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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Three Decades of David: The Man Behind the Wolf

I'm closing out 2011 with one last edition of Three Decades of David, my year-long celebration of the 30th anniversary of An American Werewolf in London. This time out, we take a look at the man who brought this visionary and influential horror film to life, and one of the most underrated directors in the entire horror canon, Mr. John Landis.

Known equally for his work in comedy and horror, Landis has been a fixture in Hollywood since the late 1970s, when he exploded onto the scene with National Lampoon's Animal House, the film that established him as a top filmmaker. Nevertheless, filmmaking had been a passion for the Jewish-born Chicago native since he was a small child absorbing in amazement the work of Ray Harryhausen in movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

In fact, it was 7th Voyage that first put the directing bug in the boy's head, as he started wondering exactly whose job it was to make movies, and if he could take part. So from the beginning, it was the fantastic and surreal that drew Landis to the world of directing, and that attitude would be reflected in much of his later body of work:
I had complete suspension of disbelief—really, I was eight years old and it transported me. I was on that beach running from that dragon, fighting that Cyclops. It just really dazzled me, and I bought it completely. And so, I actually sat through it twice and when I got home, I asked my mom, “Who does that? Who makes the movie?” - The Film That Changed My Life, by Robert K. Elder
Landis got his start as an assistant director in Yugoslavia on the 1970 war comedy Kelly's Heroes, and also spent some further time in Europe assisting on movies like El Condor and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West.

His actual feature film debut came in 1971 at the age of 21, when he wrote and directed the low-budget monster movie tribute, Schlock. But most of the '70s were tough for the young Landis, as he tried to break into Hollywood, taking any odd job he could along the way. He got a major break in 1977 when he directed the Zucker brothers breakout Kentucky Fried Movie, but it was Animal House a year later that put him on the map.

It was that movie that pushed Landis into a vibrant creative circle that included hot directors like Steven Spielberg and many of the masterminds behind America's new cutting-edge sketch comedy series, Saturday Night Live. In fact, his next feature would be the first film to be adapted from an SNL skit, namely The Blues Brothers starring Dan Akroyd and John Belushi.

His name established as a comedy director, Landis at last felt comfortable delving into an area that had long been his passion: horror. When he got the word out that his next project would be a personal labor of love called An American Werewolf in London, a lot of people were surprised that the director of such happy-go-lucky, light-hearted fare was tackling such a supposedly heavy project. Little did they know how close to his heart the material was. Actually, the original concept came to Landis while working on Kelly's Heroes in Yugoslavia, when he witnessed some peasants burying a man suspected of being a werewolf.

For 12 years, Landis had nursed the AWIL project, and to this day it is considered by most to be his finest work. Deftly weaving black comedy and real horror in a way not quite seen before, Landis crafted a truly innovative, preeminently influential motion picture, one worthy of being called one of the greatest fright films of all time. Best of all, he brought his unique comic sensibility to the project, making it a movie that's pretty tough to compare to anything else.

Finally having broken through to the genre he cherished best of all, Landis continued on for a bit in the horror vein, joining forces with none other than Steven Speilberg to produce a movie based on the classic Rod Serling TV series, The Twilight Zone. Also directing a portion of the anthology film, Landis ran into some serious trouble that nearly derailed his career when famed actor Vic Morrow and two child extras were accidentally killed in a helicopter during filming. After a trial for involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment, Landis and company were acquitted of all charges, but the tragedy and controversy has haunted the producer/director to a certain degree ever since.

Regardless of the Twilight Zone debacle, the 1980s was something of a golden era for John Landis. He would go on to direct the most famous music video of all time, Michael Jackson's "Thriller", which is in and of itself something of a horror short subject. He then settled back into his comedy comfort zone for much of the decade, putting out fondly remembered '80s flicks like Trading Places, Spies Like Us, Three Amigos and Coming to America.

If the 1980s was a golden age for Landis, then his directorial career took a decided dip into silver or bronze territory in the 1990s. This was the decade that gave us the Sylvester Stallone turkey Oscar, and the ill-conceived Tom Arnold vehicle The Stupids. Even a return to the franchise that once brought him such acclaim resulted only in the completely forgettable Blues Brothers 2000. Similarly, Beverly Hills Cop III did nothing to change the trend.

Although certainly not anywhere near the same ballpark as American Werewolf, Landis did make a brief return to horror in the 1990s with the vampire/gangster comedy Innocent Blood. While entertaining and possessing something of that Landis horror/comedy spark, it was a far cry from what the director had accomplished a decade prior.

Perhaps recognizing this downward trend, Landis shifted gears in the new century, turning to documentary filmmaking for much of the first decade. And now, the producer/director has reportedly shown interest in returning to the horror genre in the coming years, a rumor which is supported by his executive producing of last year's underground horror/comedy hit Some Guy Who Kills People.

Although his body of work can adequately be described as erratic, John Landis nevertheless deserves recognition as one of the brightest, visionary genre directors of his time. Just the achievement of An American Werewolf in London alone would be enough to afford him a fond remembrance in the hearts of horror and comedy fans. Add his successful SNL-alum comedies of the 1970s and 1980s, and you have a filmmaker who more than made his mark on his era.

Inspired by genre great Ray Harryhausen in that darkened theater, Landis grew to become a genre great himself.

Three Decades of David:

The Movie That Changed Werewolf Movies (And Horror!)
How the Dr. Pepper Pitchman Became a Horror Icon
The Music of An American Werewolf in London

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Making Christmas....

A very, very Merry Christmas from The Vault of Horror!!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

VAULTCAST EXCLUSIVE! Catching Up with Zacherley, the Cool Ghoul

I've got a special Christmas treat for you this week, kids. This is something I've been sitting on for quite a while now, so you must forgive me for the delay. But at last, the time has come.

Last spring, I made my usually annual sojourn to Chiller Theatre, this time with Captain Cruella, Zombelina and Wee-Sol all in tow. And we had the great luck of running into a true all-time legend of horror at that show--the one and only Zacherley, the iconic Northeast horror host whose famous broadcasts enthralled baby boomers for years.

Long the "mayor" of the Chiller Theatre convention, the 93-year-old Zacherley was proudly holding court that day in New Jersey, but gladly agreed to sit down and be interviewed for The Vault of Horror just a few days later. The following recording is the result of that interview, in which the old school horror host recounts all the details of his vast career, covering his years in radio and early TV, including the late-night movies that are still so fondly remembered by "monster kids" everywhere...

Listen to the interview on the embedded player below, or proceed to the official Vaultcast page and download it for listening later!

Monday, December 19, 2011

TRAILER TRASH! Christmas Edition, Book 2

And now...as a special holiday treat, I give you the vintage piece of Yuletide horror shlock, Christmas Evil, a.k.a. You Better Watch Out, featured in my October presentation on holiday-themed horror at Kevin Geeks Out. Enjoy it in its entirety--it's Ho-Ho-Horrible!!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Random Ramblings from the Vault...

  • Has anyone ever noticed an unusual preponderance of mute female characters in Hammer films? I'm thinking the Brits must like their women silent. If anyone else has a better explanation, I'm all ears.
  • 'Tis the season to watch Christmas movies, and as I lay here taking in the classic It's a Wonderful Life on NBC, I can't believe I never noticed before how closely it resembles a feature-length Twilight Zone episode...albeit with a much more upbeat finale.
  • I've got to give a positive review to Troll Hunter, which I finally got the chance to see recently. A very interesting concept, although I take issue with the way in which the filmmakers felt the need to perpetuate the whole myth about trolls smelling the blood of Christian men, while scientifically debunking all other troll-related folklore. That seemed a bit incongruous. Still, all in all, an ingenious film I recommend highly.
  • I'm surprised that my recent Vault poll to determine the favorite Abbott & Costello horror comedy after A&C Meet Frankenstein resulted in A&C Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff as the winner. While I enjoy all their flicks, I just didn't think Bud & Lou were at their best in that one. Maybe it was because Karloff was such a minor player in the movie, but I personally find A&C Meet the Invisible Man, A&C Meet the Mummy, A&C Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Hold That Ghost! to all be superior.
  • Speaking of my second favorite comedy duo (sorry, but Laurel & Hardy rule all), a recent viewing of A&C's horror comedies got me thinking... Can you imagine if the boys were around today, and making movies like Abbott & Costello Meet Jason, or Abbott & Costello Meet Pinhead? I can see it now... "We will tear your soul apart!" "Ohhhhh CH-CHICK!!!"
  • It truly was a blissful experience hosting the one and only Psycho at the Avon Theatre in Stamford with Captain Cruella. As I said that night, Hitchcock's masterpiece is not just a mere cult horror classic, but one of the finest motion pictures ever made, period. It's one of those movies that's a joy to watch from beginning to end. Now I just need to get the Universal 50th anniversary DVD release...
  • I'd like to wish a belated happy 10th birthday to the VoH's cutest little correspondent, my dear little Zombelina. At her birthday party a couple weeks ago, I took it upon myself to entertain the pajama-clad fifth graders with a screening of the original House on Haunted Hill, my girl's favorite horror movie. Not a bad follow-up to last year's Brides of Dracula, wouldn't you say?
  • And speaking of pint-sized Vault of Horror contributors, I'm proud to say that my other progeny, Skeleton Jack, has at long last started up his very own blog, and I'd appreciate it if you went over and gave it a look. It's called Jack's Movie Town, and wouldn't you know it, his first two movie reviews are for horror flicks. I guess it's that whole apple/tree thing...
  • Captain Cruella and I were recently asked to be the subjects of a most interesting and evocative cemetery photo shoot in the wiles of Staten Island. Through the talents of photographer Laura Pennace, we were transformed into a couple of star-crossed ghostly lovers. Best of all, it gave me a chance to play dress-up, which I always appreciate. Take a gander at the full photo shoot right here...
  • It's almost the end of the year, which means it's already time to start thinking about the Cyber Horror Awards. Can you believe it? The first-ever horror movie awards voted on by online critics is now proudly entering its fourth year, and I'll be recruiting some judges to help me with nominations shortly. Then it goes out to all you blogger folk to vote on the best of 2011. Stay tuned, as nominations will probably be announced some time in early February...

