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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Surviving Hell: My Time At The Drexel's 24-Hour Horror Movie Marathon

One of my favorite traditions since returning to Ohio is the Drexel's twice-yearly movie marathons. Now, like any introverted cinephile, I've done movie marathons or TV binge watches before, watching three movies in a night with friends and a pizza or pushing my way through a whole season of TV in two days while I'm sick. But the Drexel marathons are special. Why?

They're 24 hours long. 

Twelve films, with small breaks, trailers, shorts, and contests scattered between them all. Like any marathon, the Drexel show is about endurance -- it doesn't matter how much you love movies, sitting for that long in a theater is tough. By the end, you're exhausted, stir-crazy... and, by the way, since it's October, you've just watched twelve horror movies back to back, which can be a pretty damn chilling experience in its own right. But you do it because you love it, and because it's a challenge, and because, for all that you might end up feeling kind of like shit, you know that you're going to have a great time.

So here's my experience at the Drexel's 8th annual Shock Around the Clock 24-hour horror marathon. Hopefully I'll see some of you there next year...

11:00 AM - Arriving

I got breakfast at 11 AM, which I already knew was a mistake. Typically, you want to have a consistent eating schedule, because the 24-hour thing can really mess with your mindset, but I was off to a late start. I arrived at the theater at 11:30, grabbed my ticket, and went inside to a pretty full house. Because I know I'll be napping a bit and moving around to keep up my energy, aisle seats are necessary. Unfortunately, there was only one left: Back left corner of the theater, against the wall. I took my seat.

This is the schedule I can expect:

It's a great lineup of films, with three premieres, a couple classics, and a number of obscure foreign films. The thing I'm most looking forward to is the thing I'm most dreading, the midnight airing of We Are the Flesh, a new Mexican horror film that's gotten raves out of Fantastic Fest... and comparisons to notorious grotesquerie A Serbian Film. That's one I've never tried to watch, but its Mexican successor seems fascinating. All the times on here are rough estimates based on the brief notes I scrawled; we very quickly got away from the schedule.

12:00 PM - The Cobweb Hotel (1936)

The marathon often opens with a short film and a trailer reel. Unfortunately, I didn't record most of the things in the trailer reels, but I did mark down the short film, because it was utterly charming. This 1930s Fleischer animated short is about a spider who runs a hotel for unsuspecting flies. A pair of newlywed flies check in to the Cobweb Hotel -- but will they ever check out? Find out for yourself!

12:20 PM - The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) 

Vincent Price is the first name to flash on screen that gets rapturous applause, something the audience reserves for only the coolest of horror icons. Fitting, then, that we open with a Price movie. I've seen a number of the Price/Roger Corman collaborations, and I like them well enough, but I'd never seen The Tomb of Ligeia. Loosely adapted from Poe's short story Ligeia, Corman takes a lot of liberties with Poe's story, largely in making Price's character more sympathetic and amping up some of the overt horror themes. In doing so, however, he ends up making a brilliant movie, perhaps my favorite of the Price/Corman Poe films.

In The Tomb of Ligeia, Price plays Verden Fell, a man whose wife Ligeia recently passed away under... odd circumstances. In the years since, he has become reclusive and odd, the abbey where he lived falling into disrepair. Into his life comes Rowena Trevanion (Elizabeth Shepherd), a willful, headstrong young woman who falls in love with Price and brings him out of his shell. But they're married life is tempered by a series of unexpected twists that torment her and her husband -- and leave her with the idea that Ligeia may be haunting the new couple from beyond the grave... if she ever died at all.

This was just a really great movie, and a fantastic way to start the marathon. I'll be revisiting this one many times in my life.

Inexplicably, the man three seats down from me is already asleep. I know it's a marathon and not a sprint, but, c'mon guy, it's 1 in the afternoon.

1:45 PM - Break!

I grab my first snacks, a hot dog and some popcorn. I make the mistake of getting the King Sized Popcorn, the only one you can get refills on; it is so large that if I were to eat two of them in a 24-hour period, I would surely die of popcorn-related poisoning. I also get a bottomless soda; caffeine is an important step of this process.

2:00 PM - Vampyr (1932) w/ live musical accompaniment from Sue Harshe

The guy next to me woke up, though I don't know if he stayed up or if he just stopped lightly snoring. Either way, silent film legend Carl Theodore Dryer is up with his iconic vampire film, with a live performance by Sue Harshe in place of the score. Dryer is one of the greats, but Vampyr is far from my favorite of his; as one of the earlier vampire films, it feels the need to stop regularly and tell audiences what vampires are, often by just pointing the camera at a paragraph in a book one of the characters is reading describing what vampires are. These frequent, long diversions slaughter any sense of momentum or dread, which is too bad, because when Dryer just focuses on horror visuals, he's fantastic. Early in the film, there are a couple sequences involving shadows that were just really eerie and fascinating.

Sue Harshe's score is enjoyable and having live accompaniment is, as always, a blast. I do think it leaned a bit too heavily on modern horror score conventions, even in some of the more laid-back or dramatic scenes of the film, and that constancy of minor background dread became more enervating than enthralling. But Harshe is a pro, and she definitely added quite a bit to the experience. Vampyr isn't my kind of movie, but I'll definitely keep an eye open for more of Harshe's scoring performances.

3:15 PM - Break!

I refill my bottomless soda with water. I want to stay awake, not to have a heart attack. Aside from that, well, I've been inside for 3.5 hours at this point, so I take a short walk around the neighborhood, check on my car, all that.

I go to the bathroom to find that someone has already thrown up. Pace yourself, people, we're two damn movies in.

3:40 PM - Beyond the Gates (2016)

Every year, a few films will make their Ohio or Midwest Premieres here, and it's typically a fun time. Our third film was an Ohio Premiere titled Beyond the Gates, directed by Jackson Stewart. Beyond the Gates could most easily be described as 'horror Jumanji', as two brothers going through their vanished father's old VHS rental store before shutting it down discover a VHS game - remember those?! - called Beyond the Gates. But when they pop it in the player, they find themselves starting a game with horrific, unexpected consequences. But does playing the game give them their only chance to find out what happened to their father -- and maybe to save him?

It was a really cool idea, but, sadly, I wasn't a huge fan. The treatment of the main female character was abysmal - she joins the game, but never gets to roll or make any choices; she is instead a pawn in the game the two boys are playing - and the challenges never get that creative with the horror tropes they're playing with, never really feel like they're actually, well... challenging. I kept expecting a twist that showed that they failed for taking the easy way out, because the challenges were mostly, "Do this very obvious thing." One challenge is literally solved, it seemed, by a sleepwalking character. The deaths are gruesome and cool, though, and the performances are good. I'm interested in seeing more from Stewart and co-writer Stephen Scarlata, but I think all my problems with it can be summed up in the first thing Scarlata said in his Q&A after the film: This was his ode to the kind of genre films he loved in the 80s. To me, nothing good has ever come of uncritically wallowing in nostalgia, and at its worst moments, that's what Beyond the Gates does.

But, again, it's not all bad! In addition to some solid direction and good performances, the film has a secret weapon: Barbara Crampton, the second of three people to get applause the second her name hit the screen. Crampton, the face and voice of the game through an old VHS tape, gives a flawless, spacy, weird performance that is absolutely enthralling every second she's on the screen. Crampton is a horror icon most well-known for her collaborations with Stuart Gordon in Re-Animator and From Beyond, and watching this, it's easy to see why she's so widely beloved.

Still, this one was very well-received by the audience, so I'm probably in the minority here. If you want to revisit that old 80s atmosphere you loved, you may just enjoy Beyond the Gates.

5:10 PM - Break!

Time to fill out my horror Hall of Fame ballot! It was a tough call - Tobe Hooper made of of my all-time favorite films with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster are iconic. I had literally just watched and loved a Roger Corman film.

But ultimately, I had to give it to the woman who launched one of the most incredible horror franchises of all time: Jamie Lee Curtis. Curtis is a blast in damn near every role I've ever seen her in, she's a vital grounding presence in the original Halloween, and she's someone I'm always excited to see pop up in a project. I know I'm being unfair to Bava, Corman, Cushing, and the rest of these great writers and directors, but, shit, Curtis is just that good.

I charged my phone while I deliberated, since I had arrived with it essentially dead. I kept it on airplane mode during all the movies, but I knew I would need it to be charged as the night went on to take notes between films.

