Night of the Demons (1988)

Tenney

Hanging with Maestro Tenney

 

 

Conventional wisdom holds that most cultural artifacts from the 1980s haven’t aged well. I reject this view. Like any true fan of horror and heavy metal, I recognize that decade as a sort of Golden Age of Good Shit. But that is the great thing about hindsight. Time allows us to separate the grain from the chaff. We can forget that poofy haired posers like Firehouse won Grammy awards but remember that Iron Maiden released one classic album after another. We can forget all the endlessly derivative horror knockoffs and cherish masterworks by John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and George Romero. Well, maybe some of those knockoffs weren’t all so bad. And maybe, just maybe, when Poison’s “Talk Dirty to Me” comes on the radio, it’s okay for the battle jackets and bullet belts crowd to smile. Because nostalgia, that great eraser of flaws, is a hell of a thing. Besides, a lot of those cheap horror movies delivered the most important thing a movie can offer: fun.

I guess it’s okay to go to the theater to receive some insight into the human condition or maybe even hoping to have your outlook on life altered in some way. I know movies like Dawn of the Dead and Terminator certainly changed my life. But those experiences are rare, and if you expect that sort of bolt of lightning from every film you watch, you’re in for a great deal of disappointment. Sometimes it’s enough for a movie to just be fun. Kevin Tenney’s 1988 masterpiece Night of the Demons may not be a cinematic revelation, but it is a hell of a good time. The Last Emperor, a nearly three hour slog that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1988, has nothing on Night of the Demons in the fun department. Given the choice between the two, I can’t imagine any scenario in which I’d rather watch some endless meditation on the political transformation of China than Kevin Tenney’s gory haunted house romp. I’m going to leave myself open for all kinds of criticism and just straight up say that Night of the Demons is the superior picture, and the Academy, as usual, dropped the ball. (The first Naked Gun movie also came out in 1988—another glaring omission at that year’s awards).

Night of the Demons is a riff on familiar haunted house tropes, in which a group of teenagers goes to an abandoned funeral parlor to celebrate Halloween. It seems that High School Weird Chick Angela (played masterfully by Amelia Kinkade) wants to dabble in a bit of evil. She’s invited a cross section of archetypes of 1980s teen movies. She’s stocked up on liquor and junk food. She’s even brought along a boombox. What could possibly go wrong? Cue demonic possession and gory death scenes. Don’t leave out some supernatural mumbo jumbo and gratuitous nudity. That’s a recipe for success. It’s one of those perfect Halloween movies like Evil Dead 2 or Return of the Living Dead or Creepshow: a howling romp that hits all the right horror and comedy notes. From a certain perspective, it’s a near perfect film. And just in case you’re new to my world, I’ll add that I write that statement with a complete lack of irony.

Amelia

These days, Amelia “Angela” Kinkade is a real life pet psychic. I shit you not. She’s also incredibly nice. Whether or not she can speak to the residents of Pet Semetary…well, I guess that depends on your particular worldview.

 

 

One little postscript: according to IMDB, Linnea Quigley met her future husband, special effects artist Steve Johnson, when she had to have her breasts molded (for one of the greatest gore gags ever, I should add). There is a similar scene in my third novel, Saturday Night of the Living Dead. Now, I’ve probably seen Night of the Demons a few dozen times, but I swear that I didn’t know this little tidbit until after the book was published. Perhaps it’s one of those archetypal stories that pop up across cultural barriers and through the centuries. I don’t know, what did Joseph Campbell have to say about fake tits?

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Grey Hair and Battle Jackets

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I’m not sure when I first noticed that I’d become the old guy at heavy metal shows. There was no Ah-ha moment when I walked into a music venue and said to myself, “Wow, Brad, you are the oldest person in here.” It was more of a gradual thing, a culmination of small realizations that snowballed into a sense of elder statesmanship (which is a nice way of saying that I became a curmudgeonly old fart).

Was it when I realized that I no longer wanted to mosh? Not really. In fact, thinking back on days past, I’m not sure I ever liked it to begin with. I did my share of sweaty circle pit slamming, but it was probably more out of a sense of obligation than anything. Hey, it’s a Pantera show, and this is what you do. But I’m not sure I ever would have jumped in of my own accord. I certainly never started a pit. Maybe it was because I fancied myself a musician, and I was more interested in watching the band play. These days—after back surgery and physical therapy—the only way you could get me into a mosh pit is at gunpoint. And truth be told, it sort of annoys me that most of the prime real estate at shows is taken up by people who are more interested in some sweaty male bonding than music. If I could wave my magic want (a Rush reference—not the most metal thing, I admit), I’d make a law that kept mosh pits in the back of the venue, so that the people who are actually there for the music and the performance could get their money’s worth as well. Then again, I’m the old guy at the concert. I just don’t get it, dude.

