Tag Archives: Horror

LIST CANDIDATE: THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic

PLOT: A cardiologist’s odd relationship with a teenage boy reveals a secret about his past, and will lead him to a dilemma in the future.

Still from The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Two-time Certified Weird director Giorgos Lanthimos never fails to deliver weirdness; it’s in his DNA. His first official stab at a horror movie is every bit as disturbing as you might hope—which is to say, every bit as disturbing as his comedies and dramas.

COMMENTS: The Killing of a Sacred Deer flips the script of The Lobster. That was a comedy with terrifying moments, while Deer is an unapolagetic horror movie with a few funny bits (most of which come from blasé or inappropriate conversations about weighty or grotesque subjects). As is always the case with Lanthimos, what you notice first is the anti-acting acting style: the characters barely register emotions, and when they do express, say, marital tenderness, it’s strained, like they’re pod people trying to fake it to fool the humans. That’s the case here, where Steven, Colin Farrel’s cardiac surgeon, trudges through relationships with both Martin, a pleasant but mysterious teen boy, and his own family with the usual Lanthimos-imposed rigidity. This lack of humanity magnifies the mundanity of the family’s suburban existence. The drama is accented by heavy, obtrusive bursts of dissonant classical music (e.g., cue a Ligeti chord at the conclusion of mother/daughter conversation re: smartphones) to give it that ominous horror film feel. It sounds forced, but it’s effective; combined with the awkward interpersonal relations, the technique creates a real sense of dread that rises for nearly an hour before the first major revelation.

Despite the initially repressed thesping, an interesting thing happens in Deer. Delving into horror forces the director to allow his actors to reveal genuine feelings, however briefly. You can’t remain restrained and unreactive when faced with immediately horrific situations like mental or physical torture, however absurd the premise from which they flow might be. Farrell (and Kidman, but mainly Farrel) gets to play furious, frightened and bereaved here. The further into the plot they venture, the more emotions are unleashed, an unexpected progression that feels natural and satisfying.

Although this isn’t a thriller that depends on a twist, I still don’t want to give away too much of the plot. I think it will be more rewarding if the viewer is in the same position as Steven when Martin quickly and casually recites the rules of the game at a cafeteria. I will say that the tale involves a moral dilemma, of sorts. I also feel obliged to say that I found the final resolution unsatisfying, for reasons I can’t discuss in detail without crossing the border into spoiler territory. Let’s simply say that the way Lanthimos resolves the situation, though perhaps the only reasonable solution, allows the protagonist to avoid responsibility for his choices—a surprising cop-out in a movie otherwise so uncompromising, both formally and in its cruelty.

Before sailing to Troy, Agamemnon, the high king of the Greeks, unknowingly killed a deer that was sacred to the goddess Artemis. Angry, the goddess calmed the winds so that the fleets could not sail. To atone for his sin, she demanded that Agamemnon sacrifice his own beloved daughter, Iphigenia. Even though Steven’s daughter Kim got an “A” on her presentation on Iphigenia in class, it’s not necessary to know how that story ends (versions of the myth differ, anyway) to understand Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But the title is intentional foreshadowing that lets you know you’re in for something approaching classical tragedy—and if you know your ancient Greeks, you know they liked their tragedy gruesome. So do modern Greeks. They also like it a little weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as things spun out of control, getting ever stranger, I started to wonder if the director had merely written himself into a corner and was doubling down on weirdness to get himself out. And yet the film never quite loses its mythic drive. You walk out feeling like you’ve truly had an experience.”–Bilge Ebiri, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: WISHMASTER 2: EVIL NEVER DIES (1999)

DIRECTED BY: Jack Sholder

FEATURING: Andrew Divoff, Holly Fields, Chris Weber

PLOT: In a direct-to-video sequel (the first of three) an ancient evil genie (djinn) breaks free of his prison again, tries to conquer Earth with his rule-bound goal of unleashing all djinn onto humanity again, and gets shut down by a panicked, but barely resourceful, female protagonist again.

