The big surprise this Christmas was happening upon a body horror film that the whole group, including those who were not horror fans, enjoyed – American Mary.  It’s very unusual for the uninitiated to be drawn to movies from exploitation subgenres such as body horror and rape/revenge. American Mary certainly falls squarely into these groups, yet one guest deemed it “tastefully done”.  That perception is quite an accomplishment for a film from such highly criticized subgenres of horror.

American Mary tells the story of a smart, sexy medical student whose financial struggles lead her to perform underground body modification operations.  Though initially Mary Mason’s only interest is a financial quick fix, she accepts it as a new vocation after being disillusioned by the mentors she once admired and quitting medical school.  Like David Cronenberg’s Crash (James Spader, Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette), the film concerns itself less with debating the ethics of such practices than portraying the perceived benefits to its proponents. But, like any mad scientist centered tale, dismissing the potential repercussions of messing with nature can have unforeseen consequences.  When her first client remarks “I don’t think it’s really fair that God gets to choose what we look like on the outside”, Mary doesn’t give it much thought.  She knows after all, she’s capable of performing the procedure and it is what the client wants.  Unlike most mad scientists though, Mary is steered by her circumstances rather than delusions of grandeur and is both surprised and unaffected by the celebrity status she earns.

Most body horror films are a sort of visual slapstick that pique the interest of only the most hardcore splatter fans.  But, American Mary has a developing story and unusual, damaged characters who fascinate the viewer.  One can’t help but recall Todd Brownings Freaks (1932) when watching the film. Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) delivers a strong lead as Mary.  Jen and Sylvia Soska (Twisted Twins Productions), who wrote and directed the film, had her in mind when they wrote the part. According to an interview with Mad Mike at Maven’s Movie Vault of Horror, they were introduced to her work in Ginger Snaps after being teased at school and called the Fitzgerald sisters.  They rented the film to see what their bulliers meant. Isabelle manages to nail it, portraying a woman who is both hero and monster, displaying strength and weakness, compassion and viciousness and creating a believable, sympathetic, albeit morally ambiguous character.  The character, who dons a black apron, gloves and heels during surgery is reminiscent of the lead in Audition (1999).

While Mary’s first bouts with illicit surgery leave her physically ill, her attitude changes as she learns more about the unethical arrogance of the surgeons she once aspired to be like.  When they invite her to a private party where she is drugged and raped, any line between mainstream surgical practice and the underground she has discovered disappear.  She captures her attacker for use in practicing and documenting procedures she is willing to perform including: genital alterations, amputation, teeth grinding and various other body revisions.  Soon, through the internet she becomes a revered celebrity, known as Bloody Mary,  for the body modification crowd.

The Soska sisters appear in the film as twins requesting some particularly extreme modifications, including the exchange of their left arms.  Mary’s other clients are freakish curiosities obsessed with expressing their inner selves through their physical appearance.  Mary becomes their savior through her willingness to do anything someone assures her they want.

A fascinating parade of clients is featured.  Reportedly, no computer effects were used in the film, which instead relied on makeup and actual body modification images and practitioners.  As Mary approaches her work as a professional, blood and gore is minimized, giving the film more the feel of a psychological suspense piece than a gore fest despite the subject matter.  However, the entire film is visually striking, seeped in deep reds and black.  I would assume that the twisted sisters were fans of Dario Argento (Suspira).  Whether consciously or not, certainly the masters of Japanese and Italian horror impacted the look of this film.

What is most horrific is the realistic obsession with body image the characters hold.  Beatrice, the sweet and likeable woman who has undergone over a dozen surgeries to make her look as much like Betty Boop as possible particularly stands out both for her performance and her chilling visage.

According to the Soska sisters, American Mary came about after they sent their first film Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009) to their favorite directors and got a response from Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) who wanted to see more scripts.  Though they didn’t have anything prepared they told him about several ideas and he requested seeing the one about the surgeon.  American Mary was written in just a couple of weeks and sent to him.  It was later filmed in only 15 days.  American Mary is the second of what the sisters call their “coming of age/adolescent triology” between Dead Hooker in a Trunk and Bob.  Stylistically they claim Bob will have more of a monster and reverse rape/revenge vibe with equal parts hilariousness and vulgarity.  Can’t wait!

Noir at its Best: The Window (1949)

Posted: November 22, 2013 in ****, Film Noir

At the intersection of horror and crime drama lies another of my favorite genres, Film Noir.  Recently I saw for the first time one that kept me on the edge of the couch more than any horror movie I’ve seen in a while – 1949′s The Window.  Like another favorite of mine, Night of the Hunter, The Window is centered around a young boy being relentlessly stalked.  Only in this case it’s not something he possesses his stalkers are pursuing, they are out to kill him because he has witnessed a murder they committed.

The boy is played by Disney’s Bobby Driscoll and he does an incredible job.  In fact, it earned him a juvenile Oscar in 1950 at 13 years old. Driscoll is one of Hollywood’s saddest stories.  Praised widely for his talent, he was released shortly after making Peter Pan, for which he was not only the voice of Pan, but the visage who inspired the animated character.  The story goes that he was released due to acne and soon developed a drug habit and legal problems which resulted in being boycotted on both film and stage. By 31 he was found dead in an abandoned building and buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave before it was realized who he was.  It has been claimed that Michael Jackson’s initial surgeries were an effort to create Bobby Driscoll’s nose.

While The Window has some in common with Rear Window, in that it opens with little Tommy witnessing a murder through a window, it is actually inspired by the fable Peter and The Wolf and the movie begins with a quote from Aesop.   Tommy has an active imagination and a propensity for tall tales.  So, when he recounts the atrocity he has witnessed to his parents (played by Barbara Hale and Arthur Kennedy) and the police no one believes him, leaving him on his own to face his evil neighbors.  Both Rear Window and The Window are based on short stories by Cornell Woolrich.  Woolrich had many of his stories and novels made into films, especially Noirs.  IMDb.com lists 100 such writing credits from movies like The Leopard Man to television episodes on shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Little Tommy is frustrated by his inability to get the attention of the adults around him.  Worse, in an effort to prevent him from getting into more trouble, his parents, who due to their financial woes must leave him alone during the day, lock him in their apartment, nail the window shut and tell the neighbors what he has said about them.  He is cornered and at the mercy of the killers.  Joe Kellerson, played by one of Noir’s most prolific villians, Paul Stewart, is no holds barred in his pursuit of Tommy.  One scene in particular, when Kellerson and his wife (played by Ruth Roman) catch up to Tommy completely took me by surprise with it’s depiction of a violent act towards a child that is still shocking by today’s standards. And, the finale is one of the tensest chases and standoffs ever put to film.

The Window was actually made in 1947 but shelved by Howard Hughes when he took over RKO due to his opinion that viewers weren’t interested in movies centered on children.  But, when it was released it saved the studio and propelled the careers of all involved save Driscoll, including director Ted Tetzlaff who was more associated with cinematography from films such as Notorious.

The Window has been remade multiple times including as The Boy Cried Murder (1966), Eyewitness (1970) and Cloak & Dagger (1984).

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/579269/Window-The-Movie-Clip-You-ve-Had-A-Bad-Dream.html

Due to time constraints this year, I scaled down my Halloween party food plans to basic quick and easy offerings – classic recipes with a twist in the presentation to fit the season.  Here are a few simple ideas to turn cheese, meat or fruit trays and dips into themed fare.

meatheadMeathead: This was the second year for the meathead platter.  I cheated and used a skull I had, wrapped it in foil and then smeared cream cheese on it to hold the ham and pimento stuffed olive eyes in place.  But, you could also form your skull out of any cheese ball recipe you prefer.  This year I bought Italian ham instead of the regular cooked ham used in the past.  The extra marbling in the meat really set off the sculpture.

eyesEyeballs:  These are the best looking eyeballs I’ve found to date that actually taste decent.  I saw marinated mozzerella balls used for eyes last year on Divine Dinner Party but really liked the addition of Prusciutto di Parma I found later from Nadia G’s Bitchin’ Kitchen.  The outer layer of meat really seemed to set them off.  Next year I may spend a bit more time and use black olives for the pupils. But, there is no easier eatable pupil/iris combo than a stuffed olive – I used them for years when the kids were young to turn spaghetti and meatballs into worms and eyeballs.  I also add them to deviled eggs for cows eyes.  I didn’t actually make Nadia G’s blood sauce, nor did I make the marinade from Divine Dinner Party.  I merely bought marinated mozzarella balls and added the olive and meat wrap.  Done!

cheeseCheese Graves: The cheese tray was created by simply using some Halloween tombstone cookie cutters on various types of cheeses.  This picture unfortunately does not show off the brie coffins behind the first row of tombstones.

Dips &  Chips: Finally, what party is complete without a variety of chips and dips?  For these you can use your favorite recipes and serve them in Halloween dishware or you can add black or orange food coloring.  Scissors or cookie cutters can be used to cut tortilla shells into bone shapes for dipping.  These can be fried or baked and can be made with either flour or corn tortillas.

guac

Homemade or store bought guacamole (or any chunky dip) can be displayed with a mini pumpkin to look like vomit.  Or any cheese ball could be rolled in black sesame seeds.  The one below is a putrid log made from cream cheese and blue cheese.

putried

Other tips would include serving dip in a witch’s cauldron made from a hollowed out round rye bread loaf or adding a bit of tonic water to dip to make it glow under black light.  Labels can also help add to the theme.  You could call your deviled eggs trolls eyes or add black food coloring to your chicken wing sauce and call it bat wings.   So there’s no need to find brand new recipes if you just give some thought to a slight twist on your old standbys.

I wanted to add a few new things for my Halloween party this year, but find myself out of time and money.  While watching I Walked With A Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) I was struck with a solution.  It’s really a wonderfully spooky film from back when zombies were living humans whose will was controlled by Voodoo rather than being reanimated corpses a la Romero.  I saw an interview once where George Romero expressed dismay in having effected that change, saying it was never his intention for that to happen as he loved zombie films.  He never called his living dead zombies, the fans dubbed them so.  I agree it’s a shame.

Anyway, the sequence in the film where the afflicted woman is lead by her nurse to a Voodoo ceremony is fascinating.  It contains the iconic scene with the animal hanging from a tree.  But, just as effective are several other settings they pass, including a gourd hanging from a tree, simple wood structures surround by cane stalks and a skull encircled by rocks.  How easy to duplicate!

Not surprisingly, my next thought was of the stick people hanging in the trees in The Blair Witch Project.  Not a favorite movie of mine, but still those have become such iconic horror symbols and the movie plays an important role in film history; So, I’m fine with paying it homage in my displays.  It also contained the bundle of sticks with the missing friends teeth wrapped inside.

What could be easier (and cheaper) to create!  I don’t think it matters if people recognize the nods in my displays, as they are in the films because the creators felt they would be creepy.  Turns out, this theory works.  My 17 year old, who has not seen I Walked With A Zombie, came home yesterday saying she loved the new “skull rock thing” in the flower bed.  So, there you go.

