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The Secret of NIMH (1982)

March 14th, 2012 · 15 Comments

I need to start watching more animation. Movies in general are stellar transportation out of my dilapidated noggin but it seems animated movies have the power to drop me off at a bus stop happily even farther away from my home. Was I just hanging out with a bunch of talking animals? I could get used to that. Inspired by a reader’s comment in one of our posts (Thanks Drew Bludd!), I jumped into THE SECRET OF NIMH, a film I caught back in the day on cable that I didn’t recall too much about. Now, I think anybody at any age should be able to enjoy SECRET but I don’t think I made the best audience at whatever age I encountered it the first time. Back then I was probably thinking animation suited a younger crowd while still being too immature to appreciate the incredible level of artistry present. Currently I’m flattened and floored by the accomplishment that is THE SECRET OF NIMH. What a beautiful thing. Everybody who works in animation out there who keeps the tradition alive, my grateful eyeballs salute you. (You won’t catch me disparaging computer animation though on account of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON alone validates its existence.)

I can’t comment on how good an adaptation SECRET is of the book it’s based on because I have not read it (yet!) but I can say that if I would drink all the colors in this movie if I could. There may be some flaws in that certain story elements are fuzzier than necessary and things are a bit too conveniently mended by magic in the end but I’m starting to believe that flaws are what keep art from becoming stagnant and dull. SECRET is perhaps dark but it’s a beautiful kind of dark and darkness here only serves to brighten the positive light that it frames.

I’m sure some kids could easily get wigged out by the hideous monster spider that appears but without said spider, how could we fully marvel at the bravery of heroine Mrs. Brisby? Brisby is my favorite type of hero. She’s not looking for trouble and she’s in no way on an ego trip trying to prove her pluck. She simply does what must be done. The dilemma here is that there’s a tractor coming that will flatten her house but she can’t move her youngest kid because he’s sick as a dog; harrowing scene after harrowing scene ensue. I’m telling ya, watching Brisby face an assortment of intimidating obstacles to reach her goal makes for some surprisingly suspenseful fare. If it wasn’t for Jonsey, I think Brisby and ALIEN’s Lt. Ripley would make great pals.

Another thing that makes Mrs. Brisby a special rodent is the fact that she is voiced by ELIZABETH HARTMAN and it’s the last film credit of her career. HARTMAN was nominated for an Oscar for her film debut in A PATCH OF BLUE and at the time, she was the youngest person ever to be nominated. I’m most familiar with her due to her work in that exceptional CLINT EASTWOOD flick THE BEGUILED and for the NIGHT GALLERY episode she appears in called “The Dark Boy.” Sadly, mental health issues hounded this great actress and while her popularity declined, she became a recluse and eventually took her own life by jumping out a fifth story window. How’s that for depressing? Other folks that lend their voice talents are DOM DeLUISE as a bumbling crow and JOHN CARADINE as threatening but knowledgeable owl. SECRET is also the first film credit for both SHANNEN DOHERTY and WIL WEATON. Yep, it’s true that this movie is heavier than the usual kid friendly fare but therein lies its power.

I suppose it’s no surprise that I’m all for more challenging, less candy-coated fare for children and it’s not because of a secret self-serving plan to harvest more traumafessions in the future, I swear! Fact is, the world can be a rather horrible place and as much as it would be nice to keep children in the dark about that fact as long as possible, allowing them to safely process that idea before it becomes obvious, I believe, buffers the jolt. I’m no parent but I can readily recall what it was like to be a kid and thank God I had the darker side of cinema to let me know that what darkness was in my life was not exclusively attached to me.

The important thing here is not the level of threat that confronts Brisby but the level of courage and determination she exudes while confronting those threats. Maybe that seems like no big deal but considering the fate of the troubled woman who voiced her, it’s important to remember that the difference between plowing forward regardless of what ugliness appears and giving up is in fact, gargantuan.

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Tags: Caution: I break for geniuses! · Repeat Offenders · Trauma-Mommas · Tykes in Trouble

Official Traumatizer:: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

August 3rd, 2011 · 11 Comments

There’s a re-do of the classic 1973 T.V. flick DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK right around the bend so let’s say we take a closer look at the original. There’s something about this relatively simple tale that allows it to forge a significant mark. The premise, a woman fighting for her existence against tiny, Smurf-sized fiends is on the surface silly and yet the minimal production hits an uncanny tone that feels as old as the hills and bewilderingly familiar. Tiny monsters aside, we’re dealing with a haunted house and a haunted house is usually a prop to depict a haunted mind. There is a bounty of horror movie titles that begin with the cautionary word “Don’t” but none whose suggestion is as difficult to achieve wholly. We can choose not to go in the basement, in the house or in the woods when titles warn against it but the human fear of darkness is planted in our DNA. It’s primal and it’s permanent even if what we dread to find in the blackness alters with age.

For many, the fear of darkness is born in their earliest of memories. It doesn’t come as a surprise that this film would have its strongest effect upon those who viewed it at a tender age. The thing under the bed and the thing in the closet are both given ample room to run and play here. In fact, we have sort of an all-star cast of classic terror instigators, an old dark house, whispering voices, howling winds and ink-black shadows that could easy ensconce our worst nightmares, they all make an appearance before the curtain closes (and when this curtain closes it closes hard.) The childhood horrors traipsing around in this movie are as plain as day, they scatter like roaches when the lights go on but what I think makes the film special are the larger adult horrors that lumber in the background. They’re reluctant, abstruse and somehow even darker.

Sally Farnham (KIM DARBY) seemingly has all of her ducks lined up in a row. She and her upwardly mobile husband Alex (JIM HUTTON) have recently inherited a dream home from her grandparents. While Alex is busy piling up promotions at work, Sally spends her day with her interior decorator, maid and handyman setting up house. Problems arise when Sally discovers her Grandpa’s study in which lies a bricked-up chimney. The handyman warns her that “some things are better left alone,” but she delves just the same. She opens the chimney’s ash chute and peers into an absolute abyss. Now she has inherited something new. Demons have been freed to taunt and take down Sally. Of course nobody believes these entities are real and soon her world is in shambles. Nothing has changed but everything has. Her husband seems suddenly a work-consumed jerk and the house she once loved grows smaller and smaller and darker and darker. Her ducks are frustratingly no longer in a row.

