Horror Reviews

Friday, January 30, 2009

DVD Review: House on Haunted Hill (Original)

Review by Kristin Battestella

Ah, ‘Tis the season for horror movie marathons, is it not? On tap for my black and white movie challenged man, House on Haunted Hill- the 1959 original mind you. Even if its slightly dated and not as scary as it used to be, this classic is a must see for any horror buff.

Master of horror Vincent Price stars as Frederick Loren- a bored millionaire throwing a party for his young, jealous, and greedy wife Annabelle (Carol Omhart)- complete with a haunted house, plenty of scotch, and revolvers in mini coffins as favors. Five guests are invited by Loren-although none have met the mysterious millionaire. Lance, the test pilot (Richard Long), Ruth the reporter (Julie Mitchum), The Doctor (Alan Marshal), Nora a sweet girl of course (Carolyn Craig), and the drunk owner of the house Watson Pritchard (Elisah Cook Jr.). These financially challenged guests must spend the night locked in the haunted house-those who survive until morning will walk away with $10,000.

While that’s hardly a lot of money today, and other aspects of the film have not stood the test of time, Vincent Price is near perfection. The husky voiced veteran of such horror classics as House of Usher, The Raven, The Pit and The Pendulum, and my favorite The Masque of Red Death-not to mention mainstream roles in The Ten Commandments and Laura-Price proves his worth here. The multifaceted actor chews up Loren and thoroughly enjoys the cheeky interplay between Loren and his fourth wife. Their introductory scene is full of jealously, love of money, and reminiscing about poison.

The rest of the cast is standard in its support. Sure some of the drama and hysterics is over the top now, but each actor fits his or her part perfectly. Lance the bravado pilot and Nora can really scream-but more importantly, they serve their purpose. A classic star like Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant-they come with a preconceived notion of who they are and what their character must be about. With a cast of relative unknowns, director William Castle succeeds in reaching his audience. The party guests are indeed regular people who need Loren’s money-desperate people to endure this house for money. Average Joes like you and me. Although it is firmly placed in its fifties mentality, Castle and writer Robb White touches a timeless concept with House on Haunted Hill-greed. What would you do for $10,000?

Unfortunately, Castle’s promotional ideas for House on Haunted Hill were touch and go. Although the low budget film succeeded at the box office, the idea of skeletons zooming across the theater at selected parts of the film was technically difficult and got out of hand with audiences. The film’s bloody heads, dangling bodies, pools of acid, and the like are also bound to the movie making techniques of the time. Observant fans will spot the flying wires and proverbial smoke and mirrors in the film. At the wrong volume, the music and screaming-and there is a lot of screaming-can be a toe towards annoying as well.

Hokeyness aside, House on Haunted Hill still provides one or two heart pounding jump in your seat scares. The first time I saw House on Haunted Hill, it wasn’t a dark and stormy night. The lights were on and it wasn’t even near Halloween. I tuned in for Vincent Price, but I thought the opening was convoluted and slow. When the first BOO moment came, I was caught totally off guard. I’ve been hooked on this little film that could since.

In 1999, House on Haunted Hill was updated by director William Malone with gore, gore, and more gore. Castle’s original is just silly enough and clean enough for a spooky night in with the kids. The remake focuses more on the actual haunting and back story of the house, but its gear toward modern fan boys with short attention spans is fleeting at best.The updated House on Haunted Hill stars Geoffrey Rush as amusement monger Stephen Price and Famke Janssen as his greedy wife Evelyn. As in the original, the woefully wealthy couple needs to add spice to their relationship by holding a party-a party in a haunted house of course. Five unsuspecting guests are lured to the fiesta, and whoever survives the entire night at the house receives a one million dollar voucher-just to keep it real for today’s audiences. Writer Dick Beebe added a psycho insane asylum back story to the house, but the plot does little. Chopped up parts, naked women, and crazy experiments try to explain the house’s evil, but in truly frightening fashions- not knowing the how or why is better. Knowing the rather weak source of your evil can make things a bit…lame.

Contrary to Malone’s belief, my favorite part of the revived House on Haunted Hill is not the opening herky jerky, cut ‘em up flashbacks, nor the subsequent roller coaster ride and stunt casting of singer Lisa Loeb and Spike alum James Marsters. My individual creepy came midway through the film, when Price views crazy psychiatrist ghost Dr. Vannacutt (Jeffery Combs) on his TV monitors. The otherworldly, stop motion, unnatural movements are the best part of the film, and they only last a few seconds. The shock value of chopped heads and good old fashioned shock therapy treatments do nothing to scare modern audiences.

