It’s been a dark year.
And it’s usually always darkest before the merciful end.
And that means Halloween, my birthday, and X-Mas, in rapid succession.
The season of horror.
Starting around the 20th of October, counting down to November 2, the final day of Día de Muertos, my friends and I usually shift all evening viewing to monster movies, slasher films, and general gloom and doom. This year, we worked through a massive playlist, with double, triple and even quaduple-headers every night in HD, including the entire NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series, which I haven’t sat down with in decades. Also, the new Vincent Price Blu-ray box set is beyond awesome. During this year’s spook-a-thon I kept a journal of sorts, which turned out to be rather interesting, and maybe a little amusing, too. With my birthday happening tomorrow, and a whole new shade of gloom and doom about to crash around my ears in a dark crimson nightfall, I will now share some of my notes with you. Because, naturally, my birthday is real important and, obviously, we’re the coolest people you know about. Also, if you don’t like horror flicks on Halloween you stink. So there.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 18: FROGS, BLACULA and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM.
They never get Dracula right in the movies, almost always making him some romantic hero, even in my favorite film versions of him. In the book, he’s just an evil bastard who murders children. (Chris Lee is a pretty nasty film Drac, but he’s also real clumsy and kills himself in practically every one of those dumbass Hammer movies.) But if you have to go romantic, you can’t go wrong with William Marshall’s take on the character, an elegant, thoughtful, tragic performance couched in a couple of sleazebag blaxploitation films from the early 70s. Running these back-to-back for the first time in twenty years, we find that the original is damn-near genius, the second only marginally passable, even with Pam Grier classing up the joint. The frog movie has frogs in it, but they never really do anything—because, umm, frogs aren’t really scary or dangerous. We get the impression while watching this that the filmmakers are kinda in on that joke, too. The real terror: Sam Elliot without a beard!
SATURDAY OCTOBER 19: HELLRAISER II and PHASE IV
The second feature is not a sequel to anything. It’s actually the most awesome ants-take-over-the-world movie ever made. I watch this film almost every other day, it’s so amazing. It’s got everything. The mad scientist, the young hero, the pretty damsel, a fusillade of nature-gone-amuck stuff—but somebody smart decided to shoot the thing in a completely non-exploitive style, almost like an art film, which makes it truly unique and visionary. Also, it’s directed by the guy who did the main titles for PSYCHO. How can you go wrong? HELLRAISER II is a dark holiday tradition around here—we watch it every year because it is off-the-rail silliness that plays like a Halloween funhouse full of wild wonders, or maybe a series of death metal lyrics strung together in a semi-lucid babble. One of my best friends stars in this and she hated every minute of it. I call her while we’re watching it and she doesn’t answer the phone.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 20: PUMPKINHEAD and PUMPKINHEAD 2: BLOOD WINGS.
I saw the first one in an actual movie theatre when it came out in 1988. Never thought that would make me a special person. But you do feel special on nights like tonight—like you were part of some really important moment in history. Because, well, you were. Twenty five years later, the movie is still clumsy, obvious, ham-handed and straight-up goofy. Also, it’s stylish, scary, atmospheric and masterful in places—the places that really count. That damn witch is handled so well and the monster is so bloody convincing that you could show us still-photos of a phone book for the rest of the film—which is almost as much as you can say for a few of the actors—and it wouldn’t matter one damn bit. The second film makes the original’s most ridiculous moments look like deleted scenes from CITIZEN KANE. I’m little embarrassed to say I’ve never seen PH2 before tonight, because it was directed by a buddy of mine and I didn’t wanna have to lie to him about how much I liked it. But I really don’t see how Jeff could possibly be proud of this. Plays like a bad idea gone way worse during a series of executive board meetings.
