31 Nights of Horror: Viy

My best friend told me she only likes two horror movies, Alien and Viy (pronounced Vee). I was already very familiar with Alien and its permutations and sequels. Viy, on the other hand, was new to me. Thanks to my friend Sasha, I was finally able to see the film. It quickly became a favorite for many reasons, not the least of which was that it was pitched to me as the first horror film made by Mosfilm, the Soviet film production company.

Viy is based on the story by Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol. It revolves around Khoma, a not-very-good priest in training. He is on break with his friends and crash with them at the home of a farmer. In the night, the farmer’s wife comes to him, mounts him like a horse and rides him through the sky. Khoma frees himself and beats the woman to death. Upon returning to the monastery, he finds he has been requested to go preside over a funeral. It turns out it’s a funeral for the very witch he had killed, but in her “nice young girl” form. As per tradition, Khoma must spend the night praying over the body for three nights. He is wary and tries to prepare himself for any tricks that arise, but what happens is nothing for which he could have planned. He survives the night…but barely. With two nights to go, he tries to get away, but the family finds him and brings him back. What happens in those last two nights? And just who…or what…is Viy? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Technically the film isn’t the most impressive. Soviet censors weren’t keen on horror as a genre and the filmmakers had to work with interference. The finished product is a lot of fun and well-worth seeking out. I have screened this for many friends and all seem to have enjoyed the exploits of Khoma.

Спробуй. Тобi сподобається.

31 Nights of Horror: Rosemary’s Baby

I’ve been debating watching Repulsion for this year’s 31 Nights, but maybe I won’t since Rosemary’s Baby will suffice for showing Roman Polanski’s horror chops. I mean, Repulsion is psychological horror at its best as a young women becomes unhinged. Rosemary’s Baby has a rape by Satan.

Ira Levine’s book was made into the best Mia Farrow movie made to date. She’s amazing as a young woman in love in New York City on the cusp of having all her 60s-era dreams come true with her handsome actor husband Guy, played by John Cassavetes. If only those next door neighbors weren’t so peculiar. And how tragic that the nice young woman you met who is staying with them died so horribly. After a weirdly romantic night where for some reason you fall asleep early and have your husband thank you for the wild night in the morning the nosy woman next door takes extra interest in your doings. The pregnancy makes you so ill that you get a horrible hairdo from Vidal Sasson, but then the troubles with the pregnancy stop. Nothing is so easy, though, because then your friend Hutch tells you of his theories about your building and your neighbors, but he winds up dead. All this is making you crazy, so you go to your doctor…your real doctor, not the one the neighbors connected you with. They tell you nothing is wrong with your baby, but your intuition tells you otherwise, but what can you do? No one is listening. Your husband is suddenly in great demand, but even that doesn’t bring solace because something…is…wrong…with…the…baby.

It’s an awesome movie that had a recent Criterion release with, among other features, an interview with Levine where he talks about the baby when he’s all grown up. Sure Polanski went through a tragedy and turned into a creep. Don’t let that turn you away from this genre classic. It’s filled with shots around a New York City that doesn’t really exist anymore and ends in an amazingly diabolical way. Add it to your Halloween-themed watch list.

31 Nights of Horror: Pit and the Pendulum

When I was a kid, my parents bought one of those big satellite dishes. Living in rural Mississippi, suddenly the whole world was there on television, not just the two channels we received over the air. Being less than 10 years old, I spent plenty of time with the classic Disney Channel. That meant Mousercise in the morning, DTV music videos and lots of classic Disney cartoons (although never feature films).  This is also how I discovered and learned to love Vincent Price via the program Read, Write and Draw. The older I got older and learned more about Price, I was impressed he’d lend his amazing voice to a project that couldn’t possibly have paid very well. It was a while still before I saw Price in any films, and initially it was in the work of Tim Burton.

Even today I haven’t seen many of his classic films. He’s been featured already this month in Warner’s new release of House of Wax. Now thanks to Shout Factory’s new collection, I am finally filling an all-too-old gap in my horror film knowledge. The set features several intros and outros that Price filmed for Iowa Public Television, and they are amazing. The first film in the set is where I began: Pit and the Pendulum.

The first thing you notice is how even a low budget pick can look amazing with the appropriate talent working behind the scenes. The recently deceased Richard Matheson wrote most of the screenplays for Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe series. The costumes in this film look great and really pop today, and likely even more so when the film was released in the early 1960s. As Price states in the intro, Poe wrote great third acts, and it was up to Corman and Matheson to devise the first two.

