In Praise of Maximum Overdrive (and 34½ other films): Spooktober 2019

Happy day after Halloween! October this year was another busy month, but between work, church, and family activities I explored a variety of Halloween-themed media. For the first time I experimented with a daily Twitter update, sharing “31 Days of #SpookyMusic” (see my Twitter feed for links). I’ve created Halloween playlists and mix CDs in the past, but this selection was more of a sampler from a variety of genres than a single playlist, as I didn’t choose songs based on their flow or stylistic affinity. The weather here in Kansas was variable enough this month that I could veer from the warm-weather spookiness of Lee Morse singing “‘Tain’t No Sin (To Dance Around in Your Bones)” to Yoko Ono’s eerie “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand in the Snow)”; other songs and pieces of music were drawn from a variety of pop music, film and television, video game, and classical music sources.

And of course I watched as many movies as I could fit in. Once again the only unifying theme was “this pile of unwatched movies on my shelf.” In addition to going through the DVDs and Blu-rays I’d accumulated during the year, I streamed a few on Netflix, Prime, and Night Flight. I also saw several movies on the big screen, including several as part of the annual October at the Oldtown retro horror series, and a couple of new releases; In Fabric was shown as part of the Tallgrass Film Festival.

October has become the month in which I watch the most movies by far: it’s partly because the post-October wrap-up has become a reliable blog entry, something for me to post. It’s also fun being part of several horror-themed discussion groups on Facebook, seeing what everyone else is watching and being part of that conversation. I don’t approach the numbers of films that some fans watch, but it is satisfying to take some discs out of the “unwatched” pile and check off some previously unseen classics from my list. More than that, it’s the media equivalent of gorging on candy; the excess is part of the point of the season. So, without further preamble, here are the films I took in during the month of October, the sweet and the sour:

1. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982) *

2. Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2007)

3. Survival of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2009)

4. Dead & Buried (Gary Sherman, 1981)

5. The Wasp Woman (Roger Corman, 1959)

6. The Power (Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow, 1984)

7. Blood Mania (Robert Vincent O’Neill, 1970)

8. Christine (John Carpenter, 1983)*

9. Maximum Overdrive (Stephen King, 1986)*, **

10. Point of Terror (Alex Nicol, 1971)

11. The God Inside My Ear (Joe Badon, 2019)

12. The Vampire Doll (Michio Yamamoto, 1970)

13. Lake of Dracula (Michio Yamamoto, 1971)

14. Evil of Dracula (Michio Yamamoto, 1974)

15. Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012)

16. Beyond the Gates (Jackson Stewart, 2016)

17. Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)*

18. Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019)*

19. The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman, 1971)

20. In Fabric (Peter Strickland, 2018)*

21. Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014)

22. Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988), **

23. Zombieland: Double Tap (Ruben Fleischer, 2019)*

24. Saint Bernard (Gabe Bartalos, 2013)

25. I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I. (Marius Penczner, 1982)

26. Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)*

27. Fade to Black (Vernon Zimmerman, 1980)

28. Mayhem (Joe Lynch, 2017)

29. The War of the Gargantuas (Ishiro Honda, 1966)

30. Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hiltzik, 1983)

31. Velvet Buzzsaw (Dan Gilroy, 2019)

32. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019)*

33. A Cure For Wellness (Gore Verbinski, 2016)

34. Ghostwatch (Lesley Manning, 1992)

35. The Pit (Lew Lehman, 1981)

35½. Monsters Crash the Pajama Party (David L. Hewitt, 1965)

(This one was only 30 minutes long, originally a “spook show” in which costumed actors would invade the theater and interact with the audience during the film, a William Castle-like gimmick that would have played alongside other features at the time; it made a fitting cap to the month’s viewing.)

* theatrical screening

** rewatch

Best Movie: There were several very good films I watched this year, including the original Poltergeist (a film I’d been too scared to finish as a kid, although now much of it seems downright playful). The most impressive overall was The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as lighthouse keepers trapped together on a remote island. Like writer-director Robert Eggers’ previous film, The Witch, this is historically-informed, atmospheric horror, drawing on documents from the past to build up the dialogue. I enjoyed The Witch, but The Lighthouse is more assured in every way, and the creepiness of the premise (involving mermaids, bad omens, and the secret of the lighthouse’s lamp) is the stuff of classic weird tales.

Worst Movie: It’s often interesting when special effects artists make their own movies, because plot and logic can take a back seat to whatever crazy visuals the filmmakers feel like cooking up. Saint Bernard (by Gabe Bartalos, FX man for Frank Henenlotter and Matthew Barney, among others) shows the downside of that, however: in the film, an orchestra conductor (Jason Dugre) experiences an existential crisis and carries a severed dog’s head as he wanders from one elaborate set to another, mostly as an excuse for trite symbolism. (In an early scene, the protagonist raises his arm to conduct a piece and a bunch of drugs fall out of his jacket; later, a greedy preacher sees the hero as wearing a suit made of dollar bills and chases him from the church trying to grab them; the hero ends up on Wall Street where passersby strip him of his money suit.) Despite some interesting scenes and images, there is very little forward momentum, and it feels much longer than its 97 minutes. The inadvertent message of all this is that film, like music, is an art that unfolds in time: if you want to make installation art, you should really just do that.

Weirdest Movie: Peter Strickland has become a director whose films don’t always land 100% for me, but whose technique is so incredible and his fixations so resonant with me that they are must-see anyway. As Berberian Sound Studio (also watched this month) channels Italian giallo and The Duke of Burgundy borrows from European softcore of the late ’60s and ’70s, so In Fabric, about a cursed “arterial red” dress, suggests the horror anthologies of the early ’70s such as From Beyond the Grave, with their interlocking stories of terrors lurking beneath the mundane surfaces of modern Britain. The main part of the plot follows one of the dress’s unfortunate buyers, divorcée Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who finds the price tag (and the incomprehensible jargon of the saleswoman, Fatma Mohamed) impossible to resist during a large department store’s seasonal sale. There is quite a bit of dry and absurd humor, much of it local in nature but still apparent. Large swathes of the film are deliberately abstract or cryptic and don’t make things easy for the audience, but there is no attempt to elide the B-movie premise. Strickland seems to understand how goofy scenes of the dress wriggling off of its hanger, crawling across the floor on its own, and floating in mid-air while its owner sleeps are, but having had nightmares of similar scenarios as a young child during the time period in which he has set his film, I think he’s on to something. A throwaway scene, late in the movie, proposes a childhood origin for one character’s erotic interest in tights; like much of the rest of In Fabric, it suggests that Strickland is either an unreconstructed Freudian, or at least he has found Freudianism a useful language for his art.

Scariest Movie: On Halloween night in 1992, the BBC broadcast a supposed live investigation of a poltergeist haunting in suburban London, casting real-life children’s presenter Sarah Greene as the on-site host while genial Michael Parkinson held down the studio, interviewing experts on the paranormal and fielding calls from the audience. As with Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast and The Blair Witch Project, the attempts at verisimilitude worked all too well, and many viewers took the proto-reality TV special for an actual report. Even at this distance and knowing that it’s fiction, Ghostwatch pulls its tricks incredibly smoothly, building from odd but explicable anomalies to all-out terror in the haunted house–and in the studio. I can only imagine what this must have been like when it was shown.

Least Scary Movie: Actually, only a few of the movies I watched this October were capital-S Scary. One might expect this year’s genre outlier, Ad Astra, a relatively hard science fiction movie, to be the least scary, but what could be scarier than the prospect of growing old and being alone in the universe (not to mention the risk of a crazed research primate chewing your face off)? Leaving aside kids’ movies like Beetlejuice and The War of the Gargantuas, I’d like to focus on a pair of movies starring Peter Carpenter, Blood Mania and Point of Terror. In both films, Carpenter (apparently the driver behind both projects) plays a charismatic, irresistible lover of women who gets in over his head, and like all film noir patsies, he pays for his previous transgressions; there’s a Joe Sarno-like disgust at the hedonism depicted, even as the film keeps it coming. Given their titles and posters, I fully expected these films to fit into the Spooktober spirit, but it would be more accurate to describe them as erotic thrillers. Blood Mania at least builds up to a climax that justifies its title, but Point of Terror just isn’t that kind of movie. A flashback to a giallo-style murder couldn’t be more than a minute or two, and the rest of the violence in the movie is purely emotional. Blood Mania and Point of Terror aren’t bad movies at all, but based on their misleading marketing I’m calling Point of Terror the Least Scary. If Point of Terror is a horror movie, Basic Instinct is a horror movie.

