Scanners

The reason that my best friend is my best friend is she understands that I’m the kind of person who wants a movie about exploding heads for my birthday.


The 1981 Canadian horror film follows Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack). He’s a young vagrant who’s unable to function in society due to his highly advanced psychic abilities. He hears everyone’s thoughts very loudly.
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He’s discovered by people working for the private security firm, ConSec, and brought to Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), the head of a program studying and weaponizing scanners, people with advanced psychic abilities.
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The scanners program is under pressure after a renegade scanner infiltrates a demonstration and makes a man’s head explode.
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Ruth teaches Vale to control his psychic abilities, with the help of a drug called Ephemerol, and sends him to hunt Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), an incredibly powerful rogue scanner. For the first time, Vale is able to meet other scanners like Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman), an artist living in his huge sculptures.
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Vale uncovers a corporate conspiracy involving ConSec and the drug company Biocarbon Amalgamate, with the help of fellow scanner Kim (Jennifer O’Neill).
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For all of its body horror, the plot is very conventional and follows fairly standard sci-fi tropes. My main criticism is that, except for Vale, none of the other characters are particularly well developed. Scanners is particularly famous for being a difficult shoot with Cronenberg writing the script in the early hours before filming. I don’t really understand all the nuances of Canadian film financing–just enough to thank them for giving us some amazing horror films–but I know that Cronenberg was working in a very short amount of time to take advantage of this. That short working time is probably why the characterization suffers.
That being said, the performances are quite good. Even with minimal personal information about the characters, the actors make you care. Stephen Lack, in particular, brings humanity to a character that other characters describe as inhuman.
Scanners gets a lot of attention because of the famous exploding head scene–accomplished by shooting a foam latex head from behind with a twelve gauge shotgun–but the overall effects are amazing and hold up quite well, considering this movie is older than I am. That’s no surprise, with Dick Smith consulting–we’ve seen his work in The Exorcist. For me, the highlight of the movie is the psychic battle between Vale and Revok.
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The score by Howard Shore is also notable. It creates an incredible amount of tension, especially during the scanning scenes.
While the movie deals with the issues of our very thoughts being dangerous, you can also see the influence of the thalidomide scare in the plot. In the late 1950s, thalidomide was marketed as a wonder drug to cure morning sickness in pregnancy. Unfortunately, it caused severe birth defects in fetuses when ingested by the mother before the third trimester.
The movie was good but I don’t think it’s my favorite Cronenberg sci-fi–I think that title goes to Videodrome. Long live the new flesh/mind?

Posted in 1980's, body horror, supernatural, thriller, you so crazy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Insidious Chapter 3

Hi, everybody!  Remember that time I was really bad at updating my blog?  Sorry about that.  I’ve missed everyone a lot.  I’m just super involved in school right now and I’m also working and trying to make the best artwork ever for Walker Stalker Con NY/NJ.  Yes, I will be in artist alley for the second year at the Meadowlands!
In the continuing tradition of watching scary movies with my mom, I saw Insidious Chapter Three. Like the other two, it was a mixed bag for me but I actually liked it more than the second one.


