Repulsion (1965)

I decided to watch Repulsion after reading Quentin Tarantino’s novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The book was alright, not nearly as good as the movie, but it did get Roman Polanski ping-ponging about in my head. Repulsion is mentioned several times. So, I decided to give it a whirl.

Now, I wouldn’t say this was necessarily a mistake, but it sure was strange.

Repulsion comes off like the worst kind of art flick. I half expected a mime to pop out and do some kind of interpretative dance ala the infamous blue rose scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. I found myself wanting to turn on the subtitles, even though the film was in English. I dug Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger, but I just couldn’t catch on to the groove.

Perhaps it’s viewing a movie from 1965 with 2021 eyes. A lot can happen in fifty-six years. Cultural paradigms change. What was once shocking and fresh is now better suited for the history books than home cinema.

The extreme closeups of mouths and facial features. The arms coming out of the walls. I’d love it if Doc Brown’s Mr. Fusion hit the open market and I could see this with a fresh audience on opening day. But here in the modern world, the love connection just wasn’t there.

Repulsion is a psychedelic freak-out without the psychedelics. There is a subtle Austin Powers vibe running through the film. We are led to believe these characters are the young and the beautiful – presumably to serve as a start contrast to Deneuve’s eventually descent into madness. But the cast comes off as stiff and cold. They may be young, they may be beautiful, but they aren’t a whole heck of a lot of fun. Who cares if she goes mad? It’s readily apparent that Carol is already dead.

Seriously, Dracula A.D. 1972 offered more sixties swinging psychedelia than Repulsion. More vibrance. More life. In order for me to care if Carol goes crazy I need some kind of connection with her before the fall. It never happened. Not for me.

I’ll gladly watch Dracula A.D. 1972 over and over again, but as for Repulsion, I’m one and done. That being said, I’ll likely watch The Fearless Vampire Hunters at some point in my life. With a title like that, how could I not? Still, I suspect I’ll be setting myself up for disappointment.

It (1990)

No, not that It, the other It. The two-part miniseries from 1990 that scared the pants off of me and my friends as teenagers. We saw this from the comfort of our own living rooms. All things considered, comfort may not have been the best choice of words. This is a movie about Pennywise the Dancing Clown after all.

It’s high time I hiked my pants up to my nipples and thrilled the youngsters with tales of yesteryear. Yes, this movie aired on broadcast television. Given the medium, there were obvious constraints as to what the filmmakers could and could not air. I posit these constraints made for a far scarier film than had it played in the theaters or cable.

By airing on television, It was forced to shift to psychological frights rather than just the visual. The shift was nothing less than seismic.

I did watch the first of the new movies. The cast was stellar, absolutely no complaints there. And I have to admit there was a good jump scare or two that got me. But there was little else. I didn’t dislike it so much as I never caught the groove. It scared me, but it didn’t really scare me.

Not like the miniseries did.

The 2017/2019 films had a far superior budget to the miniseries. Without the constraints of television they could bathe the entire film in gallons of blood and gross-out moments. And that’s where it failed – in my opinion only, obviously the box office receipts say differently. The entire film seemed to be nothing but blood and shaky clowns. (See also: Shakes the Clown)

In comparison, the miniseries had buckets, rather than gallons of blood. And in this case less is more. Tim Curry as Pennywise was frightening solely on presence alone. (See also: Legend) Sure, there was some television cheese at play, but the fear and tension were palpable.

I read somewhere that Tommy Lee Wallace – the director of the miniseries – purposefully cast actors without much experience in horror. Case in point, Harry Anderson, Judge Stone from Night Court. You had me at hello. Tim Reid. Venus Flytrap of WKRP in Cincinnati fame. Let’s not forget Jack Tripper himself, John Ritter. And just to mix things up let’s throw in Annette O’Toole and Richard Thomas. Richard Thomas! John-Boy from The Waltons for crying out loud. About the only actor with any horror experience was Richard Masur who previously starred in The Thing. This was a man I loved on One Day at a Time, then later saw him in another television movie where he played a pedophile and was never able to look at him the same again. I have to admit I was a little pleased when his character offed himself rather than return to Derry to fight Pennywise again.

Stephen King’s book is a great piece of storytelling. It’s a fine blend of nostalgia and fright. There’s a couple of bumps of weirdness here and there, but the reader tends to quickly recover. Until the end of the book that is, that is where the fatal blow is dealt. Those of you who have read the book know exactly what I am speaking of. Those who haven’t let’s just say this epic adventure culminates with the appearance of a giant turtle. Yes, a turtle. It’s as awful as it sounds and it completely sucks the wind out of the entire story. Both the miniseries the movies were wise to cut that aspect of the story altogether.

