31 Days of Fright: Final Destination

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We did it, friends. 31 Days of Fright wrapped up this Monday night, and in total, you raised $1,226 for the TRCC/MWAR, and I watched approximately 47 hours of horror movies and wrote approximately 105,000 (mostly inane) words about said horror movies. And I watched all the movies I set out to*, in the timeframe I intended to watch them! Success! (*The only exception was Stagefright – also known as Stagefright: Aquarius or Deliria – which is apparently impossible to find. Only partially because of its multiple aliases.)

Obviously, I’m overjoyed at the money you raised. The Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape is an extremely valuable resources offering a 24-hour crisis line, counselling, court support, and more! If you missed your chance to donate, several friends are participating in their annual Bowlathon fundraiser, and you can pledge to their teams here.

I suppose, however, that you’re wondering about my state of mind. Well, I suppose you could say I’ve become a bit desensitized to violence and death. The final film I watched was originally rated ‘X,’ and it didn’t even garner a nightmare or moment of true revulsion. So, I’m in a much darker place than I was when I started. (Luckily, it’s now February: the happiest month of the year.) But more than adding darkness to my soul, this month-long horror movie marathon probably subtracted years from my life through lack of sleep. The viewings and write-ups added minimum four hours (usually more like five hours) of work to every day in January, and I usually re-budgeted those hours from the time I’d usually be sleeping and (occasionally) exercising. You don’t need to be Dr. McCabe from The Beyond or Dr. Herbert West to realize those are hours you probably need.

Exhaustion aside, I had a really great time. I was actively engaging in some of my favourite things all month long: watching movies, reading way too much into movies, and working way too hard at an endeavor that means, ultimately, almost nothing.

Thanks so much to all of you – to those of you who donated, who recommended movies, who read these overly long reviews (and there are way too many of you who did that), who watched alongside me (either virtually or beside me on the couch), and who encouraged and supported me by thinking this effort was somehow a good idea Another big thanks to Toronto’s Queen Video and Bay Street Video for existing, as this month of horror movie viewings would have never happened without their extensive libraries and helpful staff. (Please patronize your local video rental store, friends. Most of these films are not available on Netflix!)

Below is an alphabetical index of the full list of thirty-one films. Simply click on the photo to be redirected to that film’s the write-up.

Thanks again!

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Alice, Sweet Alice

Forget “drink of this wine, for it is My blood.” How about just pints and pints of the real stuff?

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The Beyond

The Beyond, if you think about it, is just a really gory and surreal episode of Love It or List It or The Property Brothers. Like, unless Gordon Ramsay helps out Liza Merril and the 7 Doors, he has no business calling his show Hotel Hell.

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Borgman

“Being a gardener in the Netherlands seems like a really dangerous job.”

Candyman

The film opens with a voiceover by (we can assume) the Candyman himself – not to be confused with Rene from Danish pop band Aqua – who asks us while the screen fills with bees, “What’s blood for, if not for shedding?” (I feel like a hematologist would have a lot of good answers to this question.)

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Chopping Mall

The best thing about Chopping Mall is its title. There’s not even any chopping in the film – the killer robots literally have no tools or weapons with which to chop!

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Deadly Blessing

When Jim starts up his John Deere tractor, you can tell from the look on Hittite elder Isaiah’s face that he’s not going to be the Wilson to Jim’s Tim ‘The Toolman’ Taylor.

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The Exorcist III

Filled with My-Dinner-with-Andre-like dialogues (if Andre were a demon serial killer and Wallace Shawn barely said anything).

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Flesh Eating Mothers

“Each of us is responsible for our own mother’s actions.” Words to live by.

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Halloween III: Season of the Witch

Halloween III‘s willingness to murder children like Little Buddy, along with the real downer of the ending, demonstrates how damaging the filmmakers think children’s marketing really is. (That said, Carpenter has always been willing to kill children in his movies.)

