Quick Takes: Halloween Hangover

Every October, I sit on the sidelines while more dedicated movie nerds cram in 31 new-to-them horror films, one for every day of the month. I’m usually too busy with New Orleans Film Fest screenings, podcast homework, NOCAZ prep, and other personal movie-watching rituals to keep up with that schedule.  A lot of those priorities have shifted in recent years, though. NOCAZ, for instance, doesn’t even exist anymore.  So, in the past couple years I’ve gotten the closest I ever have to properly celebrating Spooktober alongside my buddies, watching 32 horror films in October 2021 and 30 in October 2022.  These numbers are puny when you realize they’re boosted by rewatches. They’re even punier when you compare them to the triple-digit anomalies more voracious viewers like the hosts of We Love to Watch are racking up, but it’s at least a stride in the right direction.  When I grow up, I want to be a proper Spooktoberer.  One day, one day.

This Spooktober, my pen could not keep up with my eyes, and I didn’t find time to write or podcast about all of the horror movies I watched before Halloween Night.  I’m willing to write proper reviews of this year’s new horror releases that I watched last month, but I’m a less eager to let the older titles clog up my Drafts box.  So, here are a few quick mini-reviews of new-to-me, old-to-the-world horror movies I watched in the lead up to Halloween.

Evilspeak (1981)

After watching Clint Howard slum it in the all-around lazy kindertrauma slasher Ice Cream Man earlier this month, it was wonderful to see him shine as the lead in a Great horror movie for a change – although one with an equally goofy premise.  In Evilspeak, a young, baby-faced Howard stars as a military academy misfit who summons Satan to smite his bullies using the Latin translation software on the school computer.  It’s a dual-novelty horror that cashes in on the personal desktop computer & Satanic Panic trends of its era, combining badass practical gore spectacles with proto-Lawnmower Man computer graphics.  It isn’t long before the prematurely-bald Baby Clint graduates from translating Latin phrases from a Satanic priest’s diary to asking the computer dangerous questions like “What elements do I need for a Black Mass?” and “What are the keys to Satan’s magic?”, stoking parents’ technological and religious fears with full aggression.  And the third-act gore spectacle he unleashes with those questions is gorgeously disgusting.

There are two notable endorsements of Evilspeak‘s quality from infamously disreputable sources: Anton LaVey publicly praised the film’s Satanic powers, and British censors listed it among the initial Video Nasties list of banned home video titles.  Evilspeak starts off goofy & unassuming enough for audiences to expect a safe & subdued resolution to Clint’s schoolday woes.  Once he gets his cathartic Carrie payback scene in the school chapel, though, it quickly devolves into a gruesome gore fest, with Clint soaring above his tormenters while wielding a gigantic sword and an army of feral, flesh-starved hogs.  The only thing you can really fault the movie for is casting someone who was already bald to play a picked-on high school student (hiding under a thin, combed-over toupee), but hey, I had a very good friend at that age who started balding before we graduated, and it’s a pretty convincing reason why he was such a target for bullying.

Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolf Man (1973)

The title pretty much says it all.  Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolf Man is one of the 53 lucha libre films starring masked pro wrestler El Santo, nine of which featured him teaming up with his in-ring rival Demonio Azul.  From what I can tell, a significant portion of that filmography is horror-related too.  At least, the only other Santo movie I’ve seen to date, Santo vs. The Vampire Women, is essentially a Hammer horror film that happens to include some wrestling.  There’s no reason to be intimidated by the seemingly daunting number of Santo films that are out there, though.  Watching these two out of order—released a decade apart—I can confirm that they work a lot like real-life pro wrestling in that you can jump in at any time and still get into the drama of the match at hand pretty quickly: Santo good, Dracula bad, etc.

What really took me aback about this particular Santo horror was its pristine presentation on the free-with-ads streamer Tubi, which I’m forever struggling to wrap my mind around.  Tubi has this tag-team lucha horror presented in the pristine HD condition you’d expect from a Powell & Pressburger restoration on The Criterion Channel . . . give or take a few Geico ads and a goofball English dub.  The Eastman Color palette is shockingly vivid, to the point where watching Santo & The Blue Demon blow off steam with a friendly game of chess is just as gorgeous to behold as the film’s haunted-house bats, gargoyles, and cobwebbed torture dungeons.  The simplicity of Dracula’s plan to “turn the world into vampires & werewolves” makes this a relatively predictable novelty, but some truly wonderful Dracula & luchador imagery results from that set-up (as long as you can push past the embarrassingly lazy vocal dub).