MONDAY, OCTOBER 21: I COME IN PEACE and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM
I’m sneaking a badass hunka shoot-em-up trash from the director of ACTION JACKSON in the program, because it’s also sort of a horror film, only not really. Alien drug dealer kills people with big futuristic knives and a magnetically charged disk thingie that looks like a DVD, then the alien gets blown up by Dolph Lungren and Brian Benben. Haven’t seen this since it first came out in the early 90s, but it might just be the greatest movie ever made in the history of movies. I mean that. Really. (Cough.) This version of THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM we run tonight is the classy castle horror film from Roger Corman, which sparkles and shines, as it slums in the shallows of 1960s cheapness, making something very simple and not-very-ambitious into something incredibly special. And Vincent Price is the crown prince of all Halloweens. He just is, man. Nobody makes bad jokes during this one. Everyone just shuts the fuck up and listens to the master. Something magical about that.
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 22: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and NIGHTMARE 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE
These are my favorite slasher films, because they are fun to watch and usually inventive, even at their worst. (At his worst, Jason doesn’t even show up for work in one of those silly Friday the 13th movies.) This is my idea of committee-minded commercial entertainment as progressive storytelling, where real ideas are actually lurking somewhere in the background, behind all these dumbass clichés, bad dialogue, flashy special effects and trendy juke-box music soundtracks. Thirty years later, the original is still a really visionary movie, even though its linear plotting is utterly absurd—and see those 80s fashions? I still have a fetish for girls wearing pink collar shirts because of this fucking movie. (My ladyfriends often have no idea what the hell to do with that. Most people have real sex hang-ups, and I gotta get all hot and bothered if you wear a shirt? I’m hopeless.) Even after tonight, I still don’t think Part 2 is the worst of these films, though it has an exploding canary in it for no reason at all. That pregnant pause at the event horizon of Mark Patton’s key scream moments are priceless. And Clu Gulager also classes up any joint he’s in.
GRATUITOUS PERSONAL ASIDE #666: In 2005, I met Clu Gulager in a bar in Los Angeles, where a bunch of 1980s horror miscreants such as Courtney Gaines and Brinke Stevens were slumming hard, unable to gain entry to the MASTERS OF HORROR launch party next door—where guys like Robert Englund were slutting up to Tobe Hooper and Mick Garris for work. I was able to float both parties because I was a writer on MOH, but the sight of all those out-of-work actors was truly depressing. Still, I was starstruck just to be around Clu—far more than I’d been around Englund, who had literally backed away from me slowly, after realizing I wasn’t someone he already knew. (Mick Garris did that to me, too.) Gulager was a kind, sweet, delightful old man, and he talked to me for almost a whole hour before he fell asleep at the table. My buddy Jeff, who directed PUMPKINHEAD 2 (and also had been denied an audience with the “cool kids” next door), walked over and gave me a big bear hug, wondering what the hell I was doing in LA. I almost didn’t have the heart to tell him.
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 23: IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 3: DREAM WARRIORS and NIGHTMARE 4: THE DREAM MASTER
Carpenter’s return to horror in 1994 was bittersweet thing for us nerds back in the day. Yeah, it was a Carpenter film. Yeah, it was full of strange, spooky stuff. But this was in John’s post-breakdown period, after he’d lost his true desire to make movies, and the results are almost heartbreaking—ALMOST, because the film is so weird on general principle, that you can at least safely say that there is no other thing on earth quite like it. Meanwhile, NIGHTMARES 3 and 4 are still my favorite Freddy sequels, hands down, and these new HD transfers really do a justice so long denied them by the TV and VHS versions, which always seemed way to bright to me. The bit at the end of DREAM WARRIORS when poor Patricia Arquette cradles dead Nancy and cries for her is painfully real and makes me weep every time I watch it. DREAM MASTER is written by my favorite living author (sort of) and has some of the best practical special effects ever seen—including the famous Roach Motel sequence and Kruger’s final death, which is still just stunning. This was the FX legacy left to Hollywood by John Carpenter with his finest film, THE THING, and one of the reasons we don’t mind too much when he goofs up as an old man.
Who’s idea was this poster? I mean, really now, guys . . .
