Archive for the John Carpenter Films Category

Friday Night Knife Fights: PSYCHO vs. HALLOWEEN (Part 3 of 3)

Posted in 1960s Horror, 2012, 70s Horror, Alfred Hitchock Films, Classic Films, Friday Night Knife Fights, John Carpenter Films, Plot Twists, Psychos, Slasher Movies with tags , , , , , on October 26, 2012 by knifefighter

With Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, Nick Cato, Pete Dudar, Dan Keohane, and Paul McMahon


MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Welcome back folks, to the conclusion of this month’s FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHTS.  This installment will decide the winner of the battle of the iconic horror movies. It’s PSYCHO (1960) vs. HALLOWEEN (1978).

So, which one of these two is the better movie?  That’s what our panel of Cinema Knife Fighters assembled here tonight plan to find out. So far, HALLOWEEN leads 3 to 2. But this time, anything can happen.


Okay, it’s Round 6.  “Which director does a better job at the helm?  Alfred Hitchcock, or John Carpenter?”

NICK CATO:  Can I say that this is a stupid question?

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  You can say whatever you want.

L.L. SOARES:  Someone has to say it.  It’s about time it’s someone other than me!

NICK CATO:  Okay, then.  STUPID question!

It’s Hitchcock. No one had created that type of suspense before he unleashed Bates on the world.  Carpenter doesn’t come close.

DAN KEOHANE:  I think it depends on what you want out of the movie.

L.L.SOARES:  What is this, a psychology class?  Pick a director!

DAN KEOHANE:  Easier said than done.  This is one question I can’t honestly answer one way or the other.

L.L. SOARES:  What—did you change your last name to Dudar?

PETE DUDAR:  Hey, stop giving me a hard time!

DAN KEOHANE:  Hitchcock is a master at the subtle, without getting boring doing it.  Sure, the first third of THE BIRDS (1963) is pretty dull before it rockets up to its intense level, but that’s the exception.

L.L. SOARES:  Hey, I love THE BIRDS! There’s not a dull moment in that movie. It’s called “building a story.”


(L.L. SOARES punches a wall in disgust)

DAN KEOHANE:  Carpenter is just having a ball, and it shows in this film (and most of them). He’s got the fast-paced thrill ride down, without ever having to rely on over-the-top gore to cover his blemishes.

L.L SOARES:  So, you’re going with Carpenter?

DAN KEOHANE:  Nope.  I can’t decide.

(L.L. SOARES screams loudly)

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  We are really having a hard time making up our minds today.

PETE DUDAR:  I told you this thing was impossible!

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  I have to admit, this is a very tough question.  Which director does a better job at the helm?  I don’t know.

L.L. SOARES:  Not you, too!

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  This one needs examining.

Let’s start with Alfred Hitchcock.  In 1960, he’d been making successful movies since the 1930s, and really had just come off an amazing decade, the 1950s, where he became one of the most celebrated and popular movie directors of his time.  Needless to say, when he made PSYCHO, he was at the top of his game.  And with PSYCHO, Hitchcock doesn’t disappoint.  It’s one of his best efforts.

He does nearly everything right in PSYCHO.  You’ve got the infamous shower scene, the most famous sequence from the movie, but there’s so much more.  I love the sequence after the shower scene, when Norman Bates cleans up after his “mother’s” crime.  The end sequence where Vera Miles and John Gavin arrive at the motel is also memorable.

But you can make the argument that John Carpenter did an even better job at the helm of HALLOWEEN.  For starters, HALLOWEEN doesn’t have the same strong story PSYCHO has, and yet, it’s an incredibly scary movie, and most of the credit for this belongs to Carpenter.  The opening murder scene is a gem, shot from the point of view of the killer looking through a Halloween mask.  The whole sequence is superb, from the actual murder to the revelation that the killer is a little boy.

The scene near the end, where we believe Jamie Lee Curtis has killed Michael Myers, and he’s lying down “dead,” and Curtis is sitting in the foreground, exhausted, and it’s silent, and in this silence, Myers sits up, turns his head, and the music blasts, and we’re on our way again.  It’s a phenomenal scene.

And there are so many neat scenes where Myers appears like a phantom in and out of the shadows.  One second he’s there, the next, he’s not.  It’s a masterful job by John Carpenter.

You can’t take away what Hitchcock did with PSYCHO, but I’ve seen him better (NORTH BY NORTHWEST, 1959, Hitchcock’s previous film and arguably his most ambitious, includes many more of Hitchcock signature touches).  I know some people don’t consider HALLOWEEN to be Carpenter’s best work, but it’s up there.

L.L. SOARES: Of course it’s up there! Who doesn’t consider HALLOWEEN one of Carpenter’s best movies? That’s a ludicrous statement! HALLOWEEN is the movie that put Carpenter on the map and made him a household name.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Yes, I know that, and you know that, but there are some people who feel otherwise.  I know people who think THE THING is Carpenter’s best film, for instance.

L.L. SOARES: Hell, I think THE THING is his best film. But that doesn’t mean HALLOWEEN isn’t great, too. In many ways, HALLOWEEN is more iconic and important to horror movie history.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: PSYCHO has such a strong story, that even with a lesser director, the film may have been a hit.  I don’t think you can say the same for HALLOWEEN.  Without John Carpenter at the helm of HALLOWEEN, that movie just isn’t the same, and I doubt it would have been the classic it is today.

L.L. SOARES: You’re selling Hitchcock short! The story is so good it would have still turned out well without him?? But HITCHCOCK did make PSYCHO and nobody could have done it better. Why dismiss the guy because he did a great job? What kind of logic is that?

MICHAEL ARRUDA: I’m not dismissing him.  He did a terrific job.  I’m saying the story itself is so good, a lesser director could have made a decent film out of it, on the strength of its story. Terence Fisher, for example, Hammer Film’s best director—no Alfred Hitchcock, mind you, but a talented director all the same—could have made a very good film out of PSYCHO.

L.L. SOARES: Yeah, I’m sure he could have. But it wouldn’t be the same.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: So, after some thought, I’m going with John Carpenter on HALLOWEEN.

PAUL MCMAHON:  Sorry, Michael, but I just don’t see it that way.  I’m going with Hitchcock.

Hitchcock is regularly listed among the best directors of all time, while Carpenter is listed among the best “horror” directors.

As innovative and groundbreaking as HALLOWEEN was, it wasn’t Carpenter’s best work. He doesn’t really break with conventional filming techniques or storytelling rules. Hitchcock made tons more unorthodox and unexpected decisions in PSYCHO.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  I don’t know about that.  I’m not taking anything away from Hitchcock’s work on PSYCHO, but I think Carpenter does break with conventional filming techniques in HALLOWEEN.  There are so many cool scenes in HALLOWEEN thanks to Carpenter’s direction, like Michael Myer’s mask appearing in the darkness where you see only the mask, or the aforementioned opening murder scene.

PAUL MCMAHON:  Good scenes, but Hitchcock’s work on PSYCHO is better.

L.L. SOARES: Look, this one is a no brainer. I love HALLOWEEN and I think it is among Carpenter’s best films. It is powerful, it triggers a great response, and it’s a director at the height of his powers. I am not going to say anything bad about Carpenter in this context. He did an amazing job.

But Alfred Hitchcock was one of the top five directors in the history of cinema. I just watched PSYCHO again recently, and it holds up very well. It’s atmospheric, powerful, and strongly acted. Hitchcock is just in another league when it comes to directors. He was an artist.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Okay, after six rounds it’s HALLOWEEN – 3, PSYCHO -3. We’re now neck and neck.

PETE DUDAR:This is getting exciting.


MICHAEL ARRUDA:  On to Round 7.  “Which film has done more for the genre?”

I’ll start by asking where would the genre be without PSYCHO?  While it’s technically not a horror film…

L.L. SOARES: Says, who?  It’s a goddamn horror film. A horror classic.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Well, it is scary, and did an awful lot to make horror movies more mainstream.  It made them more adult.  Alfred Hitchcock was not a kid-friendly director.  Kids didn’t flock to see his films.  Adults did.  When he directed PSYCHO, he expanded horror’s audience.  In other words, a lot of the folks who went to see PSYCHO were not the same folks who would have gone to see FRANKENSTEIN or KING KONG.