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The House with the Laughing Windows

One thing that differentiates The House with the Laughing Windows from many other gialli is the constant reference to World War II, and Nazis having used the village as a staging area of sorts. This, combined with the hidden horrors that happened in the town, seem to implicitly link Italy with the horrors of the Third Reich in a way that few Italian horror movies do. “At first, they came for the fresco restorers …”

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The Howling

For an over-the-top monster movie, The Howling gets a lot right about post-traumatic stress.

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It Follows

There seems to be strength in numbers. Whether this is or isn’t a tacit endorsement of polyamorous relationships can’t be definitively proven.

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Ju-On

Everyone who comes in contact with the house lives the rest of their life haunted until they die. It travels from parent to child, from friend to friend. Could Ju-On be the first great ghost story about transgenerational trauma?

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Lake Mungo

A spooky Where’s Waldo?, Lake Mungo makes Paranormal Activity look like an episode of Goosebumps. And not even a very scary one. I will be forever spooked by that figure in the dark Alice finds at Lake Mungo. As it is, I’m irrationally worried about having an image of it on my computer desktop.

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Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural

Lemora’s town is called Astaroth, which is traditionally the name given to the Duke of Hell, one of the three main demons down there. Which seems like a weird thing to name your town, even in the South.

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Paranormal Activity

Prior to one night of paranormal hijinks, Katie is filmed applying deodorant before bed. Is this a thing people do? I have been putting on deodorant at the entirely wrong time of day?

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Pet Sematary

Let us take a moment to praise the work of the cat actor who portrayed Church. I have never seen cat-acting like that featured in Pet Sematary. Church was played by seven different cats, but the scene that most impressed me was the death scene. The cat’s movements were so convincing, I was a little worried they just straight-up murdered a cat. Bravo, seven cats who played Church. Bravo!

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Possession

In my notes, I have written, “I feel like I don’t understand sex enough to understand this movie.” And I stand by this statement. The film should carry a Surgeon General’s warning that it shouldn’t be viewed by anyone in the midst of a breakup.

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Prophecy

I was willing to watch Prophecy for the exploding boy in the sleeping bag alone. No one even told me there’d be a raccoon attack and a chainsaw-axe battle in store!

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Re-Animator

One is reminded of the Grand Guignol tradition of French theatre, so over-the-top (and impressive) is the gore. Re-Animator commits to taking the scene to its logical death, then – fittingly – takes it even further. It is the Will Ferrell of horror movies.

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Rituals (aka The Creeper)

I once went dogsledding in the Northwest Territories. (It sounds more adventurous than it was.) My dogsledding partner was a surgeon at the Yellowknife hospital. I thought to myself, what great luck to be travelling with a doctor. If we crash or if any sort of crisis happens, I have a doctor right here. But Rituals makes me reconsider how handy it would be to have doctors on hand in an emergency situation.

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Rodan

The surprise reveal in Rodan is that there’s not just one Rodan. There are two. This is a Scream-level twist. And Professor Kashiwagi suggests that they are mates. So the love story of the two Rodans parallels the love story of Shigeru and Kiyo. Given this romantic setup, the opportunities for Rodan erotic fan-fiction are limitless.

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Shivers

What at first appears to be an upscale, modern apartment complex filled with respectable professionals devolves, within a day, into a den of sex-crazed monsters who assault everyone in sight. And the real trick is, even before the sex-worms entered the picture, there was something very rotten below the surface of the Starliner Towers.

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Society

Imagine Pretty in Pink, but instead of Blane and Andie lovingly reconnecting at the prom, Blane invites Andie to a fancy party, then transforms her into a gelatinous puddle of flesh that he consumes to rejuvenate himself. (As long as it has OMD on the soundtrack, I’m still on board.)

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Spring

This is supposed to be a romance, but Evan is so insistent on Louise loving him, it becomes pathological, even scary. If Louise didn’t intermittently transform into random monsters, you’d fear for her safety.

