The Descent, The Ghoul, They Live, and Paranormal Activity
Weekly Horror Bulletin Newsletter 179
We’ve got our usual collection of four horror films and a short film for you this week. We'll start off with a goofy cult classic, “They Live” from 1988. Then we’ll look at a goofy Hammer-esque Peter Cushing film that didn’t fare so well, “The Ghoul” from 1975. Next up, we’ll check out the first “Paranormal Activity” from 2007, and lastly, we’ll get lost underground in 2005’s “The Descent.”
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They Live (1988)
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Ray Nelson, John Carpenter
Stars Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster
Run Time: 1 Hour, 34 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgment Zone
It’s a science fiction action thriller with elements of horror. Overall, it’s held up really well over the years and it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Nada walks into Los Angeles with everything he owns on his back. He goes to the employment office, he’s just come from Denver, where the economy has failed. He walks past a street preacher talking about how the human spirit has been corrupted. He talks about the owners of the human race; “our masters are all around you!”
He soon manages to get a job in construction, which is a way for Roddy Piper to get shirtless for the camera. He makes friends with Frank, who tells him where to find a place to stay. It’s a sort of homeless camp, but there’s shelter and good food. A man named Gilbert is in charge. We hear stories about the wealthy taking advantage of the workers. Nada’s a bit more optimistic, “I believe in America; I follow the rules,” but Frank is a little more realistic.
Some hacker keeps breaking into TV signals that explains some really paranoid stuff. Nada recognizes that what the TV hacker is saying matches the same woods as the street preacher earlier. After the Hacker finishes talking, everyone has a headache. Nada watches Gilbert lead the old preacher into the church— at 4 a.m.
The next morning, Nada goes over to the church and finds “They live, we sleep” painted on the wall. A recorded choir is playing over speakers. He finds a secret room full of boxes. In the front of the church, we see Gilbert and the TV hacker setting up equipment; they’re behind the secret transmission. They are running some kind of secret undergraduate operation. As he leaves, he sees a helicopter flying over.
Nada notices Gilbert and his men unloading boxes fro the church into a truck. Frank warns him not to get involved. That night, Nada watches as the church gets raided by the police. There are a LOT of police, and they bulldoze the whole homeless camp and round up all the people. Nada barely escapes.
The next morning, the people gather to pick up whatever they can, but the place is gone. Nada goes to the church, which is a burnt-out husk, but he opens the secret room and takes one of the boxes. It turns out it’s just full of cheap sunglasses. He hides the box and takes one pair of the glasses.
He puts the glasses on, and suddenly, he sees things that weren’t there before. “Obey” appears on a billboard. “Marry and Reproduce” on another. “Consume,” “No independent thought,” and others all over town. Magazines are nothing but page after page of the stuff— until he takes the glasses off and everything looks “Normal.” Some people, but not everyone, look strange too, sort of skeletal. The whole world is being told to “sleep,” and the skeletal people are everywhere.
When Nada confronts a woman, she tells her watch, “I’ve got one that can see.” They all start closing in on him. The cops show up and want to know about the glasses. He manages to overpower them and get their weapons. He walks into a bank and shoots the place up – only the non-humans. “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.” He soon learns that the strange people have technology more advanced than we do.
Nada then carjacks a woman named Holly, and he ends up at her place to avoid the cops. He tells her the story, and she thinks he’s crazy. She knocks him out the window and calls the police. He soon finds that he dropped the glasses in her apartment.
He goes back to the job site, and Frank wants nothing to do with him; they all know he shot a pair of cops and a bunch of people. His face is all over the TV. He goes back for the box of sunglasses and makes Frank try them on after some convincing.
Gilbert shows up and invites the two to a meeting. They now have contact lenses that do the same thing as the sunglasses. Gilbert warns them about humans that sell out to the “ghouls.” They’re aliens, and they are changing the Earth’s environment to be more like theirs with pollution. Gilbert wants to find the aliens’ signal and shut it off. Holly is there, and she’s sure the signal isn’t coming from her station. She’s a bit more sympathetic after she tried on his glasses, and apologizes for hitting him.
Suddenly, the place is raided by the police, who shoot most of the rebels, including Gilbert. Nada and Frank get out. They get cornered and accidentally activate their watches emergency escape teleport feature.
They reappear in a tunnel under the city. They find a ballroom mostly filled with the sellout humans. A man announces that the underground terrorist network has been destroyed.
They run into one of the homeless guys earlier, now wearing a tux. They even see a teleporter to other planets aliens are on. He then shows the two the nerve center of the operation, where the signal originates. He explains that there aren’t countries or anything like that anymore; it’s all over- the aliens are completely in charge behind the scenes.
Nada and Frank start shooting and blowing things up. They work their way through the offices toward the roof, where the alien antenna lies. They find Holly, who isn’t on their side as much as they thought. She kills Frank.
Nada gets to the roof, but Holly pulls a gun on him. “Don’t interfere, you can’t win,” she says. He shoots her, and then the dish. Snipers from the helicopters shoot Nada, but the dish on the roof does explode. Worldwide, the newscasters turn into ghouls. The signs suddenly decode. People everywhere see aliens as what they are.
I saw this when it came out, and dismissed it as a lazy way to get Rowdy Roddy Piper an acting job and maybe sell some cheap sunglasses in the process. Rewatching it today, it’s really very good.
The fight scene between Nada and Frank is not terribly convincing, which is odd considering Piper’s background. There’s a lot of humor, intentional and otherwise. Still, it never gets boring, and it’s definitely got a not-very-subtle message.
I liked it a lot more today than I did in the 80s.
The Ghoul (1975)
AKA “Night of the Ghoul”
Directed by Freddie Francis
Written by Anthony Hinds
Stars Peter Cushing, John Hurt, Alexandra Bastedo
Run Time: 1 Hour, 28 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgment Zone
It takes a while to get going with a Great Gatsby kind of beginning, but it’s worth the wait. The cast in great and the story is interesting. It’s hard to find a decent copy, but if you can it’s worth the watch.
It’s the 1920s. Daphne wanders the dark house; she hears someone whispering her name. “Daphne help me,” it hisses. She goes up the stairs to the locked door at the top of the stairway. She goes inside and finds a man hanging from a meat hook through the neck. Then they turn on the lights and we see that it’s a special effect for a party. Then they all go downstairs and dance.
Daphne wants to drive to the beach, and her boyfriend Geoffrey has a nice car, so they get ready to go. The host comes out and explains that it’s 200 miles to the beach. They challenge the host, Billy, to a race instead. They’re going to race both cars to “Land’s End.” Geoffrey is going with Daphne, and Billy is going with Angela.
They get out the cranks and finally get the cars to start. It’s all very Gatsby-esque. Daphne drives like a maniac, and everyone else tries to keep their dinners down. Geoffrey finally pulls over so that Angela can puke, and the others finally pull ahead. It suddenly gets foggy, and then Billy and Daphne run out of gas.
Geoffrey takes the empty gas can to go look for a place to fill up while Phoebe takes a nap. She gets up and goes for a walk, where she’s followed by a creepy man. She runs to a big house with a gate, but the man says not to go up there. She goes in anyway. Tom throws a rock and knocks her out.
Daphne wakes up in the Tom’s trapping cabin. He’s not very nice and smacks her around. She gives him the knee and then runs away straight into an old man. He invites her inside that old house behind the gate. He asks her where she left the car and has creepy servant Ayah prepare a room for her. He says sometimes the fog persists for days. He’s Doctor Lawrence, and he talks about his dead wife.
In the kitchen we see Ayah throwing out Tom, who’s hanging around causing trouble. Lawrence plays violin for Daphne. Lawrence explains that Tom is his gardener, and he sends Tom out looking for Billy, who should probably be returning to the car soon. Tom finds Billy asleep in the car and pushes it over a cliff. Tom laughs and takes dead-Billy’s cigarette case.
Daphne finds a chapel in the house, and Ayah gets agitated to find her there. Lawrence tells that he spent many years in India, and brought Ayah back with him. He used to be a clergyman, but something “vile and obscene” happened over there that caused his wife to kill herself and his son was corrupted.
Tom returns and claims that Billy left a note that he’s gone home. Daphne takes a bath, and someone watches from a hidden place. She comes downstairs and finds Lawrence praying asking to, “release me from my vow.”
That night, after Daphne has gone to bed, Ayah goes upstairs and unlocks a door. Someone with bloody feet comes out and heads straight for Daphne’s room. He stabs her repeatedly.
Later, Tom watches in awe as Ayah cuts up the body for food preparation. When she leaves the room, he steals a piece of Daphne’s body, which he stashes in his cabin.
