Sunday, April 27, 2014
You are not content with the stories, so I was obliged to come: The 2014 Salt City Horror Fest
It's been almost two years since I've seen a new movie on film (The Master in 70mm). For better or worse, digital projection is the new normal, and even repertory cinemas made a substantial shift to digital in order to survive - last year, I saw five classic movies at Boston-area rep houses, and only two of them were on 35mm. I'll avoid waxing poetic about the romance of hearing the clicking sounds of a film print making its way through the gears of a projector (though I guess I just did, and it is a wonderful sound), but every opportunity to see a classic movie on film has a new urgency. Which is a roundabout way of explaining why I spent last weekend driving 260 miles to Syracuse and spending the day (and night, and early morning) watching horror movies in a beautiful 90-year-old movie palace.
Billed as "The longest-running 35mm horror festival in upstate New York," the Salt City Horror Fest is in its ninth year. I first attended the fest in 2010, when it was still the Shaun Luu Horror Fest, a fundraiser for a local children's hospital organized by the friends of a young horror fan who passed away from brain cancer (this interview with festival organizer Jeff Meyer has more about the festival's history). The lineup that year included Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Halloween III and Street Trash (with live commentary by writer/producer Roy Frumkes), all on film. I've considered returning in the year between, but decided against it when I couldn't find anyone to go with me. This year, however, the lineup was too good to pass on, particularly the chance to see Halloween II, a movie I've always wanted to see on the big screen but didn't think I'd ever have the chance. I decided in March to make the trip by myself; a few weeks later, during what was shaping up to be the worst April of my life, leaving town and driving very, very far to watch ten horror movies in a row turned out to be one of the best decisions I've ever made.
After a lovely, almost non-stop five-hour drive through three states, I arrived a few minutes after the start of the first feature, 13 Ghosts, presented in Illusion-O. One of producer William Castle's most successful gimmicks, Illusion-O consisted of watching certain parts of the movie through a "Ghost Viewer" - a duel lens with red and blue cellophane filters, similar to 3D, except that the audience only looks through one lens at a time. Looking through the red lens allows the viewer to see the ghosts onscreen, although they're still somewhat visibly on the tinted image without the lens; when viewed through the blue lens, the ghosts disappear. Text cues appear on the bottom the screen throughout the movie, prompting the audience to put on and remove the viewer (as mentioned in the interview, a friend of the festival recreated the Ghost Viewers for the screening). It's a far cry from IMAX 3D, but that's a large part of its charm. The Illusion-O scenes are fun in a carnival funhouse way - it's a simple gag, the effect of seeing the movie's ghosts separated from the background, as if they were suspended in front of the screen, is visually interesting and even a bit eerie in a few moments. The story, concerning a family who moves into a house they inherited from the patriarch's uncle (a paranormal researcher who had discovered a way to "collect" ghosts), is pretty thin, though there's a fun supporting role for Margaret Hamilton, as the uncle's housekeeper, that allows for approximately 500 references to her performance as the Wicked Witch of the West. The movie is structured around the gimmick, instead of the other way around; still, it's a great gimmick, and if William Castle were around today, he'd be having a field day with the possibilities of 3D. It's a shame that 13 Ghosts was already remade, as this would be the perfect time for Illusion-O to make a comeback.
Next was Ernest Scared Stupid, a staple of 3rd grade sleepovers in 1992, which is a movie that I might be just a few years too old to have the nostalgic feelings for that many of the people I saw it with clearly did. As with the other Ernest movies, it's basically Jim Varney making funny faces and hayseed jokes for 90 minutes, occasionally employing cartoon logic to rotate through several other characters. It's dumb but harmless. Still, I could see how it could serve as a gateway drug for a budding horror fan, as the horror plotline - Ernest has to battle centuries-old trolls who turn children into wooden dolls - is played surprisingly straight for a PG Disney movie. The trolls, designed by the Chiodo brothers, are genuinely fearsome-looking and would work just as well in a straight horror movie. The rest of the movie is a compendium of '90s kids movie tropes - I was genuinely surprised that there were no scenes of kids kicking adults in the scrotum - but as far as objects of '90s kid nostalgia go, it's a heck of a lot better than Hocus Pocus. As a bonus, there was a trailer for Beauty and the Beast still attached to the print.
I hadn't seen The Invisible Man since I was very young, so I didn't realize how (deliberately) funny much of it is. While it's wonderfully atmospheric and the climactic chase is played straight, the early scenes of Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) terrorizing a local village are hilarious. While H.G. Wells' book is quite creepy in how it considers how a seemingly normal person might behave if freed from any consequences for their actions, once it's translated to film, there's no getting around the hilarity of a disembodied shirt jogging around a room while Rains' disembodied voice cackles maniacally, and director James Whale smartly understood and embraced this, which also serves to make the thriller elements more credible. The audience was roaring with laughter for much of the first half, only to become absorbed in the story (and the movie's still-impressive optical effects) by the end.
This, incidentally, is why I generally prefer horror fans to the ostensibly more highbrow audiences that generally attend repertory screenings. Most cinephiles have had the experience of having a repertory screening marred by ironic laughter from an audience that regards any visible signs of a movie's age as campy and takes any scenes involving big or uncomfortably real emotions as a cute to laugh. A week before the festival, I went to a screening of Taxi Driver - a good print on a huge screen, marred by an audience that apparently thought it was a laugh riot. Taxi Driver is very funny in places, but practically every moment became a punchline; I've never felt more alienated from my supposed peers than I did when the line "Do you know what a .45 can do to a woman's pussy?" got a biiiig laugh. What I love about horror fans is that, in general, ironic detachment is not their default setting; while there are definitely beloved "so bad it's good" horror titles, in general I've found audiences at a horror screening have an easier time of considering a movie in the context of when it was made and appreciating the filmmakers' intentions without reducing everything to unintentional comedy. With The Invisible Man, the audience was cracking up, but there was no "LOL old movie" element to it - they clearly funny got that Whale knew what he was doing, and the laughter was appreciative. "Fanboy" has become a derisive term, and sometimes for good reason, but at least some niches of fandom are actually quite smart about why they love what they love, and horror fans are chief among them (also, horror nerds, for whatever reason, tend to be more attractive than the average nerd - I don't know why, but it's true).
I'd actually seen The Lost Boys on 35mm several years earlier, though the print in Syracuse was a little cleaner, if my memory is correct. Actually, all of the prints were surprisingly good, with Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky the only one that had any noticeable wear and tear. As for The Lost Boys, it's the quintessential '80s movie played just straight enough to work. Director Joel Schumacher is known for his slick, commercial filmmaking style, but it's actually quite entertaining when paired with the right material (which, unfortunately, has only happened with a few movies). The Lost Boys is the movie Schumacher was born to make; originally conceived as a Goonies-esque adventure with a cast of preteen characters, the script was rewritten after Schumacher became attached. It seems silly to say that Schumacher and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam made the movie "darker" - this is still a movie that caps a vampire's explosive death with the line "Death by stereo." But as flashy and MTV-influenced as it is, The Lost Boys also benefits from a surprisingly sympathetic cast of characters, atmospheric cinematography by Michael Chapman (who also shot Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), and strong performances, particularly from its adult stars, Dianne Wiest (between this and Parenthood, one of the most loveable movie moms), Edward Herrmann and, especially, Barnard Hughes as Grandpa. The movie has a standard '80s action climax, but it's done with panache and never insults our intelligence, and the last scene is a hoot. Leaving the theater, I overheard one audience member say to a friend, "I don't know, I guess I'm more of a Near Dark guy." So am I, guy, but Near Dark doesn't have this guy. There's room for both movies in this world.
I hadn't seen Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky in over a decade, and I was able to get past my distaste for its extreme gore and appreciate the deliberate humor behind its excess. I don't know how I missed it the first time - the warden character keeps mints in his glass eye, for pete's sake. The movie is an adaptation of a manga, and director Ngai Choi Lam goes for an over-the-top approach to the performances and outlandish action scenes that would seem a bit much even in a comic book. The title character is imprisoned for killing the drug dealers responsible for his girlfriend's death; set in the distant year of 2001, prisons have been privatized, its owners using them for opium production, and Ricky is soon forced to battle the administration's henchmen. Taught by his uncle, a qigong master, Ricky is able to literally put his fist through his opponents (I studied qigong but can't punch a person's head off; maybe I should have stuck with it longer). And the movie quickly becomes an escalating series of ultra-gruesome setpieces, and while it provokes a good deal of shocking laughter, I have to admit that it's not my cup of tea. I don't necessarily mind ultraviolence, but while a movie like Peter Jackson's Braindead approaches gore with a spirit of Looney Tunes-influenced cartoonish invention, in Ricky-Oh the gore is unreal but still brutal and punishing. That said, it's a great audience movie - the people I saw it with were cracking up throughout, and the triumphant final scene elicited massive applause. And at the very least, it's a potent cautionary tale about the dangers of government privatization.
