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Welcome to the Crypt!

Enter the Crypt as John "The Unimonster" Stevenson and his merry band of ghouls rants and raves about the current state of Horror, as well as reviews Movies, Books, DVD's and more, both old and new.

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From the Desk of the Unimonster...

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27 October, 2007

HAPPY HALLOWEEN FROM THE UNIMONSTER!!!



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DVD Review: GHOST STORY

Year of Release—Film: 1981

Year of Release—DVD: 2004

DVD Label: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
THE MOVIE

One of the best pure Ghost movies I’ve ever seen, perhaps the best ever next to THE SIXTH SENSE, John Irvin’s 1981 film GHOST STORY is a film that I keep returning to, time after time. Working from a dark, suspenseful, truly frightening script (based on the novel by Peter Straub), and blessed with a cast composed of a Hollywood Who’s Who list, Irvin managed to construct a tale of supernatural revenge that holds up as well on it’s tenth viewing as on it’s first.

Starring some of the greatest performers of their generation, stars such as Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Melvyn Douglas, and John Houseman, this is a story of four elderly men, and the secret that has tied them together for more than fifty years.

Referring to themselves as the “Chowder Society”, they meet regularly to tell each other ghost stories, each trying to top the others. The sudden death of the son of one of the quartet begins an increasingly horrific descent into their own ghost story… one that they may not survive.

As I stated, this cast is composed of some of the greatest actors of their generation, and even if they were past their prime, they still had more talent at their command than half the films released last year—combined. While Fred Astaire is remembered mainly for his musicals with dance partner Ginger Rogers, he was possessed of some serious acting chops as well. His body of work included both dramatic and comedic roles, and this film gave him the opportunity to flex those dramatic muscles. John Houseman’s performance is equally rich and layered, as Sears James, the de facto head of the Chowder Society. His natural arrogance makes an excellent counterpoint to Astaire’s good-natured down-home character. Fairbanks and Douglas are good in supporting roles, Fairbanks as the father of two sons, both portrayed by Craig Wassoon, both of whom fall under the spell of the beautiful Alma Mobley, played perfectly by Alice Krige.

John Irvin’s direction is competent and steady; noting brilliant, but he patiently lets the suspense build throughout the film, never revealing too much. The only letdown in the film is the climax, which in my opinion was a poor concept, poorly executed.

But any dissatisfaction I might have with the last three minutes of the film does nothing to change the film’s status as one of my favorite movies, nor should it keep you from enjoying it.



THE DISC

The disc is a fine example of the quality that Universal usually invests in it’s DVD releases. The audio and video quality is superb, especially when compared to my antique VHS copy of the film. Subtitles are, as always, a much appreciated bonus for the Unimonster, and this disc is no exception. Overall, it’s a wonderful presentation.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

The only weakness of this DVD, the total lack of special features would be acceptable on an ordinary film’s DVD release, but not on a film of this quality, with this much talent connected to it. Not even a commentary track, when there’s so many anecdotes that must exist regarding the four lead actors. 200+ years of acting experience; are you telling me no one’s still around who was impressed enough to have tales to tell?



IN CONCLUSION

While THE SIXTH SENSE is undoubtedly the best ghost film ever, at least on the first viewing, the fact that so much of it’s impact is predicated on the extraordinary twist ending does affect the subsequent viewing of the movie. As someone who will watch a favored film repeatedly, that has altered my opinion of it somewhat. GHOST STORY has no such inherent weakness; it’s as powerful on it’s fifth viewing as on it’s first.

This DVD is a bargain offering from Universal Studios Home Entertainment, with a list price of $14.98. Still you can find it cheaper, particularly from DeepDiscount.com. At any rate, you owe it to yourself to see this film, and you may find that it’s your favorite ghost film, too.

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DVD Review: DOG SOLDIERS

Year of Release—Film: 2002

Year of Release—DVD: 2003

DVD Label: 20th Century Fox



THE MOVIE

British cinema has been one of the bright points in Horror over the past five years or so, with films such as SHAUN OF THE DEAD, 28 DAYS LATER, and DESCENT. The director of the last, Neil Marshall, came to my attention with his first feature film DOG SOLDIERS, the best Werewolf movie since John Landis’ AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.

A strange hybrid of traditional Horror Film and Combat-Action movie, DOG SOLDIERS is easily one of the most satisfying films I’ve ever seen, a movie that hits virtually every note dead-on. Shot on a miniscule budget, great acting and superb photography take the place of expensive CGI and Special Effects, elevating this far above Hollywood’s current crop of bloated budget disappointments.

The excellent cast, headlined by Kevin McKidd and Sean Pertwee, and the tight, positive direction make the most of the minimalist production design and limited budget, and the claustrophobic set design and impressively good photography serve to enhance the on-screen terror.



THE DISC

The Fox DVD is good; not a great release, but certainly not bare-bones. As you would expect, the transfer is sharp and clean, allowing the brilliant photography to shine through. The audio, however, could be improved; especially considering there are no subtitles. The poor audio, combined with thick British accents, make it very difficult to understand the dialogue at times.


THE SPECIAL FEATURES

While not rich with extras, there are a few specials on this disc fans will enjoy. Most notable is an interview with Neil Marshall on the making of the film. He offers a great deal of behind-the-scenes nuggets of trivia, something that always pleases the Unimonster. For instance, Sean Pertwee was actually drunk while filming the scene where Cooper and Megan were treating his wounds, and when he made fun of Cooper’s first punch to knock him out, the second one actually connected… and did knock him out for real. It’s little bits like this that add dimension to the film, and add to my appreciation for it.



IN CONCLUSION

Since 1935, three truly great werewolf films have been made: THE WOLF-MAN—(1941); AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON—(1981); and DOG SOLDIERS. The first two have become Horror Icons; it is my belief that the third deserves such honors as well. While this is not a perfect DVD presentation, that shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of this fantastic movie. The $9.99 list price is low enough for impulse purchases, and it can easily be found for less. Don’t pass up the opportunity to add this one to your collection.

Hacking through Haddonfield: How HALLOWEEN Gave Birth to a Genre

Though my preferences usually run more in the Classic vein of Horror, every so often I feel the need to inject a little blood and gore into the mix. Usually, I’ll pull out a Bava or Fulci film, or, depending on my mood, one of De Ossorio’s BLIND DEAD movies. The European “Lost Cannibal Tribe” films of the ‘70’s are always good for plenty of blood & guts, though they aren’t for most tastes. For more recent fare, there’s no shortage of filmmakers who tend towards the gorier aspects of Horror. Takashi Miike, director of the Japanese cult hit ÔDISHON ~aka~ AUDITION, has developed quite a reputation as a director who pushes the boundaries with his films. The Spanish filmmaker Nacho Cerdà has repeatedly blown through those boundaries, most notably with his short film AFTERMATH.

Domestically, the movies of Herschell Gordon Lewis never fail to keep me entertained, even if calling them “B-Pictures” is paying them an undue compliment. I’ve always had a soft spot for bad movies, and H. G. Lewis would’ve given Ed Wood a run for his money in that department. Romero’s DEAD films are always an option for gore, as are the films of Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and Clive Barker. Currently, directors such as Eli Roth and Rob Zombie are keeping Hollywood’s manufacturers of fake blood in clover.

Of course, we also have the teen slasher films so popular in the ‘70’s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s… franchises such as FRIDAY THE 13TH, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and the first and best of the Unstoppable Slasher movies, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN.

Thought of today primarily for being the film that introduced us to Jamie Lee Curtis, HALLOWEEN should instead be remembered for having given birth to the uniquely American sub-genre of the standard slasher films, a curious sub-genre that I refer to as the “Unstoppable Slasher” movies. Jason might have gotten the glory, and Freddy the best lines, but Michael beat them both to the punch. And, in addition to being the first, he was by far the best.

Horror Fans today, long since jaded by multiple sequels, prequels, and even a cross-over, rightfully view each new iteration of these masters of massacre as nothing more than the lowest form of Horror, the cinematic equivalent of a Big Mac and fries… in truth, just more evidence of Hollywood’s contempt for the loyal fans of Horror Films.

But that overlooks just how good… just how influential, these films were when they premiered. HALLOWEEN gave birth to a genre, and resurrected the Franchise concept that had been so successful for both Universal and Hammer Films. Fans today might decry the never-ending parade of sequels that these films became, and not without reason. But that fails to acknowledge that there is a reason the HALLOWEEN, and films like it, became franchises in the first place: Because the original movie was so damn good.

If Slasher films are the American version of Italy’s Giallos, then John Carpenter is the American Bava. One of the best directors in Horror today, as he has been since 1978, Carpenter has been responsible for some of the greatest Genre films of the past thirty years. THE FOG, THE THING, CHRISTINE, THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS… all have served to demonstrate the range and ability of Carpenter, and HALLOWEEN is, at least in my opinion, his masterwork. Though not as polished and professional in appearance as his later films, the film’s raw, rough edge help make it one of the most effective Horror Films of all-time, and the best of the Slasher genre. The minimalist plot; the silent, emotionless killer; the teen-agers trapped in a peril they’re not even aware of; Loomis’ conviction that his patient is the physical embodiment of evil; all combine to produce a truly suspenseful film—one that slowly builds into a frightening climax while not depending on the cheap, throwaway shocks that would become the hallmark of movies of this type.

This soon became one of the most successful films of the ‘70’s, and was, for a long time, the top-grossing Independent film of all time. Though it gave rise to a series of sequels, none were helmed by anyone with a hint of Carpenter’s talent, and the series declined rapidly.

A year and a half after the premiere of HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH made its debut. Directed by prolific producer Sean S. Cunningham, and owing much to HALLOWEEN, F13 was nevertheless a tremendously good movie in it’s own right… not up to the quality of the former film, but easily the best of a weak year for Horror. The film was hugely successful, well beyond the anticipation of the producers, and a string of sequels soon followed. FRIDAY THE 13th: PART II, released one year after the first film, introduced us to Jason Voorhees, the champion of the Slasher circuit, who’s still in business 25 years later. Yet another sequel is currently in pre-production, with a 2007 release planned.

