For the fifth year in a row, I attended The Massacre. In past years it has been held at the Music Box Theatre, but this year, for the first time, it was held at the Portage Theater. I attribute this change in venue to helping me stick around for the entire 24 hours. Unlike the Music Box, which is located in a busy, “trendy” area of Chicago, the Portage is in the Portage Park neighborhood on the northwest side of the city. This area damn near feels like a suburb and, like a suburb, there’s not much going on. Unlike the Music Box, which has practically hundreds of dining options within a few blocks walk, there are few options to get a late night bite to eat. With no reason to leave the theater, the temptation to give up in the wee hours of the morning was removed and I made it wire to wire for the first time.
Before I get into a breakdown of the films and my fleeting thoughts on each, here are a few stray observations:
-The spaciousness of the Portage Theater, especially in contrast to the smaller Music Box, allowed for a larger crowd without making me feel cramped. Surprisingly, the ability for people to stretch out did not diminish the buzz or the sense of camaraderie. This still felt like a communal experience I was sharing with true horror film fans.
-The fact that one of the projectors broke down during The Curse of the Werewolf, which was the third film on the schedule, was actually a blessing. If this had happened later in the event, I think a lot of people (myself included) would have given up and left. Kudos to the folks at Movieside and the Portage Theater for getting it fixed relatively quickly.
-I absolutely love that all the films were shown from 35mm prints and not projected from DVD. The colors really popped and there’s just so much more warmth and instant emotional connection to watching a film print. I was especially impressed by the quality of the prints. With the exception of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, the print quality of the films ranged from very good to great.
-A guy sitting in front of me lamented, without irony, that there was not a better ratio of girls to guys and used the phrase “sausage fest” numerous times. If I were a betting man and given the over under of three for the number of times he had actually been on a date, I would take the under.
-It was a strong lineup from beginning to end. While it didn’t have the highest highs of previous Massacres (2008’s back-to-back of Dead Alive and Phantom of the Paradise, 2009’s presentation of Re-Animator and The Black Cat from the second season of Masters of Horror with Stuart Gordon in attendance), it never sank so low to show something absolutely terrible like Pieces or boring like Dark Night of the Scarecrow.
-Showing old strip-tease shorts in the middle of the schedule is a total momentum killer and I can only hope they don’t repeat it next year.
-It was a harsh year for penises, with a scene of a man taking a chainsaw to the groin (Phantasm II), a zombie biting a man in the crotch (Dead Snow), the business end of a lighter being put to the tip of an exposed penis (the fake trailer for Snuff), and, given the number of fight scenes present in the films, I’m sure there were at least two or three scenes of men being either punched or kicked in that most sensitive of areas.
-Jack Hill is a great public speaker who comes across as sincerely humble and knows how to take control of a floundering interview.
-Time has not been kind to Linnea Quigley and her attempt to lead the audience in a rendition of Werewolf Bar Mitzvah started out as odd and rapidly became very, very awkward.
Film One: Un Chien Andalou (1929)
The classic surrealist collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí holds up as genuinely shocking, creepy, and funny even after eighty years. As this year’s silent film, it was the perfect way to kick off the marathon because of its short running time. In past years, running a feature-length silent film, no matter how much of a classic it may be, has been an instant momentum killer. With live organ-accompaniment, Un Chien Andalou, felt like the perfect appetizer to a grand feast.
Film Two: The Black Cat (1934)
Claiming to be based on Poe’s short story, The Black Cat is really a story of rivalry and revenge between two men driven insane by war and imprisonment. That Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi play these two men is the main draw. The film is an above average Universal horror film from the era—a little better than The Old Dark House but not quite as good as Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, or Dracula. Perhaps the most notable element is that Lugosi plays a mostly sympathetic character while Karloff’s character is almost unrepentantly evil—a switching up of their usual dynamic that gives the film a little more punch than it probably deserves.
Film Three: The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
The problem with most werewolf films is that they have the same story arc: a character discovers they are a werewolf, they try different methods to get rid of the curse, there is usually a love interest, a transformation or two, a few killings, and then the tragic conclusion. The Curse of the Werewolf does not deviate much from that formula, but it does have the advantage of being given the usual attributes of a Hammer production: lovely cinematography, slightly bloodier effects than other films of the time, beautiful women in dresses that highlight their ample cleavage, and a game cast of character actors that commit to the premise. It’s definitely not a bad film, it’s just hurt by the casting of Oliver Reed as the poor soul destined to turn into a beast. Reed is fine, but watching the film today, with the numerous stories now known about his turbulent personal life, it’s hard not to find his performance comical. When he is sweaty, red-faced, and puffing his breath through his lips as he tries not to transform into a werewolf, all I could think was that he had too much scotch before the scene was shot. Oh well, that’s my baggage.
