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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 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!

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 24: The Shining (1980)

shining-posterDirector: Stanley Kubrick

Writer: Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Joe Turkel

Plot: Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a desperate writer, takes a job as the winter caretaker to a mountain resort hotel. Jack and his family – wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) — move to the hotel for the long, isolated winter months, during which there will be little or no contact with the outside world. Even before arriving at the hotel, Danny (via his imaginary friend, “Tony”) has visions of a pair of horrifying twin girls and a river of blood gushing from an elevator. The family makes the long drive to the hotel and meets the outgoing staff, including the chef, Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers). Halloran senses Danny has a psychic gift, and reveals to the boy that he shares the same power, something Halloran’s grandmother called “Shining.” Halloran tells Danny that the hotel has its own “shine,” including some bad memories, and warns him to stay away from room 237.

After a month in the hotel, Jack is struggling with his writing and thirsting for alcohol (he’s been fighting his alcohol addiction since it previously cost him a teaching job and nearly his marriage, when he hurt Danny in a drunken stupor). Fortunately, while the hotel is well-stocked with food for the winter, there’s no booze left in the Overlook. A storm rolls in and knocks out the phone lines to the hotel, and Danny’s visions grow more horrific, while Jack’s behavior grows more surly, abusive, and erratic. When Wendy finds bruises on Danny’s neck she blames Jack, driving him to the hotel’s ballroom, where a friendly bartender ghost (Joe Turkel) pours him his first drink in months. Wendy suddenly bursts in, saying that Danny told her his wound was really the act of a crazy woman in Room 237. Jack investigates the room, seeing a dead woman rising from the bathtub even as Danny – and far away in Miami, Dick Halloran – has horrible visions of the same. Jack lies to Wendy, reporting that the room was empty and that Danny must have bruised himself.

Jack returns to the ballroom, now full of ghosts in a full-on 1920s soiree, and goes for another drink, only to encounter the ghost of a previous caretaker, who advises Jack to “correct” Wendy and Danny. Halloran decides to return to the Overlook, flying in to Denver and renting a Snowcat to get there. Wendy discovers the “work” Jack has been doing – page after page of nothing but the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” She knocks him out and locks him in the pantry, but learns he damaged their own Snowcat, making escape impossible. As Jack returns, Danny escapes, but Wendy is unable to follow him. He hides in the kitchen as Halloran arrives. Jack kills the old man, and Danny’s scream as he “feels” the death alerts him to the boy’s location. Danny flees into the hotel’s hedge maze and Jack follows him, but Danny manages to trick his father by backtracking over his own footprints. When Wendy arrives, fleeing the ghosts of the hotel, she and Danny take Halloran’s Snowcat and run for safety, leaving Jack to freeze to death in the maze. As the film ends, we see an old photograph of Jack, smiling… in a hotel party from 1921.

Thoughts: The statement I’m about to make will firmly divide everybody reading this, so let’s just get it out of the way quickly: I don’t like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. And the thing is, it’s not because I don’t think it’s a good movie – it is, for many reasons I’ll discuss in the next few paragraphs. The reason I don’t like it is because I think it’s a poor adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. I understand that it’s necessary to change some elements of any book when you make it into a movie – some things that work on the printed page just flat-out don’t work on the screen. I get it. But as the sort of person who always comes down on the side of the original storyteller, I think it should be the job of the filmmaker to at least capture the spirit of the original as much as possible. Kubrick took the skeleton of King’s novel and twisted it around, the ending in particular, to make something far more bleak and pessimistic. The amazing thing about King is (with a few exceptions, most of them written under his pseudonym of Richard Bachman) he’s actually a pretty optimistic writer. Good usually wins in his stories, although evil is rarely fully defeated, and the hero usually has to pay a pretty devastating cost. But he ends things with a grain of hope. In the novel, the story ends with Jack Torrance managing to overcome the demons that have him in their grip long enough to blow the Overlook Hotel’s massive boiler unit, destroying the hotel and sacrificing his own life to save his family. The way Kubrick ends the story, with Torrance freezing to death as he tries to kill the son he’d professed such love for earlier, strips the story and the character of Jack Torrance of any element of good he had. If he had done that with his own characters, that’d be fine. Doing that with someone else’s character, to me, is practically a crime.

