Horror Film Review: The Dead Pit (dir. by Brett Leonard)

Let me set up the scene for you:

It’s late at night.  A woman wakes up from a terrible nightmare and finds herself in a shadowy, white-walled hospital room.  She gets out of bed and walks over to the window.  Standing outside, staring up at her, is a lone figure in blood-stained surgical scrubs.  The figure’s eyes glow red as he says, “Around here, I’m the head surgeon.”

And then he tosses some poor orderly’s decapitated head up at the window.

If you enjoy the type of silly but effective creepiness that is epitomized by this scene, than 1989’s The Dead Pit might just be the film for you.

In The Dead Pit, Cheryl Lawson plays Jane Doe.  As you might guess from her name, Jane isn’t quite sure who she really is or how she came to lose her memory.  All she knows for sure is that she’s been checked into a disturbingly sterile hospital.  At night, she’s haunted by nightmares in which she’s stalked by a menacing figure wearing a doctor’s mask and during the day, she has to deal with the occasional earthquake and the fact that she occasionally starts to speak in a vaguely possessed voice that freaks out the head psychiatrist (Jeremy Slate).  Could it have anything to do with the fact that one of her fellow patients is an ex-nun who is obsessed with sprinkling holy water over everything?  Or could it possibly be related to the fact that many years ago, her psychiatrist murdered Dr. Ramzi (Danny Gochnauer) when he discovered that Ramzi was actually a serial killer who murdered countless patients?  Then again, it could just be related to the fact that there’s apparently a hundred freaking zombies just wandering around the hospital…

If The Dead Pit sounds like it’s kinda silly and a little bit campy … well, it is.  However, it’s also a lot of fun, the type of unapologetically trashy horror film that makes for perfect Halloween viewing.  Director Brett Leonard makes good use of what appears to be a very small budget.  The film was apparently shot on the grounds of an actual mental hospital and, through the use of inventive lighting and a constantly tracking camera, Leonard makes good use of the locale’s inherent creepiness.  This is yet another film that works far better than you might expect, simply because the director understood just how scary it can be to feel isolated.

Just from doing a quick google search, I can also say that apparently, this film — and, specifically, Cheryl Lawson’s lead performance in this film — has a lot of fans on the Internet.  I can understand that because Lawson’s likable, she’s believable when she’s both scared and possessed, and she screams with panache.  She makes this film effective because she takes the material seriously and has enough respect for the audience to actually give a good performance and that makes it impossible not to 1) identify with her and 2) hope that she makes it through the film in one piece.  Even when Lawson is having to scream for her life, she never allows Jane Doe to come across as weak.   Speaking as a girl who loves horror films but hates to always see women having to act like simple-minded victims, I found Lawson’s performance to be almost empowering and I’m sure that’s why so many of The Dead Pit’s fans love this movie.

Of course, Cheryl Lawson also spends almost the entire movie running around in her panties and a t-shirt.  I guess that also could possibly have something to do with the film’s popularity…  

Okay, I guess that is a more likely explanation.  However, in all honesty, if I was in a horror movie, I would totally want to be the girl who spends the whole movie running around in her underwear.  I mean, yes, I know that it’s the good girls who always survive until the end but seriously who wants to be a good girl in a horror movie?  The good girls are boring and usually end up forgotten by the time the sequel comes out.  The bad girls are the ones that everyone remembers.

But, regardless of the main reason why you personally might enjoy it, the Dead Pit is a fun movie that’s a great pick if you’re like me and you often find yourself simply looking for something to watch at 2 in the morning.


Horror Review: I Am Legend (by Richard Matheson)

“[I am] a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.”Robert Neville

In 1954, Richard Matheson published a novel that would influence so many future generations of science-fiction and horror writers and film directors. Matheson’s body of work prior to 1954 could be summed up as good but nothing too exciting. His work thus far overlapped such pulp genres as horror, science-fiction and fantasy. This style would be the hallmark of his brand of story-telling. It would be in his novel I Am Legend that his unique style of combining different genres that Matheson would have his greatest and most epic work to date.

I Am Legend takes the vampire tale and brings it out of the shadows and darkness, so to speak. Set in the late 1970’s, I Am Legend begins its tale with humanity pretty much on the quick path to extinction due to a pandemic where the bacterium or virus involved caused symptoms very similar to what folklore had called vampirism. The protagonist of this tale was one Robert Neville. An unassuming man living in a Los Angeles suburban neighborhood who might just be the only living human being, or at least the only un-infected one, on the face of the planet. Neville’s been reduced to a day-to-day routine of defending his fortified home from the vampire-like infected humans who’ve tried attacking him and his home once night falls. This routine has become so ingrained in Neville that it starts him on a downward spiral to utter despair. He knows that he might just be the only human left and the prospect of such an idea almost becomes too much for his psyche. It’s this growing despair which gradually causes Neville to make little mistakes in his routine that puts him in greater levels of danger from those turned who see him as nothing but cattle.

