Creepshow (1982) [31 Days of Gore]

 

 I wanted to end this year’s 31 Days of Gore with something special. The entire month I’ve been carefully considering which movie it should be. It turns out I can think of few movies more quintessential to my childhood than Creepshow. It was probably my introduction to King, Romero, and Savini, it sports an unbelievable soundtrack by John Harrington (which I listen to quite a bit), and possibly replicates the experience of reading an issue of EC horror more accurately than HBO’s Tales from the Crypt. Never mind the fact it barely works as a horror film, it has a killer cast and every person in it knows exactly what kind of movie they’re making, which is rare when you have so many different kinds of actors.

In the container story, an angry father (Tom Atkins) reprimands his son (Joe Hill) for the horror comic he finds in his bedroom. The comic looks suspiciously like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear, right down to the style of the advertisements found inside. The father calls it sick filth and tosses it in the trash. Once the boy is alone, he wishes his father would rot in hell, at which point a ghoul appears at his window to tell him the stories from the comic book in person. Cue the opening credits, which are colorful and fun. (Seriously, why do so many modern movies skip the tone-setting credits?)

The first story features Carrie Nye, Ed Harris, and Viveca Lindfors, and it’s probably the weakest of the group, but it has a great line (“I want my Father’s Day cake!”) and the hokey feel of a campfire story. I complain about stereotypical characters in horror movies all the time, but these characters are hyper-stereotypical and intentionally so. That’s part of the reason the film is so successful at feeling like the material which inspired it: it revels in being pulp.

In the next story Stephen King plays Jordy Verrill, a country bumpkin who discovers a fallen meteorite. Much like that moment in The Blob, touching the meteorite is a very bad idea; it infects Verrill’s hand with some sort of alien substance resembling chia grass. King might be the worst actor in the entire movie, delivering a performance which would make Jerry Lewis roll his eyes, but that’s not a complaint. He’s obviously having a blast and it’s just as contagious as the stuff growing on his hand.

 Following the conclusion of King’s segment, Leslie Nelson gets the best lines of the entire movie in his portrayal of a rich maniac who goes to far-fetched lengths to punish his wife’s lover (Ted Danson). Although he plays it straight, Nelson is doing something completely different than what he did in Airplane and Naked Gun; maybe he’s not as funny here, but he’s definitely the character who made me laugh the most. It might even be my favorite segment of the movie because he’s so cartoonishly evil you can’t help but root for him to do terrible things… so that you can root for terrible things to happen to him later.

It seems that the penultimate story, The Crate, is everybody’s favorite. In it, Adrienne Barbeau (who also appeared in Romero’s half of Two Evil Eyes) plays a loud-mouthed alcoholic whose husband (Hal Holbrook) fantasizes about killing her. Meanwhile, a friend of theirs discovers a mysterious crate beneath the stairs of the local university. I can certainly see why this is the fan-favorite, and it was probably mine, too, at one point or another, but I found this one was the biggest candidate for trimming some of the movie’s two-hour runtime.

The final story the ghoul tells was probably my least favorite as a kid, but I’ve grown quite fond of it. This analysis is at least partly responsible, but I discovered creepy crawlies are much more effective to me now than I was a kid. My girlfriend, who I’ve never known to squirm during a movie (with the exception of Ichi the Killer) almost couldn’t stand to watch it. In it, E.G. Marshall plays a rich and powerful hermit whose sterile home is infiltrated by cockroaches.

I don’t know what, exactly, elevates Creepshow so high above its aspirations, but there are so few things that make me so gleeful. Creepshow 2 ain’t a bad movie either, but the end of that film is where I part ways with the franchise. Don’t ever expect me to feature Creepshow 3 and the internet-only Creepshow Raw… they really are that bad.

That’s it for this year’s 31 Days of Gore. It was the breeziest one yet!

The Dark Half (1993) [31 Days of Gore]

 

 It seems there was something in the zeitgeist which led to some superficially similar movies about duality coming out within a short period of time. Brian De Palma made Raising Cain less than a year before The Dark Half and not very long after David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, a spectacularly discomforting movie which somehow came out the same year as Twins. I’m not sure why I felt like revisiting The Dark Half more than the examples above, it just seemed to call to me last night the way the sparrows seem to call to Timothy Hutton’s character… that and it was the only one of the bunch freely available on Amazon’s VOD service.

 I give many movies a hard time for not making a lot of sense, but The Dark Half doesn’t make sense in an agreeable way… if that makes sense. There are details the movie takes its time to set up, but many of these details don’t strengthen the core experience, which is this: a novelist’s pseudonym has somehow embodied himself and now he’s going on a killing spree.

So, uh, what the hell does all this have to do with the tumor discovered in the main character’s brain when he was a kid? Why is it important for us to get a pseudo-medical explanation (which somehow manages to explain nothing at all) when the character in question seems to be purely supernatural in origin? Why is there so much talk about schizophrenia when it’s made perfectly clear, early on, that’s not what’s going on? And why write so many one-note characters when you have a cast as outstanding as Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker, and Royal Dano?

It probably sounds like I’m getting ahead of myself here, but that’s kind of the way the movie operates: the cart before the horse, the chickens before the eggs. And it probably sounds like I disliked the movie, but I didn’t. I liked it much more than I did before, I just have questions… lots and lots of questions.

Director George Romero, who made my favorite horror movie of all time (Dawn of the Dead), doesn’t necessarily strike out here, but he makes some strange decisions. Fortunately, none of these decisions break the movie and it’s not hard to look past them. When he adapted Stephen King’s novel of the same name, I imagine he took the bits which interested him as a visual storyteller but failed to transplant some of the connecting tissue.

The result is an uneven movie which manages to work in spite of its flaws. The horror has a nice upwards curve in terms of intensity, and the way the final conflict resolves is one of the most satisfying deaths ever filmed. I’m just not sure what the hell happened at the end or why it happened. Maybe it’s just a little too metaphysical and/or metaphorical for my tastes.

Be sure to come back tomorrow… 31 Days of Gore concludes with yet another Romero picture.

 

 

Creep 2 (2017) [31 Days of Gore]

I thought Creep was good, but I never felt it needed a sequel. In fact, it never even occurred to me that it could have a sequel. It came pretty close to wearing out its welcome to be honest.

Two years later Mark Duplass returns as the creep, this time going by the name Aaron, which was the name of the victim in the previous film. His new target is Sara (Desiree Akhavan), a struggling YouTuber whose dreadfully artistic video series involves responding to the Craigslist ads of lonely people. When “Aaron” posts an ad for a videographer job, Sara decides to put her failing series on hold to make some money for a change. She meets Aaron at his house and the creepiness begins immediately as he directs her into making a documentary about his life.

Once again the creep has targeted someone who should know better than to stick around. At one point the creep confesses part of the fun is watching how his victims fail to heed the warning signs. Sara, too, has a scene in which she admits she should get the hell out of this situation as soon as possible, and her excuse for staying is a little more believable than it was the last time around.

The trailer I glimpsed prior to watching the movie led me to believe Duplass’s character might have met his match this time. There’s a little bit of that going on, which makes for some of the film’s funniest moments, but it’s apparent that the creep isn’t just lying to Sara, he’s lying to the audience as well—he’s always got something up his sleeve and he’s not to be trusted about anything, including the glimpses into his (possibly made-up) past.

I liked the first Creep and, against all odds, loved the second one. Superior sequels are rare in general, but even rarer in horror. It’s absurd, it’s funny, and the performers are absolutely fearless in where they’re willing to go to make a creepy movie.

So am I left with a burning desire to see a Creep 3 someday? Not really, but if it turns up on Netflix, I’m probably gonna watch it.

The Black Death (2010) [31 Days of Gore]

I didn’t think The Black Death would qualify for 31 Days of Gore, I just felt like watching it. The fact that it’s very much a movie that belongs here is a happy accident. At first I felt disappointed that it wasn’t as grounded as, say, The Crucible nor as radical and exploitative as Mark of the Devil; movies that exist in the middle of these extremes are typically lifeless and mediocre. Fortunately, The Black Death finds a happy medium between reality and shock value.

The year is 1348 and the Black Death is ravishing England. The Theory of Everything’s Eddie Redmayne plays a monk who breaks his vows of celibacy when he falls in love with a woman. As the plague reaches their region, he urges her to flee into the relative safety of the forest. She agrees, but only under the condition he leaves the monastery once and for all. She’ll wait for him at a predetermined meeting place, but only for a week. If he doesn’t make a decision by then he’ll never see her again.

Torn between his vows and the woman he loves, the monk prays for some sort of guidance. He takes it as a divine sign when a knight named Ulric (Game of Thrones’s Sean Bean) arrives at the monastery, seeking someone who can guide his party through the difficult lands. The monk jumps at the chance as no one else knows the area better and he’s swept away on a miserable and bloody adventure.

It turns out Ulric has learned there’s a remote village which has yet to be afflicted by the plague. Naturally, he and his ragtag group of soldiers suspect there’s a sorcerer there who caused the plague in the first place. The monk is shocked to find that the men he’s traveling with are master interrogators and one of their instruments is a torture device designed to split a human from asshole to chin. These aren’t good men, even though they think they’re doing the lord’s work, but they may just be the closest thing to a hero you’re gonna get from a movie like this one.

To say any more would spoil the horror. Much of the latter half verges on absurd, which would normally clash with the first half’s tone, but it’s a decent little flick. The unhampered violence, which stops just short of full-blown exploitation, will turn many away, but here’s my problem with dismissing it as gratuitous: we live in a time when full grown adults believe the very same superstitions as the characters in The Black Death. It’s much more important to show how horrific senseless violence was rather than downplay it.

So this is a period piece that’s more likely to satisfy fans of horror than anyone looking for a historical drama. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a well-crafted piece of fantasy and it’s a shame it’s not better known. I will say the backside of the climax was a little silly (one character delivers a speech in the manner of a Bond villain), but I can think of several horror films far worse than this. It’s perfect for a Saturday afternoon.

The Scream series (1996—2011) [31 Days of Gore]

I never really had a lot of love for the Scream series, but I’m older now and a lot more mature (read: I no longer get defensive when mainstream audiences come poking around in the scrappy little genres I hold so dearly). I’m still not ready to delve into the other 90s slashers, because I Know What You Did Last Summer still looks mediocre to me, but I’m ready to revisit Woodsboro… I hope.

Scream (1996)

How do you know you’re getting old? When a movie that’s well over twenty years old still seems like one of those newfangled horror movies. If Scream really is old enough to drink alcohol, I don’t even want to think about how old Nightmare on Elm Street must be.

Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is a high school student who’s quiet, prude, and emotionally damaged by the recent death of her mother. One night a masked killer murders a student at her school (Drew Barrymore) and it’s not long before he sets his sights on Sidney. My favorite thing about Scream is it remembers how boring high school is, and how exciting it’d be to watch horror movies with a bunch of dumb friends when all this crazy stuff is going on, curfews be damned.

One of the reasons the movie initially rubbed me the wrong way is the misconception it was the first self-aware horror movie. I would argue any horror movie which managed to subvert the usual tropes was self-aware, it just didn’t have its characters pointing out how clever the filmmakers were for doing it. Another reason it rubbed me the wrong way: I heard too many people, who may have never seen a horror movie in their lives, proclaim Scream “the first smart horror movie.”

Okay.

But it is an effective gimmick and we haven’t seen it done quite like this before. And that’s not the film’s only gimmick, either. Scream is a decent whodunnit, more so than most of the slasher films which went that route (come to think of it, most of them were whodunnits), and the kills are expertly paced. The meat-to-filler ratio is spot on.

What surprised me most about re-watching Scream was how iconic it feels now. The garage scene is unlikely as hell (even Scary Movie’s parody of the scene opted for a larger garage door opener), but it really stuck out as something memorable—probably more so than anything else that happens in the series. For the first time in twenty years, Scream feels like a bonafide classic to me in the sense I finally see what all the hype was about.

My younger self was unduly hard on this movie. This is because kids are stupid. Today, I legitimately love this movie.

Scream 2 (1997)

It only makes sense for a satirical franchise to satirize itself when it realizes the original film didn’t have a single black person in it. This is addressed immediately in the opening scene with Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps, playing a savvy young couple who are going to the premiere of Stab, the movie-within-a-movie based on the events of the original film. Never mind that the filmmakers kill them off immediately, it’s a step in the right direction… I guess.

Sidney has moved on to college. Naturally, it’s not long before she realizes “it’s happening again,” and there are some creative liberties taken in the interest of bringing back some of the other characters from the first film. I usually groan at the excuses screenwriters come up with for bringing back characters, but most of the reasons here are fairly sound.

The fact that this one was rushed into production doesn’t show as much as you’d expect, but there’s definitely more of a made-for-TV feel (just a little). What’s worse is stereotypical college characters have been substituted for genuinely funny dialogue. I’m sorry, but the comedy becomes a little too blunt and simplistic in this one. The only aspect which feels like a definite improvement over the original is the budding romance between David Arquette’s Officer Dewey and Courtney Cox’s Gale Weathers. It’s entirely unlikely I would like a subplot like this, which is exactly what makes it all the more special to me.

Sidney seems like she’s actually carrying baggage from the first film, which you don’t see much of in horror sequels, and they develop her character just the right amount: not too little, and not so much it hinders the action. Scream 2 isn’t quite as oiled as the original, and the killer scenes don’t feel as finely placed. The only sequence which even competes on the same level as the first one involves a crashed cop car.

And then there’s the ending, which is just about the dumbest killer reveal of the series. In fact, everything beyond the aforementioned car scene is stupid. Really, really stupid.

Scream 3 (2000)

Here’s the the only Scream movie I actually saw in theaters. It was probably the worst Scream movie you could possibly see in theaters. It handles the killer reveal a lot better than the previous movie, but that’s the only improvement. Even the comedy has gotten dumber.

Sidney lives in seclusion now, having adopted a new name. She operates a hotline for abused women, which is actually a fitting job for her character (never mind how a job like that pays the mortgage on an idyllic country home). This is probably the smartest writing in the entire movie. The problem is Sidney kind of takes a backseat until the end. The characters they get to fill in for her are kind of a slap in the face.

If Scream 2 developed a bit of a “made-for-TV” feel, then this one’s a full-on sitcom—in fact, a laugh track might actually improve the fuckin’ thing. Shake your head in disbelief as Jay and Silent Bob wander into a scene for a cheap laugh. Roll your eyes at a Carrie Fischer cameo which grinds the plot to a halt. Marvel at how movies within movies always pay excruciating detail to their sets and somehow know exactly how the dialogue “in real life” went down despite the fact it was completely off the record.

The violence has been neutered as well. This is probably the fault of the MPAA or studio interference, but Jenny McCarthy’s death scene is so butchered, it appears she’s killed by a gentle shove. (Yes, Jenny McCarthy is in this movie. Yes, horror movies really did suck this bad in the 2000s.) The flimsy excuse to concoct a cameo for Jamie Kennedy insulted the hell out of me the first time I saw it, but now I’m thinking it’s probably one of the only times I perked up during this otherwise excruciating slog of a movie.

Dewey and Gale are on that outs. Again. Their relationship repeats exactly what it did the last time around. And I don’t know why Hollywood thinks it’s being so hilarious when it parodies itself so lazily. Parker Posey is much better than this. These jokes are terrible and the kills are downright nonexistent.

It’s no wonder Scream 3 killed the franchise for a decade.

Scream 4 (2011)

Here it is: the first Scream sequel that’s a worthy successor to the original. Few things are more insulting than a horror movie which opens with a movie-within-a-movie, but here’s one which pokes fun at the tired ol’ plot device: when it’s revealed the opening scene is a movie-within-a-movie, the reveal takes place in another movie-within-a-movie… and so on. It’s so absurd you can’t help but laugh, which is a marked improvement on the “comedy” contained in the other sequels. It’s also an upfront indication the franchise is going back to basics: loads of entertainment and buckets of blood. (There’s a head-stabbing in this movie that tops everything in the last two movies combined.)

It turns out Sidney sued the producers of the Stab franchise, so instead of basing their stories on her life experiences, they now make everything up for the never-ending parade of sequels, even going so far as to making one that involves time travel. This allows Scream 4 to address the fact that horror trends have changed by 2011, including the so-called “torture porn” fad and the endless stream of reboots and remakes. And that’s what makes Scream 4 so good: it would have been a lot safer to make a reboot infused with these current trends, but Wes Craven knew it was a lot more fun to give that kind of cynical filmmaking the middle finger.

So, Dewey and Gale are married. Dewey’s the sheriff, Gale’s a bored housewife with writer’s block, and Sidney just happens to be in town on a book tour. It turns out she’s sick of hiding from her past traumas and wrote a book to exorcise her demons. (Her publicist is played by Allison Brie, which is the kind of stereotypical character that made the previous sequels such a chore, so the less said about her the better.) Naturally, the day she returns to Woodsboro the killings begin all over again and Dewey informs her she’s going to have to stay in town for a while, briefly and apologetically reminding her, “Everybody’s a suspect.”

Among the cast of supporting characters are the heads of the high school film class, who are just as educated in horror as the teens from the first film. No, I don’t believe a mildly popular high school student would wear a webcam on his face for 24/7 streaming, certainly not with 2011 technology, but I’m willing to cut it some slack even if they don’t do anything particularly exciting with it. (Were they trying to make some kind of statement about social media or…?)

It’s a cliche to say “it’s not as good as the first,” but it’s pretty damn close. If I ever marathon the series again, I’ll skip the two in the middle. I just wish Wes Craven was still alive to give us another one in 2021; Scream is best when it’s given a decade to mull over the genre.

As far as mainstream horror goes, this is as fun as it gets.

The Blob (1988) [31 Days of Gore]

I try to do a melt movie every year. This one might be the most mainstream of ’em all.

Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, 1988’s version of The Blob is one of those rare remakes better than the original, which just goes to show screenwriter Frank Darabont had a genuine love for the monster movies he grew up watching (this, by the way, is one of the monster movies I grew up watching). It was obviously a stepping stone along the way to movies like The Mist, but I think this one’s far more unsettling and its use of miniature effects are marvelous in the truest sense of the word. The first one is okay once you’re done stripping away the cult following and the nostalgia, but this one’s throwaway scenes are far more memorable than anything the original had to offer.

When I complain about the pacing in movies like Society, it’s because there’s pacing as good as this. Small town horror films are almost always fun (for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on), but this one especially maintains the momentum. You’ve got the small town sheriff (Jeffrey DeMunn), the small town diner, the small town movie theater, the small town bad boy (Kevin Dillon), and the small town cheerleader (Shawnee Smith).

The cheerleader isn’t an airhead or a damsel in distress, either. She genuinely and quite naturally kicks ass, which is always fun to see in older movies when it wasn’t about making a political statement. Although I’m a sucker for Hollywood romances, it’s interesting that there isn’t really a spark between the male and the female leads. They grow to respect each other, but it’s remarkably platonic for the era.

One day a UFO crashes in the woods and a bum pokes the wreckage with a stick. The gelatinous contents of the downed vessel climb the stick and adheres itself to the bum’s hand. The main characters happen upon the man on a nearby road and rush him to the hospital. When no one’s looking, the acidic blob feasts on its victim and grows several times larger. From there, it begins a feeding frenzy which culminates in the mysterious arrival of G-men in hazmat suits, led by Joe Seneca.

What’s great about this version of the blob is it’s not just an oozing mass. Nowadays it forms tentacles and tendrils, which makes the horror moments really stick out. You’ll see some absolutely terrifying stuff I wouldn’t even dream of spoiling. I don’t know why, but non-Newtonian substances really creep me out, and what director Chuck Russell concocts with some of his confined sets is the stuff of nightmares. The resolution is a cheat, but everything leading up to it is chock full of the reasons I watch horror movies.

The Funhouse (1981) [31 Days of Gore]

 A group of pot-smoking teens head out to the carnival one night when one of them has a dimwitted idea: instead of going home they’ll get on the haunted house ride, depart the rail-guided vehicles halfway through, and spend the night having sex among the creepy skeletons and pneumatically fired jump-scares. That sounds like a dreadfully routine horror film, but The Funhouse is actually one of my favorites because it skims over the usual pitfalls. Director Tobe Hooper gives us exactly what we want without boring us with all the stuff we’ve seen a million times before.

 As a bonus it’s a time capsule of what appears to be a genuine carnival. You can’t tell the difference between stock actors and real carnies, while some of the transients who wander into frame look as if they actually did. You might argue “nothing happens” for the first forty minutes or so, but I don’t think that’s fair. No, an unusual amount of world-building happens, which only heightens everything that follows. During this extended setup, a seemingly banal visit to a (possibly real) freak attraction actually answers a question we’ll have later on.

 Why is this movie so compelling to me? Because these aren’t your typical movie teens. They’re teens, period, and they’re remarkably well cast. Do you know how long it’s been since I feared for a character’s life? How long it’s been since I muttered “oh shit” while watching a movie like this? Everything about Funhouse feels real even though it’s far from it. I couldn’t give two shits about realism, I just want a movie that suspends my disbelief.

 Perhaps my favorite aspect of all is the way the film looks: lens flares are everywhere and there’s been no attempt to touch up the grain and some of the imperfections now that it’s on HD. It’s not quite as gritty or handheld as the movie that put Hooper on the map, but the look lends itself to the horror every bit as much as that one did. It’s one of those films that prove that pretty much all horror movies should be shot on film and viewed in a resolution no less than that provided by Blu-Ray.

So yeah, you could say it’s “just” Texas Chainsaw Massacre in a fun house, but that’s not really a complaint, is it? I might actually prefer this movie to Massacre. I haven’t even mentioned the antagonists—not because they’re weak, but because the less you know about them the better. The Leatherface analog conceals his face with a Frankenstein mask, which makes it easy to see the influence classics like that had on Hooper and his contemporaries; Leatherface and the “bad guy” in Funhouse both have strong roots in cinema’s most memorable and empathetic monster.

When Funhouse’s antagonist takes his mask off… it’s just one of those moments I live for.