Chris Kattan has a few memorable scenes as the neurotic owner of the industrial and contemporary haunt. He plays the exact same funny man as always, but it’s intriguing to see the humor in a spooky setup. Although I doubt all the humor is intentional. So if the movie isn’t meant to be funny, and it isn’t scary-who is the film for? It is rare for any medium today to not have a strict marketing campaign. Vincent Price fans will not like this new House on Haunted Hill, and teeny bopper fans will quickly dismiss it for others in this new inferior slasher genre- Thirteen Ghosts immediately comes to mind. When I tried to tell a friend about this new House on Haunted Hill, she responded, “The one with Catherine Zeta-Jones?” Of course that’s The Haunting-another remake inferior to the original.

What makes films like the original House on Haunted Hill classics is the effects-bad effects or simply the lack there of. My favorite part of Price’s version involves an old lady. I swear she is riding a skateboard to create that ghostly walk ambiance. It’s a catch-22. The effects are hokey and often as bad as hell-which of course tunes out spoiled CGI viewers. However, since old time film making effects were so bad-the story, actors, and directing needed to hold their own. The remake, however, adds nothing but bad gore and bad gimmicks. If a film must be remade, the redo must adhere to all the original’s strengths and them some. The new House on Haunted Hill is only for die hard cheese fans.

In a day and age where a film has to be rated R to be good, its amazing to recall that films like the original House on Haunted Hill succeeded with little violence, bad props, and cheeky dialogue. Kids might get genuinely spooked, and boomers might remember their first viewing at that special drive-in. House on Haunted Hill is what it is, but its old B flick fashion should not be taken at face value. Castle’s little movie is for fans young and old who appreciate good film. Clearly something was done right-we’re still watching over forty years later.

Fortunately both House on Haunted Hills aren’t over the top in price range. Check the bargain bin at your local video store for the new colorized version of the original, check the budget collections at any department store, or browse the used for a copy of the 1999 release. Hill can be found in classic sets, individually, as a double feature-even budget DVD's with cartoon shorts like the good old days. Priced at $9.99 or under-$5 or less if you know where to look-my edition contains a Superman short and the John Carradine classic Bluebeard. Two for the price of one!

Skip the remake and go with the classic House on Haunted Hill. It appeals to everyone, and you can’t call yourself a horror film buff without it!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

DVD Review: The Skeleton Key

Review by Kristin Battestella

If it’s supposed to be scary, I’ll watch just about anything –even though I heard bad things about The Skeleton Key. The 2005 thriller stars Almost Famous alum Kate Hudson, but the initial $30 price tag was a bit much for a film widely regarded as a disappointment.

I did however like The Skeleton Key when I saw it on TV recently-it was a relatively low investment, of course. Not stellar, a few too many clichés, but I liked it. As if she could play nothing else and milking all her Oscar nominated glory, The Skeleton Key casts Hudson as Caroline, a former roadie trying to become a nurse. Since her father’s death, Caroline has moved from one elderly center to the next, trying to find closure. She takes a position caring for Ben (John Hurt), who has recently had a stroke. At first she butts heads with Ben’s wife Violet (Gena Rowlands), but Caroline fines shades of romance in New Orleans lawyer (Tom Uskali).

Naturally it was fascinating to see a film set in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, but the voodoo element has been done to death. I was unsure how a haunted New Orleans house movie would play out-a la The Others-but we never get to see, since Director Iain Softley resorts to digging up weird voodoo stereotypes. I know nothing about voodoo but what I’ve seen on Dark Shadows, and some of the clichés were obvious to me. Despite its PG-13 rating, I can see how The Skeleton Key must have offended the real Louisiana population.

The acting is just fine, but again we resort to Kate Hudson in skimpy clothes and talking about music. The Skeleton Key does a lot of resorting where it should be going forth. Gena Rowlands is perfect as the aging Southern belle Violet. You easily suspected she is up to no good from the beginning, but I never expected Violet’s end to come as it did. John Hurt-infamous for the scene in Alien- is also delightful as Ben. The stroke victim expertly says what he needs to through his eyes, actions, and struggles. One of the better sequences has the partially paralyzed Ben out on the roof top. Oiy!

