Saturday, November 04, 2006

MASTERS OF HORROR: A New Season

When Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR premiered last year, I jumped right into the saddle and wrote immediate reports for this blog, which generally appeared the day after broadcast. In case you are wondering why I haven't been doing the same this year, now that we're two episodes into the second season, my answer to that question is that I haven't been particularly inspired.

Season 2 began a week ago with Tobe Hooper's "The Damned Thing," Richard Christian Matheson's contemporary adaptation of a classic Ambrose Bierce story. Opening with a flashback in which black drippings from a ceiling contaminate a family man with the essence of evil and turn him violently against his loved ones, it becomes the story of the son who survived that event to become the sheriff of his small west Texas town (Sean Patrick Flanery), literally working to hold that inexplicable essence of evil at bay. In the finale, Flanery is attacked by a gigantic, anthropomorphic oil monster that makes one imagine the episode might have been more effectively titled "From Haliburton It Came." (Between this, the "black oil" episodes of THE X-FILES, and the smell of burning oil that accompanied the apparitions of BOB in TWIN PEAKS, a scholarly paper could surely be written about the meaning and increasing role of "Texas tea" in our 21st century horror fantasies.) While an improvement on Hooper's jittery, nihilistic-chic Season 1 episode "Dance of the Dead," "The Damned Thing" suffers from the same lack of directorial engagement. There are certainly thematic ties here to Hooper's best and earliest work, but he seems to have lost the knack to sink his teeth into them, much less chew them to get at their juice. The end result is like watching an earnest cast flail about a maddening sludge of vagueness that builds to an eruption of silliness.

Last night's follow-up, "Family," directed by John Landis and scripted by Brent Hanley (FRAILTY), was likewise an improvement on Landis' previous MOH offering "Deer Woman," arguably the worst episode of the first season. In this scenario, a youngish married couple (Meredith Monroe and Matt Keeslar), making a new start in the wake of their daughter's death from cancer, move into a house across the street from the rotund and reclusive Harold (George Wendt), and befriend him -- not knowing that it's his habit to abduct strangers, melt them down to skeletons in his cellar, dress them, and interact with them as members of an imaginary family.

Landis may have directed AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, but his bright and snappy, freshly-acted, self-amused style of direction stands at odds with the basic tenets of the genre. Consequently, though Hanley's script encompasses a good deal of dark territory and cleverly invites us into a subjective view of Harold's psychosis, the story unfolds in the parlance of comedy. This basically defuses much of the tensions inherent in the material, to the extent of making Harold's criminal habits seem no more than a mild eccentricity. The performances are very good and the episode makes some inspired use of contemporary gospel music, which serves as both counterpoint and thematic support while adding to the direction's overall buoyancy. Had the script actually gone somewhere unexpected or original, this one might have won me over, but it just missed.

It's hard to believe that these episodes are the best that Hooper and Landis could dream up, given creative carte blanche. The weak link may well have something to do with the manner by which the directors are selecting or being assigned their material; frankly, I suspect these episodes might have turned out at least marginally stronger had they swapped directors. Hooper has taken the genre to some of its most harrowing extremes with material not far removed from "Family" and would surely have tapped the horror at the bedrock of Hanley's script, and the needlessly murky "The Damned Thing" could only have benefitted from the alacrity of Landis' handling.

Last year, MASTERS OF HORROR debuted with Don Coscarelli's "Incident On and Off A Mountain Road," which wasn't one of my favorites but had appreciable qualities of script and performance. It was followed by Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House," which seemed to me a classic of TV horror and one of Gordon's best works. The series had some major highs and definite lows after that, but the clear escalation of quality in those first two episodes grabbed me and held on. This year, MASTERS OF HORROR's best opening punch has been to show two of Season 1's lesser contributors modestly outperforming their own meager initial showings. While this may technically represent an improvement, the new season is playing much weaker than last year, thus far. The Big Guns need to be brought on soon if MASTERS OF HORROR wants to hold onto its audience.