I sat back down again for the Costume Contest, though this year was pretty slim pickings. Some of the costumes were quite good, but for the most part, they looked fairly thrown together. After things like the Requisite Internet Meme Costume of a giant penis holding up a sign that said (*sigh*) "Dicks Out For Harambe" and a dude in a cheap Batman onesie, it came down to an old woman in a zombie movie or a werewolf. The werewolf put on a better show, but by the third round of the contest, he was clearly running out of gags to goose the crowd, and old zombie lady ended up winning in a tight race. The costume contests are always fun, but man, my first marathon had WAY more participants. Hopefully it'll pick up again next year!

6:00 PM - The Devil (1972)

I didn't know what to expect with this one, but it certainly wasn't something as darkly hilarious as this. Made by Polish director Andrzej Żuławski, this historical epic was initially banned in Communist Poland. In its harrowing opening scenes, a man in black rides into and through a convent as it is invaded and decimated by Prussian forces, desperately seeking a political prisoner who was being kept there. Finding the young nobleman, Jakub, the man in black helps him and a young nun escape the convent out into the countryside. Jakub is seemingly lost, but the man in black keeps popping up to helpfully guide him to all the people and places he used to know - his former fiancee, his sister, his mother, etc... - where Jakub sees and is horrified by the corruption he sees taking over Polish society. The man in black tempts Jakub time and time and time again into murdering the corrupt and the weak, covering for him and providing him a straight razor whenever he loses his. The film is an allegory for the Polish political situation of the 1960s, though it is set in the late 1700s; hiding the allegory in history did not save it from being banned.

The Devil is a surreal film, but a fairly astonishing film. Its opening minutes are among the most impressive I've ever seen, and the man in black (Wojciech Pszoniak) gives my favorite performance of the weekend as a playfully harried tempter. This is an odd, uncomfortable, deeply surreal film, and the performances match that as character after character are so overtaken by emotion that they break out in what appears to be half-dance, half-seizure pretty regularly. I'll have some sick dance moves for the next wedding I attend -- thanks, The Devil!

8:00 PM - Break!
My girlfriend dropped by, and we went and grabbed some ice cream. I was still so full from eating roughly 120 oz of popcorn, a crucial mistake I regretted at the time but have come to peace with one week later, so it was more like I watched her eat ice cream. But it looked tasty!
8:30 PM - The Boxer's Omen (1983)

I don't even know how to begin to talk about this film. A Shaw Brothers cult film from the 80s, it starts out in pretty typical martial arts exploitation mode -- a Thai fighter paralyzes the Hong Kong champ with an illegal blow, leaving the brother of the former champ to seek revenge in the ring -- but, at some point early in his quest for revenge, he meets his spiritual twin, a monk on the verge of immortality whose battle with dark wizards has left him on the brink of death. And if he dies... so too dies our hero. Now, our lead must become a monk, abide by Buddhist restrictions, and destroy the curse the dark wizards have placed on the abbot.

That's weird enough, but The Boxer's Omen features the most odd, viscerally uncomfortable takes on magic I've ever seen, often in gruesome detail; it truly earns its body horror rep as the dark wizards place giant maggots in the hollowed-out corpse of crocodiles to grow fearsome beasts capable of dark magic, or empower lifeless golems by chewing, vomiting up, and then re-chewing increasingly vile things in long, disgusting single takes. It felt like it was 5 hours long and I never had any idea what could feasibly happen next, but it was also gross, engrossing, and absolutely unique. You need a strong stomach to make it through some of the imagery in The Boxer's Omen, which I'm pretty sure features some live animal deaths if that's a line you can't cross, but if you're looking for a unique look at Asian horror, this should be on your list. Alternatively, if you are trying to talk your child out of becoming a dark magician, honestly, this should be pretty high up on that list too. Turns out magic is fucking gross.

11:00 PM - Break! + The Hunger

I'll be straight with you guys - I slept through The Hunger almost entirely. I've seen it a few times before, and I think it's fine, but if the choice is sleeping through that or sleeping through a premiere or sleeping through that absolutely killer run of films they were closing the night on, I'll sleep through The Hunger ten times out of ten. I slept through it so hard, it doesn't even get a picture here, even though everyone involved is so beautiful and cool. I'm really just punishing myself by not including one, honestly.

