Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Jeepers Creepers (United Artists, 2001)

“Jeepers Creepers,” is a horror flick from writer/director Victor Salva, and it’s two-thirds classy thrills and one-third example of how not to make a horror movie. The fact that both these sections occur in the same picture is a fairly remarkable feat of filmmaking. In class, you can show the first part as an example of the tricks of the fear-inducing trade and then show the second part to display how horror directors go wrong.

As the movie begins, Trish and Darry (Gina Philips and Justin Long), brother and sister, are driving the back roads on their way home for a visit from college. Trish likes to look at the countryside. They are briefly pursued by an enclosed truck, the unseen driver of which seems determined to scare them spitless. Finally, the truck passes them.

Sometime later, they see the truck parked beside an abandoned wood frame church, surrounded by trees, its yard overgrown. The siblings see the driver of the truck carry a bundle that looks suspiciously like a dead body wrapped in a crimson-stained sheet. “The Creeper” deposits the bundle into a large pipe sticking out of the ground. They slow down and he dumps another one.

The Creeper spots them and the chase begins again. Darry drives off the road into a field, and the truck continues on its way.

The kids go back to the pipe to make sure of what they saw and to convince themselves that if bodies there are, they are all dead.

Darry thinks he hears someone down in the hole, and, of course, is determined to climb down for a closer look.

“You know that place in horror movies where someone does something really stupid and everybody hates him?” Trish asks. “Well, this is it.”

Of course, Darry falls into the hole and, of course, we think The Creeper is coming back at any moment and, of course, the hole is more full of corpses than a cheesecake is full of calories. From this point on, the film becomes a conventional killer chases kids thriller.

It holds up well up to the point Darry and Trish bring the cops into the picture. It’s at this point our understanding of what The Creeper is begins to change. The more we know about him, the less frightening he is.

Do you remember watching monster movies as a kid and feeling less scared when the monster was already on the screen because you knew that if you could see it, it couldn’t jump out and yell “Boo!”

Salva has forgotten that basic point. John Carpenter, in “Halloween,” reminded us that you can’t kill the bogeyman, but you shouldn’t take too much time trying to explain him, either. That kills him more effectively than blades or guns.

As long as The Creeper remains unseen, or seen in shadow, he represents that potent, visceral force of the Unknown. When he hunts, does he do it for fun or is there a solid reason for all the corpses he’s dumped down the pipe? Why all the incisions? Why is the catch phrase for this picture “What’s eating you?”

And what’s the significance of the number “23”? You’ll know what I’m talking about if you ever see the flick. And there’s a legend that ties into the plot. Is it a real legend or one manufactured for the movie? If we’re going to be offered some degree of explanation, let’s have enough to make sense.

The movie is left open for a sequel—what kind of horror movie would it be if it couldn’t develop into a franchise for United Artists—but that’s not the main reason many viewers will find the ending unsatisfactory. I can’t go into that, but I will say that a soap opera on Friday leaves you with much the same feeling.

But when Salva is clicking during the movie’s first 50 minutes or so, he runs the thing like an expensive watch. Sure, a lot of the shocks come from pop-ups and loud noises, but these work so well because the director has set them up so nicely. First he attaches the electrodes, then he pushes all the right buttons.

The two leads are just fine. When they talk and argue as siblings, they sound real. The screenplay gets across a lot of background information via the humdrum talk of any long car trip. These kids are more than potential monster-fodder.

“Jeepers Creepers” is creepy and horrid without being gratuitously gory, but it never really moves from average to being worthy of a solid recommendation. It’s worth seeing, but I’m not sure it’s worth a special trip to the video store to rent. Maybe if you pick it up when you go to get something else. Or the next time it runs on cable. Or you could forget I mentioned it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Ed Gein (Tartan Films, 2000)

If black humor refuses to capitulate to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it also refuses to take them seriously. We can only contemplate death soberly if there is some means of avoiding it. When faced with the inevitable, laugh, clown, laugh. And the more spectacular the death, whether in total numbers or intensity of the individual event, the darker the laughter.

Consider the films that are based to a greater or lesser degree on the ghoulish career of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin part-time handyman and full-time psycho. Everyone needs something to do to fill the hours of the day. It’s just that Gein’s choices were eccentric, to say the least. They were also such stuff as cinematic nightmares are made on.

But the oddest thing about the films that draw on the Gein story for their plots is that so many of them are comedies. Dark comedies, to be sure—comedies that may make you choke on your own laughter—but comedies just the same.

The most faithful to fact of them all is “Ed Gein.”

