Posts Tagged ‘horror


Lunatics and Laughter Day 9: Arachnophobia (1990)

Director: Frank Marshall

Writers: Don Jakoby, Al Williams & Wesley Strick

Cast: Jeff Daniels, Harley Jane Kozak, John Goodman, Julian Sands, Stuart Pankin, Brian McNamara, Mark L. Taylor, Henry Jones, Peter Jason, James Handy, Roy Brocksmith, Kathy Kinney

Plot: Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands) takes photographer Jerry Manley (Mark L. Taylor) with him on a hunt through the Amazon rainforest, hoping to discover new species of insects and arachnids. Manley has been ill, and fights a fever as they march through Venezuela. The search bears fruit – the team discovers a large, highly aggressive spider Atherton has never seen before. When the still-sick Manley goes to bed, a male “General” spider that stowed away in his pack bites him, killing him in seconds. When his body is found, his death is attributed to the fever and he is sent back to the United States, with the spider that bit him hiding inside.

Manley’s body is returned to his family in Canaima, where town mortician Irv Kendall (Roy Brocksmith) opens the box and finds him shriveled up, drained of fluid, and in a state that’s not at all conducive to an open casket. The spider sneaks outside, gets snared by a bird and is carried to the barn of a house where Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) and his family are moving in, Ross replacing the retiring town doctor Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones). Ross even starts a wine cellar in the basement. When his son discovers a house spider, the arachnophobic Ross has his wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak) take it to the barn, unaware of the enormous Venezuelan spider hiding in the hay. That night the spiders meet, and mate.

Ross is shocked the next day when Dr. Metcalf tells him he’s decided not to retire after all, crushing Ross, who was supposed to inherit his patients and establish a practice. As he leaves Metcalf’s office he encounters Sheriff Lloyd Parsons (Stuart Pankin) writing him a ticket. He’s rescued by Margaret Hollins (Mary Carver), a retired schoolteacher who dislikes Metcalf and is glad to have the option of another doctor. She’s pleased to be Ross’s first patient. Unfortunately, she’s also his only patient.

Mary turns out to be perfectly healthy, and she tries to cheer him by offering to throw a “Welcome to Canaima” party. While he’s at the office, Molly goes to photograph the barn and discovers a gargantuan spider web in the rafters. She misses the huge egg sac that soon looses a new generation of spiders. Over the next few days they spread out, one of them sneaking into Margaret’s house and killing her.

Ross gets more bad news the next day when he finds the wood in his cellar is weak and rotten. It gets worse when he goes to Margaret’s and finds her body. Although most of the town believes Metcalf’s diagnosis of a heart attack, Ross insists on an autopsy, but the Sheriff blocks him. The spiders strike again soon afterwards, killing a high school football player. Metcalf is next, bitten on the toe and dying as his wife sees the spider.

Convinced the deaths are spider-related, Ross calls the closest expert he can find, Atherton, who is skeptical until he realizes Ross is calling from the late Jerry Manley’s hometown. Atherton sends his assistant, Chris Collins (Brian McNamara) to help with the investigation, and joins himself when bites are found on all three victims. Chris manages to capture a live specimen in Margaret’s house for study. Meanwhile town exterminator Delbert McClintock (John Goodman) discovers the spiders are immune to his toxins – if not a heavy boot.

Atherton examines the captured spider and determines it’s the hybrid of the Venezuelan spider and a house spider. It has a short lifespan, but the General male no doubt has a queen hiding somewhere that will have the ability to create a new generation capable of reproduction. If they can’t destroy it before her nest hatches, Canaima will fall, then the next town, then the next. Phil, Chris and Delbert map out the attacks and realize the nest is on Ross’s property. Atherton, meanwhile, finds Molly’s photograph of the web and comes to the same conclusion. He arrives first, and is bitten and dead by the time the others arrive. Delbert finds Atherton’s body and pulls out his own “special” blend of toxins to fight the creatures.

Ross and Chris go to the house to try to get his family out. The living room is suddenly filled with thousands of deadly spiders. Everyone but Ross escapes, and he falls through the rotten floor into the cellar, where he finds the egg sac. He starts to douse the sac with wine so he can burn it, but is attacked by the original General male. He manages to burn it just as the sac starts to hatch, but it isn’t dead. Grabbing his nail gun, he fires the torched male into the egg sac, killing it and destroying the rest of them in one strike. In the end, the Jennings return to San Francisco, glad to be back in a world where events are totally under their own control… until the earthquake starts.

Thoughts: Although not remembered as well as many of the other films on this list, Arachnophobia holds a special place in my heart – it’s the first horror/comedy I remember actually seeing in theaters. (Yes, even my beloved Ghostbusters was a video find for me. I may even have seen the cartoon first before I ever saw the movie, I honestly don’t remember.) And no matter how much technology may improve the home theater experience over the years – higher resolution, more DPI (whatever that is) streaming video that also makes popcorn in a variety of flavors, whatever – there will always be an irreproducible charm in going to a theater, sitting in a darkened room with others, and absorbing a fun movie in a community experience. This was such a movie for me.

Arachnophobia falls into the more “serious,” Type-A category of horror/comedy. In fact, the first act of the film, while we’re in Venezuela, has little comedy at all, giving us a prologue that very easily could have led into a straight (albeit somewhat cheesy and overdone) traditional horror film. The comedy comes in once we get back to Canaima, and even then it’s very dry at first. Ross, depressed at only having one patient, hopes that she’ll turn out to be “ravaged by disease,” then moments later (on screen, at least) coolly denies that very wish when she turns out to be in perfect health. For much of the film, the comedy we get is well below the threshold that flips the switch and makes it a legitimate horror/comedy and not simply a lite PG-13 horror film. When that switch finally is flipped, it’s due almost entirely to the injection of the John Goodman character.

Delbert is the one wacky character in the midst of a group that doesn’t really have time to be funny. Once the real situation becomes clear, Daniels and company have to deal with thousands of very fast murderers about the size of a quarter… that’s about as serious a situation as we’ve yet seen in this horror/comedy project, and they don’t really play it for laughs. Delbert is our comic relief, an exaggerated character that borders on the cartoonish. Goodman is a fantastic actor, a wonderful comedian (with dramatic chops that are frequently overlooked), but Delbert actually takes things almost too far a few times. Part of it may simply be familiarity with John Goodman – he’s well-known enough now that it’s hard to see him play the part without just getting a very strong sense of him putting on the character. But at the same time, he’s really an odd man out in this movie. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, that’s his role after all, but there are moments where he goes far enough to jolt you out of the scene.

By contrast, Jeff Daniels works well as the sort of small-town everyman (although the Ross Jennings character is, technically, a San Francisco transplant). He does, however, latch on to several stereotypes. If you’re going to do a movie where the monster is a spider, you almost have to make your hero an arachnophobe, and Frank Marshall actually takes him to the ridiculously young age of two to establish the initial childhood trauma. That scene, where he describes a spider assaulting him in the crib, is one of the funnier moments in the earlier part of the movie, in fact. He still keeps his dryness with him, even after the spiders attack. (In the climax, as he tries to pelt the male with wine bottles, he stops himself from using a particularly good vintage). But nothing he does would be funny enough to classify the movie as a comedy, in and of itself, without Goodman tipping the scales.