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

It’s a shame Bela Lugosi didn’t live long enough to play Dr. Acula in Ed Wood’s Night of the Ghouls, but at least his first mad scientist role was as Dr. Mirakle in the Universal picture Murders in the Rue Morgue.  Dr. Mirakle is a carnival sideshow murderer who experiments mixing women’s blood with his pet ape Eric’s in a disastrous attempt to prove the theory of Evolution.  When he’s frustrated with the results of “experimenting on” (i.e., murdering) prostitutes, he moves onto the women of Proper Society, so Parisians take notice and drive him to his doom.  The movie was heavily edited before release to downplay its shocks of violence, sexuality, and Evolutionary theory, leaving behind a short, chopped-to-pieces mess.  Lugosi looks great in his unibrow & tuxedo combo, though, and it’s easy to tell why they expanded his role as the central villain to the point where the story held very little—if any—resemblance to its Edgar Allen Poe source material.

Lugosi’s Dracula film has been slipping out of public favor in recent years for being “boring” (something I think a musical score easily fixes), while the Poverty Row slapstick comedy Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla has gradually been building a cult – to the point where it was screened at this year’s Overlook Film Festival as a horror “classic.”  Murders in the Rue Morgue is far from Lugosi’s best, but it’s amusing as unlikely middle ground between the Universal Horror prestige and ape-on-the-loose goofballery of those two pictures.  His performance is fully committed, there are some shocking moments of pre-Code violence, and the gorgeous Expressionist photography smooths over a lot of the scatterbrained plotting.  You can find all of those elements put to much, much better use in other Poe-adjacent Lugosi pictures of the era like The Black Cat & The Raven, but they’re still charming here.

House (1986)

House II: The Second Story (1987)

It’s a shame that the 80s haunted house horror comedy House has to share its title with the 70s Nobuhiko Obayashi masterpiece of the same name & sub-genre, since being compared against one of the greatest films of all time doesn’t do it any favors.  This isn’t a Cronenberg vs 2006-Best-Picture-Winner Crash situation, though.  The 80s House is too endearing to be an embarrassment, even if it struggles to stand out on its own.  Not only does it share its title with a far superior haunted house horror comedy with similar war-atrocity themes; it also lands as a goofy midpoint between the better-funded special effects showcase of Poltergeist and the eerie Vietnam PTSD horror of Jacob’s LadderHouse has no chance to match the euphoric highs of either comparison point, but it’s still a fun dark-ride attraction of its own merit.  Its story of a Vietnam veteran facing his inner demons while writing a memoir in a haunted house is restrictively straightforward & contained, but its rubber-mask monsters are adorably grotesque, and they pop out of the most surprising places – which is sometimes all you need from a Halloween-season spookfest.

Despite its all-timer of a title, House II: The Second Story is an embarrassment.  I enjoyed the goofball humor that underlines the carnival-ride scares & Vietnam flashbacks of the first House, but The Second Story tips a little too far into Porky’s era frat boy comedy and the whole thing kinda unravels.  The monsters are deliberately cute instead of scary, which means that the most frightening moment is when Bill Maher shows up as a Reaganite record exec.  And since the jokes aren’t funny, there really isn’t much to do except appreciate the occasional bursts stop-motion animation and rubber-suited monsters – things that were much more plentiful & satisfying in the original.  The best I can say about The Second Story is that its title is great, and that I appreciated it as my last new-to-me watch of the month, since it’s the only title in this batch that features a Halloween dance party.

Party Line (1988)

If you’re only going to watch one 1988 sleazoid slasher about the phone sex hotline craze, you might as well watch the one where Divine appears out of drag as a police detective alongside Lust in the Dust co-stars Tab Hunter, Lainie Kazan, and Paul Bartel – Out of the Dark.  If you’re going to watch two, I guess there’s also Party Line, ya freak. 

In Party Line, a pair of wealthy, mutually obsessed siblings use a phone-sex party line as a recruitment tool for vulnerably horny victims.  Leif Garret stars as the requisite Norman Bates crossdresser killer in this watered-down De Palma knockoff, joined by Miss Universe beauty queen Shawn Weatherly as his honeytrap partner and Richard “Shaft” Roundtree as the police chief who busts their (barely covert) schemes.  Without question, the movie is a hotbed for terrible politics, especially in its overt suggestion that rape victims & crossdressers are predisposed to become homicidal maniacs.  It’s an amusing relic of its era, though, especially in its exploitation of the party line dirty talk fad and its stylistic combination of MTV & Skinemax aesthetics.  As long as you’re prepared to feel queasy about the story it’s telling, the only major drawback, really, is that its novelty is undercut by Out of the Dark doing a slightly better job with the same fad the very same year.

-Brandon Ledet

The Virgin of Lust (2002)

As you’ve likely noticed, there aren’t a whole lot of new releases out there right now. As a response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, almost all cinemas have entirely shut down in order to adhere to proper “social distancing” practices, prompting movie studios to either unceremoniously dump this season’s new releases to VOD streaming platforms or to delay them for the indefinite future. This disruption of movie distribution has afforded me a lot of time to tackle what I call my “Shame Pile”: a bin of assorted DVDs & Blu-rays I haven’t watched since I purchased them. A few of my physical media purchases have rotted in that Shame Pile limbo for years, but none are quite as ancient nor as shameful as the 2002 Mexican melodrama The Virgin of Lust. The cloudy, bumpy texture of its plastic casing is the biggest indicator of that shame: it was a Blockbuster Video purchase. At one time, Blockbuster’s 4-for-$20 liquidation sales of used DVDs comprised the majority of my new movie intake, especially in the days when I was too broke & too busy to make it out to the theater more than a couple times a year (between working full-time in restaurants and attempting to graduate college). It’s been a full decade since there was a Blockbuster Video operating in New Orleans, though, so it’s genuinely shameful that it took me this long to work my way through the last of my purchases from that chain’s cheap-o cast-offs. In that way, watching The Virgin of Lust was more than just some lazy, prurient afternoon viewing to help pass the time during this period of coronavirus-incited isolation. It was also an end of an era.

