Ghostwatch, The Vampire’s Ghost, and White Zombie

GHOSTWATCH (1992) Before The Blair Witch Project came this superlative journey into home video horror, in which the crew of a BBC television series airs a live show from a reportedly haunted house in North London. Real-life TV personality, Sarah Greene, along with her cameramen, spend the night in the small home of the Early family, whose mother (Brid Brennan) claims she and her two daughters (Michelle Wesson and Cherise Wesson) have been continually terrorized by a malignant presence that smells of rotten cabbage. Highly creative and genuinely chilling, Ghostwatch was groundbreaking in its day—and ridiculed when people felt fooled by the “reality” aspect!—and remains an excellent piece of early POV horror. Twenty-plus years after its release, it’s still influencing a new generation of found footage films, including (and most obviously) Paranormal Activity, REC, Lake Mungo, and director Rob Savage, who has stated Ghostwatch was a direct inspiration for his terrific 2020 homage, Host. A pioneering must-see for the found footage fan. A

THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST (1945) What if Humphrey Bogart’s Rick from Casablanca was a vampire? This is essentially the plot of The Vampire’s Ghost. A curious take on the vampire film, it’s the story of 400-year-old Fallon (John Abbot), who runs a bar in a small African village and begins to grow tired of his blood-drinking ways. When Fallon falls in love with his friend’s gal pal (Peggy Steward), he decides to make her his immortal companion and flee the country. The film follows the typical vampire lore (fangs, crucifixes, etc.), but in an interesting twist, Fallon is presented as more human than vampire, being able to walk in the daylight and, hypnotism aside, can’t transform into a bat or wolf. While not perfect, Vampire’s Ghost is surprisingly good, with an excellent performance by Abbot and a screenplay that focuses more on well-written characters than cheap shocks, feeling inspired more by Val Lewton than Todd Browning. Definitely worth seeking out for the 1940s horror fan. B

WHITE ZOMBIE (1932) Hot off the success of Dracula, Bela Lugosi made several low-budget horror vehicles, but none in that time period—aside from Dracula—have attained the legacy of White Zombie. On his wedding night, a young man (John Harron) is plunged into a nightmare when his new bride (Madge Bellamy) is turned into a mind-controlled zombie by Haitian witch doctor, Murder Legendre (Lugosi). Having originally done the deed for a lovelorn plantation owner (Charles Frazer), Legendre ultimately falls in love with the young woman and takes her for himself to his cliffside abode where his army of zombified servants do his biding. Although often heralded as the first zombie film, White Zombie is more of a supernatural melodrama, and its Dracula inspirations are obvious—mysterious foreign man with powers; damsel-in-distress; cobweb-filled castle, etc. Lugosi’s presence, a dense, almost claustrophobic atmosphere, and a surprisingly violent end help make this a slick, but slight, little flick. B

Evil Dead Rise, First Man into Space, and Uncle Sam

EVIL DEAD RISE (2023) Another Evil Dead reboot to emerge after the 2013 remake failed to reignite the franchise, this appropriately gnarly reimagining of the original 1981 horror classic moves the action to Los Angeles, where the teens of a single-parent family discover the dreaded Book of the Dead in a hidden vault under their apartment complex. It isn’t long until Deadites are possessing the inhabits of the building and turning the place into a blood-covered hellhole. The first movie in the series to abandon the cabin-in-the-woods scenario since Army of Darkness, Evil Dead Rise works surprisingly well, especially in the third act when things go completely batshit crazy—but it wouldn’t be an Evil Dead movie any other way. You won’t feel a thing for the lifeless characters—who spend most of the film looking as if their Deadite Mommy just returned home with a bad haircut—but this is a fun and cheerfully gruesome return to form for the long-running series. Burning question: Why is there an industrial-size woodchipper in the basement of an L.A. apartment building? B

FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (1959) Reckless test pilot, Lt. Prescott (Bill Edwards), working for a military-backed space exploration project, becomes the first person to leave the planet’s atmosphere, only to vanish without a trace after his rocket is found abandoned at a crash site back on Earth. Unbeknownst to Dan’s brother (Marshall Thompson) and girlfriend (Marla Landi), Prescott roams the area as a blood-craving, deformed creature, transformed by microscopic space dust. Slight but mildly amusing low-budget sci-fi/horror that gets by because of a good cast and a couple of gory moments. Just don’t expect much and you might enjoy yourself. C+

UNCLE SAM (1997) “Don’t be afraid. It’s just friendly fire!” So says the charred body of Desert Storm soldier Sam Harper (David “Shark” Fralick), who puts a round of bullets in his fellow soldiers just before he dies in the wreckage of a helicopter downed by—yes—friendly fire. But that isn’t the end of Harper, a man who was filled with so much American patriotism he comes back from the grave like an EC Comics character to punish the wrongdoers of his hometown of Twin Rivers. Decked out in a gaudy Uncle Sam costume, Harper goes about dispatching those who are unpatriotic, rude, or just plain jerks—something the incredibly small town of Twin Rivers seem to be overflowing with—during the town’s Fourth of July festivities. A fun concept for a slasher, Uncle Sam is disappointingly flat, lacking the energy found in director William Lustig’s earlier movies (Maniac, Vigilante, Maniac Cop 1 and 2). The characters are dull and don’t add any sparks to the lazy screenplay, which spends too much time on a subplot involving Harper’s snot-nosed nephew (Christopher Ogden). The silly freeze-frame ending is a groaner. C

