Saturday, November 3, 2012

The New Beverly Cinema's 5th Annual All-Night Horror Show

On October 13th, 2012, The New Beverly Cinema presented their 5th Annual All-Night Horror Show, a 12 hour marathon of 6 films interspersed with trailers and two short films. The first trailer reel began at 7:30 pm and the show continued until 7:30 am the next morning, and the penultimate of the six films shown was a surprise announcement teased all the way up until the time of screening. All 300 seats for the show were sold out, although there wasn't a single point in the evening when butts were filling up all of them - wristbands issued at the door allowed access in and out, and a lot of people didn't arrive until the second or third film of the evening. Befitting the New Beverly's good nature, adult refreshments and recreational medications brought by patrons were politely ignored.

The marathon was an intimately subdued experience. I don't think I've ever been in a room with so many well-behaved drunk and stoned people and this may have had a lot to do with the remarkably low key films that were chosen. The trailers between the films were far trashier, and their luridness served to perk attendees up. This isn't to say that the films were boring or unentertaining, they were simply more appealing to the marginal and idiosyncratic tastes of seasoned horror fans. Each title was obscure and selected from a different subgenre of horror, and each not quite the best example of each subgenre, but a rarely seen one. The trailers between the films were also chosen along the theme of the films they were preceeding. In other words, a connoisseur's horror marathon:

Strange Behavior (1981, Michael Laughlin)
Night Monster (1942, Ford Beebe)
Curtains (1983, Richard Ciupka)
Neon Maniacs (1986, Joseph Mangine)
The Psychic (1977, Lucio Fulci)
Frankenhooker (1990, Frank Henenlotter)

The Psychic was the mystery film and ultimately I lasted all the way to the beginning of Frankenhooker before leaving. Before you call me less than a dedicated horror fan, do know that I've seen Frankenhooker and with all respect to New York trash auteur Henenlotter, seeing it once on video was enough. For comparison's sake, last year's marathon had much more well-known fare like Creature From The Black Lagoon and Hell Night.

I haven't been to the New Bev's previous marathons but a cursory inventory of previous years also reveals a lot more high energy bravura and camp in the choice of programming; aggressive romps like Fulci's The Gates of Hell (1980), New World Pictures' The Evil (1978), and the Howdy Doody special effects of The Giant Claw (1957) as seen prominently in Joe Dante's The Movie Orgy.

There's a tradeoff here: in an all-night marathon you do want flicks of jolting raucousness to aid your stomach's digestion of caffeine and popcorn, but you also run the risk of encouraging the lowest common denominators to yell what they'd call funny shit at the screen. Not that Halloweentime isn't the right time for joviality, but that's almost the cliched approach, the Evil Dead II orthodoxy of judging horror by its over-the-topness. The magical aspect of this all-night show was its tone of sheer eeriness in the dead of night. Well, okay, except for Neon Maniacs and Frankenhooker, but even Neon Maniacs has a dreamlike quality to its ridiculousness.

I met up with a friend from work who'd saved me a seat about midway down the room, an aisle seat that was unusually close to the center because of an indentation - a fire safety requirement? Said friend offered me a can of PBR and I offered my JD. There was a pretty talkative pre-wasted blowhard in front of us looking to latch onto any mention of horror titles he recognized, but we escaped when he started blathering to some girl next to us about seeing Xtro at the Cinefamily. After a friendly introduction from Grindhouse Festival programmer and New Beverly associate Brian Quinn, the show began with a trailer reel that got the room suitably excited.

The evening's first film Strange Behavior had slasher elements, so the first three trailers  had a through-line of cutie nudes and knives: Slumber Party Massacre (1982), Sorority House Massacre (1987) and House on Sorority Row (1983). The second trio were more along the line of a body count in an old dark house: Hell Night (1981), Fright Night (1985) - which compelled one girl to quotescream, "You're so cool, Brewster!" - and Silent Scream (1980). All are recommendable except for Silent Scream, a middling bore of a whodunnit with pretenses to class (a Barbara Steele cameo) and Sorority House Massacre, a Fred Olen Rayesque boobfest hack job which re-uses footage from Slumber Party Massacre because Roger Corman produced both and hey, Corman loves to recycle. The difference is that Slumber Party Massacre is quite witty and stylish. I haven't seen House on Sorority Row but slasher fans seem to regard it highly.

