[31 Days of Horror: Resurrection] Day 31 – Halloween (2007)

Director: Rob Zombie
Cast: Scout Taylor-Compton, Malcolm McDowell, Tyler Mane, Sheri Moon Zombie, Brad Dourif, Danielle Harris, William Forsythe
Screenplay: Rob Zombie
109 mins. Rated R for strong brutal bloody violence and terror throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity and language.

We’ve reached the conclusion of another year of 31 Days of Horror, and I’m sad to see it end, but horror’s never far from this site, so you’ll see more. Today, as is traditional, we’ve reached the final day, and on Halloween, we talk Halloween. Looks like this year is a double-dip for Halloween installments and Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects, The Lords of Salem) films, so let’s talk the much-maligned and baffling remake to John Carpenter’s original horror classic.

15 years after Michael Myers (Tyler Mane, X-Men, Troy) murdered three people, including his sister Judith, he breaks out of Smith’s Grove Sanitarium to return home and find his sister, now named Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton, An American Crime, The Runaways) and continue his roaring rampage of slaying. For the first time, we also see the events that led to that horrific first killing and Michael’s time at Smith’s Grove with Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange, Bombshell).

After Halloween: Resurrection underperformed, there were a number of potential projects thrown about, including (but not limited to) a Michael vs. Pinhead crossover (following up on the precedent set by Freddy vs. Jason) and a prequel called Halloween: The Missing Years, about a young Michael Myers. The studio decided to take a traditional route in the era of excessive remakes with a more interesting director at the helm in Rob Zombie. Zombie had two films in mind, a prequel about the events leading up to the 1978 killings, and a more traditional remake, but these two ideas ended up merging into the finished film we ended up with. When Zombie asked Carpenter for his permission to remake the film, it has been reported that he was told to make the remake his own instead of something shot-for-shot.

Now, I’ve always been more of a fan of reboots and sequels over remakes. I happen to find that horror films get their most creative when they have to continue the story, but the Halloween chronology and mythology had gotten very confusing, so I understand the ask of a remake, and Zombie is a very unique choice as director. In recent years, though, I’ve become more open to starting over, having seen the James Bond franchise tackle this task as well as the Godzilla and Universal Horror characters get jump-started again and again for the next iteration. One thing I prefer in remakes is at least getting a unique voice in the director’s chair and pick the greatest hits of what works and what doesn’t in the previous series to streamline and reinvigorate the franchise for what comes next. That’s where Zombie wins here. He takes elements from the first two films that he likes and incorporates them into an interesting story, and he wins when he’s tackling new elements over when he’s hitting the familiar beats.

There are a lot of interesting directions taken in this remake, things that never could’ve been attempted in the previous iteration, and that keeps the film fresh. Looking at relationships like the one between Michael and Loomis, or the one between Ismael (Danny Trejo), which sees the brutality of Mane’s Michael in this new take. Zombie fought hard to keep Trejo’s death in the film, and I think it adds a lot of intensity to the narrative.

Where Zombie struggles is when his dialogue and characters feel plucked out of House of 1000 Corpses instead of a Halloween movie. That’s not to say this writing could’ve worked, but his execution behind the camera makes moments like Laurie sticking her finger into a bagel sexually or William Forsythe (Dick Tracy, Raising Arizona) threatening to skull-fuck someone incapable of landing as intended. It’s that chicken-fried grease that just never felt natural to the proceedings. It almost makes me pine for Zombie’s take on a Friday the 13th film instead, and his Michael seems more influenced by Jason Voorhees at times.

Halloween does have some standout performances, though, primarily with the inspired casting of Malcolm McDowell as Sam Loomis, Brad Dourif (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) as Sheriff Brackett, and Tyler Mane’s take on Michael. All three performances become something new, interesting, and alternative to what’s come before, and each one earns an iconic status within the franchise.