Despite its clichés and redundancy, I was surprised by The Skeleton Key’s ending. Maybe because I was sick and out of it or not on my sharpest note, but writer Ehren Kruger’s twist ending may be just that. I suspect Kate Hudson accepted the role based on the end of the script alone. Good, but unhappy-the ending is slightly sinister. At the conclusion, Hudson sounds a lot like her mom Goldie Hawn. Her closing husky delivery completes the creepy.

I don’t recommend The Skeleton Key for prudes or people who otherwise might be offended religiously-although I’ve certain seen more offensive material. Nor would I say The Skeleton Key is a thinking man’s movie. I was interested enough to keep watching and guessing how things would play out, but rewatchability dips significantly once you know how the film ends.

The Skeleton Key- despite a swift resolution- is a relatively safe and formulaic piece for fans of safe movies. I even dare say it’s safe for mature tweens, maybe even 10 and up. Kate Hudson collectors will enjoy no doubt, but if you are seeking serious spooks, southern haunts, or voodoo mayhem, I can definitely recommend better. Fans are better off investing in a simple classic like Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. Only die hard Kate Hudson lovers should pay full price for The Skeleton Key. Briefly intrigued audiences can tape it off TV.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

100 Tears

Review by Will Sanders

Those with Coulrophobia (exaggerated fear of clowns) need not to watch this film. 100 Tears is the story of two reporters, Mark (Joe Davison) and Jennifer (Georgia Chris), That are hell bent on finding a story that will take them to the big time. Their journey leads them straight into the path of the gruesome murders of The Teardrop Killer. While investigating the crime scenes and pretty much doing the Detective's jobs, they uncover that the killings are connected to Gurdy (a once harmless carnival clown turned psychopath).

There is no clowning around in this film. 100 Tears is a non-stop in your face gore fest extravaganza. The killing starts at the beginning and doesn't let you take a breath until the end. Marcus Koch (Director and the blood, sweat and tears of Oddtopsy FX) did an incredible job of keeping on course with the plot and still maintaining a bloodbath at ever turn. The thing that most horror films can't do today. In my opinion horror films today either bore you with to much dialogue or have a plotless film with a bunch of meaningless killing in it. I was impressed to see that Koch was able to find a happy medium between the two.

The second thing that stuck out in the film was the chemistry between Mark and Jennifer. Their characters continue to grow throughout the film. Davison was funny and sarcastic and Brown was witty and sincere. While only partners in the film, you definitely get the since that they strongly care for each other (Mark a little more than Jennifer).

The other characters were just as energetic, but I felt that there needed to be a little more explanation of the other carnie's role in the story. The film gave an outline back story but you can tell there was more participation from the rest of the carnival in what was happening. I guess for a full explanation, we can only hope for a sequel.

With all of that and a killer soundtrack that only excites and intensifies the film.
100 Tears exceeds your normal indie horror and competes with the big boys. I know this will not be the last we hear from Koch and Davison. If you did not get to see this in theaters or festivals earlier this year you will still get your chance. 100 Tears is being distributed SJW and Grindstone Entertainment. The 100 Tears DVD is due out nationwide by the end of this year and I am hoping to see some outtakes and behind the scenes footage in the home video release.

All in all, 100 Tears is a big top blood splattering attraction. Gurdy with his gigantic meat clever makes Pennywise look as harmless as Bozo the Clown. I highly recommend this film and I am glad to see a Killer Clown back in the spotlight once again.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Book Review: Eternal Vigilance By Gabrielle S. Faust

Review by Sara Jackson

Tynan awakens after a century of sleep. Breaking free of his tomb, he enters a city that was once familiar to him, but has now been devastated by an apocalyptic war that has raged as long as his slumber. With devastation all around him, Tynan seeks out his first victim, an adolescent brandishing an AK-47.

Before giving himself over to a century's worth of slumber, Tynan had been a philosopher among his fellow vampires, even building his own religion. After killing and draining the blood from an eight hundred year old vampire named Aidan, Tynan was socially exiled.

While exploring his surroundings, Tynan spots a beautiful girl, who leads him through the woods to his friend Seafra. They lead Tynan back to Seafra's house, where he is given a change of clothes. The next night, Seafra confronts Tynan about vanishing after being exiled. Seafra goes on to explain to Tynan about what's been happening in the hundred years that he's been asleep.

An underground cyber-movement called the Tyst had rewritten all military codes for every nation in the world and they pilphered the world's money into their own pockets. People fought bloody wars to regain control from the Tyst. But the Tyst gained the upper hand by making sure that every piece of technology was taken from the rebels. Those that fought against the Tyst's power are called the Phuree and they live outside the city. The Phuree are a people without technology, but are deeply rooted in magic. Even teaming up with a handful of vampires to try and bring down the Tyst.

