you could have dinner with us: the texas chainsaw massacre (1974)

Dear Miss Sally Hardesty,

You ruined a perfectly quiet afternoon.  Before you and your friends burst into my home, I had been enjoying a peaceful day alone.  We have lived there for generations, and that has never happened to us before.  What you did was rude, presumptuous, and simply inexcusable.

When the first man walked in, I was furious.  He had no right invading our private space like that.  Frankly, I was shocked.  In retrospect, I admit that I may have overreacted.  Again, I stress, this had never happened before, so I was in alien territory.  Usually, the way it works is that we go out to hunt down prey or my (late) brother lures y’all in.

You are not supposed to make yourselves available like that.  That is not how it works.

When the woman barged in looking for her friend, I was blind with rage.  How else was I to react?  I had no alternative at that point.  I had to make an example out of her.  And for that, I offer no apologies.  She got what was coming to her.  She had to be taught a lesson.  A severe one, sure.  But if anything, she got off easy.  Normally, I would have tortured her before killing her off.  I should have tortured her!  I was so angry that I could not get her on the meat hook fast enough.  Some would argue that was torture, as she did not die quickly and was very much alive when I shoved her into the freezer.  So perhaps I should be grateful for that.  Due to the amateurish way all of that happened, though, I cannot in all honesty say that it was enjoyable.  Afterward, because things were so rashly handled, I sat in front of the window fretting about the whole thing.  In all honesty, I was scared and upset.  What next?  How many more idiotic teenagers were going to impose on my otherwise tranquil afternoon?

Well, as things clearly played out, there was more trouble to come.  That second man, the one who screamed like a little girl before I delivered the killing blow, was a damn fool.  At least, I know he suffered a bit.  I can only imagine the terror he must have felt when he found the woman in the freezer.  It must have felt like a lifetime.  Good.  After that one, the blood was definitely up and I was ready to murder the whole world.

When night came, I prowled our property ready to plug the hole.  Considering how many of you had already stupidly home invaded us, I was expecting some sort of church group gathering near us.  Maybe your bus had broken down or something.  Greedy wish fulfillment, I know.  A man can want!  Instead, I found only you and your half-wit crippled brother.  How you suffered through his moaning and groaning and complaining all those years, I will never know.  You certainly were not hard to find in the field, even in the dark.  Your brother—Franklin?—sure did jibber-jabber.  I sincerely do believe I did you and your family a favor killing him off.  Again, however, perhaps I should have prolonged his suffering a bit more.  Maybe you secretly think the same?

It had to be you.  I know that many people love the Billie Holiday version, as well as the Frank Sinatra one (of course!), but I have always secretly loved John Travolta’s cover.  Greatly underrated!  I guess my secret is out.  He really could have had a career as a singer, I think, if he had pursued it.  What?  You do not know of the Travolta version?  Check it out sometime… it is really something.

I digress, though.

Sally, I guess you have a way of getting a man sidetracked.  No doubt, I am telling you nothing you already do not know.  When we first met, I have to admit not really finding you that attractive.  How wrong I was.  Now, I realize that we do not usually go into the mushy stuff when taking care of our victims.  We are prideful yet utilitarian about the work we do—outside of the torture thing—and we like to have as much free time making furniture, cookin’ up delicious BBQ, and then I like to make my art.  During the tourist season, people flock to our little patch of heaven and buy up the “folk art” like crazy.  It never fails to amuse me, but I would also be a liar if I said I did not enjoy making it.

But there was something special about you that I saw in the short time that we were together.  You just had that spark.  Hard to notice, I know, with all of the hysteria going on.  May I at this point add how embarrassed I still am over grandfather’s gauche behavior that night?  The entire family idolizes that man, but he really was rude not treating you with the proper respect.  Then again, he is old and the indignities of aging will visit us all in the end… if we are lucky to live that long.  And let us not even get into how that old fool from the gas station treated you.  He thinks he is the boss because he handles all of our financial matters and takes care of the BBQ.  But he is just a cook!  Nothing more.  And my brother, the hitchhiker y’all picked up, is was a really good person deep down.  He just had one too many bad acid trips and his all meat diet did not help matters either.  I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive him.  Bless his heart.  He is in a better place, however, and no longer has to endure the hardships of living in poverty like the rest of us.

I digress again.

I really do miss you, Sally, and would very much like to see you again.  I was just so mad at your friends and it really put me in a bad mood.

Our parting was so sudden.  One minute we were all having such a great time and the next thing I know, you were out the window.  Quite a shock!  Then there was the whole thing out on the highway.  The truck driver—the black man–who stopped for you must have been surprised.  I sometimes think back on it and can see the humor of it.  Now.  At the time, though, it was a little jarring and unpleasant, especially since I injured myself with the chainsaw.  First time for everything!  I wonder what happened to him?  For a fat guy he sure did move fast.  But who am I to talk?  I am pretty agile on my feet too, no?  I did lose weight after that day—25 pounds!—but I have now gained it back.  Sad but true.

Oh, my… how loquacious I can get.

We still talk about you.  And in the dark, when I am alone, I think of you… remembering what it felt like to be so close to you.  I sometimes think I can still taste your tears.  Do you think of me that way?  At night, do you imagine what it would have been like if you had never left?  Do you regret fleeing?

I hope so.

Yours… forever,


P.S.  I think you left your shoes here.


witch house: suspiria (1977)

She never scales the clouds, nor walks abroad upon the winds.  She wears no diadem.  And her eyes, if they were ever seen, would be neither sweet nor subtle; no man could read their story; they would be found filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium.

— from Suspiria de Profundis by Thomas De Quincey

For pure sensation, there’s no finer modern horror movie for me than Dario Argento’s delirious bad acid trip Suspiria (1977).  Its opening scenes are hypnotic, disorienting, and nightmarish.  This is what a horror movie is supposed to be like!  Watching it for the first time back in the late 1980s–it had just been released on VHS uncut and letterboxed–I was startled by its ferocious style.  I’d read about Argento and had only seen Creepers a.k.a. Phenomena by this time.  I desperately wanted to see more of his movies, but at this point–at least in the U.S.–they were hard to come by, especially if you didn’t have friends who knew some guy who knew some guy who could get you a prized Peruvian third-generation bootleg of his work.  I’d been lucky enough to see Demons (a movie he produced) in the theater, but nothing could have prepared me for the dark spell that Suspiria weaves.

There are only a handful of movies that evoke the supernatural with such horrifying menace–The Seventh Victim, Curse of the Demon, Kill, Baby… Kill!, Toby Dammit, Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (not overtly supernatural, I know, but it evokes a sense of occult unease throughout), and The TenantSuspiria and its follow-up, Inferno, are right at the top.

A young American ballet student, Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper), arrives in Germany to study at a dance academy and quickly realizes that the school is actually run by witches.  Suzy arrives at the airport looking slightly bewildered (as  you do when arriving in a foreign country for the first time) and a narrator gives us some expository details as to who she is and why she’s there.  But Argento smartly dismisses the voice-over after a few seconds.  It’s as if the director immediately wants to shut down any preconceived notions we may have about this movie.  Up to this point, Argento was known as a director of gialli, such as Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’Nine Tails, and Deep Red–aggressively stylish thrillers loaded with convoluted plot detours and Grand Guignol-styled death scenes.  Suspiria, however, immediately signals that it is something different… weirder… less interested in plot, character, and ideas of realism.  This is an adult fairy tale unbound.  And beyond the looking-glass, the world moves to much stranger rhythms than the one we know.

During a powerful thunderstorm (It was a dark and stormy night…), Suzy manages to flag down a taxi.  She instructs the gruff driver (the coachman who will whisk her to the castle of her nightmares) that she wants to be taken to the dance academy.  They drive through the fabled Black Forest and Suzy plunges deeper into a netherworld of sadism, murder, and diabolism.  But just as Suzy arrives at the academy, Argento shoves her aside and focuses instead on another student (Eva Axén) who flees into the night and to a friend’s apartment… toward her ghastly demise.  Her prolonged death is mesmerizing in its savagery.  It’s also oddly beautiful, perfectly keeping with the tradition of Decadence that Argento is clearly an adherent of.

Below is my small tribute to this glorious masterpiece of death.  It focuses only on the opening scenes and in the future I’ll do another one focusing on other parts.  I’d like to do one for the equally terrifying Inferno as well.

Enter… play loud!


the devil made me do it: night of the living dead & the exorcist

Horror movies–particularly of the supernatural variety–are perpetual favorites around my household, but during the Halloween season we tend to watch even more of them.  As a child and teenager, I cut my teeth on the genre.  I loved fantasy, science fiction, and Westerns too, but it was horror that I connected with the strongest.  What that says about me psychologically, well… don’t tell me what you think.  It’ll just make me morbidly self-conscious.

