IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE EXORCIST (1973)

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I’ve always considered THE EXORCIST (1973) the scariest movie I have ever seen.

It’s not a jump-scare suspense thriller, nor is it a special effects gore-for-gore’s sake bonanza, although sure, it does contain very graphic scenes that are certainly not for the squeamish. THE EXORCIST is the scariest film I have ever seen because of the story it tells.

Its story of a young girl possessed by— not just a demon but the Devil himself— is so disturbing, that even if you’re not religious you are sure to be moved by it all.

It also doesn’t hurt that everything that happens in the movie seems so convincingly real.

THE EXORCIST not only gets the storytelling right, but it also gets the Catholic Church right.  So many films featuring demons and exorcisms mess up the religious aspects of their tales, often featuring priests who aren’t realistic at all and exorcisms that resemble something out of a Steven Spielberg film with special effects galore.

Not so with THE EXORCIST.  The movie has always seemed authentic and real.

When THE EXORCIST first came out in 1973, I was only 9 and too young to see it.  I first saw it on HBO when I was in high school, probably around 1980, and it was late at night, and it really got under my skin.  I still remember to this day going to bed, closing my eyes, and being unable to erase the image of Linda Blair’s possessed face from my mind. Her eyes kept staring at me.  Long into the dark night and wee hours of the morning.

THE EXORCIST pretty much tells three stories which all converge in the film’s third act. The main story features prominent actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) who’s having trouble with her 12 year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair).  Regan has been acting strangely, and when things get worse and really bizarre, as in her bed shaking and her body becoming grotesquely mutilated, the doctors are at a loss and eventually advise Chris to seek religious guidance and perhaps request an exorcism.

The second story concerns Father Karras (Jason Miller), a young priest who is guilt ridden about the death of his elderly mother, since he was never there for her.  Chris turns to Father Karras for help, and he tries to steer her away from an exorcism, saying instead that she should rely on the medical profession, but when Chris breaks down saying she has taken Regan to countless doctors, and they failed to help her and actually suggested an exorcism, she feels there is no one to help her daughter, and so Karras agrees to see Regan.  After he does, he changes his tune.

The third story revolves around Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) who we see in the first few minutes of the movie in the middle east seeking out religious artifacts.  Merrin is an exorcist who has had experience fighting demons, and eventually the elderly priest is called in to perform an exorcism on Regan, setting up the film’s exciting climax.

THE EXORCIST is one of those rare horror movies where nearly everything works.  It’s no surprise then that THE EXORCIST was the first horror movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.  It didn’t win, nor did Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, or Linda Blair, or director William Friedkin, who were all nominated that year.  But it did win two Oscars, for best adapted screenplay by William Peter Blatty,  based on his novel, and for Best Sound.

The acting is phenomenal throughout.  Ellen Burstyn delivers a powerful performance as Regan’s mother Chris.  She goes through such an emotional roller coaster ride trying to save her daughter, it’s both moving and terribly painful to watch.  It’s certainly an Oscar-worthy performance.

Jason Miller is just as good as Father Karras.  He’s the epitome of a struggling Catholic, a priest who questions his faith and his own actions as a human being.  He needs every bit of strength and faith he has when he eventually has to confront the demon inside Regan.

Likewise, Max von Sydow is just as convincing as the elderly Father Merrin.  It’s an impressive performance, mostly because von Sydow was only 44 at the time, and he is completely believable as a much older man, a testament both to his performance and the superb make-up job by Dick Smith.

Of course, there’s Linda Blair as the possessed Regan, certainly an exceedingly challenging role for a child actress.  But she was helped immensely by Mercedes McCambridge who provided the memorable voice of the demon inside Regan.

Director William Friedkin made a horror film for the ages.  The best thing about THE EXORCIST is that it doesn’t play like a traditional horror film.  It plays instead like a serious drama, only its subject matter of a 12-year-old girl possessed by a demon is horrific.  It’s incredibly disturbing.

The “horror” scenes in THE EXORCIST are legendary:  Regan’s head turning completely around, the green “pea soup” vomit,  the infamous masturbation scene, and the words “help me” on Regan’s stomach.

The film is chock full of unnerving images, from the subliminal flashes of the white-faced demon to Regan’s monstrous stare.