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The Stepfather

The movie is also a prescient warning that those people who seem like the perfect fathers, the perfect husbands – who quite overtly aim to make that “goodness” their identity – may not be who they seem. A colourful sweater can hide a black heart.

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Stir of Echoes

Stir of Echoes: a movie about the existential dread of Kevin Bacon digging a hole. Did you know that making dirt wet makes it easier to dig? I didn’t! Grave-digging tips from Kevin Bacon! That’s why you watch Stir of Echoes.

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V/H/S

“Dude, you’re trippin’. I don’t blame you. That’s what trippers do.” – Gary, criminal, philosopher

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White Zombie

That the movie is called White Zombie demonstrates what viewers are supposed to see as the true horror of the film. Zombies in Haiti are black. Madeleine very obviously is not. The horror of White Zombie is the horror of a white person being treated like a black person.

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The Wicker Man (2006)

The movie is dedicated to Johnny Ramone. Which is confusing to say the least.

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Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm)

Find witches. Get money. That’s the motto of Matthew Hopkins.

31 Days of Fright: White Zombie

Bela Lugosi and friend in tourism campaign for Haiti.

Bela Lugosi and friend in tourism campaign for Haiti.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film is a classic, White Zombie, directed by Victor Halperin and starring the Clark Gable of horror movies, Bela Lugosi. One of my oldest friends, Callie Callon – the person who introduced me to The Smiths and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – donated to the fundraiser and requested “something with zombies.” So I selected one of the first films ever to feature a zombie, though you may better know this film for giving Rob Zombie’s band their name. White Zombie is actually in the public domain, so I watched it right there on YouTube.

What happens:

A pre-Code (though you’d hardly know it) horror film with a title familiar to any 90′s kids who grew up singing “More Human than Human,” White Zombie was an independently produced horror film that is generally credited as being the first feature-length zombie movie. The movie opens with Haitian natives chanting behind a Zulu-style title sequence, so buckle up, readers! We’re in for a culturally insensitive ride! A young couple in a stagecoach, Neil Parker (John Harron) and Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy), come across some sort of tribal rite happening in the middle of the road. They ask their driver what’s happening, and he informs them it’s a funeral. To prevent grave-robbers, they’re burying this body in the middle of the road, where there are many passersby. Smart! But Neil can’t see the wisdom in it and sarcastically remarks, “That’s a cheerful introduction for you to the West Indies!” Then glowing eyes superimposed over the scene hint that things are about to get even less cheerful.

Neil and Madeleine are in Haiti to be married, and the coach is taking them to the spot where the wedding will take place, the Beaumont Plantation. Continuing their ride, the driver pulls over to ask directions from a man with an elaborate beard who is dressed kind of like Shang Tsung from Mortal Kombat. The bearded man just stares at Madeleine with hypnotic eyes. Soon some strange people lumber down the hill behind him. “Zombies!” the driver exclaims and they ride away in haste, leaving Madeleine’s scarf in Shang Tsung’s hands. Future husband Neil is confused by the rough ride, but the driver explains he didn’t want to be caught by zombies, who he describes as living corpses forced to work in sugar mills.

They eventually find their way to the Beaumont Plantation, where they meet a white missionary, Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), who reassures the nice white couple that they shouldn’t be spooked by zombies: Haiti is full of superstitions. The doctor asks how they know Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), the wealthy plantation owner (is there any other kind?). The couple mention they met him on the boat to Haiti. Bruner is a bit confused by Beaumont’s interest in them. Already suspecting something untoward, he advises they clear out of the house as soon as they’re married and stay away from Beaumont. Upstairs, having been informed by his butler, Silver that “the young people have arrived,” Beaumont, who looks like Dan Marino and Oscar Wilde’s lovechild, hesitates but decides to greet them. Silver also cryptically tells him he shouldn’t wait on “that other person,” but Beaumont pooh-poohs him. “I must have her,” he insists.