The horror genre–more so than any other kind of movie, I think–tends to get judged by its worst examples.  You mention that you love horror and immediately most people think slasher killers, serial killers, and so-called torture porn.  You mention that you love supernatural fiction or movies, those same people are likely to nod their heads in solidarity when Repulsion, The Shining, and Black Sunday are named.  That’s not to say that I’m not up for a great knife-wielding maniac picture like Psycho, Blood and Black Lace, or Tenebrae, but my taste runs more toward the weird, surreal, and unnerving than say, The Human Colostomy Bag or whatever gag-inducing picture is driving the kids wild these days.

This season we’ve been revisiting horror classics, movies we saw too many times earlier in our lives but haven’t viewed in ten years or so.  Stuff like George A. Romero’s highly influential Night of the Living Dead and the equally trendsetting William Friedkin picture The Exorcist.

There’s no need to say much more about them.  They’re true classics that have weathered the years and passing trends well.  They’re scary, beautifully crafted in their own distinctive ways, and they linger in the imagination long after they end.  They may not be my personal favorites, but there’s no arguing their mythic stature as the luxury models of the field and I do love them.

Below are two videos I put together.  The Night of the Living Dead score is famously swiped from various music library sources.  The music suite from The Exorcist is Lalo Schifrin’s rejected score.  It’s great, but you can also hear why Friedkin went with using work from modern composers George Crumb and Krzystof Penderecki instead.  Make sure to watch them with the lights out and in HD for the best picture quality.

random moments in film criticism #2

“The pure horror movie would be that in which the forces of evil succeeded in taking over, the one they would themselves direct: pure, and therefore unrealizable.  Carmilla, the gorgeous undead girl (invented by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu) who infiltrated bourgeois households in Blood and Roses and The Vampire Lovers, was the advance agent for a New Order, but you would never get to see what sort of a world that would be.  There would never be The Last Man on Earth II, detailing what happened on virus-ridden Earth in the aftermath of Sidney Salkow’s unforgettably downbeat 1964 production, after there was no one left except vampires.  The inheritors, in such a scenario, would propose a ravenous alternative dispensation, in which the lords of chaos in their unrestrained domesticity could give themselves over to a voracity without end.”

The evocative passage above was by the writer/critic/editor Geoffrey O’Brien and taken from his superb, impressionistic analysis of movies and memory, The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century, originally published in 1993.  It’s not a traditional critical examination at all, but it’s brilliantly written and contains many insights that keep me going back to it all these years later.  Reading the above paragraph immediately reminded me of the movie below.

The video clip is taken from the experimental movie Begotten, directed by E. Elias Merhige, from 1991.  It’s not really a horror movie, although it contains plenty of macabre imagery and feels unwholesome in that way only the best horror movies can exude.  It looks and feels as if it had been unearthed from ancient soil and screened as a sacrament to unnameable gods.  It feels like something they would screen for themselves for a night of entertainment, when their bellies were too bloated to continue their ritualistic sacrifices.

not the usual suspects: 13 horror film classics at sinescope

Two-Fisted Filmgazer Lisa Moore has written up her top 13 horror film classics over at the online arts journal Sinescope.  I’ll hopefully have a couple of other guest bloggers doing the same over there, but that’s not final or anything.  Anyway, hope you pop over and read Lisa’s piece and get some great ideas for horror films that aren’t the usual suspects you usually see on lists like this.  Lisa really went for some great, unorthodox choices.  But for admirers of her writing, that shouldn’t be a surprise.

the phantom empire #1

Photo © Scott Seymour. All rights reserved.