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 24: WEIRD SCIENCE, LIFEFORCE, SECONDS and BATMAN
John Hughes doing ‘creepy’ sci-fi just turns out to be another coming-of-ager in retrospect, but it’s still damn fun, and even surreal by post-modern political standards. These days, could anybody really get away with that scene in the blues bar where Anthony Michael Hall acts like a drunk black dude for ten straight minutes? We watch in awe and weep because John lives on like a ghost through his remarkable, seminal work, which understood and reflected the youth of the 1980s like nothing else before it. Tobe Hooper’s batshit crazy LIFEFORCE, also from the 80s, reminds me of a drug-infused Hammer movie with the boring parts cut out, part of ALIEN grafted onto the front, and some weird thriller plot gene-spliced in there. Also, the idea of Steve Railsback as a leading man is just . . . well, weird, man. Gotta love filmmakers with brass balls like that. (I like THE STUNT MAN a lot, too.) And when Steve makes out with Jean-Luc Picard halfway through the film, everybody gets galactically grossed out. (That’s cool, it’s Halloween, man!) BEST EXIT LINE EVER UTTERED BY AN ALIEN VAMPIRE: “It will be far less terrifying if you just come to me.” That gets lots of laughs. SECONDS is, by a very wide margin, the absolute grimmest selection in my program this year. It’s a visionary, no-bullshit affair that asks so many unhappy questions about life, identity and rebirth that we might need to watch a Tim Burton movie when it’s all over, just to recover. Let’s make it BATMAN, too. Our brains and our hearts need a fucking break.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 25: John Carpenter’s THE FOG, THE MONSTER CLUB and BEETLEJUICE
Carpenter’s third horror film is also his most elegantly understated and creepy, even with all its cheap shocks and contrived plot stuff. A lot of people don’t know that John made this originally “for kids,” as a PG-rated ghost story (notice how nobody ever says the word “fuck” in this movie?) . . . but I guess somebody talked him out of it along the way. Good for them. The final product rocks. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. (See: THE FOG: THE REMAKE.) THE MONSTER CLUB is a three-in-one anthology movie bookended with . . . umm, a club with monsters in it. It has a couple of my favorite obscure rock songs in there, too, and Donald Pleasance shows up as a creepy vampire hunter who offers candy to children, disguised as a priest. Just to make sure the joint is all nice and classy, they stick Vincent Price out front, as a vampire drinking Bloody Marys, and poor John Carradine, too, who looks like he’s falling asleep in every scene. I wish I’d gotten to meet him in a bar before he died. This goddamn bar, man. Joe Dante tells me he was a real cut up. BETTLEJUICE is . . . well, BEETLEJUICE. One of a small handful of Tim Burton movies I actually like without reservation. I still have a crush on Catherine O’Hara because of this movie. (Yeah, I know. I’m hopeless.)
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 26: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, Q THE WINGED SERPENT, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 5: THE DREAM CHILD
Carpenter’s last truly great horror film is still a frustrating beast that refuses to be wrestled. His usual play-it-to-the-TV music score is so arrogantly bombastic in its mediocrity that it made me scream out loud in an empty theatre when I first saw this in 1987, but the film is saved by a truly creepy/brilliant remote-video-from-the-future subplot. (There’s no music in any of those bits, see?) Q is my favorite Larry Cohen film, a trashy-but-honorable affair in which Kung Fu (David Carradine) and Shaft (Richard Roundtree) team up to take out a giant Mexican super-lizard who flies around New York and eats people. The film also contains the genre’s rarest, most truly brilliant screen performance from the great Michael Moriarty, in which so much improvising and skillful scene-chewing happens that you forget you’re watching an actor and truly believe in the plight of Jimmy Quinn, a two-bit loser who knows where the monster lives and blackmails the city for a million bucks before he’ll talk. Everyone loves Jimmy tonight and we keep re-winding all his best lines! NIGHTMARE 5, on the other hand, is a depressing gloomy misfire, in which only three people get killed and Freddy is an obnoxious, showy bore. It a bad night on Elm Street when you start missing a guy like Renny Harlin in the director’s chair.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 27: THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, ANGEL HEART, HOUSE OF WAX in 3D
