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GUILTY PLEASURES IN FILM: Monsters & Aliens

Jan 9 21

I admit to having plenty of guilty pleasures when it comes to film, and I’ve already blogged about disaster movies, ghosts stories, and vampires flicks. Now I’m ready to move on to ten of my favorite films about monsters and aliens.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) – Directed by Jack Arnold; starring Richard Carlson, Julia Adams, Richard Denning, Ben Chapman (Creature on Land), Ricou Browning (Creature Underwater)

This classic black and white 3D film launched quite a successful horror franchise and influenced a good many directors and writers. (Proof: Guillermo del Torro won an Oscar recently for his take on a Gill-Man falling in love with a human – The Shape of Water).

Eerie and oddly romantic, this tale begins with a group of scientists in the Amazon jungle who are studying fossils when they discover something infinitely more interesting: an amphibious humanoid creature. They manage to capture the Gill-Man but he escapes, only to return soon afterwards to kidnap his obsession – Kay, the beautiful fiancée (Julia Adams) of one of the scientists.

All of the underwater scenes are impressive, sometimes even enthralling. And as is the case with these types of movies, I’m always on the side of the creature…but they usually don’t survive.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) – Directed by Philip Kaufman; starring Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nimoy, Veronica Cartwright

After alien seeds from deep space find their to Earth, pods began to grow in and around San Francisco, replicating the citizens one by one – and eradicating their human emotions.

“Sleep…sleep and be born again into a world without fear and hate.” (Looking around at this planet’s happenings lately, I’m not sure I’d turn that offer down. Or…I’d at least have to think about it for a minute.)

This is a remake of the 1956 film (same title), which is based on the book by Jack Finney, titled The Body Snatchers. Okay, so the special effects are better in the 1978 version, but the main reason I end up watching this again on various weekends at midnight is because I love all the actors involved.

And now I have to mention The Invasion (2007), since it was originally meant to be another sequel to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but the writers changed the story in significant ways. It stars Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig and is set Washington D.C. I think this sci-fi film has been terribly underrated. If you’re a fan of the Snatchers movies, you will probably be entertained by this suspenseful version as well.   

SWAMP THING (1982) – Directed by Wes Craven; starring Ray Wise, Adrienne Barbeau, Louis Jourdan, Reggie Batts

Based on the Vertigo/DC Comics character, Swamp Thing tells the story of a brother and sister scientist team, Drs. Alec (Wise) and Linda Holland and their discovery of a plant-based serum and a hybrid plant and animal cell. After another scientist on their team is killed, government agent Alice Cable (Barbeau) arrives to investigate. She discovers a paramilitary leader, Anton Arcane (Jourdan), is out to steal the discoveries for nefarious reasons.

During an attack, Alec is covered by the explosive plant-based serum and cells and becomes a hybrid creature. Alice sets out to help Alec with the aid of a young gas station attendant named Jude (Reggie Batts – who steals the show on more than one occasion).

What a campy delight. Lots of giggles for me, but the film has heart, too.

STARMAN (1984) – Directed by John Carpenter; starring Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith

So…you never knew that horror icon John Carpenter had directed a sci-fi romance? I was surprised, too. And I love pretty much everything about this movie – the cast and their stellar acting (pun intended), and the oddly touching storyline. (Original screenplay by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon.)

It begins in Wisconsin with the crash of a UFO (caused by the military). Jenny, a young, grieving widow (Allen), is terrified when an alien life form invades her home and uses her late husband Scott’s DNA to create a human body – identical to his – in order to survive.

It turns out the Starman (Bridges) traveled to Earth after finding the gold record on board the Voyager 2 space probe, no doubt thinking it was an invitation. But of course, the government just wants to kill him (after studying and torturing him first). So he forces Jenny to set out on a road trip to Arizona, where he expects to be rescued at the Barringer Crater. Along the way, Jenny is amazed at the magical things the alien can do. She lets go of her fear, especially when she realizes that his human body is already dying. Thanks to an understanding SETI scientist (Smith), they have help in evading government officials and the U.S. military.

Jeff Bridges was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of an alien life form stuck inside a human body. No matter how many times I watch the film, I’m always impressed by his performance. (It was even sexy in a strange kind of way.) I admit the special effects don’t hold up well, but that’s the least important thing about this story.       

TREMORS (1990) – Directed by Ron Underwood; starring Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire

How can you resist Tremors? I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen this movie. Humor and horror can go together quite well. Although the film spawned a bunch of sequels, I’ve pretty much remained faithful to the first one.

It’s just another boring day in Perfection, Nevada – an isolated desert town east of the Sierras. Handymen Val (Bacon) and Earl (Ward) decide to move on to greener pastures, but as they are leaving Perfection, they come across another resident, perched atop an electrical tower. They discover he died of dehydration. When they find the head of a sheep farmer buried in the sand, they decide a serial killer must be on the loose and they head back to town to warn the remaining citizens. Too bad the construction crew they passed didn’t heed their warnings. When Val and Earl attempt to leave again, they find the road blocked by an avalanche of boulders. And the phone lines are down.

Now the fun really begins. With the help of a seismologist named Rhonda (Carter), the pair learn that at least three giant underground snake-like creatures (later named “Graboids”) have invaded the area and are responsible for all the killings. Any movement a person makes gives away their location, making escape highly difficult. And of course this makes the film more interesting to watch – how will they outwit the monsters? I particularly enjoyed any scene featuring the survivalist couple, Burt and Heather Gummer (played admirably by Gross and McEntire), who think they are prepared for any type of danger until a Graboid crashes through their basement wall.    

Even though movie critics were kind from the beginning, Tremors barely grossed more than its $11 million budget. But it has gained a strong cult following through the years, earning an 85% “fresh” rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes.     

SPECIES (1995) – Directed by Roger Donaldson; starring Natasha Henstridge, Michael Madsen, Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker, Alfred Molina, Marg Helgenberger

This sci-fi/horror flick was met with mixed and negative reviews, but it was still a box office success, spawning three sequels.

When SETI scientists begin receiving alien transmissions sharing knowledge of how to create an endless supply of fuel, they assume the species is peaceful. They carry out instructions on how to splice alien DNA with human DNA to create a female hybrid. (Why does anyone ever think this is a good idea?)

Sil (Henstridge) looks human, but she begins to age much more rapidly than expected. She also begins to have violent fits that scare the doctors so badly they decide to destroy her with cyanide gas. But Sil is stronger and more intelligent than they imagined and she breaks out of her containment cell and escapes. She matures rapidly and finds her way to Los Angeles, where she is driven to find a mate and create more of her own kind.     

The government assembles a team to track Sil down and kill her. It’s not as easy as they expect. I appreciate a lot of the dark humor and special effects in this film, and I think Henstridge (in her debut role) does a fabulous job of playing an alien nymphomaniac.

SLITHER (2006) – Directed by James Gunn; starring Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker

Another sci-fi/horror film, and even though Slither received positive reviews, it was basically a box office bomb. But, much like Tremors, it has grown a strong cult following over the years.

A meteorite hiding an exceedingly unfriendly alien life form lands near a small town in South Carolina, and soon the parasite causes chaos by infecting the citizens, turning them into zombie-like creatures. It’s up to police chief Bill Pardy (Fillion) to come up with a plan to save humanity.  

I love Nathan Fillion in any role – especially if there’s humor involved. This felt like a tongue-in-cheek homage to several horror films of the 80s. (Although some people objected to its plot being way too similar to the 1986 film Night of the Creeps.)

COWBOYS AND ALIENS (2011) – Directed by Jon Favreau; starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine, Abigail Spencer; based on the 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg

I think this might be the only sci-fi/western movie I’ve ever seen. I was drawn to the unusual premise, and the leading men involved.

The setting is the New Mexico territory in 1873. The town of Absolution falls under attack from alien spacecraft – and an unlikely band of citizens must join forces to rescue the kidnapped townsfolk: amnesiac outlaw Jake Lonergan (Craig), wealthy cattleman Colonel Dolarhyde (Ford) and a mysterious traveler named Ella (Wilde). 

The film received mixed reviews and was a financial disappointment at the box office. I remember some of my friends complaining that the plot and premise were too ridiculous and they didn’t like the genre mash-up, but I enjoyed the movie a great deal. I always find Daniel Craig quite appealing, and I’m still a fan of Harrison Ford. The cast and special effects are superb. I won’t give any other details away, in case any skeptics who haven’t seen it decide to check it out.      

