Monday, February 28, 2011

Horror's Unsung Heroines

In any discussion of the great actresses of horror cinema, certain names always come up. Jamie Lee Curtis, Linnea Quigley, Fay Wray, Janet Lee, Heather Lagencamp, Barbara Crampton, Sigourney Weaver, Danielle Harris, Linda Blair, Ingrid Pitt, Elvira, Brinke Stevens, Ashley Laurence, and many others are considered the classic “scream queens.” So much ink has been spilled praising these women’s contributions to the genre that I don’t feel the need to add to their accolades. There are so many other actresses, however, that deserve to be recognized. These actresses may be known, some of them well known, to the hardcore horror fan, but casual fans and mainstream the mainstream media tend to overlook them. Here are 10 of my favorite “unsung heroines” of horror.

Elsa Lanchester

As the Bride of Frankenstein, her image is arguably the most iconic of any female character in horror history. So why would I list her among horror’s unsung heroines? Before I typed it, how many of you knew the actresses name? That’s what I thought. How many of you can name another movie she was in? Exactly. Elsa Lanchester deserves a spot right next to Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Claude Raines, and the rest of the great Universal horror actors. Everyone go check out The Spiral Staircase, Terror in the Wax Museum, or even Mary Poppins and enjoy more of this underrated actress.

Melinda Clarke

While she is best known for her non horror TV work on series like Days of Our Lives, The OC, and CSI, and she has only made a 2 horror films (I don’t count Spawn as horror), she belongs on this list for portraying one of my favorite female horror characters of all time. In Return of the Living Dead 3, she does something that has rarely ever been done, infuses a zombie character with extreme emotional gravitas. She plays Julie, whose boyfriend reanimates her shortly after a fatal motorcycle accident. I could have told him that redheads named Julie are trouble. Sorry, couldn't resist. Anyway, she struggles with her new-found hunger, trying hard to fight her transformation for the sake of love. She progressively mutilates herself, as the pain eases the hunger. It is an incredibly complex performance in what is essentially an undead Romeo and Juliet. She is beautiful and grotesque. That movie, and that character in particular, has endured as a favorite of mine over the years. And no, it’s not just because she’s ungodly amounts of hot. How shallow do you people think I am? Never mind, don’t answer that. She can currently be seen on the series The Vampire Diaries, but I hope and pray she returns to the world of horror flicks again.

Debbie Rochon

If anyone can lay claim to the title of “the hardest working woman in horror” it’s Debbie Rochon. Her IMDB credits her with 193 movie appearances, almost all of them horror. She is one of those actresses that are well known in the independent horror community, but under the casual and mainstream fan’s radar. Lloyd Kaufmann, head of Troma studios, called her “The Goddess of Independent Cinema.” She tirelessly works in indie and low budget horror, being one of the scene’s most prominent and vocal supporters. She is extremely talented, and is just as effective playing a psychotic murderer as she is getting killed. While many view the world if independent cinema as a stepping stone, she has stated on many occasions that while she would do major studio flicks, she loves the artistic freedom allowed outside of the Hollywood system. Some of her best known films include Tromeo and Juliet, Abducted 2: The Reunion, Dead and Rotting, Cremains, American Nightmare, Santa Claws, and my personal favorite, Hellblock 13.

Dyanne Thorne

She has appeared in a few horror films, such as Point of Terror, Blood Sabbath, and Hellhole, but Dyanne Thorne will always be best remembered as Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. As the brutal Nazi commandant, she embodies the duality of seductive and evil. Thorne is completely believable as she presides over the torture and sexual degredation carried out under her orders. She can exude a palpable sense of malice and insert her absolute authority simply with a look. In all 4 Ilsa movies, she typifies the term femme fatale. As Joe Bob Briggs once said, “She’s the kind of woman that might make love to you, or she might kill you, and you really don’t care which.”

Tiffany Shepis

Tiffany Shepis is a strong candidate to be the successor to Debbie Rochon’s modern scream queen throne. Since her debut in Tromeo and Juliet (ironically also starring Rochon) she has made over 60 independent horror movies, as well as many comedies, music videos, and “erotic thrillers.” Citing Brinke Stevens and Mindy Clarke as influences, she said in an interview “I have never wanted to win an Oscar, my only goal for my career is to make one bad ass horror film that reaches a more mainstream audience.” If that statement alone doesn’t earn her a spot on this list, I don’t know what would. Check her out in Death Factory, Bloody Murder 2, Delta Delta Die, Chainsaw Cheerleaders, Zombies Zombies Zombies!, and the Night of the Demons remake.

Soledad Miranda

Soledad’s story is a tragic one. The Spainish actress appeared in a comedy directed by future Euro-horror auteur Jess Franco the age of 16. Four years later she made her horror debut, earning great reviews for her performance in Pyro…The Thing Without a Face. She then made Sound of Horror with another great Scream Queen, the debuting Ingrid Pitt. After getting married and having a son she only did TV work for the next four years, until she reunited with Franco for a trio of horror masterpieces, Count Dracula (costarring with Christopher Lee) Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy. These films were well received, and she was poised to become the darling of the European horror industry. She had already signed on for 6 more horror flicks when she died in an automobile crash in 1970. She is generally considered to be Franco’s greatest discovery (which is saying something), and there’s no telling how far her beauty and talent could have taken her.

