31 Days to Scare ~ Suspiria (1977)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An American newcomer to a prestigious German ballet academy comes to realize that the school is a front for something sinister amid a series of grisly murders.

Stars: Jessica Harper, Joan Bennett, Alida Valli, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javicoli, Eva Axén

Director: Dario Argento

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Few movies considered classics can truly live up to their reputation and I think it’s especially hard for horror movies to hold up as the years go by. Audiences have become too desensitized to extreme violence, cheap scares, and ‘gotcha’ twists that looking back on what was once considered cutting edge becomes increasingly difficult. I’ll admit that re-watching director Dario Argento’s Suspiria I was keenly aware of all the moments that someone experiencing it for the first time might roll their eyes or check their watch. This is a movie that favors art over substance and atmosphere over narrative, possibly making it a rough sit for those looking for a traditionally structured fright flick. However, if you can settle in and let Argento’s most celebrated picture work its magic on you, you’re going to get a huge reward.

By the time Suspiria was released, its director was already well known in the film world for his lavishly ornate visions of horror. In films like Deep Red and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento had created a calling card of sorts for the look and feel of his films. Focusing on production design and complicated camera angles that often played a part in furthering the central mystery of his bloody thrillers, Argento’s films were unpredictable and quickly moved him to the top of the list of giallo filmmakers. Receiving good notices and distribution across Europe and the US for his earlier work, Argento hit a new level of box office success with Suspiria when it arrived in 1977 . We were at the tail end of the paranoid and demon possession horror entries of the early ‘70s (like The Exorcist) and a year before John Carpenter’s landmark Halloween gave birth to the slasher film. The timing was perfect for a movie that straddled the line between popular film and art-house exclusivity. Along comes Suspiria , dripping with amazing visuals and several hair-raising passages.

Arriving in Germany one rainy night, American Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper, Minority Report) has come to study dance at the renowned Tanz Dance Academy which is run by Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, 1950’s Father of the Bride). She’s barely made it to the front door when she sees a frantic girl running out of the academy into the darkness. We follow the girl as she seeks asylym with her friend, only to be stalked and elaborately slaughtered by an unseen creature. The next day Suzy begins her studies under the watchful eye of Miss Tanner (a devilishly manic Alida Valli) and soon begins to experience strange visions while people start to die horrible deaths around her. As Suzy investigates more into the origins of the academy, she begins to suspect it’s being run by a coven of witches who are more than willing to trim their student roster if anyone steps out of line.

There are many unforgettable sequences bestowed upon us by Argento. From the opening kill to a spooky death in a shadowy courtyard, the master takes his time toying with the victim and us. An extended chase sequence that ends with the victim falling into a nest of barbed wire is satisfying but feels like it plays out in real time. It’s all accompanied by a downright eerie score from frequent Argento collaborator, The Goblin. Having seen multiple Argento films I know the director likes to proceed slowly and with precision, often to the exhaustion of the viewer. There are times when you’re wondering how anyone could fall victim to a killer that moves so deliberately but it’s all constructed with such elegance you have to admire the effort.

Narrative has never been Argento’s strong-suit and having seen the remake of Suspiria released in 2018 before re-watching this I see how simple his idea for the film is. There’s nothing too deep about what he’s trying to say and while the overall impact of the movie is profound it’s hard to argue there’s very little story to sink your teeth into. Even a late in the game cameo by Udo Kier (Downsizing) as a professor who provides information on witches to Suzy doesn’t fully resonate.

Though Argento would receive critique throughout his career for not being overly kind to his female characters, there are several strong women in the film that are shown to have their wits about them. Harper’s wide eyes and general mousiness take her a long way in establishing her stranger in a strange country approach but her line delivery (even those that weren’t dubbed by her later) feels a little comatose. That stands in stark contrast to Bennett who speaks each of her lines without punctuation, pause, or purpose. She just sort of exhales and words happen to come with it. Most of the film was dubbed after the fact, creating some moments that are in sync and others that are way off.

This was the first film in a trilogy of movies surrounding covens of witches that Argento imagined. The second, Inferno, came out in 1980 and the final, Mother of Tears, arrived without much fanfare in 2007. I’ve yet to see the final film but Inferno suffers from much of the same issues present in Suspiria – a lot of great looking visuals without a truly intriguing story. There’s no question Suspiria deserves it’s spot on the list of influential horror films in history and you should absolutely see it, just be prepared for a pretty exterior and a frustratingly hollow center.

