The TSL’s Grindhouse: Parents (dir by Bob Balaban)

An odd little film, 1989’s Parents is.

It takes place in the 50s of the pop cultural imagination, with neatly laid out suburban neighborhoods and perfectly mowed lawns and big cars driving down the street.  Nick (Randy Quaid) and Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) seem like the perfect couple.  Lily stays at home and spends a lot of time in the kitchen.  Nick is an engineer who works for a company called Toxico and who is helping to develop what will become known, during the Vietnam War, as Agent Orange.  Nick and Lily are friendly, well-mannered, and they love to eat meat.  Lily explains, at one point, that she didn’t really love to eat meat until she married Nick and he showed her how wonderful it could be.

Their son, ten year-old Michael (Bryan Madorsky), is a bit less conventional.  He’s a quiet boy who never smiles and who, when asked to draw a picture of his family, freaks out his school’s guidance counselor (played by Sandy Dennis).  Michael has frequent nightmares.  Michael doesn’t like to eat meat and, in fact, it’s hard to think of a single scene in the movie where Michael is seen eating anything.  Michael is haunted by the sight of his parents making love in the living room.  He’s also haunted by a growing suspicion that his parents are cannibals.

Are they?  Perhaps.  It’s hard to say.  The first time you watch the movie, it seems deceptively obvious that Nick and Lily are exactly what Michael says they are.  The second time, you start to notice a few odd things.  For one thing, we never see Michael actually going from one location to another.  Instead, he just seems to magically show up wherever he needs to be to hear something that will confirm his suspicions.  When his teacher and his guidance counselor discuss his home life, Michael just happens to be in a nearby closet.  When his mother is preparing something that looks like it might be a human organ, Michael just happens to be standing in the pantry.  Are we seeing reality or are we just seeing what Michael thinks is reality?  When Nick starts to threaten Michael and later claims that there’s no way Michael is his son, is he really saying that or is Michael just imagining his fatherr confirming all of Michael’s insecurities?  How much of the film is real and how much of it is in Michael’s head?

It’s an odd film, Parents.  It’s also the directorial debut of character actor Bob Balaban.  Balaban has spent the majority of his career playing shy, slightly repressed characters.  Parents, with the withdrawn Michael as the main character, is a film that feels autobiographical.  That’s not to say that Balaban’s parents were cannibals but the scenes where Nick goes from being a loving father to an abusive monster are too intense and suffused with too much pain for them to be anything other than personal.  Balaban’s direction is heavily stylized.  At times, it’s a bit too stylized but ultimately, it works.  The final 30 minutes of the film feel like a nightmare that has somehow been filmed.

A satire of conformity and suburbia, Parents is also a portrait of an alienated child struggling to figure out where he fits into his family.  He’s given the choice of either indulging in his family’s sins or living life alone.  Except, of course, it really isn’t a choice.  Nick expects Michael to do what he’s been told, no matter what.  Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt are both terrifying as the parents but, at the same time, Balaban makes good use of the fact that both of those performers — at least at the time this movie was made — were naturally likable.  You want Nick to be the perfect father that he pretends to be and you share Michael’s anger and disillusionment when he turns out to be something very different.

Parents may be a strange film but it’s not one that you’re going to forget.

Horror on TV: Friday the 13th: The Series 2.14 “Face of Evil” (dir by William Fruet)

Tonight, for our horror on the lens, we have the fourteenth episode of the 2nd season of Friday the 13th: The Series!

In this episode is a sequel to the Vanity’s Mirror episode from season 1. The gold compact is back and this time, an aging model is using its power to maintain her youth. Unfortunately, there’s a price for looking young and that price is …. can you guess it? ….. murder!

This episode originally aired on February 11th, 1989.

Red Planet Mars (1952, directed by Harry Horner)

Chris Cornyn (Peter Graves) and his wife, Linda (Andrea King) are two scientists who have spent the years since World War II listening to transmissions from Mars.  The technology that they use was developed by a scientist who may have been a Nazi but the Cornyns feels that the greater good of learning about Mars outweighs the problematic background of their equipment.

One day, the transmitters pick up a message from Mars, announcing that Mars is a Socialist paradise where there is no fear of nuclear war.  The Soviets are gleeful because they think the Martian messages will lead to the collapse of NATO.  But then the Martians start sending out religious messages, which lead to riots in the USSR and Eastern Europe.

Are the Martians really contacting Earth?  Is God really transmitting a message from Mars?  Or is a more sinister figure responsible?

