This week on TCM Underground: Deathdream (1972)


We’re re-running DEATHDREAM (aka DEAD OF NIGHT, 1972) on TCM Underground on Saturday night. It’s a good movie to watch anyway, one for which you are encouraged to gather the family around you and enjoy and to look over at your children as they see it for the first time to appreciate their reactions and horrified, open-mouthed gasps… but it also offers us, in the countdown to Mother’s Day next month, a prime example of the use of mother/monster relationships in horror movies.  [...MORE]

The Fog of Horror

Later tonight, as in tomorrow morning on the east coast, TCM airs The Fog, the 1980 John Carpenter movie that, like a lot of John Carpenter movies, opened to middling reviews only to be heartily welcomed into the horror canon later.  This also happened with his 1982 remake of The Thing from Another World, this time around simply titled The Thing, which opened to downright bad reviews but now has a solid reputation among horror fans, including this one.   Later, Carpenter’s Christine suffered much the same fate.  I saw Christine when it opened and thought it okay.   A few years ago I watched it again and found it superior to much of what modern horror produces.   Even Halloween was only given a few loving notices by Roger Ebert and Tom Allen originally while Pauline Kael led the charge against it as derivative crap.  So, Ebert/Kael… I mean, flip a coin on that one, right?  Eventually Ebert’s side won and the film is today regarded as a classic.   Why they all took so long I think is not related to Carpenter so much as it is related to horror.  Horror misdirects and confuses the audience, uses plot devices easily belittled and picked apart, and generally uses storytelling techniques so far removed from subtlety they don’t even occupy the same hemisphere.  Behind all that could be a great movie but sometimes critics, and audiences too, can get lost in the fog of horror.



Friday Fearback: 31 Screams

Scream 31

A number of years ago, for reasons that seem a bit hazy to me now, I began a pseudonymous film blog called Arbogast on Film.  (I’m often asked why I chose the name Arbogast, an obvious allusion to Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. I have always just loved that name and back in the 80s I thought of throwing down a ‘zine with that name as a sort of catchall for the obscure and weird. Never got around to doing that and yet the name popped back into my mind when I was dicking around on Blogger and thinking to myself “I don’t have a personal blog, but if I were to have one it might look something like this…”) I already had the Movie Morlocks working for me and back then I was blogging twice a week rather than once, so it’s not as though I was itching for more work. No, as I recall, I wanted to do some writing apart from my established community, well away from the blognoscenti, where I could please myself and throw down some chancy stuff. I didn’t expect anyone to follow me and yet the site turned out to be popular. I kept it going for four or five years before pulling the plug. I was just too busy and couldn’t really afford to indulge myself in a spate of free writing… especially not when I had already dedicated several Octobers to a series I called “31 Screams.” I was bored with all the horror blogs that pulled out the same old titles year after year for the requisite Halloween Top Ten lists and so I thought it might be unusual and fun to review, not movies themselves, but some of the greatest screams in genre history. And so I did that, 31 of them every October, year after year, with the final tally being somewhere in the low triple digits. I think some of that work is among my best and it always kind of killed me that, as I’d sworn myself to pseudonymity, no one would ever know it was my hand moving the pen. So now, with your indulgence, I offer a look back at some of the great screams of all time, along with my eggheaded observations, inane asides and occasional bad language… [...MORE]

Applied genius: The Dick Smith Legacy


My early education in cinema involved the worship of a fair number of Hollywood makeup men: “Man of 1,000 Faces” Lon Chaney, Universal monster maker Jack P. Pierce, PLANET OF THE APES monkey mover John Chambers, the whole Westmore dynasty, Morlock manufacturer Bill Tuttle… and Dick Smith. Dick Smith was easy to follow, and remember – he had the same name as my Dad. In the wake of Smith’s passing this week at the lovely age of 91, eulogists may find themselves trying to rank order among the roster of old school FX makeup men I’ve just laid before you but that’s not my aim. I’m not interested in anybody’s notion of the best, I just want to mourn and remember an artist whose work had a profound effect on my life.  [...MORE]

Halloween Trailer Park, a Dusk ’til Dawn Mega-Spookshow Freak-a-BOO-looza!


