The man who gave us movies about humanoids from the deep, crab monsters and wasp women is at it again. The release of Dinoshark on DVD brings legendary producer Roger Corman full circle, right back to the creature feature movies that made him famous in the 1950s.
“There have been creature features since the inception of films,” said the 85-year-old Corman in a recent phone interview. “What we’re doing now with Dinoshark and Shartopus is we’re going father and farther and it intrigues the audience. I don’t want to use the word outlandish but certainly they are the farthest out type of creature we’ve seen.”
The films—Dinoshark and Sharktopus—were made for the SyFy Channel in the US, and feature all of Corman’s trademarks—a little bit of star power (Eric Roberts stars in Sharktopus), a sense of humor and, of course, a wild hybrid creature.
“The creature comes first, then we try and figure out why the creature exists. That’s why the first picture we made of this group, was Dinocroc, which I made independently and sold to the SyFy Channel and it got a very big rating. So I then wet for Supergator and Dinoshark and the SyFy Channel called me and said, ‘Roger, you’ve come up with all the title, now we have a title, Sharktopus. Do you want to make it?’
“I said no and gave them my theory, which I still believe in, now with some modification, which is that you can go up to a certain level of insanity with these titles and the audience is with you because they want to see it. But if you go over a level, what I call the acceptable level of insanity, and the audience will say, ‘Oh you’ve got to be kidding,’ and they’ll turn against you.”
So far audiences haven’t turned against Corman and his outrageous creatures. His next feature for SyFy is Piranhaconda, a movie he says, doesn’t “up the level of insanity, but it maintains it.”
Corman, however, is a realist. He’s been in Hollywood since Eisenhower was president, so to say he understands the ups and down of the film business is an understatement akin to saying Sharktopus gets a little bitey sometimes.
“I think [the business] is cyclical. You make a certain type of picture, it’s successful, other people make them too, you may remake or continue with that cycle, then the audience gets saturated with them. They grow tired and the cycle turns down. It never goes quite away. Then after a few years someone will make a good one with a slightly different point of view and the cycle will start all over again. I think we’re near the peak of that cycle now. My theory is that we can run another year or so but then the cycle will start to turn back down.”
But when the creature cycle burns out, will he stop producing movies and take a well deserved break? After all, he has produced almost 400 films.
“I simply love the process of making films,” he says. “It is creative, interesting, fascinating and occasionally lucrative. I like the combination of all those. I never intend to retire.”
We can all imagine the fear that comes along with being chased by a werewolf. Or waking up to find Dracula staring down at you. They are living, breathing (or in Drac’s case, dead and not so breathing, but you get the idea) embodiments of evil. But how about inanimate objects? Have you ever been terrified of a lamp? Or creeped out by a tire?
In this weekend’s The Possession, a Dybbuk Box purchased at a yard sale brings misfortune to everyone who comes in contact with it.
It’s not the first time that the movies have imbued an inert object with evil powers.
There have been loads of haunted houses in the movies. In most of them, however, the house is merely a vessel for a spirit or some unseen entity that makes its presence know by making the walls bleed or randomly slamming doors. Rarer is the house that is actually evil.
Stephen King wrote about a house that eats people in the third installment of his Dark Tower series. On screen Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg visualized the idea in the appropriately titled Monster House.
In this animated movie three teens figure out the house across the street is a man-eating monster.
By the time they got around to the fourth installment of the most famous haunted house series, the Amityville Horror, filmmakers had to figure out a new plotline apart from the tired “new owners move in to the house, get freaked out leave,” storyline. In The Amityville Horror: The Evil Escapes, a cursed lamp causes all sorts of trouble when it is shipped from the evil Long Island house to a Californian mansion.
Much weirder is Rubber, the story of a killer tire — yes, you read that right — with psychokinetic powers — think Carrie with treads — who terrorizes the American southwest. It’s an absurdist tract on how and why we watch movies, what entertainment is and the movie business, among other things. But frankly, mostly it’s about a tire rolling around the desert and while there is something kind of hypnotic about watching the tire on its murderous journey — think Natural Born Killers but round and rubbery — that doesn’t mean Rubber is a good movie.
Finally, think bed bugs are bad? How about a hungry bed? The title of this one sums it up: Death Bed: The Bed that Eats.
Final Destination 5 is a chronicle of carnage in which a group of good looking young people die in the most terrible ways imaginable, usually preceded by the tell tale line, “Something’s wrong!”
