Horror on TV: Suspense 4.12 “The Far-Off House”


Mrs. Collins (Judith Evelyn) is returning home after a long visit with her mother.  There’s storm raging.  The power’s dead.  Her husband is on a business trip.  There’s an escaped killer on the loose.  And, as soon as Mrs. Collins arrives at her home, she realizes that she may not be alone….

The episode of Suspense stars Judith Evelyn.  Fans of classic films may recognize her as both Miss Lonelyhearts in Hitchcock’s Rear Window and as the deaf victim from William Castle’s The Tingler.  Here, she gives another good performance as someone in trouble.

This episode originally aired on December 4th, 1951.

Enjoy!

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Puppet Master (dir by David Schmoeller)


Since there’s been like 200 Puppet Master films made over the past 30 years — goddamn, 30 years of killer puppets! — I figured that maybe I should finally sit down and actually watch one of them.  I decided to go with the original film that started the entire franchise, 1989’s Puppet Master!

So, basically, this is a movie about little puppets that kill full-sized people.  Obviously, there’s a bit more to the plot but let’s be honest.  No one who watches this movie is going to be watching it for the specifics of the plot.  They’re going to be watching it because they want to see tiny puppets go on a rampage.  I have to say that the puppets themselves are pretty cute.  I mean, they’re murderous and a little bit pervy but they’re still really cute.  I understand that all of the puppets have their own specific names but, while watching the film, I just made up names of my own.

For instance, there’s Hooky, who has a hook for one hand and a knife for the other and looks like he should be the lead singer of an aging Prog Rock band.  And then there’s Drilly, who has a drill on his head.  He can be really dangerous, especially if you’re stupid enough to crawl around on the floor and just stay there, on all fours, while he’s running straight at you.  I mean, if you just stood up, you probably wouldn’t get that badly injured but …. well, what do I know, right?  And then there’s Leechy, who is a female puppet who spits up leeches.  What’s interesting is that she never runs out of leeches but I have to wonder, if you have that many leeches, why not just send them out on their own instead of stuffing them all into some poor little puppet?  I felt bad for Leechy.  She seemed kinda sad.  And then there’s Handy, who has big hands and Facey, who can assume several different facial expressions at once.  They’re all really adorable, to be honest.

Anyway, Puppet Master is about a bunch of psychics who all spend the night in a California hotel that was once home to the “last alchemist,” Andre Toulon (William Hickey).  Toulon had the power to bring inanimate creatures — like puppets! — too life but, when the Nazi spies were closes in on him, Toulon killed himself.  Many years later, a psychic named Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs) discovered Toulon’s hiding place in the hotel but then shot himself as well.  So now, Neil’s former colleagues are all trying to get Toulon’s power for themselves.  Or something.  As I said, following the plot is not always easy.  The main appeal here is watching the cute puppets do really bad things.

That said, who knew that a group of psychics and witches would prove to be so stupid?  I mean, you would think that — when all of you are having constant premonitions of death and destruction — you would be smart enough to take extra precautions or maybe just leave the hotel all together.  For instance, Dana (Irene Miracle) casts a protection spell over someone else but not on herself.  Meanwhile, Frank (Matt Roe) and Clarissa (Kathryn O’Reilly) make the rookie mistake of having sex in a horror film while our nominal hero, Alex (Paul Le Mat, looking like he’s trying to figure out how he went from American Graffiti to this), wanders around in a daze.

And yet, watching the film, I could see why it became so popular.  The puppets are memorable and well-designed and the backstory, with Toulon and all the rest, is actually pretty interesting.  Puppet Master is one of those films that defines “stupid but fun.”  No wonder the puppets came back!

Email of the Damned: Paranoia (1998, directed by Larry Brand)


Interior designer Jana Mercer (Brigitte Bako) is haunted by the night that her entire family was murdered by serial killer, Calvin Hawks (Larry Drake).  Even though Calvin was captured and imprisoned, she still fears that someday he’ll get out.  Calvin, meanwhile, feels that he and Jana have a special bond because he decided to allow her to live.  From his prison cell, he follows her life via the internet.  He even sends her messages, which doesn’t do much for her state of mind.  Finally, a former neighbor of hers invites her to return to her old neighborhood so that she can confront her fears.  However, after serving 20 years in prison, Calvin has been released for good behavior.  As a part of his parole, he is not allowed to go anywhere near Jana or any of the scenes of his crimes.  Soon after getting released, Calvin decides to violate his probation.  A serial killer violating probation?  Who would have guessed?

