The Black Phone (2022)

Is modern life so bleak that THE BLACK PHONE, a horror-thriller concerning a boy who is abused both at home and at school and is abducted and kept prisoner by a devil-masked lunatic known as “the grabber” is somehow the feel-good movie of the summer? Yes. Don’t blame the messenger. I’d even say it covertly sports the poignant reminder that we all survive and exist thanks to the acts and sacrifices of those who passed before us.

Ergo, I’d like to thank all my guardian angel ghosts out there. I see you and I’m mentally pouring one out to you.

Finney Blake (Mason Thames) is an affable 13-year-old living in an inadvertently hyper-stylish suburb in the aesthetically appealing golden year of 1978. Because he is modest and unassuming, most of his time is spent trying not to be beaten by marauding bullies or his brutish alcoholic father. Luckily he has a fantastic relationship with his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) who has inherited their deceased mother’s psychic gifts (and is routinely punished for them). Shortly after Finney’s only friend and protector becomes yet another missing boy in their neighborhood, Finney himself bumps into a horrifically bizarre character driving a very conspicuous Magician’s Van filled with black balloons. It doesn’t end well. Finney finds himself in exactly the type of single mattress basement lair all sane minds fear. This one has a phone though- and it receives calls from his captor’s past victims who are generous enough to share helpful advice.

Director Scott Derrickson and screenwriter C. Robert McGraw have already made it abundantly clear they know how to deliver the creeps with their previous collaboration SINISTER (2012). But whereas that film sometimes strained credibility in regards to human behavior, THE BLACK PHONE (based on a story by Joe Hill) has enough heart and soul to fully immerse you in the nightmare it’s selling. Much credit goes to young actor Mason Thames’ portrayal of Finney who comes across as a fusion of the grounded stalwart Laurie Strode (as played by Jamie Lee Curtis) in HALLOWEEN (’78) and the mournful and inquisitive every-kid Mike Pearson (as played by A. Michael Baldwin) in PHANTASM (‘79). He instantly reads as someone you know or have known and if you don’t recognize him it might be because you were him. Ethan Hawke is equally convincing as the chuckling twisted predator who thankfully keeps his monstrous cards close to his chest. And who among us can look the gift horse of a hilarious supporting part delivered by the incredible James Ransone (SINISTER 1&2, IT: Chapter II) in the mouth?

THE BLACK PHONE is able to elicit sympathy for its characters in a way that is sadly too unique in modern horror which ramps the suspense up to stellar heights. It wants to scare you silly on one end of the receiver but the other end wants to remind you that maybe with a little help from some friends (living or dead) all of us are capable of sticking up for ourselves, fighting back, and finally treasuring those closest to us. As a kid from the seventies, I couldn’t help but appreciate how it presented a very recognizable sun-bleached world to me full of humiliations, aggravations, injustices, and the frustration of always getting a busy signal when you give Jesus a ring through prayer.

Ultimately, THE BLACK PHONE is a great reminder that horror films can do so much more than scare us, they can also inspire us to be brave in the face of what seems like insurmountable odds. It’s frightening, yet ultimately exhilarating; like an unholy cross between THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and THE KARATE KID. Additionally, if you needed an extra reminder to stay the hell away from black vans this fine flick provides that too, and in spades.

Storm of the Century (1999)

I love watching winter-set horror films in the summer for a little mental relief from the heat but I also love to watch wintry horror flicks in the heart of the season when they are the most relatable. Come to think of it, I also dig them in fall and spring so I just took a long time to say I enjoy them all year round. Recently I popped in an old double VHS tape of Stephen King’s STORM OF THE CENTURY, which I enjoyed when it first aired and I found myself surprised at just how well it has aged. It’s truly chilling, has atmosphere you can cut with a knife and is filled with so many interesting characters performed by a cast of truly talented actors. There’s also a phenomenal central villain, a runtime that provides full immersion and a rather nasty moral dilemma that could leave you with frostbite. King himself has called it his personal favorite of all the television productions based on his work and I’d totally agree if not for the fact that SALEM’S LOT (‘79) exists.

A small town is presented in full frenzy as they prepare for an oncoming winter storm. I can tell you from experience that New England storms are especially fierce when you reside by the ocean, as is clearly the case with fictional Little Tall Island (which we’ve visited before to meet DOLORES CLAIBORNE). Enter Andre Linoge (a perfectly unnerving Colm Feore) who begins offing oldsters with his wolf-faced cane, causing suicides, revealing everyone’s darkest secrets and leaving graffiti everywhere that says, “Give me what I want and I’ll go away.” I don’t want to reveal what tree this dog is barking up but I will say that I have a psychic hunch that Shirley Jackson would give his wicked proposal a big thumbs up.

Helping to make the horrific circumstances all the more harrowing is the fact that those caught in Linoge’s crossfire are played by cream of the crop character actors like Jeffrey DeMunn (THE BLOB ‘88, THE GREEN MILE ’99), Julianne Nicholson (personal fave THE OTHERS (2000) & Emmy award winner for MARE OF EASTOWN in 2021), Becky Anne Baker (the mom from FREAKS AND GEEKS! She’s excellent) and even good old ‘80s staple Casey Siemaszko (THREE O’CLOCK HIGH, STAND BY ME). Some may be surprised that Tim Daly, best known for the sitcom WINGS is wonderfully nuanced, earthy and relatable as the troubled, narrating lead, but anyone who has seen 1988’s fatal witch attraction flick SPELLBINDER knows the score (plus, who doesn’t amongst us want to support Tyne’s bro?).

Director (and former stuntman), Craig R. Baxley would go on to bring other Stephen King teleplays to the small screen (ROSE RED (2003), KINGDOM HOSPITAL (2004)) but he’s best at his game here juggling compelling performances, creating a believable town to get lost in and throwing out striking imagery (with the help of cinematographer David Connell).

I’d even say you could take this in as a precursor to the type of work Mike Flanagan (MIDNIGHT MASS) has been excelling at delivering to Netflix recently. Like Flanagan’s output, STORM OF THE CENTURY helps to erase the delusion that the big screen is superior to the small, especially when weaving such expansive tales. Though a hit with ratings and critics alike, STORM OF THE CENTURY has seemed to fall toward the bottom of Santa Stevie’s bag of horror toys but I’m of the thinking it deserves to be much more appreciated. Personally, I think it’s the gift that keeps on giving. It’s top-tier Stephen King in my book.

Scream (2022)

I feel it’s my civic duty to write a review for the latest SCREAM movie and yet all I really want to do is talk about how much I love the last installment in the franchise, SCREAM 4. I’m super happy that the new film is doing well with critics and audiences alike but where was this gushing positivity when brilliant Wes Craven’s last film hit the scene eleven years ago? Yikes, that’s another thing that’s vexing me; was 4 really released that long ago? If I had to guess, I would have said it came out about five years ago. In any case, the new SCREAM is reasonably well done and offers plenty to keep one entertained even if I didn’t exactly click with any of the new characters (at least not like I did with Kirby in 4) and I felt not enough time was spent with the returning OG’s. It’s OK though, I’m probably still going to watch it countless times in the future and surely the newbies will gel with me over time.

This is a SCREAM movie so I’ll give away as little as humanly possible. The film opens with a scene that mirrors the first film’s famous opening but with a few less teeth and a victim (Jenna Ortega) who somehow survives. Soon we are introduced to her estranged sister (Melissa Barrera) and her close-knit group of friends (including twins who are nephew & niece to departed Randy Meeks). As the ghostface killer continues to strike, we’re again informed that everyone is a suspect as the group of teens discuss elevated horror, legacy characters and “requels” like an exhaustive buzzword laden Twitter feed. The SCREAM flicks have always been pointedly meta/self-aware so it’s appropriate to offer this update of current horror film discourse and yet my corny self would rather be hanging out with Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) at her new job as a morning news show host or maybe getting a glimpse of Sydney (Neve Campbell)’s new husband. At least we do get some Dewey (David Arquette) downtime, even if his character has been dumped in a trailer & is hitting the bottle.

Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet (READY OR NOT) do an admirable job of respecting the series overall (even throwing out a blink and you’ll miss it Easter egg of life saving proportions) and some of the kills are wonderfully vicious (including one creepily conducted in the broadest of daylight). There’s no way I’m going to look this gift horse in the mouth as the film successfully puts the franchise back on track on multiple levels and that’s something to celebrate. I guess I’m just a bit let down by what and whom the film chooses to focus on when there are so many angles that might have been more interesting (at least to me). I will say that the films final reveal, though anything but innovative, is performed well and is sufficiently psychotic (even though I prefer part 4’s more passionate revelation). Ultimately this is a laudable feast for fans that’s nutritious enough even if I didn’t leave the table completely satiated (like I did after viewing Part 4. Damn, I love that one so much. Justice for Kirby!).

Christmas Evil (’80) By Michael Campochiaro of Starfire Lounge

Lewis Jackson’s cult classic Christmas Evil (1980)—or as it was known during production and before the distributor changed the name, You Better Watch Out—opened in a few theaters to little notice back in 1980. Then it mostly disappeared, only to see a revival of sorts in recent years on Blu-ray and streaming. For many of us it’s now an annual holiday watch. Christmas Evil has something special going for it that few other Christmas horrors do: it’s quite possibly the most pointed critique of the holiday season ever made.

Released during the slasher boom set off by Halloween (1978), Christmas Evil might’ve been marketed as a slasher (honestly, it was barely marketed), but that’s not what Jackson was going for. Like its anti-hero protagonist, it was an oddity, a methodically paced character study of an unstable, Santa-obsessed, middle-aged toy factory worker, which shares more in common with Taxi Driver than Halloween.

The film opens in 1947 when young Harry, his little brother Phil, and their mom secretly watch Santa Claus (their dad in disguise) deliver gifts under the tree. Later, after Phil flatly denies that Santa is real, Harry sneaks back downstairs, only to find a softcore version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” happening between sexy, lingerie-clad Mommy and horny and hungry Santa Daddy. Disturbed by seeing Santa putting his mitts (and mouth!) all over my Mommy’s lusciously nylon-and-garter-belted legs (and beyond!), he runs upstairs, breaks a snow globe in a fit of rage, and intentionally cuts his hand with a shard of the glass. Fade to red, and the film’s original title screen appears.

In present day 1980, we find Harry working at a toy factory and living in an apartment that appears to be decorated full-tilt for Christmas year-round. Stage and character actor Brandon Maggart plays Harry. He is excellent in the role, and also the source of one of my favorite fun movie facts: he’s Fiona Apple’s dad! What makes Maggart’s performance so effective is how he engenders such sympathy for Harry, who is looked down on by his coworkers, treated like a nuisance by his brother, and generally ignored by the rest of the world. He’s very much spiritually connected to Travis Bickle’s “God’s lonely man,” even talking to himself—or having total breaks with reality—in the mirror frequently throughout the story.

Harry already fancies himself a street-level Santa, clearly: he spies on the neighborhood children, keeping notes on who’s naughty or nice in a huge, leatherbound book. It’s chilling to watch him peeping through the kids’ windows, yet at the same time we never really feel any of them are in serious danger from Harry….well, except little foul-mouthed, Penthouse-reading Moss Garcia, who Harry seems particularly disturbed by because he represents the new, profane world of 1980 (“Negative body hygiene” and all) while Harry is stuck in an idealized 1940s fantasy life. That fantasy is important to remember as you watch the film. With Harry as our unreliable narrator, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not. Are people’s reactions to Harry filtered through his own fractured lens?

Harry’s breakdown seems fueled by an inability to reconcile his nostalgic, pure view of Christmas with the cynically capitalist way the rest of the adults in society see the holiday. Harry identifies with the children who still believe in the magic and wonder of Christmas, yet reality repeatedly shatters these notions, day after day, making it almost impossible for him to maintain his composure.

Seeing the adulation Santa receives at the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade triggers something in Harry. He immediately constructs a Santa costume of his own, builds toys in his workshop, and by Christmas Eve his mania is in full swing. He glues his Santa beard to his face (ouch!) and heads out to deliver some holiday cheer. He alternates between sweet acts of Robin Hood style kindness—delivering bags full of toys to a children’s hospital, which he stole from the toy factory after becoming completely disillusioned with the place—and cold-blooded murders. The bloodletting is spontaneous at first, but then calculated, as Harry sneaks into the house of a particularly crass coworker and murders the man in his bed while his children eagerly await Christmas morning, just down the hall.

As Harry’s Christmas Eve massacre carries into Christmas night, he has a series of encounters with holiday revelers, some jovial and some disturbing. After a final confrontation with his brother, who has deduced that Harry is the killer Santa the news media is reporting about, Harry drives off in his van, on which he has painted a Santa sleigh. Driving wildly, he crashes off a bridge and that’s when the film takes a turn for the surreal, as the sleigh-van literally flies off into the night, with Harry reaching a state of pure Yuletide bliss.

I tend to think Harry perished in the crash that Christmas evening, but it also appears that Phil is witnessing the flying van just as we are, so maybe not? Either way, Christmas Evil sticks with you. Jackson never directed another movie again, which is a shame, but at least his sincere, troubling, and borderline-genius piece of work has finally found its audience, all these years later. The allure of nostalgia is powerful, after all, making the core of Harry’s story all too relatable for many viewers.

The Hand (1981)

In a strange turn of events, it turns out I rather dig Oliver Stone’s THE HAND. This is odd because I remember it boring the hell out of me when I watched it as a kid. To be fair to my younger self, 1981 was an incredible year for horror and it’s still easy for me to see why it paled in comparison to the more exciting and innovative films of that year. Additionally, it’s very possible I needed a lot more life experience to appreciate THE HAND’s bitter, misanthropic tone. There’s a whole lot of yelling and domestic squabbling in this flick and I’m sure my younger self was looking for a lot more murder and mayhem.

Now I find, if you can get past the outrageous premise, THE HAND is solid psychological horror and a compelling dive into insanity. Heck, the maddening journey Michael Caine’s hair endures is worth the viewing alone.

Caine stars as Jonathan Lansdale, a writer and illustrator of a CONAN-like comic strip that apparently his entire sense of identity relies on. One day he finds himself on the losing end of a road rage incident and his right hand is severed. Sadly the hand also goes missing and it is presumed to be lost forever (if only he were so lucky). Let me tell you, Jonathan does not adjust to his new predicament well at all. Soon he’s having black and white nightmares of his rotting paw crawling around stealing jewelry and visions of it strangling a homeless man (played by Stone himself). Landsdale landslides into several fun hallucinations including a lobster coming to life, a shower faucet nearly giving him the finger and even a giant hand attacking through a store front window.

Stone makes many an interesting directorial choice even if they don’t all work (I could have easily done without the scene involving a fake cat senselessly jumping through a glass window being shown twice- as it didn’t work the first time). His greatest decision may have been to completely drop the reigns on Caine and allow him to go as bonkers as humanly possible. I could watch Caine go mad forever especially when his sad descent is scored by the great James Horner (WOLFEN, DEADLY BLESSING). Sure, the pacing (literally) crawls at times but there are still so many layers to enjoy. You get a psychological thriller, a family divorce drama (complete with little Christina (Mara Hobel) from MOMMIE DEAREST), a student/teacher romance, a wife and yoga instructor affair, a monster movie, a revenge movie, a cabin in the woods flick AND thanks to an X-Mas tree murder- a Christmas horror movie! Just when you think THE HAND has finally stopped delivering the goods, the incredible Viveca Lindfors shows up! I’m really glad I gave this crazy flick a second chance, young-me didn’t know what he was missing.

Magdalena: Possessed by the Devil (’74) By Michael Campochiaro of Starfire Lounge

I was feeling under the weather recently so I did what any normal human being would do: I curled up in bed to watch a 1970s West German Devil-possession flick dubbed into English on YouTube. What, you don’t do that when you’re sick?

Truth be told, neither do I but sweet Satan am I glad I did this time. I’m not even sure how I stumbled upon Magdalena: Possessed by the Devil (1974); I probably have some lunatic on the internet to thank. And of course I have William Blatty’s The Exorcist to thank because that little book you may have heard of set off a possession frenzy in the 1970s that produced not only William Friedkin’s smash hit film adaptation, but also any number of movies and TV clones. It wasn’t just in the United States either. Those crazy Italians and the almost-as-crazy Spaniards made a bunch of knockoffs. Then the Germans said—Ha! Okay fine, hold my Hofbräu—and made the truly insane Magdalena (known stateside as Beyond the Darkness).

I don’t even know how to describe this movie…take The Exorcist, strip away any semblance of seriousness, age up the lead actress to a teenager, add in staggering amounts of nudity and vulgarity, and just let the madness flow like draught beer during Oktoberfest. The story is simple: an orphaned teen (Dagmar Hedrich) begins writhing around like she’s having sex with the air, telling every man in site to “stick it in her”, and generally behaving in all sorts of ways not typically condoned in polite society. When possessed, she relishes antagonizing a series of truly stupid and horny men. Eventually she’s in the care of two doctors who begin to realize there’s more to this than medical science will ever be able to explain.…much more!

Hedrich is to be commended for her performance. She absolutely commits to the madness. I swear she’s naked for half the film, at least, and not just naked but naked while running, rolling, fighting, and cackling her way through the story. Pardon the pun but she’s like a woman possessed.

Basically Magaldena is a German sexploitation film that happens to have satanic possession in it. After watching this crackerjack I felt less under the weather, and in fact, much better. Look, sometimes satanic possession is just what the doctor ordered.

Note: Make sure to visit MC at his home joint HERE!

The Fury (1978) By Michael Campochiaro of Starfire Lounge

Let’s get this out of the way at the start: I’m a Brian De Palma fanatic. Of the New Hollywood directors who got their starts in the 1960s and 1970s, many are certified legends with their own signature styles, but none of them can touch De Palma’s purely batshit crazy resume, especially during the 1970s. And during those years none of them worked as consistently within the milieu of horror as De Palma, either. From harrowing, Siamese-twin shocker Sisters (1973) to demented rock opera Phantom of the Paradise (1974) to telekinetic teen terror Carrie (1976) and beyond, De Palma crafted some of the most bizarre and memorable films of the decade.

Carrie is as close to a perfect movie as one can get. It’s quite possibly De Palma’s best, in my estimation—technical prowess, emotional impact, and excellent performances meld into something truly transcendent. That might be why the film he followed it with in 1978, The Fury—also about telekinetic teens—was practically doomed to second fiddle status from the start. That’s a shame because, while The Fury is far from perfect, it’s as compellingly strange as anything De Palma has ever made.

Part supernatural horror, part espionage thriller, with even some comic interludes that seem ported over from another movie, The Fury is the sort of movie that makes me feel confident to declare it unlike any other movie ever made. I like this strange mixture quite a bit, although the script is kind of a mess and inexplicably convoluted. It stars Kirk Douglas as a man on a mission, trying to rescue his supernaturally gifted son from a shady government organization intent on using him and other special kids as weapons in warfare. Douglas might seem an odd fit for this movie, but the man brings it! Whether he’s surviving speed boat explosions, leaping out of buildings in his boxer shorts, or applying shoe polish to his hair while munching on bacon (don’t ask), I’m just happy to go along for the ride with him. Ethereal Amy Irving (hot off her fantastic performance as Sue Snell in Carrie) as a telekinetic teen with extra-sensory perception is—you guessed it—ethereal. And like Carrie White, her character Gillian also kicks major ass in the end, and it’s glorious. John Cassavetes is deliciously dastardly and Andrew Stevens’ performance is intense—he’s really good at nose flaring. The death scenes are insanely gruesome and bloody in the grand De Palma tradition.

The Fury also contains plenty of the director’s signature style with some extraordinary shots, including a wonderful, lengthy, slow-motion sequence that is absolutely mesmerizing. I hadn’t seen the film in decades, but its slow charms are intoxicating, to the point that I can’t stop thinking about it since a recent rewatch. In that way, it’s the sort of movie that works its way into your heart and stays there forever.

Note: Make sure to visit MC at his home base HERE!

Carnival of Souls (’62) By Michael Campochiaro of Starfire Lounge

The first time you see Carnival of Souls you’re pretty sure you’ve seen it before. That’s because any number of horror films in the nearly sixty years since its release have cribbed liberally off its look, feel, and twist ending. It’s possible many of those filmmakers did so unknowingly—that’s how much Carnival of Souls is woven into the fabric of cinematic horror.

If I’m making it sound like Carnival of Souls is as well-known as descendants like Night of the Living Dead or The Sixth Sense, well, no, it’s not. No one saw Carnival of Souls when it came out in 1962. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but hardly anyone did. It took decades before art houses began screening it for Halloween showings, introducing it to a new generation that embraced it and made it one of the ultimate cult classics. But even now it’s still relatively obscure outside of film critic and cinephile circles.

A quick synopsis of the plot goes like this: a woman named Mary (Candace Hilligoss, whose expressive and truly stunning face was tailor-made for this movie) is the sole survivor in a car full of women that crashes spectacularly while drag racing some cool cat daddy-os. Soon after she feels a wanderlust overtake her. She dramatically quits her job as a church organist—“I am never coming back”—and leaves Kansas behind before landing in Utah. What follows is a series of strange encounters where Mary begins to feel increasingly isolated and invisible, even in the company of others. Oh, and she also keeps seeing a ghoulish stalker (played rather ghoulishly by the film’s director Herk Harvey), who scares her silly. Then there’s the sprawling old abandoned carnival on the outskirts of town. Mary is mysteriously drawn to it. Eventually we discover why, in one of cinema’s most haunting endings.

The story behind the film is almost as intriguing as the film itself. Former industrial filmmaker (think human resources training films for fast food employees) Herk Harvey made Carnival of Souls on the cheap as a labor love for somewhere around $30,000 in two decidedly un-Hollywood locales: Lawrence, Kansas and the Salt Lake City area in Utah. Hilligoss was the only cast member with any acting training. She’s possibly the only person associated with the film who ever made more features, and even she only appeared in a handful. Harvey never made another film again, unless you count the countless industrial videos he made for Centron Productions before and after Carnival of Souls.

That a film this low budget, made by a group of filmmakers existing about as far outside the mainstream of moviemaking as possible, could become such an influence on future filmmakers is astonishing. It’s also a testament to a film’s ability to find its audience over time. Like Mary drawn to the carnival, horror nerds and filmmakers alike have been drawn to Carnival of Souls over the last several decades. Why? Because for all its cheapness, it remains a truly great horror film.

Unk Sez: Check out more of Michael’s work at his home base STARFIRE LOUNGE!

Last Night in Soho (2021)

Edgar Wright’s LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is so enrapturing to the eyes and ears that it’s a shock to the system when the film ends and you have to return to gray, blaring reality. Thomasin McKenzie plays Eloise, a sixties-obsessed, aspiring young fashion designer who leaves behind cozy country life to study in the exciting yet treacherous city of London. Instantly pegged as prissy by her more sophisticated roommate, she escapes ridicule by renting a room (from Dame Diana Rigg, no less) that better suits her offbeat personality. Soon her dreams, personality and mental landscape are meshing with those of a charismatic previous occupant of the room named Sandie (effortlessly ethereal Anya Taylor-Joy). Unfortunately, what begins as a joyous, romantic fantasy begins to curdle into a mystery-ridden, time warp nightmare.

LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is sort of like BLACK SWAN dipped in SUSPIRIA sauce but for all the many films and genres it may touch base with, it’s always an impressively singular vision. Really, there’s nothing quite like it and it sports a few moments that are absolutely spellbinding. Incredibly (for me), it may be least potent when it leans into pure horror, as some of poor Eloise’s waking visions of phantoms from the past become redundant near the end. It’s possible 20 minutes of this film could be shaved off to tighten up the story but on the other hand, a part of me wanted to stay in the universe it offered forever. Luckily, I don’t mind wading through a few ineffective boo-scares for a film kind enough to play Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House” at a Halloween party for me. It’s not like a got a more stimulating place to go.

It’s hard to fault a flick so earnestly entranced with its subject matter and the possibilities of film.  There are so many innovative things going on visually from clever mirror tricks to psychedelic lighting, to the detailed accuracy of replicated sixties-era London. The mix of eye candy imagery with stellar music selections can be absolutely intoxicating at times. Best of all, I can say I was genuinely surprised when the final puzzle piece was put in place. LAST NIGHT IN SOHO may require a bit of patience when it plays the same card a few too many times but the benefits of being so fully transported are absolutely worth it.