Halloween (1978)

Director: John Carpenter

Starring: Donald Pleasance, Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J Soles, Nancy Loomis

What is the creepiest part of hearing the story of a child who kills? Is it simply that this young person snaps, killing fellow students, teachers, police officers, or even family members? Or, is it because we hardly ever find out the reason why they did it? Evil personifies itself in anyone who can remorselessly move from room to room and murder defenseless human beings at will, but it is especially chilling when there is no clear motive. If they don’t take their own lives or aren’t killed by police in the end, rehabilitation is possible, yet seems unlikely. More often, it is the case that your best bet is to keep them locked up and pray they never get out.

One such child is Michael Myers. In 1963, on Halloween night in the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois, Michael murdered his older sister, Judith with a very large kitchen knife. He was only six years old at the time. He would spend the next fifteen years of his life at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium, under the psychiatric care of Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), until making his escape the night of October 30, 1978. Something in Michael has kept him focused, thinking of nothing but returning to Haddonfield. Dr. Loomis spent the first eight years of their time together trying in vain to reach Michael. Nothing ever came out of those attempts, since Michael never speaks. During the other seven years, Loomis had come to accept that this young man was not a man at all, merely a monster to be hidden away from the rest of the world. Now that Michael is once again free, Loomis feels it’s his responsibility to see that he is stopped before more people join Michael’s sister in death.

On October 31, 1978, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P.J. Soles), unaware of the danger that is drawing near, are making their plans for the evening. Both Laurie and Annie are stuck babysitting but, because Laurie is the only one without a man in her life, she ends up with both kids sitting on her parents’ couch watching 1951’s “The Thing from Another World” on television. For no apparent reason, these three young ladies are to become Michael Myers’ next targets. Silently, but efficiently, Michael kills Annie, Lynda, and Lynda’s boyfriend, Bob. As Michael begins his relentless pursuit of Laurie, Dr. Loomis closes in to save Laurie from the same fate as her friends.

Because there are sequels, it’s no secret that Michael gets away without killing Laurie. But it’s the way he escapes death this time which is thematically relevant. After firing six shots into Michael and watching him fall from a second story window, Dr. Loomis looks down at the lawn and finds that Michael is gone, as though he had vanished into thin air. What this is meant to represent is that Michael, being a physical manifestation of Evil, cannot be killed because Evil never dies. Donald Pleasance plays this scene perfectly, as the expression on his face can mean one of two things: Either he is surprised to find that Michael is gone, or everything has happened exactly as he expected it to. If you’re going by the sequel, it’s the former, but here it could go either way.

Though technically not the first of its kind, “Halloween” draws from films like “Psycho,” “Black Christmas,” “Bay of Blood,” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to create a whole new type of horror genre: the slasher film. The “Friday the 13th” series of movies would never have come to be without the success of “Halloween.” Dozens of other movies owe their existence to the John Carpenter classic, including the Rob Zombie 2007 remake. Despite these facts, “Halloween” remains an almost bloodless thriller unlike so many of its copycats. This was one of the first horror movies I ever rented from Blockbuster Video (RIP), and watching it for the first time is an experience I’ve never forgotten.

Even director John Carpenter has gone on record admitting that “Halloween” would not be half as effective without its score, for which Carpenter himself was responsible. Acting as an additional character in the movie, the music of “Halloween” is as effective as that of “Jaws” in the way it alerts you to the presence of the monster, building the tension as it closes in on its victims. Today, the “Halloween” theme is so ingrained in our popular culture that there are people who use this piece of music to aid in learning how to play the piano! Lighting was also key. Much of the action in Halloween takes place in darkly lit rooms. This allows Michael to pass in and out like some sort of spectre, even entering one room literally wearing a white sheet. All of this further adds to the legend that Michael is something a little less than human.

