Monday, December 10, 2012

Horror Moderna: The Best of the 21st Century...So Far - Part 1

I’d like to take a moment to thank all of you for helping me get this blog up to the wonderful 10, 000 mark! (Actually as of today the site has over 10, 600 hits) You all are fantastic and have taken a keen and genuine interest in this blog and have blown it up over the last few months and for that I’m grateful. I’ve gotten many emails from my readers telling me how much they enjoy what I’ve presented here and as I promised – because the the ten-thousand mark has been met and thus surpassed – I’m going to strive to make at least one entry here at least once a week. It’s very satisfying to see that so many horror fans have come to this spot to check out my entries and to get to know me as both a writer and as a fellow horror fan. If you know someone who would enjoy reading this, I invite you to share it on Facebook or by word of mouth. If you’re a casual reader, I invite you to follow this blog so you can be updated every time a new entry is added. Thank you all again for making this blog what it is and cheers to another ten thousand reads!
Now, I know that maybe a few you are wondering why I'm writing about films released after the turn of the century if this entire blog is dedicated to everything with the decade twenty years preceding it. Well, for one, horror is horror and though my heart belongs to everything eighties there are a few gems here and there that I come across every so often that were released after the once-feared Y2K mark that capture my imagination and stay with me. I've actually been accused of being rather discriminative to all things modern in terms of horror and though I have my reasons for being so picky, I'm not completely closed to new experiences. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of engaging in an IM session with a reader of this blog and we got to talking about modern horror and films released since the year 2000. I have to honestly admit that I’m not really into ‘horror moderna’ – only because I’ve sat through a slew of them and am instantly turned off by the production values some of them have. The over-use of CGI, the cookie-cutter and copy-cat elements taken from other films, the great number of tired remakes of films whose originals still remain a hundred times their superior, and most importantly, the endless absurd and/or disappointing endings and lack of originality that have caused my disinterest in the modern horror film. Now, I know there are some of you out there who stand firm and back the modern horror film. But remember, we’re all fans here. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. Everyone is entitled to their unique points of view and voice them. That’s what makes the horror community what it is - endless opinions and likes and dislikes that form the huge melting pot that it is.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I haven’t dissed them all entirely. I have had the opportunity to sit through a good number of them. Aside from the plethora of torture porn films that came in this strange unannounced wave – which I still to this day will not sit through as I feel they’re a complete waste of time, I have given many films a chance. So the person I was IM-ing with posed to me a very good question, Hey Linus, what do you think are the best films of this millennium so far? The question to me was so intriguing that I thought I’d devote an entire blog entry to answer it. Now, take note that I haven’t seen a great number of films that have been released – as a great number of them have come out of Asia and Europe – but out of the good number of them that I’ve seen, here are what I think are the best ones so far. I’ll put them in random order:

High Tension (2003): Directed by Alexandre Aja, this film is one of the better films I’ve seen in recent day and it remains one of my top favorites of the new millennium and conversely, the oldest film in this particular posting. And it was rated NC-17 upon its initial release? An NC-17 slasher film? Call me pink with barely controlled glee! Though it was numbed-down to an R-rating here in the U.S. when it was unleashed on the movie-going public, I was disappointed that I wasn't able to catch it upon its first run and had to wait until the DVD was released. I would have loved to have seen it uncut with a group of people just to watch the mixed reactions of the audience as this is not a film for everyone. The French horror scene, though fairly misunderstood in this country, is one to be rivaled in recent day and it’s slowly becoming a top contender with other films coming from other parts of the world. When two friends go out into the country to do some studying, they are unknowingly followed by a homicidal maniac who brutally kills the entire family, except the two girls. This films boasts some of the best and well-executed murder set pieces I've ever seen presented on celluloid  and the best use of a piano as a killing device! Lots of blood, lots of slicing, and lots of...well, lots of blood! Borrowing heavily from Dean Koontz’s Intensity (you can deny this all you want but its true as I've read the novel...twice), the film changes the story in its final act and delivers a plot hole so big that you either take it and run or cuss it out with a vengeance. I can already hear you saying, it was all a what?!

Though it’s fast paced and terrifying on a very visceral scale, the ending is completely absurd – and was completely ripped off as Identity used the exact same ending a couple of years earlier. I always tell people jokingly, If you've seen Identity you've seen High Tension!  But as far as the actual horror aspect is concerned, it delivers – and with both panache and undeniable gusto. Aja creates a very terrifying atmosphere, delivering on all levels and even throws a little girl-on-girl undertone to round it out wonderfully. If you’re a sucker for the films released during the golden age of slashers, you are in for a major treat. And if you’re as die-hard of a fan as I am, you’ll see a couple of nods to some of the old films, like a brilliant (and very frightening) homage to the memorable subway bathroom scene in Maniac, and the absolute best [i.e., disturbing] circular-saw murder you will ever see. As far as I’m concerned, this is considered essential viewing when it comes to horror of the new millennium [and French horror, period] and a great launching point for those looking for somewhere to start. Positively fantastic.

Sinister (2012): I was able to get a hold of a bootleg copy of this film by a friend mainly because I didn’t have the time to go into the local theater to see it and I was very curious about both the film’s premise and how Ethan Hawke was going to pull off a horror role. Let me say that I was pleasantly surprised. From the film’s haunting opening image to the horrifying revelation at its close, this film was a welcome entry into my mind and my collection. This is one of those films that I can honestly say that will restore your faith in the American horror film after so many duds that have been churned out with the past few years. If you’re a horror fan, like myself, who has ‘seen it all’ and who has the attitude and idea that ‘it’s all already been done’ - though true, you’re seriously in for a real treat. 
The film’s plot, while being very basic – Hawke, a famous crime novelist,  and his family move into a home in which a case of 8mm films and a projector reveal the murders of several families that have lived there in the past which all tie together in a shocking (but predictable) twist – builds a sense of impending doom and genuine terror. With the help of a local deputy - who is actually a longtime fan of Hawke's character - the two team up in hopes to discover the secret that lies within the house.  I really don’t say this about many modern horror films, especially ones that are American-made, but this one stayed in my head long after it was over and that’s what counts. It knew its mission was to scare and disturb and it did it with a subdued panache and it delivered one hundred percent. The film is actually frightening - I’ll say that with confidence. It manages to crawl under your skin and keep you on the edge of your seat. There is way the film dissects the Oswalt family, having a troubled past that culminates in this one house asking why here? The only downside I found to this great film was that I was able to figure out the reveal – and the ending – about three quarters of the way through. Normally, once I ‘do the math’ I lose interest in the film and fast-forward it just to see if I was right and then turn it off. But, not this time. I actually can’t wait for this to come out on DVD (as most of the film takes place in the dark and the copy I received was even darker). It employs many (and I mean many) clichés and a slew of set pieces and techniques that we’ve all seen and are very familiar with. The marketing campaign for the film was hokey, as well, relying way too much on the tagline, "From the producers of Paranormal Activity and Insidious". For me, that sentence was the film's own death wish because most people who've seen those two films could automatically (and unfairly) assume that this new one could very well be in the same category yet this one stands on its own. With that said, I will stick to my guns and say that this is one of the better horror films to come out in a really long time. (The DVD is scheduled for a February ’13 release. And *Thanks*, C.K., for providing me with a copy of this!).

The House of the Devil (2009): Ti West’s film set in the 1980’s about a girl who takes a babysitting job to help pay for her new apartment is a fantastic delve into the long-forgotten sub-genre known as “satanic panic”, the endless films that came out during the Reagan administration having to do with everyday people living their lives worshipping the prince of darkness, the consequences that follow, and the innocent people who accidentally stumble onto/become involved in what comes next. This one is filmed with many elements that made the 80’s so fantastic and it works on all levels. It relies on mood and atmosphere to set its tone. From the opening scene (with Dee Wallace Stone!) until it’s strange (but yet predictable) closing, the film delivers an eerie mood of impending doom and does it with a style that completely imitates those films from back then that we hold in such high regard. So may touches that remind us of the 80’s (the disclaimer telling us that the film is based on true events, the opening title card freeze, the zoom techniques and stylistic touches in costume, sets and music) are used well and actually make me miss the slasher boom’s heyday.

