Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Movie Review: Spider Baby (1968)

A cult classic that boasts the subtitle "The Maddest Story Ever Told," Spider Baby is a fantastic dark comedy that must have freaked out audiences in the 60s.

Get caught in the web: Cared for by the family chauffeur Bruno, the three Merrye children - Virginia, Elizabeth, and Ralph - live an isolated existence in their home because they suffer from a degenerative age-regression brain disease. When other members of the family come by one day with their greedy lawyer and his assistant to sue them for the family fortune, they are caught up in the Merrye's twisted web of madness.

This film is incredibly charming and lovable despite the mostly macabre subject matter. The reason for this is that the craziness is dealt with in a delightfully humorous way and it will have you chuckling to yourself in the moments were you would normally be creeped out. Spider Baby was apparently a labor of love for filmmaker Jack Hill and thank goodness he was determined to get it out there (it was made in '64, I believe, but lived in limbo before being released in '68) because I think this just became a new favorite of mine.

There are two wonderful known actors here with some incredible unknowns in the leads. Lon Chaney Jr. is the kind-hearted Bruno who vows to protect the Merrye children as much as he can despite their murderous tendencies. Sid Haig plays a mostly silent role as Ralph, who is probably the oldest of the children and therefore the most afflicted by the disease that plagues them. Jill Banner portrays Virginia in her film debut, and was my favorite character in the whole thing, especially when she's "playing spider" with people. Beverly Washburn as Elizabeth is actually not as enjoyable, as she just stands there with wide eyes and says her creepy lines in a high voice.

There is also Carol Ohmart, recognizable as Vincent Price's wife from the original House on Haunted Hill. She has a few lovely moments in the film, and not just when she is running around in sexy black lingerie (with straps!). As the greedy cousin Emily, she seems determined to believe that they are only acting crazy to scare them away. The dinner scene is amazing and hilarious. Virginia and Elizabeth serve everybody a nutritious meal of mushrooms (and she made sure to only pick the non-poisonous ones, thank goodness), spiders, bugs, and what looks like dried grass or straw for salad. Ohmart's character tries to remain unfazed, while the other cousin, Peter, hilariously compliments them on their dishes and seems way too nice and cooperative to be real. He keeps trying to win over both groups of people, and even Elizabeth and Virginia take a liking to him, although apparently not enough to make them spare him so he won't "tell anybody." It's okay, though, he survives.

The violence in the film is real, and these nutjobs really do kill people in it but it is subdued and not at all gory or bloody. Virginia seems the most likely to murder, as we see in the beginning how she likes to play like a spider (and in a few instances, she likes to eat real ones as well - naaaaaasty) by catching and tying people up and "biting" them with two long butcher knives.

The score for the film is quite trippy and bubbly at times and fits the tone of the film so well; a tone that is introduced during the opening credit sequence. Lon Chaney reads some kind of weird poem about the movie, often doing a hearty laugh to pinpoint the craziness he is talking about.

The film is bookended with an older Peter at first reading from a book of Rare and Peculiar Diseases, highlighting the Merrye Syndrome and saying that it was extinguished forever 10 years ago, when the film takes place. However, since then, Peter has married the lawyer's assistant and had a daughter who is about 10 years old... which we learned in the beginning is when the Merrye Syndrome first afflicts the victim. Then the film ends with Peter's daughter playing outside and being fascinated by a spider. Ha, get it? She's got the disease! And then to really put a dollop of delicious icing on this cupcake of a movie, we get an end title card that says "The End," which then changes to "The End ? ". Love it. Love it to pieces.

As an obvious inspiration for so many other "crazy killer family" movies out there (it's so obvious I don't think I need to mention them), Spider Baby is a you-totally-have-to-watch-this-movie movie for any fan of horror. It is an unexpected joy that is so much fun to watch.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Movie Review: Audrey Rose (1977)

Audrey Rose is yet another movie recommended to me by the Netflix Gods that actually turned out to be not too bad. The Netflix Gods always recommend these kinds of 70s movies that are marketed as horror but kinda really aren't. But that's okay because I dug this one.

The plot: When a strange man starts following Janice and Bill Templeton, they're terrified as to why he seems so fixated on their 11-year-old daughter, Ivy. The man tells them that he believes that his own daughter, Audrey Rose, who died in a car crash when she was five, has been reincarnated through Ivy. The Templetons start believing it as well as Ivy has continuous nightmares and starts acting strangely.

