Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Horror - Giles Edwards ""

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Favorite Underrated Horror - Giles Edwards

Giles Edwards works in acquisitions within the UK film industry, occasionally writes for assorted blogs and publications such as Frightfest, Time Out, has made one short film, is obsessed with a variety of horror sub-genres and generally lives for his wife, his twins, his little house in the country and the endlessly allure of rampant cinephilia. He can be found on twitter here: -----------------
With shades of what, a decade later, M. Night Shyamalan would turn into part of a calculated blockbuster, LaLoggia’s conceit is that his ghost is in need of something, something only our young hero Frankie, played with heart-breaking charm and vulnerability by WITNESS’s elfin child star Lucas Haas, is able to give her.

Awash with the crackle of brittle leaves and the auburn gleam of a dwindling autumn sun, it's a film that luxuriates in the quintessential sights and sounds of the Halloween season during which the tale begins. But its considerable charms go deeper. Dark, beautiful and poignant, it shares with the classic SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES a cynical view of the closed community of rural small towns, so often held up as the bosom of family and fidelity, community and decency. In these worlds, youthful innocence doesn’t mean that nothing sinister is going on. Youth merely shields you from the often unconscionable truth that, behind Norman Rockwell’s picket fences, the white-washed vision of Americana harbours the swirling grief, loneliness, prejudice and dark unspoken secrets of a Hopper painting.

So, LaLoggia’s film -- one which the director also wrote, produced and scored with the elegiac lilt of early James Horner -- remains terrifically affecting for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s a sublime, deftly frightening tale of the supernatural and the gloriously ghoulish horrors of Halloween night. Frankie’s initial supernatural ordeal in a school locker room, evocatively lit by Oscar-winning TITANIC cinematographer Russell Carpenter, strikes an evocatively Spielbergian sense of eerie wonder over 20 years before SUPER 8, adroitly deploying practical effects and pre-CGI optical f/x makes for a sequence of bracing old fashioned chills.

But its most endearing trait is its willingness to vividly tackle a child’s coming of age. Finally, we all have to grow up and confront the very real, very treacherous horrors of the adult world.

THE BITE (1989)
Every '80s horror fan’s über crush, Jill Schoelen, stars in this cheap, rather shoddy, in-name-only follow-up to the forgotten David Keith-directed (and, some say, Lucio Fulci ghost-directed) THE CURSE. Italians, being an industrious bunch, decided to spin a dull Lovecraft adaptation starring Will Wheaton into a series (it lasted three unrelated episodes, the third being equally misplaced BLOOD SACRIFICE, featuring a bored-looking Christopher Lee). Of course the logical direction for the second film to take was virulent, mutant snakes.

And it's amazing.

Schoelen and her boyfriend, J. Eddie Peck, are on a road trip through the Arizona desert when they run across a sea of snakes, rendered radioactive by the ever present Cold War threat of nuclear testing. Of course, he is bitten and spends the remaining picture becoming ever more aggressive, his hand wrapped in a suspiciously pulsating bandage as the rogue doctor who treated him by the roadside with some, naturally, experimental drugs tries desperately to hunt them down and assuage his malpracticing conscience. Too late for him, and Scholen, the rampaging Peck eventually goes AWOL leading to one of the most audaciously strange sequences in '80s exploitation.

The Italians’ trump card was in hiring one man for their crew: Screaming Mad George. It’s not just a clever name. The man once known as Joji Tani was a legend for horror fans in the heyday of practical makeup f/x in the '80s and '90s with everything from Greta’s cockroach transformation in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: DREAM MASTER to Alex Winter’s menagerie of FREAKED freaks springing from his fevered imagination.

Here, in this otherwise unassuming little b-movie, the climax is quite something to behold. Peck, on the run from the law (represented by exploitation legend Bo Svensen) finds himself astride the front of his hysterical girlfriend’s truck, his arm now fully transformed into a mutant snake. He then vomits up his own tongue and has his eyeballs are eased from their sockets by a mass of writhing baby serpents in a gelatinous sac. Crashing into a derelict building site, he vomits up a larger snake, finally falling to his knees and, in a rather pitiful lift from THE FLY, jams the scaffold pole Schoelen is using to weakly defend herself into his chest to end it all. But whichever snake is so incongruously controlling him at this point him has other ideas. As Schoelen reaches up to tearfully caress his cheek, it splits apart, the whole top of his head lolling back like it’s on a moist hinge. From the stump bursts an even larger snake, emerging just in time to be blown to smithereens by the tardy police force.

