Monday, February 6, 2017

Deep in the Heart of Dixie

Vincent Price as Julian White in FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987).

Despite their professed tolerance, their sanctimonious denouncement of any bigotry, there's no group that Let-'em-Eat-Cake Limousine Liberals love to hate quite like white Southerners. They think this country should be run by software entrepreneurs and trust-fund artists without any interference from auto plant workers in Louisville or dock workers in Mobile or mechanics in Savannah. I mean, it's not like they went to the right schools.
The image of a Southerner, one that's reinforced by the Power-Elite beholden media and mainstream academia by the kind of people who quote H.L. Mencken and touch themselves, is of some sweaty gun totin' moonshine-swiggin' rebel-flag-wavin' peckerwood named Jimbo, sitting on his morbidly obese behind in a rusty trailer in a crusty "Don't Blame Me, I Voted For Jeff Davis" T-shirt (his "Pull My Finger" shirt got eaten by a possum) watching Jerry Springer re-runs, shooting rats, entering spitting contests and looking for Klan rallies to attend and relatives to date.
And I recently came across this comment from an alleged liberal on article:

"My conclusion is that the only way to deal with the 'southern man' is to defeat him, over and over, until he is as marginalized, politically and culturally, as he so deserves to be."

Yikes and gadzooks, this breed of fighting pseudo-liberal has less in common with Thomas Jefferson and more in common with David Duke! Hell, even most of the anti-Southern jokes are just old ethnic jokes with a new accent. There's an irony in there somewhere but I'm not drunk enough to find it.
Maybe it's just easier to target a faceless group of people in another area of the country than to take a long, hard look at the bigotry, ignorance and corruption in your own backyard.
Segregation was de jure in the South, but it was de facto in the North. And while there were riots in Little Rock and Birmingham, the Fighting Pseudo-Liberals conveniently forget the race riots in Philadelphia and New York City in 1964 as well as the violent protests and riots over busing in South Boston that occurred in the 1970s. Birmingham may have had Bull Connor, but Philadelphia had Frank Rizzo. The city MLK cited as being the most segregated wasn't even below the Mason-Dixon line -- it was Chicago.
I'm not sure where this theory that all Southerners are yearning for a life on the old plantation when slavery was legal but I'm betting it was some pasty-skinned geekoid with two junior accountant parents who's taken too many cultural sensitivity classes at Berkeley and had nightmares after staying up too late and watching GONE WITH THE WIND and DELIVERANCE back to back on TCM. I doubt the descendants of sharecroppers, muleskinners and shine runners who voted en masse for Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan want to return to aristocratic rule by slave-holding elites.
Maybe it all comes down to the social class. After all, the South is still coping with inherited poverty and all the problems that come with that. When people sneer that they "thankfully live in a more enlightened part of the country" they really mean one where members of the professional class drive around in Beemers and drink martinis in swanky hipster lounges where they talk about their feelings and cry crocodile tears for the plight of the starving children in Nigeria.
Making fun of poor white Southerners is the last acceptable prejudice because most Americans will object to discriminating against a person because of their race but class discrimination is as American as apple pie.
Upon being called "poor white trash," should working class Southerners start telling these jerks to check their class privilege? Upon being jeered at as "rednecks," should we start responding, "Hey, that's pigmentally-challenged regional American to you, sissy britches!"
Then again, I don't know if the descendants of people who followed hellraising John Knox to Ulster and tried to blow off the heads of any government agents who wanted to tax their whiskey really give a damn what the elites think of them.
I don't need no safe space, I'm damn proud to be a redneck. And I'm damn proud that I beat Jimbo in that spitting contest.

And while I'm at it, let's take a romp through the id of the American South with the third movie in my regional horror movie bonanza, shot and produced in Dalton, Georgia and set in Tennessee, FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987) also known as THE OFFSPRING directed by JEFF BURR and co-written by him, C. COURTNEY JOYNER, producer DARIN SCOTT and MIKE MALONE.

After the execution of notorious serial killer Katherine White (Hammer beauty MARTINE BESWICK), reporter Beth Chandler (my beloved SUSAN TYRRELL) travels to Katherine's hometown of Oldfield, Tennessee to speak with her uncle, Julian, who has the doubly good fortune to be played by the legendary VINCENT PRICE and to be the town librarian. She wants to find out what caused Katherine to embark on a vicious murder spree. He insists that there is no psychological explanation, but something dark and rotten in the heart of Oldfield itself that turns its residents into human monsters. Julian knows where all the bodies are buried -- literally -- and with a deliciously ham-flavored Southern accent, begins to tell Beth about Oldfield's history of violence and depravity. It's like if WILLIAM FAULKNER wrote TALES FROM THE CRYPT.

FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM follows the tradition of Southern writers like FAULKNER, FLANNERY O' CONNOR and TENNESEE WILLIAMS. Contrasting Southern gentility with grotesque characters, warped humor and shocking violence, they depicted a South struggling with its identity in the modern age: still haunted from a lost war that wiped out an entire generation of young men, a decaying aristocracy and struggling to come to grips with the decline of an agrarian society being replaced by an industrialized one.

Stanley Burnside (CLU GULAGER) visits the object of his obsession in FROM A WHISPER TO SCREAM (1987).

The first story stars dedicated character actor CLU GULAGER as Stanley Burnside, a nebbishy weirdo who develops a crush of Hinckley proportions on the leggy, aloof Grace, his co-worker at the packing plant. Unfortunately, Stanley has few social skills and his overly-enmeshed relationship with his sickly sister, Eileen, has turned him into a bundle of seething resentment. Despite this, Stanley is able to convince Grace to accept a date with him. Unfortunately, he can't reign in the creepiness and spends the evening talking about how their date made his sister jealous, that his mama used to love yams and then makes everything worse by trying to sing a song he wrote about her and forcing her to kiss him while sobbing hysterically. Grace handles this like any wise woman would and attempts to jump out of the car. Unfortunately, determined not to lose the object of his affection, Stanley strangles her to death and dumps her body by the roadside. Though Grace is dead and gone, Stanley's obsession is not, and he breaks into the church where her casket lies...
Yes, my darlings, it all leads to necrophilia, murder and vengeance beyond the grave.
This is one of the stronger segments in the film and probably best remembered because of its sensual fever of perversity as well as a terrific -- and very funny -- performance by CLU GULAGER.
Necrophilia was a favorite trope among Southern Gothic writers. Maybe it's symbolic of the decay and decline of the Old South.  Maybe those writers just read "Annabel Lee" too many times.
Eileen Burnside, like many Southern Gothic characters, remains insular and focused on the past. She remains in the house away from other people, feigning persistent fevers so that her brother will bathe her in ice water. It doesn't take a PhD in Literature to know her "fevers" are symbolic of her repressed desire and she uses her illness to keep her brother close to her. She obsesses over the memory of their dead father, even suggesting they celebrate his memory at Christmas by getting a Christmas tree draped in black.
Stanley, too, leads a trapped existence to the point where when he is denied what he wants the most, he decides to just take it -- in the most perverse way possible.

Harry Caesar as Felder Evans in FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987).

In the second story, Jesse Hardwicke (TERRY KISER, the psychiatrist everyone loved to hate in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII) is an outlaw on the run (a favorite Southern Gothic character type). Wounded by gunshot, he stumbles into the swamps to be rescued by a mysterious conjureman named Felder Evans. From a revealing scrapbook Felder has conveniently left lying around, Jesse discovers the man is actually over a century old. Ya see, Felder has a potion that grants eternal life. Though he's more than happy to share with his new frenemy, Jesse would rather have all of it for himself.
I've never understood why in movies people are always clamoring for eternal life. Isn't life already long enough?
Underneath the supernatural shenangians there lies a commentary about race and class. The outlaw and the outsider should be allies. In fact, Felder even tells Jesse that he's grateful for his company after being alone for so long. Instead, one tries to use and discard the other and co-opt the traditions of a marginalized culture for his own gain. Unfortunately for Jesse, karma is a real bitch with rabies.

The traveling circus in FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987).

The third story treks over similar grounds with race, class and witchcraft. Set during the Depression, ingĂ©nue Amaryllis falls in love with Steven, the glass-eater in a travelling sideshow. Unfortunately, the owner of the sideshow is a possessive witch (ROSALIND CASH) and the carnies are all outlaws on the run who bargained to become performers in exchange for her protection. It's far from a mutually beneficial arrangement, however, as Steven remarks, "You take more than you give."
Naturally, it does not end well for the star-crossed lovers. It's a pretty grim vision of class mobility: the marginalized are doomed to stay trapped. As Steven tells Amaryllis, "I'm a freak...the carnival is where I belong."
With a backdrop that recalls TOD BROWNING's FREAKS, this segment has the potential to be the most interesting in the anthology but unfortunately it's over as soon as it starts.

