Monday, October 10, 2016

Cat Scratch Fever: "Cat People" (1942)


Val Lewton's career is proof that a big budget is not necessary to make excellent fright films. A former poet who became a journalist before ending up as a pulp novelist, Lewton (real name Vladimir Leventon) always brought a very literary sensibility to his cheap quickies for RKO Studios. Cat People, which was Lewton's first film for RKO as a producer, is the apogee of his career. For under $15,000, Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur took a slightly ridiculous story idea and made a groundbreaking film. 

Like most of Lewton's later pictures, Cat People is a simple story told in a turbo-charged manner. It's only 73 minutes long, which means that it's barely longer than most television shows. On top of that, Cat People is the first on-screen example of Lewton's interest in warped psychology and the blurry boundaries between the supernatural and common neuroses. Irena Reed (played by Simone Simon) spends a lot of time straddling this line, but ultimately, Cat People makes it clear that the poor Serbian girl is in fact a monster. 


After a chance meeting at the Central Park Zoo, Irena and a handsome marine engineer named Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) soon find themselves madly in love with one another. Despite this, Oliver and others can't help but to find Irena a little odd. You see, during their first date (which consisted of tea and listening to the big cats of the nearby zoo roar in the night), Irena tells Oliver a story about her native village. According to legend, after King John (Jovan Nenad) drove out the Turkish occupiers, he discovered to his horror that the locals had descended into witchcraft and devil worship. For these crimes they were banished into the mountains. 

Centuries later, Irena believes that she is a descendant of these blasphemous peasants. As such, she must refrain from kissing Oliver so that she doesn't transform into a large beast. For a blissful few months, everything is fine and dandy with the young couple. Then, during their reception at The Belgrade restaurant, a feline-faced Serbian woman approaches Irena and says the word "Sister" in their native tongue. A clearly upset Irena retreats back to her apartment and falls asleep alone. 


In order to quiet Irena's fears, Oliver and a mutual friend named Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) suggest to Irena the services of a psychiatrist named Dr. Louis Judd (played Tom Conway). During their first session, Irena tells Dr. Judd all about her superstitious beliefs and why they trouble her so badly. As this unfolds, the audience begins to recognize that Alice and Oliver might be more than just work chums. Indeed, after Oliver learns that Irena has skipped out on numerous therapy sessions in order to spend time at the zoo's panther cage, he admits to Alice that he no longer loves Irena. Alice ups the ante by confessing her love for him. We now officially have a love triangle.

Obviously, Irena is not going to allow such infidelity to last. She begins following the pair as they work late in the office or have pie and coffee. During a very famous scene, Irena methodically stalks Alice down a sporadically lighted street. As their footfalls mingle, then cease, Alice begins to hear the low rumblings of a large cat behind her. Although the cat is never seen, Alice knows for sure that something is after her. The tension builds and builds until the timely arrival of a city bus breaks the strain. This moment has become known as the Lewton Bus and millions of horror and thriller films have borrowed the scene's mechanics for their own jump scares. 


In another equally famous scene, Irena follows Alice to her apartment's basement swimming pool. Disturbed by the sounds of an approaching panther, Alice dives into the empty pool and watches in horror as the shadows begin to form the shape of large predator. She screams. The panther screams. Then, when help arrives, the only people either near or in the pool are Alice and a smirking Irena. Alice dries off knowing that she was almost dead meat. 

The final push over the edge for Irena comes when Oliver admits that he loves Alice and would like a divorce. Incensed, Irena returns to their apartment later that night. Instead of either Oliver or Alice, Irena finds the slightly slimy Dr. Judd, who just days prior had suggested kissing Irena during one of their sessions. This time the bad doctor gets his kiss and pays for it. With a sharp twinkle in her eyes, Irena transforms into a black panther and kills Dr. Judd. However, before his death, Dr. Judd manages to stab Irena several times with his sword cane. Wounded, Irena retreats to the panther's cage at the Central Park Zoo and releases the animal. Not long after the animal is crushed by a passing taxi, Oliver and Alice find the dead body of Irena. Instead of a woman, they see a black panther. Irena had been telling the truth all along. 


