Mob Scene: Witch Hunt

Witch Hunt (1994) is a lesser-known sequel to the popular HBO movie Cast a Deadly Spell (which I covered in my last post, “Harrowing Shadows: 11 More Macabre Masterpieces of Horror Noir”). While keeping the same urban fantasy premise (the practice of magic is widespread throughout mid-20th Century Los Angeles), Witch Hunt is a much different film from its predecessor, and definitely more adult-oriented (in its inclusion of vulgarity and nudity). Gone are the cosmic horror overtones of Cast a Deadly Spell; there’s no Necronomicon-summoned pseudo-Cthulhu monstrosity here (nor any creatures such as werewolves, gremlins, or gargoyles, for that matter). The sense of a classic hardboiled-noir mise-en-scene is also lacking in Witch Hunt, which features plenty of sunlit exteriors and bright office spaces. Dennis Hopper steps into the Fred Ward role of magic-averse gumshoe Phil Lovecraft, and gives quite the lethargic performance. For all its shortcomings, though, the film does have something to recommend it: a clever variation on a mob scene.

Senator Larson Crockett (Eric Bogosian)–who heads the Subcommittee on Unnatural Activities and is driven to rid Hollywood of magic–blames Lovecraft’s friend, the licensed witch Hypolita Kropotkin, for the murder of a movie mogul, and decrees that she be burned alive (not just as punishment for her alleged crime, but for “the enlightenment of the general public”). The staged event that follows plays out like a cross between a political rally and a public execution. Indeed, the wooden stake awaiting Hypolita is propped right next to Crockett’s podium. There’s band-music fanfare (matched by enthusiastic cries of “Burn the Witch!” from the sign-wielding bystanders outside the arena), as well as baton twirlers on stage to warm up the flag-waving crowd. This putatively patriotic gathering serves as a satire on American politics, and a reminder that when it comes to witch-hunting, persecution and power-hunger historically have been interconnected.

But the perversion of justice takes an unexpected turn. The two-faced senator, hexed for double-crossing another magic practitioner, collapses mid-speech, and his inner self literally erupts from the prone body and rises in unadulterated obnoxiousness. Dressed like Andrew Dice Clay, the outed inner-Crockett launches into a profane rant that costs him his Presidential hopes (not to mention his freedom). Thus the attempted burning of the good witch Hypolita spectacularly backfires, as it’s the career of the duplicitous and overzealous politician that gets reduced to ashes right before the public eye. Never has a mob scene proven so redemptive, both within Witch Hunt‘s narrative itself and by virtue of its saving what otherwise would have been an utterly forgettable filmic endeavor.

 

Harrowing Shadows: 11 More Macabre Masterpieces of Horror Noir

Last Noirvember’s post gets a sequel: here are eleven more exemplary works that blur the genre lines between horror and film noir. And here on the day after Thanksgiving, I can think of no better place to start than with…

 

Black Friday (1940)

This crime drama–framed as the memoir of a condemned murderer–riffs on both Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff playing the rogue-scientist role in this one) and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After mild-mannered English professor George Kingsley is grievously wounded on the street when a gang of treacherous criminals (including Boris Karloff) attempts to depose its leader, Karloff’s well-meaning Dr. Sovac rescues his friend by implanting the injured gangster Red Cannon’s brain in Kinglsey’s body. Unfortunately, Cannon’s murderous personality starts to manifest in the organ recipient, and Sovac succumbs to greed and unscrupulous manipulation when he learns that Cannon has half a million dollars hidden somewhere. It’s hard to upstage Karloff and Lugosi alike, but actor Stanley Ridges does just that as he shapeshifts between the characters of Kingsley and Cannon.

 

Cat People (1942)

An early variation on the werewolf theme, in which Simone Simon plays a Serbian immigrant plagued by the dread that passionate or angry arousal will cause her to transform into one of the feral predators of the title. Her fears are legitimate; the Old World story told to her as a child is true. Simon’s Irena character soon bares her long claws, turned uncannily catty by jealously over her husband’s burgeoning romance with his co-worker. This Val-Lewton-produced, Jacques-Tourneur-directed film masterfully employs chiaroscuro lighting, establishing a noir ambiance well-suited to its theme of a dark shadow self. Cat People features some hair-raising thrills (e.g. the swimming pool stalking scene) and one of the first (and best) jump scares in the history of cinema.

 

Nightmare Alley (1947)

In this carnival noir classic, a sideshow performer temporarily rises to fame and fortune by perfecting a phony mentalist act. The film’s plot includes naturalistic unpleasantness (the inescapable degradation of alcoholism) and supernatural suggestion (the grim workings of the Tarot deck). But Nightmare Alley shines as a work of psychological horror, as it explores the corrosive effects of guilt. And the spurious mentalist more than meets his match in a femme fatale who is not averse of playing mind games of her own. The one shortcoming in this otherwise stellar adaptation of William Gresham’s novel is the excision of the recurring bad dreams signified by the title. Hopefully, Guillermo del Toro reinstates this aspect of the story in next month’s star-studded remake of the 1947 film.

 

Torso (1973)

This Italian giallo film directed by Sergio Martino features some stunning visuals (and I’m not just talking about the gratuitous nudity). A masked, foulard-wielding killer who strangles and then mutilates his victims runs amok on the student bodies of a university in Perugia. The murderer, though, is not merely motivated by his psychosexual kink (which stems from a traumatic childhood incident); many of his current victims are those who were attempting to blackmail him. Torso is a lurid murder mystery that also proves an influential proto-slasher, as evident in the film’s extended climax (in which a final girl emerges from the carnage caused by the killer’s crashing of a slumber party in a mountaintop villa).

 

Blow Out (1981)

Brian De Palma’s Hitchcockian neo-noir stars John Travolta as a sounds effect technician working on a slasher film called Co-Ed Frenzy (Blow Out cleverly opens with a stalking scene from the film-in-progress). One night, while out gathering wind recordings, the protagonist witnesses a car wreck that was actually a staged ambush aimed to disgrace the Pennsylvania governor (the Presidential hopeful was driving with a female escort, whose grifter partner lies in wait to snap incriminating pictures for the tabloids). The scheme doesn’t go according to plan, though, and the incident turns into a political assassination. The shooter, played by John Lithgow, is an absolutely terrifying character (who takes to serial killing to cover-up his impending elimination of the escort). This sinister strangler certainly could teach a few tricks to Co-Ed Frenzy‘s resident slasher.

 

Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

Made for HBO, this inventive urban fantasy stars Fred Ward as Harry Lovecraft, a hardboiled detective working in late-1940’s Los Angeles (a city rife with the practicing of magic and the presence of unworldly creatures). The private eye is hired to track down an elusive tome called the Necronomicon, and the case leads to encounters with gangsters, gun molls, and even a gargoyle (a figure formed by impressive practical fx). At times the proceedings in Cast a Deadly Spell devolve into comedy, particularly in a scene that pays obvious homage to Gremlins). But the sense of cosmic horror is unmistakable in the film’s apocalypse-threatening climax, in which a Cthulhu-esque colossus makes an awe-striking appearance.

 

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

The antiheroic Seth and Richie Gecko (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino) are a pair of bank-robbing siblings and fugitive killers on the run. Holding a pastor and his teenage children at gunpoint, they have the family smuggle them south of the border to a Mexican desert strip club. There, the Geckos plan to meet up with an associate who will transport them to a legendary criminal haven known (in a nod to Jim Thompson) as “El Rey.” All standard crime noir fare, until the film takes an abrupt left turn into supernatural horror when the strip club turns out to be a front for a horde of monstrous vampires. Director Robert Rodriguez has his ensemble cast wade hip deep in bloody gore, delivering slick dialogue all the while.

 

Saw (2004)

While later installments (featuring increasingly baroque traps) earned the franchise a torture porn reputation, the original Saw plays out as a heady mystery-thriller. A pair of apparent strangers (Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell) awaken shackled in a grungy bathroom, with no memory initially of how they got there. Even more unfortunately for them, they soon learn that they have been ensnared by the serial killer Jigsaw, whose fiendish game rules present murder as the only hope of escape from the room. Dark crime story elements and situations abound: a policeman who loses his badge but gains a vendetta, a freelance photographer who is hired to snap photos of an adulterous doctor, an innocent man blackmailed into illicit activity by the injection of poison. The foot-hacksawing in the climax is utterly cringe-inducing (reminiscent of Psycho‘s shower scene, more violence is implied than actually depicted), but that image gets trumped by the most startling faked-death twist this side of Diabolique.

 

Secret Window (2004)

David Koepp’s criminally underrated film (adapted from the Stephen King novella) stars Johnny Depp as Mort Rainey, a distraught writer who caught his wife in a motel tryst. Holed up inside his lake cabin afterward, and suffering from depression and writer’s block, Mort is confronted by a menacing stranger named John Shooter (played wonderfully by John Turturro, although Robert Mitchum would have been perfect for the role had the film been made a half-century earlier). Shooter shows up on the doorstep with claims of plagiarism, and attempts to strongarm Mort into making amends. This is another film sporting a killer plot twist, and the climax (besides invoking “The Fall of the House of Usher”) conveys strong vibes of American Gothic horror.

 

Zodiac (2007)

David Fincher’s film combines procedural (the quest by law enforcement officers and journalists to discover the identity of the Zodiac killer, a taunting, Jack-the-Ripper type who terrorized real-world California in the 1970’s) and thriller elements. The balance isn’t always perfect, but Zodiac makes the list for its interspersed scenes depicting the titular killer in action. Fincher’s dramatizations of the slayings are deeply unsettling, especially since the audience is aware that it is witnessing the historical reenactment, not mere fabrication. Even scenes where the Zodiac doesn’t succeed leave their mark. In one nightmarish sequence, Zodiac gives a young mother a lift (after first sabotaging her car tire), and his nonchalantly voiced intention to throw her baby out the window before killing her has to be one of the most horrifying movie lines of all time.

 

The Invisible Man (2020)

The 1933 Universal horror film (which easily could have been slotted on this list as well) receives a brilliantly dark update. Elisabeth Moss plays Cecilia Kass, a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with an optics engineer. Her mate, Adrian, is also frightfully obsessive: even after Cecilia effects a narrow escape from his home/prison, he plots to get her back by faking his death and then stalking her while wearing the cutting-edge cloaking suit he has designed. Adrian is invisible but not intangible: he represents quite a physical threat. But the real horror of the film is psychological, as the Machiavellian title villain methodically messes with Cecilia’s mind. Such high-tech gaslighting, and the battle of wits that ensues when Cecilia catches wise to the con, makes for one wickedly entertaining film.

 

 

Lore Report: “Invisible Boundaries” (Episode 186)

One outbreak, though, stands out above most in terms of the impact it had on society, and within it is a story that is both deeply inspiring and utterly terrifying. But whether or not you’re ready to hear it, there’s one thing we can all agree on: fear, just like sickness, can often be contagious.

In the latest episode of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke journeys back several centuries to delve into a subject that is lamentably timely today. The narrative focuses on the outbreak of the (bubonic) plague in the Derbyshire village of Eyam in 1666–a spread of devastating disease likely caused by the shipment of flea-infested cloth from London to a local tailor. What makes Eyam’s ordeal noteworthy is the bold measures the community adopted to combat the outbreak, a response that included the voluntary quarantine of the entire village. The populace doubtless endured through grim circumstances (e.g. the contagiousness of the dead forced survivors to dig plots and bury relatives on their own property rather than in the village graveyard), but the story of Eyam just makes for an interesting historical anecdote. “Invisible Boundaries” doesn’t really begin to feel like an installment of Lore until the closing couple of minutes, when Mahnke surveys some of the reportedly haunted sites in the village. Yet Mahnke is unwilling to end on an uncanny note. In this clearly optimistic episode, the heroic self-sacrifice of the people of Eyam is held up as a positive model for modern listeners, and the the tale of the plague-ridden village isn’t employed in the interest of fearmongering (something all too rampant during the current pandemic).

 

 

Longing for Halloween

First, an admission: I’m unfamiliar with the graphic novel that was the source for this two-part animated film, so I can’t speak to the faithfulness of the adaptation. But I can attest that Batman: The Long Halloween (Part One and Part Two are both currently streaming on HBO Max) does a fine job of capturing Gotham City, representing the metropolitan milieu in all its rain-soaked and shadow-drenched superhero-noir glory.

The narrative, with its murderous set pieces and employment of red herrings, has a certain slasher film quality (a killer of concealed identity executes bloody acts that consistently coincide with major holidays). There is also a strong crime element here with the focus on the Falcones (as both gangster enterprise and dysfunctional family unit).

A combined three-hour runtime allows The Long Halloween to convey an intricate story peopled by a broad cast–virtually every Batman nemesis (The Joker, Scarecrow, The Penguin, Poison Ivy, Solomon Grundy, Mad Hatter, et al.) rears his or her colorful head. But the villains don’t just put in cartoonish cameos, and the main characters are all drawn three-dimensionally, complete with complex motivations. These animated figures are enlivened by the voice-work of a talented group of actors, including Jenson Ackles (Batman/Bruce Wayne), Josh Duhamel (Harvey Dent), Titus Welliver (Carmine Falcone), and the late Naya Rivera (Catwoman/Selina Kyle).

A time jump at the start of Part Two can be a bit confusing initially (especially if, like me, you failed to catch the post-credits scene at the end of Part One). The films no doubt cover a lot of story ground (dramatizing the complicated relationship between Bruce and Selina, and Harvey Dent’s fall from grace and transformation into Two-Face), yet never run off course thanks to the calendrical structure imposed by their murder-mystery workings. The climactic revelation of the vigilante Holiday’s identity also makes for a very satisfying plot twist.

All this plus a framing device featuring the celebration of Halloween (where the ritual of trick-or-treating serves as an indicator of the societal health of Gotham City). I’ve always held that every year divides into Halloween season and the eleven long months leading up to it, but entertaining efforts such as Batman: The Long Halloween make the wait for next October eminently endurable.

 

Beyond Sleepy Hollow: “The Adventure of the German Student”

The second installment of a new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic (a blogging follow-up to my eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition). “Beyond Sleepy Hollow” explores further Washington Irving works of ghosts, goblins, and the Gothic.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is not the only Washington Irving story that deals in decapitation. There is another, much more horrific tale in which a beheaded revenant plays a central role: “The Adventure of the German Student” (from Irving’s 1824 book Tales of a Traveller).

The piece is one of the interlocking “Strange Stories by a Nervous Gentleman” that comprise the book’s first part. Laid up by a winter storm at the family mansion of their host (an old bachelor Baronet named Sir John), the members of a hunting party pass the evening by trading ghost stories. “The Adventure of the German Student” is the fourth story shared, by “an old gentleman one side of whose face was no match for the other. The eyelid drooped and hung down like an unhinged window shutter. Indeed, the whole side of his head was dilapidated, and seemed like the wing of a house shut up and haunted. I’ll warrant [says the nervous gentleman] that side was well stuffed with ghost stories.” The old gentleman with the “haunted head” points out that the previous tales (which included one of his own, “The Adventure of My Uncle”) that evening “had rather a burlesque tendency,” but promises that this next offering “is of a very grave and singular nature.” And then proceeds to deliver one harrowing narrative.

His tale is steeped in Gothic themes and atmosphere. The title character, an intellectual over-reacher who “had wandered into those wild and speculative doctrines which have so often bewildered German students,” brings to mind Victor Frankenstein (just as Shelley’s modern Prometheus descends into graverobbing to procure the materials for his workshop of filthy creation, Irving’s German student haunts “the great libraries of Paris, those catacombs of departed authors, rummaging among their hoards of dusty and obsolete works in quest of food for his unhealthy appetite. He was, in a manner,  a g[h]oul, feeding in the charnel house of decayed literature.”). He also anticipates Poe: similar to Roderick Usher, the German student suffers from a “mental malady” and is convinced “that there was an evil influence hanging over him; an evil genius or spirit seeking to ensnare him and ensure his perdition.”

Walking the streets of Paris one terribly tempestuous night during “the height of the reign of terror,” the German student spots the “horrible engine”–the guillotine–and a female figure slumped at the foot of the scaffold. She is soaking wet, drenched in woe, and dressed in all black (the “broad, black band around her neck, clasped by diamonds” suggests a person of wealth/station deposed by the Revolution). The German student immediately takes pity on her, and is astonished to discover that her face is an exact match of the “transcendent beauty” that has been appearing in his dreams. He takes the woman back to his apartment, where he is “so fascinated by her charms, there seemed to be such a spell upon his thoughts and senses, that he could not tear himself from her presence.” Defying convention and common sense, he promptly proposes an informal betrothal: “I pledge myself to you for ever.” But the next morning, the German student finds his bride “lying with her head hanging over the bed, and one arm thrown over it.” Attempting to rouse her, he realizes she is a “pallid and ghastly” corpse. Frantic, the German student “alarm[s] the house,” and when the summoned police officer arrives on the scene, he wants to know what this woman’s body is doing there, because “she was guillotined yesterday!”  He proves his claim by undoing the figure’s black collar, which causes her head to fall away from her body and roll onto the floor.

As if such macabre development weren’t horrid enough, the German student quickly grasps its dark implication: “The fiend! The fiend has gained possession of me!” he shrieks. “I am lost for ever!” He is inconsolable, “possessed with the frightful belief that an evil spirit had reanimated the dead body to ensnare him. He went distracted,” the narrative abruptly concludes, “and died in a madhouse.” A grim and sinister tale to be sure, yet one that then attempts to rebound from its recounted horrors. Asked about the veracity of his story, the old gentleman with the haunted head replies, “A fact not to be doubted. I had it from the best authority. The student told it to me himself. I saw him in a madhouse at Paris.” In one stroke, the gentleman with the haunted head comically undercuts his own reliability as a narrator at tale’s end (what was he doing at the madhouse–just visiting, or sharing a room?). Still, this frame (which rarely appears when “The Adventure of the German Student” is anthologized) does not mitigate the unnerving quality of the preceding tale, the most shocking (and seriously Gothic) one Irving ever wrote.

 

Lore Report: “Under the Skin” (Episode 185)

Exorcism Cleric Doing a Spell (1878)

 

So let’s take a trip together: a journey into the past, where possession stories were rarely taken for granted. And where real lives were impacted by real superstitions, where the devil himself showed up and lives were destroyed in the process. But hold on to something solid, lock the door, and maybe turn on a light or two, because this one is bound to get under your skin.

Episode 185 of the Lore podcast gets positively devilish, dealing with the subject of Satanic/demonic possession. Host Aaron Mahnke begins with an overview of evil figures in various faiths, from ancient Zoroastrianism to modern Catholicism (which absorbed/repurposed many features from other cultures’ devils, such as ancient Greece’s sinister satyr Pan). The bulk of the episode is devoted to the story of a turn-of-the-20th-Century teenager who apparently was possessed by Satan while living in a South African mission. Her manifestations of infernal takeover were chilling, including bouts of levitation that could only be counteracted by dousing with holy water. Mahnke is careful to address the pop cultural aspect of possession narratives, and throughout the episode makes interesting reference to The Exorcist. Brief but fiendishly good, “Under the Skin” is apt to raise goosebumps atop yours.

 

History Lessons: “Mad Scientists” (Episode 3.6)

“Mad Scientists,” the Season 3 finale of Eli Roth’s History of Horror, stitches together Promethean overreachers and preeminent speakers…

 

Leonard Maltin: Mary Shelley created an archetype in Doctor Frankenstein. He’s been copied. He’s been cloned. He’s been spoofed. But he exists in our consciousness in a way that very few characters 100 years, 150 years old, still do.

 

Quentin Tarantino: That’s where the mad scientist really kind of comes into his own. Because the whole concept of Peter Cushing as Doctor Frankenstein, and the whole concept of those [Hammer] films, is it’s the doctor that’s the monster.

 

Axelle Carolyn: There’s always that frontier that science is not supposed to cross, and we’re forever pushing it back. And now we’re talking about cloning people, you know, the ethics behind all the scientific decisions that we’re making today are actually echoed in all those movies back in the 30’s.

 

Andrew Kevin Walker: Altered States is a movie that’s both completely lowbrow genre, and at the same time, the highest kind of highbrow art. Altered States is so existentially and scientifically rigorous, but it still has a thing popping open and a guy jumping out as a Neanderthal man.

