December 22, 2015


There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas — something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails.” – Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper (1891)

Late in the night on Christmas Eve from 1971 to 1978, the BBC would air an adaptation of a classic ghost story, dark tales of cursed crowns, spider babies, and heart-eaters preceding the broadcast of midnight mass. It is a tradition that goes back to the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when the dean of English ghost stories, M.R. James, would gather friends and colleagues to debut his latest chilling yarn after Christmas Eve revelries. The first five BBC productions adapt James’ work, and do justice to his clammy atmospheres. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark shot on location and on 16mm, able to conjure the fog-choked isolation of James’ doomed protagonists. All eight of BBC’s original Ghost Stories For Christmas, as well four from the series’ 2005 revival, are available in a haunting six-DVD set from the BFI (for those with Region 2 capable players).

Warning to the Curious figure

The English tradition of Christmas Ghosts emerged due to the boom in periodical publishing in the mid-19th century, after the repeal of the newspaper tax in 1855. The holidays were the best-selling season, so publishers would release year-end round-ups with the year’s most popular stories, many of which were supernatural. Charles Dickens was pivotal in pushing the ghostly, from his Christmas Carol in 1843 to his publishing scads of scary stories in the Christmas edition of his All the Year Round magazine. M.R. James would continue the tradition at Cambridge, where the scholar would debut one ghost story a year at his Christmas Eve party.


The idea for the BBC series was conceived following the success of Whistle And I’ll Come to You (’68), an M.R. James adaptation filmed for BBC’s Omnibus. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark and DP John McGlashan were plucked from the BFI’s stable of talent and assigned to the new ghostly initiative. The first “Ghost Story for Christmas” was of M.R. James’ The Stalls of Barchester in 1971, concerning a cursed rural cathedral, and followed by A Warning to the Curious in ’72. The latter is a particularly haunting bit of antiquarian superstition come to life. James was once an assistant in archaeology at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and he used this background to concoct a bit of flim flammery surrounding the three Saxon crowns of East Anglia. James proposes that the crowns were buried along the coastline, and held powers that kept the country from harm. One neurasthenic  stumbles upon the remaining crown, and is stalked by the spirit of its protector. The story is a mournful piece, first published in 1925, that yearns for the age before WWI. James saw many of his students depart and die in that conflagration, and the story reads as something of a lament for the loss of an entire culture.


The BBC adaptation streamlines the story, dropping the nested flashback framework and also adds motivation to the man who finds the crown. Instead of stumbling upon it, he seeks it out, having just been laid off from his clerking position. This makes for an easier to follow narrative, but also robs the story of much of its allegorical power. Instead of standing in for a nation, in the TV episode the treasure hunting crown-stealer is only in it for himself. McGlashan’s cinematography of the Norfolk coastline still finds an analogue to James’ text, capturing the malevolent glow of an emptied out beach in the off-season.

A Ghost Story For Christmas: Lost Hearts

The 1973 entry, Lost Hearts, is one of my favorites, anchored by the jubilant sadism of  Joseph O’Conor as aspirant warlock Mr. Abney. Mr. Abney is a solitary “researcher” who lives with his maid (Susan Richards) and butler (James Mellor) on an isolated villa. With his shock of white hair and wide eyes he looks like Alastair Sim’s Scrooge from the ’51 Christmas Carol. But instead of parsimony, Abney has a penchant for eating children’s hearts to attain immortality. His first two victims, a carefree young girl and a wispy Italian hurdy-gurdy player, begin to haunt his home, scarring the walls with their elongated nails. Using nothing but practical effects: some makeup, fake nails and an elegiac hurdy-gurdy tune, Lost Hearts slow-burns Abney to a crisp.


Sound is used smartly throughout the series. There are no insistent scores informing the viewers what to feel, but instead snippets of music are introduced that gain meaning in context. In A Warning to the Curious it is a breathy laugh that jumps out of the quiet soundtrack, shaking the treasure hunter to his core. In The Ash Tree (’75) Sir Richard (Edward Petherbridge) channels scenes from the life of his murdered cousin Sir Matthew (also Petherbridge), his voice a doomed chorus pushing Richard to his inevitable fate. See, Richard makes the mistake of moving the grave of an executed witch, and pays the price in an attack of grotesque monster-spiders with baby heads.


The Signalman (1976) is the most attentive to sound, as it follows a train track operator whose job is to respond to the bells and rings that inform him of the status up and down the line. When a specter appears at the tunnel and gestures wildly for danger, the signalman is at a loss. This is beyond the proscribed routine of his day, and the dangers beyond his ability to convey. Adapted from the Charles Dickens story, one he wrote after a near-death experience in a train crash, it’s a diabolical chamber piece whose tone of quiet dread is perfectly captured in the BBC film. The film stars Denholm Elliott as the lonely signalman, his monotony interrupted by a curious traveler (Bernard Lloyd) who takes breaks from his vacation to hear the train worker’s troubles.


The specter has appeared three times – after the first there was a horrific crash in the tunnel, following the second a bride fell off and was killed upon landing. Now the signalman patiently awaits the third tragedy. Elliott plays him with quiet paranoia, seething beneath his professional surface. Everything on the screen becomes part of the orchestrated tension, each bell and innocent gesture a mark of death. The traveller’s first introduction, a hearty “Hello, down there!”, is revealed to be part of the final goodbye.

What better way to prepare for the joys of Christmas morning than to contemplate your own mortality on Christmas Eve? These are stories of vanity, loneliness, and death after which no present will disappoint you. Socks will seem like a gift from God. So this Christmas Eve put on BBC’s Ghost Stories For Christmas, it has enough fear for the whole family.


September 1, 2015

she_creature_poster_02In 1956 the hip new fad was past life regression, thanks to the story of Bridey Murphy. In Colorado, amateur hypnotist Morey Bernstein had been experimenting his craft with Virginia Mae Morrow, who claimed to have died in Ireland in 1864, when she was known as Bridey Murphy. The story was reported in the Denver Post, and then published as a best-selling book authored by Bernstein in 1956, The Search for Bridey Murphy. It was briefly on everybody’s lips, with the New York Times reporting, “there were Bridey Murphy parties (‘come as you were’) and Bridey Murphy jokes (parents greeting newborns with ‘Welcome back’).”  Hollywood wanted to cash-in on the craze while it was still relevant, so Paramount rushed their official adaptation of The Search for Bridey Murphy, starring Teresa Wright, into production. It was released on October 1st of 1956. American International Pictures worked a little quicker, cranking their past life regression monster movie The She-Creature (1956) out in nine days, and getting it into theaters on July 25th. Though beset by casting troubles and budget restrictions, The She-Creature manages to create an atmosphere of voluptuous dread, aided by Paul Blaisdell’s insectoid creature design and efficient direction from bargain basement king Edward L. Cahn.


Wanting to profit while past life regression was still all the rage, AIP president Jim Nicholson assigned Lou Rusoff to put together a treatment for a film with hypnotism as its theme. The project didn’t have a clear shape until Nicholson and producer Alex Gordon were at a party where local exhibitor Jerry Zigmond mentioned The She-Creature as a possible title that could sell the Bridey Murphy hook. With the title in place, Rusoff then built the story around a prehistoric female monster, the endpoint of a past-life regression that goes back to the beginning of time. Andrea (Marla English) is the suggestive woman under the power of carny mesmerist Dr. Carlo Lombardi (Chester Morris), who is able to take her back through all of her past lives back into a primordial creature. The power of this hypnotic trance is so strong that the monster gains physical form,  killing socialites on the California beaches with its thudding she-claws before disappearing back into the ocean. Lombardi builds his psychic reputation by predicting these murders, and starts to make millions with his business patron Timothy Chappel (Tom Conway). The one skeptic is Dr. Ted Erickson (Lance Fuller), a strait-laced academic who studies psychic phenomena. He is out to debunk Lombardi and free Andrea from his thrall.


