Tag Archives: horror

Hostel (2005)

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Written by Eli Roth
Directed by Eli Roth

Quentin Tarantino co-executive produced this film which, given that Eli Roth substitutes quirkiness for narrative, isn’t difficult to understand. It’s about three young men who travel to Slovakia in search of easy, anything-goes sex and end up the victims of a
much different flesh trade involving kidnapping and murder. Roth, however, does nothing with this intriguing premise, preferring to distract us from the superficiality of his ideas with sex, torture, and snappy lines. So bereft of imagination is this story that Roth can end it only by stacking one convenient coincidence on top of another. Responding to Slovak officials who complained the film in no way reflected the reality of their country, Roth blamed his own ignorant fantasies (which include kids who kill for bubblegum!) on Americans: “Americans do not even know that this country exists. My film is not a geographical work but aims to show Americans’ ignorance of the world around them.” Presumably by perpetuating it. Offensive and badly written — but flashy — torture porn.

Sphere (1987) by Michael Crichton

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One of the fun things about reading is coming across echoes of other books you’ve read. I recently finished After Worlds Collide, and in one scene, a couple of characters discover a kind of plaque or road marker left by an alien civilization. On it is a design; not words or any real picture, just a design. In some inexplicable way, that design seems somehow un-human. And now, in Sphere, etched upon the titular object, is another strange design, one which, again, the hero finds to be un-human. Now, these are basically two-dimensional abstract patterns. Humans, of course, are very familiar with both these dimensions, which have been well explored not just by artists but by billions of doodlers throughout history. I kind of figure just about any design imaginable has been rendered by someone at some time in history. And I sure can’t get my mind around such a drawing being so odd that it is essentially inconceivable, and therefore un-human. Nope, with all due respect to the authors, I’m just not buying it.

Happily, this being a Michael Crichton novel, that’s about the only thing that isn’t, on some level, believable. The guy was a master of milieu, whether the setting was a large corporation, a dinosaur theme park, or a deep sea Navy habitat.

That’s where we find ourselves here, a thousand feet down in the Pacific ocean, where the Navy is investigating a very large, very strange vessel at least 300 years old. But it isn’t any boat; it’s a spacecraft.

Though the Navy is in charge of the overall mission, the primary investigators are a group of civilian scientists — a mathematician, an astrophysicist, a zoologist, and a psychologist. This allows Crichton to attack the problem of the ship, and the mysterious sphere found inside, on a number of different fronts. But Norman, the psychologist, is the hero. He’s there to keep everyone working together smoothly, a decidedly difficult job under the best of circumstances, given the egos and insecurities of the other scientists.

But these are hardly ideal circumstances. First of all, there’s all that crushing water above them. Farther up still, a cyclone blows in and sends the support vessels running for safe haven. Meanwhile, down below, strange things begin happening. And then the monsters attack.

In broad outline, that might sound like any number of other books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen, and it is. The difference is that Crichton handles it all ridiculously well. In an early scene, Norman discovers that Harry, the mathematician, tried to make out his will shortly after arriving in the habitat. It’s a small detail, but one that pays off not once, but twice during the course of the story, in two different ways. A Crichton thriller is anything but ham-handed  (State of Fear being, perhaps, the exception that proves the rule).

In fact, it’s Crichton’s subtlety that can make him difficult to synopsize: everything connects and whatever you might mention comes off sounding like a spoiler. The truth is, beneath the outline, the details of the story aren’t the typical blend of science fiction and horror. There’s the ship, for example, and the sphere, and the monsters…but I’ll just have to leave it at that.

This is one of Crichton’s best books, and Crichton at his best is exciting, suspenseful, funny, and perfectly plausible.

The Seventh Victim (1943), directed by Mark Robson

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Fascinating, exceedingly low-key noir horror film about a young woman (Kim Hunter) whose search for her missing sister leads her to an odd cult of satanists in Greenwich Village.  From the producer (Val Lewton) and writer (DeWitt Bodeen) of Cat People and Curse of the Cat People, so expect the off-beat.  The sister (Jean Brooks) says things like, “I’ve always wanted to die.”  This haunting, depressing film is not recommended for the suicidal.

