The Siren Song of Spin Offs: A Review of SiRen

Review by Billy Lyons

Horror anthologies have always been my favorite.  I cut my teeth on the 1970s classics, movies like Torture Garden, The Uncanny, and The Vault of Horror. What made these films so special was their extremely high quality. The majority were produced by industry giants Hammer and Amicus, written by folks like Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson, and performed by masters such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Continue reading “The Siren Song of Spin Offs: A Review of SiRen”

Creature-Feature Conversations: Event Horizon

Creature-Feature Conversations is an ongoing series of informal ejmkwr1jafwywvn7fv1ddiscussions about obscure, unique, or cult horror films.

Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters, movies, and especially monster movies. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, and been collected in Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings and Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts. From 2011 until 2016 he wrote a monthly column on vintage horror cinema for Innsmouth Free Press that has now been collected into Monsters from the Vault. You can visit him online at orringrey.com.

Jonathan Raab is the author of The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre and Flight of the Blue Falcon. His novella Cold Call will be featured in Turn to Ash’s Open Lines anthology later this year, and his novella The Lesser Swamp Gods of Little Dixie will be available just in time for Halloween.

Event Horizon (Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, 1997)

Orrin Grey photoOG: This was a favorite of mine back in the day; I used to own a copy on VHS, back when VHS was about the only way you could own copies of movies. But prior to sitting down to watch it for this, I hadn’t seen it since college. (That’s about fifteen years ago, for those of you keeping track at home.) Recently, when it first showed up on Netflix streaming, I had a conversation with Simon Berman of Strix Publishing (who’ll be putting out the deluxe hardcover reissue of my first collection, Never Bet the Devil, Kickstarter coming soon!) and he was saying that this film  had what he considered an undeserved bad reputation. Which was news to me, as most everyone I know seems to be fond of it. I know you’ve seen it before as well, did you know that it had a bad reputation, and how did it hold up for you?

JR: What’s funny (and somewhat… sad, if you think about it) is that I’d given myself aFrosty sense that this movie wasn’t very good. That was due mostly to the ill will I’d built up for director Paul W.S. Anderson, and for 90s CGI. Looking back on my retroactive negative attitude towards the film, I realize I was caught up in my post-college (that’s nine years ago!) desperation to “grow” in taste and refinement. Somehow I had convinced myself that this movie was bad or overrated, simply because Alien Vs. Predator was bad.

That is not at all the case.

I discovered this movie while I was in high school. I rented it when some friends came over to spend the night, mostly on the fact that it starred Sam Neill and it was in the “Horror” section of my local small-town grocery store’s rental display. This movie terrified me and those of us who stayed up to watch it. It was so intense that I compared it to The Exorcist in terms of what unnerved and frightened me.

I’m happy to report that the film, post-self-important-critical-reassessment, absolutely stands tall as a—and yes, I use this term carefully—classic 90s horror film. And, in an ironic twist considering my pre-developed palate, is a competent and well-made throwback to haunted house and sci-fi thrillers like The Haunting, Galaxy of Terror, and Alien and Aliens.

 

 

OG: Yeah, I can’t really imagine anyone saying this film is bad, though I can also see why it might not quite reach classic status. Underneath its Hellrasier in Spaaaaaace! logline, there really isn’t a lot of meat on its bones. (The screenwriter went on to pen Firestarter 2 and Mutant Chronicles and… that’s about it.)

But it’s a good, solid movie that mostly looks amazing! (The cartoony 90s CGI notwithstanding, which is really only a problem when things are supposed to be floating in zero G, as pretty much everything else is practical.) The eponymous Event Horizon remains one of my favorite spaceship designs of all time, both inside and out, and the gravity drive room is, I’ll just go ahead and say it, as iconic (and cool looking) as anything to ever find its way into the horror canon. It’s the Lament Configuration of this movie, and is just an incredible set from top to bottom. I don’t really know who’s responsible for that stuff, but I know that the production designer for Event Horizon had previously worked on Hardware which… makes a lot of sense.