Sleepaway Camp distinguished itself from the spate of early-'80s Friday the 13th with its famously strange, psychosexual twist ending. If you haven't seen the movie and haven't had the ending spoiled, it's worth seeing for one of the best "WTF?" moments in any movie. The rest of the movie, about a mysterious killer picking off campers, is pretty standard and formulaic but entertainingly quirky. Unlike most of its contemporaries, it doesn't have any gratuitous T&A and actually goes much further in objectifying its male cast. I'm not proud for noticing, but seeing it on the big screen made me wonder if the campers and counselors had a contest to see who could wear the tightest, shortest short shorts. And the only sex scene is some heavy petting between two men seen in a flashback that is part of shy camper Angela's (Felissa Rose) incomprehensible backstory. Sleepaway Camp isn't among the best slashers, but it's fun and entertainingly quirky and, as with the first the few Friday the 13th movies and The Burning, the rural East Coast locations (upstate New York here) have a cozy nostalgic appeal. And while I feel like I'd be stepping on Stacie Ponder's toes if I went on at length about Karen Fields's performance as Judy, she is one of the most enjoyably bitchy characters of all time.
Halloween II may seem like an odd choice for one of the movies I've most wanted to see on film, as there are many better horror movies I haven't seen on the big screen. It's partly because it seemed unlikely that I'd ever have the opportunity, and also, I think, because it was one of my gateway drugs into the genre. I watched it countless times on TV and video when I was young, and it frightened me almost as much as John Carpenter's original. Seeing it as an adult, the mostly generic supporting characters and some ho-hum gory moments stick out more; Carpenter was contractually obligated to co-write and co-produce the sequel (directed by Rick Rosenthal), and the script does feel like an afterthought even for a slasher. Still, I can't help loving it - the hospital setting is a great (if implausibly unpopulated) location for Michael Myers to stalk his prey, and Rosenthal and DP Dean Cundey (returning from the first movie) wring a great deal out of tension out of the location's many empty spaces. It helps that stuntman Dick Warlock does a great job playing Myers; it may seem silly to single out a performance that consists of wearing a mask, walking around and pretending to stab people, but there's a big difference between a stuntman going through the motions and one who, like Warlock, uses his body language and the close-ups on his eyes peering through the mask to give the character a believable sense of single-minded murderous rage. The climactic chase scene is as suspenseful as anything in the original movie, and it was a pleasure seeing Cundey's gorgeous scope cinematography on a huge screen, with Carpenter and Alan Howarth's terrific score turned way up - my inner eight-year-old couldn't have been happier.
I didn't see Pumpkinhead until long after it was released, on TV with commercials, and seeing it on the big screen made me appreciate it a good deal more. It's a southern Gothic tale about a single dad (Lance Henriksen) who, after his young son is killed in a dirt bike accident, makes a deal with a swamp witch to conjure the titular backwoods monster to take revenge on the young city folk responsible for the boy's death. It's a pretty simple supernatural revenge tale, but seeing it on the big screen helped me to better appreciate the craft that director Stan Winston and his effects crew put into it. The character design of Pumpkinhead is effectively creepy, and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli takes an expressionistic, strobe-heavy approach to the monster's scenes that give them an eerie, otherworldly effect. I also had a newfound appreciation for Lance Henriksen's performance; as I have an adorable young son of my old, it doesn't take much to put myself in his character's shoes, and Henriksen makes some great, unexpected choices in portraying his character's grief. As Pumpkinhead is largely about that grief and the consequences of revenge, it's perhaps less fun than the average monster movies, and Winston and his cast are smart to play it straight. While I can have as much fun with a mindless "Boo!" movie as any horror fan, I always appreciate a horror movie that isn't afraid to take the consequences of its characters' actions seriously.
The ninth movie, The Girl Next Door, was preceded by a Universal promo reel from 1982 that the fest's organizers recently discovered in the basement of a local theater. It was a series of short teasers presumably prepared for exhibitors, and it was a pleasure seeing a near-pristine reel of clips from (let's see if I can remember them all) The Border, Missing, Cat People, Conan the Barbarian, The Dark Crystal, The Thing and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. The teaser for The Thing, which I've never seen in any form, was a treat - with no actual footage from the movie, it consisted of an evocative shot tracking over a barely-visible spacecraft encased in ice, capped with the alternate tagline "Anytime. Anywhere. Anyone."
