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.
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.
Daily Horror History, July 25th: Happy Maximum Overdrive Day (And Birthday to Mike from The Blair Witch Project)
The doomsday implication of the ending doesn’t hold up to an ounce of scrutiny, and is sensibly abandoned for the adaptation, along with any hint of self-seriousness. Even the trailer for Maximum Overdrive is trying to push its tongue clean through its cheek, and unlike the short story, the movie features levitous killer arcade machines, profane ATMs, and even crotch-“punching” vending machines to go along with its Green Goblin Grilled primary menace. King hasn’t spoken very favorably of this adaptation over time, but given the ludicrous premise, I think horror-comedy was the only option; it was either going to generate intentional laughs or unintentional ones.
Today is also the birthday of Michael C. Williams, one of the stars of The Blair Witch Project, where he played, you guessed it, Mike. While The Blair Witch Project isn’t the sole credit to his career, he hasn’t shown up in much since then. Still, even if he never gets another role, he’s earned a place in horror history as the guy who kicked that probably-worthless map into a creek, and ended up having to stand in the corner as punishment.
And while we’re here in 1981, and on the date of July 24th, no less, we can talk about a different type of supernatural animal with a deadly bite, and a very different type of movie in terms of quality and legacy. First, let’s set the scene: the 70’s are in the rearview mirror, and of all the horror sub-genres to find success in the decade, the most impactful is one I like to call, “The Devil’s Gonna Get You.” The Exorcist, The Omen and The Amityville Horror–all descendants of Rosemary’s Baby, by the way–all made more money than the overwhelming majority of horror movies released in the 70’s. And yet, not one of them was the biggest horror movie of the decade: that distinction belonged to the biggest movie of all time to that point, Jaws, which kicked off its own wave of “Nature’s Gonna Kill You, Probably by Eating You” horror stories.
Now, with the 80’s in its infancy, if you’re a filmmaker looking to exploit the hottest horror trend, which one do you go with? The story of Satanic threats, or the one featuring an animal killer? Well, who says you have to make a choice at all? Why not take inspiration from the following quote from the trailer for the aforementioned highest grossing movie ever made at the time: “It is as if God created the devil and gave him… jaws.”
Indeed, the snake in Jaws of Satan, aka King Cobra, is literally the Devil himself and that’s almost the least of this film’s absurdities. With its meddling, inept, opening-day-obsessed mayor, and its hero priest who’s battling both the forces of Hell and his own crisis of faith at the same time, the movie can be rightly and succinctly characterized as a “Jaws/Exorcist ripoff hybrid.” Despite this infusion of the devilishly supernatural, it’s a movie that mostly consists of snake stalking and snake biting, with what must surely be some of the most ominous snake-hand-puppetry ever committed to film.
Lastly, I leave you with a couple of illustrations from the late, prolific pulp and horror artist Lee Brown Coye, born this day in 1907.
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 splendid “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 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 4. For 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 style restaurant. And listen, I can’t be the first person to make 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.
When you combine being sick in bed on a Sunday with Shudder’s unique streaming alternatives, you can easily find yourself watching something you ordinarily wouldn’t. You ou see, while Shudder’s service has the familiar “watch what you want any time you want” option of every other streaming service, it also has what basically amounts to four “channels” that feature unalterable, programmed content. There’s “Slashics” which–you might guess–runs slasher movie classics. There’s “Wicked Grin” that features more comedic or lighthearted horror / thriller fare. There’s the “Psychological Thrillers” channel, which doesn’t have time for any cute name shit. And then there is the primary channel, “It Came From Shudder” which, near as I can tell, just plays whatever the hell it wants to.
It’s a pretty cool option to have, I think, as it has the potential to introduce you to flicks you’ve either never heard of or seen before, or at least wouldn’t have been searching for at that exact moment. Sometimes those flicks are little gems, like the surprising German zombie flick I’ll be writing about in the future1. Otherwise, well, let’s get into Daughters of Darkness.
