My Top Ten Favorite Werewolf Movies (+1)

It’s New Year’s once again, a time to celebrate humanity surviving long enough to make one more lap around the sun. Instead of doing this by spending time with family and friends, I decided to spend my time hunched over the computer waxing poetic about werewolf movies.

I did something similar last year, compiling a list of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes. My reasoning then was that Twilight Zone marathons are a New Year’s tradition for a lot of folks (including myself), so it would be totally appropriate. My reasoning this year? Well, um… I already made a list of my favorite vampire movies, and ever since then I’ve wanted to do a list of my favorite werewolf movies.

I like talking about werewolves. Sue me.

If that’s not good enough for you, then how about this: January 1st is one of of the 12 nights of Christmas (a period which runs from December 25 until January 6; not to be confused with “The 12 Days of Christmas,” which is an irritating Christmas carol). In German folklore, it is said that a child born during the 12 nights of Christmas is cursed to become a werewolf. Boom. There you go, there’s your werewolf connection.

Also it’s Wednesday. And Wednesday starts with a W, just like “werewolf.” So there.

wolf1Ginger Snaps

“Out by sixteen or dead in this scene, but together forever.” That’s the pact made by semi-suicidal sisters Ginger and Brigitte, who abhor the monotony of “normal life.” For them, nothing is scarier than the looming inevitability of puberty, no fate more hellish than the hormone-fueled melodrama it threatens. Thus, when Ginger’s first menstrual cycle kicks in, it’s nightmare enough. Too bad it just so happens to coincide with the full moon. Too bad the smell of blood attracts a certain lupine predator. Too bad Ginger gets bit. As her sister’s body and behavior both undergo a drastic metamorphosis, Brigitte begins to suspect there’s more at play here than just coming-of-age growing pains.

Though neither the first film nor the last to use lycanthropy as a metaphor for burgeoning sexuality (hell, it’s not even the only example on this list), rarely has it been done this well. Ginger Snaps is not only a brilliant deconstruction of werewolf mythology that explores themes of female adolescence and alienation, it’s also a heartbreaking tragedy about a once inseparable bond of love slowly disintegrating into loss and loneliness.

wolf2Werewolves on Wheels

Now is that a title, or is that a title? On the opposite end of the respectability spectrum from Ginger Snaps, Werewolves on Wheels exists for no other reason than to cash in on the biker gang and occult horror cinema trends of the 1970s. Unashamed of its meager ambitions, this flick embraces the tropes of both genres wholeheartedly, enthusiastically distilling them into a heady batch of 666 proof moonshine.

Played largely by actual honest-to-hog bikers (as well as “Eve of Destruction folk singer Barry McGuire!), the Devil’s Advocates make for a motley crew of hellraising outlaws, burning daylight and rubber alike on the dusty desert blacktop, stopping only to guzzle booze, drop acid, and, uh, read tarot cards. When night falls, they stop to make camp outside an abandoned church, which is coincidentally crawling with devil-worshiping cultists (natch). Before you can say “Hail Satan,” the bikers find themselves on the wrong side of a black magic ritual, one-by-one falling to the denim ‘n’ leather skinwalkers in their midst. All this, and a trippy guitar soundtrack that accompanies some serious psychedelic cinematography! What’s not to love?

wolf3Nazareno Cruz and the Wolf

As befitting of a mythic archetype that’s existed for as long and across as many cultures as the werewolf, folklore offers up a seemingly endless list of different ways of becoming a lycanthrope: being bitten, being cursed, selling your soul to the devil, eating human flesh, etc. Some folks simply never had a chance. Some folks’ only sin was being born. Nazareno Cruz, for instance, had the rotten luck of being a widowed woman’s seventh son. It doesn’t seem like that big a deal, until the day he falls in love with a blond beauty and the devil himself comes calling. If Nazareno denies himself this chance at romance, the devil will make him rich. If not, the circumstances of his birth will turn him into a beast and his soul will be bound for hell.

A loose adaptation of the Argentian myth of Lobizón, Nazareno Cruz and the Wolf is not well-known outside its native country, despite being Argentina’s entry in the Best Foreign Film category for the 1976 Oscars. That’s a shame, because this is truly transcendent filmmaking. Moody and meditative, the picture becomes a kind of cinematic tone-poem with its oodles of atmosphere and beautiful surrealist imagery (a good chunk of the film actually takes place in the very hell that Nazareno is bound for). Its rare for a werewolf movie to embrace such an ambitious arthouse aesthetic. Rarer still for that approach to work. But work it does, and what it works is wonders.

wolf4The Wolf Man

Hardly a surprising selection, but nonetheless an essential one. Though not actually the first werewolf movie, The Wolf Man is nevertheless the prototype for all cinematic stories of lycanthropy to follow. Arguably the saddest of all Universal Monsters, the blue-collar likeability of star Lon Chaney, Jr. in the role of poor Larry Talbot makes it all the harsher when Talbot discovers that he himself is the inhuman killer prowling the forests at night, preying on innocent townsfolk. Even worse is that the only “cure” for his condition is death (a peace constantly denied him, as evidenced by Chaney reprising the role in no less than four sequels).

While it establishes much of modern werewolf lore, this alone does not make The Wolf Man a true classic.  Instead, that status is guaranteed by director George Waggner’s dreamy fog-shrouded set-pieces, screenwriter Curt Sidomak’s tight and often poetic script, FX pioneer Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup design, and a top-shelf cast that teams Chaney with Claude Raines, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, and “Queen of the B’s,” Evelyn Ankers.

wolf5La Bête

If The Wolf Man was too “safe” a recommendation for you, try this on for size: Walerian Borowczyk’s La Bête might very well be the only motion picture boasting a graphic depiction of werewolf ejaculation. At least it’s the only one I know of. Though unsurprisingly controversial at the time of its release (the film was heavily cut in most countries and came dangerously close to be prosecuted as obscenity in the UK), those who dismiss La Bête as just a collection of scandalous provocations are missing out.

Based loosely on Prosper Mérimée’s 19th century novella Lokis, itself a riff on Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast (coincidentally first popularized via an abridged adaptation written by Mérimée’s own great-grandmother!), La Bête is an erotic adult fairy tale about a contentious arranged marriage between a beautiful young heiress and the disfigured, socially stunted son of a scheming marquis. Discovering a local legend about a half-human half-animal creature that once terrorized the countryside, the heiress finds herself increasingly drawn to her brutish betrothed and haunted by sexually charged nightmares in which she is ravaged by the aforementioned creature of myth. In the end, however, her own animal urges might be more than a match for both man and beast. If you’re wondering if this is basically just porn, the answer is yes. If you’re wondering if porn can be art, the answer is again yes. La Bête is both.

wolf6Kibakichi

While vampires have enjoyed a diverse bounty of characterizations—from luxuriant castle-dwelling sex-symbols and hardboiled film-noir gumshoes to trenchcoat-clad post-Matrix kung-fu fighters and gaudily-garbed comic-book superheroes—the humble werewolf has often been relegated to two modes: the uncontrollable bloodthirsty beast and the luckless sad-sack who is, well, doomed to become an uncontrollable bloodthirsty beast. Not so in Kibakichi, Tomo’o Haraguchi’s horror/fantasy/action hybrid set in medieval Japan, wherein the title character is a wandering swordsman who just so happens to also be a wandering wolf-man.

Eschewing realism, seriousness, and even good taste in favor of pure unadulterated entertainment value, this flick takes the traditional chanbara genre and pumps it up to outrageous anime-influenced extremes. It’s not enough that our hero is a katana-slashing wire-fu shapeshifter samurai; Haraguchi throws in all sorts of craziness, including anachronistic machine-gun shootouts and a bunch of rubber-suited demons plucked right out of yokai folklore. Sometimes less is more. Other times more is more. This is one of the latter times.

wolf77Werewolf Woman

With a title as straightforward as Werewolf Woman and a director like Rino Di Silvestro (Women in Cell Block 7, Deported Women of the SS Special Section) at the helm, you’d think this would be a fairly run-of-the-mill exploitation creature-feature. You’d be wrong. Though it liberally cribs imagery from traditional skinwalker flicks and also makes use of a typical revenge-film structure during its final act, as a whole Werewolf Woman is a different kind of beast entirely.