31 Days to Scare ~ Beetlejuice (1988)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A recently-deceased husband and wife commission a bizarre demon to drive an obnoxious family out of their home

Stars: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: PG

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Some movies feel like great equalizers, something we all can agree on even when we disagree on most everything else.  For me, Beetlejuice is one of those movies.  Even the hardest of hearts and the most unpleasant of critics are able to find something to praise in this loads of fun horror comedy first released in 1988.  Now celebrating it’s 30th Anniversary (and with a musical stage adaptation headed for Broadway in 2019), it’s a great time to revisit ‘the ghost with the most’ in all his ribald glory.

Director Tim Burton cut his teeth with many darkly comic shorts in the early ‘80s, making his big screen debut with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985.  Three years after that and one year before he’d officially be catapulted into the A-List with the summer smash, career-defining adaption of Batman, he gave us this endlessly creative and visually captivating flick.  Though originally intended to be a much darker film (and almost starring Sammy Davis Jr. as the titular character) it was wisely steered in the direction of going for more laughs than shrieks.  Sure, there are scary parts to Beetlejuice but with its focus on dynamite practical effects and ingenious make-up (which would win an Oscar) the majority of film wants to make your jaw drop in awe instead of in a scream.

Adam and Barbara Maitland are just settling in to a two-week vacation at their home in postcard perfect Winter River, CT when they die in a car crash after careening off a picturesque covered bridge.  They find themselves trapped on earth in their previous home with its new tenants, pretentious NYC transplants. Though they try to get rid of the family first in their own newbie ghostly way, they eventually summon Beetlejuice, a bio-exorcist for the undead that has more effective ways of cleaning house.  When Beetlejuice sets his sights on marrying the goth daughter of the owners, the Matilands take further action to evict the trouble-making exorcist.

Though later on in his career Burton would use his actors more like scenery in service to his muddy CGI vision (yikes! Sweeney Todd!) here he has cast the film to absolute perfection.  Alec Baldwin (Aloha) and Geena Davis (A League of Their Own) ably play the slightly square recently deceased couple who sees their house go from Norman Rockwell perfection to new wave mania.  It’s fun to see Jeffrey Jones (Howard the Duck) and Catherine O’Hara (Frankenweenie) play off of each other’s small town discomfort in a Green Acres-sorta way.  The film also nicely introduces Winona Ryder (Mermaids) to a larger audience with Ryder nailing her adolescent ambivalence toward most everything she comes in contact with.

Even if he has the least screen time of any of the principal actors, when you hear the word Beetlejuice you can’t help but instantly think of Michael Keaton (Spotlight, Gung-Ho, Pacific Heights).  Making the most out of his limited appearances, Keaton is a live wire with enough energy to practically lift him off of the ground.  His make-up and costuming could have been limiting or in the hands of a lesser actor could have done the work for him but Keaton mines every opportunity to go big before he goes home.  If the Oscars had been a bit more free-thinking, it’s the kind of memorable performance that should have put Keaton into the awards discussion as an outside of the box nominee for Best Supporting Actor.

While Burton (Dark Shadows, Big Eyes) would go on to create they moody Batman and its sequel, he never has returned to this type of free-wheeling carnival of fun and that’s a damn shame.  He clearly knows his way around this tone and finds a perfect balance throughout.  When CGI became more available he started to rely on that way too much and all but abandoned the kind of in-camera effects and large scale production design employed here.  While his next film, Dumbo, looks like a heart-tugging triumph…all I can see is the overuse of CGI again.  If anything, Beetlejuice remains a reminder of the kind of filmmaker Burton originally started out as and what I hope he’ll continue to work back toward being.

This is one of the rare movies I manage to see at least once a year.  I watched it on a plane back in January and then attended a 30th Anniversary Screening of it recently and I could easily see watching it again before the year is through.   I’m seeing the musical in a month so I have a lot of Beetlejuice in my life right now…and so should you!

31 Days to Scare ~ The Frighteners (1996)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a tragic car accident kills his wife, a man discovers he can communicate with the dead to con people. However, when a demonic spirit appears, he may be the only one who can stop it from killing the living and the dead.

Stars: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes (Director’s Cut)

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: What I love so much about movies is that over time bad ones can become good and good movies can become bad. We’ve all had experiences where we have this certain vision of a movie in our head (positive or negative) and then, upon revisiting said movie, our opinions can change. Then there are the movies that you liked but didn’t quite catch on with others which eventually gained a cult following in the ensuing years. The Frighteners is one of those movies that I remember really liking when I first saw it but a prime example of a one that didn’t get the audience is richly deserved. With the rise in popularity of its director over the last two decades, more and more people are “discovering” this horror-comedy and claiming it as a spooky favorite. Better late than never, in my book.

