Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Spirit of Halloween

Do you have certain movies that give you that same giddy excited feeling you used to get for Halloween as a kid?

Are there movies that no Halloween season would be complete without a re-watch?

Is there a book that's taken off the shelf every October because it helps create just the right Halloween atmosphere?

Here's a list of movies that never fail to fill me with the Halloween spirit.


There are not nearly enough movies about witches. While other little girls were obsessed with princesses, the young Madamoiselle thought witches were so much cooler. They performed magic, wreaked havoc on people that messed with them and they didn't need no handsome prince. I even had imaginary witch sisters. Naturally, as a wee lassie I used to watch HOCUS POCUS until my eyes bled. It not only takes place in Salem on Halloween night, it features a talking black cat, a zombie, a creepy spell book, a plan to steal the souls of children, a badass Halloween party musical number,  the kid from EERIE, INDIANA and best of all -- the Sanderson Sisters! Even now that I have grown from a horrible little girl to a horrible young woman, no Halloween is complete without the bickering and bumbling mayhem of Winifred, Sarah and Mary.
And featuring PENNY MARSHALL is just the icing on the cake.

ED WOOD (1992)

Anyone who has affection for cheesy, black-and-white B-(and even a few grades lower) movies will love ED WOOD. It's just a smorgasbord of things that remind me why I love Halloween and horror in general: the black and white photography, the behind-the-scenes view of poverty row monster flicks, '50s horror icons TOR JOHNSON and VAMPIRA, and MARTIN LANDAU's Oscar-winning performance as BELA LUGOSI. A romantic scene in a carnival spook house and a Halloween evening-in where Bela shows Ed his famous hypno-hands routine while watching WHITE ZOMBIE will warm the dark hearts of horror fans.


I can't have Halloween without EDGAR ALLAN POE or VINCENT PRICE. It just feels wrong. The first, and perhaps the best, film in ROGER CORMAN's Poe cycle, it's a masterpiece of Gothic horror and I love it a little more every time I see it. I think it's still very unsettling today. The Usher house is full of madness, recrimination and a sense of impending doom. Sorta like my family's house. VINCENT PRICE gives a chillingly understated performance as the doomed Roderick Usher. Perhaps it's because I consumed a steady diet of POE as a child or because on Saturday evenings a local broadcast station used to air VINCENT PRICE movies and I would stay up late to watch them, but THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER just gives me that same morbid excitement I used to get about Halloween.


And speaking of EDGAR ALLAN POE, what about this STUART GORDON entry in MASTERS OF HORROR? I think this may be my personal favorite of the MOH films and why not? It features everything that puts me in the right Halloween mood: black cats, Gothic tropes, spooky atmosphere, madness and the original master of horror himself, MR. POE - and he's played by DESCENT INTO MADNESS favorite JEFFREY COMBS! The clever script by DENNIS PAOLI and STUART GORDON fuses POE's fiction with the facts of his own tormented life.


This one is already in the 31 Days of Halloween queue, but I had to include it here anyway. GEORGE ROMERO's and STEPHEN KING's tribute to EC Comics reminds me of everything I imagined horror movies to be as a kid. It's got just the right combination of playfulness and horror to invoke that same feeling you get as a kid walking through a haunted house around Halloween season.


I was obsessed with ELVIRA as a kid. I wanted to be her. You know, what? I still do!


I didn't see this one until I was in college. I was looking forward to a long night of working on a mind-numbing storyboarding project but fortunately I would have AMC MONSTERFEST to keep me company. Now, this was back in the days before it degenerated into a half-assed sloppily programmed garbage-fest. It was a dark, chilly mid-October night and AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION was about to come on. I had never rented it because everything I read about it had been scathing. "Oh well," I thought. "It'll be some nice background noise." Little was I prepared for how much I would be sucked into this underrated tale of familial dysfunction and demonic possession. So much so that now I have to watch it every Halloween! And I'm glad I'm not the only maniac out there who likes it better than the first AMITYVILLE.


My parents both love classic movies and watched them all the time with me as a kid. I think that's why a lot of films that give me that good ol' Halloween feeling are old-fashioned Gothics. VAL LEWTON produced horror movies with their beautifully shadowed photography, twisted psychology and dreamy menace are perfect October viewing. And especially the underrated THE BODY SNATCHER which also boasts BORIS KARLOFF. BORIS was always like the kindly uncle we wish we had who would sit down with a cup of tea and tell us scary stories. To me, he gives his best performance here as conflicted Edinburgh cabman and grave-robber-turned-murderer John Gray.


With its mixture of B-movie camp, insane antics and classic Gothic tropes, this is another one that invokes that same mixture of mischievous glee, creepiness and fun that I always associated with Halloween growing up. It reminds me of a combination of Shirley Jackson's WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE and the soon-to-be-made THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. Lovable LON CHANEY JR. gives his best performance as gentle caretaker to the mad Merrye family, Bruno and even gets to sing the awesome theme song!

CARRIE (1976)

When I was in middle school, I went to an all-girls Catholic school. So now all horror movies pale in comparison. Anyway, for Halloween in sixth grade, I made my own Carrie White costume. It was great, my mother sewed the dress and I mixed up a giant batch of fake blood. However, the principal did not approve of anyone using their imagination and I was sent home for my costume being "too horrifying." But I also won the prize for Scariest Costume. Needless to say, Carrie White was my best friend during those terrifying middle school years and I still have to spend time with her every Halloween season.