Four years after F13 began its domination of the sub-genre, Wes Craven gave us his take on the theme with the wisecracking, knife-gloved, ghost-of-a-psychopathic-pedophile Freddy Krueger, in NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.

Craven, certainly the most commercially successful of the great Horror directors that arose in the late ‘60’s-early ‘70’s, predictably took the Unstoppable Slasher movies in a new direction with Freddy, and would resurrect the sub-genre 12 years later with the innovative, and much-copied, SCREAM.
There were other attempts to create similar horror franchises… the CANDYMAN movies, Chucky, even a Leprechaun and a Genie. Some of these movies were actually pretty good. Most weren’t. But none were ever the equal of HALLOWEEN—the night Michael came home for the first time.
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20 October, 2007

Childhood Terrors, Recaptured

We all have them, one or two movies buried deep in our subconscious that truly affected us when we were young. For those of us who were children of the B-Monsters and Hammer Horrors of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, with Castle and Corman as our God-parents, and raised by Forry Ackerman and William C. Gaines, those subconscious memories are most likely to take the form of nightmare, as the movies we found so effective, and affecting, were undoubtedly Horror Films.

There was no shortage of such films in my life. From the first Horror Film I can remember watching, William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS, to the most frighteningly effective Horror Film ever, Spielberg’s JAWS, my memories of childhood are colored by the movies that were such an important part of that childhood. Several years ago, when I seriously began collecting Horror Films, I began a quest to recapture some of those memories, by tracking down the movies that had so great an effect on my youthful subconscious so many years ago.

Most, like JAWS or 13 GHOSTS, were easy acquisitions, no more difficult than a trip to the local Wal-Mart or BestBuy. Others, such as CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, or THE DEADLY MANTIS, had to be collected from late-night showings on Turner Classic Movies or AMC, or tracked down in the stacks of old VHS tapes hiding in the rear of mom-&-pop video stores.

But there were some, long out-of-print, never that popular to begin with, that resisted every endeavor to track down. Movies that, for all my efforts to locate, were as lost to me as LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. Two movies in particular were my Holy Grail and my White Whale: THE MONOLITH MONSTERS (1957), and THE NAVY vs. THE NIGHT MONSTERS (1966).

Granted, there was nothing special about either film. Both were decent B-pictures, though THE MONOLITH MONSTERS was especially well done. Both had casts composed of B- and C-listers; people that, today, would be on the reality show circuit, the equivalent of Paris Hilton or Kevin Federline. And both were seared deeply into my brain so long ago that I wasn’t even certain of the title of one when I began searching for them.

THE MONOLITH MONSTERS was a typical, late-‘50’s Sci-Fi/Horror from Universal-International, with a standard it-came-from-outer-space type plot, average cast, and corny, formulaic dialogue. What redeems it, and made it so memorable to me as a child, was the Monolith Monsters themselves.

Looking like chunks of black obsidian, they were the remains of a meteor that had fallen in the California desert. When exposed to fresh water they grew and multiplied, drawing the moisture from anything they came in contact with… soil, wood, even people. Following a sudden downpour, they grew to such size, in such large numbers, that they threatened to destroy a small town in their path.

While the premise was admittedly weak, the effects were very well done, and the photography was beautifully sharp and clear. Though the acting could’ve been better, it was good enough, and it all combined to produce a terrific movie… at least, in the eyes of a juvenile Unimonster. So much so that I was never able to get the movie out of my head.

THE NAVY vs. THE NIGHT MONSTERS, on the other hand, was anything but well done. The story is simple: A scientific expedition to Antarctica finds an area heated by geothermal activity, an area with strange vegetation growing. They take samples of it, load them onto a plane, and head back to the States. As they near a small island outpost of the U.S. Navy that serves as a refueling station, the vegetation comes to life, attacking and killing everyone aboard save the pilot. The plane crash-lands, the specimens are recovered, and a scientist on the base decides to plant the trees to keep them healthy until they can be shipped on. Needless to say, BIG mistake.

While it’s primarily remembered today (when it is remembered…) as a vehicle for Howard Hughes’ former playmate Mamie Van Doren, (who boasted some mighty impressive “monsters” of her own…) the true stars of the film are the seven foot tall, omnivorous walking trees that quickly lay siege to the outpost.

Though the “Night Monsters” are some of the hokiest looking creatures this side of an Ed Wood double-feature, when I saw this at the Drive-In (Thanks Sis!) at a very tender age, it stuck fast in my mind, one image in particular: A sailor stumbling from the jungle after one of the creatures had just torn his arm off. While I have no idea how old I was when I saw that, I can say I was probably younger than I should’ve been. That was almost certainly the first time a movie gave me nightmares.

Both of these films stayed buried in my subconscious for years, and while I would occasionally catch THE MONOLITH MONSTERS on television when I was growing up, the other was remembered only as bits and pieces of a movie, without even a title to attach to it.

Following my divorce in 1999, I needed something to occupy my mind, some kind of hobby to keep me busy. As I had always loved Horror Films, it seemed very natural to start collecting them. As it turned out, it became much more than that, even giving me an outlet for my writing, first at Horror-Web.com, and Creaturescape.com, and now at www.countgore.com and this blog.

But now that I was seriously collecting, the movies that I wanted the most were the ones that affected me the most. The movies that I grew up with, that helped form my love of the genre. As I’ve already mentioned, most were easy additions… the Universal Horrors, Romero’s Zombie films, the Hammer films—all were quickly added to my collection. But those memories buried deep still nagged at me, reminding me that there were yet movies to be found.

The growth in popularity of the DVD helped immeasurably in my quest to collect. With the low-cost of manufacture compared to Videotapes, it opened up the world of Public Domain films to the monster-loving fans, and movies that had been virtually unseen for decades began to show up in every local Drug store and Supermarket. Still, though I found many great movies, my search for the two elusive prizes of my childhood memories came up empty. At least now, thanks to friends in the various Yahoo groups devoted to Horror movies, I had a title for which to hunt.

Finally, last year I found someone who was selling a copy of THE MONOLITH MONSTERS on Ebay. It was a DVD-R, but by this point I was past caring about trivial things like 50-year old copyrights. I gladly ponied up the meager sum he was asking for this gem, and within a few weeks, I had the first part of my quest completed. Though I expected to be disappointed when I watched it, I was quite pleasantly shocked… it more than lived up to my memories, and quickly became one of my favorite movies.

And just a few days ago, a package arrived from a friend of mine. Inside were many goodies, including a box of King Kong valentines that I can’t decide whether to keep sealed for what value they may have in the future, or rip into to get the collector poster. It’s currently sitting on my shelf awaiting a decision.

But inside this box was, not one, but two copies of my Holy Grail, my El Dorado. THE NAVY vs. THE NIGHT MONSTERS.

One was a tape of the Chicago Horror-host Svengoolie that featured the film, complete with sound effects and commentary. The other was, once again, a DVD-R, and, once again, I felt not the least concern as I popped it into my player.

While I would be lying if I said that it was as effective as I recall, the memories that came flooding back more than made up for any deficiencies in the movie. For a brief time, I was that young boy again, just learning that the movies could scare the hell out of you, and quite frankly, getting hooked on the feeling. It’s an addiction I still suffer from, gladly. I hope I always do.

DVD Review: GOJIRA NI-SEN MIRENIAMU ~aka~ GODZILLA 2000


Year of Release—Film: 1999

Year of Release—DVD: 2000



DVD Label: Columbia Tri-Star
THE MOVIE

Following Godzilla’s death at the hands of Destoroyah at the end of 1995’s Gojira VS Desutoroia ~aka~ GODZILLA vs. DESTOROYAH, and the end of the Heisei era, Toho announced that it would be several years before they would produce another Godzilla film. This was mainly due to Columbia’s planned American version of GODZILLA, due in 1998.

But Toho had no intention of abandoning the franchise completely, and after the utter failure of the Roland Emmerich-helmed GODZILLA, decided that it was time for the real Godzilla to make his return. The Millennium era began with this movie, as the Big G came back with a vengeance.

The movie opens as GPN, or Godzilla Prediction Network, is going into high gear, anticipating another Goji sighting. Of course, the GPN consists primarily of Prof. Shinoda and his young daughter Io. A reporter named Yuki tags along, anxious to get a close-up photo of Godzilla that she believes would be her big break. The trio succeeds in locating the Big Green Guy, as he rages ashore in full attack mode.

This movie sets up the Millennium series of films very well, laying out the important features that would be common in the series… the Alien involvements; the GPN, which would morph into an Earth Defense Force; and Godzilla’s role as Japan’s defender partially restored. The look of Godzilla, always evolving, was as good here as it got. The Miregoji suit used in this film was one of the best of any series, and is one of my favorites of the Goji-suits, second only to the Fainarugoji suit used in GODZILLA: FINAL WARS.


THE DISC

The disc, from Columbia Tri-Star, is very nicely done, with a crisp, clean print used in the transfer process. Though I had this film on videotape prior to getting the DVD, the audio is very poor, and I was pleased to actually hear the movie this time. The disc is subtitled, in English and French, which is always appreciated, though I wish that Columbia had included the original Japanese language audio tracks. Call it a quirk, but I love to hear a film in its original language, and read the subtitles, rather than hear bad dubbing.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

There isn’t a load of special features to be found here, but what’s there is nice. The big item is a collection of clips of behind-the-scenes footage. This really allows the viewer to understand just how physically demanding it must be to work in a foam rubber suit weighing upwards of 100 Kg. That’s 220 lbs. to you and me.

The only other special feature of note is the US theatrical trailer for the movie.