Okay, enough of that. Let’s talk about why this film is considered to be a classic by many people. Kubrick was a very effective visual storyteller. Even though he downplayed the supernatural elements in favor of having the sense of danger emanating from Jack (were it not for the telepathic moments with Danny and Halloran and Wendy’s brief encounters with the ghosts at the very end, you could almost dismiss everything as the product of Jack’s insanity), he did managed to craft a very expressive Haunted House story, along with all the necessary tropes. The characters are completely removed from outside help – in their case by geography and, once winter comes, weather. Even when Halloran attempts to come in to help out, he has to get a snowmobile and winds up getting killed for the effort. The supernatural elements are introduced fairly early, then used as part of the story’s very slow build-up, with some characters ignoring their existence and others showing a particular sensitivity to the ghosts of the hotel.

The story does lose a point for going with the rather clichéd “Indian Burial Ground” excuse for the hotel’s nasty disposition, but there’s at least a theory that Kubrick tried to use that to make a statement on the plight of the Native American. It’s kind of a strained metaphor, but if you squint really hard and tilt your head a little bit to the left, you can sort of make it out. The other cliché is much more on-the-nose, though. When Jack makes his way to the ballroom, he actually offers his soul for a beer, verbally, out loud, in case the Faustian elements could possibly be lost on the audience. Then again, when Lloyd the Ghost Bartender pours him a drink, he gets bourbon instead. Perhaps this was a subtle cue that the contract wasn’t entirely fulfilled? That Jack – at this point in the story – was still in rudimentary control of his own destiny? Perhaps I think about this a bit too much?

The hotel itself is nearly perfect – a gorgeous, classic-looking setting that changes very easily to a place of sheer terror. The film has a very slow build – we’re over a half-hour into the 144-minute running time before the Torrance family is finally left alone in the hotel, and with the danger implicit therein. Even once we’re alone, Kubrick uses slow techniques to build the tension, such as the long steadicam shots following Danny as he roams the hallways on his Big Wheel bike or the images of Wendy and Danny wandering the hotel’s hedge maze, juxtaposed with the terminally blocked Jack as he wanders the hotel itself.

King reportedly was against the casting of Jack Nicholson, on the grounds that audiences familiar with his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would anticipate him going crazy too early. That may be the case, but he still plays the descent into madness well, if a bit too abruptly. Once he starts going loco about 45 minutes into the movie or so, he’s on a pretty straightforward plunge. Again – and I apologize for harping on this – this is a problem for me. We rarely get the sense that Jack is fighting his descent, or that he’s trying to cling to the love of his family. The scene where he tells Danny how much he loves him could have been played as a man who wants terribly to fight back the darkness, and is losing. It’d be a tragic scene in that case. But instead, you get the feeling right away that at this point he’s already completely Looney Toons and he’s going through the motions, even as the madness creeps through his eyes. To Kubrick’s credit, the next scene does show him waking up from a dream, horrified at the vision of himself murdering Wendy and Danny. It’s a rare moment where Jack is legitimately the victim of horror instead of the source. Later, in the ballroom, Jack bemoans Wendy’s lack of trust, claiming he’d never harm Danny and confessing to the one time Danny was injured by him – a “momentary loss of muscle control” when he yanked the boy up too hard by the arm. Again, this is an attempt to humanize Jack a bit, make him less of an out-of-control outlet for evil, and it’s appreciated. It would just be appreciated more if we saw some of that when he was actually with Danny.

Shelly Duvall – who was by many accounts brutalized by Kubrick on-set to get the performance he wanted – works as a woman who is clinging to a dying hope, then sees it shatter. Danny Lloyd is okay – not particularly memorable amongst the pantheon of child actors but not particularly offensive either. And Scatman Crothers? Hell, there isn’t anything in the world that couldn’t have been made 83 percent cooler by the addition of Scatman Crothers. In truth, I’ve always felt the Halloran character was somewhat wasted in this story – after a fairly epic run where it seems like he’s going to play the cavalry, he instead dies moments after entering the hotel, serving no purpose other than to reveal to Jack where Danny is hiding and to provide a second Snowcat – which, once Jack is dead, is kind of unnecessary. He’s a great character, and gets thrown away pretty much for nothing.

