Review of Cabin in the Woods – 5th Post in my Haunted Cabin Series

Cabin-in-the-Woods-images

Hello Readers! Ready to get “cabinated” once again? But of course you are! After all, you have arrived at this post on your own accord!  Today for your reading pleasure, I have my review of Cabin in the Woods, a horror-spoof by writer turned director Drew Goddard. Goddard was a staff writer for numerous television shows including Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Alias, Angel and Lost. And….I have not seen a whole episode of any of these shows. Not even “Buffy,” although I have seen parts of one or two episodes. Hmm, maybe I can turn to the film “Cloverfield” to understand Goddard’s  pre-Cabin in the Woods influences.  He did write that script as well. But…nope! Didn’t see that film either.  Alas, I can only base my opinion of this guy’s work on this film alone.  But he’ll be happy to know that I enjoyed his film thoroughly.  As director and co-writer (written with Joss Whedon), Goddard shines brilliantly.

So, how should I categorize this “haunted cabin” story? Answer: I cannot.

How best should I analyze this film according to the various themes that I have extracted from a collection of haunted cabin stories (See my original article: Beyond the House – An Examination of Hauntings Within Alternate Structures – Part 1 – Cabins.)  Answer: Not very well.

In both of the two preceding questions, I lump Cabin in the Woods into a category I call “Haunted Cabins.” Is this a “Haunted Cabin” film?  Answer: Probably not.

Cabin in the Woods is a film that regurgitates common themes and tropes in order to mock basic horror formulas. And it does so in such an effective, creative and hilarious way. Whereas some of the themes from my article bear out in this film, they do so ever so consciously with tongue-in-cheek purpose.  Five teens spend a horrifying weekend at a cabin in the woods, so the “isolation” theme from my article qualifies. How about my “Outposts on the Edge of The Unknown” theme?  Does the cabin in this story serve its occupants as a temporary and fragile refuge against all the horror that exists in the woods, only to give in to the encroaching terror by the film’s end? Not really.  For the cabin and its surrounding woods, and the tunneling road that leads to its domain; all of this is, in effect, is a controlled environment; a laboratory that manufactures all things “fear.” Evil Dead, meet The Hunger Games!

The college-aged kids out there in that cabin are being watched and manipulated by an underground organization. By “underground”, I mean “secretive, etc.” Also I mean under the ground, under the grass and soil, underneath the grounds where the horror plays out. In this hidden den beneath the earth, there are men in suits and ties and women in business dress. There are computers and giant viewing screens. And there is a menagerie of creatures familiar to horror films – Ghosts, scary clowns, flying abominations,  Cabin in the woods collection of spookswerewolves, zombies, vampires, etc. When the kids find a book and read a passage that will raise the dead; the men and women of this organization open a hatch that releases zombies into the woodsy environment, although they could have chosen any of the ghoulish, walking tropes. But the zombies matched the predicament the kids put themselves in. It’s sort of a “choose your own adventure” scenario, although the kids don’t realize that they are part of a twisted game. They are the sacrificial lambs! (Watch the film for an understanding of how this plays out.)

Throughout the movie, the people of this organization watch these kids from concealed video cameras and listen to their conversations via hidden microphones. They inject gases into their environment which, when ingested, alter their behavior. They pump in pheromones that turn some of these kids into sex-crazed maniacs (Hey! Many horror films have sex-crazed kids!) They release “mind-numbing” gases causing the kids to make dumb decisions, such as splitting up when things are getting very nasty. (Hey! Kids in horror films are always getting separated!)

See what’s happening here? This organization is creating a horror movie by trotting out the tropes. They even destroy the mountain-road tunnel that leads outside the parameters of the controlled environment; thereby ensuring that one of my discovered themes plays out – the “isolation theme” (Thank you Goddard et. al for helping me save face!)

All in all, this is a highly creative platform for spoofing horror films. And five years ago, I didn’t think so. Back then when I first saw this film, I thought “I get it, but ‘meh!’”  I guess I didn’t get it after all. I knew it was a spoof film, but I thought it over-complicated and not funny.  I’m glad I often revisit films before writing up reviews. Had I not watched it again, this review would be entirely different. It’s not supposed to be “laugh- out-loud” hilarious, although I did just that during one scene. It’s tongue-in-cheek humor.

