31 Spooky Movies in October: 2012 Edition Part 4 – Self-Aware Special Report

by kdlough

12.  The Howling (Joe Dante, 1980)

John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, AND Slim Pickens?  Count me in.  Joe Dante’s media-obsessed werewolf jaunt hits a lot of movie nerd sweet spots while still delivering the practical SFX goods, and best of all it operates as a closet satire as well.

The visuals are great, with that smeary, lights-pointing-straight-into-the-star-filter-camera-lens, early 80s look, reminding me of a more flamboyant Spielberg.  Unfortunately, the business of the story feels a little off; John Sayles was obviously more interested in goofing around than with constructing a straight-ahead werewolf story when he was rewriting the script, but that’s not the only problem.  A lot of the characters just don’t feel fleshed out, and the dramatic moments are never given enough resonance, especially everything to do with the couple at the center of the story.  We have a husband who cheats on his emotionally traumatized wife, gets turned into a werewolf, and she tearfully kills him, yet none of it makes much impact on the viewer.  A good ten minutes of pre-werewolf character building was cut from the final product, so that might explain some of it; but really, I think the most truthful explanation is that Dante doesn’t really care.

So this is a movie that largely subsides on its set pieces.  Luckily, a lot of them are brilliant; the montage interactions between a Three Little Pigs cartoon, a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl, and a werewolf attack in one memorable sequence is a textbook exercise in sarcastic post-modernism.

SCORE: 7 cans of Wolf Brand Chili out of 10

13.  Braindead/Dead Alive (Peter Jackson, 1992)

Wow, remember when Peter Jackson’s reputation rested entirely on this movie?  I remember liking Braindead when I first saw it in highschool, but I think when a movie’s best description is “something a 14 year-old boy would really like,” uh, it doesn’t bode well for it’s re-evaluation.

Most of my problems with this movie stem from Jackson himself: his style here is so CONSTANTLY heightened, from beginning to end, that no individual moment stands out.  The Evil Dead, the kind of movie Braindead desperately wants to be, slowly builds to its zaniness, drawing you in with quiet stretches and long takes.  Then when the wild blood-letting and zooming camera craziness start, you really FEEL it.  Not so here, where even the most banal dialogue scene is filmed with the same wide-angle-lens-canted-angle-close-up over-determination.  There’s no room for performances besides the most flailing and loud.  Everything, even scenes that should give us a bit of character development or breathing room, feels wacky (or just plain stupid).  What I’m saying is, this movie is fucking exhausting.

I feel like I may be being a bit too hard on such a ostensibly “fun” movie.  But as horror, it’s not scary (nor does it attempt to be).  As comedy, it forced out a couple chuckles.  I’m sure with a roomful of drunk friends, this one works like gangbusters.  Otherwise… not so much.  Save it for the party.

SCORE: 4 bowls of custard out of 10

14.  The Raven (Roger Corman, 1963)

Here’s a very different sort of horror-comedy.  Perhaps realizing that the comic duo of Vincent Price and Peter Lorre from the “Black Cat” section of the previous year’s Tales of Terror was the only fully successful element in an otherwise dull movie, Roger Corman decided to yuk-it-up from beginning to end in his next Poe adaptation.  The Raven is a good-natured parody of Corman and Co.’s previous Poe films; it has next to nothing to do with the poem of the title, but everything to do with the by now familiar plots of the Usher and Pit and the Pendulum adaptations (which, to be honest, also had only the smallest connection to their sources).

Price plays a friendly wizard who only drinks warm milk and pines after his late wife, Lenore.  When Price hears that Lenore might not be dead, but in magical bondage by a rival magician, he sets out to save her.  We then get the typical Poe/Corman creepy castle, people sneaking around secret passageways, treacherous “dead” wife, etc. delivered with an emphasis on self-aware snark.

The screenplay by horror/sf legend Richard Matheson isn’t exactly super invested in the material, but it’s clever enough and moves quickly.  The cast is great; Price, Lorre, and Boris Karloff are all having a good time, Jack Nicholson is in his prime as a Corman bit-player and gets to grin maniacally a bit, and Hazel Court is Hazel Court.  The wizards’ duel at the end is a highlight of the genre, the kind of cheap special effects adding to the charm.

Harry Potter this ain’t.

The Raven isn’t the best Poe adaptation this team would make (that would be Masque of the Red Death, shot by Nicholas Roeg and released the following year), but it’s near the top of the list and an entertaining diversion for fans of this era’s Gothic horror.  It’s great for kids, too.

SCORE: 8 Nicholson anecdotes about getting pooped on by the raven out of 10