Horrorfest 2014 Presents: Ravenous (1999, Antonia Bird)


Owing something of a debt to the underrated and funny Cannibal! The Musical, the 1999 cult film Ravenous works as a horror/comedy/western that has some bleak humor and offers up a decent social/political commentary as well. The cast is fantastic, as the two main stars are Guy Pearce, and Robert Carlyle, who at the time were still up and coming stars. Rounding out the rest of the bunch is Jeffrey Jones, David Arquette, Jeremy Davies, Neal McDonough and John Spencer. They aid in the film being as good as it is, although the humorous moments and the freaky elements combine to form a unique and entertaining movie. Of course one doesn’t quite know what to expect when viewing a film based off of the cannibalism tales of the Donner Party and Alferd Packer. Also the score by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn is full of western twang and only underlines the insanity that populates most of the film.

Starting out innocently enough, Ravenous begins with a solider, Boyd, being sent out to a fort in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. From there the soldiers stationed at Fort Spencer, plus Boyd, run into a man who turns out to be a cannibal. There is a scene that is equal parts creepy, hilarious, action packed and rather violent, and I will not reveal what exactly happens because it should be viewed in the context of the film. Later on, Carlyle’s psychotic, murderous soldier mentions Manifest Destiny, twisting the idea of expansion to fit his own evil desires, reminding the audience that westward expansion was supported by violent conquest of the local American Indians. Even though at times this film’s material wears a bit thin, Ravenous is still a nice addition to the horror genre. Not only do I love the ending, but I also wish that Hollywood would make another film quite like this one, or at least one that was a horror western, although perhaps that already happened and such a film was not as good as Bird’s effort. Too bad if that’s the case.

Horrorfest 2014 Presents: The Innocents (1961, Jack Clayton)


How to know you are in a horror movie: a playboy uncle tasks you with being the governess to a pair of children in a gigantic mansion located in the countryside, far away from help or people of any kind. Plus the previous mistress died in mysterious circumstances, but hey that’s not important and the added bonus is you don’t know how she died. Good times. This is the basis for The Innocents, based on the Turning of the Screw, a movie that I’m not sure can be called a haunted house movie or a crazy people movie. The film nicely leaves the viewer to interpret that for themselves, and it results in an ending that is haunting although a tad unclear to me, which is also fine I guess.

Anchoring the entire film is Deborah Kerr, who plays Miss Giddens, the governess challenged with ruling over the children. Flora is the girl, Miles is the boy, and at first they seem to be charming and wonderful but naturally are hiding darker secrets lying beneath the surface. The black and white cinematography is utterly stunning, and this is due to Freddie Francis, who went on to direct many Hammer Studios and other horror movies and is talented in his own right. Certain scenes build up the tension and add to the uncertainty of Giddens’ state of mind, while also suggesting that perhaps the spirits of the dead have come back to attack the living.

One of the main things I love about this movie is how events spiral out of control, that by the last act the film has achieved a bizarre high level that not too many horror movies reach. Another nice touch is how many scenes are without music, that silence is used to maximum effect and makes the film even more creepy. The Innocents has an otherworldly feel, and it helps that the child actors are also fantastic-Miles is particularly freaky and reminds me of the child actor they had for The Omen. This is a film that has a very good chance of cracking my Top 50 Horror Films list.

Horrorfest 2014 Presents: V/H/S/2 (2013, Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, Gareth Evans, Gregg Hale, Eduardo Sanchez, Timo Tjahjanto, Adam Wingard)


Having enjoyed the first installment I eagerly viewed the second entry in the V/H/S/ series, which built upon the rather solid first film and was a notable improvement. Also like many other horror sequels this one ups the scares and the level of crazy, resulting in a more consistent movie that works better. Despite its share of critics I rather enjoy the found footage style of film making as it takes the viewer front and center to what is happening, thus making it harder to look away from the awful events happening onscreen. While I enjoyed all of the segments one stood out greatly among the rest and one was a tad slow, although once it got started it was rather freaky.

Of course just like all anthologies there is a wrap around story or a narrator who is presenting these events to the viewer in a certain order. In this case you have “Tape 49,” which is the frame narrative and involves Larry and Ayesha being hired to find out what happened to a woman’s son. Even though this tale is not as good as the others (okay its better than the first tale, but not by much) I still liked how it concluded and it provided a halfway decent explanation for why two people would stay in a seemingly abandoned house, digging through videotapes. Even though this is a DVD and Blu Ray era the idea of V/H/S tapes containing footage of awful events, operating as a gateway into the dark corridors that should perhaps not be explored is a rather neat idea, even if its very 1990s at this point and is rather dated.

“Phase I Clinical Trials” is the first official story, and at first I was not impressed. However it does have some rather effective jump scares and its properly creepy and has an unexpected conclusion. One of my favorite things about ghost stories is how the person refuses to leave even when they should, but how does one escape when they are being haunted no matter where they go? The eye implant looked rather freaky and alien, too, and it offered a halfway decent commentary on experimentation and documentation leading to something the person involved did not sign up for, much less expect. “A Ride In The Park” is a nice, terrifying second story involving zombies in the great outdoors. I liked that this story took place during the daytime, as it added to the overall tension level, and it plays out as a tragedy and a nightmare. Oh and the zombie attacks at the picnic cause flashbacks to the classic birthday party footage from Signs.

