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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Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead [2014] Movie Review

Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead [2014]

Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead [2014]
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Writers: Stig Frode Henriksen, Vegar Hoel, Tommy Wirkola
Genre: Action/Comedy/Horror
Starring: Vegar Hoel, Martin Starr, Jocelyn DeBoer, Ingrid Haas
Running Time: 100 minutes

Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead is the type of movie that will rip your arm off, pull your intestines out and then run you over with a tank — just because it can. Set immediately after the original film’s ending (there is a quick primer first just in case you need a refresher on what happened), it’s clear right away just what this much-anticipated sequel has in store. The budget is much bigger, the cast is larger, and the special effects are significantly improved. This is Dead Snow cranked to 11.

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Movie Project #38: Rosemary’s Baby [1968]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Rosemary's Baby [1968]

Rosemary’s Baby [1968]
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Ira Levin (novel), Roman Polanski (screenplay)
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Horror/Mystery
Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Bellamy
Running Time: 136 minutes

I will never look at chocolate mousse the same way again.

Rosemary’s Baby (based on the best-selling 1967 novel of the same name) tells the bizarrely horrific story of young and naive housewife, Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow). After she moves into a luxurious new NYC apartment with her husband, a TV/radio actor named Guy (John Cassavetes), the newlyweds are introduced to an elderly couple next door. These neighbors, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer), are eccentric but also very friendly, and they immediately take an interest to the Woodhouses.

While the Castevets initially appear to be harmless, there is definitely something peculiar about them. For one, shortly after meeting them, Rosemary and Guy seem to run into an unexpected string of good luck. Guy, after failing to get a part in a major production, gets a phone call the next morning saying that the original actor was badly injured, and the part is now his. And Rosemary, eagerly wanting to start a family, becomes pregnant with relative ease.

Nevermind that on the night of conception, Rosemary has a terrifying dream that she was raped by the Devil himself. Nevermind that on that same night, she had blacked out after eating some seemingly tainted chocolate mousse from Minnie.

Rosemary's Baby [1968]

Poor, poor Rosemary. Now pregnant, she is forced to listen to advice from everyone around her. Minnie and Roman push a new doctor, Dr. Abraham Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), a good friend of theirs, onto her, and he provides medical advice that is anything but conventional. His recommendation is to avoid pills in favor of drinking a strange herb cocktail that Minnie brings over every day. And so it goes, with the Castevets, Dr. Sapirstein and even Guy pushing a bizarre regimen onto Rosemary, who takes it all in like the submissive housewife that she is. She has her suspicions, but she is so blind in her trust to her new friends that she listens to them for far too long.

Rosemary’s Baby is effective because it excels in building the suspense while making us question just what is real and what isn’t. While there’s clearly something wrong, nothing in the film is entirely black-and-white. Perhaps Rosemary is just struggling to cope mentally with her newfound pregnancy? Hell, she’s not even sure what to believe, even as a close friend leaves behind a telling book about the occult.

Rosemary's Baby [1968]

Mia Farrow is also the perfect fit for Rosemary, as she has a childlike sensibility that makes her come across as so innocent and vulnerable. While Rosemary is clearly intelligent, she is too submissive for her own good. Her naivity is perhaps a sign of the times, but it’s a little hard to digest in today’s age. There were so many times where I just wanted to yell at her to stand up for herself — but alas, the others continued to prey on her, controlling her body and pregnancy to fit their needs.

As such, Rosemary’s Baby is a harrowing watch, and it has a masterful way of getting under your skin. It’s also darkly comic at times, especially when the Castevets are on screen. Ruth Gordon won an Oscar for her performance as Minnie, and her overbearing personality is both amusing and alarming. This film is a shining example of how to effectively craft psychological horror, even with the ineptitude of our frail young protagonist.

8.5/10

Movie Project #36: Dawn of the Dead [1978]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Dawn of the Dead [1978]

Dawn of the Dead [1978]
Director: George A. Romero
Writers: George A. Romero
Country: USA
Genre: Horror
Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross
Running Time: 127 minutes

(The end of this review contains possible spoilers.)