More psychological thriller than fur-flingin’ monster mash, the titular character (played with disturbing ferocity by the underrated Annik Borel) is convinced she’s a lycanthrope, frequently bedding men only to tear their throats out afterward. Did she really inherit the shapeshifter gene from some long-ago descendant burned at the stake for werewolfism, or is this all just a delusion triggered by her deeply buried childhood sexual-assault trauma crashing headlong into her own natural urges as an adult woman? Some might argue this isn’t a “true” werewolf movie, but Di Silvestro walks the tightrope of ambiguity just right. Despite its low budget and copious ham ‘n’ cheese (this is 1970s grindhouse fare, what do you expect?), Werewolf Woman stands out as a psychosexual sleaze-cinema gem.

wolf8An American Werewolf in London

Behold, the single greatest werewolf transformation scene ever immortalized on film! While special-effect legend Rob Bottin deserves credit for the bladder-based make-ups he used in the earlier released The Howling, just a few months later the equally legendary Rick Baker would raise the bar to a whole ‘nother level in An American Werewolf in London. Filmed entirely in harsh light (in contrast to Bottin’s transformations, which were partially in shadow) and using an entire FX shop’s worth of cutting-edge techniques, never before had a beast-man’s birth been realized with such torturous detail.

Facial features distort. Flesh stretches. Bones snap. The sight of it is unforgettable even in a picture already loaded with memorable moments, from the horrifying (the shockingly brutal nazi-werewolf dream sequence) to the tender (the doomed romance between leads David Naughton and Jenny Agutter) to the hilarious (the frequent visitations from Griffin Dunne’s increasingly deteriorated quip-happy ghost). An American Werewolf in London is a rare animal able to juggle a variety of moods without ever losing its gravitas. Just like The Wolf Man, this was never not going to make the list.

wolf9999The Howling II

Speaking of The Howling, Joe Dante’s tale of a resort-dwelling shapeshifter cult is itself a damn good werewolf movie, even a great one. But this isn’t a list of the “greatest” werewolf movies, it’s a list of my personal favorites werewolf movies. So while the 1981 original is probably technically a better film, it’s the campy 1985 sequel that truly deserves mention here.

In what feels like a the result of some producer taking a completely unrelated script and hastily replacing every use of the word “vampire” with “werewolf,” The Howling II (AKA The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf AKA The Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch) sees a bored-looking Christopher Lee on a quest through Transylvania to slay the centuries-old Queen of the Werewolves, played by grindhouse goddess Sybil Danning. Lots of lasers, exploding eyeballs, and hairy lycanthrope threesomes ensue. ProTip: Stick around for the end credits, where some new-wave band you’ve never heard of belts out the surprisingly catchy Howling II theme song while a greatest-hits clipshow of the movie you just watched plays onscreen (one infamous shot of Danning doffing her top is hilariously repeated no less than 17 times).

wolf100The Werewolf Vs. Vampire Woman

While Lon Chaney, Jr. will always be pop culture’s alpha wolf-man (and deservedly so), eternally snapping at his heels is Spain’s homegrown creature-feature icon, Paul Naschy. Naschy not only starred in but also wrote, directed, and produced dozens of horror films, spanning from the late 1960s until his death in the early 2000s. Of all the characters he portrayed, however, none is more beloved than long-suffering lycanthrope Waldemar Daninsky, essayed by Naschy in no less than 12 movies. My favorite of these is The Werewolf Vs. Vampire Woman (also known as Walpurgis Night, Werewolf Shadow, Night of the Bloody Witches, The Black Mass of Countess Dracula, and about a hundred other titles).

A brooding monster-mash steeped in gothic eroticism, occult imagery, and gratuitous gore, this film affects you in a way I can only liken to getting stoned while listening to a playlist of drone metal and old Halloween sound-effects records. And snarling at the center of it all is Naschy, imbuing Chaney’s tragic lupine archetype with a muscular savagery sure to leave even the fiercest Universal Monster quaking in terror.

wolf11The Company of Wolves

Unlike vampires, who have a canonized literary legacy dating all the way back to the 19th century contributions of John Polidori and Bram Stoker, werewolves have their roots more in folklore than in fiction. Simply put, fewer werewolf books exist. Which means fewer classic werewolf books exist. Which means fewer movies based on classic werewolf books exist. It’s notable that, unlike the Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal’s The Wolf Man was not based on a work of preexisting literature but was instead created whole-cloth for the screen; much of today’s popular werewolf mythology—the full moon, the vulnerability to silver, etc.—owe its codification to The Wolf Man.

I’m not here to talk about The Wolf Man, though. I’m here to talk about one of the few werewolf movies that actually is based on a great work of literature, and which is in turn pretty damn great itself. Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves adapts several stories from The Bloody Chamber, a collection of revisionist fairy tales by Angela Carter. The result is a lavish, lyrical, lycranthrope-laden anthology. The main narrative, a twist on “Little Red Riding Hood,” sees a young girl visiting her forest-dwelling grandmother, who relates a series of surreal and sexually charged parables about the beasts which lurk inside of men. The question becomes: What sort of beasts lurk in women? Like the aforementioned Ginger Snaps, The Company of Wolves is an allegory for sexual awakening. However, it benefits from a much greater scope and a intentionally artificial, ethereal aesthetic that proves equal parts menacing and mesmerizing.

My Top Ten Favorite Hammer Horror Movies (+1)

We’re just days away from the NecronomiCon debut of Behold the Undead of Dracula, a new anthology from Muzzleland Press that acts as a lurid love-letter to the tawdry Technicolor terrors of ‘60s and ‘70s genre cinema. And I’m happy to say it features a new story from yours truly, “Diabolus in Musica.” It’s about an English film composer pushed to the bleeding edge by the demands of his producers, his own insecurities, and, oh yeah, the forces of Hell itself.

My biggest inspiration in writing this piece? The stiff-upper-lip gothic pulse-pounders of England’s iconic house of horrors, Hammer Film Productions.

Starting in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein and ending in 1976 with To the Devil a Daughter, the company drip-fed audiences both young and old a steady diet of bloodsuckers, graverobbers, and devil-worshipers. While the Hammer style was often copied, few production houses succeeded in replicating that perfect balance between the pomp ‘n’ propriety of Victorian literature and the sex ‘n’ violence of the penny dreadfuls. The fact that said violence was presented for the first time in (un)living color made it all the better. Finally cineastes and sadists alike could gorge themselves on scenes of carnal carnage in full gory glory.

Not since the original Universal Monster days had a single film company been so synonymous with the macabre. Indeed, only the Universal Monsters themselves overshadow Hammer’s stable in terms of lasting impact. When people think of Dracula, if they don’t think of Bela Lugosi then they probably think of Christopher Lee. Being the second most iconic film studio in horror history might not sound as good as being number one, but it’s better than being third… or fourth… or fifth… or…

So draw the curtains, light a candelabra, and pour yourself a glass of red wine (or cranberry juice if you’re a teetotaler like me). These are My Top Ten Favorite Hammer Horror Movies (+1)…

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Dracula Has Risen from the Grave

No list of Hammer horrors would be complete without at least one Dracula flick and one Frankenstein. Not only were these the properties that propelled Hammer (as well stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing) into genre immortality, they were also the company’s longest-running and most bankable franchises. So let’s get both out of the way right off the, ahem, bat. In the interest of shining a light on some of the less-lauded entries that I love, I’m going to forgo the first installments of both series. You probably don’t need me to tell you that Horror of Dracula is a must-see classic. Instead, permit me to explain why Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is equally as great.