Red Planet Mars is one of those films that only could have been made at the height of the Cold War.  Despite the title, the film is decidedly Earth-bound and full of stock footage of the nations of the world reacting to the Martians.  The main theme is that, Martians or not, nothing is more important than protecting the American way of life. even if that means sacrificing your own life and misleading the world.  Even if it is now impossible to listen to his dialogue without thinking about the “Do you like movies about gladiators?” conversations from Airplane!, Peter Graves was the perfect, no-nonsense messenger.  An artifact of a different time, the movie’s greatest strength is that it takes its ridiculous story seriously and even today, it leaves you wonder how we would react to messages from Mars.  Hopefully, we would today be more skeptical.  People in 1953 would believe anything.

Creepshow, “Time Out”, “The Things in Oakwood’s Past”

Maybe I’m getting cantankerous, but my tolerance for incompetence is at a nadir. Not to say that these were the worst stories I’ve seen, but they were up there. Maybe making a horror series is a way to pass the time? The budgets must be REALLY small. For example, look at this guy’s truly FAKE beard:

Santa as a Pederast

It looks like if Party City fell on hard times or Santa Claus became a Ginger Pederast. That is a CREEPY beard and that’s not what they were going for, but it’s what they got.

The B-Story didn’t even have live action! It was just animated!

Not to say that big budget studios don’t cut corners. Netflix can’t afford lights. I’m assuming that’s the case because every show looks like it was filmed with a Key Chain Maglite. EG:

The above is from a Netflix show called Midnight Mass and I guess that they heard Chairman Mao’s saying, “It’s always darkest, just before it goes completely black” and just leaned in. I can’t tell what’s going on here. I guess these….Three?? guys are in a canoe or maybe that’s just a really big raccoon in flannel on the end there. Who knows? It could be a raccoon; I’ve seen raccoons in Texas as big as Labrador Retrievers and they’re really organized too! I saw one raccoon with a hat and clipboard directing 8 enormous raccoons and these were just ordinary suburban raccoons! Could imagine what these mutant raccoons could do with some funding?!

Anywho, back to this aggressively mediocre program – Creepshow. It’s created by Greg Nicotero who also created The Walking Dead, which was just ok on it’s best day! I’m glad to see that Greg is consistent. Don’t let success go to your head- aim low. Greg, thanks for delivering another Center of Mass performance review! As Casey Kasem’s mediocre brother – Chad Kasem would say, “Keep reaching for the remote, but keep your ass on the couch.”

These two episodes were both varying degrees of stupid. The first episode was about Tim and his magical armoire. Really. Instead of the wardrobe showing where the wild things were, it was more of a desk that caused time to do stupid things. He would go into the magical closet and time would zoom by for him, but slow down for everyone on the outside of the closet. This is general relativity in reverse because the writer fell asleep in basic physics. If Tim did go into a black hole or whatever, time would slow down for him, but not for the folks outside of the closet. Tim should’ve returned and everyone would be way older, but nope. He never seemed to grasp that he was aging A LOT every time he went into the closet. Shocker, he dies- *eyeroll* I cared not!

The second story was like if an 8th grader got a very small budget to make an 18 minute scary cartoon. The town of Oakwood is about to celebrate is bi-centennial and they decide to open a really scary looking box to celebrate. It looked haunted and gross. This is the box that everyone thought it would be great to open:

I won’t write that everyone dies….most do though. If you’re bored and really want to watch something that’s the equivalent of a day old room temperature Chick-Fil-A sandwich, this is for you!

Scenes That I Love: Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man

Over the course of his long career, Christopher Lee often cited his performance as the charismatic but ultimately sinister Lord Summerisle in 1973’s The Wicker Man as one of his personal favorites.  It’s easy to see why.  The role not only showcased Lee’s ability to be menacing but it was also one of the few films that allowed him to be witty as well.  Lord Summerisle may be a pagan who maintains his power by sacrificing virgins but he’s still quite charming.  With his longish hair, sideburns, and turtleneck, Lord Summerisle is the perfectly aristocratic 70s rogue.

Today’s scene that I love comes from the original The Wicker Man.  (Sorry, the Nicole Cage “bees” scene from the remake will have to wait for next year’s horrorthon.)  In this scene, Lord Summerisle expalins the ways of the island to a skeptical police detective.  Little does the detective know that he’s already been selected to be the next sacrifice.  Lee’s avuncular performance holds up wonderully.

