Fright Club: Bad Doctors in Horror

As we salute the tireless work of our great doctors and health care workers during this uneasy time, Fright Club looks at our favorite “bad doctors” in horror!

5. Herbert West, Re-Animator (1985)

Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator reinvigorated the Frankenstein storyline in a decade glutted with vampire films. Based, as so many fantasy/horror films are, on the work of H. P. Lovecraft, Re-Animator boasts a good mix of comedy and horror, some highly subversive ideas, and one really outstanding villain.

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.

Re-Animator is fresh. It’s funny and shocking, and though most performances are flat at best, those that are strong more than make up for it. First-time director Gordon’s effort is superb. He glories in the macabre fun of his scenes, pushing envelopes and dumping gallons of blood and gore. He balances anxiety with comedy, mines scenes for all they have to give, and takes you places you haven’t been.

4. Beverly and Elliot Mantle, Dead Ringers, (1988)

This film is about separation anxiety, with the effortlessly melancholy Jeremy Irons playing a set of gynecologist twins on a downward spiral. Writer/director David Cronenberg doesn’t consider this a horror film at all. Truth is, because the twin brothers facing emotional and mental collapse are gynecologists, Cronenberg is wrong.

Take, for instance, the scene with the middle aged woman in stirrups, camera on her face, which is distorted with discomfort. Irons’s back is to the screen, her bare foot to his left side. Clicking noises distract you as the doctor works away. We pan right to a tray displaying the now-clearly-unstable doctor’s set of hand-fashioned medical instruments. Yikes.

Irons is brilliant, bringing such flair and, eventually, childlike charm to the performances you feel almost grateful. The film’s pace is slow and its horror subtle, but the uncomfortable moments are peculiarly, artfully Cronenberg.

2. Dr. Heiter, The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)

After a handful of middling Dutch comedies, Tom Six stumbled upon inspiration – 100% medically accurate inspiration. Yes, we mean the Human Centipede. Just the First Sequence makes the list, though.

For a lot of viewers, the Human Centipede films are needlessly gory and over-the-top with no real merit. But for some, Six is onto something. His first effort uses a very traditional horror storyline – two pretty American girls have a vehicular break down and find peril – and takes that plot in an unusual direction. But where most horror filmmakers would finish their work as the victims wake up and find themselves sewn together, mouth to anus, this is actually where Six almost begins.

Although the film mines something primal about being helpless in the hands of surgeons and doctors, it’s Dieter Laser and his committed, insane performance that elevates this film. That and your own unholy desire to see what happens to the newly conjoined tourists.

2. Dr. Genessier, Eyes Without a Face (1960)

The formula behind this film has been stolen and reformulated for dozens of lurid, low-brow exploitation films since 1960. In each, there is a mad doctor who sees his experiments as being of a higher order than the lowly lives they ruin; the doctor is assisted by a loyal, often non-traditionally attractive (some might say handsome) nurse; there are nubile young women who will soon be victimized, as well as a cellar full of the already victimized. But somehow, in this originator of that particular line of horror, the plot works seamlessly.

An awful lot of that success lies in the remarkable performances. Pierre Brasseur, as the stoic surgeon torn by guilt and weighed down by insecurities about his particular genius, brings a believable, subtle egomania to the part seldom seen in a mad scientist role.

Still, the power in the film is in the striking visuals that are the trademark of giant French filmmaker Georges Franju. His particular genius in this film gave us the elegantly haunting image of Dr. Genessier’s daughter Christiane (Edith Scob). Her graceful, waiflike presence haunts the entire film and elevates those final scenes to something wickedly sublime.

1. Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Who else but Hannibal the Cannibal?

Anthony Hopkins’s eerie calm, his measured speaking, his superior grin give Lecter power. Everything about his performance reminds the viewer that this man is smarter than you and he’ll use that for dangerous ends. He’s toying with you. You’re a fly in his web – and what he will do to you hits at our most primal fear, because we are, after all, all part of a food chain.

