Creature-Feature Conversations: Xtro

Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.


Xtro (1982, directed by Harry Bromley Davenport)

With guest reviewer Max Booth III


JONATHAN RAAB: I get a special joy recommending this film to jaded horror movie fans, because unless you’ve seen excerpts of the absolute gross-out chaos this movie has to offer beforehand, nothing can really prepare you for Xtro. It’s both a triumph of disgusting practical effects and something of an hallucinogenic arthouse film. Watching it always leaves me with the feeling that I should probably go to confession. So, Max: Xtro. Great movie, or greatest movie?

MAX BOOTH III: I had never heard of Xtro before you recommended it. After you told me the title, I did a quick Google search, saw the amazing poster, read the brief Wiki synopsis (“the film focuses on a father who was abducted by aliens and returns to his family three years later, where he goes in search of his son”), and thought, “Okay, yeah, this sounds like it’ll be fun.” But never did I anticipate the actual fucking result. For one thing, I did not expect the movie to be so… erotic. Was really uncomfortable watching it in the lobby of the hotel that employes me. So, to answer your question: maybe greatest movie?

Alien creature on the road

JR: I think it’s important to discuss the plot in any Creature-Feature Conversation, of course, but a summary like that doesn’t really do the film justice. When the wiki says “a father who was abducted by aliens” what that really means is that within seconds of the movie starting, the father and son throw a stick into the air which seems to shatter the sky, day turns to night, and a horrible light engulfs them both before sucking dear ol’ dad into the sky. I’m genuinely unnerved by it, like so much else in this movie, because it feels so disjointed and highly weird that my brain struggles to make sense of it.

And when the wiki says “returns to his family three years later,” what it really means is a UFO crashes in the countryside and a reverse-crawl-walking rubber-faced monster emerges, causes a car accident, kills two people, impregnates a third with a horrifying rubber hose sucker-thing, dies and its corpse is eaten by the family dog, and then dad returns by being birthed, fully formed, from the over-inflated womb of his victim. Complete with birth viscera and snapping… tissues. Then he gives himself a shower at her sink. Jesus Christ.

MB: Like I mentioned, I was at my job while watching this film, in front of a camera that management could view at any point from their homes and see what I was viewing, and still I went back and rewatched that birthing scene probably five times in a row. I even recorded a video on my phone of the scene and texted it to every person in my contacts without providing any further context. Twenty-four hours later, not a single person has responded.

So, what I’m wondering is: How long has this movie been on your radar? What was your introduction to it like?

JR: I last saw this a few years ago, and I will say that there is very little that I forgot about the film between then and now. As that scene played out—or any scene with the absolutely disgusting practical-effects variations on “birthing” that recur throughout the film—it felt like I had just seen it, and my first reaction was “why are you traumatizing yourself with this again?”

The smoky cinematography, fever-dream pacing, strange lighting, and dripping-gross special effects really stuck with me all this time. I believe the first time I saw it was probably many years ago, as my cousin had this shocker on VHS for some reason—back in the day when your choices were limited to random copies of horror movies you could find at Suncoast or Media Play. Regardless, I’ve been enthusiastic about this film since, recommending it to weird cinema and horror fans who have gone through the horror hits and are in search of some deeper cuts. 

What are some examples of the film’s imagery that sticks out for you? Does the nonsensical, dream-like quality of the images and plot work for you like it does for me?

Kid with dwarf clown near a glowing refridgerator

MB: It’s now been a couple days since I’ve seen it, so what continues to stick out for me are obviously the gnarly special effects. I will never forget that birthing scene. Also, I can’t stop thinking about the plastic soldier guy who somehow grows into a man and goes on a rampage. I’ve always been unnerved by mannequins and dolls, so seeing this fuckin’ thing kick down a door and shoot a couch was simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. Plus, oh man, those flesh sucking scenes? My god. I also really liked how bright everything was. A lot of movies are afraid to have… color on screen, but this one was vibrant and very pleasant on the eyes. A good example would be the kitchen. Love those colors!

The dream logic works well, I think. From the very opening scene with the bizarre stick alien abduction, we know exactly what kinda movie we’re getting into, even if I sorta forgot about the initial weirdness and was still surprised when that car nearly hit whatever the fuck was standing in the middle of the street. The creature design found in this movie is really well-done. I remember being surprised by how cool everything looked. I bet this thing was both a blast and a pain in the ass to film. I haven’t looked up any behind-the-scenes information about it yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had an interesting backstory.

JR: There’s so much about the film that looks great and terrifying and silly all at once. The toy soldier murder scene is really goofy but also fundamentally disturbing, as is the dwarf clown manifestation handling the alien reproductive (?) cycle in the apartment. Those rubber eggs coming out of the cocooned nanny (I’m gagging just thinking about it) are gruesome, and the weird sludge poured into the overturned fridge, presumably made out of the boyfriend… Absolutely gross, all around. None of it is as well done as the effects in Alien, from which it is clearly drawing inspiration, but there’s a bizarre cartoon logic and humor that is so discordant it makes everything all the more revolting. I keep coming back to the images of the melting phone and phone line box, for example, inexplicable but disturbing visual representations of the film’s theme: everything—including flesh, biology, and time itself—is plastic and bubbling over with radioactive heat.

I only know snippets here and there of behind-the-scenes trivia, but apparently the director wasn’t pleased with this film for many years, but has since come around to re-embracing it as it has rightfully grown in popularity. I’ve seen Xtro 2, which is a sequel in name only, and not really worth a watch unless you’re overly forgiving of Aliens knockoffs with lesser budgets and production values. There are a few shots of an alien world in that film that are haunting, calling to mind the high strange weirdness of this film, but it is otherwise fairly pedestrian. I haven’t seen Xtro 3 but its reputation isn’t great, either. A rumored Xtro 4 is supposedly in the works, being more of a thematic sequel to the original in its weirdness.

MB: I don’t think I like the idea of ever watching the sequels. I just want the original to exist in my memory as a distancing dream until one day I can’t remember if I ever really watched it. 

Man depositing or sucking or something gross

Max Booth III is the Editor-in-Chief of Perpetual Motion Machine, the Managing Editor of Dark Moon Digest, and the host of two podcasts: Ghoulish and Castle Rock Radio. He’s the author of Touch the Night, Carnivorous Lunar Activities, and several other novels. Bylines include LitReactor, CrimeReads, the San Antonio Current, Fangoria, and Film 14. Follow him on Twitter @GiveMeYourTeeth or visit him at http://www.TalesFromTheBooth.com. He lives in Texas.

Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.

Creature-Feature Conversations: Spookies

Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.


Spookies (1986, directed by Eugenie Joseph, Thomas Doran, and Brendan Faulkner)

With guest reviewer Patrick Lacey


JONATHAN RAAB: Have you seen this before? And if so, what the hell?

PATRICK LACEY: Yes but only ten or so times. Used to stare at the cover in the video store and think “I’m not ready for this.” And when I was, I could never find a copy until years later at a con. Bootleg DVD rip from a VHS. But it did the job just fine even if it was hard to hear the muckmen fart over the hiss. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

JR: I’m not sure what that cover looked like, but the title card itself is pretty great. It has a “Halloween Party Superstore” vibe to it, especially with the winking skull. My first exposure to this was probably the Red Letter Media episode where they discover this gem, then later a House by the Video Store retrospective, so I had some idea of what was coming, but I wasn’t prepared for how incompetently made the movie was—and how charming it ended up being.

PL: The incompetence is what makes it interesting for me because, you see, the movie is really two movies stitched together, two entirely different productions.

The Grim Reaper

JR: Right, the other abortive film being something called Twisted Souls. Remembering that is sort of key, as one film is about the group of party people trapped in the haunted house with a bunch of crazy monsters, and the second is about a weirdo in terrible-old-guy-makeup and his cat-man (?) sidekick. That second movie is noticeably less interesting than the first, and involves the old man trying to resurrect his bride through… some means or another, means somehow related to the weird monsters stalking the halls of what is an otherwise cool mansion set. I honestly don’t feel like there’s much to talk about concerning that guy and his friend in terrible Halloween makeup, because the real fun comes from the baffling acting of the main cast and the often-inspired creature design of the ghoulies that hunt them down.