In 1996 director Peter Jackson hadn’t yet become ‘Oscar winning director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy Peter Jackson’. He had found underground success with Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive, his first two movies that were truly out there in their oddity (both cult classics unto themselves). It was his 1994 film Heavenly Creatures (introducing most of us to Kate Winslet for the first time) that really put him on the map and caught the eye of big shot Hollywood director Robert Zemeckis (Flight). Originally bringing Jackson on to create another film in his Tales from the Crypt series, Zemeckis read the script from Jackson and Fran Walsh and decided it was good enough to be a standalone film. Using their homeland New Zealand as a stand-in for a seaside California town, Jackson and Walsh gathered their friends at WETA studios, the fledgling effects company that would explode with the LOTR films five years later, and set about to make a different kind of ghost story.

Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future) is an opportunistic ghost hunter looking to con unsuspecting people out of their money in exchange for ridding their houses of poltergeists. The catch is that he can actually see these ghosts and has conspired with them to swindle the townspeople of Fairwater. When otherwise healthy townsfolk starting dying at an alarming rate, Frank realizes a malevolent spectre is at work…one that he may just have a personal history with. And what of the meek woman (Dee Wallace Stone, The Lords of Salem) being terrorized by an unseen force in the home she shares with her mother on the outskirts of an abandoned mental hospital? Is the same ghost responsible for all of the shenanigans going on?  With the help of a local doctor (Trini Alverado) and his ghostly friends (John Astin, Chi McBride, and Jim Fyfe) Bannister avoids a creepy detective (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator) and goes further into the unknown as he seeks answers to who has gone-a-haunting (and a-hunting) within the town.

Jackson and Walsh have imbued their script with a truckload of dark humor and it’s easy to see why it may have been off-putting for audiences looking for a more straight-forward tale of terror in the summer of 1996. The movie takes a while to get hopping and when it does it blasts off like a locomotive with little reprieve. It’s an effects-heavy film and one that famously held one of the longest shooting schedules ever approved by Universal Studios. The extra time was worth it, though, as even twenty years later the movie holds up to CGI scrutiny with the best of them.  I recently watched the Director’s Cut for the first time and it’s about 10 minutes longer than the version released in theaters.  The added scenes flesh out the characters (pun mostly intended) and provide a little gasp of air while the movie is moving at lighting speed. Jackson is good with setting up extended scenes of delirium but he’s not simply out to give you the willies. He’s more concerned with the overall film experience and that speaks highly of the kind of filmmaker he was growing into.   Much like he immersed us in Middle Earth with his unimpeachable LOTR trilogy, he gives the audience checking out The Frighteners what they came for and much more.

31 Days to Scare ~ Sleepaway Camp (1983)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Angela Baker, a traumatized and very shy young girl, is sent to summer camp with her cousin. Shortly after her arrival, anyone with sinister or less than honorable intentions gets their comeuppance.

Stars: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tierston, Christopher Collet, Mike Kellin, Karen Fields, Katherine Kamhi, Paul DeAngelo

Director: Robert Hiltzik

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Though I combed the shelves of my local video store for all the horror goodies I could find, it took a while for me to get to Sleepaway Camp.  I’m not sure what kept me from it for so long but when I finally did I walked away a bit shell-shocked (more on that later).  I’ve revisited it several times over the years and each time I forget how relatively well made it was considering its budget and where it fell in the slasher genre.  Things were just reaching a fever pitch with every possible holiday and location providing fodder to pit a deranged killer against horny teens.  To have a film released in 1983 about a killer at a camp (hello, Friday the 13th and The Burning) didn’t seem all that interesting…until you get to the end.

After a creepy credits sequence that moves across the abandoned Camp Arawak, we enter a prologue that sees a tragic boating accident befall a family.  Years later, Angela (Felissa Rose), a survivor of the accident, is shipped off to summer camp with her cousin, Ricky (Jonathan Tierston)  A quiet girl with large eyes, she instantly runs afoul of Judy (Karen Fields), the queen bee in her cabinand catches the eye of Paul (Christopher Collet), a friend of her cousin.   While Paul gradually coaxes Angela out of her shyness, strange accidents start to happen around camp and bodies begin to pile up.  The reveal of the killer in the final seconds of the movie is a genuine shock, not just because of who it is (which isn’t much of a puzzle) but how they are introduced.  I’ll say no more because you have to see it for yourself.