IN CONCLUSION

As I believe everyone knows, I’m a huge Kaijû fan, and this is one of the best. It came just at the right time to chase the memories of Emmerich’s GINO (Godzilla-In-Name-Only…) out of the minds of Kaijû fans everywhere, and will always stand in high regard due to that direct comparison. And at a list price of $9.98, who could argue? What, not cheap enough? Well, I’ve seen it on sale at Deep Discount for half that. So what are you waiting for? If you consider yourself a Kaijû-fan, you need this one in your collection.


DVD Review: 300

Year of Release—Film: 2007

Year of Release—DVD: 2007

DVD Label: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment


THE MOVIE

This might seem like an odd film for me to review, a historical epic about the Battle of Thermopylae 2,500 years ago. However, anyone familiar with Frank Miller’s work, especially the fantastic SIN CITY, would realize that he could make the dictionary fit into the genre category.

For those unfamiliar with this most pivotal battle in the history of western civilization, it occurred as a massive Persian army (best estimates place it at around 250-300,000 men, not the one million mentioned in the movie…) invaded Greece in the 5th Century B.C.
A force of 6-10,000 Greeks, led by 300 Spartans under the command of their King, Leonidas, met them at a narrow coastal pass that commanded the exit from the invasion beaches, a pass called by the Greeks “The Hot Gates”—Thermopylae. With the Thespian and Phoecian armies covering his back and flank, Leonidas positioned his personal bodyguard of 300 handpicked men—all the Spartan council would allow him to take—astride the pass.

Over the next three days, 300 Spartan soldiers held the pass against the combined might of what, at the time, was the largest empire on earth. On the third day, a local shepherd named Ephialtes led the Persians to a small path behind the Spartans. The Phoecians defending Leonidas’ flank scattered, and a contingent of Persian infantry encircled the doomed Spartans.

The Spartans, remaining true to their beliefs, refused to abandon their positions and retreat with the Thespian army. Earlier, when asked to lay down their weapons, the Spartans replied “Molón labe…” “Come and take them.” They honored that statement, dying to the last man. That simple phrase is still the motto of the Greek Army. At the site today lies a simple marker that reads, “Go tell the Spartans, passersby, that here in obedience to her laws we lie.”

That is the history. And as inspiring and heroic as it is, Frank Miller managed, in his graphic novel 300, to inject steroids straight into the bloodstream of the historical facts. Then Zack Snyder got a grip on it. He hit it with 1,000 volts of pure energy, and zapped it with a little gamma radiation for good measure. The result is history, mutated.

Snyder, whose last genre work was the 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD, does a spectacular job here of transferring Miller’s graphic novel directly to the screen. The look and texture of Miller’s artwork has been perfectly captured by Snyder’s camera, giving the film a look unlike any other.

The acting is superb, especially that of Gerard Butler as Leonidas, the Spartan king; Lena Headey, as his queen, Gorgo; and David Wenham, as Delios, the lone Spartan survivor, sent back to rally support for the king. Dominic West, as the traitorous Theron, also deserves special mention, as in Theron he creates one of the slimiest villains to slither across the screen in some time.

If this film has a flaw (and that’s a big IF…) it’s that the history of Thermopylae is often buried under layers of surrealism, from a 7½-foot tall Xerxes, to a Persian court that resembles a traveling circus side-show, to the use of elephants and a rhinoceros in the Persian order of battle. Scenes excised from the final cut of the film were even more bizarre, with dwarf Persian archers riding giant humans into battle.

But these excesses are faithful to the graphic novel, and do nothing to detract from one’s enjoyment of the movie. To be frank, only a serious student of history will care about such exaggerations; and in the core of the story, where it really matters, the filmmakers stay fairly close to Herodotus, the first chronicler of the story of the 300.



THE DISC

My DVD is the Widescreen 2-disc Collector’s Edition, and is absolutely perfect. Subtitles, menu design, graphics, video and audio quality… There’s nothing more I can say—everything is simply perfect.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

As you might expect from a DVD labeled as “…Collector’s Edition” there’s no shortage of special features here, and contrary to the norm, none are ‘throw-away’ bits added just as filler. The best, at least to this history buff, is a detailed look at the history behind the fiction, the true story of Thermopylae. Hosted by historian and classicist Victor Davis Hanson (who was advisor to the production…) this nearly half-hour long documentary examines the film in relation to the factual accounts of the battle, most notably Herodotus'.

There are also multiple looks at the making of 300, including the short clips that were originally posted to the movie’s website during production. These detail some of the fascinating techniques used to bring Frank Miller’s vision to life, and such insights are always a favorite of mine.

There are more bonuses than the norm on this set, for which I’m extremely grateful. When I’m as big a fan of a film as I am of 300, then I want every special feature I can get in connection to the movie… with this set, I feel like that’s what I’ve gotten.



IN CONCLUSION

Let me end the suspense now: Barring something truly spectacular on the part of the genre films yet to be released this year, (and I think I’m safe on that score…) this movie will be my Movie of the Year for 2007. It has everything you could possibly want in a film of this type, from fantastic action to tremendous special effects, all captured in stunningly beautiful photography. Miller’s art is extraordinarily unique, and it seems to compel filmmakers to try to transfer it intact to the screen; as in SIN CITY. I for one am thankful for that.

I grabbed my DVD from BestBuy the day it was released, and paid about $25.00 for it. And it’s selling at Amazon.com right now for about $2 less. But whatever you pay for it, pick it up now… and thank me later.



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Has the "Torture" genre Ran it's Course?

Horror trends tend to be cyclic in nature. The Classic Monsters had their first run in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, then were resurrected in the late ‘50’s and ‘60’s by Hammer Films. The “Cannibal Zombie” craze began in 1968, with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and continued into the ‘80’s, mainly in European films. It was Danny Boyle’s 2002 hit 28 DAYS LATER, as well as RESIDENT EVIL, released the same year, that brought them back into the forefront pushing the “Dawson’s Creek meets Freddy Krueger” school of horror into a well-deserved decline.

In the early 1970’s, the growth of independent film led to an increased freedom for filmmakers to explore avenues heretofore taboo… sex, drug use, and violence began to be portrayed in more realistic fashion. Exploitation films, long the staple of the seedy inner-city grindhouses, began to move into the suburbs, and new audiences were exposed to the themes these films offered. One of the most prevalent of these themes was Torture, usually of a female victim, the more graphic and bloody the better.

The torture genre wasn’t new to Horror, and to be accurate, torture, as a separate genre, is a misnomer. What I refer to as “torture” films may fit into any genre of Horror; it’s the focus of the subject matter on the infliction of pain, rather than the simple killing of a victim, that makes a torture film. Robert Florey’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932), starring Bela Lugosi, could be considered a torture film. Indeed most of the various Poe adaptations, by either Universal or AIP, could be looked at as torture. Certainly, 1935’s THE RAVEN is a torture film, as is Corman’s 1961 classic THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM.

The modern torture film, however, owes its existence to the 1965 film BLOODY PIT OF HORROR ~aka~ THE CRIMSON EXECUTIONER (as well as a half-dozen other titles…), directed by Massimo Pupillo under the pseudonym Max Hunter. This unremarkable little movie stars Mickey Hargitay as the titular Crimson Executioner, who is reborn in the body of his descendent when a group of young models arrives at his castle for a photo-shoot. He proceeds to torture and murder the group, in increasingly vicious style, until the hero puts an end to his spree.

Though not the stuff to give Eli Roth or Rob Zombie nightmares, this was pretty strong imagery in the mid-‘60’s. Given decent production values, and a director with more talent, say a Bava or a Fulci, and this might have gone down as a tremendous example of the early Eurohorror movie. As it is, it’s a curious milestone along the way.

The torture film would eventually become a staple genre for European directors, who frequently enjoyed more artistic license than their contemporaries in the U. S. did. But they weren’t blazing the trail here, as directors such as Herschell Gordon Lewis, Andy Milligan, and Ted Mikels had been raising the level of gore ever higher in their films.

Lewis especially, since giving birth to the gore-film with 1963’s BLOOD FEAST, had pushed the envelope further and further in films such as BLOOD ORGY ~aka~ THE GORE-GORE GIRLS, THE WIZARD OF GORE, and SOMETHING WEIRD. While these films had a surfeit of gore and blood, there was a certain inept innocence about them that kept the viewer from taking them too seriously. That would soon change, however.

European directors may not have led the way in the torture genre, but they were able to put a harder edge on their films than American directors could, at least early on. Amando de Ossorio’s LA NOCHE DEL TERROR CIEGO ~aka~ TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD isn’t often thought of as a torture film, but it contains an opening scene of overt torture, as several Knights Templars slash a sacrificial victim’s naked body with swords, then drink her blood. The 1970 film Hexen bis aufs Blut Gequalt ~aka~ MARK OF THE DEVIL, a remake of Michael Reeves’ 1968 film WITCHFINDER GENERAL ~aka~ THE CONQUEROR WORM, adds nothing to it’s predecessor other than seriously upping the intensity of the torture scenes, including a rather vicious tongue-ripping instrument.

Mexican filmmakers were able to get into the act as well, with 1972’s Edgar Allan Poe: Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon ~aka~ Mansion of Madness. One of the numerous Poe-in-Name-Only films that have periodically sought to capitalize on the author’s name, this one was weaker than most, with no Poe, little torture, and the only madness on the part of it’s financiers.

However, it was the debut feature of a young filmmaker named Wes Craven that truly brought the torture genre to life. LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, also released in 1972, a sadistic, nasty, repellently violent picture, was a blatant effort by director Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham (who would later create the FRIDAY THE 13TH series…) to offend the sensibilities of as many people as possible. Featuring scenes of rape, torture, beatings, killings, even a cringe-inducing genital amputation, this stood out at the time as one of the most offensive Horror Films ever released; certainly the most brutally realistic to that time.

