Review of Winchester

WinchesterHouseIt is billed as “The most haunted house in America.” The Winchester Mystery House , built in 1883, stands today in San Jose, CA. The intrigue surrounding the Winchester Mystery House has all the ingredients for a uniquely American haunted house story.  It is at the heart of American history.  It is about Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester fortune; a fortune built upon the guns that gave the wild west its character.  With this fortune comes a curse, or so some people say.  Riches built upon instruments of death are magnets for the restless spirits of those that were killed by the Winchester rifles, so sayeth the legends.  And so sayeth the Winchester movie, directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, know collectively as “The Spierig Brothers.”

Both the truth and the myths surrounding Winchester Mystery House present much intrigue for the haunted house enthusiast. Truth – The extremely wealthy widow, Sarah Winchester, was a reclusive eccentric. She is responsible for all her house’s oddities, WinchesterStairsincluding staircases that lead to nowhere, doors that lead to nowhere, and windows that look into other rooms.  (See Cosmopolitan.com). It started as an eight room farmhouse. After years of continuous construction, it is now a monstrosity of “24,000 square feet, four stories and as many as 160 rooms. It had 10,000 windows, 2,000 doors, 47 chimneys, 40 staircases, three elevators and a grand ballroom complete with an organ.” (Description is from an article found at cdn.americanrifleman.org). Throughout her stay at the house, Sarah Winchester designed and redesigned, built up rooms and tore rooms down. The house was always in construction mode. Why? Here comes the myths. What else was she supposed to do with all those homeless ghosts of the rifle victims that appeared at her doorstep? She had to make room for them! Or, some say, she built this maze-like house to confuse these, keep them lost. (See article at countryliving.com)

The Winchester movie is a fictional story based on fact. I would have it no other way.  The truth has enough components to allow for the imagination to run wild.  Creators of a haunted house film based on the Winchester Mystery house should stretch the truth into strange shapes that are as convoluted as the corridors, as tall as the pointless turrets. There is just so much material to work with, enough to create the best haunted house story ever. Ever I say!

So it pains to say,  The Spierig Brothers (also the screen writers) completely waste what should have been the ideal setup. They commit haunted house malpractice. In exchange for a creative adventure through a house that has been effectively blueprinted and seemingly customized for a chilling haunting, we get cliché’s, jump scares, a bunch of boos and a whole lot of boredom.

The initial premise is promising. Dr. Eric Price (played by Jason Clark), is sent to Winchester House to evaluate the sanity, or lack thereof, of widow Sarah Winchester (played by Helen Mirren). This request is made by the lawyers representing the stakeholders of Winchester Repeating Arms Co, or those that own 49% of the company (with Sarah owning 51%).  If she is judged to be mentally unfit as a shareholder, then maybe the interests of the other parties can benefit by claiming the entire company.

Dr. Price is an abuser of laudanum, an opium-laced medicinal concoction, so when he begins to see strange things at this mansion, it is perhaps due to drug induced hallucinations. After Sarah strips him of his drug, he continues to see ghosts and hear things that go bump in the night. It turns out, he himself was a victim of a Winchester rifle. Obviously he had survived, but that unfortunate encounter with the bullet leaves him prone to seeing the Winchester curse in action. See, those who have not been affected by the Winchester rifles do not see the ghosts.

So far the story is good. But then…yuck.

What’s missing in this story is the interaction between the ghosts and the house. In fact, viewers barely get a feel for the house itself, which should be central to all the scares. True, we get plenty of overhead shots of the enormous abode with all its subsections. We see the construction in process. We see that noteworthy staircase that leads to nowhere; we see several locked and forbidden rooms (the bad ghosts are locked in them.)  But it felt as though all the action plays out in just a few rooms and hallways. Furthermore, the bizarre construction doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the scares. Quite often we are rushed through the scenery of the house. The Spierig Brothers should have studied Stanley Kubrick and paid attention to the many ways he made The Shining’s Overlook hotel come alive! They should have taken in some Robert Wise learned about the haunting atmosphere of Hill House, the house that is the subject of the film The Haunting. In both of these films, the innards of these haunted settings have a way of seeping into the viewers’ consciousness. Not so in Winchester .

There should have been spirits haunting every bizarre corner. Instead, the majority of the story focuses in on the spiritual shenanigans of one vengeful spirit. This spirit possesses a little boy and takes him on sleepwalking escapades.  When this happens, the film becomes any of a number of horror movies, Conjuring 2, Insidious, Poltergeist, The Exorcist. At one point the spirit enters Sarah herself, and when she speaks, two vocal tracks play simultaneously; one of her own voice and the other is a voice of ‘demonesque’ quality, producing that overused eerie sound effect that has been used in Evil Dead 2 and many other films. At one point the spirit yelled in a sort of “shout growl” and I cringed.  In another scene, furniture and anything in the room that is not nailed down soars in the air. Poltergeist activity everyone! Ooooo! So many gimmicks to this film. A movie about a house of the such bizarre designs should not need gimmicks. It should be the house itself that brings forth the chilling entertainment along with a camera that has the patience to take it all in. It should not rely on the same old bag of tricks that gets passed around from horror movie to horror movie.


At this point, I would like to step back from the review of this film and focus in on some of the actual history of Sarah Winchester, The Winchester Mystery House, and The Winchester Repeating Arms Co. Toward the end of this “history lesson”, I will offer some of my ideas for plot devices that might have made the fictional story more interesting. Some of my sources included Cosmopolitan.com, MilitaryFactory.com, winchesterguns.com, and several others. I reference in the appropriate places.

According to Cosmopolitan, Sarah Lockwood Pardee, born in 1840 in Connecticut, would later go on to marry William Wirt Winchester in 1862. William was the son of Oliver Winchester, owner of Winchester Repeating Arms Company. After William’s death in 1881, Sarah received an inheritance worth 20 million dollars. By today’s standards, that equates to roughly $450 million.