Hammer goes racy with more gore and Ingrid Pitt taking off her clothes a lot and kissing girls. I ask the gang if I’m the only guy on earth who thinks Ingrid’s name sounds like the star of a YA adventure novel series and they all look at me funny. (Sigh. It’s lonely when you’re an idiot in a roomful of geniuses.) Anywaaaay . . . LOVERS, which I’ve never actually seen before tonight for some reason, turns out to be an elegantly-mounted production made by British guys who were clearly thinking with their dicks. ANGEL HEART is the same, only made 20 years later, by the Brit who gave us PINK FLOYD: THE WALL. You can really tell that, too, in the classic bit where Mickey Rourke (in his pre-human hamburger period) screws Lisa Bonet silly in a room full of bloody rain. Both films are rather leaden and weak in places, but they look damn great in High-Def. HOUSE OF WAX in 3-D is truly a classic that deserves to be a classic for several reasons. 1.) Vincent Price. 2.) It’s in 3-D. 3.) Yes, that’s Charles Bronson in there as the idiot man-child who does the wax sculpting. He’s using a different name, but there’s no hiding the class, baby. You gotta be born with magic like that, and it makes any movie you happen to be in a million times cooler. It’s also probably worth noting that this film had a theatrical shelf life of damn-near thirty years, cutting across several great ages of the post-modern horror film, from those “classy” early days, through the lurid, swinging seventies, and finally ending in 1982 with my generation—the slasher generation. And though I was already a jaded youngling at 13 years old, soaked through with blood from a thousand aliens, mutants and psychopathic killers . . . this film still wowed me like nothing else before. Some things are just timeless, even though they probably aren’t.1953, the Golden Age: 1973 the post-Night Of The Living Dead age:
And, finally, 1982, the age of Michael Myers:
MONDAY, OCTOBER 28: NINJA III: THE DOMINATION and FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE
The ninja movie is actually a supernatural horror film (or something), and also one of those cynically-composed 1980s Golan and Globus things that is so decimated at the molecular level that it approaches true art. Unattractive, unappealing actors spout trashy, sexist dialogue in every scene, moving through character arcs that are so unrealistic as to be phoned in from another dimension where everything you know is wrong. It kind of makes you feel dirty. And then someone gets possessed by a flying sword (or something), and that’s pretty awesome, come to think of it. Just accept the fact that everyone in the movie is a store mannequin doing aerobics and you’ll be fine. We’re fine. This is, after all, the greatest movie ever made in the history of movies.
The “last” ELM STREET film is easily the worst in the series—another gloomy hack-job in which the character of Freddy Kruger outgrows the reins of his creators, with tired shtick that mutates into a silly, un-scary series of goofy pratfalls. NIGHTMARE 4, for all it’s bubblegum-pop flash, at least has a persistence of vision in the filmmaking style. This is just depressing. And only two people get killed. Jason Voorhees is laughing at the superior intellect.
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 29: WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE and THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN
It takes forever for anything to happen in the really-and-truly FINAL Freddy flick, but once it gets going, it’s pretty great stuff. I’m not sure if any of it is scary, per se, but it’s much smarter and better made than the last two, and it winks at the audience a lot in a “meta” way that was at least fifteen years ahead of its time. With the characters all being real people playing “themselves,” including Wes Craven in a truly bizarre self-referential turn, you either love it or hate it. We kinda love it. MELTING MAN may be one of the worst-executed and best-marketed monster flicks of all time. (Adjusted for inflation, of course.) When it came out in 1977, the image of this slimy guy was everywhere, in all my favorite mags, like this one:
And there was the awesome makeup kit available in toy stores which I wanted so badly and my dad never bought for me:
Who cares if the film stinks? It’s THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, man! Plus, it’s the only monster movie I can think of where the monster just kinda wanders off and dies at the end, then gets tossed in a garbage can by the nearest janitor. Also, the hero falls off a building because he’s an idiot. We think that’s really awesome, and we tell the film so, again and again, long after the credits have rolled. This, by the way, was featured on the last “true season” of MYSTERY SCENCE THEATRE 3000, when it was still on Comedy Central and before Sy Fy ruined everything. That was the best, funniest, and most bittersweet season of the show, and I was also there to see it happen. We felt special, even then. We were also very sad, because we knew another golden era had ended.