Paranoia raises a few questions.  What type of prison would allow a serial killer to have a laptop in his cell and access to the internet, let alone send out messages unsupervised?  What type of legal system would sentence a serial killer to only 20 years in prison?  Why wouldn’t the authorities make any effort to let Jana, as the sole survivor of Calvin’s crimes, know that Calvin is about to be released from prison?  Why would Jana, a recluse who says she is incapable of trusting people, be so quick to accept an invitation to go to the country with someone that she barely knows?  It makes no sense but the movie still somehow maintains enough suspense to work.

The best thing about Paranoia are the performances of Brigitte Bako and Larry Drake.  Bako, who was one of the best of the 90s direct-to-video stars, brings some needed sass to the role of Jana while Larry Drake was a B-movie veteran who always made a good villain.  Larry Brand, who also did Overexposed and The Drifter, wrote and directed Paranoia and, just as he did in those two previous films, Brand includes a lot of pop cultural references.  It’s not every day that you see a direct-to-video B-movie that includes an inside joke about The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Brand and his cast bring some unexpected style to the nonsensical story.

Watching Paranoia today, it’s hard not to get nostalgic.  With a plot that hinges on email almost as much as the plot of Sleepless in Seattle, it’s a 90s film, through and through.  They don’t make them like this anymore.

Game Review: Aisle (1999, Sam Barlow)


Image by Sam Barlow

Aisle is perhaps the greatest work of Interactive Fiction ever created.

It’s Thursday night.  You’ve had a long day and you’re ready to go home.  You just have to pick up some gnocchi from the grocery store.  You are standing on the correct aisle, with your cart.  There is a woman standing a few feet away from you, with a grocery cart of her own.  What will you do?

Choose your action carefully because this is only a one-move game.  There are hundreds of commands that you can choose from but each command will lead to a different conclusion.

Some commands will lead to happy ending.  Some commands will lead to a sad ending.  Some will trigger old memories.  Sometimes, the memories will be happy and romantic.  Sometimes, they will involve death, insanity, and horror.  Sometimes, you are a good man and sometimes you are a bad man.  Sometimes, you are healthy and sometimes you are sick.  It all depends on which command you chose.

Because each command leads to different details of the story being revealed, Aisle is a game that rewards frequent replays.  Deciding to laugh in one game led to me typing “Remember Clare” in the next game.  Even simply choosing to leave the aisle can lead to a variety of different endings, depending on how you decide to leave.  This game can be a romantic or it can be horrific.  It all depends on which word, out of the hundreds that the game is prompted to respond to, you type in at the prompt.

Aisle can be downloaded from here.

 

Scenes That I Love: In Heaven, Everything Is Fine From Eraserhead


From David Lynch’s 1977 film, Eraserhead.

Just a reminder that, “In Heaven, everything is fine.”

And Heaven is apparently behind your radiator.

“But Lisa, what is the scene about?”

Well, according to Lynch, the whole movie is “a dream of dark and disturbing things.”  Is that woman really living behind Jack Nance’s radiator and singing that everything is fine, despite the fact that there’s also a mutant baby in the apartment?  She may be.  Or she might just be a figment of someone’s imagination.

Perhaps it’s best not to worry too much about the how’s and the why’s.

Never stop dreaming.

Book Reviews: Haunted Dallas and Haunted Fort Worth by Rita Cook


If you’re planning to go ghost hunting in the DFW metropelx, Haunted Dallas and Haunted Fort Worth (both of which were written by Rita Cook and published in 2011) are two good guides for your hunt.  Both books list various locations in both cities that are reputed to be haunted, some of which — like the Hotel Adolphus — I had heard about it and some of which — basically any location in Fort Worth — were new to me.

One thing that I really appreciated about these books is that both Dallas and Forth Worth got their own separate volume.  Far too often, people — especially people who come down here from up North — tends to assume that Dallas and Ft. Worth are just one big city.  They are two very separate cities, each with their own unique history and feel.  If Dallas is Texas as imagined by Andy Warhol, Ft. Worth is Texas as imagined by John Ford.  Not surprisingly, Dallas seems to be haunted by the wealthy while Ft. Worth is haunted by rough and tumble outlaws.

