There are a lot of cool ghosts I’ve seen made by haunters and artists. While I love some of the ones created by chicken wire and cheesecloth, the packaging tape method appeared to be the easiest to create with my limited artistic abilities.  And indeed, I was very pleased with the result.


I first started experimenting with smaller versions.  My son was so impressed with the creepy baby that resulted, he even pitched in a made one.

The first step is to find a doll and pose it in whatever position you would like your ghost baby to be in. For my life-sized figure I used a dress maker’s form, a hairdresser’s head and a friend’s arms for the forms.


Next, wrap your form or model with plastic cling wrap from the kitchen. The purpose of this step is to keep the tape from sticking to your model, so you only need one layer.  Once you have completely covered your model with cling wrap, begin wrapping over it with packaging tape.  If you want to get more detail on the face or other places, use small strips of regular cellophane tape for features like eyes and lips.  I didn’t worry too much about fine details as my ghosts will be seen from a distance.

I found that a couple of layers of heavy duty Scotch tape sufficed for a fairly sturdy form.  But, the thicker tape popped up in a few places, so I went over the entire form a couple of more times with a cheap, thin dollar store brand of packaging tape to smooth all the edges.  On my first attempt I tried to continually wrap with the tape, but I found it was much easier to control the shape if I tore off strips of about six inches and placed them. I assume constantly overlapping these also added to the strength of the finished figure. In all, it took one roll of regular sized Scotch tape for each small doll and about six rolls for the adult figure.

Next, simply cut the tape off of your model along whatever route is easiest to maneuver.


You can be quite rough taking the tape off of the model as it is easy to reshape it.  Then simply tape the seams, being careful not to overlap the two sides as this makes them more noticeable.  In general it’s very easy to cover seams with just a few pieces of tape.  I even reopened mine several times as I tweaked my lights without any noticeable effect on the finished product.

One of the main reasons I opted for the packaging tape method was I liked the idea of my ghosts glowing an eerie color.  So the next step was to put lights inside of them.  After testing several methods I found the easiest for larger figures was to mount the lights with packaging tape right onto the stand.  I left about a foot and a half hanging to stuff into the left arm and taped the wire to the top of my piece of PVC.  Then I made a loop about the same size for the right arm.  The rest of the lights I looped in several circles, taping the top of each circle to the PVC.  This spread them out a bit for a more dimensional effect.  While they all look about equal at night, you can see from some of the photos that during the day the green wired lights are visible through the figure.  So I prefer using lights with white coated wire and plan to replace the green ones for next year.  Because white shows more on the ground, I wrapped the wire from the figure to the plug in black electrical tape.


For the small figures I opted to string multiple figures together with the lights.  As you can see by the picture, almost as much wire was outside of the ghost babies as was inside, so I had quite a bit of electrical tape wrapping to do.  Once I hung them on the tree I tried to hide as much of the wiring as possible behind the tree branches.

The small ghosts were hung using monofilament (fishing line) tied around their necks and the larger figures are just sitting on top of a piece of PVC.  For my life-size ghost I used a second shorter piece of PVC and an angled joint so she would be leaning forward a bit.  The white PVC doesn’t show at all even by daylight.  For my full sized child ghost I joined a white PVC piece that went inside the ghost to a black one to lift her off the ground.  At night the black doesn’t show.


On the small one pictured above I didn’t wrap the legs.  On the adult life-sized ghost I had no legs.  Instead I gave them skirts that could blow in the wind.  These were created by cutting up the seams of clear trash bags and taping them a strip at a time around the waist. I did two layers and overlapped each strip a bit.  The second layer I started by taping the first strip between two on the first layer.


I used strips half the size to create a veil for the smaller figure.  But, I wasn’t totally satisfied with how it came out.  Though I think it could be improved by making the strips half the width, I opted to use cheesecloth for the larger figure’s scarf.  I taped it down everywhere the cheesecloth touched tape.  It doesn’t show and after a week her shaw is still in place.


Mine are very simple versions of packaging tape ghosts.  If you have more artistic ability, check out examples by actual artists such as Khalil Chishtee here. Other types of tape sculpture by various artists can be found here.

All of the ghosts I looked at for inspiration can be found on my Pinterest profile in the ghost board, including the chicken wire and cheesecloth ghosts previously mentioned.