L.L. SOARES: I complete disagree. People who love great movies would have gone to see all three of those.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  He also reinvented the conventions of the movies.  His lead actress is killed midway through the movie.  What’s up with that?  The “hero” Norman Bates, turns out to be the killer.  What’s up with that?

Where would the genre be without HALLOWEEN?  We wouldn’t have had to suffer through all those awful slasher movies had HALLOWEEN not been so successful.  So, maybe it’s hurt the genre!  Actually, I’m kidding.  It helped the genre because it made a ton of money, and it led to John Carpenter getting a lot of financing so he could make a lot of other cool movies!

I think they’ve both helped the genre, since they both established franchises and iconic characters, Norman Bates and Michael Myers.  Today, I think you hear more about HALLOWEEN than you do PSYCHO.  I think HALLOWEEN has done more for the horror genre directly because it’s a horror movie, pure and simple.  PSYCHO is really a mystery that has a lot of horror elements.

L.L. SOARES: Horror elements? That means it’s a damn HORROR MOVIE!

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Ever so slightly, I give the edge to HALLOWEEN.

DAN KEOHANE:  They both exploded the genre, but in their own respective decades.

Both were unique when they came out, and both got a somewhat apathetic audience’s pulse revved up, opening the door to more films and books.

Both of them equally helped the genre.

PAUL MCMAHON:  There was a very slow build of slasher movies after PSYCHO‘s release in 1960.

When HALLOWEEN came out in 1978 the slasher sub-genre really took off. PSYCHO may have kicked things off, but HALLOWEEN got them going.


L.L. SOARES: You people are high!

Without PSYCHO, there would be NO HALLOWEEN! While Michael Myers does have a supernatural component, he also started out as a little boy with psychological problems. No matter what he became, he began as a psychopath. Just because a movie is older doesn’t mean it’s less relevant. To be honest, the opposite is probably more true. PSYCHO was the pioneer, the trailblazer. It made the word “psycho” a part of our language. It made the serial killer film a mainstream genre.

HALLOWEEN is more the little engine that could. It was a small, low-budget movie that overcame its humble beginnings. I remember it was in theaters for over a year when it first came out. It seemed to stick around forever. It was a smash hit, as commercially important to the horror genre in its way as PSYCHO was.

But Michael is right in one respect. HALLOWEEN spawned as many horrible rip-offs as it did worthwhile horror descendants. It worked because Carpenter did it, but way too many bad directors proved that it wasn’t easily replicated.

They’re both great movies with different strengths, and I am still pissed off that you’re making us choose between them, because they’re both just as vital to the horror genre. But which one has done more for horror? The fact that there’s any debate baffles me. It’s PSYCHO. Period.

NICK CATO:  While HALLOWEEN paved the way for countless imitators in the 1980s slasher film uprising, PSYCHO (1960) was the model and is STILL imitated to this day.

I disagree with Michael and Paul, and I say PSYCHO has done more the genre.

L.L. SOARES: Now there’s a smart man!

MICHAEL ARRUDA: That means this round is a tie. Wow, this is going to be interesting.

It’s now time for the eighth and final round, and if one film should win this round unanimously, then that film scores a knockout and wins the entire bout, regardless of the score up until now.

And the final question is:  in your humble opinion, if you had to choose, which film, PSYCHO or HALLOWEEN, is the better movie?


Constructed better, stronger and with so many twists and turns that even today people viewing it for the first time are surprised by how it develops.  I’m going with PSYCHO.

PETE DUDAR:  PSYCHO was a groundbreaking masterpiece. Filmed in 1960, Hitchcock’s black-and-white adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel reminded post-war America and the baby-boom generation that crazy people were, in fact, our neighbors.

HALLOWEEN, on the other hand, is a whole other candy-apple. PSYCHO is loosely based on real-life killer Ed Gein. HALLOWEEN is the logical progression of an urban myth, one about the ‘babysitter killer.’

As I said earlier, in terms of story and characterization, PSYCHO wins, but in terms of longevity and ability to still deliver sheer terror, my vote goes to HALLOWEEN.

NICK CATO:  I’m not sure which film Pete just voted for.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Join the club.

NICK CATO:  Technically PSYCHO is the better film, but again, HALLOWEEN holds up better to repeated viewings and to me isn’t as slow moving. If I had a butcher knife pointed at my head I’d go with HALLOWEEN.

PETE DUDAR: So, it would take a butcher knife to your head for you to make a decision, and you guys are giving me grief!

L.L. SOARES: At least he’d be able to make a decision if forced to. If someone put a butcher knife to your head, it would just let out all the confetti and sawdust.

PETER DUDAR: No it wouldn’t (sticks out tongue)

L.L. SOARES:  I happen to have a butcher’s knife handy if you need help making a decision, Pete!

DAN KEOHANE:  No butcher’s knives needed here, although an axe might come in handy.

L.L. SOARES:  I have one of those too.  Right here under my seat.

DAN KEOHANE:  I’m sure you do.

Anyway, overall, for me, it’s PSYCHO.

But HALLOWEEN is a close second.  (smiles)

NICK CATO:  If anyone needs help making a decision, it’s Pete.

PETE DUDAR:  I stand by my answers.

L.L. SOARES:  What answers?  (Laughter)

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  I love both movies, but if I have to pick which one is better, without an axe to my head, I have to go with—  PSYCHO.

PSYCHO has the stronger story— it has an amazing story, while HALLOWEEN has just an average plot.  It has one of the best all-time performances in a genre film: Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates.  Bates is a much more interesting villain than Michael Myers.  It has a stronger cast.  While I like Jamie Lee Curtis a lot in HALLOWEEN, no one else in the cast really delivers a strong performance.

Sure, I think John Carpenter’s directing effort is second to none in HALLOWEEN, but Hitchcock is strong throughout.  Carpenter put HALLOWEEN on his back and carried it to the finish line.  Hitchcock didn’t need to carry the film all by his lonesome.

True, I prefer Carpenter’s music score over Bernard Herrmann’s score, but by percentage points.

I prefer HALLOWEEN on a lot of points, actually, but taken as a whole, especially because of its incredibly strong story, I find PSYCHO to be the better movie.

HALLOWEEN shows off John Carpenter’s directing talents, his music score, and a fine performance by Jamie Lee Curtis.

PSYCHO shows off Alfred Hitchock’s directing talents, Bernard Hermann’s music score, Anthony Perkins’ powerhouse performance as Norman Bates, strong performances by Janet Leigh and, in a supporting role, Martin Balsam, and a deep, resonating script by Joseph Stefano based upon a novel by Robert Bloch, a story credit that HALLOWEEN just doesn’t have.

The numbers favor PSYCHO, and so I’m going with PSYCHO.

L.L. SOARES:  Look, I already made my case. HALLOWEEN is above-average for a slasher film. It thrust John Carpenter into the public eye, and rightly so. It’s a classic of its kind. And I hate having to compare it, and I hate having to saying anything negative about it, because I do think it’s one of the best horror films ever made.

But it’s a no-brainer, folks. PSYCHO is the better movie. It’s close to being a perfect movie.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Well, that’s it for Round 8, and PSYCHO has won the round.  I can’t say that it won unanimously, due to a couple of obscure answers, but that’s no matter.  The two movies were tied 3 ½ – 3 ½ going into the final round, and so the final tally is PSYCHO – 4 ½, HALLOWEEN – 3 ½.

The winner of tonight’s bout is PSYCHO!

But that certainly was a close one! I really had no idea what would happen until the last round. Which made this one a real nail-biter.

Thanks to everyone who participated. Thanks for making this FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHT a good one!

Good night everybody!


© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, Nick Cato, Peter N. Dudar, Daniel G. Keohane and Paul McMahon


Friday Night Knife Fights: PSYCHO vs. HALLOWEEN (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in 1960s Horror, 1970s Movies, 2012, Alfred Hitchock Films, Classic Films, Friday Night Knife Fights, Horror, John Carpenter Films, Psychos, Serial Killer flicks with tags , , , , , , on October 19, 2012 by knifefighter

Featuring: Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, Nick Cato, Pete Dudar, Dan Keohane, and Paul McMahon

(PART 2 of 3)

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Welcome back folks, to another edition of FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHTS.  This time, we continue with Part 2 of our battle of the iconic horror movies. It’s PSYCHO (1960) vs. HALLOWEEN (1978).

L.L. SOARES: Why isn’t Rob Zombie’s version HALLOWEEN (2007) part of the debate?

MICHAEL ARRUDA:   Come on!  This is supposed to be a serious debate.

L.L. SOARES: Okay, okay.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: So, which one of these two is the better movie?  That’s what our panel of Cinema Knife Fighters assembled here tonight plan to find out. So far, HALLOWEEN leads 2 to 0. Let’s see if it maintains its momentum this time around.

Okay, Round 3.    “Which film is scarier?”

I’ll start this one off myself.

I think HALLOWEEN is scarier, but not by much.  The last 20 minutes of HALLOWEEN, from the moment Jamie Lee Curtis decides to check out the house across the street, to the film’s closing credits, is among the most suspenseful last 20 minutes ever put on film.  I love it.  And there are lots of scary, make-you-scream-out loud moments interspersed throughout the movie.

PSYCHO, on the other hand, has the huge jolt, the shower scene, early on, where lead star Janet Leigh is killed off, shocking filmgoers who based on prior movie experiences, simply didn’t see that coming.  And it’s a frightening scene, even today.

And PSYCHO is also blessed with a suspenseful sequence towards the end, where Vera Miles and John Gavin go to the Bates Motel to solve the mystery, mistakenly believing that Bates’ sick old mother is the all-important witness they need to speak to regarding Janet Leigh’s disappearance, and of course, this sequence ends with the huge shock, the dramatic revelation, that Norman Bates is one sick dude.

I love how this sequence plays out as well, because the audience thinks they’re in the know, but they really aren’t.  Vera Miles is searching for the sick mother, who the audience mistakenly believes is the killer, when in reality, it’s Norman, who up until the end audiences viewed as a good guy.  It’s great stuff!

But when it comes to scares, HALLOWEEN is simply scarier.  The bulk of PSYCHO plays out like a drama and mystery—a superb one, at that—while HALLOWEEN is much more of a genuine horror movie.

“Hello? Myers residence.”

DAN KEOHANE:  I’m going with PSYCHO.  But you need to sit still and watch it. It pays off, so well, if you let the mood wash over you.

HALLOWEEN is more exciting, however, so you can be making out on the couch and look up for the scary bits without missing the point.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  So, you’re saying that you need to pay attention to PSYCHO, but HALLOWEEN you can miss a lot of it but still enjoy its scary parts?


L.L. SOARES:  Enough with the double-talk.  Which one’s scarier?

DAN KEOHANE:  I said PSYCHO.  (leans over towards LS)  “eeeh eeeeh eeeeh!”



L.L. SOARES:  Is there a reason why Dudar is even here? He sure isn’t adding a lot to the conversation.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Oh come on, stop picking on him.

PETE DUDAR: Yeah, you big bully.

PAUL MCMAHONPSYCHO may have scared the hell out of viewers back in 1960, but watching it with my parents when I was fourteen it had little effect on me. HALLOWEEN gave me icy “I-almost-wet-myself” terror, especially when Laurie Strode hides in the closet– perceived as a safe-haven by children everywhere—and Michael hammers through the slats of the folding door to get at her.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Yeah, that’s a great scene.

L.L. SOARES: Just don’t wet yourself here, okay?

PAUL MCMAHON:  I’m going with HALLOWEEN as the scarier movie.

The killer attacks! From PSYCHO.

NICK CATO:  While PSYCHO has a few tense moments (least of which is the iconic shower sequence), HALLOWEEN has an overall scarier tone, and holds up much better to repeated viewings.  Based on this, if I had to choose, I’d pick HALLOWEEN as the scarier picture.

L.L. SOARES:  You guys keep talking about the shower scene in PSYCHO, and sure, it’s great, but it’s not the only scary scene in the whole movie. There’s the great scene where Martin Balsam gets stabbed in the face. And the very end, where Norman’s voiceover, as his mama, says “They’ll say I wouldn’t hurt a fly,” is just creepy as hell the first time you see it. The way everyone talks, it’s like the movie just has one big, scary moment, and that’s not true.

But I have to go back to my argument about generational responses. When PSYCHO first came out, nobody had seen a movie like that before, and I’m sure it freaked a lot of people out. I remember when I was a kid and I first saw it on television, it had a real effect on me, especially that creepy ending about the fly.

But this one is difficult because I have to look at both of them and decide which one is scarier now. Which one holds up the best. And while I think PSYCHO is smarter, and better at delivering big as well as more subtle chills, I have to admit that HALLOWEEN holds up better as a solid, scary movie. Maybe because it’s not as smart—its triggers are more emotional. This round, I have to give it to HALLOWEEN.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Another round goes HALLOWEEN’s way, and it now leads PSYCHO, 3 to zero!  I have to admit, I didn’t see this coming.  I thought things would be closer than this.

L.L. SOARES: I still say, in some ways, this is a stupid comparison. Both movies are very important, and effective, in their own ways.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Would you rather we compare a great film to a dud?

On to Round 4: “Which film has the stronger cast?”

DAN KEOHANEPSYCHO.  No question. In fact, the script requires a strong cast because there’s so little else besides some cool, dark sets.

L.L. SOARES: PSYCHO, without a doubt. Not only are the main roles played by great actors like Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, and of course Anthony Perkins, who is unforgettable here; even the smaller roles are great, like Martin Balsam as Detective Arbogast. And there are even cameos by cool people like Ted Knight from the MARY TYLER MOORE show(1970 – 1977) as a cop toward the end, and Simon Oakland from THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) as a psychiatrist who gives a rundown at the end of what’s wrong with Norman. It’s just a great cast from beginning to end.


L.L. SOARES:  This guy is really starting to get on my nerves. (to Dudar) Why did you even bother coming, anyway?

PETE DUDAR:  The free food.

L.L. SOARES:  What free food?

 PETE DUDAR:  You mean you missed the buffet?

L.L. SOARES:  I guess I was too busy preparing my answers!

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  I’m also going with the cast of PSYCHO.   You’ve got Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, and Martin Balsam, and they’re all great in this movie.   Perkins delivers one of the all-time great performances in a genre film.    His Norman Bates is creepy, unsettling, and yet he’s actually likeable at times.  It’s a terrific performance.

Janet Leigh is also strong as Marion Crane.  Vera Miles and John Gavin are less impressive, but Martin Balsam makes his brief stint as Detective Arbogast a memorable one.  The cast also includes Simon Oakland as Dr. Richman in a small role at the end of the movie. As L.L. mentioned, Oakland appeared alongside Darren McGavin in THE NIGHT STALKER movies and TV show, as Carl Kolchak’s boss, Tony Vincenzo.

The HALLOWEEN cast isn’t as strong on paper, with Donald Pleasance being the only established star in the cast, but they handle themselves well.  The best performance in the film is by Jamie Lee Curtis in her debut, but head to head, Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates is stronger than Curtis’ performance as Laurie Strode.

Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis in HALLOWEEN.

L.L. SOARES: Yeah, I don’t want to imply the HALLOWEEN cast is bad. It’s not. Everyone does a really good job in that one, too. I just think PSYCHO is that much better.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Strangely, I wasn’t all that impressed by Pleasance’s performance as Dr. Loomis in HALLOWEEEN, as he comes off sounding like a crackpot. I actually like him better as the series goes along.  Nancy Loomis does well as Strode’s best friend Annie, and Carpenter favorite Charles Cyphers does a nice job as Annie’s father Sheriff Bracket.

