Friday, October 30, 2020

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982)


Imagine, if you will, that James Bond was a doctor, functioning alcoholic (though I guess he already is one), absentee father, and was played by '80s horror legend, Tom Atkins. Some years before, he'd left Britain, developed an American accent, changed his name to Dan Challis, and settled in California. Despite wanting a simpler life, where he'd just raise a family, save lives, but not have to keep the whole world safe from the diabolical plots of megalomaniacal madmen, fate decided this wasn't to be the case, and tasked Bond, I mean Challis, with one more mission... to STOP IT!!! And what is IT, you may ask? If you are asking, please, read no further, go watch the movie and come back. I'll wait... Oh yeah, and family/married life obviously wasn't for James, I mean Dan, was it?


While we're waiting for anyone who hasn't seen this wonderful film to return, let's celebrate the joy that is Halloween III: Season of the Witch, or, James Bond, I mean, Dr. Dan Challis, Saves the World, or Tries To, on Halloween. Again, I'm going to assume anyone reading this has seen it and will forego a synopsis.

So yeah, as you've gathered, I can't help watching this now through the lens I described above. Sci-fi horror setup, where Bond like, lone (and ladies!) man saves the world. Or tries to. And on Halloween! I can't remember when that occurred to me but now it's always at the back of my mind when I watch it.

Where to begin? At the beginning, I guess (duh!). The first thing that really hits you, I'd say, while the high tech intro graphics unfold, is the music. Starting with one of John Carpenter's characteristic stingers (and the first of good few in this), as always, it perfectly fits, rhythmically, musically, and atmospherically, with what's happening on screen. And before I forget, we mustn't overlook the contributions of his frequent collaborator, Alan Howarth. Honestly, mad props to both for the score. The more I listen to it, the more I'm convinced it's one of their best, and one of the most perfect horror soundtracks ever composed. From that opening, sort of loading music (for want of a better way of describing it), through the driving, many layered, epic jam that is "Chariot of Pumpkins", to some great, moody, more ambient pieces, it's a joy to listen to, and a note perfect accompaniment to the movie.

Oh, and how could I forget the earworm that is the Silver Shamrock song. You've got it stuck in your head now, don't you? Simple, memorable, and effective. I also love the more mental incarnation of the same theme that we hear when the film's doomsday device is activated. And it's weird... until just now I'd totally forgotten that the melody is from "London Bridge is Falling Down". Guess the Silver Shamrock lyrics had practically scrubbed my brain of it. 

While it's quite different from the score for the first and second films, there are some similar motifs, and the vibe very much recalls those. So in terms of feel, there's a pleasing overlap between all three of them. Carpenter and Debra Hill's involvement aside, this is also largely thanks, no doubt, to returning cinematographer Dean Cundey, who again gives the movie a beautifully moody look throughout. On one of the commentaries, I heard Tom Atkins refer to him as "The Dean of Darkness", due to his love of shooting low level lit scenes and his mastery of them. An apt nickname, indeed.

In films in general, but especially horror, atmosphere is one of the most important things to me. I guess it's the total effect delivered by image, music and mood, which, when done well, really pulls you straight through the screen. And Halloween III (again, ditto I and II) is a perfect example. Plus, for a movie to watch on the day itself, next to its predecessors, you couldn't really ask for one more perfect. They overflow with the spirit of the holiday from end to end.

I don't want to make this a super long post (he says), so I'll keep things fairly succinct, but before I sign off, I also want to mention a few more MVPs from this film. The casting is generally spot on and everyone is wonderful, but the standouts are, for my money, our hero and villain. Yup, the great Tom Atkins, and the also amazing Dan O'Herlihy.

So I've talked already about how Tom Atkins is basically Bond in disguise for me here. And it won't surprise you if I say I wish he'd played him. Sure, he's not exactly classically handsome or anything. But he's up there with any '80s action or horror star, in my book. A good analogue I guess would be Reggie Bannister, from the Phantasm films. I mean both are regular johns, who you can imagine going out for a beer with. And Bannister is also a bit of a ladies man.

