Horror Movie Watch: Post-Mortem

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What a wild ride that was, friends. While I truly had fun watching and writing about thirty-one different horror movies, I’m relieved it’s over. I am in more of a dark place now – and that’s only partially a joke. My humour has become a bit darker since starting this project, and I talk about death at the drop of a hat. I am also fairly exhausted. The horror movie watch added a minimum of four hours’ work (viewing and writing) onto each of my days, and the posts got longer as the month wore on. I rarely got more than five hours’ sleep throughout October, and didn’t take the best care of myself. There were more than a few social engagements that I left earlier than I would have, knowing I had 90 minutes of horror movie to view once I arrived home. That said, I’m really not complaining. I inflicted this upon myself Just providing an explanation in case I was unpleasant toward you or scatter-brained when/if you saw me this past month. Despite the fatigue, I am deliriously happy right now. I was doing two of my favourite things all month long: (a) working myself to death, and (b) taking fun things way too seriously.

I want to sincerely thank all of you: for reading, for commenting, for watching along – whether that happened on my couch or on your own – for even intending to watch one (but life got in the way), for discussing your favourite horror movies when I saw you in person. I really, really appreciate it. You’re too kind to me, and your support kept me honest and kept me committed to this ridiculous endeavour. Thank you for enjoying it as an intellectual exercise, instead of the cry for help it so transparently was. Another big thanks to Toronto’s Queen Video and Bay Street Video for existing, as this month of horror movie viewings would have never happened without their impressive stock and friendly staff. It will be nice when I can rent something from them soon that features far less murder in it. And if you loved this idea, be sure to check in on my friend Charmaine Pang, who’s conducting her own Kung-Fu February in the new year.

What follows is an alphabetical index of the full list of thirty-one films. Simply click on the photo to be linked to the write-up. After watching thirty-one films, I have seen:

  • countless throat-cuttings
  • almost as many as incredible outfits
  • only about a dozen significant characters of colour (and then, that’s only because I watched Leprechaun in the Hood)
  • twelve instances of distracted driving leading to death and injury
  • three movies featuring dwarves in red, hooded coats
  • two scenes that reminded me of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’
  • and only one nightmare the entire month. It was influenced by the movie Sinister and, for reasons unknown, featured National Post‘s Books Editor Emily M. Keeler.

Thanks again for reading this October. The index follows:

Bird2

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

‘By implicating the viewer in these murders, it indicts the viewer: you are just as responsible for these violent crimes as whoever the real killer is. You wanted to see this. And so, it introduces that key ingredient of many a horror film: shame.’

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The Brood

‘Frank confronts Dr. Raglan at his office, saying he doesn’t want his daughter seeing Nola while she’s still under psychiatric (or psychoplasmic) care, but Raglan won’t agree to that. Frank pursues legal action, but his lawyer, as if he were reading a Men’s Rights Activist pamphlet, tells him they won’t have a case: ‘The law believes in motherhood.’

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The Burning

‘If you’ve ever wanted to see Jason Alexander’s ass, here’s your chance.’

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Calvaire (The Ordeal)

‘Worst. Christmas. Ever.’

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Carnival of Souls

‘People say there’s something off about Mary; they warn her not to isolate herself, but don’t actually offer friendship – just scoldings and unwelcome sexual advances.’

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Critters

‘But whereas the Superman story, written by the children of Jewish immigrants, tells the story of a benevolent immigrant who wants only to help and assimilate, Critters, written by Domonic Muir (of which I know little), portrays the imagined dangers of immigration: these immigrants are escaped convicts, come to literally eat us, house and home.’

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Deathdream (Dead of Night)

‘Who knew rudderless dead shells of human beings could be such trend-setters? In attempting to cover up his increasingly corpsified look, he ends up looking like the lost member of Bauhaus.

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The Descent

‘Maybe they could even name it after Sarah! Sarah is less than impressed, given there’s a decent chance she might die in this cave.’

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Don’t Look Now

‘Even at the age of thirty-seven or however old he was in Don’t Look Now, Donald Sutherland’s moans of agony sound precisely like a hundred year-old man drowning in his own soup.’

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Der Golem

‘Always fully read the manual of the automaton before you bring it to life.’

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Happy Birthday to Me

‘Shish kebab: the most erotic and dangerous food of the Middle East.’

Here Comes the Devil

‘Sometimes parents just don’t understand … that you’ve been possessed by the Devil.’

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High Tension (Switchblade Romance)

‘As one IMDB user asked, ‘what’s up with the bad guy mastubating [sic] using decaptivated [sic] head?’ What indeed?’

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The Horror of Dracula

‘This Dracula is mean, clipped, and a straight-up monster who can’t even be bothered to wipe his mouth after bleeding his victims out.’

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House (1986)

‘The show-stopper is Cobb’s V-neck sweater, featuring the deepest ‘V’ seen outside of a SoulDecision music video. It should be illegal to wear a V-neck that deep with no shirt underneath.’
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In the Mouth of Madness

The really unexpected lesson in In the Mouth of Madness is don’t read.

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Lair of the White Worm

‘Until I looked up the spelling on IMDB, I was sure the characters were talking about ‘the Downton Worm.’ I was pretty excited to think the events of The Lair of the White Worm were happening in the same universe and geographic region as Downton Abbey. Maybe the Dowager Countess was Dionin priestess of her day.’

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Leprechaun in the Hood (Leprechaun 5)

‘To get close to the Leprechaun, they have to … you guessed it … dress as female sex workers, giving the audience the cross-dressing sequence we’ve all be waiting for.’

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Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

‘The foursome meets again for dinner. On the menu: sexual tension.’

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The Nun

‘But all the talk of suicide and murderous nuns is a real turn-on, and our priest-in-training and Eve start making out on Sister Ursula’s old bed, which is wrong for so many reasons.’

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Pin

‘The subtitle of Pin is “A Plastic Nightmare,” but more accurately, this movie is “A WASP Nightmare.”‘

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Pulse

‘In Pulse, are the real ghosts lonelinesss? Are all horror movies about loneliness? Am I just lonely?’

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Rigor Mortis

‘Loneliness makes us do strange, sometimes awful things, Rigor Mortis seems to tell us. But companionship, such as when Chin reaches out to Feng and Pak, can be life-saving.’

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Science Crazed

‘It’s like an apolitical Jean-Luc Godard found a camcorder and made a horror movie for his high school Health class.’

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Sinister

‘It takes some serious ego to move into the house of the subject of your true crime novel, and even more to obstruct justice in the name of another successful book. That said, knowing many writers, I didn’t find his actions particularly unrealistic.’

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Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers

‘Avoid getting battery acid on your face at all costs. Also, if your niece was just released from a psychiatric institution after murdering dozens of people at her camp, maybe don’t hire her to be a camp counsellor.’

Slumber Party Massacre II (Deborah Brock, 1987)

Slumber Party Massacre 2

‘Has an object more phallic ever been envisioned than a drill-guitar?’

Strangers-Masked-Man

The Strangers

‘I did totally neglect to eat a Coffee Crisp I had for the entire movie’s tense duration, so that should speak to how hypnotic it was.’

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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

‘Given today’s “Stand Your Ground” laws, most of what Leatherface does would probably be determined as legal.’