I’ve never understand the complete hate of Rob Zombie’s Halloween. It’s a flawed film, and some aging to the finished product has been less kind, but I still really appreciate Zombie swinging for the fences and trying to evolve the mythos in order to keep it alive. More than anything, I’m surprised that the finished film works at all, hearing all the behind-the-scenes difficulties of working with the Weinsteins and the Akkads to deliver this with Zombie’s vision. It’s one of the longest Halloween films (the director’s cut is the longest Halloween movie of all) which may weigh on some, but I’m still a fan.

-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, click here.
For my review of Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem, click here.

[31 Days of Horror: Resurrection] Day 30 – Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Director: William Castle
Cast: Oscar Homolka, Ronald Lewis, Audrey Dalton, Guy Rolfe, Vladimir Sokoloff, Erika Peters, Lorna Hanson
Screenplay: Ray Russell
89 mins. Approved.

Sing it with me! SARDONICUS 6-5000!

(Seriously, it fits with the song so well I can’t stop singing it)

I can’t believe we’ve never covered William Castle (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler) on 31 Days of Halloween before! Sure, we’ve done a few remakes of his work, but nothing official. What’s wrong with me?

London physician Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis, Taste of Fear, Billy Budd) has arrived in Gorslava at the request of his former flame, Maude (Audrey Dalton, Separate Tables, Titanic), who has now married to Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe, Dolls, Odd Man Out). The locals of Gorslava fear the baron, and Robert becomes concerned when he meets the disturbing assistant Krull (Oscar Homolka, The Seven Year Itch, Sabotage), who carries out the Baron’s every wishes. When Robert finally discovers the horrific reason for his arrival in Gorslava, it will leave you smiling, whether you want or not.

Based on a story by screenwriter Ray Russell (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, The Premature Burial), published in Playboy magazine, Sardonicus is classic William Castle. It’s full of low-budget thrills, unusual plot points, showing little but working well enough, and even a gimmick (we’ll get to it, don’t worry).

The biggest strength of Mr. Sardonicus is the two lead villain performances. Guy Rolfe, who would later become iconic in the Puppet Master series, is Sardonicus, and he has to do a lot with his voice. For most of the film, he has a face mask, which is creepy, but restricts a lot of facial acting. When the mask isn’t on (Rolfe could only work with the makeup for an hour at a time due to the extensive prosthetics), he has to work with makeup effects that also restrict some of his facial performance, and yet, he comes off as genuinely chilling. Homolka’s Krull is equally unnerving, though he has more to work with. He’s able to work as an extension of Sardonicus and elevate both performances.

I’m also a sucker for a good William Castle gimmick. I recently discussed Popcorn on Kyle & Nick on Film, a love letter for the Castle gimmick, and it’s one of the main strengths of that film. Mr. Sardonicus features an ending where Castle himself comes onscreen to ask the audience what ending the film deserves. He offers up two options to the audience and asks them to hold up a corresponding thumbs up card for one option, or hold it upside-down as a thumbs down for the other ending. Now, be aware that there’s only one actual ending (though a rumor has persisted for decades that another ending was scripted and shot but that’s never been made official), and I only saw one, but Castle plays up that the audience always votes for the one ending, and some theaters even had staff come in and vote that way to convince that it was not set up to only be one. Either way, it’s a fun little idea that allows the audience to breathe and have fun, and we even printed off the corresponding cards for our own home screening. Even though it’s not a real choice, I love this idea and it works really well to get me back invested in where the ending goes (this is how you do it, not like Blood Dolls).

Mr. Sardonicus is a goofy, silly time, and I had a lot of fun with its admittedly low-budget nature. It’s more fun than actually scary, and if you don’t care for Castle and his gimmicks, this one won’t sway you, but I quite enjoyed it. Give it a watch, and bring your voting cards.

-Kyle A. Goethe

[31 Days of Horror: Resurrection] Day 29 – House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

Director: Rob Zombie
Cast: Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie, Karen Black
Screenplay: Rob Zombie
89 mins. Rated R for strong, sadistic violence/gore, sexuality and language.