For example, a gymnast earns a 9.5 from the Splatterville judge and star Jacqueline MacInnes Wood succumbs to laser surgery gone horribly wrong. It’s the kind of movie which makes audiences shout, “No, you didn’t!” and “Awwwwwwwwwwwww! I can never un-see that!” usually while laughing and having a gruesome good time.
This week I asked Wood why people would pay money to go see her movie.
“We’re all twisted,” she said. “That’s the answer.”
Others have different ideas. In his excellent book Shock Value author Jason Zinoman suggests that one of the pleasures of getting scared at the movies is “that it focuses the mind.” He uses the example of a baby being born. “Try to imagine the shock of one world running into another,” he writes. “Nothing is familiar and the slightest detail registers as shockingly new. Think of the futility of trying to process what is going on. No wonder they scream.
“Overwhelming terror,” he continues, “may be the closest we ever get to the feeling of being born.”
Whether it’s as deep seeded as that or not, there is no denying that terror is a primal feeling. Its part of our DNA but, counter intuitively, it isn’t horrible when experienced at the movies. As Eduardo Andrade and Joel B. Cohen said in a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, “the most pleasant moments of a particular event may also be the most fearful.”
A Saturday matinee screening of Paranormal Activity was the first and only time I ever heard anyone actually scream in a theatre. I don’t mean a quiet whimper followed by an embarrassed laugh or a frightened little squeal. No, I mean a full-on, open throated howl of terror. But the woman didn’t run from the theatre. She stayed and enjoyed the rest of the film, so she must have liked the cathartic release of tension the scream gave her.
Alfred Hitchcock, knew how to scare the wits out of people. The shower scene in Psycho, for example, is a benchmark in cinematic fear. If he had any doubts about the effectiveness of that sequence they must have been put to bed when he received an angry letter from a father whose daughter stopped bathing after seeing the bathtub murder scene in Les Diaboliques and then, more distressingly, refused to shower after seeing Psycho. Hitch’s response to the concerned dad? “Send her to the dry cleaners.”
The director was always quick with a line, but when it got down to the business of terrifying audiences he summed up the appeal of the scary movie in one brief sentence: “People like to be scared when they feel safe.”
Without Night of the Living Dead movies like 28 Days Later, Shawn of the Dead or even Zombie Strippers wouldn’t exist. In 1968 the story of story of people trapped in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse trying to survive an attack by reanimated ghouls dragged a bloody new horror genre into the marketplace. For better (see Re-Animator) and for worse (see Zombie Nightmare) the movie Rex Reed called “a classic” has spawned four decades of brain eating and head explosions, but according to the film’s co-author John Russo the origin of the idea was anything but sinister.
“Sometime in the winter of 1966 George Romero and I were having lunch with Richard Ricci,” says Russo, then a co-partner with Romero and Russell Streiner (who has the film’s most famous line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”) in The Latent Image, a commercial television production house. “George and I were complaining about the fickleness of our commercial clients who, when they had not too much money to spend, would come to us for a good, creative job on their spots and sales films, and would promise to come back to us next time, when they would have more money to spend. But when they got more money they’d run away to the supposed glitz and glamour of New York or Hollywood. Richard said, ‘So why don’t you do something about it?’ I thought about it and said, ‘We oughtta be able to make something better than the crap we see on Chiller Theater.’
“George right away got excited, slammed the table with his big hand, sending bottles and glasses flying, and yelled, ‘We’re gonna make a movie!’”
The two batted around several ideas. One, titled Monster Flick, was a horror comedy about teenage aliens, while another focused on flesh eating aliens. “But we quickly discovered that we could not afford all the necessary special effects,” he says, so the writing continued.
“We’d go to work late at night in separate offices, at separate typewriters,” says Russo. “I said right away that our story should start in a cemetery because folks found cemeteries spooky. I was working on a script that started in a cemetery and involved aliens coming to earth in search of human flesh. But George took a break at Christmas time and came back with half of a story that started in a cemetery, and was in essence what became the first half of Night of the Living Dead. There were all the proper twists and turns and a lot of excitement, but George never said who the attackers were or why they were attacking.
“I said, ‘I like this, George, but who are these attackers? You never say.’ And he said he didn’t know. So I said, ‘It seems to me they could be dead people. But why are they attacking? What are they after?’ Again, he said he didn’t know. So I said, ‘Why don’t we use my flesheating idea?’ And he agreed.
“So that’s how the modern flesheating zombies were born!”
