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The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

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Set in Texarkana in the 1940s this film fictionalizes a real life murder spree called the Moonlight Murders by a hooded killer known as the Phantom Slayer. It’s a great premise and we already have lots of excellent band names to choose from here.

The film is done in a somewhat documentary style and focuses on the point in the investigation when a famous, well-reputed Texas Ranger comes to aid the local police. The first couple attacked survived to tell the story, and later on, another survivor (played by Dawn Wells in the movie, yes – Mary Ann) also described what occurred. They all noted a hooded killer who was systematic. He attacked couples on lonely roads and isolated places, terrorized them and shot them. In the film, the women were often tied up and bitten ferociously. The killer always struck at night and every three weeks like clockwork. And he is profiled as calm and intelligent, middle aged, a sexual sadist who seems like an ordinary citizen.

Director Charles B. Pierce creates some innovative slasher/crime thriller moments in this movie. The pace is good, jumping right into the first attack and the killer has this brutal almost supernatural quality. Like Jason or Michael Myers you cannot run faster than this fucker can walk and he is incredibly strong to boot. I dare say Pierce may have set the example in terms of slashers. He also creates very scary moments of anticipation, as kids who know the killer is out there are still sneaking off to remote places, yet jumping at every strange sound they hear, sometimes rightly so. I also think Pierce set a precedent for the horror investigation theme as there are moments that remind me of films like Zodiac, where the investigators are steeped in this dramatic but pensive puzzle, trying desperately to prevent another attack. It’s personal, you can feel their frustration and desire to protect the locals. And it doesn’t hurt that we have a pretty good cast of actors, including Ben Johnson and Andrew Prine (of Simon, King of the Witches.) Pierce himself plays a bumbling cop, rather humorously.

I really need a freakin’ mouthhole

But while this theme is compelling and the characters are empathetic there are also some terrible, artless moments, strikingly artless, in fact. I know there is an attempt here at docudrama, but there are scenes that look like some jackass just stuck a camera in the corner – really, really bad. And it’s said the ending lifted footage from Pierce’s earlier film, The Legend of Boggy Creek. These artless moments are in high contrast to some amazing moments, like what I call the shoe device. We never discover who the killer is but we know what his shoes look like and Pierce cleverly lets us spot him through town, in line for a movie, in a restaurant, stepping into a car. This adds to the terror, the killer is among us, and he has an advantage.

So all in all, great serial killer flick, but at times poorly executed. There is a sequel coming out, with the same name, but it takes place years later in Texarkana. I’m not a huge sequel fan, but I don’t mind this so much as the killer was NEVER found, and that seems like a compelling tale. I just hope if he is discovered in the sequel they ask him how he manages to stay so youthful after so many years.

B-

You’re Next (2011)

IMDb

This is a slasher/home-invasion/cabin-in-the-woods type film. A family is reuniting: parents, adult children and their partners getting together to celebrate the parents’ anniversary. Two of the siblings seem to be introducing new girlfriends into the mix, and the youngest daughter has a new beau (who might as well be wearing a red shirt.)

Shortly after they settle in to eat, the action begins. They are shot with arrows through the windows and right away we discover that one of the new interlopers grew up with a survivalist dad and quickly rises to the occasion, fending off this sudden threat.

She is lovely, smart, upbeat, Australian and the former student of her boyfriend, a frustrated prof with money trouble who is at odds with his more successful brother and also frustrated with father’s clear disappointment in him. In fact, for a slasher flick, this family has some rich dynamics and the actors portray these tensions and differences beautifully.

Anyway, one by one, the family members are subject to brutal attacks. And they make the usual stupid choices by splitting up, ignoring obvious red flags and panicking. In fact, Aussie girl is the only one who thinks well both defensively and offensively.

I seriously hate family reunions now.

I seriously hate family reunions now.

So while this action is escalating, certain things start to become obvious to the observant audience member and you start to see what becomes the surprise twist in the story. But despite being able to predict its direction, the subplots and secrets deepen the story and intensity.

The violent attacks are relentless. Trust is compromised and the pace increases. At this point there are numerous deaths, there are killers within and without, and the fear is palpable.

So what this film does really right for a slasher is:
1. No teens! This is an adult reunion, how refreshing, no one to kick off my lawn.
2. Isolation: there even appears to be something blocking cell phone signals, so decent explanations for the further sense of remoteness.
3. More than one killer: it’s not until well into the flick that we are clear how many are involved and that escalates the threat- are they inside the house too?
4. No one is what they seem. As mentioned before, the characters all have a another side to them. Disapproving dad makes some seriously disappointing decisions himself in terms of protecting his family; guest girlfriend is a savvy survivalist, not just a cute grad student; douchey older brother is far more noble than given credit for; and the remaining family is full of surprises, too.
5. There are darkly funny moments. A good horror film should always have this.