In Pit and the Pendulum, Frances Barnard arrives at the Spanish castle of the Medina family to inquire about the death of his sister Elizabeth who was married to Nicholas (Price), the current lord of the castle. It’s easy to see Nicholas is on the cusp of a breakdown and his sister Catherine is doing what she can to help him keep it together. She tells Barnard of their troubled childhood and the things Nicholas witnessed among the family’s Inquisition torture equipment. Meanwhile, the ghost of Elizabeth is beginning to make her presence felt playing music and whispering throughout the castle. The end does find someone strapped down with the titular pendulum swinging back…and forth…hoping for a last-reel rescue.

31 Nights of Horror: The Conjuring

I’m not sure whether James Wan is a modern master of horror or if he took enough swings that the law of averages caught up. Either way, The Conjuring is probably the best horror film I’ve seen since Frailty. It certainly doesn’t help that the Perron family and the Warrens are real people, and the story being told is adapted from an actual case that the Warrens worked.

The film opens with the story of the Annabelle doll, a creepy little thing that caused some trouble for a couple of nurses in 1968. The nurses are telling Ed and Lorraine Warren about the problems with the doll. It turns out the doll has become some sort of conduit for an evil that never walked the earth as a living creature, or as the Warrens simply refer to it, a demon. The Warrens snuff out this little supernatural fire before the film move to the Perron family who are moving into their new colonial era farmhouse in Rhode Island in 1971. Things start simply enough with their dog, Sadie, refusing to go inside the house. The next morning, mama Carolyn Perron, played by Lili Taylor, notices some weird bruises which she chalks up to house warming sex the night before with her husband Roger (Ron Livingston). Then she notices the clocks sitting at 3:07. One of the children finds poor Sadie dead outside. Things go downhill from there, but at a leisurely pace that allows you to get to know the five Perron children a little before the family is run through the wringer.

Carolyn meets the Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmigna) after they give a presentation at a nearby university. She pleads with them to come to their house and help her protect her daughters. Lorraine notices something amiss pretty quickly, and we are propelled towards the climax as people and the house are cleansed.

The film is played straight. There are few of the “scare by loud music” moments that have long infected the horror genre. There is an ambiance to the film that allows the actors to really sell their portrayals and the physical and spiritual danger the characters are in. Of course this mood is helped by it’s connection to real people and real events. James Wan shows a lot of restraint for someone who came up with the Saw series. There’s no gore. There’s no profanity to speak of. There is simply a big scary house filled with sympathetic characters. Lili Taylor tends to get less notice than she deserves for her acting. She has the central role here and really makes you feel her character’s compassion and strength.

The BD release has a few extra features including a forced trailer for the Jennifer Aniston/Jason Sudekis comedy “We’re the Millers” in some sort of counter-programming idea. The trailers continue to make the movie look funny even if the reviews didn’t. Besides that, there is an all too brief interview piece with the Perrons. Carolyn Perron has some interesting things to say making this the best of the extras.

Out on home video in time for Halloween, all the people who missed it finally get a chance to enjoy it. This will be the movie that haunts middle schoolers for a generation. I am glad they got a real, honest to goodness scary movie of their own.

31 Nights of Horror: The Howling

Joe Dante returns to the 2013 31 Nights of Horror lineup with The Howling. It’s the story of a news anchor named Karen White (Dee Wallace) who ventures out to meet a suspected killer named Eddie Quist (played by Robert Picardo). She’s wearing a wire for safety, but still the police barely arrive in time to save her from being mauled by the guy in a scrungy porn theater.

The shock of that event stays with White. Her psychiatrist recommends she go to a commune called “The Colony” to work on her issues. There’s a motley group there of all types including Royal Dano making another appearance in this years list. There’s a lot of wolf activity in the area which White records. Always the investigator, it seems like some art left behind by Quist is of landscapes around The Colony. More investigating reveals a pretty significant werewolf problem in the area. Everything comes to an interesting ending with a Pekinese dog on TV.

The Howling isn’t a bad movie at all. The performances are strong and the story is interesting. The film is filled with actors who would go on to appear in many of Dante’s other films like Kevin McCarthy and Dick Miller. Its only real problem is that it came out in 1981, the same year as An American Werewolf in London. The only thing they have in common is werewolves, but they’ll forever be compared by their transformation scenes. Unfortunately the work done in The Howling, while not bad, can’t hold a candle to Rick Baker’s work in Werewolf in London. If for some reason you haven’t seen either, watch The Howling first so you don’t ruin the hard work they put into their transformation scene.

As a side note, while London had a better transformation, The Howling has more nudity. Make of that what you will.

Shout Factory released a new BD of the film over the summer. It’s filled with extras both old and new. The transfer is pretty amazing, although if you hate that 70s-style haze in movies, you’ll be less interested.