Director Frank Marshall is much better known for his straight comedies, but he does a decent job here conveying the horror. There are plenty of small touches that add to the horror – slow pans across spider webs and small shadows that twitch and creep … they’re all wonderful moments that will chill you nicely if you’ve got a fear of spiders already. For all the hairy legs and downright chilling movement that a spider brings with it, though, the really scary thing about this movie isn’t what the monster looks like. Most horror films rely on showing you something grotesque or mutating something mundane into an object of terror. Not so much in Arachnophobia. The hybrid spiders, for all the terror they create, don’t look that different from a traditional spider. The fear comes from the fact that these tiny killers – unlike the likes of Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers – could literally be anywhere. How often do you look under your blankets before you get into bed or peek in your shoes before you put them on? Marshall even manages to work in a twist on the old “wiggling doorknob” routine so prevalent in horror movies – in this version, it’s the swarm of spiders actually pushing through and rattling the knob in the process.

There’s a bit towards the end, while Daniels tries to battle the hiding spider in his cellar, where he’s looking around frantically for a monster that is utterly invisible. It brings to mind every time you’ve ever walked into a spiderweb and started flailing madly, looking like a lunatic to anybody who happens to see you. That’s a really funny moment, when it happens to someone else. But that moment encapsulates the whole movie. In the world Marshall creates, every miniscule nook and cranny of every room could be hiding grim death for anyone unlucky enough to encounter it at the wrong time. If you’re not scared of spiders, that thought could be enough to drive the fear into you.

Don’t forget, Lunatics and Laughter is the second Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

And while the 20 films for the first phase of Lunatics and Laughter have been selected, I’m still taking suggestions for next year’s expanded eBook edition. I’m especially looking for good horror/comedies from before 1980, so if you’ve got any ideas, please share them in the comments section.


Lunatics and Laughter Day 8: Beetlejuice (1988)

Director: Tim Burton

Writers: Michael McDowell, Larry Wilson & Warren Skaaren

Cast: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, Glenn Shadix, Sylvia Sidney, Robert Goulet, Annie McEnroe

Plot: Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) decide to a vacation at home, decorating their quaint New England house. On their way home from a shopping trip, Barbara swerves to avoid a dog and the two plunge off a bridge. Returning home, they are startled to find they don’t feel fire, they have no memory of how they got back from the bridge, and attempting to leave the house teleports them to a bizarre, horrific landscape full of enormous sandworms. They have no reflection, and a book is waiting for them: Handbook For the Recently Deceased. Adam and Barbara are dead.

Some time later a new family moves into their house: Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones), his wife Delia (Catherine O’Hara), and his cynical daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). Delia, a pretentious would-be artist, begins to gut Adam and Barbara’s charming home, transforming it into a wild, gaudy funhouse with the help of interior designer Otho (Glen Shadix). Adam and Barbara try haunting the Deetzes to drive them from the house, but find the living cannot see them at all. Adam locks the attic, protecting his prized model train set from Delia and Otho. He uses the Handbook to open a portal to a “waiting room” full of other ghosts who have died in various grotesque ways. In the waiting room, the Maitlands learn that they must spend 125 years on Earth, in their house, during which they can contact their caseworker Juno (Sylvia Sidney) for help three times. As they wait, Lydia uses a skeleton key to open the attic, where she finds the Handbook. When the Maitlands finally meet with Juno, they find they’ve been waiting for three months and their home has been completely transformed. Juno tells them to study the Handbook for tips on how to haunt the Deetzes, but warns them not to turn to Betelgeuse, her former assistant, for help. She warns them not even to say his name, as saying it three times will summon him.

The Maitlands try again to haunt the Deetzes, but instead wind up revealing themselves to Lydia, who can see them. When they fail to scare her and she warns them that her parents aren’t likely to leave, they give in and summon Betelgeuse, or “Beetlejuice”. A quick interview disturbs Barbara, and she refuses his help. Their next attempt forces the Deetzes and their dinner guests to perform an impromptu dance to “Day-O,” but rather than scaring them off, they love it and try to convince the Maitlands to come out for another performance. With nowhere else to turn, they again summon Betelgeuse who turns up the haunting in earnest – transforming into a giant snake and attacking. Barbara prevents him from hurting Charles, but Beetlejuice has taken a liking to Lydia.

The Maitlands are tasked with driving out the Deetzes – without Betelgeuse – before it goes too far, but Barbara is upset, not wanting to frighten Lydia. They go to her just before Betelgeuse tricks her into freeing him and tell her they want her family to stay, but Charles arrives with his boss, Maxie Dean (Robert Goulet). Charles wants to turn the house into a tourist attraction, and Maxie is still skeptical about the existence of the ghosts. Otho summons the Maitlands via a séance, in view of everyone, but they immediately begin to age and decay. Lydia turns to Betelgeuse to save them, but he’ll only do it if she agrees to marry him. She agrees, and he unleashes his madness on the living. He drives out Maxie and Otho, then summons a ghoul to perform the ceremony and marry him to Lydia. The Maitlands try to save her, but he banishes Adam to his train set and Barbara to the sandworm-plane beyond the house. Adam distracts him while Barbara steers a sandworm back into the house, devouring Betelgeuse whole. In the end, the Maitlands and Deetzes find peace with one another, living together in harmony, while Betelgeuse is sent to face the ultimate punishment for his crimes… he’s sent to the waiting room.

Thoughts: Tim Burton has had an interesting career, starting with shorts and cartoons that blended a twisted sense of humor with a macabre sense of story. Over the years he’s tapped into blockbuster franchises like Batman, ruined blockbuster franchises like Planet of the Apes, and tackled everything from Pee Wee Herman to Roald Dahl. To my way of thinking, his best work is done when he gets to create a whole world with his unique, bizarre perspective, and he’s never better than when it’s a world he conjures from whole cloth rather than an existing property. This is the first time he did it really well, before A Nightmare Before Christmas marked him as a master of this quirky, “safe” kind of horror/comedy mashup. This movie also allows him to practice his beloved stop-motion animation, a style he’d use much more in the aforementioned Nightmare (with director Henry Sellick) and, on his own, in The Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie. In anybody but an artist, you’d start to get worried if they focused on this sort of macabre style. Fortunately, for storytellers, sharing the bizarre is nice therapy.

This movie, more so than most others, treads the line between Type A and Type B very neatly. Although the plot isn’t “pure” horror, the way we saw with Ghostbusters, the gags are a little too gory and bizarre to classify it as a straight comedy either. An early scene with the ghosts attempting to haunt the Deetz family gives us a hanged woman, a missing face, bulging eyeballs and a decapitation – not exactly kid stuff. In the waiting room we see people who’ve been cut in half, a flattened man who was run over by a car, and plenty of other people whose violent deaths have marred them indelibly in death. We even get a nasty realization from the receptionist with her slashed wrists – suicides, in the afterlife, are sentenced to be civil servants. In many ways, this is big a departure from our other movies with dark situations and light comedy. The actual jokes in this story are far darker than in most of the films we’ve discussed so far. This is as true a Black Comedy as we have yet encountered.

The good news is, for all its darkness, the movie really is very funny. This was Michael Keaton at his peak, playing the sort of wild character he was known for at the time. (The irony is that finally escaping the stereotype, thanks to teaming with Burton on 1989’s Batman, somewhat crippled his career since then.) Oddly enough he isn’t even the main character here – like Julius Caesar, he plays a supporting role in his own eponymous story, and doesn’t even join the plot in earnest until 45 minutes into the film. But once he appears, the energy he brings to the film is undeniable. His “qualification” speech was, for some time, the stuff of quotable film gold, and his wild impressions and boundary issues seem natural and unforced.

