Netflix Screaming Theater Vol. l
This is how we leap and creep during SHOCKTOBER — all horror, all the time. Sadly, Netflix Streaming has the worst selection of horror among all their titles. I can only assume there must be a deal between studios and Netflix to not let home viewers stream quality shocks or classics. Instead, it feels like where ScyFY Channel or straight-to-DVD movies go to torture the living. Check under “Frankenstein” for example, and you’re rewarded with Al Adamson’s borderline unwatchable DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971) (hello David Konow!) among a few obscure others, with Andy Warhol’s FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN (1974) being the most prominent. There are few classic Universal or even Hammer films available. When the best werewolf film available is FRANKENSTEIN’S BLOODY TERROR (1970) — which I adore — there’s something wrong here. You would hope that at least for October some specialized titles might have been added to the streaming queue. But there’s enough here to digest…
ALTERED (2006) – The first feature directed by Eduardo Sanchez (co-director of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT) and cleverly written by Jamie Nash was sent to the unfair realm of straight-to-DVD by Universal after a disappointing test screening. It’s too bad, because budgeted at eight million dollars, ALTERED could have easily earned its costs back in the theaters. This is a fun, unique, creepy science fiction horror with a great premise: a group of backwoods friends who were abducted and violently “probed” by aliens seek revenge by capturing one…with unexpected results.
Sanchez shows a sure hand as director (the opening shot is fantastic) and he builds a nice camaraderie between the characters, although their overtly hillbilly patter is a might overdone at first. It’s also good to see Michael C. Williams (THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT) in an unrecognizable role; his penultimate scene is some kind of modern grue classic. I was impressed by the old-school physical efx of the alien, a nifty original design with disturbing accouterments. And the brief use of CG is kind of spectacular. To the movie’s testament once I started watching I couldn’t stop. To say more would ruin the surprises in store. Here’s a rave review from Dread Central.com. I truly enjoyed ALTERED and count it as a new favorite in the Evil Alien genre.
KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER TV SERIES (1974) – One very cool thing about Netflix streaming is getting to viddy bounty from the boob tube. I was happy to revisit the full season of my favorite TV character from the 1970’s, one Carl Kolchak, intrepid Chicago reporter of the supernatural. Thanks to the record-breaking rating success of THE NIGHT STALKER (1973), Darren McGavin became a welcome weekly fixture on my young Friday nights although the series only lasted one season due to a time slot of the damned and the star’s displeasure with the scripts. It’s true, even in my youthful media idealism, I thought the series ridiculous. Every episode revolved around our fearless reporter discovering some new witch, demon, monster or robot and finishing it/him/her off by the episode’s tag. I could accept a Las Vegas vampire but was chagrined that Kolchak happens to board a cruise with the worst lycanthrope since THE WEREWOLF OF WOODSTOCK (1973). Apparently McGavin wanted more humor, which results in a schizophrenic tone. Much as I love the Kolchak character, he’s simply too glib and unserious here. If you found out that the boogeyman actually exists you’d become a monk, mystic or madman. It doesn’t help the series was sloppily directed in bad TV style but there were some memorable frightening moments.
STRAIGHT-JACKET (1965) – It wouldn’t be Halloween without one or two William Castle films. Netflix Screaming obliges with an HD version of this mild shocker starring Joan Crawford in one her many post WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (1962) horror roles. She’s actually the best thing in one of Castle’s more exploitive titles as a woman returning home to her daughter after being put away for the brutal axe murders of her boyfriend (Lee Majors!) and his lover. Also featuring George Kennedy as a grimy handyman, the story unfolds with a few surprises and one or two lopped heads. Castle never had a visual signature but he had moxie and Crawford surpasses his skills in an entertaining role. Her highlight is an awkward drunken seduction of her daughter’s boyfriend. You can’t help but love her as she lights a match on a spinning bop record. I just wish Castle had provided a stronger gimmick than the cardboard axes given out at a few theaters. He attempted a tie-in with Gillette razor blades, but they hung up on the master movie macabre showman. And stick around for the brilliant Columbia logo at the end…
PHANTASM (1979) – An all-time favorite. Twenty-One year old Don Coscarelli wrote and directed this utterly original sci-fi horror film that reaped big box-office and MPAA controversy over its gore, which is E.C. Comics fun and less bloody than JAWS. I think of PHANTASM as the best ABC After-School Special never made given its theme of filial abandonment and metaphoric nightmares. After the death of his parents and a family friend, young Mike Pearson discovers odd happenings at the creepy Morningside Cemetary. He enlists the aid of his reluctant brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister), the hippest ice cream man in film history, to stop the malevolence of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), one of the genre’s great villains.
What makes the film so unique is Coscarelli’s ambitious scope, as he jumps from shock to suspense to humor to science fiction. His place in the genre hall of fame is secure with the iconic “silver sphere,” still one of the most outrageous, memorable horror film set-pieces. I particularly like the tapestry of a real community between the friends, illustrated by the wonderful “Sittin’ Here At Midnight” musical interlude between Jody and Reggie (who kindly thanked me when I told him we included PHANTASM in a 70’s film course at Berkeley). I would think Wes Craven a fan too as this fear-of-parental-loss theme reflects elements of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Special praise should also be given to Fred Myrow’s effective Tubular Bells-esque score. And how bizarre that just as I finish typing this, I note an LA Times story today on the 30 year anniversary of PHANTASM…Boooooooy!!!!
THE TERMINATOR (1984) – I literally haven’t seen this since its opening weekend. Not because I don’t think it’s a science fiction action masterpiece — we all knew that in the theater on Saturday as the movie unspooled — but I recall the film so clearly I’ve never felt the need to go back. Until now. And I’m happy to say my recall didn’t fail me. What an incredible director Cameron is here, making the most of a six million dollar budget and a tight, excellent screenplay (with acknowledgment to the works of Harlan Ellison). I still think this is superior in every way to the the sequel, which I never cared for. Give me Stan Winston’s latex cybernetic flesh and Gene Warren’s stop-motion miniatures over morphing CG every time.
Obviously, it’s still Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best performance (especially compared to his horrendous miscasting in the role of The Governor) and there’s nobody that could have filled his exoskeleton. Linda Hamilton is tough and appealing as is her relationship with future savior Michael Biehn. Technical effects are top notch and clever, particularly Brad Fiedel’s memorable clanking electronic score. Almost every scene simply works due to Cameron’s fully formed directorial assurance. Sadly, the Netflix/Starz streaming is not anamorphic, so…you’re terminated, fucker.
STRANGE BEHAVIOR (1981) – It was good to finally see Michael Laughlin’s unusual horror film about the weird murders plaguing a quaint little town (actually New Zealand. Hi Leah!). Co-written by Bill Condon (GODS AND MONSTERS; CHICAGO), I’m not sure what was the impetus for this odd science horror story, but Laughlin directs in a subtle widecreen style (thank you Netflix) and gets engaging performances from his cast of familiars and unknowns. I’ve always liked Michael Murphy, especially when he’s in ass-kicking mode here. I won’t give up the plot as it’s part of the film’ “strange” charm, but it keeps you guessing until the not-wholly satisfying end. There are some scary set-pieces and Laughlin is just as interested in the characters as the terror. Tangerine Dream provides a moody terrific score that I want now. It’s hard not to respect a movie that features a Halloween dance musical number or killer hiding under a Tor Johnson mask…And don’t forget to check out the loose sequel, STRANGE INVADERS!
THE MUNSTERS SEASON ONE AND TWO (1964) – At the height of the 60’s monster boom, kids could choose between two television horror-comedies: THE ADDAMS FAMILY and THE MUNSTERS. I’ve always prefered the subversive antics of wily Gomez and sexy Morticia over the more filial sweetness of The Munster clan, but after reviewing many episodes, it’s hard not to be charmed all over again by Fred Gwynne’s jovial, egocentric, petulant Herman Munster. I pity Gwynne for blaming this role on his typecasting through the 60’s and 70’s (saved by Francis Coppola re-inventing him for THE COTTON CLUB), but he is the real star here, always endearing and humorous. My favorite of the episodes are the ones that resonant with the 60’s culture, such as “Zomba,” about Eddie’s love for an afternoon horror movie host (Louis Nye) and the episode where Herman discovers his inner beatnik poet. There’s no doubt that Jack Marshall’s theme song is among the coolest in TV history and the Munster household is a marvel of gothic production-design. I suitably geeked out in Rob Zombie’s living room when he pointed out the original furniture he owned from the series. And though both seasons were in black and white, the 1966 feature MUNSTERS GO HOME! was shot in ghoulish color and makes the family appear positively Bava-esque.
A HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (1970) – Speaking of Mario Bava, at least he’s represented on Netflix Screaming with one of his lesser films, a more moody psychological piece bereft of his usual cinematic psychedelic palette. The story of a wealthy fashion designer who has a penchance for dressing up in bridal gowns and killing women, he finds himself hounded by his wife who unwisely tells him that their marriage will last “until death do us part.” If that’s not an invitation to a psychotic then I don’t know what. She gets her death wish but her husband doesn’t count on her return from the grave to trip him up…
HFAH is lower-tier Bava giallo, but there is the usual audacious photography and suspenseful sequences. The film was advertised as a gore shocker (rated PG!), but it’s mild compared to his bloody TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE. Any Bava film is a welcome treat at Halloween time, but the transfer shows too much bad compression so I’m afraid I have to divorce myself from the print shown here…
BLOODSUCKING FREAKS (1976) – This infamous black “comedy” originally titled THE INCREDIBLE TORTURE SHOW about a troupe of professional sadists is probably the most offensive movie I’ve ever ever seen. What to make of moments where a crazed dentist yanks out a woman’s teeth to prevent her from “biting” him before forced oral sex or a sweet ballerina getting her feet cut off by a murderous dwarf? The film was protested by woman’s groups when it played in New York, achieving a well-deserved misogynistic reputation. There’s no reason for me to revisit this as its awful images are already burned into my reluctant retina, but for fans of the sadomasochistic outre, bon apetit.
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931) – The best filmed version of Robert Louis Steven’s eternal tale on the dual nature of mankind remains this classic starring Fredric March in one of the most outstanding genre performances of all time. There’s a reason why he was given the Academy Award for Best Actor in an era unused to honoring horror. Beautifully directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the disturbing feature still packs a wallop as this is pre-Hollywood Code and therefore ripe with risque terror. March’s feral Mr. Hyde is a genuine id gone amuck, and Jack Pierce’s startling make-up has yet to be topped. This is a must-see and thanks to musical theater archivist, Miles Krueger, I recently had the thrill of trying on Mamoulian’s actual glasses that he wore while directing the film.
POPCORN (1989) – I’ve always wanted to see this cult, troubled Alan Ormsby/Bob Clark production and I’m glad I have. Basically the tale of a mystic, disfigured killer who stalks an all-nite horror movie marathon, Writer-Director Ormsby left (or was let go) halfway through filming and replaced by Clark’s PORKY’S star, Mark Herrrier. Ostensibly a tribute to the days (or nights) of chiller theatres, POPCORN is an unusual genre mash-up and worthy of at least one viewing. The highlight remains Ormsby’s affectionate films-within-a-films, done in the retro-style of Joe Dante’s MATINEE (1994). There are nice character bits by Ray Winston and Tony Roberts and the movie’s villain is apropos wacky and disturbing. The worst thing here is the uber-80’s synth score and the forced cameo by a limp reggae band on stage (who didn’t love reggae bands performing during monster movie marathons?). I enjoyed POPCORN as I’m a sucker for horror films set in movie theaters (like NIGHTMARE IN WAX (1978) or Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS (1987)) and Ormsby is a true aficianado as his classic 1970’s collaborations with Clark proved. The pair arguably had the best American auteur genre run of the decade with CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1971); DEATHDREAM (1972); DERANGED (1974) and BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974). Sadly, this is a weak-looking print that may not be any better than the maligned official DVD release. Perhaps the cloaked usher can escort you from the Screaming Theatre for now…