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MOVIE “DONNER PASS” WILL SATISFY YOUR HUNGER FOR HORROR   Leave a comment

Teens' poor choice of a vacation spot proves deadly in horror flick.

Teens’ poor choice of a vacation spot proves deadly in horror flick.

By C. Michael Forsyth

I’ve long been intrigued by the tragedy of The Donner Party, pioneers who set out for California in the winter of 1846, became stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive.

News of the grisly events captivated the nation. The California Star reported, “A more shocking scene cannot be imagined than that witnessed by the party of men who went to the relief of the unfortunate emigrants. The bones of those who had died and been devoured by the miserable ones that still survived were lying around their tents and cabins. Bodies of men, women and children, with half the flesh torn from them, lay on every side. A woman sat by the body of her husband, who had just died, eating out his tongue; the heart she had already taken out, broiled, and ate! The daughter was seen eating the flesh of the father; the mother that of her children.”

Donner Party members James and Margaret Reed faced a terrible choice when stranded in the mountains.

Donner Party members James and Margaret Reed faced a terrible choice when stranded in the mountains.

The movie Donner Pass takes that already-horrifying tale and adds an extra ingredient to the stew: As a result of eating human flesh, the wagon train’s leader George Donner becomes a wendigo, endowed with unnatural strength and longevity—as well as an insatiable hunger for man meat. When a group of present-day teens pay a visit to a cabin in the cursed mountain pass, they soon find themselves on the menu.

The first scene set in modern times is less than promising. Four teens of quickly identifiable types drive toward the cabin, while one recounts an urban legend that Donner still haunts the woods. The story-teller cavalierly jettisons the well-known facts of the tragedy. In his version, Donner was the sole survivor, while in actuality 48 of the 87 members of the party lived. Par for the course, the kids are not deterred by talk of Donner’s ongoing snack attacks nor is their enthusiasm dampened by news that a woman’s half-eaten corpse was recently found, apparently the victim of a homicidal maniac.

KILLER, SHMILLER: The fact that there's a cannibal killer on the loose doesn't keep the Whore (Krystal Davis from a topless dip in the hot tub.

KILLER, SHMILLER: The fact that there’s a cannibal killer on the loose doesn’t keep Valerie The Whore (Krystal Davis) from a topless dip in the hot tub.

After Joss Whedon so brilliantly dissected the hackneyed remote-cabin scenario in Cabin in the Woods, it’s hard not to groan at another stab at it. However, the movie turns out to be well-executed, with some imaginative twists—and more than one of the characters is nursing a surprising secret. Yes, of course the archetypes Whedon pinpointed are back: The Good Girl, the Whore, the Jock, the Nerd, etc. And the characters die in exactly the order you’d anticipate. (Don’t expect the amorous couple who get busy in the hot tub to make it to the prom). But the interplay between the characters is engaging, particularly when they turn against each other as the situation grows more desperate. Although most of the plot turns are telegraphed five or ten minutes ahead, they are well thought out—and you many not actually see the final twist coming.

TRUST NO ONE: The Bitch (Adelaide Kane) creeps up on The Jock (Dominic DeVore).

TRUST NO ONE: The Bitch AKA Nicole (Adelaide Kane) may have a hidden agenda.

This isn’t the first time Hollywood has sunk its teeth into the myth of the wendigo, which is rooted in Algonquin Indian folklore. The movie Ravenous (1999) also featured a vampiric cannibal spawned by a Donner-Party-type catastrophe, and the intrepid brothers in TV’s Supernatural did battle with one.

Interestingly enough, psychologists have identified a real version of the phenomenon, just as there is for lycanthropy. “Wendigo Psychosis refers to a condition in which sufferers developed an insatiable desire to eat human flesh even when other food sources were readily available, often as a result of prior famine cannibalism,” according to Wikipedia.

I think one reason the Donner Party tragedy so profoundly affected the mind of the public is that it exposed an ugliness in Manifest Destiny and our winning of the West. Just as the sinking of the Titanic later put a damper on the Gilded Age, the Manson family murders revealed the dark side to carefree hippie movement of the 1960s and the Challenger disaster knocked the wind out of America’s triumphant space program.

PARTY ANIMALS: Georgia Donner, Eliza Donner and Mary Brunner survived the Donner Party tragedy--by resorting to the unthinkable.

PARTY ANIMALS: Georgia Donner, Eliza Donner and Mary Brunner survived the Donner Party tragedy–by resorting to the unthinkable.

And perhaps it lingers in our imagination more than a century and a half later because of the awful choice it presented. Would you resort to cannibalism to survive? Drawing straws and dining on the unlucky loser may seem morally defensible in an extreme famine. What would Jesus do? Hard to imagine Him nibbling on the calves of St. Peter. Still, He did say, “Eat of my flesh,” at the Last Supper, so He might be forgiving of cannibals. Anyhow, not much of a worry for a fellow who can mass produce fish and loaves of bread at will. But I digress. Chew the question over, then answer the poll below:

Also by the writer of this review is the new novel Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini in The Adventure of the Spook House

Houdini and Conan Doyle investigate a bizarre disappearance  in new book.

Houdini and Conan Doyle investigate a bizarre disappearance in new book.

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The 12 Greatest Horror Movies You’ve Never Seen!   1 comment

C. Michael Forsyth

There are great horror movies that even aficionados of the genre have missed and are often overlooked on top 100 lists. Here are a dozen rarely viewed films that gave me the willies:

A remote forest is home turf for a demon in “Equinox.”

EQUINOX, 1970

Four young people searching a remote forest for a missing scientist get more than they bargained for when they encounter the demon Asmodeus. Taking refuge in a cave, they come across an ancient book the evil being needs to spread destruction beyond his wooded domain. Heroically, the humans fight to keep The Book out of the demon’s claws, while trapped within his forest by a mysterious force field. Asmodeus sends a series of monstrous minions, including a giant ape-like creature with cloven hooves, to retrieve The Book.

Though shot on a shoestring budget, the movie makes create use of Ray Harryhausen-type stop motion animation. Plot-wise, it is a forerunner to “The Evil Dead,” and the filmmakers could show the producers of “The Blair Witch Project” a thing or two about telling an entertaining story with no dough.

A rustic European town harbors a terrible secret in “Vampyr.”

VAMPYR, 1932

Most horror buffs have seen the silent-era vampire film “Nosferatu,” an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula, but only hardcore enthusiasts have seen this 1932 picture from Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. Though less well known, it’s every bit as creepy as “Nosferatu.” Inspired by a tale by Carmilla author J. Sheridan Le Fanu, it’s about a student of the occult who stumbles across a village under the curse of a vampire hag.

Although made in the sound era, it too is silent. It benefits from a haunting atmosphere and imaginative effects. Among the most striking, the vampires slinking around the deserted town are seen only as shadows.

A young woman rubs shoulders with history’s most infamous sadist in “Waxwork.”

WAXWORK, 1988

A group of students visit a wax museum featuring 18 villains from horror lore and history. Two are sucked into the waxwork displays, where they run into a werewolf and Dracula. Another two find themselves pitted against zombies and the infamous Marquis de Sade. The concept of universes within the displays struck me as quite original, and I loved how each one is depicted as real as our own. A kinky highlight of the film arises when the teenage girl drawn into de Sade’s world is whipped by the infamous sadist…and kind of likes it! Zach Galligan, who had vanished from the screen after “Gremlins,” does a smashing job as the young hero struggling to rescue her.

Homeowner Jesse (Ayre Gross, left) learns there’s more problems with his new digs than mice in the attic in “House 2.”

HOUSE 2

This horror comedy is a rare case of the sequel surpassing the original. Charlie and Jesse, a pair of yuppie pals, move into an old mansion Jesse has inherited. Rummaging through the basement, Jesse finds a picture of his great-great grandfather in front of a Mayan temple holding a crystal skull. The buddies soon learn that the house has been transformed by the skull his ancestor swiped and that each room is a doorway across space and time. The guys must keep the skull out of the hands of evildoers, while their mettle is tested in a series of harrowing adventures on the other side of these portals. Jonathan Stark, best known as the vampire’s henchman in the original “Fright Night,” is great as the goofier member of the duo. And look for an appearance from a smartalecky young Bill Maher.

A visit to the family crypt reveals clues to an awful curse in “The Undying Monster.”


THE UNDYING MONSTER, 1942

Mystery and horror combine in the curious case of the Hammond family which has been cursed since the Crusades and whose members frequently die under strange circumstances. When the latest Hammond heir is slain by an unidentified creature, intrepid private detective Robert Curtis and his plucky sidekick Christy are summoned to investigate. An early clue is a very peculiar statue in the Hammond family crypt.

What delights me about the film is the successful blend of genres. Curtis brings the logic of a Sherlock Holmes to the case and his relationship with Christy is reminiscent of Nick and Nora of “The Thin Man” fame. The detective takes a scientific approach, which makes the increasingly uncanny events all the more alarming. In one memorable sequence, he uses a microscope to examine a strange hair and it vanishes before his eyes!

Boris Karloff is a father who returns home from a vampire hunt and brings terror with him in “Black Sabbath.”

BLACK SABBATH, 1963

This anthology film boasts some truly terrifying segments. My favorite, “The Wurdalak,” is drawn from a common theme of vampire folklore rarely depicted on film: that when the undead return they first prey on their own relatives.

In 19th century Russia, a young nobleman on a long trip stops at a small rural cottage to ask for shelter. He learns that the family patriarch has disappeared for five days while searching for a vampire, or “wurdalak” as the locals call it. At the stroke of midnight, Dad — Boris Karloff at his creepy best — shows up at the cottage. His disheveled appearance and odd behavior lead his sons to suspect he’s joined the ranks of the undead. The situation makes for a rather tense evening.