Strange Behavior belongs to a forgotten subgenre, the mind-controller thriller, and marries to the slasher film violence that was all the rage in that year of the long knives, 1981. The tone is slow, deliberate and mysterious, as evinced by the choice of Tangerine Dream for the musical score. Why are the otherwise innocent teenagers of a small midwestern town spacing out and methodically murdering people around them at inopportune moments? Could it have anything to do with the local university's weirdo behavior modification experiments? Hey, could be!

Although the source of the problem is obvious from the beginning, Strange Behavior does a good job of building suspense around why these kids are becoming little Manchurian Candidates, and who's behind it all. The murders are also extremely vicious, making the long stretches in between them all the more ominous. There are also a couple comic high points, notably a costume party in which all the teenagers start dancing in synch - and they're not even the mind-controlled ones! During the late 90s' flux of terrible post-modern studio slashers with TV gloss, Strange Behavior's premise (and part of the forgettable title) were ripped off and unofficially remade as Disturbing Behavior in 1998.

Speaking of corrective behavior, there was a brilliant display of theater justice that transpired in the row in front of me - the aforementioned loudmouth was gabbing throughout Strange Behavior and continued into a VHS horror raffle which followed the film (and some posters, including Strange Behavior.) It was pretty obvious he'd already knocked back a few too many. I'm not sure if the others flanking him were embarrassed friends or merely embarrassed strangers. A guy twice his size a few seats away told him to kindly shut the fuck up, and all the chatterbox could do was throw up his arms and look at the people beside him, as if they'd speak up and defend his right to have a good time. No such luck. Every theater should have such polite gorillas to enforce good etiquette.

On the heels of Strange Behavior's slow synthesized pulse, the mood of the four trailers in reel #2 was a deathly breath of musty air from old haunted houses: lengthy Vincent Price narration for the public domain staple House On Haunted Hill (1959), hoary showmanship from William Castle in the trailer to 13 Ghosts (1960), and followed by a critically tongue-bathed, pre-emptively classy trailer for The Haunting (1963) in which MGM Panavision and West Side Story is name-dropped to let you know this is not just a haunted house film along the lines of, say, a William Castle or Vincent Price outing. The last Haunted House Horror trailer was The Legend of Hell House, a very promising looking 1973 British flick with Roddy McDowall that I'd like to see sometime.

Then, inexplicably - and according to New Beverly's Facebook page, accidentally - buzzed and confused horror fans were treated to the twee twailer for Woody Allen's What's Up Tiger Lily?, the 1966 comically re-dubbed Japanese James Bond ripoff which announced to the world Allen's fondness for Asian pussy. As it turned out, this comic interruption was a fine inadvertent segue into the surprise before the "Old Dark House" second feature, Night Monster: a Three Stooges short! If A Body Meets A Body (1945) sees the Stooges in an old dark house of their own, staying overnight for a will reading so they can inherit Curly's gold - er, his deceased uncle's fortune. The bodies of other guests at the mansion start piling up, and commensurately do the gags involving the Stooges being spooked. Although the short does have the classic trio of Moe, Larry and Curly, it was the first Stooges short filmed after Curly's stroke and you can kind of see Moe holding back on the slaps.

Night Monster is not nearly the monster mash suggested by the title and top billing of Bela Lugosi, who plays a snooty butler and is not an important character at all in the ensemble cast. Instead of a werewolf or some such boogeyman - well, there is a monster stalking the guests of a mysterious paralyzed doctor at his isolated mansion, but producer-director Ford Beebe was obviously inspired by Val Lewton, and leaves the titular monster offscreen. The only onscreen phantasm is one striking special effect involving the psychic materialization of a skeleton during a seance.

Unlike Lewton, Beebe doesn't have much poetry in his film's screenplay or direction. When Bela Lugosi is your hokey wink at sophistication, your film isn't going to be mentioned alongside Cat People in the pantheon of psychological thrillers with monster genre undertones. Still, Night Monster was a charming yarn from the past in an otherwise 80s-heavy programme, thanks to a professional, theatrically trained ensemble cast in a story that feels very stagebound to begin with. Amongst all the doddering, harumphing older men, Fay Helm makes an impression in a very Lewton-style character as the hysterical, depressive doom-seeing daughter of the mansion's patriarch. Also noteworthy is Leif Erickson as a loutish, libidinous chauffeur. Night Monster ends with an admonition from Danish actor Nils Asther in Indian-face:

"A little knowledge of the occult is dangerous. Unless it's used for good, disaster will follow in its wake. That is cosmic law!"