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 30: BLOOD BEACH and WAVELENGTH
Tonight is VHS night, where we run two films never released at all on DVD, Blu-Ray or any other digital format. BLOOD BEACH is one of the classier 1980s horror flicks, made during a time when cheap slasher copycats ruled the cinema—classy, because it concatenates on character stuff and almost never shows the monster at all. In fact, the beach itself is the real horror, haunted by an underground creature of some sort that sucks people under the sand. See that poster up there? That’s what all the kill scenes look like in this film. And, believe it or not, it is kinda creepy. We also get John Saxon and Burt Young as standard issue what-the-fuck-is-happening-here cops, which would be insufferable on any other day. Today, Burt chews so much scenery that you want to invite him home for a beer, just to wind him up some more. I once met Saxon and he told me he had no memory at all of making this film. Good for him. WAVELENGTH is a rarely-seen sci-fi thriller which features Cherie Currie of the Runaways, Robert Carradine of REVENGE OF THE NERDS, Keenan Wynn from LASERBLAST and PIRANHA and a trio of aliens that look like bald, naked children—umm, because that’s just what they are. Oh, and Tangerine Dream does the music. More class, man. These are two of my very favorite movies. I watch them a lot. Everybody is amazed tonight that this isn’t out on video.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 31, HALLOWEEN: FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY and THE ABOMINABLE DOCTOR PHIBES
Tonight’s the BIG SHOW, dudes! Fright flicks and trick or treating! OHBOYOHBOY! ARMY is a new movie, one released just this year—and a found footage thing in the bargain, so we are all wary of running this. But I also heard some good things about the flick, and it seems like a pretty crazy affair. And guess what? It’s a pretty crazy affair. I like it so much that I think I’ll go out and buy a copy tomorrow and stick it on my shelf, right alongside the other classics. The film is hardly perfect, but what thing like this has any right to be? It’s a lot like HELLRAISER II, in that it resembles a demented, retarded funhouse on Halloween, like what might happen if Frank Henenlotter and John Waters created a stage play and cast all the parts using Todd McFarlane monster action figures. A fun surprise this year. We all laugh a lot and shake our heads just as much. This is the sort of stuff that “these kids today” will feel special for having been the first to see, thirty years from now, when movies are beamed directly into their tortured, nostalgia-seeking skulls with psi-lasers or whatever.
Next up, DOCTOR ANTON PHIBES is my Halloween go-to guy. He’s just the man, man. His films—particularly this first one—are elegant, silly, horrible and visionary. He teaches Freddy and Jason a thing or two about being a horror icon and brightens up our holiday with angst, wit and color. He’s Darkman’s great-grandfather and The Joker’s spiritual first-cousin.
And he’s Vincent Price. The Crown Prince of all Halloweens.
After this, we go trick or treating in my neighborhood, which comes to life like a giant block party for two hours, with children and their parents running through home-made spook houses on front lawns, clusters of crazy hippies, hipsters and homeboys in silly costumes, and about a hundred zombies of all ages who do a syncopated dance routine of THRILLER in the middle of the street. It’s like a mini-mardi gras for kids, and it rocks pretty hard this year. The cool snap of twilight breezes turn the day to night way too fast, and the night spews into some strange, familiar dream, with candy and fake blood scattered on concrete, and every shade of strangeness boogie-bumping from heart to heart and home to home. There’s a guy who has a ten foot Jason Voorhees robot on his front porch, which tries to kill you when you reach for the candy. A bunch of Kevin Smith fans have Superman fighting a giant spider in the third act, right next door to me. Killer Klowns from outer space haunt us all, eyes filled with fiery mischief. Yeah, Halloween gets pretty fun around here . . .All the houses look like this:
And strange ghost trucks glimmer and rumble in the night:
And I turn into a werewolf in cheap clothing:
My favorite lawn is this one, where Scott is menaced by those Killer Klowns:
And my favorite costume is this little girl’s:
(In case you’re wondering, she’s a very specific kind of glowing deep-sea jellyfish, complete with a specimen tag from an oceanagraphic institute.)
The next morning, all the pumpkins in the ‘hood look like Kermit when he’s angry . . .
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 1: GHOULIES
The best way to beat post-holiday blahs is to keep pretending it’s Halloween, so that’s what we do. Tonight’s film—the only single feature of the whole program—is watched online with my usual weekly IM movie buds Rob, Joe and Teighlor, and it’s a Charles Band production from “back in the day” of Empire Pictures in 1984, so how can you possibly go wrong? This was made during a last-gasp golden age in exploitation cinema, when the mini-majors like Cannon Films and Group One were still going strong, putting all these shitty flicks on real multiplex screens for about ten minutes before shoveling them out in video stores, where we were fleeced again. And it hurt so good, baby. There will never be another age like that again. Never. I could go on and on about all the reasons I love GHOULIES—it’s tacky, contrived, dumber than a box of candy corn, contains some of the least convincing monsters ever rubbered-up by a young-and-hungry FX impresario (John Buechler by name), and it’s directed by the lead atomic punk in Band’s earlier sci-fi monster epic PARASITE. That guy is Luca Bercovicci. He got beaten up by Michael Keaton in PACIFIC HEIGHTS a few years later. So he’s, like, real cool and stuff.
PARASITE, 1980: That’s Luca on the right, Demi Moore on the left.
SATURDAY NOVEMBER 2: THE BURNING and (duhh!) DAY OF THE DEAD
This amazing outdoor Day Of The Dead double feature takes place at our friend Natalie George’s house, hosted by Rob on his big screen projection setup. THE BURNING is my favorite 80s slasher film by a wide margin. It’s slick but not stylish, workmanlike but somewhat passionate, gory and cynical but somehow not disgusting, hilarious as hell when it tries to get “serious” with the characters. And, yes, that’s Jason Alexander in there, spouting off all that bad dialogue. Oh, and the legendary keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman slums in John Carpenter’s familiar trenches, trying to make himself sound dumb. It’s a glorious, creepy mess that still snipes at me from childhood.
And speaking of cynical, we’ll get a little serious here for a second.
DAY OF THE DEAD is my least favorite film from Romero’s glory period, which started with MARTIN in 1976 and ended with MONKEY SHINES in 1988. In my opinion, nearly everything he made in that 13 year stretch was truly amazing . . . except this. Oh sure, it’s got a few bright moments, great FX, and is probably the bleakest of the original DEAD trilogy. And Bub, the Zombie With A Soul, is a pure delight every minute he’s on screen. But DAY has always played to me like George would rather be somewhere else—literally. This is, famously, not the movie he really wanted to make. And everyone here is a dumbass, self-centered jerk. Case in point: When you’re in a military unit and the guy in charge (READ: “wild-eyed maniac”) says early on in the proceedings that he’s going to shoot you if you don’t sit down in your chair . . . well, that’s when you should steal the helicopter and run like hell. If you don’t, I have no sympathy for you. At all.
And for those among you who may be wondering how I can trash a film like this and heap praises on junk food like GHOULIES, well, I can say only this: I judge DAY OF THE DEAD harshly because it is not GHOULIES. It’s George A. Romero. And we deserved better than this from him. Fortunately, the monkey movie was just a few years away. And, like Carpenter, George had already given us our beloved history. Make no mistake: These guys invented the post modern fright film. Literally.
My favorite of all horror movies—really my favorite of all movies, in general—is DAWN OF THE DEAD. So that, technically, makes George the King of All Halloweens, even on a bad day. He and Vincent Price can share the hot seat. Carpenter and Freddy can be court jesters. I’ll see you all next year, older but hopefully not wiser, the kid in me back for more, in a sea of Technicolor gloom and doom . . .