Tales from the Criterion Crypt

In the spirit of the season, we asked a select coven of horror mavens (including a couple of our own) to write about their favorite Criterion scarefests.

Chuck Stephens
Equinox: The Eyebrows of Mr. Asmodeus

There are myriad ways into Equinox, and almost no way out.

I like to start with the eyebrows of Mr. Asmodeus, the film’s creepy park ranger and ultimate incarnation of drooling evil: two giant worms of squirming fur threatening further metamorphosis while actor/writer/director Jack Woods contorts the rest of his face into a ridiculous rubber succubus of extraordinarily cretinous sexual desire. Starlet (and future minister) Barbara Hewitt cringes in vain as Asmodeus (his name is that of the Hebrew bible’s king of demons, elsewhere known as the demon of lust) advances upon her—a string of slobber unspooling from his hideous maw and nearly coating the anamorphic excesses of the image with a nauseating scrim of saliva—for there is no escape from this grimacing, groping, leg-humping letch from another dimension!

Hired by producer Jack H. Harris (The Blob) to turn future Oscar-winning Industrial Light & Magic guru Dennis Muren’s independently produced, Ray Harryhausen–induced virgin voyage to the lost continent of stop-motion-style special effects into a theatrically releasable feature film (and soon-to-be classic of late night television horror-whatzit-psychotronica), veteran sound editor Woods (who’d go on to sculpt the sonics on everything from the pilot episode of MacGyver to Critters 2: The Main Course) jumped in face-first. Talk about making your mark on a movie: Woods’s decision not only to rewrite and reshoot Muren’s film but also to star as its narrative-altering new main character ensured that he would sign “his” only film as a “director” in indelible spittle and demon seed—and in so doing, forge one of the darkest statements on the nature of auteurism in twentieth-century film history.

There are, perhaps, easier ways into Equinox. One might start with the debt owed it by such later and better-known horror hoedowns as Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm and Sam Raimi’s Evil Deads, to name but two Equinox-idated examples of anything-goes cinefantastique. Or one might zero in on the sporty white socks and loafers shown off so enthusiastically by the film’s young supporting star, Frank Boers Jr. (soon to be known to living rooms around the country as Frank Bonner, WKRP in Cincinnati’s unctuously polyestered Herb Tarlek), as he haggles with the demonic Asmodeus over the fate of his friends’ picnic in the woods . . . and possibly the fate of the world itself! “All the money in the world, kid!” Asmodeus gleefully bellows as he tempts young proto-Tarlek into some sub-Faustian folly. Director, tempt thyself!

Such is the genius of Equinox, this extraordinary mutt of a movie that, while directed by far too many, finds in its very directionlessness its most impressive quality of all.

Michael Atkinson
Fiend Without a Face: Flying Cerebrums!

All that can be said is that someone making executive decisions at the Criterion Collection must’ve had the same 1970s-monster-culture, local-TV experience I had as a kid. Arthur Crabtree’s sublime and unnerving low-budget legend Fiend Without a Face , by any standard a barely inflated grade-C sci-fi flick padded out with dull exposition in cheap office sets, nonetheless harbors a dark, cancerous nugget of dread in its leisurely approached climax, in which spookily jerky stop-animated perambulating human brains with strangulating tails lay siege to a house and the luckless bastards trapped inside. There are pulp metaphors and then there are pulp metaphors: you’ll want to put an ice pack on your head after wondering what paroxysms of ecstasy André Breton, Tristan Tzara, and the other Surrealistes would have reached if they’d been able to see it in their day. Here, if you’d like, is Jacques Derrida’s “attack of reason.” But it is above all visceral: never underestimate the holy-shit impact of being surprised by a flying cerebrum smashing suddenly through a windowpane and beaming hungrily for someone’s throat . . .

Patience is required at first, but you need the movie’s long and placid buildup (not too long: the whole burrito is only seventy-five minutes) to savor the hair-raising irrationality of the final ten or so minutes, like the calming first two-thirds of a mounting bolero followed by the crescendo. The premise was hatched, as the short story “The Thought Monster” (1930), by pulp mistress Amelia Reynolds Long, a little-known but prolific writer who once had Forrest J. Ackerman as an agent. And then there’s the movie’s darkling visualization—nowhere else in midcentury British cinema do you get this degree of hallucinogenic bad-dream hyperbole (the animation, for being rough, is all the more disarming), and no one who witnesses it, particularly if they’re lucky enough to be a kid, will forget it.

Marc Walkow
Jigoku: Where the Gore Began

The “discovery” of Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku some years ago by Western critics and horror movie fans was a bombshell, and it forced a paradigm shift of sorts onto the worldview of gorehounds and splatter-film aficionados. Most of those in the West who knew anything about the film had gleaned those little bits of information from Phil Hardy’s appreciative write-up in his seminal Encyclopedia of Horror Movies , which told of “gruesome tortures such as skinning alive, the gouging of eyes, and other, even longer-term, discomforts.” That was enough for most Western horror lovers to add the title to their must-see lists, this writer included. So when Japan’s Beam Entertainment finally released the film on DVD in 2000—with foreign-viewer-friendly English subtitles—it was a necessary purchase.

And that’s when the shock wave began, for this was no stodgy 1960s Japanese ghost film but a full-blooded “gore movie,” the kind that built its entire reason for being upon its climactic scenes of violence, devoting most of its attention to the special effects and art design of its hell sequences. Fans over here had long been led to believe that Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman’s 1963 Blood Feast was the first true gore movie. But that clearly was no longer the case—Jigoku beat Blood Feast not only in terms of release date but also through the ferocity and bloodiness of its visuals.

The year of Jigoku’s release, 1960, was an important one in the world of horror, and it signaled a sea change in the way filmmakers presented violence and terror. Alfred Hitchcock brutally killed his heroine midfilm in Psycho ; Michael Powell presented one of the most twisted father-son relationships in movie history—as well as a uniquely sadistic method of murder—in Peeping Tom; Mario Bava sent frissons of sexual terror into the minds of thousands of young boys in his baroquely beautiful Black Sunday; and Georges Franju created an entirely new subgenre of medical horror with the dreamlike Eyes Without a Face. Before 1960, films had only flirted with brief gory sequences rather than centering their entire narrative around them: Fiend Without a Face (1958) turned stomachs with its stop-motion climax of bloodily suppurating brain matter; Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) spiked its murder sequences with Grand Guignol spatters of grue; and Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf (1960) sent tragic hero Oliver Reed to his grave with squibbed rockets of crimson flying from his hairy chest.

But the title of first gore movie goes to a film from then-unknown regions: Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku—the lifetime achievement of a shy, quiet, fiercely Buddhist filmmaker who loved nothing more than tofu and sake. 

Michael Koresky
Sisters:A Horror King Is Born

At the time of its 1973 release, Sisters seemed an anomaly. The seventh feature from an unpredictable, brainy yet ragged American auteur named Brian De Palma, Sisters was self-referential and absurdly stylish, a larkish goof on Hitchcock that made a monstrous mash-up of the master of suspense’s tropes. Yet with even ten years of hindsight, what had once appeared to be a one-off experiment seemed more like a clarion call announcing the director’s entire career. Before Sisters, De Palma shunted between absurdist political free-for-alls (Greetings; Hi, Mom!), Keystone Kops hijinkery (The Wedding Party), and filmed experimental theater (Dionysus in ’69). After Sisters , so intoxicated was De Palma by cinema’s cruel powers—its ability to play the audience like a piano through editing, photography, and music—that much of what followed in the film’s bloody wake built upon its approach, using Hitchcock as a basic form on which to grow ever more grotesque elaborations on the medium’s sadistic possibilities.

Some of us are mighty glad De Palma caught the horror bug early with Sisters and let it contaminate all that came after; what would horror be without such dirty deeds as Carrie , Dressed to Kill, and Body Double? The sacred urtexts Psycho and Rear Window play major parts in all of those films, but they were already lurking in Sisters. How De Palma spins them into his nasty web is too precious to spoil. Let’s just say that through-the-looking-glass versions of Norman Bates, Marion Crane, and L. B. Jeffries are all present and accounted for, commingling in gruesomely unexpected ways.

And since we’re essentially honoring the birth of De Palma the horror auteur, let’s celebrate another birthday, the one that sends Sisters off and running in what is still one of the director’s squirmiest set pieces. With one eye peeking out from a tangled, sweaty mess of brunette strands, Dominique Breton (Margot Kidder), sprawled belly-down on a sofa bed, silently accepts the gift of a birthday cake, inscribed for her and her (more gamine, less deranged) twin, Danielle. The dessert, delivered with a too-big-for-pastry butcher knife’s handle conveniently pointed in her direction, is the morning-after sweets for the sweet from Danielle’s one-night stand, Phillip (Lisle Wilson). As he would go on to do in film after film in the coming decades, De Palma stretches suspense to the breaking point. And then—before Phillip can finish getting out the words “make a wish”; before Dominique can blow out the candles; before the audience, like Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Sister Bear, can scream in agony, “Too much birthday!”—Dominique enjoys a slice. And the age of diabolical De Palma had begun.

Susan Arosteguy
Carnival of Souls: The Road to Zombieland

Pork: The Meal with a Squeal; Signals: Read ’Em or Weep; Shake Hands with Danger; What About Juvenile Delinquency? These are all titles of industrial and educational films produced by the Centron Corporation, an independent movie production house run out of Lawrence, Kansas, from 1947 to 1981. Like Robert Altman, filmmaker Harold “Herk” Harvey honed his craft in industrials, making more than four hundred for Centron. Lucky for midnight movie fans, though, he aspired to direct a film with “the look of a Bergman and the feel of a Cocteau.” That description alone makes Carnival of Souls , Harvey’s only commercial feature, a natural fit in the Criterion Collection.

Legend has it that Harvey was inspired to make a low-budget drive-in feature while driving through the Utah desert at night. He came upon, on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, a lonely abandoned amusement park that was part of a resort called Saltair, billed as “the Coney Island of the West” when it opened in 1893. Like Coney Island, it suffered numerous tragic fires over the years, so when Herk saw it in the 1950s it was a desolate, arid shell of its former glory. The lake’s water had receded and left the resort a mile away from the shoreline, and high winds had destroyed many attractions, so the unprofitable concern was turned over to the state and left to rot.

In Carnival of Souls, standoffish church organist Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a recent car-crash survivor moving to a new town, finds herself oddly drawn to this lakeside pavilion when she encounters it at night. Never before or since has a park built for good times looked so damned spooky (or just damned!). This is where the creep-out factor goes into high gear. You know that feeling when you’re driving alone at night in the middle of nowhere and you can’t look in the rearview mirror for fear you’ll see someone in the backseat? Look out! Like Marion in Psycho or Nan Adams in the Twilight Zone episode “The Hitch-Hiker,” this saucer-eyed blonde is driving alone in the dark toward a terrible fate.

In a scene that influenced Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (and trust me, these “zombies” are just as memorable), Harvey himself makes a cameo as The Man, an apparition that beckons her to her doom at the pavilion. This now sad place, where so many people once had the time of their lives, is transformed into a nightmare, culminating in a “dance of death.” Poor Mary. She should’ve listened to herself earlier in the film when she said, “In the daylight, everything falls back into place again. Let’s have no more nights.”

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