Debi Sue Voorhees

This entry may get groans from the more feminist minded readers, but I’m just being honest. I was a young teen, aka throbbing ball of hormones, when I started watching horror movies. One of my favorite ingredients in these films, especially the 80’s slashers, was indeed the gratuitous nudity. My favorite, um…scene, was Debi Sue Voorhees’s in Friday the 13th part 5. I was quite taken with the…um…apex of her dramatic range. She only made two other horror movies, Appointment With Fear (terrible) and Innocent Prey (pretty good), before disappearing from the film industry. Her career may have been brief, but for a couple of big reasons she will always have a special place in my heart. Oh, and sorry about the censorship, but this is more or less a family show.

Caroline Munro

Caroline Munro made her horror debut playing the dead wife of Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes rises again. She became a Hammer Studios contract actress, appearing in Dracula AD 1972 and Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter. Later, she came to America and co-starred in the slasher classic Maniac and The Last Horror Film, both with the great Joe Spinell. Throughout the 1980’s she appeared in a wide variety of horror projects, like Don't Open Till Christmas, Slaughter High, Howl of the Devil, Faceless, and Demons 6: The Black Cat. She appeared in Flesh for the Beast and Absence of Light in the 2000’s, and has a musical horror comedy called Eldorado coming out next year. An excellent actress, she became a fan favorite for her sultry presence and a very good scream. She is also notable due to the fact that, unlike most of the actresses on this list, she refused to ever appear nude in a film, turning down many high profile and lucrative roles because they required nudity. Whether or not that is a good thing can be debated, but you gotta respect anyone for sticking to their standards in the face of fame and money.

Amelia Kinkade

The Night of the Demons trilogy are some of my favorite horror movies ever, and the anchor of the series is Amelia (sometimes credited as Mimi) Kinkade’s performance as Angela. She throws herself into the role of the possessed goth chick with an over the top abandon and gleefull cheesiness. Later in the series, she is a bit more subdued and subtle, but still possesses an incredible demonic energy. Mimi, who holds a degree in modern dance, also has two classic dance sequences in the series, one to Stigmata Martyr by Bauhaus and the other to Rapture by Morbid Angel. Yes, she actually dances to Morbid Angel. That alone makes her legendary. The NOTD movies were her only contribution to horror cinema (My Best Friend is a Vampire doesn’t count), but few actresses have truly embodied a single character throughout multiple movies the way Mimi does Angela.

Bobbi Sue Luther

I put her on this list because I see big things in her future. She has the potential to be a horror star. She’s off to a good start, having a couple of really good movies under her belt already. This model turned actress made a couple of comedies and TV appearances in the early 2000’s, and then made her horror debut in The Poughkeepsie Tapes in 2007. That flick has been repeatedly recommended to me, and I would LOVE to get my hands on a copy (hint hint readers). She appeared in the Robert Englund directed Killer Pad, and then starred in the excellent slasher flick Laid to Rest. Her performance in Laid to Rest was truly impressive. Her next appearance was in the Night of the Demons remake. Only 4 films into her horror career, I believe she very well could be the next big scream queen. Mark my words, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of her.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Freddy's Nightmares Review: Part One

Back around Halloween, Chiller aired a marathon of Freddy’s Nightmares, the Nightmare on Elm Street TV show from the late 80’s. My friend Leah, who has better cable than me, was kind enough to DVR it for me. When we went back and looked at all that had recorded, we realized that we have 36 of the 44 episodes. Since I was too young to catch it during its initial run, I’ve only seen a couple of episodes that I’ve found on video. Being the Freddy fan I am, I have decided to go back and watch them all. You, my lucky and wonderful readers, get to go along for the ride.

First, a little background is in order. Freddy’s Nightmares was an anthology series that aired in syndication from October 1988 until March 1990. It told stories of the residents of Springwood, Ohio, the setting of the films. Krueger himself only appears as a character in a couple of episodes. His main role is basically the show’s Crypt Keeper or Rod Sterling. He introduces the stories and comments on them throughout the episodes. Each episode is divided into two stories, with the second loosely centered upon a supporting character or storyline from the first. This series featured directing and acting by quite a few people who would go on to become notable later in their careers. I’ll talk about them when we get there. The series also has a reputation for varying widely in quality. In the documentary Never Sleep Again, Bob Shaye, executive producer of the series (as well as the NOES films) said “ the tenth one they were pretty miserable, and I stopped paying attention.” Well, I’m five episodes in, so it appears it’s going to be an interesting ride. So, without further ado…

Episode 1: No More Mr. Nice Guy

What a brilliant idea for the pilot episode; tell the story of Freddy’s trial and burning. A Nightmare prequel! Not only that, but it was directed by the great Tobe Hooper. Freddy sits in a confinement box, his face shadowed, cackling as the prosecutor (played by Ian Patrick Williams of Reanimator, Terrorvision, and Dolls) shows pictures of his victims to the jury. It seems, however, that Freddy was never read his rights, and is released on that technicality. A mob consisting of the lawyer, the cop who arrested him (whose daughter was a Freddy victim who got away), and the parents of the other victims track him back to his boiler room home and burn him alive. Pretty familiar story. It was told effectively though, even if it contradicts some of the story from the films. You can definitely tell this was a low budget TV project. It did, however, give us a rare look at Robert Englund in the iconic hat, sweater, and glove without the makeup. This episode made me think about how incredibly cool a Nightmare prequel movie could be given a good budget and without the restrictions of 80’s network TV. I would love to see a flick about Freddy’s pre-dream demon murders, trial, and torching. Hell, those scenes were the only saving grace of that god-awful remake. Alas, I doubt that will ever happen, but this is a great episode and, as far as I know, the only one to actually take place within the lore of the films. Plus, apparently Freddy had an ice cream truck. How cool is that?

Episode 2: It’s A Miserable Life

This is an interesting episode directed by Tom McLoughlin (Friday the 13th 6) that doesn’t go so much for scares as for dark comedy and sheer weirdness. John Cameron Mitchell, yes, Hedwig himself, is Bryan, who wants to leave Springwood but is stuck at his family’s burger joint. He dreams about strange interactions with his parents, who don’t want him to leave the family business, his friends, and his girlfriend Karen, played by Friday the 13th 7’s Lar Park-Lincoln. He also dreams about a mysterious motorcycle riding man who shoots him through the drive through window. When the biker guns Bryan and Karen down in reality, she is taken to a hospital whose treatment methods are, to say the least, bizarre. The plot is disjointed and plays quite a bit with the audience, never really letting us know what is reality and what is a dream. The most frightening thing about this episode is the burger jingle that gets stuck in your head way too easily. You’ll find yourself singing “Chew me, eat me, you can’t beat me” hours later. Overall, this is a more comical episode, but it is definitely a fun one and notable to horror fans for the Friday the 13th connections.

Episode 3: Killer Instinct

Pretty good episode directed my Mick Garris (Psycho 4, The Sand, Quicksilver Highway) and starring Lori Petty, star of Tank Girl, Route 666 and, yes Leah, A League Of Their Own. Lori is a track star who recently lost her mother and is being eclipsed by a new girl, who also wants her man. The coach gives her a good luck gem that belonged to her mother. When she stares at it and envisions something, it happens. This allows her to win the race, as well as accidentally maim some people in the process. Her rival steals the gem, uses it to kill Lori mid race (hilarious flying head alert) and later realizes that the gem is much more than she bargained for. The plot of this one is decent, though this type of story has been done before many times. This episode features a deli slicer finger chopping that is surprisingly gory for 80’s TV, as well as a couple of zombies. Watch for Bob Shaye’s cameo in the funeral scene. There is a shot at the end of the episode of Freddy licking the gem as he dangles it from one claw that is vaguely sexual and somewhat disturbing. I enjoyed this one.

Episode 4: Freddy’s Tricks and Treats

The parade of horror heavyweight directors continues as Ken Wiederhorn (Shock Waves, Return of the Living Dead 2) directs my favorite episode so far. It’s Halloween in Springwood, and Marsha, played by a very young Mariska Hargitay of Law and Order SVU fame, is a medical student cramming for her anatomy test. When she retires to the autopsy room to do a little hands on studying, Freddy starts to torment her, driving her nearly insane with visions of her overbearing, deceased grandmother and awakening cadavers. She begins some experimental therapy involving recording her dreams onto videotape (yeah, I know, just go with it) led by Zach, another student. Freddy continues to stalk her dreams as she draws Zach into her nightmare world. This episode is outstanding. Mariska does an excellent job, making me wish that she had done more horror work. This is the first episode since the pilot to actually use Freddy as a character, making this episode feel much closer to the films than the other episodes. There are some pretty good splashes of gore in the autopsy room scene. It all ends with Freddy delivering the immortal, brilliantly ridiculous line “Stick that in your VCR and suck on it.” Um, what? It doesn’t get any better than that. All in all, this is the best episode so far and it’s gonna be tough to top this one.