Suspiria (1977)

Director: Dario Argento

Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett

I’m sure that all of us, at one time or another, had at least one teacher in our lives whom we thought of… albeit secretly… as a witch. Such thoughts aren’t exactly politically correct, nor are they in any way polite. However baseless such slanderous terminology is, the fact remains that this person irked you in some way. Still, what if you discovered that your school was in fact populated by a witches’ coven?

American ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives during a driving rainstorm in Munich to enroll at a dance school. When she arrives, an unknown voice on the speaker at the front door gives her the old “go away and come back tomorrow!” routine. So, Suzy elects to find another place to stay for the night, but witnesses from her taxi window another girl leaving hurriedly from the building. The girl’s name is Pat, and something inside the dance school has spooked Pat to the point of seeking shelter at a friend’s apartment. But something evil has followed Pat from the dance school. An unseen assailant stabs her repeatedly, including a close-up shot of the knife stabbing her through the heart. The killer then sends her crashing through the glass ceiling of the apartment, hanging her with a cord. In the process, Pat’s friend also dies from being impaled by falling glass shards and metal fragments.

Suzy arrives at the dance academy the next day, making friends with one student named Sarah (Stefania Casini). But after Suzy becomes ill and collapses during a dance lesson, she is moved into a room by herself where she is put on a restricted diet that includes a glass of red wine with each meal. One night before dinner, everyone discovers maggots falling into their rooms from the ceiling above, and move from their dormitories to the practice hall to have a place to sleep. This is where Sarah hears a snoring noise which she recognizes as belonging to “the Directress.” The next day, the blind pianist is cast out when it is revealed that his seeing-eye dog has attacked the young nephew of one of Suzy’s teachers. The pianist later is killed when his dog inexplicably attacks him.

A day later, it is revealed that it was Sarah’s voice on the speaker the night Suzy saw Pat leaving the dance school, and that Pat and Sarah had been friends. Sarah produces a collection notes that Pat had been taking which point to the existence of a witch’s coven. Soon the notes disappear and, when the diet that Suzy’s been kept on leaves her in a state of fatigue, Sarah is left on her own.

While Suzy is sleeping, Sarah is murdered in the attic and it is made to look like she quit the school and moved out. Suzy takes it upon herself to meet with Sarah’s psychologist (Udo Kier), who tells her of the history of the dance school which was founded by the presumed witch, Helena Markos. Suzy decides to rebel against her prescribed diet and dumps everything down the toilet and bathroom sink. Her head now clear, Suzy ventures on to the office of her teacher Madame Blanc where she sees an image of flowers painted on the wall that triggers a memory from the night Pat was killed. Pat knew that turning the blue iris unlocks a hidden door, and that’s why both Pat and Sarah had been murdered. Suzy investigates, and uncovers the truth: this dance school that was once said to have been home to a witches’ coven still harbors that very same evil!

With most horror movies, I can usually cite one specific reason for why they appeal to me. In the case of “Suspiria,” it’s not that simple. First, there is the score from Italian rock band Goblin. This eerie, unnerving soundtrack sets the mood particularly with the tracks “Suspiria” and  most especially “Sighs.”

The cinematography in this movie is unlike anything I’ve experienced from any other horror film. Whole scenes are often bathed in red, green, or blue like the stage at a rock concert. The blues are particularly breathtaking. It sounds clichéd, but every scene is like a painting. Even the architecture of the dance school is a sight to behold.  I’m also pleased that, this being an Italian production and most of the actors having their lines dubbed, there isn’t a whole lot of breathless overacting like you’ll find in other Italian horror films. American actress Jessica Harper does a fine job in the lead, especially when you consider that some of her co-stars either spoke only in their native Italian or German, or could otherwise only speak English phonetically. I swear, to look at her, you wouldn’t know she was 27-28 years old at the time. She could have easily passed for 20 or 21. She gave up the chance to have a role in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” for the chance to go to Rome to shoot “Suspiria.” Good for her, and how fortunate for us!

