Year after year, ‘spooky season’ becomes more of an event for the wider population. In a world seemingly edging closer to collapse, perhaps it is unsurprising people are drawn to horror – a realm in which impossible threats present the only way our reality could conceivably be worse. But even so, being scared isn’t for everyone.
Perhaps you get enough anxiety-inducing terror in your daily existence; you might have enough trouble sleeping as it is; or maybe you have a heart condition? In those cases, I think it’s important that we who already enjoy the revelry of Halloween try to open up the season to risk-averse participants. Accessibility is always important, after all.
In that case, hosting a movie night featuring some of the dumbest horror films you have seen is a glorious way to engage with your friends who (bizarrely) don’t enjoy fearing for their lives in the comfort of their own homes. Because of its willingness to take a chance on strange and impossible stories, horror is one of the most vibrant and intriguing realms for so-bad-it’s-good cinema – and while we might think life’s no good without a good scare, laughter is often just as good.
As a connoisseur of horror, you’ve probably encountered plenty of films which are so bafflingly daft you can’t help but split your sides laughing at them. In that case, you should have no trouble finding such a film for your not-so-spooky film night this October. But if not, here’s a few ideas to get you started.
One of the most important ingredients of a bad-good film is that it takes itself seriously. Rule out the likes of Sharknado on this basis – such insufferably knowing rot comes from a cynical place that will leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Crawlspace, in contrast, takes itself deadly serious.
Klaus Kinski – better known as the surly cinematic muse of Werner Herzog – plays Karl Gunther, the landlord of an apartment building that strictly caters to young females. Kinski gives it his all – and in the hands of a director like Herzog, his performance would have come across as deeply disturbing. A softly-spoken creep, who it turns out, is keeping a woman prisoner in his attic – having removed her tongue to keep her quiet – Gunther reveals himself to be the son of a demented Nazi scientist, who has inherited all of his father’s worst proclivities.
The character, who routinely plays Russian roulette with himself to find reassurance that some higher power wants him to continue his work, had potential to be a hateful, horrific antagonist – especially in the hands of a certified fiend like Kinski. But his demeanour and blackened motives are at loggerheads with the broader script; which decides this man should deploy robotic rats to spy on his young tenants, and use a skateboard to roll about the air vents above them.
And just as it seems the film is slowly due to reveal the nature of Gunther to his tenants, by a series of gradual discoveries, it apparently runs out of time and randomly launches into a frenetic and poorly choreographed final sequence. This may well be due to the running battle that was fought between writer-director David Schmoeller and the infamously volatile Kinski (to the extent there are claims that producer Roberto Bessi attempted to have Kinski murdered) – and it leads to a fantastically botched conclusion, along with poorly judged comic turns that suggest the cobbling together of a project on which filming was never completed.
“Who’s swimming in your bathtub” is one such line which makes no sense in the Halloween-esque sequence where our surviving heroine stumbles on the corpses of her friends. But Kinski delivers it with an unfailing earnestness that makes it unintentionally hilarious.
Scream and Scream Again (1970)
When trying to work out whether a film is intentionally funny or not, it helps to know what the film’s intentions actually were. In the case of Scream and Scream Again, however, we have no such luxury. Apparently the producers were inspired by the success of Carry On Screaming, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and James Bond – and decided they wanted to emulate all of them in a single movie.
Of the genres touched upon, this film at times attempts to be a Hammer horror, a political allegory, a bawdy Carry On comedy, a detective drama and a spy-thriller – with a strange dose of science fiction thrown in for good measure. Starring horror staples like Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee, the story sets out a series of seemingly disparate shorts that eventually interweave in an utterly insane manner.
A jogger has a heart-attack and wakes up in hospital. He pulls up the blanket to reveal his leg has been amputated. We then leave him to proceed with the A-plot – but check back in at various intervals to find him equally bemused each time another of his limbs has disappeared, in a sequence that becomes funnier each time it progresses.
Meanwhile, in London, Detective Superintendent Bellaver (the fantastically unflappable Alfred Marks) is hot on the trail of ‘The Vampire Killer’ – a serial murderer terrorising the swinging nightclubs of the capital. Throughout the ensuing carnage, Bellaver will see a man fall off the side of a quarry, cut off his own arm, and dissolve himself in a vat of acid, while never so much as raising his voice to tell the culprit, “Come on laddie, don’t be silly”, or instruct his terrified co-workers, “Right, get ‘im.”
It’s a fabulously endearing performance that carries you through an utterly deranged plot – and the film suffers a bit when that presence is cruelly taken away. It is around the end, when we discover the amputee-story took place in an Eastern European Nazi state, where the experiments are being used to attack people in London. Luckily, Price and Lee are on hand to play a truly unhinged conclusion straighter than Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun – and to almost as comedic an effect.
Van Helsing (2004)
Van Helsing is a 2004 film written and directed by Stephen Sommers. Having more or less succeeded in breathing new life into one Universal horror property with The Mummy, Sommers decided to try his hand at another… well, another three actually – and like Scream and Scream Again, he ultimately bit off more than he could chew, with hilarious results.
The film is billed as starring Hugh Jackman as the allegedly ‘Dutch’ (see Anthony Hopkins’ Shteve McClaren ‘accent’ in Bram Stoker’s Dracula) monster hunter Van Helsing, and Kate Beckinsale as Anna Valerious, each hoping to track down and kill Count Dracula, so that the Valerious family can finally rest in peace. But the fact of the matter is that, while those were the names you might slap on the poster to bring in various fandoms, the pair saw their thunder utterly stolen by the supporting cast.
Richard Roxburgh is irresistibly hammy as Dracula – a gravity-defying, flouncing romantic, who struts about the ceiling as if he were part of a Jamiroquai video. Every single vowel carries a protracted Lugosian drawl, but the performance moves well beyond a simple impression of the Count’s most famous incarnation, as the absurdly pompous Roxburgh chews through the scenery at every opportunity. It is a truly glorious piece of over-acting – one which is only equalled by the film’s other great resurrection: Frankenstein’s… Son?
The term ‘Monster’ is understandably a sore subject for Shuler Hensley’s character – who bellows “MONSTER?! WHO’S THE MONSTER HERE?!” at anyone who gives hint to his appearance. But then again, maybe it isn’t that sore – because that is the tone Hensley deploys in every one of his booming deliveries. Nobody who sees this in a group will be able to leave for home without first screaming “WHYYYYYYYYYY?” at each other, for this reason.
There is a third attempt at a revival here – and one which is less engaging because it is essentially Chekhov’s Wolfman. But there is still joy to be taken from it. Admittedly, the effects were poor even for their time. But now, the werewolf ‘transformation’ sequences are especially shoddy. The shift from man to wolf sees the afflicted individual tear chunks of skin and flesh from his body, to reveal thick hair, sprouting beneath – a sequence which if you were to pause on any given frame, would yield some truly spectacular transitional faces…
That brings us to another attempt from Universal to revive its historic horror franchises. Apparently, Stephen Sommers’ efforts were not deemed good enough for some reason, so just six years later, Universal pumped out another film trying to breath new life into Wolfman. It did not go well. Whatever you think of Van Helsing, it delivered a huge profit – taking $300 million at the box office from a $160 million budget. In contrast, director Joe Johnston’s efforts cost $150 million, and delivered a $142.6 million box office total.
Of course, far be it from me to suggest box office revenues are reliable sources of what’s good. Pigs will happily eat their fill at the trough, whatever slop happens to be on the menu that day.