Despite its hokey name, Cat People is a beautiful mixture of film noir and horror. Not only that, but the film helped to save the fear genre during the slump of the 1940s. Without question one of Lewton's best productions, Cat People not only etched his legacy in stone, but it also guaranteed more work for Tourneur, a brilliant director who would later film I Walked With a Zombie and Night of the Demon. What Universal was to the early 1930s, Lewton and RKO were to the mid-1940s. Without Cat People, that might never have happened. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Synthetic Flesh: "Doctor X" (1932)


I really don't know why Doctor X isn't a bigger deal. After all, what's not to love about this cheap-o schlocker that most certainly terrified and horrified the prudes of its day. Made during those glorious few years of sound known as the pre-Code era, Doctor X is almost the perfect mad scientist film. Hell, it's even in color, being one of the few films made via the two-color Technicolor process. Directed by Michael Curtiz (yes, the same Michael Curtiz who directed Casablanca) and with a pure pulp script churned out by Robert Tasker and Earl Baldwin (the script itself was based on a play originally known as The Terror), Doctor X tells the story of the Moon Killer Murders, a series of bizarre crimes that have whet the appetites of the sensation-loving public of New York City. 

Enter Lee Taylor (played by Lee Tracy), the goofy reporter for the Daily World. Taylor doesn't necessarily want the story, but events get away from him. Specifically, after yet another murder (this one featuring evidence of cannibalism), the newshound is forced to go to great lengths to meet his deadline. 


While Taylor is trying to get a scoop, a second party is also working towards unmasking the murderer. After reaching an agreement with the NYPD, Doctor Xavier (played by the brilliant Lionel Atwill) decides to quietly conduct his own investigation. You see, following the most recent murder, police traced the murder weapon ( an Austrian-made scalpel) back to Dr. Xavier's private research institute. Inside, the cops find a menagerie of white-coated weirdos. These docs include: Haines (John Wray), a voyeur who likes looking at French girlie mags in the laboratory, Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), a scarface who writes poetry but really studies the effects of the moon on the human psyche, Wells (Preston Foster), an amputee interested in cannibalism, and Duke (Harry Beresford), a pugnacious invalid with a fierce temper and sub-par opinion of women. In order to avoid press and police pressure, Dr. Xavier calls everyone to his spooky manor house in Long Island and begins a series of scientific tests designed to ferret out the killer. 

Unfortunately for Dr. Xavier, Taylor manages to sneak his way into the manor. On the night when Rowitz dies after the killer strikes during a reenactment of one of his earlier crimes, Taylor is found unconscious inside of a medical closet after being drugged. He's revived and restarts his ham-fisted courtship of Dr. Xavier's daughter Joan (played by Fay Wray). This new pairing, as rocky as it is, ultimately winds up saving the day. As the body count rises, it's Taylor who steps in during yet another reenactment,this time featuring Joan as a sleeping hospital patient whom the killer had murdered and partially ate. 


With constantly bubbling fluids colored in reds, greens, and blues, and with a soundtrack that oscillates between howling coastal winds and the buzzing of electrodes, Doctor X is ne plus ultra of early sci-fi. It is also a grand horror film, as well as a mystery story redolent with the perfumes of Mary Roberts Rinehart and even Agatha Christie. Best of all, Doctor X provides an unlikely culprit and an even better explanation. You see, the Moon Killer was driven mad by studying African cannibalism. While on the Dark Continent, he stole human flesh for his experiments--experiments designed to create what he calls "synthetic flesh." This synthetic flesh allows the killer to hide his identity underneath a grotesque, Dr. Hyde-like mask. It's a great touch. The whole film's great. So go watch it. 


Monday, August 8, 2016

Twist the Knife, Slowly: "What Have You Done to Solange?" (1972)

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AC/DC is famous for barking: "If you want blood, you got it." With What Have You Done to Solange?, the thing being offered is exploitation boiled down to the rawest essentials. This giallo masterpiece by director Massimo Dallamano has got everything to make a young boy's mouth water: gobs of fully naked teens, blood, violence, sex, the police, cool-ass professors, and sleek European cars. With a classy soundtrack courtesy of Ennio Morricone, What Have You Done to Solange? is high-and-low to perfection. 

While the film's screenplay is notoriously sloppy (a fault that many Italian films share), the overall plot is simple enough that most viewers can find something juicy to chew on. Loosely based on the Edgar Wallace novel The Clue of the New Pin, What Have You Done to Solange? chronicles a string of murders set against the backdrop of an all-girls Catholic school in London. The victims are all young and attractive. They are also wild, being full of post-60s ideas about free love and free-dumb. An especially "hip" coterie like to swing sex parties with older boys. They can be identified by their group's emblem--a small, green-tipped needle. 