Ultimately, the reveal reminds us that as horrible as these actions are, the motives behind them are worse. The pace, acting, and action are excellent making this a surprisingly good film.

B-

Spaghetti Western Horror

The Italian/Euro cinema sub-genre known as the Giallo has been acknowledged repeatedly on this blog, and its genesis coincides with the birth of the Euro or ‘Spaghetti’ Westerns that also emerged in the early 60s. I’m not alone in my appreciation of the Spaghettis, and some of these ground-breaking films are rightly considered among the best films of all time. Like the creativity in all art forms and entertainment in the incredible epoch of the 60s, Euro Westerns exploded and transformed the landscape of film making, and as a result, their popularity made them arguably the most prolific genre films produced by the end of the decade.

Inevitably, with Euro and Italian Horror sharing the same talents and resources during this period, there was bound to be some examples of genre elements cross-pollinating. While there isn’t a blatant example of an attempt to make a horror-western, there are several instances of horror being a clear theme in the narratives of some Spaghetti Westerns.

One of the best examples is the 1969 film, Django the Bastard (AKA the Strangers Gundown). It should be noted that like many films that followed the iconic 1966 classic, Django, this film is in no way a sequel. The title was simply a marketing strategy that was employed dozens of times to cash in on the wild success (especially in Europe) that the original film had. Regardless, Django the Bastard is a worthy film in its own right. Starring Anthony Steffen (who also co-wrote the script), the main character patently channels the man-with-no-name archetype that Clint Eastwood established in the Sergio Leone Westerns (almost all Spaghettis did), but tellingly, the film anticipates Eastwood’s own High Plains Drifter, which came out many years later.

However, while the Eastwood film reveals the main character’s apparitional status in a more subtle way throughout its presentation, Steffen’s Django is offered as a vengeance-minded phantom immediately. The opening scene is terrific, with Django serving notice to his target by planting a pre-made grave marker in front of his domicile before dispatching him. This pattern follows throughout the film, and the subsequent scene that chronicles the demise of Django’s next victim is the stuff of gothic horror: not only is a grave marker provided, but the prey is also led astray to a cemetery where an open grave awaits.

Good stuff. The film however, generally evolves and concludes in a familiar way with westerns, including the frequent component of a showdown in a ghost town.

Another film with some notable macabre features is And God Said to Cain (AKA Revenge at Sundown), with Klaus Kinski uniquely cast as the protagonist (as opposed to his common western appearances as ‘crazy gringo’ or bad guy). Admittedly, accepting Kinski as a hero and enduring the horrible theme song make this a challenging viewing experience at times, but director Antonio Margheriti (known for several horror films) applies even more chilling themes than Django the Bastard.

Following his release from a 10-year chain gang incarceration – for crimes he’s innocent of – Gary Hamilton (Kinski) methodically and quickly makes his way to the Town/Estate of the craven character who framed him. This journey successively occurs on the eve of an intense storm ravaging the same area, which is but one factor that lends a supernatural element to his vengeful enterprise. Crows lurk and screech when Gary’s name comes up, wind swirls on queue when he makes his presence known, and he navigates dark, Native American tunnels to outmaneuver his quarry. Much of his work is done by the mass hysteria and paranoia that his opponents succumb to, which leads to them offing each other at times.

Honestly, of all the flicks I’m covering here, this offering comes closest to being a fully realized horror-western, but certain features (that ridiculous theme song!) prevent that, mainly in the opening and closing moments. This is a shame, because as good as the horror themes are, a stronger commitment to those same themes would have made an even stronger film.

godsaidtocain_09

What? I’m the hero of this flick? Whoa…

Requiem for a Gringo (AKA Duel in the Eclipse) takes on a comparable trajectory as the last film, but instead of a timely storm, the protagonist plans his destruction of a ruthless gang that killed his brother during an eclipse. In a clever twist, the hero utilizes science (Astronomy!) as a tool to create a perception of supernatural power to his enemies. He also has some eccentric qualities, like riding a mule and wearing a leopard skin poncho, which could be a byproduct of the 60s, the film’s Euro origins, or both. Regardless, it’s a fun film with a great rogue’s gallery of coldblooded villains to contend with and some suitable, eerie atmosphere.

requiem

Hi there, I’m from the 60s.

Finally, I’d like to mention Lucio Fulci’s Massacre Time, starring Franco Nero. Admittedly, while this film is a tremendous, rare western by horror-maestro Fulci, its horror credentials aren’t as obvious as the previous films mentioned. The heavy in the film is an extreme psychopath, given to horrific deeds like literally feeding people to dogs, merciless whipping, and crucifying. In a nice macabre twist, this sick creep also plays an organ with a perverse look on his face. Nero’s hero, with some help from his estranged brother (an impressive performance by George Hilton), ensures that justice prevails in an awesome finale that allegedly influenced other film directing greats like John Woo.

