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Pure Carnage, All Night Long

To love horror movies, one must love overkill, and the Music Box Massacre proudly delivers just that. The 24-hour horror-film festival launched last year, embracing the insane kitsch that makes so many horror films lovable, but not forsaking the Music Box's penchant for picking the finest in obscure films. The festival sold out this year (and last year), which I hope means it's on its way to becoming one of Chicago's finest entertainment traditions. While there are probably enough shitty slasher flicks out there to fill up any number of weekends, the Massacre is all about range, and the following roster was enough to keep me awake with a minimum of stimulants. If you can track 'em down, this lineup would serve you well for your own home Halloween festival.

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari: Just like last year, the Massacre kicked off with a silent classic featuring live accompaniment on the Music Box's glitzy movie-house organ. During one dialogue card, in which a character has just heard a prediction of his death, I hear a comical shout of "Oh, no!" and it seems to be coming from the organist's direction. Instead of diving right into the heavy gore stuff, the Music Box is wise to start things off with an influential but not-too-strenuous horror curio (last year, it was F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu).

This selection coming from the German Expressionist school of filmmaking, the sets are weirdly exuberant, almost like something a crowd of wildly imaginative third-graders could make if turned loose with an infinite supply of papier-mache. That doesn't surprise me, but the dialogue cards do: They're also rather expressionistic, and they seem to be distant ancestors of those "BAM!" and "POW!" cards that popped up during fights in the Adam West Batman series.

After that, there's a brief appearance by public-access TV's own Count Gregula, who addresses the audience for a second in his imitation Bela Lugosi voice and, well, that's basically it. Count Gregula is a total cheeseball and his makeup and get-up are hysterically amateurish, but he knows it, and that's what I like about him. I'm not scared of a guy in a slightly crappy vampire costume; I'm scared of a guy in an impeccable vampire costume, and as far as I can tell, that guy doesn't hang out at the Music Box.

Then Massacre curator and local filmmaker Rusty Nails begins the first of an awkward series of auctions to benefit a local AIDS charity. [UPDATE: "We raised more than $1,200 for Vital Bridges!" Nails says.] You'd think this would be just the right crowd for a bagful of sex toys and a huge stuffed spider (auctioned separately), but it takes a minute for the bids to get off the ground. The same thing happens a couple hours later when he tries to auction off another bag of sex stuff (UFO vibrator, cock ring, edible body treats) and a T-shirt that reads "Big Dyke." At 2 a.m., though, he invites people up to partake of some free stuff (mostly movie posters and other promotional stuff for more recent horror flicks like The Grudge 2), and a zombie-like horde skulks up to the front of the theater.

Bride Of Frankenstein: It's the horror classic that openly begs people to laugh at it from the start. Bride starts with Frankenstein author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley mincing about with poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysse Shelley in some foofy drawing room on a stormy night. Lord Byron rolls his r's incessantly, perhaps to savor dialogue that any revered poet would admire: "The crrrudest, savage exhibition of nature at her worst without, and we elegant thrrree within!" Just as last year, this is a crowd that loves to laugh at everything from bad dialogue to decapitation, so why not?

Upon the first triumphant bellow of "IT'S ALIIIIVE!" my friend Julia proposes starting a horror-film drinking game (which we didn't put into practice, because it probably would have killed us). First rule? Take a shot every time someone shouts "IT'S ALIIIVE!" Eventually, we decide the same should apply whenever somebody says, "This place gives me the creeps."

