October welcomes the return of our annual "Octoblur" horror movie marathon, during which we watch so many movies that I struggle to remember any of them. Is it boring, now, to do a horror marathon during October? Maybe. Maybe we'll think of something more interesting next year, but for now I have stacks and stacks of spoopy* movies that I've heard about on podcasts or in other grotty little unsavory corners of the internet.
As usual, I will focus on horror movies that I haven't seen before, which means obscurities. The big exception to this will be my continued revisiting of the Friday the 13th film franchise, as I follow along with the new Stitcher Premium podcast, In Voorhees We Trust With Gourley And Rust. I watched parts 1-7 during September and should finish off the final five this month.
As part of the Eat My Dust project, I will attempt to consume** the less-celebrated creepy edges of the John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Brian De Palma filmographies; plus a few additional horror titles from Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and Robert Wise.
If that's not enough, I will again dedicate a couple of sections of October 2018 to Italian and Asian horror movies, and see what other oddball foreign frights I can conjure up from countries not as well known for their genre contributions.
Here are links to our past Octoblur projects, including the first ever series of posts on this blog in 2014:
Every year I say there's no way I will be able to watch nearly as many movies as I did during previous Octoblurs, but somehow I manage. This year, definitely not! Thirty-one, tops!
* My 14-year-old daughter, Maggie, approved my use of this word.
** Some of these Eat My Dust titles were watched earlier this year. This seems like as good a time as any to write about them.
(Numbers preceding titles are not a ranking, simply a notation of the order in which these movies were reviewed.)
Now that Octoblur 2018 is over, we've put together a couple of compilations featuring notable moments from the month's movies.
Dir.: Peter Carter
This grungy low-budget DELIVERANCE knockoff is surprisingly emotional, leveraging its cast of reliable character actors for maximum gravitas. A group of five middle-aged doctors find their annual wilderness retreat spoiled by a stealth boogeyman determined that none of them will make it out alive. At first, it seems like an actor of Hal Holbrook's stature belongs nowhere near a cheap derivative genre exercise like Rituals, but damn if he doesn't sell it with conviction, as do the rest of this small ensemble, who even chew the scenery with the utmost professionalism. Director Peter Carter's rough and often prosaic vision is nevertheless economically energetic, building to a wrenching climax. He doesn't get everything right: there is one terribly staged fight, some poor makeup effects, a few scenes that start promisingly but peter out, and a completely unconvincing motive. Still, from the opening hints of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (which was still three years away), Rituals hits more than enough correct notes, and a few of them sing with much greater power than expected.
I learned about Rituals from the Pure Cinema podcast.
Flickcharted: #1388 (67.05%)
Dir.: Rob Hedden
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan is the only movie in this series that I saw in the theater at the time of its release. Even at age 17, I hated it. Even though my interest in the series was waning, the trailer in which hockey-masked killer Jason Voorhees surveys Times Square, set to Frank Sinatra's "(Theme from) New York, New York" sucked me back in. It looked witty and fresh, like a continuation of the lively self-awareness that made Jason Lives so much fun. It was, instead, a cynical tease, with a majority of this disastrous sequel set upon a high school graduation party boat en route from Crystal Lake to the Hudson River.
There's far too much plot for one of the most disposable casts of characters yet, making the film feel at least 20 minutes too long. Kane Hodder's unexceptional Jason looks small and ordinary, and most of his murders are also bland and poorly staged. There are a few campy highlights, but most scenes leave you wondering why they weren't the tiniest bit more ambitious. Once the survivors of the boat ride make it to Manhattan for the final half-hour, it gets better, with a few standout scenes — like the boxing match — but even this is mostly set in generic back alleys and sewer system sets. It's a fleeting thrill to see Jason stalking through subway cars and scaring away gangs of punks, but it's too little too late.
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan is not aggressively awful like Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, but it rivals that flop in misconception and, worse, is a bore. The strangely devised and terribly executed scenes featuring a gradually decaying spectre of little Jason Voorhees almost make it half-worthwhile, and foreshadow the off-the-wall, zany mythbuilding to come.
Flickcharted: #3693 (12.34%); down from #3474 (17.54%)
Dir.: Willard Huyck
Messiah of Evil is another recommendation by way of the Pure Cinema podcast, an early effort from George Lucas-collaborators Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz — the team that would, a decade later, bring us the infamous flop HOWARD THE DUCK. You wouldn't guess it, however: Messiah of Evil is a fine, stylish dive into paranoia, as a young woman searches for her artist father in a mysterious coastal village. Right from the start, Huyck and Katz load Messiah of Evil with a series of unsettling quirks and oddball character actors — Elisha Cook, Jr., Joy Bang, Royal Dano — making just about every moment ooze with unease. It's a confident and distinctive thriller from beginning to end — with a couple of spectacularly menacing sequences — as long as you don't expect the banal formalities of narrative development and closure.
Flickcharted: #1036 (75.42%)
Dir.: Wes Craven
A few months ago I uncovered a tale of true horror: Ron Howard was listed in my stats at Letterboxd as my 6th most-watched director of all-time. To rectify that, I've been gradually but deliberately going through the filmographies of the directors in Howard's statistical vicinity to knock him down and, some day, off the list. Horror legend Wes Craven was within spitting distance of Howard, so even though I'm lukewarm on Craven overall, I've got a handful of his movies on my list for Octoblur 2018 as part of my effort to tell Howard to "Eat My Dust."
While most of my unseen Craven movies are also his most obscure, The Serpent and the Rainbow was major studio release, and I did see it once shortly after it was released on home video in the late 1980s. The only thing I could remember about it 30 years later, however, is that it didn't make much of an impression on me then, and I didn't recall it well enough it to rank it on Flickchart or rate it at Letterboxd within the last 10 years.
As Craven's first big Hollywood production following the massive success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Serpent and the Rainbow feels, for the most part, too conventional, too much like the work of a typically messy, half-crazy indie director trying to check his impulses and fit in with the big boys.
Surely, part of the reason why The Serpent and the Rainbow feels a bit too staid is the presence of Bill Pullman in the lead role as an adventure-scientist sent by a pharmaceutical company to investigate rumors of a "zombification" drug in Haiti. Pullman can be very good in certain types of supporting roles, but he's a bit too milquetoast to carry an exotic horror film. Handicapping him further, there also isn't much to his role, other than playing a flatly uncharismatic straight-man to nightmares and torture. Seeing Pullman in this role, which is sort of a wishy-washy "real" Indiana Jones, only too easily brings to mind his previous role, as the Han Solo-figure in Mel Brooks' Spaceballs: he's no Harrison Ford, and that might work in a comedy, but not here.
The Serpent and the Rainbow is based on the supposedly true experience of anthropologist Wade Davis, from whose book the screenplay was adapted. Davis must not have thought much of himself as a dramatic character, as there's no arc or tension here, despite Pullman's fictionalised version going through some pretty gnarly experiences. Cathy Tyson, from Mona Lisa, co-stars as a remarkably passive love interest. Maybe there was zombie powder in the coffee pots of the writers' room and casting agency. The only cast member who stands out is the lively, menacing Zakes Mokae, who doesn't need much to work with to reveal the sort of dynamic personality lacking elsewhere throughout The Serpent and the Rainbow.
Craven does, finally, let loose near the end, with an incongruously nutty finale featuring some fun special effects that could have come out of a Hong Kong "black magic" thriller. It's too bad that the rest of the movie plays it so straight and with so little life that the energetic climax means next to nothing.
The Serpent and the Rainbow was one of a trio of high-profile "voodoo" thrillers to come out of Hollywood during the late 1980s, alongside The Believers, and, the best of the lot, Angel Heart. Good movies addressing this subject are rare, indeed, with Val Lewton's 1943 I Walked with a Zombie still the standard-bearer.
Random theme emerging: 4 out of 4 Octoblur 2018 movies, so far, have featured characters set on fire.
Flickcharted: #2307 (45.27%)
Dir.: Thom Eberhardt
I tend to think of myself as fairly well-versed in the horror films of the 1980s, but the Pure Cinema Podcast is constantly revealing to me heretofore undiscovered titles. Sole Survivor is another one. It's a very modest effort by writer/director Thom Eberhardt, who would later the very same year create the affectionately regarded cult hit Night of the Comet. In its quirky, quiet way, Sole Survivor hints at future horror hits like the Final Destination series and It Follows as it tells the story of an airplane crash survivor who has more to worry about than PTSD.
Eberhardt writes dialog with a refreshingly lively sensibility, and even though it doesn’t always roll off quite as smoothly as desired, its spirit is endearing. There's a little gratuitous T&A (well, T, anyway, courtesy of an early appearance by future scream queen Brinke Stevens), and Sole Survivor's thrills are not only pretty mild but by the end I wasn't sure I understood its premise. Overall, however, it's a pleasing and witty attempt at doing psychological horror from an unusual approach.