The sound effects are just as ominous.  It’s one of the more innovative uses of sound in a horror movie ever.

And I’ve always loved the scene where Father Merrin first arrives at the house, in the fog and creepy lighting.  It’s never been referenced as an influence, but Friedkin’s shot of Merrin’s arrival has always reminded me of Terence Fisher’s shot of Peter Cushing entering the windmill at the end of Hammer Films’ classic THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) thirteen years earlier.

And who can forget the line, “The power of Christ compels you!” spoken by both Father Merrin and Father Karras during the climactic exorcism scene.

If you’ve never seen THE EXORCIST, it’s a must-see movie for all horror writers. It will continue to haunt you long after you’ve watched it.

It’s the stuff that bad dreams are made of.

—END—

 

 

 

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

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THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), Hammer Films’ second vampire movie, is so steeped in rich atmosphere you can almost feel the Transylvanian mist on your flesh.

It also ranks as one of the best vampire films ever made.

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA tells the story of young Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) on her way to the Lang Academy at Badstein where she is to be a teacher.  Unfortunately, before arriving at the school, she spends the night at the Chateau Meinster where she meets the young dashing Baron Meinster (David Peel) who happens to be a vampire.

Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, reprising the role he played in HORROR OF DRACULA two years earlier) arrives in town to investigate the reports of vampirism in the area.  Van Helsing befriends young Marianne and discovers that Baron Meinster is the local vampire.  In a neat piece of drama, he is understandably shocked to learn that Marianne and the Baron are engaged to be married.  However, Van Helsing puts his personal feelings aside and pursues the vampire, eventually battling it out with Meinster in an exciting climax in a fiery windmill.

While THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is an excellent film, it’s not without its problems.  For starters, Dracula does not appear in the movie, so the title is a major misnomer and source of frustration for many fans.   Dracula is absent from the film because back in 1960 Christopher Lee refused to reprise the role for fear of being typecast.  And while David Peel performs admirably as Baron Meinster, he’s no Christopher Lee, and his performance lacks the powerful punch that viewers loved about Lee.

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David Peel as vampire Baron Meinster in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).

Also, the music score by Malcolm Williamson is so over the top in places it’s almost laughable.  James Bernard’s music is sorely missed here.

Still, there’s lots to like about BRIDES.

The cast is superb, led by Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing.  Long before Hugh Jackman put us to sleep in the over-hyped yawn fest VAN HELSING (2004), Peter Cushing was THE film Van Helsing.  His performances in HORROR and BRIDES marked the first time the role was played as a younger action hero, rather than the old wise professor from Stoker’s novel.

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Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) fighting off a vampire in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).

The supporting cast is also very good, notably Martita Hunt as the Baroness Meinster, Baron Meinster’s mother, and Freda Jackson as Greta, Baron Meinster’s former nurse and current servant.  Jackson steals nearly every scene she’s in.

Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan, and Edward Percy all worked on the screenplay for THE BRIDES OF DRACULA.  Evidently, extra writers were called in and extensive rewrites were performed at the request of Peter Cushing who was unhappy with the original script.  For instance, in the original script, Van Helsing used black magic to fight off the vampires, and Cushing thought this was completely out of character for the doctor.

Director Terence Fisher gives the film its wonderful atmosphere by using rich colors and textures, elaborate sets and costumes, the whole bit.  It’s one of the reasons Hammer Films were so successful.  They always looked liked extremely high-budgeted movies when in fact they weren’t.

Fisher also creates some classic scenes in this film- Greta calling to the young vampire bride in her grave, the girl’s hand clawing its way out of the soil, Van Helsing burning the vampire’s bite from his own neck, and in the fiery climax, Van Helsing leaping onto the blades of the burning windmill to form the shadow of the cross on an adjacent building.

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is an atmospheric gem, well worth sinking your teeth into.

—END—

(This column was originally published in the HWA Newsletter in November 2006.)

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE FUNHOUSE (1981)

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Tobe Hooper, the famed horror movie director who passed away on August 26, 2017 at the age of 74, is mostly known for his classic horror movie, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974).  Many horror writers swear by this movie and cite it as their inspiration for entering the genre.

Other fans prefer Hooper’s work on SALEM’S LOT (1979), the chilling made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s vampire novel.