The prune faced whispering gnome gremlins of DBAOTD are certainly memorable but if you were to edit them out of the picture you’d have a story about a woman crashing face first into a wall of denial. I’m not discounting the trolls as nuisances but it’s interesting to note just where the fabric tears in Sally’s life occur and the many loaded symbols the mini-goons utilize to frazzle her.

First of all, it’s obvious that the Farnham marriage is not as perfect as once thought. It turns out maybe Sally isn’t feeling as fulfilled in her set-up as she originally planned. Alex is never around and when he is, he’s barking out orders, mineralizing her needs (and troll concerns) and critiquing her party hosting abilities. Holy crap, she’s a trophy wife in a gilded cage and why did she never realize this before? Spending her husband’s money to replace ashtrays destroyed by goblins doesn’t even fill the void! Sure Alex is on the fast track but where the hell is Sally going? At this rate she could end up trapped, growing old in this house forever! (Note: Alex has some reasonable fears too, like that his wife will pull him into the quicksand with her.)

“Some things are better left alone.” If Sally had just gone with the flow and refused to examine that which she was warned not to, would life had continued on a smooth gnome- free course? Are the walnut headed midgets that hand Sally razor blades, slip her sleeping pills and leave her with gashes in her palms the real problem or just creeps who want to accentuate those that already exist while forcing an accelerated outcome?

It’s easy to conclude that Sally’s “nervous” disposition masks resentment towards her authoritative husband and her unsatisfactory domestic life but that doesn’t explain why her grandfather succumbed to the same demons when he retired to his study. If we are to take the little monsters at their word then they have already explained what is at stake and what Sally needs to fear losing in the dark, namely her spirit. Sally ultimately fears the same thing from her husband, her house AND the creatures, that she will be consumed and lost within them. One might assume that she has not only inherited the knowledge of her dormancy but the dormancy itself. Whose life is she living?

Hope you’ve seen this because now I’m going to talk about the ending. It’s a favorite. Some folks might find Sally’s ineffectualness annoying, but it’s rather the point of the story. Sally looses. Drugged, she puts forth a somewhat valiant effort attempting to fight back by casting light (a camera flash) upon her darkness thriving tormentors and yet still she fails. She is dragged into the chimney and the aid of her husband and close friend are too little and too late. It’s not unlike the conclusion of THE HAUNTING or THE YELLOW WALLPAPER and frankly, I’m all for it. Horror stories are in no way required to be tales of empowerment and conquest. It’s not their job to boost your ego. Please pick another genre if you want to see your fantasies fulfilled.

DONT BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is about a woman who ostensibly has it all. She’s living the dream or at least the dream of 1973 and it’s not enough. The hubby is placated and the rooms are decorated just so but an emptiness, a “darkness” remains. She’s sold herself out really to stand in somebody’s shadow not realizing just how cold and dark shadows can get. There’s a Pandora’s Box element for sure with Sally daring to look where advised not to but what she finds is only the truth exaggerated (and miniaturized). In the end, Sally’s voice joins the chorus of the lost; her spirit forever trapped in a house living a life that is no longer her own. In a weird way though her dilemma is solved and her feeling of disconnect is no longer an issue. Depersonalization cures all. Now she is an integral part of something.

Many who return to DON’T after being traumatized by it as kids find it less than what they remember and there are those who, having heard tale of this flick, track it down only to find it laughable. I can understand that but I wonder if perhaps they are investing too much in the micro-ghouls as literal beings. If you instead read them as representatives of a privileged woman’s swept under the rug internal demons, this is an exceptionally strong outing (especially considering its 74 minute running time and two week shooting schedule.) In the alternate dimension of genuine reality, I don’t believe that Sally was dragged into the chimney to disappear forever but I do believe she indeed lost her battle to find a meaningful place for herself in the world and succumbed to a suffocating status quo, trapped, diminished and ultimately snuffed out like a candle. Whether it’s worse to shrink into a wrinkle-faced troll or transform into “the perfect party host” is up to the viewer to decide.

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Tags: Darkness · Repeat Offenders · The Seventies mushed my head

The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973)

February 18th, 2011 · 5 Comments

Aw, c’mon how’s a person supposed to not enjoy THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF? You’d have to be quite the Smurf kicking curmudgeon. Yes, the werewolf wears a turtleneck but decapitations, even if enacted off-screen, have to count for something. This 1973 PG-rated affair was the last film directed by NATHAN JURAN (ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN) and although it’s about as menacing as a bag of pink marshmallows, it’s a clever enough kiddie telling of the werewolf mythos and you don’t have to scratch too hard to sense heavier themes beneath the surface obstinate as ingrown hairs. For a film directed toward the younger set it refreshingly resists dunking its paw in sugar coating. Little Richie Bridgestone’s parents are getting a very un-Brady-like divorce and although Richie loves his dad, he’s thinking it might be a good idea to snitch on pop for frequently turning into a savage monster and pushing occupied vehicles off of cliffs. The movie says, “Werewolf”; I smell gin.

I’m not sure where this thing was filmed but the locations will probably look familiar to anyone who watched television in the seventies. I think most of us grew up in the haunts shown even if only via boob tube portal. There are some nice subtle references to UNIVERSAL studios more famous lycanthrope movie in the form of Dad’s trusty cane and with this being set in 1973, somebody cleverly transformed 1941’s THE WOLFMAN’s resident gypsies into hippies. The band of hippies really liven the movie and their love power is even shown to have a detrimental effect on the werewolf curse. Now that’s just adorable. Man, I wish I could have been a hippie but by the time I was old enough to join their ranks, everybody had already figured out that humans were hopelessly awful….dratz!

Another very cool thing about this movie is that it was released in a double feature with SSSSSSS. One thing that I’ve learned while working here at Kindertrauma is that there are exactly seven S’s in that title, so I don’t even have to look it up. Apparently it was the last double feature UNIVERSAL ever did and I missed it by being a stupid baby. THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF is not available in any format for some unknown reason, so I caught up to it on YouTube sporting Spanish subtitles. That means I got to learn a little extra Spanish while I watched and you can ask me what “Hombre Lobo” means and I’ll have the answer.