Doctor Lawrence cries in the chapel. He knows what happened. Elsewhere, Geoffrey and Angela are called in by the police to identify Billy’s body. They ask about Daphne, but they didn’t find her body. The policeman takes them to the wreck, and Geoffrey wants to search the area. Angela can’t drive, but she tries and nearly runs over Tom before running off the road.
This time, Angela wakes up in Tom’s cabin. Geoffrey comes back to where he left the car and finds the wreck, but not Angela. Geoffrey finds the house and goes inside. Lawrence and Ayah find him and demand to know why he’s in their house. Lawrence lies that Daphne had been there just a few hours ago but has gone to town by bus. Lawrence says he suspects that Angela took the bus as well. Geoffrey leaves, not satisfied.
Tom tells Lawrence that Angela knows too much. Tom drags Angela to the big house. Elsewhere, Geoffrey’s car is stuck, so he hasn’t really left yet. Geoffrey chases Tom through the swamp and gets stuck in quicksand, but soon, so does Tom. Geoffrey gets out and uses this to his advantage, interrogating Tom before he sinks. He reveals that there’s something in the house that eats human flesh.
Geoffrey confronts Dr. Lawrence about the lies he’s been told. Lawrence catches Ayah doing some kind of “evil rite” and stops her. Geoffrey runs upstairs, but Lawrence cries out “Leave him to me. He’ll kill you!” Geoffrey opens the door upstairs and gets a knife in the forehead.
Ayah pulls the knife out of Geoffrey and gets cooking. Tom, who apparently got out of the quicksand, goes to see Angela. “You’ve got to be nice to me now,” he threatens. She whacks him over the head as “The Ghoul” walks in. The green, bald, blurry man stabs Tom to death and closes in on Angela until Lawrence shoots him several times.
As Angela runs away, Lawrence shoots himself.
Cushing is getting older here; this was two years before “Star Wars,” and several years after his family issues had ended. It might be “Peak Cushing” if you prefer the subtle creepiness of the aging actor. John Hurt is pretty young here, but still puts out a really great performance as the sometimes-funny, sometimes-psychopathic Tom.
This isn’t a Hammer film (It’s Tyburn Productions), but it’s got Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson, and was directed by Freddie Francis. It’s definitely got the “Hammer Feel” about it, to say the least.
Was India really so “exotic” in 1975 that it explains the weirdness? Maybe in 1921, when the story takes place, but definitely not in 1975, when the film was made. John Hurt tells Ayah that “you people worship cows,” blatantly pointing out that most Indians are vegetarians, yet somehow, Lawrence’s son came back from India as a flesh-eating monster? How does that happen?
The first twenty minutes are about a car race, and the main stars don’t appear until later. The film was set in the 1920’s simply so they could take advantage of the sets built for the “Great Gatsby” film, which was fine, as it gave us some interesting sets and cars.
It’s a surprisingly complicated story, and it feels pretty long. It’s really very good, so it’s a shame as how hard it is to find a good copy of the film today. Still, the whole “Evil Indians” things probably wouldn’t fly today, even if it weren’t laughable to begin with.
Short film: Waiting Room (2022)
Directed by Jacob Arbittier
Written by Jacob Arbittier
Stars James Nichols II, Vicki Hanson, Tianna Montgomery
Run Time: 4:30
A relapsing addict finds himself trapped in the waiting room, a liminal space between realities, where he is guided to a door that leads him to his greatest fear.
The actor definitely looks afraid of his situation throughout. He’s clearly having doubts about going to the rehab clinic, as it’s not going to be easy. But if he doesn’t do it… what awaits him later?
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Directed by Oren Peli
Written by Oren PeliKatie Deatherson, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs
Run Time: 1 Hour, 26 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgment Zone
It’s creepy, suspenseful, builds nicely. A found footage film that sells itself as real events being recorded. Events that get worse and worse as the film moves along. How far will things go? Must watch to find out.
On September 18, 2006, in San Diego, Micah has a gigantic new video camera. Katie thinks he’s insane and spent too much, but he says he wants to record any kind of “paranormal activity” that happens. Once they figure out what’s really going on, they can figure out how to deal with it. If it’s a neighbor kid, they’ll find out.
Micah sets up the camera in the kitchen while they’re eating, and even in the bedroom. He starts recording every part of their rather ordinary lives. The first scary sound they hear turns out to be the ice maker (shudder!). They set up the camera in the bedroom and turn in around 11:30. At 2:08, we hear footsteps.