 

All this zombie business is really putting a damper on Neil and Madeleine’s wedding.

Beaumont greets Bruner and the young couple, and Neil immediately suspects Beaumont’s motives of being less than squeaky-clean. After showing them to their rooms, Beaumont absconds into the night on a carriage with a blind man who looks more or less like the personification of death. Neil witnesses their exit from his bedroom window. Beaumont and Death travel to a sugar mill entirely powered by zombie labour. As you might imagine, workplace safety is not a priority: one of the zombies falls into a sugar thresher (is that a thing?) and soundlessly dies (again, I guess). The only non-zombie working at the mill is that bearded man we saw earlier, “Murder” Legendre (Bela Lugosi) – yes, that’s his name – who controls the zombies. “They’re not worried about long hours,” he laughs. Beaumont has come to Legendre to undertake some skullduggery that will win the fair Madeleine’s heart. Legendre totally understands Beaumont’s obsession. After all, he’s seen Madeleine and has become quite fond of her scarf.

At first, Beaumont plots to make the fiancé, Neil, disappear, but Legendre, in his Eastern European accent, dissuades him: he’s dubious Beaumont would be able to successfully woo Madeleine after her her boyfriend disappeared. Besides, he’s gazed into her eyes; he can spot a woman fully in love. “She’s to be married in an hour,” Beaumont laments. “There must be a way.” Legendre informs him there is a way, but he’s not going to like the cost. Beaumont promises he’ll give Legendre anything if he tells him how to have Madeleine. Legendre leans over and whispers in his ear, and Beaumont balks. “No. Not that!” It’s a very Meat Loaf moment.

Legendre gives him a vial of powder and tells him to use just a pinch, then call for him once he’s used it. On another part of the island, Madeleine is preparing for the big day in her room. Tribal drums can be heard out the window, and the chambermaids inform her the drummers are warding off evil spirits. (They must be playing the wrong tempo; someone should get J.K. Simmons on the case.) Beaumont then walks Madeleine down the aisle, literally pleading with her to leave Neil as he does. Madeleine follows her heart and marries Neil, but it turns out to be a very short honeymoon. During the wedding dinner, Madeleine sees a vision of Murder Legendre in her wine goblet. The real Legendre is stalking the plantation grounds outside with a voodoo doll he’s made from Madeleine’s scarf. He holds the doll over the flame of a lantern and Madeleine passes out at the dinner table.

Well, not just passes out. She straight-up dies. In the following scene, some Haitian locals are placing Madeleine’s casket in a tomb. Neil promptly drinks his sorrows away in a Haitian gin mill, all the while haunted by Madeleine’s ghost. He sees visions of Madeleine everywhere, staggering out of the bar as he chases her ghost. Elsewhere, Beaumont and Legendre make a midnight rendezvous in the cemetery to retrieve the dead bride. At this point, Legendre informs Beaumont he learned his supernatural secrets from the Haitian witch doctor. He commands his zombie minions to retrieve the coffin containing Madeleine, as she’s not really dead. The powder merely put her into a temporary catatonic state, a la Romeo and Juliet. (Shakespearean spoiler alert!)

Improbably, Neil has drunkenly stumbled into the cemetery, shouting loudly and interrupting Legendre’s unseemly work. The zombies and their sinister master flee, leaving Neil to discover Madeleine’s empty tomb. He screams bloody murder. In his office later, Dr. Bruner talks some sense into Neil: “Either the body has been stolen by a death cult, or else … she’s not dead.” Totally logical. Neil doesn’t like either option, but Dr. Bruner notes that behind every Haitian superstition is some truth. He whips out a law book (a beacon of reason if ever there was one) and notes that the Haitian legal system even has laws forbidding use of drugs to put people into a comatose state. (It’s attempted murder in Haiti.) The powers of voodoo are well known. Neil immediately blames Beaumont, who he knows had designs on Madeleine, but Bruner is certain he sees the handiwork of a Haitian witch doctor. Neil wants to summon the police, but Dr. Bruner has a better idea: to round up a posse of some of his native Haitian friends. (Dr. Bruner is one of those “some-of-my-best-friends-are-Haitian” guys.)

 

Murder Legendre toasts your lack of future with his tiny glass.

The film cuts to a seaside castle keep high upon a mountain. Inside Beaumont sits in a parlour as the now awake Madeleine listlessly plays a song on the piano. Madeleine, whose eyes are so large, she’s basically a Precious Moments illustration, has lost all the verve she once had. Legendre has put her in a zombie trance and, as Beaumont says, all the life has gone from her eyes and her smile is gone. (Who’d have thought putting the woman you like in a zombie trance wouldn’t work out as well as you’d hoped?) Beaumont is ready to throw in the towel, to return Madeleine to the grave. Legendre, arriving in his parlour in his fine formal wear, is disheartened to hear this. He has brought a gang of zombies with them, all looking like slightly more dishevelled Trivago guys. He pours some wine for Beaumont and himself and they toast to the future, but from Legendre’s smile, viewers realize Beaumont doesn’t have much of a future left. Legendre has drugged Beaumont’s wine, and he’ll soon be a zombie, too.

Beaumont hollers for his butler, Silver, but Legendre hypnotizes the older man with his powerful eyes, and a few of the grim zombies haul Silver away. Silver is tossed into the sea and Beaumont is left helpless with a voodoo madman. Meanwhile, Neil and Dr. Bruner, making their trek to Legendre’s castle, are abandoned by Bruner’s Haitian friends. One of them, Pierre, says they won’t accompany them to the mountain, which they call “The House of the Living Dead.” A cloud of vultures – the loudest creatures in the world, according to this film – hovers over the castle as a warning, but Burner and Neil continue on. Neil has a bit of a manic episode, worrying about Madeleine and Bruner leaves him to ascend the mountain alone. Upon that mountain top, Legendre’s chambermaids appear to be preparing Madeleine for a second wedding. Beaumont rocks in his seat in the parlour, now clearly under Legendre’s zombie control.

Neil rouses himself and heads to the castle. But after a long climb he passes out with exhaustion on a chaise-lounge on the second landing of the castle’s very large parlour. Legendre, having seen Neil enter, stares hard and presses his hands together – an action that impels Madeleine to go after her husband with a knife. But as she brings up the blade, she struggles with the zombie trance. Eventually, a hand pops out from the doorway (probably Bruner) and takes the knife from her. Madeleine, in her confusion, rushes past the increasingly agitated Legendre and toward the rocky cliffside.

In the middle of all this commotion, Neil wakes and runs to Madeleine, grabbing her just before she dashes herself on the rocks below. Neil shouts with joy but finds his wife strangely unresponsive, due to the zombie trance and all. (“My darling, what have they done to you?”) Legendre summons his zombies and sets them upon Neil. Neil didn’t come empty-handed, though, and shows the zombie thugs the business end of his revolver. But it has no effect! How can he kill what is already dead? Just when it looks like Neil’s seen his last Haitian sunset, Dr. Bruner sneaks up behind Legendre and knocks him out with a blackjack.

While he’s unconscious, Legendre’s control over his zombies breaks. The directionless zombies walk off the cliff, lemming-style, and Madeleine begins to regain consciousness. She starts to recognize Neil, but before long, Legendre is back on his feet. Madeleine again is under his spell, and Legendre begins to make his escape under the cover of smoke bombs. He starts to hypnotize Madeleine again, when who should show up and save the day but creepy Charles Beaumont. Beaumont lurches up behind Legendre and tosses him off the cliff and to his doom. In the exertion, Beaumont too falls to his untimely end. With only lovers left alive (and Dr. Bruner), the young couple reunite with a kiss.

