Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

One of the great overlooked rock ‘n’ roll movies of the ages, Phantom of the Paradise has heart, soul, and everything else going for it. If you’ve not had the pleasure, you should rectify that situation.

Written and directed by Brian DePalma, with a score by star Paul Williams, it’s a fabulous ’70s freakout on The Phantom of the Opera, with sensational songs, staging, and costumes that positively revel in the pageantry of those high, hedonistic times.

Williams plays Swan, a seemingly ageless music industry Svengali who needs a new sound to open his ultimate rock palace, The Paradise.

At a show featuring one of his bands, Swan happens to catch the opening act, a nobody singer-songwriter named Winslow Leach (William Finley). Swan sends his agent, Philbin (George Memmoli), to bamboozle the hapless composer out of his entire song catalogue—and set him up to take a fall for dealing heroin, just for good measure.

Sentenced to life in Sing Sing Prison, Leach vows revenge against Swan, manages to escape, and becomes hideously disfigured in a record press accident while destroying Swan’s property.

Now a scarred mute monster, Leach returns to The Paradise, steals a really awesome costume and begins his life as the Phantom, orchestrating a terror campaign against Swan, who is busy trying to arrange Leach’s rock opera to be performed by Beef (Gerritt Graham, who steals the show), a Frank N. Furter-esque Glamazon.

Swan tracks down the Phantom/Leach and puts him under contract to write songs for Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a beautiful backup singer that’s captured his fancy.

The innocent and naive Phoenix is being groomed for success, but Leach doesn’t trust Swan and tries his best to protect her from the malevolent mogul’s diabolical reach.

Brian DePalma (The Untouchables, Dressed To Kill, Body Double) is at the height of his considerable cinematic powers, utilizing snappy split-screen and multi-screen perspectives to keep tabs on several characters at once.

This camera tactic becomes increasingly important as we approach the finale, a gloriously staged wedding extravaganza that culminates with a live assassination on the air.

I could go on for days about the variety of catchy tunes (“Upholstery/Where my baby sits up close to me/That’s supposed to be what life is all about!”), Williams’s masterful turn as Swan, and all the jaundiced observations about show business that still hold true today.

However, I would rather not deprive you of your own dive into this terrific time capsule. The 1970s ruled. Here’s the evidence.

The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, March 1, 2021

One floundering cop’s quest to stop a lupine-styled killer in a small Utah town forms the dramatic basis of The Wolf of Snow Hollow, an impressively atmospheric thriller written, directed, and starring Jim Cummings. 

Instead of focusing on the tortured soul who becomes a wolf when the moon is full and bright, the camera remains bound to Deputy John Marshall (Cummings), a tightly wound recovering alcoholic with more problems on his hands than Ted Cruz.

His father (Robert Forster, in his final screen role) the stubborn town sheriff has a not-so-hidden heart condition that’s slowed him down considerably as retirement looms. 

“This is scary. It’s new. I’ve never seen a body like that,” he tells John after a gruesome victim viewing.

On the home front, John’s teenaged daughter Jenna (Chloe East) is a budding gymnast who also likes to park in cars with local boys, a hobby that nearly results in her mutilation.

The Snow Hollow police force—except for his sturdy partner Officer Julia Robson (Riki Lindhome)—consists of feckless nitwits. This proves significant because Snow Hollow is under siege from a “wolf man” who’s been brutally dismembering members of the community beneath the light of the full moon. 

Deputy John and his department of underachievers have been unable to find the man or animal that is making coleslaw out of the citizenry. They in turn, have no problem reminding the beleaguered boys in blue that they’re a bunch of incompetents.

“Where were you? Where were you?” a bereaved father yells at the frustrated policeman.

John takes this especially hard, often feeling like he’s the only one in town who doesn’t believe the prevailing rumors.

“Let me just make this perfectly clear,” he snarls at his assembled troops. “There is no such thing as werewolves.”

Yet as more evidence of wolfish carnage turns up in bloody piles, John’s anger builds while his grip on reality gets increasingly shaky thanks to a return to old habits and very little sleep.

He bottoms out after being discovered by a concerned police matron (Anna Sward) on the floor of the police station, stoned into a stupor, with a vape pen dangling out of his mouth. The frazzled cop’s personal psychodrama is laid out for the whole town to see in The Wolf of Snow Hollow. John’s increasingly erratic and destructive behavior runs parallel to the fear and horror spilling over in the community he’s supposed to protect.