His attempts to solve the mystery of why he’s the only one not affected by the disease becomes his way of keeping himself sane. Neville’s work in trying to find the answer leads him to take chances in keeping a vampire survivor alive and bound instead of just killing it outright. His experiments ranges from disproving the myths surrounding the vampire creature and acknowledging the scientific and/or psychological explanations to certain behavioral traits of these nocturnal creatures.

Neville’s studies on captured vampires tell him why certain things like garlic and sunlight causes such an extreme reaction on these creatures. Why do they have a certain invulnerability towards bullets but not a stake through the heart is one question he tries to answer through his research. He even surmises that the vampires aversion to crucifix was more psychological than anything supernatural. Neville arrives at this after observing a vampire’s reaction to a Star of David was similar to the reaction of another one towards the crucifix.

It’s events such as these which puts I Am Legend in a category all by itself. It still uses themes of horror which the vampires fulfill to great effect, but it also does a great job of taking the vampire tale out of the supernatural realm and into the scientific and logical. Neville’s attempts to keep himself sane, as his loneliness begin to weigh on his psyche and health, through these studies and experiments adds a level of the science-fiction to this tale. It’s the combination of these two genres which makes I Am Legend such an epic tale in scope yet it’s not that which gives the tale its heaviest impact. It’s Neville himself, more to the point, his desperate situation of being the last man on earth weighing on his mind. This tone gives this apocalyptic vampire tale such an intimate feel that the reader hopes and wishes for some sort of peaceful end to Neville; better yet, some hope that he might find clues that he might not be the last.

As the story moves forward, the line between who is human, who is monster and who is the true survivor become blurred as Neville’s forays into the city for supplies lead him to a community of others who have not succumbed to the monstrous effect of the pandemic. It’s this discovery that gives Neville a semblance of hope which momentarily lifts the heavy weight of inevitability from his mind. But not everything is at it seems at first glance. Neville finds this out as his encounters with this thriving community continue to give him more and more insight as to how they’ve survived. The climactic end to this tale has become such a classic ending that any other resolution wouldn’t have worked. The end worked as the best possible ending to Matheson’s tale. It also gives the books title a deeper and more profound meaning to it.

I Am Legend will continue to go down in literary history as one of the best examples of fantastic literature. It’s seemless blending of horror, science-fiction and the apocalyptic gives the tale both an epic and intimate feel and tone. It’s not wonder the very themes and premise of this story has influenced such horror writers and filmmakers as Stephen King (The Stand, Salem’s Lot) and George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead). I Am Legend takes the vampire tale out of the shadows and darkness it usually in habits and brings it out to the light of science and logic with surprising results. A true classic piece of writing from Richard Matheson and one that still stands as the benchmark for apocalyptic tales.

Horror Film Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. by Robert Wiene)

I’m currently working on several reviews for horror month here at the Shattered Lens but tonight, rather than just review a film, I want to share one with you.  Released in 1920, the German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of those films that we’ve all heard about but far too few of us have actually seen.  Like most silent films, it requires some patience and a willingess to adapt to the narrative convictions of an earlier time.  However, for those of us who love horror cinema, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains required viewing.  Not only did it introduce the concept of the twist ending (M. Night Shyamalan owes his career to this film) but it also helped to introduce German expressionism to the cinematic world.  

My initial reaction to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was that it simply wasn’t that scary.  It was certainly interesting to watch and I was happy that I was finally experiencing this film that I had previously only read about.  However, the film itself was obviously primitive and it was difficult for my mind (which takes CGI for granted) to adjust to watching a silent film.  I didn’t regret watching the film but I’d be lying (much like a first-year film student) if I said that I truly appreciated it after my first viewing.

But you know what?  Despite my dismissive initial reaction, the film stayed with me.  Whereas most modern films fade from the memory about 30 minutes after the end credits, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has stuck with me and the night after I watched it, I even had a nightmare in which Dr. Caligari was trying to break into my apartment.  Yes, Dr. Caligari looked a little bit silly staring through my bedroom window but it still caused me to wake up with my heart about to explode out of my chest.

In short, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari passes the most important test that a horror film can pass.  It sticks with you even after it’s over.

For the curious who have 50 minutes to spare and an open mind to watch with, here is Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari…

Review: Аркона – Слово (Arkona – Slovo)

I would like to believe that Аркона, or Arkona for you non-purists, is a band requiring little introduction. They did not create the Slavic brand of folk metal, nor are they necessarily the best of their kind, but I would argue that they are the most accessible. Eschewing the common pagan metal dependence on raw production, Arkona deliver directly, presenting a full sound pervaded with folk and ferocious intensity.

At least, that is how I think of them. My ability to relate to the band is a bit narrow. I have somehow only ever listened to Возрождение (Vozrozhdeniye) and От Сердца к Небу (Ot Serdtsa K Nebu), but I’ve listened to both countless times. I am in no position to describe what precisely has changed here since Гой, Роде, Гой! (Goi, Rode, Goi!), but 2007 isn’t that far removed.

Азъ/Аркаим (Az’/Arkaim)

Following their best introduction track to date, Slovo kicks off in standard Arkona form, exploding briefly and then opening up to Masha’s breathtaking vocals. The instrumentation employed differs little from the past–bagpipe and woodwinds driving over epic synths and intense pagan aggression, with slow, tense interludes setting each stage. In the details though, much has changed.

The first difference that caught my eye was the introduction of a violin to accentuate the tension. This application (not its use in general), as it turns out, is more a feature of the opening track than the album as a whole, but the mood it aims for is a recurring theme: expect softer, subtler means to distinguish Slovo’s dynamics shifts.

The other thing I immediately noticed was a diminishing in the intensity of Masha’s metal vocals, and this, unfortunately, is consistent throughout the album. Oh, she can still belt them out better than just about any female metal vocalist out there, but that Slavic shrillness behind the gutturals seems to be gone, degrading into something a bit deeper and a bit more typical to metal in general.

Никогда (Nikogda)

When I returned to a few Ot Serdtsa K Nebu tracks to confirm this latter observation, a lot of other disappointments surfaced. Masha’s mellowing out from a violent she-wolf to a standard death metal growler is only the tip of the iceberg, though her clean singing might be as good as ever. The entire album is really a step down in ferocity. Primitive folk transitions have been replaced by a more consistent reliance on synth and whispered interludes to create a sound that is perhaps fuller but not nearly as inspiring. The track at hand is a bit of a counterexample, but consider it among the heaviest Slovo has to offer, not par for the course.

Don’t get me wrong though. I consider Ot Serdtsa K Nebu one of the best albums of all time, and that’s a pretty high standard to maintain. On Slovo, Arkona continue to produce absolutely solid pagan/folk metal, they’re just complacently maintaining the genres rather than redefining them. The specifically Slavic sounds of pagan metal are here sharing the stage with a more universal approach to the genre.

The album still brings a lot of uniqueness to the table. The guitar on Nikogda manages to maintain a constant tension that never bores in spite of (or even perhaps specifically because of) its simplicity, and it pairs up with the vocals perfectly. The song Леший (Leshiy) delightfully converts a border-line cheesy, carnival accordion into convincing metal. And though no hammer dulcimer is mentioned in the album’s credits, a sound I can describe as nothing else (perhaps very convincing keyboards?) peppers many tracks like falling snow, giving them a decidedly wintery vibe. (I can’t resist pointing out, to the complete apathy of anyone potentially reading this, a peculiar reminiscence I perceive in this last feature to Midwinter Land, the Sindar Ruins theme of Suikoden III, by Michiru Yamane, Keiko Fukami, and Masahiko Kimura.)

Слово (Slovo)

As for my gripes about intensity, the title track does manage to rise to the level I’d come to expect from Ot Serdtsa K Nebu, and might bring to light the stylistic change I had in mind. What springs to life here around 3:30, THAT is what I was looking for on this album. If brief, it demonstrates the intensity hedging on insanity that Slavic folk can offer to metal. That the sort of impact I got from Ot Serdtsa K Nebu in its entirety can only be compared to a passing phrase in Slovo speaks against the album, but in all fairness, that’s a pretty high measuring stick. Slovo is a really enjoyable album throughout, and it’s taken no effort on my part to keep it on perpetual repeat these last few nights. It’s more mellow than what I’d come to expect, in its folk features even more so than in the metal, and the overuse of whispered/spoken introductions and filler tracks is a mild annoyance, but it’s still a cut above much of the competition. If you’re new to the band and these sample tracks left you unimpressed though, do acquire a copy of Ot Serdtsa K Nebu before you write them off altogether.