Shocker (1989) [31 Days of Gore]


 There comes a time when I get burnt out watching all these horror movies in a single month. That time is now. I just… this was a hard one to get through. I really hoped I would like it this time around, but it was even worse than I remembered.

 I’ve heard Shocker described as a cult classic, but that can’t be right. It’s about a serial killer who gets transformed into pure energy after he’s fried in the electric chair. The problem is the movie’s so slow, the execution scene doesn’t take place until almost fifty minutes in; better movies would have knocked out the setup in five to ten minutes. For all the time it spends setting things up, there’s very little payoff and even fewer explanations.

Peter Berg plays a high school jock who bonks his head on the field goal. Shortly after the concussion he has visions of the killer’s crimes, which ultimately lead to his arrest and conviction. That’s not all: Berg’s girlfriend is a helpful ghost and there’s even less of an explanation for why he can see her. As for how the killer gained his powers in the first place, there was an inexplicable ritual involving candles, a television, and jumper cables. I don’t need every little thing explained to enjoy a movie, but not a lick of this makes any sense.

Venturing into spoiler territory: Peter Berg chases the killer into a television set for the film’s climax, passing through its screen magically. Much like the scene in Waxwork II, the rivals fist fight from one famous piece of footage to the next. It’s the kind of wackiness I usually appreciate in horror movies, but although it looks pretty convincing it simply isn’t exciting. This is partly because the rules governing the whole affair are incomprehensible… saying any more would spoil the end, but I guarantee you’ll be scratching your head, too.

 Wes Craven, who I generally like, was obviously trying to create another Freddy Kruger. Freddy was effective because he got you in your sleep, something you can’t hope to escape. Here, the killer gets you through technology, which is just as inescapable as sleep, but the transparent attempt at striking oil twice is too much to ignore. I will say Mitch Pileggi, who plays the villain, is pretty damn good.

It’s just a mediocre movie, which I find far more offensive than a flat-out bad one. The effects are quite good, though, and I’m giving Craven the benefit of a doubt. It looks like a good movie ruined by things out of his control.


The Critters series (1988-1992) [31 Days of Gore]

A note about the screenshots in this post: I forgot to take them from the movies when I had a chance so I pulled them from Movie Timelines’ excellent YouTube channel. This guy may not have the best audio and video quality, but he offers a fun way to revisit movie franchises. (I’m going to throw a shout-out to Screaming Soup as well, for no other reason than I feel like promoting YouTube channels today… I’ll drop two more recommendations in the Critters 2 review.)

Oh, how I used to love Critters. No, I wasn’t too stupid to realize it was a Gremlins cash-in, but a lot of the movies I like are cash-ins. Thankfully, there’s a distinction to be made between good cash-ins (such as Lucio Fulci’s Zombie) and lazy ones (such as Critters 4).

Critters (1986)

I’m not saying Critters is a great movie, but when there’s fifteen hundred movies about vampires and werewolves, don’t we have room for a handful of movie series about pet-sized monsters? Yes, the Gremlins series is better (and surprisingly darker than Critters despite its relative lack of blood), but that’s like going out of your way to say a fine restaurant is better than McDonald’s: sometimes you just want a Quarter Pounder with cheese and a lot of the time it’s much more satisfying. You’ve also got all the other fast food chains to choose from: Ghoulies, Hobgoblins, Munchies, Elves, the little monsters from The Gate, Cat’s Eye, and, one of my favorites, Trilogy of Terror. 

That’s a lot to choose from, but the situation is far from saturated. I’m just saying: more tiny monsters, please. And in the meantime, Critters is one of the better examples of the sub-genre.

The Brown family are the wholesome types, living on a farm in the countryside. Dee Wallace and Billy Green Bush are the parents while M. Emmet Walsh plays the sheriff. (Lin Shaye and Billy Zane are in this, too.) Then there’s the town drunk, named Charlie, a gap-toothed buffoon who becomes the unlikely but likable hero of the series. Unbeknownst to these earth-born characters, a couple of intelligent aliens known as krites have hijacked an extraterrestrial spaceship and hightailed it to our planet in order to feast on humans.

Then a couple of alien bounty hunters come to Earth to exterminate the krites. These guys are face-shifters who can look like anyone they want. One assumes the face of a popular rockstar while the other tries on the style of just about everyone he meets. He eventually chooses to look like Charlie, which really doesn’t have anything to do with the plot… I’m not sure what they were going for here.

