Sunday, October 28, 2018

underseen for Halloween, 2018

Busy with else, I for a time forgot All Hallows' Eve.  Fortunately, I neither tarry long, nor stray far from the darkness.
A quartet of amusements for a season of the witch:

Horror Hotel (1960)
spiritual, not religious
This mini-classic still falls below radar, into the monochrome shadow of Psycho, Black Sunday and Carnival of Souls.  It's not helped by a generic title, sometimes edited to the no-better The City of the Dead.
By any name, it's a quick-paced tale of revived witchery in a depopulated New England hamlet, with only notes of wry parody to tell British origin.

Also in the neighborhood: various episodes of Karloff's Thriller, and 1962's Burn, Witch, Burn, although Horror Hotel's studly professor (Christopher Lee) is no skeptic.  Journeyman director John Llewellyn Moxey may've neared the horror pantheon, but for later work being made-for-TV. 

Public-domain versions exist -- buyer beware -- but this isn't so bad on YouTube.  I wished for a version with a different score, rather than nudge-nudge jazz undercutting considerable atmosphere.

The Vault of Horror (1973)
The co-writer of Horror Hotel, Milton Subotsky, later co-founded Amicus, a Hammer competitor best known for anthology films.  These were inspired by EC Comics, banned in the '50s and destined for HBO's '90s Tales From the Crypt series. 
Dating from an era of Anglo-American guilt and surrender, the watchable tales deal punishment to characters who really aren't so bad, making viewers nervous.  Amicus films surrender, too, to inevitable TV comparisons, such as Night Gallery and Hammer House of Horror.
I choose The Vault of Horror partly for "This Trick'll Kill Ya," a weird white-guilt-trip looking to "Amelia," the tiki-doll horror from Dan Curtis's Trilogy of Terror.  Curt Jurgens plays a high-handed impresario who barely has time to regret pursuit of the Indian rope trick.  We're still whistling past the graveyard with such stories, where dominance of the world economy ends in shards, like Flightplan , The Lost Room, and anything by J.J. Abrams.
Look also for Anna Massey of Hitchcock's Frenzy, and dynamic Tom Baker as a pre-Dr. Who rotter in "Drawn and Quartered."

Fortress (1985)
unscheduled field trip
One of many worthwhile films made for HBO during the long, hungry years pre-Sopranos, Fortress is a home-invasion variant boasting the natural beauties of Australia, including Rachel Ward.  She's the lone teacher at a remote schoolhouse, a temptation for miscreants.
Again, we see earlier turns for tropes: intruders in animal masks; victimized characters show steel under pressure; and the bit where survivors stumble on perpetrators.
Still, Fortress seems less from another time as  another culture.  The genre hardly scans in the U.S.: a harsh thriller for family audiences.  While it may not be frightening, it's impressively edgy for a film about, and presumably for school-age children.  Australia remains close to pioneer past, evidently, making this one right for brats needing a booster of gratitude, with a lesson in fending for themselves.  (The film has moderate violence, and brief nudity.)

The House of the Devil (2009)
In the 1970s, horror relocated from cobwebby castles to small towns and suburbs.  In recent films, the realm is so disconnected, intruders come and go almost at will: You're Next, Martha Marcy May MarleneThe Strangers.  
Similarly, Jocelin Donahue never meets the real owners of The House of the Devil.  As college student Samantha, she takes a sketchy babysitting job, for rent money to ditch her slutty roommate.  Her trigger-sin is materialism: not just greed, but a skepticism that becomes its own sort of gullibility.  Tom Noonan's character doesn't try to touch her, after all, and pays cash.  As for the lunar eclipse, surely: news-radio trivia.
Built around a sympathetic lead performance, The House of the Devil is an uber-creepy slow-burn with several jump-scares.  Like The Fields, it's set decades past, to resonate with causes for the-way-we-live-now.

The American communities of midcentury had been condemned, but they were communities; not all the excluded were victims.  The retirement of Father Knows Best evoked competing proposals, but while we argued, the world doesn't stand still.  Some beliefs don't petition for approval.  One thing leads to another.