Fright Club: Best David Cronenberg Horror Films

It’s the New Year, so high time we got back to our celebration of our favorite filmmakers. Today we troll through the career of the great David Cronenberg, king of corporeal horror. He’s gone on to create some of the most thought-provoking and wonderful non-genre films of the last twenty years, including the masterpiece Eastern Promises, plus the darkly brilliant Maps to the Stars, A History of Violence, and so many more. His vision is uniquely his own, mixing a Big Brother skepticism with a fascination with technology, media, and human anatomy. He brings an often overlooked but wicked humor to most everything.

Cronenberg has directed 8 true horror films, and we found it nearly impossible to leave three films off this list. No individual countdown was rewritten more than this one. As you bitch to yourself about the omissions – and you almost certainly will do that – please know that we deeply love the three films we left off our list of the Top 5 David Cronenberg Horror Films.

For the full podcast, plus George’s gripes about the final 5, go HERE.

5. Shivers (They Came from Within) (1975)

In an upscale Montreal high rise, an epidemic is breaking out. A scientist has created an aphrodisiac in the form of a big, nasty slug. That slug, though, spreads wantonness throughout the high rise and threatens to overrun the city with its lusty ways.

Not Cronenberg’s best film, but this is his first feature length horror and it announces not only his arrival on the genre scene, but it predicts so many of the films to come. The film obsesses over human sexuality, social mores, the physical form, physical violation and infestation, medical science, conspiracy, and free will. He’d revisit all of these preoccupations throughout his career, most obviously in his very next feature film, 1978’s Rabid, which is weirdly similar in every way.

Shivers takes a zombie concept and uses it to pervert expectations. (See what we did there?) They’re not here to eat your brains, after all. It’s the first film where Cronenberg marries ideas of the repugnant with the pleasurable, medical monstrosity with human body. It would be several years before his skill with performances (or maybe casting) matched his other directorial talents, but Shivers is still a worthwhile, utterly bizarre pleasure.

4. The Dead Zone (1983)

One of the rare films Cronenberg directs but doesn’t write, The Dead Zone puts the words of Stephen King in the filmmaker’s hands. The Canadian is matched in weirdness by his lead, Christopher Walken, who plays a schoolteacher stricken with the gift to see the past and future through touch. When Walken realizes that his visions have a “dead zone” – meaning that he can change the future – the plot really begins to quicken.

Martin Sheen chews scenery as a presidential candidate who actually seems far more run of the mill by today’s standards. In fact, Greg Stillson may be too low key for today’s primaries. But back in ’83, such was not the case, and Walken’s blandly named Johnny Smith has to put his money where his gift of touch is if he wants to change an ugly future.

Cronenberg seems unusually hampered by the script, but somehow the way he manages still to focus on what’s weird rather than what’s obvious in the story elevates the film beyond its plot. No character is entirely sympathetic – a hallmark of the filmmaker’s work – and everyone has a bit of the bizarre about him or her, which the movie seeks to expose.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmC5oPc7L3M

3. Scanners (1981)

This was the one that made Cronenberg an international name in the genre.

As always, Michael Ironside seeps with psychotic menace, this time as Darryl Revok, a “scanner” looking to take control of his mind-blowing ESP-born gifts.

In truth, the film is about mind control – a very sloppy version of it – and that societal fear of being dominated by a stronger being. At its heart, this is another government conspiracy film wherein an agency foolishly believes they can harness an uncontrollable element for military purposes. Scanners is hardly the best of these (Alien is, FYI). But it’s gory fun nonetheless. What makes the effort undeniably Cronenberg (besides the exploding heads) is that connection between human tissue and technology.

The acting is silly, the technology is comically dated, and the computer nerd toward the end of the film inexplicably boasts a band aid on his face. But Ironside is on fire and the movie ratchets up tension by keeping you wondering when the next head will explode.

