This year’s edition of Music Box of Horrors isn’t just for horror buffs | Bleader

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

This year’s edition of Music Box of Horrors isn’t just for horror buffs

Posted By on 10.03.17 at 03:27 PM

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click to enlarge Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse screens in the marathon on Saturday at 8:30 PM.
  • Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse screens in the marathon on Saturday at 8:30 PM.

This Saturday at noon, the Music Box Theatre kicks off Music Box of Horrors, its annual 24-hour, horror-movie marathon. The event is commendable for being one of the most cost-effective shows around. Tickets are $30 in advance and $35 on the day of the event—which means if you see all 12 movies in the marathon, you spend less than three dollars per film. Several of the titles would be worth seeing at full price, however; adding to the enticement, almost everything in the marathon will be screening from celluloid. The selections range from artful to schlocky, with enough of the former to make this event of interest not just for horror buffs, but for anyone who cares about movies.

Fittingly the marathon contains one film apiece by master horror directors George A. Romero and Tobe Hooper, both of whom passed away recently. (There's also a film by John Carpenter, who's still very much alive, but who's had so much trouble getting financing for his movies this century that one feels his absence in contemporary cinema more than his presence.) The programmers couldn't have selected a better feature to represent Hooper than The Funhouse (1981), which screens Saturday night at 8:30 PM. A winning mix of broad comedy and genuine shocks, Funhouse finds Hooper at his most playful, switching tone when you least expect and executing plenty of baroque camera movements that were his stylistic signature. In fact one might describe Hooper as the Max Ophüls of horror—camera movement is constant in his work, and you delight at the showmanship as much as the scares.

The plot of The Funhouse is fairly simple: Four teenagers find themselves locked in the title location and must fend off a murderous carnival worker in order to escape. Yet Hooper makes the most of the premise, eliciting numerous fake scares from the funhouse before indulging in terrifying shocks. The murderer first appears in a ridiculous Frankenstein mask, but when he takes it off, he reveals the face of a freakish mutant. His transformation mirrors that of the film, which puts you at ease with laughter, then scares you for real. Even when The Funhouse turns grisly, though, you can still sense Hooper's joy with the filmmaking process.

Hooper brought a new level of intensity to the horror genre with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), raising the bar in terms of how far filmmakers could go in terrifying their audiences. Most contemporary horror directors owe him a great debt, yet few seem to take inspiration from Hooper's playfulness or stylistic ambition. On the other hand, you can see Romero and Carpenter's fingerprints all over movies today. Romero's integration of social commentary into horror seems to have directly inspired much of Blumhouse Productions' output (Get Out, The Purge and its sequels), while Carpenter's effective minimalist aesthetic has influenced a number of recent films, ranging from such genre items as Blue Ruin to It Follows to such art movies as The Hateful Eight and Nocturama.

Music Box of Horrors will pay tribute to Romero's audacity by screening his most outspokenly political film, Land of the Dead (2005), on Saturday at 2 PM. Released at the height of the George W. Bush era, Land issues a damning indictment of late capitalism in which the superrich protect themselves from a zombie apocalypse by barricading themselves with the world's remaining resources and making the rest of humanity fend for itself. Dennis Hopper plays an obvious Bush stand-in (he even utters the line "We don't negotiate with terrorists"), a heartless capitalist who doesn't care that the world is going to hell. Watching the movie, you're inclined to hate him more than the zombies, since he has the awareness to know better and potentially help others. Romero's characterization of the villain may be a little too on the nose—unlike the writer-director's best work, the politics of Land aren't embedded in the storytelling, but rather sit above it. Still, the film's righteous anger is rousing, especially given the fact that Romero expresses it using the full resources of a major studio.

click to enlarge John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness screens in the marathon on Saturday at 10:45 PM.
  • John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness screens in the marathon on Saturday at 10:45 PM.

Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (1994), which screens Saturday at 10:45 PM, is another example of a director making the most of studio resources. Madness is a slick and frequently gorgeous movie, with fine cinematography and even finer performances. Sam Neill plays an insurance investigator hunting for a missing horror novelist based on Stephen King. On his search, scares from the author's books start to encroach on reality, leaving the poor hero uncertain as to what's true. The story hinges on a magical novel that drives people insane when they read it, a potent metaphor for the power of storytelling. A brilliant storyteller himself, Carpenter directs Madness for all its worth, delighting the narrative's twists and turns and embellishing them with cheerfully self-referential filmmaking. In hindsight Madness looks like the director's last great feature, a summation of the narrative games he played in Halloween, Prince of Darkness, and other classics of the 1970s and '80s.

Also on the playful side of horror is the silent film The Cat and the Canary (1927), which screens Saturday at 4 PM with a live musical accompaniment. Based on a popular stage play, the movie concerns a wealthy family being stalked by a mysterious killer on the night they read the will of a deceased relative. Director Paul Leni, a German emigre best known for the Lon Chaney vehicle The Man Who Laughs, brought an expressionist style to Hollywood, making bold use of shadows and deliberately distorted sets. (Not surprisingly Leni began his career as an art director.) His career was cut short when he died in 1929, but he left behind at least several effective genre pictures, one of which, The Last Warning, screened last year at the Gene Siskel Film Center in a new restoration. This revival of The Cat and the Canary points to a renewed interest in his work.

Outside of the films by major auteurs, Music Box of Horrors offers at least a couple of choice titles. Dark Waters (1993), which screens on Saturday at 6:10 PM with director Mariano Baino in attendance, is a nearly forgotten international coproduction that, while no classic, deserves to be better known. Set at a haunted monastery on a craggy deserted island, the movie displays the influence of such Italian horror directors as Mario Bava in its careful manipulation of atmosphere. Baino creates an enticing environment using candles, caverns, Catholic iconography, and, yes, plenty of dark water. The plot is somewhat obscure (it has something to do with nuns summoning an ancient supernatural beast), but the mood is strong enough to hold one's interest. Much easier to follow is Rusty Cundieff's Tales From the Hood (1995), which screens on Sunday morning at 4:45 AM. An anthology of spooky tales set in African-American, urban milieus, the film sits proudly in the Romero tradition of mixing horror with social commentary. Today it looks like a precursor to Get Out in how it uses the genre to address issues related to black American experience.

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