29 July 2019

More Period Piece Horrors

More Period Piece Horrors
by Kristin Battestella

These retro and recent films provide another round of creepiness, evil, and dread in intriguing period piece settings.

Annabelle: Creation – Anthony LaPaglia (Innocent Blood) and Miranda Otto (Lord of the Rings) star in director David F. Sanberg's (Lights Out) 2017 prequel opening with 1943 rural quaint, grand farmhouses, period records, church bells, and one of a kind handcrafted dolls before highway perils and screams intrude on the country charm. By 1955, the home is dusty and unkempt; there are no more smiles or laughter greeting the displaced young nun and her orphan charges taken in by the reclusive doll maker and his invalid wife. The girls explore the big house with all its nooks and crannies, but the older snobs hog the best stuff while younger BFFs making packs to stay together are divided by the farm freedom thanks to one girl's polio injuries. The others are off playing while she's left behind with doors closing by themselves, locked rooms, creepy doll parts, dumbwaiters, and maybe maybe not phantoms glimpsed down the dark hallway. Choice horror distortions, gothic architecture, and crosses everywhere accent the weird scarecrows, secret crawlspace, locked closets, and hidden playroom with tea party ready toys and an ominous dollhouse. Buzzing lights, footsteps, and creaking hinges disturb the antiques and old fashioned nostalgia – the relatable characters, setting, and mood are entirely different than the horror cliches in the first Annabelle. Distorted music, demonic looking shadows, and The Nun in the background of the convent picture set off scary claws, growling, and chilling but disbelieved encounters. Our Annabelle sure gets about, and the reflections, mirrors, masks, lanterns, and lighting schemes are well done amid haunted house or possession revelations. Evil seeking souls preys on the smallest and the weakest, and scary stories under the sheets lead to flickering flashlights and black footprints going underneath the bunk bed. Of course, some girls have more screen time than others, with lookalike brunettes and two really there for no reason – one being a black girl who isn't even worthy of receiving an individual fright. The runaway wheelchair or the doll sitting at the dinner table could also be laughable if not for the cracking bones, glowing demon eyes, and paralysis. Fortunately, fearful orphans with an innocuous pop gun reeling in more than its tethered ball strike at the sacred under the covers safety while invasive takeovers and black goo mar those in little white nightgowns. Yeah, if you have all these creepy toy secrets and evil house problems, maybe you shouldn't sign up to shelter orphans, FYI. Mistaken adults realize the consequences too late, and an exposition flashback with exorcisms and rooms lined with Bible passages to contain the evil within should have been shown at the beginning. Such two halves of the story would have been fine, for once we get the traditional tell all, the gory shocks, prayers, and screams devolve into intrusive, modern whooshes across the screen, swooping pans calling attention to themselves, flying objects, and more padding cliches including the car not starting and monsters crawling on the ceiling. Although we've seen what this evil can do, the consequences are minimal because, after all, there's a franchise to consider. With such religious characters, the spiritual answers versus demons are never fully embraced, and the police are apparently content with priests blessing the house while evil moves on for a coda from the first movie – which doesn't quite match up with what has already been shown in The Conjuring universe. This unravels in the end to make room for more sequels, however, the atmospheric chills make for an entertaining watch even if you haven't seen the companion films.

The Ghoul – Freddie Francis (Torture Garden) directs Veronica Carlson (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave), John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive), and priest turned doctor Peter Cushing (Curse of Frankenstein) in this 1975 Tyburn production fronting heaps of flapper glam with pearls, fancy frocks, furs, and champagne. Disturbing hangings are just a lark for the twenties parties before phonographs, Charlestons, and sweet roadsters. Sure, the terribly dated rear view projection is bemusing, but the tight races, perilous bends, tense speeds, accidents, and blind cliffs lead to no petrol, stranded survivors, strangers in the woods, animal cages, and a nearby manor on the soggy moors. After the rapacious chases, the regal home with divine woodwork, antiques, medieval touches, chapels, and – most importantly – tea seems safe, quaint, even sad. Knowing Cushing filmed under the duress of his own late wife adds to the past family tragedies in India, somber violins, and loss of faith. Searches are called off thanks to fog that may not lift for days, however candles, red curtains, ominous melodies, creepy portraits, and maniacal laughter suggest something is going on behind the manor's locked doors. Whispers from the attic, red wraps, and white gowns lead to something decrepit coming down the stairs, and the camera follows the ugly feet, boils, blood, and ritualistic blades. Tearing the bed curtains and penetrating, bloody knives provide symbolic violence to the gruesome murders as we started with one happy group but lose them to something more sinister. Bodies on the table, kitchen utensils, ritual cuttings, and barrels of salt escalate to sobbing before the altar and suicides while police and trespassers are foiled with decoy explanations. The spooky atmosphere builds to choice horror moments with claustrophobic shacks, bog perils, crosses, and desecration, and prowlers hoping to lure fresh supple dames culminates in near rescues, fleshy confessions, screams, and blood. Granted, the print is flat, the subtitles don't match – they're even nonsensical at times – and the film's summary on Amazon Prime gives away the tasty what's what. After all the xenophobic monstrosity undertones, it's also a bit of a letdown once we finally see the eponymous creeper saved for the twisted finale. Considering the Hammer pedigree both in front and behind the camera, this lacks a certain polish and an over the top of the time ferocity perhaps understandably expected. Fortunately, this eighty minutes plus doesn't overstay its late night macabre welcome thanks to Cushing's bittersweet performance.