1:00 AM - We Are The Flesh Horror Hall of Fame Winner + The Brood (1979)

We had to put a hold on We Are The Flesh, the intense Mexican horror flick that was in many ways the centerpiece of the event, because every few seconds it would black-out and then play again. Arrow Films sent a blu-ray as well, just in case, but the sound was inexplicably desynced on that, so they made the call to tinker with the digital edition and see if they could fix it. They figured it would take a couple hours, however, so instead, they bumped up an old class - David Cronenber's The Brood - to the 1 AM slot and decided to announce the winners of the Horror Hall of Fame vote.

Drumroll please...

Welcome, Jamie Lee Curtis, to the Horror Hall of Fame. I'm glad there were plenty of people in the audience who had the same idea I did. She won with, if I remember right, 15 votes. It was a pretty tight race, with two people - Corman and King, I think - tied right behind her, but Curtis took home the prize. Or she would have if she was there, which she sadly wasn't. 
Gary Johnson got two votes, probably from the guy wearing a Johnson/Weld t-shirt and his girlfriend, who spend the back half of the marathon making fun of him for falling asleep at one point. This is as close as Gary Johnson will come to winning an election this year, sadly.

I received this lucky blessing sometime just before The Brood started: the people sitting next to me, a family, all went home. They never returned. Yes, that means all this goodness...

... all to myself. 

This was way more comfortable. It also made light napping much more tempting.

The Brood remains strong, though nowhere near the top of my Cronenberg list. Still, seeing it on the big screen was fun, and certainly more enjoyable than my first watch a couple years back on DVD. I don't think Cronenberg really came into his own until his budgets matched his ambitions, but for what The Brood is trying to do, it's a smashing success and a great early-career look at one of the most talented, iconic horror filmmakers of the 1980s.

3:30 AM - Break!

100% naptime, ladies and gentlemen. Stretch out, take up four seats, and get a solid 20-30 minutes of sleep. 

I liked the people sitting in my row, but them leaving is literally the best thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life.

4:00 AM - We Are The Flesh The Night of Something Strange (2016)

We Are the Flesh simply... didn't work. The blu-ray didn't work, the DCP didn't work, directly loading the DCP into the projector didn't work, nothing worked. For the first time, we just had to not watch a promised film, and one I was really excited to see. Sad, but that sort of thing happens, and the marathon organizers did a great job of keeping us all abreast of the situation and keeping the energy from flagging. The audience was crazy cool too; I've seen a lot of audiences turn and yell and shout when something doesn't work, but everyone was pretty supportive.

So, instead we got a super-late-night premiere of The Night of Something Strange, a horror-comedy splatter-fest about an STD that turns people into horrific, disgusting, sex-craving zombies. This was probably my least favorite film of the weekend, though I understand what it was going for. Still, the repeated rapes played for shock-comedy were more than enough to put me off the film, and that's before you get in to the most unlikable cast perhaps ever to grace the screen. I've never particularly warmed to the horror idea that you should want the core cast to die, but the mean, dumb bullies that populate this movie certainly didn't make me want to spend more time with them. I know it was going for a comically exaggerated take on classic horror trope characters, but this went way past funhouse mirrorland and on into the sort of comedy where characterization and basic physics seem to just no longer apply. This is just aggressively not my kind of thing.

As above, however, the audience in general seemed to get really into it, so if the description above seems like it might be your kind of thing, dive right in! It certainly wasn't something I was tempted to sleep through....

5:40 AM - Break!


6:10 AM - The People Under The Stairs (1991)

I am convinced now more than ever that The People Under The Stairs is one bad performance off of being one of the best horror films of the 90s, and of Wes Craven's career. (Craven is the third person whose mere name elicits loud cheers tonight.) 'Daddy', played by Everett McGill, seems like he escaped from a Home Alone film. Every pratfall is wildly exaggerated, every line is shout-singed. For a horror movie that is a biting critique of the Reagan-era 'War on the Poor', he feels almost immeasurably out of place.