SUPER 8 (2011) – Directed by J.J. Abrams (who also wrote the screenplay); starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Riley Griffiths, Jack Mills, Ryan Lee

What makes me love this film enough to include it in my list of top five sci-fi/horror films of all time? Nostalgia – the warm, fuzzy kind of feeling I used to get watching a Stephen Spielberg film from the 80s, mixed with the suspense of a Stephen King novel like IT. I’m not saying it’s a flawless movie, but I was enthralled by this story from beginning to end. Many people agreed with me – the film was a box office success and was praised by critics for the acting performances, plot and special effects.  (The detractors complained that it was merely a sentimental homage to blockbusters of the past, but that’s one reason I liked it so much.)

The opening scene takes place in February of 1979 in the small town of Lillian, Ohio. Teenager Joe Lamb is mourning the loss of his mother. His father, Jack, a deputy sheriff, blames his wife’s alcoholic co-worker for the industrial accident that took her life. Neither Jack nor Joe know how to deal with their grief, which makes things uneasy between them.

That summer, Joe decides to help his friends make a Super 8 zombie movie to enter into a competition. Joe has a crush on the only female in their group, Alice – who happens to be the daughter of the co-worker his father hates. While they’re filming a pivotal scene by the railroad tracks, a truck deliberately crashes into a train, causing a derailment. Narrowly escaping with their lives, the teens flee the scene and swear not to talk about the experience with anyone else. But Joe realizes he’s seen something he can’t explain – a strange creature that may have escaped into the night. And it might have a connection to one of the unusual objects he stole from the accident site.

It’s not long before weird occurrences begin to happen all over town. The monster is revealed at a gradual, suspenseful pace. And then all hell breaks loose on the town of Lillian.

PAUL (2011) – Directed by Greg Mottola; starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogan, Jason Bateman, Sigourney Weaver, Kristen Wiig, Blythe Danner

This irreverent sci-fi comedy tickled all my funny bones. And I probably would have ignored the movie if I hadn’t noticed that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were its stars as well as its writers. (Because Shaun of the Dead is my favorite horror-comedy film.) The movie got mixed reviews and was moderately successful in the U.S. Some critics thought it was simply a parody of other famous science fiction films. I thought it had a clever script and the cast and acting were topnotch.

British geeks Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) travel to America to attend the annual San Diego Comic Con International. After the convention, the two hit the road in a rented RV to visit the most famous UFO hot spots in the western states. While driving one night on a lonely desert highway, they witness a car crash and stop to help. That’s how they meet Paul (Seth Rogan’s sarcastic voice), an extraterrestrial on the run from the FBI.   

For the past sixty years, Paul has been held prisoner inside the top secret Area 51 military compound. Now that he’s escaped, he needs the Brits’ help in finding a mother-ship to take him home. What follows is pure craziness as the trio (who accidentally abduct a young fundamentalist woman) try to keep ahead of several determined federal agents and the fanatical father of their kidnap victim.

Who’s up for a close encounter?

Have Yourself a Scary Little Xmas

Nov 28 20

And once again, the holiday season is upon us. Like many of you who celebrate Christmas, every year when I hear that Andy Williams song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” I always wonder about the lyrics that say, “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.” Christmas isn’t usually a time for horror tales, but there are movies and TV shows that beg to differ. I’ve decided to post an updated list of my favorites.

“And All Through the House” – Tales From the Crypt (British TV Series/1972)

The first time I saw this old episode on late night TV, I couldn’t help but be impressed. Joan Collins stars as a wife without good cheer who murders her husband with a fireplace poker on the night before Christmas. As she’s trying to dispose of the body, an escaped homicidal maniac dressed as Santa tries to break into her house. Alas, she can’t call the police because she’s just committed a dirty deed. Love it!

Black Christmas (Movie/1974)

Directed by Bob Clark and written by A. Roy Moore, this Canadian film is widely believed to be one of the earliest slasher flicks, and supposedly influenced the making of Carpenter’s Halloween.  Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and John Saxon have starring roles. A deranged killer hides out in the attic of a sorority house, stalking and murdering the sisters one by one. I liked this film a lot better than Silent Night, Deadly Night. 

Gremlins (Movie/1984)

Everyone is probably familiar with this flick. A salesman (Hoyt Axton) buys his son Billy (Zach Galligan) a magwai for Christmas. But the cute, furry little creatures have a very dark side, and if you feed them after midnight or get them wet, you will find out how much trouble they can be. Of course, Billy can’t follow the rules, and his town soon suffers the consequences. Phoebe Cates also stars as Billy’s girlfriend. (Her story about her dad’s odd, gruesome death struck me as funny, though it wasn’t meant to be.)

A Christmas Carol (TV Movie/1984)

Yeah, I know. Dickens isn’t scary, really, but there are some spooky moments in the beginning, when Ebenezer Scrooge (played by George C. Scott) is visited by his late business partner, Jacob Marley. I love this movie despite the sentimentality, and this is my favorite version out of all of them. But still, I often ask myself why I let Tiny Tim gut me like a fish every December.

“How The Ghosts Stole Christmas” – The X Files (TV Series/Season 6, Episode 6/1998)

The X Files is one of my favorite TV shows of all time. In this holiday offering, agents Mulder and Scully end up investigating a house on Christmas Eve that’s supposedly haunted by a pair of doomed lovers who killed themselves eighty-odd years before. Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin are wicked and delightful as the ghost couple, Maurice and Lyda. The two string the FBI agents along, while providing insights into Mulder and Scully’s relationship and personalities. This episode is in my top ten favorites.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Movie/2010)

This is a Finnish film, based on the premise that Santa Claus has always been evil. (Think of the early European myth of the horned Yule Goat who demanded gifts on Christmas Eve, and who worked with a sidekick called Krampus – a half-goat, half-demon creature who punished naughty children.) Trouble starts when an archaeologist digs up Santa’s old tomb. Now no one in the Finnish village is safe. This flick is a mix of horror, fantasy and comedy – definitely off-kilter.

Krampus (Movie/2015)

Written and directed by Michael Dougherty, this one seemed like a cross between Gremlins and the Finnish film A Christmas Tale. There was no gore to speak of, due to its PG-13 rating, but I did enjoy its dark humor.  (Especially from “Aunt Dorothy” – played by Conchata Ferrell. Toni Collette and Adam Scott also have leading roles.) When his dysfunctional family clashes over the holidays, young Max (Emjay Anthony) is disillusioned and turns his back on Christmas. Little does he know, this lack of festive spirit has unleashed the wrath of Krampus: a demonic force of ancient evil intent on punishing non-believers. All hell breaks loose as beloved holiday icons take on a monstrous life of their own, laying siege to the fractured family’s home and forcing them to fight for each other if they hope to survive. This film isn’t something I’d plan on watching every year, but it’s worth seeing at least once.

And there you have it. Speaking of the supernatural, if you like reading otherworldly tales, please check out my eBook release (a collection of previously published short fiction), available on Amazon and other online stores, called “The White Death and Other Ghastly Ghost Stories.” It definitely isn’t for kids!

Hope all of you have a safe and happy holiday season.

Horror Films of the 1970s

Oct 18 20

Needless to say, I watch a lot of different horror films throughout the month of October. I always include a good number of the ghost story and vampire movies that I’ve listed in previous blog posts. But I also watch psychological horror, possession and classic slasher films from the 1970s.

Here are my favorites:

THE EXORCIST (1973) – Directed by William Friedkin; based on the novel by William Peter Blatty; starring Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller and Mercedes Cambridge (the voice of the demon).

Some people argue that The Exorcist is the greatest horror movie ever made, and I’m not going to disagree with that assertion. The possessed twelve-year-old, Regan, scared and repulsed me more than any other character on the big screen. (Thank heavens I first saw it on a TV screen.) I can’t recall any other movie causing me to have such traumatic nightmares. It’s worth watching for the special effects alone.

When young Regan begins acting strangely and numerous doctors can’t find anything physically wrong with her, her worried mother reaches out to a priest for help. Father Damien soon becomes convinced that the only way to help Regan is by sanctioning an exorcism. Soon, Father Merrin arrives to do battle with the demon.

And, oh, what a battle it is…

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) – Directed by Tobe Hooper; starring Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hansen, Paul A. Partain

Sally and her paraplegic brother, Franklin, are worried when they hear a rumor that their grandfather’s grave has been desecrated. They head out on a road trip with three of their friends to investigate. But when they reach their family’s Texas homestead, they come to realize that Grandpa’s neighbors are insane cannibals – led by Leatherface, who wears a mask of human skin. The monsters are determined to include them all in their feast’s  main course.