In the years following, Sarah continued to earn money from the sales of guns. The Winchester Repeating rifle was an innovative product and therefore commercially successful. According to MilitaryFactory.com ,the Model 1873 became known as the “everyday man” rifle. This is due to its lever-action repeating assembly. In fact, Winchesterguns.com noted that the Model 1873 is referred to as “The gun that won the west”. The expansion of the railroads brought the demand for these rifles to the west. WinchesterBillyTheKidBuffalo Bill once endorsed Winchester rifles. The teenage William H Bonney (a.k.a Billy the Kid) posed with a Winchester rifle in a picture (photo courtesy of Winchesterguns.org). And it was this repeating rifle that brought Custer’s army down; his boys had single shot rifles, the natives were equipped with the repeaters.

A lot of guns sold, a lot of deaths. Could Sarah have felt guilty from profiting off of these deaths? If so, did this guilt in someway contribute to her bizarre building designs? (The Cosmopolitan article describes the house as “objectively nuts.”) Country Living Magazine offers three possible theories . First, the article mentions that Sarah was at her happiest when she and her husband oversaw the construction of their New England home. So, perhaps Sarah was trying to recreate this happiness by embarking upon an endless construction project. Theory #2 suggests that Sarah was simply being generous to contractors, builders and architects. She wanted them to remain employed. I find this theory to be less truthful than the ghost story. I prefer theory #1 but with a darker twist – the constant building and rebuilding was an obsession; perhaps an obsession to ward off metaphorical ghosts. If Sarah wasn’t haunted by the deaths of those that died by the rifle, then perhaps she was haunted by the deaths of not only her husband, but also her daughter who died when she was just one month old. If Death equates to destruction, then maybe continuance = building. Perhaps if she stopped building, she would think only of death. A similar scenario occurs in the movie Reign Over Me. A 9/11 widower (played by Adam Sandler) recalls his last conversion with his wife before she boards one of the doomed aircrafts. They had argued via phone about remodeling their kitchen. Obsessively, he has his kitchen remodeled over and over , as if he is making amends with his wife’s wishes, trying vainly to deal with his guilt by constant rebuilding. Like the fictional 9/11 widower, maybe Sarah just felt the constant need to rebuild.

Theory number 3 is the fun one. It is the theory of the ghosts; ghosts of the victims of the guns. There are just too many of them coming to her in her San Jose house. She needed to build ad-ons. In these rooms the ghosts could flourish, or be confined, or get lost and therefore be less of a nuisance. Since the details of this theory are at best speculative, it is fun to expand the legends, to “ad-on” to it you will. It’s a house that can spawn hundreds of ghost stories. Why not have the stairway that leads to nowhere lead to an entirely different room upon descent? Why not have a large circular room spin like a merry-go-round, so that when its rotation stops, the exit doors lead to very different locations than the original pre-spin exits? Why not have a ghost drag a guest up one of the chimney flues, only to take that guest, mysteriously, to another chimney flue in a different section of the house? The possibilities are endless, but this film by The Spierig Brothers limits them severely. Yes, the movie brings in the architectural oddities, but ineffectively so. What to film goers get with the windows that look into other rooms? Jump scares, what else!

Since the film is unsatisfying, what then can one do with that hunger for Winchester haunts? I suppose a trip to the house might satisfy that hunger. According to USA Today the house is open to tourists. Some people have claimed to see the ghost of a worker pushing a wheel barrow. Others have claimed to have seen the ghost of Sarah Winchester herself. But there is one thing to note: there is no record of Sarah ever claiming that her house was haunted. None. All the stuff of ghosts comes from second or third hand accounts. But if you want to believe in the ghosts, then you will believe in the ghosts. And maybe then you will actually see one at this house. Isn’t that how the expression goes – “believing is seeing?” (okay I guess I got it reversed. But I like my phraseology better!) And maybe, just maybe, you can also believe that this movie is good. If you can do that, then good for you. You have found enjoyment in a place that I could not.

Folks, I leave you with this. It is another account of the “Spirit of the Winchester”

 

Review of Ghosts of Hanley House

GhostsOfHanleyHouse2

The last review I wrote was for Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, a low budget film from 1971.  In that review I explain to readers about a certain kind of fear. It’s a fear that  has the potential of grabbing viewers at the very beginning of the film. It is a fear that the movie will be stink-a-roo.  It smacks viewers with its mediocrity and lays out a path of uncertainty. Will the path lead to something worthy of 89 minutes of time?  Or will this movie be a waste of time?  I then argue that viewers should march on ahead and ignore any initial signs of mediocrity. For there will be a pay off.  Granted, I never promise the readers a 5 star masterpiece, but I do argue that the film is delightfully scary and, in the end, well made. In short, I argue that viewers should overcome any stereotypes they may have concerning low-budget  films. I beg readers to give it a chance.

Today, I present another low-budget film from a similar time period. As with Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, the film may not seem appetizing in the beginning. Within the first several minutes, viewers will be confronted with poor lighting, wooden acting, and a seemingly endless barrage of credits that are normally reserved for the end of the film. Once again, viewers face the question, “Shall I proceed further into this film?”  “Shall I be patient and see if Ghosts of Hanley House   has anything decent to offer?” Well, let me answer these questions.

TURN BACK!! DO NOT PROCEED INTO THE HAUNTED HOUSE! DEATH WILL FIND YOU! YOU WILL BE BORED TO DEATH!

Seriously, if this were a film student’s final project, it might be worthy of a C. But I don’t think this a student film. I do believe it was presented to a paying audience. Oh boy! There are jump cuts. There are breaches in continuity. The lighting is poor, the exposures suck. There are all kinds of film school no-nos.

It’s a simple story. A group of people spend the night in a house to see if it is haunted. It is. There had been murders on the premise some time ago. That’s about all there is to know. Well, alright, there are a few somewhat interesting scenes pertaining to the haunting. The household awakens in the middle of the night to the sound of galloping horses, that’s cool. A chandelier swings on its chain, that’s pretty neat. Clocks spin backwards, and that’s, uh, neato.  There are a couple of other scenes of that are “groovy spooky.” But it’s a waste of time sitting though this flick and waiting for the every once in a while “boo.”

