Tag Archives: Horror

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: WINTERBEAST (1992)

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DIRECTED BY: Christopher Thies

FEATURING: Tim R. Morgan, Mike Magri, Bob Harlow, Charles Majka

PLOT: On top of a mountain near the remote Wild Goose Lodge, ancient Indian stop-motion demons are stirring.

Still from Winterbeast (1991)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: There are numerous bizarre touches scattered throughout Winterbeast, but there is one scene that earns this scrappy little amateur film an outside shot at our list: an unexpectedly ian masquerade at about the two-thirds mark of the movie, scored to a scratchy phonograph recording of the children’s song “What Can the Matter Be?”

COMMENTS: Begun in 1986 and released (to VHS) in 1992, Winterbeast is a few minutes of fairly competent stop-motion animation padded with about 75 minutes of totally incompetent live-action story. The action features mostly cardboard characters, with the exception of a hard-drinking, girlie-magazine loving NYC reprobate park ranger, and a plaid-jacketed businessman who sounds like Larry “Bud” Melman and does for New England wilderness lodges what Jaws‘ mayor did for public beaches. It’s nowhere near a good movie, but it has a small cult following for a reason: it’s peppered with weirdness.

Some of the weird bits are just the sloppy mistakes you usually find in bare budget films. There is, for example, a moment when a man breaks out a glass pane in a door window, presumably so he can reach inside and undo the lock. But when he strikes it, the door immediately swings open, because it wasn’t locked at all. So why didn’t he just use the door handle in the first place? (Maybe because the door in question doesn’t even have a handle.) With segments filmed over a period of years, there are constant editing boo-boos: shots from the same scene are often poorly matched, using different film stock and sound equipment (and sometimes costuming). Lead Tim R. Morgan’s mustache appears to change length and even color randomly throughout the movie.

These mistakes are likely the result of little care being put into anything except the monster sequences. But other flakes of weirdness are almost inexplicable: when Charlie opens his case of Indian artifacts, there’s one item that’s very out of place (I won’t spoil the surprise, you’ll know it when you see it). There are just plain goofy moments, such as when a character unconsciously copies a pose of a cigar-store Indian statue. (It’s worth shoehorning in here that Winterbeast‘s understanding of Native American ethnography appears to be based on research done at 1980s off-reservation souvenir shops.) And then there’s the previously-referenced musical number, complete with a plastic Halloween pumpkin prop, which is a genuine mini-masterpiece of microbudget surrealism.

Oh, and did we mention the rampaging stop-motion monsters? There’s a tentacled dream demon, an animated tree, a bug-eyed Bigfoot, a dinosaur, a giant chicken, and more. For the most part, they look pretty good—except when the giant models are shown picking up their quickly-made hunk-of-clay human victims, and either decapitating them or—in the case of one hapless, topless victim—smashing them against the side of a building. The creatures are only seen briefly, but the filmmakers obviously believed they could carry the picture, and they just needed to build enough movie around them to showcase these effects.

Remember how much fun 1970s homemade Harryhausen tribute Equinox was? Now imagine if it was done by a crew with half the talent at animation, and a tenth of the talent at every other aspect of filmmaking. Still fun, but in a different way. Realizing that he had created the perfect film, Christopher Thies never wrote or directed another movie after this.

Winterbeast is available as part of Vinegar Syndrome’s “Home Grown Horrors” box set (for the time being, exclusively available here), where it joins fellow apocrypha candidate Beyond Dream’s Door (1989) and the slasher Fatal Exam (1988) in a triple-feature of some of the best cheapo horror movies of the video store boom. It’s loaded with every possible extra feature you could imagine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the movie may be uneven in terms of the quality of its cinematography but it is so consistently bizarre and filled with enough seriously WTF moments that you can’t help but love it.”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (“Homegrown Horrors” box set)

CAPSULE: TEN MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Erik Bloomquist

FEATURING: Caroline Williams, Adam Weppler, Nicole Kang, William Youmans, Nicholas Tucci

PLOT: DJ Amy Marlowe is bitten by a flying animal on the way to her final broadcast, and things get a little bloody.