Rob Zombie (Halloween, The Lords of Salem) had a good thing going with his music career when he was offered the chance to help design a haunted attraction for Universal Studios. This work helped to get Universal Horror Nights back up and going after a long hiatus for the theme park’s October attractions, and it also inspired Zombie to attempt a first feature film. That’s at least how the legend goes. Well, no matter what you think of Zombie and his directing career, you have to give him credit for helping bring Universal Horror Nights back.

It’s Halloween Eve 1977, and a group of cross-country youths, in search of unique roadside attractions, come across a gas station/horror museum/fried chicken joint run by Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig, Kill Bill vol. 2, Jackie Brown). Upon hearing the legend of Dr. Satan, a sadistic psycho who was hanged nearby, they plan a route to find the hanging tree, but they are stopped by a flat tire. They end up following a hitchhiker back to her home where her family is taking part in unusual Halloween traditions. As the night progresses, it becomes clear that this family has no intention of letting the youths go free.

I had trepidations about seeing this film for the second time. I initially hated the film, and I was only convinced to watch the follow-up, The Devil’s Rejects (a movie I really enjoyed), because I was told how different it was from the original. While, on second viewing, the film does not become perfect, I was surprised by how much more I liked it. Zombie has often been seen as an imitator of Tobe Hooper, and he was definitely influenced by the acclaimed Texas horror maestro, but I see him as an extension (for better and worse) much like how Brian De Palma took elements of Alfred Hitchcock to their logical next step. That’s not to say that Zombie improves on Hooper, but like any artist, there’s a through-line that allows Zombie to put his voice into those influences. If Tobe Hooper was the chicken-fried horror master, then Zombie’s is more chicken grease. His is smuttier, angrier, meaner, and sloppier, and that will work for some and fail to resonate with others (Hooper himself praised the finished film). I’ve always leaned toward the former.

I was really taken with the tension and confusion elements of the narrative, as events cycled out of control for our heroes. Perhaps it’s the fact that, last time I saw the movie, The Office was not on television yet and we had not yet been blessed by Rainn Wilson as Dwight, but I really rooted for 3/4 of the youths (less love for the annoying character played by Chris Hardwicke), and I wanted to see the triumph, though internally I knew that it was not in the cards for this movie.

Zombie made a good call on his first feature, understand the hell that the MPAA puts on filmmakers, so he shot two versions of all violent sequences, one with more blood and gore, one with less. This helped him to push the film as far as he possibly could while still satisfying the studio. That keeps the gristle on this greasy film, and it was especially helpful as Zombie took his work-in-progress studio-hopping, as new regimes at some studios changed their minds on his grizzly film and others didn’t like Zombie’s vision.

The biggest problem with House of 1000 Corpses is the truly-annoying and nauseating cutaways, based on the Manson recordings. None of these cutaway video interview moments add anything of value to the narrative, and there’s a lot of the film’s worst moments (and Zombie’s worse tendencies) at play in these cutaways. I think the movie would better (and faster, more frenetic) without them.

House of 1000 Corpses is an acquired taste. I can understand anyone who loves it, and I totally get why someone would hate it. The movie’s aged much better than expected, though it still leaves a bit to be desired. It shows an early director swinging for the fences, and I can appreciate that above all else.

-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem, click here.

[31 Days of Horror: Resurrection] Day 28 – Blood Dolls (1999)

Director: Charles Band
Cast: Jack Maturin, Debra Mayer, Nicholas Worth
Screenplay: Charles Band
84 mins. Rated R for horror violence and gore, language and some sexuality.

We don’t talk much about Full Moon Features, and this year, I want to change that. I could go the route of talking through all the various Puppet Master movies, but I wanted something I hadn’t seen before, so I perused my video collection, and I came across Blood Dolls, another of the killer toy subgenre, directed by Charles Band (Trancers, The Gingerdead Man). Hey, the poster looks cool, so it can’t all be bad…

Virgil Travis (Jack Maturin) is a wealthy and secluded psycho who has spent his youth being tortured with unusual body modification, resulting in a tiny head. He’s been wronged by a great many people in his life, and now he has plans in place to get his vengeance. Virgil’s created a few living dolls from the bodies of his victims, and these toys will exact his toll upon the others.

