Being a List of the Assorted Horrors I've Consumed During the Month of April, 2013.
The Lords of Salem (2013) dir. Rob Zombie
The amount of venom spat in Rob Zombie's direction these days by the notoriously fickle horror and genre cinema communities is enough to fill a few of the sort of dingy, leaky fauceted, mold-encrusted motel bathtubs you can easily imagine his characters frequenting after a long day of rolling around in dirt and corpses. For reasons rarely totally coherent, Zombie and his films rub people the wrong way. These detractors believe (erroneously) that he soiled their favorite horror franchise, or they're annoyed by his grimy heavy metal hick aesthetic, or they contest that his films are all flash and no substance. This last point of contention hits the M.O. of Zombie's filmography square on the nose, but the notion that this is in any way a bad thing is baffling. Zombie has based his personal image and the products of his dual careers on the recontextualization of horror film iconography. This is a man who's had the robot from The Phantom Creeps (1939) bobbing along with him on stage and in his music videos for decades. His first film, House of 1000 Corpses (2003), played around in Tobe Hooper's toybox (specifically Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 1 (1974), Part 2 (1986), and The Funhouse (1981)) while its sequel, The Devil's Rejects (2005), dumped the first film's rural carnival aesthetic altogether and adopted the attitude and thick-coated grime of '70s exploitation pictures. His Halloween films (2007-2009), while not the travesties that many of those aforementioned venom-spitters claim, feel disappointing and flawed because the cinematic touchstones are explicit rather than digested and internalized into the Rob Zombie horror machine. There are of course moments in both films that feel like outgrowths of Zombie's multifaceted-yet-singular vision, but on the whole one receives the sense of studio meddling (for evidence, compare the theatrical and director's cuts of Halloween 2, or sit through the blazing fast retread of Carpenter's original in the second half of Zombie's Halloween).
Now, it's pretty easy to note Zombie's use of the reconfigured situations, images, and characters of horror cinema's past and call him an unoriginal hack for doing so. But under this same logic, a filmmaker like Tarantino-- who pilfers the same from all corners of low-brow cinematic history-- is just as guilty, yet the cinema lovers attacking his films on those grounds are far fewer. (Though I do know a handful of those folks. Those folks are also wrong.) The Lords of Salem, Zombie's latest horror hodgepodge, is receiving a not unexpected amount of scathing criticism from certain sectors of the horror community, and yet it's by far the most direct and unambiguous example of what he's been doing since the beginning with less success: bombarding us, relentlessly, with the visceral sights and sounds that only horror films can create. The story and characters here are kept to an absolute minimum (and what's there is essentially-- indeed, recognizably, perhaps for ease of immersion-- Rosemary's Baby (1968)). But this narrative lack exists because those aspects of visual storytelling are pretty clearly not what The Lords of Salem is all about. This is a film about wallpaper.
More importantly, it's a film about how fucking terrifying wallpaper can be when knowingly presented through the lens of a camera wielded by a filmmaker who wants to create horror. It's a film about ambient noise, seething creatures in the corner of the frame, heavy breathing, the menace of opulent architecture, and droning scores that chill one to the bone. Zombie has fashioned a film that exists in the same nightmarish dream plane as those of Lucio Fulci's The Beyond (1981) or Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) (the latter of which having a direct influence on about a third of the film's visual style: check out that framing). But (it must be stressed) just because the film earmarks The Shining and Rosemary's Baby as influences doesn't render it a pale imitation by default: The Lords of Salem takes those rather subtle, creeping approaches to the language of cinematic horror and refashions them as an assault on the senses. It has the verve (and the style) of a mid-'90s heavy metal music video (see: the demonic, partially-animated fantasy in which Sheri Moon Zombie's character rides a horned goat in slow motion and gets her hair licked by a guy face-painted up like Sting).