PL: I will say: the creature effects are way better than they have any right to be, and let’s be honest, that’s the main draw. People aren’t coming here for the weird Sleeping Beauty bit. But I submit to you: would this film be as infamous, as coveted, as it is now if it weren’t for that segment? If it were, say, a decent creature feature with great puppets, would we be having this discourse? I think not. And because of that, I salute you, weird German guy. And you too, Wolf Boy.

JR: I don’t know. I think if the original version had another creature kill scene or two and was feature length, this film might still be in the conversation. I found the film to be generally very entertaining in a car-wreck sort of way, but every time the horrible old man and his horrible dialogue came back, the film lost all momentum. I think it’s best to focus on the creatures and their set pieces.

The spider-lady scene was genuinely gross in a cartoonish sort of way, despite the racist soundtrack cues; the grim reaper was a fabulous yard decoration come to life, and the slime-oil creature grossed me out. That one felt like a leftover from Galaxy of Terror, and I say that in the best way possible. What were the standouts for you?

PL: I’ve got to give props to the GHOULIES-esque puppet, the knock-off deadite, and the aforementioned muck men. That’s the best sentence I’ve written in ages and another reason why I love this film so much.

There’s so much constantly assaulting you that sometimes you’re not sure if it happened in the first place. It’s a fever dream, a movie best watched when you’ve eaten too much junk food and your eyes are getting drowsy. To be honest, I’m not sure if Spookies actually exists or if it’s a nightmare we’ve collectively shared. Either way, it rocks.

JR: The whole thing really does have to be seen to be believed, and just talking about it doesn’t do it justice. It’s an incompetent mess with bright moments of inspired design and oddball, unintentional humor. Grab some friends and your favorite mind-altering substance, and give Spookies a try.

An old woman monster

Patrick Lacey spends his nights and weekends writing about things that make the general public uncomfortable. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, his daughter, his oversized cat, and his muse, who is likely trying to kill him. Follow him on Twitter (@patlacey).

Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.

Creature-Feature Conversations: The Resurrected

Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.


The Resurrected (1991, Directed by Dan O’Bannon)

With guest reviewer William Tea


JONATHAN RAAB: My Blu Ray copy of The Resurrected arrived as a gift from a friend, featuring some cool artwork of Chris Sarandon’s face emerging from a twisting bio-horror mess, which instantly grabbed my attention. That it turned out to be an adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was a welcome surprise. When I finally sat down to watch it this past weekend, I was even more delighted to discover that Dan O’Bannon—the writer of Alien—was the director! While the film isn’t perfect by a long shot, it’s always nice to discover a competent early-90s horror movie, especially one with such great practical creature effects and Lovecraftian origins.

WILLIAM TEA: While you were enjoying that spiffy new Blu Ray disc, the edition I watched was actually an old, pan-and-scan, bare bones DVD that’s been out of print for years. I paid way too much liberating a factory sealed copy from my local thrift shop because I never thought it would get rereleased. Clearly I’m an idiot. The kicker is that I’d never seen The Resurrected when I bought it. I only knew the two things you just found out: that it was directed by Dan O’Bannon and that it was a Lovecraft adaptation.

The O’Bannon connection is somewhat bittersweet. As you said, he’s best known as the writer of Alien, but I think of O’Bannon as one of the great overlooked behind-the-scenes players of the ’80s and early ’90s, with story/script credits on everything from Heavy Metal to Dead & Buried to Lifeforce to Total Recall. He was even attached to Alejandro Jodorowky’s famously unmade adaptation of Dune at one point! Yet he has only two directorial credits: the punk rock zombie comedy Return of the Living Dead and this.

The former is rightfully remembered as an iconic classic, but The Resurrected remains a little-known obscurity. What’s interesting to me is that, despite being in the same genre, these are two wildly different films. In contrast to the raunchy E.C. comic style of Return, The Resurrected is a surprisingly grim, slow-burn occult mystery. O’Bannon once said it represented some of his best work, but he disowned the final product when producers recut it without him. I think watching it you can sometimes tell it was a meddled-with chop-job.

A skeleton with most of its skin missing

JR: Dan’s a legend, for sure, and someone I’ll always admire. I recall some behind-the-scenes footage from an Alien DVD wherein he describes mainlining coffee and eating nothing but hot dogs while writing the script, then crying tears of joy and awe when the movie came out. A friend of mine and I still reference that bit to this day.

As for the film itself, I really, really liked it, but I can absolutely see where he’s coming from. It does have an overlong feel to it—some parts drag a bit and feel pretty clunky. But that’s all forgivable because of some great performances (including and especially Sarandon’s twin roles) and stellar, end-of-an-era gore and creature effects. There’s some fun camerawork, lighting, and cinematography, too. This feels like a Stuart Gordon-adjacent Lovecraft adaptation, with good atmosphere, an emphasis on Weird Old New England, and a noir tone. It might not have the energy of a From Beyond or Re-Animator, but it’s a shame it’s been overlooked for so long.

WT: That lack of energy, at least early on, is probably one of the biggest hurdles that kept The Resurrected from finding an audience back in the day. It’s easy to imagine someone renting this and giving up before hitting the 30-minute mark. I might be charitable in calling the pacing of the first act “leisurely.” I’m less charitable towards the lead actor, the one who plays the private investigator character that replaces the doctor from the original story. I found him excruciatingly bland. Fortunately, Chris Sarandon has got charisma to spare. He does a great job acting shifty and mysterious. I think if anything could convince an impatient audience member to stick with The Resurrected, it’s him.

Once the second act kicks in, things really pick up. Suddenly, the movie goes from being this somewhat dry detective story to throwing cannibalism and necromancy at you. Sarandon winds up in a straight jacket and begins chewing the scenery with sweating, twitching, monologuing abandon. We even get a full-blown flashback to the 18th century, complete with tricorn hats and puffy shirts! Best of all, the first act’s brief moments of gore explode into a charnel house of fleshy monstrosities that I honestly think might be on par with some of Rob Bottin’s work from The Thing.

For me, the scene where our heroes explore a series of lightless, claustrophobic catacombs is something of a minor triumph. Not just because it’s among the most effects-heavy pieces of the film, although that certainly helps. What really drew me to the whole sequence was how it nailed the source material. It’s not so much that it’s a slavish recreation, but it perfectly captures the sense of disorientation and dread you feel when reading that part of the Lovecraft story.

There’s this one moment in particular I love where the characters turn a corner and run smack-dab into some slimy, shuddering, blood-soaked thing. We just barely have enough time to register it before the characters drop their lantern and plunge everything into darkness. A second later, someone flicks their lighter, revealing that the creature is still coming toward them. The characters panic and someone fires a gun, and once again the light goes out. We have no idea if that shot connected or if it would even matter if it did. On top of all that, the floor is dotted with pits, so one wrong step could be fatal. It’s a simple set-up, but it works so well. We in the audience are just as lost as the characters, and we know just enough to understand the same thing they do: that they are supremely fucked.

A spooky house in the Rhode Island countryside.

JR: Absolutely, that’s gotta be the high point of the movie, especially because by then the pacing has caught up with the promise of the source material—although I will admit that the novel itself is pretty slow, and not something that I would recommend for first-time readers of Lovecraft.

I imagine that that scene is even more effective on a lower-quality transfer, but honestly, watching the Blu Ray with lots of detail and a clear picture, the monsters and gore effects still looked great! I’m afraid that if this movie were made today, the creatures would be 100% CGI and the sense of menace and revulsion they have might be a bit lost.

Overall, this is a film that fans of the more frenetic Lovecraft adaptations should consider seeking out. But I do have to mention that my favorite adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, filmwise, has to be The Haunted Palace starring Vincent Price (which comes complete with some “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” influence), while the BBC Radio 4 podcast/audio-drama The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is top-notch.

WT: Y’know, despite me being a huge fan of both Vincent Price and Roger Corman, I’ve never actually seen The Haunted Palace. I’ll have to rectify that sometime very, very soon.

Thinking about what The Resurrected would have looked like with CGI instead of practical effects puts me in mind once again of The Thing, only this time I’m talking about the 2011 remake-disguised-as-a-prequel. That was never going to be a great film, but like The Resurrected it was a major victim of executive meddling. Producers apparently cut out the director’s monster suit and animatronics sequences and completely reshot them with CGI. I’m not rabidly anti-CGI, but I think The Thing is a prime example of what happens when they’re used as a lazy cure-all instead of for more subtle enhancements.

Definitely, if The Resurrected were made today a lot of its impact and charm would be lost. I mean, this is a movie that features a bunch of stop-motion. In 1991! How could you not be charmed?

That said, just like you wouldn’t recommend The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as anyone’s first Lovecraft story, I probably wouldn’t recommend The Resurrected as anyone’s first Lovecraft movie. In my head, it sort of makes up a loose ’80s/’90s Lovecraft quadrilogy alongside Re-Animator, From Beyond, and the anthology movie Necronomicon. And of those movies, I’d recommend Lovecraft newbies watch The Resurrected third or fourth.

As for the not-so-newbies, I think anyone who likes any of those other movies will like this, too. I even think Lovecraft purists will probably appreciate it, as it doesn’t stray from the source material anywhere nearly as much as Stuart Gordon’s films. Which may actually be to its detriment, as that seems to be a contributing factor to its first-act plodding. Once you get over the 30-minute hump, though, it’s a lot of fun. Grisly, melodramatic, sinister, and somewhat flawed fun. But fun.

Postscript

WT: So this is random, but I was just thinking about the movie again and two questions popped into my head:

1. Have you ever seen the movie Cast a Deadly Spell? If not, you might want to check it out. It’s a kind of  tongue-in-cheek detective story set in a world where the occult is just a fact of life and monsters are an everyday occurrence. I’ve heard it once described as a pulp horror version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Fred Ward plays the detective, H.P. Lovecraft while David Warner plays a conniving warlock, and I think a young Julianne Moore is in it too. It was an HBO production that I don’t think has ever gotten a DVD release, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing was up on Youtube.

2. In The Resurrected, the hero finds Ward’s bones in a suitcase/briefcase. Is it just me, or was O’Bannon making a really awful pun about the “case” of Charles Dexter Ward? It’s probably just me.

JR: O’Bannon absolutely did that on purpose. Great catch.


William Tea is a native of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Coal Region and a friend to monsters everywhere. His stories have been featured in anthologies published by Muzzleland Press, Dunhams Manor Press, Wildside Press, Silent Motorist Media, Planet X Publications, StrangeHouse Books, and CLASH Books. He is currently struggling through his first novel. Find him online at williamtea.com.

Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.

Creature-Feature Conversations: The Descent

The Descent movie poster

Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.


The Descent, 2001, directed by Neil Marshall

With guest reviewers Christa Carmen and Gwendolyn Kiste


JONATHAN RAAB: I saw this movie back in my ancient college days, and recall several setpieces and moments quite vividly, despite never revisiting it. There’s a good reason I never sat down to watch it again, despite my love for all things Neil Marshall (except for the new Hellboy, which wasn’t his fault from what I can tell): I’m fairly claustrophobic. Upon this second viewing my suspicions were confirmed: this movie just isn’t for me, not because I find it too scary, but more because I find the thought of being trapped in a cave upsetting to the point beyond being entertaining. That said, this film absolutely commands my respect for its claustrophobic first half, which is truly terrifying. It’s a shame that the second half devolves into poorly lit, hard-to-follow action. The cave creatures and jump scares are nothing compared to that first half!

GWENDOLYN KISTE: I also remember seeing this way back when I was an undergrad. I absolutely loved it, and it’s been fun to revisit it. I definitely agree that the first half sets up a wonderful amount of tension, some of which doesn’t quite come together in the second half. I think my biggest problem is how quickly you lose many of the characters. There aren’t enough of the interesting characters to follow after the first couple attacks—the loss of Beth early on always bothered me, since her relationship with both Sarah and Juno was really interesting—so that does take away from the story a bit.

Even so, it’s still one of the creepier monster movies of the last twenty years, and I love the character of Sarah. She’s a great Final Girl with a terribly tragic backstory.

Juno wielding a climbing pick

CHRISTA CARMEN: I saw this film in the theater with my younger sister while home from college on summer break. It must have been a fantastic beach day outside, because we were the only two people in the entire theater. This first-time viewing expe­rience definitely colored my impression of the film: the empty theater mirrored the dark, underground cave system, amping up the tension and elevating my overall enjoyment of what I found—even when discounting external factors—to be a creepy and claustrophobic creature feature, to use words already employed by the two of you.

I also agree that one of the film’s weaknesses is not playing further into the solid backstories it initially establishes for its all-female cast. Sure, Juno and Sarah’s rivalry drives certain narrative events, but viewers could have benefited from seeing the consequences their relation­ship had on the others—Beth in particular, like Gwendolyn mentioned—as it crumbled to pieces like the rock walls around them.

I’ve never been able to fully commit to either Team Sarah or Team Juno. I want to get behind Sarah as the deserving Final Girl that she is, but I can’t help but feel a certain amount of regret when Juno gets her comeuppance. 

GK: Yes! I was always sad at the end with Juno as well. It did feel like a fitting climax in a lot of ways, but at the same time, Juno’s character was such a fantastically complicated one. Again, though, if the story had dealt even more with the dynamic between Juno and Sarah (and Beth), it could have been even better.

I also love your comparison of a movie theater to the cave, Christa. That’s such a great visual! 

CC: We sat in the very back row and were like, “Did we hit the horror movie theater-going experience jackpot or what?!?!” 

JR: I agree with you about Juno. If I remember correctly, she was the first one to really fight back against the monsters. And the death of the other friend (Beth?) was frankly not her fault. I don’t know if we were supposed to feel a sense of triumph when Juno is wounded and left to die in the end, but I certainly didn’t. I felt that moment had more to do with the degeneration of Sarah in this wild environment than any sense of justice. 

I do want to take a moment to talk about how beautiful the film is. While I think the cinematography loses its way the deeper they go into the cave, many of the interior sets (when we can see them, that is) look terrific, and there’s a real sense of progression and space as the group begins their descent. The forest scenery is also quite stunning and ominous, even if it looks nothing like the Appalachian Mountains in which the film is set.  There’s a real sense of foreboding atmosphere as the group first enters the woods and stays at the cabin, complete with a spooky goblin-face on a bag to signal to the audience that there are terrors ahead.

GK: I remember thinking the first time I saw it about how beautiful the cinematography was. The film has got a striking look, and what’s particularly interesting is that I feel like that look fits more into the types of horror movies we’ve seen more recently (e.g. The VVitch or Midsommar). In that way, The Descent was a bit ahead of its time in that return to “beautiful horror,” which was very much a trend in the early days of the genre (almost any Universal or Technicolor Hammer film), but was often lost in the horror films of the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, there are exceptions to that, but either way, I definitely think if The Descent came out now, it would still feel very fresh. 

JR: Agreed, I wish more low-budget horror took the time to craft a good-looking image. While the spare CGI hasn’t aged well in this film, generally speaking, the movie looks professional. A lot of indie shot-on-digital films look too pristine and overlit, resulting in me being taken out of the movie. This looks like a movie

I watched this on Prime, but so I’m not sure which version of the film it is—but I distinctly recall a different ending for my first watch. In this one, Sarah escapes the cave and drives off, only to pull over and be spooked by a ghostly Juno appearing next to her. It’s an awful jump-scare ending that carries no emotional resonance. The one I remember features Sarah escaping… only to wake back up in the cave, her flight merely a dream or hallucination.

