Why Clownhouse (1989) is Terrifying.

clownhouse-1989

I’ve recently been gifted with a pile of retro horror films.  Among them was 1989’s Clownhouse.  I’d been really excited to watch this, confusing it with another film from the 80’s featuring a girl and her creepy clown doll.  Popped it in, recognized the director’s name but couldn’t immediately place it, but moved past quickly when I spotted Sam Rockwell’s name in the opening credits.

The premise is rather silly.  Three young brothers are left home alone for the night and must fend off a trio of escaped mental patients masquerading as the circus clowns they’ve murdered.  The eldest brother, played by Sam Rockwell in his first feature role, is a teenaged jerk appalled that he’s stuck with babysitting duties.  The youngest, Casey, has severe coulrophobia and nightmares that cause bed wetting, instilling a maternal instinct in middle brother Geoffrey.

When nothing on screen sparked any memories of having seen this prior, I sought answers from Google. First, I found that the movie I’d actually been hoping for was 1988’s Ghosthouse, not Clownhouse.  Second, that director Victor Salva actually went to jail for events transpiring off screen between himself and the film’s 12 year old lead actor, Nathan Forrest Winters.  Victor Salva, roughly around the age of 30 at time of production, had been molesting the boy and filming it. WHAT?

He spent only 15 months in jail after confessing to five counts of sexual relations with a 12 year old boy, and having videotaped said relations.  Nathan Forrest Winters has no further acting credits to his name, and can anyone blame him?  Shockingly, Disney hired Victor Salva to direct 1995’s Powder, and the director relates the lead character to his personal life and the time he spent in prison.  Powder flopped, however, in part by Nathan’s public boycotting of the film.

Hollywood has a short memory, though, and Victor Salva found favor again with 2001’s Jeepers Creepers.

Now, of course this is old news, and I’m sure most people are already aware.  Hell, Victor Salva’s name held vague familiarity because I’d remembered some kind of sexual misconduct news tied with his name when Jeepers Creepers was released.  However, reading this news while watching Clownhouse gave the film a whole new context that was both horrifying and heartbreaking.

Casey’s frail and scared demeanor took on a deeper meaning.  That he spent the film scared of the grown men relentlessly pursuing him just felt icky.  The tone no longer felt like silly kids horror.

I’m behind the times on this one, and I feel terrible for that.  But I, too, will join Nathan Forrest Winters on his boycott of Salva’s films.

2014 in Retrospect

By now you’ve seen countless of Top 10 Horror for 2014 lists, with the end of the year upon us, and I considered posting one as well.  2014 has been a great year for horror, though you wouldn’t know it judging by wide theatrical releases.  However, I feel wrong titling this list as the “top” or “best of” as, to be honest, there’s so many I still haven’t seen.  So instead, consider this my list of recommendations.  My reflection of the horror films throughout the year that resonated with me; the gems that may have gone overlooked.  In short: my absolute favorites.

The Guest

THE GUEST

Do not pass go, do not collect $200.  Immediately go to your closest retailer or VOD of choice this Tuesday, January 6th.  This is, hands down, my favorite film of 2014.  While The Guest may not count as traditional horror, the obvious John Carpenter and James Cameron influences argue otherwise.  As does the blatant Halloween III homage and that the plot is set over Halloween, with the climax set amidst the most amazing Halloween party ever.  The setup is simple: a soldier shows up at the doorstep of a family, claiming to be there fulfilling a promise he made to their son to look out for them after his death.  Their teenage daughter soon suspects this soldier is not who he says he is.  The performances by leads Dan Stevens and Maika Monroe elevate the basic premise into something extremely special.  Maika’s performance as tough-as-nails Anna made her one of the best final girls in recent years. This genre bender is a masterpiece, complete with quirky humor.

Starry Eyes-

Starry Eyes

A cringe inducing allegory on ambition and a stark look at sleaze of the casting couch, Starry Eyes follows Sarah and her desire to reach stardom.  Alex Essoe carries the film as Sarah, from tragic vulnerability to vehement determination in achieving her goals.  Sarah lives in a complex of other Hollywood wannabes, a group of friends content with partying amongst each other, while Sarah persistently looks for casting calls and juggles a job at a Hooter’s style restaurant.  She gets her lucky break when invited to meet with the producer of a well-known company to discuss the lead role in their latest film, but must trade in morals and more to win the role.  Starry Eyes spends a lot of time setting up Sarah and her journey, but once her deal is struck the film picks up the pace and amps up the gore.  Sarah’s transition into stardom is both gripping..and gag inducing.

Purge: Anarchy-

The Purge: Anarchy

A hugely entertaining sequel to a mediocre at best predecessor.  Read why this film is worthy here.

Late Phases-

late phases

A blind Vietnam vet moves into a retirement community where the residents are being slaughtered every full moon.  Wait, really?  Instantly intrigued by the premise, I found this film had more in common with Bubba Ho-Tep that initially suspected.  Stocked with a solid cast (Ethan Embry, Tom Noonan, and Larry Fessenden) lead by Nick Damici as the gruff and independent vet, Ambrose, Late Phases transcends its gimmicky plot with a melancholic study on the forgotten elders.  The residents are largely forgotten outside of their community; their children have abandoned them and even the community’s security treats them like jokes.  Behind Ambrose’s abrasive persona lies guilt and depression, and it’s both heartbreaking and captivating to watch it unfold amidst the gory slayings every full moon.  I should probably mention I have a huge soft spot for werewolves, and as far as both makeup and transformation sequences, Late Phases doesn’t disappoint.  Horror and heart? Instant win.

Witching & Bitching-

Witching_and_Bitching

I’ve previously discussed how much I love Spanish horror, as well as why this eccentric comedy is a must see here.

Housebound-

Housebound

Another great horror comedy, but this time from New Zealand. After getting into some trouble with the law, Kylie is sentenced to house arrest in her childhood home.  Kylie is a bit of a loner, so this punishment is especially painful for her as she’s stuck under the same roof as her blabbermouth mother who is convinced their house is haunted.  But when she begins encountering strange events in the house, she starts to question if her mother may be onto something.  For a comedy, the film takes some surprising sharp turns that keep you guessing.  Kylie is so initially off-putting, but her mother’s quirks and personality distract and compensate.  In fact, all of the supporting cast make up for an irritating lead.  Housebound tries hard to balance the horror with the comedy elements, instead of favoring one over the other.  There are genuine scary moments as well as laugh out loud jokes, which is no easy feat to accomplish.

Afflicted-

afflicted 2013 poster

A horrific transformation story reminiscent of An American Werewolf in London that effectively uses the found footage style? Yes please!  Read why Afflicted worked so well here.

Honorable Mentions:

The Taking of Deborah Logan-

Taking of Deborah Logan

A documentary crew offers money to use Deborah Logan as the subject of their medical documentary on Alzheimer’s disease but is soon questioning if her eerie behavior is just a product of her disease or something supernatural. Jill Larson’s performance as Deborah Logan is downright frightening in the best possible way, and the first half of this unique possession tale will leave you with chills.  However, halfway through when one character wisely leaves as you most characters would, the film unravels.  The more that is revealed about the supernatural elements haunting Ms. Logan, the sillier it all becomes.  The disappointment of the final shot stings all the more with such an effective first half.

The Babadook-

thebabadook

An excellent film, to be sure, but nowhere near what critics lead me to believe.  It also doesn’t help that I’m not a mommy.  Read more about my thoughts here.

I can’t wait to see what 2015 has in store.  What were your favorites from 2014?

The Babadook Review

thebabadookSeven year old Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is borderline feral with his unchecked imagination and violent outbursts.  His mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), struggles to balance her work life and her attempts to parent her wild son on her own.  Her stress is further compounded by her continued grieving over the loss of her husband seven years prior.  When Samuel picks out the bed time tale “Mister Babadook,” an eerie pop-up book that seemed to appear from thin air, Amelia’s pushed to the end of her rope as the book’s title character becomes a menacing presence in their already dysfunctional lives.

Debut director Jennifer Kent utilizes a monochrome color palette and haunting sound to set the tone before the audience even catches a glimpse of the Babadook, which only amps up the tension.  Familiar haunted house tropes populate the first half of the film; Samuel converses with an unseen visitor, Amelia’s bed time is interrupted by footsteps outside her bedroom door, and every time she tosses out the book it reappears.  The second half delves fully into surreal psychological horror reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, taking on a much darker tone.

The strength of the film lies largely with the performances behind Amelia and Samuel.  The relationship between the mother and son are in constant fluctuation, alternating between loving and utter frustration.  The lack of a paternal presence features prominently at the core of the story; Amelia struggles with parenthood after the loss of her husband while Samuel is becoming more aware that his family life is not like everyone else’s.  Some moments you feel Amelia’s defeat at Samuel’s unruliness, and other moments you feel for Samuel due to his mother’s distance.  The fragility of their state of living makes the Babadook all the more upsetting. Essie Davis’ portrayal of Amelia is both heartbreaking and horrific, while maintaining that maternal love for Samuel throughout.

While the tension remains consistently palpable, and there are many terrifying moments, it just fell short of the hype machine.  Though I suspect I will be in the minority on this one.  For me, this was not the scariest movie I’ve seen in a while.  The film is well acted, beautifully shot, and emotionally investing, but much of the tension fizzled out instead of the explosive ending the film deserved.  Most excellent genre films are social metaphors, I just happen to prefer them to be a little more subtle. Realizing what exactly the Babadook is took away all of the fear, though it did succeed in creating a much richer and more fulfilling story.

Overall, the Babadook is a great entry to the horror genre by Australia and newcomer Jennifer Kent, though not as scary as most reviews would lead you to believe.  Another shining example of a successful Kickstarter campaign, the Babadook is set for release on DirectTV October 30, and wider release on November 28th.  Check out the website, and sign up on the email list to be notified on updates for the “Mister Babadook” pop-up book release.  You know, if you want to keep your children up all night.

The Purge: Anarchy Review

The Purge: AnarchyI want to preface my take on The Purge: Anarchy by stating how much the first film annoyed me.  The concept of an annual 12 hour time period in which all crime is given a free pass ended up serving as a plot device for a rather weak home invasion flick.  The idea of the purge felt like a mere afterthought simply conjured up to justify daft characters chasing each other around in a dark house.

But the sequel wisely forgoes the home invasion aspect and expands on what should have been the focal point to begin with- the annual purge.  The Purge: Anarchy opens just a few hours before the commencement of the annual purge.  Our leads are introduced amidst the unrest of a city scrambling to prepare for chaos when time is running short.  Waitress Eva is struggling to support her daughter, Cali, and her terminal father.  Liz and Shane are driving home when their car breaks down just on the edge of downtown.  Another man bent on revenge suits up and heads out into the city to join the purge.  These characters converge and must band together if they hope to survive the night.

In this outing, viewers witness the purge from the lower class perspective; the poor who can’t afford the extravagant security system seen in the first film.  The poor who are tired of falling victim to the rich on purge night.  The divide in social classes plays prominently in both social commentary as well as a larger plot thread interwoven throughout but always manages to cut away to a thrilling action sequence before it risks feeling too heavy handed.

Our band of survivors develop into fully realized characters in between thrilling moments of imminent peril as the brushes with death slowly chip away to expose their motivations and desires.  While impressive, the characterization is not perfect.  Cali is meant as the bridge between the story and the audience, but her constant barrage of questions comes across as grating and idiotic despite being necessary.

The editing for the Purge: Anarchy should be given high praise as well.  With so much crammed into a short one hour and forty minute run time, it somehow never feels overcrowded.  Each component is entwined in perfect balance, from the reflections on society, character development, to the survival horror aspect.  Scenes of horrific pandemonium in the streets are shot and cut in a way that avoids being overly gratuitous while still retaining a sense of terror.

For fans of the first film, and there are many, one character does carry over into the sequel.  As this character isn’t revealed in the previews I won’t spoil it other than to say keep your eyes open during the second half of the film.

The people behind last year’s sleeper hit became attuned to audience complaints and took notes. Now, they present us with a sequel that easily erases the bad memories of its predecessor; a sequel that dumps the home invasion angle in favor of a fun action horror story.  The sequel has also given me some appreciation for the Purge, as I now see the two as a complementary pair.  The first presents the purge from the perspective of the upper class, whereas the Purge: Anarchy shows the purge from the opposite spectrum. Writer Jim DeMonaco accomplished something very rare: creating a sequel far superior to its predecessor.   As I’m sure the Purge: Anarchy will do well in the box office, I suspect we’ll see more sequels in the future.  But the question is, will they be as fun as this one?