The goodwill I felt towards the teaser reel was enough to get me through The Girl Next Door, which was the low point of the festival. Adapted from the novel by Jack Ketchum, the film is inspired by the murder of Sylvia Likens, a true story that could provide the basis for a genuinely disturbing movie about the banality of evil. The film is told from the point of view of an adult narrator named David (William Atherton) remembering the summer of 1958, when he became friends with a young woman named Meg (Blythe Auffarth) living with her Aunt Ruth (Blanche Baker) after her parents' death. Aunt Ruth is permissive with her sons and the other boys in the neighborhood, but she quickly begins emotionally and physically abusing Meg and her younger sister. Before long, Ruth has tied Meg up in the basement and is encouraging the boys to torture her. While the movie was released during the wave of so-called "torture porn" films, The Girl Next Door is more serious-minded than that, but while director Gregory M. Wilson and screenwriters Daniel Farrands and Philip Nutman are obviously trying to say something about misogyny and the sort of diseased pack mentality that allows crimes like this to happen, they're never able to articulate their themes with any sort of clarity. Worst of all, the film flirts with the idea that young David is complicit in Meg's torture, only to quickly backtrack, which only serves to make it more implausible that he doesn't do more to help her. It's well-intentioned but deeply confused, and the Stand by Me-esque epilogue is so tonally inappropriate that the movie actually becomes more offensive than a run-of-the-mill slasher. I appreciate the impulse to include a movie about real-life horror among more entertaining movies, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was one of the highlights of the last festival I attended, but The Girl Next Door was the festival's only misstep - it was the only one that wasn't met with enthusiastic applause when the credits began.
Luckily, the last movie of the festival, Candyman, was the perfect movie to bring the long night to an end. It's a movie I'd point to when asked by non-horror fans why I would want to put those images in my brain. Candyman is a great example of horror's unique opportunity to tackle serious and weighty subject matter with a remarkable degree of intelligence and honesty. Beginning as a story about urban legends, Bernard Rose's adaptation of Clive Barker's short story "The Forbidden" expands into a nuanced, thought-provoking examination of race, class and sexuality that stands up against any respectable drama on those subjects. Main character Helen (Virginia Madsen, wonderful here), a grad student researching the titular boogeyman, seems largely inspired by Clarice Starling (with Kasi Lemmons playing a near-identical best friend role in both movies), but there's a subtle danger-seeking element to her character that complicates her eventual encounters with Candyman (Tony Todd, also wonderful) in fascinating ways (she's also a chainsmoker, to the point where it hurt my lungs just to watch her).
The backstory of Candyman, the son of a slave brutally punished for impregnating a white woman, is both tragic and darkly erotic, and I love the way Rose sets up Helen's own marginalization by her emotionally remote husband (Xander Berkley), her former professor, to create a push-pull relationship between her and Candyman; she's terrified him, but also empathizes and is subtly aroused by him (nobody understands the power of a hook as a signifier of virility like Clive Barker). Madsen allowed Rose to hypnotize her during her scenes with Todd, and the juxtaposition of the close-ups of Madsen in a trance state (lit like a Hitchcock heroine) and Todd's booming voice remains very unsettling. Building towards a final scene that is both thematically and viscerally perfect, Candyman has only gotten better with age, and is a great example of how much more a horror movie can offer the viewer beyond cheap thrills. The movie was followed by two disappointing sequels that swiftly ended the franchise; watching it again, I found myself hoping that the right filmmaker might have the opportunity to revive the character, as there's a great deal of potential to further explore the subtextual possibilities of the original.
Exiting the theater after Candyman, just as the sun was beginning to rise, I reflected on how the movie left me feeling about my relationship with the genre I love most. Being drawn to horror since I was very young, I've encountered people my whole life who questioned why I would be drawn to such dark subject matter and, when I was a kid, whether scary movies and books would have a negative effect on my developing mind. A really great, smart horror movie like Candyman, which really got under my skin as a kid, arguably had far more of a positive effect on me; as with so many great stories, it grew my understanding of the world around me, and though its implications are dark, it doesn't make me feel darker for having watched it. Quite the opposite, actually; leaving the theater, I reflected on the power stories can have to give context and meaning to our own lives. Soon after, as I drifted off to sleep in a motel bed, my inner (actually, outer) horror nerd felt sated and very lucky.