The cast of Sole Survivor is intriguing. Lead actress Anita Skinner makes her second and final screen appearance, despite earning a Golden Globe Best Actress nomination for the 1978 indie hit Girlfriends. She's appealing in a plain, everywoman manner, which is not how roles like this are usually cast. Sole Survivor was also the final role for second-billed Kurt Johnson: after appearing in genre hits The Fan and Ghost Story, his career stuttered, and he died two years after Sole Survivor's release at age 33. Caren Larkey, who co-produced Sole Survivor, makes her debut here in the showy role of an unbalanced actress, but she went another 24 years before earning another screen credit, and has worked semi-regularly since, including a small role in last year's terrific Get Out.
Flickcharted: #1944 (53.89%)
Dir.: Francis Ford Coppola
After an unimpressive start in cheap nudie movies, Francis Ford Coppola seemed to have suddenly discovered the artistry of filmmaking upon his association with Roger Corman in 1963. His first movie for Corman, Dementia 13, is evidence of a skilled director making the most out of very little. Inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Henri-Georges Clouzot's Diabolique, Dementia 13 is ripe with atmosphere and performances that serve up just enough camp to not get swallowed by it. As a secretive family continues to obsess over the mysterious death of a daughter years earlier, there's a palatable nastiness at the hard edges of Charles Hannawalt's effective high-contrast photography. The plot may be disposable, but there are some neat shocks in Dementia 13 — and one line of dialog seems to have been influential on Tom Petty — with just a bit of raciness, and solid evidence that Coppola was capable of bigger and better things.
Flickcharted: #1689 (59.36%)
Dir.: François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell
The new movement of 1980s genre throwbacks is already getting tiresome, with no shortage of aspirants hoping create the next nostalgia jackpot in the mould of Stranger Things. However, when a tired trope is done well, it’s worth nothing, and Summer of 84 is a more worthy warping of the antiquated boyhood adventure than some of its peers.
With a plot reminiscent of the Shia Labeouf thriller Disturbia, a 15-year old boy convinces his close buddies that a serial killer lives in their neighborhood, and that the most reasonable course of action is to spy on him, rummage through his trash, hide a walk-in talkie outside his window, and bust into his toolshed. For most of its running time, Summer of 84 does nothing particularly new, but does it with considerable skill and modest but effective style.
As written and directed by the trio François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell, whose 2015 Turbo Kid (which I haven't seen) became a minor cult hit, Summer of 84 is initially notable for what it doesn't do: rather than ape the flashy Spielbergian wonder that infused so many 1980s summer blockbusters, Summer of 84 is like that same world stripped of wonder: it's plain and dark, with no ostentatious flair; these kids aren't particularly clever, and some of them are troubled in realistic ways.
It's telling that one of the few moments in Summer of 84 which most obviously visually references a movie from its period setting, it's not one those mainstream fantasies, but Penelope Spheeris' grim 1984 punk drama Suburbia. So, even though Summer of 84 feels like it will be just another one of those movies, it has something else on its mind, and the moment near the climax when it stops following the expected narrative template, it dives deeper and darker and distinguishes itself not only as something unique, but something with surprising emotions in its guts, and something worth thinking about.
Flickcharted: #1173 (72.18%)
Dir.: Melanie Anne Phillips (as David Michael Hillman)
I try to go into low-budget indie horror movies with a generous spirit, as, often, the filmmakers are trying very hard to do something they love with minimal resources, but movies like The Strangeness test the limits of my goodwill. Director David Michael Hillman (now Melanie Anne Phillips) is notable for later helping create the story development software Dramatica, but you wouldn't know it from watching The Strangeness, which is a thoroughly wooden and uneventful 90 minutes in literal and creative darkness.
Set mostly in an abandoned gold mine, as a team of grating nobodies investigates its potential profitability, The Strangeness takes far too long lurking in amateurish personal dramas before it fully introduces its amusing but underwhelming stop-motion man-eating creature. There's almost no sense of style beyond the opening titles, although Hillman does find some nice framing here and there, and uses flares and dust to decent effect. By the hour-mark, I couldn't tell if my growing sense of claustrophobia was a response to the filmmakers' craft, empathy for the characters, or merely dread at having to endure another 32 minutes stuck inside a low-rent rip-off of The Boogens.
Flickcharted: #3699 (12.30%)
Dir.: Greydon Clark
The alien invasion shocker Without Warning has just failed to make it onto the schedule for the last three Octoblurs, so I made it a priority to watch early during this year's marathon, and it paid back at least half of my determination with some quality camp. Two young couples looking for a romantic weekend at a remote lake instead become the prey of an alien hunter. Where Without Warning sets itself apart from other schlock of its era is with its cast.
The two leads — Tarah Nutter and Christopher S. Nelson — are suitably energetic, but it's the scenery-chewing of Martin Landau and Jack Palance that makes it worthwhile, with ample backup from veteran personalities Neville Brand, Ralph Meeker, Sue Ane Langdon and Larry Storch. A young, mulleted David Caruso tops it off, wearing shorty shorts and sucking face on a Star Wars towel.
Director Greydon Clark doesn't always make the most of his opportunities, however: somehow he lets an entire boy scout troop escape unharmed, and there's a long period leading up to the climax with the alien threat replaced by the trope of a former soldier with PTSD. However, the final scene, with Palance yelling "Al-i-en! Al-i-en! A-li-en!" is just about perfect.
Flickcharted: #2411 (42.85%)
Dir.: Panos Cosmatos
As a fan of Nic Cage's since the mid-1980s — a fandom that both peaked and promptly shriveled as I foolishly tried to watch every piece of garbage that he had been in up to the early 1990s — it's exciting whenever this controversial;y "great" actor starts to generate some buzz. Sadly, this buzz is rarely warranted. In the last few years, his "return to form" in David Gordon Green's Joe was obliterated by the similar but more complex and compelling Jeff Nichols drama Mud; and the crazy filicide thriller Mom & Dad proved to be a mess of confused style with zero substance. It was with those warning signs that I embraced Cage's latest "wild" venture in semi-horror territory, Mandy.
Directed by Panos Cosmatos (son of Cobra and Rambo: FIRST BLOOD PART II director George Cosmatos), Mandy promises a lot: a bleary Cage on a bloody revenge mission, tearing through a freak death cult in a manner worthy of the epic scale of early '80s heavy metal album art. It feels a bit cruel to accuse Cosmatos of failing to deliver at that level when this is only his second feature and his budget must have been limited. Even at its lowest points, Mandy is interesting and frequently visually arresting.... but it does suffer from the differential between its concept and its execution. Cosmatos' grandmother might tell him that his "eyes are bigger than his stomach," while I might say that he has big balls but a weak stream; they both amount to the same thing: Mandy is smaller than it declares itself to be, suffering from both too much and too little imagination.
As Red, a mourning lover with a hunger for death, Cage is excellent. In terms of production design, Cosmatos touches on a few moments of brilliantly realized visual poetry. As a script, Mandy is one-quarter baked, like an idea hatched during one gloriously intoxicated night and then written out under the cloud of the worst hangover known to man. Nothing pays off, with Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn weirdly undercutting the grandeur of their vision on every page. The death cult, who enter like demons from a GWAR-inspired reimagining of Mad Max, turn out to be no more threatening than everyday tweakers in suffocating outfits; the cult leader is just a frustrated singer, more John Sebastian than Charles Manson; there is enormous scale to some beautifully composited shots, but most of the film takes place in dingy dwellings. Red's revenge does get extremely gory at times, but, for a movie about the death of love and music and all meaning in the universe, it feels very low-stakes. You have to wonder if this short-selling of their boastful vision is intentional, if Cosmatos and Stewart-Ahn are mocking the mytho-bombastic prog rock opera aesthetic they also seem to celebrate. I doubt it. I think they just didn't bother to make it actually as great as it seemed in their minds.
Still, it's fun enough to watch Cage slowly morph in Randall "Tex" Cobb's hunter from Raising Arizona, and take mental note of shared fire motif in both Mandy and the truly transcendent Wild at Heart. And the hints of Apocalypse Now during the climax are a nice touch. And, of course, the Cheese Goblin will live forever in memes. Those are small pleasures in an achingly almost-vibrant work that should have been much, much bolder.
Flickcharted: #1939 (54.05%)
Dir.: Adam Marcus
When the rights to the character of Jason Voorhees transferred from Paramount to New Line Cinema, the iconic killer’s new owner responded with the most controversial movie in the series — that is, it would be controversial if anyone liked it. How’s this for controversial: I do kind of like Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. I can’t argue with any of the accusations leveled against it: it’s a wholly ridiculous chapter in the franchise, with one nutty idea after another and all too little of the title character in form, if not in spirit. But, as a thrill-ride of inanity, it has few peers.
