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.

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’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!

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.

Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part II.

The Final Girl and The Slut.

Cécile De France as the chainsaw-wielding Marie in “Haute Tension” (2003).

SPOILER ALERT: Major plot points of Aja’s Haute Tension are discussed, so if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it first.

In my previous post on Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’, part I, I identified two of the most common female tropes in horror cinema: the Final Girl and her counterpoint, the Slut. These two form a polarity necessary to the moral undertone of the ‘slasher’ horror film: the virtuous Final Girl survives to confront and (usually) destroy her tormentor, while the Slut provides titillation by disrobing and being sexual, offering up a canvas of eroticized female flesh that the (invariably) male serial killer can cut, slash, mutilate and otherwise penetrate. American film theorist Carol Clover, who coined the term ‘Final Girl’ in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, writes on the integral role the Final Girl plays in the slasher genre:

The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friend knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with this knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face, but she alone must also find the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B). — Carol Clover, from Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, 1992.

The psychopathic urge that drives the serial killer to commit his atrocities is often imbued with a sexual energy. The killer is simultaneously attracted to, and repulsed by, the sexual desirability of his young female victims. As Clover points out, he is often depicted as “…a male whose masculinity, and sexuality more generally, are in crisis…”, with prime examples being the cross-dressing of Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), or Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). The serial killer’s fluid gender identity marks him as a sexual deviant — and deviance in horror fiction is indicative of that which causes fear and anxiety.

Marie hides from her Serial Killer Cliché in “Haute Tension” (2003).

This point brings us back to Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension, in which one of the main female characters, Marie, is identified as lesbian. Her sexual orientation is relevant to the plot, as it supplies the motivation behind her actions. She harbours a secret passion for her friend Alexa who, evidently, is completely oblivious to Marie’s romantic feelings. When her friend’s family is brutally murdered and Alexa kidnapped by a male psychopathic killer, Marie quickly adopts the Final Girl role and leaps to her friend’s rescue. From the outset, Marie’s short, boyish hair, androgynous clothing and slim, tautly muscled body appears to conform to the masculinized tradition of the Final Girl. As the plot progresses, Marie is poised for her final confrontation with the killer: a large, stout middle-aged man dressed in grimy overalls, his physical appearance every bit a slasher film cliché as hers.

And then comes the Big Reveal. The clichéd male serial killer is exactly that. He is a creation of Marie’s imbalanced mind, as the surveillance camera at the gas station films Marie — and not the stout, grimy man — as she sinks an axe into the back of the unsuspecting male attendant. The Final Girl and the Serial Killer conflate into one: the homicidal, mentally-unstable lesbian. Is this depiction of a queer woman homophobic? There is, arguably, a trace of homophobia in Haute Tension, as Marie’s sexual orientation serves not only as a plot device, but clearly distinguishes her as ‘the Other’, the deviant that is to be feared. Of course, there is a well-established tradition of LGBT themes in horror fiction and the use of ‘queerness’ as a demarcation of Otherness, and this will be the topic of my next post…

Next post –>

Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part I.

The Final Girl and The Slut.

Unrequited lesbian love gone terribly, terribly wrong in Alexandre Aja’s “Haute Tension” (2003).

Recently, I settled down to watch Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (2003), a masterpiece of ‘New French Extremity‘ which had eluded me until now. Like many films of its pedigree, Haute Tension features sadistic sexuality, extreme violence, and generous amounts of gore. Without spoiling the end — as the real strength of this film lies near the end — there was also a clever plot twist that plays with gender and the roles typically associated with female characters in the genre. Women are still traditionally cast as victims in horror, and most particularly in the ‘slasher’ or serial-killer subgenre, so it is considered subversive when they are portrayed as the perpetrators of violence. In fact, it is so outside of the ‘norm’ that an additional reason is frequently given for the violent woman’s aberrant behaviour. In the 1978 ‘exploitation’ film I Spit On Your Grave, the motivation behind the female lead’s murderous rampage is revenge for her brutal gang rape. The homicidal intruder in À l’intérieur (2007) has been driven insane by her obsessive desire for a child. In Haute Tension, unrequited lesbian love factors into the killer’s actions. These various reasons — trauma, mental instability, and homosexuality — firmly place the behaviour of these women outside of ‘normal’ and in the realm of the deviant.

The depiction of deviance, women & gender in horror cinema is a big, big topic indeed — one that warrants more than one blog post. Let’s start by looking at two of the most common tropes in the horror genre:

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in the Ridley Scott sci-fi/horror classic “Alien” (1979).

1. The ‘Final Girl’ or ‘The Virgin.’ She’s that pretty, but not too sexy, girl-next-door who just might have a boyfriend, but he’s never gotten passed First Base. In the formulaic ‘slasher’ film — a subgenre of horror that dominated the late 70’s and the decade of the 1980’s — she’s the only girl left standing at the finale. The slasher film is a modern-day cautionary tale, and the Final Girl is spared the violent deaths visited upon her sexier classmates by reason of her virtue. She is frequently characterized as tom-boyish, even androgynous. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from the Alien series is a prime example of the masculinized Final Girl. Recent horror cinema has reconfigured and, at times, even subverted the Final Girl: an argument can be made that Marie in Aja’s Haute Tension is a subversion of this trope (her very short boyish hair, her extreme athleticism, apparent heroism, and her sexual orientation).

Margot Kidder plays Barb, the drinking, smoking, sexually active Slut in Bob Clark’s “Black Christmas” (1974).

2. The Slut. She’s the counterpoint to the Final Girl, the girl in the film who engages in all sorts of nasty vice and most likely has a nasty attitude to match. According to the morality play/slasher film, she’s destined to meet a grisly end, probably twitching at the end of a pitchfork. A big, rigid pitchfork. The chain-smoking Barb (Margot Kidder) from Bob Clark’s genre-defining Black Christmas (1974) fits this role perfectly. While her lifestyle has her marked for an untimely death, she’s also the sororiety sister with the most moxy. (You can read more about Black Christmas in my earlier post on the film.)

Next post –>

Horror Films 101: Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a creepy Canadian slasher flick.

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 enviable list of talented Canadian actors: Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea (yes, that’s “Dave” from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), 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.

Lynne Griffin gets all wrapped up for the holidays in Bob Clark’s 1974 cult slasher film “Black Christmas.” Apologies in advance for the bad pun.

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). Although the latter are arguably better films, they owe a great debt to Clark’s film. The quote below from Wikipedia concisely captures this film’s current 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.

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.

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