The film actually manages to keep it simple and concentrate wholly on building suspense for the first half. It sort of plays like a modern Halloween keeping the gore to a minimum and relying on making you feel uncomfortable and frightened. Now, the third act is something to talk about as it does manage to induce a nightmarish feel just as we discover just what the hell is going on when we finally see why she'd been lured to that spooky house out in the country. The ending, though much too ambiguous for my tastes, did leave me thinking and I actually thought that the story concluded intentionally in the manner it did to provoke a possible sequel. I mean, let's face it, after the sheer terror that poor Samantha (Donahue) had to endure, I would have liked to have known just what happened to her once the end credits rolled and what ever became of that horrific night. At the time the film was released, there was even a clamshell promotional VHS floating around to keep in the spirit of the stylistic intent of the film and there were even several one-sheet posters released (with my favorite of the bunch being showcased above) each using classic 70’s and 80’s art techniques that made those classic films even better. The film is worth picking up as there’s a way West builds tension and fear that keeps you on the edge of your seat proving that he's a newcomer to watch out for. Topped off with great performances by Tom Noonan and Mary Waronov (and a fantastic debut from cutie-newcomer Jocelin Donahue) the film is memorable and a definite must-see. I’ve watched this more than a handful of times and it still gives me chills each time. 

The Descent (2005): I actually got to see this during its theatrical run back in 2006 (when it was released in the States) and was taken completely by surprise. The film follows a group of six friends, all women, who become trapped in a series of underground  caverns and then fall prey to a group of subterranean man-eating humanoids. Sounds absurd, yes? But wait, sit through it and you’ll have a different opinion.

Starting things off with a powerful (and memorable) opening scene, director Neil Marshall concentrates on mood and character development and as we watch the women enter as inseparable friends and end up fighting for their lives, and each other, we slowly feel their plight and begin to root for them a hundred percent. During some scenes in the film, you have to stop yourself and wonder, Could this really happen? Could there really be an underworld of sorts living below us that the human race is completely oblivious to? Could we really visit a place like this in real life and be confronted by something so terrifying beyond human comprehension? The settings are so real, so familiar. I mean, everyone has been to some type of National Park, some recreational place out and away from civilization where we "get away" to forget the rest of the world. A place we see as safe and wholesome. What if were confronted by an unknown evil, forced to fight for our own survival while at its mercy? The film actually makes you think, makes you ponder on the human existence and does it quite well.  There is an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia – and at times literally - and it’s presented on screen in horrific realism – and it actually manages to deliver the heebs on a grand scale. And speaking of the heebs, watch this movie and then look at the picture above - it will give you a good dose of 'em. (If you get the DVD, make sure you get the unrated version, as it contains the original ending that was altered for the American theatrical release.)

The Strangers (2008): From the moment I saw this trailer, I knew that it was going to rock my world. I made sure to see this in a theater back in ’08. A simple story that relies on atmosphere, mood and timing to make it one of the most frightening movies I’ve ever seen and one of the top-notch best this millennium has offered thus far. I've spoken with some horror fans about this one and there seems to be a divide down the middle with some of us on one side, saying it's a complete foray into urban terror while the others have the opinion that this film was built on endless unncecessary "jump scares" and empty shocks. A couple (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) whose engagement night suddenly takes a downhill plunge - which is actually portrayed quite well -  makes a turn for the worst as their home is invaded by a trio of masked people out to terrorize someone at random. There are scares aplenty, and some of the creepiest scenes you’ll ever see. Sure, I’ll admit that a lot of the movie is just clichés and re-used elements that we’ve seen over and over again but they’re put together to make a completely – in my opinion – original and very terrorizing story.  And by the way, after watching this you will never be able to hear Gillian Welch’s “My First Lover” ever again, period.

Does this movie scare me? Absolutely. Growing up in rural Texas and living out in the country, this could easily have happened to my family, or anyone living around us, which only heightens the feeling of terror for me when I’m actually brave enough to sit in front of it. For me, yes, it's that frightening.  A second installment about the masked assailants following a family who moves on account of the failing economy has been in talks since the release of the first film. Hopefully it will come to fruition as there are rumors that Liv Tyler would possibly be returning. The unrated version of the film accompanies the theatrical version on the DVD, but I do feel I have to warn you – there is a notice at the start of the DVD before the initial menu comes up that claims there is a possibility of damage to your player if you choose to watch the unrated version.  I did, and suffered the consequences. Yes, my DVD player did not work again after this DVD came out of it – which spooked the shit out of me - and had to resort to buying another one. Coincidence? You be the judge.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012): Ok, I know that I may be risking a lot here by including this one, but I can’t help it as I think it came completely out of left field and knocked my socks off. Having waited since 2010, as had a million other horror fans, I gave up on the notion of ever getting to see this one because it seemed like it was destined to be just another horror urban legend. But then the wonderful news that it was going to be released after all was brought to light and once again I was excited. Was Joss Whedon going to make our wait worthwhile and give us the ‘perfect’ horror film? Was this movie going to rock our worlds like it had been promised for years and years and leave us begging for more? Was this going to be more ‘monster movie’ than slasher as I’d been reading? When it was finally released this past year, I began to see on Facebook from friends of mine that had gotten the chance to see it before I did and was disillusioned by how many people were actually giving it the thumbs down and countless ‘not worth seeing’ reviews. With this, I told myself that I wasn’t going to risk being disappointed and decided to do some research and actually read every spoiler that was available to me about this. I found a website that gave away the entire plot of the film and said ‘oh, what the hell’ and read it because I’d already decided that I wasn’t going to see it based on word of mouth (I should really know better, right?). What I read was absolutely fascinating and I immediately thought to myself how the bloody hell are they going to pull [the plot and ending] off?

So I made my way downtown and bought myself a ticket to make my own opinion. And was I surprised to end up being wonderfully surprised [Yes, I'm aware that previous statement is gramatically reduntant]. And I could understand why: all of these friends that had been dissing the film weren’t horror fans in the least come to realize that the movie had been made for die-hard fans like myself, complete with obscure nods to 80’s films [pay attention during the "basement scene"], references to “the rules” and wonderful tongue-in-cheek jokes that balanced out the horror scenes to make a film that comes completely out of left field in both originality and execution.   I don’t want to go too deep into the schematics of why I ended up loving it the way I did or analyze it completely but I’ll tell you that I may just review it here soon and give you exactly what I think of it. This has been described as a “love hate letter” to the entire modern horror genre that takes every conventional cliché and “rule” and totally turns it topsy-turvy and I couldn’t have said it any better. You go into it at the beginning expecting one thing and it screws with your brain until it becomes nothing like what you thought it would be - smart, savvy, and memorable.  

Inside (2007): I was introduced to this film by a friend whom I trade DVDs with who said to me, you have GOT to see this one! Normally I’m weary of trusting anyone else’s recommendations but his enthusiasm for this one drove me to sit at the computer and look it up. I began to research it and honestly, the cover of the U.S. Dimension Extreme release didn’t do anything for me as it appeared very ‘torture porn-y’. But before I completely dismissed it, I continued to read about its premise and the more I did, the more curious I became. So I made a few phone calls and within a few days, I had a copy of this in my hand. Known overseas as A l'interieur, this is the second French horror film on this list, and for very good reason. A pregnant photographer named Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is involved in a horrible automobile accident that tragically kills her fiancé leaving her alone just as the Holidays are approaching. Come Christmas, she is visited by a strange woman (an absolutely sexy woman named Beatrice Dalle) who knocks on her door and asks to use the telephone. What ensues is not only the most frightening and shocking home invasions ever captured on film, but one of the goriest and brutal films I’ve ever seen, hands down.

 My jaw hit the floor at the start of the second act and let me say that attempting to pick it up was a task as at every turn I was treated to one horrifying scene after another presented with such realism that it has to be beheld to be believed. I don’t think I’ve ever screamed out loud in pure terror as I have with this film and when I started putting together the pieces, the shocking twist – and absolutely disturbing ending - proved that I could still be blown away by a piece of cinema. This is one of those movies that I enjoyed so much that I don’t want to give away anything because you have to see it for yourself, especially for the final cryptic scene. I have to warn you though that this one is absolutely not for the faint of heart. Even for me, the gore hound, this was very difficult to sit through in its entirety. If you can make it to the end in one sitting, you're stronger than I am. Bring it on, France!  (*Thanks* Jay R., for recommending this one - and providing me with a copy!)


In My Sleep (2010): Well, I’m not sure I should actually place this in the “horror” category but it was close enough. I’m not going to beat around the bush or tell a fib, but the one and only reason I even took any interest in this one was because of the one-sheet art: an almost fully-naked man in a white bed holding a knife. That pretty much sold me. Why lie? So you can imagine how excited I was to not only see that Mr. Philip Winchester was in this film, but he spends a good ¼ of the film in just in freakin’ underwear! Now, I hate to be biased but if you know who this mega-hottie is, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. But, I have to be fair and say that after the first couple of minutes- which includes a nice opening scene of Mr. Winchester almost naked in a cemetery, the film had me in its grasp. Simple story: Marcus (played by Winchester) who has a strange sleep disorder called parasomnia which causes him to do things while he sleeps that he can’t remember later. Oh, and to top it off, he’s a nymphomaniac and a sex addict. Yep, a sex addict, and a sex addict who actually attends meetings. Are you fanning yourself yet? (LOL) Things take a turn for the worst, though, when he wakes up one morning to find himself covered in blood and hearing the police knocking at his door. It doesn’t help to find out that his best friend’s wife has been murdered. What transpires is a very interesting and surprisingly satisfying whodunit that relies on good storytelling and character development. Lacey Chabert is in this one as Marcus’ neighbor and though she plays the same character in practically everything she’s in – including this – she emits a likeable quality this time around. And did I mention Winchester walks around in his underwear [and by ‘underwear’ I mean snug boxer briefs] for a good ¼ of the film?!  

oh Joy!

There are a few others that I’d like to mention but for the sake of keeping this article readable, I’ll be writing a second entry for this and share with you all what I think are some of the best stuff that's been made in the 21st century. Feel free to share your opinions or what you think are the best ones so far and leave comments as I’d love to hear what you guys have to say. If you guys have any suggestions or can lead me to any hidden gems - again, anything but torture porn - I'd welcome them. Again, thank you all for the 10, 000 hits – you guys are fantastic!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Silver Bullet (1985)

I was flipping through the television channels on Direct TV this morning when I was delighted to see that AMC was showing this entry in the Stephen King film series. Though it’s been a really long time since I’ve sat down in front of it – try about eleven years or so – I was tickled pink to see that it was being broadcast, albeit in a slightly truncated form. I didn’t care, though because my favorite time of year has just kicked off. I just adore October – all the cool channels on cable start busting out classic slasher films and it’s fantastic to see which channels show which films. Everything from the endless Friday the 13th and Halloween movies to the more random cult favorites peppered out amongst the other networks (Sleepaway Camp 2 on Logo tonight, anyone?)

I was first introduced to this film in late 1985 while I was in the seventh grade, but first in the form of Stephen King’s novella, Cycle of the Werewolf. During those years, my family did not even remotely entertain the idea of going to the movie theater for any reason whatsoever, and from the first moment I’d seen the television spot, I had this obsession with wanting to watch it. Primarily because I wanted to be on the same level as the cool kids whose parents had taken them to the local cinema or drive in to give it a gander, but at the same time there was something about the storyline that intrigued me. My grade-school best friend had been subjected to hearing the ranting and the raving about not being able to go to the theater to watch it like everyone else so he went as far as to keep it from me that he’d gone to the theater with his father to watch it the weekend it was released which, of course, devastated me.  But, he went out of his way,  as only a childhood best friend knows how, to hunt down the book and presented it to me the week the film was released so I could keep up with the cool kids and be able to join in on the ‘playground talk’. I mean, I believe every kid who was a horror nut during the 80’s was at one point a Stephen King fanatic. King at that time was the epitome of everything horror, everything definitive when it came to the phantasmagorical.  There wasn’t anyone like him in the world at the time and everything he released in the 80’s still has yet to be matched. Though I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed to see that not only was Cycle of the Werewolf a very short book, it was illustrated as well, something I wasn’t expecting. I took me one night to read it and I can tell you it wasn’t enough. I would stay up late at night and see the TV spots on the local affiliates and silently act out this little fit of anger within me as I had to surrender to the idea that being able to sit in front of this film was completely out of my reach.

I got a nice surprise two years later during one winter as the eighth grade was about to let out for the Christmas Break of 1987, though, as Mrs. Glasgow, the eighth grade American history teacher wasn’t up to putting up with us on the last day of classes. When we got to class on that day’s period, I was pink with barely controlled glee when I saw the school’s TV and VCR sitting at the front of the room with the rental box for Silver Bullet was lying on the tape deck. Boy, did I love the advent of VHS! This was the moment I’d been waiting for. So I pushed through everyone to make my way to the front of the class that was already seated on the floor in front of the television. As excited as I was, and as I sat down, I’d become oblivious to the fact that period only lasted for fifty-five minutes…which meant that I was only able to get just over half-way done with the film before the bell rang to let us out. I was heartbroken. I actually didn’t get to sit in front of this film again until after I graduated from high school and secured my first video rental membership at the local H-E-B Video Central. The first two movies I ever rented on my own at the age of eighteen were Friday the 13th and Silver Bullet. I rented them both that same day; on a weekend my folks were out of town and knowing that I would have the house to myself. I was ready to finally sit in front of this in its entirety.

The film opens up with a narration by Jane Coslaw, the eldest of a family living in Tarker’s Mills, Maine. She is the eldest of two children, the other being her younger brother, Marty (played by 80’s cutie Corey Haim) who happens to be a paraplegic. Their relationship has its ups and down and is very strained but soon begins to change after a bizarre series of murders rock their sleepy town. After several murders, including a railroad worker, and pregnant woman (who’d planned to commit suicide), the father of Marty’s girlfriend and Marty’s best friend, the town decides to take matters into their own hands before more murders occur? But who’s the one responsible for killing off the townspeople? Being led by the town’s gun shop owner, the townsfolk form a local vigilante justice group in order to find the killer. As the local sheriff (the always hot daddy that is Terry O’Quinn) and his only deputy attempt to stop the mob from carrying on its mission, the father of Marty’s best friend who was mutilated by the killer changes their minds and they set off. But not before Reverend Lowe – who has been presiding over the funerals of the slain victims – tries to stop them and prevent any other bloodshed. As the group enters the forest to search for the assailant, they are brutally attacked including Owen, the owner of a local bar who carries around a baseball bat engraved with the words “The Peacemaker”. Those who survive keep the incident to themselves and deny seeing anything out of the ordinary. But then the film gets going when we see the funeral taking place for the victims and as the reverend gives the service, everyone in attendance including the dead victims, begin transforming into werewolves right before him. He wakes up in a sweat-filled terror and asks God to “let it end”. Does he know more than he lets on?

The local authorities put a strict curfew in place in order to protect the town and when the local carnival’s fireworks show is cancelled due to the unsolved murders, the family decides to have their own celebration in their backyard and here is where we get to meet the kids’ charismatic, alcoholic and family outcast uncle Red (brilliantly played by Gary Busey). Having a deep love for his nephew, he builds Marty a brand new motorized wheelchair dubbing it the “Silver Bullet”. Knowing how much the fireworks show had meant to Marty, as well, Red brings him a bag of fireworks to have his own private show and has him keep it under wraps from everyone else. So when Marty goes out to have his own fun on a small bridge quite away from his home, the fireworks his Uncle gave him light up the night sky. But little does Marty know that he’s being watched. Something is looking at his every move and slowly begins to approach the wheelchair. And before the next set of roman candles could be lit, Marty is confronted face to face with the perpetrator: a werewolf. Frightened, he takes a bottle rocket and lights it, having it go off directly into the eye of the monster. He flees and leaves the creature behind. This part of the film is a now-classic scene in werewolf cinema.

