The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Sorority House Massacre II (dir by Jim Wynorski)


Some movies just force the viewer to ask, “What would you do?”

I mean, just consider what it would be like to be in the scenario that’s presented to us in the 1990 film, Sorority House Massacre II.  You’re a college student.  You’ve got your entire future ahead of you.  The president of your sorority has just purchased a new sorority house and she wants you and three others to spend the weekend helping her fix the place up.

You arrive at the house and you discover that it’s literally on the verge of collapsing.  There’s no electricity.  There’s no telephone.  (And remember, this is back when people just used landlines.)  There’s no hot water.  Soon after arriving, you’re informed that there’s two reasons why the house was being sold at such a cheap price.

First off, there’s the neighbor.  He’s a creepy, kinda pervy-looking guy named Orville Ketchum.  When Orville comes over to meet his new neighbors, he announces that he has the keys to the basement.  He reaches into his pants to retrieve them.  Ewwww!

Secondly, it turns out that the house isn’t just any deserted house.  It’s the old Hockstadder Place!  Years ago, Mr. Hockstadder killed his daughters before dying.  Orville witnessed the whole thing.  As he tells the story, you might notice that the flashbacks are lifted from a film called Slumber Party Massacre, despite the fact that you’re starring in Sorority House Massacre II.

Despite all of that, you still enter the house.  A storm is rolling in and, whenever you look out the window, you see the same lightning stock footage that has appeared in a countless number of cheap horror movies.

When you and your friends decide to explore the basement, you find a Ouija board.  You know that Ouija boards can be dangerous but everyone else wants to run upstairs and use it.  Someone suggests that maybe the board can be used to contact the spirit of Hockstadder.  After all, according to Orville, Hockstadder swore that his murderous spirit would never leave the house and would possess anyone who tried to move in.

At this point, you have two options.

Do you say, “Okay, obviously, it’s not a good idea to contact the spirit of a murderer — especially one that said he would possess anyone who tries to contact him — so I’m going to go ahead and leave now?”

or

Do you light some candles, strip down to your underwear in front of a bunch of open windows (despite the fact that weird old Orville is right across the street), sit on a filthy floor, and try to communicate with the spirit of a homicidal maniac?

The smart option would be the first one so, of course, the characters in Sorority House Massacre II do the exact opposite.  Then again, nobody in Sorority House Massacre II appears to be that smart.  For one thing, they’re all in their 30s and they have yet to graduate college.  Trust me, I wish I could have stayed in college forever but, at some point, you really do have to either graduate or drop out.  Tuition’s not cheap.

Anyway, Sorority House Massacre II is one of those movies that just amuses me to death.  There’s absolutely nothing subtle about it.  It’s such a blatant exploitation film that you can’t help but admire it for not pretending to be something that it isn’t.  (At the same time, it’s rather tame when compared to the movies that we’re used to today.  Whenever someone is killed, obviously fake blood is squirted on a wall.)  This may be a stupid movie but it’s very sincere in its stupidity and there’s something to be said for that.

Add to that, Peter Spellos is memorably weird as Orville.  The way he delivers his lines makes Orville into the neighbor that everyone would dread having next door.  In the end, though, it’s a good thing that Orville was there.

Finally, there is one surprisingly effective moment.  The movie starts with the “final girl” huddled in a dark room, begging the unseen killer to remember who they are.  The movie then flashes back to that morning, with the girls standing in front of the house.  The abrupt cut from darkness to the bright and sunny morning is surprisingly effective and feels almost dream-like.  Though one gets the feeling it was probably unintentional, it’s still works far better than you’d expect.

Horror on TV: Thriller 2.18 “The Storm” (dir by Herschel Daugherty)


For tonight’s televised horror, we have another classic episode of the Boris Karloff-hosted anthology series, Thriller!

In this creepy and atmospheric episode, a newlywed (Nancy Kelly) and her cat attempt to get through a stormy night in an isolated house.  But are they really alone?

Watch, find out, and enjoy!

 

Horror Book Review: Ed Wood: Nightmare of Ecstasy (The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.) by Rudolph Grey


Beware all who open this book!