The storyline is simplistic but solid: While the Count is away on vacation (AKA being dead) a priest comes and consecrates Castle Dracula. Returning home from his latest date with oblivion to find out some asshole has locked him out of his own crib, Big Bad Vlad is understandably pissed, embarking on a campaign of petty revenge against the holy man and his beautiful daughter (played beautifully by the beautiful Veronica Carlson, who is beautiful). In a twist, it turns out the girl’s boyfriend is an atheist, rendering him powerless against Hammer’s strictly satanic iteration of Dracula. Meanwhile, director Freddie Francis serves up a sumptuous soufflé of style-over-substance. From the Count’s bloodshot (and occasionally bleeding) eyes to the candy-colored gels which soak the screen in lysergic hues, Francis embellishes the foreboding atmosphere with a proto-Argento panache. It may not be as tasteful as previous entries, nor as trashy as later ones, but Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is doubtlessly the franchise’s visual zenith.

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Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell

Now that I’ve pissed off all the purists who prefer Terence Fisher to Freddie Francis, how about I take off the kid gloves for real? Often singled out as the worst in Hammer’s long-running Frankenstein franchise, 1973’s series swan-song Frankenstein & the Monster from Hell is actually pretty damn great. Sure it’s kind of inconsequential, less interested in pushing forward the larger narrative than in rehashing a bare-bones plot that can be summarized as “Victor Frankenstein builds yet another monster, because why not? The monster goes on a rampage, as usual. The monster gets killed, as usual. Frankenstein cleans up the mess and gets back to work. The end.” It’s not the broad strokes that make Monster from Hell stand out, though. It’s the stitched-together pieces.

To wit, this entry takes place almost entirely in an insane asylum, where Peter Cushing’s aging Baron has continued his fruitless experiments in secret. The grim setting establishes an oppressive mood, underlining the tragedy of Frankenstein’s life of obsession and failure. Having burned his hands to the point of virtual uselessness (one memorable scene sees him operating on a blood-dripping artery with his teeth), the not-so-good doctor seeks the aid of Simon, a recently committed fledgling bodysnatcher. The dynamic between the men adds a deeper dimension of horror to the otherwise fantastical costume melodrama. The characters serve as dark mirrors of one another; Simon reflects Frankenstein’s youthful sins back at him, while the haunted, withered Baron is a warning of what Simon could someday become. Like its namesake creature Monster from Hell may be a flawed patchwork, but as a whole it’s far greater than the sum of its parts.

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The Lost Continent

Okay, now that we’ve tackled Hammer’s two most famous properties, let’s take a look at one of its lesser-known oddities. If the Dracula and Frankenstein franchises are the equivalents of greatest hits records, then The Lost Continent is a b-sides/rarities collection unto itself. A quirky mishmash of the company’s less popular non-gothic offerings, this adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s novel Uncharted Seas is part historical actioner (à la Captain Clegg), part fantasy adventure (à la One Million Years B.C.), and part drive-in creature-feature (à la The Quatermass Xperiment).

When the one-two punch of a violent hurricane and a smuggling scheme gone awry strands a tramp steamer in the middle of the mystery-shrouded Saragasso Sea, the vessel’s ragtag assortment of passengers must contend with glowing-eyed octopuses, flesh-eating seaweed, prehistoric crab-monsters, a pre-Star Wars Sarclacc pit, and a time-lost sect of Spanish Inquisitors led by the Napoleonic boy-king El Supremo! If you’re wondering who spiked your drink right now, you’re not alone; The Lost Continent is easily one of the most WTF indulgences in Hammer’s vast and varied library. It fluctuates between unintentional hilarity and ominous otherworldliness (the dirty orange skies above the shipwreck-strewn Saragasso are an especially eerie touch). As the ancient maps often warned, “here there be monsters.”

The Vampire Lovers 3

The Vampire Lovers

The recipe for a truly classic Hammer horror is simple enough, but requires a few key ingredients in precisely the right amounts. Supernatural forces are a must, as are opulent manors, questionable haircuts, and gallons of stage blood so bright it’s practically fluorescent. Oh yeah, and some gorgeous women in frilly Underoos. That last one is non-negotiable. Taking its cues from Britain’s other major silver-screen export, James Bond, Hammer always saved room for at least one slice of cheesecake. If you’ve got a sweet-tooth for that ol’ “Hammer glamour,” then 1970’s The Vampire Lovers will send your blood sugar into diabetic meltdown.

The cast-list for this one is absolutely stacked (in more ways than one) with wide-eyed, well-endowed beauties in diaphanous gowns: Madeline Smith, Pippa Steel, Dawn Addams, Kate O’Mara, Kirsten Lindholm. Some of them are predators, most are prey. All are stunning. And presiding over this sex-kitten litter like a sultry succubus queen is Ingrid Pitt, here playing the title character from Sheridan Le Fanu’s prototypical lesbian-vampire novella Carmilla. Considering Carmilla gets my vote as the best bloodsucker book of all time (outranking even Bram Stoker’s Dracula), it’s gratifying to see The Vampire Lovers hew so close to its source material, achieving a similarly enigmatic, ethereal, and erotic effect. What’s more, Pitt’s onscreen presence is so strong that despite starring in only two movies for Hammer (this and the following year’s Erzsébet Báthory-inspired Countess Dracula), she’s rightfully become as synonymous with the company as her male counterparts, Cushing and Lee.

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Vampire Circus

I already talked about Vampire Circus back when I did my list of favorite vampire films (which ironically had less movies with the word “vampire” in their titles than this list does), but I never really went in-depth as to what makes the movie so exemplary. By far the most iconoclastic of Hammer’s many, many undead chillers, this one departs from the studio’s standard Victorian fare in favor of something more like a fairy tale: “Once upon a time there was a vampire whose favorite food was children. When a mob of townsfolk finally slayed him, he put a curse on their village with his dying breath. In time, a plague spread through the village, cutting it off from the rest of the world. Only a colorful troupe of clowns, acrobats, and strong-men dared to cross the quarantine, but it was more than fun and games that this circus brought to town.”

Playing fast and loose with nosferatu lore, Vampire Circus defies expectations on multiple levels. A Hammer film where bloodsuckers can morph into panthers and travel through mirrors proves as wondrous a novelty as the sensual, show-stopping dance routine performed by a naked woman in tiger-stripe body-paint. The envelope-pushing doesn’t stop at the carnivalesque, however. This is a movie with a mean-streak, and I’m not just talking about blood ‘n’ guts (although this flick is impressively gruesome). Genuine depravity lurks between the lines, with taboo-busting subtext evident in everything from the aforementioned dance scene’s less-than-subtle allusions to bestiality to the villains’ predatory preference for very young children. Such a dichotomy between the transgressive and the sublime is discomforting, but also fitting. After all, even the most sanitized Grimm tale was once something far grimmer.

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The Plague of the Zombies

In 1968, my kindred Pennsylvanian spirit George A. Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, a film which signaled a sea change in genre cinema. Studio-produced gothic period-pieces were out. Independently made interrogations of contemporary anxieties were in. No one knew it at the time, but that was the beginning of the end for Hammer. Less than ten years later, the company would close its doors after an artistically fruitful but financially ruinous bid to hold onto a sharply shrinking market. A bitter irony, then, that two years prior Hammer had released its own living-dead nightmare, one which can today be seen as a missing link between the Haitian exploitation of early poverty-row shockers like White Zombie and Romero’s shambling hordes of greasepainted poli-sci allegories.

Set in a foggy 19th century Cornish hamlet, Plague of the Zombies pits a rationally minded doctor against a black-magic blue blood who uses secrets learned during his travels in the Caribbean to knock off his enemies and put their blank-eyed corpses to work in his tin mine. In stark contrast to Hammer’s usual aristocratic pretensions, the film’s caustic criticisms of exploitative capitalism are barely obscured behind director John Gilling’s skewed camera angles and artful shot compositions. Oh, and if the Romero connection weren’t enough, I personally am convinced that Lucio Fulci saw this movie at some point. I’d even go so far as to say he consciously referenced it in his surreal Lovecraftian epic The Gates of Hell (AKA City of the Living Dead). Do I have any hard evidence to back this up? No. But watch the fiery subterranean climaxes of both movies back-to-back and try to deny the similarities. Even if you think I’m talking out of my ass, at least it’ll make for a ghoulishly good double-feature.