L.L. SOARES: And don’t forget the great B-movie actress P.J. Soles as Lynda!

P.J. Soles as Lynda in HALLOWEEN.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: But Michael Myers is nothing more than a killer in a mask, a mindless monster, and he’s not on the same level as Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates.

So, in terms of who has the stronger cast, I go with PSYCHO.

NICK CATO:  Another hard one to call.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  If it were easy, it wouldn’t be fun!

NICK CATO:  Perkins is amazing, as is Leigh in her brief role.

Jamie Lee Curtis set the stage for the babysitter in peril thing, and Donald Pleasance provided a smart and sneaky hero. I’m stuck on this one, too!

MICHAEL ARRUDA:   Can’t make a definitive call?

NICK CATO:  I’m afraid not.

PETE DUDAR:  See, I’m not the only one having a hard time here!

PAUL MCMAHON:  I’ve made up my mind.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:   What did you decide, Paul?

PAUL MCMAHON:  This one goes to PSYCHO, hands down.

Not only does it have a better cast—Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam– but it used one of the most popular actresses of the day, Janet Leigh, in what felt like the lead role… and then killed her off at the end of the first act. Unprecedented for the time.

Donald Pleasance is great fun to watch in HALLOWEEN, and Jamie Lee Curtis shines in her movie debut, but they’re no match for the list of Hitchcock’s players.

PSYCHO.  No contest.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:   So, Round 4 goes to PSYCHO, which means Hitchcock’s classic finally gets on the board.  We’ve reached the halfway point of our contest, and after four rounds, it’s HALLOWEEN – 3, PSYCHO – 1.

On to Round 5.  “Which film has the better script?”

PETE DUDAR:  I’m going with PSYCHO.

L.L. SOARES:  The wooden dummy speaks!

PETE DUDAR:  Shut up!

I choose PSYCHO because in terms of story and characterization, PSYCHO wins hands down.

NICK CATO:  I agree with Pete. It’s easily PSYCHO. HALLOWEEN is a by-the-numbers stalk and slash film, whereas PSYCHO has more depth in its villain.

L.L. SOARES:  Well,I wouldn’t go so far as to call HALLOWEEN “by-the-numbers.” It does transcend its genre. It has a lot more there than most slasher films. But most of what works about it is visceral—more a mood and an emotional response rather than a powerful script. So, script-wise, PSYCHO is another level completely.

PAUL MCMAHON:  This is another tough one.

I’m going to say PSYCHO. It broke with a lot of conventions of the times and challenged the way stories were told. Though HALLOWEEN was the father of the unkillable boogeyman, spurring the likes of FRIDAY THE 13TH, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and other franchises, PSYCHO is the “mother” of all slasher films.  (laughs)


PAUL MCMAHON:  So, which film has the better script?  PSYCHO.

DAN KEOHANE (looks at camera):  Eeeeh eeeeh eeeeh!

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Hands down, PSYCHO has the better script.

To me, the weakest part of HALLOWEEN has always been the script by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, which comes as no surprise, since a lot of early Carpenter movies didn’t have the best scripts.  The story for HALLOWEEN is nothing to brag about.  It’s just a standard tale about an insane killer who attacks teenagers, and whenever it tries to explain the truth about who Michael Myers is and what his motivations are, it never makes sense.  It’s one of the reasons why Donald Pleasance sounds like a crackpot in this movie.  The lines he has to say are insane!  What makes HALLOWEEN the classic that it is, is the amazing directing job by John Carpenter and Carpenter’s music.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in HALLOWEEN.

PSYCHO, on the other hand, has a phenomenal screenplay by Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch.  As such, it has a literary connection noticeably absent in HALLOWEEN.  The PSYCHO story blows the HALLOWEEN story out of the water.  You have the whole Marion Crane storyline, followed by the mystery of her disappearance and the investigation into finding her, all interesting plot points in their own right, and I haven’t even mentioned the main plot point yet, the weird world of Norman Bates and his “mother.”

PSYCHO has a deep, rich, rewarding story that I seem to enjoy more each time I see it.  HALLOWEEN, as much as I like the movie, has just an average story.

Round 5 also goes to PSYCHO.  It’s now HALLOWEEN – 3, PSYCHO – 2.  Things are starting to get interesting.  Three rounds of questions still to come.

We’ll be wrapping this up next week. So don’t forget to check in for the conclusion of this month’s FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHT!

L.L. SOARES: Y’all come back now, you hear?

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, Nick Cato, Peter N. Dudar, Daniel G. Keohane and Paul McMahon

Friday Night Knife Fights: PSYCHO vs. HALLOWEEN (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in 1960s Horror, 1970s Movies, 2012, Alfred Hitchock Films, Classic Films, Friday Night Knife Fights, John Carpenter Films, Serial Killer flicks with tags , , , , , , on October 12, 2012 by knifefighter

Featuring: Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, Nick Cato, Pete Dudar, Dan Keohane, and Paul McMahon
(PART 1 OF 3)

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Welcome to another edition of FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHTS. 

And this time I really do mean knife fight!  It’s the battle of the knife murderers: Michael Myers vs. Norman Bates! The battle of the classic music scores: Bernard Herrmann vs. John Carpenter! And the battle of two top film directors: Alfred Hitchcock vs. John Carpenter!

Tonight we bring out the heavy hitters, as two of horror’s heavyweights go at it in what we hope will be a memorable bout. Hold onto to your carving knives, it’s PSYCHO (1960) vs. HALLOWEEN (1978).

Which one of these two is the better movie?  That’s what our panel of Cinema Knife Fighters assembled here tonight plan to find out.

Welcome everyone, and let’s get started.  Tonight’s bout features eight rounds of questions.

L.L. SOARES: Eight? What is this, the SATs?

MICHAEL ARRUDA: The first question tonight is this:

“Who is the more iconic villain, Norman Bates or Michael Myers?”

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in PSYCHO (1960).

PAUL MCMAHON:  Norman Bates.

As the psychologically twisted serial killer, Norman is the one the general public thinks about when strange cases of serial killers are revealed in the news (at least he was until Hannibal Lecter took that honor away from him).

Michael Myers, when he’s thought about, is usually an afterthought to Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  I like Michael Myers much better than Jason or Freddy.

L.L. SOARES:  Who cares which one you like better? (laughs).

PAUL MCMAHON:  You may like Michael Myers better, but I think among most fans today, he’s third behind Jason and Freddy.

NICK CATO:  Getting back to the debate at hand, gentlemen, Norman Bates vs. Michael Myers, while I love Norman’s loner-bird-stuffing psychotic schtick, I always found Myers more terrifying. As Dr. Loomis said, he’s evil incarnate.  So, I’m going with Michael Myers.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Good choice, Nick!

L.L. SOARES:  Oh come on! Myers is okay, but Norman Bates is the gold standard of horror movie serial killers. He was the first “psycho” to really burrow into the mind of the general public, and what made him so scary was that was very plausible for the most part. He was, after all, based on a real life murderer, Ed Gein. Someone like Norman Bates could really exist in the world. Michael Myers was more of a boogeyman.

PETE DUDAR:  Norman’s a lunatic, but he’s a conflicted lunatic…actually showing signs of fear and remorse.

Michael Myers is a different breed of monster. The whole set-up through Donald Pleasance’s expositional spiels indicates that he’s pure evil, with no emotional or mental faculties to speak of.

I don’t know who’s more iconic.

L.L. SOARES: Well, Michael Myers was in WAYNE’S WORLD (1992) and AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (1997). So he is pretty iconic.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Very funny.  I wondered how long it would take before someone mentioned Mike Myers, the comedic actor of AUSTIN POWERS fame.  Well, we’re not talking about him tonight.  We’re talking about Michael Myers, the psycho killer from the HALLOWEEN movies.

L.L. SOARES: There’s a difference?

MICHAEL ARRUDA: I think Mike Myers has a better sense of humor.