There is much information available about this film. I found it on archive.com, the same place I found Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.  Wikipedia and imdb. have very little information about this film.  I did some research on Louise Sherrill, the writer and director of this film. It turns out that this is the only film she has directed. She is credited with only two more movies on imdb – as an actress. I was hoping to find something interesting about the history of this film; some unintentional milestone, some kind of hidden trivia treasure. Maybe it was indeed a school project. What if it an unknown John Carpenter worked the lighting, or a then amateur Wes Craven worked the sound.  But no, nothing like that. Perhaps this was filmed at a famous house, maybe the house where a real murder took place. Ah but that doesn’t seem likely.  I guess there is nothing about this film that is destined for greatness. Therefore I will end this review,  honoring the time-tested expression “the less said the better.” It is obscure for a reason. So let it be obscure. With that I write no more!

Review of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

Let's_Scare_Jessica_to_Death-1971-MSS-054

 

How does one watch John Hancock’s 1971 thriller Let’s Scare Jessica to Death? Let me detail the way!

Step 1) Go to Google and type into the Search Engine box “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” and then hit Enter

Step 2) At the top of the next screen, click “videos” in the menu just below the search box

Step 3) Out of the 128,000 or so results that appear, find the option that comes from archive.org and click it.

Step 4) Now go back and put a line through steps 1 – 3 because you can skip those steps and go directly to archive.org and search for the title on the site ( Hey, I had to go through Steps 1-3 the first time, so you should too!)

Step 5) Click the movie’s “start” arrow, watch, and let the fears begin!

In step 5, I write of “fears.”  What fears are these? I will tell you! I am referring to paralyzing trepidation that will overtake your body when you realize that you are about to endure 89 minutes of a low-budget film from the early 1970s.  I point to those moments of bitter agony when you are first exposed to the actors’ awkward performances; moments that occur early on in the film, causing you to wonder “will this be worth it?” “Shall I abandon the ship now before I get in too deep?”  Beware of the the forced frivolity that occurs when the four main characters sit down to dinner – laughter that is supposed to be natural and lighthearted will become forced and mechanical, like the maddening giggles of an eerie doll.  By this time, your fears may be great, for you have been down this road several times before, trying to give an old, low-budget film a chance, being ever so noble, gambling a large chunk of your evening, only to endure much pain as the movie fails to improve.  Folks, I have good news for you. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death does get better.  The overall style and genuinely creepy scenes make-up for those common imperfections that are often found in low budget films.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is one of those creepy films that has haunted me since my childhood. It refused to stay buried, and so I saw it again in my twenties. Now, in 2018, at the ripe young age of forty-six, it was time for me to face it again. (I write of a similar experience in my review entitled Memories That Would Not Fade on Account of the House That Would Not Die)

I had forgotten most of the plot; I only knew that it had something to do with a young lady that was recently released from a mental institution (hint: her name is Jessica) and a haunted house that was waiting to welcome her back to reality. Actually I wasn’t even sure if it was a haunted house. I had remembered her being “with friends” in some kind of scary environment by a lake. Were these friends trying to scare her to death, take advantage of her fragile emotional state for some kind of ill-gotten gain?  That would have explained the title, for sure. Anyway, I wasn’t sure. Oh but I had to be sure.  If this is indeed a haunted house film, then I needed to know those details so that I could do my duty and write up a review for this blog.   And that is what happened.  In the end I say that this film qualifies as a haunted house film.  And I am glad I watched it again.  This third time I enjoyed it, despite certain shortcomings. Hopefully I will remember the details of the story for a long time to come. I can understand why I didn’t remember the details from my first viewing experience. After all I was about, I don’t know, eleven years old?  But why couldn’t I remember any specifics the second time around? Maybe I was stoned. I don’t know.

The story as to do with madness, a country house, the undead, and hippies. Jessica has been released from the asylum in the care of her husband Duncan. They are to begin a new life in the country. Along with a hippie friend named  Woody, they move to a farm house, where they will work the land. The old men in the nearby town are creepy. (No they are  not creepy BECAUSE they are old men, I’m not ageist, they are just creepy in general).  The house they have purchased has a history. Owned by the Bishop family in the 1800s, young Abigail Bishop died drowned in the nearby lake shortly before her wedding day. Her body was never found!  At the farm house, there happens to be an old silver framed picture of the Bishop family; mother, father and daughter (Abigail). Portraits of people long since dead always have something telling in haunted house movies!  And you know what else the farm house has? A hippie girl named Emily. She has been squatting there.  Duncan and Jessica invite her to stay, so now we have two couples and a total of four main characters. Meanwhile Jessica is hearing voices. She is seeing doors and rocking chairs move on their own accord. Is her madness returning or is this house really haunted?

The finer points of the plot surprised me upon this third viewing. First of all, I was wrong about Jessica living with “friends” after her release. Well yes, there is friend Hippie Woody and newfound friend Hippie Emily, but I hadn’t realized she was with a husband until the third viewing. Secondly, I was off base when I had assumed that the plot revolved around people close to Jessica trying to “scare her to death”. I won’t rule that out for you, my lovely potential viewers of this film, but there is more involved than that (if that is an issue at all).  How could I have forgotten that film involves the “undead”; also known as vampires! In fact, on Wikipedia, this film is compared to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s  1871 vampire novel Carmilla (I wrote about that novel at HorrorNovelReviews.com ) I see faint similarities but nothing more.

Throughout my synopsis, I often refer to the term “Hippie.” But it’s not just me, Wikipedia also uses the term to describe some of the film’s characters. Certainly this term dates the movie. You know what else dates this film? The background music. For me it is a good thing. There is the gentle music from an acoustic guitar mixed in with the sounds of nature. There is a piano to accompany the flowing waters. The film does have its moments of symphonic scares, but it is that natural, simple sounds of the guitar and piano that stand out and do their job well at complementing this simple movie. For some, this guitar and piano might scream “Hippie Music!!”, but not me. It is simply appropriately atmospheric.

Over the years, the film has achieved cult status. Its mixed reviews are a testament to both its low-budget style (with amateur acting at times) and simple yet effective use of a creepy atmosphere in its storytelling. One can find the filming location in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.  There they can see the creepy cemetery, the stores on main street (where the creepy old men gathered) and the scary, gothic style farm house.   See for yourself!