Yeah…I’m wondering if I can actually claim to have watched this movie, since throughout most of its runtime I had my hands covering my face. I have to admit that extreme gore isn’t my thing, but I liked the IDEA of watching a movie this disturbing. (Seriously doubt it was based on “true events” – but you never know…)

THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD (1975) – Directed by J. Lee Thompson; starring Michael Sarrazin, Jennifer O’Neill, Margot Kidder

When California college professor Peter Proud starts having dreams and flashbacks about people and places he’s never known, he begins to suspect he once lived before. He tracks down that other past from the 1940s and is led to a town in Massachusetts – and the lake where his previous self was murdered.

This movie haunted me for a while after I first saw it. I would say more, but I don’t want to give away the ending.

THE OMEN (1976) – Directed by Richard Donner; starring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Harvey Spencer Stephens

Robert, an American diplomat, ends up “unofficially” adopting Damien when his wife gives birth to a stillborn infant. He keeps this secret to spare Katherine the pain. For the first few years everything is hunky-dory for the couple – they lead an idyllic life in England. But then strange, awful things begin to happen, and gradually Robert comes to realize that his son may be the Anti-Christ.

A stellar cast lured more people into cinemas to view it than were probably expected – you don’t often see lead actors like Peck doing a horror film. I love the story and the special effects are awesome.

(The creepiest kid ever… I wonder what Harvey Spencer Stephens is doing today.)

BURNT OFFERINGS (1976) – Directed by Dan Curtis; starring Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Bette Davis, Burgess Meredith

Ben and Marian Rolf decide to move into a grand Victorian summer home, where they hope to rekindle their marriage. They can’t help but wonder why the rent is so reasonable, and they soon find out that the house has a life of its own.

This is a strange movie in many ways, and I found the casting and acting to both be superb.

THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (1976) – Directed by Nicolas Gessner (Initial Release in Sweden); starring Jodie Foster, Martin Sheen, Scott Jacoby

Thirteen-year-old Rynn Jacobs lives a quiet, reclusive life in a coastal New England town. Whenever the landlady comes calling, asking to see her father, Rynn tells the nosy woman that he’s away on business. But when the landlady’s creepy son begins to pry into her life, refusing to leave her alone, Rynn enlists the aid of her teenage neighbor, Mario, to help hide her dark secret.

Even when Jodie was a kid, she always gave an excellent performance. And Martin Sheen is fantastic in his role as the highly disturbed Frank.

AUDREY ROSE (1977) – Directed by Robert Wise; starring Anthony Hopkins, Marsha Mason, John Beck, Susan Swift

Bill and Janice Templeton lead a contented life in Manhattan with their young daughter, Ivy. But things get complicated for them when a man named Elliot Hoover shows up on their doorstep. He’s just returned from a trip to India, and he tries to convince them that Ivy is the reincarnation of his own daughter, Audrey Rose, who died several years before. Hoover’s arrival causes supernatural events to wreak havoc in their lives.

I was quite young when I first saw this movie on late-night TV, and it bothered me a great deal. I don’t think another horror movie has ever made me feel that sad.

HALLOWEEN (1978) – Directed by John Carpenter; starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, P.J. Soles, Nancy Kyes, Nick Castle, Tony Moran

On Halloween night in 1963, six-year-old Michael Myers stabs his teenage sister, Judith, to death. He is committed to an institution, and fifteen years later, on Halloween Eve, he escapes and returns to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois to unleash some fresh hell. I love the soundtrack, composed by director John Carpenter.

This is the movie I always save until last – it’s a tradition for me to watch it every Halloween night and recite the dialogue (“Totally…”) while I hand out candy. And no, I haven’t seen the latest reboot. I’m sure I will before long, though.

I need to add that I quite often include “Friday the 13th” (1980), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “Jaws” (1975), “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) and “Halloween II” (1981) to my October movie marathon.

Hope everyone has a spooktacular Halloween!

Netflix Horror DVD Review: WILDLING

Sep 18 20

After watching this dark fantasy/horror movie from first-time filmmaker Fritz Bohm, I couldn’t help but think that it reinvented the werewolf story the same way that Let the Right One In reinvented the vampire tale.

Her whole life, Anna (Bel Powley) has been kept hidden away in the attic of the house she shares with a man she calls “Daddy.” Every night, Daddy (Brad Dourif) reminds her of why she can’t leave her room. There’s a wicked creature in the dark forest outside – the Wildling hides in the mist, just waiting for a chance to devour her. “His teeth are sharp…and so are his nails. He ate all the other children – you’re the last one left.”

When Anna is around twelve, Daddy begins giving her injections of “medicine” for her strange malady – he tries to delay puberty from changing her for as long as possible. It’s no wonder that by the time she reaches the age of 16, Anna has become very ill. She asks Daddy to end her suffering. After losing consciousness, Anna wakes up in a hospital in a frightening, unfamiliar world.

Ellen, a sympathetic small-town sheriff (Liv Tyler), takes Anna home to live with her. Ellen and her teenage brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) try to help Anna adjust to her strange new life…and puberty. She begins changing in so many scary ways – and curiosity and an intense attraction draws her closer to Ray.

Soon, Anna begins to realize the truth. Daddy was a wolf hunter, and she is the “monster” he had warned her about. Her new life quickly spirals out of control.

British actress Bel Powley is riveting in the role of feral, innocent Anna. She has an otherworldly, primal screen presence. One can’t help but root for Anna to survive being hunted long enough to accomplish her dream of seeing the Northern Lights.

Wildling is a worthy “fairy tale” – I give it four out of five goblins.

Guilty Pleasures: Disaster Films of the 1990s

Jul 31 20

In the recent past, I’ve talked about my top picks from the first big wave of disaster films to hit cinemas in the 1970s. Now I’m listing my favorite movies that were released during the second wave in the 90s.

ARMAGEDDON (1998) – Directed by Michael Bay; starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Billy Bob Thornton, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi

A humongous asteroid is hurtling towards Earth, and NASA is desperate to come up with a plan to stop the collision. The answer, they hope, is a team of blue-collar deep-core drillers, led by Harry Stamper (Willis). Will they be able to set off an explosion on the asteroid to divert its course?

This movie was a little hard to resist, once I saw the all-star line-up. (And I wasn’t the only one to feel that way – it was the #1 movie of 1998.) I expected all action and little to no characterization. But I was pleasantly surprised. Humor is always a great ingredient, and there were even a few genuinely touching moments in the film. The actors prove they deserve to be stars.

DANTE’S PEAK (1997) – Directed by Roger Donaldson; starring Pierce Brosnan, Linda Hamilton, Charles Hallahan, Elizabeth Hoffman

The quaint, picturesque (fictional) town of Dante’s Peak, Washington is suddenly threatened with destruction when a nearby mountain turns out to be a volcano. (I hate it when that happens!)

Dr. Harry Dalton (Brosnan) is the volcanologist who tries to warn the inhabitants, but of course, no one takes him seriously. When all hell breaks loose, he tries to help his new friend, the town’s mayor, (Hamilton) escape with her children. The special effects were (mostly) quite good and I definitely had no complaints about the actors involved.

I’m a huge fan of Brosnan’s, but I suppose the main reason I was drawn to this movie is because it likely could happen at some point in the future, affecting a populous city (unlike Mount St. Helens).

DAYLIGHT (1996) – Directed by Rob Cohen; starring Sylvester Stallone, Amy Brenneman, Viggo Mortensen, Danielle Harris

What do you get when a caravan of trucks carrying toxic waste collide with a stolen car used in a jewelry heist inside the heavily traveled Holland Tunnel? Impressive explosions – and the perfect vehicle for Sylvester Stallone to use to achieve more box office success.

Stallone is excellent in the role of Kit Latura, an ex-medical services chief turned cab driver who witnesses the collapse of the tunnel and springs into action to help the trapped victims. On the inside, among the survivors, sporting goods retailer Ray Nord (Mortensen) takes charge and tries to lead everyone to safety.

I found the movie a little exhausting to watch, there are so many ups, downs, close calls and triumphant moments. And the special effects are convincing, too.

DEEP IMPACT (1998) Directed by Mimi Leder; starring Téa Leoni, Robert Duvall, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave, Morgan Freeman, Maximilian Schell

Earth is being threatened by a comet so large it could cause a mass extinction. Scientists and governments around the world try to find a way to destroy it, and somehow prepare for the worst.

Stellar acting all the way around and a more realistic ending, with moments of genuine emotion, helped hold my attention. Most of the special effects take place towards the end, of course.