The group in the cave before things go really bad

CC: I agree that this film could still feel very fresh if it came out today thanks to the cinematography, and also that there are many impressive, arresting images that stay with you long after the credits roll. It’s one of the reasons why I own this film, and return to it every few years. On one refresher viewing, however, I made the mistake of following The Descent with The Descent Part 2, and I’ve been struggling ever since to erase that travesty of filmmaking from my mind. Juno is… somehow still alive? And the whole sequel hinges on the American ending, which you touched on, Jonathan, in which Sarah actually does escape the cave system, as opposed to the original British ending that sees Sarah stuck in the boneyard with a single torch that becomes the flickering candles of her deceased daughter’s birthday cake. I personally despise the fact that it was believed American audiences would balk at the dark, albeit narratively fitting ending to The Descent, and that we needed a “happier” one that show­ed Sarah surviving (even if her survival did come with a little post-friend-murdering PTSD). Alas, my copy includes the original ending, and that’s the one I acknowledge as the true climax to this thrill ride of a creature feature.

Speaking of creatures, I’ve always loved the crawlers (which is how they’re referred to in all the media/press for the film, though I can’t remember if any of the spelunkers ever actually call them as such). They’re right up there with some of my favorite horror movie monsters, dated CGI be damned! 

GK: I try to be diplomatic about movies, but honestly, the sequel was so truly terrible. It was overlong and added absolutely nothing to the story that the first one didn’t do infinitely better. So I love that you called it a travesty, Christa! Because it really was.

As for the finale in the first one, I do agree that the jump-scare in the American ending was not the film’s best moment, but even so, I’ve always thought it was so interesting that the movie has two distinctly different endings. In my mind, I always imagine they exist in a dual timeline where Sarah is sort of battling back and forth with what becomes of her. To me, it mirrors her depression after the loss of her family, how a person is often pulled this way and that with all the “what ifs?” Even her fate in the movie becomes like a giant “what if?” by the time it’s over. That’s left a lasting imprint on me as a viewer, and often when I think about this film, I check in with myself and say, “Do you think Sarah is in the cave right now, or that she escaped?” Depending on the day, I’ll have a different answer, so that’s always been a neat experience for me as a fan of the movie. How dynamic the story is, even fifteen years later.  

CC: I love this take on the dual endings, Gwendolyn! It is interesting to think of Sarah caught in some vicious “what if” circle, and a pretty suitable fate for the cold dish of revenge she served Juno. I guess happy endings are hard to come by when trapped in an unexplored cave system with flesh-eating, echolocation-employing humanoid monsters hellbent on picking off you and your friends!

One of the monsters near a torch and a blood pool

Christa Carmen’s short story collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, won the 2018 Indie Horror Book Award for Best Debut Collection. Additional work can be found in outlets like Fireside Fiction, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, The Wicked Library, and Tales to Terrify. Christa lives in Rhode Island with her husband and their bluetick beagle, and is an MFA candidate at the Stonecoast Creative Writing program, of the University of Southern Maine. You can find her online at www.christacarmen.com.

Gwendolyn Kiste is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens, from Trepidatio Publishing; And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, from JournalStone; the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books; and the occult horror novelette, The Invention of Ghosts, from Nightscape Press. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Vastarien, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Unnerving, Interzone, and LampLight, among others. Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. Find her online at gwendolynkiste.com

Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.

Creature-Feature Conversations: Pulse (aka Kairo)

Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.


Pulse (aka Kairo), 2001, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

With guest reviewers Gemma Files and Brian O’Connell


JONATHAN RAAB: I have an uneven history with this film—I recall watching it a couple of times over the last ten years and not thinking much of it. It wasn’t until last year that I think I “got” it. It’s definitely a mood film—that is, I have to be in the right mood to watch it. It’s got a distinct, slow, and either calming- or anxiety-inducing vibe, depending on your outlook. I find a lot of J-Horror films to be slow and meditative, the perfect kinds of movies to put on when the skies are grey and overcast and the whole world seems to be on the verge of something wondrous, terrifying, or both. Pulse certainly feels apocalyptic in that sense, both in terms of its depiction of technological paradigm shifts and in the arrival of its ghostly invaders.

A ghost appearing in Pulse

BRIAN O’CONNELL: “Apocalyptic” is right. I first saw Kairo in the middle of a mini J-horror binge I was attempting a year or two ago, and even then it stuck out to me as a weirder, trickier beast than its peers. This film is just saturated with despair in a way that differentiates it from something like Ju-On or Ringu. Even when it’s scary—and it can be quite scary—there’s this overbearing atmosphere of loss and loneliness, of a general mourning for the state of the world and the omnipresence of mortality. It’s like a funeral for human connection. I can only watch it infrequently, not just because of the alienating meditative atmosphere that you so accurately describe, but also because its head-on confrontation with existential angst is much more uncompromising and distressing than a lot of other horror movies even attempt. (Not to mention that its vision of apocalyptic isolation has acquired an extra-eerie resonance in the current climate.) This is emotionally hardcore stuff.

GEMMA FILES: “Funeral for human connection” is a really good way to put it, since the further away I get from it—Kairo was released in 2001, as the prologue’s modem-screech reminds you (not to mention how male lead Ryosuke has thus far managed to get away with being an Economics student who apparently knows shit-point-nothing about computers)—the more the film seems like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s lament for a generation of Japanese young people who seem to have become completely cut off from every communal/tribal impulse that ever bound their ancestors together. They have no faith in anything, religious or otherwise (I still remember having a conversation with one of my film students, a dude from Tokyo, in which I had to point out to him that even if he and everybody he knew back home was an atheist, there could still possibly be a point to understanding A) that some other people weren’t and B) that they might actually make decisions on the basis of a shared mythology—he found risible and ridiculous, which might be something to keep in mind when deciding whether or not their actions “made any sense”), and they sure do seem to think about suicide an awful lot, to the point that Yabe’s first reaction to Taguchi hanging himself in the few minutes between cheerfully telling Michi her disk is somewhere on her desk and her coming back to ask him which one is literally: “Maybe he just suddenly wanted to die. I feel like that sometimes.”

They’re at least two generations from any notions of Japanese superiority, of the cult of the Emperor and a Japan that’s completely self-isolating, yet the spectre of Hiroshima still hangs heavy overtop everything they do, say or see; the stains left behind when ghosts appear or people disappear are part of it, half burn-scar and half black mould, but so is the increasing feeling of isolation, the empty streets and hallways, the almost complete lack of crowds in a city globally known for being anthill-crowded. People blunder around trying to avoid each other yet colliding anyhow and vanishing so slowly they leave a trail behind, just like dots in Harue and Yamazaki’s program. “In fact, ghosts and people are just the same,” Harue concludes, “alone forever before and after death. There’s no difference.” 

And the true horror of this particular apocalypse is that it isn’t so much that ghosts are swapping places with people, the way I originally interpreted it… it’s that the underworld/afterlife has leaked out in such a way that the WORLD, LIFE, is simply becoming more of the same. A dark, odd, empty place inhabited by ghost-people and people-ghosts who are apparently just as out of phase with each other, just as unable to connect on any level, and they’re just milling around for the rest of eternity muttering (in garbled computerized modem-squeak): “Help me. Help me. Help me.”

BOC: That’s so insightful, Gemma. I hadn’t considered approaching this through a lens of Japanese history (beyond the clear synchrony of the black stains with Hiroshima and Nagasaki), but what you’re saying makes perfect sense. The latter comment particularly, about death becoming interchangeable with life: I think about the scene in the library, where a silhouetted woman passes behind Ryosuke, accompanied by an ominous aural cue. The film doesn’t address whether this woman is a ghost or a human being, but the manner in which she and other figures are presented—the living figures in the background becoming just as anonymous and menacing as the dead—suggests the difference no longer matters.

