Movie ballyhoo is in good shape this Halloween season. The made-for-$10,000 Paranormal Activity has become a runaway hit, thanks to clever Internet marketing. “Chaos reigns” T-shirts are being hawked (or foxed) outside theaters showing Antichrist. The timing of The William Castle Film Collection on DVD couldn’t be better, though Castle, the master of promotional gimmickry, would have gone a lot farther: Handing out “ghost viewers” for Activity audiences to see specters, or placing “Percepto” buzzers under the seats in Antichrist auditoriums to give you an extra jolt.
Castle, who started as an assistant stage manager to Bela Lugosi on his Dracula stage tours, charmed directors George Stevens and Orson Welles with his chutzpah, then won over the notoriously unwinnable kingpin of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, who put him to work on grinding out B-pictures. Castle stepped away from the studio to make two career-defining horror pictures, 1958’s Macabre and 1959’s House on Haunted Hill. The movies are entertaining but the real fun was in picking up your “Death by Fright” insurance before the former, or dodging the plastic skeleton hoisted above your head—the miracle of “Emergo”!—during Hill. The films were astonishingly successful, and Castle (who was paid homage in Joe Dante’s sweet Matinee) returned to Columbia a star in his own right.
A number of the eight films in this collection are retreads, but remastered for greater goose-pimpling clarity. The new-to-DVD ones, like the Tom Poston-starring Zotz! (1962) and the Hammer Films co-production The Old Dark House (1963), lacked more exploitable gimmicks, or any gimmick at all, and helped bring that phase of Castle’s career to an end. By producing Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning Rosemary’s Baby (1968) he achieved the artistic respectability he craved but, as the bonus disc documentary Spine-Tingler! The William Castle Story shows he was unable to parlay that into much else of lasting interest in his last frustrating years.
But it was a hell of a run. Besides the documentary, which has affectionate testimony from fans like John Waters, each film has trailers (featuring Castle) and most have featurettes explaining what the gimmicks were and how they worked (or didn’t). I’ve written about Castle before, and what you see is what you get—inexpensive, unpretentious, but at times stimulating shockers. The horror highlights are The Tingler (1959), with Vincent Price’s researcher isolating the lobster-like “essence of fear,” an unexpected foray into LSD use, a marvelous color insert scene of tingler-generating chills, and the “Percepto” gag; 13 Ghosts (1960), where “Illusion-O” specs were handed out to let audiences see the house-haunting ghouls (a prior DVD release had a pair of the 3D-type viewers, but you don’t need them); and the delightful, end-of-the-line Strait-Jacket (1964), with a domineering Joan Crawford as an axe murderess, released from the asylum, tangling with another cut-up as she tries to mend fences with now-grown daughter Diane Baker. Baker’s reminiscences of the production’s troubles with the star, who had been reborn as a scream queen in the 1962 hit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, are poignant.
Robert Bloch wrote Strait-Jacket. Bloch had written the novel on which Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) had been based, and Hitchcock used Castle-like ballyhoo to promote his horror smash. Castle got his own back by releasing Homicidal, my favorite of the collection’s films, the following year. It has a completely bizarre opening sequence, a funny gimmick (a “fright break” toward the climax, during which petrified audiences could retreat to the yellow-lit “coward’s corner” in the auditorium) and a twisted ending—really, all a film like this needed to have. Blood-and-guts-filled, but gimmick-free, remakes of Castle’s pictures have been produced over the last decade; though not a redo, the recent Orphan is very much in the spirit of Homicidal. This is a fun set, but I highly recommend attending one of Film Forum of New York’s Castle revivals, where real live Percepto and Emergo are trotted out.
The only good thing about horror remakes is that they bring the originals out of hiding. It’s gratifying to see 1987’s The Stepfather again, in all its shivery glory. Written by the late, great Donald E. Westlake, the accept-no-substitutes film has one of the top genre performances by Terry O’Quinn, as an upstanding family values type who marries single mothers, then slays his new families when they fail to live up to his inhuman expectations. Besides being a crackerjack thriller (Jill Schoelen is very good as a suspicious stepdaughter) The Stepfather is a witty little indictment of the false front offered by the overly glorified Reagan years. And, while not overly violent, it does have a “smashing” scene involving the kind of telephone that was in use in the last century.
This welcome first-time release offers a handsome transfer and a commentary track with director Joseph Ruben, whose Hollywood career, including the Stepfather echo chambers Sleeping with the Enemy and The Good Son, has never been as satisfying. Curiously absent is O’Quinn, who found his niche on Lost; maybe he’s embarrassed by his participation in ersatz sequels that followed the original film’s success on VHS in the covered wagon days of home video. As for the remake, surely the actor best suited to repeat O’Quinn’s classic line—“Who am I here?”—was Mad Men’s Jon Hamm.