Winona Ryder, meanwhile, did a lot of this sort of dark comedy earlier in her career (Heathers came out the same year), and attaching herself to the always-entertaining Catherine O’Hara was a great move. The two of them clash a lot in this film, with O’Hara’s Delia desperate to transform the Maitland house and Lydia desperate to save her friends. The regular stepmother/stepdaughter antagonism comes through here as well, as the two of them clearly clash on all points, putting Jeffrey Jones in the middle of the daughter he’s raised and the wife he’s a bit intimidated by. The women are nice foils for one another, with O’Hara’s considerable skills on display and Ryder developing her own talents next to her.

From a technical standpoint, the movie is incredibly impressive. The stop motion animation is good in and of itself, but the makeup, prosthetics, and animatronics that make up the ghosts and other creatures in and from the world of the dead are absolutely amazing. Burton has a bizarre, wild imagination that is so perfectly suited to this kind of story one almost wonders why he ever bothers to   do anything else. The world he shapes for us is part carnival funhouse and part Halloween haunted house, with a bit of Looney Tunes cartoons mixed in for good measure. (Once Beetlejuice shows up full-force, he even starts throwing in cartoon sound effects.) The resulting world is horribly familiar, despite its complete alien nature. The finale, when a fully-powered Beetlejuice is allowed to run wild, is one of the most visually creative things I’ve ever seen in a horror/comedy, a perfect blend of grotesque imagery with pure, electric mania.

It was years since I watched this movie until I screened it for this project. In fact, I’d forgotten how much I liked it. I was 11 years old when it was released and, like many of the films of the 80s, it turned into a hot topic of discussion on the schoolyard for months after afterwards, then again when it hit home video. Kids in my class were just at that right age, understanding we were watching something somewhat subversive without taking us so far over the edge that we would wind up scarred for life.  I’m really glad to see that this film, unlike so many of the others that we loved back then, really holds up all these years later. Although there’s always talk of a sequel (and for a while there was an actual, horrifying treatment for Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian floating around Hollywood), for the most part this movie has drifted out of public consciousness. It’s a shame – it’s a lot of wild, crazy fun, and just perfect for Halloween viewing.

Don’t forget, Lunatics and Laughter is the second Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

And while the 20 films for the first phase of Lunatics and Laughter have been selected, I’m still taking suggestions for next year’s expanded eBook edition. I’m especially looking for good horror/comedies from before 1980, so if you’ve got any ideas, please share them in the comments section.


Lunatics and Laughter Day 1: The Ghost Breakers (1940)

Director: George Marshall

Writers: Walter DeLeon, based on the play The Ghost Breaker by Paul Dickey & Charles W. Goddard

Cast: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas, Willie Best, Pedro de Cordoba, Virginia Brissac, Noble Johnson, Anthony Quinn

Plot: On a rainy evening in New York City, Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard) packs to visit her great-great grandfather’s “haunted” island off the coast of Cuba, which she has inherited . Although the Cuban representative Havez (Pedro de Cordoba) tries to dissuade her from visiting, Mary is skeptical of the claims of ghosts on what he calls “Black Island.” Elsewhere in the hotel we meet radio “ghostbreaker” Lawrence Lawrence (Bob Hope), who reveals secrets, uncovers skeletons in the closet, and blows the lid off, as he puts it later, “family ghosts.” Larry is planning to leave for fishing vacation after that evening’s broadcast with his valet, Alex (a somewhat insensitive racial stereotype, by modern standards, played by Willie Best). When Mr. Parada (Paul Lukas) arrives to transfer the castle to Mary, he offers her a princely sum of $50,000 for the land. Before she decides on the deal, she receives a mysterious phone call from a man named Ramon (Anthony Quinn) warning her not to sell. The combination of the call and the offer simply makes her more determined to visit her grandfather’s estate. Left alone, she listens to Larry’s radio broadcast where he dishes on a mob operation.

When Larry returns, there are a series of shootings in the hallways and Larry believes he kills Ramon.  Mary helps him hide as the police search the building, but he winds up in her trunk and is mistakenly sent to her cruise ship. Mary and Alex locate the trunk, but are unable to free Larry before he’s loaded onto the ship. In her room, Mary receives a letter warning her that death awaits her on the island. Alex helps Larry out and shows him a newspaper report about the shooting (remember evening editions? Neither do I) where he points out that Ramon was shot by a different caliber bullet– Larry couldn’t have killed him. Larry realizes someone is trying to intimidate Mary into avoiding the castle. As they discuss the situation on the deck, someone pushes a heavy potted plant over a railing, nearly killing the couple. They flee back to her stateroom, where the strain of the evening starts to show on Mary. When Alex arrives and says they can ride back to New York on a speedboat if they hurry, he refuses to leave, determined to help Mary. Before leaving the ship, Parada warns Larry about the castle, while Mary runs into an old acquaintance, Geoff Montgomery (Richard Carlson) who is skeptical of Parada and tries to warn her from dealing with him. Larry is excited when Parada tells him about a voodoo priestess on the island, one who allegedly has the power to create mindless zombies. (“You mean like Democrats?” Larry quips.)

That evening Geoff begins to romance Mary, who asks him to accompany her to Black Island. He refuses, fearful of the zombies. Mary is shocked when she believes she sees a ghost – Ramon, the murdered man. He introduces himself as Ramon’s twin brother, Francisco Mederos, who angrily demands information about his brother’s death. Larry and Alex, meanwhile, have taken a rowboat out to Black Island, where they encounter “Mother Zombie” (Virginia Brissac) and one of her zombies (Noble Johnson). They enter the house, where they hear noises that indicate someone else is there and find a strange painting that is the perfect image of Mary – her great-great-grandmother Maria. The two split up, and Alex observes a ghostly figure emerging from a trunk. Larry chases but only finds a skeleton. At the shore, Mother Zombie watches as Mary suddenly swims onto the beach carrying a waterproof bag with a dry robe. Inside, Larry and Alex hear Mary calling for them, but believe it’s a trick. She, meanwhile, hears voices telling her to run away before it’s too late – but runs right into the clutches of the Zombie. She flees, observed by the hidden Parada, who himself is captured by an unseen figure. Larry and Alex are attacked by the Zombie, hiding in a suit of armor, but before the creature can deliver a death-blow, they see the image of Maria Sebastian walk down the stairs. As it is distracted, Larry and Alex lock it in a closet and run to Maria – really Mary wearing her great-grandmother’s clothes after her own were ripped fleeing from the zombie. Mary notices the painting of Maria is pointing towards the crypt, and she and Larry investigate. In the crypt, Larry and Mary find Parada stabbed, stuffed in one of the caskets, bleeding to death. As he dies, he directs them to the organ in the crypt. Mary solves the puzzle, using the organ to open a hidden door that leads to an old mine beneath the castle. Francisco and Geoff both appear with guns, and Geoff shoots the gun from Francisco’s hand backing the other three against the wall. Geoff reveals that he was behind the threats and the offer to buy the castle, determined to gain ownership of an enormous vein of silver beneath the island. He’s about to shoot them, but the ceiling above collapses and clobbers him. A puzzled Alex looks down and says, “Boss, did I press the wrong button?”

Thoughts: At the top of his game, Bob Hope was one of the funniest human beings ever placed on the planet. He had a sly, sharp wit that was just this side of being truly subversive, and was just as likely to deliver a merciless zinger as he was to take a shot across his own rather prodigious nose. It’s not surprising, given the immensity of his library, that we start our march through the creepy comedy catalogue with him.

