Fright Club: Side Characters, Part 1

This episode is years in the making. We’ve talked about doing this, jotted down ideas and characters, debated — and now it’s finally here. Well, half of it, anyway. There’s just no way to reasonably fit the best side characters—those fully deserving a film of their own—in just one podcast. So here is our list, in alphabetical order (no need to rank them!). This one’s for the ladies.

Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould), Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Smartly dressed, thoughtful, loving, misguided, and as if a creature from an entirely different film. She made a decision and, sure, Angela probably should have been a part of that decision-making process. But it wasn’t Aunt Martha’s fault that Paul was a no-good cheater. Or that Judy was such an asshole. I mean, yes, that surprise at the end was due in large part to Aunt Martha, but as for the campers—they had it coming.

Mademoiselle (Catherine Begin), Martyrs (2008)

What a presence. Commanding, calm, wizened and weary, Catherine Begin’s Madamoiselle has such resigned decisiveness that it’s almost impossible to argue with her. She turns something that could have easily become torture porn into a mesmerizing glimpse at zealotry.

Minnie Castavet (Ruth Gordon) Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Ruth Gordon earned an Oscar as Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse’s busybody neighbor Minnie Castavet, wife of Roman and nonplussed chief operations officer of the coven. Yes, Roman made a good figurehead, but somebody has to just keep things moving. And as long as she ate the mouse, everything’s fine.

Mother (Fons Rademakers), Daughters of Darkness (1971)

One of the many glorious things about Harry Kumel’s decadent 1971 vampire fable is the way it feels like two or three different films colliding into one elegant bloodletting. Mother casts a looming shadow over one of those storylines, that of a young, beautiful couple recently married, Stefan and Valerie. Even before they’re ensnared in Countess Bathory’s love web, Stefan (an irredeemable asshole if ever there was one) needs to figure out how to break the news of his nuptials to Mother.

Whenever a new character makes you simply need to hear an entirely other story, one focused on whatever they’re not telling you about that character, you know you have a winner. The way Fons Rademakers pets his butler’s head, holds court in the greenhouse, and wields unspecified but somehow sinister power over Stefan begs for its own movie.

Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), The Omen (1976)

From the moment she takes the screen, Mrs. Baylock is the new sheriff in town. She quietly yet immediately takes control of the Thorn household. If you didn’t know who was alpha, you only need to see who the dog listens to. Yep, Richard Thorn is in trouble. To say nothing of his poor, useless wife Catherine.

Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein), Poltergeist (1982)

Walks in the house, owns the place. Tangina is a force of nature with a soft little lilt and a no-nonsense approach to cleaning the Freeling house. Her confidence gives the character more than a huckster vibe, although there is a sense of showmanship to everything she does. But when she is addressing the living, it’s best not to give trick answers.

Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek), Pet Sematary (1989)

Scary as hell. Sure, the cat, little Gage, that guy with the brain on the outside of his skull—all of it has its horror charm. But the real nightmare in Mary Lamber’s adaptation of the Stephen King tale is Rachel Creed’s guilty memory of the sister who terrified and horrified her, the sister she believes died—at least in part—due to her own negligence and hatred. Thanks to the angular, monstrous vision of Andrew Hubastek in a nightdress, all contorting ribcage and spine, Zelda became easily the scariest thing in the film.

Unlucky Streak

Cursed Films

by Hope Madden

The success of Shudder’s wildly informative and entertaining 2019 doc Horror Noire (still streaming – see it!) paved the way for their new 5-show doc series, Cursed Films. Each of writer/director Jay Cheel’s episodes spends 30 minutes examining one allegedly cursed horror movie production: The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Omen, The Crow and Twilight Zone: The Movie.

Episodes 1 – 3 were made available for review, and the first thing we noticed was that each show is stronger than the last. Our hopes were highest for Ep 1: The Exorcist, but the series has a tough time finding its footing. The idea of a “cursed” production never really materializes and the episode feels padded with unrelated material.

In particular, time spent with a shyster modern day exorcist adds little to the overall theme of the program and offers limited at best entertainment value.

