Scary Movies 3
Through October 22 at the Walter Reade Theater
Shadowing the rollicking 18-film pre-Halloween series at the Walter Reade is the sense that the greatest horror comes from ordinary people confronted with committing terrible acts. Take for example Candyman (1992), part of an eclectically thorough mix that spans staples (foundational werewolf and Dracula pics, Peter Lorre in The Beast with Five Fingers) and post-80s exhumations (The Stepfather, The original Hitcher, Peter Jackson's Dead-Alive). Candyman is known for the titular urban-legend incantation (five times in a mirror summons Tony Todd's pimped-out ghoul with a meathook), but the real fright comes from the abrupt fugue states induced in its grad-student victim-heroine (young Virginia Madsen looking very wholesome-starlet). One of those early 90s white fantasy-nightmares co-starring the Gang-Infested Inner City, it's a pulpy stew of stemwinding legends, and race/independent-woman/tabloid anxieties, plus spooky behind-you voiceover and bee plagues.
Likewise, the superb, unnerving Who Can Kill a Child? (a creepy kid classic) asks whether two British tourists can really fight back on a Spanish island village populated by wordless murderous children. And in The Hitcher (the 1986 version), self-defense quandaries also face a California-bound kid who picks up mindfucker Rutger Hauer (and to his credit, tosses him out fairly quickly). In the story scripted by Eric Red, who wrote the similarly twilit-West Near Dark for Kathryn Bigelow, the young man is soon suspected of his ex-passenger's roadside massacres, and, increasingly wild-haired, must fend off sheriffs in balletic Mojave car chases and roadside face-offs.
Both films look magnificent on the big screen, as does, in a manner of grand guignol speaking, Dead-Alive, a decidedly less conflicted scenario. In this joyous R.Crumbian zombiepalooza replete with comic-book tight close-ups, a milquetoast beats down the risen dead after an imported Sumatran rat-monkey bites his bonkers society momma. Cited by the MPAA for "an abundance of outrageous gore" but going happily cartoonish, Jackson crams in a non-stop LOTR-level of detail and incident (and zombie-baby puppetry) as if it was all already costing him $1 million a second. (Another Antipodean entry is the nature-fights-back flick Long Weekend, spotlit in the recent Ozploitation doc Not Quite Hollywood.)
Among other titles fondly remembered from overstuffed video-store racks is the influential The Stepfather (1987), unavailable on DVD. Lost-er Terry O'Quinn is brilliantly introduced immediately after dispatching one family and taking up with a new one, as is his psychopathic wont. His new wife's daughter suspects his gosh-darn façade—effectively a curdled late Reagan portrait of family values which anticipates the Gen-X TV-made-man conceit and which O'Quinn gives a slight tag-line satire.
In a more classical classic, The Beast With Five Fingers (1946), Peter Lorre is on view at his terrifyingly-shrinking Lorriest, as the easily excitable secretary to a dying maestro in a rural Italian castle. Featuring terrific effects (and an "It's alive" or two), the surreal story of a killer hand on the loose is often traced to Luis Bunuel instead of its William Fryer Harvey source. But director Robert Florey, who wrangles a game cast including unctuous Robert Alda, was an established horror vet (Frankenstein screenwriter, Poe adaptation, a previous Lorre film), in addition to directing the experimental short The Life and Death of 9413, A Hollywood Extra.
Besides Jerzy Skolimowski's excellent The Shout, one last mention should go to Dario Argento's Creepers aka Phenomena (1985), which charmingly skirts the line between dreamlike and daft. Fourteen-year-old sweet rich girl Jennifer Connelly, who can talk to bugs, lands in a European boarding school. Campus murders via segmented spikes, sleepwalking, persecution by an 80s-airbrushed schoolmistress, insect POV and reaction shots, and superior supporting work by a chimp (as entomologist Donald Pleasance's assistant) all ensue. And, perhaps best of all, the young lady's nighttime strolls are jarringly scored to "music by special guests" Iron Maiden, Motorhead, et al. Just another night in what the film calls "the Swiss Transylvania."