From the beginning, this film demonstrates how far afield certain comedies go. If you strip the movie down to its bare plot, it’s actually pretty dramatic – a reporter Is falsely accused of murder, flees from justice, and winds up in a haunted house. It could very easily be the set-up for a more traditional horror movie. The comedy comes not from anything in the situation or setting, but from the wonderfully funny performances by Hope and Best. Horror/comedies tend fall one way or another – either a dark story with funny characters (let’s call this “Type A” for the sake of discussion) or a pure comedy that plays with the tropes of a horror for its humor(“Type B”). While both sorts of film have strong examples (and we’ll discuss films from both categories before this little experiment is over), I find that the Type A movie is typically much more satisfying. (Virtually any “spoof” movie is in the Type B category, and as so many terrible spoofs have been made since Scary Movie jumpstarted that particular subgenre in 2000, I may be a bit unfairly biased against Type B. But at least I can admit it.)

The story is creepy, and the house is covered with cobwebs and dust, straight out of the pages of Better Haunted Homes and Gardens. The moment when the armored zombie slowly raises its mace over the head of the oblivious Larry is genuinely tense, and you’re afraid for him until Alex saves the day. No matter how tough the situation gets, though, Hope’s one-liners and Best’s witty retorts keep the mood light at all times. The best sequence, when Larry and Alex explore the mansion, is full of stuff like this – a distant sneeze prompts Hope to observe “The ghost has a cold,” for instance, and when the two commit the Scary Movie Cardinal Sin of splitting up, Larry tells Alex that, if he sees a couple of fellows running, let the first one go, because “That’ll be me.” Perhaps the greatest thing is how close to the vest the film plays the notion of the supernatural. These days, anyone trying to make a movie of this nature would feel the need to have Mary plagued by odd noises and startling images in the mirror practically from the beginning. Here, there’s nothing close to a confirmation the ghosts are real until Alex sees one in the trunk, almost exactly one hour into the film’s running time. (Okay, admittedly, we see the Zombie before that, but voodoo zombies aren’t the same thing we think of today, and even in this film can just as easily be explained as someone who is heavily drugged rather than someone under any some sort of legitimate magical curse.)

As a Type A, the film allows for more of a slow burn than many movies do today get to the genuinely frightening elements. It takes almost a half hour of the film’s short 85 minute running time to even get on the ship to Cuba, and the closest thing we’ve gotten to horror at this point are the brief allusions to ghosts in Mary’s castle, which she hasn’t even left for yet. The comedy, oddly, is also light, built primarily out of Hope’s quipping and his physical acting ability – the scene where Alex helps him out of Mary’s trunk, for example, is hysterical.

In fact, a lot of the movie is packed with red herrings and somewhat questionable moments that, in retrospect, are simple plot devices with no other value but to complicate the situation. The entire subplot regarding the mobster angry at Larry and Francisco seeking justice for his brother’s murder, in the end, amount to almost nothing. You could lift those characters out of the film entirely, come up with another explanation for getting Larry and Mary together (Larry was planning on a vacation, for Heaven’s sake, it would have been far more expedient simply to have him meet Mary on the cruise ship and get involved in her case when the potted plant is pushed towards her) and you’d still have essentially the same movie. Despite that, though, the movie doesn’t feel padded, and whips forward at a nice clip to the very entertaining finale.

As a rule, I try to not let cultural differences hurt my enjoyment of a movie too much. The 1940s were simply a different time, and I don’t really feel it’s fair to judge a film from that earlier period with the same standards as a contemporary film. That said, the portrayal of Alex frequently borders on the offensive. Although Willie Best gives a solid comedic performance, it’s based on the sort of minstrel show stereotype that, today, would get a film picketed from the moment it’s released. Alex is a clever character – frequently more logical and sensible than Larry, in fact – but it can be a bit hard to accept his cadence and intonation in the 21st century. Perhaps the worst moment is when a frightened Alex hides in a dust-filled clock, emerging covered with white powder and explaining that, when he gets scared, his “Al-bee-no blood shows through.” To his credit, though, Best also gets one of the film’s flat-out funniest moments, when Alex, at the end of his rope, knocks on the door to the closet where he trapped the zombie just to make sure it’s still there, then starts patiently pacing back and forth in front of one of the few things he can control.

To use the film’s age to its benefit, there is a degree of quaintness that makes it even more charming. The ease with which Larry is placed on the boat to Cuba is funny (the idea that anyone in 2012 could make it onto a ship that easily, let alone one to Cuba, is laughable). Hope’s Larry Lawrence is his typical charming screwball, particularly when he sees how shaken up Mary is by the whole affair and turns on some music, putting on a persona and dancing with her to cheer her up. The word today would be “adorkable” – he gladly plays the buffoon, but it’s purely for her benefit. Mary later calls him chivalrous, and when the obvious attraction between the two (who have only known each other for a few murder-obsessed hours) surfaces, there’s no trouble believing it.

Although the movie isn’t without its faults, it’s still a fun excursion with Bob Hope and well worth watching if you want lighter fare in the run-up to Halloween. The creepy moments are genuinely so, and the funny moments are as full of Hope’s timeless charm as any film he ever made.

Don’t forget, Lunatics and Laughter is the second Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

And while the 20 films for the first phase of Lunatics and Laughter have been selected, I’m still taking suggestions for next year’s expanded eBook edition. I’m especially looking for good horror/comedies from before 1980, so if you’ve got any ideas, please share them in the comments section.


Reel to Reel Phase II: Lunatics and Laughter

Last year, as you may remember, I spent the entire month of October presenting my thoughts on great horror movies. In fact, that project (originally called “Story Structure”) is the core of my new eBook, Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, now available for a measly $2.99. It’s the best value you could possibly ask for, assuming you’re looking for an eBook about the history of horror movies for less than the price of the average American Comic Book.

I was hoping to do a full-blown sequel this year, but with one thing or another, I just never got around to preparing the articles I’d intended to do. But looking ahead at a long October devoid of creepy content… well… I just can’t bring myself to do it.

So I’m going to try. It won’t be as extensive as last year, but if I get to work now, I may be able to knock out the first segment of films in Reel to Reel II: Lunatics and Laughter. Last year I talked about the world’s scariest movies. This year I’m going for one of my favorite genres: the horror/comedy.

It’s an odd combination, fear and humor, and it’s one that doesn’t obviously lend itself to a merger. But the truth is, fear and humor actually compliment one another brilliantly. Part of the reason for that, I think, is because the structure is actually very similar. Both fear and laughter require a pattern of tension: the situation is introduced, tension is built, and tension is released over and over again. The difference, of course, is that in comedy the tension is released with a laugh and in horror it is released in a scream. The horror/comedy is delightful precisely because it lends itself so neatly to both.

I’m hoping to tick off as many entries as I can this year (I make no promises, this is what I hope), and then spend the ensuing months beefing it up to an even more expanded edition than the measly five bonus films in Reel to Reel I. But once again, this year, I turn to you for suggestions. I’m working on my list and I find that I don’t have as many suggestions probably because there aren’t as many truly great horror/comedies as there are pure horror classics. In particular, I find that I’m somewhat deficient in films prior to the 1980s, when the advent of films like Ghostbusters and Monster Squad really helps the genre take off. So I’m asking you guys for your suggestions. What are the all-time great horror/comedies in your estimation?

A few ground rules:

  • By my definition, a horror/comedy is NOT a movie that you laugh at just because it’s terrible. That’s a “so bad it’s good” movie, which now that I think about it might make for a fun Reel to Reel itself someday. But not now. I want movies that are genuinely good (or at least memorable).
  • No “spoof” movies. Things like Scary Movie are in no way intended to actually scare you. A really great horror/comedy uses the tropes of both genres. In fact, the perfect horror/comedy, in my estimation, is a film where you simply don’t know if the creator want you to laugh or scream until the moment where it happens.
  • Only films currently available on Netflix or Amazon Prime (or in my personal DVD collection) are eligible. I know this will knock out some movies, but I’m not going to torrent and I don’t really have time for a manhunt.