COMMENTS: Does Ten Minutes to Midnight embody low-budget horror? Let’s go down the list. Closed environment? Check: radio station, nary an outside scene. Undercurrent of macabre humor? Check: the night manager is a skeezy, New Wave-vintage coke-snorter, while the oddball security guard spouts good cheer with a sociopath’s menace. Pile of corpses? Check: the ladies room becomes shin-deep in victims. Brief run-time? Check: 72 minutes zip right along. Throwback lead? Super check: Caroline “Stretch” Williams owns her role as DJ Amy Marlowe. But sophomore director Erik Bloomquist throws in peripherals left, right, and center. With all that weight on the sides, the center does not hold.

From the start, Ten Minutes veers into ambiguation. The establishing shot, something I always note, shows an upside-down clock positioned at—you guessed it—11:50. (The outdoor light levels and an urgent broadcast about “tonight’s” rain storm answer the “AM or PM?” question; warning: you will get very comfortable with this clock setting.) Amy’s adventure begins offscreen and the dual bite-mark she receives on her to work introduces one possible explanation for the strangeness that ensues.

As far as cast goes, aside from the over-caffeinated security guard Ernie (Nicholas Tucci, deceased) and the station’s past-his-prime manager, there’s young-guy-with-lip-piercings radio technician Aaron who might be nursing a crush for the mature blonde DJ. And oh yeah, incongruous UC Berkeley grad Sienna (Nicole Kang) is there to act as some generational counterpoint to Amy.

You cannot hope to adequately convey much with a runtime under an hour-and-a-quarter, but that doesn’t stop our boy Bloomquist from trying. Ten Minutes explores transition—Amy is menopausal and retiring, Sienna is starting a new job, Aaron just broke up with another redhead, and callers’ lives are at a crossroads. It explores aging, death, purgatory, the modern work environment. It wants to be a vampire movie, a psychological study, a meditation on mortality, and a horror comedy… Imagine you’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet that is rigged to explode unless you consume all the offerings, from the bad pizza to the passable fresh-carved roast beef, in 72 minutes; Bloomquist seems to have endured an artistic form of this hypothetical. As a rule, I don’t mind a movie leaving me with more questions than answers, and I don’t necessarily shy away from incoherence. But while Ten Minutes to Midnight left me overstuffed with bloody imagery and thematic twists, it left me hungry for something more substantial.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In the span of just 70 minutes [Bloomquist] manages to cover an awful lot of ground, creating a surrealist tone early on that he never lets up until the closing credits roll…  a B-grade feature wrapped up in a 1980’s mindset that gloriously marches to its own bizarre beat.”–Peter Gray, This Is Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE AMUSEMENT PARK (1973/2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Lincoln Mazaael

PLOT: An old man spends a terrifying afternoon at an amusement park.

Still from The Amusement Park (1973)

COMMENTS: In 1973, the Lutheran Society decided to fund an educational, public service film about the problems faced by the elderly. Certainly a worthy, even progressive, cause. But it doesn’t seem like the first thing you’d say when pitching this project to the congregation is, “You know who we need to get to make this for us? The Night of the Living Dead guy.”

The sedate opening, with the distinguished looking older actor Lincoln Mazaael strolling along, reciting the problems faced by the seniors—neglect, disrespect, high health care costs, diminished incomes, crushing loneliness, and so on—is probably the kind of respectful, boring homily the church had in mind when they commissioned the project. But this turns out to be only a brief introduction; Romero quickly shuffles his protagonist into an all-white room and initiates a “Twilight Zone”-style scenario where he sees another old man, battered and bandaged, cowering in the corner. After awkwardly attempting to engage this beaten figure (whose identity is no real secret) in conversation, Mazaael then declares that he intends to enjoy his day and confidently strolls into the amusement park.