The picture opens with snippets of newsreel footage of Gein’s neighbors in the small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. The consensus of opinion is that he was a nice guy, maybe a little eccentric but certainly harmless.

Next we’re taken to the Plainfield Cemetery after dark. We see a teen couple, the boy eager to begin what he came here for. The girl hears noises, and then the boy does, too. They get spooked and leave quickly. The shot changes and we see Ed’s head emerge over the rim of a grave he’s opened.

At home, Ed has a disinterred corpse stretched out on a table. His head tipped back, he speaks a few words over it. He is inviting the body to return to life, but we don’t know if he expects a literal resurrection.

It’s a moment in the film, like many others, that doesn’t seem to go anywhere because it doesn’t link seamlessly with the scene that follows, but we will be introduced to his mounting madness through flashbacks and vignettes like this one.

Next up is a scene in which two young boys visit Ed at home. Later we will learn that some parents trust Ed to baby-sit. The youngest of the boys slips away from Ed and goes upstairs, just to snoop around out of idle curiosity. He finds heads hanging from the bedroom door. Ed will later explain that they are shrunken heads sent to him by a relative during the World War, but we can see what the boys, perhaps, don’t notice—they are too large to be shrunken. The room also contains a lamp made from a spine, and masks made from human skin.

The boys appear frightened, but no more so than Ed himself. He tells them to leave and not come back.

We then see him at a roadside bar, essentially off to himself but chatting sporadically with his twentysomething friend Pete Anderson (Craig Zimmerman). Most of the talking takes place between two bar regulars and Mary Hogan (Sally Champlin). Mary is a large woman, middle-aged and full of racy innuendos. Ed is clearly both attracted to and repulsed by her behavior and language.

As he listens to the goings-on in the bar, he flashes back to his mother Augusta (Carrie Snodgress) and her warnings about the whorishness of most women. We have seen earlier examples of her religious zeal as she read from The Book of Revelation to Ed and his brother as they grew up.

We also see Ed’s reluctance to assist his parents as they slaughter a hog. The animal is hanging by its back feet from a rafter and the sight terrifies young Ed. His father accuses him of being a sissy and then smacks Augusta for bringing him up badly. She then turns on her son and berates him for being a panty-waist. The poor kid, approximately ten years old, is visibly upset at being accosted by both parents.

Back to the present, and Ed is having dinner with his friends, the Andersons. Ed decides that nothing goes better with country cooking than a discussion of the changes the human body endures as it rots. Even his friend Pete wants him to drop the subject.

We see him taking a woman through his house, avoiding certain rooms. He has apparently approached her about exchanging houses with him since he lives alone and has no use for a two-story farm house. His evasive manner and the house’s general creepiness result in her turning down his offer and asking to leave as quickly as possible.

His behavior with people doesn’t change so much from beginning to end, but his interior madness is beginning to run away with him. He presents the same dead, half vacant smile throughout, but the visits from Augusta become more frequent. We realize that his moonlit trips to the cemetery have resulted in several corpses disinterred and brought home.

Finally he snaps and returns to Mary’s bar after closing. He shoots her, drags her out to his truck, and drives her home. Doing nothing to mend her wound, he ties the woman to the bed and allows her to die.

At this point in the film, we see Ed at his craziest. He emerges from the house one night wearing his woman suit. His face is covered by a mask made from the skin of one of the disinterred corpses. He wears a vest made from skin on which he has attached two breasts which dangle from the front. A vulva hangs from his crotch. Topped by a wig, he dances in the moonlight, yammering in falsetto.

Steve Railsback, who first jolted audiences as Charles Manson in the 1976 TV movie “Helter Skelter,” delivers a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard performance as Gein. I mean that in a good way. It’s the character who clog dances on our nerve ends, not the actor.

Railsback’s is also a gutsy performance. This is a man about whom the audience is hard-pressed to think anything positive. The nicest thought the average viewer would have said is, “Well, they guy is certainly messed up, but it isn’t his fault.”

We will see Gein trying on noses—real noses—like the world’s most deranged circus clown. He will murder one more woman who reminds him of Augusta after inviting her to go to a movie with him and being rejected. He is now seeing his mother, and she rides in his truck with him and encourages him to “do the Lord’s work.”

His insanity doesn’t make him fearless. He’s afraid of getting caught although his attempts at jokes almost trip him up. When Pete Anderson talks about Mary’s odd disappearance Ed tells him that the woman isn’t missing. “I’ve got her up at my place. Mary’s hanging out there right now.” Pete is startled for a beat, then laughs and tells Ed he has a mighty strange sense of humor.