Now is this a haunted house (cabin) film? For certain, it does not meet my first standard – “house as an entity” – as specified in my article Social Theory and Haunted Houses.  What about my second standard – “House as a neutral platform that enables ghosts to show off their antics.” If I had to pick from the two, it would be this second criterion.  But it’s not a platform for ghosts. Instead it’s an arena for the “puppeteers” that control the environment, which includes not only the cabin but the woods and roads as well.  The puppeteers are the Roman nobel class and the kids are the gladiators. They are the “folks from the Capitol” and the kids are the contestants of The Hunger Games. With such examples, I bet you’re having a difficult time comparing this movie to a haunted house film! I hear ya. Oh well. It does, however, fit well in my series about cabins. At least “sort of” well?

Anyway, I have one more cabin piece for ya! Stay tuned for an account where real authors spend time in a “real” haunted cabin. Until next time stay “cabinated!”


 

* images from rashmanly.com , 2014afo.wordpress.com, and alchetron.com

 

 

 

 

 

Review of Evil Dead 2 – Dead By Dawn – 4th Post in my Haunted Cabin Series

evil-dead_-2Let’s begin with a spoiler!

(Spoiler Police: ”How Dare you!”)

Remember that guy Ash, played by Bruce Campbell, the buddy of director Sam Raimi? I mentioned him a bit in my last review of The Evil Dead . He’s the main character and sole survivor of the first film. Or..is he a survivor ?

(Spoiler Police: “Hold on, big boy! You just stop right there. Leave it as the mystery that it is!”)

When viewers last saw Ash, it looked as if he was about to get swallowed by a demon. Check this out:

(Spoiler Police: “You’re going too far – posting that scene. No more now, ya hear me?)

Well guess what? Ash lives! He lives I tell you! He lives to be the central character of The Evil Dead 2 – Dead By Dawn (Henceforth referred to simply as Evil Dead 2)

(Spoiler Police: You..you..you’ve gone too far! I’m gonna get you for this! I’ll…..)

Excuse me readers, there’s come kind of bug in my ear and as crazy as it sounds, I think it’s talking to me or something. Let me get a Q-tip and swirl it around in the ol’canal….Ah! Much better! As I was saying, Ash lives and I is a spoiler! (Hmm..the ghost of that bug is trying to tell me something. I’ll ignore it).But I’m going to redeem myself by clearing up some confusion that is associated with The Evil Dead 2. I shall bring in someone who will answer this troublesome question, “Is Evil Dead 2 a sequel or a remake?”

Let me being with a little story that gets to the heart of this confusion. It’s a story about Andy, Joe, Al and Dan (That Dan is me!) One day in 1990 something, Andy and I were watching both of the Evil Dead movies. We did it in reverse; we began with part 2 then went on to part 1. Along comes Joe midway through the first Evil Dead movie. He boldly avers, “Evil Dead 2 picks up right where this movie leaves off.” Now Andy and I just sat through Evil Dead 2, Joe did not. Andy and I said to Joe, “No, you are wrong!” Toward the end on the movie, along comes Al, walking in just as the final scene is playing; the scene I posted above. He too declares, “Evil Dead 2 picks up right after this.” Joe jumps in, “That’s what I said, but these guys say ‘no’.” Al goes on, “Yup, in Evil Dead 2, they show Ash getting picked up by the demon and thrown into a tree.” Once again Andy and I said, “No you are wrong!”

Who was right? In a way, all of us were correct.

At DenofGeek.com  Bruce Campbell answers the question, “Is Evil Dead 2 a sequel or a remake?” He says:

It’s a “Requel”!

Told you I’d bring in someone to answer the question!

Sam Raimi’s original intent was to pick up right where The Evil Dead left off – after showing several minutes of footage from the original movie in order to recap the story. Oh but alas, they did not own the rights to their own film! So they couldn’t replay scenes from the original movie. So instead they started fresh. Ash (played by Bruce Campbell) takes his girlfriend to the cabin in the woods for a romantic getaway. While there, he stumbles upon the book of the dead and the tape recorder. He plays the tape, which features the professor’s voice reading the incantation that awakens the demons. The demons arrive and possess his girlfriend and eventually grab a hold of Ash and spin him around like he’s a windmill, and then smash him against a tree. He falls down the trunk into a large puddle of mud. This is how Joe and Al remembered the beginning of The Evil Dead 2. They had forgotten about the new setup up with the girlfriend.