Two years later, Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE brought the same ferocious realism and savage brutality to the screen, but unlike the earlier film, which saw only limited distribution, Hooper’s film was a commercial success, seeing nationwide, and even foreign, release. While there was relatively little on-screen gore in the film, the visual impact, much like the shower scene in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, had viewers remembering things that they didn’t see but thought they did.

Craven answered back with 1977’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES, a gore-drenched, ultra-violent expansion on some of the themes he first visited in LAST HOUSE. Though personally I didn’t care as much for it as I did TCM, there’s no denying that it raised the bar for torture films, and by doing so perhaps contributed to their eventual decline. The first heyday of torture would end before the decade was out, as a new genre swept Horror… the Slasher film. But there would be one more landmark of torture cinema to come: 1978’S DAY OF THE WOMAN ~aka~ I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE.

Allegedly written in response to writer-director Meir Zarchi’s encounter with a just-raped woman in Central Park, DAY OF THE WOMAN was deemed by many critics, including Roger Ebert, as worthless trash, the worst of independent cinema. The story concerns a young woman who takes a cabin in upstate New York for the summer in order to write a book. She falls prey to a group of local thugs, who repeatedly rape and torture her. She finally snaps, and begins taking violent revenge on her abusers.

While there’s no denying the lack of quality and tastelessness of the film, to describe it as the worst or most offensive film in the torture genre would be an exaggeration. That dubious honor, at least in this Unimonster’s opinion, will forever belong to a true piece of cinematic excrement, 1976’s BLOOD-SUCKING FREAKS ~aka~ THE INCREDIBLE TORTURE SHOW.

Nothing more than a bad example of Grand Guignol, this is easily the most repellent film I’ve seen in nearly 35 years of being a confirmed Gorehound. What plot exists in this reeking crapfest involves a theater owner who stages supposedly fake torture shows for the public, while providing select customers with victims to indulge their own sadistic fantasies. From the routine cutting off of limbs, to the doctor who drills into a woman’s head, uses a blender on her brain, then consumes the results with the aid of a straw, this is simply one long repugnant exercise in audience abuse.

The torture genre faded into the background with the rise of Slasher films in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. The payoff in films such as HALLOWEEN or FRIDAY THE 13TH wasn’t gore for gore’s sake; it was the building of suspense followed by the sudden shock of an axe to the forehead, or a spear through entwined lovers. Though torture films didn’t disappear, it would be more than twenty years before they would once more become the dominant genre in Horror.
As the Slasher genre began to run out of steam in the early to mid ‘90’s, however, two of the best examples of a film that used torture as a part of a well-written, well-executed script, rather than as a gratuitous replacement for an intelligent plot, were released. The first of these was the best Horror film of the first half of the decade, and the first Horror Film since Rueben Mamoulian’s 1931 version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE to win the Best Picture Oscar—1991’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Adapted from Thomas Harris’ novel by Ted Talley, and directed by Jonathan Demme, this superb movie was elevated to classic status by the inspired performance of Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. Also contributing to the overall perfection of the film is a superior job by Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, the young FBI agent-in-training assigned to interview him in connection to a series of murders. The interplay between these two characters is the focus of the film, and the viewer can’t help but be drawn into the story.

The second of these films was nearly as well done as SILENCE… and even darker in tone. David Fincher’s SE7EN ~aka~ SEVEN, starring Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, and Brad Pitt, is a tremendously effective and suspenseful blend of mystery, thriller, and horror; an intelligent film that doesn’t shy away from the gore. Once again, superb performances elevated this film far above the standard genre fare, particularly Spacey’s as the mysterious killer.

The torture genre got another boost in 1999, when a cult film from Japan would take the gore to an entirely new level, becoming the first legitimate film worthy of the “Torture-Porn” sobriquet. ÔDISHON ~aka~ AUDITION, directed by Takashi Miike, is a difficult film to watch: viscerally disturbing and emotionally draining. It’s also a very effective example of it’s type, and prime evidence of why Miike is so highly regarded, both in his native Japan and abroad. The plot involves a widower who decides to audition prospective brides. The one he selects has something special in mind for him, though, and what results is definitely not for the squeamish.

RESURRECTION, an often-overlooked film from Russell Mulcahy, was another 1999 release, and was little more than a rehashed SE7EN. Still, the quality of the production as a whole was high, and Christopher Lambert does an atypically good job with the material he’s given.

Over the next few years there were occasional entries in the torture genre, and films such as ANATOMIE ~aka~ ANATOMY, JOY RIDE, and MAY were well-received, though not financially successful. It would take the debut film from a hard-core heavy metal rocker to break the grip of the “Dawson’s Creek meets Freddy Krueger” genre first popularized by SCREAM in 1996. 2003’s HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, by first-time director Rob Zombie, was conceived as a throwback to the grindhouse films of the ‘70’s, such as LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, and as such was a labor of love for Zombie. Following Universal’s refusal to distribute the film without some rather drastic cuts, Zombie purchased the film outright, and began shopping it around. Lion’s Gate Films, a Canadian producer-distributor with a penchant for supporting high-quality independent films, especially genre films, picked it up and gave it nationwide distribution, backed up by an aggressive marketing campaign. The movie was both a critical and financial winner, putting the final stake in the heart of the “Buffy-ized” style of horror that characterized the second half of the 1990’s and first few years of the new millenium.

One of the primary themes of the modern torture film is the “Road Trip through Hell…” motif, inherent in most examples of the genre. Whether the trip is set in the desert southwest, the Australian outback, or the backwoods of West Virginia, leaving the main road is a mistake as deadly as having sex was in Horror Films of a generation ago. No fewer than five torture films were released in 2003 featuring that theme, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES included. The others were DETOUR, MONSTER MAN, WRONG TURN, and the remake of the 1974 classic, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

Directed by Marcus Nispel, and starring R. Lee Ermey and Jessica Biel, this remake succeeded by honoring the original, not by slavishly duplicating it. Though formulaic in the extreme, it’s still a formula that works, in this case to the tune of just over $80,000,000 at the Box Office.

The next year gave us only one major torture film, but it would redefine the genre and create one of the most successful franchises since Jason retired his hockey mask. 2004’s SAW, directed by James Wan, made even mainstream critics take notice of a Horror sub-genre that, for decades, had existed almost as a sub-culture of Horror.

Several factors combined to draw such attention to the film. One, it was undoubtedly that rarest of commodities in film… something original. Not that there weren’t films that had previously incorporated some of the elements of the story, most notable of which were American-International’s DR. PHIBES films of the early ‘70’s. But never had the time-worn plot device of the ‘death-trap’ been married to the possibilities offered by the technology available to modern filmmakers, as well as to the willingness to push beyond previous boundaries of blood and gore.

Jigsaw and his life-or-death torture machines gave full credence to the phrase “torture-porn”, torture simply for the sake of torture. The genre exploded following that film’s release, with movies such as HOUSE OF WAX, HAUTE TENSION, CALVAIRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES remake, and the two SAW sequels dominating both the Horror media and the Box-Office. Add in the TCM prequel, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING, and Rob Zombie’s sequel THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, and you’ll see that torture films were becoming the dominant genre in horror.

But that trend may have peaked. 2006’s HOSTEL, directed by Gorehound favorite Eli Roth, pushed beyond even the SAW franchise’s level of brutality, and in so doing became the target of every group opposed to Horror Films and their depiction of gore, blood, and violence. Roth, who first made headlines with his over-the-top gorefest CABIN FEVER, was hardly fazed by such criticism and began production on a sequel as soon as the $20 million opening weekend ended.

HOSTEL opened the floodgates on the torture genre, and clones and copycats began appearing as soon as scripts could be written. In the 18 months since HOSTEL premiered, we have seen a score of such imitators come and go, and all have had one common denominator: They’re just not very good.

From the heavily-touted remake of Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES, to the made-on-the-cheap HOSTEL clone TURISTAS, to the abysmal CAPTIVITY, Torture films have swamped theaters and DVD racks in the last year-and-a-half, to the point where I think we’ve finally had our fill of blood and gore.

The recently released sequel to HOSTEL grossed approximately 36% of the original film; an anemic 17 million. An impressive amount of cash, to be sure, but hardly what was expected. And CAPTIVITY, victim of what had to be one of the most poorly designed promotional campaigns ever conceived, barely earned 2.6 million, more than half of which came on it’s opening weekend.

While it may be too early to say that the torture film’s reign is over, at least for this cycle, there’s no doubt that it is drawing near. Much will depend on the performance of the fourth entry in the SAW franchise, due in theaters October 26th. If the film does comparable numbers to it’s predecessors, then there may be a temporary reprieve. If not, then studios will begin shying away from this type of film as if it were contagious.

And what will take it place as the dominant genre in Horror? Perhaps Classic Horror will continue the resurgence began with 1999’s THE MUMMY. Such a development would not be unlikely, what with big-budget remakes of both THE WOLF-MAN and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON currently in production.

Perhaps Rob Zombie’s successful remake of HALLOWEEN will spark a return of the Unstoppable Slashers to the theaters, and soon we’ll see updated versions of Michael, Freddy, and Jason stalking fresh victims.Or maybe, just maybe, if the Unimonster gets his wish, 2008 will mark the beginning of the second great era of Giant Bugs and Japanese Kaijû.

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13 October, 2007

'Tis the Season!

Wishing everyone a great Halloween season... Hope your decorations are up by now!
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Of Monsters, and Memories, and Goodbyes


There are many things I love about this hobby of mine. The genre movies that I have in my collection, nearly 1,700 at last count. The books and magazines. The figures and toys.

However, what I treasure most about this life-long love of Horror and Sci-Fi are the memories and friendships that it has brought to me. Having the FRANKENSTEIN 75th Anniversary Edition DVD in my collection is nice; it’s an absolutely beautiful DVD. However, the joy I derive from watching it can’t possibly compare to the memory of the first time I saw FRANKENSTEIN… grainy, scratchy, cut to pieces, on a 12-inch black & white TV. Halloween is still my favorite holiday, and now, as an adult, I can go as wild as I want with it, with the only restrictions on my celebrations being monetary, but it will never be as good as it was when I was ten.