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Triangle

‘My favourite kill was the almost inadvertent head smash of Victor into one of the ship’s wall hooks. (It made me fear ocean liners much more than the rest of the movie did. Think of all the wall hooks!)’

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Wrong Turn

‘There are few movies with a greater oral fixation than Wrong Turn.’

 

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Horror Movie Watch: Slumber Party Massacre 2

Some people call a guitar an 'axe.' This guy prefers to think of it as a drill.

Some people call a guitar an ‘axe.’ This guy prefers to think of it as a drill.

This October, I attempted ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I tried to watch one movie a day, after which I wrote some things about said movies on this website. I didn’t quite make it in time, but here it is: my thirty-first horror movie review of the month(ish). Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! The honour of the final film goes to a slasher parody of sorts, Slumber Party Massacre 2 (1987), directed by the only female director of my project, Deborah Brock. The movie was suggested by friend and author Dina Del Bucchia, because – and I quote – ‘of the murder guitar and also ’80s negligee.’ Del Bucchia is the very funny, very smart author of Coping with Emotions and Otters and, more recently, Blind Items.

As (almost) always, a special thanks to Queen Video for providing me with the DVD of Slumber Party Massacre 2. The DVD came in a special sleepover package with Slumber Party Massacre and Slumber Party Massacre 3. I have so far resisted temptation and have yet to watch either other film in the trilogy.

What happens:

I’ve never seen Slumber Party Massacre: Original Recipe, but I think I’ve got a general idea of what happens in it: there’s slumber party, it turns into a massacre … I’m sure there are a couple subplots in there, as well. (Though after seeing Slumber Party Massacre 2, I might be giving it too much credit with the subplots.) But I was more intrigued about this movie than I’d normally be after spotting it in a Flavorwire article on 50 Must-See Horror Films Directed by Women.’

The camera pans over a young woman, sleeping in bed as the Lifetime-Movie-of-the-Week-esque credits run. The woman smiles as she dreams of a shirtless hunk catching a football, but the dream soon turns dark, featuring nightmare images of blood, drills, and a dead bird. She wakes up with a start, then later discusses the bad dream with her mother over breakfast. The young woman is Courtney Bates (Crystal Bernard), the younger sister of a/the survivor of the first Slumber Party Massacre, Valerie. Her mother says that dreams are a way of coping with trauma, and asks if Courtney would want to see someone: a doctor or therapist. Courtney, somewhat ashamed of her sister Valerie, who is now institutionalized, declines. Running late for school, she jogs down the block but is stopped cold when she sees a dead dove on the sidewalk – just like she saw in her dream.

Her friend Amy rolls up in her Oldsmobile and gives her a lift to school. They then – in a clear predecessor to the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ scene in Wayne’s World – sing along to a bizarre new wave song with the chorus, ‘I wanna’ be your Tokyo convertible.’ Speaking of convertibles, one pulls up alongside them with a very special occupant: Matt Arbicost (Patrick Lowe), the hunk from Courtney’s dreams. Amy encourages Courtney to talk to him, and Courtney invites him to check out her and Amy’s band practice. (Did I not mention that Courtney and Amy are in a band?) Next we see the young women, they’re jamming in a garage. Courtney plays guitar and Amy lays down the bass line (of course I have a crush on the bassist; I’m so predictable), and two women we’ve never seen before – Sheila and Sally – are vocalist and drummer, respectively. While they rock out, Matt drives up and sits there as an audience of one, as if it’s not the strangest thing in the world a person could do. (Matt gets away with so much just because he’s handsome.)

At the end of practice, Courtney invites Matt to Shelia’s dad’s condominium for the weekend. Sheila’s dad recently bought a condo (this was probably a brand-new thing in 1987), and the band members are going to spend the entire weekend there, alone (no parental supervision!) to practice and write songs. Matt is very eager to join Courtney, but there’s just one hurdle: Courtney has to convince her mom first. Over an awkward dinner, Courtney talks about Sheila’s dad’s condo, but her mom has already made plans for them to take a trip to visit Valerie at the mental institution. Courtney pulls rank, complaining, ‘Sunday is my birthday and I don’t want to spend it in a mental hospital.’ Her mom (who seemingly forgot about her birthday) relents and allows Courtney to spend the weekend with her friends, especially once Courtney falsely informs her that Sheila’s parents will be there and they’re ‘a little strict.’

Matt Arbicost, subject of one of the very rare examples of 'female gaze' in film history.

Matt Arbicost, subject of one of the very rare examples of ‘female gaze’ in film history.

That night, Courtney’s nightmares continue. She has visions of a man in black rockabilly gear and steel-toed boots, sees her sister Valeire warning her of something. Even when she falls asleep on their road trip, she has terrible dreams. When they stop in a parking lot to pick up food, she hallucinates that Valerie, covered in blood, slams herself against her passenger-side window. Eventually, they arrive in the condo development, which is still in the process of being built. Few of the other neighbours have even moved into the condominiums yet. They go through the house, settling in. The women find a plastic blow-up doll left by Sheila’s brother in one of the beds, and Sheila uncovers where her father hides the alcohol. ‘Some people have wine cellars; my dad has a booze closet,’ she says. They turn on the TV, which happens to be playing a movie called Rock ‘n’ Roll from Hell. Really feeling the song on the soundtrack, they crank it and start to dance. Getting wilder, they spray each other with champagne and Shelia takes her shirt off.

Two young men – T.J. and Jeff – who weren’t supposed to arrive until the following night, show up at the condominium and spy the revelry through the window, which has turned into a full-blown pillow fight. ‘I didn’t know girls really did this stuff,’ Jeff marvels, in perhaps the most self-reflexive line of the movie. The band members hear noises and go to investigate, finding T.J. (an Adam Devine type who dresses kind of like the early-era Beastie Boys) and Jeff (who dresses like one of the Socs from The Outsiders) scare them with their arrival. That night, Courtney tries to sleep but is woken by the raucous lovemaking of Shelia and T.J. in the next room. It’s for the best, though, as when she does fall asleep, she just has more nightmares about drills and her sister. The next morning, at the side of the condo’s pool, Courtney confides in Amy about her nightmares, and Amy responds by talking about the psychological phenomenon of subconscious projection (which, I’ll admit, I definitely wasn’t expecting). T.J., creep that he is, starts manhandling Courtney and tosses her into the pool. (At this point, I really relished T.J.’s inevitable death.) Courtney sinks to the bottom, lost in nightmares, and Jeff dives in to rescue her. Despite this near-drowning, things go back to normal, with everyone joking about a ‘dirty’ book that Sally brought from home: Hot, Wet, and Wild.

The super-rad weekend continues, replete with swimming, car-washing, and impromptu band performances. T.J. does a dramatic reading from Hot, Wet, and Wild in an attempt to arouse Sheila – which, incredibly, works – and Courtney imagines the chicken in the refrigerator attacks her. Amy encourages Courtney to relax by taking a hot bath, so Courtney takes her friend’s advice. But she has visions of the bath filling with blood, so she screams and runs down to Sally, currently hard at work on a new song. (She’s a Phil Collins type.) Sally follows her upstairs but finds no blood in the bathroom, just an overflowing tub. Sally then starts complaining about a big zit she has, and when she turns to Courtney, her face is deformed by a hideous monster pimple, which then bursts spectacularly. (It’s really disgusting.) Courtney freaks out, running almost directly into Matt Arbicost in her escape from the bathroom. (So, I guess Matt arrived at the condo unannounced, as well.) T.J. suggests Courtney is totally ruining his weekend, but Jeff and Matt are much more sympathetic. And Sally does seem to be missing. They then look to the trash compactor, which none of them can remember turning on. Is Sally in the trash compactor?