Scared beyond belief, Marty enlists the help of his sister to go around the town to collect bottles and cans while looking for anyone in town with an injured eye as this would immediately pinpoint the identity of mysterious killer. As she carefully looks for any signs of eye trauma in every member of the neighborhood, she comes across Reverend Lowe at the church to turn her bottles in and as she goes into the garage to put the bottles with the others that have already been collected, she sees an object under a stack of cans. As she slowly pushes the cans aside, she reveals Owen’s baseball bat, the one labeled “The Peace Keeper”! In sheer fright she stumbles back in horror to be confronted by the Reverend himself. And what do you know? His eye is missing! I love how this scene is executed. This part always makes me scream and giggle in pure glee. Now that both siblings know the identity of the creature, Marty begins to send anonymous notes to the poor eyeless reverend, teasing him and letting him know that they know who he really is and suggesting that [Reverend Lowe] commit suicide so that the killings can cease. So one day as Marty is out with the “Silver Bullet”, he suddenly and frighteningly becomes involved in a terrifying cat-and-mouse chase with Reverend Lowe hot on his tail and determined to make him pay. He manages to drive the wheelchair off the road and into a condemned covered bridge. Here is where we hear the truth for the very first time: the Reverend states that he is clueless to when he turns into the world, that it isn’t his fault, and that he’d killed the others to preserve their souls.  He also states that he would never carry out Marty’s wishes of him committing suicide, stating that would be the greatest sin of all. So when he tells the boy that he’s next, he looks out into the distance and sees a farmer who he screams out to for help. Reverend Lowe then disappears.

Here is where the siblings confess to their uncle about their letter-writing and that Lowe is the werewolf and that it tried to kill Marty at both bridges. So Red does a little investigating of his own and discovers paint from Reverend Lowe’s car on the wheelchair. He then goes to the Sheriff and persuades him to do his own investigation as Red is slowly starting to believe that Marty’s story could possibly be true. Skeptical, but desperate to find the killer, the Sheriff goes to the Reverend’s home to investigate and see just really what is going on. But before he can arrest him, the Reverend turns into the monster and kills him. With the sheriff now dead and out of the way, the siblings are now convinced that they are next. They give their uncle their silver necklaces and ask him to have a real silver bullet made as, according to the folklore Marty had been researching, this would be only way to dispatch of the creature once and for all. Red grants them their request and enlists the help of a local gunsmith to make them one shiny silver bullet, and they plan to take the Reverend out.

That night, it being Halloween with a full moon, the creature comes to their home with a mission to murder them all. Having fallen asleep in front of the television whose channel has just signed off, Red burns himself with the cigarette that was in hand and the threesome see the wolf outside hunting them in which now Red believes everything the children had ever said to them. Leaving them in complete darkness by cutting the electricity off outside, the monster smashes his way into the house and terrorizes them. The silver bullet falls out of the gun and into a furnace grill, leaving the siblings to try and retrieve it as Red fights off the werewolf. Just as it seems all hope is lost, Marty grabs hold of the bullet, places it in the gun and shoots the monster in the other eye, killing him instantly. The three of them hover over the body in horror as they watch the corpse morph back into Reverend Lowe. The siblings then profess their feelings for each other, realizing that what they’ve gone through together has made them stronger.

There is warmth to this film that isn’t felt in many conventional horror films. There’s a sense of community and a sense of family that makes me love this film in the manner that I do. I have to admit that I’m not a fan of Busey at all, but I really like his character in this film. There’s an esteem that he has for his niece and nephew and a devotion to them that makes the viewer believe that he really does love them. The way he surprises Marty with the new wheelchair and bag of fireworks, the way he pays attention to them – though up until the end he doesn’t believe anything they’re telling him – he sticks by them until the very end. The siblings look up their uncle, as well, knowing that though what they have to say is absolutely absurd, they can trust him. Haim plays the perfect Marty and he becomes the character so well that you can’t help but love the guy and his plight of wanting to be normal like the other kids, and his plight to win the love of his older sister. The film does a great job of setting up the small little town of Tarker’s Mills and you feel the sense of small-town sensibility among its inhabitants and a great job of setting up and presenting us the Coslaw family and their own relationships with one another. The murder scenes are set up and executed well and though not overtly gory, they are presented in a very terrifying manner. And though the film doesn’t exactly follow the original novella, it is worth multiple viewings.

I really need to find this DVD and get it into my collection. It’s been on my “Saved” Netflix list for the last year and half so I’m not sure if it’s out of print or just hard to locate. I have to admit thought that I’m not a fan of the whole werewolf genre. I’ve seen Wolfen, The Howling, An American Werewolf in London but I will say that this one is probably my favorite entry in this type of film. Maybe because there isn’t a whole lot of screen time given to the beast? Maybe because there’s more of a story that drives this film that just creature make up? Or is possibly because the characters in this film are so relatable and likeable that you root for them for the duration of the movie? Hands down, I love this film. If you don’t already have it/seen it, you need to. This is back when horror films were actually memorable, not like these modern-day PG-13 shit fests. Enough said. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Killing Hour (The Clairvoyant) (1982)

I recently spoke to – well, actually ‘instant messaged’ – a fan of this here bloggo who was telling me how much he loved to read what I had to say. As flattered as I was by that much-welcomed compliment, what intrigued me was how the only complaint that he had was that I don’t update it enough. Though he admitted the prior was a selfish statement, he was absolutely right. And though I have admitted here on occasion that I don’t have the time to devote myself to this little piece of handiwork as much as I’d like to, one of the real reasons I don’t – or in this particular statement, can’t – update it as much as I’d like to is because with the monstrosity of a collection I have, there are many a night when I want to stay up and write but have the bloody hardest time choosing which film to review next. Should I go for a classic? Or should I try and maybe take a shot and review something a little modern? I can’t tell you how many times I will sit in front of my shelves and cases of endless slasher booty and just spend hours – literally – trying to decide which one to sit in front of next? There are many of those nights where I get so frustrated that I just give up and go to bed, telling myself, we’ll try this again tomorrow. Yeah, right.

Now that I’ve cleared that up, I’d like to take a quick moment and say ‘thank you’ to all of you that have taken time to read this little ditty. Within the last few months, my hit count has skyrocketed into the atmosphere and I know that it’s because of you all that it’s been possible. You guys send me the greatest emails and messages telling me how much you enjoy reading LL80’sH so for that, again, I extend my gratitude. It’s great to see that there are people out there not only reading what I have to say, but both relating to it and enjoying it. Mil Gracias! And I do have to pause and say thank you to Jay Rinella and John Gibben for hooking me up. You guys rock.

I did not know anything regarding The Killing Hour until about a year ago when I was doing some research online about the giallo genre and came across it in another horror blog. I had seen the cover to the DVD before at the San Jose Rasputin’s but never bothered to pick it up. I did a little bit of reading on this one and decided that I would seek it out, as everyone knows I love a good thriller. I also read that it was very minimal on gore which piqued my interest even more as some of the best fright films out there have little to no gore at all. They rely on set pieces, atmosphere, mood, and character development. Most of all, they rely on a good story and this one fits that bill like a glove.

The film opens up with an art class in session. An unseen student is sketching a nude model on her pad as police pull a handcuffed body of a dead woman out of a lake. Suddenly, student’s hand begins to sketch on its own and reveals a drawing of the same cuffed hands. The art student is beautiful Verna Nightbourne (Elizabeth Kemp) who has a special gift of seeing things and sketching them as they’re happening somewhere else. We then cut to the interior of a gymnasium’s swimming pool and watch rather voyeuristically as a man is frightened by having the lights in the building shut off as he is doing his laps. He calls out into the darkened room and is immediately taken underwater by an unseen assailant who handcuffs his ankle to the ladder under the surface, trapping him there. The slayings continue, with the third victim having been electrocuted while working in a manhole next to a local diner.  With the modus operandi being exactly the same in each murder, the police force, albeit with not much evidence to go on, begin to investigate.  The case is being led by officer Larry Weeks (Norman Parker) who has a penchant for stand-up comedy and impersonations of classic comedians.  For fear that the murder spree will turn into an uncontrollable media circus, the chief forbids any sort of communication with the media. But not before local talk show host Mac McCormack (the always unbelievably gorgeous Perry King), who just happens to be a personal friend of Weeks’, approaches him in the hope of getting the ‘inside scoop’ on the case. They make a deal: In exchange for information on the investigation, Mac will attempt to bring Week’s comedic talents to the TV network he’s employed by. Having obviously disobeyed a direct order from the Chief, he agrees to give Mac inside information on the now-dubbed “Handcuff Killer”.

Verna, convinced that she is able to see and draw the murders in this case as they are happening, is convicted to go to the police and aid them in their search for the killer. She presents them her sketches and they begin to analyze them in hopes of somehow using them to piece everything together. Weeks begins to date her, as does Mac and she soon becomes a part of both their lives. The only setback is that Mac wants her to appear on his television show to show the public what she can do and how closely it’s connected to all of the murders. This is not part of the deal that Weeks had intended and threatens to cut him off from any and all information regarding the investigation if she appears on his show. She agrees to appear just as a third victim is murdered, being handcuffed to the bottom of a freight elevator shaft and killed. The victim appears close to the beginning of the film in a hotel room with the likes of a Latino thug named Willie who actually becomes a very red herring at this point. Because it doesn’t make sense how – and why – he would be the one responsible for the murders. The police’s question now is, if a handcuffed woman was pulled out of the lake, why are all these victims of the same style of murder all men? We begin to wonder now if any – or all – of the victims had a connection to the woman from the lake. Who was she? And why is it that Verna can see – and draw – the murders as they are happen?

One day as Mac is returning to his apartment, he is attacked by Willie and beaten to the ground. When Mac’s housekeeper comes in and interrupts the altercation, Willie flees the scene and leaves a set of handcuffs behind. Mac immediately showcases them on his show and tells the police that he could very well have the identity of the Handcuff Killer. The police begin a manhunt for Willie and find him in his apartment and gun him down, thinking he’s the culprit. But, he isn’t. Well, at one point he very well could be because once Verna does appear on the show and draws the shape of a hand grabbing hold of a steering wheel, we see that someone assaults a friend of hers at the exact time she draws it and ties her up in her own car as she is going home from work and has her car tossed over a body of water. The film never really says who killed her but the only other person it could have been was Willie. Maybe because she was starting to ask so many questions about Verna’s drawings, was he afraid she would go to the police?  

I’m going to admit here that though the story as intriguing as it is, it’s very slow paced. If you’re expecting any kind of action or tension of any kind, you’re not going to find it right away. One of the reasons that I sought this film out is because it was recommended to me by a friend who claimed it was a ‘American-made giallo’ and that I would instantly fall in love with it. I hate to tell that friend that he was wrong…well, at least for the first half of the film. I will have to agree with him though that if this film had been made in Italy with Italian actors, it would be a giallo right on track with films such as Short Night of Glass Dolls and Who Saw Her Die? It concentrates on character development and story and if you’re not the type of person who can tolerate a slow-moving movie, you’re going to be very disappointed here. The murders aren’t gory. They are more implicit than explicit. But, one thing I will tell you is that if you love thrillers of any sort, don’t make the mistake I almost made and turn the film off! (I will confess that at about the hour mark, I was ready to turn it call it quits. Not so much because it’s very slow paced but because I’d decided to sit in front it during the late night hours and couldn’t keep my eyes open for much longer – and even Mr. King with his piercing eyes and fantastic body was somehow managing to lose my attention.) This is one of those films that you have to really sit in front of without any sort of distraction and one to definitely not watch in pieces. You have to pay attention to what’s going on in order for everything to make sense. Director Armand Mastroianni does a good job here of setting up the plot and silently begs you to just sit back and give the movie a chance. It’s not going to disappoint you. This is one of those films in which you have to be patient and wait for the goods to make themselves known.

So one night, Verna decides to have a glass of wine at Mac’s house and show her the latest picture that she’s drawn. It’s a drawing of all the victims so far and he begins to push her to draw her next one, but she can’t. With everything that’s been going on, she doesn’t have the mental energy to push through and draw and flees to the bedroom. It is here where the entire film begins its unexpected and amazing rush: Mac picks up the drawing while enjoying a glass of wine and begins to stare at the objects that she’s drawn. As he does, the police are looking at the other drawings that Verna has given them. They have been able to connect the sketches together to correspond with each of the victims. But there is one drawing that they can’t decipher. What is it? Is it a drawing of the inside teeth of one of the handcuffs? One of the detectives takes another look at it and suggests that it also looks like the inside of a crab’s claw. And when the scene immediately reverts back to Mac’s apartment to reveal Verna lying on his bed…next to a crystal sculpture of a crab’s claws on the nightstand…the film takes an amazing turn. We see Mac in the living room holding the sketch and we are immediately taken to a particularly disturbing flashback scene of a black-haired woman being handcuffed and tied to a bed in a random hotel room. She is obviously a hooker and she is surrounded by three burly men who are preparing lines of cocaine with the intention of gang-banging her silly. Her feet are being bound to the bed and as one of them unzips his fly and takes his pants off, inching to the bed and taking her head in his hands to bring her in close, I suddenly realize that the men are all the victims that were killed by the Handcuff Killer! And I seriously instantly emit a loud scream of shock when I see that the fourth man who slowly lies down on top of her and rapes her brutally as he kills her while the others watch is none other than Mac himself! What the f—k?!

Everything suddenly made sense. The woman found in the lake was the hooker whose body they’d disposed of in hopes that nobody would find out. Mac hired Willie to take out the other three either to throw the cops off or in case there was any chance of them going to the police. And once news had reached Mac that the other’s had been killed, he approached Weeks to get the inside scoop so he could know exactly what was going on, hoping that maybe Willie would take the fall for him. He’d asked Verna to come on the show out of his own disbelief that she would have known anything about the murders as they were happening and the more he got to know her, the more terrified he’d become that she was telling the truth! That’s was why he’d asked her to his home…to see exactly what she was going to draw next. He was afraid that she was about to figure the whole thing out! In pure shock, he squeezes and breaks the wine glass, spilling it all over the sketch.

At that moment, she realizes that she is next and flees to the bathroom as he comes after her. She hides in the shower after fooling him that she’d gone out the window and when he steps outside, she closes the window and makes a break for the outside hall of the apartment building. Mac sees her from the outside hall window and breaks it, sending her down up the stairs to the roof where he finds her and proceeds to kill her once and for all. Finally, dramatic and suspenseful tension! Just as we think she’s a goner, here comes Weeks to her rescue.  The two men wrestle it out and Mac ends up hanging over the edge of the tall apartment building, being held onto by Weeks. Knowing what he’s done and knowing that now there was no escape from death, Mac whispers softly. “Let me go” and Weeks reluctantly grants his wish as he watches him fall to the pavement. Nice!

The film ended up being much more entertaining than I had expected. You really had to follow the film and have patience with it and that’s one I need to stress about this film: Have patience! Not many casual movie watchers would be able to forgive the extent of its slow pace but it pays off in the final twenty minutes of the film. If you’re a giallo fan, such as myself, you will actually see many elements of the giallo genre in this film, right down to red herring(s), the use of black gloves, the obligatory twist reveal that it was one of the main characters the whole time, the altercation between the good guy and the bad guy, and lack of denouement. It’s too bad that this one is as underrated and overlooked as it is.