Of course Kairo is addressing anxieties particular to the Internet age in the M.R. Jamesian manner that J-horror tends to do so well, focusing specifically on the increasing atomization of individuals (especially young people) through this mediated network. But beyond technological, generational, or even cultural specifics, I think Kairo’s core concern is something much older and more constant: the general crisis of meaning, of living in a world where everything will ultimately vanish, a world seemingly defined by death. In that key scene you mentioned, Harue summarizes the dot program thus: “If two dots get too close, they die, but if they get too far apart, they’re drawn closer.” There it is in a nutshell: the tug and pull between intimacy and loneliness, the terror of forming an emotional bond with a person knowing that it will eventually be broken by loss. It’s like Michi’s boss says: connection (“a courageous choice”) always involves the risk of getting hurt, but isolation is its own unbearable prison.

The only one who seems impervious to this preoccupation with mortality is the charmingly indefatigable Ryosuke, a young man so assured in his “aliveness” that he literally “refuses to acknowledge death” and hopes for a drug that will prevent it—and he’s subjected to the cruelest twist of all. Indeed, whatever attitude or approach they have, all of these characters ultimately seem to be screwed. That’s what defines Kairo’s peculiar bleakness for me: these characters’ anguished flailing for connection, even as their world collapses around them. And obviously that’s a crisis more potent for this new generation who, as you said, have been isolated by the advent of the Internet and lack the communal ties once thought of as essential to emotional well-being.

I just want to take a moment to appreciate the visual discipline of the film: the images have clearly been very carefully considered and they work remarkably well. I love how the characters are often boxed off into restrictive frames-within-frames: doorways, windows, the cagey greenhouse structure where Michi and Junco work, and so on. The confining red tape, aside from just being really cool, is a very clever literal manifestation of those isolating techniques. And the ghost scenes are just note-perfect in their construction. I particularly love the female ghost Yabe encounters in the forbidden room, who silently approaches through the shadows beneath a wonderfully atmospheric blocky stone arch or staircase. Spine-tingling. What are some of the specific scenes or moments that stuck with you?

GF: Most of the ghost appearances just knock me out—that female ghost Yabe hides behind the couch from, in particular, is David Lynch-levels of wrong. Three other scenes I always come back to, though, are Michi almost missing the woman she previously saw coming out of her boss’s red-tape door (hair hanging to blur her face, as if she’s a ghost already) put her hands over her eyes and jump off the water tower, followed of course by that awful shot of the stain she left behind and her voice whispering “Help me” over it; the moment that we see a plane falling out of the sky and have just enough time to try and picture what might be happening inside it; and the scene with Ryosuke and Harue on the train, trying to get out of the city. It’s the absolute culmination of her breakdown and the death, to some degree, of his hope… like when the current runs out and the train stops, the force of life is overturned forever.

BOC: For me, the grimmest gut-punch is probably Junco’s death, not just because of how unsettling is—those black stains will never not be skin-crawling—but because of the sense of overwhelming sadness the moment is suffused with. Michi’s bereaved cries of “Don’t go!” as her friend dissolves into space…yikes! I feel the loss every time. Similarly, her imploring an almost catatonic Yabe to tell her what’s wrong, while he remains blank-faced and uncommunicative, set to melancholy strings—these moments rub me the wrong way in almost the same way as the more overtly frightening moments do.

I think that speaks to another important quality of Kairo, something that stops it from being a purely nihilistic statement (which wouldn’t be as scary): Kurosawa’s empathy for his characters. This movie truly cares for its protagonists, feels what they feel, and identifies with their plight. That frail little heart, always throbbing beneath the horror, makes the whole situation so much more terrible and painful than a more icily pessimistic approach would have. I actually believe that, despite its abject hopelessness, this is a deeply humanist film. What sticks out to me especially in this regard are the small moments of connection between individuals that occur in the later half. It might be something as simple and unremarkable as Ryosuke sharing his soda with Michi, or the twice-repeated visual of people leaning their heads on each other’s shoulders, but the film imbues these moments with a deeply tragic poignance: that each other’s all we really have, even if we’re doomed; the immense value these moments have, in spite of the doom. And the ending: the fact that, as Michi says, the surviving characters “choose to keep going, into the future”. The benevolent captain of the ship at the end continues to sail, despite knowing that the world is ending, despite the fact that everyone will ultimately be consumed, as the movie’s grimly inevitable final twist affirms. There’s a real human core there, despite the pessimism.

GF: I agree. Kurosawa is in no way agreeing with Harue’s thesis… to him, ghosts and people are different in that people really do yearn for connection, even though they don’t understand why or believe they’re going to get much out of it, whereas ghosts—yurei—are people, dead or alive, who’ve just totally given up on that idea. They’ve moved to a place where they just can’t believe in it anymore. It’s not just fatalism; it’s something deeper than that. Not even nihilism, so much, as—anti-life? I don’t know. And it’s not like it makes them happy, obviously; there’s nothing numinous about their surrender to this awful impulse, like the final moments of The Witch or the scene in which Lavinia embraces her transition, her translation into a Lovecraftian signal at the climax of The Color Out Of Space. It’s something that can’t be undone, and yet it’s so unsatisfying. It reflects their inability to enjoy life while they’re alive, or to recognize how precious it is, if only by comparison. And then they shrink into first a stain, then an echo of themselves, walking back and forth on a monitor, a fuzzy, phasing, stuttering pixelgeist.

JR: I’m willing to admit that I couldn’t quite follow the mechanics or logic of what was happening—how the red tape was effective or not, what the ghosts really wanted, suicide-as-contagion, whether the theory on the afterlife spilling over was more than a hypothesis. I prefer to keep the how of the story muddled, because the film works better if the characters are struggling to project meaning onto circumstances that defy meaning and reason, and if those circumstances are simply death and despair with a supernatural-technological mask.

I love films that deal with old or outdated technology. Modem-screech, primitive screensavers, big, bulky monitors, low-res cell phone images (which were forward-thinking at the time this movie was made!), pixelated ghost/suicide imagery, a jungle of wires and computer towers in Harue’s lab… I know that at the time this was all cutting edge, with social media and digital communication beginning its slow crawl to consume our lives, but I can’t help but feel that the ghosts using what we now see as outdated tech has a certain resonance, to amplify the theme of the ghosts of the past reaching out to us with their despair.

The film’s unspoken message—that technology will drive us further apart, into true loneliness—is of course more powerful today than it was in 2001.

Strange images on a computer screen in Pulse

BOC: Absolutely. I’m still somewhat baffled by the exact nature of the “invasion” myself, what it has to do with computers specifically, whatever mechanisms trigger it, and so on. But it’s clear—as you said at the top of this piece—that Kurosawa’s concerns lie less with the plot and more with the mood. And in that sense I think it succeeds very well at capturing the texture of modern angst, clustered in that grungy atmosphere of early 2000s technoterror you evoke in your description. In that way, it’s almost a document of its time as much as a horror film—seeing the janky computers and the awkward discs was nostalgic for my father, utterly alien for me. (Makes me wonder what Kairo would look like today, in the age of the bot or the troll: real-life manifestations of its anonymous, terrorizing internet specters.)

GF: This is something I absolutely love about horror that’s based in another culture–the sense that there will always be an aspect (or several) of the narrative which defies comprehension/translation. It’s one of the reasons that Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s work epitomizes my own personal sense of the Weird in cinema, and if audiences pick up nothing else from viewing Kairo, I hope the experience manages to give them a momentary taste for that particular thrill. If (as so many people maintain) explanations are horror’s kryptonite, the fact that most Western viewers literally can’t read the writing on the wall in films like this one is a feature, not a bug. So immerse yourself in it, and see where it takes you.


Gemma Files has been an award-winning horror author since 1999, and is probably best known for her novel Experimental Film, which won both the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2016 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel. She is also a film critic, a screenwriter, a teacher and a mother.

