Sunday, October 15, 2006

31 Days of Horror - Freaks

"Gooble gobble, gooble gobble. We accept her, we accept her."

This is one of the greatest films of all time, in my opinion, and one that could never be made today. The stars of this film are not the traditional screen gods and goddesses, but actual deformed, "abnormal" human beings. There's a guy known as the Human Torso, who's missing his arms and legs; there's a half-man/half-woman; there are conjoined twins, and other assorted people who have been rejected from society because of their physical defects.

Freaks was banned for a number of years and signaled the end of Browning's career, but it is a true masterpiece, a horror show with true insight, and one of those films that everyone should see at some point in their lives.

The basic story goes like this... Madame Tetrallini runs a circus and has taken in several of these so-called freaks. There are also several "normal" people in the circus, including Cleo, a beautiful trapeze artist. All the men in the circus are infatuated with Cleo, including a little person named Hans, who is actually engaged to another little person, Frieda. Hans starts sending Cleo gifts, and she accepts them sweetly to his face, but mocks him in private. Cleo eventually gets wind of the fact that Hans has a rather large inheritance and decides that she's going to marry him. Cleo and the circus' Strong Man, who have something going on behind Hans's back, plan to poison Hans after the wedding so that Cleo can get the money. The "freaks" find out about this plan - albeit too late to save Hans - and exact their revenge on Cleo and the Strong Man.

This is a really piercing look at humanity and the way we treat people who are not like us. The film makes you completely comfortable with the freaks. You see them as the normal people that they really are, and it's as if the "normal" people are the real freaks.

I don't think this would be considered a horror movie at all, were it not for the scene where the freaks get their revenge. The thing about that scene, though, is that the audience shares their desire for revenge. Even though what they do to Cleo is deeply disturbing (you don't actually see them do it, but you see what she looks like after), you can't help feeling they are justified in their retribution.

Excellent, excellent, excellent film. It's a shame that Browning wasn't able to do much more after Freaks, but the film is - in and of itself - a worthy career legacy.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

31 Days of Horror - I Was a Teenage Werewolf

This film was featured as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but it's actually not that bad. It's a rather famous B-movie, and "I Was a Teenage..." became a kind of catch-phrase (I Was a Teenage Hairdresser, I Was a Teenage Stunt Man, I Was a Teenage Teenager... you get the idea). It's a rather well-made film, despite the B-movie acting, a fairly absurd premise, and some entended sequences of general goofiness.

The plot centers around a - wait for it - teenager, named Tony (played by a younger Michael Landon than you probably remember). He gets into a lot of fights - and apparently has a bizarre penchant for milk-throwing - and is constantly in and out of trouble at school. He has a girlfriend (played by Yvonne Lime, who was dating Elvis at the time of filming) who sticks by him, despite his random bouts of rage. Tony's father is perhaps the most dejected dad ever seen on film. When Tony gets into trouble one time too many, he is sent to a psychiatrist, Dr. Brandon (Whit Bissell, who I like much better in The Magnificent Seven). Dr. Brandon, a very experimental shrink indeed, injects Tony with a sedative and hypnotizes him into becoming a werewolf. It's a regression thing that I don't quite get. Anyway, wackiness ensues, and soon his classmates start dying.

I like this movie for the campiness and the way it takes Tony's wolfiness and misanthropy a little more seriously than it should. It's not particularly scary, except perhaps for a musical number performed by an elfen blonde guy, and that's really just scary because of his pants. :P

Friday, October 13, 2006

31 Days of Horror - Friday the 13th

Kevin Bacon claims his first movie was Diner, but there he is (two years eariler) in the white shirt, just waiting for an arrowhead through the neck.

Blood, bad acting, and boobies. That's this movie in a nutshell. I said yesterday that Psycho was the invention of the "slasher" flick, but Friday the 13th is the movie that made the slasher stereotype that so many of us know and love. There's something specific that comes to mind when I first think of slasher flicks, and this is the icon of that sub-genre.