Film Four: Witchfinder General (1968)
The primary point of interest for Witchfinder General is that it’s the final film by director Michael Reeves, a promising filmmaker who died of a drug overdose at the age of 25. What struck me about the film were the grim tone and a villainous turn by Vincent Price that was astounding. This is the first performance I can think of where Price didn’t play his villain with tongue planted firmly in cheek. You hate his hypocritical, sadistic “witchfinder” who travels the English countryside during a bloody civil war, extracting “confessions” from people accused of witchcraft. Honestly frightening, relentless in its portrayal of torture, and compelling as a young soldier bent on revenge tracks down Price’s character. This is a great flick that deserves its reputation as a classic.
Film Five: From the Drain (1967)
An early short film by the legendary David Cronenberg is a surreal sort-of horror piece seemingly inspired by the nursery rhyme Rub-A-Dub-Dub. I really have no clue what Cronenberg was trying to achieve, but I was heartened to find that as a student filmmaker, Cronenberg was no more technically accomplished than most film students. The acting is awful, the sound is muddy, and the lighting and cinematography is amateurish. In its disappointingly muddled fashion, From the Drain is an inspiration to film students everywhere. Even a director as accomplished as Cronenberg also once had trouble with basic three-point lighting.
Film Six: Spider Baby (1968)
Spider Baby is one of those films I’ve always heard about, but never seen. Unlike most of the films that are consistently recommended to me, Jack Hill’s goofy little horror-comedy lives up to its reputation. The crowd loved the macabre tone, the self-referential humor of two characters discussing The Wolfman before looking across the table at an aged Lon Chaney Jr., and the blissfully absurd premise. Chaney gives a game performance as the caretaker of three adults who behave like small children and the whole package is beyond satisfying. In my book, this was this year’s highlight. Special Note: Co-star Quinn Redeker received a “story by” credit on The Deer Hunter. Let that dichotomy sink in.
Film Seven: Return of the Living Dead (1985)
I’ve probably seen this flick somewhere between 15-20 times, but it never fails to crack me up. From the clever setup linking it to Romero’s Dead films to the performances pitched to ten to the punk soundtrack, Dan O’Bannon’s horror-comedy should have had a limited audience. Even now, after so many years and viewings, it does not feel like a mainstream movie. Still, there’s a sense of fun that appeals beyond the (then) small corner of zombie fans that keeps the film fresh on repeat viewings. This was great to watch with a huge crowd. One thought I always have when watching this film is when there was the uproar in the early part of the 2000’s about fast zombies, why did no filmmaker use Return of the Living Dead as a defense?
Film Eight: Phantasm II (1988)
I am a Phantasm II apologist. In fact, I am an apologist for all of the increasingly convoluted, low-budget Phantasm sequels. To critique this first sequel for its lack of logic and narrative shortcuts while celebrating the first film seems like hypocrisy. For me, these elements actually give the films more impact. There is a nightmarish feel to the films that always keeps the characters fighting against their doomed destinies. While this sequel does little to further the story of the first film or even expand the world beyond cemeteries or mausoleums, it does do a successful job of using the iconography of the first film (Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man, the silver spheres, the muscle car). I hesitate to use the term “guilty pleasure” when describing the film—I do not feel guilty for liking it, but I understand why most people find it lacking. I just do not agree with those people.
Film Nine: The Captured Bird (2012)
Jovanka Vuckovic, the director behind this short, obviously has a terrific eye and a sly way with defying genre expectations that leads to at least one good jump scare. I just wish the film had felt more complete. As it is, it feels like the prologue to a feature length horror fantasy. Still, there is much to like from the film: it’s atmospheric, boasts great cinematography from Karim Hussain, and piles on enough creepy/strange imagery to rival most feature length horror films.
Film Ten: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
I find myself in the minority when it comes to this film. Really, I find myself in the minority when it comes to almost the entire Nightmare series. I like the original film, feel Wes Craven’s New Nightmare comes this close to brilliance, and have no use for the rest of the series. Watching Dream Warriors again after so many years not only confirmed my hazy, disappointed memories, it brought into sharp focus several problems with the film I’ve never noticed before. First off, I hate that they sold out John Saxon’s sad, tragic Lt. Thompson. Next, the idea that Nancy’s death was somehow heroic or meaningful in that she saves the kids in her group does not add up. In reality, it was Dr. Gordon’s stupid subplot of finding and burying Freddy Krueger’s bones that finally stopped him. And not only that, but how many of the kids die before Nancy supposedly saves the day? I’m sorry, but this is not the superior sequel everyone seems to remember. It’s no better than any of the other cheap cash-ins that New Line produced through the ’80s and early ’90s.