2. Videodrome (1983)

As bizarre as anything he ever made – even CosmopolisVideodrome shows an evolution in Cronenberg’s preoccupations with body horror, media, and technology as well as his progress as a filmmaker.

James Woods plays sleazy TV programmer Max Renn, who pirates a program he believes is being taped in Malaysia – a snuff show, where people are slowly tortured to death in front of viewers’ eyes. But it turns out to be more than he’d bargained for. Corporate greed, zealot conspiracy, medical manipulation all come together in this hallucinatory insanity that could only make sense with Cronenberg at the wheel.

Deborah Harry co-stars, and Woods shoulders his abundant screen time quite well. What? James Woods plays a sleaze ball? Get out! Still, he does a great job with it. But the real star is Cronenberg, who explores his own personal obsessions, dragging us willingly down the rabbit hole with him. Long live the new flesh!

1. Dead Ringers (1988)

The film is about separation anxiety, with the effortlessly melancholy Jeremy Irons playing a set of gynecologist twins on a downward spiral. Because of patient vulnerability, doctors who lose it are always scary, and Dead Ringers exploits that discomfort brilliantly, partly because the doctors are gynecologists, and folks tend to feel pretty vulnerable in their hands to start with.

Irons is brilliant, bringing such flair and, eventually, childlike charm to the performance you feel almost grateful. The film’s pace is slow and its horror subtle, but the uncomfortable moments are peculiarly, artfully Cronenberg. He brings together sexuality and mutation in a film that is perhaps more tender than anything he’d ever done, but at the same time more wickedly funny and physically uncomfortable than the balance of his work.

Cronenberg had recently shared his most famous mad scientist with the world in his exceptional remake of The Fly. With Dead Ringers, he returns to the world of a damaged scientific genius run amuck and soars once again.





Fright Club: Best Twin Horror

Listen to the whole conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.

For whatever reason, filmmakers and moviegoers alike seem to find twins inherently creepy. Would The Shining have been as menacing if it were just another child trying to lure Danny to his death? No – for some reason what’s particularly terrifying is the image of those two identical girls waving and beckoning, “Come play with us, Danny…”

It’s as if they’ve conspired. You’re outnumbered. There’s the idea that they’re doppelgangers able to fool the rest of us, that or they are two half beings unable to live without the other and yet perhaps quietly desperate to try.

We’ve enlisted the help of Senior Twin Correspondent Joy Madden (she’s Hope’s evil twin, FYI) to puzzle through the best in twin horror. Unlike The Shining, though, twins are the centerpiece of these films and it is their very twin-ness that drives the story.

5. Basket Case (1982)

This film is fed by a particularly twin-linked anxiety. Can anyone really be the love of one twin’s life, and if so, where does that leave the other twin? More than that, though, the idea of separating conjoined twins is just irresistible to dark fantasy. Rock bottom production values and ridiculous FX combine with the absurdist concept and poor acting to result in an entertaining splatter comedy a bit like Peter Jackson’s early work.

When super-wholesome teenage Duane moves into a cheap and dangerous New York flophouse, it’s easy to become anxious for him. But that’s not laundry in his basket, Belial is in the basket -Duane’s deformed, angry, bloodthirsty, jealous twin brother – but not just a twin, a formerly conjoined twin. What he really is, of course, is Duane’s id – his Hyde, his Hulk, his Danny DeVito. And together the brothers tear a bloody, vengeful rip in the fabric of family life.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtmLKrxR6H0

4. Sisters (1973)

We’re all probably familiar with director Brian De Palma’s long and sometimes tiresome journey through his own person obsessions with Alfred Hitchcock. He married Hitch’s high-tension score and murder mystery plotlines with Mario Bava’s sexualized violence to create his own hybrid, which began with this twin sister trauma.

French Canadian model Danielle (Margot Kidder) may or may not have a once-conjoined twin who may or may not be a diabolical killer in this “is she or isn’t she” mind bender. Separation anxiety and a general nervousness about twins as an alien concept fuel this murder mystery that takes some hard left turns – some novel, some now clichéd. Whatever the flaws, though, De Palma’s panache and Hitchcockisms are in full bloom in this stylish, often creepy thriller.

3. Dead Ringers (1988)

The film is about separation anxiety, with the effortlessly melancholy Jeremy Irons playing a set of gynecologist twins on a downward spiral. Cronenberg doesn’t consider this a horror film at all. Truth is, because the twin brothers facing emotional and mental collapse are gynecologists, Cronenberg is wrong.

Irons is brilliant as Elliot and Beverly Mantle, bringing such flair and, eventually, childlike charm to the performance you feel almost grateful. Like some of the greats, he manages to create two very distinct yet appropriately linked personalities, and Cronenberg’s interest is the deeply painful power shift as they try and fail to find independence from the other. The film’s pace is slow and its horror subtle, but the uncomfortable moments are peculiarly, artfully Cronenberg.

2. Goodnight Mommy (2014)

During one languid summer, twin brothers Lukas and Elias await their mother’s return from the hospital. They spend their time bouncing on a trampoline, floating in a pond, or exploring the fields and woods around the house. But when their mom comes home, bandaged from the cosmetic surgery she underwent, the brothers fear more has changed than just her face.

Inside this elegantly filmed environment, where sun dappled fields lead to leafy forests, the filmmakers mine a kind of primal childhood fear. The filmmakers’ graceful storytelling leads you down one path before utterly upending everything you think you know. They never spoon feed you information, depending instead on your astute observation – a refreshing approach in this genre.

Performances by young brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz compel interest, while Susanne Wuest’s cagey turn as the boys’ mother propels the mystery. It’s a hypnotic, bucolic adventure as visually arresting as it is utterly creepy. The film is going to go where you don’t expect it to go, even if you expect you’ve uncovered its secrets.

1. The Other (1972)

Director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) is a master of slow reveal, feeding us information as we need it and pulling no punches in the meantime. It’s rural 1930s, and one hearty farm family has withstood a lot. Ever since Dad died last summer, seems like every time you turn around there’s some crazy mishap. And yet, the farm still goes on – there’s always a pie in the oven and a cow that needs milking. Still, Ada (Uta Hagen), the sturdy German matriarch, is troubled. Sweet, stout young Niles seems terribly confused about his twin, Holland.

Mulligan turns to that same nostalgic, heartland approach he used so beautifully with Mockingbird to inform a stunningly crafted, understated film that sneaks up on you. He creates what is likely the most effective and troubling film you’ll see about twins.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMmMqWkudgA





Fright Club: Best Medical Horror

Where are you most vulnerable, if not in the hands of doctors? You don’t know what they’re doing. It’s likely to hurt. There are needles, saws maybe. Suturs. Staples. Blood. Is there more fertile, gory ground for horror? We say no, and today we celebrate the very best there is in medical horror.

5. American Mary (2012)

Twin sisters, Canadians and badasses Jen and Sylvia Soska have written and directed a smart, twisted tale of cosmetic surgery – both elective and involuntary.

Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) stars as med student Mary Mason, a bright and eerily dedicated future surgeon who’s having some trouble paying the bills. She falls in with an unusual crowd, develops some skills, and becomes a person you want to keep on your good side.

Were it not for all those amputations and mutilations, this wouldn’t be a horror film at all. It’s a bit like a noir turned inside out, where we share the point of view of the raven haired dame who’s nothin’ but trouble. It’s a unique and refreshing approach that pays off.

4. Re-Animator (1986)

Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator reinvigorated the Frankenstein storyline in a decade glutted with vampire films. Based, as so many fantasy/horror films are, on the work of H. P. Lovecraft, Re-Animator boasts a good mix of comedy and horror, some highly subversive ideas, and one really outstanding villain.

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.

