Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Boogiepop Phantom (2000)


We are all afraid of something. Usually it connected to the unknown or death (the greatest unknown). But in high school you can end up with a whole host of additional fears. Will my peers turn against me? Are my grades ever going to be good enough? Will he ever notice me? Will she laugh in my face when I ask her out? Will the angel of death come for me in a dark, dank alleyway because I’ve been talking to something that may be a ghost but is more likely a creature spawned from hell? You know typical teenage stuff.

In an unnamed Japanese city (not Tokyo because it appears as a destination later in the show) the high school aged teens are becoming prey to something dark. Some of them disappear without a trace. Others are found dead, sometimes by their own hand or other times brutally ripped apart. Rumors start spreading about an angel of death named Boogiepop (Debora Rabbai) that will take you away from the horrors of this world. Others say that Boogiepop is the killer and an unstoppable creature to boot.

Nagi Kirima (Rachael Lillis) isn’t sure what to think but dammit, she’s going to find out. So attempts to track down Boogiepop, discovering that magnetic waves are distorted whenever the spirit appears. In addition plants seem to accelerate growth and metal rusts quickly whenever Boogiepop appears. Can these phenomena hint at the true nature of this beast? Meanwhile student’s lives intersect, collide and end one by one. Nagi learns that the past may have come back to haunt the city. On top of all that, Boogiepop isn’t the only supernatural presence roaming this metropolis. There are others out there, including a thing calling itself Boogiepop Phantom. On her own, does Nagi have any hope of solving this puzzle, retaining her sanity and surviving the next night?

Good Points:
  • An amazing exercise in fractured non-linear storytelling
  • Oozing with dark atmosphere and dread
  • Some very strong performances by the English voice cast

Bad Points:
  • There are no main characters or obvious story threads
  • Revolves around the lives of high school kids, adults are few and far between
  • Relentlessly bleak and dower at times

The non-linear storytelling will either be a puzzle you want to solve, or a headache you end up avoiding. Where the series really works is in creating it’s oppressive mood of dread. It’s style works wonderfully with its themes and the English voice cast does an excellent job with so many characters and scripts to work with. While I’m not fond of “teenagers only” it does end up working in the long run. I think this is one of those series that will just click perfectly for some viewers and leave others very cold. It is one of my favorites and highly recommended if you want a take a ride on a dark fractured rollercoaster.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 5
Total:  5

In Depth Review
Lost in a hall of mirrors, Nagi isn't sure if the reflection
is harmless, or a deadly phantom she is hunting.
The world of Boogiepop Phantom is a dark and dangerous place filled with mysteries that turn into nightmares. It takes the insecurities all teenagers have and twists them into horrors. It takes pure ideals and hopes and tears them into bloody shreds. Memories, even good ones, can poison. Characters who actively fight and try to find some good often appear to be running circles and heading toward something that can’t be stopped – the dark angel Boogiepop. It is a bleak world with darkness literally in every corner. The final episode does offer some light, but the whistle in the air hints that the haunted aren’t quite at rest yet.

And I love this show for all those reasons and more. It takes a bold step in not presenting us with your typical happy anime teens running around getting in and out of trouble. There’s no hyper color hair, spazzy best friends or even super cool heroes to shake things up (although Nagi is pretty cool looking in her motorcycle leathers). Instead all the character designs are realistic, with natural colors for hair and hairstyles that you’d see at a high school in the year 2000. While supernatural powers exist in this world, they are rarely helpful. Most of them do harm to those who use them. Even kids who try to help others with their powers end up hurting others and realizing how much pain they are causing. There is a natural order to this world. When the supernatural appears, it is usually a force of horrible change that destroys and cripples. The world is only righted when those supernatural forces are defeated.

The supernatural forces gave her a big old shove,
but at least she went with a smile on her face.
Even the natural world is dangerous. Several of the protagonists in the episodes have serious emotional or mental problems. We see several characters that become obsessed with something only to end up destroying themselves and others. Insecurities lead to drastic actions. Some of the characters just can’t process what is happening to them and break in front of you. You get the feeling that some of these kids just needed a little push to go over the edge, and usually the series gives them a big old shove instead.

So Boogiepop Phantom is all darkness and despair, so why the hell would you want to watch that.  Because it is also a mystery, and the mystery is, why is this happening? The very first episode hints at a reason, a brilliant beam of light that shoots into the air and causes a kind of shockwave over the city. All the power goes out and then is restored. From that moment on, supernatural things start happening, kids end up dead or vanish, and Nagi Kirima is hunting for phantoms. But the structure of the story is where the genius is. Each episode is its own story, with it’s own protagonist and it’s own beginning middle and end. For the most part the main character of the episode is never a main player in the big story. Instead you are viewing the story of a supporting cast member as the huge events go on around them. In a way this is a horror version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but with 12 episodes and nightmare creatures.
Little tip, you see this woman, you run and hope
she isn't floating behind you.
But each story ends up intersecting another. Sometimes it only does it in a brief moment. For example in episode four, two girls walk by a crazy man the police are trying to restrain. They pause in their conversation to watch for a moment, and then move on, to keep talking about the recent killings. In the next episode we follow the crazed young man, building his story until he is being hauled out of his home by police officers. And guess what, one of those police officers ends up appearing in several stories. He has a direct connection to the overall story of what happened the night the light shot into the sky. But you never follow him directly, only watch as he appears time and again giving you a new piece of information by his actions or inactions.

Nagi plays detective but finds only more questions.
Each episode gives you a mini-horror story, and then gives you something about the larger story at hand. You begin to see some characters over and over again. Sometimes you see the same scenes but from different points of view. One of the returning characters is Nagi Kirima. You hear kids talk about her for the first couple episodes. Then you see her hunting, but you don’t know that is her yet. Later on that same scene plays again from a different point of view and you realize – hey I saw that in episode two.

For me, this is the real draw of Boogiepop Phantom. I love how all the pieces fall into place. How there are hints of other stories going on, but we never know all the details. I love how some characters appear to be helpful and kind in one episode, but when we meet them later we see them as horrible fiends that are causing pain wherever they go. I’m sure a huge amount of planning and scripting and rewriting went into making this whole thing work so well. It isn’t perfect. There are a few questions that are never answered, but I actually think that works to the advantage. We never do know all the answers to anything, but we have enough to understand how all the darkness can finally be battled. I find it amazing every time I watch the series how so many puzzles can be developed over the entire series and even as the last moment of the last episode plays out we are still putting things into place. It really is an amazing work of non-linear storytelling.

The darkness literally engulfs one of the helpless
Key to all this is the atmosphere and mood of the series. Boogiepop Phantom is a visually dark series. It dwells in shadows and night. The primary colors are black, grey, dark brown and the deep crimson of blood. You rarely see any blue or green in the series, and when you do it is a visual shock. It is very much an autumn kind of feel visually. It is also a very soft looking show. The whole image seems lacks any sharp details. Things look foggy at times, or as if we are looking through some fog or mist. It is all by design of course. It fits the themes of perception that permeates the show. None of the characters ever see the whole picture. Many times what they believe is not even close to what the viewers know to be true. And even we are not seeing the actual image; everything is separated from us by that layer of softness. Finally there are the dark corners of the screen. Nearly every shot in the series literally has dark corners, shadows that seem to bleed into the visuals. It’s an oppressive look, as if the darkness is closing in on everyone on the screen.

Ok, which girl with glasses is this? Didn't she die? Is
this a flashback?
If there is a downside to the visuals it is the fact that this show didn’t have a large budget. So they had to work with some limited character designs. This is a huge cast of characters, and sometimes it can be very difficult to tell characters apart, especially since most of them go to the same school and therefore they are all wearing the same school uniforms. You have to rely on voice acting and small details. There are four different girls who wear glasses in the series. You can’t use that as an identifier, so you have to try to remember their names, or use their hair or personalities as your way to tell them apart. Even then it can be tough. One of them dies early on and in a later episode I thought we were seeing a flashback, until I realized it was a different girl. I figured out that one girl had her hair parted on one side and the other had hers parted in the middle. But both look nearly the same. It can be a bit of task; especially the first time you watch the show.

The sound design and music in Boogiepop Phantom are handled very well. For the most part the sound effects include atmospheric rumbles, winds blowing and of course the juicier sound effects when one of the characters meets a gruesome fate. The show also plays with volume levels, sometimes allowing a sound to blast unnaturally loud, or have conversations fluctuate in volume as a character shifts his or her attention to something else.

Boogiepop or Boogiepop Phantom? Either way,
someone is going to die.
The music is mostly a series of electronic and techno tracks. These are edited in ways that create propulsive rhythms during chase scenes, or add to the mood with minimalistic sound design. It all works fairly well, but not all of it is pleasant (it’s not supposed to be). There is use of white noise with electronic clicks that you might call music, but really it just creates an anxious feeling in the listener. And then there is the Overture by Wagner. It is taken from his work Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg. You hear it during the “teaser segments” at the end of the show. But then you hear Boogiepop whistling it. It becomes a theme for the entity, seeming to blow in on the wind. There is a hauntingly distorted and warped version of the tune used in the series, combining a full orchestra with some electronics and studio distortions. It’s amazingly creepy and used to great effect in the series. For opening and end credits you get a couple of songs that seem really odd choices. The first is a 70s styled jazz piece called Evening Showers. It’s a very groovy song, but seems a bit out of place with the show. The end theme is a rockin’ tune sung by a band called Kyoko. It’s called Mirai Seiki Maruhi Club and it ends the show with a nice punch.