Aside from sacking off his ex-wife and kids (grabbing a six pack off the pay phone after he hangs up on the former, which always make me laugh) to go off with, going back to my analogy, his Bond girl, Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin, who is also solid in this), James, I mean Dan, sorry, also sort of (but not really) hits on colleague, Nurse Agnes (Maidie Norman). And, it's implied he had/possibly still has, an on/off relationship with another co-worker, Teddy (Wendy Wessberg). Like I said, he's giving Bond a run for his money, and clearly has more than his share of testosterone. And like his character in The Fog waiting until he's in bed with Jamie Lee Curtis to ask her name, it cracks me up that he sleeps with Ellie before asking how old she is. So yeah, as you've no doubt gathered, I love Tom Atkins. And finally, fans of the male posterior will no doubt surely appreciate the brief cameo from his.


And as much as I love Tom Atkins, I gotta hand it to Dan O'Herlihy. For my money, he steals the show, despite not appearing on screen until 44 minutes into the movie. Like all the best movie villains, he plays Conal Cochran with glee, and is clearly having a ball. Even in scenes where he's more gregarious than sinister, like when he's laughing with his top salesman, Buddy Kupfer (Ralph Strait), he's a joy to watch. I remember watching the film last year, on what would have been his 100th birthday, which was an absolute delight.

Before I mention a few final things I love about this movie, I'd be remiss if I didn't give some props to Tommy Lee Wallace. Between this, his contributions to other Carpenter films, and the 1990 TV movie adaptation of Stephen King's It, he's arguably assured his immortality and status as a genre legend. He's also to be commended for the not exactly enviable task of revising the original script written by the great Nigel Kneale, who was not exactly impressed with the alterations made, asking for his name to be removed from the credits. Oh, and finally, props to Don Post, who designed the now iconic masks. Apparently, he also designed the William Shatner mask that was, of course, famously altered for the original Halloween.

So, some concluding thoughts, or random things I love about Halloween III. Well for starters, while it's obviously more of a paranoid, sci-fi horror, Invasion of the Body Snatchers type film, I love how some slight slasher elements are still carried over. I.e. some of the kills, of course. Case in point, one of my favourite scenes is where the aforementioned Teddy is dispatched, via drill, by one of Cochran's robot henchmen. She's working late, with an easy listening tune playing on the radio, which we hear before and after she's killed, adding a nicely ironic counterpoint to the scene. Plus, he was wearing black gloves, making it kind of giallo-esque, which I dig.

I also love how Halloween, which is advertised early on, and then later seen on screen, in one of the film's greatest scenes, is an already established classic in the Halloween III's universe (and rightly so, of course). And that the part of the film playing, when Cochran is talking to Challis, is what might be my favourite scene from it, i.e. the part where Laurie is walking across the road, from the Doyle's to the Wallace's to investigate. I can't exactly articulate why, but I absolutely love that eerie, wordless journey. It sets up what's to come perfectly.

By 2030, Bill Gates will have us all doing Halloween like this.


Oh, and finally, I guess, as I've let this run on longer than anticipated already, that the makers have the brass balls to kill a kid, and in such outrageously gruesome fashion. The first time I saw that scene, my head just about exploded. No bugs and snakes swarmed out though, thankfully. And related to that, I love the now famous ending where we're left wondering if James's, I mean, Dan's, pleas for them to STOP IT!!!, will get through and end the third and final transmission. 

2020 got me like.

2020 also got me like.

I could go on, of course, and I'm sure there's still so much more to say about the film (for much more background info and trivia than I could ever go into here, I'd recommend the extras and commentaries on the superlative Scream Factory Blu-Ray), but again, I've rambled for long enough as it is. Suffice to say, I adore this movie, and despite having only watched it a few days ago, could do so again right now. Thanks for reading, watch lots of horror movies this weekend (and beyond!), and I'll leave the final words to Conal Cochran...


Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009)


Been way too long since I covered a single movie and as I'd seen that the tenth anniversary of the limited theatrical release of this arguable modern classic (and personal favourite) was coming up today, I figured it'd be a perfect film to do a deep dive into.

For anyone unfamiliar and before I get into spoiler territory, I'll jump right ahead and give this my highest recommendation (implicit in the preceding paragraph, of course), with one note of caution. That is, a phrase which is almost invariably and rightly used in relation to this movie is "slow burn". If you've no problem with films which take their time, are deliberately paced and allow you (in the director's words, which I'm paraphrasing) to wallow in the more mundane aspects of the movie's world, hanging out with the characters and getting to know them, then you'll most likely dig this. If not, you might lose patience with it.



This'll be less a review and more a love letter, so to speak but again, for the benefit of anyone who hasn't seen it, here's the setup. College student Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) needs money so she can move out of her shared dorm room and into an apartment. She accepts a babysitting job to pay for it but everything about the gig screams "this is weird as fuck, don't do it, don't do it, DON'T DO IT!!!". A sentiment loudly echoed by her best friend, Megan (Greta Gerwig). Despite all this, of course she does it anyway.

And that's all you need to know. Plus the title (and some pre-credits text situating things in the midst of the 1980s satanic panic) really puts the proverbial cards on the table. So yeah, if all that sounds appealing, go watch it and come back and read the rest later. SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN! 

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Happy 100th Birthday Donald Pleasence!

As it's been nearly a year since my last post and it's now the spooky season to boot, wanted to write at least one piece for this month. And what better reason than to celebrate one of Halloween's patron saints and one of my favourite actors. In fact, if pushed he might be my number one. Not just because he's such a great performer and was, by all accounts, such a funny, warm, always welcome presence on a set. But also as quite a few of the films he was in are very close to my heart, with some being right at the top of my personal canon.

To tip my hat to the great man then, here, in chronological order of release, are some of my favourite performances from him (including a few honourable mentions). While it would be tempting to dive into biography as well, that kind of material is already widely available. Call this more a personal love letter, so to speak.

Honourable Mention #1 - The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963)



An honourable mention because I haven't seen it in years. Funnily enough though, it was on TV while I was having lunch before I started writing this. 

So while I'm well overdue for a re-visit, I do remember being particularly moved by Pleasence's performance in this and the plight of his character.

Also, this chronology aside, this might be the first film of his which I actually saw. Remember watching it late one night with my dad when I was a kid but can't recall if I'd seen Halloween by that point or not.

Honourable Mention #2 - You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967)



Another I haven't seen in years. In fact, this one, I haven't watched since I was a kid. They used to show Bond movies every Saturday afternoon (on ITV I think) and I remember this was one of my favourites. In fact if memory serves, I think I did call this my number one back then.

Again, definitely high time for a re-watch. And even though it's many many moons since my last viewing, Donald's iconic and arguably definitive portrayal of Blofeld has always stuck with me. Also, just comparing that performance and his in The Great Escape shows what an incredible range he had. 

P.S. Perusing Twitter just now and apparently, it's James Bond Day. 

Death Line (Gary Sherman, 1972)



If pushed, this might be my current favourite role of Donald's, all due respect to Dr. Sam Loomis and many others. I mean I can't think of another movie at present where I've enjoyed watching him more. Every scene, line delivery, bit of body language, you name it, is absolutely golden. To say he steals the film is an understatement. And an all too brief scene, where his acerbic, no bullshit, working class copper spars with Christopher Lee's MI5 agent, is perhaps one of the greatest bits of back and forth between two actors that I've ever seen. It's the sort of sequence that I could watch on a loop, it's so bloody good.

That aside, again, every scene with his character, Inspector Calhoun, is a delight. Case in point, when after work one night, he and his subordinate, Detective Sergeant Rogers (Norman Rossington) go to the pub and get shit-faced. To the point where well after last orders, the landlord has a hell of a time getting them to leave. 



And overall, while it has its fans, I feel this film doesn't get enough love. I mean for me, it's up there with some of the best genre films of the decade, which is saying something, as the '70s might be the best ten years horror ever had (discuss!). 

Honourable Mention #3 - Tales That Witness Madness (Freddie Francis, 1973)



Another I'm well overdue to re-visit. Think I've only seen it once. Not one of the best anthology films I've seen, as I recall, but perfectly serviceable and entertaining. And the stories aside, I remember enjoying the wraparound, which features Pleasence showing Jack Hawkins around his high tech looking asylum, which links this movie to another, which I'll be getting to later in this post.

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (Jeff Grant, 1973)



Something of a wildcard, this public information film is less than two minutes long but apparently made a big impact on a whole generation. And Donald is perfectly cast as the narrator and Death himself. And between this and a few of the films featured in this post, it makes me further appreciate what a great and distinctive voice he had. Am wondering if he read any audio books or short stories, as I'd love to listen to them. 

From Beyond the Grave (Kevin Connor, 1974)



Another anthology and a film that's quickly become one of my favourites, from Amicus or anyone else. Pleasence features in a story this time, rather than the wraparound. And as if his performance, as an ex service man, wasn't wonderful enough, we have the added bonus of him being joined by his real life daughter, the also great Angela Pleasence (if you've never seen Symptoms, from the same year, seek it out asap), playing the same role.



Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)



Natch. Rather than talking about all of his Halloween films at once, gonna carry on with the chronological approach. And man oh man, where the hell do we begin? I mean it's a cliche to say what can we add that hasn't been expressed a million times already r.e. this series and this movie in particular but of course, it has to be said. Anyway, what can I tell ya?




While, like the whole movie, Donald's performance is, of course, pitch perfect, I suppose in retrospect, I came to really appreciate it as I got a bit older and more aware of what goes into making a film. But despite some apparent misgivings r.e. some of the dialogue (which I didn't know about until I saw an on set interview with him last night. It's on Youtube), he completely sells every single word. His famous monologue, delivered to Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers), being a case in point, of course. I don't know how it would have come across from any other actor (and now, like folks have said, it's hard to imagine anyone else delivering it), but he makes it sound like Shakespeare.



Escape From New York (John Carpenter, 1981)



I'm less familiar with this than most of Carpenter's back catalogue but I do enjoy re-watching it every now and then. And while my memory is a bit fuzzy on some of it, I remember appreciating how they gave Pleasence a rather different role here to that of Dr. Loomis. I.e. in the sense that the US president he plays is, as I recall anyway, a bit of a villain himself. Not to the same extent as others in the film but in the way that you might expect a world leader in a dystopian society to be. Grey shaded, for want of a better way of putting it. And Donald perfectly portrays him as such. I'll say no more as again, I need to refresh my memory on it. 



Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal, 1981)




Despite being released three years later, this has always felt like an instant continuation of the first film to me, which is a daft thing to say really, as of course it's set right after the end of one. What I mean is, despite the slight passage of time, it all feels totally organic and of course that includes in terms of performances as well. 




Again, not much I can add r.e. this series really but one thing I'll mention, which always amused me. When Loomis thinks he sees Michael but it's really the ill fated Ben Tramer, trying to get some trick or treaters to move away, he shouts, "Get back, you kids!" but to my ears, for some reason I always like to think he's saying "Get back, you pigs!". Silly, I know, but I always get a kick out of it. Same with before blowing the hospital up at the end, when he sounds like he turns cockney for a moment. 



Alone in the Dark (Jack Sholder, 1982)



Another movie I'm less familiar with. Only seen it twice, the second viewing being very recent. Dug it the first time. LOVED it the second. Pleasence plays another psychiatrist and an eccentric one to boot. He's understanding of and liberal with his patients to a fault. I mean Loomis would be dismayed at his security arrangements. He smokes pot. And, to be fair, he does seem to be able to handle his patients quite well some of the time. This is quickly becoming another of my favourite performances of his, as he's such fun to watch.



Nothing Underneath (Carlo Vanzina, 1985)



Donald plays an Italian copper in this, with accent to boot (which sometimes slips but is generally quite consistent) and a moustache as well. I love how dryly sarcastic he is. How he calls the American protagonist Wyoming. And the scene where he hits the salad bar at Wendy's is, with another couple of sequences mentioned in this post, one of the greatest things ever committed to celluloid.