This movie didn’t fare as well at the box office as Armageddon, which was released just a few months later. However, astronomers claimed that Deep Impact was more scientifically accurate (if you care about that sort of thing).

And…Morgan Freeman as the President of the United States? I’m all for it.

INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996) Directed by Roland Emmerich; starring Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Randy Quaid

Finally! A good old-fashioned alien invasion! With fabulous special effects and a killer cast. Loved the action, the humor, the touching moments, the failures…and especially the triumphs. It was the highest-grossing film of 1996. Will Smith can do no wrong! (At least not back then.) And it doesn’t hurt my feelings that the story begins on July 2nd – my birthday.

SPEED (1994) Directed by Jan de Bont; starring Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Daniels

I liked the premise of this movie. And I don’t care what you say about Keanu Reeves, he’s one of my favorite actors.

LAPD cops Jack Traven (Reeves) and Harry Temple (Daniels) are tasked with saving the lives of civilians who are trapped on a city bus rigged to explode if the speed drops below 50 mph. Naturally, Dennis Hopper is superior in the role of bomber Howard Payne. When the bus driver is wounded, Annie Porter (Bullock) takes the wheel.

The story has a nail-biting beginning, introducing the bomber and the cop he’s obsessed with, Traven. Trapped people on a sabotaged elevator always freak me out. The suspense holds on throughout the entire movie.

TITANIC (1997) Directed by James Cameron; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Jonathan Hyde, Bill Paxton

Why do I feel the need to apologize for putting this one on the list? (Oh, right…guilty pleasure.) If you are as fascinated as I am by shipwrecks and any mention of the Titanic disaster, if you fancy doomed romances between couples from different social classes (DiCaprio and Winslet), and you adore jealous, devilishly handsome villains (Zane), then I see no reason why you wouldn’t want to watch this lengthy film at least once. And if all of that isn’t enough, the special effects showing the sinking of the Titanic are worth waiting around for.

TWISTER (1996) Directed by Jan de Bont; starring Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, Cary Elwes, Jami Gertz

The story begins in the summer of 1969 in Oklahoma. Young Jo and her family are in the direct path of an F5 tornado. The family takes refuge in the storm shelter as all hell breaks loose. In the chaos, Jo’s father is killed and the girl is traumatized.

Flash forward to the 90s and Jo (Hunt) is now a meteorologist (obsessed with tornadoes). One day her estranged husband (Paxton), who was once a weather researcher, shows up with his new sex therapist fiancée (Gertz) to get Jo to sign their divorce papers. Instead, Jo sucks him into a storm chasing adventure.

I’ve probably seen this movie more times than any of the others. I would never chase them, but I’ve always been in awe of tornadoes (having been one street over from one during a storm many years ago in Ohio).

This one has it all: crazy action and special effects, humor, romance (and a love triangle), good guys, bad guys, emotional drama and Bill Paxton (love me some Bill, and I can’t believe he’s already gone).

VOLCANO (1997) Directed by Mick Jackson; starring Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Don Cheadle, Gaby Hoffman

The fact that this film was released two months after Dante’s Peak could have something to do with its mixed reviews and lower box office draw. I had to give it a chance because I’m a fan of Tommy Lee Jones.

And the premise is different – no mountain explodes in this movie, like you’d expect. Instead, Los Angeles is struck by an earthquake that leads to a volcanic rift opening in the middle of the city, near the famous La Brea Tar Pits. Mike Roark (Jones), the head of Emergency Management, is forced to work with geologist Dr. Amy Barnes (Heche) to come up with a plan to save as much of Los Angeles as they can.

Jones is always a pleasure to watch in any role. And there are some really good performances in this film. The action and special effects are admirable, too.

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

Jun 30 20

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap – a short story by Debbie Kuhn (Free for the holiday weekend.)

Alaina’s internal clock hadn’t readjusted to L.A. time yet.  It was Friday the thirteenth, eleven p.m., and she felt wide awake and anxious, due in part to the aftereffects of dealing with a delayed flight home, followed by bone-jarring turbulence and the presence of an incessantly screaming toddler.

She had other things on her mind, too.

Her husband, Ian, had finished moving out that morning while she’d been carrying out her duties as guest speaker at the University of Chicago.  It should have felt strange coming home to a big, empty house – but Ian had rarely spent any time with her in the last five years.  Their tenth anniversary was ten days away, and he couldn’t wait to flush a decade of marriage down the toilet.

Alaina left the ultra modern kitchen with a highball in hand and walked into the airy living room, with its cocoa-colored leather furniture and brass fixtures.   She set her drink down on the glass coffee table, not bothering to use a coaster. 

Ian had always nagged her about that habit.  She had constantly complained about his smoking.   

Alaina eyed the crystal ashtray on the table with disgust.  A ton of stinking cigarette butts.  And he was a surgeon, for Christ’s sake.

She grabbed the ashtray and stalked back into the kitchen.  Just as she dumped the cigarette butts into the trash can, a cell phone started ringing.

But it wasn’t her phone, or Ian’s.  Someone had picked a Britney Spears tune as a ringtone. 

Alaina set the empty ashtray on the counter and rushed back into the living room, zeroing in on the source of the frantic pop music.  She searched around the sofa cushions and found a hot pink cell phone. 

Dr. Ian Hardisty was calling.  Imagine that.

She answered the phone with a whispered “Hi.”

“Hey, love, can you talk right now?”

Alaina’s throat tightened.  Ian never called her “love.”

“No,” she said, keeping her strained voice low.

“Fine, just listen then.  I wanted you to know I’ve kept my word.  The deed will be done tonight.”

What deed?  “Um, okay.”

“Don’t worry.  The bloke is a pro.  We’ll have to wait a little while, to be safe, but I promise we’ll be a real couple soon.”

Ian mistook Alaina’s slight gasp as a sigh of relief.

“I told you I was serious about us.  And just so you know – I’m keeping the house, since you like it so much.  It would probably be hard to sell anyway, under the circumstances.”

Alaina nearly choked.  “Shit.”

“What’s the matter?  You need to go?”

“Yes.”

“Okay – I’ll contact you again tomorrow morning.  I love you, sweetheart.”

Ian hung up without waiting for a goodbye.  Alaina stood frozen to the spot with the phone to her ear, listening to the dial tone.

“You are one lucky redhead, Professor.”

Alaina dropped the phone and whirled around with a screech.

The intruder had on black from head to toe and was holding a switchblade.  He couldn’t have been much older than twenty. 

“Don’t you be lookin’ so terrified, now,” he said, smiling. “Things might turn out better than you expect.  I’ve been havin’ second thoughts about killin’ you all week.”

An Irish brogue.  Dimples and dark curls to go with the brilliant blue eyes.  He looked familiar somehow.

Alaina swallowed hard and managed to find her voice.  “Don’t I know you?”

“Anthropology class.  First row.  My name is Seth, by the way.”

“You’re a college student, and a hitman?”

“Hmm, not exactly.  Haven’t been in school for many, many years, but I like to study my marks.  The hitman thing is kinda new – my talents are quite diverse, really.”

Alaina’s heart skipped a beat and she found it hard to breathe.

“My husband…wants me dead.”

“Well, what he really doesn’t want is to pay out for a divorce.  And he’s been seein’ a young blonde lass, too, but I think you’re far lovelier – if it makes you feel any better.” 

Alaina shook her head, then swayed on her feet.

In an instant, Seth was by her side, gripping her arm. The knife had disappeared.

 “You’re lookin’ a wee bit pale.  Sit down here and I’ll fetch us something to drink so we can finish our chat.”

He steered Alaina over to the couch and she sank onto the cushions.

“Do you happen to have any champagne?”

She stared up at him.  “No.  There’s red wine on the kitchen counter.  Vodka and gin in the liquor cabinet.”

He noticed the highball on the coffee table.  “Oh, already picked your poison, eh?  Guess I’ll pass on the drink, since there’s no champagne.  The bubbly stuff makes me giddy anyway.”

“Are you going to kill me tonight?” 

He must have heard the tremor in her voice, for his expression softened.

“Death isn’t always the end, Professor.  I’m about to change your life, whether you agree with me or not.”

Seth plopped into the overstuffed armchair across from her and crossed his legs. 

“Here are the facts: 1. I need money, 2. I’m no ordinary hitman – meaning I can offer you an option better than mortal death, 3. I don’t think you deserve to be murdered, 4. There’s a way for us both to get what we want.”

The guy was insane.  Or maybe he was high on drugs.

Seth noticed the skeptical look on her face.

“No, I’m not a madman, or an addict.”

Alaina couldn’t help but steal a glance at the hot pink cell phone lying on the carpet, almost within arm’s reach.

Seth moved so fast he was a blur.  He kicked the cell phone across the room and it shattered against the wall.

“Okay, let’s cut to the chase.  I’ll show you what I really am, and then you have to decide if you’d rather die or become like me – undead.”

Alaina’s mouth dropped open.  He sounded serious.

“Fine, then.  Prove to me you aren’t a crazy liar.”

A moment later Alaina found herself dangling in midair.  Seth had one hand around her throat, and he was baring an impressive pair of fangs.

His eyes glowed like hellfire.  “I could snap your neck like a twig, but I’d rather suck your blood.  A vamp’s gotta eat.”

Alaina wanted to scream, but couldn’t.  She had to be turning blue.

Seth suddenly released her and she dropped back onto the couch cushions, gasping.

“Anything worth having is worth waiting for, but I can’t wait much longer.  You need to make your decision now, Professor.”

Alaina burst into tears.  “But…I still can’t believe this.  I can’t believe any of this is happening.”

Seth let out a sigh.  “Do you honestly need more convincin’, woman?  I’m a bleedin’ vampire – and a hitman. Your husband is a greedy bastard, so you’ll be dying tonight one way or t’other.  Whether or not you’ll rise from the dead afterwards is up to you.”

***

On the third night after her mortal death, Alaina woke to find herself in an unfamiliar room, wearing nothing but a black satin sheet.  Blood was the first thing she thought about, thanks to the brutal hunger that twisted her insides.

Seth was sitting next to the four poster bed in a creaky rocking chair, reading an issue of Rolling Stone.  When she moved, he looked up at her and smiled.

“Sleeping Beauty awakes – and I bet she’s thirsty.”   

He tossed aside the magazine and opened the cooler at his feet.  A few seconds later Alaina grabbed the bag of blood out of his hand and tore into it like a savage.

Seth chuckled.  “Glad I didn’t forget to visit a butcher shop today.  This isn’t the good stuff, but we need to play it safe for the next couple of nights while you transition.”     

Later, Seth explained that Ian had wanted to have her cremated, so he’d had to steal her body from the morgue before it could be released to a funeral home.  By that time, Ian had seen her corpse, shed his crocodile tears, and had met Seth to hand over the “blood money.”

Alaina had been reborn in a mansion not far from her own home.  The former residents had recently been foreclosed upon and the place still had power and furnishings.

Over the next few nights, she learned quickly what myths were true and which were false.  Sunlight was indeed quite deadly, but she was relieved to find she still had a reflection. 

Feeding proved to be a tricky, messy task.  Seth took her hunting amongst the city’s undesirables and after a half a dozen tries, Alaina figured out how to stop herself in time to keep the victim from dying.  After that, “glamour,” or hypnosis, erased their memories – easy as pie.

A week passed, and she began feeling restless.

“You can’t stay in Los Angeles, Alaina,” Seth told her.  “You need to start a new life somewhere you’ve never been before, and keep movin’ around.”

“How do you feel about Florida?  Maybe I could be your partner in crime.”

He grinned.  “Ya don’t think I’m too old for ya, then?”

“Eighty is the new forty.  And you’re quite well preserved.”

Alaina thought he might kiss her, but then his cell phone started blaring AC/DC’s heavy metal classic, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.”

He grimaced.  “Time to get a new phone.  It’s your husband again, Professor.  Should I answer it this time?”

“Yes.  And keep him talking for a while.”

Alaina could easily hear Ian swearing and demanding to know what had happened to her body.

“Don’t know why you think I’d nick your wife’s corpse.  I ain’t into necrophilia.”   

Alaina slipped out of the house and melted into the darkness.  Minutes later she was standing on Ian’s back deck watching him pace up and down the family room, puffing on a cigarette.

No blonde in sight.  Too bad.

He yelped like a scalded pup when she suddenly appeared before him.  The cigarette dropped out of his mouth and landed on the Oriental rug. 

She snatched the phone out of Ian’s hand and put it to her ear, enjoying the shocked expression on his face.

“Thanks, love,” she said to Seth. “I’ll take it from here.”

Alaina tossed the phone away and bared her fangs.

“Happy anniversary, darling.”

One Last Night at Waverly Hills

May 31 20

One Last Night at Waverly Hills – a flash fiction tale by Debbie Kuhn

The sudden spray of watery blood stained the skirt of Nora’s crisp, white uniform.  She caught the glass as it fell and laid a comforting hand on her patient’s shoulder.  When the violent coughing spell had ceased, Mrs. Davidson met Nora’s sympathetic gaze with tear-filled, sunken eyes.   

“I’m so sorry, hon.” 

“No need to apologize.  I’m quite used to it.”

The fragile, middle-aged woman only had a few more weeks to live.  Nora recognized the signs. 

“What was I saying?  Oh, are you leaving Waverly to get married?”

“No,” Nora said, smiling.  “I’m transferring to a regular hospital.”

“Well, you’re young and attractive.  You should find a husband to take you away from all this suffering and death.” 

Nora didn’t bother to reply.  She covered her patient with a clean white blanket. 

“Goodnight, Mrs. Davidson.  I’ll be back to check on you soon.”

Nora’s twelve-hour shift – her last – had begun five hours earlier at 6:00 p.m.   She would take a break around midnight and run back to the dormitory to change her uniform.  Bloodstains upset her littlest patients.

The children – they were the reason she had to leave Waverly Hills Sanatorium.  She couldn’t bear to watch any more of them waste away and die from the “white death” that was tuberculosis. 

At midnight, she left the third floor nurse’s station and headed down the hallway to the elevator, her soft-soled shoes making no noise on the red and black tiles.  It was quiet now except for the occasional hiss of a radiator, or the sound of a patient coughing. 

Nora rode the elevator alone down to the first floor.  When the doors opened, a hideous screeching noise assaulted her ears.  She stepped out and looked to her left.

At the end of the dimly-lit corridor, the heavy metal door that led to the draining room was standing wide-open.  A little girl with long, black hair appeared from behind it.  She was dressed in a white hospital gown. 

Katie Hanson? 

It couldn’t be.  Eight-year-old Katie had died on the operating table two weeks before.  It had been a last-ditch effort to save the orphan’s life.  Nora had been off-duty at the time and had not had a chance to say goodbye.

No, it must be Molly, Katie’s friend.  The two had looked incredibly alike.

Nora watched in horror as the little girl entered the draining room. 

She sprinted down the hall.  No child should see what was in there, and no adult could remain unaffected by the sight.  The room was the last stop for infectious TB victims before they were carried through the death tunnel to waiting hearses. 

Nora paused in the doorway, gasping at the sight – and the overwhelming stench. 

Two bodies – one male, one female – hung upside down from metal poles.  They’d been sliced open from groin to sternum.   Little rivers of blood, mixed with other bodily fluids, snaked across the sloping, cement floor to trickle down one drain.

Nora caught a glimpse of the little girl behind one of the hanging corpses.

“Molly, honey, you should be in bed.  We can’t stay here.”

It was Katie’s voice that replied – accusatory and full of unshed tears.  “They cut me, Miss Nora.  You promised me you wouldn’t let them.”

“Katie?” 

The overhead light flickered and went out just as the metal door slammed shut behind Nora.  She screamed and threw herself against it, pummeling the unyielding surface with her small fists.

“No!  Please, let me out!”

“Don’t leave us, Miss Nora.”

Nora felt little hands tugging on the bottom of her skirt.  The pitch-dark room was filled with the sound of labored breathing.

She let out a blood-curdling shriek and fell forward as the door suddenly opened.  She shielded her eyes from the light and looked up into the stern face of a security guard.

Nora didn’t give him a chance to speak.  She brushed past him and flew down the hall to the lobby.  She leaned against one of the wooden pillars for several minutes, catching her breath, trying to think rationally. 

One last night at Waverly Hills – she’d get through it somehow.  Stress, guilt, and grief had led to that horrifying hallucination.  It was that simple.  She’d take a break and then get back to her rounds.

***

On her walk back from the dormitory, Nora noticed a light shining in Room 502.  Only mentally ill TB patients were kept up there.  They didn’t like to sleep.  She would check on them and see if someone needed a sedative.

Nora took the elevator to the fifth floor, which was essentially the rooftop.  Room 502 was isolated in the center and the open space around it was used by patients to take in the healing rays of the sun. 

She crossed the roof.  It was a chilly March night, with only a whisper of a breeze.  She fished the room key out of the pocket of her sweater.  The door was unlocked.

Nora entered cautiously and was met with silence.  All ten patients were awake, sitting on their beds.  The men and women stared at her with blank, pale faces.

Except…there should only have been nine.

Nora’s hands began to tremble as a tall, gaunt-faced woman stood and faced her. 

No.  It was Alma Hanson, Katie’s mother. But she was dead.  She’d committed suicide rather than watch her daughter die.

“You can’t leave us, Miss Nora.”

Nora whirled around, stifling a scream.  The front of Katie’s gown was soaked with blood.

“Mama knows how to make you stay.”

Nora felt an ice-cold entity invade every fiber of her being, and realized she no longer had control of her limbs. 

The spirit of Alma was inside her. It made her walk towards a darkened corner.  Nora could see a wooden chair, a white sheet draped over one of the ceiling pipes – and the noose.

She tried to scream, but couldn’t. 

The ghost forced her onto the chair and slipped the noose over her head.  Nora’s stiff, white cap tumbled to the floor.  Hot tears streamed down her face.

“Don’t worry.”  Katie looked up at her with an innocent smile.  “Mama says it’ll only hurt a little.”

Alma kicked away the chair.

Mr. Sandman, Bring Me No Dreams

Apr 30 20

Mr. Sandman, Bring Me No Dreams – a Flash Fiction tale by Debbie Kuhn

So, you wonder why I’m such a caffeine junkie, why I hate to fall asleep.

Well, it’s very simple: I’m afraid to dream.

I’m terrified of the responsibility, the painful memories, and the torturous uncertainty. Few people know the truth about me. It hurts too much to talk about it. But I’ve always liked you, and since you have nowhere else to go and nothing better to do, I’ll tell you my story.

The only time I laugh nowadays is when someone says my name: “Joy.” It just cracks me up to hear it, since I’ve been miserable for most of my life.

All the trouble started in 1977, when I was eighteen. Over Memorial Day Weekend, I tripped in the backyard and fell into our pool, hit my head and sank to the bottom. My father pulled me out in time, obviously, and I was revived – but not before I’d had an out-of-body experience. Most people see their deceased loved ones when this happens – or a beautiful, bright light that welcomes them to the other side.

Not me. No, not Joy.

I found myself standing on a path littered with piles of burning debris, surrounded by a dark, spinning tunnel that roared like an F5 tornado. Shadowy, faceless entities leapt out of the writhing walls, shrieking at me to go back – to return and fulfill my destiny.

I ran, trying to find the end of the tunnel, but I soon lost my balance and was swept into the vortex. The next thing I know, I’m in a speeding ambulance with sirens wailing.

A few weeks later, I began having dreams – premonitions, actually. It was little things at first – and I remembered them as déjà vu experiences that people routinely shrug off. But then the dreams became more vivid – and real.

My best friend wrecked her mother’s car, and I saw it all in a dream the night before. I dreamt that our neighbor backed over her new puppy with the family station wagon – and it happened the next day. I knew the northeast coast would suffer a blackout on July 13 – and on the morning of August 16, I informed my parents that the King of Rock’n’Roll was lying unconscious on his bathroom floor – and he wouldn’t recover.

You can trust me when I say that Elvis really has left the building – forever.

My older sister, Hope, was on tour that summer with her country-blues band, The Katydids. They were pretty famous by then. Hope told her drummer boyfriend, Luke, and the other members, Cass and Cindy, about my special “gift.”

Around 5:00 A.M. on September 15, I had the worst premonition I would ever experience: I saw my sister and her band perish in a fiery plane crash.

I was there with them – in the dream – strapped into a narrow seat, coughing and choking as the cabin filled with acrid, black smoke – my face wet with tears. I could hear the girls crying.

“This can’t be happening,” my sister gasped out.

The small plane took a nosedive and began spiraling towards the earth. All I could hear now was a ferocious roaring in my ears. An unseen object bashed me in the head – and then I awoke. I jumped out of bed, shaking and sweating and sobbing. The band was in Nashville, over four hours away from Atlanta – and I was counting on a phone call to save their lives.

“Calm down, sis.” Hope sounded sleepy. “I believe you. I’ll make the others listen, okay?”

“Promise me, please.”

“We won’t take our plane up today. We’ll have it checked out – is that what you want to hear?”

“Yes,” I said, sniffling.

“I love ya, kiddo.”

“You’d better.”

I went back to bed, still trembling, and lay awake until my alarm clock went off.

Around noon that day, I was having a snack in one of the cafés on college campus when the news broke. A national radio show was being broadcast over the loudspeakers. A cold paralysis gripped my body when I heard the words “plane crash.”

The rented craft, carrying a popular country music band, went down a few miles away from the Tulsa airport, its final destination. The musicians were scheduled to give a concert that evening, an event the governor of Oklahoma had planned on attending. There were no survivors.

I bit my lip until it bled. I couldn’t feel the pain. I couldn’t feel anything. They trusted me, and I never told them not to fly. I assumed it was their private plane that caught fire in the dream. If not for my warning, they would still be alive.

And that’s why I wake up screaming in the middle of the night.

BITE ME! 13 Vampire Films I Can’t Resist

Mar 31 20

You would think perhaps I’d prefer to watch zombie flicks and post-apocalyptic movies during this COVID-19 world pandemic, but no – I need a different sort of escapism to deal with the isolation of the shelter-at-home mandate. What follows is my list of 13 vampire films I highly recommend (even during normal times).

LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971) – Directed by John D. Hancock (shares writing credit with Lee Kalcheim); starring Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Mariclare Costello

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) has recently been released from a mental institution after suffering a nervous breakdown, and her husband decides she needs a change of scenery away from the hectic city. They move to a supposedly haunted country farmhouse near a remote little town, and right away Jess notices odd things about the locals, and begins to experience unusual encounters. Is it all in her mind?

At first, this movie appears to mix genres and has a surreal feel. I enjoyed the eerie moments. Viewers have to decide for themselves if Jessica lost her grip on her sanity once again, or if the monsters were real.

DRACULA (1979) – Directed by John Badham; starring Frank Langella, Sir Laurence Olivier, Donald Pleasence, Kate Nelligan

This version differs greatly from Bram Stoker’s novel. It’s 1913, and an ailing Mina Van Helsing witnesses a shipwreck off the English coast. She finds a lone survivor washed up on the shore and he is none other than Count Dracula of Transylvania, come to take possession of Carfax Manor. Soon, Mina succumbs to her illness, but with other strange symptoms. Her best friend Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is distraught and notifies Mina’s father, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Olivier), who rushes to England. In the meantime, Lucy begins to fall under the spell of the enigmatic Count.

I would say Frank Langella is one of my favorite actors to play Dracula on the big screen. He first appears on the scene like a rock star, with charm and swagger – sensual and sinister at the same time. The ending of the film is different in this version as well. It made me hope that the Count could have survived after all.

THE HUNGER (1983) – Directed by Tony Scott; starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon

This erotic horror film involves a love triangle and immortality – with a catch. John (Bowie) is the long-time lover of the beautiful vampire Miriam (Deneuve), his sire. He believes he’ll also live forever, but Miriam has kept the truth hidden. Her “offspring” will never share all of her gifts – and what awaits them is a fate worse than death. John begins to deteriorate and becomes desperate when Miriam seeks out a new companion. She finds Sarah (Sarandon), who becomes quite unhappy when she discovers the plans that Miriam has for her.

This unconventional vampire movie was panned by critics and stalled at the box office. I like it anyway, perhaps because I always believed that David Bowie could do no wrong. I also enjoyed the soundtrack quite a bit.

FRIGHT NIGHT (1985) – Directed by Tom Holland; starring William Ragsdale, Chris Sarandon, Roddy McDowall, Amanda Bearse

Don’t judge me, but I still love this movie – and for a moment I was offended when I heard they were filming a remake (I changed my mind about that – see below).

In the beginning, Charley Brewster (Ragsdale) is a horror-loving teen whose greatest concern is getting his skittish girlfriend (Bearse) to go all the way. But then he discovers that Jerry Dandridge – the handsome new neighbor who’s charmed his mother – is actually a murderous vampire (Sarandon – wasn’t he married to Susan at some point?). When his mother and his friends refuse to believe him, he tries to enlist the aid of TV’s Fright Night host and former “vampire hunter” Peter Vincent (McDowall). Of course, Vincent is also disinclined to believe Charley’s claims, and the teen realizes it’s all up to him to stop Dandridge.

The humor, the plot and the excellent cast are what make this movie fun for me. (The Evil Ed character is a fave, played with glee by Stephen Geoffreys.)

NEAR DARK (1987) – Directed by Kathryn Bigelow; starring Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton

When he falls in love with a pretty girl he meets at a bar, happy-go-lucky cowboy Caleb Colton (Pasdar) complicates his life in an unexpected way. Mae turns out to be a vampire looking for a forever companion, and she wastes no time putting the bite on Caleb. He realizes that to keep his family safe from his blood cravings, he has no choice but to join his girlfriend’s wandering band of vampires – who wreak havoc wherever they go.

I never get tired of watching this flick either. It’s worth seeing just for Bill Paxton’s performance as the evil, batshit crazy Severen.

THE LOST BOYS (1987) – Directed by Joel Schumacher; starring Jason Patric, Keifer Sutherland, Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, Jami Gertz, Dianne Wiest

After their parents are divorced, teens Michael (Patric) and Sam (Haim) move with their mother to Santa Carla, California. Michael soon falls for a beautiful, mysterious local girl named Star (Gertz), who has a dark secret, and Sam befriends the Frogs, a pair of comic-book nerds who claim their town is infested with vampires. Things get crazy when Michael goes head to head with a gang of vampires led by David (Sutherland), who has Star in bloodthirsty transition and under his thrall. Michael has to rely on Sam and the Frog Brothers to rescue both him and his girlfriend.

This flick is on my list of Top Five favorite vampire movies. It’s another one I never get tired of seeing. (And yeah, I’ll admit – I still listen to the soundtrack these days.)

BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) – Directed by Francis Ford Coppola; starring Winona Ryder, Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves

Coppola’s blood-soaked vision of a gothic romance, this version is sensuous, surreal at times, and blessed with the uniquely dichotomous performance of Gary Oldman as Vlad the Impaler. (Depending on the scene, Oldman is either sexy or repulsive.)

The setting and time period is in line with Stoker’s novel. Vlad is a 15th century Transylvanian prince who, having lost his lovely young wife to suicide, has been cursed to live forever off the blood of humans due to his loss of faith. Jonathan Harker (Reeves) is a lawyer from London who is sent to Dracula’s remote castle to handle a real estate transaction. When the Count happens to see a photo of Harker’s fiancée, Mina Murray (Ryder) – who is the spitting image of his late wife – he imprisons Harker and sets off to England to find Mina, who he believes is the reincarnation of his lost love.

In London, we are introduced to vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Hopkins), who is quite delightful. (Thank goodness he was around to lighten the mood with the film’s only intentionally humorous scenes.) And of course, Mina’s best friend, Lucy (Sadie Frost), is on hand to give an over the top performance that I rather enjoyed.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending. I think I would have preferred a more traditional one, to be honest, but I knew going in that this movie would be anything but conventional.

INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE (1994) – Directed by Neil Jordan; starring Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Kirsten Dunst, Antonio Banderas, Christian Slater

Based upon the novel by Anne Rice, who also wrote the screenplay, this gothic horror tale centers on two eighteenth century vampires, Louis de Pointe du Lac (Pitt) and his sire, Lestat de Lioncourt (Cruise). It begins in present day San Francisco with a melancholy Louis pouring his heart out to a reporter (Slater), recounting the story of his life, death and rebirth – and all the guilt and betrayals that followed.

Anne Rice fans (including me) had high expectations about this film. When it was announced that Tom Cruise had accepted the role of the blond “Brat Prince” Lestat, Anne and the majority of her readers (including me) were greatly disappointed and loudly voiced their displeasure. But when the movie was released, even the author admitted she had been wrong. Cruise did the part justice.

And wow – child actress Kirsten Dunst nailed the character of Claudia and stole nearly every scene she was in.

It’s not perfect, but I believe the film does the book justice as well – being sensual, mesmerizing, darkly humorous and frightening.

BLADE (1998) – Directed by Stephen Norrington; starring Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristopherson

I suppose you could call this a superhero horror film. It’s based on the Marvel Comics of the same name, which I have never read. The plot captured my interest right away. Blade, played by Snipes, is half-human and half-vampire, having a vampire’s strengths without any of their weaknesses. His mother was attacked by a vampire while she was pregnant with him, and Blade is out to avenge her death and rid the world of evil vamps – aided by his mentor Abraham Whistler (Kristopherson). In the meantime, one of the evil vamps, Deacon Frost, has a plan to bring about the Blood Tide – a ritual that will turn every human into a vampire.

This is one of those flicks I can’t resist watching whenever I find it on a cable channel.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) – Directed by Tomas Alfredson; starring Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson

Also on my Top Five favorites list, this Swedish horror film (with English subtitles) is unique and far superior to the American remake. Details about this character-driven story lingered on my mind for days.

Based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also wrote the screenplay, the movie held my interest from the start. Twelve-year-old Oskar feels neglected by his mother and is bullied at school. When a girl his age moves into his apartment building, who also seems to be a misfit, they quickly strike up a friendship. But her appearance in his town coincides with a series of grisly murders in the area, and Oskar comes to realize that Eli is no ordinary girl. She confesses, “I’ve been twelve for a very long time.”

FRIGHT NIGHT (Remake, 2011) – Directed by Craig Gillespie; starring Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Toni Collette, Imogen Poots

I wasn’t impressed with the idea of a remake, and the only reason I went to see the movie was to see David Tennant on the big screen (he had recently given up his role as the tenth Doctor Who, and I already missed him). I didn’t think Colin Farrell was a good casting choice, either, but I changed my mind about that. Farrell proved to be charismatic, oozing a menacing sort of sex appeal. (And I loved the cameo by Chris Sarandon – the original Jerry Dandridge.)

Anton Yelchin is excellent and adorable as Charley Brewster (but not as adorable as he is playing Chekov in the new Star Trek franchise). I still can’t believe a freak accident took him away from us at such a young age.

And Tennant didn’t disappoint me in his role as Peter Vincent. A little over the top at times, but the movie didn’t suffer for it. Besides, the remake is set in Sin City. Everything is over the top in Las Vegas.

I thought the screenwriter, Marti Noxon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, did an awesome job of blending the old version with the new.

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013) – Directed by Jim Jarmusch; starring Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin

As it begins, Adam and Eve (Hiddleston and Swinton) – two vampires who’ve been married for centuries – are now living on opposite sides of the planet. Adam, who lives in a Victorian home in Detroit, is a famous musician who fears exposure and is becoming more and more reclusive. Eve is hanging out in Tangier. They both fear contaminated human blood in the twenty-first century, and so must rely on other ways to obtain their food.

Adam becomes so despondent that he contemplates suicide, and has his devoted fan, Ian (Yelchin), procure a wooden bullet for him. When Eve realizes how depressed he’s become, she comes to Detroit to comfort him, and they resume their relationship. But the unexpected arrival of Eve’s younger, out-of-control sister Ava (Wasikowska) causes their lives to become far more  dangerously complicated.

A little artsy and off-beat, I enjoyed it because it was much different than I expected – and I’m a huge Hiddleston fan (Team Loki!).

30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007) – Directed by David Slade; starring Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster

Based on the horror comic book miniseries by Steve Niles, this vampire flick has a clever premise and is quite suspenseful. I can’t say if it stays faithful to Niles’ series, not having read those three issues, but I enjoyed the hell out of it.

As Barrow, Alaska enters into a 30-day long polar night, the town is besieged by a nomadic gang of vampires. The local sheriff (Hartnett), who has been distracted by the break up with his wife (George), must figure out how to stop them.

There is nothing romantic or noble about these blood-thirsty monsters. Humans are merely prey to them and they take great joy in playing with their food. If you’re the squeamish sort, this movie isn’t for you.

GOT GHOSTS? 13 Films I Love the Most

Feb 29 20

No matter the time of year, I’m always up for a good ghost story (books or movies). I’ve loved them since I was a small child, when my grandmother would entertain me with “real tales” of terror during her visits.

Below is a list of my favorite ghost story films of the last century. (I’ve managed to narrow it down to thirteen, oldest to newest.)

Here they are:

THE UNINVITED (1944) – Directed by Lewis Allen; based on the 1941 novel by Dorothy Macardle; starring Ray Milland, Gail Russell, Ruth Hussey

This black and white movie was based on Dorothy Macardle’s novel, and tells the story of a composer and his sister who fall in love with a beautiful English seacoast mansion called Windward House. They soon find out why it sold for such a reasonable price: the house and the cliff side property are haunted by two entities – one benevolent, one malignant. Eventually they discover the truth about the long ago tragedy involving a love triangle that ended badly for all concerned. (But…when do love triangles ever have a happy ending?) I like the fact that there’s more than one decent plot twist in this old-fashioned story, and some genuinely eerie moments to enjoy.