Last week I explained my own personal Halloween aesthetic — not ooey-gooey rich’n’chewy, not gory or cruel, not blood-spattered and ichor-soaked but rather dry, papery, eldritch, withered and sere. Crepuscular rather than craptacular. Old school. Quaint and curious. Movies that evoke for the viewer mystery and wonder, dread, and true fear rather than just disgust and the vicarious thrill of inflicting harm. And I take back not a word, mind you, but I will allow that the build up to Halloween itself does allow for many different experiences, not all of them feature length. Really, nothing mirrors the anticipation of All Hallows Eve better than the horror movie trailer, with its promise of the forbidden, the horrid, the profane, and the grotesque. For this holiday-themed edition of my ongoing Trailer Park series, I will showcase fright films that I might not actually sit down and watch on 31 October but whose previews make my Gothic ganglia twitch. And now, in no particular order…

I first saw THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN (1971) at a kiddie matinee. No warning, no hint of what I was about to be subjected to. Man, I loved the 70s! The title alone should have been a red flag warning to my parents but, no, I was allowed to go off on my own. For those who thought THE EXORCIST (1973) was proof that the world was going to Hell in a hand-basket, this thing smacked moviegoers flat in the gob two full years earlier and it’s the more disturbing of the two. (It’s worth point out that little Geri Reishl, who has the principal child role here, was a contender for the part of Regan in THE EXORCIST.) Being a natural non-joiner and a near-lifetime atheist to boot, I find sects and cults of any kind to be creepy, whether they’re roasting a virgin in a wicker behemoth in a bid to benefit the harvest or simply setting up foldling tables for a prayer breakfast… so obviously a small town filled with old folk harvesting the local (and visiting) kinder for their own selfish ends is going to fill me with positive horror. Superficial points of commonality notwithstanding, BROTHERHOOD is far from just a quickie ripoff of ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968); it’s a movie that truly gets to you and works on you with a parade of images that, even at their most timeworn and hoary (hooded cultists, black candles, creepy dolls) upset and bother. The movie spoke to me then, at age 9 or 10, and still feels relevant to me now at age 52 as a comment on asleep-at-the-wheel-of-reason parenting and the monsters that spill out of the wreckage.

You know what’s really wrong with contemporary horror movie trailers, and I mean apart from the issue that the movies themselves invariably suck ill wind? It’s that the previews don’t shout the movie’s title in your face anymore. God, remember when movie trailers assumed your were blind and read everything out to you? Good times – and DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1964) is a prime example. I love that clumsy ad line “The terrifying horror of a man called Dr. Terror…” It feels like that was written in about five minutes, by someone with not quite enough adjectives at his disposal, but ye Old Gods I love it. Plus, it’s always great to see Christopher Lee properly freaking out, the old turnip. And Peter Cushing just looks great, doesn’t he? There is no proper US DVD of this early Amicus effort, and more’s the pity, because on second thought I would watch this one on Halloween… though keeping my distance from the houseplants.

As far as titles go, you’d be hard pressed to do better than WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY, whose original title (I almost hate to tell you) is/was LYCANTHROPUS (1961). I like the American title better because it is the apotheosis of truth in advertising, like the little can of “potted meat product” you can buy at the 99 cent store. (An alternative release title was I MARRIED A WEREWOLF, which is just dumb.) This is the kind of (now) vintage experience I really crave on Halloween. It has the coziness factor of a girl’s school located in the European sticks and an autumnal ambiance, a werewolf in a suit, and a great leading lady in the beautiful Barbara Lass (who was married, by turns, to Roman Polanski and PEEPING TOM‘s Karlheinz Bohm– yeesh!). But even on the level of its US trailer, this thing sings to me. Come on… a N-E-R-V-O-R-A-M-A SHOCKER! Have you ever been offered such a wonderful gift as a nervorama shocker? Or even the promise of one? Wouldn’t you rather watch a nervorama shocker than Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson explaining horror?

Like THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN, TOURIST TRAP (1979), which brackets a wonderful decade of disturbing, visceral horror, is supremely messed up. Movies in which stuff flies around on its own generally don’t do anything for me but TOURIST TRAP mixes in so many wildly disparate and nightmare-inducing elements that even if you find it hit or miss you’re going to go home (or go to bed) in a state of heightened vigilance. More than half of the equation here is the movie’s soundscape, which works on you as a bamboo sliver works on a fingernail – it loosens you, it bends you backward, and leaves you raw where once you were hardened and secure. The trailer does a great job of selling the experience, and that wonderful ad copy is the icing on a very disquieting cake. Bonus points for movie trailers that work the title of the flick into a full sentence. “God help those who get caught in… the TOURIST TRAP!” And even better: SHOCK YOU CAN SEE! TERROR YOU CAN FEEL! HEARTSTOPPING SUSPENSE THAT MAKES THIS THE NIGHTMARE THAT NEVER ENDS!” Can you stand the confidence? If this trailer were sitting at the bar buying drinks, I’d be going home with it!

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1977) is one of those movies that really divdes the room, even among the horroratti. I will admit that it is an imperfect picture, whose comic elements seriously undermine the “torn from the headlines” verite of Texarcana’s “Phantom Killer” case (aka “The Moonlight Murders”) of 1946, and yet… I cannot deny it. My affection for the film may be due to the fact that I heard about it for years before I got a chance to see it, so it attained a kind of iconic property in its unavailability, merging as it does true crime with urban myth. The trailer encapsulates what works for me about the film, that police procedural quality, names and dates, that seem to be an attempt to render what is chaotic and nightmarish into a spreadsheet of names and dates, something understandable, categorical. And the tension between the ghastly and the mundane is where the best parts of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN call home.

The people who sold THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) seem to have taken a tip or two from, if not THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN spefically, then at least from the tenor of the times in which the earlier film was made. You get that same sense of oral history/police procedural, the cold relating of facts surrounding something hotly horrific, and the implantation of that seed of curiosity. The trailer makes you want to know more, want to peek, want to open that door even at your own peril. Looking back at BLAIR WITCH now, at the distance of 14 years, it’s interesting to note what lessons subsequent horror filmmakers and horror film trailer makers have taken to heart and what they seem to have left with the scraps as not useful to them. What works best about this preview, to my mind, seems to matter less to previewistas in 2013, which is to say the bland police log facts o’the case articulated in a disconcertingly dispassionate voice (for auld lang syne, I’d love to hear John Laroquette read “In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland…”) while what has been carried forward is the device, the herky-jerky film style (“ShakyCam,” as it is known in certain circles) and the reduction of the message to micro-bursts of visual information. That’s a gag that worked a few times for me but probably never better than for…

ALIEN (1979). And after that it just got old and annoying. Like Rip Taylor old and annoying. I think this trailer for ALIEN works gangbusters and I love the movie… but you can see this almost subliminal style as the beginning of the end of that old school blood and thunder, which so wonderfully epitomized the era of hoopla, hyperbole, and ballyhoo. Few horror movie trailers nail that rap better than …

THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES (1968). Say what you will about the movie itself, or about how much Wendell Corey had to drink before he showed up on the set, but the trailer works it. And working it, my friends, is what Halloween is all about.

Trailer park!

Coming Attractions

Why let those Trailers from Hell guys have all the fun, right? Trailers belong to everybody, right? Movie trailers cause me great pain these days. They’re so long and drawn out and boring — not like Back in the Day (BITD), when coming attractions were banged out as if by machine gun and laced with lurid imagery to pique the basest instinct. I mean that in a good way! I don’t know where in the body movie trailers are aimed in 2013 but in the 70s they were pointed straight into the gut. The voices of the announcers alone was like the Devil whispering in your ear. Actors like Adolph Caesar, Percy Rodrigues, and Don LaFontaine really knew how to get under your skin, compelling you to see this movie or that movie with the urgency usually reserved for burning things. [...MORE]

Telefilm Time Machine: Steven Spielberg’s SOMETHING EVIL (1972)


