Marathon Report: Reeling in the Years

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2011-11-11 09:14

Provided they have the time and energy to pull it off, no genre fan's October is complete without some sort of horror-thon. Maybe itís on or around Halloween (which is really ideal), but itís always been a sort of sacred tradition for myself and many people that I know. As I had way too much time on my hands this past October, I watched 161 horror movies; Iím not proud of this fact, but that averages out to about five a day, which perhaps doesnít sound that bad. However, in reality, I accomplished this ignominious ďfeatĒ by squeezing out a lot of wire-to-wire marathons, which was aided by both low IQ and high gluttony for punishment. I watched at least nine movies in a day multiple times, and I thought itíd be interesting to chronicle one particularly serendipitous marathon that saw me watch a movie from nine different decades--sort of a tour de force through the years, I guess.

Mind you, it didnít start that way, as you can tell by the order in which they were watched and the quality of the films involved. Had I set out with this goal from the start, I probably would have lined this with more impressive titles; instead, what youíre about to see is a rather spontaneous day that was all over the map and the genreís history. Most people would probably strive to hit some high points, but this day took a bizarre turn and included a mix of icons and also-rans, high art and low art, all of which melted into a broth with a variety of flavors--some sweet, some sour, not unlike your trick or treating loot each year.

Rattlers (1976)
    I generally like to start my day off with something light and, well, crappy. Thereís something about daylight hours that donít lend themselves well to watching anything genuinely creepy, so the morning and afternoon hours are reserved for gore fests and silly creature features. Rattlers fits the latter bill, obviously, as itís about a bunch of killer snakes. Well, actually, itís about an intrepid duo (Sam Chew and Elisabeth Chauvet) waltzing around and investigating a bunch of mysterious deaths involving fatal snakebites. Goofy cops and cantankerous army generals aid them in their quest to figure out just why a bunch of slithering reptiles are so pissed off; cheap and stupid, it could also have an odd feminist subtext, as Chauvetís character is one of those pesky womenís libbers who is charged with the task of exterminating a bunch of murderous, phallic animals. At any rate, I love how Rattlers climaxes just as youíd expect any killer snake movie would: with a big shootout, complete with a huge explosion.

Zombie Bloodbath (1993)

    Speaking of gory (and crappy), the first entry in Todd Sheets's epic SOV undead trilogy is certainly the best, if only because it clocks in at a scant 70 minutes (any longer and I think the surgeon general begins issuing warnings about dwindling brain cells). Sheets is likely the auteur of the video scene, as he managed to direct a staggering 34 movies over the course of fifteen years (though itís less staggering when you consider that these seemed to be shot over the course of a few weekends). Zombie Bloodbath is actually fairly awesome as far as these things go and shows a lot of flair and style in the form of some ambitious camerawork and gruesome panache. No one could assemble a ridiculous cast of amateurs (my favorite here is frequent collaborator Jerry Angell and his mullet) and tear them apart at the hands of an undead horde better than Sheets, who unsubtly asks you to think about all of the death and destruction mankind inflicts upon the world. If Romero is subtle as an anvil, then Sheets practically drops an anvil factory on your face.

Screamtime (1986)

    For the 80s, I went with this little anthology whose stories are actually British, yet they seem to be tied together by an American frame story that likely is a result of its distribution. Interestingly enough, Zombie Bloodbath ended in a video store, and this one begins in one, as some New York City punks decide to rip off some tapes. To hide out from the cops, they crash at a girlís house and watch their loot, which comprise the trio of tales in the feature. The first involves a kindly old puppeteer with rotten luck (and an even more rotten stepson), while the middle segment features a suburban family who moves into a haunted houses. Capping the trilogy is a story about another house thatís infested with killer gnomes. Not a bad collection of tales, and they show some nice variety, but this isnít the most memorable of anthologies outside of the clever wraparound segment that ends in a clever twist. Plus, I really like one of the guysí running commentary, particularly his insistence that he can tell these movies are British by ďthe way they talk.Ē

Queen of Blood (1966)

    You only need to check the cast list to see the allure of this one. Featuring John Saxon, Dennis Hopper, and Basil Rathbone as a group of astronauts and scientists who stumble upon a mysterious extraterrestrial being in the year 1990, Queen of Blood is pretty neat. As you can possibly surmise from the title, this is yet another movie that imagines vampires as aliens; itís in the middle of that particular pack, as it misses the garish sensibilities of Goke and the campy lunacy of Lifeforce. Of course, itís quite quaint and slightly amusing in retrospect like so many of these films are, as it imagines a future where quick jaunts to a moon are not only a foregone conclusion, but are also a regular practice of a British space program.

Phantom of the Opera (1943)

    Once the sun would set everyday, Iíd finally be compelled to move into classic territory; something about these films makes them work better as night falls. On this particular day, I was in dire need of a sure thing, so I revisited Universalís second take on Gaston Lerouxís novel; one of the more underappreciated efforts from the studioís second generation of horror flicks, Phantom of the Opera is also one of the more ornate exercises in pure style and set design the genre has ever seen. With its gorgeous sets and dreamy Technicolor, itís a lavishly wonderful update of the silent effort from the 20s. While Claude Rains might not go down as the most memorable phantom, he channels the characterís sympathetic side; as ghastly as it must have been for audiences in the 40s, it was likely equally as haunting--and beautiful.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

    It was at this point that I realized Iíd inadvertently watched five movies from five different decades, so I decided to go ahead and keep the trend up by going all the way back to the silent era. Though Iíd seen this one before on a cheap public domain disc, I gave it a proper look on Kinoís DVD, which I think I actually acquired for last yearís October viewings (better late than never, I suppose). Despite all of the mediumís technological advances in the 90 years since this filmís release, it remains one of the genreís most nightmarish and otherworldly experiences, featuring a menagerie of ghoulish sights and sounds. Films like this are genuinely eerie, as it seems like filmmakers like Wiene were fully committed to employing their limited (by modern standards) resources to completely transport you into their imagination. A brilliantly realized and ethereal journey fuelled by mystery, it climaxes in a twist that only feels tired because itís been recycled dozens of times since.

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

    No marathon would be complete without an appearance from my favorite classic horror icon, Boris Karloff, and the title of this one says it all: no one could cheat death quite as well as the stalwart icon. Once again playing a sympathetic scientist trying to unlock the secrets of the life, heís sentenced to death--but not before he gives a brilliant, eloquent speech to his jury that ruminates upon the nature of life and knowledge. When he returns from the dead, heís in a less talkative mood, as he gathers up those who wronged him in order to exact revenge. Seriously, these things never end well for the hangmen. Equal parts mad scientist and old dark house flicks, The Man They Could Not Hang is a deft little footnote in Karloffís career that doesnít do a whole lot to separate itself from similar films, though it is a nice precursor to similar, better realized films from later decades, such as The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

    Perhaps the most oddball entry in my marathon, this black and white 50s effort has some definite occult leanings wrapped around a juicy revenge plot. The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is a bit tinged with voodoo, but zombies are nowhere to be found; instead, we have a deranged anthropologist (Henry Daniell) who hates the Drake clan--so much so that heís got a weird, stitched-mouth assistant to murder them so he can collect their heads, which he will shrink down as part of some mysterious ritual. Daniell is quite a nefarious villain despite hiding in plain sight of the filmís protagonists; heís the standout in an otherwise creaky but brisk low-rent production thatís bereft of big set pieces but full of creepy, grisly images that were likely big shockers at the time: severed heads boiling over pots, headless corpses, neck impalements, and more. Of all the films I watched for the first time during this marathon, this is the one Iím most likely to revisit, if only because my eyes were getting kind of heavy at this point. Something tells me itís even better than my memory is recalling it to be.

Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)

    My scattershot marathon day at least ended in a logical place, chronologically speaking, as I flashed back to the previous decade. Purposes intertwined a bit here, as I was already planning to make a run back through the much maligned DTV Hellraiser sequels in preparation for Revelations (man, remember the good days before that was inflicted upon us?) Anyway, Inferno proved to fare a bit better with some distance between it, and its cause is likely also helped by the altogether insufferable entries that followed it. Underpinned by some dark, grim noir sensibilities, this could have been a legitimate reinvigoration of the original filmís formula. Itís much more cerebral and deals with a very personal, psychological portrayal of hell, but manages to be a bit too sloppy and cheap for its own good, plus the main character feels like a woeful parody of noir protagonists. I probably could (and should) have closed such a marathon on a better note to avoid it being book-ended by crap, but it was that kind of day: a full-circle assault from cast-off genres and underseen oddities occasionally punctuated by moments of brilliance and iconic figures in less than iconic moments. While this wasnít Pinhead's worst hour, it certainly wasnít his best, which is just as well for this marathon day.

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