After Jenna makes a narrow escape from the wolf man, John realizes he can’t even protect his own daughter, forcing him to sober up and get serious about his mission to rid the town of a beastly killer. This in turn becomes his means of personal (and professional) salvation.

“You want to be the sheriff? How about we start acting like one?” Officer Robson tells him.

As a filmmaker, Cummings has the visual flair to create chilling tableaux. Scenes of moonlit stalking and slaughter are tightly edited for maximum fright, and we get used to seeing the snow run red. As the leading man, Cummings acquits himself well, deftly handling the gradual disintegration of a determined deputy and dad by forces beyond his control.

 “When do I get to be right about something?” John wonders aloud.

It takes about three-quarters of The Wolf of Snow Hollow’s running time to find out.

Happy Death Day (2017)

Can beleaguered sorority girl Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) solve her own murder on her birthday?

Happy Death Day swipes the central motif from Bill Murray’s romantic comedy Groundhog Day, and sticks a knife in it, as Tree gets to relive the same day over and over, concluding with her vicious murder at the hands of a baby masked maniac.

Tree begins her recurring day by waking up in the dorm room bed of Carter (Israel Broussard), a dorky, but genuinely nice guy.

From there, she stumbles past a collection of local collegiate color, blows off a former date, ignores a birthday cupcake, dodges her dad on the phone, goes to a lunch meeting with house Big Sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews), makes out with her handsome (married) professor (Charles Aitken), and attends her own surprise party.

As in Groundhog’s Day, Tree gradually realizes that she’s been a selfish bitch, and uses her birthday mulligan to mend fences with Dad (Jason Bayle), roommate Laurie (Ruby Modine), and Carter, to whom she’s grown quite attached.

Tree even contrives to knock off a serial killer (Rob Mello) that’s in the vicinity, but to no avail. Someone keeps murdering her.

Director Chris Landon (son of Little House papa Michael Landon, and director of Freaky) and writer Scott Lobdell cram a ton of entertainment into a borrowed concept, giving equal time to solving Tree’s murder and improving her interpersonal skills.

Jessica Rothe demonstrates grace under fire (except when she’s losing her shit), evolving from a reckless bimbo to a quick-thinking warrior who won’t let go of her seemingly endless lives without a fight.

Happy Death Day is surprisingly funny and moving, inspiring a sequel two years later, as well as plans for a third film.

I’ll let you know how it all plays out.

Note: The Netflix miniseries Russian Doll, created by Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler, has a similar Do Over Death Day angle. Just sayin’.

Stage Fright (1987)

The lead dancer (Barbara Cupisti) in a theater company sprains her ankle and goes to a nearby mental hospital to get it treated. She catches the eye of notorious serial killer Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), who promptly escapes and hitches a ride back to rehearsal.

Congratulations are in order to the creative triumvirate of director Michele Soavi, and writers Sheila Goldberg and George Eastman, for coming up with the flimsiest pretext ever for a bloody rampage!

When the company wardrobe mistress (Ulrike Schwerk) gets a pick ax through the eye in the theater parking lot, enterprising director Peter (David Brandon) decides to rewrite the script and make it about Wallace, the very maniac currently making hash out of the cast and crew.

You have to admire Peter’s ability to pivot, but seriously?

Director Soavi (Cemetery Man) has collaborated with the likes of Dario Argento, Terry Gilliam, and Lucio Fucli, so we’re in good hands from a visual standpoint. In Stage Fright, he devises splashy, theatrical kills, most notably the chainsaw bifurcation of dancer Sybil (Jo Ann Smith).

Note: Her sad guts are later nibbled on by Lucifer, the theater cat. Naughty kitty!

Stage Fright (Italian title Deliria) is a gaudy product of first-generation MTV aesthetics with a side of giallo, as Soavi’s staccato pulse of quick takes drives home the doomed plight of actors in various stages of distress, pursued by a savage killer in an owl costume.

Trust me, it’s creepy from any angle.

With its New Wave zoom cutting and blaring wall of Rick Wakeman-style synthesizer, Stage Fright is a lurid, fleshy artifact that gyrates at a brisk clip and doesn’t skimp on the carnage.

I call that time well spent.

Blood Vessel (2019)

It’s a clever touch.

Blood Vessel is obviously a movie about vampires on board a ship, but the title also refers to the doomed crew’s containment effort to stop a terrible blood-borne infection from reaching port.