 

Hmmm, what else can I say about this film? I know!  The hippie girl Emily, she is played by Mariclare Costello  who was once married to the late Allan Arbus. Arbus, of course, of course, played Psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman on the TV show MASH.   1200

His famous line is “Ladies and Gentleman, take my advice. Pull Down you pants and slide on the ice.”  But to me, Mariclare Costello stands out on account of her resemblance to Jim Morrison’s girlfriend Pamela Courson. See the similarities yourself:

                               Oh come on, they look a little alike, don’t they?  Well I think so, at least a little bit. And give this movie a try. I’m not saying that it’s a cinematic masterpiece, but it is likeable. You should like it to. At least a little bit.

House of 1000 Corpses (Because it has the word “house” in the title!)

Yes I am doing it.

(Doing what?)

 I am lumping Rob Zombie’s film House of 1000 Corpses in with a collection of films that includes The Haunting, The Shining, The Legend of Hell House. 

(Why are you doing that?)

See, because, Zombie’s film has the word “House” in it.

(But Zombie’s film isn’t a haunted house movie, and the rest that you mention are haunted house movies. Using your logic, you might as well include House of Cards with the disgraced Kevin Spacey,  or Animal House with John Belushi popping like a zit. Furthermore why not review the genre of House music. Look, here’s a House jam for ya! How about Full House with those bratty twins?)

House-of-1000-Corpses

Okay, perhaps this situation calls for a more detailed explanation. Back in May, I reviewed the 1974 film The House of Seven Corpses. This film more closely resembles a haunted house film than Zombie’s film. It has some of the atmospheric trappings, including a long staircase, high ceilings, and a grave or two out in the back.  Still, I guess I kind of artificially widened the parameters of the haunted house film genre so that I could review Hof7Corpses.  Overall, I didn’t like the film very much. I found it dull and pointless.  Throughout the review, I compare it to House of 1000 Corpses, making parallels where perhaps there were none. Was Zombie trying to “remake” the 1970s film and do it better by adding 993 corpses to the equation?  I humorously and erroneously made that conclusion. Truth be told, I can’t find any references that links the two films.  But I’m not looking that hard because I just can’t take this subject that seriously. However I was right about one thing. I had written that , even though Zombie’s film has a mere 19% approval rating on rottentomatoes.com , I would like it better than The House of Seven Corpses.

I wrote:

..soon I will watch Zombie’s film and then decide with finality if one thousand corpses are better than seven

Well I recently tested this hypothesis. And I was correct. One thousand corpses are better than seven. There is the finality. Reading between the lines, it seems that I was promising a review. So…here it is!  THIS is why I am reviewing House of 1000 Corpses.

House of 1000 Corpses is more of a gore/slasher movie than a haunted house film. It is resembles The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and has little in common with films such as The Amityville Horror or The Shining. Therefore I’m not going to spend a lot of time and effort on this review.  The synopsis will be brief as hell = a car full of youngsters breaks down near the house of a psychotic family. Youngsters meet family and the stuff of horror-gore breaks out on the screen.

This film is widely panned. I’m not going to go against the grain and declare my love for it. But I will say, House of 1000 Corpses is an entertaining movie at the very least.  Rob Zombie is the Quentin Tarantino or Oliver Stone of horror.  He seems to have applied a “no-rules style” of filmmaking to  the film.  It mashes together all kinds of styles; black and white footage with color, video with film, crazy shots and sequences – all this he mixes into an insane brew that smells of..genius?  If “genius” is too strong, than substitute it with “fun.” Zombie has “fun” with the tools and tricks of cinema; he gathers themes and styles from a toy box of tropes and splashes them with bloody gore. Many critics don’t appreciate all this gore. Too much controversy with all the horror-erotic scenes as well.  It goes over the top into the unforgivable, and still it marches on. In a weird way, this constant pushing of the medium somehow justifies the style in the end.  My opinion, of course.  No it’s not a great movie. Perhaps it’s not even “good.”  But it’s an amusing spectacle, certainly preferable to the boring The House of Seven Corpses.

And that’s all I’ll say about that!

Review of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

The poor, terrified little girl. She had been through so much already. After ninety minutes of ruthless horror, she should have been cuddled and eased into warmth and security. Instead, she found herself alone in a room inside a house that was not her own. That is when she saw it – a brutal reminder of her terrifying experience.  She screamed. She cried. All that blood!

But it wasn’t really blood. It was the markings of a red crayon pressed upon several of the keys on a toy organ. My older cousin Susie, then at the age of five, had stumbled upon this organ in the upstairs bedroom of my parents house. She was staying there for the night and my two older sisters had arranged for her to find this sight. They had done their best to mimic that scary, self-playing organ that was featured in the movie they had taken their little cousin to see earlier in the evening.  This ninety minute movie was brought to them by the letter “G”. “G” for Gore? Gruesome? Ghastly? None of that.  “G” is the rating as in “General” audiences. It shares the same rating as films such as Bambi and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  So as it turned out, my cousin was all freaked out over some scenes from a silly comedy movie starring none other than Don Knotts, the comedian known mostly for his role as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show.  The movie was The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. All this happened before I was born. I guess people were more innocent in ‘them there olden days’ of 1966.

GhostAndMrChicken

Years after the fact, my family would rehash the details that led up to “Little Susie’s scare.” My uncle laughed out loud when remembering how “the world’s least scary movie” had frightened his daughter. I was a young’un when I first heard these comedic tales of “Little Susie’s Scare.” But it didn’t see The Ghost and Mr. Chicken until I was an adult. I first saw it a couple of years ago when it aired on Svengoolie , a television program that features a hilarious horror host (That’s Svengoolie!) that presents viewers with a weekly movie. Then I watched it again on Svengoolie the following year. Finally I saw it for a third time a month ago (Guess what show?) After the third time, I finally made it a point to write up this review. After all, this is a haunted house movie.

Here is a Svengoolie Song parody of the movie:

 

Since I sat though this movie three times, one would assume that I liked this movie.  Well, let me explain – I tune into Svengoolie regularly, often watching repeat movies, even ones I don’t like as much. And sometimes, since I tune in for the laughs and antics of the host , I don’t always pay attention to the key  plot details of a movie. Sometimes I pick up on the story on the second viewing, or even a third.  Now, do I like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken? Sure, I mean, what’s not to like? Perhaps its Don Knotts. Yes, the man has his critics. I will get into this criticism in a moment. But first, let me go over the general storyline.

The main character of the Ghost and Mr. Chicken is the gullible and awkward Luther Heggs.  To this I say, “Atta’ boy Luther!” This is a reoccurring joke that happens whenever Luther is in a crowd. Someone shouts this greeting to him. And guess who plays Luther? If you said “Don Knotts, the you’d be correct! Luther is a typesetter for the local newspaper, but he aspires to be more.  Suddenly he receives an offer that could be his big break into investigative journalism. He must spend the night in the town’s haunted house, The Simmons mansion, and then write up a report about any strange goings ons that he might encounter. A very frightened Luther accepts the job and he is frightened out of his wits.  Inside this cobwebbed house, he finds knives puncturing bleeding portraits. He stumbles upon secret passageways. Finally, he discovers an organ with bloody fingerprints on its keys. It plays all by itself! Oh my!

Luther’s first-hand account of his stay at the haunted house is printed in the paper. The out-of-town estate owner sues poor Luther for libel. How dare that buffoon defame his mansion with tales of ghosts! Will poor Luther be able to get the court to believe his story? Will the haunting reoccur before the eyes of court appointed witnesses?

As previously mentioned, Don Knotts is primarily known for playing Barney Fife , Sheriff Andy Taylor’s inept deputy and sidekick. So how does Knotts do in the leading role? Some will say “not so well”. They might say that he became a caricature of his own self; that his budging eyes became bulgier, his signature look of surprise becomes what might resemble a man having a seizure. They could say he overacts; gives a “slapstick on steroids” kind of performance. With all of this I would agree.  However, this does not ruin to film for me. See, I feel right at home with the post Andy Griffith Don Knotts. I was not introduced to him as the tamer Barney Fife but as the goofy bank robber that slid up a wall in the movie The Apple Dumpling Gang.  Then I  would go on to seem as the flamboyant Mr. Furley on television show Three’s Company. All this before I ever saw a single episode of Andy Griffith. To me, Don Knotts was always a living cartoon character. His physical features were naturally comedic and his acting style was always exaggerated .

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken has the humor of simpler times. It’s a dated movie and many might think that it fails the test of time. For whatever time period it makes the grade, I do enjoy watching it. It is directed by Alan Rafkin, a man known primarily for directing television comedies. He directed four episodes of Mary Tyler Moore, twenty-three episodes of The Bob Newhart Show, seventeen episodes of Sanford and Son, twenty two episodes of Laverne and Shirley and a whopping one hundred and twenty-three episodes of One Day at a Time.  And there  is much more where all that came from! Check out his resume.

I say give The Ghost and Mr. Chicken a try. Who knows, maybe it will make you cry and scream like a little girl Susie! (Hey it could still happen? Okay..fine! That will never ever happen again)

 

Tag – You’re IT – My Next Haunted House Movie Review.

ITLogoDoneDoneI lied. IT is not a haunted house movie. Rather, IT is a horror movie that has a haunted house. There is a difference.  What’s “haunted” in IT is the town of Derry.  What haunts it?  IT haunts it!  (I’m not going to go into an Abbott and Costello routine). IT lives inside the complex sewage system underneath the town.  IT ascends via the drains, sewers  and other surface pathways. What is IT? That remains to be seen, but IT often appears as a clown that goes by the name Pennywise.  Pennywise is a bad, bad clown. He frightens the children! Not only does he frighten them, but he also pulls them down into the sewers and kills them. IT also appears as the object of nightmares, which varies from kid to kid.  Little Stanley sees an abstract face painting come to life. Eddie is chased by a leper. Mike sees burnt and rotting arms. These “hauntings” occur throughout the town in various places; in basements and bathrooms, in alleyways, out in the barrens.  Oh, and inside Derry’s “haunted house.”

In small town Americana legend, there is always a house that kids think to be haunted – one that’s abandoned and rundown.  Heck, even Andy Griffith’s town of Mayberry has such a house. As it turns out, its only spirits were the one’s brewed by Otis’s bootlegging. Well unfortunately for Derry, its old and abandoned house has much worse things than a red-nosed, happy-go-lucky drunk. The Derry house has a red-nosed, homicidal clown. And many other things!

IT has a strong presence inside the house. This is because of the well in the basement that drops down into the sewer system. Thus, the house serves as sort of a gateway to hell; a portal to where all things terrible lie.  Have we seen this theme played out before anywhere on this blog.  Yes we have!  How about here:

HP Lovecraft – Houses as Portals to Alternate Dimensions:

And here:

The Sentinel

and there are others, on and off this blog. This is a popular theme in haunted house lore. Storywriters love to hide portals to dark dimensions inside houses.

In your average haunted house movie, the house is the primary haunt. Most of the events of the film take place inside its walls. This is not the case in IT.  I would guess the house in IT occupies less than 10% of the total screen time. Now what of the book? Does this house serve the same function in the book? Gosh I don’t know!

I read IT almost 20 years ago. I wasn’t an avid reader in those days. I liked horror but only as much as the next guy. What did I like and do back then? I don’t remember! Anyway I had only read maybe one Steven King novel, one novella, and one short story, and all those  I had read 15 years before then.  I wanted to know more about “Da King” , so I went right for one of his most lengthy works. I don’t remember how long it took to read but read, read, and read  I did until I was alllllll done!  Good boy! I loved the book and to this day I consider it one of my favorites. Maybe top-ten worthy, if not it would definitely be in the teens of my preferential list. However, I can’t remember every little detail. Oh hell, I’ll come clean – I can’t remember many medium-sized details.  The haunted house, for instance. I remember it being in the book. I remember that there was an abandoned, run down house but I can’t remember how much or how little importance it was to the story. And as much as I love the book, I’m not about to reread it.  I’m getting old  and I don’t know if I even have the strength to hold that tome in my hands!

Before I go further, I guess I better do some “reviewing”. After all, I am including this article in my review section, am I not?  So…let me get the “review” over with.

IT is great! Best horror movie I’ve seen on the big screen in a long time. It’s been a long time since there was a film based on a book from horror master Stephen King that didn’t suck, and I’m including King-based television movies and series as well. It’s scary through and through! It doesn’t try to rival the book or “be” the book; it doesn’t try to cram 1090 pages of story into two hours of film. It knows its medium’s restraints.  The child actors are remarkable and there performances are memorable. Did I mention that IT is a great film?