This is a prequel, taking place before the events of the second Lambert haunting. Stefanie Scott stars as Quinn Brenner, a teenage girl whose mother died recently. She reaches out to psychic Elise Rainier (with Lin Shaye returning, yay!) but Elise has her own problems to deal with. She’s being plagued by the Bride in Black (Tom Fitzpatrick) and her husband recently committed suicide. Elise takes a liking to Quinn and tries to reach out to her mother but is unable to due to the presence of the Bride. She warns Quinn, though, saying that when you try to contact the dead that all the dead can hear you.
Quinn continues to experience paranormal activity in her home and starts to see a shadowy figure, that eventually causes her to be hit by a truck. Confined to bed with two broken legs, the activity escalates to the point that Quinn’s father, Sean (Dermot Mulroney, in a very Mustache Dad from Twilight role) contacts Elise and begs her for help. Elise attempts to venture into the Further but the Bride in Black almost kills her. Sean contacts a pair of bloggers, Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell), who realize they’re way out of their league. Luckily, Elise returns to help after meeting with her friend, Carl (Steve Coulter) from Chapter Two.
Frequent James Wan collaborator, Leigh Whannell, wrote and directed this movie. Frankly, it felt like he was stretched thin between his writing and directing duties because the script is underwritten. There are some incredibly corny moments, like when Elise yells, “Come on, bitch!” at Parker Crane. Lin Shaye does her best with the material but it’s a mistake to turn Elise into Ripley. Quinn is characterized as so improbably cool–I don’t mean Mean Girls cool, I mean more like hipster cool–that she doesn’t feel real. Do the youths today listen to the Pixies and P.J. Harvey? If so, can we hang out?
In the last movie, I thought there was too much backstory for Parker Crane. In this movie, there’s absolutely no story given for the movie’s bad guy, the Man Who Can’t Breathe (Michael Reid MacKay). I’d like to see some kind of balance, between zero backstory and too much. Did he live in the building? The Brenner family lives in an apartment building that seems to have more ghosts than the Overlook Hotel.
The pacing didn’t drag the way the second movie did but there was an over-reliance on jump scares. It would have been nice to have some more tension-building. That being said, I really loved the scene where Quinn hears tapping on the wall between her room and her neighbor Hector’s (Ashton Moio) wall. That scene has a very nice payoff.
As usual, I loved Lin Shaye’s performance. It’s a shocking character change to see Elise so depressed, that really sticks with the viewer. Her and Stefanie Scott both do well portraying different kinds of grief.
What I wanted more of were scenes of the Further and the souls that reside in it.
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Not the tableaux, necessarily, but I liked the specters that lined the hall as Elise walked deeper into the Further.
This movie, like the others in the series, is a mixed bag, but I think it’s a definite improvement over the second movie. That being said, it’s not as scary as the first movie.
Insidious
Insidious Chapter Two

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Killer Legends

Joshua Zeman, the director who made Cropsey is back with a new documentary about the origins of urban legends, Killer Legends.


I’m not sure why I’m so obsessed with urban legends. Part of it is probably my steady diet of Cropsey stories I grew up hearing in Staten Island. I discovered the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series when I was six or seven, quite possibly the greatest series of books to ever emotionally scare kids with their uncanny illustrations and stories of skin-stealing scarecrows. Plus, I grew up in New Jersey, the home of Weird New Jersey magazine. I lived within driving distance of the Devil’s Teeth at the Watchung Reservation, Demon Alley, Thirteen Bumps Road, and Devil’s Tree. Damn, there was a lot of devil-naming going on in central New Jersey in the 80s and 90s.
I thought I’d briefly go through the legends movie discusses and the real-life cases they link up with.
The Hook

A couple goes to Lover’s Lane to make out. The boyfriends presses the girl to go farther but she’s not comfortable. He drives her home and turns on the radio, where there’s a report about an escaped mental patient with a hook for a hand. The guy gets out of the car to let the girl out and there’s a HOOK hanging from the door handle. I’ve heard about a dozen versions of this urban legend, including a particularly gory version where the guy gets out of the car to investigate scraping noises coming from outside, leaving the girl alone. Then she starts hearing a scraping noise coming from above her and her boyfriend has been HANGED and it’s his heels making the scraping noise.
Zeman and researcher Rachel Mills link the Hook story with the Texarkana Moonlight Murders from 1946. The killer, known as The Phantom, wore a white hood with holes cut out for his eyes and mouth, and attacked couples in isolated areas. You might be familiar with this case because Charles B. Pierce made a fictionalized slasher about it, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a full two-years before Halloween was released. The Town That Dreaded Sundown became a late-night cult classic and featured a memorable scene where the killer attaches a knife to a trombone and kills his victim by trombone-stabbing.
Anyway, it’s believed the Hook legend comes from these killings. Interestingly, my original thought was the Zodiac Killer, who had a similar MO to the Phantom.
The Candy Man
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If you’re a certain age, then you probably don’t remember a time where your parents didn’t search your Halloween candy. Everyone knows there are psychos poisoning candy and putting pins in razor blades in apples.
Believe it or not, there is but one case of someone poisoning Halloween candy. In 1974, Ronald Clark O’Bryan’s son, Timothy, got deathly ill after eating some Pixy Stix he got for Halloween. He died en route to the hospital. Suspicion fell on Ronald when it was realized that he had taken out a hefty life insurance policy on his son. So there aren’t random strangers trying to kill children on Halloween, just their own parents.
The Babysitter
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A young woman is home alone. Sometimes she’s babysitting. She starts getting gross, threatening calls. She calls the cops and phone company and ask them to trace the call. The pervert calls back and the cops successfully trace the call. They frantically call the girl and tell her to get herself and the children outside because the calls are coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE.
A similar scenario happened to Janett Christman, who was babysitting in Columbia, MO. in 1950. She was just thirteen when she was raped and murdered while babysitting for three-year-old Gregory Romack. Janette got no warning though, and was actually part of a rash of killings in the area. There was a suspect but he was never charged and actually sued the sheriff’s department.
It must be hard for people of a certain age to understand the kind of anonymity we used to have. Before cell phones, caller ID, and star-69, you could really prank call anyone. You can really see the fear of the unknown and fear of strangers in this story. But, statistically, children being babysat are more likely to be injured by their babysitters than babysitters being hurt by random killers.
Why So Serious?

