Sunday, July 31, 2011

DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK: Deliciously Outrageous!

My wife Sue is now a regular columnist for FANGORIA, writing “Furious Femmes” every month, a column about women who make horror movies.  And of course Sue has been interviewing many of the women filmmakers and getting copies of their movies.   

Vancouver twins Jen and Sylvia Soska have made their debuting feature DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK and it is total bliss cinema.  This film reminds me a great deal of the early, gonzo John Waters productions (during his PINK FLAMINGOS and FEMALE TROUBLE period), except the Soska film has better acting.  Every character is a stereotype (called Junkie, Geek, Badass, Goody Two Shoes) and the performances are either gritty/tough or wistful/tender, but every performance seems committed and real.  We believe in these rejects and ultimately come to care about them, as difficult as that may seem.  In this production, everyone rolls up his or her sleeves and pitches in.  Jen and Sylvia Soska star, write and direct and many of the other cast members (particularly C.J. Wallis) perform multiple duties.  And they all do wonderful jobs.

What I like is that this is a movie that could only have been made by young artists.  And I say this not because most of the cast is young, the action occurring at punk rock clubs and places where young folks frequent, and the musical score consists of buzz-sawing metal and punk rock.  Old farts could film young performers at a club and use a blaring rock score.  That’s not the point. But the film is filled to the brim with youthful enthusiasm, brashness, audacity and the Soska sisters do stuff that might seem silly or illogical in the hands of more seasoned professionals.  But they pull it off!  And who but the young would put themselves so far out there!

For instance, what mainstream or even cookie-cutter B production today would include the following sequence of events?  Geek (Jen Soska) is attacked from behind, pushed forward hard which knocks one of her eyes from the socket.  Her attacker bends down over her to make sure the eye is gone (it lies in a bloody heap to her side).  Geek picks herself up and holds her hand over her eye socket as blood flows down her hand and arm.  Soon she is declaring to her friends, calmly, all she needs are a few supplies, including two pieces of crisscrossing black tape to cover her eye socket, to fix her up.  In another sequence Junkie, who is nursing a slashed arm from a recent attack, is waving her arms while ranting, standing out in the street, when an 18-wheeler speeds past her ripping her wounded arm off.  Picking up the severed arm, her friends use tape and a needle and thread to reattach the arm, at least long enough to get Junkie to the hospital (which eventually occurs only after she drives herself to the emergency ward). Get the picture, outrageous stuff occurs at any moment and such cartoon violence is played straight.  Yet in another sequence, the one that explains how the hooker got to be dead before being stuffed into a car trunk, we watch as the killer brutally beats and then prepares to rape the hooker.  Such a sequence is difficult to watch and demonstrates how ultra-violence against women is one of the major themes of Soska cinema.  But we have such ping-ponging changes in tone, between goofy gore and violence and savage, disturbing female abuse.  But such diverse shifts prove to be interesting.

We have a constant barrage of running gags and homages to other movies thrown in for good measure.  For instance Badass (Sylvia Soska) is the one who is never wounded or hurt, while others around her lose their eyes, arms and Goody Two Shoes (C.J. Wallis), the Jesus freak who runs a church youth group, constantly bends over and vomits whenever the going gets tough.  So it is shocking, near the end of the film, when Badass returns to her apartment and is surprised by the killer-who-wears-a-hood who brutally punches her unconscious and subdues her by placing a plastic bag over her head.  When she awakens from this brutal attack, she recognizes her attacker immediately, a character we remember from earlier in the movie.  But just when we are lead to believe that Badass is indestructible, we now see her as vulnerable.  But earlier, in what I consider homage to Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD, we have Badass shoot the man who just disemboweled a drug dealer, his attacker slicing through his stomach and fondling his bleeding and now exposed intestines.  To put the pathetic dying man out of his misery, Badass thrusts her gun directly near the camera as we focus on her face.  We never see the man she shoots; instead, we hear the gun explode and see blood spattered all over her face in a quick instant.  This reminds me of similar sequences in EVIL DEAD where Ash (Bruce Campbell) has blood spattered all over his face.

Lastly, what I admire most about DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK is the manner by which the Soska sisters tell their story visually, opening the movie with a gonzo tracking shot that introduces both characters and the action with a minimum amount of dialogue for roughly the film’s first 10 minutes.  The movie opens as a girl arrives at the punk rock club in her car, jumping out of the car and running up the stairs to the club.  In an intimate surrounding, we see Junkie scream her little punk heart out as important characters either dance, speak in the shadows or walk past as we pan left or right.  We see a brief glimpse of the hooded killer, we see the strangely alive hooker wearing the red dress with side slits who will soon be dead (and the Soska sisters include a quick shot forward in time showing the hooker with a bloody punched face before we cut back to show her now smiling), we see the frightening Cowboy Pimp and other characters who only become important as the movie pushes ahead.  But with the blaring musical score, the quick cuts, stationary camera work alongside hand-held jerkiness, the movie impresses with a dramatic and totally visual (and auditory) introduction.  Fortunately this is only one of many “money” shots spread throughout the movie.

Yes, if we wanted to focus on flaws we could find them.  Hey, this is independent filmmaking at its most raw level.  DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK is more a labor of love emphasizing the joy of expression than it could ever be considered a commercial venture.  The Soska sisters, if they continue to hone their technique, will only make bigger and hopefully better movies.  Just as “Silent Bob” rose from independent to mainstream cinema, I hope to see the characters of Geek, Badass and Goody Two Shoes develop in future Soska movies. But for a debut, DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK is a film that lingers long after the music fades away and the credits fade to black.  This is a movie to seek out and enjoy, warts and all. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

BORDERS CLOSES ITS DOORS: Is The Death of the Brick and Mortar Book/Music Store Upon Us?

