Musical Double Feature: Phantom of The Paradise and Shock Treatment
Whether adapted from stage or produced strictly for the big screen, musicals have been popular since the emergence of sound film technology. Choreography and music interwoven delight the imaginations of young and old alike, with lavish sets and perspectives that would be impractical in a theater. Adding in elements of kitsch and horror have given us classics like Little Shop of Horrors and Hedwig And The Angry Inch, yet one of the most common themes in musical film is a rags-to-riches tale. Set within the entertainment industry, characters of humble origins realize their dreams of making it big. Sensationalizing the notion that anybody could be discovered and revealing the grotesque addiction to reaching celetoid status.
Brian DePalma and Richard O’Brien would deliver darker takes on show business within the musical film genre. Inspired by German expressionism and classical gothic horror, Phantom of The Paradise and Shock Treatment are satirical journeys through the shadowy side of striving to become famous. De Palma’s rock opera would lament the loss of self and exploitative hallmarks of celebrity isolation. While O’Brien’s musical would be ahead of its time, predicting round-the-clock access to the rich and elite. Both films would achieve cult status in varying degrees and ask their audiences what would they give to be adored on stage?
Phantom of the Paradise
In 1969, a young Brian De Palma had overheard a popular Beatles song turned into unbearable elevator muzak. Igniting an intense disgust within the director to hear art transformed by corporate America for a quick buck. Combined with his personal demons of pitching ideas to indifferent studio suits, De Palma created Phantom of The Paradise. A Faustian musical, taking notes from Leroux’s The Phantom of The Operaand Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Grey.
The film begins with a grim introduction by Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone. Preparing the audience to meet the mysterious and Spector-esque record tycoon, Swan. Surrounded by 2-way mirrors and bodyguards, the genius producer seeks a unique sound to open his new music venue, The Paradise.
While hundreds of acts vie for his attention, Swan takes notice of the passionate and naive composer, Winslow Leach. Having written a cantata based on the German legend of Faust, Swan steals Winslow’s music and disposes of him. Brutalized and mangled in a record press accident, he is reborn as a masked Phantom. Terrorizing performers as they rehearse bastardized versions of his songs for opening night.
But Swan casts an irresistible lure, promising the cantata will be performed by the perfect songstress, Phoenix. Winslow is compelled to bind himself through infernal contracts signed in blood, when tempted with his heart’s last desire.
With Swan shrouded in surveillance and secrets, the cameras keep rolling. Tapes pile up in his vault, having recorded the darkest moments of Winslow and Phoenix. The Paradise’s mirrored walls shine distortions of dreams turned into obsession. Splitting from their innocence and integrity, leaving only empty reflections of fame. Winslow, now as the Phantom, rewrites his cantata as a confessional acceptance of his metamorphosis. Acknowledging his new founded villainy and the internal battle of angels and demons. Torn between the success of his masterpiece and saving the soul of Phoenix from Swan and the horrors of celebrity.
After a few unproduced ideas for a sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Richard O’Brien would release Shock Treatment in 1981. Considered an “equal” to the cult film without referencing the events of its campy predecessor. It features music adapted from previous scripts and shared themes withDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Poe’s short story William Wilson.
Brad and Janet Majors reside in the domestic doldrums of their hometown Denton, Texas. Now transformed into a Stepford suburbia of mindless entertainment addicts, the town is taken over by DTV. A television studio owned by fast-food tycoon, Farley Flavors. The Majors become guests on “Marriage Maze”, a game show that is quick to publicly humiliate them. To save their relationship, Brad is committed to “Denton Vale” for treatment. A psychiatric hospital that is also a reality show/soap opera.
But perceptions are warped through multiple camera angles and walls of television screens. The neuro-specialists are actually character actors and counseling is a series of commercials. Farley Flavors and DTV slowly seduce Janet with stardom. Brainwashed by pharmaceuticals and her own ego, she becomes a self-obsessed monster. Along for the ride is the entire town of Denton. Lost within its role of audience participation and Farley’s plot of take-out therapy and world domination.
Circling the series of events befalling The Majors is Betty Hapschatt and Judge Oliver Wright, hosts of “Denton Dossier”. An investigative show that gets canceled just as Janet’s star rises. Oliver and Betty suspect a conspiracy is taking place as others vanish within their on-air personalities. Fearing for Brad and Janet’s sanity they decide to intervene as fame and “mental hygiene” spreads like a virus through Denton.
There is a rigid dichotomy between the mysticism of Phantom of The Paradise and the science of Shock Treatment. Yet both offer villains with good publicity that hook us with a litany of false pretenses. The only real power they have over us is what we give them when tempted with our dreams coming true. Both musicals expose the power of desire and how weak human morality can actually be. The soundtracks to DePalma’s and O’Brien’s musicals become allegorical representations of abandoning humanity for excess and fame. The track listing offers ballads of sacrifice and catchy commercial jingles foreshadowing the dirges to come.
What stands out most is the eerie prediction of reality television in all of its extremes. In the climactic scene of Phantom, Swan plans to marry Phoenix and assassinate her on live television. While in Shock Treatment, Farley Flavors is content to package and sell a fad fixation on mental health by exploiting the private lives of the audience to push products and ratings.
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, both films make use of mirrors and themes of character-splitting that beg the audience to look at themselves. Reflect on our indifference to commodifying the human experience and the rate at which we consume celebrity culture. To recognize our own faces in the screaming crowds at The Paradise or among the spectators of DTV Studios and consider the normalcy of unreality in the name of entertainment.
80’s horror writer, Andrew Neiderman, published his novel Pin in 1981. Described as a waspy gothic drama with incestuous undertones, the dark themes resonated with fans of fellow horror novelist, V.C. Andrews. Following her passing in 1986, Neiderman was the natural choice to become her ghost writer. The novel Pin was passed to a Canadian doctor suddenly turned horror director, Sandor Stern. Stern found Neiderman’s characters to be tragically alluring. Especially the story’s focal point, a medical office’s anatomical dummy. With the author consulting the good doctor, Stern would adapt the book for the big screen and direct Pin for New World Pictures.
A Plastic Nightmare
Brother and sister, Leon and Ursula, grow up in a life of luxury and emotional repression. Mother hovers over her children with a vacuum and dustpan. Strict and sterile, furniture covered in plastic and crisp white clothes. The wealthy Dr. Linden is their father, cold and buried in his work. In his private practice, he keeps a life-sized anatomical model. A visible man named “Pinocchio” or Pin for short. Using ventriloquism, Dr. Linden converses with Pin to entertain younger patients and educate his children. Leon and Ursula learn the facts of life as explained by Pin, with warmth and affection. The emotional qualities that Dr. Linden denies his own son and daughter. Pin becomes a parental surrogate, always thoughtful and knowing just the right thing to say. Offering gentle words of advice to comfort the friendless siblings. Ursula discovers Dr. Linden’s illusion early on, but her brother believes Pin is truly alive. Leon even begins sneaking into his father’s office to beg Pin for conversation. But the endearing fantasy becomes awkward and unnatural with age. Awakening a sinister gaze from the medical dummy’s plastic eyes. Pin suddenly seems to be everywhere and answering Leon’s requests for advice, even when Dr. Linden isn’t around. Meddling in relationships and putting ideas in Leon’s head. Unlike Pinocchio, Pin’s nose never grows because he never tells a lie. Everything he does is in the best interest of the Linden siblings. He is a member of the family, after all.
David Hewlett plays the often-guileless Leon as an adult. Hewlett is recognizable from other sci-fi thrillers like Splice, Cube, and Scanners II: The New Order. Cynthia Preston is the beautiful Ursula. Having previously starred in the 1999 television series Total Recall 2070 as Olivia Hume. Dr. Linden is played by Terry O’Quinn. Favorited to horror fans as the sinister Jerry Blake in The Stepfather and Stepfather II: Make Room For Daddy. Character actor, Jonathan Banks, lends his voice to Pin. Going from the gruff figure he’s best known as in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, to the calm and inanimate titular villain. Writer and director of the movie Pin, Sandor Stern, is best known as writer of the original screenplay for 1979’s The Amityville Horror. He had even adapted Duplicates, another Neiderman novel, as a made for tv sci-fi thriller.
By the time the movie Pin had finished shooting and editing, New World had dissolved their feature films division. The Roger Corman company had intended to release it as one of their last films but decided against it, last minute. Sandor Stern had to travel to San Francisco for a delayed post-production, where the first screening flopped at Century City. Not wanting to put any more money into it, New World released Pin direct-to-video in January of 1989.