The film, titled Night of the Flesheaters, was shot on a shoe string budget—Bosco Chocolate Syrup and pig’s intestines subbed for real blood and guts—in rural Pennsylvania between June and December 1967. Once finished, Russo and Romero had a hard time selling the movie because of its unflinching violence and gory special effects. The pair stuck to their guns, however, denying distributor after distributor who demanded cuts or a happy ending. Finally they found a company who would show the film uncensored but there was still a problem.
“There was already a movie called Flesheaters, and their attorney threatened us, so we had to come up with a different title,” says Russo. “George Romero decided on Night of Anubis, after the Egyptian god of the dead. This was a weak title, and when Continental Pictures got ready to distribute we changed it to Night of the Living Dead.”
The movie premiered on October 1, 1968 earning a rave from Roger Ebert and that other mark of success for a horror film, condemnation from fundamentalist Christian groups.
These days it doesn’t take a lot of braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaains to see the legacy of Night of the Living Dead. The ghoulish story is considered a classic, has spawned comedies like the box office hit Zombieland and serious television shows like The Walking Dead and was even selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as a film deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
“We were absolutely dedicated toward making a movie that was true to its premise and the motivations of its characters, from start to finish,” says Russo, adding, “[the movie] struck a primal chord in everybody, perhaps because of the atavistic memory of our species as easy prey for wild beasts, which we were for most of human history. We all carry the deep-seated fear of being devoured.”
Two far flung events inspired director Tobe Hooper to write The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the down-and-dirty 1974 indie film that spawned sequels, prequels and last year’s splashy 3D remake–the imaginatively titled Texas Chainsaw 3D.
In November 1957 police raided the home of Plainfield, Wisconsin farmer Ed Gein, uncovering some gruesome evidence that would lead to charges of murder and body snatching. After two trials he spent the rest of his life in a mental facility, but his story would go on to inspire three memorable movie characters–Norman Bates from Psycho, Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs and one other that would serve as the basis for six films.
Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, says Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel based the character of the hooded chainsaw killer on Gein.
“When they set out to write this movie,” he said, “they decided to have a family of killers who had some of the characteristics of Gein: the skin masks, the furniture made from bones, the possibility of cannibalism.”
Hooper adds the story was also partially inspired by “the massacres and atrocities in the Vietnam War” and a display of chainsaws in the hardware section of a crowded Montgomery Ward’s department store.
“The idea popped,” he remembered. “I said, ‘Ooh, I know how I could get out of this place fast — if I just start one of these things up and make that sound.’”
That nerve jangling noise–the revving of a chainsaw–has been the soundtrack of terror ever since. The original is an atmospheric gem, a white-knuckle movie that made Leatherface the first icon of modern horror.
The apron-wearing cannibal has appeared in five more films–most of which don’t veer too far from the original plot line of unsuspecting kids falling prey to a family of demented, cannibalistic inbreds. There’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2, directed by Tobe Hooper and starring Dennis Hopper, Leatherface: TCM III, TCM: The Next Generation (starring the then unknown Matthew McConaughey and Renée Zellweger), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, TCM: The Beginning and the new 3D version.
Leatherface’s scares don’t always happen on screen, however. At the Kingsway Theatre in Toronto the flick inspired audience participation when someone dressed in a butcher’s outfit ran down the aisle brandishing a real, revving chainsaw.
“Down with intelligence! Long live death!” — a fascist general in Viva La Muerte
Filmmaker Fernando Arrabal’s troubled childhood haunts his first and most famous surrealist film, Viva La Muerte. The framework of the story of Fando (Mahdi Chaouch) whose father has been arrested for treason in Franco era Spain was based, in part, on true events.
Born on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War, Arrabal was just a child when his father, an officer in the Spanish Army, was sentenced to death for trying to assassinate the head of the Popular Front government. His punishment was later commuted to life-in-prison. When Fernando was nine, however, the elder Arrabal broke out of jail and was never heard from again.
The loss of his father informs much of Arrabal’s work, but none so much as Viva La Muerte, a movie called one of three “perfect surrealist films” along with Un Chien Andalou and El Topo by digitalbits.com.
The movie begins with some very strange yet striking opening credits. Superimposed over a childlike theme song sung by French schoolchildren Arrabal has layered Hieronymus Boschian etchings (by Fantastic Planet’s Roland Topor) of torture and sexual deviancy. It’s a grabber of an opening but the strange ride has just begun.