Perhaps I become too old when I realized that perhaps knowing all the lyrics to “Stripped, Raped, and Strangled” or “Pedigree Butchery” wasn’t something to trumpet from the hilltops. I remember the time I bought a t-shirt at a Strapping Young Lad Concert, a shirt that I wore once before donating to a younger, brasher metal brother. The back of the shirt proclaimed, in bold print, “Get It in Gear, Motherfucker” (or something similar—it’s been a while). I was closing in on my third decade on this earth, and it just felt…juvenile. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Strapping Young Lad, and I still sing right along with Cannibal Corpse and Carcass. Hell, I’d still rock a t-shirt for either band. But it won’t be one with the big MF on the back, and it probably won’t be one featuring the uncensored Tomb of the Mutilated artwork. I can’t see myself dropping my daughter off at Montessori school while wearing that shirt.

I know that, like any self-respecting old fart, I worry about my hearing. I wear ear plugs at every show louder than a coffee shop acoustic act. I rejoiced at the smoking ban at most music venues—I hated coming home smelling like an ashtray. And it no longer makes me raise my fist in triumph when I find out that the bar serves PBR for a dollar or two-for-one Jagermeister shots. Like I said: Boring Old Fart.

I’m the guy with the grey hair who doesn’t understand what metalcore is. Djent sounds like a dish I’d order at an Indian restaurant. I’ll gladly tell you that music was better before the age of file-sharing. And while I love my iPhone for music on the go, when I’m at home and I want to do some serious music appreciation, I fire up my turntable. I like singers who can sing, guitarists who understand phrasing, drummers who don’t trigger their kits to sound like popcorn machines, band logos that are at least vaguely legible, and legit album covers. My wife understands that I make time with the other ladies in my life: Abigail and Melissa. My five year-old can spot the difference between the Derek Riggs version of Eddie and the Melvyn Grant update (she prefers the latter—kids these days). My cats no longer run for cover when Halford hits that note in “Victim of Changes.” I own a photo of me standing next to Dee Snider while holding a photo of me standing next to Dee Snider (one day I hope to take another photo with Dee Snider, and in that one I’ll hold the photo of me holding the photo—I’m pretty sure I could keep that one going for a while). I take vacation days from work when Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and King Diamond release new music, and I’m shocked that more people don’t do the same. And I carry my Iron Maiden Fan Club card right behind my driver’s license in my wallet.

If you go to metal shows, you’ve either seen me or you are me. I’m the grey-haired dude in the battle jacket who knows the word to every Maiden song and chooses to believe that Sepultura disbanded after Chaos A.D.

Wait, did I just say battle jacket?

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I may be too old for my Cradle of Filth t-shirts, but I refuse to mothball my trusty denim vest. For one thing, it’s functional. Worn over a long-sleeve flannel shirt, it is the perfect garment for those late fall days when it’s past t-shirt weather but not quite time to bust out the winter coat. And besides that, it says something. It says, for one thing, that I may be old, but I’m not that old. And you know what else it says? That I can sew.

With concert season right around the corner (I have two King Diamond shows in one week on the docket, as well as a birthday week Iron Maiden concert), I pulled out the old battle jacket and assessed its current state. My 1982-era Maiden back patch has seen better days, but for something that is nearly as old as its owner, it looks pretty damn good. But it was looking a bit lonely, so I gathered the patches I’ve acquired over the past couple years and commenced sewing. I’m not very good at it. I make uneven, primitive whip stitches with a large needle designed for leather. Despite having a thimble, I manage to poke holes in just about every finger. But I do have a certain amount of pride in having done it myself. In the past, I’ve relied on my mom or my wife to take care of the sewing. These days, I figure a man should make his own battle jacket. That has the feel of an unwritten code.

So I’m making progress. I’ve put on a Queensryche patch. Now that they’ve booted that douche Geoff Tate (a douche with awesome pipes, but a douche nonetheless), I feel okay repping that band. At the Gates included a patch with the deluxe version of At War with Reality, so I slapped that one on as well. My friend recently returned from a trip to London, and he brought me a patch from The Crowbar in Soho. That one now lives right across from my Motorhead patch. That feels appropriate. All in all, my old faithful is looking pretty damn good.

I have a few more pieces to sew on, all of them proclaiming my love for the good old stuff: Mercyful Fate, King Diamond, Kreator, Bathory, Dio, and Scorpions. I’ll probably lose a pint of blood affixing them. Ah, what price beauty

My daughter has decided that she’d like to carry on the tradition. Little Bit, after gazing upon the fruits of my labor, proclaimed, “I wish I had a battle jacket.” And I thought, why the hell not? The kid sings along to Manowar and Judas Priest. She’s more metal than your average mascara-wearing scene kid. Her mother bought the denim jacket, and I ordered the raw materials. And it will fit Little Bit’s personality: snugged up alongside Iron Maiden and Guns n’ Roses will be My Little Pony, Hello Kitty, and Disney Princesses. There’s a Motorhead button for the front, but also a pink heart badge. It won’t be easy. Those My Little Pony patches are much more intricate than the square or circle patches I favor. But you know what? Seeing her smile as she puts on her first battle jacket will be worth the bloodshed. Because if I’m never too old to wave the heavy metal flag, then she’s never too young. No Cannibal Corpse patches for her, though. Even I have to draw the line somewhere.

If you have a battle jacket you’ve made, send me some pictures. I’ll post them here along with shots of my denim projects, including Little Bit’s cute/metal mashup.