A couple things to admire about movies in the 80s: they still had slow-burn beginnings and didn’t require a bazillion dollars to entertain us. But let’s point out a couple of bogus things, too: the movie straight-up rips off a scene in E.T. in which Elliot artificially warms his thermometer in order to play hooky (funny that both movies should feature Dee Wallace). Then, it rips off a scene in Gremlins which references E.T…. not once, but twice.

Enough nitpicking. Here’s what great about the mischievous krites: they talk. When one of them is blown away by a shotgun, the other exclaims in an alien language: “Fuck!” No, their antics aren’t quite as hilarious as the gremlins’, but they’re a load of fun and The Chiodo Brothers’ simplistic effects are far better and effective than they have any right to be.

Critters 2 (1988)

I clearly remember the day Critters 2 showed up at the local video store because I just about crapped my pants. I’ve said before that I admire its director, Mick Garris, and you can do worse than spending an afternoon on his official YouTube channel. What I like most about Garris is he’s a genuine horror nut. He took part in Joe Dante’s Trailers From Hell, unabashedly describing this, his maiden film, as “a low-budget sequel to a rip-off of Gremlins.

So the Browns have moved since the original film, but the son (now a teenager) has returned to town in order to visit his grandmother. (This is really just a nice way of saying most of the other actors passed on the sequel; interestingly, M. Emmet Walsh’s character is now played by Barry Corbin, which has gotta be one of the least distracting actor replacements of all time.) It turns out the eggs we saw at the previous cliffhanger have an incubation period of two years, which makes you wonder how the two critters in the first film turned into roughly a dozen in a matter of minutes.

Charlie the drunk has cleaned up his act since the first movie. Although we clearly saw the bounty hunters leave Earth without him, it’s established early on that he’s actually been going on space adventures with them. As expected, when the eggs inevitably hatch, the trio of bounty hunters return to Earth and start shooting the town up. Ug, who assumed the appearance of an earth-based musician, is still rocking the same face but radically different hair. His partner Lee changes his/her face numerous times throughout the picture without rhyme or reason. Again, I’m not even sure what the writers were going for with this face-changing stuff, but whatever.

The film takes place over Easter weekend and, due to a series of unlikely events, krite eggs are hidden for the little children to scavenge. Sounds like an awesome premise, but the movie never really does anything with it. (There’s actually quite a few of these anti-payoffs, particularly toward the end… there things happen only to be rendered pointless seconds later.) The cute little bastards hatch, wreak havoc, and the Easter egg hunt is never mentioned again.

Here’s the level of character stupidity we’re dealing with here: in one scene, the sheriff is attacked by krites, who managed to get inside his Easter Bunny costume, and thrown through the window of a church. Someone suggests it was a farm accident. Yeah.

Although this one doesn’t outright copy Gremlins like the original did, it certainly feels a lot more like Gremlins in the way the krites go about their shenanigans. Once again, the absolute limit of the PG-13 rating is pushed as Garris gets away with full-on breasts and a surprising amount of gore. I like the look of the original film better, mostly because I prefer night scenes, but the creature effects are just as good if not better.

Critters 3 (1991)

Yep, that’s Leonardo DiCaprio in his first feature. (How he didn’t win the Oscar here, I’ll never know.) He plays the son of a vicious landlord who’s evicting all the tenants from his rundown apartment building. What they don’t know is a fresh batch of krites have just moved in and they’re about to feast on the remaining dwellers… slowly and boringly.

I remember catching this on TV one weekend. I eventually got bored and decided to play Nintendo instead. I wouldn’t say straight-to-video sequels are the bane of my existence—I liked at least one of the Universal Soldier followups and didn’t completely hate Hellraiser: Deader—but it’s usually a safe bet they’re going to suck.

Critters 3 isn’t an exception, although it has its moments. As usual with the franchise, the best part is the critters themselves. The creature designs look creepier than ever (the red eyes have never been as vibrant), but there’s a slight reduction in the puppetry itself, probably because the filmmakers didn’t have the budget or the schedule they had on previous movies.

The second best part of these movies is Charlie, but in this one he only appears in the beginning and at the end. I appreciate they were trying to do something different, but it was the wrong decision nonetheless. The final product is neither good nor bad enough to entertain, but I was less offended by its mediocrity than most unnecessary sequels.

There really isn’t any more to say about this one.

Critters 4 (1992)

Hey, look! They shortened the wait between movies! That must mean this one is especially great!