There are many, many things to enjoy in Wolfman. Aside from the inexplicable fact Benicio del Toro is cast as Lawrence, the son of an English aristocrat – apparently his was the ‘big name’ that had to be attached to bring in the punters – his performance suffers / benefits from a colossal tonal dissonance. Unlike Shuler Hensley’s one-note Frankenstein, Del Toro definitely has an indoor-voice – but switches from mumbling into his own chin to screaming “I WILL KILL ALL OF YOU” at the drop of a hat. Perhaps this was an effort to show the battle of two warring souls within the unwilling lycanthrope – but there is a such a lack of in-between, that it is hard to see them as facets of the same individual.
Then, there is Anthony ‘I’ll do any old shit for a cheque’ Hopkins – the ageing don of terrible films, whose Teflon reputation still owes more to his work in The Silence of the Lambs or The Remains of the Day than the endless stream of bilge which followed. It’s not to say that Hopkins is bad as Sir John Talbot – in fact the only time I might argue he’s ever phoned in a performance is his cruise-control work as Odin in the Thor franchise – it is to say that he is as hapless in choosing projects as Nicolas Cage. He is fabulous as the sneering patriarch, disappointed in his struggling “pup” Lawrence, who he insists was “always the weakest”. Everything about his performance is knowingly over-the-top, from the bizarre hunter-pimp garb he spends the film draped in, to his eating of an apple (see the director’s cut. He really loves apples, to the extent he won’t even stop eating one to menace an increasingly unnerved Emily Blunt).
Revelations in the film’s climax eventually tell us that Talbot Senior was the initial wolfman – and that having passed his rare disease on to Lawrence, Lawrence is now “THE HEIR TO MY KINGDOM.” This adds a marvellous second wind to Hopkins’ performance – as he clearly relishes the final confrontation, hamming up a prodigal son monologue that meanders marvellously toward a side-splitting fight between the increasingly hirsute father and son. Launching themselves at each other in an amusingly ungainly style on all-fours – which the film maintains makes them fearful killing machines, but in my opinion sees them resemble a pair of squabbling hamsters – they grapple and slash at each other in enjoyably clunky 60s-Star Trek fashion. I am unclear how much of that fight really deployed the aged Hopkins – but in the close-ups, he seems to be having a whale of a time underneath the makeup; possibly because this is the most hair he’s had in four decades.
Rocktober Blood (1984)
As we’ve seen many times, if a dumb plot is taken seriously, it can prove to become unintentional comedic dynamite. Unashamedly gratuitous, Rocktober Blood is one of an endless procession of rock-and-roll horror films released throughout the 80s, in a bid to tap into the infamy of the satanic panic. There is heavy metal, nudity and murder, all the things you would expect from such an outing – but there is also a bizarre twins-angle that undermines the credibility of any of the above. Not only because the evil twin is an embarrassing trope that gives any uncreative artist that has written their way into a hole a get-out-of-jail card, but also because none of the other characters are able to understand it.
At the start of the film, the band’s lead singer, Billy Harper, is accused of multiple counts of murder – as well as attempting to kill his girlfriend, Lynn Starling. Lynn’s testimony is a key component of the case that ultimately lands Billy the death penalty. Sometime later, Lynn is a successful musician in her own right (though during every performance, she leaves us wondering just how that was possible), but she suddenly finds herself plagued by the presence of her late boyfriend.
She’s in such a state of distress at this reappearance that she exhumes Billy’s coffin, only to find his bleached bones – and strangely pristine eyes and bandana – still there. That’s because, as is revealed later, in a case of mistaken identity, she condemned her boyfriend to a death sentence when his crimes were in fact committed by his hidden twin, John.
Tray Loren as Billy / John adopts a strange LA lilt, rendering him reminiscent of Nicolas Cage in Valley Girl – and subsequently very difficult to take seriously. Be that as it may, the fact the blank-faced Lynn (Donna Scoggins) should still be able to wrap her head around what is going on – and her insistence that “Billy” stops chasing her – while at every turn, he reminds her that his is not Billy at all – swiftly becomes so stupid that it can’t help but be comedy gold.