Leprechaun (1993), directed by Mark Jones

Leprechaun♦½

If this movie had come out a decade earlier I might have seen it before now. I went to a lot of horror movies in the 80s, which was my heyday for theater-going. Saying that isn’t to say I would have liked it, though. I may have consumed much, but even back then I didn’t just eat it up. Most of it sucked, and I knew it. The Boogens, My Bloody Valentine, Final ExamLeprechaun would have fit right in. So why now?

Two words: Jennifer Aniston. In her first starring role. That these words now have a magic more powerful than a leprechaun’s is obvious. What was originally a poster showing the little gremlin peeking through a doorway is now a large photo of Aniston, with the little monster tucked away in a corner or shown, in silhouette, in the foreground. Even the tagline has changed: it used to say, “Your luck just ran out”; now it says, “Her luck just ran out.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not wild about Aniston. But I do miss Friends. And this movie was made the year before Friends started, so we’re talking about a very young and pretty Jennifer Aniston. I’ve seen movies with much less inducement, believe me.

Is she worth it? I mean, does she make the movie watchable? I thought for awhile she might. When we first see her, she’s wearing a short dress, and there’s a lovely shot of her walking up a flight of stairs — with the camera, of course, at ground level. Before long, however, she’s changed into an awful pair of shorts and, well, the magic was gone. Permanently.

Leprechaun made money, though, quite a lot of it. I suppose Mark Jones, who both wrote and directed the film, deserves kudos for coming up with an original monster. But I was never one of those who believed that the monster was the star. I stopped watching Hellraiser because it became all about Pinhead (or that’s my sense of it, anyway). I was disappointed (and a little disgusted) that Hannibal Lecter became the focus of the sequel to Silence of the Lambs. Even when I continued to watch — I saw Friday the 13th up to about #7 and I’ve seen four or five of the Halloween films — it wasn’t because of the monster, it was because of the scenario. That my enjoyment even then generally continued to decline is probably because I was missing the point: I was supposed to root for the bad guy. And I didn’t. So, yeah, evil leprechaun, that’s different. But who cares?

This movie isn’t any dumber than others of its ilk, but it isn’t any smarter, either. It’s about a leprechaun who wants to retrieve the gold that was stolen from him and who will kill anyone standing in his way. I guess it’s too much to ask that Jones do something clever with that idea, to do for leprechauns what Stephen Chiodo did for clowns in Killer Klowns From Outer Space. Too much — because what is there really to say about leprechauns? What are the jokes? I don’t know, and Jones clearly doesn’t either. In fact, he lifts a few from clowns: we see the sprite riding a tricycle and a toy motor car. It’s kind of pathetic.

Ah, but then, so am I. Why do I still think tilting my head will make the camera go lower?

The Man From Planet X (1951), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

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Sally Fields’ mom (Margaret Field) sees an alien on the Scottish moors and is told by her astronomer father to have a hot drink and go to bed.  The pasty-faced alien — yes, dad, there really is an alien and I really did see it — turns out to be a spotter for a race of beings whose world, swiftly approaching Earth, is dying.  The nearby townspeople scurry off to lock their doors and the Constable admits that even if the men wanted to help defeat the alien, their “lasses wouldn’t let them.”  So it’s up to an intrepid American reporter to win the day for humanity.  With lots of fog and absolutely no atmosphere.  Bland.

The Legend of Hell House (1973), directed by John Hough

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The Legend of Hell House, like the novel on which it is based, Hell House, was written by Richard Matheson. Watching it, you feel as though it almost had to be. It seems more like a companion piece than a work in its own right. The body of the story is there, but the connective tissue is missing. The individual parts aren’t so much scenes as vignettes, each of which imparts another important plot point. I suppose for that reason it’s comprehensible without having read the book, but it’ll probably leave viewers who haven’t feeling as though they missed something.

This isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a terribly good one either. It is, however, different, unusual. And all of a piece. Because each scene is, really, equally important, it doesn’t build the way a narrative should. On the other hand, if the peaks are missing, so, too, are the troughs. It comes at you like a truck on a flat highway moving at a steady 45 mph. Relative to other traffic, that isn’t very fast. But if you’re standing still…

The story, of course, is the same, relocated to England. A dying rich man hires three investigators to settle the question of survival after death in the only place he knows where such an answer might be found: Hell House, a haunted mansion that has already defeated the efforts of two previous teams to solve its mysteries. The team consists of physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), and physical medium Ben Fisher (Roddy McDowall). Accompanying Dr. Barrett is his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt).

The primary team members are all professionals, all experienced in dealing with hauntings. This helped make the book atypical in that fear wasn’t driving the characters. It’s the same thing here, but now it’s just another part of the overall tonal flatness of the film. Oh, there’s some yelling and there’s some screaming, but it’s all just bumps in the road. This isn’t a scary movie. It’s ominous, from beginning to end.

Matheson unfortunately kept his ending more or less intact. I thought it was simplistic in the book; it’s sillier here, although it has some nice special effects as one of the team members gets pushed around. The special effects, in fact, are good throughout.

The actors do well across the board and the movie is well-made. The real reason to see it, though, is for a taste of something different.

Hell House (1971) by Richard Matheson

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When physicist Lionel Barrett asks for a list of phenomena observed in the Belasco house, popularly known as Hell House, it contains about a hundred alphabetical entries, of which the following are the P’s:

“…Paraffin molds; Parakinesis; Paramnesia; Paresthesia; Percussion; Phantasmata; Poltergeist phenomena; Possession; Precognition; Presentiment; Prevision; Pseudopods; Psychic photography; Psychic rods; Psychic sounds; Psychic touches; Psychic winds; Psychokinesis; Psychometry…”

This is, clearly, one badass house. Barrett is the nominal leader of a small group of investigators hired by Rolf Deutsch, its dying owner, whose mission is to establish conclusively whether or not there is survival after death. Barrett doesn’t think so; Florence Tanner, a mental medium, disagrees; and Ben Fisher, a physical medium and the only sane survivor of a previous investigation years before, agrees with Florence — but he’s there less to prove anything to Deutsch than to avenge his previous failure. Edith, Barrett’s seemingly timid wife, is along for the ride.

It’s a wild ride, to be sure. This is not a book that skimps on its supernatural manifestations. Spirit guides, poltergeist activity, possession, teleplasmic extrusions — the list, like the one Barrett receives at the beginning of the book, goes on and on. You want action? You’ve found it.

To Matheson’s credit, it isn’t, however, mindless mayhem. He doesn’t toss a ghost in the house and figure anything goes. Matheson weaves together the personalities of his investigators with the sordid history of the Belasco house to create a believable framework for all the insanity.

Belasco, we learn early, was a man pulled from the pages of something by the Marquis de Sade. He established his house as a haven for depravity, debauchery, and criminality. Torturers and victims alike were tormented beyond endurance; any or all of them could be haunting the house.  Indeed, when the house was finally opened by police, everyone (except Belasco himself) was found dead.

Capturing particular psychologies isn’t one of Matheson’s gifts, but he’s more effective with personalities. Miss Tanner, the touchy-feely spiritualist, sees the house as a groundbreaking case of multiple haunting. She believes she is contacted by one of the spirits, a man not as cruel as the others who desperately wants to be free. She, of course, is desperate to help him. Fisher, remembering his earlier experience, advises her not to open up so much to the forces in the house, but then he is afraid to open up at all. Barrett, meanwhile, has his own ideas about all of this, and spends much of his time constructing a machine that he says will neutralize the house in a matter of minutes. Edith, as an “outsider,” is caught between the confidence of her husband and the evidence of her own eyes. Each of the characters gets more than one nasty surprise as the story progresses.

