HALLOWEEN (1978)

By Marc S. Sanders

Finally, I saw it.  I had never seen any of the Halloween movies.  At last, considering the time of the year, I chose to watch the original John Carpenter classic slash fest from 1978.  Granted, I believe I have seen every scene of this picture by flipping channels or watching Netflix documentaries.  I have just never stopped to watch the film from beginning to end.  So, if the surprises didn’t grab me as much you, when you first watched, well my apologies for having an advantage.  Let’s just say I can see why the picture is still regaled so much, nearly fifty years later.  Nevertheless, I think Halloween is full of plot holes and short sightedness.

Understand reader, I know what to likely expect when I watch a slasher flick.  Man in a mask who walks at even pace while the girl victim sprints as far away as possible.  Still, the girl can’t get away, right?  Well, normally she would be able to.  This is a horror movie, though.  The suspense is heightened in any film if the storyteller elongates what you fear as much as possible.  So, yeah, it is much more effective to show the ominous killer as far away as possible while the camera cuts away to a helpless Jamie Lee Curtis fumbling with the lock on the door.  Even more effective is if you have a pulse pounding soundtrack to get you fidgeting in your chair while you bite down on your last fingernail.

I think Carpenter’s film stands as the granddaddy of the modern-day slasher film (though not besting Hitchcock’s Psycho) because of the methods he adopts with his camera work and editing.  The opening sequence is skillfully executed as we watch one Halloween night unfold in 1963 where a six-year-old Michael Myers, dressed in a clown costume, takes a kitchen knife to his naked older sister in her room upstairs.  Carpenter gives us the literal point of view from the killer kid.  We watch through his eyes from the outside of the Myers’ home, then as he enters, he picks up a kitchen knife, dons a mask and heads upstairs.  Now we are looking through eye slips in the mask. Then he moves down the stairs and out on to the sidewalk.  Carpenter then reveals we’ve been watching through the eyes of a child with murder on his mind while he holds a bloody knife by his side.  For me, one of the scariest things I can think of is a murderous child.  Children are made up of innocence, devoid of corruption.  When you poison the mind of a child, it seems like the most heinous act a writer can take with a character.  Look at The Exorcist and The Omen, as perfect examples in addition to Halloween.

Fifteen years go by to present day 1978, and Michael has escaped from a mental institution on the night before Halloween.  This is where I lose my suspension of disbelief.  He terrorizes his psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) and a nurse driving in middle of a dark and stormy night and steals their station wagon.  Michael is now driving back to Haddonfield, Illinois where he committed his first crime.  You know I would have dismissed this trope of Michael being able to drive had I never seen the car again.  However, Carpenter uses the car as a character itself, much like the rampaging truck in Duel.  For the first half of Halloween, this car drives up and down the Haddonfield neighborhood stalking three high school girls as they walk to and from school.  Where did Michael, who has been institutionalized since age 6, learn to drive a car?????  The movie even asks the question at one point and I don’t recall getting a satisfactory answer.  Every time I see this car, slowly keeping up with the girls walking the sidewalks or riding in their own car, I can’t help but ask how Michael so skillfully pilots this station wagon.  I’m teaching my 15-year-old daughter how to drive right now.  Maybe Michael should give me some pointers, because it isn’t going so smoothly.

The structure of the film centers on three teen girlfriends, two of which are babysitting on Halloween night across the street from one another (Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Kyes).  The third (PJ Soles) is out and about with her boyfriend, ready to get laid.  What’s appreciative of Carpenter’s craft is that the film is not occupied with buckets of blood spilling all over the place.  Instead, the audience is repeatedly teased in a dark neighborhood, where trick or treaters appear on occasion, and these girls are being looked at from different angles.  We all know Michael is there.  His heavy breathing under his mask tells us that he is hungry for death.  What messes with our senses is figuring out when he’s finally going to strike.  Will it be when one of the girls finds herself clumsily stuck in a window?  What about when a couple is having sex upstairs?  A quick trip to the kitchen, maybe?  New tricks are pulled with each attack and Carpenter wisely stretches these episodes of terror out. 

Michael Myers never speaks.  Other than at age 6, he is masked the entire length of the film.  We really never get a sense of his physicality either.  We don’t know why he has the urge to kill.  The best we can count on is Dr. Loomis.  Donald Pleasence does a good job of heightening the terror.  He is not forgiving with his patient as he simply describes him as the worst kind of evil imaginable.  He describes the black eyes that Michael has, and I couldn’t help but think of Captain Quint describing his experience with a man-eating shark in Jaws.  The worst kinds of monsters are the ones you can’t beg and plead with; the ones who have no comprehension of compromise.  If you are caught in their sight, you will be killed.  That’s it. 

Now, I’ve already discussed the deal with the car?  I’ll never get past that.  Never.  It’s ridiculous.  There’s also the fact that the parents/homeowners these girls are babysitting for seemingly never come home.  This is one long night.  Where the hell are mom and dad, already?  I have to give up my grudge with these oversights.  It’s not fair to the strengths of Halloween

A magnificent third act involves Curtis’ character taking it upon herself to seek out what she fears may have occurred.  She goes across the street to the dark house where her friends are supposed to be.  Carpenter takes his time with his protagonist walking deeper and deeper into darkness, calling out her friends’ names.  I’ve seen things like this before, but it works all the better, the longer the sequence plays out, sometimes in silence and sometimes with music cues from Carpenter’s synthesized soundtrack.  What she finally uncovers is more terrifying than the killer we know has always been there. 

When the chase picks up from that point, a horrifying moment with Curtis taking refuge in a closet is likely the scariest moment of the film.  Carpenter focuses on the interior of the closet with the fragile wooden folding doors violently rattling and getting torn apart by the killer.  When he’s able to reach inside fumbling with the light bulb, darkness is disturbed by intermittent light to toy with your senses.  It shakes up your nerves.  How does a helpless victim escape a narrow closet with a faceless killer standing in the way?  An absolutely unsettling scene.

Michael Myers is referred to as the “boogeyman” in the film.  We all have our cognition of what a boogeyman is.  He hides under our bed or in our closet or maybe behind a bush or shrub.  Carpenter’s film works like Spielberg’s Jaws where the environment is what is really terrifying.  The ocean water is the first unsettling element before we encounter the monster that occupies it.  In Halloween, a dark neighborhood with a haunted past keeps us at bay before it comes alive with a killer in its shadows.  We know there’s a shark somewhere.  We know there’s an evil, murderous presence somewhere too.  When is it going to come out, and attack us already??????  This is where Halloween succeeds.  Imitations that were made afterwards only set up the moments, one kill after another.  Carpenter wasn’t setting up kills so much as he was preparing mood and darkness.  There’s nothing to gain symbolically from Halloween.  It’s three girls, with one having a sneaking feeling that something doesn’t feel right, a killer, and a man who dreadfully knows what’s to expect.  John Carpenter assembles the elements together and we see what’s to come of it from there. 