Sometimes, I wonder if people even believe the plots for these movies are real. How do I justify the time I just spent explaining this insanity? I don’t know, folks, but I watch a lot of crap for you all. Blood Dolls is part of that crap. I understand that a lot of Full Moon films exist in that campy silliness that is so endearing to so many people, and I have quite a few that I love within that realm. Puppet Master…The Gingerdead Man…but c’mon, people, Blood Dolls? Really? This was one of the longest 84 minute movies I’ve ever subjected myself to.

I can’t think of a single strength here. Virgil Travis is a terrible villain. He’s not intimidating, nor is he interesting, the tiny head thing is weird, and he honestly looks better in the creepy mask and should’ve kept that on the whole movie. That still doesn’t excuse the nasally voice throughout the movie. None of the victims, or cannon fodder, are developed enough to be memorable past the run time.

We have to talk about the ending, or lack thereof. We get to the abysmal finale, including a wedding that really came out of nowhere without any purpose. I don’t even understand how that’s an ending on its own…but then it isn’t. Mr. Mascaro, a random henchman character with supposed ties to Demonic Toys, comes onscreen to tell you that there is an alternate ending, but the way this new ending fits into the narrative doesn’t even make story sense. It’s just another scene with slight alterations to the story but it repeats elements that wouldn’t have happened twice, and it became all the more frustrating.

Blood Dolls isn’t even a complete film, and the wasted time is infuriating. It’s not just one of the worst movies I’ve seen this month; it’s one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

-Kyle A. Goethe

[31 Days of Horror: Resurrection] Day 27 – ATM (2012)

Director: David Brooks
Cast: Brian Geraghty, Josh Peck, Alice Eve
Screenplay: Chris Sparling
90 mins. Rated R for violence and terror.

I’m a bit of a sucker for bottle movies, films set in a singular location for a bulk of the run time. The most popular of this subgenre in the realm of horror tend to be siege films like Night of the Living Dead, but there’s also the “slowly going insane” of 1408, and the “how do I get out of here?” of Buried. Today’s film is a bit of a siege tale mixed with “how do I get out of here?” and it’s all set in an ATM vestibule.

Following the company holiday party, David (Brian Geraghty, The Hurt Locker, Flight) has a perfect opportunity to spend time with his crush, Emily (Alice Eve, Star Trek Into Darkness, Bombshell), until his buddy Corey (Josh Peck, Ice Age: The Meltdown, Spun) joins along, drunk and annoying. The three stop off at an ATM to get cash, but as soon as they are inside, they spot a man in a parka standing outside, watching them. It quickly becomes clear that he’s waiting for them to exit in order to kill them. Now, with the power cut in the vestibule, and the night slowly freezing them, they need a plan…and quick.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion around this film’s characters being so stupid, and I guess, as a horror fan, I’ve always expected stupid decisions in horror because people make bad calls when they’re in danger. People don’t think straight, and I saw most of these decisions being less about stupidity and more about lack of risk. None of these characters make significant risks when I, sitting on my couch, would have bolted for the car several times.

Perhaps I was also taken by the great chemistry between Geraghty and Eve. I’ve been A big fan of Alice Eve for some time now, and I personally feel like she should have a bigger presence in Hollywood after a solid run in the late 2000s and early 2010s. There’s a certain believable awkwardness between David and Emily at the beginning of the film that carries through to the emotional final moments.

ATM is not the NEXT BIG THING. It came and went in 2012 for a reason, but I found more to like than not in the finished product. If you’re a fan of single-location horror, this one is still working looking back on.

-Kyle A. Goethe

[31 Days of Horror: Resurrection] Day 26 – Black Roses (1988)

Director: John Fasano
Cast: John Martin, Ken Swofford, Julie Adams, Carla Ferrigno, Sal Viviano, Carmine Appice
Screenplay: Cindy Cirile
90 mins. Rated R.

