Thank You, Wes Craven (1939 – 2015)

Don’t you hate when you hear that somebody has died and then you go to sleep and later when you wake up you find out that they’re still dead? I do. Maybe I should consider a less passive course of action when confronting life’s unpleasantries but I swear, this sleeping and re-setting plan has worked on several occasions! In any case, I think Wes Craven would understand my logic. If you are a horror fan, I’m sure you’ve heard that yesterday Mr. Craven died. I urge you to seek out the words of those who actually knew him and worked with him. He was a true great and loved by many. All I have to offer is some remembrances of a lifetime of watching his films but luckily, around this joint, that’s what it’s all about. It would be virtually impossible to be a horror fan and to not be affected by his work.


This may not be Wes’ first film but it’s my first film of his. HILLS was a notorious late night staple in my house growing up back when there was six channels to choose from. Here in Philly I’m guessing it played after eleven on either Channel 17 or 48. The title alone would fill me with dread. I’m pretty sure I tapped out long before the end credits threatened to roll and I’m going to cite this movie as an early indicator that I worry about the safety of dogs more than I do human babies. Is that wrong?


As I recall, when this made-for-TV witch flick aired it was called A STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE but the big-boxd THORN EMI VHS tape I rented from STAGE DOOR video at the King of Prussia Mall called it SUMMER OF FEAR. This is one of my favorite Craven offerings and I suspect I’m not alone. Tame though it may be by horror standards this baby kicked off my life long love affair with both witch movies and usurper comeuppance flicks. LINDA BLAIR pouting in a fro with giant red blotches on her face is pretty much exactly what I picture my very soul looks like.


One of my earliest and fondest experiences seeing a horror film in the theater and yes, I snuck in. Full review HERE.


Ack. For years and years this was a very hard watch for me. For some strange reason even though this film is filled with brutal rape and murder the idea of a person being forced to pee in their own pants sticks out in my brain as the height of depravity. I can actually watch this movie fine now because I demystified it by reading a book about its making (by DAVID A. SZULKIN). The POV image used on some ads that featured the three attackers looking down upon the victim inspired a bunch of paintings I did in college (though I may have changed them to aliens) and even a Kindertrauma FULL HOUSE parody.


I had a horrendous drug experience as a teen. I can only pull it about half way out of the cupboard in my brain otherwise I’ll get freaked again. A friend and I were offered some pot and so we smoked it. We were then informed by the laughing psychotic who offered it to us that it was laced with angel dust. What then happened, for what seemed like forever, was hell on Earth complete with hallucinations and promises of death pouring out of the radio. It was an absolute nightmare and I think I got to experience my own death a couple hundred times that day. I tell you this because believe it or not, that experience was what came to my mind the first time I saw ANOES. Maybe I had post traumatic stress disorder or something but I assure you that I did not find Freddy Krueger a cute wise cracking anti-hero when I first met him. He scared the living daylights out of me. Freddy’s ability to bend reality and basically do whatever the hell he wanted (like fitting behind that tree! Like stretching his arms across an alley!), terrified me to no end and I basically half expected him to pop up in my very own, recently made unsafe dimension.


Wrote a review back HERE but mostly see above.

SCREAM and SCREAM 4 (1996 and 2011)

Yikes, that bad memory makes me want to wrap this up. In 1996 the horror genre was crying because it was basically in a boat not unlike the one it’s in today. Sure there’s always earnest and interesting indie fare guppies flopping about but who cares when you’re starving for a humongous game-changing fish? SCREAM was a serious breath of fresh air and even though it probably caused another rut to eventually come about, it also spurred a lot of great stuff too. All I know is that after I saw SCREAM I had to drag friends to see it too and that’s the best review I can give a movie. I don’t have to tell you about that opening scene! You know!

And I love SCREAM 4. The second one is darn good (besides the singing), I’m one of those people who don’t care for the third (Today I’ll blame the cinematographer) but I do love Part 4 (I probably explain why in this old review HERE and here’s an entire SCREAM-a-thon HERE.). I’m just sad (and a little greedy) that it’s his last.

Anyhoo, thanks for all the memories, Wes both good and bad and fond and not so fond. Craven brought so much to horror that nobody else could and he saw the value and meaning beyond the surface and made sure his audience did too. He was a chronically innovative artist and storyteller and he broke new ground and paved the way more times than he is given credit for. When he hit, he hit hard and when he missed he missed hard but the misses never stopped him from moving on and hitting that nail right smack on the head again like nobody else could. How many times did he revitalize the entire genre? What are we going to do without you Wes? Who will save us now?

For the Love of:: Betsy Palmer

Dearest critters, you better believe we are not taking one step further down the trauma path without first acknowledging the passing of the beloved mother of modern horror, the sweetly stupendous and stupendously sweet BETSY PALMER. I think we can all agree that whichever gremlin is responsible for sabotaging her car to the degree that she simply had to accept the part of Mrs. Voorhees in FRIDAY THE 13th in order to purchase a new one, is the greatest gremlin who ever lived. PALMER may not have been crazy about the role at first but she never revealed her reservations on screen; instead she delivered a wickedly wily performance that was impossible to forget and echoed in the minds of many long after the credits rolled.

Long ago in Kindertrauma’s first year of operation, we did an extensive list of trauma-mommas that ended with our top ten favorites. Not only did Pamela Voorhees land in the top ten, she easily claimed the number one position because duh, a-der and furthermore a-doy. Here’s what we said back then:

“No other mother brings it like PAMELA VORHEES. No other mother has that voice, that smile, that commitment. The entire franchise and many other horror films that followed it in its wake owe their eye teeth to BETSY PALMER. Even as a decapitated head in a refrigerator, she owns it. Even as a crazy sweater shrine, she brings it. BETSY PALMER IS THE ULTIMATE TRAUMA-MOMMA! GET IT? GOT IT? GOOD!!!

I was going for facetious with my praise of the acting talents of a decapitated head but if you think about it, I had a point. PALMER’s performance in the original FRIDAY movie was so indelible that a mere prop easily reiterated its frightening power in PART 2. I’ve never been able to figure out how folks could fail to see that PALMER and the Mrs. Voorhees character were the vital beating heart of the FRIDAY THE 13tTH series but you can certainly see the results of that seemingly obvious fact failing to register in the soulless cardboard reboot.

Let’s not get negative though- I’m here to praise the PALMER. Let it be known across the land that Kindertrauma loves her times infinity. And let us all take a lesson from BETSY. Keep doing what you love and give it your best even when it seems like there will be little payoff. It’s not always about instant gratification; a stupid looking seed planted today could produce unknown bounties in the future. Also never listen to critics when it comes to horror because they are complete idiots and above all else, if you are hired to watch kids at a summer camp, watch them! Pay attention! Don’t be making love when you should be paying attention! Some of those kids should be watched every minute!!! Some of those kids are….not very good swimmers.

Smoking with Marilyn Burns

It breaks my heart to write about the death of Marilyn Burns but it doesn’t seem right to post anything else until we’ve acknowledged this loss. My heart goes out to her friends and family who surely must endure the brunt of the devastation. As a mere fan, I’m sure I can’t even begin to understand the depth of grief felt by those close to her. Still, I can’t help feeling like everyone who ever loved a horror movie just took a major dent, whether they realize it or not, and that something incalculable that was once here is now gone.

Maybe I’m being pessimistic due to my morbid state but I think the truth is that horror audiences can expect to never, ever, ever witness the type of unadulterated terror that Marilyn Burns was able to put into her performance in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE again. It’s just a sad fact. The way the genre is moving it just wouldn’t be allowed and even if it were attempted, you’d never be lucky enough to find an actress as unselfconscious as Burns to pull it off. Even if they had the talent, it’s hard to believe they’d also have the moxy to withstand such a grueling endeavor. Nope, we’ll never see the likes of it again because we’re all too soft and spoiled and modern horror has become less about fear and terror and death and mortality and the unflinching unfairness of the universe than it is about looking competent and cool in the face of adversity. So I guess I just want to thank Marilyn from the bottom of my horror fan heart for bravely going where no actor ever had gone before or ever will again. Real horror, it’s there, in that movie, forever thanks to her.

I’m going to make this about me for a second and if you think that’s vulgar, I totally agree with you but I have to get over this bump somehow and I never said I wasn’t ignoble in the face of death. I may have mentioned before that I can be, on occasions, socially awkward. One thing that’s sure to make me a Bambi-legged Jell-O bowl is a large crowd. I don’t go to horror conventions very much any more but when I did, what I was really seeing in my head was the climax of THE DAY OF LOCUST. If I meet a famous person, I’m usually a jittery marble mouthed spaz on invisible roller skates and that’s putting aside for a moment my legendary Lori Singer evoked facial-tick.

Anyway, once I was at this horror convention feeling like a Howdy Doody marionette plopping around in a sea of Monster High Dolls and I went outside to the front of the hotel for a breath of fresh air and mostly a cigarette (this post was not approved by the Surgeon General). And who do I see there all by herself but Marilyn Burns puffing away. So we get to talking (actually, I was with a more boisterous friend who initiated the conversation but I’m going to edit that person out in the spirit of poetic license) and she put me at ease (not an easy thing to do) in all of a minute. She was so gracious and open and generous and all around awesome that I almost forgot that I was talking to a living legend.

For perspective, please realize that a half an hour earlier I was getting shady stink eye from a self-proclaimed scream queen whose boobs were featured in an unwatchable piece of garbage directed by her mouth breathing husband and now suddenly I was being made to feel like I might exist enough to cast a shadow by a woman who plowed like an eighteen wheeler through one of the greatest movies ever made wielding only one of the most outstandingly performances of all time. And folks, at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, that’s something else you can look forward to seeing less of in the future- humility. No, they don’t make movies like TCM anymore but what makes me sad here is that the last time I did a head count, they don’t make too many people like that anymore either. I know I can’t say that I knew Marilyn based on our brief encounter but I can say that it was obvious to me that those who did know her were very lucky. Goodbye for now Marilyn and again, thank you so much for all that you gave. It’s more than you’ll ever know.

One last thing, I gotta give a shout out to EATEN ALIVE. That’s a fantastic movie too.

Miley Cyrus Is Possessed.

I know you’re sick of hearing about MILEY CYRUS and well you should be! What is the big deal? Anybody with even a cursory knowledge of horror films could tell you that the girl is simply possessed! She’s not the first and she won’t be the last. Get over it! It’s not like she can’t afford an exorcist and really, isn’t becoming possessed a natural part of growing up? People who view poor Miley’s behavior as some kind of calculated media manipulation need to educate themselves! Thank God I’m here to do just that. Here’s proof that Miley is possessed as illustrated by the always informative world of horror cinema…

PROTRUDING TOUNGUE. Sticking out your tongue in a provocative manner is the simplest way to let folks know that you are possessed! AMITYVILLE 2: THE POSSESSION (1982) is a fine example of this but really just about any possession movie will tell you the same!

STAIR SLITHER. Those possessed know that making an entrance is key and nothing leaves a more indelible mark than a creepy crawl down a staircase. One needn’t attempt a full EXCORCIST style crab walk to be effective; punished heathen Lucy’s crypt decent in BRAM STOKER’s DRACULA (1992), for example, looses no steam for being streamlined and straight forward.

DANCING TEDDY BEARS. Do your toys dance on their own accord? Congratulations you are possessed! Sometimes it is not your actions but the actions of the inanimate objects around you that determine how lost you are to possession. There are far too many examples of toys, dolls, teddy bears and other symbols of childhood coming to life in possession films (Not to mention THE WALTONS) for me to name them all so allow me to simply reference the doll in BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN (1971) and assume that title alone is enough to back my theory.

SATAN GOT BACK. Honestly I don’t know what the devil’s long recorded SIR MIX-A-LOT-like obsession with posteriors is all about. I suppose whatever gets the church folk in an uproar is worth his while. Satyr-horned Cyrus’ recent display of fanny fascination fits right in with the archfiend’s modus operandi. Maybe just count your blessings that a goat was not involved as depicted in THE ANTICHRIST aka THE TEMPTER (1974).

SIMULATED MASTURBATION. I probably do not need to remind you of little Regan’s disturbing repurposing of a crucifix in THE EXCORCIST (1973). Unless you’ve sprayed SCRUBBING BUBBLES directly into your ear, that’s still in your head. Miley doesn’t go quite that far but if she thinks wearing a foam finger will save her from the curse of hairy palms, she is mistaken. On the other hand what better way to communicate you are Satan’s #1 fan?

BODY COTORTIONS. Be real and admit that Miley’s twerking stance is basically just the backwards version of the torso origami showcased in THE LAST EXCORCISM (2010).

BODY MUTATION. When you are possessed your body can do crazy things that seem to go against the laws of nature. Your head can blow up like in THE BEAST WITHIN (1982), you can somehow stick a lipstick into your breast like in NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1988) or your boobs can turn into monster faces like in MAUSOLEUM (1983)! In other words, if Miley doesn’t fit into her costume as well as she might- don’t blame her blame Satan!

SHAMELESS BEHAVIOR! Opinion has ranged from “Hey, that’s too sexy!” to “Hey that’s not sexy!” Dusty professional MADONNA sycophant CAMILLE PAGLIA even called MILEY’s performance “cringingly unsexy.” (Would-be pop stars take note: If you fail to deliver Jane Hathaway a lady boner, it isn’t art!) It’s as if disobedient CYRUS thought she could just wing it and have fun while Lady Gaga spent all her days practicing her precision SPROCKETS moves! This love it or leave it attitude and scandalous lack of shame over one’s physique can only bring to mind that rude scantily clad attic beast from [REC] (2007)! Don’t kids today realize empowerment requires flawless choreography and tailoring?

SEDUCTION OF MEN! If only there was some way to figure out why the first order of business for recently possessed gals is to seduce innocent older men! I know you must be thinking “ROBIN THICKE is not so much innocent as the dude that sang this past summer’s smash hit date rape anthem.” Yes, but don’t you understand that Satan speaks in symbols and codes? ROBIN THICKE is the son of ALAN THICKE and when you hear “son of ALAN THICKE” you subconsciously picture KIRK CAMERON, America’s greatest Christian! Oh Satan, you and your mocking trickery! How dare you!

O.K., now I’m just being facetious…but only half so. I truly think if you look under the hood of the hysterical outrage to CYRUS’s performance you’ll see the same engine that drives your standard possession film. Fear of female sexuality doesn’t even begin to cover it (though it’s a crucial start), something tells me CYRUS could be as sexy as she wanted to be as long as she respectfully emulated an approved icon like deceased exploited trainwreck MARILYN MONROE (see: MADONNA) or expressed the proper reverence and gratitude toward fame and commerce (see: LADY GAGA). Instead her entire shindig was a goofy, gangly, semi-bratty, free-spirited blow-off to the status quo and no, that’s not going to sit well with certain folks.

Because the real fear billowing up here (as in many a possession film) is the fear of uncontrollable youth, the fear of the next generation coming up to bat, the fear that they’ll stick their (foam) finger up at the boundaries we’ve drawn for them, the fear that they will not adopt and be loaded down by our collective neurosis as planned, the fear (resentment, really) of their freedom to make their own path where we were too meek to do so. The fear that they’ll have more fun than we allowed ourselves, the fear that we misspent our time worrying about the wrong things. This makes the older generation angry but more importantly, and stingingly, this makes the older generation…older (and “older” by the way, is super secret code for “closer to death”).

Damn, CYRUS’ Pan-tastic rite of passage ritual was a pagan dance on all of our graves! She even transformed 27-year old LADY GAGA into a haggard crone right before our eyes! Don’t believe me? check out this clip of GAGA‘s opening number…

(alright, maybe she can’t be blamed for that but still…) In any case, the point is there are plenty of things to be outraged, angry and scared of in this world and a young woman leaving behind childhood has never been nor ever should be one of them. I have little interest in MILEY’s musical output (I’m still trying to adapt to OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN’s “Physical” and SHEENA EASTON singing songs penned by PRINCE) but from what I’ve seen, each generation is slightly less ignorant and hateful than the one that came before it so I’m perfectly fine with MILEY and her contemporaries twerking to their hearts content. I say go for it… go for it, have fun and hail Satan!

The Lords of Salem (2013)

In THE LORDS OF SALEM, Heidi Hawthorne (SHERI MOON ZOMBIE), a radio disc jockey, receives a mysterious package with a record inside. A friend attempts to play the record for her but it merely skips until Heidi places the needle upon it herself. The disc produces a haunting wall of sound that puts Heidi in a sort of a Stendhal syndrome trance while her friend remains unmoved. For whatever reason, Heidi then chooses to share her unusual discovery by playing it on her radio show. As the recording howls and booms over the airwaves, we again observe that the music affects different people in vastly different ways, some scowl and shrug and some stop in their tracks mesmerized. The best way to describe ROB ZOMBIE’s THE LORDS OF SALEM is to say that it’s a movie that operates exactly like that record does. It’s a treasure trove for those that respond to visual and audio stimulation and a barren coffer for slaves of clarity and traditional storytelling. If you fall into the latter category, don’t ever see this movie! I beg you! That whole crossed arms, I just ate a lemon, indignant consumer routine you do; it’s not as cute as you think it is.

ROB ZOMBIE is one of the more significant horror directors working today not because he is the most commercially successful but because he has miraculously held on to and honed his own voice (against a tsunami of chattering teeth opponents, I might add). Love it or lump it, he’s now at the artistic level where accessibility is no longer a concern. Think of THE LORDS OF SALEM as his STARDUST MEMORIES, he’s point blank telling anyone still listening that he’s not truncating his journey just because you dig his “earlier, funnier movies.” That could very well irk folks who can’t seem to connect with his work but stand down horror fans; the genre deserves at least one modern director not slavishly beholden to the sensibilities of mall teens. If you don’t like it, good. Welcome to the world of art! Don’t frown; in this joint you can get just as much stimulation from the stuff you don’t like as the stuff you do! Remember, you must be this tall to enter, keep your hands inside the car and stand ready to see things done in ways that you might not have done them yourself! Here is a bullet to bite. I know it’s not what you want but trust me, it’s what you need…

To me, in one way or another, each ROB ZOMBIE movie has been more interesting than the one that came before it. I’m not saying “better,” I’m just saying more thought provoking. (Actually, I could almost say I like each one better than the last except THE LORDS OF SALEM is not dethroning H2 in my heart anytime soon.) Maybe I’m just a very visually oriented person but there are moments in THE LORDS OF SALEM that I think are more potent and valuable then many of ZOMBIE’s directing contemporaries entire output. I’m not kidding. If an alien came to earth and was like “I’m either going to obliterate from existence that frame from LORDS with the orange fur beast or everything that ADAM GREEN and ELI ROTH ever laid a hand on, I would take zero seconds to shamefully respond “Give me the orange fur beast.”