 

Just think of this guy whenever you add sugar to your coffee.

Takeaway points:

  • White Zombie could have had the alternate title Male Entitlement. It’s fairly obvious to give White Zombie a feminist reading (as it is with many horror movies), but that doesn’t make it any less valid. White Zombie is the story of what happens when one man (Beaumont) gets friendzoned and can’t handle it. Because he was nice (I guess) to a pretty woman (Madeleine), he feels he is owed something by the universe. Beaumont is a “Nice Guy.” (He even laments that Madeleine won’t smile for him!) And this Nice Guy decides the best course of action is turn the woman he lusts after into his zombie slave: shades of the Purple Man in the television show Jessica Jones.
  • And speaking of slaves … White Zombie is an interesting artifact as it presents zombies the way the original Haitian folklore does. That is, reanimated dead people under the control of some zombie master. In so doing, White Zombie, like the Haitian folklore, conflates zombies with slavery, and in a fairly explicit way. The zombies work in a sugar mill, just as African slaves did for centuries. (And in some cases, still do.) You don’t need a degree in Caribbean Studies to understand why the folklore of the zombie would be important in a country with a long history of slavery. It’s interesting that our modern notions of zombies are completely removed from the slavery metaphor. Modern pop-culture zombies have no master and are unthinking monsters, hungry for flesh. Thus, they can serve as a metaphor for consumerism, medical epidemics – almost anything but slavery. The zombie has been culturally appropriated and removed from its roots as a harsh critique of slavery.
  • Furthermore, that the movie is called White Zombie demonstrates what viewers are supposed to see as the true horror of the film. Zombies in Haiti are black. Madeleine very obviously is not. The horror of White Zombie is the horror of a white person being treated like a black person.
  • That this is presented as the source of horror is no surprise. Throughout White Zombie, the film’s colonialism is showing. When Neil imagines why Madeleine’s tomb is empty, he muses, “She’s alive, in the hands of natives. Oh, better dead than that!” (Yikes.) And even though it’s pretty clear no one on Haiti meant any harm to Madeleine but Beaumont and Legendre, Dr. Bruner, the missionary, is still convinced a native Haitian is to blame. I suppose this is what happens when you shoot in a Hollywood soundstage instead of travelling to Haiti.
  • Bela Lugosi is literally just doing Count Dracula in this movie. Sure, it’s Dracula with a strange beard, and he can’t turn into a bat, but he’s still kind of Dracula.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: White Zombie can’t be considered scary – certainly not by today’s standards. But it’s certainly atmospheric, even if some of the acting is a bit over-the-top. Not like Wicker Man over-the-top, though.

Madeleine, modelling some of 1932's finest eveningwear.

Madeleine, modelling some of 1932′s finest evening wear.

Best outfit:Madeleine Short has some undergarments that have to be seen to be truly believed. They are pre-Code, totally bonkers, and at first I thought she was wearing an avant-garde wedding dress.

Best line: “You refused to shake hands once, I remember. Well, well. We see each other better now.” – Murder Legendre, obviously miffed by a past slight from Charles Beaumont

Best kill: Watching Beaumont toss Legendre off a cliff was pretty satisfying.

Unexpected cameo: The coachman who first teaches Neil and Madeleine about zombies is played by Clarence Muse, a stalwart of American film from the 1920s to the 1970s. He’s uncredited in White Zombie (Hollywood racism in action?), but is credited in movies like Car Wash (in which he plays Snapper) and The Black Stallion (where he plays Snoe).

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Maybe this is obvious, but don’t agree to get married in the house of a stranger you met hours earlier on the boat ride to your vacation spot. Likewise, don’t put too much trust in a guy named “Murder.”

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: White Zombie is already taken. But Murder Legendre is a good backup. Also, Madeleine’s Wedding Coffin.

Next up: Stir of Echoes (1999).