Even characters that use their powers to help others
end up hurting people.
Last but not least is the acting. I’ve mentioned already that the English voice cast is really great. This must have been a real challenge to dub, but everyone is on his or her game here. Lots of familiar names from the old CPM dubs are present and some of these folks are given multiple roles to play. Some of these parts are very challenging; with conflicting emotions being played one minute followed by stark terror the next. The DVDs include some commentary tracks by the voice actors and director and nearly all of them talk about how the hardest part was finding the right tone of voice for key lines. The Japanese track is also very good, but the show is so complicated in story structure that reading subtitles becomes a bit of a chore on top of keeping up with the story. So for a first viewing I definitely recommend the English dub. Then try a revisit in Japanese.

I think this show flew under the radar for a lot of folks when it came out. I saw a few reviews, but some folks were frustrated by the style and storytelling. Others were writing off as just being weird to be weird. I can understand being frustrated by it, and if you want a simple scary story, then Boogiepop Phantom isn’t going to work for you. Some of the individual episodes are very creepy, but there is a lot more going on here. And that is why you can’t write it off as just being weird to be weird. It makes definite comments on how perceptions define reality. It dives into the power of urban legend and rumors. It shows how memories are both a blessing and horrible curse. It deals with obsession and how it corrupts even the most noble of endeavors. In its own twisted way it even shows that all of us need someone to understand us and accept us for who we are. In this case it may turn out to be a horrible monster, and angel of death or our own damaged psyche – but it is a need we all have. Those that find that acceptance and understanding achieve some measure of peace.

The beam of light that started it all, and yet it was the
end of another story...
When it comes to dark and twisted anime series I have a few on my list of favorites: Serial Experiments Lain and Paranoia Agent are certainly on there. But I have to say I find Boogiepop Phantom to be the most satisfying and exciting to revisit.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it is certainly the dark jewel of my anime collection.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Anime Juke Box - Evening Shower - Boogipop Phantom

When October rolls around I listen to a lot of horror movie and anime scores. Most of them have the same kind of tone, because I love huge gothic style scores with lots of evil chanting and bombastic power. But I throw a bunch of other stuff in the mix including music from Boogiepop Phantom, one of my favorite anime series. The music is mostly atmospheric electronica and techno, but there are some interesting deviations. One is the oh-so-groovy opening credits Evening Shower performed by Shikao Suga. While this may not say spooky Halloween fun to you, once you've seen the show, it certainly will.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A New Top Ten at John Kenneth Muir's Blog

Just wanted to give a shout out to John for providing another opportunity to for readers to provide their top ten lists. As usual he will compile the results and post them on this site.

In honor of Halloween, he asked for the Top Ten Greatest Horror Films from 1960 to 2000. You can check out my list hereYou may notice some cross over with my recent list of Alternative Horror Films I Watch Every October. Feel free to send John your favorites, and I'll post a link to the final results here as well.

Not a place you'd like to visit.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Score Sample - Bram Stoker's Dracula - Wojciech Kilar

Coppola's take on the classic horror story has its detractors. I always enjoy revisiting it, and I think he did a great job capturing the feel of the original novel. One of the elements of the film that most people do agree on is the amazing musical score by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar. He creates a wonderful mixture of romance and horror. Nearly every track on the score has a unique flavor and yet they work together to create a gothic musical journey. One of my favorite tracks is The Storm, used as Dracula journeys to England aboard a doomed ship and then dives into the first time he conquers Lucy's body and soul. Check it out.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Werewolf (1996) - MST3K Review

An archeological team lead by Noel (Richard Lynch) discovers the bones of a native American werewolf. After an sudden bout of fisticuffs, one of the diggers scratches himself on the bones and becomes a werewolf. Yuri (George Rivero), one of the other workers on the dig starts seeing dollar signs. He goes out of his way to create another werewolf in order to gain fame and fortune. 

This leads to him infecting Paul Niles (Fred Cavalli) a writer who is interested in giving money to the research. Now Paul is transforming all over the place, and the only one who can help him is Natalie Burke (Adrianna Miles) another archeologist involved with the dig. Can the combined forces of Joe Estevez, mutating hair pieces, a grubby looking grounds keeper, a woman with no pants and a champagne swilling security guard save the city of Flagstaff from an assault of bizarre accents and a rampaging Werewolf?