Do I even need to bother with a plot recap? It's the mold on which every 1980s teen horror movie was cut. Okay, just briefly... A kid named Jason Voorhees, attending Camp Crystal Lake, drowns in the lake (body never found, of course) because the counselors aren't watching him. The next summer, two counselors are murdered and the camp is subsequently closed. Locals start calling CCL "Camp Blood." Despite efforts to thwart reopening, Camp Crystal Lake reopens and several counselors arrive to ready the place for campers. Only they never get around to it, because they all die one by one, hacked and slashed by a skulking creep in a hockey mask. Amid all the formula, though, is a pretty cool twist in the last act (which I don't have the heart to spoil for you, even if you never plan to see this one).

Jason Voorhees was one of the unholy trinity of splatter movie boogeymen - the other two being Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers. Jason was the first of these that I ever heard of as a kid, and I remember wondering what the heck people were talking about when we were at Girl Scout camp and people would tell me Jason was going to get me.

This film established several "obligatory"s for the next few years of horror. Obligatory gore - its predecessors, most notably Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, are essentially bloodless - courtesy of the great Tom Savini. Obligatory T & A. And, most significantly, the peanut butter and jelly of 1980s horror - the Obligatory Murder-as-Punishment-for-Teen-Sex. EVERYONE who has sex in this movie dies a horrible, bloody death. Someone once speculated that this was a response to the growing threat of AIDS (it was made a little too early for that, though, I think). It's become kind of a joke with horror movies - Scream, for instance, where "Don't have sex" is one of the cardinal rules of surviving a horror movie. Jason X (speaking of "obligatory"s, that's another one - Obligatory Sequels) even has a running gag where Jason has a kind of Spidey sense that tingles whenever someone somewhere is "doing it."

The Friday the 13th sequels are vastly inferior to the original, but the whole franchise is noteworthy for its impact on the horror genre. The original, however, is a genuinely scary film, even if it is a bit cheesy.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

31 Days of Horror - Psycho

Okay, first off, I don't generally think of this as a "horror" movie. In a strange way, I find it less like a horror movie than my previous Hitchcock selection, Rebecca. But it's undoubtedly - as I'm sure I don't need to tell you - one of the icons of screen scariness.

Norman: "You eat like a bird."
Marion: "And you'd know, of course."

What can I say about this movie that hasn't been said dozens of times? It set the bar in so many ways. This movie is where "slasher" flicks came from. Norman Bates was the first of several movie killers to be based (quite loosely) on real-life killer Ed Gein. Robert Bloch wrote the book Psycho just two years after the story broke, and Hitchcock's film came out the next year.

Hitchcock worked out a gimmick with theater owners that audience members were not allowed inside the theater if they arrived after the movie started. I cannot imagine what a movie audience in 1960 must have thought about this film. There are so many elements that just were not done in the movies of the time, as well as topics that were not heretofore explored.

One of the key things that makes Psycho such an interesting (and disturbing) scary movie is the fact that the character we think we're supposed to sympathize with is killed in the first half of the film. This throws the audience off-balance and leaves them with no one else to relate to but Norman Bates. In a way, we're on his side. For example, when he puts Marion's body in the car and pushes it into the bog, he stands there watching it sink and it stops for a moment, and I'm literally afraid that he's going to get caught. I think part of the reason he gets our sympathy is because he's played so well by Anthony Perkins. He's a very sympathetic character, in a lot of ways. I think my favorite scene in the film is when he fixes a sandwich for Marion and they have the conversation in the parlor. He's just so friendly and innocent, with his trusty umbrella and aw-shucks smile.

I'm no good at talking about all the technical stuff, but it's obvious even to me that the movie is a technical masterpiece. It looks so clean and bare-bones, which makes it feel more real, I think. This is such a great film - regardless of the genre. It's like the Citizen Kane of suspense movies.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

31 Days of Horror - The Thing

Director John Carpenter made cinematic history four years before this film with Halloween. Carpenter's The Thing is roughly based on Howard Hawkes's The Thing From Another World, where researchers in a remote, icy region are attacked by an alien organism. This film has the added twist that the organism can replicate whatever it touches. This creates a great conflict between the characters, as no one knows who's a Thing and who isn't.

Oh, and another huge difference is that this film is swimming in fake blood and gore effects. It's very over the top, which to me makes it a lot less scary. But there are plenty of other genuine scares in the film to make it a very effective horror movie.