The finale takes us back to, of course, the end of the Civil War. A gang of Union soldiers lead by CAMERON (THE TOOLBOX MURDERS) MITCHELL don't want the South's surrender to put an end to their a-rapin' and a-plunderin' so they venture on to Oldfield. They discover, however, that the war has wiped out the entire adult population, leaving the remaining homicidal and disfigured children to run the town. This tale explores similar territory to CHILDREN OF THE CORN as well as one of my favorite movies, THE BEGUILED; it resembles the latter both in its Civil War South setting and in its anti-war sentiment. While it's the powerful that initiate war, it's the defenseless - the children - who pay the price.
When MITCHELL's character protests that the war is over, the leader of the children remarks: "The killing long as there are big people, there's always a need (for war)."

Oldfield, Tennessee's history of violence stems from the Civil War in FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987).

It's not a surprise that Oldfield's legacy of violence stems from the Civil War. After all, it left deep scars on the American South that are still visible today. When people from other parts of the United States remark (usually condescendingly) about why Southerners can't get over the fact that they lost the war, they forget that the South has still not recovered from repercussions, mainly inherited poverty (which ripples into the educational system, medical care, wages and - well, pretty much every facet of life). Much of the hostility stems from Reconstruction which, instead of being a genuine rebuilding or a shift from a rule by planter elites to a more egalitarian society, was a military occupation and austerity program.

There is another point raised in the wraparound segment at the very end of the film. While Julian insists something is rotten in the core of Oldfield itself that turns its residents into human monsters, Beth has another theory: she insists his obsession with Oldfield's depraved history poisoned the mind of his otherwise sensitive niece. Perhaps continuing to wallow in the past is preventing the South from looking for any solutions that would make it a better place to live.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

This Ain't My Party

Spending a weekend in a cabin in the woods, a group of college kids tell scary stories in SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT (1979)

Political pundits are chewing their manicures off trying to figure out how the Democratic Party became the biggest loser in this year's election. What's going on out there in flyover country that resulted in epic losses for the Democrats on both a state and federal level?  They could, of course, travel about the country and talk to a sample of working and middle class people, but that would just be silly. Instead they've taken to the airwaves and interweb with a whole bunch of theories.

The most popular is the angry white man theory. Yep, it's all Travis Bickle's fault. He's got a chip on his shoulder because technology, globalization and the gig-centric Uber economy have denied him the comfortable, middle-class life his parents had. But hey, he needs to get real and realize it's his own fault and he should've taken out $50k in loans for college and then he wouldn't be so ignorant as to vote Republican.
Then there's the related "white-lash" theory: the white working class lashed back against a changing country. They're threatened by the "browning" of America and the fact that we had a black president (who was half white, but whatever). They reject political correctness not out of concern for their civil liberties, but because they want to go around hollering racial slurs. And those blue collar slobs should've been grateful that thanks to Obama they have affordable healthcare except it's not really affordable. Oh well, if they're complaining about paying twice as much out-of-pocket or sky-high deductibles or the fact that their doctors no longer accept their insurance it's probably just because they're a bunch of racists.
But what about all those people waving "Blacks for Trump" and "Latinos for Trump" signs? Oh, they were probably confused so who cares about those folks anyway. And what about people like Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley who were anti-Trump but also vocally critical of Obama and opposed Hillary Clinton? Ignore them, they just don't understand.
There's the Weimar theory: that those ignorant rubes just can't figure anything out so they're looking for a strong-man authoritarian to solve all of their problems. Never mind that a lot of those folks have strong objections to limitations of their civil liberties and opposed Obama's autocratic methods, all they want is a dictator.
The pundits can't seem to figure out what's going on in the Rust Belt. They don't understand those incorrigible Southerners at all, but they're just a bunch of Bible-beatin' rednecks who're looking for people to lynch anyway. And they completely forgot the Southwest was even there until BREAKING BAD came on.
Now, I don't have the benefit of an Ivy League education like those other jokers - I went to art school and then I got my paralegal certificate from Earl K. Long College (go fighting crawdads!) - but I think I have a theory of my own.
I grew up in Red State-land and I've been a loud-mouthed power-to-the-little-guy banker-punching populist Democrat my whole life. My parents were both proud Democrats - after all, the Democratic Party was the party of the working man.
Unfortunately, that's no longer true.
What was once the party of the factory workers, the farmers, skilled tradesmen and small businessmen is now the party of Wall Street bankers, Silicon Valley billionaires and the Hollywood elite.
The party has transitioned from epitomizing the values of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan - more direct democracy, a government by the people, pro-worker, anti-globalist, anti-war, equal opportunities for all and special privileges for none - to becoming a party of Hamiltonians who favor globalization, imperialist wars and the rule of an elite. They'd like to exile all those unpleasant working class people to Siberia and create a beautiful America where a bunch of hedge-fund managers and illegal aliens all get naked together and sing "This Land Is Your Land."
Looking at today's Democratic Party,  I haven't seen a group this despicable since Marie Janisse's ex-boyfriends got together to form that Los Lobos tribute band.
And as much as what was said about the Deplorables, I found the Obama/Clinton devotees a lot more frightening; those folks have a bloodthirsty fervor that rivals the Manson Family.
I've got a gaggle of Obamatons at my office and normally I keep my mouth shut around them because I've been tarred and feathered before and it wasn't fun. But after listening to a string of sneering epithets about "those ignorant people" (it was either the people who voted for Trump or the Bernie Sanders supporters who refused to vote for Hillary, I couldn't really tell) followed by gushing accolades about President Obama being the best president in the history of the United States, I couldn't stands no more.
"Only if you think appointing a cabinet full of Citibank and Goldman Sachs executives, signing a taxpayer funded bailout for the architects of The Great Recession, a healthcare bill that's more beneficial to the insurance companies than it is to working people, bringing down the hammer on whistle-blowers and trying to ramrod a super-secretive global-corporatist anti-democratic trade bill through Congress is a legacy to be proud of," I said.
And then as a smell of ozone crept into the air, a low growl emerged from their collective throats as their lips curled back to reveal their fangs. Their hands curled into talons and their eyes began to flicker and roll like a lizard's.
"You must be some crazy redneck racist!" they screeched. "You just don't understand!"
Yeah, I think I do.
And that's the other thing -- this new breed of liberal has two defenses when confronted with a dissenting opinion, either:
1) Accuse the dissenter of being a racist to shut them up. I find this abhorrent for so many reasons. Racism is a serious problem, not some flippant label to be tossed around like a volleyball.
2) You don't understand. See what that condescending little phrase does? The only reason you dare disagree is because you're ignorant.
Rather than championing the working class, today's Democratic Party despises them.
One of the Office Obamatons even said she opposed raising wages because then the price of goods would go up and we'd have rampant inflation.
"The price of goods is going up and we have rampant inflation anyway," I said. "When only a few corporations have ownership of everything prices go up because there's no competition."
"You just don't understand," she said.
The reason people in middle America have abandoned the Democratic Party is that the party turned its back on them decades ago. With its economic elitism, imperialist warmongering and shrieking self-righteousness on social issues, it's no longer a good fit for them. Once the party of the common man, it's now a party for the kind of people who watch a Marx Brothers movie and say, "I really like MARGARET DUMONT -- but I find those little weird guys highly offensive."
The Democratic Party isn't the party of the people anymore. And it really needs to check its class privilege.

And speaking of uncomfortable parties, the second film in this regional horror film bonanza is SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT (1979) made in Natchitoches, Louisiana. You used to be able to get some good meat pies there. Ten college kids head out in a van for a weekend at a cabin in the woods near the allegedly haunted Lake Durand. For some reason surprised that spending the weekend in the woods means they'll be out in the middle of the woods (jeeze, people, what did you think was going to happen?), they decide to spend the evening telling scary stories.
The first is the weakest of the bunch, a re-telling of "The Hook" urban legend with a bigfoot monster added to the mix. The second tale is my favorite of the bunch in which three boys pledging a fraternity must spend the night in an old abandoned hotel that's reputed to be haunted. Sure, it's nothing new, but it's got great atmosphere: it's all dread, creaking stairs and long hallways with looming shadows. And I can't put my finger on why, but there's something about the ending that gives me a serious case of the creeps.

The green light in SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT.

The last story is the tale of a shy young woman who snaps and kills her date after he attempts to rape her. The incident leaves a mark on her fragile psyche and years later, she's driven to kill again. The story has no dramatic arc and the ending is completely abrupt, but I think that's the point.

It's not a perfect movie by any means, but what it lacks in the script department, SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT makes up for in dread-filled atmosphere. It evokes the feeling of being at a party where the conversation is riddled with frosty silences and insidious little jabs, the hosts insist on serving a vegan menu and you can't leave and go home because the person who drove you there already passed out drunk in the bathtub. In a neat twist, the characters in the vignettes are all played by the same actors who play the kids in the wraparound stories. There's something twisted about the kids making up ways for their friends to die.