Now if I really get industrious, I’ll build a wicker man!

Derivative works also have endless possibilities.  While searching for images for this post I ran across these Blair Witch inspired scarecrows on The Haunting Grounds.

Just goes to show how keeping it simple can sometimes be very effective.

DSC03005One inexpensive, quick way I’ve discovered to add some interesting details to my Halloween decor is using printables from bloggers and other sites.  This year I have printed a variety of items including: signs, silhouettes, photographs, business cards, paper dolls and labels.  Some I just use for ideas to create my own, some are available for purchase and some are given as free gifts by the designers.  I never understood the draw of Pinterest until I discovered all the Halloween project ideas on it.  Visit my Pinterest boards for a variety of ideas – http://www.pinterest.com/kimmason65.

LABELS: The first printables that caught my eye were potion labels.  I had previously been collecting oddities to put in jars and have longer term plans for a full witches kitchen and laboratory scene.  My early plans centered around various items that looked cool or glowed in the dark.  Tonic water for example can be used as the “preserving solution” for brains and other body parts and the liquid will glow under a black light.  Tide detergent also glows under black light.  So I started collecting little  dollar store items from the party favors sections like mini skulls, brains, worms, spiders etc.  Then, I found many cool printables, so now I find the label I like best and then look for an items that fits it.  I’ve also collected a variety of jar decorating ideas to enhance these knick knacks.  Pictured is one bloggers jar created for Dracula’s ashes.  It is embellished with a variety of trinkets and treatments.

PHOTOGRAPHS: There are a variety of photographs available online in the public domain or under Creative Commons licensing that make them free for personal use.  I plan to print them and create cool frames to mix them in with family portraits.  I already have a collection of store bought holographic portraits on my walls and I would like to cut off the plastic frames and put them in nicer frames to display along with the others I’ve printed as well as create zombified versions of my family photos (more on that in another post).  I’m partial to Victorian special effects photography like the headless photos that can be found online. You can also find photographs of families posed with deceased family members.  The movie The Others features a book of this type of photographs which were popular in those days and are still common in some cultures.

PAPER DOLLS: While looking for photos, I ran across several artists who created paper dolls which can be printed for free or purchased. I particularly love the Vincent Price articulated paper doll by Mellisa Kojima which can be found here as a free printable- http://melissakojima.blogspot.com/2012_10_01_archive.html or go to http://sketchyoldblair.blogspot.com/2009/10/welcome.html for a free download of a traditional paperdoll of a boy with various Halloween costumes by Blair Sayer.

SIGNS: You can find a wide variety of signs to print or create on poster board or purchase metal or paper versions.  Zombies are in vogue these days thanks to The Walking Dead and the “Zombie Crossing” signs are some of my favorites – Get high resolution printable size here – http://spiziks.livejournal.com/193608.html   There is also a cool artwork and instructions for a free beware of Frankenstein’s monster sign here – http://davelowe.blogspot.com/2011/10/22-days-til-halloween-sign-of-monster.html.

 Silhouettes & Business Cards: I love horror movies, so this year I am adding some nods to some classics with a tray of business cards as well as some iconic silhouettes for the outside walls of my house and garage.  The business cards include personal cards for Norman Bates (Psycho), Captain Quinn (Jaws) and Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) as well as some general businesses like Elite Hunting (Hostel) and Ghostbusters.  For outdoors I’ve found several shadows to be cut out of landscaping material to hang on outside walls such as Nosferatu and the preacher from Night of the Hunter.  

There are a variety of other printables you can add to your collection including templates for invitations, placeholders, food identification cards or games like the puzzle box from Hellraiser.  Let me know in the comments any other ideas you may have for using printables to add detail to Halloween displays.

There are few villains in horror that pack the punch of little 8 year old Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed.  Rhoda instantly solidified my love for what remains one of my favorite subgenres – children that kill. And, she has never been dethroned as the quintessential model for all those that have followed. Played by Patty McCormack, who was more recently seen as Pat Nixon in Frost/Nixon, Rhoda is a disturbing mix of perfect etiquette, grooming and intelligence with a vicious determination to get whatever pleases her with no regard for even the most basic human compassion.

Rhoda, herself is at times perplexed by what makes her different from those around her.  A victim of genetics, hopelessly detached from the human condition, she struggles to understand what keeps her mother perpetually on the verge of hysterics.  The audience learns with her mother just how deep her affliction goes when she discovers her latest victim’s medal in her trinket box and announces she will return it to the fallen child’s parents to comfort them.  Rhoda insists it would be useless, saying “Claude is dead. He wouldn’t know if he had the medal pinned on him or not.”.  Her mother tries to explain the devastation they have both just witnessed by the boy’s distraught mother and Rhoda responds by suggesting “If Claude’s parents want a little boy so much, why don’t they just get a new one at the orphanage?”

The memorable characters in The Bad Seed are actualized brilliantly by the original Broadway cast.  The use of theater folk adds to the over the top feel of the entire production.  Fans of melodramas like The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Night of the Hunter will enjoy the humor and wonder what is intentional and what is a product of an overly dramatic style of acting.

A distraught Hortense Daigle attempts to bond with Rhoda.

Case in point, Hortense Daigle, little Claude’s distraught mother played by Eileen Heckart.  She was an acclaimed theater actress who also starred in movies like Burnt Offerings and many television shows including as Mary Tyler Moore’s hardnosed reporter aunt which captured Lou Grant’s heart.  The scene mentioned above is one of the most memorable.  Hortense visits the Penmarks, three sheets to the wind in order to find some new memory of her lost son to hold on to.  What ensues is a drunken rant acknowledging her lower station in life and what her son meant to her.  Heckart earned a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as a result of the riveting performance.

Evelyn Varden is likewise a jewel in this film, playing basically the same self indulgent, incessant talker she does in Night of the Hunter.  As Monica Breedlove, the Penmark’s landlady who adores little Rhoda, she breezes in and out chattering away and offering her armchair psychoanalysis, blind to the impending doom that surrounds her.  Her commentary and discussions with Reginald Tasker a writer friend, provide the context of the movie – the debate between nature and nurture.  While perhaps a bit over discussed for the modern viewer, the debate still rages on today and at the time these were brand new questions.  1950′s audiences were shocked by the idea that a child could ever become a criminal, much less a cold blooded murderer, especially if they grew up in a good home.

Leroy taunts an unaffected Rhoda.

Much of what we learn about Rhoda comes from her interactions with Leroy (Henry Jones), the handyman.  Leroy is one character which no doubt will be taken up a few notches if Eli Roth (Hostel) ever does his planned remake of the movie.  Several scenes hint at a much darker character than is shown on screen.  He fantasizes about Monica Breedlove’s death as well as his sexual attraction for Mrs. Penmark and he finds pleasure in taunting and scaring children.  Rhoda, who doesn’t scare easily, becomes his primary target and the two share several scenes where he repeatedly tries to rattle her.

In one, he directly accuses her of purposely harming her school mate, who was found drown at the school picnic and he tells her that the police have “stick bloodhounds” who can sniff out blood, and no matter how much someone has tried to wash it away the police have a powder that will make it glow blue.  When the confident murderess retorts that they don’t execute children, he assures her they have a little blue electric chair for little boys and a little pink one for little girls.  Our first view of Rhoda’s coldness comes whilst Leroy is taunting her for not being more effected by her classmate’s death.  As she skates off Rhoda proclaims, “Why should I feel sorry, it was Claude Daigle that got drowned, not me.”

Christine Penmark talks with Monica Breedlove

Finally, there’s the star of the show, Christine Penmark, played by Nancy Kelly.  At the movie’s opening Christine has already begun to question her idyllic life, wondering about her own origins and the “disturbing maturity” of her daughter.  While presented as the perfect daughter, wife and mother, Christine annoyingly whines her way through the movie, gesturing overdramatically with her hands.  Early on she appears to be reaching out to console, particularly Mrs. Daigle or to beg for help from her landlady and husband.  Midway through the picture she spends most of her time hugging herself as if to protect her womb.  By the end, her hands are spasming all over the place, pounding on furniture and clawing at her stomach as if to claw out the source of evil.  But, luckily for Christine, her oblivious husband will stand by her without question, no matter how extreme her actions become.

Unfortunately, The Bad Seed suffered at the hands of the Hays code which stipulated crime could not pay, particularly murder.  The ending of the book and the play before it remains intact, but a new Hollywood version is tagged on so that nature can protect itself and true love prevail.  The result is a completely implausible disappointment.

The murderess Besse Danker who is mentioned repeatedly by Reginald Tasker is said to  have been inspired by real life murderesses Belle Gunness and Jane Toppan.  Both women killed dozens, the former for money and the latter in part, for sexual gratification.  Both also inspired other characters.  The Bad Seed likewise inspired future pop culture references, such as a spoof of Hortense Daigle’s breakdown by Kenny’s mother in South Park after one of his many deaths.  The movie is also quoted in 1993′s Without Conscience,  a book by a psychologist arguing for genetic links to behavior.  According to Wikipedia, “Robert D. Hare argues that March’s novel is a ‘remarkably true to life’ portrayal of the development of psychopathy in childhood, illustrating both Rhoda’s callous use of others to serve her own ends as well as Christine’s growing helplessness and desperation as she realizes the extent of her daughter’s behavior.”

The Bad Seed was actually remade for TV in 1985 with Blair Brown as Christine Penmark, Lynn Redgrave as Monica, David Carradine as Leroy and Carrie Wells in the title role – though that time as Rachel.  The result was disappointing.

Reports in 2004 proclaimed an upcoming remake by Cabin Fever director Eli Roth.  Unfortunately Hostel became a megahit before this came to pass and he shelved it to do a sequel to Hostel.  At the time Variety quoted Roth concerning the upcoming project, “Roth promises a new take with a modern horror sensibility. ‘The original was a great psychological thriller, and we are going to bastardize and exploit it, ramping up the body counts and killings,” said Roth. “This is going to be scary, bloody fun, and we’re going to create the next horror icon, a la Freddy, Jason and Chucky. She’s this cunning, adorable kid who loves to kill, but also loves ‘N Sync.’  Also involved was Luke Janklow as producer.  He was the grandson of the 1956 director Mervin Le Roy and great grandson of Warner Brothers studio co-founder Harry Warner.

Remakes are a shaky thing, more often than not totally missing the mark and disappointing.  But, there are exceptions and Roth’s take on this classic is one that would interest me.  A good remake can have the effect of not only bringing an old story to modern audiences, but introducing them to the original as well.

Rhoda in the 21st Century.

The golden age of slashers in the late 70′s and early 80′s quickly gave way to a parade of sequels and copycats which failed to enhance the genre. The trend unfortunately continues to date with few exceptions.  The issue seems to be the inability of filmmakers influenced by Directors like John Carpenter and Wes Craven to recognize, or at least accomplish, any of the elements that made films like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street work, beyond the spectacular kills.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always give props to great gore effects and death sequences.  And granted, they are particularly important for slashers and do seem to be enough to make a quick profit.  admittedly, Paris Hilton getting brained in House of Wax (2005)and the 3D effect of the decapitated girl’s head sliding down the shovel in the remake of My Bloody Valentine (2003) were enough for me to sit through those films.