A smaller group opt for today’s movie, THE FUNHOUSE (1981), Hooper’s entry in the 1980s slasher flick craze, a genre which received a nice kick in the pants with John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978).

I’m a sucker for films which take place at amusement parks or carnivals, and so, while THE FUNHOUSE is not my favorite Tobe Hooper film, it does capture what it’s like to be a teenager at a carnival on a sultry summer evening.  The sights, the sounds, and even the smells, as you can easily imagine the aroma of fried foods, hot buttered popcorn, sweet cotton candy, and of course the repugnant stench of full garbage cans, and the occasional sour sting of leftover vomit on the cement pathways.

As a result, THE FUNHOUSE is a guilty pleasure for me.

I mentioned HALLOWEEN, and one of the weaker parts of THE FUNHOUSE is its opening sequence, in which it pretty much copies the opening sequence in HALLOWEEN, complete with the child killer with a knife and the point-of-view shots from the child’s eyes as seen through a Halloween mask.  I’m sure Hooper intended it as an homage, but since this movie came out just three years after HALLOWEEN, it doesn’t come off that way.

This same scene also includes a shower sequence, and so there’s also an obvious nod to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960).  This homage works better than the nod to HALLOWEEN since it’s less derivative.

In THE FUNHOUSE, teen Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) can’t wait to get out of the house, away from her stifling parents, and if you spent five minutes with the folks playing her parents in this movie, you’d want to get out of the house as well!  They sit like zombies watching television and speak in monotones and spew parental clichés when they talk to their daughter.  With these parents, it’s a wonder that Amy isn’t the masked killer in this movie!

Anyway, on this particular summer night, Amy sneaks off with her friends and heads off to the local carnival, even after her father told her she was not allowed to go there, which, of course, is exactly why she decides to go to the carnival.  Well, actually, to her credit, she tries to resist at first, but her friends convince her to go, and she gives in.

At the carnival, since they’re crazy teenagers, they come up with the daring idea to sneak into the funhouse and stay there overnight.  Too bad for them the guy working the ride wearing a Frankenstein mask happens to be a murderous psycho.  It’s going to be a long night, Amy.

So, what was supposed to be a wild night goofing around inside a funhouse turns into a night of terror as this insane monster chases Amy and her friends through the funhouse with the intent of killing them in various nasty ways.

And there you have the plot of THE FUNHOUSE.  As horror movies go, it’s a fun enough story.

That being said, for me, THE FUNHOUSE has always been a poor man’s HALLOWEEN.  It comes off as cheaper, the acting isn’t as good, and the scares are nowhere near as effective, but it’s still a heck of a lot of fun to watch, especially on a hot summer night.

One of the more memorable parts of THE FUNHOUSE is the Monster, played by Wayne Doba.  At first, he wears a Frankenstein mask, which is creepy enough, but when he takes his mask off, his face is hideous.  It’s a cool looking make-up job, which is no surprise since the man behind the make-up here is none other than Rick Baker.

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Wayne Doba as the Monster in THE FUNHOUSE (1981).

Actually, the creepiest part of THE FUNHOUSE isn’t the Monster. It’s Kevin Conway’s performance as three different ride operators.  He plays the Freak Show Barker, the Strip Show Barker, and the Funhouse Barker, and he’s effectively unsettling as all three.  He’s really creepy, and the funny thing is, he reminds me of a lot of ride operators I used to see at amusement parks and carnivals when I was a kid.  Yup, there used to be some pretty unsavory looking characters running those rides back in the day.

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“Come on, kiddos.  Ride my ride!  It’s fun!”    Kevin Conway operating a ride in THE FUNHOUSE (1981).

And Conway’s Funhouse Barker gets the most screen time as it’s revealed that he’s the stepfather of the Monster.  How about that for a family portrait!

Also working against THE FUNHOUSE is in spite of its premise, it’s never all that scary. The scare scenes for the most part involve the Monster chasing the teens through the Funhouse which sounds scarier than it actually is.

The best part about THE FUNHOUSE is the way Tobe Hooper captures the essence of a summer time carnival.  That’s the main reason I like to watch this one.

