Horror Films 101: 5 vampire films you may not have seen.

The beautiful Delphine Seyrig stars as the bloodthirsty Countess Báthory in Harry Kümel's "Daughters of Darkness" (1971).

1. The stylish Daughters of Darkness (1971) from Belgian director Harry Kümel continues to be one of my favourite indulgences when it comes to eurotrash vampire films. I’ve already dedicated an entire blog post on Kümel’s film, but a recently discovered quote from “dissident feminist” Camille Paglia has reminded me of my great admiration for this lesbian-vampire classic:

“A classy genre of vampire film follows a style I call psychological high Gothic. […] A good example is Daughters of Darkness, starring Delphine Seyrig as an elegant lesbian vampire. High gothic is abstract and ceremonious. Evil has become world-weary, hierarchical glamour. There is no bestiality. The theme is eroticized western power, the burden of history.”

— Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Yale University Press, 1990, p. 268.

Vincent Lannoo's mockumentary "Vampires" (2011).

2. Yet another Belgian vampire film, although the ‘found-footage’ hand-held camera-style of Vincent Lannoo’s Vampires (2011) could scarcely be more of a departure from Kümel’s meticulously crafted film. Touted in the media as “Spinal Tap meets the Munsters”, Lannoo’s mockumentary delves into the culture of contemporary Belgian vampires, all with a wonderfully deadpan, blacker-than-night sense of humour. After several unsuccessful attempts to document the vampire community — as the film crews kept, um, getting eaten — the crew that purportedly filmed Vampires manage to locate an amenable vampire family that allow them to document their daily routines. Even though the found-footage schtick has grown very, very tired in the horror genre, I found myself enjoying the detailed accounts of vampire customs and culture.

Director Larry Fessenden plays Sam, a world-weary bartender in "Habit" (1999).

3. The low-budget indie film Habit (1999) was written, produced, directed, and edited by genre fave Larry Fessenden. This is a grungy and unglamorous revisionist-vampire film that uses vampirism as a metaphor for addiction. Fessenden plays Sam, a world-weary bartender who struggles with alcoholism and the recent death of his estranged father. When Sam meets the mysterious Anna at a friend’s party, things eventually go from bad to worse. While this film offers little in terms of fanged neck-biting, it has an effectively moody atmosphere and some fairly erotic sex scenes.

4. Cronos (1993), written & directed by Guillermo del Toro, was the cinematic debut of the Mexican filmmaker better known for his later film Pan’s Labyrinth. A fairly unique treatment of the vampire mythology in which an ancient and mysterious mechanical device is used to transmit the virus of vampirism. An old antique dealer unwittingly discovers the scarab-shaped device in his shop and becomes infected. Fans of del Toro’s work will recognize his characteristic black humour and fondness for grotesquery.

The priest Sang-hyun saves his dying love interest Tae-ju by rendering her a vampire in "Thirst" (2009).

5. Another clever twist on the vampire legend is Chan-wook Park’s Thirst (2009). Sang-hyun is a devout Catholic priest who, for all intents and purposes, opts to martyr himself by subjecting his body to some radical medical experiments. When these medical experiments result in vampirism, the priest wrestles not only with a heightened desire for carnality, but also a thirst for human blood.

Nostalgic for sleaze, part III: more grisly than ever in Blood Color!

Print advertisement for Herschell Gordon Lewis’s splatter-gore classic, “Blood Feast.” (1963).

Sex sells. So, evidently, does violence. When the two are paired together and offered up as a form of “extreme” entertainment, the results can be problematic. Throughout the horror genre, as well as within exploitation cinema, the naked bodies of young women are displayed, initially to arouse, and then to be victimized by violence. But why? Granted, there is a small segment of any population that are sexual sadists, and by which I mean truly pathological individuals and not your garden-variety, suburban married couple who dabble in spanking and other types of weekend sadomasochism. But this type of individual is not the norm, and is certainly not indicative of the fan base for horror & exploitation cinema. Most horror geeks — and I include myself in this grouping — are people who have a taste for that which is not typically found in mainstream, non-genre entertainment: the shocking, the trashy, the absurd and the downright nasty. These are also the mainstays of that close relative to horror, the exploitation film. Exploitation films of the 1970’s competed with each other over an ever-shrinking audience at drive-ins and grindhouse theatres, and this competition resulted in a kind of oneupmanship in terms of sex, violence and gore. Advertisements tantalized by promising the most shocking, the most sickening, and the most racy content available at a cinema.

The average consumer of horror and exploitation films in the 1970’s was young and male. The majority of men like to view attractive women in states of undress, and if they are horror/exploitation fans, they also have a taste for gore and violence. Hence, sexualized violence towards women — like the naked torture victims in nunsploitation, naziploitation, and WIP (Women in Prison) films —  became an accepted, and even expected, feature in these films. I rather suspect, though, that the male audience that flocked to see Pam Grier play a sadistic lesbian prison warden in Women in Cages were more interested in the physical attributes of Grier and her onscreen cohorts than the plights of the prison inmates.

However, this “boys will be boys” explanation doesn’t let either the filmmakers, the producers, nor it’s audience off the hook that easily. One can’t help but draw a parallel between the social changes propelled forward by Second Wave Feminism of the late-1960’s and 1970’s and the corresponding cinematic “backlash” against women in exploitation films. The same could be argued for the equally controversial blaxploitation film for its reinforcing of negative racial stereotypes at a time in history when the civil rights movement had advanced equality for African-Americans. Do I think there was some organized conspiracy against gender equality amongst B-movie filmmakers? No, of course not. The Roger Cormans of the world cared about bums-in-seats in movie theatres, not sociopolitical agendas. One thing that exploitation cinema has certainly never promised to be is politically-correct or enlightened — in fact, the inverse is often true. However, there is an undeniably strong anti-feminist ethic to many of the aforementioned films, best characterized as a “who the hell does she think she is? Let’s teach her a lesson” response to the burgeoning political power of women in the 1970’s.

“Tokyo Gore Police” stars Eihi Shiina as a member of Tokyo Police who exterminates creepy mutants, ninja-style.

You might now be asking yourself the question: why does Lady Lazarus, a woman and professed feminist, enjoy watching exploitation films? Well, apart from enjoying the trashy, campy fun of it all, it is only in the speculative fiction of horror, science fiction & fantasy that women can truly stand in equal footing with men — and by “equal footing”, I mean in terms of physical strength and prowess. Female characters can be imbued with superhuman strength, have magical powers, be kick-ass ninjas or fight off the zombie hordes. For every repellently misogynistic film like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974), you have the blood-drenched, splatter-gore lunacy of Tokyo Gore Police (2008), a contemporary Japanese horror-exploitation film with a sword-wielding female protagonist. While this film is replete with very disturbing and sexually-charged body horror imagery — most notable being a headless ‘human chair‘ — I did not sense the same level of sadism targeted specifically at women as I did in the Ilsa film. Everyone in Tokyo Gore Police — men, women, chairs — gets the slice ‘n’ dice treatment.

Take that, Herschell Gordon Lewis.

Nostalgic for sleaze, part II: Nazis, nuns, and wicked prison wardens.

In my previous blog post, I waxed nostalgic over the print advertisements for grindhouse theatres that appeared in the newspapers back in the 1970’s, the heyday of exploitation cinema. I felt the need to establish my long-term relationship with these films, in order to provide context for the discussion that follows. As you’ll soon read, the relationship I have with exploitation cinema is a conflicted one. It’s highly reminiscent of those teenage Bad Boys I yearned for in high school: appealing in their dangerous good-looks and rule-breaking nonconformity, but essentially all abusive jerks. Simply put, exploitation cinema isn’t always kind in its treatment of women.

But before we delve too much further, let’s trot out the standard definition of ‘exploitation film‘ as offered up by Wikipedia:

Exploitation film is a type of film that is promoted by “exploiting” often lurid subject matter. The term exploitation is common in film marketing, used for all types of films to mean promotion or advertising. These films then need something to exploit, such as a big star, special effects, sex, violence, romance, etc. […] The audiences of art and exploitation film are both considered to have tastes that reject the mainstream Hollywood offerings. […] Exploitation films may adopt the subject matter and styling of regular film genres, particularly horror films and documentary films, and their themes are sometimes influenced by other so-called exploitative media, such as pulp magazines.

Typically, the exploitation film was a low-budget B-movie, created as cheap, double-feature fodder for drive-in theatres. In order to attract audiences, they promised risqué content not offered by mainstream Hollywood productions. Sex and violence frequently intermingled, and were served up as an intoxicating cocktail of naughtiness. Hence, many of the exploitation subgenres — including the three I’ll examine here — contain copious amounts of nudity and sexualized violence.

As mentioned in my previous post, I shall focus my discussion on three subgenres of exploitation cinema: nunsploitation, WIP (Women in Prison) films, and Naziploitation. Apart from the fact that I typically write about depictions of gender in film, I wanted to address these particular subgenres for the simple reason that they are variations on the exact same narrative. And this narrative runs as follows:

A sadistic lesbian [Mother Superior/prison warden/Nazi Stalag Commandant] oversees the naked torture and general abuse of her attractive female wards. A young ingénue enters the [convent/prison/concentration camp] and must overcome great obstacles. She ultimately escapes, and her tormentor/s receive their final comeuppance.

Now, let’s parse this narrative. The variable same-sex settings — convent, prison or concentration camp (essentially another form of prison) — provide the excuse and opportunity for lesbian sex. This is the same sort of lipstick-lesbian fantasy that frequents pornography produced for heterosexual men. Presumably, the buxom women that populate these films are (mostly) lesbian by circumstance, rather than true sexual preference. This detail maintains the fantasy element for its predominantly male audience, who can enjoy the lesbian spectacle onscreen, while their belief in the inherent heterosexuality of these female characters remains intact.

The same-sex settings also provide opportunity for a second, considerably more sinister element: violence perpetrated on women by other women. Given the context of the various scenarios, this violence takes the form of ritualized or systematic abuse and torture. The cruel prison warden portrayed by Pam Grier in Women in Cages (1971) derives sadistic pleasure from the physical punishment of her female wards. Similarly, the Mother Superior from Joe D’Amato’s Images in a Convent (1979) vents her sexual frustration on one of her nuns through ritualistic flogging. The Nazi Stalag Commandant from Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974) tortures her female prisoners with the curiously-misguided goal of proving female superiority over men. Is all this girl-on-girl violence merely the cinematic equivalent of a catfight, or is there something more menacing at play here?

Flogging constitutes a form of foreplay in Joe D’Amato’s raunchy “Images in a Convent” (1979).

One possible theory I have is that girl-on-girl violence seems less sinister and realistic than violence perpetrated on women by men, and thus more palatable to an audience in the context of an exploitation film. It can argued that the poorly-written scripts, implausible scenarios and less-than-stellar acting commonly found in these films tends to undercut any convincing menace in a torture scene. When you also factor in the high camp of a Nazi Commandant whose ample bosom threatens to burst out from her fetishistic SS uniform — well, it all seems more absurd than truly sinister.

But none of this answers the question “why is sex and violence so often paired together in these films?” I’ll attempt to tackle this big question in my next blog post.

Nostalgic for sleaze, part I: sex, violence and newspaper movie listings.

“Who has not a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?”
– Edgar Allan Poe.

The impossibly busty Chesty Morgan was a grindhouse fixture in the 1970s.

I may be dating myself here, but I am a child of the 1970’s. One of my favourite childhood activities involved sprawling across the living room floor with the newspaper, closely studying the movie listings in the Entertainment section. Why, do you ask, was a young child so thoroughly fascinated by the listings in the movie section? Simple. The latter two pages of the movie section were customarily reserved for advertisements for the drive-in theatres and the smaller, single-screen (and second-tier) movie houses, typically referred to as the grindhouse theatres. And these theatres promised that which you could not readily access anywhere else: the sleazy, the pornographic, the violent, the gory, and the shocking. In short, the lurid subject matter of the exploitation film. The hardworking Ontario Censor Board had effectively shielded my innocent eyes from viewing such troubling content on TV and in the movie theatres, but their efforts did not prevent me from finding it elsewhere. In fact, as the above quote from Edgar Allan Poe suggests, it was precisely due to the forbidden nature of this content that I felt compelled to seek it out. And so, my preadolescent self scrutinized those back pages of the movie section, trying to imagine — unsuccessfully, no doubt — just how “the vampires do it”, or marveling at the intimidating assets of Chesty Morgan. After all, it was the latter part of the 1970’s and the heyday of schlock and exploitation cinema.

A movie print advertisement for “4 orgies of evil”, as it would’ve appeared in the newspaper.

Now, for the benefit of my younger readers, allow me to place these grindhouse movie listings in the proper context. These listings served as my only window onto a dark, seedy and alternate world, one that ran parallel to the family-friendly bright lights of the local cineplex. While I was far too young to view these films, simply the knowledge of their existence thrilled me. This was the era that predated the proliferation of videotape, and was several years before the DVD or, yes kids, even the Internet. If, for instance, you wanted to view what a human being might look like after being turned inside out, you’d have to trek from the cozy comfort of your suburban home into the inner city and plunk your money down at the kiosk of a grimy grindhouse theatre. In stark contrast, in this digital age of the 21st-century, you would simply Google “horror movie in which people are turned inside out,” and discover that Roger Corman’s Screamers is the cinematic gem you seek, then set about finding a copy online*.

This preamble about nostalgia and 1970’s movie listings is my long-winded way of introducing a new series of blog posts on the exploitation film. As the topics I tend to fixate on typically involve gender, sex and violence, I plan to focus my discussion on exploitation films that most clearly address these subjects: nunsploitation, WIP (Women in Prison) films, and naziploitation.

Next up, flogging as a form of foreplay in the nunsploitation film.

*Here’s some fun facts about Corman’s Screamers, a re-released US version of Sergio Martino’s The Island of the Fishmen (1979)

REPOST: Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a creepy Canadian slasher flick.

A repost of last year’s blog entry on Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, with an added paragraph and one or two spoilers.

An often overlooked classic, the 1974 Canadian film Black Christmas now enjoys a cult status amongst horror fans and critical acknowledgment as being the progenitor of  the “slasher” genre that dominated horror cinema in the late ’70s and throughout the 1980s. Directed by Bob Clark — best known for his raunchy teen sex comedy Porky’s (1982) — the film boasts an enviably list of talented Canadian actors: Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, John Saxon and comedienne Andrea Martin. The film stars Olivia Hussey, a British actress who’s most frequently recognized for her role as “Juliet” in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. In Black Christmas, Hussey leaves the Elizabethan poetry behind and gets her “scream queen” on.

Getting all wrapped up for the holidays in Bob Clark's 1974 cult slasher film "Black Christmas." Apologies in advance for the bad pun.

Getting all wrapped up for the holidays in Bob Clark's 1974 cult slasher film "Black Christmas."

It’s important to note that Black Christmas predates the better known slasher films like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), and they owe a great debt to Clark’s film. The quote below from Wikipedia concisely captures this film’s cult status:

The film gained a fairly decent cult following over the years of its release, and has been praised by fans of the slasher film genre internationally. The Black Christmas fan site has considerably increased the film’s popularity over the years. The film ranked #87 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments for Lynne Griffin’s infamous plastic sheeting scene. During an interview regarding the film, Olivia Hussey met Steve Martin at an industry event and he brought up the fact that she starred in one of his favorite movies of all time. Hussey thought he might have referred to her work in Romeo & Juliet, but was surprised to hear from Martin that it was Black Christmas, which he claimed to have seen 25 times.

What Black Christmas possessed — and what later films in the slasher genre often lacked — was the element of suspense. Rather than rely on the crude shock tactics of gore, Clark torques up the tension by placing the insane homicidal intruder inside the sorority house right at the opening of the film — and then keeps him there, undiscovered by the house’s other occupants. Only the audience is aware that the killer, and a couple of his victims, are stowed away in the attic. The fact that the events in the film happen over Christmas provides the killer (and Clark) the opportunity to surreptitiously dispatch a number of sorority sisters on an ordinarily bustling — but now slowly emptying — college campus as it shuts down over the holidays.

Below is a wonderfully creepy clip, featuring an uncomfortably prolonged obscene phone call from the psycho-killer. There is a prodigious use of the word “c*nt” in the following sequence, so consider yourself warned. Oh, and Merry Christmas.

Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he,
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door–
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door–
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then the ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore–
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
— an excerpt from the narrative poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. First published in 1845.

In North America and most of Europe, the raven is a bird that symbolizes ill-omen and doom. Due to its jet-black plumage, eerie call and carrion-eating tendencies, the raven and its smaller cousin, the crow*, have haunted the imaginations of mankind from time immemorial. American Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe famously employed the bird as a harbinger of doom in his poem “The Raven,” an excerpt of which is offered above. The poem tells of a talking raven’s mysterious visit to a distraught lover, tracing the man’s slow descent into madness. The narrator — whom, it’s been suggested, represents Poe himself — mourns the loss of his dead love Lenore. The raven flies into the room through an open window and perches itself (permanently, as it turns out) upon a sculptural bust of Athena that rests above the door. It then proceeds to torment the narrator to the brink of madness simply by repeating the poetic refrain “nevermore” at the end of each stanza. For his part, the narrator engages in a curiously self-defeating game of “20 questions” with the raven, peppering the bird with questions to which — he’s fully aware — it can only answer “nevermore.” In true Gothic tradition, Poe’s “The Raven” is epic, highly theatrical, and steeped in a melancholia characteristic of that literary genre.

The crows begin to assemble on the play equipment behind the local school in Hitchcock's "The Birds" (1963).

The crow, the raven’s smaller yet equally foreboding cousin, gets its moment in the spotlight in British film director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film “The Birds”. A profoundly intelligent and resourceful bird, a flock of crows is called a murder because “…the group will sometimes kill a dying cow.” Hitchcock capitalized on the silhouette of the menacing crows — not to mention their violent reputation — in his classic horror film in which birds inexplicably attack humans. Oh sure, the idea of violent attack from a single budgerigar seems ludicrous. However, as one character in the film points out, birds significantly outnumber humans on this planet, and if they did group together to get rid of us…

Mrs. Bundy: Birds have been on this planet, Miss Daniels, since Archaeopteryx, a hundred and forty million years ago. Doesn’t it seem odd that they’d wait all that time to start a…a war against humanity.

Salesman: Your captain should have shot at them… Gulls are scavengers anyway. Most birds are. Get yourselves guns and wipe them off the face of the earth.

Mrs. Bundy: That would hardly be possible… Because there are eight thousand, six hundred and fifty species of birds in the world today, Mr. Carter. It is estimated that five billion, seven hundred and fifty million birds live in the United States alone. The five continents of the world…

Salesman: Kill ’em all. Get rid of them. Messy animals.

Mrs. Bundy: …probably contain more than a hundred billion birds.

Drunk: It’s the end of the world.

Sebastian Sholes: Those gulls must have been after the fish.

Mrs. Bundy: Of course.

Boy: Are the birds gonna eat us, Mommy?

Mrs. Bundy[explaining that birds of different species never flock together] The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn’t have a chance! How could we possibly hope to fight them?

Like the drunk guy said, “It’s the end of the world.”

*What’s the difference between a raven and a crow? Read more here to find out.

Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Pushing Boundaries.’

This is the follow-up post to Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Ghoulish Delights.’

Pushing Boundaries.

Something you don’t want coming at you in the dark (and with that hammer) in REC and REC2.

1. The Spanish horror films [REC] (2007) and [REC]2 (2009) have proven to be a potent one-two punch in recent horror cinema. The second film is less of a sequel as a continuation of the first, with the action literally picking up where the first film ended. This is a very good thing, indeed, as the final third of [REC] set-up an unanticipated and fairly novel plot twist involving the Vatican, some dubious medical experiments, and a solitary priest living in the penthouse of the sealed-off, ‘zombie’-infested Madrid apartment building. It is this unique mashup of zombie-meets-supernatural thriller that makes the [REC] films standout from the recent overabundance of shaky-camera, faux found-footage style horror films. From what I’ve read, the shot-for-shot English language remake Quarantine (which I have not seen) altered the heavy Catholicism of the original Spanish film, replacing all those Virgin Marys with more generic, non-denominational Christian iconography. While the Catholicism would not have the same resonance for the multicultural, multi-faith English-speaking world as it would for the Latin, an easier and more obvious correlation exists between the flesh-eating ‘zombies’ and the characteristically morbid, blood-drenched imagery of Spanish Catholicism than it does for the more ‘sanitized’ versions of Christianity. The only disappointment I had with these films was the ending of [REC]2 which, as soon as a certain character reappears on the scene, is pretty much spelled out.

Catherine Begin as the diabolical Mademoiselle in “Martyrs” (2008).

2. I had purposely avoided Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) after reading the synopsis and questioning whether a plot that hinged upon the brutal and systematic abuse, torture and murder of young women was something I wanted to witness. After relenting and watching the film, I must admit that it pleasantly surprised me. Now, make no mistake — this is a troubling, violent, and gory film that boldly underscores the word extreme in the phrase ‘New French Extremity’, a category of recent French films in which Martyrs is often included. Much like the [REC] films above, Laugier’s Martyrs veers off in an unexpected and fascinating direction towards the end of the film, revealing a secret society of privileged individuals determined to discover — at any cost — the existence of an afterlife. The enigmatic ending will have you scratching your head for years to come.

3. Any film that re-imagines and updates the ‘slasher’ genre immediately gets my attention, as did Alexandre Aja’s superlative Haute Tension (2003). While some horror fans argue that the ‘big reveal’ in the film didn’t work, I give Aja credit for playing with the conventions of gender in the rigidly formulaic slasher genre. In one of my earlier posts, entitled Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, I wrote extensively on this film.

Nothing quite says “revenge” like a fish hook in the eyelid. Jennifer Hills is more of a badass in the 2010 remake of “I Spit On Your Grave.”

4. Like the dated sexual politics of the slasher film, the rape-revenge film is an exploitation subgenre also in need of an update. Much has changed in gender roles and equality since Meir Zarchi made his controversial 1978 cult film I Spit On Your Grave. The 2010 remake, which credits Zarchi as one of its producers, attempts to address some of the shortfalls of the original — at least, shortfalls in the eyes of this contemporary horror fan. In my earlier post Rape-Revenge Girl, I criticized Zarchi’s film for the rather unsatisfying revenge sequences. “The quotient of rape-to-revenge in Zarchi’s film is too much rape, not enough revenge,” I wrote, and “…the deaths of Jennifer’s rapists were not violent and/or gory enough for my — admittedly, gruesome — taste.” As if in direct response to my criticism, the 2010 remake offers up grisly and sickly-twisted revenge killings reminiscent of the stuff you’d find in “torture porn” films like Saw and Hostel. Admittedly, the whole transformation of Jennifer Hills from cheerful girl-next-door, to rape victim, to psychopathic and sadistic killer doesn’t work in any realm other than extreme, cathartic fantasy. Then again, if you’re opting to watch a film entitled I Spit On Your Grave, then you probably know what you’re in store for and will suspend your disbelief long enough to see the blood spill.

Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Ghoulish Delights.’

Feel that crisp October chill in the air? That chill ushers in my favourite of the festive occasions: you guessed it, Halloween. If the spooky spirit of the season inspires you to celebrate all things horrific — or, like me, you celebrate such things on a regular basis — then below are some suggestions for Halloween-themed film viewing. I’ve grouped my suggestions into two distinct categories, and these I will separate across two blog posts. This first post offers up a small group of films I’ve labeled Ghoulish Delights. These are mainly campy, horror-comedy films best suited for Halloween party gatherings. Oh sure, there’s buckets of blood and disturbing scenes, but they’re all served-up with a big, mischievous wink. A follow-up post will address the second group, Pushing Boundaries, that will focus on horror films with considerable bite. These are films that either challenge or re-imagine standard narratives within the genre, or films that simply push the boundaries of taste and acceptability in contemporary horror.

Ghoulish Delights

Michael Dougherty's sack cloth-headed horror mascot Sam (after 'Samhain', of course) from his little-known horror anthology "Trick r Treat" (2007).

1. A public release date fiasco on the part of Warner Bros. — that unfortunately resolved itself in Trick ‘r Treat (2007) being released direct-to-DVD two years after it initially screened at film festivals — essentially buried Michael Dougherty’s Halloween-themed horror anthology from the general public. However, thanks the internet and a dedicated horror-film blogger community, Trick ‘r Treat has gotten the love it so rightly deserves:

Despite only a handful of public screenings, the film has been reviewed extensively by online journalists and bloggers, especially in the genre/horror communities, and reviews are nearly unanimously positive. Dread Central gave it 5 out of 5 stars and stated “Trick ‘r Treat ranks alongside John Carpenter’s Halloween as traditional October viewing and I can’t imagine a single horror fan that won’t fall head over heels in love with it.”[3] The film earned 10 out of 10 from Ryan Rotten of ShockTilYouDrop.com.[4] It also earned an 8 out of 10 from Bloody Disgusting,[5] who later ranked the film ninth in their list of the ‘Top 20 Horror Films of the Decade’, with the article saying, “[It’s] so good that its lack of a theatrical release borders on the criminal.”[6] IGN attended a screening of the film and concluded, “This well-crafted Halloween horror tribute is a scary blast.”, rating it 8 out of 10 overall.[7] Based on 17 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an overall “Fresh” approval rating from critics of 85%, with an average score of 7.7/10; the site’s critical consensus states “An deftly crafted tribute to Halloween legends, Trick ‘r’ Treat hits all the genre marks with gusto and old fashioned suspense.” — from Wikipedia.

Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat possesses the same irreverent black humour of horror-anthology franchises such as Creepshow and Tales From The Crypt, which gives the film a quality of both nostalgia and homage. Five interwoven tales of the macabre introduce us to the creepy Principal (played to the hilt by the gloriously creepy Dylan Baker), a self-conscious 22-year-old virgin portrayed by a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin, and a school bus packed with the vengeful ghosts of children in Halloween costumes. The one common element throughout all five stories is the presence of Sam, the mysterious and silent trick-or-treater who seems to embody the very spirit of Halloween.

2. I do love me some Bruce Campbell. This veteran actor of the B-horror genre — best known as Ash from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films — was perfectly cast as an old Elvis Presley in Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-tep (2002). When a re-animated ancient Egyptian mummy suddenly appears in the nursing home in which Elvis lives, drastic action must be taken to destroy the creature and free the consumed souls of the nursing home’s elderly occupants. Serious fun.

He's back from the grave and ready to party in "Return of the Living Dead" (1985).

3. Have you ever wondered where that whole “zombies eating human brains” thing comes from? Nope, not from George A. Romero. The brain-eating zombie originated entirely from Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead (1985).* In the words of one of the film’s reanimated dead, zombies seek out and devour human brains because “…it hurts to be dead…I can feel myself rotting” and “brains kill the pain”, however temporarily. So, there you have it. O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead is both a playful satire of, and a respectful homage to, earlier zombie films like those of Romero. Cheesy ’80s vintage camp in all the right places, this film boasts reasonably convincing zombies and the ‘scream queen’ actress Linnea Quigley, who spends almost her entire screen time completely naked save for a pair of blue stockings. Must’ve been a cold shoot for Ms. Quigley.

…and a couple of the usual suspects

4. Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) is another — much, much better — satire/homage to the zombie horror genre. It’s such an exemplary horror-comedy that it’s pretty much a given, and I need not discuss it further here.

5. I mentioned Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell (2009) in last year’s Halloween list, but the strength of this film cannot be overstated. A hilarious horror-comedy with some legitimate scares thrown in — an extraordinarily difficult balance to achieve and quite the accomplishment for Raimi, who adeptly showed us that he still knows how to do it.

*There was a single, zombie-eating-brains scene in Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980) but, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first film that truly places brain on the menu for the undead.

Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: Scary Films for Kids.

OK, I admit it. It’s not even October, and I’m already planning out Halloween costumes for myself and my kids in eager anticipation of our favourite festive occasion. For the little ones, it’s all about spooky ‘make-believe’ and a prolonged sugar buzz. For the adults — those with and without children — it’s a culturally-acceptable opportunity to play masquerade and temporarily assume a different persona. And for those of us who revel in the macabre on a regular, year-round basis, it’s a chance to geek-out and make our ‘expert’ horror film recommendations for Halloween-themed movie nights.

Much like adults, children can vary widely in their tastes for, and tolerance of, scariness in films. Their reaction to such material can sometimes be unpredictable, but below I’ve listed a few spooky classics that should be age-appropriate for most children.

Scary films for kids:

1. Scooby-Doo And The… (series of DVDs, dating from the 2000’s-present). There are a number of direct-to-DVD, 90-minute movies featuring that super-sleuth canine Scooby-Doo and the Mystery Gang that even the youngest child in your family will enjoy. Some of the better spooky capers include Scooby-Doo And The Samurai Sword, Scooby-Doo and the Cyberchase, Scooby-Doo Camp Scare and Aloha Scooby-Doo! You can find most of these at your local DVD rental store or for purchase on Amazon. Recommended for age 4+

2. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. A Halloween classic that’s appropriate for small kids. Recommended for age 3+

The Library Ghost (aka The Grey Lady) from "Ghostbusters" (1984). Could freak out very small kids, but a not-so-scary film for most.

3. Ghostbusters (1984). A couple of scenes might prove too frightening for very little ones, but on the whole a spooky-fun family film. Recommended for age 6+

4. Not too surprisingly, the gorgeously gothic creative efforts of Tim Burton features large on this list. Family-friendly Burton films include Beetlejuice (1988), and the animated feature-length films The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and The Corpse Bride (2005). I’ve shown the latter two films to my 4 and 6-year-old kids, and they reported that these were “a little too creepy” in parts. Use your own parental discretion, but I’d recommend these films for age 8+

The alternate-reality "spider Mom" from Coraline (2009).

5. Coraline (2009) has a very similar look-and-feel to the aforementioned Tim Burton animated films, and shares with these a creepiness that’s probably more appropriate for the 8+ crowd. All the same, a visually-stunning masterpiece of stop-motion animation that’s worthwhile for adults as well as children.

Quite frankly, I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to accompany their mother through a viewing of The Exorcist or a George A. Romero zombie gore-feast. Perhaps when they are around the age of 10…?

My next post will offer up suggestions for some adult-sized scares.

Horror Films 101: Summer viewing suggestions from Lady Lazarus.

The dog days of Summer are now upon us, but don’t let those increased hours of daylight discourage our mutual reveling in the dark & macabre.  Summer is the perfect time of the year to relax, disengage your critical thought and wallow in the raunchy, gory, completely tasteless absurdity of horror & exploitation films. For the bookish crowd, there are “Summer Reading” lists offered annually by media sources such as Toronto Life and CBC Radio. Now, don’t get me wrong —  I do love to curl up with a good book whenever the opportunity presents itself. Film geek that I am, however, I derive greater enjoyment from seeking out and viewing obscure, bizarre and, um, not-exactly-high-brow films — such as the films I list below. If your taste in film is rather like mine, then track these films down as a “Summer Viewing” project. You probably won’t find these titles in your local Blockbuster video store, though. If you’re successful in locating any of these, then cue the DVD, pull the curtains, and embrace their insanity. Then tell me what you thought in the Comments section at the end of this post.

Valerie embraced by the 'Polecat' vampire-like creature, who's also the town's high priest and possibly her father (??!!) in "Valerie and her Week of Wonders" (1970).

1. Valerie and her Week of Wonders (Czech: Valerie a týden divů) is a 1970 film from the former Czechoslovakia, directed by Jaromil Jireš. This is the most “artful” of the films that appear on this list and, even though the print I viewed was of very poor quality, the stellar cinematography clearly stood out. The film is a dark, coming-of-age fairytale as only the Czechs could envision. The titular heroine, 13-year-old Valerie, grapples with her burgeoning sexuality, as well as the many priests, vampires, men and women who attempt to seduce and/or kill her. Fortunately for young Valerie, she possesses magical earrings which, when placed in her mouth, rescue her from impending death — which happens with great frequency throughout the film. Disjointed and surreal, you’ll hurt your brain if you try to make sense of the proceedings. Characters often change appearance and, as in the case of the ‘Polecat’, occupy shifting and ambiguous roles. Is he a priest? A vampire? Valerie’s father? A weasel? All of the above? Yes. Don’t worry about it, just enjoy the many beautiful images and the hazy, dreamlike pace of this film.

Christina Lindberg stars as Frigga, the vengeful one-eyed prostitute in "Thriller -- A Cruel Picture."

2. Thriller — A Cruel Picture (Swedish: Thriller – en grym film, also known as They Call Her One Eye, Hooker’s Revenge and simply Thriller) is a 1973 Swedish exploitation film. The film follows the typical Rape-Revenge formula: the heroine suffers tragedy and physical degradation until the latter half of the film, when she exacts bloody revenge on those who’ve abused her. (Read my earlier post on the Rape-Revenge film for my thoughts on this exploitation subgenre.) The teenage Frigga — who has been rendered mute by the childhood trauma of sexual abuse — is kidnapped by the local pimp and forced into both heroin addiction and prostitution. When she is initially non-compliant, Frigga has one of her eyes cut out with a scalpel in a brief but grisly scene that reputedly employed an actual cadaver as a body-double. From then on, she silently endures abuse from her clients while she saves up her portion of the financial transactions. She packs her Mondays (her one day-off work) with karate class, rifle-shooting and driving-really-super-fast class, as she secretly plots her revenge. Montage after long montage, she finally dons a black leather trenchcoat, matching eye-patch, and a sawed-off shotgun, and pays a slow-motion visit to each of her (soon to be former) clients.

The film was marketed as the first film ever to be completely banned in Sweden, although the one that actually was first was Victor Sjöström’s The Gardener from 1912. It has received a cult following and was one of the inspirations behind Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, specifically the character of Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah). In Daniel Ekeroth’s book on Swedish exploitation movies, Swedish Sensationsfilms: A Clandestine History of Sex, Thrillers, and Kicker Cinema, it is revealed that the producers took out a huge life insurance policy on star Christina Lindberg, as real ammunition was used in the action sequences, and that she was asked to inject saline solution during the drug scenes. — from Wikipedia.

There's no joy in being dead, not even 'living death', as evidenced by the melancholic Catherine in Jean Rollin's "The Living Dead Girl" (1982). Oh, the existential angst of it all.

3. The Living Dead Girl (French: La Morte Vivante) is a 1982 campy classic from French fantastique director Jean Rollin. Reanimated by the spillage of a toxic waste goop on her corpse, the aristocratic Catherine discovers she has a new-found taste for human flesh. Like all of Rollin’s films, the aesthetics play a much more crucial role than the story or, indeed, the acting. His films are as gorgeous as they are completely ridiculous. The absurd plot devices — toxic goop dumped on (surprisingly well-preserved, two-year-old) corpse interred in family crypt — exist only to furnish Rollin with an excuse to create his signature erotic-grotesque imagery. Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl is splatter gore-meets-arthouse, served up with a little Jean-Paul Sartre on the side. The existentialist exchange that occurs between Catherine and her childhood friend Hélène is thoroughly hilarious:

Hélène: You were never dead. The dead don’t come back to life. You were put to sleep, drugged, driven mad or I don’t know what. I don’t understand. I never saw you dead, Catherine. They put an empty coffin in this crypt.

Catherine: No. I’m dead, Hélène. I know I am. Don’t you understand? I know I am!

Catherine and Hélène discuss the finer points of existence in "The Living Dead Girl."

Heady stuff, people. Heady stuff.