I love bookstores almost as much as I love music stores.  Growing up I would often take a bus downtown (about a 45 minute ride) to go to General Records, an infamous downtown record store that carried all the albums and 45-rpm singles that mainstream record stores never carried.  I purchased albums such as the Jeff Beck Group’s TRUTH and THE ROD STEWART ALBUM, when Rod-the-Mod was a degenerate rocker, even before The Faces reformed around him. Most of the time I did not know what was newly released, so going through the vinyl bins made discovery exciting.

The same was true with bookstores.  I would gravitate to the magazine section or the movie or music book sections.  I even checked out some fiction.  But the anticipation of finding something fresh and original fueled my journeys.  And it was a tactile, hands-on experience!

But in those days that was the only way to find books, music and magazines. 

I have to admit when the Internet began to publish the release dates of upcoming music CDs and books, the discovery aspect of going to brick and mortal shops was greatly diminished.  Why take the time and spend the gas to travel a great distance to perhaps find something I wanted when the purchase of that specific book or record was one click way at home?  Also, for most Internet sales you may pay shipping but mostly you never paid sales tax.  And you save on gas and time.  There’s never enough time!

True, it never has been quite as much fun searching out books, magazines and CDs/downloads online as it was venturing to overstuffed and crowded shops with other fans that loved what you loved, intermingling with knowledgeable, enthusiastic salespeople (who usually were fans themselves).  But searching online or in person is still searching (and think how easy it has become to sample the first few pages of a potential book buy or how convenient to hear sound samples of new albums, privately, online).

The bottom line is this.  The way people read and listen to music today has changed, so the manner in which we browse, sample and buy has also changed.  As electronic gadgets such as the iPod, iPad, Smartphone and other devices steal shelf space formerly devoted to books and CDs, shopping online has become more and more important and, dare I say, necessary.

For instance my friend Paul Krueger does not own a computer, and by the time he gave up trying to find the newly released Blu-ray of THE EGYPTIAN in brick and mortal stores, the movie was out of print (it was limited to 3,000 copies).  For those of us who shop the Internet (and especially with their PRIME shipping and free download of DVDs), we can buy literally any movie, magazine or book that is in print, no matter how small its niche market or limited edition it may be.  EVERYTHING out there, even self-published or home garage record label releases, can be purchased, and most at very affordable, discounted prices.

Right now The Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-ray movies are 50% off list price at Barnes & Noble.  Of course I can drive to the nearest one, fight the traffic, spend the gas and walk a long distance to perhaps find that the movie I wanted to buy was not carried at this particular store or simply sold out.  Or I can access Barnes & Noble online, search out any movie I want to buy, even the ones that are temporarily out of stock, and have them delivered to my home at the 50% discount.

Perhaps I am getting old, but the convenience and sampling of unlimited titles is more and more appealing.  The fact that books and music are always sale priced and I never buy any book or CD/music download at list price is also very appealing.  And with Prime I pay $80 a year but get most everything shipped guaranteed second day shipping.  I can’t do better than that!  I make that $80 back by the third month and then ride the free wave the remainder of the year.

I always hated going to Best Buy on the Tuesday that a new DVD was released.  The major blockbuster titles were always there.  But sometimes when an older release came out, a so-called classic, the salesperson would check the shelf and say, wait, we may have copies “in back.”  Most times he would return empty-handed and state, sorry, it will most likely be on the truck Thursday, if not, it will definitely be here next week, or guaranteed the following week.  And of course I was expected to constantly be driving back to see if the film that should now be in my sweaty hands had arrived.  Of course the store only ordered 5 copies at most, so unless I got there early upon arrival, that title might sell out for good. Why waste time and energy!! I order the movie from my computer today and have it in my anxious hands in two days (or one day if I am lucky, which frequently occurs).

I admit I am sad when brick and mortal shops close.  I have fond memories of going to my favorite book and record shops over the years, and often I remember buying a specific Bob Dylan album at a specific store at a special time of the year.  But I also mourned the passing of the milkman delivering milk and juice to the front door.  I mourned the loss of going to the soda shop to buy freshly made sodas and milkshakes.  I mourned the loss of deejay-controlled radio stations. I mourned the passing of those fresh produce carts pulled by horses in the city where salesmen (here in Baltimore they were called “Arabbers” with an accent on the “A”) would yell out their stock and trade as they crept down the block.  And yes, I mourned the loss of the neighborhood ice cream man whose jingle-jangle merry melodies would beckon all the kids in the neighborhood outside on a warm summer night.  I mourned and continue to mourn all of that.  But change is inevitable and sometimes even for the best.

