90s Horror Movies

Exploring horror's overlooked decade

Voices From Beyond

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As Voices from Beyond begins, we see a couple having sex. Woo hoo sexed up Italian horror, right? Not so fast. From another room, a small voice cries out for Mommy. Mommy’s lover gets up out of bed, goes to the child’s room, and stabs him to death. But it turns out it was only Mommy’s dream. What does this dream mean?

The next scene brings us to a hospital room. The woman from the dream looks on as her dream lover, a man we will find out is her waking life husband, vomits blood and dies. The doctor tells the family they must do an autopsy, and they object, especially the dead man’s stepmother. It seems like his wife, stepbrother, and stepmother are glad he is dead. Where are the famously aggressive Italian police on this? Letting a cameoing Lucio Fulci do the autopsy and then letting a mysterious hand knock the one sample from the obviously poisoned body off a shelf. Only two people even care that the man has probably been murdered: his loving daughter, and his father, who is wheelchair bound and unable to speak.

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But this is a Fulci film, so you know something fucked up is going to happen. One other person cares that the poor man has been murdered. Him! That’s right, the ghost of this dude is a major character in the film, and he is pissed! He starts invading people’s dreams, sending zombies to get his stepbrother and turning his mistress’s plate of fried eggs into fried eyeballs! He insists that his daughter must find the killer before his body rots away, and Mr. Fulci is kind enough to show us the various stages of decomposition progressively. But will the grieving girl fulfill her filial duty before the last glob of green goo has burst forth from her father’s cheek?

I guess I won’t spoil the ending, but I will tell you that it’s goofy and unsatisfying. Fans of Fulci should expect nothing less, of course. That’s not to say that we don’t find out who the killer is. And it isn’t all that easy to guess, which makes it fun. My husband said, “wouldn’t it be funny if it was them,” and I said, “I bet it’s him.” Turns out we were both right.

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And despite the weirdo ending, Voices From Beyond is good trashy entertainment. Flashbacks of the murder victim’s life show that while he may not necessarily have needed killing, he sure was a guy you love to hate. The whole overprivileged shittastic family lives together in a big house like the Ewings of Southfork, and except for the kids, they are all pretty awful people. That is always fun to watch from a safe distance: like 23 years, an ocean, and a TV screen. Other than the ending, the only thing I would have changed about the film is that we don’t get a peek into the nightmares of the victim’s evil stepmother. Almost everyone else has a bad dream, and I do love a dream sequence.

Overall, I do recommend this film for Fulci fanpersons like myself, fans of Italian horror (that group probably overlaps more often than not), and anyone who likes a batshit supernatural murder mystery. Which should be everyone. I’m not gonna watch it several times a year like I do with Zombi and the Unholy Trilogy, but I’d definitely watch (and cringe at all the gross stuff) again. Voices From Beyond is a bright spot in Fulci’s late career, much better than his last writing effort The Wax Mask, and obviously more cohesive than his best-of A Cat in the Brain. Best of all, it gives me the opportunity to put into black and white a rather obvious horror rule. Don’t make people hate you and then continue to live with them, and sure as hell don’t let them near the fridge, ya dummy!

 

The First Power

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As The First Power opens, a nun pleads with her superiors to do something about the serial killer who is possessed by the Devil. In an excellent endorsement for the Catholic Church, she is basically told that this is the 20th century, they’re not at all concerned with Satan anymore, and that she should go back to her cloister and pray for humility. That makes no sense; deciding that arrogant nuns are your real problem while believing in God and not the Devil is like expecting Batman to save Gotham from Alfred when there’s no Joker. Or something.

Meanwhile, our hero, Lou Diamond Phillips, is chasing the same serial killer through the urban jungles of Los Angeles. He gets a mysterious call from a psychic woman who tells him the location of the killer’s next strike on the condition that he not seek the death penalty once he catches the bad guy. Of course he catches him, nearly losing a female officer along the way, and of course the next thing you know, Phillips is drinking champagne to celebrate the death sentence for the killer. But once the killer has assumed room temperature, his spirit begins jumping from body to body racking up the kill count even more….and now he’s targeting cops. Can the cop, the psychic, and the nun stop the Father of Lies?