With echoes of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and elements that predate THE EVIL DEAD, one of the things that makes SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT so unsettling is its apocalyptic view of the universe. In many anthology horror films, the misdeeds of the characters are punished with an Old Testament-style justice. However, in SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT, bad things happen completely at random and without much reason and explanation. The universe isn't a nice place; it doesn't give a damn about you. In fact, it's all too willing to smack you down just to prove it can. The film opens with credits over a black screen accompanied by a cataclysmic barrage of voices, howls, wind, animal cries, screams, gunshots and weeping children. It immediately catches the viewer off-balance as we're instinctively alerted to danger by the sounds but have no sense of where we are or the source of danger. It reminds me of the opening of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, which used a barrage of radio news broadcasts detailing random acts of violence and industrial accidents to depict a world defined by chaos. However, in CHAIN SAW, human beings were the cause of all of the mayhem, while in SCREAMS, there are supernatural forces at work. The supernatural happenings at Lake Durand supposedly date back to the time when Native Americans still occupied the land.
The land may have been colonized - but natural forces will not be tamed. It makes sense this film would come out of Louisiana where you're completely at the mercy of the elements: floods, humidity of epic proportions, mosquitos, kamikaze flying roaches and the lingering fear that the state could be wiped off the map next hurricane season. Some people wonder why anyone would want to live in such conditions. Why don't those yahoos just move somewhere sensible like Connecticut? And to those jerks I would respond a powerful sense of history and pride in unique culture and tradition has a strong hold. Louisiana is the kind of place that gets in your blood. Hell, I'd move back there in a shot if I weren't dodging that outstanding warrant.


Though the tales at its center may be a little weak, the all-hell-breaks loose finale totally makes up for it.  Despite its clunkiness, I really enjoyed SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT. It has never been released on DVD, but I think that worn-out VHS-filtered-through-YouTube picture that has the same color palette as a healing bruise just enhances its uneasy charm.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Don't Go Home Again

Susan Bracken as Amanda Post in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR (1974).

Many an emotional support dog has been cuddled to death and there's inflation in the Play-Doh industry now that The Donald will take office as the 45th President of the United States. But rather than engaging in this display of full-on wussiness or mindless twitter tantrums, let's take the time to reflect upon the many lessons we have learned from the 2016 election.

1) Everyone keeps using the word "Fascist" but nobody knows what it means.

2) Everyone keeps using the word "Socialist" but nobody knows what it means.

3) It doesn't matter whether you're a Republican or Democrat, neither party has a sense of humor.

4) We have forgotten all of the important lessons about freedom of speech that THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT taught us.

5) Facts have no place in the mainstream media.

6) Next go round, the presidential debates should be moderated by STEVE WILKOS and RUDE JUDE. Or at least have an all-star panel hit a giant gong whenever a candidate starts to go off topic or says something stupid.

7) Celebrities are too busy riding around in limousines and getting their assholes bleached so their political opinions don't mean much to working folks.

8) We live in a democracy where everyone's vote should count. Unless you voice support of a third-party candidate, then you'll be promptly drawn and quartered.

9) Prejudice and bigotry will absolutely not be tolerated unless it's directed at the white working class, Southerners, Christians or anyone who doesn't subscribe to the standards of Berkeley.

10) The election results are all Boris and Natasha's fault.

11) America's rallying cry of "Give me liberty or give me death!" has been replaced with "WAAH! I'm offended!"

12) I could totally take RACHEL MADDOW in a bar fight.

And speaking of lessons, the heroine of today's movie learns the important lesson THOMAS WOLFE taught us, that you can't escape your demons by leaving home and you can never go home again. Today, we're starting off this Regional Horror Movie Bonanza in my native state of Texas with DON'T OPEN THE DOOR directed by low-budget auteur S.F. BROWNRIGG.
I could find very little biographical information about Mr. BROWNRIGG other than he cut his teeth on military training films before striking out on his own with distinctive drive-in classics such as DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT, KEEP MY GRAVE OPEN and SCUM OF THE EARTH (aka POOR WHITE TRASH 2). At one point he wanted to make a sequel to TODD BROWNING's FREAKS but, alas, this project never came to be. BROWNRIGG's films may have been made on a shoestring budget, but they have a distinctive style, sleazy atmosphere and dedicated performances.

Feisty Amanda Post (played by SUSAN BRACKEN, daughter of comedian and frequent PRESTON STURGES leading man, EDDIE BRACKEN) departs Dallas to return to the small town of Allerton after receiving an anonymous phone call that her grandmother is ill and dying. Upon her return, Amanda discovers her grandmother drugged into a comatose state and a conspiracy by local doctor, Dr. Crawther (JIM HARRELL), sinisterly congenial Judge Semple (BROWNRIGG regular GENE ROSS in a deftly understated performance) and museum director Claude Kerns (LARRY O' DWYER) to acquire the house for themselves.
But the sketchy good ol' boy gang is no match for a strong-willed Texas gal and Amanda's more than ready to open up a good ol' fashioned can of whoop-ass.
Returning home re-opens some old wounds for Amanda as well. Seems thirteen years ago, she witnessed her mother being murdered by an unseen assailant.
And the killer was never caught.
She enlists the aid of her (sometimes) boyfriend Nick (HUGH FEAGIN) who fortunately happens to be a doctor, but before she can get to the bottom of any nefarious schemes, she begins receiving a series of increasingly threatening obscene phone calls.
The journey home to face her childhood demons leads to a new series of unsolved murders, forced phone sex and a descent into madness for our heroine.

Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.

DON'T OPEN THE DOOR is my personal favorite of BROWNRIGG's grassroots oeuvre and his most stylish. With its canted angles, expressionistic shadows and saturated colors its a marriage between European arthouse and drive-in grindhouse. If MARIO BAVA and TOBE HOOPER got drunk and had a baby and it would look like DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.
Maybe I'm just a sucker for the winning combination of '70s film stock and creepy harpsichord music, but DON'T OPEN THE DOOR is a favorite of mine, combining elements of proto-slashers like BLOOD AND LACE (1971) and BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) with elements of Southern Gothic (the return home to face past trauma, the battle over a coveted estate, the corrupt courthouse gang, desire contorted into sexual deviance). Not to mention there's a feminist subtext!

The male characters in the film all try to manipulate or browbeat Amanda into submission. Claude and Judge Semple even present a sexual threat. Ironically, it's seemingly meek Claude that is the more overt danger as the film quickly reveals that he's the perpetrator of all the mayhem in the film, having been perversely obsessed with Amanda's mother and now transfers his obsession to Amanda. Judge Semple openly leers at Amanda upon first meeting her and alternates chauvinistic bullying with come-ons.  Nick is more of a well-meaning knucklehead, but even he is dismissive of Amanda's hysteria rather than listening. And it never goes well for the Doofus Boyfriend Who Never Listens in a horror movie. Amanda is far from a whimpering victim, however, and any attempt to bully or control her is met with a razor-edged tongue-lashing.

Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) faces off against Judge (Gene Ross), Dr. Crawther (Jim Harrell) and Claude (Larry O'Dwyer) in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.

CARL JUNG thought that the home in dreams symbolized the self, our individual personality. The battle between Amanda and the male characters for her childhood home could be interpreted as her fight to remain true to herself against domineering men who want to coerce her into becoming a more submissive, traditional woman.
Judge patronizingly remarks, "Pretty little thing like you all alone in this rambling old house...but you're a big girl now..."
Like Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Amanda is not interested in being a "lady."
The childhood home takes on extra symbolic significance for Southerners as we tend to place a lot more value on home and familial history than folks in other parts in the country. Your history -- and your family's history -- is a big part of who you are. After all, as WILLIAM FAULKNER once wrote, "the past is never really dead."

JUNG also thought that the childhood home in particular symbolized the maternal womb. Judge Semple attempts to control Amanda both by threat and by sexual come-ons. Claude harbors an obsessive sexual desire for Amanda, not as a romantic partner but as an object that he can possess. Male exertion of control over the female body was (and still is) a hot-button issue at the time and the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down the year before the film's production.
Dolls are also a dominant symbol in the film, often juxtaposed with Amanda. JUNG thought if a person dreamed of playing with dolls, they were trying to come to terms with something from their childhood or an infantile aspect of themselves. Naturally, Amanda's journey home requires her to confront childhood trauma that she has tried to run away. JUNG also believed dolls could be interpreted to mean an immature attitude towards the opposite sex. This hits the nail on the head with Claude. He has never learned to relate to women in a mature way and regards them like the dolls and mannequins he surrounds himself with: things that he can dress up and pose any way he waits, but have no will of their own.
"Go on back to the museum and play with your mannequins, Claude," Judge sneers. "I don't have time for your nonsense right now."

Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.

So is this the tragic story of an outspoken, headstrong woman driven to madness THE YELLOW WALLPAPER style by The Patriarchy?
Not entirely.
The first time I watched DON'T OPEN THE DOOR, I thought Amanda was too tough a cookie to crumble so easily. But Amanda's inner demons (that thing you can't escape by running away from home) are responsible for her fate as well.
We never learn many details about Amanda, except that she's an amateur photographer. But it's implied that she's still deeply wounded by the loss of her mother.
Amanda keeps everyone at arms length and doesn't trust anyone. And hey, I can relate. I consider myself a pretty good judge of people which is why I don't like any of them. But no one is an island - we all need to have someone that we trust and can rely on.
She even perceives Annie (DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT's ANNABELLE WEENICK), Judge Semple's former paramour who places the anonymous phone call to Amanda alerting her about her grandmother, as a potential enemy rather than an ally.
In fact, Amanda's paranoia causes her to suspect everyone EXCEPT the actual culprit. I always thought it was strange that she didn't suspect Claude. You would think that mannequin he dressed up to look like her murdered mother would be a pretty big red flag, but maybe she dismissed him as a suspect since he's an emasculated weirdo type.
But hey, everyone knows wimps are the most dangerous, hostile people of all!

