Tobe Hooper, Guillermo del Toro, Brad Anderson, and a cinematic love letter to '80s slashers.
EATEN ALIVE (1976)
A couple years after making his breakthrough film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, director Tobe Hooper returned to the horror genre with a film they couldn't quite figure out a fitting title for. Alternates like Starlight Slaughter, Death Trap, and Horror Hotel have been floated around, but most viewers know it as Eaten Alive.
Chainsaw had been loosely based on the story of real life serial killer Ed Gein, and Eaten Alive also took inspiration from a true crime case. Joe Ball, a.k.a. The Bluebeard from South Texas and a.k.a. The Alligator Man, may not be as widely know as Gein, but it was suspected that he was the cause of the trouble Elmendorf, Texas was experiencing in the 1930s. Ball owned a bar that had the added draw of an alligator pit for people to gawk at. He was never proven guilty, but the authorities believed that the missing women in the area had been murdered by Ball and fed to his alligators. As the police prepared to arrest him, Ball committed suicide.
The screenplay for Eaten Alive, written by Hooper's Chainsaw collaborator Kim Henkel and producers Alvin Fast and Mardi Rustam (guys who had several shared credits with Greydon Clark, including working with him on 1973's The Bad Bunch) changes Joe Ball to a man named Judd. The bar is replaced by a hotel, the Starlight Hotel, and instead of an alligator pit Judd has a fenced-in pond right off the porch of the hotel that's inhabited by a crocodile. The crocodile isn't the only animal Judd has for people to look at - he also has a little monkey in a cage on the porch - but it's certainly the most dangerous.
The first murder in the film is basically the fault of future Nightmare on Elm Street star Robert Englund, who plays a character named Buck here, a guy known for having a sassy mouth and getting up to funny business who is introduced with a line that is popular but often misquoted. "Name's Buck. I'm rarin' to f*ck." He delivers this line to prostitute Clara Wood (Roberta Collins), who then balks at his demand for anal sex. This experience is enough to convince her that she's not cut out to be a hooker, so she leaves the brothel run by TV's original Morticia Addams Carolyn Jones as Miss Hattie and hits the road, ending up at the nearby Starlight Hotel.
Starlight proprietor Judd is an odd duck, terrifically played by Neville Brand. He really isn't that different from an average member of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family, in fact one could imagine he's a cousin who visits Leatherface and company around the holidays. He seems harmless enough when you're checking in, even if he does have a habit of mumbling to himself, writing down everything that happens in his little notepad ("according to regulations"), and going on and on about the crocodile that he seems equally proud and terrified of. (As he says, that ol' croc doesn't make any distinctions, it will eat anything.) But then sometimes something will happen that just causes him to snap and lose control of himself, lashing out in violence, committing murders, and feeding the corpses to the croc. The first victim in the film is Clara, who Judd goes crazy on when he realizes she's one of Miss Hattie's girls. Apparently "whores" make him homicidal.
Sometime later, one of the strangest families in the history of cinema shows up at the Starlight Hotel, portrayed by a trio who each has a genre classic to their names - parents Faye and Roy are played by Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre star Marilyn Burns and William Finley of Brian De Palma's The Phantom of the Paradise, and their young daughter Angie is played by Kyle Richards, who would go on to be in John Carpenter's Halloween. Their Starlight stop goes south quite quickly when their dog Snoopy sneaks into the crocodile's area. Finley's character is so overcome with guilt that he seems to suffer a mental breakdown before he grabs a shotgun from his car and goes croc hunting. Judd can't allow his crocodile to be shot, and soon Roy is dead, Faye is tied to a bed, and Angie has been chased into and trapped in the crawlspace beneath the hotel.
At the hands of Judd, Hooper once again puts Burns through the wringer. She defends her title as my #1 favorite scream queen of all time, and keeps that award firmly in her grasp. Little Kyle Richards doesn't have it much easier than Burns; Michael Myers was much less of a threat to this girl than Judd is.
Things get even more complicated for Judd with the arrival of Clara's father Harvey (Mel Ferrer) and sister Libby (Crystin Sinclaire), who have come looking for the missing girl. Later on, Buck also shows up to occupy a room with a girl named Lynette, who's played by The Hills Have Eyes' Janus Blythe. Several of Judd's new clientele end up added his body count, their names jotted down in his notepad, but - opposite from what you would expect for a normal hotel - all this guest activity also has a severely negative impact on Judd's business.
As reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as Eaten Alive is at times, it definitely does not reach the classic level of its predecessor on Hooper's filmography, but it is a wonderfully weird little horror movie in its own right. Although ostensibly set in Texas or thereabouts, it feels like it's set on a different planet due to the fact that it was filmed entirely on a soundstage, where Hooper and cinematographer Robert Caramico had free rein to manipulate the look of the picture. Daylight never comes at the Starlight Hotel, instead it's lit with this odd, unnatural reddish orange look. Eaten Alive was "A Mars Production", and the lighting makes it look like this hotel is located on Mars.
Speaking of Caramico, there's buzz on the internet that the cinematographer might have handled directing duties for a number of scenes because Hooper was having disagreements with the producers. If that's true, it sort of foreshadows the questions over who directed what - Hooper or Steven Spielberg - on his later film Poltergeist.
The otherworldy atmosphere is enhanced by the score composed by Hooper and Wayne Bell, with whom Hooper had also done the unorthodox score for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The sound they came up with here is similar in a way, but even more of a cacophony of noise, at times almost grating.
Eaten Alive is a quick and simple film that's carried along by the captivating strangeness of its tone, style, and characters. It's also really cool to see all of these genre stars, some already established at the time, others to have their biggest hits a few years later, all packed into the same film. It's a movie that horror fans should definitely experience. You gotta meet Judd and that ol' croc.
Four years after making his feature directorial debut with the Mexican vampire film Cronos, cult favorite filmmaker Guillermo del Toro hooked up with U.S.-based production company Dimension Films to make the creature feature Mimic his second movie. It was not a pleasant experience for del Toro, there was friction between him and Dimension head Bob Weinstein all through production and the finished film is a compromised version of del Toro's vision... but it's still a pretty cool monster movie.
The back story concerns an epidemic on Manhattan Island, a disease called Strickler's Disease that is spread by cockroaches and affects children, killing many, the survivors having to wear leg braces for the rest of their lives. Mira Sorvino, who was urged to take the job by her then-boyfriend Quentin Tarantino, who saw it as her chance to star in a successor to Alien, plays entomologist Susan Tyler, who is able to bring the outbreak of Strickler's to an end through the creation of a new insect species called the Judas Breed. Made through a mixture of termite and mantid DND, Judas bugs secrete an enzyme that kills off cockroaches.
Susan is concerned what the impact of wiping out the roach population will be, but she unleashes the Judas Breed to save the children and keep Strickler's from spreading beyond Manhattan. For their part, the Judas bugs are all sterile females and are expected to die out within six months.
Three years later, Susan is deeply disturbed to find evidence that the Judas Breed has survived, is breeding, and that these bugs are growing to a massive size. In fact, massive is a bit of an understatement - shadowy figures have begun lurking in the shadows of Manhattan, snatching people and dragging them down into the subway. They appear to be people wearing cloaks, one witness refers to them as Dark Angels, but they are actually human-sized Judas bugs.
After a moody build-up consisting largely of Susan, her husband Dr. Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam) of the CDC, and the police - represented by a young detective played Josh and played by Josh Brolin, as well as Charles S. Dutton as a uniformed officer named Leonard - piecing together what's going on the city, things really kick into gear around the hour point, when Susan, Peter, and Leonard all find themselves trapped deep in the subway system, where the Judas bugs have their nest. Also trapped down there is a shoe shiner (the awesome Giancarlo Giannini of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) and his autistic young ward Chuy (Alexander Goodwin).
With this group taking refuge in an old subway car, Mimic becomes something of a siege film as the characters have to deal with a whole lot of huge killer bugs.
Based on a short story by Donald A. Wollheim, Mimic was written by del Toro with Matthew Robbins (who recently co-wrote the ghost story Crimson Peak with him), and the script received an uncredited polish by John Sayles, a director in his own right, usually of critically acclaimed dramas, but who has taken scripting gigs on monster movies like this, The Howling, Alligator, and Piranha. The movie isn't the successor to Alien that Tarantino felt it would be, and I doubt it would have been even if del Toro hadn't been having troubles with Weinstein during the production. I just don't see it having that potential, but it is a good, gross movie with creatures that waver between being effective (when they're attempting to mimic the appearance of people) and seeming kind of silly (when they bug out). It has kind of lapsed into obscurity at this point, and probably would be even more forgotten if it didn't have del Toro's name on it, but it is worth digging up and taking a look at.
Fans of The Walking Dead may be interested to see a cameo appearance by a young Norman Reedus, playing a worker at a sewage treatment plant who finds something stranger than the usual floating around in there. If you have The Walking Dead on the brain, you might even be reminded of the show when the characters rub bug guts on themselves to deter the Judas bugs, much like characters on the zombie series rub zombie guts on themselves to stay safe among the hordes.
At the end of the day, the most terrifying thing about Mimic is the realization that it's been almost twenty years since I saw it in the theatre.
STONEHEARST ASYLUM (2014)
Also known by the title Eliza Graves, Stonehearst Asylum, another Final Girl SHOCKtober pick, is based on The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, an 1845 short story written by revered master of literary horror Edgar Allan Poe. It stars Jim Sturgess as Edward Newgate, a young doctor who has come to work at the remote asylum of the title. Upon his arrival, Newgate realizes that head doctor Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley) has an unorthodox approach to running the place: he lets the patients mingle with, and dine with, the staff.
Newgate soon figures out that there are more crazy people among the staff than it first appears - in fact, everyone around him is a patient. The patients have taken over the madhouse, the real staff (including Michael Caine as the head doctor) is locked away in the cellar.
