Malignant, Willard, Scanners, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Horror Bulletin Weekly #138
Episode 138 Summary
This week, we’ll be watching some more classics. We’ll watch four more horror films, including “Malignant” from 2021, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” from 1974, “Willard” from 1971, and “Scanners” from 1981.
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Directed by Daniel Mann
Written by Gilbert Ralston, Stephen Gilbert
Stars Bruce Davison, Elsa Lanchester, Sondra Locke, and Ernest Borgnine
Run Time: 1 Hour. 35 Minutes
Non-spoiler Judgment Zone
It’s like fifty years old, so it’s probably not a spoiler to say this is the best “rat movie” ever made. It was good enough to get a remake in 2003 (which we’ll review at some future date), so we mostly recommend it. Kevin thought it was a little dated and very dull, but Brian says it was a formative part of his childhood.
Credits roll over clips of a metal foundry, with workers hard at work. Willard’s walking out, done for the day, but his boss, Martin stops him and hands a big packet of work over to him that he needs done over the weekend. It takes just long enough that Willard misses his bus.
He gets home and his mother and her ancient friends give him a birthday party. They invited Mr. Martin to the party, but of course, he doesn’t come. They all say Willard needs to toughen up and become more aggressive, but he’s a quiet, introverted guy. It seems Martin stole the business from Willard’s father a few years back.
Willard goes out in the backyard to sulk and notices a rat on the ground. He throws a piece of cake at it to make it go away, but the rat has the opposite reaction: it likes the cake. Later, his mother gets on him for letting the house fall apart; she even saw a rat in the yard. And when is he going to talk to Martin about his job?
Before long, Willard has a whole little family of rats in the backyard that he feeds regularly. They’re almost tame.
Monday morning, he’s a bit late for work, and Martin isn’t happy. Willard gets chewed out once again for being behind. He even hired an assistant for Willard, so he gets caught back up. He threatens to fire Willard if he doesn’t get caught up. Work just gets worse, but at least he can work on training his rats once he gets home.
His overbearing mother asks him if he killed the rats, and he lies and says he did. His mother’s a hypochondriac, and she calls up Charlotte to come over and help with the house. Willard doesn’t like Charlotte.
Willard teaches the rats to understand his words. He names a few of the smarter ones Queenie and Socrates, and the big one is Ben. He starts breeding them, and before long, there are a lot of rats.
Willard argues with Martin, and Martin offers to buy their house. Martin yells at Willard for not sending out his anniversary invitations on time, but he did. Willard decides to pack up a whole bunch of rats and set them loose at Martin’s party. This has predictable results for the partygoers. Willard scoops the rats into his bag and goes home.
The next morning, Martin gets a phone call; he goes out to the office and tells Willard to go home because his mother is sick. When he gets home, he finds Charlotte going through their stuff, as his mother has died. Willard immediately throws out Charlotte, but he invites the rats to live in the cellar.
The lawyer explains that the house is heavily mortgaged, but there’s no money. Willard says he has no intention of selling the huge old house. A bunch of people come over after the funeral, including Martin and Charlotte. Willard’s happier with his rats.
Charlotte comes over again and just lets herself in. She also wants him to sell the house. He yells at her and takes away her keys.
He decides to take his favorites, Ben and Socrates, with him to the office on Saturday when no one else will be around. He goes into the office’s storeroom and lets them out. Later on, Joan comes back into the office and takes Willard outside to find that she’s bought him a cat. The cat really wants into his briefcase. He ends up dumping the cat with a stranger.
When he gets home, he finds that his house is going to be sold for taxes. He needs money, as he owes $2500 in back taxes. The rats eat a lot, and he yells at them for eating and breeding too much.
He asks Charlotte for money, and she isn’t very forgiving. His mother’s other friends aren’t much use either; they all say he needs to sell that old house.
There’s a big-money customer talking about carrying $8000 at the office the next day, and Willard writes down the address. That night, he breaks in and has the rats chew through the man’s bedroom door. They find the rats and run out of the house while Willard steals the money from the man’s money clip.
Willard overhears Martin talking about his plans for Willard’s house and knows that Martin is going to fire him for leverage. Martin tries to bully Joan into helping him convince Willard to sell the house, but she refuses. Martin fires her.
Willard packs up his two rats and takes them to the office again, as usual. The two rats are noisier than usual, and Willard warns them to be quiet. As Martin gives Willard his termination notice, one of the office ladies goes into the storeroom and sees the rats. Martin kills Socrates as Ben (and Willard) hides and watches.
Willard drives back into work that night with a car full of hundreds of rats. He confronts Martin with all the rats with him. With his captive audience, he finally tells Martin everything that’s on his mind. “Tear him up!” Commands Willard. And they do, very quickly.
Willard goes home, leaving Ben and the other rats behind. When he gets home, he starts to kill the other rats in their cages.
The next day, Willard and Joan have dinner. Halfway through, he sees Ben sitting on a shelf in the house; he found his way home. He checks the basement, and there are more rats down there than ever before.
He throws Joan out and confronts Ben, who bites him. Willard agrees to feed Ben and the gang, but he grabs a box of rat poison instead. Ben reads the label on the rat poison box and squeaks out a warning to the others. Willard then attacks Ben with a broom, but we see who’s the boss now…
I saw this when I was little, and I could have sworn it was black and white. Maybe that was just the kind of TV I had back in those dark ages. It did leave an impression back then, as my first pet was a hamster I named “Ben.”
Bruce Davison certainly has a crazy “look” here, so his actions are believable, and you don’t doubt he’d do all this. He’s pouty, moody, and is definitely a 70s version of “emo.” He looks more like a teenager, but at the birthday party, they all mention he’s 27 here.
There are only two really recognizable “actor-rats” in the film, but there are hundreds and hundreds used in various sequences. Have we seen the last of Ben the rat? I suspect not…
- Directed by David Cronenberg
- Written by David Cronenberg
- Stars Jennifer O’Neil, Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan, Michael Ironside
- Run Time: 1 Hour, 43 Minutes
- Trailer: Scanners (1981) US trailer
Non-spoiler Judgment Zone
It’s a conspiracy-centered story about mind-controlling telepathic assassins and the mad scientist who created them. If that doesn’t blow your mind, then the rest of the film will! We both liked it a lot.
A homeless-looking guy walks through the mall, stealing food from other peoples’ used trays. Two judgmental old women start giggling about them, but then he makes one of them have a seizure. A couple of guys in trench coats who aren’t police, shoot the homeless man with a tranquilizer. He passes out, and they drag him away.
He eventually wakes up, cleaned and strapped down to a bed. Dr. Paul Ruth walks over and asks the man, whose name is Vale, why he doesn’t use his power more constructively. Ruth explains that Vale is a “Scanner,” a topic that Dr. Ruth studies carefully. He brings in dozens of spectators, and the number of people make him go crazy; he can hear their thoughts. Ruth gives Vale an injection, which calms the voices in his head.
A man who claims to be a Scanner is doing a presentation in front of an audience. He asks for a volunteer to come up and concentrate. The man looks like he’s in pain, and the volunteer looks angry. They seem to be having a mental battle, and the volunteer starts to smile as the first man’s head explodes violently.
Turns out, the volunteer was a stronger scanner named Darryl Revok, who is taken into custody by gunpoint. Revok makes the doctor sedate himself. He then makes all the security guys die, mostly at their own hands.
Braedon Keller is named the new head of internal security for ConSec after that fiasco, and he wants to drop the scanner program. There are 236 known scanners, and none of them are working for ConSec. Dr. Ruth thinks there’s a “Scanner underground” that is hiding all of them. Ruth wants Revok eliminated, and he wants to train an unknown scanner to infiltrate the underground. Ruth has one unaffiliated Scanner— Vale.
Scanners have a certain form of ESP and telepathy. Ruth says he doesn’t know why. Ephemerol is a Scanner suppressing drug that temporarily prevents the voices in Vale’s head and disables his powers. Ruth shows Vale a twelve-year-old film of Revok in a psychiatric ward after trying to drill a hole in his head. Today, Revok has been killing all the scanners who refuse to join him.
We see that Mr. Keller is reporting to Revok; he’s a mole. He tells Revok the plan to get Vale to go undercover and infiltrate Revok’s group.
In the meantime, Ruth has arranged Vale to undergo testing by a Yoga Master. Vale just about kills the guy; he’s got pretty good control over his abilities.
Vale goes to see Benjamin Pierce, a Scanner who has been more or less reformed with “art therapy” and knows how to contact Revok. People break into the house and shoot the place up, including Pierce. Pierce sends Vale a message with his dying thoughts.
Pierce told Vale to go to see Kim Oberist, which he does. She’s with a group of Scanners in a kind of support group. They are all linked together mentally when the assassins break in. They shoot several of them, but a few get away. Soon, only Vale and Kim are left.
Vale tracks Revok to a pharmaceutical company that makes Ephemerol. It looks like the drug is all going to ConSec. Revok orders Keller to kill Ruth if he finds out too much. Vale tells Ruth everything, and they decide there must be a traitor at ConSec.
Keller interrogates Kim, and it goes badly. He knows that Kim isn’t really in Revok’s group. She gets away but Keller orders that both Scanners be killed. Ruth, in the meantime, starts talking to himself as Keller sneaks up behind him and shoots him in the head.
Outside, at a phone booth, Vale connects to the computer over the phone using his mind to retrieve the list of people who are receiving Ephemerol. He Scans the computer. Keller orders the computer techs to self-destruct the system. The system cuts off with Vale still inside it. The computers and telephones all explode, killing Keller.
They go to see a doctor who is on the list, and Kim encounters a pregnant woman in the waiting room. The baby scans Kim, which is weird. The doctors are all giving Ephemerol to their pregnant patients, creating an army of new scanners. They are both tranquilized by Revok and taken back to ConSec.
Revok says that he’s been looking for Vale for years. Revok explains that Ruth was his and Vale’s actual father. They are brothers. Ephemerol was created in the 1940s, but the drug had the side effect of creating Scanners. The two of them are not only older, but more powerful than any of the others.
The two of them fight, Scanner-style. Their veins bulge and bleed, their eyeballs turn white, and Vale bursts into flame until Revok… fade to black.
Kim wakes up in the next room. She goes inside to find Vale’s body burnt to a crisp and finds Revok’s body now containing Vale’s mind. He says, “We’ve won.”
The exploding head was a great practical effect, and it still holds up. The plot is a pretty straightforward conspiracy story, with no real shockers until the very end.
Michael Ironside has always excelled at playing psychotics who are having more fun in their evil plan than they have any right to. Stephen Lack, as Vale, is generic and fairly boring. He’s a cardboard hero who doesn’t show much emotion at all. Jennifer O’Neal gets top billing here, but she only gets a handful of lines and is only onscreen for a couple of minutes.
I hadn’t seen this one in decades either, and all I remembered was the head exploding in the very first scene. I’m sure if they remade this one, heads would be popping all over the place, but it actually only happens once in the film. That’s an effective scene!
Short film: Diet (2020)
- Directed by Aaron Fradkin
- Written by Aaron Fradkin
- Stars Wes Overby, Aaron Fradkin, Victoria Fratz
- Run Time: 5:10
A man peels carrots, but you can tell he doesn’t really want them. He’s not very good at it, but he’s on a diet, so what choice does he have? He drops a piece and tries to fish it out of the garbage disposal. He then eats the carrots in the shower, which has to be a first. He then takes the carrots to bed with him.
He hears something outside, but there’s nothing there. Or is there?
Clearly, carrots are not as healthy as they are advertised to be. The monster at the end looked cool, but the whole thing was basically just a setup to make carrots look bad. It was fun, but not very filling.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
- Directed by Tobe Hooper
- Written by Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper
- Stars Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal, Alan Denziger
- Run Time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
- Trailer: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) - Movie Trailer
Non-spoiler Judgment Zone
It’s gritty, dirty, smelly, and relentlessly intense. It’s got surprisingly little gore for the title, but it’s the forefather of all the other slasher franchises. It’s definitely worth a watch!
There’s a long narrative introducing a bizarre crime and a true story that occurred in August 1973. There’s a radio report about grave robbing in Texas; just that morning, a strange art piece was found of a rotting corpse tied to a headstone. Dozens of graves have turned up empty. Credits roll.
A van pulls over on the side of the highway so the passenger, Franklin, a man in a wheelchair, can get out and pee. There’s a slight action, and he goes rolling down the hill. Sally reads a bunch of astrology stuff to Jerry, who says it’s all nonsense. They park the van and Sally gets out to see if her grandfather’s grave is still intact. He’s fine, so they get back in the van and continue down the road.
They stop to pick up a hitchhiker, a strange man with a birthmark. He says he works there in the slaughterhouse with his whole family. He grabs Franklin’s knife and cuts his own hand, which grosses out everyone else. He asks if they can drive him home and offers them a dinner of head cheese. He cuts Franklin with an old straight razor, so they throw the guy out of the van.
They stop for gas, but the gas station is all out, so they can’t refill. They ask directions to Franklin’s father’s old place. He warns them that they don’t want to go up there. They make it up the hill to the house, but we knew that’s going to be an issue later. The house is a ruin, but they have no choice but to stay.
Kirk and Pam find another nearby farm and walk over there to hopefully buy or trade for some gas. They hear a big generator running, so someone must live there. They see animal bones everywhere, but Kirk goes inside anyway. Leatherface whacks him over the head with a big mallet and hides behind a big metal door.
Pam follows inside, looking for Kirk, and she finds what a strange place this actually is when she finds a human skeleton. Leatherface opens his door, squeals, and then grabs Pam and hangs her on a meat hook. Leatherface then picks up a chainsaw and beheads Kirk.
Jerry goes looking for the missing twosome, leaving Franklin and Sally to wait back at the house alone. He finds the same house and goes in just like everyone else. Leatherface’s mallet does its job again. Three down!
Sally and Franklin go looking for them after it gets dark. Leatherface pops out of the darkness and cuts Franklin in half with the chainsaw as Sally goes running through the darkness. He chases her through the dark until she gets to the house and goes inside. She finds a couple of long-dead bodies upstairs. She jumps out of the upstairs window, which hurts her foot, thus slowing her down. They run back into the woods where there’s a lot more chasing.
Sally runs all the way to the gas station, where the attendant lets her in. He says there’s no phone there to call the police, so they’ll need to drive to the next town over. He knocks her out and ties her up; this isn’t the rescue she was hoping for. He stops to yell at the hitchhiker, “I told you to stay away from that graveyard! Look what your brother did to the door!”
The old man is clearly the boss. He orders Leatherface and the hitchhiker to do things, and they do them. He promises they’ll all have dinner soon. They bring Grandpa downstairs; he looks dead, but he isn’t. They feed him some of Sally’s blood, which he eagerly slurps.
She passes out and soon wakes up tied to a chair at the dinner table. She screams, and the others start howling. After a good deal of torment, they bend her over a bucket and prepare to kill her, but poor old Grandpa can’t hold the mallet. “Hit ‘er Grampa!” She breaks away and jumps out another window.
She limps through the countryside, but now the sun has come up. A giant semi-truck runs over the hitchhiker, but Leatherface chases her and the truck driver. Finally, a pickup truck stops and picks her up, leaving Leatherface frustrated behind her...
For such a legendary, famous film, not one of the stars ever became a big name. Franklin is a hilarious character, but he’s clearly the brains of the group, which isn’t saying much.
The slightly grainy quality of the film actually enhances the hot, smelly, stickiness of the environment and makes everything just a little bit ickier. There’s surprisingly little gore here, considering the title, and actually, only one person is killed by the chainsaw in the whole film. There is not even a hint of sexual content in the film, consensual or otherwise, which is unusual for a “slasher” film.
It all moves really fast, maybe a better term would be unrelenting. The usual first act where all the exposition takes place is completely overpowered by the weird hitchhiker scene, so it’s almost like pure action from start to finish.
It’s old. It’s low budget. It’s cheap. It’s also really, really effective.
- Directed by James Wan
- Written by James Wan
- Stars Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young
- Run Time; 1 Hour, 51 Minutes
- Trailer: MALIGNANT – Official Trailer
Non-spoiler Judgment Zone
We both liked this one a lot. It had several surprises, and although we had theories as to what was going on, we were both wrong. That makes it really good in our book. There are massive spoilers below, so go watch it first and then come back.
Dr. Weaver does a video log in 1993, talking about her experiment, and she’s called when “he got out” again. They can’t control the test subject. Bones break, people fly out the door, and light bulbs explode before Weaver shoots it with a tranquilizer dart. She tells the others to strap him into the chair as they clean up the bodies. “You’ve been a bad boy Gabriel,” she yells. The radio comes alive, and Gabriel threatens, “I will kill you all.” through the speaker. She didn’t even realize he could speak, as she insists, “Time to cut the cancer out!” Credits roll. During the credits we see text about a child left in their care that can control electricity and has attacked staff before.
In the present day, Madison, who is very pregnant, comes home from work early. Her husband, Derek, is not supportive, as she’s miscarried several times. Then he punches her, and she’s bleeding from the back of the head. He apologizes, but it’s clear that this is a pattern.
That night while sleeping on the couch, Derek is awakened by the kitchen blender, which has come on all by itself. Then the TV goes haywire, and Derek thinks he sees someone on the couch who isn’t there when he turns the light on. But he was there. The phantom then kills Derek. Maddie wakes up. Was that all a dream? No, no it wasn’t; he’s very dead. Then it goes after Maddie, and she’s knocked out in the process.
Suddenly, every cop in the county is there with detectives and helicopters. They’re calling it a home invasion, but the forensics people say this is something special. Shaw, the lead detective, agrees.
Maddie wakes up in the hospital, and her sister Sydney is there with her. They talk for a moment until Maddie notices the baby is gone; she’s lost another one.
Eventually, she recovers enough to go home, but she’s clearly not over it all yet. That night, the streetlights start to blink, and she sees someone standing across the street. Naturally she finds the back door open. Things get crazy, and she runs upstairs and hides.
The next morning, we get a home security montage, as Maddie boards up the windows and puts deadbolts on all the doors. They work so well that Sydney has to crawl in a window. She still thinks if she would have been able to have a baby, things would have been better. Maddie mentions to Sydney that she was adopted and never knew any “real” family.
We cut to a tunnel tour under the city of Seattle. It’s dark and creepy, and some of the lights blink randomly. The tour leader lets everyone out and then hears someone still down in the tunnel. She goes in, and something not-quite human kidnaps her and ties her up in his dungeon. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited for this,” the radio says. “First, Doctor Weaver.”
Dr. Weaver answers the phone, and it’s Gabriel calling. She starts digging through her old surgical records. Meanwhile, the lights and radio are acting up at Maddie’s house. She finds her head is bleeding, so maybe it’s a hallucination. She watches as the house morphs around her, changing into Weaver’s house, and then she watches Gabriel kill Dr. Weaver with her own trophy. “Time to cut out the cancer,” he says. He wants, “to show you what the cancer has become.”
Maddie explains her vision to Sydney, but it’s pretty hard to believe. Meanwhile, Dr. Fields, who also worked on the Gabriel case, has his own encounter in the dark. Once again, Maddie watches the murder happen in a strange vision. Once again, she finds her head is bleeding. She goes to Shaw and Moss at the police station to explain her visions, but they think she’s lost her mind. Shaw finds a picture of a very young Madison in Weaver’s old files.
Gabriel calls her, and he says her name is Emily. He says he’s going to make “them” pay. They go to see Maddie’s adoptive mother and ask her about any siblings. She does, however, remember the name Gabriel. She shows them a video of Maddie talking to an imaginary friend named Gabriel. She had numerous, terrifying, conversations with Gabriel when she was little.