As with all good films with rotten luck in distribution, the movie Pin slowly gained a cult following. In December of 1991, a print had found its way to the Manhattan Film Forum for a two-week run. Receiving excellent reviews, Pin was picked up for another two-week run in a San Francisco art house theater. Critics raved that Pin was severely overlooked when it comes to split personality horror films. Sharing the familial repression of Hitchcock’s Psycho and slasher thrills in 1978’s Magic. Themes of grief and identity loss can also be seen in the ventriloquist drama, The Great Gabbo.
“I have never lied to you or for you.”
In early 2011, Bloody Disgusting confirmed that Sandor Stern would be returning to direct a remake of the movie Pin. Andrew Neiderman had retained the original rights and together they set to rewrite a script closer to the novel. Updated and with more horror elements but no interest in a re-do manifested. Writer, Jack Reher, reached out to Neiderman and Stern begging to pen the first draft. Reher was a long-time fan of the movie and novel, claiming a re-imagining was his passion. Unfortunately for him, Stern and Neiderman hated it and told Reher to forget the whole thing. A few years later, producers were contacting the men about wanting to do this movie. Discovering that Jack Reher had been fanning a script around on social media without permissions or rights. In an interview with Flickering Myth, Reher assured fans that the remake would elevate the movie with Nicholas Bogner scheduled to direct. After a few cease-and-desist letters, Reher gave up on the remake and seems to have reinvented himself a few times since then.
Though largely overlooked as another early 90’s video slasher, the movie Pin remains a favorite. Highly regarded as a psychological horror gem, genuinely disturbing and twisted. The audience will find themselves sympathizing with every tortured character throughout their lives. Each scene is a puzzle piece that makes up a larger motion picture that will stick with you.
Shivering with sweat in a dark room, a man kneels on bare floorboards. Illuminated by candles, he works feverishly to solve the puzzle box in his hands. An ornate construction, made up of sliding panels and mysterious chambers. The air flexes with a distant tolling bell as polished pieces click into place. Out of it, a banal melody plays on a hidden mechanism. The din is reduced to a naked scream as the gates of hell open.
What is your pleasure, sir?
Clive Barker’s horror novella, The Hellbound Heart was first published in 1986. Dissatisfied with other film adaptations of his work, Barker made his directorial debut with Hellraiser in 1987. An almost verbatim adaptation of the novella. The film was the beginning of a multimedia franchise expanding on The Hellbound Heart. With each sequel peeling away more layers of Barker’s dark dreamscape. The doors of which are opened by a 3-inch cube called the “Lament Configuration”.
The box was originally called “the Lemarchand Configuration” in Barker’s novella. Known to most humans as only a rumor on the lips of a derelict. Several boxes were thought to exist but few were willing to track one down. Described as charts of the interface between the real and realer still. A box would break the surface of the trivial delights of human condition. The novella mentions one being locked away in the vaults of The Vatican. Another said to have been used by the Marquis De Sade while imprisoned in the Bastille.
All boxes were said to be created by a French craftsman, Philip LeMarchand. Previously famed for creating mechanical birds, he constructed a tool in the form of a toybox. A puzzle that to solve would mean to travel across the schism. LeMarchand’s background would develop later in Epic’s Hellraiser comic series that ran from 1989-1993 with the support of Barker. In them, LeMarchand was described as a mass murderer using human fat and bone in the construction of his boxes. The film Hellraiser IV: Bloodline would portray LeMarchand as an ingenious toymaker hired by an aristocratic occultist. The crafting of lament configuration would curse LeMarchand’s bloodline.
The existence of multiple boxes seems to have found its inspiration by way of the occult world. Some suggest it is reminiscent of the 13 Crystal Skulls mythology. Or more seriously, The Key of Solomon, a Renaissance grimoire of seals that command spirits. Barker once explained wanting access to hell in the book and movie. “Explored by something rather different than drawing a circle on the floor with magical symbols around it.” The idea of a puzzle came from childhood memories of his grandfather. A ship’s cook, having returned from a trip to the Far East with souvenirs. After one particular trip, Barker was given a carved wooden puzzle box.
In The Hellbound Heart, the Lemarchand Configuration was described as smooth, black lacquered faces with hidden pressure points. A surface reflecting faces of souls caught up in the obsession. Inside were the mirrored innards of fluted slots and oiled pegs. The cinematic version of the Lament Configuration was made of polished wood and brass. Special effects designer, Simon Sayce had studied ancient writings and symbolism from North Africa to China. He notes the inlaid characters of box’s brass work were inspired by surgical tools from an exhibit at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Later to be seen in the film as the disembodied torture devices summoned by the box.
The instructions to solving the Lament Configuration were part pragmatic and part metaphysical. The puzzle requires a cunning mind and nimble fingers. But to truly open it requires a dark desire for knowing. Desperate individuals seeking pleasure beyond mortal understanding. “You have to become aware of the Lament Configurations”, claims Doug Bradley. Longtime friend of Barker and actor that portrayed lead cenobite, Pinhead. “And then you have to find one, and then solve the puzzle. It’s not just the physical act of opening the box. It’s the motivation behind it.”
Barker’s Configuration has lent its inspiration to the modern urban legend/Creepypasta called The Devil’s Toybox. Part of a Halloween roadside attraction in rural Louisiana. It is described as a single room shack with 6 inward facing mirrors. The attraction’s challenge is to step inside for as long as possible without losing your mind. Another inspired object of the same name is used by paranormal investigators. These Devil’s Toy Boxes are much smaller mirrored contraptions. Popularized by Joshua P. Warren on Coast to Coast AM, it is believed to create an endless loop of energy. Some claim it attracts spirits and demons. Others utilize it to trap and remove negative entities.
The puzzle box remains an iconic artifact. Possessing an intricate mythology splashed across the pages of books, comics, and the big screen. Inspiring artwork, jewelry, toys, and a wide variety of other replicas. Many online merchants peddle puzzles that might offer access to paradise instead of hell. What kind of doors can you unlock with your own Lament Configuration? What is your pleasure?
The roots of lucha libre are believed to have begun during the Second Franco-Mexican war. A free-style form of Grego-Roman wrestling was developed and became regionally popular in the 1900s. The Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre was founded in 1933, giving the sport a national foothold and is the oldest professional wrestling promotion in existence. The beloved sporting event became a national obsession in the 1950s following regular television broadcasts. Inspiring devoted followings and subcultures that immortalized wrestlers in comic books and cinema. These luchador movies would transform the high-flying athletes into crime fighting folk heroes. Ripening lucha libre into an undisputed part of Mexico’s cultural heritage.
Behind The Mask
The most well-known luchador star of the ring and the screen is El Santo. Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta’s professional wrestling career would span 5 decades, using the name “El Santo” for the first time in 1942. Initially reluctant to appear on film, Huerta would relent in 1958 to great commercial success. Starring in 52 films, Santo would become a Mexican symbol of justice.
Legendary wrestling rival of Santo is Alejandro Muñoz Moreno. Professionally known as The Blue Demon since 1948, Moreno began his career in the ring as a heel. In 1952, Santo defeated and unmasked his tag team partner, prompting Blue Demon to become a good guy. Producer of luchador movies, Enrique Vergara, sought to bring another wrestler into pictures. After discovering Moreno, Blue Demon would go on to star in 25 action and fantasy films. Of those, Santo would co-star in nine of them.
In 1966, Vergara would then discover Aarón Rodríguez Arellano, an international heavyweight luchador. Arellano was offered the role of Mil Mascaras, the first character created specifically for the movies. Mil Mascaras would star in 20 luchador movies, in which he’d make several costume changeups as the man of a million masks.
Not to be outdone by the dudes in the ring, Las Luchadoras were a rotating troop of wrestling ladies. Appearing in 6 films, the gals would face off with Satanists, mad scientists, and sometimes each other in the ring. Perhaps the most recognizable actress of the Las Luchadoras films is Lorena Velázquez. Iconic femme fatale of Mexican cinema, her roles in luchador movies evolved from side parts in Santo flicks to leading villainesses. Velázquez would also appear as Gloria/Loreta Venus in 3 different wrestling films.
Mexico’s horror genre got its proper start in the 30s with the films of Juan Bustillo. But it wasn’t until 1953 that it would outshine the dramas and westerns in most of the country’s movie houses. The success of Chano Urueta’s El Monstruo Resucitado had audiences begging for more. Officially ringing in the golden age of Mexican cinema. The movies would echo the iconography of Universal and Hammer horror. Gothically stylized scenes with expressionist cinematography, injecting local lore like The Aztec Mummy and La Llorona.
With television of the ‘50s dominated by the popularity of lucha libre, big screen adaptations were a natural transition. The flashy pageantry of costumed heroes in action would blend perfectly with fantasy story lines. Hardboiled detective plots and crime rings of luchador movies began to take on more supernatural and science fiction elements. Proving to be enormously popular, they remained a staple of Mexico’s commercial cinema until the mid-1970s.
