For Halloween, I always liked to go to the New Beverly Cinema in Hollywood to see horror films on the big screen — in 35mm, as they were meant to be seen. Some were bona fide classics and others were just campy yock-fests (like last week’s post — City of the Living Dead.)
The New Beverly is the last surviving revival theater in Los Angeles, supported by Quentin Tarantino. There used to be a lot of them — the Fox Venice (long gone), the Tiffany (now a live theater), the Rialto (closed!), the Nuart (which is now a first-run arthouse) — but the home video revolution killed them all off. And even though it’s easy to get these films on DVD or PPV, it’s still much more fun to watch them with an appreciative audience.
For those of you who will be stuck at home handing out candy, here are some more picks for your Halloween enjoyment…
1. Who greenlighted this mess? Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).
What would Halloween be without a Linda Blair movie? Since the original Exorcist has been discussed to death, I thought I’d focus on its woebegone sequel starring a tipsy Richard Burton, a mystified Louise Fletcher and — above all — Blair herself reprising her role as Regan MacNeil, now an extremely buxom teenager, who has been left in the care of Sharon (Kitty Winn, from the first film) because Ellen Burstyn wisely ducked out of this debacle.
Warner Bros. dumped a bunch of money into this turkey and hired director John Boorman (Deliverance, Zardoz, Excalibur) to helm. I guess they thought his distinctive vision would put a positive spin on this mess. It only created even more confusion. On a positive note, Ennio Morricone’s score is pretty awesome, even though I’m sure he was constantly wondering, “What-a da hell is dissa film about?”
Anyhow, we flash forward to Regan in NYC without Chris. Evidently Mom feels guilty about being away, living the glamorous life and making movies all the time, so she has her daughter put under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Jean Tuskin (Fletcher). Hmmm…nothing says “I love you” like blowing town and leaving your kid with a shrink.
Tuskin’s office is located in what appears to be a combo mental health clinic and day care center. Along with the various patients suffering from various mental illnesses, there are also groups of carefree children laughing, playing and running around.
And did I mention the entire place is made of glass? All the offices…all the walls. So much for doctor-patient confidentiality. And I guess they took it on faith that one of their more troubled patients wouldn’t pick up a chair and begin smashing down said walls one by one.
Enter Father Lamont, played by an extremely intense and sweaty Burton. He has been given the assignment of investigating the exorcism and Father Merrin’s (Max Von Sydow) death from the first film. Barging into Dr. Jean’s office, he demands to see Regan, but she refuses, insisting that the exorcism had done her more harm than good.
I’m not going to go into a long description, because I want to have room to talk about other movies, but let’s just say the remainder of the film contains a hilarious psychiatric device known as a “synchronizer,” a badly-matched double of possessed Regan (Blair refused to wear the makeup again), James Earl Jones in a giant bug suit (I’m not kidding), Fletcher getting her chest massaged by Blair, and a thoroughly lubricated Burton constantly railing against things that are “eee-vil.”
Watch this with a bunch of friends and make a party out of it. It’s so easy to Mystery Science Theater this turkey, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
2. The Ugly Stepchild — Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982).
After the smash success of the original Halloween, Universal Pictures picked up the property and tried to franchise it, visualizing a series of Halloween films that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with Michael Myers but with the holiday itself. Obviously, it didn’t work.
Another sequel that was thoroughly loathed on its original release, Halloween III has actually aged like fine wine. It’s still goofy, but it features some nice gore and fun plot twists. After many video views, I finally saw it theatrically in 2008 at the New Beverly on a double feature with Trick or Treat. Kate Mara and Max Minghella were also in the audience, choosing this double feature as a fun thing to do on a date. Well, hell — it was!
III is the story of a famous mask manufacturer (Dan O’Herlihy), originally from Ireland but relocated to the central coast of California. His diabolical scheme is to plant pieces of Stonehenge, long thought to be a site of witchcraft and supernatural power, into his masks. Then, when a special commercial is broadcast on television, a signal would be sent to the chips in the masks, and all the children wearing them while watching the commercial would all succumb to horrible deaths.
1982 audiences who were expecting another installment of “the night HE came home” (even after the 1981 Halloween II, which was quite literally another — yawn — installment) were disappointed by a ’50s-style tale reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers but with modern gore.
Still, time has been kind to III. The coastal California atmosphere is nice, there are some grimace-inducing deaths, and Dan O’Herlihy, as the sinister owner of Silver Shamrock Novelties, has a field day chewing up the scenery. And he’s so damn happy as he plots the mass murders of…children. So un-PC!
Tom Atkins (The Howling) stars as Dr. Dan Challis, who is understandably miffed when a patient under his care, who had been found nearly dead and clutching a Silver Shamrock mask and feverishly muttering, “They’re going to kill us all,” is viciously murdered in his hospital bed. And I mean vicious — the rubber glove-clad killer inserts his fingers into the patient’s nostrils and cracks open his skull!
The dead man’s daughter, Ellie (Stacy Nelkin) arrives, and together she and Dr. Challis travel to the town of Santa Mira to unravel the mystery. This is all Psycho-like — another property Universal owned — so it’s not a coincidence.
Ellie and the Doc impersonate a couple of novelty shop owners picking up a last-minute order of Silver Shamrock masks and are given a VIP tour of the factory. Something just ain’t right, though. When Challis returns later to investigate and uncovers Cochran’s diabolical plot, it’s a race against time to stop the cursed commercial from being broadcast.
Now, there are plot holes you could drive a truck through, to be sure. I mean, there are only three mask designs: a witch, a pumpkin and a skull. Even in 1982, why would this meager selection become the top-sellers in the country? And Challis can call a single person to turn off all the TV networks? And they do?
Back to the film’s stretching of truth. How in the hell did Cochran manage to steal a whole block of Stonehenge and fly it to California? How did he become an all-powerful billionaire from selling Halloween masks? Could it be…Satan? Why would Ellie, who is at least a decade younger than the frumpy-looking Challis, immediately want to jump his bones when they get into their motel room? And why, oh why did they need to include a shot of Tom Atkins’ butt?
The Silver Shamrock jingle will haunt your nightmares. Watch it if you dare. And it raises even more questions: Would the kids in New York die three hours before the ones in Los Angeles? What about daylight savings time? And what if the commercial was pre-empted by a news event or the World Series going into extra innings? I’m just sayin’…
3. The classic: Last Man on Earth (1964).
This first adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is a shot-in-Italy creepfest starring Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, the titular last man.
A mysterious plague has swept through society, transforming everyone else into vampire-like creatures who cannot stand the daylight. Morgan is immune as the result of a vampire bat bite he’d received on a visit to Panama.
He spends his days hunting the creatures down, staking them and burning them in a communal pit. His lonely, terrifying nights are spent in his boarded-up house with the monsters outside trying to break in and moaning his name: “Mo-o-o-rgan!” Flashbacks reveal that he is a research scientist who had been trying to find a cure for the virus — but had obviously failed.
When he meets Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia), she reveals to him that she is a member of a group of survivors who have been infected but are taking an experimental vaccine, allowing them to move about in the daylight when it is in their bloodstream but reverting to vampire form when it wears off.
Their plan is to kill off those who can’t be reclaimed and rebuild society. Since some of the people that Morgan had killed as vampires were actually part of their group, Ruth had been sent to spy on him.
While she is asleep, he gives her a transfusion of his blood, apparently curing her, and they decide to take the cure to the others. Before they can do so, however, the survivors attack, as their plan all along was to kill Morgan before he could destroy them.
Clearly an inspiration for Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and far superior to the Charlton Heston hamfest The Omega Man, Last Man delivers atmosphere and chills in spades.
Price is wonderfully understated as the tormented Morgan, and even the Italian actors and scenery (when it is supposed to be American) don’t prevent you from getting a good case of the goosebumps. Long in the public domain, this was only available as a washed-out bargain basement video, but the MGM DVD restores it to its monochrome widescreen glory on a double feature with the Ray Milland sci-fier Panic in the Year Zero. There’s also a colorized version available, but I’d avoid it like…the plague!
This is one to start at 11:59 on Halloween night and watch it with all the lights off. If that doesn’t get to you, nothing will.
“Mooorrrrr-gaaannn!” Happy Halloween!