Thursday 22 May 2008

Horror That Made Me #6

Well, I did say we’d be going back to the eighties for the next “Horror That Made Me” entry, counting down the ten films that most influenced my understanding of the genre – and you don’t get much more eighties than 1985. The middle of the decade produced a glut of teen-vampire movies, including The Lost Boys, Vamp, Near Dark and, er, Teen Vamp, but by far the standout film for me was...

Fright Night (1985)

Fright Night is a film that just gets everything right, from the comic – but not silly – tone to the frequent frights, via the genuine sense of camaraderie amongst the heroes and the still-wowing monster effects. It’s also one of the gayest mainstream horror movies ever made, with the only major competition coming from the same year’s A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 (which is quite possibly THE gayest if you go along with Camp Blood’s brilliant review). 1985: a flagship year for queer fear? Read on!

Fright Night’s gay subtext is there if you want it (and as a gay teen starved of references I could actually relate to, I was desperate for it) but doesn’t distract from the film if you aren’t in the market for it. In addition to the various strange relationships in the story, there’s the cast itself, featuring gay actors Roddy McDowall (yay!) and Amanda Bearse – as well as Stephen Geoffreys (who later made it big in gay porn under the alias “Sam Ritter”) and William Ragsdale, who’s straight but went on to play Ellen DeGeneres’s boyfriend in her nineties sitcom (how queer is that?).

As a teenager, I knew there was something different going on under the surface of Fright Night – something furtive and funny I didn’t fully understand but which I felt a certain affinity with. That’s why the film became one I returned to again and again during my teenage years, one that fascinated me with its subversive, enticing aura – and which retains a powerful punch of nostalgia today.

Lesson learned: Horror keeps dark secrets.

Tuesday 20 May 2008

Horror That Made Me #7

Time to turn our backs on the eighties for the time being in my countdown of the ten biggest influences on the way I think of horror. Entry #7 is a film I first saw at the age of twelve but which had been made almost fifty years previously: Robert Siodmak’s more-Hitchcockian-than-Hitchcock thriller...

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

The reason The Spiral Staircase makes the list is because it taught me that “old” movies could still be extremely creepy... Not just creepy, in fact, but downright scary. And not just scary, either, but also absolutely beautiful. Ironically, for a film that deals with the punishment of physical imperfection, Staircase is a glimmming, shimmering model of monochrome perfection – its setting a mansion and its grounds all elegantly evoked on a too-real-to-be-real studio set.

Within the mansion we meet mute servant girl Helen, played by an instantly likeable Dorothy McGuire and stalked throughout by a sinister assailant in the style of the best modern gialli and slasher movies. The horror ranges from skin-crawling subtlety (check out the victim’s twisting hands in one otherwise unseen murder) to scream-out-loud suspense – so it’s no surprise this one’s been remade twice already, although neither version gets anywhere near the original.

Ultimately, The Spiral Staircase is a film with the ability to satisfy serious movie buffs and Saturday afternoon tea-drinkers equally; certainly, my idea of a good thriller wouldn’t be the same without it. For an interesting alternative take, however, read Final Girl’s review. But come back soon for Horror That Made Me #6, when strangely enough it’s back to the eighties again!

Lesson learned: Great beauty can go hand-in-hand with great horror.

Sunday 18 May 2008

Horror That Made Me #8

Most of the entries from my countdown of the ten “Horror Films That Made Me” are movies I experienced at an early age, but not this one. I was at least 24 when I saw for the first time Dario Argento’s...

Phenomena (1985)

I’d seen Argento movies before this: Trauma, unwittingly, in the early nineties, when I’d rent any horror film that came to my local video store; Suspiria a little later, when I discovered it in a big branch of HMV and read Leonard Maltin’s enthusiastic review. Opera and The Stendhal Syndrome were early DVDs I picked up when the availability of American releases in the UK meant that uncut versions of films became possible to get hold of for the first time. Still, the buzz around the director’s work eluded me. I found them confusing, artificial and ultimately unsatisfying.

Phenomena was different. I can even pin down the moment when I suddenly “got” Argento. It occurred as Phenomena’s heroine arrives at her destination thirteen minutes into the film and, from nowhere, a gravelly male voiceover gravely intones: “And so Jennifer arrives in Switzerland from the New World to pass her first memorable night at the Richard Wagner International School for Girls...”