Like THE GATE or MONSTER SQUAD I think this movie makes a great horror starter kit for monster fans in training wheels. The transformation scenes are stagnantly old school but the resulting make up effects courtesy of TOM BURMAN are not bad at all (all turtlenecks considered.) I guess some will only see a campy howler here but the SHINING-esque parent-paranoia element does have some bite and it at least it takes its whiny protagonists dilemma seriously. If you can look beyond its corncob datedness (Dad dropped Mom for being a career gal!) it makes a fine companion piece to 1996’s BAD MOON. You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy this one but like most things in life, it’ll probably help. Adios amigos!

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Tags: General Horror · Repeat Offenders · Tykes in Trouble

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

February 10th, 2011 · 20 Comments

Director CHARLES B. PIERCE, who happily spoiled some slumber in my youth with ‘72s THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, is also responsible for sibling pseudo-documentary THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. I have to give praise to PIERCE, he did so much with so little and his influence on horror films directly or indirectly is mucho grande. I sometimes wish that TOWN was more traditionally structured than it is, but who is to say how much of its hemming and hawing contributes to the segments that auspiciously burn? I’ll be honest with you, my brain has a slight tendency to fog and twiddle its mini brain-thumbs when subjected to police procedurals and this movie spends a smidge too much time with the men in uniform for my taste, but when it indulges the weird workings of its “Phantom Killer,” it hits a raw primal nerve. Horror fans weaned on the actions of silent, masked eighties killers may find the scares here borderline commonplace but I pity the poor souls who saw this one in a drive-in in 1976. What a ride home that must have been.

TOWN is loosely based on the true story of the “Moonlight Killer” who murdered five people and scared the crap out of countless more in Texarkana, Arkansas circa 1946. Although the film isn’t a slave to the facts it presents itself as a documentary with a voice over and a statement that only the names have been changed. Ingeniously the film breaks from its doc-identity whenever the hell it pleases and it’s almost like having someone telling you a story and then pushing you into the room where it is currently taking place.

PIERCE tends to walk an indirect line and I’m not sure if all of the film’s multiple back and forth tonal changes work for me. The director himself, in the role of patrolman “Sparkplug,” plays foil to BEN JOHNSON’s straight shooter Capt. Morales as quirky comedy relief (or perhaps to illustrate the sweet natured goodness of the town) but once you get a taste for the movie’s darker talents, the levity can be distracting. In the end though, that may just be a matter of my own taste. Because it could, I’d rather that the movie just drag the viewer through the mud but I’d hate to pull a card and watch the whole house come down. As is, the film delivers when it needs to and perhaps it is its sometimes-sunny disposition that makes the moments of terror feel like such authentic invasions on everyday tranquility. Indeed PIERCE may have known exactly what he was doing. How else to explain the clever casting of perceived “girl next door” DAWN WELLS (GILLIGAN’S ISLAND’s Mary Ann) as a victim? What better way to cut to the chase when visualizing the heart of a small town being attacked?

Anyway, my impetus for this post is really to point you as soon as possible to the fact that THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is on YouTube as we speak in rather amazing looking widescreen form. Rumor has it that some nice gent grabbed a French DVD and the sound from an English language VHS tape and mashed them together to wondrous effect. T.T.D.S. has never been on DVD and the VHS edition is croppy/crappy and excessively dark in places so this may be your best shot at viewing this movie adequately. I know YouTube is not the best way to watch a movie but it’s the best way to watch THIS movie right now. If you’ve only seen the VHS you will be impressed by the film’s sharpness and the fact that PIERCE really does have a good eye for composition. Scenes previously hard to decipher are now sufficiently clear. Turn off the lights, hook up earphones or a speaker, press the “Full Screen” option on the right corner of the YouTube frame and sit back and enjoy HERE. Who knows when it’ll get yanked?

Due to trauma-stalgia I think I might enjoy the swampy styling of BOGGY over DREADED but there’s much to appreciate in PIERCE’s later film too. Both films have that legend-being-told-over-a-fire vibe and capture a recognizable quiet night community-shared paranoia. As I said I feel this one jumps the tracks at intervals but there is an overall sense of mystery (the killer was never caught) and a wonderful lost in time rural landscape to consider too. Plus the killer, with his eye-holed sack hood looks an awful lot like one of the genres most famous horror icons…John Merrick. Ha, you thought I was going to say Jason Voorhees in F13:P2 didn’t you? Curve ball!

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Tags: General Horror · Repeat Offenders

The Innocents (1961)

October 28th, 2010 · 10 Comments

One of the most powerful aspects of HENRY JAMES’s novella THE TURN OF THE SCREW is its elusive, hard to pin down nature. The story itself behaves in a ghostly manor, flittering and floating in and out of focus while cornering the reader into the position of questioning the validity of all they encounter. JACK CLAYTON’s TRUMAN CAPOTE-penned, FREDDIE FRANCIS (THE ELEPHANT MAN)-lensed cinematic adaptation has a similar modus operandi (although it does throw us an extra bone of solid information by giving our protagonist, at last, a name.) The big question seems to be whether nervous governess Miss Giddens (DEBORAH KERR) is, in actuality, encountering the supernatural or whether she is, in fact, insane. Are the apparitions real or only in her head? After a recent watch I have come to the conclusion that Giddens is bat shit bonkers regardless of whether the “abominations” are real or not.

Having zero experience in childcare, Miss Giddens is hired to take care of two neglected orphans by their emotionally retarded playboy uncle. He gives her complete control of their well being provided he doesn’t have to hear about it and she swoons and coos like a Victorian TWILIGHT fan at his glacial unavailability. He asks her if she has an imagination and she replies with the understatement of the century “Yes.” I don’t mean to be too hard on Giddens, I know she means well, but once you get to know her you realize that her masochistic longing to be lost in the shadow of something larger than herself has catastrophic results. Really, if the children left under your charge have only a fifty percent survival rate, you should expect a certain amount of criticism.