One of the unusual aspects of this story is that all of Matheson’s characters are good, intelligent people, doing their best in their own ways to deal with the house, and none of them is entirely right or wrong. It’s true that the final revelation is, psychologically, weak, but otherwise the story has a satisfying resolution.

And the build-up is very good, establishing the characters and their internal conflicts, as well as the house itself, which includes a spooky steam room and a profane chapel. Matheson did his homework regarding spiritualism, and Florence’s “sittings” owe much to the history of well-known spiritualists. The research — and the inclusion of Barrett, the scientist, as a main character — keep the book grounded in the real world, even as Matheson uses the house to twist that reality in an evolution of the characters’ various theories.

I can also tell you this: not all of these characters will survive. Which seems fitting for a place called Hell House.

The Beast With a Million Eyes (1955), directed by David Kramarsky

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The exciting potential in the non-literal title (the alien “beast” usurps weak minds and exploits hate) is entirely squandered in a meandering, poorly paced story of a small date-farming family in the desert struggling against isolation and interstellar menace.  Lorna Thayer belittles her husband and admits she sometimes hates her daughter.  Teenager Dona Cole isn’t too happy when mom hacks up her (possessed) dog with an axe.  Husband Paul Birch figures out what’s going on seemingly by reading the screenwriter’s mind.  Well, at least the creepy mute handyman plasters his walls with girlie pictures.  Awful on every level.

The Running Man (1982) by Stephen King

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Stephen King has said that he wrote The Running Man in a week. He didn’t mention whether it was during his sleep.

I’ve only read two of his Richard Bachman books (the other was Rage) and neither is good. This one, at least, isn’t as offensively bad as his first. It’s just silly, pointlessly angry, and full of cardboard.

Set in 2025, when white men are still called “honkeys” and people still ask if you can “dig it,” the story follows Ben Richards, an out of work revolutionary whose wife is a prostitute and whose 18-month-old baby is dying from pneumonia. Desperately needing money to buy medicine for the little tyke, Richards applies as a contestant for a popular game show called “The Running Man.” The show is a way of ridding society of some of its more undesirable elements. Contestants are given a 12-hour head start (if they live long enough, they can go anywhere in the world), then pursued by merciless Hunters. Every hour they stay alive nets them a hundred bucks, which in this society is a lot of dough. But the game, as Richards discovers, is rigged. Each contestant must record two 10-minute video clips a day and post them to the Games office, where the postmarks are used to locate the runner.

It’s unclear how or why “The Running Man” is a popular show. Though frowned upon, it isn’t against the rules for the runner to take out innocent bystanders. In our present age of reality shows, a stray anti-homosexual comment by a reality star can start a firestorm of controversy — let alone the murder of a cop or a civilian. Here, killing a cop is worth another hundred bucks. King, mired in the late sixties/early seventies, takes the hippie hatred of cops to a new level: everyone hates them, deriving entertainment from their deaths. Why anyone would want to be a cop in this society is another matter. The whole milieu is contradictory and self-serving.

One funny segment has Ben helped out by what passes for the book’s only really sympathetic character, Bradley, a young black man and gang-member who tells him how the upper classes are systematically polluting the poor workforce with toxic air which they themselves are able to filter out with nose-plugs. No mouth-breathers over the poverty line, I suppose. And no one smart enough to realize that murdering your workforce is probably a bad idea, unless you want to do the work yourself. I don’t think King ever tells us the name of Bradley’s gang, but we can figure it out from the way they get all their information: they’re the dreaded and feared Library Gang. (Bradley’s mom is a hoot. She has no trouble pronouncing “carcinogens,” but “pooberty” gives her fits.)

This is a race for Ben’s life (and the life of his daughter); it should be exciting. Like Rage, though, King substitutes an amorphous anger for anything truly stirring. That might work for teenagers, but adults can see through it all too easily. Ben’s own anger is so self-defeating, for example, that he tends to get himself fired for insubordination rather than sucking it up to (a) keep his wife off the streets and (b) provide for his daughter. We’re not supposed to hold him accountable for this, though, because he’s a “righteous” man (another favorite word of King’s that actually doesn’t appear here so far as I can remember). He fights for justice, if not the American way.