And, of course ghosts aren’t the only project for which tape sculpting can be used.  Online I saw some seamstresses using a form like mine and layering it with duct tape to create additional dress forms.  You could use these to bulk out your armatures for other types of figures in your yard haunt.  Sean Bradley has a great example of a life sized articulated mannequin he created with packaging tape on a Halo costuming site here.  It is at the bottom of the page below his tutorial on using a tape sculpture of his head and shoulders as a mold for a solid form.  He simply created the replica of his head and shoulders and then filled it with expanding foam (i.e. Great Stuff).

As I become more adept at creating these figures I would like to try something for my cemetery inspired by the cast glass sculpture by Christina Bothwell you can find here.  I may start by using one of the larger doll tape sculptures without a dress as a ground breaker ghost.  But, it would be cool if I could get it to look like it’s rising out of the dolls body as Bothwell did.






bookshelf-finalI’m working on adding a mad scientist’s lab to my Halloween displays and figured some good reading material would be a necessity in any lab.  This small project was created to hang on my fireplace mantel, but it could also be made as a facade in front of regular books on a shelf or is light weight enough to hang a much larger version on a wall.

To begin the project I cut my pieces of cardboard into different sizes for my books.  In this case I cut them into various widths, but left them all close to the same height so the fireplace wouldn’t show behind them.

Using a metal ruler as a guide, I scored the cardboard at even intervals about a quarter of the way through the cardboard so that the book spines could be rounded.  It’s important that the last score lines on each side are equal distances from the outer edges of the cardboard so the book sticks out evenly on both sides from the shelf.  I actually made these two cuts on all of the books first so that I could plan for various books protruding from the shelves in different amounts.


I then gathered my spine covers that I had printed and glued them to the cardboard using a brush and glue watered down 50/50.  That proportion is for Elmer’s school glue.  If you use a cheap brand, don’t water it down as it already is watered down about that much.


My printed spines came from various location.  There are many sites with free printable book cover textures available to create them from scratch.  I wound up finding actual pictures of old libraries and choosing the book spines I liked the best.  Then I used Photoshop to erase the actual titles on the books (if they had them).  Using the clone stamp I filled texture back in where I had erased and then I wrote in my own titles and credit.

Since I like to incorporate horror movies into my displays whenever possible I paid tribute to some of my favorite scientists with the titles including: Robotics by Miles Dyson (Terminator), Tissue Regeneration by Herbert Best (Re-Animator), Teleportation by Seth Brundle (The Fly), Pharmakeia by Henry Jekyll (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde), How I Did it by Victor Frankenstein (Young Frankenstein), Herbal Remedies by Hershel Greene (The Walking Dead), Genetics by Dr. Moreau (The Island of Dr. Moreau), Concerning Black Holes by Jack Torrence (The Shining), Ancient Egyptian Artifacts by Ardath Bey (The Mummy), Parasites by Warren Chapin (The Tingler), Optical Density by Jack Griffin (The Invisible Man), Comparative Alien Physiology by Leonard McCoy (Star Trek) and Homunculi by Septimus Pretorius (The Bride of Frankenstein). I actually wound up with a bit of space at the end and plan to add Body Modification by Mary Mason (American Mary) to represent the ladies.

Using the printed spines as guides I glued strips of craft foam onto my books to give them more depth.


I then brushed large brown coffee filters with glue and put several overlapping layers over the foam strips to blend them into the spine.  I brushed more glue over the top of the filters to fully attach them to the spines and also to wet them enough to be able to brush out any wrinkles I didn’t want. I put a few layers of filters so that the strips of foam would appear to have rounded edges.


When finished I glued a second copy of the spines over them, carefully lining it up with the first copy so that all the foam pieces would protrude in the correct places. I then squeezed by books into shape and put loose fitting rubber bands on them so that they would dry in the shape of the ends of books.


Once they dried I lined them up in the order I wanted them and measured them to create my shelf.

bookshelf-6-glueFor the backing I cut a piece of cardboard the width of my books and slightly shorter than the height of the shortest one so that it wouldn’t show.  I glued two small strips of wood to the top of it and used them to screw in eye hooks for my hanging wire.  I also added wood strips to the sides and bottom so it would lay evenly flat against the mantel.


Once my backing was done I measured it and cut four pieces of 1/2 inch foam insulation to create my wooden shelf.  To make the foam look like wood I used an awl to scratch some grain marks and knots into the foam. I then painted all the indentations with black paint without much worry about getting too much on.  Then I used a greyish brown paint to cover the entire pieces.  For this I used a sponge brush and painted lightly over the surface so that the black that was inside the indentations I made was not covered. I did the wood grain and paint on both sides of the foam as well as the sides and ends of each piece as some of them would be visible around the books.


