Category Archives: 5-Freaky Firsts

Freaky Firsts Day 8: The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus (1962)

Wacky World of Dr Morgus 1963Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Roul Haig

Writers: Roul Haig, Noel Haig

Cast: Sid Noel, Dan Baron, Jeanne Teslof, David Kleinberger, Thomas George, John Ferdon

Plot: Momus Alexander Morgus (Sid Noel), a mad scientist living above the Old City Ice House in New Orleans, is working on his latest project: curing an ailing artist (John Ferdon) of his sniffles with a little old-fashioned brain surgery. As Morgus and his assistant, a mute hangman named Chopsley (Thomas George) attempt to work wonders on his newest patient, reporter Pencils McCane (Dan Barton) is drowning his sorrows in a dance club. Pencils recently turned in a story about Morgus and his “girlfriend,” Zelda, but nobody at the newspaper believed him. Morgus’s latest invention is a machine that can turn a person into dust, then restore them to life, and Pencils is determined to get the story.

Pencils persuades Morgus to take him back to see Zelda again – a beautiful young woman who has been kept in a hypnotic trance for years, preserving her youth eternally. (Because hypnosis does that, you see – stops the aging process. What, you didn’t know that? And you call yourself a scientist.) Morgus informs Pencils that he and Zelda will be married soon, and offers as proof the large diamond fused directly to her finger. Roaming the Ice House, Pencils uncovers Morgus’s new machine, and gets him to demonstrate its use on a cat. It seems to work, but the white cat Clyde comes out black and smaller on the other side.

Pencils submits Morgus’s machine to a United Nations Science Symposium, where a Microvanian national, Bruno (David Kleinberger) learns of it and sees the potential to use it to smuggle spies into the United States. They send a beautiful blond spy, Mona Speckla (Jeanne Teslof) to New Orleans to try to pry the secret from Morgus. Meanwhile, the Doctor is knee-deep in “wedding plans.” Mona convinces first Pencils, then Morgus to join her on the way to the “science symposium” – really a ploy by the Micorvanians. Really, you know they’re going to be evil from the outset based entirely on the ridiculous accent they speak in. Morgus cheerfully begins condensing a squad of Microvanians for them, dumping their powdered remains into a box. Mona, meanwhile, has fallen for Pencils, and wants to defect from Microvania.

Back in the Ice House, Zelda has escaped. What’s more, the crate of dust left from the transformed Microvanians is damaged in transit and the remains are given over to a concrete company. Morgus and Chopsley race to the docks (in a scene that’s particularly entertaining for me – a sort of low-speed “high speed chase” down New Orleans’s Canal Street in the 1960s), but they’re too late to stop them from being dumped into a concrete mixer and poured as part of the last yard of a roadway project: the aptly-named “People’s Avenue.”

Thoughts: Every city in America (or at least every city worth visiting) at one time or another had a late-night creepshow movie host: Vampira, Svengoolie, and Elvira are immortal names, and wherever you are, you can probably recall your own local celebrity of the night. In the New Orleans area, where I grew up, our late night host was Morgus the Magnificent, a mad scientist whose experiments served as the framing sequence for that week’s movie. Morgus ran from the 50s through the 80s, with reruns on the air as recently as 2011, and all horror-loving children of Nola have a deep affection for Morgus, and still consider ourselves members of the Higher Order. When a local company got the rights a few years ago to produce a DVD of Dr. Morgus’s feature film debut (also his final feature film), I had to snap it up. Finally, “Freaky Firsts” gave me the perfect excuse to finally watch it.

As one of those kids, this movie won me over almost immediately. Although it was interesting to see Morgus outside of his comfortable home in the Old City Ice House, seeing him traipsing about the city of New Orleans, taking him outside of the set where we’d watched him for such a long time, made the film a bit more special. Granted, much of the film (at least the parts where Morgus actually appears) feels like an extended episode of his TV show. The opening sequence, where he hopes to cure a painter’s stuffy nose by cutting into his brain, is straight out of the late night antics he got up to throughout my childhood. I’m really rather sorry that Erin was at work when I watched this, because it’s hard for me to tell if this movie would be genuinely entertaining to anybody who didn’t grow up watching Morgus, or if it’s mostly my affection for the character that made watching it so much fun.

As far as that invention goes, it’s an absolutely ludicrous idea, but the way it works and the fact that it’s actually used in conjunction with a United Nations science symposium can’t help but make me think of The 1966 Batman: The Movie, in which Batman’s foes use a nearly identical device for a similar purpose to that planned by the Microvanians in this movie. It’s almost too close to accept as mere coincidence, and one has to wonder if screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. ever spent any time in New Orleans.

The overall story, on the other hand, is truly scattershot. The subplot with Zelda, for example, is utterly extraneous, adding nothing to the film but time. (It is, to be fair, a pretty quick film – just 83 minutes.) The prologue sequence with the ailing artist and his stuffy nose is an interesting introduction to Morgus, but has nothing to do with the rest of the events of the film. Even the parts that are directly related to the plot, the Microvanian invasion and the powder machine, are loosely knit together at best. There’s no real logic behind Pencils having anything to do with the United Nation Science Symposium, for example, but there you are. Even though the film is branded as a horror/comedy, there’s really nothing horrific about it once you get past Morgus’s makeup and the particularly creepy relationship with Zelda. This is far more Munsters than The Frighteners.

Sid Noel as Dr. Morgus is frankly the only standout in a particularly bland cast. Oh, Bruno has a little bombast in him, but nothing that will stay with you for any period of time. Noel, however, has his usual bizarre allure as Morgus. He’s weird, even a little hideous, but for all his buck teeth and bug eyes, something about him remains absolutely delightful.

I don’t often spend a lot of time talking about the quality of a particular film print here, because I’m mostly about digging out the story and the characters, and frankly, the quality might vary from one print or one transfer to another. But in the case of The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus, I’m going to make an exception. The film was restored as much as possible, but there are still plenty of lines and artifacts on the screen, and somehow, that just makes it all the more charming. It helps with the time capsule quality of the whole experience. It really does bring back the feeling of sitting back late at night and watching an old Universal Monster picture, or some 50s Roger Corman cheesefest.

