Horror 365, Movie 81: The Watcher In The Woods

Disney and Buena Vista–not things one typically associates with horror, so yeah I was fully aware of the risks going in. But I’d been meaning to get to The Watcher In The Woods for a long time. Then I saw Lucy McPhee (super early spoilers comin’) mention it on Top 5 Horror Movies With Almost No Deaths. I really like Ms. McPhee and her aesthetics in terms of horror movies. I generally trust her recommendations, and she’s never let me down so…why not?

Plus there’s Bette Davis! How bad could it be?

Well, let’s start there with the fact that it’s certainly not the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Really, not even close. Cuz again, Bette Davis. The best description I can give you is part Nancy Drew mystery, part feel-good cosmic horror. If you can imagine H.P. Lovecraft with a happy ending, you’re on the right track, plus the plot itself is actually pretty interesting.

A teenager, Karen Aylwood, disappears. Many years later Karen’s mother, Mrs. Aylwood (hey,  is that Bette Davis??) is in need of money, so she rents out her estate and lives in the cottage on the grounds (a cottage that’s nicer than any place I’ve ever lived but whatever). A family moves in with their two daughters, Jan and her younger sister Ellie. Jan looks very much like Karen which arouses Mrs. Aylwood’s curiosity.

The two girls are then haunted by the spirit of someone or something that wants their help with this ill-defined Karen situation. Lots of creepy little incidents start to befall the girls literally the minute they move in. Windows and mirrors crack, Ellie keeps hearing voices and going into paranormal trances, Jan nearly drowns. Good times.

For the most part the acting is decent, and the script is more or less okay. Jan gets a bit shrill here and there, but I’ve made it through worse. Also tricky casting Bette Davis in a character acting role. Cuz she’s Bette Goddamn Davis. Aside from her, the movie, “boasts” figure skater turned actress Lynn-Holly Johnson who would go on to The Spy Who Loved Me and something else I’ve seen her in but can’t for the life of me pin down (shit…this is gonna bug me all night). There’s also a very young Escape From Witch Mountain Kyle Richards and an incidental at best David McCallum (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., NCIS).

And yet, the movie still works on a number of levels. There’s a respectable amount of genuine tension in the race to save/find/help the missing Karen. Mrs. Aylwood is just creepy and secretive enough to keep you guessing. There’s a little bit of a ritualistic, culty, Lovecraftian cosmic weirdness vibe about what actually happened to Karen. Jan’s disappearance when the original ritual is repeated comes as a legit shock. The otherworldly special effects are a little lacking, but the practical effects of The Big Bad work surprisingly well. It’s somewhat Cthulhu-like, just minus, y’know, the despair and madness the goes along with the Elder Gods.

All in all, if you find yourself needing a wee break from death, gore, and dread, give this one a watch.

Oh, and Bette Davis.

Not. A single. One.
Available on YouTube
Wait wait I got it! Lynn-Holly Johnson was in the “Enemy Within” episode of MacGyver! You know, the one where he makes a defibrillator out of two candlesticks and a power cord from a lamp. Whew…I’ll be able to sleep tonight.

Horror 365, Movie 80: The Tingler

Ah, William Castle, king of the late late night horror fest. Between Bill Cardille’s Chiller Theater on WIIC, Ghost Host on WPTT, Thing Theater on WPGH, and the film series they used to have at Pittsburgh Playhouse, I saw more than my fair share of William Castle flicks.

I’m not, however, extolling the virtues of Mr. Castle’s prodigious directorial career just now. Another time perhaps. I want to focus on just one of his countless visionary creations that spawned many upon many a slimy, parasitic creepy crawly to come.

tinglerBack before Night Of The Creeps ripped off Shivers, then Slither ripped off Night Of The Creeps, William Castle trotted out The Tingler. Yep, The Tingler, so named for the initial spine-tingling sensation fear has on us. Hey I didn’t say the writing was spectacular. Still, better than, I dunno, The Hidden.

Lemme be up front here. I love me some Hitchcock as a director, but he was also an A+ showman. Check out his tour of the house to promote Psycho, or just about any opening to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But  William Castle just piles it on with gimmickry and hucksterism up his sleeve to give P.T. Barnum a substantial run for his money.

Look at Castle’s monologues before The Tingler, Homicidal, or 13 Ghosts. Tell me he wasn’t ripping whole pages out of ol’ Phineas Taylor’s playbook.

Castle was no slouch as a director either, but to give you a sense of that, I’ll let John Waters do the talking, first because he’s yet another of my all time favorite directors, second because he himself talks about Castle’s influence on him, and third, because he sums things up better than I ever could.

“The Tingler is an organism that grows in your body and gets larger and larger when you’re frightened, and the only way you can kill it is to scream. Well, naturally there’s a mute in the film.” Not hard to see where that’s gonna go. More importantly, this may well be the original Slurpie Movie.

If you’re not familiar, you can read a Slurpie Movie overview here. The point is, the Slurpie “subgenre” slime trail leads back to The Tingler where all the hallmarks of The Slurpie Movie were arguably established. A slug, worm, mollusk, or slug/worm/mollusk-like creature, often alien, usually parasitic, infects a human body.

It then wreaks havoc as only a parasitic slug/worm/mollusk thing can.

How is this not a Slurpie?

The Tingler is a kind of centipede/earwig/rubberized lobster tail hybrid.

It’s better than it sounds. Trust me.

The nasty little sucker itself is not the issue. According to Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price, so what’s not to love?) everyone has one of these things. It’s activated by fear but subdued by screaming.

Of course.

This is where it gets, uh, interesting. There’s a noirish subplot involving Dr. Chapin, his wife, her sister, and an inheritance. Also, full marks for possibly the first onscreen depiction of LSD use (nice & legal back in good ol’ 1959).

But to return to Martha, the mute woman. Obviously she can’t scream. If you can’t scream, The Tingler crushes your spine. Martha’s husband, Ollie, learns this from Dr. Chapin and uses that knowledge to scare her literally to death.

Ollie calls the good doctor who then removes The Tingler. See, since she couldn’t scream, nothing shrank the thing back to its microscopic size. Trouble is, now it can’t be destroyed either. Well, Ollie and his now late wife live above the theater that they run.

Of course.

It all culminates near the end of the film. Dr. Chapin turns out the theater lights (at this point the screen goes black) and says “Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic, but scream! Scream for your lives!”

tingler3It’s better than it sounds. Trust me. Why?

It’s all thanks to Percepto.

Here’s John Waters again.

“These little buzzers went off under the seat and gave you a little electric shock. It was so good. Y’know. When it finally came to the theater in my neighborhood, they only bothered to wire about two or three of the seats, so I’d go early and look under every seat until I found the Percepto buzzer and then just sit there and get my ass buzzed all day long.”

What could possibly be better?

And now, dear readers–


1 onscreen
2 offscreen
Available on Plex, Shudder, Tubi. For rent on Apple TV+, Google Play, Prime, Vudu, YouTube

Horror 365, Movie 79: Apaches

Some time ago, I was on Letterboxd checking out some lists of Folk Horror, and Apaches popped up a number of times. This made me curious, so I tracked it down, and wowzers was I ever woefully unprepared for what was about to befall my sweet, winsome soul. Lemme make it clear that I love safety films and have a pretty decent catalog of them, so I thought I was ready.

This was an unwise assumption, and originally I planned to review Apaches as another example of horror in movies that aren’t horror. On the surface after all, this seems like just another public safety film. But in the hands of those zany Brits at Graphic Films and The Central Office Of Information For The Health And Safety Executive, it became oh so much more. If I were to make a Top 10 list of my favorite horror shorts, this would be in the top 3.

The plot is uncomplicated. Over an unspecified period of time, six kids repeatedly go out to play at a nearby farm in the English countryside (hence the folk horror tie-in). One by one, most of them meet gruesome, tragic ends, the survivors blithely returning to the farm only days later to continue in their make-believe.

We meet these youngins right at the start: Danny (the narrator), Kim, Michael, Robert, Sharon, and Tom (spoilers ahead). Disaster strikes almost immediately and claims Kim as its first victim. The gang runs after a tractor that’s pulling a trailer and pretend it’s a train. Kim jumps on the trailer, but the tractor makes a sudden turn, and she falls under one of the wheels. The next scene shows a teacher taking Kim’s name tag off a coat rack.

Later, while playing Kick The Can (more like Kick The Bucket as time goes on), Tom tries to climb along the fence surrounding a slurry pit (look it up, fellow colonists). He slips, falls in, and drowns. Cut to a teacher cleaning out his desk.

Okay, sidebar: why are these kids ever allowed to go back to this farm? One would think the parents would descend on this place like the villagers at the end of Frankenstein. And where’s the parental supervision? It’s like a Charlie Brown cartoon from hell.

The worst fate of the lot befalls Sharon. While playing cowboys and Indians, the youths come to an equipment shed where they find an unlabeled bottle full of some unidentified liquid. I have no idea what’s in that bottle. One of the kids thinks it might be rat poison. I’ve seen reviews saying it’s weed killer, specifically paraquat. Who the hell knows? I looked up paraquat poisoning, y’know, just for laughs, like ya do. Sheesh.

Anyway, they decide to mime having a celebratory drink for having captured the farm/fort. Sharon “forgets” they’re pretending and drinks some by accident but immediately spits it out, getting some on Robert’s jacket. Moments later, as Susan enters her home, we see that she doesn’t feel well.

As the boys head home, Robert says, “That stuff made a right mess on my clothes. My mum’s gonna kill me!” At least, I think that’s what he says. That night, Sharon wakes up crying for her mother. Her shrieks of pain are the most unnerving part of the film. Next Sharon’s dresser is being emptied.

And then there were three. Time for cops & robbers. Robert and Michael take cover while shooting at Danny (with toy guns that actually look like guns–ah, 1977). Robert hides near a hay bale. Michael crouches behind a precariously balanced steel grille. It falls over when Michael darts out after Danny, landing on and crushing Robert in the process.

Michael, initially described as “daft,” is the only one who somehow manages to survive Killshire Farms. There’s a final twist I won’t give away, but I will mention that the closing credits include a list of 21 children who died in farm accidents the year before the film was made.

It also occurred to me, cuz my brain works in unsettling ways, that there’s another narrative lens through which to see this bloodless but surprisingly unnerving little film. In “Indexical Violence, Transmodal Horror,” Jason Middleton describes Texas Chainsaw Massacre showing in part how “dispossessed workers…enact revenge by turning the tools of their former trade upon their middle-class exploiters.” Similarly, Apaches becomes an allegory of the oppression of Indigenous Americans.

Wait, what? Yeah. Here’s my severely oversimplified symbolic analysis:
Tractor as pretend train– loss of land to the railroad
Slurry pit– loss of land to cattle ranching
Herbicide– loss of land to farming
Crushed playing cops & robbers– racist laws of the white man
Runaway tractor– loss of land to technology

Okay maybe I’m reading too much into this. Either way, ain’t exactly All Creatures Great And Small is it?

4 onscreen
1 offscreen
Available on BFI.org in the UK and on YouTube