Monday, July 6, 2020

A Dream Is a Wish Your Serial Killer Cell Neighbor Makes

For those who prefer horror discussed orally, my podcast occasionally dives into the genre and recently, my cohostess and I decided to subject ourselves to the full catalog of Masters of Horror. If you can take yourself back to the simpler times of 2005, Season 1 gathered some of the true legends of the genre: John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, Dario Argento, Takashi Miike, William Malone--

Wait! You might have said, especially if your name is Emily. William Malone of FeardotCom? William Malone of The House On Haunted Hill? THAT a master makes?

I approached his episode, The Fair-Haired Child, with a fair amount of apathy. Watching a run of truly terrible episodes -- series creator Mick Garris's Chocolate and the incredibly problematic John Landis's Deer Woman -- my hopes were low. Imagine my extreme shock at discovering this odd little Monkey's Paw adaptation was easily one of the show's very best.

This sparked a new interest in Malone's filmography, and what better way to dive in than with the project he cared so much about that he financed the whole thing himself?

Quick Plot: A well-dressed Sean Young about to enjoy a rooftop meal receives a call, listens for a few seconds, and calmly walks herself off the ledge.


Somewhere else, we meet Danny, a freshly dumped Pacer-driving art student and record store clerk. While visiting his friend in a terribly nonsecure rehab facility, Danny wanders to the psych wing where he finds a few wards of interest: Byron Volpe, a mysterious murderer whose eyes and voice have the ability to hypnotize others to do his bidding (like wife Sean Young) and Laura Baxter, a beautiful young woman suffering from a rare condition where she can only be awake for a few minutes. 

Danny is an easy mark for the charms of a sleeping beauty. When he discovers her impending transfer to a research laboratory known for its poor patient treatment, Danny springs into action, sneaking a mostly comatose Laura out to his lonely apartment.

Spending most of your life in a hospital bed doesn't do much for your social skills, and Laura proves to be quite a handful...especially when the instructions of her former cell neighbor Volpe kick in, causing her to stab a few neighbors and policemen who come too close.

Danny is soon on the run, a situation that gets even more tense when Volpe escapes. Laura, you see, had been something of a project for the powerful serial killer. Volpe could take over her dreams, turning her world into a Hellraiser 2-ish landscape of broken mirrors and Fair-Haired Child-ish goblins. Now with his chance to be with her in the real world, Volpe orchestrates a high stakes finale that involves automatons, angel wings, Jeffrey Combs playing Russian roulette, and a baby Allison Brie on the cello!

Parasomnia was a passion project for Malone, who put up his own money for financing only to have the finished project sit on a shelf for a few years. It's a shame because you know what? It's good!

There's a strong Paperhouse element to the story and details, with Malone's signature visual style making the film not quite look like what you were seeing in 2008. Much like House On Haunted Hill, Parasomnia is filled with gray clouds and almost campy color choices. Malone designed and helped build some of the film's more creative visual elements, including some steampunkish figures and a twig-haired ghost creature that haunts Laura's dreamscape. 

I enjoyed the look of Parasomnia, but more excitingly, I enjoyed the story. I had concerns about Laura's agency, but the film manages to address it in a very satisfying way. Patrick Kilpatrick makes a menacing, almost Shocker-ish villain as Volpe that feels both familiar and fresh. It manages to be ambitious in some of its ideas and visuals, but small enough to understand how to make its limited budget work. 

High Points
There's something wonderfully sweet about Parasomnia's ending. In an era where torture porn and found footage was giving us mostly cruel sendoffs, Malone's sense of empathy is refreshing, both in the fate of his main characters and how their own friends come to support them

Low Points
For as hard as the film works to make it work, there's still something inherently icky about a dude falling in love with a beautiful woman who hasn't been able to say three words to him without falling back asleep

Lessons Learned
Pretty things always have a tragic end

When introducing someone to solid foods, remember that an ice cream cone requires far more motor skills than you probably want to challenge at first bite

It's hard to have a successful musical career if you don't fly (and sometimes harder if you do, when you consider the number of musicians who died in plane crashes...)

Parasomnia showed up on Shudder just as I said to myself, "I should try more William Malone content." The timing was perfect and I'd definitely recommend you take advantage. While there are certainly elements here from other films, Parasomnia has a lot of surprises, and most importantly, is made with true care.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Home On the Mutant Range

You watch enough veterinarian shows on Animal Planet and it's hard not to think you too can delivery healthy calves or wrap them in a blanket and rub them warm until they come back to life. Made way back in 2006, Billy O'Brien's Splinter-meets-Dr. Pol horror film reminds me that I actually have none of those skills.

Quick Plot: Dan is struggling to make ends meet on his isolated family farm. Trying to stave off the bank, he's made a dangerous deal with the devil in the from of a shady biological research company that's been experimenting on her heard. 

On a dank, muddy night (something I assume is a redudant description for Irish farmlands), he summons his vet Orla (The Babadook's Essie Davis) to help him with one of his pregnant cows. The fetus somehow manages to bite Orla, who senses something amiss and calls in her higher up for backup. 

Meanwhile, a handsome young before-they-were stars couple on the run, have parked their camper on Dan's property. Played by Sean Harris and Goddess Ruth Negga, Jamie and Mary find their ways into Dan's good graces quickly, which is handy when you're otherwise alone in your battle against evil corporate science and mutant cow parasites. 

Isolation is a small, contained film fitting of its title. Writer/director O'Brien seems well aware that a little goes a long way, especially with a presumed limited budget. The action stays on the farm and in darkly lit barns, with tight shots of the impressive practical effects. Like so many genre films of the last 20 years, I did spend a good amount of energy squinting through darkness, but it's somewhat excusable considering the setting.

Isolation kept making me think of Splinter, a similarly old school horror that centered itself on a handful of characters battling some pretty gnarly special effects. I wish Isolation had a little more of Splinter's screenplay, as the characters themselves never get enough time to truly come alive. 

High Points
We don't get to know too much about our small group of characters, but that's where casting and performance comes in hand. The camera has never loved anyone as much as it does Ruth Negga, and without much specifics, John Lynch manages to make Dan a sadly sympathetic lead

Low Points
Look, I get that there's no reason to waste electricity when money is tight, but how hard can it be to turn an extra light on when you're filming in the dark?

Lessons Learned
Maybe it's just the real-life quarantine talking, but doesn't it just seem OBVIOUS that one should avoid having sex when there's the slightest chance that you might be harboring a mysterious parasite

Isolation didn't shake my world, but it's a solid, very well-made little thriller that will satisfy your itch for some classic horror and crunchy practical effects. You can find it on Amazon Prime. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

Yub Nub With Me This Thursday Night!!!


Got plans on Thursday night? OF COURSE YOU DON'T.

Well, except for now:

That's right! This Thursday the 25th, I'll be participating in a virtual Kevin Geeks Out show, where several people far smarter than me will be diving deep into the wondrous world of made-for-TV film.

Now while on any given day, I could roll onward for hours about Lifetime thrillers or cozy cardigan Hallmark movies, this event is a little more special, so much so that I'm digging deep into a movie that defined my childhood:

Best of all, all proceeds raised during the show will go to Black Lives Matter and the Equal Justice Initiative, so you can help do some good while saying, "wow, Emily REALLY loves that second Ewok movie."

Watch via Facebook-->
Watch via YouTube-->

Hope to see you all there. Until then, may the yup nub be with you, now and always. 

Monday, June 15, 2020

All I Want For Christmas Is An End to the Patriarchy

Bob Clark's Black Christmas is a true genre classic, a film that I love more deeply every time I watch it. From the glory of buzzed Margot Kidder taking no crap to Olivia Hussey unapologetically planning an abortion, it's filled with wonderful women and some darn effective horror storytelling. 

It was remade as a fairly of-its-time hard-R in 2008, much to the outrage of the horror community and whaddya know! Nine years later, history repeated itself, only this time, there was an added political punch. Not only was this version made BY women, but it also had the nerve to empower them in a battle against the patriarchy.

Internet boys were mad.

Quick Plot: Welcome to Hawthorne College, a private 200 year old university with a problematic namesake and a very attractive student body.  We start just before the winter break, when sorority girl Lindsay is stabbed to death by a mysterious masked man wielding an icicle. 

The next day, Riley and her sisters begin receiving ominous text messages that seem like a bad prank. No one is surprised, since Riley had previously riled a fraternity's featthers when she accused its president of rape. Her sisters stood by her, while campus security brushed it under the rug. With the encouragement of her activist pal Kris, Riley decides to serve up some sweet vengeance by publicly calling out the college's rape culture via a Mean Girls-ish flirty Christmas number at the greek talent show.

Naturally, the boys don't take it very well, but are they angry enough to embark upon a winter break massacre? 

It's hard to go too deep into Black Christmas without giving away key plot points, so spoilers will follow. If you haven't seen the film, pause here and do so. Yes, I'm in the camp of celebrating this movie, both for its politics and execution. Say what you want: I liked it.

So obviously, yes, yes these spoiled rich white boys are murdering women who scare them because much like the Reptile Boy episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, their secret cult is founded on male toxicity. The metaphor isn't subtle, but's horror. 

Black Christmas marked the first time Blumhouse produced a female-directed horror film, something so ridiculous to have to write in 2020. Cowriters Sophia Takal (also directing) and April Wolfe clearly approached the material with ambitious goals about calling out the patriarchy and empowering women, and you know what? YES PLEASE.

Look, I know there are A LOT of horror fans, both male and female (but let's face it: mostly male) who despised 2019's Black Christmas. Most of them also hated the 2008 remake when it came out, even though they have no memory of that and will gleefully tell you how much better that version is than Takal's. 

Does Black Christmas have an agenda? Of course it does. The fact that our protagonists' most important weapon is often a set of car kids should tell you a lot, and if you don't understand, then aren't you lucky.

I loved watching this movie. I enjoyed its twists, cared deeply for its protagonists, and found myself generally both excited and involved. Its staging won't give me nightmares, but its Stepford Wives-ish undertones certainly will. 

Give me more movies like this. 

High Points
Imogen Poots brings such a strong, deep well to Riley, managing to project so much carefully buried trauma. The scene where she tries to ask the head of campus security for help while having to SMILE through battling off his accusations is something truly remarkable, and one that almost any woman watching is going to feel as a gut punch for every time she's had to make her point while keeping her rightful anger under the surface

Low Points
I have no issue with PG-13 horror (and in more recent years, have come to fully embrace it when done well) but I'll concede that some of the violence feels muted or cut in a way that does detract from its effectiveness

Lessons Learned
The only way to lose a Diva Cup is with abandon

Every holiday is for looking sexy

Topple all the statues

Is Black Christmas a great horror movie? No. Is it a clever, entertaining, and fresh take on the genre filled with good satire from the kind of voice we need more of? Absolutely. 

Monday, June 8, 2020

Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Permed

Have we come up with a name for the subgenre of shockingly relevant genre cinema that probably reads much deeper than it might have ever been intended to? I'm thinking first of Gone, the Amanda Seyfried thriller that thudded in theaters when it debuted in 2012, but took on wildly more significant meaning when I happened to watch it in the midst of Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings. Similarly, 1988's Necromancer seems at first glance like a simple rape revenge slasher, but proves to be an oddly prescient, timely tale.

Quick Plot: Julie is a scholarship student majoring in theater and having some romance problems: trying to break things off with her inappropriate acting professor while assuring her perfect boyfriend that he's the one. While staying on campus after hours, she spots a trio of her classmates trying to steal some test answers. Their response? Rape.

Poor Julie is too afraid to go to the police, since Paul, the ringleader, has evidence of her affair that might jeopardize her scholarship and destroy her relationship. Her best friend spots a classified ad for a necromancer, so naturally, they take the best option.

Turns out, the going rate for vengeance in 1988 was just $20 and it was performed fairly efficiently in a suburban garage by a young woman named, as far as I can tell, the mysteriously supernatural "Lisa". When Julie realizes just what she's paid for--Lisa taking on her form to seduce each of her attackers before violently tearing them apart--she learns the hard way that much like Buffy the Vampire's Anya, Lisa doesn't issue refunds.

Between her remorseless rapists, skeevy professor, and unsympathetic (whether the movie understands it or not) boyfriend, the men of Necromancer have a lot of devouring-by-starfished-handed-demon coming. Writer William T. Naud was onto something here, especially with Julie's reluctance to go to the authorities knowing her sexual history will render her an imperfect victim. 

As played by Silent Night, Deadly Night 2's Elizabeth Kaitan, Julie is the kind of sympathetic lead who, had I seen this movie in my youth, I might have dismissed as weak. We want our heroines to fight back, to show no mercy. We sometimes forget that they're 19-year-old girls unable to process the trauma they go through. 

It's easier, in a post-#metoo world, to see some things with more clarity. Whether Naud and director Dusty Nelson had grander intentions or just wanted to throw some bloody demon vengeance our way, the end result has weight. As Julie's horrible power-abusing professor, a permed Russ Tamblyn helps to really drive the point home. I kind of wish Necromancer dove a little deeper into the grayer men, as Necromancer ultimately pulls a few of its punches, giving in to Julie's demon fears and letting the men's crimes somewhat off the hook. 

High Points
As a former theater kid, nothing will ever entertain me more easily than seeing bad Romeo and Juliets

Low Points
The confusion of whether three men are actually dead might work for Necromancer's mystery, but it doesn't make sense in a world where, you know, these are college students whose deaths would be noticed

Lessons Learned
If people didn't live out their sexual fantasies, there wouldn't be any history. Think about it.

An arcade is no place to discuss last night's sexual assault

You don't need a garage door to enact lethal supernatural vengeance on rapists. A curtain will do just fine

Dudes, trust me: if you rape or assist in the rape of a woman and she shows up in your shower, she does not, in any way, have seduction on her mind

I expected a hefty dose of '80s cheese with Necromancer, but I was genuinely surprised at how much more it had to say. Time has been kind to this goofy little supernatural vengeance thriller, and while I wish it had committed a little harder to its concept, I still had a good time. Worth your eyeballs on Amazon Prime.

Monday, June 1, 2020

The Good, The Bad, The Gooey

When it comes to action horror sci-fi westerns, you don’t get much more ‘80s than Nightmare at Noon, There’s neon green blood goo, Jeopardy! references, George Kennedy as a sad dad sheriff, and so much more, all in the grainy glory we’ve come to expect from a genre pic dropped on Amazon Prime.

Ladies and gentlemen: load your fanny pack and strap in.

Quick Plot: Somewhere deep in the mountains of Utah, a mysterious albino (seriously: that’s how he’s credited, even if he’s played by Blade Runner’s Brion James) has poisoned a small town’s water supply with some kind of radioactive serum that turns anyone who drinks it into a violent maniac. 

Just down the hills, yuppie lawyer Ken (‘80s stalwart Wings Hauser) and his wife Cheri (Friday the 13th Part IV’s Kimberly Beck) are enjoying their vacation in a luxurious RV when they pick up a hitchhiker named Reilly (first and last name the same). A stop at the small diner introduces them to the first of the green-blooded psychos, and before you know it, they’ve teamed up with local law enforcement for a true cowboy-style shootout. 

Directed by Island of Death’s Nico Mastorakis, Nightmare at Noon is not, let’s say, a coy film. With its red rock mountain backdrop and sweeping score (partially composed by a young Hans Zimmer!), it pulls out every possible stop, from a horseback escape to the classic trope of having an infected team member hide his inevitable downfall from his pals until the grand self sacrifice. This is a movie that fittingly climaxes in a duel…between two helicopters.

When you start with aggressively neon credits that literally whoosh onscreen, your biggest challenge is to maintain that manic energy for 90 minutes. Somehow Mastorakis pulls it off. 

It’s bloody beautiful. Hot green bloody, that is.

High Points
Pro tip: Nightmare at Noon is best enjoyed with the subtitles on, not just for its glorious dialogue but for the fantastically graphic sound listings like “laser sizzles,” and my favorite, “ketchup squelching” 

Low Points
It’s a shame that Cheri gets sidelined so quickly, because Beck has such a charmingly sassy chemistry with everyone else onscreen that the film genuinely loses a little spark when she’s zombieing behind bars

Lessons Learned
The fate of a vigilantes is always death or jail

Contrary to popular belief, one’s ability to negotiate with Twisted Sister does not directly correlate with one’s people skills with rabid mutant junkyard managers named Floyd 

The price you pay for roughing it is microwaved croissants

Nightmare At Noon is a glorious slice of true American cheese. You pretty much have everything you could possibly want from an ‘80s action horror, with a sweaty George Kennedy to boot. Hop to it. 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Scream For the Invasion of the Fishmen!

It's been quite some time since I sat down and watched a Sergio Martino horror flick. Perhaps part of the reason stamps from that film being Slave of the Cannibal God, a movie I despised. Still, the guy has a beloved reputation, went on to make the glorious Hands of Steel, and with Screamers streaming on Amazon Prime and nobody getting to the beach anytime soon, why not take a swim?

Quick Plot: In 1891, a small group attempts to recover a buried treasure on a remote island only to be devoured by a gaggle of Black Lagoon-ish fish creatures. Later (or rather, earlier, since the aforementioned prologue was added by producer Roger Corman two years after Sergio Martino finished his cut), a prison ship washes ashore, along with a few convicts and their strict doctor, Claude de Ross.

It takes the fishmen all of five minutes to cut the group down to just Claude and two criminals. The trio is reluctantly taken to the estate of Edmond Rackham, a monstrous aristocrat who is using genius scientist Dr. Marvin to control the aquatic population so they can eventually recover the treasures of Atlantis, buried deep below their island.

So, yeah. There's a lot going on in Screamers. We're also dealing with attempted rape from multiple directions for poor beautiful Barbara Bach and some squirmy racial politics involving the local islanders. 

THOSE THINGS aside, Screamers is otherwise pretty fun and certainly different. I don't usually expect my exploitation films to include subplots involving Atlantis and human evolution. There's also plenty of creative horrors to be found in the actual fishmen, and their webbed attacks are colorful and gross. 

How much of the final product should be attributed to Martino is apparently arguable, as Corman had that cut chopped up and freshened with additional footage shot by Miller Drake and possibly, a very young Joe Dante. Despite his recent past as a director unafraid of guts and gore, Martino apparently wanted his film to be more adventure and less Zombie (a clear influence). Oddly enough, it's the gooey gore that keeps things most interesting.

High Points
Fishmen! We just don't get enough fishmen in the world of horror!

Low Points
Unfortunately, there's so much front-loaded fishmen action (even if you disregard the non-Martino intro) that Screamers' center drags hard

Lessons Learned
Animals don't build traps

When roaming a deserted island, always be on the lookout for spear-floored pits

I have seen the future, and future is fishmen

Screamers is pretty messy (even by the standards of a '70s Italian horror picture) but it's also genuinely different from most genre fare. If you're looking for an Island of Dr. Moreau-ish tale, you're not going to find much more. Let your prison ship wash ashore on Amazon Prime and enjoy.