Daily Horror History, August 12th: Dan Curtis, ‘Black Sunday’, and More

In my still ongoing research (seemingly endless, in fact; this idea may be my self-made purgatory), there are dates that are stacked with horror history. Some are full of little oddities, and others have a couple of standout, major events rising like dark stone spires above the rest of the field.

Starting with a birthday, as I am wont to do whenever possible, today marks the birth of Dan Curtis, the prolific producer and director who gave us the television series Dark Shadows, the TV-film Trilogy of Terror (one of the more memorable made for TV horror flicks from an era that was full of them), the TV-film The Night Strangler (which eventually begot the beloved series The Night Stalker), the cinematic adaptation of Burnt Offerings, and several others.

While we’re on the subject of monumental, possibly even underrated influential factors in horror history, August 12th, 1960 saw the initial release of Mario Bava’s Black SundayThe grand matriarch of Italian horror films, the mouth from which the bloody river and many red tributaries of Italian horror would flow for decades, to say nothing of the films and directors who’ve directly paid homage to its style and storytelling, its influence has been rightly described as “almost incalculable” by Tim Lucas in his book on Bava. At the time of its release, it was, as its trailer professes, not quite like anything that had come before, and it can proudly walk along with Psycho (well, just maybe a half-step behind) as one of the game-changing horror films birthed by the summer of 1960.

And August 12th still isn’t quite finished with us. On this day in 1983, Cujo came home to theaters in the states, a few days after its release in France.

The story of a demonically rabid St. Bernard that really wasn’t a bad dog if you discount that time it went on a rampage and murdered a bunch of people, it was the first of three Stephen King adaptations released in the back half of 1983, followed by The Dead Zone and Christine. This would mark the beginning of a 5-year run in which at least two King adaptations would come to the big screen annually, lest any younger readers out there think that the current apparent rush to adapt as much of King’s work as possible in a short space of time is a newer phenomenon. A solid film, it can sometimes feel half-forgotten in King’s oeuvre, despite introducing the world to a name that’s up there with “Damien” in the “instantly associated with as evil” moniker pantheon.

Closing on a bit of a sad note (about as melancholy as I’ll get for the foreseeable future, as I’m deliberately avoiding death-dates), today marks the release date four years ago of P.T.

A stealth teaser for a new Silent Hill project, P.T. was a pretty good, eerie little first-person horror game in its own right, but became far more notable for its ending revelation that it was bringing possibly the best horror gaming series of all time to the latest generation of consoles. Horror mastermind Guillermo Del Toro was working on it, . Alas, the project wouldn’t even survive into the following summer, being officially canceled by Konami in April of 2015, and P.T. was taken off the Playstation Network, never to be made officially available again. Konami indicated it would continue the series nonetheless, but as of 2018, there still isn’t a new installment even in the formative stages of development. The longest drought in Silent Hill series history sits at six years and counting,

 

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Daily Horror History, August 11th: Stuart Gordon’s Birthday and More

August 11th is a particularly loaded date in the history of horror fiction. FIrst, we have the birthday of the director of Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dolls and several other horror features, Stuart GordonRe-Animator and its spiritual successor From Beyond would alone qualify Gordon as a master of grotesquery that which is difficult to look at impossible to turn away from. But Gordon’s also proven he can scale things back from the Lovecraftian horrors, exploring a much more grounded and human horror in the excellent Struck. While he’s never had a breakout horror “hit” (which, had it the promotional and release backing, really could and should have been Stuck), Gordon’s had a career that stacks up favorably against many if not most other “masters” of the genre.

On the film release side of things, Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead–the first film in his “Gates of Hell” unofficial trilogy–was released in Italy on this date in 1980.

Less surreal than its follow-up, The Beyond, it’s nonetheless impactful and features Fulci fully embracing his capacity for gore once more, delivering the disgusting vomit scene to end all disgusting vomit scenes, and an impossibly brutal head-drilling to boot (and those are just the two most infamous moments from the movie; certainly not the only two graphic indulgences).

On August 11th, 1989, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child had its wide-release in the U.S.

Somehow grimmer and crueler than even its predecessors while simultaneously perhaps having Freddy going overboard with the corny jokes, this installment proved to be the least profitable Elm Street movie upon its release. Just to show once again that money isn’t everything, however, the lone movie from the franchise to make less than The Dream Child is Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, possibly the second-best film in the series.

And on the lesser-known front, Night of the Seagulls came to theaters in its native Spain on this day in 1975.

The fourth and final film in the Blind Dead series, it’s inferior to the first two stories in this surprisingly slow-burning saga of Satan-worshiping, sword-swing, stallion-riding, undead Templar nights, but is at least a few steps up from the nadir of the third film.

Last but certainly not least of all, today is the 19th anniversary of the initial release of System Shock 2There’s quite a bit to say about this spiritual predecessor to the more famous Bioshock franchise, but this was first released in 1999, so–you guessed it–I’m going to save my more detailed write-up for next year’s 20th anniversary.

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Daily Horror History, July 28th: Jason Takes His Sweet Time Getting to Manhattan

The 8th Friday the 13th movie, in which Jason Voorhees will allegedly take on the BIg Apple, is often cited as being either the worst, second-worst or third-worst film in a series that doesn’t exactly have the highest standards to begin with. The other two contenders for worst Friday the 13th movie, by the way, are Jason Goes to Hell and Jason X, aka Jason Goes to Space. The lesson here then, I believe, is that fans of the series don’t care much for Jason’s road trips away from Crystal Lake. It doesn’t help, perhaps, that in two of these movies he spends as little time as possible at the destinations boasted of in the title.

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.

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Daily Horror History: An Unfortunate Remake, and a “Psycho Biddy” Flick

We’re one year short of the 20th anniversary of one of the most misguided movie remakes in history. 1999’s The Haunting had a decent cast in front of the camera, and behind it, the director of Speed (doesn’t suit the material, but hey, great movie!), Twister, (okay, lesser effort, but still… Speed was great, right?) and Speed 2: Cruise Control (farewell, good will, we hardly knew ye). It also had an $80 million budget, which is 27% more than fellow ’99 release The Matrix needed to make people dodge bullets and high-jump across highways and kung-fu fight computer simulations and shit. And you know what, kudos to Hollywood having the faith to give a horror flick–often treated as the unwanted stepchild of genre fiction–a blockbuster budget for once. But–and this is a doozy of a “but”–maybe you shouldn’t reserve the “massive special effects” budget for an adaptation of the quintessential psychological ghost story. There aren’t many tales of supernatural horror that demand expensive CGI less than Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting. Jan de Bont had money to blow on this one, however, so he fed audiences computer generated bronze cherubs, blood-vomiting statues, and a climactic showdown with a video-game villain that looks better suited to the ending of The Mummy Returns.

In a year where two horror movies cracked the top-ten highest grossing movies list, and a third horror-adventure-fantasy-action flick also landed in the top six, the big-budgeted would-be-blockbuster Haunting remake landed down at 23rd for the year-end list, right behind Inspector Gadget. Unsurprisingly, given his career trajectory, it would prove to be Jan de Bont’s penultimate film.

On a more positive note, July 23rd is the anniversary of the release of the splendidly  “psycho biddy” thriller What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? 

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “psycho biddy” (aka “horror hag” or “Grand Dame Guignol”), you might be able to guess from the movie’s title that this is a sub-genre born in the aftermath of the successful What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The simple formula for these films is that they feature at least one older actress playing an older woman (often of affluence) who is either the source of some deranged, murderous horror plot, the victim of said plot, or (particularly if there’s another, adversarial older woman in the work) perhaps both. If you’ve never seen Baby Jane, imagine Sunset Boulevard if Norma was even more delusional and quicker to resort to homicide, and maybe had a sister she could literally stab in the back at some point for good measure.

In Aunt Alice, the lead character is actually Claire Marrable, played with sociopathic gusto by the late, great Geraldine Page. Claire has recently been made a widow, you see, but her ostensibly wealthy husband was actually up to his everything in debt before he died. Upon receiving this news, Claire promptly goes insane and gets to murderin’ before the opening credits come up. Claire keeps right on killing and letting go of what little go of what little sanity might be left as the movie runs on. The “Alice” of the title is the pesky, inquisitive third housekeeper, who’s brought on after Claire killed the other two as part of an investment scam that could have only seemed like a good idea to the kind of woman who’d beat a housekeeper to death and then bury her about sixteen inches deep on her own land.

What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? doesn’t have much in the way of surprises, unlike Baby Jane or a couple of other entries in the sub-genre, but it generates tension out of making us wonder just how much casual homicide this lady is willing to commit, and whether she’ll actually get away with it all.

Lastly, under the category of “Things I’m Just Young Enough to be Aware of, but Too Old to Know Much About,” today is the third anniversary of the initial release of Five Nights at Freddy’s 4For those who may be unaware, Five Nights at Freddy’s is a popular series of survival horror games featuring a ferociously frightful version of a Chuck E. Cheese’s / ShowBiz Pizza style restaurant. And listen, I can’t be the first person who’s thought of a “‘scary’ versions of Chuck E. Cheese robots; that’s a redundancy!” joke. Hell, I’m sure I’m not even the 101st person to think of that one. So I’ll refrain, and just wish the makers of the game series all the best for their considerable success.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie – Silent Hill

At the risk of sounding a bit crude, allow me to propose that horror falls within (or roughly around) two general categories: “Oh Crap!” horror, and “What the hell?” horror. The former would be likened to more visceral or “primal” fears, the kind of horror that, when experienced in real life, makes you want to take off running immediately. The latter is more about uneasiness; the nagging sensation that something is wrong. It leaves you puzzled—at least initially—instead of triggering your “fight or flight” response.