“Suspiria” seems to get better every time I see it, revealing to me things I missed on previous viewings. It’s easily crawling its way up into my shortlist of all-time favorite horror films. Still I regret that, even now, I have only seen this one offering from the career of Dario Argento, when there are so many others I have yet to choose from. Some day, preferably sooner rather than later, I do hope to take a look at “Deep Red,” “Inferno,” “Tenebrae” starring John Saxon, “Phenomena” starring Donald Pleasance and Jennifer Connelly, “The Stendhal Syndrome” starring Asia Argento (the director’s daughter), and others. I can only hope that one or more of them will entertain me to the extent that “Suspiria” has.

Saw

Director: James Wan

Starring: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Ken Leung, Tobin Bell, Leigh Whannell

“If it’s Halloween…” Screw it, you know the rest. Popularity is both the best and worst thing that can happen to a horror movie. First, the film receives such a positive buzz that everybody and their brother rushes out to see it. Fine, that’s no problem. But then, once the final box office is calculated, the studio in charge decides, “Hey! We can turn this into a franchise and milk it for all it’s worth!” As a result, the inevitable barrage of sequels begins to dilute the overall impact. Furthermore, the more sequels a horror franchise has, the more they stray from the original storyline. It has happened to nearly all the major horror franchises of the last thirty years in varying degrees, with some even taking the story to outer space by the end! With the “Saw” franchise being recognized now as the most profitable horror franchise of all time, it is a strange thing indeed to look back to the original and see how it all started with two men trapped in what one of them refers to as a “prehistoric bathroom.”

“Saw” begins with Adam (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the screenplay) waking up in a tub in total darkness. We see something floating in the water with him, which then goes down the drain after his toe yanks out the plug while he’s exiting the tub. He’s going to wish that it hadn’t. His foot is chained to a nearby pipe. At the other end of the room is Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), who turns on the lights, and is also chained to a pipe by his foot. Both spot a body lying in the middle of the room with a pool of blood coming from what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head

Dr. Gordon tries unsuccessfully to budge the door, and then Adam discovers a microtape (with the words “PLAY ME” written on it) tucked away in his rear pants pocket. Dr. Gordon has also been given one, along with a bullet and a key. The key, both men discover, is not meant for their chains. The tape player and gun which the microtapes and bullet go with are found with the body lying between them. Dr. Gordon’s tape tells him he has until 6:00 to kill Adam or else his wife Allison (Monica Potter) and daughter Diana (Makenzie Vega) will die.

A clue leads Adam to dig around in the toilet before finding a pair of hacksaws under the lid. Both try using them to cut through their chains. Adam’s breaks, while Dr. Gordon comes to a grisly conclusion: “He doesn’t want us to cut through our chains. He wants us to cut through our feet.” This deduction leads Dr. Gordon to realize the person they’re dealing with is someone known only as the “Jigsaw Killer” (or “Jigsaw” for short): the very same person for whose crimes he himself had recently been a suspect. At one of the crime scenes, a pen light belonging to Dr. Gordon had been deliberately left behind to throw Detectives Tapp (Danny Glover) and Sing (Ken Leung of TV’s “Lost”).

When they pick up Dr. Gordon, he is able to produce an (albeit embarrassing) alibi: He was with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Before letting him go, the detectives show Gordon a survivor of one of Jigsaw’s games: Amanda (Shawnee Smith, whose character will become more important later on in the series). Amanda had been forced to kill a man by cutting into his stomach whereby she would find the key to a device strapped to her head, referred to as a “reverse bear trap.” Without scenes like this, director James Wan has said the film would’ve been a PG-13 detective thriller. Would that really have been so terrible?

An orderly at the hospital where Dr. Gordon works named Zepp (Michael Emerson of TV’s “Lost” & “Person of Interest”) takes Allison and Diana prisoner. Tapp is shown obsessively surveiling from across the street. He’s getting too crazy for this shit. He’s on the right track, though, and Dr. Gordon’s family will need him before the end.