The DVD I have from Blue Underground is fantastic – as all the discs from BU are. The picture was clear, the sound was great and it had the original trailer. But, as I did research for this one, I read somewhere that the original VHS and subsequent DVD releases – even the original issue by Anchor Bay – had many scenes missing. This release has all the deleted scenes intact, most of them are extended pre-murder sequences that, in my opinion, explain more regarding the behavior and minds of the victims. Those missing minutes actually are quite essential as they would have given the story just a little more kick. I would love to see a special edition one day that has all the missing scenes put in with the rest of the film, just as it was done with My Bloody Valentine and Silent Night, Deadly Night. Maybe BU will give us a re-release. I’ve only seen this film on the store shelves once so I’m not sure if the BU version is already out of print – as I would only assume the AB version is already el-kaput. Before I went out and bought it, I was able to rent it off Netflix so if you’re the least bit interested, try to pick up there and take a look for yourself. It’s not going to be one of the best movies you will ever see, but it is definitely worth one viewing. Especially for the last twenty minutes where everything just comes together. (Pause) Well, okay…for the chance to see Perry King at the height of his 80’s heartthrob heyday. If you’re into that sort of thing (wink). 

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Changeling (1980)

If there is one thing I love, it’s a good scare. And I don’t mean one of those random jolts in a film that causes you to jump out of your seat and have your heart beat a million miles a second. I’m talking about a scare that lingers with you, that gets under your skin and stays with you as the lights go out when you go to bed. Those scares that stay with you for days, the ones that make you ponder and think. I can tell you that it does not happen to me very often. It could be that I’ve seen so many horror films that I’ve been desensitized to feeling anything once the end credits roll. It could be that deep inside of my mind, I’ve surrendered to the idea that I’ve finally dominated the skill of knowing how to watch these films and that absolutely nothing can scare me anymore. But the thrill I love most is when a film comes along and proves me wrong.

If you’ve read enough of these entries of mine, you’ll know that a lot of my youth during the 80’s was filled with endless trips to mom and pop/grocery store video stores and each one of them has special place in my heart. Every store had its own lineup of VHS resting against varnished oak shelves and if I close my eyes, I can still see the fourteen year-old version of myself walking next to them with an unknown excitement stirring within me. There was a naïve fascination inside of me with those colorful cardboard boxes and what was on them. I didn’t even know which one to pick up first, they were all so marvelous. But, for every thirty or forty that were staring back at me just waiting to be held in my arms, there were those few that I refused to touch solely because their artwork alone sent a spark of cold fear down my spine. 1980’s The Changeling was one of them. There was something about that image of the battered wheelchair covered in spider webs with the shadow of a boy’s ghost next to it that I couldn’t get myself to get past. This was one of those films I somehow knew would give me nightmares if I even dared to pick it up. And I’m being serious when I say that up until a few weeks ago, I never would have sat in front of it.

The haunted house genre of 70’s and 80’s horror films is one of my secret favorites. I don’t tell many people my love for those kinds of films for the junior-high playground fear of being laughed and poked fun at. I know that sounds strange from a man who is almost forty years-old but it’s true. There are those haunted house films that I will never be able to get enough of (i.e., The Haunting, Burnt Offerings, and The Legend of Hell House) but there are some of those that I wouldn’t go near because on that level, I felt like I was still a nine year-old boy. I know that sounds rather absurd but it’s the truth. So when I finally sat down and did my homework on this particular film, I immediately had to seek it out and finally treat myself to something that was long-time coming. And before I even begin the review, I have to say that I wasn’t disappointed.

The film opens up with a family pushing their broken station wagon in the snow. The father, Dr. John Russell (George C. Scott), a distinguished musician and composer, is on vacation in upstate New York with his wife and daughter when their vehicle breaks down. In hopes of getting it to a station to get it repaired, Dr. Russell separates himself and goes to find a telephone booth as his family stays with the car. As he’s calling Emergency Road Service, a large truck comes careening down the road from out of nowhere and suddenly loses control in the slippery, icy road and veers off the road and directly – and violently - into the station wagon and Dr. Russell’s family, all as he watches from afar. The film’s title appears slowly under the image of Dr. Russell helplessly struggling to get out of the phone booth. Just this opening prologue is terrifying in itself and it immediately sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Now having to put his life back together, Dr. Russell accepts a position as a music professor at a Seattle university and is looking for a house to rent as he feels he’s overstayed his welcome at a friend’s house where he’d been staying. With the help of a member of the local historical preservation society named Claire (the gorgeous and Scott’s then real-life wife Trish Van Devere – who would be later cast in her iconic role in the fan-favorite The Hearse), he rents a large Victorian home, known as the Chessman House – which hasn’t been rented out in twelve years - and slowly begins to live his life as he once did, but not before slowly – and without knowing – descending into something he would have never expected.  As the house is being fixed up for him to move in, Dr. Russell sits at the piano in the music room and as he sits, playing a piece he’s already composed, he walks away from the instrument and eerily, one of the keys is suddenly played by an unknown and unseen presence. Scary? Well, not right off the bat. But we’re only 14 minutes into the film. That evening, while out and about at a fundraiser for the local orchestra, we are introduced to Senator Joseph Carmichael who stands before the group and gives a speech. We find out from Claire that the Senator is on the board of directors at the historical preservation society – a most important bit of information whose reasoning will make itself known later in the film.

At 6 am the following morning, Dr. Russell is startled from his sleep at 6 a.m. from the sounds of banging echoing throughout the house. This is where it all begins, albeit, slowly. We then see him sitting at the piano and doing what appears to be composing a new piece of music when he is again startled by a noise in the hallway, thinking it’s one of the caretakers who then comes in from outside. He then goes back to the piano and begins to record a lovely classical piece of music. Let me say that the piece is eerie, yet beautiful – pleasing to the ear, but haunting. Claire then comes in to bring Dr. Russell some paintings that originally belonged to the house when she notices his study. Opening it, she finds the red ball that once belonged to his daughter (that was referenced at the beginning of the film). It sends him into a sad state, making him remember the tragic events of the day she and his wife were killed. Again the next morning – at exactly 6 a.m. and during a touching scene where he is crying in his bed from having been thinking of his family, he is again frightened by the same sound of banging echoing through the house. He calls a serviceman to come look at the problem and it is immediately dismissed as a characteristic of the house, though Dr. Russell sees the timing of the noises too coincidental. Later on that night, he finds the faucet in the kitchen mysteriously running on its own and when he shuts it off, the noises from upstairs continue and he goes to investigate. He opens one of the rooms and slowly walks inside only to discover the faucet running on its own in one of the tubs upstairs…and immediately sees the disturbing image of a boy under the water. Scary? It’s getting there.

The next day, he confronts Claire about something of this nature maybe happening to the people who lived there before and she immediately assures him that there is a possibility that he’s working too hard, and that with the emotional strain he’s been through that it could be a figment of his imagination. Dr. Russell is about to accept this hypothesis when they are interrupted by Clarie’s secretary, Minnie, who states her mother is on the phone. When Claire goes inside to take the call, Minnie takes it upon herself to tell Dr. Russell that the paperwork to rent the house out to him had been rushed by Claire. She goes on to tell him that nobody has been able to live in it and that the house doesn’t want any inhabitants, therefore further confirming his suspicions. But, does she know more than she’s willing to admit? The next day, Dr. Russell is leaving his home when a piece of red-tinted window explodes from the top of the house, landing in front of him. He looks up at the house and immediately, we can see that he’s beginning to believe something – or someone – is watching and possibly calling out to him. He makes his way to the top floor of the house and begins to look through the abandoned corridors.  At the end of one of the endless hallways, he comes across a door and walks inside to expose what appears to be a storage closet. He notices that a part of the room has been boarded up so he begins to take it apart only to find a locked door hidden behind panels of wood that had been nailed against it. When he grabs a hammer hoping to break the lock and begins banging on it rhythmically, the house answers with the same echoing booms he’s been hearing every morning. Now frightened, he finally breaks the lock and busts the door down and when it opens up for him, he walks inside. Scary? Yeah, it’s revving up nicely.

