Fright Club: Best of Charles Band

Legendary indie horror filmmaker Charles Band joins Fright Club this week to talk about his new book Confessions of a Puppet Master, Marilyn Monroe, spotting talent, and VHS art. He even gives us some advice on our first feature film.

5. Trancers (1984)

Directed by Charles Band, the film follows a hard-boiled Blade Runner style mercenary into the past. Jack Death (Tim Thomerson) must stop a villain from killing off the ancestors of those who keep him from ruling the world. If they’re never born, he will be unstoppable, thanks to his army of zombielike Trancers.

The point is, Helen Hunt. To say that she makes the most of this material is an understatement. She’s adorable, charming, and she carves a memorable character out of less-than-stellar written material. The rest is fun, cheesy scifi.

4. Troll (1986)

The 1986 original Troll boasts a surprising hodgepodge of names in the ensemble: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Moriarty, June Lockhart (the mom from the Lost in Space TV show), Sonny Bono, as well as a who’s who of “Hey, I got to get out of here in time to be on that Love Boat episode” stardom. It’s a grab at the burgeoning genre Joe Dante created in 1984 with Gremlins, comic stuff about a troll king turning San Francisco apartment dwellers into plants.

The other thing that stands out in this 1986 flick is that the protagonist (and his father, come to think) is named Harry Potter. There’s a witch, too. Coincidence?

A good mash-up of humor and gore highlighted by the young Louis-Dreyfus in a small but funny role, it’s the kind of movie that epitomizes what producer Charles Band (who has a cameo) did best.

3. Rawhead Rex (1986)

Clive Barker penned this one. No, he did not like the film it turned out to be, but you might. Band produced this Irish horror that sees a wildly unhappy couple, their doomed children, and a small town on the Emerald Isle accosted by a reincarnated demon with a face that looks like raw meat.

Another memorable VHS cover made this one of those movies you immediately associate with video stores, and though the acting is hardly top quality, the creature design is hideous and fun.

2. Puppet Master (1989)

If any movie capitalized on the VHS box, it was Puppet Master. The tag Evil comes in all sizes looms large above a theatrical trunk, wedged open to show a group of hideous little puppets. And the film didn’t disappoint, because those little evildoers get themselves into all manner of bloody, slug-spewing trouble.

The point-of-view camerawork, fun cameos and inspired creature designs make up for a lot of script and acting weaknesses and the film easily carries that Charles Brand stamp: low budget, funny, campy, gory fun.

1. Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator boasts a good mix of comedy and horror, some highly subversive ideas, and one really outstanding villain. Band knew a movie worthy of distribution when he saw one, and this film became a surprising theatrical hit for him.

Jeffrey Combs, with his intense gaze and pout, his ability to mix comic timing with epic self-righteousness without turning to caricature, carries the film beginning to end. His Dr. Herbert West has developed a day-glo serum that reanimates dead tissue, but a minor foul-up with his experimentations – some might call it murder – sees him taking his studies to the New England medical school Miskatonic University. There he rents a room and basement laboratory from handsome med student Dan Caine (Bruce Abbott).

They’re not just evil scientists. They’re also really bad doctors.

Screening Room: House of Gucci, Encanto, Power of the Dog, Bruised & More

Nuthin’ But a G Thang

House of Gucci

by George Wolf

Just four years ago, director Ridley Scott deconstructed the Getty family’s wealth of dysfunction in the masterful All the Money in the World. House of Gucci shows he’s still got money on his mind, and his mind on the rot that can take root in such mind-altering luxury.

Based on the true events detailed in Sara Gay Forden’s bestseller, the film dissects the complete unraveling of the Gucci family dynasty, a fuse seemingly lit by the unlikely relationship between Muarizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and commoner Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga).

Though the Gucci name gets Patrizia’s attention at their first introduction, Muarizio didn’t seen to have much interest in the empire shared equally by his father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) and uncle Aldo (Al Pacino). But once he puts a ring on it, the mix of Patrizia’s ambition and Aldo’s invitations finally bring Maurizio into the family business.

Aldo’s own son Paulo (Jared Leto in some nifty makeup) is the Fredo in this clan, and it isn’t long before Paulo is trying to form his own back door alliance with Rodolfo, and Patrizia is Lady Macbeth-ing it everywhere from Italy to New York (complete with bewitching help from Salma Hayek as psychic Pina Auriemma).

You may have noticed that this is a pretty impressive cast. True, and even with their wheel-of-accents there’s little doubt that watching them all try to out-Italian each other in this trashy mash of The Godfather, I, Tonya, Shakespeare and The Real Housewives of Milan is the film’s biggest pleasure. But Scott and screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna can never establish a consistently compelling tone (overly random soundtrack choices don’t help, either), and the two and a half hour run time takes on curious contrasts. Even as the overall narrative has moments that drag, Maurizio’s transformation to the dark side still feels too rushed and convenient.

But Gaga proves worthy of another Oscar nom, and though the film never reaches the level of crackling relevance Scott mined in his look at the Gettys, she proves a fascinating window for the legendary director’s latest foray into an iconic family’s arc of greed, suspicion, betrayal and worse.

And if your Thanksgiving ends up going completely off the rails, House of Gucci is a star-powered and entertaining way to feel a whole lot better about your own family.

Screening Room: Ghostbusters Afterlife, King Richard, Tick Tick Boom, Zeroes and Ones and More

Fright Club: Claustrophobic Horror

Claustrophobia is a common terror, which makes it a common theme in horror films. Whether the entire film generates a sense of entrapment (The Thing, Rec, Pontypool, Misery) or the filmmaker inserts moments of claustrophobic terror (Shadow in the Cloud, The Pit and the Pendulum), these movies hit a nerve. Today we spend some time in tight quarters counting down the most claustrophobic horror movies.


5. The Hole (2001)

Nick Hamm’s 2001 thriller finds a handful of spoiled boarding school teens sneaking away while the school’s on holiday. They want to see what kind of trouble they can get into with a couple of undetected days in the underground bomb shelter they discovered well behind the school.

It’s all fun and games until they can’t get out.

Thora Birch delivers a brilliant turn as the lead — vulnerable and yet entirely conniving and psychotic, her Liz is mesmerizing. Kiera Knightly shines as well, as does Embeth Davidtz as a detective who won’t be fooled by Liz’s psychosis.

Or will she?

4. Cube (1997)

Making his feature directing debut in 1997, Vincenzo Natali, working from a screenplay he co-wrote, shadows 7 involuntary inmates of a seemingly inescapable, booby-trapped mazelike structure. Those crazy Canucks!

Cube is the film Saw wanted to be. These people were chosen, and they must own up to their own weaknesses and work together as a team to survive and escape. It is a visually awe-inspiring, perversely fascinating tale of claustrophobic menace. It owes Kafka a nod, but honestly, stealing from the likes of Kafka is a crime we can get behind.

There is a level of nerdiness to the trap that makes it scary, in that you know you wouldn’t make it. You would die. We would certainly die. In fact, the minute they started talking about Prime Numbers, we knew we were screwed.

3. Buried (2010)

Almost did not make it past the trailer for this one. A tour de force meant to unveil Ryan Reynolds’s skill as an actor, Buried spends a breathless 95 minutes inside a coffin with the lanky Canadian, who’s left his quips on the surface.

A truck driver working in Iraq who wakes up after being hit on the head, Paul Conroy finds himself inside a coffin. He has a cell phone and a lighter, but not the skill of Uma Thurman, so he is pretty screwed.

The simple story and Reynolds’s raw delivery make this a gut-wrenching experience.

2. The Descent (2005)

A bunch of buddies get together for a spelunking adventure. One is still grieving a loss – actually, maybe more than one – but everybody’s ready for one of their outdoorsy group trip.
Writer/director Neil Marshall begins his film with an emotionally jolting shock, quickly followed by some awfully unsettling cave crawling and squeezing and generally hyperventilating, before turning dizzyingly panicky before snapping a bone right in two.

And then we find out there are monsters.

Long before the first drop of blood is drawn by the monsters – which are surprisingly well-conceived and tremendously creepy – the audience has already been wrung out emotionally.
The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers – a gory, fun werewolf adventure. But Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier.
For full-on horror, this is one hell of a monster movie.

1. The Vanishing (Spoorloos) (1988)

Back in ’88, filmmaker George Sluizer and novelist Tim Krabbe adapted his novel about curiosity killing a cat. The result is a spare, grim mystery that works the nerves.

An unnervingly convincing Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu takes us through the steps, the embarrassing trial and error, of executing his plan. His Raymond is a simple person, really, and one fully aware of who he is: a psychopath and a claustrophobe.

Three years ago, Raymond abducted Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) and her boyfriend Rex (Gene Bervoets) has gone a bit mad with the mystery of what happened to her. So mad, in fact, that when Raymond offers to clue him in as long as he’s willing to suffer the same fate, Rex bites. Do not make the mistake of watching Sluizer’s neutered 1993 American remake.

Screening Room: Belfast, Red Notice, Passing, Double Walker & More

Downtown, Waiting For You Tonight

Last Night in Soho

by George Wolf and Hope Madden

A pair of Beats headphones is Last Night in Soho‘s first clue that you’re not where you think you are.

The sights and sounds of young Ellie’s (Thomasin McKenzie) bedroom scream 1960s London. And though that’s where and when she’d really like to be living, Ellie is a modern-day British country girl, brought up by her Grandparents after her mother’s suicide years earlier.

Ellie dreams of a career as a designer, so she’s thrilled by an acceptance letter from the London College of Fashion. But once in the big city, the shy “country mouse” has trouble adjusting to the pace and the pressures of city life.

Her refuge becomes vivid dreams from the swinging 60s era she celebrates, detailed visions that put Ellie alongside Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young singer looking for fame and fortune among a sea of predatory men.

As Sandie’s trust in nightclub manager Jack (Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith) leads her down a dark and dangerous path, Ellie’s dreams turn truly terrifying. And the deeper Ellie is drawn into Sandie’s world, the more she believes a creepy old dude from her local pub (Terence Stamp) is really present-day Jack, who needs to pay for his past misdeeds with a succession of starstruck London girls.

Director and co-writer Edgar Wright slows his often frantic pace this time, trading those trademark edits for a more languid, appropriately dreamy vibe. His love of color is still front and center, and a giallo pastiche is just one in his Soho arsenal. There’s a time-hopping mystery here, sitting at the center of bloody thrills and a Black Swan-esque exploration of female trauma.

Wright hooks you early with delightful period details and – of course – some effortlessly hip throwback tunes for the soundtrack. His camera is nimble and his faming is precise, often using mirrors to exquisitely blend Ellie’s dreams with Sandie’s past.

McKenzie is doe-eyed perfection as the naive Ellie, an innocent somehow working out her own issues through the tragic past of a kindred spirit. Taylor-Joy is equally wonderful, bringing sad authenticity to Sandie’s quick descent from confident talent to broken soul. Stamp and Smith provide terrific support, eclipsed only by the bullseye casting of Diana Rigg (in her final role) as Ellie’s landlady.

Last Night in Soho is an often glorious mashup of settings and genres, and though you’ll recognize all of them, the package still carries a postmark that’s uniquely Wright’s. Maybe that’s why the resolution lands as curiously rote.

As was the case with the darling zom-rom-com Shaun of the Dead, it seems as if Wright doesn’t have the meanness to make a scary movie. He understands them, clearly, and bends their tropes to his will. Here he pulls apart Hitchcock and Argento to invert the genre’s fetishistic relationship with violence against women. Wright does this with such panache for 2/3 of the film that the final act feels abruptly tidy, too clear a reversal.

