31 Days of Halloween- Day 30- Night of the Living Dead (1968)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 30- Night of the Living Dead (1968)

A mysterious radiation thought to have been brought back to Earth after a space probe to Venus is bringing the dead back to life to feast on the living. A young woman named Barbara is visiting her dead father’s grave with her brother Johnny when…

This film has so much of a great reputation amongst horror fans and cinema scholars alike. Does it live up to this?

In a word- YES. Not only does it feel real (it’s based in the America it was made in and looks almost like a documentary) but you get the impression that the events that take place in the course of the film could actually happen. We are witnessing the fabric of society unravelling magnificently due to the disaster which has occurred. Life (and death) will never be the same again after this literally Earth-changing event.

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Hitchcock may have ripped up the horror rulebook by disposing of Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane early on in Psycho when the audience wrongly thought of her as the main female character who would make it to the end of the film. But George A Romero goes one better in Night. Barbara is still in the majority of the film but is so traumatised by her ordeal that she is rendered catatonic for the rest of her tenure. And what a great performance it is- a mental breakdown captured on celluloid, a brilliant portrayal of a response to trauma. Watch the scene where Barbara comes across the music box. It’s one of the most unsettling scenes I’ve ever seen.

Romero also holds a mirror up to societal tensions and conflicts throughout the film. Duane Jones as Ben is the lead of the movie but is also African American- unheard of except when depicted by Sidney Poitier in mainstream Hollywood films that felt groundbreaking and progressive but also marginalised. These films squarely tackled race (and rightly so). But Jones just happens to be black and this is never mentioned in Night. His race isn’t an explicit issue in the film- but maybe directs the actions of other characters (check out the conclusion to Night. There are MANY different readings and interpretations of this. It’s the most shocking ending I have ever seen in a film and just as relevant today as it was back then. I actually get a shiver down my spine just thinking about it and what we see during the end credits of this film).

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Duane Jones plays Ben

But there are other societal echoes within Night. Notice how Ben gives his monologue regarding the backstory as to how he ended up at the farmhouse. Jones is truly astonishing especially here. But then watch how he reacts when Barbara tells her story- her account is no less serious or devastating as she’s just seen her brother being knocked unconscious after being attacked by a member of the undead during an event that should have been humdrum and routine. She is termed hysterical by Ben who tells her to calm down. Different oppressed sectors of society with equally disturbing back stories to tell but instead of each being given their time to share their experiences, a member of one group tells the other to effectively shut up. 50 years on, this film is still relevant.

This film also has a lot to say about the family of that time. The traditional family is under attack from the zombies (as Robin Wood expressed using his theory of ‘Return of the Repressed’). The notion of Mom, Dad and 2.4 children (possibly with an apple pie on the table) is no more. The new family in the farmhouse consists of disparate members of society who are forced together to survive against what has gone wrong in the outside world. In fact, in one scene we see Ben actually taking apart the notion of the family and the household from within as he starts taking apart furniture like the kitchen table to barricade the doors and windows with. The scene where the mother is stabbed to death by her daughter who has been bitten by a zombie represents the death of the outdated notion of the family in it’s purest form. The new killing and replacing what and who has gone before.

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Child kills parent, the new killing the old

The first time I saw this film it had actually been colorised but still worked. The thinking behind this colorisation was probably the video company thinking that all horror films made within a certain timeframe were ‘kitsch’, camp and unworthy of serious analysis or enjoyment. I believe the term is ‘so bad it’s good’ (vomit). I remember an advert for a screening of the film on the UK’s Channel 4 that billed the film as a typical 60’s drive-in B movie- cue emphasis on bad acting, rubbish make-up and all round tack. Wrong on EVERY count.

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It was a revelation when I first saw the film as it was intended to be seen in black and white. It’s actually a beautiful film with every frame resembling the work of the Nouvelle Vague rather than some Grindhouse fodder made on the cheap to be shown to the stoned.