There, the review is done. Now back to the haunted house! A group of friends known collectively as The Losers’ Club brave the house in an attempt to stop the deadly IT once and for all. And for us haunted house lovers, its so much fun when they do!  The objects of their fears come after them!  They separate. Doors lock. Mysterious doors suddenly appear! Horror is everywhere! What are those things underneath all those sheets?  Watch out behind you! What’s that?  Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun!

Okay so IT isn’t a haunted house movie per se. The sphere that receives the haunting is the town of Derry, which of course includes the house. Later it will be the sewage system that is the primary epicenter of haunt (wait and see, kiddos!) . But golly gee willikers, the haunted house scenes in this film are fabulous! It is fun to watch and apparently it is fun to recreate  because this film has spawned haunted attractions that mimick this movie’s house. Take a look!

 

As interesting as this attraction appears, it is not on my bucket list. If I just happened to be in Hollywood and happened to be on the street of this attraction then maybe I would enter. But I’m willing to bet that whatever scare experience it has to offer, it will not match the thrill I had sitting in the theater and touring the on-screen house through the eyes of the camera. What a thrill that was! It will thrill you too! See IT!

Review of V/H/S

VHSShould this be the review where I delve into the found footage phenomena and provide insightful analysis on its effectiveness at establishing horror? Uh..nah!  Maybe instead, I can go into what works and what doesn’t work when using the found footage style of filmmaking to make a haunted house film?  Nah to that as well.  Truth be told, I am no expert on these things. Moreover, a lot that depends on personal preference.  Quite often it boils down to a) You like found-footage films. b) you do not like found footage films.

For me it’s hit or miss. V/H/S, the film under review, is a found footage film.  For the most part, it is a miss.

Since some of you might be unfamiliar with the found footage subgenre, an explanation is in order. I was about to do some explaining but then I thought, “to hell with that”, why not find a description and then quote it? I think, therefore I do.  So here is a definition/description from Wikipedia:

Found footage is a subgenre in films in which all or a substantial part of a fictional film is presented as if it were discovered film or video recordings. The events on screen are typically seen through the camera of one or more of the characters involved, often accompanied by their real-time off-camera commentary. For added realism, the cinematography may be done by the actors themselves as they perform, and shaky camera work and naturalistic acting are routinely employed. The footage may be presented as if it were “raw” and complete, or as if it had been edited into a narrative by those who “found” it.

The most common use of the technique is in horror films (e.g., Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, [REC], Cloverfield), where the footage is purported to be the only surviving record of the events, with the participants now missing or dead.

Fun House was the first horror movie I saw in the theater. I saw it was with my dad. In the film the characters are murdered, one by one.  Only one person, a girl, is left at the film’s end. After the movie, my  dad had told me that he knew she would live because someone has to survive to tell the story. He was correct. But with found-footage films, a sole survivor is no longer necessary. The camera is left behind to detail the events. If part of the story is “missing”, that supposedly only adds to the overall mystery.

Found-footage films are supposed to look “real”. That is, they are made with an intentional amateurish quality so that they appear to be made in real time and not according to a script.  Therefore when something horrific happens, the intended illusion is that it is happening “for real”.  I get all that. But to me, V/H/S is largely unwatchable. Too much shaking, too many haphazard shots, too much , too much too much. And besides, what’s with the letter –forward slash – letter –forward slash title. Can’t a simple “VHS” do? I guess not.

I am writing this review on account of the two haunted house films that appear in this anthology.   There are six films in all, with one being the film that ties the rest together.

The “tie-together” film is Tape 56/frame narrative. A group of petty thugs break into a house in an attempt to steal a VHS tape for which someone is willing to pay a lot of money. The man who lives there is a tape hoarder. But the intruders find him dead in his chair, in front of a TV, in a room with hundreds of tapes. The intruders started playing some tapes. The tapes they play make up the rest of the stories in this film. So what we have here is five found footage films inside one found footage film.  How….arty?  Mmmm…mmeh.

Anyway, let’s get to the relevant films. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” directed by Joe Swanburg, is about a woman who lives in a haunted apartment. The whole story plays out on video chat. Emily occupies the big square of the chat and we see chat partner James in the smaller square.  James (along with us the viewers) bears witness to the haunting when he sees the video images of young ghostly girls creeping around behind Emily.  This is an okay film story wise. The typical annoyances that are built into  found footage films are kept to a minimal. Still, viewers have to put up with straying camera angles now and then. We have to watch the main chat screen succumb to the pixilation errors. I hate when this happens when I am on a video chat so I certainly don’t want to watch it happen in a film I am paying to watch.

10/31/98 is the better of the two haunted house films. Directed by a group collectively known as Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez & Chad Villella), the film is about a trio of young men who arrive at a huge, multi room/multi floor house for a Halloween party. All the rooms are lit up, but where are the guests? They decide to explore the confines. They make it to the topmost part of the house and they stumble on something very disturbing. After this they make a run for it. This is when the house itself freaks out.  Through the shaky, mobile camera, we see arms reaching out from the walls. We see dishes rise off the table. In every hall, every room, as they run, run  run, we see something creepy and unnatural. It’s almost like a Halloween haunted house attraction, only this place has some real magic going on.  I love it all– except for the shaky camera. If only for a camera that was held still and directed properly, then maybe I can better see those lovely haunting antics. But no, can’t have that. After all, this is a found-footage film.

My favorite of all the stories is not a haunted house film. It is Amateur Night, directed byVHS2 Bruckner. Three guys go bar hopping and bring home two women. One of them happens to be a succubus. Once they learn of her demonic tendencies, the rest of the night doesn’t go so well.  Loved the film but once again, the shaky camera ruins the whole thing.

Perhaps some people feel that the shaky camera work enhances the horrific realism. I am not one of those people. However, there are some found footage films that I really like. One film really pays off with this technique. While some don’t consider it a haunted house film, I do. If memory serves me correctly, the shakiness is kept to a minimum, if it’s even there at all. I’ve been meaning to review this film for some time. I will do so. Soon. And then and only then will its title be revealed.

