Music Box of Horrors 2014 — A Recap

Music Box of Horrors 2014Music Box Theatre

This past weekend I was able to cross another item off my movie-related bucket list — to finally attend a horror movie marathon. Every year for the past ten years, the Music Box Theatre (the best cinema in Chicago) hosts the Music Box of Horrors (formerly the Massacre), a 24 hour horror marathon from noon to noon. The selections are always eclectic and cover the vast spectrum of the world of film, everything from silent features to modern day favorites. While I unfortunately did not make it through the entire event (more on that later), I definitely got my money’s worth.

The Phantom Carriage [1921]

I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the festival than seeing the silent classic, The Phantom Carriage, accompanied by a live organ. Widely considered one of the greatest silent films of all time, it certainly lived up to the hype in my eyes. Its innovative use of double exposures to show the ghosts (including the “phantom carriage”) was a remarkable achievement for its time. Yet for a movie in which ghosts, the grim reaper and other spooky entities appear, the most frightening aspect is alcoholism; specifically, one man’s descent toward the bottom of the bottle and his struggles to move away from it. The film shares a lot of similarities with A Christmas Carol in that it looks back at moments where the main character’s life went wrong, and it’s actually quite depressing. The experience of seeing it on the big screen with live organ accompaniment was enough to keep things from getting too dour, however.

The Man They Could Not Hang [1939]

Next up was the lesser-known Boris Karloff sci-fi/horror flick, The Man They Could Not Hang. Karloff, entertaining as always, plays a scientist who has developed a mechanical heart which he hopes will bring the dead back to life. When he gets charged for the murder of one of his patients, he is sentenced to death, only to come back to life thanks to the very procedure he invented. He becomes a man out for revenge, trapping those who found him guilty while attempting to kill them off one-by-one. It’s a good bit of b-grade fun that doesn’t take itself seriously. At just 64 minutes long, it doesn’t overstay its welcome either.

Cat People [1942]

Another short-but-sweet low-budget classic was to follow, the original 1942 film Cat People. This one had a bit of a goofy premise — a young Serbian woman (a playful Simone Simon) believes she will turn into a panther when aroused, all because of an ancient tribal curse — but it works because of a terrific sense of atmosphere. We never see the woman physically change, but due to some creative camerawork and use of shadows, we can sense her threatening presence. Fun fact: director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca later collaborated on one of the all-time great noirs, Out of the Past.

The Curse of the Werewolf [1961]

I was really looking forward to the next screening, The Curse of the Werewolf, because I had somehow never seen a Hammer film before. Unfortunately, I found it to be disappointing. The story was all over the place, and too much time was spent building up to such a small payoff. The werewolf itself didn’t make an appearance until the final ten minutes or so, and by then it was too little, too late. The makeup and special effects were major highlights, but the film itself didn’t do much for me.

The Borrower [1991]

The centerpiece of the marathon was arguably John McNaughton’s fairly obscure 1991 film, The Borrower, presented on Laserdisc (!) from the director’s own personal collection. McNaughton and a few others involved with the film were at the screening, and they did a Q&A session afterward. Originally the plan was to screen the director’s most popular work, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but he offered to bring in The Borrower, a film that he hasn’t “discussed to death.” From the sound of it, the filming process was a real bitch, but the end result still holds up quite well. This was a crazy, over-the-top sci-fi/horror hybrid that was a real crowd pleaser. An alien serial killer is charged with murder and sent to live on Earth in human form as its punishment. It spends its time “borrowing” the heads of humans, acquiring new ones whenever its current head randomly explodes. Rae Dawn Chong (Commando, The Color Purple) stars as the police officer who is trying to figure out just what the hell is going on. It’s all utterly ridiculous, but also a total blast.

Nosferatu the Vampyre [1979]

At this point during the marathon, I was dealing with some really bad back pain (the seats at the Music Box aren’t especially conducive to long-term sitting, and I have on-and-off back troubles anyway) so I decided to take a break after the next film: Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, starring the inimitable Klaus Kinski. This was another one I was eager to see, as I had really enjoyed another Herzog/Kinski collaboration from a past 50 Movies Project: Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It did not disappoint. Kinski’s portrayal of Count Dracula is downright frightening, and the film excels at building up a sense of dread. There is death and filth everywhere (so many rats…), and the film is about as dark as it gets.

Nosferatu the Vampyre turned out to be the end of my marathon, as I biked back home, passed out and didn’t get up in time for any of the morning screenings. I missed out on Dead Snow 2 (which I already saw and reviewed this summer), Nightmare, Shakma, Don’t Look in the Basement, Just Before Dawn and Audition (which I was hoping to revisit). Alas, I had a great time even though I only made it through half of the event.

Line of the night: “The law is quite explicit, one cannot divorce an insane person.” (Cat People)
Runner-up: “My dear Mr. District Attorney, your law is shockingly bad. I have the perfect alibi. I am legally dead. Your business is with the living.” (The Man They Could Not Hang)

Final rundown:
The Phantom Carriage [1921] – 8/10
The Man They Could Not Hang [1939] – 7/10
Cat People [1942] – 7/10
The Curse of the Werewolf [1961] – 5/10
The Borrower [1991] – 7/10
Nosferatu the Vampyre [1979] – 8/10

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8 thoughts on “Music Box of Horrors 2014 — A Recap

  1. Wendell says:

    Wow. This sounds like great fun. Sadly, I’ve never been to a film marathon I wasn’t holding in my own living room and would love to attend one. Just not in the cards, right now.

    The Borrower seems like it’s a fun watch, might have to check that one out. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a favorite of mine so I can believe the director has discussed it to death. And I had no idea there was a Dead Snow 2. The first was bonkers. Can’t wait to see the sequel.

  2. Chris says:

    Pretty cool way to watch a bunch of horror films, no shame in not making it through the whole 24h event 🙂

    My fav of those is Nosferatu (1979). I too liked the way director Herzog slowly builds the tension on the journey. I was impressed how the wind outside created an eerieness, and how uneasy breathing at the castle keeps us on edge, obviously thanks to the performance of Klaus Kinski.

    The Phantom Carriage (1921) yep, deserves respect for the special effects, ahead of its time. The live organ sounds like it added to the experience.

    Cat People I enjoyed. The only thing I know about the 1982 remake is it featured the memorable song by David Bowie.

    I had the same “disappointed by my first Hammer horror film” last year, only it was Dracula (1958). Maybe they are a bit dated now.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Great to hear you are a fan of Nosferatu and The Phantom Carriage as well. Those two were especially impressive on the big screen.

      I’ve heard mixed things about the 1982 Cat People, but I might check it out someday.

      Too bad about Dracula. I know a lot of people love Hammer films so maybe we just caught a couple of their weaker ones?

  3. ruth says:

    Amazing that you survived a 24 hour horror marathon from noon to noon, Eric! Man I’d have huge back pain too even at the cushiest seating. I can’t imagine doing a horror marathon, or even any film marathon in general, unless it’s a marathon of my fave actor, ha..ha.. but even that I probably only last for 12 hours max 🙂

  4. jackdeth72 says:

    Hi, Eric:

    A well detailed look at some great horror films! Soundtracks can add so much to film’s frightening mojo. And you’ve covered some beauties!

    Great catch on ‘Cat People’.

    I’d add Howard Hawks’ and Dimitri Tiompkin’s Theramin infused ‘The Thing From Another World’. John Carpenter’s early four chord soundtrack for ‘Assault on Precinct Thirteen’, His excellent touch with ‘Halloween’. And his later take on Hawks’ work with ‘The Thing’.

    Also the creepy through and through organ piece that is the backbone of Herk Harvey’s 1962 ‘Carnival of Souls’.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Oh you’re speaking my language by mentioning those John Carpenter scores. 😀 Pretty much everything he touched in the 70s and 80s was pure gold. This same theater did some midnight screenings of Halloween recently but I wasn’t able to make it. Would love to see that classic on the big screen!

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