The Return of the Vampire (1943)

“The imagination of man at times sires the fantastic and the grotesque. That the imagination of man can soar into the stratosphere of fantasy is attested by . . . The Return of the Vampire.”

By the 1940s the major studio horror boom most notably typified by Universal’s Famous Monsters brand had all but dried up. This was bad news for many horror legends, including enduring cult icon Bela Lugosi, who had been consistently typecast as vampires and mad scientist types since he first struck gold as the star of Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931. Before heading into a long, dispiriting run of playing second fiddle or headlining B-pictures on poverty row, Lugosi had his one last gasp as a major studio leading man in the 1940s. Although he had played Dracula knockoffs before in titles like Devil Bat & Mark of the Vampire and Columbia could not secure rights to the Dracula name, The Return of the Vampire is widely considered to be an “unofficial sequel” to the Tod Browning film. It would by no means be Bela Lugosi’s last great film, but there is a certain class & production value to it that would be missing from most of his later works, so it’s an easy film to underestimate and, thus, be impressed by the ways it surpasses expectations set by its B-picture contemporaries.

The Return of the Vampire‘s narrative setting is split between the two World Wars. The Lady of a house being used as a makeshift infirmary to accommodate the casualties of that war is perplexed when a number of her patients appear to be suffering from anemia. Their only other shared symptom? Two small puncture wounds on each of their necks. This, of course, means there’s a vampire nearby, revealed to be Bela Lugosi’s Not-Dracula hypnotist. As he sleeps through the daylight, Not-Dracula keeps a werewolf on staff as a permanently hypnotized servant who does his bidding while he sleeps. Lady Jane and her own staff of medical academics recognize the signs of vampiric activity immediately and recite plainly for the audience rules like aversion to sunlight, stakes to the heart, lack of a reflection, the entire crash course. Their fight to slay the vampire & convert his werewolf servant back to his human form is a decades-long struggle that’s blatantly stated to be a Good vs Evil battle in the most traditionally Christian of terms. The only real variation to the way this story naturally plays out in the Dracula knockoff genre is in its wartime setting, which introduces a sense of chaos in its blitz-style attacks & air raids that frequently disrupt the flow of the conflict in a refreshingly inventive way.

The Return of the Vampire is a surprisingly classy, well-paced & well-funded production that relieves the sting of more degrading works Lugosi was paraded through in the 40s & 50s, titles like Zombies on Broadway & Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. There’s a little Ed Woodian use of wartime stock footage, the werewolf’s Shakespearean delivery veers perilously close to camp, and the film’s smoke machine budget appears to be wildly out of control, but otherwise The Return of the Vampire is surprisingly convincing as a legitimate Hollywood production. I was at first a little weary of its Christian moralizing about the power of Good versus the pitfalls of Evil (especially because it’s antithetical to what audiences would have gladly been paying to see), but even that tension leads to a nicely played, calmly bitter climactic showdown at a church organ that’s all solemn grimace instead of overblown moralizing. The whole film has a quietly menacing tone in that way, with an intense focus in the imagery of hypnosis, werewolf transformations, and women & children being attacked in their sleep through blown-open bedroom windows. The Return of the Vampire isn’t as prestigious as previous Lugosi pictures like Dracula or The Black Cat, but it does excel at what separates these works from the poverty row B-pictures he’d soon slip into: atmosphere. That heightened sense of spooky, vaguely lavish horror film atmosphere is well worth luxuriating in, as it would soon disappear from Lugosi’s career.

-Brandon Ledet

How to Make a Monster (1958)

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fourstar

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I had previously complained in a recent review that the film I Was a Teenage Frankenstein had moved away so far from the original formula of its predecessor I Was a Teenage Werewolf that the two films had almost no reason to share a title at all (except, of course, for the former to make a quick dollar off the latter’s notoriety). I Was a Teenage Werewolf was a huge financial & cultural success largely due to its first-ever depiction of a teenager transforming into a murderous monster, a basic concept it’s near-impossible to imagine modern horror without. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein was then rushed out within five months of that film’s release and, although it boasted an impressively cruel villain & killer monster design, the film featured no actual teenagers to speak of, completely missing the point of its predecessor’s success. The bridge that actually connects these two disparate works wasn’t to come until a year later.