Finally, I put full strength Elmer’s glue on the sides of each book and on the bottom half of the back edges and glued them to the front of my backboard.  Around them I glued my foam pieces. The top piece is just glued to the top ends of the side foam pieces.




DIY: Tools for the torture chamber

Posted: September 3, 2014 in DIY, Projects

tool3My favorite part of my Halloween display has always been my torture chamber.  But, I grow progressively discontent with the weaponry and tools of destruction that I find in shops, so this year I decided to make a few of my own.

The inspiration for my first round of tools came from the user TwistedUK, who credited Alan Hopps Stiltbeast Studios when he posted his tools.  I actually hadn’t watched the Stiltbeast video until I looked up the credit for this post, but I will certainly be doing some larger weapons using some of his advice!

Both Hopps and TwistedUK used a sheet of Sintra plastic to create their tool.  I instead opted to use real metal as I’m never very impressed with metallic paints.  I was able to procure some large food service size cans from an employee of a local pizzeria.  I used metal cutters to cut the basic shapes which were modeled after several of TwistedUK’s.


Next, I pounded out the indented lines around the can using a ball pein hammer and an anvil.  The metal cutters were serrated and left little indentations around the edge of my pieces.  I was able to hammer these out, however I discovered that my fiskar gardening scissors could also cut through the metal everywhere except on the rim and seam.  So, I went around the edges with them and was able to get better, smoother curves and detail with the scissors.

I also noticed, which you can see from the picture, that the inside had a bronze colored coating on it.  I was able to get this off scrubbing it with steel wool.  After the cuts, pounding and scrubbing were complete I rewashed them all in dawn to take any oil from my hands off and leave a clean surface for the paint to better adhere to.

Once content with the results, I took twine and wrapped it around the metal to create a place to hold the instruments.  To secure it I started by smearing the metal on both sides with clear, fast dry Gorilla Glue gel.  I also laid the starting end along the metal & wrapped over it to anchor it.  On the other end I either tied it off or tucked it under & then coated it with the glue.  I actually poured some glue over the top of the twine as it seemed to make it look older.  I also added holes using a hammer and an awl in case I wanted to hang them for the display.tool2

Finally the paint job, the part I worried about being capable of doing the most.  Turned out it was easy!  I used 3 colors of acrylic tube paints: black, burnt sienna and red.  I first took a round brush that was cut flat on the top and used the brush like a stamp as you would for stenciling.  I dampened my brush and stamped on the thick burnt sienna and then the red sporadically, everywhere but concentrating along the edges that would be used for slicing into flesh.

Next, I used a large regular brush and dabbed quite a bit of water onto my pallet (a disposable paint roller tray liner) and thoroughly wet the brush.  I pulled some of the red, black and burnt sienna into my water puddle and mixed it but not thoroughly so that different places had different amounts of each color.  I brushed this solution generously all over the metal as well as blotched it on the twine handles.  As I went I added more water and held them with the cutting edges down so that the liquid mix ran over the surface and gathered on the bottom edges.  I propped them up so that they would dry like this, leaving the color thicker on the bottom and around the joints between the “handles” and the blades.

Since I wasn’t sure how well the acrylic would stick to metal, especially if they were displayed outdoors, I used spray acrylic to coat the whole thing once the paint was dry.


I was able to complete all the tools shown in one evening and was pleased with the results.  So, I’m eager to try some larger weapons using some of the ideas from Stiltbeast Sudio’s “Making Prop Weaponry” tutorial on YouTube –

Finally, my top 10 picks of women who epitomize maternal relationships depicted in horror (see also #11-21; #22-33:

10. Vera Cosgrove played by Elizabeth Moody in Dead Alive (1992), directed by Peter Jackson: Henpecked Lionel Cosgrove does his best to cater to his mother. But, when she is bitten by a Sumatran Rat-Monkey while interfering with his new found relationship she becomes a zombie and Lionel really has his hands full. Despite his best efforts to sedate and care for his carnivorous mother and her victims, the undead count she creates keeps growing. Soon Lionel’s house is teeming with zombies, everything is out of control and something must be done about his unruly dead guests. Still lauded as the goriest film of all time, Dead Alive continues to hold its own among the top horror comedies.

9. Mrs. Trefoile played by Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die! My Darling! (1965), directed by Silvio Narizzano The classic Hammer horror film starring Stephanie Powers, Donald Sutherland and the incomparable Tallulah Bankhead. When Patricia (Powers) drops in to pay her respects to her dead fiancee mother, she is imprisoned by the religious fanatic who is determined to purify her soul. As the domineering mother, controlling everyone around her, Bankhead takes her place among the matriarchs of psycho-biddy/hag-horror.