Brian O’Connell is a writer and co-host of the film-centric podcast Celluloid Citizens with Sean M. Thompson (on Twitter @CelluloidCitz). You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.

Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.

Creature-Feature Conversations: Tombs of the Blind Dead

Tombs of the Blind Dead movie poster

Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.


Tombs of the Blind Dead, 1972, directed by Amando de Ossorio

With guest reviewer Dominique Lamssies


JONATHAN RAAB: Unlike Zombie Lake and Inferno, I don’t believe I had heard of Tombs of the Blind Dead before, but it does have some imagery that is familiar. I’m sure I’ve seen the blind Templar zombies somewhere, maybe on a heavy metal or punk show flyer. This movie has that trashy, late-night monster-a-thon vibe to it, like you found it playing halfway through on some forgotten cable channel you didn’t know existed.

Speaking of TV, I didn’t realize until about halfway through my viewing that I was probably watching a censored version, as some of the comments under the video indicated it as such. There was still some gore and mild nudity in the beginning, so who knows. I’m not sure how much would be added by more of the cheap-looking gore effects.

DOMINIQUE LAMSSIES: I watched the full version. I don’t think I’ve actually seen the edited-down version. I’m one of those “but the director intended it to be watched THIS WAY!” people. Really, if you’ve seen Lord of the Rings, that’s where you’ve seen the Blind Dead before. Whether intentional or not, Peter Jackson pretty much lifted the design of the Black Rider Nazguls from this movie. Even the horses! I think watching the longer version is actually why I love it so much because the longer version, while punctuated by that gore (which I actually don’t think was so bad for the period), is very slow and there’s a lot of “look at all this Gothic stuff! How cool is this?” going on, which I’m all about.

This movie, while quite sleazy, and there are parts that annoy me as a female horror fan, actually exemplifies quite well why I adore Continental European Gothic films so much and how different they are.

JR: The castle compound is an amazing place to film, and looks great here. I also adored the graveyard scenes/shots, with rolling fog, odd tombstones, and goofy zombies emerging from their graves. Absolutely killer stuff.

I’m glad you brought up the sleazy aspects of the film, as this movie does not handle its female characters very well. That’s not to say that the men are competent or even sympathetic, but the very obvious boyfriend-wants-to-sleep-with-her-friend subplot and bizarre, inappropriate flirting and touching in the train scene really came across as gross and weird. There’s also a rape scene in the uncut version that I apparently missed, but frankly I don’t feel the need to see it, especially because the post-assault scene I did see was played as an awkward but consensual moment that is not at all important to the plot, the characters, or anyone else, for that matter.

But how to explain this movie’s plot? While her boyfriend is playing grabass (literally) with her friend in another car, our heroine decides to just… jump off the train in the middle of the Spanish (?) countryside. She wanders into a spooky old castle-monastery compound, decides to camp out there, and is bitten to death by the Templar zombies as the sun rises. Pretty straightforward stuff. It gets more bizarre from there, as her body is brought to the morgue and her horned-up boyfriend and friend identify the body. But the man showing them the body—was he the coroner’s assistant, or another cop? I can’t tell—behaves like a silent film actor doing a comedy routine with the dead bodies. It’s very odd.

The Templar zombies on horseback.

DL: This movie is pretty basic: Dumb people stumble on town with some form of reanimated dead, blood ensues. Later movies fleshed out the backstory and the Eastern Knights themselves better. I actually don’t quite understand why Virginia, the first girl that got attacked, came back, but the scenes where she did were very cool and had this odd Frankenstein vibe to them. Almost like Armando de Ossorio (the director) watched Hammer’s Frankenstein Created Woman and thought, “chicks with their boobs almost hanging out, melted crayon blood… hold my beer!” And that fortress is a real place, the Monastario del Cerson, near Madrid, though I think the movie is supposed to take place on the Portugal/Spain border.

The morgue attendant was… something else. I feel like they were reaching for an Igor with that one. I also wonder if being a morgue attendant is really looked down on in some cultures (ours too, actually) so they only assume that mentally and physically deficient people would want or are worthy of doing it. Like the job itself is so inherently wrong, but necessary, so we give it to someone who isn’t employable in a “decent” capacity. But it seems like I’ve seen that same type of character in the same position in a lot of films.

JR: I actually really like the scenes with re-animated Virginia, especially the mannequin scene. There’s this ill-fitting subplot about a woman who makes mannequins who is somehow connected to our surviving leads, and Virginia shows up to kill her. It’s a legitimately spooky scene, with rows and rows of formless bodies arrayed in the dark, and the Virginia-zombie stalking the set. My guess is they had access to that warehouse and decided they couldn’t not use the mannequins for their horror movie.

DL: As for the use of sex in this movie, no, you did not need to see the rape. It is ugly. They, in no way shape or form, gloss over it or romanticise it as can sometimes happen in these movies.  It’s bad, and it’s uncomfortable. And what’s worse, it actually takes place after Bette says, “no, I can’t, I have sex-related trauma,” and Pedro decides he’s going to “cure her of it.” I half-suspect that they put it in there so we would have someone in Pedro that we’re glad to see the Eastern Knights kill, but watching a rapist die doesn’t make a female viewer as happy as the rape not taking place at all.

But in the uncut version, the sexuality of the film gets weirder because it’s revealed on the train that Bette is a lesbian and she and Virginia had a fling in boarding school. Virginia jumps from the train after they talk about it and Virginia seems to be feeling guilty that she enjoyed the fling.  That gives a different dimension to Roger and Bette’s relationship toward the end of the movie because, as you noted, he’s clearly horn-dogging for her, but he stops pushing and whenever anyone points out that he likes her, he rebuffs them, almost like he knows and just thinks she’s someone he wants in his life in some capacity, even if he can’t screw her. Which makes the beginning even weirder because Roger is clearly a skuzz bucket!

Now, this movie is cheap and skeezy, no doubt, but I also think there’s some well-hidden meaning here. I think it’s significant that the first person the Knights wake up and kill, even though she’s a girl inexplicably running around an abandoned ruin in her underwear (of course she is), is someone who is flouting a sexual norm.

It is impressed on us at every turn that the Templar zombies are evil and there’s nothing good about them. And the first thing they do is crush someone who is part of the changing sexual landscape. The Eastern Knights are a religious order that was tasked with saving Christianity as the Pope saw it and they got drunk with power and corrupted, but, as a church order, they still viewed themselves as having the moral high ground and thus were allowed to destroy people who didn’t fit in with their ideas.  

One of the things we’re realizing in this day and age is that “degenerates” aren’t one-size-fits-all, and the people who point fingers at others are just as screwed up. Of course, this is also at the end of Franco’s Spain, so it’s possible that I’m seeing a religious critique when it was really intended as a Facism critique. That makes the sensationalism a little more understandable as Franco would have crushed these people if he suspected they were criticising him, so they filled the film with lots of boobs and Karo Syrup to hide it.

JR: Right, the Templars here are so obviously evil. They use the ankh rather than the cross as their symbol. I think the filmmakers were not directly criticizing the church, or if they were, they were playing it safe by making the villains those that had fallen away from the faith in favor of sorcery and satanism. Many horror movies of the 1970s and 80s are religiously and culturally conservative in their depictions of satanic evil, but that could just be a cover for a more contemporary critique that I’m not read in on. 

DL: Another random aside, with all the above stuff bouncing around in my head, as I was watching this in preparation for this conversation, the flashback scene had a really strong KKK rally vibe to me. That’s not what the director would have intended, Spain had their own problems, they weren’t making movies about the KKK, but I saw it as an American.

The weirdo at the morgue gets bitten by a zombie while playing with a frog.

JR: The KKK and that particular iconography are widely known, so it’s possible. The KKK was and is, in many ways, a secret society-occult organization, with rites and titles and masks and rituals.