Phelan, his maker and the other vampires later summon Tynan, to devise a plan to defeat the Tyst. In Tynan's journals lies the secret and evidence that he is the chosen one to defeat the Tyst. Tynan becomes enraged at being the chosen one, that he lunges at Phelan. But his blows are deflected and Tynan is seriously injured.

His fellow vampires take him to the Phuree camp, where he is given the blood of Nahalo, an ancient vampire, revered among the Phuree as some type of oracle. With his new found powers, Tynan must decide whether he will vanish again, or stay and defeat the Tyst, restoring power back to the people.

Gabrielle S. Faust's book is full of poetic imagery. She finds beauty in the shadows and the horror of a devastated civilization. Faust sheds new light on vampire culture, making them angels, instead of demons.

At times Faust's vampires seemed too closely related to Anne Rice's vampires. Tynan's long slumber and reawakening to a new world was reminiscent of Lestat's awakening in The Vampire Lestat. Tynan's inner struggle with killing resembled that of Louise's in Interview With the Vampire.

For those that crave vampire fiction with a dark soul, Gabrielle Faust delivers on all levels.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Isle of the Damned

Isle of the Damned (2008) is a laugh riot, if your sense of humor is as warped as mine. This film is a send up of just about every Italian cannibal ever made. Someone really did their homework as instead of phony American credits, we have phony Italian credits. Add bad dubbing, obvious wigs, a little too much sodomy, crazy characters, and extreme gore, you have a little something for the whole family.

PI, Jack Steele is hired by a fat slob to help him find the lost treasure of Marco Polo. Wasn’t he the guy who invented the Polo Shirt? Anyway they land on an island off the coast of Argentina. Steele, his side kick Billy, & the Fat Guy venture inland in search of treasure. Of course we are warned that this film was banned in over 492 countries and the Make Them Die Slowly type voice over warns us that this is real.

The threesome come across some cannibals cutting off a guy’s dick. He and a woman are tied up and another pregnant woman is caught by the cannibals and has a fetus ripped out and eaten. They might have been missionaries spreading the word of God. Now they are just entrees. Steele shoots a few cannibals and he and Billy drag the comatose woman through the jungle.

They come across a mansion owned by Alex Kincaid. Kincaid has a man servant, an ex ninja hitman, who has taken a vow of silence. This adds a little kung fu to the proceedings. Kincaid originally was looking for the treasure himself, but now he lives among the cannibals. In between all this, all the minor cast members are killed and eaten in various disgusting ways. If this wasn’t tongue in cheek, the gore would be just as hard to watch as a “real” Italian cannibal film.

Not to give anymore away, you have to see this one. If you’re a fan of that dreaded Italian cannibal sub genre, you owe it yourself to see this one. You can just sit there , taking bong hits, then pick out the scenes lifted from various films. Then you can revel in the castrations, mutilations, disembowelments, fetus bashing, ass raping, face ripping carnage.

Even the DVD box pushes the envelope stating that this is the “1980 cult classic”, released for the first time in North America. The opening credits also tell us that the director “fled the country” after the Argentine authorities seized the print of this film. All in all, a worthy homage to those classic cannibal films of yesteryear.

Queen of Black Magic

1979, from Mondo Macabra Starring Suzzanna.

If you want something different, a lot of stuff from Indonesia is becoming available. This had been available on an obscure VHS label, now it’s on DVD from a digital transfer from the original negative.

After a wedding ceremony goes wrong, the groom suspects black magic. He seeks out his ex lover and has her thrown off a cliff. She is rescued by a hermit/witch doctor who urges her to seek revenge. He teaches her black magic and she use spells to get diabolical revenge on the people who wronged her.

People are covered with boils, worms, snakes and other nasty shit. But something is amiss. The hermit is not all he seems to be, and has a revenge agenda all his own. Interesting film with a lot of exotic scenery. The SPFX are grotesque and amateurish, when compared to our home grown stuff, but then do you think you could get Linda Blair to put real worms in her mouth? Don’t think so, but in these type of films I have seen the actors barf up buckets of worms & bugs. Talk about art for arts sake!!

Suzzanna was a mainstay of these films and was the Indonesian Scream Queen in that country. Other films were Headless Terror, Snake Queen & White Crocodile Queen. Sadly, like quite a few other genre stars, she passed away in October of 2008. 2008 wasn’t a good year for any of us.

