Lady Lazarus’s Halloween Party Movie Night, 2013 Edition.

It’s a cold, misty, grey and rainy Saturday afternoon — the perfect climate in which to begin compiling my annual Halloween horror-movie list to whet your ghoulish, pre-Halloween appetites. Last year, when it came time to write my list, I shared with you the outstanding horror films I’d seen in 2012. I decided to continue with that tradition this year, with a list of horror films that you might want to keep an eye out for — read on to get the bad Lucio Fulci-themed joke, and apologies in advance — and track down online or on DVD. As with last year’s list, some of these films are new, and some were just new to me in 2013.

Lucio Fulci's "The Beyond" (1981).

The blind girl and her canine companion from Lucio Fulci’s “The Beyond” (1981).

1. This past year I caught up with two classics from Italian horror maestro, Lucio Fulci. The sheer audacity of his signature goopy, oozing, swarming-with-maggots gore and trademark eye-gougings rightfully earned him the title of ‘Godfather of Gore’ in late 70’s – 80’s horror cinema. While I can’t recommend any of his films on the basis of story or dialogue, what they do offer are arresting visuals, an undeniably effective atmosphere of dread, and a try-anything attitude towards experimentation in B-movie filmmaking. How else can you explain the batshit-crazy scene that occurs in Zombi 2 where an underwater zombie battles a shark? Although that zombie vs. shark scene is truly heaps of campy-horror fun, the film that I’d most enthusiastically recommend by Fulci is his nightmarish masterpiece The Beyond (1981). For this film, Fulci pulls out all the stops and gives us a crumbling Southern-Gothic hotel, black magic, zombies, a portal to Hell, face-eating tarantulas and not one but three graphic scenes of eyeballs being pulled, poked and eaten out of their sockets. The story meanders passed the brink of comprehension, but the images are worth seeing it through to the end. And speaking of the end, The Beyond boasts one of the most bleak and truly haunting finales to a horror film that I’ve seen in quite a while.

Elijah Wood plays a surprisingly sympathetic serial killer in "Maniac" (2012).

Elijah Wood plays a surprisingly sympathetic serial killer in “Maniac” (2012).

2. The recent remake of the 1980’s slasher-horror Maniac by French director Franck Khalfoun was a superlative rethink of the serial killer cult classic. Then again, with Alexandre Aja heading up the screenwriting team, one should hardly be surprised at this clever re-contextualization of the tired old slasher genre. It was Aja, after all, who gave us the gender-bending slasher-thriller Haute Tension back in 2003. When the remake of Maniac was announced, many wondered (as I did) how the relatively diminutive Elijah Wood could step into the role of serial killer Frank Zito that had been originally portrayed by the large, hulking Joe Spinell. Admittedly, he was convincingly creepy as the cannibalistic Kevin in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, but then all Wood needed to do for that role was stare vacantly behind eyeglasses and grin. The character of Frank needs to be equal parts nerdy, pathetic and truly terrifying. Wood pulls this off, in part due to the POV-style of the film. The audience experiences the film through Frank’s eyes, and Wood is only occasionally glimpsed in mirrors and other reflective surfaces. As the grimy, crime-infested New York City of the original film no longer exists, Khalfoun shot in the sleazier neighbourhoods still existent in Los Angeles to recreate an environment that threatens violence. The kills are bloody enough to satisfy most gorehounds, though the CGI does lack the visceral quality of Tom Savini’s famed physical SFX — such as the infamous scene in the 1980 original where Savini himself has his head blown off by a close range shotgun. That said, this remake is definitely worth a look.

Jorge Michel Grau's cannibal film "We Are What We Are." (2010).

Jorge Michel Grau’s cannibal film “We Are What We Are.” (2010).