Instead of hiring a bunch of twenty-somethings for his film, writer/director Robert Hiltzik wisely cast actual teens to play the campers…which has its pros and cons.  That these kids actually look like people that would be attending this camp gives the movie some authenticity, that is until they start getting killed and then it begins to feel a tad sleazy.  The casting also dictates that the movie isn’t built around copious nudity or exploitative situations which is one way this movie sets itself apart.  The kills are well staged but budget restrictions force Hiltzik to get creative and imply more than he shows, to generally effective results.

Another drawback to casting younger actors is that they haven’t developed much technique by this point and many performances are too broad which becomes grating as the movie goes on.  Even the adults seem to be gnawing on every piece of scenery they can find, many gaining laughs for their line readings that don’t seem to make total sense.  Add to that some thick New Yawk accents from several actors and it almost becomes an unintentional farce.

Still, the movie plays quite well for an 84-minute low-budget horror movie.  The music is sinister and Hiltizik feels like a director with good ideas.  Take the opening credit sequence in the empty camp.  As the camera pans over the vacated cabins, tennis courts, and activity center, Hiltzik overlays ghostly sounds of when there were people in these areas.  It sets a spooky tone right away and one he largely maintains over the course of the film.  Leading to its boffo ending and through the closing credits, the movie has a strong atmosphere throughout.

Spawning three increasingly ludicrously comic sequels that, while maintaining one specific character, feel like films that exist in another universe, Sleepaway Camp is an above average selection from the mass of similar genre films that were released in the early ‘80s.  It has a cult reputation and deservedly so – even if you know what happens at the end it doesn’t diminish your enjoyment revisiting it a second or third time.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Monster Squad (1987)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A small town is disrupted with the arrival of Dracula to retrieve an amulet controlling the balance between good and evil.

Stars: André Gower, Robby Kiger, Brent Chalem, Tom Noonan, Duncan Regehr, Ryan Lambert, Stephen Macht, Mary Ellen Trainor, Jack Gwillim, Jon Gries, Stan Shaw, Leonardo Cimino

Director: Fred Dekker

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 82 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Few films bring up such rich retro memories for me than 1987’s The Monster Squad.  I can still see it now.  I’m nervously biting my lip standing next to my dad at Home Video, our local rental haunt.  He’s holding the box for a movie he and my mom are checking out and I’m clutching the cardboard case (stuffed with a perfectly fitted Styrofoam rectangle) for The Monster Squad. I’m 10, it’s PG-13…I’m anxious.  I’d already asked about getting this and my dad agreed…but would he change his mind?  Will I get to take this home and see what looks like a rad flick filled with monsters, cool kids, and, best of all, Dracula?  Or will I be denied at the last minute and wind up empty-handed?  My dad turns to me, looks at the VHS and says to the clerk, “And my son is joining The Monster Squad.”  Score.

Aside from being a great memory of my dad and I, this evokes the kind of excitement that came with physically going to a store and renting movies which has become a lost art.  Being able to browse just the boxes of numerous movies without access to IMDb.com or watching the trailers on YouTube was the chance to create your own narrative as to what you thought the movie was going to be about.  With The Monster Squad, what you see on the box is definitely what you get.

Taking place in a small town that suggests mid-America (actually filmed on the back lot of Universal Studios…look for the Back to the Future clock tower in certain scenes), The Monster Squad doesn’t waste an iota of its short running time.  After an establishing prologue in Transylvania where we are introduced to a powerful amulet that Van Helsing desperately wants to use to send monsters into a black hole, we jump forward a hundred years to meet Sean (André Gower) and Patrick (Robby Kiger).  Typical high school teens, they just want to be able to talk monsters and not worry about silly things like school and chores.

At the same time, a plane carrying the remains of Frankenstein’s monster is hijacked by Count Dracula and winds up in the pond behind Sean and Patrick’s clubhouse.  When Count Dracula uses his power to resuscitate Frankenstein it also awakens The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Wolfman.  Dracula is after the same amulet we see at the beginning of the film which he hopes to use to unleash hell on earth.  The only problem is that he needs Van Helsing’s diary to locate the stone and unlucky for Sean, his mom just picked it up for him at a garage sale.  It’s up to Sean and his gang to vanquish the evil without getting picked off in the process.  So begins a battle between monsters and teens.

Co-screenwriter Shane Black would go on to become one of the highest paid scribes in the business (he wrote Lethal Weapon and was behind the recent reboot of The Predator) and his writing partner Fred Dekker sat behind the camera.  You can tell the two of them had a ball writing this and, though a lower-budgeted film, they make the whole thing look like a high class affair.  It has a ton of fun inside jokes that any classic monster fan will eat up and since most of the special effects are practical and not shoddy computer generated (thank you, Stan Winston), it has aged gracefully.  Admittedly, while the film has stood the test of time visually, it does have a few cringe inducing homophobic phrases that are hard to excuse away even in the most charitable sense.

I love that during the Halloween season instead of pulling the film back from free steaming services someone has allowed The Monster Squad to be readily available to any and all that want to revisit their childhood memories or introduce their kids to the fun.  Though nowhere near a hit when it was first released, it has rightfully gained a cult status over the last three decades.  It’s a bit scary for younger kids but instead of a few off-color potty mouth moments and the aforementioned regressive dialogue it’s fairly family friendly.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Haunting (1999)

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Eleanor, Theo, and Luke decide to take part in a sleep study at a huge mansion they get more than they bargained for when Dr. Marrow tells them of the house’s ghostly past.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Lili Taylor, Bruce Dern, Marian Seldes

Director: Jan de Bont

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Boy, The Haunting sure brings back a lot of memories for me.  It’s 1999 and I’ve finished my first year of college.  I’d been a hardcore movie fan all through high school and middle school but with my growing independence I was able to pick what movies I wanted to take myself to and involve friends with.  The net was still in its relative infancy so to watch trailers outside of a movie theater you had to go on the web and hope your connection was strong enough to keep the preview from buffering forever.  I remember watching the original teaser trailer for The Haunting on TrailerPark.com about a hundred times because it had everything going for it.  Scary movie? Check. Famous director? Check. Popular stars? Check. Prestige producers? Check.  It was all there.  Then the movie came out.

Here’s the original teaser to jog your memory:

Speaking of memories, I remember seeing The Haunting on its opening day and being more than a bit baffled by what was going on with my sure-fire sure thing.  I mean, I had spent $20 to have the glossy double sided theatrical one-sheet poster sent to me so I could display it in my room – I didn’t spend that much money on a turkey, did I?  At the time, I felt I had.  The audiences were laughing at moments meant to be scary and the effects felt like a let-down considering the budget and who was involved.  I was so frustrated I think I saw the movie once more when it came out on DVD but hadn’t seen it in probably a decade and a half.

We’re in the season of scary movies so I figured now would be better than ever to revisit this remake of Robert Wise’s undisputed 1963 classic.  Also, seeing that the original novel by Shirley Jackson has received another remake in the form of a 10-part Netflix show, I wanted to give this one another look before diving into that new production.  Produced by Steven Spielberg’s (JAWS) studio Dreamworks SKG, aside from a few admittedly cheesy bits and those same iffy effects, I was amazed to discover that The Haunting wasn’t the corny mess I remembered it to be. Not by half.

The same day her sister announces plans to sell the apartment she shared with her recently deceased invalid mother, Nell (Lili Taylor, The Conjuring) receives a call inviting her to participate in a sleep study at a secluded mansion.  She’ll be paid well and room and board is provided.  It seems the perfect solution to her dilemma.  Arriving at the ominous Hill House, she’s transfixed by the large estates beauty and ornate interior design.  Joined by bisexual vixen Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Side Effects) and all-American dude Luke (Owen Wilson, Inherent Vice), Nell settles in far easier than her fellow test subjects, seemingly unfazed by the house’s nighttime activities which involve strange noises and ghostly apparitions.

The study is being conducted by Dr. Marrow (Liam Neeson, The Commuter) and, unbeknownst to the three, the study they are participating in has less to do with their sleep patterns and more to do with their fear reflexes.  He’s chosen Hill House for its storied history of being haunted and before he knows it the ghosts truly do come out to play in increasingly aggressive methods.  Soon, Nell comes to realize there are two sets of ghosts at work in the house.  One group is steering them all to a mystery hidden within while another more malevolent force wants to make sure Nell never leaves.

The first hour or so of The Haunting is a well-constructed vice grip that continues to tighten as the people explore the house and its impressively crafted rooms.  The production design here is out of this world, rich and detailed with no two spaces looking exactly alike.  Much of the huge budget must have been devoted to these playing spaces because while you sort of always know they are sets and not practical rooms in a real mansion the overall illusion is a wonder.  From the large ballroom to a panic inducing revolving room of mirrors, each door opens up to a new feast of the eyes.  Even nearly twenty years later it’s remarkable.

Where the film tends to run off the rails (and was then savaged by critics) is in the visual effects which look one step up from Casper the Friendly Ghost-style floating images. Some of them are downright laughable, especially the wooden cherub faces that decorate Nell’s room.  One moment they are giving you the creeps as their dead eyes bore into you, the next you’re giggling when their expression changes to horror with wide eyes and their mouths forming an “O”.  The final sequence is nearly all CGI and it fails to captivate you, though cinematographer turned director Jan de Bont (Flatliners) does stir up some good camera work during the final act.