RECOMMENDED READING: Check out "Beyond Belief," Richard Harland Smith's blog on his late friend Adrienne Shelly, at MovieMorlocks.com. Just click the appropriate link to the right.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Great Escape

Since reporting the death of Nigel Kneale here a few days ago, I've learned of the passings of Tina Aumont (PRIDE AND VENGEANCE, TORSO), her FELLINI'S CASANOVA co-star Daniel Emilfork (whom you may remember as the gaunt-faced Devil in Jean Brismée's THE DEVIL'S NIGHTMARE), Tom Bell (who poignantly reprised his role as Bill Otley in PRIME SUSPECT: THE FINAL ACT, coming to PBS stations on November 12), and American independent film actress/director Adrienne Shelly (THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, REVOLUTION #9). I read this tragic news and others do too; they send me e-mails asking "Are you going to blog about them?" -- which is my own fault, because I often do blog about people when they leave us -- but this is one of those times when "these things come in threes" feels more like three dozens, and makes me want to go back to bed and wake up on a different day.

Tina Aumont died of unreported causes last Saturday, October 28. The daughter of Maria Montez and Jean-Pierre Aumont, she was one of the sultriest starlets of the 1960s and too young to die; only 60, though prematurely aged by many years of heroin addiction. A sign of her deterioration is that one of her last screen roles was as "The Ghoul" in Jean Rollin's THE TWO VAMPIRE ORPHANS. Daniel Emilfork was 82 and died on October 17 of natural causes. Tom Bell died at 73 after a period of ill health, and went out on a noble performance. (The PRIME SUSPECT film, broadcast in the UK only days after his October 4 death, is dedicated to his memory.) Adrienne Shelly is the shocker of the bunch. She was 40, had a loving husband, a three year old child, and her third directorial feature (WAITRESS) is awaiting release -- every reason you can imagine to live for, which makes her abrupt exit from the world stage all the more unimaginable and unacceptable.

Most of you, like me, didn't know these people personally, but we're saddened, disturbed, or rocked by the news of their deaths all the same. What all these passings have in common, of course, is a talent great enough to have spanned countrysides, even oceans, to touch our lives. Let's be grateful for that, and for them, and not allow the pain and weight of all this death to obscure the fact that we have been blessed to know these artists as part of their appreciative audience.

And let's make an effort to acknowledge reasons for joy where they can be found. Tom Savini, who would be worth noting if he had only acted in KNIGHTRIDERS, is 60 today. Would you believe that Jean Rollin and Pupi Avati were both born on exactly the same day, 68 years ago? Film composer John Barry is celebrating his 73rd. The wondrous Monica Vitti turns 75 today. Robert Quarry, Count Yorga himself, lives on at 81. And Karel Zeman, one of the great fantasy filmmakers/animators of the 20th century, would have been 96 today. A few of us might even be lucky enough to toast these happy occasions eye-to-eye with the celebrities in question, and if you're one of those few, I envy you.

Speaking of celebrities, last night's choice of viewing (wholly arbitrary) was THE BIG CIRCUS (1959), which a friend had sent to me awhile ago on DVD-R -- and, boy, does it have a lot of celebrities. One of those frustrating videos that letterbox only the credits for the actors but not their performances, it's very deserving of a properly letterboxed DVD release, as it's in scope and fills the screen with lots of color, action, and as I said, celebrities. Vincent Price is the ringmaster, Peter Lorre is the lead clown, Red Buttons is the expense auditor, Gilbert Roland (who is particularly great) and David Nelson are the aerialists, Rhonda Fleming and Kathryn Grant are the obligatory love interests, and Victor Mature is the flamboyant owner of the Whirling Circus, "The Biggest Show on Earth." Ah, but who is the spy sent by a competing circus to sabotage their success?