3. Recently on Hulu, I noticed there’d been an English-language remake of the Mexican cannibal film We Are What We Are (Original Spanish title Somos lo que hay, 2010. Directed by Jorge Michel Grau). While I’ve not seen this remake, the original Mexican film was a surprise discovery for me this past year (the film was only released in North America on VOD). It tells the curious story of a family of cannibals who are compelled — for reasons that are left to one’s own imagination — to ritualistically murder and devour victims kidnapped off the streets of Mexico City. For a cannibal film, We Are What We Are is profoundly understated in it’s gore…at least, until the latter half of the film. For the most part, it’s a tense family drama, and relies much more on character development and atmosphere than one would expect from a film in this genre. Recommended for the horror fan who likes a dash of the unexpected.

"X is for XXL" from the horror anthology "The ABC's of Death." (2012)

“X is for XXL” from the horror anthology “The ABC’s of Death.” (2012)

4. Five minutes, five thousand dollars, and one randomly-selected letter of the alphabet. That was the premise behind the massive horror anthology The ABC’s of Death (2012).  It contains 26 different shorts, each by different directors spanning fifteen countries. Like most anthologies, it’s a real mixed bag of offerings. Even though watching all 26 shorts felt like a bit of a slog, at least one could have fun trying to guess what each letter represented, as this information is never revealed until the end of each segment. Stand-outs for me include “D is for Dogfight”, the darkly funny claymation “T is for Toilets”, and the very meta “Q is for Quack.” “L is for Libido” by Indonesian director Timo Tjahjanto is sick and twisted, and Noboru Iguchi’s “F is for Fart” is just plain loopy. The best of the bunch, by a wide margin, is Xavier Gens “X is for XXL”.

Katharine Isabelle stars as the titular "American Mary", though it's never revealed as to why she's identified as "American."

Katharine Isabelle stars as “American Mary”, though it’s never revealed as to why she’s identified as American.

5. The Canadian directorial-duo of Jen and Sylvia Soska, a.k.a. the “Twisted Twins”, have been steadily gaining notoriety in the genre film world these past few years.  They first gained attention with the low-budget exploitation film Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009), and returned in 2013 with the gloss and production values of a bigger budget with American Mary (2013). Starring Katharine Isabelle — best known to horror fans as Ginger from the Ginger Snaps franchise — this film is essentially a rape-revenge mashed up with medical-horror. The titular Mary is a medical school drop-out who finds herself working as an underground surgeon in the world of (very extreme) body modification. The visual style of American Mary is very much fetish intermingled with body horror, though the body modification community is not exploited nor treated unkindly.

REPOST. Karen Black like me: When dolls attack.

It’s summer, and I’m currently busy working away on my animation project. I decided to share one of my earlier posts from 2010. Enjoy!

Let’s face it, dolls are creepy. Horror fiction has always acknowledged this fact, and some of the earliest films in this genre have prominently featured the doll as an object of terror. One can relate this genre’s fascination with dolls to the psychological theory of the Uncanny as expressed by Ernst Jentsch in his 1906 essay, On the Psychology of the Uncanny:

Jentsch defines the Uncanny as: “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate”[1]

Sigmund Freud later expanded on Jentsch’s concept in his 1919 essay “The Uncanny”, but this posting isn’t about psychoanalytic theory. It’s about some of my favourite horror films that feature dolls.

Of course, the Child’s Play series of films from the 1980’s immediately spring to mind, with their signature black humour, bad puns and sadistic doll-villain Chucky. To be honest, I’ve never been a big fan of that particular horror franchise.

I do, however, fondly recall a 1975 made-for-TV horror anthology Trilogy of Terror. The third story of this anthology, entitled “Amelia,” stars Karen Black — that darling of 1970s horror flicks — and involves a demonic Zuni fetish doll. And it’s one seriously pissed-off doll, too. Watch the clip below, because it’s likely to be the funniest thing you’ll see all year.

The next clip I want to include is a bit of a cheat. I’ve never actually seen this film, though I’ve viewed this trailer a number of times — and the trailer majorly creeps me out. Will definitely have the track down 1978’s Magic, a “terrifying love story” that starred Anthony Hopkins and Ann Margaret. Hopkins really must’ve been hitting the bottle hard when he took this role.

