House on Haunted Hill (1959)

I am Frederick Loren, and I have rented the house on Haunted Hill tonight so that my wife can give a party. She’s so amusing. There’ll be food and drink and ghosts, and perhaps even a few murders. You’re all invited. If any of you will spend the next twelve hours in this house, I will give you each ten thousand dollars, or your next of kin in case you don’t survive. Ah, but here come our other guests.

I want to take this opportunity to give a shoutout to my kids. Let’s face it, it’s not easy being the offspring of a cinephile. The constant parade of black and white movies, the subtitles and the endless trivia while watching. It can get annoying at times. My kids roll with the punches though. They know dad can’t help himself.

Don’t get me wrong, as a family we subsist on a balanced diet of filmdom. The Golden Age of Hollywood, cult classics, the latest and greatest superhero flicks and an endless supply of Godzilla movies. We mix things up. But there comes a moment in every cinephile parent’s life where one of their wide-eyed little wonders catches you off guard.

“Dad, can we watch House on Haunted Hill? It wouldn’t be Halloween without it.”

Be still my beating heart.

Of course, the answer was yes. When it comes to House on Haunted Hill, the answer is always yes. Be it Halloween, Christmas, Arbor Day or two hours past bedtime on a school night, it’s a resounding yes.

For the uninitiated, there are some things you should know about House on Haunted Hill. First, this is a William Castle film. Which means despite all efforts to the contrary, it’s a bit on the silly side. It also happens to be brilliant. Without William Castle there would be no John Waters, no Robert Zemeckis or Joe Dante.  For my money, House on Haunted Hill represents the birth of the sweet spot in Castle’s career, quickly followed by The Tingler (Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic! But SCREAM! Scream for your lives!), 13 Ghosts and Mr. Sardonicus.

House on Haunted Hill stars Vincent Price as Frederick Loren whose opening dialogue you see a the top of this post. Honestly, I debated even writing this, the entire articles can be summed up succinctly with two sentences containing but four words.

William Castle. Vincent Price.

That’s all the hook you need. It says it all.

Speaking of Vincent Price, I blew my daughter’s mind by informing her Vincent Price is the voice at the end of Thriller. Parenting win.

House on Haunted Hill is in the public domain so there’s about a thousand versions out there to choose from. Stay away from the colorized version. Sure, it’s the exact same movie, but something is lost in the presentation. House on Haunted Hill is a black and white film and should forever remain that way. Of course, there’s a remake out there. (See also: 13 Ghosts) I haven’t watched it yet, and likely never will. Why mess with perfection?

(See also: Matinee)

Scream (1996)

I have to admit, I was late to the party when it comes to Scream. I wasn’t all that interested in horror flicks at the time – save for the ones I watched when I was younger – and the genre as a whole seemed to be pushing more and more towards splatter rather than frights. So, I pretty much ignored Scream when it first came out.

Then I kept seeing those damn masks. One Halloween. Then the next and the one after that. I was watching a pop culture phenomena take form and rear its ugly head. Still, I resisted.

It wasn’t until a decade or more later that I finally broke down and watched it. I can admit when I’m wrong, and in Scream’s case, I was wrong. It wasn’t all that gross and it certainly did an effective job scaring me. More importantly, it was fun. Did it become my favorite scary movie of all time? No. (See also: Halloween) I dug it though.

The masks still irritate me though.

I was a teenager when A Nightmare on Elm Street first came out, and despite not being a big horror fan, Freddy Krueger was impossible to ignore. The monster attacking you in your dreams when you were at your most helpless. That glorious glove. I was smitten and stayed with the franchise through A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors which turned out to be my last ride. (Though I do admit a certain morbid curiosity towards Freddy vs. Jason, I have yet to act upon it.) My enjoyment waned a little more with each subsequent film and I put Freddy Krueger in my review mirror.

Still, you have to hand it to Wes Craven. He struck franchise gold in the horror genre. Twice. A rare feat indeed.

