The Hell Plaza Oktober-Minifest 2017: House

When the average moviegoer thinks of Japanese horror movies, the first (and possibly only) thing that pops to mind is likely the Godzilla series. If you ask the more Criterion Collection-obsessed fan about the subject, they might bring up the sublimely creepy supernatural thrills of Kwaidan or Ringu. All of these movies have their merits and deserve their places in the horror pantheon. But if you continue to explore the country’s genre efforts, eventually you’ll get to Nobuhiko Obayashi’s delirious 1977 film House. And once you do, you’re never gonna forget it. There are plenty of horror movies but there aren’t a whole lot from any country that are quite like House.

The plot itself is relatively straightforward. A teenage girl (named Gorgeous, your first indication of the broad strokes this movie is painted in) is disappointed to learn that her summer vacation with her film composer dad is going to be crashed by his new fiancée. Still mourning the death of her mother, Gorgeous contacts her estranged aunt, who lives alone in a remote country house. The aunt responds that she’d love a visit, so Gorgeous and her six friends (Sweet, Prof, Mac, Melody, Fantasy and Kung Fu) head off alone for the country, their school-teacher chaperone promising to follow right behind.

It takes a little while for things to get spooky once the girls arrive at the house. At first, the wheelchair-bound aunt is a gracious host, overjoyed to have company after all these years. The girls take turns cleaning up, cooking, and giggling over inside jokes and crushes. But eventually, they start disappearing one by one and as they do, the aunt grows steadily more youthful and invigorated. No points for guessing the source of her new vitality.

Even though it takes a little while to get to the horror parts of House, the movie is pretty unhinged right from the get-go. The cinematography is bathed in lurid colors and composed of wildly disorienting camera angles, disassociating even the most ordinary scene from any sense of realism. There’s already a sense that anything can happen even before the girls’ heads start turning up in wells and pianos start to devour them. And just as you’re thinking, “This movie is bananas,” a character literally transforms into a pile of bananas, as if Obayashi was reading your mind and decided to see your bet and raise it.

This was Obayashi’s feature directing debut and he threw everything up to and including the kitchen sink into it. The result is absolutely exhilarating, a haunted house ride like none other. The only other thing I can compare it to is Takashi Miike’s equally insane The Happiness Of The Katakuris. I could easily see House being an influence on Miike’s most free-wheeling projects. This is the perfect Halloween movie for the jaded horror fan who thinks they’ve seen everything. House is proof that there is always something new under the sun just waiting to be discovered.

The Hell Plaza Oktober-Minifest 2017: Jacob’s Ladder

(SPOILER ALERT: This article will discuss plot points, including the ending, of a film that was released in the previous century. If for some reason you have not yet seen Jacob’s Ladder, adjust your reading plans accordingly.)

When you think horror movies, a murderer’s row of iconic directors immediately pops to mind: Argento, Carpenter, Cronenberg, Hooper, Craven. They’re so familiar to horror fans that first names aren’t necessary. But it can be equally fascinating when a filmmaker not typically associated with scary movies decides to tackle the genre. John Landis and William Friedkin, for example, have only made a couple of horror movies apiece. But those films were strong enough to forever link them to horror. You could make the same case for Stanley Kubrick. He only made one but I think most people (besides Stephen King, of course) think it was a pretty solid effort.

Then you have the real outliers, folks who are just visiting the dark side. Think Rob Reiner (Misery), Robert Zemeckis (What Lies Beneath and the horror-adjacent Death Becomes Her), and pretty much everybody who ever directed an episode of Tales From The Crypt. But surprisingly enough, one of the darkest visions from these horror dabblers came from the guy who directed Flashdance.

In 1990, Adrian Lyne was riding high on the blockbuster success of Fatal Attraction (a movie that’s usually classified with the higher-class “suspense thrillers”…but come on, it’s basically a horror movie). He had enough clout to get Jacob’s Ladder out of development hell and into production. Bruce Joel Rubin’s script for Jacob’s Ladder had been kicking around for years, with such names as Ridley Scott and Sidney Lumet taking a crack at it. Lyne made some significant changes to Rubin’s script, lending the finished film a much more disturbing atmosphere than it likely would have had otherwise. (Rubin, of course, had another big paranormal hit of a much different kind in 1990 with Ghost.)

Lyne cast Tim Robbins (then best known for his comedic work in such films as Bull Durham and…um, Howard The Duck) as Jacob Singer. During the Vietnam War, Singer is badly wounded in a brutal firefight that wipes out much of his platoon. Back in the States, he’s a postman struggling to return to civilian life. He’s separated from his wife following the traumatic death of their son, Gabe (played, somewhat distractingly, by an uncredited Macaulay Culkin). Even worse, he’s begun to suffer from severe hallucinations, high fevers and other ailments. When one of his old Army buddies (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is mysteriously killed, he compares notes with the other survivors of his platoon (including Ving Rhames and Eriq La Salle). They come to the conclusion that something must have happened to them back in Vietnam and whatever it was, it’s coming back to haunt them.