There were a string of rock-n-roll horror films in the 80s to combat all the Satanic Panic of the era, though none of them reached the heights of the horror greats. Some of them, like Trick or Treat, are really difficult to hunt down. Others, like Black Roses, exist under the surface, passed around the horror community like a hidden secret.

Mill Basin has become the destination for the first concert appearance of the new heavy metal band Black Roses, and the local teenage demographic has turned out. The adults are not fans of the band but are quickly won over, and the show is so popular, the Black Roses play for several more nights. What the town’s adults are not aware of is that the band actually IS evil, corrupting the souls of the Mill Basin’s youth population. The only adult with an inkling that something isn’t right is high school teacher Matthew Moorhouse (John Martin, The Underneath, Night Game), but can he convince the rest of the town in time to save the children?

Shot in Hamilton, Ontario (Canada for tax deals), Black Roses has largely been forgotten by mainstream horror fans, but I’ve had this one suggested to me for a number of years. Having finally seen it, I can state that this flick is great. It’s the perfect amount of fun and fear, excitement and creature effects. There’s a level of cheese that I have to assume was intentional, as director John Fasano (Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, The Jitters) has done similar films before, and the fun latched onto me.

The creature effects here are great, especially the band’s transformation. It’s like GWAR before GWAR, and the way that they win over the townspeople with their soft romantic rock before going full demon as soon as the adults are gone. From the opening to the end, every scene with the Black Roses works, especially the facade. Sal Viviano (Spikes of Bensonhurst) is perfectly cast as Damian, the lead singer, and he convinced me that he was really must’ve had experience in a heavy metal band. That appreciation extends to the music written for the film, which I found to be quite catching and engaging. I could swear that it had been licensed instead of written directly for the film, but I’ve found no record of any license agreement.

There are a few odd choices, like the weird attraction implied between Moorhouse and one of his students (it’s never stated but there’s an odd amount of hinting), and also the late-in-the-game inclusion of the mayor’s daughter, Priscilla (Carla Ferrigno, The Adventures of Hercules, The Death of the Incredible Hulk) as a love interest for Moorhouse and then instantly making her unlikable. I was also confused about a few scenes of female nudity that were unnecessary and nonsensical. One sequences features a woman removing her top and caressing her breasts for what seems like several minutes, nonstop, before putting her top back on, and the scene ends. I understand that most nudity in horror is unnecessary, but this was just egregious and confusing.

Black Roses is a bit silly but a whole lot of entertainment. I was endlessly enjoying the entirety of this horror rock show, flaws and all. It might just be my favorite of the rock-n-roll horror films from that time period, and if you’ve missed this gem, check it out now.

-Kyle A. Goethe

[31 Days of Horror: Resurrection] Day 25 – Lot 36 (2022)

Director: Guillermo Navarro
Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Sebastian Roche, Demetrius Grosse, Elpidia Carrillo
Screenplay: Regina Corrado, Guillermo del Toro
45 mins. Rated TV-MA.

This week, the first installments of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities has premiered. The series or short features is, in many ways, a spiritual successor to Night Gallery and Masters of Horror, and I’m very glad to see a return of the anthology host in del Toro. Our first story is based on an idea crafted by del Toro himself, and it’s a strong start.

Nick Appleton (Tim Blake Nelson, Nightmare Alley, The Incredible Hulk) is a veteran looking to pay off his many debts by purchasing expired storage lockers and selling off the contents. When he buys up Lot 36, a rental that’s been owned for decades by an eccentric loner who has recently passed away. As he starts pawning off items, he begins to learn that the items in this storage locker have a demonic and monstrous origin.

The screenplay, from Regina Corrado and del Toro, does a great job at crafting interesting characters. Our leads aren’t all that likable, but Corrado and del Toro are able to imbue them with an understanding for their shitty attitudes and actions. Especially with the character of Nick, the screenplay is used to elevate the subtext around racism through fear, misdirected aggression, and the abandoning of veterans.