The cumulative effect of the visual and aural onslaught on the viewer is much like the responses that the film's characters have to the music contained on the mysterious vinyl record composed by the band The Lords: it might make you laugh, leave you entranced, creep the hell out of you, or give you a splitting headache. If you're properly attuned to the film's frequency, you'll feel all four responses. The Lords of Salem exists as an experience of horror, a distillation of everything that makes the genre's undead heart tick. It's not thematically deep, and it's only major flaw is relying a bit too heavily on exposition concerning its minimal plot when none was necessary. If, as has been reported, Rob Zombie has given up making horror films, it's certain that many will cheer it as a victory, though what it really means is that horror has a lost a filmmaker without scruples. Enjoy Paranormal Activity 5, everyone.
Ghoulies (1985) dir. Luca Berocovici
Though to a lesser extent than other slimy '80s puppet horrors like Gremlins (1984), Critters (1986), and (heck) even Munchies (1987), the Ghoulies series of films was nonetheless on constant rotation in the VCR of my childhood living room. The films' (um) stark and iconic toilet-centric box art appealed directly to my poor taste and pulled me in for multiple rentals of each at the local video store. One can hardly imagine what the clerks must have thought about my upbringing. Anyway, it's nearly twenty years later and in the heat of one afternoon moment I decided revisiting the first three back-to-back-to-back was a swell idea. If nothing else, I was right about the swelling. The vantage of time has left me able to appreciate the film's as if for the first bewildering time, with only bits and pieces of each returning to me through memory. Apparently I remembered next to nothing about the initial Ghoulies. By the time I've arrived at the juncture where our possessed hero, an Eric Roberts stand-in (Peter Liapis), summons a couple of chrome-skulled dwarves to do his bidding, I begin to feel as if the Ghoulies of memory and the Ghoulies of reality where switched in the VCR at birth. Though certainly bizarre, the film eschews the forthright humor of the later entries and dedicates most of its cinematic energies to its light demonic horror. It's a featherweight possession comedy that is paradoxically too serious and too silly to work on either level. In fact, the ghoulies themselves are hardly in the thing, pushing their precious puppet faces into the light only on occasion. Unarguably, the best scene in this first film is one in which a large group of party guests is at dinner, wearing sunglasses and laughing like maniacs while the ghoulies pop out of the pot roast. Oh, time, if only I could shove my hand up your puppet-hole and retrieve my fond reflections now lost. Director Luca Berocovici's other claim to horror "comedy" fame is 1990's teenage virgin vampire musical, Rockula, which--had my store carried it-- I'm certain would have wound up in heavy rotation too, considering posters with a whiff of cheese were the gateway to my heart (and my mother's pocketbook).
Ghoulies II (1988) dir. Albert Band
Forty minutes into Ghoulies II, and it's apparent that this one is where most of my affectionate memories for the series originate. It's not a good film (in fact, it's pretty much a bad one) but it contains an ample supply of all of the elements that set my young brain (and now slightly older brain) into a tizzy: a deliciously grody carnival setting, a prominently featured haunted house attraction, a smug yuppie villain, mild gross-out humor, a plethora of puppet mayhem, and a dollop of man-in-suit mayhem. It's a good deal more fun and chock full of goofy humor than the previous film, which helps. Case in point, at one moment an assorted crowd of onlookers cheer on the ghoulies and their destructive antics by chanting "Rats! Rats! Rats!" Though, the implication that demonic influence is the only way to ensure the survival of a small business enterprise threatened by the profit demands of a soulless (and smug!) controlling entity is as depressing today as it was in 1988. My memories aren't in tatters, but this hunk of juvenile toilet-fodder remains a largely disposable film. Ghoulies II was directed by Charles Band's dad, Albert, and it features an original score composed by a man named Fuzzbee. So there you go.
Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College (1991) dir. John Carl Buechler
Ghoulies III is Rock 'N' Roll Community College Meets The Three Ghoulie Stooges. In a word: unbearable. My brain was fried twenty minutes in. Now here's the thing: I love childish campus sex comedies, and I love dumb child-skewing puppet monster movies, but the combination of the two (if this film can be said to represent the combination's full potential) is an abomination from birth, seething and writhing in its endless agonizing death throes across the quad of our enjoyment. It's not fun, it's not funny, and it's not enjoyable to pity; it takes abrasive idiocy to staggering new heights and seems too thick to take pride in itself over even that slight accomplishment. How veteran actor Kevin McCarthy was wrangled into this one to play a dean burgeoning with homicidal intent (a role that he really puts his all into, despite the anti-illustrious pedigree of the series) is beyond me, but if anyone else working on the film possessed a fraction of his energy maybe things could have turned out differently. Because it's more-or-less geared at children, the college atmosphere sits uncomfortably: the usual panty raids and raging parties are replaced by toothless Prank Week shenanigans, but the film still engages in light sex and nudity, so who is the intended audience for this again? I'd suppose pre-teens who wanted to sneak one past their parents or young adults with the psychological maturity of toothpicks. Either way, I can't imagine anyone being thrilled after hitting the rewind button on this schlock back in 1991. Every film in this gonzo series has been totally different from the last, and besides the tonal tweaks the most noticeable added feature in Ghoulies Go to College is voices for the ghoulie trio, who apparently have been Larry, Curly, and Moe reincarnated this whole time (who knew). Some changes are better left unchanged. Director John Carl Buechler also helmed the worst Friday the 13th sequel (Part VII: The New Blood (1988), as if you needed me to tell you) and the original Troll (1986), a film with the distinction of being outlasted in the public's consciousness by its train wreck of a sequel. You'd have to pay me in head trauma to sit through Ghoulies IV (1994) any time before another twenty years are through.
The Cat and the Canary (1978) dir. Radley Metzger
One not-so-stormy but assuredly dark night this past month I watched two film versions of the 1922 old-dark-house theatrical murder mystery The Cat and the Canary, the first being Elliott Nugent's from 1939, starring Paulette Goddard and Bob Hope, and the second being Radley Metzger's from 1978, starring quite a few people but most significantly Honor Blackman, Olivia Hussey, and Wilfrid Hyde-White. I don't have much to say about the 1939 version other than to note that it was sufficiently charming and that Bob Hope (while certainly not a bucket of laughs) played an interesting male lead in that his character's defining features seemed to be his decidedly nebbish and milk-livered nature. In contrast, I found the 1978 version of the tale to be of quite high interest, especially to the genre fan of eclectic tastes. Chief among these points of interest is the idetity of the film's maker: Radley Metzger, the 1970s porn chic auteur of such moody, artistic, and emotionally affecting films as Score (1973), The Lickerish Quartet (1970), and The Image (1975). The 1978 Cat and the Canary is one of only a couple films outside of erotica and pornography that Metzger ever made, and the mere fact that he-- a director with an established adult film career-- could wrangle together the cast and budget for this (relatively speaking) classy affair is an accomplishment akin to some lucky chap's tale out of a ten-cent Horatio Alger paperback, with blowjobs in the place of rags. And Metzger handles himself admirably. This is a stylish and clever take on the story, replete with amusing pitch-black humor and a pinch of sadism. Though torture, murder, cousin-on-cousin incest, and lesbianism are all key elements of this Gothic stew, they're implied rather than made explicit. This restraint is bound to bore some horror fans, as there's no murder to this murder mystery until after the halfway point, but the snail's pace lends itself well to fashioning the biting character moments and subtle atmosphere that are this film's proverbial bread and butter. Wilfrid Hyde-White's performance as the cranky patriarch whose inheritance everyone is scheming over is by far the highlight of the proceedings as he communicates from beyond the grave with his assembled guests (and the filmgoing audience!) through deliciously meta prerecorded film reels. It's nowhere near the charming, erotic, and harrowing psychological heights of Metzger's singular career in filmmaking, but The Cat and the Canary remains an amusing and little-seen curiosity that's well worth the footnote.