I look at Scream as two movies in one, and I bet you all know what I’m talking about. There’s the first thirteen minutes with Drew Barrymore, and then there’s the rest of the flick. They are two separate entities. One a masterclass – albeit an homage – in fear and fright, the other a fun – often rollicking – scream fest. (Forgive the pun. If you think that’s bad, try writing anything about It without the word it turning into a constant, long-running pun. It’s nearly impossible.)

The first thirteen minutes of Scream is among the best scary movie scenes in all of filmdom. It’s frightening, fresh and rightfully deserves credit for reinvigorating the genre. For those of you out there who are lucky enough not to be hopeless cinephiles, but are fans of Scream, do yourself a favor and watch When a Stranger Calls. The 1979 classic and not the 2006 remake. (See also: Black Christmas) There you will learn the origins of the Drew Barrymore scene. They are both brilliant in their execution.

There are certain movies I watch every Halloween. (See also: House on Haunted Hill, Halloween, Monster Squad, et al) I don’t know if Scream will ever join their ranks. But curiosity eventually turns to nostalgia and I will certainly revisit it from time to time. Scream is fun. And that’s something missing from many horror movies. All blood and no laughs make Jack a dull boy.

Ghostbusters (1984)

I’ve lived a charmed life, cinematically speaking. I was six years old when the first Star Wars movie came out. I got to watch the birth of Pixar and CGI. I even managed to see Blue Velvet at an age in time where is had the maximum opportunity to screw me up for life.

A charmed life indeed. That’s not to say I don’t envy other generations from time to time. I would love to have been a child seeing The Wizard of Oz in the theaters back in 1939, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937. I would have loved to have been a child when the Harry Potter movies first came out. I did manage to live that one out vicariously through my daughter, that counts as a consolation prize I suppose.

However, I was twelve years old when Ghostbusters came out. I saw that sucker in the theater. Several times in fact, if memory serves.

Twelve is the perfect age for Ghostbusters. The sweet spot. When you’re twelve, you teetertotter on the edge of childhood and adolescence. You’re young enough to enjoy the silliness, just old enough to get some of the more adult humor. There is a reason people from four to ninety-nine love this movie.

Ghostbusters was a phenomena. You couldn’t escape it if you tried. And for a time, no one wanted to. Everyone was quoting it. “We came. We saw. We kicked it’s ass.” “Yes, it’s true. This man has no dick.” “Ray, when someone asks you if you are a god, you say yes!” “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together . . . mass hysteria.” It was as if the world suddenly conjured up a secret language and everyone was in on it.

Then came the merchandising. The bedsheets and lunchboxes. There was the cartoons. Ghostbusters, or was it The Real Ghostbusters? I’ll leave it to you to take that rabbit trail. Then came the sequel. It was pretty good, but really just more of the same. No one but the critics really complained.

And then, it all went away. You’d still rent Ghostbusters from the video store every once in a great while, but the beast had to be put to bed in order to build up the nostalgia factor that led to its eventual rebirth.

In 2016 came the new Ghostbusters. Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and friends. I really, really wanted to like that flick. The amount of sexist flack they got for having the audacity of being female ghostbusters only made me want to like it more. But man, it just wasn’t funny. (See also: Men in Black International. That’s 0-2 for Chris Hemsworth.)

Now, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is on the horizon. The trailer look pretty cool, but the vibe it’s sending off is very un-Ghostbusters-like. Time will tell.

Still, Ghostbusters has earned its bones. Those of us who watched it back in the day, are passing it down to our kids, and in turn, they will do the same with theirs.

Can Babette’s Feast say the same?

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

I first saw From Dusk Till Dawn when I was twenty-four years old at Lloyd Cinemas in Portland, Oregon. I wasn’t but three years younger than the director – one Robert Rodriguez – and eight years younger than the screenwriter and co-star of the flick – some cat by the name of Quentin Tarantino. These were my people. My generation. We were sympatico. The pair were the crème de la crème of Tinseltown coming off the successes of El Mariachi and Desperado (Rodriguez) and Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (Tarantino). They were hotter than molten lead dripping off the devil’s balls at the time.

I had seen Pulp Fiction by this point, but had yet to see Reservoir Dogs. Rodriguez on the other hand, I was down with, hook, line and sinker. I’d seen Desperado first and was blown away, later backtracking to El Mariachi and then reading the book, Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player. (I’m rereading it right now as a matter of fact.) I had seen both filmmakers – along with another of my loves, Allison Anders (See also: Gas Food Lodging, Mi Vida Loca) in the often overlooked Four Rooms.

When I had heard the two filmmakers had decided to join forces (See also: Grindhouse), I was in like Flynn.

All I knew coming into From Dusk Till Dawn was that Rodriguez was directing a Tarantino-penned script. I knew vampires had something to do with it all, but that was about it.

My date for this flick knew even less. Somehow I forgot to mention the whole vampire angle. My bad.

We bought our popcorn, our soda pops and candy. We sat down, watched the previews and settled in to a fine night of cinema.

The opening scenes were great. Typical Tarantino fare, great dialogue and action made somewhat more manic with Rodriguez’s directing style.

Then came the scene where the vampires were introduced. The vampires my date was completely unprepared for. Admittedly, this was a swift and unsettling transition.

My jaw dropped in awe, while I simultaneously heard, “Oh, Jesus,” coming from my immediate left. I turned in time to see my date hovering a good six inches above her theater seat. It was a sight to behold. When she landed, she turned to me with a look that screamed, “How could you?” My jaw was still slack and I had lost the ability to speak. I think I mimed my way out of it. It wasn’t done on purpose, but one of us had their mind blown, the other had apparently soiled themselves. That was a goddamn reaction. One I will take to my grave.

Good times.

From Dusk Till Dawn is a rollercoaster ride of insanity. The best of the filmmakers worst instincts and it worked with precision.

This is the movie that made me a George Clooney fan. (See also: O Brother, Where Are Thou?) I had never watched ER, so Clooney was always just that cat who used to be on Roseanne and The Facts of Life to me. As Seth Gecko, Clooney was a badass with just the right amount of conscious.

I’ve never seen the prequels nor the television series, though I suppose curiosity will eventually get the better of me. But From Dusk Till Dawn? You can count me in anytime, anywhere.

Misery (1990)

Annie Wilkes scared me. Scared me to the core. I still remember walking out of the theater, having just seen Misery, just trying to process the tour de force I had just witnessed.

I was frightened. Enamored. Blown away. A whole host of conflicting, yet symbiotic emotions. I had been played, my emotions toyed with and used. And I was ever so grateful for it.

Rob Reiner and company had reached deep into my psyche and planted the fear. As an added bonus – with the exception of the infamous hobbling scene – the gross factor was non-existent. Misery didn’t need buckets of blood and slimy latex to get under my skin, it went straight for the heart.

Nobody could have played Annie Wilkes but Kathy Bates. Not then. Not now. Some roles are manifest destiny. Kismet. There is no Annie Wilkes without Kathy Bates. I remember watching the Oscars the following year muttering to myself that if Kathy Bates did not win the award for Best Actress then there was no god. This despite my being an atheist at the time.

She won. Life was good. The world is a scarier place for Anne Wilkes.

One of Bates’s talents is the ability to portray characters that are both very large and very small, often at the same time. I’m not talking physical sizes and shapes. According to the internet Bates is all of five foot three. Annie Wilkes is twenty-four feet tall if she’s an inch. She is a lion with a terrible roar. At the same time she can be smaller than a mouse, frail and weak. From scene to scene you never know which version of Wilkes you were going to get.

This is a good movie to watch more than once. The emotional landscape changes from viewing to viewing. There’s the initial introduction. That first wild rollercoaster ride of anxiety, fear and awe. By the second viewing you know what to expect; the film still rattles, but doesn’t shake you out of your seat. Now you can catch the nuance and all the little bits you missed the first time around because you were two busy cowering in fear. Each subsequent viewing reveals a little more. In the case of Misery, familiarity breeds not contempt, but respect.