L.L. SOARES:  Not by much

In a lot of ways, I think it’s a generational thing. Older horror movie fans will remember how Norman Bates was a game changer. The shower scene in PSYCHO was one of the scariest film scenes of all time, and people actually avoided showers after seeing the movie. It really shook up the American public at the time.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Deodorant sales must have increased!

L.L. SOARES :  But people who grew up with HALLOWEEN might feel the same way about that movie. The thing is, PSYCHO came first and influenced all of the serial killer movies that came after it. Thus, it’s the more iconic.

DAN KEOHANE:  It’s a tough question to answer.  Who is the more iconic villain, Norman Bates or Michael Myers?


I’d have to say Michael Myers.

Personally, I think Norman Bates is a hundredfold creepier, but come Halloween time more kids are wearing Michael Myers masks than dressed as a twitchy guy with mother issues (though most of the ones behind the mask are like that in real life.  Brooh ha ha ha!!!

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  I agree with Dan.

Michael Myers from HALLOWEEN (1978).

I mean, it’s a tough call, but based on what I hear from today’s audiences, I’d give the slightest edge to Michael Myers.  I think his image, and his name, are more recognizable today among fans of the genre, and among people who aren’t fans of the genre.

Bates was obviously the bigger icon in the 1960s, and Myers was the bigger icon in the late 1970s into the 1980s.  I’m not sure if either one of these characters remain iconic today among today’s audiences, although like I said, I think Myers is more known.  Visually, Myers, with his mask, is more striking.  His look is more iconic than Norman Bates, but then, who can forget Anthony Perkins’ sly smile at the end of PSYCHO?

Still, I go with Michael Myers.

So, Round 1 goes to HALLOWEEN, as three of us chose Michael Myers, two chose Bates, and one, Mr. Dudar, remained undecided.

On to Round 2 and the next question.

“Which film has the better music score?  Is it Bernard Herrmann’s PSYCHO score or John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN score?”

NICK CATO:  This one’s simply impossible to answer.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  I disagree.

While it’s true that I love both music scores, and that they’re both among my favorite film scores of all time, right off the bat, without thinking about it for too long, I’d say I prefer John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN score, for a number of reasons.    I like the actual tune better, for one thing.  Whenever I watch a HALLOWEEN movie, I have the HALLOWEEN theme stuck in my head for days, and this is not a bad thing.

The music score for HALLOWEEN also does more for the movie than Herrmann’s PSYCHO score.   Without the music, HALLOWEEN just wouldn’t have been as effective.  In fact, I read once that when John Carpenter initially screened HALLOWEEN, trying to get a distributor, the film was rejected.  He then added his music score, showed it to the same people, and the film was accepted, the viewers saying they were pleased with his changes, when in fact the film was exactly the same, and the only difference was his music score.

But the longer I think about it, the less sure I am.  Bernard Herrmann’s PSYCHO score is also instantly known as soon as one hears it, and can you imagine the famous shower scene without Herrmann’s score?  And when you watch PSYCHO, the score is so much more than just the iconic staccato notes of its main theme.  It’s a rich and powerful score throughout.

Yet, I’m going to stick with my initial choice.  I like Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN score a wee bit better, and I think it helps the movie more than Herrmann’s PSYCHO score.  I can’t imagine HALLOWEEN with a different music score, but I could see PSYCHO working with different music.

Bernard Herrmann, composer of the score for PSYCHO.

L.L. SOARES:  I love both scores and I think they are very effective at what they do. But I’d have to give a slight edge to Bernard Herrmann’s classic score for PSYCHO. It pretty much showed everyone else how to do it. I hate to keep going back to the “movie that came first” argument, but the truth is, the first of its kind is the one that everyone else strives to imitate or surpass. And everything about PSYCHO is pretty much perfect. But in a weird way, I agree with Michael that I think I like the HALLOWEEN score a little better. It’s something I’d prefer listening to on my iPod. But for the sake of this argument, I have to go with Herrmann’s as the better score.

DAN KEOHANE:  Oooohh… you know, to be honest, there must be something to Herrmann’s score, since I can’t remember it at all except for the famous “eeeh eeeh” part, and the music for the  credits.

Carpenter’s score is admittedly more melodic and creepy in that it stays with you. Back to the iconic question, though, Herrmann’s “eeeeh eeeeh eeeeh!” killing score with the strings (yea, I have such a way with words) is far more iconic. Everyone knows what that is.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Since you can’t remember the PSYCHO score, you’d better pick the HALLOWEEN score.

DAN KEOHANE:  I remember the “eeeh eeeeh eeeeh!” part.

L.L. SOARES:  Enough with the “eeeh eeeeh eeeeh!” already!

DAN KEOHANE:  I do prefer the Carpenter score, so I’ll go with that.  (Turns and pretends to stab LS, crying out,  “eeeh eeeeh eeeeh!”

John Carpenter not only directed and co-wrote HALLOWEEN, he also wrote the music.

PAUL MCMAHON:  Interesting question.

The screeching violins of the shower scene is what most people remember when they think about PSYCHO, but that music was just a tiny part of the overall score, the rest of which most people, like Dan, don’t remember. As proof, I offer that the PSYCHO score Bernard Herrmann wrote was re-orchestrated for RE-ANIMATOR (1985).

The “trivia” section on says Richard Band “borrowed heavily” from Herrmann’s PSYCHO—but having just watched the openings to both movies back-to-back, I can say that Richard Band flat-out ripped Hermann off, and Herrmann’s name appears nowhere in RE-ANIMATOR’s credits. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who recognize the music was originally from PSYCHO.


MICHAEL ARRUDA:  You can count me as one of those people.  It’s one of the reasons I initially disliked RE-ANIMATOR so much, because I recognized the music score and realized they had ripped off Hermann’s PSYCHO score.

L.L. SOARES: I recognized the “similarity” in the music, too, but unlike you guys, I don’t really care. I love everything about RE-ANIMATOR, even the more iffy aspects like the music. It just all works for me. Besides, I’m sure Mr. Band would clarify things by saying it was a “homage.” (laughs)

PAUL MCMAHON:  By the same token, if someone were to “re-orchestrate” Carpenter’s score for HALLOWEEN, not only would it be immediately recognized, fans would cause a stink that would dominate the Internet for days.

L.L. SOARES:  So, what’s your point?

PAUL MCMAHON:  My point is that HALLOWEEN has the better music score.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Pete, how about you?

PETE DUDAR:  Could you have picked two more iconic horror films to juxtapose? This is like asking “Which is better? Hot fudge or butterscotch?”  (Everyone on the panel shouts out one or the other.)  See what I mean?

I think picking between these two movies is simply too difficult.  So, I don’t really have anything to say about the music.

I’ll save my answers for the final question.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Ah, a rebel.

L.L. SOARES:  A wimp is more like it!

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Round 2 also goes to HALLOWEEN, with three for John Carpenter’s score, one for Bernard Herrmann’s PSYCHO score, and two undecided. HALLOWEEN enjoys an early lead, 2-0.

L.L. SOARES: That’s ludicrous.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: And since HALLOWEEN has jumped out to an early lead, I just want to remind our audience that, even if one movie has an insurmountable lead going into the final round, that movie can still lose if it falls in the final round.  It’s like a knock-out in boxing, where the fighter who’s losing the fight on points can still win in the final round if he knocks his opponent out.  Of course the difficult part is that the movie must win the round unanimously to score a knockout.

L.L. SOARES:  Yeah, yeah, they’ve heard the rule before.  You don’t have to repeat it every time.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  I just don’t want the folks to tune out if one movie builds a big lead, but something tells me that in spite of HALLOWEEN’s early lead this one is going to be close.

So HALLOWEEN is in the lead. What will happen next? Come join us next Friday and see!

L.L. SOARES: See you next week.

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, Nick Cato, Peter N. Dudar, Daniel G. Keohane and Paul McMahon

“The Reassessment Files” Take a Second Look at John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)

Posted in 1990s Horror, 2012, Ancient Civilizations, Cult Movies, Demons, John Carpenter Films, Lovecraft Movies, Lovecraftian Horror, Monsters, Paul McMahon Columns, Reassessment Files, The Distracted Critic with tags , , , , , on August 14, 2012 by knifefighter

The Reassessment Files:
By Paul McMahon (The Distracted Critic)

John Trent: You’re waiting to hear about my “them,” aren’t you?

