It’s a common habit among more stringent horror fans and detractors alike to be overly restrictive regarding what constitutes a horror story. Detractors, be they overt or subtle tend to disqualify a movie from being in the Horror genre if it turns out to be too good or too successful, or both (for a recent example, see It). “Hardcore” fans, meanwhile, tend to exclude movies they deem not “horror enough”; usually anything that has too many dramatic elements (The Babadook is a recent example).
The original take on the Halloween film franchise seems to have had more comebacks than Tom Brady. Michael Myers was first discarded as a villain with the love-it-or-hate-it (or never seen it, or several other options, probably), Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Part of me wishes that that movie had been successful enough for the idea behind it–turning the franchise into an “anthology” film series with a different Halloween-based story for every entry–to have taken off. We could’ve had something somewhat similar to the Filipino film series Shake, Rattle & Roll, a horror film franchise featuring three new stories every movie, with every film in the franchise released on the same date (Christmas Day in the case of Shake, Rattle & Roll, for the Halloween flicks…I dunno, St. Patrick’s Day?).
Before its official release to the unsuspecting masses in September of 1960, Psycho made the rounds through various big cities in the English-speaking world, primarily in the northeastern part of the U.S. After passing through New York, Boston, Chicago and Philly, it finally hopped the pond for a showing in the biggest city of its director’s birth country. On August 4th, 1960, Psycho made its London debut and was critically received abroad as coldly as it had been stateside.
“A new film by Alfred Hitchcock is usually a keen enjoyment,” begins C.A. Lejeune’s review in the August 7th edition of The Observer, and if the “usually” in that opening clause isn’t a giveaway, here is the next sentence: “Psycho turns out to be an exception.” The displeasure expressed here with the film is a bit of an understatement: Lejeune’s disapproval of Psycho, as well as 1960’s somewhat similar Peeping Tom, prompted her to retire from professional film criticism.
- Assassinate a president.
- Become a notoriously corrupt prison warden in the South.
- Write horror paperbacks using his full name for his penname.
- Shorten the first name to Wes, scratch the middle name and create horror movies.
Obviously going with the last option, Craven’s creations range from seminal to regrettable, classic to clumsy, Elm Street to Vampire in Brooklyn. It’s a testament to how great his best output is, then, that his missteps don’t jump to mind when thinking of him. His worst works are less than defensible than, say, the worst of John Carpenter, but people generally and rightly forget about Deadly Blessing, and don’t hold Vampire in Brooklyn, My Soul to Take or The Hills Have Eyes II against him, because this is the guy that gave us Freddy Krueger, Scream, the first Hills Have Eyes, Last House, and even the semi-underrated Red Eye. Craven was the power-hitter whose towering walk-off home run could erase memories of the four strikeouts he suffered earlier. His best was more than worth the dregs.
August 2nd also marks an anniversary of the release of 1985’s Fright Night. While The Lost Boys gets credited with modernizing and re-popularizing cinematic vampires, along with Near Dark to a lesser extent, Fright Night came to screens two years earlier. Its solid (if not remarkable) box office success, coupled with a strong run on cable and burgeoning home video after it left theaters, provided the first proof that big-screen vampires could be effectively marketed in the 80’s.
Through most of the 70’s, vampire films were still dominated by depictions and updates of Dracula. On television, The Night Stalker and Salem’s Lot had made an impact by bringing a vampire threat to the big city and to small town America, respectively. Fright Night was the first feature film to find success by taking the next step with such modernization, making its villain the handsome new neighbor who’s moved in right next door to you in your pleasant suburban community. Its vampires also appear truly ghastly and grotesque when revealing their true selves, as opposed to their comparatively normal-looking (and thus “cooler”) counterparts from The Lost Boys and Near Dark. Just one more example of how there’s plenty of room under the sun for a wide variety of vampires, including those who can exist “under the sun,” you know, like that original Vlad Dracula guy that Bram Stoker wrote about.
All of that to say, July 31st is a particularly loaded day, and it’s hard to narrow down what to talk about, so forgive me if I shortchange, for instance, the release of 1995’s infamous Phantasmagoria, an early FMV video game designed by Roberta Williams. There would be a hell of a lot to unpack getting into that one, but I’ll have to save it for another day. Likewise, I’m only giving passing mention to the first issue of Fangoria magazine going to print on this day in 1979 ( in my defense, the early issues of the magazine weren’t horror-themed yet anyway).
It’s not that these things aren’t notable, it’s just in the pantheon of horror, Mario Bava and Juni Ito are simply going to outrank a lot of other releases, milestones and individuals as far as I’m concerned.
Born in 1914, Bava was one of the mastermind behind well-known Italian horror works Black Sunday and Black Sabbath, as well as less famous but equally impressive works like Operazione paura, aka Operation Fear, aka Kill, Baby, Kill, which I wrote about a few Octobers ago, His 1964 proto-slasher giallo film Blood and Black Lace laid out the blueprint for the countless “masked killer stalks victims and racks up a body count” flicks that would follow for decades after, though very few even dared aspire to its levels of style and suspense.
Out of all the important and influential works he gave to the genre, my favorite may be the short segment “The Drop of Water” from the aforementioned Black Sabbath. I’ve written before about how one of my earliest experiences with horror fiction came when my kindergarten teacher introduced me to “The Golden Arm.” Because of that story, I think I’ll always have a soft spot for tales about the dead returning to terrorize a thief. “The Drop of Water” is the perfect film adaptation of such a story; a distilled slice of scary cinema that can make a summer day feel like a chilly Halloween evening as you’re watching it.
While Bava left us in 1980, we still have Junji Ito in our midst. Born on this day in 1963, he is the dark genius behind Tomie, Uzumaki, Gyo, “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” and Hellstar Reima. He’s mined core-deep horror out of overtly frightening ideas (a malicious succubus who can’t be killed; a hungry planet-sized cyclops that can snatch moons out of orbit with its grotesque prehensile tongue), as well as premises that may not seem scary at all until you read the stories and see the illustrations (walking fish; human-shaped holes in cliffs; SPIRALS! EVERYWHERE!). I remember staying up late to read “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” one night, confident that the actual product had to fall well short of the hype. Surely the story would take a too-clever turn toward unintentional timidity. Nope. By the time a certain character woke from a prescient nightmare I knew I wasn’t going to get much sleep that night.
When I got to the last page, I was able to scratch out the “much” from the previous sentence.
Ito’s work has been adapted for the screen multiple times, but, in my opinion, no adaptation has been able to effectively capture what he’s put to the page yet. Alas, he was to be the art director for the Silent Hills video game, but its cancellation deprived us of that glory. Just thinking about the combination of Ito’s mind along with Guillermo Del Toro’s, working on a Silent Hill entry of all things, makes me think that such a horror wasn’t supposed to exist. At least that’s what I tell myself to keep from weeping for the loss.
So once more, here’s to the birthdays of Mario Bava and Juni Ito. If you have a chance, celebrate the occasion by watching or reading some of either man’s work today. Feel free to wait until after the sun has set to do so, unless you’re of a susceptible disposition and need to be rested for the following day.
Other horror films released on July 30th include Deep Blue Sea, and if you’ve somehow avoided knowledge of Sam Jackson’s surprise demise in this film up to now, then my bad about the title of this post. Odds are, though, you’ve either seen the movie, seen a GIF of that scene, seen a YouTube clip of that scene (or at least read a title that says “Samuel L. Jackson Dies” beside a thumbnail of Sam in a wetsuit), or watched Dave Chappelle yelling about Sam’s fate in Bill Burr’s ear.
Deep Blue Sea is yet another 1999 release, one entry in a long list of incredibly varied horror films released in a year when the teen slasher revival was still supposed to be dominating the genre. Seriously, I can’t wait for January to get here so I can have a proper, arbitrary round-number anniversary as an excuse to dive headlong into the horror flicks that hit theaters at the close of the millennium.
On the international front, two seminal, pre-Ringu Japanese films share a July 30th release date: 1960’s Jigoku (aka The Sinners of Hell) and 1977’s Hausu (aka House). Tonally, it’d be hard for the films to be much more disparate without residing in different genres. Jigoku, perhaps the earliest horror feature film to indulge in modern levels of gore, eventually takes its characters to a bleak, dark void of Hell where you might get dismembered for eternity. Or get caught in an endless, insanity-inducing mob of the mad damned screaming for loved ones you can’t find. Or might have to try to save the most innocent soul imaginable from an eternal suffering they don’t deserve but are enduring due to your sins. It gets pretty damn grim.
Hausu, meanwhile, mines all the irreverent glee there is to mine from a haunted house scenario. Floating, disembodied heads might cartoonishly bite you on the ass, or psychedelically-flashy pianos might eat a schoolgirl who can’t decide whether to laugh or cry about the situation.
Yeesh. Given the option, I might sign up for the “bleak, dark void of Hell” instead of “loud neon nightmare house.” At least in the former it’s dark enough for me to be able to sneak in an hour or two of sleep in between torments.
