Thursday, December 28, 2023

Monsters are People Too: Bloody New Year

(Mild spoilers ahead)

Halloween isn’t, of course, the only holiday in horror. The number of Christmas horror movies has exploded in recent years, and even Eli Roth’s joke Thanksgiving movie is now a reality. But for a long time, I had only the camp slasher classic New Year’s Evil for December 31. Not that I don't love hearing Shadow wailing the title tune -- and hey, where's its soundtrack LP? -- but sometimes you need a little novelty.

So I was thrilled when the 1987 British movie Bloody New Year crossed my path. From the title, I assumed it was another slasher, but boy, was I wrong! Instead, it’s in the reality-bending genre of, say, Phantasm, The Evil Dead, and with its hotel setting, The Shining. I think there's even an homage to Evil Dead in a brief scene when people are running through the woods and the camera runs as if it’s chasing them, seeming to overtake them. It's surprising in retrospect how few people have borrowed Raimi's Deadite cam.


On the first viewing, I also assumed that the filmmakers somehow had access to the location and built the script around it. That doesn't seem to be the case, although the director's commentary with Norman J. Warren acknowledges that the resort and its environs were a particularly lucky find.

The plot in short: a group of young people on vacation at the beach go to a funfair, where they stop some locals from harassing a pretty young tourist. They all end up on a boat ride, and the boat sinks, stranding them on a nearby island. Not noticing the overgrown "Keep Out" signs, they take refuge in a hotel that's decorated for the holidays, but is strangely deserted. The chaos starts small, almost inconsequential, with things like doors shutting themselves, but continues to build until things are completely out of control: objects flying, zombies attacking, and a table turning into monster, then back to a table again, among other manifestations.

The first weird thing about this movie is that it’s set in the summertime (July). That doesn't scream "Bloody New Year." However, the mysterious hotel has Christmas trees, and a festive ballroom festooned with a large sign: “Goodbye 1959. Hello 1960.” We eventually learn that not only were they having a New Year’s dance with the Flying Cadillacs (a super-’50s name), as depicted in the opening scene, but it was also screening Fiend Without a Face (1958)! So clearly this was a very cool place to stay.

Interestingly, the fiend here also lacks a face, since it's an impersonal force, not a being, despite sometimes taking human form. During the extended chase scene, where the protagonists are being chased by the hooligans, the guys take refuge in a funhouse. Among other backdrops, there are repeated shots of a creepy doll figure in a shirt that reads “Monsters are People Too.” Which is true! Although the cast are threatened by various figures, but what happened to the apparent monsters was a personal tragedy, in a world where nothing is fair.

During the ‘80s, so many movies with ties to the past focused on a sin committed by the victims in earlier days. Hello, Prom Night! Refreshingly, this isn’t one of them. Without giving too much away, the victims were just having a good time, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and are actually victims of their government’s short-sighted scientific hubris. This adds an unexpected level of poignancy to the film that I did not expect.

In the commentary, Warren says that the best thing about working in the horror genre is that “it’s not real. Anything can happen. You make your own rules.” While I went into this movie expecting a generic product, it turned out to be much weirder and more imaginative. Highly recommended to watch while waiting for the ball to drop!

A region-free Blu-ray is available from Powerhouse Films that looks great, and has various extras, including the commentary. But if you're impatient, it's on YouTube (where I first saw it), and the quality is serviceable.

Friday, October 13, 2023

“Did you know a young boy drowned?”: Explaining Friday the 13th

In any long-running creative project–a TV or book series, or a movie franchise–continuity will eventually become a problem. Some original works, in their rush to a sequel, introduce continuity issues early on, that will shape the further entries and cause bigger problems down the line. This certainly happens in the big-name horror franchises, and reaches delightful levels of ridiculousness in the Friday the 13th series.

One of the reasons I’ve always loved Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, apart from its hilariously ’80s view of New York (complete with gangs, giant boomboxes, and random barrels of toxic waste), is its giddy embrace of the contradiction at the heart of Jason Voorhees, who appears in this movie both as a frightened child who drowned at summer camp, and a hulking, fully grown killing machine apparently seeking revenge for his own death, and the death of the mother who was avenging his death in the first place. Freddy Vs. Jason will also take on this conundrum, and it’s another movie I like a whole lot. 

There are other oddities about Jason’s nature, like how, in the earlier films, he can be killed but he never stays dead. Later entries really embrace his unkillable nature, so he’s often referred to as “Zombie Jason.” This is taken to bizarre lengths in Jason Goes to Hell and Jason X. But the central problem is: how did Jason die as a child and still exist as a giant grown-up? Neither Jason Takes Manhattan nor Freddy Vs. Jason, or other of the movies that refer to him drowning at summer camp, explains how this is possible.

One day I was reading an interesting book called Between the Living and the Dead: A Perspective on Witches and Seers in the Early Modern Age, by Hungarian scholar Éva Pócs, and I became irrationally excited, bubbling over to discuss the central ideas of her work. Discussing popular ideas about witchcraft in Europe, she describes a commonly-held belief in a supernatural realm, with communication possible between that world and the mundane world, via various means.

While the details “vary from place to place and from people to people” (34), she says that “the image of a soul that departs from its body is familiar in all European cultures, as is the belief in alter egos, or doubles, that appear during altered states of consciousness.” (31) This soul image is alternately known as a mara, mahr, or mora. Similar beings have different names in different cultures, and the image, related to the “nightmare,” which shares a root word, has commonalities with werewolf legends, possession, and various forms of witchcraft. 

