Tom Chick and Chris Hornbostel

Thirty years of horror: Salem’s Lot (1979)

Chris: By 1979 there was no bigger name in horror in any media than Stephen King. His run of work in that era–The Stand, The Shining, and a short fiction collection–made him a household name. The film version of his first novel, Carrie, had been a tremendous success with critics and at the box office, and so adapting more of his work for the screen was a no-brainer.

One of the problems with doing that–setting aside creative issues–was the sheer length of King’s other works of that era. As a novel, Carrie comes in at under 200 pages, and not a lot happens between a couple of big events. King’s later works would nearly quadruple that word count, making adapting for the screen a problem for the studios. They’d be required to either significantly adapt the work for the screen, or make 3 hour films. With Salem’s Lot, the first post-Carrie attempt to film King, they tried that latter approach, turning it into a two-part miniseries for CBS.

After the jump, how’d that work out? Continue reading →

Thirty years of horror: Phantasm (1979)

Tom: As most horror movies progress, they lose their mystery and therefore their impact. The exposition bubbles up and molds itself precisely into whatever template the movie is using. Oh, it’s aliens, radiation, the devil, a ghost, etc. Now I see. Phantasm is a movie without a “now I see” moment. Even the ultimate reveal in the antique shop is more of a “so…uh?” moment than a “now I see moment”. This sort of batshit absurd senseless implausibility is a precious commodity.

After the jump, let me break it down for you. Continue reading →

Thirty years of horror: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Tom: Depending on how much of a zombie purist you are, you can make the case that Invasion of the Body Snatcher is not really a zombie movie. But it belongs in the discussion. You can see the lines of continuity and the cross-pollination. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956 was an allegory about communism, very much in keeping with Who Goes There, which would turn into The Thing (the John Carpenter one, not so much the James Arness as a giant carrot one). The original Invasion is creepy, but entirely clean and antiseptic. Plus, we prevail, as we were wont to do in the 50s. But the idea is that the people we know and love have been taken over. They’re still themselves, but different, and ultimately hostile to our way of life.

Then along comes Last Man on Earth (based on a 1954 book), which has your friends and neighbors coming out at night and trying to break into your house en masse, but with a certain amount of lethargy, as if they know they’ll get in eventually and there’s really no hurry. They were called “vampires” in that movie, and they would call out to you by name, asking you to come outside. Vincent Price would venture out by day to hunt them. The scenes of night falling and the zombies — err, I mean, vampires — surrounding the barricaded house will look instantly familiar. Four years later, with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, George Romero will basically codify zombies as we know them. They’ll be slow and lethargic, in no particularly hurry, but they won’t talk.

After the jump, the next shambling step. Continue reading →

Thirty years of horror: Halloween (1978)

Tom: Time and tropes have not been kind to Halloween. John Carpenter’s dialogue and all his actors are terrible. Even — especially? — Donald Pleasence. “He’s gone! He’s gone from here! The evil is gone!” At least it’s a joy seeing P.J. Soles. Her “see anything you like?” scene, which has a wholesomely 80s quaintness to it now, certainly blew my adolescent mind back in the day. But the slasher template established in Halloween is so played out, and so thoroughly deconstructed, that Halloween itself has become inadvertently hilarious.

After the jump, what really breaks my heart. Continue reading →

Thirty years of horror: The Haunting of Julia (1977)

Chris: Here’s a movie that I had figured out from the start. The Haunting Of Julia is clearly going to be a very British drizzly afternoon stately haunted house movie. Put on a spot of tea, have a scone, and settle in for 90 minutes of perfectly telegraphed nonsense about seeing the ghost of a dead loved one and having a bittersweet epiphany about letting go and moving on. All I really knew about this movie going in was that it was based on one of Peter Straub’s earliest novels. I couldn’t believe he’d write something so mawkish and obvious and gentle.

After the jump, he didn’t… Continue reading →

Thirty years of horror: The Omen (1976)

Chris: From the very beginning of the film, you can visualize the pitch meeting that created The Omen. It feels like the kind of movie created by clueless studio execs who thought the credits rolled on Rosemary’s Baby just when it was getting good, or who felt like what The Exorcist really needed was more quasi-religious mumbo jumbo. Everything about it feels like a derivative idea we’ve seen executed more skillfully before. I was ready to snark this movie up and down the street.

After the jump, the sincerest form of flattery Continue reading →

Thirty years of horror: Jaws (1975)

Tom: I wanted to see Jaws in the summer of 1975 partly because I’d read the book. The hype must have helped. So my mother took me one day. She was concerned that I might be scared during the movie, so she reassured me that it was just a trained shark. It would take some time before all the lore about Bruce the mechanical shark filtered into popular consciousness. We stood in line. While waiting outside the theatre, I thought of the people inside the theater, getting to see Jaws right now, at that very instant. I occasionally speculated to my mother what part of the story was actually happening at any given point.

I don’t know how I made it past the emergence of Ben Gardner’s severed head on that day. But I vividly remember the shark lunging out of the water at Brody while he’s flinging chum. It terrified me. I hid my eyes. I kept them closed until the end of the movie, pressing my hands into my face just to be sure. I periodically asked my mother what was happening. I particularly remember Quint’s screams. “What’s happening now?” I asked, terrified.

After the jump, I was nine years old. Continue reading →

Thirty years of horror: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Tom: This artless trash has paved the way for hundreds, maybe thousands, of copycat movies about the slaughter and occasional torture of vapid teenagers. There’s no one to care about, no one to root for, no one even remotely interesting. It’s not funny, it’s not effective, and it’s certainly not scary. It’s like the clown at a birthday party that no one wants. Smell his flower. Go ahead. Smell it.

Chris: I was prepared, I thought. From the goofy title card that starts this movie to the opening half hour, I am buying into what I think this movie is selling. It’s grindhouse that wants to be arthouse, and I get it and I dig it because perhaps it has authentic 1974 ambitions to be what a guy like Quentin Tarantino’s been doing for 20 years. There are pieces here that feel as if they may have influenced Quentin, too. Abstract, odd dialogue. Some weirdness for weirdness sake with those gross, articulated carcass sculptures in the cemetery, for instance. A beautiful long shot of the van pulling over to pick up a hitchhiker. There are things to like here, perhaps.

After the jump, hacked to pieces Continue reading →

Thirty years of horror: The Exorcist (1973)

Chris: If you ask people to describe the most iconic scenes from The Exorcist, you’ll hear about pea soup, twisting heads, skin writing, and levitation. Those bits are all fine for what they are, and some of them are terrifying. Nothing in the movie though — not one thing — is as scary to me as one little line, uttered by the demon who’s possessed poor little Regan: “Father, could you help an old altar boy?”

We’re still fairly early in the possession at the point of this line. Doctors and specialists have tried to convince Chris MacNeil that her daughter’s problems are medical in nature. We’ve seen evidence to the contrary, but maybe we’re still sort of giving that some thin amount of credence. Even if we do think that there’s something supernatural afoot, maybe we’re trying to bargain that down. It’s the house. It’s the Ouija board. Something. That line — which Father Karras has already heard on a subway platform from a homeless man and uttered in the old man’s voice — turns any mitigation we might try to make of the demonic presence upside down. It suggests and omnipresence or at least omniscience on the part of the entity; it knows what we do and what we say and what we think. The implication of that line is terrifying.

After the jump, far too vulgar a display of power Continue reading →

Thirty years of horror: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

Tom: I have such a soft spot for this goofy little made-for-ABC-TV movie for a few reason. Partly because I remember being freaked out by these made-for-ABC-TV movies as a kid. There was one about killer ants, where the survivors have to hole up in the attic while ants work their way up from the ground floor. There was another one about the crew of a Coast Guard helicopter who finds a bunch of dead bodies on sailboat adrift in the Bermuda Triangle. Of course, there was Trilogy of Terror, with Karen Black and the Zuni doll. But this is the one I remember most.

After the jump, don’t be afraid of the things you were afraid of when you were a kid? Continue reading →

Thirty years of horror: Don’t Look Now (1973)

Chris: Sometimes movies get lumped into the horror bin but fall short of meeting requirements of the genre. We’ve reviewed a few of those already. Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is a film that fits the mold, but also has ambition to push past those confines. It wants to be about sorrow and loss, it wants to be a murder mystery, and it never seems to want us to figure out quite exactly which of those things it is.

After the jump, I see red people. Continue reading →

Thirty years of horror: From Beyond the Grave (1973)

Tom: This weird little forgettable anthology feels like it was made for English TV. Which doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I can think of a couple of made-for-English-TV presentations that still hold up today: Ghostwatch and the original Woman In Black. But this thing? It just goes to show that even though we’re out of the age of grampa movies, we’ve got a whole new style of clunky to contend with.

After the jump, don’t mess with Peter Cushing Continue reading →

Thirty years of horror: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

Chris: Jessica swims toward the middle of a placid little pond. The sky seems overcast, as if it could rain. The camera hovers just above her looking down, and we see it. Something’s slowly emerging from the depths. It comes into focus and we realize it’s a body. Jessica screams…and the clip suddenly cuts to a card with the lurid title of the movie, urging viewers to tune in after the late local news and the nightly 11 pm twin bill of MASH reruns.

When I was a child, that teaser clip was just about the scariest thing on TV, and for whatever reason Let’s Scare Jessica To Death seemed to air almost monthly on local stations that weren’t lucky enough to have Johnny Carson after the late news. The thing was ubiquitous, and fueled more than a few bad dreams. When I was old enough to stay up late to see it, I always missed it. When I was even older, I’d moved on to more recent films. Setting off on this tour seemed like the perfect time for me to finally see if there was anything to the film that gave me so many childhood nightmares.

After the jump, let’s scare Chris to death before he grows up Continue reading →

Thirty years of horror: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Tom: Here’s where it starts:

I can no longer associate myself

Rosemary sees that written on a page left out by the previous tenant, who has died. What does it mean? Why isn’t the line finished? This ominously incomplete thought isn’t just a bit of exposition about the old lady who used to live here and her local Satanic cult. It’s also a statement about pregnancy, when a woman’s body is taken over by another entity. I’ve never been pregnant, and neither has director Roman Polanski, or author Ira Levin. We can only imagine how frightening and confusing it might be. And wonderful, of course, but this is a horror movie.

After the jump, the beginning of an era Continue reading →