D: Guillermo del Toro
Spider Baby (U.S., 1968) * * * 1/2
D: Jack Hill
This film was a revelation. Jack Hill is best known for his collaborations with Pam Grier--Coffy and Foxy Brown. Spider Baby is an earlier work, a very low-budget horror film saved by a whip-smart script and unexpectedly excellent performances. It's a camp horror film that contains tension, but is also wryly self-aware. (If you added songs, it would be the perfect Rocky Horror prototype.) A tightly-knit clan has been living in a rotting house while suffering from their own degenerative disease, brought on by generations of inbreeding: we are told that the disease causes mental deterioration and ultimately physical deformity. Sisters Elizabeth and Virginia are in the early stages, but already have become homicidal maniacs. Their guardian, Bruno the Chauffeur (Lon Chaney, Jr.), cleans up after their messes, and seeks to protect them from the outside forces who come to break them apart. Spider Baby was actually shot in 1964, which helps explain why the Howes, the grinning, game suburbanites who come to visit, seem to have emerged from a 1950's Leave it to Beaver era, rather than the age of flower power. But given the savage satire the film contains, Spider Baby still manages to feel timeless. Remember: don't volunteer to play the "spider" game.
Black Sunday (Italy, 1960) * * *
D: Mario Bava
I've been dipping into Mario Bava for the first time, and having just seen the superb Kill, Baby...Kill!, I decided to go back to the Bava film that is considered his most influential: Black Sunday, recently reissued in a box set of Bava restorations. This is the film that begins with Barbara Steele being condemned as a witch, tied to a stake, and then subjected to a spiked mask that's driven into her face by a giant swinging hammer. Yikes! Although it's shocking, and gooey-gory in the early Hammer Horror sense, I was surprised to see how much the film owed to Dracula, from the haunted carriage ride through a foggy landscape to the scarring that a crucifix causes when it's pressed against the undead's flesh (this, in particular, taken from Hammer's version of the story). It also borrows from Fu Manchu-style cliffhanger thrillers with its secret passages and a pit of sharp spikes. The best scenes take place in a cobwebbed tomb, a shadowy necropolis with Steele's perfectly preserved corpse visible behind a glass window in her coffin, her face riddled with black holes!
28 Weeks Later (U.K., 2007) * * *
D: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
This clever sequel to Danny Boyle's sleeper hit 28 Days Later immediately establishes a sense of realism and cruel, tragic logic in its harrowing opening scene; it's the film's greatest weakness that it can't sustain that realism or logic throughout, but succumbs to meet traditional zombie-movie expectations as the plot unfolds. Still, there's a hell of a lot to admire here. The apocalyptic plot of the original film--a fast-spreading "rage" virus is turning Britons into violent, mindless killers--is now extended to show what life in the United Kingdom is like "28 weeks later," when the plague has decimated most of the country, leaving a protected security bubble in a section of London--much like the "Green Zone" in Baghdad--where the American military helps protect the last remaining uninfected. Director Fresnadillo (Intacto) gets excellent, believably human performances from his cast, including Robert Carlyle as a haunted father, Catherine McCormack as a scientist researching the "rage" plague, and Jeremy Renner as a sergeant who decides to go AWOL when he's ordered to fire freely upon a crowd of civilians being attacked by the infected. There are some impossibilities in this plot which are hard to ignore, which is a shame, but on the whole it's an amazingly tense, politically-aware thriller with a suffocating feeling of inevitable doom.
Slither (U.S., 2006) * * *
D: James Gunn
Slither begins with an image from countless sci-fi horror films: an asteroid is crashing to Earth, bearing an alien cargo. Sure enough, soon a slimy egg is opening and Grant (Michael Rooker), the redneck husband of Starla (Elizabeth Banks), the local hottie schoolteacher, becomes infected with a mind-controlling alien. He gains an affinity for meat. He sprouts spiked tentacles from his chest. He impregnates a girl, whose body swells to the size of a house. And out of her comes lots and lots of giant slugs. For all of its deliberately revolting prosthetic effects and KY jelly (and cautiously-applied CG), Slither is, in its heart, an old-fashioned monster movie, and a very enjoyable one. Nathan Fillion, of Firefly and Serenity fame, is excellent as a laid-back sheriff who harbors a secret crush for Starla, and takes these new, formidable challenges as they come. Any film that features a melee with a mutant deer is worth your 90 minutes.
It's Alive (U.S., 1974) * * 1/2
D: Larry Cohen
It's Alive is probably the most representative of Larry Cohen's films: it has an easy-sell premise guaranteed to win over movie investors (a killer mutant baby!), plus touches of wry social and political satire that rarely announce themselves, but are woven inextricably into straight-faced thriller conventions. But It's Alive isn't quite successful. There's a superb opening stretch, as the Davies (John P. Ryan and Sharon Farrell), an expecting couple, travel to the hospital with a slight spring in their step; it's their second child (their first is eleven), they know the procedure, and they're optimistic about the changes to come; then something goes wrong in the delivery room, and Frank Davies arrives at a bloody scene--and the baby is gone. It's the beginning of his child's murder rampage, which is, naturally, a completely ludicrous idea, and a major challenge for Cohen. He almost gets the tone right; there are laughs, but it's not a comedy. Still, the premise that there's a killer baby on the loose is never believable, and the scenes in which the child "strikes" are (a) too infrequent, and (b) utterly unconvincing. There are two sequels!
Black Christmas (Canada, 1974) * * * *
D: Bob Clark
Black Christmas is why the horror genre was invented. It's equal parts urban legend and campfire story, with a premise convincing enough, and so completely involving, that you might feel a little uneasy when the story's over and it's time to turn out the lights. The plot, by now, sounds stale: a killer is on the loose over the holidays, leaving creepy phone calls at a sorority house and killing off its occupants one by one. But this was 1974, four years before John Carpenter's Halloween formally started the slasher-film craze. Black Christmas does owe a little to the Italian giallo thrillers of the late 60's and early 70's, and just a bit to Dario Argento and Mario Bava (as well as Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho, of course), but somehow it feels fresh, with its realistic dialogue, believable performances, and observant humor: three traits missing from so many films in this genre. Plus director Bob Clark--who would go on to Porky's and, yes, A Christmas Story--concentrates on building suspense and dread rather than easy-sell exploitation elements. There's no nudity or sex, and although the killings contain intense violence, there's not really any gore (nor do the scenes last very long). Clark would rather let his camera linger on telephones from which a deranged voice is whispering, or the shocked but fascinated expressions of the girls who listen. Skip the remake: this is one of the most effective horror films you'll ever see, and the beginning of a counter-argument to Roger Ebert's recent assertion that there will never be a list of "Great Dead Teenager Films."