The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist (1973) movie poster

director William Friedkin
viewed: 10/22/2016 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

“I’ve seen The Exorcist about 167 TIMES, AND IT KEEPS GETTING FUNNIER EVERY SINGLE TIME I SEE IT!” – Beetlejuice

Okay, I’m not quite up there with Herr Beetlejuice, but I’m with him in spirit.

I actually had probably only seen it once before this, decades ago.  So the opportunity to see it on the big screen and share that with my kids was prime.

I grew up in the generation over which this movie loomed.  “The scariest movie ever made” to many, many people.  And I think that it’s important to keep that in the context of its time.  Because it is a very well-made and well-acted movie and features some iconic moments and effects, things that were absolutely shocking in 1973.

But “scary” is an ever-evolving thing.  And once it’s out there, it quickly become appropriated, subsumed, regurgitated (even projectile-regurgitated), and effects and technology change the movie game as well.  The effects are pretty great, but they are also kind of comic as well.  In fact, the whole thing plays much more to the comedic and absurd than terrifying.  My son thought it was hilarious.  My daughter was nonplussed.

One thing that put her off was the pacing.  It’s a slow build-up, creating the mood of normalcy that is about to go awry, the pressure on Jason Miller’s Father Damien.  And then even when things cut loose, it’s one crazy possession scene cutting back to slower, quieter narrative moments.  And I’d say that it’s not that this is bad, but rather that it’s an unusual tempo in comparison to a lot of things.

It’s a pretty brilliant movie, in my mind, whether scary or side-splittingly funny.  It doesn’t get a whole lot more iconic in modern horror.  And let us not forget that all this intense visual imagery from the projectile vomit, the levitation, the spider-walk, or the head spin, this was all brand-new, fresh, original shit.  Hence copied, aped, paid homage to, culturally referenced into banality almost.

The Sentinel (1977)

The Sentinel (1977) movie poster

director Michael Winner
viewed: 10/21/2016

As per the Stanislavski line, “there are no small parts, only small actors,” you get a movie like The Sentinel in which a lot of big actors show up in a wide range of roles.  Packed with folks like Ava Gardner, Burgess Meredith, Eli Wallach, and Martin Balsam but also up and comers like Jeff Goldblum, Beverly D’Angelo (oh my), and that cool Christopher Walken guy.  John Carradine!  And these aren’t even the leads!

Actually, I saw The Sentinel as a kid and always remembered liking it.  I couldn’t remember much about it but a big house and something evil or demonic or what-have-you.  Really, it’s best not to know what’s coming because the ending really is a twist.  And I think that is really what turns The Sentinel into something above the par.

At times it feels like a Rosemary’s Baby (1968) wannabe.  But it’s a little more odd, much more Catholic, if not quite as nearly as eerie.  Michael Winner’s direction if proficient, if not really full of terror.  There are some interesting FX moments, including a serious face-slashing.

The final sequence where the story becomes finally exposed is the film’s best and most vivid.  Winner employs a bunch of people with extreme deformities (to play visions of hell), co-mingled with some with make-up on, something that you don’t see so much of by 1977.  I’m somewhat curious about this.

Beverly D’Angelo has both a nude scene and one of the most hysterically funny masturbation scenes ever set on film.

My daughter wasn’t overly impressed by it, saying, when’s it going to be scary?  Not a connoisseur yet sadly.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) movie poster

director Tobe Hooper
viewed: 10/15/2016

This viewing of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was for the kids.  Like any good parent, I try to expose them to the classics. I’d last watched it 14 years ago, the first year I was keeping this film diary.  It was fresh and fierce then and it still is today.

Watching movies with my kids is something I really appreciate.  I enjoy experiencing things with them and often vicarious enjoyment gives off contact highs better than I would get watching them alone.

This was a bit of a mixed bag here.  Though my son screamed aloud once (and immediately laughed at himself), my daughter was asking how much longer the film had during the late scene of nonstop screaming and terrorizing of Marilyn Burns.  It piqued a curious point of interest for me, this elongated torture/terror.  It is drawn out, and it is uncomfortable (perhaps at best).  The victimization of women, though, as common a trope in horror all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe, isn’t inherently misogynist here.  Especially in light of the current national dialogue as we seek to elect a president.

I recalled the first time I saw TCM, back in the 1980’s.  The movie had such word-of-mouth buzz that it was almost an urban legend.  It’s shocking reality was also nearly matched by its shocking 1970’s-ness (which is the Eighties seemed a bad thing). Featuring less gore than a lot of films, it was hard to appreciate the film properly.  I feel that it has grown in my estimation in my adult viewings.  And validated again here.

I still haven’t fully discussed it with my kids (we did a bit), so I don’t know their full take on the film.  I tried not to overhype it other than to say it was a true horror classic, a solid entry in our October horror festival.  It is interesting, though, to see a film from a fresh vantage, another reason watching with my kids is satisfying for me, especially now at 12 and 15, we can watch movies like this.

A brilliant film.

Tenebrae (1982)

Tenebrae (1982) movie poster

director Dario Argento
viewed: 10/08/2016

In introducing my 15 year old son to Dario Argento and the giallo, we watched the classic, Tenebrae, which I myself had never seen.  But as the body count rose and he started to try to solve the murders, I noted to him that in my experience, gialli narratives tend toward the baroque, convoluted and confusing, and that ultimately the cohesiveness of the logic really often is unimportant.

Maybe this isn’t the greatest advice on the genre, but for now I’m sticking with it.

Marked with Argento’s keen aesthetics and style, Tenebrae is a giallo among gialli.  Bloodier and bit more visually violent than some of its brethren, the mystery dances along the lines of its contemporary slasher films as well.

In reading up on the film, post-viewing, it’s rather remarkable the amount of influence and impact Tenebrae has effected.  And a lot of analysis.  Definitely suggesting a further viewing of the movie.

I’ve a sense that this is a film that is still working its way through my psyche and that further thoughts will come.  Very interesting indeed.

Monster on the Campus (1958)

Monster on the Campus (1958) movie poster

director Jack Arnold
viewed: 10/01/2016

Of all of Jack Arnold’s wonderful 1950’s horror-scifi, Monster on the Campus is probably the silliest.  This is the man who delivered It Came from Outer Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and The Space Children (1958), a ranging list that includes a few true classics.  But even if you throw in 1957’s The Monolith Monsters, which he provided story but didn’t direct, Monster on the Campus is still a winner for silliness.

This might be one of the only coelacanth-oriented horror films out there.

A professor at a small state college lands himself a coelacanth specimen upon which to experiment, only to discover that the fish has been irradiated in shipping.  This modern form of sterilization might not sound too bad initially, but it results anything that ingests, injects, or even smokes the blood of the coelacanth suddenly reverts to their own prehistoric form.

For a German shepherd, wolf-life fangs and a nasty personality.  A dragonfly turns gigantic.  For the professor, he reverts to a gruesome, murderous troglodyte.  Though we are eventually given a transformation scene, showing make-up fades into progressive hairiness, it’s a rubber mask monster in its full form, a pretty ugly one at that.

What tends to the hilarious is just how the professor manages to take in this coelacanth  blood.  The first time, he cuts his hand on the dead fish’s teeth.  The second time, blood dripping from the knife with which he skewered the giant dragonfly, drops into his pipe, and he winds up smoking it.  Though that is probably the most hilarious of events, he does later twice inject himself with coelacanth blood, finally to prove to the authorities that he is the “monster on the campus” who needs to be gunned down.

Like The Monolith Monsters, and like a lot of Arnold’s movies, I grew up with this one on TV, and even though it’s a lot more silly than a good horror film of the period should be, it still found a soft spot in me.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Shaun of the Dead (2004) movie poster

director Edgar Wright
viewed: 10/30/2015

Part 2 of our horror/comedy Halloween double feature, tailored to my son, was 2004’s Shaun of the Dead.  It’s the film that put star Simon Pegg and director/co-writer Edgar Wright on the map.  Like What We Do in the Shadows (2014), I had seen it before (though it was probably during my brief period of not writing my film diary.)

I’d remembered it fondly.  In fact, I think when I’ve watched any other film of Wright’s I’ve always thought back to Shaun and still figured it was his best film.  My 14 year old son thinks Edgar Wright is super cool, so he was pretty keen to see it.

You know, …it’s amusing, it’s good, but….I guess I don’t like it as much as I thought I would.  It’s kind of crazy to think it’s over 10 years old now.

I still think Wright is interesting and talented.  I don’t know that I think he’s made a great movie yet, though.

The kids liked it.  Though I think we all agreed that What We Do in the Shadows was the funnier of the two.

Ah well.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) movie poster

directors Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement
viewed: 10/30/2015

For the past several years, I’ve made October an all horror film month for the kids and myself, probably as a fair amount of people do.  Oddly enough, my daughter loves it, but my son flits in and out with it, sometimes into it, sometimes gets a little too freaked out.

Also, recently, they’ve gotten into watching Flight of the Conchords, which I failed to see in its day.  Actually, it was after watching What We Do in the Shadows a few months back that finally got me around to checking out Conchords.  So, for him, for our Halloween night movie fest, we went with a horror/comedy double feature, starting with this mockumentary about vampire flatmates in New Zealand.

I liked it again.  Maybe a little more, now familiar with Jermaine Clement and Rhys Darby (Murray from Conchords, showing up here as the alpha werewolf).  The kids both liked it too.  Taika Waititi, who co-wrote, co-directed, and co-stars in the film with Clement, is also very funny and sweet as Viago.

Fun stuff.

Crimson Peak (2015)

Crimson Peak (2015) movie poster

director Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 10/24/2015 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

I like Guillermo del Toro.  I’ve been with him since Cronos (1993) and have seen him craft an interesting career between beautiful art film horror (The Devil’s Backbone (2001) & Pan’s Labyrinth (2005)) and Hollywood science fiction comic book nonsense (Mimic (1997), Blade II (2002), Hellboy (2004), Hellboy II (2008), & Pacific Rim (2013).)

Why list all his feature films?  Because if you look at his body of work, you can see that he’s gone back and forth with regularity between artsy stuff and more commercial fare.  Heck, he might even have another one on his resume by now if he didn’t squander a number of years with Peter Jackson on that Hobbit (2012) monstrosity.

Heck, he’s on Twitter these days, sharing his breadth of passions and facinations.  He does his own design work, probably at most well-realized in Pan’s Labyrinth, but I give the guy credit.  And double heck, I was probably a total outlier myself because I actually enjoyed Pacific Rim.

Crimson Peak looks fantastic.  It’s beautifully designed and shot.  Victorian Gothic horror story with lush colors and featuring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain, all very sumptuous themselves in their own ways.

It’s an earnest and devout throwback of a ghost film, hearkening of the days of Hammer horror or classic terrors like The Innocents (1961) or Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963).  It’s also an original screenplay, if not the most original of ideas for the story.  All of the loving details are all onscreen.  Vividly.

But it’s not spectacular.  It’s not haunting (to me, at least).  It was enjoyable enough, but not the least enthralling.  My kids enjoyed it.  I liked it.  I’m not saying I didn’t like it.

For my money, the best ghost story film of this century has been Alejandro Amenábar’s 2001 film, The Others.  There is a film with less showy designs and more creepy creeps.

But I will continue to like del Toro.  And I’ll look forward to his next films.

The Mist (2007)

The Mist (2007) movie poster

director Frank Darabont
viewed: 10/23/2015

We revisited Frank Darabont’s The Mist not so much because I remembered it fondly (I saw it 8 years ago when it came out), but I thought it might entertain the kiddies.

The big thing that has changed since seeing The Mist in 2008 is The Walking Dead.  It would be Darabont’s next project, launching in 2010.  In a lot of ways, The Mist is a template for casting and directing the later television zombie apocalypse, only this time with Lovecraftian beasties.  In fact, appearing in the movie are future Walking Dead cast members Melissa McBride and Laurie Holden.  And while maybe those are the only two I recognized, you already get a sense of casting an apocalypse for diversity and character acting well in place.  Walking Dead executive producer Greg Nicotero served on The Mist as creature designer.

The Mist has some good things going for it.  Darabont builds the characters deftly and uses the setting of the grocery store to good measure.

But the film is more flawed than good.  The creature effects are not great.  Those tentacles have not aged well.  In one of the better set-up scenes, when giant insects are attracted to the flashlights, the creatures fail to have uniqueness or impact.  Digital really lets you down, as it often has.

Additionally, while some of the characterization is good, some of it is still over the top.  Marcia Gay Harden gives her all as the manic grocery store preacher, but she’s so intense, it’s hard to fathom any large group would be so turned to her way of thinking, especially after only a day or two of entrapment.  In fact, the film’s other potent device, the suicides, also are hard to buy.  It’s only been a couple of days and people are dropping themselves like flies.

I didn’t come around to The Walking Dead until last year, but now I’m in.  And from the perspective of how that show has evolved, it’s interesting to see somewhat of a sketch draft from before it went to market.

The Falling (2014)

The Falling (2014) movie poster

director Carol Morley
viewed: 10/18/2015

Not for the faint of heart.  I don’t have the faintest idea why this film wasn’t just called “The Fainting”.  Faint praise.

I stumbled on Carol Morley’s The Falling via a tweet of Guillermo del Toro who posted it in positive association with The Babadook (2014) and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Midnight (2014).  So I queued it up.

Set in 1969 at an English girls school, it stars Game of Thrones‘ Maisie Williams and Maxine Peake as a pair of very close teenage girls, verging their way into sexuality, suddenly beset by dizzy spells and fainting.  When Maxine’s character dies, Maisie’s character starts a round of fainting among the other girls that winds up as one mass hysteria (or something else?)

Throw on top of this complex mess of things, Williams’s mom, an ice-cold agoraphobe, a hypersexual brother, eventual incest, and you’ve got something that is definitely “loaded.”  Unfortunately it’s both loaded and laughable.  I watched it with my kids and we started making guesses at how many more fainting episodes would occur near the half-way point.  Clara won by guessing 30 or more.  We started laughing at them all.

The Falling has gotten decent reviews, but with its light girl rock soundtrack and hyper-sillyness, the whole thing was a ridiculous mess for me.