Saturday, October 26, 2013

October Scares Movie: The Haunting

Claire Bloom & Julie Harris
We conclude our fright fest for this year with a brief look at a very eerie house. The Haunting (1963) is widely regarded by fans and critics as one of the best horror films of all time. Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) heads a group of people who are going to investigate unusual activity in a mansion called Hill House. It’s a supposedly haunted dwelling where unexplained events & several mysterious deaths have occurred. The others in the group are: Theodora (Claire Bloom), a psychic; Luke (Russ Tamblyn), a member of the family that currently owns the house, and the meek, sensitive Eleanor. As the quartet settles in, strange things begin to happen; doors seem to move by themselves, there are odd noises & ghostly apparitions. Most of the paranormal events affect Eleanor. Her delicate psyche appears to the target of the forces in the house, and the ghostly presence seems to focus on events in her own life. What's the real secret of Hill House? Will the house possess Eleanor, and consume her mind & soul?

The movie is based on the Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Director Robert Wise previously worked with iconic horror producer Val Lewton, and that influence is strongly felt here. It’s a visually interesting film; the horror is suggested rather than shown outright. What you don't see scares you a lot more than what you do see. The actors are all excellent in their roles, but Julie Harris is a particular standout as Eleanor, whose fractured mind may reflect the ominous events occurring in the house. It’s a movie that works well as a psychological thriller, in addition to being a terrifying ghost story. Long a favorite of famous fans like Stephen King and Martin Scorsese, The Haunting is a classic tale of terror. The movie would be perfect viewing for Halloween or a cold winter’s night. The Haunting has just been released on Blu-ray and features a commentary by members of the cast & crew that was ported over from a previous DVD release. Here's a link to the trailer for The Haunting

Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” - From the novel by Shirley Jackson

Saturday, October 19, 2013

October Scares: A Double Feature with Haunted Carnivals & Eerie Mermaids

Candace Hilligoss and friend in Carnival of Souls
Carnival of Souls (1962) is one of those films that truly fits the definition of the term “cult movie.” Made on a small budget, it retains its reputation as an offbeat exercise in horror. The story concerns Mary Henry, who survives a terrible car accident after a drag race. She then heads to Utah to begin working as a church organist. But as she settles into her new surroundings, a ghostly man keeps appearing to her and haunting her. She also has moments where she feels disconnected from reality, and it seems like no one can see or hear her. Why is she being drawn to an abandoned carnival outside town? Is she being pursued by an otherworldly presence? Or is there an even more terrifying reason why these strange events are centered on Mary?

The ultimate twist in the movie will seem less shocking to today’s audiences, who have seen a host of similar reveals on TV shows like The Twilight Zone, and in modern films like The Sixth Sense. The "surprise" ending works very well in the context of the story. It’s a tribute to the cast & crew that they get so much out of so little in this eerie thriller. There are some truly spooky sequences that really stay with you after seeing the movie. Producer-director Herk Harvey, who had previously worked on educational and industrial films, shot the movie on location in Utah. He employed mostly local actors, except for lead Candace Hilligoss. Amazingly, Hilligoss (who’s excellent in the role of Mary) only made one other film. She also did a handful of TV appearances and some stage work. However, it's this film for which genre fans most fondly remember her.

While it was not a success on its original release, Carnival of Souls gained fans from countless late night TV showings and occasional festival screenings over the years. The movie has influenced many filmmakers, including George Romero and David Lynch. I remember seeing it on late night TV as a kid. It was unsettling, and it left you feeling uneasy, like you'd just seen something very different from the usual horror fare. This is a strange, offbeat film that plays more like a meditation on life and death than a straight ahead terror tale. The movie had fallen into the public domain for many years, and inferior video copies were available in bargain bins at video stores and discount outlets. In 2000, the outstanding specialty label The Criterion Collection released an excellent two-disc edition of the film that includes two versions of the movie, a retrospective documentary and other extras. It’s still in print and available for purchase at online retailers. The movie is also available for digital download and viewing on various sites.

Another effective thriller from the same period is Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961). While it’s not really a horror film, it’s another atmospheric story that will appeal to old school genre fans. A lonely sailor named Johnny (Dennis Hopper, in an early role) enters a relationship with a woman named Mora, who performs as a mermaid in a sideshow at a local marina. People keep telling him that her previous boyfriends have all met mysterious ends. The ethereal Mora (Linda Lawson) believes she may actually be a mermaid. As their relationship continues, a mysterious woman stalks Mora; she appears to know about Mora’s past, and warns her that her 'true nature' will show itself. Is she really descended from a race of sea people? Who is killing the men Mora’s been dating? What does Murdock, the owner of the sideshow, know about all this?

Linda Lawson and Dennis Hopper in Night Tide
Writer-director Harrington went on to a long career in TV and movies. He also directed the twist-laden mystery Games (1967), which starred James Caan & Katherine Ross. Here he evokes the mist-shrouded style of films like producer Val Lawton’s Cat People (1942). Harrington was a fan of Lewton’s work and his influence on Night Tide is clear; there could be a supernatural explanation for some of the film’s events, but we’re never sure. What is evident is that some of the characters believe there are other forces at work, and that informs their choices in the story. The film is well directed; despite its low budget, the movie manages to convey an effective sense of the uncanny. Night Tide is another film that I recall seeing on WPIX's “Chiller Theatre” in my younger days, and I've always remembered it. I hadn’t seen it in many years, until I recently viewed it again on Turner Classic Movies. The movie has now been released in a new, remastered edition on both Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Video; extras include a commentary by Harrington and Hopper, and a video interview with Harrington from 1987.

