Oct 9 – Poltergeist (1982): Because of Poltergeist’s popularity and because of its association with Steven Spielberg (who produced, and according to some reports, co-directed along with Tobe Hooper), I have always thought of Poltergeist as being a kind of family-friendly horror movie. I imagined it as the kind of movie that could scare the pants off of a ten-year-old and leave parents chuckling at them as they cower beneath a pillow. What I didn’t expect was a chaotic, and at times visceral haunted house story that manages to undercut the budding Reagan revolution while playing on the latent fears of children and adults alike. Seriously, that clown doll?
Last year, I talked briefly about how The Stepfather was a reaction to Reagan’s America, a time where a generation weaned on counter-culture sold out its values for financial success and security—all in the quest to build the perfect family unit. Poltergeist works along these same lines, and rather impressively, was produced just two years into Reagan’s tenure.
In the movie, Spielberg and Hooper terrorize the family of Steve and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) who moved into a suburban dreamland that Steve’s company developed. When their extraordinarily ugly home, with its floating staircase and drapery that matches the wallpaper, gets invaded by an angry set of poltergeists, their tight-knit family unit gets torn apart when their youngest daughter gets drawn into The Beyond.
Former hippies themselves, Steve and Diane, who share a funny scene smoking pot after putting the kids to bed, suffer for the sins of Steve’s company, who built their house on top of a massive graveyard. Horror movies from this era relished tearing apart the status-quo, but none do it quite as thoroughly as Spielberg and Hooper with Poltergeist.
Oct 10 – Puppet Master (1989)
One of the dangers of watching 31 horror movies over the course of a month is stumbling into an unrelenting pit of despair. There are enough worthwhile horror movies out there to keep things fresh for years, but it takes diligence and care to separate the wheat from the crap. If you don’t do your research, you could end up watching something like Puppet Master.
Did you know that there are ten Puppet Master movies? Ten. The series is a video store staple, always buried deep in the VHS horror section between Psycho IV and Silent Night, Deadly Night. I feel like I had a solid grasp of what to expect just based on the tape covers—there was the Michael Jackson-looking puppet with dagger-eyes and knives for hands, the one with the little head that had great big man-hands and, by far the best one, the little guy who has a drill on his head for some reason.
Little did I know that a direct-to-video horror movie about killer marionettes could be so deeply unpleasant to endure. It has a corny synthesized score that’s as persistent as it is cheap sounding, acting that borders on criminal, and an incomprehensible plot that involves psychics, Nazis and an immortal guy who wants to control evil puppets. Even a lady masturbating to the thought of Clark Gable and a marionette that vomits leeches couldn’t save this sinking ship. Still, it’s the second best horror movie ever made in Bodega Bay—though by a bit of a wide margin, to say the least.
Oct 11 – The House on Sorority Row (1983)
Anything with the word “sorority” in the title guarantees some sort of naked lady. The over/under on how long it takes to see the bare breasts of some desperate young actress is typically much lower than average, sometimes even showing up right in the opening credits. Adolescents and developmentally arrested adults flock to these movies to maintain their twisted fantasies that women spend their college years smoking pot and hanging out in see-through baby-doll nighties, filling time between classes with random bouts of sex and pranks that result in casual toplessness. It is a downright obligation for these movies to deliver. After all, if a movie that could basically be called College Co-Eds Get Naked and Then Die doesn’t deliver as advertised, well then to Hell with this movie.
The House on Sorority Row does technically deliver on both counts, but barely. Worse yet, it is too loosely plotted to build any sense of suspense, the violence is mostly bloodless and mild, and the girls are just really, really, really… really dumb. The film follows a group of (dumb) sorority sisters who accidentally kill their house mother in a poorly executed (dumb) prank. Blinded by their desire to have an awful party with a hilarious new wave band, the girls cover up the murder and then blah blah blah they all get killed.
Feeling like a lesser Black Christmas, The House on Sorority Row is too jokey and too eager to moralize to be scary. It’s difficult to sympathize with a group of girls who view committing murder as an inconvenience, and it's doubly hard to feel scared for them when you know that each one of them pretty much has it coming.
Tomorrow: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (and also The Wolfman, and Dracula) but that makes the title too long.
Photo Credits: Copyright: United Artist, 1982; Full Moon Productions, 1989; Film Ventures International, 1983