T.J. does a dramatic reading of Hot, Wet, and Wild for Sheila.

T.J. does a dramatic reading of Hot, Wet, and Wild for Sheila.

Instead of looking into the trash compactor, they call the police, and officers Krueger and Voorhees (get it?) aren’t overly impressed by their story. When Sally walks in the front door – she stepped out to buy some Oxy 10 – they warn the teenagers how little they like having their chains jerked. They depart to Denny’s where the staff is holding a booth for them. When things calm down, Matt surprises Courtney with a birthday cake. While the others are out for dinner they start to make out in Courtney’s guest bedroom. Things begin to get hot and heavy, and the others return from dinner and begin to goof around on the instruments downstairs. Courtney is just about to confess to Matt that she’s never gone ‘all the way’ with someone before when a large drill pierces his chest from the other side and blood spurts all over. Behind him stands a man – the rockabilly killer from her dreams – wielding a large red guitar that’s part drill, a weapon probably never seen outside of an Iron Maiden album cover before. Courtney screams and tries to reassure herself it’s only a dream, but the driller killer shouts, ‘Does this look like a dream to you?’ as gore flies off the spinning drill and he throws Matt’s gory severed arm behind him.

Courtney runs downstairs, the guitar killer in hot pursuit. Courtney’s friends are shocked when the killer comes down the stairs. T.J. first attempts to battle him with a regular guitar, but realizing he’s outgunned, falls back. Some of the group run outside, while others run to the kitchen to call 911. Sally, trapped behind her drum kit, remains imprisoned with the murderer. As Jeff begins to dial the police, a bloody drill bit bursts through the wall, destroying the phone (and probably killing Sally on the other side). They escape the house. Down the street, T.J. and Sheila, separated from the others, try to flag down a car to no avail. Courtney, Jeff, and Amy decide they have to go back into the house to retrieve the car keys. They should also check on Sally, though they fear the worst. The trio sneaks back, grabs the keys, and find Sally very much dead. They hop into the car and, after a few false starts, are driving down the road out of the condo development. It isn’t long, though, before a drill pierces Jeff’s torso from behind. The guitar killer was hiding in the backseat! Amy and Courtney escape the car and run for their lives.

Meanwhile, Sheila is dragging T.J. around, as his leg has been somehow injured – I missed whether he fell or was actually wounded by the drill. They knock on the house of another condo, but the owner, blasting classical music (red flag?), won’t answer. They’re left outside as the driller killer arrives to gore Sheila’s arm and make short work of the injured T.J. Courtney and Amy have returned to Sheila’s dad’s condo and found another phone in a bedroom, but when they call the police, it’s Officer Krueger who answers and refuses to help, believing it another of Courtney’s hoaxes. Sheila also returns to her dad’s condo and hides in the upstairs hallway. The driller killer arrives and begins to – and this is real – strut around and dance, even breakdancing at one point (!), despite his very rockabilly appearance. After this dance routine, he drills Sheila to death as Amy and Courtney shore up furniture against the door of the bedroom they’ve hidden in. The killer drills through the door and the two women escape out the window, leaping over the closely positioned rooftops of the condos.

The killer catches up with our two heroines and grazes Amy across the face with his guitar drill. The chase continues into a condo construction site (is there a more metaphorical ’80s setting for a film climax?) and Amy is again tagged with the drill. It seems like Amy can go on no longer when she falls from the upper storey of the partially constructed building. Courtney grabs her arms but she’s unable to hold on when the killer arrives and thrusts his guitar drill at her. Amy falls to the ground (and possibly her death). The killer then follows Courtney and sings a confusing song of heartbreak, as if Courtney is being punished for breaking her heart, despite them having never met before this night. Courtney flees to the roof and finds an oxygen tank. She handily turns it into a blow torch and – with a maniacal look on her face – sets the killer ablaze. He drops, like a flaming meteorite, to the ground, three storeys below.

In the morning, we see Courtney in one of those shock blankets as police and paramedics swarm the construction site. Two EMTs bring by a stretcher holding her friend Amy, who is just barely alive. She turns to Courtney and laughs with the guitar killer’s laugh. Courtney awakes from a start in bed beside Matt, alive and intact. Was the whole thing a terrible nightmare? She kisses Matt, but when she pulls away sees that it’s not Matt, but the guitar killer again. Then she screams, and either she or Valerie (it was hard to tell) is seen screaming in the mental institution as a massive drill comes up through the floor.

The band, in happier times, when it was just a Slumber Party Madcap Romp.

The band, in happier times, when it was just a Slumber Party Madcap Romp.

Takeaway points:

    • If you know anything about film, you know that, due to the ingrained misogyny of the entertainment industry and various other factors, female directors are a pretty rare breed. Female horror directors, perhaps even moreso – though the relatively small budgets of horror movies might allow a bit more opportunity for independent female directors to flourish than in other genres. (Near the end of my Horror Movie Watch, I came across this Flavorwire list of horror movies by female directors, which gives me a guide for next October. Did you know there’s a horror movie directed by Cindy Sherman that stars Molly Ringwald?! How did I not know about this before now?) While Slumber Party Massacre (the first) is often discussed as being particularly smart and a kind of sly critique on the slasher genre. But Slumber Party Massacre 2 has none of that cleverness. It seems just like a cheap, kind-of-quirky slasher movie, largely indistinguishable from those directed by men. There are two things that make it somewhat different from your average male-directed slasher pic. (1) The quartet of female protagonists are in a band, which is awesome. Most of the female victims in horror movies have absolutely no hobbies, no personality outside of an interest in one of the lead male characters. So, you actually like these women as people, not as future corpses. And (2) there’s actually a bit of female gaze (though I know that’s kind of impossible). Obviously, there’s a lot of male gaze, too – there is, after, all a partially topless pillow fight in the movie – but we also see a lot of a sweaty, shirtless Matt Arbicost, filmed in a similar fashion to how women are typically filmed in horror movies.
    • This may be taking things a bit far, but I’m a strong believer that no thesis is too outlandish if it’s supported by the ‘text’: is the entire movie about the fear of male-female penetrative sex? Or, to be totally heteronormative, is it about fear of losing your virginity? The guitar killer (whose name we never learn) often threatens Courtney in her nightmares about ‘going all the way.’ And it’s only just as Courtney is about to confess to Matt that she’s never had intercourse before that the killer strikes. And how does he kill? With a drill-guitar. Has an object more phallic ever been envisioned than a drill-guitar? It’s kind of a stroke (no pun intended) of genius. After finally defeating the killer, Courtney awakes in a post-coital embrace with Matt. Did she just have sex? Was the entire murder spree a kind of nightmare metaphor for her first time? Some subconscious projection? Is Slumber Party Massacre 2 a screed against penetrative sex? A cautionary tale against heterosexuality? (If that’s the case, perhaps this is one of the most feminist horror movies of all time!) I mean, it’s getting a bit Cronenbergian here, but I think that’s almost the only way to read Slumber Party Massacre 2. That is, if you try to read it any way other than just a stupid movie where people get killed for no reason.
    • The prime weakness of Slumber Party Massacre 2 is the lack of motivation. Who is this guitar killer? Where did he come from? Why is he killing these people? Where did he learn to breakdance? Obviously, there’s something to be said for the unknown, mysterious, remorseless killer, but when he’s given so much personality, as he is here, it feels like there should be a back story. Then again, if this movie is a manifestation of sexual fears, as I suggest above, maybe he doesn’t have a back story.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Truly terrible. The movie is saved by a few bits of entertaining strangeness, and my innate love of all movies featuring all-girl bands, but it’s not a good movie, and there’s not much story to speak of. The fact that I was able to write several paragraphs on the plot was a real feat. (The Wikipedia plot summary is barely two paragraphs.) And it’s not scary at all, though a couple of the scenes are really gory – notably, the ‘meat’ that sometimes spins around on the guitar killer’s weapon.

