Bad Ben

Bad Ben

Why are there so many found footage movies out there, and why are most of them so awful? The answer to the first question is money; they’re cheap to make. Of course, the plot usually consists of four or five bad actors walking around the abandoned hospital/lunatic asylum/haunted house in Technicolor GoatGreen light, waiting for the evil spirits/demons/ghosts to kill them all. I’ve reviewed a number of movies like this in the past year, and most of them are bad. Grave Encounters is the exception to the rule, but much to my surprise Bad Ben – contradicting its own title – is pretty good also.

Made with security cameras and an iPhone, Bad Ben cost $300 to make (according to IMDB). Compared to most low budget found-footage, this is a masterpiece. The main character has agency and does more than wander around the abandoned house/hospital/mental institution for an hour and twenty minutes. There is actual suspense, thanks to a few jump scares.

Tom Riley buys a house cheap at a sheriff’s auction. His plan to resell it and make tons of money hits a speedbump when it turns out the house is haunted. Doors open and close, furniture moves around and a shadowy figure stalks the grounds. Using the security cameras installed in every room of the house, Tom tries and fails to catch the culprits in the act. Undeterred by the locked room in the basement, the satanic altar in the attic and the creepy kid’s drawings in the living room Tom soldiers on, deadpan, a middle-aged guy with a habit of filming himself in his boxer shorts.

Tom has a dilemma. As he tells us, he can’t leave because he’s sunk every penny into buying the house. So he tries to deal with the escalating craziness, with mixed results. Nothing works but luckily not much seems to phase Tom, who apparently has aspirations to be a vlogger. Why else record yourself? Tom – the only person to appear in Bad Ben – talks to the camera as if it’s another person (‘why are the lights off? I left them on.’) and generally underreacts when most people would run screaming for the door.

If you like found-footage movies, give Bad Ben a try. It’s better than 90% of the found footage movies out there, a number I just made up. Bad Ben’s success (???) spawned a prequel and a sequel, neither of which I’ve seen. Warning: if you want to see Bad Ben, don’t watch the trailer.

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I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House

If you enjoy horror movies that rely on atmosphere and the slow buildup of suspense, you will like I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. If you are the type who likes action-oriented horror, you will be bored to tears. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is an effective ghost story, although the writing is sketchy in parts. Translation: if you think too much about this movie it falls apart.

Lily is a young hospice nurse who is taking care of Iris Blum, a horror novelist. Ms. Blum, who isn’t quite right in her head and insists on calling Lily Polly, lives in a spooky old house in the middle of nowhere. The house is dark and creaky, making all the sounds an old house makes. There’s a tiny little television and a corded phone and black mold on the walls – by the way, did you know that if black mold is toxic it can cause hallucinations?

The house also contains Polly, the subject of Ms. Blum’s most famous potboiler, The Lady in the Walls. It’s not clear if Polly is real or a figment of Ms. Blum’s imagination, but pretty soon Lily starts seeing her also. Polly walks forward, with her back turned towards you. I have no idea what that means, but it’s a spooky image.

Indeed, the atmosphere of I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is very spooky. At the start of this movie I thought the chair nailed to the wall in the kitchen was floating in mid-air and couldn’t figure out why Lily didn’t react to it. There is a lot of imagery like that here, and much of the spoken dialogue is almost poetic. I believe Lily is sometimes quoting from Ms. Blum’s books, but am not sure.

I thought I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House was a sad movie. Lily is a timid woman, living in a secluded house with only a woman with dementia for company. She might as well be alone. We learn that Lily almost married, but her partner called it off. So now she sits alone in the house, slowly rotting.

Return of the Exorcists

Return of the Exorcists

There are a few telling scenes in The Return of the Exorcists, a documentary about the resurgence of popularity of the practice of exorcism in Italy. But they aren’t what you might expect.

The first: a busy priest sits in front of a computer, clicking away on the mouse. He’s discussing the case of a person who might be possessed by Satan on the phone. When he hangs up we see the computer screen, which is broken. The exorcist was clicking on an empty screen.

The second scene takes place in a church whose leaders and parishioners are part of the Charismatic Movement. At this particular church you have to take a number to get an exorcism – it’s like being at a deli, but instead of getting roast beef or low-salt ham, you get exorcised.

I suppose you can tell what I think of Return of the Exorcists. I am not Catholic; I was brought up Lutheran. I am now agnostic. This documentary is not really for horror fans unless you are super-interested in exorcism. Even then, the documentary doesn’t go into much detail and at points outright contradicts itself.

We learn that possessed people go into trances. A priest tells us about the possessed woman who almost levitated. Of course, there isn’t any film of this. We do see footage of a number of disturbed people who may or may not be possessed. The filmmakers talk to a woman who has been going to an exorcist for years and now only cooks with olive oil and salt blessed by an exorcist.

The Return of the Exorcists isn’t interested in these people. The focus is on the men who perform the exorcisms, who are the real stars of the show. Or – depending on your point of view – the sideshow.

If you need your exorcism fix, watch The Exorcist again.

Darling

Darling

Darling is creepy as shit. I jumped a lot watching this movie. There’s a great scene where Darling (the only name the main character goes by) is having a drink at a bar with her new male friend; she excuses herself, walks into the restroom and starts shrieking and crying. There’s another, quieter scene where she sits at a diner, holding a coffee cup in mid-air for about thirty seconds.

Set in New York City in the Upper West Side, Darling starts when Madame (Sean Young) meets the young woman who is the new caretaker of her house. The older woman tells Darling that the former caretaker threw herself off the roof. Soon afterwards, Darling starts hearing weird things during her midnight jaunts around the house. She finds an upside-down cross in a cabinet and a door that won’t open.

Of course, there are the usual rumors about the house being haunted. There are also hints that something’s wrong with Darling; these hints get less and less subtle as this movie progresses. I don’t want to give away too much, and would advise against watching the trailer. Let’s just say Darling has some intense imagery. For the first half-hour I thought this was going to be the type of movie that relies on rising suspense instead of action, but some pretty horrific shit happens.

Darling is shot in black-and-white. The cinematography is great and many of the scenes are direct homages to The Shining. Lauren Ashley Carter is great as Darling. The plot is threadbare and doesn’t explain a lot, but who cares? I think this movie is scarier if you remove the supernatural element, which brings me to Darling’s other influence: Fatal Attraction. Be careful who you go home with, because they might be out of their fucking minds. It happens.

Darling is available on Netflix Streaming, if you want to watch it. And you should.

City of the Living Dead

City of the Living Dead

City of the Living Dead is the first movie in Lucio Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy. Lucio Fulci is an Italian horror movie director who worked in the late 20th century (mostly the 70’s and 80’s). His movies are cheaply made, nihilistic affairs that revel in excess; Fulci is the guy who goes for the gross-out every time. Love him or hate him, he’s hugely influential.

Set in scenic Dunwich New England, City of the Living Dead opens with a priest hanging himself. Cut to a séance in New York City, where psychic Mary Woodhouse dies of fright, leading to a scene where a hardboiled trench-coated cop questions the other members of the séance. Ah, I thought, here’s our main character, except the cop never appears again.

It’s hard to figure out who the main character of City of the Living Dead is. Is it Mary Woodhouse, miraculously resurrected from the dead? Perhaps it’s Peter Bell, the crusty yet lovable reporter who is old enough to be her father. Or it could be Gerry the psychiatrist, who tells us that 70% of the women in this country are neurotic. Maybe it’s the woman who draws rhinos for a living or young John-John, who wears a Yankees jersey in New England (one of the most unbelievable things about this movie).

In many ways City of the Living Dead is the Spoon River Anthology of horror movies. There are almost too many characters to keep track of. We have the guys who hang around the bar drinking Schlitz; the necking teenagers; the lecherous mortician. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention town pervert Bob and his blow-up doll, who is unfortunately uncredited. Well, you get the idea. An ensemble cast!

The priest starts hanging around Dunwich. When he stares at you, your eyes bleed. This leads to one of the grossest scenes in horror movie history where a character literally pukes her guts out. A word of warning: don’t eat dinner while watching this. The dead start to rise. We learn there’s a deadline: if Father Vomit isn’t killed a second time by midnight of All Saint’s Day, the Gates of Hell will open! The rest of City of the Living Dead consists of our inept heroes bumbling around while Father Vomit creates teleporting zombies and blows maggot swarms at people.

I have a love-hate relationship with Lucio Fulci: I hated The Beyond and House by the Cemetery, the second and third movies in the “Gates of Hell” trilogy. But I must admit to really liking City of the Living Dead, right up to its gonzo wtf? ending, which supposedly came about because the editor spilled coffee on the film of the original ending. I don’t know if that’s a true story, but I sure hope it is!

Inferno

Inferno

First things first: this is not a review of Tom Hanks’ Inferno. Since I review horror movies, it’s obvious I’m talking about Dario Argento’s Inferno, the sequel to his masterful Suspiria. Inferno isn’t as good as Suspiria, but you’ve got to admire him for trying. As horror movies go, it isn’t bad.

The Three Mothers are a trio of witches who live in buildings in New York City, Rome and Freiburg Germany. So says the book of the same name purchased by poetess Rose Elliot at the creepy antiques bookstore in New York City. Taking her cue from Nancy Drew, Rose investigates. She ends up in a basement, where she drops her keys into a flooded underground room. Watching her dive fully clothed into the brackish waters, I sensed she might not be long for this world.

Rose writes to her brother Mark, a music student in Rome. Mark is so bewitched by the sight of the lovely woman in his music class he leaves her letter behind. His lady friend Sara takes the letter and soon finds a copy of The Three Mothers. Sara sort of wanders into this movie, which happens a lot in Inferno. Her long-term prospects aren’t good, let’s put it that way.

Mark travels to New York City only to find his sister missing. He doesn’t contact the police, instead opting to investigate on his own. Mark is no Sherlock Holmes – think Inspector Clouseau’s dim-witted brother – but he’s the best hero this movie has. He wanders around while people are murdered to dramatic music in increasingly creative ways. Argento’s New York City features a Central Park teeming with man-eating rats and psychotic hot dog vendors. It’s a place where a woman who writes poetry can live in a spacious apartment complex that looks like it would cost five figures a month to rent.

Will Mark’s investigations bear fruit? Since we already know what happened to Rose, there’s no mystery involved. Like Suspiria, Inferno has plot elements but no plot. But who cares? This is a visually stunning movie with great death sequences, so just sit back and enjoy the show.

The House That Dripped Blood

House That Dripped Blood

The House That Dripped Blood is one of those movies that sits around on your watch-list forever. You keep meaning to watch it, but never do. Well, I finally watched it yesterday! This 70’s British horror anthology comes from Amicus, not Hammer, but stars a number of Hammer stalwarts such as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt. Written by Robert Bloch, The House That Dripped Blood’s frame story is about an inspector investigating the latest in a series of bizarre happenings at a house.

There are four tales. In the first, a horror writer and his wife rent a house in the countryside. He’s writing a potboiler about a strangler terrifying the countryside and needs inspiration; pretty soon he has all the inspiration he can handle. The second story is about a retired bachelor (Peter Cushing) who wanders into a Wax Museum of Horrors, where he sees a waxwork figure who is the spitting image of his dead lover.

The third yarn concerns a widower (Christopher Lee), his young daughter and the woman he hires as a nanny. Mr. Lee displays a strange aversion towards his own child, even throwing her doll into the fire, an act he later lives to regret. The fourth story is my favorite. An over-the-hill horror actor (played by a scenery-chewing Jon Pertwee) is on the prowl for a decent cape. He finds the perfect cape, which – unfortunately for him – belonged to a real vampire.

I’m sure The House That Dripped Blood didn’t cost a lot of money. I liked it, though! The stories are decent and all contain Twilight Zone twists, but believe me when I say you’ve seen it before. I do like the fact that Mr. Bloch doesn’t try to convey any sort of moral message. Be warned that some of the outfits the stars wear might give you sun glare.

 

The Living Dead Girl

Living Dead Girl

Living Dead Girl is a return to form for director Jean Rollin. After viewing the disappointing Iron Rose months ago, I worried that the master was losing his touch. I needn’t have fretted; Living Dead Girl is vintage Eurotrash, chockful of sex, violence, gore and nudity.

Three movers haul barrels of toxic waste into a chateau’s crypt. They are in the process of robbing the dead people in said crypt when an earthquake smashes the barrels, releasing toxic fumes into the air. Catherine, who has been dead for two years but still looks great, revives and manages to kill the movers in the bloodiest way possible (poking out eyes, fingers through the throat) without staining her white dress.

Cut to a pair of American tourists. We know they’re Americans because they’re loud assholes who speak English. What else could they be? They’re in a field arguing when the wife snaps a picture of Catherine, who is staggering around in a daze. At this point I was wondering what the hell the plot was going to be, but I needn’t have worried. Many of Mr. Rollin’s movies begin with the characters running/staggering about.

Catherine ends up back in her chateau. She’s wearing white and the walls are deep red, so the symbolism isn’t exactly subtle. The next victims are the chateau’s realtor and her boyfriend, who decide to spend a dirty weekend at the chateau. They get naked in record time, but their lovely moment is interrupted by a ravenous Catherine, who kills and eats them.

A side note: I’m not sure if Catherine is a vampire, a zombie or the Toxic Avenger’s little sister. I’d say a zombie except we see a bat during one of her kill sequences, which makes me think vampire. Anyway, Catherine snaps out of her funk when she hears the voice of Helene – her friend/lover – on the phone. Mr. Rollin is uncharacteristically coy about the particulars of their relationship, but it must have been intense, because Helene is the engine that drives the plot.

Helene rushes to the chateau. Instead of taking Catherine to a hospital or calling the police, she lovingly washes the blood off her friend’s naked body and then hides the bodies of her victims in the crypt. When Catherine gets hungry Helene goes in search of food. Unfortunately, Catherine eats people.

Living Dead Girl is one of the better Jean Rollin movies I’ve seen this year; it ranks up there with Fascination and The Grapes of Death. The sets and scenery are lovely, interspersed with short bursts of over-the-top gore that would make a giallo director proud. Yes, Living Dead Girl is skimpy on plot, but that’s okay. If you like Eurotrash, it doesn’t get much better than this.

 

The Mothman of Point Pleasant

Point Pleasant, West Virginia. From November 1966 to December 1967 hundreds of people saw a flying creature with a pair of red glowing eyes and a wingspan of over ten feet. The Mothman of Point Pleasant does not tell us who dubbed this creature the Mothman. I am assuming it was an enterprising reporter or perhaps John Keel, who wrote a book called The Mothman Prophecies.

The sightings quickly escalated, with the Mothman chasing teens in their cars, the Mothman hanging out at the abandoned TNT factory, the Mothman peering through windows. The filmmakers give us footage of a number of credulous-sounding locals describing their close encounters with the Mothman. One man saw the Mothman by the side of his bed, and when he thought of the blood of Christ the Mothman went away.

The sightings went on for months, evolving from Mothmen to UFO sightings, Grinning Man encounters and culminating in the city of Point Pleasant being invaded by the Men in Black. The sightings ended after the Silver Bridge collapsed ten days before Christmas 1967, resulting in the deaths of 46 people. Unfortunately, some have tried to link the Mothman to this horrible tragedy; fortunately, the filmmakers do not make this connection.

If – like me – you don’t know much about the Mothman, The Mothman of Point Pleasant is informative and entertaining. It’s obvious the filmmakers are true believers, so keep that in mind. They speculate about mutant birds and the Indian chief who was murdered by the white settlers and supposedly cursed Point Pleasant, and gloss over the fact that there were hundreds of eyewitness sightings and nobody ever managed to snap a picture. Many eyewitnesses state that the Mothman looked like a big bird, with a few insisting that it was a barn owl. I tend to think that’s the most likely explanation, but realize that people are going to believe what they want to believe.

What was the Mothman? A barn owl? An extraterrestrial? A demon from Hell? A case of mass hysteria? We will never know. But there is now a Mothman Museum and a Mothman Festival, which takes place every year on the third weekend of September. So the Mothman lives on…

 

Varan the Unbelievable

VARAN

Varan the Unbelievable is a Japanese rubber-suit monster movie made in 1958. The version I saw was the chopped-up American remake (1962), ala Raymond Burr’s Godzilla. Interestingly the monster’s name seems to be Obaki, not Varan the Unbelievable, but whatever.

Commander James Bradley sets up base at an isolated Japanese island. He wants to do experiments on the isle’s saltwater lake, using a chemical to convert saline to fresh water. Even though everyone in the movie thinks this is a bad idea the tests still go on. At his wife’s urging, the Commander decides not to evacuate the villagers who, you know, live there. The American version portrays the Commander sympathetically; apparently the Commander doesn’t even appear in the Japanese version, which seems to have a different plot.

The villagers believe a monster lives in the lake. In a plot twist everyone sees coming, said monster lurches out of the lake when the chemical sinks in. Varan has spikes running down his back and looks like a cross between Godzilla and Anguirus. Sometimes the Unbelievable One walks on four legs, sometimes on two. He destroys the village and then heads for a larger city – in the American version it’s Oneida – to demolish, because that’s what monsters do.

The Commander and his wife get stuck in a Jeep, and spend the final act of the movie trying to radio the city and tell them about the magic chemical that can kill Varan. Varan attacks the city, but flees when the magic chemical is detonated in his face. The Commander and his wife leave for Southern California, leaving the villagers to rebuild their shattered lives.

The best part of Varan the Unbelievable is Varan, who is freaky-looking. There’s a sequence in the 1958 version where the Unbelievable One flies or glides through the air like an enormous squirrel. That was cut in the American version (even though it appears in the trailer), which is only 67 minutes. Some of the movie’s other cuts don’t make sense (who was the guy driving the truck?), but this version of the movie is a cheapo so it doesn’t really matter.

Bottom-line: I enjoyed Varan the Unbelievable, but it’s for connoisseurs of Japanese monster movies only.