Don’t Go in the Woods (1981)

I remember the days of the neighborhood Mom and Pop video rental store fondly. Our little subdivision in Little Rock had a little store called Shows 2 Go. It was tucked into a small space in a strip mall, next to an insurance agency and, if my memory isn’t letting me down, a jazzercise studio. From what I gather from listening to other old farts wistfully recall those days of VHS glory, Shows 2 Go was a pretty typical place. Popcorn and candy were sold at the counter. The walls were plastered with movie posters. Cardboard promotional items were positioned here and there. (One little digression: the owners were generous with these posters and other items—I still have a cardboard hockey mask used to promote Friday the 13th Part VII.) Also typical was the movie selection on hand. While you could get the latest Hollywood product, there was also an abundance of offbeat and/or straight-to-video stuff on offer. In particular, there was a little nook of horror movies that was absolutely packed with awesomeness. And since my parents were not real uptight about what I rented, I was able to take my pick.

Of course, I got the classics and the big franchises. The first time I saw Night of the Living Dead, it was via a VHS tape from Shows 2 Go. Ditto Terminator and The Hills Have Eyes. I remember spending a sick day on the couch, watching a stack of Friday the 13th movies my father had rented at my request. (Actual dialogue from Dad: “Son, I don’t see why you like this crap. It’s nothing but graphic violence and nudity…” looks over at his son, an eleven year old American male “…okay, never mind.”)

But along with the big names, I treated myself to some more fringe fare. I grabbed stuff based on cover art and title. Dead Pit, Death Spa, Pieces, Gates of Hell, Piranha, From Beyond…I watched all those. And I also viewed roughly a hundred low-down, sleazy slasher films. You know the ones that got Siskel and Ebert’s panties in a twist and had them ranting and railing like a couple of lily-livered, pearl clutching grandmothers. The Prowler, Terror Train, Prom Night…you know, that sort of thing. Oh yeah, I also took in the 1981 cinematic masterpiece Don’t Go in the Woods.

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This was back in the days when I didn’t give a rat’s ass for directors or writers or cinematographers. I just knew what I liked when I saw it. And I figured with lurid cover art and a little banner promising graphic violence—not a warning, mind you, but something actually used to sell the film—I figured Don’t Go in the Woods was a winner.

By most objective standards, Don’t Go in the Woods is a terrible picture. The plot is wafer thin and not very logical. The acting leaves a bit to be desired. The production values are negligible. But while the film fails by conventional metrics, it mostly succeeds by the standards of its niche genre (think of what Joe Bob Briggs used for his Drive-In Totals). Every five minutes or so, there’s an act of bloodshed, inflicted with a variety of implements both edged and blunt. The film doesn’t dick around with developing the characters of the four leads, much less any of the supporting cast, which exist only to get beaten, hacked, or skewered. And the violence is merciless, full of bright red splatter set to a soundtrack of screams.

The story is this: four friends go into the woods and wind up at the hands of a murderous wild man who gets his jollies by dispatching anyone who crosses his path. They are eventually somewhat aided by the most incompetent law enforcement and medical personnel this side of a Naked Gun sequel. That’s not some elevator pitch, either. That’s the whole movie.

Now here are a few little things I picked up as an adult that didn’t really register when I was a wide-eyed youth reveling in simulated violence: The group’s nominal leader, Craig, issues stern warnings about the dangers of being alone in the wilderness. But this particular stretch of wilderness is teeming with people. In addition to other backpackers and hikers, there is a honeymooning couple, a female Bob Ross-type painter, an amateur nature photographer and his large wife, and even a guy in a wheelchair. I’ve heard about how there were families having campouts just outside the frame of most of The Blair Witch Project. That must have been the same forest as the one in Don’t Go in the Woods. Remember how I said that the law enforcement was not a crack squad of crime fighters? That’s an understatement. When these guys finally get into an airplane to do some aerial searching, they give up after five minutes. And the medical personnel? Not only do they let one traumatized near-victim stroll right out of the hospital, but also decide that it’s a good idea for the survivor girl to go help out with a search party.

Strangely, there is no nudity in Don’t Go in the Woods. Skin is so prevalent in this type of picture that its absence is peculiar. I’m sure that quality must have leapt out at me back in the day, but I didn’t remember it after twenty years and change between viewings. It seems odd for a film that doesn’t balk at dispatching the disabled or abandoning a toddler in the woods to play with a hatchet near her dead mother. But hey, I guess you can’t have everything.

This thing is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Vinegar Syndrome.

Pair it with cold cans of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and a big batch of my Wild Man Crackers.