Lawrence Block wrote the screenplay, and the story it tells is compelling enough:  a group of teens spending the night in a creepy funhouse, and it has a frightening looking Monster, but pretty much everything else about this one is rather standard.

Tobe Hooper will be remembered most for his work on THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.  But it’s always fun to look beyond an artist’s best or most popular work and look at those projects which weren’t the best things they ever did. It’s how we gain and understand the complete story of the artist.

With that in mind, grab a cotton candy or a candy apple, sneak past that guy wearing a Frankenstein mask, and when no one’s looking, hide.  Now, you’re all set to spend the night inside THE FUNHOUSE.  You’re sure to have a good time.

And with a little luck, you may even survive.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1971)

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One of the better parts of the awful reboot THE MUMMY (2017) starring Tom Cruise was that it featured a female mummy, but it wasn’t the first film to do this.

Hammer Films did it and did it better back in 1971 with BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB, a film based on the novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars by Bram Stoker.

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB is completely unlike the Hammer Mummy movies which came before it, and for that matter from the Universal Mummy movies as well. Gone is the lumbering monster wrapped in bandages.  In its place is a  beautiful woman whose otherworldly powers are just as deadly.

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB is the story of a young woman named Margaret Fuchs (Valerie Leon), the daughter of famed archeologist Professor Julian Fuchs (Andrew Keir).  Margaret is troubled by nightmares in which she catches glimpses of an expedition led by her father which discovered a female mummy, Queen Tera, which strangely had not suffered any decomposition.  Even stranger, Queen Tera is a dead ringer for Margaret.  What’s a girl to do?

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Queen Tera (Valerie Leon), looking pretty good for a centuries old mummy.

Why, investigate, of course!  Which is exactly what Margaret does, with the help of her boyfriend Tod Browning (Mark Edwards).  No, not the guy who directed Bela Lugosi in DRACULA (1931), but obviously the use of the name here is a nod to the famous director, and it makes sense here, since Browning directed DRACULA, which was based on Bram Stoker’s famous novel, and of course this Mummy movie was based on Stoker’s less famous novel.

What Margaret and Tod find out is that Queen Tera is very much alive and intent on walking the earth again, but to do that, she must kill, kill, kill, which she does by using Margaret.

While I wouldn’t place BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB up there with Hammer’s best shockers, it does belong in the better-than-average category.  My favorite part is that it is so different.

Director Seth Holt— who would die from a heart attack before the film was released— uses a slow almost artistic style to tell this story.  The effect is quite mesmerizing.  While you won’t be jolted out of your seat from in-your-face scares, you will be captivated by a haunting tale that subtly gets under your skin.

The music score here by Tristram Cary is also quite effective, as it lends a sense of eeriness to the proceedings.

The screenplay by Christopher Wicking is a good one.  It tells an interesting story and creates some intriguing characters.  The plot also builds to a bloody climax in which survivors are hard to come by.

Valerie Leon is okay as Margaret Fuchs/Queen Tera.  It’s kind of a one note performance, as she doesn’t exhibit a lot of range.  I enjoyed Mark Edwards much better as her boyfriend Tod Browning.  I thought he came off like a real person, and he seemed quite natural inside this supernatural environment.

I’m a big fan of Andrew Keir, and he’s very good here as Professor Julian Fuchs, in a role that was originally intended for Peter Cushing, but Cushing had to drop out to care for his ailing wife.  My favorite Andrew Keir role in a Hammer Film is his performance as Father Sandor in DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).  His role here as Professor Fuchs isn’t as significant, but Keir’s presence adds dignity and respectability to the story.

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Andrew Keir as Professor Julian Fuchs, trying to put an end to Queen Tera, the Mummy.

Also memorable is James Villiers as the mysterious Corbeck, a member of the Fuchs expedition which discovered the tomb of Queen Tera, who later contacts Margaret and Tod and has his own ideas as to what needs to be done regarding the mummy.

If there’s one thing I don’t like about BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB it’s that it lacks energy.  At first, its slow-paced eerie style works, but the film never builds on this, never becomes more suspenseful.  It does have a violent conclusion, but it’s not as powerful as you would expect.  And that’s why for me it’s not up there with Hammer’s best. It’s an atmospheric thriller and generally satisfying, but there’s just something rather passive about the whole thing.

Stoker’s novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars would be filmed again in 1980 under the title of THE AWAKENING starring Charlton Heston with similar if not lesser results.

So, really, female mummies haven’t fared all that well in the movies.  In fact, you could make the argument, that this above average thriller BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB is the best of the lot.

Either way, if you’re looking for a change of pace and want to watch a Mummy movie not about a slow-moving monster in bandages, one that features a female mummy in a story that is far better than the one told in the 2017 MUMMY, give BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB a try.

Its subtle style might be just the thing for a starry September evening.

—END—

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: VIRAL (2016)

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Normally In The Spooklight we look at classic horror movies, but every once in a while I like to shake things up a bit and examine something more contemporary.

Up today, VIRAL (2016), a horror flick that’s now available on Netflix Streaming, which happens to be an easy way to catch horror titles that don’t receive a theatrical release. Some of these are quite good. VIRAL tells the story of two teenage sisters trying to survive during an outbreak of a deadly disease that turns people into murderous killers.

Sound familiar?  Of course it does!  That’s because apocalyptic movies are all the rage these days.  And VIRAL is nothing that hasn’t been done before, nor is it better than other similarly themed apocalyptic horror movies of recent years, but it does have some nice things going for it, which is why today it’s in the spooklight.

Teen sisters Emma (Sofia Black-D’Elia) and Stacey Drakeford (Analeigh Tipton) have recently moved into a new neighborhood with their parents, although their mom is spending a lot of time away from home, and we learn later their dad Michael (Michael Kelly) cheated on their mom, and the move into a new home is an attempt at a new beginning, something their mom is having a difficult time with.  But their dad is around and teaches at their high school. Awkward!

A strange virus has been reported in the news that has been overtaking the world, and when it arrives in their neighborhood, the entire area is quarantined, and Martial law is declared, but not before Michael races to the airport to find his wife who has just arrived home from her trip.  He tells Emma and Stacey to stay in their house and not to let anyone in.  Of course, being teenage girls, they don’t listen to their father, especially Stacey, who’s the rebellious daughter.  She invites her boyfriend over, and the three of them even go off to a party.

At the party, someone arrives with the virus, and it’s at this time that they realize that in addition to making people sick, the virus also makes people crazy and aggressive.  The infected person goes on a killing rampage, and Stacey becomes infected, but Emma brings her back home anyway.  Together, with their teen neighbor Evan (Travis Trope), they spend the rest of the movie fighting to survive.

The strongest thing VIRAL has going for it is some pretty good acting.  I really enjoyed Sofia Black-D’Elia and Analeigh Tipton as sisters Emma and Stacey.  Black D’Elia doesn’t play Emma as your typical “good girl.”  Sure, she’s more responsible than her sister Stacey, but she’s not a saint.  She goes to the party when she knows she shouldn’t, and she is definitely very interested in Evan and doesn’t shy away from his advances one iota.

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Analeigh Tipton and Sofia Black-D’Elia as sisters Stacey and Emma in VIRAL (2017)

Analeigh Tipton is just as good as Stacey, the sister who is more of a rebel.  The best part about both performances and the writing behind them is that neither character is a cliché.

Travis Tope is also very good as their young neighbor Evan, who we find out likes Emma as much as she likes him.  I found their relationship in this movie refreshing.  It wasn’t forced, contrived, or didn’t try to be something it wasn’t— there wasn’t any unnecessary drama- they both like each other a lot, but unfortunately, it’s a bad time to be starting a relationship.

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Travis Trope and Sofia Black-D’Elia choose the wrong day to start dating.

The movie really focuses on these three characters, and no one else does a whole lot.  It was nice to see veteran actor Michael Kelly as their dad Michael.  He gets to play a halfway decent person for a change and actually smiles once or twice.  He’s been busy playing Kevin Spacey’s right hand man Doug Stamper for five seasons on the Netflix TV show HOUSE OF CARDS (2013-present), a dark character who is as grim as they get.

There are some decent horror scenes here.  I liked the sequence at the party, and when we see the little worm-like creatures that carry the disease crawl into their victims’ bodies it’s a pretty neat effect.  But the horror never really explodes to levels where it becomes memorable.