Too many incredible outfits in this band shot to handle. (Also note the conspicuous can of Slice.)

Too many incredible outfits in this band shot to handle. (Also note the conspicuous can of Slice.)

Best outfit: As I hinted at before, I developed a little crush on bassist Amy, and that’s probably because she has the best outfits. Her band practice look (you know I love ties) is incredible. But I also have to give points to Courtney’s pink-and-white striped short-sleeved sweater which she pairs with white suspenders.

Best line: ‘Could you get me a Slice?’ – Sally, when asked if she wants anything from the kitchen. This may be the only filmic reference to this forgotten soft drink.

Best kill: For a movie about a guy who kills people with a guitar/drill hybrid, the murders are largely unremarkable. The first kill, when Matt is murdered during an intimate moment with Courtney, is my favourite. I don’t think they had the special effects budget for the rest of the kills.

Unexpected cameo: I totally didn’t realize this until the movie was over, but our protagonist, Courtney, is portrayed by Crystal Bernard, who delighted us for six seasons as Helen Chapel on your favourite television sitcom about an upstart airline, Wings. Also, you might recognize T.J. (Joel Hoffman) from another horror movie role: Steve in Pumpkinhead.

Unexpected lesson learned: Playing drums makes you an easy target for murderers who stumble into your band practice. We need to think of an easy escape hatch for the poor summers of the world.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Hot, Wet, and Wild

Next up: Nothing! The Horror Movie Watch is over, folks!

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Horror Movie Watch: The Burning

This is exactly why you should think twice before getting that 'free' haircut at the beauty college.

This is exactly why you should think twice before getting that ‘free’ haircut at the beauty college.

This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film is early ’80s slasher gem The Burning (1981), directed by Tony Maylam (Split Second), and co-written by Harvey and Bob Weinstein (yes, really – this was apparently the first Miramax film!). It was suggested by friend and YA author Suzanne Sutherland, who mentioned it featured ‘a young, and strangely handsome Jason Alexander.’ Sold! Sutherland is a very talented author of young adult books, including the stellar When We Were Good (which is the first book I ever blurbed!) and the forthcoming Something Wiki.

I returned to my ‘summer girlfriend,’ Bay Street Video, for a DVD of The Burning. The friendly clerk was very enthusiastic about my Halloween movie selection. Trigger warning issued for Jian Ghomeshi talk.

What happens:

The Burning begins with a cold open (look at me with the film lingo) on Camp Blackfoot (cultural appropriation at its finest), where in the boys’ cabin, a group conspires in the dark. They all hate Cropsey, the camp’s caretaker, so they plan to – and I quote – ‘scare the shit out of him.’ This involves lighting candles inside a wormy human skull and leaving it at his bedside (or cot side – Cropsey’s sleeping arrangements are fairly depressing). The old wormy skull trick works like a charm and Cropsey, when woken by the boys, freaks out, kicking the skull off the side table, setting his sheets and clothes on fire. The flames spread to a gas tank in the utility shed Cropsey in which sleeps, and the boys watch in horror as their caretaker falls out of the shed and stumbles into the nearby creek.

Next we see a jive-talking orderly showing the ropes to a new doctor at the local hospital. As some sort of weird initiation – or to scare the new guy – he insists the doctor take a look at a recent burn victim. ‘This guy’s burned so bad, he’s cooked. A fuckin’ Big Mac,’ he says. (Because what’s cooked more than a Big Mac?) He opens up the oxygen tent to show the doctor the burn victim when a skinless, shredded hand shoots out and grabs the orderly’s arm. Then the credits roll. (What an opening!)

Five years later, doctors and therapists are about to release Cropsey from the hospital. They tell him it was just an accident, and he should try to let his anger about the whole incident that left him horribly burned roll off him like the summer rain. (To be fair, I can’t imagine the campers would be criminally responsible for anything. I don’t want to victim-blame, but you really shouldn’t be sleeping beside open gasoline drums anyway.) First thing Cropsey does upon release is visit seedy 1980s Times Square, where he immediately picks up a sex worker. Once in her bedroom, she gets full view of his face (though we, the audience, don’t yet), and panics. ‘Please just go,’ she begs. But he doesn’t, and instead chokes her and stabs her in the stomach with her own sewing shears – she was an amateur seamstress! – spraying blood everywhere. (The scene is totally out of nowhere, and seems inserted just to tide gorehounds over until the real killing begins.)

Viewers then travel to Camp Shearwater, where the campers and counsellors are playing some good ol’ American baseball. But, like, imagine a baseball game filtered through the slow-mo, male-gazey lens of Baywatch. Dave (Jason Alexander, who is, as advertised, strangely handsome) and Eddie (Ned Eisenberg) are checking out the ladies when the ball flies out of bounds in the woods, and the improbably named Tiger bounds into the forest to retrieve it. As she searches for the ball, the silhouette of a man holding garden shears traces her movements, but backs away at the last minute. Eddie has been putting the moves on Karen (Carolyn Houlihan), but Karen confides with senior counsellor, Michelle (Leah Ayres) that Eddie sometimes scares her. She’s avoided going on overnight trips because he’ll be there, but then again, sometimes she really likes him.

Only one of these cast members will go on to become George Costanza.

Only one of these cast members will go on to become George Costanza.

The next morning, camper Sally heads to the outdoor shower. While washing, she hears noises, and when she steps out, she finds camper Alfred (Brian Backer) – who most people feel is kind of a creep – standing there and screams. Alfred runs, but is stopped by a couple of the guys. Michelle wants Alfred punished, but other senior counsellor Todd (Brian Matthews) makes all sorts of excuses, like ‘He’s just a kid. Kids do that.’ And ‘If I think he’s going to be a problem, I’ll kick him out.’ Todd has a heart-to-heart with Alfred, who says that he’s being bullied at the camp, especially by alpha male Glazer (Larry Joshua). His claims have some validity, as when first we see Glazer, he’s threatening Alfred to stay away from ‘his girl,’ Sally. Todd tells the muscled Glazer to pick on someone his own size, basically, and things cool down for a little while.