I’ll likely not return to Halloween anytime soon.  Slasher fests are not my style.  Yet, if anyone asks for the best of the best, I’m going to highly endorse Psycho first, and then I will turn their attention to the original Halloween.  There have been gorier releases since.  There have more jump scares since.  All of that is nothing but cheap tactics lacking imagination. 

Halloween chills you with its menacing approach.

ALIENS: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT

By Marc S. Sanders

James Cameron’s Aliens is deliberately morose in its storytelling and cinematic look.  It’s ugly and nightmarish.  It’s nerve-wracking at times.  It’s dark and somber too.  It’s also one of the best action films ever made.  For me, this is Cameron’s best film and it’s not only because I’m a sci-fi blockbuster nerd of sorts. 

Serving as a sequel to Ridley Scott’s monster movie, Alien from 1979, Aliens works on its own independence while still adhering to the storyline qualities of the original.  Sigourney Weaver returns as Ripley.  The story begins 57 years later where Ripley’s lifeboat ship from the end of the first film is found in deep space.  She reports back to the conglomerate company of the terrifying happenings she experienced with her crew mates who didn’t survive when an unrecognizable creature terrorized them aboard their vessel.  The company is less than apt to believe her account though. 

One of the company men, Burke (Paul Reiser), requests that Ripley accompany him and a squad of tough Marines on a mission to the planet, LV-426, where her crew discovered an immense crop of eggs and took back an alien aboard their ship.  In Ripley’s absence, a colony of over a hundred families was set up on the planet to establish habitable real estate.  However, the colony has lost contact, and the company is sending in the military to assess the situation to see what’s going on. Ripley is supposed to only serve as an advisor.

James Cameron’s script and direction takes its time to build up suspense and explore what’s unknown to these soldiers.  Upon arrival on the planet, much of what they find is left in wreckage and no one is to be found anywhere.  At best, Ripley can only see what was likely the remains of alien attacks with acid burns within the steel structures.  Yet to Ripley and viewers familiar with the first film, it is still a mystery as to what truly occurred.  Naturally, more will eventually be uncovered and then this arriving crew will have their hands full.

James Cameron has an imagination that bursts with colorful and amazing ideas.  The Terminator films were astonishing in its own apocalyptic future that haunts a present time period.  Titanic was a film mired in much expense and technical setbacks. Though, no one ever expected just how accomplished the award-winning blockbuster turned out to be.  Avatar is wonderous on a planetary level.  However, James Cameron is not necessarily a celebrated script writer.  Often his dialogue is very cheesy and unnatural.  Aliens is the exception though.

The script acknowledges that these gung-ho marines are “grunts.”  Thankfully, they talk like grunts.  I know that many fans adore Bill Paxton as the cut-up member of the troupe known as Hudson, who has brilliant one liners.  It’s actually a well fleshed out character.  Before Hudson knows what he’s up against, this new mission is just a lame “bug hunt” and he happily screams out as their spacecraft makes the quick drop into the planet’s atmosphere.  When he eventually comes to face to face with the monsters, terrifying, cry baby like fear overtakes him.  He’s giving his one liners like “Game over, Man,” and “We’re  fucked!”  Yet, the dread and anxiety are completely relatable.  There’s something out there waiting to tear me apart and eat me, and there’s hardly anyone left to help and rescue me.  I’m in the middle of nowhere.  Cameron wrote a good under the radar kind of character, and we feel for this guy’s dilemma as if it’s our own.  Paxton’s performance made it better and awarded it with adrenalized highs…and these aliens, with teeth and tails and acid for blood, are most definitely scary as hell.

I no longer watch the original theatrical cut of Aliens.  I turn to the Director’s Cut that Cameron always envisioned.  Particularly, it triumphs because the Ripley character is much more fleshed out with necessary dimension for the film.  Early on, a cut scene, now restored, tells us that Ripley’s daughter died from cancer while she was lost in deep space.  The daughter lived to the age of 66, even though Ripley didn’t age a bit.  Awakening from her cryo sleep, only introduces heartache for Ripley.  What I like about this information is that it serves a relationship later found in Aliens.  A little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) is found by the marines and appears to be the sole survivor of the alien attacks.  Ripley steps in as a surrogate mother towards Newt as all of the characters work tirelessly to survive and somehow get off the planet.  The Director’s Cut gives some value to Ripley and purpose beyond just violently slaughtering aliens as a means of revenge or fulfillment.  It allows Aliens to work on an effective emotional level and Sigourney Weaver earned her Oscar nomination because of it.

Cameron introduces traitors as well into the story, which are likely not so surprising but make the film all the more challenging for the heroes of the picture.  Michael Biehn is the sex symbol, a cool and quiet tough guy.  Jenette Goldstein is a Hispanic marine who gives off good imagery as one of the few female squad members who enters the areas first with the largest gun in the troupe.  Lance Henrikson is memorable as an android that Ripley is apprehensive to trust – perhaps he’s the “Mr. Spock” of this sci-fi entry.

Technically speaking, Aliens is so unbelievably atmospheric in its bleak, futuristic setting.  Barring a few moments where the spaceships clearly look like miniatures, the interiors look organically formed.  I can’t compliment the set pieces enough in that respect.  When the Marines enter a large cavern, it is enormously shell like that it looks like an animal’s nest.  Cameron hides his various monsters perfectly.  So that when they slowly unravel their tales and skeletal forms, it looks as if the darkness within the frames begin to move.  The stillness of what surrounds our main characters awaken with life that maybe we don’t want to see. 

Aliens works independent of Ridley Scott’s prior picture because it’s a war movie; one that is set on an outer space planet.  We witness how the surviving squad troops strategize with what little they have left.  Thereafter, we see how they face enemies who may have the upper hand in battles to come.  I love how Cameron builds suspense with a sensor device the troops use.  It begins to ring as a life form closes in on their proximity.  The monitor fills with glowing blurs as more life forms nearby build up.  A nervous and great moment occurs when they can not understand how the aliens could be so close and yet none of them can see what is so nearby.  The surprise is unexpected and worthy of a scream. 

Cameron’s script doesn’t give his heroes a break.  Aliens thrives on the characters simply playing keep away, while one member of the party is working against what little they have left.  I like that.  While Aliens may be intentionally dreary the fact that there’s no easy out for these folks is what keeps the pulse of the film racing with nonstop suspense and action.

Aliens is an absolutely solid picture promising a future for this franchise. Sadly, it really never excelled above what was accomplished in these first two films from Ridley Scott, and now James Cameron.  Years later, Scott returned to the franchise with some interesting prequel films that colored in some of the elements that were only talked about before, like the company that puts all these people within the peril of the aliens.  Yet to date, that all still remains unfinished.  James Cameron just set the bar so high with his movie that the few that followed never amounted to what he created.