1958’s How to Make a Monster combines the monsters from I Was a Teenage Werewolf & I Was a Teenage Frankenstein into a single picture, but not in the way that you’d expect. Much like how the second film in the series moved away from the Teenage Werewolf original’s formula for success & originality, How to Make a Monster ventured even further out to sea and somehow found its own legs to stand on as a unique work of meta horror. Instead of staging a logical physical altercation of the Teenage Werewolf & Teenage Frankenstein from the previous pictures, How to Make a Monster instead depicts a movie production of that altercation. Set on the American International Pictures movie lot, the film centers on the make-up artist who created the look of the Teenage Werewolf & Teenage Frankenstein and his mental unraveling during the production of a film where the two monsters meet onscreen. It’s the exact kind of meta horror weirdness I was a huge sucker for in Wes Craven films like New Nightmare (except maybe a little cheaper & a little goofier) and it works like gangbusters.

Much like with the first two films, the only narrative through-line How to Make a Monster holds with its loosely-connected franchise is the idea of a mad scientist exploiting innocent teenagers in their experimental medicine.  Instead of trying to save the world through treacherous experimentation like in the first two pictures, however, this mad scientist is a make-up artist trying to save the monster movie as a genre. Once he discovers that he’s been laid off by the studio due to the decline in monster movie popularity, our dastardly mastermind applies hypnosis through homemade experimental make-up to turn his two latest creations, Teenage Frankenstein & Teenage Werewolf, into literal monsters that “scare” studio heads into changing their minds . . . by murdering them. There’s a lot of industry talk in How to Make a Monster about the artistry of monster movie make-up, the cycles of genre films’ popularity, typecasting among horror actors, and the “therapeutic” qualities of horror films for audiences that all make the movie feel like a love letter to the industry. A lot of the movie works like a pretty standard monster movie genre piece, but the rest holds such a high reverence for cheap horror as a finely-crafted artistry that its reliance on the genre’s basic tropes actually serve the film well.

If you’re going to watch just one film in this franchise I highly recommend sticking with I Was a Teenage Werewolf. It’s a rare example of a cheap drive-in monster flick that actually finds high art in its genre trappings & taps into the subconscious fears that spring from puberty in an oddly authentic way. However, How to Make a Monster does a great job of molding that past success in horror filmmaking into an entirely new format. It’s a standard monster movie in terms of its monstrous thrills, but it repurposes those tropes into a meta, self-reflective work that genuinely surprised me in its genre innovation. The film functions nicely as a connector between the Teenage Werewolf & Teenage Frankenstein flicks that came before it, but it also stands firmly on its own as a unique work in the 50s drive-in horror genre, especially in the way it reflects on what that genre is & what it means to the American movie-going public.

-Brandon Ledet

I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

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When I recently reviewed the sci-fi horror comedy Invasion of the Saucer Men, I was quick to praise the picture for escaping criticism by mocking itself so openly that any sarcastic derision aimed at it would feel redundant. The film was in danger of becoming an empty exercise in teen-marketed drive-in horror genre tropes, but turned itself around & ending up functioning almost like a full-blown genre spoof. Although I enjoyed its detached, laissez-faire approach to 50s monster movie mayhem, the film it was attached to on a double bill, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, stands as a testament to the idea that big risk earnestness often pays off more than sarcastic self-parody every could. I Was a Teenage Werewolf is the exact kind of teenage-marketed monster movie that Invasion of the Saucer Men openly mocked, but it’s one that took such big risks in its basic formula that it ended up standing the test of time as the much more significant work. You could even claim that it forever changed the motion picture landscape at large, which is quite a bold claim for a schlocky monster movie cheaply slapped together for the drive-in crowd.

The main innovation I Was a Teenage Werewolf brings to the table is the very basic idea of a teenage monster. It’s difficult to imagine modern horror cinema without teenage monsters. Transforming into a heinous, bloodthirsty monstrosity is a perfect metaphor for the hormonal powder keg of puberty and has been put to effective use in countless horror pictures. Even the werewolf teenager picture has evolved into its own genre, including titles like Ginger Snaps, Cursed, and, duh, Teen Wolf among its ranks. In 1957, however, this idea was entirely foreign & even somewhat controversial. Keep in mind that the very idea of a teenager was a relatively new concept at the time, with almost no thought given to the awkward bridge between childhood & adulthood previously. More to the point, though, horror villains were almost unanimously either murderous adults or supernatural creatures so I Was a Teenage Werewolf was something of a game changer. Teens had gotten used to watching their peers terrorized by monsters onscreen, but this was the first instance where they saw themselves becoming a monster, which surely struck home in some way, considering the way puberty had already transformed their minds & bodies.