The young doctor was instantly smitten with Eliza Graves, a patient played by Kate Beckinsale. She seems to be reasonably sane, so much so that her husband, who she was committed for attacking and delivering gruesome injury to, has been trying to get her released. She becomes Newgate's one ally in his endeavor to get the real staff freed and escape from Stonehearst.
Stonehearst Asylum gets to the twist of Poe's story surprisingly early in its 112 minute running time. It's disarming how quickly it happens. You expect the twist to be saved for the climax, at which time some members of the audience would have a "I knew it all along" reaction, while the Poe readers among them would say "Of course I knew what was going on." Instead, everyone watching knows exactly what's going on just 35 minutes into the film, and then we're left to wonder how Newgate is going to get out of this dangerous situation... And if there are more twists to come.
This is a decent film, but 112 minutes is just way too long for its story. Spending more than an hour on what happens after Newgate discovers the staff is stretching things out too much.
The movie did earn major points from me with the fact that it was directed by Brad Anderson. His Session 9 has been one of my favorite psychological horror films since I first saw it in 2001. Session 9, also set around an asylum, was very low budget, down and dirty, shot with an early HD camera, and it was great to see Anderson make another asylum movie, but this time - with the aid of cinematographer Tom Yatsko - being able to craft a wonderfully stylish, classic gothic horror look for the film.
The following review originally appeared on ArrowintheHead.com
CAMP KILLER (2015)
My favorite sub-genre of horror to watch is the slasher, and following the indie horror scene I have seen a lot of low budget movies that were made in homage to the classic slashers of the 1980s. While some of them are entertaining, I find a lot of them disappointing because they're so rarely able to even come close to feeling like the great slashers we were getting thirty-five years ago. With his '80s slasher homage Camp Killer, writer/director Shawn Jones avoids the comparison by taking a unique, deconstructive approach to the concept. This isn't another movie where a group of people gather on the killing grounds of a slasher to be knocked off one-by-one, although it does start out that way, but instead a story that examines the sub-genre's tropes, gives them a reason, and offers a glimpse at what its slasher does in his downtime.
The slasher Jones has created here is David Lightfoot, a man who stalks the long-abandoned grounds of Camp Woowonga and the surrounding woods while wearing an impressively designed skull mask. This is something Lightfoot has been doing for thirty years now, racking up well over six hundred kills, but people still keep wandering out into his territory, never to be seen again.
During the first twenty minutes of the film, Lightfoot makes quick work of the latest batch of campers to enter his wilderness, building up to a chase sequence with "final girl" Tina Wilcox (Melissa O'Brien). Just when it looks like Tina is going to be added to the victim list, the local sheriff (Jimmyo Burril), who is basically the Doctor Loomis to Lightfoot's Michael Myers, shows up and saves the day. This is the point at which a slasher movie would usually end, but there's over an hour left in the running time.
What first piqued my interest in this film was the fact that it was described as "Jason Lives meets My Dinner with Andre", My Dinner with Andre being a 1981 film that consists entirely of a conversation between two men in a cafe. With the latest killing spree having come to an end, the sheriff goes to a bar, where original Jason Voorhees Ari Lehman plays bartender Joe, and is met there by an unmasked David Lightfoot (James Watkins). Lightfoot is different from slasher peers like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers in that he has the ability to talk, he drops some quips during the early kill scenes (thankfully not as groan-inducing as some of the one-liners Freddy Krueger has had over the years), so there's no discrepancy in the character when he and the sheriff proceed to have a lengthy conversation about this battle they've been locked in for decades.
Camp Killer clearly takes most of its inspiration from the Friday the 13th franchise, and while viewers who have just a ground floor knowledge of slashers should still be able to enjoy its deconstructive style, the more you know your Friday the 13th sequels the more fun you'll have watching this movie. The conversation Lightfoot and the sheriff have is full of nods to the Voorhees saga, and I had a big grin on my face as I took in all the amusing references. Outside the realm of F13, there's also a really funny allusion to a scene in Jeepers Creepers 2 that stood out to many audience members as being quite odd.
There is a lot of dialogue exchanged between the slasher and his Ahab, but Camp Killer may appeal to you even if chatty films aren't your bag. Not only are there flashbacks to some of Lightfoot's greatest hits spliced in during the conversation in the bar, there are also cutaways to Tina Wilcox and a fellow Lightfoot survivor, a really nutty, off-balance final girl wonderfully played by April Monique Burril (who you may know as the cult icon Chainsaw Sally) as they develop a revenge plot, paving the way for some climactic violence.
Carried on the shoulders of the strong, entertaining performances delivered by its stars, who were given some excellent dialogue to speak, Camp Killer is an '80s slasher homage that isn't like any specific movie that came out during that decade but is informed by several of them. I found it to be an absolute delight to watch. Jones has clearly done his sub-genre homework, and every reference struck home for me.
This isn't your typical bloodbath slasher, but I think any fan of slashers would have fun watching this clever entry in the sub-genre that serves as a passionate love letter to its predecessors.