The hour draws near to upend your buckets and devour the annual trick or treat plunder. Together, we’ve spent another October stacking up horror movie programs for your Halloween enjoyment, and what fun it’s been to make up the menu!
I Put A Spell On You!
In Week Three, we spent the evening in some of our favorite haunted and possessed places, having already tackled two weeks of mutants and bloodsuckers. Sometimes it takes more than the right monster and the ideal setting to chill an audience’s blood to perfection. A close cousin of the traditional haunting is the good old fashioned curse. Whether a broken convenant, a vengeful malediction, or just a bit of spiteful magic, the very best spells and curses are difficult, often impossible, to break. They can be used to trap, terrorize, or hideously transform all manner of unsuspecting victims. The target of a curse may have earned it by cowardice or criminal trespass, but might just as likely have stumbled into it by accident. The lesson in all cases is clear: be careful whom (or what) you cross. Damned careful.
The most popular entries in this category are a diverse and disturbing bunch. Universal’s 1941 classic The Wolf Man set the standard, pitting Lon Chaney, Jr. against the indwelling rage that plagues mankind… with the help of a cursed wolf bite. Lycanthropy, like vampirism, is a special sort of curse that eventually merited its own special genre. Author and filmmaker Clive Barker tackled a number of nasty curses, including those that resulted in the demonic romance Hellraiser and the sleepover game turned inner-city gauntlet Candyman. Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead proved that chainsaw cannibals are far from the worst thing roaming cabin-filled woods. Infamous if less fondly remembered is the Stephen King yarn Thinner, if nothing else a memorable throwback to the classic notion of the gypsy curse.
And now for you unrepentant graverobbers, trespassers and meddlers where you don’t belong, here is a delicious triple jinx of our own devising.
First Course: Drag Me To Hell
(dir. Sam Raimi, 2009)
With similar gusto and quite a bit more finesse than Thinner, Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell brings the terrifying power of gypsy curses to a new generation. The Evil Dead and Spider-Man helmer injects his warped sense of humor into the cracks of a very grim tale of doom.
Christine (Alison Lohman) is a bank loan officer who, under pressure from her hard-nosed boss, turns down an extension request from a poor old woman. Holding her ground despite the woman’s abject pleading, Christine eventually finds herself assaulted and hexed in a bitter altercation. In the wake of this trauma, she suffers a number of spiritual visitations and other nasty symptons that lead her to understand that this curse was no empty gesture.
Since the opening scene of the movie shows exactly what being dragged to hell looks like, Christine’s gradual discovery of her fate is less interesting than the form her torments take. The fascinating part of a “personal curse” story, where a single character is beset with visions and threats while others look on helpless, is the transformation that the situation brings out in that character. Learning that she has only a few days before demons do to her what the title of the film promises, her desperation to slip the curse drives her to weigh just how great a sacrifice (or betrayal) she is willing to make. Reduced and exhausted by her ordeal, she even contemplates passing the curse to someone else, whether an unlucky stranger or a trusting loved one (Justin Long). This is not world-changing horror, but the movie is a well-executed critical success, worthy of a re-visit if you are after a good fun scare.
Second Course: The Mummy
(dir. Terence Fisher, 1959)
Although Universal Pictures made the most iconic Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mummy movies, Britain’s Hammer Studios created superb (and more frightening) versions of each.
Full disclosure: the author is a massive Hammer partisan, whose favorite Universal classic is James Whale’s The Invisible Man, with Creature From The Black Lagoon swimming a close second. Nonetheless he pledges due respect and honor to the very good, but comparatively tame, and not nearly as smartly dressed, Universal monsters.
Archaeologist John Banning (Peter Cushing, in an unusual iteration of his recurring Van Helsing persona) is in the midst of a successful Egyptian dig. Along with his father and other colleagues, he discovers the tomb of the fabled Princess Ankara (Yvonne Furneaux), whose mummy and personal treasures occupy a stately sepulchre in Karnak. Despite repeated warnings of Anakara’s curse upon tomb-wreckers, the eager British scientists move right in.
