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David Graves is really passionate about horror films—so passionate, in fact, that he has convinced the Camelot Theatres at the Palm Springs Cultural Center to present horror-film double-features most Friday nights through the end of the year.

The Art of Darkness series debuts this Friday, Oct. 11, with The Innocents at 6 p.m., and A Tale of Two Sisters at 8 p.m. I had to ask Graves: Why so passionate about horror?

“Well, I’m basically a very fearful person,” he said with a laugh. “My passion for horror films started very early, and it may be because that’s just a familiar space for me, but I find that (horror) sharpens all of your senses. … You know, fear is the oldest, deepest emotion that we have; it’s a lizard-brain thing. It was part of our survival. Watching horror movies is sort of the modern equivalent of cavemen setting around a fire telling each other spooky stories. … It’s a safe way to experience fear and (learn to) understand what you fear.”

Graves spent much of his career in film production—he was the assistant costume designer on a little film you may have heard of called Titanic—and considers himself a “huge movie buff.” He said he’s dreamed of doing a horror-film series for years, and it came to fruition after he discussed it with Rick Seeley, a longtime friend.

It turns out Seeley is the president of the board of the Palm Springs Cultural Center. Seeley loved the idea, as did Michael Green, the center’s executive director. Thus, Art of Darkness was born.

“I feel like this is an element that’s missing in the cultural life here,” Graves said. “There are horror-film festivals everywhere all over the country and all over the world; on any given week, and you’ll find one somewhere. It was something that I wanted to bring to the community—and to deepen people’s understanding of what horror is.”

Graves pointed out that horror isn’t just a genre—it’s an emotion. He said the Art of Darkness series goes beyond slasher films and explores horror at a deeper level.

“Many films that aren’t, strictly speaking, horror films still have horrific elements and have various different moods on that spectrum,” he said. “The critical sphere has been taking horror films much more seriously over the last 20 years. This is great, but I want to bring some of this to the local audience and say, ‘Look deeper at these things. Look at the substance and what they are about instead of looking at the surface, and let go of the idea that a horror film equals a slasher film’—because it doesn’t.”

Series-opener The Innocents, with a screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, came out in 1961 and is described thusly on IMDb: “A young governess for two children becomes convinced that the house and grounds are haunted.”

“It’s really visually stunning, but it’s also very creepy and unsettling—and ultimately, it’s ambiguous,” Graves said. “It’s first movie that really, truly scared me. I was about 10 or 11 years old. My parents put it on, and everyone—my sister and my parents—fell asleep. I was watching the whole thing sort of by myself, and it really, really, unsettled me. And I loved it.”

While tickets to individual films in the series are $10, attendees who want to see both portions of the double-feature get in for $15. I asked Graves why he decided to present the Art of Darkness series via double-features.

“It’s a more interesting way to present these films thematically,” he said. “The whole idea was to present films that, on the surface, aren’t necessarily related, but that resonate with each other. … A Tale of Two Sisters, the second film on (the first) double-feature, is a stunning, hauntingly beautiful, really creepy Korean ghost story from the early ’00s. Both it and The Innocents are ambiguous, because they’re ghost stories—but is the ghost real, or is it the person imagining it or projecting it?

“(On Nov. 1), we’re showing remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing, which are interesting, because the original films from the ’50s were both products of post-war, Cold War paranoia. The fact that they were remade in the late ’70s and early ’80s … (gives them) different context in a different thematic background. One of the great things about horror films is that they really are a mirror of the time that they were born in.”

Graves said he hopes the Art of Darkness series becomes a regular fall occurrence at the Cultural Center.

“I’ve got at least three years’ worth of these pairings that I’ve plotted out,” he said. “I’ve been ruminating about this for years, and it was just a question of choosing what we wanted to launch it with.”

The Art of Darkness series takes place most Fridays through the end of December at the Camelot Theatres at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets to the individual films, at 6 and 8 p.m., are $10; admission to both films costs $15. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-6565, or visit psculturalcenter.org.

Published in Previews and Features

The original Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) movies didn’t invent the “slasher” genre, but they did kick off a bloody wave of horror that ruled the ’80s. Which makes sense—have you seen archival photos of ’80s people? They needed some killing.