The murder of his second victim, a storekeeper, results in his downfall. The film ends with newsreel footage of the real Ed Gein being put into the back of a police car. The end credits are interspersed with Railsback, as Gein in the asylum, smiling the smile and telling the camera that he doesn’t remember everything that happened.

So what was Edward Gein really like? This is the movie that stays closest to the facts and does a good job of presenting the man’s madness. He was born in 1906 and died in 1984. Mary Hogan was killed in 1954, Bernice Worden (called Collette in the film) was murdered in 1957.

What fascinated the first person to translate Gein’s life into fiction—novelist Robert Bloch, who immortalized Gein as Norman Bates in “Psycho,” was the fact that he lived so long in a small community and no one noticed his mania. If he never quite fit in with the common fold of Plainfield, he never stood out, either. For his trips to the cemetery, he enlisted the aid of a man named Gus, a peculiar loner who ended up in an asylum before Gein did. (Gus is omitted from every one of the Gein films.) Even with this association, no one saw through Ed’s smile.

The joke about the murdered barmaid is real. A few weeks after her disappearance, Ed told a sawmill owner with the unlikely name of Elmo Ueeck, “She isn’t missing. She’s at the farm right now.”

What do we make of this emotionally retarded man, in life and in this film? He’s not a guy most of us would have to fear because his interest was in older women only. The main sources for our fear are his psychology and the way it manifests itself. We can deal with the extremes of his oddness only through dark laughter. How else can you react to his woman suit? The horrible fact of the matter is that when he minces out the front door, his pot belly poking out under the vest, there is enough of the humor of an awkward man in drag to generate a laugh. But when we see what it is he’s really wearing, the laughter gets stuck in our throat.

“Ed Gein” is not designed to generate laughter, but the only sane reaction we can have to some levels of real-life horror is black humor. After his arrest, sick jokes known as “Geiners” began to circulate throughout the Midwest, some of which I suspect were used by Robert Bloch in his novel and later by screenwriter Joseph Stefano in his script for “Psycho.” “Mother is, how do you say it, not quite herself tonight.”

But black humor isn’t just a distancing device that allows us to contemplate the world’s horrors without collapsing into a morass of despair and inertia. It’s also a means for saying that the world can be as horrible as it wants to be—or as our fellow humans make it—but we have moved beyond caring. It’s either a perfectly rational response to an irrational universe, or a perfectly insane response to a sane universe when sanity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Monday, October 1, 2007

“The Empty House” (Algernon Blackwood, 1906)

Despite the fact that this tale was first published in 1906, it’s a wonderfully cinematic examination of a notoriously haunted house. Blackwood wastes no time, jumping in immediately with a paragraph that defines what a haunted house is and describes the effect it has on anyone brave, ignorant, or foolish enough to enter it.

“And, perhaps, with houses the same principle is operative, and it is the aroma of evil deeds committed under a particular roof, long after the actual doers have passed away, that makes the gooseflesh come and the hair rise. Something of the original passion of the evil-doer, and of the horror felt by his victim, enters the heart of the innocent watcher, and he becomes suddenly conscious of tingling nerves, creeping skin, and a chilling of the blood. He is terror-stricken without apparent cause.”

That, to coin a phrase, says it all.

In the story, Jim Shorthouse receives what appears to be a semi-urgent request from his Aunt Julia that he come to visit her at once. She’s acquired the keys to an infamously haunted house on the other side of town and she wants Shorthouse to accompany her while she goes exploring. She makes him promise that he will not leave her side even for a minute because “persons who had spent some time in the house, knowing nothing of the facts, had declared positively that certain rooms were so disagreeable they would rather die than enter them again.”

As the two ghosthunters enter the old house, Aunt Julia relates a brief history of the brutal crime that initiated the haunting.“’It has to do with a murder committed by a jealous stableman who had some affair with a servant in the house. One night he managed to secrete himself in the cellar, and when everyone was asleep, he crept upstairs to the servants' quarters, chased the girl down to the next landing, and before anyone could come to the rescue threw her bodily over the banisters into the hall below.’"

’And the stableman—?’

"’Was caught, I believe, and hanged for murder.’”

Blackwood then takes us on a regulated tour of the house, first downstairs and then up. He is an absolute master at describing everyday items in such a way that they assume personalities, and none too pleasant ones at that. He evokes that feeling that things change as soon as you look away from them—“There was the inevitable sense that operations which went on when the room was empty had been temporarily suspended till they were well out of the way again.”

The tension continues to build as Shorthouse and Julia are certain they hear a man sneeze next to them. Shadows are cast when there is nothing there to cast a shadow. Every time they turn a corner or move from one room to another, you wonder what they are about to encounter. Shorthouse “felt as if his spine had suddenly become hollow and someone had filled it with particles of ice.” The aptness of the simile is dazzling.

Then it happens, with a sudden jolt as powerful as the one that accompanies the first appearance of the old woman in “House on Haunted Hill,” a movie moment which may very well have been inspired by this story.“Facing them, directly in their way between the doorposts, stood the figure of a woman. She had dishevelled hair and wildly staring eyes, and her face was terrified and white as death.

“She stood there motionless for the space of a single second. Then the candle flickered and she was gone—gone utterly— and the door framed nothing but empty darkness.”

This is one of the most effective old school haunted house stories you will ever read. Take a look at it here -- -- and you’ll know why Algernon Blackwood was one of H.P. Lovecraft’s favorite writers.

The Haunting Hour Volume One: Don’t Think About It (Universal, 2007)

Lots of people, i.e. adults, are still trying to figure out the appeal of R.L. Stine’s ubiquitous creepfests for the younger set, the Goosebumps books particularly. (Stine also produces some other series, including Rotten School, Mostly Ghostly, The Nightmare Room, and Fear Street, which actually predates the emergence of Goosebumps. We’re talking something like 300 million books sold worldwide.)

The made-for-DVD movie “The Haunting Hour Volume One: Don’t Think About It” may or may not have drawn its plot from a tale in one of Stine’s Haunting Hour books, which are apparently a series of short story collections. I’ve not read anything from this series. Dan Angel and Billy Brown are the credited screenwriters.

Emily Osment (15-year old younger sister of Haley Joel Osment) stars as Cassie Keller, gothy new girl in school. She doesn’t get along with her parents or her kid brother, and as soon as she strikes up a conversation with the boyfriend of Priscilla (Brittany Curran), Female Big Cheese on Campus, she finds herself on the outs with this “Mean Girls” wannabe as well. In a scene purloined from “Carrie,” Cassie humiliates Priscilla at the Halloween dance.

Curious about a place called The Halloween Store, Cassie enters to find the kind of set decoration any kid in thrall to the icons of horror movies would love. It’s dark. It’s cobwebby. The walls are covered with masks, skulls, skeletons wearing wispy shrouds. And it’s owned by a long-haired creep with a soft voice (Tobin Bell, of the “Saw” franchise).

He sells her a book called “The Evil Thing.” That night at home, she unlocks the clasp that holds the covers together and reads the doggerel incantation that would cause The Evil Thing to come to life if the jingle were to be read aloud.

Halloween night, stuck with sitting her annoying little brother, Cassie does read the verse out loud. The Thing appears so she and Sean, Priscilla’s disgruntled boyfriend (Cody Linley) spend the next few hours rescuing little brother Max (Alex Winzenread), Priscilla, and an unlucky pizza delivery guy from the beastie and its horde of ravenous offspring.

Directed by Alex Zamm, this surprisingly entertaining little picture is clearly aimed at the upper elementary/lower junior high set. The first half contains some nicely suspenseful moments, but after the monster makes its appearance the movie gallops towards comedy. Perhaps that’s so as to not really frighten its audience, or it may be because the budget didn’t call for anything like realistic monster effects so Zamm decided to ramp up the camp.

The acting is decent in that overdo-it-just-a-little-for-the-chillun style that is de rigueur for kiddie TV. Osment is the main attraction and she could go on to an adult TV or film career. It’s hard to tell how these young actresses will age.

This is a pretty good little movie for kids who want to see “something scary” that isn’t really scary at all, but adult fans of R.L. Stine’s work, assuming there are any, may be a bit disappointed. After all, some of the Goosebumps books, especially the ones about ghosts, can generate a true frisson that is totally lacking here.

“The Monkey’s Paw” (W.W. Jacobs, 1902)

I couldn’t guess how many times I’ve read “The Monkey’s Paw,” W.W. Jacobs’ brilliant and chilling short story, but I can tell you how often it’s cast a dark spell over me—every time.

Originally published in 1902 (and available now online at, among other places), TMP is the essence of the classic horror story—unhappy people bring more misery upon themselves, and their attempts to escape their fate opens the way for things best left alone.

Mr. and Mrs. White live with their adult son Herbert in Laburnam Villa on a quiet and deserted road. The old couple apparently does no work, leaving the breadwinning to Herbert, who is employed at a mill.One night they are visited by an old friend of Mr. White’s, Sergeant-Major Morris, who is coaxed into telling them the story behind an odd talisman he carries in his pocket, “what you might call magic, perhaps,” “an ordinary little [monkey’s] paw, dried to a mummy."