I saw this film yesterday on the big screen. It was the Criterion 4K restoration and it looked and sounded amazing.

If punk is seen as Year Zero for music then this is Year Zero for horror and one of a whole slew of films that represented a turning point for American film in general.

Fun fact- this is the film on in the background when Harold is having a sandwich made in Halloween 2 (1981).

5 out of 5 stars

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31 Days of Halloween- Day 23- The House on Haunted Hill (1959)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 23- The House on Haunted Hill (1959)

An eccentric millionaire invites five strangers to a haunted house with each receiving $10,000 if they last the night.

This is a William Castle film so you know it’s going to be genius. And it doesn’t disappoint. I love the house with it’s sliding doors, acid bath and shadow play. Vincent Price in the lead is once again perfect casting with his trademark wryness, camp and sarcasm being demonstrated in spades. There also seems to be more understatement and, dare I say, nuance in this role.

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The film itself looks amazing. I wish director Castle would get the proper adoration and respect for his films and legacy. The gimmicks associated with his films seem to overshadow the actual films themselves. This is a shame. I honestly thing Castle was an auteur who seriously influenced the genre of horror for the better. The House on Haunted Hill influenced Hitchcock when he was making Psycho apparently. I’m wondering if Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques influenced Castle’s film with the numerous double-crossings and red herrings that keep the audience guessing until the very last frame.

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Emergo was the gimmick Castle used for this film. During a scene concerning a skeleton an actual skeleton on a pulley would be flown over the startled audience. Genius.

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The audience experience ‘Emergo’

This film is currently (and inexplicably) in the public domain. I look forward to a really great Blu-ray release and transfer. The film’s beauty is a gem yet to be seen in all it’s glory.

4 out of 5 stars

Cease To Exist- The Cultural Influence of Charles Manson

Cease To Exist- The Cultural Influence of Charles Manson

I woke up to the news a couple of days ago that Charles Manson had died. My gut feeling was one of loss.

Yes thats not the acceptable thing to say when a serial killer dies. And not just any serial killer but the capo of serial killers. A serial killer so conniving that he even brainwashed and groomed others to do the majority of the killing for him. Nice try, Charlie.

He was the person who caused the loss of many innocent lives, even the lives of victims not born yet (Sharon Tate was seven months pregnant when she was slaughtered). He also figuratively ended the lives of the members of his Family who still languish in prison after committing the crimes after being plied with LSD and coerced into committing these atrocities. Just as he set up an alibi for himself for the murders whereby he could demonstrate he didn’t kill anyone, he also tried to conclusively incriminate the Family members who actually did kill on the two nights of massacres.

And yet whilst he was utterly vile in action and deed, I experienced a strange sense of loss because he was and is so very interesting. His actions and deeds are now ingrained in American history and he is seen as ‘The Man Who Killed The 60’s.’ Yes, murder is abhorrent but with such a moniker, as Quentin Crisp observed about the serial killer Gilles de Rais, ‘its hard not to be impressed’. History is balance and Manson seemed to be a one man Yang to the flowers, peace and love of late 60’s America’s Ying.

His image on the cover of Life magazine was possibly the first time that the general public were given a glimpse of the man who had caused all of the carnage they had read about. It didn’t disappoint and perfectly captured who he was, what he had done and what he symbolised in American society. He was The Boogeyman and his iconic picture was enough to induce countless nightmares just like Myra Hindley’s infamous mugshot had a few years earlier over the pond.

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The reactions to Manson’s death in the media and social media only heightened my sense of loss regarding it. Lots of people were crawling out from under their rocks to type ‘R.I.P’ but taking the time to exclaim to everyone that this in fact meant ‘Rot In Pieces’. And then there were those (and there were many) who took great delight in saying what they’d like to have done to Manson. One sticks in my mind more than others- a Facebook user said that he’d like to ‘bring Manson back to life so that I can beat him to death again with my bare hands’. Nothing sinister or dark there whatsoever.