The belief in this soul image gives an explanation for why people think they see doppelgangers, ghosts, or people who couldn’t be in certain place, an overriding idea that can explain a variety of strange experiences, all tied in some way to the idea of a soul or spirit, that can act differently at different times, in different circumstances. Because of the spiritual dimension at work, these spirits aren't subject to the normal limiting effects of physical matter.

“In essence these are humans that have a double … that can detach from, leave, or during a trance be sent by its owner, and after death live on as a dead soul. It can have physical and spiritual (soul) variants … Both types of alter ego have the ability of metamorphose …” (31). So these doubles can go forth from people whether they’re alive or dead, and can take numerous forms: "they would appear either in their own image or in someone else’s” (38), not bound by gender, and including “sometimes in the image of his wife, and at others of his child" (41).

This all hit me like the bolt of lightning that strikes a metal post and brings a hulking killer back from the dead. “What does this sound like?” I cried. Everything snapped into place, and since then I’ve been convinced that this piece of European folklore explains this entire mixed-up element of Jason’s existence in the Friday the 13th mythos.

In Pócs’ research, doppelgangers or spirit doubles can be tangible or intangible, created accidentally or on purpose, in one’s own form or the form of a different specific person, generated while the person is alive or dead. The world of the spirits is fluid. As they pass between the realms, they aren’t fixed, but changeable, and the mora is an all-purpose uncanny being, which could serve many functions and explain different strange scenarios, all explained by the spirits’ having varied abilities and avenues in which to manifest. 

It can morph in many different ways; for example, it can appear as a wolf, which explains werewolf stories, but it can shift into other forms as well. The common basis lies in the ability of the soul to leave the body and take on a physical form, which can then commit actions. 

Given this, Jason’s spirit could manifest physically after death the way he was in life, as a young boy, but his rage and grief could also manifest as an alternative self, grown and powerful. Maybe more persuasively, his existence could also be explained as the vengeful spirit of Mrs. Voorhees, taking on the projected image of her son in a threatening adult form. This figure doesn’t appear until after her death, but she already behaved as if she was manifesting his spirit when she was alive, with her chanting of “kill her, Mommy!” in his voice, so she was halfway there.

Also, “if somebody walks about in something other than their own image, then they are a ‘vacant’ or ‘empty’ body,” Pócs says (40), and the adult Jason certainly appears mindless and soulless. This “vacant” or “empty” body is also sometimes described as “a puppet or mask character” (40), and it was apparently not uncommon to encounter “the picturing of the dead in masks” (42). Masks! 

This idea also explains how Jason can be so impossible to kill, since “the alter ego is imagined to be a physical reality,” (38) appearing that way, and may be able to act on the physical plane, but it's a supernatural projection, not a living, breathing person.
So maybe Mrs. Voorhees was in some contact with Jason’s spirit. Or maybe her spirit came back after death in the imagined form of a grown son. Or her dead son’s spirit was reactivated in a blind desire for revenge. Anything’s possible and nothing’s contradictory.

I am absolutely not arguing that anyone involved with the making of the Friday the 13th films was directly inspired by this folklore, or had even heard of it. There’s no evidence of any direct connection. However, these were once commonly held ideas, found in different countries and cultures. Folk tales seep into the world, so similar ideas might just be floating around now, unprovable and unattached to any specific belief system.

People believed these things because they made a kind of sense to them, and they obviously still do. Some critics aside, the average viewer of the Friday the 13th series is honestly no more bothered by the illogic of Jason’s return, the mechanics of his survival, or the continuity between different manifestations of himself, than people were when they accepted outright that human spirits could travel from their bodies in various forms. 

The Friday the 13th series has always been akin to tales told around the campfire, made explicit in various of the films, where Jason’s story is told around a literal campfire. Oral ghost stories shared among young people are not that far removed from the cultures in which the mora legends circulated. A campfire tale isn’t something that can be fact-checked, or that anyone would want to. Unlike a written or filmed text, it’s not possible to pin down the details: you can’t go back and re-read, or rewind. So no one goes over them in the kind of excruciating detail we see on modern YouTube channels. The stories can be looser, the fine details lost in the larger flood of atmosphere.

“Basically, a spirit came back” is a good enough explanation. The object isn’t to create a perfectly honed logical argument for the existence of something; it’s to show something scary and, preferably, memorable. As long as an atmosphere is created, as long as the story scares someone, it can “make sense” enough to be worthwhile. Especially since much of its real job is to make sense of the mysterious aspects of life and death.

Pócs, Eva. Between the Living and the Dead: A Perspective on Witches and Seers in the Early Modern Age. Central European University Press, 2000.

Another book on the subject, loaded with information about doppelgangers and shapeshifters related to the mora concept is:

Lecouteux, Claude. Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages. 1st U.S. ed. Inner Traditions, 2003.

Saturday, July 8, 2023

A Crying Shame: The Curse of La Llorona (2019)

Most of the the movies and books that I write about, it's because I like them. That gets me excited to talk about them. There are exceptions of course, like my most famous post, "Fog Blog," an evisceration of the 2005 remake of The Fog, but even that was informed by my deep fondness for the 1980 original. As Abed said in Community, I like liking things. Sometimes, though, I develop a kind of fascination with the way a movie goes wrong.

With The Curse of La Llorona, it's an example of hope and disappointment. Now, I am always in the mood for a ‘70s period piece, and I'd like to see more movies based on the rich tradition of Mexican-American folklore, a part of our national heritage.