Still from Wishmaster 2: The Evil Within (1999)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a color-by-numbers horror flick intended to thrill, but not challenge, lite-beer-chugging mall rats. It is so shrink-wrapped and pre-fabbed that it if it were a microwavable meal the ingredients would begin with “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.” Someday, the imaginative horror factory that is the enterprise may demand our attention on the List. But it is not this day, and this is certainly not the movie.

COMMENTS: The whole Wishmaster franchise is the kind of premise that a first-year creative writing student at community college would pounce on with joy, and an experienced fantasy writer would know not to touch with a ten-foot-pole. An evil genie (djinn—gesundheit!) is unleashed on the world with the power to grant humans wishes, but subject to his own malicious interpretations of the wording. Besides a few exceptions (he can’t destroy himself, or re-arrange the fabric of space-time), he has unlimited powers. Think of the potential! And that’s exactly the problem with these kinds of premises: no matter what you do to actualize that potential, it will never live up to what you COULD have done. It’s like having God as a character in your story: whatever the payoff, God ends up being a wimpy letdown, unless you play it for laughs with a lampshade upon this very limitation. Moral of the story: don’t bite off more than you can chew, i.e., by adding God, or nearly God-like, antagonists.

But since when did more ambition than capability ever slow franchise originator Wes Craven down? So, djinn are a race of evil angels starting from the dawn of creation, and the boss djinn, when freed, has the goal of unleashing all his kind to rule humanity. The catch is, to do so he has to grant three wishes for the unlucky human who releases him from his bottle/lamp/(or in this case) ruby red gem. Numerous legalistic restrictions apply, because God may have been reckless in creating these things, but he had some good lawyers to back Him up. It says right here in the D&D manual that the djinn may take the soul of any human he grants a wish to (more play-toys for his dungeon), and he may interpret the wish in whatever outlandishly gruesome way he pleases, no taksey-backsies. As you might guess, careless mumbling around an evil djinn never leads to a happy outcome, and the people in the Wishmaster universe make a (short) career out of saying the stupidest possible things and instantly getting punished for it. “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” Continue reading CAPSULE: WISHMASTER 2: EVIL NEVER DIES (1999)

306. THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

“Casual viewers are going to find it weird, poorly acted, nonsensical, sexist, weird, not scary, confusing and did I mention weird?”–Amazon review of The Love Witch

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddel, Jared Sanford

PLOT: Elaine, a mysterious young woman who, we later learn, is a practicing witch, motors into a northern California town and sets up residence in a Victorian house. She casts spells which cause a succession of men to fall in love with her, but her beaus always fail to meet her fairytale romantic expectations and come to bad ends. As her old Satanist cronies attempt to draw her back into their circle, she finally finds a man she believes will be “the one”—the detective investigating the very disappearances she’s linked to.

Still from The Love Witch (2016)

BACKGROUND:

  • After her debut feature, the 1960s/70s softcore sexploitation parody Viva (2007), Anna Biller worked on The Love Witch for years, not only writing the script and directing and editing but also designing all the costumes and composing the medieval music score. She even spent months weaving the pentagram rug and creating Elaine’s spell book with hand-drawn calligraphy.
  • For authenticity, The Love Witch was shot in the soon-to-be-extinct 35 mm film format.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A Samantha Robinson closeup (pick one). She doesn’t need a spell beyond those eyes, outlined in wicked mascara and smoldering electric blue eye shadow, to get a man in bed.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink tea room; jimsonweed rainbow sex; tampon/urine brew

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The familiar but unreal world created in The Love Witch is so obsessively singular—brewed from pulpy romance novels, perverse witchcraft fantasies, feminist dialectics, and glitzy Technicolor melodramas—that it can only rightfully described as “weird.”


Brief scene from The Love Witch

COMMENTS: The Love Witch is thematically dense and symbolically Continue reading 306. THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

305. THE LURE (2015)

Córki Dancingu

“Our mermaids don’t look like sweet mermaids from Disney. We wanted to kill Disney.” –Agnieszka Smoczyńska

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska, Kinga Preis, Jakub Gierszal

PLOT: Two mermaid sisters, Silver and Golden, wash up on the shores of Warsaw. They hook up with a family synth-pop band, joining their act in a seedy nightclub. Their voices bewitch everyone around them, but Golden’s carnivorous appetite and Silver’s infatuation with a young bass player lead to horror and heartbreak.

Still from The Lure (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • Screenwriter Robert Bolesto was inspired by his friends Zuzia and Basia Wrońska and their childhood growing up around a nightclub in the 1980s. Director Agnieszka Smoczyńska had had a similar childhood experience, and decided to create a horror-fantasy allegory with that setting. The script was initially conceived as a straightforward biography of the sisters, but both the Wrońskas and Smoczyńska felt it was too personal, so the characters were changed to mermaids. Because mermaids are known for singing and the setting was a nightclub, the film easily evolved into a musical.
  • The Wrońska sisters form the Polish-language synth pop band Ballady i Romanse. They composed the music for The Lure. They appear at the end of the film in the wedding scene.
  • Much of the visual style pulls from the art of Aleksandra Waliszewska, who paints twisted, adult fairy tale scenes, as well as photographer Nan Goldin, known for her seedy images of the New York club scene and queer subculture in the 80s.
  • Though it was praised at its Sundance debut, in its native Poland the film received a mixed response. According to Smoczyńska, Poland doesn’t have a tradition of musicals (The Lure has been called Poland’s first musical) or horror. Those elements weren’t advertised at all, so incoming audiences did not realize what they were in for.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Smoczyńsky addresses the reality of mer-people anatomy by showing a mermaid-human transplant. Shot from above, a mermaid lies on ice in a long metal gurney and sings sadly, while a surgeon saws through her torso and then stitches on a pair of human legs (taken from an anonymous woman lying on ice next to her). It is at once clinical, tragic, and sweet, made all the more memorable for being part of a low-key musical number.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Merman punk rocker; breastfeeding mermaids; fish labia

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though working with some familiar source material, the film manages to feel fresh and strange. The visceral effects and gore matched against the upbeat synth tunes; the fantasy characters in a grimy, all-too-real world; the loss of chronology in the narrative; the sense that nothing is quite what it seems, that there is something under the surface of it all: no single element makes it weird, but rather a host of assorted factors.


Brief musical scene from The Lure

COMMENTS: A simple description of The Lure seems impossible. It’s Continue reading 305. THE LURE (2015)

CAPSULE: PHENOMENA (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento

FEATURING: , , Daria Nicolidi

PLOT: A teenage girl with a psychic bond to insects teams up with a forensic entomologist to hunt down a serial killer.

Still from Phenomena (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Phenomena certainly has a wacky premise, and a chimp, to boot. That’s enough to get it onto our radar. Set those features aside, however, and it becomes a standard slasher/horror that borrows too much from the same director’s superior Suspiria to stand on its own.

COMMENTS: So an American brunette ingenue travels to a dramatically lit European all-girls boarding school where she becomes involved in a series of murders… no, it’s not Suspiria, and that’s not , it’s Jennifer Connely. But there are so stylistic many similarities to Argento’s 1977 horror masterpiece in Phenomena that, if it wasn’t made by the same director, you’d probably accuse it of being a poorly-conceived ripoff.

As it is, Argento gets so wild here that he nearly descends into self-parody, although there’s little reason to suspect that Phenomena was intended to be watched with tongue in cheek. The movie is a mixture of good stuff culled from Argento’s toolbox—fantastical lighting (though more restrained than some of his early works), bold camera angles , suspenseful gore, a fairy tale atmosphere—mixed with some clumsy new variations on the formula. The overall mish-mash of good and bad, nice ideas and crazy ones, results in a horror film that’s not really successful on any level (except possibly camp), but is seldom boring. On the good side of the ledger, Argento still has an decadent way with atmosphere. Also, the all-the-stops-pulled finale, with multiple false endings and a genuine surprise finish, is legitimately thrilling. On the bad side, the effects used to create insect swarms (and individual insects) are terribly dated and cartoonish (the locusts of the previous decade’s Exorcist II are a huge success by comparison). The score is another mix of good and bad, with the effective part supplied by Argento’s usual collaborators, Goblin (billed here as “the Goblin”). Unfortunately, Argento also had the bright idea to try to appeal to 1980s youths by inserting rocking tunes from Motorhead, Iron Maiden and something called “Andy Sex Gang” into the movie; at least one shock scene is destroyed by the incongruous pounding metal track that makes it play like a music video excerpt instead of a suspenseful stalking. The crazy insectoid premise also falls into an ambiguous category: maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad, depending on your point of view and how seriously you’re trying to take Phenomena. But it definitely leads to some eyebrow-raising dialogue: “It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic,” deadpans Donald Pleasance’s wheelchair-bound entomologist.