Since the entire month of October has been swallowed up by Halloween, Inc.™, Content Shifter is digging up some lesser-known ’80s slasher flicks. There’s a reason you’ve haven’t heard of most of these: They’re terrible AF. Some don’t even hit that “so bad it’s good” sweet spot—meeting a “13” quota isn’t easy, just sayin.’

Here are 13 ’80s slasher flicks to stream between the Halloween parties that nobody invites me to anymore. You dress up as Sexy Ben Shapiro one time

Slumber Party Massacre II (1987; Prime Video, Tubi, Shudder, YouTube): High-schooler Courtney (Crystal Bernard) takes her girl group on a weekend retreat, only to have band practice and brushes with lesbianism interrupted by the return of the Driller Killer! Even better, he’s been reincarnated as a singing rockabilly greaser with a sick drill guitar! Yes, it’s slasher flick with cool kills and musical numbers—sex and blood and rock ’n’ roll, baby!

New Year’s Evil (1980; Prime Video, YouTube): Speaking of rock ’n’ roll, early slasher New Year’s Evil features the most over-the-top metal theme song of the genre—suck it, Halloween. Blaze (Roz Kelly), host of a New Year’s Eve new-wave countdown TV show, receives a call from a mystery fan claiming he’ll kill a “naughty girl” in each time zone at midnight—with her being the last. Bonus: “punk” rockers galore.

Sleepaway Camp (1983; Prime Video, Tubi): Eight years after a Camp Arawak boating accident killed her father and sibling, teen Angela (Felissa Rose) is sent off to … Camp Arawak. This well-thought-out plan goes awry when campers and counselors start getting dead—is Angela the killer? The answer is obvious; Sleepaway Camp’s infamous twist ending is anything but. A fifth sequel is apparently coming.

Chopping Mall (1986; Prime Video, Tubi, Shudder, YouTube): With an impossibly fantastic title to live up to, Chopping Mall barely even tries—but at least there’s a spin on slashers: killer robots. A group of idiot 20-somethings break into a mall to spend the night (because … fun?), only to have the party crashed by boxy security Roombas set to berserker mode. Extra comedy points: Mary Waronov and Paul Bartel from Eating Raoul.

Death Spa (1989; Prime Video): Another tech-gone-evil slasher, Death Spa pits Spandex-wearing workout dopes against a haunted gym—as the pitch says, “You’ll sweat blood!” A bloodthirsty ghost infiltrates a health club’s computerized control system and starts killing gym rats with exercise machines, weight gear and overheated saunas. Death Spa is stoopid to the max, but it did introduce gym sushi (!).

Killer Workout (1987; Prime Video, YouTube): For some reason, the film distributor thought Killer Workout would sell better than the movie’s original title, Aerobicide—SAD! Buff boneheads are being murdered by a safety-pin-wielding psycho at an L.A. gym, so why not keep it open during the investigation? Also, safety pin? What it lacks in logic, Killer Workout makes up for in excessive T&A (not triceps and abs).

Visiting Hours (1982; YouTube): On the flipside, a feminist journalist (Lee Grant) provokes a serial killer by simply presenting her position on a TV talk show—sorry for the ’80s, women. She survives his attack, but now he’s in her hospital to finish the job, and her boss (William Shatner, who must have had a boat payment to make) is no help whatsoever. Surprisingly tense, yet still overtly Canadian.

Night School (1981; Prime Video): Not to be confused with the 2018 Kevin Hart movie of the same name, this Night School featured the immortal tagline: “A is for apple, B is for bed, C is for coed, D is for dead, F is for failing to keep your head.” This serial killer is a decapitation aficionado, though the original title was Terror Eyes—also, there’s little schooling. At least it gave the world Rachel Ward.

Final Exam (1981; Prime Video, Tubi): College students are being slain on campus days before summer break, and the killer is a completely random psycho with no connections or back story. As long as jocks and cheerleaders are being taken out, cool. Final Exam is short on blood and boobs, but long on—WTF?—character development, meaning you get to know these coffin-stuffers. Yay?

The Nail Gun Massacre (1985; Prime Video): No title ambiguity here—nail on the head, literally. Six Texas construction workers who skated on a rape charge are murdered one-by-one by a mystery motorcycle man with a high-powered nail gun. Like a Home Depot RoboCop, he serves wisecracks with his vengeance and kills more than a few innocent bystanders. Actual tagline: “A very penetrating story.”