I have not heard anything about The First Power since its highly publicized theatrical release. Turns out it is an action horror movie, and it’s not bad, but it’s not great either. The horror elements are to my liking. There are some dream sequences, some hallucinations, and a little bit of suspense during the scenes in which you don’t know who the killer will jump into next, and whether each person Phillips deals with is possessed or not. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Phillips’s character, a lapsed Catholic, attempts to go to confession, only to find that Satan is there in the church. I thought church was supposed to be a base or a safe spot, so that makes the scene creepier.

The problem is with the action, or the lack of it, being replaced with a little too much drama. There are some car chases, and people falling off of buildings, a little bit of running, and a little bit of fighting, but it’s not enough to balance the amount of room left over for action. I don’t mind a horror/drama film, but this was just cheesy drama. Phillips and the killer both have dad issues, and the psychic has love troubles, and the dialogue was laughable. The psychic actually says angrily, “I am not some crackpot, I am a professional psychic!” Haw haw haw!

The killer’s family situation is brought up way too late in the film, and almost feels like an afterthought as well as a really obvious plot point. At one point the cop and the psychic walk into a bar, which should be a setup for a joke (not really, but I had say it) but instead ends up with a stupid lovers’ spat between the two of them which kind of comes out of nowhere. Also, the nun character is underutilized, which is not the ideal situation when you’re dealing with Satanic possession.

Overall, The First Power is not terrible, it’s not regrettable, and although many people feel the same story was done better a few years later in the Denzel Washington vehicle Fallen, I like The First Power better. I just think it could have been an even better story if it had been a bit grittier, had more action or more horror, and characters I could either care about or who kept their personal business to themselves. This had a 10 million dollar budget, so there was a lot of wasted potential. Worst of all, in the ultimate irony, Los Angeles makes a horrible filming location. It’s ugly and has no soul. Maybe someday they will remake this and set in in New York or Rome.

The biggest surprise about The First Power is that the dude who played Bubba in Forrest Gump was kind of hot in 1990! Who knew?

Blood and Donuts

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Boya, ethical vampire, crawled into a bag in a cellar on the night man first landed on the moon. As our story begins, he is awakened by a golf ball someone hits through the cellar window. Making his way out into the world again is frightening for our shy, undead protagonist, but he soon makes friends with a squirrelly cab driver named Earl. Boya also finds a new love interest in Molly, the waitress at an all night donut shop. Unfortunately, Boya is pursed by his girlfriend from the sixties, a beautician who is pissed off that she got old and Boya didn’t. Earl has his own troubles in the form of a couple of low life gangsters who feel entitled to use his cab for nefarious purposes, as well as their boss, a creepy guy played by David Cronenberg. Molly has it the easiest of all the characters, seeing as how her only concern is not letting people get close to her, that is, until she acquires a vampire for a potential boyfriend.

I loved Blood and Donuts when I saw it on VHS in the 90s, and I was worried that it wouldn’t hold up well. Luckily for me, I still enjoy it just as much. The life of a night-dwelling misfit appeals to me, and although I have been forced to more or less take on normal people hours since I became a parent, I’m sure I’ll go back to working second shift and hitting late night coffee shops someday. It’s just how some people’s biorhythms are. Blood and Donuts gives me the same calm feeling I had when I lived the life the characters live, and also reminds me of how I feel when I see the painting Nighthawks; I have read that Nighthawks is meant to convey a sense of loneliness, but I feel very comforted by the emptier world of nighttime, and its wary inhabitants. Blood and Donuts may be on the surface about lonely people finding each other, but they’re lonely because they’re cautious, which is a a positive thing in small amounts.

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Besides my vicarious nighthawking, I enjoy Blood and Donuts for the fact that much of the story is told through body language and facial expressions rather than dialogue. When Boya awakens, we see, rather than being told, the effect his re-emergence has on his former girlfriend. The same technique is used for a dream sequence sex scene between Molly and Boya, and also for the conclusion of the film, when Boya decides how to ultimately take his next step in life.

Interestingly, we get more dialogue between Earl and Boya than between Molly and Boya, with Boya laying out more of an explanation for his condition than he does with anyone else. These Boya/Earl scenes have led some viewers to a reading of Boya as bisexual, and also to a comparison between vampirism and heroin addiction. Personally, I’m not sure about the bisexuality, as Boya’s body language and choice of words could be left over from an earlier era when men were not as concerned with appearing as if they did not care for one another as friends. Heroin addiction and vampirism is an obvious comparison, but is put to much better use in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction. In this case I think the vampirism is more of a device used to symbolize the conflicting principles we all have and the compromises we have to make in order to balance our needs with the needs of others. Boya’s struggle in life comes specifically from being a vampire, but it’s not given more screen time than Earl’s troubles, and the vampire traits have both positive and negative effects. Plus, it looks cool when Boya vamps out.

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The character we get the most explanation from is Cronenberg’s mob boss, who holds forth to his underlings in the bowling alley where he conducts business. I know that I am biased against Mr. Cronenberg because I have seen inside his mind in the form of his films, which are some of the most disturbing works in horror history, but I would like to think that he also is an effective actor without the viewer having had that insight. I both hoped and feared that he would become a vampire, but it was not to be.

With almost any other film, the ending we get here in Blood and Donuts would seem to be lacking in resolution. We get a chance meeting between some supporting characters that might go somewhere, a bit of business that seems unfinished, and a surprising death. But to tie everything up neatly when so much time has been spent allowing us to draw our own conclusions would be out of character for this film. It works the way it is, and seems as much like real life between real humans as possible in a world where vampires and auto shop surgery are real. Blood and Donuts gives us a slice of life, and induces a wistful but not unwelcome mood. I recommend this one to fans of the vampire comedy subgenre, fans of quirky romances, night owls, and donut nuts.

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The Blair Witch Project

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There were three occasions in the 1990s where friends came to me and said, “oh my God, get in the car right now, we have to go see this movie.” Every time this happened I did not know anything about the movie beforehand, and all three times I was blown away by the movies. On top of that, all three of these movies changed the course of film history. I’m talking, of course, about Pulp Fiction, Scream, and The Blair Witch Project.

Whatever your feelings were on The Blair Witch Project in 1999, and however you feel about how it has held up, you can’t deny its impact on popular culture. First of all, the theatrical release was paired with a TV mockumentary which convinced many people that Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams actually did go missing in the woods; if I recall correctly, those three had to go on a talk show and proclaim that they were in fact still alive. Thankfully, the hysteria stopped short of actual court proceedings, unlike the case of Cannibal Holocaust.

But the biggest legacy that Blair Witch has left us with is the explosion of mockumentary horror films. Although the conceit was employed before, as in Cannibal Holocaust and The Last Broadcast, it was The Blair Witch Project that seemed to ignite the craze which has resulted in such insanely popular “real haints killing real victims” franchises as Paranormal Activity (which I personally think can go suck a fuck), the Spanish horror series REC (which kicks major ass), the guilty pleasure Grave Encounters, and my favorite horror mockumentary, the 2005 Japanese film Noroi. Not since the slasher cycle of the early 80s that arguably began with Halloween has a film been so imitated and expanded on as The Blair Witch Project.

It’s a beautifully simple plot. College aged filmmakers go traipsing into the woods in search of a local Maryland legend, get lost, and are never heard from again. Some time later, the footage is found by a group of archaeology students. Not much is revealed in The Blair Witch Project about the legend. We meet Heather, Josh, and Mike, they interview a few locals from Burkittsville (formerly Blair), but the trio doesn’t seem to be terribly interested in what the townspeople have to say. Heather talks over the interviewees in her impatience to find the locations of an earlier witch-related murder spree and a cemetery. Then we follow their ordeal in the woods for a little over an hour in our time, but it seems like we are camping and hiking with them for the seven days. It’s as if we are wandering with them, feeling the frustration of trying to follow a map and compass that are useless against the power of the vengeful spirit that lurks in the woods. We hear things, but we see nothing other than something bloody wrapped in flannel, and the next-to-last shot of the film of Mike standing with his face in the corner while Heather screams. The scariest parts of the film take place after dark, and thankfully, the filmmakers use these new inventions called “lights” during those portions of the film. No green night shots here!

In the end, the viewer, if they allow themselves to be caught up in the film, is able to feel a genuine sense of helplessness and despair. This is, in my opinion, partly due to the fact that the information in the film is intriguing but very sparse, planting effective seeds but allowing them to flower in the viewer’s imagination, and because it feels unfinished, as it should; I don’t know how many times I’ve seen “found footage horror” (looking at you, The Last Exorcism) and wondered who edited it together after it was “found.” It’s only in the companion material such as the TV doc Curse of the Blair Witch that we find out the whole story of the Blair Witch, along with the strange and seemingly impossible circumstances under which the footage was eventually found. The director probably could have cut some of the “lost and arguing in the woods” sequences and spent more time on exposition, but I don’t think the finished film would have been the punch to the gut that it turned out to be. It just had to be the way it was, it was a perfect storm, and if you can power through the annoying improvisational acting of the three leads, you have a real experience, even watching alone in your living room.

Now, I saw this fifteen years ago at a packed midnight showing, and it was totally engrossing. You didn’t actually see a witch or a murder, but the sounds in those woods were purely terrifying, and the feeling of being lost was palpable. The audience just sat there and endured it, and kind of walked out in silence and shock at the end. Then I went home to pass out, and just as I was falling asleep, the attic fan kicked on, and my roommate found me confused in the hall, having run out of my room at the sound of the fan in a somnambulist panic. I was, of course, so traumatized by the film that I went back to see it again the next night! I’m not sure any of those reactions would happen today.

I mean, we thought we were disgruntled back then, but it was nothing compared to where we find ourselves today, post 9/11, post privacy, in the middle of a pseudo-political class war. Today, half the audience would be mad that a mouthy woman was the director of the film-within-the-film, and the other half would be pissed off that it was a supernatural force that made the compass quit working. I’m not sure anyone possesses the kind of empathy for strangers anymore that would make this film work if it came out today, and I know no one would believe it was a snuff film. The prevailing attitude would probably be “dumbasses got themselves killed.” Not to mention that the average person certainly doesn’t have the attention span for a low-fi seven day trip through hell in the Maryland woods where nothing really happens unless you allow yourself to imagine you are there. People would be texting in the theater and taking pictures of themselves re-enacting Heather’s breakdown.  I miss 1999, y’all! We didn’t know how good life was on that August night in that screening room.

I know I went back to the theater to see this one more time after the first night, although that viewing doesn’t stick in my mind the way the first one does. For a long time I couldn’t get through this film again, and I blamed it mostly on Heather being so intense. But watching it again this past Sunday, early in the morning, alone, missing my son who was on a weekend visitation, after a night of fitful half sleep during one of those thunderstorms that sounds like cannon fire, I was able to once again get that vicarious feeling of despair and terror which only the masochistic horror fan would seek out. I also realized something about Heather’s character that I didn’t get before: she had to act that way, like a headstrong stubborn ass, in order for it to be effective when she completely breaks down. The scene where she cries into her camera and admits that it’s all her fault that they are going to die has been parodied many times, but if you can view it with a fresh pair of eyes, it’s remarkable and heart-rending that the character who began that trip as a control freak ended up so broken and contrite. The scene drives home what the witch and her woods are capable of. Heather the character is unpleasant, but it’s Heather who is the heart of the film.

Besides that revelation, it’s still the sounds in the woods that get to me. Visual scares can give you a physical jolt like the reflex when a rubber hammer hits your knee, and are often a cheap way to affect the viewer. It’s sound that can get into your soul to haunt you. When the film ends, I can’t press stop fast enough once those mysterious noises start up again over the credits. If you haven’t seen this in a while, try a fifteenth anniversary trip back to Burkittsville. Un-focus your mind, approach it as if you don’t know what will happen, and endure.

Mister Frost

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I read somewhere that good literature tries to answer questions and great literature asks them. I’m pretty sure I read that in some paperback horror novel though. Mister Frost is only above average in terms of its writing, and it does ask a hell of a lot of questions.

Jeff Goldblum plays the titular character. He’s at home in his country mansion somewhere in Europe, minding his own business, when two hoodlums on a motorcycle come to break in and steal his Aston Martin out of the garage. They don’t steal it though, because when they open the driver’s side door, a dead body falls out. What was a dead guy doing driving a car? Of course, the would-be car thieves go directly to the cops and tell them that they were trying to steal a car and found a body.

So the cops arrive, in the form of the magnificent beast that is Alan Bates, and ask Mister Frost a few questions. Frost has an Aston Martin, but no driver’s licence. He also likes to cook complicated dishes and then throw them away without eating them. He admits that he was just burying a body when Bates arrived, but the latter thinks Frost is joking, until he stumbles on another body in the house. Frost is taken away, but not before he hands Bates a videotape of his atrocities. Turns out that Mister Frost has tortured and killed 24 people and buried them in his yard. For most movies the discovery and apprehension of the serial killer would be the end, but Frost is more than just a killer.