VIRAL was directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, and for two-thirds of this movie they had me.  Initially, I was interested in the plot, and when the virus takes hold of the town, the suspense rose and the film reached a much higher level, but strangely the intensity wanes during the film’s final act.  Perhaps there wasn’t enough budget to film a worthy conclusion, but the natural expectation is for our three characters to be attacked by the worm-carrying murderous hosts who have overtaken the town.  But this never happens.  As such, the final third of the film pales in comparison to what came before it.

Parts of VIRAL reminded me of IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), a recent horror film I liked a lot.  IT COMES AT NIGHT is also about an apocalyptic event, but it’s an event that’s never defined in the movie. But IT COMES AT NIGHT is a better film than VIRAL because it’s grittier and far more suspenseful.

Joost and Schulman also directed PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 (2011) and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 (2012).  I liked VIRAL better than these two PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies, but that’s not saying much.

Barbara Marshall and Christopher Landon wrote the screenplay.  They do a great job with the dialogue and the characterizations, and the idea they have for the virus is a good one, although the concept of a virus that turns people into murderous monsters reminded me a lot of the plot in both versions of THE CRAZIES (1973 and 2010). And like THE CRAZIES, the monsters are not zombies, because they don’t have to die first before they become murderous.

What’s most lacking in the screenplay is a strong third act, which hurts, because the film slows down and it limps towards a conclusion that is hardly memorable.

VIRAL is well-acted, well-directed, and even well-written.  But ultimately it never gets as gritty or as in-your-face disturbing as this type of movie needs to be, and it definitely drops the ball in its third act when it seems to forget that it’s a horror movie.

In spite of its shortcomings, I actually liked VIRAL and wished it had been just a tad more intense.

A bit scarier and this one may have gone— viral.

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: SALEM’S LOT (1979)

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I read Salem’s Lot by Stephen King shortly after it was first published when I was in the 6th grade, and it was the first novel that ever truly scared me.  More importantly, as someone who spent his childhood watching Hammer Films and the Universal monster movies, it was the first book that ever truly entertained me.  It was that book that got me hooked on reading.

As such, my expectations were high when four years later the film version of SALEM’S LOT (1979) arrived as a TV movie directed by Tobe Hooper and starring David Soul and James Mason.  And while it was well-received by critics and fans alike, I was somewhat disappointed by it.  I just couldn’t shake my feelings for the novel, which I felt was vastly superior.

The biggest disappointment for me at the time was the film’s interpretation of the story’s vampire, Mr. Barlow.  Barlow was creepy and terrifying in the novel, with lots of dialogue to back up his evil presence.  In the film, he was changed to a mute Nosferatu clone, and while he did indeed look frightening, the fact that the make-up resembled the classic 1922 Nosferatu make-up on Max Schreck was a let-down.

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Reggie Nalder as the vampire Barlow in SALEM’S LOT (1979).

Anyway, it had been years since I had seen the film version of SALEM’S LOT, and so I thought it was time to watch it again and place it IN THE SPOOKLIGHT.

In SALEM’S LOT, writer Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his childhood home of Salem’s Lot (Jerusalem’s Lot in the novel), drawn there by the Marsten House, a house that watches over the town like a demonic gargoyle.  In short, it’s the town’s haunted house. Ben has been obsessed with this house his entire life, an obsession that began when he ventured into the house as a boy on a dare and saw the hanging body of a man there, a man who while hanging opened his eyes and looked at him.

This moment is a perfect example of the difference between the movie and the book.  In the book, this scene, this image, although not even a major part of the plot, was one of its most frightening.  Indeed, for me, of all the scenes and images from the novel, this is the one that scared me the most back in 1975 and stayed with me the longest, the hanging man who opened his eyes.  In the movie, it’s mentioned briefly by Ben Mears in a conversation, and it’s nothing more than an afterthought. There you go.

So Ben returns home to write about the Marsten House and seek out old acquaintances, like Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia), who he starts to date. He’s writing about the Marsten House because he believes the house itself is evil, and as such it attracts evil.

And he’s right, because currently living in the house are two men, Mr. Straker (James Mason) and Mr. Barlow (Reggie Nalder).  Barlow is a vampire, and Straker is the man empowered with protecting him.  Together, they prey upon the townsfolk of Salem’s Lot, gradually changing nearly everyone in town into a vampire.  Unless that is, Ben Mears can stop them.