I think any bad reputation this movie might have probably comes—as you sort of implied—from retroactive dislike of Paul W.S. Anderson. And lord knows AvP was a disappointment, though AvP: Requiem does show how much worse yet it could have been in other hands. I have this private theory that Anderson is essentially trying to be a late-era John Carpenter, and I think that Event Horizon is about as close as he ever got, minus maybe the first ten or fifteen minutes of Resident Evil. Replace the more restrained score by Michael Kamen and Orbital with some pounding synth stuff, and Event Horizon would be vintage mid-list Carpenter. Sam Neill is even playing sort of a variation on his character from In the Mouth of Madness three years earlier.

 

 

JR: For the record, In The Mouth of Madness has, at various points in time, occupied the space reserved for my favorite horror movie of all time. It’s up and down in recent years, but that movie hits all the right notes for me.

The Event Horizon is a glorious setting. In a making-of documentary Anderson describes how they basically reconfigured Notre Dame into a spaceship. Despite everything being gray and black, the different rooms and spaces within the ship have their own unique look, but everything fits together. The incorporation of stone-like designs, the columns, patterned walls, the green-lit circuit board tunnels, the rune-like etchings on the iconic gravity drive, and candlelit style of lighting really works.

Now, I know you won’t meet my “classic,” assessment, but in my defense, please note I said “90s classic,” which is a far cry from “80s” or “70s classic.”

The actors did a great job considering they all had limited time and dialogue to differentiate themselves beyond what their occupation was. Laurence Fishburne as an even-headed merchant marine captain is a great foil to Sam Neill’s increasingly arrogant and madcap performance.

OG: As a big, big Hannibal fan, it was fun to see a pre-Matrix Larry Fishburne looking so young (albeit not Apocalypse Now/Nightmare on Elm Street 3-young), as well as playing “spot the actor I can recognize now” among the supporting cast (Jason Isaacs! Sean Pertwee!)…

Everyone always calls Alien “a haunted house movie in space,” which I’ve never really gotten from it so much. For me it always felt more like an early-era slasher in space. But Event Horizon is definitely a haunted house movie in space, right down to the bleeding walls before all is said and done. And then of course there’s that great and oft-quoted line which, like many of the visuals in the movie, is a classic, even if the total package never quite reaches that exalted position in my book: “Where we’re going, we won’t need eyes to see.”

JR: Sounds like we both agree that this movie has aged pretty well (CGI aside), and it’s worth checking out even if you don’t have the nostalgia factor in place. I might just revisit Anderson’s Resident Evil and Resident Evil: Apocalypse to see if I still enjoy them now as much as I did when I was in high school and college…

Too far?

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Guess who invited us to dinner: A review of The Invitation (2015)

Directed by Karyn Kusama
Written by Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi

Review by Alex Smith

The Invitation, directed by Karyn Kusama, which released to VOD this April, will hopefully reach a larger audience when it arrives on Netflix this month. The premise is simple enough: Will and his new girlfriend accept an invitation to a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills hosted by Eden, his ex-wife. The two divorced years ago following their son’s death, and with that split their old friends have split off as well. Following a disturbing omen en route to Eden’s house, the couple arrives to cocktails and smiles. Continue reading “Guess who invited us to dinner: A review of The Invitation (2015)”

Contrarian: A Positive Review of The Visit (2015)

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Review by Billy Lyons

Shyamalan burst onto the movie scene with 1999’s The Sixth Sense, a hit with moviegoers and critics alike. The Sixth Sense was followed by Unbreakable and Signs, which also enjoyed success, but to a much lesser degree. Later Shyamalan movies such as Lady in the Water, The Village, and Devil (all seriously underrated films, in my opinion) were panned almost unanimously, the general consensus being that Shyamalan’s work had become pretentious, and that his trademark surprise endings were forced, desperate attempts to recapture the spirit of The Sixth Sense.

