By Paula R. Stiles
It’s so easy to make MSTK-style fun of truly bad horror (like The Giant Gila Monster), or even mediocre stuff. Far more frustrating are those films that had some beguiling charms, but ultimately, just couldn’t quite hold it together. And no, I don’t mean genuinely-good films, like Targets, that have simply been forgotten, but those films that contain what Stephen King calls in his classic study of the genre, Danse Macabre, “gold nuggets” of horror. I’m sure the below list will divide readers into two camps – those who think some of these films really, really suck and those who think some of these films are actually classics (and there will be readers who fall into both camps simultaneously, depending on the film). That’s part of the problem with these films, that, depending on your audience, they get more or less rope but don’t draw a consistent opinion because they don’t deliver a consistent experience. And no, that doesn’t mean I’m claiming that all of the films below are equal in quality, either.
DeVour (2005): I’m starting with this one, not due to any claims of high quality or even favouritism, but because it doesn’t suffer from one problem most of the below entries have from time to time – it’s not dull. It’s seriously screwed up, but it’s not dull. If any of the films on this list define the term “hot mess”, DeVour is right up there.
The title, oddly enough, is related to our recent week-long subject, the Templars. It comes from a passage in the Bible, 1 Peter 5:8: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour,” which the Templars used in an exemplar in their Rule about why hunting in general was bad, but hunting lions was okay.
Jensen Ackles, as the downtrodden young hero, Jake, heads an able, seasoned cast that includes his father, Alan Ackles. That cast deserved a much-better script. It wasn’t that the writers didn’t have any good ideas. It’s that they had far too many. Far, far too many. And they just could not decide on one and stick to it. The idea that poor Jake (who is a good kid having to deal with way too much responsibility) and his friends could be tossed to the Satanist wolves by a screwed-up Christian community is a very good idea, sort of a reverse of the Salem Witch Trials, that gets little development. The idea of the occult Internet game is pretty good (a nice twist on the old “Hey, we’re dumb kids; let’s play with a Ouija board” concept), but that gets dropped about a third of the way in. The idea of Jake’s daymares (and how these disrupt his sense of reality in a fundamental way) is absolutely fantastic and belongs in a much better film. The idea that the Devil is a female pagan goddess who can have (and love) a child that is stolen from her is really interesting, but that gets mucked up down and sideways. It’s fascinating, in a car-crash sort of way, to see a film that manages to insult Christians, Neopagans and Satanists, all at one go. It’s tough to pull that off, but I’m not sure we should be congratulating DeVour for managing it.
The shame of it is that individual scenes are written and acted very well. There’s a very creepy scene in the basement where Jake answers a phone that is not connected to anything. Then he spots a disturbing figure and backs, terrified, into shadow. But when he reemerges, he looks strangely elated, almost conspiratorial. Why? Good question, but DeVour never answers it. There’s another scene nearly an hour in where Jake comes home to find his adopted father (played by Ackles’ real father) getting drunk. We find out that this isn’t a new thing – Daddy is a recovering alcoholic who just fell off the wagon. Well, gee, might have been nice for us to know that before the scene, eh? That cuts into the effectiveness of Dad’s line, “We’re not going to be able to save you, now,” which is a shame since both Ackles père et fils do a really nice job. William Sadler’s scene is also great, but, despite playing an apparently-major character, he simply disappears afterward. And I love the bleak, mind-screw ending…but it belongs to a much-better film.
One good thing about this, though, is that, if you’ve ever wondered what Jensen Ackles might have been like as Sam Winchester instead of Dean on his current show, Supernatural, DeVour gives you a very intriguing idea.
The Leech Woman (1960): Like DeVour, this B-movie offering is pretty entertaining and has some good ideas. The African scenes are surprisingly well-done for that period and I found myself really feeling for the aging heroine and her attempts to keep balanced on top of her increasingly impossible situation. The actress did a good job. I’m not surprised Sandra Bernhard chose this movie to “introduce” for The Sci-Fi Channel with the horror-commentary marathon she did for them back in the late 90s.