American producer, K Gordon Murray, launched Mexican horror to a wider audience through his distribution of foreign films. The exploitation maven would rewrite and overdub his movies for English-speaking audiences at Soundlab Inc. While his catalog contained many adult and children’s films, over half of the titles were horror from Mexico. Murray was particularly fond of luchador movies and contributed to the success of 2 of the most popular, Santo VS The Vampire Women and The Wrestling Women VS The Aztec Mummy.
Films of Note
There is no shortage of mad scientists and reanimated corpses in luchador movies. Santo Vs. Los Zombies (1962) is considered the first real Santo movie where he is established as a crime fighter. A crazed doctor reanimates dead murderers and thieves to do his bidding. Only Santo can stop these minions from robbing jewelry stores and setting fires to orphanages.
Las Luchadoras Vs. El Médico Asesino (1963) offers up an evil surgeon experimenting with brain transplants and needing more specimens. Kidnapping women and creating a mindless lady wrestler that Gloria Venus and Golden Rubi must defeat in the ring. Director, Rene Cardona, would reimagine his own film twice in 1969. Las Luchadoras Vs. El Robot Asesino would have an identical plot and borrow aesthetic from the British television series, The Avengers. Again, the same year would follow the surreal Night of The Bloody Apes. A similar movie with a devil-themed luchadora and featuring footage of open-heart surgery.
Alien invasion was a common trope among luchador sci-fi films. The campiest of which was Santo Vs. La Invasion De Los Marcianos (1967). All of Mexico’s TV transmissions are interrupted by 3-eyed aliens in gold lamé costumes. Sick of humans’ nuclear weapons, they demand peace and brotherhood through fear and destruction. Blue Demon would get a few alien invasion films of his own. In true B-movie style, Aranas Infernales (1968) brings spiders from space, seeking brains to feed their dying queen. Naturally, mankind’s fate is settled in the ring, complete with a were-spider transformation and hand puppets.
While several luchador movies would feature Count Dracula going toe to toe with masked fighters, the vampire woman trope proved much more successful in the genre. Santo Vs. Las Mujeres Vampiro (1962) give the audience a clan of vampire women seeking a successor for Queen Zorina. But the clan needs human blood for a proper glow up and decided to avenge an ancestor while they’re at it. Mil Mascaras’ lady vampire movie, Las Vampiras (1969), finds him running afoul of a clan following a plane crash. As bodies pile up, he must defeat the vampire women as they fight amongst themselves with interpretive dance and dueling fire poi.
Mummies and werewolves were incredibly popular in luchador movies, showing off their direct inspiration from Universal horror films. Along with the monster mashups that double billed multiple heroes like Santo y Blue Demon Vs. Dracula y El Hombre Lobo (1973). While the films that pitted masked men against different descendants of Dr. Frankenstein are representations of Hammer Film influence. Such as Santo Vs. La Hija De Frankenstein (1972) and Santo y Blue Demon Vs. Dr. Frankenstein (1974). Lastly, the homage to gothic horror is best represented in La Sombra Del Murcielago (1968). A luchador version of Phantom Of The Opera where a disfigured wrestler kidnaps a beautiful singer and Blue Demon must come to the rescue.
From The Ring To The Screen
Though low-budget and mass-produced, luchador movies falling into the horror genre have maintained their popularity into modern times. For lovers of exploitation, these films continue on as throwbacks or updated gritty formats. Mil Mascaras concluded a film trilogy in 2015 with Aztec Revenge. 2006’s Wrestlemaniac honors its raunchy roots with Rey Misterio Sr. as an insane luchador slasher.
Just as lucha libre is the direct inspiration for the flair and showmanship of WWE, luchador movies have influenced today’s athletes. Duane Johnson and Dave Bautista are now A-listers and casting pro-wrestlers in horror films is more commonplace than ever. Horror and professional wrestling entertain through anxiety and suspense. The union of both within cinema is a sensational delight with a rich heritage.
As a card-carrying surrealist with an introverted philosophy, Jan Švankmajer is one of the most influential and obscure multimedia animators of Central Europe. The Czech director’s techniques in puppetry and stop-motion animation tap into the souls of everyday objects, characterized with deadpan tones. The unforgettable absurdity of his films and spiritual references, disgust and delight fans of the avant-garde and horror alike.
The Surreal Life
Jan Švankmajer was born in Prague in 1934, describing himself as an introverted child. Enthralled by traditional European puppetry, he spent most of his time creating worlds within his imagination and giving life to unconventional objects. Often recalling his love for a Punch & Judy booth he received as a Christmas gift. In the ‘50s he pursued his interests in theater, studying at the School of Applied Arts in Prague and enrolling in the Academy of the Performing Arts’ puppetry department. But it would be the multimedia theater, Laterna Magika, that would introduce Švankmajer to film. While not particularly known for creating horror, Jan Švankmajer’s uncomfortable aesthetic and understanding of surrealism as psychology invokes a horror from within. Utilizing diverse techniques that allow the audience a peak through the lens of grotesque divinity. His body of work favors gothic literature and Slavic mythology. Reimagining multiple works of Edgar Allen Poe in more contemporary settings, he offers a unique take on surrealist horror that will haunt his audience for years.
Fall of The House of Usher
In 1980, Jan Švankmajer released a short film based on Poe’s Fall of The House of Usher. Staying faithful to the original story, he replaced the characters with a system of objects in an exploration of tactile stimulus. Claiming that the sensation of touch is often utilized in Poe’s psychological studies of characters. Švankmajer’s result was shot in black and white without actors, focusing on longing pans across patterned surfaces and stop motion animation. With a foreboding film score that’s reminiscent of American b-films, a free roaming coffin crawls through a thorny briar and sentient furniture sinks itself in a swamp. Transforming the classic tale of grief into a very pure definition of surrealist horror.
The Pendulum, The Pit, and Hope
Švankmajer’s 1983 surrealist horror short borrowed from Poe’s The Pit & The Pendulum and Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s story, A Torture by Hope. Filmed from a grainy monochrome POV, our protagonist is captured by unknown enemies. A hooded figure leads the audience through claustrophobic catacombs to a mechanical torture chamber. With whimsical renderings of hell painted across the scenery, it vaguely gives the impression of a carnival funhouse ride. Bags of grain act as counterweights to the swinging pendulum as our prisoner struggles against his restraints. Resisting the slow domination of machines, he dances back and forth with little sparks of freedom. Brief rays of hope taunting the audience beyond the faint shadow of exhaustion.
Updating Goethe’s version of the German legend of Faust, Švankmajer simultaneously honors Franz Kafka with 1994’s feature length film of the same name. Set in a mundane metropolis, the film deviates from the erudite title character by portraying him as a depressed drudge stuck in a looping rat race. Ignoring subtle harbingers at first, he is lured into an otherworldly puppet theater where he finds himself in the dressing room, holding a script. In a very meta scene, he defines himself as “Faust”, by reading lines out loud. Jaques’ famous line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It is made gospel with an opening cue and Faust takes the stage. Approached by life sized wooden marionettes of an angel and devil, Faust is goaded at the cross roads. Will he pursue a path of righteousness or devote himself to the dark arts? Worldly pleasure and unlimited knowledge prove too tempting to refuse, and so Faust strikes the infernal bargain. Staged in a dilapidated guignol, the jerky motions of human puppets are unsettling for anyone that grew up watching the Puppetmaster films. When the cue light blinks red to alert Faust that the Devil has come to collect his due, he finds himself just another marionette hung on the wall. Controlled by the hands of fate, the quest for power always comes with strings attached.
2005’s Lunacy is Švankmajer’s surrealist horror comedy, thematically focused on Edgar Allen Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” and “The Premature Burial“. This feature length movie parallels The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as well as utilizing historical elements of the life of Marquis de Sade. Since his mother’s passing in a mental institution, Jean regularly has nightmares of being dragged off by hospital orderlies. Struggling with his loss, he encounters a strange fellow while making funeral arrangements. The man claims he is the Marquis de Sade and had also recently lost his mother. Forging an acquaintanceship, he suggests Jean voluntarily commit himself to help ease his grief and nightmares. Desperate for penance, Jean agrees and admits himself to an asylum managed by a friend of the Marquis. As a patient he is subjected to extreme methods of treatment ranging from indulging in decadent pleasures and vice to vicious corporeal punishment and acts of violence. All part of Dr. Murlloppe’s vision of freedom by balancing mind and body. There is a great deal of misdirection with the introduction of each character and blurred lines of who are the patients and who are the doctors. Some aspects of Švankmajer’s Lunacy feel like a melancholy drama as seen through the eyes of Clive Barker, while other scenes echo the loneliness within Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre.