All of that said, the movie has its limitations. The acting is decent all around, but the performances can’t overcome the fact that we’re still talking about a cute little capuchin named Ella committing horrifying acts and attacks that still kind of come off as cute shenanigans. You ever see one of those “Cute animals amok” family movies and think, “Oh sure, this is presented as all fun and games, but in reality, someone could really get maimed or worse if this actually happened”? That sort of feels like the underlying premise of this movie; like the elevator pitch was “It’s Curious George, except Murderous George.” When Ella throws a plugged-in hair dryer into a bathtub to electrocute someone, for instance, and then scampers out of the bathroom, it feels like a playful prank gone horribly wrong more so than a malicious act of vengeance. Instead of thinking “Someone needs to stop this rampaging animal!” you might find yourself thinking, “Someone needs to put that adorable little miscreant in a corner until it learns that its goofy tricks might be going a little too far.” Ultimately, there’s a reason why we didn’t see any of Italian knock-off killer-capuchin horror movies.
Most horror film fans can tell you what kind of Italian knock-off horror flicks we did receive, however: Romero-style zombie movies. Fittingly, Italy’s 2nd unofficial Dawn of the Dead sequel, Zombi 3, was released theatrically on July 29th, 1988, the same exact day as Monkey Shines, Romero’s first big studio film.
Zombi 3 doesn’t have anything nearly as memorable as Zombi 2‘s infamous suuuuper slow wooden shank through the eyeball scene, or a zombie vs. shark “fight.” The closest thing the movie has to anything that stands out is a scene of an apparently self-propelled, severed zombie head latching onto a guy’s neck, but as unintentionally humorous as that may sound, the actual visual isn’t even silly enough to elicit a chuckle, just a soft, confused, “Hm?” at most.
The film’s directorship is subject to some debate, as it’s claimed that Bruno Mattei filmed about 40% of it while Lucio Fulci, who directed Zombi 2 and several other Italian horror cult hits, directed the rest before bailing on the film either due to creative differences or illness. While Fulci’s work varies pretty wildly in quality, it’s hard to imagine he directed the bulk of this picture. It doesn’t look like a Fulci film, and even his worst efforts look more competent than this one. It certainly looks and feels like a Mattei film, visually and story-wise, given Mattei was just coming off directing two Rambo / Missing in Action rip-offs, Strike Commando and Strike Commando 2. This film might as well be Strike Commandos vs. Zombies so I feel pretty comfortable in assuming that Fulci handed the reins to this one over to Mattei even before he officially left the project.
Unless you’re a zombie-flick completionist, masochist, or both, there’s no need to waste any time with Zombi 3. I’m not even sure the inclusion of Ella the killer capuchin could have salvaged this one.
As many a reviewer has pointed out, the overwhelming majority of Jason Takes Manhattan takes place on a boat on its way to Manhattan. The idea of Jason terrorizing New York City might have a bit of promise, but is barely explored in this film. That aside, even by Friday the 13th standards the story and characters in Manhattan are uniquely stupid, with some infamously idiotic moments, such as a random barrel of toxic waste just sitting out in the open in a New York City alley, the video-game-level-spacious New York sewer system flooding with even more toxic waste on a nightly basis, and random supernatural chicanery that goes well beyond Jason simply being a murderous revenant.
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan came to theaters on July 28th, 1989, and had the lowest opening for any movie in the franchise save the first one, which was released almost ten years prior and in over 500 fewer theaters. Once you factor in things like per-theater-average and inflation adjustment, it becomes the most financially disappointing opening weekend in the series, save for perhaps Jason X (which barely made more money, opened to more theaters, and was released in 2002, when the value of a dollar was even more depleted).
Looking for a better 80’s movie featuring deranged masked serial killer released on July 28th? Try the 1985 TV movie Blackout.
Originally released at Mystfest in June of ’85, it made its official debut to the masses on television a month later. More police procedural than pure slasher film, and more predictable than it probably should be, it still features some intense and suspenseful moments. It’s the kind of movie that’s so competent it deserves to be seen, but leaves you with comparatively little to say about it. Neither memorably bad nor exceptionally good, it’s simply a quality thriller that’s worth 90-minutes, if you have it to spare, although the dim VHS quality of the film that’s available (either as an overpriced, relatively rare cassette copy, or for free on multiple YouTube channels) isn’t the easiest thing on the eyes. Maybe one day someone will show this movie a little love, enough to remaster it and bring it properly into the digital age.
Finally, on the gaming front, today marks the initial release of Zero: Shisei no Koe in Japan, otherwise known in the English-speaking world as Fatal Frame III: The Tormented.
Like all of the other games in the series, the game centers on characters dealing with ghosts by finding them and snapping photos of them using a spirit-vanquishing camera. I never got around to playing part three, but if it’s anything like the first two games in the series, it’s way the hell scarier than the description I wrote above.