Episodic in nature, it’s a nightmarish coming of age story for Fando, who, despite his father’s execution for “political crimes” and his mother’s strange assertion that the father wasn’t executed, but actually committed suicide, clings to the belief that his father is alive and well. Fando soon realizes that his life is part of a web of lies when he learns that his mother was the one who turned his father into the authorities. In reaction to the mounting pressure from everyone in his life to renounce his Communist father, Fando conjures up a series of increasingly twisted Oedipal fantasies.
What follows is not for the weak of heart. These multi-colored scenes, seen decades after the film’s release, still have the power to cause shock and awe. Arrabal not only pushes the envelope, he tears it in half, showing disturbing and scatological scenes of Fando’s father being beheaded by his mother; his mother making love to his captors and later, the mother wearing a freshly slaughtered ox like a coat. I would say most certainly that Arrabal can’t guarantee that no animals were harmed during the production of this picture, and while he would never be able to get away with the butchery of the ox (or the beetle that is sliced in half or the decapitated lizard, for that matter) on film today, it is a vivid image.
Viva La Muerte’s jumble of surrealism and autobiography is a potent mix, made more effective by Arrabal’s unwavering use of disquieting imagery. Good taste is certainly not on the menu, but the dream sequences are unforgettable. In one scene Fando urinates over the side of a building while imagining that the entire town below is drowning in a sea of his urine. In another he imagines Arabesque men playing Polo with his father’s disembodied head. These are strange and unsettling images that take us further into the psyche of young Fando. He has been lied to, mistreated by those closest to him and in the end his only refuge is in the dark recesses of tortured mind.
Viva La Muerte is the very definition of “not for everyone.” It is risky and upsetting viewing, but in the avant-garde descriptions is a beautifully crafted — although completely gonzo — portrait of a young person in mental anguish.
A movie about a group of college kids who go to a remote cabin—a jock, a scholarship jock, a stoner and some hot girls, one a brainiac, one a party girl—complete with a dangerous hillbilly type, mysterious incantations and lines like “No matter what, we have to stay together,” sounds very familiar. Like a thousand teen chillers we’ve seen before, but add in a secret government agency, ancient evil life forms and other surprises (you’ll get no spoilers here) and you have the best mash-up of horror and humor since “Scream.”
All I will tell you about the plot is this: five college friends go to a cabin in the woods. Then all hell breaks loose. All the conventions of the teen horror genre are here, but turned upside down.
The pleasure of “Cabin in the Woods” is in the not knowing, so excuse the brief synopsis. Go in fresh and be surprised.
I can tell you there has never been a slasher flick quite like “Cabin.” The subversive mix of horror movie lore—“The virgin’s death is optional.”—post modern self awareness and gruesome gags isn’t new but rarely has it been this smartly presented.
Like romantic comedy, horror is a genre that frequently takes the easy way out. By the time we got to “Saw 3478: A Stab in the Dark” the movies were more about how many gallons of stereoscopic blood could be squirted toward the audience than creating a new, intriguing story.
Conversely “Cabin in the Woods” screenwriters Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (who also directed) have crafted a film that is exhilarating in the way it adopts and then challenges the conventions of the form. They even have fun with J-horror with hilarious results.
Expect Whedon’s trademark crackling dialogue. Expect gallons of blood. Expect to be challenged. Expect the unexpected.
“Where the hell am I supposed to find silver bullets? K-Mart?” — Rudy (Ryan Lambert) in The Monster Squad.
Like many baby boomers reared on the Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, Fred Dekker is a huge fan of the classic Universal horror movies. Frankenstein, Dracula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy and The Wolf Man inspire nightmares in most, but for Dekker they simply fire his imagination.
“As a kid,” said the San Francisco born filmmaker, “I loved the Universal monster films of the ’30s and ’40s so obviously, getting the chance to play in their fictional universe was a dream come true.”
The result of Dekker’s reverie was the creation of The Monster Squad, a 1987 teenage horror comedy that owes a big nod to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with a side order of The Goonies thrown in for good measure.
When Count Dracula recruits a posse of monsters — Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon — to retrieve and destroy an ancient amulet that holds the key to controlling the balance of good and evil in the world, he didn’t count on a band of fifth graders (and one chain-smoking eighth grade greaser) driving a stake through his plans.
