Let’s call this one a “rediscovery” as I had definitely seen the movie on cable in my youth – and remember it leaving something of an impression on me – but hadn’t revisited itsince then. Thanks to a Warner Home Video bargain binDVD set called the ‘Twisted Terror Collection,’ (which includes THE HAND, Carpenter’s TV movie SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME, Craven’s DEADLY FRIEND, and other 2nd tier titles), I revisited this odd little gem and found myself utterly fascinated by it.
First, the obvious: the film is an early directorial effort by Oliver Stone (he also wrote the screenplay, based on the novel “The Lizard’s Tail” by Marc Brandell). Second, our leading man is the one and only Michael Caine, in a strange little period in his career where he wound up starring in a cycle of horror/thriller features (THE ISLAND, DRESSED TO KILL, THE HAND and DEATHTRAP). Third, the music is by James Horner, also enjoying a steady run of scores for horror films at that time (HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, WOLFEN, DEADLY BLESSING).
All that being said, the movie is probably most remembered for two things: the sheer misogyny of Caine’s (largely unlikeable/possibly psychotic) lead character; and the infamous scene where Caine loses his hand in an auto collision. (The scene is actually a perfect melding of these two points: Caine loses his hand mere seconds after yelling at a female driver to “Get back, you stupid cow!”)
While I’m not a fan of misogyny in film, there is something to be said for Caine’s scenery-chewing/raw-nerve performance as a cartoonist whose marriage is on the verge of collapse when he finds himself violently emasculated by the loss of his hand. His Jon Lansdale has a hair-triggertemper even before the accident, regularly SHOUTING words or sentences through clenched teeth and bugged-out eyes in his many not-so-subtle attempts to control his long suffering (and understandably straying) wife, played by the stunningly beautiful Andrea Marcovicci. (Caine has claimed that he was collecting a paycheck when accepting this role. He certainly doesn’t phone it in at any point onscreen.)
The movie has a palpable atmosphere of dread and psychological darkness hovering over every scene that is amusingly undercut by a badly executed, giggle-worthy premise. People whom Caine feels have wronged him start to die. We see them attacked and killed by “the hand”;disembodied and sentient, sometimes with its own black & white point of view, always acting with some kind of twisted irony. The actors on the receiving end of these attacks can’t help but look absolutely ridiculous, stumbling backwards, gasping for breath, writhing on the floor,grabbing and pulling for dear life at a Carlo Rambaldi-designed wobbling, rubber wrist stump dangling from their necks. (Stone himself has a cameo as a hapless street person attacked by the hand in a dark alley – you’ve got to give the man credit for allowing himself to look as silly as the rest of the “victims” in his cast.)
The prolonged attack sequences were evidently not a part of the original plan for the movie, which was originally intended to be more of a psychological “is it or isn’t it?” premise involving Lansdale’s fragile state of mind. (The fantastic epilogue sequence brings everything we’ve seen and surmised into question, as an unnamed psychiatrist played by the inimitable Viveca Lindfors, interrogatesCaine in a mental hospital.) Many of the overt “hand sequences” were studio mandated reshoots. One wonders what the untampered-with version might have been like. Probably not as much fun…
Anyway, something about all of the elements mixed together in this mean-spirited horror stew charmed the hell out of me a lot more as an adult than they did when I caught it on cable in my youth, when I wondered why there were so many scenes of husband and wife bickering and not enough “killer hand” action.
[TRIVIA NOTE: Bruce McGill, Tracy Walter and Charles Fleischer all turn up in supporting roles.]
This was an out-of-left-field recommendation made on a podcast hosted by Ryan Turek. I wish I could remember the name of the guest who recommended it, but the description sounded so off the wall and cool that I went andimmediately bought the DVD from Amazon, sight unseen.
And boy, am I glad I did: VIY is supposedly the first Russian horror movie. It is based on the Ukrainian folk story of a young monk reluctantly charged with watching over the dead body of a witch in a rundown old church for three nights. Each night turns into a Sam Raimi/Evil Dead-style spook-a-blast, filled with flying coffins, undead witch attacks, and eventually, full-blown demon appearances.Stylistically, think of it as DARBY O’GILL AND THE ARMY OF DARKNESS.
My only criticism would be that it’s a bit slow between the church-vigil sequences (and consequently, the nighttime church sequences themselves go by all too quickly). But the overall inventiveness (involving every kind of old-school special effect technique I can think of) of the flight-of-fancy filmmaking style on display cannot be denied. It is very much of its time and culture, and perhaps a little more light-hearted than modern viewers might come to expect, but I was captivated by it.
NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (1985, dir. John Carr, Phillip Marshak, Tom McGowan, Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, Gregg C. Tallas)
I caught this masterpiece of absurdity when it ran at the New Beverly All-Night Horror Show in October. It ran fifth, which means it was after 4am and we had been watching horror movies non-stop since 7:45pm. To say that NIGHT TRAIN woke everyone up and went over like gangbusters is actually understating it.