 

David J. Skal: The beast people rising up [in Island of Lost Souls] is almost like a Bolshevik Revolution. America wasn’t hashing this out on an intellectual level, but it certainly was on a pop cultural level.

 

Jessica Rothe: [Ex Machina] was such an interesting exploration into our dependency on technology, and AI, and the development of it, and what makes a person a person. But like in some ways, Alicia Vikander’s character was more humane and more of a human than our protagonist. […] What is so amazing about that character is you’re rooting for her the whole time. You think that she is the victim in this situation, but the tables turn quite quickly.

 

Rebekah McKendry: There’s no judging in [The Rocky Horror Picture Show] whatsoever. It just is. And the gender fluidity of Brad and Janet and that sexuality across the board is just separated, and gender boundaries get completely broken down in it. That is something we weren’t seeing in a lot of cinema at the time, so it felt dangerous, it felt transgressive, it felt like we were seeing something completely different.

 

Heidi Honeycutt: Look, you’re not gonna watch the new Invisible Man and feel the terror the same way that a woman who has been in an abusive, controlling relationship would feel. But I’ll say this. Everybody has trauma, and everybody experiences the bad stuff. And if you haven’t, don’t worry, you will. And that’s part of why people make horror films. It’s a cathartic way to express those terrors and those horrors in a safe way.

 

The Good & Plenty of Halloween Horror

Rather than re-watch films I’ve seen umpteen times, I sought out new thrills this past Halloween night. So, with little concern for package inspection, I willfully consumed some Bad Candy.

Ugh, did I ever make a stupid decision.

This anthology film (written and directed by Scott B. Hansen and Desiree Connell) might as well have been called Bad Acting, because that’s what stuffs this putative treat bag. Not that the players are given much to work with here in terms of material. The scripted characters are flatter than a steamrolled Snickers, and form the most hackneyed of figures (the drunken stepfather, the weirdo candy-tainter…). Each one proves more reprehensible than the last; it’s hard to find a single character in the entire film worthy of rooting interest.

Bad Candy is framed as a series of tales of supernatural lore shared by a pair of radio dj’s (Zach Galligan and Slipknot’s Corey Taylor) during their special Halloween night show. Their stories, though, get old quickly, as they all employ the same formula: vile people (the skeevy drug dealer, the corpse-humping morgue attendant…) getting dispatched in nasty ways (the film definitely does not skimp on the gore). Middling attempts to intertwine the various tales are muddled at best, and the not-so-big twist revealed in the climax just results in another ho-hum scene of comeuppance.

The adopted structure here naturally invites comparison with other Halloween anthology films. Aligning with tradition is fine, but this film seems more concerned with ripping off superior precursors. The plot device of a young girl’s monster drawings coming to life serves as a pictorial riff on book of preordaining horror tales in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. More glaringly, Bad Candy derives from Trick ‘R Treat, as an evil clown (a stiffer and less interesting stand-in for the iconic trickster Sam) pops up all over town to take out Halloween do-badders.

Perhaps the most positive statement that can be made about Bad Candy is that it creates further appreciation for just how well-made Michael Dougherty’s 2007 film was. This grungy and unpalatable offering, meanwhile, will have the most hardcore horror junky reaching for the Pepto. Sample at your own risk, kids.

 

“Haunted Attraction”

From my 2014 collection Autumn Lauds: Poems for the Halloween Season

 

Haunted Attraction

By Joe Nazare

 

He brings neither date nor friend, walks Rancid Mansion alone
Remains mute throughout, emits not one whimper or groan

Isn’t phased when menaced by hammy actors in macabre disguise
Fails to flinch when seeming statues lurch in animatronic surprise

Doesn’t grimace at the various simulations of butcher shop grue
Has no gag reflex when he scents the hag’s cauldron of noisome stew

Doesn’t panic when the walls of the black labyrinth squeeze coffin tight
Merely grins at the scene of the lupine choir, musical children of the night

Isn’t chilled by strategic breezes, cobweb snares don’t make his skin crawl
Upon exiting the exhibit he doesn’t appear delightfully frightened at all

But when he wings himself home before sunrise strikes him full dead
Exciting new decorating ideas swirl within the crypt of his centuries-old head