The Monster Squad, a geeky group who wear T-shirts that say “Stephen King Rules” and spend their days obsessing over monster magazines and debating important topics like, ‘Who is the coolest monster?’ and ‘Does The Wolf Man have the biggest nards?’ have come into possession of the diary of famed Dracula hunter Abraham Van Helsing, a document that holds the secret to stopping the Count’s army of darkness and thwarting his evil plan.
With the help of the local “Scary German Guy” (Leonardo Cinimo) who translates the book into English they get the skinny on the amulet. According to the book it is composed of concentrated good, but for one day every century it is vulnerable and can be destroyed.
If they can find the amulet and use it in conjunction with an incantation from the diary they can create a swirling vortex which will suck the monsters away from Earth, condemning them to a metaphysical jail and saving the world from their reign of wickedness. If the monsters get to the amulet first, evil will win.
The first thing you’ll notice about The Monster Squad is that the monsters don’t look exactly the way you remember them from the old Universal movies. That’s because this homage to those landmark films wasn’t made by Universal, who still own the copyrights to the likenesses of those famous fiends. To get around that hurdle special effects wizard Stan Winston, whose creature creations have been seen in everything from Edward Scissorhands to Jurassic Park and Aliens, took the original copyrighted designs and tweaked them just enough to avoid lawsuits.
“One of the things we had to be very careful of was that although we were doing a movie that was a take-off on the Universal classics, we had to be careful none of our designs infringed on the original designs of the Universal characters,” Winston told Rue Morgue in 2007. “There were subtle changes; we had to be sure that nothing specific about them could be considered a copyright infringement of a design.”
You’ll notice Dracula still has a cape, but no widow’s peak; Frankenstein’s head is shaped differently and the neck bolts are gone, while The Wolf Man looks like his hair was blown dry and teased by a hairdresser with one too many Red Bulls under his belt. The changes are minimalist, but spookily effective. The success of the make-up designs is further enhanced by strong creature performances by the actors, particularly Tom Noonan as Frankenstein’s Monster, who brings a vulnerability to this familiar character.
“I think Tom Noonan brought just the right amount of conviction and gentleness and sadness to Frankenstein’s Monster,” says Dekker, “and Duncan Regehr was a terrific Dracula. He had just the right combination of nobility and evil and animal rage and all the stuff that are the hallmarks of that character.”
In contrast to the supernatural showings of the older actors, the kids of The Monster Squad turn in nice, natural performances.
“It was really important to me that we had real kids and not movie kids,” Dekker says. “You know, the kind you see in commercials who are too pretty and mug and overact? We didn’t want that. We wanted them to be believable, and to seem like they were really friends. Luckily, they turned out to become a very tight-knit group.”
The Monster Squad, despite the salty language (the boys swear, Dracula calls a little girl “a bitch” and a preteen uses the word “chickenshit,” no doubt courtesy of Shane Black who also wrote more adult fare like Lethal Weapon), the refreshing lack of political correctness, the violence and the presence of nightmare-inducing monsters this is, above all, a kid’s film. The youngsters are the heroes and battle the monsters in ways that only kids can. A garlic pizza proves to be Dracula’s undoing, and in one classic scene The Wolf Man is felled by a well-placed kick to “the nards.”
“I like to think that Monster Squad, in its own small way, says something about what it is to be a kid and to be afraid in the world,” says Dekker, “and discovering the need for heroism.”
Dekker adds that he set out to make an exciting teen adventure movie, but may have been a bit ahead of his time. In the post–Buffy the Vampire Slayer world we live in the mix of kids, humor and horror seems normal, but in 1987 it didn’t click with audiences.
“When Monster Squad was released, we found that kids didn’t go see it because their parents wouldn’t let them. Mostly because they thought it was going to be too scary, and parents didn’t see it because they thought it was a kid’s film,” he says. “In fact it took another several years before the combination of young people in jeopardy in genre-horror situations like Buffy and Goosebumps and Harry Potter really became acceptable. The audience wasn’t ready for it in the ’80s. Sure there was The Lost Boys and The Goonies, but specifically the kind of monster-slayer approach wouldn’t be popular for another ten or fifteen years. So I like to think that we were a little ahead of the curve.”
The movie’s box office take, or lack of it, condemned the film to obscurity, but it didn’t disappear altogether. Substandard video releases of the movie helped built a small cult audience for the flick, but fans had to wait twenty years for a deluxe DVD treatment. In 2007 Lionsgate released a sparkling two-disc set with lots of extras and deleted scenes. “The remastered print is so incredible that there are many shots that I hadn’t seen since I saw them through the lens of my Panaflex,” says Dekker.