Claude (Larry O'Dwyer) shows Amanda (Susan Bracken) the mannequin he has dressed to look like her murdered mother in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.

That brings me to another theme in the film, perception versus reality. In the opening scene, Annie walks down a long, narrow corridor and into what appears to be a train car where the Judge sits reading a newspaper. We hear the sounds of a moving train on the soundtrack. After a fight, Annie runs and exits. Brownrigg cuts to an exterior shot revealing that the characters were actually not in a moving train car, but in a train car converted into a house. So what gives with the train sounds? BROWNRIGG cuts back to the Judge inside. He walks over to a cabinet and reveals a recorder playing a tape of train sound effects.
"All aboard," he smirks, as the plot of the film kicks off.
It's pure BERTOLT BRECHT. It not only draws attention to the conventions of the medium, but calls to challenge the perceptions of the audience.
Perception versus reality pops up throughout the film. Dr. Crawther, wandering through the museum late at night, believes he is passing a mannequin dressed as Amanda's mother. The figure begins to move revealing itself to be Claude dressed as Amanda's mother!
Later, Amanda believes a sleeping figure in a bed to be Nick, but it is actually a mannequin.
The Judge even quotes LEWIS CARROLL to Amanda, foreshadowing her fall down the rabbit hole.

BROWNRIGG's work, much like the work of many Southern storytellers, is infused with a downbeat fatalism. In DON'T OPEN THE DOOR, Amanda, like many a Southern Gothic heroine before her, is finally overcome by her tragic history and loses her mind. That may be the most frightening thing of all in the film: death is bad enough, but being robbed of your sanity is much, more worse. And the fact that you were doomed from the beginning is worst of all.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Get Ready to Bleed Red, White and Blue

Well, folks, 2016 was a helluva roller coaster ride. Sluggish economic recovery. Sky-rocketing healthcare premiums. A mind-blowing federal deficit. Race riots and police shootings. Mall fights. Hate crime hoaxes. Business-killing bathroom bills. 

And not to mention we had to endure the death of Prince of Gore H.G. LEWIS, the double whammy loss of CARRIE FISHER and DEBBIE REYNOLDS and that CLINT EASTWOOD death hoax.

Then there was that never-ending presidential election that played out like an apocalyptic episode of THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW starring two Bond movie villains accompanied by a chorus of non-stop screeching hysteria and feigned outrage.

A lady I work with insisted that Donald Trump grabbing America by the pussy was the first sign of Armageddon.
She wasn't joking.
I just told her nobody with a good car needed to be justified.

I don't know about you, but I need to sit down with a nice cup of chamomile tea and watch something redemptive like DOOR TO DOOR MANIAC.

But hey, it's a whole new year. Still, we're starting off 2017 as a bitterly divided nation - economically, politically, regionally, racially - so some serious healing needs to be done. Are Americans, as HUNTER S. THOMPSON once wrote " a nation of two-hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable"?
At this point, America seems more like the family in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE - automated (and outsourced) out of business, barely surviving in squalor and lashing back in vain at the people who got fat off their labor and then tossed them aside.

But I'm cautiously optimistic. For all of our flaws, Americans are a pretty resilient bunch.

In the terrific book REGIONAL HORROR MOVIES, BRIAN ALBRIGHT highlights a particular kind of low-budget horror movie, all written, financed and produced by enterprising regional filmmakers far from the slimy tentacles of the studio system. They were (and are) an alternative to mainstream Hollywood with their own visions of America and their own system of distribution.
The studios may have had more money, but it was movies like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER that took no prisoners and sympathized with the plight of the working folks that Hollywood wants to forget.
And if taking the power of filmmaking medium out of the hands of the elite and giving it back to the people isn't populism in its best form, then I don't know what is.

So, folks, let's celebrate all things Made in America with two whole weeks of regional horror movies. I tell ya, this is gonna be the best thing that happened since we stole this country from the Indians.

Here's the line-up:

DON'T OPEN THE DOOR (1974)  Texas
BLOOD SALVAGE (1990) Georgia
ABBY (1974) Kentucky
HOMEBODIES (1974) Ohio
BLOOD HARVEST (1987) Wisconsin
BLOOD MASSACRE (1991)  Maryland
I DRINK YOUR BLOOD (1970)  New York
FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE (1974)  New York
THE BOOGENS (1981)  Utah

and a lagniappe for your trouble: MAFIA MASSACRE (1974)  California

And blog along if you like. I don't know about you, but just reading those titles just makes me want to sing the national anthem.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Kids Are All Dead

Brenda (Laurie Bartram) at Camp Crystal Lake's archery range in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980).

That's it, I've had it. I had to shoot four or five hipsters today. And it's not just because I've had more than my fill of stupid hats and manufactured ennui. The term "hipster" did not always apply to such an odious breed of the human race. In the '50s, a hipster was someone who felt alienated from consumer-driven mainstream society, embraced the offbeat and drifted around on an existential quest. Hey, I can get behind that! Now a hipster is a sheltered, entitled "artiste" from an affluent suburban family armed with a self-absorbed arrogance disguised as irony who tries to dress like a homeless person. And being a poverty poseur in an economic recession is just downright rude.
While subcultures of past generations all believed in something, hipsters only believe in their own "coolness." Instead of rejecting the mainstream culture and creating their own fashion, music and art, all hipsters have to offer is a feigned superiority that only allows them to like things ironically. And while other subcultures from past generations were united by common beliefs, similar tastes in music and shared attitudes about the world, hipsters don't even like other hipsters. It's a crowd of one; a self-admiration society.
Is this really the best my generation could come up with? I guess that's what happens when parents instead of raising their kids to be self-reliant, to think for themselves, to go make mistakes and figure things out, produced a bunch of narcissistic whinemeisters who were taught that their feelings mattered more than accomplishment, had all of their time managed for them and were sheltered from anything too offensive or scary. HUNTER S. THOMPSON once wrote of The Generation of Swine. This is Generation of Wussies.
Lest you think hipsters are harmless, keep in mind these post-modern putzes invade every city and drive up the cost of rent for those who actually work for a living. They've infested Austin and New Orleans like a particularly obnoxious zombie apocalypse. And now I can't go to a midnight movie without a goon squad of these boho buttheads cackling like rabid hyenas after every single line to convey they only like the movie because it's "sooooo stuuuuuupid."
I won't stand for this skinny-jeans sporting skullduggery. I've got my machete handy and I'm heading out to every Whole Foods and coffee house in the country to send all these unnecessary headband-wearing wimps back to the ninth circle of hell where they came from.

And speaking of killing sprees, today's Friday the 13th! Thanks to the folks at Paramount Studios, the day will always be associated with Jason Voorhees, a drowned disabled boy turned unstoppable boogeyman killing machine who goes down only to rise again and again for vengeance, much like Otis Calhoun after too many tequila slammers at Crabs and Crabcakes Singles Night. But before all the sequels there was a low-budget popcorn movie attempting to cash in on the success of HALLOWEEN.  And before Jason, there was his devoted mama, Mrs. Voorhees. Today I'm talkin' about the movie that started it all and that's the one and only FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) directed by SEAN CUNNINGHAM, producer of the infamous LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and written by New Orleans-native VICTOR MILLER.

We all know the story: In 1958, a pair of counselors at Camp Crystal Lake are brutally murdered when they sneak off from the rest of the crowd to make the beast with two backs. 21 years later, Camp Crystal Lake is thought to be cursed by the locals, but that doesn't stop Steve Christy from buying the place and planning to open it back up. Despite the hostility from the DELIVERANCE-lite townspeople, a group of college-aged kids (one of which is a young KEVIN BACON) help Steve make renovations, prepare to be counselors and have some summertime fun out in the New Jersey woods. However, an unseen assailant is stalking and murdering them one by one. When a storm strands them at the camp without power or help, only final girl Alice Hardy (ADRIENNE KING) is left alive to face the killer.
And it's not Jason.
The culprit is Pamela Voorhees, Jason's mother. Seems twenty-one years ago, two hormone-crazed counselors abandoned their duties to go play whack the weasel off in the bushes and negligently allowed her disabled little boy drown.
There's nothing quite like a mother's love.
Or the agony of a mother's grief.

Betsy Palmer as Mrs. Voorhees in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980).