Other than that, anything goes. For point of reference, these are the candidates I’ve compiled thus far:

  1. The Ghost Breakers (1940)
  2. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
  3. Mad Monster Party (1967)
  4. Young Frankenstein (1974)
  5. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)
  6. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
  7. Ghostbusters (1984)
  8. Gremlins (1984)
  9. The Toxic Avenger (1984)
  10. Transylvania 6-5000 (1985)
  11. The Monster Squad (1987)
  12. Beetlejuice (1988)
  13. Heathers (1988)
  14. Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)
  15. Arachnaphobia (1990)
  16. Tremors (1990)
  17. Army of Darkness (1992)
  18. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
  19. Dead Alive (1992)
  20. The Frighteners (1996)
  21. Bride of Chucky (1998)
  22. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
  23. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
  24. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
  25. Fido (2006)
  26. Slither (2006)
  27. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
  28. Zombieland (2009)
  29. Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (2010)
  30. Frankenweenie (2012)

See what I mean about a dearth of pre-80s movies?

So hit me, guys. Tell me what movies I need to add to this list. Tell me which movies on this list simply must be included in the project. Tell me what can scare you and make you laugh all at the same time.



Mutants, Monsters and Madmen-NOW AVAILABLE!

Last year, you guys may remember that I spent the entire month of October watching and talking about assorted scary movies, chronologically tracing the evolution of horror films from the 1920s up until the present day. I really enjoyed that little project and I think a lot of you did too. And now, as Halloween approaches again, I’m ready to launch the next stage of that project, my new eBook Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters and Madmen.

This eBook collects the 35 essays I wrote last year, plus five brand-new ones written just for this collection. Over the course of this book, I look at how the things that scare us have grown and evolved over the last century, dishing on some of the greatest, most influential and most memorable scary movies ever made. This eBook, available now for a mere $2.99, is hopefully going to be the first in a series, in which I’ll tackle different cinematic topics the same way.

If you read the essays last year, check this one out and enjoy the new ones. If you haven’t read any of them, dive in now for the first time. And tell all of your horror movie-loving friends about it as well! After all, the reason I decided to write this book in the first place is because I wanted to read a book like this one, but I just couldn’t find one. The market is out there, friends. Help us find each other.

(And lest I forget, thanks to Heather Petit Keller for the cover design!)

You can get the book now in the following online stores: (for your Kindle or Kindle app) (for every other eBook reader)

And in case you’re wondering, the movies covered in this book include:

*The Golem (1920)
*Nosferatu (1922)
*The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
*Dracula (1931)
*Frankenstein (1931)
*The Mummy (1932)
*Freaks (1932)
*Cat People (1942)
*The Fly (1958)
*Peeping Tom (1960)
*Psycho (1960)
*Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Terror (1962-New in this edition!)
*Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
*The Haunting (1963)
*The Birds (1963-New in this edition!)
*Wait Until Dark (1967)
*Night of the Living Dead (1968)
*Last House on the Left (1972)
*The Exorcist (1973)
*The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
*Jaws (1975)
*Carrie (1976)
*Suspiria (1977)
*Halloween (1978)
*Alien (1979)
*The Shining (1980)
*Friday the 13th (1980)
*The Evil Dead (1981)
*Poltergeist (1982)
*The Thing (1982)
*A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
*Return of the Living Dead (1985)
*Hellraiser (1987-New to this edition!)
*Child’s Play (1988-New to this edition!)
*Misery (1990)
*Scream (1996)
*Ringu (1998)
*The Blair Witch Project (1999)
*Saw (2004)
*The Cabin in the Woods (2012-New to this edition!)


What I’m Watching: Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil

So I kicked off my month of filling in the 2011 movies I missed with a film I heard a lot of good things about, Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. There are few things as purely enjoyable as a solid horror/comedy (see my love of Ghostbusters and Shaun of the Dead) and few things as disappointing as those movies that don’t do it well (pick whichever Scary Movie you want as your example). But this movie starred Alan Tudyk (Firefly) and Tyler Labine (Reaper), two wonderfully entertaining performers who can do both comedy and action really well, so surely this little film would be worth it, right?

Oh, so, so right.

Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil, written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Eli Craig, is a brilliant send-up of horror movies that uses the conventions of the genre the way the greatest horror movies always do, with a dash of social commentary. In the film a group of college students on a mountain camping trip run into a pair of hillbillies, Tucker (Tudyk) and Dale (Labine). Although Tucker and Dale are kind-hearted, harmless good ol’ boys, the college kids are creeped out by them and retreat to the woods, where Chad (Jesse Moss) regales them with the tale of a massacre that happened in those woods 20 years ago. Tucker and Dale head out fishing and startle the swimming college kids, accidentally causing Allison (Katrina Bowden) to slip and knock herself out. The boys save her, but her friends flee in terror, thinking they’re kidnappers. The college crew plans a rescue attempt, but one misunderstanding after another causes the blood to flow.

This movie is just fantastic. It works as a comedy, to begin with, with loveable protagonists, clever dialogue and whip-smart situational comedy. There’s a lot of physical comedy as well, although that trends more towards the gory, for those of you who are sensitive about that sort of thing. But it’s perfectly legitimate in the context of the film. (There’s a reason that horror movie aficionados use the term “gag” to refer the a clever death set piece, after all.) The performances are really good as well — Tudyk and Labine are both proven actors, and their skills take characters that could have been dull and lifeless in lesser hands and make them into protagonists you root for with every fiber of your being. Katrina Bowden’s Allison goes on an interesting journey in the course of the film as well. Her fear about the guys goes away quickly, but we get to watch as she grows to understand and like them as well. The transformation is really believable in her hands, and helps give an additional level of heart to movie that could have been purely slapstick. Mild spoilers follow, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you may want to stop here.

As I said, though, there’s a degree of social commentary present here that makes it different from soulless horror/humor mashups. At first, you think you’re going to see a parody of the “cabin in the woods” brand of horror. Instead, though, you get a complete reversal of that trope, with Tucker and Dale becoming the heroes against an onslaught of (admittedly inept) psycho killers who are trying to destroy them for no reason. The college kids attack time and again, getting into situations way over their heads and paying dearly as a result.

The result is what gives us the two layers of comedy here. The teenagers react the way you expect teenagers in horror movies to react: blind terror, followed by the resolve to “get those bastards” for what they’ve done to them. In horror movies, there are usually a couple of survivors after such an onslaught, but in real like that’s a good way to get yourself killed.

The second layer is all about perception and preconceived notions. Tucker and Dale try to get Allison back to her friends the moment they pull her out of the water, but they instead run away. After that, each mishap, each event that leads to one of their deaths, could easily be avoided if any one of them stopped and realized that the only danger is in their own minds. Tucker and Dale are gentle, harmless men (until the awesome climax, but even then, neither of them even approaches the level of violence displayed by the kids who fear them). Our heroes prove themselves better than their tormentors time and again, wanting only to protect Allison and reunite her with her friends, while her friends allow their own prejudices to turn them into the least-effective group of killers in movie history.

Movies that purport to take on racism, sexism, or other -isms are common, and often heavy-handed. Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil is a rare knock against elitism, and an even rarer film that gets the point across without preaching or making you constantly aware of the message, instead just telling you a hell of a story and letting the point occur to you in its own time. It’s a great movie, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if, once all is said and done, it’s earned a spot on my “favorites of the year” list.