I happen to be a fan of both Shyamalan and found footage movies, so I was thrilled when I heard about his latest project, The Visit. My excitement grew when I discovered that the film was produced by Jason Blum, whose credits include some of my favorite horror movies of the last few years, films such as Insidious, Sinister, and The Lords of Salem. It has been a long time since I’ve geeked-out so hard over a movie release.

The Visit is the story of Becca and Tyler, two young siblings who travel far from home to stay with the grandparents they’ve never met. An ancient argument over a boyfriend led Becca and Tyler’s mother to leave home and cut ties with her parents, but when they contact her after many years and ask to see their grandchildren, she agrees and puts them on the next train out.

Becca, the older of the siblings, decides to document their trip on camera in the hopes that when their mother watches the video she will forget past disagreements and make an effort to reconcile with her parents. Tyler agrees to help, and the kids begin their journey with great excitement and high expectations. Almost as soon as they walk through the front door, however, things start to get weird.

Pop Pop is the prototypical Crotchety Old Man who likes to complain incessantly about how old he and his wife are, and when he isn’t complaining, he’s hiding out in the barn, getting up to God knows what. Nana is the spitting image of any kindly grandmother found inside a fairy tale, but this cozy appearance is at direct odds with her bizarre behavior, such as the time she asks Becca to clean the oven, but insists that she crawl all the way inside to do it. Things aren’t any better at night, when Becca and Tyler are kept awake by weird noises coming from just outside their bedroom door.

At night they set the camera on a shelf overlooking the family room downstairs, a la Paranormal Activity, to discover who (or what) is making all the strange noises. When they view the footage their worst fears are quickly confirmed, and they find themselves thrown in the middle of a brutal struggle to escape the terror that surrounds them on all sides.

A great deal of The Visit’s success has to do with the strong performances given by Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, who portray Becca and Tyler. DeJong, as the precocious Becca, sets out to make her film much like a young Fellini might, and throws around terms like mise-en-scène with the same enthusiasm other kids her age use when discussing Kim Kardashian’s ass. At the same time, Oxenberg provides welcome comic relief that does a great job of cutting through the considerable tension found throughout the movie. A great example of this is when Tyler, who is determined to stop swearing, decides to use the names of popular female musicians instead of curse words. My favorite part of the movie is when he falls unexpectedly and shouts “Sarah McLachlan!”

Along with The Visit’s strong characterizations, there is a thick, creepy atmosphere throughout the movie, one filled with horrors more psychological than supernatural. Shyamalan understands, and effectively conveys to his audience, that the terrors associated with such maladies as mental illness and dementia are just as scary (if not more so) than any possessed doll or haunted house could ever be.

And yes, there is a surprise ending, and it’s quite a good one, as a matter of fact.

The bottom line is that The Visit is typical M. Night Shyamalan fare: sympathetic characters, unique plot, heavy mood, and a twist at the end. If you liked his other films, chances are you’ll enjoy this one as well. Those who don’t will use The Visit as their latest proof that Shyamalan fizzled out long ago. But don’t just take it from me. After all, I’m the biggest Patriots fan on the planet, so what do I know? Go see it yourself and make up your own mind.

Marriage Changes Things: A Review of Honeymoon (2014)

Directed by Leigh Janiak; Starring Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway

Netflix is full of hidden treasures from the horror genre, whether overlooked-but-quality efforts from the past, or from more contemporary independent offerings that flew under the radar upon release.

It’s also full of crap. I end up quitting more movies than I finish, but every now and then, I find a diamond in the rough.

Honeymoon (2014) is a competent, paranoid, suspenseful little horror movie that knows its limitations and does a good job of telling us a simple yet disturbing tale of early marriage.