Poltergeist is a film more recognized for an alleged curse, so there’s a little more meat on Ep 2’s bone. Cheel opens up a handful of different, related conversations and braids them interestingly. The episode actually examines the bad luck that dogged all three films in the Poltergeist series and gets some skinny from one of the filmmakers (no, not that one).

It digs a little more at fan obsession in ways that non-Shudder audiences might mock while feeling perfectly at home with this target market. Still, the content feels light and the doc never seems to unveil much.

By Episode 3, though, Cursed Films finds its groove. The Omen offers not only more bountiful nuttiness to examine, but bigger and more interesting interview opportunities.

The big question: Why repeatedly use the single least flattering photo ever taken of Gregory Peck?

By halfway through the series, Cheel has begun to dig into the psychology of what makes a person – or the public – cling to the idea of a curse in the first place, and the psychology on display in this episode is fantastic. The random nut job guests, however, still feel like an unpleasant way to pad.

Though Episodes 4 and 5 were not available for review, the series seems to have hit its stride just as it hits two films that, while less popular than the first three in the series, suffered more profound bad luck than the first three combined.

Fright Club: Best Tobe Hooper Movies

The film community lost another of its greats, and we want to celebrate the wonderful and the weirdly watchable of Tobe Hooper.

Hooper’s ability to pervert social expectations, his unsurpassed gift for creating terrifying atmospheres among America’s backwoodsfolk, and his nonchalantly visceral presentation made every film an experience worth attempting. Not every one paid off, but those that did left a nasty mark.

5. Eaten Alive (1976)

We open on a backwoods Florida whore house. A bewigged young pro loudly protests the request of her new customer, Robert Englund, who plays a hillbilly who prefers backdoor action. She’s cast out of the cathouse with nowhere to go and nothing to do with that ridiculous wig, until kindly maid Ruby (Betty Cole, wardrobed in a traditional maid’s uniform because hookers are such sticklers about the way their help looks) offers her a stack of cash so she can afford a room at the nearby motel.

Unfortunately, the guy who runs that motel is a sadistic pervert who feeds his problematic borders to the gator out back.

Hooper’s follow up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a lurid affair once again focused on delicious interlopers who misunderstand the customs of the locals.

Eaten Alive tries more openly at humor, mostly failing to find laughs (other than the ironic sort) but succeeding in creating an unsettling atmosphere for the carnage. It’s a B-movie, the kind that screams for a drive-in theater and a tub of greasy popcorn, but there is a time and a place for those movies, too.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSRpivA1mgo

4. Lifeforce (1985)

A naked alien vampire woman sucks seemingly willing men dry on her first trip to London.

Nope, Lifeforce is not a porno. It’s a silly horror film, especially if you come in expecting the kind of visceral gut punch Tobe Hooper tends to deliver. But as a SciFi guilty pleasure (and mash note to Hammer’s Quatermass and the Pit), it’s a bit of fun.

Mathilda May sure is naked. She plays one of three aliens saved from an otherwise decimated space ship found hiding in the tail of Halley’s Comet by European astronauts. Mysteriously, that European ship meets its own disaster before safely dropping off the three aliens on earth.

But wait! Don’t open her case!!

Of course they open her case, and she and her two henchmen begin sucking the life force from all they can find, creating their own kind of Brit zombipocalypse in one of the film’s nuttiest and greatest scenes.

The movie is a mess that lacks any hint of the characteristic Tobe Hooper vision, but it is more than peculiar enough to be compelling.

3. The Funhouse (1981)

Hooper creates a creepy atmosphere on the Midway with this periodically tense freak show. Double dating teens hit the carnival and decide to spend the night inside the park’s funhouse. What could go wrong?

Well, as would become the norm in every carnival-themed horror film to come, the ride is the secret hideaway of a carny’s deformed and bloodthirsty offspring. He hides his misfortune beneath a Frankenstein mask, but he can’t contain his violent rage when teased. (Not that it’s ever wise to pick on a premature ejaculator, particularly in a horror film.)

Sure, The Funhouse follows all the protocol of a slasher set inside an amusement park, and is, for that reason, somewhat predictable. Still, Hooper delivers pretty well. He develops a genre-appropriate seediness among the carnies, as well as an unwholesome atmosphere. He also pays open homage to the genre throughout the picture. (As a way of paying him back, the genre would rip off this film for years to come – most blatantly in 2006’s Dark Ride.)

It’s hard not to find Hooper’s post-Texas Chainsaw Massacre films lacking. This one’s no masterpiece, but it is a tidy, garish, claustrophobic and unsettling piece of indie filmmaking.

2. Poltergeist (1982)

This aggressive take on the haunted house tale wraps Hooper’s potent horrors inside producer Steven Spielberg’s brightly lit suburbia. In both of Spielberg’s ’82 films, the charade of suburban peace is disrupted by a supernatural presence. In E.T., though, there’s less face tearing.

Part of Poltergeist’s success emerged from pairing universal childhood fears – clowns, thunderstorms, that creepy tree – with the adult terror of helplessness in the face of your own child’s peril. JoBeth Williams’s performance of vulnerable optimism gives the film a heartbeat, and the unreasonably adorable Heather O’Rourke creeps us out while tugging our heartstrings.

Splashy effects, excellent casting, Spielberg’s heart and Hooper’s gut combine to create a flick that holds up. Solid performances and the pacing of a blockbuster provide the film a respectable thrill, but Hooper’s disturbing imagination guarantees some lingering jitters.

1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Not everyone considers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a classic. Those people are wrong. Perhaps even stupid.

Tobe Hooper’s camera work, so home-movie like, worked with the “based on a true story” tag line like nothing before it, and the result seriously disturbed the folks of 1974. It has been ripped off and copied dozens of times since its release, but in the context of its time, it was so absolutely original it was terrifying.

Hooper sidestepped all the horror gimmicks audiences had grown accustomed to – a spooky score that let you know when to grow tense, shadowy interiors that predicted oncoming scares – and instead shot guerilla-style in broad daylight, outdoors, with no score at all. You just couldn’t predict what was coming.

He dashes your expectations, making you uncomfortable, as if you have no idea what you could be in for. As if, in watching this film, you yourself are in more danger than you’d predicted.

But not more danger than Franklin is in, because Franklin is not in for a good time.

So, poor, unlikeable Franklin Hardesty, his pretty sister Sally, and a few other friends head out to Grampa Hardesty’s final resting place after hearing the news of some Texas cemeteries being grave-robbed. They just want to make sure Grampy’s still resting in peace – an adventure which eventually leads to most of them making a second trip to a cemetery. Well, what’s left of them.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eY4ldz615FA





Fright Club: Best Haunted House Movies

The Poltergeist reboot has us talking about the great haunted house movies over the years and how much they’ve changed. From the creaky old mansions to suburban horror to the curse that will stay with you even after you leave, ghosts have always been able to scare moviegoers and us. Here are our 5 favorite ghost stories:

5. Poltergeist (1982)

This aggressive take on the haunted house tale wraps director Tobe Hooper’s potent horrors inside producer Steven Spielberg’s brightly lit suburbia.

Part of the original’s success emerged from pairing universal childhood fears – clowns, thunderstorms, that creepy tree – with the adult terror of helplessness in the face of your own child’s peril. JoBeth Williams’s performance of vulnerable optimism gives the film a heartbeat, and the unreasonably adorable Heather O’Rourke creeps us out while tugging our heartstrings.

Splashy effects, excellent casting, Spielberg’s heart and Hooper’s gut combine to create a flick that holds up. Solid performances and the pacing of a blockbuster provide the film a respectable thrill, but Hooper’s disturbing imagination guarantees some lingering jitters.

4. The Conjuring (2013)

James Wan built an old fashioned ghost story from the ground up to push buttons of childhood terror. But don’t expect a long, slow burn. Wan expertly balances suspense with quick, satisfying bursts of visual terror.

Ghost stories are hard to pull off, though, especially in the age of instant gratification. Few modern moviegoers have the patience for atmospheric dread, so filmmakers now turn to CGI to ramp up thrills. But Wan understands the power of a flesh and blood villain in a way that other directors don’t seem to.

Claustrophobic when it needs to be and full of fun house moments, The Conjuring will scare you while you’re in the theater and stick with you after. At the very least, you’ll keep your feet tucked safely under the covers.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vjk2So3KvSQ

3. The Orphanage (2007)

Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband reopen the orphanage where she grew up, with the goal of running a house for children with special needs – children like her adopted son Simón, who is HIV positive. But Simón’s new imaginary friends worry Laura, and when he disappears it looks like she may be imagining things herself.

A scary movie can be elevated beyond measure by a masterful score and an artful camera. Because director Antonio Bayona keeps the score and all ambient noise to a minimum, allowing the quiet to fill the scenes, he develops a truly haunting atmosphere. His camera captures the eerie beauty of the stately orphanage, but does it in a way that always suggests someone is watching. The effect is never heavy handed, but effortlessly eerie.

One of the film’s great successes is its ability to take seriously both the logical, real world story line, and the supernatural one. Rueda carries the film with a restrained urgency – hysterical only when necessary, focused at all times, and absolutely committed to this character, who may or may not be seeing ghosts.

2. The Innocents (1961)

Quietly desperate and delicately high strung, Deborah Kerr’s performance is the perfect central image in The Innocents, the best of many screen adaptations of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Is Kerr’s hypersensitive governess turning delusional as she spirals toward spinsterhood, or are her angelic charges in danger of becoming possessed by the spectral lovers who seem to haunt the property?

Thanks to Kerr, the wickedly cherubic turn by Martin Stephens as young Miles, and Freddie Francis’s gorgeous black and white photography, this eerie ghost story is a glorious study in the shadowy line between reality and imagination. Countless films – good ones, like The Orphanage and The Others – have walked similar, spooky hallways, but The Innocents will always be the standard bearer.

1. The Shining (1980)

A study in atmospheric tension, Kubrick’s vision of the Torrance family collapse at the Overlook Hotel is both visually and aurally meticulous. It opens with that stunning helicopter shot, following Jack Torrence’s little yellow Beetle up the mountainside, the ominous score announcing a foreboding that the film never shakes.

Let’s not forget Jack. Nicholson outdoes himself. His veiled contempt early on blossoms into homicidal mania, and there’s something so wonderful about watching Nicholson slowly lose his mind. Between writer’s block, isolation, ghosts, alcohol withdrawal, midlife crisis, and “a momentary loss of muscular coordination,” the playfully sadistic creature lurking inside this husband and father emerges.

What image stays with you most? The two creepy little girls? The blood pouring out of the elevator? The impressive afro in the velvet painting above Scatman Crothers’s bed? That guy in the bear suit – what was going on there? Whatever the answer, thanks be to Kubrick’s deviant yet tidy imagination.

Listen to the whole conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB podcat.





They’re Back

Poltergeist

by Hope Madden

Thirty three years ago, Steven Spielberg unleashed two tales of supernatural contact in anonymous, suburban neighborhoods. Things went better for Elliott.

Between producer Spielberg’s sense of awe and director Tobe Hooper’s capacity for imaginative terror, the original Poltergeist far exceeded expectations, and though several sequences have not aged well, it remains a potent horror show.

A generation later, we return to Glen Echo Circle, now the victim of a downturned economy, as are the Bowens. Sam Rockwell and Rosemary DeWitt play the parents unwillingly relocating their three kids to the neighborhood to accommodate their now-more-modest means. Their son Griffin (Kyle Catlett) doesn’t like his room because of the creepy tree outside, but little Maddie (adorable Kennedi Clements) is already making friends.

This is a tough film to remake. The original combined superficial thrills with primal fears and offered the giddy mix of Spielberg’s wonder and Hooper’s twisted vision. Wisely, director Gil Kenan started with a solid cast.

Rockwell is always a good bet and DeWitt is fast becoming the go-to for authenticity in the suburban mom role. Jared Hess offers a little panache as the medium who cleans houses, and the supporting performers turn in respectable work.

Kenan can’t seem to decide whether or not to embrace the original’s more iconic moments, and his revisions feel more like obligation than inspiration. What his version lacks is a big punch. He’s hampered by audience expectation – we kind of know what’s coming, after all – but that doesn’t excuse his lack of imagination.

The director proved a savvy storyteller with his Oscar-nominated animated nightmare Monster House, a film that was surprisingly terrifying for a kids’ movie. That kind of exuberance could have infected this production, but the sequel lacks energy.

Poltergeist is not a bad movie, just disappointing. A lot of reboots are, but there are some that feel like one filmmaker’s love letter to a movie. Films like The Ring, The Crazies, Dawn of the Dead, and more recently, Evil Dead work as reboots because they inhabited an old story but found a new voice. Kenan doesn’t find his. The result is entertaining and forgettable.

Verdict-2-5-Stars





Fright Club: Best Eighties Horror

We’re back to the decade countdown, this week looking at the best horror had to offer in the Eighties. This is the decade that spawned more horror franchises and iconic villains than any other – Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead and Hellraiser to begin with. Somewhere in a haze of Aquanet that era also churned out more bad horror than any decade should, but here we will focus on the five best from the Duran Duran Decade.

5. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director John Landis blends horror, humor, and a little romance with cutting edge (at the time) special effects to tell the tale of a handsome American tourist David (David Naughton) doomed to turn into a Pepper – I mean a werewolf – at the next full moon.

Two college kids (Naughton and Griffin Dunne), riding in the back of a pickup full of sheep, backpacking across the moors, talk about girls and look for a place to duck out of the rain.

Aah, a pub – The Slaughtered Lamb – that’ll do!

The scene in the pub is awesome, as is the scene that follows, where the boys are stalked across the foggy moors. Creepy foreboding leading to real terror, this first act grabs you and the stage is set for a sly and scary escapade. The wolf looks cool, the sound design is fantastically horrifying, and Landis’s brightly subversive humor has never had a better showcase.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uw6QPThCqE

4. Poltergeist (1982)

This aggressive take on the haunted house tale wraps director Tobe Hooper’s potent horrors inside producer Steven Spielberg’s brightly lit suburbia. In both of Spielberg’s ’82 films, the charade of suburban peace is disrupted by a supernatural presence. In E.T., though, there’s less face tearing.

Part of Poltergeist’s success emerged from pairing universal childhood fears – clowns, thunderstorms, that creepy tree – with the adult terror of helplessness in the face of your own child’s peril. JoBeth Williams’s performance of vulnerable optimism gives the film a heartbeat, and the unreasonably adorable Heather O’Rourke creeps us out while tugging our heartstrings.

Splashy effects, excellent casting, Spielberg’s heart and Hooper’s gut combine to create a flick that holds up. Solid performances and the pacing of a blockbuster provide the film a respectable thrill, but Hooper’s disturbing imagination guarantees some lingering jitters.

3. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Director John McNaughton’s unforgivingly realistic picture of American serial killer Henry Lee Lucas offers a uniquely unemotional telling – no swelling strings to warn us danger is afoot and no hero to speak of to balance the ugliness. We follow him through his humdrum days of stalking and then dispatching his prey, until he finds his own unwholesome kind of family in the form of buddy Otis and his sister Becky. What’s diabolically fascinating is the workaday, white trash camaraderie of the psychopath relationship in this film, and the grey areas where one crazy killer feels the other has crossed some line of decency.

McNaughton confuses viewers because the characters you identify with are evil, and even when you think you might be seeing this to understand the origins of the ugliness, he pulls the rug out from under you again by creating an untrustworthy narrative voice. His film is so nonjudgmental, so flatly unemotional, that it’s honestly hard to watch. It’s brilliant nonetheless.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IU3P6WXzvXU

2. The Thing (1981)

John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 SciFi flick The Thing from Another World is both reverent and barrier-breaking, limiting the original’s Cold War paranoia, and concocting a thoroughly spectacular tale of icy isolation, contamination and mutation.

This is an amped up body snatcher movie benefitting from some of Carpenter’s most cinema-fluent and crafty direction: wide shots when we need to see the vastness of the unruly wilds; tight shots to remind us of the close quarters with parasitic death inside. In an isolated wasteland with barely enough interior room to hold all the facial hair, folks are getting jumpy. The story remains taut beginning to end, and there’s rarely any telling just who is and who is not infected by the last reel. You’re as baffled and confined as the scientists. It’s horror movie magic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7t-919Ec9U

1. The Shining (1980)

A study in atmospheric tension, Kubrick’s vision of the Torrance family collapse at the Overlook Hotel is both visually and aurally meticulous. It opens with that stunning helicopter shot, following Jack Torrence’s little yellow Beetle up the mountainside, the ominous score announcing a foreboding that the film never shakes.

Let’s not forget Jack. Nicholson outdoes himself. His veiled contempt early on blossoms into homicidal mania, and there’s something so wonderful about watching Nicholson slowly lose his mind. Between writer’s block, isolation, ghosts, alcohol withdrawal, midlife crisis, and “a momentary loss of muscular coordination,” the playfully sadistic creature lurking inside this husband and father emerges.

What image stays with you most? The two creepy little girls? The blood pouring out of the elevator? The impressive afro in the velvet painting above Scatman Crothers’s bed? That guy in the bear suit – what was going on there? Whatever the answer, thanks be to Kubrick’s deviant yet tidy imagination.

Check out the whole conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.





Fright Club: It Follows and Anticipated Horror of 2015

David Robert Mitchell invites you to the best American horror film in years.

It Follows is a coming of age tale that mines a primal terror. Moments after a sexual encounter with a new boyfriend, Jay discovers that she is cursed. He has passed on some kind of entity – a demonic menace that will follow her until it either kills her or she passes it on to someone else the same way she got it.

Yes, it’s the STD or horror movies, but don’t let that dissuade you. Mitchell understands the anxiety of adolescence and he has not simply crafted yet another cautionary tale about premarital sex.

Mitchell has captured that fleeting yet dragging moment between childhood and adulthood and given the lurking dread of that time of life a powerful image. There is something that lies just beyond the innocence of youth. You feel it in every frame and begin to look out for it, walking toward you at a consistent pace, long before the characters have begun to check the periphery themselves.

Mitchell’s provocatively murky subtext is rich with symbolism but never overwhelmed by it. His capacity to draw an audience into this environment, this horror, is impeccable and the result is a lingering sense of unease that will have you checking the perimeter for a while to come.

What else are we looking forward to this year? Here’s a quick list:

Poltergeist

Crimson Peak

Final Girl

Let Us Prey

Goodnight Mommy





Halloween Countdown, Day 2

Poltergeist (1982)

Come back to a time when TV stations went off the air late at night, after running the national anthem. Yes, it’s the early Eighties, an era that delivered Poltergeist, spawn of the dissonant marriage between Steven Spielberg and Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper.

Their aggressive take on the haunted house tale wraps Hooper’s potent horrors inside Spielberg’s brightly lit suburbia. Indeed, the put-upon Freeling family lives in a little California neighborhood, Cuesta Verde, that bears a striking cul-de-sac-riddled resemblance to the development where Elliot and his outer space buddy once rode bikes. In both of Spielberg’s ’82 films, the charade of suburban peace is disrupted by a supernatural presence. In E.T., though, there’s less face tearing.

That particular scene, where paranormal researcher Marty (Martin Casella) watches in the mirror as his hands rip the flesh from his skull, caused quite a stir when the film was released. Today it looks a bit goofy, but overall, Poltergeist still packs a real wallop.

Part of that success emerged from pairing universal childhood fears – clowns, thunderstorms, that creepy tree – with the adult terror of helplessness in the face of your own child’s peril. JoBeth Williams’s performance of vulnerable optimism gives the film a heartbeat, and the unreasonably adorable Heather O’Rourke creeps us out while tugging our heartstrings.

Splashy effects, excellent casting, Spielberg’s heart and Hooper’s gut combine to create a flick that holds up. Solid performances and the pacing of a blockbuster provide the film a respectable thrill, but Hooper’s disturbing imagination guarantees some lingering jitters.