He walks up a long staircase lined with spider webs unveiling what appears to be an attic room. In one corner, the iconic wheelchair from the film’s one-sheet can be seen and lo and behold, the window with the red-colored glass is there behind it. He also finds a document in the room with the letters “C S B” inscribed on it dated January, 1909. But what provides the I-need-to-change-my-pants-now scare is that Dr. Russell comes across a music box…that plays the exact same tune that he’d composed earlier in the film! He brings his recording and the music box before Claire and plays both of them for her simultaneously to prove to her – and also possibly, himself – that he’s not crazy.  She immediately dismisses it as a “startling coincidence” and he then tells her about Minnie and the information she gave him that day he was at her office and its possible validity. He’s convinced now that someone – or something – deliberately attempted to get him up to the attic. And with that, he takes Claire up there with him so she can see it for herself. After a look through it and just as they leave the room, the chair slowly moves on its own. Scary? I’m actually slowly becoming afraid to write anything further.

So John and Claire go back to the historical preservation society only to discover that there is no information whatsoever on the house before 1920, which baffles her, as she is positive that some kind of documentation of past renters would be available. When she asks Minnie about the location of the files prior to that year, her response is, What is it you want to know? Either she’s in on it, or she’s a well-placed red herring! She claims a doctor named Barnard with a son and a daughter lived there that year but had to sell the house due to a family tragedy. They take this newfound information and go down to the local hall of records and find something interesting within its microfilm. They discover that on February 15, 1909 the Barnard’s seven year-old daughter, Cora, was stuck by a coal cart outside the Chessman House. This drives Claire to deduce that Cora is the “C S B” on the document found in the attic. They head out to the local cemetery and quickly find the hedge stones of the entire family and John can’t help but see a slight connection between the way Cora was killed and the manner in which his daughter passed. What is it in that house, Claire?, the doctor ponders. What is it doing? Why is it trying to reach me? Here is where the story begins to envelope you. And here is where the story is about to grab you and throw you into the lake head-first.

That night, John is sitting in the study spending a quiet night looking through photo albums of his family. In the background we suddenly hear what appears to be something coming down the stairs. Knowing that he is in the house alone, he gets up to investigate, only to see it’s his daughter’s red ball; the one that he kept in his desk that had somehow slowly bounced step by step down to the study on the ground floor of the house. Now, this has got to be, hands down, one of the most eerie, most well executed pieces of fright in the entire haunted house genre. John gets up, grabs the ball and goes immediately to his desk…only to find the ball missing. Who took it and how did they manage to get it? Oh dear, sweet Lord, if the hairs don’t stand up on the back of your neck during this scene, there is definitely something wrong with you. But it gets even more frightening: He then immediately gets into his car and drives to a local suspended bridge. He takes the ball in his hand, and tosses it over the edge. In the back of my mind I can’t help but wonder if he was going to know the outcome of this.  He comes home, places his coat on the bannister and thinks everything is fine. That is, until the room is suddenly filled with the sound of an unknown child’s laugher and as he stands motionless before the flight of stairs, the same ball that had frightened him just minutes ago, the same ball that he’s thrown over the bridge’s edge was now coming down step by step, stopping right in front of him as if it were announcing to him, I’m here. If you haven’t shit your pants at this point, seriously…I feel for you.

On the advice of a doctor, John brings home a psychic medium in hopes of finally getting to the bottom of the situation. I mean, when all else fails, have a séance! And not only have it, record it! The medium herself is scary as shit right off the bat, her eerie voice telling the group that something is there…a child who is not at peace. There is something unnerving about the tone of her voice that just gets under your skin. She begins asking questions into the open air writing madly away on white sheets of paper over and over again in hopes of getting something. She asks the spirit to communicate with them, to show himself, to speak to them. There is a sense of brooding fright that begins to come over you here at this point and just a word of warning: there is no turning back from here. When the medium asks if the spirit is the one of the dead girl Cora and the spirit immediately answers, “NO”, it reveals itself to have the name of “Joseph” and it begins to frighteningly clamor for help. Here is where the iconic tagline is spoken by the medium in her monotone, eerie voice: How did you die, Joseph? Did you die in this house? Why do you remain? The loud violent crash of a vase against a wall ends the séance, and leaves your heart racing. But, I warn you. It’s about to get worse.

Dr. Russell takes the recorded tapes of the séance and decides to listen to them later on his own. As he rewinds them over and over again in hopes of finding something that will lead him in the right direction, he is then stopped cold in his tracks by the sound of a child’s whisper in the background. Someone was there! When the medium asks the spirit for its name, John can clearly hear a child’s voice whispering “Joseph!” Son of a bitch, it gets so scary here! The voice on the tape begins to clearly tell John that he was killed by his father…in his room…the room upstairs. We are immediately taken (in fantastic POV) to the room upstairs to see a young boy bathing in his tub, his father standing over him dressed in black. The father takes his child by the feet and the boy goes underwater, struggling helplessly. We hear the echoing booming sounds from the beginning of the film and immediately discover that those sounds are/were actually the sounds of the boy banging his fists against the metal tub he’s drowning in! He bangs them repeatedly with all his might until the life slowly slips out of his little body. The scene is very disturbing and extremely frightening and ends with the boy whispering the words, “body”, “ranch”, “the well”, “sacred heart” and “My name---Joseph Carmichael”.  Does that name sound familiar? It should, because here is where the puzzle starts to come together.

John is now convinced that something within the house isn’t right. Reading the writing on the pages the medium left behind, he can see all the words he wrote that Joseph spoke as he listened to the tape. Distraught and very frightened, he goes to the telephone and calls for Claire, but before he can summon her, he passes out on the floor of the study from shock. Claire arrives shortly and distraught from all the information she receives from John about the séance, she confesses to John that “Sacred Heart” used to be the name of an orphanage in the town and John immediately begins to think the child was buried in a well there. But before they can do anything else, they are frightened by the sight of the small wheelchair watching them from the top of the stairs! The child’s spirit knows they are getting close to solving the mystery! Or does it?

The next day, John is walking about town and we see a limousine pull up to reveal the Senator (Joseph Carmichael) emerging from it. We see him walking to a building and having his secretary inform him that Minnie (Claire’s secretary) has been trying to reach him. Minnie advises him that John and Claire have been going through the files regarding the house and he takes down John’s name. But, what is she helping him hide? John and Claire then meet later on at a local café and we find out from Claire that the house was at one point going to be turned into a museum. John tells her that a Richard Carmichael and his family occupied the house from 1899 to 1906 and that Richard is the Senator’s father. We also find out here that little Joseph at age three was diagnosed with atrophic arthritis and that it had been decided to send the child to a sanatorium in Switzerland for specialized therapy. The child and his father went to Europe in October of 1906 and that they did not return to the States until WWI was over. So, with the child being ill, he was murdered by his father and buried secretly. A six-year old orphan substitute to take the dead child’s place was shipped immediately overseas to be with his father and it kept them both away until 1918! Upon his return, he would have been 18 years old so there was no doubt that anyone was going to find out that this changeling was not the real son of Richard Carmichael! And if anyone would ask about the illness the child had, it would simply be stated that the child had been cured while in Europe. Now the question on both Claire and John’s minds is, Does Senator Carmichael know anything about the murder and replacement and who he really is?

But, here’s the hatchet in the stump: Richard Carmichael’s wife was the daughter of the man who founded the Spencer-Carmichael Empire. So what does that mean? Mega money! Mr. Spencer had died in 1905 so the question of what happened to all that money in the will was now burning on John and Claire’s lips. There had to have been a ranch with either of their names on it somewhere. I mean, John had heard Joseph’s voice say it, right? And it had to be a ranch…with a well. Upon going back to the hall of records, It turns out there was indeed a Carmichael Ranch back then in Seattle complete with a well. But, a house now stood upon the original well itself and the record indicated the well on that site had been removed. When John goes there himself to investigate, he finds package outside the house addressed to a Mrs. E. Gray at 136 27th Street. Will coming back to talk to Mrs. Gray be key in solving this once and for all?

