By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
“Don’t expose him to bright light. Don’t ever get him wet. And don’t ever, ever feed him after midnight.” These fateful lines are, of course, the central words of caution in the seminal horror-comedy Gremlins from director Joe Dante. For those of you not in the know, the “him” referred to is a cute little Mogwai, which will turn into a murderous Gremlin if not cared for properly. And so Dante reminds us of one of the principle tenets of the horror film – if you screw with nature, then it screws with you.
Frankly, we are pleased as punch to feature Mr. Dante in our final post in 13 Bottle Bar’s “Blood, Booze, and Beyond” bibulous Halloween film fest. A 30-plus year veteran of the film industry, Dante began his career, as did so many Hollywood directors, in the care of Roger Corman, a man who has taught half of Hollywood how to make a film on budget, on time, and on topic. That relationship led to the Corman-produced Piranha, a thinly-veiled send-up of Jaws, and put Dante on Steven Speilberg’s radar (Spielberg championed the film as a “spoof”, not as competition to Jaws). Man-eating fish were followed by man-eating wolves in The Howling and then the Spielberg-produced, man-eating Gremlins, which Roger Ebert described as “a confrontation between Norman Rockwell’s vision of Christmas and Hollywood’s vision of the blood-sucking monkeys of voodoo island.” Dante’s career continued full throttle with family-friendly flicks like Explorers and Small Soldiers, as well as the tongue-in-cheek Amazon Women on the Moon (perfect for a lazy Saturday afternoon) and Matinee, which told the story of an exploitation film producer pedaling his monster movie Mant! (“Half man! Half ant! All terror!) during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Like pretty much all of Dante’s work, these films are a celebration of movies and movie making, showcasing his trademark self-referential style and a very subtle sense of politics. Dante understands exactly what movies can be – a combination of entertainment and education, the familiar and the mysterious. In fact, he once told an interviewer, not without some disappointment, “(Movies have) to have personal meaning to you, and I think that people in the culture in general are encouraged to not see films as having personal meaning, but instead as something disposable, something to pass the time, to be hip about, but without any real bearing on your life.”
Over his career, Dante has also developed an appreciation for television, particularly cable, because of the freedom it often allows. In 1994, he received a Cable Ace nomination for Runaway Daughters, perhaps one of his most referential works as it not only is a loose adaptation of the original 1950s B-movie, but also includes players familiar from numerous other Dante films. He has also worked on both Twilight Zone: The Series and Masters of Horror, the latter of which he particularly enjoyed because it allowed him similar creative freedoms to those he enjoyed when he worked with Corman. In fact, he recently re-teamed with Corman on the gore-tastic web series Splatter, starring Corey Feldman. In 2009, his family horror film The Hole 3D won the Premio Persol award at the Venice Film festival. In an era when many of his older colleagues are struggling to get work, Dante has managed to keep his finger in any number of movie making pies. Clearly, Joe Dante is a man who not only adores the medium, but has an unabashed love affair with it. Indeed, the director once likened the “noble” practice of seeing movies as “similar to going to church.”
Ever eager to spread the gospel of film, Dante embarked on Trailers from Hell in 2007. His Hollywood clout has allowed him to assemble a cast of luminaries – from Guillermo Del Toro to Eli Roth to our 13BB friends Lloyd Kaufman and Stuart Gordon – who offer unscripted commentary on film trailers, many of which Dante had collected over the years. What started as a hobby to celebrate exploitation films – and maybe make some money – transformed into a personal cause. Dante described it to an interviewer thus: “The real reason to do it is mostly to get the movies out. I’m so dispirited by the lack of knowledge of film history these days. You and I didn’t even have to learn it. When we were growing up it was just there, part of our lives, background trivia. Now kids, people in their 20s, are just not exposed to the kind of movies we used to see. Trailers from Hell is sort of an attempt to bring those movies back into public discourse.”
One of those films is a personal favorite of Dante’s – The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) – and the one he chose for today’s final featured film.
Of the film, Dante offers, “This impeccably period British witchcraft movie didn’t get many play dates and you may have to look around to find it, but it’s one of the best horror films of the 70s. Dreamy Linda Hayden is the teenage witch who’s spreading “the Devil’s Skin” around to the children in a rural village. Definitely offbeat and creepy with some good scares. “Top that off with the potent combination of “sex, violence, and underage actors”, as Dante points out, and you have a classic horror movie in the uniquely languid, brooding, sensual style that only the British can produce.
Also, here’s a look at Blood on Satan’s Claw with commentary courtesy of Dante: Trailers from Hell – Blood on Satan’s Claw.
In many ways, Satan’s Claw is exactly the sort of film you would expect Dante to recommend, exploring the politics of religion and superstition, as well as playing on the exploitation themes of the era, albeit in a very classy way (witness the seduction scene between nubile Linda Hayden and the local Reverend.) As classified by writer/actor Mark Gatiss (familiar to anyone who knows The League of Gentlemen) in the BBC’s A History of Horror, it’s part of a sub-genre known as “folk horror”, being something of a follow-up to the Vincent Price-starrer Witchfinder General from 1968 and coming shortly before the 1973 classic The Wicker Man. In reference to all these films (the others are equally worth seeking out), Irish Times writer Donald Clarke wrote, “The sheer oddness of those pictures still resonates… Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (sic) may be scarier, but they aren’t as impressively clammy and queasy.”
One of the film’s alternative titles was The Devil’s Skin – a prominent element of the film – and so we thought we would give you just that. Today’s drink of the same name is based on one of the cocktail classics – a Whiskey Skin, which is, as David Wondrich points out, little more than a mid-19th century hot toddy with a lemon peel thrown in. Riffing on the basic recipe brought us today’s drink, a soul-warming concoction that substitutes spiced red wine (a fruit-forward, low-priced Shiraz) for hot water and returns the Skin to its root with the use of a good pot-still Irish Whiskey (after all, nothing would raise the ire of Cromwell and his witchfinders more than a drink made with a “Catholic” spirit.)
The Devil’s Skin
1.5 – 2 oz Irish Whiskey
4 oz Spiced Red Wine
Strip of Lemon Peel
Pre-warm a mug with hat water and discard
Add whiskey and lemon
Fill will the hot spiced wine
Garnish with the citrus Fires of Hell (optional)
For the Spiced Wine:
1 bottle (750ml) Red Wine (Shiraz)
3 Tbsp Brown Sugar
0.5 tsp Whole Allspice
0.5 tsp Whole Cubeb or Black Pepper
0.5 Stick Cinnamon
1 Bay Leaf
In a sauce pan, bring wine to a simmer
Stir in sugar, then add a mulling/tea bag with the spices
Reduce heat to low and let simmer 30 mins
Remove the bag of spices
Makes 6 servings
Featured Glassware: Miss Desiree Claret by Villeroy & Boch
While this could easily be made as a hot punch for a group, the recipe above is scaled for a single serving. We think, however, that you will opt for more than one glass, especially after a chilly evening of trick-or-treating. Despite its fiendish moniker, this is one drink that should last you through the holidays. In any case, it is devilishly good with the berry notes of the Shiraz melding with the Irish Whiskey, the lemon and spice adding just the right touch of interest.
As much of a stretch as it might seem, cocktails and movies – like any “art” form – have a great deal in common. Like classic movies, classic cocktails will always have a place in the pantheon as long as there are people there to remember and celebrate them. In fact, if you substitute the word “cocktail” for the words “horror movie”, Dante’s comment about modern films is prescient of the modern drinks business, too. “The horror movie is in an interesting phase right now. It doesn’t really quite know where to go. It’s pretty much gone as far in the eyeball-popping direction as it can go, and everybody’s kind of wondering, what’s the next thing gonna be? In the meantime, I think there’s a certain nostalgia for the type of horror pictures that were being made 20 years ago.”
We hope that our little shop of Halloween horrors has introduced you not only to a group of auteurs, actors, and scribes whose work you will seek out and the often esoteric film gems they have recommended, but also to some unfamiliar cocktails as well. In all cases, a little experimentation, a little risk-taking often comes with its own rewards. We would also like to thank the incomparable Joe Dante for being our “lagniappe”, a little something extra to add to our 13 Bottle extravaganza.
As for what’s in store for next year’s tricks and treats — only The Devil knows for sure.
Esoterica: Dante’s respect for his screenwriters – like John Sayles — is so great that he often tries to hire them in bit roles in his films, thus allowing him access to them during filming (not common in Hollywood) and enabling them to make a little more money. We like this guy.