I was able to stream all of these films via youtube, albeit in varying quality (I’ve yet to find a copy of And God Said to Cain in an agreeable format). All are worth checking out, not just for the ghoulish and spooky elements, but also as an opportunity to absorb amazing action scenes, astonishing locations and cinematography, and the usual fare of stunning, statuesque beauties that seem to grow on trees in Europe.

What the Hell is a Giallo, Anyway?

In recent years, Giallos have become one of my favorite types of horror films. They are stylish and cerebral. And they are mysteries, which were my gateway to horror. Watching lots of Hitchcock as a kid with my mom gave me the crime solving bug and I love to watch a plot unravel. But what makes giallos different than a horror movie or a mystery thriller? Well Giallos did some pretty innovative things at the time. They experimented with lighting, discussed taboo subjects, explored gender roles, challenged norms, criticized police and the ineffectualness of the system and basically combined horror elements with mystery ones, and at times included supernatural qualities.

But rather than get academic I created an infographic with some of the most common elements of a Giallo. Enjoy!

Your Giallo is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key

Tesis (1996)

IMDb

In case you don’t know Spanish or are incredibly dense, Tesis means Thesis, and that in and of itself implies horror to thousands of academic-minded individuals. However, this thesis project is more than academic and takes some incredibly violent and scary turns.

Angela is working on her thesis about audiovisual violence and its effects on family and society. She is discussing her work and research with her thesis professor when he suggests she needs more research examples and he knows of some controversial videos in the school archive.

He has to be sneaky because the archives are monitored, the violence is clumped with the porn (an interesting and perhaps somewhat political choice by the filmmakers) and grabbing a video like this would be super duper embarrassing! In fact, in a last minute scramble to avoid being seen, he ends up grabbing a random tape from that section to preview. Angela finds her prof in a screening room, he is still, she slowly approaches, realizing something is amiss and then discovering he is dead, his asthma inhaler on the floor. Whatever he witnessed was so horrifying it literally took his breath away. Angela grabs the tape and runs, compelled to understand what happened, to further her research and to privately mourn her teacher.

I love this trope by the way, it reminds me of the King in Yellow by Robert Chambers, where exposure to a story or image so terrible changes you forever, leading to insanity or death.

Anyway, she tries to watch the film but can’t, instead immersing herself in the terrifying audio. She finally decides to take it to her acquaintance and research aid Chema. He is our resident horror movie metal head who has a rep in the film department for digging extreme violence. She has tapped him for insight before and now needs him to watch this with her.

Chema watches the film, Angela is there but looking away. He quickly realizes, this is not a film but real, a snuff video of a woman tortured, killed and dismembered, a woman who attended university and disappeared just 2 years before. He tells Angela not to look but it is too late, she could not resist. In a sense her looking affirms part of her thesis, that violence is compelling and we are visual creatures and not looking is so much harder. Yet what we see cannot be unseen and can and does change us forever.

 


And now this becomes not just an artistic inquiry but an amateur investigation into murder. How giallo!

Chema and Angela review and dissect the video endlessly looking for clues. When they think they have tracked the type of camera used to another student, the story becomes more complex as Angela finds herself attracted to the suspect and questioning her trust of Chema. From here the intrigue grows as they slowly uncover who is involved, and how high up it reaches. They build and lose trust in one another as they sort out what is fact or fiction and discover how underground and insidious the world of snuff is. And as in the best giallo, they find themselves in some terrible sticky situations that may mean their death.


Tesis is smart and compelling. It is essentially Angela’s thesis fleshed out, depicting how witnessing violence undeniably affects us. It also addresses the way violence is perpetuated through marketing and media. At one point, a professor states that a filmmaker should give the audience what they want. But this reveals the chicken-egg argument about violence, does the audience always demand it or have they grown to expect it, maybe desire it from having been exposed to it? It is also a self-reflexive question, as the filmmakers can only ask and depict these issues in the context of a horror or thriller, genres often blamed for going too far in showing torture or murder. But to their credit, the horror lies in the story, not in exploitation, so if you are squeamish or not into horror, you may still enjoy this movie (though there are definitely some tough scenes.) Still, Tesis is an intelligent must-see thriller with great pace, an excellent cast and a thought-provoking story.

A+
 

La Rose de Fer (1973)

IMDb

 

Oh, Jean Rollin, why do I bother? Oh yeah, the cinematography. This man creates stunningly beautiful films with lots of nudity. That should be a huge win but he also manages to make 80 minutes feel like three hours. Consequently, he gets reviewed as poetic and surreal but that is just code for boring nonsense. And no, Europeans, it’s not because I have a low attention span or am somehow less sophisticated. It really is slow and silly. That being said, The Iron Rose has a nice dark twist at the end that, coupled with the relief that it was nearly over, made me feel it was a better Rollin film than most. 