It’s a great story, but it plays better in the novel than in the movie, which is hindered by dated dialogue by screenwriter Paul Monash.

I was a huge fan of the TV show STARSKY AND HUTCH (1975-79) back in the day, and so at the time when I first saw SALEM’S LOT I gave David Soul who starred in the show a free pass. Watching it today was a different story.  Soul’s interpretation of Ben Mears has its problems, mostly because at times Soul seems to be sleepwalking through the role.  He also doesn’t do fear well.  When Ben Mears is supposed to be terrified, he comes off as more dazed than anything else.

By far, the best performance in the movie belongs to James Mason as Mr. Straker.  Of course, this comes as no surprise as Mason was a phenomenal actor who was no stranger to villainous roles.  His dark interpretation of Dr. Polidori in FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973) was one of the most memorable parts of that horror movie, and his villainous turn as attorney Ed Concannon in THE VERDICT (1982) was every bit as effective as Paul Newman’s lead performance as Frank Galvin.  Both men won Oscars for their performances that year, Newman for Best Actor, and Mason for Best Supporting Actor.  These roles are from the tail end of Mason’s career, which began in the 1930s and spanned five decades.

As Straker, Mason is frightening.  The scene where he taunts a priest is one of the best in the film.

salems-lot-soul-mason

David Soul and James Mason in SALEM’S LOT (1979).

The rest of the cast, which is chock-full of character actors, is so-so.  In the key role of young Mark Petrie, the boy who loves monsters and monster movies, and the character who I obviously identified with when I first read the novel in 1975, Lance Kerwin is just okay.  Like David Soul, his interpretation of fear comes off more like a “deer in the headlights” daze.

Likewise, Bonnie Bedelia is okay as Susan Norton, but Lew Ayres is effective as school teacher Jason Burke, and unlike Soul and Kerwin, Ayres does do fear well.  Ed Flanders is solid as Dr. Bill Norton, and Geoffrey Lewis enjoys some fine moments as Mike Ryerson, especially once Mike becomes a vampire.  Veteran actors Elisha Cook Jr. and Fred Willard are also in the cast.

And while Reggie Nalder does look horrifying as Barlow in his Nosferatu-style make-up, ultimately he doesn’t make much of an impact in the movie because his scenes are few and far between.  Even though I prefer the Barlow character from the novel to the one here in the movie, I still would have liked to have seen the vampire more in the film.

The story, which flows naturally in the novel, with its expansive cast of characters, doesn’t flow as well in the movie, as the townsfolk and their personal issues play like characters in a soap opera.

Director Tobe Hooper, fresh off his success with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), definitely puts his personal stamp on the movie and creates some scary scenes. Chief amongst them is the creepy and very memorable scene- it might be the most memorable of the entire movie— of young vampire Danny Glick floating outside Mark Petrie’s window, beckoning to be let inside.  It’s certainly one of my favorite parts of the movie.

Another frightening image features Geoffrey Lewis’ Mike Ryerson as a vampire, sitting in a rocking chair.

But the biggest parts of the story strangely fall flat.  The end, for instance, when Mark and Susan enter the Marston house in search of Barlow, lacks the necessary suspense.  In the book, these scenes were terrifying.  In the movie, not so much.

The pacing is a little off as well.  The film runs for 184 minutes and originally aired on television in two 2 hour segments.  The bulk of the first half is spent introducing all the characters, while Barlow doesn’t really show up until the second part, and then things move very quickly, often too quickly.

The film did very well and earned high ratings, and for a while there was talk of turning it into a television series, but the idea never materialized.

I like the film version of SALEM’S LOT, and even though it hasn’t aged all that well, and is a bit dated— in contrast, the classic TV vampire movie THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) still holds up remarkably well today— it’s still a fun movie to watch, with some genuine creepy scenes, especially for a TV movie, and we certainly have Tobe Hooper to thank for that.  While the vampire is OK, and the leads meh, you do have James Mason chewing up the scenery as the diabolically evil Mr. Straker.

The biggest drawback is that the source material, the novel by Stephen King, is so darned good, it makes this above average thriller seem much more ordinary than it really is.