But, to remember a film fondly and recommend it, it takes a bit more.  For the 21st century slasher, that most often seems to be more attention to character development and a healthy speckling of laughs. I’ve always regarded the memorial kill scenes in slasher films and splatter films more generally to be a form a visual slapstick.  As with slashers, slapsticks are pretty low on my list of favorite comedy sub genres.  But, who can resist Charlie Chaplin or even Dick van Dyke?

So, here’s a shortlist of slasher films made after 2000 that I enjoyed:

Honorable Mention: Satan’s Little Helper (2004).

Satan’s Little Helper

The story of a young boy who unwittingly aids a serial killer on Halloween night was an interesting setup that delivered a few chuckles, but overall didn’t maintain momentum and the cast just never seemed to mesh, making it feel forced throughout.  In the end it was a film that I wanted to like more than I actually did.  Jeff Lieberman was a bit more on the mark, with his entry into the animals run amok sub genre with Squirm.  He both wrote and directed both films.

3.  Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)

Tucker and Dale vs Evil Tucker and Dale vs Evil flips the slasher in the woods context.  Two amicable country boys take a fishing trip to a cabin in the woods and a mistaken by young college students as serial killers. 

In this comedy of errors the college students repeatedly fall prey to their own paranoia as they attack the laid back vacationers, who in turn think their new vacation property is overrun by members of a suicide cult.

Director and co-writer Eli Craig (son of Sally Field) delivers a witty script with well executed site gags for his first full scale movie.  He manages to make believable the most unlikely series of scenarios including self imposed death by wood chipper.

In addition, Tyler Labine (Dale), Alan Tudyk (Tucker) and Katrina Bowden as Allision, the girl from the group who befriends them after they save her achieve good chemistry.  Particularly Dale and Tucker, who play off each other like they really were childhood friends, displaying both moments of rivalry and those of cherishing each other.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil is a thoroughly enjoyable, fun movie throughout and places 3rd on this list only for its lack of scares.

2. Severance (2006)

Severance is a refreshing entry that fully embraces the slasher formula, offering both laughs and scares.  Throughout it feels like it was created by someone who grew up with a genuine love of the classic slashers, giving them an update by creating a grown up version.

The would be victims in director and co-writer Christopher Smith (Creeps) film are the sales staff for an arms company, gathering in a remote cabin for a team building retreat.  While the age and context of the characters nearly eliminates the gratuitous nudity and sex scenes often associated with slashers, in their place he substitutes additional character development and humor.

All of the characters are likeable and flawed, inviting comparisons to The Office.  A common source of the gags is in interrupting what seems to be a typical death scenario with a more reasoned reaction by the more experienced characters.  No women stumbling for no apparent reason and laying on the ground until the killer catches up here.  It manages to elicit surprise followed by laughter a couple of times early on which contribute to suspense in later scenes.

Smith also leaves no loose ends, bringing the story back around on a couple of occasions to tie up something long since forgotten about.  Severance is play by play by the book in sticking to the slasher formula yet delivers a refreshing film that reminds us what made the genre so popular.

1.  Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

One of the best films of any horror genre in the 2000′s, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon delivers equally well on both the comedy and the horror front.

Leslie Vernon plans on being the next famous serial killer and he invites a young film crew to document his rise to infamy.  The filmmaker’s struggle with their consciences as Vernon, played by Nathan Baesel explains the process of developing a back story and choosing victims to set the stage for a rampage that will put him on par with Michael, Jason and Freddy who he asserts are all actual people.

Baesel does a remarkable job at creating the quirky antihero and the film is speckled with memorable characters played by prominent figures in horror including Robert England (Nightmare on Elm Street), Scott Wilson (In Cold Blood, The Walking Dead) and Zelda Rubinstein (Poltergeist).  All the aforementioned, save Rubinstein who has since passed away, are said to be returning along with the writer/director for a sequel this year dubbed B4TM (Before The Mask).

Wilson is particularly engaging as Vernon’s mentor, an old school killer that teaches him tricks like spending increasing amounts of time buried in a coffin so he will be able to come back after the victims think they’ve killed him and let their guard down.

One by one Vernon lays out the elements of slasher icon and describes how they are created with ingenuity and preparation.  The film is full of witty dialogue and clever humor that anyone who appreciates the classics will thoroughly enjoy, though it would be lost on the uninitiated.

I highly recommend Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon as a solid entry on lists for best horror, comedy, mockumentary or first person footage films of any sub genre.  But in order to appreciate it fully the original Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street are all prerequisites.

4f64362c7dc40.preview-500For me, cable ties are the new duct tape.  I use them to fix or make just about everything.  So, it was no surprise when I stumbled upon a quick fix for hanging ghouls on my walls in preparation for Halloween using cable ties.

Most store bought Halloween ghosts and ghouls come with a rope or string loop attached in the middle of their heads so that you can hang them.  They are also often added this way to homemade crafts.  In some case you can hide these simply by tying a knot halfway down and putting a pushpin through the bottom half into the wall.  The head then pulls forward slightly, hiding the loop.  When the loop is too short for this it will just pull the pushpin out of the wall.

One fix that works with most light to medium sized figures is to create a new hanger with cable ties and a push pin.  Simply take a small cable tie and wrap it around the push pin.  Before you tighten it insert a second cable tie perpendicular to the first, leaving the second one open.  Clip the unused end off the first cable tie after you have tightened it enough that it can’t slip over the end of the push pin.