8. Sarah Connor played by Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), directed by James Cameron: Sarah kicked butt in the first Terminator, protecting her unborn son from a cyborg monster from the future. But, she really brings it on in the sequel, leading the now teenage boy on a journey to change the future, aided by her colorful friends and pursued by a more advanced cyborg model. No mom ever was as bad-ass as Sarah Connor, so don’t mess with John!

7. Ruth Chandler played by Blanche Baker in The Girl Next Door (2007), directed by Gregory Wilson: No psycho-mom can match the depravity of Aunt Ruth, particularly given she is based on a true story. Among the most disturbing torture-porn movies ever made, one feels dirty just watching the film about a young girl who goes to live with her aunt and cousins after her parents are killed. Before long her aunt has her chained in the cellar, allowing her young boys and their friends to repeatedly torture and rape her.

6. Grace Stewart, played by Nicole Kidman in The Others (2001), directed by Alejandro Amenábar: This throwback to old school ghost stories made more at the box office than any other Spanish film. The story centers around Grace’s obsessive efforts to school and protect her children alone in an old, isolated mansion while she awaits her husband’s return from the war. Grace maintains that the children have an extreme sensitivity to the sun and systematically keeps it from showing into the house by locking every door and covering the windows in thick drapery. But, she soon begins to suspect someone, or something else is in the house and they aren’t abiding by her rules.

5. Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin played by Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), directed by John Frankenheimer:  Eleanor Iselin set the mold for all domineering, controlling, ruthless mothers to follow. Under her direction, Raymond’s bumbling stepfather fueled a red scare that would put him on track to take over the presidency of the U.S.  Despite her later claim that she resented having to sacrifice her son to get the job done, she doesn’t hesitate to manipulate Raymond and destroy any chance for him to find happiness. While the 2004 version stands above most remakes, even the able skills of Meryl Streep don’t hold a candle to the chilling performance of Angela Lansbury.

4. Mrs. Bates Voiced by Virginia Gregg in Psycho (1960), directed by Alfred Hitchcock: The first mother to come to mind on any horror list is likely to always be Mrs. Bates, the mother from horror’s first slasher film. From then on, insanity would be closely linked to the mother/child relationship on film.

3. Constance Langdon played by Jessica Lang in American Horror Story (TV Series: 2011-present), multiple directors:  While Lang’s performance as Fiona Goode, the coven leader and daughter’s tormenter in Coven, the 3rd season of the television series; It is in the first season as Constance Langdon that Lang’s character stand out in among an outstanding parade of characters.  As the former owner of Murder House, Lang continually drops in on the new family to stir up laughs and trouble.  Her wise cracks and shenanigan’s elevate television’s most interesting foray into horror to dark comedy.  And while her inept mothering instincts and preoccupation with men and drink spawned monsters like her offspring chained in the attic or the troubled teen that massacred his schoolmates, she is willing to go to great lengths to protect her young.  She also birthed the show’s most sympathetic character, the mentally-challenged Violet who she at once spoils and abuses as she attempts to do a more successful job at fulfilling her role as mother.  It’s a daunting task for someone so completely out of their mind and carrying so much baggage.

2. Margaret White played by Piper Laurie in Carrie (1978), directed by Brian De Palma:  Piper Laurie’s over the top performance as the bible thumping, smothering mother of a young telekinetic girl created one of horror’s most memorable characters in a movie that helped launch several significant careers.  Mrs. White’s efforts to shelter her child from the sins of the world create a timid social outcast struggling to find her place.  But, taking charge of the emotional roller coaster of the teen years gets even more complicated when you’re telekinetic.

1. Edith “Mama” Brennan played by Javier Botet and Annabel played by Jessica Chastain in Mama (2013), directed by Andrés Muschietti:  The most recent addition to the list is a no brainer for top spot as the movie’s foundation is the maternal instinct. Young children Victoria and Lily are helpless in the woods for five years before their uncle finds them, surviving only because they are cared for by a wandering entity who happens upon them.  When they are found and go to live with their uncle and his girlfriend the entity is not willing to give them up.  Annabel, the uncle’s girlfriend, is full of self-doubt and asserts several times that she is not prepared to deal with raising girls with such extraordinary needs, but at every turn she rises to the occasion and does what is best for the girls.  But are the girls willing to give up the only mother they remember?  And, will she let the them?