The feelings for, and memories of, the people I’ve come in contact with since I began to write seriously about the Horror, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy genres are the real treasures of my collection. That’s true whether in the yahoo groups I inhabit, such as the Universal Monster Army, the Creatures Features group, or my own Attack of the B-Movie Monster group; or at conventions like Wonderfest and Horrorfind; or even through the writing itself. Three of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life came about through the horror groups, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet individuals whose work I’ve admired for decades. Thirty or so years ago I watched Forrest Tucker, Larry Storch, and Bob Burns every week in the Saturday morning live-action program Ghost Busters… five months ago I was standing not ten feet from Mr. Burns, one of my heroes of the genre, at Wonderfest.

The most amazing thing to me is the way the network spreads throughout the genre. Much like the “six degrees of Bacon” game, everyone can be connected to everyone else. In just one degree of separation (or maybe two… I was never good at the game), I can be connected to an Oscar-winning actress, a ‘50’s Sci-Fi icon, and a legend of the genre. The web of my personal network is not deep, but it is exceedingly broad. Unfortunately, that does have painful consequences at times.

Now is one of those times. Richard Valley, Editor and Publisher of Scarlet Street Magazine, has passed away at the age of 58.

Scarlet Street, for those unfamiliar with this magazine, is one of the few devoted to the classic Horror and Suspense films of the ‘30’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s; certainly it is the best. Started in 1991, with a focus on the Granada Television Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett, it has evolved over time to encompass a much broader spectrum of classic genre films. It now includes such films as the Universal Horrors, ‘50’s Sci-Fi B-pictures, and Italian Sword-and-Sandal epics. Well-written and slickly produced, with a distinctive visual style, Scarlet Street is required reading for Holmes fans, particularly those who feel that Brett was the consummate Holmes. Moreover, it should be on the “must-read” list for anyone who considers themselves classic Horror Film fans. And for sixteen years, Valley was the driving force behind it.

He began the magazine in his spare time, working with friends and fellow-fans, Xeroxing the first issue in black & white. And he has guided it ever since, transforming it into the quality publication it is now.

I didn’t know Richard Valley personally, but one of my best friends included him in her circle of friends. I share her pain and sense of loss, in my sympathy and concern for her. Her anger at the disease which has claimed him, as it has claimed so many others in both our lives, is understandably heartfelt and sincere. Cancer has taken many of those I love, including my own father. We have discussed this between ourselves before, as a favored cousin of mine lay dying of the disease. I wish that I had the words to ease her pain now, as she sought to do for me when the situation was reversed. As we both have sought to do for others countless times before.

Unfortunately, those words don’t exist; at least, not in my limited vocabulary. There is nothing I know to say that can ease the sense of loss and hurt that afflicts her now, or help those whom I don’t know who loved this man. The only thing I can do is reassure her of one concern that she voiced to me prior to his death. She was angered by the fact that his intellect, his passion and knowledge, would soon be lost.

But it won’t… not really. We have it in his writings, his articles and essays, his true legacy. We still have it, in the pages of the magazine he created.
We still have it, because we still have Scarlet Street.

DVD Review: The Del Tenney Double-Feature: HORROR OF PARTY BEACH / CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE

Year of Release—Film: 1964 / 1964

Year of Release—DVD: 2006

DVD Label: Dark Sky Films / MPI Home Video


THE MOVIES

In the annals of B-Movies and Drive-In Horror Films, there are many directors who, though more or less successful in their day, are generally forgotten by modern audiences. Directors such as Andy Milligan, Bert Gordon, and Herschell Lewis all were familiar names to Drive-In and Grindhouse moviegoers from the late ‘50’s through the mid-‘70’s, though only Lewis retains any notoriety today.

Another director who thrilled Drive-In fans in the ‘60’s was Del Tenney, a one-time Broadway actor who went into directing in order to spend more time with his family. He’s written, produced, and directed a handful of low-budget films over the past forty years, but his greatest success came with three films done in the early ‘60’s: ZOMBIES ~aka~ I EAT YOUR SKIN, and the two films on this disc, HORROR OF PARTY BEACH and CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE.

HORROR OF PARTY BEACH

Long derided as one of the worst movies ever made, (currently #65 on IMDb.com’s Bottom 100…) HORROR OF PARTY BEACH has always fascinated me. Not because I doubted its reputation, just that I thought no movie could be as bad as I had heard this one was said to be. And I was correct… though no one will claim that this film was unjustly ignored by the Academy, it hardly deserves to be considered as the 65th worst film ever produced.

Filmed on location in Stamford, Connecticut, using local bands (oh yes, this IS a musical…) and actors, the plot is bare-bones simple, and pre-dates the very similar HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP by a decade-and-a-half. Some toxic waste is dumped off the coast, leaks out of the container, and washes over some human remains on the bottom of the ocean.
The remains mutate, as well as re-animate, transforming into a type of half-fish, half-man zombie. Needless to say people are soon being slaughtered in rather impressive numbers for a film of this vintage, though of course not the ones you’d really like to see go.

It’s not easy to sum this one up in a paragraph or two. Is it a bad movie? Oh, yeah. The dialogue is horrible; the acting reminds me of my 1st Grade school play; the Special Effects are laughable; and I’ve seen Calvin Klein commercials that made more sense. Is it as bad as I’ve always heard? No, not hardly. If you’re an aficionado of Low-Budget, Low-Grade Horror Films, there’s actually quite a lot to enjoy here. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE

Released about the same time as HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, this movie fares a little better than the former, with a higher standard of acting helping it immeasurably. The cast here at least appears to be professional, and includes Candace Hilligoss of CARNIVAL OF SOULS fame in her only other screen role. It’s also notable as Roy Scheider’s screen debut, just a mere decade before he would find himself hunting a certain shark off the coast of Amity Island.

The plot is the best part of this film, giving it a Giallo-like feel, reminiscent of Mario Bava’s REAZIONE A CATENA ~aka~ BAY OF BLOOD. Tenney does well with it, though I would’ve preferred that he had left the comedy relief on the cutting room floor. The story moves at a brisk pace, and your attention doesn’t really have time to wander through the various holes that do crop up in the plot.

Unfortunately, the decent cast is given nothing to work with in the way of dialogue. Every speech sounds as though it were written by a 14-year old girl smitten with the works of Jane Austen. Helen Warren, as Abigail, the matriarch of the clan, is given to soliloquies that would do Lady Macbeth proud, and Scheider’s character Philip is so pompous you find yourself hoping he’s the next victim.

While this movie isn’t as well known as the other half of this twin bill, it’s by far the better of the two. Yes, it does have problems, but remember this film was shot in Connecticut, probably for less than $100,000. Much less, from the looks of it. Don’t expect filet mignon, and you won’t be disappointed by Salisbury steak.


THE DISC

For two movies that probably grossed less than the price of a new Cadillac, (in 1964!) Dark Sky / MPI have really done a nice treatment on this disc. The prints used for the transfers, particularly the one for CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE, are spectacular; clean, sharp and complete. The inclusion of subtitles is, as always, appreciated, and overall, the presentation on this collection is well done, as is the standard at MPI.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

Though the disc isn’t piled on with extras, there are a few, and they’re nicely done. Both films have director’s commentaries; not bad—informative, interesting, better than some of the scripted dialogue in the movies. There’s also a videotaped interview with Tenney as a special feature on the HORROR OF PARTY BEACH menu. Though interviews with young directors occasionally come off as “I love me, and here’s why you should love me too…” personal ads, the older generation has generally outgrown that, and their interviews can often be founts of the trivial esoterica that I love. Tenney’s is no exception, and is an enjoyable addition.



IN CONCLUSION

With a list price of $15 or so, I would give this one a qualified buy recommendation, and that qualification would be “…If you know what you’re getting.” If you’re a casual Horror fan, with very little exposure to the Drive-In cinema of the ‘60’s, then I’d say try to rent it first. You might like it, you might not. At least you’ll keep your losses to a minimum.

But if you still have fond memories of warm summer nights under the stars, as a parade of cheesy horror films shone through your windshield, then I think you’ll enjoy this one. And at $15 for two movies, (shop around, though, you can find it much cheaper…) it’s hard to pass this one up.

Why Not Today’s Horror Films?

I don’t believe that it’s a secret, certainly not to anyone familiar with my writing, that I much prefer the classics of the horror genre. For my money, the works of Karloff and Lugosi, Price and Chaney, Lee and Cushing, are far superior to 95% of what passes for horror these days. There are no more icons, no more masters of the art of terror, and I would much rather devote my limited movie-watching time to a film I truly love, rather than something that will be forgotten as soon as the DVD is back in it’s case.

However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t very good, even excellent, Horror Films being made now. Though the early to mid-‘90’s were a virtual “dead zone” as far as horror was concerned, since 1996 we have been in a renaissance of sorts in the genre. Especially since 1999, we’ve been on the receiving end of some terrific Horror Films, both domestic and foreign, big-budget and Indie. This is my look at the past ten years of horror, with an admittedly subjective list of the Ten Best Horror Films since 1996. Not in terms of Box-Office, not according to the critics, just the ones that worked the best for me.

10.) URBAN LEGEND—(1998): While Wes Craven’s 1996 blockbuster SCREAM, scripted by Kevin Williamson, began the Teen-Horror cycle that would come to define Horror in the ‘90’s, (sad, isn’t it?) and spawned countless hordes of imitations, clones, rip-offs, and parodies, URBAN LEGEND, directed by Jamie Blanks, was easily the best of this curious, weak sub-genre, beating out it’s predecessor by a significant margin.