Goriest Movie(s): Late in his life, George Romero expressed frustration that he couldn’t get projects financed unless they involved zombies, and some of that boredom comes through in the last two entriees in his “living dead” series, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead. In the first, a group of student filmmakers are making a monster movie that turns into a documentary as a mysterious zombie epidemic emerges (that distinguishes Diary from the first four Dead movies, which roughly trace the collapse of civilization). Romero was clearly interested in commenting on the new media landscape and “citizen journalism,” and he has a few things to say about filmmaking and the state of contemporary horror (“dead things move slowly”), but the zombie stuff revisits all the greatest hits: loved ones turning, good old boys and rogue authority figures who are the real monsters, disenfranchised minorities given a chance to be in a charge, and even a clown zombie. It’s uninspired, but serviceable.

By contrast, Survival seems like it would be better without any zombie business in it at all, giving Romero free reign to make the magic-realist Western he appears to have had in mind (but then of course it wouldn’t have been made at all). The film centers on two families feuding on an isolated island. One side sees the cold logic in putting down the zombies, even if they were once loved ones; the other holds on to them, corralling them into stables in the hopes of curing them one day, or at least training them to eat something other than human flesh. In the previous Dead films, a dividing line between the living heroes and villains is how they treat the dead, with the bad guys using them as sport or slave labor or scientific experiments, revealing their own inhumanity. Survival touches on that theme, and in fact makes it the central point of the conflict, but that thoughtfulness is at odds with with the inventive ways the protagonists dispatch the zombies, like in a slasher sequel trying to up the ante with more and more outlandish kills.

Funniest Movie: Speaking of sequels upping the ante and dispatching zombies in creative ways . . . well, I laughed a lot at Zombieland: Double Tap.

Most Fun at the Movies: I also laughed a lot at Maximum Overdrive, a rewatch that was part of a “Stephen King killer car double feature” with Christine. Readers of this blog have seen me gradually turn from a Stephen King skeptic to a fan over the years, and stuff like Maximum Overdrive is part of the reason why. King’s only directorial effort, the film is based on his short story “Trucks,” about a mysterious revolt by the machines of Earth against their human masters. King made a trailer in which he directly addresses the audience, infamously declaring “I’m gonna scare the hell out of you”; Maximum Overdrive doesn’t live up to that threat, at all: how could it? But it’s a hoot nonetheless. Sometimes when reading King’s books, you recall that he was an English teacher, that he has written intelligently about literature and the writing process, that he knows what he is talking about. Maximum Overdrive isn’t the work of Mr. King, man of letters. It’s the work of Uncle Steve the trash-hound, enthusiastic reader of EC horror comics and watcher of B-movies, the slightly disreputable older relative who shows you his scars and tattoos and has a story behind each of them, who will happily loan you the movies they won’t rent to you at the mom-and-pop video store, or failing that will lovingly describe the best parts to you. From the moment King appears in a cameo as a bank customer being called an asshole by the ATM (in the trademark “loudmouthed townie” persona he used whenever he showed up in his buddy Romero’s movies), to the shots of stuntmen ecstatically flying through windshields, to the generous use of blood squibs as people are riddled with bullets, it is clear: this is the work of a fan who is thrilled to finally have his hands on the controls. Looking back at his small role in the film, Giancarlo Esposito complimented King’s direction, saying, “He certainly directed me beautifully. I’ll never forget when I was shaken to death at the game machine, and he wanted me to shake harder and shake more.”

Shake harder. Shake more. I can’t think of any wiser words to leave you with as we say farewell to Halloween 2019.

Halloween 2018 Roundup

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It is once again the last day of October, and as always I am here to report on what I have been doing with my time in activities both spooky and spoopy. October was quite a busy month for me this year, and I consciously made an effort to keep some balance in my life (I even read some books, including such seasonal fare as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and a reread of Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October). After last year’s high-water mark of watching thirty-nine films, I felt glutted with movies, as if I had gorged all month long. Sure, there are many fans who watch more movies than that in October, but for me that is a lot. So while I kept track of my viewing, and took advantage of screening opportunities when I could, I wanted to keep my goals reasonable, watching thirty-one films. Imagine my surprise when I reached the weekend before Halloween with only a couple left to go, necessitating some tough choices: what would be left out?

My screening of Dawn of the Dead in 3-D was scheduled for last night, so I decided to make that movie no. 31. I go back and forth on which of Romero’s Dead trilogy is my favorite, but seeing Dawn on the big screen, and with a beautiful (and until now rarely-seen) 3-D conversion, made it a fitting culmination to my Halloween pregaming.

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This year I didn’t approach my viewing with much of a plan, other than working my way through the pile of unwatched movies I already own and checking out the offerings at the Regal Horrorfest (formerly October at the Oldtown) organized by Leif Jonker and Big Screen Wichita. The resulting list is less diverse than in some years, with over a third from the 1980s and nothing from earlier than the 1960s. There was also very little foreign film on my list this year. On the other hand, it’s been a boom year for new horror, and I watched more films from the current year than in past Octobers, both in theaters and catching up with films released earlier in the year on home video.

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1. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)
2. Evil Dead 2 (Sam Raimi, 1987)*, **
3. Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1992)**
4. Happy Death Day (Christopher Landon, 2017)
5. Puppet Master II (David Allen, 1990)
6. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (Don Coscarelli, 1994)
7. Phantasm IV: Oblivion (Don Coscarelli, 1998)
8. Chopping Mall (Jim Wynorski, 1986)
9. Hell Fest (Gregory Plotkin, 2018)*
10. House of the Damned (Maury Dexter, 1963)
11. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)*
12. Venom (Ruben Fleischer, 2018)*
13. Horror Hotel aka The City of the Dead (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1960)
14. The Devil’s Bride aka The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1968)
15. Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, 2013)
16. A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018)
17. Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)*, **
18. Slaughterhouse Rock (Dimitri Logothetis, 1988)
19. Hellbent (Richard Casey, 1988)
20. Blood Diner (Jackie Kong, 1987)
21. Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)
22. The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)*
23. C.H.U.D. (Douglas Cheek, 1984)*
24. C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud (David Irving, 1989)
25. Waxwork (Anthony Hickox, 1988)
26. Winchester (Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, 2018)
27. Paganini Horror (Luigi Cozzi, 1989)
28. The Midnight Hour (Jack Bender, 1985)
29. The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selick, 1993)*, **
30. John Dies at the End (Don Coscarelli, 2013)
31. Dawn of the Dead 3-D (George A. Romero, 1978) *, **

* seen in the theater
** rewatch

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Best movie: Groundhog Day as a slasher? Sure, why not? Happy Death Day delivers on that high-concept premise, as spoiled sorority girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) relives the same day over and over again, each time dying at the hands of a mysterious baby-masked stalker, only to wake up again on the morning of her birthday, the clock reset. Lots of fun is had as she comes to understand her situation and uses it to discover her killer; a montage in which she follows various suspects, crossing them off her list, is one of the most purely joyous sequences I’ve seen this year; she learns a few lessons and grows as a person, as you might expect. But the film isn’t content only to hit the beats of its model, and even when Tree thinks she’s got it all figured out, it doesn’t let her (or us) off the hook quite so easily. I loved this movie: it’s funny and scary and satisfying, a movie about death brimming with life, anchored by a fantastic lead performance from Rothe.

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Worst Movie: I didn’t see anything that struck me as truly terrible this month, but horror as a genre often means gambling on the unknown, and they can’t all be winners. The most disappointing film I saw this month was surely House of the Damned; at barely over an hour, it feels padded: it opens with an estate lawyer calling architect Scott Campbell (Ron Foster) to offer him a job surveying a long-empty mansion built by an eccentric heiress so it can be sold; then Scott repeats the same information to his wife in a second conversation. Once the pair move into the house and begin their work, strange things begin to happen: doors are locked, keys are missing or found moved, and they are watched by unseen eyes. Perhaps the last tenants never really left? The middle section features some eerie imagery reminiscent of the classic Freaks (and includes an early performance by Richard “Jaws” Kiel), but just as it’s getting good the whole thing winds up and all the tension and mystery dissolve in a puff of smoke with an explanation even tamer than I would have guessed. This was shown on FXM Retro, with movie channel FXM taking a page from Turner Classic Movies and showing old movies from the Fox vault, uncut and without commercials. Sometimes the movies are pleasantly surprising discoveries; other times they are justifiably forgotten programmers like House of the Damned. Oh, well, it least it had a cool poster.

