The Howling (1981)

I had an old friend crashing on my couch for the night so we decided to watch something horrific. After complaining about the paucity of decent werewolf features, we came upon The Howling, and the poor slob confessed to never having seen it.

Well, that settles that.

Plucky Los Angeles TV anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace) has caught the eye of local serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), who phones her to arrange a classy tryst at a local porn theater.

Of course, the police have Karen wired so they can capture the maniac. Sadly, surveillance technology is still in its infancy and the cops lose contact with the nervous reporter.

Eddie is gunned down but Karen can’t remember anything about their deadly encounter at the dirty movie house.

In order to dredge up every lurid detail of her trauma, renowned psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) recommends Karen and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) take a restful vay-kay at his coastal retreat, The Colony.

There they meet Slim Pickens, John Carradine, James Murtaugh, and Elisabeth Brooks, all of whom are probably werewolves.

“Join us Karen! It feels wonderful!”

The Howling is a fantastic werewolf movie, maybe the best one. The only problem is, it came out the same year as An American Werewolf in London, which is generally acknowledged as the apex of the lycanthrope genre.

Granted, AAWiL is a more modern film, and special effects wizard Rick Baker’s transformation makeup hasn’t been equalled in over 40 years. Baker was also an effects consultant on The Howling, but the heavy lifting was done by Rob Bottin (The Thing, Total Recall, Fight Club), a man with a resume nearly as impressive as Baker’s.

In other words, prosthetics on both wolf and victim in The Howling totally shred.

Director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles bring a keen combination of wit and irreverence to the shaggy subject matter, mainly in the person of occult bookstore owner Walter Paisley (Dick Miller), who, when asked if he believes in the supernatural, replies, “What am I? An idiot? I’m trying to make a buck here.”

Cameos by Roger Corman, Forrest J. Ackerman, and Sayles himself should keep the film school nerds energized, and everyone else will be sated by premium werewolf carnage.

Note: There are a bunch of Howling sequels and I might revisit a few, to ensure I didn’t miss anything.

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Watcher (2022)

Holy Hitchcock, Batman!

From its Read Window voyeurism to Julia’s (Maika Monroe) resemblance to classic Hitchcock blonde Tippi Hedren, Watcher is a first-rate homage to the 20th century’s finest suspense filmmaker.

Best of all, it’s exquisitely crafted by writer-director Chloe Okuno, who orchestrates grinding fear and dread for a serial killer’s potential victim, a woman who knows too much in a country where she doesn’t speak the language.

Julia and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) have just moved to Bucharest for his work. Julia, a one-time actress, is left to entertain herself in their new apartment for long periods of time while Francis wheels and deals.

Right off the bat, Julia is unnerved by a silhouette in a window across the street, a figure that seems to be fixated in her direction. In what becomes a pattern, she tries to tell Francis about the suspicious person, only to have hubby minimize her fears.

Meanwhile, women alone in their apartments are turning up headless. Yeah, thanks for your concern, Francis! Probably nothing to worry about.

There isn’t an ounce of flab on Watcher. Dialogue is minimal. Each frame is a precision brick in a wall of menace that threatens to fall on Julia at any moment. Precarious angles of endless invention are used to create a perpetual male gaze on Julia, a person seen, but not heard, due to a language (and gender) barrier.

Maika Monroe (It Follows, The Guest) continues to bloom, transcending the genre’s Final Girl status and emerging as a reluctant action hero, correctly channeling frustration and rage into not only self-preservation, but victory.

Make no mistake: in the hands of a lesser actress this film would not have achieved such thrilling peaks. As the unwilling object of a madman’s desire, Monroe is charismatic, capable, and committed to each character moment, as only someone fighting for their life can be.

Julia’s determination to find her tormentor and destroy her victimhood provides serious octane in Watcher, a sleek thriller that both embraces the Hitchcock tradition, and flips the camera back onto the audience (and Hitchcock), as if to ask, “What are you looking at?”

Definitely a Top Ten film of 2022. See it straight away.