The titular teenage werewolf of I Was a Teenage Werewolf is a hothead with anger management issues named Tony (played by a pre-fame Michael Landon). The film starts with Tony engaging in a fistfight over most innocuous of offenses. A friend playfully tapped Tony’s shoulder, an act that threw him into a rage, exclaiming “I don’t like that kind of friendship!” His teen angst extends far beyond schoolyard fights, too, and Tony spends most of his day bucking the influence of parents, teachers, and police officers with an “I don’t like to be pushed around!” attitude. His quest not to be “hassled” by the adults in his life & a quick-to-anger personality is given an official diagnosis. Tony is told that there isn’t anything wrong with him, necessarily; he’s just having a difficult time “adjusting”. Sent to the mysterious Dr. Brandon, known for curing patients through hypnosis, Tony is told that he should be able to “adjust” after psychological treatment. “Adjusting” is far from Dr. Brandon’s mind, however. The maniacal scientist is hellbent on using Tony as a guinea pig in experiments to save the world by bringing Man back to a primitive state. Using the same meditative, de-evolution technique as Ken Russell’s masterful Altered States. Dr. Brandon’s mission to unlock “the primitive past that lurks within” & conviction that “the only road to progress is to hurl the human race back to its savage beginnings”, of course, only leads to monster movie mayhem as he turns the poorly adjusted Tony into a murderous lycanthrope.

I should be clear that I Was a Teenage Werewolf is finely-crafted in a campy kind of way. If you couldn’t tell by its title alone, this is cerainly an exploitation picture & a genre flick so the outdated hokeyness of its dialogue & monster make-up is certain to illicit a giggle or two. I was personally amused by the way the film panders to teens by attempting to co-opt their hip youngster slang. Phrases like “yakety yak”, “How square can you get?”, and “This party’s really percolating!” all play like the way parents think teens speak instead of how they would actually talk. Much like Roger Corman’s beatnik horror classic Bucket of Blood, I Was a Teenage Werewolf is certainly made by outsiders looking in & there’s a good bit of humor in that false authenticity. Campy or not, though, this movie is one of those unique genre pictures that achieves far more than its limited means would indicate. There are some truly beautiful shots/scenes to the picture that surprise in their craft.A fist punching the camera lens, a pan shot of Tony’s shocked friends, a masterful scene featuring a beautiful gymnast/Playboy bunny, and the then-idiosyncratic imagery of a werewolf wearing a varsity jacket on a high school campus are all far more striking than they have any right to be. I Was a Teenage Werewolf not only forever changed the course of horror cinema by turning its teenage target audience into monsters themselves; it also looked fantastic while doing it. It’s the kind of old school monster movie that burrows into your subconscious the way a less earnest picture like Invasion of the Saucer Men never could. It’s a genuinely fantastic slice of camp horror history that deserves to be remembered fondly & with great, schlocky reverence.

-Brandon Ledet

Cursed (2005)

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Full disclosure: I had pretty much completely given up on being open-minded about anything Wes Craven had directed post-Scream. Despite a deep love & appreciation for the meta horror of both Scream & New Nightmare and the childlike loopiness of The People Under the Stairs, I just never bothered to venture into Craven’s career post-1996. I think this may have been a combined problem of not wanting to risk ruining the good vibes I got from Scream with what could be diminished returns (and nu metal vibes) in its three sequels & associating his name too closely with dire production credits like Wes Craven Presents Wishmaster & Wes Craven Presents Dracula 2000. Despite hearing good things about the in-flight thriller Red Eye, my entry point for post-Scream Craven wound up being the 2005 werewolf horror comedy Cursed. It turns out my concerns were mostly unfounded. Craven had certainly veered to a much lighter tone in this outing than the hard-to-stomach horror of early films like Last House on the Left & The Hills Have Eyes (thank God) & some of the film’s early 2000s CGI has aged a tad poorly, but for the most part Cursed is a genuinely entertaining creature feature with a pleasant tonal balance between humor & violence. Cursed is, in a simple phrase, good, dumb fun. That’s all I can ask for from any director, honestly, so now I’m deeply curious about what other late-career Craven gems I may have overlooked.

Part of what frees Cursed from feeling like a run-of-the-mill werewolf picture is that it spreads its story so thin across so many different creatures that it feels more like a pastiche than a direct genre film. A typical werewolf movie will follow the gradual transformation of one painfully conflicted protagonist/antagonist as they discover the world of werewolfdom. Cursed, on the other hand, gets greedy and follows the monster movie mayhem of at least four different wolves. It at first teases itself to be a classic predatory-wolf-terrorizes-a-local-population (Los Angeles, in this case) story, but then that wolf ends up infecting several other innocents. These leaves room for a proto-Twilight supernatural romance, a beastly catfight centered on petty jealousies, and (most amusingly of all) an unofficial Teen Wolf III situation where an unpopular student uses his werewolf abilities to excel at high school wrestling (as opposed to the basketball & boxing victories of the first two Teen Wolves). Just in case you might mistakenly assume that this all-inclusive tour of werewolves past were at all accidental, the film makes room for a wax museum version of Lon Cheney’s Wolf Man character to make a posthumous cameo. Cursed is well versed in its lycanthropic history & it wants you to know it.

At first it’s difficult to tell for sure if Cursed is asking to be taken seriously or if it wants to play as a horror comedy. Its monster movie mayhem is never gore-obsessed, but it can be gruesome at times, especially in an early scene involving victims trapped in an overturned car. When about a third of the way into the picture the aforementioned teen wolf is testing out his newfound abilities by howling at the moon with a pack of stray dogs, however, it’s pretty clear the film is supposed to operating within a certain sense of morbid humor. Much like its sleek-goth look, the film’s comedic/horrific tone calls back to late 90s titles like The Faculty, Idle Hands, and (duh) Ginger Snaps in a way that manages to feel way more charming than outdated. When our howling teen wolf is caught googling lycanthropes, his sister jokes, “Why can’t you just download porn like other teenage boys?” Later, another woman muses “There’s no such thing as safe sex with a werewolf.” By the time the film stages its climax at a strange nightclub/event hall hybrid that doubles as a haunted house with funhouse mirrors and a wax figurine “Diva Room” for statues of folks like Madonna, Cher, and Xena: Warrior Princess, the film proves itself to be an enjoyably silly, bloodsoaked work of deadpan horror comedy.

What personally struck me most while watching Cursed was its ludicrously stacked cast of welcome faces. Joining the always-delightful Christina Ricci were forgotten early 00s personalities like Dawson Creek‘s Joshua Jackson, Gilmore Girls‘ Milo Ventimiglia, Mya, Craig Kilborn, and (briefly) Lance Bass. Before-his-time Jesse Eisenberg has a lot of fun with the howlin’/wrasslin’/werewolf-Googlin’ teen protagonist (although his straightened hair in the film was a huge stylistic mistake) and there are similar early glimpses of Nick Offerman in a bit role as well as three actors from Arrested Development: Scott Baoi (as himself), Portia de Rossi, and Judy Greer. If I had to single out a most valuable player here (besides maybe the down-for-whatever Eisenberg) it’d have to be Judy Greer. She rarely gets much of a chance to shine (see, for instance, her diminished role in Jurrassic World) and Cursed really allows her to run wild with an Ice Bitch role you can tell she had a lot of fun sinking her teeth into. I mean, she really chewed the scenery. Seriously, she ate up the compe . . . you get the picture.

I wouldn’t rank Cursed up there with Wes Craven’s best or anything like that, but I don’t think the director was aiming for that kind of accolade with this film anyway. Cursed finds Craven relaxed, having fun, and paying tribute to the monster movies he grew up loving. Throw in a time capsule cast & some classic werewolf puppetry/costuming from special effects master & John Landis collaborator Rick Baker (when the film isn’t indulging in ill-advised CGI) and you have a perfectly enjoyable midnight monster movie pastiche. Not that I wouldn’t have enjoyed a straight-forward Teen Wolf III high school wrestling picture in its place.

-Brandon Ledet

The Spooky-Goofy World of John Landis’ Work in Horror

Director John Landis is typically known for his work in comedies. His name is synonymous with comedy milestones like Animal House, Kentucky Fried Movie, Trading Places, Blues Brothers, and Coming to America. That’s why when we were discussing October’s Movie of the Month, Landis’ vampire mafia oddity Innocent Blood, we were a little surprised in the director’s interest in horror as a genre, previously thinking of his cult classic An American Werewolf in London mostly as a one-off fluke. It turns out that Landis has a long history of working within horror, dating all the way back to his very first feature, with nearly ten credits to his name as a director that fit right into his work in Innocent Blood & An American Werewolf in London. Listed below are all of John Landis’ horror credits (or at least the ones that I could find) in chronological order, each ranked & reviewed.

Schlock (1973)

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If there were any question about whether or not John Landis’ displays for gleeful love for oldschool horror in An American Werewolf in London & Innocent Blood were a fluke, it’s answered as soon as his very first feature. As you can tell from its succinct/accurate title, Schlock is a silly love letter to the very silly history of silly B-movies, particularly in the 50s sci-fi horror drive-in era. In the film Landis himself plays the titular Schlock, a missing link primate dubbed The Banana Killer by the press both because he leaves banana peels at the scenes of his crimes (He’s an ape! Bananas! Get it?!),which have an escalating body count of more than 200 dead, and because whoever committed these crimes “is obviously bananas.” That kind of hokey humor is typical to the film & it works best when it’s incongruously paired with depictions of violence. For instance, a local news station covering the Banana Killer murders holds a “Body Count Contest” where viewers can guess the number of mangled bodies contained in a group of garbage bags for a prize, as if guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar at a little kid’s birthday party. Not only is this moment sublimely silly, but it also jabs at the way news coverage of mass murders can shamelessly turn tragedy into entertainment.

Unfortunately, the Body Bag Contest gag is among the very few of the film’s inspired moments. If Schlock had been structured like Landis’ Kentucky Fried Movie and stuck to a pastiche of B-movie inspired sketch comedy (as in the excellent 2000 mockumentary The Independent), it’d amost certainly be a cult classic. Instead, it gets unnecessarily bogged down in the logistics of telling a complete story about a murderous missing link, playing a bit like a full length parody of the little loved, little remembered movie Trog. You can feel the sketch comedy structure screaming to break out from within, like in a last minute gag that promises/threatens a sequel titled Son of Schlock & in a trailer-like intro that proclaims, “First, Birth of a Nation. Then Gone With the Wind, 2001: A Space Oddyssey, Love Story, See You Next Wednesday [which doesn’t exist outside of Landis’ ongoing inside joke]. And now, Schlock! Schlock! Schlock!” while Landis’ literal monkeyshines are intercut with a playground strewn with dead bodies & banana peels. Another interesting moment features Schlock, aka The Banana Killer, watching The Blob in a movie theater, focusing on a scene in which characters are watching a scene in a movie theater before a Blob attack. SO we’re watching a movie in which a killer ape watches a movie in which unsuspecting teenagers watch a movie just before an evil alien blob threatens their lives. This tactic of showing appreciation for the history of horror films by actually showing those films is repeated in Innocent Blood, where several televisions are tuned into old midnight monster movies in the midst of vampiric mayhem. Too bad Schlock is a little too accurate to the format of the trashy sci-fi horror films it’s mocking/paying tribute to. It has a few standout, bonkers scenes that make it interesting as a relic, but the task of watching it in its entirety is a bit of a chore.

American Werewolf in London (1981)

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fourstar

While we were watching Innocent Blood for our Movie of the Month discussion it was difficult not to consider the film’s merits in the context of what Landis had already accomplished in An American Werewolf in London. Titles like Animal House or The Blues Brothers might be considered the apex of his career as a whole, but American Werewolf is easily his most well-regarded feature film as a horrormeister. In a lot of ways, American Werewolf‘s reputation works to its detriment, drumming expectations up to an almost unmatchable standard. In reality, it’s actually an unassuming little horror comedy. Besides a couple practical effects spectacles in its werewolf transformation scenes & creature design (provided by horror make-up genius Rick Baker) and a climactic sequence of epic monster movie mayhem, there really isn’t that much to the film. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. To the contrary, its alternating gruesome/amusing tone is pleasantly unrushed & by the time it reaches its fever pitch conclusion of beheadings, car crashes, and oldschool werewolf attacks it’s nearly impossible not to be won over by its charms, which is about the same reaction I had to Innocent Blood.

The plot of An American Werewolf in London is fairly simple, straightforward stuff in terms of the werewolf genre. Two young American lads are backpacking through Western Europe when they reach a spooky tavern in a small community that has pentagrams & religious candles hanging amongst its dart boards & pints of lager. Picture the tavern in the original Wicker Man movie & you’ll have a good idea of the vibe. Anyway, the spooky locals warn the boys to stick to the road, advice they obviously disobey, which obviously leads to them being attacked by a werewolf. One friend dies & the other transforms into a mythical man-beast, much to the surprise of the big city doctors that help him recover from the attack. There are a few surprises in the formula: dreams in which the protagonist is hunting naked in the woods, a nightmare sequence in which uniformed space monsters burn down his home & murder his family, a growing army of his victims’ ghosts that urge him to commit suicide, etc. For the most part, though, this faithfulness to oldschool werewolf horror is entirely intentional, solidified by the film’s constant references to the Lon Cheney/Bela Lugosi famous monsters classic The Wolfman (a tactic echoed in Schlock & Innocent Blood). If the intent of American Werewolf was to update The Wolfman-type monster movies for modern sardonic senses of humor & special effects capabilities, I’d say it’s mostly successful. At the very least, I think I enjoyed it slightly more than 1981’s The Howling, which seems to be a good reference point for where Landis was aiming.