The Ossuary and Other Controversies
Jan Švankmajer’s films were heavily restricted for over 2 decades, as his disturbing imagery and gritty aesthetic were considered politically undesirable. Although his work was never officially banned in his country, the distribution was suppressed after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The regime installed in the fall of 1969 was infamous for its cultural repression. Filmmakers, particularly those of the “Czech New Wave,” were among the most severely persecuted. In 1970, Švankmajer was commissioned to document The Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora. Shot in black and white, the result was a 10-minute-long feature entitled, Kostnice (The Ossuary). Loosely described as a real-life “horror documentary”, the Sedlec Ossuary’s creation came from a mass grave of nearly 70,000 casualties of the 14th century’s Black Plague and 15th century’s Hussite Wars. Kostnice features long textured shots of tomb stones and intricate repurposing of human remains. Overdubbed with an actual tour-guide’s exhibit monologue as she addresses a group of children with flat frankness and warped humor. Svankmajer did not shy away from themes of exploitation and tourism, which was considered an unacceptable subversion by the Czech Communist authorities. The film maker was forced to replace the soundtrack with a jazz arrangement of the poem “How to Draw the Portrait of a Bird” by Jacques Prévert. A scathing critique of his short film, Leonardo’s Diary, arose in 1974 after its debut at the Cannes Film Festival. A Czech film critic negatively regarded it as “a strange piece of fantasy without socialist content”. Švankmajer would again receive scrutiny for a spoof documentary titled Castle of Otranto. It featured a demented archaeologist interviewed by an actual well-known newscaster. The censors did not want Švankmajer to mix fact and fiction for fear of distorting the public’s view of news media. He was asked to instead cast comedians to which he refused.
Often, Jan Švankmajer has turned to Slavic folktales and the terrors of childhood for inspiration. Once suggesting that children stand outside of good and evil and seek the meaning of mortality within dark fantasy. His surrealist horror movies made for children, while mild to the average fan of the genre, tend to be the most disturbing in his catalog. The innocent perspective of a child breathes life into the mundane and sets the stage for the cruelest lessons in life.
Švankmajer’s most well-known film is his reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Released in 1988 and simply titled Alice, the film is a mesh of live action, stop motion, and puppetry. Actress Kristyna Kohoutova plays the title role and asks the audience to close their eyes at the beginning of the movie. Only by blinding their adult selves can the viewer really begin to truly see. Alone and bored in her bedroom, Alice witnesses a taxidermied rabbit on her shelf come to life. Breaking free from its display, the rabbit adorns itself in elegant clothes before disappearing into a desk drawer. Alice follows through a labyrinth of furniture and cupboards, filled with endless bones and bobbles. Before the notion of The Backrooms was ever acknowledged, Švankmajer’s Alice created a whole series of the sub-levels to out-creep any pasta. Enter the bottomless sewing bag of your great auntie! While remaining true to Carroll’s original story, the juxtaposing fears of a child are closely explored. In some undulating dream states, Alice becomes an animated porcelain doll. Helpless and ignored by the rest of the world while at other times creatures of bones and glass eyes seize her liminal form. Between doll and flesh, child and adult, Alice is lost in this menagerie all contained within a singular house. The film Alice is somewhat of a spiritual successor to Švankmajer’s 1971 film, Jabberwocky. Loosely based on Carroll’s poem and a children’s book by Vítězslav Nezval. While less brooding than Alice, it contains many of the same visual elements of rotting fruit, doll cannibalism, and sentient origami.
2001’s Little Otik (also known as Greedy Guts) is Švankmajer’s most purposeful surrealist horror film that drips with dark humor. Based on the Czech fairy tale Otesánek, it bears a resemblance to Pinocchio and Little Red Riding Hood. Containing an ambiguous moral which leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Karel and Bozena are a miserable couple, unable to conceive a child of their own. While on vacation, Karel digs up a stump from the yard that somewhat resembles a baby. Initially meant as a joke, he presents it to his wife in an attempt to cheer her up. Bozena is instantly smitten with the log and swaddles it in her arms as if it were a real infant. Upon naming it Otik, the lump of wood comes alive. Suddenly she’s devising a plan to fake her pregnancy for when they return to their apartment in the city. Karel is horrified as Otik cries out in hunger, a thrashing mass of roots and branches screaming for food under the bare cabin bulb. Begging his wife to end the madness and chop it to pieces, the couple violently wrestle with an axe as Otik shrieks for sustenance. These fevered scenes of stop motion and minimal light mirror Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. One wonders if Švankmajer imagined what kind of child Cheryl would have conceived after her encounter with the deadite trees. Bozena’s motherly instincts triumph and the couple take their Golem-like child home. Struggling to keep the stump fed, Otik’s maw is a ghastly knot in the center of its would-be face. A swirling death portal of teeth and tongue. Its insatiable appetite nearly scalps Bozena and soon the family cat goes missing. Growing in size with each culinary sacrifice, roots reach out for another meal. Once the mailman goes missing, Otik is locked in the basement and discovered by a suspicious little girl next door. She understands exactly what Otik is and vows to feed him.
Walking away from the heavier tones of Švankmajer’s work, Manly Games is less surrealist horror as it is a violent comedy. A short film with the simple premise of a sports fan watching television. A former soccer player and devoted fanatic returns to his flat with a case of beer and snacks to watch his game. The athletic event itself is an animation style popularized by Terry Gilliam’s work on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. With upbeat elevator muzak, each athlete is brutally disfigured by everyday mundane objects like scissors, plungers, meat grinders and toy trains. Their collapsed skulls of clay are nailed shut in a coffin, only to return to the soccer field and resume the game. The crowd cheers wildly for each bloodless death. After an intermission of a basket of kittens (yes really), the game ball is kicked into the sports fan’s apartment. Manly Games is hilariously absurd, remarking on desensitization toward bloodsports in all their violent glory.
Jan Švankmajer retired in 2018 following the release of his film Insect. His unique aesthetic of cultural and spiritual allusion has influenced multiple generations of artists like Terry Gilliam, Guillermo Del Toro, and the Brothers Quay. The childlike simplicity of some of his short films feel strangely familiar, anchored in the shared subconscious language of memory. Faintly echoing Sesame Street’s psychedelic animations of the 70s and 80s. In his closeted world, Švankmajer almost seems to obsess over the horrors of childhood and disassociate with themes of food and death. When questioned about these fixations, Jan admitted he had not yet fully closed the door to his childhood and continues to have dialogs with that chapter of his life.
“If there were no such obsessions, that we have been dragging behind us from our childhood, then what would we create from?”
Medical quackery, mad doctors, and unorthodox lab experiments are the stuff science fiction nightmares are made of. The medical horror trope is rich with enough sub-genres to petrify patients for decades. With an endless supply of entries, this article gives a routine examination to notable healthcare horror films. Side effects may include chills, paranoia, and trouble sleeping. Currently, there is no known cure.
Human Guinea Pigs
Healthy bodies and unhealthy bank accounts often find themselves on the doorstep of pharmacology. Fortune favors the brave when renting out physical autonomy for experimental drugs. Yet the transparency of chemical messiahs should always be considered when the hazards of medicine are in play. The Biotrial Rennes clinical of 2016 resulted in 1 death and 5 injured. The 2006 UK med trial for TGN1412 caused organ failure in 6 men. The latter incident would inspire Ian Clark’s healthcare horror film The Facility. Seven volunteers enroll in a 2-week research project at a remote medical lab. Injected with a new drug called Pro-9, some of the first side effects to manifest are disconcerting, to say the least. The tension is ratcheted up by nightfall when the facility locks down. Most of the horror happens offscreen in this claustrophobic siege as test subjects fight to survive. This film could easily register as a prequel to 28 Days Later. Released the same year with a bigger budget is the Canadian-American horror film Bloodworx. College friends decide to earn side money for a spring break trip by signing up for pharmaceutical testing. RXZ-19 is a new allergy drug with regenerative side effects that are dangerously addictive. The lead researcher quickly loses control of her subjects. Primitive instincts are reactivated and the patients turn on staff and each other. But not all human lab rats get the choice to participate. Sometimes it’s mandatory in detention centers. In Patients of a Saint, also known as Inmate Zero, St. Leonard’s Island is a repurposed prison for the world’s most violent criminals. Extreme medical trials are conducted on prisoners and the experiment quickly goes wrong. Guards and inmates must unite to survive as the infection spreads in the penitentiary. Will zombie island stay on lock down?