Freeze (2022)

Well, let’s see you make a tale of Arctic terror on a microscopic budget!

Written and directed by Charlie Steeds (Winterskin, Death Ranch), a MetFilm grad with an abiding love of bygone horror tropes, Freeze is a Lovecrafty pastiche of Victorian Era exploration that bravely demands your attention, despite being financed by old soda bottles.

Captain Roland Mortimer (Rory Wilton) charts his warship the HMS Innsmouth (hint) to the North Pole in search of his best friend, William Streiner (Tim Cartwright), a fellow sea captain who disappeared two years before in search of a passage through the ice.

It doesn’t take long for the Innsmouth to get frozen in the ice and set upon by Deep Ones, so Mortimer and his intrepid crew of a half-dozen men abandon ship and try their luck on the frozen tundra.

The Arctic region isn’t very large, so Mortimer and company soon discover a massive cave containing a few stiffs from Streiner’s earlier voyage. After that, they discover Streiner himself, who has gone native and joined forces with the so-called “Icthyoids” in a vague scheme of world domination.

All he needs to lead his baggy suited fishmen to victory is his copy of The Necronomicon, which Mortimer thoughtfully provides.

Freeze is old, old-time entertainment that would have worked just as well as a radio play accompanied by scary sound effects and a wheezy organ. Of course, then we’d miss grotty details like Streiner biting his best friend’s fingers off, and admittedly, that’s a fun scene.

Steeds cheerfully peppers the proceedings with DIY practical effects that any Dr. Who fan would endorse, particularly the pesky Icthyoids, who resemble a Sleestack dance company when appearing en masse.

So what can we really say about Freeze? Campy enthusiasm and resourceful story telling can still save the day, if you agree to meet them halfway.

Alone in the Dark (1982)

Wow, two Oscar winners in one low-budget, 40-year-old slasher!

Jack Palance and Martin Landau are half a quartet of escaped lunatics paying a surprise visit to their new mental health practitioner in Alone in the Dark, a New Line Cinema oddity from writer-director Jack Sholder (The Hidden, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2).

Palance is underutilized as Frank Hawkes, a paranoid schizophrenic, but Landau chews the scenery like a great herbivorous swamp dinosaur as Byron Sutcliffe, a pyromaniac pastor with a permanently deranged countenance.

With the arrival of Doctor Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz, from The A-Team), the new shrink at the Haven Mental Hospital, Hawkes takes it into his head that Potter must have murdered their former doctor, and that he will soon kill all of them.

Donald Pleasance does the heavy lifting as stoner psychiatrist Leo Bain, the director of Haven Hospital. Bain’s ludicrous touchy-feely therapy encourages the patients to truly explore their various psychotic “trips.”

“Preacher likes to set fire to churches, that’s his trip. Unfortunately he does it when there are people inside,” Hawkes explains to Potter.

Along with monstrous pedophile Ronald “Fatty” Elster (Erland van Lidth, The Wanderers) and a vicious (but shy) maniac nicknamed “The Bleeder” (Phillip Clark), Hawkes and Preacher escape captivity during a power blackout caused by theatrical punk band The Sick Fucks, who are playing at a nearby bar.

Could happen.

The showdown, the siege of Dr. Potter’s house, ain’t exactly Straw Dogs, but Pleasance does his zany best confronting his runaway loonies with platitudes and mumbo jumbo.

Taken as a whole, Alone in the Dark isn’t a very good movie. It’s light on gore, characters appear and disappear randomly, and at least one subplot, involving Dr. Potter’s wife and sister going to a Nuclear Power protest, stretches credulity beyond all known limits.

Somehow, through the awkward combination of dormant star power, budget-constraint innovation, and tongue-in-cheek pseudoscience, it remains a kooky curio worthy of attention even 40 years later.

When Potter tells Bain that the escapees are armed and have killed several people, the latter shrugs, “Well, what do you expect? It’s a violent world out there.”

Right you are, doc.

The Cursed (2021)

Lovely to look at but largely bereft of beast, The Cursed, written and directed by Sean Ellis, can’t decide if it’s a werewolf movie or a period piece homage to The Thing.