By now, it’s known to many that The Amityville Horror isn’t even an authentic claim of a supernatural occurrence; George and Kathy Lutz, along with their lawyer, cooked up the idea in the kitchen while downing several bottles of wine. How many people actually bought into the story as factual in 1979, I can’t say, but enough people saw the movie–based on a best-selling book, of course–to make it the 2nd biggest movie of the year, behind–you guessed it–Kramer vs. Kramer. The only thing hotter than Hell on Earth in the 70’s was divorce; it was all the rage, back then.
The Amitiville Horror hit theaters on July 27th, 39 years ago. Regardless of what one thinks of the quality of the book or film, its impact was undeniable. Book covers and movie posters have copied its iconic “The House Has Eyes” imagery over the years. It helped plant the old “Indian burial ground” horror plot device into the minds of the public, despite said device not actually showing up all that often in horror stories before or since. And it launched an incredibly long-lived franchise that spans nine books and–by year’s end–20 movies.
And yet, it also signals the death knell for the dominance of a specific type of horror, at least at the box office. The horror / horror-themed movies that landed in annual top-ten grossers through the 80’s were decidedly lighter ventures: Poltergeist, Gremlins, Ghostbusters. Even Aliens leans more into action than horror; despite having a higher body-count than its predecessor, it is somehow less grim and much more of a “popcorn movie.” You’ll also note that the closest thing to the Christian Devil in any of these movies is the unspecified “Beast” Tangina speaks of in Poltergeist, but given the mysticism of the character and the film as a whole, people don’t associate said villain with the same kind of Satan that terrorized characters and audiences in the 70’s. Old Scratch from the prior decade was re-birthing himself into children, throwing priests out of windows and otherwise spreading mayhem with ease every other week, it seemed; this “Beast” guy in Poltergeist can’t even win a tug-of-war against a suburban dad. Surely it’s not the same villain as the one who maybe, sort-of half-assedly tried to help motivate George Lutz to axe up his wife and kids.
Also occurring on July 27th, The Lost Boys premiered in New York City in 1987. Its wide-release stateside wouldn’t come until July 31st. A clear but modest hit at the time, made on a small-ish budget, it would go on to have a strange, outsized influence and legacy. It was the first movie to co-star both Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, it’s credited by some with helping popularize a “sexier,” more modern and youthful brand of vampire. Despite being black-clad bloodsuckers who can fly, the titular boys still fit right in with the “disaffected, spoiled-yet-misunderstood suburbanite teens and twenty-somethings” of many popular 80’s movies. Especially when compared to the vampires in Near Dark, released the same year, the boys menacing Santa Clara, California can’t help but to seem a brattier.
Lastly, The Hamlyn Book of Horror was published on this day in 1979. The second in a series, it was preceded by The Hamlyn Book of Ghosts, then followed by the Book of Mysteries and the Book of Monsters. Written by Daniel Farson, the informative, insightful writing in the Book of Horror is perhaps overshadowed by the incredible, colorfully gruesome artwork. From the spectacular cover (by Oliver Frey) to contents (by a host of artists: Frey, Peter Archer, Mike bell, Mike Codd, Mike Cole, peter Kesterven and Ivan Lapper), the book is a visual feast of horrors. Authors, directors, actors and assorted other creative types have long received due credit for their efforts in and dedication to the genre, while the artists who provide some of the most memorable aspects of the works we love get overlooked.
For a nice rundown of what could be found inside The Hamlyn Book of Horror, check out the video below.
Farris also wrote and directed one of the more gruesome, campy and crazy psycho-biddy flicks of its era, Dear Dead Delilah, his only directorial effort. “How gruesome, campy and crazy?” you may ask. Picture a movie deserving of the following poster…
Unfortunately, I’ve only had the pleasure of reading one Farris novel, which I’ve reviewed here, and while the writing was impressive, the work as a whole didn’t gel for me. Still, it was enough to make me want to look into more of his work, starting with The Fury, which I swear I’ll get around to sometime soon.
John Farris was born today, in 1936.
Today also marks the date that that the classic stalker/thriller The Night of the Hunter had its world premiere in Des Moines, Iowa in 1955, at the since-demolished Paramount Theatre, months before it made its way to Los Angeles, then New York, and then the rest of the U.S. This unusual premiere location was due to Des Moines being the hometown of the film’s producer, Paul Gregory.
A darkly beautiful classic that deserves every word of praise ever devoted to it, The Night of the Hunter turns 63-years-old today. I’d love to elaborate on my love of the movie, but can’t think of a single original thing to say, so I’ll just leave off with what might be one of the most brilliantly chilling images of all time.