Yet for all these problems which do play a part in diminishing the overall effect The Haunting was going for, I still found myself enjoying this re-watch all these years later.  It’s well-intentioned and largely well-made with a great cast (more Lili Taylor in everything, please) and is a masterpiece of set-design.  I went in thinking it would still be that cornball loser I had written it off as being all those years ago but found myself invested in the material and characters.  Sadly, this hasn’t been released on BluRay (why the heck not?) but do yourself a favor and find an HD streaming copy to rent.  It’s worth another look.

31 Days to Scare ~ Summer of Fear (1978)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage girl’s life is turned upside down after her cousin moves into her house, and as time goes by, she begins to suspect that she may be a practitioner of witchcraft.

Stars: Linda Blair, Lee Purcell, Jeff East, Fran Drescher, Jeff McCracken, Carol Lawrence

Director: Wes Craven

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I’ve said it before but man, I really miss the classic made-for-network-television movie that has long been extinct. I remember looking forward to all those Moment of Truth movies on NBC as well as the domestic thrillers, wacky comedies, and disease of week flicks that would show up anytime you were ready to change the dial. Without a movie studio behind them, so many of these films have been lost to time with many found only on YouTube in various degrees of quality.

There is the occasional TV movie that drew the kind of viewership that allowed the movie to live on (often being released theatrically in Europe) and one such example is Summer of Fear from 1978. Originally broadcast as Stranger in Our House, the title was officially changed once the movie was granted a run in overseas theaters. It then made it’s debut on DVD before getting a nice treatment on BluRay in 2017. While it’s relatively vanilla for today’s horror audiences, it’s a fun little time capsule that has several impressive names attached to it.

Star Linda Blair was a hot, if troubled, commodity when the movie went into production. An Oscar nominee for The Exorcist, she was also the lead of several notable TV movies which garnered her good notices. At the time, Blair was coming off of the much maligned The Exorcist II: The Heretic and some personal struggles when she signed on to star. Did I mention the film is an early effort from legendary horror director Wes Craven (Deadly Blessing, Nightmare on Elm Street)? Craven had directed a few intense adult horror movies before this and his overall restraint in the confines of television censors here is admirable.

Based on the popular YA novel by Lois Duncan (who had a run of creepy books that were adapted into movies on TV and in theaters), Summer of Fear follows Rachel, a horse-loving teen in California that goes through hell when her orphaned cousin comes to visit and turns her life upside down. After her parents die in a car crash, mousy Julia (Lee Purcell, Valley Girl) leaves her Ozark home to come to live with Rachel and her family in their ranch house. Soon, Julia gets a make-over and starts to ingratiate herself into the lives of her family…to increasingly deadly results. Most of this comes at the expense of Rachel who loses her friends, her boyfriend, and her horse to Julia’s increasing grip over her life. Is Julia just a master manipulator or is there something more sinister going on?

With her big perm and sometimes baby-ish line readings, Blair (Hell Night) is campy fun as the paranoid Rachel. You often can’t blame her for being amazed that people are falling over themselves around Julia, everyone in her life seems so terrible to her you often wonder why she just doesn’t pack a bag and find a new family. It’s nearly hilarious how her loved ones turn on her the moment Julia arrives. Even her father starts to make moony eyes over his niece from the start (ew) and I can’t believe no one has mentioned how gross it is that Blair tries to set her older brother up with Julia…his first cousin! That he turns into a lovestruck puppy over her earns another ‘ew’ from me. I actually shouted out loud more than once, “She’s Your Cousin!!”

At 92 minutes, it feels like a full film meal and Craven often gives us a heaping plate of over-the-top moments. Blair has a knock down, drag out fight with someone and the stunt people look like they are wearing the exact same style wig. It looks like twins are fighting eachother. Purcell is also notable as the mysterious Julia.  She’s evil, no doubt, but you aren’t quite sure if it’s just teen angst or if she’s harboring a darker secret. I’m surprised that this hasn’t had a remake, actually, as the story seems to be prime material to reexamine or reinterpret. As it is, the film manages to locate more than its share of creepy moments within it’s TV trappings and is quite worth seeking out.

31 Days to Scare ~ Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Dracula is resurrected, preying on four unsuspecting visitors to his castle.