Friday, December 2, 2011

Retro Review: The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

I pride myself on being a great fan, admirer and aficionado of Hammer horror--in a lot of ways superior to Universal, if I may be so bold (although that's a debate for a future post). Ever since I was a child, I've been entranced by the technicolor blood, buxom wenches, uproarious scores and quaint period designs of the Hammer classics. And yet, one which I had never before seen was Freddy Francis' The Evil of Frankenstein, a 1964 chestnut which was the third of six films made in Hammer's Frankenstein series.

It's included on Universal's Hammer box set, which I've had for a number of years now and also includes such gems as The Curse of the Werewolf and Kiss of the Vampire. Yet, this particular one I had never seen before, although I had always wanted to. And over the Thanksgiving weekend, I finally took the opportunity. Although not the best of the Hammer series, and certainly not the best Frankenstein-inspired motion picture, I'm glad I took the time.

One of the reasons I had always been drawn to seeing this film is that it was a bit of a departure from the rest of the studio's Frankenstein franchise. Starting with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, Hammer had made it a point to reinvent the classic monster series, without relying on the elements that had made the Universal entries of the 1930s and 1940s so iconic. However, although part of the reason for this was undoubtedly creative innovation, another part was also legal necessity, as Hammer could not infringe upon Universal's intellectual property.

That changed with The Evil of Frankenstein, however. Whereas the previous two films, Curse of and Revenge of, had been distributed in the United States by Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures, respectively, the third entry was actually picked up for distribution by Universal Studios itself, which meant that for the first time, Hammer had carte blanche to rely upon the devices used previously in Universal's own Frankenstein series. And so, the classic Jack Pierce monster design could be used, and the recognizable laboratory sets could be duplicated.

While an interesting notion, the result is a mixed bag. It's fascinating to see Hammer take a crack at the Universal approach, but in the end, what made Hammer's efforts so memorable is that the studio always strove to make its own mark rather than ape someone else's work. As it is, old reliable Hammer makeup man Roy Ashton is just not in his element trying to tread in the footsteps of Jack Pierce. What we get here is a second-rate copy of the traditional Boris Karloff square-headed, platform-shoe wearing Creature, here played by legendary New Zealand wrestler Kiwi Kingston, whose zombie-like performance can only conjure up a fraction of the pathos even Glenn Strange put forth in the Universal days, let alone Karloff. Similarly, Hammer art director Don Mingaye's sets are lush and intriguing as always, but are only doing what Charles D. Hall's revolutionary work did for Universal some thirty years prior.

The plot follows the trail of Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant Hans, as they attempt to put their financial situation back on track so the doctor can return to his life's work of reanimating the dead. When he returns to his ancestral home in the village of Karlstaad, he inexplicably discovers his original creation buried in ice underneath his property. Equally inexplicable is the fact that the Creature now looks nothing like the Christopher Lee version from the original, and instead suddenly resembles the Creature of the Universal Frankenstein series. The origin of the Creature is also retold in flashback, once again retconned to more resemble the Colin Clive/Boris Karloff origin sequence of the 1931 film. It's worth noting, however, that this is the only Hammer Frankenstein film other than the original to feature the actual Frankenstein monster--but it's also obvious that this was only done to take advantage of the license granted the studio by Universal.

Still, as with any Hammer production, there is a lot to recommend the film. Peter Cushing is excellent as always as the good Dr. Frankenstein, and I'll submit that his interpretation is probably the most textured, complex and compelling of anyone who has ever tackled the role. The great Peter Woodthorpe, known to many as the voice of Gollum in both the landmark BBC Lord of the Rings radio adaptation as well as the Ralph Bakshi animated version, is a delight as the alcoholic, unscrupulous carnival hypnotist Prof. Zoltan, the film's lead heavy. Studio head Anthony Hinds, writing as he typically did under the pen name John Elder, turns in a taut script that is up to snuff with his work on such favorites as The Brides of Dracula, Night Creatures and The Reptile.