THE HAUNTING (1963) – Directed by Robert Wise; based on the 1959 horror novel by Shirley Jackson; starring Julie Harris, Richard Johnson and Claire Bloom

Based on the excellent novel by Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House – this creepy black and white film is about a team of paranormal investigators who decide to “conquer” Hill House, infamous for its lurid past of violent deaths and insanity. Unlike the book, which Jackson considered to be purely supernatural, the screenwriter decided to also turn it into a psychological horror flick, playing up the vulnerable female character’s mental instability.  Needless to say, all hell breaks loose on the team and the consequences are disastrous.

THE SHINING (1980) – Directed by Stanley Kubrick; based on the 1977 horror novel by Stephen King; starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers

Stephen King made it known that he hated this movie version, unfaithful to his novel of the same name, and he eventually had it turned into a TV mini-series (1997), which he approved. He thought Jack’s performance was over the top, and he disliked Shelley’s wimpish portrayal of her character. Oh, well. It’s scary fun, in my opinion (although I also liked the TV version). You probably already know this story well: A couple, John (“Jack”) and Wendy Torrance, and their young, psychic son, move to an isolated hotel (The Overlook) in the Rockies, where they must spend the entire winter. The alcoholic dad has the job of caretaker, and he soon falls under the influence of the evil entities haunting the huge place. I love the twin girls – and the “lady” in the tub. The scene where the young, psychic Danny encounters her in Room 217 gives me chills to this day.

THE CHANGELING (1980) – Directed by Peter Medak; starring George C. Scott, Melvyn Douglas, Trish Van Devere

Classical composer John Russell relocates from NYC to Seattle, trying to get over the sudden death of his wife and young daughter in a car accident. His new friend, Claire, talks him into renting a monstrously huge mansion, and it doesn’t take long for John to realize he’s not alone in the house. To quote writer M.R. James, I felt “pleasantly uncomfortable” pretty much all the way through this film. I also felt moved to tears on occasion, not just from the grief displayed by John due to the loss of his family, but by the terrible secret he uncovers about the child entity that haunts the mansion. Spooky stuff. (Incidentally, the screenplay is based upon events that writer Russell Hunter claimed he experienced while he was living in the Henry Treat Rogers mansion in the Cheesman Park neighborhood of Denver, Colorado in the late 1960s.)

GHOST STORY (1981) – Directed by John Irvin; based on the 1979 horror novel by Peter Straub; starring Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Melvyn Douglas, Alice Krige

Four elderly, successful gentlemen (Ricky, Ed, John, Sears) have a private club they call “The Chowder Society” – they meet every week to tell horror stories. For fifty years, they’ve also shared a horrible secret. When they were young, they were all in love with a beautiful, mysterious woman named Alma. A tragedy unfolded, and now they must pay the price. Alma: “I will show you things you’ve never seen, take you places you’ve never been. And I will see the life run out of you.”

POLTERGEIST (1982) – Directed by Tobe Hooper and written by Steven Spielberg; starring Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke

I never get tired of this one. A subdivision was built over top of a cemetery, and the unscrupulous businessmen didn’t bother to move the bodies. Tsk, tsk. The Freelings must be punished first, apparently, and things really get serious when their young daughter is “ghost-napped.” Good scares (I really hate clowns), and I also appreciate the humor throughout the flick. “They’re heeeee-re.”

LADY IN WHITE (1988) – Directed and written by Frank LaLoggia; starring Lukas Haas, Len Cariou, Alex Rocco, Katherine Helmond

The first time I watched this movie, I was haunted by it for days afterward. Horror writer Frank Scarlatti returns to his hometown and remembers the extraordinary events that occurred when he was nine years old in the fall of 1962. It all starts when Frankie is locked in his school’s cloakroom after hours on Halloween night by bullies. He sees the apparition of a little red-haired girl as she’s attacked. Later that night, the masked man who attacked her shows up looking for something in the cloakroom and tries to get rid of Frankie by choking him, but he’s interrupted and flees. The janitor is wrongfully accused. Frankie soon learns there have been eleven children attacked in the area by a mysterious killer. The little red-haired girl, Melissa Montgomery, was the first, and her grief-stricken mother (the Lady in White) jumped off the cliff where her body was found. Frankie knows the spirit of Melissa will lead him to the truth.

THE OTHERS (2001) – Directed by Alejandro Amenabar; based on the 1898 horror novella by Henry James; starring Nicole Kidman, Chris Eccleston, Fionnula Flanagan

Inspired by Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw, this movie entertained me all the way through and was genuinely creepy and intriguing. A devout Catholic woman, Grace, lives with her two young children on an isolated estate located on the Isle of Jersey. WWII has just ended and Grace is waiting on the return of her husband, Charles. She’s under a lot of stress – she’s lonely and must take care of her son Nick and her daughter Anna, who are both severely allergic to the sun. With the arrival of three servants (Bertha, Ed and Lydia), she thinks things will get better, but mysterious things begin to happen right away. Grace thinks the house is haunted, or perhaps she is going insane. I definitely won’t give away the big twist at the end.

THE GRUDGE (2004) – Directed by Takashi Shimizu; starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Will Mapother, Bill Pullman

This movie is a remake of the Japanese film, Ju-On, which is also worth seeing. Until this flick was released, I hadn’t seen a lot of Japanese-inspired horror. I was completely creeped out by the look and feel of the ghosts and the jerky camera-work. Lots of eerie moments and there were many scenes that had me jumping in my seat. Set in Tokyo, the story is about an exchange student named Karen who is studying to be a social worker. She offers to take over for a nurse who didn’t show up for work, and proceeds to care for an elderly woman in a house that turns out to be haunted. And wow – is it ever haunted! (What did I say earlier about love triangles and tragedy and revenge?) In this case, the grudge is also a curse that passes on to different people. I enjoyed it – and not just because I have a girlie crush on Sarah Michelle Gellar.

THE MARSH (2006) – Directed by Jordan Barker; starring Gabrielle Anwar, Forest Whitaker

Claire Holloway is a stressed out children’s writer who’s afraid she’s about to have a mental breakdown. She decides to take a vacation in the country, and when she notices an ad for Rose Marsh Farm, which strongly resembles the place she’s been seeing in her nightmares, she feels compelled to visit the property. Claire almost immediately senses something amiss with the old house, and when she begins seeing the troubled spirits of a little girl and a teenage boy around the nearby marsh, she contacts a paranormal expert to help her solve the mystery.

THE ORPHANAGE (2007 – Spanish, with English subtitles) – Directed by J.A. Bayona; starring Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep

Made in Spain (El Orfanato), this movie not only creeped me out, the ending moved me to tears. It was so much better than I was expecting, mixing chills with a compelling plot. Laura, a former orphan, buys the old orphanage where she once lived for a while as a child, planning to turn it into a facility for disabled kids. She brings her husband and young adopted son, Simon, there, and soon Simon tells her he has made friends with the spirits of five children who are trapped there. The ghost children tell Simon that he is adopted and that he will die soon. Not long after that, Simon disappears. Laura is determined to find her son and unravel the terrible secret that has been hidden at the orphanage for thirty years.

INSIDIOUS (2011) – Directed by James Wan; starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins

I was a little upset by the ending when I first saw this movie, since I didn’t realize James Wan planned to continue the story with several sequels. I liked the original anyway, however, since it had many spooky moments that made me squirm in my seat. Renai and Josh Lambert move into their dream house with their sons, Dalton and Foster, and their baby daughter. One morning they find Dalton in a comatose state, and realize he’s become a vessel for the ghosts who reside in an astral dimension. Apparently, Dalton has inherited his father’s ability to astral project during sleep. Only this time, the boy has become stranded in the astral plane known as “The Further.” Dalton is guarded by a red-faced demon, and many other tormented souls who are determined to escape – including the “shadow woman” who once haunted his father.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012) – directed by James Watkins; based on the 1983 Gothic novel by Susan Hill; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds

Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is a widowed barrister striving to make ends meet and raise his young son. Still grieving the loss of his wife, he agrees to leave London and travel to a remote village to put a recently deceased client’s affairs in order. Her estate is located on a small island and Kipps must travel to and from the village, on occasion being cut off by the rising tides and left alone and isolated.

Strange tragedies begin to occur, and it becomes clear that everyone is hiding a terrible secret from him. Kipps is told that the client’s decaying mansion is haunted by the spirit of a woman who suffered a great loss and betrayal – and no one, not even the children, will escape her wrath.

Many goosebump-inducing moments. This one would make my Top 5 favorites list. And so would the book.