And so we gather once again at Fields Point Manor, to munch on the macabre. As before, we have a three-course horror marathon lined up to tide you over as the Halloween excitement really starts to build. Remember, a good scream is the best way to ease the grip of fear, keeping everything else inside you where it belongs.
We Gotta Get Outta This Place!
Last week we dined on blood and lots of it, in the company of vampires and other thirsty ghouls. But not every nightmare scenario can be solved with stakes, garlic or sunshine. Sometimes evil oozes out the very walls, floors, furniture and doors we count on to keep bad things away.
James Wan scored a victory this summer with The Conjuring, a haunted house thriller with modern intensity and classic storytelling sensibilities. The fear that we are not safe in our own beds is a timeless and potent soft spot on the human soul, and filmmakers of all sorts have eagerly probed that spot for decades.
Thinking outside the box on this topic was a challenge. Haunting stories make up a goodly portion of almost any top-10, desert-island horror movie countdown, and great ones have been made to suit every taste. The Shining is bleak and lavish, Poltergeist playfully hideous, The Haunting and The Innocents each a parade of good old-fashioned dread, and even those in the mood for the madcap have choices ranging from William Castle’s The House On Haunted Hill to the surreal Japanese freakout known as Hausu (House). If you have not had the pleasure, stop what you have going on and make room for these movies in your life, too. Meanwhile, we adjourn to the brandy and popcorn lounge for tonight’s features.
First Course: El Orfanato
(dir. J. A. Bayona, 2007)
Director J. A. Bayona helms a convoluted but beautifully executed mystery, complete with some truly hair-raising forays into the supernatural. Laura (Belén Rueda) is the proprietress of a newly opened home for disabled children. She has a deep connection to the sprawling cliffside house, which was once the orphanage in which she lived as a small child. Her charity towards the young and unfortunate is especially poignant, since her own adopted son Simón has a terminal disease. For his part, Simón is lonely and withdrawn, exploring his world free of cares with a seemingly imaginary friend named Tomás. However, Simón’s increasing preoccupation with Tomás begins to make his presence seem uncomfortably real to Laura, especially since the two “boys” keep running off to play in hidden and dangerous parts of the property.
Eventually, Simón disappears and does not return. Concurrent with this disaster is an apparent haunting of the house, all of which frighten Laura close to her limit. In her long search for Simón, she does a lot of amateur detective work, gains the help of a medium (Geraldine Chaplin), and faces a series of creepy visitations from ghosts. Uncertain whether the apparitions intend to harm her or help her find the truth, she must trust in maternal intuition and peer as far into the darkness as she can.
Most movies dealing with supernatural mystery follow one of two paths to resolution. Either a genuine paranormal disturbance has been causing trouble all along, or an explainable cause has been frightening the protagonist with the illusion of a haunting. Like Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact – an undersung horror entry from last year’s HHV – El Orfanato does not make the viewer choose, as the ghosts and the living go hand in hand here, equally important in the third-act revelations. Not to give too much away, this film concludes on a uniquely bitter and devastating note not just for a mother, but for anyone who has cared deeply for the welfare of a child.
Second Course: The Tomb of Ligeia
(dir. Roger Corman, 1964)
The great Vincent Price, black-clad and sporting radical Victorian sun-shades, plays a widower tortured by melancholy in Roger Corman’s lavish interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia.” Written by Robert Towne (Chinatown), the script matches the movie’s savorous Gothic design with searing melodrama in a tale of jealousy, possession, and malevolent cats.
All in all, Corman’s “Poe” cycle (mostly featuring Price) is fairly solid. House Of Usher, adapted by Richard Matheson, is probably the most celebrated, though my personal favorite has long been The Masque Of The Red Death. Of the lesser-known entries, The Tomb Of Ligeia is the best, and has the most effective haunting of the bunch (including a rollicking Poe/Lovecraft pastiche entitled The Haunted Palace). In a framework much beloved by Poe, the gentleman Verden Fell (Price) is consumed to the point of obsession by the death of his raven-haired wife Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd). However, his grief is broken by an encounter with a vivacious blonde (Shepherd again) whose lust for life begins drawing him up into the light once again.
However, Ligeia’s restless spirit is not ready to be forgotten, nor to rest eternally. Using a sinister black cat as a vessel, she installs herself as a menacing presence between the new husband and wife. Not content simply to shatter their peace and keep Fell’s mind on her memory, Ligeia seems to have plans for resurrecting herself, which will require the elimination of all competition for her husband’s affection. A hair-raising showdown, or rather a series of them, is sure to follow. Expect large doses of grim fun, sexy scares, and unbridled feline spite.
Third Course: The Exorcist III
(dir. William Peter Blatty, 1990)
“Hold on,” you must be thinking. A third Exorcist movie? That doesn’t even sound real, much less any good, much less remotely scary. Perhaps in this case alone, you would be wrong on all counts. Following a regrettable second entry in the series, William Peter Blatty (author of the original novel) penned a script called Legion which he intended William Friedkin to direct. The failure of the first sequel, among other factors, initially scuttled the project. Blatty published the story as the novel Legion instead, but like The Exorcist, the book sold so well that it became a screenplay again, albeit entitled The Exorcist III and tuned up with some last-minute connections to the parent film, at the producer’s behest. Blatty directed, and the result was surprisingly excellent.
In Washington, D. C. several years after the events of The Exorcist, Lieutenant William Kinderman (George C. Scott, taking over Lee J. Cobb’s role) investigates a series of bizarre, sacrilegious ritual murders that lead him to the disturbed ward of a local hospital. The killings resemble those of a serial killer Kinderman helped catch and execute some years ago, so much that a supernatural connection becomes hard to deny. Probing deeper, Kinderman also discovers a possible link to Damien Karras (Jason Miller), believed dead but apparently having survived his exorcism ordeal. Before long, it begins to seem that the entire population of the hospital is within evil clutches.
Blatty’s tale plants the already unsettling themes of haunting and possession in the eerie quiet of a hospital ward. A wealth of disturbing imagery, a constant tingle of dread, and several extremely potent and memorable scares virtually guarantee this film a spot on your list of obscure favorites. A high-profile cast featuring Scott, Miller, Ed Flanders, Brad Dourif, and Nicol Williamson, each giving his dour best, only recommends its more strongly. Altogether it is one of the best and most terrifying sequels to come from a high-profile horror franchise.
A La Carte
Still famished after filet of soul? No surprise there. May we recommend…
The Legend Of Hell House (1973)
Richard Matheson’s harrowing haunting, adapted from his novel. A classic in the stay-alive-all-night genre.
Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)
One of the bleakest and most upsetting ghost movies of all time. An unforgettable study of supernatural vengeance from Shimizu Takashi.
The Fog (1980)
John Carpenter unleashes bloodthirsty ghost pirates on Antonio Bay. Featuring Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis and Janet Leigh!
Tune in next week for our final offering of the year, entitled
I Put A Spell On You.