Twilight Zone: The Movie Prologue & “Time Out” (1983)

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It’s tempting to skip over Twilight Zone: The Movie in this write-up, both because Landis’ segments of the production barely qualify as horror & because of the infamous on-set disaster that resulted in three real-life deaths, a tragedy that has haunted the director & the movie industry at large for decades. The two segments Landis directs in the Twilight Zone movie are a prologue in which Dan Aykroyd scares fellow weirdo comedian Albert Brooks with a scary face (provided again by make-up genius Rick Baker) and a who-cares story about a racist prick getting a taste of his own hateful medicine at the hands of Nazis, the Klan, and so on. The prologue section is mostly nonsense & the thriller-esque anti-racism fantasy segment somehow feels even thinner. The funny thing about Twilight Zone: The Movie is that the film’s two producers, Steven Spieldberg & John Landis, directed the film’s weakest vignettes by far, while contributors George Miller & Joe Dante actually delivers a couple short-form horror classics. In short, Landis was greatly upstaged here, which is funny because I felt his werewolf movie just a couple years before greatly upstaged Dante’s somewhat similar (Rick Baker collaboration) The Howling.

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1983)

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The music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is by far the best example of John Landis’ horror work. It’s tempting to say that the economy of a 15 minute short film leaves little room for Landis to drop the ball in any significant way, but his two segments in The Twilight Zone: The Movie barely ammount to more than that & they aren’t nearly as effective or as memorable as the “Thriller” video. It’s more that Landis pushed himself to include every hallmark of his horror work into the video’s short runtime that makes it so enjoyable. It was rick Baker’s incredible make-up work in An American Werewolf in London that got Landis the job in the first place (as that was the only Landis film Jackson had actually seen at the time he was hired) so the special effects genius worked with the director one last time to turn The King of Pop into a werewolf. The affection for 50’s monster movies are on display in the video’s movie theater scene (featuring Landis himself enjoying a tub of popcorn) and promotional posters for Schlock & The Masque of the Red Death. There’s no choreography in Landis’ other work, but the video’s infamous dance routine of the undead reflects the irreverent humor he’s known to bring to the table. You can even feel Landis’ geeky love for horror in a Vincent Price “rap” that includes the lines “The funk of 40,000 years & grisly ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom.” There’s no other way to put this really: “Thriller” is perfect. It’s not only Landis’ most iconic work in the horror spectrum; it’s also just one of the most perfect specimens of the music video as an art form.

Side note: Jackson apparently thought the “Thriller” video was so perfect & enticing that he included this warning, “Due to my personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.” That’s how powerful “Thriller” is. Jackson was worried it was going to start a wave of Satanic converts.

Innocent Blood (1992)

fourstar

Much like how Landis’ much better-regarded An American Werewolf in Paris feels like an average werewolf movie until its technical marvel monster transformations & last minute mayhem set it apart from its peers, our current Movie of the Month & the director’s only horror feature since American Werewolf, Innocent Blood plays like an unremarkable combo of the vampire & mafia genres until it devolves into delightful chaos. This change that gets kicked off sometime around when the head mob boss, Sallie “The Shark” Macelli, is turned & starts assembling cinema’s (as far as I know) very first vampire mafia. There’s some respectable noir influence in the dark alleys & detective work of the front half of Innocent Blood, but until the vampire mafia starts to take rise, it feels like a dull compromise between far too many modern vampire films & bargain bin Scorsese knockoffs. It’s the black comedy & campy vampire mob shenanigans once the plot gains momentum that make the movie shine, especially in scenes like Don Rickles’ horrific vampire transformation or a never-ending, super-kinky, thrust-heavy sex scene that equal any ridiculousness you’d find in American Werewolf. The competent production & surprising jaunts of violent cruelty (including some truly grotesque body horror in Don Rickles’ Big Scene) combined with Marcelli running around converting his dopey goons, balance Innocent Blood‘s darkly humorous (and entirely intentional) campy tendencies with the more straightforward genre fare of the first act. Robert Loggia (whose version of apoplectic rage I’m most familiar with in Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie) is brilliantly funny in his role as Marcelli, thoroughly unraveling in his newfound, undead state, to the point where he’s playing more of a vampiric humanoid raccoon than a vampiric mob boss, holding down most of the movie’s charm.

Landis backs up this silliness & genre play with copious televisions playing ancient B-movies featuring familiar monsters like stop-motion dinosaurs, escaped gorillas, Bela Lugosi, and Christopher Lee (the same kind of onscreen references he brought to Schlock, American Werewolf, and “Thriller”). At the same time, on-screen televisions also take time to play more respectable fare, like the Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train. I think these movie selections are a great representation of what Landis was intending to accomplish here: marrying a schlock aesthetic with the higher production value of a “real” film. It’s that exact push & pull that made me fall in love with Innocent Blood as a dark comedy, when I initially wasn’t expecting to get much out of it. The film also smartly goes light on its dedication to the generally accepted rules of cinematic vampirism, despite its reverence for its cinematic ancestors. The same way silver bullets aren’t required to kill werewolves in American Werewolf, vampires in Innocent Blood may be averse to garlic & sunlight, but their reflections appears in mirrors & victims are disposed of with shots to the head (much more akin to zombie rules) rather than stakes to the heart. It’s curious to me that Innocent Blood is the sole screenplay credit for writer Michael Wolk, as I believe he did a fantastic job of establishing a distinct kind of mob-themed horror comedy that I’ve never seen on film before, one with a surprisingly deft balance between honoring mafia & vampire traditions, while still knowing when & where to stray. Like with American Werewolf, when the screenplay works it really works, flaws & false starts be damned.

Masters of Horror: “Deer Woman” (2005)

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three star

Unfortunately, Innocent Blood & An American Werewolf in London proved to be the only Landis horror features to date. There were some vague horror elements to his work in the anthology pictures The Twilight Zone: The Movie & even vaguer yet, Amazon Women on the Moon, a more sci-fi-leaning B-movie spoof flick without nearly enough horror elements in Landis’ segments to be included here. Otherwise, Landis’ horror work has been restricted to the small screen, starting with the Michael Jackson music video. The three most recent examples of his horror work have been hour-long segments in anthology television shows, starting with Showtime’s short-lived Masters of Horror. Surprisingly enough, Landis’ two Masters of Horror vignettes were actually far more enjoyable than his similar work in Twilight Zone: The Movie. Perhaps it was working alongside names like Dario Argento, Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante, Takashi Miike, and John Carpenter that inspired him to step up his game. Since Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller failed to do the same, though, its more likely that the more inherently goofy format of the televised anthology horror simply allowed Landis to bring much needed levity to his horror work, something he excels at, given that he mostly cut his teeth in the comedy genre.

Landis’ first contribution to Masters of Horror, “The Deer Woman”, is a sublimely silly story about a Native American legend involving a beautiful woman with the legs of a deer that tramples unsuspecting victims to death. The episode is riddled with subpar dialogue & even less-commendable performances from its actors, but still proves itself to be memorably goofy by its conclusion. The titular deer woman is a non-verbal knockout of a woman, who seduces her victims merely by smiling & nodding. Once she lures them into a dangerously secluded place, she snaps off their erections & tramples their corpses into goop. Although the title gives away this reveal far before it arrives, “The Deer Woman” is still written like a police procedural, which works only because it’s amusing watching the central detective, who is essentially a small-town Agent Mulder, try to piece together crimes that don’t quite make sense. In one scenario, he imagines a beautiful woman beating her victims to death with a taxidermy deer leg. In another, he imagines a deer dressed in flannel & jeans punching victims to death as if in a barroom brawl. This cartoonishness mixed with the episode’s grotesque sense of gore is a mostly winning combo, one commendable in its dedication to inanity. The episode serves as John’s son Max Landis’ very first screenwriting credit, but the father-son pair apparently bickered about the details of the story’s conclusion to the point that John insisted on including his name as a writing credit as well. With cheeky references to An American Werewolf (cited as evidence for the faux-Mulder’s monster killer theory) & Frida Kahlo’s self portrait The Wounded Deer, “The Deer Woman” is a perfectly-suited small-scale entry in Landis’ horror catalog, especially once the the titular deer woman is using her deer legs to gallop from rooftop to rooftop in a ludicrous display.

Masters of Horror: “Family” (2006)

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Landis’ second contribution to Masters of Horror was a grotesquely comedic portrait of a serial killer building a family of bleached skeletons that’re something of a Norman Rockwell by way of Norman Bates display. Norm! from Cheers is the serial in question, fairly amusing here as he bickers with his skeleton family & listens to spooky blues music in his basement/skeleton lab. The back & forth switching between the serial killer’s fantasy & reality are darkly amusing, such as in a scene that alternates from him bathing his “mother”/melting the skin off her bones with acid. As he tries to add a young couple to his collection & expand his family with a younger, sexier set of bones, he makes himself vulnerable to discovery and, worse yet, punishment for his evil deeds. As enjoyably goofy as “The Deer Woman” can be, it’s fairly safe to say that “Family” is the best example of Landis’ televised horror anthology work. It would easily fit right in with the best episodes of Tales from the Crypt, especially once it reaches its disgusting last second reveal. If you’re going to watch just one of his post-Innocent Blood television episodes, this would be your best option.