It turns out that in the will, just about everything was left to little five year-old Joseph Carmichael and nothing was left to his father, Richard, since he was just a trustee of the estate now. But he still could still control his son who was going to be worth millions and millions of dollars unless, for some reason the child was to die before age 21, in which the entire estate would be given to charity, leaving Richard with absolutely nothing. John and Claire go back to Mrs. Gray’s home in an attempt to find out if there really is a well under the house. After listening to his story, she tells him that on the exact night of the séance, her daughter woke up screaming just after nightmare and in a disheveled state, came to her mother’s bedroom and never returned to her own. The girl, Linda, claims to have seen a boy trying to come up out of the floor of her room. Knowing John’s desire to take the floors up and look for a well, Mrs. Gray tells them she has to think about it. Later on that night, Linda wakes up and begins to walk around the house. She goes back into the room where the apparition took place and is terrified to see the image of a boy under her floor…underwater. The bedroom is torn apart the next day and indeed, a well is found. Creepy? You’d better believe it! And what is it they find? A hand! A hand and the bones of a young boy that had been down in the well for 50 years. But the most important piece of the puzzle, an old medal belonging to the young Carmichael, was nowhere to be found.

Needing this crucial bit of evidence, John breaks into Mrs. Gray’s house and goes back into the well, determined to find that last piece of the puzzle.  With no luck, John steps away…only to suddenly see the medal come up eerily up from the depths of the ground on its own. There it was, in plain sight. He takes it and goes to show it to Claire who reads from it, “St. Paul’s Church – Sept 8 1900 – Joseph Patrick Carmichael”. At her request to show it to the police, John believes the authorities won’t want to fiddle with a seventy year-old case and that what needs to be done needs to be done his way, and on his own. He takes a drive out to the airport to find the Senator and finds him boarding a small jet on his way to Washington State.  John knows this is his only chance so he struggles with the Senator’s security people and tells him about the baptism medal with his name on it that was buried with the body and that the police are aware of it. The jet takes off and the Senator asks that a Captain De Witt be telephoned at police HQ and that he call him in Spokane once he lands. He then reaches into his shirt and we can see a similar baptismal in the Senator’s possession.

When John gets back to the house, he walks inside and suddenly and violently the house begins to react. Slamming doors, boom upon boom echoing through the corridors. Here is where he becomes exasperated and begins to confront the spirit in the house, telling it that there is nothing more he can do. Captain De Witt then comes to visit John at the house, most certainly at the request of the Senator, asking question upon question in an attempt to find out what happened back at Mrs. Gray’s house and to accuse him of a possible blackmail scheme concocted by John himself. The captain even tells John that the Senator wants the medal back. It is here that Claire comes storming in to tell John that not only has his lease been cancelled, but that she’s been forced to resign. So where is this all leading to?

As John grabs hold of the medal and walks by the downstairs mirror, it violently explodes sending a shard of glass into his neck, but not before we see the bloodied face of Captain De Witt. Claire calls the house, frantic, telling John that the Captain’s car flipped over and that he’s dead. Carmichael himself receives a call in his limo to inform him of the death of the captain and he proceeds to go ahead and finally call John to meet with him. They finally meet privately in the Senator’s office but while this is happening, Claire is trying to contact John with no luck. She leaves her mother and goes to look for him. While in the Senator’s office, John begins to confront him about the things happening within the house and presents him with the medal, explaining to him where he found it and explaining to him the history of what’s been going on within the house. He then proceeds to tell the Senator that his father, Richard, killed the young Joseph and that there was a substitution from the Sacred Heart orphanage to replace Joseph, and that the changeling was him. Furious, the Senator pulls out his checkbook thinking it’s still an act of blackmail. John tells him again that his father was a murderer and that nothing in his life and that nothing that he has is real because he is not Carmichael’s blood son. John leaves him the paperwork found at the city and the only tape of the séance to prove everything to him. The Senator succumbs and gives in, telling John that he cannot breathe a word of this revelation to anyone – and John walks out, leaving the Senator alone.

Claire goes back to the house to look for him and as she proceeds to knock, the house lets her in on its own. She finds the house empty and suddenly, it begins to call out to her as if it were John. Something is in the house with her and it begins to fool her thinking John is there. She begins to walk upstairs through the corridors and thinking that he is calling her, she makes her way upstairs to the room only to have the wheelchair come to life and come after her. It chases her and throws her down the stairs and follows her as she lies on the floor screaming out in terror. This scene is so terrifying it will jolt you right out of your seat. You’ve been warned. John comes back to the house to find her screaming and horrified. Here is where the house begins to get its final revenge. John goes into the house and begins to confront the spirit of the young Joseph while making his way upstairs. Doors blow open, wind tears through the house and the force of the wind knocks John from the second level to the floor downstairs.  A trail of fire makes its way from the top of the stairway down the bannister as he lies on the floor, helpless.

Back at the Senator’s office, he is staring at the medal and hearing the voice of Joseph. He places it on his father’s portrait and it begins to shake violently. We then see an image of the Senator inside the now burning house as John looks up to see him walking up the stairs. The burning stairs implode, leaving no way to get to the upper part of the house. The chandelier swings violently back and forth and disconnects itself from the wall, crashing to the ground, missing John by mere inches. He is able to escape the house while the Senator is still upstairs and as he reaches the room, he is confronted by the image of his father killing young Joseph in the tub. He knew what had happened the entire time. He knew exactly what had taken place that night. As the ghost of young Joseph inflicts itself on the Senator, the boy’s bedroom atop of the house explodes. The house burns to the ground as the Senator is taken away by an ambulance as Claire and John watch from a distance.

The next morning, we see a glimpse of the ruins that were once the Chessman house. As the camera pans over the damage and charred remains that are left behind as testimony of the supernatural confrontation the night before, we see the music box that John found at the beginning of the film in the boy’s room lying out within the rubble. It suddenly opens up on its own and the sound of its song plays into the open air as the film comes to a close.

This has got to be one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen. The story was well-written, it was well-executed and I can honestly say that it’s unforgettable. It’s very rare that I sit in front of a film that gives me the genuine heebie-jeebies and for the sake of this review, it is the second time I’ve sat through it and even the second time if managed to terrify me. These days, horror relies too much on CGI and those graphic in-your-face explicit moments where nothing is left to the imagination. All of those endless “found footage” crap-fests and modern “haunted house” films that Hollywood churns out every year will never compare to a well-written masterpiece such as this. There is uneasy feeling that’s left in the pit of your stomach when the credits roll here and I can’t even remember the last time a film did that to me. You always know that a fright film did its job when you go to sleep and still think about it the next day. This film is a great example of how a story, its characters and their struggle can lodge themselves in your mind and leave a lasting impression. I can probably say that this is now my favorite haunted house film and I’ll probably get a lot of beef for saying that but that’s why I love being a horror auteur. Every horror fan has those films on their list that rock their world and forever change the way they watch films altogether.  The DVD by HBO Home Video is absolutely gorgeous with a very crisp and clear picture and print. The score is absolutely gorgeous – I actually wished I would have watched it with my home stereo – and everything about the DVD release is fantastic – albeit, it’s missing the film’s trailer. I read somewhere that this HBO disc is out-of-print and I have to say that it may possibly be true as I have yet to find it on a store shelf anywhere. I absolutely recommend this to anyone who loves their scares on a minimalist level or those who hate the wave of “modern horror” that’s been blasting theater screens. If you love a good haunted house story, sit in front of this. You will be so glad that you did.

P.S. I love the Spanish title of this film, Al Final de la Escalera. (At the end of the Staircase)