The Mutilator (1985; Prime Video): A group of horny college coeds hang out at a beachfront condo during fall break, only to be killed off in increasingly gruesome fashions: axes, pitchforks, boat motors, fishing gear, etc. The creative killer is Big Ed, the father of one of the coeds who never forgave his son for accidentally killing Mrs. Ed. It’s almost Shakespearean, this little Mutilator gem.

Girls Nite Out (1982; YouTube): A college-campus scavenger hunt turns bloody when a killer in a mascot bear costume starts slashing up students with serrated-knife “claws.” Even worse, he get the college radio DJ to help broadcast his murders—as if that gig wasn’t already humiliating enough. Girls Nite Out was originally titled The Scaremaker, but they really should have gone with TerrorBear.

Stripped to Kill (1987; Prime Video, Tubi): An LAPD detective (Kay Lenz) goes undercover at the Rock Bottom strip club to investigate a string of stripper murders. Never mind that Emmy-winning actress Lenz is pole dancing (badly) in a low-budget slasher—Stripped to Kill features the most bizarrely ludicrous killer reveal of any flick on this list. Even weirder: The strip club is owned by Norman Fell (Three’s Company).

Published in TV

Four women write and direct short films in horror anthology XX.

Most notably, Annie Clark of the band St. Vincent (My hero!) makes her film-directorial debut with a segment called The Birthday Party, in which a frantic mom (Melanie Lynskey) panics when she finds a corpse just before her child’s birthday celebration. The segment looks great, is acted well, and features some great sound—including St. Vincent music. As a piece of horror, it’s a bit of a failure (it’s more jokey than horror), but the segment does show that Clark can direct performances and pull together the technical parts. It’s just not all that scary.

Things get creepier in an Evil Dead sort of way with Don’t Fall, in which desert campers come into contact with demonic forces after seeing some sketches on a stone wall. There isn’t much of a story to the segment, but the scares come fast and furious once somebody gets possessed.

The other two segments (The Box and Her Only Living Son) deal with starvation, parenthood and the Antichrist; they also have their moments.

Nothing in this anthology is groundbreaking, but there’s enough here to warrant watching if you are a horror fan—or you’re a St. Vincent fan.

XX is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

I got a couple of good jolts out of The Conjuring, the latest from director James Wan.

I have deeply divided feelings about Wan. I sort of hate him for starting the whole Saw thing, and I sort of like him for twisted films like Insidious, Death Sentence and, to some extent, this one. No doubt: Wan is capable of constructing some good scare scenarios, and this haunted-house tale has its share.

This is one of those films that claim to be “based on a true story.” Whatever. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson play Lorraine and Ed Warren, well-known paranormal investigators who try to help out a family that has just moved into a Rhode Island house. They are like ghostbusters, but without proton packs and one-liners.

The family, shortly after moving in, finds their dog dead, birds smashing their heads into the house, and a ghost playing hide-and-seek. The dead dog would’ve been my cue to say “Screw this!” and head for the nearest Motel 6, but these dopes stick around to deal with ghosts, demons and whatnot. Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor), the mom, is getting mysterious bruises all over her body and experiencing strange dreams in which ghosts puke blood into her face. Roger (Ron Livingston), the dad, keeps finding dead animals and spooky parts of the house he didn’t know about. And no matter how many of his kids say that something just pulled at their feet during the night or wrestled with them on the floor, HE KEEPS THE FAMILY IN THE FREAKING HOUSE.

I forgive stupid horror-movie families if the film manages to scare me good at least twice. The Conjuring got to me at least five times, which is a damned good score for a routine haunted-house film. Actually, this is a haunted house film with demon possession and exorcism thrown in for good measure. As Wan showed with Dead Silence and Saw, he likes evil puppets and dolls as well. One particularly malevolent doll contributes to the mayhem, making this film a veritable stew of horror genres.

The Conjuring starts with the cheap sound and sight gags that plague most haunted-house movies. I thought for sure we were getting another low-budget flick in which there are a lot of moving sheets, closing doors and sudden sounds, as in the stupid Paranormal Activity movies. Wan, the evil bastard that he is, knows that many movie-viewers are jaded and will let their guards down. Then some pretty freaky visual stuff starts happening, and The Conjuring is off and running. This film is not afraid to show you who is making all those noises and screwing with those doors.

Wilson and Farmiga are good as the Warrens, the folks who allegedly investigated this ’70s haunting, along with the Amityville Horror. (The characters comment on needing to check out some problems on Long Island at one point.)

Both Wilson and Farmiga are doing good things in the horror genre these days, with Wilson starring in Insidious, and Farmiga making the rounds as Mrs. Bates in the Bates Motel TV series. Heck, Farmiga’s sister is kicking ass in the genre as well, starring in the first and third seasons of American Horror Story.

It’s good to see Taylor get a meaty role. It’s been a long while since she’s really factored in a movie, which is a shame, given her talents. Looking back at her resume, I am reminded that she appeared in The Haunting back in 1999. The Conjuring puts that pathetic remake to shame, and Taylor proves she can scream her ass off during a demonic possession and exorcism.

Wan and company deserve props for doing a lot of the effects the natural way. Wan has figured out that the more “real” something looks, the scarier it is. Actors and actresses in freaky makeup with the lighting just so can often out-creep CGI megabytes. There are a few instances in this movie in which gray and green makeup is the scare tactic of choice. It probably cost the makeup guys less than $50, and it scared me just fine.

Wan is in the midst of a busy movie year. After this, we shall get his Insidious: Chapter 2 in time for Halloween, and he just got the gig to direct one of cinema’s scariest creatures of them all: He’ll be helming Fast and Furious 7 starring the repugnant, naturally frightening Vin Diesel.

I’m scared already.

The Conjuring is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I’m disappointed that I didn’t see any 2 percent milk or creamed corn shooting out of zombie faces in the new Evil Dead. Sam Raimi, who directed the original schlock-fest, famously used those two foods in some of his gorier sequences—and it was gloriously disgusting.

The Evil Dead remake is a totally different animal from Raimi’s deranged original and its beloved sequels Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. It’s a far-more-polished movie that’s prettier than any of those films, with pretty people and pretty makeup.

That said, I wasn’t completely crazy about this new take on this old story, but as a fan of the original Evil Dead, I felt this was a worthy entry, and a nice jumping-off point for a new Evil Dead series of movies. It’s the best of the Evil Dead films when considering sheer quality—but it’s the worst regarding the fun factor.

I didn’t have the kind of sick fun I had while watching Evil Dead 2, nor did I have that sense of total doom I suffered while forcing the original The Evil Dead into my eyes. Director Fede Alvarez, making his feature debut, has made a humorless film, for the most part. He also pusses out in a few key moments toward the end, which left me feeling a sense of relief … which is something I don’t want to be feeling when watching a serious Evil Dead movie.

There’s no Ash (Bruce Campbell) along for the main story this time out. The central character is Mia (Jane Levy), a heroin addict taken to a remote cabin by friends and family to detox. The group eventually finds their way into the basement, where they discover the infamous book that one shouldn’t read aloud. Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) does just that; the forest does bad, invasive things to Mia; and things go downhill fast.

I liked Eric and Mia, but wasn’t too crazy about David (Shiloh Fernandez), Mia’s brother. He’s a poorly written character, a mopey guy who failed to get me to root for him. This is where Alvarez (who co-wrote the script with a couple of folks, most notably Diablo Cody) could’ve given us just a little Ash-circa-Evil Dead II-attitude.

The other actresses (Elizabeth Blackmore and Jessica Lucas) are just there to have bad things happen to them. Blackmore has an especially harrowing sequence with an electric carving knife, while Lucas takes shaving a little too far with a broken mirror shard.

I will say this for the new Evil Dead: Its gore effects are spectacular. There are a lot of old-school, practical makeup effects, and some true freak-out moments. When CGI is employed, it’s done well, but the stuff that will stick with you is plain-old-fashioned gooey stuff.

Levy and Pucci put this one over the top. They are very good, and their characters work in the Evil Dead universe. Fernandez is the film’s biggest flaw; somebody with more charisma or likeability would’ve served the film better.

Hey … it’s rare we get a good horror film these days. I’m putting the new Evil Dead just below Mama and Sinister as mildly recommended. Like the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, this remake doesn’t necessarily damage the legacy of the original (which happened with Rob Zombie’s terrible Halloween films).

So, Evil Dead fans: Breathe a sigh of relief. It’s not great, but it’s not a disaster. And make sure to stay through the credits for a nice little treat.

Evil Dead is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews