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, August 10th: ‘Flatliners’, ‘Sette note in nero’

In fairness, I never saw the Flatliners remake from last year, so it might be better than I could have ever imagined. An unfairly maligned hidden gem. But the trailer sure as hell didn’t sell me, its critical and audience ratings range from poor to pitiful, and I never liked the original film all that much in the first place. Still, it’s a notable entry in the horror genre, and introduced an interesting premise to a lot of fans.

(I note in my CFJ entry on Simon’s Soul that that obscure novel did it before Flatliners, but also abandons the premise for even stranger things before the midpoint of the book. Meanwhile, the first literary work to tackle the idea of killing and medically resuscitating people deliberately is apparently Jack London’s “A Thousand Deaths”, released way back in 1899, although the person being killed and brought back in that short story is not a volunteer for the experiment).

Despite not caring for the film, I have to admit that the original Flatliners, released on August 10th, 1990, made an impression on people.  Despite this, it had enough name cache that a cash-in remake 27-years later actually made financial sense on paper. I’d wager if you were holding a movie trivia contest in a room full of Gen-Xers (and maybe even a bit younger) and asked what movie the line “Today is a good day to die” comes from, most of the contestants would know right away, and could even name the actor who spoke it. Nonetheless, upon its release it was only a modest success at the box office, despite starring Julia Roberts fresh off the heels of mega-hit Pretty Woman and co-starring Kevin Bacon, who’d scored a larger genre hit earlier in the year with Tremors.

On the lesser-known side of things, August 10th marks the limited release date of the 1977 Italian film Sette note in nero (translation: Seven Notes in Black), later-known-as The Psychic.

First, that original Italian title is so much better than the English title it was given for its world-wide release. Second, how wonderful is that poster? “As wonderful as wonderful can be,” is the correct answer. (“Ah, but wait, what of this poster?” some pest asks. “Fine enough, sure, but I stand by my earlier assessment.”)  Finally, this might be Lucio Fulci’s most underrated movie, and should be readily discussed as one of his best, overshadowed by Don’t Torture a Duckling (which preceded it), Zombi 2, his “Gates of Hell Trilogy”, and even the notorious New York Ripper, Sette note in nero is at least the equal to all of these, and possibly superior to most (The Beyond will always top the list, for me). Being a much more restrained Fulci horror film probably explains why it’s overlooked, along with the similarly underrated Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (translation: A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin – my God, those Italian titles).

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Daily Horror History, August 6th: ‘The Sixth Sense’ Released; Umberto Lenzi’s Birthday

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).

Which brings us to The Sixth Sensethe runaway hit of 1999 that would have been the biggest movie of the year if not for the long awaited return of Star Wars, and made substantially more money at the box office than intended blockbusters like Armageddon (the previous year’s top money earner) and Mission: Impossible 2 (2000’s top money earner). In fact, it’s safe to say The Sixth Sense was a bonafide phenomenon; a rare late-summer super-smash that rode a wave of positive buzz over its now (in?)famous twist ending, which prompted many people to see it a second time just to look for the clues they missed the first time.

And yes, it’s a horror movie. Not just because of its premise, the story of a kid who sees ghosts. But because of the presentation. The movie is built around fear and is intended to scare audiences as it drags them through the frights experienced by young Cole Sear (okay, that last name is a little on the nose). The fact that the story’s ultimate objective is for him to overcome (or at least learn to manage) his fear and improve his relationship with his beleaguered, desperate mother doesn’t change that. The fact that the subplot involves a spirit coming to terms with his fate and finding the peace to move on–after initially experiencing horror at the realization of his circumstances–doesn’t change that either. I understand that a movie prominently featuring ghosts isn’t necessarily a horror movie (for a classic example, see Ghost); but I also understand that a movie prominently featuring horror is still a horror movie, even if it also has a lot of heart. Horror is an emotion, after all. I’ve said it before, I’ll harp on it for as long as I feel it’s necessary: it’s perfectly fine for Horror stories to be emotional.

The Sixth Sense opened in theaters on August 6th, 199.

Today also marks the birthday of prolific Italian director and writer of shock and shlock flicks, Umberto Lenzi.

He is perhaps most known for the infamous Cannibal Ferox, one of the more unforgettable features produced during the cannibal-sploitation boom, which features the requisite scenes of graphic violence and torture, and also some genuine animal cruelty (which I want to judge more harshly, but it’s hard to reconcile that disgust while also still being in love with Oldboy despite an octopus being eaten alive in it, so I’ll try not to be too self-righteous and critical for the moment; catch me on another day and I might have more to say, though).