The heroine of The Leech Woman is certainly a far bolder, more intelligent and more proactive character than, say, the astral-projecting-Trilby bimbo of The She-Creature. More like the heroine of The Wasp Woman from the previous year, who has built up her own cosmetics company and is now being forced out by back-stabbing men because she’s [gasp!] aging. If the men age, that’s apparently okay, but she can’t be a tough businesswoman if she’s a nonentity over the age of forty. Oy. Makes me long for Ann Blythe’s eeeeevil Egyptian princess of The Twilight Zone‘s “Queen of the Nile”, ’cause at least she came out on top. And if you think that attitude has gone bye-bye, check out Sharon Stone’s nearly-identical “aging beauty queen” in Catwoman over four decades later. We’ve come a long way, baby – but not all that far.
Alas, according to 1950s sexual mores, being a tough gal who’s forced into becoming your abusive mad scientist husband’s guinea pig just because you’re engaged in a perfectly natural process like aging (and who quite-justifiably rebels) means that you have to die horribly at the end. That goes double if you do your own dirty work. This really cuts down on a girl’s enjoyment of this film. The misogyny in The Leech Woman is bad. It makes Mildred Pierce look like bra-burning feminism. The heroine, June Talbot (Coleen Gray), starts off the film as the innocent victim of her scuzzy husband’s dreams of striking it rich in the “eternal youth potion” department in Africa. Later, the Great White Hunter who saves her from Certain Death makes love to her in the night then recoils from her in the morning because her “treatment” has faded and she has aged again. I downright cheered her on when she drowned him in a pool of mud and then got what she needed from his dead body. Talk about dying to be with a beautiful woman!
Incidentally, this one did get the MSTK-treatment and that was probably deserved. It still has its moments, though.
Haunted Honeymoon (1986): So, you’re thinking, “Hey, I loved early Saturday Night Live. Young Frankenstein was great. What’s not to love about real-life, comedic-genius couple Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner doing a flick about a wisecracking couple of 30s radio-serial stars honeymooning at a haunted stone pile?” Unfortunately, quite a bit. With comic geniuses like Radner and Wilder and able support from the likes of Dom Deluise and Jonathan Pryce, you’d think an attempt to recreate the screwball comedies of the 30s would be funny no matter what the script, but nope. Not really. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just that it’s not very good, either. It’s kinda blah, with dull stretches between obvious slapstick and lines that were tired when sound first came to the movies.
The main problem is the script. It wanders everywhere. That’s not a problem if the trip is as much fun as the half-baked romp in search of a dinosaur bone and a black leopard named “Baby” in Bringing Up Baby. But Haunted Honeymoon lacks the witty repartee of Bringing Up Baby. What one-liners you get are banged home by the direction, sometimes literally with a rim shot from the soundtrack music. Ugh. It doesn’t help that emphasis is on the “yucks” and not enough on the scares. It’s supposed to be a horror-comedy, but there’s way too much misfired comedy and little or no horror.
I think a big problem, though, is that the movie attempts to recreate 30s screwball comedy and horror…and then is filmed in colour. So very much of 30s film cinematography depended on the use of black and white to good effect that it’s difficult to see how you could recreate that atmosphere in colour.
So, why bother with this one? Well, because, if you want to see Wilder and Radner on screen together, this, Hanky Panky and The Woman in Red are about all you’ll get. It was also Radner’s last film. She died three years later of ovarian cancer.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): Tobe Hooper’s biggest claim to fame is one that tends to divide people. Some fans consider it a classic; others have massive reservations about the first group’s taste in films. It’s gross, gory and ultraviolent, not to mention less-than-flattering to the citizens of the state of Texas. You could say it lacks any redeeming virtues, whatsoever, but this is horror, after all. Gross, gory and ultraviolent can be virtues in horror.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does have moments of brilliance that have made it justifiably famous. On the other hand, it has problems that make it not such a great film. The set-up with the teenagers driving in the van and picking up the crazy is tedious. Get on with it, Tobe. We already know these kids are cannon fodder. The twenty minutes-plus of running around in the dark, shrieking, that we get once the cast are whittled down to the inbred cannibal family and the Final Girl is really boring. This is too bad because one of the more shocking (and massively copied) scenes comes after this when the girl wakes up inside the house, surrounded by “hunting” trophies like dried human jawbones. Yikes.
