Let’s Scare Jeff… To Death! Vol. 5

Special post-Halloween entry! This year I watched 45 movies in October (46 if you count watching Hack-O-Lantern twice due to its surprise appearance on The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs). That’s probably the most movies I’ve watched in the space of a month in my entire life. Some of them were even good! Here’s the final batch.

Fade to Black (1980) wants to be a nuanced portrayal of mental illness. It, uh, fails. Annoying film nerd Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher, Breaking Away) is obsessed with classic movies and likes dressing up as and quoting his favorite characters, and, even more charmingly, bugging people with obscure movie trivia. Already off to a good start! After getting stood up by a girl, he kills his haranguing aunt (who turns out to be his mother in a pointless twist) and goes on a murder spree against people who he thinks wronged him — only he kills like half his victims by accident. Basically, it’s an incel movie 40 years before Joker and about as appealing. Writer/director Vernon Zimmerman tries to do too much and doesn’t do any of it well — it’s too tame to be a horror movie and too trite to be an effective character piece. Some nice examples of Los Angeles Playing Itself, though, especially the finale outside, inside, and on top of Mann’s Chinese. Fun fact: the main female police officer, Gwynne Gilford, would go on to be best known as Chris Pine’s mother.

How to Make a Monster (1958) has a fun meta concept: when a studio’s new owners decides to shut down its monster pictures because they’re out of date, a legendary makeup artist decides to teach them a lesson using the very monsters they dismiss. The studio in question is even the one actually producing the film, American International Pictures, and there are some fun cameos from props from their other movies. It weirdly turns out to be another look at toxic masculinity as the makeup artist (Robert H. Harris) uses and abuses his assistant and actor clients to achieve his nefarious ends. It’s from the 50s, so the pacing and acting require a little patience. Funnily enough, actual AIP recording artist John Ashley’s musical number below unintentionally makes a great case for why AIP was better off sticking to fright flicks.

Gate II (1990) may be the rare horror sequel that’s better than the original. I wasn’t a huge fan of the first one — cool stop motion effects but otherwise pretty dull and bloodless, with a young Stephen Dorff (Alone in the Dark) as the very boring lead. This one focuses on his nerdy, awkward metalhead friend Terry, who turns out to be a much more compelling lead as he tries to harness the power of the demons to help turn his family’s failing fortunes around. Lots of “be careful what you wish for” goodness ensues. It’s well-paced and genuinely funny, and you don’t really need to see the original to enjoy it. Love interest played by Pamela Adlon (King of the Hill, Better Things)!

The Devil’s Rain(1975) is maybe the most 70s thing I watched this month: Satanic cult, ESP, desert locales, William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine, Tom Skerrit, Eddie Albert, Anton LaVey, a young John Travolta. The only thing that could make it more 70s would be a bitchin’ car chase, but you’ll have to watch Race with the Devil for that. It’s a weirdly structured movie — the first thirty minutes feels like you’ve been thrown into the third act of another film, the middle has lots of patented 1970s ambulating, and the final third is totally bonkers. Definitely a cult (lol) film, a little slow at times but it has enough insanity to make it worth watching — and the ending is pretty nihilistic in that post-Nixon way.

Cat’s Eye (1985) is the forgotten Stephen King anthology film, and while it isn’t nearly as wild as Creepshow, it’s a hidden gem. “Quitters, Inc.” is the funniest, with a suitably slimy turn by James Woods as a man who goes to the wrong people to help him quit smoking. This would’ve been when King was in the throes of his own drug addiction, so I wonder if there’s some wishful thinking here. “The Ledge” features Robert Hays (Airplane) as a guy who pisses off a casino owner and has to make a perilous journey around the building on a ledge five inches wide. Director Lewis Teague does an admirable job making the story, a mostly internal affair on the page, suitably cinematic. The final story, “General,” features a resourceful tomcat protecting a young Drew Barrymore (Scream) from a nasty little troll in her wall. Some funny similarities to Bad Moon here. The troll is voiced by Frank Welker, and he’s in full Nibbler mode. All three stories work well, plus that cat is pretty damn cute.

A Blade in the Dark (1983) was directed by Lamberto Bava (Demons) and has a fun meta premise, so I had high hopes for it. Alas, it’s a pretty standard murder mystery giallo with a few fun flourishes that don’t make up for the dull story. The concept of a giallo composer thrown into a murder mystery at his remote villa had potential to be an intriguing commentary on the genre, but Bava doesn’t do much with it. Apparently originally meant to be a four-part TV show with each episode ending with a shocking murder, it was edited together into one film — but that means the murders still come a half-hour apart, and the time between doesn’t really offer much scintillation outside of the occasional nudity. Also not the most sensitive to transgender individuals. Leave this one in the dark.

Halloween II (1981) could never live up to the original. Nothing can. The first time I saw it, I was inevitably disappointed. This viewing proved more fun — while Rick Rosenthal (Halloween: Resurrection) can’t come close to matching John Carpenter’s mastery of suspense, the kills are brutal and well-executed. The film’s biggest weakness comes in its lack of a central character. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween) is lying in a hospital bed for most of the film, and Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance, Halloween) is off chasing red herrings but in a less interesting way than in the first one. Carpenter clearly phoned the script in, introducing the Laurie-Michael sibling relationship and druid stuff that I hate. It’s an okay slasher flick but pretty disposable overall, especially considering it’s from 1981, a year already heavy with okay slasher flicks.

Night of the Demons (1988) is another cult favorite that I never quite got the love for. It’s definitely got some fun touches — Linnea Quigley (Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama) and actress/choreographer Amelia Kinkade’s Angela make for some scarily sexy demons, and the special makeup effects by Steve Johnson (Return of the Living Dead III) are the right amount of gooey. Like a lot of these movies, though, the pacing just doesn’t quite work, with lots of dead spots dragging down memorable bits like Angela’s demonic dance to Bauhaus’ “Stigmata Martyr” and Quigley playing “hide the lipstick.” The highs are high, it’s just a bit of a slog getting to them.

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