Young Connely is not fantastic in the unconventional role—her line deliveries are so “blah” you may wonder if she was dubbed alongside the Italian cast—but her star potential is evident. If she’s not completely convincing, she is rosy-cheeked and stunning (in a chaste, high-school-crush kind of way). It’s no surprise she found stardom a year later in Labyrinth. Pleasance is, for reasons unknown, Scottish here; his performance is scaled back from his usual hamminess, and not the worse for the restraint. The real scene-stealer, however, is the chimpanzee Tanga, whose presence in the story is so inexplicably unnecessary that it becomes a sort of genius.

New Line cut 28 minutes from the film and released it in the U.S. as Creepers. The complete version is reviewed here. It makes for fine, not-too-serious Halloween viewing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Argento’s weird thriller was a huge box-office hit [in Europe]… Though Argento’s plot is often confused and grotesque, he has a remarkably energetic visual style (mobile camera, slow-motion, careful lighting, creative editing) that is never boring.”–TV Guide

THE WITCH & IT FOLLOWS (2015)

With the release of The Witch and It  Follows, 2015 was an exceptional year for the horror genre. The Witch, Robert Egger’s directorial debut  proved to be the more provocative of the two; not surprising, given that Puritan oppression as horror strikes close to home. Even more predictable is the expansive hatred for such an original film by formula horror fans. They’re a tribe of Neanderthals, too obtuse to recognize one of the ballsiest film of the last decade.

The Witch‘s subtitle tells us it’s “A New-England Folktale,” set in the mid-seventeenth century. It opens with family patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) banished from this Puritan paradise for unclear reasons. Like Adam and Eve, William and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) are forced to flee to the wilderness, a forest setting that recalls numerous fairy tales. With them are their children, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Mercy (Ellie Grainger), Jonas (Lucas Dawson),  Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the infant Samuel.

Like most evangelical sects, William’s religion practices a type of anti-ritualism (setting them apart from liturgical competitors); but, as we see from his dialogue with Caleb, a ritualistic anti-ritualism ritualism sets in. Caleb is a willing subscriber.

Along with the rituals comes Puritan oppression, and a superstitious anti-superstition soon rears its horrific head. Thomasin, left in charge of Samuel, entertains him with a game of peekaboo, but on the fourth uncovering of her eyes, Samuel has vanished.

Still from The Witch (2015)Did a scarlet witch abduct Samuel? Or, is Thomasin guilty of witchcraft herself? Initially, each family member professes guilt over the disappearance of Samuel, but true to the tenets of Puritanism, the antagonists—or imagined antagonists—take feminine forms.

In sharp contrast, Caleb, the male child, is his father’s candidate for godly martyrdom. The proof is in the pudding when Caleb’s holy innocence is tested, aroused by Thomasin’s cleavage. Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw lead a cast that gives stunning performance, restoring our faith in acting.

The film is replete with beautifully horrifying imagery, including a blood-spurting black goat and one of the most unnerving finales in recent memory; straight from bowels of a Goya canvas. Eggers’ sense of period detail, as impressive as it is, is topped by his finding the pulse of the Puritan mindset. The eye of his hurricane is Taylor-Joy who, abandoned by God and family, spans a range in a single film that most actors can’t accomplish in an entire body of work.

It Follows is the second feature effort from director David Robert Mitchell, who impressed with his debut film, The Myth of the American Sleepover (2011). Teen Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex in the back seat of her car with current beau. Since the setting is the horror genre, we all know from the much-quoted Scream (1996) that this means certain death. Sort of.