Watching It again after all these years still affected me. I jumped in all of the right places – Stan’s head in the refrigerator for example – and I cringed at all the right moments. Now the nostalgia I felt was not for the characters, but of my own life.

Less is more. I will sing this from the rooftops. I will go door to door with leaflets. Less is more.

Particularly when it comes to horror. (See also: Halloween)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

I’ll freely admit to not knowing a heck of a lot about Roman Polanski. I knew of his legal troubles – if one can call being a rapist “legal troubles.” I knew he was involved with Sharon Tate during the time the Manson family murdered her and the others on Cielo Drive back in 1969. I had even seen Chinatown a few times – a movie I both loved and was completely repulsed by – but I had no idea he was the director.

I had heard of Rosemary’s Baby. Up until a few days ago, I hadn’t seen it.

But see it I did. And it was pretty damn good. I have to admit the notion of elderly Satanists is a pretty appealing concept. Evil with false teeth and dodgy hips. The Cocoon of evil. And despite his obvious flaws as a human being, Polanski manages to pull it off. Ruth Gordon and company are both menacing and downright huggable.

But let’s be fair. Ruth Gordon makes everything better. (See also: Harold and Maude, Every Which Way But Loose)

And I positively adore the fact that William Castle – he of The Tingler and 13 Ghosts fame – produced this movie. Perhaps his best reviewed – if not his best beloved – film of his career.

I’ve been meaning to watch Rosemary’s Baby for quite some time. Roman Polanski may be a low-down sleazy dog of a human being, but I don’t believe in retroactive abortions. I look at him in the same way I do Chris Benoit – the professional wrestler who murdered his wife and son before killing himself – it takes some effort, but I am able to separate the art from the individual, no matter how foul I may find them personally.

It’s not always easy though.

Do I love Rosemary’s Baby the same why I do Chinatown? No. It’s a different beast altogether and to compare it to Chinatown is like comparing Star Wars to The Shawshank Redemption. They are both films, but the comparisons end there.

The duality of Rosemary’s Baby is what hooked me. Is Mia Farrow losing her mind all on her own, or is she being chauffeured to the abyss by sinister forces disguised as kindly grandparents? It is not until the final resolution of the film that the audience is let in on the secret. Even then, the questions linger.

I doubt our paths will cross again. Certain films are a one and done affair. (See also: Precious, any number of Woody Allen pictures) I’m going back to forgetting Roman Polanski exists. Life is better that way.

The Omen (1976)

Sweet mother of monkey milk, this movie frightened me when I was a kid. When you’re a child, anything is plausible. The devil’s son, birthed by a jackal and switched at birth for an ambassador’s son? Sure, why not. Haunted houses, ancient Egyptian curses, it didn’t take much to send me hiding under my covers at night.

I must of first saw The Omen on cable, likely while I was in elementary school. I was the perfect age for the movie to work its magic and worm its way inside my brain. Movies are like parasites. The good ones anyway.

It scared back in the day. Now, I find it more intriguing. There’s a certain subtext to the movie that I was too young to notice at the time. One that plays particularly on parents and the paranoias that all parents face. That being the bad seed. Good parents, bad/evil child. Little Johnny wound up in juvenile hall. Where did we go wrong? Mommy’s little monster and all that. The Omen relieves parents of any responsibility by introducing Damien, the son of the devil. You’re not a bad parent, your child is the spawn of Satan himself.

Makes you wonder if Ted Bundy’s mother/sister ever saw the movie.

That being said, The Omen is not lacking for its share of creepy moments. The nanny who commits a very public suicide at Damien’s birthday party, that’s the kind of scene that sticks with you over the years. Whether you want it to or not. Holly Palance played the nanny with all the fervor of one of Charles Manson’s young female followers.

The way the animals reacted to Damien while he and his mother visited a drive-through safari was disturbing. The terror – both the mother’s and the animals themselves – felt real. Almost too real.

There is an urban legend in my wife’s family that they are related distantly to Gregory Peck – Robert Thorn in The Omen. She was told this by her parents, and I’m sure they were told this by theirs. All I know is I haven’t gotten any Christmas cards in the mail from any Pecks. Whether the story is true or not is debatable. But it’s our story and we’re keeping it.

As The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance said, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Unlike many horror films from its era, The Omen still holds up today. Tension and fear, when executed properly, are timeless. A good horror film can make your skin crawl years after other films hit their expiration date. (See also: Psycho, Halloween, When A Stranger Calls, The Silence of the Lambs, Misery.)

Did I scare you, Mommy? I didn’t mean to.

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

The Return of the Living Dead is the Mary Poppins of zombie flicks – practically pessimistic in every way. And that’s a good thing. As an added bonus it has one of the better eighties soundtracks this side of an Alex Cox film.

Do you want to party?

The Return of the Living Dead features a bevy of punks – or facsimiles of punks as it were – against scores of the undead. In other words, just another night in Los Angeles. The story goes that this is the movie that perpetuated the whole zombies eat brains mythos. It also perpetuates some of Hollywood’s favorite and more absurd stereotypes about punk rockers.

Movie folk love to showcase the chain running from an earring to a facial piercing of some sort, usually the nose. Every damn movie from that era (70s-90s) featured some variation of the theme. Sure, it makes a good visual. But practically speaking, it also makes a mighty fine handle for someone to grab on to and subsequently yank, ripping two piercings out of your face for the price of one. I know people this has happened to. We learned from our mistakes pretty early. Hollywood did not apparently.

Now a heavy chain for a belt? That’s not just fashion, it’s practical thinking. To be a punk rocker in the eighties meant taking the time to think about defense.

Still, these Hollywood stereotypes led to one of the best quotes in all of moviedom.

What happened to Trash and Suicide?

What happened indeed.

The only thing The Return of the Living Dead is missing is Dick Miller. (Dick Freaking Miller!) Beyond that’s its stacked. A homeless man being eaten by a nude punk rocker turned zombie? You be you eighties. If you took out the language and the nudity, you could market this movie as a kids flick. How to Train Your Zombie. It’s great fun from the opening scenes right down to the inevitable nuclear destruction.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead is, of course, the grandaddy of all zombie movies. It may not have been the first zombie flick chronologically speaking – See also: White Zombie, I Walked With a Zombie, et al – but were you to seek patient zero to everything we know and love today, it is this film. Night of the Living Dead is the movie that launched a thousand whips, inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of would-be moviemakers.

It also does something few of its successors can claim. It still holds up. As of this writing, Night of the Living Dead is fifty-three years old and counting, and still just as spry and compelling as ever. There are zombie movies that were released last month that the public consciousness has already forgotten about. Night of the Living Dead continues to influence the genre decades after its release. That has to account for something. And it’s not just zombie movies, but music and books too. That’s staying power.

I watched this movie recently with my twelve year old daughter as part of our annual Halloween movie binge. She was shocked and delighted at the sight of Duane Jones as Ben. “Dad,” she said. “A black man is the hero in one of your black and white movies. That never happens.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

Honestly, I had never thought about it before. I’ve since read articles referencing Jones’s presence and the groundbreaking nature of it. To wit, Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win best actor at the Academy Awards just four years earlier. In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner came out only the year before the Night of the Living Dead’s release. Progress had been made, but this was still the wild west when it came to civil rights. It may not seem like such a big deal when viewed through modern eyes, but back in the day, that had to be pretty massive.

Now I know, and knowing is half the battle. (Go Joe!)

They’re coming for you Barbara…

The Blob (1958)

Ah yes, The Blob. There are really on three things you need to know about The Blob. First of all, the monster in the film really is just a big old pile of sentient Jell-O. Secondly, it has the best theme song of any monster movie out there today with the possible exception of The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Thirdly, Steven McQueen was pushing thirty when they cast him as a teenager in this film

It’s that last bit that really gets to me. McQueen, wasn’t one of the Beverly Hills 90210 crowd; the forever young and beautiful. He certainly didn’t make the same deal with the devil that Ralph Macchio made in the eighties so he would remain sixteen until the end of time, or the 2020s, whichever came first.

Nineteen fifty-eight or not, there wasn’t a teenager alive that looked as grizzled and weary as did McQueen in this film. I get that a lot of folks older than myself have this nearly godlike reverence for Steve McQueen – think Beavis and Butthead’s adulation for Todd – and yeah, Bullitt was a pretty good flick. I can’t even say it’s because he was before my time – which he was. I still carry a torch for Humphrey Bogart who was before, before my time. McQueen was a good actor, I just don’t understand the reverence.

And I certainly don’t buy him as a twenty-eight year old teenager.

But this is The Blob we are talking about. Quibbling over the casting of McQueen in his first starring role is the least interesting aspect of this film.

Did I mentioned the titular blob, really is just a big old blob? Seriously, that’s the greatest thing ever. Outside of the Gamera films, The Blob is one of the few movie monsters that never fails to bring a smile to my face. I wouldn’t be born until thirteen years after this film came out, but how I wish I had been a teenager or young adult watching it for the very first time in 1958.

The Blob was filmed in color. Still something of a rarity in those days. That had to have been something special. I got something of a contact high from it, just watching it on a streamer.

There’s plenty of movie connections one can deduce after watching The Blob. I could be wrong, but it seems pretty clear to me that The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill from Creepshow was heavily influenced by the opening scenes of The Blob. It’s that age old story; a meteor crashes down on earth, splits open and some poor bumpkin just has to stick his hand in it. In Jordy Verrill’s case, he turned into a plant. In The Blob, the bumpkin serves as the first snack of the blob before it terrorizes the town, growing exponentially larger after every meal. Is this the first instance of a meteor crashing to down to earth and causing chaos in cinema? (See also: Superman, Chronicle) Time to do a little homework. There’s The Thing From Another World – a fine, fine motion picture in its own right – seven years prior, but that was a alien ship and not a meteor.

Shhh, I’m hunting wabbit holes.

If you have yet to do so yet at this juncture in your life, please watch The Blob at your earliest convivence. Even if fifties sci-fi monster movies are not your cup a tea, give it a whirl. Try not to stare at McQueen’s forehead wrinkles and crow’s feet. He’s just another teenager. (See also: Steve Buscemi)

By the end of the movie, they have dropped off the now frozen blob in the arctic, where presumably it meets Captain America. There it will remain, “as long as the arctic stays cold.”

Cue climate change kicking into high gear a couple of decades later.

As Scooby-Doo would say, “Ruh-Roh.”

Batman (1989)

There’s a genre of movies out there – you know the ones: Smokey and the Bandit, Detroit Rock City, etc. – where our heroes are determined to get a certain place by a certain time despite all odds stacked against them. A KISS concert. Texarkana and back with a truckload of suds.

That is the story of my friends and I trying to see the sneak-peak, midnight showing of Batman way back in the summer of nineteen hundred and eighty-nine. Four hours of total chaos, the small matter of violating several federal codes, followed by our eventual detainment and release by military police. Spoiler alert: we made it to the Totem Theater in Anchorage, Alaska in the nick of time to see Batman.

All’s well that ends well.

By this point in our lives, my friends and I had established a vast network of theater workers that were more than happy to hook us up with advanced showings of any flick in town. Good times. Good friends.

My best friend lived in what was called hospital housing at the local air force base, and I was tasked with getting to his place for a little pre-Batman rabblerousing before hitting the road to see the show. As I had no car, this meant walking.

Back in the day, it used to be extremely easy to sneak on to virtually any military base in the country, excepting Area 51. Elmendorf Air Force base in Anchorage was no exception. Cross the highway, look for the hole in the fence, watch out for the odd moose or two, and pop out of the woods in hospital housing.

Being so close to the Fourth of July, we had plenty of fireworks on hand. Some of them may have been set off in inappropriate places. Blame it on youthful exuberance. Blame it on the rain. We were certainly juvenile delinquents, but harmless ones. We smoked grass and set off a few firecrackers now and again, but we weren’t strong-arming old ladies for their purses or anything.

But that night, our luck ran out.

Our first and most obvious problem was that we were the only punk rockers on base. Everyone knew who we were, including all of the MP’s. After our little pre-Fourth fireworks celebration at the expense of the peace and quiet of the neighbors, we left to go pick up more friends and cause trouble elsewhere before the movie. As we were leaving the base, one of the MP’s jumped out in front of our car and pulled his gun.

This was new.

We were teenagers and scared witless. We stopped and were immediately pulled out of the car and arrested for fireworks, alcohol possession, etc., and were brought down to the pokey. I wound up with the additional charge of unauthorized entry onto a military installation.

Being underage, they didn’t lock us up with the wayward recruits, but split us between various offices at the station. Here we had something of a Goldilocks moment. My office was much too small. My other friend’s office was far too large. But our third friend, his was just right. Despite detaining the lot of us for minors in possession of alcohol, they set him up in the room – wait for it – where they kept all the confiscated alcohol. It wasn’t long before I heard, “Pssst. Pssst.” I leaned my head out of my office in time to see my friend take a swig of the complimentary Jack Daniels.

