Saturday, February 11, 2006

Frightfest 2002

Frightfest 2002 took place, like the year before, not in the current home theater basement, but in the living room of our first house. The basement cinema didn’t come into being until 2004.

I still have some of the program stuff on disc, allowing me to consult the archives as I write this for… ahem… posterity.

But, for the life of me I can’t remember what foodstuffs we had for 2002, or clearly remember who attended outside of the core gang… I do believe that this may have been the inaugural year for visitors to attend in Halloween costumes – but I can’t remember who was wearing what. Doh.


The movie lineup was chosen from seminal films from the genre that, believe it or not, a good portion of our audience had not seen. These included the original Texas Chainsaw Masscare, Re-Animator, and The Return of the Living Dead, the later two having just been recently released to DVD.

This was also before the purchase of a DVD burner allowed me to rip movies to disc and build my own program; at this point I created two Video CDs to swap out before and after the movies once the lights dimmed.

We began with a trailer reel to set the mood, featuring Evil Dead, Creepshow, Hellraiser, Maniac, Re-Animator (“If you have a weak heart…” TV spot), Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, Jeepers Creepers, Return of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salem’s Lot (1979), Zombie, The Beyond, The Thing, Martin and Suspiria.

It had been announced that Jerry Bruckheimer’s protégé Michael Bay, fresh off of Pearl Harbor, was planning to remake The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, an idea that was somewhat akin to Gus Van Sant’s boneheaded decision to remake Psycho in 1998. Why Hollywood has to remake classic horror films is beyond me; if it were up to me, I’d remake something that wasn’t done well to begin with, and left room for improvement (such as The Amityville Horror – but unfortunately, instead of going back to the truly frightening book, they botched that one as well).

Knowing that within a year of Frightfest a new Texas Chainsaw was going to be lighting up the nation’s silver screens; it seemed blasphemous to allow virgin eyes to go into it without experiencing the raw power of the original.

Much has been written about the film since its debut in 1974 - how the inspiration came to director Tobe Hooper during a visit to Sears, caught in a holiday rush, looking up at a rack of chainsaws and having an epiphany on the fastest way through the crowd; how the film is based on Wisconsin psychopath Ed Gein, and not any incident in Texas; how the film was financed by Bryanston, a corporation formed by the mob using profits from Deep Throat, resulting in legal entanglements regarding salaries and residuals for years; and more. But what is undeniable is the film’s power:

Pre-“Night Court” John Laroquette reads the opening crawl in ominous voice over, informing us “The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her invalid brother, Franklin… The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”



On a hot day in 1974, following a radio report of graves being unearthed at a cemetery in eastern Texas, a van full of young people ventures out to check on the final resting place of their parents, to make sure it remains undisturbed.

After visiting the graveyard and finding the family graves intact, wheelchair-bound & chronic complainer Franklin (Paul Partain) suggests a summer drive out to the old Hardesty family homestead nearby. En route, they spot a hitchhiker (Ed O’Neil) and pick him up.

This is a decision they immediately regret. As one of the craziest characters in movie history, O’Neil creates an uncomfortable air of tension, offering to take pictures of the van’s occupants, then demanding payment; detailing how he used sledgehammers to kill cattle during his days employed at the slaughterhouse; and finally cutting himself with Franklin’s knife.

The group forces the crazy bastard out of the van and continues on to their destination. A subsequent encounter with a gas station attendant (Jim Siedow) seems to suggest the heat is making everyone in Texas a bit loopy. Suffering from a gas shortage, but making a mean bar-b-que, the fellow sends them on their way - warning them not to go poking their noses in where they shouldn’t.

This advice goes unheeded, and once arriving at the old, dilapidated and abandoned farmhouse, Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn) walk over to the neighbors in search of gas. Finding no one home, but drawn inside by odd noises, Kirk ventures into the house… and in one of the great shock moments in movie history, is hammered to death by a large man wearing an apron and a mask made out of human skin.

Pam follows shortly thereafter and discovers a room full of furniture made from rotting bones. Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) appears, drags her into the kitchen, and impales her on a meat hook, where she is forced to watch him use a chainsaw to carve up Kirk’s body.

The intensity of these scenes carries such a raw, visceral power it feels almost as though the violence has been inflicted upon us. Some of this can be attributed to the gritty photography that gives the film a sense of realism that can only be compared to the feel of a documentary or home movie. The fact that none of the main cast went on to do anything significantly visible since only enhances the snuff movie vibe.

It’s remarkable also just how much is achieved without actually showing any real blood and gore. The title of the film alone conjures nasty expectations before the movie even begins.

One by one, the remaining kids wander over to the farmhouse next door and disappear. As night falls, and with their shouted calls unanswered, Sally and Franklin go in search of their missing friends, and encounter the chainsaw wielding killer in the woods. Sally, helpless as Franklin is disemboweled before her, runs for her life with the lumbering Leatherface hot on her heels, the sound of the revving chainsaw filling the soundtrack.

Reaching the gas station, she finds brief refuge, until the attendant (called The Old Man in the credits, and Cook in the sequel) suddenly attacks and subdues her. After packing her in a burlap sack and loading her in his pickup truck, he stops and gathers up the crazed Hitchhiker and together they head back to the family homestead.

A surreal dinner table scene follows; as the family sits down to eat what we can only assume is bar-b-que made from the other travelers, the Cook and the Hitchhiker bicker and take turns taunting Sally, who’s bound and gagged at the head of the table. Leatherface brings down “Grandpa”, a desiccated corpse, who in another shocking scene is revitalized after sucking blood from Sally’s cut finger.

Since Grandpa was the “killer of killers” back in his days at the slaughterhouse, they give him the “honor” of attempting to brain Sally with a mallet, as the others hold her head down over a metal pail. She wriggles free and out into the dawn, where she flags down a trucker and escapes, leaving Leatherface swinging his chainsaw in a furious rage.

For my money, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still the best horror movie ever made. I saw it for the first time in my teens, in broad daylight and found myself riveted to the screen. Critic Rex Reed once summed it up by proclaiming that the “film is absolutely ruthless in its attempt to drive you right out of your mind”, creating one of the most vivid depictions of madness ever put on screen.

Director Tobe Hooper never matched the promise of his breakout hit; he found initial success directing a pretty creepy adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot for TV, and was chosen by Steven Spielberg to helm the special effects ghost story Poltergeist. Since then, he’s faded further and further into the fringes of filmmaking, partly because of his own desire to venture outside the horror genre. One notable attempt is the underrated sci-fi epic Lifeforce. A recent remake of Toolbox Murders, which had some success on the festival circuit, marks a return to the horror genre, followed up by the feature Mortuary and the Dance of the Dead episode of "Masters of Horror".

In 1986, as part of a three picture deal with Cannon films, he directed a sequel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which amplified the absurdist comedy with mixed results. Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 (written by genre vet David J. Schow), and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (starring Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger!) followed.

As stated above, the Michael Bay produced remake came to fruition in 2003 featuring a cast of pretty faces top-lined by Jessica Biel (of TV's "7th Heaven"). The film shares a number of problems as the same production company’s remake of The Amityville Horror, including a strange lack of forward momentum (until the admittedly bravura final 20 minutes or so), characters with distinctly modern attitudes for a story set in the 70's, and an assumption that the more disgusting a character, the more frightening he will be. The film was a box office smash and guaranteed a sequel, titled Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.

Following Texas Chainsaw: the Texas Chainsaw trivia game! This year I got an idea to print out answer cards for the trivia game, duplicating the look of Scantron sheets.

Subsequent to this, while our guests got up for a bathroom break, to get snacks or to step out for a smoke, I ran a couple of short films I’d found while poking around on the ‘Net: Creep, directed by Derek Frey and Aaron Tankenson; Freakshow, starring Alice Cooper, directed by Marcus Wagner; a flash animation called Full Moon Safari by Ben Hibon; and the first episode of Marco Bertolodo’s CGI zombie series, Gone Bad.

Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator burst onto the scene in 1985 to much fanfare from the horror community; I can remember the TV spots which showed no scenes from the film, but instead a text crawl warning those with heart conditions and the like to stay away from the movie, they just wouldn’t be able to take it.


Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) is a medical student dabbling in the furthest reaches of science where scientific knowledge and the occult intertwine. After a disastrous incident in Germany, West arrives at the Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts. He rents a room from Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), much to the chagrin of Cain’s girlfriend, Meg Halsey (Barbara Crampton) – the dean’s daughter. Meg pegs West right away as a weirdo, and soon he’s discovered with the corpse of Meg’s pet cat Rufus in his dorm fridge (the cat having been discovered dead after getting it’s head stuck in a jar).

Cain returns one night to the sound of strange howls coming from West’s makeshift laboratory in the basement. Going downstairs to investigate, he finds West under attack from a re-animated and clearly agitated Rufus. Together, they kill the cat for the second time. In answer to Cain’s bewilderment, West claims to have discovered a chemical serum - a neon-green liquid re-agent – that when injected into dead tissue brings it back to life. West enlists Cain, as a valued student at the university, to help him with his experiments on human subjects.

The two sneak into the morgue to conduct a test on a fresh cadaver. The experiment works too well – the re-animated corpse comes back with the strength of ten men, overpowering both Cain and West, and murdering Dean Halsey who happens upon the scene. After using a bone saw to subdue the marauding ghoul, West works quickly to inject Halsey with the re-agent, returning him to some semblance of life.

Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), already antagonized by West’s presence at the school (due to issues involving Hill’s plagiarism), treats Halsey in order to gain the confidence of Meg, for whom he harbors lustful desires. In doing so, he discovers the truth of Halsey’s undead condition, and attempts to blackmail West for the secret of the serum.

In a fit of anger, West kills the would-be thief, cracking him over the head with a shovel and then using it to separate his head from his body. He then takes the opportunity to inject both Dr. Hill’s head and body with the re-agent, to see its effect on individual parts. This immediately proves unwise as both parts of Hill's body come back hungry for revenge. West is rendered unconscious, and his re-agent serum and all notes are stolen.

Using a combination of frontal lobe lobotomy and hypnotic suggestion, Hill commands the zombified Halsey to abduct Meg, nearly killing Cain in the process

Meg awakens naked, strapped to a gurney spread eagle, with the lustful severed head of Dr. Hill about to… uh… give her head in one of the most memorable and outrageous scenes from the whole horror genre. Cain and West arrive in the nick of time, but find themselves outnumbered – Hill has used his method of controlling the re-animated dead to create an army of the bodies in the hospital morgue.

West counters by injecting Hill with an overdose of the re-agent, and in the ensuing madness he is pulled limb from limb by the masterless zombies. Meg is killed, and Cain hurriedly takes her body up to the ER for resuscitation, but it is too late. The film ends with a tearful Cain administering a shot of re-agent as the screen fades to black. Then... a piercing scream.

What makes Re-Animator work is its go-for-broke zeal. It knows that it has to prove itself to its audience, and it does so by shoveling on the gore and gallows humor. There aren’t many movies that can do the body-carrying-around-its-own-severed head shtick - or even claim to – but Re-Animator updates the mad scientist subgenre with enough energy and sense of fun to hold us over for a long time.

The film was produced by Charles Band, the head of Full Moon Pictures (then Empire Pictures), who's been churning out direct-to-video fodder for years, such as the Puppetmaster, Subspecies and Trancers series. At that point in time, he had purchased Dino DeLaurentiis' Cinecittia studios in Rome and was shooting all of his productions there. The score, by Charles' brother Richard, is no more a homage to the famous Psycho score by Bernard Herrman than a direct lift. It's an electronic version, with some of the notes seemingly turned upside down, and its very being underscores the audaciousness of the entire on screen effort.

Author H.P. Lovecraft’s works are notoriously difficult to translate to the screen; Gordon’s attempt is considered to be one of the best, even though it strays far and wide from Lovecraft’s original short story, Herbert West, Re-Animator. The director would also adapt From Beyond, Dagon (based primarily upon The Shadow Over Innsmouth), and Dreams in the Witch House (for the “Masters of Horror” series).

Combs played West twice more, in Bride of Re-Animator and the long delayed Beyond Re-Animator (a third sequel, House of Re-Animator, has been rumored for a long while). Aside from appearing in Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners, and a brief bit in the remake of House on Haunted Hill, Combs is most recognizable for turning up in multiple roles - both key and walk on – under heavy makeup on the Star Trek series "Deep Space Nine", "Voyager" and "Enterprise". Former “Days of Our Lives” actress Crampton went on to work with Gordon on his next couple of movies, including From Beyond, Castle Freak and Space Truckers.

After the Re-Animator trivia game, we ran more spooky CGI shorts, including the second episode of Gone Bad; The House on Dame Street by Ruari Robinson; It’s Alive by Paul George / Terry Ziegelman; and Voodoorama from the German Film School.

This year we decided to cut back the number of movies in the marathon from four to three, as that was the general consensus among attendees as to what constituted their maximum attention span.

So, we wrapped things up with our final feature, Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead, also from 1985.

What if George A. Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead was inspired by true events, albeit heavily modified due to the government’s efforts to suppress the information? What if the incident depicted in the movie was the result of a spill of a top secret chemical? And what if the Army clean up crew accidentally shipped containers of contaminated corpses to a medical supply facility in Louisville, Kentucky?

That’s what Freddy (Thom Matthews), the newest employee at the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse, is about to discover thanks to Frank (James Karen). Frank takes him down to the basement, where sure enough, under the stairs are canisters of once supposedly reanimated bodies. When Freddy asks if they’re safe being that close to the containers, Frank confidently slaps one – breaking the seal and spraying them both with a cloud of the Trioxin gas.

Thus begins The Return of the Living Dead, a horror film made by horror fans for horror fans. With its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, ROTLD introduces us to two sets of people who will both converge on a cemetery and its surrounding grounds as the situation there spirals rapidly out of control.

The first group is Freddy’s punk rock friends, hopelessly dating the movie squarely in the middle of the 80’s with their mohawks and proto-Goth/punk fashions. What a straight arrow like Freddy - and his stepped-right-out-of-a-50's-timewarp girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph) - is doing hanging around with a group that includes a leather-n-chains rebel named Suicide is anyone’s guess. While waiting for Freddy to get off from his new job, the kids decide to hang out next door in the cemetery, where 80’s scream queen Linnea Quigley does a strip tease on top of one of the crypts.

Back at the warehouse, Frank and Freddy discover that the Trioxin vapors have gotten into the air ducts, bringing pinned butterflies, split dogs and an angry cadaver back to life. To contain matters, they call the boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), and together they discover that the method for killing zombies advertised in Night of the Living Dead, separating the brain from the body, doesn’t work here.

Instead, they hack it into small pieces and take it to Ernie Kaltenbrunner (Don Calfa) at the mortuary next door. Yep, you heard it right, Burt and Ernie – just like "Sesame Street". Writer/director Dan O’Bannon’s wit is on full display here, introducing the Teutonic Ernie listening to the Nazi anthem “Panzer Rollen in Afrika Vor” on his headphones before showing his guests the way to the crematorium; the obvious pun in the Uneeda Medical Supply; an eye chart in Burt’s office that decodes to “Burt is a slave driver”; the graveyard the zombies come from is called the “Resurrection Cemetery”; etc.

Ernie agrees to burn the body, but doing so releases the Trioxin gas into the atmosphere, where it forms a storm cloud that pours acid rain down on the cemetery. The contaminated water soaks into the ground, and soon the living dead are on the move, clawing their way out of the earth - to the horror of the partying punks.

The group splits up – some seeking refuge in the warehouse, others teaming up with Burt, Ernie and the increasingly ill Frank and Freddy in the mortuary. Paramedics are called to deal with the sick twosome, but have trouble finding vital signs. Going out to the ambulance for more supplies, they are attacked by a horde of the living dead, who are surprisingly articulate: not only can they call out for “brains!”, but one manages to get on the CB radio and call for more paramedics!

As things get progressively worse and worse toward the climax, a palpable apocalyptic vibe sets in. The police arrive but are overwhelmed by a growing legion of undead. A barricade perimeter is set up. Escape from inside seems impossible. Frank and Freddy become full fledged zombies: Frank takes his own life in the crematory; Freddy pursues Tina, whom Ernie takes with him up into the safety of the attic crawlspace.

Burt and Spider (Miguel Nunez), the most resourceful of the punks, call the trouble number printed on the side of the original cans in the warehouse basement. They are connected to an Army general who has been planning for this scenario for years. Miles away, a nuclear warhead is loaded into a cannon and fired into Louisville, burning out the infection in a mushroom cloud.

O’Bannon, as writer/director, and conceptual designer Bill Stout hit the ball out of the park with this film, a perfect mix of creeping horror, gory violence, oddball humor, and a production design that looks like an E.C. comic brought to life. The zombies break the mold of the Romero ghoul - these can run, talk, hunger for brains instead of flesh, and refuse to die even after you shoot 'em in the head.

The soundtrack has become something of a cult item over the years, with songs by punk headliners like The Cramps and Roky Erickson, and featuring SSQ (who’s lead singer would go solo as Stacey Q a few years later), Love Under Will, 45 Grave, The Jet Black Berries, etc.

The film was based on a script by original Night of the Living Dead co-writer John Russo, and was going to be put into production and filmed in 3-D in 1983-84 as part of the 3-D resurgence that produced Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3D, Jaws 3-D and Amityville 3-D, and would have been directed by Tobe Hooper! O’Bannon was known primarily as a writer at the time, having drafted the screenplays to Alien, Dead & Buried and Blue Thunder, and once brought on board for his directorial debut re-wrote the script to both take it further away from the rules of the genre established in Romero’s film, and to add it’s spoofy, comedic angle. O’Bannon has only directed one film since, 1992’s flawed (but worth a look) H.P. Lovecraft adaptation The Resurrected (based on The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward). He continued to have screenplays produced, including Tobe Hooper’s Invaders From Mars & Lifeforce, Total Recall and Screamers.

Linnea Quigley got her scream queen credentials for appearing naked and then dying in both this and Silent Night Deadly Night (1984). She has since become a staple of Fangoria conventions and is still appearing in direct-to-video schlock to this day (although the best title on her resume has got to be Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama). Thom Matthews took the lead as one of the few male characters to take on Jason Voorhees and survive in Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI, and has since had supporting roles in three George Clooney vehicles: an episode of "E.R", The Peacemaker, and the live-TV version of Fail Safe. Miguel Nunez appeared in Friday the 13th Part V – The New Beginning the same year, and has gone on to a successful acting career counting at least 61 roles to date. His genre credits include Leprechaun 4: In Space in 1997 and Scooby Doo in 2001.

This wrapped up the 3 movie marathon quite nicely. The energy level was dispersed well over the course of the three films, with the hard horror coming first when everyone’s wide awake, the featured attraction slotted in the middle, and the high energy finale to see you through to the end.

We followed this up with the Return of the Living Dead trivia game, then awarded the prizes – but for the life of me I can’t remember what they were.

As we did the year before, we handed out the Frightfest compilation disc as a consolation prize. The track list for 2002’s giveaway CD is as follows:

Halloween Hootennany – Zacherly the Cool Ghoul
I’m Your Boogeyman – White Zombie
Pet Sematary – The Ramones
Burn the Flames – Roky Erickson
Suspiria – Daemonia
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven – read by Christopher Walken
Tonight (We’ll Make Love Till We Die) – SSQ
I Love the Dead – Alice Cooper
Zombie – G.W.A.R.
Bela Lugosi’s Dead – Bauhaus
Bodaciea – Enya
Gail – Alice Cooper
Edgar Allan Poe’s Ulalume – read by Jeff Buckley
House of 1000 Corpses – Rob Zombie
Tales from the Crypt – Danny Elfman
Chilling Sounds of the Haunted House

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