I recall that at this point in last year's festival, a certain malaise had already kicked in -- because after Nosferatu came Kairo (Pulse), Kiyoshi Kurosawa's masterfully wearying thriller about an apocalypse brought about gradually by mysterious cyber-ghosts. It's fascinating (and it can make your head hurt, frankly) because it's never entirely clear what's happening or why. It's a film that can send an eerie hush over an entire theater for two hours solid, because it's just that intoxicating and it's just that distressing, and it doesn't clobber you with the personalities (or even the humanity) of its characters. If the title sounds familiar, it's because the Americans ruined it with a remake that spent far too much energy on explaining itself. And, while the original takes place in a subtly barren Tokyo, the American remake is set in a Columbus, Ohio that's lit like a filthy fish tank. But this brings me back to another thing I love about the Massacre: It's got hours of laughs, but also a solid contingent of films that one can genuinely admire. (Another film like that last year was David Cronenberg's Scanners, only that's got a little more comic relief.)

It Came From Outer Space: It's time to get out the 3-D glasses and learn why 3-D will never be more than a backward novelty - it's like sandpaper on your corneas. Since there's no graphic violence (and no death!) in this film, 3-D shots of rockslides, a two-sided fireplace, Joshua trees, and desk lamps get way too much play. As do a young woman's nipples (just through her shirt, but surprising for a film from 1953). It's clear that some producer said, "Boy, this fruity Ray Bradbury stuff could really use some tits!"

Homecoming: One of Joe Dante's contributions to Showtime's surprisingly good Masters Of Horror short-film series, Homecoming delivers the festival's official first moment of excessive gore: A zombie soldier gets hit by a car and his severed head ends up on the windshield, so, of course, the horrified driver knocks it off with the windshield wipers. Why zombie soldiers? They've come back to terrorize the Republicans for lying to justify the Iraq war. Seconds later, a woman gets out of the car and begins battling them with a shotgun. We find out that she's a fictionalized (read: actually kind of attractive) version of Ann Coulter. And later, a zombie soldier smashes the skull of a presidential aide who's clearly supposed to parallel Karl Rove. Commence audience-wide gloating!

Next come a few trailers, including one for 1977's Tentacles. Think Jaws, only with an octopus. The trailer ends with an overhead shot of a bunch of overturned, empty sailboats. Small summer-camp-type sailboats. Because even the most badass killer octopus is no match for a speedboat.

Piranha: Since real piranhas are kind of hard to shoot on a budget, much of the burden of action gets passed off on vehicles - at the film's climax, there's an explosive and totally unnecessary collision between two small pleasure craft, and the protagonists do a lot of hot-shot driving from one swimming ground to another to warn of the flesh-stripping plague they've accidentally unleashed (mad scientist, secret government project, you know the drill). The solution? "We'll pollute the bastards to death!"

The Thing: In 1951's The Thing From Another World, a crew of arctic scientists accidentally thaws out a frozen space creature by leaving an electric blanket on top of it (seriously), and it stomps around killing people, but that's about it. John Carpenter's update is funnier, but in a less kitschy way - it surges with paranoia, as the amorphous creature infects an arctic base and takes on the identities of people it kills. Wilford Brimley's stir-crazy scientist keeps Kurt Russell (in one of his usual badass roles) from stealing the show, and it's the first of two films in the Massacre to feature indoor flamethrower use. A movie set in the Antarctic is perfect for fostering the feeling that you're putting yourself in an insane, isolated situation. And hey, no one gets frostbite. But because this is the techno a go-go '80s Antarctic, there are plenty of weird laughs to be had, especially when Brimley's computer starts feeding him test results in complete sentences, informing him that the Thing's potential victims include the "entire world population."

Night Of The Creeps: Dorky nice guy lusts after hot sorority girl; guy's obnoxious handicapped friend helps him get girl; guy and girl end up fighting zombie frat boys together with a flamethrower and a shotgun (and keep switching weapons, for some reason). But what really makes it worth watching? Character actor Tom Atkins as a blowhard detective who models himself, quite literally, after Phillip Marlowe, driving a 1940s-model car (the film's set in the 1980s) and spitting out tough-guy zingers by the minute: "I got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here." "What's the bad news?" "They're dead."

A different version of this story ran recently in the Chicago print edition of The Onion A.V. Club. The Beachwood Reporter thanks The A.V. Club for its kind permission.


Posted on October 26, 2006

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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