SALEM’S LOT is kinda like its vampire, Mr. Barlow.  Scary, but nowhere near as powerful as depicted in the novel by Stephen King.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE SKELETON KEY (2005)

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skeleton key poster

The following IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on THE SKELETON KEY is a reprint from 2011.  John Hurt, who passed away in January, appears in the film in a supporting role.

—Michael 6/8/2017

 

I first reviewed THE SKELETON KEY (2005) when it was released theatrically in 2005.  I liked it then, and I was curious to see how the film would hold up several years later.

THE SKELETON KEY is a Hoodoo tale set in New Orleans.  Hoodoo is different from Voodoo, as Hoodoo is African American magic while Voodoo comes from Haiti, but in movie terms, they’re pretty much the same thing:  black magic, evil spells, and witchcraft.

Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) accepts a position to care for stroke victim Ben Devereaux (John Hurt) in his southern home.  Devereaux  is paralyzed and has lost the ability to speak, and he’s become too much for his wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) to care for on her own, and so their lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) hires Caroline.

Violet gives Caroline a skeleton key that supposedly opens every door in the house, but Caroline discovers that the key doesn’t open the door to the attic room.   Violet informs Caroline that the room is off limits, and she tells Caroline the tale of how over a hundred years ago the room belonged to two servants who practiced Hoodoo.  When they were caught teaching their black magic to the children of the house, they were murdered, but supposedly, their spirits remain in the house.

Caroline begins to believe that Violet isn’t “all there,” and when the mute Ben tries on several occasions to communicate to Caroline, asking for help, apparently fearful of his wife, Caroline concludes that her patient’s life is in danger.  She even confides her fears to Ben’s lawyer Luke Marshall, who tells her he can’t believe such a thing, that it doesn’t make sense to him.

Caroline decides that it’s up to her to save Ben from his deranged wife, but as she attempts to rescue him, she discovers there’s more going on inside that attic room then she at first believed.  It all leads to a twist ending that is actually better than most.

THE SKELETON KEY is a mildly entertaining story of witchcraft, black magic, and ghosts.  The best part about the film is the strong performances by the leads and a well-written plot that doesn’t fall apart in the end.

Kate Hudson is very enjoyable as Caroline.  She’s a likeable heroine, a sincere character who you worry about once her life is in danger.

The best performance in the movie though belongs to Gena Rowlands as Violet Devereaux.  She’s extremely believable as the southern woman set in her ways, fearing the ghosts who still live in her house, respecting the Hoodoo magic conjured up by those in the know, and who does not trust the young Caroline in her home.  It’s a terrific performance.

Peter Sarsgaard isn’t bad as the lawyer Luke Marshall, and as much as I like John Hurt as an actor, he’s largely wasted here as stroke victim Ben Devereaux.  He doesn’t speak, and he barely moves.  And no aliens explode from his chest.

THE SKELETON KEY is also a very atmospheric movie.  The scenes in and around the mansion give it a strong sense of place.  You can almost taste the jambalaya and smell the humidity in the air.  Director Iain Softley did a nice job capturing a spooky feel in this movie.

THE SKELETON KEY is definitely “quiet” horror.  Ehren Kruger wrote the screenplay, and he keeps things tame and mysterious, as opposed to shocking and in-your-face.  The movie does have a pretty decent twist ending, as those things go.  Most twist endings I see coming a mile away.  Not so, here.  Plus, a lot of twist endings seem tacked on, added just to make things different.  This twist works because it fits in perfectly with the story.

One thing THE SKELETON KEY is not is scary.  It’s not going to give you nightmares, but this doesn’t mean it’s not a successful horror movie.  It is.

It reminds me of some of the old Val Lewton horror movies, which were also subtle in the way they depicted horror, films like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) and THE LEOPARD MAN (1943).  THE SKELETON KEY isn’t as good as these old Lewton classics, but it is similar in mood and tone.

THE SKELETON KEY is not a classic of the genre, but it does tell a good story, and it’s teeming with Hoodoo atmosphere.  It also gets better as it goes along and finishes strongly.

As the weather begins to heat up, and the humidity begins to rise, and you’re reaching for that tall glass of sweet iced tea, you might want to pick up THE SKELETON KEY.  It’s the perfect complement to a sultry evening.

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