The basic premise for these films, and the dozens that were just like them, was implausibly simple: Take a group of young adults, say 18-22 years of age. Of course, they all have to be incredibly good-looking. Stick them in a normal setting, one in which they would feel comfortable, safe. Introduce a raving psychopath, intent on slaughtering them all, for reasons that will, rest assured, be revealed in the final reel. Toss in a generous helping of red herrings, season with enough sex and gore to guarantee a R-rating, and voila! You have written your first screenplay… congratulations.

URBAN LEGEND, to be sure, followed all of these conventions, with the usual 90210 cast full of beautiful people, a murderous psycho, ridiculous plot twists, and Rube Goldberg-ian Death scenes. But it also has a pretty decent story, great pacing, lots of action, great use of Urban Legends, (which are a favorite subject of mine…) and, of course, a scantily-clad Tara Reid. (Well it sure doesn’t hurt…)

But the best thing about URBAN LEGEND is that has a touch of originality. Just a touch; but compared to the rest of the SCREAM wannabees, a touch was just enough to set it apart from the crowd.

9.) BUBBA HO-TEP—(2002): Don Coscarelli may not be a household name among directors, but to Horror fans he’s the popular, if not prolific, man responsible for the PHANTASM series of cult films. Though I must admit that I’ve never seen the attraction in the PHANTASM movies, his most recent feature has me eagerly jumping on the bandwagon to proclaim him a great director.

For those of you unfamiliar with this overachieving gem of a film, the premise is simple, if admittedly bizarre: Elvis Presley did not die on the crapper in 1977; he’s now a resident in a rural Texas nursing home, along with an elderly black man who claims to be John F. Kennedy. They become aware of the fact that an ancient Egyptian mummy has also taken up residence, and is killing off the inhabitants by draining their life-force. Now, once you get beyond the impression that whoever dreamt this up (Coscarelli, based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale…) was seriously in need of rehab, the movie hooks you with great performances from both Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis; then reels you in with a tremendously well-written story, filled with humor, and oddly touching.

Shot on a miniscule budget, it took word-of-mouth to get people to pay attention to this film, but it’s rapidly become a cult hit, and rightfully so. It’s hard for me to say when I’ve seen a film that made less sense, that I’ve enjoyed more.



8.) HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL—(1999): The only true remake on this list, (pay attention, Hollywood!) William Malone’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is one of the few remakes I’ve ever seen that I enjoy far more than the original.

Ok, I admit the ending is weak, as the movie just seems to run out of gas with about ten minutes left to go. Still, the preceding 80 minutes more than makes up for the let-down at the end with one of the goriest, slickest, sickest fright-fests Hollywood has turned out in the past several years.

It’s hard to quantify just why I like this movie so much. Chris Kattan, someone who usually impresses me as having the comedic talent of an IRS auditor on horse tranquilizers, just about steals the show with a manic performance that’s easily the best I’ve ever seen from him. Geoffrey Rush does a dead-on Vincent Price, in the role Price created in the original. The Special Effects are superb, at least until the final reel, and the opening sequence is fantastic.

While it might not be everyone’s definition of a great movie, it does for me the one thing I demand of a film, the one thing that, for me, makes or breaks a movie: It entertained the hell out of me. What more do I need?



7.) BELOW—(2002): Chances are you missed this one when it was in limited release in October, 2002. Don’t feel lonely; it grossed less than $600,000. But don’t let that keep you from tracking this one down, ASAP.

David Twohy does a skillful job blending two very disparate genres, the World War II submarine action-thriller and the good, old-fashioned ghost story, into one of the most atmospheric films I’ve seen in a very long time. The plot is nothing new, being a thin rehashing of the previous year’s THE OTHERS, only with torpedoes. However, BELOW has much better design and execution than the latter film, and the suspense is carried much deeper into the film than with THE OTHERS.

Granted, the story gets convoluted at times, and this is a movie to which attention must be paid, but it’s not that difficult to follow along, and the journey is worth it, believe me.

I think that, given a wider release, and more support from the studio, this would have been the equal or better of THE OTHERS in terms of Box-Office. For the Unimonster’s money, it IS a better movie.



6.) THE MUMMY—(1999): Yes, it’s a Stephen Sommers movie; no, it’s not really horror; and yes, it really is one of my favorite movies of all-time.

Though today Horror fans usually think of Sommers only in regards to the less than well-received VAN HELSING, there’s a reason Universal put him in charge of that film, entrusting him with the classic Monster franchise, and this movie is that reason.

Sommers’ re-invention of the Mummy Imhotep, first brought to the screen in 1932 by the Master of Horror, Boris Karloff, was a blockbuster success, pleasing the older fans while bring new ones into the mix. The perfect blend of Fantasy, Adventure, Comedy, and Horror, THE MUMMY worked on virtually every level.

The casting in this film is where the credit for the success lies. Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz are perfectly matched as Rick and Evelyn; especially Fraser. While he’s not very good at serious roles, comedically he’s terrific, with a great sense of timing and delivery. He’s also able to play the hero very convincingly, a combination that Hugh Jackman failed miserably at in VAN HELSING. And Rachel Weisz is simply perfect… gorgeous, humorous, just a touch of the exotic, as befits her character’s backstory… and she and Fraser have a definite on-screen chemistry.

The supporting cast in nearly as good as the leads, three in particular really standing out: John Hannah; Kevin J. O’Connor; and Omid Djalili. As Evie’s brother Jonathan, Rick’s old “acquaintance” Beni, and the Warden, respectively, they keep the humor, and the action, flowing smoothly when the leads are off-screen.

So okay, it ain’t Horror… who cares? It IS a thrill-ride of a movie, and never lets the viewer down. You can’t go wrong with that, now can you?



5.) DOG SOLDIERS—(2002): Werewolf Movies are hard to do; at least, they’re hard to do properly. For every great classic such as AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, there’s an even score of films such as HOWLING II: YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF. So I typically keep my expectations low when a new Lycanthrope appears on the scene. It was no different when I first started hearing good buzz about a Brit Import titled DOG SOLDIERS.

Directed by Neil Marshall, the film had a rather subdued debut here in the U.S., but word-of-mouth soon had monsterfans all over the internet singing its praises. I’ve seen very few films that managed to live up to their hype, but DOG SOLDIERS, quite frankly, just blew me away.

British directors in particular seem to have a talent for blending horror into more mainstream genres without overpowering the recipient genre. Just as SHAUN OF THE DEAD was a buddy comedy that just happened to include zombies, DOG SOLDIERS is a war movie, first and foremost; the only difference is that here, the enemy is a ravenous pack of werewolves. Other than that, the movie is one of the best I’ve ever seen at depicting a small-unit combat action, and perhaps the best depiction of the close-knit camaraderie among the men of an infantry squad. Only SAVING PRIVATE RYAN approaches it in that regard.

In short, DOG SOLDIERS takes two of my favorite genres, and combines them seamlessly into one terrific movie. You’ve got to have this one if you’re a real werewolf fan.



4.) SIN CITY—(2005): One of the most visually beautiful and stunning films ever, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s SIN CITY is a virtual textbook on how to adapt a comic book to the big screen. Stylishly, starkly abstract; black and white with random splashes of color, it perfectly mirrors the graphic novels, also by Frank Miller, that inspired it.

Roundly criticized for the over-the-top violence and gore, as well as the general darkness of the themes, the film nonetheless needs both these elements to be as faithful to the books as it is. It’s nothing that should surprise long time fans of the series, and the cartoonish quality of it has a muting effect, with the blood looking like liquid silver on the screen. Overall, the effect is perfect, taking you into the world of the comics completely.

Of course, the best part of the film is the exceptional cast, and the exceptional performances that they turn in. Led by Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis, the all-star cast really captures the heart of Miller’s characters, bringing them to life, and imbuing them, good or evil, with personalities you can’t help but be fascinated by. The main male characters, without exception, are scarred and damaged, either within or without, frequently both. The female leads, also without exception, are physically perfect, but just as inwardly wounded.

The combination of these elements produced one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, and one of the best Comic Book adaptations ever. This easily makes the list of the Top Ten of the Last ten.



3.) HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES—(2003): Those familiar with Rob Zombie’s unique brand of “death-metal” music weren’t terribly surprised that his debut effort as a feature-film director was a raunchy, gory, over-the-top homage to the “Grindhouse” classics of the 1970’s, such as LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, and TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. What did surprise them was that it was so damn good.

Zombie, who fought for several years to make this film and keep it true to his vision, finally succeeded when Lion’s Gate Films got behind the endeavor, giving him the artistic freedom that was lacking when Universal had the project. He took that freedom and ran with it, pushing the envelope until the seams started to split. He also exploded the popular conception of just what a Horror Film was supposed to be, blasting away the dying shreds of the Kevin Williamson School of “Beautiful People” horror. This was raw, gut-wrenching, in-your-face terror, done as well as Hooper or Craven could have thirty years earlier.

I don’t know if Zombie intends to keep making movies, but judging from his first two efforts (his sequel to this movie, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, was released in 2005…) I hope so. He may not be the best director working in Horror today, but he’s managed to inject a healthy dose of gore into a genre that had become overly sanitized, Buffy-ized… by the likes of Neve Campbell and Jennifer Love Hewitt. And for that, he deserves a huge thank you for Horror-Fans everywhere.



2.) THE SIXTH SENSE—(1999): The best Horror Film of a superb year for Horror Films, this was THE movie on everyone’s lips in 1999. Everyone who had seen it was busy telling their friends who hadn’t that they’d “…never guess the ending”, and, for the most part, they were right.

This was the breakthrough film for M. Night Shyamalan, who received Oscar nominations for both the Screenplay and Direction. And though it may be hard to believe now, this movie was a definite sleeper, with only %9.1 of its total Gross coming in its opening weekend. Normally, a film will make up to %35-40 in that three-day period. A great story made this film a hit, but word-of-mouth kept people streaming into theaters to see it, and made it a blockbuster.