First off, I was surprised at how well-received this movie was and, to some extent, still is. Admittedly, I’m not up enough on my 70’s Euro-arthouse cinema, so I can’t offer any counter to the reviews that note it as a strong example of that genre merged with horror. And to be clear, the film doesn’t have a unanimous, outstanding reputation, so much as a generally solid rep as a cult / underrated near-classic. I almost see what some of the positive reviews are getting at when they call it an “exercise in mood [and] tone” or “fairly stylish” (the latter from Roger Ebert’s curiously non-committal review that’s mostly just a rundown of plot points). Ultimately, though, no, I don’t see it. The movie has some lovely moments here and there, but not nearly enough to make up for the clunky campiness that makes up the bulk of the film
The story is very straightforward and the plot eschews any attempts at mystery. Two newlyweds–an unfortunate young woman named Valerie and her untrustworthy, murder-and-torture obsessed new hubby, Stefan–stop over at an old hotel when their planned train trip meets an unexpected roadblock. The newlyweds happen to be placed in the favored royal suite of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a woman who hasn’t visited the hotel in 40-years, who checks in with her female companion just after the married couple arrive.
In case the Countess’s name was too much of a dead giveaway as to her true nature and eventual motives–and a glowing neon clue as to who’s behind a spate of murders committed in the area–the hotel porter tells her right to her face that he remembers her from four-decades prior, when he was but a bellboy. Only she hasn’t aged at all, he claims! She looks just as she did all those years ago. And she just sort of semi-coyly plays along and before denying she is the same woman. This all happens less than fifteen-minutes into the movie.
Not very long after–but longer than you think, given how little actually happens between scenes–Bathory introduces herself to Valerie and Stefan, and wastes little time in regaling Stefan with the sexually torturous exploits of the Countess of legend while groping him right in front of his wife, as is customary in Europe, I presume. Valerie is more horrified by the explicit descriptions of torture that are very blatantly arousing Stefan than she is upset with this woman having her hands all over her husband, and I can’t tell if that’s absurd or understandable because the scene is so bizarre you can’t expect her character to behave like a normal person.
Tempted as I am to turn this entire write-up into a plot-recap highlighting one silly moment after another, I don’t really want to do that (anymore than I already have). Hopefully what I’ve written already gives you an idea of what you might be in for if you chose to watch Daughters of Darkness. If not, I will add that it has two death scenes that are inept enough to lift an eyebrow, but not quite baffling enough to be full on laughable. They involve sharp-but-not-sharp-enough instruments falling in impossible ways to stab or cut people in fatal ways that defy what you’re seeing.
I can’t say I regret having watched Daughters of Darkness, but there’s no way in hell I could recommend it. The writing is thin, the characters may as well be aliens, the handful of lovely shots are undermined by the barrell-full of overwrought, corny moments, and the interesting score is rendered ineffective by a comical overuse of dire-strokes punctuating any moment that might be remotely seen as sinister and several moments that aren’t close to being sinister. And I suppose, once-upon-a-time, this movie was erotic, but even the “seduction” and sex in this film is rudimentary.
John Carpenter’s The Fog initially had an 80-minute runtime before Carpenter, dissatisfied with what he believed to be “a movie that didn’t work,” reshot some scenes to improve what he didn’t care for and make the movie bit more coherent where he felt it was needed. These reshoots included new and extended scenes, which beefed the runtime up to a whopping 89-minutes. Ironically, one of the added scenes makes the movie cut even more abruptly to the chase than it would have otherwise.
In the opening scene, an old sailor is sharing an important piece of local ghostlore to a group of captivated children. That ghost story gives us about 90% of the background information regarding who our antagonists are and what their motivation is. It precedes the titular fog’s first appearance and the killings associated with it, so that by the time it happens there’s little mystery as to who’s behind the killings and why. Excise this scene and we’d have to instead wait for Father Malone’s reading of his grandfather’s diary, which comes in around the 40-minute mark, to get a proper explanation as to what’s going on (presuming you haven’t read a synopsis in advance). As it is, the information in the diary just fleshes out the final 10% of the story that the opening campfire tale wasn’t privy to.
Carpenter clearly wasn’t interested in wasting anyone’s time. The movie has little to no interest in its subplots. The potential “romantic” subplot between Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins is actually a “casual hookup/we’re just hanging out” aside that gives the characters a bit of life, but doesn’t come close to distracting from the primary story. Adrienne Barbeau’s DJ-in-a-Lighthouse is a single mother whose son is there to discover key pieces of plot that get washed ashore, and to be a potential rescuee later in the movie. Her flirty interactions with the weatherman are just setting up a reason for her to hear things that will confirm her suspicions about the fog later in the film. No romantic detour for her, and no ex-husband / deadbeat dad drama surrounding her child’s father. When the chairwoman of the town’s Centennial Celebration finds out her husband must have died at sea, she grieves onscreen for less than 30 seconds before she’s like, “Welp, show must go on. Time to give my speech.” Who has time for any other business in a killer fog movie when there’s a killer fog out there fogging up the town and killing people?