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Scariest Movie: Would I lose credibility if I named Hell Fest as the movie that most tightened the screws on me while I watched it? I’ve been in the position of heroine Natalie (Amy Forsyth), as the scaredy-cat dragged into things by friends with thicker skin, and the movie ramps up so subtly that I was convinced in the first forty-five minutes or so that it wasn’t scary at all. Only once I grew attached to the characters and invested in their story did things get intense, but it worked on me. I’ve previously expressed my relative lack of interest in slashers (although I did see several this year, including the classic original Halloween, finally), but Hell Fest‘s setting–a pop-up theme park devoted to horror, of the sort that have become popular in recent years–is colorful and intriguing, and the idea of a real killer being loose in such a place provides copious opportunities to explore one of my favorite horror tropes: the thin line between theater and reality. Some of the best moments in Hell Fest involve killings taking place in front of blasé parkgoers, convinced that they’re just seeing another performance; and who will believe someone is really stalking Natalie when the entire park is set up to instill and exploit that fear?

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Also Scariest, In a Different Way, Movie: Another movie from this year, Hereditary, has gotten a lot of buzz, with comparisons to The Exorcist (although in my opinion Rosemary’s Baby might be the more apt comparison). Suffice it to say that this was one of the most intense, dread-inducing films I watched this month, but much of that came from the barrage of horrible events that befall the family at the center of the story (made all the worse because they are things that could plausibly happen, outside of the supernatural business) and Toni Collette’s volcanic performance as the mother of the family whiplashed by grief, guilt, and fear for her own sanity. One could imagine tackling this material as a psychological drama without the occult overlay, but the film telegraphs early on that witchcraft is brewing, so there’s not as much tension as there could be in the notion that Collette is losing her mind. This was still a disturbing film whose imagery will linger with me for a long time, though.

Goriest Movie: Only two films are really in the running this year: Blood Diner features a cannibal cult hiding behind the façade of a vegetarian eatery (O irony!); as such, it gleefully transgresses all notions of good taste, filling the screen with severed limbs and dismembered body parts, all washed down with gallons of stage blood. But since Blood Diner is a comedy (no, really!), it’s all phony and it’s hard to take too seriously. By contrast, the 2013 Evil Dead remake is in deadly earnest, and is one of the most violent movies I’ve seen recently. (Since I revisited Sam Raimi’s original trilogy this month, I figured I might as well check out this later installment. It earns points for remixing some of the original’s iconic moments in the context of a new story rather than remaking the original beat-for-beat: for one thing, there’s no replacing Bruce Campbell’s Ash.) The original Evil Dead was a grotty supernatural spin on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and it is quite intense (only in the later sequels did the comedy come to the fore), but realistic it is not. The 2013 Evil Dead is both more graphic (and plays nothing for laughs) and doesn’t flinch; there’s no cutting away from the self-mutilation of the demon-possessed victims or the extreme measures the heroes must take to save themselves; director Fede Alvarez dares you to watch.

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Weirdest Movie: After reading director Don Coscarelli’s memoir, True Indie: Life and Death in Film Making this month, I decided to fill in some of my blind spots in his filmography, including the Phantasm sequels I hadn’t seen and his most recent feature, John Dies at the End. I haven’t read the David Wong novel upon which John is based, but it’s easy to see the appeal the material would have for the director of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep, including parallel dimensions, mysterious supernatural adversaries, and grotesque monsters (there’s even a cameo by Angus Scrimm, Phantasm‘s “Tall Man,” as a priest). Like the Raimi-influenced Phantasm sequels, John Dies at the End handles its ideas in a tongue-in-cheek manner, centering on a drug nicknamed “soy sauce”; the drug gives its users psychic abilities with the unfortunate side effect of opening rifts in time and space, placing (authorial self-insert) Wong in the middle of an interdimensional invasion. John riffs giddily on themes pioneered by H. P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, and William Burroughs, and the snarky humor, frequently scrambled chronology, and unreliable narrator (as Wong, in fits and starts, tells his story to a skeptical reporter played by Paul Giamatti) bring to mind cult film forebears like Donnie Darko and Fight Club.

Funniest Movie: Every year, there is at least one film in my October viewing that stretches the category of horror movie: this year that film is Venom, the action-horror-comedy hybrid starring Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock, a loser who becomes entangled with a hungry alien symbiote. I was skeptical when I heard about this project: in the comics, Venom is inextricably linked with Spider-Man, but with Spider-Man busy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, how would Sony credibly produce a spin-off without the main character? That turns out to be less of a hurdle than I expected, but the comic-book origins are still, in my opinion, the main challenge to categorizing Venom as a horror movie. Of course, I will be the first to admit that Venom isn’t scary, and while there’s quite a bit of violence there’s not a drop of blood; still, based on its premise and plot points, this is a movie about a shape-changing alien who takes possession of a human and bites off the heads of his enemies, leading to scenes of body horror and split personality. What really makes Venom take off is Hardy’s commitment to the bizarre premise (and his penchant for adopting funny voices, even before the symbiote takes over his body), throwing himself into contortions and chewing the scenery like Jim Carrey in The Mask. That’s not a comparison I would usually make as a compliment in a superhero movie, but the key to the movie is just how little actual heroism is involved: Eddie Brock is a loser, and he finds the friend and supporter he needs in his alien companion–who, it turns out, is also a bit of a loser. Forget the requisite CGI monster battle, which comes off blurry and incomprehensible anyway: it’s beside the point. The heart of Venom is an off-the-wall, sometimes kinky buddy comedy.

Most Inspired by Actual Events: We all know that when Sarah Winchester began, on the advice of a spiritualist, the decades-long expansion of her California mansion in order to evade the pursuing spirits of those killed by her late husband’s rifles, she couldn’t have been in her right mind. What this year’s Winchester supposes is, maybe she was? The words “inspired by” do a lot of heavy lifting in this tale of an alcoholic physician (Jason Clarke), himself marked by death, who arrives at the constantly under-construction mansion in order to evaluate Mrs. Winchester’s (Helen Mirren) state of mind. Will it surprise you to learn that the place really is haunted? The labyrinthine Winchester house is a fantastic setting, and the film is a well-constructed ghost story, but the elegant Western gothic that could have been is overpowered by a constant need to prod the audience. If jump scares produced actual fright instead of momentary surprise, this would be the scariest movie of the month by far, and I would now be under treatment for acute hypertension.

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Musical Horror: Finally, longtime readers of Medleyana may be aware of my longstanding interest in musical horror, particularly fables in which musicians trade their souls to the devil in exchange for success (“Instruments of Death,” still my most-read entry, is a good introduction to this topic). Of the three music-related films I watched this month, two had exactly that premise (Slaughterhouse Rock, despite its title and the presence of Toni Basil as the ghost of a dead rock star, isn’t really about the rock scene at all): in Hellbent, punk Lemmy (Phil Ward) makes a deal with “Mr. Tanas” (David Marciano)–the film is not exactly subtle; it similarly makes much of the anagrammatic relation between Santa and Satan–and becomes a junky almost overnight, crossing paths with other desperate people caught in Tanas’ web. A quintessential indie film, Hellbent features plenty of grimy L.A. atmosphere and broadly-drawn characters, as well as some big laughs (whether they are intentional or not, I can’t say for sure, but I was never bored with it).

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Paganini Horror came to my attention on Twitter as a movie that was hilariously inept but all the more entertaining because of it, a description that fits it exactly. Made by infamous Italian low-budget filmmaker Luigi Cozzi, this one filters themes of Dominic Argento through the context of MTV music videos and the legend of the violinist Niccolò Paganini selling his soul; Paganini himself turns up, wearing a gold Carnaval mask like the Commandatore in Don Giovanni, killing off the members of the all-girl rock band who hope to turn his lost composition into New Wave gold. Those who aren’t murdered directly fall victim to increasingly bizarre ends, such as the girl whose body is consumed by a mold only found in the wood of Cremona and Stradivarius violins. Also, Donald Pleasence was there for a day to film a couple of scenes and wrap things up with a suitably diabolical explanation. Ah, Italian genre film, never change.

That wraps up October until next year. Happy Halloween!

Spooktober: The Aftermath

It is November first, the day after Halloween. The candy has been handed out, and all that remains is to put away the costumes and take the decorations out of the yard. Elsewhere online, people are already gearing up for Noirvember or NaNoWriMo or “No-Shave November.” As I write this I am watching a compilation of horror movie trailers to keep the mood going, after having hit the Spirit Halloween Store to check out the after-holiday sales.

I usually like to post this October summary on the 31st, but the holiday itself turned out to be busy with work during the day and taking the kids trick-or-treating in the evening (this year I went as my namesake, celebrity chef Guy Fieri), not to mention cramming in a few last-minute horror movies. As always, I kept track of my viewing in the last month: the results are a little less varied than in some years, partly because I watched more series and sequels this time. I had a pile of movies set aside for this month, and watched quite a few of them, but since I bought more movies during the month, the pile I have left is almost as big.

Blade Runner 2049 was the only film I watched that isn’t horror, but in the past I’ve included movies that are better described as fantasy or science fiction or that belong to horror-adjacent genres such as thrillers or kaiju eiga; I’m not much for splitting hairs. (It was good, by the way.)