There are so many reasons to love this movie… it proved that Bruce Willis actually could act; it showed that intelligence and horror weren’t mutually exclusive; it had an ending that was genuinely surprising, not just momentarily shocking; and it made a star out of Haley Joel Os—on second thought, strike that last. It’s still the best Horror Film of the 1990’s, and easily makes it to number two on this list.



1.) SHAUN OF THE DEAD—(2004): Horror and comedy just seem to blend perfectly together, like Peanut Butter and Chocolate, Scotch and Soda, Ben Affleck and Crappy Movies. Perhaps it’s a subconscious reaction to fright, an impulse that makes us want to laugh in the face of our fears. Maybe it’s just that we love both genres, and a combination of the two doubly so. Whatever it is, some of my favorite Horror Films are also Comedies, and Edgar Wright’s SHAUN OF THE DEAD is at the top of the list.

As I mentioned earlier, British directors do seem to have a talent for blending unrelated genres into a pleasing whole, and SHAUN OF THE DEAD is perhaps the best example of this. I’ve described this movie in an earlier CreatureScape article as a romantic comedy about a “…young man, his girlfriend, and his best mate—that happens to include zombies.” I can’t think of a better way to put it. This is only tangentially a Horror Film; the true thrust of the film is how Shaun, a notorious slacker who’s finally managed to piss off his long-suffering girlfriend to the point where she dumps him, is going to convince her that he really can make a commitment, without going to the extreme of losing his best friend Ed. Oh, did I mention that he’d have to accomplish all this while dealing with hordes of re-animated, flesh-eating corpses?

This is a film that you simply can’t take in in one viewing, so richly is it layered with references, recalls, and in-jokes. But there’s so much more to it than simply being a spoof of the Romero Dead trilogy. It’s simply the best of the past ten years.

But don’t take my word for it… watch it for yourself. See if you don’t think it’s a slice of “fried gold.”

11 October, 2007

An Important Announcement! (Well, to me, anyway...)

Starting this Saturday, there will be another place on the web where you can find my writings... the web-site of Count Gore De Vol himself! I'll be inhabiting a room in the dungeon with some truly great writers on this genre we love, and I'm honored to be joining them.

Have no fear, the Crypt will be going nowhere (after all, how do you move a crypt??) I'll just have another outlet for my creative juices! Hope to see you all there!

Uni

06 October, 2007

Growing a Monsterkid

As I rush headlong towards middle-age, I find myself drawn deeper into a hobby that first took root when I was barely five years old. While I had many influences in my gradual transformation from somewhat normal toddler to thoroughly addicted MonsterKid, that transformation wouldn’t have begun, or have continued to grow, without the help of my two older sisters, and a kindly old “Uncle” whom I’ve never met.

My earliest monster memories involve one of my favorite books when I was very young: Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”. I soon moved on to watching the Saturday afternoon creature-features in my sisters’ room. They had a 13” black & white set on their dresser, a dinosaur of a television even then. Still, it did offer an alternative to the unceasing cavalcade of sporting events that dominated the living room set when our Dad was home. Though I would one day come to share his love of sports, at that age football and baseball took a poor second to lying on my sister’s bed, listening to Lugosi intone “…I am… Dracula.”

Occasionally, my sister Dee would watch these movies with me, providing me with a reassuring presence should a monster prove a little too frightening, a comforting hug to chase away the ghosts and ghouls. Such an occasion marked the first Horror film I can remember watching, William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS. I can still, nearly forty years later, recall hiding my eyes every time someone on screen would put on the goggles that let them see the ghosts.

Soon, I had progressed to the point where the efforts of Castle, Corman, and the like no longer had the power to frighten me like that first viewing of 13 GHOSTS. I watched every monster movie and creature-feature I could find on TV… at least, every one I could get away with. I was also going to the matinees and “kiddie shows”, and seeing movies that had yet to reach television.

Most of these films were pretty tame stuff… the Universal B-movies of the ‘50’s, Toho’s Kaijû films, the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films. Even the occasional Hammer would cross my path… though not the more salacious ones, of course. HORROR OF DRACULA and THE MUMMY we got. LUST FOR A VAMPIRE and COUNTESS DRACULA would wait for another day.

But as innocuous as these films seem, they fueled my hunger for Horror. I loved them all—Godzilla and Tarantula; Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Woman in Green. They opened my eyes to the variety of horror that was available, and like a pre-schooler first discovering the thrill of “See Spot Run.”, it led me to begin what would amount to a lifelong education in Horror and Science-Fiction. And like a child first learning to read, I constantly sought out new sources, new inspirations.

The first of these was perhaps the most profound influence my young love of horror would find, a magazine that seemed to be written just for me: Famous Monsters of Filmland. Forrest J Ackerman had turned his life-long love of Horror, Fantasy, and Science-Fiction into a career, and in 1958 began a quarter-century long run as editor of James Warren’s new horror film magazine.

Known to his legion of fans by many names, such as Dr. Acula, FJA, 4E, or simply Forry, Ackerman was able to speak to kids at their level, almost as one of them. He didn’t talk down to us; he was, in a real sense, one of us. He understood what we wanted from Horror movies, and understood why. And his magazine had a way of connecting to kids that is still helping shape the direction of the genre.

The second source for new avenues of Horror for exploration was my oldest sister, Wanda. Around the time I turned 10, she began taking my brother, my cousin, and me to the movies. Not the ‘Kiddie Shows’ we were used to going to by ourselves; no, these were the real thing, at the local Drive-In.

Wanda Susan, ever-thrifty, would conceal the three of us in the trunk, and set us loose when she parked. If she were alone, we’d usually get to stay in the car; but if she were with a date, or one of her friends, we would be banished to the no-man’s land out in front of the vehicle. We’d toss down a blanket, set one of the speakers on the ground beside us, and settle in for a more-or-less pleasant evening of viewing.

And what made us put up with all that? Well, beyond the reality that when you’re a 10-year old boy that kinda stuff is F-U-N, there was the fact that my sister had rather liberal views on what was appropriate viewing material for us. In short, if we asked to see it, or just if she wanted to see it… well, we saw it. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE WIZARD OF GORE, BLOOD FEAST, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT… I had seen them all by my 11th summer. If there were any type of cult or exploitation film that was left out of my curriculum, then I’d be hard pressed to identify it.

If there was a graduation day for me, then it was the 20th of June, 1975… the day I stood in line for three hours, with parental approval, to see JAWS on it’s opening day. The single most frightening film I’ve ever seen; no movie, before or since, has had such a profound impact on me. So deeply was I affected that, even today, more than thirty years later, I still can’t stand the thought of swimming in the ocean… something I once loved to do.

Well, that was a lot of years ago, and yet my love of the genre continues to grow. And like anyone who has a hobby or pastime they are passionate about, I wonder where the next generation will come from, and who will nurture their love of all that’s scary.

While there’s not much I can do to substitute for my older sisters, there’s much that we, as horror fans, collectors, and vendors, can do. We can, in some small way, be Forry.

If you have a child who is interested in monster movies, encourage that interest. Get them age-appropriate Horror and Sci-Fi films to watch, and watch them together. Show them the classics, and explain just why they are ‘classic’. Help them to find appropriate books to read, and feed their interest in both Horror and reading.

We do have some handicaps to overcome that did not exist in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. One, the availability of cheap monster toys and models to fuel young imaginations. Even adjusted for inflation, the $1.49 that an Aurora Monster kit cost in the late ‘60’s doesn’t begin to approach the price of a modern, high-tech resin kit.

Also, the genre as a whole has become less kid-friendly. Now, I’m certainly not arguing that every horror film should be PG, but I think the interests of all are served with the occasional MONSTER SQUAD or MUMMY.

And unless you live in a few select locations, the days of the hosted horror show have gone the way of the dinosaur and the dodo bird. The medium that eagerly fed our voracious appetites for scares has been co-opted by infomercials and late-night talk shows.

Perhaps the most difficult hurdle we have to overcome is the fact that Famous Monsters is no longer there to guide and inform young minds. While it’s true that there is no shortage of magazines devoted to the genre, most are simply not suitable for young children. Rue Morgue, Fangoria, Amazing Figure Modeler… all great magazines, and I read all of them regularly. But none are something that I would feel comfortable letting a 10-year old read. And most of the mags that are family-friendly are simply unreadable for anyone over 6.

But these are problems that can be surmounted. While cheap toys aren’t as easy to locate as they were in our childhoods, you can find ones that won’t require a second or third mortgage. While modern Horror is decidedly adult, rather than bemoaning that fact use it as an excuse to introduce a youngster to the joys of classic horror films. Though you might not be able to find a locally-produced horror host, many now make tapes or DVD’s of their programs available by mail-order. If all else fails, make up your own commentary as you watch a cheesy B-pic with a kid or two.

And perhaps it’s time for a new magazine, one that, while suitable for children, doesn’t talk down to them. A magazine that is able to entertain the adult horror fan as well as the next generation.

Perhaps it’s time for a new magazine, not one that copies what Forry did, but tries instead to pick up where he left off… and keeps the genre moving forward.

DVD Review: TARGETS ~aka~ BEFORE I DIE

Year of Release—Film: 1968

Year of Release—DVD: 2003

DVD Label: Paramount


THE MOVIE

When you think of the films of Roger Corman, this probably isn’t the first one that comes to mind. In fact, most fans would be hard pressed to identify this as one of Corman’s (famous for ultra-cheap creature designs and period Poe adaptations…) titles. However, not only does it belong to him, it just might be the best movie to list “Roger Corman” anywhere in the credits. Though the film is far from the typical Corman production, how it came about is vintage Roger.

With Boris Karloff under contract for two days worth of work, Corman told Director Peter Bogdanovich that he could make whatever film he desired, as long as he: One, used up the time left on Karloff’s contract, and two, used stock footage from THE TERROR (1963) to save money. Bogdanovich came up with this, an excellent film and Karloff’s finest performance of latter portion of his career.

The plot is layered and complex, based in part on the Charles Whitman case in Texas. On August 1st, 1966, Whitman, a deranged Architectural student at the University of Texas in Austin climbed to the observation deck of the University Clock Tower with a stockpile of weapons, food, and ammunition and proceeded to kill 14 people, while wounding 30 or so. Police and armed citizens finally stormed the tower, killing Whitman. Bogdanovich skillfully weaves this plot thread with one concerning the decision by an elderly Horror star (Karloff, in a perfect performance…) to retire from public life, following one last live appearance at a southern California Drive-In. The two threads run in their paths, seemingly unconnected until brought together at the last.

This is a great movie, and it easily qualifies as Karloff’s best work since 1945’s THE BODY-SNATCHER. It should, as he was basically portraying himself. It’s difficult not to draw parallels between Karloff’s Byron Orlok, and John Wayne’s John Bernard Books in his final film, THE SHOOTIST. Both men are in the end portraying, if not themselves, then the public’s perception of who they are, or rather, were. There’s a poignancy to both performances, a sadness that transcends the events of the movies themselves. We, the viewers, know that both men, both icons, will soon be gone, and this time there will be no director yelling “Cut, print!” and setting up for the next shot.



THE DISC

The Paramount DVD is the high-quality offering you’d expect from a major distributor, and really is without flaw. The transfer is beautiful and clear, presented in anamorphic widescreen. There are even subtitles; always a factor in my enjoyment of a disc. Overall, it’s a great DVD treatment.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

Though the list of special features is not long, what’s there is well-done and informative. There’s an introductory documentary featuring the screenwriter / director, Peter Bogdanovich, discussing the making of the film, and while there’s nothing earth-shattering in the short, it is an interesting look at one of this troubled director’s earliest works.

Likewise the commentary, also by Bogdanovich, contains little that might be revelatory. While it’s interesting enough, listening to a one-person commentary, no matter how informative, can be too much like attending a film-school lecture to be truly enjoyable.

Personally, I would have enjoyed a few deleted scenes, or maybe reminiscences from cast and crew about working with the Master himself.



IN CONCLUSION

Though this is not the usual type of film that I review, I felt it was important enough to discuss it here, especially in light of it’s historical context. Few will argue that Boris Karloff, in his prime, was the brightest star in the Horror firmament. He certainly was one of the most gifted actors to ever work in genre films, and this performance does much to confirm that opinion. With a $9.99 list price (Deep Discount DVD has it for as low as $5.99…) you can’t afford NOT to own this one.

Movies With No Name: Ten “Diamonds in the Rough” that are Worth the Effort to Track Down

Everyone has their favorite Horror Films, and I’m certainly no exception. I have my favorite Vampire films, my favorite Giant Bug movies, my favorite Euro-Horrors… well, you name the Horror or Sci-Fi genre, and I’ll have a list of favorites ready for you. Most of you, I’m sure, have similar lists of your own.

One of my favorite categories of film, however, is the small-studio, low-budget, or independent productions so common to genre films. Most modern, major-studio Horror & Sci-Fi films are either remakes or rip-offs of far superior films of the past… but these Direct-to-Video gems, with much less to lose, are much more willing to gamble.

While I can understand the major Hollywood studios being reluctant to take too large a gamble on something novel or experimental, it’s taken to Draconian extremes these days. To choose not to risk millions on a high-art concept that might open in five theaters nationwide I can understand, but there’s nothing about these movies that’s artsy or experimental. It’s gotten to the point that whenever a Hollywood production shows any sign of intelligence or originality, eight men in suits come running out to stomp it to death.

But where do you find good movies that, simply for lack of funding or publicity, never got a theatrical release, or even a mention in the press?

That was a question I was forced to ponder recently, when a friend interested in building a library of Horror Films asked for my list of genuinely good Horror Films that are out of the ordinary, something different from the run of the mill FRIDAY THE 13th, PART WHO-GIVES-A-DAMN. There are such movies out there, I replied… you simply have to search for them. This is the list I gave him, and now share with you.

I will admit that it’s a short list, but here are ten recent movies that, while you may not have heard of them before, should definitely be on your must-have list.

1.) SHAUN OF THE DEAD—2004: The more that I watch this movie, (and that’s pretty often…) the more convinced I become that this is the best Horror Film, comic elements notwithstanding, of the new millennium. The manic brain-child of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, this Brit import must be seen to be believed… part buddy movie, part romantic comedy, and a whole lotta kick-ass zombie action. I’ve often stated that the one thing a movie must do is entertain me, and no modern film does that as well as SHAUN OF THE DEAD.

2.) DOG SOLDIERS—2002: Diametrically opposed in tone to SHAUN…, DOG SOLDIERS is one of the three best werewolf films of all-time, and the best since 1981’s AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Grittingly realistic, violently unrelenting, this is first and foremost a war movie, a dynamic portrayal of a squad of British soldiers, trapped behind enemy lines. In this case however, the enemy happens to be a family of werewolves in the highlands of Scotland. Directed by Neil Marshall, this is another import that only serves to illustrate how hidebound and unimaginative Hollywood is now.

3.) MONSTER MAN—2003: One of the more common themes in the past few years has been the “Road Trip to Hell” film, such as JEEPERS CREEPERS or JOY RIDE. While Michael Davis’ MONSTER MAN is certainly derivative of these, it does possess some unique qualities that help it to stand out from the pack… a generous helping of humor, over-the-top gore, and just enough gratuitous sex and violence to keep it moving. It was released by Lion’s Gate, who has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to handle properties no one else will touch, such as Rob Zombie’s excellent HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES.

4.) OPEN WATER—2003: Another Lion’s Gate release, and the best shark movie since JAWS. Director Chris Kentis, an avid Scuba diver, shot this film on a budget of $130,000; he later sold it to Lion’s Gate for $2.5 million. Based on a true event, this story of two divers accidentally left behind by their charter boat may not fit everyone’s definition of a “Horror Film.” I don’t know… it sure as hell scared me.

5.) VENOM—2005: Every so often I pick up a DVD that I really don’t expect much out of, simply because it’s the only one on the shelf that I don’t have. Usually I wind up with something the likes of DARKNESS FALLS or CONSTANTINE, but every once in a while I’m pleasantly surprised. Once in a very great while, I’m very pleasantly surprised. That’s what happened when I first watched VENOM. Directed by Jim Gillespie, who did I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, this starts out like most teen horror films, but injects an element of the supernatural into the mix that elevates the film above the standard high-school slasher pic. It received little or no publicity, which is a shame… more people should see this one.

6.) GIN GWAI ~aka~ JIAN GUI; SEEING GHOSTS; THE EYE—2002: Traditional Ghost or Haunted House films are difficult to do properly, but Asian filmmakers seem to have found the key to producing high-quality movies in this genre, usually on budgets that would make a Hollywood director shed tears. RINGU, JU-ON, KAÏRO… all were very well done, very successful films, all of which inspired the inevitable Hollywood remake. Another terrific Asian import is the Pang Brothers GIN GWAI, or THE EYE, a tightly plotted story of a blind woman, given sight through a corneal transplant, who doesn’t realize that not everyone sees things as she now does. It was recently announced that Tom Cruise planned a remake starring Renee Zellweger. While that may no longer be in the works after Cruise’s much-publicized break-up with Paramount, don’t take that chance! See the original before Cruise does to it what he helped do to WAR OF THE WORLDS.

7.) BUBBA HO-TEP—2002: There are some movies that toss conventional logic aside and dive headfirst into realms once explored only by those who’ve consumed vast quantities of controlled substances. Don Coscarelli’s BUBBA HO-TEP is such a movie. The premise is simple enough, though ludicrous as well: Elvis, the King, the Pelvis, did not die on the crapper in 1978. He traded places with an Elvis impersonator, and disappeared into obscurity. Now, thirty-odd years later, he’s a tired old man in a Texas nursing home, where his best friend is an elderly black man who believes that he’s John F. Kennedy. All of this would be surreal enough… but for the Ancient Egyptian mummy concealed on the grounds, eking out a meager existence by consuming the souls of the nursing home residents. This sets up an epic battle between a dying King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a former “President”, and an undead thief of souls. It also describes one of the most original and entertaining movies I’ve ever seen.

8.) CUBE—1997: A visually unique and stunning Canadian production, Vincenzo Natali’s CUBE is claustrophobic cinema in the extreme, with the entire film taking place inside a 14’ cube. Seven people find themselves trapped within this cube; each face of which connects to an identical cube. It becomes obvious that they are imprisoned for some reason in a massive structure constructed of these cubes, as they travel from cube to cube seeking escape. It can be a challenging film to watch, and if you like your movies to have definite resolution then you might want to pass; there is no answer offered at the conclusion. Still, it is a movie that’s worth watching, if only for the experience.

9.) THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA—2001: Looking like a lost “classic” from the notorious Ed Wood or Bert I. Gordon, this homage to the Alien Invader films of the 1950’s from director Larry Blamire has is weak moments, but they’re mostly intentional as Blamire and a talented cast recreate what we love about those B-Movie monster invasions, both good and bad. Not a parody so much as it is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to those cheesy drive-in pictures of yesteryear, it makes for a very pleasant reminder of those days when you’re in a nostalgic frame of mind.

10.) SESSION 9—2001: Brad Anderson’s SESSION 9 is reminiscent of THE SHINING in several ways, most notably the sense of isolation and menace that overhangs the film thanks to the superb location shooting. Filmed in the former Danvers State Lunatic Hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts, the location is very much a part of the film, nearly overshadowing the excellent cast led by David Caruso. It is slow to develop, and I must say that I was a bit disappointed by the ending, but it’s still one of the best psychological thrillers I’ve seen in a long time.

There’s the list. As I said, it’s not a long one, and it may not be easy to track down every film on it. But Hollywood really needs go to school on these movies and ones like them… each is far more satisfying than the last five Big-Budget remakes I’ve seen combined.

Then again, they’d probably just remake them.