It’s rare that I have actual news in the Screening Room, but this time I do because starting on Thursday, April 22 at 8 p.m. my partner in cinematic doings, Justin Souther, and I will be screening Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) in the mezzanine lounge of the Carolina Asheville to kick off our weekly Thursday Night Horror Picture Show. Yes, that’s right. Every Thursday at 8 p.m. we will be introducing and screening horror pictures at the Carolina. And if anyone is interested, we’ll be glad to discuss the films afterwards. In the immortal words of Groucho Marx, “Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons and necking in the parlors.”
Here are a few of the basics. Yes, the films are free to the public (that doesn’t mean that the theater would mind if viewers bought some concessions). Yes, we both plan on being at the showings—this, of course, may on occasion be impossible (I have an alarming tendency to get snowed in, which shouldn’t be a concern for a while), but at least one of us will be there. Yes, we are looking for input as to what we will be showing. Right now the first nine weeks are programmed. (See below.) It’s a mix of modern and classic horror—the idea being to cover the spectrum of horror movies. Nothing is really out of bounds, though we have no plans of dipping into “torture porn,” and personally I’ve no desire to run either version of The Wicker Man. We may occasionally stretch the definition of horror a bit to include hybrids, but the overall content will be horor movies.
Why did we choose Re-Animator for our first film? Well, partly because it’s a known quantity and it has a following and is a lot of fun. It’s also a beautiful example—if you really stop to look at it—of what can be accomplished on a very small budget. Moreover, we realilzed—somewhat to our surprise—that no one has ever run it before locally, so it was about time. Also, it’s not 70-odd years old and we thought we’d start with something a little more modern. It’s our fiendish plan to ease viewers into appreciating those movies that might be outside the realm of modern tastes and trends. Of course—though it doesn’t seem like it to me—“more modern” in this case is a movie that’s 25 years old. At the same time, you won’t find anything made since then that’s more outrageous—and the only thing I can think of that’s bloodier is Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992).
Our second choice is Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987)—a much underrated film in my book. It caused quite a stir at the time for a very bizarre—and deeply disturbing—sex scene between Mickey Rourke (before he became an embarassment and had to work through a comeback) and Lisa Bonet. Much was made of the fact that the scene had to be trimmed to get an R rating. That this trimming consisted of a few seconds of Mickey Rourke’s backside seemed kind of silly when the “director’s cut” hit home video. Regardless, the film would be remarkable for its atmosphere alone, but this intricate, symbol-laden, diabolic thriller has more than that going for it. It is particularly interesting right now because it has elements in common with Scorsese’s Shutter Island—though here played for pure horror.
Having lulled you into a sense of gore-laden security, we’re then offering up a Karloff and Lugosi double feature from the classic era, The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935). (Since these are from the days when movies weren’t necessarily very long, the pair of them is only about 20 minutes longer than Angel Heart by itself.) The first is indeed a classic. Better still, The Black Cat is that rarest of creatures in that it’s managed to remain controversial for (at this point) 76 years. It’s either considered one of the best horror movies ever made, or it’s considered a tasteless, disjointed mess that’s interesting only for its stars. We (I think I can speak for both of us here) are in the first group.
Like its companion piece, Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat has little or nothing to do with its supposed Edgar Allan Poe source (“suggested by” is the term used on the credits). Rather, it’s a twisted tale of revenge involving a prisoner of war (Lugosi) returning after 15 years in a Russian prison to reclaim his wife and daughter from the traitor, mass-murderer and Satanist (Karloff), who stole them from him. And that’s merely the premise. The details are macabre in the extreme. It flies in the face of convention at every turn, starting with the “old dark house” we expect turning out to be a sleekly modern Bauhaus style creation—literally built on a graveyard (“The murderer of 10,000 men returns to the place of his crime”). The dialogue is rich, every shot is gauged for maximum impact, the all-classical musical score is brilliantly used—and neither Karloff (at his most unsympathetic) nor Lugosi (in an unusual, heartbreakingly tragic role) have ever been better.
The Raven, on the other hand, is best viewed as enjoyable trash that may have been partly intended as a straight-faced spoof. It’s certainly preposterous enough. A barometer of this can be found in the scene where unhinged medico Lugosi reveals how he has disfigured gangster Karloff in an operation supposedly to make him look “good.” First of all, since Karloff was presumably unconscious during this procedure, one wonders why Lugosi didn’t relieve him of his gun. Instead, he has him in a room with six mirrors—each covered with a remote control curtain, so he can unveil his handiwork and enrage his victim into emptying his gat by blasting each of the mirrors. Well, that’s the kind of movie it is.
The film was directed by Louis Friedlander, whose only previous credit was directing a serial—and it shows. (Frieldlander would soon change his name to Lew Landers, under which alias he would continue to crank out thoroughly undistinguished movies.) The dialogue is delightfully ripe. At one point Lugosi reminds Karloff of that moment in his crininal career where Karloff disfigured a bank guard by putting “the burning acetylene torch into his face—into his eyes!” Karloff’s excuse? “Well, sometimes you can’t help things like that.” Sounds reasonable. Unique in that it’s the only film that gave Lugosi the special last-name-only billing the studio had been affording Karloff, the film is also of his some historical significance since its cheerful sadism was a key factor in calling down the wrath of the blue-noses that would help bring about a moratorium on horror movies from 1936 to 1939.