This is midnight movie gold waiting to happen. NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR is a horror anthology consisting of three segments derived from three unrelated feature films (one of which was unfinished, two of which feature Richard Moll in starring roles). The features have been incomprehensibly compressed down to anthology segment length and presented as specific case histories for God and the Devil to judge while riding on a train containing a perpetually performing 80’s rock band and their rock video dancers.
The segments are a laugh riot, the band is always performing the same damn song (“Everybody’s got something to do, everybody but YOU!”) – sometimes with the same footage used over and over again, the God and the Devil framing device is bewildering, it’s a three-ring circus of bad movie greatness.
If you have the opportunity to see it in a packed theater at midnight, I highly recommend it.
EYES OF A STRANGER (1981, dir. Ken Wiederhorn)
These two were both first-time viewings, once again from the Twisted Terror Collection set. Being a huge, life-long John Carpenter fan, I was aware of the TV movie SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME but had never seen it. Shot mere weeks before the production of HALLOWEEN, WATCHING ME is an above average (if slowly paced) TVthriller in the Hitchcock mold: a surprisingly quirky Lauren Hutton plays a tough-willed career woman who moves into a high-rise apartment complex in Los Angeles as she starts her new job at a local TV station. Her building is directly across the street from a nearly identical complex. A creep, living in the adjacent building, starts to harass and stalk Hutton, using his vantage point to peep on her with atelescope and hidden microphones, making suggestive, ominous phone calls, and leaving gifts and notes in her apartment. When the police can’t help and her attempts to deal with the matter sensibly don’t work, Hutton decides to take matters into her own hands and expose the stalker for what he is, orchestrating a final, deadly confrontation.
Carpenter fans will immediately recognize the skill and talent for suspense from the director in what could have been an easy payday by any “movie of the week,”journeyman-hack of the time. (A prolonged suspense sequence in the parking garage/basement laundry room of Hutton’s building – played with no dialogue – is a particular standout.) It’s also a joy to see Carpenter regulars like Charles Cyphers and Adrienne Barbeau turn up in major supporting roles.
The most surreal part of SOMEONE’S WATCHING MEhowever, was grabbing the next disc in the Twisted Terror Collection, Ken Wiederhorn’s EYES OF A STRANGER, and discovering that it is basically an R-rated, slasher movie remake of WATCHING ME. Even the titles could be interchanged!
Lauren Tewes (Julie from LOVE BOAT) stars as an ambitious Miami TV newswoman, living in a high-rise condominium with her blind and deaf younger sister (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in her first feature film role). A serial rapist-murderer lives in the matching complex directly across the street from theirs and they have caught his attention (Tewes correctly suspects him as the killer early on). Once again, harassing phone calls, peeping and stalking are on the menu until Tewes (hey, her first name is also “Lauren”!) decides to take matters into her own hands and attempts to turn the tables on the stalker.
EYES is kind of a forgotten slasher, albeit one of the sleazier ones, with lots of nudity and some standout gore effects from Tom Savini. I can only really recommend it to hardcore slasher movie fans, though it isn’t entirely lacking in the scares/suspense department. (Especially in the third act, when the killer sneaks into the girls’ apartment and starts messing with the unaware, blind/deaf Leigh.) Some inspired stuff mixed in with some harsh violence against women makes it tough to reconcile.
My best advice would be to watch both films in a double feature just to keep track of the similarities. It made EYES OF A STRANGER a bit more entertaining than it would have been on its own and made SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME look even better. (And why the hell the folks at Warner Home Video decided to unironically put them on the same DVD set is a real head-scratcher.)
This one is a true “discovery” in every sense of the word.In 1988, Charles Band directed an anthology feature called PULSEPOUNDERS, with each segment meant to be ashort sequel of sorts to the more popular titles from his company, Empire Pictures (TRANCERS and DUNGEONMASTER). The third segment was meant to be an unofficial continuation of Empire’s adaptations of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, which started with RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, an adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story “The Evil Clergyman.”
As the story goes, the entire feature was shot and edited (there was even a trailer placed on other Empire home video releases), but Empire Pictures went bankrupt before it could be scored and mixed. The film was never released and the 35mm negative was lost.
In 2011, a VHS workprint of PULSE POUNDERS was discovered and Charles Band’s Full Moon Features did the best they could to take “The Evil Clergyman” segment and restore the picture and sound. They brought in resident Empire/Full Moon composer Richard Band (Charles’ brother) to write a new musical score, and presto: a DVD release of the long lost 30-minute segment “The Evil Clergyman” was released in 2012!
All of that being said, the short is admittedly more of a curiosity than a classic. Written by RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND screenwriter Dennis Paoli, the film stars Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton and David Gale (all from RE-ANIMATOR), as well as the great David Warner.The story is a surreal nugget of dream logic, with a sexually obsessed Crampton (in her prime) visiting a foreboding old castle attempting to try and understand what led her lover, a notoriously naughty priest (Jeffrey Combs), to recently commit suicide in the very bedroom where the two acted on their forbidden passions.