Episode 13: Deadline

Carson Daly. Fred Durst. Regis Philbin. John Cena. M. Night Shamwow. These are some of the names on my “I want your head on a silver platter” list. I now have a new one to add, Jill Donner. Who is Jill Donner you ask? She was the writer of this trainwreck of an episode. Jill Donner is responsible for making my brain hurt. Jill Donner must die. Anyway, it looks like episodes 5-12 didn’t record. It also looks like Mr. Shaye was right, this is pretty miserable. Part one of the episode involves a high school kid who has a summer job writing obituaries for the local newspaper, but gets trapped in dreams placing him in each of the deceased’s places. It includes the removal of the worst fake tattoo I’ve ever seen, a stupid board game come to life, and some of the worst integration of stock footage in history. That stuff may not be Jill Donner’s fault, but I’m still pinning it on her. The second half is about…well…I don’t have the slightest idea. Apparently one of the girls who was friends with the boy from the first half has a new boyfriend who may or may not exist, her two best friends may or may not have died in a car crash, she may or may not be dead, her parents may or may not be trying to kill her, etc. Usually Nightmare stories don’t have much logic, but they at least have a certain “dream logic.” This just makes no sense whatsoever. It looks like they shot about 5 different episodes with different stories and just cut them together randomly. Add the migraine inducing incoherence of the story to the awful acting (the lead actress can’t even stop twitching when she’s supposed to be dead) and you have quite possibly the worst episode of ANY TV series. To paraphrase Dave Chappelle’s Rick James “I wish I had two more hands, so I could give this episode four severed thumbs down.” At least there’s no way the episodes can go downhill from here. I hope. Damn you Jill Donner!

That’s the first 5 episodes of my Odyssey through Springwood. Two excellent episodes, two good episodes, and one steaming pile of crap. With the exception of Deadline, Nathan definitely says check ‘em out. What will the future hold for this series and your favorite reviewer? You’re just going to have to stay tuned to find out. I know, I hate cliffhanger endings too.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review: I Spit On Your Grave (2010)

After being severely disappointed in the Last House On The Left remake, I didn’t have very high expectations for the remake of the other classic stalwart of the rape/revenge subgenre, I Spit On Your Grave. I was pleasantly surprised. While some of the raw ferocity of the original is lost due to the glossy, stylized nature of the remake, it is nevertheless a brutal exercise in vengeance. The story basically remains the same. Jennifer Hills, played by Sarah Butler, is a writer who rents an isolated cabin for a little peace and quiet to work on a novel, but runs afoul of a group of locals who gang rape her. She then exacts a bloody revenge on her attackers. Basically, good clean family fun.

The main difference between the original and this one is the addition of a lot of exposition. It takes much longer for the attack to occur in the remake. The filmmakers tried to flesh out the characters of the rapists much more. They are only semi-successful. Each of Jennifer’s attackers has a distinct personality in the update, however they have little depth and achieve little more than being caricatures. This is not a big issue, however, as these characters really didn’t need to be anything more than reprehensible yokels. Much more time is given this time around to the attempts of the attackers to cover up their crimes. Two characters were added that were not in the original. The man who rents her the cabin seems to only be there to show that at least one resident of the backwoods town isn’t in on the whole thing. The other addition, who adds quite a bit to the story, is the town sheriff. The fact that he ends up being one of the attackers adds a new feeling of hopelessness to Jennifer’s plight. One of the criticisms of the original is that Jennifer didn’t even attempt to go to the authorities. In the remake, she truly has nowhere to turn to for help, since the authorities are part of the attack. He is a truly reprehensible character, as scenes of him with his wife and daughter immediately after the rape emphasize to great effect. But, as the great Joe Bob Briggs would say, that’s just too much plot getting in the way of the story. The real crux of the film is two things, rape and revenge.

As anyone could have predicted, the rape scene itself is not nearly as long or intense as it is in the original. While the scene seemed to be never ending and grueling the first time around, it is greatly truncated this time. In fact, we only actually see two of the five attackers do the dirty deed; we skip right past the other 3 and see only the aftermath. The attackers don’t get right down to business this time either. A lengthy scene where they invade the cabin and psychologically assault, degrade, and humiliate Jennifer is added in place of an extended rape. What actual on screen sexual assault is there, however, is still pretty damn intense and does the trick. While I can see why the filmmakers did this, as audience sensibilities are very different today than in 1978, I think the way the scene was handled lessened the effect. The way the scene is shot subtly changes the feel of the scene from the one in the 1978 version. In the original, the scene is shot in a raw, almost documentary like style, mainly full shots with very few close-ups and minimal editing. This realistic style, coupled with its sheer length, carried an emotional impact, making the audience endure the attack alongside Jennifer. In the new film, it is shot in such a way that the terrific camera work and snappy editing makes it almost too pretty. The filmmakers did too good a job. While the rape was not quite as brutal as it should have been (dear God I hope no one ever decides to take THAT quote out of context), the revenge portion of the flick is where it really delivers.

In the original, Jennifer Hill uses ropes, knives, and even an outboard motor to dispatch those who wronged her. Jennifer 2.0 is a bit more creative than that. Jennifer 2.0 also has obviously watched Saw once or twice. While not setting them up in “traps” per se, her ingenious murder methods definitely show a bit of a Jigsaw influence. And make no mistake; the murders are straight up brutal. I won’t give any of them away…well, maybe one just because I’ve always wanted to type this phrase… SHOTGUN SODOMY! What I dug the most about the murders is that they are infused with irony. The way she kills each man is a direct callback to something he specifically did or said to her during the attack. They also dispensed with the one thing that always kinda stuck in my craw about the ORIGINAL. In that one, Jennifer seduces all of her rapists into leaving themselves vulnerable enough to be killed. Now, I’m all for suspension of disbelief. I’m not one of those people who insist that every aspect of a plot make logical sense. In fact, it seems to me that mindset would more or less preclude one from being a horror fan in the first place. Asking me to believe that these guys who just gang raped this woman really believe that she’s willingly coming back for round two is pushing it though. Over the years many critics have written that they found that aspect of the film to be highly offensive. I just find it dumb. That being said, the remake does unrealistically show Jennifer doing things a 100 pound woman wouldn’t have the strength to do, but that’s just nitpicking. There is no seduction going on in the remake. When Jennifer 2.0 comes back she is a hardcore sadistic killing machine screaming for vengeance. This is where Sarah Butler’s performance goes from good to great. Camille Keaton may have had more intensity during the rape scenes, but when Sarah starts giving the boys their comeuppance she more than makes up for it.

When I first heard that this movie was being remade, I thought there was no way it could be done well. I generally hate remakes. I want to see some original ideas. You can argue the merits of remakes forever, but eventually you have to judge these movies not by how they stack up against the original, but by the criteria all movies should be judged by: is it good? In this case, the answer is yes. This movie is good enough to stand on its own. They did stay pretty faithful to the plot of the original. They also added some nice references for the fans like the harmonica, certain choice lines of dialog, and the poster itself. I believe, however, that if I had never seen the original classic, I would not have enjoyed this movie any more or less. And that, my friends, is the mark of a good remake. I Spit On Your Grave 2010 is a sick, violent good time. Two severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Women Of Italian Horror

I love Italian horror movies. Spaghetti Splatter flicks have always held a special place in my heart. In fact, Lucio Fulci’s The Gates Of Hell was one of the first 3 horror movies I ever bought (along with Night Of The Living Dead and Plan 9 From Outer Space.) There are many reasons why I love them; the avant-garde lighting, the fantastic atmosphere, the copious gore, the bad dubbing, the unflinching violence, the copious gore, the outlandish, often nonsensical plots, the copious gore. Since February is Women in Horror Appreciation month, I decided to pay tribute to one of the big things that make Italian horror flicks like no other country’s genre output, the actresses. The Italians have a way of choosing great actresses. They are talented, usually absolutely beautiful, often have no problem with nudity (what can I say, I consider that a plus), and are willing to go all out and really sell the horrific nature of the story. This is not a definitive tribute by a long shot. There are many other greats that deserve mentioning (Barbara Cupisti, Tisa Farrow, Alexandra Delli Colli, etc), and there will definitely have to be a part 2, but here are 5 of the actresses that make l'horror italiano so good.

Barbara Steele

Barbara Steele, a British actress, was Italy’s first scream queen. Her list of credits in Italian horror films throughout the 60’s is truly impressive, including titles like Nightmare Castle, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, The Ghost, Castle of Blood, The Long Hair Of Death, and Terror Creatures From The Grave. It is one film, however, that firmly cements her as the “gran damaof Italian Horror, Mario Bava’s 1960 masterpiece (and ironically his feature directing debut), Black Sunday. Steele plays both Katia, a 16th century witch/vampire who is resurrected seeking revenge on the descendants of those who sledge-hammered a spiked mask into her face, and Asa, the sweet, virginal damsel in distress who just so happens to be one of said descendants. Steele brings both sexy, malicious evil and innocent vulnerability to stunning life, employing those incredibly beautiful, expressive eyes. Although she would end up working in other countries and in other genres (Shivers, Pirhana, Fellini’s 8 ½) it was her Italian horror films, particularly Black Sunday (aka Mask of Satan) that made her an icon.

Daria Nicolodi

The story goes that in 1969, as a student at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts in Rome, Daria saw The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, directed by Dario Argento, and decided that she needed to meet the director at all costs. They eventually met, romance blossomed, and for the next 11 years she was his partner, muse and collaborator. The first of their collaborations was Deep Red, where she played the supporting but pivotal role of journalist Gianna Brezzi, as well as introducing Dario to his frequent collaborators, the band Goblin. Her finest acting moment would come next in a film directed not by Argento, but by another Italian horror legend, Mario Bava, 1977’s Shock. While her style is a bit over the top, her performance as a woman being driven mad by guilt, ghosts, visions, and a possessed son is amazing. She varies between looking shaken and perturbed to full on screaming, flailing panic and everything in between. Sometime after Shock, she began to write a story about witchcraft and a cult-run music academy, which became the basis for arguably the greatest Italian horror film of all time, Suspiria. Her stories would also serve as the inspiration for the other 2 entries in the “three mothers” trilogy, Inferno and Mother of Tears, which she also appeared in. She would go on to give memorable performances in other Argento films such as Tenebrae, Phenomena, and Opera. Since the late 80’s her acting work has been sparse, mainly television. Oh wait, I almost forgot, she did produce one other significant collaboration with Dario Argento

Asia Argento

As the Daughter of Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi, Asia was born Italian horror royalty. She made her acting debut in a comedy with her mother at age 9, and then started in horror with parts in Demons 2 at 10 and the brilliant The Church at 14, both produced by her father. As she embarked on a widely varied and generally critically acclaimed acting career in her late teens, she finally began acting in her father’s directorial efforts, appearing in Trauma, The Stendhal Syndrome, and The Phantom of the Opera. Throughout these films, Asia demonstrated her dramatic range, playing both terrified and vulnerable women in peril and tough as nails survivors. While critics applauded her performances, they and fans alike have always found it strange that she is often nude and placed in sexual situations in her father’s movies. She said in an interview “I never thought it was weird that my father would have me naked and raped in his movies until a friend pointed it out to me. I was just making movies and never even thought about the possible subtext going on.” After that she disappeared from the Italian horror scene but continued acting, making everything from comedies (Viola bacia tutti), to action (XXX), drama (Marie Antoinette), and, of course, horror (Land Of The Dead.) She also began writing and directing material ranging from features to 2 Marilyn Manson music videos. Her films (Scarlet Diva, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, etc), while not technically horror; do tend to be disturbing, dealing with depraved characters, seedy situations, and the darker side of humanity. In 2007, father, mother, and daughter reunited to make Mother Of Tears, the long awaited third and final installment in the three mothers trilogy. Where will her career go from here? Could her daughter be the next generation of Italian scream queen? Will I finally get to marry her? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Catriona MacColl

Catriona (sometimes credited as Katherine) MacColl is a bit of an enigma. She is a sophisticated British actress who began her career in Shakespeare plays. She has appeared in Sherlock Holmes movies, award winning European television dramas, and epic period dramas. Yet she also starred in the “seven doors” trilogy for infamous Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci. First came The Gates Of Hell. Yes, I know the original title was City Of The Living Dead, bit it’s alternate title is oh so much cooler. Anyway, she immediately showed that she can portray terror like few others in cinema history have. Her eyes wide, her mouth wider, her face a mask of utter primal fear, she made the “buried alive” scene the most suspenseful in that movie. With a performance like that, and that incredible scream, it’s no wonder she became Fulci’s go-to leading lady for his next two films. In The Beyond, she plays a woman who inherits a Louisiana hotel built atop one of the seven gates of hell. In real life, she now runs rental vacation cottages in France. Hmmm. The ending of The Beyond, driven home by MacColl, is positively mind bending. No, I’m not going to spoil it for you. If you call yourself a horror fan and haven’t seen The Beyond, shame on you! Her performance did just as much to fuel the palpable atmosphere of dread that permeates her next film, House By The Cemetery, as Fulci’s direction and the excellent set design. When the zombie drags her down the stairs, her head bouncing off every step, it is truly a thing of macabre beauty. In only three movies, Catriona cemented her place as one of the queens of Italian horror. As an added bonus, here’s an interview where she talks about working with Fulci. You’re welcome.

Daniela Doria

Two things come to mind when I think of Daniela Doria, great death scenes and her bravery as a performer. Allow me to explain. Daniela was another of Fulci’s girls. In an interview with Deep Red magazine, Fulci stated "Ah Doria, she was one of my favorite actresses. I killed her so many times." Her first film with Lucio was The Black Cat. The image of her suffocating, topless, gasping for breath and foaming at the mouth must have led Fulci to believe that she could be trusted with more extreme material because in The Gates Of Hell, they went for broke! Daniela’s character, bleeding from the eyes, proceeds to vomit her entire intestinal tract. According to Fulci, Doria, and various crew members, she actually swallowed and vomited sheep entrails to make this shot as convincing as possible. Not only did she have to know that this would firmly typecast her as a horror actress and possibly hurt her career, but I doubt many other actresses would have physically put themselves through that for the sake of the film. That kind of dedication to the art is amazing and highly commendable. It worked too, as this scene is one of the most iconic in Italian horror film history. After being stabbed through the back of the head (with the blade sticking out of her mouth) in a great scene one year later in House By The Cemetery, she appeared in Fulci’s most infamous film, New York Ripper. In it she played Kitty, a prostitute who is tied to a bed and sliced across the torso, breasts, and eyeball with a razor blade in a scene so graphic that when it was first distributed, over 2/3 of the scene had to be removed before the film could be distributed in America, England, and almost everywhere else besides Italy. The mixing of the violent and the erotic has always been highly controversial. New York Ripper is even decried by some horror fans as indefensibly misogynistic. Nevertheless, she accepted the risks this could pose to her career and delivered a powerful performance. The scene’s disturbing strength owes as much to her eyes and muffled screams as it does to the effective gore effects. This time her bravery was not rewarded. She never worked in film again. This is unfortunate because, in only 4 films, she cemented a cult following and kudos from this particular horror geek.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Review: The Rite

All exorcism movies made in the last 35 years have had one major thing working against them, a little flick called The Exorcist. One can’t help comparing any new exorcism movie to it, but this isn’t really a fair comparison. The first major possession/exorcism movie is as close to being a perfect horror movie as you can get. Since 1973 there have been scores of imitators, but those films that stand out from the pack have been those who offered a twist on the formula and didn’t try to directly copy Friedken’s masterpiece. The Rite started doing just that, giving us more of a character study/examination of exorcism through skeptical eyes, but in the end devolved into clichés and the kind of quick pretty ending that a movie like this deserves better than.