Even in its cropped formatting, THE BIG CIRCUS struck me as being as entertaining as a movie can be without so much as a whiff of sophistication. I'm a sucker for Irwin Allen stuff anyway, and as far as Allen stuff goes, it's more respectable than most -- a movie you can laugh with, rather than at. (The theme song's opening line -- "There's nothing so gay as to be spending the day at the BIIIIIIIIIIG Circus!" -- excepted.) It has its silly moments, like the way the combatitive Mature and Fleming are first knocked into each others' arms by the sudden lurch of a train, but it was scripted by former Hitchcock scenarist Charles Bennett (YOUNG AND INNOCENT, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT), so it also has some clever ones -- and a probably accidental film buff moment when Mature solves a transportation problem by remembering Hannibal's 40-elephant trek across the Alps (the subject of his next lead role, in Edgar G. Ulmer's HANNIBAL, 1960). Allen must have loved the big scene where Gilbert Roland dares to cross Niagara Falls on a highwire because the scene was essentially restaged, nearer the end of his career, in the appropriately-titled WHEN TIME RAN OUT (1980) -- and I did, too.

THE BIG CIRCUS was an Allied Artists release, so my best guess is that it's now owned by Warners. They should look into releasing it. People need escapist entertainment, perhaps now more than ever. Most every movie being green-lighted today is escapist in principle, in that it's mindless, but I don't know that graphically violent entertainment, or any film rooted in extreme or punishing realism, can be escapist by definition.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Under the Lens of Ellis W. Carter

Last September 20, this blog paid a centennial tribute to cinematographer Russell Metty, whom I described as one of the men responsible for defining the look of 1950s Universal-International horror and fantasy. Today, when some of you are probably expecting me to point out the centenary of the great Italian director Luchino Visconti, I prefer to confound your expectations by saluting the 100th birthday of the other great Universal-International cameraman, Ellis W. Carter.

Whether you know his name or not, you know his work and you love it. Among Carter's credits: THE MOLE PEOPLE, THE DEADLY MANTIS, THE LAND UNKNOWN, THE MONOLITH MONSTERS, CURSE OF THE UNKNOWN, THE LEECH WOMAN, and the first movie I ever saw projected on a theater screen: THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. He also photographed KING OF THE ROCKET MEN, THE INVISIBLE MONSTER, LOST PLANET AIRMEN, SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE, THE WIZARD OF BAGHDAD, DIARY OF A MADMAN, TWICE TOLD TALES, Sam Katzman's Elvis movie KISSIN' COUSINS, and the BELL SCIENCE episodes "Gateway to the Mind" and "The Alphabet Conspiracy."

I don't reckon Carter (who died in 1964) among the genre's great cameramen, as a lot of his work had a certain flat, static, setbound quality, and his color work seemed particularly unable to enrich sets with atmosphere; however, he racked up a lot of fun movies over the years (including a guilty pleasure of mine, HOOTENANNY HOOT) and his black-and-white period at Universal-International, contemporaneous with that of Russell Metty, helped to define one of the fantastic cinema's most recognizable "house styles." Movies like THE DEADLY MANTIS, THE LAND UNKNOWN, THE MONOLITH MONSTERS, and especially THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN showed Carter to be particularly capable of working well with special effects units and integrating spfx photography and his straightforward technique to potent, convincing effect.

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN recently made its American DVD debut as part of Universal's THE CLASSIC SCI-FI ULTIMATE COLLECTION, a Best Buy exclusive box set, which also includes TARANTULA, MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, and two other films shot by Carter, THE MOLE PEOPLE and THE MONOLITH MONSTERS. There is an excellent review of the set over at DVD Savant; I'd give you one myself, but I'm still without a copy. But after reading Glenn Erickson's review, I feel like getting out to the nearest Best Buy and picking one up today.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Welcome To Bill O'Reilly's Videodrome

FOX News commentator Bill O'Reilly is back in the news, I see, as a self-styled crusader against the current trend of "torture porn" horror movies. That's right: the conservative advocate of our country's "harsh interrogation" methods in the real world finds all the Karo-syrup gore flooding our neighborhood multiplexes troubling and objectionable.

This is obviously a publicity ploy, just as it was when Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel did something similar with the slasher films of the early '80s. Sad to say, it seems to be working; every message board I frequent, as a participant or lurker, seems to have a posting or thread on the subject. Unlike Siskel & Ebert, who actually saw the films they were criticizing (even if they overlooked the fact that the MPAA had disembowelled most of them before granting an R rating, as well as the strong feminist statements later discerned by Carol Clover and other writers), O'Reilly is proudly crowing that he hasn't actually seen any of these films -- but since when have informed opinions been his strong suit?

Earlier this week, Bravo ran a special called 30 EVEN SCARIER MOVIE MOMENTS, a sequel to their previous 100 SCARIEST MOVIE MOMENTS. Because these moments were culled largely from movies made since the last sequel, a lot of them were gruelling torture highlights from SAW, SAW II, WOLF CREEK, HOSTEL (the #1 choice), and others of their ilk. The #4 choice was David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME, a 1982 movie about an imaginary cable channel that allows a privileged class of people to watch scenes of torture and murder. While watching 30 EVEN SCARIER MOVIE MOMENTS and seeing VIDEODROME placed within this context, I had the sudden realization that Cronenberg -- whose intentions in writing the movie were largely satirical -- had in fact predicted this recent turn of events in the horror genre, much as his early "venereal horror" movies SHIVERS and RABIDS had anticipated the rise of the AIDS virus.

After all, what is 30 EVEN SCARIER MOVIE MOMENTS but a concentrated form of VIDEODROME? And how bizarre that it was shown on a commercial cable network with all the R-rated gore intact but with the details of a couple of naked women's bodies digitally opaqued in the film clips, which is actually what I found most offensive about the program! What is wrong with people that all this violence against the human body is acceptable but the body itself is an unacceptable offense? (That's a whole other discussion, right there.)

Personally speaking, I don't care for these films either, even if they are well crafted; I've never been a gorehound, and furthermore, I don't like what these films say about our society (however true) and wouldn't like what they said about me if I enjoyed them. That said, I still grudgingly respect and appreciate them for providing the mirror which they hold up to our very sick society; that's what the horror film has always done. If we don't like what they're showing us, that should be our cue to change.

After the 30 EVEN SCARIER show ended, I remembered that, in Cronenberg's film, VIDEODROME was eventually revealed to be a program circulated by arch-conservatives to transmit cancer-causing agents into the brains of the "scum" who are titillated by that sort of "entertainment." So maybe Bill O'Reilly has better reasons for not seeing these films than you think.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Science Fiction Mourns Nigel Kneale

Last night, or early this morning, just after midnight, Monsters HD started running its annual HALLOWEEN Marathon and I watched a bit of HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982), a film originally scripted by Nigel Kneale. After the disappointment of HALLOWEEN 2, series producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill tried to kill of Michael Myers and convert their popular franchise into an anthology that would celebrate the holiday in different ways each year. Carpenter -- an avowed admirer of Kneale's "Quatermass" films for Hammer -- had approached him to conceive the first chapter in HALLOWEEN's new direction. Kneale turned in what was, by all accounts, his customary thoughtful, thought-provoking job, but Carpenter infamously rejected the script ("It was old-fashioned," he later told me), though some of Kneale's ideas remain in the lopsided but occasionally interesting work that resulted.

How strange, then, that I should come online today to discover, in an e-mail from Kim Newman, that Nigel Kneale died last Sunday, October 29th, at the age of 84. To resort to an overused but fitting phrase, it feels like the end of an era -- one of those events that bookmark one's life.

As a boy who spent his weekends at the movies and his weekdays in front of a television showing movies, I came to understand the importance of the director by the placement of his name at the end of the main titles. The director's name was the one left to resonate in your thoughts during the dissolve that would brighten into the telling of the story. On the other hand, I never gave much thought to the screenwriter's job, other than to wonder where all of these horror movie stories (as in "Story by so-and-so" as a distinct credit) had been published; I later realized that they were mostly written expressly for the screen, sometimes on the back of an envelope or bar napkin. As an habitué of horror, science fiction and fantasy films, I didn't begin to appreciate the craft of the screenwriter until I caught up with Nigel Kneale. He was one of the earliest writers whose name I sought out in newspaper movie ads, and thus more than just a writer to me. He was one of my childhood heroes, along with the first generation of NASA astronauts and Dr. Christiaan Barnard.

Mr. Carpenter's opinion to the contrary, Kneale's work remains rare in my experience of, shall we say, speculative screenwriting in that it has never become old-fashioned. Even when his stories date from another era, such as the time when we stood on the threshold of space travel, they hum with urgency -- an urgency of discovery -- and take us through experience that leaves us brighter, more aware and speculating of all the mysteries about us that remain to be clarified by the avatars of art and science.

Such a legacy! He wrote the famous BBC teleplay of George Orwell's NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR (1954) starring Peter Cushing, and his affiliation with Hammer Films was to predate even that of Cushing. His byline appeared on such feature films as THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT aka THE CREEPING UNKNOWN (1955, based on his teleplay "The Quatermass Experiment"), QUATERMASS 2 aka ENEMY FROM SPACE (1957), THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN OF THE HIMALAYAS (1957), THE ENTERTAINER (1960, one of Laurence Olivier's finest screen portrayals), THE FIRST MEN "IN" THE MOON (1964, one of the few Ray Harryhausen films to engage us as something more than an excuse for stop-motion magic), THE WITCHES (1966, not a favorite Hammer of my childhood but one that interests me today), the magnificent QUATERMASS AND THE PIT aka FIVE MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1968, based on his 1959 teleplay), and of course those brilliant and often prophetic other teleplays written for British television, many of which are now available on import DVD: THE YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS (1968), THE STONE TAPE (1972), BEASTS (1976), THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION aka QUATERMASS (1979), and the marvelous goosebumper THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989). THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT was remade last year as a live BBC broadcast starring Jason Flemyng. The presence of his name on a project was always indicative of quality, indeed of a quality and character that could supercede even indifferent direction on the sheer power of its language and ideas. Thus, Kneale is one of the very few screenwriters who fully warrant identification as one of the genre's auteurs.

Kneale's TOMATO CAIN AND OTHER STORIES (1949) predated his work in television and points to a promising literary career sidetracked by television -- but, as I'm sure he would say, "I never had a career, only work." Thirty years later, he complemented his miniseries teleplays of the 1979 finale to his "Quatermass" saga with a novel version, titled simply QUATERMASS -- one of the most effectively written, elegiac and moving science fiction novels I've read. Largely on the strength of this novel, and of course the "Quatermass" series of stories as a whole, I've always regarded him as one of Britain's greatest literary visionaries, on par with J.G. Ballard.

Science fiction mourns Nigel Kneale because he was one of the genre's most illuminating humanists -- not a sentimentalist like Bradbury, or a myth-maker like Frank Herbert, but a confrontational writer in the tradition of Orwell and Huxley, who used the genre as a metaphor for the problematic times in which we find ourselves. He often painted cynical landscapes of our future, and found fault with us as a species, and he developed into a masterful satirist whose tweaks at Mankind's expense proved just as prophetic as his works undertaken in a more somber mood. He predicted our dire fascination with "reality television" in 1968's THE YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS; the cosmic "ball of twine" narrative of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, which puts forth a frightening theory about the origin of our species, was a startling forebear of stories like THE DA VINCI CODE; and even his HALLOWEEN III script, as I noticed last night or this morning, is every bit as critical and satirical of the television medium as David Cronenberg's contemporaneous VIDEODROME.

There is no replacing a talent of this magnitude; we can only thank Nigel Kneale for the many inexhaustible gifts he left behind -- on film, on videotape, and on paper.

Monday, October 30, 2006

VAMPIRE BLOG-A-THON: Six Short Bites

I'm not a vampire novelist, but I play one in real life. In case you're wondering what the author of THROAT SPROCKETS and THE BOOK OF RENFIELD looks for in a vampire movie, this is my response to Nathaniel at Film Experience, who asked fellow bloggers to participate today in a "Vampire Blog-A-Thon": a list of a half-dozen titles I particularly prize in this overworked sub-genre. When it comes to vampires, I'm a progressive, not an Anne Rice/Buffy/Lost Boys sort of person; I loathe the romantic vampires that say "Love Never Dies," and the New Romantic vampire even moreso. I want vampires as metaphor, vampires that bring me into contact with serious real life emotions -- not a gang of morphing, lion-faced Goths with Heavy Metal hair wearing leather dusters. And I want to see them in material that crosses a line, that disturbs me, that makes me think. Here are some vampire movies that do all that, and more:

NOSFERATU (1922)
Surely most lists of this sort would begin the same way, but the obviousness of this silent film's quality and style, and its lasting propensity for chills, are hard to deny. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is one of the few unquestionable geniuses to have worked in this subgenre, and while he's not quite yet the wholly accomplished artist capable of SUNRISE, he had the benefit of making this film at a time when only Stoker's novel, older folk tales, and his own imagination existed to inspire the direction in which he took his material. Melodramatic and overwrought at times, but if you see this with the right score (the James Bernard-scored version is actually a very good selection), your gooseflesh will confirm that these are some of the visions that reside in the heart of darkness. The moment when the vampire's shadow creeps across the heroine's chest to still her beating heart may be the earliest instance of dark eroticism in the horror film.

BLACK SABBATH (1964)
Mario Bava's stylish triptych of terror tales concludes, in its now-hard-to-find English version, with "The Wurdalak," based on Alexei Tolstoy's story "Family of the Wurdalak." The episode is remarkable for any number of reasons, the foremost being Boris Karloff's frightening portrayal of Gorka, the patriarch who returns... changed... from his mission to bring an end to the life of an undead monster feeding on his neighbors. "I am hungry," he says, and we don't doubt him for a moment as fear and uncertainty turn his family members against one another in the wake of his homecoming. This was Karloff's only vampire performance, and it's one of his best; the makeup he wears as Gorka is remarkably like the description of Dracula given in Stoker's novel, and I wonder if this is how Karloff had planned to look in a stillborn remake of DRACULA (in color and widescreen) in which he had hopes of starring in the late 1950s. Even scarier is his undead grandchild, who returns from his burial to pound on the door and cry, "Mommy, I'm cold!" The Italian-dubbed version (the only DVD release to date) relocates "The Wurdalak" to the middle position of the three stories and naturally dubs Karloff's performance, robbing it of one of its most important dimensions. Still powerfully effective, though. Unfortunately, the Image disc is currently out-of-print and fetches a steep price, but perhaps you can find it as a rental.

DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971)
Of the various screen vampires to whom I would gladly surrender my neck, Delphine Seyrig's Countess Elizabeth Bathory reigns over the rest. It's not her marcelled hair or her silver lamé dress, but her voice -- the voice that said "It can't be" in that intoxicating loop in Joseph Losey's ACCIDENT -- and her verbal powers of persuasion; I can well understand the way she works John Karlen to a lather with her descriptions of her "ancestor's" tortures. Flanked by Andrea Rau and Danielle Ouimet, Seyrig makes this the sexiest of all vampire movies, and director Harry Kumel dresses it with a high style worthy of Josef von Sternberg. THE TRANSYLVANIA GESTURE, why not? An exciting, new upgraded transfer with fresh extras from Blue Underground streets tomorrow.

