OHMC ’16: The Rest, In Pieces

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So sadly I did not get a chance to undertake the October Horror Movie Challenge in proper this time around, “in proper” meaning for me not only watching the requisite 31 films but watching 31 films that were completely new to me that I would later blog about here as well. I love holding myself to ridiculous standards, apparently.

But for certain reasons, none of which were bad, including an extravagant, awesome, and fairly epic Hallow-Teen Party event that I’d been planning for my library since summer that brought in a record number of YA-specific participants (woot-woot!), the past month proved to be a real time-cruncher, so I thought that the least I could do was throw together a slapdash post enumerating the rest of the un-blogged movies I watched in time for Samhain with some brief words on each.

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OHMC ’16: CAST A DEADLY SPELL

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US / 1991

Though I’m not very big on Valentine’s Day as an actual celebration, I have a huge soft spot for Valentines that come in the form of movies. CAST A DEADLY SPELL is a love letter to the genre if ever there was one, right up there with CREEPSHOW in its unadulterated affection for all of horror’s luminaries and trappings and the sophistication with which it communicates that love. Screenwriter Joseph Dougherty and director Martin Campbell also demonstrate a deep knowledge and love for the mechanics of noir as well, and this is what keeps the viewer from ever feeling shortchanged on either front. This is the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of genre mash-ups: two tastes that taste great together. “A hardboiled shamus tracking down the whereabouts of the Necronomicon” is a concept that might scream trouble to some and the blatant name-checking of figures like Lovecraft and Bradbury surely won’t bode any better, but like the heartfelt homages of Fred Dekker CAST A DEADLY SPELL manages to rise above faint lip-service and exist as its own assured and lovably goofy entity. The connection to Dekker isn’t just tangential either; CAST… was an original TV movie produced by the film branch of HBO, the same channel that had found recent success with their TALES FROM THE CRYPT series, a program which Dekker had written several teleplays for and even directed the season two episode, “The Thing from the Grave.” Much of the black humor and comic book-imagination that fueled that series and Dekker’s own projects like NIGHT OF THE CREEPS and THE MONSTER SQUAD turn up in CAST A DEADLY SPELL, and together this small cluster of mid-80s to early-90s productions form a distinctly jovial and joyous brand of horror that we just don’t see anymore in an age of post-modernism where every trope and well-worn plot must call attention to itself in well-meaning but essentially jaded films ranging from SCREAM to THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. CAST A DEADLY SPELL is content with just being itself, and what it is is the stuff dreams are made of.

OHMC ’16: THE UNDERTAKER AND HIS PALS

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US / 1966

Do you remember that recurring bit from the Three Stooges where a couple of innocent diners would look on in horror as one of the boys chased a rascally cat or dog from the kitchen and would later return with dishes whose contents were highly suspect? Watching THE UNDERTAKER AND HIS PALS is not so very far removed from that experience. While I had been vaguely aware of the film’s Sweeney Todd-inspired “accidental cannibalism” conceit and its tongue-in-cheek manner, the abundance of overt slapstick found here did give me a good goosing. The proper frame of mind to enter this film with is to understand that nothing is to be taken seriously, not even the verbal interactions of the characters, to say nothing of the snowball’s-chance-in-Hell likelihood that our three eponymous criminals could possibly  get away with their “master plan.” That probably sounds like a knock against the film, but it isn’t really. It’s refreshing to take a dive into the deep end of lunatic cinema from time to time, where women enthusiastically punctuate every fired round from their guns with a pelvic thrust; where slaughtered girlfriends are instantly forgotten as soon as a new piece of cheesecake walks through the door who is in turn instantly forgotten as soon as she’s killed and her identical twin walks through the door; where restaurants come equipped with vats of acid in the kitchen for the sole purpose of dunking bodies both living and dead. And so on. With a running time barely clocking in over an hour and a director helming the production by the Stooge-worthy moniker of T. L. P. Swicegood, THE UNDERTAKER AND HIS PALS ensures a goofy afternoon folly for those crypt-kickers who like their treats with an extra helping of kinky treats.