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Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

First there was Dracula and his brides. Then Dr. Ravna and his cult. Then Carmilla and the Karnstein clan. Then Count Mitterhaus and the Circus of Night. In the sixteen years since Christopher Lee had first donned the velvet cape and plastic fangs, Hammer’s house of horrors had its halls overrun by sinister sanguinarians. Come 1974, it was time to call an exterminator. Enter Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. Custom-built for Hammer by Brian Clemens, writer-producer of The Avengers (Steed and Peel, not Stark and Rogers), Kronos is a swashbuckling swordsman wandering Europe with his scholarly hunchback sidekick, in the process rescuing/romancing damsels and re-deading the undead.

Canonizing Hammer’s infamously inconsistent vampire rulebook, the movie reveals that there are hundreds of different bloodsucker breeds, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. So when he’s called upon to help a village besieged by a very different kind of vampire, one that feeds on youth, Kronos has to employ every nosferatu detection (and destruction) trick he’s got to put the kibosh on the big bad’s nosh. Despite its inventive combo-platter of action, horror, mystery, and comedy (one mordant scene features a suicidal vamp begging for death, only for repeated execution attempts to fail), poor distribution resulted in Captain Kronos flopping upon release, foiling Clemens’ obvious sequel ambitions. Since then, however, the picture has become a fan favorite, recognized as a pulpy precursor to the monster-slayer template later made famous by Buffy and Blade.

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Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb

Mummies, ya gotta love ‘em. They’re the underdogs of the creature-feature pantheon, silent servants covered in decaying bandages that only barely mask their hideous scarab-eaten skull-faces and… uh, wait… is that Valerie Leon? Okay, I can see why some folks don’t consider Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb a “real” mummy movie, but the truth is such flicks tend to be samey as hell. Swapping out the typical gauze-wrapped galoot for a perfectly preserved Egyptian witch-queen who psychically assaults an archaeologist’s comely daughter is a welcome change. Besides, I’m not going to argue with someone who looks like that in a pharaoh’s headdress. If Valerie Leon says she’s a mummy, she’s a mummy. Shit, she can be my “mummy” if she wants. I mean… oh god, forget I said that.

Apparently a victim of a curse itself, the troubled production saw Peter Cushing bow out when his wife’s health took a nasty turn, director Seth Holt suffer a fatal on-set heart attack before he could finish filming, and producer Michael Carreras scramble to shoot enough footage to assemble a passable cut. Despite all that, the final product is more than merely passable. It’s exceptional. Sure it’s awkward and uneven in fits, but it’s also dreamlike, sexy, and fun. Maybe it’s the source material, this being an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of the Seven Stars. Or maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the ancient with the modern, as Hammer uncharacteristically eschewed a period setting in favor of swingin’ ’70s London. Or maybe it’s that evil ambulatory severed hand crawling about, oozing gore from its ragged stump. Whatever it is, something about Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb just clicks. Honestly, my money is on Valerie Leon in dual roles. Two Valerie Leons at the same time? Someone’s been reading my diary.

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The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

By 1974, Hammer horror was in dire straits. Despite releasing some of its best movies (including the aforementioned Vampire Circus and Captain Kronos, as well as lesser-known gems like Demons of the Mind, which came very close to making this list), the ’70s were not a profitable time for the company, with audiences moving onto the more visceral, contemporary thrills of The Exorcist and The Last House on the Left. In a last-ditch effort to rejuvenate its increasingly anemic bloodsucker formula, Hammer decided it needed a heady dose of Asian action. Picture a room full of stuffy Brits sipping tea and grumbling about box office receipts before finally proclaiming “Chop-sockey pictures, that’s what kids like these days! I say we bloody well give ‘em one! Pip pip! Jolly good! Bangers and mash!”

Taking a little from Column A and a little from Column B, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires drops Peter Cushing smack-dab in the middle of Hong Kong to hang out with Shaw Brothers Studio, a company that was much to kung-fu what Hammer was to horror. The resulting culture clash pits Cushing’s Van Helsing and a family of martial-arts masters (including cult actor David Chiang) against an army of sword-swingin’ rot-faced nosferatu (some of whom constantly hop up and down in accordance with Chinese folklore). Plot is almost nonexistent, consisting of little more than characters beelining from one frenetic fight scene to the next. Nevertheless, the briskly paced go-for-brokeness proves insanely charming and charmingly insane. It’s also one of Hammer’s most stylish efforts, bathing Buddhist temples in Bava-esque red and green lights. It’s hard to believe The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires hit theaters the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but that just adds to its flamboyant, fang-flashing, fury-fisted fun.

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The Devil Rides Out

Crowned the “Prince of Thriller Writers” in life and in death (the epithet is actually inscribed on his tombstone), Dennis Wheatley was basically England’s homegrown Stephen King back in the day, selling over 50 million books in almost 30 different languages. One enthusiastic peer called his 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out “the best thing of its kind since Dracula.” His work has not aged well, however. Though entertaining as pure pulp fiction, much of his oeuvre is shot through with overt racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, imperialism, and a kind of shrill conservative Christian alarmism. Fortunately, the same could not be said about Hammer’s adaptation of The Devil Rides Out, which glosses over the worst of Wheatley’s above-listed prejudices and actually makes a virtue of that last one.

Starring Christopher Lee in a rare heroic turn as steely occult-adventurer Duke de Richleau, The Devil Rides Out (the first of three Wheatley adaptations Hammer produced, the others being the previously discussed The Lost Continent and what would be the studio’s final horror film, To the Devil a Daughter) sees Lee butting heads with a devil-worshiping secret society’s high priest (played by Charles Gray, who Rocky Horror fans will recognize for his lack of neck). The Duke ends up staring down a gauntlet of spiritual threats, including a giant spectral tarantula, a goat-headed demon, and even the Angel of Death itself, before the conflict resolves with a literal deus ex machina. Crap climax aside, The Devil Rides Out has a lot to recommend it: Terence Fisher’s elegant direction, Lee and Gray’s antagonistic chemistry, enough hocus-pocus hokum to fill a hundred heavy-metal records, and a screenplay by none other than Richard F’N Matheson, who manages to keep the story from feeling like a sermon (at least until the last few minutes). Watch this one while hailing Satan for best results.

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Twins of Evil

As noted throughout this list, one of Hammer’s defining characteristics was a penchant for casting eye-catching beauties, initially in secondary roles (such as Veronica Carlson in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave) but increasingly as top-billed leads (such as Ingrid Pitt in The Vampire Lovers and Valerie Leon in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb). Not too proud to pat itself on the back, the studio made a habit of promoting its films with self-congratulatory boasts about every “hot new discovery.” One of the hottest of Hammer’s new discoveries was actually two discoveries: Mary and Madeleine Collinson, who’d made history in 1970 as Playboy’s first ever identical twin centerfolds. Hammer produced Twins of Evil a year later specifically as a vehicle for the sisters.

This final entry in the Karnstein trilogy (following The Vampire Lovers and its so-so sequel Lust for a Vampire) brilliantly combines the lesbian-vampire and witchfinder subgenres. As a fanatical Puritan on a quest to immolate anyone unlucky enough to own a vagina, Peter Cushing is even scarier than the requisite bloodsuckers. When his archnemesis, a fanged libertine under royal protection, sets his sanguinarian sights on those beautiful, bouncy Collinson cuties, the result is much girl-on-girl neck-nuzzling, dripping wet penetration (of the arterial kind; get your mind out of the gutter), mistaken-identity mishaps, and scenes of incest both implicit and explicit. At the staked heart of Twins of Evil is a war between repression and debauchery, embodied by Cushing’s torch-bearing zealot and his libidinous adversary, as well as by the titular sisters themselves. Providing more than just verboten sex-appeal, the Collinsons’ mirrored features allow them to be understood as two halves of a larger whole, initially inseparable but fatefully fragmented by religion’s assault on their natural curiosities and desires.