 

Sensoria – A Swedish Ghost Story

SensoriaMeet Caroline Menard. She is fleeing a sad life and is starting over. Her marriage was bad. Her child never made it out of her womb. She has just moved into an apartment complex where she struggles to make sense of her life and her new surroundings. Since moving into the new place, it seems that she is always sensing…something.  She hears things in her apartment. She calls out “hello!” No one ever responds. She appears rather uncomfortable when she makes her way to the attic storage or down to the basement laundry room. It’s as if something is always following her.

The other tenants are rather peculiar. They all assume she lives with a family and find it odd that she lives alone. But it seems that each tenant she meets lives alone as well. There’s the finicky older lady who is both noisy and awkward at the same time. There’s the creepy guy upstairs that stares at her. And there’s a blind gentleman, who appears to be the most normal. But something seems a little bit off with his character as well.

Perhaps Caroline isn’t alone. The viewers of the film observe things that she cannot see. From inside the bathroom mirror, after Caroline retreats further into the bathroom, we see a ghost pass by in the adjoining hallway. The door to the kitchen cupboard opens by itself and a dish flies out and shatters.  We see it happen. She only hears it. When she comes into the kitchen to find the broken dish, she assumes it has just fallen.  Throughout the film, we watch as this ghost sneaks little peeks at her here and there. It is stalking her and we want to warn her but we can’t.

Caroline meets a little girl named My in the hallway. She is perhaps the strangest of all the tenants. She won’t tell Caroline her apartment number. Caroline takes a liking to her and My keeps her company. But My is afraid of her grandmother. Who is this grandmother? Does she live in the same apartment complex? This is a mystery.

Sensoria is a Swedish film from Director Christian Hallman. According to imdb.com Hallman’s resume includes several documentaries and short films. Sensoria is his first feature length film. He is listed as the director and the writer. In an interview at rarehorror.com, Hallman cites Roman Polanski’s film The Tenant as a major influence. I cannot draw a comparison because I have yet to see the movie. I must correct that situation soon. What I can do is offer more comments on this film. And I will. Please proceed to the next paragraph.

I like the overall style of the film, which patiently creates a creepy ambiance. The camera is like an artful eye that allows viewers to see the surroundings from unique vantage points. Lanna Ohlsson , who plays Caroline, gives a subtle performance that pays off.

Oh but however, (there’s always a “however”) I have certain issues with the film’s, how should I say it, structure? Is that what I mean. Hmmm…. Hey, I know! I’ll let Caroline herself sum up what I am trying to say:

…. like a jigsaw puzzle. Some pieces don’t fit together, some are badly constructed, some are missing.

Caroline says this to her friend, referring to her own life. Ironically, it sums up the movie as well. The situation regarding the strange tenants is never adequately explained. The tenant’s bewilderment about Caroline’s lifestyle; the “Oh you are living alone. I just assumed that..(you’re living with someone)” statements they utter, I don’t understand  what their points. Towards the end of the film, there are scenes that I think are meant to be plot twists, but gosh darn it, they just don’t make sense to me.  The film teases viewers into thinking there is something more, something hidden underneath the surface plot.  But it is only a tease. Furthermore, there are a lot of slow scenes – Caroline walking down street – going to laundry room -sitting at table eating soup. Earlier I mentioned that I admired the film’s patience. But to a certain extent. The film is patient. I am not. Not all the time anyway. And I believe that many viewers will be impatient  during certain scenes.

But I can’t thrash this film either. So let me end on a more positive note by describing sensoria2some of the brilliant camera work. At one point we see a tire-swing slowly swaying in the wind. This is in the foreground while Caroline walks in background talking on phone.

There are exterior shots of the complex at night from behind thin, curving tree branches. This is the stuff of atmosphere; these are the works of art that hide within the film. They pass by subtly but their presence is meaningful.

In the end, I do recommend this film despite its many flaws. Atmosphere wins. If nothing else, just let the camera be the guide and appreciate what its eye is capturing.

Childhood Memories That Would Not Fade On Account of “The House That Would Not Die”

HOuseThatWouldntDie

When I was a little boy back in the mid-seventies, many things scared me; loud noises, spiders, deep water, some creepy guy that attended one of my older sister’s parties. But apparently, ghosts and haunted houses didn’t make the scare factor – at least not the ones that appeared on TV. As a “young man” in my single digit years, I remember watching haunted house movies with my sister (the hostess of the party with the creepy guy) on television and loving them. She introduced me to some memorable movies. Well, mostly memorable.  Somewhat memorable?  I’ll explain this ambivalence.

Years and years went by and certain scenes from two of these movies stayed with me. The larger plots were forgotten; the titles and other identifying specs remained unknown.  I described what I had remembered about these films to my sister but my descriptions did not help to jog her memory. (This same sister attended a Led Zeppelin concert and to this day cannot recall anything from the set list, so my attempts to mine her memory banks were doomed before the mining had started).  Unaided, all alone (poor, poor me), I set out to relocate these haunted houses and rediscover the chilling haunts that lurked within them. All I had to go on were the images and impressions of a seven-year old. Were they reliable? Let us see!

Images and Impressions from Mystery Haunted House Film #1

  • There was a loud “BANG BANG BANG!” coming from behind a wall.
  • Somewhere near the end of a film, I remembered one of the male characters saying something to the effect of “I’m going to see what that is”, only to be thwarted by another man who kept saying “Don’t go in there…don’t!”

For years I had wondered what was behind “that one wall”. Did the characters ever discover what lurked behind it?  I now believe that the movie in question is The Haunting.  The BANG BANG BANG occurs throughout the film from behind several of the house’s walls; it is not delegated to one specific barrier to some unknown location.  As for the two men arguing – this occurs but it is a minor exchange. My memory had blown the conflict out of proportion.

My first adult experience of The Haunting occurred in the mid-nineties. (I saw it again in 2015 and reviewed it then.) Finally I had found the “BANG BANG BANG” film. The mystery had gone unsolved for twenty years!  It would take another twenty years to solve Mystery #2 . Finally, in the early part of the summer of 2017 (just a few weeks ago!), I saw Mystery Haunted House Film #2

Images and Impressions from Mystery Haunted House Film #2

  • I remembered that there were four characters; but I only recalled the appearances of two – a young woman with long hair brown hair and a young man with a black mustache.
  • The young woman kept shaking and acting freaky. My sister explained, “There’s a ghost inside her!” Later in the film, the young man with the mostache would suddenly get violent. Whenever this happened, my sister would say, “Now there’s a ghost inside him!”