So far, so good. Lyne films all of this with a palpable sense of dread and menace, his signature carefully placed shafts of light and banks of rolling fog getting put to great use. The hallucinations Jacob endures are genuinely disturbing, from a near miss on a subway track to the bravura sequence with Jacob strapped down on a gurney in one of the creepiest abandoned hospitals in film history, being tended to by eyeless doctors with hypodermic needles the size of trombones. But here’s the thing (and here comes that spoiler I warned you about at the top): Jacob’s dead. He was mortally wounded in that firefight and died in a mobile hospital tent while still in ‘Nam.

When I first saw Jacob’s Ladder back in 1990, this reveal soured the entire movie for me. For one thing, it’s not exactly a twist. We’re explicitly told several times that this is exactly what’s going on. Jacob even has a palm reader tell him point blank that he’s dead pretty early on. It’s a little like if Citizen Kane had opened with the words, “My sled!” instead of “Rosebud”.

Also, it essentially turns the entire film into a protracted version of the great short subject An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge (which also aired as an episode of The Twilight Zone). There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that (although I admit to being biased against movies that take longer to do the same exact thing as a much shorter predecessor). But Jacob’s hallucinatory life is filled with details and characters that are extremely specific. These certainly help sell the reality of the situation but don’t quite fit comfortably once they’re revealed for what they are.

Danny Aiello’s role as an angelic chiropractor (I assume either Ruben or Lyne have had some serious back problems) is easy enough to explain away. But Elizabeth Peña has a thankless role as Jacob’s “current” girlfriend who presumably never actually existed. We get no sense that this is some other figure from his past who he has recast into this role. She’s presumably a demon (her name is Jezebel, after all) but for the most part, she seems like an overwhelmed young woman who’s genuinely trying to help her partner. Almost all of the other hallucinatory characters have a mysterious aloofness to them that sets them apart. But Peña seems like a real person and it’s a shame that she and the audience aren’t given more to work with.

All this being said, there are plenty of people who admire Jacob’s Ladder in its entirety and find it to be a disturbing and even profound horror movie. For me, it remains a movie full of brilliant individual moments that unfortunately don’t ever add up to anything more than that. The allegorical elements don’t seem entirely thought out, which may be a result of Lyne’s tinkering with Ruben’s script. As long as the movie focuses on Jacob Singer’s brilliantly art-directed hallucinations and paranoia, it works like gangbusters. It’s only when it tries to spin the horror into something more meaningful that it goes awry. I find Jacob’s Ladder to be a frustrating near-miss. As always, your mileage may vary.

The Hell Plaza Oktober-Minifest 2017: Phantasm Ravager

For eight years, from 2007 to 2014, I ran an annual October review-a-thon for The Digital Bits called the Hell Plaza Oktoberfest. As you probably already know (or can figure out if you have any idea what holiday is most closely associated with October), the premise was that I would review a horror (or horror-adjacent) DVD every day for the entire month. This doesn’t sound like it should be too hard. Social media is chock-a-block with posts about horror-movie-a-day challenges. Plenty of people even write up their reviews on blogs, Facebook, Letterboxd and anywhere else words can be posted online. It’s really not that big a deal.

The thing is, I wasn’t exactly doing that. I wasn’t reviewing a movie a day. I was reviewing a DVD or Blu-ray release a day and that frequently meant multiple movies, plus hours of bonus content. For every bare-bones movie-only DVD I reviewed, there’d be something like Scream Factory’s 6-movie Vincent Price Collection or the Masters Of Horror television series. What I’m trying to say is these things took time.

Anyway, I began to get a little burned out after 8 years and decided it was time to pull the plug on Oktoberfest. I thought eight installments was a respectable run for a horror franchise. Most don’t make it that far and if they do, they’ve usually started to truly suck. That’s right around the time where the word “reboot” starts getting tossed around.

This year, I’ve been doing my own personal Oktoberfest at home, trying to watch a horror movie a day. I haven’t been as religious about it as I would if I was still writing for the Bits, missing a day here and there. But that’s just helped remind me why I enjoyed doing it in the first place. So I figured, why not reboot Oktoberfest? Now that I’m not in the DVD review business anymore, all I’d have to worry about is the movie itself, which was always the most fun part about those reviews anyway. I felt that I did a halfway decent job reviewing bonus content and other technical aspects of the discs I covered but I always tried to make it clear that if you were just reading my reviews for analysis of bit-rates and 7.1 remixes, you were in the wrong place. Here at the Electric Theatre, I don’t even have to pretend to care about that stuff.