One of my concerns going into Dawn of the Dead, the spiritual sequel to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, was that I wouldn’t get the full effect of the film. Put simply, I am burnt out on zombie flicks. However, I shouldn’t have worried — this is a horror classic for good reason.

Dawn of the Dead takes place in Pennsylvania, right in the middle of a massive nationwide zombie outbreak. There is chaos everywhere, especially in Philadelphia, where four people somehow manage to escape via a stolen news helicopter. Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree) are two SWAT team members who fly out with traffic pilot, Stephen (David Emge), and his girlfriend, Frances (Gaylen Ross). Their destination? Anywhere but there.

Dawn of the Dead [1978]

Eventually, the four of them end up in a shopping mall just outside of Harrisburg. They plan the stop initially to gather supplies, but instead they decide to make it their sanctuary. And why not? The mall is huge and loaded with food, guns and other resources. There doesn’t appear to be any other signs of life in the general vicinity — it’s just a matter of avoiding those pesky zombies also found within.

What makes Dawn of the Dead stand out from other like-minded films is its scathing social commentary. The aimless wandering by the zombies in the mall is not far off from the mindless consumers who do the same in reality. One of the characters even remarks that the zombies have returned to the mall simply because this is what they remember enjoying in their normal lives. It’s a sad — and unfortunately still relevant — look at our society.

Dawn of the Dead [1978]

Naturally, there are plenty of confrontations with the undead as well. Some of the face-offs offer up some impressive gore special effects (designed by Tom Savini, who also has a small role in the film), though the blood looks a bit tacky today. Decapitations, disembowelments and the like are all performed with occasionally startling execution.

The characters are generally a likable bunch, with Peter being the standout. Played charismatically by Ken Foree, Peter essentially becomes the leader of the group, and he’s the one with the best head on his shoulders. On the flip side, Roger is incredibly reckless, and his behavior causes problems more than once.

As it goes in life, all good things must come to an end, and eventually the group’s time in the mall runs out once a psychotic biker gang shows up. It is here that we learn perhaps Dawn of the Dead‘s most important message:

Humans are their own worst enemy.

8/10

Movie Project #35: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [1974]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [1974]

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [1974]
Director: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel
Country: USA
Genre: Horror
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal, Allen Danziger, Gunnar Hansen
Running Time: 83 minutes

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is pure, unadulterated terror.

Other slasher flicks have tried to imitate this over the years, but there’s a reason this is considered one of the most terrifying films ever made. Yet even with this recognition, I don’t think I was ready for *this* type of madness.

The film tells the story of a group of five friends, including Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her paraplegic brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), who are traveling to investigate possible acts of vandalism at the grave of the Hardestys’ grandfather. While in the area, they decide to visit their grandpa’s old house, now a run-down shack.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [1974]

The peculiarities begin when the group picks up a hitchhiker along the way. This guy (played eccentrically by Edwin Neal) is completely off his rocker, rambling — in great detail — about an old slaughterhouse his family worked at. His erratic behavior only escalates, leading to the group kicking him out of their van, thinking that’s the last they will see of him.

When they finally reach their grandpa’s house, they begin exploring the bountiful land it was built upon. There’s another house not too far in the distance, and two members of the group head in that direction in hopes of borrowing some gasoline.

Enter: Leatherface.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [1974]

In what is arguably one of the most startling introductions in horror history, Leatherface makes his first appearance by unconventional means. Whereas most horror films slowly build up the suspense before introducing the main antagonist, here Leatherface simply enters the frame with no warning, knocks someone out with a mallet and then slams the door in our faces. It’s all done so matter-of-factly, and it’s utterly brilliant.

From there, the terror only intensifies, with characters getting picked off one-by-one until only one remains. This poor girl has an awful, awful night, getting chased by a chainsaw-wielding Leatherface through seemingly endless fields. Eventually, she is forced to endure a dinner with “the family”, in a scene so bizarre that I’m pretty sure I just sat there with my mouth gaping open. The last ten minutes or so of the film are balls-to-the-wall insane — I can’t think of a more intense conclusion in any other movie.