The Thing came out in 1982, and it should have been more of a hit at the time than it was. Sadly, it came out at the same time the world fell in love with E.T. - a much cuter and more lovable alien than The Thing. The Thing is an immensely fun movie, though, and is the kind of film that would play well at a party with friends and beer. And pizza, to go with all the blood and viscera.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

31 Days of Horror - The Black Cat

Another great silver screen classic, this time with two legendary horror stars - Frankenstein and Dracula Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Satanism, torture, and necrophilia - oh my! And all in a movie made in 1941. Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Verdegast, who is on his way to the place where he once served as a soldier. He shares a compartment with a honeymooning couple, Peter and Joan. While taking a bus to their hotel, the bus crashes during a winter storm, leaving Joan injured. Verdegast takes Peter and Joan to the nearby home of a former acquaintance (and, it turns out, mortal enemy), architect Hjalmar Poelzig.

This movie pushes all the classic "stranded in a strange house" and "dependent on a mysterious and creepy stranger" buttons in the plot with Peter and Joan. Meanwhile, Verdegast makes some horrific discoveries of his own, in terms of what happened to his wife and daughter. There is a tremendously creepy scene depicting a Satanic black mass, and there is a very subtle reference to necrophilia. The most famous scene in the film is when Vergegast finally gets the upper hand over Poelzig, chains him up, and (in shadow, of course - this was still the 1940s) starts to cut Poelzig's skin off.

The interaction between Lugosi and Karloff is really spectacular, and the film pushes the envelope of "sick and disturbing" pretty far for a movie of its time. It's still fairly tame, though, and like Rebecca, this is one you might be able to actually stomach if regular horror fare is not your cup of tea.

Monday, October 09, 2006

31 Days of Horror - Carrie

For everyone who was picked on in high school. :P (Actually, I'm surprised there wasn't a sharp decrease in school bullying after this movie - or the book, for that matter.) The only film to deal with feminine products in an adult manner, and the movie that brought us the delightfully hilarious term "dirty pillows."

I distinctly remember being in my fifth grade science class and hearing a classmate talk about this movie. All I remember her talking about was the beginning, and what happened to Carrie in the shower, how she didn't know what was going on, and how the other girls made fun of her. That meant something to me at the time, I suppose, because I was in the middle of learning about the "joys" of womanhood myself. And I also knew what it was like to be made fun of because physical developments that were out of my control.

I can't imagine that there's anyone reading this who is not familiar with at least the basics of this story, but here's how it goes. Carrie is a misfit, in more ways than one. Her mother is a religious fanatic who believes that sex - even after marriage - is a sin, and that "women's troubles" are a judgement from God on a woman's sins. This has led to Carrie being a very shy and ostensibly weak person, as well as not being as "womanly" as the other girls her age.

One of the first scenes in the film is the famous shower scene, where seventeen-year-old Carrie gets her period for the first time. Because of her upbringing, she has never been told about what this is or that this is normal, so she thinks she is dying. She screams for help, but the other girls only mock her, throwing maxi pads and tampons at her and chanting "Plug it up! Plug it up!" The gym teacher intervenes and sends Carrie home, after explaining to her what happened. The girls who taunted her are given detention and threatened with refusal of prom tickets if they try to ditch. Naturally, this does very little to show the girls that what they did to Carrie was wrong, and instead makes them hate Carrie even more.

There is one girl (Sue) who actually has learned her lesson. Sue feels genuinely sorry for her part in the mockery and tries to make amends by persuading her boyfriend Tommy, the prettiest boy in school, to take Carrie to the prom. The other girls, however, are only concerned with how Carrie has ruined their lives. At the top of the totem pole of hatred is Chris, who has other plans for Carrie's prom night. Chris, her boyfriend Billy, and a few others rig the vote for prom queen and king so that Carrie and Tommy will win. Chris and Billy place a bucket of pig's blood over the stage, so that when Tommy and Carrie get up to be crowned, Chris can pull a rope and dump the blood all over Carrie.

Little do the girls know that Carrie is not as helpless as she seems. She turns out to have telekinetic powers. As she puts it, if she concentrates hard enough she can move things just with her mind.

The real meat of the story, though, is Carrie's relationship with her mother. Every one of the scenes between these two are bone-chillingly scary. After the mother gets a call from the school, telling her that Carrie has been sent home after the shower incident, she berates Carrie mercilessly. She starts reciting pseudo-religious propaganda ("the first sin was intercourse", "Eve was weak", etc.) and making Carrie recite it with her. She apparently believes that if Carrie had not done something to deserve it, she would never have been punished with "the curse of the blood." She then drags Carrie into the prayer closet to repent under the watchful eye of the most frightening crucifix you've EVER seen.