 

What film could this be? I had searched though lists of haunted house films of the 1960s and early 70s, breezed through many a synopsis and looked over movie stills. Finally I came upon something that seemed to capture the images from my memory. Wouldn’t you know it – the film is free on youtube!  After watching the film I decided with 88 percent certainty that this was the “There’s a ghost inside her/him” movie.  It’s called The House that Would Not Die.

Once again, my memory proved inaccurate. There are indeed four main characters in this film with one being a young woman with long hair and another being a young man with a mustache. However it isn’t the young man that has an aggression problem.  In addition to the two youngsters, there are two older characters, played by Richard Egan  and Barbara Stanwyck. It is Egan’s character “Pat McDougal” that turns violent whenever a ghost enters his body.

So, after all these years of yearning for clarification, is the film so remarkable as to be well worth the wait? No not really. It’s your average made-for-TV movie. That’s right my friends, this movie first premiered on ABC on Oct 27, 1970 – just in time for Halloween. It’s not a bad film. It is what it is, and what it is is (no I will not delete the repeated word!) a typical “woman inherits a haunted house” story.  Ruth Bennett (Barbara Stanwyck) is the inheritor, and she and her young niece Sara Dunning (the long haired woman played by Kitty Winn) move in to the huge house. Right away, Ruth hits it off with Professor Pat Mcdougal, who is constantly shadowed by his bright pupil Stan Whitman (the young dude with the mustache, who is played by Michael Anderson Jr.)  The film rushes to unite all these characters so that – yay! – it now has a cast to haunt. As previously noted, spirits frequently possess poor Sara and poor Pat, forcing them to adopt the personalities of their possessors. This is why Pat becomes violent at times. It’s not his fault, so let’s not judge him too harshly. The spirits have been hanging around the house since the days of The American Revolution. This is why the film is titled The House That Wouldn’t Die.

This film will not sway those that are indifferent to this genre.  But I submit that fans of old-skool haunted house flicks might feel at home in this film. However, I hesitate to call it a “classic” because that would but it on par with legendary haunted house films such as The Legend of Hell House and, yes, The Haunting (Gotta love those BANG BANG BANGs!). The House That Would Not Die just doesn’t hold its shingles when compared to these other films.  But it’s entertaining in a dramatic kind of way. The ghost story is somewhat chilling. And the acting is above average. Of course, Stanwyck is always great, which brings me to my last and final misconception.  I had told someone that Stanwyck’s final film was William Castle’s The Night Walker – 1964. I was half-right. The Night Walker was Stanwyck’s final film on the big screen. She made several made-for-TV movies throughout the 70s, including The House That Wouldn’t Die.

Images and Impressions – these are some of the ghosts that have haunted me throughout the years. And I welcome them, even when they materialize in ways that challenge my memory. If nothing else, I appreciate the scenes from “The House That Would Not Die that have stayed with me since I was a child. For that to have happened, the filmmakers had to have done something right. And they did. They made a fair/good movie.  That’s not too shabby!

Watch the Movie – Free on Youtube (While it lasts)

Review of Ghosthouse

GhostHouseIf only filmmakers possessed the gift of hindsight at the very beginning of a film project! (Question – Wouldn’t that be “foresight” then? Answer – Oh yeah!)  Had Umberto Lenzi, director of the film Ghosthouse – the subject of this review, been able to see the final product before the filming (before the writing as well), he would have known what works and what doesn’t. There are some well-crafted scenes in this film; they are genuinely frightful. But alas, most of the scenes in this movie are cringe worthy. In sum, the “stuff of ghosts” is good; the “stuff of people” is bad.  If only this “imbalance of stuff” could have been realized at the very beginning. They could have scrapped all the “people talk to people” plot elements and relied heavily on the basics of “people encounter ghosts.” But isn’t this always the case – ghosts rule and people suck?  You are saying “no.”  Okay I hear ya! Great characters and excellent dialogue go a long way. But some films just aren’t destined for Oscar worthy dialogue and acting. When this is the case (and here is where the foresight comes in handy!) it’s better to hone in on other aspects of the film.  This “ghosts over people” strategy would have at least made for an average haunted house film. “Average” isn’t great but it is better than “below average.”   Alas, Ghosthouse is below average.

The story beings with a house and the horrific murders that took place on the premises. See, there’s this little girl and her clown doll (already we know this pairing can only lead to trouble!). Like all normal little girls, she has a mommy and a daddy. But parents of little girls who play with clown dolls are not destined to have long lives. The parents die, and we’re not quite sure what happened to the girl and the doll. Not until later. Fastforward twenty years or so, the house is abandoned.  But don’t worry, it will be acquire some occupants; a few squatters and a bunch of trespassers. Take for instance this guy Paul. He is a CB fanatic and he picks up some disturbing voices over his radio. He and his girlfriend trace the signal to the abandoned house, where some squatter has set up his own CB station. He squats in the house with his girlfriend and younger sister.  Now we have five youth, all potential victims for some deadly ghostly shenanigans! You know the drill.

The sounds and screams that come over the CB – chilling. The carnivalesque music and the mechanical clown laughter that occurs whenever something frightening us about to happen – creepy! The crazy old man with his pitchfork weapon – disturbing! The ghostly scenes with the little girl and her creepy clown doll – awesome!  Oh but the acting is so Ghosthouse2bad, and the dialogue is terrible, and the motivators that move the characters to do what they do are pathetic and all this makes a mess out of the overall story.  Why oh why can’t these kids stay around the house, where all things are scary, and just accept their fate and die?  No they have to leave the house, get in involved in lame-ass plots in places far away from the frights of the film, only to return, then separate, them come together, then separate again, over and over when all we want is for these annoying characters to perish in a most haunted way!

Sometimes it’s better to “Go for the Ghosts” and forget all this “Power to the People” jazz. Such a time should have been 1988 – the year this film debuted in Italy. Oh well, what’s done is done. It’s all in hindsight now.