La Llorona, the Crying Woman who appears in various Latin American cultures, is a particularly intriguing supernatural being. The image of a mother who kills her own children recurs throughout the world, with a primal fear in the idea of a mother hurting her children. It appears in the Greek myths, and in the Icelandic Saga of the Volsungs, and La Llorona brings the story into the realm of hauntings.

Where Medea is famous for her rage, the “Crying Woman” is defined by her remorse for her actions, which makes it easier to empathize with her pain. She's overcome with a grief that survives long after her own death. In real life, most women who commit this crime do so under duress, suffering tremendous stresses and/or psychotic breaks, so La Llorona helps to represent those who commit evil deeds out of their own pain, creating cycles of violence and suffering. 

As a horror movie archetype, the crying woman is disturbing and unsettling, especially when the weeping is audible, but you can’t see the source.

Dread Central has covered the fact this film is a lost opportunity to present the Mexican legend and Latinx culture, which certainly could have enriched the film, so you can read that instead of hearing a white lady talk about it. If we must have a white lead in deference to the Hollywood system, Linda Cardellini’s likeable, relatable presence is a solid anchor for a tale of supernatural wackiness.

What interests me is how the first half of the film really seems like it has something to say about motherhood and grief, but fizzles out into something generic. Cardellini's widowed working mom, an L.A. social worker, has more in common with the problems of her marginalized clients than she does with the establishment she represents. She’s struggling, just like Patricia, a woman with truant kids (played by Patricia Velásquez from The Mummy movies, significantly de-glamorized), is also struggling

Cardellini’s compassionate Anna genuinely wants to help the family, but she’s still the agent of a bureaucratic system and has to follow their rules. She also has the false confidence that comes with her authority, reassuring the frightened children that “whatever’s happening, we can take care of it,” when she has no idea of what’s happening. If she really listened to them or their mother, or took her fears seriously, her own family would avoid danger down the line. She can’t see that what endangers this poor family can also endanger her own, in the large house with a pool.

Once the curse follows her home, and weird things start happening, they behave like the stereotype of white American middle class life: the kids don’t tell their mom what they’ve experienced, and she doesn’t tell them, for a long time. The kids say, “I fell;” she says, “It’s nothing.” If they all suffer in silence, they can’t get to the bottom of what’s happening. The desire to protect each other with silence, and to deal with things individually, hampers their ability to survive.

I really wanted Anna to understand her connection with Patricia, and how quickly and easily the system she worked for would turn on her. When she takes her children to the doctor after a supernatural attack, her own social services office is immediately called. In a twist on her earlier words, her dead husband’s partner, who had just been over for dinner as a friend, is terse with her, saying “Whatever’s going on here, fix it.” That’s the extent of the advice or support she gets. Like it’s that simple!

Unfortunately, none of this potential is developed. Almost an hour in, the crazy starts, and it doesn’t really let up. Then it’s a lot of door slamming and people getting thrown around the room, in as generic a way possible. Even a visit to a cool botanica doesn't really help. 

There’s a moment near the end where the ghost stops and looks at the children in her original human form. The film belatedly seems to remember that its monster was originally motivated by pain, who had acted without knowing what she was doing, and is now mad with her grief. But then there's an irritating fake-out. Nope! She’s just demonic, and ends up stopped by the power of cliché.

The film spans 300 years, starting in Mexico, 1673, and quickly transitioning to 1973 and the strains of “Superfly.” One big positive: the Los Angeles setting is beautifully portrayed, with gorgeous cityscapes and lighting in nighttime scenes that my screenshots can't do justice to. Sorry!

So yes, I wrote this whole thing to think through why I was so disappointed in this film. It looks good, it's competently made, and it's about things I'm intrinsically interested in. I really wanted to like it, but I ended up sighing a lot. Sometimes the desire to play it safe, to stick with the formula, works against a film in both the short and long terms. The movie came and went, and is rarely mentioned now. If it had embraced its Mexican-American lineage, or stuck with its more ambiguous themes, it might have had a longer shelf life. A lot of worse films have!

Friday, June 16, 2023

Slouching Towards Lovecraft: Messiah of Evil (1973)

Sometimes films fall into undeserved obscurity, but some also get surprising revivals. This seems to have happened with the moody Messiah of Evil, filmed in 1971 and released in 1973. Over the years, the transfer quality on the VHS release and some free streaming services didn’t do its reputation any favors, but now that it’s available on a decent Blu-Ray from Code Red, and streaming on Shudder, the visuals, with strikingly creepy set-pieces and dream-like atmosphere, can get their due. It was even featured on Elvira’s 2021 Halloween special!

The plot, in which a young woman visits a beachside town in search of her missing artist father, puts  it in the sub-genre that evokes H.P. Lovecraft’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth”: an isolated small town where outsiders seem unwelcome, and increasingly sinister townspeople worship beings from the past. While Lovecraft famously had his own unique pantheon, the films that get tagged “Lovecraftian” tend to have older pagan gods, witchcraft cults, or in this case, a mysterious prophetic figure who represents the forces of darkness.


Other films with similar elements include The City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel) and Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which like this film uses California locations and gets some eerie ambience from a night-time gas station. In Messiah, it’s a Mobil station, with the connotation of “mobile,” as the characters are. They also both have characters similar to Lovecraft’s Zadok Allen, a drunken derelict who reveals too much to the newcomer. 


