Category Archives: Anniversaries

The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project

On this day, 30 July, in 1999, The Blair Witch Project was released to the world. It is one of the greatest horror films ever made.

I realize that many people will disagree with me. And those people are wrong. I suspect that when the film was released, those people were part of the overwhelming number of viewers who quite liked it.

But something happened. And I watched that something. It’s summed up by a joke I remember a late-night comedian making. It went something like this, “A new extended cut of The Blair Witch Project has been released with an additional 5 minutes where nothing happens.”

Get it? It’s funny because nothing happens in the film! Except, of course, that lots happens in the film.

Highly Effective Horror

I still remember the visceral terror of the scene where they come out of their tent to piles of rocks around them. It’s true that nothing on screen happened. But it tells a story of this malevolent force that is constantly around them but never seen.

That’s also true of the stick figures scene:

I’ve watched the film again recently just to see if it really is as good as I remember. And even if you ignore all the horror elements of it, it’s still a fascinating look at three young people losing their minds.

Changing Opinions

It would be fascinating to look at the ratings of The Blair Witch Project over time. I think you would find that they go ever downward. That really should happen to all films because over time they lose their context and people can’t see what made them interesting.

Now with so many “found footage” films around, there’s a tendency to blame The Blair Witch Project. I think that’s a shame. For one thing, I rather like the found footage genre.

Like any genre, there are good ones and bad ones. But at their best, they can be very immediate. (Check out Ouija Blood Ritual.) See what Bomberguy and Strucci have to say about The power of VHS.

And for films with a limited budget, “found footage” can be a useful conceit. And I think that also has something to do with the push-back against the genre: big budgets don’t especially help.

Watch This Film

Regardless, if you haven’t seen it for a while, I recommend revisiting The Blair Witch Project with an open mind. You also might check out Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. It was savaged by the film critics but that was clearly just payback for the positive reviews of the first film.


The Blair Witch Project via Amazon under Fair Use.

Gone in 60 Seconds

Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)

On this day, 28 July, in 1974, Gone in 60 Seconds was put into wide release in the US. Most people know the remake starring Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie. But this is the one to watch.

As a point of comparison, the remake cost roughly 200 times as much to make in real dollars. It highlights something that has been much on my mind these last few years: psychotronic film has gone mainstream.

Or has it? Because when films like Gone in 60 Seconds or Parts: The Clonus Horror are remade, they lose their individuality. They become just another blockbuster. That doesn’t make them bad. But it does mean that there is a certain sameness to them that is the result of getting the full blockbuster treatment.

Gone in 60 Seconds

Gone in 60 Seconds was created by HB Halicki. He was the son of a towing company family who started his own in southern California. He did some work in and around the independent film scene before he decided to make the film.

With the exception of editor Warner E Leighton, Halicki relied primarily on an inexperienced crew. And yet, the results are exceptional. People mostly talk about the 40-minute car chase that ends the film. But I’m more impressed with the first hour.

One exceptional aspect of the film is all the inside information that it provides — from car theft to police work to the insurance industry. It all comes off like a really exciting documentary.

It’s also beautifully shot. When I first saw it, I figured that Halicki must have hired an experienced camera operator and cinematographer. But no.

Another aspect of it is the dense sound editing. You can’t possibly catch it all on one viewing. It’s as exciting as the action on the screen.

Overall, it’s just a wonderful story that has you hooked from the start. I imagine that Halicki was a great raconteur. There isn’t a lot to the story of Gone in 60 Seconds, but the telling is great.

The film was a big hit at the time. But since then, it’s been neglected and dismissed as just a car-chase film. There is so much more here and if you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself.

Later HB Halicki

Halicki went on to create a few more films that were similar in nature and usually in plot. But during a stunt for Gone in 60 Seconds 2, he was killed at the age of 48.

You can get Gone in 60 Seconds on DVD but the Blu-ray and combo DVD/Blu-ray are both cheaper. The single Blu-ray comes with some interviews. The combo comes with more including a commentary with cinematographer Jack Vacek and editor Leighton. The film is also on Amazon Prime.


Gone in 60 Seconds cover image via Amazon under Fair Use.

Keenan Wynn

Keenan Wynn

Today, 26 July, is Keenan Wynn’s birthday. He was born in 1916 and died just over 70 years later. He continues to be one of my favorite character actors.

His father, Ed Wynn, was arguably more famous: a vaudeville comedian who then became very popular in radio and films. If you watch old comedies, you know him. If nothing else, you probably know him from the second episode of The Twilight Zone, “One for the Angels.”

Keenan’s full name was Francis Xavier Aloysius James Jeremiah Keenan Wynn—you can see why he shortened it.

Personal Life

Because of his father’s fame, Wynn did not live the most exciting of lives. There are no great stories of his rise to fame. He got work. He was good so he continued to get work.

One interesting thing about Wynn is that his first wife, Evie Wynn Johnson, left him for Van Johnson. Kind of. It appears their relationship was crumbling, so the studio got her to marry Johnson to put an end to rumors that Johnson was gay.

Of course, Johnson was gay, although they did manage a child (but who knows). You see how it is with Keenan Wynn? There was always a lot more around Wynn’s life than in it.

Professional Life

Wynn started on Broadway where he worked from the mid-1930s through the beginning of the 1940s. Then he worked in films, doing bit parts into the mid-1950s. From that point on, he did mostly television, but still a fair amount of feature film work.

Most notably, he played the simple-minded Colonel Bat Guano in Dr Strangelove. He was also in a number of those Disney live-action films that I loved as a kid. In the end, IMDb list 374 total credits (that includes 25 episodes of Troubleshooters, 9 episodes of Dallas, and 22 episodes of Call to Glory).

Wynn also starred in a lot of exploitation films later in his career. I want to highlight one of those films here: Parts: The Clonus Horror. It’s one of those films I discovered via MST3K and got annoyed because they wouldn’t shut up.

In 2005, it was effectively remade as The Island. I liked that film although it’s over-long because of endless Michael Bay action sequences. The producers of Parts sued DreamWorks, who settled out of court. The truth is, The Island is just a less-believable version of the film.

Here’s the whole film cued where Wynn shows up. I highly recommend watching the whole thing:

Other Keenan Wynn


Image is in the public domain.

Anniversary Post: They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants

On this day, 9 June, in 1971, They Might Be Giants was released. It’s one of my all-time favorite films. But I must admit that the first time I saw it I was bewildered by it. I just didn’t grok it. I guess I was just too young and too sane.

Or maybe it is that the film is all about the nature of reality — something I didn’t connect with much when I was young. Now it’s the main thing I think about. In the film, George C Scott plays Justin Playfair, a retired judge who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes. Or is he Sherlock Holmes? I’d say that you are more likely to enjoy the film if you go along with it.

But the main thing in They Might Be Giants is that it is filled with colorful characters played by colorful character actors like Al Lewis (The Munsters), Rue McClanahan (The Golden Girls), Oliver Clark (A Star Is Born), and Jack Gilford (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum).

How to Watch They Might Be Giants

I highly recommend seeing it if you haven’t. Below, I’ll embed a great print (while it lasts). But you can get it on Blu-ray with a director commentary, a featurette, and the extra scene in the grocery store (sadly not integrated with the film as it has been in other releases).

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of its release. We will have to do something for it. It is a spectacular film!

See our article on the film.


The Might Be Giants DVD case via Wikipedia under Fair use.

Anniversary Post: Invaders From Mars

Invaders From Mars

Things just turned out this way: another Tobe Hooper film was released. This time it is Invaders From Mars on 6 June 1986. I enjoy it a lot but it isn’t one of my favorites.

So why am I talking about it today? Because critics have hated it and continue to do so.

Let me take a review from Time Out that is actually better than most. It says:

“The effects are magnificent, but whereas the original worked by building up an increasingly black mood, this version relies almost entirely on the special effects; and such limited brooding tension as it has is gratuitously undermined by a string of sequences played purely for laughs.”

So this version of the film works almost entirely by using special effects? I don’t agree with that at all. But if that were the case, why is it a bad thing? Why is building up a black mood the correct way to go? Should this version of the film do that too? I know what the critic would have said if the film had done that, “This version just repeats what was done better in 1953”!

Then we learn that the limited brooding tension that the film managed was destroyed by its comedic elements. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the filmmakers hadn’t actually been going for the “black mood” of the original.

“Not What I Wanted to See!”

This has got to be the single most annoying film criticism: “This film was not at all what I wanted to see!” Feature films generally take years to make. There’s a really good chance that what is up on the screen is what the filmmakers wanted.

I understand: sometimes you just don’t like a film. You wish it had gone in another direction. But I fail to see how this is a criticism of the film. It’s like complaining that you didn’t like Eaten Alive because you were really more in a comedy mood.

Even if you think a film critic is just an ombudsman, how is that helpful? The Time Out review ends, “Fun, but very silly.” Okay. That would have made a better complete review. It would have warned potential viewers that this film with its obviously cheeky 1950s science fiction film title will not be like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Good, I guess…


Invaders From Mars poster via Wikipedia under Fair use.

Anniversary Post: It Came From Outer Space

It Came From Outer Space

On this day, 5 June, in 1953, It Came From Outer Space was released. It’s especially notable because it isn’t a film you can easily reduce to an allegory about communist fears.

Listening to people now days you would think that the only thing on the minds of Americans in the 1950s was the rise of communism. Certainly, people were afraid of that — mostly because they were constantly told to be afraid of it by the media’s easy alliance with the government. But people feared a lot of things. And people really did fear invaders from Mars!

Hopeful Aliens

But It Came From Outer Space is a hopeful film with nice aliens who just happened to crash on Earth and are trying to repair their space ship and get back home.

Today, I’m pretty tired of this. I want to bang my head on a wall whenever I hear about Gene Roddenberry “optimistic vision” of the future. What it ended up being was his boring vision of later television drama where everyone is so well-adjusted the plots seem more like clever puzzles than stories about human beings.

Drama!

It Came From Outer Space isn’t like that at all. That’s mostly because everyone thinks that John, played by Richard Carlson (Creature from the Black Lagoon), is suffering from a concussion. And then when the sheriff does believe him, there’s more conflict.

And the moral of the story is something we all know: humans suck. It makes a great pairing with Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

It Came From Outer Space also features Barbara Rush (When Worlds Collide) and Russell Johnson (This Island Earth). It’s based on a Ray Bradbury story. And made by the same group that would bring us Creature from the Black Lagoon the next year.

You can get a good print of it (MPEG4) for free at Archive.org. Unfortunately, it doesn’t embed correctly. There is a Blu-ray of it available that comes with a commentary by Tom Weaver, for those who are fans.


It Came From Outer Space poster via Wikipedia under Fair Use.

Anniversary Post: Poltergeist

Poltergeist

On this day, 4 June, in 1982, Poltergeist was released. At the time of its release, it terrified me. And it remains a sold haunted house film with some nice touches like the mother at first finding it kind of delightful.

It also has a wonderfully subversive subtext with people getting rich by literally providing homes on top of the corpses of Native Americans. And I just love that the father is reading Reagan the Man the President.

But it’s hard for me to watch today without seeing its flaws. The lore of the film is that Steven Spielberg is who really directed it. I don’t accept that at all, but as co-writer and producer, his fingers are all over it. Poltergeist only feels like a Tobe Hopper film now and then.

Poltergeist vs The Funhouse

Yesterday, I watched The Funhouse — Hooper’s 1981 film about some kids who spend the night in the funhouse and end up hunted by two carnies — one of whom is literally a monster (sympathetic though he may be).

Instead of the made-for-TV parents in Poltergeist, The Funhouse features an emotionally distant father and an alcoholic mother. And frankly, it’s just more tightly produced. It was created for the ages not a few weeks of major release.

But I don’t want to be unfair. Poltergeist is a very good film. And the plot unravels beautifully. And the swimming pool scene with the skeletons is just fantastic.

Tobe Hooper as Director

I’ve come to the conclusion that Tobe Hooper is the Orson Welles of horror. By that I mean that he wasn’t all that interested in creating finished films. He was interested in experimenting and pushing his craft further.

That’s how you get later films like Crocodile, which many people can’t understand. Yes, overall, it’s a standard teen horror film. But it also has moments that are as good as anything he ever did.

Hooper didn’t talk that much about his work. And when he did, he didn’t say much. He seemed to be an extremely introverted guy. There was clearly a lot going on inside that only came out clearly in his work.

I think he took opportunities like Crocodile to try out new things. And that says a lot about him. Because he could have just ossified. If he had, critics and audiences would have liked him a lot more than they did. But he fought that and ended up always creating interesting films.

Poltergeist is definitely part of that. But I don’t think it needs my voice to add to the chorus of people singing its praise. There are already more than enough people doing that — mostly people who have never watched Eaten Alive or Djinn.

But let’s face it: most critics resented Hooper for continuing to be a horror director. The director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was supposed to develop past that to start making art films. They never realized that he had already started making art films and never stopped.


Poltergeist poster via Wikipedia under Fair Use.

Recent Additions: May 2020

Psychotronic Review

It was a big month for new short takes. I can’t really get through a day without watching a film — usually a horror film. But as usual, I’m going to have to look up half the films here. It was only after writing two articles about Monster From The Ocean Floor that I remembered what it was about.

This doesn’t speak to the quality of the films. But it does speak to the quality of the titles. Like The Beast Must Die. That could be about anything!

  1. 13 Frightened Girls (1963): probably my least favorite William Castle film. But then, I’m not that target audience of 13-year-old girls. It’s well-made, though.
  2. 13 Ghosts (1960): a light horror mystery from our man Castle. This is a good one to get your kids started on horror films.
  3. And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973): one of the better Amicus features. Very effective!
  4. Asylum (1972): another collection of short horror films from Amicus. I particularly like the one about the chopped-up lady.
  5. The Babysitter (1980): made-for-television film about an unstable nanny who destroys a family. Features William Shatner in a regular-guy role.
  6. Beast From Haunted Cave (1959): a standard low-budget monster movie about a group of criminals on the run. Notable mostly for taking place in the snow.
  7. The Beast Must Die (1974): this is the kind of film that psychotronic fans live for. Who would think to combine a werewolf with an insane big game hunter? You’ve got to see this!
  8. Black Christmas (1974): one of the earliest slasher films and one of the best. It’s really nice to have a story that doesn’t feature any kind of clever back-story. There’s a crazy guy and he’s murdering people. That’s enough.
  9. Blood Ties (1991): a new take on the vampire. Unfortunately, this has been done to death now. But if you can get past that, it’s a solid film.
  10. BMX Bandits (1983): a bike-oriented kids film that made Nicole Kidman a star. If you were into those bikes when you were a kid, you’ll love this film. I, of course, was inside watching horror films.
  11. Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974): if released today, this title would be cheeky. But this film is for real. It’s a wonderful combination of horror and adventure. This is a classic!
  12. Chop (2011): a truly funny horror comedy that surprises right up to its denouement, which is purposefully anti-climatic. I love this film!
  13. Countess Dracula (1971): horror film based on the true-life psychopath Elizabeth Báthory. Other than actually getting younger, this is probably how it was.
  14. Day of Anger (1967): a good Spaghetti Western that maybe tries a bit too hard to be serious.
  15. Day the World Ended (1955): another of those 1950s post-nuclear war films that mostly take place in a single room. This one is pretty good.
  16. Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973): basically a period zombie picture that is pretty twisted.
  17. Doll Factory (2014): a teen horror-comedy that is genuinely funny. And most of the teens are horrible so it’s fun to see them eaten by dolls.
  18. Escape from LA (1996): people hated this film when it came out but today, it’s probably more fun to watch than the original.
  19. Escape from New York (1981): a solid action film although I don’t especially care. I’ve never gotten over Adrienne Barbeau dying.
  20. The Evil (1978): people renovating an old house unleash a demon and need to find their way out. The set is great and the film a lot better than it has any right to be.
  21. Forest Primeval (2008): a lesser film by the Polonia brothers, it’s a bit slow but definitely has its moments.
  22. Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965): a pleasant 1960s Scifi film about Martians stealing our women. Nothing to be sought or avoided.
  23. God’s Gun (1976): a great Spaghetti Western with Lee Van Cleef playing two roles. It’s a lot of fun.
  24. Homicidal (1961): one of William Castle’s best. I think it’s better than Psycho.
  25. House of the Long Shadows (1983): the only film featuring Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and John Carradine. Even apart from that, it’s a good film.
  26. Inferno (1980): The second film in The Three Mothers trilogy. Very creepy with great practical effects and look. Essential viewing!
  27. The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977): great sketch comedy featuring four segments that should appeal to psychotronic fans.
  28. Krippendorf’s Tribe (1998): a widely-hated but hilarious screenball comedy.
  29. The Little Shop of Horrors (1960): this is a very funny film. If you haven’t seen it, what’s wrong? Here: a free copy!
  30. Mandao of the Dead (2018): a youthful comedy with a horror angle. I’m really looking forward to what this group does in the future.
  31. Monster From The Ocean Floor (1954): Roger Corman’s first film is pretty good. And the shark scene is great.
  32. Mother of Tears (2007): the last of The Three Mothers trilogy. It features great practical horror effects. Don’t believe the haters.
  33. Mr Sardonicus (1961): this is a really good film but the make-up effects do make it seem kind of silly.
  34. The Norliss Tapes (1973): the pilot of what looks like what would have been a great series. It features an unusual zombie story.
  35. The Old Dark House (1963): William Castle’s remake is quite enjoyable. This is another one for the kids.
  36. Paranoiac (1963): story of a very screwed-up family. Solid narrative.
  37. Phantom of the Paradise (1974): a surprisingly good musical and parody of Faust and Phantom of the Opera.
  38. A Pistol for Ringo (1965): a very good Spaghetti Western that spawned a ton of sequels.
  39. Rats: Night of Terror (1984): Two hundred years after nuclear war, rats have become very dangerous. Pretty fun film.
  40. Seven Psychopaths (2012): a fun but intense film about a bunch of really bad people. You know they have to be bad if Colin Farrell is the most likable character.
  41. Shanghai Joe (1973): more or less a film version of Kung Fu with over-the-top action sequences.
  42. Schlep (2016): teen comedy from the same group that brought us Mandao of the Dead.
  43. Serpent Island (1954): low-budget film aboard a ship on its way to Haiti. It’s surprisingly engaging.
  44. Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971): solid comedy with great production values. Most people like the original more.
  45. Support Your Local Sheriff (1969): simple comedy with a strong lead performance and a great supporting cast.
  46. Terror of Dracula (2012): a low-budget and very talky Dracula adaptation. Good acting.

That’s all for this month. I’ll probably focus more on horror next month.

I’d say the following are worth owning: The Beast Must Die, Black Christmas, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, Chop, Doll Factory, Escape from LA, Escape from New York, Homicidal, Inferno, The Kentucky Fried Movie, A Pistol for Ringo, And Now the Screaming Starts! The rest are either of less interest or are only marginally psychotronic.

Also: just download The Little Shop of Horrors since it is free and something you’ll want to watch every few years.

Anniversary Post: Price, Cushing, and Lee

House of the Long Shadows

Yesterday, 26 May, was Peter Cushing’s birthday. He was born in 1913.

And today, 27 May, is the birthday of Vincent Price (1911) and Christopher Lee (1922).

Three titans of horror. Three excellent actors. Three tall men. All born around the same date.

I guess they were also all friends, although it’s very hard to tell when it comes to actors who are always playing a part when a camera is rolling.

Collaborations

Everyone knows that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing starred in a lot of films together. Watching a collection of Hammer films is a lot like watching “The Cushing and Lee Show. “

I know of only two films that featured Price and Cushing. The first was Dr Phibes Rises Again although Cushing is barely in it and probably wasn’t even on set at the same time as Price. Much better is Madhouse where they work together closely and brilliantly. It’s a great part for Cushing!

And there’s only one film I know of with just Price and Lee: The Oblong Box. It’s a great film but the two men don’t work that much with each other.

All Three Men

There are two films that feature all three men. The first was 1970’s Scream and Scream Again. It’s a good film that has you confused until the very end. The problem with it is that Peter Cushing is hardly in it all.

If you want to celebrate this occasion, you should watch House of the Long Shadows. It’s an ensemble film but the three men are all primary. And as a special extra it also features John Carradine!

And I just happened to have found a wonderful copy of the film on YouTube. So here’s to Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee!


Image from House Of The Long Shadows via Amazon under Fair Use.

Anniversary Post: Rats: Night of Terror

Rats: Night of Terror

On this day, 23 May, in 1984, the Italian horror film Rats: Night of Terror was released!

I’ll admit, when I first heard of this film, I was skeptical. I like rats and I don’t like to see them as antagonists in films. (They aren’t in Willard. There, they are just meting out justice.)

But at least the rats are presented as smart. And it has a very happy ending!

Rats was co-written and directed by exploitation master Bruno Mattei. He’s mostly known for never doing anything new. If a film was doing well at the box office, he’d make his own version.

Salon Kitty was a big deal in 1976. So in 1977, Mattei brought the world SS Girls. How do you not love that?!

Night of the Living Rats

Rats is more or less Night of the Living Dead — but with rats. Michael Weldon says it has more or less the same plot as Chosen Survivors, but I haven’t seen it so I can’t say for sure. And clearly, I’m sure it’s also ripping off Willard.

The basis of the movie is that there was a nuclear war in 2015. The survivors head underground and live there. After a hundred years, some of them decided to live above ground. Thus humanity was divided into two groups. The film takes place 110 years after that in 2225.

The story centers on a biker gang (with a tank and a truck) living in a barren land, scavenging to survive. They are a stylish bunch with cool names like Chocolate, Lucifer, and Video!

All is going well after they come to an abandoned town. They find a bunch of food that has somehow survived for 210 years. But then they discover various dead bodies. And the rats start to attack. And then they start to die.

Rats Is a Good Time

Rats is filled with great practical effects. And it does a particularly great job of combining real rats with fake ones. Although the river of rats can be a bit much at times. Of course, one of the treats of this film is that it is always at least a little over the top.

What’s most remarkable here, however, is how compelling the story is. The characters are a lot more real than they have any right to be. That’s especially true of Chocolate (Geretta Geretta) and Video (Gianni Franco).

Everything about the film seems better than it should be. The sets are really good. The lighting is always interesting if sometimes a bit too dark. (This may be a video artifact; projected film always has much better contrast.) The camera work is lively without being excessive. And the editing pulls the story along mostly, although there are moments when it seems like there wasn’t transition material.

I highly recommend seeing Rats: Night of Terror if you get the chance. It’s not great. And one of the female characters is too much like Barbra in the original Night of the Living Dead. But it’s quite an enjoyable hour and a half.


Rats: Night of Terror DVD cover is via Amazon and taken under Fair Use.