If you haven't seen these films, I highly recommend them. Both Carnival of Souls and Night Tide just might get rooted in your psyche. If you have seen them, perhaps it's time to revisit them. These movies may not be as scary as you remember, but they can still get under your skin, and find their way into the darker corners of your mind. Here are links to the trailers for Carnival of Souls and Night Tide

Next: Our Fright-Fest concludes with a very haunted house.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

October Scares: The Terror Continues in "Insidious: Chapter 2"

When we last left the Lamberts at the end of Insidious (2011), it appeared the evil spirits that haunted them had been driven away. But as Insidious: Chapter Two begins, the family is still being plagued by mysterious events. Josh (Patrick Wilson) insists that everything’s fine, and the supernatural forces that pursued them are gone. But his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) and their children continue to experience strange occurrences. She also suspects something’s wrong with her husband, as his behavior becomes more & more erratic. In order to get some answers, Josh’s mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) tracks down one of the paranormal investigators who helped Josh as a child. But the forces they're dealing with are much darker than they realize, and it will take all their love & strength to defeat them.

The story builds on the events of the first film, with some nice twists along the way. There are a couple of eerie scare sequences, including a visit to a run down, deserted hospital. The ultimate reveal regarding the identity of the demonic villain is appropriately horrific. Unlike many sequels, the movie doesn’t alter or rewrite what happened in the previous story. The main characters are interesting & well developed. A couple of younger ghost hunters featured in the film are played for comic relief, they're sometimes a bit over the top, but they don’t completely wear out their welcome. By the way, one of those ghost trackers is played by the movie's co-story writer & screenplay author, Leigh Whannell. The performances are uniformly strong, with Wilson, Byrne & Hershey particular standouts.

Despite the fact that Director James Wan kicked off the Saw franchise in 2004, his style here is refreshingly restrained. He accomplishes a lot with creepy atmosphere & suggestion; he doesn’t rely on blood & gore. Though there are some very good special effects, they aren't overdone or over-used either. There are a few “jump scare” moments that just might catch you off guard. In fact, Wan has helped power a resurgence of old school terror films with the first Insidious, and this past summer’s fact-based ghost story The Conjuring. The film’s strength is in the characters; we really care about this family and what happens to them. At the end of the movie, the door is left open for a third chapter, which could take the series in a new direction. If it’s anywhere near as good as the first two films, it would be a welcome addition to the terrifying saga.

James Wan is proving himself to be on of our best genre filmmakers, and his love for classic horror shows in his well-crafted movies. The first film, Insidious, is currently available on Blu-ray & DVD, and The Conjuring will be released on video on October 22. Insidious: Chapter 2 is currently in theaters. If you’re a fan of terror tales like Poltergeist, The Legend of Hell House & The Haunting, this movie should be on your must see list. Here’s a link to the trailer for Insidious: Chapter 2:

Next: Do you dare enter the Carnival of Souls or swim in the Night Tide?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

October Scares: "Kiss Of The Damned" is Horror with an Art House Flair

Kiss of the Damned (2012) is a stylish vampire tale from Writer-Director Xan Cassavettes. It recalls previous horror films like Blood & Roses (1960) & The Hunger (1983). It’s the story of Djuna, a vampiress who lives a lonely existence. In the world of this film, the undead are part of society, but live in secret and drink blood substitutes; they no longer hunt humans. Djuna falls in love with Paolo, a screenwriter, after initially spurning his advances. She soon turns him into one of the undead, so they can be together forever. They move through the night-time world of fellow vampires who are actresses, writers & other normal members of society, who are determined to live their lives among humans without raising suspicions.

Then her unstable sister (who’s also a vampire) shows up, and things go awry. The sexy, headstrong and reckless Mimi starts feeding on humans & causing strife between the couple. She becomes a threat not only to Djuna & Paolo, but the vampires’ world in general. Djuna appeals to the vampire elite, but no one sees the true problem posed by the violent, manipulative Mimi. And is there a little streak of Mimi’s wildness in Djuna? What happened to Paolo’s agent, who disappears after his visit to their home? Before the story's over, the characters learns a little bit about the dark side that lurks just beneath the surface of all beings, human or supernatural. After all, we're all monsters to someone, aren't we?

This is really more of a mood piece than a horror film, with a very European flavor; it’s well directed by Cassavettes, who’s the daughter of actor John Cassavettes & Gena Rowlands, and the sister of director Nick Cassavettes. The movie is kind of an “art-house” vampire film; it has a great visual style, with excellent cinematography by Tobias Datum and an evocative score by Steven Hufsteter. There are good performances by Milo Ventimiglia, Joséphine de La Baume and especially Roxanne Mesquida as Mimi. The slow pace of the story may turn off some viewers, but it’s worth viewing if you’re a fan of the type of films mentioned above, or are tired of the Twilight-era “teen romance” interpretations of vampires. Please note this is an R-rated film, not fit for family viewing. Kiss of The Damned is available for digital viewing and download on Amazon & Netflix. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Next week: The October fright-fest continues with a look at Insidious: Chapter 2