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Sunday, February 20, 2011

When A Stranger Calls

     Based on the urban legend that scared the shit out of us all as kids, "When A Stranger Calls" is a classic spine-tingler from 1979 starring Carol Kane and Charles Durning. We all know the story- it's about a babysitter mercilessly terrorized by a psychopathic killer, who just happens to be inside the house the whole time.  And it boasts probably one of the most terrifying opening scenes in horror film history.  Seriously, the first 25 minutes or so of this little suspense thriller could easily be the blueprint for the modern slasher.  The blood-chilling phone calls asking Kane if she's checked the children are just sooooo scary that it takes you instantly back to childhood, cowering in the dark over that strange noise right outside your bedroom window.  "Halloween" also brilliantly zeroed in on this subconscious fear.  For kids, anything associated with the babysitter can be scary.  Because it means that Mom and Dad are away.  And bad things can happen when they are away...

     The first act of this movie is absolutely perfect in every way- starting with the awesome Carol Kane.  Her performance helps sell the movie.  As scary as the calls are, it's a testament to her acting that we're so frightened for her.  Even though it's only 20 minutes or so, the tension and suspense are drawn out so much that it feels like we've been through an entire movie already. The pacing is delicious- it moves very slow and deliberate. We are simply riveted to the screen, left twisting in our seats in utter terror as Kane grows more and more frantic.  As the calls keep getting more and more frightening.  That, mixed with Kane's wide-eyed horror, some great cinematography, and some downright spooky music all combine to make "When A
Stranger Calls" one of the most infamous thrillers of the period.  Many fans tend to dismiss "When A Stranger Calls" because they say only the first part is worth watching.  I disagree.  Granted, the mid-section of the film doesn't pull the punch of that first act, not fully coming back to life until the final scenes.  But that doesn't mean the middle is boring, by any means.  It just kind of shifts gears as the killer, (who is well played by Tony Benckley, by the way,) stalks barfly Colleen Dewhurst with cop Charles Durning in tow. It becomes more of a character study of the killer, which did turn some viewers off.  They didn't want to see the killer as sympathetic. Carol Kane does meet up with the killer in the frightening climax, bringing the story full circle.
     As mentioned, many find the total movie boring.  I find it a quietly chilling slasher (actually... it's more of a suspense thriller than an actual slasher...) and besides, I've seen far worse.  I think "When A Stranger Calls" works best if you can just let go of all preconcieved notions and just go with it.  Take it as it is, and it's actually more enjoyable of a movie.  It's not "Halloween" or "Friday the 13th"- it takes more of a different approach.  More subtle.

      "Scream" obviously based its famous opening scene with Drew Barrymore on the opening scene of  this film. Now if you want to get technical, "Black Christmas" had already used the phone calls coming from inside the house jazz 5 years prior.  And the urban legend of the babysitter in peril had already been brewing in popular culture since the 50's or 60's, so by the time of the film's release in 1979, audiences responded.  The film took the story to almost mythical status, firmly entrenching it in pop culture forever.

     This film stands out because it's more realistic than most movies of its type.  The killer does not wear a mask of any kind- he's just a creepy, mentally unbalanced guy.  He's not invincible- he has weak moments and can be stopped.  He hasn't risen from a nearby grave.  Just a guy.  Combined with the talents of Kane and Durning, "When A Stranger Calls" is elevated to a higher plateau than say... "The Slumber Party Massacere" (a film in which I adore... by the way...).  Anyway, that first, horrifying scene alone is worth watching, and if you stick with it, you might find that it's not a bad little movie at all.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Silent Scream

       A gloomy seaside boardinghouse occupied by college students who can't find on-campus housing is the setting for this lost slasher.  The house is owned by Mrs. Engels (Yvonne DeCarlo), her strange son, Mason (Brad Reardon), and her daughter Victoria (Barbara Steele), who's suffering from a botched lobotomy.  Her surgery has left her elusive and dangerous, and like a dirty secret, she's kept locked in the attic.  On top of all this madness, a mysterious killer with a knife is lurking...

      "Silent Scream" has finally found it way to DVD, and for those of you who haven't seen this little-known slasher flick from 1980, it may surprise you.  I watched it again last night, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  This movie was exactly as I remembered it from 1987 when I first saw it, and I had a blast with it.  This is exactly the type of movie that made me such a fan of horror in the first place.


     Rebecca Balding plays Scotty, who's just a gal out looking for some affordable off-campus housing, and soon finds herself up to her Tenille in the eerie old house full of dark, family secrets and a murderous psychopath on the loose.   Scotty moves into the strange residence, meeting Mason and eventually his mother.  She instantly senses that something is just a little off in this crazy house.  (And boy, is there...)  We're also treated to wisecracking Doris, another residence of the house, along with a hunky college student whom Scotty instantly takes a shine to. Doris is certainly a hoot, but things waste no time turning sinister as we're immediately treated to creepy eyes peering through vents and a frenzied stabbing of another student on the beach.  The student was also living in Mrs. Engels' house, so after the body is found, a police investigation is launched, and the mystery of the mansion and its strange owners is all unraveled.  But not after some serious stabbings occur in the dark, dusty mansion.

     "Silent Scream" is a marvel.  Practically nobody has even heard of this little movie, yet I find it far more entertaining than say, "My Bloody Valentine".  This is a great little slasher, simple and to the point.  It moves along nicely, and you kind of dig Scotty- she's quite likable.  Mason is super weird and creepy, and his mother, (who's actually Lily Munster herself!) manages to be spooky on her own.  But Barbara Steele owns this movie.  She is truly scary in her role- she never utters a word in the entire film, yet completely steals the show. This would be her only on-screen performance in the 80's.

       "Silent Scream" was released slightly before the bloody onslaught of hundreds of copycat slashers, and kind of just got lost in the shuffle.  It's a shame, really, because it's actually quite good.  Predictable and cliched?  Sure.  But it does deliver some genuine shocks and suspense.  And it's chock full of dark cobwebbed hallways, frenzied stabbings, spooky music, and days of atmosphere.  All that on top of Barbara Steele's unnerving, eerie stare...  It doesn't hit you over the head as say "Friday the 13th" did, instead going for more of a disquieting, eerie effect.  It's a nifty mix of Gothic and Slasher flick, and I can't stop talking about the chilling Barbara Steele.   It borrows heavily from "Psycho" and "Halloween", and that's part of what makes it great.  Bottom line, "Silent Scream" is nothing spectacular, but it is a neat and underrated little thriller that certainly deserves an audience.  I love this little forgotten movie.  This is the kind of movie that you might stumble across at 11:30 one night and get completely caught up in.  If you enjoy gloomy mansions, spooky cellars and secret passageways that lead to certain doom, then "Silent Scream" is for you.  And it's available on Netflix!

      The film received a high-definition 1.78:1 transfer with a 5.1 surround soundtrack, so "Silent Scream" looks great.  Nothing you haven't seen before, but this one did leave an impact on me when I first saw it years ago on VHS.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


     It's absolutely true. CREEPSHOW is the most fun you'll ever have being scared, and I love, love, LOVE this movie. Inspired by the wonderful E.C. comics of the 1950's, it's a loving tribute to the horror genre, and deliciously brought to life by the combined talents of Stephen King, George A. Romero, and Tom Savini. CREEPSHOW is a horror fans dream, and dammit why aren't these types of films made anymore?  (I'll get toTRICK 'R TREAT later...)  Perfection this movie is, in every way possible.  Any movie that combines corpses and cockroaches and features the likes of Adrienne Fucking Barbeau, Leslie Nielson, Tom Atkins, and Ted Danson is alright by me.

     CREEPSHOW begins with some young kid being punished for reading an old horror comic by his douchebag father, played by the awesome Tom Atkins. Dad throws the comic out the window, which magically comes to life.

     The fun starts with "Father's Day". This is your typical, 50's-style, back-for-revenge tale complete with a rising corpse crawling out of his grave to terrorize Aunt Bedelia and family on Father's Day.  Look for a very young Ed Harris disco dancing. It's irresistibly creepy and entertaining.

     "The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verrill" is the second story, and it's a valentine to those nifty sci-fi/horror films of the 50's.  Stephen King himself plays a dumb-witted farmer who discovers an asteroid in his back yard and stupidly picks it up.  Soon, he finds his farm and himself overgrown with weeds, being slowly consumed by the alien foliage. Probably my least favorite segment, but it's still a lot of fun.

      "Something To Tide You Over" is definitely one of the scariest of them all, as it offers a cold-blooded Leslie Nielsen who catches his ex-wife and Ted Danson in an affair. Before they know it, the lovebirds find themselves up to their necks in the sand... with the tides about to come in... Of course, being a horror comic, Danson and partner return from the dead for a little old-fashioned revenge on poor  Leslie.

      "The Crate" is the most awesome story of the bunch, as the divine Adrienne Barbeau plays wonderfully loud-mouthed and sassy Wilma, the wife of hen-pecked Hal Halbrook. Seems ole' Hal has discovered a huge crate hidden under the stairs at the university where he works that's obviously been there for many years, with something alive inside it. Adrienne Barbeau is a tour-de-force in this segment- she delivers one of the best performances of her career, if you ask me. She's a total delight here, delivering a perfectly sarcastic and bitchy performance. She rocks and rocks it hard.

     Finishing off the mayhem is "They're Creeping Up On You", a squirm-inducing tale about cruel Upson Pratt (E.G. Marshall) who suffers from a severe phobia of germs and bugs. He lives inside a futuristic, bug-proof penthouse apartment, in a paranoid and angry state of mind. But, during a blackout, he discovers he's not alone in his fortress as he's overrun by literally thousands upon thousands of cockroaches.  This one is definitely not for the squeamish.

     Chock full of gruesome black humor, some genuine scares, and rad actors, CREEPSHOW is a true 80's gem that only looks better as the years go by. It's certainly one of the better horror anthologies, if not THE best. This is classic stuff, kids. CREEPSHOW perfectly straddles the line between horror and humor, and was obviously a labor of love for King, Savini, and Romero. This was when scary movies were made by people who genuinely loved horror movies, and loved making them.  Like kids in candy stores, and it usually showed in the final product. You can easily sense the love of the genre that went into the making of this movie. CREEPSHOW was a huge part of my childhood, and it's still a hell of a lot of fun to watch.  This is essential Halloween viewing, for sure.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Count Dracula


     There have been countless film versions of the story of Count Dracula.  Unfortunately, very few have been memorable.  Of course, we have Bela Lugosi's immortal incarnation, closely followed by the great Christopher Lee.  But for the most part, bleh.  However, in 1977, the BBC offered up a version of Bram Stoker's classic that follows his story more than any other adaption, I think.  Louis Jordan portrays the legendary Count, and for the most part, delivers an all-around creepy and chilling performance.

      This marvelous production provides loads of scary atmosphere and quite a few startling images.  Some complain about how the interiors are shot on video and the exteriors shot on film, but I think it gives the whole thing a delicious, "Dark Shadows" vibe to the  fun and doesn't bother me one bit.  If you've ever actually read the novel by Bram Stoker on which all of this is based on, you'll find this BBC production to be by far the most accurate and faithful.  Many horror fans claim this is the definitive Dracula brought to life, so to speak, beating out all the other Hollywood productions.  Arguable, to be sure.  But Jordan does deliver a kick-ass performance.  And it's certainly in the Top 5 all-time portrayals of the Count.

     This is essential October viewing, and still remains one of the best visions of the immortal Count Dracula.  There is just something about this version... something haunting.  It takes a miminalist approach, and honestly, it works far better than Francis Ford Coppola's over-blown, big-budget version.  This production proves once again that you can do wonders with very little as long as you have imagination.  For instance, the scoreless scenes of the wind howling through the castle and the wolves howling outside are extremely effective and atmospheric.  I would have to say that this is the spookiest Count Dracula I've ever seen.  No disrespect to Lugosi or Lee here, but Jordan's Count Dracula is by far the scariest. The entire production is scary.  There is an underlying sense of dread that permeates this production- it really does get under your skin. So, if you want to experience the fog-drenched world of Transylvania pretty much as Bram Stoker himself imagined it, then this is the one for you.  "Count Dracula" is must-see viewing, and here is a taste of the lush terror that awaits you.

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