That said... The People Under The Stairs is, even with that small flaw, just kind of brilliant. While it's been overshadowed by Craven's more well-known work - The Last House on the Left, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street, holy fuck this career - it's still a brilliant, scathing criticism of Reagan's America with plenty of creepy visuals. Like this year's Don't Breathe, Craven's film asks you to empathize with a group of thieves breaking into a house in a run down neighborhood to rob it; unlike Don't Breathe, Craven doesn't really have to resort to dull shock tactics to get you on the thieves' side, and he has genuine empathy for the working poor in the neighborhood. This is a challenging premise, but I think The People Under The Stairs is a film that deserves rediscovery among cinephiles and horror fans as the smart, audacious, creepy movie it is, rather than the more thrilling movie its premise suggests it could be.

7:55 AM - Break!

I went outside for the first time since... god, 8 PM the night before? Wow. That's a dark realization. There was a breeze. A marathon was running by. We all suffer in our own way, runners. We all suffer.

I walked to Starbucks and got two plain bagels and nothing else. I am a monster.

8:15 AM - Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

There was a strong temptation to have this entire 'review' just be me reciting the lyrics to that insanely catchy jingl--oh fuck it
Eight more days till Halloween
Eight more days till Halloween
Silver Shamrock!
In summation: Halloween III: Season of the Witch is flawed and isn't as good as the original Halloween, but its a helluva lot more interesting than the rest of the sequels, and as an alternate history for what the franchise could have been, it's a tempting what-if. It's wonderfully bonkers and features a killer theme song. You should check it out. I guarantee it'll be weirder than you think.

9:45 AM - Break!

Dear reader, I slept.

I woke shortly before the final film began. This is all that remained of the audience in this once-packed house.

10:15 AM - The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

I had no familiarity with this movie going into it, Dan O'Bannon's weird semi-sequel to The Night of the Living Dead. If I'd heard of it at all, I likely would have just assumed that it was one of the many, many sequels Romero himself made, even though he abandoned the 'living dead' name after the first film. So imagine my surprise when the film began to play and, O'Bannon, most famous for writing Alien, took the film in a much, much weird direction than I was expecting. The Return of the Living Dead follows two stories: In one, a few guys working in a medical supply storage warehouse mess with a toxic material drum and accidentally release the gas that caused the original 'living dead' incident that Romero chronicled; in the other, a group of punk rockers waiting for their friend to get off work decide to have a party in the nearby cemetery. Neither story ends well, but the charm of The Return of the Living Dead is seeing O'Bannon bring a giddily anarchic sensibility to Romero's dignified world. I had been worried about having a zombie movie end the marathon, but The Return of the Living Dead kept me energized throughout. It's a weird, funny punk apocalypse, and I highly recommend it to folks suffering from a bit of zombie fatigue. Or, it turns out, regular fatigue. Works great on all fatigues!

And then I left.  

12:00 PM - Freedom!

I survived the 8th Annual Ohio 24-Hour Horror Marathon. This was my second such marathon, and you can bet it won't be my last.

I've found it's hard to explain why it won't be my last. What is the temptation in watching all these movies, some of which I didn't even like, in a state of discomfort rather than taking my time and seeing only the ones I like, seeing them when and how I wanted? Why put myself through an expensive, exhausting process that dominates a whole weekend?

I... don't know that I have an answer, honestly. Part of it is rarity; when else will I have a chance to see things like The People Under The Stairs or The Tomb of Ligeia in theaters? Even in the biggest film towns in the country, those aren't the sort of things that often dominate repertory screenings, let alone anywhere near where I live. Part of it is challenge; it's an endurance contest for movie-lovers, no different from the March Around the World contest on Letterboxd. But, if I'm being honest, it's really about the atmosphere. Film festivals and marathons are populated by people who love film, who understand the importance of the theatrical experience, who want to have a blast. Going to the theater is as close as I can come to the feeling some people get from going to church, a feeling of communication, occasionally of profundity. It's a part of how I relax and connect to the people around me in an odd, offbeat way, and the shared exhaustion and subsequent joy at coming outside and standing in the breeze is a part of that experience. 

And it's fun! The showrunners here know what they're doing, so the programming is excellent. The theater is super supportive, so we get a comfy, well-maintained theater and a snack bar that runs all night. There are pizza deliveries directly to the theater, a super late night White Castle run in case you're high, the chance to nap in public -- basically, all the things a well-heeled adult should love!

So, thanks, Shock Around the Clock. I had a blast, and you can bet I'll be back. 
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