It’s the dream of every cinephile, I think, to own a cinema.  If not to own their own cinema then, at least, they wish to be employed at a liberal-minded establishment that would allow them to program whatever they wished to screen.  It’s an idea I’ve often fantasized about.  It would be a single screen joint (a huge one, of course, because bigger really is better in this case), project real film (of course), and have excellent sound.  Beer and wine would be available, as well as coffee, tea, and a few soda pops.  Fresh buttered popcorn, black and red licorice, and a couple of chocolate bars would also be offered.  Vintage movie posters, lobby cards, and stills would decorate the walls of the foyer, and the place would definitely have an old fashioned neon marquee out front above the glass ticket booth.  The place would seat about 425 people.  Old trailers would be shown before every movie, a cartoon also (Looney Tunes, the Fleischer brothers’ Popeye the Sailor cartoons from the 1930s, and Tom and Jerry), and appropriate soundtrack music would play before each feature as people found their seats.  A different double-feature would appear every couple nights.  Friday and Saturday nights would have midnight movies.  Late mornings and afternoons on the weekends would show kid-friendly fare.  There would also be theme weeks periodically or showcases for a particular actor or director.  No genre would be excluded and discussion/arguments would be encouraged.  I wouldn’t care about profits.  Each double-feature would be $0.99 just like the old Broadway theater in Portland.  The old one.  The rundown one back in the 1980s where I once took a girlfriend on a first date to see Day of the Dead and where I witnessed, with another girlfriend, the subversive horrors of Lynch’s Blue Velvet while I was frying on multiple hits of acid.  Oh, the stamina of youth!

It would be what I imagine the afterlife to be like.

But the challenging thing about the place would be what to show.  I mean, it’s easy to come up with titles.  It’s the order of things I would be concerned about.  A good programmer would serve much like a dj or someone who makes mix discs.  It’s all about the perfect combo, the correct flow of things, and making sure it’s always entertaining.  Unless… you’re trying to fry their little brains or something.

So what would my first double-feature be?

I could go with my favorite films, but I’ll wait to do that later.  I could go with some childhood favorites, but I’ll pass for now.  I’m figuring that the premiere screenings would be in the evening… so no kid movies then.  How about something simple?  Yes, I’ll stick with two easy but pivotal and life-altering choices.  These were two of the earliest films I remember seeing and they, I believe, set me on a path of image intoxication.  I was forever doomed.  And though the love affair with movies has hit snags from time to time, careened down detours leading to nowhere, and occasionally offered only heartbreak (mostly in my teen years, I should emphasize)… it’s been a love affair well worth indulging in.  It’s not like I really have a choice in the matter.  I am forever doomed after all.

The first film screened would be the 1931 Universal horror film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning.  The second feature would be James Whale’s 1931 film Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, also from Universal.  Like I said, nothing radically adventurous, but they each made significant impressions on me as a child.  In many ways they shaped my future love of the medium and set me on a path of loving horror movies in particular.  I first watched both films with my father when I was around four years old.  Back in the 1970s there used to be a Creature Features-type horror movie program on KATU in Portland, Oregon after the news ended on Saturday nights called Sinister Cinema, hosted by Victor Ives.

What could I possibly say about these films that haven’t been said before?  Well, nothing really.  They both contain two iconic monster movie performances, they’re both well-crafted and contain moments of exceptional poetry and beauty (as do many of the early Universal horror productions), but they’re not exactly created equally.  Dracula betrays its stage origins a bit too much for my taste, especially after the initial brilliant cinematic scenes with Renfield (Dwight Frye) journeying to Count Dracula’s Transylvania castle.  Even as a child it slightly bored me.  It doesn’t now, although I’m always a little disappointed at how talky much of the film is.  I guess in the end, I like the later Hammer version better.  However, it never seduced me like Browning’s creation did.  Dracula may not be perfect, but it ensnared me darkly with its images.  Anyway, like so many horror movies, it’s not about the entirety… it’s those individual moments of aesthetic beauty, poetry, and/or genuine terror that reward the patient viewer.

Unlike now, I wasn’t exactly a night owl at the age of four.  But I tried to keep up.  I only made it through the opening few scenes of Dracula… the best part actually.  I nodded off quickly after.  But the image that burned itself into my brain is the moment when I snapped awake to see Renfield laughing maniacally when the authorities discover him inside the hull of the ship carrying Count Dracula to the shores of England.  I think I passed out afterward from the fright.

Frankenstein is even better, although I don’t recall one specific moment that sent me over the edge.  The whole film cast a spell on me–the sets, lighting, music, the monster himself–and the first three Frankenstein films have been favorites of mine ever since.  Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the sequel, is even more effective in its fusion of dark humor, melodrama, visual poetry, and melancholy.  But I didn’t see that film until much later.  This is the one that left its mark on my imagination… and for that I’m thankful.