You may not feel all warm and fuzzy after watching Aliens, but at least you’ll feel incredibly excited with its construction from a director in the early years of his profession.  James Cameron brought about a solid script and unbelievable effects that say so much on a visual level.  If Aliens makes you nervous, fearful and especially terrified, then James Cameron has done his job.

POLTERGEIST (1982)

By Marc S. Sanders

The original Poltergeist holds together based only upon its visual imagination.  The characters?  Well, they’re pretty thin to me. 

The Freeling family are JoBeth Williams and Craig T Nelson as mom and dad, with a teen daughter (Dominique Dunne), a preteen son (Oliver Robins) and an angelic five-year-old girl named Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) who speaks to the “tv people” through the white noise channel in the middle of the night.  Following odd occurrences that include unexplainable trickery from the kitchen chairs, a monstrous oak tree comes alive during a violent thunderstorm ready to consume the boy, while little Carol Anne is abducted by her closet into another realm that “exists” somewhere within the suburban house.

Mom and dad recruit help from ghost whisperers to uncover the mysteries that reside in the home and hope to rescue Carol Anne.  Beatrice Straight is the leading scientist of this team.  She introduces dialogue that says their home might be not be so much haunted as it is consumed by a “poltergeist.”  That little nugget to ponder stops there though, and is never explored further.   Who cares, actually?  Poltergeist!  Haunting!  Tomato! TomAto!  The piano is still moving by itself, and the toys are still floating around the children’s room.  Since the unexplainable can never be explained, a psychic is brought in, perfectly played by Zelda Rubinstein as a withered old lady with a kinship for the supernatural.  She knows how mom and dad should direct Carol Anne back to their dimension, and has a pretty good idea how they need to enter the other realm and physically rescue her.

Watching Tobe Hooper’s classic haunted house film from 1982 (rumored to primarily be directed by producer/writer Steven Spielberg), almost feels like I’m touring a warehouse of monster creations at a movie studio with all the lights turned on.  Most of the inventions offer little depth or curiosity.  I could care less about any of the characters like the parents and three kids that make up the Freeling family, or the squat psychic who enters the second half of the picture.  Beatrice Straight is an interesting actress with a humorous shiver and terrified whisper.  She leads two ghost hunter assistants who lack the speak to talk with researched authority.  I run down this list though, and all I get from the movie is an arts and crafts display of the dazzling and grotesque creations spawned from the imaginations of Industrial Light and Magic.  The artistry is to be admired.  Yet, I question if anything I saw ever served a story. 

I don’t watch Poltergeist as often as others I know, simply to avoid experiencing the terrorizing clown puppet that dons a wicked tooth like expression and strangles the young boy.  Still very effective.  Coffins burst from the muddy swimming pool to pour out skeletons upon a screaming JoBeth Williams.  A ghostly white phantom guards the door to the children’s room and the closet entrance becomes a gaping, hellish monster mouth ready to swallow what it inhales.  Raw meat crawls across the kitchen counter.  A chicken leg turns into maggots and let’s not forget about the guy who hallucinates in front of mirror while pealing the skin off his face.  These are just lists!  Lists of scary things to do.   

Poltergeist is a simplistic fun house of haunts.  Nothing further.  I appreciate that only to a degree, however.  I wanted more.  An explanation is given for these occurrences in a tiny exchange of dialogue during the terrifying climax.  Beyond that, there is nothing I can say about these characters or what they stand for.  The kids toss cereal at each other at the breakfast table, and the parents smoke pot in bed, but there’s really no affection, or conversely, animosity shared among the family members.

If I were to compare Poltergeist to other fright fests like Hitchcock’s The Birds or even the original Predator or Alien, I would undoubtedly say those are superior films because beyond the monsters that terrorize the characters there’s also room for mistrust and paranoia among the players.  There’s time to devote towards care that those characters may have for one another.  A suburban mom is seemingly expected to want to be reunited with her little girl.  That’s a give in.  It’s standard.  Completely apparent in every way.  Couldn’t some competition from mom and dad come into play though?  Some blame pointing tossed about for example?

I guess I get a little bored with Poltergeist because it doesn’t stop to acknowledge the value of its cast of characters.  There are only a few moments of suspense that come upon me like when I’m trying to figure out where the scary clown puppet went off to.  Another terrifying moment is watching JoBeth Williams hustle as fast as she can to her children’s room while the hallway seems to stretch the bedroom door further and further away from her.  These are all things to look at though.  These are not moments that I connect with emotionally.

Some close friends of mine absolutely love this movie.  They can’t get enough of it.  They recite the lines.  They get caught up in the supposed “Poltergeist Curse.”  They watch all of the making of documentaries and return to the film for the nostalgia.  For me though, I never felt an intimacy with the mystery, or the family being victimized.  On that level, it’s almost on the same plane as a disposable Jason or Freddy movie.  I’d like to shed at least one tear before that teen gets their head chopped off, or the screaming kid gets eaten by the tree trunk.

GET OUT (2017)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Jordan Peele
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 98% Certified Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Low-Budget Blockbuster” [Budget: $4.5 million.  Worldwide Gross: $255 million.]

PLOT: A young African American visits his white girlfriend’s parents for the weekend, where his simmering uneasiness about their reception of him eventually reaches a boiling point.


Many years ago, I attended a wedding in New York.  After the ceremony was over, I stepped outside to watch it snow.  After a couple of minutes of me standing outside alone wearing a tux, a very polite man walked up to me, held out his keys, and said something like, “The blue Buick in the second row, please.”  After I explained to him that I was not, in fact, the valet, he apologized profusely and went back inside, clearly embarrassed.  (I’ve always regretted what I should have done: just taken the keys, gotten in the car, and driven it out of the parking lot while waving goodbye. Yes, I would have returned it, but imagine the look on that guy’s face…!)

I have been lucky and, yes, privileged enough that, in fifty-one-and-a-half years of living on planet Earth, that is only the second time I have ever been the target of overt racism, intentional or not.  I will never ever know what it’s like to have to think twice before walking alone at night while wearing a hoodie.  I’ll never know what it’s like to literally fear for my life when a cop signals me to pull over.  The beauty of Jordan Peele’s Get Out is that it addresses the issue of what it’s like to be African-American today in a way that is so entertaining that the subtlety of the screenplay is only apparent when you watch the movie a second or third time.  Unless you’re African-American, in which case the symbolism and sly satire is not so subtle.

After a brief terrifying prologue, we meet Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya in his breakout role) who is about to visit his girlfriend’s parents for the first time.  His girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), is white.  He wonders if her parents are aware he’s black: “I don’t wanna get chased off the lawn with a shotgun.”  Rose casually dismisses his concerns: “First of all, my dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could’ve.”