The weird object had had a spell put on it by an Indian fakir. For three owners, the paw would grant three wishes each. Morris admits to having made three wishes himself, but he grows nervous and doesn’t tell what he wished for. When asked how the first owner used the charm, the sergeant-major replies, "The first man had his three wishes. . . I don't know what the first two were, but the third was for death. That's how I got the paw."

Morris tosses the thing into the fireplace but it is retrieved by White who asks if he can retain it as an odd keepsake. Mrs. White playfully wishes she had four arms so her house work would be easier for her, and Morris hastily warns her that if the Whites are going to do any wishing, they better be sensible about it.

After Morris leaves, the Whites wish for 200 pounds to pay off their mortgage, and everything begins going downhill from there.

Jacobs’ yarn is a variation of the old tale story about trying to outsmart the devil with your wishes, but his take on the basic story has become the dominant one for over 100 years. “The Monkey’s Paw” has been dramatized for stage and screen, radio and comic books—you name the medium and it’s a good bet some version of TMP can be found there.

So familiar has the story become, even if you’ve never read it before you’re likely to get a feeling of literary déjà vu. Ignore it and read to the end. You’ll never find a better evocation of unseen horror than you will from “The Monkey’s Paw.”

Dead Silence (Universal, 2007)

My original review of this picture began like this: “This movie is going to break my heart. I like it. A lot. And it’s going to bomb. A lot.” It took in less than 18 million at the worldwide box office, a.k.a., me being right.

What’s worst was that its weaknesses, and there are two—maybe three--big ones, didn’t sink it. Its strengths did.When you see that the Universal Pictures logo that opens this movie is the version that was used in the early 1930s, you’ll know that this isn’t going to be another torture porn hunk of splatterpunk.

On a dark and stormy evening, young James Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) and his wife Lisa (Laura Regan) find outside their apartment door a large package with no return address. It contains an old ventriloquist’s dummy named Billy. Lisa thinks it’s a hoot; James is creeped out.

While he’s gone to retrieve some take out, weird stuff starts happening in the apartment—a disembodied voice whispers to Lisa and then something we can’t see attacks her. James comes home to find her dead with her tongue cut out.

He becomes the only suspect in the case. Homicide cop Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), with no solid evidence, lets him go and James takes off to his home town of Ravens Fair because he’s remembered the legend of Mary Shaw, a local ventriloquist from the 1950s who had been accused of kidnapping a child and was killed by the missing kid’s relatives. She was buried with her dolls, all 100 of them.

James interviews an old man named Henry, the town undertaker (Michael Fairman), who has a crazy wife. She hides in the cellar with her stuffed raven. James talks with his own father, Edward (Bob Gunton), with whom he has been angry for years. Ella, Edward’s new young wife (Amber Valletta) is right by the old man’s side.

It’s all just gothic as hell—old house, crumbling theater, ghosts, dead bodies that come to life, cemeteries, dolls that, whenever we stop looking at them, seem to move, and lots and lots of rain. Director James Wan (“Saw”) handles these traditional elements as if he’s seen every horror movie made in the 1930s, which I’m sure he has. His writing partner and “Saw” co-creator Leigh Whannell has snatched up as many pieces of these old movies as he can and stitched them together.

If you like those creepy old flicks, which, surprise, I do, you can have a lot of fun with “Dead Silence.” What you might not appreciate is Wan’s determination to make a film that is stylistically as unlike “Saw” as he can. Instead of the hyper kinetic camera work of that earlier film, this time everything is rock steady and framed perfectly. The camera is always in the most effective place and when it moves, it moves for a cinematic reason rather than just because jolting the camera is a post-“Blair Witch Project” horror movie cliché.


Kwantan is bland in the lead and Whalberg, who was convincingly intense in “Saw II,” is miscast here as a ‘40s style smart mouth cop. Also, the film builds to a double-whammy ending and the first whammy is ham-handedly introduced. Maybe Wan and Whannell did that on purpose to misdirect the audience into thinking that there would be only one jolt in the last reel. Whatever. It’s weak.

Inanimate objects in movies that start moving around creep me out. If that works for you, and you have a taste for gothic horror that is heavy on atmosphere and light on gore, give this one a try. But if your appetite for contemporary horror has been sharpened by “Saw” and you expect more of the same from Wan and Whannell, leave “Dead Silence” for those of us who still like that little chill that all too rarely runs down our spines.