This is the best kind of horror movie - one that isn't just scare after scare but has a real story and believable, sympathetic characters that you care about. The big slow-mo shot where Carrie and Tommy walk up to the stage and are crowned king and queen of the prom is just heartbreaking. She's so happy, and you know what's about to happen to her. And when she snaps and starts killing everyone left and right, part of you is cheering her on. Then you really cheer her on when she finally takes on her psychotic mother.

Carrie is one of the great horror masterpieces. And the last 20-30 seconds of the film is one of the most skillful chair-jumper scares of all time.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

31 Days of Horror - Audition

*SPOILERS below, but I don't think they'll ruin the overall effect of the movie.*

I'll see your Leatherface and raise you Girlfriend From Hell.

There are some great things that have been happening in Asian cinema over the past few years, particularly in the genre of horror. These films have truly pushed the boundaries of how far into hell filmmakers are willing to take their audiences. And the new frontier - perhaps the only one left - that many of these horror films explore is the concept of torture. The Torture Movement has heavily influenced films like the Saw series and Hostel. I'm not sure how I feel about this trend. On the one hand, it seems incredibly gratuitous and distasteful. On the other, when it's done artistically and done well - I know that sounds like some film critic BS, but there are times when it can be done well - it can be a very effective device.

I've only seen a few of the 70 projects for which Audition's director, Takashi Miike, has received a directing credit. So I don't really know if it's a trademark of his or not. However, I know that the three films I readily associate with him - including Audition - all feature torture as the paramount creep factor.

Audition centers around a widower who, with the help of a friend who works in the film industry, sets up a fake audition to find a new wife. Despite how strange that setup might sound, the guy is very normal and a quintessential "nice guy." One girl in particular catches his eye, and he takes her out to dinner. He tells her he'll call, and when he does, we see her sitting on the floor of her apartment, staring at the phone and having been staring at it for quite sometime before it rang. There is a burlap bag in the background, and while we're staring at this crazy chick staring at her phone, it suddenly, violently flips over. At this point, the DVD goes on pause while the viewer goes to change his/her underwear.

The relationship between the widower and the girl progresses, and the girl appears to be very fragile and damaged. But we see her again in her apartment and find out what is in the moving bag ... a man. A man who is missing all kinds of body parts (tongue, ear, fingers, and more). The girl proceeds to vomit into a bowl and feed it to the bag!man.

As if that weren't disturbing enough, we go from there into the climax of the film. The girl has the widower spread out on the ground. She's wearing a little white dress, black leather boots, black leather gloves, and a black leather apron. So, okay, we get the general idea of what she's about to do to him. Cue obligatory shot of the torture weapons. They're not typical torture weapons, though. The girl is very tiny and fragile and her torture instruments are very slim and delicate - syringes, acupuncture needles, wire, etc. But it's a brutal torture sequence, and the little-girl glee on her face as she's doing these unspeakably cruel things to the poor guy is - GAH!

This movie hasn't been around long, but it's already in the annals of scary classics, and for good reason. It will freak you the hell out.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

31 Days of Horror - Rebecca

Yes, this is a horror movie. This was Hitchcock's Best Picture winner of 1940, and incredibly creepy, especially for its time. And I think it's one that even horror un enthusiasts will enjoy - if they haven't seen it already, that is.

Based on the Daphne DuMaurier novel of the same name, Rebecca centers around a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who meets the rich widower Maxim DeWinter (Laurence Olivier) while working as a paid companion for a woman who is vacationing in Monte Carlo. The young woman's employer, Mrs. Edyth Van Hopper, wants very much to rub elbows with DeWinter, and tells her companion a bit about him and the tragic death of his first wife. Maxim and the young woman cross paths a few times, and there is a clear attraction between them. Maxim asks her to marry him just before she is supposed to leave with Mrs. Van Hopper, and Mrs. Van Hopper makes it clear to her departing employee that she doesn't know what she's getting into and will never be able to be a great lady, suited for the job of being mistress of DeWinter's extravagant house, Manderlay.

Up to this point in the movie, it plays much like a romance, but soon after the wedding, things take a Hitchcockian turn. When Maxim and his new bride arrive at Manderlay, Mrs. DeWinter is duly intimidated by the place and the servants. But nothing intimidates her more than the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, played to chilling perfection by Judith Anderson. At first it seems as if Mrs. DeWinter's fears of the house and the staff are mostly in her head. For example, she breaks something in the house and - fearing that the servants will be upset with her - hides it and pretends not to know where it is when asked about it. She is caught, however, and Maxim chides her for being afraid of the people who are supposed to be working for her.

However ... there is a strange shadow hanging over Manderlay that is not of Mrs. DeWinter's making. Mrs. Danvers loses no time in acquainting her new employer with the former Mrs. DeWinter, Rebecca. How Rebecca did things, how beautiful she was, how she had things arranged in the house, etc. Danvers is frankly obsessed with Rebecca. No one else in the house is quite as preoccupied with remembering her as Danvers is, but it's clear that Rebecca's death has done nothing to remove her presence from Manderlay. To make Rebecca's presence even more commanding - and to make the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter even more of a nobody - we never even know the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter's name. (In the book, she's the narrator and we're in her POV).

This is great, early Hitchcock - his version of the old-school silver screen classics. He would go on, of course, to invent the heart-stopping suspense thriller genre. But Rebecca is a wonderful example of an "Old Hollywood" film as seen through the eyes of an artist of fright.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

31 Days of Horror - A Nightmare on Elm Street

This movie came out when I was 9 years old, and all the kids my age were somehow getting to see it. I was, of course, too fraidy and too young and too, um, "minister's child" to see it, so I had to wait until we got cable to see what all the fuss was about. This was the first actual film made by New Line Pictures (which, incidentally, made the Oscar-winning trilogy of Lord of the Rings movies), and in some corners of the film industry New Line is still known as "the house that Freddy built."

Director Wes Craven had read about a group of young people in Cambodia who had had some really horrible nightmares and refused to go to sleep. When they finally did, out of sheer exhaustion, they woke up screaming and died of a heart attack. This was the inspiration for his story about the Elm Street kids, terrorized in their dreams by a badly-burned, red/green-sweater-wearing, knives-for-fingers boogeyman named Fred Krueger.

One of the cardinal rules of a successful horror movie - okay, I haven't exactly consulted with anyone on this, but it seems fairly obvious to me - is that you have to show an audience something they've never seen before. Something new. And Nightmare was definitely a new concept. Not just the threat of bad dreams, but bad dreams that could actually kill you. Because how do you keep from sleeping?

Freddy is also one of the better boogeymen, mainly because he stands out from most of the slasher murderers of his time. Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface are all silent (well, Leatherface grunts, but it's not exactly speech). Freddy's sarcastic one-liners make him an entertaining and (yeah, I'll say it) fun movie villain. He taps into the fact that, for most horror fans, the kills are a huge part of the entertainment, and by preceding the kill with a laugh, he's kind of telling us it's okay to get a sick kind of enjoyment out of horror movie deaths.

This is definitely a horror classic. I saw on the big screen for the first time a couple of weeks ago. The biggest audience reaction was a huge laugh when Nancy says "God, I look twenty years old." (Get that kid a walker and a can of Ensure!)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

31 Days of Horror - When a Stranger Calls

And the moral of this story is ... never have two phone lines in the house.

I'm sure that the "twist" of this movie is a surprise to almost no one - even people who haven't seen the film know the story as a kind of babysiting urban legend - but I'll try not to spoil it. A teenage girl (Carol Kane) is babysitting two kids. She is downstairs watching television or something while the kids are upstairs asleep. She gets several anonymous phone calls, first just heavy breathing, then the question "Have you checked the children?" The calls get increasingly creepy and the babysitter eventually calls the police, who say they'll trace the call. And ... that's all I'd better say about that.

This movie was originally supposed to be a sequel to Black Christmas, which I've written about here and which has a similar setup with characters getting threatening phone calls. Apparently, they hoped to make a sequel to BC out of what eventually became Halloween as well, but both Halloween and When a Stranger Calls became stand-alone films. There was a sequel to When a Stranger Calls in 1993, also featuring Carol Kane, and it's one of the rare sequels that's every bit as scary (perhaps more so) than the original.