There were also theatrical screenings at the Warren Oldtown Horrorfest (formerly October at the Oldtown), organized by local filmmaker and presenter Leif Jonker (and shown nationwide by the Regal Cinemas chain, which purchased the Warren theaters earlier this year). The only Horrorfest film I skipped was Jaws, which is great but feels more like a summer movie to me. In addition to the Horrorfest screenings, my viewing included films on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube, and cable television (thanks, TCM!). (I’m not really a VHS collector, but I appreciate a bargain, and when I found a copy of Saturday the 14th at a church flea market on Saturday the 14th, how could I not pick it up?)

1. The Awakening (Mike Newell, 1980)
2. Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971)
3. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)*
4. Fright Night (Tom Holland, 1985)*,**
5. Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998)
6. Blade II (Guillermo del Toro, 2002)
7. Blade: Trinity (David S. Goyer, 2004)
8. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)
9. The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983)*
10. Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert, 1989)*
11. The Monster Squad (Fred Dekker, 1987)*
12. Slave of the Cannibal God aka Mountain of the Cannibal God (Sergio Martino, 1978)
13. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (José Mojica Marins, 1964)
14. This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (José Mojica Marins, 1967)
15. Embodiment of Evil (José Mojica Marins, 2008)
16. Saturday the 14th (Howard R. Cohen, 1981)
17. Saturday the 14th Strikes Back (Howard R. Cohen, 1988)
18. Blacula (William Crain, 1972)
19. King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)*, **
20. Them! (Gordon Douglas, 1954)*, **
21. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)*
22. Scream, Blacula, Scream (Bob Kelljan, 1973)
23. Society (Brian Yuzna, 1989)
24. The Mad Executioners (Edwin Zbonek, 1963)
25. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)*
26. Vampires (John Carpenter, 1998)
27. Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)*
28. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)*
29. Torture Dungeon (Andy Milligan, 1970)
30. The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921)
31. Salem’s Lot (Tobe Hooper, 1979)
32. The Ghost of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1942)
33. The Vault of Horror (Roy Ward Baker, 1973)
34. The Whip and the Body (Mario Bava, 1963)
35. The Crimson Cult (Vernon Sewell, 1968)
36. House of the Long Shadows (Pete Walker, 1983)
37. The Secret of the Mummy (Ivan Cardoso, 1982)
38. Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968)*, **
39. Theater of Blood (Douglas Hickox, 1973)

* theatrical screening
** rewatch

Best movie: It’s hard to pick a clear-cut winner out of so many films. Aside from rewatches, Suspiria, Theater of Blood, Frankenweenie, and Blacula were all very solid films. I was also very taken by A Nightmare on Elm Street after years of thinking I wouldn’t like it. In fact, I enjoyed most of the movies I watched for the first time this month, with only a few duds.

Ultimately, I think David Cronenberg’s prescient media fantasia Videodrome (which, admittedly, I had seen bits and pieces of previously) is going to stay with me the longest. In addition to its Philip K. Dick-like meditations on perception vs. reality and weird body horror (an element Cronenberg is obviously known for), Videodrome captures and anticipates the reality of lives half lived through screens and the attendant social changes. I hadn’t realized just how much Max Headroom and The Matrix owed to Videodrome, from the analog futurism of hand-delivered videotape messages (maybe we could call it . . . “v-mail”?) to the overwhelming importance of television for people’s spiritual well-being (the “Cathode Ray Mission,” where the homeless could get a meal and some precious screen-time, being an obvious example, and one that Max Headroom borrowed almost verbatim). And, as in They Live (another film that could almost fit in the same universe), the question of who is ultimately behind the signals the TV stations broadcast, and what impact they have, has an answer that is anything but reassuring.

Scariest movie: I had waited to see Dario Argento’s giallo-inflected supernatural mystery Suspiria until I could see it on the big screen, and my patience wasn’t disappointed: the colors were vibrant and the story suitably suspenseful and frightening. And I’ve come to look forward to performances by lead Jessica Harper, who around this time seemed to specialize in movies that made use of her uneasy brittleness. However, the most surprising revelation of all was finding an Italian horror movie with a plot that makes sense!

Goriest movie(s): Two movies are tied for this category. The first, Slave of the Cannibal God, has many of the hallmarks of the Italian cannibal genre, including an emphasis on realism (although unlike many cannibal films, Slave does not pretend to be a documentary) that extends to filming the real deaths of animals in both native rituals and in (staged) fights that purport to show the cruelty of the jungle. No thanks. There is also a tremendous amount of (hopefully simulated!) human gore once the fearsome cannibal tribe is reached, and a third-act sequence of horrors that gets hard to take long before it is over. No wonder it was included on the infamous “video nasties” list by censors in the United Kingdom.

The other contender is Embodiment of Evil by Brazilian writer-director-star José Mojica Marins, who has made an industry of his character Zé do Caixão, better known in English as “Coffin Joe.” The evil undertaker, who began his career in the 1960s with At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, demonstrates a cruelty and indifference to conventional morality that makes him a unique antihero for a conservative society, with many similarities to the characters of the Marquis de Sade. Embodiment of Evil, Coffin Joe’s 2008 “comeback,” bears that comparison even more than his earlier films, since sophisticated special effects and more relaxed mores make it possible for Joe to terrorize his victims with much more graphic punishments (the cast also appears to include a number of body-modification practitioners, so it’s not even obvious to me that all of the piercings and other mortifications are strictly fake). I found the Coffin Joe movies interesting (and I liked the second one, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, quite a bit), but ultimately Embodiment of Evil was as close to “torture porn” as I care to explore.

Dumbest movie I will probably watch again: Several of the movies I watched were either comedies or included frequent humor. Saturday the 14th was the most obviously jokey, a spoof of all kinds of horror movies thrown into a blender of a story about a book that will release all the evil in the world if read on the titular date. Jeffrey Tambor (in one of his first movie roles) appears as a vampire who appears to be going through a mid-life crisis, and the comedy really takes off when the monster hunter Van Helsing (Severn Darden) shows up as an “exterminator.” Silly stuff, but amusing for what it is and I could see it becoming an every few years tradition.

Worst movie: The first movie spawned a sequel, Saturday the 14th Strikes Back, a few years later, so of course I had to watch it. The good news is that there is no narrative connection or continuity to the first one beyond the simple idea that bad things are going to happen on the date in question. Also, while researching this, I discovered that none other than Gahan Wilson created the poster for the film, so there’s that. The bad news is that the movie is cheaply made and even dopier in its humor than the first one. It’s a candidate for weirdest movie, but the substitution of wackiness and off-the-wall behavior for actual jokes feels desperate. It also doesn’t make much sense: the premise of the film is that an ordinary family starts acting strangely when a crack in the basement begins releasing evil into the world, but they’re pretty nutty to begin with, eating candy for every meal and going through OCD-like precautions to protect themselves from germs. It feels like a movie straight from the imagination of the little boy in “It’s a Good Life.”

Actual Weirdest movie: In addition to the Saturday the 14th movies, there was quite a bit of weirdness in Videodrome and the similarly ooky Society; The Crimson Cult was frankly not weird enough for a film supposedly based on H. P. Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch-House,” and its Scooby-Doo-like ending bummed me out. I have in the past made a distinction between movies that are weird in themselves and movies that appear to have been made by weirdoes: The Secret of the Mummy, by Brazilian provocateur Ivan Cardoso, qualifies as both. Jumping between black and white and color and incorporating stock travelogue and newsreel footage, as well as impressionistic montages and rapid cuts between isolated details, The Secret of the Mummy tells the story of an obsessed scientist who recovers an Egyptian mummy in order to test out his elixir of life and revive it. The fact that the young Pharaoh was a sex-crazed serial killer in life doesn’t faze the scientist, and once the mummy is up and about he resumes his favorite pastime. It feels like a collision of a Universal monster movie (as well as the sexed-up mummy, there are shades of Frankenstein, including a hunchbacked lab assistant) and a Carry On sex comedy. The Secret of the Mummy is unapologetically kinky, but extremely stylish, and Cardoso reminds me (based on this single film–I have three more to watch) of a straight, Brazilian John Waters.

Horror on a Budget: The crudeness of The Secret of the Mummy‘s production also reminds me of another outsider filmmaker I encountered this month, Andy Milligan, who in Torture Dungeon attempts to stage a medieval “epic” with a shoestring budget on Staten Island. One of Milligan’s techniques is to hide the paltriness of his sets by filming in tight close-up–so tight, in fact, that I didn’t realize until halfway through the movie that a main character only has one arm. Torture Dungeon is as raw as I was led to expect–the titular dungeon is onscreen for not more than three or four minutes, and the gore is of the Herschell Gordon Lewis papier-mâché variety–but was mostly enjoyable. It helps that I enjoy movies in which the seams show. By far the worst parts were the walk-on characters who do nothing to advance the story but deliver community theater-style stage business.

Finally, for the first time this year I took part in an October horror movie challenge, watching films to match specific categories. I generally just follow my whims when choosing what to watch, but it was fun expanding my horizons with some of the requirements. The Spooktober Challenge consisted of 31 categories, voted on from a list of nominees by members of The HORRORS . . . of THE DISSOLVE! Facebook group, with one movie counting for each category. Here are the categories and the movies that satisfied each one:

1. A horror movie by a female director: Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert)
2. A black and white horror movie: King Kong
3. A horror movie from a country other than your own: The Mad Executioners (Germany)
4. A horror anthology: The Vault of Horror
5. A horror movie marketed to kids: The Monster Squad
6. A horror-comedy: Saturday the 14th
7. A silent horror movie: The Phantom Carriage
8. An avant-garde or experimental horror movie: Videodrome
9. A horror movie featuring a non-white protagonist: Blade
10. A classic Universal monster movie: The Ghost of Frankenstein
11. A horror movie by an LGBTQ writer or director: Torture Dungeon (Andy Milligan)
12. A Hammer horror movie: Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb
13. A horror movie involving a non-Christian/Satanic religion: Scream, Blacula, Scream (Voodoo)
14. A horror movie from the year you were born: Theater of Blood (1973)
15. An “all-time great” horror movie that you’ve never seen: A Nightmare on Elm Street
16. A giallo: Suspiria
17. A horror movie starring Vincent Price: House of the Long Shadows
18. A horror movie from Latin America: The Secret of the Mummy (Brazil)
19. A Mario Bava movie: The Whip and the Body
20. A made-for-TV horror movie: Salem’s Lot
21. A horror movie that terrified you as a child: Them!
22. A John Carpenter movie: Vampires
23. A Lovecraftian horror movie: The Crimson Cult
24. A horror movie by a non-white director: Blacula (William Crain)
25. A slasher movie that is not part of a franchise: Corruption (Robert Hartford-Davis, 1968)
26. A video nasty: Slave of the Cannibal God
27. A body horror: Society
28. A horror movie featuring a witch or witchcraft: Embodiment of Evil
29. A horror movie where someone turns into an animal – but NOT a werewolf: Cat People
30. An animated horror movie or short: Frankenweenie
31. A horror movie by a typically non-horror director: The Awakening (Mike Newell)

The terms of the challenge allowed for movies viewed in September to count, but I only needed to count one: Corruption is something of a proto-slasher, with Peter Cushing as an increasingly-unhinged surgeon who kills women to supply his disfigured girlfriend with the pituitary gland extract that keeps her beautiful. I’m not a huge fan of slashers, anyway, so this was close enough for me.

In addition, there were three “bonus challenges” that I successfully completed: at least one movie from each decade, 1920s to 2010s; no more than five movies that you have already seen (King Kong and Them! were the only rewatches I counted toward the challenge); and only one movie per director (it was lucky for me that Blacula and its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream didn’t have the same director!).

I hope you had a happy Halloween and saw something good or at least surprising in the past month. Let me know if you recommend anything else based on what I’ve listed here or if you just have a horror movie you’re enthusiastic about. I’ve already got my list for next year started: after all, it’s only twelve months until next Halloween!

Monstober 2016

mural at 1st and Hillside in Wichita, artists unknown

Mural at 1st and Hillside in Wichita, artists unknown


Since for the last couple of years I’ve kept track of my October viewing and written about it, I’ve gotten in the habit of setting aside movies to watch during the Halloween season. I don’t set a strict schedule, since the odds are against me being able to keep it anyway, and I like to make choices as my mood strikes me, but I did have a stack of movies I had planned on getting to in October. However, once things came together to make October “kaiju month,” even those loose plans went out the window and I ended up spending the first half of the month watching monster movies, many of which are only nominally horror.

That’s OK: as I’ve said before, I’m not a “Shocktober” purist, and I cast a pretty wide net to include science fiction, fantasy and genre pictures during this month. But it did make my list pretty monster-heavy, and as you’ll see I ended up waiting until later in the month to get a very consistent “Halloween” vibe going. In any case, I got my fill of movies this month: at 37 films, including only three I’d seen before, I exceeded last year’s total of 31 movies. (It didn’t hurt that the movies I watched were shorter on average than in previous years, many under 90 minutes). This included several classics I was watching for the first time, as well as a few new releases.

1. Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini, 1968)
2. All Monsters Attack aka Godzilla’s Revenge (Ishiro Honda, 1969)
minilla
3. Son of Godzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1967)
4. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) *
5. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982) *
6. Rodan (Ishiro Honda, 1956)
7. Destroy All Monsters (Ishiro Honda, 1968)
8. Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979) *, r
9. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Yoshimitsu Banno, 1971)
10. Godzilla vs. Gigan (Jun Fukuda, 1972)
11. Godzilla vs. Megalon (Jun Fukuda, 1973)
12. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1974)
13. Terror of Mechagodzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1975)
14. Phantasm II (Don Coscarelli, 1988)
15. Phantasm: Ravager (David Hartman, 2016) *
16. Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, 2016) *
17. It’s Alive! (Larry Cohen, 1974)
18. Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)
19. The Witch’s Mirror (El espejo de la bruja) (Chano Urueta, 1962)
20. The Curse of the Crying Woman (La Maldicion de la Llorona) (Rafael Baledón, 1963)
lallorona1
21. Ghostbusters (Paul Feig, 2016) *
22. Dragon Wars: D-War (Hyung-rae Shim, 2007)
23. Night of the Lepus (William F. Claxton, 1972)
24. Mystics in Bali (H. Tjut Djalil, 1981)
25. The Giant Claw (Fred F. Sears, 1957) r
26. Daigoro vs. Goliath (Toshihiro Iijima, 1972)
27. Hocus Pocus (Kenny Ortega, 1993)
28. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (Takao Okawara, 1995)
29. The ‘Burbs (Joe Dante, 1989)
30. Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (Ted V. Mikels, 1973)
31. How to Make a Monster (Herbert L. Strock, 1958)
32. The Baby (Ted Post, 1973)
33. Hotel Transylvania (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012) *
34. Hotel Transylvania 2 (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2015) *
35. The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
36. Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962) r
37. Night Train to Terror (John Carr, Phillip Marshak, Tom McGowan, Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, and Greg Tallas, 1985)
night-train

* theatrical screening
r repeat viewing

(Sorry, no elaborate key to themes and images this year–maybe next time.)

david-pumpkins1

I also watched a few short films that don’t really fit on the list: a pair of shorts on superstitions, Who’s Superstitious? from 1943 and Black Cats and Broomsticks from 1955 (both aired earlier this month on TCM); It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (an annual viewing with the family, of course); Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins on Saturday Night Live; and assorted bumpers and trailers, not to mention this creepy Japanese Kleenex commercial.

Best movie: I saw several good films this month, but picking one that stands above the rest is more difficult than in previous years. Two of the films that gave me the most pleasure are rewatches: Phantasm and Carnival of Souls. (As an aside, the similarities between the two films are obvious when watched in close proximity: both obey the non sequitur logic of dreams or nightmares, and both feature protagonists menaced by suit-wearing older men who are apt to pop up at the most frightening moments. Upon seeing Phantasm for the first time last year, I had connected it to the dream-like disconnected narrative of Italian horror, but it seems possible that Carnival of Souls–itself an Americanization of Bergman and other European influences–also informed it. It’s also probably not a coincidence that both films had two of the best scores I heard this month: I’m jamming out to the Phantasm soundtrack right now, in fact.)

I liked most of the Godzilla movies I watched this month, as well, not only the “serious” ones but also the goofier entries with Megalon and the like (heck, I even enjoyed the very silly Daigoro vs. Goliath). I think my favorites were the two Mechagodzilla films, which balanced the campier elements of the Godzilla mythos (robots, space aliens) with the heavier themes of the more serious films: sacrifice, tradition, and kaiju as guardian spirits.

mechagodzilla

Ultimately, my pick for best first-time viewing is Shin Godzilla. Perhaps I was simply primed by all that Godzilla-watching leading up to it, but the experience of seeing Shin Godzilla in a theater packed with fans (the first Godzilla movie I’d seen in a theater since Godzilla 1985–no, I didn’t even get to see Roland Emmerich’s or Gareth Edwards’ films in theaters) was a high point of the month.

Worst movie: I watched a few clunkers this month, partly as a result of my search for the silliest giant movie monsters, but you also just never really know what will work for you until you pull the trigger. Dragon Wars: D-War, which didn’t make the silly monster list (the movie is ridiculous, but the monsters for the most part aren’t), was a famously terrible flop when it was released, but as janky as it was it also held my attention (its worst sins are convoluted, front-loaded exposition and an over-reliance on CGI, as if the filmmakers had learned the wrong lessons from the Star Wars prequels). Night Train to Terror, an anthology, almost lost me completely in its first segment, but recovered in the second and third parts with some charmingly primitive stop-motion monster effects (this short review of the Blu-ray release goes into more detail and explains why it took five directors to make this mess!).

Of the Godzilla movies I watched in the first part of the month, Son of Godzilla was my least favorite, with its emphasis on the uncomfortably squishy “baby Godzilla,” Minilla (yes, I even enjoyed the oft-maligned Attack All Monsters more than Son of Godzilla; at least Attack All Monsters has a definite point of view and some creative staging).

blood-orgy

However, I have to give the edge to Blood Orgy of the She-Devils. It’s a coincidence that I watched my first film from director Ted V. Mikels the same month that he passed away (I had bought the disc last month). As much as I hate to speak ill of the dead, the movie failed to deliver on its awesome title and was not only disappointingly tame, it was, even worse, boring. I’m told that this is typical of Mikels’ work, which is too bad.

Scariest movie: Well, did you see that Japanese Kleenex commercial?

kleenex

But seriously: I’ve written before about how easily scared I was as a kid, and how that’s left me playing catch-up with a lot of classic horror that I probably should have seen sooner. That’s how I ended up seeing The Exorcist for the first time this year, and you know what? After expecting the “scariest film of all time,” I just didn’t find it that scary. How can any film live up to a reputation like that? It probably didn’t help that The Exorcist has been so frequently referenced and parodied that I felt like I had already seen many of its most famous set pieces. Having said that, it was an excellent film, deserving of its reputation. It’s a great drama about faith and loss, with a lot of spooky atmosphere, but I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t really even trying to be the film I had been led to expect. Probably if I had seen it at a younger age it would have had more of an effect on me.

cloverfield_theatrical_poster

So what did scare me this month? “Toby Dammit,” Federico Fellini’s segment of Spirits of the Dead, had some eerie visual shocks, as did The Curse of the Crying Woman (the title character’s eyeless appearance is pretty creepy) and Phantasm II, but I think the most consistently tense and viscerally scary movie I watched this month is director Matt Reeves’ and writer Drew Goddard’s found-footage monster movie update Cloverfield. The immediacy of the found-footage device (a gimmick I’m not usually fond of) gives the audience the sense of being on the ground during a giant monster attack on New York City, the kind of scene that is usually visualized from afar (the story contrives to get the characters briefly onto a helicopter so we can get the kind of wide shot of the monster we’re used to seeing in films like this, but for the most part the handheld camera footage feels very naturalistic). In addition to the scenes of citywide destruction, there are sequences in subway tunnels underground that are extremely creepy, as the characters are stalked and attacked by the spider-like parasites that have dropped from the main beast. Finally, the circumstances by which the camera is recovered imply a government-conspiracy backstory to the events that is anything but reassuring. In fact, you know what? Maybe this is the best movie I saw this month (non-Godzilla category, anyway).

Funniest movie: The original Ghostbusters is one of my all-time favorites, but I was never a fan of its sequel or the spin-off cartoon series. It was pretty much just the first film, a unique blend of irreverent humor and special effects-driven action, and even then it wasn’t scary to me. So I wasn’t offended by the release of the controversial female-led remake this year, but I also didn’t have high hopes that it would recapture what I loved about the original. The new film was, when I finally saw it, quite enjoyable, even if not everything landed. If anything, I found the callbacks and reminders of the first film more annoying than affectionate: the pleasure of seeing the proton packs back in action, wielded by a new generation of characters, should have been enough. However, I won’t deny that it made me laugh; I’m comfortable saying that it is easily my second-favorite Ghostbusters film. (It was also interesting to see the movie, a summer blockbuster like the original, during the fall, and place it in the context of other supernatural “scary” movies: it works decently on that count, especially early on, but like many horror movies it becomes less rather than more frightening as the threat becomes known and it barrels towards the big climax.)

hotel-transylvania

Even funnier, however, was a film that took me by surprise: Hotel Transylvania, an animated film about Adam Sandler as Dracula, faced with the prospect of his daughter growing up and yearning to explore the world of humans, from which Dracula and his monster pals have been hiding for over a century. Nothing about that description, or the ads that were ubiquitous when the movie was released, made me want to see it, but I ended up enjoying it a great deal, laughing at Genndy Tartakovsky’s expressively cartoony animation style and the many sight gags and running jokes, and the story was actually rather touching.

Weirdest movie: As mentioned, Phantasm and Carnival of Souls are “classically” weird, and I would also put Halloween III in that category, combining as it does elements of horror and science fiction in a story that touches on many qualities of both fairy tale and nightmare. But there are movies that have weird stories, and there are movies whose entire existence seems unlikely: the weirdness is in their conception, leading not to questions like “what does this mean?” or “wait, was Ellie a robot the whole time, or what?” but to questions like “how did this get made in the first place?” and “how can I make sure I don’t meet any of these people in real life?”

the-baby

Such was my response to The Baby, the 1973 cult oddity about a social worker confronting a family whose twenty-something son has remained in an infantile state, pre-verbal, crawling, and wearing a diaper. Is he genuinely developmentally disabled, or is he being kept from growing by his domineering mother and stepsisters? Does the effect he has on women stem from something missing in their own lives, or is he capable of adult urges? Frequently disturbing, the movie subverted my expectations at every turn, right down to an ending that was head-smackingly obvious but which I still didn’t see coming. If I had to explain this movie, I would say “only in the ’70s.”

Goriest movie: Night Train to Terror (another candidate for “weirdest movie”) was by far the most graphic and bloody film I watched this month, and despite its deficiencies in other areas, I can’t deny that it delivers the kind of macabre violence–slashings, beheadings, and dismemberments, along with more exotic causes of death such as electrocution and exploding head (sorry, “catastrophic head injury”)–one associates with Halloween thrills. I don’t have much stomach for gore, but fortunately Night Train is a pretty cheap movie, and so over-the-top that it’s impossible to take seriously.

That’s it for this year: maybe I’ll keep watching horror movies through November and work through the stockpile of movies I didn’t watch this month, or maybe I’ll end up saving some for next year. But now I have some important candy to eat business to attend to. Happy Halloween!

david-pumpkins2

Any questions?

October 31: Spooky Movie Round-Up

BasketCase3

As I did last year, I kept track of all the movies I watched this October, with the goal of watching at least 31. Unlike last year, I managed to do it: yes, with a little planning and a lot of gumption I was able to sit and stare at various screens for a total of roughly forty-eight hours over the course of a month. No, hold your applause . . . sit down . . . it really makes me uncomfortable to have the word “hero” bandied about so lightly–but between you and me, no wonder I have such a feeling of accomplishment. I probably could have fit a few more in, actually, but after getting to 31 I still had a few days left until Halloween, and I decided to just enjoy the last couple of days with my family (and the World Series).

I’m pleased at the diversity of the films on my list, including several from other countries and examples from each decade since the 1950s, and a few classics I hadn’t gotten to until now. Most of them were first-time viewings for me (but how could I resist a double feature of Alien and Aliens on the big screen?).

So here’s the list in the order I watched, with director and year of release, as well as a helpful key to point out some recurring themes and motifs:

1. The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)** ggg
2. Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979)** g
3. The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983) m, v
4. House aka Hausu (Nobuhiku Ôbayashi, 1977) m, wx
5. Baba Yaga aka Kiss Me, Kill Me aka The Devil Watch (Corrado Farina, 1973) cam, wx
6. WNUF Halloween Special (Chris LaMartina et al, 2013) cam
7. The Return of the Living Dead (Dan O’Bannon, 1985) z
8. What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, 2014)** cam, v, ww, wx, z
9. Frankenhooker (Frank Henenlotter, 1990) md, z
10. Basket Case 2 (Frank Henenlotter, 1990) c, t
11. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)*, ** r
12. Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)*, ** pl, r
13. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) cam
14. Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (Hajime Sato, 1968) vs
15. The Living Skeleton (Hiroshi Matsuno, 1968) md
16. Ship of Monsters (Rogelio A. González, 1960) m, r, vsx
17. Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965) vs
18. The Spider Labyrinth (Gianfranco Giagni, 1988) ww
19. The Horror of Party Beach (Del Tenney, 1964) m
20. Genocide (Kazui Nihonmatsu, 1968) md
21. Basket Case 3 (Frank Henenlotter, 1991) c, m, pl, t
22. The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981)** cam, ww
23. Attack of the Puppet People (Bert I. Gordon, 1958) m
24. Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)* a, hpl, md, z
25. Bride of Re-Animator (Brian Yuzna, 1989) a, md, w, z
26. Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2015)** ggg, w
27. Beyond Re-Animator (Brian Yuzna, 2003) a, md, z
28. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978) cam, z
29. Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1985)** md, z
30. Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009) z
31. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)** md

* rewatch
** seen in theater

a: Arkham setting
c: monstrous or supernatural child
cam: camera/photography
g: gateway or portal to otherworldly realm opened
ggg: g-g-g-ghosts!
hpl: H. P. Lovecraft adaptation
m: musical number
md: mad doctor/scientist
pl: power lifter
r: robot/android
t: twins
v: vampires
vs: space vampires
vsx: sexy space vampires
w: character in wheelchair
ww: werewolf/animal transformation
wx: witch
z: zombies/re-animated/walking dead

MKBC2family

So this list is perhaps more representative of my tastes than last year’s, reflecting my relatively larger interest in sci-fi, gothic, and erotic horror than, say, slashers. What can I say? I like the weird stuff. (On the other hand, I don’t consider myself a huge fan of zombies, but I sure spent a lot of time with them this month; gotta catch up with the classics sooner or later, I guess.)

Yesterday I posted an article over at The Solute on the brief wave of monster solidarity illustrated by Basket Case 2 and 3 and some other movies from the early ’90s, and tied it together with some of the other movies I watched this month. Check it out when you have time for ca. 3000 words about monsters.

In the mean time, here’s my rating of the movies on this list:

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Best Movie: Well, Alien is pretty damn good, as is Re-Animator, but since those were rewatches I’m going to exclude them from consideration. Maybe it’s just fresh on my mind, but John Carpenter’s The Thing, based on the John W. Campbell story “Who Goes There?” (also the source material for 1951’s The Thing From Another World, which I haven’t seen) delivered almost everything you could want in a Halloween movie: suspense, scares, memorable characters, and crazy, inventive special effects in an eerie, claustrophobic setting. I say “almost” because, being about an all-male crew of researchers in an Antarctic base, it’s a complete sausage party (and it’s clear how much it owes to Alien after seeing both movies in close succession). Still, I have no excuse for not having seen this sooner, but it was worth waiting to experience it on the big screen.

HoPB

Worst Movie: I’d have to single out The Horror of Party Beach, which Stephen King memorably described as “a wet fart of a movie.” Cynically cashing in on the beach party and horror genres by combining them, it does at least have a good (if slightly silly) monster at its center, and the premise and characters suggest a better movie lurking within. The movie’s biggest problem is its indifference to tone: I don’t object to movies that combine comedy and horror, or switch gears midway through, but it takes some control on the part of the filmmakers, and Party Beach is surprisingly gruesome for a film that also includes one-line cutaway gags and a voodoo-obsessed black housekeeper as comic relief.

Scariest Movie: There have been a lot of discussions in The Dissolve’s Facebook group and elsewhere about how important scares are in horror movies: is a horror movie that doesn’t scare a failure? Is it even necessary to try to be scary if it otherwise falls within the genre? Is Crimson Peak underperforming at the box office because of a perception that it isn’t scary? (For the record, I found Crimson Peak intense enough for me and I enjoyed it very much, but it does build toward its scares gradually.) As I’ve written about before, I didn’t like scary movies as a kid, but now I watch and enjoy them, so if nothing else I’m very aware of how subjective scariness is and how much it depends on the viewer’s state of mind: is it fair to judge a movie that fails to scare a jaded horror movie veteran who sits, arms folded, and dares the movie to throw its worst at him? Or does a movie get credit for being randomly discovered on TV by an impressionable kid at the perfect age to have its images permanently branded on his psyche?

Personally, if a movie scares me now, I’m willing to give it credit, because it must be doing something right, even if all the evidence points to the opposite: if it’s scary, a story that doesn’t make sense follows “nightmare logic;” special effects that are obviously fake can still be creepily suggestive of “wrongness,” etc. If it’s not scary, all those things simply become laughable, and a movie that doesn’t scare had better have something else going in terms of plot, theme, or production.

Ultimately, I think horror movies are scarier when they reveal something dark about human nature (the ghosts in Crimson Peak are good for some tense moments, but the actual scary parts are the moments that focus on its heroine as she becomes aware of the net closing in around her, trapped in a house with murderers and conscious that they know she knows: that is a scary situation!); that may be why I’m less interested in films that are purely about human suffering, and why the films I gravitate to are more about fantastical concepts. Having said that, Day of the Dead is probably the best at combing tension, gore, and a bleak view of humanity that stuck with me, even with an ending that isn’t quite as dark as it could be.

Least Scary Movie: A 1958 film called Attack of the Puppet People from low-budget special-effects impresario Bert I. Gordon doesn’t sound like it would be scary, and it’s not. But it sounds like it would at least try to be scary, and it doesn’t even do that. There is very little “attacking” of any kind in this tale of a sad, lonely old doll-maker who uses a special device to shrink people to doll-size so that they can’t leave him. That said, it’s not a bad film, and there’s something of the Universal monsters’ pathos in the doll-maker’s self-justifying neediness. His wheedling insistence that if his victims would just accept their fate and let him take care of them, everything would be fine is reminiscent of a pedophile or an emotional abuser.

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Goriest Movie: Day of the Dead definitely doesn’t skimp on the blood and guts, something it has in common with all of the zombie/re-animation movies I saw this month. But I’m going to give Bride of Re-Animator the edge for its over-the-top climax.

Funniest Movie: I like my horror on the comic side, whether it’s the gonzo slapstick of Frank Henenlotter’s movies or the hangout vibe of Zombieland, but What We Do in the Shadows, a This is Spinal Tap-style mockumentary that follows a clan of vampires in New Zealand, was not only the funniest movie I saw this month but probably the funniest movie I’ve seen all year.

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Most Delightful Surprise: Ship of Monsters (La Nave de los Monstruos) was just a random YouTube recommendation, but it turned out to be a fun mash-up of sci-fi, monster movie, and musical comedy, just the kind of thing I like. It begins with two explorers, members of the all-female race that populates Venus, collecting male specimens from different planets to take back to their home in hopes of repopulating. Landing on Earth in Mexico, they encounter a singing vaquero who teaches them about love, something known only on Earth. Of course there are twists and turns, and the other specimens (a diverse crew of imaginative, if cheap-looking, space monsters) escape on Earth to wreak havoc. It sounds silly, and it is, very. This is the kind of movie where a robot falls in love with a jukebox: based on that, you should be able to tell whether you want to see it or not.

The One (Actually Two) That Got Away: I took advantage of several screenings that were part of the October at the Oldtown horror series this year, but I was spoiled for choice as the Palace Theatre was also offering special showings. By my count, there were at least twenty films offered at one- or two-day special screenings this month in my area, and I made it to about half of them. So while I didn’t see everything that was on offer, I attended as many shows as I could. The event I really regretted missing was a double feature starring the late Christopher Lee: Horror of Dracula (1958) and The Wicker Man (1973). Unfortunately, my schedule just didn’t allow it. Oh well, there’s always next year.

Until then, Happy Halloween, and DON’T TURN OUT THE LIGHTS!

October is the Coolest Month

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Or is it the cruelest? There’s always too much to do and too many events to take advantage of them all during October, between post-season baseball, family Halloween activities, school and work, rehearsals and performances. (I should also mention that The Lost Worlds of Power, which was supposed to be released on Halloween, has been delayed, for reasons best explained here. No worries; I’ll update as I get information.) This year my wife dressed as the Queen from Snow White, and we thought of a costume for me that (I think) came together really well:

"Mirror, Mirror, on the wall . . ."

“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall . . .”

Then there are the movies: a lot of people plan to watch 31 horror movies during October, a movie a day; I knew I would have a hard time reaching that number (and as the month went on I remembered why I had never done it before), but this year I made an effort to catch up on some I had never seen (while revisiting a few favorites). I made it to 21 and still felt like I was cramming them in; as enjoyable as it was, I doubt I’ll try to keep up this pace year-round.

I didn’t plan ahead, for the most part, and for those I saw on the big screen the programmers of the October at the Oldtown horror series made the decisions for me. For my own choices, I defined “horror” pretty broadly, and included some examples of fantasy and thriller, depending on my mood. (Pulp Fiction, which I rewatched in order to write an article on its twentieth anniversary, is the real outlier.)

Barbara Kellerman in The Monster Club

Barbara Kellerman in The Monster Club

The movies I covered are listed below with their year of release and director, as well as a key pointing out a few repeated elements. For example, five of the movies I watched in October were adaptations of stories by H. P. Lovecraft (I wrote about two of them at The Solute, and intend to write about the remaining three in the near future), and considering I didn’t watch any martial arts movies there were a surprising number of samurai sword attacks.

1. The Call of Cthulhu (2005, Andrew Leman)* a, g, hpl, w
2. ParaNorman (2012, Chris Butler and Sam Fell) b, c, v
3. Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988, James Signorelli) b, m
4. 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964, George Pal)
5. Tentacles (1977, Ovidio G. Assonitis as “Oliver Hellman”) v (diving masks–I guess that counts)
6. The Whisperer in Darkness (2011, Sean Branney) a, g, hpl, v
7. Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)* ss, v
8. Basket Case (1982, Frank Henenlotter)** c, t
9. The Gate (1987, Tibor Takács)* g
10. The Hole (2009, Joe Dante) c, g
11. Grand Piano (2013, Eugenio Mira) m
12. The Monster Club (1981, Roy Ward Baker) c, m, v
13. The Gates of Hell aka City of the Living Dead (1980, Lucio Fulci)** d, g
14. Demons (1985, Lamberto Bava)** ss, v
15. The Haunted Palace (1963, Roger Corman) a, b, hpl, p
16. Die, Monster, Die! aka Monster of Terror (1965, Daniel Haller) a, hpl, w
17. The Visitor aka Stridulum (1979, Giulio Paradisi as “Michael J. Paradise”)* c, p, w
18. The Dunwich Horror (1970, Daniel Haller) d, g, hpl, t
19. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper)** v, w
20. Eraserhead (1977, David Lynch) c, g(?), m
21. Donovan’s Brain (1953, Felix Feist) p

* rewatch
** seen in theater

a: Arkham setting
b: character burned at the stake (or threatened with burning)
c: monstrous or supernatural child
d: Dunwich setting
g: gateway or portal to otherworldly realm opened
hpl: H. P. Lovecraft adaptation
m: musical number
p: possession or domination by a disembodied intelligence
ss: samurai sword attack
t: twins
v: masks
w: character in wheelchair

Did I miss anything? And did you watch anything in the last month that you would recommend or that made an impression on you?

Instruments of Death

“The Torture Garden: It’s where the Devil calls the tune . . . to play a concerto of fear!”

–Trailer for Torture Garden, 1967

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In honor of Halloween, it’s time to look at the spookier side of musical instruments, specifically the roles some have played in mystery and horror fiction.  On the one hand, the organ has the most sinister reputation of any instrument through its association with the Phantom of the Opera and his fictional descendants: there’s just something about the full organ’s portentous sound and the gloomy atmosphere of the Gothic cathedral that goes hand in hand with cobwebs and candlelight, so expect to hear many renditions of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (or at least the opening bars) during October.  The organ, nicknamed “the king of instruments,” also fits nicely with the popular association of criminal masterminds with classical music: we like our villains to have refined taste, whether played by Vincent Price or Anthony Hopkins.  In the same way, the organist seated at his instrument, surrounded by ranks of keyboards, pedals, and organ stops ready at his command, is a neat visual shorthand for a master manipulator, sitting at the center of a web, controlling everything around him.  (In at least one case, the direct-to-video Disney sequel Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, the organ is the villain, conniving to make others to do its will even though it cannot move from its place.)

Lon Chaney, Sr. in the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera

Lon Chaney, Sr. in the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera

Brian De Palma's 1974 update, Phantom of the Paradise

Brian De Palma’s 1974 update, Phantom of the Paradise

The violin, on the other hand, is often associated with the Devil, as in such pieces of music as Danse Macabre, L’Histoire du Soldat, and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”  In folk tales, the Devil enjoys wagers, betting his own gold fiddle against the souls of his opponents.  He may also bestow musical talent in exchange for a soul, a prominent part of the myth surrounding Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata. Later, the great Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini was the subject of lurid rumors that he had sold his soul, and worse: Theosophy founder Madame Helena Blavatsky included Paganini in her story “The Ensouled Violin,” and graphically embroidered on the notion that the strings of Paganini’s violin were made from human intestine, and that his uncanny ability to mimic the human voice with his playing actually came from a spirit trapped within the instrument.

A similar story is part of the mythology of the Blues: Robert Johnson was supposed to have met the Devil at a crossroads at midnight, where he traded his soul for his legendary guitar-playing ability.  The legend formed the basis of the Ralph Macchio film Crossroads and was parodied on Metalocalypse (in the episode “Bluesklok”).  Interestingly, Elijah Wald, in his book Escaping the Delta, has shown that the same story was originally attributed to a Tommy Johnson and then transferred to Robert when his legend outpaced Tommy’s.  Naturally, the whole thing has roots in folklore: Wald points out, “When Harry Middleton Hyatt collected stories of musicians going to the crossroads to gain supernatural skills, as part of a vast study of Southern folk beliefs in the late 1930s, he reported as many banjo players and violinists as guitarists,” as well as an accordionist.

Why is there such a connection between fiddling and death?  In the Middle Ages, instrumental music was considered both profane and frivolous, closely associated with itinerant, always-suspect actors and minstrels and the drunken singers in taverns.  In depictions of Death (usually as a skeleton, the same as now), musical instruments were often a symbol of the sinfulness, vanity, and futility of all human activity, not just music.  (The popular image of Nero “fiddling while Rome burned” probably owes much to this symbolism, as the violin had yet to be invented in Nero’s day; likewise, contrast the supposed indolence of grasshoppers with the industry of ants.)   The image of a grinning skeleton “playing” his victims into the grave may have struck the medieval viewer as cruel irony, a just punishment, or as a warning.

The medieval dance of death.

According to one author, the connection between the violin and mortality was more than just poetic: in 2006, Rohan Kriwaczek published An Incomplete History of The Art of Funerary Violin.  According to Kriwaczek, there had once been a Guild of Funerary Violinists, whose work, repertoire, and indeed their very existence had been suppressed by the Vatican during the Great Funerary Purges of the 1830s and ‘40s.  After 1846, the few remaining members of the Guild went underground, and Kriwaczek, eventually entrusted with their legacy, was able to piece together this secret history and bring it to the public. Kriwaczek describes the Funerary Violinist as playing a potent intercessionary role:

In his tone the violinist must first convey the deep grief that is present in the gathering, and then transform it into a thing of beauty.  By the time he is finished, a deep and plaintive calm should have descended, and the bereaved should be ready to hear the eulogy. . . . The violinist’s is a position of great responsibility, akin in many ways to that of a priest or shaman, and should not be taken lightly.

Alas, the book was a hoax, supposedly concocted by Kriwaczek to increase his bookings as a violinist at—you guessed it—funerals.  Still, I can’t help but feel that Kriwaczek’s story, with its dueling Funerary Violinists, buried secrets, and cameos from outsized characters including composers, Popes, and virtuosi, would make a smashing TV program, a historical saga with more than a touch of gothic intrigue.

Sometimes the instrument is cursed: in the short “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by the master of the English ghost story M. R. James, it’s an ancient bronze whistle (proving that another James title, “A Warning to the Curious,” could equally apply to almost all his stories):

He blew tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure–how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a sea-bird’s wing somewhere outside the dark panes.

Just as frequently it’s a MacGuffin that activates the plot: a Stradivarius is as valuable as a van Gogh, and serves as well as any other objet d’art as the motivation in a murder mystery.  An example is the three-quarter sized Strad, the Piccolino, at the center of Gerald Elias’ mystery Devil’s Trill, the first of a series centered on violinist-sleuth Daniel Jacobus.  And despite its unusual varnish, the titular instrument of the 1998 film The Red Violin is haunted more by tragedy and human foibles than by any supernatural evil.

The weaponized instrument is an infrequent literary device, but there are a few examples: the murder in Dame Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death is accomplished by a revolver hidden inside an upright piano, rigged to fire when the pianist plays the third chord of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, a Rube Goldberg arrangement that sounds about as practical in real life as this:

Likewise, it doesn’t seem that it would be that hard to escape the vengeance meted out by the grand piano in “Mr. Steinway,” a section of the 1967 anthology film Torture Garden, based on stories by Robert Bloch.  In the story, the piano in question belongs to a prominent virtuoso, a gift from his mother, and his devotion to it is tested when a young lady (played by Barbara Ewing) enters his life.  The black wing shape of the piano is a looming presence in the film version, always in the background or casting its shadow over the doomed couple, and the Oedipal implications of the pianist’s relationship with his mother, never seen but personified by the piano, are left as unspoken subtext.  So far, so good, but by the time the piano lurches into motion and pushes the intruding girl out the window, we’ve entered the realm of delirious high camp.  The lesson: music is a jealous mistress.

Finally, as a bonus, I present one of the most bizarre (and gratuitous) examples of this trope, from the 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown: death by trombone.  Happy Halloween!