Welcome to the world of Screaming Mad George.

Geoffrey Wright is a filmmaker whose curious lack of mainstream success might be attributable to anything else except his demonstrable vibrancy of vision and wicked sense of mayhem, two facets so finely exhibited in the unforgettable ROMPER STOMPER, his contemporary retelling of MACBETH and this late entry in the post-modern, and more importantly post-SCREAM, slasher stakes. Ironically, it’s a picture whose heart is more firmly rooted in the 1980s than many of the snarky stalker films that came in the immediate wake of Kevin Williamson’s sharp-witted paean to the potential perils of pop-culture promiscuity.

With a smart cast of plucky, relatively known genre names -- Brittany Murphy, Jay Mohr and Michael Beihn -- and a shameless nerve that only begins at that wisecrack title, it’s less a deconstruction of the genre than a brutal, Larry Cohen-esque satire of an entire era, complete with the most wonderfully insane resolution to a murder-mystery plot since SLEEPAWAY CAMP.

WENDIGO (2001)
Larry Fessenden is a force to be reckoned with. From his own micro-budget beginnings in sharp, philosophically minded, Casavettes-inspired horrors like HABIT and NO TELLING to his fostering of new talents like Ti West and Greg Mclean, his economy of vision and commitment to a simple, evocative idea is both masterful and inspirational.

WENDIGO sees Jake Weber, wife Patricia Clarkson and son Erik Per Sullivan holidaying in snow-blown upstate New York where, legend has it, a mythical Wendigo (a beast that’s part deer, part forest and all ferociousness) lurks.

As Clive Barker and Bernard Rose did with short story ‘The Forbidden’ and its cinematic adaptation CANDYMAN a decade earlier, Fessenden delves into the very heart of horror, the myth of folklore, the iconoclasm of fear, and asks what it takes for that icon, be it beast or bogeyman, to survive in a modern age where everything is accessible, knowledge is a mouse-click away and fear and superstition have been dispelled by reason, rationale, technology and science. Out in these wintery wilds, there is none of the latter two products of modern civilisation on which to rely. The journey that follows, complete with a terrific Quay Brothers /Jan Svankmeyer-style stop-motion monster, is as neat and nihilistic as anything from Val Lewton’s glory days as a producer at RKO.
SQUIRM (1976)
Jeff Lieberman, a master of creating an uncomfortable (and sometimes downright invidious) atmosphere from practically nothing, is able to do as much with a simple music cue as Hitchcock could do with a cut. This is no quaint hyperbole: witness the opening montage of this killer worm feast. Over a rainswept street, in a small Southern town, a storm buffets the slick asphalt as electricity pylons and leafy bows sway against the wind. On the soundtrack, a bucolic choir of angelic children’s voices undulates over the verdant tumult onscreen -- the effect is so simple, chaos vs. calm, but it’s incredibly eerie and something that truly surprises as the opening strains of a picture about….well, cheap-looking killer worms. Though Lieberman is often above his (own) material, it’s never beneath him, no matter how schlockly the premise.

Unleashed upon the under-populated backwater hamlet, SQUIRM’s electrified nightcrawlers proceed to make slow progress through a variety of eccentrically drawn locals. It’s a resolutely shoe-string production yet, time and again, Lieberman is able to pull the most incongruous of directorial touches out of the bag. He’s able to deftly sketch the small absurdities of life, the perfect match for a genre that’s all about arcane twists of fate. Nowhere was this more evident than the same year’s BLUE SUNSHINE, Lieberman’s picture about a cadre of former student radicals whose dabbling with “the blue acid” comes back to haunt them in their later, (and, importantly, more conservative), years. It presents some of the most startling cinematic incongruities this side of the opening of Sam Fuller’s THE NAKED KISS here, too, involving a parade of bald quasi-savages.

SQUIRM also introduced the world to more ingenious wizardry of a young Rick Baker. His innovatively rendered, if sparsely used, f/x work for a smattering of skin burrowing crawlers is all the more surprising amid the rough hewn nature of the production as a whole. With creaky acting and an uninspiring collection of rural locations in which to shoot them, Lieberman still paints an alarming portrait of an uneasy community under siege. It’s not a township full of Charlton Hestons or Paul Newmans fighting earthquake or inferno but one of toothy simpletons and goofballs unable to comprehend a drifter’s outspoken point of view in the local diner, let alone nature run amok. The nonsense is all so quietly believable under the director’s eye.