My Top Ten Favorite Evil Effigy Movies (+1)

To celebrate the upcoming release of Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh (featuring my new story, “Husks,” as well as fiction by Ramsey Campbell, Michael Wehunt, Kristine Ong Muslim, Jon Padgett, Matthew M. Bartlett, Christine Morgan, and many more), I thought it’d be fun to make a list of some of my favorite evil effigy stories from that other great love of mine: cinema.

What exactly do I mean by “evil effigy” movies? Well, these are films about something that is made to look like a living thing, but it isn’t actually alive… until one day it is… and then it goes about making others living things into not living things. Get it?

Basically, I’m talking about dummies, dolls, scarecrows, statues, golems, homunculi, and, yes, mannequins. Some of them get up and kill on their own, while others make some poor schlub do the dirty work for them. My only two requirements here are: 1. there has to be at least a suggestion of the effigy’s autonomy (in other words, movies where we know right from the start that the dummy/doll/whatever is definitely not alive, those are out), and 2. the effigy itself has to be a primary focus for the movie, not just relegated to one or two smaller set-pieces (so flicks like Poltergeist, Maniac, and May, as well as anthologies like Tales From the Hood, Dead of Night, and Trilogy of Terror are also out).

Of course, there’s still a bit of wiggle room here, so some of you might disagree with which movies I judge meet the above requirements. In which case, you can go write your own damn blog. Anyway, remember that these are just personal favorites, not necessarily films I think are objectively great. Hell, some of these aren’t even good movies, at least not in a technical sense. But I love them anyway.

Okay, enough preamble. Here, in no particular order, are My Top Ten Favorite Evil Effigy Movies (+1)…

effigy (0)Waxwork

“More fun than a barrel of mummies!” boasts what might be my favorite horror-comedy tagline of the ‘80s, and Waxwork lives up to it. Starring Zach Galligan of Gremlins fame and David Warner of more-awesome-movies-than-I-can-list fame, b-movie auteur Anthony Hickox’s best film sees Warner as a suave warlock luring Galligan’s schoolmates into a wax museum so he can transport them into the gruesome scenes the dummies depict (such as a werewolf transformation, a zombie uprising, a bloody vampire dinner-party, and even an erotic torture-chamber lorded over by the Marquis de Sade). Why? Because once all the dummies have been “fed” they’ll come to life and kick off the “voodoo end of the world.” Obviously.

Waxwork is nonsense through and through, but damned if it isn’t fun. Hickox wears his love for the genre on his sleeve, using the movie’s daffy premise as an excuse to cram in as many classic horror characters as possible. Frankenstein’s Monster? Check. The Phantom of the Opera? You betcha. Jack the Ripper? Damn right. The Invisible Man? Despite the name, you can’t miss him. The Mummy? Not a barrel’s worth, but yeah, we got one. It’s like a Famous Monsters of Filmland greatest-hits compilation updated with a gory Grand Guignol flourish.

effigy (8)Kakashi

I’ve heard people refer to Kakashi, a semi-obscure adaptation of a Junji Ito manga, as “one of those movies where nothing happens.” Good thing those are some of my favorite kinds of movies! I mean, things do happen: a young woman travels to a secluded farming village searching for her brother, who disappeared after receiving a strange letter summoning him there. So far, so Silent Hill. When she arrives, she finds the townsfolk hostile, more interested in preparing for their upcoming “scarecrow festival” than answering questions. She begins dreaming of scarecrows and wakes up clutching fistfuls of straw. As the festival date approaches, how all these seemingly unrelated events fit together is slowly (and I do mean sloooowly) revealed.

I understand if some viewers find Kakashi too languid or subdued. But for those who enjoy quiet horror where thing feels just slightly off as opposed to outwardly ghastly, this film projects a mood I can only describe as straight-up hypnotic. It lulls you in with its surface mundanity, only pulling back the veil for very rare, very brief glimpses of how fucked-up shit really is. Only in the final third does all that build-up pay off, though in not as explosive a fashion as some would prefer. To torture a cliché, it’s not the destination that’s important here, but the journey. And this journey is one of delicate, haunting grief, the kind you never talk about but which is always there, just behind your eyes.

effigy (3)Child’s Play 2

It’s impossible to bring up killer dolls and not tip your hat to Charles Lee Ray AKA Chucky, the subgenre’s undisputed king. Despite an imminent remake, it’s noteworthy that the original franchise is still going strong, having released its most recent entry in 2017, with a spinoff television series currently in the works. Most admirably, the franchise remains the brainchild of prime mover Don Mancini, who wrote the first four movies, then wrote and directed the subsequent three, maintaining a surprising level of quality throughout. What’s more, Mancini is constantly pushing the narrative forward while staying true to three decades’ worth of continuity.

For my money the peak of the franchise remains the first sequel, Child’s Play 2. Director John Lafia’s use of extreme camera angles and distorting lenses gives this installment a uniquely nightmarish style that makes viewers feel like children themselves. It also allows the diminutive serial killer to tower over the audience with a grisly, grinning malevolence bolstered by voice actor Brad Dourif’s Jack Nicholson-inspired performance. The grand finale where Chucky stalks his victims through a brightly lit toy factory packed to the rafters with doubles of himself is intense, and its surprisingly brutal mutilation-by-assembly-line climax hits even harder when you remember that, despite looking like a lifeless doll, Chucky is still a thinking, feeling, bleeding entity.

effigy (10)Magic

Before Anthony Hopkins was Hannibal Lecter, he was Corky Withers, a bumbling nebbish with a deeply repressed dark side. Corky is only able to express himself through his ventriloquist dummy, Fats, a foul-mouthed smartass who isn’t afraid to speak his mind. But wait, shouldn’t it be Corky’s mind he’s speaking? What started as an outlet for Corky’s id is rapidly becoming a living thing all its own. When Corky begins an affair with a married woman named Peggy (played by a sympathetic, conflicted Ann-Margret), it isn’t long before Fats gets jealous. If you thought this dummy’s wit was sharp, just wait until he pulls out his knife.

Based on the William Goldman novel of the same name, Magic is at its heart a tortured romance. The question is, which of its pair of unhealthy pairings is the most unhealthy, Corky and Peggy or Corky and Fats? Playing things deadly serious throughout, Magic rejects camp humor in favor of building a methodical engine of tension that retains its air of mystery all the way to the bitter end. And all the while, the main attraction is Hopkins. Since he voices Fats too, the actor basically gets to play two different characters here. Such duality proves captivating; Corky is as pitiful as Fats is diabolical. In the end, though, it’s moments where we see hints of one within the other that prove most chilling of all.

effigy (17)Tourist Trap

Charles Band is no stranger to evil effigy flicks. As a director, producer, and head of two separate b-movie studios (Empire Pictures from ’83 to ’89, then Full Moon from ’89 onward), the man could be said to have a wee bit of an obsession. There’s the Puppetmaster series, for one. And the Demonic Toys series. And Stuart Gordon’s Dolls. And about a million other movies with “Doll” in the title. Seriously, Google the guy; his filmography goes on forever. Even with his name attached to so many of these kinds of pictures, 1979’s Tourist Trap is still arguably the best. If not that, it’s certainly the strangest.

A funhouse mirror take on familiar horror tropes, Tourist Trap is an eerie, disorienting tale about a bunch of teens whose jeep breaks down along an abandoned stretch of highway. The only souls to be found for miles are a helpful weirdo who calls a destitute roadside attraction home, a masked mystery man with a froggy voice and a habit of suffocating folks under globs of gooey plaster, and, oh yeah, a friggin’ army of mannequins that seem to follow our protagonists everywhere they go. The movie plays its cards close to the chest for much of its runtime, stringing you along through one surreal set-piece after another (the part where the mannequins’ jaws drop open so they can, for lack of a better word, sing is pants-shittingly freaky). In time, the rest of the universe seems to disappear entirely. All that’s left is an isolated night-world where batshit insanity and department-store dummies reign.

effigy (1)The Doll

I’ve often said that when it comes to film I prefer ambitious failures with interesting ideas to competent successes that take no risks. Take the most recent entry on this list, 2017’s The Doll. Being an extremely low-budget indie production its problems are legion, including a tenuous and inconsistent script, amateur acting, laughable kill scenes, a meandering non-sequitur cameo from Ron Jeremy (!), and more. But it does have one gold-star advantage that no other horror movie before or since has ever had: Valeria Lukyanova. The uncanny onscreen presence of this Ukrainian model, who made global headlines as a “Human Barbie Doll,” is the result of pure stunt-casting genius. It recontextualizes not only the movie’s story—in which Lukyanova plays an animate but lifeless synthetic woman pimped out by the devil-worshiping mad scientist who created her—but also the movie itself as a product and the audience’s reaction to that product.