The picture probably could have benefited from the directorial leadership of Hammer standby Terence Fisher, who was set to helm the film before being injured in a car accident. In his place, the project as handed over to his cameraman Freddy Francis. Francis had previously directed minor Hammer faves Paranoiac and Nightmare, and was far from a tested commodity when he took on The Evil of Frankenstein. He would go on to direct other minor Hammer pictures, with his most notable work being Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, and his best known film would have to be Amicus Pictures' 1973 adaptation of Tales from the Crypt.

As a die-hard Hammer fan, I will always welcome the chance to curl up on a dark night with one of their evocative, atmospheric and intense films, no matter if its one of their very best or a lesser-known effort. There's no doubt the original Curse of Frankenstein is the high watermark of Hammer horror, and The Evil of Frankenstein is but a shadow of that film. An enjoyable shadow, but a shadow nonetheless. Hammer still put out a horror flick well worth seeing, but the bottom line is that the studio made its name by charting its own course in horror, not following someone else's lead. The Evil of Frankenstein is an interesting experiment, if an ill-advised one.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

This Year... There Will Be No Leftovers.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hump-Day Harangue: Did American Horror Story Really Go Too Far?

A few weeks ago, an editorial was run regarding American Horror Story on the very popular celebrity gossip blog Oh No They Didn't (yes, I already became annoyed due to the name of the site.) I immediately took interest, since FX's American Horror Story has held me as willing captive since it debuted the last month. You can read the article here, but the gist of it is that ONTD took AHS to task for the November 9 episode, in which a Columbine-style school shooting was depicted.

The reason for the taking-to-task was that apparently the show went "too far" in featuring such a starkly realistic and reality-based event. The author of the piece, who goes by the nome de blogue of Paris Dior Chanel, felt that it hit far too close to home, and was just too heavy for a show of this nature. Ms. Chanel believes that reality and horror really shouldn't mix, which immediately pegs her as someone who is just not very familiar with the horror genre. Particularly, she seems to find the show to be campy, silly fun which shouldn't get bogged down in real life:
American Horror Story is, despite all of its silliness and overly manufactured mood, an undeniably entertaining show. It's campy and creepy and doesn't seem to take itself too seriously, as it shouldn't. It's not the kind of horror thing that demands we imagine ourselves in the situation in order to be scared, which would require the show to exist at least somewhat within the bounds of the real... It's fun!
Now, I know "fun" horror. In fact, it's become my preference in recent years. I do not find American Horror Story to be "fun". Nor do I find it to be campy. In fact, I'd say one would have to be decidedly jaded and/or cynical to interpret the show in that fashion. Chanel seems to dismiss the show as disposable cotton candy entertainment.

In my estimation, American Horror Story is the best-written horror TV show to come down the pike in years. It's smart and thrillingly executed, filled with brilliant characterizations and real depth of feeling. It's the kind of horror show that is so well-written, in fact, that I think it would still work and be entertaining even if all the horror elements were removed. It is sinister, dark and challenging. True Blood is campy. AHS is not. Yes, Jessica Lange's Constance character does enter into camp territory in the grand tradition of former leading-women playing crazy old ladies in horror films (think Bette Davis and Piper Laurie), but that's about it. I think there may be some preconceived notions here on the author's part, perhaps owing to the fact that the show comes from the creators of Glee?

AHS is gritty, unflinching horror that delves into the human psyche and goes places we're not necessarily comfortable going. That's what it's supposed to do. It's not The Munsters. As such, it is will within the realm of acceptability for Ryan Murphy and company to incorporate real-life tragedy into the mix. As opposed to what Chanel asserts:
Was last night's opening scary? Of course. It was tense and awful. But it wasn't the right kind of scary for this dopey show. The chief (if perhaps initially unintentional on the creators' part) product of this show should be laughter... That's the kind of silly, ultimately empty scare that American Horror Story is best at. A school shooting is not that. That's far too real, far too much of a downer for a dumb Wednesday night.
Clearly, Chanel is viewing the show from a very different perspective from mine. So her opinion of the shooting storyline obviously draws from a very dismissive opinion of the show. If one considers AHS to be silly and dopey, than I suppose I can see how it would be out of sorts for truly disturbing material to be included. Yet I, and many others, find the show to be anything but silly, and its scares to certainly be anything but empty.

There's nothing dopey about botched abortions, mutilated babies, people burned alive and hit-and-run accidents. How about the home invasion and torture depicted in the opening of episode 2? Why did that fit Chanel's limited view of AHS, and not this? As for the scares, they come from places deep and dark; places like parents' fears over protecting their children, the anguish of secrets that won't stay hidden, and existential angst and insecurities common to us all. Empty? Campy fun? Are we watching the same show?