I recently sat through James Wan’s THE CONJURING (2013). I haven’t particularly liked anything else the director’s done but being a horror film aficionado myself, I assumed that all the critical praise and fanfare the movie was receiving meant that that it would probably deliver a few good thrills and chills. It is being hailed as one of the “scariest movies ever made” in some circles so it couldn’t be all that bad, right? Unfortunately I was very wrong. While THE CONJURING is obviously working some kind of magic on a large percentage of viewers I personally found this utterly predictable throwback to ‘70s horror cinema so clichéd, schmaltzy, devoid of compelling characters, lacking in atmosphere and flat out boring that I almost walked out of the theater midway through the movie. It seemed to be a poorly concocted smorgasbord of jump scares borrowed from much better films (THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE EXORCIST, THE HAUNTING, THE CHANGELING, THE BIRDS, HALLOWEEN, THE ORPHANAGE, EVIL DEAD, Etc.) that left me desperately hungry for something more tasty and fulfilling. Afterward I decided to cleanse my palate with a genuine ‘70s thriller about a family tormented by ghosts and combating demonic possession directed by Steven Spielberg called SOMETHING EVIL (1972). This low-budget telefilm rarely gets any attention by Spielberg fans or horror enthusiasts who seem to prefer DUEL (1971) or his later attempt at producing a supernatural thriller, POLTERGEIST (1982). But in some ways I think that SOMETHING EVIL is superior to them both. Why? Read on and I’ll tell you.


E’reway in-hay the oney-may… or The Exorcist as a sequel to Gold Diggers of 1933


I’ve been on a pre-Code jag lately. Mind you, I’ve watched movies all my life that were made before the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code (which was drafted after the advent of sound but not really enforced until 1934) yet this is the first time I’ve ever gone back with a specific mind to watch pre-Code movies as a category. Last night’s viewing was Mervyn LeRoy’s GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933), Warner Brothers’ follow-up to Lloyd Bacon’s 42ND STREET (released three months earlier in 1933), though it’s at least a nominal sequel as well to Roy Del Ruth’s GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY (1929). Early into the film, showgirl Ginger Rogers sings Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s ironic Depression standard “We’re in the Money” as part of an elaborate Busby Berkeley-choreographed, Anton Grot-designed production number. At one point in the song, Rogers’ character switches to pig Latin… [...MORE]

Horror’s Powers of Ten

I have always had a fascination with how much can change in such a short span of time in one era, yet remained unchanged for years in another.  In 1973, American Graffiti presented a nostalgic past that no longer existed, a world from another time and place.  It took place a mere 11 years prior to its release.  11 years.  A movie taking place in 2001 or 02 wouldn’t look or feel that much different to what’s around us now.   Watching a sitcom from early in the 2000s, like Arrested Development, doesn’t look or feel a whole lot different than watching one from right now, like Parks and Recreation.  But watching Leave it to Beaver, from the early sixties, alongside All in the Family, from the early seventies, feels like two different universes.   How much has horror changed from one decade to the next?  Let’s examine horror’s powers of ten.*


Showdown – Horror Style

Almost every movie ever made that involves any kind of conflict has a showdown.  It may not be the grand finale and it may not last more than a few seconds, but showdowns are a part of dramatic structure.  They can be big, like the showdown between Shane (Alan Ladd) and Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) at the climax of Shane or small, like the showdown between R.P. McMurphy and Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when he wants to let the gang watch the World Series and loses initially (she doesn’t allow Chief Bromden’s vote) only to pull out a victory seconds later by pretending to watch it anyway.   They can come in the form of a standoff between rich young publisher and legal guardian, as in Citizen Kane, where Kane (Orson Welles) tells Thatcher (George Coulouris) that at the rate of a million dollars a year he’ll have to close this paper in… sixty years or they can come in the form of an imaginary standoff between two movie patrons (Woody Allen and Russell Horton) and a magically produced Marshall McLuhan (um, Marshall McLuhan) in Annie Hall.  But for pure bang for the buck, showdowns rarely reach the visceral heights as those produced by horror.  Here are some of my favorites.


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