Stars: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell

Director: Terence Fisher

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  After the rousing success of Horror of Dracula in 1958, Hammer Studios moved forward with a smashing sequel, The Brides of Dracula, in 1960 without one key ingredient…Dracula himself.  While the sequel had all the right stuff, gorgeous costumes, lavish production design, a solid plot, and committed performances the absence of our titular creature of the night was felt.  Yet it took the studio another six years to get Christopher Lee back in his fangs and cape for another round as the world’s favorite bloodsucker.  And the wait was worth it.

A prologue recaps the ending of Horror of Dracula which was modeled after Bram Stoker’s classic tale.  Van Helsing vanquishes Dracula by exposing him to sunlight, turning him to dust.  The credits for this film play over the dust being blown away leaving just his ring as a reminder of the evil.  Jumping ahead ten years and we find the tiny European town where Dracula’s castle resides continues to harbor superstitious locals that attribute every strange death to Dracula’s curse.  Early on, a visiting priest (the gruff yet jolly Andrew Keir) stops a band of mourners from driving a stake through the heart of a beauty that passed away from an unknown ailment warning them that not every death is the result of a vampire’s bite.

The priest runs into a sightseeing foursome (Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell) and advises them to steer far clear of Castle Dracula.  Even though he believes the count to be long gone, there are things better left alone.  Of course, curiosity gets the better of the men in the group and when the coach bringing them to their next destination refuses to drop them near the castle they are left to fend for themselves…until a strange coach appears and takes them right to the castle where a gruesome fate awaits them all.  They arrive to find they were somehow expected, with a creepy manservant (Philip Latham) ready to serve them dinner…or does he intend to serve them as dinner?

When Lee finally does appear, resurrected through a fairly gory ritual, he’s all silent malevolence that works like a charm.  With no dialogue, Lee’s performance rests on his physicality and wild bloodshot eyes alone and it’s a highly effective performance at that.  Shelley is a hoot as a tightly-wound shrew that nags everyone so much you kind of hope she gets bitten first.  There’s nice work from Farmer, too, as another blonde beauty Dracula sets his sights on.  If the men fade a bit into the background it’s only because Lee is such a dominating presence they can’t really compete with him before or after he returns from the grave.

Movie monsters weren’t anything new when this film went intro production but this is a seriously high class affair.  The ending may be slightly rushed and not as satisfying as the preceding 80 minutes but there’s a reason why Hammer Studios was known as the prestige horror factory of that era.  While they reused many of the same sets, costumes, and actors throughout their history they manage to make every film feel unique and special.  The Dracula property was one they held in high regard and it shows in every single frame of Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  While Lee would return to the role for five more sequels of lessening impact, Dracula, Prince of Darkness as well as Horror of Dracula are timeless classics, and with good reason.

31 Days to Scare ~ He Knows You’re Alone (1980)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young bride-to-be is being stalked by a serial killer.

Stars: Don Scardino, Caitlin O’Heaney, Patsy Pease, Elizabeth Kemp, Tom Rolfing, James Rebhorn, Dana Barron, Tom Hanks

Director: Armand Mastroianni

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  For years all I had heard about He Knows You’re Alone was the tiny trivia factoid that it was the screen debut of Tom Hanks.  Over the years it’s become a footnote to his resume and not much else, falling into the forgotten pit of early slasher films.  Usually, these movies earned their place on the bottom of the heap so when I finally caught this one I was pleasantly surprised to find He Knows You’re Alone to be a competent, if not outright totally entertaining, bit of ‘80s nostalgia.

It’s almost impossible to watch the movie now and try to bear in mind just how early it arrived on the scene.  Released in August of 1980, it came out three months after Friday the 13th and two years after Halloween.  Sequels to both these lasting franchises hadn’t been released and the clones and copycats hadn’t reared their low-budget heads yet so He Knows You’re Alone was still a newcomer to audiences looking for some scares.  Also, the focus on guts and gore hadn’t become de rigueur yet which is why the film is curiously absent of grotesque make-up and buckets of blood.

Leading with a strong opening that’s meta before it became a cliché, we quickly get down to business as a killer dispatches of a young lass at a movie theater.  This killer (creepily played by Tom Rolfing) doesn’t wear a mask so we always know who’s behind it all, but screenwriter Scott Parker has fleshed out the maniac and through flashbacks shows him to be a jilted lover triggered by any female ready to walk down the aisle.  While heading out of town, the killer happens upon a woman (Caitlin O’Heaney) saying goodbye to her fiancé as he departs for his bachelor weekend.  She’ll be spending time with her bridal party so they’re all vulnerable to the killer stalking them over the next few days.