The budget was $104,000 and the shoot was set for nine days. Director Edward L. Cahn had just completed Girls in Prison (1956) for AIP, and rolled right into The She-Creature, on which he wrings a lot out of abandoned beaches and double exposures – representing all the souls of Andrea’s past.  Gordon wanted to get Peter Lorre for the Carlo Lombardi part, and Edward Arnold for Chappel. Both actors had worked together before in Josef Von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment (1935). But Lorre backed out after reading the script, and Arnold died soon before shooting was set to begin. So they scrambled and hired Chester Morris and Tom Conway. Morris, best known for his starring role in the Columbia Boston Blackie series, was an experienced amateur magician, and brought an enthusiasm for prestidigitation to the role. His wide-set eyes and rumbling voice made for convincing hypnotics, even when he’s trying to mesmerize a dog. Tom Conway had his own series, as The Falcon for RKO, and looks to be having fun in deploying his plummy British accent in service of a scummy exploitation entrepreneur making a fortune off of Lombardi’s morally dubious act – not unlike how AIP was cashing in on the whole Bridey Murphy affair. This might have been an in-joke on Rusoff’s part (he was executive producer Sam Arkoff’s brother-in-law). Lance Fuller (This Island Earth) was another last-minute addition to the cast, and he looks jet-lagged and morose throughout, the dead space in an otherwise well-acted film.vOsaE

The she-creature herself is doubled as Marla English in the human present, and Paul Blaisdell in the foam rubber suit as her prehistoric avatar. English was a San Diego beauty queen, whose career, at the age of 21, was already over. Previously signed to Paramount Pictures, they dropped her contract after she refused a lead role in The Mountain alongside Spencer Tracy, either due to falling ill from a smallpox vaccine, orbecause they would not cast her boyfriend Larry Pennell, causing her to quit in protest. She would retire from acting soon after shooting The She-Creature, and she looks ready to leave Hollywood for good, dazed but distantly beautiful — appropriate for a character in a hypnotic trance for most of the film’s running time. There is something elemental about English’s connection to the creature, depicted in double exposures as a foggy excrescence on the ocean until it takes physical form, her thoughts taking shape. It is an embodiment of the rage she has suppressed, her loss of power diverted into the creature’s superpower. And though Lombardi guides Andrea to call this being to life, it is not his creation – so he cannot control it. The most affecting moment in the film occurs when the monster, after scaring off one of Chappel’s rich regression parties, kneels worshipfully next to Andrea, as if in some kind of  mind meld, sharing each other’s pain.


The monster itself is another remarkable creation by Paul Blaisdell, the unsung hero of 1950s science fiction (read Randy Palmer’s Paul Blaisdell, Monster Maker for the full story – it is the main source of information for this post). Blaisdell was a creature designer and builder for AIP who made something out of next-to-nothing, working in close concert with his wife, Jackie. They designed monsters for The Day the World Ended, It Conquered the World, Invasion of the Saucer Men, It The Terror From Beyond Space and many more. The She-Creature was “the best one I’ve ever done”, Blaisdell said. He built the creature on a pair of old long-johns, with the body a jigsaw puzzle of foam rubber made to look like the seabed floor. Its chest was made of “sea hooks” which could be used for disemboweling, its arms were clubbing crab-like claws built around a pair of welding gloves, while the face is a cat-lizard-insect combo with stringy blonde hair made for man-devouring. The compressed time schedule kept Cahn from utilizing all of the creature’s capabilities (swinging tail, chewing sea hooks), but it is a striking, unearthly creature that somehow has a spark of humanity in it. Blaisdell built the costume to fit his own body, he literally knew it inside and out, so there was no better person to give the She-Creature life.


November 4, 2014


Though Halloween has passed, it is still possible to watch horror movies. It’s quite pleasant, too, not being harangued about the best one  “you’ve never seen” every other mouse click. I celebrated this freedom from list fascism by attending a twelve hour horror movie marathon at Anthology Film Archives on November 1st. It was an eclectic selection that ranged through low-budget Mexican vampires, classy British omnibus films, and schlocky AIP giant rat attacks. The title that stuck in my cranium and asked to be dispatched in this space is the 1977 Canadian survival horror obscurity Rituals (aka The Creeper). A post-Deliverance male bonding death march starring Hal Holbrook, it pits a group of alcoholic doctors against a psychically damaged ex-soldier in the wilds of Northern Ontario. The film relentlessly strips away the men’s defenses until they are physically and emotionally bare, live nerve endings that become easy targets for the almost entirely unseen soldier. In their profession the doctors have made mistakes, often tragic ones, and their medical ethics loom large when they are forced to deal with their own mortality. The only decent home video version is an out-of-print DVD from Code Red, but it’s well worth tracking down.


England-born director Peter Carter made his career in Canadian television, but first broke through with the independent feature The Rowdyman (1972), about an aging womanizer in Newfoundland. It’s a scruffy comedy that makes extensive use of location shooting, so you get a rich sense of the town, from the loser’s matchbox sized apartment, to the local paper mill, to “Lucky’s Chop Suey House” on the main drag. Writer and star Gordon Pinsent won the best actor at the Canadian Film Awards for his efforts, though I could understand maybe one out of every ten words through his thick Newfie accent. Rituals is Carter’s second feature, and he retains the specific sense of place. Locations are key to the film’s movement, from the lush, fecund greenery of their initial hike to the parched desert land around a man made dam. Whether Carter’s third feature, the Peter Fonda/Jerry Reed AIP trucker adventure High Ballin’ continues this specificity, I leave to my more intrepid readers to discover. Carter died in 1983, soon after making the Christopher Plummer action comedy Highpoint.


The screenplay for Rituals was written by first timer Ian Sutherland, and produced by character actor Lawrence Dane (who co-stars as the whiny Mitzi). It was Dane’s second and final producing credit. This was, for the most part, a film made by newcomers under difficult circumstances. For much of the film the actors are trudging through fly-choked forests or swirling rapids. I found one headline about the production, from the Montreal Star, that reads “Flies major hazard in tough ‘Rituals” shooting.” It must have been miserable for the actors and the crew. But it is a film of great control, though also one of understandable sadism. The effects build slowly, and the payoffs are oblique.


A group of five friends take their yearly vacation in the remote Northern Ontario wilderness. They are all current or ex-doctors, and the trade off who gets to pick the destination. This year it’s DJ (Gary Reineke), who wears a fetching Montreal Expos hat and is rather cavalier with how he discusses the health of his patients. He explains away a botched surgery that he’s just trying to make a living. On the other spectrum is Harry (Hal Holbrook), a by-the-book doctor who extends life spans as long as he can, done with the discipline of his army training (he fought in Korea). Others seem to float in between these two poles, including Mitzi (Dane), who seems to go along to get along, and is more accepting of death as a possibility. At their first night of base camp, there is a sense of hetero male bonding check boxes having to be ticked off. There’s an inflatable sex doll, but she’s mere decoration, as these upper class adventurers pose as partiers but strain to keep their mask of civility as long as possible.



Martin (Robin Gammell), a barely functional alcoholic, quotes the last lines of Yeats’ The Second Coming as they discuss the Native American legend about how the valley was made by the Moon impressing itself on the land: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Martin explains the connection:  “-The moon is magic, right? And Yeats was into magic. Yeats was into the moon.” Yeats was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization dedicated to studying the occult. As Martin is explaining, the camera takes a roaming POV, lurking in the background as if from the perspective of an onlooker. Martin desires the occult and supernatural as a way to escape his own being – and immediately the camera obliges, providing a seemingly mystical presence to watch them. As the film progresses, this presence becomes more and more violent. It begins by stealing their boots, and ends in unrepentant slaughter. Each man’s beliefs are tested and failed by their attacker. The most damning test is reserved for Harry, who is forced to carry an incapacitated Martin throughout the barren landscape. Martin is close to death, and draining Harry’s strength. But his moral code forces him to soldier on with this burden. Harry sets himself up to be a martyr, but in the end he is denied even that. He is granted survival as his final punishment.