That perfect mixture of irreverence, Gothic and straight-up insanity combined with my fixation on mad scientists makes RE-ANIMATOR a Halloween staple. I mean, an authoritarian med school professor gets decapitated with a shovel and then his re-animated head is all kinds of pervy, the dean gets trampled by a spastic revived corpse and there's a rampaging zombie cat - even if this movie stunk I would still love it! Luckily it's clever, imaginative and just plain fun. The score alone fills me with Halloween spirit. Like most of the other films on this list, I saw it at an impressionable age when I had a burgeoning interest in horror films so it's just always carried that inexplicable magic. Also, while other middle school girls carried torches for LEONARDO DICAPRIO, I had a mad crush on JEFFREY COMBS. You just can't compete with a sarcastic mad scientist, Leo.

Although maybe if I had seen this back then I would have felt differently:



Okay, you got me, I probably use every holiday as an excuse to watch THE SHINING. I think my soul probably looks like Jack Torrance running amok through the Overlook Hotel.  And it even inspired a parody/homage on THE SIMPSONS' HALLOWEEN special!

So there you have it, kiddies. There will be a book list coming soon.

So what about you, gentle readers? What books and movies get you in the Spirit of Halloween and fill your heads with unpleasant dreams?

Feel free to shout it out in the Comments section or email me your own list here!

31 Days of Halloween

Good ee-vening, dah-lings!

October is but one day away and that's the most wonderful time of the year! Haunted houses, jack o' lanterns, monster decorations and suddenly everyone is imbued with ghoulish glee.

However, last Halloween at Maison du Macabre was kind of a dud. My beloved Halloween decorations (including homemade tombstones) that turned the yard into a mad-and-macabre-wonderland had deteriorated. Friends cancelled their plans at the last minute. There weren't even any trick or treaters. Sure, Otis Calhoun showed up in a pirate outfit asking for candy and spray-painted pentagrams all over the yard of that annoying fundamentalist family who set up a Hallelujah house in their garage, but he does that whether its Halloween or not.

And I tend to spend the rest of the year sitting around in my Elvira costume anyway.

But what better way to renew the Halloween spirit then a month-long marathon of horror movies set on Halloween?

So let's bust out the candy corn, sing The Monstervision Song and make our Pagan ancestors proud!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Road Leads to Nowhere

The Last House On The Left (1972)

Weasel, Sadie and Krug

Is it just me or is political correctness plummeting America further into the downward spiral of dumbness? Rather than protect the rights of others it has turned everyone into a bunch of knee-jerk crybabies who are offended by everything instead of actually bothering to discuss anything. Sure, these people that espouse political correctness say they believe in equal rights for everyone - unless you disagree with them about anything for any reason and then they want to pull your eyes out with fish hooks. These are the same people who cry about HUCKLEBERRY FINN being required reading and protest cruelty to tuna fish.

And glory be, all the hoopla over the Confederate flag! Half are saying it's a symbol of racism and the other half are saying it doesn't just represent the 1% slave-owning elite of the Old Confederacy, but Southern culture and heritage in general. Me, I always associate it with the General Lee on THE DUKES OF HAZZARD and Dixie Beer so I guess it depends on who you ask. But anyway, does pulling down some flags and some statues of old generals really do anything to combat racism in the present? Aren't we just editing out the parts of history that make us uncomfortable so we have an excuse for repeating the same dunderheaded mistakes over and over? There was even a huge uproar here in Dead River over the annual Confederate Heroes Parade. It was originally started to honor the young men who were drafted into the Confederate Army and killed during the Civil War. Also, legend has it Union troops tried to torch this place because they were convinced the locals were refugees from an insane asylum. People from up North and further out West may be perplexed at the reverence Southerners have for their ancestors, but in the South you need to honor your dead relatives because you may very well see them again when the cemetery floods during hurricane season.  However, I think some good ol' boys in city government figured out there was graft to be taken so now it's a full-blown affair with some gomers dressed up like famous Confederate generals and fried shrimp. Opponents say the parade celebrates a deplorable part of American history and others say it's just an excuse for drunken debauchery, but both those things can be said about our Thanksgiving Day Parade. I personally kind of like the parade as fried shrimp is plentiful and it's a chance to see The Hell's Belles in all their glory. For the uninformed, The Hell's Belles is a group of local drag queens with criminal records who dress like the love child of Divine and Blanche DuBois and perform punked out versions of traditional songs like "Dixie's Land" and "Down in Alabama." In the last two years they've incorporated stage blood and decapitated dummies into their act. That's just more fun than the law allows.

Another voice of dissent rose from Lyle Calhoun, disgruntled after being excommunicated from the parade because he lost the pants to the Stonewall Jackson costume. So come parade day you have the PC Thugs trying to block the parade route, then you have the equally annoying defenders of The Lost Cause school who all talk like they have tetanus and spend too much time watching GONE WITH THE WIND and touching themselves. You also have a bunch of drunk people wandering around eating shrimp, but that's every Dead River parade. I'm about to start slapping the first two groups with my copy of C. Vann Woodward's THE NEW SOUTH, but I just can't be violent when there's free shrimp around. Then all of a sudden, Lyle Calhoun blazes up on his motorcycle wearing the now barbecue-and-beer-stained Stonewall Jackson jacket, brandishing a sword and hollering, "Sic semper tyrannus!" He plowed straight into one of the front floats and knocked off Cecil Dawes, the bank president, dressed as Robert E. Lee. Cecil went flying and the float plowed over six PC thugs and a fire hydrant. Ol' Lyle then lost control of his motorcycle and the thing went flying straight through the window of a Winn-Dixie. From then on it was bedlam and anarchy, which pretty much happens every time there's a parade in Dead River. A group of the PC thugs made the mistake of trying to pull the Hell's Belles off their and were rewarded with platform heels to the face and falsie-bludgeonings for their trouble. So, now we've got a packed and understaffed hospital, overflowing jail cells (several of the Hell's Belles had outstanding warrants as well), and a pantsless Lyle Calhoun on the lam with a sword.

And speaking of not giving a damn about offensiveness or political correctness, we're talking about Wes Craven's THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972). The horror community lost an imaginative and thoughtful voice with Mr. Craven's recent passing. Though I never met him in person, I was plagued by the feeling people must get when their favorite uncle dies. Good ol' Uncle Wes was a huge influence on me and memories of viewing his movies are forever associated with coping with my parents' WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF-like divorce. Why not pay tribute to him with an ultra-in-depth analysis of my favorite of all his movies, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972)? It's funny, if you had asked me what my favorite Wes Craven movie was ten years ago, I would have eagerly replied with THE HILLS HAVE EYES or A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. But somehow, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT has kept turning up at important moments in my life. It's invariably become the juvenile delinquent best friend I always wanted. I even remember the epic search I embarked upon to find this movie. As a middle-school girl with a taste for extreme cinema, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was one of those "forbidden movies," the kind that you feel bad about watching, the kind I would scour the internet for details about why it was so outrageous and disturbing. More interesting, though was how much the film divided reviewers. Half insisted it was reprehensible incompetently-made garbage and the other half (Roger Ebert included) insisted it was a rough-edged masterpiece. I couldn't find a video store anywhere around me that had it, and my quest to see THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT became the quest for the holy grail. I finally found it during summer visitation with my dad when he decided the newly blended family should take a trip to the beach. Since I prefer onscreen depravity to the real-life stuff, I naturally preferred to go to the video store. And there, in a video store in Galveston, Texas was THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.

Collingwood mailbox

When released in 1972, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was a new kind of American horror film. Made in the wake of George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, these films were apocalyptic, pulled no punches and pushed boundaries for sex and violence. They were not meant to entertain but to assault and they cut deep. They were a product of the cultural storm brewing in America at that time with increasing public dissatisfaction about America's involvement in the Vietnam War, the beginning of an economic recession, social upheaval (civil rights, the sexual revolution, the beginning of women's liberation, the divide between social progressives and The Silent Majority) and increasing violence in American life (race riots, Kent State, political assassinations, the Manson Family murders). Films like LAST HOUSE and Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, were a "counter-cinema" made, as Jeffrey Sconce writes in his article Trashing the Academy, "in opposition to Hollywood cinema and the mainstream US culture it represents...linked to dominant interests as a form of cultural coercion." They were an earlier cinematic equivalent of punk music: raw, outrageously nihilistic, confrontational, anti-establishment and stripped the medium to its bare essentials (as a result of budgetary constraints, inexperience and filmmakers' background in documentary filmmaking). In these films, balance is never restored and at the end the world is left in chaos and violence. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT particularly disturbed viewers for its refusal to present clear lines between heroes and villains: villains become victims and the heroes are equally capable of heinous violence.

Krug carves his name in Mari's chest

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman's THE VIRGIN SPRING, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT introduces us to pretty, rebellious Mari Collingwood (SANDRA PEABODY, here credited as SANDRA CASSELL) who is celebrating her seventeenth birthday. Mari lives in upper-middle-class comfort with her strict mother Estelle (CYNTHIA CARR) and physician father, John (GAYLORD ST. JAMES t/n RICHARD TOWERS) in an isolated home in the Connecticut woods. For her birthday, Mari ventures out of suburbia with her street-smart friend, Phyllis (LUCY GRANTHAM) into New York City to see a concert for an Alice Cooper-style band named Bloodlust. Before she leaves, John gives Mari her birthday gift: a peace-symbol necklace. Unfortunately, the girls are kidnapped by an ad hoc family of escaped criminals comprised of charming psychopath and father-figure/leader, Krug (an unforgettable DAVID HESS), his girlfriend Sadie (JERAMIE RAIN, who I think resembles Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson), sidekick Weasel (FRED LINCOLN, who despite a career in porno movies spanning decades still refers to LAST HOUSE as the film he's the most ashamed of) and Krug's battered junkie son, Junior (MARK SHEFFLER). Krug and Company toss the teens in the trunk of their black Cadillac and head for the Canadian border, but their car breaks down near the woods surrounding Mari's house. Mari is horrified once she realizes she is literally in her own backyard, but she is unable to escape or reach help and the two girls are subjected to an escalation of violence: first humiliation (rape and murder are one thing, but somehow forcing someone to pee their own pants seems so much more degrading and perverse), physical abuse, then when Phyllis attempts to run for help, rape and murder. The criminal "family" unwittingly seeks refuge at the nearby house of Mari's parents. After an overheard conversation, the discovery of bloody clothes and one of the killers sporting Mari's peace-symbol necklace, the Collingwoods realize they are harboring their daughter's murderers and exact a vengeance with a ferocity they didn't even realize they possessed.


THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is infamous for its brutal depiction of violence, but that was writer-director Wes Craven's intention. The film is a protest against sanitized portrayals of violence in film and television, an attempt to re-sensitize Americans to violence in the wake of the Vietnam War and increasing violence in day-to-day American life. Violence in LAST HOUSE is ugly, messy and has a devastating impact on both its victims and perpetrators. After each act of violence, Craven's camera depicts the result, but then lingers on the faces of the people involved. The importance is shifted away from the spectacle of violence to the impact on both the victims and perpetrators. For example, Phyllis's murder may be the toughest scene in the film to watch. Phyllis is stabbed to the point where she is eviscerated. Phyllis's death is drawn out and agonizing the way it would be in real life, and even more devastating for the viewer as we see her continue to struggle and fight for her life. During the murder of Phyllis, Craven's camera lingers on the faces of the attackers, twisted in primal rage, intercut with Phyllis's agonized reaction, then cutting to the aftermath of the destruction. Likewise with the rape of Mari, Craven shoots the action from a medium close-up of attacker and victim placing the importance not on the rape itself, but the reaction of those involved in the action. The murders of the killers at the hands of the Collingwoods are calculated and vicious: Weasel is seduced by Estelle, then orally castrated; even sadistic Krug fights for his life and even begs ("Let's just get it over with, huh?" he pleads) before John slaughters him with a chainsaw. In trying to flee, Sadie stumbles into the family's swimming pool and has her throat slit by Estelle as she attempts to pull herself out. Unlike in other films of this type, the Collingwoods gain no joy or satisfaction from their revenge. Close-ups of the parents turned victimizers reveal only grim, primitive anger. The film ends with a freeze-frame of the Collingwoods, huddled together, broken. The pink "Happy Birthday, Mari!" hangs fallen in the background. John and Estelle have lost their daughter and in their revenge, they have turned their own home into a slaughterhouse.

Final shot of Estelle and John Collingwood

It is important that the first third of the film is devoted to the characters before the mayhem actually begins. I've always thought Craven did an excellent job of depicting teenage female friendship and LAST HOUSE is no different. The violence that is inflicted upon Mari and Phyllis is much worse after seeing the bond they have with one another and spending time with them as they engage in girl-talk, marvel at the changing leaves in the woods, sneak a covert bottle of Boone's Farm and go for ice cream before the concert.  In another film Mari might have been a sheltered brat or an overly precious ingénue but here is basically a sweet kid who's trying to find her place as an adult in a changing world. Phyllis too may be a "bad girl" from the wrong side of the tracks, but she's also a loyal friend. Phyllis's already harrowing murder is even more brutal to watch after seeing her consistently defend, protect and comfort Mari, even at her own expense.

Mari and Phyllis

Craven spends an equal amount of time with the criminal "family" who joke with one another, bicker, and express hopes and dreams; they are initially sympathetic which only makes their brutality more shocking. Like the girls, they have an alliance to and care for one another.

LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT's rough style and strange juxtaposition of different elements is a product of the cultural storm of the early 1970s. Wes Craven's previous experience was in documentary filmmaking and blue movies which lend to the cinema-verite style of the film. This aids Craven's aim in presenting a realistic depiction of violence to re-sensitize the viewer and its technical ignorance actually works in its favor: its lack of polish and lack of adherence to convention throw the viewer further off-balance; there are no Hollywood rules - narratively or stylistically that the audience may rely on as a safety net. Many have criticized the film's juxtaposition of realistic violence with goofy slapstick (scenes featuring two bumbling cops played by MARSHALL ANKER and B-movie maven MARTIN KOVE) and equally goofy folk music (scored by Krug himself, DAVID HESS). It's true, the slapsticky scenes with the two cops Elmer Fudd-ing around don't really work and are nowhere near as compelling as the rest of the film. They can be justified in a narrative sense in that their gomer-ish antics explain why the Collingwoods don't just call the police. Also, the clumsy juxtaposition works in a way as it's something else that throws the audience completely off-balance. Incorporating slapstick comedy relief in a violent drive-in movie was a convention at the time (and is probably the reason it is included here), but in this film the violence is so extreme, the line between hero and villain so ambiguous that its juxtaposition with screwball pratfalls is more unsettling than comforting. It also conveys the contempt for authority that was brewing in America at the time, particularly for the police. And really, I would never argue for their excision as I think ADA WASHINGTON, the chicken lady needs to be in more movies.

Ada Washington

The same criticism is levelled at the folksy soundtrack by DAVID HESS, particularly the banjo-and- kazoo infused "Baddies Theme." However, I am actually a shameless fan of the music and dammit, I proudly own the soundtrack. I think the music actually makes a few scenes even more poignant (the ballad "Now You're All Alone" in particular, but I will talk more about that in a minute). I too, was thrown off by the "Baddies Theme" the first time I watched LAST HOUSE but over time it's grown on me. It may not have been employed this way intentionally but it also serves to disarm the viewer into thinking they are watching a standard drive-in film with depraved but cartoonish bad guys (it recalls a funkier, sillier version of "Foggy Mountain Stomp Down" in BONNIE AND CLYDE) instead of what they ultimately find out they were watching. It is also an example of the cynical dark humor that pervaded early 1970s America. The contrast between the soundtrack and the brutal violence and moral ambiguity in LAST HOUSE may purely be a product of the time as well as radio broadcasts of war and violence (the radio broadcast announcing endless acts of depravity is also utilized in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE) were interspersed with popular folk songs.

As a product of its culture and its time, the characters in LAST HOUSE also glibly comment about the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism. Mari's peace-symbol necklace is not only significant in the narrative of the film, but a symbol of '60s idealism, the dreams for the end of War and a utopian America that faded into the cynicism and nihilism of the '70s.

Krug, Sadie and Weasel

While LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT does work primarily because of its rough n' raw anti-Hollywood style, the film also contains some surprisingly lyrical moments. I am still haunted by Mari's Suicide Walk. Following her rape by Krug, Mari says a prayer as the killers experience a brief moment of remorse, trying to wipe the blood off their hands, looking away from each other in shame. Mari, in a trance, walks straight into a nearby lake. The criminals drift behind her and Krug shoots her. The idea that someone could feel so hopeless that they would want to walk into the water and just disappear is still a chilling one to me and this moment in the film is strangely poetic, underscored by the ballad "Now You're All Alone." Also impressive is the uncomfortable dinner scene where the Collingwoods and the criminal anti-family have spaghetti at the table together. Instead of dining room walls, there is only a black back-drop so the scene feels like it takes place in a dream-space and close-ups of the worried parents are cross-cut with close-ups of the awkward lower class criminals their bandaged injuries.

Last House on the Left (1972) dinner sequence

Family and social conflict factor into the horror of  LAST HOUSE. Craven would investigate the American family as a source of horror in nearly all of his films and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT presents an all-American family in conflict with a primitive, violent anti-family. The upper-middle-class Collingwoods are linked to the lower class criminal "family" through crosscutting from the very beginning of the film (this theme would be repeated and expounded upon in Wes Craven's following film, THE HILLS HAVE EYES). Both families are dysfunctional in their own ways, exemplified by Mari's open conflict with her strict mother and Junior's domination by his father. It is also implied that family offers no security or comfort to Phyllis either with her snarky remark that her parents are in the "iron and steel business...My mother irons and my father steals." Both the Collingwood family and Krug's ad hoc criminal anti-family band together to commit heinous acts with the upper-middle-class family proving to be no better than the lower class one.

In some ways, the class conflict presented in the film allows the viewer some sympathy for the killers in the aforementioned uneasy dinner scene. The lower class criminal anti-family is obviously uncomfortable in their burgeois surroundings ("Place like this makes me wish I was a lady," Sadie quips while Krug sneers, "Goddamn tight-ass freakos. Who do they think they are anyway?"), nervous about how to behave at the dinner table around their more sophisticated hosts. Craven stated: "Once Krug and his family were in the parents' house...I felt badly that they realized they could never aspire to that sort of bourgeois life." Mrs. Collingwood's animosity towards Phyllis does not seem to come from Phyllis's rebellious nature but from the fact that she comes from a lower social class ("from that slum"). Unlike the upper class, the middle class may have affluence and security but there is always the fear that it is tenuous and could be lost or taken away. They also incur the wrath of the lower class who feel they are equally deserving but have not been afforded the same opportunities. Many American horror films feature a middle-class family under threat of the lower class who decide to simply take what they believe they are entitled to, whereupon the middle-class family reasserts its dominance through violence and assuages its guilt (the 2009 remake of LAST HOUSE included). In Craven's film, however, the superiority of the American middle class is attacked revealing savagery and hypocrisy underneath.

Krug, Sadie and Weasel in Mari's bedroom
The exploration of the American family in LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and other American horror films of the 1970s was perhaps due to re-examination of all cultural institutions following the social upheaval of the 1960s, the suspicion with which many of these "all-American" institutions were regarded, and their changing dynamics to adapt to a rapidly changing society.  It is interesting to note the impact of the Manson Family murders on the subtext of American horror films. The Tate-LaBianca murders and the following sensationalized trial of Charles Manson and his "Family" are often cited by historians as the nail in the coffin of '60s idealism. Subsequent to this, many American horror films, including THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES, depicted a homicidal family living outside of civilization. The ad hoc family of criminals in LAST HOUSE does resemble the Manson Family in some aspects, particularly in the fact that they are a group of outsiders bonded together and lead by a charismatic psychopath. Sadie resembles the so-called Manson Girls as well. Her name may be taken from Susan Atkins' alias "Sadie Mae Glutz" (in fact, JERAMIE RAINN was portraying Susan Atkins in an off-Broadway play around this time) but she is also a young woman looking for the comfort and security of a family, finding it in a group of criminals. She is also under the influence of Krug ("He changes your head become someone else all together" she says) and too willing to let him nudge her into violence and depravity. Some of the grisly mayhem perpetrated by Krug and Company recalls the Manson Family Murders as well; the evisceration of Phyllis recalls the brutal stabbings of the Tate-LaBianca victims and Krug carving his name into Mari's chest with a knife recalls the killers carving "WAR" into Leno LaBianca's stomach.

Subtext aside, one thing that reviewers (particularly in its initial run) seem to ignore about LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is the performances. I have always thought the acting in the film was impressive, particularly from the two leading ladies and Krug's anti-family. Both SANDRA PEABODY and LUCY GRANTHAM do an excellent job of portraying the sympathetic bond and teenage rebelliousness of the two girls, then the agony and desperation in the later scenes. I know LAST HOUSE had to be a resume-killer, but I was surprised both young women had not done more film work. Same goes for FRED LINCOLN as Weasel Podowski. He infuses Weasel with a sense of humor and a world-weary coolness that makes him more interesting and sympathetic and it would have been something to see him in more legitimate films. JERAMIE RAIN always stands out to me as well as Sadie. Agile, pretty with an almost feline-like quality, the West Virginia native is equally adept at portraying the character's viciousness as her hardened-but-vulnerable and comic sides (just watch the way she exaggeratedly teases and sprays her hair or listen to her little speech where she talks about Sigmund Freud). But the one we all remember is DAVID HESS as Krug. Darkly handsome with a commanding presence, HESS exudes the charisma, the intense anger and the glib charm of a cold-blooded psychopath. He is so convincing in the role that he would play imperious Krug-like rapist-murderers in THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK and HITCH-HIKE, but I think Krug is the one that lingers in the dark corners of our imaginations.

And who can forget the enigmatic Gaylord St. James and his amazing sideburns?

Gaylord St. James

LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT has earned its place as my favorite Wes Craven movie (and one of my favorite movies in general) because of the fact that there is always something to discuss about it. No matter how many times I watch it, it still manages to elicit emotion. And I can't say that about THE VIRGIN SPRING.

Thanks for all the nightmares, Uncle Wes. We miss you.

I think there is something about the American Dream, this sort Disney-esque dream if you will of the beautifully trimmed front lawn, the white picket fence and Mom and Dad and happy children, God-fearing, doing good whenever they can, that expectation and then the flip side of it of anger and sense of outrage that that's not the truth of the matter. I think that gives American horror films in additional sense of rage.