Beware the were-bat-dog-bear-wolf... um... thingie.
This movie really is a mess: poorly acted, poorly written and poorly directed, there really isn’t anything effective in the final product at all. But let’s take it apart and see what we have.

The story is constructed very badly, with a good 15 to 20 minutes of the film not even involving the main character Paul, which you could argue is a good thing, but I digress. Instead time is used to set up the dig, discovery of the bones, establishing our scientists and the legend of the native American lycanthrope. Viewers begin to think that maybe Yuri is our leading man, which is alarming because he is a real jerk.

No this is not one of the cheap werewolf effects, it is
only Sam the groundskeeper.
When Paul shows up in Werewolf it seems like he’s in a wacky sitcom, arriving at a new home, and meeting the bizarre groundskeeper Sam (R.C. Bates) who is channelling his inner "old coot" right from the first second you see him. You begin to wonder if you’re watching a totally different film, one about the hi-larous adventures of a young writer and his off the wall friends in beautiful downtown Flagstaff. Finally Paul interacts with the scientific trio during a party scene (that seems to come out of no where) and the stories connect in a barely coherent way.

Still some things never make any sense. How does the native American werewolf work? Lots of shots are given to the full moon, but the movie happens over the course of several days – is it always full? Paul just seems to transform whenever the mood strikes him. He attacks randomly, and not for food or defending himself, just because he’s bored or something. He claims to be out of control at one point, and yet Sam and Natalie are able to calm him. Just what’s going on here?

Paul suddenly realizes that the blinds are out acting him.
Combined the unclear script you’ve got unclear direction and bad acting on top of it. Werewolf doesn't stand a chance. Based on the way the story is constructed, it seems like the audience is supposed to feel bad for Paul at the end of the film, but no effort was made to make us care about him. The most we know  is that he’s a writer who is never seen writing. Yuri is a jerk because… um, he’s a jerk. And then there’s Natalie, who is one of the least convincing scientists I’ve seen since Denise Richards in The World is Not Enough. Some scenes attempt to create tension and suspense but only serve to make things a lot sillier.

Adding to the haphazard nature of the script is the thoroughly bad and inconsistent werewolf effects. At times the werewolf is only a hairy man. Sometimes he’s more of the Lon Chaney Jr. Wolf Man variety. Then other times he’s a bat headed looking puppet. And then you’ve got the bear suit with a sorry looking wolf mask on top of it. All of these are used without any reason or rhyme, it just seems to fall on how the director wanted the thing to look at that moment. The scenes are then jumbled during the editing creating entire scenes where the werewolf looks completely different over a three minute sequence. For a movie called Werewolf you expect something a little more consistent.

Yuri holds the head while Noel makes the mouth work.
The three leads deliver various bad performances. The best is George Rivero as Yuri. He’s a real jerk from the first scene you see him in. He rants and raves and growls. The first scene he is in involves him getting into a fight for basically no reason. This "character trait" is repeated throughout the movie. In many ways he’s more intimidating and unpredictable than the actual werewolf (something the director really could have worked with). Unfortunately there is his hair, which seems to change in just about every scene he’s in. Was it a series of wigs or just bad continuity? We’ll never know, but it’s very distracting. Then you have his accent, which is pretty thick at times and ends up making his lines hard to follow.

Fred Cavalli as Paul has a slightly less noticeable accent, but his acting is less convincing. He is bland. You never believe that he is much peril because he seems pretty nonchalant about the whole thing.  I would think transforming into a flesh tearing monster would be at least a little frightening. But what do I know? Without that element we never connect with Paul and you just end up wondering how goofy his werewolf effect is going to look in the next shot.

"Rack 'em" "Why do people always say 'rack' around me?"
I’ve saved the best for last. No way to sidestep around this. Adriana Miles as Natalie is really bad. Her accent is thick, her performance is wooden. Her chief assists are under the tight shirts she wears. As a scientist she’s completely unconvincing. You really get the feeling that half the time she doesn't know what she is saying, doesn't really follow the script - or maybe just doesn't care and is there to pick up a paycheck.  As a woman who’s grasp of English is very slight, she’s very convincing. I understand she spends most of the love scene topless and I think that is the real reason she was hired. But with the MST3K version of Werewolf, we get an edited love scene, so we just have to make due with her performance. Lucky us!

Not even the power of an Estevez can save this movie!
Supporting cast is surprisingly good. Joe Estevez does his best with a very small part as the digger Joel. He reacts with real horror to what is going on in the film (must have seen the finished product). Sure he had a juicer role in Soultaker but it's nice to see him in this one. Richard Lynch is a veteran of low budget films and television, and he knows how to actually bring some seriousness to his parts. His scenes of explaining the legends of the werewolf actually contain the best acting in the film. Too bad they stuck in him some truly stupid looking outfits. Then there’s the completely random role of Sam the groundskeeper. Bates looks like Castro, talks like Yosemite Sam and is a breath of fresh air in the stale film. His character serves no purpose other than comic relief, and even if he isn’t that funny, he goes for the part with gusto.

Looked at as a whole, Werwolf doesn’t scare, doesn’t thrill and really doesn’t make sense. It sounds like a perfect candidate for Mike and the bots.

MST3K Review:

And then the werewolf savagely kills Bob Villa!
By this time in the show’s run, Mystery Science Theater hadn’t tackled too many werewolf films. There was Mad Monster back in Season 1, and I Was a Teeneage Werewolf in Season Eight. But other than those they hadn’t really been delving into the lycanthrope scene. Well it seemed right to jump from a Puma Man to a Werewolf, because – well give equal time to all animals. On top of that, this is the most recent movie they had done up to this point, with Werewolf being released in 1996, and this show first airing in 1998. It ended up becoming one of the funniest episodes of season nine.

Werewolf, or warwelf, or vilvulf or who the hell knows!
There’s a lot to like about his episode. The riffing is spot on, with all kinds of things providing laughs and sources for running jokes. Yuri’s constantly changing hair provokes the bots to figure out who he’s trying to look like in this scene. 

The transformation scenes in Werewolf are a random mess of the victim flopping around interspersed with shots of the full moon and the werewolf skeleton found at the opening of the film. Mike and the bots start wonder about lunar cycles in Flagstaff (where the movie is supposed to take place). The film takes place over several days (and possibly weeks). Yet there is always a full moon. No some werewolf mythologies don't tie into the moon at all, but the director keeps showing it, as if it has some significance. The constant cutting to the bones, with the skull's jaws flapped open leads Tom to sing Ave Maria every time it is on the screen.

The werewolf driving the car cracks me up every time.
And then the boys riff on it, and it is even funnier.
But it is poor Natalie who just opens the door for all kinds of comedic lines. Her bad line readings, thick accent and pointless actions are the real goldmine for the show and they run with it. Her line, “Diss ees obsoluely fusscinating,” becomes a running joke in the film and crops up when you least expect it. Added to that is that not a single of our foreign friends can pronounce the word “werewolf” correctly or the same from scene to scene.

There are a few slow spots here and there, mostly because Werewolf is so aimless and there is a lot of reuse of random footage (the moon again, the bones again, Paul flopping around on his bed again), that they begin to run out of creative lines for the redundant scenes. Aside from that, it’s a very good riffing session.

They actually nail the 1950 girl group ballad style, even
dressed like this.
The host segments aren’t bad either. It starts with Mike channeling James Lipton from Inside the actors studio and then attempting to escape from the Satellite of love via a very long ladder – it doesn’t work out so well. Then they run through what famous siblings they would want in their werewolf film (inspired by Joe Estevez). The third segment has Mike and bots dressed as a 50’s girl group and singing about their main squeeze who happens to be a werewolf. When Mike stumbles on Crow while leaving the theater, he begins to transform into a were-crow: silliness ensues. The last segment has the Crow, Were-crow and Tom (now turning into a Were-Mike) chatting with Pearl as she attempts to create her own werewolf. But Bobo botches it all by brining a cute cocker spaniel instead of a wolf. I’d love to see a were-cocker!

Werewolf is one of my favorite episodes of season nine. I give it four full moons out of five. Just hope I don’t turn into a wurwelf, or werewulf, or warwilf – or however you say it.

This episode is available in the MST3K 20th Anniversary box set.

And now, the many hair styles of Yuri...

Yuri Mark 1 - Ernest Scientist hair

Yuri Mark 2 - Puffed up Prick hair

Yuri Mark 3 - Dr. Chad Feelgood hair

Yuri Mark 4 - Sleek and Sneaky hair

Yuri Mark 5 - Agressive Pool Player hair

Yuri Mark Dead - Now my hair can be free in the wild

Friday, October 18, 2013

Black Sunday (1960)


These days you don’t see too many attempts to dive into classic gothic horror. You know the types, with big spooky castles, secret passageways, ghostly images and moonlight slanting in the windows and across the spider webs. Could be these images just don’t creep out modern audiences. Could be we’ve just replaced witches with zombies. Or maybe we just need to drop the sparkly vampires and get back to the good old fashioned blood sucking hell-spawn of old.


It was all going well for medieval witch Katia Vajda (Barbara Steele). She was cursing townsfolk, corrupting nobles and praising the prince of darkness. But eventually the villagers had enough. They captured her and her lover, place horrible spiked masks on their faces (with the spikes on the inside). They tried to burn them, but it started to rain. In the end Katia is placed in her family’s tomb, but under a series of religious protections that will keep her from undead mischief.

Enter Dr. Gorobec (John Richardson) and Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) a couple hundred years later. They are on their way to a medical conference in Moldavia when they stop by the ancient crypt. Kruvajan is messing around down there with a huge HUGE bat, and then breaks the seal on the coffin containing the ancient witch. Now she rises from the grave and starts using vampire powers to summon minions, drain blood and attempt to possess the lovely young noble woman who looks just like her! Can Dr. Gorobec piece together this mystery before he ends up another casualty on this Black Sunday?

Good Points
  • Wonderful visuals and gothic atmosphere
  • Moves at a swift pace
  • Surprisingly brutal and gory in places

Bad Points:
  • It is dubbed and not too well
  • All the talk of Satan and demons may not go down well with some viewers
  • Doesn’t have a firm mythology it seems to be working with

Also known as Mask of the Demon this movie is a like gothic roller coaster of wonderful visuals, diabolical characters and some surprising brutality. The opening scene where the witches are being killed is intense with its visuals. Later moments continue along that gruesome direction. But that is part of what makes it so much fun. Steele is fiendish and gleeful in the role. As she destroys all her old enemies and allies you can’t wait to see what happens next. The film moves at a brisk pace, but there are some confusing dub lines (and poor dub performances) that keep it from firing on all cylinders. But if you are looking for something that is both traditional in atmosphere and visuals but with a bit of a edge to it, I highly recommend Black Sunday.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Top Ten - Alternative Horror Flicks I Watch Every October

So this list is going to be a bit more personal, featuring some of my favorite spooky, creepy and scary movies that I love watching each October. Now most of you know I’m a fan of horror flicks in general, but October is when my wife and I dive headlong into the macabre and horrifying.

And yeah, I watch a lot of the more traditional horror flicks. We always make time for Halloween, Dracula, Poltergeist, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, The Thing and a whole host of Hitchcock thrillers. But I wanted to provide a list of flicks you may not have revisited lately, or haven’t heard of. This list is going to be all over the place, but I hope you get a nice mix of fun and freaky features to check out.

Lost Highway (1997)

I love David Lynch’s films. His ability to capture the surreal and nightmarish is really unparalleled in current cinema. While he has done a few films that have very disturbing or frightening moments, I think Lost Highway comes the closest to being a horror film.

It is a story told in three parts. Each part seems connected to the next, but some characters die and appear again. Others completely change appearance. And some appear in all three parts providing continuity and a hint that this is all part of some disturbing reality.

The movie is a slow burn in the first portion, building tension as a husband and wife played by Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette deal with their crumbling relationship and the fact that someone may be videotaping them while they sleep. It also contains one of the most disturbing phone conversations in the history of film when Pullman places a call to a Mystery Man (played with a unsettling glee by Robert Blake).

It is at times bloody, sexy, nightmarish and confusing. The ending will either blow your mind or make you very angry. I loved the puzzle of it, and find it perfect for October viewing. It may be Lynch’s darkest film (although Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me certainly gives it a run for the money).

After discovering this movie last year, well it became an instant favorite. Seven school girls go to a haunted house. All kinds of crazy things happen and the ghosts devour the girls one by one. Simple story, but it is told in such an energetic, over the top, and explosively visual way. Every type of traditional visual effect you can imagine is pulled out and used.

It’s got a musical number (or two). It’s got an evil cat. It’s got a severed head biting a girl on the butt. It’s got some very creepy moments. Some very silly moments. It’s got a girl nicknamed Kung Fu who has her own theme song and kicks ass all over the place. It’s pretty much a wacky anime horror/comedy – except it is all live action.

I did a short review of it last year, and revisiting it this year I enjoyed it just as much. Mileage may vary for some people, but if you want a real visual treat and don’t mind some bizarre and funny visuals, check this out.

Horror anthology films are a tough type of film to get right. They are usually uneven at best, and complete misfires at worst. Well this film gets nearly everything right, and manages to be scary, funny and gross all at the same time. It is a shame that the studio got cold feet with this one (there is some violence perpetrated on kids and by kids in this). It’s got a little bit of everything going on. You want werewolves and vampires. This movie has them (in some different forms than you may expect). Want a ghost story, there’s one of those too. Want a simple tale of a crazed killer, well one makes an appearance here.

But the then there’s the little pumpkin headed spirit of Halloween drifting in and out of the stories and then taking center stage in a finale featuring Brian Cox. It’s a twisted little tale that manages to wrap up several loose story ends and does it with style. All in all a perfect mix of tricks and treats.

I love a good bad movie, and The Craft fits the bill in October. It is bizarre fusion of girl power, witchcraft, 90s style angst and Neve Campbell. The basics are all there, new girl in town becomes friends with some wannabe witches and then with the four of them joining forces – they gain power. But one of them is a just a touch unstable – so it all goes downhill.

It might have been forgettable except for one small thing. Fairuza Balk plays that unstable friend Nancy. And boy does she go COMPLETELY nuts. It is such a fun over the top performance that it just carries the movie to whole new level of entertainment. We watch this every year and end up quoting Nancy and her ranting and raving quite a bit. So while the movie itself isn’t too scary or too good in any technical way. It is still a whole lot of fun to watch, because even when Fairuza isn’t chewing scenery, it’s got a huge helping of 1990s style to satisfy any nostalgia you may crave for that decade.

The Haunting (1963)

Forget the 1999 remake of this film, please. I don’t care if Catherine Zeta Jones is in it and sexy as all hell, as a horror film it just doesn’t cut the mustard. You want a really good, creepy, atmospheric ghost story – then you can’t do much better than the 1963 original.

Directed by Robert Wise  and featuring a excellent cast, you get one of the best examples of creating dread I’ve seen in film. The stark black and white cinematography creates some wonderful shadows and an overbearing sense of oppression in the house. Julie Harris plays Elenor with a mix of fragile (and probably broken) and strong. The movie never overplays its hand, showing you enough to be chilled but not showing you enough to really figure out what the ghost is. Of course that makes it even more frightening. The first time I watched this I made the mistake of watching it on my own, in an empty house. Scared the crap out of me, and I didn’t sleep at all that night. It is a slow build type of movie, so anyone looking for quick thrills and gore will be disappointed. Instead it is the mood, atmosphere and wonderful use of sound that makes this such a classic in my book.

Ringu (1998)

The Japanese ghost/curse style film exploded in Hollywood in the 2000s. Every studio tried their hand at it, and made sequels and spin offs and just mined the whole genre to death. The thing is most of the time these remakes and sequels were missing the very element that made the originals work so well – an understanding of how to build dread and horror with atmosphere and mood. So if you’ve seen The Grudge or The Ring or any of the other Hollywood takes than you really haven’t seen the real version.

Ringu is the film that started it all, and I still find it to be the best of the bunch. It has atmosphere dripping out of every frame. It takes its time moving from mystery to mystery, building dread with each death and each piece of the puzzle. I love the sense of doom that hangs over the characters once they’ve seen the tape and know they are next to die. It becomes a palpable thing. Then there is the ghost itself, damn creepy in it’s original form, and never completely explained, which makes it scarier. Some folks will never find these films chilling in the least. But I love the way this one captures uncanny dread.

Had to throw an anime in here, you expect that from me at this point. I haven’t seen a lot of really good horror anime over the years. I think part of the reason is that it is harder to connect with animated characters in peril then it is with live actors. But there are a few gems I’ve run into, and Perfect Blue is one of them. I’ve already written a whole blog about Satoshi Kon’s first feature film and how good it is. So I won’t rehash that here.

But I will say that Mima’s plight and her attempts to keep her sanity while escaping from her stalker really pull me in each time I watch it. I’m afraid for her, not just because she has a crazed stalker chasing her. But because she may be completely insane, and the real killer is something she created to hide the fact that she has snapped and is doing the actual killing.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

I’m a fan of H.P. Lovecraft and his stories. But it is really hard to find a good film adaptation of his work. There have been some fine attempts over the years, some more successful than others. But no one has really captured the whole feel and concept of Lovecraft’s writing in a unchanged form. Until a group of fans got together and decided to give it a shot.

It is really a stroke of genius in my book. Take one of Lovecrafts most infamous stories, and film it as if it was made when it was written – in 1928. The result is a black and white silent film. All the actors are in period clothes, all the visual effects were done using period techniques. All the acting and makeup is very stylized, just like what you’d see in a silent horror film of the era. Anyone familiar with the style of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Nosferatu (1922) will be on board with what was attempted here.

And for a fan made film, they made every last bit of the budget work for them. You can tell this was a labor of love and man is it a blast to watch. It only clocks in at 47 minutes, but it tells the whole story very faithfully and completely works as a “lost” silent film. If you enjoy silent films and/or Lovecraft fiction check this one out. It is a wonderful effort.