Yet the best story and the most famous one of the bunch is “Safe Haven,” which ends up being a quickly paced and really messed up tale about a documentary crew that has the misfortune to investigate a cult at the group’s eerie compound. What transpires inside after a slow burning opening gives way to a descent into madness, extreme amounts of gore, and a conclusion that reminds me of several famous horror movies. This tale is largely responsible for the film’s really good rating, and has been discussed ever since this film came out. If stretched to a longer film this entry could have been turned into one of the most disturbing horror movies ever made, yet it works best in a short format. Too bad the camera dies just as things are getting interesting…

Finally the last installment is “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” which is also a mad dash to run away from evil forces seeking to destroy people for reasons unknown. Even though the aliens have the look and feel of your typical gray bodied monsters its still a fairly unnerving episode, one that also has a brutal ending. Especially for us dog lovers. Why horror movies kill off dogs I’ll never understand, and for some reason that’s more disturbing than the death of onscreen characters. Which might be a not so good commentary on humanity. Anyways V/H/S/2 showcases mostly the best of found footage films, and is an entertaining, mostly scary, and crazy anthology horror film that comes recommended.

Horrorfest 2014 Presents: Phenomena (1985, Dario Argento)


Jennifer Connelly had a busy year with both Labyrinth and Phenomena, both strange films although only one is a Dario Argento horror film. This is one of the stranger Argento movies, even by his standards, because in this film Connelly’s Jennifer has the ability to communicate with insects. This ability is established early on when a bee lands on her finger and does not sting her, as if it has become her friend. Of course this film also opens with a typically horrific and startling Argento style murder, and in a way this film reminded me of Suspiria since both movies take place at boarding schools for young women. Naturally both involve the supernatural, too, something that Argento also touched upon in Inferno and some of his later movies, too.

Not only do you have horror icon Donald Pleasence playing a professor stuck in a wheelchair but you also have Argento veteran Daria Nicolodi as Jennifer’s chaperon. Plus there is even a ridiculously smart chimp named Inga, who assists Pleasence and proves to be important later on in the film. You have numerous nasty murders, Jennifer summoning up insects after the students foolishly mock her, and a cool traveling sequence where Jennifer puts her bug powers to investigative use. All set to a wicked soundtrack featuring Goblin and songs by Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Bill Wyman and Andi Sexgang. Even though some of the movie doesn’t quite work (a few of the scenes come off as silly, not magical or creepy) this is still a wonderfully eerie and well made film. Oh and I’m naturally biased in favor of movies with a monkey as one of the main characters for some reason. Perhaps they amuse me.

Horrorfest 2014 Presents: Opera (1987, Dario Argento)


In the grand tradition of murder and mayhem Opera stands out, even if it isn’t Argento’s best film-although I’ll take it over his animal trilogy, Inferno, and Phenomena. The main heroine, Betty (Cristina Marsillach) remains tormented during the entire movie by the famous Argento cliche: the mysterious psycho killer rampaging, horribly murdering people in unique and creative ways. Only in this case poor Betty suffers a fate worse than death: the killer takes needles and tapes them under her eyelids so that she is forced to watch the murders the killer commits. This adds to the main Argento motif of the potential victim being tortured one way or another, hunted and unable to escape.

The soundtrack is also interesting, as since the movie centers on an opera there is mostly opera music, save for jarring heavy metal songs, which are used to great effect, particularly in moments when Betty is trying to save herself from the killer. Despite this being a well crafted, freaky and haunting movie it has some limitations that prevent it from being more than just near great/very good. First, I was able guess the killer and I have not been able to do that in any of the Argento movies I’ve viewed so far. That sucks the fun out of the movie a little, although maybe its my own fault for being a lucky guesser. Second, the movie loses something in the last act and a bit of the tension falls away. Sometimes Argento’s movies don’t sustain momentum, and in a few cases the last act isn’t as strong as the first act or the middle act.

However the majority of this film is a walking nightmare, a dark journey into madness, one that relies on eerie dreams of the past and centers on a crazed murderer’s obsession with Betty, who was able to seize an opportunity at stardom. In a way this is another film where Argento deals with his career, although the meta aspects are not half as strong as they were in his best film, Tenebre. The kills in this one are also horrifying and nasty, which is another of his trademarks and which is the hallmark of his 70s and 80s films based on what I’ve seen so far, which is almost all of his work before the 1990s. Regardless no one can craft a beautiful and awful death scene like Dario Argento.