Films really wore their messages on their sleeves back then, even if the message was from crazytown.

Resuming the theme of babes beleaguered by creeps with knives, trailer reel numero three-oh kicked the mood back in a slasherly direction with Happy Birthday to Me (1981) and Visiting Hours (1982), two semi-classic entries to the slasher boom of the early 80s with particularly memorable jack-in-the-box trailers: a birthday cake suddenly has an axe planted in its icing, and the lights inside the windows of a hospital building form a skull, respectively. Then came two films that have meant a lot to me the past couple of years: Tobe Hooper's 1981 masterpiece The Funhouse and Charles Kaufman's 1980 classic Mother's Day. The Funhouse's thundering trailer is misrepresentative of the film's melodiousness but well cut together. Mother's Day's trailer misses the dark humor of the film but successfully convey the perverseness of the premise.

I can't speak from experience as to the fidelity of the next trailer, Three On A Meathook, to the full film; apparently it's a less-than-thrilling entry from the odd and furtive post-Hershel Gordon Lewis, pre-Texas Chainsaw period of Ed Gein inspired horror flicks. The trailer shown by The Beverly was the abbreviated version of an infamously ponderous and obtuse monologue of a trailer (featured with Eli Roth commentary on the ridiculously entertaining time-wasting website Trailers From Hell.) Shown last before the feature was another trailer with iconic narration, Bob Clark's 1974 slasher progenitor Black Christmas. While James Mason isn't anywhere in the film, his typically reedy promise that "If this film doesn't make your skin crawl, it's on too tight" elevates the film's trailer into part of its overall legend.

The 1983 Canadian slasher Curtains is one whose reputation has kept it on aficionado's lists of underrated gems. I would agree, although just barely - this is a perfect example of a horror film redeemed entirely by the murder scenes, and they're so head-and-shoulders above the rest of the film that one almost suspects they had an uncredited second director. The story is ludicrous even by horror film standards: with the help of her director (John Vernon), an actress (Samantha Eggar) fakes madness to study real crazies in an asylum for her next role. When the stunt backfires and her career is ruined, she becomes bent on revenge and targets a bevy of actresses staying at Vernon's isolated house in the wilderness to audition for the role she was denied. But is she really the one doing the killing? Who cares? Writer Robert Guza Jr. went on to over a decade of work for General Hospital and the plot twists he contributed there were probably more or less on par with the inanities in Curtains.

Eggar and Vernon do go a long way towards selling the innately silly plot. However, the real stars are the scythe-wielding killer in an old crone mask and the very creepy doll which adorns the poster - and which the killer's victims tend to find just before their demise. The uncanniness of one slow-motion murder in broad daylight on an ice skating pond tends to stick in viewer's memories the most, but equally impressive is another scene involving the discovery of that haunting doll in the middle of a country road. The closeup on the doll's face was enough to evoke audible groans of revulsive horror from the New Beverly crowd whereas the same closeup on a TV screen might merely elicit creeping flesh. Also of note is Lynne Griffin as "Patti O'Connor," one of the auditioning actresses at Vernon's house in the woods, because her portrayal of a hacky female standup comic is such a perfect time capsule of cringeworthy bad comedy from a Canadian "comedienne" of the early 80s.

Knowing that these films hadn't been screened theatrically since their original release dates, I consider Curtains the best feature of the programme and was glad to see it on the big screen the first time. I was also pleased to have such a film usher the show across the threshold from the relatively classy fare in the first half of the evening, into the second half wherein time has no meaning and the waking nightmares onscreen may infiltrate the dreams of the die hard gonzo moviegoers slipping in and out of sleep in that darkened den.

This new tone more befitting a mental fugue was reflected in the next several trailers, showcasing some mad-killer films even more demented than those preceding Strange Behavior and Curtains: the glossy action-horror hybrid starring Rutger Hauer, The Hitcher (1986), the gritty NYC gore opus starring Joe Spinell, Maniac (1980), and the shag rug bloodstains of The Toolbox Murders (1978). There was also a pair of grindhouse titles I was unaware of which look like ripe fromage: a 1980 Golan-Globus produced slasher (!) starring Klaus Kinski as a psycho killer (!!) called Schizoid, and an occult demon-fueled revenge flick confusingly titled Meat Cleaver Massacre (1977) but perhaps more accurately released in the UK as Evil Force.