The Rite is very good for its first two thirds. Director Mikael Hafstrom takes full advantage of shooting in Rome, as the scenery and sets are beautiful and add an exotic and creepy atmosphere to the proceedings. The gist of the story is that Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue) is a young priest in training who has doubts about his faith in general and possession in particular. He is sent to the Vatican to study to be an exorcist, expresses his doubts, and is sent to train with Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins). For the first hour of the film, the pace is slow and methodical, unfolding more in “psychological thriller” fashion than straight horror. Some very interesting issues of possession versus mental illness are raised. While the whole “priest with a crisis of faith” thing has been done many times before, most recently in The Last Exorcism, The Rite uses that trope as the jumping off point for an intriguing exploration of the validity of possession in light of modern science. It is a slow burn that builds towards…well, I’ll get into that in a minute.

With the notable exception of O’Donoghue, who is apparently another graduate of the Twilight school of non-acting, the performances are top notch. The supporting cast all play their roles effectively. Anthony Hopkins is, as always, brilliant. Until the climax, he plays the role of the grizzled exorcism veteran with surprising subtlety, given his propensity for scenery chewing. Father Trevant has a great understated wit and, unsurprisingly, owns most of the film’s best moments. Hopkins answering his cell phone mid-exorcism really cracked me up. Also a standout is Marta Gastini, who plays Rosaria, the pregnant teenage girl Father Trevant is in the process of exorcising when Kovak enters the picture. About an hour in, one of the main characters dies, leaving us wondering where the story will go from there. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go anywhere good.

I’m not giving spoilers here, because it’s in the trailer, but Hopkins ends up possessed. No other priests can be reached, so Kovak and his reporter friend have to perform the exorcism. Why haven’t I mentioned the reporter, a main character, yet? It’s because her character is completely unnecessary aside from one short, lame speech to Kovak at the end. At least they avoided one cliché and didn’t get those two romantically involved. Hopkins kicks it up into hammy, over the top brilliance for the exorcism scene. The good Father appears to have been possessed by a demonic Hannibal Lecter, displaying the same quiet, snarling menace for a while before going full blown screaming demon. I couldn’t tell if “Where will it tickle you senator” or “Your mother sucks cocks in hell” was coming out of his mouth next. This great performance is marred, however, by completely unnecessary bad CGI on Hopkins face and utterly amateurish “demonic voice” sound design. Hopkins has enough presence, good enough facial expressions, and sufficient enough vocal chops that it’s completely unnecessary to make him look and sound like a monster! The Exorcist’s sound design won an Oscar. This echo chamber mediocrity probably wouldn’t get a passing grade in a high school AV course. At least they didn’t have him Linda Blair style masturbating with a crucifix. I love me some Anthony Hopkins but, um, no thanks.

While I’m all for an old school head spinning exorcism, this out of nowhere foray into pea soup territory just doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the movie. What was an intriguing, subtle thriller gives way to a climax that culminates in a “you can do it” pep talk and a moment that is so mind numbingly dumb and cliché it almost seems lifted out of a sports movie, with the devil playing the role of the opposing team. It’s a quick “happily ever after” solution that undoes everything they spent the first hour building. It is also ridiculously rushed. Father Trevant tells Kovak multiple times that an exorcism can take weeks, months, even years. The demon they chose is Ba’al who, according to demonology, is pretty high in hell's hierarchy. Yet this infernal heavy hitter is dispatched by our rookie priest in 15 minutes. The actual exorcism is so rushed that it feels tacked on at the last minute.

Oh yeah, one last thing. The demon the writers chose to go with is Ba’al, pronounced in this film as “ball.” They made a PG-13 movie, so obviously they are going after the teenage audience. We get a moment at the end with Hopkins throwing his head back and screaming “Ba’al” in the same way William Shatner screamed “Kahn!” I saw this with fellow thirty somethings, and we couldn’t resist making “possessed by ball” jokes all the way home. Do they really think teens are going to take that seriously? The filmmakers obviously didn’t think that one through.

Basically, The Rite is two thirds good. The ending isn’t so much bad, per se (aside from the lame CGI and sound), it just takes the movie in a complete u-turn from doing something a little different into complete horror movie cliché, and a not very well done one at that. The Rite is the first major horror release of 2011. We can only pray that it gets better from here. It’s not awful, but it’s not that good either. It’s worth seeing for Hopkins though. I’m gonna say this one gets one severed thumb up. Nathan says definitely check it out at the 1.99 theater, or Redbox in a couple of months, but for Christ’s sake don’t pay full price for it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Happy 300th Issue Fangoria!