Completely disregarding the ending of Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, during which Jason melted in the toxic waste of the New York sewer system, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday begins with its own goofy obliteration of the masked murderer, only to bring him back as a slug that travels from mouth-to-mouth in a series of hosts as his spirit attempts to fulfill a bewildering new family prophesy only heretofore known by maverick bounty hunter Creighton Duke (Steven Williams).
While the hockey mask is only present during the start and finish of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, there’s a panoply of other fun bits, like heart-eating, body-splitting, Erin Gray, skin-melting, inexplicable finger-breaking, some kind of demon rat, a magic dagger, The Necronomicon, a baby, and reverse corpse impregnantion. It’s both terrible and half-marvelous. There’s a sense that New Line was really trying hard to come up with something different. If it didn’t fail so thoroughly to distinguish every character other than Duke, it could’ve been one of my favorites of the lot.
For all of the nonsensical attempts at stuffing new mythology into Jason’s rotting body, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday ends with an “Oh, shit!” ending that should be ample reward even to this movie’s legion of naysayers.
Flickcharted: #2643 (37.37%); up from #3317 (21.40%)
Dir.: James Wan
James Wan is hard for me to think about, because I consider him both a savior and destroyer of the contemporary horror movie, a conflict that's hard to reconcile. With the Saw franchise, Wan ignited a fresh passion for the genre among a new generation low budget filmmakers and moviegoers. However, his style in Saw — and in his two subsequent directorial efforts, Dead Silence and Death Sentence — was obnoxious, engaging in showy, desperate displays of elaborate "creepiness." This style, unfortunately, became the norm, especially within the halls of the prolific Blumhouse Productions (with exceptions, of course). Suddenly, horror was everywhere, and most of it was dominated by a cloying aesthetic neediness, as if weak material needed to be drowned in inorganic "scares."
In his fourth film, Insidious, however, Wan made a sudden, almost-180-degree turn in his approach, demonstrating how the best of contemporary horror should approach the genre: careful and quiet, with a focus on characters, and suppressing the impatient instinct to telegraph every scare with ponderous music and photography. It's a style that Wan would perfect in The Conjuring; Insidious gets carried a little too far into gratuitous Saw territory during the final act, with it's too-cute realization of a spiritual no-man's-land it calls "The Further."
Like The Conjuring, Insidious is also deeply derivative, in a way that makes me feel protective of the decades of better horror films that came before it. Wan has shrewdly made these two films fairly safe entry points into horror for curious children — this re-watch of Insidious came at the behest of my nine-year-old daughter — both movies are intense but completely lack the exploitive elements that can make horror movies from previous decades less accessible to kids. At the same time, however, I think it's better for kids to see the old, earlier and often superior treatments of classic horror tropes prior to seeing the retreads that they inspired, so as not to tailor the development of their taste with a prejudice for the new. Even in Wan's best movies, there's a texture of life missing, which was often evident in the horror of the 1960s-1980s. The Conjuring comes close to capturing it; Insidious tries but ultimately falls short.
Flickcharted: #2111 (49.98%); up from #3084 (26.92%)
Dir.: Frank Henenlotter
Although a handful of inventive low-budget DIY cult horror movies of the 1980s continue to enjoy their reputations to this day, many have fallen by the wayside. When I was a young teen reading Fangoria magazine in the 1980s, Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead was already legendary for its shocking and unwholesome creativity, and, facilitated by Raimi's shrewd franchising, his property has enjoyed a rare longevity, including sequels, remakes, comic books, a recent TV-spin off, and even an off-broadway musical. Before all that, back in the Fangoria days, Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case was every bit as revered as The Evil Dead, for similar reasons: both films were made on shoestring budgets and yet managed to craft memorable practical effects, and their gruesome transgressions were informed by morbidly oddball comic sensibilities.
Henenlotter was a true Times Square maverick, hustling together this grotty, alarming and yet strangely touching monster movie in the heart of sleazy old New York. Kevin Van Hentenryck stars as Duane, a seemingly normal young man who carries his deformed former siamese twin, Belial, in a picnic basket as they hunt down the doctors who separated them against their will.
Basket Case may lack polish, but it's so confident and clear in its purpose that even its bad acting feels sharply tuned and magnetic. You may stop and wonder whether everyone who looks like they're wearing a bad wig is, but you never doubt their commitment to and belief in this sordid little project.
Belial is, at first, a laughably artificial piece of puppetry, but Henenlotter somehow transforms this cheap contraption into a menacing, fascinating and pitiable creature. Basket Case may not be as easy to show at party as something like The Evil Dead (it has an even more disturbing equivalent of Raimi's tree rape), but those newly discovering the seamy underside of 1980s cult horror should make it a must-see, both for its influence at the time and its uniquely disturbing story of brotherly co-dependence. Its dedication in the end credits to gore pioneer H.G. Lewis is well-served.
Flickcharted: #1324 (68.63%)
Dir.: Diego Cohen
I was lured into this new Mexican slasher by its unusually low IMDb rating of 2.3/10. It's a relatively tame riff on I Spit on Your Grave as it depicts the slaying of a group of reasonably despicable young campers at the hands of a vengeful woman (or does it?). Director Diego Cohen takes an agreeably naturalistic approach, getting decent performances from the cast, and the cinematography is far better than I expected. The plotting is clumsy, however, and the movie is completely lacking in tension, leading up to an expected twist which is both meaningless and makes earlier events confounding. It's likely that Cohen intended Romina as an indictment of the poor character of upper middle class Mexican youths, a mission that he accomplished in the first 10 minutes; the rest is ordinary sub-competent horror that could've used more attention to detail during the planning stages.
Recurring homage: This is the second movie this month, outside of the Friday the 13th franchise, to feature a location named "Crystal Lake." The other was Mandy.
Flickcharted: #3662 (13.26%)
Dir.: Wes Craven
The same year that A Nightmare on Elm Street became one of the biggest horror hits of the decade, director Wes Craven churned out this silly, enjoyable made-for-TV movie about an idyllic middle class family dealing with temptation.
The cast of Invitation to Hell is a who's-who of 1980s middlebrow Hollywood royalty, with Robert Urich (Vega$, Spencer for Hire) and Joanna Cassidy (Falcon Crest) moving their kids (Soleil Moon Frye and Barret Oliver, who, also that year, would become better known as Punky Brewster and that kid from The Neverending Story) across the country to a suburban community ruled by demonic country club maven Susan Lucci (All My Children).
This is pure family hour TV-level horror with soft versions of tropes like possessed kids, wives wearing black lingerie and gazing longingly at shiny knives, weird kids throwing tantrums, and shady movers stealing candy bars from children. It's all very goofy but also quite solid, for what it is, and Craven gets in at least one gruesome effect right at the start and shows some creativity near the end with a particularly low-budget vision of hell. It could be a lot worse. Craven's The Hills Have Eyes poster boy Michael Berryman is credited as a valet, but he's hardly noticeable.
My consumption of Wes Craven's filmography now has him four movies away from telling Ron Howard to "Eat My Dust."
Recurring crew: Jurassic Park's Dean Cundey, who also shot Without Warning, is back at work on this one.
Flickcharted: #2442 (42.17%)
Dir.: Miguel Martí
A.K.A. Sexykiller, morirás por ella
This Spanish meta-slasher carries on the post-Scream trend of filmmakers who want to make horror movies while also positioning themselves as smarter than horror movies by knowingly throwing out references to classics while conspicuously tweaking genre tropes.
In this case, the title character (played with verve by Macarena Gómez) is a female serial killer who indulges in all manner of girliness despite her murderous proclivities. This should put director Miguel Martí In the tough position of figuring out how to skillfully depict murder from the point-of-view of a comically heightened sociopath while also holding onto the moral leash that makes movies about death feel non-trivial. He opts, however, to ignore this contextual conflict, instead depicting multiple cruel deaths in the style of a Benny Hill skit, full of mugging and scored to incongruously peppy music.
Maybe this is rare for a horror fan, but I’m rarely sympathetic to killers, especially when they rationalize their transgressions with knee-jerk misanthropy like “And why not?” — that her reasoning changes 180 degrees later in the film suggests that this is not something which was given much thought by writer Paco Cabezas.
With this uncomfortable burden to bear, Sexy Killer: You'll Die for Her struggles for an hour to make murder funny, a dubious quest further hampered by its garish aesthetic, coupling high-contrast lighting with the bright colors pushed even further, past ugliness and into ocular aggravation.