The Doctor is In…sane
Medical professionals have always been a goldmine for the horror genre. Bringing us the world-renowned vivisectionist, Dr. Moreau, and the kinky side of Dr. Henry Jekyll. These psycho practitioners have some of the most intimate access to us. Oblivious patients willingly put their lives in rubber gloved hands. In The Surgeon, little Julian is a witness to his younger brother’s murder at the hands of a doctor. Traumatizing him into a career of mad science, he utilizes terminal patients for experiments until he’s reported by colleagues. Returning to the hospital that condemned his work, he takes revenge by harvesting the humors of the staff. Anyone that has gone to urgent care would agree that the mean girls from high school grow up to be nurses. Yet nobody considers these career paths being revenge driven. Lisa Zane stars in The Nurse, a cold-blooded home caregiver that slithers into a paralytic patient’s family. Holding him responsible for her father’s death, she slowly destroys his world from within. With all the high contrast grime of a 90’s slasher, Larry Drake is Dr. Giggles. An escaped mental patient is about to make a house call to the town that destroyed his family practice. Fixating on a teenage girl with a heart condition, he slashes through her friends as they begin their summer vacation. A healthcare horror comedy that can be downright slapstick at times, Drake steals the show as the demented doc. Delivering Freddy Kreuger-esque one-liners with a straight face, Dr. Giggles is tragically under-rated. When the Mid-Aughts’ grindhouse revival finally got its hands on nurse pulp fiction, it had to be 3D. Nurse 3D is referred to as the film that ruined Paz De la Huerta’s career. This healthcare horror casts her as Abby, nurse by day and serial killer by night. Seducing and butchering unfaithful husbands before deciding to mentor a recent nursing school graduate. A trashy throwback to 90’s erotic thrillers but with all the sleaze and splatter of a drive-in b-film.
I’m Afraid It’s Terminal
The patient is a role of vulnerability we all step into at some point. The anxiety from exposure and dismissal is the most common form of everyday healthcare horror. Medical gaslighting can separate us from the narrative, leading to distrust of the body and doubting perceptions. The Power puts these institutional ‘pecking-orders’ on full display. Set during the politically complicated UK power outages of the 70s, running parallel is a young nurse working her first night at the East London Royal Infirmary. A paranormal revenge tale taking notes from The Exorcist, Nurse Valery is haunted by hospital secrets as well as her own. Particularly vexatious with themes of abusing power and voices silenced by any means necessary. In the 80s slasher, X-Ray, a divorced mother is given the run around with her new insurance. Attempting to collect physical exam results from a hospital with a bad reputation on Valentine’s weekend. Susan is led through a medical labyrinth of humiliation, bouncing from doctor to doctor. No one ever bothers to tell Susan what’s wrong with her, nor do they listen to her cries for help as she’s strapped to a gurney and prepared for emergency surgery. Little does she know her records are being tampered with by a psychopath in scrubs! The psychological thriller, Visiting Hours, focuses more on developing the dark profile of the antagonist, yet speaks volumes on inherent misogyny in medicine. Following being attacked in her apartment, an outspoken reporter finds herself in the hospital. Barely allowed any rest by detectives and well-wishers, she receives a visitor that seeks to finish what he started. Knowing she’s in danger, her pleas are regarded as symptoms of stress as nurses and patients start dropping like flies.
Secret Society Sanitariums
From the Asclepius cults of ancient Greece to the Knights Hospitallers, occult elements of healing remain integrated in modern-day hospitals. These sanctuaries for the sick and injured are the ultimate liminal space on earth. Between birth and death, hospitals become imprinted with the intensity of human emotion. It’s no wonder there seems to be an endless supply of haunted hospitals across the world. But with faith comes followers, and sometimes they’re dogmatic edge lords. Secret societies and cults hiding within the medical profession gives us some of the best healthcare horror. Larry Cohen’s The Ambulance is a comedy thriller emulating hardboiled detective film noir. An aspiring comic book artist meets the woman of his dreams in the streets of New York City, just before she collapses. Quickly whisked off by an outdated looking ambulance, the artist discovers she hasn’t been admitted to any nearby hospitals. Others have started disappearing in a similar looking ambulance and they all have diabetes. Is it a human trafficking ring or a mad science conspiracy? It’s Victor from The Young & The Restless and his laboratory hidden above a disco. Anatomie is a German horror film starring Franka Potente (of Run Lola Run fame) as a medical student. Awarded a highly coveted scholarship to the University of Heidelberg, she recognizes the cadaver in her anatomy class. Upon investigating his mysterious death, Potente uncovers an ancient secret society that performs experiments on ‘undesirables’. On top of everything else, her grandfather is a highly celebrated professor. The Canadian horror film, The Void, is set in a half burned out hospital running on a skeleton crew. When a chaotic bloodbath begins, the radios go out and the hospital becomes surrounded by robed figures armed with weapons. Someone has opened a gate in the hospital’s basement that leads to another dimension. All the hidden medical experiments begin to mingle with the Lovecraftian abominations crawling out of the portal.
Those repulsed by allopathic medical practices often explore their other options of healthcare horror. Opening themselves to esoteric healing and mysticism that was popular with the Universal Medicine cult and The Source Family. At the height of the neon fitness craze of the 80s, it’s no pain no gain at the Death Spa. Beefcake Michael owns and operates a high-tech health club with his brother-in-law. But when Michael’s new girlfriend becomes a member, his late wife rises from beyond to possess the gym equipment. About as schlocky as it gets with bumbling detectives and weight machines mangling juice heads. Featuring Ken Foree in a side part, better known to the genre from Dawn of The Dead and From Beyond. 2016’s A Cure For Wellness is based on Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel, The Magic Mountain. A financial services CEO vanishes to a Swiss “wellness center”, built upon an aquifer. Lockhart, an executive, is blackmailed by the board to retrieve him before a company merger. He discovers the eel infested institution has a dark history of incestuous bloodlines and medical experiments. Trapped among brainwashed patients, Lockhart realizes they’re all willing subjects for Dr. Volmer. Best described as a less lovable Dr. Phibes, operating from the Poolrooms. If you’ve ever believed the medical industry keeps people sick to financially drain them, this film will get to you. The British healthcare horror comedy, Horror Hospital, jumps right into treatments as 2 bandaged patients running through the woods are mowed down by a bladed Rolls Royce. When a young songwriter is kicked out of the band, he decides a holiday to Brittlehurst Manor might do him good. A pseudo “health farm” located in a gothic castle surrounded by an acid swamp. Michael Gough plays the head of the hospital, Dr. Storm, heavily stylized after Bela Lugosi. The faucets run with blood and dinner guests are prone to screaming fits. The film was an obvious favorite for Richard O’Brien. Hippies beware! Your health retreat might end with a lobotomy!
Over the course of the pandemic, it has become near impossible to trust the healthcare system. Devolving into a purgatory of bureaucracy and generating corporate profits, the amount of unnecessary evils makes it difficult to heal. While your chances of being a victim of mad science in this day and age are slim, they’re not exactly zero. Yet in the face of an emergency we have little options but to trust medical professionals with our lives. Stay vigilant and get well soon.
Graphical adventures were the rising star of gaming in the 1980s. A genre defined with interactive storylines driven by exploration and puzzles. Many offered players a text parser to input commands. This could become a vexing experience to get the precise arrangement of words to advance the game. Eventually the point-and-click interface was adapted as a standard for interactive fiction, beginning with an unlikely project published by LucasArts in 1987. Borrowing heavily from B-films and fantasy comics, Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick created the dark humored gaming experience, Maniac Mansion.
The Game History/Censorship
Gilbert and Winnick met in 1984 while working at LucasArts. Both fans of sci-fi schlock, they became fast friends over a shared love for horror films. After the completion of Koronus Rift, the pair toyed with the idea of a horror comedy game of their own. Originally mapping their ideas as a paper-and-pencil game, they set their plot in a haunted house and added popular horror tropes. The format of King’s Quest I would inspire the vehicle for Gilbert and Winnick’s brain project. An interactive adventure game with a point-and-click interface instead of fumbling with a parser. This was the birth of the SCUMM engine, an acronym for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion. This programming engine featured a verb/object design paradigm and was utilized for many other games. After 2 grueling years of development, Gilbert and Winnick’s Maniac Mansion game debuted at the 1987 Consumer Electronics Show. One of LucasArts’s first self-published games, it was initially released for the Commodore 64 and Apple II. An MS-DOS port followed in 1988, along with ports for Atari ST, Amiga, MAC, and NES in 1990.
“Don’t be a tuna head!”
During Maniac Mansion’s game development for Commodore 64, Lucasfilm had censored profanity in the dialog much to the irritation of Gilbert. Resulting in some ridiculous 80s lingo like “tuna head”. The game would later be pulled from shelves in Toys R Us, just a few months after release. All due to a letter from a single consumer about the word “lust” being printed on the game box. Shortly after being ported to NES, Nintendo of America expressed concern over suggestive content. Aiming for a younger audience, Nintendo requested LucasArts tone down what they deemed inappropriate content. Such as pixelated allusions to nudity and graphic dialog like the word “kill”. The most laughable censoring issue was the phrase “NES SCUMM created by” in the credits sequence. Not realizing it was the name of the development engine, Nintendo took it as a direct insult and requested it be removed. Funny enough the company somehow missed the ability to microwave a live hamster.
The Maniac Mansion game begins 20 years prior with a meteor crash-landing in the backyard of the titular building. Purple and sentient, the meteor enslaves the mind of homeowner, Dr. Fred Edison. On the anniversary of the incident in present time, our brainwashed doctor has kidnapped Sandy Pantz. A local teenage girl that Dr. Fred plans to suck the brains out of for an experiment. Sandy’s boyfriend, Dave Miller, rallies a handful of his friends from school in an attempt to infiltrate the Edison mansion and rescue her. Punks and nerds unite to put a stop to this mad science, encountering the rest of the Edison family along the way. Dr. Fred’s raunchy wife, Nurse Edna and their military obsessed son, Weird Ed. Also inhabiting the house are two sentient tentacles, a kind green tentacle and evil purple one. The Maniac Mansion game is unique in allowing the player to pick three of seven characters for the rescue mission. Each defined by their various skills, which allow for different solutions to many of the game’s puzzles. Syd is a new waver, Michael the school photographer, Jeff the surfer, Razor a punk singer, Wendy an aspiring writer, and Bernard the token geek. Players can only control a single character at a time and switch via the “New Kid” command. Most actions are carried out by selecting verbs on the screen and applying them to an object. If any one of the kids are captured by the Edisons, they are thrown into the dungeon and must be rescued by any character who still has their freedom.
“Oh good! More brain donors!”
The development team took a lot of inspiration from their favorite horror films to aid in the game’s creation. Winnick referenced the 1969 film, Horror House, describing it as “a ridiculous teen horror movie”, in which teenagers inside a building were killed one by one without any thought of leaving. Gilbert often expressed his fondness of the mad scientist trope, citing horror films of the 80s like The Fly and Reanimator. But the film Creepshow would really set the tone of the game’s premise, specifically the segment “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”. Starring Stephen King, it follows a farmer who encounters a fuzzy meteor. The rest of the Edison family was shaped after characters from EC Comics and Warren Publishing magazines which specialized in horror and science fiction from the 40s and 50s. Other sources have listed films like The Little Shop of Horrors, Night of The Comet, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street as inspiration for the Maniac Mansion game. The actual house was designed in detail to resemble the main building on Skywalker Ranch where LucasArts was located and George Lucas himself kept his office.
The Legacy Lives On
In 1993, LucasArts released the sequel Day of the Tentacle. Set 5 years after the events of the Maniac Mansion game, the purple tentacle becomes exposed to toxic waste. Driving him insane, he sets on a course for world domination. This prompts the green tentacle to reach out to Bernard from the original game. Bernard and his unique roommates must utilize a time machine to stop the purple tentacle from taking over the world. The game came with a fully playable copy of Maniac Mansion hidden as an Easter egg within the game. In 1990 a Maniac Mansion sitcom was created by Eugene Levy for the Family Channel. Loosely based on the game, Dr. Fred Edison was the only character to crossover as an “eccentric inventor”. The Edison family reside in a mansion in an upscale suburb and their lives revolve around Fred’s creations. All American mad science experiments conducted in a basement laboratory powered by a meteorite. The series lasted 3 seasons with 66 episodes.
LucasArts’ Maniac Mansion game wasn’t initially a commercial success, rather developing a slow and loyal cult following. Calling forth an audience that was deeply entwined with horror fandom to embrace gaming culture. Along the way it accidentally ended up revolutionizing the adventure game genre while solidifying LucasArts as a quality developer. With several different endings, multiple solutions to puzzles, and purposely linked up no-win situations, Maniac Mansion cultivates a high replay factor for gamers and horror fans alike.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, the role of vehicles became highly important. Serving as a symbol of freedom, one can simply get behind the wheel and control your destiny by roaming the open highways, Joining the ranks of celebrated wanderers like Jack Kerouac. However, these liminal byways and ley lines that connect us to the rest of the world are also capable of leading danger directly to us. One wrong turn can guide a driver directly to their own doom. It comes as no surprise that so many filmmakers hit the pavement for inspiration when it comes to their horror movies. Personally, I have developed a healthy fear of vehicles being raised by a long line of mechanics. So buckle up, as we assess a variety of horror tropes associated with car culture.
Picking Up Strangers
Hitchhiking, whether by circumstance or lifestyle, is a classic trope in horror. Life on the road is dangerous. The vulnerability of needing a lift to civilization and the gamble of peril we place ourselves in when someone stops. Or a good Samaritan pulls over to help a stranded commuter with the best of intentions that may or may not pave the road to hell. When was the last time you invited death into your car?
1953’s The Hitch-Hiker is American film noir shot through the eyes of a woman, director Ida Lupino. Serving as an early entry in road horror, it follows 2 fishing buddies on a trip to Mexico. Picking up a hitchhiker that happens to be a spree killer, the men are terrorized and humiliated by their captor on the lam. The movie was inspired by events surrounding the real-life mass murderer, Billy Cook. What followed is a string of hitchhiking thriller movies, though 1986’s The Hitcher sticks out (its thumb) the most. A young man driving from Chicago to San Diego picks up a roadside traveler, hoping it would help keep him awake. Instead, he’s stalked and tormented by a serial killer, thriving on the fringes of society and evading capture. The very reason your mother tells you not to pick anyone up. Of course, not all who wander the highways are murderers looking for a ride, some sit behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer. The granddaddy of the road horror chase is Steven Spielberg’s 1971 Duel. The script was adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story. The inspiration of which came from a personal experience of being tailgated by a trucker the same day Kennedy was assassinated. An influential cult thriller of emasculation and gas lighting, Duel follows a salesman antagonized by a tanker truck on a business trip. The film established Spielberg as a director and lead a convoy of entries in a subgenre of anonymous truckers terrorizing commuters. The best representation is 2001’s Joy Ride. A cheesy but thrilling road horror of friends driving cross country. Making crank calls on a CB radio, they decide to have a little fun with a trucker who happens to be a psychopath.
Hitchhikers and truckers have their supernatural counterparts. Four lane folklore shared at truck stops and roadside diners across the globe. Ghostly hitchhikers are picked up by motorists, only to vanish without explanation from the car seat. Variations have been traced as far back as the 1870s, Resurrection Mary being more modernly recognizable. On the flip side of the coin are travelers picked up by truckers, only to discover that they hitched a ride with the dead. “Phantom 309” is a spoken folk song about a trucker that gives a lift to a stranded wanderer, who later discovers his ride was a spirit. Based on a true event, different variations of the story circulated in modern culture including Large Marge.
Haunt My Ride
Though television had its first evil car in an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1964, the first movie was 1977’s The Car. A seemingly possessed vehicle stalks and runs down the residents of a sleepy desert town. The car itself is a customized Lincoln Continental with blacked out windows, no plates, no handles, and no driver. Though never referenced, it bears a similar appearance to the Soviet Union’s GAZ Volga. Only manufactured in black, this model was the center of urban legends across Europe. The Black Volga, an evil vehicle kidnapping adults and children alike. Some versions claim the Volga is possessed while others insist it’s driven by the secret police, priests, or Satan himself. The most widely recognized subject of paranormal road horror is Stephen King’s 1983 novel, Christine. Followed with a film adaptation directed by John Carpenter, in less than a year. Awkward teen buys a Plymouth Fury as a fixer-upper, transitioning to manhood and automotive spirit possession. Themes of Arnie’s unnatural love for his car was further explored in the film and may have been provoked by J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash. Though neither can compare to Isaac Asimov’s 1953 short story, “Sally”.