The next morning, Katie’s keys are in the middle of the floor. They are expecting a psychic to come over and give them a reading. He asks them for details of their experiences. Both Katie and her sister used to see “someone” at the foot of their beds. She’s moved houses several times since then, but it keeps coming back, so it’s about her not a specific house.
Micah shows the psychic all his recording equipment, and we get a walkthrough of the whole house. The psychic explains that these things feed on negative energy. It may be a demonic presence, but the psychic doesn’t really deal with those. He gives them a phone number for a demonologist. He also warns against trying to communicate with it, as that’s just opening the door to let it in more. Katie is pleased with the meeting, but Micah laughs it off.
That night, they get to bed at 12:31. At 2:09, the bedroom door moves just a little. The next morning, they look at the footage. Micah wants more “ghost footage.” That night at 2:55 a.m., Katie has a nightmare, and then they hear something downstairs.
Nothing happens for a few days, so Micah yells at it and calls it worthless. That night, at 3:13, they hear something again. Something roars, and when they go downstairs, the chandelier is swinging.
Katie thinks maybe the demon is acting up because of the camera. It wasn’t this bad before the camera, but Micah doesn’t believe that’s it. On night #15, at 1:35 a.m, Katie gets up and just stands there for two hours without moving. Then she walks out of the room. The next morning, Micah finds her sleeping outside. She’s in some kind of trance.
The next day, Micah brings home a Ouija board, even though the psychic specifically warned them not to do it. Katie gets angry and leaves. The camera shows the Ouija board doing its thing all by itself and then spontaneously setting itself on fire. Later that night, nothing happens.
The next night, they put baby powder all over the floor in case the thing has footprints. Around 3:15 a.m., there are the sounds of steps, and they both wake up. They do in fact find footprints– as well as the attic entrance in the hall closet ceiling that is partially open. Micah goes up there and finds a partially burnt photo of Katie as a child. Katie says that’s impossible, it’s from her childhood home that burned down years ago. How did that get up there?
On night #18, someone turns on the light downstairs and comes up the stairs. It then slams the bedroom door and beats on it from the outside. When they go outside to look, something locks them out of the bedroom.
They bring the psychic back, and he won’t stay. He says the energy here is terrible, and the demon doesn’t want him there. He says leaving the house won’t help at all, it will just follow. Call the demonologist when he gets back in the country in a few days.
On night #19, something messes with their bedsheets while they sleep. There’s also activity in that hall closet again.
The following night, the entity simply pulls Katie out of bed and drags her down the hall. Much screaming ensues. Katie’s got a big bite mark on her back. Micah wants to go to a hotel, but Katie wants to stay. “It’s better if we stay.” She almost sounds… possessed.
Night 21. Katie wakes up and the covers slide off of Micah. She walks to his side of the bed and stands there for two hours. She starts screaming, Micah runs downstairs, and everything gets quiet. There are footsteps coming up the stairs, and we see Katie throw Micah across the room. Then she attacks the camera…
“Micah’s body was discovered on October 11th, 2006. Katie’s whereabouts remain unknown.”
The audio isn’t great and the video looks just like it came off a hand-held video camera, which fits the story perfectly, but it also gets annoying to watch after a bit. Still, the story progresses quickly, and the various events happen fairly often, so it doesn’t get too bogged down in details.
They couldn’t just stay up all night watching movies or something? Change their schedules to “night shift?” At least to bed with the lights on in all of the rest of the house?
It’s super, ultra-low budget, but it’s also really suspenseful and works really well. You know things are going to happen, and the keep getting worse, but where will it end and how far will it go?
I liked it. Kevin liked it all the way up to the ending, which he hated. There were actually three endings considered, one where Katie kills Micah and herself, one where the police come in and find her in the morning, unaware of what happened, and the one we got.
The Descent (2005)
Directed by Neil Marshall
Written by Neil Marshall
Stars Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid
Run Time: 1 Hour, 39 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgment Zone
A group of friends like to go on adventures. When they turn to cave exploring, what could go wrong? Quite a bit as the stress of their situation brings out the best in some and the worst in others. And wow, there is some stress. Really great all around, effects, setting, and acting.
A trio of girls go whitewater rafting, and it looks pretty extreme. On the way home, we get the impression from sideways glances that Sarah‘s husband is having an affair with Juno, but before that goes anywhere, he’s instantly killed in a “Final Destination”-style road accident. Their daughter Jessica is killed as well. Credits roll.
One year later, in the Appalachian Mountains, they arrive at Chatooga National Park. Sarah, Juno, Beth, Rebecca, Sam, and Holly all arrive. Sam and Rebecca are sisters, and Sam is almost done with medical school. Holly is a thrill seeker who is just now meeting the others. They’re here for some caving, but Holly says that stuff’s for tourists. Juno promises otherwise. No one can say anything about family without setting Sarah off; she’s clearly still bothered very much by her loss. By the time morning rolls around, they all have hangovers.
They all drive way out into the country to get to the cave, and Juno leaves the guidebook to the cave in the car; she doesn’t need it. It’s a great big vertical hole in the mountain, straight down. They go down by rope and start walking through huge, dark caves. It all looks very strenuous and claustrophobic.
Sarah gets stuck in a tight spot, and they have to talk her through getting out of it. As they resolve that, there’s a cave-in, so they can’t get back out the way they got in. They know there are other ways out of the cave, except Juno didn’t bring the guidebook. It doesn’t matter, because they didn’t go to the cave system in the book anyway; that was a tourist trap. This cave system is new and no one has ever been down here before.
They slowly cross a huge vertical chasm. Rebecca spots a piton already in place; they aren’t the first to come down here after all, but it looks like it may be a hundred years old. The others make it across fairly quickly. We start seeing a little blame and hostility between Sarah and Juno. On the other side, they find cave paintings of buffalos and maybe a map. We also see that they aren’t alone in the cave. Something drools in the darkness…
Holly thinks she sees daylight and runs until she painfully falls into a hole. She’s badly broken her leg. Sarah hears a baby crying further down the tunnel and sees something humanoid down there; no one else sees anything. Not long after, they find the bones of hundreds of dead animals.
They start to scream, and soon they all see the naked white manlike thing crawling on the ceiling. One of them rips Holly’s throat out. One of them attacks Juno as well, but she mages to kill hers— and then Beth as well, by accident. Sam and Rebecca get separated from the others.
Sarah gets knocked out and when she awakens, she’s alone except for a camera with infrared imaging. She watches a gang of the creatures eat Holly’s remains. Sarah finds Beth, who isn’t quite dead yet; Beth warns Sarah to watch out for Juno. She even tells Sarah about Juno’s affair with her dead husband before she dies for real this time.
The creatures seem to be blind, but they have other senses. Especially when Sam’s watch alarm goes off. Sam and Rebecca soon meet up with Juno again. Sam explains medically what these creatures are. They’ve evolved down here. They are completely blind, but move by sound and possibly echolocation like bats have. Still, they bring food from the surface, so all they have to do is follow them to the exit.
After helping Beth die, Sarah gets chased by one of the monsters until she falls into a pit of blood. Another of the monsters literally stands on top of her while she hides silently.
Juno runs into a whole room full of the creatures, and everyone panics in all directions at once. Sami dies. Rebecca follows.
Juno runs into Sarah, who isn’t looking happy. She asks about Beth, and Juno just says she didn’t make it. Sarah knows she’s lying. They continue on through the endless caves, killing three more creatures. Sarah lets Juno know that she knows about the affair, and then stabs her in the leg to make her an easier catch for the creatures. Sarah then runs off alone, leaving Juno to be eaten by a dozen of the cave-people. You don’t have to be the fastest, just don’t be the slowest, as the saying goes.
Sarah falls into a hole and when she wakes up, she finds an opening to the outside world. She climbs up a mountain of bones to get to the surface. She runs through the forest toward the cars and drives several miles away before stopping for a good cry.
No, wait— that was just a dream. She’s still in the cave in the dark. A cruel trick by the movie makers.
How do these people know each other with such different accents? There’s no way they all grew up together.
I like that there’s nothing supernatural here; the monsters are simply vampire-like carnivorous cavemen that have evolved right there in those caves. They are really neat-looking too, a mixture of Nosferatu and Gollum.
There were no actual caves filmed in this movie; they are ALL sets. The bone-setting scene is cringeworthy and nasty, but that’s really just the beginning of the gore in this film. There are whole caverns filled with bodies.
Overall, the big thing here is the claustrophobic sets. The creatures are excellent, but the movie would still have been good even without the monsters. Just the caving gone bad would have done it for me, but then to be hunted by monsters and each other? Nice!
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