The voiceover is never explained, never continued, and it’s the only time it’s heard in the film. Its sheer randomness, however, was the finger that flicked the switch inside my head, and I suddenly knew that I loved Argento and would be returning to all the films of his I’d previously seen to evaluate them in a new light. What I didn’t know at the time was that I’d become an obsessive collector of the man’s work, or that he’d become my favourite director of all time. But I am and he is, and for those reasons Phenomena secures a place on the list of Horror That Made Me... Plus the fact that it’s a fantastic film in its own right – the very definition of a horror fairytale.

Lesson learned: You never know when horror will grab you.

Saturday 17 May 2008

Horror That Made Me #9

The second film in AiP’s countown of the ten “Horror That Made Me” movies isn’t actually a horror movie, although there are plenty of corpses, thunderstorms, cloaked killers, the odd monster, and a healthy dollop of buzzard pus. It’s an Old Dark House spoof starring Tim Conway and Don Knotts as two Scotland Yard detectives investigating a double murder at a country estate, and it’s called...

The Private Eyes (1981)

Even when I was aged five there was nothing in The Private Eyes that scared me - although I can’t say the same for my younger sister, who was a mere three years old at the time. And that’s where the film taught me an important horror-related lesson: what doesn’t scare YOU may well terrify someone else, and vice versa. And indeed Vice Versa, starring Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage, may well terrify you. And if so, well, it’s OK... Fred Savage’s curly bonce just has that effect on some people.

Anyway, my sister loved The Private Eyes as much as I did (or, at least, that’s what I told her as I put it on for the 27th viewing). But there was one scene – one moment so horrifically terrifying to her – that she wouldn’t even stay in the same room while it was playing on the TV. Shocking photographic evidence of said moment of pure fear may be seen above, wherein a ghoul/zombie/puppet (it’s never actually explained) pops out of a coffin in a spooky mausoleum, terrifying the bumbling detectives and, in the process, my little sis. Yes, fear is in the eye of the beholder – and horror films provide us with a “safe” insight into just how much horror we can handle, as well as how much other people can handle, and if we’re really lucky, what really scares us...

Lesson learned: Horror is power.

Friday 16 May 2008

Horror That Made Me #10

Gotta say I rather love the post Horror That Made Me by Arrow in the Head’s Matt Withers. As he says, “it’s not a list of faves (though some certainly are), and it’s not even a list of movies I recommend (although you could do worse in most cases). It’s just the pics that when I look back I realize that I wouldn’t think about horror the way I do if I hadn’t seen them”. For me, many of the films I review at Anchorwoman In Peril! are the sort of thing I spent my formative years watching – from the TV movies videoed in the dead of night, to the forbidden horrors illicitly viewed over at friends’ houses (movie-wise, obviously). So, over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be counting down the ten horror films that made me, beginning with...

Child’s Play (1986)

No, not the Chucky-doll classic (although that’s surely a regular on many lists) but an episode of the TV anthology series Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense. This was my first experience of being utterly compelled by something other than a cartoon on the screen, and the reason it worked so well is because the set-up is so simple, the scenario so familiar, that there isn’t a suburban seven-year-old in the land that wouldn’t be able to relate to it. How does it all begin? You wake up in the middle of the night and decide to go downstairs to the kitchen for a glass of water.

But this isn’t your house, remember – it’s Hammer House... So expect mystery! Expect suspense! Because what you see when you happen to glance out of the window isn’t your back garden. It isn’t anything. Because there’s a strange metal wall blocking your view. And the same wall blocks every window – and, in fact, every other exit. Not only that, but the temperature inside the house is slowly rising...

From here on in, what started as Just Another Night quickly becomes a frantic nightmare, until Child’s Play suddenly pulls back to reveal its true intentions with a kicker of a twist ending. Admittedly, it’s a twist that might have retained more of its kick back in 1986, but you have to admire its sheer surreal audacity. I was certainly never the same again afterwards; never quite as trusting of a seemingly straightforward plot, and always aware that the delicate house of cards that makes up a good story can often be easily shuffled to produce jarring, unexpected terrors.

Lesson learned: Horror pulls the rug out.

Wednesday 7 May 2008


QUESTION! What do you get if you string together the words killer, shark and mini-serial? No, doofus, not mini-shark serial killer (seriously, what are you on?) but Shark Swarm, news of which I warned delighted you with earlier in the year. Well, unfortunately, it seems the upcoming Hallmark Channel miniseries has lost its 26 May premiere date, but the good news is there’s now a thrilling trailer online. SEE deadly sharks attack innocent swimmers! SEE corporate conspiracies clog the rest of the running time! SEE Daryl Hannah’s face apparently sliding off her skull!

Am I allowed to say I’m actually more excited by the trailer for Iron Sky?

Sorry, thought not.

Monday 5 May 2008


It’s been a bad bank holiday weekend here at Anchorwoman In Peril! A bad weekend for movies, at least, with two of the four films I’ve watched being borderline abysmal (Shrooms and St Trinian’s) and another being watchable in comparison but still pretty poor (Wind Chill). Thankfully, things improved with the entirely watchable P2 (not to be confused with T2, K2, X2, xXx2, U2, t.A.T.u, the QE2, or P2P file sharing).

P2 falls into a horror subgenre very dear to AiP’s heart: the “trapped in a high-rise with a killer” category arguably spawned by the excellent 70s TV shocker I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill. More recent examples have been the made-for-TV Trapped and The Face of Fear (the latter based on a Dean Koontz novel) and yet another TV movie, Lower Level, which I own on video but have yet to watch – and which sounds remarkably like P2. Why has this genre been explored so exclusively by TV movies? Perhaps because “trapped in a high-rise with a killer” movies can be filmed overnight in the TV offices without anyone having to build any sets... But I digress.

P2 manages to go that one step further by not just having its heroine trapped in a high-rise with a killer, but trapped in a high-rise with a killer at Christmas. Talk about bad luck. And what should have been a jolly holly happy holiday for office worker Angela (Rachel Nichols) turns into a bloody, brutal battle for survival.

Angela’s working late on Christmas Eve, doing what all office people are always doing in movies – trying to land an account. I’m sure P2’s script explained what kind of account this was and what kind of company she works for, but I’m afraid I didn’t understand all the corporate techno-speak (hey, what can I say? I work in a library) and missed the details. But, no matter, the whole thing’s keeping her terribly busy and it doesn’t look like she’ll be arriving at her sister’s house in Jersey in time for the family meal tonight.

Eventually, after finishing her proposal and making Christmassy small-talk with some random people who may or may not turn up dead later on, Angela makes it to her car, parked in the building’s underground car park on level P2. And that’s when things go from “running late” to “running scared”, because not only will the car not start, but she finds she’s actually locked inside the parking garage – and the only other person around is a slightly creepy security guard, Thomas (Wes Bentley).

At first, Thomas seems friendly enough, even trying to get her car started by charging the battery – but something doesn’t seem right. He knows more about Angela than he should, his jokes about her staying for a candlelit meal in the cramped security office feel a little forced, and there’s a strange whiff of chloroform in the air. And when Angela wakes up a little while later chained to a table, she starts to realise she’s in big trouble indeed...

One thing separates P2 from the twenty-two tele-movies before it, and that’s sheer gruesome gratuitousness. It comes as no surprise that the film’s from the makers of Haute Tension and The Hills Have Eyes, as stomachs tear open, eyes are gouged, and guard dogs chew human flesh with gory abandon. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Its nastiness gives P2 its edge as far as I’m concerned, and I’m not sure I would’ve enjoyed it as much had it relied simply on the mind-games between Tom and Angela that make up rather too much of the first half as things are.

Angela isn’t bad as women-in-peril go, managing to do what you’d do for the most part if you found yourself at close quarters with a psychopath (while leaving out some of the disreputable things I’d do if said psychopath were Wes Bentley). Of course, her efforts are hampered by all manner of movie clich├ęs, each one dredged up with relish but given a slight counter-spin either to offset the cheesiness or just cheese you off if you’re looking for plot holes, i.e...

Angela’s car won’t start! (But we suspect it’s been tampered with...)
Her phone has no signal! (But at least the battery doesn’t run out...)
She’s wearing a skimpy dress! (But the psycho dressed her like that...)

Yes, P2 is quite contrived, but then the villain has contrived to trap Angela, so it’s only a spoilsport who’d complain about the film’s believability.

Senator Roger Ebert gave P2 a solid three out of four stars, but then he always was an old gorehound at heart, despite how he’s complained about “dead teenager movies” in the past. I’m not sure he’d have found such novelty in the film if he’d seen as many “trapped in a high-rise with a killer” TV movies as AiP, but he does share a story in his review about how he once got locked in Hyde Park overnight... Hollywood, stop your endless remakes, I want to see a movie of THAT!

Rating: 3/5