There were only two problems with Oktoberfest 2.0. One, I wasn’t sure if anyone would really care. Two, I didn’t even think about doing it until October was already halfway over. Fortunately, the outstanding community over at the J.E.T. Facebook page assured me that they did care and helped me pick out a few movies for a Mini-Fest. So let’s give it a shot. If this goes well, you can expect a complete Oktoberfest next year. Until then, what better way to kick off a new installment of a long-running franchise than with a look at another new installment of a long-running franchise?

And say what you will about the Phantasm series, nobody involved with these films can be accused of rushing things to capitalize on their popularity. The first movie came out back in 1979. Since then, Don Coscarelli and friends have gone one to make four more, including last year’s Phantasm: Ravager (or RaVager, depending on how clever you’re feeling with Roman numerals).

First things first: it is nothing short of miraculous that these movies are still being made by essentially the same group of people who made the first one almost 40 years ago. Despite getting briefly sucked into the studio system with Phantasm II, Don Coscarelli has somehow managed to retain control of his cult classic creation. Sure, he handed the directorial reins of Part 5 over to David Hartman but he still co-wrote the script and produced. Offhand, I can’t think of another series whose creators have maintained that kind of focus and autonomy. Even Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell have broadened the Evil Dead tent well beyond the scope of their original effort. Coscarelli and crew just seem to keep plugging along in their own little corner of the universe, away from anyone who might try to interfere with or dilute their vision.

That’s pretty cool but Phantasm: Ravager is the first movie in the series where that sense of isolationism starts to work against it. There’s no question that this movie was made exclusively for Phantasm Phans. And that’s fine. I consider myself a fan. But this is a movie made for people who have seen all four Phantasms multiple times and rewatch them on a regular basis. I like ‘em myself but it’s been almost 20 years since the last one came out. Ravager picks up as if it’s been six months. I have never seen a movie sequel make so little effort toward attracting new fans as this one.

For better or worse, Phantasm: Ravager is essentially The Reggie Show, throwing the spotlight on the guitar-playing ice cream man turned sphere-hunter played by Reggie Bannister. Reggie returns from the events of Phantasm IV alone, wandering the desert and looking for Mike (A. Michael Baldwin). Reunited with his iconic ’71 ‘Cuda, Reggie gets back on the road, still pursued by the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) and his silver spheres. Or maybe not. In another timeline, Reggie is wheelchair-bound and suffering from early onset dementia, reciting his insane-sounding stories to Mike, who is alive and well and has no memory of any of this. Again, or maybe not because Reggie soon finds himself in yet another alternate timeline, this one a post-apocalyptic hellscape ruled by the Tall Man where Mike leads a ragtag group of Mad Max-inspired rebels like Chunk (Stephen Jutras) and Jane (Dawn Cody, who also turns up as…aw, forget it…it doesn’t really matter).

Believe it or not, this is both more and less confusing on screen than it is on paper. Narrative clarity has never been the strong suit of the Phantasm franchise. It tracks in dream logic that sorta kinda makes sense while you’re watching it. It’s never unclear what timeline you’re in or what’s happening within each one. But what it all’s supposed to mean is another thing. I give Coscarelli and Hartman a lot of credit both for getting the band back together (there are plenty of other surprising callbacks and pop-up cameos here) and for trying to do something kind of ambitious that doesn’t ignore the cast’s advancing age. There’s certainly no reason for the Tall Man to be calling Mike “boy” anymore. But let’s be honest. None of these guys are really strong enough actors to pull off something truly meaningful or emotional. The degree to which this material moves you depends entirely on your own emotional connection to these movies.

Ravager ends up being a tribute to Reggie Bannister, which is fine. He’s certainly earned his day in the sun. But it probably should have been a swan song for Angus Scrimm, who passed away shortly before the movie premiered. You might say, “Sure, it’s easy to say that in retrospect,” considering this movie’s lengthy production time but come on. Scrimm was 89 when he died, so you can’t say it was a shock. I have no doubt they used him as much as they could given his age and that rumble of a voice still carries menace. But it seems to me that if you’re going to make another Phantasm movie and you’re pretty sure it’ll be the last one, at least with Angus Scrimm’s involvement, wouldn’t you do everything you can to highlight his presence? Reggie’s timelines are so scrambled that the Tall Man barely figures in to much of it and eventually, he goes out with a whimper. It’s not what you want from an iconic movie villain’s final appearance.

For all the obvious care and enthusiasm that went into the making of Ravager, the movie is a step backward for the Phantasm series. With its low-grade digital video look and often chintzy effects, it’s clear that they simply did not have the resources to pull off some of the more ambitious sequences. The reveal of Earth as remade in the Tall Man’s image particularly falls flat. The movie feels more like a Kickstarter-backed piece of fan fiction than a professionally produced film. If this is indeed the end of the road for the Tall Man (and with Scrimm’s death, it certainly should be), it’s a well-intentioned but rather ignoble conclusion to the series. For all its faults and quirks, the Phantasm series had more ups than downs. Ravager, unfortunately, lands squarely on the negative side of the balance sheet.