Part II of the madcap matriarchs countdown continues with #11-21 (22-33 ; #1-10):

21. Natalie Koffin played by Rebecca De Mornay in Mother’s Day (2010), directed by Darren Lynn Bousman: Inept criminal brothers escape jail and return to their childhood home not realizing their mother doesn’t live there anymore. They hold the new owners and their guests hostage as they await instructions from their mother. It turns out the captives were better off before the sadistic ring leader arrived on the scene. A remake of an 80’s movie by the same name that I have not yet seen and thus, is not included here.

20. Mary Brady played by Alice Krige in Sleepwalkers (1992), directed by Mick Garris: Mary Brady and her son have a unique relationship, in part because they are the only known members of a bloodthirsty species that feeds on people’s life-force. Their outsider status binds a close, downright incestuous relationship and mom is non too pleased when her son starts noticing other girls his own age.

19. Christine Penmark played by Nancy Kelly in The Bad Seed (1956), directed by Mervyn LeRoy: One of the great horror classics (My review here). Nancy Kelly reprises her stage role as a mother falling apart as she slowly comes to the realization that her young daughter is an emotionless serial killer. She suffers alone, amidst a parade of comedic charactures, whilst trying to figure out how to protect her little devil and the people around her.

18. Beverly R. Sutphin played by Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom (1994), directed by John Waters: An amusing horror comedy concerned with the possibility that a seemingly perfect, doting mom is in fact a serial killer.  Could she be doing people in for lapses in what she considers responsible behavior – like recycling their trash.

17. Mrs. Violet Venable played by Katherine Hepburn in Suddenly Last Summer (1959), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz: Unhinged by the death of her momma’s boy son Sebastian, Mrs. Venable will stop at nothing to protect his good name, even if it means tricking psychiatrist (Montgomery Clift) into lobotomizing her niece (Elizabeth Taylor). This film burned quite an impression on my young mind as I suspect it did Eli Roth’s as his creepy Hostel kids are very reminiscent of Sebastian’s horde of boys. According to screenwriter Gore Vidal credited it’s success with a bad review which denounced it as “the work of degenerates obsessed with rape, incest, homosexuality, and cannibalism among other qualities.” Tennessee Williams wrote the original play on which it’s based.

16. Rosemary Woodhouse played by Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), directed by Roman Polanski: In Polanski’s first American film, a young woman becomes increasingly paranoid that everyone around her is involved in an evil conspiracy concerning her unborn child. The stellar cast includes John Cassavetes and Ruth Gordon.

15. Possessed Henrietta Knowby played by Theodore Raimi in Evil Dead II (1987), directed by Sam Raimi: From the moment Annie Knowby enters her parents cabin the laughs, thrills and scares are nonstop, punctuated by the intermittent, tormenting commentary from her possessed, dead mother who is locked in the root cellar. One of the best and most fun horror films of all time, with lead Ash brilliantly played by Bruce Campbell.

14. Donna Trenton played by Dee Wallace in Cujo (1983), directed by Lewis Teague: Stephen King himself is on record stating Wallace’s performance is the best in any of his films. She portrays a mother who is trapped in a Pinto with her young son while being attacked by a rapid St. Bernard. One of the few actually scary movies based on King’s novels.

13. Mommy played by Wendy Robbie in The People Under the Stairs (1991), directed by Wes Craven: A gem by horror master Wes Craven, who wrote and directed. A young boy and two burglar adults break in and become trapped inside the house of his evil landlords. They discover they are not alone. A crazed brother and sister who call themselves Mommy and Daddy have been kidnapping young kids to create the perfect family. Once the children disappoint they are locked up under the stairs and replaced.

12. Rachel Keller played by Naomi Watts in The Ring (2002), directed by Gore Verbinski: Reporter Rachel Keller discovers a tape which when watched results in the viewer’s death within seven days.  Having been careless enough to let her son have access to it, she’s now in a race to save both their lives by uncovering the truth about the mysterious little girl shown on the tape.  The only American remake of a Japanese horror film (Ringu 1998) that was as good (or better) than the original. Ringu and its remake are arguably among the most influential films in horror.

11. Ada played by Uta Hagen in The Other (1972), directed by Robert Mulligan:  This eerie, dream-like treasure tells the story of a young boy in the 1930’s who suspects his twin of being responsible for several deadly accidents in their farm community. With the recent death of his father and the loss of his mother to depression, his grandmother tries to fill the parental void by teaching the boy astral projection.  She soon fears her game has helped erode his grip on reality.