See, Sam Raimi and the boys had to shop for new financers and distributors for the sequel (The former distributors retained the rights for The Evil Dead.) In between the two Evil Dead movies, Raimi worked on other projects with limited success. So they thought, “Why not go back to the movie that made us successful?” Once again American distributors turned them down. It was the Italian company Dino De Laurentiis Entertainment Group that would finance the film. This time they received three and a half to four million dollars. Whooopie! What could they do with all that money? They were able to hire professional actors for on thing. They were also able to shoot scenes in other geographical areas besides the cabin in the woods. This time around, there are scenes of the professor and his wife finding the book of the dead in a cave. There are scenes at a small airport. There’s a short intro at the beginning of the movie that explains the content of the book of the dead. There are even scenes with an army of knights on horses! Oh boy!

But don’t worry, most of the scenes still take place at the cabin. Money did not spoil the making of this film. It doesn’t lose the simple “charm” of the original. In fact, some say this “requel” is an improvement. I say it’s definitely funnier and campier. The effects are deliciously cheesy and the movie as a whole is pretty damn creepy. And it gets to the action quicker than the first film. And when its time for some serious acting and the going gets tough, the tough emerge – from the clique of professional actors? No! From the film crew of buddies. I refer to Ted Raimi, Sam’s brother. Playing the “Deadite” Henrietta, he had to be in a heavy bodysuit for three days! That’s dedication.

As for me, I go back and forth on which film I prefer. For years I thought The Evil Dead 2 was the champion of the two. But when I made my Top 50 Horror Films  The Evil Dead 1 came in ahead of The Evil Dead 2. How can that be? Right now I’m back to thinking the second is superior. Oh what a fickle guy I am!

In my review of The Evil Dead , I bring forth the issue of whether or not the movie can be considered a haunted house film. If The Evil Dead isn’t a haunted house (and I say it is), The Evil Dead 2 surely qualifies. It has self-playing pianos, a rocking chair that rocks on its own accord. Inanimate objects come to life. And there is a creepy zombie witch in the cellar. Oh boy is this place haunted!

The Evil Dead 2 succeeds in flair as well as fright; subtle creepiness with flamboyant funnies – often back to back! It’s quite the piece that can succeed on all these fronts.  There is the soft haunting melody on the piano (no one is at the keys!) to which an animated dead girl dances to, all while losing her head multiple times!  There is a creepy, squealing hand that scurries about the cabin like a giant spider! This scene is followed by a slow creaking rocking chair moving all by itself. The dead zombie girl can be likened to an animated doll; a doll similar to something that might appear in an opening sequence on American Horror Story. And the hand – that’s Ash’s hand! He loses it while fighting the evil. The audience hears a crunching sound when the hand is tortured.  Viewers hear Ash shout in pain and his howl sounds much like Moe from The Three Stooges.  The influence of The Three Stooges can be seen here – very much so.

While watching Bruce Campbell act his way through these scenes, I can only think, “If Evil Dead 2only Jim Carey could be as good!” As a man of physical comedy, I believe that Campbell can do a better Jim Carey than Jim himself! And how strange, while I compare him to Jim Carey or Moe Howard, he’s also been compared to Rambo, believe it or not. My brother-in-law once said, “What that guy in The Evil Dead 2 goes through makes Rambo’s experiences seem like nothing.” I don’t know that I’d go that far, but he sure goes through a lot of shit. He loses his girlfriend, loses his hand, gets tossed around like a tackle dummy. And that’s only the beginning of his torture!

Let us now refer back to my article Beyond the House – An Examination of Hauntings Within Alternate Structures – Part 1 – Cabins  

where I describe four themes that are often prevalent in haunted cabin stories. The fourth theme I describe as “Solitary Confinement.” By this I mean:

The cabin sometimes becomes the mirror-for-the-disturbed-mind for the sole cabin dweller. Quite often, this solitary character, when confined to a cabin and cut off from civilization, will develop a psychosis that is caused by a lack of human contact

For quite some time in this film, Ash is all alone. His sanity is tested. Whereas the book Maynard’s House is the best example of this theme playing out, it works here as well. At one point Ash looks into a mirror and tries to console himself. He’s checking on his sanity. What happens is both frightening and funny!

The first theme I bring up I call “Outposts at the Edge of the Unknown.” Cabins are the outposts and it’s actually the woods that are the greater threat. But sooner or later, the danger, the savagery of the woods – its makes its way to the cabin. In both movies, the haunt begins outside the cabin in woods. Evil arises in the woods and then comes to cabin. At one point in the film, Ash is describing what is happening to some newcomers that stumble into the cabin. “It lives in the woods,” he says. Later when a woman flees the cabin and her boyfriend wants to go after her, Ash says, “If she ran out in those woods you can forget it!” In other words, the woods are worse than cabin. At the very end – savagery comes to cabin. The trees attack! They move across the ground and surround the cabin.


 

This will wrap up my reviews of the Evil Dead movies. As previously mentioned, I will not be reviewing The Army of Darkness, Evil Dead 2013 or Ash Vs The Evil Dead. I do, however, have more haunted cabin stories in the pipeline And these stories, one film and one book, might not conform to the themes I have laid out.

How dare they go against me! How dare they!

 


Images courtesy of waxworksrecords.com, Thatwasabitmental.com and skullsproject.wordpress.com

 

The Evil Dead – Third Posting in My Haunted Cabin Series

For a long time, I’ve wanted to write an article on The Evil Dead movies. After all, they’ve been favorites of mine since high school. I’ve seen them several times over the years, including those days in October of 2016 that preceded the construction of my Top 50 horror film list.  Both The Evil Dead 1 and 2 made the top 10. Then I watched the movies again a few weeks ago in preparation for this article.

Whenever I had thought about penning this piece, the timing never seemed right. I always felt ill prepared, that even though I had seen these films several times, I was missing something. I needed to take the time to research the films and learn the story of their making. In addition, there was that nagging hesitancy brought on by the opinion that these films are “not truly haunted house films.” First of all, there is no “house”. Only a cabin. Second, there are no ghosts or other mysterious entities from the past that linger. Only some nasty, ageless demons. Thirdly, as a colleague of mine pointed out, “It’s not the house (cabin) that conjures the evil, it’s a book that does that.”

For those that don’t know, The Evil Dead is a low budget film about five teenagers that shack up in a cabin in the woods. On the premises they discover “the book of the dead”. “Bound in human flesh and inked in human blood,” the book of the dead is an ancient manuscript describing Sumerian burial practices and funerary incantations. A tape recorder accompanies this book. On a tape, the voice of a professor explains that he and his wife had taken refuge in the cabin to study their precious historical find! The professor recites passages that will summons demons. The teens play the tape, the foreboding incantation speaks to both the world and underworld, and the demons come. Not all at once mind you! They sneak up on the cabin dwelling teens and attack them one by one, possessing their bodies and claiming their souls! The demons tease their prey in Evil Deada similar way that a cat plays with his mouse before going in for the kill. This “play” contributes to an uncanny, chilling atmosphere that also is part camp and comedy. But don’t worry, eventually “all hell will break loose!” (See what I did there?)

To address my initial hesitancies about writing this piece, I took my time planning out this article, researching when necessary. I discovered that learning about the making of this film enhances the viewing experience. I will share with you my findings. In regards to the dilemma about whether or not The Evil Dead is appropriate for my blog, being that it may or may not be a haunted house film, I argue that this film is very much at home here. Your honor, I bring forth my testimony!

While I love the concept of a house acting as “the-haunter-in-chief”, possessing some kind of supernatural power that conjures up ghosts, not all haunted houses have to be this way. In my article Applying Social Theory to Themes in Haunted House Stories, I argue that sometimes a house is merely a backdrop upon which ghosts perform their ethereal shenanigans. It is hauntingly neutral until the ghosts show up. The cabin in The Evil Dead surely qualifies as such a backdrop. True, the cabin does not harbor ghosts or serve as a magnet for entities from the past. Or does it? At the beginning of the movie, before any demonic incantations take place, a two-seat porch swing bangs against the cabin on its own accord. The trap door that leads to the cellar opens all by itself. This leads me to believe that the cabin is indeed haunted, not by ghosts of the past, but by traces of the last demonic episode that occurred on the premises before the events in the film, possibly with the professor and his wife. Their spiritual presence has remained in the cabin, but these demons need that incantation in order to make a more startling appearance.

Finally, Your Honor, even though it is a cabin that is central to this story and my Blog deals with haunted houses, I am currently running a special series about haunted cabins. You can read all the details at my article: Beyond the House: An Examination of Hauntings Within Alternate Structures. Part 1 – Cabins.