Horror Novel Review: Witch by Christopher Pike

First published in 1990, Christopher Pike’s extremely weird YA novel Witch tells the story of Julia Florence and her friend Amy.

Basically, Julia is the latest in a long line of witches.  She has the power to see the future and to heal people, with the only problem being that, when she heals them, she takes their illnesses and injuries into her own body.  So, if she heals someone who is on the verge of death, that means that she’ll be the one who dies.  That’s what happened to Julia’s mother and Julia’s determined not to let the same thing happen to her.  It seems like the simple solution would be to just not heal anyone.

But then her friend Scott gets shot during a convenience store robbery.  Scott is in a coma and is going to die unless he gets some supernatural healing.  Julia can either heal him or she can buy a gun (?), use her abilities to see the future, and go all vigilante in an attempt to take out the robber who shot Scott.  Julia goes for the latter but then Amy discovers that the robber has a weird, kind of out-of-nowhere connection to a girl who was previously healed by Julia’s mother.  And, she also discovers that there’s a coven of witches searching for Julia because …. well, who knows?

Anyway, it all comes down to whether or not Julia will risk her life to save Scott.  Scott is an aspiring director and kind of an annoying guy, to be honest.  But everyone is charmed by how annoying he is and he has a great future ahead of him, unless he dies.

Whatever will Julia do!?

This is a weird one.  Between the witchcraft, the healing, the psychic visions, the high school drama, and the vigilante action scenes, one gets the feeling that Pike just threw random darts at a bunch of story points that he had taped to the wall and he pretty much just went wherever the darts led him.  And don’t get me wrong.  It is a little fun to see just how many different genres and plot elements that Pike could stuff into one book but the story itself is still a bit of a mess.  There’s a lot in here and not all of it really comes together.

Plus, this is yet another Pike novel to end on a downbeat note.  R.L. Stine wrote some pretty morbid books but he always ended with a joke.  Pike’s books, on the other hand, always seem to end with the message that there is no such thing as a completely happy ending.  Normally, I’m all for a book that ends on a down note but this time, after all the messiness that came before the ending, I really could have used a Stine-style one liner.  Sometimes, the best way to deal with an existential crisis is to laugh your way through it.

Book Review: Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William L. DeAndrea

This is a fun book that I came across at Half-Price Books two Decembers ago.  It went right on my Christmas list and, ever since then, it’s a book that I’ve found useful many times.

As you can probably tell, it’s an encyclopedia, one that is devoted to detectives.  You can’t have a good mystery without a good detective and this book proves that, with entries for fictional detectives, their creators, and the TV shows, movies, and books in which they appeared.  It’s all written in a concise and lively manner, which is another way of saying that it’s a fun read.  That’s especially true if you’re a fan of mysteries, as I am.

Now, I should mention that this book was originally published in 1994.  Another edition came out in 1997.  As far as I can tell, that was it.  As such, a lot of the information in the book is a bit of out-of-date.  Authors who have passed or who have retired are still listed as being very much alive and active.  More recent detectives are not mentioned.  (Sorry, Mr. Monk.)  The original Magnum P.I. and Hawaii 5-0 get entries but not the reboots.  There’s no mention of CSI and Thomas Harris’s entry is rather small, with no mention of the post-Silence of the Lamb Lecter films, largely because they hadn’t been made yet.  You get the idea.   But, even with that in mind, this book is still full of useful information, especially if you’re into the older, classic detectives or if you’re a history nerd like I am.  (Trust me, if you have to choose between Wikipedia and reading a book that was actually written during the period in which you’re interested, go with the book every time.)  What it doesn’t contain about recent detectives, it makes up for with information on Poirot, Holmes. Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, and many others.

If nothing else, Encyclopedia Mysteriosa is a good starting point for those looking for a good mystery!  And, if you’re looking for a little inspiration to maybe write a mystery of your own, this book may provie you with exactly the inspiration you need.  There are several copies for sale on Amazon, all reasonably priced.

International Horror Film Review: The Psychic (a.k.a. Seven Notes In Black) (dir by Lucio Fulci)

Also known as Seven Notes In Black, The Psychic is an Italian paranormal thriller that was made and released in 1977, shortly before the film’s director, Lucio Fulci, reinvented Italian horror with Zombi 2.