Everyone knows not to trust a clown because you don’t know what’s under his makeup. When I was writing for horror-writers.net I noticed a trend of people dressing up as clowns and just walking around. When did people become so scared of clowns?
John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer from the Chicago-suburbs who killed at least thirty-three young men, was notorious for dressing as Pogo the Clown for his charity work, but he didn’t use the clown to lure his victims.
Clowns have always been dark, they were just sanitized in the fifties and sixties for children’s television and commercials. So maybe the fear of clowns is just the clown mythos coming back full circle? Look at Pagliacci, the murderous opera-clown.
What I liked about the documentary was that it made connections that I hadn’t made before and actually taught me the origin of a legend that I hadn’t heard before.
That being said, it felt constrained by time limits. Each legend gets about twenty minutes to examine the story and then go into its origins. I’m not sure a movie is the best format for this. I would have cut the “Why So Serious?” portion because John Wayne Gacy’s crimes are only tangentially related to the scary clown legends whereas the other legends have more solid footing.
The movie was definitely entertaining but I think I’d love to see it as TV show or miniseries. There are so many legends with killer roots that you could probably do a solid hour-long episode per legend. I definitely recommend this to anyone who like urban legends and creepy real history.

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The Taking of Deborah Logan

I am one of the biggest complainers about horror on Netflix streaming. It’s always a struggle to find something to watch that isn’t an Asylum flick or some SyFy bad-on-purpose movie. That’s why I was so excited to see 2014’s The Taking of Deborah Logan.


The story follows a documentary film crew–Mia (Michelle Ang), Gavin (Brett Gentile), and Luis (Jeremy DeCarlos)–and their subject, Deborah Logan (Jill Larson from Shutter Island and All My Children), an older woman with the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Deborah is resistant to filming but her daughter, Sarah (Anne Ramsay) wants the film to be made, since they’re going to lose their house.
Things seem pretty normal as they film but events escalate fairly quickly including Deborah’s odd behavior, making it clear that there are forces beyond just mental illness at play here.
What I really liked about this movie were the strong female characters. Deborah Logan is a formidable woman, someone I don’t always agree with but I still find interesting. Her physical transformation as she increasingly loses her mind is intense and Jill Larson’s performance is amazing. Sarah is just as formidable but in a different way from her mother. And Mia clearly has her own agenda amid the chaos of the increasingly supernatural events.
What makes the movie work is that the house is its own character. It’s huge, impressive, and on the edge of some pretty creepy woods.
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As Luis says, in my favorite quote from the movie, “White people and their basements and their fucking attics.” This house has three creepy attics. You can see how this house could be a kind of portal to something evil, especially with Deborah’s abandoned switchboard in one of those attics.
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The movie packs some great scares. Aside from the possibility of possession and ghosts, there’s some serious body horror here including an intense spinal tap. It reminded me of The Exorcist when Regan is undergoing all the psychiatric procedures. It just strikes you as unfair and evil that anyone would have to undergo that.
The movie is filmed like a documentary but it uses minimal shaky camera. It’s kind of Blair Witch-lite without all the nausea. The security footage is used to good effect, letting the viewers see the paranormal activity but without the huge boring sections like <a href="Paranormal Activity. It’s easy to scare people if you get them bored enough and then add a jump scare, it’s harder to build up tension like this movie does.
My only complaint is the ending. It felt overdone. It’s set in these really spooky caves and has a very The Descent feeling. That is scary enough but the director pushes it too far. Plus, maybe because I’m a seasoned fan, but I could see where they were going within the last twenty minutes. I wish there had been more restraint.
That being said, it’s still an interesting and scary ghost/possession mash-up. The Babadook got a lot of positive buzz in 2014 but it’s a shame I didn’t hear more talk about this movie.