For this series, The Evil Dead series is not only welcome, but its omission would be blasphemy!

I rest my case, your Honor.

With all that out of the way, let’s proceed further into the inner workings of this great film.


When I was between the ages of 18-22, college age, I had friends that dreamed of being rock stars – making it “big” with the music of their own creation. I would have joined them in this dream, except for the fact I was a mediocre keyboard player at best with a poor sense of musical timing. But I had friends that were good guitar and bass players, drummers, etc. They would get together now and then with their instruments and see what they could accomplish. What I’m describing is nothing new. College age kids forming bands – I think it’s been done before.

EvilDeadBruceSamDoneThe creative team behind The Evil Dead were just a bunch of kids; friends who had cameras and costumes – friends that made films on the weekends in pursuit of a hobby. According to the documentary of The Evil Dead director Sam Raimi on The Incredibly Strange Film Show, – Raimi and starring actor Bruce Campbell were high school buddies from Michigan. Co-star Ellen Sandweiss was a friend of theirs from high school as well. Producers and assistants Rob Tabert, Josh Becker and David Goodman were part of this clique as well. Like the college age kids that join a band to rock, these guys banded together to make short films.

According to Evil Dead: The Untold Saga, Sam Raimi, using a student discount, would rent an auditorium at his college and charge students to watch the films. he made in high school. Eventually this gang of friends took a big step forward. They would drop out of school and devote all their time to making a feature length film. This film would be The Evil Dead.

Sam Raimi was not an aficionado of horror films. Comedy was more of his style. But according to consequenceofsound.net , they wanted to make a film to market to the audiences of drive-in theaters. Horror was a popular genre at the drive-ins of the 1970s and early 80s. Many times a drive-in would feature a triple feature of horror. Raimi noticed that many of these films were quite awful. He thought, “I can at least make a film that’s better than these!”

One of his complaints had to do with the uneven pace of these films. They began slowly, slowly and then something exciting would happen. Then it was back to the slow..slow and finally more good stuff He thought, “Why not eliminate make a film that has no slow parts.” And that’s what he did, effectively so. More on this later.

So, was it time to make Evil Dead? Close but not quite. First these kids needed some money. So they put together a short film that they would show to prospective investors. This short thirty-minute film, Within the Woods, was just a sample of something that would be much better, if only they had the proper financing. But it would give the potential investors a sense of the their style and story. This intro film has the same camera style as The Evil Dead (a great style it is!) and features a similar cabin in the woods/demons storyline.

Here is a copy of the film. It is poor in quality, but it provides an interesting glimpse into the evolution of the film’s story:

 

In the end they received three hundred thousand or more from local businessman. It was time to make a movie!

The film crew of college buddies, along with hired actors/actresses from local theater groups went out to a cabin in the woods of Tennessee to make the film. Amateurs with a low budget. Unprepared for nature’s harsh temperatures.

From ign.com:

“Yes, I was very young. There was no running water, and it was in the 20s and 30s — we didn’t have any winter wear. It was freezing. When you’re in that cold for 16 hours, you start to — I started to die. There was no food, and everything was covered in Karo syrup in that temperature. So I’d be running the camera, but my hands were covered in Karo syrup. You’d lean against something and get it all over your hands. The only water we had was in a hot water heater so you could make instant coffee. Boiling water over your hands from the tap; that’s how you’d wash them, to load the film into the camera” – Sam Raimi.

(By the way, the Karo syrup was used to imitate blood.)

The film ran weeks over schedule. The actors, having already committed their time, went home. It was up to these film buddies to finish the film. And so they did, using what Raimi termed as Fake Shemps.

According to wikipedia, a ‘Fake Shemp’ “ is someone who appears in a film as a replacement for another actor or person. Their appearance is disguised using methods such as heavy make-up”

Raimi based the term “Fake Shemp” on a Three Stooges dilemma. Shemp, one of the Stooges, passed away before four shorts were to be completed. So the editors spliced in images of Shemp, and had actors stand in for him at certain parts.