4f64362cbfe97.preview-500Next find a place to attach either a cable tie or string to the decoration.  Around the neck is best if it won’t damage the item and will hold there.  Now, connect the open cable tie to what you put on the decoration.  Simply press the push pin into the wall and your decoration will seemingly float near the wall.  They tend to pull forward a bit if you secure them near the top of the figure, so hang them slightly above your head level so that they are looking down on you.

This method works well for many types of decor no matter the season.  Pictured is one on a skull cane used for curtain rods, which has no trouble holding the cane as well as several layers of light material for Halloween curtains each year.  They also work well to string lights or garlands around the ceiling, windows or doorways for Halloween and Christmas.  I leave them on when storing the items for the next year so there is no need to place hooks or other hangers before decorating.

You may want to purchase push pins that are clear or match the color of your walls if they will show.  In the case of the “floating ghoul” pictured, the push pin doesn’t show at all.

Photo by Kim Gottleib. Jamie Lee Curtis is directed by John Carpenter on the set of Halloween (1978) while Tommy Lee Wallace listens behind the door.

Photo by Kim Gottleib. Jamie Lee Curtis is directed by John Carpenter on the set of Halloween (1978) while Tommy Lee Wallace listens behind the door.

Slasher films would be a contender for the bottom slot if I were to rank the horror genres in order of my preference. However, they make sense as a starting point to this blog for a couple of reasons: I live in Bowling Green, Kentucky and I saw the best horror film I’ve seen in some time last night and it thoroughly embraced the classic slasher formula.

Admittedly, in my early years I adored what few entries into the genre I was exposed to on television, particularly Psycho (1960 dir. Alfred Hitchcock), Peeping Tom (1960, dir. Michael Powell) and Dementia 13 (1963, dir. Francis Ford Coppola). Dementia 13 doesn’t seem to be remembered by younger generations. Perhaps now that ghost stories are coming into vogue again people will start to appreciate the atmospheric spookiness that it achieved. Despite centering on an axe wielding lunatic it shared as many attributes with a ghost story as it did a slasher.

I had the pleasure of seeing Halloween (1978 dir. John Carpenter) in theaters when it was first released and babysitting would never be the same. I did have some trouble accepting the end and declared I didn’t like it because of the implausibility of it. Most movies then, at least the ones I could get away with seeing, wrapped their ending in nice neat packages. In fact, until nearly the 70′s the Hays Code actually required it to insure that crime didn’t pay. These days though, particularly with foreign made films, if you don’t get over that you are missing much of the best stuff out there. So, I did long ago.

Halloween became all the more interesting to me when I moved to Bowling Green to attend WKU. It’s the town referenced in the music credits (Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra, a.k.a. John Carpenter with a keyboard) for what some have claimed to be the most recognizable piece of music in the world.

John Carpenter’s father was head of the music department at WKU for years. My first apartment was on Chestnut Street, where police searched for Michael Meyers after he unleashed his rampage, and Smiths Grove, the location of the fictional sanitarium from which he escaped is just down the road. Not far in the other direction is Russellville, where the real Laurie Strode, Carpenter’s childhood crush, grew up. It took some time, but our city now embraces its connections to the master of horror it influenced and the films in which he acknowledges it.

Tourism set up a self guided tour that includes both locations in his life and those mentioned in the films and from time to time Carpenter has appeared at events for various local organizations.

His early partner in crime, Tommy Wallace is from the area. The two formed their first band, Tomorrow’s Children, here and the more popular later group, The Kaleidoscope, for which they projected Chaplin and Keaton films onto the bass drum. They still get together as Coup de Ville for shows among friends. To the public the group is mostly known for the bizarre video playing the theme song from Big Trouble In Little China.

Wallace’s role in several of Carpenters early movies was very significant, not least of which was being the guy that found the mask for Halloween (in his capacity as Production Designer). As most slasher fans know it was a cheap, plastic Captain Kirk mask bought in a quick run to the store that was painted over in white.  Simple, as was most of the beauty of Halloween, that’s why it remains one of the most profitable indie films of all time.

Wallace is also known as the director of Stephen King’s It with the iconic evil clown. He’s done several others, but I particularly enjoyed one of the more obscure ones, 12 Days of Terror, for which he wrote the teleplay. It claims to tell the true events that Jaws is based on. It’s a made for television, period piece (1916) that really keeps you on the edge of your seat and rooting for the characters throughout.

According to Wallace, their original plan had been to create a series of movies, entirely unrelated save taking place on Halloween. But they chose to bring back all their main characters for Halloween II (1981), condemning their third effort Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) to be rejected by fans when they realized Michael would not be making an appearance that All Hallows Eve. More a modernization of the mad scientist genre, Season of the Witch is not a slasher, rather the story, written and directed by Wallace, centers on a man’s race to stop a mask manufacturer who plans to blow up all his masks via a signal in his final television commercial, when the thousands of children he’s hypnotized during his media campaign, gather in front of their TVs, wearing their masks to watch a big reveal Halloween night. The 3rd installment of Halloween would forever waffle between “all time worst sequel” lists and “most under appreciated” lists.

Both Carpenter and Wallace graciously have done in depth interviews for the Amplifier. You can find a detailed history of Carpenter’s work by Mark Griffin here, and an extensive interview of Wallace by me, reprinted in its entirety here.

Halloween is undeniably one of the most influential movies ever made and was accordingly preserved in the National Film Registry in 2006. It launched such a steady slew of derivative work that it created in the minds of some non-fans the prejudice that horror and slasher are synonymous. I ran into one of those once and it turned out Alfred Hitchcock was his favorite director. Imagine that, praising the man who brought us leaps closer to modern horror with Psycho, The Birds and Frenzy, and the guy doesn’t think he likes horror!