While the women behave badly, the men are not much better. The main male, Italian professor and gymnastics teacher Enrico Rosseni (played by Fabio Testi), is neck-deep in a relationship with one of his students. The young girl, Elizabeth (played by Cristina Galbo), is slightly afraid of sex, but that doesn't stop Rosseni from pushing the envelope. In fact, early on in the film, Rosseni manages to get to at least second base before Elizabeth witnesses the film's first murder.

There are two major problems with this scenario. First of all, as a former teacher, I can tell you that boning students is a recipe for disaster. Second of all, Rosseni is a married man. His wife, a frosty German named Herta (played by Karin Baal), may be a little distant, but she's no villain. The ice blond ends up forgiving her husband after Elizabeth is murdered, then helps him to investigate the killings. 


As for the murderer, he's your classic giallo killer. He's: 1) a sex maniac of sorts, but equally obsessed with revenge, 2) a fan of black gloves and an all-black wardrobe, and 3) a relatively nondescript individual when he's not slicing and dicing. Like Lucio Fulci's own 1972 giallo, Don't Torture a Duckling, the villain in What Have You Done to Solange? masquerades as a priest in order to earn the trust and confidence of his victims. Similarly, Dallamano's killer is motivated by something that would've triggered most giallo killers: a forced abortion on a loved one. If you want sleaze, you got it, folks. 

What Have You Done to Solange? is a beautiful film pockmarked with horrendous dialogue. It is also a spellbinding mystery that fizzles out with an foreseeable reveal and resolution. While the acting never manages to rise above B-grade, Dallamano's film still manages to be worthwhile watching. Call it so bad that it's good, but the truth is that What Have You Done to Solange? is a reminder why '70s cinema is still so good. You couldn't make this film today (the sheer amount of bush alone would tank it in 2016), and that's okay. We'll always have Italy. 



Thursday, June 23, 2016

Everything is Bone: "Dog Soldiers" (2002)


For my money (and what a paltry sum that is) Dog Soldiers is the best made-for-TV movie ever. For American viewers, Dog Soldiers debuted in the spring of 2002 on the once-great Sci Fi Channel (no Ys need apply). The film, which was directed by a then unknown British genius named Neil Marshall, pretty much hits every orgasm point for horror nerds, with a funny gaggle of British soldiers violently duking it out with a pack of Highlander werewolves. Get the Kleenex ready, boys. 

Dog Soldiers opens in the misty mountains of Scotland. A couple of working stiffs (one of whom seems to be a writer) are celebrating something. The girl stiff (played by Tina Landini) hands her knight a letter opener made out of pure silver. The male stiff (Craig Conway) is left speechless. As with most camping couples, this ugly pair of John Bulls are rather randy and soon start making boom-boom. In a brilliant shot, as the man slowly zips down his lady's trousers, he realizes that someone is zipping down the door to their tent. It's a werewolf, not a prowling peeper. Enter lots of blood, howling, and an exquisite shot of a full moon. 

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A few days earlier, Private Cooper (played by Kevin McKidd) fails the selection process for special operations (most likely the SAS). He is terminated by the sociopathic Captain Ryan (played by Liam Cunningham) because he refuses to coldly murder a dog with Ryan's Browning Hi-Power. Side note: when we first see Captain Ryan's sidearm, it clearly has an empty magazine well. For a movie chock full of groovy guns (MP5A2, Mossberg M500, HK41, and L85A1), there's plenty of gaffes involving firearms. Also, if you think that Dog Soldiers presents a truthful depiction of the selection process for special forces, than you are a Grade-A idiot. 

Anyway, back to the movie. After failing, Cooper is RTU'd (returned to unit) just in time for an exercise pitting the regular British Army against the SAS. The exercise takes place in the Highlands--the very same Highlands where campers have been going missing at an alarming rate. According to Cooper, the team's lone Scotsman, the papers blame the killings on a terrific beast, something like the legendary Beast of Bodmin Moor. Others point to an escaped lunatic that's gone blood hungry. We, the audience, know that the culprits are the offspring of Lawrence Talbot. 