Within a film group that I’m a member of the news of his death was reported with the group’s admin asking ‘Who should play him in a film?’ Someone responded ‘NO ONE! Why would anyone want to see a film about that psycho nutjob? Why try to romanticise his life?’ In other words this person was wildly trying to virtue signal and say ‘Look everyone, I have higher morals than a serial killer! I’m going to demonstrate them now! When do I get my prize?’ Thankfully not everyone agrees with this dullard.

My initial pang of loss was due to the fact that Manson permeated and overlapped with so much popular culture that I have loved since my teens. Yes he was a serial killer, yes he was interesting in the societal and historical framework of America but also he was really good value for money!

There are numerous great documentaries on Manson and his followers but the one that had the biggest impact on me was one called Charles Manson: Then and Now which I bought on VHS in 1992. I’ve transferred it to YouTube and it can be found here. Note the presentation- an audio track that is so high that its distorted, references to Manson’s influence on exploitation/drive-in films and alternative music (note the picture of Genesis P Orridge from his/her Throbbing Gristle days), sinister horror film incidental music. This is the stuff of mondo culture and I lapped it up as a teen and continue to.

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After devouring this documentary I also picked up a copy of the excellent book Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi who was the prosecutor at the Manson trial. Thorough, exhaustive and amazingly researched. Also worth investigating is the book The Family by Ed Sanders (lead singer of the Fugs).

On a lighter note, a book that I picked up much later was this- yes, Columbo takes on the Manson Family. I’m still waiting for the Dirty Harry-Son of Sam crossover novel but it hasn’t materialised yet.

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Whilst there were many Manson inspired B- movies that were hurriedly made around the time of Manson’s trial (documented well in the above linked documentary), the best film is Helter Skelter which is more a biopic of Manson and his Family’s life. This was actually a TV movie back in the day and earned massive ratings as viewers couldn’t wait to watch the grisly events unfurl. And the Moral Minority still take the moral high ground and get all Mary Whitehouse about such productions even though they are massively popular.

Helter Skelter is available on DVD and well worth obtaining. It stars Steve Railsbeck who was in Turkey Shoot. If this doesn’t act as a high enough recommendation then I don’t know what will. He is Charles Manson.

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Manson also cast a shadow over the work of John Waters which I started watching when I was 13. In the film Multiple Maniacs, Lady Divine holds Mr David in check by continually reminding about that night in the Hollywood Hills and the people they supposedly killed- a reference to the Tate-LaBianca murders that at that time hadn’t been solved or attributed to Manson yet. Waters would later attend the Manson trials.

Also in the film Pink Flamingos Divine walks past a wall that is spraypainted with the moniker ‘Love Tex Watson xx’ Waters’ next film Female Trouble is even dedicated to Charles Watson. The story regards a criminal and eventual murderer, Dawn Davenport who equates crime with beauty and fame. She is encouraged to be even more extreme in her actions whilst keeping them in line with her beliefs after being groomed and brainwashed by Donald and Donna Dasher. This brainwashing is very reminiscent of Manson- in Female Trouble liquid eyeliner takes the place of LSD as a mind-altering lubricant for this grooming and puppetry. Also within this film there are the scenes in which Davenport disrupts court proceedings just like Manson did by screaming the word ‘Liar!’ at certain points. She also makes statements as to her own magnitude and her sense of self-worth.

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But Female Trouble’s most perceptive observations are regarding fame and crime. Theres really not much difference between Elizabeth Taylor being filmed and photographed by the press in an airport terminal and Charles Manson receiving the same treatment on his way to court. Yes, Manson was responsible for the murder of several people. Some people would say Elizabeth Taylor’s later celluloid forays were the artistic equivalent.

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Fame, fame, fatal fame. Theres not that many differences between being famous and infamous.