“I tell you, I’m not crazy. Now get that hand off my mouth.” Michael Redgrave is a ventriloquist with a sinister dummy in “Dead of Night.”

DEAD OF NIGHT, 1945

Another chilling anthology film, it includes the granddaddy of all evil-ventriloquist-dummy stories and a chilling yarn about a haunted antique mirror. The frame story itself (often laughable in such movies) is truly unnerving. In the frame story, a man arrives at a country house party where he reveals to the assembled guests that he has seen them all in a dream. They begin to tell various tales of the supernatural and the uncanny. The frame story climaxes with a haunting twist ending.

“I don’t much like the look of that.” Peter Cushing, right, finds that a fellow scientist has created a deadly new lifeform in “Island of Terror.”

ISLAND OF TERROR, 1966

The great Peter Cushing stars as a scientist investigating the peculiar case of a farmer found dead on a remote British isle without a single bone in his body. He and his companions learn that a researcher working on the island accidentally created a new lifeform from the silicon atom while searching for a cancer cure.

The tentacled creatures, dubbed “silicates,” kill their victims by injecting a bone-dissolving enzyme into their bodies and are virtually indestructible. Trapped on the isolated island, the heroes battle the monsters with guns, Molotov cocktails, dynamite and other weapons to no avail. In one hair-raising scene, Cushing is grabbed by a silicate. With a stiff upper lip, the Englishman sternly instructs a companion to chop off his hand with an ax before its too late.

Wicca is for wimps. These witches are the real deal in “Horror Hotel.”

HORROR HOTEL, 1960

A college coed visits a small Massachusetts town to research the witchcraft trials, unaware that her landlady is the reincarnation of an infamous witch burned at the stake in the 1600s. The accused witch wasn’t innocent – not by a longshot. She and her evil cohorts practice virgin sacrifice in order to remain immortal. Christopher Lee as the missing girl’s professor and her friends must solve the mystery of her disappearance before an unholy ritual on Candlemass Eve. Look for one of the most startling heroic rescue scenes in horror cinema history.

A madman (Patrick O’Neal) doesn’t let a disablity stand in the way of exacting bloody vengeance in “Chamber of Horrors.”

CHAMBER OF HORRORS, 1966

Cesare Danova, the suave actor with the sexy foreign accent that made him a ubiquitous TV guest star, plays the proprietor of a wax museum and amateur sleuth, aided by a dwarf sidekick. When a deranged man named Jason Cravette murders a woman and marries her corpse, Danova helps police bring him to justice.

Unfortunately, the killer escapes from a manacle by amputating his hand and vows vengeance on everyone involved in his capture and trial. In place of his hand, the madman wears an array of deadly weapons. He associates his foes with body parts – for instance, the cop who arrested him is the “arm of the law.” So after each revenge killing he makes off with that body part. The wax museum owner has a special incentive to stop the culprit, because he solved the initial murder and Cravette has indentified him as “the head of the law.” Gulp.

The movie was filmed as a pilot for a series to be called “House of Wax,” but it was deemed too gory for TV. But I would have tuned into such a show every week!

The devil is afoot in Merry Old England in “Blood on Satan’s Claw.”

BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, 1971

This movie is set in village in 17th century England, where a series of bizarre events suggest to superstitious peasants that the devil is afoot. The trouble begins when a farmer plowing a field uncovers a deformed skull with one leering eye. Later, young townsfolk begin to sprout patches of fur and other odd markings on their bodies. It’s up to the local judge, a rational man who is initially skeptical of the supernatural, to stop the epidemic and solve the mystery. High production values and convincing period dialogue elevate the film. It’s like watching a version of “The Crucible” in which Satan really is on the prowl.

Dinner is served! An army officer resorts to cannibalism in “Ravenous.”

RAVENOUS, 1999

The always compelling Guy Pearce ( “L.A. Confidential”) stars in this film, which offers a unique take on cannibalism.

The story takes place during in 1840s California during the Mexican-American War. Pearce plays a U.S. Army captain who comes across the aftermath of a Donner Party-like disaster. The sole survivor, a Colonel Ives, is now hooked on human flesh. According to a Native American legend recounted in the movie, a man who consumes the flesh of his enemies takes their strength but becomes a Wendigo, a demon cursed by a hunger for man meat. Turns out the Indians were right. Col. Ives has cured himself of tuberculosis and turned himself into an invincible superman through cannibalism. Worse still, he gets others addicted and is bent on turning our hero Capt. Boyd into a cannibal too.

I found the notion of cannibal as a sort of vampire thought-provoking and appreciated the film’s dark humor. With great performances from Pearce and Robert Carlyle as the sinister Colonel Ives.

The author of this article also wrote the acclaimed horror novel Hour of the Beast. In the opening chapter, the unthinkable happens. Then things get out of hand.

Hour of the Beast is available in hardcover and softcover at Amazon.com. But you can save $4 by clicking HERE! The Kindle version is just $7 and the Ebook is a measly $5. Be the first on your block to read this bone-chilling tale — before the motion picture hits the big screen.

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