We’ve spent some time rightly taking this film to task for a number of its tropes and choices, but at the end of it all I have to admit I really enjoyed this movie, as bad and trashy as it is. The atmosphere at the castle grounds and the design of the zombie-Templars—even and especially those random shots of rubber skeleton hands—is really arresting and nightmarish. The finale where they attack the train is legitimately gonzo and great, and there’s plenty of blood and rubber-masked monsters to go around. I’m definitely looking forward to checking out the sequels!

DL: I adore this movie, but in some respects I’m easy to please. Your dead people just got up again? I’m in! And you are right about one very important thing that I feel needs more emphasis,  because there is nothing in this world that makes me happier than Skeleton Barbie Hands. Skeleton Barbie Hands are love and joy and all things bright and beautiful in this world and whatever else is going on right now, we can forever take comfort in the fact that this movie, and the Skeleton Barbie Hands in it, exist.

Seriously, I don’t know why I love those dumb little hands so much, but I do. And that’s a good way to sum up the fandom of this movie, I think!


Dominique Lamssies is a relapsed Goth who is obsessed with dead people in all their forms.  She was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, but has a problem with itchy feet that has taken her to places such as New Orleans, Boston, Ukraine, and Japan. She believes in horror as anthropology and clothing with copious amounts of velvet. Her work can be found in Behold The Undead Of Dracula (Muzzleland Press) and Test Patterns: Creature Features (Planet X Publications), and Women In Horror among others.  She is also head necromancer at The House Of Silent Graves Etsy shop which sells all manner of stuffed animals based on old horror movies, and has a blog, The University of Bizarre. She hopes her stories remind you of Mario Bava films and you find the monsters she makes sufficiently huggable. She hopes Saint Ed Wood blesses and keeps all of you.

Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.

Creature-Feature Conversations: Inferno

Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.


Inferno, 1981, Directed by Dario Argento

With guest reviewer Sean M. Thompson

Jonathan Raab: I have a lot of fondness for Dario Argento’s Inferno, as it is a strong example of supernatural Italian horror—and yes, I would consider it a giallo, even if the emphasis is on the occult goings-on rather than the black-gloved killer.

Inferno very much works as a sequel to Suspiria, and, depending on my mood, sometimes I like it more than its predecessor. But I will admit it is not quite as visually interesting or coherent as the original, although the luxurious red, pink, and blue-purple lighting is wonderful, and many of the apartment building interiors have a delightful Art Deco flair that evokes the dancing academy of Suspiria.

It’s hard to describe the film’s plot, or even what it’s about, really, but I suppose we should give it a shot. The film begins by immediately connecting itself to the mythology of the first film through overwrought exposition delivered to us via an excitable narrator reading from a book called The Three Mothers by E. Varelli, which describes three powerful witches in three great houses in the U.S. and Europe. Inspired by the book’s reference to keys hidden away in secret areas, our heroine decides to go bother the antique bookseller, then climbs into a hidden basement, and loses her snake charm in a flooded, underground chamber below that.

The scene is actually quite beautiful, with the water giving the submerged room and its contents an ethereal, dream-like quality that will hang over the rest of the film. It doesn’t really make any sense whatsoever, but the corpse that emerges from the depths is fantastic, and the idea of swimming through that water makes my skin crawl.

SEAN M. THOMPSON: I love that during the water scene in question the logic goes from, okay let me just stick my arm into this water and try to reach for my jewelry to immediately like, okay, well, one attempt did not work so let me just SUBMERGE MY ENTIRE BODY into this gross standing water, in a basement in New York City. Girl, that’s how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were born! Anyway, the scene is certainly interesting, even if it is just a ploy for Argento to begin the string of women in soaked-through dresses throughout this film.

Alternate movie poster for Inferno

I like Inferno well enough, but I have to admit I literally memory dump any semblance of the “plot,” as soon as I finish watching it. For instance, the next scene, where we cut to a middle-aged man who is apparently in college (sigh) named Mark. Yeah, I did not remember this scene at all.

Mark is studying musicology, listening to some classical, and he looks across the room to see a woman staring at him lasciviously… holding a cat. Because, you know, I guess in Rome they just let you take your pets into your university classes?

As you mentioned before, it’s hard to describe the film’s plot. Inferno is more about atmosphere, and those sweet, sweet red and blue Argento gels. The purpose of this university scene is to show that Mark, rather than being a CPA is in fact in college (sure), and has received a letter from his sister in NYC—the woman in the water from the earlier scene we now learn is named Rose. I mean, I think we learn that.

Damn it, there is a woman with a cat we keep cutting back to who disappears—you can forgive me if any other aspect of the scene is lost on me. I don’t really remember who this woman is supposed to be. Maybe she’s the lady from the next scene? Christ, I don’t know, shut up and watch the pretty colors.

JR: Funny you should mention memory. I’ve seen this film three or four times now, and, aside from a couple of set pieces (the underwater scene, Mater Tenebrarum’s transformation into Death), it’s like watching it for the first time, every time. That could have something to do with how the plot is structured: first we follow the sister, then the brother briefly, then his girlfriend (?), then him again, then the weird neighbor lady, then the brother again—with a few offshoots with side characters here and there.

I think the woman holding the cat in class is the Mother of Tears, the third mother-sister-witch, but I’m not really sure what she’s up to, to be honest. 

It’s also interesting that I don’t seem to have space for this movie in my head outside of the vague impressions of color and weirdness, as this film is very much about space. On Twitter a few weeks ago I was talking to people about “horror movies about architecture,” and Inferno certainly fits the bill. The setup is literally about the forbidden knowledge of the Three Mothers as recorded in a book by a friend of the architect who built their great houses—and the architect even plays a role in the film’s final act.

Inferno is obsessed with secret spaces, wings, holes in the wall, ventilation systems that allow conversations to carry at great distances, a labyrinthine library, the secret flooded sub-basement, and the black-gloved killer’s manipulation of locks, doors, and the crawl spaces of the apartment building itself. These spaces enable violence and magic to seep into the world of the protagonists, or, rather, represent the unreality that they have ventured into themselves. There’s a moment where one of the female leads cuts her hand on a glass knob that shatters, drawing blood, thus gaining her entrance to these esoteric passageways.

ST: Yes, and in this regard, Inferno works as a wonderful horror film dealing with architecture. Arguably, some of the buildings are more characterized than the people, much in the vein of an H.P. Lovecraft story. 

There’s a real dreamlike quality to the film. There are moments, for instance, when the character of Sara goes to the library, where it’s like one moment she’s in the library, picking up the book about the Three Mothers, and then she wanders into the basement, and really, barely even hidden is a passage to a basement lair. In the lair is supposed to be an alchemist or wizard of some sort—who then of course proceeds to shove her head into a vat of boiling liquid. It is an Argento film, after all.

I want to talk about the music in this film for a second. The soundtrack is, frankly, one of the more schizophrenic combinations in any of Argento’s oeuvre. Unlike the soundtrack by Goblin from Suspiria, Keith Emerson does the main score for Inferno, which is more of a traditional style of score, if not very operatic… until it isn’t. There is one track, and I swear to you, it is just the theme to a level of Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

This music in part seems to contribute to the scattered nature of the film, as the score goes from one style, to a completely different style, from scene to scene. It almost plays like the music from completely different films spliced together. That’s not to say I don’t like it, it just comes across as really odd at times. I mean, the whole movie is really odd, so it fits.

And man, this movie does not mind killing off characters. If there is a main character I suppose it’s Mark, but jeez, we’ll spend 20 minutes with someone just to have their head pushed into a vat of boiling liquid, or have them stabbed, or stabbed in a different way, or cut: there’s a lot of knife action.

A woman stands outside of the haunted apartment building.

JR: Speaking of knife action, I know there’s purists out there who don’t consider these movies as representative of Argento’s giallo work, but to me they are inseparable. There’s a black-gloved killer and faceless others, including the alchemist/weirdo in the library underhalls, who commit all sorts of gnarly violence against our protagonists.

Before we let this one go, I want to say that I really, really like this movie, and think it’s almost as good as Suspiria in its own right.