FRIDAY THE 13TH, while an unexpected box office hit, was lambasted by critics upon its release (my personal favorite critique declared it, "The cinematic equivalent of belching in art class") mostly for its (for the time) graphic violence and perceived puritanism. Sure, FRIDAY THE 13TH is kind of a pale imitator of MARIO BAVA's outstanding proto-slasher film BAY OF BLOOD, without really matching the style, wit or finesse of its forebearer. But it's hardly the blundering clunker that critics have made it out to be; the production is lean and competent. While slasher films (sometimes rightfully) draw derision for poor acting, the cast here does a good job and brings a lot of their enthusiasm to their roles. Seasoned pro BETSY PALMER gives a bravura performance as Mrs. Voorhees, perfectly illustrating the intense rage that would drive a grieving mother to mass murder. I can't imagine anyone else delivering the line, "Look what YOU DID TO HIM!" with as much delicious venom as she does.
SIDENOTE: ESTELLE PARSONS was at one point cast as Mrs. Voorhees. As much as I love BESTY PALMER in this movie, I would have loved to see what ESTELLE PARSONS would've brought to this part.
As for the puritanical aspect of the film, I'll discuss that more in a bit but the criticism leveled at the film that the virginal girl survives while all of her sexually active friends are mutilated is unfounded. From their interactions together, the viewer can easily draw the conclusion that Alice has been sleeping with Steve Christy. Then she throws him over to openly flirt with fellow counselor-to-be, Bill (HARRY CROSBY, son of BING CROSBY).
Virgin she is not.
Alice, like all final girls whether virginal or not, is drawn as an introspective observer (she's an artist) and resourceful enough to survive the night.
However, I may be alone in this, but I always wish that Brenda (LAURIE BARTRAM) had been the final girl. Though she sports some stylish turquoise jewelry, Alice just kind of bugs me, okay? Brenda's intelligent, sarcastic, reads for fun and is sassy enough to instigate a game of Strip Monopoly.
And I thought she and wise-cracking, BOGART-impersonating jokester Ned would've made a cute couple.
Oh, Brenda, though you did not survive the movie, you'll always be Final Girl in my heart.

Laurie Bartram as Brenda in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

The violence in the film, thanks to relaxing censorship standards and rapidly improving special effects, was definitely more extreme for its time, but really not as extreme as its reputation suggests. Aside from a few "money shots," the film relies more on suspense generated by the film's craftsmanship (particularly the PSYCHO-inspired score by HARRY MANFREDINI and the killer's POV device borrowed from giallo films). The pioneering special effects by Wizard of Gore TOM SAVINI (fresh off DAWN OF THE DEAD) still pack a punch today, but the violence in the film is never mean-spirited or sadistic as it is in a lot of recent horror films. It has the quality of a haunted house at Halloween time: the filmmaker's want you to have fun being scared and to wonder how they were able to pull off such neat visual tricks.
The violence is stylized rather than realistic. If you've ever seen crime scene photos, people's hands and arms are completely battered from defensive wounds. There are some murder victims who don't even look human anymore.
But in FRIDAY THE 13TH no one fights for their life; these kids have zero survival instinct and two of the film's victims even stand completely still for the convenience of the killer. This is a pretty far cry from the agonizing violence of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Violence here is spectacle.
It's hard to see what critics back then were making such a fuss about, but then again old fuddy-duddies always have to have something to get upset about.

Alice (Adrienne King) finds Bill's (Harry Crosby) corpse in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

And speaking of old fuddy-duddies, generational conflict is at the heart of FRIDAY THE 13TH and part of the reason it resonated with young audience members. Mrs. Voorhees, judging by her age in the film, is a member of The Silent Generation: she grew up in The Great Depression, most likely experiencing a childhood of austerity and struggle. Not only having endured the worst economic crisis in American history (although the 2008 crash is trying to give it some serious competition) and World War II, her young adulthood lands her in the ultra-conservative, McCarthyist '50s where any rebellious behavior is labeled dangerous and anti-American. While it's the Silent Generation that brought us iconic screen rebels MARLON BRANDO, JAMES DEAN, PAUL NEWMAN, WARREN OATES, CLINT EASTWOOD and JACK NICHOLSON (to name only a few), conversely the Silent Generation was characterized by their reserve and keep-a-stiff-upper-lip-resilience. Decades of cultural storm had silenced their youthful expression.
On the other hand, the kids in FRIDAY THE 13TH came of age in the privileged '60s, matured following the cultural upheaval of the late '60s and '70s and entered young adulthood in the affluence and hedonism of the late '70s. Just as FRIDAY THE 13TH rose from relaxing censorship standards for sex and violence, the kids in the movie grew up following radically changing cultural attitudes regarding sex and gender roles.  While I'm sure members of Mrs. Voorhees' generation engaged in pre-marital sex and drug abuse, with the new generation it was taken out of shadows.
The kids in FRIDAY THE 13TH are pretty far from the entitled, instant-gratification seeking douchebags featured in later slasher movies (and some of the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels): they've taken a summer job in the middle of nowhere working with children for crying out loud. After days of painting and fixing gutters, if they want to goof off a little, it's well-earned.
Besides, Marcie (JEANNINE TAYLOR) does KATHERINE HEPBURN impressions just to amuse herself. What's not to like?
However, Mrs. Voorhees, has embraced the conservative morality of the '50s and carries with her the stern values from her Depression-era childhood. She is emblematic of the older generation's hostility towards the new generation.
She probably reminded young audience members of all of the disapproving adults in their lives.

The cast of FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

You've got to feel some sympathy for Mrs. Voorhees. After a hard-scrabble childhood, she's raising a disabled son all alone on a minimum-wage salary as Camp Crystal Lake's cook. And as a summer camp cook, it's got to be one in a series of temporary, intermittent jobs. There are not a lot of resources for disabled children now - especially on Mrs. Voorhees' limited income - and there were even fewer back then. One who has dedicated their life to hard work and caring for a disabled son does not usually have the opportunity to create an extended social network for support; when Mrs. Voorhees lost Jason, she lost everything. And worst yet, she lost him due to the irresponsibility and selfishness of people who were put in charge with his care.
And who wouldn't want to kill those two counselors?
Not only did they not get fired for allowing a little boy to drown because they couldn't keep their pants on, they're still making gooey eyes at one another without a shred of guilt!
I'm with Maw Voorhees on that one -- those self-absorbed jerk-olas were in need of a harpoonin'!

Mrs. Voorhees, though - like many of her cinematic sisters I've discussed on this blog - clings to her grief. She's unable to heal so her grief turns into intense rage. Camp Crystal Lake becomes the focus of her anger. Remember when the locals were saying there were mysterious fires at the place and one year the lake was even poisoned?
That was Mrs. Voorhees' way of saying "talk to the fist, 'cause the face is pissed."
Jason even speaks to her from beyond the grave.
"Kill her, Mommy!" she says to herself in a child's voice.
The current counselors have nothing to do with her son's death. And spunky Annie, the ill-fated would-be camp cook, who declares she wants to dedicate her life to working with children, would have only been attentive and kind to a child like Jason. However, it doesn't matter: Mrs. Voorhees just wants others to hurt as badly she's been hurt.

It's really hard to agree with those cranky ol' critics that thought FRIDAY THE 13TH represented the decline of Western civilization. Like all movies, it was a result of different things brewing in the culture at the time. And while critics decried the violence in the film, a fear of random acts of violence permeated the '70s. Already a turbulent decade of war and riots, Alice and her friends would have caught glimpses of news stories about the Manson Family murders, Charles Whitman and the Texas Tower shootings and the multi-state serial killing spree of Ted Bundy all before they graduated high school.
When the film was produced, being brutally butchered by a faceless assailant wasn't a horror trope: it was a real and terrifying possibility.

So there you have it: the film that launched a thousand sequels and the mayhem was all spawned from a mother's love. It's kind of interesting that Jason became the icon of the series, transformed from plot device/victim to superhuman murder machine powered by some unexplained supernatural phenomenon and the greed of the Paramount executives. But wouldn't it have been kind of great if Mrs. Voorhees had become the horror icon? I know, I know, she gets decapitated by Alice at the end of this one and it's kind of awkward to get around with no head. But, hey, Jason's been decapitated, burned, electrocuted and impaled and he always comes back, so why not Mrs. Voorhees? They could've figured out some creative way for her to get her head back. Or just not even bothered to explain it. It's not like the FRIDAY sequels are known for incorporating logic. I think an undead unhinged mama out for revenge would have made a helluva franchise. Instead of a faceless monster crushing heads, throwing people through windows, murdering people on toilets and stalking people performing nerdy '80s dances, it could have been a zombied-out BESTY PALMER!
What a missed opportunity!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Children of Her Rage

Samantha Eggar as Nola Carveth in THE BROOD (1979)

Happy Mother's Day! We at DESCENT INTO MADNESS (and by "we" I mean me and the voices in my head) take this day seriously as there's nothing that can be more horrifying than one's own mother.  There's always a thin line between love and hate in a mother-daughter relationship. With my own mother, sometimes we're very close and get along like old friends. Then there are other times I wonder if she's possessed by JOAN CRAWFORD.
Anyhoo, with all the emphasis mainstream society at large puts on having babies, I wonder how many people realize that parenting is hard work. It's a 24-7 often thankless job that requires utter selflessness and for one to juggle being a nurturer, a teacher, a counselor and sometimes a prison warden. To be eloquent, bringing a little life into this world is a big fuckin' deal.
In a modern society obsessed with babies, most people seem to miss this point, though.
Even my normally pragmatic dad got sucked into baby mania. I had just graduated college and been accepted into grad school, but was totally eclipsed because my fertility monster stepsister got pregnant about the same time.
"We're on baby watch," my dad proclaimed with a glassy-eyed fervor that reminded me of the Manson Girls.
"Big deal," I sneered. "This is just the first one she's carried to full term." I don't know why I was the only one who thought her passing along that conehead forehead to an innocent human being was not a cause for celebration. I don't know why no one else was concerned that my stepsister was a made-for-TV-movie with FARAH FAWCETT waiting to happen.
"How can someone have children when they act like a spoiled child themselves?" I asked, which got me ostracized by my dad's family but if I had said that on DR. PHIL they would've clapped.
I think our culture tries to get people to have children for all the wrong reasons. I know my cousin Lula who's dumb as a sack of hammers and insists she's too good to get a retail job keeps getting pregnant so they don't cut off her food stamps. To give an example of Lula's parenting style, her first-born daughter didn't learn to talk until she was three years old. When I asked Lula is she ever read to her kids, she rolled her eyes and said, "That's what the schools are for."
Despite all of this, my relatives still chorused, "Don't you want to see the new baby?"
"I'm sure I'll see it if I get a job with the public defender," I replied.
Babies have become a living, breathing fashion accessory. They're like puppies but better and all you have to do is feed them, provide shelter and make sure they don't chew up the furniture. If you get tired of them, they'll be somebody else's problem.
Women particularly who do not want children are perceived as monstrous. I'm usually greeted with horror or asked to explain myself if I ever reveal that I don't want children. I just tell people, "I can't. My cats are allergic."
This is not a popular opinion, but the truth is there are a lot of people who really shouldn't be parents.
Without the responsibility, time and effort it really takes to be a parent, we're just creating future candidates for the criminal justice system. And most of them won't be able to afford a lawyer, which just gets on my nerves.
So I guess my lesson to you today, gentle readers, is please don't have children if you don't want to do that hard work it takes to be a parent. They'll grow up and kill us.

And speaking of trauma mamas, today I'm talkin' about THE BROOD written and directed by DAVID CRONENBERG. Frank Carveth (ART HINDLE of BLACK CHRISTMAS and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) is going through a rough custody battle for his five-year-old daughter, Candice. To complicate matters, his emotionally unstable ex-wife Nola (ever-classy horror leading lady SAMANTHA EGGAR) is receiving treatment at the Somafree Institute from controversial psychologist/guru Dr. Raglan (the imperious OLIVER REED). Raglan, best-selling author of "The Shape of Rage" practices an experimental form of therapy called "psychoplasmics" in which patients manifest their negative emotions physically. Seems Nola is consumed by rage as a result of years of abuse she endured at the hands of her alcoholic, probably personality disordered (albeit very stylish) mother. Abuse that her kindly but also alcoholic father chose to ignore. When Candice returns from a weekend with mummy dearest at the Somafree Institute covered in bruises, scratches and bitemarks, Frank is naturally afraid that the cycle is repeating itself and refuses to let his ex-wife see Candice. But Frank's got more than an unhinged ex-wife on his hands: Nola's therapy causes her rage to manifest itself in the birth of a bunch of snow-suited dwarf monsters with mallets that bludgeon the objects of her intense anger to death.
And not even her own daughter is safe.

A member of THE BROOD (1979).

DAVID CRONENBERG has stated that THE BROOD is his version of KRAMER VS. KRAMER, but more realistic. Lest some think he was joking, I agree with him that this film is a more accurate portrayal of the pain inflicted by divorce. Though KRAMER VS. KRAMER is the more critically lauded of the two, I never bought that a career-driven man like DUSTIN HOFFMAN's character would have learned to become a dedicated father rather than hiring a full-time nanny. And I always thought it was a pretty big cheat that the little boy be handed back over to the narcissistic mother who abandoned him in the first place. Most importantly, though, KRAMER VS. KRAMER completely neglected to mention a point explored in-depth by THE BROOD: that children are the silent victims of divorce. This was a deeply personal film for CRONENBERG who had gone through a custody battle of his own and like all smart horror films, utilizes the genre to mine darker emotional terrain than more mainstream films.
Candy spends most of the film in a state of shell shock, numbed by pain she does not fully comprehend and helpless to do anything about the adult machinations around her.
The most chilling moment in the film for me was the scene in which Frank takes polaroids of the injuries on Candy's back, placing them in a folder labeled "CUSTODY."
"Sometimes it kills me to think I've screwed up my kid already," Frank confesses.
Nola's father, Barton, expresses the same worry, lamenting that the trauma Nola endured as a child as a result of his and her mother's divorce is now all happening again, but with Nola as a willing participant and her daughter as the helpless child.
I'm tellin' ya, KRAMER VS. KRAMER completely glossed over all this shit. The kid was all happy because DUSTIN HOFFMAN learned how to be a good dad and then he was all happy to go live with his mom. So, THE BROOD is really a more honest film.
It is significant that the film ends on a close-up of Candy's tear-streaked face, then tilts down to show fleshy sacs growing on her arm, indicating that the cycle will continue.
Some critics have stated the behavior of the characters in THE BROOD is exaggerated or unbelievable. I'm willing to bet these same people have never been to family court. As a family law paralegal, I've seen conduct that guests on THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW would be ashamed of.

Cindy Hinds as Candy Carveth in THE BROOD (1979).

THE BROOD also offers a critical view of modern psychiatry. I used to joke that I would never go see a psychiatrist because it's to their benefit that their patients get better because there'd be no one left to write them a paycheck. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great therapists out there. However, there's no shortage of ineffectual or downright terrible ones either.
Frank dismisses Raglan as "an emotional opportunist." It's a pretty fair assessment considering that Raglan exploits Nola's mind and body to the benefit of his career. He even goes far as to neglect his other patients for Nola. Worse yet, he constantly re-opens old wounds without giving her the tools necessary for her to heal.
There are plenty of therapists who will have their patients rehash the same traumatic episodes over and over, mainly collecting a check and offering nothing more than a few affirmative statements like, "That's sounds stressful" or "That must have made you feel very angry."
Or what about those psychiatrists who are really nothing but glorified drug dealers, peddling highly addictive prescription medications rather than any coping strategies?
While there are patients whose lives are positively transformed thanks to the right prescription medication, there are many psychiatrists who use them irresponsibly, handing out boxes from their sample closets like candy. In light of this, does Dr. Raglan really seem so far-fetched?

Oliver Reed as Dr. Raglan against THE BROOD (1979).

And then there's Nola. Unable to heal from the abuse she endured as a child, she remains a wounded child herself. She's emotionally reactive, possessed by rage to the point where it warps her body, poisons her mind and destroys all of those around her.
The inability to let go of rage is a frequent subject in horror. After all, anger is one of those taboo emotions, particularly for women. A woman expressing anger, even if it is justifiable, is usually written off with, "Oh, she's a bitch" or "She just needs to get laid."
The pathologist notes that the members of "the brood" only see things in black and white. This is ultimately Nola's problem. Everyone is a perceived enemy while she is the helpless victim. Rather than acknowledge her own part in her marriage's failure, she blames Frank and her parents. She perceives Candy's teacher as a serious romantic rival even though she and her husband are divorced with no hope for reconciliation. Nola's anger ultimately consumes her life and destroys all of her relationships.
In a role-playing exercise, Raglan remarks that mummies don't hurt their children.
"Yes they do," Nola insists. "Bad mummies, fucked up mummies do."
Nola, spending all of her time focusing on her own wounds, is blind to the fact that in her selfishness, she is inflicting the same damage upon Candy that she blames her mother for inflicting upon her.
"I'd kill Candice before I'd let you take her away from me!" Nola screams at Frank.
Candice is not a daughter to Nola; she has become a possession, a pawn to be used to hurt her ex-husband.
Nola, in focusing everything upon her own anger, is blind to the fact that she has become the "bad mummy, the fucked up mummy" like her own mother she so despises.

Samantha Eggar as Nola Carveth in THE BROOD (1979).

Like most of CRONENBERG's work, THE BROOD explores the relationship between the mind and the body; something that can be explored by science, but perhaps never fully understood and certainly never controlled. The notion of intense emotions manifesting physically is not an outrageous one. Many sufferers of mental illness experience physical symptoms in conjunction with their psychological ones. I've never spawned any homicidal dwarf monsters though.
I'm kind of disappointed.
The color scheme of the film is made up of the reds, whites and yellows of bodily fluids. Some reviewers have pointed out that the color red signifies femaleness in the film. Red is the color of Nola's hair and Candy's parka. Is this related to menses, one of the things that characterizes the "Otherness" of the female body and differentiates it from the male body?
And what exactly is the film saying about the female body? Is Nola, with her fleshy sac and asexual mutant monsters spawned from intense anger, a monstrous representation of motherhood?
Does the red of the female characters represent the tradition of abuse and dysfunction passed down from mother to daughter for multiple generations in the film?
I think there may be a little bit of "yes" to all of these. And I think the film can explore male anxieties about the female body without being misogynistic. After all, pregnancy, birth and motherhood can be frightening for women as well. Despite the idealization of pregnancy in Western culture, it is something that is pretty taxing on a woman's body -- and often pretty gross.
But then again, red is also the color that characterizes the Somafree Institute which puts an interesting wrinkle on things. In that case, the functioning of the female body is not monstrous; the female body manipulated by men in authority becomes a monstrous thing -- and something they ultimately cannot control.