For The Evil Dead, it was up to the clique of buddies to fill in as Fake Shemps. There was Fake Shemp Bruce Campbell, Fake Shemp Rob Tabert, Fake Shemp Josh Beckert, Fake Shemp David Goodman (cue in that Romper Room lady – “I see Fake Shemp Billy and Fake Shemp Trudy…)

When the film was finally completed, United States distributors wanted nothing to do with it. According to the The Incredibly Strange Film Show documentary on Sam Raimi, they took the film to Europe where it was screened at the Cannes Film festival in France. After this, they found a British distributor – Palace Pictures. They distributed the film across Europe to frightened and amused audiences. Then with a recommendation from horror great Stephen King, the film found success in the United States and went on to become the gem that it is today.


I hope you enjoyed my summary of the making of The Evil Dead. I feel its inclusion  was necessary in order to fully understand and appreciate the overall style of the film –  even if you have not yet seen it!  It is amateurishly entertaining in the best way possible. It’s a simple story embellished with low budget effects backed up by the kind of energy that only young adults have – impassioned with a hobby, inspired by a dream, ready to take chances and make mistakes, unfettered by rules, all for the love of the project with nothing much to lose in the long run.

Some films just aren’t destined to have great characters and compelling dialogue. Whereas “Ash” played by Bruce Campbell would go down in horror film history as an iconic figure, in this original film, the exchanges between the characters, when they are not possessed by demons, are noticeably staged and forced. But these exchanges are kept to a minimum, which is smart and shows a keen display of foresight. Earlier in this review, I mention that Raimi wanted to minimize the slow scenes. He is true to his conviction.  This film doesn’t try to fake depth. It doesn’t needlessly create all kinds of non-horror drama for its characters. It’s filmed in its entirety in and around the cabin in the woods.

The Evil Dead is known for its signature point-of-view camera style. Audiences “see” with the eyes of the encroaching demons as the elevated camera zooms forward at bizarre angles, often accompanied by a growling kind of noise.

The clip below is worth a thousand words:

Often the camera is a voyeur, looking in the windows of the cabin from the outside and seeing one of the characters across the room. The camera also hides in some interesting places, like behind the clapper of the clock. I for one appreciate the time the camera devotes to capturing certain props such as the clock clapper, especially at the beginning of the film, letting the viewers know that what they see will be important later. This is true for a mirror, for certain weapons – for the book of the dead!

In my article An Examination of Hauntings Within Alternate Structures. Part 1 – Cabins I write about four themes that are often prevalent in stories about haunted cabins. Two of them play out in The Evil Dead. I write about isolation. Cabin dwellers are cut off from civilization. Technology breaks down. While there were no cell phones or Internet in the days of this movie (1981), Ash’s car fails to start at one point. Even after he gets it started, it really doesn’t matter because they soon discover that the bridge they drove in on has fallen apart. They are teens that are shit out of luck, trapped in a forest infested with demons. This brings me to my second point – a second theme. Cabins serve as outposts on dangerous terrain. They are the last refuge of “civilization” for miles and miles. Sooner or later, the savagery that exists in the woods will get to them.

Almost always, the demons in this film manifest out in the woods. Via the camera style as shown in the clip above, they encroach upon the cabin. Or they possess one of the Evil Dead Again characters that just so happens to be out in the woods. Unbeknownst to her, she takes the demon back to cabin as it hides inside her. One by one, the kids give into the savagery. One by one, their bodies “zombify” as they become hosts to the demons.

As for the special effects as they pertain to these “deadites” (humans that become zombified), whether it is the transformation process or the gory slicing and dicing of these creatures, they are quite, well, rudimentary. There is no modern day CGI and the film is better because of it. Somehow these “horror show” creatures that emerge are all the scarier in their primitive garb. At the end of the film there is an interesting scene involving claymation. Old in style but, I dunno, cool to me.

The Evil Dead is somewhat controversial, partially on account of the gore but mostly due to a scene where a tree rapes a woman. Raimi admits that, looking back, the scene was gratuitous. In The Evil Dead 2, there is a scene involving a woman and an animated tree, but the scene is less graphic and licentious.

Speaking of The Evil Dead 2, that will be the next review. At this time, I have no plans to write about the third film of the series – Army of Darkness, or the 2013 remake or the series Ash VS, The Evil Dead. These films I have only seen once and I have no opinion of their contents. In regards to Ash Vs. The Evil Dead, at the time of press, I have not yet seen a single episode. I know, I know – Bad me. But stay tuned for The Evil Dead 2. Same Cabin Time – Same Cabin channel – Thebooksofdaniel.com

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 do 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  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 to tell 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’s nature’s noise and the 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.