Film Ten: Hausu (1977)
Perhaps the perfect movie to show at 2:15 in the morning, Hausu is the kind of oddity best seen with an appreciative and punch-drunk crowd. Playing like a cross between Suspiria, The Happiness of the Katakuris, and trippy Japanese soft drink commercials, I instantly perked up at the realization that I was seeing something truly original. What is most surprising about the film, considering how many of the individual scenes are seemingly nonsensical, is how much sense it makes as a narrative. I am glad my first viewing of it was under these circumstances because I’m not sure if I were watching it by myself at home that I would be willing to roll with twists like a man turning into a pile of bananas. If you have the opportunity, I highly suggest watching it with a group of friends after a few drinks and sleep deprivation.
Film Eleven: Nightmares (1983)
By the time this anthology started, I was really feeling the lack of sleep. I knew if it failed to grab me right out of the gate, I was never going to make it through the film. I did manage to stay awake for the first two stories: Terror in Topanga and Bishop of Battle. Topanga, based on a famous urban legend, is serviceable, but hardly involving. Bishop, featuring a young Emilio Estevez, has a certain cheesy charm based around how poorly it has aged, but not much in way of originality or scares. By the time the third segment, The Benediction, started, I barely had time to realize, “Hey, it’s Lance Henriksen,” before I fell asleep. I woke midway through the fourth story, Night of the Rat. Judging by the first two stories and what I saw of Rat, I doubt I missed much.
Film Twelve: Prince of Darkness (1987)
Perhaps John Carpenter’s greatest skill as a filmmaker is his ability to create tension and scares out of nothing more than a one-note score and a committed performance by Donald Pleasance. Prince of Darkness is the ultimate proof of Carpenter’s abilities to make something disturbing out of not much. Using the time-honored (and budget friendly) horror tradition of trapping his characters in a single location, Carpenter successfully saves the film from being overwhelmed by Jameson Parker’s mustache by using a talented cast of character actors and an intriguing premise that finds religion and science working together to stop the titular character from being released into the world. Some fun dialogue between the characters in the setup and a truly unnerving repeated visual are just two of the attractions of the film, but it’s Carpenter’s almost gleeful attack on organized religion (made blatant through a Pleasance monologue) that gives the film staying power.
Film Thirteen: Dead Snow (2009)
I saw Dead Snow when it was released theatrically three years ago. Not being that impressed with that original viewing equaled nap time.
Film Fourteen: Frenzy (1972)
One of Hitchcock’s final films, Frenzy finds him adding new wrinkles to his classic “wrong man” formula. Returning to England to make the film, Hitchcock creates a grubby, nearly ugly film. Reveling in the freedom of an R-rating, the film opens with a naked corpse floating in the Thames River before offering up such unsettling elements as an intimately shot rape and strangulation, a corpse having its fingers broken to retrieve a piece of evidence, and an unsympathetic lead who is guilty of being an asshole while being innocent of murder. The film is shot largely on location and you can almost smell the stale beer of the pubs, the rotting fruit and vegetables of the outdoor market, and the sweat of the many desperate characters. In many ways, this is Hitchcock’s most heartless film and his most darkly comedic.
Film Fifteen: Halloween II (1981)
Following up Halloween is a thankless task and this sequel definitely does not live up to its predecessor, but as an early ’80s slasher film, it’s more than adequate. Working from a script by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, director Rick Rosenthal stages some nice stalk and kill sequences as Michael Myers hacks his way through the staff of a hospital as he searches for Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). But as the film establishes its lowered goals, it ignores what made the first film so great. The menace of Michael Myers in the original was largely implied. Here, he’s in the film more than Curtis’s Laurie, who is left to sleep in a hospital bed for the majority of the running time. Watching Myers stalk and mutilate his victims while Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) rants and raves ever more maniacally about his former patient’s lack of humanity, it’s hard not to be aware of how this became the template for increasingly crappy sequels.
And with the end of Halloween II came the end of this year’s Massacre. Red-eyed, needing to shower and brush my teeth, and suddenly faced with the knowledge I had to be at work in less than six hours, I staggered out the door of the Portage Theater and into the glare of an unforgiving sun. It goes without saying; I can’t wait for next year.
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