American Horror Story was well within its domain featuring a school shooting. Not only should Murphy and the gang not shy away from such subject matter, but I urge them to keep it coming. I can appreciate light-hearted horror, but that's not what AHS is. The show should remain true to itself, and keep challenging us. If I wanted silliness, I'd have gone to see the Abercrombie & Fitch vampires and werewolves at the movies last weekend.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Three Decades of David: The Movie That Changed Werewolf Movies (And Horror!)

In 1981, the werewolf movie was dead in the water. Done and done. A curious relic of horror history. And then, along came John Landis' landmark An American Werewolf in London, and the game was immediately changed forever.

So much change was brought into being as a result of this movie, in fact, that we often may take it for granted and not fully appreciate the amount of evolution it lent the ailing subgenre. Let's take a look at just a few of the ways that An American Werewolf in London transformed lyncanthrope cinema--and along the way, the entire horror category.


Prior to AWIL, the movie werewolf was a curious creature, who was actually not very much of a wolf at all. Rather, as he was best described in the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. classic, he was more of a "wolf man"--that is to say, a humanoid being with some of the more fearsome qualities of a wolf tacked on for horrific effect. This was not at all in line with the creature as described in traditional folklore, but it was necessitated by the level of makeup and special effects technology available in those early days of film.

It was a lot easier to take someone like Chaney or Henry Hull and add some lupine features--some fur and fangs, maybe a dog-like nose or ears. This is not to denigrate the work of such legends as Jack Pierce, but the fact remains that the werewolves depicted in movies prior to AWIL were much more man than wolf.

By the time we get to Landis' masterwork, and the contributions of that film's effects wizard, Rick Baker, we've got a whole different monster on our hands. For the first time, a werewolf was created that actually looked more like a monstrous wolf than a hairy dude in ripped clothes. The wolf we see here is not a true wolf like we would find in the natural world, but rather a demonic creature that is decidedly lupine in nature, but with a very cruelly human intellect behind its animalistic violence.

An American Werewolf in London stressed the wolf in werewolf, and set a trend that would be commonly followed in many other horror films. Sure, the "wolf man" template would still be replicated many times, but Baker demonstrated that it was possible for a human character to transform into a true wolf-like being.


Again, not to cast aspersions on the work of some of Hollywood's finest special effects geniuses, but what passed for a werewolf transformation on screen prior to An American Werewolf in London is very different from what audiences came to expect as a result of it. The time lapse photography work and other of Pierce's techniques seen in films like The Wolf Man and Werewolf of London were impressive for their time, and are still a hoot to watch, but remained within a boundary of what could be accomplished then--a boundary that would be shattered by Baker and company.

Starting with AWIL, the metamorphosis scene became something of a centerpiece of a werewolf film, the money shot that audiences waited for. It became a much more dramatic, intense, drawn out special effects extravaganza. David Naughton's transformation is an involved affair--a tense and nightmarish explosion of kinetic energy that is a far cry from Lon Chaney passively sitting in a chair as hair sprouted from his face.

It was also important to both Landis and Baker that the audience understand the pain involved in turning into a werewolf. Apparently, it hurts like hell to change into a monster--which would make sense, although it should be pointed out that the original folklore stresses the transformation as magical and not physical, thus no real pain. Still, thanks to the efforts of Landis and Baker, we get a sense of every cracking bone, popping sinew and contorting limb. The modern werewolf is thus a strange cross-breed of the enchanted and the biological.


From very early on, we understand that the characters in An American Werewolf London live in a world with all the same references we have. All the werewolf movies we know and love exist in this world; everyone knows the rules. References to movies such as The Wolf Man are made throughout the film, and in fact David explains how Larry Talbot had to be killed by his own father--someone who loved him--foreshadowing his own end at the hands of his girlfriend Alex.

A decade and a half before Scream, and nearly a quarter of a century before Shaun of the Dead, AWIL gave us post-modern irony in horror. We have characters who know the score--unlike characters from earlier horror flicks, who seem to live in a plastic bubble in which horror flicks don't exist. This self-referential style may be the single most influential contribution that An American Werewolf in London made to the history and development of the horror genre.

Not just one of the greatest horror movies ever made, An American Werewolf is smart horror. It turned its own subgenre and the entire genre on its head, and we've been feeling the effects ever since. It revived the werewolf for decades to come, giving it a whole new spin and a literal rebirth in the process. How fitting, that a concept based largely on the theme of transformation would be so profoundly transformed.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

VAULTCAST! Exclusive Interview w/Best-Selling Dark Fantasy & Paranormal Fiction Writer Leanna Renee Hieber!

About a year ago, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting one of the true rising stars of dark fantasy and paranormal fiction, novelist Leanna Renee Hieber, through a mutual friend, KT Grant of the superb blog Babbling About Books and More. Since then, I've wanted to have her as a guest in the Vaultcast, and I finally did so just a few weeks ago. The result is posted here for your enjoyment, and I apologize in advance for getting it posted so late. Alas, such is the dilemma of a hyper-busy Vault Keeper.

Known for her Strangely Beautiful series, which has already been optioned as a musical theatre production, Ms. Hieber is now launching a brand new series that is sure to soon be the talk of dark fantasy and gothic young adult fiction circles: Magic Most Foul. Steeped in a deep appreciation of history and literature, she is a genre writer who is refreshingly proud of being a genre writer, and it was a real treat speaking with her.

So listen in as we chat about her work, as well as various literary and cultural non-sequiturs along the way. You can either listen on the embedded player below, or proceed to the Vaultcast page and download it for listening at your leisure...

Pre-order signed copies of Darker Still: A Novel of Magic Most Foul!

Leanna Renee Hieber's website

Leanna Renee Hieber on Facebook

Leanna Renee Hieber on Twitter

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

David Hess 1936-2011

He was something of a renaissance man, whose career began in music, and though it never totally left that arena, also took him to some very different places. In the end, David Hess, who passed away suddenly of a heart attack last month at the age of 75, will be remembered by millions of movie fans worldwide as an icon of exploitation cinema. An odd fate for a guy who used to write songs for Elvis...

Hess was born to a Jewish family in New York City during the depths of the Depression. From a very early age, he had already found his first calling. Songwriting came naturally to him, and he also enjoyed performing, as well. At age 19, using the Anglicized name "David Hill", he actually took a stab at recording a brand-new song called "All Shook Up", which wound up a #1 hit the following year for Elvis Presley.

Unbowed, Hess took his songwriting talents to Shalimar Music, where he would be a successful composer through the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s. Ironically, he would compose a number of songs for Presley himself during this period, as well as the likes of Sal Mineo, Andy Williams, Pat Boone and others. Most notable was the novelty hit "Speedy Gonzalez," which Boone took to #6 in the U.S. and #2 in the U.K., selling six million copies worldwide. By the end of the 1960s, Hess had recorded two hit folk albums and found himself the head A&R man at Mercury Records.

Few could have predicted that during his tenure at Mercury, this successful songwriter, producer and recording artist would suddenly branch off into a very different area of show business. In 1972, he was asked to star in the debut film of a young director by the name of Wes Craven. That film was The Last House on the Left, which would become one of the most notorious pieces of exploitation cinema ever made.

It started out as a musical collaboration, as Hess was called upon to pen the soundtrack for the film. This he did, and songs like "The Road Leads to Nowhere" can be heard throughout the film, with Hess himself on vocals. But it would be as the brutal, sadistic, yet disturbingly charismatic Krug Stillo that Hess would make his greatest contribution to the movie, and become forever known to connoisseurs of the darker side of horror.

The leader of a band of vicious outlaws, Krug is one of the most terrifying psychopaths of '70s cinema, and that's really saying a lot. Hess is a natural in his first screen appearance, seeming to exude the perfect pitch of unadulterated sleaze and lowbrow humor that makes the character unforgettable. One wonders why it took so long for Hess to step in front of a camera. Last House is a flawed film, yet Hess' performance remains one of the best things about it.

Hess would continue to write music of all kinds for years to come, but his career was now set on a different path. The role of Krug opened the door to other lead parts in films like Pasquale Festa Campanile's Hitchhike and Ruggero Deodato's The House on the Edge of the Park. These were unrelentingly dark, grim pictures, in which Hess played unrelentingly dark, grim roles very reminiscent of Krug. Not to besmirch the man in death, but he seemed to have a knack for playing the consummate dirtbag, and it served him well in picture after picture.

He continued to act through the '80s, appearing in Craven's Swamp Thing as well as a slew of Italian exploitation flicks, and even tried his hand at directing. Both his acting and musical careers slowed down a bit in the 1990s, but in more recent years Hess had once again become very active. He recorded a few more albums and started popping up again in horror films like Zombie Nation and Smash Cut. Reminiscent of what he did on Last House on the Left, he even worked on some music tracks for a horror film, namely Eli Roth's 2003 breakout, Cabin Fever.

The iconic roles of his earlier years had gained Hess a whole legion of new, younger fans, many of whom he began connecting with at the conventions at which he started to become a fixture. His career was experiencing a bit of a revival, and ironically he had recently signed on to appear in the sequel to The House on the Edge of the Park, when he died on October 8.

A musician, an actor, a director, a producer--David Hess was all these things, but horror fans will remember him for playing some of the screen's most infamous lowlifes, particularly the implacable Krug Stillo. It's always the villains who get all the glory in horror, and Hess was one of the best.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Want to Know What I Thought of The Human Centipede II?