Does it spoil the Soho experience? Don’t be silly, baby! This film is a gas, but one that leaves you with with a little reminder that Wright’s most perfectly groovy film is still to come.

It’s All Fun and Games Until You Stare Into the Void

The Spine of Night

by Christie Robb

The Spine of the Night is a rotoscope-animated feature that presents a pseudo-H. P. Lovecraft story of humanity’s cosmic insignificance in the visual style of a higher-budget He-Man cartoon.

The film is mostly the backstory of a formidable, almost-naked, swamp queen who has trekked up the face of a mountain. She’s come to swap tales with a Guardian sworn to protect humanity from confronting its own vulnerability in the face of a vast and indifferent universe.

He’s guarding a blue flower that makes folks trip balls and contemplate the cosmic void. But a seed got away from him and floated to the fertile earth of the swamp. With the knowledge of the void comes magic power.

And humanity’s quest for this power has caused no end of trouble.

Like Lovecraft’s stories, the Spine of the Night has a slow, dreamy pace. The art style pays homage to the otherworldly and provocative covers of vintage pulp fantasy/horror novels, but with a welcome understanding that not all women are proportioned like Barbie dolls, and with more diversity in the race/ethnicity of its characters.

The theme of humanity’s fragility is underscored in the movie’s violence. Skin parts and limbs break off with the ease of a tortilla chip placed under the pressure of a slightly viscous dip. Viscera are just waiting to pop out of the body’s private cavities like trick snakes in a can of faux potato chips. People are cleaved in half.

Writer/directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King have assembled a roster of voice talent that helps bring the characters to life. Is there a better choice to play a badass swamp queen who is impervious to frostbite than Lucy Lawless? I don’t think so. Joining Lawless are Richard Grant as the Guardian, Joe Manganiello as the beefy soldier Mongrel, Betty Gabriel as a warrior-librarian, and Patton Oswalt as the whiny and entitled Lord Pyrantin.

As a child of the eighties, I was left feeling swaddled in nostalgia by Spine of the Night, wanting to pair it with some cozy PJs and a bowl of sugary cereal.

Monster Mash

Horror Noire

by Hope Madden

Remember Shudder’s 2019 documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror from director Xavier Burgin? It was great, wasn’t it? And if you thought to yourself that you’d love a sequel, you should know that this week’s Shudder premiere Horror Noire is not that. Not exactly.

Instead, it is an anthology of six horror shorts made by Black filmmakers. Writers, directors, performers, ideas, perspectives, points of view — everything the documentary made us realize we were not getting – is delivered by the anthology.

Production values and performances in every film are solid. Familiar faces of veteran talent elevate the individual pieces. Tony Todd, Malcolm Barrett, Rachel True, Peter Stormare, Lenora Crichlow and others turn in memorable performances in creature features, Gothic horrors, psychological horrors and comedies.

Todd, True and Barrett star as a married couple pulled apart by a cult in one of the strongest entries, Rob Greenlea’s Fugue State, a sly comment on a common problem. Kimani Ray Smith’s Sundown is a fun reimagining of horror tropes led by Stormare’s characteristic weirdness and the action hero stylings of Erica Ash.

Julian Christian Lutz’s Brand of Evil reworks familiar ideas, turning them into an unexpected creature feature that’s both savvy and strangely touching.

Other shorts are a little less successful. Robin Givens’s Daddy digs into parental horror but can’t balance build-up with payoff. Zandashé Brown’s The Bride Before You brims with insight and style, but an overreliance on voiceover narration keeps the film from developing the kind of atmosphere it hopes for.

Joe West’s The Lake also falls just short of keeping you interested and guessing, although a fuzzy backstory allows for a more thought-provoking lead character than you might expect.

The full stash runs two and a half hours and might have played better as a short series. It’s a long commitment, and every film has weak spots, which makes the time really feel like a commitment. But there’s much to enjoy with each episode. Taken as a whole, there’s variety enough in style and substance to promise something for everyone.