Up next is William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III (1990)—a vastly superior and more persuasive movie William Friedkin’s film of Blatty’s novel (and screenplay) of The Exorcist (1973). This one is based on Blatty’s sequel novel Legion and solidifies Blatty’s status as a natural filmmaker—something his 1980 film The Ninth Configuration had indicated. The film is incredibly creepy, brilliantly written and magnificently acted—George C. Scott, Brad Dourif and Ed Flanders are especially good. (In fact, I defy anyone to watch Dourif in this film and not suspect that Heath Ledger was very familiar with the performance when he played the Joker.) Exorcist III is a rare instance of where studio interference actually improved a film, since Blatty originaly shot the ending from his book, which was fine on paper but rather flat in dramatics. They forced him to come up with a more dynamic climax—and he did. One of the most underrated horror films of all time.
Horror of a very different sort is on tap with Ken Russell’s Gothic (1987)—a psychological phantasmagoria that details the weekend in Switzerland that caused Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) to write Frankenstein. Do not, however, expect a history lesson—though the essentials are historically accurate (give or take)—since Russell is more interested in the psychcology of the wild, laudanum-soaked house party that spawned her book than in a realistic depiction. It’s very over-the-top, heavily laden with symbolism, full of small touches (note carefully that Mary Shelley is the only character not stoned out of her mind) and utterly nightmarish. All this and a pretty terrific Thomas Dolby musical score too.
What could you possibly follow up Gothic with but James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931)? Yes, it’s the original classic monster show—and if you’ve only ever seen it in battered and censored TV prints, then you’ve never really seen it. Restored to its original version and luster, Frankenstein is a remarkble film that more than justifies its reputation. While it’s certainly not the first horror movie, it is the first one that plays its shocks for shocks—in fact it can be said that Whale invented the shock cut with this movie. It mayn’t be Whale’s masterpiece—his subsequent forays into the fantastic all outrank it in their ways—but it does benefit in horror terms by being the most straight-faced of his quartet of horror pictures. It’s also the most disturbing depiction of the Frankenstein Monster (Karloff) in any film. Here the Monster looks truly cadaverous in a way that he never did subsequently. By the time of Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Karloff’s face had filled out considerably and the impact was greatly lessened. (This is what happens when you turn character actors into stars and let them eat regularly, I suppose.)
We’re back with Ken Russell after that with his horror film—and horror film parody—The Lair of the White Worm (1988), based somewhat loosely on Bram Stoker’s final novel of the same name. Often considered lesser Russell, the film is perhaps more complex than it seems—and it’s the film that introduced a new generation to the filmmaker’s work. Made on the cheap (the delightfully cartoonish title “worm” boasts a gaping mouth fashioned from the front of a Volkswagen Beetle) with a fresh-faced cast—including a very young Hugh Grant—the movie has its horror and makes sport of it too. Largely shot by Russell himself (often with a hand-held camera that proves not all such approaches require an attack of St. Vitus’ Dance), it’s more fun than anything else, but there are deeper undercurrents if you’re willing to look for them.
No smorgasbord of horror would be complete (not that this first sampler group attempts that) without at least one Hammer horror picture. For this we’ve chosen a rather lesser known title, Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon (1964) starring Hammer’s version of Karloff and Lugosi, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. While Cushing is perhaps not as well used here as he is many of their vehicles, this gets my vote for Lee’s best performance in any Hammer film. The film itself—some dodgy special effects to one side—is an atmospheric new take on the old Greek myth that somehow transports Medusa’s even nastier sister, Magera, to turn of the century Germany, where she’s taken on lycanthropic properties causing her to pop up during the full moon in one of those conveniently desereted castles that horror movies have an endless supply of. No, it may not make complete sense, but it’s marvelously effective horror—beautifully lit in unrealistic fairy tale colors and directed with great panache.
Speaking of not making complete sense, we close out this first set with Michael Winner’s much-maligned The Sentinel (1977)—a film that was dismissed (“Michael Winner squirts gore across the screen for 90 minutes,” noted one review) and reviled (largely for casting actual deformed people as denizens of hell) upon its original release. It very much deserves a second look. Yes, Winner indeed “squirts gore across the screen,” but he seems to be having a fine, over-the-top time doing so. And if you don’t examine film too closely—the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense to begin with and boasts an incredible plot hole that’s hard to miss—it’s effectively creepy stuff with a few knockout horror set pieces. Plus, where else are you going to see Chris Sarandon, Burgess Meredith, John Carradine, Ava Gardner, Arthur Kennedy, Sylvia Miles, Beverly D’Angelo, Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum all packed into one movie?
So there you have our first nine screenings and our first 10 movies. We think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. But we really hope you’ll come out in support of the project. It’s free and it should be fun. The more people who show up, the more fun it will be. Plus, if we get enough support, it’s possible we may be able to commandeer an actual theater for the films—though the cinema lounge is pretty darn nice in itself. Moreover, this series is meant to pave the way for an even more ambitious series of alternate movie programming—about which I can say no more at present.
All movies start at 8 p.m.
April 22—Re-Animator (1985)
April 29—Angel Heart (1987)
May 6—The Black Cat (1934) / The Raven (1935) Double Feature (both run around 60 minutes in length)
May 13—Exorcist III (1990)
May 20—Gothic (1986)
May 27—Frankenstein (1931)
June 3—The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
June 10—The Gorgon (1964)
June 17—The Sentinel (1977)