It all leads to a comic book ending, with lots of blood and wet, hanging entrails. If that’s your thing, you may get a kick out of it.

To paraphrase King himself, two examples of the humorless thudding tract school of horror writing are his own Rage and The Running Man.

Them! (1954), directed by Gordon Douglas

Them02♦♦♦½

The first of the big bug movies, this one about giant ants. Had I looked at the poster first, I might have been on the ants’ side. “A horror horde of crawl-and-crush giants,” the poster describes them. It’s a source of satisfaction to me that I was never one of those kids who delighted in crushing ants or burning them with a magnifying glass, or pulling the wings off flies. Not that I haven’t killed a few in my life — flies might tell stories about my deadliness with a rubber band, for all I know — but I don’t enjoy it, and it’s generally a last resort. But with these babies — in Them! — the last resort is really the best. They’re eight feet long and the buggers eat children. Even the scientist wants to wipe them out.

James Whitmore plays Ben, a police trooper who finds a young girl wandering the New Mexico desert in shock, unable to tell him what happened to her. Nearby, however, he finds a car and trailer, but no inhabitants, just a huge hole ripped out of the side of the trailer. And a very strange print in the sand.

These early scenes, continuing on through the first act and the introduction of an FBI man (James Whitmore) and a father-daughter tandem of scientists (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon), exude an atmosphere of mystery and menace that many movies, even today, aren’t able to achieve, despite the best efforts of the filmmakers. Evidently poorly reviewed in its original release, its rediscovery and current status as a science fiction classic must hinge, I believe, on what is accomplished early. Not that the rest of the movie isn’t any good; it simply isn’t as good.

Some of these old classics really put a dent in my theory that movies would be better if they were more realistic. War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, this movie, and others show (more or less) what would happen if monsters invaded. I mean, it wouldn’t be all about Dick and Jane; in fact, it would be a lot more about the cops, the FBI, the National Guard, and the military. But as I get older I find that I’m much more interested in Dick and Jane.

So, to me, one of the problems with Them! is that it squanders the romance that could have been, between Robert (the FBI guy) and Pat (the “daughter” half of the science team). The great thing — one of the great things — about The Thing (From Another World) is that it manages to have its cake and eat it, too. The romance there is between a military man and the secretary of the chief scientist. There’s all that sexual tension keeping things lively when the creature isn’t on the screen. Here, Robert gets all het up when he first sees Pat, who catches her skirt descending the steps of an airplane, and he becomes very protective of her later, but that’s about it; the relationship is never allowed to grow or contribute anything meaningful to the suspense.

On the other hand, it’s refreshing to find in Pat a no-nonsense scientist who is very good at what she does, and in her father, a man who treats her as a professional and an equal, even frequently referring to her as “doctor.”

And, as I said, it’s not as though the movie falls apart after a great beginning. Indeed, one of the best scenes occurs later. Fess Parker (later to become Daniel Boone on TV) plays a man locked up in a loony bin for telling crazy stories. The ants aren’t completely destroyed in New Mexico: a queen and a couple of winged males escape, flying east in search of a suitable place to start a new colony. That’s what they do. But the government wants to keep a lid on the story so nobody knows what transpired in the desert. Certainly not Parker, a pilot on his way to Brownsville, Texas, who encounters what he can only describe as three ant-shaped UFOs in the sky. His pleas first for someone to believe him then to be released are funny and poignant at the same time (and actually got him that TV gig).

And then there’s the ants themselves, which are very well done for their time, and which the filmmakers don’t mind showing, even in desert daylight. That’s a big plus.

I guess it comes down to this: the first part of Them! is a movie for everyone; most of the rest is a movie for science fiction fans. That’s not a bad thing at all, but it’s why I don’t love it as much as I might have.