On a personal note, I’ll point out that I consider myself a transhumanist and body-autonomy advocate. As such I have serious ethical concerns about any movie which further others someone who has already been othered to a depressing degree (the fact that Lukyanova has some rather noxious ideas about race does little to alleviate my concerns, though it does add some new ones). Even still, I can’t deny the subtle power and morbid fascination inherent in sophomore director Susannah O’Brien clumsy but brash weaponization of the male gaze.

effigy (2)Black Devil Doll

Where The Doll turned the male gaze against us, Black Devil Doll happily indulges it to absolute excess. As soon as we see the introductory animation claiming this film has been “rated X by an all-white jury,” we know exactly what we’re in for. African-American director Jonathan Lewis parodies the blaxploitation genre with a horror-comedy sleazefest centered around Mubia Abul-Jama, an executed black-militant serial killer whose disembodied soul possesses (and subsequently “blackifies”) a Howdy Doody doll. After his long stint in the slammer, Mubia is understandably horny. Thus begins what mythologist Joseph Campbell might call “the hero’s journey,” as Mubia seeks out “a fresh fuckin’ batch of strange.” But murderous habits die hard, and so too do a number of buxom beauties.

Ruthlessly skewering every slasher-movie cliché and African-American stereotype in the book, Black Devil Doll is actively stupid, often mean-spirited, and always offensive. Fortunately, the sheer level of absurdity here makes it difficult to take any of its politically incorrect grotesqueries seriously. In between many, many, many leering shots of actresses Heather Murphy, Natasha Talonz, Precious Cox, Erika Branich, and Christine Svendsen, there are also graphic, Troma-esque scenes of puppet fucking, puppet shitting, and puppet drug use. Set to a druggy jazz-funk score by The Giallos Flame, this mix of mature content and immature execution makes Black Devil Doll a live-action cartoon perfect for perverts and psychos alike.

effigy (11)The Golem

Silent horror films, especially those in the German Expressionist tradition, are unlike anything else you’re likely to ever watch. They’re otherworldly, mythic, and rare; indeed, a huge number of these movies have been lost to time. The one under discussion here is actually the final part of a trilogy, with no complete prints of the first and second entries known to exist. This 1920 classic (the full title of which is The Golem: How He Came into the World) is actually a prequel to the other two. Set in medieval Prague, prejudice against Jews prompts Rabbi Loew (a fictionalization of the real-life kabbalah mystic of the same name) to create a clay golem as a protector for his people. When Rabbi Loew’s assistant discovers the woman he loves in bed with another, he tries to sic the golem on the man. This selfish act of jealousy opens the colossus up for possession by the demon Astaroth, who drives it on a rampage through the city, terrorizing the very people it was built to serve.

An epic in under 90 minutes, The Golem may not be as stark an example of Weimar-era cinema as Nosferatu, Warning Shadows, or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but its stark, stylized imagery (courtesy of pioneering cinematographer Carl Freund) stays with you long after the film is over. What’s more, few icons of the period cut as imposing a figure as the title character (played by co-director Paul Wegener), whose lumbering movements and blank expression suggest dangers both physical and spiritual.

effigy (13)Scarecrows

Gun-toting antiheroes versus ambulatory burlap-sacks. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Of course it’s a product of the ’80s. Taking the Predator/Aliens action-horror route, the imaginatively titled Scarecrows drops a squad of well-trained and well-armed crooks into a cornfield late one night following a daring multi-million dollar heist. With the authorities on their tails and greed and paranoia splintering the group from within, the last thing they need is some curiously specific form of supernatural comeuppance wherein killer scarecrows remove their internal organs and replace said guts with money and hay. But, oh yes, supernatural comeuppance wherein killer scarecrows remove their internal organs and replace said guts with money and hay is exactly what they get.

After a deceptively restrained and suspenseful first act, Scarecrows swings for the fences with splattery abandon, pitchforking hands, knifing faces, and gouging out eyeballs with barb-wire. But what really makes Scarecrows special is its potent doom-laden ambience. The sky is almost always pitch-black. The rest of the world seems to no longer exist. The movie’s namesake villains move silently among the stalks, only speaking telepathically to mimic the voices of their victims. And in a refreshing break from convention, the script smartly sidesteps any real explanation for the scarecrows’ origins. There are implications of black magic and a recurring photograph of three farmers, but nothing is explicated. For all the film’s indulgences, it knows the darkest dread lurks in all the things we don’t know.

effigy (6)Ghosthouse

Remember that scene in Poltergeist where the kid’s clown doll turns monstrous and attacks him? Umberto Lenzi remembers. Legend says that if you hold a copy of Ghosthouse to your ear, shut your eyes, and listen closely, you can actually hear Lenzi’s voice whisper “Hey, what if we made a movie where instead of just being a one-scene-wonder that spooky clown doll was the main attraction?” And so, from little acorns mighty oaks grow.

Bizarrely marketed in some territories as an unofficial Evil Dead sequel, Ghosthouse reimagines the Poltergeist plaything as property pilfered from the restless dead. Given as a gift to the cat-stabbing daughter of a grave-robbing mortician, the clown doll transforms into a conduit for supernatural mayhem, promptly killing the young girl’s family. Skip ahead ten years later and some ham-radio enthusiasts track a mysterious broadcast consisting entirely of carnival music and screams to the now abandoned funeral home (fun fact: Lucio Fulci used the same shooting location in House by the Cemetery). Before you can say “mama mia,” Italian cinema’s signature blend of gory, nightmare-logic mayhem kicks into high gear. Guillotine bisections! Hatchet head-chops! Exploding lightbulbs! Ecloplasmic sinkholes! Spectral dobermans! THE GRIM FUCKING REAPER! None of it makes any sense, but you won’t care.

effigy (7)Pin

All I have to do to sell you on this one is to tell you what the title refers to. Pin is the name for an anatomically correct life-size dummy resembling a man without any skin, which aloof Dr. Linden uses as a teaching tool for his two young children, Leon and Ursula, encouraging the rugrats to talk to it as if were a real live person. Let me repeat that in case you missed it: this is an anatomically correct life-size dummy resembling a man without any skin. That’s disturbing even before little Leon catches his father’s nurse fucking it. Yes, that is a thing that happens.

Understandably, Leon grows up with a few screws loose, developing an obsessive relationship with Pin not unlike the one Anthony Hopkins shared with Fats in Magic. And much like in that film it’s never 100% clear whether Leon’s conversations with Pin are solely the product of a disturbed mind or something more arcane. Another parallel is that Pin is also based on a novel, this time by Andrew Neiderman. Pin, however, is so much weirder and more lurid than Magic, even if it does dance around the source material’s more overt themes of incest (small wonder that Neiderman went on to ghostwrite books for the estate of deceased Flowers in the Attic author V.C. Andrews). Whether the lack of explicit brother-sister boots-knockin’ is a flaw or an improvement is a judgement I leave to you.

Bow Down to the Savior of Modern Literature!

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Don’t mind the post title, I’ve just gone a little bit mad with power. It seems Silent Motorist Media has named yours truly as one of their “10 Weird Writers to Save Us All in 2018.”