And lastly, an obscure little gem from Mexico called The Curse of the Doll People (1960). Midgets can be scary, too.

Horror Films 101: Favourite Ghost Stories.

Can I let you in on a secret? This hardcore horror fan is scared of ghosts — OK, more specifically, films that feature ghosts. I’ve watched zombie hordes feast on flesh, and vampires drink human blood. I’ve seen the minions of Satan perform gory midnight rituals, and serial killers dispatch their victims in creatively sadistic ways. None of these have frightened or unnerved me to the degree that a good, old-fashioned ghost story can. If anything can cause me to cower beneath the bed covers at night, it’s the suggestive power of a ghost story that relies on psychology rather than gore or cheap scare tactics to frighten the bejeezus outta you. Therein lies its true potency.

Film still from "Ugetsu Monogatari" (1958).

The Lady Wakasa from “Ugetsu Monogatari” (1953).

1. The Japanese have always had a knack for constructing effective tales of the supernatural. Ugetsu monogatari (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) is a beautifully-shot, black-and-white masterwork from Japan’s “Golden Age” of cinema. This film is a  jidaigeki (period drama) set during the Edo period, and is ostensibly a morality play on the theme of personal responsibility. As is customary in many Asian ghost stories, the supernatural co-exists with the world of the living in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way. Ghosts can be the benevolent souls of the dearly departed who dwell on the earth to protect family members, or they are malevolent spirits bent on revenge. The ghosts in Ugetsu are more the former than the latter, although the Lady Wakasa has a definite sinister side to her. I would characterize this film as a tale of misfortune and poor-choices-with-tragic-consequences than as a ghost story whose raison d’être is to merely frighten.

The malevolent ghost-child Samara climbs out of the TV in the now-iconic conclusion to "The Ring" (2002).

The malevolent ghost-child Samara climbs out of the TV in the now-iconic conclusion to “The Ring” (2002).

2. While we’re on the topic of Japanese ghost stories, my next pick The Ring (2002) is the English-language remake of the Japanese film Ringu (1998). When a foreign-language film is remade into an English version, I almost invariably prefer the original film — in fact, I very seldom watch remakes of foreign-language films as I feel that much of the original context is lost in translation (ie. the [REC] films are enriched by their location in Spain, with everyone speaking Spanish, etc). Gore Verbinski’s The Ring is that rare exception where the remake is an improvement over the original. Verbinski maintains the visual aesthetics of the original, but torques up the fright factor. The remake also removes some of the problematic (for a Western audience) gender issues that are present in the original film.

3. Ti West is one of my favourite new directors working in the horror genre. He is the master of the slow-boil, and while the snail’s pace of his 2011 film The Innkeepers is definitely not for the thrill-a-minute horror fan, I truly believe that the slow pace works to amplify the creepy-as-hell finale. West gives us ample time to get to know his two main characters Claire and Luke, two employees — and amateur paranormal investigators — who work at a supposedly haunted New England hotel. I actually switched this movie off twice whilst viewing it. The first time, it was out of sheer boredom. It was 45-minutes into the film, and virtually nothing had happened other than some banal, somewhat-flirty banter between our two protagonists, and the occasional hotel guest complaining that they had no towels in their rooms. I decided to try again. The second time I switched it off, it was because things were finally happening, and the suspense had me too much on edge.  My advice: stick with it, because the ending is worth it.

"I know, Luke. We should totally hang out in the dark, creepy basement of this haunted hotel."

“I know, Luke. We should totally hang out in the dark, creepy basement of this haunted hotel.” Claire and Luke try to record the ghost of Madeline O’Malley in “The Innkeepers”.

Majorly creepy dead guy from "Carnival of Souls" (1962).

Majorly creepy dead guy from “Carnival of Souls” (1962).

4. An overlooked gem from the early 1960’s, Carnival of Souls (1962) has received some well-deserved recognition from genre fans these past few years. An impressionistic, almost surreal black-and-white film that follows the lone survivor of a car accident who’s haunted by visions of a ghoulish man who stares silently at her, grinning. Did she survive the car accident, or is she truly dead and a ghost? That’s the question that torments poor Mary throughout Carnival of Souls, and while the story is somewhat threadbare, the visuals and atmosphere are superb.

5. I’ve already written about Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) in a previous post, but I felt it definitely needed to be on this list. Let’s all pretend that the abominable 1999 remake didn’t happen, shall we? This is such a beloved Gothic ghost story. Watch the clip below to see why:

Horror Films 101: The Demon Child.

Mia Farrow in a publicity shot for Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" (1968).

Mia Farrow in a publicity shot for Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968).

In anticipation of Mother’s Day, I’ve decided to write about a trope in horror fiction that is a dark meditation on maternity: the Demon Child. This trope tends to divide itself into two separate categories: firstly, the demonic unborn child or baby; and second, the older but equally demonic child. While these two subcategories are closely related, there are subtle but critical differences between them that influence our reading of these character types and the meaning behind them. This post shall focus on the unborn Demon Child, a character type that TVTropes — in their usual tongue-in-cheek manner — dub the Fetus Terrible:

…The Fetus Terrible hasn’t even been born yet, but will become The Antichrist or a demon prophesied to bring about The End of the World as We Know It once it escapes from its womb. The woman carrying this (often literally) hellborn spawn is usually an innocent, unwittingly impregnated by the Devil himself, and the other characters have to race to prevent the birth or stop the child from becoming the ultimate Enfant Terrible. Occasionally this can result of a perfectly normal pregnancy Gone Horribly Wrong pre or post conception, where the issue can be a mutantHybrid MonsterUndead Child or some other abomination. This trope can also overlap with Body Horror, especially if the mother knows what’s growing inside her — TVTropes.org

In its fetal state, the Demon Baby represents maternal anxiety over the physicality of pregnancy and childbirth. Pregnancy itself is an invasive process not unlike parasitism, whereby a separate and distinct life form develops and thrives within a host’s body. As suggested in the above quote from TVTropes, the Demon Baby possesses aspects of body horror — a branch of the horror universe that explores fear relating to a loss-of-control over one’s own body. Not only does the mother-to-be fear the creature that grows inside her, there is often the threat of a grisly, and deadly, childbirth that capitalizes on every woman’s fear of painful labour and maternal mortality. While Roman Polanski’s 1968 film  Rosemary’s Baby practically invented this horror trope, the scene I feel best encapsulates this element of demon baby/body horror is the birthing scene from a much lesser film, the Hammer production To the Devil a Daughter (1976) with Christopher Lee and Nastassja Kinski. When the child of Satan is ready to be born, it demands the ultimate maternal sacrifice as it literally bursts forth from the womb, tearing the hapless woman apart. Although the actual birth happens off-camera, the mere suggestion of this gruesome event was enough to make me shudder.

The unfortunate Margaret is ripped apart birthing the demon child within her in "To the Devil A Daughter" (1976).

The unfortunate Margaret is ripped apart birthing the demon child in “To the Devil A Daughter” (1976). Ew.

Creepy mutant Demon Baby-Puppet from "To the Devil a Daughter" (1976).

Creepy mutant Demon Baby-Puppet from “To the Devil a Daughter” (1976).

And then, there’s the Demon Baby — or should I say, Demon Puppet? In this late-70’s, low-budget film, the devil-spawn is a slimy, malformed little puppet that — in one nightmarish dream sequence — flops across the splayed legs of the adolescent Kinski and crawls back inside. Yeah, back up there. I know, right?

Oh, and Happy Mother’s Day.

Horror Films 101: “When love goes terribly wrong” moments in horror cinema.

Scene from the Thai film "Shutter" (2004).

Scene from the Thai film “Shutter” (2004).

1. Asian ghosts always have an agenda. Typically, it’s one motivated by a desire for revenge, or a need for justice. In the Thai supernatural-thriller Shutter (2004, directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom), the heroine Jane mistakenly believes that the female ghost who torments both she and her boyfriend Tun is seeking revenge for the hit-and-run accident in which the mysterious woman was killed. There’s much more to the story, however, as a dark secret connecting Tun to the dead woman is ultimately revealed. The true horror of this film may be the fact that, even though Tun’s deeply troubling past has been shown, Jane seems to be supportive of him at the finale — so much for justice and gender equality in Thailand. I thoroughly enjoyed this Thai ghost story and, even though an English-language remake was released in 2008, I feel no need to watch it. I can read subtitles just fine, thanks.

Unrequited love gone wrong in "Haute Tension" (2003).

Unrequited love gone wrong in “Haute Tension” (2003).

2. Haute Tension (2003). If a woman wielding a bloody chainsaw towers above you, shouting “Do you love me?!” over the ear-splitting whirl of the blade, I would just quickly say “YES!”. If you don’t happen to share her amorous feelings, you can explain so later at a safe distance. Preferably over the phone, from another continent.

May admires her Frankenstein-like creation.

May admires her Frankenstein-like creation.

3. The desperate ache of loneliness never seemed so palpable as it does in Lucky McKee’s May (2002). When our titular heroine, a socially-awkward misfit whose best friend is a (very creepy) doll, fails to find her true love, she takes matters into her own hands and fashions herself one. Angela Bettis, a long-time acting staple in McKee’s films, turns in a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a character who’s essentially a psychotic serial killer. A criminally neglected film.

Keir Dullea, all turtlenecks and shaggy 1970's hair, as Peter in "Black Christmas" (1974).

Keir Dullea, all turtlenecks and shaggy 1970’s hair, as Peter in “Black Christmas” (1974).

4. You know a relationship’s going south when you begin to suspect your lover of being a serial killer. Such was the case between Jess and her turtleneck-wearing boyfriend Peter in Black Christmas (1974). When Jess reveals to Peter her unwanted pregnancy and plans to have an abortion, his reaction is not only negative, but downright crazy in its intensity. But did this news, plus his failed piano recital — artists, they’re so sensitive —  push Peter to the brink of insanity?

Lady Lazarus: 2012 in review.

Wow! This blog Lady Lazarus: dying is an art received exactly 47,512 visits in 2012. That’s pretty impressive for a personal blog fuelled by the writing powers of just one individual. Many thanks to those amongst you who “follow” me and add your comments to my posts. It takes at least two to make a conversation, so keep those comments coming in 2013. This blog is a pure labour of love, and I plan to keep it that way. The drive that keeps me researching and writing about all things dark and macabre is a genuine, unslakable curiosity. I’m just a big nerd that way.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 47,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 11 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

Happy Hallowe’en from Lady Lazarus!

Myself, possessed by the ghoulish spirit of Halloween. Boo!

Halloween is one of the oldest holidays still celebrated in modern times, and can be traced back to the Druids, a Celtic culture in Ireland, Britain and Northern Europe. Its roots lay in the feast of Samhain (pronounced SA-WIN), which was annually held on October 31st to honor the dead. Much like Christmas, the pagan traditions of Samhain were later co-opted by the Christian church and replaced by All Saints Day (Nov. 1) as a means to align the Christian feast with the already well-established pagan festival. According to Wikipedia, “The word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Even (“evening”), that is, the night before All Hallows Day.” Hence, we have the modern day Hallowe’en.

Lady Lazarus’s Halloween Party Movie Night, 2012 Edition.

Hello, my darklings! The leaves are down, the sweaters are on, and it’s that time of the year that Lady Lazarus carefully crafts a list of horror films to whet your pre-Halloween appetites. Traditionally, I’ve had a theme for each Halloween list, such as “Best Horror Films of the 2000s” or “Favourite Horror-Comedies“, but this year I thought I’d open up and share with you, plain and simple, the horror films I’ve been watching of late. Some are new, and some are just new to me. Perhaps there’ll be a discovery or two for your own ghoulish viewing pleasure.

Isabelle Adjani proclaims “[He] is very tired. He made love to me all night” in Andrzej Zulawski’s challenging film  Possession (1981)

1. I first learned of Andrzej Zulawski’s cult classic Possession (1981) through the writings of Canada’s First Lady of Horror Kier-La Janisse, who’s an enthusiastic champion of this film. Equal parts arthouse, domestic drama, and gory supernatural-horror, this film defies any attempt at easy categorization. Ostensibly an unflinching gaze at a marriage in turmoil, the film ultimately — and quite surprisingly — veers into the realm of abjection, absurdity and visceral horror. Isabelle Adjani plays her character’s descent into madness to the hilt, earning her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Festival for Possession in 1981. Sam Neill turns in a strong — if affected and somewhat stylized — performance as her estranged husband. I don’t want to give away any of the plot points, as the film works best the less you know about it. If you like your horror with a big dash of the unexpected, then you’ll probably enjoy this one. If you just want to see some naked coeds get sliced, steer clear.

Investigating a strange noise, Samantha ventures upstairs with a kitchen knife in Ti West’s “The House of the Devil” (2009).

2. I had heard many good things about Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009) and, fortunately, those things turned out to be true. This is an accomplished psychological-horror in the vein of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, where the terror builds on a slow-boil. What’s that, you say? You’ve been invited to babysit for creepy strangers in an isolated, in-the-middle-of-nowhere house? Why, sure. You need the money, and what could possibly go wrong? Let’s suspend that disbelief and just roll with it, ’cause it’s a fun, suspenseful ride. Kudos go to the art direction and costume design, as The House of the Devil boasts the most authentic recreation of that 1980s-look that I’ve personally viewed on film. Nice little cameo by that darling of ’80s horror, Dee Wallace (The Hills Have Eyes and The Howling).

3. Oh, Joss Whedon. You don’t always hit it out of the park, but when you do…wow! Admittedly, taking the piss out of the slasher-horror is a little like shooting fish in a barrel and, yes, this is well-trodden ground that the Scream franchise visited sixteen years ago. All the same, Cabin in the Woods (2012) seems fresh and original, and is heaps of fun with a clever twist or two. Again, I don’t want to spoil the surprise, so I’ll simply end with —  zombie redneck torture family.*

Placing the bets in “Cabin in the Woods” (2012).

*SPOILER ALERT. Wanna know what all the various beasties and baddies were in Cabin in the Woods? Click here.

4. The horror genre has traditionally loved the anthology format. This love affair possesses a kind of logic. If one particular scenario doesn’t frighten you, then perhaps the next one will do the trick — after all, fear can be very subjective. One of the major pitfalls of anthologies is that they’re often hit-or-miss in terms of ratio of success. Such is the case with the 2012 ‘found-footage’ anthology V/H/S which, although it’s initial premise seemed promising, suffered from it’s weaker components. The first 35-minutes of hand-held shaky-cam is nauseating to the point of being almost unwatchable, though this does improve with the subsequent stories. The best offerings in this anthology were the fourth story of a couple communicating via FaceTime, and the final segment — created by a team of directors out of L.A. who call themselves Radio Silence — which follows a group of guys trying to find a Halloween party.

The rationale for the found-footage actually makes sense in one of the stronger offerings in V/H/S (2012).

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Animaldiçoados/Animacursed 2012

Film still from “Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery”, 2012, stop-motion animation done with paper cutouts and puppets.

It’s official. My animated short film Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery has been selected under the International category for Animaldiçoados/Animacursed 2012, a film festival in Rio de Janeiro that features horror, suspense, and “other cursed” genres of animation. Mine is probably under the “other cursed” or possibly the “WTF” category, should they have one of those.

Visit the festival web site (in Portuguese, of course) and check out the selected films. Pretty solid programming! Amazingly enough, I’m sharing screen time with Julia Pott (see my last blog entry When I grow up, I want to make films like Julia). Not sure how that happened.