At the end of the previous film, Charlie was contacted by Ug, via space telephone, and told he couldn’t destroy the final two krite eggs because it’s against intergalactic law to extinguish an endangered species. Charlie’s orders: wait for an autonomous pod to arrive and store the eggs for safe keeping. Critters 4 picks up immediately after this cliffhanger and you’d expect it to retain some of the momentum—what little was left—but it drops the ball immediately.

When he climbs in to store the eggs, the cryogenic pod malfunctions, freezes Charlie, and takes off for deep space. For reasons not explained (or maybe I was sleeping during the explanatory dialogue) the pod never makes its way to its intended destination. Instead, it’s coincidentally picked up by a far-future group of space travelers, including Brad Dourif and Angela Basset.

I didn’t pick at the earlier films, not because they were without flaws, but because they were fun. I’m going to pick at this one because I hated every second of it. For one, these people have no idea how mindbogglingly big space is. Two, they have perfected cryogenic freezing biological organisms, yet the entire crew remains awake for a space trip which takes years?

Here’s my dilemma: I enjoy three of the performers in this film, so I can’t blame it on them. I’m a big fan of co-writer David J. Schow, so I can’t blame it on him, either. I know next to nothing about the one-time director, but I’d hate to place the blame solely at his feet either. Let’s just pretend it never happened.

My mind was so bored I began to long for the previous films, which actually had a bit of worldbuilding in the background. You got the feeling Ug and company were going on crazy adventures every week, that there were worlds much more interesting than earth, that there were critters out there far wilder than the krites. It all could have been spun off and woven into a rich, expanded universe—comics, books, TV shows—but instead the series ends with a painful whimper.

In fact, I’d rather see something new in the Critters universe than an unneccessary Han Solo spin-off. But it seems the owners of the Critters IP were so tired of it, they were intent on killing it forever.

Little Evil (2017) [31 Days of Gore]

I’m glad Netflix has gotten into the movie production game, but man, they really need to step it up. It’s not quite bad enough to call “mediocre,” but I can say with 100% certainty I’ll never watch it again.

Adam Scott and Evangeline Lilly play newlyweds in Little Evil, a comedic take on Richard Donner’s The Omen. What Lilly failed to mention was her odd little boy, who Scott struggles to connect with, may or may not be the Antichrist. The concept is ripe for dark fun, but dressing the boy exactly like Damien and surrounding the leads with stock comedy characters isn’t very creative. This is routine stuff, only marginally better than your average Adam Sandler flick.

The supporting cast is decent enough. You get Sally Field, Clancy Brown, Donald Faison, and Bridget Everett who plays the kind of sidekick usually reserved for dimwitted males. She’s a dude-bro who makes dumb sex jokes and owns a monster truck. I like it and I don’t… good idea, disappointing execution.

What I loved about The Omen was I couldn’t wait to see how it resolved; you knew they probably wouldn’t kill a kid in a Hollywood movie, but if Gregory Peck didn’t kill the kid, the world—and all its children—would die. There was a little bit of that suspense in Little Evil, too, but then the filmmakers cheat and give themselves an easy out. That decision takes us far from the realm of “dark comedy” and puts us right back into “routine comedy” territory.

I love a good comedy, but this ain’t one of ’em. There are funny moments and it never really felt insulting to the intelligence, but rarely did I laugh out loud. Oh well, it just isn’t my kind of movie.

While Netflix Originals aren’t quite as good as theatrical productions, they’re a helluva lot better than the straight-to-video trend which proceeded them. Little Evil isn’t a movie I would recommend if it had premiered in theaters, but it’s an okay watch for a casual afternoon, provided you already subscribe to Netflix. I certainly don’t think it’s as funny or well made as the director’s Tucker & Dale vs Evil, but you could do a lot worse.

Society (1989) [31 Days of Gore]

I’m generally a fan of director Brian Yuzna and special effects guru Screaming Mad George. Maybe they don’t make a lot of great movies, but they almost always make movies that are great to look at. As expected, Society is far from being a great movie, but I’ll be damned if there isn’t some great stuff in it. 90% of that greatness comes at the finale, which is far more memorable than the rest of the jerkily paced movie.

Television actor Billy Warlock plays Bill Whitney, a high school student who’s plagued by disturbing visions. (Yuzna credits his inspiration for these sequences to Salvador Dali’s The Great Masturbator, which should give you an indication of how weird Society can get.) Bill confides in his shrink that he believes he was secretly adopted because his family seems so alien to him. He also insists he doesn’t fit in with his classmates, but the scenes in which he’s seen at school are contradictory to this proclamation.