Though the vehicle as a vessel for disturbed souls or infernal imps remains constant in the ever-evolving road horror trope. The film The Toybox gives the audience a RV camper containing the spirit of a serial killer. Loosely inspired by the real-life events surrounding David Parker Ray, better known as the “Toybox Killer”. A man who had converted a tractor trailer into a soundproof torture chamber. China’s 2008 film Ju-On Car (Killer Car) puts the disembodied soul of a crash victim under the hood. Making the car sentient and angry. Even the time traveling Delta 88 from the Evil Dead franchise is prone to demonic possession in season 2 of Ash VS The Evil Dead. South Korea must have a problem with undead Ubers prowling city streets at night. In the road horror comedy, Gongpo Taxi (Terror Taxi), a young cabbie is killed in a hit & run accident. Only to return as a phantom taxi driver doomed to haunt the roads. Along the way he meets others like him that actually enjoy their work of terrorizing humans in ghost rides. 1986’s The Wraith follows a teenager murdered by car racing street-toughs. Returning to this world for vengeance with an invulnerable Turbo Interceptor. Super Hybrid is an Australian sci-fi road horror film about man-eating, shape shifters. Having studied humanity’s obsession with car culture, they choose a vehicular form to stay at the top of the food chain. Killdozer! the sci-fi/horror novella by Theodore Sturgeon. Originally published in Astounding magazine in 1944. An ancient alien energy is unearthed at a construction site in which it possesses a Caterpillar D7 bulldozer, affectionately referred to as Daisy Etta. The 1974 film of the same name features an unearthed meteorite that possessed the bulldozer and joys rides on a murder spree. Thus, bringing us to more science fiction elements of road horror.
Too many times popular culture has been warned about The End coming in a cloud of dust and exhaust. The Mad Max film franchise and Tank Girl comics reinforce this apocalyptic vision of the future. However, Maximum Overdrive is an excellent unconventional apocalypse film for those nostalgic for Y2K. Adapting his own short story “Trucks”, Stephen King directed this movie of the Earth crossing the tail of a comet, resulting in all machinery becoming sentient and destroying human life. A small band of blue-collar humans are trapped in a truck stop, hunted down by big rigs one by one. The premise was reimagined in 1997 with the USA original tv-movie, Trucks which runs closer to King’s short story.
The punksploitation comedy, Repo Man feels like an alternate timeline. Sci-fi Western meets road flick set in the Radioactive Reagan-era, a rookie repo man gets mixed up with car thieves and a UFO cult. All the while hunting down a mad scientist’s Chevy Malibu hauling nuclear cargo. The synchronicities in the background remind the audience that society is about as insignificant as a plate of shrimp. In another antiquated future, bloody motorsports are a high form of entertainment in Roger Corman’s Deathrace 2000. Based on the IB Melchior short story “The Racer”, this brutal film has a totalitarian regime running the country. Holding a transcontinental race where points are rewarded for running down pedestrians, politics collide with reality tv and population control. Australia offers a wide variety of retro futuristic road horror cinema.
1974’s The Cars That Ate Paris was never intended to be a not-too-distant-future film but surely wouldn’t surprise anyone in current times. Set in the rural town of Paris, an isolated community with an economy completely based on car crashes. Greaser punk youths & their customized doom-mobiles set fatal traps for tourists passing through. Wreckage is scavenged for barter, from luggage to auto parts in a manner reminiscent of The Hills Have Eyes or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Survivors are subjected to lobotomy experiments in the town asylum or adopted by townsfolk to replenish numbers. The concept was lightly revisited in 1986’s Dead End Drive-In, where cars are a commodity in a collapsed economy. Roving gangs of car-punks and tow companies scavenge parts and drive-in theaters are converted to concentration camps. Killing Cars is 80s cyberpunk from West Germany. Neon-noir thriller of corporate espionage trying to stop an environmentally friendly car from reaching the masses. Complete with violent squatter punks, it takes the idea of road horror from monster cars to monstrous corporations. 12 years later would come the real-life inventor, Stanley Meyer. He claimed to have created a water powered motor by equipping a dune-buggy with a fuel cell that split water atoms to burn hydrogen and release oxygen. Mysteriously, he died in a parking lot in 1998 with the last dying words “they poisoned me”. His water-powered car was stolen one week after his death.
The bubble of security within a vehicle can quickly dissolve into a mere facade within unconventional road horror films. A mother and son are forced to take shelter in a Ford Pinto in 1983’s film adaptation of Cujo. A suffocating prison of temporary safety, the same scene was set in 2016’s The Monster. A mother and daughter cower in their car from a beast in the woods about to devour them like a can of sardines. Let’s not dismiss the suspenseful sibling spree in Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Certain to suck the air from your lungs for the film’s most iconic 15 minutes.
While the car is a tool of liberation it also can place its driver in a position of vulnerability. Whether a couple on lover’s lane is approached by a maniac with a hook or an innocent drive through the countryside quickly turns into a chainsaw massacre nightmare. The open freedom that comes with traveling brings a terrifying unknown around every curve. So as gas prices continue to soar during the peak of road trip season, perhaps we should rethink our relationships with automobiles. Buckle up and drive safe.
Before there was a video game content rating system, the creators of Dig Dug and Galaga were blazing trails with a different kind of game, dripping with graphic content. In the late 80’s, Namco unleashed the gore-fest known as Splatterhouse into arcades and home ports. Setting the cornerstone for the future of horror gaming and on-screen violence.
“May be inappropriate for young children…and cowards.”
While horror games had been churned out for years on home computers and consoles, scarier aspects were left to the player’s imagination. The depictions of violence and gore in gaming had a very limited scope. That is until the Japanese game developer, Namco, decided to push arcade boundaries as well as break their own mold. Namco was best known, at the time, for the creation of cute and cartoony games like Pac-Man and Mappy. In November of 1988, under the direction of Shigeru Yokoyama, the Splatterhouse arcade game was released. Influenced by popular Western slasher cinema and parental outrage, Namco was counting on shock factor to bring players to the joystick. Unlike other side-scrolling brawler games, Splatterhouse was hyper-focused on detailed gore and graphic violence. Purposely drawing attention to the gruesome content resulted in the arcade cabinet’s immediate success in Japan and Europe. A slower cult following developed in the United states as Splatterhouse wasn’t widely distributed to Western arcades. Lore surrounding the game claim’s its content stirred controversy resulting in a ban while others believe it was a copyright infringement. Home ports that followed for TurboGrafx-16 and MegaDrive would bring a censored version to wider audiences with toned down splatter and character changes.
The original Splatterhouse arcade game didn’t offer much of a backstory. Only presenting the player with an opening sequence of two figures seeking shelter from a rainstorm in a dark mansion. It would be 1990’s home port that would expand on the game’s plot. In the instruction manual, the figures running through the woods are identified as Rick and Jennifer. College sweethearts and parapsychology students that have traveled to West Mansion for a research project. The West Mansion is locally known as “Splatterhouse”, rumored to contain mutated abominations created in a lab by the homeowner, Dr. Henry West. As they enter the mansion and the door slams behind them, Jennifer screams bloody murder and a game over screen appears. But death is only the beginning. Rick awakens from his own unknown demise in a dungeon, resurrected by the “Terror Mask”. An ancient artifact containing a spirit that grants super-human strength to whomever puts it on. Attaching itself to Rick, he is transformed into a rampaging monster out to save Jennifer and take revenge on West Mansion.
A 2-page advertisement for the Turbo-Grafx 16 port was released as a mini comic of Splatterhouse’s origins. Featuring Rick and Jennifer entering the West Mansion, being attacked, and the Terror Mask fusing with our anti-hero.
A Real Video Game Nasty
For any fan of contemporary slasher figures and horror cinema, the main appeal of the Splatterhouse arcade game is guessing who’s who. A game within a game of spotting all the references in weapons, enemies, and backgrounds. Most are quick to point out the resemblance of Rick’s mask to Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th franchise. Beyond the beloved horror icons of the 80s, the concept of a haunted mask hadn’t yet found its true voice. One of the first horror film entries is the 1965 Japanese supernatural drama, Onibaba. A lost samurai passes on the curse of a jealous demoness with the use of a Hannya mask. Almost 2 decades later we would be reintroduced to mask horror with a disconnected sequel to John Carpenter’s best-known movie. Halloween III: Season of The Witch’s plot was a collision between tech and the occult at the Silver Shamrock mask factory. Italy would step up to the under used trope in 1985 with Lamberto Bava’s Dèmoni. Giving audiences a plague of demonic possession when an ancient mask is tied in with a horror movie promotion.
The second most notable horror reference in the franchise is our villain, Dr. Henry West. Highly regarded in the parapsychology community as a brilliant man, his secretive experiments within his mansion have unleashed Lovecraftian horrors on the world. A direct homage to H.P. ‘s 1922 novelette Herbert West-Reanimator and the 1985 horror comedy film that followed. But it is Lovecraft’s obsession with old dark houses that gives the Splatterhouse arcade game its namesake. Short stories such as From Beyond, The Dreams in the Witch-House, and The Shunned House all offer a residence where either mad science or occult ritual take place. Creating massive rifts of trauma that transform the very structure into a living abomination itself. Splatterhouse’s West Mansion is not only filled with hideous monstrosities but actually births them into reality.