Two years later, somewhere in Europe, Frost is committed to a mental institution manned by very arrogant and eager hipster doctors who want to understand him and let him roam free. But they get a little too free with him, because Frost is actually Satan, and he can possess people and make them kill other people, or themselves. Being Satan, he claims to have an agenda: he wants the shrink in charge of his case, played by Kathy Baker, to kill him, because by influencing a doctor to kill her patient, then he will be able to prove to the world that he is real.

We the audience see some supernatural shit happening! The doctors and investigators are too smart to believe he’s the Devil, but that actually makes them stupid! Baker and Bates believe in the Devil so now they’re stupid but that actually makes them smart! Dramatic irony!

Alan Bates has been following Frost around in the two years since the arrest, having left the law enforcement profession. The things on the videotape, which we never directly see, seem to have affected him enough that he is regarded as crazy by the police in charge of the new murders that Frost causes. Of course, this being a supernatural horror film, we know that he is not exactly crazy. It may be a design flaw in the script, but I was never sure whether Bates wanted Baker to kill Goldblum or whether he meant to do it himself. All three characters were equally mysterious. Bates and Baker have an attraction, but it may be just the old horror movie “we’re falling in love because we’re under duress” feelings. Goldblum’s character is seductive because he’s the Devil, and because he wants something, although whether he actually wants what he says he wants is never clear. The movie appropriately toys with the viewer and never really provides satisfaction.

Now, I know we’re meant to be talking about Jeff Goldblum here, seeing as how this is the Goldblumathon, and he is perfect for his role. His twitching, creepy intensity, combined with his unconventional good looks, make him a very convincing Satan. Man, for such a weird looking dude, Jeff Goldblum is sexy as hell! But it was Bates I couldn’t look away from, which was distracting since his character is perhaps even less well-defined than the character of Frost. Alan Bates the actor always just had that kind of presence. I often wonder if people are cast for parts because of other parts they have done, and in this case, Mister Frost reminds me of the 70s horror drama The Shout, in which Bates himself played the mysterious and possibly insane character who has come to cause misery and death. Of course, Kathy Baker is the one who actually carries Mister Frost, which I would not have thought possible before seeing this, and she does a great job, but she’s not as hypnotic as either of the male leads. But then, she doesn’t have to be, seeing as how they’re sort of fighting over her.

I’m not sure if Mister Frost is on the side of science or faith, or whether it is in favor of or against the death penalty. In the movie, it’s made clear that the supernatural is at work, but I don’t know if we’re meant to believe that the writer feels the supernatural is literally at work in the real world. Personally, I am the type who forms opinions based on situations as they arise, which may seem like an explanation for being wishy-washy to some. I also have the currently unpopular thought that I don’t see why one can’t believe both in science and in God/The Devil. This is a damn hard movie to write about, but if was forced to come up with a solid opinion as to What It’s All About, I’d say that the message is Evil Lurks Within Us All, whether literally or figuratively. It’s also possibly a criticism of psychiatry, which is a common theme in film, understandably so since film directors tend to be nuts, and sanity tends to get in the way of self-expression. Mister Frost is a fascinating character. I would have loved to see him investigated by Fox Mulder!

If this was a great movie, I’d say it serves as a mirror, and that whatever you think about the matter of good and evil is the answer to the questions it asks. And maybe, being a pretty good but not great movie, it still has that mirror quality.  The fact that we never see Frost doing any killing contributes to the horror, because as always, what we can imagine is worse than anything a film can show us. If there’s anything I’ve learned about early 90s horror it’s that there’s a hazy, dreamlike quality that pervades most films, and this one has the added bonus of a Euro arthouse flavor, complete with some bad dubbing skills. Best of all, there are very few special effects. Does anyone else miss the days when the actors could just be fucking creepy without shaking their heads and turning into computer animations? Mister Frost definitely has a mood that it is able to inflict upon the viewer, seeing as how I had to watch one of those old early 60s Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple movies (while eating cookies and drinking milk) in order to shake off the eerie feelings and go to sleep. I’m infected with the mood again just writing about the film, and I think I may watch it again just to gaze upon the two male leads. Analysis aside, a mood is really what we’re looking for in a dramatic horror movie, so the enjoyable and underrated Mister Frost succeeds.

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