Sebastian Roche (The Adventures of Tintin, 6 Underground) is another standout here with such a small screen presence. Ever since his role on TV’s Fringe, I’ve been surprised by how much exposition Roche can give without ever getting bogged down in it.

Perhaps the only flaw of Lot 36 is that it just kind of ends right when it gets ramped up. We hit a moment when the narrative officially opens up and tells us what’s happening, and then about 3 minutes of intensity, and then the story is over. I felt like there was a lot of solid buildup and not enough payoff.

Lot 36 is a solid start to the Cabinet of Curiosities, promising great things ahead for this promising anthology. While the feature’s finale moves a little too fast, this is still an entertaining and engrossing tale full of style.

-Kyle A. Goethe

[31 Days of Horror: Resurrection] Day 24 – The Kiss of the Vampire (1963)

Director: Don Sharp
Cast: Clifford Evans, Noel Willman, Edward De Souza, Barry Warren
Screenplay: Anthony Hinds
88 mins. Not Rated.

Back in 1963, Paranoiac was released in a double-bill with The Kiss of the Vampire. This was a staple of the time, and the studio would often drop an “A” film to begin and a “B” film that the studio has less faith in. I’m just guessing here, I think The Kiss of the Vampire was probably not the “A” film.

Gerald (Edward De Souza, The Golden Compass, The Spy Who Loved Me) and Marianne Harcourt (Jennifer Daniel, Wuthering Heights, The Reptile) are celebrating their marriage with a honeymoon in Bavaria when their car runs out of gas. They are taken in by the kind and welcoming Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Doctor Zhivago). What they do not know is that Dr. Ravna and his family are part of a vampiric cult who plan to secretly kidnap and indoctrinate Marianne.

I remember reading that director Don Sharp (Psychomania, Rasputin: The Mad Monk) was not all that interested in making horror movies, and it shows here. Kiss of the Vampire spends so much time not being a horror movie that when the required horror elements start entering the story about an hour in, it’s lost a lot of goodwill. It’s a shame because there’s some good stuff in the finale of this one, but everything leading up to it is so bland that the mere hint of anything worthwhile is exciting. There’s a mild seduction happening to Gerald and Marianne from the vicious cult that could’ve been rather enticing, but it doesn’t lean into this at all.

Sharp had planned on going against the grain here, making something unlike Hammer’s previous vampire fare, which he does, and the mythology around the cult is interesting (when it’s finally revealed). Kiss of the Vampire was originally crafted to be the third Hammer Dracula film, following Horror of Dracula and The Brides of Dracula, seemingly to continue the series without Christopher Lee if he chose not to return, but when they were able to secure him for Dracula: Prince of Darkness, this one ended up being a standalone. Fun fact: the movie was initially delayed a bit to avoid comparisons with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The comparisons are minute, and they only involve a few sequences near the tail-end of the film.

There are a few engaging performances in the film, primarily from Clifford Evans (The Curse of the Werewolf, The Proud Valley) as the mysterious Professor Zimmer who stays in the hotel nearby our honeymooning lovebirds and Barry Warren (Lawrence of Arabia, Frankenstein Created Woman) as Dr. Ravna’s “son” who rides a line between suspicious and likable. The rest of the cast is ultimately wasted meandering around a castle for far too long looking for plot development.

The Kiss of the Vampire has a lot of the style and production design of the best Hammer horror, but it’s missing a lot of substance that could’ve made this another classic in the catalog. It’s fine, but a director more interested in horror could’ve added something really incredible to this premise.

-Kyle A. Goethe

[31 Days of Horror: Resurrection] Day 23 – Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Director: Adrian Lyne
Cast: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Danny Aiello, Matt Craven
Screenplay: Bruce Joel Rubin
113 mins. Rated R.

I think I actively avoided Jacob’s Ladder for a number of years. My reasoning isn’t quite sound: I had a feeling it wasn’t really horror, and I had this general idea that I knew where the film was headed, and it carried a legendary status among non-horror fans as a horror classic, which made me question its validity within the genre. As stated, this is not sound reasoning, but it’s the reasoning I had. Eventually, at the behest of my Kyle & Nick on Film co-host, Nick, I finally got around to seeing Jacob’s Ladder.

Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins, The Shawshank Redemption, Top Gun) is a Vietnam vet who’s been trying to get back to a normal life. He’s in a passionate relationship with a co-worker, Jezebel (Elizabeth Pena, The Incredibles, Rush Hour), and he’s got a doctor helping him fix his back and spine from his military time. On the outside, life seems to be returning a semblance of normality, except that Jacob is seeing things that aren’t there, or are they? Now, Jacob can’t discern what’s real and what’s a dream, does it matter, and what’s happening to him?

Jacob’s Ladder is a film of patience. It doesn’t really answer any questions until the final few minutes. There are layers to the story that peel back, and you get some clarity on the narrative, but every time I felt like I was starting to understand, the narrative added a new kernel of information that changed my perception on the story. The screenplay, by Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, Deep Impact) was a much longer and more overwhelming story, but director Adrian Lyne (Deep Water, Lolita) took the narrative and ran with it, creating a more confusing but never frustrating watch. I was willing to trust the film and the filmmaker on good faith that the conclusion would be satisfying, and that trust was paid off in full. It seems like the kind of narrative that had a number of interesting potential conclusions, so each time Rubin’s script disregards one satisfying reveal to twist the knife further, it’s a risk, and yet when it reached the ending, it made for a movie I wanted to immediately rewatch and discuss with someone.

Tim Robbins is able to tackle this interesting cold-to-warm presence in many of his roles, and he would become more notable for this in The Shawshank Redemption. He can appear to be so cold, weightless, blown in by the wind when alone, and yet he can have a vibrancy in scenes with Jacob’s friends and family. It’s that ability to shift his character tone to match the scene and still remain convincing as Jacob that makes him one of the more powerful presences on film up to today.

My favorite shared scenes in the film come from Jacob’s interactions with his doctor, Louis (Danny Aiello, The Godfather Part II, Leon: The Professional). There’s a fatherly, guiding way that Aiello plays Louis, a teacher of mentor to Jacob in his time of need, Aiello’s portrayal comes off as more than a physical doctor, but a metaphysical, psychological, and emotional presence trying to give Jacob all the support he can. Side note: Lyne partnered with real chiropractors to ensure authenticity in these sequences, which is commendable and always appreciated.


Lyne made some changes to the finite rules of Rubin’s script, mainly in how he portrays the various horrors presented to Jacob. Rubin’s script has literal demons showing up, complete with horns, hooves, and wings. Lyne decided to make the creature effects more diverse and unique, and he uses in-camera trickery to unnerve both Jacob and the audience. The decision was made to accomplish all of these effects during production, a smart move considering that most early-90s CGI tends to age rather poorly. Some of the effects, including the use of low frame rate to create the unsettling shaky vision, are still being used in films today. It’s also notable that Lyne ensured that Jacob and the various visions never appeared in the same shot so that there’s a distinguish between the very-real Jacob Singer and the potentially unreal visions.

Back to the literal take in Rubin’s screenplay, Lyne’s choice to use elements from Jacob’s life in the finale made for a horror film that has a surprising amount of hope, and both times I’ve watched the film, this finale brought me to tears. The uncredited (and very young) Macauley Culkin as Jacob’s dead son coming to console him and guide him up to the next place is absolutely shattering. Lyne’s choice of using the staircase as a ladder after the odyssey takes him away from his family and brings him to the sexual, carnal Jezebel only to welcome him back home brings Jacob full-circle to what really mattered to him throughout his life, his home, his family. I usually hate endings where the entire movie is a dream, and I kept assuming that was a distinct possibility, but this time around, it was very effective for me. I think that’s because Lyne’s execution doesn’t undermine the journey he’s been on. While his body didn’t physically go on this journey, but to his brain and soul, this all really happened on his journey up the ladder.