September 16, 2014

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John Waters wishes he directed Final Destination. At the recently completed John Waters retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, there was a sidebar of films Waters was “Jealous I Didn’t Make”. One of them was Final Destination, the 2000 horror film about five teens who cheat death – for which Death itself wants bloody recompense. It spawned four sequels (the most recent was Final Destination 5, released in 2011), having created the ideal  machinery for the mid-budget franchise. The main character was non-corporeal, with Death’s presence represented as a light breeze or a trickle of water, so there was no worry of escalating salary demands. Then they could replace each iteration of the cast with unknowns, as Death plucked them off one by one in “accidents” of savage everydayness (a slip in the bathtub, a mug springing a leak). In his introduction to the screening (in blessed 35mm), Waters reminisced about his time in Baltimore grindhouses, bonding with the brood of rats that scrambled under his feet while marvelling at the depravity on-screen. He considered Final Destination worthy of that heritage, a resourceful exploitation film with shades of Ingmar Bergman. These are teenagers who are grappling with their morality for ninety-eight minutes, though on the genre level. So instead of playing chess with Death, they try to outsmart it as various pointy things hurtle towards their fleshy areas. Waters repeatedly stated that he was not being ironic, that the film is not camp, but a well-crafted fright film. I agree with the distinguished Mr. Waters.

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The original conception for Final Destination came from Jeffrey Reddick, a budding horror aficionado who sent New Line Cinema a treatment for a Nightmare on Elm Street prequel when he was fourteen years old. In 1997 he wrote a spec script for The X-Files where Scully’s brother has a premonition about his own death, and escapes it. The spec was never submitted to the show, but it got Reddick an agent, and encouragement to turn the idea into a feature. Reddick got the idea while flying home to Kentucky. He read an article about how a mother called her daughter the night before she was to fly home from vacation in Hawaii, warning her not to fly home the next day, that she has a “bad feeling about it.” The daughter postponed her flight, and the one she was originally booked on crashed. Glen Morgan and James Wong were long-time writers and producers on The X-Files, and took on Reddick’s story for their first theatrical project. Morgan would write and produce, and Wong would write and direct.

Their version of Reddick’s story concerned the survivors of a plane crash headed for Paris. A high-school class boarded the plane for their class trip, but Alex (Devon Sawa) began suffering terrible visions of an impending explosion, and demanded to be let off. Six others were hustled off the plane as well in the commotion. There was the Henry Miller-reading, iron-sculpture welding goth Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), Alex’s motor mouthed best friend Tod (Chad Donella), the roided up jock Carter (Kerr Smith), his perky blonde girlfriend Terry (Amanda Detmer), the slackjawed doofus Billy Hitchcock (the Seann William Scott) and one of the teacher advisors Valerie Lewton (Kristin Cloke). They are the lone survivors of the original passengers, but they start dying off in elaborate accidents. Alex begins to suspect that their survival undermined death’s design, and that Death is now trying to wrench things back in place, to restore the proper order. Which means they all have to die.

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As you can tell from the Hitchcock and Val Lewton name drops, Wong, Morgan and Reddick were eager to flaunt their horror knowledge. The two FBI Agents who are investigating the crash (and which seem transposed Mulder and Scullys from the spec script) are named Weine [sic] (Robert Wiene directed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and Schreck (the actor who played Nosferatu). There’s also a “Murnau” and a “Dreyer” listed in the credits. It warms a film obsessive’s heart to see all these great artists name-checked in a mainstream movie, but spot-the-reference games only go so far. Luckily the movie is more concerned with logical mechanics of its scenario, and presenting each Rube Goldberg-esque death with blunt clarity. The plane crash itself, highlighted by John Waters as one of his favorites, is built up by an accumulation of ominous detail picked out through Alex’s POV. There is a spot of rust in the entrance doorway, and then he looks down to see a large gap between the ramp and the entry to the plane itself, a baggage truck seen cruising down below. All the connections are slightly off – even the seat tray lock snaps off in his hand. The coming inferno has strong practical effects work making the destruction look truly hellish, the passengers attacked not just by fire but the blunt force of their own suitcases. It’s the largest set-piece in the film, one that probably used up half of the budget.

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The other deaths are less grandiose. The whole series is built on the banal ways in which the human body can expire. Death is vaguely embodied as a liquid that slips up Tod, as he entangles himself in a threaded steel wire that holds up the shower head. There is a distant echo of the Lewton style here, of hiding the menace instead of showing. The line of blood trickling under the door frame in the Lewton-produced, Tourneur-directed The Leopard Man as an analogue in the slowly advancing liquid advancing on the tile floor. In both cases they indicate death – only in Final Destination the end is depicted in explicit mechanical detail instead of poetic abstraction.  In the Final Destination series the tension of the films arise in the how of the deaths, not in the why.  It rids itself of the lugubrious backstories and motivations of traditional slasher films, and cuts to the chase (or the evisceration, or what have you). The series works because of this pared down simplicity, which was almost ruined from the beginning. According to Reddick, New Line wanted to give Death human form at the end of Final Destination, to have that “big bad” to peg a marketing campaign around. But Morgan and Wong defended the concept, and lent the series its exploitation integrity.


October 29, 2013


Society prefers death to be hidden.  Bodies are covered in sheets, buried in caskets. There are no morgues in malls, but they are cast into hospital basements, where even lost visitors are unlikely to stumble upon it. Our mortality is a fact of life we are abstractly aware of, but a mutual pact has been made to keep it out of public view. Horror films have exploited this reluctance by making corpses ultra-visible, re-animating limp flesh and exposing the viscera that once gave us life. Frankenstein is the model for this, its monster cobbled together from the remnants of other bodies. In a macabre subgenre, body parts are severed and gain life of their own, including one that involves, creeping, scampering, choking hands. The mangled classic in this strange sector is The Beast With Five Fingers (1947), in which Peter Lorre is convinced a severed hand is murdering the inhabitants of an Italian mansion. Other entries include The Hands of Dr. Orlac (1924), The Crawling Hand (’63), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (’65) and, succinctly, The Hand (1981, an early Oliver Stone effort), but the Lorre film is the one that endures, and it has received a longer life in a DVD from Warner Archive,  released just in time for Halloween.


No one WB assigned to the project had interest in making it. Director Robert Florey took a three-month suspension for rejecting the job, before finally acceding for a paycheck. Lorre was exhausted of playing shifty eyed weirdos, but did his contractually obligated duty. After reading the script Lorre told Florey, “Don’t worry. Since you are in trouble I’ll keep two Pernod bottles in my dressing room.” WB purchased the rights to the short story by W.F. Harvey in 1942, though a satisfactory script wasn’t completed until Curt Siodmak submitted his draft in ’46. Siodmak shifted the scenario from straight creature feature to a psychological thriller. In Harvey’s story the hand is a menace seen by all, but in the movie it’s a terror that may or may not be a figment of Lorre’s imagination. Lorre plays Hilary, the long-time secretary to ailing concert pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), who lives in a crumbling mansion in the Italian village of San Stefano. Half of Ingram’s body is paralyzed, so he plays Bach’s Chaconne with only his left hand. The arrangement for this Bach one-hander is put together by Conrad (Robert Alda), an out of work composer who makes his money swindling tourists. After Ingram’s death, his family gathers at the mansion for the reading of the will – in which his entire inheritance is bequeathed to his lovely nurse Julie (Andrea King). Family members turn up strangled to death, and Hilary is convinced it is Ingram’s good hand, seeking vengeance on his money grubbing relatives.

Siodmak wanted Paul Henreid for the role of Hilary, but Henreid told the screenwriter he, “wouldn’t play opposite a bloody hand.” It was not a desirable project for cast or crew, although when Florey resigned himself to making it, he thought he struck on an exciting stylistic choice – to shoot the film entirely from Hilary’s point of view. Florey, who was the original choice to direct Frankenstein before James Whale took over, had a keen visual sense, and wanted to use the film as a late experiment in German Expressionism, using warped sets and POV shots to express Hilary’s deteriorating mind. It was likely during this period that Florey asked Luis Bunuel for some ideas on the project. Bunuel was in the U.S. for the third time, looking for work. Warner Brothers hired him to do some dubbing work. In his autobiography My Last Sigh, he recalls that he, “thought up a scene that shows the beast, a living hand, moving through a library. Lorre and Florey liked it, but the producer absolutely refused to use it.” Producer William Jacobs swiftly shot their  ideas down as “commercially unthinkable.” A version of the library scene does exist in the film, and Bunuel thought of suing WB because of it. Instead he stored the image of “the beast” away, which appears in The Exterminating Angel.


Florey and Lorre had worked together before in 1941, in the disturbing gangster melodrama The Face Behind the Mask. In that more personal film, Lorre plays an impoverished immigrant who resorts to a life of crime to stay alive – a violent allegory of both men’s experiences hustling and debasing themselves in Hollywood. Florey was born in France, and came to Hollywood’s attention with his scathing experimental short with Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland, The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra. Reportedly made for $97, it mixes cut-out silhouettes and live action to depict two small town dreamers get crushed in the Hollywood machine. Now Florey was part of that same machinery. Saddled with an unsympathetic producer and a script he didn’t approve, he still manages to carve out scenes of disorienting menace.

Forget the love subplot between Conrad and Julie, or the bumbling Inspector (J. Caroll Naish) who camps his way through the movie – it is the scenes with Lorre where Florey’s original conception pokes through. Lorre is dressed all in black, his hair clipped short, and is always lit from below, with his head so isolated by the composition it looks decapitated. Florey presents him as an incomplete man who lives inside his own head. Hilary’s cause is astrology, he believes he has found the key that will unlock all its secrets, “the law that can predict unknown fate into predictable fact.” He skulks in the library with his occult books, clutching them like sacred runes. Then the murders begin, and the hand gropes its way closer into his consciousness. While an inveterate prankster on the set (he would hide the bloody prop hand all over Andrea King’s person), he was locked in once the camera started rolling. He gives one of his most moving performances as the beatific Hilary, lending him an air of saint-like calm despite his increasingly paranoiac actions. He plays things quiet and tentative, almost sleepy, as if he is the somnambulist from Caligari. 


Florey is allowed a few experiments in POV shots when Hilary encounters the hand in the library, as it pokes its way out of a cigar box and onto the table. Through super-imposition, motorized models and old-school illusionism (it’s Florey’s hand poking out of the box), the hand becomes legitmately menacing, a physical remnant of Ingram clinging to his home and possessions. Hilary chases it into the stacks, tossing down leather-bound editions until he finds it creeping behind a row, seemingly wanted to page through one of its (his?) favorites. Then, in a gruesome example of Hilary’s deteroriating psyche, he nails the hand to a board. The sequence is punctuated by jarring inserts, to a mandolin strink breaking and distorted angles of Lorre’s face, that approximate what Florey had intended for the entire feature. It’s a totalizing vision of horror, that plucked string one of Hilary’s last nerves snapping, the world a clattering whorl of his inner and outer lives collapsing in on each other. The hand then performs a haunting solo version of the Bach Chaconne, its rotting stump more in tune with human frailty than the supposed heroes of the tale.Later, when he throws the hand in the fire – only for the ember-hot appendage to crawl up and curl its digits around his neck – it’s become clear that this severed limb murder is much self-inflicted as an act of supernatural outrage.

All of the tantalizing enigmas in the plot are cheerily resolved in the studio-shot ending, which replaces Florey and Lorre’s self-annihilating horror with glib irony. It ends with J. Carroll Naish laughing into the camera about the gullibility of the audience, attempting to brush all those thoughts about mortality away. But the images that Florey constructs aren’t so easily dispatched. The bloody stump that plays Bach in an abandoned mansion is both rotting flesh and emotive spirit, expressing in one uncanny scene our damned impermanence and dream of immortality through art.


June 18, 2013


The summer of 1985 was a chilly one for Hollywood executives, with box office grosses declining 160 million dollars from 1984′s take. In his Los Angeles Times moratorium, Jack Mathews blamed the lack of an all-ages “sequel to a blockbuster” for the downturn, with the adult arterial sprays of Rambo: First Blood Part II sitting atop the charts. Franchise hopefuls Explorers and Return to Oz tanked, while even the successes (The GooniesCocoon) didn’t crack $100 million. The family dollar was being kept in-pocket.  It was inauspicious timing for exploitation operation Cannon Films to release one of their few big-budget items, the eroto-horror whatzit Lifeforce. They signed Tobe Hooper, fresh off of Poltergeist, to direct, Henry Mancini to write the score, and John Dykstra (Star Wars) to head the effects team. Instead of a Spielberg theme park ride, they delivered an obsessive head trip in 70mm, one which details the ways in which quivering men fail to satisfy a voracious (alien) woman’s sexual desire. Ravaged by critics, Janet Maslin memorably described it as “hysterical vampire porn”, and it made only $11.5 million on a $25 million budgetIt comes out in a loaded Blu-ray today from Scream Factory.


Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were Cannon Films, and they signed Tobe Hooper to a three-picture deal following the success of Poltergeist. To sign the contract Hooper dropped out of Return of the Living Dead (1985), for which screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (Alien) took over as director.  In their first meeting Golan and Globus handed Hooper the novel The Space Vampires (1976) by Colin Wilson. The production began a few days later, with Hooper fondly remembering how they “bypassed all the usual development things you have to go through.” One of those “development things” they went without was having a completed script. Hooper hired O’Bannon and Don Jakoby to write it, but it was far from finished by the time the compressed shooting schedule began.The tight schedule also frustrated the effects team led by Dykstra, who later complained that a rushed film processing job introduced flaws into the delicate optical printing work (read more about his analog techniques in the film here).


If Golan and Globus expected the Spielbergized Hooper of Poltergeist, they were to be disappointed. What they got instead was the uncompromising horror nerd who made Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Hooper recalled his own attitude as, “I’ll go back to my roots, and I’ll make a 70mm Hammer film.” Recognizing Colin Wilson’s novel as a variant on The Quatermass Xperiment, he made Lifeforce with ripe colors and riper melodramatics, his actors adopting the postures and tones of his favorite Hammer icons. Frank Finlay, for example, in his character of Dr. Hans Fallada, takes on the epicene inquisitiveness of Peter Cushing. The title was changed to Lifeforce and the producers cut down the film for US release by 15 minutes and replaced Mancini’s score, but it didn’t help at the box office. Hooper believes that changing the title was a mistake, that everyone then, “expected it to be more serious, rather than satirical. It isn’t quite camp, but we intended it to be funny in places.”


The film starts as exploratory sci-fi, with Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) leading a British-U.S. space mission to investigate Halley’s Comet. As they float on wires through matte-painted backgrounds worthy of Forbidden Planet, they discover the corpses of hollowed out devil bats. Then they enter a crystalline chamber modeled on the diamond-shaped alien pod from Quatermass and the Pit (1967), where they find three perfectly preserved human bodies, one a well-proportioned woman (only known as “Space Girl”, Mathilda May) who exerts a hold on Carlsen, even in stasis. Here the horror begins, as this female is, yes, a space vampire, sucking the life force out of anyone in her path. Once she and her two male companions (including Mick Jagger’s brother, Chris) reach Earth, they leave piles shriveled up human husks in their wake, which realistically twitch in the animatronics by Nick Maley.


Space Girl embodies female desire without socialized restraint, ignorant of Madonna/Whore complexes or slut shaming. She knows what she wants and she gets it. After she escapes a government facility, one of the doctors is asked how she overpowered him. He responds: “She was the most overwhelmingly feminine presence I’ve ever encountered.” If this were a male character, he would be a raffish romantic lead (Gerard Butler maybe?), but as a woman she could only be a (nude) world-devouring hell beast. It’s a thankless role for Mathilda May, who is tasked with striding naked with a zombified gaze for two hours, but she does get to cow the men and their toys.

The male characters are either insular pedants or macho creeps, playing with their spaceships or microscopes but utterly befuddled at the presence of an unprepossessing nude woman.  Railsback is in a perpetual cower, prematurely embarrassed at his inability to fully please the Space Girl. By the end he’s sweating and flinching so much he becomes Renfield to her Dracula. The only time he can gain some measure of control is by injecting her with gallons of sleep serum, and that’s only when she’s taken over the body of Patrick Stewart (yes, Captain Picard). She speaks through Stewart’s  mouth, ““I am the feminine in your mind, Carlson”. Railsback then kisses Stewart, in one of the more radical moments in 1980s Hollywood cinema. Railsback is, very literally, embracing his feminine side.


March 12, 2013

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27 years after its theatrical release, TerrorVision (1986) was released on DVD and Blu-Ray for the first time by Shout! Factory last month. An outrageously garish horror-satire of 1980s consumer culture in the guise of a low-budget creature feature, it was savaged by critics and disappeared from public view.  The Monster Squad (1987) came out in a new Blu-ray from Olive Films on the same day in February, and that nostlagic ode to the classic Universal monster movies had been difficult to see before a DVD release in 2007. Both are steeped in horror film history and iconography, but while TerrorVision adopts old styles to investigate its present, The Monster Squad is only concerned with burnishing the past.

TerrorVision was a rushed production for schlockmeister producer Charles Band, head of the short-lived Empire Pictures (Trancers, Re-Animator). Based in Rome, he cranked out cheap horror and sci-flicks at the old Dino de Laurentiis studio that drafted off the success of Hollywood hits, releasing Ghoulies  a year after Gremlins (’84). He sold the studio in 1988, but went on to form the similarly Corman-minded Full Moon Features in 1989, which produced the Puppet Master series. Ted Nicolaou was an editor for Band in the Empire days, and was eager for an opportunity to direct.  Band didn’t have a backlog of scripts – instead he collected ideas for titles and poster images that he thought would someday make a sellable movie. So he showed Nicolaou the poster art (an eye poking out of a satellite), and assigned him to write and direct.

What Nicolaou created was not the usual straightforward Empire Pictures material, though, but a day-glo satire of an acquisitive yuppie family in Malibu, thrust into the maw of a blob-monster straight from a 50s Sci-Fi B. Working with the Italian set designer Giovanni Natalucci, Nicolaou emphasized the artificiality of their lives, from the cardboard sky down to the rainbow colored tower of hair on the Putterman daughter, Suzy (Diane Franklin). He then encouraged his actors to perform with as much artifice as the setting, leading to a hilariously grotesque film in form and content. Even the theme song is a head-spinner, a chirruping synth chant from art-rockers The Fibonaccis. Needing content no matter the style, Band let him go ahead with it.

Stanley (Gerrit Graham) and Raquel (Mary Woronov) Putterman are your normal everyday Americans living the dream, parents of Suzy and Sherman (Chad Allen), and owners of an ornate mansion decorated with cartoon erotica and classical statuary with water-spitting nipples. They are swingers, after all, and whose dress consists of an explosion of pleather, spandex and leisure suits. Concerned only with their libidos, they leave their kids to be raised by the new Satellite TV being installed. Suzy is a Cyndi Lauper clone whose aforementioned hair is sprayed into a conical totem, while Sherman plays at GI Joe, indulged by his survivalist ex-serviceman grandfather (Bert Remsen), keen on selling jerky lizard tails and sleeping in a reinforced bunker. The most tactile and real-seeming thing in the movie is the deformed alien Jabba the Hut that  is accidentally beamed into their dish. And as hungry as the Puttermans are for kitschy art, orgy technology (including a gigantic jacuzzi pool) and fast food, this monster is equally eager for the taste of human flesh. The consumers become the consumed, but they certainly enjoy themselves before they get masticated. Graham and Woronov go full camp, stretching their rubber faces into parodies of pleasure before they too get sucked down the hole of over-indulgence.

The Monster Squad (1987) is an entirely different animal, presenting a cheery Spielbergian suburb filled with harried but loving parents. The force threatening to undermine this all-American burg is not aliens but monsters awakening from hibernation: Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, Frankenstein and the Creature From the Black Lagoon (Universal wouldn’t allow the use of they copyrighted makeup designs to Tri-Star, but they are passable approximations constructed by Stan Winston). Kind of a horror Avengers, they come back to life in order to destroy a magical amulet that would return them to the netherworld from whence they came.It’s up to the scrappy movie-obsessed horror kids to squelch their plans.

Director Fred Dekker wrote the script with Shane Black (whose Lethal Weapon was filmed the same year), and it has the usual array of coming-of-age cliches, from the self-deprecating fat kid (Brent Chalem) to the mettle-testing old dark house at the end of the block. There is nothing surprising here, except maybe one kid’s “Stephen King Rules” t-shirt, but Dekker clearly loves the material, and gets some Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein bumptiousness from the cast of young newcomers. Chalem steals the movie with a swift kick to the groin of the Werewolf (Jon Gries, also in TerrorVision), sealed by the immortal line, “Wolfman has nards!”. It’s the one scene I remembered from my childhood, a still-juvenile joke that also happens to neatly encapsulate how these kids are mastering their fears. It was inspiring stuff at the time, and as fondly as Monster Squad looks back at the Universal monsters, so do 80s kids like myself look back at the movie, creating a nostalgia-feedback loop.  Sadly Chalem didn’t go on to have much of a career, playing rote “fat kid” roles on TV with names like “Spud” (Punky Brewster, 1987) and  “Tubby” (Dance ‘Til Dawn1988). He moved on from acting to become a legal assistant, but died at the age of 22 from pneumonia: “Brent was one of those kids everybody knew,” said family friend Marsha Rosenblum. “He made friends with everybody he met.”



October 23, 2012

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Every Halloween, what’s old is made new again as Hollywood pumps out horror franchise sequels (Paranormal Activity 4, Silent Hill 2) and re-packages their money-making library scare flicks. The major home video release this season is the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection set, which includes HD upgrades of eight of that studio’s classic creature features. But along with that big ticket item are some smaller cult curiosities that merit closer attention. Shout! Factory licensed  Terror Train (1980) and The Funhouse (1981) from Universal for their Scream Factory imprint, and put them out on well-appointed Blu-Ray editions last week. Both films were relatively cheap affairs set out to capitalize on the slasher box office boom initiated by Halloween, but manage to wring visual and thematic interest out of the venerable psycho killer and inbred freak genres.

In the early 1970s Roger Spottiswoode had become the favored editor for Sam Peckinpah’s slow-motion farragos (on Straw Dogs, The Getaway and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid), and was later brought on as a kind of “editor doctor” to various troubled productions. Sandy Howard was one of the producers who hired him for such surgery, and later remembering the favor, hired Spottiswoode for his directorial debut on Terror Train. Spottiswoode recalled that he was initially asked to write the script and refused, only to discover that his name was included on promo material anyway. Howard wanted the film to be a Canadian production, presumably hoping to get state funding, and Spottiswoode was born in Ottawa. Then, Spottiswood says, “I pointed out to Sandy that this really wasn’t going to work. I couldn’t take someone else’s writing credit. It wouldn’t work. So my name came off it and he said, “Why don’t you direct it?” And I thought, well, this I might do…”

It was a seat-of-the-pants kind of operation, as Spottiswoode reworked the script by T.Y. Hilton into a shape he could live with before starting on the 25-day shoot. The key was to get another Jamie Lee Curtis slasher film onto screens before the fad kicked off by Halloween (1978) had passed, and the harried nature of the project shows in its clunky exposition and flat performances. The college guys are interchangeable lugs, while the estimable Ben Johnson (Wagon Master) dutifully cashes a paycheck as the genial engineer. Jamie Lee plays Alana, a popular college co-ed whose boyfriend holds a raucous New Year’s Eve party aboard a train. One by one her pals (and a magician played by a helmet-haired David Copperfield) get picked off by a masked psycho. There is no mystery as to killer’s identity, as his backstory is revealed in the opening scene, of a pencil-necked nerd who gets brutally hazed by a gaggle of frat brothers.

What makes Terror Train watchable is the low-light cinematography of John Alcott, who had just come off an incredible series of collaborations with Stanley Kubrick. He began as an assistant on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and became a cameraman on A Clockwork Orange (1971) before being promoted to director of photography on Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980). Instead of a light meter, Alcott just watched the light reflect off of his hand before determining the f stops of his cameras. Spottiswoode recalled to the Terror Trap:

I was proud to meet him but frankly, I wondered why he would want to do Terror Train. So I met with John and I asked him. I said, “Look, I’ve got twenty-five days to shoot this. I’m going have to shoot thirty set-ups a day. I’m gonna have to go like the wind. And he responded, “Well, Roger, if you can shoot thirty set-ups a day, you’ll make me a very happy man. I’m not used to that. On The Shining, I did ONE set-up a day.” It was the same with Barry Lyndon. It was often one or two set-ups a day and he thought it was boring! “I adore Stanley,” he said, “but thirty set-ups a day means a lot of fun for me.” (Laughs.)

Alcott’s work on Terror Train is kind of Lyndon by nite-light instead of that film’s famous candle light. The cabin interiors are quite dark, but instead of the warm flicker of lit wicks, the figures are etched in by the warm ceiling lights which Aclott had electricians install, while he highlighted eyes with pen lights he would shine himself. The movie is all edges of bodies and dumbstruck pupils, creating the feel of eternal night.

Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse is a more complete film, with a witty screenplay from Lawrence Block (not the great crime fiction writer), the hot colors of DP Andrew Laszlo (The Warriors) and the classical slow-burn tension that Hooper elicits from his balanced widescreen frame. Where the opening of Terror Train dispenses with backstory, The Funhouse sets up a whole world of resentments. An homage to Psycho, Hooper re-stages that film’s famous shower scene as a psycho-drama between brother and sister. Universal horror fiend Joey (Shawn Carson), whose poster of Frankenstein crowns his bedroom, stalks his older sister Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) into the bathroom, and gives her the fright of her life with a rubber machete. This frightful joke, set up with POV tracking shots through a suburban hallway, is the rehearsal for the horrors to come, as the monsters on Joey’s wall manifest themselves at the local carnival, where Amy goes on a double date with her pot-smoking pals.

Amy wants escape from the ‘burbs, from her creepy brother and her boozy, inattentive mother, who is half in the bag for the entire feature. Instead of Jamie Lee’s blank slate in Terror Train, Amy has a fully sketched out life, one in which her urge for adventure and escape becomes sadly believable. Hooper had an entire working carnival built in Florida, on the old set of the Flipper TV show, so he could display the event’s shabby glory in full with the help of a 150-foot crane, which provides vertiginous shots of the seedy bacchanal. The parade of hammy grotesque includes a gloriously debased turn from Sylvia Miles as a fake-Gypsy fortune teller who rasps at her callow teen clients and offers rough sexual favors on the side. The creepiest carnies though, are embodied by Kevin Conway’s gloriously skin-crawling performances as three different carnival barkers. They are all varieties of desiccated perverts, whose lascivious lowered-eye stares don’t make your skin crawl as much as gallop.

It’s his Funhouse barker though, who emerges as the bogeyman, a drunken abusive father, whose malformed son is forced to wear a Frankenstein mask while operating the ride. Behind the mask is one of makeup artist Rick Baker’s great creations, of what looks like a predatory naked mole rat with a deviated septum. But as with Frankenstein’s monster, it is the master has unleashed evil, not his benighted creature. Prodded and cajoled into a life of abject misery, the son’s violent actions are those of a wild animal absent of any human traces. This unbalanced freak’s connection to Joey is unsettling, as both are seemingly sociopathic boys with absent parents (Joey easily sneaks out to the carnival alone), yet only Joey has the face of a human, easier to blend in with the rest of polite society, continuing the cycles of neglect and reprisal.


May 15, 2012

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This is the third and final post in  DTV ACTION ITEMS, a three-part series on direct-to-video action movies. Click here for Part 1, an interview with Outlaw Vern, and here for Part 2, a profile of actor Stone Cold Steve Austin.

The Asylum is the most disreputable studio in that most disreputable of markets: direct-to-video. They made their name cranking out cheaply made “mockbusters”, thinly veiled ripoffs of Hollywood blockbusters starring Z-list celebrities, many of which air in constant rotation on the SyFy channel. Last month Universal Studios sued them for copyright infringement on The Asylum’s Battleship take-off, American Battleship, starring Mario Van Peebles and Carl Weathers. Despite a hilariously cocky press release defending their film (” Looking for a scapegoat, or more publicity, for its pending box-office disaster, the executives at Universal filed this lawsuit in fear of a repeat of the box office flop, John Carter of Mars. The Universal action is wholly without merit and we will vigorously defend their claims in Court. Nonetheless, we appreciate the publicity.”), they changed the title to American Warships, which will be released on video May 22nd.

They are a crew of brilliantly amoral hucksters pranking Hollywood for fun and profit — a commendable goal for sure, but are the movies worth watching? When I spoke to Outlaw Vern two weeks back, he didn’t think so, nothing that “I get a laugh from the titles and covers like everybody else, but the parts I’ve seen have been terrible and not in a fun way.” One of their upcoming releases may indicate an uptick in quality, for Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (out on DVD/Blu on May 29th) is a taut, resourceful piece of survival horror, completely lacking the forced campiness of most of The Asylum product. First-time Asylum director Richard Schenkman is an industry veteran who has made everything from indie comedies (The Pompatus of Love) to sci-fi (The Man From Earth), and his experience pays off. The pace is snappy, the action well-staged, and lead actor Bill Oberst is gruffly engaging as Honest Abe. I’d be surprised if its Hollywood counterpart, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is as energetically entertaining. I spoke with Mr. Schenkman about his path into moviemaking, his opinion of The Asylum, and his experience shooting Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.

How did you get into the movie business?

All I ever wanted to do was make movies. From the time I was a very small child. So while there were bumps and detours along the road, and while unfortunately when I was young it was much harder to break into independent film than it is today, that was the only direction I’ve ever traveled.

Who were your idols growing up?

When I was a little kid, Jerry Lewis. I guess the first book of filmmaking I ever read was his book The Total Filmmaker. That was when I really began to understand the difference between writing, directing, producing and cinematography. Because when I was very little I thought I wanted to be a cinematographer. When I started reading American Cinematographer magazine and Jerry Lewis’ book, I began to understand what everybody did, and realized what I wanted to do was write and direct. I didn’t want to be a cinematographer; there was too much math involved. So like a lot of people I tried to make little films, I did films with GI Joes and clay, and tried to get friends involved to make live action films. In those days it was so much harder, because you had to shoot on film, it was expensive and you had to send it to the lab, and when it came back you had to cut it with a blade and splice it with glue. It was much more complex and difficult. I have a daughter in fifth grade and she has friends, peers, making films. Eleven, twelve-year-olds. If I was growing up today my whole life would have been different. I would have been making films from the time I was ten, eleven years old.

Was your first paying job working on Playboy documentaries?

No, I started out at MTV. That was my first real job. I was very lucky. I was at MTV when it first started, so I got to have an enormous amount of creative input.

Is that where you learned how to be creative on a budget?

Yes. That was absolutely how I learned it. I’d get an idea on Monday, and I’d write the script and get it approved on Tuesday. I’d go produce the audio for it on Wednesday, the video on Thursday, and it would air Friday night. It was fantastic. The pace was crazy and the hours were long, but it was very very exciting.

How did you transition into filmmaking from there?

I took a bunch of money that I’d made and did a 35mm short, and came to Los Angeles. And said, “OK, great, this is going to get me an agent”. But nobody told me back then that there was no point in going out there with a short until you had written a feature script. I thought I would find work as a director but it didn’t work like that, and it still doesn’t. But it’s much easier to find all that out now. So I went back New York with my tail between my legs, having spent all my money on the short, and wondered what to do next. And that’s when the phone rang. An old executive from MTV had come to Los Angeles to become the new president of the Playboy Entertainment Division. So he brought me out. And again, it was, for a time, a really exciting opportunity. For I was both an executive, the in-house head of production, and a working writer/producer/director. I was able to hire a lot of people to create material, but I was able to jump out there and make stuff myself. It was like being a kid in a candy store.

You had more money to work with there, right?

I did, yes. And, for a time, I had extraordinary autonomy. I was given a pile of money, not a lot, about $400,000. And this money I was given that was just supposed to go towards interstitials for the channel, and I was able to stretch that money so far, that I made full-length shows. More and more the production came under my purview. A lot of short-form stuff. I tried to explain to them how inexpensively they could be making feature films, and own that segment of the market. You know, the softcore, very sexy movies. I was trying to make the point that if we improve the quality of them, made them ourselves, with real actors, working with real scripts, we could really expand the genre – making real movies. Every year for a few years they would put it into the budget, and at the last minute pull it back out. The year after I left they started doing it, and had a huge success with it the first few years.

Were you interested in genre films growing up?

Not particularly. I’ve always loved every kind of movie, as long as it was fairly smart or entertaining. A lot of horror movies are stupid. Too many horror movies, they think it’s enough to scare people, that they don’t really have to make sense, and not have anybody you can identify with. I suppose that’s why I was never much of a genre fan. I’m definitely not one of these guys who grew up seeing every zombie movie and Nightmare movie. I’ve seen lots of them, and the classics are great movies, like The Exorcist. But I’ve never gone for cheap jumps and scares, that always bugs me. To me, Alien is scary.

So the power of suggestion, not having to show everything…

Yes, but also just legitimately frightening you, the way Hitchcock would. Not just go, quiet, quiet, quiet, BOO! I don’t think that’s very clever.

So what appealed to you about Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies?

The historical mash-up aspect of it. Definitely. I saw it was an opportunity to do a bunch of research and figure out fun and clever ways of working this fictional story into real history. To me that was the fun of the project. How do we insert this story into what we all know to be true? And so my first idea, when I was initially told about the assignment, was the Gettysburg Address. When we think about Abraham Lincoln what do we think about? Holding the nation together, freeing the slaves, and the Gettysburg Address. I just thought, wouldn’t it be great if this zombie adventure tied into the creation and delivery of the Gettysburg Address? That became the spine of the story.

How did you end up getting the job, since you are not a genre guy?

My friend Karl Hirsch is a writer/director/editor who’s done a lot of work for The Asylum over the years, although I don’t think he’s ever done a feature. He’s done some editing of their movies and trailers. They have a relationship, and they came to him, kind of out of the blue, and said, “we’re going to do a direct-to-video title called Abraham Lincoln Vs. Zombies. Are you interested?” He was debating whether he wanted to do it or not, because he had other projects, and he knew it would be very, very challenging. He and I were having breakfast, and he told me about it. So I told him, “Oh, man you have to! That sounds like so much fun. How can you turn that down?” He said, “because there’s not going to be any money, there’s not going to be any time”. And I said, “It’s making a movie!” So I said, “I’ll help you write it. I’ve been trying to find a way to get my foot in the door with The Asylum anyway, because they’re making so many movies, and it would just really be a gas to work on.” And that’s what happened. I pitched him the Gettysburg Address idea, and we beat it out together, along with his wife Lauren, and submitted it. Asylum said, “Yes, we’ll do this.”

And when we were working on a treatment, an eight page, eight act treatment, when midway through that Karl got offered a huge documentary project that he could not turn down. And I said I’d really love to stay on, at least as the writer. Everybody seemed fine with that. David Latt at The Asylum had seen a couple of what he thought were my more indie films, like The Pompatus of Love, although I consider it more of a comedy. So I was offered to stay on as a writer, and pretty early on I said, “I’d love to direct this.” At one point, about a half-hour left before the thing needed to start shooting, they said, “well, there’s going to be no money, no time, nothing that you’re used to having, but if you want to direct it, you can.” I said, “I’m up for the challenge.” In some good news, the line producer Devin Ward figured out how to put the movie together to shoot in Savannah, Georgia, and he got us Fort Pulaski to shoot at. That decision to shoot on location makes the movie exist on any level in terms of quality. If we had to shoot in Los Angeles it really would have been crap.

How much time did you have to shoot?

We had 15 days on location and then a further half-day on a green screen stage. Looking back, how we did it, I have no idea.

Did you have any qualms about making the film for The Asylum, considering their reputation?

The short answer is no, because they make movies. Lots of people talk about making movies, but The Asylum actually makes movies. Here’s the thing from the outside you might not know about The Asylum. Everybody there is really nice, really smart, really hard working, and really loves movies. And everybody there is busting their ass to do as good a job as they can. The people in special effects are there like 20 hours a day trying to make these effects look beautiful. And by the way, some of the effects you have seen in the past in some Asylum movies, and thought, “by God that’s terrible”, a lot of those were done out of house, by people they took a chance with who didn’t deliver, and then they were out of time and out of money. It’s a hard working dedicated bunch of people, all of whom, I think, would like their movies to be better. And I honestly would not be surprised if starting with the movies that are coming out in April-June, if you see a bit of improvement. There is a development executive there, Micho Rutare, who has been there about a year – he’s been pushing very hard for the scripts to be better. As I said, on the technical side, everyone there is challenging themselves to improve the technical quality. I would be surprised if Nazis at the Center of the Earth and Abe Lincoln do not start a trend towards movies that are at least trying to be better.

You were approaching this as a real movie…

I was not encouraged in any way to make a quote unquote Asylum movie. In fact, the way Micho described it was, write an $80 million movie, and then figure out how to do it with nothing. In other words, I was specifically encouraged not to write for the budget. And I was told flat out, “we do not need camp, we do not need intentionally made camp anyway”. Which I had no interest in regardless.

There are no ex-celebrities in the film, right?

No. Basically, we did the movie locally. They are all local actors, except for Bill Oberst, who came from L.A.  Everybody else was local, or if they weren’t local, they got themselves to Savannah somehow, and worked as locals.

I think that would make people take it more seriously. When you see a face you recognize before, it automatically becomes something else. With unknown actors, you become more involved in the story.

There’s that argument. There have always been directors who prefer to work with unknowns or even non-professionals for just that reason. I don’t know where I stand on it. To me, you hire the best actor you can. Frankly, in terms of marketing the film there’s something to be said for getting a known actor. The film’s being produced by its distributor. So they know exactly where they’re selling it, how they’re selling it, and to whom they’re selling it. And they don’t really expect to do much in terms of cable on this title. They do their business in DVD/VOD and foreign sales, and so the movie’s made to fit the place in the market, and within its budget. And the budget is dictated by what their expectations are of how it’s going to sell.

How did the shoot go? Were the budget constraints frustrating?

It’s so funny about a movie shoot. It’s like giving birth to a baby. You end up forgetting just how much it hurt. But if you didn’t forget, you’d never have another baby. If every woman only had one baby, our population would be decimated. So, there’s some mechanism that causes you to forget just how unpleasant it was. And I have to say a couple of months out, I’m beginning to forget how unpleasant it was [laughs]. But it was a very, very difficult shoot. Everybody worked really hard, the community of Savannah really rose up to try and help us get this movie made. People did us all kinds of favors, and the production value we achieved using these local locations is extraordinary. The movie looks like it cost far more than it did. And a lot of that is simply the locations. Having said that, we had a very, very small crew, and almost nonexistent budgets for props, special effects. So you’re asking creative people to pull off miracles every single day. You’re saying to them, “there’s no time to prep, and no money to buy or rent anything, but we need a cool switchblade folding scythe for Lincoln that is going to look mean on screen but not actually hurt anybody. Could you have that by tomorrow?”

The special effects and makeup guys must have worked like crazy…

That’s the thing, it was a zombie movie with no special effects department. Yes, we had a makeup team who worked ridiculously hard, and we had a bunch of day players come in on heavy zombie days. But the casting director and her daughter were on set most days, helping do makeup. And I don’t think they were paid for that. They did it to support the film, and we had a lot of that. Just to support local production in Savannah, to support the project. A lot of people really liked the script, and even though it was, quote unquote, just a zombie movie, I think people really got into the story, and the respect with which we were treating history. I know that sounds crazy to say, but we really were trying to be respectful of history, and the historical characters that were in the film.

Did you at any point look of the promotional images from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter?

No. I specifically avoided it until I was done. I never read the book. If there are any similarities at all, they’re an unfortunate accident. I honestly know nothing about it. I haven’t seen the full trailer, but I did see the teaser trailer after we wrapped.

I would guess your movie is more historically accurate than that’s going to be.

That would be great! That would be hysterical. Obviously in my mind, it would be nothing short of wonderful if my movie was better than that movie in any aspect at all. If there’s one thing, like “Their Lincoln is better”, or “it’s more historically accurate”, or “It makes a little more sense”, or anything. It was a huge book by a successful writer, a huge budget movie with extraordinarily talented and successful people making it, so if there’s any way my movie compares to theirs favorably, it would be just great. But I don’t expect to come out on the winning side of most comparisons.

How was working with the actors?

They were lovely. Starting with Bill Oberst – he really took it seriously. He was the kind of guy showing up already knowing Lincoln’s speeches by heart. And he actually played Lincoln before on stage. He’s a very dedicated actor, one of the most dedicated I’ve met. He’s also very talented in terms of acting ability and technical skills. He would show up, and let’s say through some scheduling snafu he had prepared for a different scene. Even if he had a page and a half speech to do, he would go off for 5-10 minutes and come back and have the thing memorized. I’ve never seen anything like it.  A true professional and a great leader for the rest of the crew. We had a lot of young actors, a lot of inexperienced actors, and while everyone was super-thrilled to be there, it was great to have someone as experienced and serious as Bill heading up the team.

Especially because you didn’t have time for many takes, right?

That’s kind of a myth, the whole, “we do one take and move on” thing, like Eastwood. In my experience, the time does not go into takes, to do another take is five minutes. That’s not where you lose your time. You lose time getting a shot set-up and trying to load equipment into a huge fort that doesn’t have an elevator, you can’t bring vehicles into, and is open for business for vistors at the same time. That’s where the time goes.

So you had to work around the schedule of the fort?

Yes. It was crazy! Visitors came and went, cannons went off, and we had to shoot around that. We had to get twenty people into makeup with a two-person crew, that was challenging. But the only time I’m forced to say, “we’ve got to move on”, is, for example, you’re against a really hard deadline like lunch, or wrap. If you’re five minutes over, you’re into penalties, and that sort of thing. But having said all that, we didn’t do a lot of takes. I try to rehearse, so…

You had rehearsal time?

Um….no. We did not have rehearsal time before production time. But while the crew was lighting I tend to rehearse with the actors as much as I can.

You worked well with your DP?

We had a terrific camera department. We had two cameras going all the time, and we did that with a camera crew of three, basically. Which is half as many as you’d usually have on a two camera shoot. We had a DP, and two camera assistants. Everybody operated, even I operated sometimes, and we had two cameras almost every shot. It’s the only way we could have ever finished the movie.

While stressful, are you satisfied with how it turned out?

I am happy with how it turned out. Of course there are scenes I would have loved to shoot again. People who’ve seen it so far say it’s a very entertaining film. As retrospect becomes longer, the shoot grows less and less difficult and more and more fun in my mind. It’s always fun to make a movie, because there’s this constant sense of achievement. Every time you get a shot, and it looks good, or complete a scene, or wrap your day. Those are all measurable achievements.

Did you have to improvise a lot on the set?

Sometimes, yes. I try not to improvise utterly on the fly. If I have to improvise I try to do it a day in advance, so that I can write it out and give it to people.

Can you give an example of something you had to improv?

We had a walk and talk along the railroad tracks. We wanted to do it as a tracking shot beside the tracks. Then it occurred to me, can’t we could build some kind of a rig, and take the dolly and customize it so we can track on the railroad tracks? I mean, they’re here, they’re used to having giant things wheeled along them. A couple of our guys got together and dismantled the dolly and reassembled in such a way that it could roll on these railroad tracks. So we did the walk and talk. Then the camera operator was just goofing around, and showed me what it looked like if you rolled the thing pointed forward. He was running in front of it like it was a train coming towards him. Then we realized it could actually roll over a person. I had a scene that needed to be scrapped because we lacked a key prop, and I basically had a character who needed to die a coward’s death. It occurred to me that we could have him run away from a fight, run along the railroad tracks, not realize a train was coming, and get run over by it. And we could get the key shot from the POV of the train by using this rig. So we hurriedly got the guy in wardrobe, and we shot the last part of it.

Would you work with The Asylum again?

Oh yeah. In fact I’m hoping to roll right into another project with them.  I hope to work for them again very soon.


June 14, 2011


After a ten-year absence from the screen, John Carpenter’s welcome return is with a haunted insane asylum quickie entitled The Ward (released on cable VOD June 8th, it will receive a limited theatrical run starting July 8th). Following the box-office failure of his underrated Western-in-space yarn Ghosts of Mars (2001), Carpenter felt “burned out” and took a step back from Hollywood. He was unofficially retired, aside from happily cashing the checks from studio remakes of his work (Assault on Precinct 13, the forthcoming They Live). But after directing two episodes in Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, with tight budgets, compressed schedules and little oversight, “it was actually fun again” (interview with Fangoria). He looked for a similar setup for a possible feature, and found it when actress Amber Heard invited him to direct her in The Ward, an indie horror film funded by Echo Lake for a modest$10 million (the estimate at IMDB). He did not write the script or the score, and The Ward misses his sense of group dynamics that he studiously gleaned from Howard Hawks. Instead it’s a solid job of craftsmanship, punching up Michael and Shawn Rasmussen’s hacky story mechanics with an effortlessly controlled visual scheme that creates a circular, suffocating sense of claustrophobia.

It’s 1966 in North Bend, Oregon, and Kristen (Amber Heard) is found kneeling in front of a handsome farmhouse as it burns to the ground. As the guilty, raving firebug, she is committed to a mental institution presided over by Dr. Stringer (Mad Men’s Jared Harris).  She is isolated in a locked down section of the institute, along with four other female crazies: Emily (Mamie Gummer), Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), Zoey (Laura-Leigh) and Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca). She warily enters their combative circle, and it is not long before she is greeted by a mummified ghost with a thirst for inmate bloodshed. The more she discovers about this poorly groomed spirit the more questions are raised about Kristen herself.

John Carpenter to I Am Rogue: “I wanted to have a good time. I could make a shadowy corridor, which is something I want to do.” Having only a few sets to work with, Carpenter makes the most of them with unsettling repetitions, evoking the ritualized circular movements of these girls’ daily lives. Even their escape attempts walk down well-trodden pathways, and always end up back where they started. Carpenter’s opening shot trawls down the hallway that leads to their cells, followed by eerily emptied out hospital rooms. This establishes the set as one of the protagonists of the film, and it ensnares its inhabitants in short order. Throughout, the institute is strangely depopulated, a result of the low budget, but it fits the interorized space he’s creating.

Carpenter fetishistically returns to the low-to-the-ground hallway tracking shot throughout the film, as it pushes in both directions, a forever thwarted promise of escape and ever-present threat of return. Kristen repeatedly tries to exit the double doors at the end of the hall, each time blocked by the brusque orderly. She succeeds one final time, with Zoey as a hostage, but this exit signals her psychological breakdown.The other major repeating setup is a high-angle view in the cells, looking down at Kristen and the previous tenant, Tammy. This establishes a vertical axis of escape as opposed to the tracking shots’ horizontals pushing through the frame. This pays off when Kristen and Emily scamper their way through an air vent above their section, but this axis ultimately pushes them down, and they end up in the basement morgue, even further from freedom. The girls are caught in these two axes of up and down, forward and backward, an endless circling with no exit. It’s a simple template well elaborated by Carpenter and his DP Yaron Orbach.

The cast, a marketer’s dream team of starlets (it’s Shutter Island Gossip Girl, or something), is surprisingly effective. Amber Heard does a fine no-frills job as Kristen, playing against her delicate beauty by exuding a bulldog intensity, pushing forward regardless of the consequences. Panabaker does a fine if cliched narcissistic bitch routine, while Laura-Leigh has little more to do than mew at her stuffed bunny. The real standout is Mamie Gummer’s Emily,  a jumpy, skittish yelper, and the only lady that truly seems unhinged. Her moon-face and wild eyes fixate on Heard early on, threatening violence or a suffocating kind of love.

The dialogue they churn through is of the boiler-plate variety, chewy exposition to move the ladies into the next fright. The ghost, though, is refreshingly physical, with the CGI reserved for long shots or disapperaing acts. For the most part it’s a make-up aided product, and you can feel the weight of its leprous fingers as they twitch the electroshock machine past its breaking point. The explanation for the wraith’s behavior, as is usual these days, is explained by a final twist that invalidates all of the action that came before it. It cannot, however, undo the understated brilliance of Carpenter’s relentlessly logical visuals, whose intimations of spiritual and physical entrapment lingers long after the script’s manufactured shock fades away.