Jun 18, 2023

Hauntings From The Page To The Screen

Haunted House Party: Night Two
The Haunting / The Changeling / Poltergeist II: The Other Side
Mahoning Drive-In Theater - Lehighton, PA

The second night of Haunted House Party at the Mahoning Drive-In Theater was every bit as awesome as the first, but before we get into the details, I've got to take a moment to acknowledge the event t-shirt and poster from Exhumed Films.  The black and white design had a very cool nWo vibe to it, and it glows green in the dark which makes for an especially eerie atmosphere on the lot.

The second meeting of the Mahoning Book Club took place in the concession building an hour before the gates opened to the public.  I was bummed that we had to miss the first meeting to discuss The Body Snatchers before Remake Double-Take in early May, but my wife and I don't have work on Saturday so there was no trouble in making it to this.

We discussed the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel that was the source material for the first film of last night's triple feature, The Haunting Of Hill House.  It was a very relaxed and thought provoking chat where folks shared their views on the characters and different elements of the story that I hadn't considered.  My take on this story is a bit unconventional because I don't think Hill House was haunted by ghosts at all.  I think Eleanor Vance was a troubled child who was suffering from bipolar disorder, or possibly even schizophrenia.  Eleanor tells us that her entire adult life was spent taking care of her ailing mother until her recent death, but Eleanor proves to be an unreliable narrator throughout the story, and a flat out liar to the other characters on more than one occasion.  This leads me to believe that while she may have told herself that she was taking care of her mother, the truth is that it was the other way around.

Eleanor was not psychologically equipped to live an adult life, to get a job, or to start a family of her own, so she stayed at home under her mother's care.  Eleanor blames herself for her mother's death by saying that she wasn't there for her one time when she was needed, but I wonder if Eleanor isn't more directly responsible.  Whether she was or wasn't responsible for the death of her mother, my theory is supported by the fact that Eleanor still was unable to move on and have a "normal" adult life after her mother's death because she moved in with her sister's family.  Her sister isn't willing to let her take the car (even though it allegedly belongs to both women), but is this because she's an overbearing bully, or because she knows what her sister is suffering from and wants to keep her from hurting herself or others.  I think the latter is true, and her sister's fears are justified by the fact that Eleanor spiraled out of control at Hill House, putting her own safety and the safety of others in jeopardy as she descended into madness.  This ended in her committing suicide by driving her car into a tree in a fit of depression after she was sent away from Hill House.

She may have come to Hill House as an invited guest to investigate an alleged haunting, but I think her personal ghosts were the only thing that was haunting Hill House.  Her psyche latched on to the idea of a supernatural house, which gave an outlet to the voices that were already tormenting her, and if it wasn't for Hill House, she would have eventually latched on to something else with similar results if there wasn't somebody looking after her to stop it from happening.

I didn't go into this much detail in our discussion at the book club, but I did share my thoughts and I was flattered that one person in particular at our meeting seemed to take an interest in my takeaway from the book.

Author Grady Hendrix joined us about ten minutes into the book club meeting.  He shared his thoughts on the The Haunting Of Hill House and Shirley Jackson as an author.  I was kind of surprised after I briefly shared my thoughts about the story being about Eleanor's descent into madness and not about a haunted house that he sat up and took an interest and asked me some follow-up questions.  He seemed to be genuinely interested in my take and he suggested that the story does present itself in a way where that can be true.

I met Mr. Hendrix after the book club meeting and he signed two of his books for me: The Final Girl Support Group and The Southern Book Club's Guide To Slaying Vampires.  I was hoping to pick up a copy of How To Sell A Haunted House, but he sold out of copies yesterday, but I thought it was pretty cool that he's an official member of our book club and I was able to get a copy of his 2020 novel that has a book club as the protagonists.  I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't read any of his novels yet, but I have read his work before.  He and Chris Poggiali co-authored a book on the history of kung fu cinema called These Fists Break Bricks that I picked up when I first met the two of them at the drive-in last May.  It's extremely well done and something that I strongly recommend to any fan of kung fu flicks, and I've heard very good things about his horror novels.  I only got a few pages into The Final Girl Support Group during the pre-show, but I'm going to spend a good portion of my free time this summer on his stories.

I had a good excuse for not being able to get too far into the book last night on the lot.  We had our little boy Harvey on the lot with us last night.  He was a very good boy, as he always is, but he was in a very playful mood during the pre-show, so I took the little fellow on a few walks and spent a good portion of the pre-show playing with him.  He nestled into my lap during the trailer reel before the first feature and spent most of the night sleeping and occasionally licking my face while I tried to watch the movie.  We seriously could not have asked for a better dog... such as sweet boy!

The special concession item for Haunted House Party was the Mahoning Haunted Nuggets, which are chicken nuggets that are topped with Flamin' Hot Cheetos, fried noodles, chopped pickles and jalapeno peppers, and a sweet and spicy chili sauce.  They weren't nearly as hot as the ones they served up at VHS Fest two years ago, but that is definitely a good thing!  The ones I had last night were very spicy, but still very tasty.  I couldn't even tell you if the ones a couple years ago were good because they were so dang hot that I had to focus on chewing and swallowing as fast as I could to keep my tongue from burning off.

Speaking of scary things on the lot, Louie spent some of the night dressed like a ghost.  In retrospect, I probably should have been the one with a sheet over my head.  I slept in too long and had to rush to get ready to be on the lot in time for the book club, so I didn't have time to shave.  That combined with how ridiculous my hair looks when I have it tied back is enough to give any onlookers as many nightmares as tonight's feature films.

Grady Hendrix launched into the second half of his slideshow presentation in the final minutes of the sun setting behind the screen, and all I can say is that if he's giving a presentation anywhere that's convenient to attend for you, I highly recommend that you go to see it.  The dude is hysterically funny.  If you like listening to Joe Bob Briggs' take on things, you'll definitely enjoy Mr. Hendrix as well.

The first movie of the night was the 1963 British horror classic, The Haunting.  I've never watched this movie before, or any other movie based on the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel for that matter, but I'm glad it worked out that way because it gave me a pretty cool experience.  My first exposure to this story was the book, which I spent the past few weeks reading for the first time in anticipation of the Mahoning Book Club meeting.  I then got to meet up with a group of other horror fans (including a current horror author) to discuss the story and share our thoughts, and a few hours later, I got to see the first adaptation of the story into a feature film projected from a 35mm print on the big screen at a drive-in theater.  I don't know... maybe I'm being a great big cornball, but I appreciate experiences like that, especially when they all just randomly fall into place.

Black and white movies look incredible at the Mahoning, and this was no exception.  The film print was absolutely gorgeous and I found myself getting lost in the story.  There are differences in the film from the novel (particularly Dr. Montague's wife), but the movie sticks pretty closely to its source material overall.  I enjoyed the movie more than I did the book, but I enjoyed the both of them more because I got to experience them in the way that I did more than I would have if I had just randomly come across the movie on television or if I had read the book in high school.  It just all came together to give me a perfect experience to absorb and appreciate this story.

Next up was the 1980 Canadian cult classic, The Changeling.  I saw this movie for the first time four years ago when it was the second half of a double feature on The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs.  I strongly recommend it if you haven't seen it before, but if you do decide to watch it, make sure that you aren't distracted when you do.  This isn't a cheesy slasher or a schlocky flick that is filled with gore and jump scares.  This is a pretty deep story with twists and turns that you won't see coming, and it's best appreciated if you give this movie your undivided attention.

I'm hesitant to say anything more about The Changeling because this is a movie that's best experienced completely cold.  Look it up til your heart is content afterward if something didn't make sense to you, but I recommend going into this for the first time with no expectation on the story.  It isn't available on Shudder anymore, but you can stream it for free on Plex and Tubi, or on Peacock with a subscription.

The final movie of Haunted House Party was the 1986 sequel, Poltergeist II: The Other Side.  This is a movie that doesn't get a lot of appreciation from the horror community or from movie fans in general.  It has a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes and was torn apart by critics at the time of its release.  I will agree that the first movie is far superior, but Poltergeist II is such a dramatic shift away from the original that it stand as its own separate entity.  I think it probably would have been a successful and beloved horror classic if they could have found a way to make this a completely separate movie that had no ties to the original, but the investment that the audience has in the characters from the first film enables this movie to hit the ground running without spending a lot of time needing to be spent to get the audience to care about Carole Ann and the rest of the Freeling family.

I'm most definitely in the minority here, but I absolutely love Poltergeist II.  I saw it for the first time when I was a kid, just a couple of years after it premiered in theaters.  Now that I think back, I may have even watched this movie before ever seeing the original, but I can't be sure.  I know that I didn't see either one more than a couple of times in my life, but the character and backstory of Reverend Kane stuck with me more than almost any other horror villain that I ever got to see at that age.  Despite not having watched the film too often in my life, the scene of Steve Freeling being possessed Reverend Kane by swallowing the worm from a bottle of tequila, and the scene of the braces attacking and attempting to electrocute Robby have burned themselves into my memory.

Poltergeist II definitely has cheesy moments that the original does not, but it works for some reason... at least for me it does.  You can tell that the directors filmed the scene with Carole Ann being sent by her grandmother floating back to her parents while glowing and grinning from ear to ear was meant to elicit tears of joy from the audience, but they were so over-the-top in making her look like a literal angel that it looks absolutely ridiculous and I can't stop myself from laughing every time I see it.  The movie ends on a similar note with Taylor the Native American shaman driving off in the family's Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser.  When two protagonists in a film have their "how can I ever repay you" scene, the last thing you're expecting is for the person being asked that question to respond with: I think I'll take your car.  Peace out girl scout!

In a lot of ways, this movie reminds me of another sequel that didn't get a lot of love from critics: the 1970 film Beneath The Planet Of The Apes.  Both films are overshadowed by the masterpiece that came before it, but both take the story into a new and compelling direction that centers around a mysterious group that isn't present in the first film: Reverend Kane's cult in Poltergeist II, and the mutated telepathic humans who worship an atomic bomb in Beneath The Planet Of The Apes.  If you compare each of them to the sci-fi classic Planet Of The Apes or the horror classic Poltergeist, they fall far short, but if you can set aside your judgment and enjoy them for what they have to offer, they take you on a very fun ride.

And that's a wrap on the Haunted House Party at the Mahoning Drive-In Theater.  There are so many great movies about hauntings that they could turn this into an annual event that goes for years before they'd ever need to repeat a film, and I really hope that they do.  It was definitely very well attended, so I'm hopeful that I'll be writing all about Haunted House Party II this time next year!