Things get strange from there. The ominous castle bedroom becomes a phantasmagoric dreamscape, full of ghostly visitations and inexplicable, hallucinatory visions. The spirit of Combs’ priest appears in physical form and the two pick up where they left off sexually; a talking rat with a human face (David Gale) appears, taunting and antagonizing Crampton; David Warner appears as the restless spirit of Combs’ murdered church superior – probably the last person Crampton wants to run into in their secret love den.
It’s certainly fun to see Combs, Crampton and Gale together again in another Lovecraft-inspired piece and Richard Band’s score feels very authentic to the late 80’s style he brought to so many of his brother’s low budget productions.
Combs really was the unofficial “face” of Lovecraft from the mid-80’s to the mid-90’s (he even played a version of ol’ H.P. himself in another obscure anthology feature, NECRONOMICON: BOOK OF THE DEAD), so seeing him in this lost piece of Lovecraft cinema from his youthful heyday is something of a treat.
All of that being said: the segment is hardly a “lost classic” (though the packaging would like you to believe it is). I don’t quite know that it’s worth full price on its own merits as a standalone DVD. I can’t imagine that it would have worked any better alongside mini-sequels to TRANCERS and DUNGEONMASTER (which seems like it would be a nightmare of tonal shifts to say the least) and the quality of the transfer is probably the best they could accomplish with what they had, which means fair-VHS level. But…a discovery is a discovery.
I will always consider 2013 “the year of Scream Factory.” Shout Factory’s horror line became something of a genre flashpoint right towards the end of 2012 with their exceptional blu-ray special editions of HALLOWEEN II and HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH, along with a handful of other noteworthy cult favorites, given first-rate high-def transfers and new special features. Thesereasonably priced sets very quickly became the must-have items for many horror fans, and I for one will freely admit to a certain level of enthusiastic obsession with the label. Their dedication to well-known titles allowed the spillover spotlight to shine on some of the horror obscurities they would dig up and release, often times for the first time on any disc format.
I can credit Scream Factory with several horror discoveries (and re-discoveries) in 2013, but I think the one I am happiest about is X-RAY (aka HOSPTIAL MASSACRE), a disc I bought sight unseen, on a double-feature blu-ray/DVD combo pack with another obscure slasher film, SCHIZOID. Both films are early horror efforts from the Golan/Globus era at Cannon Films, and while SCHIZOID is a bit of a bust, Boaz Davidson’s X-RAY is a trulyoverlooked, “so-bad-it’s-good” jewel. A movie that is so over the top with weird…so intensely odd…so chock full of operatic histrionics, that one can’t help but wonder what world the story is set in. And I say this with nothing but respect, affection and glee.
Playboy playmate and DEATHSTALKER star BarbiBenton plays Susan Jeremy, a career-oriented divorcee who is dropped off at the hospital on Valentine’s Day to get test results by her boyfriend, who waits for her in the car. He winds up waiting for a very, very long time: Susan’s doctor has just been murdered and her “just a formality” test results (specifically her X-rays, natch) have been falsified to indicate that she has some horrible, previously undiagnosed condition. No one in the hospital will tell her what’s wrong and everyone insists that she must lie down and submit to more tests (in the most malevolent, suspicious ways possible). Meanwhile, a spastic, wildly manic psychopath wearing surgical garb (including a procedure mask and cap, obscuring his identity) keeps killing off the staff and patients left and right while deliberately making the situation worse for Benton, preventing her from leaving the hospital so that he can exact a terrible revenge upon her for a childhood humiliation.
From the hospital ward full of bed-ridden, gasping old men plugged into over-active respirators; to the trio of fumigators wearing WWII-era gas masks who tell Benton: “You better get outta here, kiddo! You’re going to get yourself deloused!”, to the cranky sewing circle of nosy old lady-patients (one of whom is a man in drag) making obnoxious commentary on all of the mysterious goings-on,to the way all of the scrubs on the killer make that squishy, wet, stretched-rubber sound whenever he moves, X-RAY is a delight of the peculiar.
Ah yes, the killer. His identity is kept kind of a secret in the standard “whodunit” mode used by many slasher movies of the era. I say “kind of” because it turns out to be the person they told you it was in the “childhood humiliation” prologue, but the movie goes to several dishonest lengths to hide his (obvious) present-day persona from the audience. (There is a suspense sequence where the killer and the character yet-to-be-revealed as the killer are actually in the same room at one point. Earlier, the killer leaves a room after brutally murdering someone only to immediately return as his non-killer self, clean as a whistle, to retrieve something off of a desk as though he wasn’t just there. He isn’t seen by anyone doing this, so the point is entirely to deceive the audience.)
The so-bad-it’s-good status is a bit unkind: there is a genuine sense that the creative team was trying really hard. There are several inspired suspense sequences in the film.The drawn-out scene where Benton hides from the hyper-ventilating killer behind a privacy screen in an empty, well-lit hallway with her feet in full view has to be seen to be believed.
To sum up: X-RAY is the kind of fun, inspired, ridiculous, “midnight-movie” craziness you hope to stumble across but rarely do. It might be my favorite discovery of 2013.