Wednesday, November 13, 2013

COOL FLICKS: I Put a Spell on You

The one, the only -- Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe)

Even though I am already seeing Christmas ads on TV (!) and my local cafis prominently displaying a selection of "holiday" cards beside the Kind bars, breath mints, and other impulse buys near the cash register it is still the "Season of the Witch" for me. Thankfully, Jack-o-lanterns far outnumber Christmas wreaths in my 'hood.

With only three days left before the big costume parade on Halsted Avenue and trick or treating everywhere else I have time to sneak in my suggestions for a Halloween mini- movie festival for your DVD player. Most of these films are easily available on DVD and a few can be found online. Looking for unusual frights and shivers? Sample a few or all of these suitably chilling Halloween movies all having to do with spell casting whether literal or metaphorical. We begin with the most recent and travel back in time to the oldest.

OUTCAST (2010) - an original take on witchcraft and spell casting from a Scottish TV writer/director Colm McCarthy is his feature film debut. A young man is being stalked by a powerful warlock and his mother (Kate Dickie) resorts to witchcraft and runic spells to protect him. Meanwhile a mysterious beast terrorizes the countryside committing gruesome murders. The stories intersect in a chilling climax. A brutal horror film that is also at its heart the story of mother who will stop at nothing to protect her child.

Travel to the Louisiana bayou for a little lesson in hoodoo of the American south. Not at all the same as voodoo as you will learn in THE SKELETON KEY (2005). Kate Hudson -- normally not at all one of my favorites -- plays a hospice worker who is charged with taking care of the dying patriarch (John Hurt at left) of an old plantation family. Hurt at first seems to be dying of a terminal illness, but is he actually being scared to death? What is he so frightened of? Is his loss of speech a medical condition or the result of spellcasting?

Secrets in the attic, midnight strolls in a spooky Southern Gothic mansion, and a whole lot of witchery and superstition are the ingredients in this combination fright flick and mystery story. Gene Rowlands and Peter Sarsgaard round out the fine cast. Hudson is actually rather good in this one and the story is so well told (original script by Ehren Kruger who also wrote the very fine Arlington Road as well as Impostor and The Ring) and shot you soon find yourself completely engrossed in the mysterious and very spooky goings on.

Rufus Sewell succumbs to the siren song of a deadly mermaid

SHE CREATURE (2001) was part of a somewhat successful attempt to revisit old monster movies from the 1950s in a cable TV series called "Creature Features." The original was also called She Creature but that is all they have in common. This remake (the best of the series, IMO) uses the legends of mermaids and the Sirens of Greek mythology, sets the film in Victorian England and is a vast improvement. I enjoyed it a lot.

Sewell & Gugino notice a change in the catch of the day

Sebastian Gutierrez wrote and directed this homage to old Hammer horror flicks and casts Rufus Sewell and Carla Gugino as a couple of con artists trying to pass off Gugino as a mermaid in a lame sideshow act. When they find a real mermaid they capture her, cage her and exploit her for a money making exhibit that will outdo their previous pathetic attempts. They get a lot more than they bargained for with this very angry mermaid. The ending is completely over-the-top but just plain perfect for a monster movie. Sewell and Gugino are splendid, but the real stars of this retro monster movie are the make-up designer and the special effects team.

While not a legitimate horror movie per se APARTMENT ZERO (1988) is still one of the creepiest and under-appreciated films out there. Definitely scary enough to add to any evening of Halloween films. It may be the only arty slasher film in existence. Colin Firth in one of his earliest screen performances shows just why he deserves that recent Oscar. He plays Adrian LeDuc, a loner art film theater owner, who out of financial need rents a room in his apartment to mysterious stranger Jack Carney played by 80s hunk Hart Bochner. The two develop a very strange friendship and soon LeDuc is shielding his roommate when Jack is suspected of being a serial killer. Written and directed by Argentinian filmmaker Martin Donovan whose real name is Carlos Enrique Valera y Peralta-Ramos.

Donohoe doing her snake act

Can there be a more hysterically funny, bizarrely surreal, and ridiculously erotic horror movie than THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988)? If there is, I haven't found it yet. Ken Russell has taken Bram Stoker's weakest novel of the supernatural and transformed it into a campy, slithery, fright fest that could also be a very perverted herpetophile's wet dream. A mix of surreal nightmare sequences, over the top sex scenes, a generous helping of offensive blasphemy, and an absurd use of snake and phallic imagery The Lair of the White Worm is one head trip of a horror movie. Add to that hodgepodge one of the most delightfully weird performances in the person of the sexy and witty Amanda Donohoe as Lady Sylvia Marsh and you can't go wrong. Hugh Grant is the hapless hero caught up in Lady Sylvia's serpentine spell. The first time I saw this movie I couldn't believe half of what I was seeing. To this day I have yet to see a horror film this daring when it comes to mixing sex and laughs and scares.

Looks like 1988 was a banner year for spooky movies. THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is also from that penultimate 80s year. Bill Pullman plays a doctor who travels to Haiti because he has heard of a drug used in creating a state of suspended animation that might be the origin of zombie mythology and inadvertently stumbles into the dangerous world of voodoo. Zakes Mokae is the powerful voodoo priest who utters the line "I want to hear you scream" in one of horror cinema's truly bloodcurdling and nerve-wracking torture sequences. Based on a true story of a botanist who did research into the toxic and hallucinogenic plants used in Haitian voodoo rituals.

What's Halloween without a monster or two? I've always loved Roddy McDowall and when he plays slimy villains he's at his best. He does a sort of Norman Bates redux role in IT! (1967), a remake of the old silent German expressionist film The Golem (1920). The movie also has Jill Haworth and it is largely due to these two actors that the movie isn't an utter disaster. Unintentionally funny and campy beyond belief It! does what all monster movies do well -- takes a preposterous story and make it thoroughly entertaining.

Watching ol' Roddy become master of the murderous statue and using it to eliminate everyone who angers him is too much fun. His performance makes it easier to forgive the story's frequent lapses in common sense. But that's what makes it one of my favorite monster flicks. What may not be so easy to forgive or overlook is the ridiculous apocalyptic ending involving nuclear warheads that should've obliterated half of England.

Conjure Wife is one of the more intriguing treatments of witchcraft in a modern setting. Charles Beaumont, best known for his work on TV's Twilight Zone adapted Fritz Leiber's novel for the screen and it remains faithful to the themes of the book. Retitled BURN, WITCH, BURN (1962) (or THE NIGHT OF THE EAGLE, depending on whether you live in the US or UK) the story works both as satire and horror story. Burn, Witch, Burn is nonetheless a chilling tale of superstition, spells and black magic. Perhaps the least gory of the films appearing on my Halloween film fest list this year it still holds a high place on the honor role of effective movies involving witchcraft. Also it earns special points for simultaneously being an intelligent movie that skewers the world of academia for its satiric touches on the bureaucracy of universities and the way in which wives control their husband's destinies.

Janet Blair resorts to witchery to save her husband's life and careerThis post is by and appears in its original form at Pretty Sinister Books. Please visit for more insightful and bantering commentary on forgotten but worthwhile books and movies. All written content is (c) 2011-2013 by John Norris.
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