Nightmare of Ecstasy is an oral history of the life of Ed Wood, Jr., the man who has unfairly been declared the worst director of all time.  Not only does it include interviews with people who knew and worked with Wood at all the stages of his life and career but it also includes plenty of details about what went on behind the scenes during the making of Wood’s most famous films.

And, make no mistake, a lot of it is fascinating and hilarious.  Wood truly did surround himself with a collection of eccentrics and, fortunately for this book, several of them were very verbose eccentrics.  (Sadly, since this was book was originally published way back in 1992, some of the most notable interviews are with people who have since passed away.)  Wood was a storyteller so it’s perhaps not surprising that he was drawn to other storytellers.

Nightmare of Ecstasy is credited as being the basis for Tim Burton’s film, Ed Wood and it serves as a nice companion piece.  Since Ed Wood was highly fictionalized, Nightmare of Ecstasy is a good resource for setting the record straight.  Some of the more memorable moments in Ed Wood come across as being rather mundane in the book.  Meanwhile, some of the book’s more flamboyant passages did not make it into the film.  For instance, only by reading the book can you discover that one of Ed Wood’s frequent actors, Kenne Duncan, was nicknamed Horsecock.

At the same time, it’s a sad book because it follows Wood all the way to his final days.  Wood is such a legendary figure that I think it’s sometimes forgotten that he was also a human being.  Reading the book, you admire Wood for never giving up but, at the same time, you discover that he wasn’t the eternal optimist that Johnny Depp played in Burton’s film.  At the end of his life, he was a rather sad man, an alcoholic who sometimes pawned his typewriter so he’d have enough money to buy a drink.  He was reduced to working on the fringes of the adult film industry, even trying to convince his Plan 9 From Outer Space co-star, Vampiram to appear in a hardcore film.  At one point, Dudley Manlove (who played Eros in Plan 9) quotes a drunk and angry Wood as using a racial slur to describe his neighbors and it’s a shock because that’s just not the way that most of us like to think about Ed Wood.

Though the book may ultimately be rather sad, it’s also a valuable resource.  At the end of the book is a list of all of the films and TV shows that Wood is believed to have worked on.  (Wood has more credits than you might expect, though sadly some of them appear to be lost.)  Even more importantly, there is a list of every “adult” novel that Wood wrote, along with a plot description and even a few excerpts.  Longtime fans will be happy to learn that, just as in his films, Ed Wood the novelist always took the time to mention angora.

Ed Wood, in his later years.

Horror Film Review: Cape Fear (dir by Martin Scorsese)


And I beheld as Scorsese remade a classic movie and, Lo, there was De Niro, decorated in india ink and speaking in tongues…

In 1991, Martin Scorsese remade the 1962 horror thriller, Cape Fear.  Both versions deal with the same basic story but each tells it in a very different way.  If the original Cape Fear was straightforward and to the point, Martin Scorsese’s version is so stylized that occasionally, it’s tempting to suspect that Scorsese might be parodying himself.  Zoom shots, negative shots, sweeping camera movements, Scorsese’s Cape Fear is full of all of them.  When a storm rolls in for the film’s operatic finale, the red clouds look as if their on fire.  Hell is coming to North Carolina, the film appears to be announcing.

While the plot largely remains the same, there are a few significant changes to the characters involved:

In the first Cape Fear, Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady was an arrogant, swaggering brute.  In the remake, Robert De Niro’s Cady is still an arrogant, swaggering brute but he’s now also an evangelical who is tattooed with bible verses and who speaks in tongues.  Cape Fear‘s approach to Cady’s religion is so over-the-top that it almost makes Stephen King’s approach to religious characters seem subtle and nuanced.  De Niro also speaks in a broad Southern accent.  Occasionally, De Niro gets the accent right but most of the time, he sounds like he’s in a Vermont community theater production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.

In the first Cape Fear, Gregory Peck’s Sam Bowden was a lawyer who caught Max while Max was attacking a woman and who then testified against Max in court.  That’s not the case with the remake’s version of Sam Bowden.  Despite being played by Nick Nolte, the remake’s Sam Bowden is such a wimp that you can’t help but dislike him.  His wife (Jessica Lange) doesn’t trust him.  His teenage daughter (Juliette Lewis) resents him and his attempts to control her life.  In this version, Sam didn’t testify against Max in court.  Instead, Sam was Max’s lawyer and withheld evidence that could have secured Max’s acquittal.  What Sam didn’t realize is that Max would spend his time in prison studying the law and that Max would eventually figure out what Sam did.

As in the original film, Max shows up in North Carolina and proceeds to stalk the Bowdens.  Unlike Mitchum, who was all quiet menace, De Niro plays Max as being loud and obnoxious, the type who will sit in a theater, light a cigar, and intentionally laugh at the top of his lungs.  Max knows enough about the law that he knows exactly what he can get away with.  He poisons Sam’s dog.  He rapes Sam’s associate, Lori (played, in a heart-breaking performance, by Ileana Douglas).  In one of the film’s most unsettling scenes, he pretends to be the new drama teacher and toys with Sam’s daughter.

With the help of a private eye (Joe Don Baker), Sam tries to get Max out of his life.  Eventually, Sam pretends to be out-of-town, all as part of a ruse to get Max to break into his house so that he can be shot in self-defense.  It’s here that Nolte’s wimpy performance becomes an issue.  It’s impossible not to laugh at the sight of Sam, all hunched down and desperately trying to run from room to room without being spotted through any of the windows.

To a certain extent, I suspect that were meant to see Sam as being a rather pathetic figure.  Scorsese doesn’t really seem to have much sympathy for him or his dysfunctional family.  If anything, the film seems to argue that Sam has been a bad lawyer, a bad husband, and a bad father and Max has been sent as a type of divine retribution.  Only by defeating Max can Sam find forgiveness and hope to have the type of life that Gregory Peck enjoyed in the first movie.

Scorsese’s Cape Fear is an uneasy mishmash of styles.  Is it an art film, a religious allegory, a horror film, or just a generic thriller?  It doesn’t seem to be sure.  Cape Fear‘s a Scorsese film so, of course, it’s always going to be worth watching.  But there are times when the film definitely runs the risk of overdosing on style.  Sometimes, Scorsese seems to be trying too hard to remind everyone that he’s a legitimately great director and ends up getting so invested in the film’s visuals that he runs the risk of losing the story.  De Niro has some scenes in which he is genuinely chilling but then he has other scenes where he is basically just a live action cartoon character.  The same can be said of the film itself.  It’s always watchable.  At times, it’s rather frightening.  But other times, it’s just too cartoonish to be effective.

If anything, this remake proves that sometimes, it’s best to keep things simple.

Horror Film Review: Cape Fear (dir by J. Lee Thompson)


There are two versions of Cape Fear out there.

The one that most people seem to know and which regularly shows up on cable is the 1991 version.  This version was directed by Martin Scorsese and features Oscar-nominated performances from Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis.  This is the version that has De Niro speaking in a broad Southern accent and attacking people while speaking in tongues.  If you’ve ever watched a rerun of an old sitcom and wondered why the laugh track was going wild at the sight of a tattooed prisoner lifting weights in a cell while portentous music boomed in the background, it’s because you were watching a parody of Scorsese’s Cape Fear.

That, however, is not the first version of Cape Fear.

The first version of Cape Fear came out in 1962.  It was a black-and-white film that was directed by J. Lee Thompson.  In this version, the recently released rapist, Max Cady, is played by Robert Mitchum.  Sam Bowden, the attorney that Cady blames for his incarceration, is played by Gregory Peck.  Whereas the Scorsese version was highly stylized, the original Cape Fear is brutally straight forward.  (While Scorsese’s Cape Fear goes on for over two hours, the original Cape Fear tells its story in a brisk 100 minutes.)  While I think that Scorsese’s Cape Fear has its strong points, the original Cape Fear is superior in almost every way.

The original is certainly far more frightening than the remake.  What the original may lack in stylization, it makes up for in plausibility.  It’s scary because you can imagine everything in the film actually happening.  Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck may both be iconic film stars but they’re also believable as human beings.

For modern audiences, it’s easy to smirk at Peck with his upright image and his sonorous voice but what made Peck a great actor was his ability to make it all seem natural.  Peck never seemed like he was acting like an honest man who always tried to do the right thing.  Instead, he simply was that man.  It’s perhaps significant that Peck played Sam Bowden the same year that he played another honest lawyer, Atticus Finch, in To Kill A Mockingbird.  The only real difference between them is that, whereas Atticus was always confident and sure of himself, Sam is frequently helpless.  He knows that Max is stalking him and his family and he’s just as aware that there’s nothing he can do about it.  When Max rapes a woman (Barrie Chase) that he meets at a bar, she refuses to testify against him.  When Sam’s dog turns up dead, everyone knows that Max killed him but there’s no way to prove it.  When Sam hires three men to intimidate Max, Max beats them up and promptly tries to get Sam disbarred.  When Sam finally resorts to plotting Max’s murder, we’re seeing Atticus Finch pushed beyond his limit.

As for Robert Mitchum, his animalistic performance is frightening precisely because it feels very real.  Everyone has known a Max Cady, even if they didn’t realize it at the time.  Max gives a fiercely physical performance, often appearing shirtless and strutting through his scenes with a sexual arrogance that’s both frightening and, at times, far more tempting than anyone would want to admit.  The scenes in which Max attacks Barrie Chase and Polly Bergen (who plays Peck’s wife) are absolutely terrifying but, for me, the most disturbing moments in Cape Fear are the moments when Max is silent.  Even when he’s not speaking, Mitchum allows you to see every depraved thought going through is head.

What’s the scariest moment for me?  When the camera catches Max watching Sam’s teenage daughter (Lori Martin).  It’s not just that I know what’s going on in Mitchum’s mind as he stares at her.  It’s because I know what it’s like to be watched.  It’s a scene that’s unsettling because it makes me consider just how many Max Cadys are out there right now.

The battle between Max and Sam is a fascinating one.  In prison, Max studied enough law to become as knowledgeable about how to manipulate it as Sam.  Under pressure, Sam grows more violent and more willing to circumvent his oath to uphold the same law that Max is now using against him.  It makes for a frightening  film, one that will stick with you long after you watch it.

A Movie A Day #294: Ghost In the Machine (1993, directed by Rachel Talaly)


Karl (Ted Marcoux) is a serial killer who works in an electronics store and who steals address books and uses them to pick his victims.  His latest stolen address book belongs to Terry (Karen Allen).  Before Karl can start killing Terry’s family and friends, he is killed in a car accident.  Because there is a lightning storm going on at the same time, the dead Karl is able to transfer his evil soul into the electrical grid.  Traveling from appliance to appliance, Karl starts to kill all of Terry’s friends and co-workers.  A microwave oven.  A hand dryer.  A dishwasher.  If it is electrical, Karl can use it to kill.  Fortunately, Terry knows a legendary hacker (Chris Mulkey) who can help her fight back.

Like Prison, Destroyer, and The Horror Show, Ghost in the Machine is another dumb movie about a psycho who gets his soul transformed into electricity.  Ghost In The Machine was also obviously influenced by The Lawnmower Man and the entire movie is full of early 90s paranoia about the internet and computers in general.  Rachel Talaly, who got her start with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and who has recently directed some of the best received episodes of Doctor Who, does a good job with the deaths but cannot do anything with the lousy script and unlikable characters.  Nearly everyone who dies is killed because they know Terry but that never seems to bother her.

I think every 90s kid, or at least every 90s male, watched Ghost In The Machine on HBO and had a crush on Shevonne Durkin.

Halloween Havoc!: THEM! (Warner Brothers 1954)


cracked rear viewer

The iconic, bloodcurdling scream of little Sandy Descher heralds the arrival of THEM!, the first and best of the 50’s “Big Bug” atomic thrillers. Warner Brothers had one of their biggest hits of 1954 with this sci-fi shocker, putting it up there with Cukor’s A STAR IS BORN, Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER, and Wellman’s THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY as their highest-grossing films of the year. Not bad company for director Gordon Douglas , previously known for his work with Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy! THEM! was also Oscar nominated that year for its special effects (and should’ve been for Bronislaw Kaper’s terrific score).

The movie begins with the look and feel of a noir mystery courtesy of DP Sidney Hickox’s (DARK PASSAGE, THE BIG SLEEP  , WHITE HEAT) brooding shadows and sandstorm-battered landscape. New Mexico policemen Ben Peterson and Ed Blackburn come across a little girl wandering…

View original post 675 more words