Not that I have anything against those other guys, it’s just that for my needs they’re comparatively disposable and more likely to indulge audiences rather than shepherd them anywhere new. If I ever missed HATCHET, I suppose I’d just watch MADMAN whereas I don’t think there’s anything I could trade ZOMBIE’s imagery for regardless of how much it might be inspired by existing material. He’s just a brilliant visualist, end of story and sorry, that means something to me.

“But Unkle Lancifer!” you might be saying while taking off your spectacles and cleaning them with an embroidered handkerchief, “I don’t care for his writing! His dialogue is trite and like many horror aficionados, I’m an absolute stickler for dialogue!” Here’s the thing, I think his writing is fine and moreover, hold onto your tea cup Oscar Wilde, when it comes to the expression of horror, I don’t think the written word is paramount. “Clay face man walks goat in graveyard” is not much on paper but trust me, visualized it’s a whole different crap-your-pants kettle of fish.

I promise you, I didn’t salute every flag ZOMBIE hoisted. Remember when I was talking about the EVIL DEAD remake and I was saying that it was well built but failed to conjure up a believable presence of malevolent mojo? LORDS is the flip side, its malevolent mojo is indisputable but its structure could stand a few more laps around the gym. I’m not buying the SHINING-style days of the week title cards as framework. As in my actual life, I don’t care what day of the week it is and it’s really no less corny than showing a clock spinning. If you are dubious about SHERI MOON ZOMBIE playing the lead, I’m not going to totally disagree. I think she’s wonderful, a one of a kind character actress, she made an indelible mark in DEVIL’S and she broke my heart in HALLOWEEN. Still, I feel like this movie needed somebody that you didn’t intuitively predict was scrappy enough to wiggle out of whatever. It’s noble to put forth a different type of protagonist but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think some of the film’s erosion themes aren’t blunted by that choice. Do you know who would have been perfect? FAIRUZA BALK! Think about it. Before you agree just know that my answer for every casting quandary is FAIRUZA BALK and I may be subconsciously judging SHERI MOON on her hair.

Here’s the thing though, the most important thing, after the movie was done I went to the restroom in the theater and something about the place felt wrong. The overhead fan was acting up, singing a crazy womp-womp LYNCH-ian dirge and the lights were blinking an indecipherable code. Half my head was still in the movie and that’s my idea of success. True, I missed the emotional punch of H2 (if you didn’t feel anything during Annie’s death scene, congratulations you’re a sociopath) and I admit that I prefer my ZOMBIE a little more stompy. And yet LORDS certainly constructed a hazy, mad malaise that wasn’t so easily wiped off my windshield. Those who get frothy at the mouth minimalizing ZOMBIE’s vision can sleep well, LORDS‘ adamant ambiguity gives you plenty of space to dig in your talons. All I know is that my trusty specter detector was reading some true, undiluted horror on the screen. And when I say “horror,” I don’t mean the pandering power fantasy kind, the giggly, popcorn sleepover kind or the logo strewn, fan bought collectible kind used to spackle over identity chasms and make one feel all safe and special. I mean the unpleasant, corruptive, soul-siphoning kind that has no interest in patting you on the back. No, LORDS doesn’t deliver the rousing cathartic thrills horror fans are looking for instead it offers something most horror fans have little taste for at all, actual horror.

Valentine’s Viewing:: Raising Cain (1992)

If RAISING CAIN (1992) does not register as premium De PALMA, please consider that ALL movies that fail to feature NANCY ALLEN are inherently flawed. Beyond that gross defect, CAIN, unsteady and riling though it may be, is thoroughly fascinating. So what if it loves leaving the audience in a lurch, how can anyone who adores film not recognize that same affection mirrored on the screen? Don’t expect me to be one of those goofballs who whines about De PALMA’s glorification of HITCHCOCK. First off, that’s nothing to be ashamed of, secondly, I never get tired of directors unabashedly exploring what inspires them and thirdly, De PALMA brings more than enough of his own idiosyncratic voice to the table, thank you very much. His visual excesses, unfathomable choices and awkward self-awareness are exactly what curl my toes; if anything, I wish I could lure him even further out on his favorite limb. CAIN is completely oddball beneath its misleading suburban surface and somehow unique even while presenting an almost “greatest hits” version of the director’s previous thrillers. It’s exquisite, it’s a mess, and it will make you wish you were provided a map or at least some post-it notes to identify what is dream, memory or hallucination. If you don’t particularly take to this movie, I can’t particularly blame you but here are five things that I love about RAISING CAIN

1. The voice-over: De PALMA’s original idea was to open CAIN focusing on the internal world of Jenny (LOLITA DAVIDOVICH) who is contemplating having an affair (a la DRESSED TO KILL). Only later did he plan to let the cat out of the bag that cuckold husband Carter (JOHN LITHGOW) was juggling an assortment of personalities, of which, at least one was homicidal. In a bout of charity toward the viewer, De PALMA re-cut the film in order to expedite the focus towards hubby Carter’s madness. It does work in helping us understand Carter is bonkers from the get-go but we are left with Jenny’s story floating in a bubble closer to the center of the film. The ripple effects of the switcheroo results in Jenny delivering a tardy, gawky voice-over exposition that discontinues as abruptly as it materializes. Maybe it makes sense. Maybe Jenny is loopier than her husband. When we shift to her perception, the whole world is fuzzy Valentines and her love interest Jack Dante (STEVEN BAUER) happens to be impossibly slick, ripped off the cover of a Harlequin romance. They even share a hospital-set soap opera-style kiss (she’s a doctor) as his ailing wife watches, wails and politely drops dead. Jenny’s screamingly artificial narration actually fits her gauzy, trapped in a daydream existence but yeah, I mostly love it because it’s weird. The device follows her snapping out of a nightmare, as if she’s woken up to find herself in a movie (and yet another dream). I’m not lost. I think I’m right right around the corner from MULHOLLAND DRIVE.