Spanish horror

Over the past couple of decades, Spain has emerged as an expert on horror.  I’ve realized that many of the films that have terrified me the most, the ones that I share with friends, hail from Spain.  Even when the idea behind the some of the films seem like horror that’s been retreaded many times over, they’re injected with tension, effective scares, beautiful cinematography, and emotion that just gives it that refreshing twist.  I thought I’d share my absolute favorite, though it’s by no means the only Spanish horror films worth checking out.

5.) The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

The Devils Backbone

Set in a remote orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, the story follows young Carlos who was left behind by his parents.  As stories circulate about a child who went missing the day an unexploded bomb dropped into the orphanage’s courtyard, Carlos notices ghostly figures and creepy noises.  The plot is far more complicated than a simple ghost story; the effects of the war stretch even to isolated orphanages.  Though Guillermo del Toro’s first draft was set in his home country of Mexico and didn’t feature a ghost, I’m glad for the changes.  The addition of the ghost not only unnerves, but adds a layer of melancholy that enforces the tragedy of war.

 

4.) Witching & Bitching (2013)

Witching_and_Bitching

This zany horror-comedy by director Alex de la Iglesia follows bumbling thieves as they steal gold from a pawn shop.  Truly, the worst robbery ever.  Jose even brings his son along, since it’s his day for custody.  With the cops closing in the thieves try to evade them by heading to France, though they get stuck in Zugarramurdi, a little town known for being inhabited by witches.  Now they must not only escape the law, but the family of witches looking to serve them for dinner.  Though some of the humor falls flat at times, the banter between the thieves is a highlight and the horror elements are so bizarre that the film succeeds any way.

 

3.) Sleep Tight (2011)

Sleep tight

Directed by Jaume Balagueró, this intense thriller follows concierge César and his unhealthy obsession with apartment tenant Clara.  What begins with unhappy César playing pranks on his unsuspecting victim quickly escalates into far more sinister acts.  From wiping cockroach eggs everywhere to voyeurism, this film’s chills come from its realism and fear of privacy invasion.  The tension is palpable throughout, and the reason César does what is does is terrifying.  Well acted and often uncomfortable, this thriller feels on par with classics like Hitchcock and Polanksi.

 

2.) Fragile (2005)

fragile

Jaume Balagueró strikes again!  Shot in Spain and the UK, this supernatural flick is set in a rundown hospital, currently in the process of closing its doors for good.  Enter American nurse Amy, played by Calista Flockhart, who frantically tries to keep the remaining patients safe from a series of mysterious attacks.  Amy bonds with a young orphan, Maggie, who is suffering from fibrosis and together they discover the entity behind the attacks.  This ghost story may not be original, but its abandoned hospital setting, save for the children’s ward, may for very effective scares.  No other ghost may be quite as scare as the one that haunts the remaining patients, but it’s the emotional bond between Amy and Maggie that’s the heartbeat of this film.  Their growing adoration of each other not only gives this film purpose, but it pulls on your heartstrings.  With scares and soul, this is easily one of my favorites on any list.

 

1.) [Rec] (2007)

REC

Perhaps I should have just dedicated this list to Jaume Balagueró?  This time he shares the helm with co-director Paco Plaza.  In one of the most intense horror films I have had the pleasure of viewing, [Rec] is a found footage film in which television reporter Ángela Vidal and her camera man follow a local fire station for her show.  What starts out as a rather boring evening turns out to be anything but when the fire station receives a call about a woman trapped in her apartment.  Upon arrival they find the woman is completely crazed and aggressive, and bites one of the firemen before plummeting to the lobby floor below.  The CDC and police arrive and put the building on quarantine, locking everyone inside with an infection that’s spreading.  This is easily the most effective use of found footage.  The limited view of the camera contributes to some of the most tense scenes in any horror film.  When the lights are cut off, the camera also becomes the only source of light, eliminating the oft asked, “Why didn’t they put the camera down?”  The final moments will likely have your hands hovering somewhere around your face, and at the very least you will watch most of this film at the edge of your seat.  It’s not a bad idea to have a change of pants handy, either.  What appears to be a simple zombie film is anything but.

 

What are your favorites?

 

Blood Glacier (2013) Review

Blood GlacierA group of scientists stationed in the Austrian Alps make the discovery of a crimson glacier.  It, like all surrounding glaciers, are melting thanks to climate change.  It’s not blood in the glacier, however, but an organic matter that incubates in the host’s stomach, mixing DNA of the host and any animal it may have eaten.  So a fox that has eaten a wood louse and a beetle will have a creature burst from its stomach that will be a mutation of all three animals, and it will be hostile.  This is precisely what the scientists discover when our lead, loud mouthed Janek, follows his dog into a dark cavern beneath the blood glacier.  While the scientists try to process their discovery, more and more creatures begin making their presence known.  Throw in a government minister with an entourage en route, including Janek’s ex, to make a publicity appearance at the outpost and you have a multitude of characters that must band together if they want to survive.

Much of the story’s focus is on Janek and his ex, Tanja.  It’s made clear that they parted under sudden and mysterious circumstances years prior, and her sudden reappearance has thrown him into emotional turmoil.  It’s this plot thread that is meant to anchor the audience emotionally to the story, but it ends up feeling contrived.  In a later scene, Tanja picks a strange moment to make a solemn confession to Janek about the end of their relationship, but never offers to explain the reason behind her decision.  It’s this forced relationship that makes the film feel much longer than it actually is.

Minister Bodicek should have been the focus.  Her introduction gives the false impression that she’s a high maintenance, fragile politician that needs her every whim catered to.  She proves to be the toughest one of the bunch while retaining the most compassion for her fellow survivors.

Likely to budget, the creatures don’t seem to attack often or with any sense of urgency.  It’s rare to even get a good look at the creatures.  I didn’t realize that the climax had come and gone until the music queued up to signal the film’s end.  It’s not the budget that’s the issue, but that the film doesn’t know what it wants to be.  Torn between B movie creature feature and ominous eco horror, the film unsuccessfully attempts both.  There are tragic moments in the film, and it doesn’t mesh with the gory camp moments.  Choosing just one would have made Blood Glacier far less tonally confusing and much more enjoyable.

 

Stage Fright (2014) Review

ImageThe night of The Haunting of the Opera’s grand debut, Broadway star Kylie (played by Minnie Driver) is murdered backstage by someone wearing the mask of the play’s villain, Opera Ghost.  Ten years later, Kylie’s twin children Camilla and Buddy are working for their stepfather Roger (played by Meat Loaf) at a performing arts summer camp on the verge of financial ruin.  When the camp chooses a Kabuki style revival of The Haunting of the Opera as their summer program, the Opera Ghost killer returns to wreak havoc.

Stage Fright feels more like a very niche type of film.  More than just a horror comedy, it feels as though it’s meant for fans of musical theater.  Not only is the entire plot centered around a musical, from the audition process to opening night, but the characters will break out into song and dance almost at random.  It’s all clever; the songs’ lyrics are satires of theater stereotypes and are often sung by the embodiments of theater stereotypes.  But it’s clever in the way that it expects you to be very acquainted with theater. The film’s musical of choice, The Haunting of the Opera, is a blatant spoof of The Phantom of the Opera.  So in this way, Stage Fright feels like it’s directed to a very specific audience.

Clashing with the musical theater satire is a surprisingly bloody slasher flick.  The Opera Ghost’s brutal slaying style feels very reminiscent of 80’s horror, and it can be very messy.  Of course, he sings too, though his metal vocal style set against heavy guitar riffs contrasts the broadway musical numbers sung by the rest of the cast.  His identity, however, is an easy mystery to solve despite the red herring or two.

Allie MacDonald is perfectly cast as lead Camilla.  She somehow manages a perfect blend of awkward, vulnerable, and ambitious that makes her a protagonist you want to root for.  After her mother’s untimely death, her only motivation is her brother and the desire to follow in her mother’s footsteps.  It’s her journey from the sleazy politics in the audition process through the serial killer’s opening night spree that keeps the film grounded.  Meat Loaf’s role is also a pleasant surprise as the desperate camp owner.  

Stage Fright’s horror elements, despite being bloody fun, are overshadowed by it’s musical theater aspects.  After the opening scene, I almost forgot I was watching a horror film at all.  While I appreciated Stage Fright’s uniqueness and satirical humor, I felt some of the inside jokes were lost on me.  If the thought of watching the Glee kids get slaughtered amuses you, give Stage Fright a shot.  But be prepared to spend a lot of time getting very familiar with musical theater before the payoff.  Stage Fright is currently on VOD and will be released theatrically on May 9.