On the drive to her folks’ house, a startling and intensely creepy incident/accident occurs followed by a tense moment involving a white police officer asking to see Chris’s driver’s license even though he wasn’t driving.  Rose valiantly tells the officer off for profiling, and he lets them off with a warning.  This is just one of the many ways the screenplay probes and exploits the inherent fears of the average viewer.  Even if Chris had been white, it would still be a foreboding scene.  Because of the additional racial tension, the scene crackles with suspense.

Things get progressively weirder from there.  Chris meets Rose’s parents, Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford), along with their groundskeeper and maid, Walter and Georgina, both of whom are black.  Walter and Georgina’s behavior is just plain odd.  Their sole purpose seems to be to make Chris (and the audience) say, “What the f**k” repeatedly.  Dean directly addresses Chris’s apprehension: “I know what it looks like: a white family with black servants.”  His explanation of why they’re there answers Chris’s questions without really answering them if you follow me.

It would be unfair of me to describe any further plot details.  I’m sure those of you who’ve seen the movie would agree.  But I will issue a SPOILER WARNING for the remainder of the review.  Consider yourself warned.

Get Out is one of the most original, most effective modern horror films I’ve seen since The Descent (2005) and The Babadook (2014).  I have rarely been so glued to a screen.  The way director Jordan Peele ratchets up the creepiness levels is virtually unparalleled.  Here is a first film that rivals M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) in terms of how to manipulate an audience.  Look at the moment when Chris sneaks out of the house for a cigarette, looks around, and suddenly spies Walter, the groundskeeper, running towards him in the night.  No, not running…sprinting.  Silently.  When I watched this for the first time on my own, I literally said, out loud, “What the s**t…???”  I can’t remember when I’ve seen anything like that in a suspense film.

Take the moment when Chris gets involved in a late-night discussion with Missy (Rose’s mom) that turns into an impromptu therapy/hypnosis session.  When Missy calmly says, “Sink,” and Chris actually does, and we see him floating in some kind of limbo, I felt the same kind of transfixed curiosity that I felt while watching Under the Skin (2013).  I had absolutely no clue what was happening or why, and I couldn’t wait until I could get answers.  When those answers come, they are both gratifying and suitably horrific.  Remember those old commercials for the American Negro College Fund?  The tagline was, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  You will never think of that line the same way again after watching Get Out.

Peele was wise enough to include some comic relief in the form of his best friend, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who works for the TSA and ironically gets closer to the truth of what’s going on at Rose’s house than he or anyone else realizes.  If the movie has a single weak spot, though, this might be it.  Rod is so comic it feels as if he was lifted directly from a romantic comedy.  Sometimes his delivery and dialogue feel a little too much like he’s trying for laughs rather than just being himself.  This is a minor quibble, though…he is funny as hell, especially during a phone conversation between him and Rose.

The bottom line, as if you couldn’t tell, is that Get Out is a sensational movie, containing more levels than “Super Mario Bros.” and more food for thought than a Judd Apatow dramedy.  It’s one of those movies where, if I hear anyone hasn’t seen it, not only do I recommend it unreservedly, but I immediately ask if I can watch it while they watch it for the first time.  Just to see their reactions.


SELECTED QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

  1. Do you feel a larger budget would make this film better or worse?
    …that’s a tough question.  As you can see from my 10/10 rating, the movie is just about perfect as it is.  What might change with a larger budget?  A more realistic-looking deer corpse?  A wide-angle shot of…something…burning?  Maybe they wouldn’t have gone with Daniel Kaluuya, or maybe Rose would have been played by, I dunno, Emmy Rossum or Lily James.  So, I guess my answer is, a bigger budget would make this film worse.  The filmmakers made the choices they made because of their limitations, and those choices resulted in a masterpiece of the genre.  It’s like Salieri says in Amadeus when describing Mozart’s music: “Displace one note, and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase, and the structure would fall.”
  2. Were you surprised by the ending?  What would you do differently?
    Because of how the very ending of the film is structured, yes, I was surprised by the ending.  In fact, on the blu-ray, we can see the original filmed ending, and it’s what I feel might have been a more realistic ending.  As it is, the new ending is very satisfying on an emotional level, but I will always wonder how that original ending might have been received by general audiences.  Probably not well.  Imagine putting your hero up a tree, story-wise, then setting the tree on fire…but instead of getting him out of the tree, firemen chop the tree down and the hero is falsely arrested for arson.  Something like that can work – look at Body Heat (1981) and the original director’s cut of The Descent.  But Get Out provides a much more cathartic resolution and gets a smile on your face when you walk out the theater instead of shaking your head ruefully.


On the next “episode” of Everyone’s a Critic: “Watch a Film Starring Animals.”  I’m leaning towards The Black Stallion, but stay tuned…

THE OMEN (1976)

By Marc S. Sanders

The best horror films don’t have to splash blood all over my popcorn.  I’m flattered that at times, a schlock monster fest will tantalize me with a half alive victim’s laced up intestines hanging out of the belly as they walk towards the camera.  Oh, my how long and endless and bloody they are.  Thank you so much for the garage sale autopsy.  Still, I hardly get impressed with that kind of junk.  Terror is most effective for me when the scares come from the mind of the characters and who occupies the surroundings. 

One of the best ways to scare the bejezzus outta me is when you make a child the monster.  Six year old Damien is a monster.  He’s no kind of kid that I would welcome in my house, and I’d think twice before throwing the little devil a birthday party or taking him to the zoo.  Damien may just be the Antichrist of Richard Donner’s 1976 film The Omen.

Gregory Peck made a long-awaited return to the cinematic screen as Robert Thorn, an American Ambassador to Great Britain.  His wife Katherine, played by Lee Remick, have a son named Damien, delivered on June 6, at 6pm.  Think about that point in time for a second and then maybe you’ll have an idea of where this film is going.  Think about the name Damien.  Does it perhaps sound like another word that’ll send shivers up your spine?

Robert and Katherine are a happy couple.  They feel blessed to have a child of their own and after Damien’s sixth birthday has arrived, odd trappings seem to occur.  Their nanny seems to know how to put a damper on the birthday party.  Rottweilers don’t take too friendly to the Thorns, and the replacement nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), is…well…just watch the movie and you’ll see what Mrs. Baylock is like.  (I shudder just typing her name, Mrs. Baylock….gah!!!!!  I must forge ahead.)  As well, there is a priest who keeps visiting Mr. Thorn insisting he knows something about Damien that cannot be ignored.

What works to put the scare into The Omen is that it does not rely so much on supernatural stunts or effects.  It should never be so easy to presume that an angelic child could actually be the son of Satan.  Leave the clues, but don’t be so overt.  If it’s too obvious, then the film fails.  In order for the film to work successfully, put some doubt into what is or isn’t possible.

Lee Remick is quite good as the wholesome loving mother and wife gradually turning into a woman disturbed by her own child.  Try to imagine that dynamic for second.  It’s perfect movie material.  It’s been done before in films like The Bad Seed or in later years with the dreadful The Good Son.  To pull it off, to be disturbed and frightened of your own six year old boy, requires pacing in the script and a range of performance to get to that point and understand what the maternal character is going through. 

Gregory Peck is a seemingly likable politician.  Unheard of, I know.  I think Peck’s reputation contributes here.  He’s not so quick to accept that these odd occurrences add up to something supernatural.  If it is the case, he’ll find out for himself. 

Richard Donner, in his first cinematic film, sets up magnificent scenes.  There’s that birthday party I mentioned before.  So wholesome, and innocent, and eventually it becomes unforgettably tainted.  A trip to a cemetery at night never bodes well.  Of course, our experience with scary movies heightens our alertness when a tomb or a grave is investigated, but still, while we can expect something to happen, it’s the not knowing what happens that leaves us on edge. 

As I watched The Omen, with goosebumps all over, I was challenged with reasoning out how the film would resolve itself.  Thankfully, it leaves you thinking and perhaps trembling a little bit.  At least it did for me.  So much so, that before turning in for bed, I had to turn on an episode of Seinfeld to remind myself that though the devil or his offspring might be nearby, at the very least I can be amused by the ongoing sins of George Costanza.

THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 90% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Two lighthouse keepers try to maintain their sanity while isolated on a remote New England island in the 1890s.


tone poem
NOUN, a piece of orchestral music typically in one movement, on a descriptive or rhapsodic theme


As I watched Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, that term “tone poem” kept leaping to my mind.  It’s not told in a standard or familiar fashion.  There are scenes where we’re not sure, until they’re over, whether they’re real or not.  The Willem Dafoe character, Thomas Wake, makes references to behavior in the past by the Robert Pattinson character, Ephraim Winslow, that Winslow never committed…or did he?  We are certain that Wake is the character who is going mad, if he’s not there already.  But what if it’s the other way around?  Or are they both going mad?

The mood or tone of the piece seems to be insanity and how one might get there given the right circumstances.  In many ways, it has quite a bit in common with another sensational tone poem of madness, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).

Two men, Wake and Winslow, are lighthouse keepers in the late 19th century.  They are brought to a remote island in the stormy waters off the New England coast and left to fend for themselves for four weeks until the next tender brings supplies.  Wake (Dafoe) is a crusty old veteran lighthouse keeper whose speech and mannerisms appear to be based on Long John Silver, right down to the gimpy leg.  Winslow (Pattinson) is a much younger and, let us be honest, handsomer gentleman who keeps to himself whenever possible.  He tends to his duties, sometimes grudgingly but mostly not, but wonders why Wake flatly refuses to share the duty of tending the actual light source at the top of the lighthouse.  That mystery lies at the heart of the film, but don’t expect all your questions to be answered by the time the credits roll.  Fair warning.

A key decision by director Eggers was to shoot in black-and-white and in a very old screen format, 1:19, so the picture area is a virtually square space in the center of the screen, with black bars on either side.  (The Coen brothers did something similar with their brilliant adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth [2021].)  This visual language creates a uniquely claustrophobic atmosphere, especially in scenes taking place in Wake’s and Winslow’s quarters.  The walls are closer together, the ceiling feels lower, and the actors’ faces seem much closer to the screen than normal.  Even exterior shots seem more constricted and confining.  Wide open sky doesn’t look as inviting as it might to someone essentially imprisoned on a storm-lashed island for four weeks.


Like all the best films, The Lighthouse begins its descent into madness slowly and gains momentum as time passes.  Winslow discovers a mermaid figurine stashed inside his mattress.  That night he dreams about a mermaid in the surf.  Or was it a dream?  We glimpse Wake standing naked at the top of the lighthouse, almost as if he’s worshiping the light itself.  When Winslow tries to get a closer look at what Wake is doing up there, he glimpses something…supernatural.  Or does he?  The film is brilliant at not only portraying mounting madness on the screen, but also at conveying the tone of madness in the cinematography and editing.  If we’re not quite sure what is happening, even when we see it happening, that’s on purpose.  The audience is meant to be kept off balance throughout the movie to put us in the heads of the two main characters.

Another factor that I found riveting was the acting workshop on display from both Pattinson and Dafoe.  We’ve seen this kind of thing from Dafoe before.  He chews the scenery with Nicolas Cage-like gusto, spittle flying, prosthetic teeth flashing in manic sneers, and that crazy piratical accent.  If it had been revealed during the film that his character’s last name was Osborne, and that he was a distant relative of Norman Osborne from Spider-Man (2002), I would not have been the least surprised.

But equally impressive is Robert Pattinson’s performance, which must be seen to be believed.  Here is an actor who is set for life after being a part of two of the most profitable film franchises in history (Twilight and Harry Potter) and who has just rebooted a third (The Batman [2022]).  But in this film, he easily keeps pace with Dafoe’s quirkiness, which is not easy.  As his character descends into madness (or does he?), Pattinson dances a jig while singing a sea shanty that devolves into complete gibberish.  He laughs like a loon.  He, ah, takes some time for himself while fondling that mermaid figurine from earlier.  It’s the kind of performance that might be described as “courageous.”  He swings for the fences with abandon.  In so doing, he helps to make The Lighthouse one of the most unique movies I’m ever likely to see.

But what is really going on at the top of that lighthouse?  Why do seagulls pester Winslow so often, seemingly unafraid of him in any way?  Why does he continue to dream about mermaids?  IS he dreaming them?  Is Wake actually a merman?  Did real foghorns sound like that?  Why is one seagull missing an eye?

Well, come on, I’m not actually going to ANSWER those questions, but those are questions that occurred to me.  The movie does answer quite a few of them, but not all.  The point of the movie, like The Shining, isn’t about solving the mystery.  It’s about conveying the mystery, creating a mood of dread, and wallowing in it for a good 110 minutes.  It’s not the happiest movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely one of the most original films of the last ten years or so.

COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2019)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Richard Stanley
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Tommy Chong
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 86% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A secluded farm is struck by a strange meteorite which has apocalyptic consequences for the family living there and possibly the world.


Some backstory…

Once upon a time, there was a film director named Richard Stanley.  He made a few unremarkable films in the early 1990s, toiling in relative obscurity, until he hit the big time in 1996 when he got the opportunity to direct his dream project: a remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau starring none other than Marlon Brando.  The story of that film’s troubled production inspired a documentary all by itself (Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau [2014]).  Stanley himself was fired after only four days of shooting and replaced by John Frankenheimer.  Rumor has it that Stanley secretly convinced the makeup crew to turn him into one of the background mutants so he could keep tabs on his dream project.  After Moreau bombed, Stanley’s career imploded, and he never directed another feature film.

…until over twenty years later when an enterprising film production company expressed interest in allowing him to direct another dream project: an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story from 1927 called The Colour Out of Space.  To say that Stanley redeemed himself with this film would be an understatement.  This is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen.  It was supposed to be the first part of a Lovecraftian trilogy, but alas, Stanley was accused of domestic abuse in March of 2021 and the trilogy was scrapped.  One hopes that someone like Guillermo del Toro or Jordan Peele might pick up the promising threads here.  [insert good mojo dance here]

Anyway, the movie.

Color Out of Space is, at first glance, an amalgam of previous horror films.  One can easily spot elements of The Thing (1982), Annihilation (2018), and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986).  But when you consider the screenplay has been adapted from a 95-year-old short story, the movie takes on a prescient nature.  Here are all the elements of a solid contemporary horror film, in a story that was published the same year sound was introduced to motion pictures for the first time.  Remarkable.

The Gardner family lives on a secluded farm in the forests of New England, where the nearest township, Arkham, is an hour’s drive away.  (No, Arkham isn’t a Batman reference, it’s Lovecraftian…which might explain why the very name “Arkham Asylum” has always felt a little creepy all by itself.)  One night, a meteorite lands with a crash in their front yard.  This is no ordinary meteorite.  It glows with an unearthly magenta light, and by the following morning it has disappeared.  Shortly thereafter, the youngest son, Jack, starts hearing strange noises outside.  Mrs. Gardner (Joely Richardson), who is recuperating from cancer surgery, keeps getting disconnected from her business calls.  Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) takes a shower one day and discovers what looks like a cake of soap covering the shower drain.  He picks it up…and experiences something NO ONE wants to experience after picking up a cake of soap.

Things get stranger.  A local hydrologist takes some water samples and urges the Gardner family and their squatter, Ezra (Tommy Chong), who lives in a shack on the Gardner’s vast property, not to drink the water until he gets some test results.  Meanwhile, Jack, the youngest son, takes a peek down their well and watches as an alien-looking egg hatches and releases a magenta-colored praying mantis.  Mrs. Gardner gets distracted by…something…and has a kitchen accident with a knife.  Their daughter, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), who dabbles in Wiccan rituals, hears a noise that makes her sick to her stomach.  Time passes in fits and starts.

And the whole time, new vegetation has sprouted up around the well.  All the same magenta color…

Experienced moviegoers might be able to plot the film’s course from A to B to the climax, and they might be right on.  But Color Out of Space has one or two surprises up its sleeve that elevates it into the same level as other modern horror classics like Hereditary (2018) or The Babadook (2014).

There are scenes involving a small herd of alpacas – oh yeah, they raise alpacas – that are as unsettling as anything from John Carpenter.  At one point, mother and son are caught in the “grip” of the alien color/light.  What happens to them sets up one of the biggest jump scares I’ve ever had in my life.  I yelled so loud and long that my girlfriend ran to the back of the house wondering what was happening.

Color Out of Space is one of the most effective horror movies I’ve seen in a long time.  Naysayers may refuse to watch it because of Nicolas Cage’s presence, but I can assure you, his “hammy” talents are put to good use and are always in service of the story.  It’s not for everyone.  It’s not for the squeamish.  But for those who dare…Color Out of Space is a horror-film lover’s dream.

SAINT MAUD (2019, United Kingdom)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Rose Glass
Cast: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Frazer
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A pious nurse becomes dangerously obsessed with saving the soul of her dying patient.


This is a review where the less I say about the plot, the better, so this will be a short one.

What happens when a horror movie that’s 84 minutes long is virtually all build-up to a shocking payoff in the last 10 minutes?  You divide audiences and critics, that’s what happens.  The handy-dandy Rotten Tomatoes website gives Saint Maud a hefty 93% critics score…but manages a substandard 65% from audiences.

I get it.  This film is an exercise in tone and mood.  In a word, it’s unsettling.  Look at it in hindsight and not much happens.  But this is one of those films where the destination isn’t really the point…it’s the journey.

Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a private nurse to a terminal cancer victim, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), who used to be a famous choreographer until she fell ill in her prime.  Maud seems timid and competent, but she is a recent convert to Catholicism and has taken its teachings perhaps a little too much to heart.  For example, when she prays in front of her makeshift altar at home to pray, she sprinkles unpopped popcorn kernels in front of her before she kneels.  This is based on fact: there is an outdated practice called Corporal Mortification where devout Christians would inflict self-harm while praying.  The sight of her knees settling on those kernels made me wince.  And I won’t even mention what she does to the insoles of her shoes.  She also experiences sporadic moments of religious ecstasy (what the filmmakers refer to as “Godgasms”, though that term is never mentioned in the film).  These mini-epiphanies have a disturbing tendency to end just as Maud’s face seems to stretch beyond any human capability.  Creepy.

(A brief prologue also insinuates that something horrific may have happened in Maud’s previous posting, but it’s left mostly in the background.  Mostly.)

Maud is taken with Amanda, perhaps physically, but mostly with the idea that she can help save Amanda’s soul.  Staring death in the face, Amanda has little time for religion, but she humors Maud’s prayers before meals and even seems to experience a tiny bit of religious ecstasy along with Maud.  But beneath everything is this undercurrent of dread or foreboding.  Director Rose Glass is an expert at framing simple scenes in a way that conveys much more than what is visible to the eye.  Lights flicker.  There are subtle focus racks reminiscent of Vertigo.  Occasional voiceovers give a glimpse into Maud’s mind about her faith in God and her doubts.

I could say more about the plot, but I think that would detract from the experience of watching the film.  The tension and suspense leading up to the film’s climactic outburst are expertly sustained.  …and that one single cockroach is creeeepy…

No doubt some viewers will walk away from Saint Maud feeling the same way the Rotten Tomatoes voters felt.  I can’t think of anything that might change your mind if that’s the case.  This movie is a master class in generating a suspenseful atmosphere on a budget.  There are some obvious visual effects, but they are used sparingly and effectively.  There are stretches where we are led to believe, due to years of conditioning from previous films, that something super scary is about to happen…and then it doesn’t.  This happens a lot.  But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  When done right, suspense in a film is a welcome experience.  To have a film where the entire movie is constructed out of suspense is a minor miracle.

Watch this one with the lights out and the doors unlocked.  I double-dog dare you.

THE BIRDS

By Marc S. Sanders

Alfred Hitchcock’s monster movie is The Birds from 1963.  There’s really not much to the piece as far as a story goes.  Characters are just given a purpose to be with one another so that they can be tormented together.  In this case, the film offers up a near hour introduction of newspaper heiress Tippi Hedren playing meet-cute with attorney Rod Taylor.  How ironic that they begin a flirtation in a bird shop of all places only to reconnect at Taylor’s harbor island home in Bodega Bay, located on the outskirts of San Francisco.  Still, as only Hitchcock can demonstrate there’s an ominous feeling sprinkled throughout before the real terror takes flight in the movie’s second half.

While I don’t rush for repeat viewings of The Birds, there’s no doubt as to its influence.  Each time there’s a shot of a bird soaring in the sky, your eyes open wider.  Something will eventually take effect.  At the beginning of the film, Hedren looks out into the San Francisco sky to see large flocks of birds soaring overhead.  Later, while taking a boat in Bodega Bay towards Taylor’s home that he shares with his mother and sister (Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright), she’s attacked by a random gull.  It’ll raise the hair on your arms for sure. 

I’ve noted before how Alfred Hitchcock builds suspense.  The audience knows there’s a bomb under the table.  The characters in the film don’t. So, the audience is nervous as to when the bomb is going to go off or if the characters are even going to discover the explosive.  An outstanding sequence in The Birds includes Tippi Hedren sitting on a park bench near the jungle gym, outside of a school house.  The children are singing along inside.  One crow lands upon the jungle gym.  Then Hitch returns to a shot of Hedren calmly lighting a cigarette.  Then back to the jungle gym and there are four more birds perched just behind her.  Then back to Hedren, unaware.  Then back to the jungle gym for Hedren to turn around and there are suddenly hundreds of crows congregated together.  Effectively, other than the innocent harmonies of the children nearby, Hitchcock opts not to use any music to shock his audience as the scene develops.  The visuals lend to the fear.  The danger that threatens Hedren and the children heard off screen is at the forefront of the viewer’s mind.  No more is needed.  It’s scary, and you want to be as quiet and unalarming as Hedren so as not to instigate the monsters right next to you.

A later scene has Hedren ascend a dark staircase to open a bedroom door.  The roof has been torn open and suddenly the blackness comes alive with flapping wings from every direction.  That’ll make you shift in your seat.

Hitchcock offers plenty of set pieces for bird attacks, but another effective device is to show dissention among the ranks.  From a character perspective, the picture takes a sideways route to imply an oedipal complex between Rod Taylor and Jessica Tandy, who plays his mother.    Therefore, the script suggests Hedren as a threat to their relationship.  Before the film is over, they are likely going to have to develop a united front or it could be their undoing.  (Maybe it’s a nod to Hitchcock’s popularity with Psycho. A cute wink and nod.)

There’s also Suzanne Pleshette as the school teacher that we learn had a tryst with Rod Taylor’s character at one point.  That doesn’t spell out too well for Hedren, either.  As this bizarre epidemic becomes clearer, a scene in the town diner goes so far as to suggest that these random bird attacks didn’t start until Hedren arrived the day before.  Yes!!!!  It’s all her fault!!!! 

None of this will eventually matter though.

Other disaster films and monster movies later relied on exchanges like these, from Jaws to The Towering Inferno.  Hitchcock was wise enough to build tension.  Not a single bird in the scene, but still the fear and doubt among each other bares the strain.  There’s even an advocate for the birds with a strange elderly woman proudly debating her ornithological expertise, while a drunkard at the end of the bar declares the world is coming to an end.  All of these characters could have come from different movies, only to be pasted on to this canvas thereby lending to the frenzy.  Chaos must ensue among the masses.

Often, I get frustrated when there’s no explanation for a film’s central story.  I gave up on the TV show The Walking Dead many years ago because there never was a cause revealed for the zombie epidemic.  It became a smut of soap opera cliché accompanied with ridiculous gore.   Forgive the SPOILER ALERT, but I commend Hitchcock’s film for not providing a wrap up to The Birds.  The film ends with an uneasy final caption.  Nearly every inch of space on the screen is occupied with birds as the cast makes their way to the car to slowly drive out of town, careful not to disrupt the now dominant species of this universe.  Hitchcock provides a picture where the laws of nature declared a winner.  As intelligent as humans are considered to be, they have not won out.  They have had to surrender.  Why the birds attacked, we’ll never know.  Odd phenomena can happen.

There’s nothing thought provoking about The Birds.  It’s simply a film based on heightening your discomfort.  Often, I find the material and dialogue laughable.  The townsfolk notice a man lighting a cigarette right over a stream of gasoline and urge him to put out the flame.  Wouldn’t the dumb guy smell the diesel?????  However, then we wouldn’t get a fantastic fire ball to observe up close as well as from Hitchcock’s “God shot” in the sky with the birds looming into frame over the town below. 

The visual effects look outdated of course, but they still hold because of how Hitchcock demands they are used.  I noticed that his reliable composer Bernard Hermann is credited, but as a “sound consultant” this time.  The shrieking of the birds is what sends the chills down your spine.  Also, there’s the fact that Hitchcock offers up birds flying right at the screen or the windows.  A great sequence includes the front door of a house being gradually shredded apart by the bird masses.  The wood proceeds to splinter.  You don’t see the monsters but you know they’re right there on the other side.  Once that door breaks open or those windows shatter, then it’s likely all over for our heroes.  George A Romero exercised bits like this in Night Of The Living Dead.  Very, very effective.

The Birds is just okay for me, honestly.  The fright material is what keeps its legacy.  Yet, there’s a lot of soapy material among the cast of characters that’s not all that interesting.  Again, a purpose has to be served for these people to occupy the story.  Just offering a movie where birds hover and peck at people wouldn’t be enough.  So, we have to follow Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren’s trajectory.  It’s fun to see screaming kids run from these animals turned menace, though.  I found it hilarious to watch a birthday party run amok.  I also yelp when I see a flock storm into Jessica Tandy’s house from the chimney turning the living room into a contained disaster area.  An especially gruesome discovery by Tandy later in the film is absolutely eye opening (pardon the pun, if you know what I mean), and clearly an inspiration to a well-remembered scream out loud moment in Jaws.

The Birds is fun, but it’s not the artistic merit you’ll find in other Hitchcock classics like Rear Window, Vertigo, Suspicion, or even Psycho. What I can promise is that once you get through the plodding character connection build up, you’re allowed to forget about any of their value to the picture and simply relish in the mayhem. 

PSYCHO

By Marc S. Sanders

To watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho today is a blessing and a curse.  You can’t take your eyes off the craftsmanship of the film.  Yet, you know all the surprises and plot twists.  There’s only so much blood you can draw from the stone. 

Recently, I told my fourteen-year-old daughter, who doesn’t like scary movies, that she needs to watch the film.  If only because she knows absolutely nothing about Psycho.  She has no idea what’s to come of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). She’s never heard of the shower scene.  She doesn’t know about the true relationship between Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his chastising mother.  Imagine, assuming you have seen the movie and/or know all its secrets already, watching the movie with someone who is seeing it for the first time with a completely blank canvas to go on.  Oh, the reactions you’ll get to see!!!

Hitchcock’s film, with a screenplay from Joseph Stefano, works under a lot of different dimensions.  It’s classified as the first “slasher movie.”  That may be true.  However, it’s much more intelligent than a typical Jason or Freddy Krueger fright fest.  Psycho begins as one story with a central character, seemingly innocent, carrying out a crime.  Later, it turns on itself and becomes something else altogether.