2. The creepy kid: So Carter is insane. I can safely tell you about at least three of his personalities. One is his twin brother Cain who is elected to do all the dirty work, one is his child self, “Josh” who gets to feel all the emotional pain and then there is “Margo” who should not be disturbed because she doesn’t put up with nonsense. De PALMA certainly has PSYCHO on the mind (especially when it comes to victim disposal but let’s submerge that vehicle later) and he’s also eyeing that film’s sibling flick, MICHAEL POWELL’s PEEPING TOM. Both films are ostensibly about crazy people doing murderous things but at their core, if you ask me, they’re really about shitty parents. Carter’s dad was a child psychologist who tortured and traumatized him in order to record the results (much like PEEPING TOM) and tellingly, not one word is spoken about his mother. We know nothing about her except the primary knowledge that she clearly failed to protect him. This is perhaps why the shadow of the Margo personality looms so large; she is the protector Carter was denied (not to mention the protector he longs to become, our very first view of Carter is of him wrapped around his own child in a guarding maternal pose). Trickster De PALMA has a blast playing with different ways of presenting Carter’s selves. One of the freakiest representations occurs when out of the blue, a curly headed, cherub looking tyke confronts Carter with a distorted, almost demonic, voice, “I know what you’re going to do! It’s a bad thing and I’m going to tell!” The viewer has no clue at the time that we are witnessing a projection of Carter’s youngest identity (or that the person the kid is threatening to inform is Margo). It’s out of left field, ELM STREET– level surreal and as bizarre as it is alarming.

3. Morning has broken: This tribute is a work of art. Carter/Cain, like Norman Bates before him, means to hide a dead body in a car and roll it into a lake. The water is black as tar and the car and all that floats atop the lake are ochre, copper and gold. But wait! The prey is not dead! As she screams, the accusing spotlight sun awakes, the curtain of night drops and gossiping birds shriek like alarm clocks. The morning light spreading over Cain’s face is fantastic. It’s played for suspense that his murderous crime might be exposed but it’s also a clever portrait of Carter’s eclipsing identities. I’m guessing De PALMA is less interested in mimicking a method of body disposal than he is giddy to duplicate HITCHCOCK’s predilection for feeding the fires of viewer collusion.

4. The longest yard: PSYCHO doesn’t get grief too often but when it does, it’s typically over the way Norman’s condition is (some say) heavy-handedly explained by a killjoy psychiatrist at the film’s conclusion (De PALMA nabbed DENNIS FRANZ for a similar thankless job in DRESSED TO KILL). Personally, I don’t mind a little post-trauma pow-wow and who takes one lone character’s viewpoint as gospel anyway? De PALMA has loads of back story and clarification to get off his chest in CAIN and he kindly gets it out of the way relatively early and in a most entertaining way. Enter FRANCES STERNHAGEN as scene-stealer Dr. Waldheim who due to cancer wears a jet black wig which she claims makes her look like a transvestite. No need to pull up a chair! Dr. Waldheim is taking you for a little walk! There’s nothing not to love as the good doctor fills us in on everything we need to know in an incredibly lengthy continuous shot while the camera spins around her and she is humorously yanked to stay on course down several floors and tilted flights of stairs toward the payoff of an almost comical screaming corpse. I like a show-off and this incredible scene has at least two…or three.

5. The closer: There is no way to fully explain the climax of RAISING CAIN. It’s like a multi-layered clashing collage or a cinematic scrapbook of postcards from places the director has visited or conquered. Critics would walk away with boring accusations that De PALMA was cannibalizing himself but meanwhile dude was double dipping his corn chips in the meta mash-up bean dip years ahead of schedule. I can’t explain it and I don’t have to. It should be enough for you to know that the epic finale involves a cross-dresser, a mad doctor with a Norwegian (?) accent, a baby carriage, a tot in a red hoody, slow-mo spilling groceries, lightning flashes, a deadly sundial on a wayward truck and a couple unexplained belligerent drunks and that the entire concoction utilizes three floors of a neon lit motel. It’s a symphony of insanity and wanton black humor and no other director in the world would dream it up. There’s plenty to pick apart in RAISING CAIN but none of its foibles can overshadow the pure crazy brilliance pounding through its veins. To tell you the truth, I didn’t think much of it when I saw it in the theater way back in 92′. I was riveted by some of what I saw but most of it turned to mush in my head. That’s O.K., love at first sight is overrated anyway. Did I mention that the bulk of the movie takes place on Valentine’s Day? Think of RAISING CAIN as a Valentine from De PALMA. It’s not the sweetest chocolate from his heart shaped box but I reckon it’s one of the chewiest. Hopefully you are not allergic to nuts.

Black Christmas (1974):: Do You See What I See?

I suppose it’s possible to trudge through the holiday season without watching BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) but why on Earth would anybody want to do such a thing? Viewing murder and mayhem in celebration of December 25th may seem like bad taste verging on sacrilege to some, but I’d argue it’s more appropriate than a sled load of sappy modern X-Mas movies bent on selling you the idea that having your every indulgent fantasy realized is the reason for the season. Keep your shopping malls, Christmas should be spent in an old dark house surrounded by snow waiting for the appearance of you don’t know what.

BLACK CHRISTMAS, like Christmas itself, focuses on a pregnancy (although this one will end in abortion rather than the son of God) and if that’s not enough to convince you of its fittingness, it’s also got folks with horrible communication skills cursing like sailors and abusing alcohol. Like any holiday gathering, it’s equal parts hilarious and maudlin and yet you don’t need to travel to reach this snuggly destination! Trust me, Jesus would tell you himself if he wasn’t too busy crying his eyes out about the greed-driven travesty his birthday has become that he’s more comfortable being associated with BLACK CHRISTMAS than “Black Friday” (Though truth be known, his favorite horror film remains CARRIE).

BLACK CHRISTMAS has no problem collecting laurels for including tropes that would become ubiquitous years later but its brilliance is worthy of far higher praise than “first out of the gate.” This is no mere sorority house hack n’slash, and ultimately its most essential similarity to HALLOWEEN is that it’s labeled “minimalist” when it’s anything but. The late BOB CLARK built a psychological maze with no clear exit and more primary to its personality than its relationship to any forthcoming body count flick is its unspoken crush on ROSEMARY’S BABY. C’mon, the creepy boyfriend, the invasion paranoia, the raking of religion’s chestnuts over an open fire. What separates BC from the slasher pack and even its own remake is that darn unwanted baby and its mother Jess’s unyielding plans for it. Pretending BC is only an under recognized trendsetter ignores everything that makes it so strangely haunting and difficult to pin down.

Jess, as played by otherworldly beauty OLIVIA HUSSEY (who had just given birth before shooting), is admirable but notably aloof. She knows exactly what she wants, offers no apologies and attempts at swaying her are useless. She’s going to have an abortion and not only does her boyfriend have no say in the matter, he’s lucky she deigned to inform him in the first place. We’re on her side, she’s too stalwart not to align with, but held up against the history of horror heroines, she’s comparatively cold. Jess is going to do what Jess is going to do. Here’s another “final girl” who doesn’t fit the faulty “virgin lives” theory and doesn’t her regality make you feel like a cad even bringing it up? She shows no outward signs of feeling torn about her stance and it seems neither her boyfriend nor the universe she lives in can handle that. The harassing phone calls the sorority house has been receiving get more and more personal and accusatory and the holiday itself, honoring a holy birth, inaudibly sings a preachy Oompa Loompa song in her ear. There’s a growing presence in the house to match the one in her body and it seems devoted to the act of shaking her fortitude.

Whether Jess deserves to be raked over the coals for her adult decision is beside the point, horror is under no contract to be fair and understanding. It’s no accident that nearly every seemingly random act of brutality that occurs will wag a finger at her. The staple-kill that binds this volume together involves Clare (LYNNE GRIFFIN), who bawdy Barb (MARGOT KIDDER) refers to as “The poster child for virginity.” Clare is strangled in a plastic bag (a mockery of contraception?) and propped in a motherly pose in a rocking chair with a rotten baby doll in her hands (I’m assuming that’s the same doll briefly glimpsed earlier in the film trapped in a birdcage). Boozy Mrs. Mac climbs into the attic womb and is gauged on a hook. As Jess cherishes the cherub faces of innocent carolers, Barb is penetrated with a symbol of fragile uniqueness, a crystal unicorn (while a death skull observes above.) “Like having a wart removed,” Jess hears as she clings to the phone’s umbilical cord. The granny voice isn’t just quoting a conversation between Jess and her unborn baby’s father Peter (KEIR DUELLA), it’s backing up his condemnation. She’s being punished all right but is it because of her decision or because she fails to broadcast the required level of socially sanctioned maternal emotions?

We’re meant to suspect the Biblically named Peter. He bashes a piano in a rage and CARL (PROM NIGHT) ZITTRER’s shivery understated score echoes his tantrum throughout. He calls Jess a bitch, stalks about the premises and is filmed in menacing shadow. He does everything short of chomp on a red herring sandwich. But this stubborn to confirm anything film does gift us at least one solid fact, that Peter’s hands are as clean the ones on Jess’ sweater. After being led to believe that the horror is over with Peter’s death, we linger to learn that the squealing beast still exists (is resurrected in a way) in his nest upstairs. Our last glimpse of Jess and Peter together is a curious one and it more than a little resembles Michangelo’s masterpiece “Pietà” which depicts the ultimate pure mother Mary cradling her mourned son.

BLACK CHRISTMAS would remain a stunning movie even if CLARK had followed advice and tagged Clare’s boyfriend Chris (ART HINDLE) as the culprit, but by sticking to his guns and allowing the killer to remain ambiguous, he lifts the tale into the arena of the poetic uncanny (where it’s felicitous roommates with HALLOWEEN.) Our killer Billy could be anyone, could be anywhere. He is free to change forms each time you watch. Sometimes I imagine due to a few shots of a framed record that Mrs. Mac made with her sister (The MacHenry Sisters!) that Billy is her estranged nephew. With his judging, all-seeing-eye he might be a stand in for the notably absent Santa Claus or even God. Is he giving voice to Jess’s raging to be born baby or is he a physical manifestation of her suppressed guilt? Neither and both. Shadowy silhouette killers are nothing new but CLARK’s representation delivers a singular identifying shard, Billy’s intense penetrating eye; a cinematic pitfall into a bottomless chasm of meaning. If the frequent point-of-view shots place the audience inside the head of the killer, then the stark flashes of Billy’s eye amounts to the viewers catching a glimpses of themselves in a mirror. If Billy can indeed be anyone then that includes us; the judgmental, voyeuristic audience.

I’ll never be able to explore every room of this address. I didn’t even mention my favorite character Phyl (ANDREA MARTIN) the heart (and co-patriot observer) of the joint, who I suspect CLARK had similar affection for since she’s granted an off-screen kill. You probably don’t want to get me started on JOHN SAXTON, especially if I’ve had some eggnog; it can be embarrassing. I’m moved by the plight of Clare’s father and it kills me when he gets hit in the face with a snowball. Then there’s that little girl’s worried mother and the volunteers braving the cold for a literal search for lost innocence in the park. Luckily we get some comic relief thanks to Sergeant Nash (DOUG McGRATH) and his limited knowledge of sexual terms. You could devote a whole book to KIDDER’s Barb and her shenanigans. Maybe I’m biased and when am I not? BLACK CHRISTMAS just happens to take place in a space that reminds me of my grandma’s seventies-era abode and it’s occupied by people who look like I remember they did while my favorite X-mas memories were being carved in my head. Even the posters on the girl’s walls enthrall me.

Let me close by giving a final more definitive shout out to OLIVIA HUSSEY’s Jess who I think is often shortchanged. No, she’s not a warrior badass and yes, Sidney Prescott in SCREAM was probably referring to her when she complained of those who are “always running up the stairs when (they) should be running out the front door.” Still, she’s a sleeping giant in the horror heroine department for so fully claiming ownership of her herself from introduction regardless of how she might be perceived by Peter, Billy, Santa, God or us. Appraising a character on the strength of their personal convictions rather than their defensive fighting skills? Jesus would totally approve.

Halloween (1978):: Death and the Maiden

The first time I saw Michael Myers’s face (mask, really), I turned (sprinted, really) away. It was during a review for HALLOWEEN on SISKEL & EBERT and it was just a clip but I had to leave the room and shake his visage from my mind by jumping up and down. His image is now so familiar (especially this time of year) that it takes some effort for me to recall just how alien and menacing it was upon first view. I had no knowledge of whom or what he was within the story, no idea of how iconic his likeness would become and certainly no inkling of his countenance’s debt to Captain Kirk. I saw a white face with hollow black eyes and it almost appeared as if it were floating in the darkest of space. He was a levitating skull and skulls don’t have to speak to say loud and clear, “Poison, death, run.” Some primal million years old memory stored in my DNA awoke and manipulated my legs as if they were connected to marionette strings. (My cat feels the same way about the vacuum cleaner). Some movies are bigger than movies; some movies unknowingly chant ancient spells. I never wanted to see that face again so I began to seek it out.

To best understand HALLOWEEN (both the film and the holiday) it helps to be a certain age, somewhere between bright summery childhood and cold mature winter, somewhere on the cusp of adulthood lazily observing the world transform with a crisp mix of excitement and apprehension. It helps to be a teenager in autumn. It helps to be knee-deep in change. Here comes Laurie Strode! She’s carrying a wall of books in front of herself like a shield. She’s different than her friends, more cautious, structured and on guard and those who reductively sum up her identity by her level of sexual experience, are evaluating a universe based on one dying star. Here we have one of horror’s most beloved and identified with protagonists. She is a hero and earns the right to be called one. This status does not fall into her lap because she abstains from sex throughout the course of the film. HALLOWEEN is often cited for forging the spurious template that demands only virgins survive a slasher film and that all those who dabble in sex and drugs must die, a condescension that ignores not only Laurie’s internal journey but also the fact that she gets stoned before showing up at her babysitting gig.

Of more pertinence than Laurie’s presumed “purity” is the way in which she interacts with others and the things that she says about herself. We get the gist that she is considered a “good girl” but it appears she achieves that recognition by fulfilling the wants of others while her own desires are shelved. When she bumps into young Tommy Doyle her reply to his every request is a quick, “Sure, sure, sure” but she has no real answers when he bombards her with, “Why, why, why?” She runs errands for her father; she picks up the slack for her friends, and when she jokes about being a “girl scout” it may have less to do with her moral standing than it does the accommodating, nearly subservient position she holds. More pressing than her love life is Laurie’s subtle struggle with her own acquiescence. HALLOWEEN is a classic that is highly regarded by people of various ages but it’s notable how the film tends to strike a firmer, more formative and enthusiastic impact with audiences members roughly Laurie’s age, young adults naturally beginning to wonder if they are mapping out their futures for themselves or based on the expectations of those (parents, friends) around them.

What is the cost of subverting yourself in order to facilitate everybody else’s goals and agendas? Laurie sees, intuits death. While giving a prompted answer regarding fate in class, death appears; while being goaded and chided by her pals on the sidewalk, death appears; while staring out the window at the drooping result of domestic chores, a full clothesline, there stands death again. The paychecks for not rocking the boat become fewer as the taxes for bottling her true self pile up. Laurie admits she’s interested in a guy named Ben Tramer but as soon as proactive pal Annie clears the path towards him, she recoils and coyly cowards. C’mon Laurie! Really? You know what? If you keep neutralizing and diluting yourself, the invisibility you are conjuring is going to manifest. Do you know what that will be like? It will be like running down the street as shades are drawn and porch lights extinguish screaming “Can’t you hear me?!!!”

HALLOWEEN is frequently made to fess up its debt to BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) but the blank-faced yet somehow accusatory dark figure, the central challenge haunting its heroine to fully take form and the overall poetic, uncanny atmosphere favor even more so CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962). Feel free to toast the late BOB CLARK for the P.O.V. shots and the holiday setting but when it comes to the death-and-the-maiden motif, we’re dealing with a theme so firmly rooted that you wouldn’t be off base high-fiving EDVARD MUNCH and EMILY DICKINSON either.

Laurie is locked in place but her tango with mortality will bestow traction, this dance with death is not new. It’s Halloween night and we’re celebrating the end of summer (Halloween is linked to the Celtic “Samhain” which is derived from “Sumuin” which literally means “Summer’s end”). It’s a night when it’s said that the supernatural world and our world overlap and ghosts from the past return (home). It’s a night that honors the dead but more importantly here, in turn, celebrates the bounty that is change and renewal.

“Why won’t anybody help me?!” Poor Laurie, always happy to lend a hand but when she needs one herself she’s own her own. She’s found her voice but nobody is listening. There is a panicky “Boy Who Cried Wolf” element afoot as Laurie discovers how easily she is overlooked and forgotten. She reenters (thanks to a half asleep Tommy) the Doyle house and things markedly change. It’s unfair to say Laurie transforms, rather, she finally allows herself access to what was available to her all along. She stands her ground. We’re about to find out her commitment and responsibility towards others is a vulnerability easily flipped on its head to become a source of power. With two children counting on her, Laurie drops the wavering and amasses control. It’s a struggle, as well it should be, but this “day of reckoning” has been brewing for some time. For the audience, the battle is as cathartic as it is suspenseful. We’re watching someone not assessed too grandly by her peers carve some turf in the world and refuse to roll over. We’re witnessing a rite of passage. Laurie is accepting the challenge to move ahead toward autonomous adulthood. Who would understand that something so benign and mundane seeming as a knitting needle could be a devastating game-changer? Laurie.

Sheriff Leigh Brackett: A man wouldn’t do that.
Dr. Sam Loomis: This isn’t a man.

Is there really such a mystery to the “The Shape”? The very first thing we learn in HALLOWEEN is who he is. He’s that mouth-breathing scamp who severed his sister from her rightful adulthood in the very first scene of the film. He’s frozen in time. He has no voice. You can paint him in as many dark shadows as you want but he’s still the poster child for arrested development. (He even hangs out in the wreckage of his boyhood home.) I’m not saying he’s not scary (nothing is scarier than a dullard with a sharp knife and nothing to lose), I’m just saying we tend to deny that we’ve all seen behind this mask. Haddonfield residents may have molded him into “The Boogey Man” but even as such, he’s chained to the fears of childhood and that is where he belongs. He is something to be outgrown (“Well, kiddo, I thought you outgrew superstition”). Laurie is purposely moving away from Michael a.k.a. “The Shape” (a voiceless shadow linked to the past) and toward Loomis (an outspoken eccentric who follows his own compass forward). Although the Myers monster was consciously conceived to be a “blank slate” that audiences could project an infinite amount of fears upon, for Laurie, being a “blank slate” could be, in and of itself, the ultimate fear and the ultimate death. The creature she is battling is the void she might become.

So yeah, I see a coming-of-age film lurking in the shadows of HALLOWEEN. Instead of “The Shape” conservatively punishing the characters for premarital sex and alcohol consumption, I see him raging against the common rites of passage that lead toward adulthood that he has denied himself. Laurie does not live due to the magical power of prudence, on the contrary; she survives because she loosens the grip on her own reigns. I’ve heard it said that HALLOWEEN is a throwback because Laurie must wait for Loomis to save her, a comment that makes me want to partake in a killing spree of my own. It’s an insult to Laurie’s cavalry, the universality of the tale and the fact that this movie, by my estimation is the greatest cinematic collaboration between a man and a woman…ever. We’re talking JOHN CARPENTER and DEBRA HILL (CARPENTER readily identifies the film as “a 50/50 collaboration”.) If you understand HILL provided Laurie’s essence and CARPENTER Loomis’, it’s only fitting that in the end, they team up not to destroy, (You can’t kill the boogeyman!) but to push the destructive darkness back into the night. Loomis has been struggling to be taken seriously too why should Strode have all the (redemptive) fun?

HALLOWEEN hardly needs any endorsement by me. Its artistry is well observed and the long-standing devotion its characters have garnered in fans says everything you need to know. Still, as the years pass, I have become more in tune with just how succinctly the movie captures the spirit of the holiday itself (regardless of the conspiratorial green trees that wave from the horizon). Maybe phantoms don’t actually cross over into our world on All Hallows’ Eve, but I for one can always count on being visited by the ghost of my youth. Halloween and autumn stand responsible for many a child’s earliest awareness of the fleeting stages of life and who didn’t feel the wasp sting the first time they heard, “You’re getting too big for trick ‘r treating!”? (Oh, if only I knew then that adulthood would also mean no one ever telling you again what costume to wear, how late to stay up watching horror movies, what candy to throw away or what demons to dread.) Getting older may include leaving certain things behind but I’ll never let go of Laurie, Loomis and Tommy all trying to make their fears heard, Bob and Lynda both trying to get laid, sarcastic Annie trying to get that butter stain out of her shirt, and her poor good natured pop just trying to keep things in order. And I’ll never lose sight of “The Shape.” He’s not as enigmatic as he once was but maybe that’s because he’s moving closer. That empty, vacant face still scares me, and everyone, no matter their age, is entitled to one good scare.

The Tall Man (2012)

I can tell you right now that not everybody is going to like THE TALL MAN. I can say that confidently because I watched it with two other people who were as unimpressed with it as I was intrigued. According to my not very scientific experiment, exactly one third of all people will enjoy this movie and approximately two thirds would prefer to play with their cell phones. On the other hand, perhaps I should disregard my findings as I may have inadvertently raised expectations to an impossible level when I incorrectly informed the participants in my survey that the movie starred JENNIFER BEALS rather than JESSICA BIEL. Once the sad reality that the film we were watching featured not the star of FLASHDANCE but the star of SEVENTH HEAVEN sunk in, a profound malaise infiltrated the room like a radioactive fog that apparently only I was immune to. I admit that BIEL is no BEALS, but that doesn’t make it O.K. to treat her like she’s JENNA ELFMAN. She was a trooper in the TCM remake and she’s surprisingly good in THE TALL MAN playing a complicated role. In fact, the more I think about it the more I realize what a divertingly clever addition BIEL’s presence is to this movie that gets off on using the audience’s presumptions against them whenever possible.

I think director/writer PASCAL LAUGIER (HOUSE OF VOICES, MARTYRS) is brilliant and I’m not just saying that because he’s French. I found myself in the middle of this movie with exactly zero idea where it was going to head next and that’s my favorite place to be in the world. Anyone can throw a twist onto the end of a movie and exit stage left without facing the consequences, but LAUGIER flips things on their head consistently throughout and bravely holds himself and his film accountable for every rug-pull. The startup premise involves a languishing mining town that’s dealing with a rash of missing children. The locals have pinned their fears upon an enigmatic figure known only as “The Tall Man.” BIEL plays Julia Denning, an outsider who has no reason to take the whispered about legend seriously until her own child is snatched away. Honestly, I didn’t know whether to be excited or heartbroken that LAUGIER was taking on such seemingly straightforward material but as it turns out, that is just the first layer of many that he digs through. When the end credits roll, it’s difficult to believe we’re watching the same movie we started out with. The audience is dumped on shaky moral ground far closer to the art house than the slaughterhouse without even a courtesy jump scare security blanket to cling to.

So hurray for this movie for being challenging and making me feel like a gullible fool multiple times, but is it scary? My viewing partners certainly didn’t think so, but I found the dread factor sharp on multiple occasions. Don’t expect the soul curdling power of MARTYRS though; even with all the mind games at play, this is more of an earthy white trash fairy tale than a KUBRICK-ian dive into the abyss. For me, it’s unique and inventive enough to warrant acclamation and how can anyone be anything but extremely grateful after being so expertly kept on their toes? You’ll find a few really good performances too; it’s always good to see pocket scream queen JODELLE FERLAND (SILENT HILL, TIDELAND) and PONTYPOOL’s STEPHEN McHATTIE is a welcome face too. My favorite turn belongs to the effortlessly tenacious SAMANTHA FERRIS who should be instantly recognized by any SUPERNATURAL fans out there. I guess the sad truth is that if you want to do something original and different, you should expect that not everybody is going to follow. As far as I’m concerned, LAUGIER has yet to let me down and I’ll be excited to see what he does next. I’d stay clear of a FLASDANCE remake if I were him though; JENNIFER BEALS’ fans are a hard crowd to please.