I had a lot of fun watching this film, but like I said, I can’t be sure if that’s because it’s actually good, or merely because I love the good Doctor. But in truth, does it really matter? Granted, I can’t transfer my experience over to you, but one of the things I set out to examine when I began my first Reel to Reel project was the way our experiences influence the way we take in story. For the brief 83 minutes of this project’s run time, my experiences helped make me very happy, and that’s never a bad thing.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 7-Leprechaun (1993)

Leprechaun 1993Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Mark Jones

Writer: Mark Jones

Cast: Warwick Davis, Jennifer Aniston, Ken Olandt, Mark Holton, Robert Gorman, Shay Duffin, John Sanderford, Pamela Mant, John Volstad

Plot: In a delightful drunken stupor, Dan O’Grady (Shay Duffin) comes home to North Dakota from a trip to Ireland, and informs his wife (Pamela Mant) he took a Leprechaun’s pot of gold. That night, the Leprechaun itself (Warwick Davis) springs from Dan’s suitcase and shoves Mrs. O’Grady down the basement stairs. When Dan returns from hiding the gold, he holds up a four-leaf clover – which evidently has the same effect on Leprechauns as crosses to vampires or Kryptonite to Superman – and shoots it. He crates the Leprechaun and is about to torch it, but collapses, seemingly dead.

Ten years later – conveniently explained to us by a title card on the screen – Tory Reding (Jennifer Aniston and her original nose) and her father J.D. (John Sanderford) move into the old O’Grady house, Tory complaining as much as a spoiled debutante who ran away from her dentist fiancé at the altar and just can’t get the hang of life in the big city on her own. She runs into handyman Nathan (Ken Olandt), whose rampant sexism pretty much guarantees they’ll hook up before the end of the movie. In an effort to prove how tough she is, she elects to stay. She also attempts to ply Nathan with Kool-Aid in the basement and finds the crate, waking up the Leprechaun, which means the fact that there are at least seven movies in this franchise is entirely her fault.

The Leprechaun uses a child’s voice to trick Nathan’s evidently mentally-handicapped assistant, Ozzie (Mark Holton) into freeing him from the crate. Ozzie escapes to warn everyone, none of whom believe a word, because even the 12-year-old (Alex, played by Robert Gorman) thinks he’s an idiot. Still, when an unbelievably clear rainbow appears in the sky, Ozzie and Alex follow it to a rusted pickup truck with a gold piece on the front seat. At the house, the Leprechaun scratches Tory’s leg while hiding under the car, then hides in a tree so he can bite J.D., who will apparently stick his hand in any hole that he thinks has a cat in it.

The Leprechaun follows them to town, where J.D. is seeking medical help and Ozzie and Alex look to get their gold appraised. The Leprechaun kills the coin dealer (John Volstad), then rushes off in a toy car – really – until he gets pulled over and kills a cop, too. While he’s doing this, Tory proclaims her vegetarianism, setting up the image of them as being obnoxious and pushy that would last for at least 20 years. The house painting trio take her home and Nathan announces his intention to stay in the house overnight, as all paid house painters do. The Leprechaun finally attacks, catching Nathan in a bear trap and fighting with the whole group.

This happens a little more than halfway through the movie and is followed by a series of set pieces in which he attacks them, sets traps, and tries to get his gold back, because apparently this will make him more powerful. He reclaims the treasure, but has to return and attack again because there’s a single piece missing (which Ozzie swallowed earlier). This is followed by another series of set piece battles, each more humiliating than the last for the good name of the House of Davis.

Ozzie then remembers O’Grady, in a rest home since the stroke he had the night he brought the Leprechaun home, and they decide to seek him out and ask him how to kill it. This, of course, begs the question: If O’Grady knew there was a Leprechaun in the basement of the damned house, why was he selling it in the first place? And furthermore, isn’t that the sort of thing a realtor is required by law to disclose to the new owners? “Spider infestation, leprechaun in basement, total number of murders: 12?” Something like that.

Tory finds O’Grady mangled in the nursing home elevator. Bleeding and dying, he tells her the only way to kill a leprechaun is to put a freshly-plucked four-leaf clover on its body, rendering it vulnerable to more conventional means of killing things. She rushes back to the house, where there’s a clover patch (glowing green, as it turns out), and begins searching for a bit o’ luck. Nathan shows up to save her from the Leprechaun’s latest attack, and the adults continue looking for clover, leaving the child, Alex, to play with a bear trap in an empty barn while there’s a murderous pixie on the loose. He nearly kills the kid, but Ozzie lures him away by revealing the location of the last coin. Tory produces a clover – literally by saying “I believe” – and Alex shoots it down the Leprechaun’s throat with a slingshot. He disintegrates into slime and falls into a well, because at this point Mark Jones said, “what, you mean we need an ending?” But the Leprechaun climbs up once more, so Nathan knocks him back down, fills the well with gasoline, and blows it up in a fashion that would make the Mythbusters cringe.

Thoughts: Isn’t it amazing to think that there was once a time when Warwick Davis could get top billing in a movie over Jennifer Aniston? Even this one? My, what a world we live in.

Despite the fact that this is considered, in some circles, the gold standard of horror movie cheese, I’ve actually never seen it before. And boy, was the cheese factor evident. Warwick Davis wears a costume that’s basically Irish blackface for the entire movie, prancing around like a clown and engaging in antics that would make a circus clown blush. At about the time he rushes off behind Nathan’s pickup truck on a tricycle, Erin turned to me and said, “Do you think he ever regrets doing this?” I replied, “Well, he made five more of them, so if he did, the regret was outweighed by the paycheck.”

This is, in essence, a slasher movie, a kind of last gasp of the great 80s onslaught of brutal killers, and as such, it makes use of the tropes of the genre, including nasty traps and over-the-top set pieces. Unlike the Michaels or Freddies of the world, though, the Leprechaun has a bizarre predilection towards tiny automobiles, which of course makes perfect sense given his origin as a creature of Irish folklore and the fact that he’s 600 years old.

Due to his size, the closest real equivalent to the character in Who’s Who Among Movie Killing Machines would be Chucky, but that’s a comparison that only makes the Leprechaun pale. The first Child’s Play movie, back before they gave up on trying to be frightening and went straight for black comedy, at least had some genuinely creepy moments of a doll coming to life. It’s an image that freaks out a lot of people anyway, and the movie rolled with that, and as a result the battles between Chucky and his larger co-stars never looked nearly as silly as those between the Leprechaun and his. The first “fight scene,” such as it is, shows him clawing at Nathan’s ankle while Jennifer Aniston beats him over the head with a sick. And while this movie is, of course, pre-Friends, Aniston put for them same sort of performance she did every time that series wanted to show her being out of her element – flailing wildly and ineffectually, and frankly, comically.

This movie is trying to be darkly comedic, but fails on every level, primarily on the level that it’s just not funny. The gags are stale, the performances are weak, the characters are awful, and as much as I despise the cult of political correctness, even I start to feel uncomfortable every time Warwick Davis starts singing anything that includes the phrase “fiddle-dee-dee.” By the time he crashes through a fence and leaves a leprechaun-shaped hole behind, you’ve simply got to surrender the entire movie on the grounds that this bit can be wildly funny, but exclusively in old Looney Tunes shorts and that one scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Considering his Academy-award winning performance in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, it’s almost sad to see Mark Holton slumming it in this movie. To think that the man who played the chilling master villain Francis Buxton rolled into this film a mere eight years later, doing his worst impression of Lennie from Of Mice and Men and swallowing a gold doubloon because he utterly misunderstood the idea of “biting” when he thinks that will tell him if the gold is real… well, it’s just kind of pathetic.

I know this may draw fire from certain circles of horror fans, but this movie was simply awful. It’s easy to mock, at least, and could potentially be some fun as part of a bad movie marathon while your friends sit around and try to pull out their best Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffs on it, but that’s pretty much where the appeal begins and ends.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 6: Screamtime (1983)

Screamtime (1986)Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Directors: Michael Armstrong, Stanley A. Long

Writer: Michael Armstrong

Cast: Vincent Russo, Michael Gordon, Marie Scinto, Robin Bailey, Ann Lynn, Jonathon Morris, Dione Inman, John Styles, Bosco Hogan, Ian Saynor, Yvonne Nicholson, Veronica Doran, David Van Day, Dora Bryan, Jean Anderson, Gary Linley, Matthew Peters

Plot: Ed and Bruce (Vincent Russo and Michael Gordon) are in for a fun night of shoplifting VHS tapes and invading his “friend” Marie (Marie Scinto)’s apartment to watch them. This loose framing sequence brings us into a trilogy of horror shorts.

In the first film, “That’s The Way We Do It,” a penniless puppeteer named Jack (Robin Bailey) is told by his wife Lena (Ann Lynn) she’s taking her son Damien (Jonathon Morris) and moving to Canada. Damien, Jack’s stepson, begins to torment the old man, asking to set fire to his Punch and Judy dolls before they leave and saying Jack isn’t the man his father was. Damien attacks Jack during a show and sets fire to his puppet stage. His Punch puppet survives the blaze, seemingly comes to life, and delivers a savage beating to Damien. When her son doesn’t come home that night, a frustrated Lena finally gives Jack an ultimatum: her or the puppets. Naturally, that night, Punch takes care of her, too. Jack calls a doctor to tend to her, and confesses that he’s afraid of the puppet, who is now acting out his brutal puppet shows for real, and soon, the Doctor dies. The next day, Damien’s girlfriend (Dione Inman) comes to investigate, only to find Jack gone mad, acting out the Punch role. He chases her, falling into a garbage truck, and is crushed.

“Dreamhouse” is next. Newlyweds Tony and Susan (Ian Saynor and Yvonne Nicholson) move into a new house, where Susan begins seeing a boy circling their yard on a bicycle. The house, meanwhile, is a mess – electrical problems and a strange red substance that comes out in the water. Whenever she tries to confront the boy, he vanishes, and blood appears on a kitchen knife she was using to cut vegetables. Instead of running away like a sane person, Susan just keeps waking up Tony in the middle of the night to investigate the strange noises she’s hearing on top of everything else. As he’s gone, she sees a man with a knife prancing through the halls (literally prancing – he dashes past her bedroom door like a ballerina). She sees blood everywhere, a corpse in her bed, a bloody child on the bannister and – most horrific of all – a house painter. She finally calls a medium, Miss Burns (Veronica Doran) to investigate the house, but even she thinks Susan is nuts. Left alone in the house, Susan’s visions converse, and she’s forced to watch one of her ghosts as it slays some of the others. Tony is forced to commit his wife and sell the house. As he comes by to get something he left, he sees the new family, including a boy on a bicycle, a teenager painting a room… and he’s slain by a the killer in the back of his car.

Finally, there’s “Do You Believe in Fairies?” Gavin (David Van Day) is a motorcycle rider desperate for money. He winds up taking a handyman job for a pair of old women named Emma and Mildred (Dora Bryan and Jean Anderson), whose yard is awash in ceramic gnomes. As they interview him for the job, they ask an interesting question – if he believes in fairies. When he notices the large wad of cash Emma pulls his pay from, Gavin plans to rob the women. With his friend Frank (Gary Lindey) and his brother Tim (Matthew Peters), he sneaks into the house. Then the gnomes appear – dozens of the ceramic figures, all inside and giggling at them. When one of them, now full-sized, jumps on Tim’s back… well…, the tension isn’t exactly broken. In the yard, figures wrapped in white crawl from the ground to attack Frank (I don’t know what the hell those are supposed to be, Mummies maybe), while Gavin is faced with the horror of a beautiful girl in period costume who apparently can throw knickknacks with her mind. She winds up stripping his shirt off and making out with him, because why not?, before using her powers to stab him with lots of pointy things. Later, we see the old women hiring a new gardener, where they add the interesting tidbit that the girl who kissed Gavin is their ancestor, and she made a contract with the fairies that they could have the souls of her lovers as slaves.

As the framing sequence ends, a hand pops out of the TV and kills Ed, while Bruce is beaten to death by the Punch puppet. What the hell.

Thoughts: It’s sad that there isn’t really that much to say about what is, essentially, four movies. Michael Armstrong took three of his own unrelated short films and created a fourth to act as a way to piece them together. Unfortunately, none of them is particularly interesting, memorable, or well-made.

The first short, with the puppeteer, feels really by-the-book – you’ve got your poor, put-upon protagonist who is saddled with a miserable family and has to deal with their cruelty and indifference towards his own life. And what’s more, considering that Damian is an older teenager, one has to wonder at what stage of life Jack and Lena even got married. If the whole Punch and Judy thing was so reprehensible for her, why did she marry this guy in the first place? It doesn’t make sense from any sort of character standpoint.

Perhaps the best selling point of this short is the reveal that it’s Jack himself who is murdering people, and not the puppet. Although Anderson is anything but a competent director (more on that later), he does a fairly effective job of angling the camera so as to make it appear that Punch is supposed to be moving on his own. When the girlfriend sees that Jack has been manipulating the puppet all along, you remember suddenly that all of the shots concealed where Jack’s puppeteer would be, in the best Muppet fashion. You’re simply so ready for the movie to be a crappy supernatural horror film that it’s actually sort of refreshing that it turns out to be a crappy slasher film instead.

Then there’s “Dreamtime,” a short with a reveal that really forces you to scratch your head. Again, it’s a twist – instead of visions of the house’s horrific past, Susan was having visions of its horrific future. It’s an interesting idea that helps keep this from being just a standard haunted house story. That said, many of Anderson’s directing choices are so poor that it totally negates any chance for the short to build real momentum. The pacing is intolerably sluggish, and there are plenty of slow, interstitial shots that really add nothing to the story, the mood, the characters… anything. Plus, I know it was the early 80s, but Susan’s glasses… man. Lenses that would overwhelm the most doe-eyed Anime girl set in chintzy plastic frames that belong not in a classy British suburb, but in any of America’s finest trailer parks.

“Do You Believe in Fairies?” is set up like a morality tale – Gavin and his crew are pretty reprehensible, and you’re ready for just about any nasty thing to happen to them. But any hope you have of some sort of satisfying karmic retribution evaporates when Tim is attacked by the gnome. A diminutive actor in the stupidest, most stereotypical costume you could possibly imagine is not the way to jolt your audience into compliance with the acceptable social norms of your civilization. Frankly, the whole thing could have boiled down to our three crooks versus the Lollipop Guild from The Wizard of Oz and it would have been just as – if not more – frightening.

As if Anderson hadn’t worked hard enough to convince us he didn’t belong in a director’s chair, the short ends with Emma asking the new gardener, “Do you believe in fairies?” and then looking directly at the camera. All it was missing to achieve maximum cheesiness was a literal wink at the screen. It didn’t help that, cutting back to the framing sequence, Ed answers her before he’s strangled by a disembodied hand that has nothing to do with anything.

The framing sequence, the piss-poor attempt to tie all of this together into something cohesive, is perhaps the biggest mess of all. Starting with a shower scene that pretty much defines the word “gratuitous,” we then see Maria seduce Bruce for no apparent reason, then everyone dies for even less of a reason.

Is this film hopeless? I honestly don’t know. I watched this one alone, while Erin was at work, so it’s possible that I lost out on part of the experience of communally enjoying a crappy movie. The film does have some of the elements that make a really good bad movie too, including bad acting and terrible costumes. The problem is, I don’t know if it has enough of any of those things to make it worth watching. And frankly, having seen it once already, I don’t really feel compelled to test the theory. I won’t be revisiting this one, but if you choose to do so, I recommend getting some friends together before you start, and let me know if it’s more fun to watch it with them than I had watching this stinker by myself.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 5: Beautiful Creatures (2013)

Beautiful CreaturesNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Richard LaGravenese

Writer: Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone

Plot: Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a teenager in a small South Carolina town, is plagued by dreams of a beautiful girl he’s never met. His town is crushing him – oppressive and overbearing, driving him to read banned books like To Kill a Mockingbird (this is how you know he’s edgy, kids). When he gets to the first day of school, he meets a new girl, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) who looks mysteriously like the girl in his dreams. People in town gossip about Lena, even accusing her and her uncle Macon Ravenwood (seriously, that’s his name, and he’s played by a Jeremy Irons who chews so much scenery he probably got lockjaw) of being devil worshippers. When the crowing of her catty classmates becomes too calamitous, Lena accidentally causes the large windows in the room to shatter, convincing everyone she’s freakier than they thought.

Ethan gives Lena a lift home from school, and they grow closer, which Macon doesn’t approve of at all. Eventually, Lena confesses to Ethan the truth: she and her family are “casters” (because “witch” isn’t a politically correct term anymore), and on her 16th birthday she will be driven to embrace either the light or dark nature of her power. Because this is a movie and the plot requires it, she fears that she’ll fall to the darkness. To make matters worse, her cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) shows up, aiding Lena’s long-lost mother Sarafine, who has possessed the Bible-thumping Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson, who along with Irons clearly made this movie as a lark). Sarafine wants to drive Lena to the dark and use her power to exterminate all the humans in the world.

Ethan and Lena discover their ancestors during the Civil War were in love, and when Lena’s great-great-ish grandmother used a forbidden spell to save Ethan’s great-as-sour-candy grandfather’s life, she cursed the Duchannes women in some way that isn’t entirely clear but, I believe, has something to do with their stupid southern accents. In order to undo the curse, someone Lena loves must die. To protect Ethan, she gives him a snowfall for Christmas and wipes out his memory.

During the town’s annual Christmas Civil War reenactment (who the crap knows?) Ridley arranges to Ethan to be shot by a real bullet. When he lies, dying, Ridley and Sarafine try to turn Lena to the dark, but fails when Ethan reveals himself to be a magically-disguised Macon, whose death satisfies the terms of the curse and lifts it. He dies telling Lena to “claim yourself.” She rips her mother from Mrs. Lincoln’s body and traps her, but still isn’t really sure if she’s good or bad. Six months later, Lena runs into Ethan – still with no memory of their time together, and she gives him a book to take on a college tour. As he rides away, he reads a passage that triggers his memory of her and calls her name. She hears him, and wrenches herself free of the darkness.

Thoughts: I’m a high school teacher, so I’m usually aware of what books are popular with teenagers at any given time. For a few years there, that Beautiful Creatures series was on a pace to perhaps outstrip Twilight as the pseudo-horror romance of choice. As such, I pretty much stayed away from it. When the movie came out last year, I was somewhat amused to see how violently the book’s fans seemed to react to it, saying it “ruined” their beloved novel. It just goes to show you, doesn’t matter if it’s comics, books, TV, video games… hardcore fans are all the same.

It would be easy to write off Beautiful Creatures as just one of the dozens of Twilight knock-offs out there, but based purely on the movie, there aren’t as many similarities as one would think. There’s no creepy stalker vibe, first of all – Lena is actually 16 years old and not a century past her sell-by date. There’s legitimate tension within her family. There’s no attempt to paint either Ethan or Lena as perfect, and in fact, they both take strong, decisive action at various points in the movie in an attempt to protect the other, something that Bella Swan couldn’t even imagine doing.

None of this is to say that Beautiful Creatures is a good movie, mind you, just better than Twilight. There’s still a lot about this movie that’s just plain goofy, and not really in a fun way. The nonsense about calling witches “casters,” first of all. In The Walking Dead, we’re asked to accept the conceit that this is a world where there were never any popular zombie movies, books, TV shows, etc., and that the word “zombie” does not exist, so it’s okay to call them “Walkers.” Silly as that is, at least it’s an effort. This movie has several people straight-up accusing the Ravenwood family (whose name we need not even begin to discuss in terms of pure goofiness) of being witches, but they somehow can’t quite embrace the term.

Ehrenreich and Englert, our star-crossed lovers, both put in passable performances, but never really heat up the screen together. There’s as much chemistry here as any high school production of Grease (and here I am specifically referring to the chemistry between Kenickie and the high school principal), and while you can kind of see why they’re drawn together, the script works way too hard to convince us they’re right for each other than the end result puts on display. Their mutual love for “banned books,” for example, is pretty heavy-handed… almost as heavy-handed as the scene in English class where one of their classmates says she can’t read To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s been banned by the church and that she doesn’t think she should have to be in a class with non-Christians like Lena anyway. As if that weren’t enough, she immediately starts a prayer circle, which the teacher impotently warns her she can’t do in school. Between the Christian-bashing and the mocking of the politically correct crowd, I’m not entirely sure who the movie was trying to slander, but it succeeded mostly in making the viewer wish they’d rented Hocus Pocus rather than convincing anybody of anything of substance.