While my kneejerk response is to quote a certain Stabbing Westward song (“I cannot save you / I can’t even save myself”), I can’t deny that it’s insanely flattering to see my name listed alongside writers I myself look up to, such as Jon Padgett and Betty Rocksteady and S.L. Edwards and… well, I don’t want to spoil the whole list for you. Give it a read yourself; hopefully you’ll discover some authors you haven’t heard of yet.

That is, after all, what the list is really all about. That whole “savior” thing is just a fun way of bringing together a motley mismatch of under-the-radar and up-and-coming writers beneath the same umbrella. As the folks behind Silent Motorist Media themselves said to their readers when asking for authors suggestions a few weeks ago, this list is meant to shine a light on “weird, bizarro, horror, and otherwise experimental writers who haven’t quite received the exposure you think they deserve.”

And that, more than anything, is why my inclusion on this list means so much to me. It’s not just a list put together by some random blogger rattling off his or her own personal favorites; every writer on this list is there because actual readers liked their work enough to email Silent Motorist Media. As a relatively new author with few published credits to my name, Imposter Syndrome weighs heavily on me. I often find myself wondering if anyone even reads my stories, let alone likes them.

So thanks to anyone and everyone who nominated me for this list, thanks to Silent Motorist Media for putting it together, and thanks to the other writers on it for being such damn good company.

My Top 10 Favorite Twilight Zone Episodes (+1)

Today is officially the first day of 2018. If you’re a normal person that means you probably spent last night partying with family and friends and you’re now nursing a wicked hangover. If you’re a geek like me, however, you spent last night the same way you did the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that: watching the annual New Year’s Eve Twilight Zone marathon on TV.

Just in time for this decidedly antisocial tradition is the release of a new anthology, Test Patterns, packed to the gills with original weird fiction inspired by classic horror/sci-fi/fantasy shows like The Outer Limits, Night Gallery, and, of course, The Twilight Zone.

Now available in both paperback and ebook from Amazon.com (hint, hint), Test Patterns features my new story “I Am Become Death.” It’s about a WWII army photographer haunted by the destruction he documented at Hiroshima… as well as by the shadowy thing he unknowingly brought home with him. This story is my attempt to filter some of TZ creator Rod Serling’s themes of paranoia, nuclear devastation, and the horrors of war through the lens of my own imagination.

Writing this story and then watching last night’s marathon got me thinking about how much Serling’s work has influenced me and about how much I love the original Twilight Zone. In that spirit I thought I’d share some of my favorite episodes. These aren’t necessarily the “best” Zones ever made, just my own personal favorites, the ones I could watch over and over again and never get tired of.

Hoping to shine a light on some of the less frequently touted episodes, I specifically tried to avoid including too many of the really famous ones. Listen, I love “Time Enough at Last,” “To Serve Man,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Ft.,” “It’s a Good Life,” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” as much as the next Zone junkie (and if you’re thinking that I’m rattling these titles off now as a cheap way of including them in my list without technically including them in my list, well, yeah, you’re totally right) but do we really need to sing their praises yet again?

Even still, I had a hard time narrowing this list down to 10, so I decided to do the same thing I did with my previous ranking of favorite vampire movies and add just one more. Going forward, I think I’m going to make this my default. In this case, at least, it’s fitting; nothing is as it seems in The Twilight Zone, not even the number 10.

Oh, one last thing: there are definitely going to be spoilers here. Sorry, but this show is almost 60 years old. If you haven’t seen these episodes yet, that’s on you.

Submitted for your approval, these are, in no particular order, My Top 10 Favorite Twilight Zone Episodes (+1)…

obsoletemanThe Obsolete Man

Aside from Rod Serling himself, arguably no person is more popularly associated with The Twilight Zone than Burgess Meredith. The inimitable actor starred in four episodes throughout the series’ original run, including the iconic “Time Enough at Last,” and even took Serling’s place as narrator in the TZ movie. It is this Zone, however, which may well be his finest hour. In a dystopian future Meredith plays a librarian and a Christian, two things decreed “obsolete” by the authoritarian state, which has long since banned all books and outlawed all religion. The punishment for the crime of obsolescence is death, and in this cold, callous society, the only mercy left is in allowing the condemned a choice in their method of execution.

Not one to be underestimated, the librarian uses his sole remaining right to turn the tables on his oppressors, exposing the entire system as, itself, obsolete. Meredith’s performance is utterly captivating and the jagged expressionist shadows throughout give this Zone a stark Orwellian style. Despite all the talk of god and faith, “The Obsolete Man” should not be misinterpreted as proselytizing for any one particular faith. Instead, it’s a passionate endorsement of religious liberty in general, as well as a confrontational rebuke against government and conformity.

littlegirlLittle Girl Lost

If this Zone wasn’t an influence on the movie Poltergeist, man, I’ll eat my hat. See if this rings a bell: A suburban couple wakes one night to the sound of their young daughter’s voice, but the child is nowhere to be found. It’s as if she’s simply vanished, except they can still hear her, calling to them as if from far away. After seeking help from a friend, they realize a section of wall in the house seems strangely immaterial; their hands pass right through its surface as if it were an open window. But a window to where?

Rather than being a portal into Stephen Spielberg’s computer-generated afterlife, this one turns out to lead somewhere far more astounding: fourth-dimensional space. The idea of higher spatial dimensions beyond the paltry three we humans can perceive—i.e. height, width, and depth—makes for mind-bending material to this day. Putting something this high-concept on mainstream television in 1962, the same time as such programs as The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Beverly Hillbillies, is ample evidence of how far ahead of its time TZ really was. Brainy as this Zone is, however, it also has heart. When the girl’s father finally enters the fourth dimension (complete with trippy alien geometry) the terror any parent would feel at the thought of losing a child proves just as moving as the fortitude said parent displays in risking everything to save that child.

comewanderwithmeCome Wander with Me

There’s a long tradition in folk and blues music of “murder ballads,” stories in song form which unspool lurid yarns of love, death, and vengeance. Usually mournful in tone, many  are based on true crimes or long-held pieces of regional folklore, and I personally count them among my favorite genres of music. It should be no surprise, then, that the criminally overlooked “Come Wander with Me” would strike a chord with me. Pun intended.

In this exceptionally eerie and dreamlike Zone, a fast-talking rockabilly musician encounters a young woman (played by future counterculture mama-bear Bonnie Beecher) singing to herself in the middle of backwoods nowhere. The song—about a woman who falls in love with a wanderer even though she is betrothed to another—is hauntingly beautiful. Recognizing a surefire radio hit, the rockabilly kid offers to buy the rights but the woman resists his advances. This song, she says, was meant for someone else. Pressuring her to teach it to him anyway, he discovers the rest of the lyrics are about the aforementioned wanderer killing his lover’s fiancé, only to be hunted down and killed in kind by the man’s brothers. When the rockabilly kid subsequently finds himself pursued by a pair of gun-toting hillbillies, it becomes clear that by trying to make the song “his,” the story behind it has become his as well.

livingdollLiving Doll

Long before Chucky and Annabelle, there was Talky Tina. One of the earliest examples of the “killer toy” trope in television and film, “Living Doll” is a fairly straightforward episode, wherein a sweet little girl receives an expensive new doll as a gift from her mother, only for her brutish stepfather to rage that it’s a waste of money. The doll doesn’t take too kindly to the man’s verbal abuse of his family and, when no one else is around, taunts him with threats of murder.

At first the man thinks his wife or stepdaughter is somehow playing a kind of twisted prank on him. So he tries to throw the doll away. But it comes back. So he tries to destroy it. But he can’t even make a dent. Then one night, as he’s drifting off to sleep, he hears faint sounds in the dark, something like the whirring of tiny gears… or maybe the soft steps of tiny feet. While this all feels fairly formulaic now, “Living Doll” is still damned effective thanks to its ominous atmosphere, methodic pacing, and creeptastic imagery, not to mention June Foray’s chilling line readings as the voice of Talky Tina. Besides, I’m a sucker for evil doll stories, so this Zone was never not going to make my list.

iamthenightI Am the Night—Color Me Black

Killer toys, dimensional portals, and ethereal sirens are all well and good, but one of the things that always made The Twilight Zone special, and which still sets it apart from its many imitators and successors, was its social conscience. Rod Serling  believed deeply in the power of stories to explore real-world issues and to inspire audiences to think in new ways. TZ got a lot of hard-hitting material past fidgety network censors by dressing it up in the fanciful clothes of science fiction and fantasy, but rarely did it attack any subject with such unapologetic head-on aggression as it did in this episode.