His adventure begins satirically enough, with a long line of older people buying carnival tickets from a combination salesman/pawnbroker. But events progress from the undignified to the brutalizing, as Mazaael finds himself barred from the more invigorating rides, witness to a bumper car accident between an old woman and a reckless whippersnapper, scammed by a pickpocket, menaced by bikers, and shuffled through an impersonal assembly-line medical clinic. As he journeys through the park, he accumulates bumps and bruises, both physical and emotional. Younger pedestrians thoughtlessly jostling him, or callously passing him by when he is clearly in distress, becomes a repeated motif.

Visually, The Amusement Park is far from glamorous, but the unpretentious, antique presentation suits the material. It’s shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, naturally, and although it was restored as much as possible, the print still looks brown and dusty, often reminiscent of stock footage. Besides Mazaael, the cast is completely composed of amateurs (the many elderly extras were probably recruited from a local nursing home, and reportedly had more fun on the shoot then they had experienced in years). The donated amusement park location provides almost all the production value; a few cheap props (a pine box, a comically oversized pencil) appear (although to be fair, the makeup is good). None of this proves to be a problem; the entire thing ends up looking like a home movie, which makes it feel even more like an artifact from some bizarro alternate universe.

I can’t say I found The Amusement Park viscerally terrifying. Even though zombielike figures, Grim Reapers, and dead rats randomly pop into frames every now and then, there is no real sense of mystery or existential dread; the blatantly allegorical nature of the project makes it more thought-provoking than scary. The Lutheran Council, however, was apparently horrified, concluding that the results were too gruesome for the edification of their parishioners and burying the film. Nevertheless, the mismatch between message and messenger is precisely what makes The Amusement Park fresh and fascinating. Making its point efficiently in under an hour, anyone with an interest in Romero, experimental horror, or obscure cinematic oddities will want to put this ambitious little curiosity on their bucket list.

After finishing up it’s limited run in theaters, The Amusement Park will stream on Shudder starting June 8. Who knows what the future holds after that?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Following a group of senior citizens as they get terrorized during a surreal trip to a Pittsburgh theme park – where ride tickets are gained through the bartering of precious family heirlooms and carnival barkers are scam artists ready to pick your pocket – The Amusement Park is one of Romero’s trademark hammer-over-the-head metaphors.”–Barry Hertz, The Globe and Mail

CAPSULE: THE EMPTY MAN (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: David Prior

FEATURING: James Badge Dale, Marin Ireland, Sasha Frolova, Stephen Root

PLOT: James Lasombra, ex-cop and widower, offers to help find his friend’s daughter and discovers he’s being pursued by a malevolent spiritual force.

COMMENTS: David Prior’s feature debut is a horror movie, a thriller, a melodrama, and an exploration of dark spirituality. It’s stuffed to the gills with cultists, menace, and twists, all drizzled with snark. It’s brimming with so many ideas that its title becomes nearly ironic. Sure sure, it features a tulpa with an appetite whose current manifestation evokes the “slender empty man.” Additionally, the protagonist is empty on the inside: his wife and son died some years prior. In fact, the introductory scene (a thorough twenty-two minutes) culminates with a hapless hiker slipping into an empty space in some Bhutanese mountain. But if any one criticism is to be leveled against The Empty Man, it’s that there is just too much of everything.

It stars with excessive location detail. The Bhutanese mountain in question is precisely identified in a superimposed opening title card, scored by foreign drone-singing, and emphasized further by a passing bus-load of Buddhist monks, a wall of spinning prayer bells, and bunches of fluttering prayer flags. Guess where those four random mid-’90s mountaineers are? Exactly where they shouldn’t be. After they meet their grisly but otherwise nebulous fate, we’re brought back home (and to present-day) with the title card “Webster Mills, MO, 2018”. In case we didn’t trust their word, there’s a shot of a water tower with the town’s name slapped across it. In the (second) introductory scene we meet James Lasombra, a grizzled forty-something who runs a home security business. His adventure features teen disappearances, teen deaths, expository expostulation from a goth-pixie daughter figure, the “covertly” sinister Pontifex Institute, and recurring flashback nightmares breaking through his doxepin regimen.