And I can’t wrap up this conversation without mentioning the cats. There is a cat-attack scene wherein I believe you can see someone’s arm in the frame, because they just throw cats at the poor actress or stuntwoman or whomever, and those cats look pissed. Then there’s the weirdo antiques dealer who drowns a bag of angry cats and then falls into the water and is attacked by rats. A nearby hot dog vendor, possessed by the power of the eclipse or something, rushes over to slit his throat. This is all displayed without context or explanation. Magnifique.

The film works for me because it’s a joy to watch. It’s a beautiful mess, one born out of Argento’s messed up vision and iteration on the more pure gialli preceding it. Head into this one ready to absorb it into your subconscious, because trying to interpret it as anything other than pure black-magic chaos might just leave you frustrated.

ST: I want to say I’m iffy on this film, except I’ve seen it like three damn times, or possibly even more? This is a slippery piece of cinema. Is it giallo? Is it merely supernatural horror? Is it architecture porn? Is it all of them? The point is, it’s entertaining, it’s bananas, and if you want a good film to laugh and make fun of, one you can also appreciate the cinematography of, Inferno is a great pick. I think Suspiria is the better of the two films, but, as stated, I could still watch this film over and over. And damn if it doesn’t make you want to binge some more Argento. Amen.


Sean M. Thompson is the author of the novel TH3 D3M0N, the novellas Farmington Correctional and Hate From The Sky, and the short collection Too Late. He has had stories featured in Vastarien, Unnerving, Letters of Decline from Orford Parish Books, Behold the Undead of Dracula and Terror in 16-bits from Muzzleland Press, and Test Patterns from Planet X Publications. Though a native of Massachusetts, he recently uprooted his life and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the air is as dry as his sense of humor.

Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.

Creature-Feature Conversations: Zombie Lake

French movie poster for Zombie Lake

Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.


Zombie Lake (aka Le Lac des Morts Vivants), 1981, Directed by Jean Rollin

With guest reviewer Mer Whinery

Jonathan Raab: I have so many questions. What’s your history with this movie? Why’d you subject me to… to whatever it was I just watched?

Mer Whinery: I first encountered this oddity back when I was probably around twelve-ish. That would make it 1983. This was the Platinum Age of VHS and video rental stores. We had this video store in my hometown called Nite Owl Video, and for years it was the only rental place in town.

Now, this was McAlester, Oklahoma and not Tulsa. The kind of flicks that came our way were often the underside of the barrel bottom. Like the grimy shit you would scrape off that barrel bottom. The best of these trashtastic turds arrived in the form of a big box cover, and the box would be this glossy and garish number designed to get your attention. The images on the front usually involved tits and blood and were obviously directed at a target audience of me and my friends. Two of the biggest distributors of this rancid output were Lightning and Wizard Video. This was the only sort of entertainment these companies put out. Such notable titles I saw in the format were heavily butchered Fulci films, City of the Walking Dead (aka Nightmare City), Alien Prey and… Zombie Lake.

I think it was the cover art that got me. It reminded me of the cover of another undead Nazi movie I like called Shock Waves, which I think Zombie Lake was trying to rip off.

The first few minutes I got to see boobies. I was sold. It’s a repeat player for sure.

I chose this because I was pretty sure you had never seen it. It’s really transcendent with how godawful it is.

The main zombie stumbling around outside.

JR: I wouldn’t put this on the same level of Nightmare City, which is far and away a more competent movie, but I won’t deny that this film is very entertaining, mostly because of how baffling it is.

You mentioned the nudity—and, yeah, it’s got a ton of that, as every ten minutes or so another woman is taking her top off and going skinny dipping in the titular Zombie Lake, aka Lake of the Damned, aka the most disgusting water I’ve ever seen. Usually the boobs are followed by the emergence of the zombies—schlubby actors in green makeup that is running off their skin, and wearing Nazi uniforms. The film barely tries to explain how it is these undead Nazi bastards are able to return to life, and, if I was inclined to give this movie any credit, I’d say that contributes to the dream-logic and nightmare atmosphere. Instead I’d attribute those characteristics to what I can only assume is a complete and utter lack of a shooting script.

MW: You said titular. Hehehe.

JR: I was hoping someone would catch that.

MW: Seriously though.

I attribute the quality of the atmosphere to the director, Jean Rollin. This was characteristic for most of his cinematic output. He cranked out mostly erotic lesbian vampire flicks, all of them well worth your time. I believe when this film first came out he released it under another name. It was definitely a paycheck movie for him, although Good Lord it had to have been like thirty bucks and a case of Natty Light at the most. The Spanish director Jess Franco was the original captain of this leaky vessel, and it would have been interesting to see what he would have done with this. Probably would have turned out much worse, as this was near the end of Franco’s artistic heyday. I think that died with his muse, Soledad Miranda.

Ah, the makeup. That, and the fact the film has an utter disregard for annoying things such as the laws of time and narrative cohesion are what struck me the most. Even as a kid, stuffing my face with nachos and RC Cola, I was baffled by this. But I was also drawn to it. This was seriously weird stuff for that time. Movies like this—Nightmare City, Gates of Hell—all had a serious impact on me creatively.

JR: I definitely felt like I was watching a “Mer Whinery” movie, for sure, as it’s gratuitous, violent, and over the top—although those are generally good qualifiers for your work. In this film’s case, those things kept it entertaining, even when the “violence” was just the zombies popping a squib pack on some victim’s neck.

Personally I couldn’t follow what the hell was going on, and I was paying attention. There’s a plot involving one of the zombie-Nazis falling in love with a local woman after the worst battle scene ever filmed, their daughter, his death at the hands of resistance fighters, those same resistance fighters not aging at all in the 40 years since, rumors of devilry and black magic, a college women’s basketball team, a news reporter who dies for no reason, a zombie-on-zombie fight that’s completely pointless, and the daughter of the Nazi trapping the zombies by offering them blood in a barn that is promptly torched by a flamethrower. What the hell, man.

Also, is it just me, or does the film portray the Nazis as the good guys, and the resistance/townsfolk as reaping what they’ve sown?

That seems like a lot, and it is, but that implies that any of this adds up to anything, which it doesn’t, not really. But at the end of all of this I have to say that I had a lot of fun watching this flaming garbage pile, and I would seek out the director’s other works. It’s an exploitation film held together by fraying duct tape, but it’s worth a watch. Final thoughts?

The flame-soaked finale of Zombie Lake.

MW: Yeah I still don’t get it. I don’t care either. It’s fine. The zombie vs zombie fracas was basically just some dude came up with the idea “Hey, we have 10 mins to pad this sumbitch up with. These zombies getting into tussle might be rad.” Kinda like the shark vs. zombie scenario in Zombie. Is it necessary? No. Neato? Yes. Same thing with all the useless T&A. Give them what they want, and they will come.

Zombie Lake is most definitely a product of its time. It kinda dwells in that dim shadowland between incoherent and unsettling. Another similar film is Burial Ground. Wow, talk about craptastic. The intention of these monstrosities was just to simply make money. Fast money. Like, just quickly make enough money for Rollin to enjoy a week in Thailand, pay off the studio’s organized crime benefactors, and then forget about it. This was the primary goal of most filmmakers who worked in the direct-to-video market of the 80s/90s. It don’t have to be good, it just needs to tickle the peculiarities of that target audience. What’s funny is some of these films actually turned out to be more than decent. Of course, this isn’t one of them.

It definitely holds a special place in my past. I watch it and I am immediately transported back to that time and place I first encountered it. Sounds weird, but I find watching it oddly comforting, although the sensible adult in me is shaking his head going, “Wow, this really is just utter pig shit.” 


Mer Whinery was born and bred in southeast Oklahoma… aka Little Dixie. He frequently dreams of empty, lonely houses filled with screaming ghosts. He is the author of The Little Dixie Horror Show, Phantasmagoria Blues and Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun.

Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.

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