Nutshell: A veritable United Nations of lifeboat survivors from a torpedoed hospital ship are hopelessly adrift somewhere in the water during the waning days of World War II.

There’s two Australians (Nathan Phillips, Alyssa Sutherland), a whiny British spook (John Lloyd Fillingham), a taciturn Russian (Alex Cooke), and a pair of Americans: a useful black sailor (Lydell Jackson), and a surly Italian cook (Mark Diaco) from the mean streets of Central Casting.

The improbable company hops aboard a derelict German ship and spends about 45 minutes exploring its innards, discovering burned, mutilated sailors, priceless art treasures, and an anemic child (Ruby Isobell Hall).

I realize that seems like quite a bit of action, but when spread over the entirety of the running time (a tidy 93 minutes), the pace is almost geologic.

As written and directed by Australian special effects maestro Justin Dix, Blood Vessel is mostly stuff we’ve seen before, wrapping Nazis in occult robes for another spin around the block.

Despite a fondness for familiar tropes, Dix has some inspired moments. His depiction of an Old World vampire clan that does most of its damage from a distance by psychically manipulating the infected sailors, is a fresh idea.

The hands-off approach to slaughter however, somewhat dilutes the impact of these powerful undead beings, though the creature concept and monstrous makeup are on point.

It’s too bad the vampires don’t get more screen time. Instead we learn personal details about members of the doomed crew so that past tragedies can still inform the present—especially when bloodsuckers start messing with their heads.

And with all the bad accents flying around, we’re having enough trouble remembering the parade of nations on display. Fortunately, the Australian speaks German, and the Russian understands Romanian.

With a structural resemblance to Aliens, minus the tension, spendy effects, and brilliant cast, Blood Vessel is serviceable entertainment at best, which doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had.

There’s just not enough to go around.

Host (2020)

At 57 minutes, it’s not so much a movie as it is a serviceable Twilight Zone episode.

In Rob Savage’s found-footage “movella” Host, six insufferable British twits learn why mocking the spirits is a bad idea.

Set up as a Zoom meeting of talking heads, Haley (Haley Bishop) instructs her assortment of nitwit comrades to take the online seance seriously, shortly before the medium (Seylan Baxter) arrives.

Not to play the blame game among the cast, but Jemma (Jemma Moore) commits a major boner in seance etiquette, and soon strange and awful occurrences are taking place in every window!

The various cams blinking on and off does get visually monotonous after a while, but occasionally someone will thoughtfully hoist their laptop to go check on the noise in the other room.

Director and co-writer Savage gets plus points for a bold concept and several solid jump scares. It’s a fairly tense 57 minutes.

On the downside, the characters range from annoying to stupid, so as my brother Dave observed, “you’re compelled to root for the demon.”

Well, what’s wrong with that? Not like you don’t have a spare hour.

The Cave (2005)

I vaguely remember seeing The Cave when it came out.

Unfortunately, my memories of it are jumbled together with Neil Marshall’s The Descent, a scarier, similarly themed movie that came out the same year.

Bad timing, I guess.

Upon revisiting The Cave, I’m inclined to sing its praises as a reasonably riveting action-horror hybrid that more than adequately meets the needs of any restless cinephile.

A healthy budget doesn’t hurt, either.

Nutshell: So there’s this uncharted system of underwater caves in the Carpathian Mountains, located beneath the remains of a mysterious church that was built to contain winged demons who would periodically emerge from the netherworld.

A team of macho cave divers and a few scientists suit up to explore the hole and end up trapped below the surface in a slimy, sunless world of highly adaptive parasites that cause the host to mutate into a highly adaptive cave monster.

The crew is led by determined dive-master Jack McCallister (Cole Hauser), who promises a way out of the mountain tomb, even as his own transformation becomes increasingly difficult to conceal.

When comparing The Cave and The Descent, it’s important to remember that the latter film is generally regarded as one of the best horror movies of the 21st century.

That said, The Cave is much better than I remember, and includes several harrowing scenes, none more so than spunky Charlie’s (Piper Perabo) spine-tingling aerial combat with a gargoyle.

Director Bruce Hunt constructs a crushing and claustrophobic underworld that pulses with genuine menace, while writers Tegan West and Michael Steinberg proffer a handful of characters worth rooting for.

Take a look around The Cave. It’s pretty cool, and you’ll adapt in no time.

 

Hell House II: The Abaddon Hotel (2018)

Hey! Let’s “check in” with Hell House LLC mastermind Stephen Cognetti, and the second installment of his infernal found-footage franchise.