Dr. Gordon devises a plan that has Adam pretending to be poisoned and die so that Gordon can escape and save his family. Adam’s acting is so astoundingly bad that even I would never have believed him. He gets an electric shock, proving that he is indeed faking it. The fear of not knowing what’s happening to his family eventually breaks Dr. Gordon and prompts him to take drastic measures to escape. The twist ending that follows is one of the other things this movie is best remembered for, which helps explain why all the other “Saw” films have a “twist” as well.

It doesn’t surprise me a bit that the same guy who wrote “Saw” (which I liked) also wrote “Insidious” (which I didn’t). Leigh Whannell has a habit of writing scripts which, upon careful inspection, just aren’t very logical. Certainly, logic is a lot to ask of this genre but, when your whole movie is based upon the idea that the villain doesn’t technically murder anyone, you’re fooling yourself more than you are your audience. His whole excuse is that he appreciates life but his victims (I’m sorry, “test subjects”) do not. So by killing them (or having them find a way to kill themselves), how exactly does HE appreciate life?

As with most first entries in a horror film series, “Saw” differs from its sequels in many ways, such as:

  1. What we aren’t told outright, we must decide for ourselves.
  2. We don’t get much more than a glimpse of the main villain until the final reel.
  3. Most of the gore takes place off-camera. Thus, some of the more cringe-worthy moments are so because of how we perceive them in our minds.
  4. The amount of traps shown here is kept to a bare minimum.

Would the original “Halloween” have been nearly as effective if John Carpenter had given a reason why Michael Myers kills, or if the murders had been depicted with buckets of blood spraying towards the screen? Was Freddy Krueger scary at all once he started spouting out one-liners left and right? Through six sequels, the “Saw” franchise took to answering every single little question each movie brings up, even if only to cover up certain technical errors made by the script. As for the murders, the traps claimed their victims off-screen. From now on, they are brought to us in vivid, graphic detail. As for Jigsaw, there’s very little left we don’t know about him. The first “Saw” remains the best of the lot because at that point we’re still as much in the dark figuratively as Adam is literally.

Poltergeist (1982)

Director: Tobe Hooper

Starring: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Hudson, Zelda Rubenstein, Beatrice Straight

There is both an upside and a downside to the fact that none of the channels on our televisions have intentionally gone off the air since sometime back in the 1990’s. The downside is that you run the risk of losing sleep. We’ve got so many channels to choose from, all of which stay on the air all the time, not to mention what our DVDs and various online streaming sources provide, that it’s a wonder how anyone gets any rest at all. The upside, of course, is that ghosts no longer have that source through which they can communicate with your little five-year old.

The story of “Poltergeist” revolves around the Freeling family, headed by real estate agent Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and wife Diane (JoBeth Williams). Part of the project that Steve’s real estate company is experimenting with involves the house that he, his wife and three children occupy. One night, as the broadcast network signs off with the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is drawn to the dead air signal and eventually appears to communicate with something or someone. Early on, something isn’t right. A sequence of bizzare events follows, including one more instance of Carol Anne communicating with some invisible force…. and then uttering the movie’s most memorable line: “They’re HEEEEERE!” In the kitchen the next morning, glasses full of milk break and ruin the kids’ homework, utensils are mysteriously bent, and the chairs seem to move all by themselves. Diane seems to find this latest event with the chairs simultaneously frightening, fascinating, and a little amusing. The amusement fades when the old tree outside takes hold of her son Robbie (Oliver Robbins) while, left all by herself, Carol Anne is sucked into some kind of portal.

Who are you gonna call? Well, you can’t call the Ghostbusters, since they won’t be invented for another two years, so Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) is the next best thing. With the electronic monitoring devices she and the rest of her group brings along, they are able to capture on video the poltergeists moving down the Freeling’s staircase. Unfortunately, they can do nothing either to drive the ghosts out of the house nor to retrieve Carol Anne. The solution? Introduce the creepiest element of the film by far: Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubenstein). This tiny old woman with psychic powers and a child-like voice is sure to create unease within even the strongest of souls, however unintentionally.

With Tangina’s help, Steve and Diane are able to rescue their daughter. Diane acquires a few grey hairs from her trip to “the other side,” but since Tangina has assured them that “this house is clean,” she feels free to dye her hair back to its original color and soak in a hot bath while Carol Anne and Robbie are resting in their room. Before long, the poltergeists make it clear that their business with the Freelings remains unfinished, as they make a second attempt to kidnap Carol Anne, even going to great lengths to keep her mother from getting to her. Steve gets his family out of the house just in time to watch as it collapses in on itself and disappears into nothingness, but not before confronting his boss from the realty company. Seems the houses in that neighborhood were built over an old cemetery. Steve has just realized in horror that his boss only had the headstones relocated, but left the buried corpses right where they were!

The person credited with directing “Poltergeist” is Tobe Hooper, but this movie is quite tame when compared with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “The Funhouse.” Looking up the screenwriting credits for “Poltergeist” will tell you all you need to know. With the addition of one of John Williams’ most beautiful scores, it’s quite clear that this is much more of a Steven Spielberg movie. That being said, certain scenes in this movie could have led to it being saddled with a stronger rating than “PG,” and it was one of the films which led to the eventual creation of the “PG-13″ rating in 1984. As successful films often are, “Poltergeist” has been copied to death over the years. In addition to its two sequels and TV series, many other ghost stories have taken their cues from this one, most recently the “Insidious” franchise.

Of course, one cannot escape the discussion of “Poltergeist” without addressing the elephant in the room, the so-called “Poltergeist Curse.” Among the many reports of on-set weirdness, akin to similar reports from the set of “The Exorcist,” there is also a cloud of great sadness surrounding the murder of actress Dominique Dunne (who played the eldest Freeling child, Dana) in November 1982, at age 22. Further tragedy followed in February 1988, when Heather O’Rourke died at age 12. Now, of course, there is no actual curse involved here. It would be easier for some to accept if there were, but really it’s just a series of unconnected events which were much more horrific than anything seen in the movie.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Director: Tobe Hooper

Starring: Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen, John Larroquette (narrator)

Ever come across a strange house that compels you to investigate it? You knock on the door, the polite thing to do, but there’s no answer. Certain that there must be someone at home, you open the unlocked door… Um, excuse me, but what’s the matter with you?! Beyond the one or two laws you’re breaking, you have no idea what or who is on the other side of that door! It could just be some nice old couple who are too infirm to get up out of their chairs in the time it’s taken you to lose your patience. Then again, in certain parts of the country, it’s just as likely to be the home of some chainsaw-wielding maniac.

A rash of grave robbing incidents has brought in several concerned families from various parts of the country to an isolated area of Texas. One such family is the Hardestys, specifically Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), traveling with friends Jerry, Kirk and Pam. Along the way, they pick up a very strange hitchhiker. He’s very proud of his family’s history of working at the old slaughterhouse. He’s also got a screw loose, as he demonstrates first by drawing blood from his own hand with Franklin’s pocket knife, and then using a straight razor to cut into Franklin’s arm. Unceremoniously parting ways with their passenger, the group treks on.

The group stops at a gas station, but are told there won’t be any fuel available until later in the day, so they decide to pass the time by stopping at the old Hardesty homestead. Looking for a swimming-hole (which has dried up), Kirk and Pam come across a house with a gas generator. Thinking of borrowing some gas, Kirk walks up to the front door, knocks, and then enters anyway when no one answers. He doesn’t make it much farther than that. Neither does Pam, who also enters while looking for Kirk.  Wondering what’s keeping his friends, Jerry goes up to the house to find them. All three are victims of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen).