                         - Wes Craven

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Girl With an Ax To Grind

Lizzie Borden as Gothic Heroine in THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN (1975)

Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie Borden in THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN (1975)

Times is hard, folks. This blog is dedicated to the horrifying -- and what's more horrifying these days than the dreaded job search? Yes, your hostess is on an epic quest to find a full-time job to support her writing habit.  In the process of finding a job in the legal field, I have become a fearsome combination of paralegal, carnival barker and travelling salesman. Still, as impressive as "Horror Movie Critic" and "Internet Smart-Ass" look on a resume, the overcrowded job market has rendered this search difficult. There are a few things keeping your hostess optimistic, however. One, is the astronomical crime rate here in Dead River, nicknamed "The Hidden Diamond of Dixie" (or "The Diamond in a Pig's Ass" as some of our detractors like to refer to it). All those stabbings are not only weeding out job candidates and freeing up positions, but they're generating a need for legal professionals! Otis Calhoun is finally back on the streets, on parole for shooting his daughter after she refused to bring him another beer, so there should be no shortage of criminal defense work. Something's gotta give or your hostess may embark on a spree slapping legal secretaries. I'd rather face Freddy Krueger than one more chain-smoking, condescending, Talbots-suited pitbull armed with an associate's degree in secretarial studies from Jefferson Davis Community College and a hate-on for snarky paralegals.

And speaking of women on a spree, there's nothing that warms my twisted heart more than a high-strung woman hacking her way through her dysfunctional family with an ax, so today we're going to talk about Lizzie Borden.  Or the legend of Lizzie, rather. Legends abound in Dead River too: we've got swamp witches, voodoo queens, a plethora of ghosts and this area was even a hotspot for Bigfoot sightings until we discovered it was just a shirtless Otis Calhoun before he bought his Hair-Off Mitten. But anyway, whatever the truth it's the legend that lives on in our imagination. Many forget that Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the infamous double-murder of her father and stepmother. However, in nearly every fictional portrayal, Lizzie is the culprit.  As natural storytellers, we are constantly reframing our experience to fit a conventional narrative so perhaps we can make sense of it and bring order to the chaos of life. Lizzie Borden seems eternally cast in the role of The Gothic Heroine. The basic facts of her life just seem to be a checklist of Gothic tropes: Lizzie lives - or is trapped, rather - in an Old Dark House, practically a prisoner of a Wicked Father and Spiteful Stepmother until she is finally driven to madness and violence due to social constraints placed upon her by her gender. The most famous of these fictional dramatizations is probably the made-for-television THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN (1975), featuring an outstanding performance by ELIZABETH MONTGOMERY as Lizzie.

As the film opens, something is clearly wrong at the Borden house as the Bordens' Irish maid, Bridget (Fionnula Flanagan, THE OTHERS), runs to fetch a doctor. As the Bordens' neighbor, Mrs. Churchill approaches to find out what the commotion is all about, she sees Lizzie standing frozen at the screen door with the strangest look on her face. "Oh, Mrs. Churchill, do come in," she says calmly. "Someone has killed Father."

THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN (1975): Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie

The film uses District Attorney Hosea Knowlton's (ED FLANDERS of THE NINTH CONFIGURATION and SALEM'S LOT) investigation and prosecution of Lizzie as a framework to gradually reveal the tormented history of the dysfunctional Borden family through a series of flashbacks (fragmented editing reflecting Lizzie's fragmented state of mind).  Family patriarch, Andrew (a chilling FRITZ WEAVER, CREEPSHOW), once a mortician and now prominent businessman is controlling, so miserly he forces the family to continue to eat spoiled mutton broth, and cruel. He's the kind of father who hacks his daughters pet pigeons to death with a hatchet just so the neighborhood boys can't get at them. "Papa, they were mine!" Lizzie cries but to no avail. He curtly informs her that everything on the property is his and he will do with it what he sees fit. Andrew follows the Wicked Father trope of Gothic fiction, more spiteful authoritarian than nurturer, Lizzie more a prisoner than a daughter.

Stepmother Abby (HELEN CRAIG) is resentful, bossy and penurious, spitefully referred to by Lizzie as "Mrs. Borden" or "that old sow." All of Lizzie's actions are met with disapproval and recrimination from Abby. There is no love or affection in this family, only blame and shaming.

 Despite Andrew's wealth, the family occupies a claustrophobic, decaying house with no indoor plumbing.  It is the Old Dark House of the Gothic, a prison for its inhabitants where madness festers. Lizzie's only source of stability is patient, long-suffering older sister Emma (wonderfully played by KATHERINE HELMOND of TV's SOAP) who has taken on the role of mediator and surrogate mother.

THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN: Borden family feuding. Emma (Katherine Helmond) and Lizzie (Elizabeth Montgomery) versus stepmother and father

Many remark at Lizzie's lack of emotion. During the trial, Knowlton refers to her as "sphinx of coldness." Lizzie, like most products of abusive or chaotic homes, has detached from her emotions in order to survive. She also indulges in kleptomania and compulsive spending. Mark Rutland in MARNIE (1964) would remind us, "When a child - of any age - can't get love, it takes what it can get."

There is also an undercurrent of sexual perversity in this fictional presentation of the Borden family. There is an almost necrophilic regard for death: Andrew implores a terrified young Lizzie to touch one of the corpses he is embalming in his basement workshop to assure her that death is not something to be afraid of (remarking sensually how "smooth" and "cold" the dead flesh is to the touch). As an adult, Lizzie kisses the corpse of her father on the lips. There is implication as well that both Borden girls are haunted by the death of their mother (in Elizabeth Engstrom's novel LIZZIE BORDEN, Emma even worships her dead mother with a fervor normally reserved for saints). Like most families in Gothic fiction, the shadow of death constantly looms over the Bordens.

THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN: Lizzie examines her father's corpse

Lizzie, however, dreams of glamour, travel, a fashionable house "on the hill" (the neighborhood where the elite live) and status. She does not understand why with the "Borden means" she shouldn't be able to have an alternative to the dismal life she has now. But the one thing Lizzie really wants that is denied to her is freedom. "Flyyyy," she cries to the pigeons that are able to escape her hatchet-wielding father. For despite her family's wealth, Lizzie's options are extremely restricted. She cannot escape her family and her "ugly, old house" through education and career as those options are not open to a woman in Victorian New England. Marriage is a more traditional means of escape, but also denied to her most likely because her unstable family and unwelcoming home prove a deterrent to prospective bachelors ("We can't even entertain properly," Lizzie tells her father) or perhaps because Lizzie is wary of ending up in a relationship with another controlling man. Her only hope is of inheriting which is promptly destroyed when Abby badgers Andrew into changing his will so that she will be the sole benefactor, successfully disinheriting his two daughters. It's ax-wielding time.

THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN: Emma (Katherine Helmond) visits Lizzie (Elizabeth Montgomery) in jail

Fictionalized Lizzies are generally used as a metaphor for the constraints of traditional gender roles and the further marginalization of women who choose not to adhere to them. In Elizabeth Engstrom's LIZZIE BORDEN, in addition to being trapped by her family's dysfunction, Lizzie is a lesbian and fears expression of her sexuality will be met with rejection from the church-going people in her community. The other women in this novel have been denied opportunities and emotional expression as well: Abby, rather than the unsympathetic harridan that is portrayed in THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN, is an unhappy woman in a loveless marriage, long ago stripped of her voice and unable to communicate her feelings to others; Emma lives a divided life, a proper New England spinster who travels one town over to indulge in self-destructive sprees of binge-drinking and rough sex; and The Widow Crawford, who befriends Lizzie in church, is forced to prostitute herself to keep her two sons in school. Engstrom's novel incorporates supernatural elements (another trademark of the Gothic) as well and Lizzie's repressed sexuality and rage creates a wrathful spectral second Lizzie that ultimately becomes responsible for the murders. In Sharon Pollack's play BLOOD RELATIONS, Lizzie is driven over the edge not only be her and Emma's disinheritance by their father, but her father's desire to marry her off to a wealthy widower with children (therefore making her another Abby). She proclaims to Emma that she never wants to marry or have children and declares this makes her "an aberration." Therefore, despite her real-life acquittal, Lizzie in fiction is always guilty (the only exception I can think of is an episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS called "THE OLDER SISTER" in which Emma is the real murderess, protected by a long-suffering Lizzie), a sympathetic murderess whose acts of violence are the only way of freeing herself from a life of abuse and imprisonment.

It makes perfect sense that THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN would place Lizzie Borden's story in this context as it was written and produced during the feminist movement. Domineering male authority and constrictive feminine roles will only lead to madness and violence.  To D.A. Knowlton's horror, his wife expresses sympathy for Lizzie, explaining, "You have no idea how heavy these skirts can be at times."

"I'm 32-years-old and nearly a prisoner in this ugly, old house," Lizzie laments. Had she not resorted to parenticide, Lizzie may well have become Madeline Usher.

Sex and death are often linked in Gothic fiction and THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN is no different. Lizzie commits the double-ax-murders in the nude, giving them a perverse overtone. While this could be explained for pragmatic reasons - no blood-spattered dress, no evidence - Lizzie literally lets her hair down and the murders become a venting of repressed and savage emotions. This is the first time Lizzie has ever completely let go. At the end of the film, acquitted, Lizzie exits the courthouse. As she smiles up at the pigeons flying off the courthouse roof, we know murder was her only means of escape.

Lizzie Borden (Elizabeth Montgomery) with an ax in THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN (1975)

Ironically, the patriarchy that constructed the walls of her prison sets her free; it seems so impossible that a respectable, upper-middle-class woman would do such a horrifying thing. With their inheritance, Lizzie and Emma ("We're free! At last we're really free!" Lizzie exults) may live autonomously in the house "on the hill" much like Merricat and Constance Blackwood in WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE. But like those two sisters, the shadow of death still looms over them.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Neurotic Women With Straight Razors


Repulsion title card

Good ee-vening, dah-lings! I am your hostess of this dark corner of the internet, Madamoiselle Macabre.

Due to my affinity for places founded by pirates and where the governor is consistently a colorful crook, I have spent nearly all of my life in the South. Southern folk tend to have an appreciation for the grotesque and the absurd, so there is no wonder why I love horror movies.  I chose Dead River as my home due to the fact it was a mid-sized Southern port city filled with steak-knife wielding drag queens, an abundance of citizens with outstanding warrants and a population filled with insane people who want to be your new best friend. There are other cities that rank higher in education, have lower crime and are filled with well-adjusted people, but quite frankly I wouldn't fit in there.

I think we all have a special relationship with movie characters. They are easier to empathize with than their real life counterparts as their neurosis does not intrude upon our daily lives and we are granted a special, omniscient intimate view of them that we do not get with a real person. Seriously, if I lived in my imagination, I'd have a thousand friends. And as someone whose life often resembled the movie FRANCES (1982) if it were written by Tennessee Williams, the troubled female protagonists in horror movies have always been my friends and confidantes.

The great-grandmother of them all is arguably Carol Ledoux, superbly played by CATHERINE DENEUVE in 1965's REPULSION, co-written and directed by ROMAN POLANSKI.  With Carol's severe anxiety, neurosis, paranoia, androphobia and outbursts of violence, REPULSION resembles much of the Madamoiselle's 20s.

Repulsion Carol Catherine Deneuve

POLANSKI is noted as a brilliant auteur and maestro of the macabre but also infamous for his scandalous private life. But is ol' Roman a secret feminist? I'll get into those oogie details in a bit.