A third doctor is killed as Maddie watches. Shaw arrives just after his murder and runs into Gabriel. Shaw pursues him down the fire escape and down further into the city’s subterranean tunnels.
Shaw tells Maddie about the doctors and the medical case from before she was adopted. They want her to see the department therapist to help reconstruct her memories. Gabriel did bad things and Maddie always got the blame. He often talked to her on the toy telephone. Gabriel really wanted her to kill Sydney before she was even born. “Wait. Are you saying the killer is your imaginary friend?” asks Detective Moss.
Meanwhile, the girl tied up in Gabriel’s attic gets loose. She falls through the floor, and it was all in the attic of the house where Maddie currently lives. They all see it happen.
They arrest Maddie since it’s her house. Maddie gets upset, and the light bulbs explode. The phone rings, and Gabriel talks to the police. Maddie used to call him the devil. They lock her up with every female prisoner stereotype since the 70s.
Meanwhile, Sydney looks up the orphanage where Maddie lived, and it’s a huge, abandoned castle-like complex on a hill. Naturally, she goes inside alone at night. She finds the records room and finds a videotape interview with Emily/Maddie’s mother, Serena. She’d been raped and insisted that the baby was an abomination. Serena heard weird voices in her head that told her to do bad things. She thinks he’s the devil. The camera spins around to show us that Gabriel is a parasitic twin, literally growing out of Emily’s back. Dr. Weaver then surgically removed it from her. Gabriel can make Emily see what he sees. Dr. Fields then explains that Gabriel could take over Maddie’s body and control her physically. Yes, Maddie was the killer all along, she just wasn’t in control. They eventually cut out the tumor- they removed what they could and stuffed the rest into her skull. Apparently, when Derek shoved her into the wall, it reawakened Gabriel.
At the hospital, Shaw finds out the tour guide/victim of Gabriel who fell from the attic, is the same Serena May, Maddie’s mother. Down in the jail cell, Gabriel bursts out of the back of Maddie’s head; he’s in control again. Everyone else in the cell is soon very, very dead, including the cop with the keys to the cell. They’re free! They soon kill every cop in the department in a scene that combines and reminds us of The Matrix, Kingsmen, and The Exorcist all at once.
Shaw and Moss are wounded but alive when Sydney arrives. They come to the conclusion that Gabriel’s mother is the next target. Gabriel confronts Sydney in Serena’s hospital room, but Maddie tries to control him. Serena wakes up and apologizes to Gabriel, but it’s not enough. Sydney explains that Gabriel was the cause of the miscarriages; he was feeding off them.
This pisses off Maddie enough that she tries harder to regain control. He kills Sydney and Serena before Maddie takes over. He hadn’t really killed Sydney or Serena; she’s controlling what he sees now. She locks him in a mental prison, and his physical self recedes into Maddie’s backside.
Although it’s clear from early on that Gabriel is out for revenge, we don’t know why until pretty far into the film. The same goes for the mental link with Maddie. Is he real? A monster of some kind? Is Maddie simply an insane telepath? Is it something else entirely? The line about removing the cancer somewhat tipped me off to a “Basket Case” kind of situation, but it didn’t seem likely until it happened. I gotta admit, that for someone who spent the last thirty years as a dormant tumor, Gabriel is awfully spry. And that ending-- I’m sure the police won’t charge Maddie with anything, and it’ll all work just fine, right?
The only time I can remember the Seattle sub-city being used in horror was Kolchak: The Night Stalker back in the 1970s. I’m amazed it’s not been used more often, since it’s the perfect nightmare fuel… and it’s a real thing.
The camerawork in this is really noticeably impressive, with several really cool movement and tracking shots. It keeps you guessing until the end, and it’s really, really good.
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Get ready for next week, where we’ll be watching some more classics. We’ll watch four more horror films, including “The Brain Eaters” from 1958, “The Day the World Ended” and “The Beast with a Million Eyes,” both from 1955, and “Blacula” from 1974.
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