Now more than ever the Big Apple feels the blow it suffered in July with the passing of Michael Hein, the driving force behind the New York City Horror Film Festival. The absence of Hein and the event he founded has left a void in the horror community here, one that the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the folks behind the world-class New York Film Festival, is gamely filling with the fifth edition of its Scary Movies series. Not quite a festival—there’s not a big emphasis on premieres and no competition at all—Scary Movies nonetheless feels like much more than a collection of screenings that capitalize on the fact that the calendar says “October.”
Maybe that’s because it is.
Case in point: On Halloween itself, following a solid yet eclectic mix of Poe-themed film programming, the Walter Reade theater will be the site for Jeffrey Combs’ acclaimed one-man show Nevermore – An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe as directed by long-time collaborator Stuart Gordon. (And, yes, Re-Animator, the duo’s 1985 classic is also in the lineup.) So before we get into all the intriguing films that will share the spotlight beginning tomorrow, we thought it might be nice to chat briefly with Messrs. Combs and Gordon about the significance of their theater piece being performed only about a mile away from where Poe once made his home.
Rue Morgue: With just a few days to go, any thoughts on the debut of Nevermore in the same complex that hosts The Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and other cultural institutions?
Jeffrey Combs: I am thrilled to finally be bringing Nevermore to NYC, and it is an especial honor to be invited by the Lincoln Center Film Society. Long ago Nevermore surpassed my expectations. It started out as a four-week run and it blossomed into a six-month run in L.A. Since then I have toured the show around the country. But New York is the pinnacle and I am honored.
Stuart Gordon: I couldn’t be more pleased that we’re presenting Nevermore in New York City for Halloween, and I’m also very honored to be appearing at Lincoln Center as a guest of the Film Society.
Poe spent some of his most productive years in this great city. It was here he wrote “The Raven,” and he read it to enormous crowds at recitals in the last years of his all-too-short life. So in a sense this is a homecoming for Poe and for me as well.
RM: The two of you are known for a body of work that involves both Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. So are there any distinctions you’d care to make between them, either in terms of themes or the adaptation process itself?
JC: Completely different authors, of course. For me, Lovecraft was a happy accident. I had no relation to his work until I was cast in Re-Animator. Of course since then I have read, enjoyed, and acted in film adaptations of his works. I think of Lovecraft as an atmospheric writer. He sets a mood and lays out a mythos, but from an actor’s viewpoint he’s not real strong on character, or plot for that matter. Poe, on the other hand, is an actor’s dream. His tales possess characters that are, much like himself, rich in complexity and contrast, and his genius builds a story to its climax with such a deft hand. I read a tale during the show and, much like with Shakespeare, I am constantly finding new nuances even after having performed the show now well over fifty times.
SG: Without Poe there would be no Lovecraft. He was a great admirer, and H.P.’s style in his early stories is clearly derived from Poe’s.
But the two men couldn’t be more different in their own stories and poetry. Poe once said that the death of a young woman is the most powerful and tragic story to be told, and his work is filled with romantic female imagery. Lovecraft, on the other hand, almost never even includes a female character in his stories, being more interested in cosmic horror and science fiction.
Rue Morgue: The Halloween performance of Nevermore will be for what’s ostensibly a film audience. Any thoughts on the crossover of media in this regard?
SG: For the first time we will be screening [the Masters of Horror episode] The Black Cat before our live performance of Nevermore, so our audience will get a taste of both media side by side. And in a sense Nevermore can be viewed as a sequel to The Black Cat, taking place a few years later after the death of Poe’s wife Virginia.
Jeffrey’s amazing portrayal in Cat is in fact what inspired us to do Nevermore. During the filming of our episode for Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, I felt like I was actually hanging out with Edgar himself. And so Nevermore is an attempt to share this with audiences: spending 90 minutes in the actual presence of Edgar Allan Poe.
JC: Halloween night will be an intriguing experiment. First, the showing of [the] film The Black Cat—and it is literally a film, perhaps the last project I may ever shoot on film since everything seems to have converted to digital now. It’s a gorgeous piece and I’m very proud of it and it was the inspiration for the live show. An idea that, I must say, I was resistant to at first. Without Stuart’s gentle insistence over many months, I don’t know if it would have pursued it. And Stu is right. Masters of Horror is sort of a prequel to the events that occur in the one-man show, Nevermore. It will be a very exciting experiment to mix the media on Halloween. I hope it’s a magical, compelling witch’s brew for all.
Compelling indeed, but it won’t be the only live appearance at Scary Movies for accomplished genre actors and filmmakers. In honor of its U.S. premiere, The Theatre Bizarre screening will play host to Udo Kier, Debbie Rochon and several of the directors who contributed to the project. So with this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the films in the lineup. Several of these are such classics that it’s pointless to dwell on them much, except to point out how they complement each other and the overall Poe/Lovecraft vibe. These include Roger Corman’s House of Usher along with Poltergeist, Eye of the Cat and the aforementioned Re-Animator.
Here are some of the other notable titles being screened:
Midnight Son: Most vampire flicks these days lay claim to resuscitating the subgenre, but based upon the positive buzz Midnight Son has received as recently as Toronto After Dark this past week, Scott Leberecht’s film might actually do the trick.
Dark Waters: A gothic premise serves as a launching pad for vaguely Lovecraftian elements in Mariano Baino’s rarely screened but utterly hypnotic 1993 film. Highly literate and evocative, Dark Waters leverages the dream-like feel of much classic European horror to create a cinematic tone poem—but one that can suddenly turn downright nasty on you. (Note: Baino himself will be in attendance.)
The Theatre Bizarre: To say that an anthology film is uneven is so facile as to be clichéd—and when an omnibus is so ambitious as to include six episodes, not just three or four, it’s taking even more of a risk. For me the highpoints include Buddy Giovinazzo’s sharp, surprising “I Love You,” Douglas Buck’s quietly affecting and very assured “The Accident,” and Tom Savini’s “Wet Dreams,” which effectively weds a central concept that recalls a Borges or John Collier short story to a very contemporary approach to gore and torture.
Kill List: Clearly divisive for horror audiences because of its crossover with other genres and its would-be shock ending (which strongly recalls an infamously transgressive film from the past year or so), Bill Wheately’s new feature nonetheless represents gripping filmmaking that should be experienced on the big screen. So smart, so funny… and yet so brutal.
The Seventh Victim: What do you say when a 1943 film is often the creepiest title in a lineup? You guess that it must have been produced by Val Lewton. Not even the descent into more standard thriller tropes and Hays Code moralizing in the second half can really undermine the power of Mark Robson’s nightmarish tale of Satan worship in New York.
The Innkeepers: Boasting a very likable cast and a strikingly sad tone that plays off its performances, Ti West’s pseudo-comedy doesn’t really deliver on its jump-scares or paranormal imagery. Then again, maybe I’m too jaded, and this is the perfect film for audiences that respond to traditional ghost stories without any attendant emphasis on violence or sex.