The Abaddon Hotel picks up a few years down the road from the fatal Halloween reopening of the first film. In the interim, the boarded up inn has become a destination for ghost hunters, thrill seekers, and documentary filmmakers—all of whom end up missing.

Despite a local police presence to shoo away curious cats, the Abaddon continues to attract unfortunate wayfarers, including investigative reporter Megan Fox (Jillian Geurts), sole Halloween survivor Mitchell Cavanaugh (Vasile Flutur) and smug TV psychic Brock Davies (Kyle Ingleman).

Film and video from a variety of doomed sources is thoughtfully edited together so we too can enjoy the accommodations at Pennsylvania’s only four-star haunted hotel, now with a new and improved Hell Mouth that’s hungry for fresh souls.

Writer-director Cognetti (aided by dozens of relatives, if the credits are to be believed) expands and colors the nascent concepts left germinating since the first movie.

We finally get to meet kooky cult leader Andrew Tully (played with devilish panache by Brian David Tracy), who fills us in on his devilish “business plan” for the Abaddon.

See, it never closes, and there’s always a fire burning in the basement, just like Tom Bodett’s Motel 666.

Cognetti is not only dexterous enough to fill in the holes from the earlier film, but he lays the foundation for Part III, revealing that a wealthy media mogul has developed an unhealthy interest in the Abaddon.

Stay tuned! I know I will.

Black Mountain Side (2014)

Perhaps writer-director Nick Szostakiwskyj should have titled his movie And Another Thing, because it follows the structure of John Carpenter’s 1982 frosty classic to the letter.

Of course, there’s one crucial difference, but we’ll discuss that later.

An archaeology team on a long-term dig in the frozen north of Canada unearths a monolith and a few artifacts. Next thing you know, the darn radio gives up the ghost and communication with the outside world is shut off.

Shortly thereafter, the camp comes under the malign influence of one or all of the following:

  • The Deer God. (Dear God, no!)
  • A parasitic virus that causes insanity.
  • Just plain insanity, aka, Cabin Fever.

Suffice to say, these gooses are cooked. Paranoia rears its ugly head, and, much like Kurt Russell and his comrades, the team turns on itself.

Francis (Carl Toftfelt) starts hearing voices. Olsen (Michael Dickson) has a conversation with a corpse. Giles (Marc Anthony Williams) loads his gun and stops trusting anyone.

And nobody can sleep.

The key difference between Black Mountain Side and its predecessor (aside from budget and acting talent) is the uncertainty of the threat.

Is it alien? Pagan? Bacterial? Mental? Who knows?

All I can say for certain is that scientists and their subordinates working in Arctic environments have the life expectancy of a clumsy mine sweeper.

The Hills Run Red (2009)

Boy, do they ever!

A gruesome splatter fest about our devotion to cult films, The Hills Run Red is a lot like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, only the family business is cinema instead of meat.

And instead of Leatherface, we have Babyface.

Movie nerd Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrink) is obsessed with a notorious horror film from the 1980s called The Hills Run Red that up and disappeared, along with its director, years before.

Tyler tracks down the director’s daughter Alexa (Sophie Monk), a junkie stripper with a heart of gold. After helping her kick heroin, Tyler arranges for Alexa to guide them into the “deep woods” where the movie was filmed.

Tagging along for this road trip in search of cinematic buried treasure is cameraman Lalo (Alex Wyndham) and Tyler’s restless girlfriend Serina (Janet Montgomery).

In a clear case of Careful What You Wish For, Tyler eventually gets to see the legendary film, only to discover that he and his friends are reluctant cast members.

Gallons of gore ensues, but The Hills Run Red isn’t just another homage to vintage slice-and-dice. There are astute discussions on the fly about horror movies, that bring up interesting points about what fans really want, e.g., Emotional Connection versus Violent Spectacle.

Director Dave Parker opens with a hellish montage sequence and keeps his foot near the gas pedal at all times, which means some plot points end up on the cutting room floor.

No matter. As the title implies, there is blood and there are guts, and they are used judiciously and effectively.

I also noticed on a number of occasions, the character Lalo offers sensible advice to his friend Tyler, that is completely ignored. He observes that horror movies take place away from civilization, so one should never leave the city.

They go anyway. To the woods.

Lalo also tells Tyler that maybe The Hills Run Red was hidden for a reason. Tyler should have listened.