The Pope’s Exorcist, Scream VI, and Son of Frankenstein

THE POPE’S EXORCIST (2023) Taking a stab at the “based on real case files” scenario The Conjuring made popular ten years earlier, The Pope’s Exorcist delivers a “true” chapter out of Father Gabriel Amorth’s (Russell Crowe) book of paranormal activity. The only official head exorcist to the Vatican, Father Amorth tries to help a small American family whose young son (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) becomes possessed by a demonic force after they relocate to an inherited piece of property in Spain, 1987. Upon investigation of the site—a decaying abbey—Amorth, along with a local priest (Daniel Zovatto), discovers the place harbors an evil secret that connects back to the Catholic Church. While the possession plot takes center stage, the film feels more like an epic haunted house movie, complete with dark corridors, mysterious knocking at night, and a grandiose finale taking place in a corpse-laden cellar. It’s all fairly familiar territory, but director Julius Avery (Overlord) infuses the movie with energy, humor, and a lightening-quick pace. Crowe has obvious fun with the material in a role that practically begs for its own Netflix series. B

SCREAM VI (2023) It’s not out of the ordinary for long-running horror franchises to eventually wind up in either (1) space or (2) Manhattan. Going the Jason Voorhees route, Ghostface targets the bustling avenues of the Big Apple in the latest installment of the Scream series. Picking up a few years after the the events of the last Woodsboro slashings, sisters Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Tara (Jenna Ortega), along with the remainder of their still-breathing friends, leave home for campus life in New York City, only to have their studies interrupted by a new series of Ghostface killings. A step in the right direction after last year’s misguided reboot, Scream VI helps the series feel fresh again—removing the plot (and characters) from Woodsboro is a risk that pays off for most of the runtime. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett offer some terrific suspense set pieces—the makeshift catwalk escape sequence is a highlight—and the gore runs thick and fast. The script, unfortunately, spends too much time on the newer, duller characters and doesn’t give the legacy survivors from past Screams enough screen time; fan-favorite Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) from Scream 4 feels wasted in a bit part. By now you’d think the makers of these movies would realize you don’t need that many red herrings! B

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) Years after Bride of Frankenstein left the Monster (Boris Karloff) for dead, the son of Dr. Frankenstein, Baron Wolf (Basil Rathbone), moves his family into Castle Frankenstein, only to be met with hostility by the villagers. When Baron discovers the semiconscious body of the Monster in his family’s crypt, he becomes inspired to continue his dad’s work and—with the help of disgraced blacksmith, Ygor (Bela Lugosi)—brings the creature back to full life. While easily the weakest of the Karloff-era Frankenstein films, Son of Frankenstein is solid stuff thanks to good direction by Rowland Lee, but mostly because of the movie’s first-rate cast, including a scene-stealing Lugosi, whose role, according to Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula by Koren Shadmi, was re-written and expanded by Lee without Karloff’s knowledge—an act that ultimately lead to Karloff’s decision to abandon the role. Karloff would return as Dr. Niemann in House of Frankenstein. B

Antibirth, Doom Asylum, and Nightwish

DOOM ASYLUM (1988) Friday the 13th by way of John Waters, this garish—but quite funny—comedy-horror centers on young Kiki (future Frankenhooker Patty Mullens) and her quartet of cartoonish friends who take a day trip to an abandoned hospital where the demented Mitch Hansen (Michael Rogen) lives and kills. You see, 10 years earlier Hansen killed Kiki’s mother (also Mullens) in a car accident and was himself severally scarred, which naturally turned him into a raving maniac. Doom Asylum isn’t pretty, but its lampooning of ’80s slashers is highly amusing—right down to its pack of horror stock characters (the jock, the nerd, the ditz, etc.)—and it features some low-budget but inventive make-up effects. Funniest scene: Just before Hansen shoves her face into a vat of acid, a punk rocker admits, “I voted for Reagan!” Future Sex and the City star Kristin Davis plays a psych major who believes Hansen is a form of mass delusion, ultimately getting her face sliced open with a bone saw. Massively idiotic, but so much fun. B+

NIGHTWISH (1989) Grad students doing research on dreams and fear are assigned by their clearly unstable professor (Jack Starrett) to investigate a desert house supposedly loaded with paranormal—and UFO!—activity. After a couple of (what the professor calls) “demonic encounters,” the students become distrustful of their teacher’s intentions, especially when he chains them up in the cellar and his Igor-like simpleton assistant (Robert Tessier) begins cutting off fingers. There’s also dead bodies with pustulating sores in an underground tunnel. Are these bizarre events really happening, or is it all part of some elaborate dream study? With so many possibilities thrown into the already confusing story, the viewer gets a sense the writer (and director, Bruce R. Cook) was also confused. The questions get somewhat answered in the bogus ending, where one of the traumatized students states, “I don’t need a college degree this badly!” Or, she could just change her major. A good cast, as well as some gooey KNB effects, are wasted on bland, uninspired material. C

ANTIBIRTH (2016) A movie that’s stillborn. Lou (Natasha Lyonne), a burned-out party girl living in a dying, drug-riddled military town, wakes up after a night of drinking with a strange illness. Her friend, Sadie (Chloë Sevigny), believes Lou is pregnant, but Lou swears she hasn’t had sex in months. When a mysterious woman (Meg Tilly) shows up claiming to have had similar symptoms as Lou, the three investigate and discover Lou may had been given an experimental drug by Sadie’s pimp boyfriend (Mark Webber). A wannabe Cronenberg horror-art film that doesn’t work on any level, Antibirth offers up supremely outrageous ideas but never follows through with a coherent—or interesting—story. The movie instead drags along to a brainless ending that’s so out of control it comes off more as unintentional comedy than horror. Serving an underwritten role with a good performance, Tilly is wasted. D