Dr. Wrenn: Your what?

John Trent: My “them.”Every paranoid schizophrenic has one; a “them,” a “they,” an “it”. And you want to hear about my “them,” don’t you?


Maybe that’s where this first “Reassessment Files” should begin, eh? My “them.”

John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS came out in 1994—almost two decades ago. I rented the VHS from a mom and pop place called Lake Ripple Video near where I grew up. The store itself was a bit of a sore spot with me, because before the video people moved in that shop was The Yankee Bookseller, and it’s where I spent every lawn-mowing and snow-shoveling dollar I earned. Lake Ripple Video has also long since closed. But I digress. Before I’ve even started, I digress.

The timing of the movie was such that I was on the verge of being unemployed because my job was closing. (Seeing a trend here? The mid-nineties sucked for that sort of thing.) I had a lot on my mind. The end result was that IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS came across as disjointed and incoherent, a blatant mess with logic holes and dropped plot strands. It looped endlessly and ended abruptly, leaving far more questions than answers. The kicker was, I really wanted to like it, having seen a CNN filler interview in which Carpenter promised this movie would have more and better monsters than had ever been seen on the silver screen before. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for a monster story, so naturally I took that promise to heart.

Carpenter’s movie disappointed in a huge way. For the guy who brought THE THING (1982) to the big screen, I expected a hell of a lot more. Frankly, I got a much better view of the monsters during the CNN interview. I grumbled all the way back to Lake Ripple Video and tossed the whole IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS concept onto my mental trash heap and moved on.

Over the past few years, though, I have heard repeatedly at cons and on Facebook and from friends whose opinions I trust that IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is one of the very best H.P. Lovecraft homages that exists. I’ve always used my skeptical eyebrow when dealing with these crazies. It’s a strategy that has worked well in the past, but lately there are more and more of these loonies to contend with, and my eyebrow is tiring. It seemed my best option was for me to give the film another look.

Since the movie is just shy of two decades old, I’m going to reveal spoilers if they come up. If that’s going to bug you, go watch the film before you read another word.

The movie opens with John Trent (Sam Neill, JURASSIC PARK ,1993) being thrown into a padded cell in a very busy lunatic asylum. Once his raving subsides, he’s visited by Dr. Wrenn (David Warner, THE OMEN, 1976) and is coaxed into telling his story. He reveals that he was an insurance investigator, and he was sent to investigate a claim by a big-time New York publishing house that their star author—Sutter Cain (Jurgen Prochnow, most notably DAS BOOT, 1981) —has disappeared with his latest manuscript. As Trent reads and studies Cain’s books to familiarize himself with the case, we learn he’s anti-horror, most likely anti-fantasy, and probably anti-fiction of any form. Waking from a nightmare featuring repetitive disturbing images, he discovers strange lines on the covers of Cain’s paperbacks. He cuts them out and pieces them together. They form a map of New Hampshire, revealing the exact location of Cain’s fictional town of Hobb’s End.

To him, this means that the whole “disappearing author” thing is a publicity stunt and not a real mystery. If Trent seems more than a little disappointed by this, he seems positively put-out that he’s sent to find the town with Cain’s editor, the sultry Linda Styles (Julie Carmen, FRIGHT NIGHT II, 1988). Styles insists that the only person to have read the entire manuscript, Cain’s agent, went crazy. Turns out the agent is the same nut that attacked Trent with an axe in broad daylight and was shot dead by police earlier in the movie. Eventually, Trent falls asleep in the car and Styles manages to find the town after experiencing some haunting activity on the road, including a weird sequence where the car seems to be flying. Trent wakes when they arrive and they investigate the seemingly deserted town, finally discovering that Cain is living in the town’s church.

I came to the writings of Lovecraft after I saw the film. I’d say that has a bit to do with my not ‘getting it’ the first time. This time, I was surprised to find a veritable smorgasbord of creepy Lovecraftian images and events. There were many quick, indirect images of things that could be defined as “unnamable” and “unspeakable.” A lot of the horror happened indirectly and was hard to identify. On the two occasions that Styles reads Cain’s work aloud, she actually read passages of Lovecraft’s work, most notably “The Rats In The Walls.”

Things get complicated as Styles’ personality is swallowed by the town, resulting in her becoming more of a hindrance than an ally. When she disappears one evening, Trent finds her in the dark old church, watching Cain write. Trent watches as well and with a flourish Cain finishes the last page of his manuscript. The same Cain’s agent already read, which is why he went mad in the first place. If the book wasn’t finished until now, how could that have happened?

Driving people insane is the whole point of Cain’s book, by the way. Cain wants to drive his readers mad. Once a high enough percentage of the population is crazy, the Old Ones who sleep beneath the skin of the Earth can arise and rule the world.

Ah, the Old Ones...

This brings us to my biggest complaint, and the main reason I gave the film such poor marks all those years ago. The Old Ones are loosed before Trent has delivered the manuscript, so before anyone has read the thing. They, in fact, chase him through a mystical tunnel out of Hobbs End and into reality, and at no time do we get a clear shot of the things. Yeah, there are images of parts– a few drooly teeth here, an angry looking eye there, a pair of sharp talons on a scaly, deformed foot– but never a really good look at the monsters. I realize this was in keeping with Lovecraft’s style, but it definitely bucks Carpenter’s promise of “more and better monsters than had ever been seen on the silver screen before.”

“More and better monsters than had ever been seen on the silver screen before!” – Enjoy this screenshot. It’s the best look you’re going to get.

They are “onscreen”– used a stopwatch to time it– thirty seconds out of a movie 5,700 seconds long, and a lot of this segment is Trent running, falling, and screaming. Even crap movies have more monster than this. If you absolutely insist on counting Mrs. Pickman’s “reveal” and Styles’ “transformation,” the total monster-on-screen ratio is two minutes out of 195.

Hardly “more and better monsters” at all.

Watching the sequences on freeze frame, it’s obvious the “Wall of Old Ones” cost a lot of money to pull off. We’re talking a dozen to twenty puppeteers just to make the creatures seem alive. To spend that kind of money and then not show the damn things… suffice to say that it’s one of the rare instances where if I’d been producing I would’ve stepped in and enforced my will that there be more– and clearer– shots of the creatures. “Put my money on the screen,” I’d have said. “Lovecraft used the terms ‘unnamable’ and ‘unspeakable’ because he dealt with the printed word and couldn’t fully convey the unusual monstrosities he was seeing. You, John Carpenter, are a filmmaker who has hired the wildest creative imaginers in the business today (The KNB effects group of Robert Kurtzman, Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger), so you have no excuse to hide your vision from the viewer.”

Anyway… I went into the movie this time expecting to be let down. Without the pressures that were dragging me down the first time I watched it, and with having read most of Lovecraft’s body of work in the interim, I was able to get into the spirit of the movie a lot deeper and it meant a lot more to me. The homages and tributes were recognizable and fun, and I had a good time, even though the monsters are few and far between.

I still think the film would’ve rocked with a THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997)- type montage, where each monster is seen mutilating people in a different city. That would’ve been “more and better monsters.”

First viewing: 1 out of 5 stars

Reassessment: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Best Lovecraft homage ever? I remember one I liked better.

Stay tuned.

© Copyright 2012 by Paul McMahon


Posted in 2012, Documentary, George Romero, Horror Movies, John Carpenter Films, Michael Arruda Reviews, Monsters, Movie History, Screaming Streaming with tags , , , , , on July 4, 2012 by knifefighter

By Michael Arruda

Let’s shake things up a bit and look at a documentary for a change.

NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE, AND BLUE:  THE EVOLUTION OF THE AMERICAN HORROR FILM (2009) is a documentary directed by Andrew Monument and written by Joseph Maddrey, that examines American horror movies from the silent era up to the 2000s. It’s now available on Streaming Video.