The best part of the film is the initial slaughter, particularly of the first two victims. The “cute guy” is lured into the cannibals’ quiet house then brained as he passes through a doorway. In his death throes, he twitches and kicks like a dying pig, until a second blow stills him. The “cute girl” is grabbed and stuck on a meat hook to bleed to death in agony, while getting the extra “fun” of seeing the naked body of her boyfriend cut up for steaks. This entire sequence is unutterably disturbing on a whole lot of levels. It’s such a shame that the latter part of the film is too dull to keep up that kind of suspense, let alone the gut-churning ideas behind it of what Stephen King calls “the Bad Death”. Ah, well. You had to figure that any film with a guy running around in an apron and face mask made of human skin wasn’t going to be able to maintain any level of subtlety for any length of time.
Avoid the remake. It’s bad. Really bad.
Dawn of the Dead (remake) (2004): The original Dawn of the Dead is a deserved classic where the Zombocalypse serves as a metaphor for cannibalistic consumer consumption (say that five times fast). The remake is a good film (even great in some parts), but its main flaw is that it’s…well…unnecessary. George Romero got it right the first time. Zack Snyder really didn’t need to do it all over again.
What redeems this exercise from the utter pointlessness of the remake of Night of the Living Dead, or the abomination that was the colour remake of Psycho, comes mostly at the beginning and end of the film. The first twenty minutes, especially, are classic, especially as they’re capped by a credits sequence set to Johnny Cash. The aerial photography is also great (those two cars smashing together and setting the gas station on fire, for example). I don’t think too much of the very end (too obvious), but the climactic fight to get to that point is exciting. Unfortunately, the film devolves into aimless soap opera, punctuated by People Doing Very Dumb Things to Move the Plot Along, in the middle. It’s weird that the very idea that was brilliant in the original (the survivors holing up in a mall from the mindless dead who have come to chomp and shop) falls flat in the remake, but there you go. I think it’s because the idea was done so well the first time that it didn’t need to be done again and because the remake doesn’t bring anything new to the concept. I mean, if you want to see that idea done perfectly, why not simply watch the original? Right?
Darkness Falls (2003): This is the kind of film that I should have liked a lot. Hot, unstable hero with a dark past returns to a town that hates him and battles a monster that destroyed his childhood, all while trying to win back his childhood sweetheart. Yeah, it’s been done five-million times, but I like downtrodden and/or unstable heroes. I could even get behind the idea of the Tooth Fairy being a monster. Before I moved to Africa and inadvertently subjected myself to superbrutal aversion therapy by living in a place with no running water or electricity and a twelve-hour night, I was a major noctophobe. We are talking Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall-level of noctophobe. So, I could get behind the premise of a protagonist who is (justifiably) terrified of being in the dark. And hey, it had Emma Caulfield, who was great as Anya in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the late Chaney Kley didn’t exactly hurt the eyes.
It therefore pains me greatly to admit that this film just sucks out loud. Caulfield tries mightily, but is given little to do in the girlfriend role. Kley sure was purty, but he was no Jensen Ackles in the acting department (anybody who thinks Ackles is popular solely because of his looks needs to check out Darkness Falls and think again). Though I doubt even an actor of Ackles’ calibre could have saved this mangy dog.
Characters treat Kley’s hero, Kyle, like crap for no reason. The ghostly “tooth fairy” is actually a victim of a nasty witchhunt lynching, but nobody suggests they appease her by giving her justice (like, say, The Fog), or seems to make the obvious connection between her and the town’s treatment of the film’s protag. Then, of course, even after it’s amazingly obvious that there’s something to Kyle’s story, other characters seem more interested in bullying him than taking steps to save their own lives. And the whole “let’s put the Kid in Peril in even more peril just for fun – sorry, I mean, unintentionally with a seriously-questionable medical procedure” subplot made me want to slap half a hospital. If you’re looking for a film to watch so you know what not to do with a decently original premise, watch Darkness Falls. About the only thing you can say in defense of the botched execution is that at least it didn’t suck as badly as a film that came out around the same time with a similar premise, They. But that’s not saying much.
On the plus side, the song that plays over the end credits is great. Wish the rest of the film had been that good.
The Fog (1980): Again, we’re talking about the original, here, not the dippy remake. It’s funny how people call this one a “failure”. I’d say that’s because a John Carpenter failure is a lesser horror director’s good film, except that I’ve seen Ghosts of Mars. So, I know he’s as capable of making a bad film as anyone else. Still, this is a good film that does its job – scaring you and even giving you something to think about afterward. I’d rate it somewhere below Carpenter’s greats like Halloween, The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13, and In the Mouth of Madness but slightly above minor classics like Vampires or Prince of Darkness.