If the answer to the question posed by this post's title is "Yes," then I suggest you head over to KT Grant's excellent blog, Babbling About Books and More, where I've reviewed the controversial sequel by Tom Six. I reviewed the original one there last year, and so I was more than happy to oblige Ms. Grant with a follow-up review of the second one, especially after having interviewed Six and his star Laurence Harvey a few weeks back. Here's a sample:

A year and a half ago, I spoke out as a defender of a film I thought was being unfairly judged right out of the gate. That film was Tom Six’s The Human Centipede, and it was alternately being bashed by the mainstream for being too revolting, and by the hardcore horror freaks for being not revolting enough. The movie that I saw was a slick, well-made psychological horror flick being wrongly marketed as a gross-out piece of torture porn. I felt those dismissing it as too over-the-top simply hadn’t seen the picture, and was saddened by those who only seemed to be upset about not seeing enough ass-to-mouth contact.
For the rest of the review, check out Babbling About Books.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Many Faces of Michael Myers

Friday, October 21, 2011

ZOMBIES!! A Tribute Montage...

I'm hoping to see at least a few of you tomorrow at the Saugerties Village Invasion Zombie Crawl, where I'll be presenting a special screening of The Evil Dead... But for those of you who might not be able to make it, I wanted to share this special tribute to zombie movies, which I put together in honor of the occasion. Enjoy, and remember, when there's no more room in hell...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

We're Gonna Get You: The Legacy of The Evil Dead

It was at some point during the mid 1980s that I first became aware of a film that would eventually become synonymous with horror in my estimation. My dad, a perennial fright fan and instructor on my road to the dark side, found it on the racks one day at the local mom and pop video store (remember those?) and brought it home. I wasn't allowed to watch it at the time, but I can still remember listening in my bed to my mom's screams of terror emanating from our basement living room as my parents watched it that night. Needless to say, there was no greater enticement possible. I knew right from the start that it was something I simply had to see.

My dad had a knack for picking out the best horror flicks back then, in those days of lurid VHS box covers and giant cardboard cases. He prided himself on finding this gem of a film, still rather obscure at the time. He was so blown away by it that he tried in vain whenever he could to properly convey its horrific intensity to friends and family. And I listened, trying to imagine a horror movie that could be so utterly harrowing. My experience up to that point, after all, was pretty much confined to Frankenstein and Dracula.

And so, when at last I came of age, one of the first R-rated movies I made sure to rent at the video store was Sam Raimi's classic. Well OK, I wasn't exactly of age yet, but let's just say I was old enough that the guy behind the counter at the store didn't care anymore (Hey, Video Reflections in Bensonhurst went out of business about a decade ago, I doubt anyone's going to get into trouble over this one.) I giddily and anxiously watched the movie with my very best friend, at last able to partake in the cornucopia of horror I had heard so much about.

At the time, I imagined The Evil Dead as being the most gut-wrenching, unthinkably terrifying horror movie imaginable. And I'd have to say that, at the time, my expectations turned out to be right on the nose. It was, in my teenaged opinion, exactly what the back of the box boasted--the ultimate experience in grueling horror. The gore was beyond anything I had ever seen before. Every moment seemed to be electrified with the stuff of pure, undistilled nightmares. In short, it was a teenage boy's idea of a perfect movie.

For some years thereafter, The Evil Dead became a sort of litmus test for me; I would use it to test out my friends, to see if they could get through it. It became a badge of honor for those around me to survive a viewing of the film. I would show it to my girlfriends within the first few weeks of dating, just to see if they were cool enough to handle it. And I never got tired of it.

Fast-forward all these years later, and even though I may not watch it as religiously as I used to, there is still a very special place in my horror-lovin' heart reserved for it. While I may no longer call it a "perfect movie" per se, and there are many horror films which the movie critic inside me recognizes as being far superior, nevertheless it still retains an undeniable amount of raw power which makes it a joy to watch every time I take it down from the shelf. In fact, I did so most recently with Captain Cruella, and was reminded all over again why it had captured my imagination in the first place.

The reason I chose to rewatch it for the first time in years is that I'm privileged enough to be hosting a screening of the film at Saugerties, New York's Sugartown Vintage Boutique this weekend as part of the 2nd Annual Village Invasion Zombie Crawl. Needless to say, the opportunity to introduce this movie after worshiping it for so very long is the latest in a long line of wonderful experiences which The Vault of Horror has made possible for me.

What is it about this film that reaches into the souls of so many horror fans, possessing them much like the Deadites themselves? You will find the movie included on almost anyone's list of favorites, and its influence cannot possibly be underestimated. In a word, the film is seminal, and I would even go so far as to say that it has joined that elite group of movies which literally embody the concept of horror in cinema. And despite the fact that so many of us have watched it so many times that it often teeters on the brink of being passe or played out, it is only because we can't stop going back to it.

The Evil Dead was an integral part of my horror coming-of-age, helping to define the genre for me from a young age. It has been with me ever since, a dear old friend covered in gristle and viscera. I hope to see some of you next weekend as I get to watch it once again. And if you can't make it, just take it down from that shelf one more time and watch it for yourself. I know it's got to be there somewhere...