Lieberman is a true independent. Like Don Coscarelli, his best-known productions are stamped with both their own eccentricities and those of a casually brutal world full of wild irony. As the climax comes inside a worm-strewn house, you’re not quite sure who will survive, or indeed what will be left of them. It’s a casual stance to take toward your heroes, but Lieberman isn’t one to conjure up arbitrarily twee protagonists. His latest, ‘Satan Little Helper’ takes world-weary delight in pushing satirical buttons at the expense of cherubic urchins and their suburban mischief. It’s this delight in the foibles of real characters (and not cut-out ciphers), which makes Lieberman’s pictures bristle with that ‘something’ special.

SQUIRM is book-ended again by the music that eerie chorale when the invasion ends as unobtrusively as it began. For all the picture’s ‘grindhouse’ production values, the effect it not something that’s easy to shake off. That lingering impression is a rare commodity in today’s horror cinema. I’m thankful at being able to go back and discover it anew amid unsung gems such as this.

Many have refuted the idea that HALLOWEEN kick-started the whole slasher ‘thing’ in 1978. Bob Clark has done rather well out of this, his BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), more skulk than slash, rightfully embraced as canon. But Clark’s was not the first picture to see vulnerable types fall salaciously foul of crazed killers for our voyeuristic pleasure.

Clark’s shocker arrived shortly after the influx of the ‘giallo’ from Europe. Bava’s subversive BAY OF BLOOD (1971) is almost as infamous for presaging horror cliché (and for being the ace card in “Friday 13th” trivia) as his prototypical black-gloved whodunnit BLOOD & BLACK LACE (1964). However, the same brand of visual fetishism was found even earlier -- likely via Edgar Wallace krimis -- with the elegant terror of Robert Siodmak’s masterful THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE.

The film’s well-worn “thriller” dilemma -- an impaired yet resourceful heroine, plundered right up to quasi-slashers JENNIFER 8 (1992), MUTE WITNESS and BLINK (both 1994) -- bares the embryonic hallmarks of the best genuine slashers with which the 1980s would bloody its cinema screens. The mystery is less labyrinthine than a standard Poirot potboiler; there are barely ten main characters, two of whom are asleep for half the film (bear with it, it’s integral to the plot) and only a couple of murders are actually shown .Yet how they are presented unnerves as thoroughly as the killer’s eventual unmasking, their furiously perverse black-gloves anteceding the giallo cycle as far as the haunted eye can see.

Its shocking opening remains its most graceful chill: a crippled beauty grabs a gown from her closet, revealing the eye of the assailant staring out from behind the muddle of rumpled clothes. In a moment foreshadowing TENEBRE decades later, as this imperfect woman struggles to get the gown over her head, she is cruelly slain by a fellow outcast.

Packed with delightful menace, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE remains dispiritingly unsung by even adventurous horror fans. At the same time, eleven entertaining but flighty Voorhees sequels remain evergreen fan favourites, a situation both shameful and puzzling.

Not for want of pedigree though, clearly. THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is beautifully shot in austere black and white (and the odd frenetic burst of gothic tempest) by Nicholas Musuraca and exquisitely scored by Roy Webb, both of whom were part of the team working under Val Lewton at RKO on pictures which share a keen understanding of the power of quietly devastating set pieces that play more in the mind than on the screen.

Of course, Hitchcock’s THE LODGER myriad actual Edgar Wallace krimi adaptations and the curious Irene Dunne/Myrna Loy thriller THIRTEEN WOMEN appeared in the years preceding Siodmak’s grand triumph. But THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE mounts a compelling argument for being the first great slasher picture in American cinema, one dripping with shadowy peril and impeccable dread.

1 comment:

AndyHunt said...

Sir, you have made my Year!
I have long been a big fan of Spiral Staircase, and like your good self am amazed (and more than a little frustrated) by it's lack of recognition amongst slasher fans. The eye in the closet scene is one of the best spooky setups, and sets the tone just right. I hold this film as an example to all my friends who claim that no movie pre psycho can spook a modern audience.
Thanks for confirming my own devilish tastes.