For years, Virginia (Jennier O’Neill) has been haunted by visions.  When she was a child, she saw a vision of her mother jumping off a cliff.  It turned out that, at the same time Virginia had her vision, her mother was doing exactly that.  18 years later, Virginia is living in Rome and she’s married to a wealthy businessman named Francesco Ducci (Gianni Garko, who also starred in several Spaghetti westerns).  Virginia would seem to have the perfect life but she’s still haunted by disturbing visions.  She sees an old woman murdered.  She sees a wall being ripped apart.  She sees a discarded letter.  Is she seeing the past, the present, or the future?  She does not know.  Ducci insists that her visions mean nothing but Virginia is convinced that something is reaching out to her.

While Ducci is away on business, Virginia visits an abandoned house that her husband has recently bought.  Virginia wants to renovate it but, as soon as she sees it, she realizes that the house previously appeared in her visions.  When she investigates, she discovers a skeleton in one of the walls.  With the police now convinced that Ducci is a murderer, Virginia tries to figure out the meaning behind her visions and looks for a way to clear Ducci’s name.  Strangely, Ducci still doesn’t seem to be that concerned about any of it….

Along with Lizard In A Woman’s Skin and Don’t Torture A Duckling, The Psychic is a film that gets a lot of attention as an example of Fulci’s pre-Zombi 2 horror output.  After Zombi 2, Fucli would become best known for making films that were full of gore and that often seemed to be deeply angry with the world.  The fact that Fulci was also a brilliant stylist who created some of the most dream-like images ever to be captured on film would often be overlooked in all the controversy over the often violent content of his movies.  One thing that makes The Psychic interesting is that, visually, it’s clearly a Fulci film.  The cinematography is lush and vibrant.  The visions are surreal and disturbing.  However, there’s very little of the gore that came to define Fulci’s later films.  Instead, the emphasis is on the atmosphere and the mystery.  This is one of the few Fulci films that you could safely show an older relative.

Fulci was often (a bit unfairly, in my opinon) portrayed as being a cinematic misanthrope, as a director who little use for the characters that populated his films.  That’s certainly not the case with The Psychic, though.  Virginia is probably one of the most sympathetic characters to ever appear in a Fulci film and Jennifer O’Neill does a good job in the lead role.  Even more importantly, Fulci seems to like her and, from the start, it’s clear that the film is fully on her side.  The entire story is told through her eyes and she’s a character who you immediately root for.  Like Fulci himself, she’s a visionary whose visions are often underappreciated until it’s too late.  Though the film ends on a characteristically downbeat note (happy endings were rare even in Fulci’s pre-Zombi 2 films), Virginia is still allowed her triumph with one final and rather clever little twist.

The Pyschic is a bit slowly-paced but it’s still a far better film that many Fulci critics seem to be willing to acknowledge.  (One gets the feeling that many critics resent any film that indicates that there was more to Fulci than eye damage and zombies.)  It’s an entertaining and intriguing latter-era giallo and proof that there was more to Fulci than just blood.

6 Shots From 6 Christopher Lee Films

4 Or More Shots From 4 Or More Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today, we honor the legacy of a man who was not just a great horror star but also a great actor. period  Christopher Lee worked with everyone from Laurence Olivier to Steven Spielberg to Peter Jackson to Martin Scorsese.  Though he turned own the chance to play Dr. No, Lee later did go play a Bond villain in The Man with The Golden Gun.  He was one of those actors who was always great, even if the film wasn’t.

That said, it’s for his horror films that Lee is best known.  He was the scariest Dracula and the most imposing Frankenstein’s Monster.  He played mad scientists, decadent aristocrats, and even the occasional hero.  Christopher Lee was an actor who could do it all and today, we honor him with….

6 Shots From 6 Christopher Lee Films

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957, dir by Terence Fisher, DP: Jack Asher)

The Horror of Dracula (1958, dir by Terence Fisher, DP: Jack Asher)

Rasputin The Mad Monk (1966, dir by Don Sharp, DP: Michael Reed)

Count Dracula (1970, dir by Jess Franco, DP: Manuel Merino and Luciano Trasatti)

Horror Express (1972, dir by Eugenio Martin, DP: Alejandro Ulloa)

The Wicker Man (1973, dir by Robert Hardy. DP: Harry Waxman)

Spirits of the Pulp Age

Artist Unknown

Hearing bumps in the night?  Halloween is the favorite holiday of ghosts the world over.  That was as true in the pulp era as today.  Here’s just a few example of the spirits of the pulp age!

by Edward Dalton Stevens

by Edward Dalton Stevens

by Jean Oldham

by Jean Oldham

by Jean Oldham

by Margaret Brundage

by Modest Stein

by Modest Stein

by Rudolph Belarski

Artist Unknown

Unknown Artist