It’s amazing that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was filmed on a budget of under $300,000. It’s clearly low budget, with a cast of mostly unknown actors, but it all feels so authentic. This is a story that could happen in real life (it is loosely based on the real-life serial killer, Ed Gein), and it’s the type of film that will make you think twice about stopping in small towns. Completely, absolutely horrifying.

9/10

Poll Result: Best Horror Film of the 2010s

The Cabin in the Woods

THE RESULTS:
– The Cabin in the Woods: 10 votes
– The Conjuring: 7 votes
– Warm Bodies: 2 votes
– The Awakening: 1 vote
– The Bay: 1 vote
– Berberian Sound Studio: 1 vote
– Byzantium: 1 vote
– Evil Dead: 1 vote
– Insidious: 1 vote
– I Saw the Devil: 1 vote
– John Dies at the End: 1 vote
– Paranormal Activity 2: 1 vote
– Red State: 1 vote

In a bit of a surprise, this was basically a two-horse race from beginning to end. A lot of films received votes, but in the end this was The Cabin in the Woods‘ poll to lose. Nice to see The Conjuring, one of this year’s biggest surprises, finish strong as well.

This Week’s Poll: Until this past weekend’s takeover by Bad Grandpa, the box office had been dominated lately by two films: Gravity and Captain Phillips. We already had a Gravity-related poll this month, so let’s take a look at the latter. What are the TWO best Tom Hanks films? The man has had an amazing career, so this one should be interesting.

Have a great week, folks!

Box of Horror #2: Hatchet II, Hatchet III, [REC]³ Genesis

It’s time for another round of horror mini-reviews, with this batch focusing on violent sequels:

hatchet-2-death
Hatchet II [2010, dir. Adam Green]
– this review contains spoilers for the end of the first Hatchet –
Hatchet II begins precisely at the moment that the first Hatchet ended, with the lone survivor of a massacre, Marybeth (Danielle Harris, replacing Tamara Feldman from the first film), fighting for her life in a murky Louisiana swamp. She manages to escape the clutches of the behemoth serial killer, Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder), and makes it back to New Orleans in one piece (albeit severely shaken up). As it goes in many horror sequels, she finds a reason to go back and seek revenge on Crowley, this time with the help of Reverend Zombie (Tony Todd) and a pack of heavily armed locals.

A shaky narrative, including an unnecessary history lesson about Crowley’s past, pieces this altogether, but it isn’t until the group reaches the swamp that the film hits its apex. Over-the-top gore and creative killings arrive in bunches at this point, including one of the most memorable sex scenes ever seen on film. This is some ridiculous, violent stuff — I’m talking decapitations via hatchets, boat propellors and excessively large chainsaws. It’s absolutely outrageous, but that’s a huge part of the appeal. It helps that the film was made by a horror fan for horror fans. The cast is made up of a who’s who of genre actors — Harris (four Halloween films), Hodder (Jason in multiple Friday the 13ths), Todd (Candyman), Tom Holland (Child’s Play), and R.A. Mihailoff (Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) are just a handful of those you might recognize. Basically everyone in the film is distinguishable for horror buffs. Hatchet II is more of the same, but it’s still good fun for slasher fans. 6/10

Hatchet III [2013]
Hatchet III [2013, dir. BJ McDonnell]
– this review contains spoilers for the end of Hatchet II –
Once again keeping with tradition in the series, Hatchet III picks up right where its predecessor left off. With Marybeth (Danielle Harris) seemingly putting an end to Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder), she heads to the local police station to turn herself in for his murder. A search and recovery team immediately heads to the swamp and are shocked to find the 20-30 decapitated bodies from the first two films. While locked up in jail, Marybeth is confronted by the Sheriff’s ex-wife, Amanda Fowler (Caroline Williams), the local “Crowley expert.” Amanda believes Marybeth’s story and provides her own interpretation of the Crowley legend — naturally, it’s just mumbo-jumbo to give us a reason for our favorite deformed hatchet-wielding monster to return.

The search and recovery team are those in the line of fire this time, and their sheer number of forces gives the series its highest body count yet. Crowley goes to town with more hatchet beheadings, impalements and sheer brutality — there’s even a grisly spine pulling scene for good measure. It’s exactly what you would expect from the series, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. It’s still wildly entertaining with lots of memorable supporting roles (Zach Galligan from Gremlins 1&2, Caroline Williams from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Sid Haig from House of 1000 Corpses & The Devil’s Rejects, among others). Hatchet III confirms the series’s status as my favorite guilty pleasure. 6/10

[REC]³ Genesis
[REC]³ Genesis [2012, dir. Paco Plaza]
[REC]³ Genesis is a parallel sequel that takes place at the same time as the first two films but with an entirely different batch of characters. It’s also much lighter in tone, even going into the realm of horror-comedy. This may be a deal-breaker for some, but there’s still enough to like for those willing to look past it.

The film begins with a large and exuberant wedding. The two newlyweds, Koldo (Diego Martín) and Clara (Leticia Dolera), are introduced as a joyful, very much in love couple, and we see their ceremony through the series’s familiar found footage angle. However, things go awry when a family member gets incredibly sick and falls off a balcony. When the man’s wife approaches him to help, he bites her on the neck, kickstarting a frenzy of zombie-feeding action. The newlyweds get split up in the madness, and the film follows both of them as they desperately try to find each other.

I knew I was going to like this film as soon as it scrapped the found footage motif shortly after the zombie attacks. From that point on, it’s pure entertainment with just enough humor to break up the increasingly gory deaths. Some of the character antics, particularly those of Koldo, are incredibly dumb, but that just adds to the amusement. Leticia Dolera, however, is fantastic in this film. She just nails this role, and the image of her in a blood-stained wedding dress wielding a chainsaw is something I won’t soon forget. Oh, and there’s also a minor character dressed as a poor man’s Spongebob Squarepants (dubbed Spongejohn to avoid lawsuits) who gets in on the zombie killing. If you can get over the disparity between it and the first two films, [REC]³ is a lot of fun. 7/10

Poll Results: Favorite Horror Movie Genre

rosemarys-baby
the-shining

THE RESULTS:
– Psychological: 15 votes
– Comedy Horror: 8 votes
– Zombie: 3 votes
– Ghost: 2 votes
– Slasher: 2 votes
– Monster: 1 vote
– Possession/Religious: 1 vote
– Vampire: 1 vote

Wow! Was not expecting this one to be such a landslide. Can’t say I disagree with psychological horror finishing #1 though, especially when you consider films like The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby as the prime examples of the genre. I’m surprised some of the other selections received minimal votes (only one for possession?).

This Week’s Poll: Continuing this month’s celebration of all things horror, let’s take a look at some of the best recent films of the genre. This week’s question is a pick two: what is the best horror film from the 2010s (2010-present)? The genre has been getting a resurgence of sorts, so this could provide some interesting, diverse results.

Poll Results: Favorite Alfonso Cuarón Film

Children of Men

THE RESULTS:
– Children of Men: 10 votes
– Gravity: 3 votes
– Y Tu Mamá También: 3 votes
– Great Expectations: 2 votes
– Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: 2 votes

This one was never in doubt. Children of Men is considered to be a modern classic by many, and it held the lead the entire time. I might have to ask the same question in the future — perhaps Gravity can make its way up to #1?

This Week’s Poll: Let’s go the horror route this week. Last year during October I asked several horror-themed polls, but there was one I neglected: what is your favorite type of horror film? I realize this is a pretty broad question, and many films can fit into multiple genres, but think about what you tend to gravitate toward in general. Are you a fan of the long-running slasher series like Halloween and Friday the 13th? Do you prefer more psychological films like The Shining or Rosemary’s Baby? Feel free to add in a different subgenre that I might have missed as well.