Soon, everyone is swimming in the lake. Everyone except Alfred, as he can’t swim. (Many of the boys seem to have body issues, though, as a significant portion of them go swimming with shirts on.) Glazer, proponent of tough love, shoves Alfred into the lake, leaving Dave and friends to rescue him. ‘Don’t worry,’ Alfred says menacingly. ‘He’ll get his.’ Glazer swims out to the dock where a bunch of the girls are lounging. He tries to flirt with them, but one of the nerds, Woodstock, takes out his BB gun and shoots him directly in the butt. His friends cheer him on, then collectively moon Glazer. (So if you’ve ever wanted to see Jason Alexander’s ass, here’s your chance.)

That night, Dave, who’s kind of a procurer at Camp Shearwater, hands out pornography to the various male campers, then gives Glazer the condoms he ordered (which he refuses because they’re not lubricated, so at least he cares somewhat about his partner’s pleasure). Alfred thinks he sees something in the cabin window – a hideous burned face – but when they look outside, they find nothing. Everyone goes to dinner, anxious and buzzing about the upcoming canoe trip. Woodstock forgets his Vitamin E and has to return to the cabin for it. A mysterious figure follows him into the cabin, and for a while, it looks like Woodstock will be our next victim. However, the shadowy person just turns out to be Todd. (Phew!)

Removed from context, I'd swear this screencap was from a giallo.

Removed from context, I’d swear this screencap was from a giallo.

The campers head off on their canoe trip, and it starts out all fun and laughter and bluegrass music, but things are about to turn really sour. Around the campfire, they tell ghost stories, and Todd tells the urban legend of Cropsey and Camp Blackfoot, with some additional editorializing about how Cropsey was an alcoholic. Apparently, some kid from Brooklyn (demonization of Brooklynites, I see) planned a gag, but it all went wrong. Nobody found a body, though, and Todd says Crospey is still out there. That’s when Eddie, with a mask and fake knife, leaps into the circle, making everyone jump.

A while after the scare, Eddie and Karen talk on their own. Eddie tries to pressure her into sex, and when she declines, he suggests they go skinny-dipping. Again, he tries to have sex with Karen, and she asks him to stop. ‘Why’d you come out here, then?!’ Eddie – early men’s rights activist – shouts, then stalks off upset. Karen swims back to shore, but finds her clothing has been taken. She sees the various clothing articles have been scattered all over the forest, so she starts her hunt, slowly getting dressed as she goes deeper into the woods. Just as she’s about to pick up her jacket, someone cuts her throat with an open pair of garden shears. Eddie, meanwhile, has sulked away to sleep on another part of the shore. He’s woken by Michelle and Todd, who want to know where Karen’s gone. Eddie has no idea. That’s when Tiger and Marty announce that the canoes are missing.

The campers split up: many of them search for the missing canoes while Todd and Michelle work on building a new raft out of … scrap wood, I guess? Glazer doesn’t do much searching before he begins to fondle his search partner, Sally. All the while, creeper Alfred hides in the bushes, watching them engage in some heavy petting. Meanwhile, some of the more responsible campers spot a canoe out on the lake, so they take the newly-made makeshift raft and paddle out to it. In a real shock, just as they reach the canoe, a figure rises up with garden shears in hand and makes short work of them: Eddie is stabbed in the throat, Woodstock has his fingers cut off, and another camper, Barbara, is slashed across the forehead. None of the rafters are left alive.

Glazer and Sally, meanwhile have sex overnight, and it’s not quite what Sally expected: ‘That’s all? Is that it?’ Glazer then leaves to pick up some matches and firewood, and our killer arrives while he’s gone and attacks Sally. When Glazer returns, he thinks she’s asleep, hiding under the sleeping bag. Alfred finds the spot where they’re staying and watches from his secret hiding spot. When he pulls back the bag’s cover, Glazer is immediately stabbed through the neck with garden shears and forcibly lifted backward and pinned to a tree. Alfred first has a visible ‘yes’ reaction to Glazer’s murder, then runs back to Todd and Michelle to tell them a killer is on the loose. He says it’s the guy he saw in the window last night. Todd, highly skeptical and grumpy about being woken, follows Alfred back to the murder spot. Once he sees Sally and Glazer’s bodies, though, he becomes a whole lot less skeptical. Even less so when the killer leaps out at him and grazes him across the head with his shears. Alfred runs for it and the killer follows after him.

Alfred, on the run.

Alfred, on the run.

Meanwhile, the others see the raft out on the water, and assume the campers on it are playing some sort of weird joke. Michelle dives into the lake and swims out to the raft, only to discover every one on it is dead! Soon, the other campers are screaming and crying. Todd, not too badly injured, returns to Michelle and the others and instructs them to take the raft back to camp and call for help. He takes an axe and runs back to find Alfred. The raft team soon arrive back at the camp and Michelle asks her supervisor for two things: (a) a call to the police, and (b) a boat with an outboard motor.

Aflred has come across a shell of a building where some sort of mining operation once took place. Eventually, he drops his guard, and that’s when the killer grabs him and drags him inside. He then gags Alfred and pins his arm to the wall with the shears. Todd, however, has followed close behind, and he creeps inside the mine opening, looking for Alfred. He’s surprised by a coal cart that comes barreling down the track, and falls and hits his head. When he gets to his feet, he finds Karen’s dead body. The killer, across the room, lights a blowtorch. That’s when the film flashes back to five years ago at Camp Blackfoot, and we see that senior counsellor Todd was one of the people involved in the prank that resulted in Cropsey’s sixth degree burns. Back in the present, Cropsey’s hideously burned face is revealed to the audience, and he and Todd engage in a rare axe/blowtorch battle. Alfred, still pinned to the wall, watches and writhes in pain.

Alfred frees himself and stabs Cropsey in the back with his own garden shears, and Cropsey falls to the floor. Police helicopters arrive on the scene and begin barking directions. However, Cropsey isn’t dead yet. He comes up from behind and grabs Alfred, so Todd – always watching out for Alfred – takes the axe and splits his head. Then Alfred, adding insult to injury (but also making sure the dude is dead) lights him up with the blowtorch. They leave the building, with what now looks like a burning cross (eep) in the background. The film ends with another group of campers telling the story of Cropsey around the campfire.

Just one of the burnings featured in this film.

Just one of the burnings featured in this film.

Takeaway points:

    • The Burning was a particularly and painfully relevant movie to watch in light of recent events in Canadian media regarding the criminal sexual assaults committed by CBC host Jian Ghomeshi. That is, many of the male campers – though not the actual murderer, for what that’s worth – engage in that favourite of male bonding experiences: rape culture. It was like the lines of dialogue in The Burning were lifted directly from the comments sections of articles on the Ghomeshi case. When Karen refuses to have sex with Eddie, he says things like ‘Why’d you come out here then?’ And, ‘She’s scared of me? Then why did she go with me last night?’ (I think we all heard far too much of that from our least favourite Facebook friends this past week.) Likewise, Todd, the male authority at the camp, consistently defends and protects his boys when they cross boundaries and make the girls feel uncomfortable. When Alfred spies on Sally in the shower, he’s all like, ‘boys will be boys,’ and when Michelle is reaming Eddie out for how Sally feared him, Todd undermines her. Basically, Eddie being a nerd and Alfred being bullied outweigh how terribly they treat the girls at the camp. And whatever horrible thing they do, Todd will always say that the girls are overreacting. Exchanges like those made me think a lot about how often women will put up with degradation out of fear, just get past a certain situation. Neither Eddie, nor Alfred, or Glazer for that matter, seem that much into enthusiastic consent. Cropsey certainly isn’t the only monster at Camp Shearwater.
    • From the opening scene, I was thinking, ‘Is this supposed to be that Cropsey?’ Cropsey is an urban legend of the New York area, a crazed killer who lurks in the woods and kills campers. A few years ago a very spooky documentary about this urban legend was made. Apparently, The Burning is a fictionalized account of the urban legend (the origins of which are mysterious), with the garden shears being an added touch to a story that usually involves an axe or hook.
    • The Burning is strange because, like in a Columbo episode, we know the killer from the get-go. It’s very straightforward: Cropsey gets burned in a prank gone wrong, he gets released from the hospital and goes on a killing spree. There is no mystery; just a slow process of our campers realizing who is killing them But strangely, the filmmakers keep Cropsey’s face hidden until the very end, and throw out hints that one of the campers – maybe angry young Alfred or sexually aggressive Eddie – could be a killer. But why add this false mystery? Likewise, Cropsey’s motivation for his murders is inexplicable – he kills the sex worker because she doesn’t like his face, and kills multiple campers for reasons unknown. The only person he has some motive to kill is Todd (the only camper involved in the original), and Cropsey saves him for last. I guess the accident affected his brain and he just wanted to kill everyone, so how he made it out of the hospital without, say, murdering the orderly who treated him like a carnival display is beyond me.
    • The film also features my favourite kind of horror movie score: electronic weirdness. In this case, it’s prog-rocker Rick Wakeman from Yes, and it’s all sorts of unsettling.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Ah, it’s terrible, but it’s too much fun to be truly terrible. The Burning is great trash – probably my favourite category of film – and not without its scares. The makeup and gore (done by horror movie guru Tom Savini) really adds to its effectiveness, as does the really bizarre and unsettling musical score by Rick Wakeman.

Dress for the job you want, which in this case, is camp counsellor.

Dress for the job you want, which in this case is camp counsellor.

Best outfit: Only a few horror movies showcase a finer array of that overlap between the late ’70s and early ’80s than The Burning. (The original Sleepaway Camp springs to mind.) But if I had to choose just one outfit, it would be senior counsellor Michelle’s madras-patterned collared shirt over a dark royal blue one-piece bathing suit. That’s how you battle a slasher in style.

Best line: ‘This is where it’s at!’ – orderly, with a very unusual definition of fun, enthusiastically displaying burn victim to new doctor.

Best kill: Watching Glazer lifted off his feet with a pair of garden shears through the neck provoked a real visceral reaction in me. Glazer was a big guy, so the aggressiveness of that murder was icky to the max.

Unexpected cameo: Jason Alexander is a big ‘get,’ and you probably know Alfred (Brian Backer) from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but would you believe me if I told you there are at least two other surprise appearances from future stars? A very, very young Fisher Stevens plays Woodstock here, a few years before he donned brownface for Short Circuit, and Holly Hunter has her first major role was one of the less developed campers, Sophie.

Unexpected lesson learned: If you insist on pulling a prank on the caretaker, don’t use an open flame. Also, that creep who looks in on you while you shower may not turn out to be a murderer. I mean, he’s still a terrible person, but there’s a good chance he won’t grow up to be a serial killer.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Cropsey. Or maybe Tiger & Marty.

Next up (my final movie): Slumber Party Massacre 2 (1987).

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Horror Movie Watch: In the Mouth of Madness

Worst. Book Club. Ever.

Worst. Book Club. Ever.

This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film is the Lovecraftian In the Mouth of Madness (1995), directed by master of horror John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing), and suggested by friend and author Jonathan Ball. If there’s such a thing as a writer of horror poetry, he’s it. If you don’t believe me, check out his incredible books Clockfire and The Politics of Knives.

As (almost) always, a special thanks to Queen Video for providing me with the DVD of In the Mouth of Madness. (As you may have gathered, I spent a fair deal of money and time at Queen Video this October.)

What happens:

Fun fact: I didn’t even realize that In the Mouth of Madness was a John Carpenter movie until the opening credits rolled. I consider myself a fan of many things Carpenter – particularly The Thing, They Live, Big Trouble in Little China, and the underrated Prince of Darkness – but his post-1990 output has been bit hard to love. Still, even his failures have their interesting elements.

The sounds and imagery of printing presses in action – familiar sensations for someone who worked at Coach House Books for eight years – open In the Mouth of Madness. These presses are working overtime, printing the new book from horror writer Sutter Cane, The Hobb’s End Horror. Next, we’re taken to a mental institution, where Saperstein admits a new patient, John Trent (Sam Neill). Trent is not entering this institution without a fight – he violently attacks the orderlies, kicking one directly in the crotch. However, the orderlies are way burlier than Trent, and they succeed in introducing him to his new home: a small padded cell. Saperstein cranks up The Carpenters to drown out the cries of his patients.

Trent awakes and sees a shadowy figure in his cell. Trent turns to him and says, ‘This is a rotten way to end it.’ He then sees a barrage of images: bloody axes, a church, angry mobs. Dr. Wrenn arrives at the mental health facility after his daymare and asks if Trent had requested anything: apparently, only a black crayon. When Wrenn enters his cell, he finds that Trent has drawn crosses all over his cell and himself – clothes and skin. Dr. Wrenn says he can help Trent leave the institution, but Trent has decided he wants to stay (which makes Wrenn wonder if the crosses are just for show). Wrenn asks Trent to tell him how he ended up in this cell, and our strange story really begins …

John Trent is an insurance investigator, an unlikely hero for a horror movie (but I like it). As we join him in the flashback, he’s uncovering a business owner’s false claim with aplomb. His boss takes him to lunch, impressed by how handily he discovered the scam. As they talk shop, a tired-looking man wielding a hatchet exits the building across the street and stalks over to their restaurant’s window. They don’t even notice until he smashes the window, leaps on the table, and asks Trent, ‘Do you read Sutter Cane?’ He rears back with the axe, but is promptly killed in a hail of police gunfire.

Another pleasant business lunch, ruined by axe violence.

Another pleasant business lunch, ruined by axe violence.

A news report about bookstore riots follows; stores are unable to keep up the demand for Cane’s latest book – clearly this movie was written in a different era of book publishing – and the reporters wonder aloud if Cane has readers or cult members instead. Coincidentally, the next insurance claim Trent must investigate is that of Cane’s publisher. Publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) and Cane’s editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) say that Cane is their cash cow, and he’s disappeared. (In case you’re wondering if Cane is supposed to be Stephen King, his editor says, ‘You can forget Stephen King. Cane is more frightening and outsells them all.’) Hargrow says the last person to have contact with Cane was his agent. That agent was the man who attacked Trent with an axe. I’m not sure of the legality of this, but apparently the publisher took out life insurance on their star author, so they either want their money, or their author back. John Trent, assuming this is all a publicity stunt, intends to find the missing horror writer.