Marion Crane makes off with $40,000 in cash from a chauvinistic, obnoxious client of her real estate boss.  She hits the road, heading towards her lover’s home in nearby California.  Her impending doom is never implied.  Stefano and Hitchcock focus only on Marion’s scruples with the crime she’s committed.  She gets haunted by a curious police officer.  She certainly wonders what her boss must think when he’ll discover that she never deposited the money in the bank.  Is the used car salesman going to follow up on her after she urgently trades in her car for a new one with new plates?

Soon though, none of that will matter when she has no choice but to pull off the road for the evening to stay at the Bates Motel, currently with twelve cabins and twelve vacancies.

For the one or two readers who have never heard of Psycho, I’ll stop there with the narrative.  However, what I appreciate about the second half of the film is that the new central character, now young, quirky, altogether strange Norman Bates, seems to respond with avoidance when a private investigator named Arbogast (Martin Balsam), and then later Marion’s lover Sam (John Gavin) and her sister Lila (Vera Miles) start questioning him about Marion’s whereabouts.  Arbogast is on the trail of a thief who went off with $40,000.  Sam and Lila are also curious about the theft that seems unheard for Marion to commit.  Yet, there’s something else leaving them curious.  Norman, on the other hand, knows nothing as to what Marion was up to.  In his eyes, the only odd thing about her is that she checks into the motel under a different name.  All of these characters are coming in conflict with one another, but not for the reasons they think they are.  The fun part is that we are the only ones who know the hands that each player is holding.  Even more fun is when we uncover a secret that Norman has been hiding from the audience all along.

Hitchcock tricks his audiences with Psycho.  With its first story, we are in suspense of one criminal.  Will she get away with the theft? Rather, how and when will she get caught?  With its second story, we are unnerved by someone far worse and frighteningly mysterious.  Following the infamous shower scene, it’s a little nerve wracking to watch as Norman tries to hide the evidence in the trunk of a car that he pushes into the nearby swamp.  Any storyteller would just have the car simply sink.  Hitchcock brings in shadowed close ups (with his wise idea of black and white photography) of Norman chewing gum, and then becoming completely still when the car actually stops sinking midway through its descent.  As a viewer, your jaw drops.  What is Norman going to do if the car doesn’t fully submerge?

Later, it’s a wonder how Norman is going to circumvent around the unexpected visits form Arbogast, Sam and Lila.  Then, we are in suspense of their safety.  They’re just looking for the missing money while tracking where Marion went off to.  Unbeknownst to them, they have can’t even fathom her demise.

I was talking with one of my Cinephile brothers about Psycho, explaining how it follows a similar dynamic that the second half of Vertigo moves upon.  In Vertigo, the main characters, Scottie and Madeliene, are both in love with one another.  Yet, it’s for different reasons that they can’t explain to each other.  In Psycho, the characters are all under suspicion and even paranoid of each other, yet for all different reasons.  Norman never knew of Marion’s crime.  Though the other characters suspect that he does.  In both pictures, only we, the audience, know almost everything at play.  According to various documentaries I’ve watched, Hitchcock wholeheartedly trusted his screen writers to flesh out the stories.  He concerned himself more with constructing the film with a faithfulness to the script.  What’s commendable about the films Alfred Hitchcock chose to make is that he sought out these conundrums where his chess pieces are left bewildered or unaware of why they are sharing the stage with the other players.  The director had a way of channeling into deceiving his characters against one another, allowing the viewers to relish in their trickery.  Going a step further though, Hitchcock reveals other twists never suggested in the film to turn the audience on their ear in shock.

You can’t take your eyes off Psycho, even with knowing all the goodies that Hitchcock provides. 

Anthony Perkins especially is a tense and unnerving menace.  He has a boyhood innocence to him that should not appear threatening to Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane.  It’s in his relaxation with the role that it feels all the more terrifying to the viewer.  Simply look at the way Arbogast pulls up to the motel and Perkins is sitting calmly on the porch eating his bag of candy.  Watch how he casually shares with Marion how he relishes in stuffing the birds he has mounted on the parlor walls, or even how he casually offers cabin number one for Marion to occupy so that she can be close to everything.  Norman Bates hides himself very well in his virtue.  A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The Bates Motel and the large house poised behind it on the hill were set up on a Universal back lot.  It remains one of the most famous settings in film history.  When you see the silhouette of Norman’s mother in the window from afar or young, slender Norman standing in front of the house, the images of the chilling locale stay with you whether it is on a dark and stormy night or even during a sunny afternoon.  Hitchcock opted to shoot the film in black and white to taper the goriness of the piece.  Outside of the gore elements though, the black and white lends a foreboding feeling to this destination.  Even before we realize that Marion is in danger, we feel uneasy with just arriving at this place.

The shower scene of course is one for the ages.  I’m not here to discuss all of the mechanics of film’s centerpiece.  The assembly of the scene’s elements are masterful though.  Can you imagine the scene without Bernard Hermann’s shrieking score?  Hermann was to Hitchcock like John Williams is to Steven Spielberg.  The aftermath is brutally shocking as well.  The camera does a zoom out on Janet Leigh’s eye as the soaking head of her corpse lays down on the bathroom floor.  I notice the eye does just the slightest twitch.  For me, that’s all the more disturbing than just a very still open eye.  It implies the last bits of life leaving her body and consciousness.  Later, when Norman cleans up the bathroom, Hitchcock shows his process with a mop and neatly wrapping Marion in the torn shower curtain and disposing of anything belonging to her, including a newspaper that isn’t just a newspaper.  Norman is methodical.  Perhaps this strange man has done something like this before.

I do have one grievance with Psycho.  The air is kind of sucked out of the film in its last few minutes before that delicious last close up on Norman.  Stefano’s script offers up a psychological explanation for what Norman Bates seems to suffer from.  It’s as if we are given a scientific description for what ails him. This is all painfully boring.  I dunno.  Maybe in 1960, when Psycho was a pioneering kind of horror film, and moviegoers were not as familiar with the genre that seemed far scarier than Boris Karloff, and vampires and mummies, they needed a summation like this.  Sixty years later, naturally this is not necessary.  We know all to well that there are disturbed people who live among us.  We know, sometimes, to be cautious of folks like these.  For someone as reputed as Hitchcock was, being identified as the “Master of Suspense,” this long monologue, spoon fed diagnosis from the psychiatrist kills all of the horror we’ve bared witness to over the last two hours. 

Psycho was the first slasher movie.  It was the first movie to feature a toilet and have it flush on film. It has one of the most famous characters in all of film history.  It has one of the most famous scenes of all time.  It was directed by one of the greatest directors of all time.  Yet, it also has one of the worst conclusions of all time.  If ever a scene should have been cut from a finished product, it is the second to last scene of Psycho.

Now, go find someone who has never heard of Psycho, knows nothing at all about Psycho, and watch them watch Psycho.  Of course, as the famous marketing campaign for the film insisted, by all means do not start the movie or walk in the middle, and never reveal any of its secrets.