The fact that Gidden’s loose screws need a few extra turns is evident from the start. Taking her humble pastor’s daughter background into account, Gidden’s overwhelmed reaction to the wondrous country estate she is to oversee is understandable. What’s less comprehensible is her exaggerated enchantment with not only her employer but his niece and nephew. If she’s to be an authority figure she’s off on the wrong foot, routinely claiming to be swayed this way and that by the charms of others. It sets up a precedent that weaves through the entire tale; that Giddens herself is unaccountable for her actions. Her dealings with young Flora (PAMELA FRANKLIN) seem, at first, natural enough but when Flora’s sibling Miles is expelled from school for vague reasons her bearings begin to wobble. This is when her previously mentioned “imagination” gets revved up and Gidden’s imagination has the tendency to conjure up the worst possible scenario whenever it is given space to do so.

By her own account Giddens was raised under close scrutiny in a space too small for secrets. Suddenly the world is open to her and her mind can travel to wherever it chooses. She states that children need, “someone to belong to them and to whom they belong” but like many a neurotic the wants and desires that she projects upon others are, in reality, her own. Gidden’s unwarranted enthrallment to the children’s uncle flares clear as day. A fire is sparked but it needs to be fed to burn. Her feelings, like clipped flowers, require a vase. While playing hide and seek with the children, Giddens comes across an old photo of a striking dark eyed man. She has found the vessel for her desires, desires that scare the bejeezus out of her. For perhaps the first time in her life Giddens is in a position of power and her longings undermine her newfound sense of control. Every bonehead move she makes from here on out is a misplaced attempt to regain equilibrium and command. The witch-hunt has begun, there are dark forces about and she alone can sense them. She becomes the personification of the adage that when you point a finger at someone else you have four fingers pointing back at yourself.

As it was then and as it ever will be, the best method of crafting an impenetrable cloak of immunity is to state that your actions are “for the children.” Giddens hysteria is allowed to breed unchecked once her righteous motives are declared. She grills the housekeeper Mrs. Grose for any morsel of deviance she can unearth. Peter Quint, the man in the photo and Miss Jessel the former governess (who was not as pretty as Giddens by the way) had an illicit affair before they both kicked the bucket. We are told that Quint (not unlike the children’s uncle) had a mesmerizing power that made resistance to his will futile. Their love was a “sickness” and who knows the horrors that the two innocent children witnessed. Giddons and Grose’s exchange plays out like an over the clothesline gossip exchange between BEWITCHED’s Mrs. Kravitz and THE SIMPSONS’ Helen Lovejoy. Giddens can barely hide her lady boner under her hoop skirt of scandalized indignation.

To me, Miss Giddens shows her hand clearly and I’m not buying her, “For the children” catchall excuse in the slightest. She’s not concerned that the children may have been traumatized. She doesn’t care that they are in a state of mourning. It doesn’t even register that the children have made no complaint of ill treatment. Her choice of wording, that the children have been “contaminated” is such a red flag, it’s a wonder she’s not trampled by a wayward bull. She seems more concerned that the children have a wanton knowledge that she is not privy to and her efforts to make them confess that supposed knowledge is unforgivable. The way she tries to force Flora into saying that she sees the ghost of Miss Jessell, someone whom Flora was close to and who died within the past year, resembles the type of forced coercion you might find in a police interrogation. When Mrs. Grose admits that she didn’t see the phantom either, she is promptly accused of betrayal. Giddens eventually puts her foot down. It is made clear that she is in charge of the house and by some spurious extension, in charge of what everybody sees or does not see.

Again, whether the ghosts are real or unreal, is to me, beside the point. It’s Miss Giddens reaction to what she perceives which should be scrutinized. I don’t blame her for being unnerved by the uncanny but her sightings of these entities, even if accepted as authentic, are generally neutral. No real threat is ever made and she pulls her assumptions about possession and the children’s complicity right out of the air. Even more telling is her magical solution to her imagined crisis, everyone must simply admit that she is right and it will all go away. People tell you who they are and Giddens is never in deeper focus then when she states “My father taught me to love people and help them. Help them even if they refuse my help and even if it hurts them sometimes.”

Giddens does indeed hurt Miles and she hurts Flora as well, that is what tends to happen when someone unable to face their own demons, projects them onto somebody else. Conspiracy and possession theories aside, Giddens does exhibit a particular fear of Miles. Their intimacy level is disturbing overall but when things come to a head he calls her on the fact that she does not see him as “normal.” It’s easy for the viewer to read Miles’ sophistication as creepy but his adult demeanor carries an extra worry for Miss Giddens. Before his light is snuffed out he exposes Giddens’ worst fret of all, that she’s fooled no one and that her pleads for compliance reveal her fear that she is going mad.

As Giddens sees or imagines Quint’s laughing visage nodding in approval, Miles sends the point home calling her a hussy and a dirty-minded hag. She rationalizes it’s the voice of Quint but perhaps it’s merely the up ‘til then AWOL voice of reason. That may sound harsh, and I’m not unmoved by Giddens’ momentary flash of understanding of the horror she herself has caused but the fact remains that she had many chances to rethink her route and ignored them. I think her real fear of Miles may have come from the idea that he, unlike the impressionable and uneducated Mrs. Grose and his younger sister, could see right through her. Maybe Miss Giddens is easily swayed and charmed but Miles is another story.

The final question may be why does Giddons when offered a newfound freedom cower at the foot of her own desires? Is her strict religious background to blame? Check out her expression when Flora relates her understanding that a ghost is one that God has judged to be “bad” and has thus been “left behind” and then get back to me.

Please don’t misinterpret my condemnation of Giddens as a critique of the film. It’s a truly brilliant piece of work and as far as ghost stories go it’s only peer is ROBERT WISE’s THE HAUNTING which it predates. If you want to wait for a superior take on the HENRY JAMES story prepare to wait forever. Besides being a visual stunner, its use of sound is absolutely extraordinary and remains influential to this day (THE INNOCENTS is even sampled in the cursed tape from 2002’s THE RING.)