Japan’s Takashi Miike was in vogue for a few years, when, like Prince, he started producing and producing and producing, till only the hardcore buffs were still interested in his cluttered career. (The filmmaker had a cameo in Hostel.) A two-disc set of Miike’s US breakthrough, 1999’s Audition, reminds us what the fuss was all about. I saw this cold at Film Forum, where it was positioned as an arthouse release. The excellent poster, with a great double-entendre tagline (“She always gets a part”), didn’t hint at what was to come.
Unlike Miike’s later splatterfests (like Ichi the Killer), this one starts slow. A widower reenters the meet market in an unconventional way, as a filmmaker friend sets up fake auditions that are just a pretext for getting to know that special someone. Eihi Shiina is bewitching as Asami, the most memorable applicant, a former ballerina who casts a spell despite a hidden past. It looks like love—but as we had been advised Asami always gets a part, and as her psychosis becomes abundantly clear (Miike leaves nothing to the imagination) you’ll want to have a coward’s corner set up in your living room.
One of the more assured thrillers of the last decade, Audition has at last gotten a proper release on DVD, with a Miike commentary, cast interviews, and a Tom Mes-penned booklet essay that fits it into the context of the director’s sprawling career and Japan’s sexist culture, which the film critiques. The movie has had an afterlife, with a clip turning up in The Departed (another false front film) and My Chemical Romance dedicating an entire video to it. But it’s good to revisit it again in its entirety, rather than Asami-sized slices.
The rest is a mixed bag. If only the anime-derived Blood: The Last Vampire, a martial arts/army base espionage/teen girls-mixed-up-with-ancient-legends thing, was the last vampire movie—it would save us from films where a drop-kicking Asian lead who can’t speak English is paired with a whiny American lead who can’t act in any language. I did wake up for the scene where a bat-winged creature threatened a military transport, though. Co-star Colin Salmon (Resident Evil) really should play Blacula someday.
None of the four movies released on DVD by Sam Raimi’s “Ghost House” initiative is much good. The Thaw is not a title that applies to co-star Val Kilmer’s career, as he’ll go into permanent direct-to-video deep freeze if he keeps churning out undistinguished alien parasite flicks like this. Seventh Moon is a disappointment, wasting an interesting location (Hong Kong’s countrified New Territories) and mythology (Chinese “hungry ghosts”) on bleary blur-o-vision filmmaking by Blair Witch Project co-director Eduardo Sanchez, which pretty much confirms that lightning can be captured in a bottle, but can’t be recaptured. I confess not to making it to The Offspring, as the British-produced The Children was enough to put me off tyke-sized terror. Not a remake of the semi-notorious 1980 movie where terrified parents are forced to chop off the irradiated arms of their touch-of-death kids, this instead has a mysterious syndrome turning prepubescent tots into shadow-eyed maniacs, with the teen in their midst taking the blame. The weapon-wielding youngsters probably had a ball making it.
As a new parent, and a fan of the 1974 original, I did check out the straight-to-DVD remake of It’s Alive. Bijou Phillips as a new mom and grad student studying “19th century French poets” did not have me pregnant with anticipation, but I wanted to see what the filmmakers would do with Larry Cohen’s popular drive-in concept of a monster baby. They picked the wrong time to go all Val Lewton on us—the baby here is an outwardly normal infant who only gets mad when he or his mom are upset, and is shown just briefly in its pissed-off form. The strangest sight in this shot-in-Bulgaria redo is what the production designer considered an American house, with weird angles and dismally lit, hodgepodge of styles interiors.
Far and away the best of the new blood is a film that should have earned a theatrical release, but is instead fast scaring up fans on DVD, Michael Dougherty’s excellent Trick ‘r Treat. Produced by Bryan Singer (Dougherty co-wrote Superman Returns and X2), the movie blends Halloween imagery and mythology into a five-story narrative that gradually unwinds. Unlike say, Creepshow, the stories are mixed together, with satisfyingly grisly payoffs throughout. (The repetition of the phrase “I wanna go home” in one awful vignette really got under my skin.)
Kids bear the brunt of it again, as high school principal (and serial killer) Dylan Baker picks the wrong victim in a Halloween-obsessed town, a shy virgin (Anna Paquin) partakes in an unusual initiation rite, and a bitter old man (Brian Cox) confronts demons of various kinds. Stylishly made and replete with old-school makeup effects rather than the usual CGI, the movie is ideal viewing this weekend, of course, but any time when you’re looking for a horror movie that’s a cut above.
By all means curl up with Trick ‘r Treat this Halloween. But don’t show it to…the children: