A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987)

directed by larry cohen
larco Productions/420 demons

As this picture began to unspool, I didn’t know if I’d be able to stand it, because once we reach the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, the production quality (acting, costumes, props, makeup) takes a severe nosedive – and it was iffy from the get-go. I persevered, however, and was amply rewarded by general weirdness. (I also greatly enjoyed the credit “Based on characters created by Stephen King,” as the only way in which that is true is if one considers the town of “Salem’s Lot” itself to be a character.) Okay, look, in terms of actual credibility, this flick is nowheresville; it plays more like a made-for-TV movie than the 1978 Tobe Hooper-directed Salem’s Lot CBS “miniseries” and is chock-full of several stripes of bad acting that run the gamut from half-baked to hammy. Throw in a Nazi hunter to save the day, and you’ve got everything you always wanted in a fear, and less! This is where sequencing can be important: after watching Scarecrows, this flick wound up being highly enjoyable.

why did i watch this movie?

As acknowledged, I am a bit of an S. King obsessive, so I’ve wanted to investigate this one for quite a while, especially after having viewed Cohen’s Special Effects.

should you watch this movie?

It depends on how SERIOUSLY you take “Salem’s Lot” to be a “gripping masterwork of horror,” or whatever people consider King’s (or Hooper’s) Dracula redux to be, because this is a tongue-in-cheek treatment of the (purported) source material.

highlight and low point

The last time I watched a vampire flick I learned how to revive a bloodsucker; this time I found out a mortal can impregnate one and that its ashy remains may spontaneously combust. This is the terrifying leader of the hemovores:

rating from outer space: D

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

directed by james whale

These old horror pictures really appreciated comic relief, particularly from strident women portraying minor characters, and they also relished lampooning petit bourgeois authority, such as this film’s burgomaster. Plus, they really enjoyed overacting to the point of buffoonery, although that can be forgiven due the transition from stage to screen. Now, with all that musing done and out of the way, it is time to allow that this production, though a bit slight, is quite accomplished. “Karloff” – that’s all he’s credited as – does wonders with his role, even under heavy prosthetics, and the script does an excellent job of playing on any variety of emotions in underscoring the plight of “the monster.” The “monster’s mate” doesn’t appear until just five minutes remain in the picture, of course, which is another thing these great old-time movie stars had going for them: pacing and suspense. Realism may be another matter entirely, but given the subject at hand, any such observation is probably misguided.

why did i watch this movie?

Johnny Ramone awarded “Bride” first place in his rankings, which overall are pretty fair. (I personally don’t think The Wolf Man and Freaks hold up well enough, but who the hell am I.)

should you watch this movie?

When the mood is right for a picture from this era, such as during Samhain, it would be quite suitable.

highlight and low point

The sequence during which the MONSTER busts out of the dungeon in which he’s been confined, evades the hunt, and tumbles into the crypts from which Pretorius and his henchmen are commandeering corpse parts is pretty memorable. Once again, the studio-lot sets are awe-inspiring, at least the interiors. (The outdoor scenes, not so much.) I could have done without the “humorous” touches and their focus on the lowbrow.

rating from outer space: a−

Dwight Frye as Karl

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

directed by george a. romero
image ten

This being one of the more influential and critically assessed horror flicks of all time, I’m not going to waste a whole lot of words here, though I do find it highly amusing that I’d never seen this picture. (I’ve seen Day of the Dead, the completely irrelevant Return of the Living Dead, and such variants as Zombi3, but never the foundation film.) Having previously watched Romero’s Season of the Witch (“aka Hungry Wives”) and The Crazies, I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with his work, but I wasn’t prepared for the early going of this picture to emulate a silent movie, nor the workaday nature of the living dead themselves. The social commentary can be a bit heavy-handed, but that’s kind of a Romero calling card, at least in his auteur guise. A few quibbles: One, the film lacks for a certain logical consistency in how the zombies – er, I mean “ghouls” – act; two, and this just occurred to me during the latter portions of this film, why in the hell do zombies have to eat? They’re dead!

why did i watch this movie?

Night of the Living Dead is no. four in Johnny Ramone’s top 10.

should you watch this movie?

So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.

highlight and low point

The very nature of the low-budget presentation aids it immeasurably, lending it an almost documentary feel at times, and the general lack of histrionics on behalf of the risen dead also helps, their implacable multitudes generating an overwhelming sense of dread as the scope of the danger becomes more clear. Romero’s unadorned direction of his actors at times gives the proceedings a distinctly stagy quality, and his statements tend toward the transparent.

rating from outer space: a-

Silent Night, Bloody Night aka Night of the Dark Full Moon aka Death House aka Deathouse (1972)

directed by theodore gershuny
cannon films/jeffrey konvitz productions/armor films inc.

Mainly filmed in 1970 but not finished or released until 1972, this poorly constructed, many-titled movie shows the strain of its uncertain, prolonged creation. The editing is particularly touch-and-go, as scenes hopscotch abruptly. Plus, early on, plentiful stills and freeze-frame shots dominate, sorta like in a Ken Burns documentary. Eventually the production commences with typical cinematic techniques and practices, but at a critical later juncture turns sepia tone, and subsequently seems to attempt an approach on German Expressionist territory. These latter changes are in service of flashbacks explaining the story, because someone must have realize it wasn’t coherent. Despite that, one of the characters still has to drop more knowledge on the audience more or less out of the blue. The opening and closing scenes appear to have been shot separately from the rest of the picture and appended later, and although their narration also is meant to help tie things together, it doesn’t.

why did i watch this picture?

It’s Christmas season, and the events of this film occur on Christmas Eve, as did a supposedly pivotal event 20 years earlier. (The only evidence of this is occasional background music.)

Should you watch this movie?

I cannot in good faith recommend that course of action.

highlight and low point

Even when crucial plot points are revealed, some of them still don’t make a whole lot of sense. For instance, the fact that the owner of the house around which the film is centered turned it into a mental hospital at some point, then freed the patients – blaming them for mayhem that ensued – and then spent most of the next 20 years living in a mental hospital himself, apparently by choice. Actually, that’s the linchpin of this whole muddle. Now you don’t have to watch it!

rating from outer space: D+

Freaks (1932)

directed by tod browning

Disjointed as hell due to excessive editing undertaken in a doomed effort to make a disturbing revenge picture even somewhat palatable to a viewing public it never found, this disastrous flop remains one of Hollywood’s most ill-advised creations – for any number of reasons, not limited to how it may make its audience feel. One can only imagine how appalling the excised material must have been, and marvel as to the effect it could have added to a production that remains troubling after nearly a century. The decision to cast real circus sideshow performers was perhaps an inevitability, but the majority of them aren’t film actors and can’t much pretend to be. Saddest, though, is probably the loss of the chance to really experience the capacity for a full range of emotional responses from these morbidly maligned people, as only glimpses remain. As it is, 60-odd minutes doesn’t give anything of real resonance a real chance to coalesce, and what we’re left with often plays like a soap opera interspersed with sitcom skits. How this one ever got the green light remains a question to ponder.

why did i watch this movie?

It’s number nine on Johnny Ramone’s list, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise as it was a huge influence on his band. They identified, but that story’s been told elsewhere. (Marky’s Punk Rock Blitzkrieg might tell it best.)

should you watch this movie?

If the original print existed, I might say yes. But it doesn’t.

highlight and low point

The scene that most inspired the Ramones – the “One of us! One of us!” wedding dinner – remains a powerful and chilling experience. Those that seem to exist for comic relief at the expense of one or more of the title freaks are unfortunate.

rating from outer space: {   }

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1997) aka The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1994)

directed by kim henkel
ultra muchos, inc./river city films, inc.

All right, so retconning this flick to be the sort-of “sequel” to the 1974 original makes sense. It’s at least half great: the first 45 minutes of this black horror comedy work well as a pastiche of the first go-round, with the added amusement of more modern horror motifs … which are basically updates of the original’s template anyway. Both unsettling and darkly humorous – much as the debut was meant to be, and Part 2 purported to have been – first-and-only-time director Henkel outdoes his former writing and production partner Tobe Hooper’s juvenile second chapter with a bit more sophistication. The latter half of the picture, meanwhile, spirals wildly out of control, plot-, production- and performance-wise. Becoming kind of a mashup of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The X-Files, with a passel of other film references tossed in haphazardly, it retains a tinge of the on-edge emotion of the original. It lacks in the hazy, disturbed intensity, of course, and also for any slaughtering on behalf of whoever these people are and however they’re allegedly related to the clan this time around. Oh, and this time around, Leatherface is a cross-dressing (wo)manchild.

why did i watch this movie?

Gawd, I made it this far, I had to.

should you watch this movie?

C’mon, now.

highlight and low point

Once again, there isn’t any real reason “Leatherface” even needs to be in this movie, especially as he doesn’t do much of anything except throw an extended hissy fit. And he’s the only plausible link to the first film! (Well, okay, Bernie Lomax Grandpa’s at the table, too.) Strange continuity note: In Leatherface, the generic third installment, “Bubba” has an unexplained leg brace, and in this picture, Matthew McConaughey’s character has a remote-operated battery-powered lower appendage. Yep.

rating from outer space: B

Let Us Prey (2014)

fantastic films/makar productions/greenhouse media investments/mr. significant films/creative scotland/bord scannÁn na hÉireann (irish film board)

No, Marsha, I did NOT expect that I would be watching a morality play when I dialed up this Scottish/Irish co-production set mainly in a single location, that being a police station or whatever the hell they call it in their peculiar dialect over on the Auld Sod, distinctions further muddled by their brogue so that occasional lines of dialogue flew right past these bewildered and dB-damaged American ears. A morality play this is, however, about the souls of the guilty being claimed by You Know, in this case with the able yet hitherto unsuspecting assistance of a human female, played by The Woman herself, Pollyanna McIntosh. Prey starts out weird and goes completely off the deep end, along the way calling to mind such other amusements as Ash vs. Evil Dead; Willem Dafoe as Sgt. Elias in Platoon crossed with Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart; The Canal (another Irish horror of the same vintage); and maybe an Australian or Kiwi film or two. If I can find any real complaint with this occasionally heavy-handed entertainment, it’s often a little too theatrical. The “morality play” identification is apt in multiple senses.

WHY did i watch this movie?

I found it while looking for something else and thought it sounded interesting, especially as I rather enjoyed the aforementioned Irish picture.

should you watch this movie?

If you do, see how many other films it conjures up for you, and we’ll compare.

highlight and low point

Escalating audaciously, the deliberately paced reveals of the various skeletons stashed in the characters’ closets match nicely with each’s slowly dawning realization of his or her predicament. One negative is the above-noted lack of verisimilitude; the action never surpasses masquerade.

rating from outer space: b−