Twelve Times The Terror: A Report From Exhumed Films’ 12th Annual 24-Hour Horror Thon

Jacob survives another all-nighter with the Philly/NJ horror movie fiends.

Exhumed Films – the Philly/NJ celluloid horror screening collective – has been putting on a 24-Hour Horror Thon for twelve years now. Out of those twelve, this writer has attended nine. The realization didn't even dawn on me until one of the group's members, Dan Fraga, began handing out a makeshift paper (which resembled the Philly Inquirer "Weekender" section I grew up reading with an impressive degree of fidelity) that contained not only the clues for the mystery movies playing over the next day, but also a "Neighborhood Guide" theater listing with all the pictures that'd been shown over the event's history. While I didn't complete an official count, the Thon shows an average of thirteen movies per go. Multiplied by eight previous trips, and that's nearly 100 titles taken in at the yearly shindig (give or take a nap).

Massive quantity of movies aside, what's possibly more impressive about the EF Thon is the community Fraga, Diabolik DVD honchos Jesse Nelson and Joseph Gervasi, and print guru Harry Guerro have cultivated over the years. For me, attending the marathon truly is a "homecoming" of sorts; as I get to shoot the shit with dear friends that I pretty much only visit once a year. For 24 hours, the Thon is like a bar that only opens its doors for a single holiday, ushering in the same regulars to come and trust the EF curators' taste with their time. There's something special about that in the age of streaming and instant Twitter reactions. Groups like Exhumed Films are keeping the communal element of movie-watching alive and well (an endeavor they hope to continue via their very own screening palace). Hell, seeing Dan's kid (who was just a tot when the group originally incepted this party) help with prizes and raffle tickets was a delight, and a constant reminder that this is a place where movie fans go to grow their own tastes, for better or (when it comes to the 3 A.M. shows) much, much worse. 

For those who've never heard of the event (which we've covered at BMD in the past), the rules are simple: every Halloween, EF fills the Lightbox Theater on UPenn's campus with genre nuts, and then plays a line-up of mystery movies, mostly on 35mm, with only vague clues as to what you're about to witness. There are no breaks (though there are trailer reels connecting each feature you can duck out during for a bathroom or Wawa trip). A true "Iron Individual" event, they even added one extra movie to the playlist this year, making it a round 14 films, as if daring longtime attendees to run screaming for the exits. But no such escape was necessary for this author, as 2018 may have showcased Exhumed's most eclectic slate yet...


Clue #1: "Infamous (and infamously hard to see) 'animals attack' movie."

The Last Shark (a/k/a Great White) [1981] (d. Enzo G. Castellari, w. Vincenzo Mannino & Ramón Bravo)

The big highlight of the festival came with the first film: an Italian-language 35mm print that EF had homemade subtitles soft-subbed onto the screen for, so that their audience could be one of the very few American crowds to ever witness Enzo Castellari's totally insane Jaws/Jaws II mash-up/rip-off on the big screen (the legal reasoning for its rarity can be found in this old Jeremy Smith piece). Most of the crowd seemingly hadn't seen this wild piece of deep fried trash gold, and it completely killed. Each time the bulbous mechanical shark literally roared out of the water, mangling wind-surfers and helicopters with furious ease, there was an eruption of applause and cheers. As MC Fraga promised before the show kicked off, EF topped themselves once again by showing their loyal community something they'd never see anywhere else. Up in Heaven, Vic Morrow smiled down at his glorious Quint stand-in. Bravo boys. 

Clue #2: "Smart, sympathetic slasher/psychological horror movie."

Fade To Black [1980] (d. & w. Vernon Zimmerman)

I hadn't seen Fade to Black in many years – via Anchor Bay's old, beat up, now OOP DVD release – and upon finally revisiting (on this rather pristine print), was struck by how Vernon Zimmerman's melancholy horror character piece plays like a horror nerd take on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Here’s a kid (Dennis Christopher) who lived his whole life through the myopic prism of what he witnessed in movie houses, and couldn't help but transpose those fantasies onto the sad reality that unfolds before them him every day, leading to an obsession with a Marilyn Monroe look-alike (Australian actress Linda Kerridge). Once his fixation leads to madness, he unleashes a cold wave of death upon the city; becoming Travis Bickle filtered through Tommy Jarvis, his supernaturally good movie makeup skills allowing the kid to kill those who browbeat him on a regular basis. Unfortunately, Christopher's performance elevates in shrillness the further he descends into darkness, and the slasher set pieces feel slightly out of place at times, but this is still a sad, weird, unique little scare show, desperately in need of a cult revival. 

Clue #3: "Giant monster movie."

War of the Gargantuas [1966] (d. Ishirô Honda, w. Takeshi Kimura & Ishirô Honda) 

Every year, there's always some form of kaiju picture projected at the Thon. Some of these are well-known classics of the genre (Inframan), while others are deep cuts that Harry & Co. raided the vaults to show (The Mighty Peking Man). This year, the slot was filled by a film that falls somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. War of the Gargantuas is a true oddity, directed by original Godzilla progenitor Ishirô Honda, in which a mammoth, green haired monster (Gaira) emerges from the sea and starts wreaking havoc on Tokyo. The only defense against this marauding beast is a stoned, silly "large animals expert" (Twin Peaks' Russ Tamblyn) who takes every opportunity he can to lecture those around him about how every culture should listen better to its youth (there might be a metaphor brewing here). Once Gaira's shaggy, brown brother (Sanda) shows up and starts extolling the virtues of kaiju diplomacy, things really get wild, as buildings are toppled and the army is too helpless to stop them. It didn't seem like the crowd was moved one way or another by Gargantuas, but this writer was hooting and hollering when one of the giants flees and does a cannonball back into the sea following an early attack. 

Clue #4: "Intellectual and highly influential supernatural/psychological horror movie."

Rosemary's Baby [1968] (d. & w. Roman Polanski)

There were a few noisy walkouts once the credits rolled on the fourth film of the day: Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. Perhaps some folks had simply seen the movie too many times, but this writer suspects that they simply couldn't stomach sitting through one of Polanski's films, given his well-documented legal trouble. To each their own morality, but no amount of bad behavior on the filmmaker's part can diminish the power of the masterpiece he minted fifty years ago, as Rosemary's Baby is still one of the most graceful, elegant, and thoughtful horror pictures ever committed to celluloid. By the time we reached the final masterful reveal, I was astonished 140 minutes had flown past so quickly, as what seemed like a chore in a marathon setting (seeing how the majority of the films that play run roughly 90 or so minutes) became one of its many joys. 

Clue #5: "Supernatural sequel that is not nearly as good as the original, but still pretty creepy/entertaining in its own right."

Poltergeist II: The Other Side [1986] (d. Brian Gibson, w. Mark Victor & Michael Grais)

As our own Brian Collins commented not too long ago regarding Poltergeist II

"...director Brian Gibson wasn't around for the reshot ending (John Bruno directed it, thirteen years before boring us to death with Virus), which suffers from poor FX and a generally dull confrontation, allowing the audience to spend their final few minutes with the film (and, as it'd turn out, the Freeling family) alternating between laughing and being bored. It's a shame, too, because before the ending is a pair of terrific sequences that are every bit as good as the original: a sequence where Steven (Craig T. Nelson) is possessed by and then pukes up a giant worm, followed by a garage-set escape attempt with a flying chainsaw..."

While I don't share quite the level of disdain for The Other Side as BC does, it certainly is a slew of great set pieces, re-worked through obvious post production tinkering, and capped with a climax that feels ripped straight out of a lost episode of Touched By An Angel. On the big screen with a raring-to-go crowd, it's still a decent amount of fun, but I could never imagine revisiting it (before or after this screening) in any other fashion. 

Clue #6: "Weird action/exploitation/monster movie mash-up."

Werewolves On Wheels [1971] (d. Michel Levesque, w. David M. Kaufman & Michel Levesque)

Easily one of the strangest titles played during ‘18's Thon, Werewolves On Wheels is essentially "Hairy Rider", a jangly exploitation hangout picture that riffs on the LSD-laden free spirit adventures of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, while also tossing in Satanic rituals, naked snake dancing, and the titular lunar marauders for good measure. Is Werewolves On Wheels any good? Sort of. There's a lumpy authenticity that could've only come from this era of DIY outlaw filmmaking, as the central group of hog mavericks all seem like they were plucked out of a local watering hole in the desert. However, showing this picture as we approached hour twelve of the marathon may have been a slight miscalculation on EF's part, as its languid pace seems more fit for an earlier slot in the event. Either way, it's a fascinating curio this writer is keen to revisit sometime in the future. 

Clue #7: "Artsy and allegorical monster movie that is the complete antithesis of the last film we just showed."

The Company of Wolves [1984] (d. Neil Jordan, w. Angela Carter & Neil Jordan)

Easily the most visually sumptuous film of the mini-fest, Neil Jordan's gothic fairy tale is beautiful to behold on 35mm, as he transmutes childhood fables into a feverish horror film. Floating along on its own sinister wavelength, The Company of Wolves allows Angela Lansbury to spin cautionary tales about predatory men for her little red riding granddaughter (Sarah Patterson) to heed as she heads out into the woods surrounding their tiny village. Even during his earliest days, Jordan was making movies that warned everyone about the banal evil that resides in their neighbors' hearts, and with Wolves, he delivers some of the most grotesquely inventive lycanthrope transformations even committed to the silver screen. The Irish director's sophomore feature remains one of his strangest and best, never compromising for a second, despite being crafted for the disreputable B-Movie factory that was Cannon Films. 

Clue #8: "Atmospheric, rarely screened Gothic Eurohorror movie."

The Ghost [1963] (d. Riccardo Freda, w. Oreste Biancoli & Riccardo Freda)

If you've seen a single slice of Gothic Eurohorror, then you almost instantaneously recognize where The Ghost is headed from its first frames. That said, this sort of foggy Italoschlock is like catnip for me, and watching Barbara Steele wander around lavish cobwebbed digs by candlelight, cheat on her wealthy husband, and then get embroiled in a nefarious revenge plot will never get old. Movies like The Ghost appeal to a very specific aesthetic sensibility, and viewing them past midnight is sort of like a dreamy recollection of an ancient pulp novel you once read, but only remember half the details from. For fans of Riccardo's Freda's The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock, it’s a true treat to behold. 

Clue #9: "Weird horror/comedy hybrid directed by a notorious filmmaker and inspired by a classic work of literature."

Monstrosity [1987] (d. & w. Andy Milligan)

Desperately desiring to escape the degradation of NYC’s slums during the ‘80s and turn his life around somewhat, notorious sexploitation/horror DIY weirdo Andy Milligan migrated to Los Angeles in ‘85. Monstrosity was the first movie he made after moving to the West Coast: a gnarly, nonsensical, gore-splattered blast that bears little resemblance to his past filmic transgressions. Basically, three '80s frat boys decide to build themselves a “Jewish Golem” (don't ask) out of spare body and animal parts, in order to obtain revenge against a trio of rapist criminals while quoting Mary Shelley to one another. Think of it as Milligan's Franken Death Wish, full of goofy sex gags (especially once their creation falls in love with a Skid Row hooker) and wet violence. For those possessing a tolerance/taste for the gutter auteur's lack of any guiding moral compass, there's a lot to love about Monstrosity, which was presented via a restored DCP (the only digitally projected film of the night*) courtesy of Guerro's pet project, Garagehouse Pictures. 

Clue #10: "Dumb-but-fun creature feature/horror comedy."

Spookies [1986] (d. Genie Joseph, Thomas Doran & Brendan Faulkner, w. Ann Burgund, Frank M. Farel, Thomas Doran & Brendan Faulkner)

The story goes: Spookies was originally conceived as a haunted-house send-up, which sought to assault a bunch of partying humans (not to mention its audience) with wacky monsters. Amongst these admittedly creative creatures were a witch with a glowing brain, farting zombies, a glow-tongued demon lady thing, and a spider woman who sucks a dude dry. Unfortunately, the money men took the movie away from its original creative team and hired a new director, who transformed it into a rather garish, toned down version of a lost Tales From the Crypt episode. The final result is a patchwork POS that feels simultaneously passionate and phoned-in, and never really played well for me personally. Judging by the early morning applause the title evoked from the crowd, I'm pretty much alone in that sentiment, as folks were beyond delighted to revisit this rarity. 

Clue #11: "Entry into a long-running, iconic franchise that’s inferior to its predecessors yet still far superior to everything that came after." 

Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth [1992] (d. Anthony Hickox, w. Peter Atkins)

When the original Cenobites were killed by Channard at the climax of Hellbound: Hellraiser II, there were no plans to resurrect the characters for future films. However, that didn’t mean Clive Barker was out of ideas for another Hellraiser sequel. His original concept was to be set in Ancient Egypt, with The Great Pyramid operating as the Lament Configuration, and the Pharaoh acting as the original Cenobite. This, of course, never happened, and what we're stuck with is a rather traditional slasher film take on these iconic purveyors of pain and pleasure (shot in North Carolina, of all fucking places). I don't hate the movie, but saying it’s far superior to everything that came after might be a bit of stretch, my good dudes. 

Clue #12: "Goofy and gory Satanic silliness."

Evilspeak [1981] (d. Eric Weston, w. Joseph Garofalo & Eric Weston) 

Everyone’s known a nitwit like Coopersmith (Clint Howard) at least once in his or her life. Shy, chubby, athletically graceless yet sorta smart (but not like a genius or anything); he’s the perfect target for public high school jabroni tough guys. Place him in a military academy (that just happens to be built on the grave of a former black sorcerer) and you have a recipe for disaster. Coopersmith is beaten and taunted, even by his own soccer coach. Though once he stumbles upon a tomb in the conservatoire chapel’s basement, he puts his computers to work in order to translate the ancient, pentagram-covered texts contained within. His goal: to summon the spirit of Father Esteban (Night Court’s Richard Moll), a Satanic Priest who vowed, years ago, that he would return to this mortal plane in order to carry out his Master’s work. Admittedly, Evilspeak is your garden variety nerd comeuppance horror picture, but the hyper-gory finale (which sadly lost a touch of impact due to this cut print) totally justifies this bizarro entry into the long-running horror subgenre. 

Clue #13: "Legendary director adapts legendary author, producing this blockbuster favorite."

Carrie [1976] (d. Brian De Palma, w. Larence D. Cohen)

One of the great joys of movie marathons is picking out trends that the programmers either intended, or stumbled upon through coincidence. With Carrie capping a run that included two overlooked gems revolving around bullied and beat down geeks (Fade to Black and Evilspeak), it definitely feels like the former occurred within Horror Thon: Part XII. Thankfully, the Exhumed folks picked the queen of meek revenge to go out on, as Carrie is still one of the genre's great masterpieces, with Brian De Palma's aggressive pulp formal experimentation elevates Stephen King's somewhat flimsy first novel (doing away with the epistolary format entirely). The end result remains utterly thrilling and transgressive forty-two years later, with Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie delivering two of the most memorable turns horror has ever seen. 

Clue #14: "Late era slasher that is a thematically appropriate finale for the Horror Thon."

Popcorn [1991] (d. Mark Herrier, w. Alan Ormsby) 

Popcorn isn’t a great motion picture (in fact, it’s one of the rare few where this writer’s estimation dropped while watching it in a theater). Mark Herrier’s movie contains the potential for greatness: with Bob Clark co-conspirator Alan Ormsby pseudonymously penning a story about an all-night William Castle-style movie marathon turning into a bloodbath when it’s invaded by a thought-dead, Looney Tunes horror auteur (complete with SFX supervised by the Black Christmas madman himself). But nothing quite comes together in this Jamaican-shot bit of weirdness quite like the filmmakers ostensibly intend. That said, Popcorn was indeed a perfect note to end the Thon on, sending EF’s loyal crew out into the sunlight in a rather meta-textual fashion. Year 12 was another good one, and I’ll again sleep when I’m dead, only to rise from the grave and wander back into the Lightbox come 2019. Until then, boils and ghouls.

*And only the second DCP in the event's history.