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After one of the best soliloquies in the history of horror cinema that comes courtesy of Marshall (the screenwriter) and actor Sean Pertwee (who plays the grizzled Sergeant Wells), Dog Soldiers picks up tremendous speed. First there's a dead cow that comes flying into camp. Mutilated guts lead the boys to discover yet another bloodbath, this time involving their opponents, the SAS. Realizing that the shit has properly hit the fan, Sergeant Wells tells his men to ditch the blank guns and pick up real rounds. The fight is on. 

The team's first KIA is Corporal Bruce Campbell (played by Thomas Lockyer). The unlucky bastard runs into a super sharp tree branch before being gutted by a lycanthrope. Next on the chopping block is Sergeant Wells himself, who suffers a torn gut that spews out extra red and raw sausages. The team only manages to drag him and themselves to safety thanks to the timely intervention of a civilian (played by Emma Cleansby). Megan piles the men into her yellow Land Rover and finds shelter in a very isolated farmhouse. There are no phones inside the house, plus the nearest town is four hours away. The only plus sides are the dog and the food that the house's missing family left behind. 

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Dog Soldiers now becomes a siege flick pitting the troops against the werewolves. There are no silver bullets here, so basically all the lads can do is shoot the lycans long and hard enough that they have to go back into the night and lick their wounds. Although the lovable hard man Private Witherspoon (played by Darren Morfitt) cheerfully likens the dire situation to the famous Battle of Rorke's Drift, where heavily outnumbered British soldiers successfully defended against a Zulu attempt to capture their base, few share his enthusiasm. Private Joe Kirkley (played by Chris Robson) calls the whole show "bone" (short for bollocks), but carries on. As can be guessed, the main heroes of the siege are Cooper, "Spoon," and the ailing Sergeant Wells. As for the vile Captain Ryan, he makes a miraculous recovery. Before growing newfound body hair and a few inches in height, the SAS man admits that Sergeant Wells's squad were intentionally led into a trap. They were setup to be bait for a werewolf, that was then to be captured and studied for possible military application. London of course did not reckon that there would be more than one werewolf. As it turns out, there's a whole family of werewolves and the team is holed up in their house. 

The film's penultimate betrayal comes when Megan reveals that she has led the men into their last trap. She's not only a wolfie, but she's also a member of the family that has been trying to kill Private Cooper and company since the twenty minute mark. This leads to a gigantic blowup involving the few remaining men and the whole pack, including Captain Ryan. A stove leaking gas gets involved, and I hope you didn't forget about that silver penknife, for it too plays a part. Only one man survives the whole ordeal. I'm sure you can figure it out. 

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Dog Soldiers has been called the perfect werewolf movie and I concur. Although the coloring makes the film almost too dark to see, the overall ambiance of cold, rainy Scotland is better than perfect. Marshall's direction and script, along with solid performances from the cast, makes Dog Soldiers a can't-miss flicker for all fright film fans. There continues to be talk of a sequel. I hope there's some meat on those bones because I'm hungry for more. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

My Favorite Brain Soup: "The Return of the Living Dead" (1985)

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This one was another midnight special. Along with Return of Count Yorga, Scream, Blacula, Scream, and Taxi Driver, I sat in front of the TV and watched The Return of the Living Dead too many times to count. "Too many times" might be more simple and more accurate to say, actually. This splatterpunk zombie flick is the pinnacle of 1980s horror. I'll stand by that statement until the day I die and reanimate. When you think of synth-heavy, neon-colored, and gleefully bloody fright flicks that ooze with toxic radiation, this is the film you're thinking of. The Return of the Living Dead is thrash metal imprinted on celluloid. 

The plot is simple. A new employee, a punk rocker named Freddy (played by Thom Matthews), and a old employee (played by James Karen), work in the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse. On the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend, the pair are killing time after hours. Frank (Karen) is showing the new kid the ropes, explaining how all skeletons come from India and how veterinary students just love ordering split dogs. The warehouse, which is located in a grimy section of town, also houses a single human cadaver in the freezer. This doesn't bode well. 


After doing a round, Frank tries to scare Freddy by talking about what's in the basement. According to him, Uneeda houses three zombified cadavers from the original Night of the Living Dead incident. Unlike the movie, Frank explains that the true story occurred in 1969 (remember that Romero's classic was released in 1968) when a strange chemical leaked into the mortuary underneath a Pittsburgh VA hospital. This caused the dead bodies to squirm and do both the shimmy and the shake. The US Army wasn't in the dancing mood, so they tapped the Army Corps of Engineers to seal up the bodies in tight drums and ship them to the Darrow Chemical Company (side note: did the makers of Mystery, Inc., the greatest Scooby-Doo series ever, reference this fictitious company when they created the doomed Darrow family and their Saw-like mansion?). However, the Army did a SNAFU and sent the barrels to Uneeda. 