This rich vein of material coupled with countless I-don’t-trust-the-audience reminders made me feel that its 137 minutes was both too brief and overly long. The camera might linger obviously on a detail in one scene and then swing back to it when James reaches the relevant point in his investigation. As he drives through the rainy nights of Webster Mills, earlier lines of dialogue repeat in his memory. And Prior makes the regrettable choice of providing an uncut version of a key flashback that would have left things more interesting, and still adequately explained, had he trusted his viewer to have been actually watching the movie.

But I can’t dislike a movie for its eagerness to tell as much story as it can. An opening credits tip-off strongly hint that The Empty Man has something to do with a comic book universe, which helps explain the problem. Prior’s movie should have been no shorter than a mini-series. It could then explore: the Himalayan incident in more depth; the unclear history between James and Detective Villiers; the mythos of “the Empty Man” in contemporary American society; and the socio-spiritual machinations of the Pontifex Institute. In future, I hope Prior adopts either an exhaustive or a less-is-more approach−not both.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Advertised, however slightly, as a traditional horror film, this is a truly surreal and strange piece of work, anchored by some top-notch craft elements, but weakened a bit by a bloated running time and a conclusion that likely left the few people who saw it in theaters more annoyed than thrilled… How do you sell a film as surreal and unsettling as ‘The Empty Man’? You don’t even try. If you’re lucky, the audience finds it on their own.”–Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com (contmporeaneous)

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR (1989)

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DIRECTED BY: Jay Woelfel

FEATURING: Nick Baldasare, Rick Kesler, Susan Pinsky

PLOT: A young man finds himself trapped in a nightmare, and when he describes it to others, they are dragged into the dream, too.

Still from Beyond Dream's Door (1989)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It’s a long shot, but if you catch this modestly-budgeted but ambitiously-scripted little surreal collegiate horror in the right mood—in a darkened room around midnight, with a joint burning absent-mindedly in the ashtray, maybe even playing on an old VCR with minor tracking issues—you might just find that it gets enough of its hooks in you to drag you into its dream world.

COMMENTS: Why does Julie dream about a red balloon? What is the relationship between the armless janitor, the serial killer, and the red rubber monster? And why trap unassuming student Ben Dobbs in a never-ending nightmare in the first place? Those are just a small sample of the questions Beyond Dream’s Door won’t be answering.

It begins with an obvious dream sequence: laughing voices on a telephone, a topless girl, blue zombie hands waving in the air like the crowd at Coachella had been dosed with Thorazine. And here comes a spoiler, that isn’t really that much of a spoiler—when Ben seems to wake up from that dream, having apparently dozed off while studying calculus, it turns out that he’s actually inside another dream. The reason that this isn’t much of a spoiler is that this turns out to be the structure of the entire movie: it’s basically one long montage of dream sequences, with perhaps a quarter of the action occurring in the waking world.

Made in the late 80s by recent graduates of the now-defunct Ohio State University film department, Beyond Death’s Door is an authentic student film. A lot of the crew worked for class credit instead of cash money. That fact is reflected in the uninspiring acting—much of it from theater majors rather than seasoned film actors—and the sometimes woeful props. Dream’s Door overcomes those deficiencies with well-paced action that efficiently carries the viewer from one inventive dream to another. The slight plot has Ben, and the professor and teaching assistants who are dragged into his nightmare after unwisely agreeing to read his dream transcripts, trying to defeat a monstrous force, whose ultimate identity and motivation is left up to the audience’s imagination. Experimental film techniques—slo-mo shots of bursting light bulbs with sizzling filaments, faces in funhouse mirrors twisted into Lovecraftian monsters—effectively deliver bizarre shocks while coming in under budget. Recurring dream characters include Ben’s non-existent brother and a topless temptress (added at the distributor’s insistence to inject some cheesecake), along with the monster and the various alter-egos of whatever entity is orchestrating this nightmare. Even some cheesy faux-Poe doggerel, read solemnly over a dream montage, only adds to the odd flavor. While psychological horror fans won’t mistake Beyond Dream’s Door for a masterpiece, it’s a charming underdog of a chiller that well rewards viewers willing to risk becoming trapped inside its 1980s VHS reality.