You Make the Call

The Lodgers – Dark lakes, Loftus Hall locales, heartbeats, and racing to beat the midnight clock chimes open this 1920 set 2017 Irish production. Torn wallpaper, water in the woodwork, trap doors, boarded windows, and shabby furnishings intrude on the once grand staircase, and there's a sadness to these orphaned twins, their meager meals, and their fear of the very thing that keeps them together. Dirty mirrors, covered furniture, dusty birdcages, and more turn of the century than post-war clothing add to the old fashioned atmosphere alongside a creepy nursery rhyme that reminds the siblings of the house rules. Our sister, however, takes more risks than her sickly, skeletal looking brother – she's ready to leave as their eighteenth birthday promises only more bleakness with suspect letters, nosy lawyers, family curses, and apparitions in the water. Hooded capes, lockets, ravens, a prohibited gate, and overgrown ruins in the woods likewise provide a morose fairy tale feeling against the underlining interwar versus at home issues, tense village, and local hooligans. Their finances have run out but selling the house is not an option thanks to nude shadows, whispering entities, whirlpools, and phallic eels in the bathtub. Dim lanterns, bridal beds, velvet curtains, and virginal white satin accent the obviously icky suggestions and forbidden fruits growing in the family cemetery, and locked in scares create chills because of the invasive, no privacy nature of the manor. Our brother is regressing while his sister takes charge, and this all feels very similar to Crimson Peak complete with a watery ceiling instead of snow, nature seeping up to the surface, and stabbings in the front doorway. This however, is bitter rather than colorful, a mix of supernatural versus psychological with a young lady's innate fears over the one thing a man wants. Touching the local soldier's amputation injury is just as intimate as sexual relations, and if there is not sex according to the family needs, there will still be killer motivations, stabbing penetrations, and blood. Viewers feel the shameful secrets and sinful oppression, but sometimes logic does intrude. All that dampness and mold in the house would surely make them ill and shouldn't four generations of incest make them deformed? The atmosphere here is heavy, however the tale never goes far enough with the housebound horror or mental torment answers. Are the men gaslighting the women to accept rape and incest? The ambiguity doesn't explain the supernatural phenomena and laughable dream sequences with naked floating hold back the moody metaphors. Thankfully, stormy action, sickly pallor, and an eerie family parade complete the gothic dread and distorted environs in the finale, and although there's little repeat value, this is watchable if you don't expect frights a minute and can enjoy a creepy sense of period unease.

13 July 2019

Tales from the Crypt Season 6

Tales from the Crypt Peaks with Season 6 
by Kristin Battestella

The fifteen episode 1994-95 Sixth and penultimate season of Tales from the Crypt peaks with another year of saucy satire and bizarre plots inspired by Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, ShockSuspense Stories, Crime Suspense Stories, and Haunt of Fear.

