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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 20: Carrie (1976)

carrieDirector: Brian DePalma

Writer: Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, Piper Laurie

Plot: Slow-to-develop Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a high school senior, the frequent scapegoat of her classmates due to her sheltered life and the oppressive nature of her mother (Piper Laurie). Carrie’s troubles are compounded on the day she gets her first menstrual cycle, without any idea what it means. The other girls torment her mercilessly, and Carrie is sent home. But along with the changes to her body, something is happening to Carrie’s mind as well. In moments of stress or anger, she finds herself moving objects without touching them. When her mother learns about the incident, she tells Carrie the “curse of blood” is punishment for sin and locks her in the closet to pray. The girls who mocked Carrie are given a harsh detention with the gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). One of the girls, Sue Snell (Amy Irving) feels guilty about tormenting the girl, and convinces her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to ask her to the prom. The ringleader, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), wants to get back at Carrie for her trouble, and convinces her high school dropout boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta) to help her get a brutal revenge. Carrie agrees to go with Tommy, but her mother forbids it. Carrie lashes out wither powers, declaring that she’s going to go and sending her mother into fits of prayer. Billy and Chris, meanwhile, set up a bucket of pig’s blood above the stage of the gym, waiting for Carrie’s big moment. At the prom, Carrie unexpectedly finds a measure of acceptance from her classmates, who treat her as just any other girl – something Carrie has wanted all her life. Her joy is shattered when Chris springs her trap: she’s rigged the prom election so Carrie will win, and just as she comes up to the stage, the pig’s blood spills on her. Tommy is knocked unconscious when the bucket itself falls and strikes him in the head, and the audience erupts in laughter.

If you’ve ever watched a horror movie, you probably recognize this as the point where the students made a particularly stupid mistake.

The already-fragile Carrie snaps, locking the doors to the gym and setting it on fire, trapping everybody inside. When she leaves the burning gym, Billy and Chris try to run her over, but Carrie simply flips the car and causes it to explode. Returning home, Carrie cries to her mother, who now believes her daughter to be the product of the devil. Margaret White stabs Carrie, and Carrie uses her powers to hurl dozens of blades at her mother, killing her. Finally, Carrie destroys her mother’s house and kills herself in the process. The film ends with an image of Carrie crawling from her own grave, but it’s only a bad dream for survivor Sue Snell, whom one suspects will never have a good dream again.

Thoughts: I became a fan of Stephen King in high school, probably when I was about the age of Carrie White in the film, but I didn’t get around to reading his early works until many years later. In fact, by the time I actually read Carrie or saw the movie, I was already a high school teacher myself, so I think I have something of an odd perspective on the story. King was ahead of the curve when it came to depicting the victims of high school bullying becoming monsters in their own right (he explored a similar theme, sans the supernatural element, in his novel Rage), and these days when I see a kid in the sort of dire straits Carrie finds herself in, I feel particularly strong about trying to help them before it goes bad. Sometimes, though, you just can’t do anything.

It’s hard to see Carrie White as a monster, though. She lashes out, and she causes an incredible amount of death and destruction, but it’s hard to say that anyone else wouldn’t have reacted the same way in her situation. Her overbearing mother is a chilling creature, and would drive anyone mad.

Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie make the film, Laurie being cruel and sadistic, Spacek being a broken, shattered creature even when we first meet her, which makes those moments when Chris snatches away her brief moment of happiness all the more tragic. In fact, if Carrie’s rampage had ended with the deaths of her tormenters instead of spreading out to the rest of the school, the audience likely would sympathize with her entirely. The deaths would be understandable, if not entirely justified. But at that point, she can’t control herself. She gets her tormentors, but she also gets Tommy and Miss Collins, the two people who have never been unkind to her at all (even Sue, the lone survivor of the massacre, joined in on the initial mocking of Carrie at the beginning of the film). Sometimes you’ll see that the one person who treats the “monster” well is spared its wrath. Not so, in the case of Carrie White. By then, Spacek’s face grows hard and her eyes empty, as if she’s no longer even in control, just an uncontrollable force of nature being used to guide the chaos all around her to its horrific end.

Even then, though, she’s never as horrible as Piper Laurie in her final moments, walking towards her daughter with a bloody knife in the air, smiling with the confidence that she’s doing God’s work. The last moment of horror comes when Carrie slays her, pinning her up in a sort of grotesque crucifix that mirrors the unsettling one her mother forced her to pray under in the closet.

The story itself is actually very simple – I’m pretty sure this is the shortest plot synopsis I’ve written in weeks – but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Sometimes it’s those simple beats that hit close to home. We see the archetypes here – Carrie as the victim-turned-killer, her mother as the iron fist that squeezes until her child pops, Chris as the cruel one, Sue as the guilty party that tries to make good. We recognize all of the characters, and that helps us get into the story easily. There isn’t much of a backstory behind Carrie’s powers, but again, one isn’t really needed. She’s telekinetic, and at this particular time in the 70s that was something that was making the rounds of speculative fiction.

The film draws from interesting sources to create its mood. The musical sting we hear whenever Carrie uses her powers is inarguably reminiscent of the legendary shower scene from Psycho, for example. It’s Carrie lashing out, but the music brings Norman Bates to mind. Otherwise, the music is fairly unremarkable – perhaps even a little too soft and lyrical most of the time. It’s there to disarm you, of course, to prevent you from being prepared for the incoming horror, but it doesn’t really succeed.

The odd moments in the movie are when Brian DePalma works in a few moments of comedy, particularly as Tommy and his friends try on tuxedoes. For some reason that still doesn’t make any sense to me, he goes into fast-forward just for a few seconds, speeding up the conversation so the boys sound like the Chipmunks. It’s a bizarre moment that doesn’t fit at all with the atmosphere of the rest of the film. DePalma also works really hard to artificially draw out the tension. From the time Carrie steps on stage until the blood falls on her head we’ve got a long, protracted scene of Sue discovering the prank and trying to warn Miss Collins, all stretched out due to slow-motion and made a little more horrible by the lack of audio. He goes into split-screen at this point, alternately showing Carrie herself or various points in the gym as she begins to trap her victims. Strangely, the split screen works very well, allowing you to see more of the terror and give it a sort of real-time element. I’m reminded of the TV show 24 whenever it breaks this way, although whether the producers of that show were specifically influenced by Carrie, who can say?

The measure of any movie is really the way it’s remembered, of course. Carrie is still considered a landmark horror film, with echoes in every story of high school terror that came afterwards, everything from A Nightmare on Elm Street right down to The Faculty. Horribly, you can see the reactions in the real world as well, any time some high school outcast snaps under the pressure and turns on his classmates. How many times have you seen a story like that on television or in the newspaper that compares a real-world killer to Carrie White? Carrie should have been a simple little horror story. Instead, it became part warning, part social commentary, part prophecy. I liked it better when it was just a horror story.

We’ve spent most of our time on this project in America, mainly because I don’t really know the history of foreign horror enough to speculate on it. But there are a few foreign films with a large enough footprint to make it on to my radar. Tomorrow, we go to Italy, for Susperia.