Many commentators have honed in on the sex and death equation and see It Follows as a parable about STDS. Sort of.  Cool and kinetic, It Follows revels in its paradoxes. When Jay’s boy toy copulates with her, he passes on a stalking demon that can take any form. It’s slow but lethal, and the only way to rid oneself of this shape-shifting ogre is to copulate with someone else before it turns you into beached leg of lamb. Sort of. There’s a catch, of course. If your victim doesn’t pass it on, It will return to Follow you.

and Howard Hawks were mightily offended by Carl Foreman’s script for High Noon (1952), which depicted a narcissistic community refusing to help their neighbors. In response they made Rio Bravo in 1959, then remade it twice. It Follows has it both ways. To prevent her own demise, Jay has to play the narcissist, but she does so reluctantly, and depends on her community of friends for help (parents are out of the question, as it should be).

Still from It Follows (2015)Mitchell chooses his predators smartly, ranging from a child to a naked old man perched on a roof. He clearly has fun pulling from a bag of personality types, embracing the genre tropes, and playing with them like silly putty. References to Val Lewton and ‘s Cat People (1942) abound, along with John Carpenter (including Rich Vreeland’s score) but, like Lewton, Mitchell is not content to merely repeat the past. He’s too progressive for that, and for conservative horror geeks.

KARLOFF 1958: THE HAUNTED STRANGLER, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, AND FRANKENSTEIN 1970

In 1958, producer Richard Gordon offered a two-picture deal with director Robert Day. The dual productions, The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood, would be A (or A-) budget productions, providing the actor a starring role and a salary to match. Karloff jumped at the offer. It had been twelve years since his last star-quality vehicle, the -produced Bedlam (directed by ). Since then, Karloff had been stuck in character parts (1951’s The Strange Door, 1952’s The Black Castle), playing opposite Abbott and Costello (1949’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer), or crap (1954’s The Island Monster and 1957’s Voodoo Island). He had fared better in television (as one of the few big screen stars of the time who had no qualms jumping to the small screen).

The Haunted Strangler is often assessed as the lesser of the two Day/Karloff films, with the actor at his hammiest since 1934’s The Lost Patrol (directed by John Ford and featuring Karloff’s worst performance). Much of the film’s considerable budget went into expensive sets and into securing its lead actor, which unfortunately short-shifted the makeup department: Karloff’s Hyde-like transformation is reduced to the actor tilting his head, mussing up hair, twisting his hand into a claw, and biting lower lip. It is distracting as hell, and critics have been divided on assessing his performance as a whole. Another oft-cited critique is the predictable storyline. In its defense, classic horror fans usually rely on the overused virtues of atmosphere. There are also lurid elements of exploitation (champagne-soaked cleavage, -inspired can-can crotch shots, gruesome murders of women, floggings, bedlam abuses, broken glass to the face, etc) to keep up the interest.

Still from The Haunted Strangler (1958)A film is more than a plot or good makeup effects, however, and Day counts on the actor to carry this character-driven opus. Karloff plays a writer named Rankin, seeking justice for a man whom he believes was wrongly executed as the Haymarket Strangler. Rankin believes the true serial killer is still at large, and through his investigation we are transported through a series of impressive set pieces, from a dilapidated asylum to a gravesite ripe for defiling, a prison, and a sleazy cabaret. The narrative “twist” is transparent almost from the opening, and witnessing Karloff’s B-film descent into hysterical lunacy makes for a beguiling contrast with the A-quality art production. Given the flimsy plotting, a more subdued performance would have rendered the enterprise vapid. Despite the film’s obvious flaws, blatant titillation, and dated makeup, Karloff bounces through a project that is tailor-made for him.

Corridors of Blood is a different animal, with nary a monster in sight—at least not the genre expectations of a supernatural ogre. Rather, it is the monster of ignorance that rears its head here, and despite the Continue reading KARLOFF 1958: THE HAUNTED STRANGLER, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, AND FRANKENSTEIN 1970

CAPSULE: TAG (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reina Triendl, Mariko Shinoda, Erina Mano, Yuki Sakurai, Ami Tomite

PLOT: A Japanese schoolgirl finds herself shunted through many different realities, all of which want to kill her and her companions.