Later, a couple of MP’s came into my office and made me empty my pockets. Wallet, keys, loose change, cigarettes, and a little metal box I used to keep in my jacket. I was small, goldish in color and had a tiny metal clasp.

“This better not be what I think it is,” said one of the officers grimly. Implying this was where I kept my cocaine, or PCP, or whatever it was they thought I had.

“It’s not,” I replied, trying my hardest not to come off like a smartass.

The MP picked up the tiny box. He opened it and was surprised and delighted to see the cascading images of Disneyland circa the early seventies come unfolding out of it. We had a good laugh and the military cops and I were good after that.

They kept us in the offices for another hour or two waiting for our respective parents to spring us from hoosegow. There was no bail – despite our offences, our punishment amounted to nothing more than going to bed without any supper, followed up by a stern letter from some general. My friend followed my mother and I in his car long enough for me to hop out at a red light and jump in his car. We flipped a U-turn and made it to the theater with minutes to spare.

We no longer had any booze, but we did have a heck of a good movie before us, and an even better story behind us.

Oh, and the movie was good too. But then again, you already knew that. Michael Keaton is will forever be my Batman of choice.

Tell Me Something, My Friend, Have You Ever Danced With the Devil in the Pale Moonlight?

Mary Shelley

There is love in me the likes of which you’ve never seen. There is rage in me the likes of which should never escape. If I am not satisfied int he one, I will indulge the other.

Frankenstein (1812)

The Amityville Horror (1979)

I don’t know what I was expecting to get out of this flick. We have history together, The Amityville Horror and I. There was a time in my life when the mere thought of this movie scared the bejeezus out of me. I was a child when I saw the movie poster and later the trailer. An evil house, haunted by unseen spirits with bad intentions. There are few more terrifying things to an eight-year-old with limited experience staying home alone. That I was too young and thus not allowed to see it in the first place made it all the more scarier.

I was sure – positive – that if it could happen to one house, it could happen to two. Maybe even my house. It freaked me out.

As a teenager I remember coming across a worn copy of the paperback and further scaring myself into oblivion with it. It was the kind of book that you read, then said goodbye to any thought of sleeping for the rest of the night. I’m sorry, did I say the night? I meant the night.

I never gave into temptation to actually watch the movie. I saw it on the shelves at the local video store – making the sign of the cross as I passed it by – but it never made its way into my VCR.

Now, some forty-two years later, our paths finally crossed once more. I was preparing for my annual spooky movie binge and came across it on one of the streamers. It was high time to confront the terror that mocked me so as a youth. My love, nostalgia and obsession with seventies movies were at an all-time high. My fandom for James Brolin freshly stoked from recently recatching The Car for the umpteenth time. I was marshal Will Kane in High Noon. The Amityville Horror was Thanos in Avengers: Endgame.

Our pairing was inevitable.

(Which also begs the question: Was James Brolin contractually obligated to ride a motorcycle in every seventies movie he starred in? While I haven’t seen all of them, there is precedence.)

Speaking of Thanos’s father, Brolin’s psychological and physical breakdown during this film rendered him into a remarkably accurate facsimile of a young Mick Foley during his Cactus Jack days. A part of me kept expecting to see a baseball bat wrapped in barbwire come into play, but alas, it was not meant to be.

Margot Kidder was a year removed from Superman and still in the peak ripeness of her career. Together with Brolin, they made the movie watchable. Not necessarily enjoyable mind you, but definitely watchable.

Still, I wanted to be scared. I wanted to recapture that sense of dread and horror I felt as a youngster, before I learned definitively – I always had my suspicions – that the whole story was a load of bunk. But I never was. Much like gazing upon an old lover and realizing the magic was gone, the fires forever snuffed. I felt nothing.

But I really, really wanted to.

The movie tries valiantly to build and sustain the tension, but never quite succeeds. The red room in particular was a letdown. I can go into any party store in the country and pick up a red lightbulb. Hell, I can go to Target and get one.

Now, granted I’m viewing this movie with 2021 eyes rather than 1979 peepers. Still, I wanted to be scared. I wanted to be that little boy – and later that teenager – that quacked in my moonboots over the possibility that it was all true.

Perhaps the old adage is true, you can never go home again. Even if the house is haunted.