Maybe just dinner and a movie for our next date?

A couple meets at a party and plan a day date bicycling about. They end up in a cemetery, fool around, and find themselves stuck there at dusk, unable to find a way out and sure the main gate must be locked. For some reason that I never understand there is a clown wandering about, but nothing ever happens with him. I guess that’s just a French thing, I don’t know. Anyway, he presumably goes home to entertain and/or scare children. And, what follows is a potentially interesting exploration of imagined fear and perception. I say potentially because it’s mostly dull. Also, this dude keep freaking out and getting hostile with this woman and she keeps making out with him when he calms down. Ugh, yawn, there really are more clever ways to express sexual tension, you know.

Pourquoi?

As the night continues however, things transform. Instead of taking turns being upset, the young woman begins to embrace the situation and wax poetic about death. This provokes the young man to freak out more and leads to some funny moments (hopefully intended, it could just be me.)

And then after all the surreal meandering, we get to the very end, and the few scenes that warrant this movie a horror label. A good choice for a sample of Rollin’s work, but like most of his films, it’ll help you fall asleep more than anything.

Don’t mind me, just walking around naked on a rocky beach.

Child’s Play (1988)

IMDb

I can’t believe I haven’t reviewed this before. I love this movie. Chucky, the evil doll, is the perfect asshole comedian. And the premise is so remarkably stupid that it is really clever and fun.

A criminal played by the massively entertaining Brad Dourif, is pursued by a cop (Chris Sarandon) and he ducks into a toy shop. He knows he is fatally injured and begins frantically seeking someone out, but the only someone is a doll. He then performs a ritual, lightning, explosions, all that good stuff, whereby he transfers his soul into the doll. The cop finds the dead body, so case closed because who would suspect that this evil guy just used voodoo to transfer his soul and survive in doll?

Well, Chucky, the good guy doll, your friend ’til the end, is the shit. He’s the toy of the season. So naturally, single mom, Karen, played by Catherine Hicks, who you can’t help but want to be your mom as well, scores one off a bum for a more affordable price, bringing it home to her adorable, soon to be highly traumatized, son on his birthday.

As you can guess, this doll gets to be trouble for this family and naturally, Brad Dourif doesn’t want to live in a doll forever. Also, he is an awful murderous creature. He proceeds to push the aunt out of a window to her death and start telling the kid to take him to shady places so he can confront his enemies. As. A. Doll. In this way, the movie does a hilarious job of sending up a few horror/action tropes, like voodoo, revenge and of course, creepy dolls. Consequently, mom and son are heavily scrutinized and they put the kid in state care.

The fun doesn’t stop here (or at the end of the movie, since there are numerous sequels.) After Karen realizes what’s going on and finally convinces the cop, they fight to stop Chucky. Which they do. Kinda. Sorta.

Don’t be put off by this particularly ugly doll, it’s a fun movie! B+

The Collection (2012)

 

IMDb
This gore fest has little going in the way of plot, or really great acting, or writing for that matter, but Lordy does it have pace! Seriously, this baby jumps right in and doesn’t give you a chance to say hey, this too gross, too crazy. This guy, Arkin,  who was brutalized and tortured by a sadistic booby trap killer, escapes, but then gets recruited to help a private security team recover the next victim, the only daughter of a very rich man. (Not to be cruel or cold here, but this girl must cure cancer in the future because many lives are lost over her and I am not sure how good an ROI that is.) In the meantime, this crazy ass killer is setting up these Rube Goldberg machines of mass murder all over the damn place, even mowing hundreds of people down with one such device. Not joking here, these death traps are unbelievably elaborate.

Fortunately, these are all people you’d hate anyway. And also fortunately, our leads are good protagonists, if not the greatest actors they are sympathetic and strong. Josh Stewart especially has this quality and a charming accent to boot (see him on Criminal Minds, too.) And Emma Fitzpatrick plays her character Elena smart and strong.

Combined with the action packed story I found myself enjoying the hell out of this movie, appreciating the extreme gore and totally rooting for our protagonists. Watch for a couple fun horror references, too. When they first track down  the killer’s hideout it is an abandoned place called the Hotel Argento, a nice nod to the gory Giallo director; and when Elena is hiding from the killer early on she has to lay very still while tarantulas crawl all over her face- that is so Coffin Joe!

A fun surprise, I give this a B+.

 

Paycheck, paycheck, paycheck, paycheck

What is Best?

Watched Conan again last night and felt the need to visualize this:

 

BEST

4d29eb9ad1965676b4_Lake Monsters_02_small.jpg JPEG Image, 1800 × 2036 pixels.

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