The set-up: Eerily charismatic African-American storyteller Mr. Simms (Keith David) is hired by the greedy, racist owner of for-profit prisons to record his moralistic tales for a crime fighting android he is developing called the Robo Patriot. The spooky stories spun span the gamut: youngsters desecrate an historical museum housing racist propaganda; gangbangers seek to contact a dead associate through a phony TV psychic to locate a hidden cash stash; Tinder date rape predators get the shock of their lives; and a conservative African-American man willing to sell out his principles for success is visited by the ghost of a dead boy. In true EC Comics fashion, every tale has its twist. The breakdown: It’s taken two decades for co-director and writer Rusty Cundieff to create a sequel to his original anthology, and this one eagerly takes on current hot button topics, notably Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and hate mongering politics. Cundieff and co-director and writer Darin Scott have their hearts in the right place, stirring up off-beat twisted tales that tend to go over the top. The fourth story does a 180 and gets poignant, as if to say, “We were just fucking with you, now we’re getting real.” But then the wraparound segment’s conclusion undoes that with hammy performances and high school humor. Horror anthology fans will find some things to enjoy in these new tales from the hood, but I was rooting for this film to unleash dark social satire without the sledgehammer approach.
Deep Red (1975)
The set-up: After witnessing the vicious attack on a spiritualist from afar, then arriving at her apartment too late to save her, a British jazz musician in Rome (David Hemmings) decides to investigate the crime independent of the police. He has a nagging feeling that he is missing a vital clue and becomes compelled to solve the case. But as he gets closer to the truth the killer gets closer to him. The breakdown: Along with Suspiria, Deep Red is one of Dario Argento’s giallo masterpieces that makes an inescapable impression with its colorful backdrops and taut stalking sequences; plus, Hemmings (who starred in Blow Up) exudes charm and intensity. Not as violent as some of the director’s other work, Deep Red weaves a surreal web that prefaces the “waking nightmare” approach of successive Argento works like Suspiria and Inferno, and it is also his first to feature music from horror soundtrack icons Goblin whose music amplifies the anxious undercurrent of the story. Arrow Video’s reissue is loaded with archival bonus features like interviews with Argento and Goblin member Claudio Simonetti, along with a new visual essay by Michael Mackenzie.
The Bloodthirsty Trilogy (1970-1974)
The set-up: Hammer Horror films and Roger Corman’s Gothic horror movies were so well-known in their day that they exerted an influence even on Japan. This trio of films (The Vampire Doll, Lake of Dracula, and Evil of Dracula) offers an Eastern twist on the Drac myth free from Catholic iconography, and even the famed bloodsucker himself as he is not a character in any of these titles. The Vampire Doll focuses on a woman and her brother trying to find out how her boyfriend disappeared at a creepy country mansion. After escaping a childhood vampire encounter in Lake of Dracula, a grown woman revisits the evil when the same bloodsucker arrives in her village. And in Evil of Dracula, an all-girls school quietly becomes a vampiric feeding ground with a disturbing origin. The breakdown: Prior to this Arrow release, I had never heard of these titles, and this turned out to be a darkly delicious retro collection. These Japanese vampires are rather eerie (although the third entry gets marred by camp), and there is more than a fair amount of spooky vibes emanating off of these celluloid creations. The fanged female in the first flick caught me off guard; well played. Riichiro Manabe’s soundtracks to the first two films are engaging, particularly the unusual use of harpsichord in The Vampire Doll. In-depth liner notes from Jasper Stark and a video interview with Kim Newman provide further context. Directed by Michio Yamamoto, The Bloodthirsty Trilogy is a pleasantly surprising offering for vintage vampire fans. They may not break new ground in terms of originality, but they’re a hell of a lot of fun.
Sidebar: Those Damned Kids Today
Sinister kids often make great horror fodder, and two like-minded reissues in that area offer very different storylines yet similar subtext. The British chiller Village Of The Damned (1960) tells the dark tale of the village of Midwich, where multiple blonde children born on the same day (and with questions as to their origins) grow at a faster than normal pace and soon become a dozen-strong collective with the power to hypnotize people through their interlinked minds and glowing eyes. This sets up a conflict between British intelligence, who wants to eradicate them, and a professor and father to one of the brood who seeks to understand them. Is it nature or nurture? Were they born bad or can they change?
In the Roger Corman-produced The Unborn (1991), Virginia and Brad Marshall (Brooke Adams and Jeff Hayenga) look to in-vitro fertilization when they cannot conceive. At first things seem fine, but her increasingly erratic and violent behavior, plus contact with other women who have seen the same cheery doctor, make Virginia suspect that what is growing inside her is not their baby. But what is it? Village is a classic that holds up well today and was radical for its time in terms of implied violence and its ending. (It was decently remade by John Carpenter in 1995.) Meanwhile Unborn, in spite of its B-movie clumsiness, is relatively well acted. The ideas that screenwriter Henry Dominic (Terminator Salvation) referenced in terms of child rearing, the influence of TV, and modern anxieties make it thought-provoking even if the narrative is predictable. (However, it’s ripe for a remake.) While both films deal with different issues – Village of the Damned reflects Cold War paranoia, The Unborn delves into fears of IVF and genetic tampering – underneath they actually share a similarity. They both dig up a subconscious fear many parents likely have in our ever-changing world – that once their kids have grown into adulthood, they will become obsolete.
Terrifier and The Haunting Of Hill House (2018)
It seems like Netflix is doing better with horror TV than scary movies these days. The streaming giant has become a dumping ground for a lot of subpar flicks, including Terrifier. The movie has been trending and generating buzz with its story of two Halloween hotties (and a few others) stalked by a crazed, mute clown slasher. It sustains a good amount of tension and the creepy clown can be unnerving, but this bloody movie ultimately becomes a pointless exercise in nihilism and misogyny with paper thin characterizations. I can just re-watch lesser ’80s slashers if I want that. Crap like Terrifier makes me think that a lot of horror dweebs should just get out of the basement and interact with some real women.
On the flip side, the 10-episode first season of The Haunting Of Hill House has turned out to be a surprise. Given that the original 1963 movie The Haunting, inspired by Shirley Jackson’s famed novel, is a classic, and this show cribs the locale, ghostly premise, and classic scares for a new story, I was prepared not to like it. But this is a creepy, well-acted exploration of five children who survived the trauma of living in a haunted house and are coping with supernatural PTSD in adulthood. This is a modern family of an entirely different sort. While the charm of the original film was its ability to plant things in your mind that were not onscreen, this series manages to subvert horror clichés in its profoundly emotional tale of coping with grief and loss. As you watch it you’ll wonder how much of these scary events actually happened or reflect deeper familial turmoil. The finale has generated controversy, but it’s still a wild ride. The Bent Neck Lady of Episode 5 is supremely scary; original Haunting co-star Russ Tamblyn appears as a therapist.