Still from Tag (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: At an earlier stage of this project’s development, Tag might have been shortlisted. This quintessentially Japanese mix of exploitation and surrealism will hit the sweet spot for fans of smart splatterpunk, Sono-style, but doesn’t go far enough above and beyond to merit consideration for the List, considering the shrinking number of available slots.

COMMENTS: There’s no denying that Tag‘s opening gambit, featuring two busloads of schoolgirls sheared in half by unseen forces, is one of the more memorable opening statements in recent movie history. If the rest of the movie never quite catches up to that level of excitement, it still leaves one hell of an impression on the viewer. It leaves quite an impression on lone survivor Mitsuko, too. In silent shock, she wanders into her schoolyard, where everyone is going about the day normally and treats her as if she‘s the one who’s insane, blubbering about a killer wind. Everyone, that is, except for her girlfriend nicknamed “Sur” (for “surreal”), who explains about alternate realities and the butterfly effect. This sophomore-level philosophy gains some credibility when the school’s teachers pull out machine guns and start mowing down their students (in a sort of nasty reversal of the final scene of If…. ). Mitskuko is again the lone survivor, fleeing the carnage into yet another, equally dangerous version of reality…

Fun Tag drinking game: take a swig every time a male actor appears onscreen. Tag is so female-centric that, despite the fetish schoolgirl uniforms and the ample panty shots,  it’s hard not to see it as Sono’s feminist statement. What form that statement takes isn’t one-hundred percent clear, but it would seem to involve something about the various (limiting) roles females are forced into in Japanese society (by males) and the resulting anxiety that engenders in young women trying to establish their own identity. The ending revelation, which seems intended to tie everything together and reveal a hidden logic, is underwhelming. A lot still remains unexplained when the curtain falls—for example, the pig-man. In the end, I suppose you just have to take Sur’s advice: “Stay strong. Life is surreal. Don’t let it consume you.”

Tag‘s gore effects are provided by another 366 fave, (Tokyo Gore Police).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…another feather in the highly idiosyncratic cap of Japanese helmer Sion Sono. This cavalcade of carnage set in a bizarre parallel world where women are chased and slaughtered by all manner of human and supernatural forces hits the sweet spot where grindhouse meets arthouse.”–Richard Kuipers, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Sir Exal. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LON CHANEY, JR.

Why no one has ever produced a cinematic biopic treatment of the Chaney boys (Lon Sr. and Lon Jr.) is baffling. Bela Lugosi was given quite a spotlight in Ed Wood (1994), and Boris Karloff was a supporting character in Gods and Monsters (1998). Off-screen, Karloff might have made for a nice neighbor, but being the workaholic he was, his biography is dull going. Of course, Lugosi had elements of drug addiction, pathos, and parody late in life working for him. While the Chaneys lacked the European mystery of Karloff and Lugosi, there’s an aptness in these American-bred father and son icons because, as the past year has revealed, Europe has doodly-squat on ‘Murica when it comes to the banality of authentic horror.

From the slivers of information that we have received over the years through peer recollections and various articles, the Chaneys would make for one helluva psycho drama, preferably directed by someone with the sensibilities of a . No definitive biography has been written about either, and cinematically there’s only a ludicrously whitewashed biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) starring James Cagney as daddy Chaney. Part of the reason for lack of a substantial biography could be the almost obsessive protectiveness of the Chaney estate, who seem to have made things consistently difficult for potential biographers. However, it is also telling that the estate has, as far I know, never disputed the more colorful biographical tidbits that have been given about their silver screen patriarchs.

Lon CHaney Jr. news clippingThere must have been something of the masochist in the elder Chaney, who went though much self-inflicted suffering for his art, including looping wires around his eye sockets and wearing false teeth so tight that shots had to be completed quickly before he started bleeding. For Quasimodo, he wore a back prosthetic so heavy that (coupled with instructions to an extra to not spare the whip in the famous beating scene) it sent Lon Sr. to the hospital for an extended stay. Apparently, he was also quite a sadist, and would lock Creighton (Lon Jr.’s birth name) in a closet after razor strap beatings for punishment. (Senior was also psychologically abusive, as when he told Junior that mommy was dead, when in fact she was quite alive).