During the final act, Sexy Killer: You'll Die for Her makes a welcome switch of inspirations, from Kill Bill to Shaun of the Dead, and — with the anti-heroine's nihilism no longer a focus — finds some fun moments just prior to unleashing a series of special effects so badly designed and poorly executed that they almost achieve a kind of Zen beauty.
Sexykiller, morirás por ella was assigned to me as part of a horror-themed movie exchange.
Flickcharted: #3263 (22.79%)
Dir.: Pupi Avati
A.K.A. La casa dalle finestre che ridono
The first Italian movie of Octoblur 2018's "Foreign Horror Week" is Pupi Avati's well-regarded giallo The House with Laughing Windows. Perhaps one of the reasons this movie is so highly regarded is that it's low on the overwrought nonsense that was a hallmark of European genre movies from this era. It's probably not irrelevant that director Pupi Avati did not stick solely to horror and related sensationalist genres, but has been a versatile and award-winning filmmaker of serious dramas; prior to The House with Laughing Windows, he worked on the screenplay for Pier Pasolini's devastating Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. However, that nonsense is part of the fun of watching gialli, and Avati's economical use of hysteria makes The House with Laughing Windows fairly dry and dull by its genre's standards. Lino Capolicchio plays a painted hired by a village to finish a church fresco left behind by deceased local artist. There's a low-interest mystery regarding the sinister figures in the painting. A couple of people die, there are some bones in a hole, Capolicchio hooks up with two different teachers, and there's a house with mouths painted on its back wall. Aside from a few unsettling moments — I won't be ordering escargot for take-out any time soon — The House with Laughing Windows creeps along with a bit of atmosphere but very little actual weather.
Flickcharted: #3043 (28.01%)
Dir.: Joël Séria
The third movie of Octoblur 2018's "Foreign Horror Week" is the 1971 French teen drama Don't Deliver Us from Evil (Mais ne nous delivrez pas du mal), which is part of one my favorite exploitation movie subgenres, "Kids Running Amok."
A pre-cursor to Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, Don't Deliver Us From Evil depicts two profoundly bonded catholic school girls who spend their summer vacation pledging their souls to Satan and engaging in increasingly malicious prankery, which, depending on how you look at it, either gets out of their control or fulfills their darkest desires.
While director Joël Séria's feature debut is horror-adjacent rather than deep in the genre weeds, it works remarkably well as both a character study of disaffected teens and as a slice-of-life for budding sociopaths. Lead actresses Jeanne Goupil and Catherine Wagener are terrific, deftly mixing frivolity with malice, and Seria's choice to treat this semi-depraved story as just another tender coming-of-age film creates a creepingly effective sense of sinister incongruity. Fans of this one might want to check out the next disturbing collaboration between Séria and Goupil, Marie, The Doll.
Don't Deliver Us from Evil continues Octoblur 2018's inadvertant "People on Fire" theme, making a total of 9 movies so far featuring burning flesh (10, if you count monster flesh).
Flickcharted: #1209 (71.40%)
Dir.: Emilio Miraglia
The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba) is an above-average giallo-esque Italian horror (or horror-esque giallo), with both music (by Bruno Nicolai) and visuals (Gastone Di Giovanni) of such quality that its narrative issues take a back seat.
Set in the debauched cross-current of sex-workers and aristocratic pervs — that questionable segment of society that sees a medieval torture chamber as a groovy place to dance rather than run screaming — Emilio Miraglia's quietly weird mystery starts with a dramatic escape attempt from an asylum, segues into the antics of a murderous playboy, and then becomes a domestic haunting drama ala Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, and you might as well throw premonitions of Gone Girl onto the plot pile as well.
A lot is going on in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, so much so that it either subversively or absent-mindedly shifts a major league creep into the role of sympathetic victim, and this dubious transition is obscured by all the noise. Pacing-wise, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave drags a bit in the middle, but it packs enough seedy exploitation into the first act, and climaxes with a bracing scene of desperate violence so striking that it fully satisfies the genre appetite.
Flickcharted: #1844 (56.40%)
Dir.: Toshiharu Ikeda
A.K.A. Shiryô no wana
Near the very beginning of Evil Dead Trap I became concerned about overlooking my rule not to go into Japanese horror movies without any research, for fear of accidentally watching something in the prolific and graphic "splatter-eros" vein of Japan's "pinku" exploitation tradition. Almost two decades later I remain haunted by the first 10 minutes of one of my rare ventures into the transgressive "extreme cinema" of Japan, and am not anxious to stumble back into a similar experience. (This comes from someone who, as a teen, thought that the once-banned Bloodsucking Freaks was a hoot; the Japanese take gore into entirely far less fun and nightmarish directions.) The apparent low budget of Evil Dead Trap, coupled with a brief scene of extreme torture in the first five minutes, had me worried that I was in for 94 minutes of despair, but I was surprised to find that it's actually an effective and semi-clever horror thriller with some elegant filmmaking, despite obvious production limitations.
A news presenter (Miyuki Ono) and her crew visit a dilapidated factory while investigating a snuff film that had been sent to the station, but they soon discover that they have been lured into a trap devised by a mysterious murderer lurking in the darkness. Toshiharu Ikeda's direction is tight and versatile, starting with a loose and fun early rapport amongst the TV crew before shifting into unnerving terror. Ono's total commitment to the scenario is equally vital, as she continues to sell Evil Dead Trap even when it veers into the preposterous trope of the "impossibly meticulous scheme." Evil Dead Trap surely has its share of rough and grisly gore, and even tame Japanese genre movies seem to be drawn toward rape, so there's never any pretending that this will be light family entertainment, but it also doesn't revel in depravity, making it far more stomachable than some of its peers.
Just when it seems like Evil Dead Trap has telegraphed its surprise twist too early, dragging towards an obvious and humdrum reveal — leading one to assume that the film is a well-done but otherwise ordinary predecessor to the Saw franchise — it pulls one final WTF? out of the prodigious Asian imagination for inexplicable horribles, making it a truly memorable under-seen classic.
Octoblur 2018 Trope Alert: Yet another burning person.
Flickcharted: #1338 (68.37%)
Dir.: Zbynek Brynych
An energetic satire of sexual revolution feminism, Die Weibchen shows off all of the hallmarks of quality and style of the Czech New Wave from whence director Zbynek Brynych came. What it doesn't have, unfortunately, is any dramatic development of its core idea.
The stunning beauty Uschi Glas stars as Eve, a young woman who arrives at a glamorous health spa for a six week respite, but she quickly comes to realize that the conspicuous shortage of men at the facility and in the surrounding village is the work of a radical women's cult modeled on the praying mantis and the writings of Valerie Solanas.
Die Weibchen is, for its short running time, a mostly blissful slice of go-go era eye candy. Cinematographer Charly Steinberger, who shot Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End the same year, produces some bold, interesting and textured color imagery, and it doesn't hurt to have Glas, who resembles Claudia Cardinale, front and center in most of the frames. With Peter Thomas's propulsively groovy score complementing the striking visuals, and fun, committed performances from the entire cast, Die Weibchen should have some claim to be regarded as a relatively tame sexpolitation-horror classic. Sadly, it seems to run solely on energy, with barely any script to speak of. Eve's discovery of the spa's bloody secret is never shocking, her shifts in reaction are sometimes inexplicable, moments of peril end abruptly with no consequences, and there is little payoff to any of it as Die Weibchen opts for the most frustrating of cop-out endings.
Still, as a relic of a certain type of movie from a time and place of social and cultural tumult — like many genre pictures from Europe at the time, it's a true mongrel, with roots and locations in Czechoslovakia but a West German, French and Italian production team — made with gusto if no real thought, Die Weibchen is enough fun that die-hard cinema fans should find quite a bit to enjoy if they keep their expectations low.
Flickcharted: #1965 (53.56%)
Dir.: Joko Anwar
A.K.A. PENGABDI SETAN
Indonesian filmmaker Joko Anwar has been building a reputation in Asian horror cinema for over a decade now, and from the technical aspects of his 2017 haunted house-style thriller Satan's Slaves, it's easy to see why. This is a high-class production with a strong sense of place and Anwar knows how to use quiet and pacing for chilling effect. Anwar gets strongly naturalistic performances out of his likable actors, creating a solid atmosphere of real dread much like James Wan did in The Conjuring. Ultimately, however, Anwar seems too beholden to Blumhouse-style tropes, robbing this potentially interesting horror yarn of any specific appeal.
Despite a story much closer in content to Hereditary, Satan's Slaves is full of inorganic Insidious-style jump scares which ask the jumpy score to compensate for their lack of imagination. Whatever unique flavor might have arisen from a horrror movie set within a Muslim culture is wiped out by the utterly generic — why are there zombies? Is there a motivational line between the narrative and any of the scares? — way that Anwar has conceived his film to blend in with Hollywood's low-hanging fruit. Maybe to Anwar this is a positive step for Indonesian Cinema, but it undermines his considerable skill and good taste as an aesthetician.
Curiously, IMDb credits Satan's Slaves as a remake of the 1982 film Pengabdi setan (AKA Satan's Slave) which is itself a "mockbuster"-style ripoff of the cult classic Phantasm. It's hard to see a connection between Anwar's movie and Phantasm, but I suspect that, whatever other faults it has, Sisworo Gautama Putra's 1982 bastardization has more interesting idiosyncrasies than does Anwar's handsomely bland namesake.
Flickcharted: #2177 (48.56%)
Dir.: Ricky Lau
An Octoblur wouldn't be complete without some wacky Hong Kong horror, and 2018's selection for this slot is the agreeable 1985 supernatural comedy Mr. Vampire, directed by Ricky Lau. While not as gonzo crazy as my previous forays into Hong Kong's eccentric creature effects, Mr. Vampire pleasingly mixes comic kung fu with the undead, as a skillful mortician and his stupid apprentices battle a powerful new vampire as well as a seductive ghost.
As usual with mid-1980s Hong Kong comedy, the material is often juvenile, but Lau directs it with a neat crispness, resulting in a series of amusingly crafted physical bits well-handled by performers who only just step on the wrong side of hamminess. A few moments focusing on the true visage of the beautiful ghost approach the grotesque creativity that I treasure most from these region-specific efforts, and overall Mr. Vampire is a good time despite hitting few heights.
Octoblur 2018 Trope Alert: Oh, and it features several more people on fire. This was not planned.
Flickcharted: #1710 (59.59%)
Dir: Andrzej Zulawski
A.K.A.: The Devil
Another Octoblur tradition is my sometimes awkward attempts at shoehorning into the schedule a few art films with horror-ish tones. These typically get slipped in during Foreign Horror Week, and this year is no exception, with two highbrow efforts stolen from the darker corners of world cinema.
The first of these foreboding foreign arthouse exercises is Diabel, a semi-nightmarish political allegory from Polish director Andrzej Zulawski. Zulawski looms large in the horror genre due to his blistering 1981 divorce-themed hell-ride Possession (reviewed as part of Octoblur 2016), but Diabel is far less of an in-your-face shocker, keeping its sturdy thrum of terror cocooned inside a naturalistic story of moral despair.
During an 18th century invasion of Poland, a mysterious man rescues a treasonous prisoner from execution, partners him up with a frightened nun and sends him off to face the ruins of his former life. There's very little conventional "horror" in Diabel, but there is quite a bit of dread as the characters in Zulawski's drama respond to the abhorrence of their compromises with shrieking and spastic fits. There's also a fair amount of throat-slashing, as that becomes the only apparently sane way to deal with the soul-destroying chaos that surrounds them.
There's too much allegory in Diabel, making it some particularly dense material to keep up with at times, but Zulawski films it with such ferocity — propelled by an earthshaking, doomful acid rock score — that its momentum pushes it through the most dour of its cheerless doldrums. Not a fun Halloween movie, by any means, but for gutteral and bloody Eastern European woe, you could do a lot worse.
Flickcharted: #1710 (59.59%)
Dir.: Masahiro Shinoda
A.K.A.: Sakura no mori no mankai no shita
"Foreign Horror Week" closes out with another art-house pick, one which incorporates macabre subject matter but treats the shocking nature of its content as context for broader narrative. Masahiro Shinoda's Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees opens with the suggestion that cherry blossom trees, which are now considered cheery harbingers of spring, were once feared for inspiring madness, and then relates a tale from the Edo period about another beautiful surface with nothing but darkness and despair underneath.
The great Tomisaburo Wakayama (from the Lone Wolf and Cub series) stars as a mountain bandit who becomes enchanted with a lovely woman (Shima Iwashita) travelling in the region, so he murders her husband and claims her as his newest wife. This new addition to the household, however, makes the mountain man's rough and belligerent ways look tame in comparison. While Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees is never scary, and is rarely as bloody as the samurai action films of its era, it features a simmering hint of uneasiness which, when it eventually blossoms into something akin to terror, is handled so matter-of-factly by Shinoda and his characters, that the film achieves an almost suffocating aura of dread, even while it concerns itself with more mundane matters.
The end of Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees is a little too on-the-nose, and doesn't feel like an organic end to this specifically provocative story, but, overall, it's a neat and memorable experience, with a lot of credit due to Iwashita's chillingly detached performance.
Flickcharted: #1055 (75.08%)
Dir.: James Isaac
I'm pretty forgiving of the Friday the 13th franchise. I enjoy watching even some of the worst movies in the series. Jason X, pejoratively known as "Jason in Space," is the only one that I wish didn't exist. It's maybe not even as objectively bad as Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning, but there's a kind of innocence to how bad some of the earlier chapters are, as if the filmmakers simply had no idea what they were doing or why. Jason X — released 5 years after the condescending meta-playfulness of Scream, and 4 years after the Leprechaun series exposed the desperation of taking a franchise into space, and following a decade of bottom-feeding straight-to-home-video trash — doesn't share that same sense of forgivable naivety.
With its futuristic setting — our title slasher has been cryogenically preserved for future mayhem — Jason X is supplies with an array of sci-fi crutches reliably developed by low-budget cable TV programming throughout the 1990s: badly composited effects shots of dockings and spacewalks, chintzy "hi-tech" corridors moodily lit to obscure their cheapness, randomly blinking control panels… it's all so generically uninspired, as if someone borrowed the set from a limply futuristic Vivid Video softcore porn movie, along with that shoot's personality-free spokesmodel-level actresses, and improvised a horror movie around them. It's ugly and, worse, dull: no other Friday the 13th movie feels so much like a soulless murder factory, with all sense of life removed and each death meaning so little.
There is some cleverness in the writing: there are a few good quips, and a playful sense of the title character creeps in at times — and very much I'd like to appreciate a scene near the very end if it didn't look like total garbage, but mired as it is in sci-fi tropes, there's very little fun to be had. If Jason Goes to Hell coasted past this criticism by sheer force of its relentless wackiness, Jason X can't escape the accusation that it shows little interest in being a Friday the 13th movie. It wants to be an Alien clone, but without the budget, scope, skill, talent or imagination to pull it off.
Flickcharted: #3985 (5.88%); ranked down from #3705 (12.49%)
Dir.: John Carpenter
Even though John Carpenter directed two of my favorite horror movies from my pre-teen years — The Thing and Halloween — I've often enough found his movies workmanlike (or worse) that I didn't feel compelled to keep up with his output after the mid-1980s. Vampires, his 1998 horror-action hybrid, which I've just watched for the first time, is a good example why I've felt so blasé about a filmmaker who has, with some justification, been exalted by my generation of film nerds.
As usual for a Carpenter production, Vampires is well-crafted with a confident but unassuming sense of its own style. The performances are all-around solid and Carpenter knows a thing or two about presenting flashes of shocking violence. Vampires is by no means bad, but it also doesn't feel like there's any passion in it, and that reflects most negatively in the fairly squishy and often tired plot.
With the exception of Sheryl Lee, who delivers a raw, full-throated performance in yet another torturous role — if the emotional ordeal of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me "broke" her, as she has claimed, Vampires must have piled on additional injury, as she spends the movie tied up, punched, slapped, essentially drugged out or hysterical, and often half-or-more naked — there's almost as little to like about Vampires as there is to dislike. It's thoroughly middling, adding no fresh perspective to the genre, but rather mixing up elements of Near Dark and From Dusk Til Dawn and falling short of both.
The action in Vampires is slick but forgettable, the characters are primarily composed of "attitude," and the plot is both busy with mumbo jumbo and almost translucently thin. It could be notable how inefficient and unsophisticated this gang of Vatican-sponsored vampire hunters — led by James Woods and Daniel Baldwin — is at performing its duties, but Carpenter doesn't appear to be playing with the concept of the inept hero, as he did to such great effect in Big Trouble in Little China; in Vampires it appears to be a product of writers aiming-lower-than-adequate, in much the same way that this supposedly experienced crew of vampire killers spends most of the movie driving stakes into abdomens instead of hearts, hoping that we won't notice.
Almost lost in the bland noise of Vampires is a couple of neat gross visual effects from Greg Nicotero (whose The Walking Dead cohort Frank Darabont appears briefly as an actor in the film). I suppose that fans of horror-themed action, like Blade and Underworld, might enjoy Vampires, but it's not a genre that means much to me.
Flickcharted: #2704 (36.15%)
Dir.: John Landis
John Landis' sharp gift for comic timing has been a consistent thread throughout his career as he has jumped from one genre to another, from the sketch comedy Kentucky Fried Movie, to the horror classic An American Werewolf in London, to his Eddie Murphy star vehicles Trading Places and Coming to America. It's an undeniable skill, and one he has brilliantly coupled with macabre subject matter on more than one occasion. His 2010 film Burke & Hare, about the title's notorious Scottish cadaver merchants, seems like the perfect material for Landis to rediscover, after more than a decade of obscurity, his touch at finding laughs in dark violence, but it's not a success.
Handsomely produced with an unerring cast — Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla fisher, Jessica Hynes, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, Hugh Bonneville, and Stephen Merchant; with cameos from the likes of Christopher Lee and Jenny Agutter, as well as directors Ray Harryhausen, Costa Gavras and Michael Winner — Landis gets maximum watchability out of the complete dud of a script from Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft. Joke after joke feels 30-years-stale, despite Pegg and Serkis trying their hardest to make them feel fresh. Worse, however, is the failure of the script — and Landis' unerringly sprightly interpretation of it — to acknowledge the dissonance of treating serial murder as comedy.
Just like the Spanish slasher comedy Sexy Killer earlier this month, Landis' glib approach to humanity in Burke & Hare is tone-deaf and numbing, treating the intentional deaths of innocent bystanders as mere kindling for slapstick. It might seem incongruous for a fan of horror movies to object to a callous attitude toward death, but the inherent value of life is precisely why I enjoy horror: the stakes are high and there is a natural weight to every action when death is lurking in the shadows. Not so in Burke & Hare, where sending a carriage full of anonymous persons off a cliff is a sight-gag. The great dark comedies use the fleeting vitality of life to challenge their audience with conflicting emotions, but there's none of that knowing compromise in Burke & Hare, which carries on its snickering attitude toward people by mocking body types with the same shrugging indifference with which it regards human worth.
When the titular perpetrators in Burke & Hare wrestle with their actions, it is only in terms of the most shallow practicalities or neurotic kvetching. The script does itself no favors by constantly announcing parallels to Macbeth, a play about the needling tortures of conscience, which only nudge into Burke & Hare's frame too little too late near the end.
Flickcharted: #3317 (21.69%)
Dir.: John Carpenter
I tend to use the descriptor "TV movie" as a pejorative, as a majority of made-for-television features during the late 1970s through the 1980s were transparently cheap time-wasters with little imagination and no artistic effort. At least, that was my impression of them while growing up, with exceptions like Duel as rare as can be. Earlier this month, I watched Wes Craven's Invitation to Hell, which hit the airwaves the same year that A Nightmare on Elm Street was released, and there were no discernible fingerprints in common on both his breakthrough horror movie classic and the fun-but-chintzy TV movie which likely represented to him little more than a paycheck. John Carpenter also made a movie for television which aired a month after the 1978 release of his blockbuster Halloween , but Someone's Watching Me! is no cynical throwaway.
Even for the small screen, Carpenter shows off his skill at creating tension through attention to character and quiet, controlled movements inside defined spaces. Lauren Hutton, who I've always thought of as an inadequate Faye Dunaway stand-in, is pretty good as a strong-willed single professional woman whose arrival in L.A. catches the attention of a dedicated stalker. Carpenter, who also wrote the script (with fun little nods to Rear Window and H.P. Lovecraft), doesn't make it easy on her: a majority of the film is Hutton in isolation, often talking to herself in off-beat quips, or trying not to look freaked out, but she holds that unnerving focus with aplomb while also visibly wearing the emotional toll of her constant surveillance.
Despite a few silly moments (and some weak TV music, which Carpenter did not compose), Someone's Watching Me! is consistently unnerving and mostly believable, and is surprisingly cinematic — a top-notch TV movie from its time, by a director just reaching his peak. Also stars Adrienne Barbeau and David Birney.
Flickcharted: #1597 (62.31%)
Dir.: Tom Holland
When I was 13 I somehow convinced my mom to take to me to the local budget theater to see Fright Night. I can't imagine what she was thinking (it was very likely on a double feature bill with Weird Science, so: Sorry, mom!) but it became a hallmark for me among vampire movies, which has never been a genre that really excited me. Maybe that's because the 1980s treated vampires in two different ways, and sometimes within the same movie: as comedy and as avant garde art props. The vampire had been around so long as a figure of horror pop culture, that it had become either a source of mockery (see 1979's Love at First Bite, which might have been my introduction to vampires, or Jim Carrey's early dud Once Bitten in 1985) or a too-cool instigator for comicky fear-jinks (Fright Night, The Lost Boys, Vamp). The only serious vampire movies that I can recall seeing during the 1980s were Tony Scott's arty new wave drama The Hunger and Kathryn Bigelow's grim neo-western Near Dark. I gravitated most toward the comicky vampire movies, and of those the more outre Vamp was my favorite, with Fright Night a close second. Their balance of comedy and neat monster effects fit right in with my preferences.
William Ragsdale stars in Fright Night as Charlie, a horny teenager whose attempts to feel up his resistant girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse), are interrupted when a vampire moves into the house next door. Charlie's suspicions find no takers before the vampire (Chris Sarandon) fixates on Amy, leaving it up to the boy to recruit help from a morbid misfit classmate (Stephen Geoffreys) and a former horror movie star-turned-local-late-night creature feature TV host (Roddy McDowall). The most immediate attraction of Fright Night is McDowall's performance as a broken has-been, as his Peter Cushing-like acting career affords writer-director Tom Holland with the opportunity to engage in affectionate homage to Hammer-style horror movies, but the movie wouldn't work nearly as well without the classy and commanding Sarandon relishing his role as the heavy.
In past viewings, I've found Ragsdale and Bearse so grating during the first act, that I've had trouble appreciating the rest of Fright Night's otherwise fine writing, performances and effects. Maybe my mental preparation this time around made their overzealous "kid actor" styles more tolerable, and I accepted their annoying traits as typical of whiny, self-involved high-schoolers. For the remaining two-thirds, Fright Night is a pretty fantastic concoction of brightly directed mainstream horror that takes some striking turns into pathos. A few of the scenes involving Geoffreys — who, as a teen, I thought stole the film with his wisecracks and eccentric cackle — are astounding in how long and deeply they focus on his vulnerability. Even Sarandon, as the menacing and deadly Jerry Dandrige, evinces a tactile sense of pain and loss when his icy demeanor gets cracked. I have a new respect now for Fright Night as not just a fun 1980s horror confection, but also for writer-director Tom Holland's boldness in reaching for a new, weightier dimension within the teen-oriented monster movie. Even dealing with tropes, like the parallel between vampirism and losing one's sexual innocence, is handled with taste and tenderness.
Fright Night isn't only about the feels, however, with the final act also presenting a parade of outstanding creature and makeup effects, putting it in the top tier of its decade in terms of creative conception, quality execution, and pure gooey dementedness.
I re-watched Fright Night and Fright Night Part 2 prior to listening to the recent Junk Food Dinner podcast about the Fright Night franchise.
Flickcharted: #1061 (74.96%); ranked up from #1304 (69.22%)
Dir.: Tommy Lee Wallace
It's hard to believe that I've never watched Fright Night Part 2 before, as Tom Holland's original film made an impression on me as a teenager, and, even if I hadn't caught it on cable or VHS back in the day, it seems like I would have finally caught up with it in preparation for watching Craig Gillespie's 2011 Fright Night remake. Regardless, I didn't recall a single moment from Fright Night Part 2 while viewing it for Octoblur 2018 — the flashes of deja vu triggered by seeing Jon Gries' in wolfman makeup could just as well have been associated with his similarly hairy role in 1987's The Monster Squad. However, it may be that the simplest explanation is that Fright Night Part 2 simply isn't memorable; even one day after watching it, very little stands out.
Despite the teasing hint at the end of Fright Night that a sequel might ditch vampires altogether and pit teenager Charlie against some other form of hard-to-believe adversary, this sequel, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, revives the undead villains for another go-around. As is expected with sequels to genre hits, there are plenty of echoes of the original film — Charlie, now in college, has a girlfriend (Traci Lind) who resists his physical advances; Charlie spots vampires moving in, witnesses their activities, and finds little sympathy for his claims; Charlie enlists actor/TV-host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) to battle with the bloodsuckers — but it's where Fright Night Part 2 differs from its predecessor that it gets itself into... not trouble, exactly, but indifference.