The first time I sat down to watch this movie, I was a little impatient with it. The first 35 minutes or so seemed to move rather slowly, and I was anticipating the carnage that was surely to come. I guess I was just expecting a little truth in advertising. Since there wasn’t much of a “massacre” going on, I was beginning to wonder just what the fuss was all about. Truth be told, it’s a mostly bloodless movie, especially by today’s standards. Had I known what the rest of the movie would bring to the table, I’d have appreciated the setup a bit more. There’s a certain level of dark humor to this movie, and a lot of it is thanks to a scene-stealing performance from Jim Siedow as “The Cook,” the owner of the gas station.

The secret to the longevity of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is in its final half-hour. This section of the film is relentless, and actress Marilyn Burns does a great job in expressing with her eyes just how quickly she is being driven mad with fear. It was with great sadness that I learned of the actress’s passing in the last week of August 2014. Her legacy lives on, as does the legacy of Leatherface. Based upon real-life murderer Ed Gein, Leatherface is the grandfather of all the masked horror icons (before you namedrop Norman Bates, remember that he wore a wig, not a mask), predating even Michael Myers by a good four years. As “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” also predates “Black Christmas” by a couple of months, the two share credit as being the templates for what would become the slasher genre. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” had three sequels, and another in 2013 which ignores the others, as well as a 2003 remake and a 2006 prequel to the remake. All six of those films are, of course, quite inferior, but that’s because the anticipation is gone. We know what to expect now. The cat’s out of the bag. The shark’s out of the water. The chainsaw-wielding man-child is out in the open.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Directors: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez

Starring: Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard

Sights unseen are are always the most frightening. It is not the monster hiding under a kid’s bed that scares him/her at night. It’s the idea that a monster is hiding under the bed which causes the poor child to lose sleep. Some who are afraid of ghosts are fearful not because they’ve ever actually seen one, but because the idea of the ghost has them seeing it in all manner of dark, creepy corners.  Certainly, there are very real things in this world which are horrifying, but isn’t it the unknown that turns us back into that little child, paralyzed with fear?

In 1999, a new breed of horror film arrived on the scene with what may have been the most excellent campaign any movie ever had. “The Blair Witch Project” was hyped as very real footage which had been found of three missing young documentary filmmakers who had journeyed into the woods of Maryland and never returned. Because all three had never before appeared in a movie and addressed themselves on-screen by their real names, that lent credence to the ruse that this was legitimate. T-shirts with a missing persons report were printed, confusing some as to whether the faces on it were of people the person wearing the shirt actually knew. Also helping the movie out was the slim budget. $60,000 isn’t enough to do very much in the way of special effects, meaning that the scares would all have to come from the reactions of the characters to things they see and hear, but which the audience never does. Very few horror movies, or movies of any genre, could have asked for the dominoes to have fallen into place quite so perfectly as they did for “The Blair Witch Project.

The film tells us that, in 1994, the team of Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams traveled to Burkitsville, Maryland to film a documentary on a local mythological figure known as the Blair Witch (named for the town’s original name), and that the footage was found three years later. A lot of the townspeople seem to be convinced that this creature exists, and they know all about the stories of people who’ve gone missing over the years, their disappearances attributed to the Blair Witch. These interview segments are so natural that the interviewees could be either actors or just random people off the street. They’re really the former, but it’s that convincing. It’s also extremely important not to dismiss these interviews, because much of what is said will come into play later on.

As soon as the group enters the woods, you know where things started to go wrong when Heather first tells Josh and Mike, “I know where we are.” Famous last words. After days pass and much fumbling around with the map ensues, tensions begin to mount between the three. Heather’s judgment continues to fall under scrutiny. Mike “agreed to a scouted-out project,” and Josh becomes agitated that Heather is so hellbent on filming “everything.” Eventually, the map goes missing, and the group can do nothing but pick a direction and hope that’s the one which will lead them out. During all of this time, the group has become somewhat sleep-deprived, being kept awake by strange, unnerving sounds in the woods. On one of their worst nights, they hear what seems to be children’s voices outside their tent, followed by someone or something shaking the tent itself.

The extent of the visuals you get in this movie come in the form of little trinkets left by… who? Citizens of Burkitsville? Inbred rednecks living in the woods? The Blair Witch? Signs would seem to point to it all being the work of the Witch. First, our filmmakers locate piles of rocks outside their tent, then they find a lot of curious-looking voodoo-type of items hanging from the trees. Later, the contents of Josh’s pack are strewn about, with some slimy substance smeared all over them. Then, while the others are sleeping, Josh disappears.

Because the three have been declared missing, it’s easy to guess that Heather and Mike will try and fail to locate their friend, only to meet a similar fate. It is this climax that still leaves some viewers disturbed, others confused. If it is indeed the Blair Witch (or someone under the spell of the Blair Witch) who is responsible for everything that happens to Heather, Mike and Josh, we’ll never know for sure because this person/entity was never seen by their cameras. Perhaps the best thing this movie does is that it defines nothing while telling you everything.

As a result of the huge success of “The Blair Witch Project,” an entirely new subgenre of horror was born, even though this wasn’t the first movie with those elements to it. Just as “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” made the slasher genre popular by adopting elements from earlier movies, “The Blair Witch Project” takes its cues from both 1980’s “Cannibal Holocaust” (the first true “found footage” movie) and 1998’s “The Last Broadcast.” Since 1999, there have been many imitators, all of which have the same conceit that “everything must be filmed” so that the illusion can continue and so that the audience can continue to witness the proceedings. These movies include the monster movie “Cloverfield,” the superhero flick “Chronicle,” and the “Paranormal Activity” horror franchise. Even George Romero got into the act with his 2007 zombie film “Diary of the Dead.” None of these examples have had the same effect, nor can they have expected to do so.

Whether because of the advances in the Internet or because audiences, having been fooled once, are no longer able to suspend their disbelief, it will be harder from now on for a movie like “The Blair Witch Project” to capture the kind of attention that it did, and harder for such a film with actors whose performances have been so ridiculed despite being so completely natural. I really don’t think I’d be able to do Shakespeare in the woods if I were sleep/food/water-deprived for days and scared out of my wits. Likewise, the actors should not have been expected to do much “acting,” rather to just behave normally. In fact, this latest viewing having been the first time I watched this movie with stereo sound, I felt as involved with a horror movie as I have in a very long time. That’s about the biggest compliment I can give to any movie. That’s the true legacy of the “Blair Witch.”

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Director: Ruggero Deodato

Starring: Robert Kerman, Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi

“Today, people want sensationalism. The more you rape their senses, the happier they are.”

The above quotation is taken directly from dialogue spoken in this movie, and yet it’s probably even more applicable to the modern audience than to that of 1979-’80. Today, we have 24-hour news channels, Reality TV, the Internet, and other forms of entertainment which continue to push the boundaries of what’s considered to be acceptable. For some viewers, like myself, it’s like when you bite into a really spicy food. You know you’re probably going to regret it, but part of you still wants to test yourself to see how much you can take. When these programs are not so outrageous but want you to think they are, that’s the advertiser’s job. No matter which era you’re describing, there’s always going to be some level of hyperbole which advertisers use to get you to watch a particular program. These are among the chief reasons why you would ever intentionally seek out a movie like “Cannibal Holocaust.”

NYU anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) enters into the Amazon rainforest to find out what became of a missing American documentary film crew who had ventured there to get footage of the native cannibals. This team of filmmakers includes director Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke), his girlfriend and script girl Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi),  and cameramen Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) and Mark Tomaso (Luca Barbareschi). First encountering the tribe called the Yacumo, Monroe and his group discover through their behavior that the tribe must have been disturbed greatly by Yates’ crew. The next day, arriving on the scene of a feud between warring tribes, the Yanomamo and the Shamatari, they earn the gratitude of the smaller Yanomamo group when they save them from certain death, but they still aren’t entirely trusted. Later, a shrine is revealed, bearing the remains of the filmmakers along with their unopened film canisters.

