You’ll Sleep When You’re Dead: Celebrating the Halloween Movie Marathon
The Halloween horror movie marathon is something of a staple now across the country. Alamo offers dismemberment in most major markets. Chicago’s Music Box will massacre you for a bargain basement price. The New Bev caps an entire month of terror off with a blowout all-nighter. Though its become passé to watch a horror movie a day during Samhain Season*, that doesn’t stop true believers from flocking to their local rep houses in hopes of having their brains devastated by genre programmers. After all, few things are truly more pleasurable than sitting in a dark theater with other devoted misfits, all raring to hail Satan via hours upon hours of filmed nightmares.
Before moving to Austin, I was a regular at Exhumed Films screenings. For longtime readers of the site, this name should certainly ring a bell, as our own Phil Nobile, Jr. has regularly worshipped at the altars these trash cinema gods** have erected around both Philly and New Jersey. A fundamental component of the Northeastern film scene for nearly two decades, the boys from Exhumed are some of the most knowledgeable, kind and super cool geeks one will ever come across. I first began attending their shows at the ripe age of fifteen, purchasing a ticket to a sold-out screening of Friday the 13th Part III (shown in actual silver screen 3D!). From there I was hooked – a rep cinema junkie for life and constant seeker of any picture being shown on actual celluloid (a format the group staunchly supports – near refusing to project movies any other way). And when the collective began holding an annual 24-Hour Horror Marathon, you better believe my ass was going to be in one of those uncomfortable seats.
The rules are simple: from noon Saturday to noon Sunday, anywhere between 12 – 14 films (depending on running times) are shown, with trailer reels spliced in-between each feature. No breaks. Gotta run to Wawa*** and grab a sandwich or hit the bathroom to pee? You better stick around for the opening credits and decide whether or not the next film’s worth missing, because each title is kept secret before it rolls. That’s right – Exhumed doesn’t tell you what you’re going to see before buying a ticket. They simply hand out a flyer with vague hints of what’s to come about an hour before the Thon begins, leaving you to strategically plot just what might not be your cup of tea (I almost always skip the second screening – a slot devoted to man in suit monster movies). The unfiltered psychotronic insanity comes in the wee hours of the morning, just when your brain begins to completely shut down due to fatigue. Suddenly, movies like Boardinghouse and Blood Diner seem like fever dreams, seared into your consciousness like garish reveries.
For seven straight years, the 24-Hour Thon became a date circled on my social calendar – utterly unmissable come Hell or high water. Unfortunately, I had to break this date in 2014 on account of moving to Texas and not being able to get back in time. However, this year I wasn’t going to let anything prevent my return to a hometown haunt I keep close to my heart. So I hopped a plane, had a good buddy hold me a ticket, and mentally prepped to re-enter a universe of shadowy foolishness that was sure to shatter my consciousness. The following is a full report from the frontlines of what is easily one of the greatest tributes to cinema (genre or otherwise) I’ve ever had the pleasure to attend.
Clue #1: Gruesome, insane, Hong Kong horror/comedy.
Film #1: We’re Going to Eat You  (d. Tsui Hark)
Legendary Hong Kong (by way of the University of Texas’ film program) wuxia huckster Tsui Hark is riffing on a boatload of Italian influence with his second feature, going as far as to include what sounds like direct score lifts from witchy Dario Argento movies. Stuffed to the gills with riotous humor (that’s right, a movie called We’re Going to Eat You is actually hilarious), mondo gore, flesh eating savages, sword fights and more quick zooms than you can shake a wooden spear at, Hark filters the aesthetics of Eurosleaze through the lens of energetic action filmmaking (complete with fight choreography by frequent Jason Statham collaborator, Corey Yuen). Gone completely is the oppressive, grotesque tone that permeates all of the pictures that seem to have inspired the filmmaker, as Hark is more interested in establishing his own brand of New Wave wizardry. Easily the most playful “cannibal film” you’re bound to see.
Clue #2: Totally awesome action/horror/sci-fi amalgam.
Film #2: Silent Rage  (d. Michael Miller)
The jumping off point for the horror/action hybrids that would come to dominate a solid portion of Chuck Norris’ career (and be perfected during his “make it up as you go along” work with Cannon Films), Silent Rage is appropriately ridiculous, somewhat sleazy, but never tips over into full-blown exploitation like the utterly bonkers Invasion USA or The Hitman (which I coincidentally watched on the plane). Michael Miller’s film follows the same nonsensical story patterns as a Golan/Globus joint, and is peppered with a stellar cast of character actors (Bill Finley! Ron Silver! Flounder from Animal House!), all of whom add a great deal of color to the proceedings. You can see a balance being struck between Norris’ wholesome, avatar-for-Conservative-Values image, and the grimier genre constructs that would cater to his unique skill set as a martial artist. Not the best Norris picture, but quick, cheap and contextually interesting as an entry point for anyone interested in tackling his unique career.
Clue #3: Giant monster movie.
Film #3: Godzilla 1985  (d. Koji Hashimoro & RJ Kizer)
Kaiju movies aren’t my bag, so I usually duck out during their regularly allocated slot. That said, when Godzilla 1985 (a/k/a The Return of Godzilla) began to roll, I found myself drawn into the parsimonious stage design and model work that defines these Toho “man in suit” productions. Godzilla 1985 is incredibly fun because you’re watching an attempt to recirculate the giant lizard into popular ubiquity, and thus the movie contains a plethora of callbacks to Ishiro Honda’s immortal 1954 classic (including a constant verbalizing of the original’s atomic threat subtext), as well as bizarre in-jokes for longtime fans of the rampaging beast (Raymond Burr’s inclusion here is hilariously inept in execution). Godzilla doesn’t fight any other monsters, which is probably a letdown for the devoted, but there’s enough city-stomping to keep a philistine like myself completely satisfied.
Clue #4: Innovative, intellectual horror classic from a genre legend.
Film #4: Martin  (d. George A. Romero)
Martin is brilliant; arguably the best movie George Romero ever made outside of Dawn of the Dead. A chillingly intimate look at a disturbed young serial rapist (Matin Amplas) who may or may not also be an ageless vampire, it’s Romero commenting on the oppressive nature of familial values and the burdens that go along with being a member of the fucked up clan you were born into. Blunt and matter-of-fact in its presentation of the titular bloodsucker’s ritualistic stalking and draining of young women’s blood, it’s also a motion picture whose every frame is saturated with an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Martin is never presented as evil, but rather a confused boy, pining to feel a closeness he has never experienced during his magic-free existence. Romero’s movies are always personal, but whenever he moves away from zombies, his work feels confessional; never afraid to let the viewer become enveloped by emotive genre transmissions.
Clue #5: Horror anthology featuring works by influential genre filmmakers.
Film #5: Shock Value [1968 – 1971; 2015] (d. Dan O’Bannon, John Carpenter, Terry Winkless & Alec Lorimore)
The absolute highlight of the evening – seeing this compilation of early USC shorts from classmates Dan O’Bannon (Return of the Living Dead), John Carpenter (Halloween) and others is an astonishing look into the genesis of geniuses. O’Bannon’s dry, somewhat mean-spirited humor is readily apparent even from the start, and Carpenter’s “Captain Voyeur” short feels like a spiritual companion to De Palma’s early Murder a la Mod. This is an essential piece of cinema history, contextualizing the ideas of these West Coast masters and lending insight into the very human workings and relationships that comprised this class. When taken side-by-side with Jason Zinoman’s inspirational text (which still stands as one of the best pieces of horror non-fiction ever penned), a hardcore fan is granted a window into the souls of seemingly unknowable masters. A true treat for history buffs, we can only hope this finds some sort of wider release ASAP.
Clue #6: Cool Halloween-themed fan favorite from the 1980s.
Film #6 Night of the Demons  (d. Kevin Tenney)
There are some movies that simply work better with an audience than they do alone on your couch, and the EF Horror Thon is a perfect arena in which to make that distinction. Past Thon slices of WTF psychotronic goodness such as Raw Force and Lady Terminator are true joys with a collection of like-minded movie maniacs. Night of the Demons fits squarely into that category, as Kevin Tenney’s loose mash of Return of the Living Dead and The Evil Dead is a pure crowd pleaser for those who grew up perusing the dusty racks of their local horror section during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Enhancing this experience is the presence of Linnea Quigley, one of the great scream queens to ever grace the blood-splattered screen. Her entrance in Night of the Demons is just as hyper-sexual and meant to fuel the fantasies of teen horror nerds as Trash’s tombstone tap in ROTLD; a veritable awakening dressed up in a tacky trick or treat costume. Kudos to the EF crew for bringing in local writer/producer Joe Augustyn, who offered up a fun Q&A after the movie for a wired midnight audience. Yet another reason they’re some of the best film programmers to ever thread prints through a projector.
Clue #7: Strange, funny and slightly disturbing monster movie that serves as an allegory for addiction.
Film #7: Brain Damage  (d. Frank Henenlotter)
I love Frank Henenlotter movies. Seeing Frankenhooker in 35mm at the 2011 Thon was one of my favorite experiences Exhumed has provided in their history (it played immediately after Night Warning, making for a double feature of pure recklessness). However, after seeing Brain Damage in 35mm this year, I think that neon trash masterpiece has been surpassed by Henenlotter’s wild, rubbery addiction allegory. Featuring one of the most under-loved creatures in the history of cult cinema (Aylmer, the hallucinogenic-squirting parasite who croons like Bing Crosby) and a nightmarish take on New Wave NYC, Henenlotter has crafted a film that both works as a piece of pure, exploitive entertainment, as well as a unique time capsule of a city that doesn’t really exist anymore. Much like Abel Ferrara’s early work and Bill Lustig’s entire filmography, Henenlotter presents a 42nd Street admiration for a metropolis that was home to dope fiends, punks, degenerates, and weirdos of all sorts. But even at his most cartoonish, the seedy director ensured we understood that every last one of them were human beings, deserving of empathy.
Clue #8: Surreal, cerebral science fiction film with a dash of good old-fashioned monster movie thrown into the mix.
Film #8: Altered States  (d. Ken Russell)
Altered States is a movie I wish I loved, but instead just tolerate. Where Ken Russell’s headfirst swan dive into wacko psychedelic acumen is irrefutably admirable, the “love between academics” construct through which it is presented grows somewhat tedious quickly. Its no wonder Aaron Sorkin adores Paddy Chayefsky (who authored the novel on which Russell’s film is based) with such unashamed vigor, as both see themselves in the same league as the dapper intellectuals and upper crust minds who populate their respective works. Unfortunately, Altered States climaxes with a whimper instead of a mind-expanding bang, never quite living up to the potential these tripping explorers of the mind’s eye speak of over joints and glasses of wine. A noble attempt – both from a filmmaking and programming standpoint – to present something outside of the genre norm, but a misfire nonetheless.
Clue #9: Bizarre sci-fi satire/schlockfest starring a who’s who of cult movie icons.
Film #9: TerrorVision  (d. Ted Nicolaou)
Some of the most fun about sitting through an all-day movie marathon is picking out thematic threads, however intentional or not they actually are. During the ninth annual Horror Thon, we found ourselves presented with both the Phantom of Brian De Palma’s Paradise (Bill Finley in Silent Rage) and then Beef himself (Gerrit Graham), donning gold chains and inviting other swinging couples into his alien infested home. TerrorVision is a super strange movie – a Charles Band Empire Pictures production that is gooey, goofy and brimming with neon New Wave charm that speaks to a specific set of aesthetic sensibilities. Sporting icky creature effects from Corman legend John Carl Buechler and a bevy of bizarre performances (Jon Gries’ cradle robbing rocker is absolutely hilarious), it was a breezy pick to lighten the mood after Russell’s overt self-seriousness.
Clue #10: Stylish, gory, and under-seen shocker that feels like a Euro-horror film, even though it was produced in the US.
Film #10: Superstition  (d. James W. Roberson)
There’s always one movie that suffers due to wee hour fatigue, and unfortunately this year it was Superstition. While this odd North American Euro-horror riff starts out incredibly strong (featuring the microwaved head pictured above, followed by a brutal bisection of another boy), my eyes quickly closed and I was down for the next ninety minutes. Upon waking, everyone who was able to stay conscious seemed to be completely stoked on this twilight selection, so I’m going to have to seek it out upon returning home.
Clue #11: Infamous, goofy, B-grade 1960s monster movie.
Film #11: The Horror of Party Beach  (d. Del Tenney)
Naptime continued through this completely bizarre amalgam of black and white beach blanket bingo youth weirdness and old-fashioned ‘50s monster movie. As I wriggled to get comfortable and continue my brief snooze, the jangly soundtrack and sea beast growls bled into my micro-dreams, which may or may not have actually been scenes from the movie mixed with how my wiped-out mind imagined Tenney’s antiquated silliness. Another common Thon occurrence: at 5 AM, cinema on the screen and the movies playing in your mind become one, making repeat viewings necessary to determine which was which.
Clue #12: Quite simply one of the best vampire movies of all time.
Film #12: Near Dark  (d. Kathryn Bigelow)
Kathryn Bigelow has always been an auteur. She was never a “craftsperson.” To try and imply otherwise means you simply weren’t paying attention. From her hypnotic lighting schematics, thundering shoot outs, themes of “love under duress” (you can easily make story links between Near Dark and Point Break), Bigelow’s early genre output is as unified as her later militaristic fetishism (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty). For Bigelow true believers, it all began with her near perfect vampire Western, Near Dark – a movie that still contains the ability to devastate and instill a sense of awe even after you’ve been up all night, assaulted by a bevy of badass horror pictures. In fact, sleepless at 6 AM might actually augment the film, as you’re suddenly swimming in the same dark ambiance as the rebel outlaws who “listen to the night.” Yes, The Loveless came first, but her Eric Red collaboration was the director’s true coming out party; an announcement of an immense talent that only grew with time. Not to mention: Tangerine Dream with your morning coffee is a hell of a way to wake.
Clue #13: Non-traditional “animals attack” movie filling the traditional “animals attack” Horror-Thon timeslot.
Film #13: Piranha Part II: The Spawning  (d. James Cameron)
Playing James Cameron’s first feature directing credit immediately after Near Dark feels like a rather clever, albeit cruel, joke (though it’s rather well known that Cameron didn’t exactly direct Piranha II). Contrary to the King of the World’s assertion that The Spawning gets better halfway through with a six pack of beer, the flying fish slaughter fest is actually a pretty thorough bore, despite Lance Henriksen giving you a glimpse into an alternate dimension where he plays Chief Brody. A rough viewing, no matter what time of day, but after being up all night, this movie seems downright interminable.
Clue #14: Wacky horror comedy that, shockingly, we have only screened once before over the course of eighteen years.
Film #14: Army of Darkness  (d. Sam Raimi)
Possibly bold statement: this is Bruce Campbell’s strongest performance. Where Evil Dead II is probably the best overall movie, Army of Darkness is the franchise installment that completely realizes The Chin’s capabilities as a performer. His utter embracement of both adventure hero and screwball goof comes together perfectly, all while Raimi directs a picture that is, in hindsight, something of a miracle for even existing. An analog FX daydream in which one of our most gifted filmmakers is given the keys to the kingdom in order to indulge his most outlandish sensibilities, Army of Darkness is a potent shot in the arm, as inspiring from a pure craft standpoint twenty years on as it was upon initial release. This is how you end a horror marathon: by laying out a line of filmic cocaine and sending your audience stumbling into the sunshine, desperately in need of sleep but unable to rest thanks to the wonders displayed before them. God bless groups like Exhumed Films, catering to the hardest core genre nuts and delivering, for almost a decade, a yearly monument to face-melting that has never been matched.
*However, I say those who look down their nose at folks taking the time to celebrate horror pictures can sit and spin.
**An Exhumed show is actually where I met Phil for the first time, just before the lights dimmed and a double bill of Miami Connection and LA Streetfighters rocked our collective shit.
***That’s Philly speak for “convenience store.”