The Fly (1986)

I realize that Jurassic Park will forever reign as the sentimental and internet meme favorite when it comes to the career of Mr. Jeff Goldblum. But for my money, it’s The Fly that represents Goldblum’s finest hour. I get it though. On one hand you have a beloved film series featuring dinosaurs, on the other you have an incredibly visual, incredibly gross horror-drama detailing a man’s slow and painful transformation into an insect.

I understand why no one’s in a rush to show it to the kiddies. My kids aren’t allowed to watch it either.

Still, it’s a damn fine film.

It is pretty gross though. Excruciatingly gross at times. Whereas the original 1958 version kept the secret literally under wraps for most of the movie – teasing a transformed arm here, a foot there, but never revealing the full Monty until the end – the 1986 version chooses to document the transformation with queasy accuracy. This isn’t a giant fly head on a human body or a tiny human head on a fly caught in a web, David Cronenberg’s vision involves fingernails falling off and pints of pus shooting out of various appendages. By the time Seth Brundle pulls a Van Gogh, you are deadened to the gore, only to be shocked back into disgust when the final stage of his transformation unfolds with slimy intensity.

If this was done by any other director, it wouldn’t work. All gore and no story makes Jack a dull boy. But Cronenberg – combined with the talents of Goldblum and Geena Davis – pulls it off by crafting both a story and characters you care about. The viewer becomes personally involved. Despite every desire to turn away, you can’t. Many other films have tried and failed. (See also: Hellraiser). Cronenberg succeeds. (See also: Naked Lunch)

After I watched this, I talked to my youngest daughter about the birth dream sequence. She has seen the original and when she’s in her late-thirties I’ll finally approve of her seeing this one. As all tween daughters do – particularly one as whip smart as her – she immediately began to poke holes in the story. “She’s a mammal dad! She wouldn’t give birth to a larvae.” I tried to explain it was a dream sequence, but she wasn’t having any of it. I was too groggy to argue.

There’s a great box set out there featuring the three original movies in The Fly franchise, along with the Cronenberg version and its sequel starring Eric Stoltz. I picked it up last year during a post-Halloween sale. This sucker is fully loaded with commentaries, interviews, deleted and alternate scenes. Good stuff. Wait for it to on sale though.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)

Last year, more people were killed by automobile accidents, heart attacks, lung cancer, and natural causes combined than by any one tomato.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is a glorious exercise in stupidity. I mean that as a compliment. It’s a stupid concept, stupidly executed and littered with stupid – and avoidable – pitfalls. And it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

What’s even more fun – and stupid – is the reaction of the critics – from 1978 to present – who despite their refined tastes and presumed education, just didn’t get the joke. Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand why some people don’t appreciate this movie. It’s a really dumb movie. What it lacks in book smarts, it more than makes up for in charm. It’s the folks who let Attack of the Killer Tomatoes get under their skin or overthink it that makes me smirk.

You either get Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or you don’t. Like Casa Marzu, or your mother’s mystery casserole, it is an acquired taste.

I present a tale of two critics:

But even more so than the Samuel Arkoff-like opportunism of the producers, and more so than some of the worst framing this side of Coleman Francis, the really frustrating thing about Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is the toothlessness of its satire. And that’s a major missed opportunity, considering that the irony of using a stereotypically foreign genre (Japanese monster movies) against a parody of America’s jingoistic reliance on military power (the Army is useless against the giant tomatoes) should’ve been a comedic gold mine. – Eric Henderson

Even though there are about a zillion dumb parts, it never quite wears out its welcome. – Peter Sobczynski

Both of these reviews were written in 2003. Same movie, two disparate reactions. I couldn’t tell if the Eric Henderson review was itself a parody or a glorious exercise in overthinking. As for Peter Sobczynski, he gets it. Bravo good sir. I am a sure you are a fine man who uses his right and left turn indicators without fail.

I watched Attack of the Killer Tomatoes with my kids. Other than some outdated references here and there that flew over their heads, they liked it just fine. Kids, unlike film critics, have the amazing ability to see things for what they are, rather than what they could or should be. Of course, their first reaction was, “Why didn’t they just use pesticides?”