Lenzi is one of those filmmakers who seemed to constantly be working on two or three projects at a time during his peak years. He also directed several action movies, crime / gangster thrillers and giallo thrillers to go along with other horror films such as Nightmare City (part of the Italian zombie-craze of the late 70’s and 80’s), Ghosthouse (one of several Italian “unofficial sequels” of American movies, this one of Evil Dead), Demoni 3The Man From Deep River (aka Sacrifice! — the movie credited with igniting the cannibal sub-genre) and Eaten Alive! (yep, more cannibals).

Umberto Lenzi was born on this day in 1931.

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Daily Horror History, July 31st: Happy Birthday Mario Bava and Junji Ito

Here’s the thing about running a “daily horror history” blog series: every single day on the calendar is pretty stacked with historical horror happenings of note. I leave a couple of items unacknowledged every single day, just because there’s so much to cover, and I’m only one guy who’s supposed to be working on a damn novel over here. I try to handle the stuff that I think is most important and most fun to write about, while also saving a few things for the future, presuming I’ll still be doing this years down the line.

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 WilliamsThere 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 TomieUzumaki, 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.

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Daily Horror History, July 29th: Killer Monkeys! Italian Zombies vs Commandos!

A movie about a murderous, experimental service monkey that becomes telepathically linked to its quadriplegic owner ought not be half as good as Monkey ShinesGeorge A. Romero is, of course, going to be forever renowned for bringing us the modern version of the zombie (as opposed to the older school Vodun drugged or brainwashed version), but for sheer degree of difficulty alone, Monkey Shines should get more love than it does. Making a terrifying classic about a bunch of cannibalistic undead people is a bit like having a dynastic championship sports team that’s loaded with Hall of Famers; it’s obviously still a remarkable, legendary achievement, but the odds are still highly in your favor. Making a solid horror movie about a psychic, homicidal, lovable-looking service animal more often seen in comedies and family films is like eking out a winning record with a bunch of underachievers. In short, Night of the Living Dead Romero is like Vince Lombardi with Green Bay; Monkey Shines Romero is like Lombardi in Washington.

All of that said, the movie has its limitations. The acting is decent 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 cute 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 even 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. The 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.

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Halloween Recommendation: “Kill, Baby, Kill”

Horror fiction comes in a lot of different flavors: ideal Halloween horror is, I think, suitably scary, but not oppressively dire. It’s a fairly festive time of year, after all. I want to watch or read something that makes my skin crawl, but not necessarily something that makes me want to weep for humanity. I have no problem with “heavier” horror stories, but there’s a time and place for everything, and I’m not sure Halloween is quite the time for Ligotti levels of  super-grim, gut-punching, mind-chewing horror. That said, everybody’s tolerance level for that sort of thing is different, so just bear all of that in mind as I pitch these books, movies and random other things to you for the rest of the month.

Enough preface and yammering: Today’s recommendation is Mario Bava’s film Kill, Baby, Kill. The title sounds worthy of a ridiculous exploitation flick, something involving bikers and revenge and scantily clad women. But it’s actual a period-piece horror flick set in a small European village where people are dying (or, more specifically, killing themselves) under mysterious circumstances. Well, not so mysterious to the locals. They have no illusions about what’s causing these deaths. But there are a couple of newcomers in town who will need some convincing that what’s taking place is supernatural.

Bava, for any who may not know, was basically the grandfather of the Italian horror boom of the 60’s and 70’s. His most famous horror film (and likely most famous in general) is the black and white gothic horror flick, Black Sunday. But Kill, Baby, Kill is, for whatever my opinion is worth, the better movie. Hell, Scorcese calls it Bava’s masterpiece, so it at least has that going for it.kill_baby_kill_1966_poster_01

The story of Kill, Baby, Kill is wonderfully simple: there’s a vengeful spirit in town that is liable to surface and kill anyone who goes into the wrong place, or who speaks of the ghost aloud. A doctor and a prodigal daughter come to the town at the same time as the latest kill and are immediately entwined in the mystery. Don’t expect any plot twists or developments you haven’t seen before, but that’s kind of beside the point. The fun here is in the execution and the visuals. Bava paints the picture with colors that are beautifully lurid, and luridly creepy. In some scenes it’s almost like a gothic, golden-age comic come to life. Bava has all sorts of eerie fun with shadows, contrast, giggling ghost girls, spiral staircases, creepy dolls, and a brief chase scene that pops up out of nowhere in the middle of an already surreal moment that finally drives our stoic lead over the edge. The special effects are patently practical, and all the more effective because of that.

For all the death and omnipresent dread saturating the atmosphere of the film, it’s not a dour picture. In fact, it has its moments that some might call campy. I simply think it has gusto. If you were waiting for the weekend to kick off your early October, Halloween horror binging, Kill, Baby, Kill isn’t a bad place to start. And at less than 90 minutes, it will fit nicely on either end of a double-feature night. For those of you with Netflix, it’s currently available to stream. So stop reading and go put it on your viewing list.

I’ll be back soon with a fresh recommendation.

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