Waters later said that he regretted his flippancy regarding Manson and his Family in his films as he got to know Leslie Van Houten who hes now friends with and believes is now ready for parole. I’ve never seen Waters more serious in his interviews except when speaking of Van Houten who he says was just a pawn in Manon’s overall scheme- a disillusioned middle class girl who wanted to rebel and came into contact with Satan himself. Shes now free from the magnetic hold of Manson but serving life in prison for her involvement whilst briefly under the influence of a master manipulator. An account of Waters’ friendship with Leslie is a chapter in Waters’ book, Role Models (an amazing book. Highly recommended).

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John Waters with his friend Leslie Van Houten

Another aspect of Manson and his legacy that I found intriguing was his position as a countercultural icon. Once Manson’s face and crimes were well known his image would appear on all manner of merchandise to be lapped up by the darker components of the counterculture and those who wanted to stick two fingers up at authority. You’re an angry teenager who wants to shock all those around you and give Mom and Dad a coronary? Buy a Charles Manson t-shirt. This action was akin to the first London punks wearing a swastika. They might not have been Nazis but they wanted to shock and outrage.  The older generation who had used the ‘I fought the war for your kind!’ line would be apoplectic with rage at a fashion accessory like a swastika armband. Job done.

But there were also those in the counterculture who looked to Charlie as some kind of religious leader just like his Family members did. A major source of his twisted philosophy were his lyrics. Yes, Charlie was a singer, musician and lyricist. His songs are actually pretty good. But I’ve never subscribed to this ‘Charles Manson, philosopher’ schtick. Hes too much of a fucking nutjob for that.

So, Charles Manson has died. The end of the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970’s. Altamont, Nixon, Vietnam…Charlie’s place in this dark period of American historical events is assured.

Please don’t take the moral high ground by suggesting that reading and watching about Manson and his dark, warped place in American history is bad. Through examination and analysis maybe there are clues to the prevention of such a bloodsoaked chain of events ever occurring again. And if there aren’t signs as to this and you’re not a moralistic twat on Facebook then you’ll realise that its still just a really interesting topic, no matter how grisly.

It seems to me that its the people who try to suppress and prevent others from investigating the darker incidents from history that have more to hide and conceal themselves. After all, Fred West’s favourite movies were exclusively made by Disney as he didn’t approve of violence in films. And we all know how fucked up he was.

Day 27- 31 Days of Halloween- The Sadist (1963)

Day 27- 31 Days of Halloween- The Sadist (1963)

Three schoolteachers stop at a garage on their way to a baseball game at Dodgers Stadium. Their car isn’t running properly and so they need to look at it and maybe try to fix it. But thats not their biggest obstacle- they come face to face with Charlie Tibbs and his girlfriend- a couple of killers who are accused of murders in Arizona and are on the run. Charlie has a gun and insists that they work on the car so that he can get away in it.

This film is like a play that has been filmed- there is primarily one main setting (the film reminded me of Cujo in that respect). But this doesn’t mean that the film is static and boring. The one setting is used innovatively and this means that the film is directed with verve. There is also a sense of ‘us versus them’ with the schoolteachers in their Sunday best (shirts, ties or a nice conservative dress) whilst Tibbs is looking every part the juvenile delinquent in his denims and sporting a greasy quiff. Tibbs is obviously based on real-life serial killer Charles Starkweather.

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This film is brilliant- will the teachers get away, when and how? The film ramps up the tension and suspense and never lags- theres no scenes that feel unnecessary. The film is also very extreme for its time. It was even rejected by the BBFC when it was submitted for classification in 1964.

Arch Hall Jr in the lead gives an extraordinary performance as Tibbs- the Sadist in the title. His face and facial expressions are almost other-worldly and supernatural as is his portrayal. Quite extraordinary.

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Watch out for the poignant scene in which the schoolteachers hear on the radio the baseball game they should be at instead of fighting for their lives.

