Horror Noire (2019)

It’s initially tempting to receive the Shudder-produced documentary Horror Noire as a kind of celebratory victory lap after the financial & awards season successes of Get Out helped greenlight so much new black art in the horror genre. Indeed, the film includes several interviews with black creators whose latest projects were funded in the wake of Get Out’s game-changing pop culture impact, including author Robin R. Means Coleman, whose eponymous source material itself was greenlit into this feature-length documentary the very morning after Jordan Peele won his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (as reported on an episode of Shock Waves early this year). Horror Noire does allow the recent success story of Get Out to boost morale on its back end, and several black authors & filmmakers do use the opportunity to plug their latest projects, but this documentary is just as much of a rebuke as it is a celebration. It’s first & foremost an academic conversation covering the history of black representation in American horror cinema, from the coded racial caricature of amoral classics like King Kong & The Creature from The Black Lagoon to the celebratory upswing in black filmmaking in the modern day. The history of black representation, black audiences, and black art in American pop culture doesn’t leave a lot of room for Horror Noire to play like the victory lap a lesser film could slip into, and it’s impressive to see a talking-heads doc on this scale & subject to be willing to have those tough conversations. As one interviewee puts it, “We’ve always loved horror, but horror hasn’t always loved us.”

The list of celebrity interviewees from The Black Horror Hall of Fame gathered here is impressive and alone worth the effort of putting this doc together: Jordan Peele, Ernest Dickerson, Ken Foree, Tony Todd, Loretta Divine, Keith Davis, The Craft’s Rachel True, etc. Their talking-heads commentary is smartly staged as audiences watching the screen inside a movie theater rather than as creators toiling in their workspaces, emphasizing how onscreen representation shaped them as people as well as artists. The real joy of this film, however, is how much it allows author Robin R. Means Coleman to guide the discussion in her own words instead of letting the flashier celebrity interviewees fully take over. She obviously has a reverence for horror cinema as an artform, but she’s also fearless in interrogating the ways it has failed black audiences since the very beginning. American history itself is declared to be “black horror.” Birth of Nation is framed as a horror film from black audiences’ POV. Tropes like the easily scared back buffoon providing comedic relief, the “magical negro” helping white characters navigate supernatural realms, and the sole black character being the first to die – and so on – are called out for their social menace even in beloved horror classics like Candyman & The Shining. Get Out’s success is contextualized as a cyclical breakthrough moment that’s already been seen before in landmark texts like The Night of the Living Dead, Blacula, and post-Spike Lee 90s gems like Tales from the Hood. Coleman is given free rein to throw bare-knuckled academic punches here, and she does not disappoint.

Although this isn’t the surface-level celebration of black success stories in horror cinema that it easily could have been, it’s still only a thematic primer that compresses Coleman’s rigorous academic text into a breezy 83min discussion. As such, I didn’t walk away with too many deep-cut recommendations for titles I haven’t seen before (Sugar Hill, Abby, and Def by Temptation being the few standouts), but the implied promise is that there’s plenty more to dig into once I pick up the book that inspired this production. Since this is just a standalone feature and not a ten-part mini-series, however, that compression is perfectly suited for the task at hand: using the success of Get Out to center a crucial academic discussion that well deserves the signal boost. It’s not the exhaustive, final word on the topic the way a lengthy academic text could afford to be, but it’s a worthwhile conversation starter that isn’t afraid to take on the Goliaths of the genre as it interrogates a history just as worthy of scrutiny as celebration. A weightier film would’ve been less digestible in a single sitting, and a lighter one would’ve underserved the political & emotional severity of its subject. In that way, Horror Noire finds an ideal Goldilocks middle ground, while doing the essential public service of amplifying Robin R. Means Coleman’s authorial voice.

-Brandon Ledet

Death Spa (1989)

Within the opening two minutes of Death Spa I was already aware that I was in the presence of trash cinema greatness. The only other film I had previously seen from director Michael Fischer was the uninspired Teen Wolf knockoff My Mom’s a Werewolf (one of three releases he completed in ’89, along with something titled Crack House), so I didn’t expect to fall in love here so easily. Everything there is to love about this deranged supernatural horror is succinctly represented in the opening credits, though, immediately setting a very high expectation for over-the-top schlock being married to intense attention to craft, a dynamic I was delighted to discover the film lives up to. Death Spa is essentially what would happen if Chopping Mall were given the full arthouse, Suspiria treatment, the exact low premise/high execution dichotomy I look for in all my genre cinema. The film opens with an exterior shot of a Los Angeles gym with a lit neon sign that reads “Starbody Health Spa.” Lightning strikes the sign, leaving only the title “d ea th Spa” lit as the camera travels into the cursed building in an ominous tracking shot. Spooky synths & neon lights overwhelm the senses as the camera finds the only soul alive in the gym, a woman dancing alone to rhythmic music that we cannot hear. One gratuitous nudity scene later and she’s being cooked alive by a sauna gone haywire, activated by an off-screen killer. It’s immediately apparent in this opening sequence that Death Spa is exploitative sleaze. It’s also just as apparent that it’s fine art worthy of any pop culture museum that would house it.

The gym is a creepy place, presumably doubly so for women who’re working out alone after hours. Early in its runtime, Death Spa appears to be a shrewd exploration of that common fear, exploiting the vulnerability of publicly navigating a space designed to intensively focus on the human body among a wealth of potentially dangerous strangers. The camera takes on the first-person POV of a slasher film or a giallo, stalking vulnerable women in its neon & spandex health club setting. It even teases potential personal & financial reasons why several suspects would be committing the rampant murders (framed as accidental deaths) that start plaguing the gym. I was totally onboard with the grounded killer-on-the-loose horror teased in Death Spa’s earliest motions, but even more pleased by the deranged absurdity that unfolded instead. It turns out Death Spa isn’t about a psychopathic killer at all, but rather one of my very favorite genre film subjects: Evil Technology. In the film, a vengeful ghost hacks the computer systems of automated gym equipment as a means of real-world vengeance. This is more of a haunted house movie than a slasher, except that the house in question is a health spa with very specific methods for causing lethal damage: rogue weightlifting machines, loose diving boards, flying shower tiles, the aforementioned sauna steam, etc. It even telegraphs a Chekov’s blender gag at the gym’s smoothie bar later echoed in one of my most beloved Evil Technology horrors: Unfriended. There’s very little thought given to the inherent vulnerability of gymnasiums & voyeurism, something that plays like an afterthought at best in the movie’s true mission statement of staging a supernatural horror at a novelty fad location specific to its era. Instead of playing off real-world dread or having its characters at least figure out that a gym with lethally faulty equipment might not be worth their patronage, the movie instead gradually intensifies its computer-ghost mayhem as it builds to a climactic event where many patrons can be locked inside & slaughtered at once: a “Mardi Gras” costume party. In Los Angeles. At a health spa. At night. Insane, but adorably so.

In addition to the lunacy of a ghost hacking automated gym equipment, Death Spa also chooses to reveal the identity of the undead spirit/real world terror through a recurring nightmare of a disabled woman on fire, adding to the film’s menacingly surreal vibe. That nightmare logic is matched by overactive camera work that puts much more care into its movement, angles, and lighting than what’s typically afforded trash cinema of this caliber. That high art cinematography clashes harshly with the bargain bin quality of acting on-hand, with cult cinema vet Ken Foree standing out as the only notable performer. The spooky synth soundtrack also occasionally gives way to an incredibly misguided mouth harp sound effect, turning potentially effective scare scenes into total jokes. While the cast & the soundtrack occasionally show the seams of Death Spa’s budget, though, the film’s commitment to practical gore effects & the sheer lunacy of its plot is more than enough to carry it through. When the ghost hacks a shower head or a blender or romantically whispers to their victim, “Come with me into the inferno. Let’s die together and live forever in Hell,” it’s all but impossible to resist Death Spa’s delirious, over-the-top charms. It didn’t take much for the movie to win me over as an instant fan. Its swirling mix of synths, neon, and self-amused gore was more than enough to steal my trash-gobbling heart at first sight. The true joy of Death Spa, though, is that its cheap thrills don’t stop there. The movie pushes its evil health spa premise to the most ridiculous extreme it can manage on a straight-to-VHS 80s budget, a dedication in effort & craft I wish Fischer had also poured into My Mom’s a Werewolf. In fact, all movies in all genres could stand to be a little more like the heightened absurdity achieved in Death Spa, not just the ones about health craze fads & pissed-off computer-ghosts.