I haven’t come out and said it yet, so now’s as good a time as any: I think The Fog is great. It’s a perfect Halloween-horror type of story. It’s grim, but hardly nihilistic, it’s dire but not dour, menacing although bloodless (more on that later), and ghastly if not full on frightening.
The characters aren’t especially deep, but they’re all built to be immediately interesting. We have the aforementioned DJ-in-a-Lighthouse, which is the kind of fictional job that I think would get ridiculed for being implausible if it showed up in a romantic comedy. We have an aspiring photographer hitchhiking her way to greener creative pastures. We have the local guy who’s apparently cool enough to pick up pretty young hitchhikers and have them want to sleep with him on the first night, and then they just chill in bed together looking through her portfolio like it’s nothing, just stuff that adults do, which, you know, of course it is.
Everything about the movie is so very matter-of fact. When our trusted local DJ starts issuing warnings to the population to stay off the streets and avoid the fog, we see the aforementioned chairwoman and her assistant–who haven’t encountered anything remotely resembling a threat so far–immediately take the DJ at her word. Granted, the night before the entire town basically experienced some kind of unexplained kinetic havoc that set off car alarms and blew out windows, so it’s not as if they had no reason to believe that something bizarre was afoot. Nonetheless, the refusal to waste time on characters debating the believability of what’s transpiring helps keep the movie so lean. The leanness is part of what makes the flick such a blast. It’s funhouse horror done right.
It’s also an example of how good a PG-13 horror movie can be if it’s, you know, made well. “But John Carpenter’s original was rated R, you idiot. Are you talking about that pathetic remake, you dumbass know-nothing?” First off, the name-calling is unbecoming. Secondly, the R-rating for the original film is incredibly bogus. I mentioned earlier that this film is entirely bloodless, and the quick glimpses of gore we see, courtesy of the rotted faces of the restless dead, isn’t as graphic as any of the gruesome images seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a PG movie that came out a year later. Carpenter and Debra Hill (co-writer and producer of the film) stated that one reason for the re-shoots was to add gore to the film to help it stand among the gorier horror movies that the 80’s would soon bring us. In that respect, the re-shoots failed miserably. Again, there is no blood in the movie. The juicy corpses are maybe as horrid as any of the ones seen in the decidedly PG-13 remake of The Mummy, only the fetid faces in The Fog get far, far less screen time. If this movie were re-rated today it would easily be PG-13. It’s rated R because PG-13 didn’t exist in 1980, and because the MPAA is, at best, wildly inconsistent.
So do I have any beefs with The Fog at all? Well, on this rewatch, it did strike me as a little odd and contrived that Father Malone stopped reading his grandfather’s diary after reading about all of the murderous conspiracy bits. “I couldn’t read any further” he said. Really? Because I feel like you already got through the worst of it. What did you think you were going to see on the next page? “Now that I’ve developed a taste for murder, I think I’m going to take a trip to London, target some prostitutes, and taunt Scotland Yard with a letter or two.” A few pages deeper and he would have found out about the important-but-not fact that the church’s large gold cross was made from the melted down gold stolen from our vengeful spirits.
Then there’s the ending, which I’m probably sourer on now than I was when I was younger, just because it reminds me of the issues horror movies still have with ending confidently absent “one last scare.” The story is concluded. Six had to die to pay for the number of lives lost, or so we thought, but the unexpected repayment of the stolen gold appeared to quell the bloodthirst of the spirits after all, sparing the sixth life. Does it make a ton of a sense? Eh. But it works better than having Blake’s spirit seemingly accept the gold as recompense, only to come back later as though he changed his mind. How did that go down?
“All right boys, we did it. We rode the fog into town, killed the five that had to die and even reclaimed our gold as a bonus.”
“Uh, boss. There are six of us. Six had to die.”
“What? No. It’s just five. I counted before we left. There’s you, Brad, Smokey–”
“You forgot to count yourself again, didn’t you?”
“…shit. Shit. Now I have to go all the way back there…”
Ultimately, these are minor things, and my final verdict on The Fog should be apparent.
Worth your time?
Always and forever. Pick an evening, any evening–although preferably a foggy one–put this one on and enjoy.