Jeepers Creepers (2001)

Teen screams were all the rage in the 1990s. They become so popular that they pretty much killed themselves with endless riffs on the same snarky, meta, cynical thrills. It would take Saw to really put the nail in the coffin. But here and there a few movies attempted to do something a bit different, or a bit in 70s and 80s horror movie vein. Jeepers Creepers is one of those and wow does it hold up well.

For me the movie works best because of the great chemistry and casting of Gina Philips and Justin Long as brother and sister. They really seem like siblings down to the body language and dialogue they share. You really connect with them and so when the horrors start you want them to get out of this one. And lets not forget the fact that the monster in this film is one nasty creation, virtually unstoppable and showing a new and more horrible facet to itself with each appearance. A lot of folks really liked this one when it came out, but I don’t see too many people mention it these days. Check it out if you haven’t seen it in a while.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

This movie gets a lot of hate. People seem split, and when they dislike it – they really dislike it. I loved it. I still love it. I think it does nearly everything right. It creates characters (some) people can relate to. It builds a nice atmosphere of mystery at the beginning. That mystery turns into dread and then into outright horror. Those final moments, although they've been relentless parodied now, were very chilling to me upon my first viewing. I remember having long talks about Mike in the corner and if he was floating slightly and if so, what did it mean.

I love that you never see anything concrete and that the horror is all in the eyes of the viewer – but you never see anything! It is a triumph of creating atmosphere and mood and using it great affect. This is a great one to watch at night when the wind is blowing just enough to make the dead leaves rustle. 

Special Mentions
Here are a couple newer flicks that we really enjoyed and have added to our collation. They haven’t become a tradition yet, but I think they may stick it out on the list.

The Innkeepers (2011)

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)

House of the Devil (2009)

And then there’s one of my favorite creepy anime series. I can’t let an October go by without 12 episodes of Boogiepop Phantom (2000).

Sam wishes everyone a spooky trick or treat this Halloween.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Score Sample - Drag Me To Hell - Christopher Young

These days, when you talk about scores to horror films, you have to talk about Christopher Young. The man is a master of this genre of music. He's great at all the aspects of excellent horror music, knowing when to go huge and scary and when to go quiet and creepy. Best of all his work is always interesting to listen to, even during quiet scenes his work never turns into minimalistic sound design, but retains a musical quality. But heck, the guy can do wonderful sound design scores too. He's unstoppable when it comes to horror.

One of my favorite horror scores in the last few years has to be his work on Drag Me to Hell for Sam Raimi. It is a rollercoaster of a score and the main theme is delightfully evil. It promise and delivers on a good time. Here are the end credits, Concerto to Hell. The violin solo is diabolical.

Just to give Mr. Young further credit, the guy is very versatile. He can score heart wrenching dramatic moments, tremendous action cues and his jazzy work is a blast to listen to. He's quickly rising in the ranks as one of my favorite film composers.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Evil Ed (1995)

Horror comedy requires a careful balance. Make the film too scary and the humor feels out of place. Make the movie too goofy and the scares just never click (or worse get laughed at). But there’s plenty of folks out there who take a crack at the mixed genre with various results. Director Anders Jacobsson liked Evil Dead and was inspired to make Evil Ed. I’m not sure this bodes well.

Edward Swenson (Johan Rudebeck) is an editor at a major studio who works on black and white art films that look like rejects from Ingmar Bergman. He’s good at his job, so good that he is picked by the studio head Sam Campbell (Olof Rhodin) to edit a new series of slasher flicks for the studio.

Ed accepts the job, mostly because he’ll get fired if he doesn’t. Unfortunately Ed is squeamish and can’t stand such violence. Each time he tries to get out of the assignment, Campbell denies and threatens him. All the blood, guts and gore finally gets to Ed, and he snaps… in a big way. Ed goes on a murder spree, all the while seeing visions of gremlins in his fridge, ranting and raving movie themed puns and slicing people up. Can anyone stop the rampage of Evil Ed

Good Points:
  • Has some pretty funny moments in it
  • The gore effects aren’t too bad
  • Rudebeck is having a great time playing Evil Ed

Bad Points:
  • Many of the jokes fall flat
  • The parody element keeps things from getting scary
  • The dubbing may be distracting to some

This wasn’t a horrible flick, it just didn’t have the right balance. It’s really a parody of a bunch of 80s horror flicks, but tries to get scary along the way. The result is such a mixed bag that it never quite works out. The gremlin in the fridge was funny, and some of Ed’s kill lines are humorous. But all in all, you aren’t missing much if you skip this one.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 3
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 2
Entertainment: 2
Total:  2

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.