When Frank and Freddy go to the basement in order to check out the cadavers, Frank tries to show how solid Army engineering is by smacking the side of the canister. Bad move; a green vapor comes from the barrel, knocks Frank and Freddy out, and works its way into the warehouse's air conditioning. When the pair of knuckleheads wake up, not only have the split dogs started doing the cha-cha-cha, but that corpse in the freezer is alive and damnably hungry. 


Outside of the warehouse, Freddy's friends are gathering. They're a motley assortment of punk rockers, with the one exception being Freddy's girlfriend Tina (played by Beverly Randolph). Like all young punks, they're bored and itching to do something. Problem is that they have to wait until Freddy gets off of work at 10 p.m. After getting a ride with the irritable Suicide (played by Mark Venturini), the gang decide to party in the cemetery that abuts Uneeda. The cemetery is called Resurrection Cemetery. Again, nothing to see here. 

Hey, you want more foreshadowing? Alright. One of the gang members, Trash (played by scream queen Linnea Quigley), is a bit of a freak. Even the other weirdos in her posse think so. Anyway, while relaxing among the headstones with Spider (played by Miguel Nunez), Trash admits that her biggest fear (and sexual turn on) is being eaten alive by several old men. Want to guess what happens to her? 


Before we get there, let's return to Frank and Freddy. Realizing that they've caused a shit storm, Frank calls the boss, Burt (played by Clu Gulager). The trio decide that their only course of action is burn up the reanimated cadaver until there's nothing left. Burt calls in a favor to Ernie Kaltenbrunner (played by Don Calfa), a Nazi-named undertaker who agrees to help out a friend. Tragically, once the zombie is burned up, his infection becomes the smoke that pours out of the crematory. This causes acid rain that soaks the cemetery. Bingo, now you've got a zombie problem. 

Unlike Romero's more popular zombie films, the living dead in this film run, speak, and basically act "more human than human." They're intelligent cannibals, using paramedic and cop radios to calls for more human meat. These zombies are also indestructible. Shooting them in the head does nothing, while burning them up just makes more zombies. It's a no win situation that kills a lot of cops, punk kids, and paramedics. 


Of course, what everyone remembers about The Return of the Living Dead is that it's the movie that made brains a staple of the zombie diet. Prior to this film, zombies were just flesh eaters. In The Return of the Living Dead, they want brains in order to offset the pain of death. Whether or not this makes them super zombies is up for debate. Suffice it say that in order to wipe them out, the Army drops a nuclear artillery shell on the entire city. Does this make more zombies? Yes, yes it does. 

Directed by Dan O'Bannon, the screenwriter responsible for 1979's Alien, The Return of the Living Dead is gutter trash cinema at its finest. From its punk rock soundtrack to its slapstick approach to the apocalypse, The Return of the Living Dead is why the 1980s was such a glorious time for horror films. While it does have some head scratchers (the biggest of all is why the film, which was clearly shot in Los Angeles, is set in Louisville, Kentucky), the film still holds as one the greatest zombie flicks ever puked up on the American public. 



Sunday, April 17, 2016

Somewhere in England: "The Kill List" (2011)


Mark my words: Ben Wheatley is going to be a big name in horror. The fortysomething director has already achieved indie darling success, but I believe that he'll be a major player this year. Why? Because I've seen The Kill List

Yet another standard-bearer for the new breed of transatlantic horror (you'd read that article, wouldn't ya?), The Kill List is a methodical, quiet examination of building dread. A slow burn, the majority of this film is a chronicle of Jay (played by Neil Maskell) and Shel (played by MyAnna Buring) and their declining marriage. Before the film's action begins, we are told that Jay hasn't worked in eight months. This is because his last gig, which took place in the Ukrainian city of Kiev, went way south. Since Jay is a hitman, one can only imagine how bad the job went. 

Jay's fellow death dealer Gal (played by Michael Smiley) shows up one night in order to convince Jay to join him on a new job. In truth, Shel, who is the group's booker, talked to the Irishman Gal and convinced him to pull Jay into the job. Jay is initially hesitant, but after his boorish behavior ruins a dinner party (which leads to a whale of an argument with Shel), he comes around to the idea of killing new people for money. 


Unbeknownst to everyone, Gal's girlfriend Fiona (played by Emma Fryer) scratches a mysterious symbol on the back of one of Jay and Shel's mirrors. If you've seen The Blair Witch Project, then you have a good idea of what this symbol looks like. This is far from Fiona's weirdest moment, for while Jay and Gal are out doing wet work, Fiona makes herself comfortable in Jay and Shel's home. Add in the fact that Gal and Fiona breakup early on in the film and you a pretty precise idea of why Fiona is straight out of the heebie jeebies catalog. 

Fiona isn't the only oddity in The Kill List. Jay and Gal's employer, a bloke known simply as "the client" (played by Struan Rodger), is the silent-in-a-suit type who likes to sign contracts in blood. This is Jay and Gal's first tipoff that this won't be the usual job. The next few tipoffs come when they actually start knocking people dead. Their first target, a Roman Catholic priest (played by Gareth Tunley), thanks Jay before the Protestant Englishman whacks him. That's odd, but when the next victim, a pedophile (played by Mark Kempner) with what one assumes to be an entire library of kiddie smut, does the same thing while Jay is systematically breaking his fingers with a hammer, Jay and Gal decide that maybe the job isn't worth it. 


Too late. Not only does the client say "No way," but by this point Jay has already gone off the deep end. As a father, Jay cannot stomach the idea of pedophiles running around the Jolly Old. Because of this, he looses his professionalism and starts torturing anyone associated with the kill list. It's an ugly affair and it almost destroys Jay and Gal's friendship. The client's refusal, along with his offer to increase Jay and Gal's salary, keeps the partnership going for at least one more kill. This time around Jay and Gal are gunning for a Member of Parliament. 

In a country where pedophiles have replaced witches and devil worshippers as Public Enemy No. 1 (pedophile politicians are particularly loathed), it makes sense that Jay and Gal would put away an MP. However, not long after settling into a stakeout position on the MP's palatial manor house, Jay and Gal witness a bizarre procession. Half the people are in wicker masks, while almost all are nude. The parade is lit by torchlight, while the musical accompaniment is reminiscent of the Celtic strains of yore. Disturbingly, Jay and Gal watch the ceremony all the way to its climax, which involves a ritual suicide. 


Finally well beyond his limit of tolerance, Jay opens fire on the gathering. This sets in motion a horrific and bloody chase that winds up in a darkened sewer. These scenes are not fit for the claustrophobic, nor the gore-shy. Suffice it to say that only one of the assassins makes it out alive. The other winds up holding his own guts. 

The chase does not end here, however. Jay (spoiled it; not sorry) retreats to a summer house with his son Sam (played by Harry Simpson) and Shel. The cult members follow him there and lay siege to the house. Jay decides to go on the offensive and follows the freaks into the night. Shel tries to defend the house, but the cult members prove too numerous. Both her and Jay are captured and are forced to perform one of the cult's death rituals. I promise I won't give away the big reveal, but I will tell you that Fiona, the client, and few others have been in the cult all along. It was, for a lack of a better word, a setup. 


The Kill List often garners comparisons to The Wicker Man, the Citizen Kane of Brit horror. Both films deal with mystery cults that exist in modern Britain, and both films put their protagonists through the gauntlet. Without question, The Kill List belongs to the same ancestral tree as The Wicker Man and The Blood on Satan's Claw. The Kill List is also an indie film and aware of it. Whereas The Wicker Man and others were incredible features masquerading as B-movie pulp, The Kill List is the intentional marriage of the art film with grotesque horror. While not entirely novel, The Kill List is a superb thriller that never once allows its audience to be comfortable. You've been warned. 


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Satanic Diarrhea: "Prince of Darkness" (1987)


I thought I was over being scared. Horror movies just weren't doing it for me anymore. Then I switched the channel one night. It was after one a.m. I don't remember the exact channel but the movie was Prince of Darkness. John Carpenter's nuclear waste-colored film unexpectedly chilled me. One scene in particular, where a shadowy figure stands in the doorway of a decrepit church while a static-y voice provides a warning, hit me right in the heart. Since then I have always looked upon Prince of Darkness as one of the better horror films. 

To my surprise, most critics considered Prince of Darkness a turd when it was released. Since then some have defended the film, but most still consider this satanic movie one of Carpenter's lesser lights. I am here to say that it's one of his best. 


Prince of Darkness is one of those horror films were the intensity is always present. There is no slow build. Rather, the world created by Prince of Darkness feels unhinged right from the very start. Set in an oddly uninhabited Los Angeles, Prince of Darkness deals with a giant, green cylinder. This particular cylinder is located in the basement of an abandoned Catholic Church in the rough side of town. Unbeknownst to most, the church was once the domain of the Brotherhood of Sleep--an ancient and highly secret order in charge of protecting Christendom from evil. That's where the green water comes in. 

But first, the last remaining member of the Brotherhood of Sleep dies. In his absence, an English priest (played by Donald Pleasance) calls upon a theoretical physicist named Professor Howard Birack (played by Victor Wong) to investigate the strange cylinder. Birack brings along his graduate students (played by Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, Dennis Dun, and Dirk Blocker). This group is joined by another team of academics and together they decide to stay the night at the church in order to scientifically study the cylinder's contents.    

The weirdness begins almost immediately. On the outside, the team is stalked by a veritable army of the homeless. Led by a pale-faced bum played by Alice Cooper, the vagrants clearly know that big, bad evil is inside of the church. When not shuffling like zombies outside of the church, they wait in packs, stare at the sun, and make friends with all kinds of creepy crawlies. They also commit a few murders. 


Inside, the team starts to deteriorate when a researcher named Susan (played by Anne Howard) is infected by the water itself. If you've seen any possession film that involves black bile being regurgitated directly into a victim's mouth, then you already know what Susan experiences. At the same time, the team's Latin expert, Lisa (played by Ann Yen) translates the scared text of the Brotherhood of Sleep. The text is a startling confession that rewrites the entire history of Christianity. Specifically, the text speaks of an Anti-God, a primordial deity who was worshipped on Earth before God. Satan, it turns out, is the Anti-God's son. After both were purged in the great biblical flood, the Anti-God was relegated to the realm of anti-mater, while Satan was made corporeal in the form of green water. Thus the team realizes that they are now in a race to save the world. 

As the possessed Susan kills, then reanimates team members one by one, the remaining uninfected barricade themselves in rooms or try and fight back. In one scene, a sleeping student named Kelly (played by Susan Blanchard), who had earlier worn a strange mark on her arm after bumping into some equipment down in the basement, is really given the works. Through the night and into the morning, Kelly's body is turned into a giant scab wound, while her stomach shows all the signs of a growing womb. Eventually, Kelly's demonic waterboarding turns her into the carrier of Satan. 


As Satan, Kelly tries to bring her father back into this realm via the use of mirrors. When the first mirror (a small, compact one used for applying make-up) proves insufficient, Kelly finds a larger one and places her hand into the glass. The glass becomes water and within seconds, we see that there is a second hand in the water. Kelly tries to pull the Anti-God through and manages to bring the beast's arm into view (side note: the Anti-God's hand looks suspiciously like the one sported by the Lord of Darkness in 1985's Legend), but she is ultimately thwarted by Catherine (Blount), who shoves Kelly into the water. Catherine goes into the water as well, so when the priest smashes the glass, the young graduate student is lost forever. 

Or is she? In the film's final moments, Brian (Parker), Catherine's former lover and a fellow graduate student, sees the same reoccurring nightmare of the Anti-God standing in the church's doorway, but this time it's Catherine instead of the ancient deity. 

Part of John Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy" (other entries are The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness), Prince of Darkness is clearly a Lovecraft-inspired tale of cosmic horror. From the use of "Danforth" (taken from HPL's Mountains of Madness) to the entire cosmology of the Anti-God, Prince of Darkness drips with the eldritch. Carpenter's own touches are present as well, for the synth-heavy score, the muted coloring, and the presence of a silent, human, and yet somehow inhuman mob (see the gangsters in Assault on Precinct 13 and Michael Myers in the Halloween franchise) are all staples of his oeuvre. Furthermore, the remnants of Prince of Darkness can be found in 1988's They Live, another tale set in a surreal version of Los Angeles. Both films are spectacular, but of the two, They Live is more popular and more critically-acclaimed. Prince of Darkness is just as good, and insofar as plots go, it's probably Carpenter's best work.