The introduction of the story is a slow burn. It starts off with horrible car accident on a rainy day where one car slides down an embankment, flips over, and sets on fire. There's a scarily strange shot of a little girl with dark hair in the back seat of car, spinning along with it. The opening credit sequence is several shots of the Templetons enjoying the day with their daughter - a happy and smiling family with an obviously perfect life. But in every scene there is a strange man with a beard in the background, watching them.

Instead of introducing who this dude is fairly early on, they drag it out for a bit with him showing up at random places where the Templetons are. This part is mildly frustrating if you know the synopsis of the story and that the man really has no ill intention in mind (OR DOES HE???).

The film moves at perhaps too much of a snail's pace for some peoples' liking, but the conflict of characters and wondering just where the story was heading kept me plenty interested. Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Elliot Hoover, Audrey Rose's father, could have easily come off as a psycho trying to steal Ivy from her parents. Instead he plays it quite sincere - at times, yes, slightly crazy but you can tell that it comes out of desperation and grief. The only downside to his role is that he all but disappears in the second half.

The other main actors playing Ivy's parents are Marsha Mason and John Beck. I don't know who they are but they both played their parts well. Mason's hysterically conflicted mother can be a bit over-dramatic; and Beck typifies the disbelieving father role to a "T" and it all works in this movie. The father is not around for some of Ivy's crazy fits, and while he doesn't want Hoover to have anything to do with Ivy, Janice immediately recognizes that though she doesn't know him or his true intentions, he is still able to connect with Ivy and calm her down during her nightmares.

Speaking of Ivy, let's speak of Susan Swift, the young actress playing her. Her performance is only believable and/or relatable about half the time. The fits she has while dreaming (we find out later that Ivy/Audrey is reliving when she was in the burning car) is just her flailing her arms around and screaming in an annoyingly high-pitched voice. With almost every line she delivers, she wrinkles her forehead and whines like a 5-year-old. But then there are scenes where she gets it right. She is fantastic in the hypnotizing scene, for one.

I'd never thought that seriously about reincarnation before and this movie made me give it at least five minutes reflection on the subject. If you believe in the possibility of a soul, then reincarnation is actually a comforting idea. To never really die and continuously live different lives is something I could find myself believing in.

However, this movie explores another side of that idea, that perhaps the soul is sometimes not ready to leave its owner and becomes conflicted in its new life. This is why Ivy continually has dreams around her birthday, which is the same day and time that Audrey Rose died. Hoover thinks that Audrey's soul left her body too soon and wasn't able to live fully in Ivy. During Hoover's trial (there was this whole thing in the middle where he sort of kidnapped Ivy for like two minutes and he was arrested and he brought up the reincarnation stuff at his trial) Janice turns against her husband and believes Hoover. Yet she is still conflicted between believing him and protecting her daughter. By the end, she has accepted all that has happened and found new peace in her beliefs. Which is nice, I guess.

Audrey Rose is a very interesting movie that might not be everybody's favorite. It explores a topic that I've not seen covered in a movie thus far so it gets points for that. It's also fun to see a young Anthony Hopkins in one of his earlier roles. He's not as powerful as he would become later on but there are definite hints of that here.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

30 Day Horror Challenge in One Post

Day 1 - A horror film that no one would expect you to love but you do
An American Haunting. Every else seems to hate it but I was so into this movie. Actually pretty creepy and very well done.

Day 2 - The horror film that you relate most to
Okay, this is going to sound weird but... Saw. It's not so much the movie itself, it's the story of the filmmakers that is so inspiring to me. How two unknowns from Australia wrote and directed their very first movie and it turned out to be one of the most popular and prolific franchises ever. I love that shit.

Day 3 - Your favorite slasher
Going against the grain here and picking The Stepfather. It was such a surprise when I first saw it. Spectacular movie! Maybe it's kind of more a serial killer movie but I don't care.

Day 4 - Your favorite werewolf film
Ginger Snaps. Werewolf movies are usually pretty iffy with me but this is by far the best one I've ever seen. Sequels are okay, but nobody fucks with the original. Honorable mention goes to Dog Soldiers.

Day 5 - Your favorite monster movie
I'm not so big into "monster" movies and I don't think I know of that many. The Korean film The Host is the most recent one I saw that I totally loved, so I'll go with that one. Also Tremors, but I don't want to keep repeating myself.

Day 6 - Your favorite vampire movie
From Dusk Till Dawn. The first half of the movie is typical fun and exciting Tarantino/Rodriguez and I love the gore and nastiness of the second half. It's really fantastic.