OHMC ’16: CURTAINS

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Canada / 1983

“Will I be this way when I am dead?” asks the old woman all skin and bones, and John Vernon is there as the ringmaster to this circus of trick poodles all vying for the same treat and says that, yes, this is what your dead face will look like but it’s your truest self now, the nucleus of your being waiting to be born after your perfect Samantha Eggar cheekbones been shed away like so much human dust. CURTAINS is one of the smartest slashers to have risen during the subgenre’s Golden Age and it’s a wonder that this Canuck chiller isn’t spoken of more frequently or in the glowing terms that it deserves. The film is a meditation on not just the vagaries of aging and accepting that we’ve already seen the back of our personal glories but on the very concept of “acting” itself, on what drives us to assume another’s identity and become someone else whether it’s in front of the unblinking eye of the camera or a lover, on the diminishing returns of satisfaction that can be reaped from our efforts when we need to crawl over a growing pile of broken backs to get what it is we want. That the movie contains some of the most deliberately paced and fiendishly executed suspense setpieces feels like a bonus award for the viewer when really it’s just an honor to be nominated. We eventually discover the true identity of the masked killer, but when we see that haggard wraith wielding its scythe as it glides across the ice in torturous slow-motion, in that moment we know the figure for her truest self. She is Lady Death, and she is gliding towards us all.

OHMC ’16: EXTRAORDINARY TALES

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Luxembourg, Belgium, Spain, US / 2013

As Hurricane Matthew surges forward and brings with it the grim reminder that October might as well be Summer Part II for residents along the East Coast, I find myself wanting to tap into that chilly root of autumnal bliss and despair that never taints the incessant greenery of my peninsula, and once that hunger takes hold of me, I can always depend on the works of Edgar Allan Poe to appease it.

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OHMC ’16: FROSTBITER: WRATH OF THE WENDIGO

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US / 1995

Despite what you might assume from that screenshot and the fact that FROSTBITER: WRATH OF THE WENDIGO was released under the banner of Troma Entertainment, that bastion of questionable tastes, this film is actually rather wholesome in its own bizarre way, not unlike another wintry favorite of mine released from the same company, Trey Parker’s CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL (1993). Take for example the sequence when our brave heroine (Lori Baker) strips down to her birthday suit: the only bare skin we see is her back, and the reason for this gesture was not in service of some skeevy sex scene, but so that she could revive her hypothermic pal with her body warmth! This kind of doe-eyed innocence permeates throughout the film even in its most antithetical moments. Gushing decapitations set to crackly old country tunes never seemed so sweet. Or maybe that’s just me.

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OHMC ’16: NOROI: THE CURSE

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2005 / Japan

One of the special joys of watching Kôji Shiraishi’s found footage docu-horror NOROI: THE CURSE is playing detective alongside Jin Muraki as reporter Masafumi Kobayashi, a specialist in the paranormal with a healthy catalog of spooky videotape investigations and a name hearkening back to Masaki Kobayashi, the influential director of one of the country’s earliest ghostly classics, KWAIDAN (1964). Like that film, NOROI is steeped in folklore and ritual, albeit those solely conceived for Shiraishi’s purposes here. Sigils, ceremonies, and omens abound, and the filmmaker lays the ominous portent on thickly as Kobayashi gradually pieces together the binding ties that link one woman’s claims of an infant’s strange wailing to the submerged remains of a demon-haunted village. Glimpsed images and offhand comments coalesce in a chilling manner that is pure catnip for the deductive mind.

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OHMC ’16: I BURY THE LIVING

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US / 1958

Low-budget films trade in a certain breed of claustrophobia. The single-digit casts, the  cramped sets, the largely stationary cameras capturing everyone’s soul on flat, static celluloid; the shining gristle of Hollywood is scraped away, the dull gray bone beneath exposed. I BURY THE LIVING largely focuses on a lonely man in a small room. The man is slate-jawed Richard Boone, and the room is the “cottage” office of the cemetery chairman, a position Boone’s character is forced to adopt through familial and professional obligation and one that slowly consumes his mind like a loamy cancer when he becomes obsessed that through the use of a map charting the property’s funeral plots and the white and black pins denoting their “occupied” or “unoccupied” status, he has the power to control the forces of life and death. It’s a heady concept rich with philosophical potential, but director Albert Band and scripter Louis Garfinkle hone their focus in on the singular psychological impact that this notion has upon Boone’s hero. Workaholics will find much in him to sympathize with: going to the office when off the clock, staying at irregular hours, pouring over the same scales and figures until it all becomes monochromatic mush. There are echoes of doom and foreboding from great literary works like William Freyer Harvey’s “August Heat” and W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” moments when Boone becomes utterly convinced that he’s seen his death marker chiseled before him in his dreams and that switching the color of the pins will restore life where it was senselessly taken away. Watching this film in the isolated darkness of your home might convince you of a unsettling notion or two. Such are the thoughts of lonely people in small rooms.