Since before Norman Bates told us “A boy’s best friend is his mother”, mothers have been granted a special place in horror.  Some sacrifice themselves to protect evil spawn or innocents while others drive their offspring mad through overbearing manipulation, ridicule and abuse.  Not an easy list to narrow with so many great options: (see also #11-21; #1-10)

33. Laura played by Belén Rueda in The Orphanage (2007), directed by J.A. Bayona: Produced by Guillermo del Toro (who appears as an ER doctor), The Orphanage is a creepy, suspenseful ghost story revolving around Laura’s search for her missing son.  But, Laura’s motherly instincts are as misfocused as her childhood memories, making her ill equipped to follow clues from beyond.

32. Nola Carveth played by Samantha Eggar in The Brood (1979), directed by David Cronenberg: A psychologist’s (Oliver Reed) therapy leads his patient to manifesting her anger in the form of mutant children.

31. Lady Haloran played by Eithne Dunne in Dementia 13 (1963),  directed by Francis Ford Coppola: The matriarch of Haloran Castle interfers in her sons’ relationships, forcing them instead to center their lives on their sister who drown as a child on the estate. But she may be out manipulated by the murderous wife of one of them. An eerie classic that plays like a ghost story until someone very human starts wielding an axe. But, it’s hard to say who is doing what with so much madness in the gene pool.

30. Grandmother played by Louise Fletcher in Flowers In The Attic (1987), directed by Jeffrey Bloom: A repentant mother returns home and follows directives from her mother to start her life over in the way she had been expected to, even though it means erasing the three children from her unapproved marriage by locking them in the attic.

29. Ma played by Yvonne Decarlo in American Gothic (1988), directed by John Hough: A fun, campy, slasher about unsuspecting friends who find themselves trapped on an island with a demented family headed by over the top isolationists Ma & Pa played to the hilt by Yvonne Decarlo (Lily Munster) and Rod Steiger.

28. Mrs. Wadsworth played by Ruth Roman and Ann Gentry played by Anjanette Comer in The Baby (1973), directed by  Ted Post: Social Worker Ann Gentry fights overbearing mother Mrs. Wadsworth for her 21 year old son who still wears diapers and acts like a child.  While overall, probably the worst movie on this list,  it’s odd enough to keep you wondering what in the world might happen next, and with this wacky group of women it’s not generally anything expected.

27. The Woman played by Pollyanna McIntosh and Peggy Cleek played by Lauren Ashley Carter in The Woman (2011), directed by Lucky McKee: Peggy Cleek seems alarmed when her husband brings home a feral woman and ties her in the shed as a family pet.  But, her protective instincts for her children and compassion for the captive are overpowered by her obedience to her husband, causing her daughters to form a bond with The Woman.

26. Henrietta Stiles played by Elsa Lanchester in Willard (1971), directed by Daniel Mann: Long after she was the Bride of Frankenstein, Elsa Lanchester was nagging poor Willard to do something about the rats.  He finds his first friend in the smartest one and learns to control an army of them.  But he soon finds out he’s not the one in charge after all.  Willard launched the early Michael Jackson hit Ben, the name of the rat who challenges his authority.  Crispin Glover is great as Williard in the remake but the mother is less memorable in the 2003 version.

25. Wendy Torrance played by Shelley Duvall in The Shining (1980), directed by Stanley Kubrik: Wendy Torrance seems ill equipped to deal with what little she notices of what’s going on around her.  But, she somehow manages to come through when her son is threatened by his psychotic father and the ghosts of the Overlook hotel where the family are snowbound caretakers for the winter.

24. Lucy Harbin played by Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket (1964), directed by William Castle: One of the more memorable attempts late in Crawford’s career to repeat the magic of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.  In this cult classic from horror’s master of gimmicks, Lucy Harbin returns to rebuild her life and relationship with her daughter after 20 years in an asylum for murder.  Immediately her sanity become questionable.

23. Claudia Hoffman played by Sigourney Weaver in Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997), directed by Michael Cohn: Sigourney Weaver is wickedly spectacular as the stepmother trying to recapture her beauty and eliminate the object of her jealousy.

22. Mabel Chilton played by Miriam Margolyes in Ed and his Dead Mother (1993), directed by Jonathan Wacks: Steve Buscemi takes an offer to reanimate his recently dead mother in this horror comedy.  The dead are never as cooperative when they return as they were in life and, Ed’s mum is no exception.

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. 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).

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.


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.


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.