2 lbs. oyster crackers

1 cup canola oil

2 tbs. red pepper flakes

1 packet ranch dressing mix

1 tbs. lemon pepper

1 tbs. barbecue rub (something not too salty)

Put oil and pepper flakes in a sealed jar. Shake to combine. Let this concoction steep overnight or up to a few days. You can let it go as long as you like, just as long as you give it a few shakes every day. After your oil has gotten peppered up and you’re ready to party, pour the crackers into a large container with a sealable lid. Toss in the dressing mix, lemon pepper, and rub, then stir it all up. Drizzle in the oil—flakes and all—while stirring the crackers. Seal that container and take it with you to the couch. Put on a slasher movie of your choice. While you watch, gently agitate that container. The idea is to keep everything moving while the crackers soak up the oil and spices. This takes time, so you might not be able to enjoy these until the next day. I’ve heard of some people putting these in the oven to speed up the process. Those people are doing it wrong.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956/1978)

The line between horror and science fiction can get awful blurry sometimes. Think about Alien or John Carpenter’s The Thing. Would it be fair to pigeonhole either of those into either genre? And what about Event Horizon? Galaxy of Terror? At what point do elements of horror override the sci-fi aspects of these films and push them into that grey area between genres? Often, it’s simply a matter of gore. Horror fans will sit still for—and applaud—graphic violence that will push away other audiences. I remember being in the theater for Event Horizon and seeing people head for the exits after those brief flashes of “weird satanic rough trade sex orgy in space.” I imagine a similar exodus took place during early screenings of Alien. Essentially a mashup of Planet of the Vampires and It! The Terror from Beyond Space, Alien crops up in most Top Ten Horror Movies-type lists. And deservedly so, as the film is visually stunning and tightly paced, with an outstanding cast and one of the coolest monsters ever put on screen. But, let’s be honest, much of its appeal to horror fans can be traced back to that dinner time chest-bursting scene. That is the type of deal-breaker scene that sends the lightweights scurrying.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers isn’t as clear cut a case of genre overlap. Compared to Alien and The Thing, it’s tame stuff. There’s no chest-bursting or gruesome mutations. And placed side by side with most alien invasion flicks, it’s short on action and fireworks. But there’s an apocalyptic tone and a mounting sense of dread that, for me, marks Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a horror film. If not the 1956 Don Siegel-directed original, then certainly Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake. The pod people in the 1978 version seem somehow more malevolent than those in the original. It’s as if the aliens have a plan that goes well beyond replacement and assimilation.

Much has been made of Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ subtext, and it’s easy to see why. The blank-faced emotionless aliens make good stand-ins for just about everything. Various interpretations have viewed them as indictments of McCarthyism, communism, and just plain old 1950s style suburban conformity. For me, they represent the complete loss of self that comes with workaday fatigue. After all, when you spend your day taking orders from the boss, pretending to be happy for the satisfaction of the customer/public, and grinding your teeth through the tedium, how much of the real you is left? And that is why Invasion of the Body Snatchers scares me more than just about any other sci-fi horror hybrid. It says that when The Man has taken your time and your health, your happiness will inevitably follow.

Little Bit approves.

Little Bit approves.

The Editor (2014)

In addition to ice hockey and goodwill, Canada has given the world a lot of quality entertainment over the years. Yes, it is true that our neighbors to the north hiked their collective legs and pissed Justin Bieber and Celine Dion onto the States, but to be fair, they more than evened the balance by giving us Rush, Voivod, Bob and Doug Mackenzie, My Bloody Valentine, Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, and the comic genius that is Trailer Park Boys. Canada has also unleashed filmmaking collective Astron-6 upon the world, and in doing so, enriched the horror/comedy canon immensely.

The latest Astron-6 opus is a parody/homage of Italian horror films, mostly the stylish gialli of people like Dario Argento, but also the whacked-out surreal stuff done by Lucio Fulci. The Editor is horror fan’s horror/comedy, meaning that you must be a card carrying Horror Nerd to catch and/or appreciate the in-jokes and references that fly fast and furious in every frame of this wonderful film. (Can you tell I liked this one?)

The Editor cherry picks the most obvious elements of those great old Italian films and cranks them up for maximum impact. Garish lighting? Check. Full, bushy mustaches? You know it. Casual misogyny? Without a doubt. Deliriously violent and gory death scenes? Yes sir. Gratuitous nudity? Oh, yeah. Nonsensical plot twists? For sure. Black gloved killer? Well, of course.

The thing is, all the parodic elements are so spot-on perfect that The Editor starts to feel less and less like a spoof as the film plays out. In the same way Shaun of the Dead starts as a send-up of zombie movies and then slowly becomes a damn good zombie movie, The Editor works as a straight (well, almost straight) homage. The attention to detail that went into this movie is astounding, especially considering the relatively low budget. The clothes, the cars, the set dressing—all of it looks authentic. Had the Astron-6 guys wanted to play this one straight, they could have easily done it. Even the music could pass as some forgotten soundtrack to an obscure giallo.

The setup is pure giallo: Rey Ciso was once the greatest film editor in the world, but a cutting room accident resulted in the partial amputation of his fingers. Now, he barely scrapes by, using a wooden prosthesis to help him edit low-down exploitation films. He spends his time enduring abuse from his drunk of a wife and contemplating suicide. Then, when it looks like things can’t get worse, actors start dropping dead on the set of his latest movie. Turtleneck enthusiast and police inspector Peter Porfiry shows up to investigate and immediately locks in on Ciso as the prime suspect. From here on out, things get damn hilarious. Ciso and Porfiry conduct their own investigations, leading them everywhere from a Catholic church to an insane asylum to a strange dimension inspired by Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond. Along the way, there are protracted sex and/or murder scenes that are side-splitting in their over the top whackiness.