It's honorable that Wallace and his co-screenwriters Tim Metcalfe and Miguel Tejada-Flores (the team behind Revenge of the Nerds) tried something a bit different with Fright Night Part 2, but they fail to strike anything more valuable than non-precious mud. There's a lack of focus in the main storyline — a gang of new wave-y vampires plot to turn Charlie into one of their own as an act of revenge — with too much attention on the female vampire leader's (Julie Carmen) indulgent performance art (a trendy aspect of 1980s vampire movies handled more effectively in 1986's Vamp), and a subplot in which Gries stalks Lind. While there's nothing overtly objectionable in Fright Night Part 2, there are also too few notably fun sticky moments for the characters, the semi-comic situations, or the above-average special effects. To its credit, at least it's not unforgettably bad (like Wallace's Halloween III: Season of the Witch), but it may well be that in five years (or next week) I will question once again whether I have ever seen Fright Night Part 2.
I re-watched Fright Night and Fright Night Part 2 prior to listening to the recent Junk Food Dinner podcast about the Fright Night franchise.
Flickcharted: #2673 (36.93%)
Dir.: John Carpenter
John Carpenter's 40-year-old horror hit is attracting fresh eyes with David Gordon Green's new sequel in theaters, raising all of the old arguments: Does Halloween deserve credit for launching the slasher wave of the 1980s? Does this subgenre deserve to be evaluated on its own terms or is it reprehensibly prurient and beneath consideration? Does Carpenter's relatively revered first installment in this long-running franchise live up to its reputation as a work of respectable film craft despite its content?
My answer to the all three questions is an unqualified "Yes," and the third is the one in which I was most interested on this first re-watch of the original Halloween in over 15 years. I may well be affected by nostalgia — I was six years old when Carpenter's breakthrough movie was released, and by the time I was 12 I was on a steady diet of its imitators — but Halloween sets the aesthetic standard by which I judge most horror movies: quiet setup, establishing place and character through long takes of wide shots; naturalistic performances portraying a lack of drama, waiting for the extraordinary to crash through the mundane; minimal music, with environmental sound design establishing the verisimilitude of everyday life. Needless to say, Halloween 'has that Halloween feeling in spades,' as Jack Lipnick might say, so it's essentially perfect in that regard.
New audiences might criticize Halloween for doing too little. There is a long gap between its now-tropey opening scene and the start of Michael Myers' killing spree on Halloween night 15 years later, and, compared to the slasher movies that followed it, Halloween has a low body count with barely any gore. For me, a slasher movie is most valuable for how it handles the spaces between the murders, as those are what make the killing matter. Gore can add either macabre fun and/or visceral shock to a horror movie, but it will rarely equal the chilling effect of a death filmed at a silent distance, and the best scene in Halloween features Michael Myers, in a medium-long shot, quietly contemplating his own handiwork in almost the exact same way the audience might be watching him. This scene is key to the success of Carpenter's movie: it's not the effort of a sensationalist, but of a filmmaker taking his subject seriously.
While there are certainly absurd nits to be picked in Halloween — I've never cared for the slasher trope of dead bodies springing unnaturally from unlikely places perfectly timed to freak-out the final girl, and this might have been the movie which started that dumb business; and how did Loomis (the perfect Donald Pleasance) not see that car while standing in the same place for hours? — they aren't evidence of a director with nothing on his mind, but something bigger.
Halloween is about fear on primal and expansive levels. Even though Loomis describes Michael as pure evil, "The Shape" operates in Halloween's narrative as even more of an abstraction than that: he is the relentless encroachment of mortality, a neutral delivery system for death lurking constantly on the periphery until it's time to strike. However, Carpenter doesn't leave his exploration of fear at that alone; Halloween studies an array of fears covering a spectrum of severities. Carpenter, along with co-writer Debra Hill, depicts superficial fears like those provoked by watching scary movies, playing pranks or buying into superstitions; then there are normal fears like embarrassment and failure and loneliness; paranoid fears like being watched or confronted by a stranger, or being caught doing something you shouldn't, or being vulnerable and trapped in an unfamiliar space without anyone around to help; or the eerie fear of streets that are too dark and too quiet; then there is the fear of waiting for something horrible to happen without knowing when or where, and the fear that your reassurances, when others are fearful, are hollow; and the fear that your cries for help will be ignored. NEarly every line of dialog evinces some sense of trepidation about something. There's a lot going on Halloween during its slow burn between instances of the ultimate fear: random and senseless but inevitable death.
The best horror movies, and these include the best of the slashers, marry skill behind the camera with something to say about fear. The holiday Halloween is about pretending that fear is fun, part of a game that gets rewarded with sweet treats. John Carpenter's Halloween uses the surface of that holiday to reveal the trick that fear, regardless of the devices we use to cope with it, lessen it, ignore it, or dismiss it, is everywhere all of the time, and it will get all of us, someday.
Flickcharted: #150 (96.47%); ranked down from #127 (97.01%)
Dir.: Ronny Yu
New Line Cinema made such a hash out of its first two attempts at the Jason Voorhees franchise — Jason Goes to Hell (1993) and Jason X (2001)— that it's almost preposterous how well they did at their third try. I suppose it helped them to be able to fall back on the comforting presence their in-house horror icon, Freddy Krueger from the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, but, unlike the two previous low-effort embarrassments, Freddy vs. Jason feels like a real movie, made by fans to please the fans, and director Ronny Yu hits his one broad target with force and consistency.
The high-concept plot of Freddy vs. Jason could never make sense and almost doesn't matter. What writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift have managed here is an efficiently absurd vehicle for pitting the two most famous slashers of the previous two decades against one another for maximum carnage. Yu never lets the movie get bogged down in trivialities, instead filling the screen with energy and affection. Yu brings decades of experience in action and an usually creative approach to two franchises that were thought to have expended all possibilities. While I don't personally enjoy all of Yu's flourishes — his occasional slips into monochromatic color schemes look visually dull to me — his effort is always welcome, and the corn field party scene is among the best of any in the Voorhees canon.
The non-murdering cast is astoundingly good, led by Monica Keena (Undeclared) and Jason Ritter (Gravity Falls, Parenthood, etc.) and also including familiar faces like Kelly Rowland, Chris Marquette, Lochlyn Munro and Katharine Isabelle (even Evangeline Lilly pops up as an extra in a high school hallway). It's easily the most competent and experienced cast prior to the 2009 remake, making all of the time spent away from the title monsters an engaging ride with protagonists worth rooting for despite a marquee dominated by two creatures who want to kill them all.
Freddy vs. Jason isn't art, and it's only ground-breaking insofar as it appears that its studio wasn't ashamed of its production, giving it a budget more than eight times larger than Jason Goes to Hell's along with a production crew capable of affording care and competence to a low-brow genre picture. What Freddy vs. Jason is, is big, single-minded fun that delivers exactly what it promised and in as big and bold a manner as possible.
Flickcharted: #1067 (74.89%); ranked up from #2559 (39.79%) [This change doesn't represent a drastic change-of-heart as much as it reveals the sorry state of the lower-half of my Flickchart.]
Dir.: David Gordon Green
Even though I still consider John Carpenter's 1978 Halloween to be the standard-bearer of slasher horror, I've never had much interest in the franchise as a whole. I haven't seen all of the sequels, but those that I have seen stink, and only one of them enjoyably so. I don't care for reimagining a slasher series as soap opera, which is the direction I recall the some of the later sequels going before losing interest in them. Rob Zombie's remakes were 25% impressive and 75% overwrought, and also suffered from an inclination to overthink something very simple.
I was intrigued when I heard that David Gordon Green would helming a new installment in the Halloween franchise, as the best moments in his early films (All the Real Girls, Undertow, Snow Angels), while considerably different from Carpenter's lean, surgical vision, radiated a spare lyricism that I thought would make an intriguing counterpart to fear and murder. There was a minimalism to Green's work, even in his comedies, that seemed promising.
Sadly, Green's canon-wiping new sequel to Carpenter's original suffers from many of the same wayward tics that has plagued many of the other movies that have tried to follow in its footsteps without ever taking a good hard look at its shoes: too much plot (including a dumb twist), hyperactive performances, a focus on gore over effect, a need to seem busy with editing and other noise, and a general lack of attention to human detail. I'm still trying to settle whether I objected to the narrative of this new Halloween or just the way it was produced; probably some of both, but I'm likely to have been more forgiving of the script's conveniences had the presentation not been so annoying. From the needlessly dumb podcaster screaming at Michael Myers for absolutely no reason, to Jamie Lee Curtis (returning as Laurie Strode) making a showy dramatic scene in a restaurant, I was cringing in embarrassment more than fear for most of the film. Carpenter's original Halloween was a model of showing very little and telling even less. This is an art that's been lost from the last two decades of horror, and it gets no rediscovery here.
There were some potentially neat ideas in places of Halloween, such as the notion that a masked killer might blend in with busy trick-or-treaters, and a few clever turns on scenes from the first film — and I think I might have liked the final set-piece quite a bit, had an entirely different movie led up to it — but it was mostly a mess of disconnected fragments that didn't fit together, and too much subtext-free sweat poured over wooden family drama and bewildering contrivances.
