Something great happened last night. Here in Columbia, SC, a town that literally has the slogan, “Famously Hot”, I stepped outside and it was cold. I mean legitimately chilly. Fall is OFFICIALLY, officially here, folks. That means it’s time for three more Mini-Reviews! This one’s kind of a Good News/Bad News edition. Let’s get the Bad News out of the way.
The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976)
As I’ve mentioned before, the goal for this season is to see as many spooky films as possible before Halloween that I haven’t seen already (I’m making an exception for the Halloween franchise for obvious reasons, and I may throw in one or two that I may have seen once so long ago that I don’t remember it anyway). To that end, it occurs to me that there are quite a few cult films from the ’70’s and ’80’s that got past me somehow. I’m going into some of these based on reputation alone. The Town that Dreaded Sundown is one of them.
I went into this one on sheer reputation. I’ve seen it critically lauded in Fangoria and other magazines and articles that mention classic slashers, so I was jazzed to finally get round to it. Plus, I kind of wanted to pretend that the killer was basically an alternate-dimension Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th Part 2.
If there is one thing that horror nerds like to do (or nerds of any stripe, really), it’s debate and argue about all the things we love and hate, so it’s not like we collectively agree on everything. But, when a site or magazine I trust praises or jeers something, I actually usually find myself agreeing with them. So, I thought I was in for a long-lost treat here.
Yeah, I was wrong.
It all came down to tone, really. This thing had no idea what it wanted to to be. For most of the film, it never actually felt like a horror film. The film of course centers around a series of mysterious murders done by a masked maniac, but it felt like the killings themselves were just shoehorned into a southern fried cop comedy. Between police chases set to banjo music, to bumbling, goofy cops firing off dialogue that sounds like it came straight out of Smokey and the Bandit, I felt like I was just watching a gory episode of The Dukes of Hazard. Even in one particular scene where the killer is stalking a girl and she’s banging on the doors of strangers, trying to get help, something straight out of Halloween, what should be an intense, ominous vibe gets destroyed by lazy, almost pleasant music. It’s the kind of thing you would expect to hear as Andy and Barney are sitting on the porch, pickin’ the guitar, waiting for Aunt Bea to finish supper.
Pair that with a completely unnecessary narration that pops up throughout, redundantly explaining every little point of exposition, and I have to say the whole thing was a giant disappointment. Bottom line: Don’t waste your time on this one unless you’re just some sort of slasher completest and need to see someone get killed with a trombone.
As a side note, I followed it up that night with 2014’s sequel/remake/reimaging/rewhatevering. It was a little on the boring side, and I honestly tuned it out about halfway through, but I will give it points for trying to something original. It takes the meta route and does something along the lines of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, in that it completely recognizes that that the first film was in fact, just a film, but that there is a copycat killer out there, mimicking what he saw on the screen, at times recreating some of the major kills, but with a new twist. At least this time they dropped the narration, kept the tone serious, and attempted to bring something new to the table.
Alright, here’s another one that came recommended by a trusted source, and luckily, it paid off. I’d seen the boxes for it at video stores as a kid and heard it mentioned quite a few times on Killer POV, one of my favorite horror podcasts, so I thought I’d give it a shot. It’s a little hard to discuss without spoilers, but I’ll do my best.
Bill returns home after being away for a while to find his family, a clan of one-percenter yuppies, very concerned about his future. He’s got girl trouble, he’s running for class president, and he can’t quite fit in with the cool kids at school. Plus, he’s tempted by what appears to be the school slut, but who will turn out to be one of his few allies. What follows is a slow revelation that not only are his parents and sister not quite what they seem, but neither is most of the town, as you find out in a scene that I can only describe as one of the most “WTF?” and surreal visuals I’ve ever seen in a horror film.
The overall tone is kept somewhat light, somewhere between Gremlins and Night of the Comet, but it has its serious moments, and it does manage to work in quite a bit of conspiracy, incest, social commentary about classism and social hierarchy, and a good deal of body horror elements that border on being Cronenbergian. Not quite, but almost. All told, I recommend it if you’re looking for a bit of fun with a gross-out climax.
Late Phases (2014)
Now we’re talking. I decided to finish strong. I’ve made it no secret that my favorite classic monster is the werewolf, and I’m constantly on the hunt for the next good werewolf flick. Unfortunately, that’s a long, hard hunt. The fact of the matter is, we got spoiled early. We have the legacy of Lon Chaney and Paul Naschy with all their early charms, and then in the ’80’s, during the glory days of practical effects, we got hit with the two greatest werewolf films ever made – An American Werewolf in London and The Howling (my personal fave), pretty much back-to-hairy-back. There have been a couple decent standouts here and there since then (Ginger Snaps, Being Human, etc), but for the most part, it’s been downhill. The thing is, it’s just not easy to pull off. It is one of the few genres that is completely dependent upon convincing, involved effects. With ghosts, vampires, witches, and even zombies, you can half-ass it, but the rules got set up pretty early on that if you don’t have a decent looking creature, and most importantly, A GOOD TRANSFORMATION SCENE, don’t even bother. The bad news is, a lot of people…well, still bother. Badly.
And when I say a decent looking monster, I don’t mean a CGI cartoon or a pretty, muscular teenager jumping into the air and morphing into a giant dog.
So, when I saw the trailer for Late Phases, I was intrigued and it paid off. Nick Damici plays Ambrose McKinley, a blind, grumpy vet who is getting shuffled off to a retirement community by his son. While there, he gets to know some of the residents and survives a “dog attack”. There have been a few of those lately, but we all know what that’s about. The film does a decent job of not falling back on too many tired werewolf film tropes though. It was also good to see Tom Noonan show up as Father Roger Smith, only because he also played the Frankenstein Monster in The Monster Squad, one of my favorite horror films of all time, which also contained its own pretty rad werewolf.
The creature itself in this wasn’t bad. It wasn’t the best I’ve seen, but it was an interesting take, and the transformation didn’t disappoint. Waiting for the transformation scene in a werewolf movie is like going to a concert and waiting for the band to play their most beloved song. I mean, a Rush show is going to always be fantastic, but you don’t want them to blow their wad early and open with “Tom Sawyer”, even though it has been done. You need that anticipation, and the payoff better be worth it.
Late Phases does make you wait a while, but it does manage to offer a new twist on it that’s somewhere between the ones in The Company of Wolves and The Howling IV. Also, as much as I yearn for the days when transformations were 100% practical and HATE what CGI has done to them (looking at you, 2010’s The Wolfman and your royally screwing over of Rick Baker), I have to admit that Late Phases does offer a successful and nearly seamless blend of practical and CGI. If you have to do it, this is one I can stomach and even enjoy.
I’ve got at least one more of these coming up in the next couple of weeks. God, I can’t believe I have to type the words “couple of weeks”. That’s all we have left before red and green consume orange and black. Let’s do what we can while we can.