The film, when brought back to New York and finally viewed in its entirety, reveals some pretty strong stuff. After losing their guide to a snake bite, Alan and the others locate the Yacumo, set fire to a hut and force the entire tribe inside so they can film scenes of the tribe members looking scared. Further desecrating the hut, Alan and Faye fornicate on its ashes with the Yacumo outside watching. After selective editing, they would then have claimed it to all have been the work of another tribe. The TV studio heads who are viewing this footage with Monroe are getting excited, thinking it will be great for their planned broadcast. Monroe disagrees, and later implores them not to after he’s viewed the remaining footage for himself. When they don’t seem to understand, he insists that they wait until they’ve watch the rest of it with him to make their final decision.

The last reels include the gang raping of a Yanomamo girl by each of the three men in Yates’s group, including himself, as well as the subsequent discovery of the girl having been executed by the tribe, impaled on a wooden pole (in what’s probably the most famous image from “Cannibal Holocaust”). Soon after, the group is hunted down and killed by the tribe in an act of revenge. Once the film has finished playing, the studio execs not only agree that this documentary should not be aired, but that it should in fact be burned.

Animal lovers need not apply their attention to “Cannibal Holocaust.” Like most others in the cannibal genre (yes, there actually is such a thing), this one comes equipped with its share of animal cruelty. In all, a tarantula, snake, pig, coatimundi (incorrectly called a muskrat in the movie), two squirrel monkeys (one in an unused take), and a sea turtle were legitimately killed in the making of the movie. The fact that (most of) these animals are cooked and eaten is probably of no consolation, nor is the notion that you see these sorts of things all the time on shows hosted by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel. Even the fact that the DVD comes equipped with an “Animal Cruelty-free version” shouldn’t put anyone at ease.

The worst violence in the film is saved for the human characters. Men are dismembered and eaten, as are the women, excepting that they are raped first. Lovely, ain’t it? For a movie made in 1979-’80, the makeup effects and careful editing (as well as the use of authentic Amazonian tribe members) make the execution scenes look pretty damn real. The fact that these scenes are mixed with the very real killings of the animals led some to wonder if “Cannibal Holocaust” weren’t in fact a snuff film. Ten days after the premiere in Milan, the film was seized and its director arrested on obscenity charges.

Ruggero Deodato, whom some of the crew found sadistic, cruel and otherwise difficult to work with or even talk to, eventually would find himself in court on charges of murder. He didn’t help himself by having his actors sign contracts that ensured that they wouldn’t be seen in any other movies, TV or commercials for an entire year, effectively dropping off the face of the Earth for that period. To keep from facing jail time, he had to produce evidence that he hadn’t killed them for the film, which included bringing the four actors portraying the doomed film crew in front of live TV cameras, as well as providing photographs taken of the actress from the impalement scene taken after that scene had been filmed and explaining in detail how her “death scene” had been staged.

Although Deodato may have been found not guilty, the movie itself was not exonerated in the court of public opinion. Some countries refused to release the film without specific edits, while other chose to ban “Cannibal Holocaust” outright. In the UK, “Cannibal Holocaust” was placed on the “Video Nasties” list. Most of the bans placed on the film have been lifted in the years since, but the reputation remains.

The one element that can make “Cannibal Holocaust” worth a look is its importance to the “found footage” genre. Though other films produced since have made this kind of movie popular, it is “Cannibal Holocaust” which can be credited as the innovator. I personally like the movie based on those grounds. However, due to the film’s violent content, both real and staged, I don’t really know how else to recommend it. Be warned: If you do decide to tread these waters, it’s very possible that the experience will change you in a most negative way.