The pop culture footprint of this film is enormous, of course, and I don’t just mean that one SimpsonsHalloween episode that parodies it. Danny’s refrain of “Redrum” and the steady typing that gives us “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” have both become milestones, shortcuts to demonstrate horror in parody. Images like the blood flowing from the elevator and the frozen Jack in the hedge maze, too, are iconic at this point. Although perhaps the most recognizable moment of the film – Jack bursting through the door with a fire axe and exclaiming “Here’s Johnny!” was an ad lib by Nicholson on the set. It’s funny how things like that can happen – a moment of playfulness by Jack Nicolson makes it into the nightmare highlight reels for the next 30 years.

Moving on, it’s time to get to some of the real boogeymen of the 80s, the characters that kept my generation up at night (either scared or laughing, I’ll leave you to be the judge). Tomorrow we look at the first Friday the 13th.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 23: Alien (1979)

alienDirector: Ridley Scott

Writer: Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett

Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Plot: In the far future, the mining ship Nostromo is making a run to Earth, hauling a refinery and 20 million tons of ore for a Corporation. The ship’s computer awakens the crew from its cryogenic sleep, and they expect they’re approaching hope. Captain Dallas (Tom Skeritt) informs the crew they’re only halfway to Earth, but the ship has intercepted a strange transmission that may be of intelligent origin. The ship is damaged upon landing on the planetoid, and Dallas, Kane (John Hurt) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) go off to search for the source of the transmission while Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Ash (Ian Holm), and engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) remain behind to monitor them and make repairs to the ship. Kane’s team discovers an alien ship in ruins. The body of the creature inside the alien craft is enormous, and was apparently destroyed from the inside-out. Kane discovers an alien egg, which bursts open, allowing a tiny creature to affix itself to his face. Dallas and Lambert return him to the ship, but Ripley initially refuses to allow him to enter the ship, citing quarantine regulations. Ash defies her and allows them inside, where he tries to examine the creature. Dallas and Ash try to cut the creature off, only to discover it has acidic blood. The creature dies and Kane wakes up, seemingly in good health. As the crew sits down to dinner, though, he begins going through horrible convulsions. He falls over on the table and his chest explodes, setting free a tiny creature that escapes into the ship.

Hunting for the beast, Brett and Dallas are killed in short order. Ripley investigates the ship’s computer, only to discover that Ash is acting under special orders of the Corporation that sent them into space in the first place. They were deliberately sent to the derelict to find an alien organism and return it for study, and the crew is considered expendable. Ash attacks Ripley, displaying extraordinary strength and leaking a strange white fluid when wounded instead of blood – he is an android. Parker and Lambert save Ripley and destroy the mechanical man. Parker and Lambert go off to retrieve coolant while Ripley preps the escape shuttle, planning to blow up the ship. The alien kills Parker and Lambert and Ripley rushes to activate the ship’s self-destruct mechanism herself. She manages to fight her way to the shuttle and escape the Nostromo before it is destroyed, unaware the alien has boarded the escape craft with her. She comes across the creature sleeping, puts on an atmosphere suit and opens the hatch, blasting the creature into space. As the film ends she records a message to anyone who finds the ship and climbs into suspended animation, hoping she is found sooner rather than later.

Thoughts: I’ve largely avoided science fiction movies in this list, mainly because I hope this “story structure” experiment will be something I can do again and again, and science fiction most certainly deserves its own category (if not several). However, out of all the movies that straddle the fence between science fiction and horror, there are a few that keep to the horror side so firmly that to not include them in this project would be a disgrace. Hence, Ridley Scott’s Alien.

In essence, Alien is a haunted house movie in outer space. It meets the tropes of that genre very nicely – you’ve got a small cast in a confined area from which they cannot easily escape or summon outside help. (How many good Haunted House movies take place in a remote location, during a power outage, or in some sort of horrible weather? There’s always a reason the people trapped in the house can’t just leave, otherwise they look like idiots.) As they run around the “house” (or in this case, spaceship) they make their way through enormous labyrinthine hallways, find evidence of a creature that is beyond human that appears with greater, more violent, and more alarming frequency, and are picked off a few at a time until a single or small group of survivors finally manages to escape. You see parts of the monster, or shadows of its inhuman shape, long before you see the creature in all its glory, building the tension and the fear as you go along. This is why Alien had to go in this list – not only does it fit every Haunted House trope other than the ghost itself, but it does so brilliantly.