The film definitely takes a psychological and sociological approach to looking at American horror movies. It attempts to explain why Americans love horror movies so much, what the filmmakers were trying to say with their movies, and how horror movies are tied into the times in which they were made.

NIGHTMARES begins with the silent horror movies of the 1920s, and it makes the argument that horror movies of the 1920s, especially the films of Lon Chaney Sr.,  were interested in deformities because after World War I soldiers were returning home maimed and injured, often without limbs, and these injuries were a large part of the American consciousness.

Horror in the 1930s picked up steam and most of the horror movies made during this decade, specifically the Universal monster movies, were true classics of the genre. These movies struck a chord with audiences and heavily influenced future filmmakers. I loved the comment made in one of the interviews about why boys loved the Wolf Man, because he was the perfect adolescent and they related to his problems:  he got hairy and lost control of his emotions. Yep, the Wolf Man does remind me of some teenagers I know.

The movie argues that horror was toned down in the 1940s because of the real-life horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. Budgets were reduced as well, and people like Val Lewton had to do more with less, and as a result he made his movies much more artistic.

Into the 1950s the movies reflected Americans’ fears of the Cold War and atomic bombs, and thus we had giant atomic monsters like TARANTULA (1955) and the giant ants in THEM!  (1954). Americans also feared UFOs, which gave us movies about alien invasions like THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) , and THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951).

Alfred Hitchcock changed things with PSYCHO (1960), and suddenly audiences had to expect the unexpected, such as lead characters getting killed early in the movie, and the most sympathetic character in the whole movie turning out to be the villain. As the 1960s went on and the United States became bogged down in the Vietnam War and race riots at home, films like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) emerged, mirroring the horror and disillusionment Americans were feeling at home.

In the 1970s, horror went through a movie boom again, with films like THE EXORCIST (1973) and JAWS (1975). As a big budget movie, JAWS  made horror mainstream, and had it been made in the 1950s it would have simply been a B movie.

In the 1980s, NIGHTMARES covers George Romero’s zombies and some of John Carpenter’s movies. It was interesting to listen to Carpenter as he explained that he made THEY LIVE (1988) out of anger and frustration with the Reagan administration.

NIGHTMARES definitely runs out of steam as it moves into the 1990s and 2000s, and only briefly  covers the movies from this period, with  fleeting mentions of THE SIXTH SENSE (1999, )and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), the SAW movies and HOSTEL (2005).

The film was narrated by Lance Henriksen, and he does a good job, as his voice is a natural fit for the subject matter. Some of the people interviewed in the movie include Larry Cohen, Joe Dante, John Carpenter, George Romero, and Roger Corman, among others.

NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE, AND BLUE:  THE EVOLUTION OF THE AMERICAN HORROR FILM is an enjoyable way to spend an evening, but it does have a couple of drawbacks. Since it covers so many years in just 90 minutes of running time, it moves quickly and never really provides an in-depth look at the movies it covers. As a result, while entertaining, NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE, AND BLUE is rather superficial. It might have worked better as a TV series, where the filmmakers could have given the films and the people they interviewed more screen time. Personally, I would have loved to have listened to John Carpenter or George Romero go on for thirty minutes or so.

NIGHTMARES is definitely interested in how American horror movies are connected to American audiences, and how American filmmakers were influenced by their times. Now, this is an interesting angle, but I have to admit, I prefer stories about how the movies were made. I find the historical backgrounds of the people and events behind the movies much more interesting, but that’s not what this documentary is about. You won’t be learning how Willis O’Brien created King Kong, or about the thought processes of James Whale when he made FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). You won’t hear John Carpenter talk about how he filmed certain scenes in HALLOWEEN (1978).

There really isn’t a whole lot of new information in NIGHTMARES. It’s not an eye opener filled with fascinating facts and tidbits about horror movies. But it does do a good job selling its angle, that American filmmakers and their movies are tied into the American experience. Based on the material presented in the film, I bought this argument.

NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE, AND BLUE:  THE EVOLUTION OF THE AMERICAN HORROR FILM is a mildly entertaining documentary on American horror movies, mostly because it contains interviews with some of the greatest horror filmmakers who are still with us today. Hearing what they have to say is always a rewarding experience. But in terms of new or insightful information, especially regarding the older movies, NIGHTMARES is lacking. Sure, you’ll get to see lots of neat film clips and see snippets of neat interviews, but it’s definitely a movie in need of more meat on its bones.

It’s a tasty appetizer rather than a satisfying meal.


© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda

Pickin’ the Carcass: John Carpenter’s THE WARD (2010)

Posted in 2012, Ghosts!, John Carpenter Films, Michael Arruda Reviews, Pickin' the Carcass, Supernatural with tags , , , , on February 4, 2012 by knifefighter

Review by Michael Arruda


It’s been a while since John Carpenter directed a feature movie— not since GHOSTS OF MARS in 2001.  So when I saw he had directed THE WARD (2010), and that it was now available on streaming video, I jumped at the chance to see it.  (It’s also available on DVD and Blu-Ray.)

John Carpenter, of course, is the legendary director who made his mark directing the classic HALLOWEEN (1978), and who went on to direct such other notable classics as ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and THE THING (1982).  As you can see by the years these movies were made, it’s been a while since Carpenter made a memorable movie.  He’s certainly made movies over the years that I’ve liked—IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1995), for example—but it’s not like he’s made a notable horror movie every couple of years.  He has not.

But fond memories of his classic films remain, and as such, whenever I see his name associated with a movie, I want to see it, which brings me back to my original point, of how I chose to watch THE WARD.  It certainly wasn’t because of its plot description.

In THE WARD, it’s 1966 in North Bend, Oregon, and Kristen (Amber Heard) is committed to a mental institution for burning down a barn, a crime she has no memory of committing.  She is placed in the care of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris), who is not above using shock therapy on his patients, when his treatments on them don’t go as well as he expected.

Inside the ward, Kristen lives with several other women, all of whom have their own problems and oddities.  This is a mental institution, after all.  This in itself would be tough enough for Kristen, but this is a horror movie, after all, and so there’s more going on here than just irritating ward-mates.  Kristen begins seeing a strange woman walking the halls at night, and eventually this woman, who Kristen comes to believe is a ghost, attacks her in the shower.

When the women in the ward begin to disappear one by one, Kristen fears the ghost is murdering them, and so she decides to investigate, searching for both the identity of the ghost and the reason why it wants to kill them.  What she finds ultimately leads to the obligatory twist ending, which is both unnecessary and unexciting.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

I can’t say that I liked THE WARD, and there are several reasons why.  First and foremost, the story is a bore.  It’s simply not hard-hitting enough to work either on a dramatic level—showing the horrors of institutional living, for example— or on the level of a decent horror movie.  Nothing Kristen goes through is all that grueling.  Her ward-mates have their issues, but Kristen more than holds her own against them.  In fact, she even emerges as their leader.

The ghost isn’t scary, which is another huge drawback.  Make a horror movie about a murderous ghost, you want that ghost to be terrifying.  This one is not.  Sure, she commits murder, but the murder scenes are brief and not very frightening.  Neither is much else about the movie.  Kristen does have to endure shock therapy at the hands of Dr. Stringer, but even this sequence isn’t all that…..shocking.  (heh, heh!).

The ending to THE WARD falls flat, and the plot twist doesn’t help.  The movie would have been better off without it.  It doesn’t ruin the movie by any means (No M. Night Shyamalan disasters here) but it doesn’t add anything either, other than a lament and a sigh that screenwriters Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen decided to go this route.

THE WARD is all rather mediocre and mild, not at all what you would expect, considering this story takes place inside a mental institution.

Still, there are a few creepy moments here and there, scenes where John Carpenter’s considerable talents are on display.  Carpenter can still create suspenseful scenes.  There’s just not enough of them in this movie.  And most of these occur early on in the movie, when the ghost creeps about the darkened institution.  There’s a particularly creepy thunderstorm sequence when the power goes out momentarily.  But towards the end of the movie, when the suspense should be cranked up several notches, it isn’t.