COUNT DRACULA (1977)
Don't get me wrong; I love Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee too, but I'm assuming that you know all about them. Briefly released as an import DVD that was almost immediately withdrawn, this BBC adaptation of Stoker's novel is the most faithful of all Dracula movies, and the surprise casting of Louis Jourdan in the title role is a complete success. Many of the supporting players -- particularly Judi Bowker as Mina and Susan Penhaligon as Lucy -- embody the characters they play better than anyone who's played them before or since. The two-hour-plus program is somewhat compromised by its combining of film and videotape, but those who have read the novel will never find a better DRACULA.

MARTIN (1977)
Still one of George A. Romero's best films, this study of a troubled Pittsburgh teenager (John Amplas) from a Romanian family approaches vampirish from a then fairly unique angle: not as a supernatural thing, but as an infantile oral compulsion/blood fetish. (The earlier BLOOD SUCKERS, based on Simon Raven's novel DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET, covered some of this same ground, as did Theodore Sturgeon's novel SOME OF YOUR BLOOD.) Martin suffers from a compulsion to drink warm, gushing fluid from the veins of women he fantasizes to be willing and loving; he's sick, but so is his Old World uncle, a self-styled Van Helsing who dogs his every movement and instills him with self-loathing by calling him a "nosferatu." Still a very dark and extreme vampire picture, MARTIN works not only as an unflinchingly transgressive horror film, but as one of the most memorable East Coast examples of independent American filmmaking.

THE HUNGER (1980)
Tony Scott's directorial debut, this film didn't win many fans upon its first release, and it still tends to be remembered more as "the movie where Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve get it on" than as a quality vampire film. But from its opening performance of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus to its closing image of the unexpected victor in this tangle of predatory relationships, I find it very compelling, one of the genre's rare examples of "composed filmmaking" -- that is, a film that makes more musical (in this case, operatic) than narrative sense. Everyone in the cast is at their best, with David Bowie contributing a memorable bit as Deneuve's expiration-dated lover, and no vampire film better captures the loneliness and heartbreak of eternal life or the surprise and joy of finding an unexpected new love.

WatchBlog's Halloween DVD Recommendations

Halloween has come again
And to make tomorrow scary
Seems the time is right for me to pen
A DVD itinerary.

Here's a frightful five chosen for you
By your WatchBlog kemosabe
They range in sheer shock value
From mild to "POW!" wasabi...


THE ZACHERLEY ARCHIVES
The haunted holiday has no wittier Master of Cemeteries than New Jersey-based John Zacherle (pictured above), who hosted Philadelphia's SHOCK THEATER as "Roland" and New York City's ZACHERLEY AT LARGE as "Zacherley" from the late '50s through the early '60s. All the surviving kinescopes from his broadcasting heyday are collected on this excellent DVD, along with extensive supplements. The vintage material proves beyond question that Zacherle wasn't just one of the first TV horror hosts but, like his colleague Vampira, an offbeat genius of the Beat Generation. He has also recorded several horror-themed musical comedy albums which, for my money, demonstrate a level of artistry in terms of songwriting and performance that are every bit the equal of Ghoul Porter. Still spry in his 80s, Zacherle was a guest at last weekend's Chiller Theater convention, promoting a new book about him, written by Rich Scriviani -- about which you can read more here. I apologize for the short notice, but even if you can't score a copy of this disc in time for Halloween, you should order it anyway. You owe it to yourself to know as much as you can learn about this true American original.

MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES
Joe Busam's Rondo Award-winning compilation of 30 different monster-themed home movies, dating from 1952 to just a few years ago, makes for magical viewing at any time of year, but it acquires additional lustre at Halloween time. Every single film features an audio commentary. Tom Abrams and I contributed an audio commentary to Alan Upchurch's NIGHT STALKER-inspired epic "The Gentle Old Madman," and the disc also runs the gamut from Bob Burns' 16mm short THE ALIEN to Kerry Gammill's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN remake to stop-motion dinosaur animation by Frank Dietz. A must-have disc regardless of season, you can order MKHM from Amazon.com or directly from the www.monsterkidhomemovies.com website. If you feel like still more in the same vein, another Monster Kid auteur -- Don Glut (pronounced "Gloot") -- has also released a two-disc set of all 41 of his own B (as in Boyhood) Movies, I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIEMAKER, but I can't tell you anything about it because I wasn't sent a review copy.