Trent talks further with Linda Styles – or rather, he mostly flirts with her, occasionally getting around to questions. Styles never had direct contact with Cane – she’s never met the author. She also notes that Cane’s work has a strange effect, causing paranoia in ‘less stable’ readers. After the initial interview, John walks down an alleyway at night, the brick walls covered with torn posters for The Hobb’s End Horror. Further down the alley, he sees a police officer beating a vagrant, and when Trent stares a little too long, the cop turns to him and says, ‘You want some, too, buddy?’ Trent heads to the bookstore – still recovering from a recent riot – to research his author. Trent seems disdainful of Cane as a writer and of reading in general, but he buys Cane’s books and digs into them. That night, he dreams of the same scene from the alley – the cop attacking the man – but this time, the cop is some sort of hideous monster. The graffiti on the wall reads ‘I can see,’ and onlookers attack him with axes, hacking him to bits. When he wakes, he sees the monster cop seated right beside him on the couch. Double-dream sequence!

Eventually, Trent wakes for real, and the first thing he does, naturally, is tear apart the covers of the Cane books and push them together to form a map of New Hampshire. (Note: If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”) He meets again with the publishers and sells them a theory that Hobb’s End is a real place, and Sutter Cane is living there, and this cover collage map of New Hampshire will tell them exactly where Hobb’s End is. (Seems legit.) The publisher insists that Linda travel with Trent, so you know what that means – road trip! Things go well enough until night falls. That’s when Trent notices a young man on a bicycle, playing cards in the spokes of his wheels. Moments later, he sees the same cyclist, now sixty years older. Trent looks down at his map for a second – distracted driving strikes again! – and runs into the now ancient biker. The cyclist isn’t too badly hurt, but he rambles about how someone won’t let him out. He hops back onto his bike and rides away. Given the circumstances, Linda takes the wheel for a bit, but things don’t go much better for her. She hallucinates that the car is driving through the air, and after flashes of lightning, finds herself driving through a covered bridge, right into a town named ‘Hobb’s End.’

Hobb’s End looks like Star’s Hollow in Gilmore Girls, except there are almost no people walking the streets – not even Kirk. The exception is when Styles sees a dog running, pursued by dozens of running kids. (But Trent doesn’t see any of this happening.) They pull into the Pickman Hotel, which Linda knew would exist because it was featured in The Hobb’s End Horror. The town is exactly as described in Cane’s book. What if, Styles suggests, Cane’s stories are based on reality? They book a room with the little old lady who manages the hotel – who, if the book is to be believed, will end up butchering her husband – and can’t help but notice the portrait in the lobby keeps changing. They visit the town’s Byz-an-tine (Sam Neill has clearly never seen this word before) Black Church, and Styles again sees the dog and children. Realizing this is probably a bad omen, she suggests to Trent they flee.

As they begin to escape, a convoy of pick-up trucks storms the church. Men leap out, angrily yelling in the church’s general direction. The front entrance of the church flies open, revealing Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), smiling devilishly and looking a lot like magician David Copperfield as lighting crashes in the sky. He sends a team of Dobermans (who kind of appear from nowhere) after the men, and Trent and Styles head to their car, a car that’s recently been surrounded by the creepy dog-following children. Trent, while driving away from this confrontation, says it all must be elaborately staged. Styles argues that the publisher did attempt a publicity stunt of sorts, but Cane never showed up for it. The things that are happening in Hobb’s End are from the new (unpublished) book, a book that’s about the end of days. Back at the hotel, Styles insists they read the manuscript so they know what to expect. But nothing, not even a quick makeout session, can convince Trent that this is really happening.

Trent chats with the hotel manager, who looks like she’s pulled an all-nighter, and also seems to be kicking someone under her desk a lot. As the camera pans down, we see her husband, naked and handcuffed to her ankle. (Not sure what that’s about.) Anyway, Styles takes the car and follows her hunch back to the church. Trent, meanwhile, visits the local bar to talk to the leader of the unruly mob. The man warns Trent – still pretty confident this is an elaborate hoax – to leave town. Styles, meanwhile, enters the church, undaunted by the gaggle of threatening weirdo kids. There’s an unholy warning on the front door and crosses hung upside-down outside Cane’s office, which is a bit more demonic than the average writer’s. He types away at this desk, a Doberman Pinscher at his side. The door closes menacingly behind Styles as she enters, and Cane jokes that she can edit this new book ‘from the inside.’ A far door in the office pulses and echoes with unearthly moans. ‘For years I thought I was making this all up,’ Cane says, ‘but they were telling me what to write.’ Styles, at this point, has been completely hypnotized by the seductive Cane. He forces her face into his manuscript – a perfect filmic metaphor for a writer if I’ve ever seen one – and when she surfaces, blood is dripping from her eyes. She caresses Cane, and the camera pans to reveal his back half is now some sort of demon creature.

In the Mouth of Madness was partially paid for by the anti-postering lobby.

In the Mouth of Madness was partially paid for by the anti-postering lobby.

Styles eventually returns to the hotel room and warns Trent to never read the new book. (This is exactly the kind of Goodreads review you don’t want.) ‘I’m losing me, John,’ she cries. John goes for help in the lobby – though I’m not sure what hotel staff might be able to do in such a situation – but finds it empty and the telephone dead. Also, that painting on the wall is now filled with fleshy squid creatures, Lovecraftian Cthulhu-types. He checks some of the utility rooms and finds Mrs. Pickman has half-transformed into a tentacle monster, too, and is busy chopping up her husband. Trent rushes back to the room, but Styles has turned, as well, and shoves him through the door. He finds the car and drives away as fast as he can. He drives down the main street and finds the townsfolk playing ring-around-the-rosy with Styles in the middle. Some of those townsfolk also happen to be axe-wielding deformed monsters. Trent still believes – somehow – this is all a scam. He returns to the bar and again talks with the mob leader (who is still there for some reason). The mob leader exclaims, ‘Reality isn’t what it used to be,’ before shooting himself in the head. Trent returns to the main drag and dumps Styles into his car. He starts to drive away from the angry mob, but Styles swallows his keys. As an insurance investigator, though, Trent knows a few tricks and starts the car with a screwdriver from his glovebox.

They drive away from the mob and Styles starts to kiss Trent, saying ‘it’s good for the book.’ Trent shrugs her off. He sees the ancient bike rider at a pay phone and pulls over, but as he exits, so does Styles. But now Styles crab-walks on a twisted broken body, a la The Thing, toward Trent. Trent jumps back into the car and drives out of town, only to arrive right back on main street. He turns around and drives away, then again arrives right back on main street. And a third time. Realizing he can’t escape, he floors it toward the mob. The crowd parts and reveals Styles in the middle. Trent swerves to avoid her and crashes the car. When he comes to, he’s in a sort of confession booth, with Sutter Cane in the priest’s position. With some real writerly hubris, Cane says, ‘Not enough people ever believed The Bible to make it real.’ But his work sells way more copies, and so, it is becoming reality. Cane says that when people confuse fantasy and reality, ‘the old ones’ can begin their joinery into this world. Trent blacks out and finds himself in Cane’s demonic office.