Re-Animator is fresh. It’s funny and shocking, and though most performances are flat at best, those that are strong more than make up for it. First-time director Gordon’s effort is superb. He glories in the macabre fun of his scenes, pushing envelopes and dumping gallons of blood and gore. He balances anxiety with comedy, mines scenes for all they have to give, and takes you places you haven’t been.

3. Dead Ringers (1988)

This film is about separation anxiety, with the effortlessly melancholy Jeremy Irons playing a set of gynecologist twins on a downward spiral. Writer/director David Cronenberg doesn’t consider this a horror film at all. Truth is, because the twin brothers facing emotional and mental collapse are gynecologists, Cronenberg is wrong.

Take, for instance, the scene with the middle aged woman in stirrups, camera on her face, which is distorted with discomfort. Irons’s back is to the screen, her bare foot to his left side. Clicking noises distract you as the doctor works away. We pan right to a tray displaying the now-clearly-unstable doctor’s set of hand-fashioned medical instruments. Yikes.

Irons is brilliant, bringing such flair and, eventually, childlike charm to the performances you feel almost grateful. The film’s pace is slow and its horror subtle, but the uncomfortable moments are peculiarly, artfully Cronenberg.

2. The Skin I Live In (2011)

In 2011, the great Pedro Almodovar created something like a cross between Eyes Without a Face and Lucky McGee’s The Woman, with all the breathtaking visual imagery and homosexual overtones you can expect from an Almodovar project.

The film begs for the least amount of summarization because every slow reveal is placed so perfectly within the film, and to share it in advance is to rob you of the joy of watching. Antonio Banderas gives a lovely, restrained performance as Dr. Robert Ledgard, and Elena Anaya and Marisa Paredes are spectacular.

Not a frame is wasted, not a single visual is placed unconsciously. Dripping with symbolism, the film takes a pulpy and ridiculous story line and twists it into something marvelous to behold. Don’t dismiss this as a medical horror film. Pay attention – not just to catch the clues as the story unfolds, but more importantly, to catch the bigger picture Almodovar is creating.

1. Frankenstein (1931)

Obviously, any exploration of medicine in horror cinema – no matter how amateurish that exploration – must begin with Frankenstein.

James Whale’s genius was in finding the monster fascinating, rather than the doctor. Nearly every other Frankenstein made before or since has been preoccupied with the doctor, but Whale understood that it was this unique beast, baby and man, evil and innocent, that should compel our interest. Who cares about one more doctor with a god complex?

Luckily for Whale, he had Boris Karloff. Karloff’s gift was in seeing the monster as a neglected child. His monster is sweet and tragic, characterized by the terrible freedom of a loosed child full of fear, unbridled excitement, and shame. Karloff nails this childlike energy and ignorance married to a grown man’s strength in a way that no other actor truly has.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McUce_xwxeA

Join the full conversation on the FRIGHT CLUB podcast.





Halloween Countdown, Day 24

American Mary (2012)

Twin sisters, Canadians and badasses Jen and Sylvia Soska have written and directed a smart, twisted tale of cosmetic surgery – both elective and involuntary.

Rex Reed said of American Mary, “The acting is uniformly dreadful. The level of incompetence in both writing and direction is a scream.”

Rex Reed is high. You should see American Mary.

Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) stars as med student Mary Mason, a bright and eerily dedicated future surgeon who’s having some trouble paying the bills. She falls in with an unusual crowd, develops some skills, and becomes a person you want to keep on your good side.

Isabelle is masterful, performing without judgment and creating a multi-dimensional central figure. As the film opens, Mary is a character on the verge. The Soska sisters deftly explore that moment, full of anxiety and thrill, where anything could happen. This being horror, though, it doesn’t all go quite as well as Mary originally hoped.

The Soskas’ screenplay is as savvy as they come, clean and unpretentious but informed by gender politics and changing paradigms. They also prove skilled at drawing strong performances across the board. Antonio Cupo, in particular, impresses as the unexpectedly layered yet certainly creepy strip club owner.