While it draws comparisons in hindsight to Friday the 13th (even though it was filming at the same time) the movie obviously follows the rough outline set out by Halloween, the granddaddy of all slasher films.  The three women each have their own agenda for the weekend; one is going to get some (the delightfully slutty Patsy Pease romping around with her married professor lover played by the late, great James Rebhorn, I Love Trouble) one wants to get some (Elizabeth Kemp, looking to hook-up with a jogger played by Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks), and our bride still isn’t sure her fiancé is the man for her and entertains leaving him for a former flame (Don Scardino).

Director Armand Mastroianni plays it relatively cool for the first hour or so, peppering the film with the occasional suspense sequence but focusing a large amount of time on character development. They might be one-dimensional creations but they sure do get time to talk!  With a lack of blood and gore the film can feel a bit “soft” for the genre but I for one appreciated not seeing every last person disemboweled or sliced up.  I’m sure budget had everything to do with it but the restraint shown here is admirable.

Performances are strong and O’Heaney is a steely lead.  With her beady eyes and pointed features she comes off as an ordinary woman caught in an extraordinary circumstance.  I appreciated that when she starts running from the killer she doesn’t stick around the house to be picked off but instead runs as fast as she can into town and, admittedly, into the protective arms of her ex.  Kicking into high gear for a finale set inside a cavernous mortuary that stretches ever so slightly longer than it should, there is a nice wrap-up that allows our final girl to get up close and personal with her stalker.  For what it’s worth, Hanks is nice enough to have around even though he doesn’t play much of a part in the grand scheme of things.  Not making an appearance until the film is more than half over, rumor has it his character was supposed to be killed off but producers felt like the audience would find him too likable to be killed so he just kind of disappears near the end.

This is one that’s too good to be totally forgotten.  Though other movies would come around that would be scarier and gorier, there’s some fun stuff going on.  It may be too slow for audiences weaned on numerous jump scares and too tame for those with a bloodlust but I feel the film holds up nicely even when you do compare it to other films in the genre.  It may sit alone on a shelf during this time of year as more intense films are dusted off, but give this one a go if you have the chance.

31 Days to Scare ~ Blink (1993)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Emma, a blind violinist who had recently undergone a revolutionary surgery, joins with a police detective to track a serial killer after she was an inadvertent witness to his latest crime.

Stars: Madeleine Stowe, Aidan Quinn, James Remar, Peter Friedman, Bruce A. Young, Laurie Metcalf

Director: Michael Apted

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: My review of 1993’s Blink has to begin with another sad lament that mid-range thrillers like these are no longer made. Throughout the ‘90s movies like this would be released every few weeks and while none of them were going for awards or even enormous box office, many became small gems that are perfect for revisiting even two decades later. I remember looking forward to this one for some time and making sure my dad (who also had a fondness for thrillers) had this on his radar as well. Even at the ripe age of 25, Blink holds up considerably well as a suspense yarn and boasts quite a few good performances and one terrific one.

A blind violinist (Madeline Stowe, Playing by Heart) has been without sight since a childhood accident plunged her into darkness. Independent and more than a little flawed herself, Emma undergoes an experimental surgery that restores her vision but has several side effects. The most troubling to overcome is a visual delay that causes her to see things long after they occurred – so blurry people that visited her in the hospital one day won’t register as clear faces until the next. It may sound like a condition created for the movie but it’s a very real thing.  When Emma’s neighbor is found dead, she realizes she may have “seen” the murderer and tries to convince the detective assigned to the case (Aidan Quinn, In Dreams). He has a hard time believing her when she proves to not be the most reliable of witnesses, eventually pitting her newfound and still shaky sight against a killer’s aim to eliminate the only witness to his crime. There are several twists to the story as it chugs along, including a love affair between the detective and the woman he’s supposed to protect and the true motives of the killer which gradually come to light.

Directed with skill by Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough) and bolstered innumerably by Stowe’s believably rough around the edges performance, Blink is a nifty little thriller with some strong suspenseful sequences. The screenplay by Dana Stevens doesn’t make Emma a perfect heroine, she’s a drinker who was emotionally and physically scarred by her mother and isn’t necessarily the victim people make her out to be. There’s some deep wounds here and Stowe navigates these tricky character nuances well. She’s nicely matched by Quinn and the two create more than believable chemistry (helps they already played a couple, albeit a troublesome one in 1987’s Stakeout). I also liked Peter Friedman (Single White Female) and Stowe’s doctor and even though I feel her part was majorly trimmed in the editing suite, Laurie Metcalf (Pacific Heights) is always a welcome presence.

Worth keeping your eyes open for, Blink is a strong reminder why we need these modestly budgeted thrillers to make a comeback. They are great for a rainy day or a stormy night!