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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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)
The Phantom Carriage  – 8/10
The Man They Could Not Hang  – 7/10
Cat People  – 7/10
The Curse of the Werewolf  – 5/10
The Borrower  – 7/10
Nosferatu the Vampyre  – 8/10