Cane has a job for Trent – he needs him to take the manuscript for In the Mouth of Madness back to the world for him. Cane wrote Hobb’s End into existence, and insists he did the same for him, John Trent. Trent is but another part of Cane’s fiction. He directs Trent to a passageway and portal (that looks like a torn hole in a printed page) that will take him back. To incentivize his return, some Lovecraftian monsters begin to pursue Trent down that passageway. Trent sprints, then stumbles. When he opens his eyes again, he’s in the middle of a road, manuscript in hand. A biker passes (a younger version of that same biker we’ve seen before) and when Trent asks him, he says he’s never heard of Hobb’s End. Trent abandons the pages and finds a motel, where he’s told there’s a package waiting for him. But no one knows he’s there. He opens the box and finds Cane’s manuscript again. Trent demands to know who left the package, but the desk clerk doesn’t know. Subsequently, Trent burns the manuscript in the sink.

Trent takes the bus back to the city, but on the ride, his very chatty seat neighbour is suddenly replaced by Sutter Cane, who says, ‘Did I ever tell you that my favourite colour is blue?’ (Though clearly, from his fashion choices, it’s black.) Then all of reality suddenly has a blue filter, like it’s Saving Private Ryan or something. Trent screams but it’s another dream. (So many dreams within dreams in this movie!) He visits the New Hampshire records department to find there’s never been a Hobb’s End in the state. Eventually, Trent gets back to the city and tells the publisher his strange, sordid tale. But Harglow says he sent Trent to investigate on his own. He’s never heard of Linda Styles. ‘She was written out,’ Trent marvels. Also, Harglow says he gave him the manuscript for In the Mouth of Madness months ago; it’s been on bookshelves for seven weeks, and the movie’s on the way. Trent is horrified. An epidemic of paranoid schizophrenia sweeps the country, and Trent – some days later – visits a bookstore with a hatchet and kills one of Cane’s fans.

Back in the present, Dr. Wrenn doesn’t know what to make of this story. Trent tells him the unholy power spreads when people read the story. ‘Every species can smell their own extinction,’ Trent tells him cryptically. That night, Trent wakes to the sounds of murder out in the hallway. His cell door is torn open, seemingly by a monster, and Trent is left free to wander through the facility, now smeared with blood on every surface. A radio transmission mentions mass hysteria across the country, mutations, people driven to extreme violence. (The ushe.) Trent staggers through the streets, eventually reaching a movie theatre that is playing In the Mouth of Madness. Starring John Trent. He takes a seat and watches – on the big screen – the very same events that just happened to him. He bursts into maniacal laughter and the movie ends.

Definitely a future Lady Gaga look.

Definitely a future Lady Gaga look.

Takeaway points:

    • In the Mouth of Madness is unsettling because it deals with the thing I find scariest: losing one’s mind. While I was standing on line for a Midnight Madness movie at the Toronto Film Festival, some kind reporters from Torontoist started interviewing people on line to ask what their greatest fears were. I have one of those faces, so naturally they asked me, and I said, ‘losing my mind.’ I feel like that’s maybe not an appropriate term to use. So I corrected it, and said, ‘or succumbing to a severe mental illness.’ Which is maybe a worse thing to say. Living with a mental illness is not something anyone should be ashamed of, and, in describing my worst fear here, I hope I am not contributing to any stigma. I’m not talking about severe depression or anxiety. My greatest fear is my mind no longer being able to separate reality from fantasy, however you want to label that. In any event, I fretted about what I said for days and, in the end, they never ran the piece. That fear is laid bare here in In the Mouth of Madness. The movie is about the horror of an unreliable mind. Recently, a close relative of mine was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. We usually meet up for Thanksgiving, but this year we didn’t, due to this sudden medical emergency. However, I did speak with her on the phone, and at times, she seemed stuck in a loop, repeating the same phrases over and over again like a skipping record. As ashamed as I am to say this, that phone conversation scared me way more than any of the movies I’ve seen this October. Linda Styles’s quotation about how quickly what is considered sane can be considered insane is almost as terrifying, and the film does an excellent job depicting those ‘was that real / was that a dream’ moments. For someone who this stuff is already a hot button, In the Mouth of Madness is at times difficult to contemplate. Monsters and killers you can maybe avoid, but can you escape your own mind?
    • The film is an obvious homage to the work of early horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, with its title (a reference to At the Mountains of Madness), its mental institution framing device, its depiction of books as dangerous containers of forbidden knowledge, and its prevalence of demonic tentacle creatures (like the Old Ones or Cthulhu) from some other plane. There are so few good Lovecraft film adaptations – mainly because the horror of Lovecraft stories is usually so vague and amorphous. ‘Unspeakable’ and ‘unknowable’ are two terms that get bandied about. So it was nice to see a Lovecraft homage that was just cerebral and vague enough, while still managing to be a narrative somewhat grounded in reality. As much as that’s possible, given the circumstances.
    • In the Mouth of Madness also gives me an opportunity to talk about the over-representation of horror writers in horror movies. Given how many characters in horror movies are horror writers, you’d think 10% of the American workforce were horror writers. (Unsurprisingly, all these horror writers are white men.) In this film, it’s interesting that the horror writer is the villain – kind of a demigod gone mad because he has too many readers. Is this a parable about the dangers of accessible literature? Does a smaller readership keep your work honest / prevent it from ending the world? It does seem strange how often horror movies suggest horror writers either are (a) villainous, or (b) dabbling with dark and dangerous forces they don’t understand. Given these movies are written by horror writers, does this suggest a streak of dark humour, or self-loathing? Knowing writers, probably a bit from each column. It would be nice to see other occupations in the horror genre featured, though. Aside from F/X, where’s the horror movie about the special effects makeup artist? Or the screen printer of horror-themed T-shirts? Maybe a horror blogger could be the next big protagonist in horror movies?

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Pretty terrifying. Like most John Carpenter movies, there are scenes that are a little goofy, or outright (and intentionally) funny, but there are also moments – like the monster Styles crab walk, or waking up slumped beside a monster police officer – that scared the stuffing out of me.

Say what you will about former-NRA-leader Charlton Heston, the guy knows how to wear a suit.

Say what you will about former-NRA-leader Charlton Heston, the guy knows how to wear a suit.

Best outfit: As much as I admired John Trent’s DIY take on Catholic chic (black crosses all over hospital scrubs), you can’t beat Jackson Hargrow’s three-piece suit, complete with pocket watch and chain. He even looks at his pocket watch during his meetings with John Trent, because if you have a pocket watch and chain, you’re definitely going to use it.

Best line: ‘Reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could switch spots and you’d be put in a padded cell.’ – Linda Styles, neatly encapsulating the themes of the movie.

Best kill: Who even gets killed in this movie? I mean, for real. I guess it’s pretty rough when John Trent, our hero, kills that reader with an axe. You won’t find that on one of those American Library Association ‘READ’ posters.

Unexpected cameo: If you think you recognize the administrator at the mental institution, Saperstein (John Glover), that’s because he ruled the small screen as Lionel Luthor for several seasons on Smallville. Also, Mrs. Pickman is played by Frances Bay, who played the little old lady in every movie and TV show from 1980 to 2000. Highlights include marble rye theft victim on Seinfeld and Happy Gilmore’s grandma.

Unexpected lesson learned: The really unexpected lesson in In the Mouth of Madness is don’t read. Note to self: guerrilla book marketing campaign – axe-wielding madmen smashing store windows to inquire among the patrons, ‘Do you read ________?’ (I mean, it certainly got John Trent reading Sutter Cane.)

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Hobb’s End Horror

Next up: The Burning (1981).

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