While it was neat to see Curtis back again, it seems like the Halloween franchise could've used a fresh start on the original premises — fear is a constant, with death looming at the end of the chase; what could go wrong on a night when fear is mocked? — rather than trying, once again, to claw together some kind of flimsy structure out of the fragments of the past. Still, even though I found this new chapter of Halloween a mostly dismal and dreary experience, it still manages to register as my third favorite movie in the series by virtue of weak competition.
Flickcharted: #2866 (32.58%)
Dir.: Jen & Sylvia Soska
BBC movie critic Mark Kermode name-dropped American Mary a few weeks ago on his podcast as "a really full-blooded horror movie" that's "nasty and gory and it's got real edge to it" which promptly got this previously unknown-to-me curiosity added to my must-see list for Octoblur 2018. Kermode wasn't wrong: The Soska sisters, twins Jen and Sylvia (a.k.a. "The Twisted Twins"), have created a unique and interesting flirtation with the world of extreme body modifications that survives some lingering questions to hold up as a provocative, if slight, drama with horror-ish tendencies (which may or may not be problematic in themselves).
Katharine Isabelle — who I watched just three nights ago in Freddy vs. Jason — stars as Mary, a late-stage medical student whose dire financial situation leads her to accept an intriguing but difficult side-gig: performing illegal plastic surgeries on people with atypical appearance fetishes. After Mary is assaulted by predatory doctors at her hospital, she puts her developing skills as a black market surgeon to other use. American Mary is an attention-getter, for sure, but prefers suggestion to graphic gore, which is more than enough to generate a substantial sense of dread, and the Soskas back their bold choices with a script that is constantly intriguing and, in moments, also wry, tender, and perplexing.
Some of American Mary's idiosyncrasies are straightforwardly effective — specifically how its characters inhabit their sensationalized world in a near-trance, participating in its sordid necessities and eccentricities almost without will, pulled through every indignity by a kind of helpless gravity — and yet some of them seem to have been created by accident or inattention. On multiple occasions, I wasn't sure that I was watching the same movie that the Soskas thought they had made: characters react to situations in ways that don't quite connect, reassurances are made that don't quite apply, and actions are taken motivated by feelings that have never been admitted into evidence. At times, it seems as if American Mary is missing major ligaments between scenes, and its abrupt ending feels like a quick way out of a narrative that lacks direction. However, the problems with plotting do not distract from the overall effect of American Mary; rather, these fractures almost lend the movie a kind of fragile poignancy, as it consistently refuses to adhere to formulaic expectations. It feels organically pure as work of personal vision, even when that vision is stubbornly and indifferently incomplete.
One uncomfortable contradiction inside American Mary that I'm not sure how to negotiate is its treatment of "body-modding" as both a freakish source of discomfort and as a neutral form of self-expression. While this, in part, reflects Mary's adjustment to this initially alarming subculture, the Soskas' inconsistent treatment of this aspect of their film feels opportunistic. Rather than serving some critical design, American Mary sensationalizes extreme manifestations of body dysmorphia as a provocation that not only lacks conviction, but feels contrary to a later tone of normalization that runs in intervals against the current of the narrative. The Soskas, who also appear in their film as sisters who enlist Mary to bring them irreversibly closer together, either don't seem entirely sure how they want the audience to feel about "body-modding" or cynically exploited its shock value as way of getting attention. At both poles, it feels just disingenuous enough that it becomes hard to reconcile within a movie with so much supposed attitude.
Flickcharted: #1608 (62.18%)
Dir.: Gareth Evans
Gareth Evans directed my favorite action movie of the last 10 years, The Raid 2: Berandal. After a five-year absence, he's back with a notable change of pace, in this deliberate gothic horror tale for Netflix.
Downton Abbey heartthrob Dan Stevens — who made a slick transition to genre movies in 2014's terrific thriller The Guest — stars as a twitchy, traumatized former missionary who infiltrates an outlawed 19th century cult, led by an awkwardly shorn Michael Sheen, to rescue his kidnapped sister.
While Apostle comes nowhere near the bracing impact of his Raid movies, Evans does a more-than-decent job building the mystery and tension around this secretive island sect, and when action is required, it's swift and grisly. Apostle is a bit like 2017's A Cure for Wellness: handsome and serious of purpose, and yet a bit too long, with a story that expects more engagement than it elicits.
There's nothing particularly wrong with Apostle (other than some iffy CGI effects), and at its best it's gnarly and horrifying, with enough hints of The Wicker Man to earn it some automatic goodwill while also paling in comparison. There's something about made-for-Netflix movies, that, regardless of ambition — and no one can fault them for their exciting choice of directors, which is nothing but impressive this fall — feels not quite tactile, like there's a sheen of plastic shrink-wrap covering the surface, keeping their content just one layer removed from genuine contact.
Flickcharted: #1976 (53.54%)
Dir.: Lew Lehman
I made a last-minute change in plans Halloween night to watch the obscure 1981 oddity The Pit, which has been an Octoblur wallflower for the past few years, and I'm glad I did. First, it begins with a scene set on Halloween, which is only appropriate, and, second, it is a work of hilarious and demented lunacy, putting it up with the finest works of mercurial cinematic ineptitude.
The only movie ever directed by Lew Lehman, The Pit concerns an awkward and pervy misfit 12-year-old who, while he's not sexually harassing teachers and librarians and nannies, likes to lure those who tease him into the forest where he pushes them into a mysterious sinkhole. As evil movie kids go, blossoming creep Jamie (Sammy Snyder) makes Bad Ronald look like the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. It's not a subtly written or performed part, but it is thoroughly watchable, and the blunt literalness of Lehman's overall approach is good for several laughs and a few exclamations of "WTF?" throughout The Pit.
Screenwriter Ian A. Stuart — whose only other credit is as writer, director and narrator of the documentary The Highland Regiments of Canada — gives the actors almost nothing to say other than alien-sounding pronouncements, which, in conjunction with Rik Morden's odd editing and Victor Davies' incongruously wacky score, adds up for an unsettling overall effect. With so many off-kilter ingredients, The Pit plays like a Saturday morning kids' anti-bullying TV movie with nudity and murder.
Just when it seems like The Pit is waiting to spring an obvious trope, Stuart and Lehman reveal how little craft is actually on their minds, and the story takes a surprisingly direct path. This climax, which focuses on peripheral characters, misses the goony presence of Snyder, and isn't given enough enough room (budget, more likely) to make an impact worthy of its potential within this already alarming and sordid story. This temporary let down is made up for by The Pit's coda, which, while predictable, is a satisfying end.
Flickcharted: #1331 (68.71%)
Dir.: Claudio Fragasso
I should've known better than to try for two so-bad-they're-good candidates in one night. Beyond Darkness was released just a few months prior to another project from the married Italian directing/writing team of Claudio Fragasso and Rosella Drudi, Troll 2, which has become infamous as one of the worst movies ever made. Beyond Darkness bears all the same hallmarks of style, but lacks the goofy fun.
Taking liberally from Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, Suspiria, and The Exorcist (and, one assumes, La Casa parts 1-4, as it was released is Spain under the title La Casa 5; and it was released in Italy as Evil Dead 5, for some reason; and it was released in Germany as both Horror House 2 and Ghosthouse 6, so good luck figuring that out), Beyond Darkness is both a typical haunted house story — a family moves into a house and weird stuff happens — and a typical Italian horror movie, in that it makes no sense and gets bogged down in inconsequential drama. With Fragasso involved, you can also expect Beyond Darkness to have the production quality of an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?.
Troll 2 fans will enjoy seeing Fragasso working again with Michael Paul Stephenson, the child actor from Troll 2 — and I hope it's not a spoiler to say that both movies end on freeze-framed close-ups of Stephenson's distressed face. Oddly, Stephenson, who directed the Troll 2 revival documentary Best Worst Movie, made no mention of his other collaboration with Fragasso, although it's entirely possible, given Fragasso's communication issues, that Stephenson wasn't aware there were two separate films.
Beyond Darkness has some amusement value in its early stages, but at 95 minutes it wears thin very quickly. Barbara Bingham, who we saw die in an exploding car earlier this month in Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, is maybe too good of an actress for this, and young Theresa Walker, in her only credited film role to-date, is fun to watch in the early stages when it seems she might be the centerpiece of another evil kid movie, but anyone looking for narrative development is in the wrong place. I should've watched Ragewar instead. Maybe next year.
Fun fact: former softcore sex star Laura Gemser provided the costume design.
Octoblur 2018 trope alert: Yes, one more person on fire, making 20 out of 38 movies this month to feature a man and/or a creature in flames.
Flickcharted: #4039 (5.08%)