Examples:

  • You’re home alone and you hear an angry voice coming from another room and you think, “Oh crap! Somebody broke in, I’ve got to get out of here!”
  • You’re home alone and you hear an odd but unidentifiable noise coming from another room, you wonder, “What the hell was that?” but probably don’t take off running just yet.

Now that I’ve gone through the brief trouble of setting up these two somewhat narrowly defined categories to encapsulate all horror, I’d like to immediately undermine my proposal by stating that the Silent Hill series falls into a third category: “Oh hell, what the crap!” horror.

  • You’re home alone and you hear the unmistakable  sound of your own voice coming from the other room. And you just distinctly heard yourself threatening to kill you. You’re too thoroughly discombobulated to even remember how to form a proper sentence, much less figure out what you should do.
I’d run away, but my mind is too busy eating itself to give my legs instructions…

This is the kind of horror the Silent Hill series has frequently succeeded in delivering since its first installment. People tend to say that Silent Hill is “psychological horror” but that doesn’t quite describe it. There are indeed elements that are designed to worm their way into your brain that would be fine on their own, but most of the psychological horror elements are coupled with brutally effective, tangible horror elements. The air raid siren could be unnerving by itself. That it portends the town’s transformation from the already creepy setting of “foggy, deserted and inescapable town” to “sunless, decaying, rust-infected industrial nightmare” makes it much scarier. If your character’s radio just randomly produced “white noise” it would be alarming. It is, instead, panic-inducing by being an inexact radar that announces the presence of unseen, violently aggressive monsters. How many monsters are waiting / coming for you? What the hell kind of monster is it this time? By the time you find out, you’re already under attack, and almost glad for it since it at least gives you some answers to your questions.

A giant blob of living cancer? *Whew* For a second I thought I’d never find out what wasGAAHHHH!

At the time of the first Silent Hill‘s release, the standard for “survival horror” video gaming had been set by two installments of Resident Evil. While Resident Evil had its share of puzzle-solving and moments where your best (or only) option often was to run, it also put you in control of an armed member of a special task force. Additionally, your primary enemies were zombies who adhered to key archetypical traits of their fictional species (slow-moving and especially susceptible to headshots).  The first enemies you encounter in Silent Hill are knife-wielding monster-children who ambush you after you happen upon an almost unidentifiable corpse crucified to a fence in the “dark world” you ventured into without warning. From there the situations and enemies just get stranger, and instead of an action cop you’re a helpless father whose primary weapons are a kitchen knife and a pipe, because ammo for your handgun is ridiculously scarce and you’re always saving your bullets in case you happen upon a new, even more horrifying creature just ahead.

Silent Hill wasn’t just trying to scare you, it was deliberately trying to screw with your head. As the series went on this trend continued. The game’s most feared and recognized villain, the unfortunately-yet-aptly named Pyramid Head, introduces himself in the second game by standing perfectly still on the other side of a barred wall. He doesn’t move to attack you, doesn’t make a noise, and since you can’t see his face you don’t really know if he’s even awake, much less looking at you. But he does make your aforementioned radio give off its standard “static alert,” lest you get to thinking “maybe he isn’t an evil monster to be terrified of after all.” It isn’t until later encounters that you discover him to be a nigh-invulnerable killing machine who sexually abuses other monsters.

Despite the character’s popularity he doesn’t show up again until the fifth game in the series, where he makes a suitably menacing first appearance.

Later games have suffered (many legitimate) criticisms over gameplay, and the franchise has had  some fan backlash for installments that have changed too much or weren’t innovative enough. The franchise also dumped a poorly plotted, poorly acted (save Sean Bean, God bless that dude) and poorly everything else’d film on the moviegoing populace back in 2006. Nonetheless, even the “misfires” feature some chilling moments. Hell, one of the most maligned titles in the series, Silent Hill 4: The Room, features my favorite premise: A man wakes up one day to find his door inexplicably locked from the inside. And not just ordinarily locked. We’re talking enough chains to make Jacob Marley say it’s a bit excessive…

“Oh hell, what the crap? But I’m out of milk, and I’ve got a hot date tonight, and if I no-show at work one more time I’m fired, and other reasons to go outside.”

His neighbors can’t hear him screaming for help or beating on the door, even when they’re standing in the hallway right on the other side. He can’t open any windows or get anyone to notice him, even trying to use the phone to dial out is futile. It’s somewhat like the Stephen King story 1408 if the evil scary room came to your house. The only way out of his apartment is through a newly formed tunnel in the bathroom which deposits him in random, nightmarish parts of the town of Silent Hill and the surrounding area; full of ghosts and self-immolating cultists and serial killers and whatnot.

Other favorite moments include Silent Hill 3‘s freaky, screaming mannequin room, SH3‘s freaky, bleeding mirror room, SH3‘s freaky, disturbingly humorous haunted mansion and… yeah, pretty much the entirety of SH3. That game alone has earned the series a wealth of good faith that’s far from exhausted.

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