Early on there’s a scene in which Bill catches sight of his sister’s figure through the translucent door of the shower. Something about the image is not quite right, though; as Bill is inexplicably drawn toward the shower, his point of view reveals her anatomy is all out of whack. Later, when he ends up making love to one of his classmates, one of her hands caresses his body in a manner which would be humanly impossible. This is the best stuff the movie has to offer: the surprisingly subtle optical illusions.

What it’s not so good at is its pacing and character development. Bill isn’t portrayed as a teen who’s trying to live his life in spite of his problems. He’s portrayed as a normal teen who doesn’t even think about his problems whenever they’re not actively haunting him. In the normal scenes he seems like a completely different person, entirely unaffected by his life-altering troubles. This has the unfortunate side effect of making the movie feel uneven, as if they wanted half a horror flick and half an 80s comedy.

Back to the infamous finale: this is some of the best special effects work you can get, provided you like creature effects and body horror. The pacing still feels a little off, but even I have to admit I’d be dead not to be moved by something so fantastically macabre. I think this could have been a great movie, but they could have easily trimmed twenty minutes to make it move smoother. Also, resolutions like this one don’t exactly mesh with this kind of satire. It’s a cheat when a movie as fucked up as this one takes the easy way out.

Otherwise, there’s something special here. You just have to look for it sometimes.

The New York Ripper (1982) [31 Days of Gore]

The New York Ripper is an acquired taste. In it, a serial killer who’s adopted a Donald Duck voice to taunt the police is murdering beautiful young women in The Big Apple. That’s it. That’s the entire setup.

The immediately apparent aspect of movies like The New York Ripper is the surrealism, which is likely the byproduct of an Italian film crew making an “American” movie. A foreign actor whose accent has been dubbed over should, in theory, be undetectable, but that’s never the case. And although Fulci and company drag their handheld cameras to the darkest corners of NYC, it doesn’t quite look like the city we’ve seen in countless movies. Some of the indoor locations were probably filmed in Italy, but even the stuff that’s undeniably New York feels… off.

“Off” is an effective feeling in horror movies.

As with Pieces, there’s something inherently fun about the tone in a drive-in movie kind of way. And it’s bold in the way it never cuts away from its depictions of sex or violence prematurely. The fact that it was the cinematic embodiment of everything the Moral Majority rallied against doesn’t hurt either, an aspect I think is lost on moviegoers who didn’t grow up in such embarrassingly stiff times (the VHS copy of The New York Ripper has nearly five minutes removed to appease Reagan-era sentiments).

Too many people maintain that a movie is always more effective when it only implies the carnage. If that were strictly true, why do the crusaders only rally against the ones that dare to show it? Better yet, why can’t we just appreciate both types of movies?

Fulci and his crew go everywhere in this movie and you get the feeling they did an awful lot of it without permits: sex shows, grimy movie theaters, disturbingly empty subways. This is a gritty film highlighted by cartoonish, over-the-top violence and the killer’s comical voice. It’s also one of the better movies I’ve featured this month.

Stir of Echoes (1999) [31 Days of Gore]

When Stir of Echoes was in theaters, I begrudgingly went with a friend (he had a car and I didn’t at the time so… yeah). I’m not sure why I didn’t want to see it at the time. I ended up liking it, but this time I’m utterly impressed.

First of all, I’m a bigger fan of Kevin Bacon now than I was before. The guy has a lot more range than your typical name brand and he doesn’t get enough credit for the things he does with his voice. Bacon straddles the line between movie star and character actor quite evenly.

Here he plays a blue collar lineman whose dreams of rock stardom become more and more unlikely the older he gets. He struggles to smile when he discovers his wife is pregnant and about the only fun he ever has is getting drunk at block parties and high school football games. It’s at one of these parties that his sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas) puts him in a hypnotic trance with the intention of “opening his mind.” Unfortunately for Bacon, she’s pried it open a little too far and he soon sees things not meant for mortal eyes.

What we get is a supporting cast of believable characters played by a bevy of familiar faces. David Koepp’s word play make these people all the more likable. Outside of the magic negro trope, which seems ripped out of Kubrick’s The Shining, there’s rarely a misstep and I was glad I had forgotten enough in the years since I first saw it to be surprised again. This isn’t to say the reveal at the end is particularly good, but it’s not as bad as I remembered, either.

I think what’s most interesting about Stir of Echoes is that you’d expect it to be a lot more wholesome considering Koepp’s past work, but he pulls no punches. There’s not a whole lot of gore in the movie, but the imagery he pulls off is genuinely unnerving. So don’t let the gore rating give you the wrong picture: the stuff in this movie is way more effective than the kitschy kind of gore I designed the scale for in the first place.

Nurse: 3-D (2014) [31 Days of Gore]

If gratuitous sex and violence bugs you, steer clear of Nurse. Paz de la Huerta stars as a psychotic hospital worker who becomes infatuated, in a Single White Female kind of way, with a rookie nurse played by Katrina Bowden. You may remember Bowden as the ditsy blonde on 30 Rock or the smart blonde from Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. I think she’s a surprisingly good actress who deserves to be in better flicks than Nurse.

Huerta, on the other hand, seems universally hated by moviegoers. I don’t know why. I think she’s perfect for Nurse and what it’s trying to be. To be clear, it’s not trying to be much, but that’s part of the charm. I came this close to seeing this one in the theater, and had I gone I wouldn’t have felt cheated. America just doesn’t make movies like this anymore. It’s a wonder it actually made it into theaters.

The exploitation film is a dying breed. Anything even remotely resembling the bawdy fun of pre-blockbuster genre flicks is almost exclusively done ironically these days. Now, Nurse isn’t a great exploitation film, but it’s an honest one which is elevated by the fact there’s not a whole lot to choose from anymore. I’d rate it high above a late night 90s thriller and a little bit below Basic Instinct. Speaking of Basic Instinct: if the Sharon Stone leg-cross shocked you, Huerta will give you a heart attack.

I happen to love deadly women movies. In the first scene, Huerta is shown scouring a nightclub for unfaithful husbands. She finds one, seduces him, and leads him to the rooftop of a tall building. There she gives him a handjob before nicking his femoral artery with a scalpel. While he’s bleeding out, she gives a decent little killer speech and shoves him over the edge. Several stories below he’s impaled on an iron fence. Like most of the kills in the movie, there’s a strange mixture of practical effects and CGI, as if they originally planned to do it the right way, then decided to amp up the blood in post. It’s a cheat, but it’s a damned sight better than the entirely CGI stuff in Midnight Meat Train.

Kathleen Turner is in the movie for approximately thirty seconds and never seen again, Judd Nelson appears as a perverted doctor who gets the second best murder scene of the entire movie (not a spoiler as you can tell he was born to die from the very second he appears on screen), and Reno 911’s Niecy Nash plays a pretty good comedic relief. Dumb logic and unnecessary voiceovers aside, I quite liked Nurse.

There’s a scene near the end which is unexpectedly disturbing. It’s undercut by a Silence of the Lambs rip-off, but what Huerta does when cornered in a room full of bedridden patients is one of the most visceral things I’ve ever seen and, thankfully, the filmmakers don’t ruin that part with CGI. In fact, had they used no CGI at all, I probably could have given this one a four on the gore rating.

An American Werewolf in London (1981) [31 Days of Gore]

I like John Landis the person more than the filmmaker. Don’t get me wrong: I loved Animal House, liked Blues Brothers, and kind of enjoyed Innocent Blood when it came out (I might revisit it soon). But, try as I might, I could never quite get into An American Werewolf in London. The last time I tried I returned the VHS to the video store before finishing it. Today I stuck it through and found out the best part of the movie is the ending, although everything preceding it doesn’t really connect.

Every time I stumble upon a John Landis interview I stop whatever I have planned and watch. I’d be hard-pressed to name three directors with the same gusto he has. Which is weird because that gusto doesn’t translate to An American Werewolf. It’s like Landis  unconditionally loves all movies except for his own. And even though Animal House is still one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, I can’t find the humor in this one… that is to say until the porno theater scene (the movie-within-the-movie is hilarious). Everything beyond that is actually quite good, but that’s only like the final tenth of the movie.

I was hopeful the movie would click this time around, but it just didn’t do it in time. I rarely get bored by horror movies, even the ones objectively worse than this one. Apparently, my enjoying this movie is just one of those things that weren’t meant to be.

A couple of backpackers are hiking across the English countryside. There they happen upon a tavern called The Slaughtered Lamb. It’s a record-skip kind of moment (though, thankfully, the movie doesn’t go there literally), and the locals kick the boys out when they inquire about the spooky, 200-year old pentagram painted on the wall. “Beware the moon,” are the locals’ departing words, as well as: “stick to the roads.”