Unfortunately, also entombed there is the Scroll Of Life, printed with dark magical spells, and the mummy of Ankara’s chief priest, Kharis (Christopher Lee), whom those spells recall from death when read aloud. Buried alive with his princess for a crime of forbidden love, Kharis guards the sanctity of her tomb. This includes violently punishing all trespassers. Like Dracula before him, he makes tracks for London with murder in mind.
Universal’s Mummy, as played by Boris Karloff, was a sly and calculating villain, who after his own resurrection learned to live in society, working with dark magic to fulfill an ancient lover’s promise. Lee as Kharis has similar motives but more savage tactics. He is more of a marauding golem than a scheming sorcerer. Guided in his vengeance by a modern-day worshiper in the foggy streets of London, Kharis drives Banning’s father and friends to madness and grim death, saving Banning himself for last. Meanwhile, Banning faces a lot of detective work in discovering the curse that has marked him, and convincing the London authorities to pursue this most unlikely murder suspect.
As with most monsters, both Hammer’s and Universal’s, the mummy has a weak spot for beautiful women, especially those bearing an uncanny resemblance to his lost love. For example Banning’s wife Isobel (again, Yvonne Furneaux). We all know how that works, right?
Sharing a few basic elements but diverging sharply in tone and design, The Mummy actually pairs well with its worthy Universal counterpart. If so inclined, you could make your own triple-bill with those two and Stephen Sommers’s admittedly zany 1999 reboot for Universal. Mummy films have been some of the most consistently entertaining throughout their many decades onscreen. To be sure, there are plenty of vampire and werewolf movies that on individual merit would bury any mummy picture, but as an amusing sub-genre, mummies have a curiously high standard of quality, praise Anubis.
Third Course: Pumpkinhead
(dir. Stan Winston, 1988)
More often than not, movies involving rustic curses cast the curser as the villain. However, in Pumpkinhead – directed by legendary special effects master Stan Winston – it is the sympathetic protagonist who does the cursing. Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) is a simple man who runs a country general store and dotes on his young son Billy (Matthew Hurley). The script takes special pains to illustrate the deep bond between widowed father and son, who only have each other in the world. This cements the poignant credibility of what follows, fantastical though it may be.
When some teens (“city folk,” as Ed says with measured venom) cause an accident that kills little Billy, the grief-stricken Ed seeks the services of an old witch who lives deep in the nearby swamp. Local legend holds that she can summon a demon called Pumpkinhead to avenge such wrongs. Pumpkinhead is as much a folktale as it is a 1980s monster thriller, which makes it a perfect Halloween treat. The trappings of folklore combine well with hair-raising makeup and creature effects to give the story a timeless aspect, never mind the period hairstyles.
Such is the pathos of his character that at first, Ed’s monstrous bargain with Pumpkinhead seems like a perfectly reasonable recourse. However, like any devil’s pact, it proves as much an ordeal for Ed as for the people he intends to make suffer. Confronted with the empty spite of his revenge, and forced to share the pain and fear his victims feel as the demon stalks and mauls them, Ed realizes too late that no human with a heart and soul should wish such desecration on others, even his enemies.
His brief heroic journey rises from a determination to stop the curse before its gruesome fulfillment. In battling Pumpkinhead, he takes one slim shot at saving his own soul by preserving those he damned with his vengeful wrath. In thinking he would sacrifice anything for love, he finds he has made the wrong sacrifice for his own gratification. Not a whole lot happens in this nimbly paced film, but it has a great deal on its mind. Structurally sound, executed with economy and skill, this is one of the best horror movies that the 1990s managed to bury in relative obscurity. In the name of vengeance, call on it now, but know this…
“What you’re askin’… got a powerful price…”
A La Carte
Cursed with indigestion? Calm yourself with a devious aperitif…
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)
Benjamin Christensen’s speculative documentary probes antiquated notions of witchcraft and how to defend against it. A vivid parade of bizarre visions and sardonic vignettes, still outrageous after nearly a century.
The Curse Of The Werewolf (1961)
A young Oliver Reed takes the lead as Hammer’s very own werewolf. A cynical, slow-burning Gothic morality fable worthy of de Sade.
A seminal work in the Japanese horror craze of the 2000s. A potent and inventive riff on the modern urban myth. Supremely eerie.
Thanks for screaming along for another year. From Fields Point Review,
Happy Halloween To All!