Several other horror films of the 80s are remarked on lending inspiration to the bad guys that come for Rick. Deadly Spawn slugs and Poltergeist mirror reflections are mixed in with xenomorph chest bursting and Cronenbergian fetus mutants. The chainsaw-armed boss called “Biggyman” could have borrowed again from Jason on Friday the 13th II, with a burlap bag over his head. Or it might have been a reference to the Phantom in The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
The majority of the Splatterhouse arcade game’s tributes fall under 1987’s Evil Dead II. The final act of Stage II is an entire room and its contents shuddering at the presence of Rick. Attacked by flying furniture and squaring off with a hung portrait flapping about. Stage V gives you pools of sentient severed hands crawling about and a few giving the finger. But it is the moment when Rick encounters Jennifer laid out on a sofa, that leads me to emphasize Evil Dead II. She awakens to transform into a hideous monstrosity that reminds me of Ted Raimi as a Deadite Granny. Rick has no choice but to kill his own girlfriend, in an anguished moment once shared with Ash as he chainsawed Linda.
“It begins again…!”
The success of the Splatterhouse arcade game in Japan was followed in 1989 with the first and lesser-known sequel of the franchise. Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti was a Japanese exclusive for the Famicom system. More of a cutesy parody of the original, the graphic violence was removed and it was marketed to a younger audience. Wanpaku Graffiti deviated from the original storyline and featured even more horror pop-culture references that made the game downright silly, at times. Fans continue to debate whether or not it was intended to be a prequel to the original game. In 1992, Namco released Splatterhouse 2 for Sega Genesis. The game’s plot would pick up 3 months after the events of the Splatterhouse arcade game. Rick plagued with nightmares and tempted by the spirit of the Terror Mask to return to West Mansion and revive Jennifer’s soul. 1993 followed with Splatterhouse 3 on Sega, with the disruption of happily ever after. Rick and Jennifer are now married with a child as Dr. West’s horrors once again invade their lives. 2010’s Splatterhouse is a retelling of the original story for X360 and PS3. Updating the 16-bit world to a modern-day bloodbath that is packed with horror reference easter eggs. Following in the arcade cabinet’s footsteps of valuing blood n’ guts over gameplay, the reboot is incredibly entertaining for a gore-hound. In fact, the entire franchise is highly recommended to fans of retro horror gaming, if for nothing else than the nods to hack n’ slash cinema throughout each installment.
A Putrid Pioneer of Horror Gaming
It may not have been the first horror game, but the Splatterhouse arcade game reshaped the genre. Giving the player the opportunity to be a Jason Voorhees knock-off that punches bats and chops levitating heads with a medieval axe. Namco reached new audiences with gruesomely detailed carnage and solid Eldritch elements; a formula still prevalent in modern horror games. Without Splatterhouse we may have never gotten Friday the 13th: The Game for PS4 and Xbox One.
“If coin-ops could give out smells, this one would reek of an abattoir.”
In early 1994, I was tired of renting the same old Super Nintendo games for the weekend. Unable to afford the popular titles at $50-60 each, I picked through a “sale” crate at Toys-R-Us. This was my introduction to the comedy horror game known as Zombies Ate My Neighbors. A sleeper success video game that paid homage to horror movies. Released before the Entertainment Software Rating Board existed, it stirred a bit of controversy and amassed a tight community of fans over the last 25 years. Resurrected on modern platforms in June of 2021, Zombies Ate My Neighbors remains a staple of up-all-night games to play over summer break.
It Came From LucasArts
George Lucas founded a video game development group in 1982, to run alongside his film company. In a 1990 reorganization, the division was rebranded as LucasArts. Becoming known for its point and click adventure games like the Monkey Island series and Sam & Max Hit The Road. In 1993 LucasArts developed a run and gun game with all the wholesome charm of an 80’s adventure and a tribute to scary movies. Zombies Ate My Neighbors was published by Konami for the Super NES with a Sega Genesis port following halfway through development. A relatively simple game to play, with 55 levels it was nearly impossible to master. While not initially a hit upon release, the game quickly gained a cult following for its dedication to drive-in B-films, a catchy soundtrack, and tongue in cheek humor.
One or two player game selection is between two Everytown USA teenagers, Zeke and Julie. Their sleepy suburbia descends into chaos as lab-experiments of the deranged Dr. Tongue invade the neighborhood. It’s up to our plucky protagonists to save terrorized residents from the abominations of mad science.
“There are monsters, werewolves, slimy blobs, and a bushel of other hideous creatures out to capture innocent people. They’re attacking your neighbors, your neighbors’ kids, their dog, and any other human they can find. It is up to you to use any means possible to save the victims before the bad guys get them.”
Zombies Ate My Neighbors Game Manual
Initially armed with only a squirt gun, the player scavenges abandoned houses and empty malls for anything that can be used as a weapon. Ordinary household items like soda cans, kitchen plates, and weed whackers. Rarer objects like magic potions, inflatable clown punching bags, and holy relics will also aid the player to wage battle against the undead. The number of foes and bosses in Zombies Ate My Neighbors will not disappoint lovers of horror and sci-fi movies. While the namesake zombies are relatively simple to kill, their speed and larger numbers make them a danger to the player and victims you’re trying to rescue. The classic Universal monsters require more hits from specific weapons to take down. Werewolves, mummies, vampires, and Gill-men from that lagoon are just the beginning. The “Attack of The 50ft” genre of B-films are referenced with giant ants, spiders, and a titanic sized toddler boss, flattening everything in its path. Zombie Ate My Neighbors doesn’t shy away from deep space double features with a rendition of the blob, mushroom men, plant-like pod people. Even the design for the cheerleader-hungry Martians resembles the Mars Attacks Topps trading cards of 1962. Contemporary horror cinema is also referenced with Leatherface/Jason Voorhees looking “chainsaw maniacs” and anxiety inducing “snakeoids” straight out of Tremors. Xennial gamers will appreciate “Tommy The Evil Doll” having grown up with the first 3 entries of the Child’s Play franchise and the My Buddy doll. Wandering through a toy factory maze, the player is pursued by relentless dolls chopping at your feet with cleavers. Just when you think you’ve defeated a wave, their flaming plastic carcasses continue to chase you down.
With a staggering 55 levels, bonus stages, and a password system, few kids of the mid-90s made it through Zombies Ate My Neighbors. The few persistent players that did complete the game would discover a special credits level called “Monsters Among Us“. The player is transported to LucasArts headquarters to ransack and rescue while interacting with the game’s development team. Even George Lucas makes a cameo to greet and instruct you to get back to work.
Just When You Thought It Was Safe
Though Zombies Ate My Neighbors was originally created for SNES, the last-minute Sega conversion suffered. Lacking elements of what made the game so great with a smaller screen, duller graphics, and a toned-down soundtrack. Controls were extra frustrating to rotate through on Sega’s three buttons versus SNES’s four. However, Nintendo would staunchly reject any depictions of blood and censored the SNES version with a purple slime while Sega stayed bloody. The controversy continued in Europe and Australia with the game’s title being changed to just Zombies. The chainsaw maniacs would also be changed to axe-wielding lumberjacks and all appearances of blood were now a green ooze.
In 1994, JVC Musical Industries licensed the Zombies Ate My Neighbors gameplay engine for a similarly styled game. LucasArts outsourced most of the development work to Motion Pixel before deciding to publish it as a sequel called Ghoul Patrol for SNES. Zeke and Julie return as protagonists in the game. Checking out the latest morbid museum exhibit, they accidentally unleash demons and spirits from an ancient book. Ghoul Patrol only has five levels but the monsters require more hits to be defeated. The game also updates Zeke and Julie’s scavenged arsenal with crossbows, plasma and laser guns. While it doesn’t quite capture the humor of the first game, Ghoul Patrol is a worthy follow-up. Both games were released by Disney Interactive in summer of 2021 for Steam, Switch, PS4, and Xbox One.
Coming to Theaters?
John Darko, known for his work on the Insidious franchise, was announced to have written a script for a Zombies Ate My Neighbors movie in 2011. Describing it as “John Hughes meets Judd Apatow meets George A. Romero”. Set during a graduation block party, Darko regards the project as a coming-of-age Zom-Com. Giving subtle hints as a modern tribute to 80s classics such as The Monster Squad and Night of The Comet. As of 2013, Daily Dead reported that Darko’s project was alive and well. Though John Darko has reportedly been working on a television series called Nowheresville. The premise of which sounds similar to the narrative of Zombies Ate My Neighbors.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
While it feels like the franchise never got the recognition it deserved, the ZAMN fan community is as dedicated as ever. With an impressive amount of fan art, cosplay, game mods, and short film tributes, you’ll feel right at home with the cult following. Whether or not you conquer all 55 levels of Zombies Ate My Neighbors, just remember at your next block party that no neighbor gets left behind.