All preceding insanity was merely an appetizer for the 1986 smorgasbord of rubber-suited monsters that is Neon Maniacs. This film defies logical description unless you remind yourself in the simplest terms what you just saw: a team (yes, team) of no less than TWELVE monsters emerge from behind a door on the Golden Gate bridge one night and start, you know, killing bums and partying teenagers and other disposable types. Fortunately a geeky horror fangirl knows the truth, and with some other plucky teens she fights back against the "Neon Maniacs" using their one weakness...water.

Everything about this film feels as though it was thought up in about 20 seconds, including the title. The fact there's barely a story and the script has all the wit of a rock thrown at your head doesn't hamper the entertainment value, especially in the middle of the night to a room of horror fans needing an eye candy sugar rush to stay awake. At this time though, I took advantage of the fact I'd seen the movie in full before on video, under similar dead-of-night circumstances. I woke up just in time to see the Maniacs being melted gorily away by kids on bicycles and had to remind myself I wasn't having my first Ernest Scared Stupid dream in 21 years. The lovely thing about dreaming in a movie theater is the full immersion of your eyeline.

I knew I had to last at least long enough to discover what the penultimate mystery movie would be. Having refreshed myself during Neon Maniacs, I perched at the edge of my seat for the final trailer reel of the show - an Italian zombie and giallo compilation teasing the Italian film to follow - and this was all we knew about it, Brian Quinn had gave no other information. What followed was the breasts and blood of an intriguing new (to me) title, Eyeball (1975), then the erotic paranoia of Torso (1973) and the cartoon Eurowhimsy of Cemetery Man (1994). Then came the twin titans of Italian horror's international reputation, Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977) and Lucio Fulci's Zombie (1979) - with an Argento giallo trailer chaser, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, his 1970 directorial debut.

There was one more surprise before the mystery film began; a mystery short with thematic fingers deep in the film we were about to see, even if we didn't know it yet: the 1953 UPA animated adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart narrated by James Mason, in his second appearance at the New Beverly that night. This is the sort of cartoon UPA would make to hog accolades from the critical establishment and drive Walt crazy. It's a moody, expressionistic illustration of the endlessly retold Edgar Allen Poe classic and narrated by a famous actor, how could they not get the Oscar? Well, in the case of the 1954 Academy Awards, they lost because Walt imitated UPA with Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. Not that the Oscars aren't always wrong, as Elliot Kalan used to blog.

As previously mentioned, the mystery film was Lucio Fulci's The Psychic, a cleverly constructed giallo that unfortunately didn't contain enough trademark Fulci gore to keep me awake. The story involves a clairvoyant woman's misleading premonitions and visions of the past concerning the origin of a skeleton dug up behind the wall of her home. The ending recalls The Black Cat, thus making the Poe connection, and also of note is an extremely violent opening showing a woman's face smashed open while falling down a cliff - Fulci plagiarizing himself from his more accomplished 1972 film Don't Torture A Duckling. Everything that happened in between is kind of a blur.

With no more trailers or shorts left, the projectionist loaded Frankenhooker immediately after The Psychic and I'd had it. Almost. I stayed a few minutes to admire Henenlotter's brightly colored pallete on a recently struck 35mm print, odd for a film destined to go nearly straight to video - the original VHS box had a button which spouted the undead come-on, "Wanna date?" when pressed, which is not much more or less entertaining than the actual film. After Brain Damage and Basket Case one can spot the limping signs of self-imitation in Frankenhooker, much like "Savage" Steve Holland's disappointing third entry in a trilogy of personal, offbeat films, How I Got Into CollegeFrankenhooker lacks any of the truly queasy allegorical intimacy of Henenlotter's prior work; his macabre world is reduced to a cheap special effects sitcom.

Recalling the last time the film's bleeding VHS neons failed to keep me awake at night ten years earlier, I staggered out the front doors of the New Bev, like that bum leaving the Broadway theater in Escape From New York, blood slowly recirculating to my numbed glutes. I stepped into the inky blackness of Hollywood at 6 am. My mind, too, was a void. I don't remember getting home. It was a good night.