Naturally, there’s a full moon that very night and the boys are attacked by a werewolf. It kills one and maims the other. The survivor, David, wakes up in a hospital and begins an unlikely romance with his nurse (Jenny Agutter, who co-starred with Michael York in Logan’s Run, one of my all-time favorite movies). When he’s released from the hospital, she offers him room and board (and sex) at her apartment. Around the same time, David begins receiving visits from his dead friend, Jack, like the Victor Pascow character in Pet Sematary. 

Jack’s ghost informs David he’s a werewolf now and that he should kill himself to break the curse. David’s holding out hope that he’s crazy because crazy is an attractive alternative to suicide. This is all very good on paper, but the execution is… I mean… is it supposed to be a tribute to older flicks or something? Because it never feels that way. It just feels straight-up like something we’ve all seen and watched before.

The special effects are great, but I have nothing else I want to say. It bums me out, too, because I find at least a few positive things to say about nearly everything I feature on here. But this one… I don’t know. It just doesn’t work for me until that wonderful ending comes along. Maybe I’ll try again in another decade.

I do have to give it a decent gore rating, though, if only because of that spectacular ending. I really wish the rest of the movie had been so far out of its mind.

The House series (1985-1992) [31 Days of Gore]

There’s just something magical about a Friday the 13th falling in October, isn’t there? If you’re wondering why I’m not featuring the Jason series, it’s because I already did that earlier this year. Instead, here’s a series that’s stained by the Friday the 13th franchise: Jason creator Sean Cunningham produced them all; Harry Manfredini, who created Jason’s signature music, provided all four scores; Kane Hodder, everyone’s favorite Jason actor, does the stunt coordination; and Steve Miner, who directed the second and third Jason movies, helms the maiden film.

This is the first time I’ve seen any of these movies as an adult. In the case of House III, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. (More on that piece of shit, later.)

House (1986)

William Katt is probably best remembered for Carrie and The Greatest American Hero, but this is the movie I’ll forever associate with him. Katt plays horror writer Roger Cobb, a veteran of the Vietnam war whose son has gone missing sometime prior the film’s opening. The aunt who raised Roger has recently hanged herself and Roger moves into her old place.

Surprise! The house is haunted. That would be a pretty big let down if the house weren’t the centerpiece of a movie called House, right? Well, don’t worry. The series doesn’t make that mistake until House III. (Again: more on that piece of shit, later.)

Roger has a lot going on in his life. The fact that he’s an extremely popular horror writer doesn’t matter to the plot in the least, nor does the fact that his wife is a super famous actress. Meanwhile, Roger’s exceedingly boring flashbacks to his war experiences, which look like they were filmed in the garden section of a home improvement store, don’t figure into the plot until the very end. The ‘Nam pay-off is a lot less exciting than the setup was worth, but it involves Richard Moll who I’m always excited to see in movies.

Speaking of sitcom actors, Roger’s next door neighbor is Norm from Cheers (George Wendt) who’s more or less playing Norm from Cheers (not a complaint). He’s the comic relief in a movie that can’t decide whether it wants to be a straight horror film or a horror-comedy along the lines of Evil Dead 2. The horror-comedy elements actually work, but the straight horror and the straight comedy bits kind of stink.

Here’s a silly nit-pick: when you first see Norm, his hands are covered in grime. When he shakes hands with Roger, you expect the old cliche where he doesn’t realize his palm is dirty until he rubs it on his shirt. I usually like it when a movie spares us the cliche, but here it feels like a sneeze which won’t dislodge. Earlier in the movie, a delivery boy wanders into the house and carefully places a sack of groceries on the table in the entry, then wanders upstairs only to find Roger’s aunt hanging from her neck. Listen, I needed to see that sack of groceries topple when the boy goes running out of the house. It’s easily the biggest disappointment of my life.

I still like House after all these years, but my biggest complaint is it’s awfully slow to get started. It really could have done without some of Roger’s many subplots because you just can’t believe this man recently lost his son or that he experienced a great trauma in the war.

House II: The Second Story (1987)

House II has nothing to do with House, which is just as well because House struggled to fill its 90-minute running time. I used to flip-flop on which one I liked better, but today it’s clear to me House II is the winner. I don’t expect this opinion to be popular (House II currently holds a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes and the horror elements are pretty much gone), but there are no boring flashbacks, no cluttered backstories, and it offers a more focused attempt to entertain.

The movie also speeds us right through the setup: a young couple played by Arye Gross and Lar Park Lincoln (Tina Shepard from the Jason movies) inherit a house which was constructed as a kind of modern day temple for a Mayan crystal skull. When Gross’s party-hardy friend (Fright Night’s Jonathon Stark) shows up for a weekend of drinking, Gross’s relationship with Lincoln is strained to the point she runs off with Bill Maher… yes, the smug comedian used to be an amusing actor, and while the subplot isn’t nearly as egregious as the ones in the original movie, it’s really not worth going into here.

Gross and Stark dig through a stash of ancient documents and discover the crystal skull was buried with one of Gross’s ancestors. Dollar signs glimmering in their eyes, the boys dig up the grave only to discover Gross’s great-great grandfather (Royal Dano) is un-dead. I would say the hi-jinks which ensue were obviously inspired by Weekend at Bernie’s, but this movie preceded that one by almost two years. It’s basic 80s comedy (along the lines of Mannequin), which is somehow elevated by its lite themes of horror. Later, the movie will add a prehistoric bird and some kind of puppy/centipede creature to the cast, and the animatronics are charming as all hell.

Anyhow, their possession of the crystal skull causes a number of strange things happen in the house. It’s a movie that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it doesn’t have to. The special effects are good, the pacing is swift, and the filmmakers know exactly what kind of movie they’re going for… until they go full western in the end.

I wouldn’t say the Gross/Stark duo is hilarious, but they work, more because of Gross’s ability to play a straight man than Stark’s comedic timing. There are jokes in this movie I wouldn’t laugh at in other movies. When Bill the electrician, played by John Ratzenberger, casually remarks, “Looks like you’ve got some kind of an alternate dimension in there or something,” I lost it.

House III: The Horror Show (1989)

I remember browsing the video store one day when I stumbled upon House IV. Naturally, my first thought was, “What the hell happened to House III?” It was nowhere to be found at any of the video stores near me, so I eventually bit the bullet and skipped directly to IV. I always assumed it was a straight-to-TV production and, when I was a kid, I dreamed it was a long lost continuation of the second House.

Nope. Turns out it’s yet another unrelated sequel. I never saw it because it wasn’t called House III in the United States for reasons that are still a little vague to me. (Here’s the Wikipedia article on the matter.) I’m not surprised to see the movie was shoehorned into the already confusing La Casa series. I’m also not surprised to find it’s a mediocre movie. Completionists will moderately enjoy it, horror fans will stomach it, and nobody else should come within ten feet of this absolutely forgettable turd.

I know it released in ’89, but it’s a pretty good example of a shitty 90s movie. There are gems from the era to be sure, but this ain’t one of ’em. How a movie can get the likes of Lance Henriksen and Brion James, then turn out this fucking boring, I’ll never know. James almost works, because he’s got a great laugh and an unusual face, but Henriksen seems bored by the material. Can you blame him?

The movie’s not entirely unlikable. There’s a scene, early on, in which Henriksen faces the killer, who’s taken a little girl hostage. James, who’s holding all the cards, tells Henriksen to drop the gun. We’ve seen this scene a million times, but when Henriksen complies, James cuts the little girl’s head off and throws it at Henriksen. It’s a great what-the-fuck scene, which is immediately dampened by the reveal it was all just a dream.

Later, when James is fried in the electric chair, he bursts into flames, rips himself out of the chair, and stomps towards Henriksen. The scene is just as wonderfully mental as it is silly, but nothing after it even competes. The biggest disappointment: they didn’t put a Cheers cast member in this one. Maybe when Cunningham goes through his George Lucas phase, he can digitally add Woody to the re-release.

I have a question: What’s the deal with children con artists in these kinds of movies? Henriksen’s son, (played by a young Aron Eisenberg) runs an ongoing scam in which he fabricates product deficiencies in order to get companies to send him free stuff. The daughter in the next film is also a fraud, and there was a similarly mischievous kid in Rachel Talalay’s oddly brilliant Ghost in the Machine, which I featured in last year’s 31 Days of Gore.

At the end of the day, it’s a movie called House that’s not about a house. It doesn’t even show an establishing shot of the fucking house it’s set in.

House IV: The Repossession (1992)

So this is apparently the “true sequel” to House (if they ever make House V, it better be a direct sequel to House II), but wouldn’t you expect a “true sequel” to share some continuity with the first one? William Katt returns as Roger and, uh… that’s about the only thing that carries over from the original. Roger even has an entirely new family, with no mention of the old one, and you’d think he would’ve learned his lesson fucking around with spooky old houses.

Early on, Roger’s killed in a car crash, which leaves his wife and daughter struggling to get by in the old house. The house is haunted, of course, but whose side are the ghosts on? For the first half of the movie, they terrorize the mother so much she begins to question her sanity. Later, when the bad guys show up, the ghosts seem intent on protecting the family.

Oh, I forgot to mention that part: there are human villains this time around. And how’s this for originality? The sniveling weasel of the group is named Burke.

I was dreading House IV, but it’s not nearly as bad as I remember it being. Cheesy? Yes. Schmaltzy? Unbelievably so. It’s like Touched by an Angel with bits of horror sprinkled throughout. The lead actress, Terri Treas, is much better than the material she’s given. Denny Dillon, who plays the housemaid, is an odd casting choice, but she isn’t bad either.

this scene is not ripping off Twin Peaks in any shape or form

The first half of the movie is criminally mediocre as it dishes out roughly the same amount of flashbacks and dream sequences as the original film did. Then, around an hour in, it gets weird… disgustingly weird. If you’re eating lunch right now, I would suggest reading the next few paragraphs with caution. I know what you’re thinking: Come on, man! I’ve seen it all! I thought so, too, but this goes beyond the usual bodily fluids. It’s especially jarring because it appears in a movie that, up until this point, had been tame enough to show on network TV.

This requires a bit of backstory:

So it turns out Burke wants to run the family out of the house because he’s promised the land to a mobster who deals in toxic waste disposal. (It was the 90s… toxic waste was a hot topic in both children’s entertainment and adults’.) One minute you’re watching a low-key horror movie, the next you’re watching Burke and his cartoonish goons make their way through some kind of underground factory in which employees fill 50-gallon drums with toxic sludge, then amend the TOXIC WASTE labels to read NON-TOXIC WASTE. It seems it would have been easier just to get barrels that didn’t say TOXIC WASTE in the first place, but I digress.

there, fixed it

And just what is the factory making that could produce such ungodly amounts of toxic waste? I don’t know. It’s never properly explained. I think the filmmakers just wanted to make a statement that toxic waste is bad. (There’s also a Native American character in the film, which is another good intention handled with hilarious ineptitude.)

Anyway, back to the disgusting part: Burke meets with the mastermind behind this toxic waste operation, a dwarf who produces so much phlegm—yes, phlegm—he has to occasionally suction it out of a hole in his throat. (You can stop reading this at any time, mind you.) Well, ol’ Burke pisses this guy off, so the dwarf has his minions hold Burke down and proceeds to empty a glass of the mucus right into Burke’s mouth.

That, my friends, is the exact moment House IV became my favorite movie in the entire series. Never mind 99% of the movie is garbage, that scene takes the cake.

Dagon (2001) [31 Days of Gore]

In Dagon, two couples are vacationing on a yacht off the coast of Spain where a storm shipwrecks them all. The young couple, Barbara and Paul, race to the shore in an inflatable raft to get help. Once there, Paul enlists the help of local fishermen while Barbara seeks a phone at a hotel. Yet when the fishermen take Paul back to the shipwreck, he discovers his companions are gone and the water filling the boat is now red with blood.

Back on shore, Paul discovers Barbara has gone missing, too. When he inquires about her at the hotel, he’s attacked by a mob of locals. They all appear human, but their webbed hands give them away. It’s not long before he discovers they’re monsters wearing the skin of humans. I love mysteries like this, which often have the human characters repeating, “What the fuck?!”

The only thing wrong with Dagon is it’s cheap. Like, SyFy movie-of-the-week cheap. The sleek ugliness and the overall phoniness of the early 2000s is stamped all over it. You can tell the actors didn’t get much time (if any) to rehearse. Meanwhile, some of the CGI couldn’t have been more distracting if a child had finger painted it.

But look past all the superficial stuff, including horrendous dialogue, and you get a Lovecraft movie that’s almost as fun as Necronomicon or The Resurrected. I don’t think anyone would have blamed director Stuart Gordon for phoning this one in, considering the circumstances, but it’s clear he didn’t. Many directors who had to endure the misguided trends of the era gave up on making good movies, yet Gordon fights through it with enthusiastic energy that saves the movie from sinking. The editing ain’t bad, either, considering what they were working with.

The monsters are genuinely creepy and the premise draws you in. I love movies that allow mystery to drive the plot. I just wish it didn’t look so shitty.