Not all the post-Halloween slashers lacked originality. Noteably, Wes Craven’s contribution of Freddie Kruger, who stalked the teens of Elm Street in their sleep. It took the vunerability from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 dir. Don Siegel) where the protagonists struggled to stay awake (to avoid being replaced by will-less clones) to a whole new level.

Unfortunately, the volume of slasher films that made little more effort than following the outline put forth in Halloween, resulted in some of the worst horror films ever made. And some of those even had sequels! The trend continues today.

The central role sex plays in most slashers has also put it under attack. In addition to frequent nudity, slashers have been accused of having subtext condemning the more indulgent characters and leaving only the timid virgin to survive. Laurie Strode is the quintessential Final Girl. Defenders, point out that as an archetype, the Final Girl is an empowered female and therefore slashers elevated the role of the gender substantially, not just for horror, but film in general. Some feminist schools of thought are resistant to accepting that premise though, because inevitably Laurie cries on Dr. Loomis’ shoulder at the end and later entries follow with similar reunions with the Final Girl finding comfort from her boyfriend or father in the final scene.

Personally, I don’t fault Laurie for leaning on someone’s shoulder after protecting two kids all night from Michael Meyers in hand to hand combat. Though feminism has contributed immensely to pop culture, it is not without it’s pitfalls, frequently demonizing depictions of HUMAN frailty by heroines. I heard an interview once where Carpenter addressed his accusers. He basically claimed that it was no way his intention that the victims be considered immoral. He in fact, considered them to be normal kids, who in the process of experiencing life, ran into the killer.

At heart, the slasher’s theme is the story of David and Goliath, the Biblical tale of a young man who defeats a rampaging giant with just a sling shot. It’s a tried and true narrative that transcends generation and culture, so when it’s put to film well it’s destined to get us cheering as good triumphs over evil in the end. John Carpenter would make valuable contributions to several other genres, but for the slasher, he was THE game changer.

So, I’ll begin this journey through horror, spurred by pondering on how I could possibly arrive at a “greatest of all time” list, with a nod to Bowling Green’s hometown heroes and take a look at a few of what I consider to be the best slasher films I’ve seen. All the films I’ve mentioned here rate at least 3/5 stars in my book, most higher. I’d love to hear your feelings about them or recommendations for other slashers in the comments.

4f643537ebb0f.image          After years of the kids making fun of me for having most of my Halloween decorations inside where I could see them, I decided a few years back to work on some outside decor.  A cemetery in the front yard seemed the obvious choice for maximum impact.  Making tombstones was a great family project, which I will provide directions for later, but the PVC stakes I put around them to mimic a fence just didn’t do them justice.  So this year I decided it was time to enhance the staging.

4f6435365b9be.imageI began the project by gathering and cutting my main materials.  Furring strips come in packs of six so I purchased four so that I could make ten fence sections and reserve four to create a gate at a later time.  In trying to save, I first purchased 17 1/2 inch PVC pipes, thinking that five vertical bars per 10′ section would suffice.

Though they were somewhat acceptable, after constructing the first one I decided more bars would create a more realistic look and that my fence was too plain.  So, I added another six bars, one in between each of the existing bars, and made them shorter so that a spear shaped finial could be added to both the top and bottom of them to dress up the fence.

So, in the end I cut 17 of the 1/2″ PVC pipes into thirds and the other 15 1/2″ PVC pipes into fourths.  I also cut 10 1″ PVC pipes into thirds.  I used a hacksaw which cut easily through them, though a power saw of some kind would have sped that process up substantially.  Next, for both the 1/2″ and 1″ PVC pipes that were cut into thirds, I cut a 45 degree angle on one end so they could be more easily driven into the ground.  The pipe cut in fourths I did not make an angle cut on as they would have finials on both ends.  A quick sanding across the ends smoothed them.  The I put the sandpaper in the palm of my hand and gave each pipe a quick turn in it to knock off the remaining bits of PVC left from the cutting.

4f6435351a71b.imageNext, I began painting all the pipe and furring strips.  On the first prototype, I drilled holes for my pipes in the furring strips before painting it.  The problem that resulted was when paint dripped in the hole it prevented the pipe from fitting so the holes had to be sanded out.  That is why I chose to paint first on later sections.  To make the painting go faster, I lined all the furring strips up on two saw horses and painted them with a paint roller and primer followed by two coats of exterior black paint.   I actually had the primer and paint from another project, but have added a cost estimate to the materials list so that it is complete.  I hurried through this part, knowing that they would have to be touched up in the end.  Specifically, since only a small line on each furring strip was touching a saw horse, I turned them to paint all four sides while they were still wet, though I left more time in between coats.

To paint the PVC I laid them across the sawhorses and used the roller to prime them, turning them several times.  However, during this process I happen to run across a webpage that gave an awesome tip (http://www.instructables.com/id/Halloween-Cemetery-Fence/#step1) and changed methods.  The author had put a sock over his hand and dipped that in the paint than just pulled each pipe through his hand.  This method worked very well and was much faster, even on the 1″ pipe.  I put a piece of furring strip between chairs and leaned the pipes on that to dry.  While they were drying I moved inside to watch the Halloween selections on TV while doing the next stage.

4f6435361707d.imageI already had foam insulation from another project and needed about 1/4 of a sheet to cut out all my finials. I started by making a cardboard pattern for two types of finials.  One pattern was longer and more pointed spear shape for the main bars and the other was a short spear shape for the short bars.  I also left a stem about two inches long on each of them for use in securing them by pressing the stem inside the pipe.  I first cut strips the width of my finials from the insulation and pulled off the plastic coating from both sides.  I used scissors to cut them into rectangles of the length I needed for each type of finial.  Next, using the patterns and an exacto knife I cut out the shape.  Then I took the exacto knife and trimmed to get as clean an edge as possible along the spear and also to take off excess on the stems so that they fit into the 1/2 inch hole in the pipe.

4f643537098ef.image4f6435382330a.imageTo enhance the finials a bit more, I took a rotary tool with the cut wheel attachment and gently did a quick pass along the edge at slow speed to give it a kind of hammered looked.  Finally, I took my fingernails and scraped along each edge to pull off residue that had gathered along the cuts.  A brush seemed the easiest way to paint these so that the bristles could be poked into the wholes or rough edges.  They don’t require priming and one coat covered them sufficiently.

4f64353775688.image4f643537b6131.imageBack outside, it was time to bore holes in the furring strips.  A 7/8″ drill bit was just about the right size for the pipes once they had been coated with paint.  Some went in easily, while others scraped the paint a bit, which was expected.  I also turned the furring strips sideways and drilled a hole on the ends with a 1/8″ bit, which was just the right diameter to push 8″ cable ties through.

4f6435359a3ff.imageAfter the holes were drilled I secured some scrap pieces to a board laid across the saw horses to create stop for assembling the fence sections.  I also put a piece on each end a 1/2″ in front of the stops so that I could lay the top furring strip in and it would be held in place.  I slid the pipes through the holes and secured them with screws so that the tops would be exactly even.  The longer pipes I left sticking out 8″ from the furring strip and the short ones protruded 4″ out.  With an 11/64″ bit I drilled a whole through the furring strip and into the pipe, though I didn’t go through both sides.  Then I secured them with a 1 1/4″ drywall screw.  Not all of them reached the other side of the wood, but 1 1/2″ screws were not available and the shorter ones were sufficient to hold the pipes in place.  Next, with the top furring strip still held by my scrap wood I pushed the bottom strip on the pipes.  I repeated the drilling and screwing process, but only on the shorter pipes, which I wanted to hang below the strip exactly 4″ as they did on the top.

4f6435354ef85.imageMy fence was now ready to assemble!  Unlike, the author’s on the site mentioned above, my fence stands by itself without the use of rebar or added support.  With a rubber mallet, I hammered a 1″ pipe into the ground several inches.  Luckily it had rained a couple of days before, if the ground is too dry when I drive in pipes for my other decorations, I water it first to make it easier.  Softer ground requires a less forceful blow and helps prevent damage.  Using a cable tie, I attached to top furring strip to the 1″ pipe.  Next, I stood the fence upright in where I wanted it and gave a few lighter taps to each of the taller pieces of pipe to keep them balanced.  At the other end I drove in another 1″ pipe and cable tied it to the furring strip.  This was repeated with each section.

4f643536d1fed.imageAfter the sections were in place I actually went back and clipped the cable ties so that I could just have a single one going around each 1″ pipe and both the furring strips on either side of it.  I also secured the bottom furring strips this way and hammered some more on the taller pipes anywhere that the furring strips between sections didn’t match exactly.

To finish off the fence, I pushed in the finials and then coated the whole thing with a quick spray of Rust-Oleum Hammered black paint.  The paint is great for making the PVC pipes look more like wrought iron.  If money is not a concern all coats could be done in this paint.  Finally, I took some skulls I had purchased for 75% off after Halloween a few years back and using a glue gun stuck them to the 1″ pipes.  They are not listed in materials below as I plan to make something else in the future to go there, but had enough of these to use for now.

4f64353694e44.imageYou can find several similar fences online and also use real fences for ideas on what you want yours to look like.  I chose a very simple design because I am very inexperienced with this type of project.  In fact, this was by far the most I have used any of the tools I had on anything, so I know any beginner could do this!

UPDATES:

  1. I have since learned the PVC pipe cutting tool is best
  2. This put pressure on the wood and cracked it in some places, so I have more recently driven rebar into the ground, put a larger pvc piece over it and attached the fence pieces between these anchor posts.

Materials & Tool List including amount needed for 10 fence sections:

  • 1/2″ x 10′ PVC pipe @ $1.88 ea. (used 32 = $60.16)
  • 1″ x 10′ PVC pipe @ $3.08 ea. (used 4 = $12.32)
  • 1″ x 2″ x 8′ furring strips @ $1.08 ea. (used 20 = $21.60)
  • 8″ black cable ties @ 20 for $2.19 (used one pack = $2.19)
  • Dow 1/2″ x 4′ x 8′ Extruded Polystyrene Insulated Sheathing @ $8.68 (used about 1/4 of the sheet = $8.68)
  • 6 x 1 1/4″ fine drywall screws @ $6.47 for box of 90 (used one box = $6.47)
  • Exterior Black paint @ approximately $20 per gallon (used 3/4 of a gallon = $20)
  • Kilz 2 @ $15.98 gallon (used less than 1/4 gallon = $15.98)
  • Black Rust-Oleum Hammered spray paint @ $7.47 (used 4 cans = $29.88)
    • Total cost = $177.28 ($17.70 per section)

Tools:

  • Drill with bits in sizes 7/8″, 11/64″ and 1/8″
  • Hack saw
  • Phillips head screw driver
  • Sock
  • Paint brush
  • 4″ paint roller
  • Rotary tool & cut-off wheel
  • Rubber Mallet