CKNN news anchor The Crypt Keeper reports on a mummy taking the rap after years in denial before opening the season with the comeuppance of “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime.” Big city lawyer Catherine O'Hara (Beetlejuice) is stuck with bow tie wearing public defender Peter MacNichol (Dracula: Dead and Loving It) for a simple vehicle violation – her “Sue Me” license plate – in a very strict backwater burg proud of its local executions and town square hangings. Unfortunately, contesting her original penance of ten lashes leads to stocks and gory dungeon apparitions of her previous lawsuit victims. Director Russell Mulcahy's (Highlander) askew camera angles and distorted courtroom proportions visually accent the injustice, appeals, increasingly ominous judges, and electric chair twists before the neon Halloween decadence of “Only Skin Deep.” Unwelcome guests and abusive threats dampen the rad party, but “Molly” is ready to take the sexy bizarre home to her barren warehouse loft – so long as they keep on their masks. No last names or details will interfere with the lingerie and saucy action on the red couch. Her body bag costume mirrors our synthetic shells with a person inside, and tonight some rough in the flesh anonymity will set all the pain free thanks to that no questions asked policy, blood, bugs, and a power tool or two. The Crypt Keeper is doing a makeover with red slaytex paint in “Whirlpool,” but angry editor Richard Lewis (Robin Hood: Men in Tights) isn't happy with the latest nudity, violence, and seedy turnabouts as the team argues over the black and white storyboards in the Tales from the Crypt writers room. Self referential winks to other episodes – he's a werewolf, she's a vampire but they don't know it – accent the old fashioned mood, vintage phones, pencils, alcohol, guns, and revenge. Blood on the floor contrasts the classy looking hats and pumps before police stand offs and nightmares lead to repeated rejections, walleye visuals, and the same thirteenth floor disasters. The mundane cubicle life and stolen accounting programs likewise don't bode well for Tate Donovan (Memphis Belle) in “Operation Friendship.” However, his zany imaginary friend reappears to cheer him up – until the pretty girl next door interferes. Between the lines of its horror and bizarre, Tales from the Crypt often provides satire and subtext, and here there's intimate, even homoerotic visuals as our invisible, jealous friend preys on his BFF with scary internal imagery and symbolic self confrontations.

Donned in neon flippers, goggles, and wielding a harpoon, the Crypt Keeper gets in trouble with the Die-R-S in “Revenge is the Nuts.” Cruel Anthony Zerbe (The Omega Man) torments Bibi Besch (The Wrath of Khan) and Isaac Hayes (South Park) with marbles on the floor and bricked up bathrooms at his cold, shabby, and dark institution for the blind before threatening new patient Teri Polo (Meet the Parents) to do things his way. Again the layered script provides open up and say ah or hole in one mini golf innuendo to match the deplorable, abusive conditions with sex for rations and heat. Injuries, escape attempts, and the missing senses escalate amid desperate fears and a scary, hungry dog. The taste of his own medicine turnabouts provide a fitting Tales from the Crypt revenge, and William Sadler as his Bill and Ted Grim Reaper proposes a contest with his old friend the Crypt Keeper in “The Assassin” – because this tomb isn't big enough for the both of them. Shelley Hack's (Charlie's Angels) suburban sunny side up perfection is also disrupted by tasers, Corey Feldman (The Lost Boys), and a team of CIA agents pursuing her AWOL husband. Despite the smacks, treadmill mishaps, and bemusing splatter preparations, everyone's so polite about the dinner parties, tasty roast, and not getting a bloody nose on the sofa. In “Staired in Horror,” escapee D.B.Sweeney (Fire in the Sky) hides from sheriff R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket) in a creepy bayou manor with confederate swords, an old lady downstairs, and an old fashioned babe upstairs. Unfortunately, thanks to some past torrid and family curses, he can't go up and she can't come down the steps. Meeting on the stairs halfway for some necking and a scary police dog named Gator add to the over the top tone, and the Southern Gothic mood leads to decrepit consequences. Our beatnik Keeper, on the other hand, he's a real ghoul dude. Doctor Austin Pendleton (Homicide:Life on the Street) wants to steal a corpse with the help of security guard Hank Azaria (The Birdcage) in “Doctor of Horror,” for he works from home because he's not allowed in hospitals anymore. Gross gurneys, scalpels, and ugly dead feet lead to storing bodies in the wine cellar cum laboratory while he looks for evidence of the soul in a vanishing gland behind the spine. It's all totally preposterous, but the quirky ensemble keep the moral questions coming amid the gory reversals and forty year old freezer on the fritz.