Immediately after hitting play, it became apparent why I waited so long to give this film a chance. It’s just so shamelessly cheap. I mean that in regards to its actual price, its production values, its approach to sexuality, and its flavor of political commentary. This film is unequivocally, unashamedly Cheap. There’s nothing especially cinematic about its execution, to the point where it reads more like a televised stage play than a legitimate Movie – complete with that soap opera frame rate effect that makes all BBC shows look like trash, even the expensive ones. The bizarre thing is I suspect that Flagrantly Cheap quality was somewhat intentional. At the very least, it’s openly acknowledged by the text. The opening & closing minutes of The Virgin of Lust summarize the life & times of its protagonist in a series of quick-cut tableaus & block-letter intertitles that spell out their intent like a children’s book: “Life flows like a river,” “Every day’s the same,” etc. It feels more like a TV ad for a movie than the actual thing, but the film eventually acknowledges that effect with a closing title card that reads “Coming soon.” So, overall The Virgin of Lust plays like a three-minute movie trailer that’s interrupted by a 2-hour stage play as its mid-ad intermission. I’m not going to say the effect of this structure is transcendent or sublime in any way, but it’s at least memorably bizarre – which is also how the film feels at large.

Questions of funding & structure aside, The Virgin of Lust is a sordid melodrama about a 1940s café waiter in Veracruz who falls into unrequited love with an opium-addicted sex worker amidst revolutionary plots to assassinate Franco. Spanish ex-pats & revolutionaries pontificate at length about the best tactics to dismantle fascist institutions, but our central character does not have much of a political mind to speak of himself. He’s singularly obsessed with a beautiful, suicidal opium addict who literally stumbles into his life, only so she can spurn his every declaration of devotion out of disgust. Despite explaining flat-out,”I’m evil and a whore. You’re an idiot and poor,” the troubled woman cannot shake the worm’s adoration, so she chooses to milk him for all he’s worth as his reluctant dominatrix. The only actual sex in this vulgar telenovela are scenes in which the cruel mistress commands that the wormy waiter lick her feet—often in public—as a sign of subservience. Otherwise, we only see our lowly working-class protagonist masturbate over his carefully curated collection of pornographic photographs. At the start of the film his mantra for this masturbation ritual is “Titty, titty, pussy, pussy,” which he whispers to himself in hushed, reverent tones. By the end, his masturbation mantra shifts to “Franco must be killed, Franco must be killed,” more out of a misguided attempt to please his friends & mistress than out of any personal political beliefs. The rest of the film merely details the daily tedium of running a small café, punctuated by surrealist dips into vulgar S&M sexuality and performances of opera & lucha libre artistry for sordid flavor.

While the artists behind this film weren’t exactly nobodies, they were also nowhere near the top of their game at the time of production. Director Arturo Ripstein got his start working under surrealist master Luis Buñuel as an uncredited Assistant Director in the 1960s. The opium-addict mistress that ties the story together was played by Ariadna Gil years before she got her big break as the mother figure (and the Queen of the Underworld) in Pan’s Labyrinth. Both perform admirably here, but neither can escape the severe limitations of the production. A large part of The Virgin of Lust‘s stage-bound quality is the limitations of its budget, which do not allow for many setting changes or any exterior shots (given the expense of producing an accurate period piece outside the confines of a sound stage). The set decoration recalls contemporary Jean-Pierre Jeunet productions in its dulled, antique luster, but that patina isn’t enough to overpower the cramped feeling of the action rarely leaving the café. Ripstein seemingly embraced that effect instead of running away from it – approaching his story through the mediums he could afford on his budget: vintage photograph tableaus, stage play dialogue exchanges, movie trailer highlight reels, etc. As a result, The Virgin of Lust can’t help but feel small & inessential, so it puts all its effort into at least being memorable. Its jolts of vulgar S&M sexuality, lucha libre iconography, and anti-fascist politics ensure that it won’t be forgotten as soon as other disposable works on its budgetary level.

It wouldn’t really be fair to ask anything more than memorability out of a used DVD that’s been collecting dust on my shelf for a solid decade. I don’t know that I could enthusiastically recommend watching the film to anyone who didn’t already have it lurking in their shame pile, though. The Virgin of Lust is a trip, but it’s not a trip worth going out of your way for.

-Brandon Ledet