Story Structure: Horror-An Epilogue

Happy All Saint’s Day, guys. Halloween is over, the pumpkin on your front porch is starting to get soft, the kids are lying on the couch with their fairy wands bent and the dust of a thousand pixie sticks on their cheeks. But that doesn’t mean horror is going away.

If there’s one thing that should be clear after sitting down to watch a 90-year cross-section of horror movies, it’s that horror is eternal. Those things we fear change, yes, and evolve over time, the same way the human race changes, but as long as we are capable of nightmares, there will still be things that make us afraid. And as long as we have those fears to prey on, storytellers are going to take advantage of that. And horror aficionados wouldn’t have it any other way.

Yesterday, I asked the question of where horror is going to go in the future, and I apologize if you’ve been sitting around for 24 hours frantically clicking “refresh” on your web browser to hear the answer, because the truth is that I don’t know. When horror changes, it seems to happen all at once – the monsters of the 30s and 40s, the aliens of the 50s and 60s, the slashers of the 70s and 80s. Today, most horror films are divided between the “vengeful spirit” camp (drawing on such sources as The Ring and The Blair Witch Project) and the “torture porn” camp (courtesy of Saw and Hostel), with a few other divergences to give us remakes of or sequels to long-standing franchises. But when Myrick and Sanchez were making Blair Witch, they never could have predicted it would change the way horror movies are made. Nobody can predict such things, not even me. 2011 hasn’t been a banner year for horror, with the only films that have really succeeded so far being the third Paranormal Activity and the newest PG-13 ghost story, Insidious. Looking ahead at 2012 releases, there’s not much that looks like it’s going to crack into the mainstream. I could be wrong, of course – I hope I’m wrong, but most of the films I’m looking at on the “coming attractions” pages look like simple variations on a theme.

When horror changes again, it’s going to be for the same reason it has always changed in the past. Someone will think of an angle or a monster or a way to exploit a nearly-universal fear that nobody has tried before, and people will be both horrified and thrilled by it, and a thousand and one filmmakers will try to imitate the same thing. It’s the cycle, it’s how it goes. And then, years after it has gone out of vogue, someone else will try it again and bring it back again. Slashers and teen horror felt a resurgence after Scream, vampires came back after Twilight, and zombies seem to rise from the dead again with regularity every five to ten years.

If I had a wishlist, it would be that future filmmakers make smart horror. This could take several different forms, of course – a taught mystery like Saw will always be welcome, regardless of any other trappings. On the other hand, the extremely clever 2007 film Trick ‘r Treat took four pretty standard horror tropes and wove them together in a brilliant celebration of Halloween monster movies, and don’t be surprised at all if I decide to include it in the expanded Story Structure: Horror book (more on that in a minute).

In the end, I’m like everyone else. I want to be scared and I want to be entertained, I don’t want to be pandered to and I don’t want to be insulted. The great films will shake themselves out and the weak ones will be forgotten. And every time you close your eyes at night, horror will look for a way to go on.

That said, let me talk a little bit about the future, not of horror movies, but of my little Story Structure project. Last spring, I was perusing the Amazon Kindle store, looking not for horror novels (those are aplenty) but for nonfiction books that talked about horror movies. I don’t remember why, exactly, I was in the mood for such a thing, but I was, and the pickings were slim. Stephen King has his nonfiction dissection of horror, Danse Macabre, but I’ve already read that one… plus it’s 30 years old. A lot has happened since then. There were other books about different horror types – zombies are still popular, for example – and plenty of books that tried to offer a humorous send-up of crappy horror, but while I do enjoy that sort of thing that wasn’t what I wanted. Nobody, it seemed, had turned out a decent book talking about what horror is and how it grows and changes.

Then it occurred to me… wait a minute. I’m a writer. And a geek. I write about stuff like this as a matter of course. And chances are if I want to read this kind of book there’s somebody else out there that wants the same thing. And if I can’t find it, neither can they. And that means there is a niche to be filled.

So with the help of Erin and a few others, I complied the list of films I would view and write about for the sake of this project, turning out one article per film. And I was starting in May, I had the whole summer in front of me! Surely I could knock out 35 films by Halloween! (And I did, but as is so often the case, circumstances conspired against me and it turned out to be a much closer race than I thought. I didn’t write the article on the final film, Saw, until October 29, while on the table next to my laptop sat the costume I was going to wear to that night’s Halloween party.)

And one at a time, I wrote the 35 articles that are going to make up what will be, in effect, my first nonfiction book. I’m going to revise these articles a bit, add 15 more movies to bring the total to an even 50, and then in 2012 I’m going to offer it up for the Amazon Kindle and all other eBook readers for a mere $1.99. And what’s more, this is only the first Story Structure project. I realized early on that horror is by no means the only genre that grows over time, and I started making more and more lists: science fiction, fantasy, comedy, sports movies, war movies, crime dramas, Christmas movies… I have more than enough lists to make this an annual event for the next several years. And I certainly enjoyed doing this enough to make that effort. Next year will probably be a direct follow up to this year’s project, as I am very anxious to shift gears from talking about straight horror to one of the greatest storytelling hybrids that exists: the horror/comedy. Those of you who lamented the absence of movies like Ghostbusters, Beetlejuice, or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein on this list, it’s not because I forgot them. It’s because they get a whole project all to themselves.

But first, I gotta finish this one. And although I do still have the movies that I cut from the original long list to give me the abbreviated 35, I decided against just popping them back in to round out the 50. Some of my perceptions about horror have changed ever so slightly in the course of this project, as I found patterns and tropes that I wasn’t prepared for. I want to use the 15 empty slots to expand on those different ideas. That said, I have in no way decided definitively what 15 movies will round out Story Structure Volume One.

So I’m opening it up to you. Was there a movie you can’t believe I forgot? An entire subgenre of horror you feel I neglected? A legendary filmmaker who wasn’t represented? Here’s your chance to correct me. In the comments, tell me any movie you think I should keep in consideration when I beef this bad boy up to 50. I only have two criteria. First is that the film should be significant in the realm of horror. By this I mean…

  • It ushered in a new breed of horror (like Saw) or revitalized an old one (like Scream) or…
  • It introduces a new type of monster (like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead) or a horror icon (like Dracula or Freddy Krueger) or…
  • It be the first or seminal work of a major writer, director, or performer (like Stephen King’s Carrie or Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left) or…
  • It’s really freaking good.

Also – and this isn’t a hard and fast rule – I would really like suggestions from the 1940s and 1950s, because that’s one era I feel my first 35 films really neglected, mainly because I couldn’t really find many important horror films that didn’t belong more rightly in the realm of science fiction. If you’ve got a suggestion, I definitely want to hear it.

The other major criteria is one of availability. It has to be available on Netflix (either streaming or via disc – I wasn’t part of the mass exodus when they pissed off their customers a few months ago) or available for free, legal streaming online somewhere. If the only way I can see the movie is to download a bootleg subtitled copy from some Bulgarian bit torrent site, I’m really not interested.

Although the suggestions are wide open, these are the movies that are currently under consideration to fill out Story Structure Volume One: Horror.

  • White Zombie (1932)
  • Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)
  • The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
  • The Blob (1958)
  • Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
  • The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)
  • The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
  • The Birds (1963)
  • The Raven (1963)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
  • The Omen (1976)
  • The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
  • Dawn of the Dead (1978)
  • Sleepaway Camp (1983)
  • Child’s Play (1988)
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  • Dead Alive (1992)
  • The Sixth Sense (1999)
  • Final Destination (2000)
  • 28 Days Later (2002)
  • Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

Nothing is guaranteed a slot on the list yet, though. If you disagree with something here, tell me why. If there’s something you consider more deserving, tell me why. Convince me. I want you guys to enjoy this as much as I do. And keep watching to find out when the book will be available (because the added 15 articles won’t be showing up online)! You can keep an eye out here at Evertime Realms, or – even better – you can become a fan on my new Facebook page. There you’ll hear information about this and about everything else I’ve been working on.

One last thing, gang… the title. I’ve honestly never been that big a fan of Story Structure, I’ve gone with it for lack of a better idea. I need something that can stand as a banner title for any sort of movie or genre I choose to examine, with the specific genre revealed in the subtitle — Story Structure: Horror, for example, only with a bit more zing. If anyone has suggestions, I’m all ears.

In the meantime, friends, thanks so much for playing along! It was a great month, and I can’t wait until next year, for Story Structure (or whatever) Volume Two!


Story Structure Day 10: Peeping Tom (1960)

Director: Michael Powell
Writer: Leo Marks
Cast: Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley

Plot: Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a part-time photographer, making ends meet by taking lurid photographs of women in lewd vignettes, while pursuing his true aspiration of being a filmmaker. But his filmmaking is part of a darker thirst – Lewis is stalking the streets, luring women home and filming as he murders them. As Mark befriends a neighbor, he reveals to her how his own father used to photograph him in moments of discomfort, terror, or fear, even including the boy standing by his own mother’s deathbed. Despite this, Helen (Anna Massey) asks him to take photographs to illustrate a children’s book she has written, to which he enthusiastically agrees.

As Mark comes under the suspicions of the police investigating the killings, Helen convinces him to go out with her, but makes him leave behind his omnipresent camera. Helen’s blind mother (Maxine Audley) becomes uncomfortable with Helen and Mark’s relationship, and confronts Mark in his darkroom. Mark is upset that his most recent film didn’t come out the way he wanted, and almost reenacts the murder with Helen’s mother, but barely stops himself. She demands he stay away from Helen until his “unhealthy” fixation with photography is done away with, threatening to move away. He kills once more, this time knowing that the police are watching him, and rushes home, where Helen has found his films. He tells her how he attached a mirror to his camera, forcing his victims to watch their own terrified faces at the moments of their death. As the police arrive to take him away, Mark runs through a long-prepared gauntlet of cameras to the completion of his film – his own suicide.

Thoughts: This is one of those films that, upon its release, was deemed so controversial that the filmmaker’s career was effectively ruined. Its portrayal of raw sexuality was pretty risqué for the time, although there’s nothing so provocative in the final cut of the film that you couldn’t show it on basic cable today. (Well… at certain times of the day, at least.) There’s a brief glimpse of a bare breast on Mark’s last victim before the screen fades to black (something removed from many cuts of the film), but most of the gore takes place off-camera. Even Mark’s self-inflicted fatal wound to the neck doesn’t really look like that big a deal. As he falls backwards, clutching the wound, you could easily think he just nicked himself shaving.

Although the film is called the “first slasher movie” by many, it’s markedly different from the way we picture the genre today. Later, better-known slasher films are all about the psychology of terror: Halloween and Friday the 13th are all about the fear the audience feels. Even in Halloween, when we see the attacks through the eyes of Michael Myers himself, we’re supposed to feel the terror of the victim. Not so with Peeping Tom – this movie is all about the psychology of the killer. First of all, there’s never any question of the murderer’s identity. We know from the very beginning that Mark Lewis is a killer, and even though the police and other characters in the film are trying to solve a mystery, for the audience, there is none. So rather than question who is murdering young women, we are allowed instead to focus our curiosity on why he’s doing such a horrific thing.

While most of the movies I’ve talked about (and will talk about over the rest of this project) have been American, this one is a British film, and as such, plays heavily on British fears. While over in the States, we were worried about the Red Menace, in England they were still licking their wounds from World War II, and this film toys with that. There’s a distinct tinge of a German accent to Mark – who himself is a blond-haired chap cast in the mold of Hitler’s perfect Aryan. Mark is twisted and shaped by his father’s experiments, turned into a monster, something that could easily be looked upon as a metaphor for the Nazi subjugation of the German people before their country went on to become a boogeyman to the rest of the world. In this case, the father begets the monster.

I’m not sure if – at any point – we’re actually supposed to be sympathetic to Mark. In fact, the scene where he forces Anna Massey’s character Helen to watch the truly disturbing films of his own childhood is the scene where Mark first starts to feel like an all-out psychopath. The record of Mark’s descent into madness isn’t about excusing him, it’s about explaining him.  “We aren’t saying it wasn’t his fault, we’re just giving him a motivation.” I rather like that – at times cinema seems to waste entirely too much time trying to find ways to explain away the actions of our monsters, and some of them just don’t deserve that consideration. He’s a horribly disturbing creature, from the way he encroaches upon his victims before he kills them straight through to him transferring the light kiss Helen gives him to the lens of his camera. Helen is the sympathetic character here, a girl who takes pity on a broken bird and through it finds a sort of friendship, which breaks her heart when it collapses at the end.

This is the film where we see the core of those movies about what makes a killer. This is where we see the heart of Hannibal Lector, and it draws from the same well as Norman Bates. And speaking of Norman Bates, it’s about time. Come back tomorrow as we introduce ourselves to Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins, and Janet Leigh for one of the most acclaimed thrillers of all time. It’s time… for Psycho.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at


Story Structure Day 9: The Fly (1958)

Director: Kurt Neumann
Writer: James Clavell, based on the short story by George Langelaan
Cast: Vincent Price, David Hedison, Patricia Owens, Charles Hebert, Herbert Marshall

Plot: A scientist (David Hedison) is found dead, his head and arm crushed into an unrecognizable mess. His wife (Patricia Owens) confesses to the crime, but refuses to provide details, although she seems obsessed with finding a strange white-headed fly. As the investigation begins they find she actually crushed him in a hydraulic press twice… something the victim’s brother (Vincent Price) cannot fathom, as they had a loving marriage. Owens begins to come unraveled, going berserk when a nurse crushes a fly on the wall. Finally, Price coaxes the truth from her: his brother was destroyed by his own invention – a disintegrator-integrator – which horribly mingled his body with that of a housefly, turning him from man to beast. As they attempted to find the fly that now had his arm and head, his mind became more and more frayed, until he finally begged her to kill him. Price keeps the story to himself, allowing the court to believe her insane, and sparing her from a murder charge.

Thoughts: I wish I could have found other films between the last one (1942’s Cat People) and this 1958 classic, but as I tried compiling my list, I was stunned at the utter dearth of memorable horror films from the late 1940s and early 1950s. This isn’t to say there weren’t scary movies, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the right choice for my little project here. It actually gets back to what I said about horror at the very beginning – horror is subjective. Each person, and in a larger sense, each culture determines for itself what it considers terrifying, and in the late 40s and 50s the fears of the American public weren’t running along the lines of vampires and witches and monsters. In the wake of the atom bomb, we were afraid of science gone wrong. With the rise of the Soviet Union, we feared the threat of international communism. The result is that the best, most iconic scary movies of this era don’t necessarily fall into the category of horror, but belong more appropriately on the science fiction list (which I hope to use for this same sort of project in the future). The truly disquieting films of the time were things like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – both excellent films worth discussing, but I feel like they belong more in the realm of sci-fi than true horror.

So that brings us to 1958 and The Fly, which still straddles the line between science fiction and horror, but falls with enough of its bulk on this side of the line to make it on the list. While not exactly built on hard science, the movie attempts more of a feeling of realism than most other sci-fi shockers of the area, which often dealt with the likes of insects and other animals mutating into giant beasts thanks to radiation exposure, eventually leading to their death by missile and their ridicule at the hands of a guy in a satellite and his two little robot pals. In The Fly, director Kurt Neumann does make an effort to help the science seem plausible, at least to an audience without deep understanding of such things. (At one point, while trying to guess the nature of his brother’s experiment, Price even suggests a flatscreen television.)

Vincent Price, of course, gets top billing for this movie, but for my money that really should have belonged to Patricia Owens as Helene. Price is in the framing sequence – the 30-minute buildup to the flashback and the 10-minute denouement at the end – but Owens really carries the film. We see her at the beginning as the shellshocked, borderline deranged woman who has just witnessed her husband’s death, then go to the backstory where she’s a kind, devoted wife. She’s really magnificent in the part, going from the heights of joy for her husband’s success to a slow spiral into despair when his experiment falls apart. Finally, at the end we get pain and resignation from her. Genre pictures are rarely recognized for the performances of their actors when award season rolls around, but I would put Owens’s performance in this film right up there with any great actress of the era.

The film follows a fairly standard format for horror films of the era, where the truly terrifying stuff happens largely off-screen. This is to the good, because when the blanket comes off David Hedison and we finally see his transformation… well… just as Owens is as fine an actress as any of the day, his creature costume is as goofy as any of the day. It’s a silly-looking monster helmet with a some device to make the pincers twitch a little bit. I find the final scene far more chilling – Price and the inspector (Herbert Marshall) manage to track down the white-headed fly to a spider’s web where it’s been captured and about to be consumed. The effect of a tiny little David Hedison caught in the spider’s web, superimposed against film of a real spider, is impressive by 1958 standards, and the effect of his miniscule voice pleading for help as the predator advances upon him is creepy even today. It’s probably the most memorable scene of terror from the film, far more so than the human-size fly.

The film plays upon the fear of unchecked science, questions of insanity, and a good dose of body horror (which, no doubt, is why David Cronenberg was the man tapped for the 1986 remake). All of these elements add up to one of the best films of the era.

From the end of the age of monsters, we’re about to step into the world of more psychological terror. Next on my list is the film many consider the first slasher movie, the 1960 film Peeping Tom.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at


Story Structure Day 8: Cat People (1942)

Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writer: DeWitt Bodeen
Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph

Plot: A young woman from Serbia meets and marries a handsome young American man. But their relationship is stalled due to a fear that, should she allow herself to become intimate with her new husband, she will fall victim to an ancient curse that causes people in her family to transform into killer panthers. After they’ve been married for some time – during which she never allows herself so much as a moment of physical passion with her husband – she begins to suspect that he is having an affair with his attractive young assistant. And then we realize lust isn’t the only emotion that can trigger the curse… jealousy works, too.

Thoughts: Like a lot of early horror films, this one uses folktales (real or imagined) as the basis of the monster, such as it is. The idea of an “old curse” is standard. What’s interesting to me is the way Irena (Simone Smith) claims the curse came upon her family: in centuries past, they dabbled in witchcraft and consorted with the devil, and as such were branded with this inability to grow close to anyone. This immediately calls to mind the question of how, exactly, they’ve managed to perpetuate the family line over the centuries, if they turn into monsters and slaughter anyone they grow physically intimate with. (The 1982 remake answered this question in the logical and extremely squicky way of saying that family members could only be intimate with one another, despite them being from Serbia and not members of any particular royal family.)

Of more interest – to me, anyway – is the way the perception of witchcraft has changed over time. Sure, whenever a movie that seems vaguely related to the topic is released today you get your requisite group of picket sign-carrying protestors condemning everybody who’s going to see the movie to Hell, but they’re considered a joke by both the media and most passerby who see them. In truth, these days if a movie uses witchcraft as its hook, we usually see a case of an innocent person accused of witchcraft and being tormented by an oppressive society. (For the best example of this, see 1996’s The Crucible, the script for which was written by the original playwright, Arthur Miller.) The alternative is typically a more classic representation of witchcraft wrapped up in a movie that’s laughable in its presentation of something that was once considered a very legitimate threat. (For the most recent example, as of this writing, see 2011’s Season of the Witch. This movie gets bonus cheese points for having Nicolas Cage with long hair while simultaneously being bald.)

At any rate, in 1942 witchcraft was seen as a much more legitimate source for horror, and a curse being a punishment that goes down generations was something that could cause true fear. The 1982 version of the film throws away the witchcraft elements in favor of a more vague curse, which is apparently still acceptable so long as you don’t specify that it’s a result of bubbling cauldrons or dancing in the moonlight with Mephistopheles. Even the specific manifestation of the curse is given a Biblical connection – Irena chats with a zookeeper who kindly takes the time to explain who the Book of Revelations describes a beast from Hell that is “like a leopard, but not a leopard,” which to him is pretty much the definition of a panther.

The other thing about this film that I find really odd is the way the relationship grows. In 1942, when filmmakers didn’t get quite as explicit about sex as they do today, they got away with a man falling and love with and marrying a woman who refuses any sort of physical intimacy – even so much as a kiss – giving him an excuse that would today either have the man drop her for a loony after the first date or do everything he can to get her onto Dr. Phil. Granted, Oliver (Kent Smith) eventually does seek out psychological help for Irena, but only several chaste months after they are married. I don’t care it if is 1942, nobody is that good. Let’s be clear about this: this is not a fear that Irena developed some time after she and Oliver got involved, this was a barrier between them from the day they met. A month after they start dating, he mentions to her that, y’know, normal people in love kiss, and she starts with the whole “I turn into a cat” thing. This, Oliver, this is the time to seek out mental help. Not after you marry a woman who insists on separate bedrooms and a bowl of Fancy Feast at night.

In many ways, this Oliver Reed character begins the film as something of a fantasy man. He’s good-looking, square-jawed, loves Irena from the moment he meets her despite her little “quirks,” and is resistant to temptation from Alice (Jane Randolph) even once she pretty much starts throwing herself at him. But even Mr. Perfect eventually starts to break down – he gets mad at Irena when she starts skipping her therapy sessions, and ultimately decides to leave her for Alice. Even then, though, the film doesn’t give us reason to believe there’s any hanky-panky going on before he proclaims he wants a divorce. Look at the timeline here: Irena is given the 1942 Man of the Year on a silver platter, then drives him away because she acts cold, jealous, and irrational. (Well, okay, it only seemed irrational, turns out she really did turn into a murderous cat, but one can hardly blame Oliver for not quite believing that.) You can’t tell me that the writer of this film wasn’t firing a warning shot across the stern of the Women of America, whose husbands at this point were increasingly getting shots fired across their own sterns over in Europe and the Pacific.

The movie’s ending is suitably tragic, and the body count is remarkably low (compared to modern films). And to be frank, while it’s entertaining in its own way, I don’t see it as being that great a precursor to modern films, except perhaps to show how different societal norms have become in the last 70 years. There’s a taste of Jekyll and Hyde in here, a flash of the subtle sexuality that would later become more dominant in the works of Anne Rice, but nothing I really feel is definitive the way I’ve felt about some of the other movies I’ve seen. The film’s sequel, 1944’s Curse of the Cat People, is even less memorable, with no “cat people” present, instead tapping into The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and turning into a ghost story about a married Oliver and Alice terrorized when Irena’s ghost begins visiting their six-year-old daughter. Weirdness.

We’re taking our biggest jump in time yet next, and I’ll talk about why that is tomorrow, when we get down to the classic 1958 sci-fi chiller The Fly.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at

May 2023

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