I watched Messiah of Evil with the director’s commentary specifically to find out if the “Lovecraftian” elements were purposeful. Co-writers and directors Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (probably best known for their relationship with George Lucas, having worked on American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and other films) both verify this. Katz refers to the “Lovecraftian mood,” and how creating this mood and its dreamlike quality, going for “creepy and unsettling,” was more their intent than character development or traditional narrative. Houyck says that Lovecraft was “a big inspiration,” that he had been a fan since childhood, and that a reference to “the Old Gods” was indeed meant to evoke Lovecraft. 

This certainly isn’t the first Lovecraftian film -- The Haunted Palace came out in 1963 and The Dunwich Horror in 1970 -- but it’s still an interesting and very early entry. While people like Huyck did grow up reading Lovecraft stories, the author certainly wasn’t a household name well-known to the general public at this time, long before the era of Cthulhu plushies or even Re-Animator

The commentary contains other interesting anecdotes, like that the original title, Blood Virgin, was rejected for sounding like a porn film. The working title was The Second Coming, after the poem by William Butler Yeats, but people thought that sounded even more like a porn film! Oddly, it was briefly released as Return of the Living Dead, 12 years before the cult zombie film, although George Romero put the kibosh on a tagline about there being “no more room in hell.” 


The Yeats reference struck a chord with me. Joan Didion’s famous essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” was written shortly before this, in 1968, and uses a line from the same poem for her analysis of the aimlessness and ennui of the hippie counterculture in contemporary California. In her introduction to the book of the same name, Didion describes writing “to come to terms with disorder,” in a world where she was seeing the foundations of society unravel, “proof that things fall apart.” This is very much the atmosphere of Messiah of Evil, although the film doesn’t treat it as something new, instead tying it back to the Donner party and the early history of the state.  

In the film’s post-hippie twilight, people can drift through life expressing their individuality, leading hedonistic lifestyles, but, with that echo of Innsmouth, those without ties become victims of those who do, the drifters falling to those who have a history within a place. Individuality breeds isolation, and when people get in trouble, they’re on their own.

Within the dreamlike world of the film, with this Messiah figure, who exactly are the townspeople waiting for, and what do they want him to save them from? It raises the question of what cultists get out of their cult. In Lovecraftian terms, why worship the Old Ones? This question is never really answered here, but my instinct is to say that they’re being saved from their everyday sense of meaninglessness and ennui. I may be projecting onto what I know about the time period, but they all seem to live pretty easy-going lives, in a beautiful natural setting. Nonetheless, there’s a fog of listlessness over the town, a sense of dullness and stagnation, and the return of the Messiah brings meaning and excitement. 

Is the town so listless because it’s caught up in a web of evil, or did its people get caught up in a web of evil because of the moody ennui that permeates the film? The hotel lobby is empty, the streets are dark, construction projects are eerily unfinished, and people stare soundlessly, unnervingly, at the sky. There’s a famous artist who disappears almost without anyone noticing. His daughter passively allows thing to happen, like when people start living in her house and she just lets them stay. A group of apparent drifters are well-dressed and apparently well-off but have nowhere to go. Even the local art gallery is run by a blind man who can’t see any of the art. 


The horrific set-pieces, taking place at a gas station, a grocery store, a movie theater, and the isolated coast, all show an individual against a group of threatening locals, who are under the influence of the mysterious Messiah figure. From the 2020s, we can look back and see the downside of the loss of community, but here we’re reminded of the dark side of collective identity. Part of why the hippie era and the 1970s “Me Generation” happened was to escape the stultifying conformity of life where everyone knows you, in conformist small towns and suburbs. It also led to a new trend of communal living, faux “tribalism,” and pursuit of empty hedonism that could be equally alienating. The mood of the times meshes surprisingly well with the themes Lovecraft developed in New England in the 1920s and ‘30s, and maybe that association will bring a few more viewers to this under-seen film.

Note: the Code Red edition referred to here is out of print (argh!), but there is a new special edition due out from Radiance Films in October 2023. They're in the U.K., but it's an all-region blu-ray available through Diabolik DVD. It includes tons of special features, but doesn't seem to bring over the director's commentary, so I'm glad I got the Code Red version when I did. There is a new documentary on the film though, so I'm tempted to pick it up. That would be my third time buying this movie! Wow.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Spookerama Sideshows: The Funhouse (1981)

While not completely forgotten, The Funhouse has never quite gotten the attention of Tobe Hooper films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Poltergeist, often getting lumped in with serviceable ‘80s horrors of the Prom Night variety. It never got a sequel, and didn’t produce a fan-favorite villain, but it does include a lot of amazing, real-life carnival imagery, since Hooper filmed at a Florida site used to store traveling rides and attractions in the off-season. Along the way, it also tells a bleak story of alienation and the breakdown of communication and support within the American family.

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The plot is particularly simple. On a whim, two teenage couples sneak in to spend the night inside the Funhouse of a traveling carnival, where they witness a murder through the floorboards, ending up trapped and fighting for their lives. A barker claims the Funhouse is full of “goblins, ghosties, and ghoulies,” asking “Who is man enough to enter that world of darkness?” It represents a desire for scares and thrills that are assumed to be harmless, and with their sheltered lives, the couples at first think what they’re seeing is funny, unaware that their light-hearted walk on the wild side contains real horror and danger.

Protagonist Amy is introduced in scenes that show her separation from her pesky little brother, Joey, and her parents. Watching TV on a pastel sofa, her mother nags her about her date’s prospects (“We’re not getting married!”) and her father tries, unsuccessfully, to control her behavior. In their nice, big, comfortable house, the couple doesn’t seem at all happy, and the mom drinks heavily, appearing quite drunk in her later appearance. 

She doesn’t fare much better with her friends, who can’t appreciate the good sense that could keep them alive. Her father had legitimate concerns about “that damned carnival,” which is connected in the public mind with the previous deaths of two children, but when she tries to avoid it, they pressure her with “Loosen up, will you?” 

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Joey sneaks off to the carnival himself, just in time to see them go into the Funhouse, and when he’s found there after hours, his parents are called. In mid-ordeal, Amy sees her entire family right outside, but her brother, who knows she’s there, hasn’t told anyone. No one can see her, and she can only scream for unheard help, then watch them drive away.

All this adds up to a theme of isolation and alienation. We never see any part of town but Amy’s house, and the carnival is reached after passing through empty countryside. There are random glimpses of a sinister world, not directly related to the carnival, but showing the supposedly normal world. A bag lady unnerves the girls and Joey in separate incidents, and Joey is -- jokingly? -- threatened with a shotgun by a passing motorist. He doesn’t have any Goonies or a Monster Squad, no friends to back him up; he just goes out into the night alone. 

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Similarly, the young couples, in training to be future nuclear families, don’t have any other friends who know what they’re doing. They enjoy their individuality, the lack of restraining neighbors or authority figures, until they need help and can’t reach it. Their lives, and deaths, take place in a vacuum of individuality. 

Ironically, the barker and his son are murderers, but they have a sense of protective community which the teenagers do not. The barker doesn’t care what his son does to the “locals,” but is angry that he’s killed “one of the family.” When he urges his son to kill the witnesses, he justifies it by saying “We gotta take care of each other.” 


The film’s conclusion reinforces this idea, echoing the earlier scene where Joey remains on the site as the carnival closes down. The camera pans back and he becomes very small, all but disappearing in the frame. At the end, with her friends dead, Amy emerges onto the carnival grounds as if into a wasteland, and again, the slow pan back of the camera highlights how small and alone she is in the vista of the hostile universe, becoming smaller and smaller, until she’s swallowed up by the carnival. Brother and sister are both shown in this same position, but they remain isolated and separated, never meeting after their argument in the beginning of the film. 

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Throughout the films I’ve watched here, carnivals and amusement parks are used as potent symbols of a common human desire to escape the grind of life for pleasure and a sense of freedom, but audiences are always reminded that stepping outside the norm can lead to danger. That can arguably be seen as reinforcing a certain social order, meant to keep young people, especially, in line. But the carnival’s very visual appeal in a film like The Funhouse also reminds us that too much constraint is incompatible with the human spirit. While its carnival people are presented as threatening, even murderous grotesques, there’s a level of grotesquerie outside in the so-called normal world, as well, and even with the supposedly safe confines of the nuclear family. 

 It is not to disparage the film’s style or originality to say that it fits the basic template of formula, in a way that earlier films like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies or She Freak did not. Those were strange, shaggy beasts, and this is the work of professionals, conscious of an audience with certain expectations that need to be met. Formulaic films can be very entertaining in the ways that formula is used, but they do feel different from the horror films that were made before the formulas had gelled into a set of conventions. 

Hooper’s film is far from generic, veering in some unexpected directions, but its basic outline is shared with dozens of horror films from the 1980s: teenagers break the rules and, as a result, face deadly consequences. By Hollywood studio standards, this would probably be considered a fairly low-budget genre film. But while it retains the oddball touches Hooper is known for, it’s still slicker and glossier than any of the other films discussed. 

Note: The Funhouse clearly references a long-time tradition of treating “freak show” performers as monstrosities, which unfortunately plays into negative stereotypes of disabilities as strange and threatening. A similar issue plagues all the films in the Friday the 13th franchise. This is tempered somewhat by the moral villainy of the physically “normal” characters. Although a physical deformed and mentally incapacitated Frankenstein Monster commits a murder out of instinct and anger, it’s his father who covers up the crimes, perpetuating them rather than allowing him to face the consequences, and manipulates him to commit murder in cold blood.

Spookerama Sideshows: She Freak (1967)

In the heyday of amusement parks, the phenomenon spread from the coasts and throughout the country. In many landlocked areas, however, the attractions they offered were experienced in an inverted form. Instead of traveling to visit a place of pleasures, the experience could come to you, through the long-standing tradition of the traveling carnival. 

Just as amusement parks are often depicted as uniquely, desirably American, but also as potentially threatening places of misrule, we see conflicting ideas and mixed messages about traveling carnivals. The images of rides and funhouses, of young men winning prizes for their girls at games of chance, are enduring symbols of the American experience. Underneath, however, we can find ideas of threat, of sin, of outsiders bringing temptation to otherwise placid, close-knit communities, although sometimes it’s the other way around. 


She Freak, written and produced by quintessential showman David F. Freidman and directed by Byron Mabe, borrows the outline of Tod Browning’s black and white classic, Freaks (1932), laying a version of its simple morality tale over the real-life West Coast Shows. 

Part of the modern appeal of films like Night Tide and Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies is their documentation of real places, once major sites of American experience, that are now long-lost. This element is even more notable in She Freak, which provides an invaluable view of a vintage traveling carnival, not least in its delightful sideshow posters (for Alligator Girl, Monkey Girl, Atomic Girl, and Phantasma-Goria) and incredible wardrobe choices, like the snake handler’s psychedelic blouses and crochet vests.


As surf music instrumentals play over its colorful documentary footage of carny life—with long intervals of setting up tents, rides, and games, and longer intervals of tearing them down—it’s almost a shame that there has to be a plot at all.

According to the carnival blog Docs Midway Cookhouse, filming took place at the Bakersfield and Madeira, California Fairs; “Kern County,” where Bakersfield is located, is visible on some of the fairground buildings. The cooperation of West Coast Shows is thanked with a disclaimer, that the story “simply would not and could not happen in this time and setting,” now that the industry has been taken out of “the hands of mountebanks and gypsies.” This is amusing in light of the film’s sensational poster, full of advertising ballyhoo that echoes the carny patter in the film, which trumpets it as not only “all the more appalling in color,” but “filmed on the actual locations where it COULD have happened.” 

She Freak is, like Night Tide, focused on the carnival people themselves, and presents a unique stage on which to critique the misuse of power. The character who’ll obviously become the villainous counterpart to Freaks’ Cleopatra has a plausible, understandable motivation. Potentially sympathetic at the start, she is hardened by experience, so that when she gains a position of power, she is greedy and unfeeling, becoming part of the system that made life hard for people like her, instead of having solidarity with them.


The film opens with that carnival set-up, and the barker who reminds us that “there are only two kinds of freaks, ladies and gentlemen. Those created by God, and those made by man.” From there, we shift to a small-town diner, where above-it-all waitress Jade scorns the advances of the customers. “You sure don’t give those rednecks the time of day, do you?” her lecherous boss asks, and the answer is a definite “no.” 

Jade starts out pretty tough-talking, and isn’t entirely sympathetic, but she makes valid points about her dead-end life and the example of her unhappy parents. “I know who I am. I’m nobody, just like you … There’s gotta be something better than that. I don’t know what or where it is, but when I find it, I’m gonna get it. Even if I have to lie or beg or cheat or steal for it, I’m gonna get it.” When the carnival’s marketer tries to talk her out of applying for a job, saying “it’s a rugged life,” she merely replies, “what ain’t?”

Thank goodness the Internet exists to explain this hand-written sign in the diner: “YCHJCY A ¼ FTJB.” It’s a gag with the answer, “Your curiosity has just cost you a quarter for the juke box.”


There’s a seductively nostalgic quality to She Freak; the specificity of the time period shows up in the clothes, the room decors, and the soundtrack, creating a vivid sense of a very particular bygone day. But the story includes the fact that the “good old days” were a time when a small-town bully could feel free to harass an employee, then fire her at will for rejecting his advances. A young woman like Jade had few real career prospects, and even when she joins the carnival, her opportunities don’t expand that quickly: in a surprisingly realistic touch, she ends up at the Midway Diner, doing the same job she was already doing.

She makes a friend, attractive “Moon” Mullins, who’s pleasant and welcoming, and Jade isn’t at all judgmental about her position as a stripper in the Paris at Midnite show (advertised as “50 million Frenchmen can’t B wrong: Ooh! La! La!”). Everyone needs to make a living, and everyone else is matter of fact about the reality. But the new girl doesn’t want to listen to the old pro’s advice about steering clear of the flirtatious Ferris wheel operator, and she isn’t so tolerant about the freak show, even though all we see is the sword swallower and that stylish, motherly snake handler.


Their conversation at this point more or less gives us the film’s mission statement.

Moon: The freaks? So?

Jade: They’re so horrible.

Moon: Honey, God made ‘em the way they are. They’re better off around here than most places.

Jade: Why do they have to be anywhere?

Jade’s desire to better herself is warped into a sense of contempt for those she perceives as abnormal and in some way lower than herself.  Once she indulges that intolerance, she begins to turn in a different direction. Before long, she’s pumping Moon for information about which men have enough money to be worth pursuing. The best prospect is Steve, who runs the freak show. He’s a decent guy, who treats the freaks with respect and considers them friends, with whom he’s in a cooperative business, so when Jade continues to call them “disgusting,” that should be a real red flag.

Despite these improved prospects, she still takes up with trouble-maker Blackie on the side, and given the insular nature of the small community, she’s clearly not thinking this through. She and her future husband even have a romantic ride on Blackie’s Ferris wheel, which is asking for trouble. 


By the time Jade marries her sugar daddy, Moon subtly disapproves of her friend’s transformation into a hardened gold-digger. At one point, one of the carnies refers to Jade as a “hash-slinging yokel,” but the boss defends her as “just a little country gal looking for something better,” reminding us of her original motives. Joining the carnival, going out on the road to make one’s fortune, is treated as a kind of contemporary American version of the frontier. There was nothing wrong with Jade’s ambitions, and her desire for more opportunities and new experiences was perfectly understandable. But once she starts down the path, her goals become a moving target. She isn’t satisfied with what she gets, but keeps wanting more, and one moral compromise quickly leads to another. 


Broadly speaking, there are two general responses to struggle and hardship: either becoming more compassionate to the struggles of others, or more hard-hearted. Here, the apparent protagonist becomes the villain. Her aversion to those who are different from her, lower and suffering more than she did, and her inability, or unwillingness, to overcome it, are the first steps in indulging her negative side, to the detriment of the better instincts she showed earlier on.

Attaining wealth and freedom, she is corrupted by power, leading to a violent, Browning-inspired comeuppance. The message of the film could be interpreted as a condemnation of the small town girl’s independence and ambition: that she should, perhaps, stayed in her place and not reached out for more. Fortunately, the character of Moon helps balance this idea. Her job as a stripper doesn’t impair her dignity or her moral compass, just as the freaks have their own dignity and sense of community, outside the mainstream of society. Jade, though, destroys her ties of friendship and connection with others, choosing to become the worst kind of boss and the worst kind of rich person, looking down at anyone she sees as lower than herself, which was never necessary or inevitable. 


Early on, Moon had told her, “you’re with us, you belong.” Jade took advantage of the carnival’s countercultural opportunities to escape the stifling limitations of normal, everyday life, but she didn’t respect them, or the people who were happy to include her in their community and even their family. Obviously, no one’s condoning what happens to her, which is disproportionate to her sins, but this is clearly not a realistic twist, but more of a fable, in which nothing bad would have happened if people had done the right thing.

While there isn’t a whole lot of story, the film looks surprisingly good, considering the speed and budget of the production. 


Lead actress Claire Brennan had a long career, mostly in 1970s TV, but the most famous name in the cast is 3’11” actor Felix Silla, who appears here as cowboy Shorty, and would play Cousin Itt on The Addams Family. Internet rumors claim the two started a long-time secret relationship during shooting, eventually having a child, but this is difficult to confirm.

The website Sideshow World, packed with behind-the-scenes information about life on the sideshow circuit, includes memoirs by magician Vanteen, who played Mr. Babcock, the man who gives Jade her job at the carnival, and he describes the filming of She Freak at some length. He and the snake handler (billed as “Madame Lee”) were married in real life, and the film depicts her own real-life snake act, so the feeling of documentary, less often found in later genre films, is well-earned. 



Friday, June 9, 2023

Spookerama Sideshows: The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964)


Many films that deal with carnivals and amusement parks—which have the word “amusement” right there in the name—will eventually run into the Paradox of Hedonism, the idea that the pursuit of pleasure is ultimately counterproductive, leading to less enjoyment than is found in more selfless or productive activities, and even a sense of emptiness.

This theme increases in cultural relevance during the midcentury time period, when the United States grew richer, and the average person began to enjoy unprecedented amounts of physical comfort, spending money, and free time, all of which led to a material culture that many have taken for granted. These factors elevated the importance of entertainment, as the desire to escape from reality and normalcy, with its work ethic and need for respectability, developed into a far-ranging money-making industry, and an important medium for transmitting society’s ideas about itself.


Directed by Ray Dennis Steckler, who also stars under the pseudonym Cash Flagg, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies depicts some of the drawbacks of a hedonistic culture. The film begins with the contrast of an amusement park looking inevitably bleak by day but alluring in the neon-lit night, and its menacing aspect is immediately revealed, as a fortuneteller uses an apparently acidic potion to turn anyone she doesn’t like into the “strange creatures” of the title.

A scene-setting panorama of the amusement park’s arcades, cafes, and games abrupt shifts to a shabby apartment where two bachelors, rebellious Jerry and his good-natured, heavily-accented buddy Harold, discuss Jerry’s problems with his girlfriend.

             “Her mother doesn’t like anything. Especially me.”
            “Well, if you get a job or something, she might change her mind, you know?”
            “A job?”         

Jerry, openly contemptuous of the idea, responds with a thesis statement for life that could apply to much of the developing 1960s youth culture: “Why? The world’s here to be enjoyed, not to make you depressed. That’s what work does … It makes you feel depressed.”

This central conflict is immediately advanced at girlfriend Angie’s suburban home, where she’s turning down a date with someone who isn’t as “fun” and “exciting” as Jerry, even though her mother (rightly) sees there’s no future in it. He arrives to pick up her up, and when asked about college, smugly says “The world’s my college.” Angie, with a nice home and a comfortable middle-class life, is drawn to Jerry’s aimless, vaguely philosophical qualities. His life, focused on leisure and pleasure, represents a sense of freedom, and a diversion for her from the path that leads to a stodgy, boring life of domesticity.

For Jerry, a figure created for restless, anti-authoritarian youth to identify with (according to an interview with Steckler on the Guilty Pleasures DVD), the nearness of the amusement park fits in with his passively rebellious rejection of work, college, and the approval of the older generation, and that’s where he takes Angie directly from her straight-laced suburban environment.

There’s more impressive footage of the park and its rides, including first-person views of the rollercoaster, as the young people light-heartedly explore the locale. This sequence depicts the positive side of entertainment: the characters are truly having fun, and if they’d only known when to stop, they’d have avoided pain and tragedy.  Instead, their day of pleasure, in a world “here to be enjoyed,” is extended into the nighttime, when the misrule grows darker.

Behind the curtain of what the customers see, a subplot follows dancer Marge, played by Steckler’s wife, Carolyn Brandt. Fearfulness and paranoia have led her to drink, so she stumbles, screwing up her act, although the audience doesn’t seem to enjoy it any less. She is compelled to visit Madame Estrella, the murderous fortuneteller; stating that “I only know that something evil lies ahead for me,” she seeks answers to her sense of impending doom, After turning up the ominous Ace of Spades in her reading, she runs right into a closet full of monsters, then out the door, just as the young people are going in to get their fortunes told. She never tells anyone about this experience, but instead resigns herself to her unlucky fate.

“Sometimes the crystal sees things it is better that we do not know,” Estrella tells Angie.

The amusement park as seen in Incredibly Strange Creatures hearkens back to the era before the rise of Disneyland, which is everywhere identified with a sanitizing effect. Historian Lauren Rabinovitz refers to the role of vice—more adult, illicit forms of hedonism—in luring customers to their attractions in the pre-Disney age. The newer versions “ have eliminated many of the defining features of the turn-of-the-century electric park—its entertainments and audiences who breached social and sexual mores, its more vulgar attractions of gambling and drinking, its enthusiasm for defining the exotic and the sensational, its excessive visual spectacle” (from Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity, p. 172).

This element of enticing seediness is on prominent display in Steckler’s film, with montages that highlight the presence of cocktail lounges, and a lot of time is spent at the girl show, symbolically named the Garden of Eden, which becomes the site of conflict between the young couple. When Jerry is strongly attracted to the girl show and its featured dancer, Angie shows her backbone by refusing to join him.

At this pivotal point, the young woman realizes her mother may be right. Seeing her boyfriend fascinated with a stripper leads to questions about the future of their relationship. For the young man, her concerns represent a push into a committed relationship, a path that could lead to adult responsibility, opposed to the kind of liberty he has as a bachelor to go to all the strip shows he wants.

Jerry’s desire to visit the Garden of Eden is almost a compulsion, much the way Marge was drawn to the fortuneteller. In a world given over to the pursuit of freedom, they are victims of their unconscious impulses, and follow them right into danger. As he becomes a “Mixed-Up Zombie,” his situation is similar to those in exploitation scare films about drug use and juvenile delinquency, in which the desire to test the boundaries and break the rules, leads characters into a more blatant kind of slavery to drugs or crime. Giving in to the temptation of the girl show, he is separated from his friends, rendering him more vulnerable, and, lured by a fake note from the star dancer, walks right into a trap, hypnotized by spinning spirals until he is ready to kill at Estella’s command. 
His crime blending into a surrealistic nightmare, Jerry doesn’t realize at first what he’s done. In the morning, he goes to apologize to Angie, but begins to strangle her in a trance. Pulled away from her, he escapes to wander the streets of a shabby neighborhood, where a passing elevated train shows reality echoing the amusement park, with its rollercoaster on similar raised tracks.

Realizing he needs help, Jerry’s friend and girlfriend track him down back at the park, where the zombies have been unleashed. While they have been indulgent of his bad behavior, they were not invested in his countercultural attitudes, so they are left behind to mourn when he succumbs to his literal dead-end existence.

Most films in the amusement park/carnival genre focus either on the lives of the workers (Night Tide and the iconic black and white Freaks come to mind, along with the TV show Carnivale, or non-horror films like Carny), or on the people who come to a carnival and have unpleasant experiences (as in Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse). Incredibly Strange Creatures is unusual in being equally split between the two. The villain is fortuneteller Estrella, taking advantage of the transient rubes, but dancer Marge, certain she’s been cursed by bad luck, is more sympathetic. The trio of paying customers is presented as the main characters, but the most prominent, Jerry, is almost as unlikable as the villain, and it’s hard to feel too sorry for him when things go wrong.

As with Night Tide, this film takes advantage of Southern California’s existing amusement parks for location shooting. In this case, footage of the park was filmed at the Pike, a park in Long Beach, California, which would close in 1979. The Cyclone Racer rollercoaster, featured heavily in the film, would close in 1968.

(A real-life fortune teller at the Pike. Photo credit: Photo credit: William Reagh, Herald Examiner Collection.)

A lot of interesting history about the Pike is available online, including this link from the Los Angeles Public Library (thanks, comrades!) and this link from public television station KCET that appropriately calls it "gaudy, tawdry, and bawdy."

The Sinister Cinema DVD has an enlightening interview with Steckler, who reveals, among other details, that Jerry and Harold’s depressing apartment is where he and Brandt lived at the time, in real life. While Brandt was a professional dancer, there was no time to choreograph or rehearse the performances, so Marge’s drunkenness was written in to cover those flaws. Mocked on the otherwise superlative Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode for her mannishness, she and Steckler himself are the only notable members of the cast with experience beyond a few exploitation films. (A new edition is out from Severin Films, but we haven't checked that out yet).

Things were different on the other side of the camera. Laszlo Kovacs, the assistant cameraman, was later Director of Photography on films like Ghostbusters, and camera operator Vilmos Zsigmond has many notable credits, including an Academy Award as the Director of Photography on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Steckler also reveals that the film’s musical numbers were all shot in one day, which explains a lot. There are nine such numbers in 80 minutes, including three nightclub sequences with Marge and her dance partner; a male balladeer with a guitar; a female torch singer, who made me wonder if David Lynch has seen this movie; and four performances at the girl show.

One of these is a group dance number, a sort of fashion burlesque, in which women in tights and feathers perform for an audience full of older women in hair nets. MST3K points out that the tune is very similar to “Little Drummer Boy,” which is hard to get out of your head. One is a PG-rated striptease by star dancer Carmelita, who’s supposed to be a fiery dancer, but just strolls on the stage, full of ennui. Then there are two more group performances: something with a rock-n-roll feel that sounds like they’re singing “Schick out of Shake,” but is titled “Shook Out of Shape,” and a strange faux tribal number that’s disrupted by an all-out attack of the incredibly strange creatures.

The end credits include “Music released by Rel Records,” but I can find no evidence of an existing soundtrack, which is, frankly, a shame.