Fear Itself: “In Sickness & in Health” (2008)

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There really isn’t much at all to say about John Landis’ most recent entry in the horror genre. When Masters of Horror was denied a third season by the Showtime network, the show was transformed into a one-season failure titled Fear Itself on NBC. The transition to network television was not kind to the horror anthology program, since it severely limited what it could get away with in terms of gore & vulgarity (although those restrictions have surely been more laid back in the seven years since). Besides John Landis, the only notable director from the Masters of Horror era to return to Fear Itself was Re-Animator‘s Stuart Gordon. Besides those two names, nothing of note came from Fear Itself’s pitifully short run. As for Landis’ entry in particular, he tells the story of a wedding day ruined by a mysterious, hand-delivered note that reads, “The person you are marrying is a serial killer.” Absolutely nothing of interest happens between that note’s arrival & the final reveal that *gasp* the note was delivered to the wrong person & the protagonist bride we’ve been following the whole time was actually the killer. Okay. The episode is mostly a bore, made fascinating only by the inclusion of the actor who played The X-Files‘ “Smoking Man” dressed in priestly garb. It’s an interesting image, but nothing to get too excited about, since “In Sickness & In Health” is nearly an hour in length.

I sincerely hope that this most recent example of John Landis’ horror work will not be his last, as the director has proven in the past that he has much better work in him. I’d love to see him return to the genre on the big screen on last time, perhaps for a Frankenstein or zombie picture, since he’s already covered the werewolf & vampire genres in the past. As long as brings a sense of goofball comedy to the production, it could be worthwhile.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, 1992’s Innocent Blood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at the vampire-crowded box office that buried it.

-Brandon Ledet

WolfCop (2014)

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I really wanted to love WolfCop. A low-budget, crowd-funded Canadian indie horror comedy about a werewolf cop is just begging for my adoration, especially considering the glowing reviews I’ve given titles like Zombeavers and Monster Brawl. As James pointed out earlier today in his review of Housebound, “Horror comedies are always a high wire act.” It’s difficult to strike the right balance between terror & humor and WolfCop is all the more frustrating because it’s so close to getting the formula right I can smell it even without superhuman/canine scent. The film’s premise is killer; its bodily gore is impressive; there’s a plot-summarizing rap song in the closing credits (which is always a plus no matter what anyone tells you); there’s just something essential missing in the final product.

If I had to pinpoint exactly what’s lacking in WolfCop, my best guess is that there just isn’t enough werewolf policing. The origin story segment of the film lasts entirely too long as we follow Sergeant Lou Garou through a series of wicked hangovers that eventually lead him to awaking a changed man. Lou struggles to suppress his newly found werewolf form in long stretches, which is fine for a man who’s trying to survive, but not too exciting for the audience that follows him. Becoming a werewolf does little to curb Lou’s drinking, but it does make him a better cop, but initially only in the sense that he starts doing paperwork & researching the history of the occult in the town he polices. By the time Lou is busting up meth labs & preventing armed robberies in werewolf form AND a police uniform, which is essentially the main draw of the film, the runtime is more than halfway over. There are some great exchanges in those segments, like when a gang member asks “What the fuck are you?” and the WolfCop responds “The fuzz,” but they’re honestly too few too late and soon fade in favor of a story about an evil cult that doesn’t really amount to much more than a distraction.

There are certainly more than a few glimpses of brilliance in WolfCop. The practical effects in the gore are the most winning element in play, featuring gross-out bodily horror like close-ups of hair growing like porcupine quills, several disembodied faces, pentagrams carved into bellies, a switchblade piercing an eyeball and the most blood I’ve ever seen pass through a urethra in a particularly brutal scene where Lou transforms into a werewolf dick-first. There’s also a hilarious sex scene seemingly inspired by The Room that marks the first time I’ve ever seen a werewolf go down on a bartender or enjoy a post-coital cigarette. A couple of these moments are spoiled by some winking-at-the-camera gimmicks (like the much-hated-by-me CGI blood spatter on the camera lens effect), but for the most part the main problem is that they’re isolated highlights and the film that surrounds them is kind of a bore. I get the feeling that WolfCop works better as a highlight reel than a feature, seemingly peaking with its trailer or its poster. That’s not even that big of a deal, though. The trailer & the poster are honestly true works of art at a level a lot of horror comedies fail to reach even in advertising. There’s so much promise & potential in WolfCop as a concept, that even though I wasn’t completely sold on the first installment, the post-credits promise of a WolfCop II arriving in 2015 still excited me. My hope is that now that the origin story has been taken care of, we can get straight to the business of werewolf policing. Give the people what they want. Our demands are simple: we merely want more wolf-cop in our WolfCop.

-Brandon Ledet