Anyway we look at it, we can still buy ice cream, milk, produce, books, magazines and music.  We just have to adapt to new ways of purchasing the old familiar.  And I won’t even talk about reading books on my Kindle or walking Buddy down the street listening to music on my iPod Classic.  That’s a story for another time.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Welcome Back to the NEW and REVISED Gary J. Svehla’s Blog for Midnight Marquee and Mad About Movies.  Instead of using our website to update the Blog, we have decided to use Blogger from Google which makes updates faster and easier, and it creates a better visual sense.  We have included Archives (from 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010) of every Blog we ever posted and each year’s Blogs are one click away.  The Blogs for 2011 are current and I even added a new Best DVDS of 2010 posting.  Hopefully, I will be able to Blog more frequently.  Please enjoy my rants and raves and comments may be sent to   

Besides accessing this blog from our website and clicking on the "Gary's Blog" link,
you can also access the blog at the following URL

Cult Star Icons Veronica Carlson and Caroline Munro as the Oracles

MONSTER BASH is the only current classic horror film convention operating, and Sue and I (and our dog Buddy) traveled to Butler, PA to socialize with friends such as Nancy and Dick Klemensen, Steve Vertlieb, Wes Shank and wife Judy, Robert Tinnell and many others. Many attendees asked to be photographed with Buddy, and children were most concerned when we appeared on the convention floor without our companion.

Our third feature film, tentatively titled STELLAR QUASAR, goes into full production at the end of the month.  Unlike TERROR IN THE TROPICS and TERROR IN THE PHARAOH'S TOMB, STELLAR QUASAR is a science fiction "quest" movie with tons of green screen photography and digital special effects.  Sue, who wrote the screenplay and is directing once again, loves science fiction movies and this is the film she seems most jazzed about.
To beef up interest and to honor our cinematic heroes, we knew that former FANEX guests Veronica Carlson and Caroline Munro would be appearing at the BASH.  Working with another friend and sponsor Kevin Flynn, we arranged for the ladies to play outer space Oracles that deliver the biting message at the climax of the movie.  Hiring a student crew headed by Robert Tinnell, their film school teacher and director of the movie FRANKENSTEIN AND ME, the sequences were shot by Nicholas Carrington with assistance from Jason Walker.  Tinnell offered Sue technical advice while she directed.  It was a virtual lovefest!

 Our lovely ladies wore intensely colorful and sparkling costumes, designed by Sue for the sequence, and after setting up the portable green screen, the filming commenced as the professional attributes of Carlson and Munro blazed through.  Their expressions, movement and line readings were impeccable.  And remember, we were filming in a hotel room under compromised circumstances.  But our actresses did themselves proud and we felt honored and blessed by their participation in our modest production.

The very next day Sue and I met our friends Wes Shank and Judy, owners of the original Blob, and Wes graciously invited a small crew to come up to his home museum later in the summer to film a few sequences.  These sequences will focus upon several of his actual movie props to add class, history and budget to the production.

So even before the actual production begins, we are finding success and help in many different ways, from so many friends.  As the shooting begins, we will be posting photos and the latest reports.

Richard Klemensen, Steven Thornton; Buddy; and Gary J. Svehla at the Bash

DVD/BLU-RAY TOP-10 LIST: Best of 2010

 I fast discovered that every year since I started doing my Blog that fewer and fewer classic horror, science fiction and crime/noir titles are being released.  Why?  Well, the best ones have already been released.  Now distributors seek out the remaining few classics and the dribs and drabs of the near classic or the obscure.  That means that more and more of the made-to-order Warner Archive Collection will make my top-ten list each year, and fewer and fewer mainstream releases will appear.

Even if we are dealing with more B productions and the obscure, there were still many incredible films released to DVD and Blu-ray this past year. 

Here is my top-10 list in no particular order!

My absolute favorite DVD of the year has to be Image Entertainment’s release of the entire two-year run of THRILLER, the classic anthology series hosted by Boris Karloff.  As a child I thrilled to classic horror episodes such as The Hungry Glass, Pigeons from Hell and The Cheaters.  But as seen today in its entirety, I find myself gasping at how good the series was, even the majority of the suspense/crime episodes.  And many supernatural-oriented episodes, the ones not usually referenced, as often excellent as well.  As I take my time and watch all 67 episodes, I am entertained, terrified and riveted.  And I am shocked at just how many episodes I am seeing here for the first time.  Truly a revelation and a treasure trove of pleasure! 

Hammer was on its last legs in 1972 when VAMPIRE CIRCUS was released. Not classic in terms of either production or presentation and lacking creative input from any of the original Hammer auteurs (Tony Hinds, Michael Carreras, Terence Fisher, James Bernard, Roy Ashton), the movie still shines.  Strangely mystical and almost made as a horrific fairy tale, VAMPIRE CIRCUS is rather audacious for the time, presenting vampires as a plague that haunts a small traveling circus and lures victims into the deadly Hall of Mirrors, where all enter but not everyone leaves.  This Blu-ray presentation is magnificent, presenting the original vibrant color hues and deep contrast missing from the film since its original theatrical release (which was cut in the U.S.).  VAMPIRE CIRCUS today seems rather old school featuring classical vampires with elongated fangs, but for Hammer, the movie was a totally new take on an old Hammer chestnut.  And it is one fine horror movie that now looks and sounds gorgeous.

Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO was the master’s slumming, low-rent masterpiece.  Coming after the ornate NORTH BY NORTHWEST, PSYCHO seems like an after-though B production.  However, as presented re-mastered anamorphically in Blu-ray with digital sound, Hitchcock’s imagery and creepy soundscape (punctuated by the classic Bernard Herrmann musical score) approximate crisp 35mm projection.  For once we can appreciate all the deliberate cinematography that Hitchcock mastered by this point in his career—Norman Bates surrounded by his stuffed birds; Martin Balsam’s overhead attack by Norman’s “mother” and his slow glide fall backwards down the steep staircase; the infamous shower murder sequence; the overhead light swinging to and fro as the corpse of “mother” is revealed; the sun-glassed cop’s cold, piercing eyes staring at the just-awakening Janet Leigh, as she rises up in her car.  The list goes on and on.  But the Blu-ray restores a classic vision to a formerly well-worn masterpiece.