I have to add that even though critics dismissed THE BROOD when it was first released, the film is skillfully crafted. The production design and photography are accomplished, particularly considering the small budget. The film is filled with the kind of carefully composed symmetrical shots that STANLEY KUBRICK was so fond of. Perhaps it's just hard for critics to give a film about mutant dwarf rage monsters it's due. The performances are all excellent as well, particularly SAMANTHA EGGAR, who deftly conveys Nola's intense anger without making her a one-note harridan. In the infamous "birthing" scene, she also renders something that could have, in lesser hands, been ridiculous into something harrowing and emotionally raw.

THE BROOD ultimately illustrates the thing I love about horror movies so much. Through genre tropes and symbols, they explore the taboo subjects that people are afraid to discuss and mine darker emotional territory that more respectable films are afraid to venture into. You almost never see films that realistically convey the pain, the trauma, the straight-up crazy behavior involved when a couple decides to get a divorce. And you rarely to never see a film depicting the damage experienced by the unwitting children involved as their batted back and forth like a shuttlecock between two unhinged parents. Without snow-suited dwarf monsters, I guess it would get too depressing for most people. So, THE BROOD isn't really an exploitation movie -- it's just honest.

THE BROOD (1979)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

It's More A Story With Ghosts In It

Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing in CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

As much as I hate people, I love any excuse to talk with them about books, so I joined a book club. Well, technically it's my second because I got kicked out of the first one. It was a classic literature group but I thought it was pretty telling that they had left a modern masterpiece like VALLEY OF THE DOLLS off their reading list. But c'est la vie. Henry Campbell, criminal defense legal wizard and best buddy extraordinaire, was also banned for life from the group for showing up to meetings pleasantly sloshed with a Coke can full of gin so that just proves those people are sucking the class out of classic literature. So, in addition to being president of the local chapter of the WARREN OATES Fan Club, Henry took the initiative and formed a brand new book club for the true lovers of literature.

I, for one, appreciated his discussion points from last week's "SINCLAIR LEWIS Is A Wimp" lecture. He talked about how LEWIS is the equivalent of that obnoxious guy at the bar who thinks he's the smartest guy in the room and laughs at all his own jokes. Then when you don't think he's that funny, he tries to pick a fight but then he's all mouth and gets his nose knocked square down to his ass by some biker guy who's not gonna put up with that punk-ass nonsense. I'm looking forward to next week's lecture, "JIM THOMPSON eats other writers for lunch."
However, not everyone is a fan of Henry's boozy, folksy literary lectures. Butch Walker's half-brother (those parents have racked up a few ex-spouses over the years) is vying to unseat Henry as president of the book club. See, before those voices in his head told him to steal a Zamboni and go on rampage through the mall food court, he had earned an M.F.A. in Literature at UVA. He knows more about DREISER than anyone on the planet. While he was doing Rorshach fingerpaintings in a state mental institution, he even formed his own "literary appreciation circle" among his fellow inmates and tried to educate some of the staff about the finer points of THE BROTHERS KARAMOZOV. He even tried to mount a production of THE ICEMAN COMETH with his fellow inmates but there were some real divas in that crowd. Anyhow, he didn't find that SINCLAIR LEWIS lecture amusing.
He couldn't understand how someone could stand back and desecrate American literary masterpieces like BABBIT and IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE.
"Easy," Henry answered. "They're not very good."
Butch's half-brother was saying something about Henry didn't understand the satire of those books and Henry just answered, "How couldn't I understand 'em? They're about as subtle as a sack full of buttholes. Less profound, I might add."
I don't entirely know what that means, but he's got a point.
"Let me put it to ya this way," Henry said. "IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE and ROBERT PENN WARREN's ALL THE KINGS MEN were both inspired by the same real-life subject, right? But ALL THE KINGS MEN is writing, where IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE is whining. And ain't gonna read no damn whining."
Butch's half-brother gets madder than a wet nun and insists that literature is sacred and discussion of it should be conducted with a serious air.
Henry just responded with, "Is it just me, or is FLANNERY O' CONNOR pretty hot?"

Where do I stand on this proposed change to the book club's direction? I'm damn opposed. I refuse to take anything seriously and nothing gets on my nerves more than a bossy guy on Seroquel.
Dave Spencer is also angling to take over as president as it would provide him a captive audience for his one-man show about TRUMAN CAPOTE. He walks around spitting out bitchy putdowns in everyday life anyway so the one-man show really can't be much of a stretch.

And speaking of an appreciation for literature, today I'm talkin' about GUILLERMO DEL TORO's love letter to the Gothic romance, CRIMSON PEAK, co-written with MATTHEW ROBBINS, starring MIA WASIKOWSKA as the resourceful candelabra-wielding heroine, the lovable JIM BEAVER as her father, SONS OF ANARCHY's CHARLIE HUNNAM as her Sherlock Holmes-loving best friend who gets a chance to solve a real mystery and TOM HIDDLESTON and JESSICA CHASTAIN as the sinister Usher-like Sharpe siblings. But the real star is the decaying mansion of the title, resting on acres of blood-red clay.
Things are gonna get a little SPOILER-ific so be warned!

Allerdale Hall in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

In turn-of-the-century Buffalo, NY, Edith Cushing is an outspoken aspiring writer. Her ambitions are met with derision by the high society folks around her, particularly since it is not customary for women to write ghost stories.
"It's not a ghost story," Edith corrects a condescending publisher. "It's more a story with ghosts in it."
Edith is not interested in being a typical, vacuous Victorian lady. When her best friend's social climbing mother patronizingly refers to her as "our own JANE AUSTEN" and remarks that Ms. Austen died a spinster, Edith retorts, "Actually, Mrs. MacMichael, I prefer to be MARY SHELLEY. She died a widow."
Perhaps Edith's upbringing granted her a different outlook. Her mother died when she was only ten and she was raised by her successful industrialist father. He's supportive of Edith's ambitions and her stubbornness. After all, those are the qualities that allowed him to rise from rags to riches. He even gives her a gift of a pen for her writing.
Edith's interest in the supernatural stems back from a childhood incident in which she was given a warning by her mother's ghost.
And of course, a warning that does not make sense to the recipient will go unheeded and figure into the plot. It would be helpful if ghosts would be a lot more specific.
Anyhow, Edith also does not suffer fools gladly and defiantly rejects the wealth and position that her peers embrace, dismissing an aristocrat as "a parasite with a title."
However, she revises her opinion when she meets a real baronet in person: the mysterious, handsome Thomas Sharpe is not only a misunderstood dreamer like herself (he's an inventor), he also praises her writing.
"Where I come from," he says. "Ghosts are serious business."
Edith is charmed by Thomas and the two fall in love, despite the consternation of Thomas's dour sister, Lucille and the disappointment of Edith's best friend, mystery-loving opthamologist , Alan MacMichael. Edith's father, however, is not so easily won over and takes an instinctive dislike to the Sharpe siblings. Perhaps it's that new money versus old money hostility or the fact that they look like living EDWARD GOREY drawings, but Mr. Cushing is mighty suspicious and hires a private investigator to see if there's any dirt on the duo.

Thomas and Lucille Sharpe in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

There is, of course, but the audience will have to wait patiently to find out what it is. In the meantime, Mr. Cushing's attempt to break up this doomed romance ends in a violent head-splitting murder in a washroom that leaves Thomas free to whisk Edith away to a whirlwind marriage and life as a newlywed in his decaying mansion in Cumberland, England.

Married life is not quite as romantic as Edith anticipated. The house is, as Lucille puts it, "full of nothing but shadows, creaks and groans," falling apart and sinking into the red clay pits below. Thomas is curiously distant from his new bride and any moment the two are alone is interrupted by the domineering Lucille. And just what is in that bitter tea that Lucille serves that's making Edith awaken in the middle of the night with severe stomach pains? And just who are those howling, red ghosts appearing to Edith to deliver cryptic messages on her nightly wanderings around the mansion?

With its enthusiasm for Gothic tropes, MARIO BAVA worship (just look at those colors!) and liberal sprinklings of THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and NOTORIOUS, CRIMSON PEAK is similar to the characters of Edith and Thomas in that it's a little out of its time and a little out of its step with its peers. Coming from me, that is definitely not a criticism, though. The film even wears its old-fashionedness on its sleeve with the use of silent cinema techniques like irises and wipes.
Audiences expecting more oogie-boogie haunted housenanigans were disappointed; after all, in CRIMSON PEAK, horror is not derived from the supernatural.
True horror comes from the living.
While ghosts in the film are something of a bridge between the past, present and future, the living are the dangerous ones.

In the park, Edith and Lucille discuss butterflies and moths. The butterflies are beautiful but cannot survive the winter.
"That's sad," Edith remarks.
"It's not sad," Lucille retorts. "It's nature. It's a savage world."
Not only do the fragile butterflies perish without the sun, they are cannibalized by moths, creatures that, Lucille explains, "thrive on the dark and cold."
The Sharpe siblings make recurring mentions of the weak being consumed by the strong in nature and living things turning savage in order to survive.
When Edith remarks about the bitterness of the tea at Allerdale Hall, Thomas laments, "Nothing gentle ever grows in this land" and that things need to develop bitterness if they don't want to be eaten.

Edith (Mia Wasikowska) and Lucille (Jessica Chastain) marvel at the butterflies in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

Their grim outlook on life begins to make sense as, unlike Edith, the Sharpe siblings did not grow up in a nurturing household.
"Father was a brute," Lucille reveals.
Seems the patriarch of the Sharpe clan broke their mother's leg before abandoning the family and squandering much of their fortune on what Blanche DuBois would refer to as "epic fornications."
When Edith remarks about imagining Lucille and Thomas as small children, Lucille tellingly remarks, "We were confined to the nursery. In the attic."
The siblings were subjected to brutal beatings and emotional abuse by their mother. Lucille, the eldest, became a sort of surrogate spouse and punching bag.
Isolated both physically and by their social class, Lucille and Thomas had no one else to turn to. Attempting to fulfill a series of emotional and physical needs that are normally met by several different people, the Sharpe siblings began an incestuous relationship.
The inbred aristocratic family is a trope of Gothic literature but in the emotional core of the story it rings true as well. Thomas and Lucille had no one to rely upon or trust except for each other; as a result, their relationship became perverted.
Lucille, unlike Edith, has known only trauma and suffering. Lucille sees herself as a moth -- a predatory creature destroying more delicate, pretty things, one that "thrives on the dark and cold" as she lives separated from the rest of the world in a disintegrating old mansion she despises.
She has come to believe one needs to be vicious in order to survive.
It may also indicate feelings of self-loathing as she sees herself as a creature without beauty but that cannibalizes the pretty butterflies.

Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

Her relationship with Thomas, the only person she remotely cares for, is characterized by dominance more than affection. She has transformed him into her willing prisoner and ultimately she would prefer to destroy him rather than have him leave the family home.
Lucille, like many abused children, has adopted the role of the victimizer rather than continue being victimized herself, venting her rage on others weaker than her.
Also, like many children of dysfunctional families, she refuses to break the cycle: it's just too familiar and any other way of living seems suspicious. Thomas, at one point, proposes they simply take what is left of the family fortune and leave the house.
Lucille will not hear of it. As much as she loathes the deteriorating Allerdale Hall, it is comfortable for her.
After all, murder has proven to be a successful method of venting her pent-up rage and she has come to relish her role as a predator. When the Sharpe skeletons all come dancing out of the closet, Lucille literally has her hair down and her long, billowing nightgown flows freely around her (like moth wings?).
"This is who I am," she proclaims.
She has proudly taken on the role of the domineering, abusive matriarch and even wears her red ring.

Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

Lucille, however, has imprisoned herself as well as Thomas. Unable to let go of her rage, she cannot move forward and it consumes her (as well as everyone that crosses her path). At the end of the film, she remains a ghost eternally playing her piano in the decaying house.
She's stuck forever.
The performances in CRIMSON PEAK are all excellent, but I think Ms. Chastain's may be the one that really lingers with audiences. It's like if JOAN CRAWFORD played Lady MacBeth and it doesn't get any better than that.

While Lucille identifies with the moths, the film aligns Edith with the butterfly. Contrasted with the severe blacks and blues of Allerdale Hall and the Sharpe siblings' wardrobe, Edith sports brightly colored dresses. The one she wears most often is even a yellow one, the same color as the butterfly wings seen earlier in the park. The designs on several of Edith's blouses even resemble butterfly wings.
However, the film does not agree with the views espoused by the Sharpe siblings about things in nature becoming cruel and preying upon the weak to survive.
Edith, unlike the butterflies in the park, does not perish in the snowstorm besieging Allerdale Hall. She survives her ordeal through her intelligence and inner-strength.

Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

I was talkin' about CAT PEOPLE here the other day, which is another film that never quite got the respect it deserved. I don't think this is a coincidence as both are dark fairytales for adults centering on a female character's coming-of-age.
Unlike Irena Gallier, who was on a quest for identity, Edith Cushing has a good idea of who she is. However, she still struggles to define her place in the adult world -- namely as a writer. No writer worth their salt has had an easy, happy life. And while Edith is not pampered by any means, her life experience does not extend far from her father's house. She is fascinated by the mysterious, dark and hidden aspects of life but she has not had to face much of them herself.
Having discovered the dark secrets of the Sharpe siblings, Edith's father commands Thomas to break Edith's heart and leave or else.
Thomas obeys, hitting Edith where it really hurts: her writing. He tells her she only knows what other writers tell her; that she knows nothing of real love or heart-ache; and -- the real ouch -- that she's nothing but a spoiled child.
Some reviewers have complained that Edith does not have a character arc: she is the same strong-willed young woman in the beginning that she is at the end. I'd disagree: at Allerdale Hall she is forced to confront the darkness she has long been fascinated with and survives her traumatic ordeal.
She now has her own insights into the human heart -- and the monstrousness that can dwell within. By surviving trauma, Edith defines herself as an artist and becomes a published writer.
It's not a coincidence that she defends herself against Lucille with the tool of her trade, a pen.

Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

And what about Thomas? Where does he fit into all of this?
Though he's got the melancholy part down, Thomas is not the Gothic hero we've grown accustomed to.
In many ways, his character is more tragic than Lucille. He is stuck in the past -- his aristocratic social standing, the decaying house, the trauma from years of abuse -- but he can also see the future. After all, he is an inventor.
Unlike Lucille, who fancies herself a moth, Thomas has a distaste for violence. While Lucille is incapable of loving, Thomas falls in love with Edith for her kindness and creativity. He senses there is a better way and longs something different, but is unable to break free from his sister's grip and the trauma that haunts him.
"You're always looking to the past," Edith tells him.
Thomas does not possess the strength that both Lucille and Edith demonstrate. Had he been born into a different family, he would have been a genuinely beautiful soul, but instead he is ultimately too passive, too fragile to survive and transform himself.
While the dominant roles in the film's narrative are played by Lucille and Edith, Thomas takes on the role of the doomed heroine. He's the Madeline Usher while Lucille is Roderick.
The character is deftly played by TOM HIDDLESTON who is able to be simultaneously sinister and gentle.

Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) looks at Edith (Mia Wasikowska) with love in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

As it is in all Gothic fiction, the house becomes an Expressionistic space, a metaphor for the psychological state of the characters inhabiting it. Allerdale Hall is decaying, literally sinking into the blood-like red clay that resides beneath it, much in the way that the old aristocracy is sinking in the face of the future and much in the way the Sharpe family has turned inward and destructed. While they have survived living an isolated existence from the modern world, the many shots of snow falling through the holes in the roof into the entrance hall remind us that the reality of the outside world they have tried to barricade themselves against is increasingly intruding.

And speaking of which, there is much ado in CRIMSON PEAK about social class and the past versus the modern. The European aristocracy, one in which you are born into money and social standing, is contrasted with the new money of the industrial age. Edith's father even states to Thomas Sharpe that he knows he has never worked a day in his life; after all, Thomas has the smoothest hands he has ever seen. Unlike Thomas, his hands are rough. He has earned his money not through birth-right but through hard work. 
The casting of the actors illustrates this as well with the fine-featured, distinctively English TOM HIDDLESTON contrasting with the more weathered, gruff-voiced, bearded JIM BEAVER.
While the old aristocracy is collapsing in on itself, the new (new money, new technology and the new frontier, America) is thriving.
Neither is maligned; the aristocracy as represented by the Sharpes is ultimately tragic in that it cannot adapt to the new age so it simply implodes upon itself.
Ghosts, unlike both, are ultimately timeless. On the one hand they are remanants of the past; ghosts in Gothic fiction are metaphors for the inability to let go of the past for, as WILLIAM FAULKNER would remind us, "the past is never really dead." However, in CRIMSON PEAK, ghosts are also aware of the future, offering oracles of what is to come.

Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) finish the waltz in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

As a lover of the Gothic and snowy ghost stories, I was instantaneously seduced by CRIMSON PEAK's many charms. I don't think there's been a more beautiful looking film in the past five years; the photography, production design and wardrobe are all gorgeous. And while some critics will balk at the familiarity of the story, I think that just makes it the cinematic equivalent of an oversized sweater and a nice cup of chamomile tea on a rainy day. There's even a waltz sequence - who can argue with that? It's just too damn classy!
Something about it also spoke to me when I saw it on the whim in theaters many a month ago and I think that has to do with both the female characters both being close to my heart. I can identify with Edith; she resembles the face I present to the world, a composite of the qualities I really like about myself -- the horror writer, the defiant outsider, the outspoken well-educated woman and the survivor who turns her trauma into art. On the other hand, I think my dark side looks a lot like Lucille; the side that's all wounds and bitchiness, the side that wants to remain isolated and thrive on insanity, the side that leaves a bear trap on the front lawn so those jerk neighborhood kids will stay off my turf. It's the side that wants to lay down a lot of whoopass while wearing an elegant updo.

The moth and the butterfly: Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) and Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

A Gothic love story with just the right amount of stomach-churning violence, ghosts, feminism and a touch of class all guided by the hand of a masterful auteur -- what more can a culture vulture ask for?