Category Archives: Horror Film

Creature Double Feature on Channel 56

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Creature Double Feature on Channel 56

Monsters.

So when my dad died I was five years old, and had precious little context to work with. I remember feeling numb, confused, unable to process the real implication of what it meant to lose a parent whom I’d barely gotten to really know. He’d been been sitting in his recliner one moment, and was gone the next, never to return. I stared out the window a lot, and watched the vultures congregate along the treeline ringing our house in Wauwinet (Nantucket, Massachusetts). I liked the vultures. They were the first birds I met. Carrion birds.

This memory stuck with me, however–my dad had told me something interesting about the image of King Kong breaking through his huge gate on Skull Island, where the natives scatter and Fay Wray, the intended sacrifice, writhes enchained, terrified by the “monster” raging in front of her. I identified with Kong immediately, because of what my dad had said: “He’s more afraid of them than they are of him.” And but hey let’s circle back to Ms. Wray a second here. The mere sight of this beauty enchants the beast, comforts him, allays his fear but does not compromise his strength (as we  see later in the jungles). This may have been the origins on my identification as female, but also the root of my blonde envy (I’m brunette). Here I took away a little something from both parties–identification with the beast, raging and powerful, and with beauty–passive, nurturing, forward-thinking, and yet somehow fateful, or even malignant. I think this is what one would call a paradox.

The recent passing of Keith Emerson (1944-2016) evoked memories of my initial gateway into a world of wonder when I needed it the most. Creature Double Feature [on Channel 56, for Boston] used the Emerson Lake & Palmer track “Toccata” [1973] as the ongoing theme song, and their creative edit of that percussive, diving synth tone made you think you were not only hearing a warning of a impending danger, but also an alien siren call, enticing you to the sticky web.

This show was the first exposure to speculative fiction for many of my generation, and I can only speak for myself when I tell you–finally it was so okay to be left alone.

Monsters became my escapism, actually a new sort of family. Monsters are outcasts but they’re also powerful as fuck, especially on a geopolitical level.

CDF tended to alternate their programming between a classic 1950s/1960s monster movie or a kaiju, a GIANT monster such as Godzilla or King Ghidorah. I was more captivated by kaiju than the “classic” monsters, perhaps because of their parallel with Kong. I must admit, many of these kaiju films don’t hold up very well anymore (often it takes forever to get the story rolling), but at least they made an impression on my young, impressionable brain.

The monsters are worth waiting for.

Best of all: combat between monsters. Sure, we’ll see the same city get squashed, but when monsters with unique, mutant characteristics and deadly biological weaponry do battle, it’s really fun to watch.

My CDF nostalgia runs deep–I’ll take the rubber suit and visible tethers over digital effects any day.

Diabolus ex Machina – The Guilty Pleasures of Damien Omen II

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We have a great deal more to fear from religious extremism than from any iteration of The Devil. My mom raised me Episcopalian but her influence formed me into more of a secular middle-class materialist, and one of the products I consumed was 1970s and 1980s schlock cinema. Today I’m not even an atheist–I feel no need to quantify myself within a system lain out by so many unpleasant people. So instead, I’ll go with something I actually care to know more about–horror fiction and cinema.

(LOL, here’s a question: is “Damien Omen II” a film or a movie?)

I’d be naive to suggest that religious themes are absent from horror–indeed, they form so many of its core elements. “The Exorcist” elevated the genre to blockbuster levels. Now, that film had the good luck of timing in the post-Vietnam/Watergate trauma America experienced at the time. Lurking Cold War fears gave rise to pervasive fear of violent invasion by the other from out there. Fear of the dark is timeless.

And who better to fear and scapegoat than the guy with the horns, the pointy tail, and the excellent taste in Black Sabbath?

Ka-ching!

This is not my place to give a history of the 1970s Hollywood film industry. Suffice it to say that horror and sci-fi had attained blockbuster status post-“Jaws” and “Star Wars,” and I was a very impressionable kid. “Damien Omen II” (1978, dir. Don Taylor) was the first of the Omen trilogy I saw, and to this day it remains my favorite, even though it’s as silly as a bag of rubber dicks.

Here are some reasons why I love this atrocity, and I won’t bother with too much summary or too many spoilers. You’ve never seen the film, you’ve seen the film and forgotten it, or you love it even more than I do.

1.) There are some very shitty ways to die when you find out that forbidden knowledge about Damien Thorn.

The writers of this follow-up to “The Omen” (1976, dir. Richard Donner) decided they would use a raven as an “uh-oh” plot device, instead of the Rottweiler[s] of the original and subsequent installments–not one Rottweiler here, booooo–and with the exception of one admittedly horrifying instance in the film, the bird makes no physical contact with victims. It shows up, a terrible “accident” occurs, then it flies away with the ramp-down of the Jerry Goldsmith score. Sometimes the raven tenders that “Damien eye” close-up to illustrate that supernatural malevolence and plot devices are afoot.

DO2 has quite a body count: buried alive, heart attack, eye gouging whilst in the direct path of a speeding Mack truck, drowning beneath ice, toxic asphyxiation, cut in half, aneurysm, impalement, stabbed, burned alive–arguably there is a higher body count in “Omen 3: The Final Conflict” (1981, dir. Graham Baker), but here we have some very dreadful ways to go when you’ve suddenly found your Christian truth. We get it, dude–Damien, now come of puberty, is the cause of all of the Evil in the world. Who better to lead the world?

Aaaaaand The Devil is really good with machines. There is more mechanized death in “Damien Omen II” than in any of the other film in the trilogy, and you begin to wonder “Wait, if he could move that gear shift, control that electrical system, why doesn’t he just cause more plane crashes while his enemies are commuting into their naughty? In some cases he could take them all out at once!”

That’s a much too vulgar display of power, Larissa.

2.) It is much more clear that Damien has infiltrated one of the most powerful family dynasties in the world.

Born of a jackal, Damien is the Jordan Belfort of changelings. He’s coming into puberty (huh-huh), and he’s not stupid–he knows when to be politic even if he thinks a person is odd or unpleasant. On the flipside, he also knows how to take care of bullies.

I splurged and read the 1978 Signet novelization by Joseph Howard because there is only so much the film is going to tell you. I wanted more backstory. The book isn’t an earth-shattering literary achievement, but it is immersive enough to convey that, in their own way, The Thorns have eclipsed The Kennedys. Reginald Thorn is the father of both the late Robert (played by Gregory Peck with admirable restraint and pathos in the original “Omen”) and Richard (William Holden, who seems to know what a turkey he’s starring in but is, to his credit, convincing and professional)–Grandpa Reginald also had ramped up the family’s industry but never lost sight of his true passion: archaeology. Down we go into the Biblical rabbit hole. 

3.) The film moves at a much faster pace than the first installment. There is a good deal of ground to cover.

DO2 opens with Jerry Goldsmith’s Main Title running at twice the clip as the brooding, almost Doom-Metal pace of the first film. Although the timeframe of this one appears to cover but a single winter, there is a global scope and immediacy to Damien’s growing power. The plot speeds along so fast, you may recognize the plot holes, but in order to keep up, you basically just have to roll with it. I wonder how cynically 20th Century Fox brass behaved during their conversations with Stanley Mann and Mike Hodges (who went on to direct Flash! Ah-ahhhh!).

“Coherence, schmo-herence, let’s shift some units before this ship sails!”

By the time Damien’s infernal destiny is revealed to him at about the midpoint, he initially (and understandably) freaks out. I’m not going to speculate at length about the unfortunate and imposed parallel of what queer kids go through with their devout, brainwashed monster-parents whose adherence to their religion and social standing at Wal-Mart is more important to them than the well-being of their child. But here we have a time capsule for that drama. Damien eventually comes around. Thanks, Obama!

4.) These are not such veiled references to the clandestine, questionable business practices of Thorn Industries. Can you say Monsanto?

“Our profitable future lies in famine,” says Paul Buher, a Slayer “Hell Awaits” apostate in training who looks like a cross between Stephen Lang (Harry Black, “Last Exit to Brooklyn”) and Robert Reed (The Brady Bunch dad).

In the beginning, we only know that Robert Thorn eschewed the executive levels of Thorn Industries in favor of DC politics–he eventually achieved success when he became American Ambassador to the Court of Saint James [let’s just call it Great Britain]. But then tragedies began to unravel his life– he lost his true progeny twice, lost his wife (whom he had obviously loved unconditionally), and after watching David Warner’s head make some disembodied gymnastics that would have made even Kurt Thomas (Gymkata) stand back in awe, he gets gunned down by the very human race he’s trying to protect from ruin.

Richard Thorn, on the other hand, toed the family line and became corporate head. Thorn is by this time massive on a global, geopolitical scale. But he is so traumatized by the loss of his brother, even after seven years, that the mere mention of Robert’s name sends him into a zone of melancholy and defensive rage. Richard’s love for his own son Mark by his first marriage eases the transition of adopting Damien into his immediate family.

But aside from this, Richard Thorn has enabled shady business practices to run rampant. Paul Buher is the new executive with his sights set on subjugating poor countries with Thorn-manufactured grain crops and despotism. Buher even goes so far as to start buying plots of land within the Indian subcontinent, behind Richard Thorn’s back, in order to enable Damien Thorn’s serfdoms.

“When you’ve got a knife at your belly,” he states early on, like a true humanitarian passionate about feeding the hungry, “you’ll keep your hands at your sides.”

What is all of this for? Why, Mr. Buher has finally been accepted, he realizes with an epic boner, when he finds three sixes on his ring finger one joyous night, the same night when Damien discovered the higher-echelon sixes on his own head.

5.) Why ask why? It’s just good, mindless horror fun.

There a good many things in DO2 that just don’t make sense–the most striking is Mark’s sudden change of heart about his cousin. Just because he’s the Antichrist doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have your back in a street brawl? Well, maybe not–I think the whole point is that when Damien’s underlying threat to the physical (and spiritual) safety of his family in order to move ahead like Anna Wintour with a 1970s mop-top military haircut, all bets are off. After so much death and a sense of unraveling not unlike his brother’s, Richard is finally convinced when he sees archeological evidence of Damien’s Truth. Obviously traumatized by the unfolding events, he resolves to kill his adopted child before he himself is killed. Good luck with that, dude. Lee Remick to the rescue! How else would we see a third movie?

Ka-ching!

Alone in the Dark (1982)

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Martin Landau as Byron 'Preacher' Sutcliff

Martin Landau as Byron ‘Preacher’ Sutcliff

“There are no crazy people, doctor. We’re all just on vacation.”
—Jack Palance as Frank Hawkes, “Alone in the Dark”

My first exposure to “Alone in the Dark” came from “Terror in the Aisles” (1984), a pseudo-documentary about the then-nascent 1980s horror boom and America’s cultural love of fear as pop-entertainment. “Terror” is essentially a compilation of horror clips interspersed with some adorable if dated commentary by Donald Pleasence and Nancy Allen. “Terror” may not have stood the test of time, but it’s laudable for having been one of the first American feature-length documentaries to slice horror film up the belly and study the creamy filling (as in, ‘What makes this stuff tick?’)

One “Terror” clip intrigued me especially: a slowly cruising white van pursues a bike messenger. It is broad daylight on a quiet New Jersey residential street. A POV shot within the van reveals the stalkers from behind, silhouetted in darkness, the victim in their sights: “I want the hat…” someone says from the passenger seat.

The van nudges aggressively from behind the cyclist who then swerves and falters along the curb into dry autumn leaves. The random violence that unfolds from there is difficult to fathom, mostly due to the sheer randomness of the assault: the maniacs in the van want to kill, simply because that is what they enjoy during that particular moment.

Why? Why not?

“In the end [the villains] simply don’t distinguish between right and wrong.
Perhaps they don’t know the difference. Perhaps they just don’t care.”
—Donald Pleasance, “Terror in the Aisles”

The main story of “Alone in the Dark” involves a psychiatrist whose entire family endures a nighttime home invasion by a group of three escaped convicts during a citywide blackout. Doctor Dan Potter, played by Dwight Schultz (‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch of “A-Team” fame!), has taken a new post at “The Haven,” a beautiful manor converted into pysch-wards. We then meet the chief psychiatrist Dr. Leo Bain played by Donald Pleasence, and it soon becomes quite plain why he enjoys his work a little too much: he’s loopy as any of the patients, even the ones on “the third floor.”

Bain gives Potter a tour of the hospital, and explains the third-floor security system that keeps the “most dangerous” patients under lock and keycard: it is state-of-the-art, foolproof, and runs completely on electricity. And so Bain is an enormous fuckup—we can see where this is all going.

The third-floor patients are, in fact, even more ABC-List actors: Jack Palance, Phillip Clark, Erland van Lidth (Dynamo in “The Running Man”), and Martin Landau. Once Bain introduces Dr. Potter to this tribe, their reactions range from cold to hyper-aggressive. Their previous doctor, Harry Merton, had apparently earned their trust and reliance, and they see this newcomer as a disruption at first, then they conclude in a paranoid reverie that Potter has murdered Merton, and will soon murder each of them. They decide to retaliate, to counterattack at the first opportunity.

This sets into motion one of the most enjoyable horror classics of the 80s “slasher” era. At turns subtle, hilarious, self-consciously low-budget, genre-baiting (especially during the babysitter scene), and gleefully excessive, “Alone in the Dark” is definitely worth seeking out. There is even an amazing music club sequence brought to you by the real New York horror-punk band The Sick F*cks (which included Snooky and Tish Bellomo, the two founders of Manic Panic).

Donald Pleasence plays Dr. Bain like a deer in the headlights, and yet with an adorable enthusiasm, as if he’s channeling the screenwriter/director (which makes sense, since this was Jack Sholder’s feature film debut).

But highest praise is due for Martin Landau’s portrayal of the Byron ‘Preacher’ Sutcliff. There are completely deranged psychopaths in horror film, and then there are totally rabid, post-Aftermath, Defcon-One hell-toads full of malignancy, wrath, and flair. Landau gets the hat.

CAUTION:

Do your utmost best to steer clear of Uwe Boll’s “Alone in the Dark” (2005), which is not a remake.

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