Were it not for all those amputations and mutilations, this wouldn’t be a horror film at all. It’s a bit like a noir turned inside out, where we share the point of view of the raven haired dame who’s nothin’ but trouble. It’s a unique and refreshing approach that  pays off.

The images are bright, crisp and classy and at the same time so very wrong – just like Mary. Like fellow Canadian David Cronenberg, the Soskas care not for traditional scares, preferring unsettling images and nightmarish circumstances. And though the film owes a debt to Cronenberg – particularly his magnificent corporeal nightmare Dead Ringers – it certainly carves out its own niche in the bodily horror genre.

The film is an accomplished effort from the relative newcomers. Stylish and fresh, smart and creepy, it’s an excellent addition to any Halloween viewing.





Countdown: Congrats, it’s Twins!

This weekend marks the Twinsburg, OH twin festival. We have a particular weakness for the idea of this festival, and for films about twins, likely because Hope is a twin and her sister is bat-shit insane. She’s a vicious, hard-hearted killer. Wherever she goes, carnage follows.

We’re lying. She’s a lovely person, as are George’s twin sisters (see the unfortunate haircut pic below).

twins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ve noticed that a lot of onscreen twins are not so nice, though. Here are some of our favorites.

Dead Ringers (1988)

The film is about separation anxiety, with the effortlessly melancholy Jeremy Irons playing a set of gynecologist twins on a downward spiral. Director David Cronenberg doesn’t consider this a horror film at all. Truth is, because the twin brothers facing emotional and mental collapse are gynecologists, Cronenberg is wrong. Because of patient vulnerability, doctors who lose it are always scary, and Dead Ringers exploits that discomfort brilliantly. Irons brings such flair and, eventually, childlike charm to his performance you feel almost grateful. The film’s pace is slow and its horror subtle, but the uncomfortable moments are peculiarly, artfully Cronenberg.

Twin Falls Idaho (1999)

This is a lovely, haunting film clearly informed by Cronenberg’s twin flick, but the result is both slyer and more vulnerable. Written by, directed by and starring twin brothers Mark and Michael Polish, the film settles into a rundown motel where conjoined brothers seek their estranged mother, befriend a prostitute, attend a Halloween party, and separate to contend with the lonesome reality of individuality. It’s a hypnotic, weird but lovely ride.

The Other (1972)

Director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) is a master of slow reveal, feeding us information as we need it and pulling no punches in the meantime. It’s rural 1930s, and Ada (Uta Hagen), the sturdy German matriarch who’s been trying to run the farm since her son’s death last summer, is troubled. Sweet Niles seems terribly confused about his twin, Holland. Holland’s the rascal and Niles is always worried about his mischief getting them into trouble. So, Ada worries about Niles, Niles keeps himself busy around the farm, and bodies pile up like lumber. Mulligan twists to that same nostalgic, heartland approach he used so beautifully with Mockingbird to inform a stunningly crafted, understated film that sneaks up on you.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMmMqWkudgA

Basket Case (1982)

When super wholesome teen Duane moves into a cheap and dangerous NY flophouse, it’s easy to become anxious for him. But that’s not laundry in his basket, and it’s the lowlifes, thugs, and derelicts in his building who are in real jeopardy. Belial is in the basket. He’s Duane’s formerly conjoined twin. What he really is, of course, is Duane’s id – his Hyde, his Hulk, his Danny DeVito. And together the brothers tear a bloody, vengeful rip in the fabric of family life.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtmLKrxR6H0

Stuck On You (2003)

Not all twin films are dark, brooding or horrifying. Stuck on You, for instance, follows a pair of amazingly well adjusted conjoined twins – optimistic ladies’ man Walt (Greg Kinnear) and supportive wallflower Bob (Matt Damon) – who decide to move to LA to follow Walt’s dream of acting. Expect Farrelly brother silliness, a good heart, fun cameos, and excellent onscreen chemistry from the twins.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=At-LrR-vqUk