Night of the Scarecrow (1995)

Call it a by-product of living in accelerated times. It’s getting to the point where I look at movies made before the turn of the century as “quaint.” I’m sure this happens to everybody on our relentless trek to the boneyard, but it seems when I watch perfectly good horror films from the ’80s and even the ’90s now, they look like relics from another world that I’ve forgotten.

“OMG, look at that poodle hair! Is that a Members Only jacket? Ned’s Atomic Dustbin?”

With the passing of time the cultural signposts of eras passed start to get a little blurry. I have younger friends who are into movies and they usually won’t rent something more than 10 years old, claiming “it looks cheap and weird,” and “the FX are gonna suck.” I’m still adjusting to being the “old guy” in these situations.

So Night of the Scarecrow is a film fossil from 16 years ago. It’s good. Satisfying, even. It’s like dinner at an old-school steak house after having nothing but rice and tofu for a month. There are no surprises but everything is served just the way you like it; meat and potatoes, a stiff drink, and no sass.

What I appreciate most is that it’s a movie that doesn’t dilly-dally; the plot races along like Richard Petty at Daytona. Within, oh, 15 minutes or so, we know all the characters who live in the nice little town of Hanford—the one with the dark secret.

Over 100 years prior, the town fathers made a deal with a passing warlock (I guess there were warlocks roaming the west during the Ulysses Grant administration). In exchange for fertile soil and a temperate climate, the warlock could do whatever he pleased in Hanford.

The horny wizard turns out to be an advocate of sex magic, luring the town’s women into awesome episodes of debauchery. The menfolk decide that ain’t cool, drug the warlock, and crucify him in the cornfield.

Cut to “modern” times. The warlock, now in the guise of a button-eyed, sack-headed scarecrow, starts slaughtering the Goodmans, descendants of the guy who betrayed him and stole his book of spells.

These include brothers George (Dirk Blocker), Thaddeus (Bruce Glover, Crispin’s dad) and William (Gary Lockwood), who all perish in ghastly fashion, while William’s daughter Claire (Elizabeth Barondes), and her mimbo Dillon (John Mese, who looks like a stand-in for Scott Bakula) try to find the spell that will banish the malevolent mage.

A better-than-average cast helps. Stephen Root (O Brother Where Art Thou, Red State) plays another incompetent sheriff, while John Hawkes (Deadwood, Winter’s Bone) delivers the goods as the asshole delinquent who unwittingly frees the warlock.

But the real scene-stealer is Glover, chewing the scenery like a hungry goat as a weak-willed preacher with a hot-to-trot daughter that gets defiled by Hawkes’ town rowdy. Seriously, Glover’s overacting is almost operatic, maybe a notch below bad Shakespeare. And it’s just another reason to watch this unexpectedly satisfying sleeper.

Insidious (2010)

Right off the bat I was worried. The cover art proclaims, “From the makers of Paranormal Activity and Saw,” two films I didn’t much care for.

I thought the former was dull and the latter unbearably formulaic. So paddle my ass and call me Spanky—I rolled the dice and came up a winner with Insidious, a potent portrait of immaterial possession that belongs on the same domestic horror shelf as Poltergeist, The Exorcist, and The Grudge.

It isn’t as good as those films, but it’s good enough.

Teeny weeny actress Rose Byrne (Damages) is cast as Renai Lambert, a mother of three children. Byrne is totally spot-on here emotionally as the freaked-out-but-scrappy mom, but she looks like she’d shatter into gravel if she so much as contemplated child birth.

Patrick Wilson, a rather colorless fusion of Will Arnett, Robert Patrick, and Timothy Olyphant, is her husband Josh. As previously mentioned, they have three children.

The eldest, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), is a fearless tyke with a hidden talent for astral projection during sleep. A stroke of bad luck comes when Dalton, instead of hanging out in the girls’ locker room like a sensible youngster, gets his dumb-astral form trapped in a very bad-astral place, and all sorts of extra-dimensional creatures start showing up to claim the lad’s comatose body.

After getting the beans scared out of her on repeated occasions, Renai finally prevails on her prick of a husband to move from their extremely nice early 20th century Craftsman-style home into another, equally beautiful home.

Editor’s note: Having gone through numerous hellish scenarios with contractors, realtors, and movers, the Lamberts emerge from this part of the deal relatively unscathe). It’s only after the move that they find out, as the tag line declares, “It isn’t the house that’s haunted.”

I got a kick out of Insidious. The scares, though predictable, are fairly intense and original. There’s some surprisingly unannoying comedy relief in Specs (writer Leigh Wannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), a Mutt-and-Jeff team of nerdy ghost busters who quickly realize they’re in over their heads.

And veteran character actress Lin Shaye (Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary) does yeoman work as a capable psychic brought in by Josh’s mom Lorraine (Barbara Hershey, always a pleasure).

The ghosts, lost souls, and demons that materialize during the 103-minute run time are mostly frightening, and, more importantly, memorable.

Alone in the house, on a dark night, Insidious could well set your pants afloat.

Red State (2011)

No two ways about it, Kevin (Clerks) Smith is an indie filmmaker with a following and cred up the wazoo.

To an entire generation of cynical, grown-up, comic-book fans, Smith is the light, the way, and the Buddha, the schlubby embodiment of he who rose from the basement and fed the masses with nachos and Big Gulps.

Now, every overeducated film nerd who feels more at home in front of a monitor of some kind, can point to their shitty screenplay and justifiably announce to friends and family, “It worked out for Kevin Smith!”

Been there.

Anyway, I’ve seen just about everything Smith has done, from his Clerks debut through his unfortunate infatuation with mainstream rom-com, and I’m prepared to say Red State is his best work, and that horror (or at least thriller) should be his genre of choice.

His deft camera work and ability to gracefully ratchet up the tension here ably demonstrates his genre bona fides.

Nutshell: Three horny high school kids from a nowhere Nebraska town visit a website for swingers and discover that an older woman the next town over wants to knock boots with (wait for it) three horny high school stud(ent)s.

They drive out to her trailer for some discreet nookie and are promptly taken captive by a local fundamentalist cabal that’s a cross between the Branch Davidians and the Westboro Baptists. And then all hell breaks loose.

When I finished watching Red State I was dumbfounded and said aloud to the nearest sleeping dog, “That movie kicked my ass!” My ass is still kicked. It’s relentlessly provocative as you shift from laughter, to uneasy laughter, to quiet awe.

If you’re the kind of viewer who gets confused when a movie changes tone dramatically, then this isn’t your candy bar. Is it a horror movie? Yes, it’s horrifying. But it’s much more than that.

It’s the best movie I’ve seen this year.

Michael Parks (Kill Bill, Dusk Till Dawn), Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and John Goodman (you know who John Goodman is for Chrissakes!) all deliver chilling, straight-faced performances and I hope their combined star power and some web word-of-mouth is enough to earn Red State the cult status it so richly deserves.

Beneath Still Waters (2005)


I figured Beneath Still Waters was worth a gamble since Brian (Bride of Re-Animator) Yuzna produced and directed this Spanish-UK collaboration. While there is ample gore and some stellar scenes of Bosch-like depravity, the pace is glacial—endless talky exposition and needless character development.

Nutshell: A town in Northern Spain is flooded after the construction of a new dam. The cover story is that the dam brings jobs, cheap power, and prosperity to the region, but the naked truth is that the “drowned town” was inhabited by a kinky cannibal cult led by a sinister Aleister Crowley acolyte named Salas (Patrick Gordon, as the Richard Lynch-style creepy cult leader).

Fast-forward 40 years later and the ghost or spirit or reanimated corpse of the evil magician returns accompanied by a very small band of fairly scary zombies, and a vendetta against the granddaughter of the former mayor who flooded the town.

There’s a good chunk of memorably nightmarish imagery thanks to the hallucinatory, low-tech, Euro-art school FX (think Méliès rather than Lucas), and Salas’s habit of tearing his victims’ heads off never gets old.

But it’s a pretty slow 90 minutes, most of which look like a made-for-TV movie from the 1970s, so prepare for rough sledding.

Mask Maker (2010)

How many times have we seen a movie wherein a young couple hoping for a fresh start moves into a house with an evil, awful, scary, drippy history? I think I lost count at a gajillion.

The thing that chafes my cheeks is when a low- to no-budget horror film has exterior footage of a huge, mysterious, fog-shrouded Gothic mansion, only to cut to interior shots that look like they were filmed in your Aunt Tillie’s country condo.

The stairs and hallways of the accursed manor that once housed Satan himself, are festooned with smoke alarms, paintings of dogs playing poker, and three-prong outlets? It’s a hard one for me to overlook.

Thankfully, Mask Maker (original title: Maskerade) manages to disguise its measly budget well enough, and you’ll likely be sufficiently invested to turn a blind eye to some bad mattes, continuity errors, and a weird chronology of events.

A couple of reasonably attractive college students elope to a decrepit plantation-style house in the middle of nowhere that Evan (Stephen Colletti) has bought for the very reasonable sum of $10,000.

The house comes with 40 (haunted) acres, is a goldmine of valuable heirlooms, and even has a priceless wine cellar.

What the Realtor neglected to mention is that a woman, accused of witchcraft like, 50 years ago (when Kennedy was in office, presumably), and her demented son were lynched on the property.

One thing leads to another, and the son rises from the grave (that looks all of  two feet deep) and, for reasons we never learn, murders the interlopers and steals their faces to make scary masks.

It sounds pretty lame, but director Griff Fuest is generous with the gore and there’s even a splash of nudity. The script is nothing special but it isn’t dealbreaker dumb.

Bonus points for casting Treat Williams and Michael (The Hills Have Eyes) Berryman in small parts.

And Jason London, on a weekend pass from rehab, also makes an appearance.

You could do worse.