Director CLAYTON deserves big ups for not pushing too strongly one way or the other and allowing the viewer to choose their own path and decipher the images however they choose. The two child actors, MARTIN STEPHENS (VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED) and PAMELA FRANKLIN (THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) give unforgettable performances and DEBORAH KERR as Giddens has an intense sincerity that convinces you to the core. KERR is so good that I believed her and Miss Giddens the first dozen or so times I saw THE INNOCENTS. I guess being bombarded by hysterical propaganda and fear mongering on television all these years has had its benefits. Somewhere along the line I’ve learned to worry less about the steely glint in the theoretical Quint’s eye and worry more about the fanatical frenzy in the eyes of the very real Miss Giddens.

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Tags: General Horror · Repeat Offenders · Tykes in Trouble

Invaders from Mars (1986)

September 22nd, 2010 · 12 Comments

I think I was the exact wrong age to appreciate INVADERS FROM MARS when it crashed into theaters. I was too old to take it seriously and too young to take it humorously. Now that I’m in my introspective, open-minded post-prime you’d think I ‘d be able to rediscover it as a diamond in the rough but nah, same as ever, my patented me-likey meter still reads “not so much.” Yep, I’m saying my TOBE HOOPER love train jumps a smidge off the track with INVADERS FROM MARS but that’s O.K. What’s a romance without a splash of apathy?

On paper we’re made for each other, INVADERS, based on the 1953 classic of the same title, is basically a kid’s eye view of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (the original INVADERS actually predates SNATCHERS.) The material can’t help but capture a specific and crucial time in any adolescent’s life when they begin questioning the motives of their parents and start forming their own perceptions of the world. If you can find a decent copy of it (good luck with that) the original is a trippy mind-bending maze of forced perspectives that functions like a pint-sized, paranoid WIZARD OF OZ. There may be some movies that shouldn’t be remade but this isn’t one of them. Every generation deserves their very own INVADERS FROM MARS.

HOOPER gets some important things right in his re-do. He’s able to modernize the tale without completely evaporating the previous take’s naiveté and who knows better how to collide the everyday with the bizarre? We’re invited into a picturesque home with a cartoon picket fence and doesn’t that hilly pathway in the backyard look like it leads directly to Munchkin land? It’s a hokey patchwork paradise but no worries, we’re dealing with a remake of a fifties film so the cardboard ideal makes sense. Some of the visuals really do chime and reverberate. I love how HOOPER transforms a simple window in a child’s bedroom into a portal into another world, that’s some good stuff. So where does the crystal ball get dropped?

What I like about the HOOPER is his looseness but yep, that’s his downfall too. The second half of INVADERS is as slack as a wet noodle. Plus, I can’t believe I’m saying this about the guy who directed THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, but I think he can be too lenient with his performers. Was he afraid to ask for a second take from this bunch?

TIMOTHY BOTTOMS and LOUISE FLETCHER get it right the first time but some of the other apparently on the D.L. thespians here need discipline! I appreciate that HUNTER CARSON is not your typical precocious Hollywood imp but sometimes he sounds like he’s reading the back of a cereal box. Furthermore, like any self-respecting horror fan I’ve saved room for KAREN BLACK in my last will and testament but in my opinion she is miscast here. She’s too transtasticly fierce to pull off a fumbling schoolmarm/nurse. Is it too late for her and LARAINE NEWMAN who plays the kid’s mom to switch roles?

What’s that you say Aunt John? It IS too late for that? 24 years too late in fact? Fine, it was just a suggestion. A suggestion that made absolute sense considering BLACK is CARSON’s real life mommy and that she can play creepy better than nearly anyone but hey, who listens to me? What do I know?

All right, enough with the negative. I didn’t start writing because I needed to find a new way to bitch (…or did I?) INVADERS FROM MARS is fun. Not terribly fun but fun enough. My eyes glaze over a bit when the military gets involved but that’s not exclusive to this movie. I only enjoy the military in movies when they are fighting giant ants. I think this movie is worthwhile just for LOUISE FLETCHER really. She doesn’t need to steal scenes, people just hand them over to her and then thank her for the privilege of being robbed.

I’m thinking there’s plenty out there who get warm fuzzy nostalgia vapors over INVADERS and I don’t begrudge them that in the slightest. Its got its fair share of fumbled opportunities and foul balls but it’s a kid’s movie that’s willing to get dark and twisted and that is always welcome here. I might suggest watching RETURN TO OZ instead but I used to make my Han Solo and Princess Leia action figures get married (with Chewie as the best man) so you might want to ask somebody cooler than me.

Wait, wait, in the words of CURT COBAIN, I have a new complaint. Nice job on the Martian monsters recently departed and forever will be missed STAN WINSTON, but it’s painfully obvious that you made exactly and only two (not counting the leader-brain). They keep dying and reappearing but you only ever see two at a time! You and TOBE couldn’t get together and figure out something with split screens or blue screens or miniatures or something? How about a mirror? A simple mirror would have worked. Two does not seem like very many monster costumes to me. I think there were at least three Sleestak suits in LAND OF THE LOST. I guess that’s probably the least of INVADERS problems but I’m just saying…

You know what? The sand whirlpool thing works better in the original and that’s not really acceptable either…

So, INVADERS FROM MARS is not my favorite HOOPER movie by a long shot but it’ll do in a pinch. Like a pop-tent without a pole I suppose you can squirm in there to get out of the rain if you have to, but a little more ingenuity and whip cracking would have made a universe of difference. It’s starts well and I admire its intentions, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I went from happy to nappy before the end and I mean the FINAL end because there are like, three endings. Yes, this movie has more endings than it does monster costumes and that’s never a good idea. Still, LOUISE FLETCHER, she undeniably owns.

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Tags: Repeat Offenders · Tykes in Trouble

A Nightmare on A-hole Street

April 29th, 2010 · 12 Comments

So I just watched every NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET film back to back and all I have to say (besides what happened to my life?) is…

all the adult residents of Springwood, Ohio are A-holes!

No, it’s not because they formed a vigilante mob and burned a man alive, it’s not their fault the American judicial system is a joke, and no, it’s not because they kept it a secret, nobody likes a braggart. It’s because every single second of every day they go out of their way to act as loathsome, nasty and obnoxious as humanly possible. Not for one second do they seem capable of behaving like non-A-holes.

You have to love it, is there any other horror series that exploits the chasm between teenagers and adults as proudly and as prominently as N.O.E.S.?

All of Springfield’s adults are horrible. They are what the teens fear becoming: hypocrites, sell-outs, drunken floosies and cold insensitive jerks. The teens depicted seem just as scared of transforming into their parents as they are of being slashed by Freddy the dream demon. No wonder Krueger was able to slip into the role of antihero. He may be a murderous douche but at least he had a purpose and wasn’t a soulless cog. (Not only did Freddy have a soul, he collected surplus souls like trading cards.)

I used to think that Freddy Krueger was a personification of the adult residents of Springwood’s past mistakes, mistakes that their children must now account for. But “Screw your pass!” as Nancy would say, the adults have more to answer for than just their treatment of Freddy and their amoral behavior is obviously current and ongoing.

The “Mom and Dad just don’t understand” bit has been around in horror at least since THE BLOB (1958) but the popular slasher series that predate N.O.E.S. had little interest in it. HALLOWEEN shows adults as ineffectual but still good-natured and the FRIDAY THE 13TH series presented them as, for the most part, the clean up crew after the slaughter. Sure F13’s Pam Voorhees was an adult but she was not an established authority figure and the prophets of doom like “Crazy Ralph” had their heart in the right place. Pam Voorhees, like Freddy, at least had a reason to be pissed off, the adult denizens of Springfield have no real excuse for sneering and hissing like Batman villains whenever they get a moment of screen time.

(NOTE: Post N.O.E.S. both other series mentioned adopted the adult as A-hole trope, perhaps to play keep up (F13: PART 7’s evil shrink and PART 8’s slimy principal/uncle for example or HALLOWEEN 6’s abusive Strode patriarch).

“You face things, that’s your nature, that’s your gift but sometimes you have to turn away too.”- Marge Thompson (RONEE BLAKLEY)

The mold was built in the very first NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Nancy’s mom is a lush and her father is an aloof promise breaker. They’re not as diabolical as the parents to come but they are presented as people who, rather than conquer problems, bury and ignore them. Adulthood is shown as an almost zombie-like state of being where desires (dreams) are neatly tucked away and morality is an unaffordable luxury.

“Morality sucks.”- Glen Lantz (JOHNNY DEPP)

“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep!” Nancy Thompson (HEATHER LANGENCAMP)

Sleep is the enemy on Elm Street, that’s when you become susceptible to the monster your parents built. We all know there’s a time period in every teens life in which they learn to begin to question the world around them and how it functions. People tend to make light of it and it’s considered idealistic folly that won’t last very long. Eventually the teen will have to buckle down, forget such romantic notions and pull their weight. Eventually they’ll give into their culture’s will. Eventually they’ll “grow up.”

“I look twenty years old!”- Nancy Thompson (HEATHER LANGENCAMP)

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was released in November of 1984, a renaissance period for teens in American film. Less than three months later JOHN HUGHESTHE BREAKFAST CLUB would hit screens carrying the line “When you grow up your heart dies.” I won’t pretend to know what’s in the hearts and minds of teenagers these days but it does scare me to think that they may be running toward rather than away from the adult “sleep” that beckons them. Trust me kids, you don’t have to hurry to catch up with that bus, another one will be around to pick you up soon enough…

In the original N.O.E.S., sheep can be heard baying on the soundtrack and seen roaming in Freddy’s boiler room. We count sheep to go to sleep but sheep are also known for their docility and the ease of which they are herded to follow.

It’s easy to mistake the film’s first kill to be part of the “sex kills” finger wagging that slasher films are often wrongly accused of. In Tina’s (AMANDA WYSS) case though, her death can be seen as retribution for falling not far enough away from the tree. In a brief earlier scene director WES CRAVEN has written a bathroom wall’s worth of derogatory implications about Tina’s Mom. Ultimately though personal behavior has little to do with your outcome on Elm Street. If you’re an Elm Street kid, your parents signed you up for this hell ride years ago.

Freddy is a bad, bad man, I’m not trying to discount that but it’s important to remember who created him. Ironically, in the Springwood we’re shown throughout the series he does not seem to be the only adult with the goal of destroying children (or childhood) on his to-do list. As the series progresses the implication that the parents we are shown are of the same mind is everywhere and the fear of old age and being forced to follow in the previous generations footsteps becomes more and more wrecking ball obvious. Check out Alice (LISA WILCOX) in NOES Part 4: THE DREAM MASTER

Hey, I watched all of those movies so I could review them and I totally forgot to do that so here goes: The first one is great and then they all sort of get progressively worse except PART 3: THE DREAM WARRIORS which might be even better than the first one. How’s that?

I have to admit I still enjoy the entire series but they don’t all hold up exceptionally well (or maybe I’m just getting old.) It’s still a massively creative franchise and I feel like I’ve finally found the ace it had hidden up its sleeve all this time. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET plays on a teenager’s rightful fear of loosing their vitality and optimism, of becoming callous and dispassionate and a weak, fearful member of the herd. Come to think of it maybe that’s a fear we should all, at any age, keep firmly in our grip. Maybe we should hold on to that fear with a razor sharp metal glove if we have to…

WAIT: I’m not done yet! I present you with a rogue’s gallery of Springwood’s awful adults. Thanks go to the ageless Aunt John for my title:

A NIGHTMARE ON A-HOLE STREET!

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Tags: General Horror · Repeat Offenders

The House That Would Not Die

March 25th, 2010 · 5 Comments

AARON SPELLING produced television movies don’t grow on trees. Well, actually I guess they kind of do but I for one have never met one I didn’t like. You may have to take my reviews of seventies T.V. movies with a grain of salt kids because I’m just a big push over for them. I watched THE HOUSE THAT WOULD NOT DIE (1970) at around five in the morning and what can I say, I was as happy as a clam who just married a pig in slop. Yes it’s as hokey as your grandma’s doily and about as provocative as a READER’s DIGEST cover, but it has magical time traveling power! The melodramatic music, the over estimation of the effectiveness of slo-mo, the canned wind sound effects, the cocoa and copper hues and the general graininess of it all, was somehow able to successfully transport your Unk back a couple decades. The only thing missing was my mother yelling downstairs to tell me to “Turn that off and go to bed!”