Bea and Paul (Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway) tell us, through their recently-shot wedding video, the story behind their relationship. It’s full of cutesy/gross anecdotes about their first date, and populated with semi-sweet (or saccharine, depending on your level of cynicism or expectations of the script) narratives about their coming together in holy matrimony.

Whoops
Whoops

Having characters talk directly to a camera within a camera is a lazy conceit, and had me worried this would be another found footage clunker. Luckily, the film abandons this narrative model almost immediately, and we find the couple taking their honeymoon at an old cabin on a lake (once frequented by Bea’s family when she was young).

Leslie and Treadaway do a good job building up the couple’s dynamic, and they both have several opportunities to shine as actors. The film starts off more as a hopeful drama than a science fiction-horror movie. I can see why the scores and reviews of the film are generally mixed—there’s not a lot here for hardcore horror fans—at least, not at first. And that’s okay.

The weirdness within the woods soon encroaches, however. We see a strange light shining in through the cabin’s windows while they sleep. Soon after, Bea runs into a childhood friend who seems to be having anger issues, paranoia, and committing domestic violence against his frightened shell of a wife.

Then Bea wanders off in the middle of the night—losing her clothes in the process—and her husband begins to suspect that all might not be well in Marriedville.

That’s most of the plot, in a nutshell. Rather than ratcheting up the tension with a series of increasingly weird events—although there are a few of those—the focus of the film is trained firmly on the dynamics of the newlywed’s suddenly-fraying relationship. Memory, meaning, sexuality within marriage, and the core of who a person is and sometimes becomes are the real stars of the show. This is a drama trapped within the mythos of some high strange events, and the script’s tension with itself and the limitations of budget (few locations, lots of close ups and medium shots) can sometimes bog down the drive of the film.

Yes, this is a film that I would categorize as high strange. There’s some spooky stuff happening in the woods, and most audiences will likely chalk it up to a certain memetic pattern prevalent in our culture, (“I’m not saying it’s aliens … but it’s aliens”) but the paranormal elements are actually more in line with authentic high strange events than those of Hollywood. They don’t have clear-cut explanations, and nothing is quite as it seems.

I don’t want to fault a horror film for attempting to emphasize pathos and characterization over scares, but some scenes—one of the dozen or so interplays between Bea and Paul—tend to drag. There’s a fine line between focusing on character and focusing on plot, and Honeymoon doesn’t always quite thread the needle, if I’m allowed to mix metaphors. Leslie and Treadaway turn in good performances considering the film’s limited scope and resources, but the “Talk to me!” / “No …” dynamic wears thin very quickly.

I didn’t enjoy The Babadook for the same reason. That was a film with perpendicular themes of family paranoia. At some point we get it, and it’s time to move on. Another four or five scenes emphasizing the same message isn’t dramatic; it’s indulgent. Give me more spooks and scares to balance out the messaging.

And what message are we to get from Honeymoon? Marriage changes a relationship, especially when those married suffer from emotional damage, doubt, and their past. Paul gradually distrusts Bea as he learns more and more about what happened that night she went sleepwalking, and the lies she tells to cover up the truth are meant to keep their marriage normal and without conflict—an impossible task, considering what has happened to her within the woods. White lies meant to protect the relationship ultimately harm the relationship. There is a lesson from all of this, for sure, and the film should be commended for trying to say something beyond the scares and gore.

Yes, there are scares—but they are of the more subtle variety, rather than jump scares. The filmmakers wisely decided to show us only shadows, light, and implication. I was fearful that What Crept In The Darkness would be revealed in some awful, CGI-laden final scene—but this was not so. The film does imply a particular explanation, but never really spoon feeds it to us, which is refreshing and far more effective. By putting the creepy-crawlies in the background, the emphasis is on the drama. As I’ve said, this balance doesn’t always work, but it’s better than the inverse, certainly.

The special make up effects are simple but disturbing. “Vaginal horror” is a term thrown around a lot in science fiction-horror, and this film definitely takes that angle. But it’s never gratuitous or lazy, although there are a couple of straight-up “gross out” moments toward the end of the film.

Watch the trailer here
Watch the trailer here

Ultimately, this is a story about marriage, relationships, and the alienation that can occur therein. I really appreciated the filmmakers’ dedication to these themes, but couldn’t help wanting to see more of the high strange events surrounding that lonely cabin in the woods. That, I suppose, is a compliment, and a testament to the filmmaker’s restraint in deploying fictional spookies to tell us some hard truths.

If you enjoyed films like Xtro or Almost Human but are in the mood for something a bit more character-focused and restrained, make the trip into the woods and enjoy Honeymoon.

4/5 Cabins In the Woods

Film Review: Banshee Chapter

Directed by Blair Erickson; starring Katia Winter, Ted Levine

Winners don’t use drugs. And people who don’t want their skin to be worn like a ratty old t-shirt by monsters from beyond should definitely stay away from secret government hallucinogens.

We all learned this in Drug Abuse Resistance Education classes, though, right? Well, the characters in Blair Erickson’s intriguing and unique Banshee Chapter seemed to have skipped those lessons, because there’s no shortage of people willing to take DMT-19, a special chemical compound that has extremely unpleasant effects on all those who ingest it—and everyone around them.

Banshee Chapter is very much about drugs—and CIA mind control experiments, extradimensional reality, counter culture, number stations, missing persons, the NSA, and so much more. Long story short, this is a movie I loved—it hits a diverse array of subjects, cloaking a not-so-subtle allegory of government malfeasance and existential threat in the wool of a fun horror movie. Watch it, and be scared and entertained. Or, watch it, be scared and entertained, and learn a thing or two.

If I’ve done a poor job of summarizing what this film is about, that’s only a reflection of the film’s diverse and schizophrenic (literally) nature. This is anything but a criticism—Banshee Chapter is a lot of things, but it’s never boring.

The film is inspired in part by the MK Ultra mind control experiments of the mid-twentieth century, wherein the CIA experimented on American citizens, using a combination of drugs and psychological conditioning techniques that crossed into unethical territory. The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, is perhaps the program’s most notable graduate, although conspiracy theorists are still considering the program’s legacy to this day. Laugh all you want at this line of thinking—but then go look up how many mass shooters have been on SSRIs or other mind-altering drugs.

tax dollars at work

Your tax dollars at work

In an abortive found-footage opening (one of my few criticisms of the film is its inconsistent narrative style), we see James (Michael McMillan) taking a rare form of DMT (a real, naturally-occurring hallucinogen that often produces transcendent experiences in its users) sent from his “Friends in Colorado”. Soon the radio starts playing a number station broadcast, and something comes to visit.

With James missing, Anne Roland (Katia Winter), a reporter and James’ best friend from college, decides to search for him. She picks up the bread crumb trail of his recent work—a research project on MK Ultra and a sinister government conspiracy involving DMT-19, pirate radio signals, a mysterious desert compound, and a gonzo counter-culture writer.

Does this sound like a lot to keep up with? It is. The film is not afraid to dive off the deep end. Twisted monsters, a monologue on H.P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond”, Ted Levine playing a Hunter S. Thompson-type author and paranoid drug user (“Buy the ticket, take the ride!”), creepy real-world conspiracy implications, and a healthy mix of slow-burn tension and well-executed jump scares keep the movie interesting. Its limitations in budget and the occasionally-flat dialogue are forgiven because the movie is so diverse and interesting; each scene adds something new to the film’s mythos or carries us along a tense and disturbing plot arc. We jump across multiple narrative threads, learning more about the history of MK Ultra, number stations, and possibly-supernatural evil, while dealing with the paranoid anxiety of Anne’s present circumstances.

To describe the story much further would spoil the fun. The narrative unfolds piece by piece, with liberal scares, atmosphere, and plenty of humor to keep the audience off guard and interested. This was my second viewing of the film, and I enjoyed it more than the first. It rewards repeat viewings with little clues and Easter eggs for diligent viewers. While the ending leaves something to be desired—and is about as clear as mud in its implications—the film is, overall, a strong, unique, and refreshing little horror film.

If any of the subjects mentioned above—counter culture, conspiracies, mind control, number stations, Lovecraftian horror—interest you, you’ll have a great time with this movie. Banshee Chapter is the rare direct-to-video horror movie that, despite its limitations, manages to be smart, scary, funny, and socially relevant in its commentary, themes, and technical execution. Fans of high strange events, conspiracy theories, and well-executed horror will find all that and more.

5/5 Intelligence Agency Swine

Film Review: The Haunted Palace

Directed by Roger Corman; Starring Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Lon Chaney Jr.

The Haunted Palace caught me off-guard.

I’d borrowed the film from my local library. It came on the same disc as another Vincent Price-Roger Corman film, Tower of London. I expected a schlocky, low-budget affair from Roger Corman—a workingman’s effort, sure, but I was prepared to sit through a film limited in quality.

Boy, was I wrong.

Advertised as an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe poem, the film is more accurately an adaptation of several H.P. Lovecraft stories, including The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Seeing the Old Man’s name pop up in the opening credits surprised me—was this the first film adaptation of Lovecraft’s work? And how had I never heard of it before?

The film opens on a scene of classic gothic horror. A warlock, Joseph Curwen (one of Vincent Price’s two roles in the film) is burned alive by the townsfolk after allegations of rape and witchcraft. This is heady stuff, and really surprised me that a mainstream horror film of this era would tackle the subject of rape… especially if the rapist proved to be something beyond a sadistic old man.

Just before Price’s character is put to the torch, he curses the town. Who wouldn’t?

One hundred and ten years later, the warlock’s descendant (also played by Price) returns to claim his ancestral home. It’s not long before the spirit of his dead great-grandfather makes moves on his psyche, hoping to possess poor Charles Dexter Ward and continue the wizard’s dark work.

That work is nothing less than cross-breeding humans and monsters, coupled with a little bit of necromancy. The goal—although it’s never stated how exactly he’ll reach it—is to open the gateway between worlds so that the Elder Gods—great Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth specifically—can reclaim earth as their own. Ward—err, Ward possessed by the warlock Cerwin—doesn’t really understand his own motivation. And that makes it all the more disturbing.

haunted palace 1

“We obey,” he says ominously. Indeed. Sometimes, the less about a horror that is explained, the better. Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand this anymore.

The cinematography in The Haunted Palace is excellent, with great use of color, fog, and beautiful composition. The sets are great—even if much of the film is set in a stock spooky castle replete with secret passages and a haunted painting. Although the setting isn’t exactly original, it  looks good. It’s never over lit—which was a common pitfall of the 50s, 60s, and 70s (Hammer) gothic films. Supposedly, this is a low-budget film, but it never shows.

The make up effects are great. There’s a monster in a green pit that looks cool (although it’s clear it doesn’t actually move; camera trickery gives it a look of extradimensional waviness), and the villagers suffering from genetic corruption are suitably creepy. One of the film’s best scenes involves the villagers descending on Charles Dexter Ward and his wife in the middle of town, only to be called back at the last moment by the ringing of a bell.

What church do those mutants attend, I wonder? Mayhap the Esoteric Order of Dagon?

Despite its marketing as an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, Lovecraftian themes abound: we have dark lineages, the corruption of blood lines, the Necronomicon, Elder Gods… And there’s even a reference to the Tillinghast family. This is a labor of love for the work of old H.P. Lovecraft, and was well ahead of its time in that respect.

For fans of Roger Corman, H.P. Lovecraft, gothic horror, or the master Vincent Price, you can’t do much better than The Haunted Palace. I’ll be adding this one to my personal collection.