The Insatiable Iron Babe

2008, from Seduction Cinema Starring Jackie Stevens, Darian Caine, and Kerry Taylor Directed by John Bacchus

Returning to a tried & true formula, spoofing current blockbusters, Seduction Cinema presents their version of Iron Man. Horny Fark is a billionaire who owns Fark Industries, a high end sex toy company. While attending a sex toy expo in Bacchustan, she is captured by terrorist Abu Bu, and forced to construct a nuclear powered sex doll.

Fark escapes and builds a sex toy suit of armor with a laser bra, bullet proof panties, and long lasting batteries. Fark turns the tables on the terrorists, destroying everything they throw at her.

The film is pretty funny and has enough girl on girl scenes to stimulate the most jaded libido. Jackie Stevens is great in the titular role and makes me think she could go on to higher budget films, if given the opportunity. Look for yours truly in a cameo appearance. Definitely worth a look.

DVD Review: An American Haunting

Review by Kristin Battestella

Once again a horror movie was on tap for the evening. When in doubt, should you always go to the movies and see a horror film? Based on the title alone, We picked An American Haunting.

The introduction explained the film was based on actual events in Tennessee around 1820, but the action opens in 2006. The modern frame is a weak connection geared at today’s teens. I was not surprised to find out the movie is PG-13. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can make a quality horror movie today without an R rating.

It was pleasing to see Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek as John and Lucy Bell, but the rest of the cast is unremarkable. After a sour deal with a neighbor, John is overruled by the church. His injured neighbor curses John and his daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood), and thereafter strange things accumulate on the Bell Estate. A vengeful spirit manifests, attacks Betsy, and ultimately claims the life of John.

As refreshing as it was to see a film set in the early 19th century, the story ran thin early. For America’s most famous haunting, and the only one responsible for a death, I certainly had never heard of The Bell Witch before, and I thought myself schooled in such things. I hoped to see everything explained since the main haunting wasn’t told in bits and pieces of herky jerky movie flashbacks, but the film closes with much to interpret.

The haunting itself is debatable. Is it the curse or a poltergeist manifested by Betsy herself? I lean towards the latter, but director Courtney Solomon focuses on repeat attacks instead of definitively explaining the spooks. The unfortunate side effect is that this makes the family look fairly stupid. Initially, it was quite fascinating to see early ghost hunters handle a entity without any technology to speak of. They shoot at a few wolves, candles blow out, the old house creaks. After the first two or three or five occurrences, however, why doesn’t the family at least attempt to leave the house? Betsy leaves her bedroom, but returns to it for more invisible string ups and smack downs. Professor Powell (James D’Arcy) is brought in to help Betsy, but he also has romantic interests in her. Hmm… One highlight of the film shows Betsy being taken away by the Professor and her older brother John Jr. (Thom Fell) in a dangerous carriage chase, but it looks like this was just a dream sequence. Instead the family sends another young girl into Betsy room to be attacked with her!

In the theater I suspected John Bell was responsible for his own terror. Several shots from Solomon hint at a more serious and inappropriately kinky relationship with his daughter. No one would blame Betsy if she subconsciously manifested this presence because of abuse from her father. When Betsy sees the spirit as a playful young girl, is it her own childlike innocence she is trying to recapture? Is Betsy just confused between choosing between two suitors? Does the idea of simple marriage and a home life not appeal to her? We just don’t know.

Was the poltergeist caused by abuse or merely puberty? Blood stains on Betsy’s sheets and John’s shirt –was it rape or a father unable to accept his daughter’s first menstruation? Solomon isn’t quite clear, and his 2006 bookend implies the whole area of Red River, Tennessee is temptation for incestuous dads. As I said, the modern echo raises more questions than gives answers. What is the significance of the attic? Are these people even related? Is it supposed to be the same house? Indeed I hope these basic questions ( and boy there is a lot of them!) were not left unanswered to make room for a sequel. Oiy!

As is the new tradition, I’m sure Courtney Solomon will present a Director’s Cut! Special Edition! or some such. If it’s filled with more of Betsy thrashing around and clawing the floor instead of character development or an alternate ending, I don’t know if I’d buy it.

An American Haunting is a misguided attempt at a classic historical haunting on film. Genre fans who can’t get enough will dig the old school suspense feel, but penny pinchers should wait for a DVD sale or television premiere. I’ve seen better than An American Haunting. If you’re itching for something spooky to do, read a gothic novel instead.