When barber Crypt Keeper isn't cutting off ears, he's on the beach with the babes and his ice ghouler for “Comes the Dawn.” There are dive bars, blizzards, and not much else in Alaska, but big game hunter Michael Ironside (V) is there to break the poaching rules amid military histories, masculine versus feminine tension, and an eerie, abandoned weather bunker. Something is hibernating, and icky sounds, bloody sacs, and sticky substances add to the snowed in snarling, low body temperatures, and blood thirsty twists. In “99& 44/100% Pure Horror,” gruesome artwork, kinky artistry, and steamy showers happen before irritable husband Bruce Davison (X-Men) comes home. He prattles on about antacids and soap chemicals, but his board of directors wants a new campaign for their next success – one that's not designed by his wife. Missed Talk show opportunities lead to more understandable artist frustrations, for nobody wants her gory designs. If she can't sell her work, then she's going to make bank with a divorce. Soon the white dress is bloody, bodies are rolled up in the carpet, and soap on a rope begets processing plants and acid vats to dispose of the evidence and churn out a new batch of soap with some itchy, fleshy consequences. The Crypt Keeper's tossing skulls at the annual die-cathalon just for the kill of victory, and Fearrest Gump shockolate spoofs, brief Alfred Hitchcock cameos, black and white visuals, and Bogart – yes Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon) – set off “You, Murderer.” Tales from the Crypt executive producer Robert Zemeckis directs Isabella Rossellini (Death Becomes Her), John Lithgow (Dexter), and Sherilyn Finn (Twin Peaks) as phone calls from the dead, red accents, mirrors, reflections, and point of view camerawork sell the cleverness. Certainly, some of the primitive computer graphics are inferior looking today. The back and forth timeline is confusing, and the flashback within flashback narration is clearly not Bogie. However, the unique visuals aren't just reserved for the late star, but also femme fatales, killer twists, gunshots, and car accidents that bring the tale full circle. Sure this is mostly a technological experiment imitating a specific film making atmosphere, but the delightful ensemble and supernatural twists make it easy to appreciate this recreation of Old Hollywood style. Alibis, set ups, violent mishaps – if Tales from the Crypt was going to do anymore for love or money crime stories, this was the way to do it. Once again we're dealing with the moral ambiguity and graphic viability of re-using dead actor's likeness, and although this episode is both polarizing in its then genius as well as jumping the shark even for Tales from the Crypt's pushing the envelope standards, this half hour is certainly unforgettable.

Of course, there are several run of the mill episodes by mid season, and today Tales from the Crypt would probably be even shorter with delayed Fall A and Spring B scheduling. Then again, the campaigning Crypt Keeper says the Fright House needs more stiff competition and despite the skeletons in his closet he's the best candidate for new bleedership in the otherwise dull “The Bribe.” The racial and religious undertones are here for Terry O'Quinn (666 Park Avenue) and Benicio del Toro (Traffic) with devilish strippers and Hispanic club owners versus seemingly righteous white lawmen, however the consequences are too predictable. Likewise “The Pit” goes overboard with the hyperbolic sports commentators, low quality video replays, trash talk, and thirty million dollar no holds barred fight to the death – all televised on HBO, naturally. The ruthless trophy wives live vicariously through the short leash on their macho men until they get the chance to be down and dirty in the cage. The action isn't all bad, but the so specifically steeped in the nineties cool falls flat now. Indeed, the best part here is the Keeper decorating his Cryptmas tree. The lips and stockings opening “In the Groove” are unfortunately just radio foreplay that I swear copies that old Cinemax show Hot Line. Ratings are down and sponsors are leaving, but sexy stunts on the graveyard shift light up the phone lines – especially when the fantasies turn to hatred, rage, and murder. The hellish sibling rivalry seems like it's going one place and then it's disappointing when the story ends up somewhere else. Brief deathbed flashbacks and family antagonism are reflected in the rainy windshield for “Surprise Party” as a son inherits a deserted farm decades after a fire. The visuals are both an obviously cheap way to provide backstory without an entire hospital bed scenario yet effective in providing twistedness. Unfortunately, the property's already occupied with hip babes, booze, jealousy, and midnight specials – and the supposedly wild parties and fiery vengeance are totally lame. Thankfully, the atmospheric and spooky Tales from the Crypt opening is always Halloween décor inspiring, and noir lighting, tunnel dollies, dizzying pans, and up close zooms accent the scares even when some of the special effects look primitive. Missing nose my foot! More ambiance, shadow schemes, neon spotlights, green haze, and red glows match the oozing monster designs, gross prosthetics, and screeching sounds as the camera takes its askew angles and extreme distortions cues from each story. Jazzy music also accentuates the tension as needed, not to mention the steamy lingerie and bare skin that only Tales from the Crypt could get away with then. Bright early McMansion styles and eighties white leather previously seen have now become nineties black leather luxury contrasting the drab poor interiors. Certainly some episodes have better production values than others – at times sets are bare or generic rather than uniquely specific. One can tell the budget was probably reduced – or saved for all that crafty then newfangled CGI in the finale. Fortunately, a whiff of nostalgia peppers Tales from the Crypt thanks to big microwaves, CDs, headsets, brick mobile phones, and giant computers with DOS and “the 'net.” Although, I'm not sure about the strappy baby doll dresses with tiny white tees underneath, berets, and tiny backpacks nor those high waist jeans and flavor of the nineties Cavarricci pants, I am still wearing crushed velvet empire dresses. ¯\_()_/¯

This season of Tales from the Crypt is more mature dark comedy than outright scary, but many of the entries here provide memorable macabre thanks to the stars and twists. Rather than too many look alike crime and murder or for love or money stories like previous seasons, Tales from the Crypt Season Six peaks with sophisticated satire and choice horror accents perfect for a late night binge.