Beyond Dream’s Door is available as part of Vinegar Syndrome’s “Home Grown Horrors” box set (available here), where it joins the stop-motion monster flick Winterbeast (1992) and the slasher Fatal Exam (1988) in a triple-feature of some of the better cheapo horror movies of the video store boom. The special edition DVD was loaded with extras (including two commentary tracks and the original short film from which Dream’s Door was adapted); Vinegar Syndrome ports all of those over, adding several more featurettes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Wolefel’s] fascinating first feature film, Beyond Dream’s Door, avoids clichés and formulas to bring the stunningly surreal world of nightmares into painful perspective. As a result, instead of the same old craven crap, we are privileged to see one of the late ’80s best independent fright films.”–Bill Gibron, DVD Talk (2006 DVD)

CAPSULE: RAW (2016)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Julia Ducournau

FEATURING: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

PLOT: A vegetarian girl develops an insatiable craving for meat after she eats a rabbit kidney as part of a veterinary school hazing ritual.

Still from Raw (2016)

COMMENTS: As Justine, a veterinary whiz-kid, Garance Marillier seems to grow up before our eyes. She begins the film as a timid girl looking younger than her eighteen years, submissive to her parent’s cult-like adherence to a stern vegetarian creed (Mom raises holy hell when she finds a cafeteria worker has accidentally ladled a chunk of sausage into her daughters’ mashed potatoes). Later in the movie, after Justine has tasted organ meat and experienced college life, we see her gyrating drunkenly in front of a mirror in too much lipstick and a slutty dress, listening to a distaff rap about a gal who likes to “bang the dead.” A lot of people indulge in pleasures of the flesh when they go away to college, but Raw gets ridiculous.

Raw is rich with coming-of-age subtexts—sibling conflicts, youthful irresponsibility, conformity, social and intellectual insecurity, bullying, bodily changes, bulimia—all of them given an unnerving horror spin. Naturally, sex is the dominant subtext. Under peer pressure, Justine betrays her abstinence and, now conflicted, finds herself drawn towards her new carnal/carnivore nature, and the appetites and danger that comes with it.

The veterinary school setting allows Ducournau to include a lot of animalistic symbolism, which verges from the poetically frightening (a horse chained to a treadmill) to the disgusting (a cow rectum cleaned by hand). Raw‘s focus is on bodily functions—eating, puking, excreting, arousal—all of it serving to remind Justine that she, too, is an animal. There are even hints of bestiality, and at one point Justine roleplays as a dog.

Raw‘s story is told with more abstraction than is strictly necessary, making it into a somewhat dreamlike impression of the anxieties of experiencing adult freedom for the first time. The hazing rituals at veterinary college are exaggerated to a ridiculous degree: masked upperclassmen burst into freshman dorms like the secret police rounding up dissidents. The inductees are compliant, and a ritual that seems like victims being led to the gas chamber segues seamlessly into a kegger. The faculty allows students to attend class while soaked with blood. People react to severed fingers with less consternation that one might expect. A Lynchian old man playing with his dentures in the emergency room waiting area seems to be the only one in the movie who understand that something odd is going on. But you will notice. Raw is a thoroughly disturbing parable about discovering your own true nature.

After originally being released on a bare-bones DVD only, Shout! Factory gave Raw the deluxe Blu-ray treatment in 2021, complete with a director’s commentary track, interviews and Q&As, deleted scenes, and more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’ll spare you the graphic details, which is more than this fearlessly bizarre film does, but ‘Raw’ takes on the politically incorrect subject of devouring females, and lends new meaning to giving someone the finger.”–Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal (contemporaneous)

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