Here, a white man known for helping the local black community is set to be executed for murdering a cross-burning bigot. There’s evidence that the murder may have been done in self-defense, but the white townspeople want blood and the sheriff just wants peace and quiet. On the day the man is to hang the sky turns black over town. To some, this is confirmation that the man deserves to die. To others, it’s a sign that it was the bigot who deserved to die and that his killer should go free. Who is right? Who is wrong? Serling lets us squirm beneath the weight of sobering silences and ambiguous non-answers. By episode’s end the sky is still black… and the darkness is spreading. The only thing made clear is the fact that nothing is clear. No one is right. We’re all wrong.

willtherealmartianWill the Real Martian Please Stand Up?

This one is probably right up there with “Living Doll” in terms of being among the more popular Zones on this list, although it’s nowhere near as fondly remembered as equally classic episodes like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” or “To Serve Man.” And yet it is cut from very similar cloth as those two. Set almost entirely in a single location, “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” sees a pair of UFO-investigating police officers holed up in a small snowed-in greasy-spoon, along with the diner’s proprietor and his customers, i.e. the six occupants of a broken-down bus, as well as its driver.

Wait, did I say six? Because there seem to be seven people here, not counting the cook, the driver, and the cops. With no one else around for miles, could that mean one among them is the pilot of that UFO? Repeating many of the same beats as the more po-faced “Maple Street,” this episode is a coy study in how paranoia can drive people to turn on one other. But then it throws into the mix the same campy humor that made “To Serve Man” such a blast. From bug-eyed Jack Elam’s cackling, wisecracking performance as a man loathe to take any of this flying-saucer business seriously, to a final twist which is more zany punchline than shocking revelation—yes, one of the bus riders is a Martian scout, but it turns out Earth has already being colonized by Venusians!—it’s hard to find a Zone that’s as just plain fun as this one.

owlcreekbridgeAn Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is an extraordinary episode of The Twilight Zone for a number of reasons. For one, it is almost completely devoid of dialogue; the story is told primarily through its visuals. For another, this is the one and only Zone that’s not actually a Zone. It is, in fact, an award-winning French short film which received honors from both the Cannes Film Festival and the Oscars. It so impressed one of the TZ producers that he purchased the film for inclusion in the show’s final season (a move which also saved a boatload of money, natch), and it’s not hard to see why. It had much the same effect on me when my teacher screened it during English class in high school.

Based on a story by legendary author Ambrose Bierce, the film is about a Civil War prisoner facing execution by a group of soldiers. When the rope around his neck snaps, he escapes and begins a long journey home, evading his would-be executioners while suddenly finding new appreciation for the myriad wonders of life all around him. Like all the best Zones, of course, there’s a twist at the end, and this one really punches you in the gut. I know I said I wouldn’t shy away from spoilers, but if you don’t already know how “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” ends, I’m not saying a word. You need to experience this story yourself.

agameofpoolA Game of Pool

Now here’s a Zone I was initially hesitant to spotlight because I figured it’s such a classic that surely it’s on most folks’ top 10 lists already, right? Then I Googled some other people’s top 10 lists and you know what? I think I saw it pop up maybe once. Once! How is that even possible?!? This brilliant gem of an episode takes something as minor and (if you ask me) boring as billiards and creates a riveting life-or-death conflict from of it, one where you’re constantly unsure which side to root for.

TZ regular Jack Klugman plays a pool shark who’s dedicated his life to the game. He can beat anyone, but the only player worth the effort died years ago. Because this is The Twilight Zone, the legend obligingly returns from the grave (played by the great Jonathan Winters) and agrees to the titular game, but only if his opponent is willing to bet his life. What follows is a tense back-and-forth contest accompanied by a thoughtful discussion of what it truly means to be “the greatest.” When the final ball is pocketed a new king is crowned; our up-and-comer’s life is safe for now. Alas, he’s unknowingly condemned himself in a different way, because once he does die, he must spend the rest of eternity just like his idol. That is, constantly being summoned to play other wanna-bes looking to prove themselves by beating a legend.

theskywasopenedAnd When the Sky Was Opened

Have you ever put an item down for a second, then come back for it only to find it’s not there anymore? You know you put it there, but now it’s gone. Wouldn’t it be worse if everyone around you said you were wrong and that the thing in question was never there to begin with it? And wouldn’t it be even worse still if that thing wasn’t a thing at all, but one of your closest friends? That’s the situation faced by three recently returned astronauts in “And When the Sky was Opened.” Or is it two astronauts? Or maybe just one? Or… wait… what astronauts?

Someone or something is erasing these men from existence. The world is forgetting them. A newspaper headline about the three of them is about only two the next day, then one. Their own parents are forgetting them. When one of them calls his mother, she claims to have never had a son. Worst yet, the astronauts are forgetting each other. When the first one vanishes completely, the second pleads with the third to remember their missing companion, only to be told time and again that no such person ever existed. What begins as an exercise in psychological dissolution—are these astronauts just going crazy, remembering people who were never there?—quickly spirals into existential panic. As each astronaut gradually disappears from reality, those left behind are stuck with the awful certainty that the same fate awaits them as well.

thedummyThe Dummy

Earlier I mentioned my weakness for “evil doll” stories. That weakness carries over to “evil ventriloquist dummy” stories too. The inherent horror in both these tropes, I think, stems from the Uncanny Valley, from the discomfort that arises when one encounters something that superficially resembles a human being, but which is nonetheless patently inhuman. Part of that is probably rooted in a fear of being replaced, as well as in a sense of being mocked. These horrors are especially palpable when you’re dealing with dummies because there’s so much in ventriloquism that is akin to madness. It’s the act of fabricating an alternate personality for yourself and pretending that it is separate from the rest of you, exacerbated even more by the fact that you’re giving it part of your voice and, by extension, your soul.

Who’s the real dummy, dummy? When TZ introduces us to an alcoholic ventriloquist beleaguered by a failing career and a growing suspicion that his dummy has a mind of its own, we already know the answer. Most “evil dummy” stories play out essentially the same way; what sets one apart from another is the quality of the execution and the strength of the ending. This one’s a doozy on both counts, boasting oodles of heart-stopping suspense, snappy dialogue, skewed camera angles, and one grotesquely surreal final twist that sees our sad-sack protagonist finally achieving career success, just not as the one pulling the strings.

twoTwo

I mentioned all the way back near the tippy-top of this list that my latest published story, “I Am Become Death,” (COUGH read it now in the anthology Test Patterns, available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.com COUGH) was inspired by one of the most frequently revisited of TZ’s pet themes, namely the horrors of war. Rod Serling was a WWII veteran who found a positive use for all the psychological baggage he brought home through dedicating himself to creation rather than destruction. Through the Zone, Serling and his close-knit circle of writers appealed directly to millions of viewers, imploring them to condemn those ugly impulses which turn brother against brother and to beware the apocalyptic perils of nuclear armaments.

Of all the depravities and degradations war is capable of, the worst of all might be the way it dehumanizes those involved, turning soldiers into killing machines, as well as machines to be killed. Enter “Two,” which features a before-they-were-famous double-header, with Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery playing the sole survivors of a war that may or may not have wiped out the rest of society. The problem? They both hail from opposite sides of the conflict. Despite having no reason to continue fighting now, breaking free of the conditioning which war has ingrained in them is no easy task. Like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” this episode is almost completely free of dialogue. Nevertheless, it’s clear as day what kind of war these characters are fighting, not just against each other but within themselves as well. And while the ending leaves civilization’s future decidedly unclear, it’s apparent that Serling & Co.’s faith in the better angels of human nature may be bent but is never broken.