Now, if you’re reading this, odds are good that you’ll appreciate the sense of humor on display in The Editor. But if you haven’t seen Deep Red, Torso, The Beyond, Black Belly of the Tarantula, New York Ripper, Suspiria, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, and dozens of other Italian masterpieces, you might not know what the hell is going on. The running gag about the strong male characters slapping women, for example, will just come off as poor taste. As will the sex scene that culminates in a woman being chainsawed in half. As will…a whole bunch of things in this picture. Poor taste is the point. Gialli are artifacts from a different time and culture. Even the best that the genre has to offer is ridden with tackiness and bad behavior. That’s one reason they’re so wildly entertaining decades later.

You either make your peace with all the political incorrectness or you walk away. For those of us who don’t care enough to need to make our peace with anything, these films are pure gold. The Editor is made of similar stuff.

Pair this one with a Moosehead and a plate of poutine.

Hotel Transylvania (2012)/Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015)

I’ll be perfectly honest: I’m not a big fan of Pixar-era animation. When people gush about something like Finding Nemo or Toy Story, they usually include the phrase “It was so cute!” in their babble. I don’t do cute. The last time a filmmaker could win me with cute was when the Ewoks made their appearance in Return of the Jedi. I was four years old when that film came out, and the older I get, the more I understand why Star Wars geeks of a certain age absolutely hated the Ewoks. They were an older generation’s Jar Jar Binks.

Thing is, I have a daughter who recently celebrated her fifth birthday. I can’t exactly sit down and watch Black Belly of the Tarantula with her. So I’ve seen my share of animated movies. And while I’ve come to appreciate the artistry behind the medium and to recognize that there is a fair amount of material in the scripts aimed at adults, I still can’t say that I like the movies. I enjoy watching them with my daughter. But I’d enjoy watching grass grow with her. The point is getting to sit beside her and listen to her laugh.

And who wouldn't want to sit by this cutie?

And who wouldn’t want to sit by this cutie?

There are a few exceptions to my disdain of animated features, however. And these exceptions are almost always the horror-lite titles aimed at kids with an interest in the dark and creepy (which, in my experience, is just about all of them). Monster House had a decent story to tell. Frankenweenie suffered from the same overabundance of Tim Burton that most Tim Burton movies suffer from. I’ve never made it through the entirety of A Nightmare Before Christmas for the same reason.

Lately, Little Bit has taken a liking to Hotel Transylvania, a cute movie about a wide-eyed innocent who stumbles into the midst of monsters and is drained of blood and dismembered for his trouble. Okay, that last part doesn’t really happen. Instead, the wide-eyed innocent is a stoner from California who, while backpacking across Europe, discovers a hotel run by Dracula. Rather than run away in fear, Jonathan the stoner promptly falls in love with Dracula’s daughter (head-scratchingly named Mavis, of all things). So as not to upset the natural order, Jonathan pretends to be a monster, and light-hearted hijinks ensue. The gags mostly play on monsters playing both to and against stereotypes derived from the Universal movies. Frankenstein’s monster is a lumbering hulk who’s a little slow on the uptake. The Wolf Man (voiced by Steve Buscemi) is a beleaguered family man overwhelmed by the hundreds of puppies he’s sired. You get the idea.

And in true horror movie fashion, there’s a sequel. At the time of this writing, the film is still playing in theaters, and in a 3-D version, no less. So on a Sunday evening, I tagged along with Little Bit, my wife, and her friend to the multiplex. We got our fruit punch (Little Bit hates carbonation) and a bag of Twizzlers then strapped on our special glasses.

Hotel Transylvania 2 starts up with Johnathan and Mavis’ nuptials and leaps ahead via montage to their son Dennis’ fifth birthday. The plot here is concerned with whether or not Dennis will take after his mother and become a vampire or take after his father and start smoking weed and listening to Kyuss. Maybe I’m inferring that last bit. Dracula (sweetly referred to as Grampa Drac by little Dennis) is hell-bent on making sure that the bloodsucker gene is alive and well in his grandson. Grampa Drac enlists the help of all his monster buddies to try and force a rite of passage onto the poor kid. They take him along for a night on the town, in which it rapidly becomes apparent that the classic monsters no longer have it in themselves to actually scare people. This actually got me thinking a bit about how we view those characters in our cynical, hipster-infested age. Have all our monsters become cute and cuddly despite their terrifying lineage? In the sequel, Grampa Drac takes his grandson to a summer camp for vampire children. I halfway expected a cutesy animated Jason Voorhees to show up with a plastic machete.

Upon reflection, I’m not sure how necessary the sequel was, except for the obvious studio-making-money-hand-over-fist angle. Most of the jokes had been told already in the first film, and the residue of scariness that existed in the first installment was nearly gone in the second. I guess that’s natural. After all, how scary was Freddy Kreuger by the fourth sequel?

For a couple of animated features starring the voice of Adam Sandler, the two Hotel Transylvania films weren’t all that bad. I can see how they might even work as a kind of gateway drug. The leap from Hotel Transylvania to Monster Squad isn’t that far. And the logical step from Monster Squad to, say, Night of the Living Dead seems a fair enough forecast.

Pair this one with fruit punch and strawberry Twizzlers.

Contamination (1980)

The Italian film industry of the 70s and 80s was like a think tank for exploitation cinema. Not only did the fine people of Italy give us dozens of classic, classy gialli and just as many gory horror gems, they also knocked off popular Hollywood hits with aplomb. Even Fulci’s masterpiece Zombi was marketed as a sequel to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. The success of Conan the Barbarian gave rise to Spaghetti Sword and Sandal epics like the Ator franchise (my personal favorite) and Fulci’s Conquest. Luigi Cozzi tried his hand at the outer space epic with 1978’s Star Crash, which will always live in the hearts and minds of discriminating cineastes as the film in which Caroline Munro swims through outer space while clad in a leather bikini and boots. Cozzi also explored a more earthbound (and much darker) vision of sci-fi two years later with Contamination, a movie that shamelessly rips of Alien.

This is a science fiction movie; therefore, it must be filled with science stuff, such as this state of the art interocitor!

This is a science fiction movie; therefore, it must be filled with science stuff, such as this state of the art interocitor!

Contamination opens with an unmanned ship drifting into a harbor in New York. Yes, just like the one in Zombi, only this time instead of a bloated walking corpse, we see corpses that have apparently exploded. Also on board are some eggs that look like avocados swollen to the size of footballs (and just in case your brain can’t conjure up this metaphor upon viewing said eggs, the dialogue provides this image for you). Thing is, when these eggs get warm, they explode in a shower of green goo. And when this green goo gets on your skin, you explode in a shower of red goo. It’s like Cozzi watched the chest-bursting scene in Alien and said, “You know what? Someone should make a whole movie centered around that scene!” And bless his heart, he did that very thing.

The plot—which in true Italian fashion is full of holes big enough to drive a truck through—concerns a mission to Mars which ended in disaster. The three astronauts on the surface of the red planet came across a subterranean chamber filled with the football-sized avaocado eggs. One astronaut bites the dust, another gets possessed by some alien entity, and the third manages to get back to Earth with brain and body intact, only to be ridiculed for his stories about the eggs. Possessed Astronaut, appearing cool as a cucumber denies having seen anything, which results in Normal Astronaut being ostracized and subsequently descending into a life of reclusive drunkenness. That is, until that unmanned boat washes up and people start exploding. Then it becomes clear to all involved that Formerly Normal and Now Drunk Astronaut was telling the truth. He gets drawn into a covert mission to fight the evil machinations of Possessed Astronaut, now the head of R and D at a Columbian coffee factory (!).

I think Leslie Vernon would say this qualifies as yonic imagery.

I think Leslie Vernon would say this qualifies as yonic imagery.

The end result is, like the best Italian exploitation films, one sensation after another. The dialogue is filled awkward phrases and non-sequiturs, some of which are totally inappropriate for context (see the female colonel’s conversation with Formerly Normal and Now Drunk Astronaut, in which lines of introduction are almost immediately followed by accusations of erectile dysfunction). The dubbing is comical, although not quite to a martial arts movie degree. The effects are outrageously gory and often shown in gooey slow motion. Scenes of casual misogyny abound (at one point Formerly Normal and Now Drunk Astronaut gives Sexy Female Colonel a good hard slap, just so “there’s no confusion about where things stand”). And the soundtrack, by Goblin (who else?), gives the whole thing an oddball pulse. There is, however, a puzzling lack of gratuitous nudity, which is usually a hallmark of these movies. Sexy Female Colonel comes close to dropping her towel before hitting the shower, but the camera cuts away. It seems an odd directorial choice to show, in lingering detail, explosive death scenes but to balk at nudity. So the T and A box on the Italian Exploitation Checklist remains sadly unticked. Shame on you, Signori Cozzi!

While Contamination isn’t the best Alien knockoff (that honor goes to Roger Corman production Forbidden World), it is still 90 minutes of good old fashioned Italian exploitation. It’s really only a horror film by virtue of the gore factor, but I think that’s enough to qualify it as an appropriate way to spend an October evening.

Arrow Video has just put this thing out on Blu-Ray, because they knew that one thing the world desperately needed was a special edition of this movie. Incidentally, the same company just did a really cool edition of Society (watch this space for a review). The regular DVD version of Contamination is still available from Blue Underground.

Draw the curtains, pour the mimosas, and watch Contamination over brunch. Make sure you serve up big plates of my Contaminated Egg Casserole.

1 lb. frozen breakfast potatoes (I like the cubed variety, but hash browns will work)

1 lb. bulk breakfast sausage, browned and drained

1 can Rotel green chiles and tomatoes, drained

2 cups shredded cheese (whatever variety tickles your fancy)

6-8 eggs (depends on the size of your eggs, but a little more or less won’t harm the proceedings),   lightly beaten

Lube up a 9×13 baking dish and preheat your oven to 375. In a large bowl, stir together all your ingredients then fill up that baking dish. Slide it into the oven and cook it until you can insert a toothpick into the center and pull it out clean (50-60 mins). Serve with salsa and avocado for the full Contamination experience. Really take it up a few notches with a few Bloody Marys.

Trick or Treat (1986)

I have a soft spot for Trick or Treat. It brings together two of my favorite things: horror and heavy metal. The protagonist is a sort of heavy metal nerd everyman, a stand-in for anyone who felt picked on in high school for walking around in a faded Overkill t-shirt and a denim jacket with a King Diamond back patch. Plus, it features cameos by Gene Simmons (KISS bassist/vocalist and self-professed asshole) and Ozzy Osbourne (bumbling reality TV star and once great vocalist). The soundtrack is by Fastway, and while it’s a decent collection of hard rock tunes, it just doesn’t match up to the film’s bad guy: a shock rock icon named Sammi Curr. After being introduced to this fellow as a snake blood drinking, devil-worshipping mascara enthusiast, one would expect his musical output to be a bit more Slayer-esque. Oh well, like I said, it’s still a good set of hard rock songs that stand on their own.

The story is pure 80s shock. A bullied heavy metal fan who calls himself Ragman has finally had enough of the jock assholes at his school. He writes letters to his favorite rock star, the aforementioned Sammi Curr, detailing his existential angst. He pines over the pretty girl who sits a few desks away. All in all, it’s a daily grind for the Ragman. To make matters worse, Sammi Curr dies. Could things get any more awful?

Turns out that Ragman (Marc Price, aka Skippy from Family Ties) has a friend in local DJ Nuke. The cool as ice rock jockey hands Ragman a test pressing of Sammi Curr’s final recordings as a gift. Talk about cool. Not only is the slab of wax a set of killer hard rock, it also summons the spirit of Sammi Curr back from the grave! And Sammi, looking like a cross between WASP’s Blackie Lawless and Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee, dispenses some good advice for how Ragman can get even with his tormentors (my favorite nugget of wisdom: “No false metal!”). It’s not exactly Up With People, but for a time, it’s pretty damn empowering.

trick or treat

“Death to false metal!”

Of course, things eventually go too far, and Ragman begins to act like a typical crybaby sellout. He begins to resist his hero, balking at escalating his acts of violence. He even goes so far as trying to send Sammi’s spirit back to the land of the dead. Talk about ungrateful.

This is a fairly bloodless affair, and it isn’t particularly scary. There’s no real suspense, and the plot is predictable as hell. But Trick or Treat is a fun 80s throwback. I mean, where else are you going to see Ozzy portraying an anti-heavy metal televangelist?

Trick or Treat is the only horror credit for director Charles Martin Smith (he’s better known as an actor—you know, he played the accountant in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables). It’s sort of a shame, because the movie does have a certain Corman-esque spirit going for it. The pace never sags, and for the most part, the actors are believable. Sure, it’s goofy as hell, but so were many horror films of the era.

Pair this one with a Fiery Teenage Anger cocktail:

Into a pint glass, pour one shot Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey and one shot ginger beer (the real spicy Jamaican style stuff, if you can find it). Fill the glass with hard apple cider (the authentic cocktail uses Angry Orchard Crisp Apple).

True Horror: A Rant

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is one of my favorite books. I re-read it just about every October, and I’m struck each time by the simple profundity of it. On the surface, the plot is simple: the last man on earth struggles to survive a world overrun by vampires. But the final revelation—a shift in the perspective of good vs. evil—makes the reader question everything that has gone before. It’s the sort of “gotcha” moment that makes you want to immediately start the book over. I Am Legend has been adapted for the screen three times: as Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price carrying the lead, as Omega Man with Charlton Heston acting freaky, and finally as I Am Legend with Will Smith, a film so awful that it is one of the few I’ve actually never been able to finish. Purportedly, the book served as inspiration for Night of the Living Dead, and Stephen King has never been shy about heaping praise of Matheson.

When reading I Am Legend, I often try to see myself in the main character Robert Neville’s shoes, wondering how I would cope in his dire situation. After all, Neville manages the vampire threat pretty handily, seeming to be cool under pressure. What really rattles his cage is his isolation. For all he knows, he’s the last non-vampire in the world, and his work destroying vampires during the daylight hours is as much an act of war as it is a means for staving off boredom and a creeping sense of futility. Just how well would I hold up all by myself in a world gone mad? Then, on certain hellish weekdays, I wonder if I’m already there. It’s then—with a growing weariness with humanity that borders on misanthropy—that I actually envy Robert Neville.

To be clear: I have a wonderful family and great friends. But on those days spent mixing with the general public—the rude, ignorant unwashed masses—I sort of feel like I am one of the few normal people left in the world. And how much of a relief would it be to have that suspicion confirmed once and for all? Of course these people are all assholes—they’re vampires! So simple then to dispatch them with wooden stake and mallet.

See what I mean? That right there, folks, is misanthropy. And it is inside me. Scary, right?

I think that one of the most important things horror can do beyond functioning as simple entertainment is to hold a funhouse mirror up to the world. In the exaggerated reflections that horror shows us, we can confront some awful truths. Is my love for I Am Legend really a symptom of my hatred for humanity? Not really. But the novel does make me examine myself a little more closely. And what I recognize is this: somewhere in the swirling cocktail of emotions and neuroses that makes up Brad, there is a pinch of real anger, a smidgen of seething rage that tickles me with the thought that yes, maybe it would be okay to be Robert Neville. That is true horror. Recoiling in fear or disgust at the slimy alien or the misshapen monster or the blood-drenched vampire is one thing. Recoiling at a bit of self-realization is something else entirely. It’s the moment when you realize that true fear is not beholding Frankenstein’s monster as it retreats inside the windmill, but recognizing in the pitchfork and torch-waving villagers your own irrational prejudices. It’s looking at the zombies in Dawn of the Dead and thinking what little difference there is between those blue-skinned ghouls and the consumers thronging the malls in December. And you’re damn right that it’s the moment you start to envy the freedom Robert Neville is granted to summarily execute those who annoy him.

A common theory about the popularity of horror is the tendency of people to fear “the other.” This theory holds humanity in pretty low esteem, and perhaps rightly so. If the appeal of horror really comes down to a simple fear of things or people different from ourselves, what does that say about us? Of course, I don’t completely subscribe to this or any other theory about the appeal of horror. I’ve talked to far too many people about their love for the genre to think that there is one simple reason for horror’s enduring appeal. Is it a fear of the unknown? Well, sure. Most people are, at some point in their lives, afraid of the dark. Is it a fear of our own mortality? Without a doubt. What is death, if not the great unknown? Or is it something a little more complicated, like a deep-seated, amorphous suspicion that something evil lurks within everyone? Didn’t Norman Bates tell us that we all go a little mad sometimes?

Bandh Darwaza (1990)

bandh%20darwaza

Ever since I discovered Suspiria as an impressionable teenager, I’ve been keen on watching foreign horror movies. I remember feeling a distinct sense of cool sophistication when I told people about some of the films I’d watched, films with actual subtitles and actors with unpronounceable names. Early on, these were almost entirely Italian movies, and in point of fact, most of them were actually dubbed for English speaking audiences. Still, how awesome was I as a lad just barely old enough to drive and dropping names like Argento, Fulci, Bava, and Martino? The answer: not that cool, but you sure as hell couldn’t have told me that.

When the DVD boom hit, I was in college and even more convinced of my suave, worldly sophistication. Suddenly, it seemed that every moldy horror title from the 70s and 80s was getting a DVD release, and I was able to further expand my horizons. I got into Japanese horror via Miike’s Audition. Jess Franco’s trashy horror/erotica masterpieces initiated me into Spanish horror. Coffin Joe taught me that there was even horror in sunny Brazil. But it wasn’t until a few years later that I caught a glimpse of what scary pictures look like in India.

Bandh Darwaza was an eye-opener, that’s for sure. I was unprepared for what I learned was typical of Bollywood cinema: song and dance numbers, silly comedic sequences, and running times well over the two hour mark. Apparently filmmakers from the subcontinent are often compelled to cram as many elements as possible into a film, regardless of genre. They cast as wide a net as possible to secure an audience. And anything under 120 minutes is considered skimpy. Well, now.

Bandh Darwaza (aka The Open Door—I have no idea if that’s a literal translation. How’s your Hindi?) is a fairly standard horror story. Strip away all the Bollywood accoutrements and you have a plot not too far removed from the old gothic horrors of Hammer. Young Man with Prospects and Pretty Young Lass are in love and ready to get married. The only problem is that Young Man with Prospects has another admirer, the adopted daughter of the Scary Vampire with the Eyebrows.

Now, if that sounds like something you’ve seen before, let me assure you it is not. Unless you’re familiar with Bollywood cinema, Bandh Darwaza will confound your expectations. First and foremost, you’ll feel overwhelmed by that 155 minute running time. You could cut at least a half hour out of this thing and not lose one single scene that is central to the plot. The characters in this film talk and talk and talk. Over and over again, characters enumerate the many good qualities of Young Man with Prospects. Not only is he pleasant and handsome, he’s a self-made man with a razor sharp business sense. He is smooth, to be sure. When he busts out some karate moves (on vampires, no less), it’s hardly surprising. What successful young man is not also a skilled martial artist? And then there are the musical numbers, the longest of which is a silly romantic number starring both Young Man with Prospects and Pretty Young Lass. It sounds like it was performed on one of those Casio keyboards that people of a certain age (ie. my age) received as Christmas gifts as children. You know, the ones with the built-in percussion effects. That’s what this song sounds like. And it features lines like “the wetness of the climate torments me…” Rare is the instance in which a movie tosses out a moment so head-scratchingly bizarre that I have to hit Pause and immediately find another person to witness what is on the screen so I know that I’m not hallucinating. Bandh Darwaza did that for me, pretty much from start to finish.

This is a curry recipe that will put you in the right frame of mind.

Bandh Darwaza Chicken and Sweet Potato Curry

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite size chunks

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes

¼ cup olive oil

2-3 medium onions, chopped

3 tbs. curry powder

1 tbs. grated ginger

1 tbs. minced garlic

1 tsp. paprika

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. cinnamon

2 cups plain yogurt

½ cup water

Cilantro and lemon wedges for garnish.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook until soft and fragrant. Add garlic and cook another minute. Toss in curry powder, ginger, paprika, cumin, and cinnamon. Stir around until all the spices are absorbed. Add chicken and slightly brown. Add remaining ingredients and simmer until potatoes are fork tender.

Serve over jasmine rice.