Posted in 21st century, ghosts, possession | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

I Sell the Dead

Look, a blog post. It’s been awhile. I’ve missed you guys, I hope you missed me too. Things have been a crazy mixture of good and bad. I’m in mortuary school taking a bunch of credits, I have a new job that’s basically part time but still 30 hours a week. My best friend and my stepdad died recently. I still love horror but, at the moment, I don’t like much of anything anymore. This isn’t permanent and I’m trying to work on the things I love. I think you have to do that when you lose someone, focus on the things you love and that feel meaningful to you. That’s why I made this picture of Pinhead and Robbie the Robot reenacting the pose from Titanic, my best friend, Richie, was always asking me to draw that.
PinheadAndRobbie
So here’s a post about the 2008 horror-comedy I Sell the Dead.
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I love that title card, it reminds me of the Mario Bava classic Black Sabbath.


Dominic Monaghan is Arthur Blake, a 19th century grave-robber on death row for murder and the aforementioned grave-robbing.
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When Father Duffy (Ron effin Perlman) shows up, Arthur recounts his partnership with Willy Grimes (Larry Fessenden) who taught Arthur the tricks of the trade, and his adventures with vampires, zombies, and even grey aliens.
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Angus Scrimm, you know him as the Tall Man from Phantasm, plays Dr. Quint, a doctor who blackmails Blake and Grimes for free corpses under the threat of turning them in to the police.
This movie is a fun, unique period piece. I really loved the humorous take on their adventures and 18th century life. Monaghan and Fessenden have great chemistry together and good comedic timing. I especially liked the filmmaker’s unique spin on folklore. Seriously, that grey alien thing cracked me up. I especially appreciated the nod to vampire stories and the creepiness of the vampire in the movie.
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Blake recounts a scuffle with the House of Murphy, an infamous and vicious gang of grave-robbers led by the unseen Samuel Murphy. A few weeks after their encounter Blake is arrested for the murder that lands him in jail. Father Duffy seems unusually interested in his involvement with the House of Murphy and that’s all I want to say.
Stylistically, this movie is gorgeous and gross to look at. The bodies are appropriately icky and the background is appropriately gothic.
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The filmmakers occasionally use comic book panels for transitions. This works well because the storytelling format recalls anthology movies like Creepshow and Black Sabbath.
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My only complaint is that the pacing wasn’t great. Parts of the movie dragged and Blake’s last heist felt overlong. I think hardcore horror fans would really enjoy this movie and people who love their horror mixed with comedy.

Posted in 21st century, comedy, crime, monsters, vampires, zombies | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Silent Night, Deadly Night 2

Before I start my review, let’s just all take a moment and get this out of our systems.

Is that out of everyone’s system? Good. Yes, that misshapen satsuma at the bottom of your stocking is 1987’s Silent Night, Deadly Night 2.

Brought to you by TOMS.

Brought to you by TOMS.


The movie takes place on Christmas Eve about ten years after the original. Billy’s brother, Ricky (Eric Freeman) is in a mental institution talking to a psychiatrist, Dr. Bloom (James L. Newman).
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You get the feeling that the movie is going for a Michael Mann Manhunter kind of feeling but it just doesn’t have the budget or the talent.
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The movie is then about forty-five minutes of footage from the Silent Night, Deadly Night. Ricky recounts Billy’s killing spree with extensive flashback footage, like in Jaws: The Revenge when Ellen Brody remembers things she never experienced.
The word on the street is that the director was told to re-edit the original into a new movie but Lee Harry insisted on shooting new footage with a terrible budget. I have to admire Harry’s desire to go forward and try to create something new.
The movie picks up a bit after recapping what happened in the original. Ricky is adopted by a loving couple but never really recovers from the trauma of his past and starts killing people he deems to be naughty. I’ll admit, Lee Harry did try to add memorable kills to the movie. This includes death via umbrella.
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Things come to a head when Ricky’s at a movie theater and a Vanilla Ice lookalike is being particularly obnoxious.
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Ricky goes to confront him and catches his girlfriend, Jennifer (Elizabeth Kaitan) with her ex, Chip (Ken Weichert). “Chip” is such an eighties name and it’s always synonymous for “Aryan douche.”
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Ricky is enraged by Jennifer’s perceived lack of purity. His spree really kicks off with him electrocuting Chip and strangling Jennifer.
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This is what sent Ricky to the institution. The movie has come full circle and, back in the present, Ricky kills the psychiatrist, escapes and goes to exact revenge on Mother Superior (Jean Miller, in heavy makeup to disguise the fact that she’s not Lilyan Chauvin).
Parts of this movie work. The kills were interesting and the most tense part was when Ricky was going after Mother Superior.
So much of this movie just doesn’t work, though. Part of it is the writing. Ricky just isn’t sympathetic. In Silent Night, Deadly Night you really felt bad for Billy. He had the worst luck. You wanted him to succeed but you’re helpless as he’s pushed over the edge. This movie seemed to be going for a Hannibal Lecter motif with Ricky as a violent, cunning sociopath but Ricky really lacks the charm and restraint of Hannibal Lecter. Remember in The Silence of the Lambs when Clarice first sees Hannibal in person and he’s just perfectly still? He doesn’t need to move to have presence. The plexiglass barrier adds to this sense of menace. Ricky is the opposite of this, he bounces all over the place and is snarling and angry. Some of this can be chalked up to bad writing and direction but a lot of it lands on the actor whose main method is extreme eyebrow usage. He emotes like a silent movie villain.
In the end, this movie leaves us with no one to root for, whether victim or killer. I found myself checking my phone a lot. I can see why it has such a cult following but it didn’t really have as many laughable moments as The Room. It’s garbage day, indeed.