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
As far as feature films go, this is the one that SCREAMS "Halloween" loudest to me. This William Castle classic posits Vincent Price as the millionaire host of an evening spent among a group of strangers locked inside a haunted Frank Lloyd Wright mansion where murder was once committed; he offers $10,000 to anyone who can survive the evening. Will anyone live to collect? Watch out for the human heads without bodies and the pools of blood that drip from the ceiling! Leona Anderson, the sour songstress responsible for the great MUSIC TO SUFFER BY album (with its great song "Rats In My Room"), has a memorable, hair-raising bit as the house's blind housekeeper. This movie is apparently now in the public domain and thus available from many different labels, but we haven't seen better than the Warner Home Video release, which offers the film in a choice of standard ratio (open aperture) or anamorphically enhanced widescreen (a beautifully composed matted image). Need something a little lighter? How about...

THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN
The definitive Don Knotts comedy casts the quaky comedian as yet another character who must spend the night in a haunted house -- namely Luther Heggs, a typesetter who dreams of having his byline on page 1 and accepts the challenge of bunking down in The Old Simmons Place on the 25th anniversary of the slaying that made it infamous. Rarely has small town America been so sweetly and cleverly lampooned (reportedly no less than Andy Griffith gave the script an uncredited polish), but the spooky parts work too. The score by Vic Mizzy (THE ADDAMS FAMILY, GREEN ACRES) is a big part of its atmosphere and charm, as is the stellar supporting cast: Hal "Otis" Smith, Charles Lane, Robert Cornthwaite, Liam Redmond, Reta Shaw, Skip Homeier, and lovely former Playmate Joan Staley as Luther's main squeeze, Alma. The artfulness and hilariousness of it will never actually be forgotten, not even if you use Bon-Ami on your gray matter. Evidently this movie is now available only as part of a box set with three other Knotts features, but the pricing is like getting the other three movies free. Oh, you want something stronger? A lot stronger? Well, then you can't go wrong with...

SUSPIRIA
This acid-strength immersion in wicked witchiness remains Dario Argento's most effective demonstration reel after thirty years. Jessica Harper (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) stars as an American ballet student who travels to Germany to study at an exclusive dance academy that turns out to headquarter a coven of witches. Alida Valli as the headmistress gloats more incandescently than a lit Jack O' Lantern, but creepier still is the sinisterly silhouetted Mater Suspiriorum, the wheezing crownhead who, with her two sisters, controls all the evil in the world. Not a lot of plot here, but the style (largely inspired by Disney's SNOW WHITE AND THE 7 DWARFS) is syrup-thick and the violence is, well, thick with syrup. The first murder offers a serious challenge to the shower murder in PSYCHO in the dazzling department, and -- thanks to the DD-5.1 capability of DVD -- the thundrous Goblin sountrack can be enjoyed in something very near its original theatrical presentation. A cameo by Udo Kier is the cherry on top of a very black sundae. If you missed the three-disc limited edition of a few years ago, shame, shame... but you can still get it as a single-disc offering.

And I'll add a postscript to the effect that Tartan Asia Extreme's MAREBITO remains the scariest and most original horror movie I've seen all year. If you've "been there, done that" with all my other suggestions, go straight to MAREBITO. I dare you.

Here's wishing you all a very happy and safe Halloween! Find a good, scary movie and try to go easy on the candy. (DVDs and Peanut M&M's... my only weaknesses! Well, they're the only ones I'm telling YOU about.)