interest in both psychology and film, Eden Lake satisfies my interests on multiple levels. Not only is the film entertaining for viewers looking for nothing more than some gore and a good, suspenseful chase, but it will also speak to individuals on an intellectual basis—if they’re open to it, that is. Aside from its previously mentioned characteristics, Eden Lake is an excellent example of the unspoken preoccupation with the penetration and mutilation of the human body so inherent in the horror movie genre, especially in the gore subcategory that we’re examining this week. When you consider what gory horror movies like Eden Lake would be without violent, gruesome, or brutal penetration of the human body, whether with a machete √† la Jason Voorhees, an axe, or a utility knife like that used by Brett and his followers in Eden Lake, the only conclusion is that the sub-genre would cease to exist altogether.

In summary, Eden Lake might not be the goriest of gory horror movies, but it succeeds in hitting several of my hot buttons, and therefore earned its place as my favorite gory horror film—and after only one viewing, too! I highly recommend that every horror fan check it out.

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Head over to Brutal as Hell to see what Marc Patterson and his crew have come up with. And if you're interested in taking part in the future, just give Marc or myself a holler.

Week 1: Grindhouse & Exploitation
Week 2: Creature Features & Monster Movies
Week 3: Demons, Witches & The Devil

Join us next week, when we'll be yucking it up with our favorite horror comedies!
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