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is also tied with The Blog for best theme song of all time. Just saying.

Hey, can somebody please pass the ketchup?

Phantasm (1979)

Phantasm is less a horror movie than it is a rite of passage. Additionally, it may be the only horror movie to find itself overshadowed by a car. When my friends introduced Phantasm to me, they talked about the car first, the Sentinels (flying silver orbs with a penchant for lobotomy) second, and finally, the Tall Man. The car was the hook. The rest is just gravy.

The car, of course, is a 1971 Plymouth ‘Cuda. And back in the day any thirteen year old boy would have told you it was the baddest thing on four wheels. Better than Christine. Even better than Bandit’s black Trans Am. This car – this particular car – captured the hearts and minds of generations of teens and pre-teens. It’s that damn cool.

Don’t believe me? Search “Phantasm car,” on the internet and prepare to spend a couple of hours sifting through the love letters and recreations.

For those fans of the two-wheeled variety of transport, there’s plenty of dirt bike scenes in Phantasm as well. The seventies were a good decade for kids and dirt bikes. (See also: The Bad News Bears) It was also – strangely – a good decade for horny folks getting it on in graveyards. A rather strange phenomena to look back on with modern eyes.

From there the movie dovetails into this bizarre science fiction horror oddity that is both ridiculous and glorious in a non-mutually exclusive manner. It’s pointless and silly and a rollicking good time.

The thrust of the movie involves a corpse smuggling ring operating out of a local mortuary. Of course, the bodies are being smuggled to another planet, but I’ll leave it the film to reconcile that. The aforementioned Tall Man (Angus Scrimm, the coolest name for an actor that ever was) is the ringleader of the operation. From the moment you see him load an occupied coffin into a hearse with his bare hands, you’re hooked.

Like all horror movies, Phantasm spawned too many sequels. While I vaguely remember watching Phantasm II when it came out in 1988, I’ve avoided the rest like the plague. Sometimes you have to protect your original memories, the organic sentiment that brought you to the party in the first place. (See also: Halloween)

The Hunger (1983)

An ex-girlfriend of mine from way back in the day had a thing for Catherine Deneuve. At the time, I was obsessed with David Bowie. (Is there anyone out there who is not?) The Hunger was our Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup moment. You remember the old commercial? Two complete strangers walking down the street. One of them eating a chocolate bar. The other being a total wierdo eating peanut butter on the sidewalk. Both oblivious to anything but their own pleasure until – Bam! – they bump into each other.

“Hey, you got chocolate in my peanut butter.”

“Hey, you got peanut butter in my chocolate!”

They each take a taste. Kismet.

That was us. Except it was Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie. We watched it a few times back in the day and then, nothing. I didn’t watch it again for more than twenty years. All I could remember was those cool looking ankh knives.

The Hunger and I were at long last reunited just a few days ago as part of my annual Halloween binge.

I’ll say this much, any film that opens with a Bauhaus performance is all right by me. Bela Lugosi’s Dead is such a classic song, and it immediately sets the tone for the entire film. Oddly enough, the band broke up just a couple of months after The Hunger came out.

For the uninitiated, Bowie and Deneuve play vampires in this film. Beautiful people meeting other beautiful people in nightclubs then taking them home to drink their blood. Sounds more like the nineties than the eighties to be, but I digress.

The fashion in this movie is out of sight. Every article of clothing, every accessory is spot on and nuanced. It borders on being too fashionable. Fashionable to the point of distraction. Granted we are talking David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve here, two people who could wear burlap bags out in public cause the rest of us to stampede to the nearest feed store to do the same. But damn, if it doesn’t make for amazing cinematography.

The Hunger is erotic and the storytelling is lush. I will make no attempt to recap the plot here, save to say that it revolves around the paradox of everlasting life vs. everlasting youth. It’s an interesting ride. Even if you are left at the end with an overwhelming desire to buy a new pair of sunglasses.