This is a VERY suspenseful and quite scary movie, without being bloody. It reminds me a good bit of Wait Until Dark, actually - if you've seen that, it's that particular kind of scary. When a Stranger Calls kind of dies in the middle, but the opening and the finale are absolutely heart-stopping.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

31 Days of Horror - The Blair Witch Project

This movie will probably be better remembered as a marketing phenomenon than a movie. That's unfortunate, because it really is a unique and interesting film, but the background of how it was made and the publicity that made it such a hit are half of what made The Blair Witch Project so effective.

[I was determined NOT to post that overused picture of Heather crying, with half her face out of frame. That pic is like HALF the results on Google images for "blair witch project." So, this is Josh.]

Three unknown actors - Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard, and Mike Williams - were paid (I think) $1000 each to work on this film for almost 2 weeks. They were each given a 35 page backstory of the invented mythology behind the "Blair Witch" legend, which they all thought was authentic until after they finished filming. They were given camera equipment and sent to the woods of Burkitsville, MD to pretend that they were film students researching the story of the witch. Every morning, they would awake to find their daily rations and a film canister that contained envelopes for each of them. The envelopes contained their respective "directions" (e.g., "Mike, you're starting to not trust Heather," etc.). At night, the real directors of the film would skulk around the edges of the campsite and "be" the Blair Witch - i.e., break sticks and make other mysterious creepy woodsy noises. After the actors had shot eight days worth of film, the directors then took that footage and cut it into an actual story.

However, not many people knew any of that before the movie was released. Producers of the film told people that this was actual footage. The three actors were listed on IMDB as "missing, presumed dead" on the movie's page and on their own pages. There were "documentaries" all over television promoting the idea that this was a true story. And it worked like a charm; people came out in droves.

This movie is the ultimate "less is more" film. It gets at the very basic fear of being lost and alone in the woods, where something's out there that wants to harm you. All it takes is an unexpected noise - the slightest hint that you are not alone - to scare you out of your bloomers. And when Heather's fellow filmmakers disappear, you can feel her fear. Especially when you can hear one of them in the distance screaming in apparent torture. And you don't even need to see what's happening, because there's nothing they could have shot that would be worse than what you're imagining.

I don't think this kind of film could be made again - at least, not for the same kind of response. People are much more skeptical of "true" stories, largely because of this movie. What made this movie brilliant was not just the film itself but the fact that audiences were scared before they even saw it. By making it sound like a real story, the filmmakers were able to exploit our fascination with real-life horror and the fact that it scares us in a way that can never be achieved by all the boogeymen and fake blood that Hollywood can throw at us.

Monday, October 02, 2006

31 Days of Horror - The Wicker Man (1973)

Next up on my month-long tribute to all things creepy is the quintessential cult movie - a term which here means "movie about cults" - The Wicker Man. [*not-so-mild SPOILERS for film below*]

The Wicker Man stars Edward Woodward as a police officer, Sgt. Howie, who is summoned to a remote village in the British Isles to find out what has happened to a young girl who has gone missing. From the very beginning, there is something odd about the people on this island - how they talk to Sgt. Howie, their seeming reluctance to answer his questions, and (most tellingly) their inability to agree on whether or not the young girl even exists.

And when night falls, the very religious and conservative Sgt. Howie gets an even bigger culture shock. The culture of this village seems to revolve around sexuality and fertility. Howie is utterly shocked to see the locals engaging in very sexual rituals and even teaching the young schoolchildren about fertility rites (including what the "maypole" represents). But shock gives way to suspicion as he gets increasingly contradictory testimonies from people about the young girl whose disappearance he is investigating. Eventually, Howie meets Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the patriarch of the island, and becomes even more suspicious.

*Please don't read any further if you don't want to be thoroughly spoiled.*

One detail in particular catches Sgt. Howie's attention. The island has a festival every year, and at the center of each festival is a specially chosen young girl. Howie - along with the audience - comes to believe that the purpose of the girl is to be a sacrifice to the village's pagan gods, burnt alive to prevent their crops from failing. Sgt. Howie's search then becomes much more urgent, as he tries to find the girl before the festival takes place. What Howie doesn't know, however, is that the entire time he has been searching for the girl, she hasn't been missing at all. In truth, the sacrifice is Sgt. Howie himself, and the girl was simply a ploy to lure him there.