Such heredity and abuse certainly was instrumental in composing Lon Chaney Jr. as something of a real life lycanthrope with horrific daddy issues. In assessing Jr. as a pale copy of his father, the popular and critical consensus is spot on (for once). In addition to obsessively (and vainly) trying to outdo daddy, Jr. was also a raging alcoholic, had drug problems, and was prone to a violent temper; which, according Continue reading LON CHANEY, JR.

CAPSULE: THE PIT (1981)

DIRECTED BY: Lew Lehman

FEATURING: Sammy Snyders, Jeannie Elias

PLOT: A psychotic, outcast 12-year old boy talks to his teddy bear and feeds his enemies to creatures who live in a pit in the woods.

Still from The Pit (1981)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Pit is a mish-mash of eerie/weird ideas and frustratingly bad directorial decisions; unfortunately, the latter dominate the former.

COMMENTS: It’s called The Pit, but most viewers would call it “the pits.” If you’re a regular at this website, however, you’re probably not one of them. After all, any movie that has both a creepy kid who talks to his teddy bear (that talks back) and a pit full of flesh-eating monsters (which the psycho-moppet calls “trollogs,” a bastardization of “troglodytes”) has something going for it. That said, The Pit is a big mess, sporadically interesting, but mostly a big tease of the weird movie it could have been in more competent hands. It’s torn between its high-concept psychodrama and its longing to be a drive-in creature feature. It rushes around trying to be all things to all people: it starts out confusingly with an out-of-context killing, inserts gratuitous nude scenes that are often ridiculous (besides peeping on his babysitter, Jamie uses a bizarre and improbable scheme to get a local mom to strip), shoehorns in barnyard comedy, sends out a bunch of guys in furry monster suits to run around in the woods chased by a posse of shotgun-wielding yokels, and epilogues with a nonsensical “twist.” It’s reasonably inept B-movie fun, but it’s not as deranged as it needs to be to earn classic bad movie status. Instead, it’s almost endearingly clumsy, like a lesser effort.

We get that Jamie is ostracized for being a weird kid, but the script goes way too far out of its way to hammer that point home. It’s one thing when his fellow snot-nosed tykes make fun of him, but having little old ladies in wheelchairs loudly insult him when he’s standing in earshot (“just not right, that boy!”) is laying it on too thick. Still, with his bowl haircut cut and a nose that’s growing just slightly faster than the rest of his face, Sammy Snyders is effectively creepy, without being an exceptionally good actor (taking into account his age and the extraordinary demands of the role). He’s in that awkward stage of early adolescence: you can still see fading traces of the cute kid he once was, but he hasn’t yet developed into a young man. He has good facial expressions; his eyes simmer and his lips tremble when he gets frustrated, which happens often. His line readings are a different matter, although it is a challenge for a 12-year old kid to convincingly deliver monologues like “she’s not like the others, Teddy, she’s pretty” to his teddy bear. The awkwardness arguably works in his favor; this is a bad B-movie version of a schizo kid, so a performance that’s a little unconvincing adds an unnerving edge: more evidence that this boy’s “just not right.” And if you’ve got a phobia about creepy, psychotic kids, this one could haunt your nightmares.

This is director Lew Lehman’s only feature. Screenwriter Ian A. Stuart complained that he made a hash out of the story, which was written as a serious thriller about a disturbed kid (everything was supposed to be all in Jamie’s head).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… there’s no argument that I can perceive that makes The Pit a legitimately effective motion picture. Its deranged tone, bizarre characters, and a loopy structure that makes the 97-minute running time seem every bit of 20 minutes longer than the filmmakers were ready for all contribute to make certain of that.”–Tim Brayton, Alternate Ending (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Patrick,” who called it “[a]n utterly bizarre 80s horror film .” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)