Phenomena (Dario Argento, 1985)



One of my favourite films from one of my favourite directors, so of course having Pleasence in it is like a cherry on top. I wish he was in it more but even in relatively limited time, we get a good sense of the demeanour of his wheelchair bound entomologist. He's no nonsense  and straight talking but warm and eager to help those who come to him, from the police to our protagonist, played by Jennifer Connelly. And again, he radiates it all with ease. And he has a chimpanzee nurse, with whom he also shows a great rapport with, being sort of a father figure to her. 



Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)



Always loved this film but during a recent re-watch, on my birthday, the 1st of October, where I premiered the 4K restored Blu-Ray released last year, it shot up even more in my estimation. Partly because of Donald's performance. Specifically a scene, a good way into the film I think, where, as I recall, he's praying and weeping, because of the dire, apocalyptic state of things and obviously crying out to God as a result. Between that and some other moments as well, the film really hit me much more on an emotional level than it had previously and now I'd argue it may be as great a movie as any Carpenter has ever made. And Pleasence for that matter too, of course.



Phantom of Death (Ruggero Deodato, 1988)



Another movie which I find quite affecting and one I don't hear enough love for. Michael York plays the lead, a musician afflicted by a rare disease which rapidly ages him, sends him crazy and murderous. And Donald is the detective who hunts him down. The former pushes the latter to the point where he has an absolutely amazing swear-tastic meltdown in the middle of a busy street. Worth seeing for that alone but overall I think the film is solid. 

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Dwight H. Little, 1988)



As with Halloween II and even more so, despite the passage of years, Pleasence slips right back into Loomis's shoes like he never took them off. Scarred, even more on a mission and take charge than before, this could be the peak of the character. Love his scene with the preacher while on the road to Haddonfield and the showdown with Michael at the gas station too. And his expression and reaction to the tragedy that unfolds at the film's end is so real and raw that it almost hurts to watch.



Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Dominique Othenin-Girard, 1989)



Generally seen as where the series jumped the shark somewhat, still though, I've always enjoyed this one, despite and now partly because of its flaws. And as far as Loomis is concerned, it seems the events at the end of 4 have driven him almost unhinged, as there's scenes where he's harassing the shit out of poor little Jamie. But given the context, it's understandable. And as always, Donald plays it all totally straight, so it holds together. 



Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Joe Chappelle, 1995)



The final film on our list. Like all of the series, I saw it when I was young, so have always had a lot of time and love for it. In recent years though, it's started to really shoot up in my estimation and is currently perhaps the sequel which I get most excited to re-watch. And am talking about the theatrical cut here. I watched the producer's once and fucking hated the ending. I'll watch it again sometime but for me, the theatrical was a case of if it ain't broke...

Despite being so close to the end of his life (he'd pass away on the 2nd February 1995, in Saint Paul de Vence, France due to heart failure, following heart valve replacement surgery) and clearly frail, when the action gets going, he still clearly means business. 



It's admittedly bittersweet watching him in this, knowing it'd be the final time he'd play Dr. Loomis but even though the end for his character is tragic, I've always read it as a sacrifice he felt he had to make. And also, while it seems as though said ending may well have been tacked on after his death, it still feels kind of perfect. Especially the cut to black before the credits, following a pumpkin seen on a very windy porch, which has now presumably been blown out. An image which, to me, marks the end of an era. Well after the golden age of the slasher film had ended (though we can debate when that was) but a year before Scream and the cycle of movies that it spawned, it really seems like a full stop between the former era and the latter.



So there you have it. Just some thoughts on and humble appreciation for one of the finest actors we've had the pleasure of gracing our screens. And as he had, if memory serves, a staggering 234 acting credits, it excites me no end to know that I've still got so many more performances from him to discover and enjoy. Happy 100th Birthday Donald! Cheers for all the great work you've given us. Needless to say, am going to watch a film or two of your's tonight to tip my hat and raise my glass to you. And of course I hope anyone reading this will do the same. Even if it's not today. I mean this year you've got the perfect excuse to watch as much of his stuff as you can, which is precisely what I'm planning on doing.