Back in 1991 or so when I was in my early 20s, Dracula and Frankenstein were both screened at a small theater in NE Portland.  I lived on the other side of the city, didn’t drive, though I made sure I got to the screening.  It was great to finally see both films on the big screen with an appreciative audience of youngsters and older people.  And though I’d seen each of them numerous times over the years via videocassette, each unruly monster seemed to flourish unleashed in the flickering dark before a packed house of eager viewers.  Lugosi and Karloff were reborn.  Resurrected for a whole new generation of monster kids… a reminder to older ones that these cinematic creations still mattered.

By the time I watched these films in the theater, I was already a veteran horror film watcher–from silent classics to Hammer horrors to cannibal holocausts to necromantik evil dead maniac butchers… I had the psychic eyeball scars to prove my cred.  And though these Universal horror films would never be able to compete with their modern day unholy brethren in terms of graphicness or intensity, they did excel when it came to lyricism, imagery, pathos, and wit.  So for nostalgic and artistic reasons, Lugosi and Karloff would open the show… hopefully luring a whole new generation into the phantom empire.*

Stay tuned for further screenings….



* The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century is a book by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.  It’s sort of an impressionistic, subjective, secret history of the medium–obsessive, fetishistic, and cosmic.  It’s a brilliant piece of writing and one of my favorite non-traditional books about cinema.  I would name my theater in its honor.


the one you might have saved: frank

A couple of years ago over at the mighty Arbogast on Film site, a gauntlet of sorts was thrown down.  In writing about Joe D’Amato’s sicko horror film Buio Omega (1979), Arbogast lamented the gruesome death of a “minor” character in the film.  The question of “Who would you save?” is a bold and revealing one to ask horror fans since expressing empathy for a character is not always the primary emotion when watching these films.  Can you imagine how raw and hollowed out you would be if every time you finished watching [insert horror film of choice here] you curled into the fetal position and sobbed yourself to sleep?  I’d seriously advise retiring that DVD copy of Maniac (1980) and switch to Sonja Henie films instead… which is their own sort of nightmare.  A couple of days ago, Arbogast tossed out the challenge again and I’m heeding the call.

Horror fans are a hardened sort.  And the longer you’ve been at it, the thicker the emotional armor.  After years of watching hundreds (thousands?) of nameless extras, minor characters with only a few lines of dialogue to mark their territory, and major players with name recognition fall to the death lust of rippers, sadists, creatures from the deep dark woods, cannibals, zombies, evil twins, and all the black-hearted rest of them… you can’t blame us for being a little discriminatory about who we mourn for.

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) features a particularly painful death scene for me… a character that undoubtedly qualifies as the one I would save.

He cuts a fearsome, intimidating presence at first.  A fascist-minded goon entrapped in his tower block, feeding off his own brand of rage.

In a normal world, no one would think less of you if you fled.  Took your chances back on the street to find safe haven somewhere else.

But the definitions of normality have changed quite a bit since the end became extremely fucking nigh.

You have to take chances… accept hospitality from scary strangers…

And hope that they’re not as bad as you originally feared.

I’m not exactly sure why this character gets to me.  Perhaps I’m just fond of Brendan Gleeson.

This character reminds me of plenty of blokes I’ve known over the years.  He enjoys downing hearty pints of Guinness, eating a good plate of stewed eels and mash, and watching West Ham United struggle through another match on the telly.

He’s just a guy.

We’ve seen so many of these types go down in a hail of bullets, get chomped to bits by satanic beasties, and excised from films like dinner scraps from the table.

They’re expendable.

And maybe that’s why this one hurt so badly.

I got the feeling that this character just wanted a little more than that.

He’d certainly earned it… surviving with his daughter as he had in that fortified tower block.

He had a good thing going… relatively.

Until the main characters showed up and ruined everything.

Then again… the appearance of the raven gives the death an almost mythic resonance.

As if it were fate not chance at play here…

It’s like a part of him knows it was always going to end like this.

Something nestled in the deepest recess of his mind…

Calling him forth…

To stand alone…

Stare death…

Right in the eye.

There’s nothing romantic about it.

Nothing heroic.

Death is simply the inevitable last chapter in all our lives.

It snatches us all.

Even our loved ones.

It’s not a comforting thought.

We spend our lives trying to protect our loved ones from that inevitability.

We certainly don’t attempt to speed things up…

Become the agents of their misfortune…

In a normal world… that would never cross our mind.

Sadly, those days are gone.

Today… things are much more difficult…

Everything’s in flux…

And no matter how hard you fight it…

How hard you struggle…

It’s so easy to give in to…


Unless someone…

Stops you.

And blesses you with everlasting peace.