The cast isn’t bad either.  Amber Heard acquits herself well as Kristen.  Heard, as you might remember, starred opposite Nicholas Cage in DRIVE ANGRY 3D (2011), and she was also in ZOMBIELAND (2009).  While she’s fine here, she was certainly more memorable in DRIVE ANGRY 3D.  It doesn’t hurt that she’s beautiful.

Jared Harris is also very good as Dr. Stringer, giving the good doctor some depth, and preventing him from being a cliché.  We just saw Harris as Professor Moriarty in the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes sequel SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011).  I liked Harris better as Moriarty, but he’s certainly good in THE WARD as well.

The cast also includes Danielle Panabaker, as Sarah, one of Kristen’s ward-mates .  Panabaker starred in THE CRAZIES (2010), and Lyndsy Fonseca as Iris, another ward-mate, who we saw as Kick-Ass’s  girlfriend in KICK-ASS (2010).

And no, Carpenter didn’t write the music for this one.  That honor went to Mark Kilian.  Too bad.  A John Carpenter film score would have added some oomph.

THE WARD is a minor film directed by a master of the genre.  I love John Carpenter’s early work and a handful of his later movies, but THE WARD isn’t one of them.

For a movie about a murderous ghost inside a mental institution, THE WARD is painfully sane and sanitary.  No need to check yourself in.


© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda

Friday Night Knife Fights: ALIEN VS. THE THING – PART 2

Posted in 1980s Horror, 2011, Aliens, Classic Films, Friday Night Knife Fights, John Carpenter Films, Science Fiction with tags , , , , , , on November 18, 2011 by knifefighter

Featuring Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, and “special guest star” Mark Onspaugh

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Welcome back to FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHTS:  ALIEN (1979) VS. THE THING (1982).  Tonight it’s Part 2, as L.L. SOARES, MARK ONSPAUGH, and myself continue our panel discussion over which of these two horror science fiction classics is the better movie.

Ready for Part 2, guys?

MARK ONSPAUGH:  Bring it on!

L.L. SOARES:  Let me just down this beer first  (guzzles from a giant can of FOSTERS).

MA:  Hope that doesn’t cloud your judgment.

LS:  Don’t worry.  When it comes to talking about movies, I can do it in my sleep.

MA:  Which you’ve done on some occasions.

LS:  Yeah, and I still make more sense than you do. (laughs).

MO:  Uh oh.  Here we go again.

MA: There’s never a cream pie around when you need one.

MO:  Would you like me to get one?

MA:  Maybe later. Moving right along, let’s get back to our discussion.

Watch out! THE THING is coming to get you!

In Part 1, both Rounds went to ALIEN, and so ALIEN leads THE THING 2-0.  On to Question 3.

Which film has the better special effects?

I’ll answer this one first.  Hands down, I like the special effects in THE THING better.  I thought the gross-out effects in this movie were ahead of their time. And better yet, they still hold up today.

On the other hand, while I love the look of the Alien, we don’t see him a whole lot.  Now, I’m not faulting the fact that we don’t see him a lot, because this actually works to the movie’s advantage, but when we do see him, it’s quick and fleeting, and visually not all that impressive.  It’s still scary, but in terms of special effects, it doesn’t pack the same punch as the effects in THE THING.

For me it’s a no brainer.  The special effects in THE THING are better.

A dead unearthly astronaut on an alien ship in ALIEN

MO:  I disagree.  I don’t find the special effects in ALIEN disappointing at all.  Both films have awesome effects, in a time when rubber and paint still ruled… But THE THING takes place in Quonset huts—while ALIEN gives us a battered ship, an alien planet, an alien ship… and a decapitated android…. I have to give the nod to ALIEN when it comes to special effects.

LS:  You seem to have forgotten all that, Michael.

MA:  No, I haven’t forgotten.  I love the look of the Nostromo, the alien planet, the abandoned alien ship, the different stages of the alien, all that’s cool.  But in terms of pure impact, the way the special effects were used in THE THING, they were unforgettable.  To me, the best part of THE THING were its special effects, its creature effects in particular.  I can’t say that about ALIEN.

LS:  They both have great effects for their time, and if you watch them now, both films have scenes where the effects are pretty strong, and other scenes that look dated and even silly now.

MA:  Really?  I think they hold up rather well.

LS:  That’s because you look dated and silly, too.

MA (suddenly wearing a 1970s leisure suit):  What do you mean?

LS:  Overall, though, I’d have to go with THE THING, just because the monster is constantly changing. It’s just more of a field day for the effects people.

MA:  Yep, that’s what I’m talking about.  The special effects in THE THING are a more integral part of the movie than they are in ALIEN.

Round 3 goes to THE THING, which means THE THING finally scores a point and gets on the board, cutting into ALIEN’s lead. After three rounds, ALIEN holds a 2-1 advantage.

Next question.  Which film’s director does a better job, John Carpenter or Ridley Scott?

LS:  I’m a big Carpenter fan, especially THE THING, which is probably my favorite of his movies, up there with the original HALLOWEEN (1978). But ALIEN gets the edge here for me. I’d have to say Scott does a slightly better job at generating real scares.

MA:  I agree with you here.  Ridley Scott creates some genuinely creepy scenes.  He pulls out all stops in terms of creative direction.  ALIEN is full of suspense.  Strangely, Carpenter, who made a cinematic masterpiece of suspense with HALLOWEEN, seems to have forgotten all that with THE THING, which really isn’t suspense-driven.  It’s a showcase for gross-out effects, and while this certainly works for me, it’s a far cry from Carpenter’s work on HALLOWEEN.

LS:  Come on!  Carpenter’s work on THE THING is great!  It’s every bit as good as his work on HALLOWEEN, maybe better!

MA:  I disagree.  I think his work on HALLOWEEN is more impressive, but that’s neither here nor there.  We both agree that Ridley Scott does a better job at the helm of ALIEN.

MO:  Both directors give us fleshed-out worlds, paranoia, claustrophobia and disturbing imagery… But I found ALIEN scary whereas THE THING was more thrilling… Based on being scared, I go with Ridley.

MA:  Looks like ALIEN is going for the clean sweep with this question because I’m going with Ridley Scott too.

LS:  Didn’t you already say that?

MA:  Well, I said it in response to your answer, but I haven’t given my answer yet.

LS:  I think we’re in for some repetition.

MO:  As long as it’s about ALIEN and THE THING, I don’t mind.  I could talk about these movies all night.

MA:  Like you LL, I’m also a huge fan of John Carpenter, but I still have to go with Ridley Scott.  The strength of ALIEN is the suspense it generates, and ALIEN is so chockfull of suspense it’s downright uncomfortable at times.  The scene where Tom Skerritt (Dallas) travels through the air ducts searching for the Alien armed with a flame thrower is a classic nail biter.

I’ve always felt Carpenter’s direction in THE THING was not as inspired as his direction of HALLOWEEN or even THE FOG (1980).  There’s a strange use of fades in THE THING that’s very noticeable.  I’m sure he did this for a reason, but to me it’s very awkward.

Looks like Round 4 goes to ALIEN, and so folks, after four rounds, ALIEN has a commanding lead, 3-1.

And that’s all the time we have for tonight.  Join us next Friday for the third and final installment of FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHTS:  ALIEN VS. THE THING, when we’ll decide once and for all which one of these two horror classics is the superior film, and with ALIEN sitting comfortably in the lead, it remains to be seen if THE THING will be able to mount a comeback.

LS:  I wouldn’t count THE THING out yet.

MA: Thanks, Mark, for joining us again.  We’ll be looking forward to finishing this up with you next week.

MO:  Likewise.  Thanks, guys, it’s been awesome!

LS (to audience):  And thank you for joining us.  We’ll see you next Friday for the exciting conclusion to ALIEN vs. THE THING.

MA:  Good night everybody.

—END of PART 2—

© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares and Mark Onspaugh