While only available as part of the Bob Hope: Thanks for the Memories Collection, this first-time ever DVD release of Bob Hope’s seldom seen horror classic THE CAT AND THE CANARY looks terrific restored as best as possible for any movie originally released in 1939.  While THE GHOST BREAKERS has been available on home video for a long while, THE CAT AND THE CANARY has always been missing in action.  And the movie is the perfect compliment to the other Hope chiller, featuring horror film icons George Zucco and Gale Sondergaard in delightful roles, excellent sets and designs featuring a haunted swamp-side mansion with secret rooms and nighttime boat rides down a fog-shrouded river.  And Bob Hope brings his comedic style to every sequence.  Perhaps the film’s puffed-up reputation makes fans expect too much, but nonetheless, THE CAT AND THE CANARY is a marvelous film too long missing from home video.

Many consider STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR to be the first film noir, while others see it as a visually adventurous suspense film featuring a knife-wielding psycho (played deliciously by Peter Lorre).  Bottom line, it is one of the best RKO B productions ever made, one featuring a cabbie wrongfully accused of robbery and murder (slicing the victim’s throat from ear to ear) and the attempts of regular people to discover the truth.  Peter Lorre as the “stranger” is creepy and becomes classic early Lorre, with those sad eyes and tentative delivery of dialogue (even buying raw hamburger for his dog becomes off-putting).  The movie contains such powerful symbolic visuals that approximate dream reality and hold audience attention.  Finally made available as a made-to-order Warner Archives release, STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR is a must-see film for horror, noir and Peter Lorre fans.

Now that all the Gothic color Hammer classics have been released, as well as a host of not-so-classic releases (THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH; THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL), as well as their pirate movies and other odd productions, it is about time that the black and white psycho thrillers and other overlooked titles are finally seeing the light of day.  This collection contains THESE ARE THE DAMNED, one of the finest pre-atomic war fear films ever concocted (featuring an art film sensibility and a catchy rock’n’roll theme song).  Wonderful suspense thrillers THE SNORKEL and MANIAC are included, with perhaps the rare but mediocre STOP ME BEFORE I KILL also included.  NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER is at last released, another excellent story of a small village pervert (with privilege and wealth that protects him) who preys on young girls.  But the gem of the set is CASH ON DEMAND, a heist thriller starring Peter Cushing in one of his finest roles, playing a prissy bank manager.  And along for villainy is a steely-eyed Andre Morell.  For me finally seeing the extremely rare CASH ON DEMAND was the treat of the collection, and seeing Peter Cushing create another first-rate performance is worth the price of admission. 

For years fans have been clamoring for the release of the fan-favorite Gordon Scott Tarzan movies, released between 1955 and 1960.  Fans and critics alike have called Scott’s final two entries, TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE and TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT, two of the best Tarzan entries ever produced, and they are indeed just that.  In this Warner Archive made-to-order release, it is a shame that these films could not have been given a full restoration and digital cleaning, but as seen here, the color saturation is deep and the black and white entries have good (if not great) contrast.  For me Gordon Scott was the greatest Tarzan of them all and these six films remind me of going to the theater to see most of them as a small boy with my father. When it comes to iconic heroes of the baby-boomer generation, the well-chiseled physique and down to earth kindness of this king of the jungle, Gordon Scott, will continue to linger for generations in the imagination of children everywhere (and adults as well).

When it comes to the scariest of non-horror cinema, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, the only film directed by Charles Laughton, contains some of the most terrifying cinematography ever to grace a suspense thriller.  Add to that Robert Mitchum’s second greatest psychopathic performance (his twisted reverend here is one notch below his Max Cady in CAPE FEAR, in my estimation) and we have a true classic.  In this Criterion Blu-ray restoration, the movie shimmers with his excellent contrast black and white photography.  The sequence with Shelley Winter’s body sitting in that old jalopy underwater, dead, has to be one of cinema’s most iconic sequences.  And in the final quarter when the children are on the run, sleeping in barns and racing down the river in a rowboat, the film mesmerizes.  Perhaps the ending lacks the emotional rush audiences were hoping for (for me the film’s main flaw) as Mitchum’s villain receives a rather un-dramatic comeuppance.  But NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is classic in every sense, with gorgeous cinematography, and Robert Mitchum commands the screen.

I never truly enjoyed WHITE CHRISTMAS until I saw it through Susan’s eyes.  While many fans enjoy HOLIDAY INN more than this one, in recent years the tide seems to be turning.  And having watched the film year in and out, now I know why.  The splendid, lush VistaVision image, bathed in Technicolor hues, containing wonderful performances by Bing Crosby, Danny Kay, Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney warm the heart.  Now available in Blu-ray, the film visually dazzles more so than ever.  WHITE CHRISTMAS is the equivalent of warming winter comfort food.  Yes, the script is easily predicted but the performances colored by the musical production numbers win us over.  This is one Christmas film that I can watch over and over again, and it never fails to bring a smile to my lips.  And now, the film has never looked or sounded better.

Generally, the quality of Volume 2 of any DVD collection is inferior when compared to Volume 1, but with the Columbia Pictures initial box set of film noirs, I was rather disappointed.  Of course Columbia produced the B noirs, the low-rent movies that never garnered the attention of the higher profile Warner and Fox releases.  However, Volume 2 kicks Volume 1 to the mat with infinitely superior movies.  The most fun occurs because viewers probably never saw the majority of the films contained within these Columbia noir sets; It’s always exciting to ponder films unseen for the first time.  In Volume 2 are treated to solid crime dramas such as Jacques Tourneur’s NIGHTFALL and Fritz Lang’s HUMAN DESIRE.  We also have Fred MacMurray’s PUSHOVER, the other film besides DOUBLE INDEMNITY that shows MacMurray consumed by lust, becoming another tragic idiot whose internal flaws destroy him.  But the ace of the deck has to be THE BROTHERS RICO, a film that foreshadows family mob films such as THE GODFATHER.  And Richard Conte delivers a bravura performance that impresses long after the final end credits appear.  For me seeing each of these films for the first time was a real treat. 


Wasn’t it spine tingling to watch the beginning of LET ME IN and see that gigantic Hammer logo with many of the classic images from its heyday drawn inside the letters!  And then we observed the beginning title credit sequence, “A Hammer Films Production,” one more time after its absence for decades.

The new reborn-from-the-ashes Hammer has nothing to do with the old company, except its sense of commitment to quality horror movie cinema. Matt Reeves’ remake of the Swedish horror oddity LET THE RIGHT ONE IN from a few years ago demonstrates that in rare instances the remake can equal or perhaps even surpass the original.  At least for me the Hammer remake resonates more.  I respected the original but was held at an emotional distance; here, I feel the angst and growing pains of the two young characters that hook me emotionally.

And when I watch LET ME IN I see both the integrity of the better Hammer productions alongside the spirit of Val Lewton.  I know, I know, Val Lewton is revered for his understatement and subtlety.  Why show the gruesomeness of horror when shadows, loud sounds and psychological inner dread say it best.

I maintain the Lewton spirit is just as much about a malevolent tone, an ambiguity of morality where innocent victims do not actually understand the rightness or wrongness of the situation in which they find themselves.  We have Irena, from CAT PEOPLE, who keeps herself chaste and abstinent as to not arouse the monster inside, so she can both protect and love her newlywed husband.  Yet her inability to consummate her relationship only drives her husband into the arms of another woman.  In THE SEVENTH VICTIM we have heroine Jacqueline Gibson try to protect her younger sister Mary (Kim Hunter) from the urban horrors of Satanism.  Mary, who comes from a sequestered private school, is a lamb in the lion’s den (or panther’s cage?), no match for the obscenities to be found in the shadowy streets of Greenwich Village.  So at the end of the story, the cult closing in, Jacqueline takes the only way out she can, suicide by hanging, which ends this bleak emotional roller coaster ride.  In CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, young child Amy Reed, daughter of Irena, must cope with the horrors of growing up.  Her fantasy world protects her from the harsh realities of life, something her father Ollie fears, believing insanity and fantasy killed his former wife.  Amy gravitates to the eccentric actress Julia Farren, her neighbor, whose daughter Barbara (the excellent Elizabeth Russell) is as alienated from her own mother (who seems lost in the clouds of dementia) as Amy is from her own father.  The heartbreak of waking up and discovering that none of her school chums are attending her birthday party is pretty devastating.  Of course the fact that the invitations were never properly mailed explains the reality of the situation, but not its emotional reverberations as Amy’s “friends” continue to taunt and ridicule the child.  To me these themes constitute the Lewton aesthete as much as subtlety of vision.

Yes, the Lewton films, existing 70 years ago, were tame and subtle and generally did not show monsters, fiends or the undead.  LET ME IN does that in spades.  But the intense aura of dread and psychological horror that appeared in the Lewton oeuvre 70 years ago is channeled loud and clear in the Hammer remake.  Kudos to young director Matt Reeves, the filmmaker who made CLOVERFIELD a few years back where his cinematographer used a shaky hand-held video camera to record the action. Here, doing a 180 degree turn, Reeves is the master of old school cinema, using a stationary camera and close-ups held long to compose his world of snowy vampirism in New Mexico.

Just like with THE SEVENTH VICTIM, we experience a world of ambivalent morality where it is difficult to tell right from wrong.  Just as author John Gardner reworked, in 1972, the classic Anglo-Saxon epic poem BEOWULF, rewriting the story from the monster Grendel’s point of view, reminding us that Grendel, a child, ate human beings as food, much the same as humans lived off the “flesh” of fish.  In LET ME IN 12-year-old Abby (yes, she is much older but is trapped inside the body of a child victim) sadly confesses to her new friend Owen that she needs fresh blood to live.  Yes, her feral transformations into an ultra-strong and fast demonic being are horrifying.  When she attacks her victims, she is ferocious, ending up totally covered in the blood of her victims.  But wise-in-years but young-in-appearance Abby seems more the victim of involuntary mortality.  The appearance of the child walking barefoot in the snow only heightens her vulnerability.  Abby kills to survive and, unfortunately, she feeds on humans.  But just as Grendel elicited different points of view (monster or sad victim?), so does Abby.

Two telling sequences summarize what is outstanding about this coming-of-age vampire movie. Even though Irena and Ollie were adults in CAT PEOPLE, I see the relationship between the two 12 year olds very similar in LET ME IN.  We have Abby terrified to be aroused in front of the boy she befriends, just as Irena denied sex to her husband in CAT PEOPLE because she feared harming him. The first sequence is when Owen and Abby go down to their cellar hiding place and he slices his thumb with a knife before Abby, undergoing the childhood ritual of becoming blood brothers/sisters with a close friend.  When Abby sees the blood oozing from his thumb, flowing onto the floor, she looses control and reverts to her demonic self.  However, even when aroused, she will not harm Owen.  Running full throttle out of the cellar, she climbs a tree and sees an apartment resident and her cat walk past underneath.  With silent determination she pounces below and devours both human and cat, satisfying her newly aroused blood lust.  However the telling moment is her ability to distinguish between her chosen victims, demonstrating her loyalty to Owen.  She is indeed a blood-sucking monster, but she is also a human being with a heart.  She is both predator and victim.

The second pivotal sequence involves the second time that Abby appears at Owen’s apartment, where she again reminds him that he must ask her in so she can enter, according to vampire lore.  For a moment he is horrified by what Abby has done and does not invite her in, but she enters the room anyway.  Within seconds her body begins to quiver and blood begins to erupt from her scalp and cover her face.  In shock Owen grabs and hugs his friend and states out loud that he invites her in.  Within seconds Abby returns to normal and states that she knew Owen wouldn’t allow her to be harmed.  She trusted in his good heart. In an earlier similar test of friendship, Owen offers Abby candy that she first refuses.  However, for friendship’s sake she eats some, vomiting as soon as the two of them go outside the store.  Abby knew eating the candy would make her deadly sick, but for the sake of her friend she consumes some.

Just like little Amy from CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, Owen is an outcast with his peers at school, but while the nasty actions of Amy’s school mates was minor in the Lewton film, here in LET ME IN Owen is tortured and tormented and almost killed by his bullies.  He is bullied in the bathroom, given an almost castrating "wedgie," held under water in the school pool by a tormentor and carried almost naked by a gang of his peers and thrown into the pool.  He is called a girl (he does have almost feminine features) and his tormentors want to see his penis as proof that he is indeed a male.  And remember Owen is only 12 years old.  In the climatic sequence, Abby returns to slaughter a pool filled with his tormentors while Owen is held underwater, glancing underwater to his side to see the decapitated head of one of the bullies float past.  In the Lewton style, the carnage and bloodshed occurs above the water with screams and splashing bodies dragged to and fro as seen from below, but other than the floating head, the carnage is more suggested than shown.

When was the last time you saw a modern horror movie that truly got under your skin and made you think and feel about the characters who occupied that world?  Owen and Abby are similar outcasts who fight back in order to survive.  Abby tells Owen you must fight back and hit them hard, and when Kenny, the chief tormentor, threatens Owen one time too many, Owen uses a metal pole to whack Kenny hard in the side of the head, taking part of his ear off.  He too must resort to violence in order to survive.  But the evil that Kenny and the bullies evoke seems far more insidious than the survival killings of Abby.  Ambivalent morality, deep questions about truly right and wrong acts seem watered down to simple blacks and whites in most horror movies (vampires are evil and vampire slayers are good, with no middle ground in between).  LET ME IN features a quietly intense musical score, almost classical in sections, composed by Michael Giacchino, that truly benefits the movie’s atmosphere.  Director Reeves allows long stretches of close-ups on faces and eyes. The camera studies the intensity of the eyes of Abby’s adult companion, who pretends to be her father, and who stalks victims and drains their blood into plastic jars. During such killings he wears a trash bag over his head and the camera focuses on his eyes as he lies in wait.  The movie features long stretches of conversation, accented by stark visual backgrounds of malaise and despondency.  Even Owen’s sexual awakening is illustrated as he sneaks a look, through a telescope, at other couples who live in his run-down apartment complex, one such couple preparing to make love, the woman’s one breast fully exposed.  When the puberty-bound Owen befriends Abby, he probably has more than friendship on his mind.   And it is this intense childhood relationship that propels the Hammer remake above and beyond the Swedish original.

At the end of the movie, Owen has left home and is aboard a train, a trunk with Abby hiding inside by his feet.  The two communicate by Morse code, Owen tapping on the trunk and Abby responding.  Whether Owen is bound to grow up and become the new “father” who acquires blood for Abby is never made clear.  Right now we see two eccentric, lonely and alienated people bounding together to help one another survive.  And at this point the morality meter is pointing toward the positive and not the negative, as the movie ends at the perfect moment.

While this new incarnation of Hammer horror forges new ground, it proudly remembers its proud legacy.  What an outstanding movie to inaugurate the new rebirth of Hammer!  And Matt Reeves plays homage, whether knowingly or not, to the best RKO Val Lewton productions of the 1940s.  Stephen King calls LET ME IN the best horror movie of the past 20 years, and compared to all the others, he very well might be right.  After too many years of Hollywood-produced horror movie product, catering to date night adolescents who only want a non-thinking roller coaster ride with plenty of horrific special effects, it is refreshing to experience an artistic horror movie geared to adults that wants us to think and feel.  Isn’t it about time!


Yvette Vickers dances away at FANEX 5 as my father solos on sax

Yvette Vickers was a cult star, impacting cinema for a few brief years in a handful of movies that are celebrated yet today.  Her most noteworthy movies were ATTACK OF THE 50 FT. WOMAN, ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, REFORM SCHOOL GIRLS and WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN.  She also had guest-starring appearances in TV shows such as WYATT EARP, THE TEXAN, ONE STEP BEYOND, THE REBEL and MY THREE SONS.  Vickers perhaps had her most noteworthy supporting role in the Paul Newman classic HUD.

But Susan, me and the gang were excited when Yvette Vickers said “yes” to appearing at FANEX 5, one of our earlier conventions where guests appeared without receiving any monetary compensation. They signed autographs for free, and were excited to meet adoring fans and to be treated as kings and queens for the weekend.  Ah, but we made our guests work during our Saturday evening FANEX stage show.

Yvette was best known for playing the sleazy Honey Parker, the bargirl who played the “other” woman to rich bitch wife Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes), with Nancy’s husband Harry (William Hudson) in ATTACK OF THE 50 FT.WOMAN.  Playing house by putting up the sizzling hot Honey Parker in a hotel room in town, Harry tolerated the always slightly drunk Nancy, hoping to lock her away forever in a sanitarian, so he could live off her riches and set up a love nest permanently with Parker.

Well, we assembled a band for the upcoming convention.  Friend Lon Talbot, a guitar player with a 1960s British Invasion fixation, wrote a marvelous rock ‘n’ roll song called, appropriately enough, THE BALLAD OF HONEY PARKER.  Another friend Dave “Charlie” Ellis played bass and local jazz drummer Vince De Leonardi (who played with the great jazz organist Brother Jack McDuff and guitarist George Benson) completed the outfit. Yvette approved the song, one that Lon would himself sing.  Yvette promised to be part of the performance, but we never knew how much she would be a part of the performance until Saturday night during the show. Well, when the band introduced THE BALLAD OF HONEY PARKER and Talbot began to wail, his guitar turned up to 10, strutting down the aisle from the back of the auditorium, wearing the tiniest of dresses (and Yvette was well into her 1950s), Yvette came dancing and bouncing down the aisle and jumped up on stage, vamping and shimmying center stage as the band melted into the groove.  Jaws were dropping in the audience but the musical performance and live stage show generated more energy than the electrical ending of ATTACK OF THE 50 FT. WOMAN ever could.  Yvette was in the zone, bringing back the spirit of the youthful 20-something slut Honey Parker from the grave.  Yvette Vickers put everything she had up there on the FANEX stage and shaked and bopped as though 30 years had evaporated from her life.  It became one of those many magical FANEX moments.  In other words, she did this for herself; she did this for all her fans; she did this for the fun of it.  And the people assembled that night will never forget her audacious performance of THE BALLAD OF HONEY PARKER.  It was incredible.

Yvette charmed the assembled attendees that weekend, sharing Hollywood stories, tales about her torrid love life with actor Jim Hutton, her current reinvention as a cabaret torch/jazz singer who was playing the local clubs in L.A. and hoping to mount a national tour (she even asked drummer Di Leonardi to go on the road with her).  This was the reason she sang the famous Peggy Lee pop classic FEVER when she came front and center to demonstrate her vocal chops that Saturday night.

And Yvette Vickers was among the kindest, most outgoing, friendly guests that FANEX ever sponsored.  She wasn’t the type of guest that left the show and we never heard from again.  No.  Yvette frequently phoned us up, asked about how Sue’s arthritis was doing, how the books and magazines were doing and how the latest conventions were going.  She was one of the few guests that actually became a long-distance friend.  Hey, we remember how Yvette told us she would attend our show but that she did not fly.  Instead she took a train cross country to attend the show. In later convention appearances she overcame her fears and did fly occasionally.

How awful the media made Yvette’s death sound.  She was found dead in her house, a mummified corpse that perhaps had been dead for nearly one year.  A space heater was turned on when a neighbor found her corpse.  She lived alone in the Beverly Hills home that she occupied since the 1950s, a very modest home in a very lush area.  The gossip/entertainment national programs said her home was in a deplorable state and referred to her as an obvious hoarder.  Only the sensational aspects of her death and the state of her home were reported. And of course color photos of her sexiest PLAYBOY poses were shown.  The newspaper press also dwelled upon the sordid nature of her parting and not on the positive contributions she made in the world of B cinema.  What a pity that Yvette’s work and art became a momentary blip in a news report that dwelled upon her mummified corpse.  How sad that not one friend or relative called during those long months that she must have been dead.

I wish I remembered the exact month Yvette had phoned Sue and me for the final time.  I got the phone call and I was reading in our library.  I seem to remember it was last winter but it could have last summer. Yvette had not phoned for some time so hearing from her was extra special.  We caught up on each other’s lives and then she dropped a sad tidbit of news that may have been more than a little responsible for the sad state of her home at the end.  Yvette revealed to me that she was suffering the effects of age-related macular degeneration, one of the leading causes of blindness for the elderly.  In this disease a person loses his/her central vision bites and pieces at a time.  Living alone and going blind, perhaps her house would not be as well cared for as it formerly had been.  Yvette was not wealthy (what B movie star from that era was?) and perhaps could not afford a house cleaner. Her ability to clean and tame the clutter was diminished by blindness.  How sad to be growing old and blind, living alone, and having to continue to do the things that we all have to do in a daily routine.   How sad to live one’s last days in such a solitary state.  And then to die and become a sordid sensationalized media sensation months later! How cruel of the press to reduce her entire lifetime achievements to becoming a mummified corpse, accusing her of phoning people in a drunken tirade (Yvette never phoned us while under the influence) and living in squalor.  If Yvette was bitter she never let on to us while appearing at the shows.  But if the truth were known, was there ever a B or cult actor or actress who did not desire to make the superstar A list?

But I will always remember the warm and kind FANEX guest (she appeared twice at our shows) and wonderful human being she was.  Sue and I will never forgot her smoldering rendition of THE BALLAD OF HONEY PARKER, slinking around and seducing her audience one more time.  That performance is a far better testament to her audacious legacy as both singer, dancer and B cult actress than the professional press accorded her.  And I am glad FANEX gave her the sendoff she most appreciated and enjoyed.  Her body was anything but mummified that evening!  And that’s how I will always remember Yvette Vickers!


    Igrid Pitt, my father Richard Svehla and Martine Beswicke at FANEX

After 19 years of sponsoring FANEX, MONSTER RALLY and CLASSIC FILMFEST, Sue and I marvel at the number of motion picture celebrities that we had the honor of meeting and befriending (some for just the weekend; others for a lifetime).  And since sponsoring our first show in 1987, we mourned the passing of many guests and friends.

The wonderfully quirky Ingrid Pitt is the latest to leave us, much too young at age 73.  Ingrid Pitt fired up the imagination of Hammer horror fans when she led the second wave of more erotically tinged horror movies, starring in The Vampire Lovers, one of Hammer’s better horror movies of the 1970s, and Countess Dracula, an equally entertaining period drama.  Yes, her parading around in the nude brought more acclaim than her thespic chops, but she truly created a vampire original in Carmilla, with modern mythology and panache.  Working with director Ray Ward Baker and star Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt created an on screen sensibility of the undead that was developed differently than Terence Fisher’s approach to cinematic vampirism.  Carmilla was hyper-sexy and used her sensuality to seduce the innocent, both male and female.  With her undetermined Eastern European heritage, Carmilla became a purring sex kitten cut quite differently from the Hammer mold.  When Pitt appeared on screen, she commanded our attention.

She also commanded our attention in real life as well.  We first met Ingrid when we brought her over the pond to appear at our first ever Hammer-themed FANEX in 1997.  That was the year I tore my patellar tendon in my right knee and had to work the convention from a wheelchair, pending my immediate surgery the Monday after the show.  Jim Clatterbaugh was that year’s chairperson, working closely with Sue and me to sculp the best convention ever.  However, Jim managed to alienate Ingrid when he proposed a Hammer Awards program but nominated Ingrid as best supporting actress when she saw herself (as most of us did) as the lead above-the-credits star.  The rest of the weekend Sue and I had to do damage control but the wounds were mended quite rapidly.  We asked Ingrid to open and star in our Friday night FANEX opening ceremony that year and we asked her to emerge from a coffin wearing her infamous negligee.  Sue and I hobbled to the adjoining department store and purchased her a white nightie but she demanded, for her image sake, a black one.  So we had to hobble back, return the white and purchase a black one.  Well, the effort was well the effort.  When Ingrid, under the direction of husband Tony, descended from the coffin, smoke billowing from the coffin, the tremendous applause erupted from excited fans assembled for the forthcoming weekend.  Ingrid pranced and became the queen of the convention ball as she received a standing ovation with hoots and whistles filling the auditorium.  Sue’s idea had worked better than we even imagined.

Ingrid always played the temperamental diva.  But most of that self-absorption was pretend and just part of her show biz persona.  Ingrid was always kind and generous and would accommodate our needs with anything we asked her to do.  Yes once we had her huddled backstage with several guests awaiting the arrival of other guests so we could introduce all of them on stage.  Ingrid became increasingly bored and agitated that she had to wait, but we sent in Mr. Charm, Phil Holthaus, our chief security man, to placate her, get her a chair, rub her shoulders and generally keep her happy as we forced her to wait.  Ingrid was a trooper. 

But what I liked the most about Ingrid Pitt was her keen sense of appreciation and loyalty to Sue and me.  Unlike some of our other convention guests who ignore us after the show, Ingrid and Tony kept in close contact.  Running into the pair at the New Jersey Chiller Theatre Expo regularly, Ingrid would sit at our table or invite us to sit at hers.  She was always happy to see us, asked about our personal lives and shared her personal experiences with Sue, the FANEX gang and me.  She beamed when her daughter Stephanie was married and shared every one of the wedding photos.  Ingrid and Tony, hopefully, considered us friends. Ingrid phoned constantly from England to ask us to read her quasi-religious novel, which she wanted us to publish.  She wanted us to re-edit and expand her autobiography and insisted on a new title, never liking the title Life’s A Scream very much.  And after we published the book, she phoned us to ship her copies that she could sell at conventions all over the world.  Sometimes she would simply phone to check in and see how Sue’s arthritis was treating her that month.  She always told me, quite playfully, “Gary, you just have to kiss Sue’s belly button. Now promise me!”  She honestly believed that such a kiss released cosmic energy and was a natural healing agent for all the aches and pains of life.   Even toward the end, in failing health (Ingrid lost the vision in one of her eyes), Ingrid phoned and hoped for us to get together one more time when she returned to the East Coast.  She spoke of bottles of wine, a huge feast and catching up with stimulating conversation.  Of course, that was never to be, but her sentiments meant a great deal to us.  Ingrid always went out of her way to be a friend and keep in close contact. 

Sue, who is in pre-production on her third film, wanted to write a small scene for Ingrid which husband Tony would gladly videotape for us. A scripted sequence we could later cut into the final movie.  But time got away from us once again and such a script was never completed in time.

With a real life just as dynamic as her numerous movie roles, Ingrid Pitt was a larger-than-life personality that commanded attention both on and off the screen.  But more so than her sexy allure and European feline demeanor, Ingrid Pitt was simply a warm and wonderful woman, a woman who was never afraid to say exactly what she felt.  She was opinionated, self-promoting, warm and funny. And Sue and I are eternally grateful at having the opportunity to know the real woman as well as enjoy the screen persona.  Her spirit, enthusiasm and unique personality will be missed.  In the world of film fandom and screen legends, she was truly an enigma.