Day 7 - Your favorite supernatural horror film
Oh gosh, I used up my top two answers on other days. Shiiiiiit. And this is favorite sub-genre of horror. Okay, um... Stir of Echoes, What Lies Beneath, The Eye (original Chinese movie, that is), The Devil's Backbone, One Missed Call (again, the original and not the shitty remake), The Fog, The Others... how in the world do I choose??? Let's give some credit to a mostly unsung ghost movie with one of the best finales I've ever seen: The Eye.

Day 8 - Your favorite anthology
Oooh, tough one. Trick 'R' Treat probably, although Three...Extremes is a very close second.

Day 9 - Your favorite exploitation/grindhouse type film
Don't have much for this category, but you know, I actually really liked Run! Bitch Run!. It's a grindhouse throwback, it counts.

Day 10 - Your favorite psychological horror film
Repulsion. A psychological horror film if ever there was one!

Day 11 - Your favorite science fiction horror film
Event Horizon. No contest.

Day 12 - Your favorite horror film involving the occult
Dolls. Using magic to make people into dolls is awesome. And incredibly creepy.

Day 13 - Your favorite horror comedy
Shaun of the Dead. Cannot get enough of this movie and all the awesomeness that oozes out of it. Must show this to all my friends and get them hooked.

Day 14 - Your favorite zombie film
Resident Evil. Great action, great gore, great music, great actors... everything about this video game adaptation just fucking rules.

Day 15 - Your favorite horror film involving serial killers
Hmm, slashers can also be serial killers. And there are a lot of slasher/serial killer movies. I guess Jason is probably my favorite serial killer so let's say Friday the 13th, the one that started it all. And screw that forgettable remake to hell. It sucked.

Day 16 - Your favorite childhood themed horror film
The Monster Squad. It's a recent find and one that I wished I could have grown up watching.

Day 17 - Your favorite horror film remake
The Last House on the Left. So beautiful and hard-hitting - we need more movies like this.

Day 18 - Your favorite foreign horror film (outside your country of origin)
The Orphanage. Too awesome to put into words. Just see it and you'll understand.

Day 19 - Your favorite horror film involving the powers of Hell or Satanism
I think it's a crime to say anything other than The Exorcist. But I'm also very in love with The Omen. Alright, alright, I'll say The Exorcist. It really is the big dog of all "powers of Hell" movies, you can't deny that.

Day 20 - Your favorite horror film involving a killer animal
Deep Blue Sea. Sam Jackson gets eatted up by a big, smart shark. That's all I need. I also love just about every other killer animal movie in the world so I could have put anything here and it would have been my favorite.

Day 21 - Your favorite medical horror film
Can I say Flatliners? Not really horror, but definitely medical. Another good one for you guys to look up is a movie called Pathology.

Day 22 - Your favorite horror themed TV show
Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Buffy is pretty much my favorite ANYTHING.

Day 23 - Your favorite made for TV horror film
Stephen King's The Stand. My sister was obsessed with this miniseries for a long time and really got me into it too. A good cast, and a great representation of King's novel.

Day 24 - Horror film in which you prefer the edited version over the director's cut
I don't have one for this. But I do have one for the flipside of that - where I COMPLETELY prefer the director's cut over the theatrical version. The Descent.

Day 25 - A horror film that you used to hate, but now like
Rosemary's Baby. Saw it ten years ago and absolutely loathed it. Saw it again a few months ago and absolutely loved it. Wisdom comes with maturity, I guess.

Day 26 - Your favorite horror film to watch as a child
Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers. My friend and I used to rent this every single time she stayed at my house.

Day 27 - Your favorite guilty pleasure
The Shutter remake. I watch this way too much for it to be healthy. Also, The Skeleton Key. Can't help it, I think it's great.

Day 28 - Your favorite horror film that no one's ever heard of
7 Days. I think it's slowly making the rounds, but still mostly unheard of. Phenomenal movie.

Day 29 - Your least favorite horror film of all time
Lots of them. But the only one I got totally pissed at and shut off halfway through was Wrong Turn 2. Maybe I'll give it another go when I think I'll be able to appreciate it more.

Day 30 - Your favorite horror film of all time
Poltergeist. I've said it like 50 times around here already.

I know I keep picking the same movies over and over for these things and I feel bad about that. But they really are my favorites so I don't want to say something else just to sound cool.