Aside from Ridley Scott getting great performances from his actors, much of the credit for this film’s success has to go to creature creator H.R. Giger. Giger’s artwork helped inspire screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, and thus he really was the logical choice to design not only the alien creature itself, but also the environments found on the alien spacecraft. There are scenes, admittedly, where you can tell you’re looking at a matte painting, but it’s an H.R. Giger matte painting, and that automatically makes it 99 percent more awesome than any other matte painting you’ve ever seen, including the one you helped color on your 11th grade production of Oklahoma.

Even certain things that could have looked terrible under other circumstances really work in this film. When Dallas is attacked in the air vent, the beast thrusts its arms at him. If you do a freeze-frame on the image, it’s kind of goofy… the creature throws out jazz hands like it wants to give Tom Skeritt a big, motherly hug. When you only get a glimpse of it, though, it’s scary as hell. And like all good scary movies, you get caught up in it enough that you forget some of the logical holes, like why the ship’s self-destruct mechanism is so damn far away from the escape shuttle. (Seriously, The Corporation? Talk about a design flaw.) Or the fact that we can hear the big ol’ Nostromo explosion in the vacuum of outer space, which is impossible… and this from the film that uses that little nugget of science in its own tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

The English teacher in me also has to give O’Bannon credit for abandoning the film’s original title, Star Beast. This was 1979, both Star Wars and Star Trek were heavily on the public consciousness and going with the “Star” title probably would have made the film successful. But Alien is just flat-out a superior title. It works both as a noun – describing the creature that hunts the crew of the Nostromo – and as an adjective, describing the fact that the thing they’ve found is utterly unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the universe. It’s a nice bit of wordplay that I think helps the movie just a tad.

When the time came, inevitably, to make a sequel to this film, the filmmakers realized it would be nearly impossible to replicate the terror of the original. After all, much of what makes Alien so scary is the fact that you don’t really see the adult creature in full until the near end of the film, allowing the deadly power of the human imagination to do its work. By the time Aliens went into production, the creature was already pretty much public knowledge, so James Cameron took the film in another direction: instead of making an awesome sci-fi/horror movie, Aliens was an awesome sci-fi/action movie. This, of course, was followed by Alien3, a film that was a hybrid of science fiction and “a movie so poorly conceived and directed I got disgusted with the whole franchise and, to this day, haven’t seen the fourth one.” There are also, of course, the two Alien Vs. Predator movies, of which there isn’t much to say. I am looking forward to Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Prometheus, though, which is apparently going to be connected to Alien, although how tightly or in what way is something he’s still playing very close to the vest.

Tomorrow we return to Earth, Stephen King, and the more traditional haunted house idea with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 13: The Haunting (1963)

hauntingDirector: Robert Wise

Writer: Nelson Gidding from the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Cast: Richard Johnson,Julie Harris, Ronald Adams, Claire Bloom, Lois Maxwell, Russ Tamblyn

Plot: Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) and a team of paranormal investigators win the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Hill House, an old manor with a history of tragic deaths amongst its inhabitants. One of them, Eleanor “Nell” Lance, goes behind the back of her overbearing sister to gain access to the car she helped pay for in order to make the trip. Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) is the nephew of the owner of the house, sent along to gain an appreciation for the property he hopes to inherit one day. She befriends a fellow investigator named Theodora (Claire Bloom), whose interest in Nell seems more than academic. As the house begins to “greet” them in its own way, Nell starts to feel a certain attraction to the house, despite its terrors. The spirits seem to be summoning her, even calling to her, taking advantage of a woman who has no real direction in her life following the death of her invalid mother. Luke, meanwhile, is interested in the house only as a moneymaking scheme – what parts he can sell, what parts he can renovate, even to the point of planning to use the spiral staircase scene of a famous suicide as a nightclub.

Nell finds herself attracted to Markway, only to be devastated when his skeptic wife (Lois Maxwell) arrives and insists on joining the hunt. Nell suggests she sleep in the nursery – the sealed-off and most mysterious room in the house – but immediately regrets it. The locked room opens by itself, though, and Mrs. Markway decides to stay. After the rest of the group finds itself cornered in the parlor, loud noises and bulging walls coming in upon them, they find Mrs. Markway missing. As the others begin to tear apart the house searching, Nell (who now believes herself destined to be a part of this house) begins to roam the mansion, joyfully seeking out the spirits, finally finding herself at the wobbly, unstable staircase, climbing to the top. Markway coaxes her down, but Mrs. Markway leaps out and terrifies her, causing her to faint. Markway declares an end to the experiment and orders them all home, but Nell tells them she has no home, refusing to return to her sister and begging to stay at the house. She drives for the gate, losing control of the car and seeing a white figure leap in front of her just before she strikes a tree, killing her. The white figure turns out to be Mrs. Markway, who got lost in the massive, confusing house. Markway reveals the tree Eleanor struck was the same one where the house’s first victim died in an “accident.” He returns to the house to collect their things knowing he’ll be safe. The house has want it wants… for now.

Thoughts: From the very beginning, it’s interesting to note how different filmmaking and storytelling is today compared to 1963, when the movie was made. The film begins with Markway narrating an extended flashback sequence, detailing the history of the house and the gruesome deaths of those who have been associated with it. All this before we know who Markway is or what his association with the house actually is. A modern film is far more likely to begin with Markway begging for permission to go to the house, with the backstory being uncovered later. It’s debatable which approach is better, but since this is my little project I’ll tell you: it’s the latter one. Kicking things off with a infodump – scary as it is – takes some of the momentum out of the film from the very beginning.

The events that happen inside the house are exactly what you come to expect in Haunted House stories – odd noises, doors that close themselves, doors that open thanks to convenient gusts of wind, cold spots, and strange writing that appears on the wall (specifically “Help Eleanor come home,” a message that scares poor Nell half to death.) We deal with exceedingly creepy statues, the skeptics who try to debunk the supernatural nature of the house, the caretakers who refuse to stay in the house at night and so forth. Theo seems unnaturally perceptive about Nell, making offhanded comments about her and her life that border on the telepathic. Nell’s sensitivity to the ghosts of the house also mark her. Characters in these stories with special gifts or powers has become another trademark of the genre.

You know all of these tropes because every haunted house story uses them, but all the others were really mimicking this original. Basically, if you’ll excuse the pun, this story is the blueprint from which all other haunted house stories are built. It’s one of those stories that has been redone – in whole or in part – over and over again over the years to the point where the original almost seems derivative, even though it’s exactly the opposite. Not to say that all of these elements were 100 percent original even when Shirley Jackson wrote the novel in 1959, but her novel and this movie pulled them all together and fused them into a genre in a way that no other film had.

Interestingly, this is one of those movies where it’s what you don’t see that’s most effective. There’s no blood in the film (although I understand there’s one scene in the novel with a message written in blood which the filmmakers excised), and although you see the evidence of the spirits, you never see the spirits themselves. Even the “ghost” that startles Nell at the end turns out to be the very living, very confused Grace Markway.

In one bit of infodump that actually works, Markway takes some time to explain to the ladies why the house is so confusing – it’s constructed specifically to be that way. The doors are off-center, none of the angles are at 90 degrees, and the entire structure is built in such a way to make it nearly impossible to find your way around. Watching the film, it’s a credit to the set designers that you really do get that sense. It’s hard to tell for sure, watching only those elements the director wants us to see from the angles he wants us to see them, but the house looks incredibly confusing. There are so many doors that anybody could get confused quickly, the mirrors are all hanging at strange angles that give you peeks into obscure corners of a room that you wouldn’t expect to see in normal circumstances. Purely from a visual standpoint, the director has more than succeeded in making the house look bizarre as hell, and it’s very easy to imagine yourself getting lost in its halls.

Some of the simplest scares work the best. While the entire cast is assembled in the parlor, tremendous rumbling noises elsewhere begin to torment them. It gets worse when the doorknob begins to rattle (easily accomplished by a crew member tinkering with it slowly from the other side), then the door itself begins to bulge inward impossibly, stretching like rubber instead of wood. It’s a very simple effect, but far more effective than the expensive CGI version of the effect we saw in the 1999 remake of the film.

The ending is suitably bleak for a haunted house film, no happy ending and no real chance at redemption for the house or for the sad, broken characters. It’s not a bad film, but not nearly as good as some of the other films we’ve discussed recently. (It’s not much of a follow-up to Psycho, for instance.) Still, I think it’s notable in and of itself. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a good movie, and it leaves a cinematic footprint that is clear, vivid, and continues even today.

Next is Audrey Hepburn in a classic chiller, Wait Until Dark.