-Brandon Ledet

From Beyond (1986)

Despite my lifelong obsessiveness as a horror fan, I have several personal taste hang-ups with a few directors considered to be the titans of the genre that I cannot explain, but cause me great shame. I cannot put into words, for instance, why 80s splatter mayhem excites me to no end when Peter Jackson’s behind the camera, but I’m not at all amused by tonally similar work from Sam Raimi. There’s no accounting for why the works of George A. Romero tend to bore me, but I have deep love & appreciation for the gore hound & social critic devotees that followed in his footsteps. I’m not at all proud of these “I don’t get it” reactions to a select few horror greats, but I do have to admit that Stuart Gordon is among the spooky titans whose appeal escapees me. I can laugh & swoon over the misshapen oeuvre of a Brian Yuzna or a Frank Henenlotter without ever tiring of their cartoonishly juvenile sex & violence, but Gordon’s own additions to that exact aesthetic, most notably the Re-Animator series, has always left me cold (except maybe in the case of Dolls, which feels more like a Charles Band production than a standard Gordon film). As I’d obviously much rather enjoy his work than decry it, I recently sought out Gordon’s surrealist, Lovecraftian horror From Beyond (made largely with the same cast & crew as Re-Animator) in hopes of finding something that would finally clue me in on what makes him so beloved. It was only a moderate success.

Produced by Yuzna and starring returning Re-Animator players Jeffery Combs & Barbara Crampton, From Beyond follows a classic HP Lovecraft/”The King in Yellow” plot about people who get too curious about supernatural forces and are subsequently driven mad by their experiences with a realm beyond normal human comprehension. A scientist is accidentally killed and his assistant is driven mad by an invention known as The Resonator. Through a series of intense purple lights and bizarre sounds, The Resonator is a machine that “accesses the imperceptible,” syncing up what we understand to be the world with an entirely different dimension of invisible threats & dangerous sensations. The mental capacity to access this invisible world is linked to schizophrenia and the pineal gland (which protrudes & throbs at the skull walls of characters’ foreheads like a tongue pressing against the inside of a cheek), but its ramifications extend far beyond our understanding of science. Invisible sensations (later echoed in titles like Final Destination & The Happening) terrorize the film’s characters as The Resonator’s immeasurable effect introduces them to Lovecraftian tentacle monsters & increases their desire for kinky, transgressive sex. Even in scrawling this plot description at this very moment, I’m shocked that From Beyond wasn’t instantly one of my all-time favorite films. Assuming I would’ve loved this exact setup with the touch of a Cronenberg or a Ken Russell behind the camera, I have to assume it’s Stuart Gordon himself who’s holding its potential back.

The major letdown of From Beyond is that for a movie about unlocking a sinister realm of infinite possibilities, the places it chooses to go are disappointingly unimaginative. On a visual craft level, I’m wholly in love with the film’s D.I.Y. feats in practical effects mindfuckery. The soft, shifting flesh of the film’s oversexed, inhuman tentacle monsters from another dimension are deserving of audiences’ full attention & awe. The story told around those creations is disappointingly limited in its juvenile white boy masculinity, however, which makes me wonder if you have to be a preteen horror nerd when you experience Gordon’s work for the first time to fully appreciate him as an auteur. Of the four main victims to The Resonator, it’s the two white men who most fully experience its mindbending wrath and transform into surreal monstrosities. The remaining two victims, The Black Man and The Woman, are treated with a much more limited imagination. Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree’s character as “Bubba” Brownlee (even that name, ugh) is an ex-athlete bodyguard who throws out lines like “I know this behavior. I’ve seen it in the streets” in reference to Resonator addiction. His being locked out of the machine’s more extreme effects is disappointing, but what’s even worse is the way Barbara Crampton is immediately sexually violated in her first monster encounter, then asked to sexily model fetish gear. She also never fully devolves into the pineal gland demon her male colleagues transcend to despite her equal exposure to The Resonator. This should be a movie about an endless galaxy of cerebral terrors, but instead it’s mostly about impotence & other sexual hang-ups of white men in power, which is disappointingly reductive at best.

I can see so much DNA from some of my favorite horror titles seeping in at From Beyond’s fringes (Society, Slither, Videodrome, etc.) that it’s a huge letdown that the film is ultimately just Passably Entertaining. The feats of practical effects gore are impressive enough that I enjoyed the film more than Re-Animator’s more minor pleasures, but that isn’t saying much. There’s a violent, over-the-top goofiness to Gordon’s work that I appreciate in the abstract, but he’s so unselfaware about the unimaginative cruelty in the way he treats certain characters (especially women & PoC) that stop me short of heaping on praise. I might have been a lot less critical of it had I seen it for the first time as a kid, but I can’t help but find it a gross letdown now, especially since the infinite possibilities of its premise should have opened it up to so much  more. Then again, this all might just be a matter of taste, and there’s no accounting for that.

-Brandon Ledet