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Terror In The Aisles, On the Screen and in the Booth!

by Peter Sobczynski

A preview of “Terror in the Aisles,” an all-day program of wild and wooly horror favorites attacking Chicago this weekend.

Now that we have officially entered the cinematic dog days of summer, the period of time in which the studios traditionally dump the films in which they have little confidence in order to clear the decks before the fall/holiday onslaught, doesn’t the notion of 13 ½ hours of bizarre monsters, depraved serial killers and partially mechanized Japanese schoolgirls wreaking violent havoc strike you as the perfect antidote to such doldrums (not to mention all this Olympic nonsense)? If it does (and if it doesn’t, what is wrong with you anyway?) and you live in the Chicago area (or are willing to travel), you should make your way over to the Portage Theatre (4050 N. Milwaukee Avenue) on August 16th (the anniversary of the birth of Lance Milner) for “Terror in the Aisles,” a day-long program of weirdness presented by Chicago-based filmmaker/programmer Rusty Nails (whose “Music Box Massacre” marathons have become a favorite with local genre buffs). This program, running from 12:00 PM to 1:30 AM, brings together seven feature films, a few selected shorts (“The Demonology of Desire“ and “The Listening Dead“), a charity auction, a couple of special guests and the proverbial much, much more.

Here is a look at this year’s lineup--if you can’t actually make it to the festivities but still want to experience it vicariously, perhaps you can track them down at your local video store and watch them on your own. Of course, where is the fun in that?

SPINE TINGLER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY (2007): William Castle, for those of you unfamiliar with the man, was an ambitious film producer/showman who made a name for himself in the 1950’s and 1960’s with a series of goofy horror movies that struck a chord with young audiences because of their lurid advertising campaigns and the bizarre gimmicks that he developed for each film as a crude and crudely effective form of audience participation--he had inflatable skeletons flying over the audience in “House on Haunted Hill,” a “Punishment Poll” allowed viewers to decided if the villain of “Mr. Sardonicus” would live or die in the finale and he had certain seats in locations showing the immortal “The Tingler” wired with joy buzzer-like devices that would go off during a key scene in which the monster supposedly invaded the theater. This affectionate documentary from Jeffrey Schwarz uses choice film clips, archival footage and new interviews with family, co-workers and avowed fans such as Joe Dante, John Landis and John Waters to chart his career from its earliest days as a B-level producer at Columbia to his heyday as the king of gimmicks to his strange flirtation with respectability as the result of producing a little thing called “Rosemay’s Baby.” Since the film doesn’t really break any new ground regarding Castle and his career, some fans may already be familiar with a lot of the anecdotes related here but they are recounted with such good humor that it makes the film pretty much a must-see for genre fans as well as an intriguing history lesson for beginners about the former glory of the moviegoing experience and how far it has fallen in recent years. (12:00 PM)

THE TINGLER (1958): Since anyone watching “Spine Tingler” will come away from it with a profound urge to watch a William Castle movie as soon as possible, the festival has thoughtfully included one as a follow-up. Not only that, it is perhaps the best and certainly the most iconic of all his films--a deliriously daft monster movie in which Castle regular Vincent Price (at arguably his hammiest) as a scientist who discovers that we all have a weird little creature that lives in our vertebrae, grows in size whenever we get scared and which shrinks back down only when we scream. When a mute woman dies after being frightened to death, the good doctor decides that it would be a good idea to remove the large creature in order to study it and inevitably, through circumstances too silly to get into here, it gets loose and begins attacking anyone it brushes against. Yes, this is one of the silliest and most implausible monster movies ever made during the 1950’s, but it is so wildly entertaining (especially the infamous scene in which the thing invades your theatre) that only a complete churl would be unable to have a blast while watching it. And yes, this is the one that he made featuring “Percepto,” the gimmick in which he hooked up joy buzzer-like contraptions to certain theater seats to give viewers an unexpected jolt during the theater sequence--I don’t know if Nails has been able to rig up a modern version of Percepto for this screening or not but I will say that if he has, it would be the greatest thing to hit a movie theater in a long time. (2:00 PM)

SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982): Made during the waning days of the slasher-movie boom of the early 1980’s, this Roger Corman production tells the tragic cautionary tale of a gaggle of high-school girls whose slumber party is rudely interrupted by a hulking stranger who arrives without a sleeping bag, potato chips or a four-pack of wine cooler but with an enormous and hugely phallic power drill that he uses to reduce the guest list to a more manageable size. Before you decry this as nothing more than empty-headed trash made by sexist and misogynistic perverts, you might want to know that it was directed by a woman, Amy Jones (who would go on to direct “Love Letters” and write “Mystic Pizza” and “Indecent Proposal”) and written by noted feminist author Rita Mae Brown. Feeling pretty foolish now, aren’t you? (3:30 PM)

THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977): To tell you the truth, this infamous horror/revenge outing from Wes Craven, a loose contemporary riff on the Sawney Beane legend in which a family of dopes gets stranded in the desert and is brutally set upon by a clan of cannibalistic mutants, has never been one of my favorites--Craven dealt with the conceit of a seemingly sophisticated family unit being reduced to savagery in order to survive in a far more efficient manner in his unforgettable horror debut “Last House on the Left” and some of the nastiness goes beyond even the admittedly elastic boundaries of the genre--but it is nevertheless a grimly determined slab of 70’s exploitation and it certainly beats the hell out of that crappy remake from a couple of years ago. (5:30 PM)

THE DEADLY SPAWN (1982): If you picked up a copy of “Nightmare U.S.A.: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents,” Stephen Thrower’s mammoth-sized history of the most obscure corners of the American exploitation film industry during its 1970-1985 heyday (and if didn’t, do so now as it is perhaps the most invaluable such book to come along since “The Psychotronic Video Guide”), then you are no doubt familiar with Douglas McKeown’s charmingly gruesome 1982 homegrown monster epic, in which a horde of toothsome creatures from another world to chomp up mankind and only a 13-year-old monster movie fanatic can save the day, and its rather checkered production history. If not, you are in luck because after the screening of the film (which I recall as a fun bit of nonsense in the mode of “Critters,” even though that came a few years later), McKeown himself will appear to talk about it and his struggles to get it completed. (7:30 PM)

HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986): My guess is that if you have read this article up to this point, you are presumably intimately familiar with John McNaughton’s grisly and terrifying look at a seemingly ordinary dope as he befriends a brash loudmouth, begins a tentative relationship with the loudmouth’s sister and goes around killing random people in any number of grisly ways. Instead, I will simply note that the film is just as grim and uncompromising as ever (the infamous scene with the video camera is still enough to make even the hardiest viewers squirm), Michael Rooker’s blandly horrific performance in the title role remains one of the great acting turns in the history of the genre and that the depiction of the grimy byways of Chicago is still one of the most spot-on screen depictions of the city I have ever seen. As a bonus, McNaughton will appear after the screening to answer questions--try to keep your queries about the Neve Campbell-Denise Richards-Matt Dillon three-way from “Wild Things” to a minimum. (9:30 PM)

THE MACHINE GIRL (2008): In this epic, which has received all sorts of fan boy adulation since it premiered in Japan earlier this year, a happy-go-lucky schoolgirl tries to defend her younger brother from mobsters that he owes money to and gets her arm hacked off for her troubles. Luckily, she stumbles into a machine shop run by people who obviously saw “Grindhouse” a lot (or at least “Inspector Gadget”) and they outfit her with a replacement arm that features all sorts of deadly implements that is the perfect accessory for a rampage of revenge. Granted, I haven’t actually seem this film yet (possibly out of a fear that the moment I do, someone will announce an American remake with Hayden Panettiere in the lead) but if the idea of a Japanese schoolgirl wreaking havoc on her enemies with the aid of a mechanical arm outfitted with a machine gun and other tools of destruction doesn’t appeal to you at all, there is a very good chance that you have spent the last few minutes of your life reading the wrong article. (11:30 PM)

For further information on the “Terror in the Aisles” program, go to or call (888) 690-9875

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originally posted: 08/14/08 05:34:33
last updated: 08/14/08 05:48:32
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