The Fog‘s main problems are that it wanders a tad and the set pieces can be hokey. Even by late-70s FX standards, those zombie sailors were dodgy-looking. There are also annoying stock characters (anybody else wish the kid had been taken instead of the babysitter, or am I just a big meanie?), the ending doesn’t make a lick of sense (why the priest?), and there is some massive infodump rather than organic integration of backstory into the plot. Campfire-tales infodump seems to have been all the rage in 1980 since the original My Bloody Valentine did something very similar. I thought the remake of the latter film (which happened to share B-movie horror stalwart Tom Atkins with The Fog) did a better job with the 3D credits and newspaper articles.
And yet, when The Fog works, it really works. The babysitter’s death is disturbing as hell. You see just enough of what happens to her to get a shiver about what happens next after she’s dragged off into the fog. The fog is presented almost as a living thing, out of which come these supernatural creatures. I think the most disturbing aspect of the film is the hint that there is far more (and far worse) in the fog than those sailors. And, of course, you have Atkins, Jamie Lee Curtis doing something besides screaming and getting tossed around like a rag doll, and Adrienne Barbeau as a smoky-voiced DJ. Yeah, it’s worth it.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992): On paper, this must have looked so good. And you can’t really blame its failure entirely on Wynona Ryder (not when director Francis Ford Coppola deserves to be blamed so much more). Not like the girl was completely unacquainted with “dark”. She did Heathers. The idea of doing Dracula-meets-The Mummy is actually pretty good, but it doesn’t work here.
Some of it lies in the overacting. “Gothic” doesn’t mean “screaming and throwing oneself all over the furniture”. Jane Eyre sure didn’t do that. Some of it lies in the really-unfortunate decisions about Gary Oldman’s makeup. Yes, in Stoker’s book (and some versions like Nosferatu), Dracula is pretty grody, but he’s also pretty fascinating. In the movie, he’s mostly just grody. Since this is a gothic, star-crossed romance, though, that doesn’t work out too well because we’re left wondering what the hell Mina is thinking, falling in love with this guy. Sure, Imhotep of The Mummy had his body-image issues, but then he regenerated (or, in the case of the original Universal version, he was a courtly Egyptian gentleman with flaky skin). It doesn’t help that the movie flails all over the place, jumping from location to location in some desperate attempt to gain its bearings. Somewhat like DeVour, this film suffers from screenwriters who got so excited about their ideas that they forgot to sit down and write a coherent story about them, and a director who should have stuck to apocalyptic war films.
Constantine (2005): What this flick mainly has going for it are a lot of good images, a few good performances (notably, Tilda Swinton, Rachel Weiss and Shia LaBeouf in some truly thankless roles) and a fair bit of style. What it has against it are a chaotic script (starting to see a pattern, here, kids? Yes, a good script is the backbone of a good film), the pointlessly-nihilistic kind of cynicism you regularly get from fanboys with no lives or life experience, and some epic miscasting in the form of Keanu Reeves as occult detective John Constantine. I honestly do not understand the reasoning for that. Not that I’ve ever read that much of the source material, Vertigo comic Hellblazer, but you don’t have to read more than a few pages to know that Constantine is blonde and is deliberately modeled on pop star Sting (Reeves is neither), that he’s reflexively snarky (which Reeves is not), and that he is a Brit (which Reeves definitely is not). Sure, Reeves looks hot in a rumpled black suit, but so did Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart. And there was so much more to Angel Heart.
And yet, there are things to like. Satan, for example (though the evil-fat-guy-in-a-white-suit thing was done better in The Twilight Zone) is creepy, to say the least, and his doing Constantine’s bidding against his own inclination is set up well. Tilda Swinton owns the role of Gabriel, the nutty archangel. Rachel Weiss very ably pulls off two tragic roles for the price of one. You get a really nice payoff for Shia LaBeouf’s doomed sidekick (and I love that image of him crouching on the tombstone). Things like that. Unfortunately, they don’t really make up for the fact that Constantine ultimately lacks a heart. And a soul. It’s an exercise in style over substance, best exemplified by how much Hell looks like a video game rather than an original image of a place of terrible and eternal punishment. And Heaven looks photoshopped together from different Fantasia cells.
It’s one of those failures that make you hope for a sequel with better writers and a different actor for the title character.
War of the Worlds (2005): Oh, my sweet Lord, what a hot mess this movie is. And what a Hollywood-summer-blockbuster-directed-by-Steven-Spielberg mess, too. Tom Cruise swings wildly between acting like a working-class shmuck, Boston-style and looking bug-out terrified (which works better in the context of the film). The kids are irritating enough that you start rooting for the Martians to eat them, especially the bratty teenage son. And I really don’t know what Tim Robbins was thinking, but he’s terrible in this. The initial scene-setting of Cruise’s blue-collar dad picking up his annoying, resentful kids (he has partial custody of them) from his equally-irritating ex-wife is dull as dishwater. The action scenes don’t connect to each other well as a complete story and logic goes right out the window early on. I’m also not at all sure how much character development we really get, with the possible exception of Cruise’s hapless protag, Ray.
So, why is it worth watching? Well, the main point of those action scenes is to scare the hell out of you and they do an excellent job. Your average summer blockbuster exists to excite you and show you some fun. This version of War of the Worlds has much darker motives. Whether it’s a fleeing woman being blasted to nothing right in front of us by a Martian death ray or a man being stabbed to death and drained of blood just behind a wall by a Martian feeding tube, the images of human slaughter are brutal, pitiless and in your face (this is the guy who directed Schindler’s List, remember). Spielberg cleverly preserves their horrific effect by giving us one or two great, money-shot-level looks at each type of death and then only implying it from there on. For example, when people are blasted by the death ray, their empty clothes blow, undamaged, up into the air. Therefore, we are only treated to a few images of actual death-ray murder, but we get scenes like dozens and dozens of clothes falling from the sky after Ray and his kids escape a ferry at night that has been overturned by a Martian tripod. We don’t need to see what happened to those people to know what this means and to be disturbed by it. Another method (also shown in this scene) is to make most of the film from Ray’s limited, traumatised and largely helpless point of view. You don’t see much more than he does and that makes the invasion that much more terrifying.
The film misses greatness due to the annoying, Hollywoodised characters, incoherent storyline and aggravating, unnecessary family-drama subplot, all unfortunate hallmarks of Spielbergian filmmaking. But, like the incongruously-happy ending (which is surprisingly faithful to the book), this doesn’t detract from the power of the movie’s darkness. This is the only version of War of the Worlds, aside from the classic Orson Welles radio broadcast, that truly replicates the horrific side of the original book.
The Guardian (1990): Like War of the Worlds and The Fog, this is a lesser effort by a great director – in this case, William Friedkin of The Exorcist. It also was part of the slew of mainstream “bad mommy” horror films, like The Cradle Will Fall, that came out around that time. Working women were redefining their roles as mothers vis a vis their careers and getting heavily guilt-tripped as a result.
The Guardian adds on a Killer Baby-Eating Pagan angle, Super Hot Chick Servant of Her Evil Overlord variant. Camilla, the Evil Nanny, has superpowers and is virtually immortal. Yet, she serves a big…tree. Yeah, see, she’s a druid. This makes about as much sense as Maryann the superpowered, invulnerable, immortal maenad serving Dionysius in True Blood. Yes, druids revered trees and maenads revered the god Dionysus, but that was because they were human. By making these characters, to all intents and purposes, goddesses themselves, you’re taking away their reason for worshiping anyone else and it becomes about how women can’t be strong and powerful unless they are some guy’s handmaiden. Yuck.
Still, this is William Friedkin and the film has its good points. It possesses a lot of atmosphere and Camilla’s tree makeup is memorable (even if the tree itself is a bit lame, outside of the creepy baby faces on the bark). Jenny Seagrove also brings a lot of terrifying presence to Camilla, even though the poor woman seems to have been hired largely for her ability to look good naked in a “barefoot and pregnant”, earth mother sort of way. Some of the scenes where Camilla takes revenge on those who have annoyed her or got in her way, and they are dispatched by wolves or other forces of nature, are really disturbing. Basically, unless you clue in (as the Baby Daddy of Camilla’s latest would-be infant victim does pretty late in the game) that the tree not Camilla is vulnerable, you’re dead meat walking.
Worth a look, and maybe another version down the road with a better, less-misogynistic script.
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