It’s easy to see the influence of Jacob’s Ladder on modern horror, even as far as being a inspiration for the Silent Hill video game series. While there are a few story logic problems I have with narrative (nitpicks for the most part) and I’d have rather gotten a clearer look at some of the practical effects, Adrian Lyne’s horror show is well worth checking it, and then thinking on it for a bit, and then watching it all over again. Jacob’s Ladder comes highly-recommended.

-Kyle A. Goethe

[31 Days of Horror: Resurrection] Day 22 – Paranoiac (1963)

Director: Freddie Francis
Cast: Janette Scott, Oliver Reed, Sheila Burrell, Alexander Davion, Lilian Brousse, Maurice Denham
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster
80 mins. Not Rated.

Hammer Horror is a term that seems to specifically reference the big horror icons through the lens of the Hammer: Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. It goes much further, though, and dives into a wide berth of creepy tales from the legendary studio. Today, we’ll talk about one of the thrillers where the monsters are human: Paranoiac.

It’s been eleven years since the dual tragedies of the Ashby family. First, the parents died in an airplane crash. Soon after, son Tony (Alexander Davion, Valley of the Dolls, The Plague of the Zombies) committed suicide. In the years since, the Ashby family has remained quite reclusive, but now, with the inheritance about to be delivered to Simon (Oliver Reed, Gladiator, The Brood), a man shows up at the homestead claiming to be Tony, but is it really? While several family members doubt Tony’s survival, his sister Eleanor (Janette Scott, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, The Day of the Triffids) wants more than anything to believe him. Is this man really Tony, or someone after the inheritance?

Director Freddie Francis (Tales from the Crypt, Dracula Has Returned From the Grave) started his career in cinematography, and he spent a lot of time in the tail end of his career doing the same, but during this time period, he helmed quite a few Hammer Horror films, both in color and also in Black-and-White. Paranoiac is a perfect B&W film because it has a lot of elements of classic horror/thrillers. This is a horror film of dialogue and character-driven thrills. Francis and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (The Horror of Frankenstein, Fear in the Night) keep a number of secrets and reveals close to the chest, and the 80-minute run time allows for all killer, no filler. We are quickly given all the main players to the narrative in Simon, Eleanor, and Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell, Cold Comfort Farm, Afraid of the Dark), who controls the inheritance as our film opens. As we see, the family is full of conflict before Tony even enters the narrative. It’s interesting to see how Tony exacerbates the situation for everyone involved, and then discovering the layers behind each of them beginning to unravel, it’s clear that, whether or not Tony is real, his presence here will change the individual family members forever.

The standout here is, as always, Oliver Reed as Simon. A drunk, womanizing, space-waster, Simon is the one blessed with the more layered character, and he makes use of it. He’s wasted every little bit of money that Aunt Harriet has given him on booze and good times, and now his goodwill is gone, and he’s getting by on IOUs and credit. He’s even trying to get Eleanor committed in order to gain on her portion of the inheritance. He’s a man who has lost his parents, forfeited his good standing in town, and now seeks to betray his remaining allies in order to get a step ahead.

Eleanor has an unusual relationship with Tony. She’s the most-affected by his absence, and she’s the first one to see him initially, and he only officially appears to her when she tries to commit suicide the same way he supposedly did. Their relationship is complicated by his return because she’s lifted him to this high pedestal, evolving a love for him that pushes past familial into the realm of romantic entanglement. It creates a complexity in their engagements and also furthers the question of the identity of Tony.

The film unfolds at a nice enough pace until the final minutes, when every story point is concluded very quickly, some of them satisfactory, some not. It’s a shame that some of these story threads are not fully concluded when the rest of the film moves along quite nicely. It doesn’t derail the story, but I wish the final moments were worthy of the preceding 75 minutes

Paranoiac gets comparisons to Psycho, but I think the film stands on its own as a thrilling and exciting little mystery that shows its cards at the right time and, barring a few missteps in the finale, creates an eerie mood where no one can be trusted, least of all our lead characters. It’s a compelling narrative that’s well worth the time.

-Kyle A. Goethe

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