Carol is an expatriated Belgian in her early twenties. She shares a flat in swingin' London with her more worldly sister, Helene (YVONNE FURNEAUX) and works as a manicurist in a beauty salon. Shy and fragile, Carol is impenetrable to all but the audience. Withdrawn from her colleagues, she hides behind her hair, eyes downcast and is forever lost in her dreams. However, the camera allows us to get intimately (and uncomfortably) close to her, observe the details of her daily life and are privy to her nightmarish fantasies. We know what is oblivious to those who surround Carol: Carol is plagued by a mixture of yearning for sexual experience and terror of sexually aggressive male attention. Alone, she removes the dress Helene wore out on a date the previous night from the wardrobe. As she holds the dress up to herself, she imagines a leering man standing behind her in the wardrobe mirror. Alone, Carol preens in front of the mirror as if preparing for a date. She then imagines the same leering man breaking down her bedroom door and assaulting her from behind, smearing her lipstick all over the pillow. Mirrors in films are often indicative of the divide between a psychological space and the physical one. In REPULSION, mirrors figure predominantly, representing Carol's conflicting disgust and repressed desire.

Repulsion leering construction worker

The men who surround Carol are predatory, forever leering at her, invading her space, and assaulting her with unwanted touches. Even the safety of her sister's apartment is violated by the presence of her sister's adulterous lover (IAN HENDRY, GET CARTER, THE PASSENGER). Unfortunately, Carol's unavailability is viewed as an alluring tease to the men around her. Even her would-be-love-interest, Colin (JOHN FRASER) is a John Hinckley-in-training. He forces a kiss on her, despite her obvious discomfort and breaks down her door when she won't answer his phone calls. His attraction is of an obsessive nature, fixated on Carol's beauty and determination to overcome her unavailability. There is no concern for her distress; she is little more than an exotic doll to be placed on a shelf for his satisfaction.

Repulsion Carol Catherine Deneuve sidewalk crack

The presence of men also seems to interfere with Carol's ability to build female friendships. Her co-workers at the beauty salon are all preoccupied with their boyfriends (and usually crying over their bad behavior) and the trigger for Carol's final descent into madness and misandrist violence is Helene's leaving on holiday with her boyfriend. "I must get this crack mended," Carol says of a metaphorical split in the apartment wall, but unfortunately this statement is unheard by her sister.

Left alone in the apartment, Carol's psyche crumbles. She nervously swipes at her hair, face and clothes. She bites her nails. The rabbit Helene prepared for dinner, then abandoned to have dinner with her boyfriend - much like Carol is abandoned for a holiday with the boyfriend - is left out to decompose. She neglects her own appearance and the apartment, letting it grow filthy and disordered. Carol even skips days of work, then is sent home when she accidentally injures a client. Terrified of the world, Carol withdraws from it but cannot escape it. The phone rings endlessly. Street noise drifts in through the window. It is of note that Carol is perturbed by the persistently ringing church bell and the sound of nuns playing games from the cloister next door. Abstinence and locking herself away from men will not offer her any respite.

Carol cannot escape the constant assault of the outside world and she cannot escape her own fractured mind. Her anxieties and hallucinations only intensify and when Colin and the landlord encroach upon her space, Carol violently lashes back. Unable to defend herself against the assault of the outside world and unable to reconcile the anxieties that torment her, Carol retreats further and sinks into catatonia. Much has been said about the family photograph in the final shot of the film. Many viewers and critics assert this indicates Carol's anxieties were a result of childhood sexual abuse. However, the Madamoiselle has a slightly different interpretation. I believe the photograph indicates Carol's downward spiral into madness began early was left undetected by those closest to her. How many people suffer from mental illness for years before finally being diagnosed? And who can blame Carol for being terrified of men seeing that the ones that approach her act like would-be date rapists. Makes me thankful women in Dead River are feisty and will use high heels as a deadly weapon if necessary. Already fragile and anxious, the constant assault from men around her is too much for her to bear.

So is REPULSION a feminist film? Many will say "definitely, duh!" but I'm not so sure it can be classified as such. The film is a critique of chauvinistic male behavior and empathetic towards Carol, that is true. But while Carol strikes back at some of the predatory men who torment her, she is not empowered by her actions. She's a tragic antiheroine who, instead of finding her voice, sinks further into her own damaged mind and is ultimately silenced. That is not a criticism of the film or its subtext, mind you, as "feminist" these days seems to be a meaningless buzzword tossed onto any film with a major female character who is not a boring ingénue. REPULSION is a favorite of mine and one of the few films that accurately portrays how terrifying living with mental illness can be. Carol Ledoux paved the way for numerous twisted sisters as the most memorable aspects of REPULSION (hallucinations, repeated mirror shots, extreme close-ups, decaying apartment as a physical manifestation of a fractured mind, low angles of a wide-eyed weapon-wielding woman) are tropes of horror films featuring a neurotic female protagonist. Polanski's direction, Gil Taylor's photography and the production design uncover the horror in the mundane. What else can I say about Catherine Deneuve other than she is one of my favorite actresses because of this movie? Her serene, aloof persona gives Carol's remoteness an enigmatic quality. She is both sensual and icy; vulnerable and child-like then unhinged and dangerous. We are given an insight in Carol's damaged psyche, but we will never fully understand her. What does everyone think happened to Carol? Was she committed? Did she stay catatonic or was she functional after a reasonable amount of CBT-DBT therapy and antipsychotics? Did she develop a flair for art therapy, shocking her fellow inmates with disturbing macaroni-glued-to-paper-plate projects? Could BELLE DE JOUR be what happened to Carol after she was released from the mental institution? I will leave these questions to you, kiddies. But until next time, pleasant nightmares.