The accents in this movie are so over-the-top that you want to climb into the screen, look behind the camera at the director and shout, “Okay. They’re southern. WE GET IT.” The only ones who even come close to selling it are Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson, who are in fact both treasured actors and way the hell too good to be in this movie. One can only assume that each of them either has a teenage daughter that really wanted them to take the part or that they’ve reached that blessed pinnacle of their careers where they’ve made all of the award bait they can handle and they feel like just screwing around for a few years making fluff.

While not a horrible movie, there’s not an awful lot to recommend Beautiful Creatures either. You won’t need to set your TV on fire if it happens to show up when you flip to HBO, but there’s no real reason not to switch to HBO2 and watch a rerun of Game of Thrones either.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 4: Devil’s Pass (2013)

Devils Pass 2013Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Renny Harlin

Writer: Vikram Weet

Cast: Holly Goss, Matt Stokoe, Luke Albright, Ryan Hawley, Gemma Atkinson, Richard Reid, Jane Perry, Boris Stepanov, Nikolay Butenin, Nelly Nielsen, Valeriy Fedorovich

Plot: Based on the real-life Dytalov Pass incident, this movie features a film crew venturing into Russia to solve the 50-year-old mystery of a group of lost backpackers. Holly King (Holly Goss) believes the victims fell prey to real and documented symptoms of hypothermia, whereas her film partner Jensen Day (Matt Stokoe) refuses to believe such expert hikers would have died so easily. With their sound operator Denise (Gemma Atkinson) and a pair of climbers (Luke Albright as JP Hauser and Ryan Hawley as Andy Thatcher), the crew trains and heads to Russia…

Then vanish.

Their disappearance becomes international news, and theories as to their disappearance grow as wild as that of the original Dyatlov hikers: magic, aliens, or a thin membrane in the fabric of time and space that leads to another world. Their footage is found (making this one of the few “found footage” movies to take the name of its subgenre quite so literally), and although the Russian government attempts to suppress it, a hacker group steals it and releases it.

Arriving in Russia, Holly’s crew interviews Alya, one of the searchers who found the bodies in 1959, who describes the scene with such lovely terms as “a trail of organs.” The most disturbing part of her description, though, is that the rescuers found 11 bodies, not the nine that have always been reported.

As they march into the mountains, they begin finding unusual phenomenon, such as a trail of enormous footprints made by what look like human feet in far colder temperatures than anyone could stand being barefoot for more than a few minutes. They start to hear things, then find an old weather station with a human tongue. Jensen breaks down, and as Holly tries to comfort him, a pair of creatures run past in the distance, unseen by the crew, but captured on camera.

Arriving at Dyatlov Pass, the crew marks the spots where the bodies were found and Holly describes their deaths for the camera – all dead of hypothermia, but all suffering assorted injuries as well. Exploring the area, Holly and Jensen find a metal door buried in the snow. In the night an avalanche destroys the camp, killing Denise and breaking Andy’s leg. Jensen is convinced that someone set the avalanche on purpose to dispose of them. They think they’re saved when a pair of hikers arrive, but they shoot JP. Forced to leave Andy behind, the others make it into the door.

They follow a long tunnel underground, ending in a lab (Of course it ends in a lab) which has been utterly trashed, although the light bulbs still seem to work. They find photos of the old Philadelphia Experiment, an American teleportation project that went terribly wrong. JP is attacked and consumed by a pair of the creatures – ugly, emaciated, twisted people who contort in weird shapes and seem to blink in and out of existence. They find a tunnel that looks like some sort of hole in time (it actually looks really cool, I can’t think of a better way to describe it), and Jensen speculates it’s where the creatures originated from, that similar portals could be responsible for unexplained phenomenon around the world. Trapped, he convinces Holly to try to use the portal to teleport to safety. They wind up on the side of the mountain, but in 1959, where their bodies are collected by the Russian military and brought down into the lab (along with Holly’s camera). They hang Holly and Jensen’s bodies on hooks below ground, and we see them mutating, becoming two of the creatures that stalk Dyatlov Pass.

Thoughts: A lot of people have an irate, visceral hatred of “found footage” movies, as if there’s nothing good that can be done with the genre. This is pretty short-sighted to me. Sure, there have been tons of crappy found footage movies, films that try to use shaky cameras to cover up bad special effects and cheap budgets, but then you get something like the magnificent Chronicle, and the form pretty much justifies itself.

For the most part, Devil’s Pass is much more entertaining than the average found footage fare. Unlike the bulk of such movies (set in the woods or caves or similarly dark places), this movie is set in a snow-covered mountain range. It gives it a very distinct visual appeal, much clearer and cleaner than most found footage films, and the stark white vista is far less forgiving of cheesy camera stunts. When there are camera tricks – at several moments the picture bounces and glitches – it’s almost always done to signify that the crew is near the otherworldly creatures, even though they’re unaware of it.

The big night scenes, such as the avalanche, are actually really effective, as the slow crumble of the snow down the mountain turns into a wave. Denise’s death is even cool – she slides directly into the camera, which in this movie is literal, her head cracks the lens when she crashes into it. The movie even addresses the usual “why the hell are you still filming this?” question that found footage falls prey to – Holly explicitly says that she wants a record of what happened, no matter what, so that they don’t wind up as another Dyatlov mystery.

It’s by no means perfect, though. The movie definitely falls prey to what TV Tropes refers to as “Awesome McCoolname.” When you hear about characters with monikers like “Jensen Day” and “JP Hauser,” you get pulled out of the movie any time they call each other by name. But Devil’s Pass’s biggest weakness probably comes in with the reveal of the creatures. Although the design is good, they’re heavily CGI, and it looks like Holly and Jensen are trying to fight creatures from a video game. I know that’s a standard complaint to make about an effects movie, but damn it, sometimes there’s simply no other way to explain what you’re looking at on screen. My wife, who had been enjoying the film up to this point, simply said, “And that’s where it lost me.”

It didn’t lose me, not as badly at least. Bad computer graphics aside, I think Devil’s Pass has a lot going for it. It avoids a lot of the tropes that damn bad found footage movies, and at the same time has a fairly clever storyline that pokes a hole into actual history and mixes it with a very healthy formula of science fiction and horror. While it isn’t going to be remembered as one of the all-time greats, and it’s not a movie I picture myself watching over and over again, it’s an enjoyable way to spend 100 minutes and worth taking a little time on.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 3: The Frighteners (1996)

Frighteners 1996Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Peter Jackson

Writer: Peter Jackson & Frank Walsh

Cast: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, Troy Evans, Julianna McCarthy, R. Lee Ermey, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Danny Elfman

Plot: Paranormal investigator Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) has a good racket going. His ghostly assistants Stuart (Jim Fyfe), Cyrus (Chi McBride) and the Judge (John Astin) “haunt” a house, and he goes in to “exterminate” them for a healthy fee. After the mysterious death of a recent client, Ray, (Peter Dobson), Frank learns of a rash of sudden deaths that appear to be heart attacks, but whose victims were in perfect health. Ray’s wife, Lucy (Trini Alvarado) turns to Frank for comfort, made a bit awkward by the fact that Ray’s ghost is right there. Frank witnesses a shrouded figure (a “Grim Reaper,” according to the Judge) murdering a man, whose spirit takes the light-filled corridor to the afterlife – a choice Ray and Frank’s ghosts failed to make when given the opportunity.

FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) is brought in to investigate Frank, now a suspect in the strange deaths. Dammers has suspected Frank for some time, ever since the mysterious death of Frank’s wife. She was found with the number 13 carved into her forehead – something that resonates with Frank, who saw 37 and 38 on the two most recent victims. When 39 is killed in the museum, Frank rushes in to investigate, and the Reaper cuts the Judge’s spirit in two. Frank tries to protect #40 – newspaper editor Magda (Elizabeth Hawthorne), but the Reaper gets her as well, and Frank is arrested.

Lucy’s investigation of the situation leads her to Patricia Bradley (Dee Wallace), who as a teenager was accused of being an accomplice of executed serial killer Johnny Charles Bartlett (Jake Busey). When she visits Frank in jail, “41” appears on Lucy’s forehead. Frank and the ghosts narrowly save her from the Reaper, but Stuart and Cyrus are “killed” as they escape. Frank believes he can stop the Reaper by killing himself, but Lucy instead places him in a hypothermic coma, freeing his spirit to roam. Dammers, meanwhile, abducts Lucy and takes her to a cemetery. Frank saves her from the Reaper, who turns out to be the ghost of Johnny Bartlett. He’s been collaborating with Patricia, trying to top the high scores of history’s worst serial killers.

Frank awakens and, with Lucy, finds Barlett’s ashes, hoping to use them in the hospital where he committed his murders to condemn his soul to Hell. Dammers is in the hospital too, still obsessed with Frank, and Patricia is running through the halls with a shotgun. She kills Dammers and chokes Frank to death. As the corridor to the afterlife appears, Frank rips Patricia’s soul from her body, and Bartlett chases the two of them. He and Patricia are taken to Hell as Cyrus and Stuart reappear to reunite Frank with his wife. It’s a brief reunion, though, as his friends tell him it’s not his time yet, and send him back to Earth and Lucy… who now can see the ghosts too.

Thoughts: Early in his career, Peter Jackson made gooey gorefests like Dead Alive. Today he’s known for the visual effects and epic scale of Lord of the Rings. This film, made in-between those two eras, actually serves very nicely as a bridge between them. The sensibility of the movie feels similar to his early work: funny, while still carrying a sense of the macabre, like Ghostbusters with a more cynical edge. However, here he’s beginning to step aside from the practical effects of his earlier films towards the more high-tech visuals of today. This was 1996, of course, before it was virtually a requirement that every element of a film be soaked in CGI, back when actors had to literally appear on a set together, and Jackson at this early stage actually strikes a very nice balance between the two.

The plot isn’t particularly original – the serial killer coming back as an agent of death has been done before, and since, and better, and worse. And in fact, I think the stuff with the numbers is even a bit of a cheat. If Bartlett cared numbers into victims’ foreheads when he was alive, it seems to me that people would remember that little tidbit. Frank clearly knows who Barlett is the moment he sees his face, but he didn’t know enough about his killings to know about the numbers? I call foul on that one.

That said, the execution of the story is good. Michael J. Fox isn’t quite the slick wisecracker he is in a lot of his performances. He’s wounded and somewhat cold, still struggling with his wife’s death and trying to keep Lucy at a distance despite his attraction to her. His snark is mostly kept to a minimum, and even though he’s technically a con man, he doesn’t put forth the air of a snake oil salesman one would usually associate with that kind of a role. It’s always fun to see John Astin, but it’s kind of a shame that – of the three main ghosts – he was almost completely hidden under makeup. Without his distinctive voice, it’s unlikely that anyone would have recognized him.

The final confrontation, more than any other part of the movie, really shows the filmmaker Peter Jackson was going to become. The fight in the Bradley house, with Barlett leaping through walls and paintings, has a lot of real style to it. It’s CGI, yes, and you know it’s CGI, but it’s not such blatant CGI that it rips you out of the movie, like a lot of movies come across today. Once the action moves to the hospital, the tension is ratcheted up less by the ghosts and more by the two still-living antagonists, who seem in some ways to be even more dangerous. Maybe it’s because he’s a ghost or maybe it’s because he’s Jake Busey, but somehow Barlett’s deranged behavior isn’t nearly as disturbing as that of Dammers or Patricia.

On the sliding scale of horror and comedy, this film definitely leans more heavily on the horror side than Ghostbusters, and even more than Jackson’s own Dead Alive (although it is considerably less grotesque than the earlier movie). The ghosts feel like they came from a less wacky version of Beetlejuice. Combs, meanwhile, is impossible to separate from his character in the Re-Animator series, hamming it up similarly while playing a very different role in this film than those others.

This is a movie that’s been on my “to-watch” list for a very long time, a product of my appreciation for Peter Jackson and my love for Michael J. Fox. This month, I suspect, is going to be great for scratching movies like that off my list. It didn’t disappoint me at all.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 2: Detention (2012)

Detention 2011Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Joseph Kahn

Writers: Joseph Kahn & Mark Palermo

Cast: Alison Woods, Julie Dolan, Shanley Caswell, Josh Hutcherson, Joe Keane, Parker Bagley, Marque Richardson, Aaron David Johnson, Spencer Locke, Travis Fleetwood, Carrie Wiita, Tiffany Boone, Erica Shaffer, Walter Perez, Dane Cook

Plot: Head cheerleader Taylor (Alison Woods) doesn’t show up for school, as she’s been inconveniently murdered by a movie slasher named Cinderhella. Since she’s unavailable, the film instead focuses on Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), a depressed young vegetarian whose suicidal tendencies start to flare up. She’s actually saved from an attempted hanging when Cinderhella attacks her, prompting her to fight her way loose. Unfortunately, nobody believes her, even though a fellow student was butchered just that morning.

Cinderhella turns up again at Riley’s house that night, but she again manages to escape as he (she? I think it might actually supposed to be a she) gets caught up in the neighbor’s swing set, then leaves her in a pool. She tries to convince hipster heartthrob Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson) that she’s not crazy, but instead somehow winds up on a double-date with him and her ex-best friend Ione (Spencer Locke), while she’s stuck with nerd-with-a-crush Sander (Aaron David Johnson).

There are several irrelevant scenes after this, including a football game in which the star player has flashbacks to his own conception (his father was a fly monster), and a fight at a party that wasn’t a costume party after all. That party ends with lunatic jock Billy (Parker Bagley) getting killed by Cinderhella, making us all hope she’s just getting started. Finally, three hours and 27 minutes into this 93-minute film, Riley and several of her friends are given Saturday detention. At night. During the Prom. For the crime of being at a party off-campus when one of their fellow students was killed. Then again, the principal is Dane Cook, so maybe that makes sense in his brain.

Oh yes, there’s also some time-travel, body-swapping, and a kid who has been in detention for 19 years. It’s… it doesn’t even make sense in context. But eventually, it leads us to our cast barricading the school library while Cinderhella tries to break in and kill them and a weird kid (Walter Perez) warns them that the world is going to end in 9 minutes 19 years ago and I think I just got a nosebleed writing that sentence. Riley uses a stuffed bear to go back in time and stop the apocalypse, which is evidently being caused by Clapton, or maybe Sander, or maybe Poppa Freaking Smurf for all I can tell at this point. (As they’re in 1992, my wife commented that the high school must be how “old people feel when they watch a movie about when they grew up and it’s all wrong.” “Baby,” I replied, “I think we’re the old people now.”) And they fix the timestream and… the principal is cool now… and… and… oh, and Cinderhella turns out to be Sander, who fights Clapton in a Mortal Kombat-esque sequence that leads into a Breakfast Club ending, and now I want to go somewhere and cry.

Thoughts: Detention’s inclusion in this list is the result of what I like to call “NetFlix Roulette.” My wife scrolled through the available horror movies with the intention of watching whatever it landed on, then did it again when the first winner was in black and white. I think she regretted this almost immediately.

Detention takes an interesting approach by starting with a character – Alison Woods’s Taylor – who is so thoroughly repulsive as a human being that you’re actually quite happy when the killer “Cinderhella” pops in and slaughters her after only a few minutes of her railing to the camera about how to be as pathetically shallow as possible. It’s actually a nice little bit with a decoy protagonist, although director Joseph Kahn takes it a little farther than is wise – two more minutes of Taylor and I may have turned it off and looked for another film to review.

After the admittedly satisfying death scene at the beginning, the movie then goes through a seemingly interminable sequence introducing our cast – a series of teenagers who are all miserable in different ways that are allegedly entertaining to watch, but in fact, just make them all seem pretentious as hell. Josh Hutcherson, for example, seems poised to be our hero, and therefore distinguishes himself by promising to start a blog where he dismisses any music popular enough for anybody else to have heard of and then argues the relative merits of Patrick Swayze as an action hero versus Steven Segal. Shortly thereafter, my wife started to announce, “Isn’t this supposed to be dying people? I want these people to die and nobody is dying.”

The film cuts around to assorted Family Guy-style aside scenes, frequently punctuated by title cards and weird on-screen commentary, such as assuring us that the movie Detention takes a firm stance against drunk driving, which is probably a relief to all the parents who were waiting for this particular movie to teach their children that valuable lesson. I’m all for metafiction – movies and TV shows that are, in fact, about movies and TV shows can be highly entertaining. But whereas something like Scream was both an interesting commentary on horror movies and an entertaining slasher film in its own right, Detention seems to have been generated by scrawling a bunch of pop culture references onto blank Cards Against Humanity cards, playing a few rounds, and then calling that a script. (I include casting Dane Cook as the principal in this category.)

This movie has many, many faults, but I think most of them can be summed up by comparing it to a shotgun. Joseph Kahn and Mark Palermo clearly intended to parody a dozen different things, but rather than figuring out what point they wanted to make and focusing in on it, they stuffed as many different things down the barrel as they could and shot at the wall, hoping something – anything – would hit the intended target. What they got instead of a hodgepodge of unfocused, uncoordinated scenes that don’t actually seem to mean anything. They aren’t funny enough to work as sketch comedy, and they’re certainly not cohesive enough to make for an effective scary movie.

In the end, Detention is probably one of the scarier movies I’ve seen recently, although not for any of the reasons the filmmakers probably intended. (If you want a movie that has a similar sensibility but is actually… y’know… good… I recommend John Dies at the End.)

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 1: House (1986)

House 1986Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Steve Miner

Writers: Fred Dekker & Ethan Wiley

Cast: William Katt, George Wendt, Richard Moll, Kay Lenz, Mary Stavin, Michael Ensign, Erik Silver, Mark Silver, Susan French, Curt Wilmot

Plot: Things have been better for writer Roger Cobb (William Katt). His marriage has fallen apart, he’s stuck working on a book about the Vietnam War nobody seems interested in reading, and the elderly aunt who raised him was found dangling from the ceiling in her big, lofty home, victim of an apparent suicide. Cobb returns to the house, where he has flashes to his son’s disappearance in the mansion’s pool some time earlier, the incident that led to his estrangement from his wife Sandy (Kay Lenz) and which Aunt Elizabeth (Susan French) chalked up to her house being haunted. Now alone, Cobb decides to stay in the house that has already destroyed his family to work on his book. As he wanders the house alone, he sees a vision of Elizabeth stringing herself up, warning him to leave before she leaps to her death.

The next day he meets his new neighbor, Harold Gorton (George Wendt, who surprisingly doesn’t offer to buy him a beer). The visions in the house persist until he’s assaulted by a bizarre creature in the closet – an ugly mass that looks like a melted wax figure with claws. Instead of running in terror like a sane person, he sets up video cameras and tries to make the creature reappear, embarrassing himself in front of the neighbor. Harold, thinking Roger is having war flashbacks, contacts Sandy to warn her. Things in the house begin coming to life – a huge mounted marlin, assorted garden implements, and so forth – and Roger arms himself. Sandy arrives just then to check on him, but he sees her as a monster and shoots her. When he realizes what he’s done, he hides her body, unaware that Harold heard the shots and called the police. He nervously dismisses them, feeding them a line about his gun going off while he was cleaning it. Once they’re gone, though, he finds Sandy’s body missing.

The Sandy-monster attacks again, taunting Roger about his missing son, but he manages to use the levitating garden tools to behead it, and… yeah, I know that sounds utterly ridiculous, but that’s what he does, and then disposes of the monster’s body in the backyard in a montage set to Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good.” The body parts keep coming back, though, even clinging to the child of his neighbor when he’s somehow tricked into babysitting. (The boy is nearly taken away by a pair of demonic creatures, but that’s really incidental to the plot.)

Telling him there’s a raccoon in his attic, Roger recruits Harold to help him confront the Thing in the Closet. Harold loses his grip, though, and the monster drags Roger through a portal into his own nightmares, the day in Vietnam when his buddy Big Ben (Richard Moll) was mortally wounded. He finds Ben, who begs Roger to kill him, but Roger can’t do it and flees back through the portal, where several hours have passed and Roger has gotten drunk, which never seemed to happen to him in 11 seasons of sitting in a bar every night. Finding a clue in one of his aunt’s paintings, Roger explores the house and finds his missing son, only to face a horrifying, skeletal vision of Big Ben. Ben’s ghost, it seems, has been behind Roger’s troubles, seeking revenge on his friend for leaving him alive and subject to the tortures of the Viet Cong before dying a brutal death weeks later. The two engage in a chase throughout the house, Roger finally triumphing and blowing up Ben with a ghost-grenade… just as the real Sandy arrives for a happy reunion.

Thoughts: Considering my love of 80s television, I’m really quite astonished that I’ve lasted this long on the planet without ever having seen a movie that starts the nigh-holy trinity of William Katt, George Wendt, and Richard Moll. That said, I’ve known of the existence of House (another Sean S. Cunningham joint) for as long as I remember watching movies. It was one of those horror movie staples on the shelves of the video store, the shelves I would browse even though I knew there was no way my parents would allow me to rent one of these movies and, instead, I’d walk out with Mac and Me or something else that I would be forced to shamefully admit on a blog almost 30 years later. On the first night of my “Freaky Firsts” experiment, when I told my wife I’d never seen it, she dove right in.

William Katt is one of those actors that’s almost impossible to divorce from his more famous roles – in this case, that of a teacher with an alien super-suit on the TV show The Greatest American Hero. Even keeping that in mind, he seems an odd choice to be playing a Vietnam vet in 1986. Admittedly, he was 35 years old at the time, old enough to have taken part in the war, but he has such a youthful appearance that I had to look up his birthday to convince myself he wasn’t pulling a Reverse Dawson.

This film is on the horror/comedy line, something I obviously enjoy. While balancing the creepy story, we get moments of pure slapstick, like Katt’s bumbling lawyer (Michael Ensign) almost shooting him with a harpoon gun and returning a sheepish “oops, did I do that?” look that would make Bugs Bunny proud. George Wendt, a man I will idolize until my dying day for his role on Cheers, brings his good-natured bumbling to the table the minute he appears on the screen, first badmouthing the previous owner of Katt’s house, then backtracking and trying to babble his way out when he learns she was Katt’s aunt. He spends most of the movie this way – trying earnestly to be a good neighbor, but at the same time fouling things up for Katt’s character in pretty much every way imaginable. Richard Moll, best known as the gentle giant Bull from Night Court, hams it up considerably as Big Ben, pulling a performance that’s equal parts manic and goofy.

The sillier aspects of the movie, in fact, go on much longer than I really expected. When Roger first walks away from the Thing in the Closet and the screen cuts to (presumably) the next day, when a truck full of camera equipment arrives, I looked at Erin and said, “Because you wouldn’t just get the hell out?” Before she could blame it on the 1980s, though, we’d already reached the point where Katt was bouncing through the house, into the yard, and shamefully trying to convince George Wendt he wasn’t crazy. And really, living as we do in a post-Big Mouth Billy Bass world, the mounted marlin flailing on the wall doesn’t really send shivers up my spine.

In some ways, the movie tries to do too much. The missing son subplot is sandwiched with the Vietnam flashbacks subplot, and together they sort of weigh down on Katt to the point where he comes across as a sad sack. One or the other tragedy probably would have been enough, and compounding them slightly disrupts that balance between horror and comedy. It’s not enough of an imbalance to ruin the film, but especially towards the end, you can start to feel the pressure of everything coming together, and not in an altogether satisfying way. The reveal of Ben as the big bad is a little disheartening as well, although part of that may simply be because… c’mon, it’s Richard Moll, and no matter how many tough guys he’s played, what child of the 80s doesn’t love that big lummox? More so, though, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. Why target Roger instead of the people who actually killed him? And Aunt Elizabeth clearly thought her house was haunted for a long time – when exactly did he start targeting her? And why her instead of Roger? Sure, this was pure 80s diversion horror at its finest, but to see it fall apart so quickly under just a little scrutiny is somewhat disappointing.

On the other hand, it’s nice to see a movie old enough that a lot of the things we take for granted aren’t yet tropes. There’s a moment, for example, where Roger is fumbling with a bottle of medicine at the bathroom sink, and I was 100 percent convinced there’d be a ghost or a skeleton or some sort of creature in the mirror when he stood up. Not only wasn’t there one, but with my expectations averted, I was totally unprepared seconds later when Sandy arrived and turned into a monster.

This is really indicative of the kind of horror movies we had in the 80s – at least, the ones that hadn’t tuned into the slasher subgenre. Movies like this, like Gremlins, like Critters… even, to a degree, like Poltergeist, all drew on on-school horror elements, but mixed in comedic moments much more freely than filmmakers are usually willing to do today. Modern films, at least mainstream ones, are terrified to legitimately blend comedy elements with terror – we’ve got torture porn and PG-13 demons on the one hand, and on the other pure parody like the Scary Movie franchise. I not only liked this movie, I admire it for recognizing that horror and comedy can co-exist in a way that post-millennium movies refuse to do.

House is neither a horror legend nor a comedy classic, but it has enough traces of each that I sincerely enjoyed watching it. The Halloween season is off to a great start.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Starting Tomorrow: Freaky Firsts

This whole “Reel to Reel” thing started a few years ago because I wanted to start a discussion of scary movies. The next year I talked about horror/comedies, and then I spun into more character-centric projects, including last year’s Dracula Week. This year I’ve been pretty busy, but with Halloween coming up again, I wanted to do something to commemorate the occasion here on the blog.

After a little consideration, I decided to take up the challenge of movies I’ve never seen before. What with NetFlix and all the other streaming services out there, not to mention my preposterous collection of horror movie multi-packs full of films I haven’t gotten around to, there are tons of horror films I’ve never seen that deserve a little consideration. So with the help of my wife, Erin, I’m going to spend October discussing as many of these movies as I possibly can.

My goal, at first, was to try to post a review every weekday in October, but between you and me, I didn’t get around to building up the buffer I’d hoped for. So rather than make that sort of promise, I’m going to do as many as I can, beginning tomorrow. For the next month, I’ll be delving into horror movies, horror/comedies, monster movies, and even the odd family friendly piece of Halloween fare. As long as it’s a movie I’ve never seen before, it’s eligible.

So see you back here on October 1 for the first of my month-long celebration of Freaky Firsts!