THE HOUSE THAT WOULD NOT DIE is based on a novel called AIMEE COME HOME by popular supernatural author BARBARA MICHAELS. It stars the one and only BARBARA STANWYCK as Ruth Bennet, a lady whose hairdo looks just like a bowl of popcorn and so I made a bowl of popcorn. Ruth has inherited a creepy house which she moves into along with her niece Sarah (hooray, it’s KITTY WINN from THE EXORCIST!) Both ladies immediately land age appropriate boyfriends and then decide to have a séance. The séance is a success because the spirit world is indeed contacted but also a disaster because a couple of the participants are left possessed by ghosts. Sarah is possessed by some girl named Aimee and Ruth’s sexily named boyfriend Pat McDougal (RICHARD EGAN), is possessed by Aimee’s pissed off Dad. What is the secret of this house that won’t die? Like most secrets the answer lies beyond a false wall in the basement. I have no idea why people don’t check there first!

I have to say this movie with all its talk about Revolutionary War era ghosts got my hopes up that there might be an appearance by the FUNKY PHANTOM but alas he never showed. Instead, what we get is a painting that keeps falling into the fireplace and a front row seat to hapless Ruth being manhandled by her possessed boyfriend and strangled by her possessed niece. Additionally, an inordinate amount of time is spent in the town’s “Hall of Records.” Again people, forget the Hall of Records! The secret is always in the basement, what do you think basements are for? THE HOUSE THAT WOULD NOT DIE’s scares may be softer than bunny fur but it’s got a general spooky atmosphere that works nonetheless. (I know perfectly well that it would have scared the crap out of me as a kid.) Ruth’s nightmares of Sarah calling for help are particularly eerie.

The climax which involves EGAN’s possession momentarily upgrading to super bananas is short lived but convincing enough thanks to the fact that EGAN is kind of scary even when not being host to a contentious ghost. Gorehounds and folks under 70 may want to run in the opposite direction of this one but if you’re up for quiet granny scares this just might be the hooch for your hot toddy. Grab a shawl.

NOTE: Any shame I may have felt for enjoying this creaky chestnut has been erased by finding out it was directed by JOHN LLEWELLYN MOXEY, the same guy who made CITY OF THE DEAD a.k.a. HORROR HOTEL (1960) one of my favorite black and white horror films . If you’re looking for something to do today… watch HOUSE HERE and HOTEL HERE! Or you can come clean out my garage; I’ll pay ya a quarter!

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Tags: Repeat Offenders · Telenasties

The Haunting (1963)

March 3rd, 2010 · 17 Comments

Look at the face above, doesn’t that say it all? There are dozens of moments of virtuoso horror conduction in ROBERT WISE’s masterpiece THE HAUNTING, yet the presentation of that visage is the one I anticipate with equal excitement and dread. WISE has directed classic films in nearly every genre, he edited CITIZEN KANE and uncredited scenes in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, more importantly as far as what we are talking about here, he was the protégé of dyed in the wool dark conjurer VAL LEWTON. Here we find the ultimate tribute to his mentor.

The camera’s concentrated stare at that (imagined/not imagined) face on the wall is a moment when we can catch WISE in the act of basically teaching the audience how to watch a horror film. Don’t be surprised if for the rest of the movie’s running time you are subconsciously on the look out for secondary images within the constant clashing of patterns and off angles within the nearly breathing beast known as Hill House. I have to laugh when people use words like “subtle” and “suggestive” when describing THE HAUNTING. Make no mistake, this is an aggressive mind-fuck campaign you’re witnessing. Just because you’re too clueless to realize you’re being mugged does not mean your wallet isn’t already empty.

Watching THE HAUNTING once again, it was my intention to do a post pointing out the near onslaught of points of unease, the countless eyes on doorknobs and statues that glare at the occupants, the molten black tar shadows that cling to the walls, the endless maze of twisted corners and that damn spiraling, dizzying staircase, but boy did I get lost in the halls of Hill House myself yet again. It seems no matter how many times I visit this gothic funhouse I never exit the same door that I did the last time. I went in looking for that face on the wall and I exited transfixed by another.

THE HAUNTING hasn’t the luxury of time on its hands to deliver the full all-encompassing apprehension of SHIRLEY JACKSON’s novel THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, but a finer facsimile I doubt is humanly possible. Several of the film’s b-lines and amplifications can even be seen as improvements. CLAIRE BLOOM certainly brings an effervescence to the character of “Theo” not found on the page and well, if any actor has ever “owned” a part it is JULIE HARRIS as Eleanore “Nell” Lance (Vance in the novel). Oh yes, here is another example of your Unk’s favorite type of horror character, heroism-free and verging on unsympathetic. Quit simply, Nell’s a mess and easy pickins’ for Hill House.

When Dr. Markway (RICHARD JOHNSON) invites Nell to join his small team of investigators at the title mansion he does so due to his knowledge of her attracting paranormal activity in the past (which Nell denies.) He has no idea that she has recently lost her overbearing mother to whom she was caretaker. Nell jumps at the chance to start a new life and be free but the reality is she is hardly equipped for the outside world. Her life has been spent fulfilling the needs of others and suppressing herself. She talks a good game (mostly to herself via voice over) but when the world doesn’t accept her with open arms, she recklessly attempts to flee back into the womb. Her real mother may no longer be available but the mother that is Hill House certainly is. (Notice that the most haunted room in the joint is the nursery.)

We are told many stories throughout the course of the film (and novel) some are relevant, some are conjecture and some are outright lies (Nell seems most happy when offering up falsities about her stone li(e)ons and fictional apartment.) One tale that overshadows all is the legend of the paternal evil in the house, Hugh Crain, but if you ask me he is a diversion from the source of Nell’s real threat. The last occupant of Hill House was Hugh’s daughter Abigail and her death perfectly echoes Nell’s mother’s right down to an unanswered knocking on a wall for assistance with a cane. During one of the supernatural visitations we even witness Nell responding to a similar knock on the wall thinking it IS her mother.

When Nell find the words “Eleanor come home” scrawled on a wall by a ghostly scribe we automatically imagine her recently departed mom pleading for her return but is it in actuality this other woman begging her to stay? As in “Come home to what you are used to Nell, you were born to be subservient to the likes of me, not a social being with a life of your own.”

In the film (not so much in the novel) there is an unmistakable sexual tension between the self possessed Theo and Nell that Nell avoids. She puts on airs that she is attracted to Dr. Markway, but I think this too is one of her lies…a cover up. (To be honest, I consider every male character both living and dead in the movie to be a sort of “false lead.”) She calls Theo “one of nature’s mistakes” and it’s almost like someone else is speaking through her (her mother’s words? Words once said to Nell?) It is clear that Nell’s sister Dora has started a family, why not Nell? She may complain of having to take care of her ill mother but perhaps that’s been a convenient way to avoid something else.

When Markway’s wife appears and eliminates the doctor’s usefulness as a decoy, Nell really begins to unravel. She realizes that there is no new world waiting to accept her and that she has no real identity to fall back on. The thoughts that we have been privy to from Nell sound a lot like those of a self-destructive drug addict (or cult member) trying to justify their actions. She wants to loose herself to something bigger to avoid looking at herself and tellingly, the first fright the house delivers her is a mirror (does she see a face or a wall?). Nell has been praying for freedom for eleven years but now that she has it can she handle it?

(Oh-oh, we’re about to crash into a spoiler tree…jump out now!) In the book, Nell, rather than abandoning the false sense of security and purpose she’s found and returning to a world where she perceives herself as having nothing, completely obliterates herself by driving into a tree.

“I am really doing it, I am doing it all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really doing it by my-self.”

Oh Nelly Nell, this is the same fucking mistake you’ve made your whole life, confusing self actualization with fulfilling the needs of others…in this case the needs of Hill House.

The movie lets her off the hook a smidge more than the book, as the steering wheel is clearly shown to be controlled by some unseen force that Nell resists. Still, there is the acknowledgment by Theo that Nell may have finally gotten exactly what she wanted. Unable to get a firm grip on either Theo’s or Markaway’s coat tails, Nell essentially resigns herself to the life (or death) of a shut-in, one of those who are housebound and “walk alone” (an eventual recluse herself JACKSON can be seen as the patron saint of the hermetic).

Nell’s experiences in Hill House though often frightening, also involved feelings of belonging that she had never experienced before. She had hope, there were possibilities around the corner and she felt important not just as a caretaker for someone else’s needs but because of her own individual gifts. It’s almost as if it were the positive feelings that she could not maintain that led her the most astray. It reminds me of the time I thought I’d help my friend’s gold fish by giving them clean water to swim in and they all died of shock.

It’s easier to think that Nell was hoodwinked and therefore not responsible for her actions. In my recent viewing though I noticed an expression on her face during her kamikaze drive that I hadn’t before. It’s an expression of ecstasy at having given in to the seductive, malevolent force, for having trashed the idea of “living” for good.

So here’s my new dilemma; I don’t know what’s scarier, that face on the wall I started this post talking about or this newly discovered one. Was Nell happy to stay at Hill House? Did she end up gladly trading in an imagined inescapable situation for a very real one? Did she happily hop from one station of servitude to another, one mother to another? Look at the face below, doesn’t that say it all?

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Tags: Repeat Offenders

The Treasure of the Four Crowns

February 25th, 2010 · 24 Comments

Hold on now here, howza come, as long as I’ve lived I’ve never stumbled across THE TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS? More importantly why has nobody ever mentioned it to me? Is it because it’s a terrible film? Have we met dear readers? What do I care from terrible, it’s just boring stuff I can’t stand. THE TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS is never boring, well, maybe a little but it’s mostly not boring and it’s got the greatest ending ever…scratch that TWO of the greatest endings ever. Here’s one of them…(Careful, this isn’t so much a “spoiler” as the climax of the film…)

Did you see that guy’s head spin?!? Did you hear that ENNIO MORRICONE score?!? You don’t know how much I’d enjoy flamethrowers for arms! If God truly loved me he’d give me at least one flamethrower arm!

I must have seen the video box for this at some point, why did I pass it up? I guess it must have just looked like just another lame Indiana Jones rip-off to me; which it is, but honestly, pound for pound I think I enjoyed it better than the last two Indy flicks. It’s fun, it’s crazy, stupid, dumb fun and it makes zero sense and did I mention it was in 3-D? Well, originally it was. By the way, are there any lucky people out there who got to see this in the theater way back in ‘83? I want to shake your hand. (provided flames aren’t pouring out of it.)

Maybe the reason this one flew past my radar Riley was because it was hatched by the same mind as COMIN’ AT YA! (Spaghetti western star TONY ANTHONY). That film, which is regarded as the kickoff to the eighties 3-D revival, I did see in the theater as a kid and I have to say I was not too crazy about it. (Was I supposed to be stunned by 3-D beans being poured on my head?) I guess it’s possible that I may have avoided this one for that association alone, but CROWNS is soooo much better than COMIN’ AT YA!

The opening of the movie is pretty spectacular too, check this out (and get ready to duck!)…

Stop lying and admit that you want to own that Jacket. I don’t blame you, I love it too. You can’t imagine how bad the dubbing is in this, I adore bad dubbing.

A friend of mine (it could happen) has a large collection of 3-D movies and I recently got to see T.T.O.T.F.C. with the red/blue anaglyph glasses. That was cool, and I’m glad I did, but considering that this was originally presented with the same 3-D technology as FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH PART 3, I’m thinking it must have been really damn incredible to view in the theater. Man, if only there was some way to properly recreate such things at home…

Let me ruin everything for you by revealing that TREASURE has an epilogue that is completely insane that involves a monster coming out of a swamp for no reason whatsoever. Do you have red/blue 3-D glasses too? Go grab them, I’ll wait,… check this out… if I had my way every film for the rest of time would end this exact same way….

How awesome is that? Did you fall out of your chair? People can yack as much as they want about technology stifling artistry. As far as I’m concerned they can yack ‘till the cows come home as long as the cows come home in 3-D!

I’m so happy 3-D is making a comeback because I personally never voted for it to scram. Sure every once in a while you get burned by a METALSTORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED-SYN but it it’s worth it for every SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE. As long as we’re on the subject, how’s about that floating severed arm in JAWS 3-D? Oh, if only life were in 3-D….oh, wait…it is.

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Tags: General Horror · Repeat Offenders