Horrorfest 2014 Presents: Perfect Blue (1997, Satoshi Kon)


Deciding to go from being a successful pop singer to an up and coming actress, Mima thinks that she has made the right decision, although an insane stalker doesn’t seem to think so. In fact this person is not only watching and following her, but has also created an online diary where they pretend to be Mima. Still Mima goes ahead with her plans, even though this results in the stalker escalating and even killing people, all in a plan to drive Mima insane. There is a moment where the audience is almost tricked into thinking that Mima has gone crazy, and it’s executed beautifully in a horrific and violent way. This film’s animation is fluid and stunning, another prime example of how the Japanese have quite possibly surpassed the Americans, although both have their own unique styles and contribute greatly to animation and cinema.

Another thing I love about this film is how it proceeds two other great films about talented people going crazy in Black Swan and Mullholland Drive, although Mullholland is more complex and better than either Swan or Perfect. Regardless this film builds up Mima’s descent into madness very slowly, coming to a fever pitch and at times leaving the viewer unsure of her state of mind. The last act is a walking nightmare, and what occurs is both creepy and stunning. Plus this whole business starts when Mima chooses to be a part of a moment on the TV show she’s on that leaves her disturbed and haunted, as the film showcases in close ups that reveal that her mind is damaged by the experience, even though what she went through was pretend, not real. However it also causes her stalker to drive to new heights of rage, and in a way some of this film also reminded me of Opera, too, another film where an actress is in grave danger from a homicidal admirer. Not to mention the nods to Hitchcock, as he previously featured films where the protagonist-be they male or female-thought they were going crazy.

The last act is particularly captivating, as reality and fantasy blend together in a way that is rather unhealthy. I rather liked how the film ended, and this is one of the best horror films of the 90s. The score for this also is rather great, going from the fake pop music ballads of the group Mima leaves to creepier, more horror movie style scores that underline the film’s darker moments. Perfect Blue by the final shot is a memorable and excellent experience, a kaleidoscope of colors and moments in time. In a way it also is a social commentary on how people worship celebrities, obsessing over them in unhealthy ways and not realizing that they are not myths, but actual people, flesh and blood just like anyone else.

Horrorfest 2014 Presents: Body Bags (1993, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Larry Sulkis)


Lately I’ve been viewing more anthologies and enjoying them, particularly horror film ones, simply because the horror genre is often at its best in the short form. Edgar Allen Poe certainly thought so and he gave us some of the best short horror fiction. Stephen King’s Night Shift and other anthologies he’s written over the years have been mined for full length horror films based off of his creepy, much shorter tales. Body Bags is such an anthology, however it was originally meant to be a TV series on Showtime-unfortunately for us all, that never happened and all we are left with is this film, which has a typical wrap around plot and of course three ghoulish tales of murder and mayhem. Overall this is a pretty good, enjoyable feature, and considering that it involved John Carpenter (also playing the sinister narrator) and Tobe Hooper, two horror movie legends, its a shame that we only have the three stories and the one film from the project.

Emerging from hiding in a morgue, the weird looking corner stops and notices us, the viewer. He then proceeds to find body bags, obviously, and uses them to spin tales. The first such one is called “The Gas Station,” and it is the best one of the bunch. Directed by John Carpenter as is the second tale, this one centers on poor Anne (Alex Datcher), a college student who takes a job at a gas station on a lonely stretch of highway in the middle of nowhere. With a killer on the loose, no less, which makes her the typical final girl/not particularly bright heroine found in so many horror movies. What really makes this tale eerie and suspenseful is the killer, who I will not reveal here because it is a delightful twist, one that turns this story into an urban legend of sorts. You have Robert Carradine being his usual cheerful self, Wes Craven acting all odd and frumpy, and Sam Raimi in a cameo that is well, rather shocking. Also Carpenter cannot resist throwing in a reference to his 1978 classic Halloween. See if you can find the reference.

Next up is the also Carpenter directed “Hair,” which I found to be the weakest of the bunch although still decent/solid overall. This one has the best cast, with Stacy Keach as a vain man desperate to grow hair so that he can please his long suffering girlfriend, played by Sheena Easton. David Warner and Deborah Harry show up as people who offer to help, and of course they are not who they seem. The twist ending is actually rather frightening, and as a man going bald I have to wonder if maybe losing my hair instead of becoming a slave to something alive is perhaps the wiser choice. Although I’m not sure how this one fits into what the Corner says before the story…

Finally you have “Eye,” which is a frightening and tragic episode, directed by Tobe Hooper and starring Mark Hamill as a baseball player who descends into madness after receiving an eye transplant. Although some objected to this episode’s religious overtones, I rather enjoyed “Eye,” finding it to be both rather freaky and also sad, especially with how it ends. Besides one can argue that the episode was not condemning religion, although I cannot go into this further without spoiling the conclusion. Oh and look for great cameos from famous icons John Agar and Roger Corman, who play the doctors that operate on Hamill. I guess I should have recognized Twiggy as Hamill’s poor wife, too, and for some reason I didn’t.

As for the wrap around story, I am amused by how it concludes, and what it really entails. Particularly since it stars Tom Arnold and Tobe Hooper and has a really good singular joke. Body Bags may or may not have resulted in a decent TV show, but perhaps it works best as a singular anthology film. Many thanks goes to my local public library and Scream Factory for the DVD release I was able to get my hands on.