In true egalitarian fashion, we get a smattering of each, leaving both camps less than satisfied.

Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) is a 19th-century French landowner with a passel of problems. While slaughtering a band of gypsies who’ve taken up residence on his property, Laurent gets a horrible hex placed on him by a dying witch, who doesn’t appreciate being buried alive.

The local children immediately start having bad dreams about an evil mouth of silver teeth, supposedly constructed from the 30 pieces of silver that Judas was paid to betray Jesus.

Kids being kids, they find the enchanted teeth, start horsing around with them, and Edward (Max Mackintosh), Laurent’s son, gets bitten. Soon after, mutilated bodies begin turning up, and a visiting pathologist (Boyd Holbrook) is called in to investigate.

The Cursed is sturdily constructed and painterly pretty, but Ellis uses such a muted color palette, his framing dexterity often gets overlooked. Each set is either engulfed in fog or we get buckets of brown mud and green turf, so as to appear especially dreary. Visual monotony ensues.

And then there’s his cavalier attitude toward lycanthropy. Surviving victims of Edward’s rampage transform with tendrils emerging from their backside. Tendrils? Where did they come from? Is this Lon Chaney or Lovecraft?

Furthermore, the werewolf CGI isn’t anything special when it finally appears. Rick Baker’s seven Oscars are not in danger of being eclipsed by this bunch.

Even so, The Cursed isn’t a terrible movie, but it’s slow, overly talky, and there are way too many scenes of people waking up from nightmares. Turns out the dreams are the scariest part, unfortunately.

Editor’s Note: This is the second disappointing werewolf movie I’ve seen with this title. The 2004 Wes Craven-Kevin Williamson feature with Christina Ricci is also a dud.

Barbarian (2022)

We’re seeing an upswing of Air B&B-based horror movies, and writer-director Zach Cregger’s Barbarian currently sits alone at the top of the heap. It’s a stylistic cousin of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, as mood and tone careen crazily between multiple storylines that converge in one really bad house.

Our heroine Tess (Georgina Campbell) is on her way to Detroit for a job interview with a documentary filmmaker. She arrives at her rental, the only livable dwelling in a blighted suburb that looks like World War II ended last week.

To complicate matters, it’s a dark and stormy night. To further complicate matters, she finds her house already occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgard), a somewhat intense fellow who seems determined to put her at ease, offering to share the house with Tess for the evening.

Eventually, and against her better judgment, Tess accepts Keith’s hospitality and the two get better acquainted over a bottle of wine.

Meanwhile, in another part of the movie, TV sitcom star A.J. Gilbride (Justin Long), is having a rough time with the #MeToo movement, causing his career to crumble.

He’s advised to liquidate his holdings, including some rental property in his native Michigan, currently occupied by Tess, Keith, and something else entirely.

There is a fearsome creature at the heart of Barbarian, but like any good monster, she’s highly sympathetic, certainly more so than the two male leads, neither of whom can adapt in the unexpected survival situation they all stumble into.

AJ in particular is a loathsome example of masculinity; a whiny, raging, mama’s boy, who proves to be the biggest obstacle in Tess’s escape from a hell-house that rivals the Sawyer Farm in Texas.

Frank (Richard Brake), the owner of the house and its hell, gets his story told in a narrative hopping flashback, and we realize that the thing haunting this hacienda is not the real monster here. In fact, she’s a remarkably nurturing creature considering her grim origin.

There’s a hell of a lot happening in Barbarian, and it understandably leaves the viewer a bit rung out. It’s shocking, periodically funny, and superbly realized by Zach Cregger, formerly of The Whitest Kids You Know.

Cregger’s commitment to creeping (and grossing) us out is impressive as layers of awfulness just continue stack up like mildewed laundry.

It’s also a film that’s not afraid to sound off on a laundry list of anxiety topics, including motherhood, property values, Cancel Culture, incest, hospitality industry paranoia, and awkward first dates.

Barbarian is a wild ride and there are no seat belts in this buggy.

The Rental (2020)

Not recommended.

Dave Franco (younger brother of James) is the fledgling auteur responsible for The Rental, and unlike most coattail grabbing siblings, he demonstrates legitimate ability in the cinematic arts.

Of course, vacationers in peril isn’t the most original concept, but we’ve seen filmmakers do more with less.

Charlie (Dan Stevens, who seems to be making a career in genre films), a big-shot tech dude on the verge of a major career spike, makes arrangements for a celebratory weekend getaway at a well-appointed beach house on the Oregon Coast.

His wife Michelle (Alison Brie), and underachieving kid brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) are part of the party, as is Josh’s Iranian girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand)—who also happens to be Charlie’s coworker.

Problems predictably boil to the surface in short order: Mina suspects that Taylor (Toby Huss), the beach-house caretaker, is a racist and makes an issue of it. Michelle doesn’t want any Molly, so the other three party without her. Mina and Josh bring an adorable French bulldog with them, despite a No Dogs clause in the rental agreement.

As the drugs take effect, Charlie puts the moves on Mina, even though she’s in a committed relationship with his hot-headed younger brother, currently crashed on the couch. While Charlie’s wife sleeps peacefully in the next room, the horny workmates knock boots in the shower.

Classy.

Shortly thereafter, Mina discovers micro cameras installed in the shower head and things take a very paranoid turn. Charlie and Mina immediately seize on the idea that Taylor, a man they’ve never met before, is going to blackmail them with illicit footage of their midnight hanky-panky.

If that wasn’t enough, the dog disappears. (He does not die.)

Franco succeeds in sparking tension and earning our interest, as it’s obvious from the assortment of perspectives we’re presented with, inside and outside the house, that someone is watching these frisky beachcombers screw around and catching it all on camera.

Sadly, The Rental builds shakily to a half-baked massacre that clarifies zilch. I honestly pictured a nation of viewers looking quizzically at one another while shrugging their shoulders.

My complaint is simply this: We spend 95 percent of the running time of the movie putting up with a philandering tech bro and his flawed posse, only to have a deux ex machina come in and wipe them all out?

Who’s the guy in the mask?

Hey Little Franco, if we’re forced to go online for an explanation of your movie’s ending, you’ve failed your obligation as a storyteller.

Brides of Dracula (1960)

“Count Dracula, monarch of all vampires, is dead, but his disciples live on, to spread the cult and corrupt the world.”

Like the gloomy narrator indicates in his ominous introduction to Brides of Dracula, the marquee bloodsucker, played by Christopher Lee, managed to get himself skewered in a previous Hammer Films production, so this time around we get Baron Meinster (the dashing David Peel), certainly one of the first examples of vampire as pop star.

When Meinster materializes at the Transylvania Academy of Proper Young Ladies to visit Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), the pretty new French teacher, the gathered gals go gaga over the dapper blonde Baron.

Check out the image above used to promote the film. It looks Heathcliff and Catherine off to a make-out sesh on the moors.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

By this point in the movie, Marianne has already freed Meinster from captivity by his daffy dowager mother the Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), who for years has kept vigil over her evil offspring, aided by Greta (Freda Jackson), her equally loony servant.

Earlier, the Baroness discovers Marianne stuck at the local pub, abandoned by her cowardly coachman (Michael Ripper). Lonely for educated company, the increasingly unstable noblewoman invites Marianne up to her castle, to sleep in one of her many guest bedrooms.

From her window, Marianne spies the young Baron wandering on his own balcony below. Throwing common sense to the wind, she instantly believes the beautiful man has been wrongfully incarcerated and helps him to escape.

Nice going, Marianne!

The newly liberated nosferatu is soon feasting on the hottest peasant woman in the village (Marie Deveraux), as well as Marianne’s jealous roommate Gina (Andree Melly).

Greta, once his captor, has decided to help out Meinster by digging up the dead girls and making them more presentable for their master.

Now that’s what I call Goth!

True, there is no Dracula on hand, but we do get Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) the Hall of Fame vampire slayer, operating at the top of his game. Cushing is typically excellent and erudite as the dedicated undead destroyer, who has a couple gnarly brawls with the new count on the block.

After getting a bite from Meinster, Van Helsing demonstrates uncanny resourcefulness, by treating his unholy hickey with a hot branding iron and some H20 blessed by the local priest.

Despite the absence of the iconic Christopher Lee, Brides of Dracula gallops along at a brisk clip, with impending danger reliably signaled by Malcolm Williamson’s anxious orchestration, that during moments of high drama seems on the verge of complete nervous collapse.

The veteran supporting cast is spot on. Freda Jackson is a howling mad domestic that nonetheless adapts to new duties with surprising confidence. And the enchanting Andree Melly glowingly epitomizes the movie’s tagline: “He turned innocent beauty into unspeakable horror!”

Even minor characters, like Dr. Tobler (Miles Malleson), the dipsomaniac local sawbones, are given sufficient space by director Terence Fisher to have small comic interludes that prove successful more often than not.

Speaking of comic interludes, there is some lame-ass bat puppetry happening here that wshould also inspire a few laughs. That should not deter anyone in the slightest.

Brides of Dracula is Hammer horror at its hottest, featuring a plethora of glaring bloodshot eyes, heaving bosoms, and a fair amount of fang action.

Required viewing in my estimation. See what all the fuss is about.

Horror in the High Desert (2021)

Social influencers are horror movie gold!

I alluded to this situation in my review of The Deep House, as the answer to the burning question, “Why would otherwise intelligent people put on scuba gear to explore a haunted house at the bottom of a lake?”

The protagonists are compelled to take on insanely dangerous missions in order to attract (and maintain) followers! Building that brand is indeed hazardous to your health.

Horror in the High Desert is an 82-minute found-footage shocker about Gary Hinge (Eric Mencis), a popular outdoor adventure blogger who disappears under (you guessed it!) “mysterious circumstances,” while exploring a remote area of Nevada’s high desert.

Possibly based on the real-life case of Kenny Veach (Google that shit), writer-director Dutch Marich dutifully assembles realistic interviews with family, friends, and investigators, all of whom are trying to figure out what happened to someone who was, by all accounts, an expert at wilderness survival.

Spoiler alert: It ain’t good, and eventually the talking heads give way to Gary Hinge’s final creepy posts, from a location he clearly didn’t want to revisit.

The fearless blogger admits to increasing anxiety, and with good reason. All his instincts warn Hinge away from the nasty little shack in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada.

But his core followers have demanded video evidence, so he has no choice but to return to a cursed location. Film, or it didn’t happen.

As a blogger myself, I can only hope my dozen or so regular readers don’t start clamoring for personal peril on my part—unless you’d enjoy footage of me collecting dog poop in the backyard.

The ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel (or three), as it’s reported during the credits that no less than 17 teams of danger bloggers went out to find Hinge.

Horror in the High Desert is a more than ample warning to the foolhardy. Don’t let obnoxious fans push you over the brink and into the arms of … someone you do not ever want to meet.

Wer (2013)

I’m reasonably sure that this movie would have more of a following if it wasn’t saddled with such a clunker of a title.

Wer? Really, that’s the best we can do?

It’s a shame because Wer is top-shelf lycanthrope mayhem all day, every day.

Co-writer and director William Brent Bell wisely saved his nickels and dimes by filming in Romania and calling it France, where American lawyer Kate Moore (A.J. Cook from Criminal Minds) is defending a hulking peasant (Brian Scott O’Connor) accused of tearing up a family of tourists. Limb from limb.

And taking huge bites out of them.

The makeup and prosthetic work by Almost Human Inc. is worth the price of the ticket. The scene when Kate examines the shredded remains of the victims is startlingly savage. Seldom has bodily harm been rendered in such vicious detail.

A shaking hand-held camera gives Wer the appearance of a found footage police procedural, with lengthy talking sequences that flare into bloody chaos without warning.

Now that’s what I’m talking about. Modest movies that turn out to be way better than I expect are the coin of my realm. They’re my jam.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make some toast.

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