Admittedly, neither book goes into as much details as one might hope.  Instead, they give the basics of each legend and/or haunting and then they allow your imagination to do the rest of the work.  But, if you’re just starting your search for Texas ghosts, these books are good place to begin!

(For the record, I don’t believe in ghosts but I do think it’s fun to search.)

International Horror Film Review: Zombie Lake (dir by “J.A. Lazer”)


Oh, Zombie Lake!

I approach this 1981 Spanish-French film with some trepidation because, while it’s undeniably one of the best known of Eurocine’s low-budget horror films, it was also directed by one of my favorite directors and, by most accounts, it was not an experience that he particularly enjoyed being asked about.  He did not care for this film and (spoiler alert) his name was not J.A. Lazer.

In fact, for several years, it was assumed that this film was actually directed by Jess Franco.  And while it’s true that Franco was originally hired to direct Zombie Lake, he left the project because he said the budget was too low to execute his vision.  Consider that.  A budget too low for Jess Franco!  Franco left the project and went on to direct Oasis of the Zombies.  Apparently, the film’s producers did not understand that Franco had actually left the project because, on the first day of shooting, they were shocked to discover that they didn’t have a director.  In a panic, they called another fiercely independent horror director and asked him to come direct the film.  Jean Rollin agreed.

By his own account, Rollin only had a few days to prepare for shooting and since he had already made a classic zombie film called The Grapes of Death, he didn’t worry too much about trying to do anything too spectacular with Zombie Lake.  He simply filmed whatever scenes were required for the day, played the minor role of doomed police inspector, and, six days later, Zombie Lake had been filmed.

As for the film itself, it takes place in a French village that appears to be exclusively populated by cranky old men and naked young women.  There’s a lake nearby.  Despite seeing (and tossing aside) a big sign with a skull and crossbones on it, one of the naked women decides to go for a swim.  This apparently awakens the green Nazi zombies who lives at the bottom of the lake.  Soon, the zombies are randomly emerging from the lake and killing villagers.  The town’s mayor (Howard Vernon, of all people) is concerned.

It all links back to World War II, when the members of the French Resistance (led by the mayor) gunned down a squad of Nazis and dumped their bodies in the lake.  Somehow, this led to the Nazis coming back as zombies.  One of the Nazis had a daughter with a French woman shortly before he was killed.  Despite the fact that he was killed in 1943 and the movie clearly takes place in 1980, his daughter is only 12 years old.  That’s the type of film that Zombie Lake is.

Watching the film, you can tell why Rollin wasn’t particularly interested in claiming any credit for it.  It’s a messy film, largely because the green zombie makeup keeps washing off whenever the zombies have to emerge from the waters of the lake.  As for the lake itself, the underwater scenes were clearly shot in a swimming pool.  Beyond that, there’s not really any logic as to why the zombies keep emerging from the lake.  Whenever it’s plot convenient, the zombies suddenly emerge and attack anyone who has recently undressed.

Howard Vernon in Zombie Lake

And yet, there are some good things about Zombie Lake.  (Shut up, there are too!)  For instance, it’s kind of charming how each actor cast as a zombie brings their own interpretation to the role.  Some of them walk slowly with their arms outstretched.  Others move a little bit stiffly with a thousand yard stare.  Some of them just casually stroll around, doing their business.  As well, we’re so used to assuming that any character played by Howard Vernon is going to be decadent and sleazy that it’s kind of fun to see him playing an outright hero here.  Finally, even the frequent nudity is so gratuitous that it actually become rather humorous.  One could easily use Zombie Lake to play a drinking game.  Whenever anyone takes off their top, drink!

Finally, even though this was clearly just a film he did for the money, there are a few instances where Rollin’s signature style manage to peak through.  For instance, when we first see the Mayor’s office, the camera lingers on all of the historical artifacts on the wall.  The fact that one of the zombies has cloudy memories of his former lover and only wants to see his daughter actually works a lot better than you might expect, largely because that seems to be the only storyline that Rollin — with his fascination with memory and history — seems to really care about.

Zombie Lake is a mess and certainly not representative of Rollin’s best (or more personal) films.  But I still kind of like it.