Theres also some innovative direction within the film- it almost feels like Tibbs’ gun in the first half of the film is an actual character.

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I didn’t know about this film until recently. I’m glad I do now. Why isn’t this more widely available on DVD and Blu ray?

Apparently this film is a favourite of director Joe Dante’s- a seal of approval anyone would be proud of.

4 out of 5

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Day 19- 31 Days of Halloween- Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Day 19- 31 Days of Halloween- Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

A remake of the 1958 classic gets a 70s update.

The premise is the same but the reasons behind it are different. It seems like each incarnation of this film reflects the unrest of each society it was made in.

This film depicts the 70s swing towards pop-psychology and psychiatry that was popular at the time. The psychiatrist characters played by Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldbloom brilliantly convey this angle.

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But the film also shows American society and its people in disarray. Post-Watergate and post-Vietnam politics and the related disillusionment fuel the characters and general feel of this film. No one knows who to trust, what the truth is or who/what to believe in anymore.

Paranoia is also a key component in this movie. This makes the film a very intense watch and quite exhausting at times. Whilst I love this film its a movie I have to be in the mood to watch. It seems like tiny nuances and interactions that characters would normally take for granted are given thought time, credence and then magnified. An example is when Brooke Adams character is bumped into. There is then a sequence in which Adams and this character are walking away from each other down a corridor but take turns to look at each other over their shoulders.

There is also a sequence where Adams is walking around San Francisco and passes a bust city bus. Every single passenger is looking right at her. Is the camera capturing reality or the internal and paranoid thoughts of Ms Adams?

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The paranoia and suspicion escalates until we get to one of the most famous unsettling endings in movie history.

Brilliantly acted, written and directed. This really is a prime slice of time capsule filmmaking then is strangely as relevant today as it was in the 70s. This is also one of the best San Francisco movies ever made. The city looks amazing and provides a gorgeous backdrop to the film’s events. Added kudos for the mud baths locale.

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Look out for the cameo by Robert Duvall as a priest on a swing and the man-dog that suddenly appears who is a weird fusion of a banjo playing character and his dog earlier in the film.

4 out of 5.

Day 17- 31 Days of Halloween- Drive In Massacre (1976)

Day 17- 31 Days of Halloween- Drive In Massacre (1976)

I’ll always have a soft spot for this movie. An obscure horror film made in America in the 70s and set in a drive in. Whats not to like?

Could it be the mentally challenged employee there called Germy who could be the killer? Or the local sex pest we see the cops interview? (‘I didn’t do anything wrong! I was just at the drive in to beat my meat!’)

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Yes, its slow in places, yes there are obvious filler scenes to pad out the running time. But its full of character and is pretty scary.

I first saw this on VHS and then DVD in the 80s and both released through VIPCO. It was the worst print used for a transfer EVER. The film is now on Blu ray through Severin Films and looks amazing after a long lost print was found, where else, but in an abandoned drive in. Life imitates life. Or something.

3.5 out of 5

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Day 13- 31 Days of Halloween- Friday the 13th Part 4- The Final Chapter

Day 13- 31 Days of Halloween- Friday the 13th Part 4- The Final Chapter

I remember seeing this on video at a friends house back in the day and being so freaked out that I had to ask his Dad to walk me home. I was 12 years old. Them were the days.

After the camp of Part 3 this film gets back on track and is resplendent with really vicious kills courtesy of Tom Savini.

Part teen drama, part TV movie about life after separation, the film then becomes what it says on the tin- a nasty 80s horror movie with our friend Jason bumping off the most irritating kids known to man. The film has a very serious and grave tone throughout that precedes the fucked up ending.

Corey Feldman and Crispin Glover both star in this relentless rollercoaster of gore.

Watch for the machete slide scene. This was cut from the original UK video release and is well wirth the price of admission.

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My favourite Friday the 13th movie and the end of Fridays imperial phase.

4 out of 5