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Night Dinner: Challaween with Brian Solomon - 92YTribeca - New York, NY

Friday Night Dinner: Challaween with Brian Solomon - 92YTribeca - New York, NY

Thursday, September 29, 2011

VAULTCAST! Interview w/Tom Six & Laurence Harvey, Director & Star of THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2!

It's the most talked-about horror film of 2011, and I've got an interview with the men both behind and in front of the camera. The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) has already been banned in a few countries, and has been making quite a stir, so it was impossible to pass up an opportunity to chat with director Tom Six and star Laurence Harvey (who sounded so nice and loveable with his gentle Liverpool accent that I couldn't match up the voice with the monstrous character he plays in the film).

I'll reserve my opinions for my upcoming review of the movie (keep checking Babbling About Books, and More, where I also reviewed the first film,) but for now, let's all enjoy this little chat with Tom Six and Laurence Harvey (my apologies for the occasionally shoddy audio.) Feel free to listen in on the embedded player below, or proceed to the Vaultcast page, where you can download it for later!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Random Ramblings from the Vault...

  • Also on the horizon: If you're in the New York area for Halloween weekend, I'll be giving a talk on horror and religion at 92YTribeca on Friday night, October 28. Join me and Rabbi Dan Ain for some dinner and discussion on zombies, vampires and the Torah! More info to come...
  • Speaking of Halloween... yes, it's already well on the way once again. Amazing how that happens, isn't it? We're preparing this year by watching our fill of classic monster movies with the kiddies. We recently kicked things off with The Invisible Man, and there are plans to continue with Hammer's The Mummy and Creature from the Black Lagoon. How are you preparing?
  • But wait, it's not just about classic flicks... Because we've got our very own mad monster party planned for Halloween weekend. Donuts on strings, ghost stories, costumes and all that good stuff. Pictures sure to follow. No promises, but I may even break out my long-awaited Rocky Balboa costume...
  • Joining me for the party preparation this year is Captain Cruella, whose already legendary Village Invasion looms once more. There will more info to come, but if you are unaware, it's New York's most anticipated zombie crawl, and this will be the second year running. For my part, I plan to be hosting a screening of The Evil Dead (yes, I know it's not a zombie movie, calm down, fanboy) at Sugartown Vintage Boutique right in the heart of Saugerties. It all happens Saturday night, October 22. Can't wait for this one...
  • Am I talking too much about myself this time out? Too bad. Because I am also proud to announce that John Kenneth Muir's soon-to-be-published book Horror Films of the 1990s will feature a whole bunch of entries by yours truly. I was invited by the illustrious Mr. Muir some time ago to contribute a whole slew of reviews of '90s horror flicks, and am thrilled to soon see them in print. I invite you to do the same.
  • I recently had the honor of appearing remotely--through the miracle of Skype--at the Horror Realms convention in Pittsburgh, as part of a horror blogging panel that also including the Rondo Hatton Award-winning blogger Max Cheney (a.k.a. The Drunken Severed Head). Always a pleasure to discuss something so near and dear to my heart. I hope to eventually have video of the panel to post right here...
  • In case you haven't noticed, The Vault has recently undergone a bit of a makeover. Not that there was anything wrong with it (other than taking 48,765 hours to load), but the time had come to spruce things up a bit. Kind of like how they refitted the Enterprise before the first motion picture and added those fancy nacelles and everything. So anyway, please let me know what you think.
  • We recently had the chance to watch Madhouse on FEARNet. No, not the Madhouse with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. The Madhouse with Lance Henriksen and Natasha Lyonne. Yeah...I felt the same way.
  • My recent viewing of The Human Centipede 2 (more to come on that at a later date) got me thinking about how awesome it would be if someone made a movie called The Centipedal Human, about a guy who stitches together a bunch of centipedes in the shape of a person. Huh..? Huh..? Awesome, right? Shut up, you know it would be.
  • If you haven't done so recently, or if you never have at all, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of the classic Brian Froud/Alan Lee coffee table book, Faeries. I recently took it out from my local library, and I continue to marvel at the rich, evocative illustrations, and how they've influenced so many filmmakers in later years, from Peter Jackson to Guillermo Del Toro and beyond. Beautiful stuff.
  • And finally, as always, we invite you to come down to the Avon Theatre in Stamford, CT, to take in some of the films in their Cult Classics series, hosted by the Captain and myself. Most recently, we were proud to present John Carpenter's They Live!, which was prefaced by a bit of audio from an interview I did with Roddy Piper himself a few years ago. Plus, there was bubblegum for all! There are plenty of upcoming screenings to choose from, including PSYCHO on December 1! So don't be fruity like Norman's mom--be there.
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