I have a confession to make. I’m old. How old you ask? Well, when I was getting into horror movies in the early 90’s (ancient history, I know) and trying to absorb as much info as I could about the vast landscape of terror that was out there, I didn’t have the luxury of the internet. There was no google, no youtube, no bloodydisgusting, dreadcentral, fearnet, or a horror blogosphere. To find out about what was coming out and what was on the horizon, there were very few resources available to my gore starved young mind. There was one tried and true name though. An iconic name. A name any horror fan worth their salt knows. A name that served the generation of horror freaks before me. A name I’ve had an on again off again relationship with for over 15 years now. A name that just turned 300 (and I thought I was old). That name is Fangoria.

I grew up in a strict Southern Baptist household, so horror movies were forbidden. Whenever my mom would go grocery shopping, or to a convenience store, hell, anywhere that sold magazines, I would stare at one in particular, Fangoria. If she was distracted, I’d flip through the pages. Aside from Jason and Freddy, who everyone growing up in the 80’s recognized, I had no idea who these monsters were, but their images alone carved themselves on my young mind. Fangoria was forbidden fruit, offering tantalizing knowledge I wasn’t supposed to have. When I began to find these movies on cable, I was hooked on horror. I wanted to know more about what was out there. There was only one place I knew of I could find out. You guessed it, Fangoria.

Beginning in March 1995, I never missed an issue. I would find my way to the newsstand to shopli…I mean buy every new issue. I would hungrily devour every morsel of knowledge and hide my growing collection under the bed like porn. From the letters page, through Dr. Cyclops’s reviews, The Terror Teletype, the features, all the way back to the ads for the bootleggers, I took it all in with wide eyed wonder. Through Fangoria I learned that there was a vast back catalog I needed to seek out, learned the names of the icons and at the time current masters, and realized that there must be plenty of horror freaks like me out there. Fangoria and I spent a lot of quality time together in those formative years, good times. Fangoria was my horror genre life line.

March 1995: The first issue I owned.

Then the late 90’s hit. Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, and their ilk took over the horror scene. I was not a fan of these films, yet they were all the rage, even in the pages of my beloved Fangoria. I saw the magazine begin to change. The pieces began to be more fluff pieces aimed at the audience for these fluff movies. It almost became Teen Beat for the horror crowd. I also started to notice a lot of non-horror like Jurassic Park, The X-Files, and even Batman being spotlighted, even featured on the cover. By 2000 this was not the magazine I knew any more. This, coupled with the fact that I had discovered the internet by this time, caused Fangoria and I to drift apart. I still cherished all those back issues, but they ended up on ebay during a particularly broke time in college. I sincerely wish I still had those, but then again, as far as “I was young, in college, and needed the money” regret stories, I guess it could be worse.

For the next few years I would pick up an issue now and then, if the cover interested me. Fangoria, in my mind, was too mainstream, and the mainstream horror coming out at that time sucked. I discovered Rue Morgue, and it quickly took over as my favorite horror mag. Fangoria was writing shining semi-propaganda for the anemic big budget studio output. But while they were verbally fellating the stars and director of whatever PG-13 teenybopper slasher or CGI crap-fest Hollywood had to offer that month, Rue Morgue was highlighting the classics and independents. Fangoria had Lord of the Rings on the cover. Rue Morgue had Pumpkinhead. It hurt me to say this, but my beloved Fango was passé. It was the mag I flipped through when I went to buy Horrorhound and Rue Morgue.

A few months ago, I heard that Fangoria had a new editor. It was none other than Chris Alexander, former editor of the mighty Rue Morgue. Should I give Fangoria another chance? After all, hadn’t they just had Twilight on the cover last month? That would have been the nail in any other coffin, but this wasn’t just any magazine, this was my old companion, and I wasn’t ready to give up on it quite yet. Sure enough, in the last few months, Fangoria has impressed me once again. The pieces are starting to have more substance, there are more and more retrospectives, less reliance on the Hollywood studio fare, the independent and foreign films are getting more coverage, and the magazine as a whole seems to have a new sense of vitality. Sure, there are still some problems (Gene Simmons on the cover? REALLY?), but this is much more like the Fangoria I remember from the good ol’ days. I, for one, am glad to see it. It’s like seeing your best friend from when you were a kid screw his life up royally, and then seeing that friend get it together.

I constantly hear people forecasting the death of print media. They say the internet has made magazines obsolete. While these days I do, in fact, get most of my horror news online, there’s still something special about turning those glossy pages. The screen will never take the place of the charm and viability of the printed word. I love my horror magazines. They say you always remember your first fondly, and Fangoria, in this case, was my first. The name itself conjures images of my youth, and as a long time reader every time I see or hear it referenced in a movie (Friday the 13th 3, Brainscan, Army of Darkness, The Simpsons, Seed of Chucky, etc) I feel like I’m part of a big horror genre inside joke. I’m sure there are many of you out there that feel the same way. So, as you reach the milestone of your 300th issue, I salute you Fangoria. Here’s to your rebirth, your withstanding the test of time, and your future looking brighter than ever. Your new issue once again occupies the highest place of honor in my house that a magazine can, the bathroom.

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