What follows this revelation is a quite unsettling ritual sequence. Seen out of context, the climactic scene in which Sgt. Howie is tied to a platform and raised up through the infrastructure of the burning "Wicker Man" is quite disturbing. He is shouting out a hymn written to the 23rd Psalm while the villagers are dancing and singing around the Wicker Man in celebration. I suppose people's view of this scene will be different, depending on what they bring to it. In the context of the entire closing sequence, I see Howie as dying a martyr's death - confident in the knowledge that he will soon be in heaven. Someone else, however, might see it as Howie crying out to God for help and not getting an answer.

This is a very interesting and quirky film - the kind that was meant to be made in the 1970s. If you're not really a horror fan but are in the mood for something kind of off the wall, this might be a movie for you. And I'd definitely recommend this as a substitute for the new remake with Nicholas Cage.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

31 Days of Horror - The Exorcist

In honor of October - the month that all the cable channels go apestuff running B-movie horror and lame sequels to the real horror classics - I'm going to do a post a day on some of my favorite horror movies. Actually, not all of them are what I technically categorize as horror, but they're all hella scary in their own unique ways.

And I'm going to start at the top. The cream of the crop. The film that, in my opinion, is the scariest movie I've ever seen. The Exorcist.

The Exorcist is obviously legendary. When it came out in 1973, there were all kinds of tales about people claiming to have gone insane from watching it. This, of course, increases the appeal for many viewers, who see the film as a "test." I first saw this film on late night cable, and let me say right now that if you've only ever seen it chopped up for basic cable, with commercials and edits for contents ... you haven't really seen it. This is not one of those fun scary movies. It's actually quite a serious film, despite a somewhat absurd premise. There's only one scene in the film where I've ever heard anyone laugh or feel comfortable laughing myself.

A quick recap of the plot... Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress shooting a film on location in Washington D.C. She is living in a townhouse with her daughter Reagan (Linda Blair). Reagan begins to act strangely, and the mother goes through several avenues to figure out what is wrong - first doctors, then a psychiatrist and a hypnotist. Eventually the team of doctors suggest that Chris request a rite of exorcism be performed by a Catholic priest. The idea is that Reagan has convinced herself that she has been possessed by a foreign spirit, and that the same power of suggestion that has led her to believe this can convince her that the exorcism ritual is actually curing her. Chris is extremely skeptical; she is not religious at all, and she seems to feel that the doctors are sort of giving up on her daughter. Until... something happens with Reagan that convinces her to consult a priest. I won't say what it is, but it's the most shocking thing I've ever seen in a film - and it has to be, in order for us to believe that this woman is so desperate that she literally believes that her daughter is possessed by the devil.

The story of the priest (Jason Miller) - who is not the eponymous Exorcist, but the local priest (and psychologist) who evaluates Reagan - runs parallel to Reagan's story. In a lot of ways, he is the real main character of the movie, and the film spends a lot of time on his character, his loss of faith, and his own (metaphorical) demons. Because of his fallabilities, his superiors decide that he should not be the one to perform the exorcism. They contact the only man they know of who has actually performed one - Father Merrin (Max von Sydow).

I don't really consider this a "horror" movie. It's more of an emotional drama that just happens to deal with the supernatural and just happens to be very scary. It's certainly not a gimmicky horror movie. For example, I can't think of a single cheap chair-jumper style scare in the entire movie. It's a story that's more about pressure, and the exorcism itself is one of the more intense half-hours you'll ever spend in front of a screen. There are some really shocking images, even more shocking dialogue, and Mercedes McCambridge (who does the voice of the demon) will make your blood freeze.

In addition to the shock factor, though, I think the movie also has a striking perspective of faith. Father Karras is a deeply flawed character who no longer knows if he believes in God. He doesn't even really believe that Reagan is actually possessed. Yet it is his faith and sacrifice that ends up saving Reagan.

This is a brutal, awful film. But it's also incredibly impressive. It was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn), and Best Supporting Actor (Jason Miller), Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair). And it won three Oscars - including Best Adapted Screenplay. It's still a shocker, even now, and I can't begin to fathom what a 1973 audience must have thought of it.