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Bird Box

Would you blind your children if it was the only way to save their lives? This is one of the many dilemmas faced by Malorie, the protagonist of Josh Malerman’s horror/sci-fi novel Bird Box.
Malorie finds out she’s pregnant as the world goes crazy. The reports of people going mad, killing those around them, and then killing themselves start in Russia and slowly spread until they reach the U.S. via Alaska. What the stories all share in common is that the people all saw something just before they go mad. No one knows what they saw, just that it brings on madness. Soon, people are covering the windows of their houses and are too scared to go outside.
Malorie finds a group of survivors who have banded together to learn how to survive in this new world. The narrative shifts back and forth from Malorie’s past with the group and her friendship with their unofficial leader, Tom, to the present where Malorie is taking advantage of a foggy day to row a boat blindfolded down a river with two children in hopes of finding a sanctuary. We see the rules Malorie has imposed that are cruel but also necessary to keeping her children alive. They include teaching them how to wake up with their eyes closed and blindfolding them and teaching them how to hear better than any person with vision.
We never learn what precisely is making people go mad, whether it’s aliens or interdimensional creatures. We never learn what their intentions are, if they make people crazy on purpose, are horrified by what happens to humans when they see them, or are indifferent. Malerman effectively taps into a vein of horror familiar to fans of H.P. Lovecraft (Without the racism). There’s the fear of the unknown and the fear of infinity.
My real complaint with the book is that it overreaches for its length. I got the Nook edition and it’s 148 pages. We don’t really get to see how Malorie evolves from a fairly normal young woman trying to survive impossible circumstances to this Ripley-esque woman who can row a boat blindfolded and fight wolves. The book could have been twice as long and wouldn’t have suffered. I really wish some of the characters had been fleshed out better because some of the survivors tended to blend together.
That being said, the book feels unbelievably tense and I had a very hard time putting it down. It’s one of the few recent books I’ve read that I wanted to reread immediately after I finished. Malerman is good at creating horror out of what should be the mundane. It’s scary every time one of the characters steps out of the house (blindfolded). There’s the inherent fear that every person with vision has of what they can’t see combined with the fact that there’s something unknown outside. It was very easy for me to put myself in the place of the survivors and wonder if I could survive something like this. It was a very personal horror for me since I’m an artist and rely on vision so much. My hearing isn’t great but I love to see and I’m not sure I’d want to live in a scenario where I couldn’t safely look at a place unless I was sure it was free of monsters. Losing my sight is a huge, personal fear for me.
There’s also the fear of what the madness drives people to do. There are several very memorable, very gory scenes. The reader gets the picture quickly about the effects of whatever is outside.
The book feels very contemporary in its treatment of how information spreads. The first reports of the madness are based on found footage. The madness starts to take up more and more time in the 24 hour news cycle until it’s all that’s discussed on the news. Then, there’s no news at all. You definitely feel this real thirst that the survivors have for information and a desperation to see if there are other survivors.
This book is worth reading but it could definitely be more expansive. I recommend it for fan of Lovecraft and H.G. Wells.

Posted in 21st century, aliens, apocalypse, books, fantasy, psychological, sci-fi | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment