PopGap Diary: Octoblur 2020

Octoblur 2020

| dorrk

Creepy Kids. Bad Advice. Horrible Houses.

"Boo. I am The Ghost of Octoblur 2019. I died 11 months ago after watching a ridiculous 65 horror movies. In retrospect, that seems like a very stupid thing to have done. But I did it, and look where I am now. Dead. Kids, don’t try this at home! Especially if you live at The House Where Horror Hangs Out, or whatever."

Thanks, Ghost. We’re done with you. It’s 2020 and there’s a new Octoblur in town. But you just gave me a terrible idea: What if instead of our usual half-planned topical marathon of horror movies -- really just setting aside a week exclusively for Foreign Horror -- we tried out a half-planned exploration of a few common horror themes? Well, it can’t be as bad of an idea as watching 65 horror movies in one month (don’t count on that happening again), so why not?

The three themes of Octoblur2020

Creepy Kids.

Or is it Scared Kids? Probably some of both.
Face it, kids are pretty horrifying in real life. Put them in a horror movie, and it’s Scare City. Call it Kidsploitation. Whatever, there’s going to be kids murdering and getting murdered, if everything goes well.
Some of our favorite Kidsploitation movies:
The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist (1973)
The Shining (1980)
The Shining (1980)
The Omen (1976)
The Omen (1976)
Some past Octoblur favorites:
A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)
A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)
The Wailing (2016)
The Wailing (2016)
The Bad Seed (1956)
The Bad Seed (1956)
Applicable movies that we’re sure to watch during Octoblur2020:
Alice Sweet Alice (1976)
Alice Sweet Alice (1976)
The Damned (1963)
The Damned (1963)
Lovely Devils (1982)
Lovely Devils (1982)

Scorned Warnings

'Bad' Advice Or Good Advice for Bad Times? Probably some of both.

A lot of horror movies have titles offering useful warnings, advice or instructions. These same horror movies are full of characters who willfully ignore such common sense admonitions. I like to call it Don’tsploitation. “Don’t be so unoriginal,” you say? That’s the spirit!

Some of our favorite Don’tsploitation movies:
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
Get Out (2017)
Get Out (2017)
Let the Right One In (2008)
Let the Right One In (2008)
Some past Octoblur titles that cost nothing and are worth the price:
Don't Deliver Us From Evil (1971)
Don't Deliver Us From Evil (1971)
Better Watch Out (2016)
Better Watch Out (2016)
Let's Scare Jessica To Death (1971)
Let's Scare Jessica To Death (1971)
Applicable movies that we’re sure to watch during Octoblur2020:
Don't Go In The House (1979)
Don't Go In The House (1979)
Don't Torture A Duckling (1972)
Don't Torture A Duckling (1972)
Don't Go Near The Park (1979)
Don't Go Near The Park (1979)

Horrible Houses.

Or Hellish Dwellings? Probably some of both.
People who make horror movies seem to think that buildings sound really scary. I’m not that freaked out by buildings, usually, but adding some spooky adjectives and verbs can turn the world upside down. I’m not going to call this Houseploitation, but you can, if you’ve run out of original ideas.
Some of our favorite Houses of Horror movies:
Hausu (1977)
Hausu (1977)
The House Of The Devil (2009)
The House Of The Devil (2009)
The Beach House (2019)
The Beach House (2019)
Some past Octoblur movies that live in places where bad things always happen:
The Old Dark House (1932)
The Old Dark House (1932)
The Lighthouse (2019)
The Lighthouse (2019)
The House with Laughing Windows (1976)
The House with Laughing Windows (1976)
Applicable movies that we’re sure to watch during Octoblur2020:
House of Usher (1960)
House of Usher (1960)
The House on the Edge of the Park (1980)
The House on the Edge of the Park (1980)
The House that Dripped Blood (1971)
The House that Dripped Blood (1971)

I don’t know how many we’ll watch overall, and there are certain to be diversions, one-offs and random call-backs of classics that I show to my kids, all fitting the theme of “I wanted to watch this, so I did.” Regardless, there’s certain to be a lot of screams, some blood, a few cats, a couple of weird dolls, and lots and lots of Creepy Kids, Good Advice and Horrible Houses.

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Reviews of all Octoblur 2020 Movies

Octoblur 2020: 48. The Hunger (1983)

The Hunger (1983)

Movie #48
Dir.: Tony Scott
Flickcharted: #3881 (21.52%)

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this long overdue re-watch of The Hunger (1983), Tony Scott’s stylish 1983 vampire drama, as all I remembered from it were the parts that would have specifically appealed to the teenage boy that I was in the mid-1980s. While I suspected that its aesthetic and effects might seem especially dated today, lately I have very much enjoyed movies with a strong early-80s “new wave” vibe, such as Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake Cat People.

To my pleasant surprise, The Hunger looks fantastic — shot by Stephen Goldblatt, who previously did the fetchingly new wave Breaking Glass in 1980, and next would shoot Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984) — and Dick Smith’s makeup effects, which involve aging David Bowie 70 years over the course of an hour, look great. Too bad the rest of it — with Catherine Deneuve as an ancient Vampire on the hunt for a new young lover — is so godawfully lifeless.

It’s no coincidence, I think that, a year earlier, Tony Scott’s brother Ridley also directed a visually breathtaking snoozefest about robotic characters coldly resisting the imposition of artificial emotions via oppressive art direction — Blade Runner (1982) — these are people who shoot what are essentially fashion magazine ad layouts and try to pass them off as narrative movies. It’s very frustrating to have neat, magnetic performers like Deneuve, Bowie and Sarandon stripped of personality, almost as if Scott’s aim was to turn them into real vampire-like husks of former humans.

There’s some fancy (read: incoherent) editing that attempts to liven up the inert (but potentially powerful) narrative with confusing flash forwards of upcoming events which are both lacking context and eventually unimportant; and then there’s the nonsensical ending which is at odds with the meat of the climax (it was gratifying to find an interview with Sarandon in which she expressed the same befuddled sentiment). Several times during The Hunger, I found myself asking, “What is happening, and why is it taking so long to happen?”

Back when I was a kid in the 1980s, my mom would have annoyed me by calling something like The Hunger “a music video movie.” Maybe I’ve become my mom, but it is really just a bunch of posing, with some blood and boobs, in front of billowing backlit drapes with pigeons fluttering around, which is great for a 4-minute Prince video, but makes 96 minutes feel like four hours.

Willem Dafoe and John Pankow briefly appear as male prostitutes.

Octoblur 2020: 47. Mikey (1992)

Mikey (1992)

Movie #47
Dir.: Dennis Dimster
Flickcharted: #1849 (62.60%)

I kicked off “Kids Week” of Octoblur 2020 with the studio-produced Macauley Culkin thriller The Good Son, which I thought pushed the darkness of the “killer kid” formula as far as it could go for a movie that was also trying to maintain mainstream acceptability. A year earlier, however, the independent, low-budget Mikey took an even nastier — and more basely satisfying — approach to the same subject.

Brian Bonsall — one of the most derided child actors of 1980s TV, for his late addition to the popular Family Ties sitcom — stars as the titular psychopath, an 11-year-old foster kid whose guardians keep dying. We meet Mikey in the midst of terminating one such relationship by knocking the little sister into the deep end of the swimming pool, electrocuting his bathing foster mother, and bashing in the dad’s head with a baseball bat. He videotapes it all, adds a laugh track, and calls it “Mikey’s Funniest Home Videos.” Mikey ain’t playing. When he moves on to the next family, headed by John Diehl and Mimi Craven, he develops a deadly crush on his teenage neighbor (Josie Bissett) and it doesn’t end well for anybody.

Directed by Dennis Dimster, who spent the late 1970s as a child actor mostly on TV series like Charlie’s Angels, Mikey is aesthetically pedestrian but extremely competent as a low-budget no-frills thriller, especially as it establishes very quickly that it has nothing but ill-intentions up its sleeve. Jonathan Glassner, who cut his teeth on horror anthology series like the 1980s reboot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Freddy’s Nightmares, sticks to the tropes and does them right. Bonsall, who would two years later star in the famously lambasted family comedy Blank Check, has a pretty good blank stare along with a soulless innocence that sells the part well enough for genre pulp. He actually looks a bit like a human Chucky doll — and even throws out some punchy Chucky-like post-mortem quips — adding to his menace. By the time Mikey launches into its surprising (and, admittedly, impractical) finale, it’s too much fun to scold for any shortcomings. This is premium Bad Seed-style killer kid movie for die-hard horror fans only.

Octoblur 2020: 46. Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1992)

Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1992)

Movie #46
Dir.: David Price
Flickcharted: #3944 (20.21%)

Fun fact: I started this website as a distraction from a dubious urge to watch all 42 or whatever of the Children of the Corn movies. I successfully avoided it then, but I’m always aware that they’re lurking out there, somewhere, waiting for me. I don't know why this franchise haunts me — I don't even like the original very much beyond its cultural stickiness — but something about the fact of its existence, and that so many of its movies look like awful low-budget name brand cash-ins, is somehow alluring to me.

Despite its release 8 years after the 1984 original, Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1992; horror movie titles really need to avoid using that word, “Final”) picks up immediately after the first movie’s resolution, as the surviving kids from Gatlin are moved to a neighboring town where volunteers have agreed to house them. Surprise, surprise: they get back up to their old tricks… sort of. The very first kill in Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice is performed by the corn itself, so it’s not even clear why the corn needs an army of evil kids, when it can launch itself like a missile at will. None of it makes any sense — the plot or characters aren't even worth recalling — but the sense of humor informing the distinct death scenes is appreciated, even though they all defy at least one of the following: logic, technology, physics, and/or normal human reaction times. This ambitiousness alone might qualify Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice as better than its predecessor, but then it lacks the iconic villains that make Fritz Kiersch’s movie more memorable than it maybe deserves. At the very least, Children of the Corn II has better special effects than the 1984 movie, but that’s not saying much. Georges Melies’ 1902 science fiction epic A Trip to the Moon has better special effects than Children of the Corn, which looks like its post-production was performed on an Amiga Video Toaster.

Of course, neither of these first two movies in the series address the big problem with the entire Children of the Corn franchise: It is based on an extremely short story by Stephen King which mostly consists of a marital argument and then only briefly the compelling concept of a corn-based cult of killer kids. So, the filmmakers are responsible for taking a glimmer of an idea and expanding it, but there’s almost nothing about that expansion that isn’t stupid. Take, for example, the oft-repeated phrase of ominous reverence, “He who walks behind the rows;” I can only imagine King meant this as an arch parody of overblown puritan language, and to hear it said so earnestly so often in these movies is just ridiculous. It’s not scary, it taps into no existing anxiety, and it makes the series risible.

The part of me that seems to find passing comfort in low-budget, low-accomplishment horror movies didn’t hate Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice, but none of me found it interesting or in any way special, outside of its effort to concoct silly death scenes. Does this mean I won't ever watch Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest? Of course not. Maybe not this year, but I can already feel it watching me, and waiting.

Octoblur 2020: 45. Death Valley (1982)

Death Valley (1982)

Movie #45
Dir.: Dick Richards
Flickcharted: #1712 (65.36%)

What would you get if you crossed a light Neil Simon comedy with the Australian slasher movie Road Games (1981)? Something a lot like Death Valley (1982), an oddball mix of childhood angst and horror starring young Peter Billingsley, one year before his iconic role as Ralphie in A Christmas Story (1983).

Billy (Billingsley) is a New York kid reluctantly shipped out west for an Arizona vacation with his divorced mom (Catherine Hicks) and her new boyfriend (Paul Le Mat). While staying at a hotel near an "old west"-themed tourist attraction, Billy stumbles onto a murder scene and collects a piece of evidence that makes him the killer’s next target.

Directed by Dick Richards (during the same year that he produced Tootsie (1982)), and shot by Stephen H. Burum (who would later shoot The Outsiders (1983) and The Untouchables (1987), Death Valley looks perfect, and its cast is a delight. Billingsley is a fantastically watchable kid, always funny and interesting without doing anything unnatural, and Hicks is a pleasure even in garbage like the TV series 7th Heaven. The small cast is rounded out with peak Wilford Brimley and a young Stephen McHattie.

Death Valley has some flaws, however, including a stupid scene with a food-obsessed babysitter (playwright Mary Steelsmith) that belongs in a much dumber movie, and there are an alarming number of contrivances, especially in the final act. But, it’s breezy, compact and fun, if you like this sort of thing, and a nice surprise to discover on the obscure outskirts of the 1980s horror boom.

Octoblur 2020: 44. The Other (1972)

The Other (1972)

Movie #44
Dir.: Robert Mulligan
Flickcharted: #4088 (17.26%)

I try to approach older movies as products of their time and appreciate ideas that might have been fresh at the time but are now considered clichés; I may even admire such movies as pioneers, even if their execution of such ideas seems clumsy or rudimentary by today’s standards. I also don’t care much for twist-based plotting, as movies should be just as if not more interesting on second viewing, and successful twists need to inform more than just a momentary surprise. But Robert Mulligan’s The Other (1972) is formulated around what might have been a then-novel twist, but which is now so obvious within minutes of the opening credits that the rest of the film is excruciating as it feigns ignorance of and then build suspense toward something which isn’t at all revelatory. But that’s not all.

Mulligan’s direction is consistently at odds with the narrative in The Other, as it aims for prestige rather than focusing on the interiority of its Bad Seed-adjacent subject. For most of it running time, The Other carries the air of an idyllic boyhood fantasy, such as Tom Sawyer; except that the mischief in this case is serial murder. This could work as expression of a delusional character’s altered perception of reality, but Mulligan seems incapable of striking a subtle discordant note — when one is finally required, the soundtrack is absurdly drowned out in shrill whistles; we get it — really, subtlety is altogether eschewed and with such tone deafness it seems like a miracle that Mulligan did such an accomplished job mixing childhood whimsy and fear in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) a decade earlier.

The Other is also, at times, confusing, as if it wants to half-commit to gauche supernatural possibilities — will someone please explain “the great game” and the first death in some manner that doesn’t include rampant contrivance or divine providence? — while also retaining the respectability of a Depression-era “life on the farm” drama, and obscures its waffling with incoherent expressionistic editing. Even if Mulligan had some clever plan behind his shambolic execution of The Other, it is, fundamentally, a movie of technical tricks rather than a movie of meaning, and once its twist is revealed with a half-hour remaining, the climax is simply tedious dramatic grandstanding. I couldn’t wait for The Other to be over.

Octoblur 2020: 43. Cub (2014)

Cub (2014)

Movie #43
A.K.A.: WELP
Dir.: Jonas Govaerts
Flickcharted: #1709 (65.40%)

A common problem with horror movies about kids is that many filmmakers are themselves afraid of depicting children in truly terrible situations, partially concerned that crossing some assumed line of bad taste will alienate the audience. Horror audiences, though, are different, and tend to feel cheated when their movies play it safe.

I don’t think that Jonas Govaerts, director of the Belgian shocker Cub (2014), gave second thought to decorum; his movie, while not relentlessly offensive, has some pretty gnarly surprises in it which are sure to turn viewers against him. Children, animals and women receive some seriously foul play in Cub, with one scene in particular likely to elicit howls of protest. But, those aren’t necessarily demerits for a horror movie, and Cub was pretty interesting and effective overall.

The story is simple-ish: a pack of scouts go camping, but they pick a section of forest that is inhospitable to visitors. The key characters are well-drawn with minimal information — including a memorably terrible pack leader played by Stef Aerts — and, despite featuring the same generically slick aesthetic of many recent indie movies, Cub is well-shot, briskly paced, and suspenseful even if its ending feels inevitable early on. It’s a fun, dark, quick ride, and not for the squeamish or anyone sensitive to wanton inhumanity.

Octoblur 2020: 42. The Babysitter (1980)

The Babysitter (1980)

Movie #42
Dir.: Peter Medak
Flickcharted: #2585 (47.66%)

The Babysitter (1980) features one of those notorious TV movie plots — a sexy teenage babysitter wreaks havoc on a dysfunctional family, preying on the mother’s worst fears by seducing her husband and endangering the child — but is a little too tame to pay off that lurid premise.

Stephanie Zimbalist stars as Joanna, a former foster child who fixates on vulnerable families. At first, she’s a dream housekeeper for the upper class Benedicts (Patty Duke Astin, William Shatner, and child actress Quinn Cummings, who is best known for playing Marsha Mason’s daughter in The Goodbye Girl), but she soon zeroes in on their insecurities with potentially devastating consequences.

Zimbalist, who would later co-star on the series Remington Steele, is pretty good as a delusional psychopath, and has a fun scene in which she pulverizes a freshly caught fish in front of a boat full of concerned spectators; you also get some prime Shatner-isms and a top-class Duke meltdown. But, considering the damage Joanna has left in her past, the Benedicts get off with far too little actual danger, and the ending is milquetoast, especially compared to Don't Go to Sleep, which we watched earlier this month.

John Houseman appears, against type, as a very haughty British person. Peter Medak directs with some style, coming off of the very good ghost story The Changeling (1980); his next movie, however, would be Zorro, The Gay Blade (1981).

Octoblur 2020: 41. Strange Behavior (1981)

Strange Behavior (1981)

Movie #41
A.K.A.: Dead Kids
Dir.: Michael Laughlin
Flickcharted: #2181 (55.83%)

My dad took me to see director Michael Laughlin’s alien invasion mystery Strange Invaders when it played theatrically in 1983 or 1984, and even at age 11 or 12 I had a sense that this was an off-beat movie that wasn’t like the other science-fiction movies I had seen up to that point. I’ve watched it a few times since then and have liked its atmosphere more than its events. Laughlin seemed to have a knack for eerie small-town world building but no real grasp on making the most of his plots or their key moments. Little did I know, until this week, that Laughlin made another “strange” genre movie a couple of years earlier, Strange Behavior (1981), which offers better execution of his distinct qualities and yet still disappoints in all the same ways.

In Strange Behavior, Dan Shor stars as Pete Brady, a half-serious teenager who likes to party and mess around with girls, but who also wants to go to the local college — against the wishes of his dad (Michael Murphy), the town sheriff. Desperate for quick cash for the application fee, Pete signs up as a guinea pig for some drug trials at the college’s psychiatry department, unaware that their unorthodox behavior modification experiments are responsible for a rash of recent child murders.

Strange Behavior is intriguing, dark fun with such subtle and specific character development that it feels like it could’ve been derived from a novel (it wasn’t; Laughlin co-wrote the original script with first-timer Bill Condon, who would win the Oscar in 1999 for writing Gods and Monsters). The cast — including Louise Fletcher, plus Back to the Future’s Mark McClure and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’s Dey Young — is low-key quirky and interesting, giving the small town a lived-in vibe, and the story is compelling both as a mad scientist thriller and as a family drama. Laughlin fills the soundtrack with catchy obscure new wave pop tracks, while Tangerine Dream provides an obtrusive score. All of this, along with a few memorable disquieting scenes, makes Strange Behavior sound like an unqualified hit.

And yet, there’s an odd clumsiness to the way that Laughlin directs big moments. In some ways, this adds to the verisimilitude of the situations — it can be difficult, for example, to climb out of your bedroom window and down a tree — but when it really counts, like in a murder scene, ideally Laughlin could make the gravity of the action felt, but instead his placid approach feels awkwardly amateurish, like he didn’t really give much though how to best execute his scene. The first murder in the movie, in its opening scene, looks like a first rehearsal. But this isn’t even the biggest problem with Strange Behavior — and there are a couple of really well done shocks, which only make the failures more glaring — which is that it has one of the most abrupt non-sequitur endings I can remember, almost as if Laughlin had no idea how to end his movie, or even a vague ballpark idea of what kind of ending might best serve the material, and then ran out of money before he could finish writing an ending and shooting it. And even after the stunningly absent conclusion, he once again ran out of money before he could properly edit a transition from the final scene to the end credits (and, again, from the first part of the end credits to the second part). It’s a very weird series of formal lapses, and jarring, and not in the good way you want from a horror movie. It seems unfair to say this, but a different final 3 minutes, followed by something revolutionary like, say, a fade to black, might have made Strange Behavior the substantially better movie it comes very close to being.

Octoblur 2020: 40. The Night Child (1975)

The Night Child (1975)

Movie #40
A.K.A.: Il medaglione insanguinato; The Cursed Medallion; Together Forever
Dir.: Massimo Dallamano
Flickcharted: #2320 (53.01%)

For all of my generalized accusations about Italian horror’s dubious screenwriting tendencies, Massimo Dallamano’s The Night Child (1975) avoids most of those problems, effectively focusing its writing on character relationships rather than generic plot minutiae.

Richard Johnson stars as an English art historian who brings his daughter, Emily (Nicoletta Elmi), and her nanny (Ida Galli) to Rome, where he is filming a TV special on depictions of The Devil in fine art. Obsessed with his work, Johnson is oblivious to his pre-teen daughter’s attachment issues, which endanger any woman who takes a fancy to him. The Night Child isn’t the most compellingly crafted story, but it’s blissfully free of all the problems that repel my attention during many other Italian genre movies of the era. I’m also somewhat of a sucker for movies about art, so that helps, but what I found most inviting about The Night Child was its focus on its (admittedly uncomplicated) characters and the atmosphere created by Stelvio Cipriani’s unobtrusively catchy score and Franco Delli Colli’s naturalist cinematography. Sadly, the latter is not flattered by what must be fading of the source film print, which seems to coat nearly every other scenes with a fog of gray crud, not something you might expect from a director who was Sergio Leone's D.P. for the first two Dollars movies. One scene that isn't faded, unfortunately, is one of the worst "falling" special effect shots in movie history (so bad, they show it twice!). Overall though, I just enjoyed basking in The Night Child's unaggressive, low-impact thrills.

This was one of red-headed 11-year-old Elmi's last movie appearances of the decade, after becoming a genre child star with notable roles in Bay of Blood (1971), Deep Red (1975) and Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), among others. Her next, and final horror appearance would be in Demons (1985).

Octoblur 2020: 39. The Children (1980)

The Children (1980)

Movie #39
Dir.: Max Kalmanowicz
Flickcharted: #1846 (62.60%)

The first thing that struck me about the independently produced horror movie The Children (1980) is how startlingly and refreshingly competent it is. Maybe I’ve dived too deep into amateurism this month, but right from start The Children looks and feels like it was made by people with a firm grasp on what they were doing. As they tell the story of a small town in which a handful of school children are turned by a radioactive fog into adorable zombies with lethal hugs, director Max Kalmanowicz and writer/producer Carlton J. Albright — despite only a couple of other directing and writing credits between them — are in near-total control of their material, from awareness of the script’s inherent goofiness, to the seriousness of its characters' emotions, to the coherent storytelling and continuity action, and to even the occasionally clever shot compositions (the best of which is a smart twist on a famous moment from The Night of the Hunter).

The Children is full of nicely detailed personality types and quirky character interactions, with the right balance between humor and restraint; none of the more arch comic types are ever "too much." Sometimes The Children's solid world building introduces or emphasizes characters with no narrative utility, but even those add texture more than they derail the momentum. Familiar character actors like Martin Shakar (the older brother in Saturday Night Fever) and Peter Maloney (The Thing) reinforce the overall quality of The Children, while the lesser known Gil Rogers is an engaging figure at the movie's center. If the music sounds familiar, that's Harry Manfredini essentially repurposing the same score he used in 1980's bigger horror hit, Friday the 13th. A fun surprise!

Octoblur 2020: 38. Cathy's Curse (1977)

Cathy's Curse (1977)

Movie #38
A.K.A.: Cauchemares
Dir.: Eddy Matalon
Flickcharted: #2346 (52.46%)

The 1970s had three major child-centered horror movies which spawned endless rip-offs, The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and Carrie (1976). The Canadian shocker Cathy’s Curse (1977) borrows a little bit from each and mixes them into a simultaneously weird and lackluster but nevertheless amusing supernatural family drama.

A family moves into the father’s childhood home, hoping the change will help heal the fragile mother (Beverly Murray), who is recovering from a nervous breakdown. What better to drive mom over the edge, though, than her 8-year-old daughter (Randi Allen) becoming possessed by a vengeful spirit let loose from years dwelling inside a doll in the attic?

Cathy’s Curse features the usual round of demonic child behaviors: thrashing around in bed, cajoling neighborhood kids into inappropriate games, cursing at old ladies, covering drunk old men in snakes and spiders, and throwing the hired help out of a second story window. The fun element that director Eddy Matalon brings to his movie is a milquetoast plainness that contrasts nicely with Cathy’s supernatural hijinks.

Cathy’s Curse does run itself out of steam near its facile end, and is nowhere near the wholly satisfying experience of its forebears, but as a WTF unintentional camp thriller, it’s as good as The Visitor (1979) and better than The Fury (1978).

Octoblur 2020: 37. The Child (1977)

The Child (1977)

Movie #37
A.K.A.: Children of the Night; Hide and Go Kill
Dir.: Robert Voskanian
Flickcharted: #2921 (40.80%)

When you see the name Harry Novak come up at the start of a movie, you know you’re in trouble. Novak is the producer behind such refined titles as The Sinful Dwarf (1973) and Wham! Bam! Thank You, Spaceman! (1975) and 80+ other equally lurid exploitation movies over two decades. The Child (1977) is one of the four final releases of Novak’s prolific sleaze machine Boxoffice International Pictures — along with the anomalously very good survival thriller Rituals (1977), which kicked off Octoblur 2019 — and bears several Novak trademarks.

Foremost, The Child features god-awful acting of a lethargic half-written script (with barely any story), both so bad they are almost unbelievable… unless you’re familiar with Novak’s ignominious body of work. It’s hard to blame the actors, most of whom have few if any other credits to their name, but neither cast nor director appears to be pushing the other to excel, and no one stands out as a diamelle in the rough. However, The Child does have some qualities to recommend it. One-time director Robert Voskanian and one-time cinematographer Mori Alavi somehow conspire to capture some terrific atmosphere in the opening scene — in which we see the title tween girl offer a kitten as sacrifice to a skeletal hand lurking behind a cemetery headstone — and pretty much whenever a scene takes place outdoors. Indoors is a different matter, where Alavi struggles to keep actors heads from jutting out the top of the frame; maybe it’s a problem with The Child’s transfer from film to digital, but on this evidence Alavi stands accused of more decapitations than the ghoul army of “friends” who do the sinister girl’s bidding.

There are some enthusiastically goopy bloody heads in The Child, and a couple of hilariously stilted yet creepy dialog exchanges, and, surprisingly given Novak's body of work, no sex or nudity; but, just like Alice, Sweet Alice, Ralph Lucas’ script writes out the title character for long uninspired stretches, resulting in a 25-minute long climax that is no more than a generic zombie chase. As undeniably terrible as it is, though, there’s something likeable about The Child: you get the sense that for isolated moments here and there, someone on the set was really trying. What they were trying to do is not always apparent, but it’s the effort that counts. Maybe I’m punch-drunk at this point of the month, or maybe I'm just a sucker for the colors of cheap, grainy 1970s filmstock, but I liked this more than I should.

Octoblur 2020: 36. The Baby's Room (2006)

The Baby's Room (2006)

Movie #36
A.K.A.: Películas para no dormir: La habitación del niño
Dir.: Álex de la Iglesia
Flickcharted: #2450 (50.33%)

Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia’s contribution to the revived “Films to Keep You Awake” anthology TV series is the amusing sort-of-ghost story The Baby's Room (2006), which pits a young family — Javier Gutiérrez, Leonor Watling and an infant child — against mysterious apparitions who appear on baby monitors in the old house they are renovating. Gutiérrez and Watling are eminently watchable, and there’s a solid creep factor to both the initial sightings and de la Iglesia’s narrative conclusion, but for a movie that only runs 79 minutes, more than half of it feels like padding. Little bits of subplot are raised and then dropped with no expansion or expanded with no purpose. The tone of The Baby's Room is also bumpy, overall more comical than sinister, which is especially awkward when the climax includes an inexplicable series of bi-directional face punches between husband and wife. Ultimately, The Baby's Room feels like a rushed idea only one-quarter baked, but it’s short just different enough to be worth checking out for its assets alone.

Octoblur 2020: 35. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

Movie #35
A.K.A.: Communion; Holy Terror
Dir.: Alfred Sole
Flickcharted: #3968 (19.55%)

All of my usual complaints about the Italian giallo genre can be aimed squarely at this giallo-influenced American indie horror movie. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) looks great — in fact, I can’t believe how great it looks after reading that, as an independent production, it reportedly had six different camera operators due to constant budget-related delays. For a movie with no consistent professional cinematographer, the visual artfulness of Alice, Sweet Alice is really incredible and a profound achievement. Sadly, this is also a movie that has no idea how to organize its story, or what is worth focusing on, or how to go about developing characters who are not either painfully one-note or practically anonymous.

Alice, Sweet Alice begins with a fiery sibling rivalry between two young sisters meeting a premature end when the youngest (Brooke Shields, in her film debut) is murdered during her Catholic confirmation ceremony. Suspicions abound that the mischievous older sister, Alice (Paula Sheppard), might have had a hand in her sister’s death, and these suspicions increase as a series of stabbing attacks by a masked figure plagues the mourning family.

As the title character, Sheppard is compelling, but director Alfred Sole and his co-writer Rosemary Ritvo, shove her off to the side for a long stretch in the middle, splitting their attention across three dead zones: a lethargic police investigation, the wooden relationship between Alice’s mother (Linda Miller) and her ex-husband (Niles McMaster), and some church office drama.  Prior to sidelining the movie’s one major asset, the first act is intermittently plagued with hysterical grating performances from Jane Lowry, as the girls’ idiotic aunt, and Alphonso DeNoble as their obese pervy landlord. These two actors are excruciating to watch, and yet they are missed when the movie nosedives into its snoozeworthy "adults try to figure it out" procedural.

There are flashes of excitement that enliven Alice, Sweet Alice — including a scene ripped straight out of Don’t Look Now, as McMaster follows a mysterious diminutive figure in a bright yellow rain slicker — and its opening and closing church scenes are gripping, but there is no middle worth speaking of. It’s a real disappointment, especially given how accomplished it is visually, and how it uses the same masks that freaked me out so much last week in The Last House on Dead End Street. I want to like Alice, Sweet Alice, especially when I gaze at its lurid poster, or scroll through still of its exemplary photography, but sitting through it just makes me annoyed, bored and miserable.

Octoblur 2020: 34. The Good Son (1993)

The Good Son (1993)

Movie #33
Dir.: Joseph Ruben
Flickcharted: #1548 (68.61%)

It’s the start of Octoblur 2020’s “Kid Week” — not movies for kids, but about kids being either scary or scared — and if there’s one thing I want from a “creepy kid” movie, it’s feeling like the filmmakers didn’t hold back. I want them to give me as creepy a kid as they could manage, and then a little extra.

In The Good Son (1993), Elijah “Frodo” Wood stars as Mark, a sad kid sent to live with relatives following the death of his mother. His cousin, Henry (Macaulay Culkin), isn’t crazy about the new competition, but is crazy, period. Various people are threatened, some have near-death experiences, and animals might want to skip this one.

I expected The Good Son, a major studio release starring “it” kid Culkin, to play it safe, with soft edges and maybe even cop-out at the end. While it’s by no means gritty or exploitive, and gets pretty dewy about Mark's sense of loss, for a mainstream movie, the filmmakers pretty much go for it. The Good Son was directed by Joseph Ruben (and written by English novelist Ian McEwan), who, a few years earlier, made a splash with another familial sociopath, The Stepfather (1987). He knows his way around fitting psychosis into a Hollywood simulacrum of idealized middle class life with traumatic results. Where The Good Son does tiptoes around its subject — it’s glossy, there’s no on-screen violence and it has a very low body count — it compensates with a strong sense of menace emanating from Henry and even from Mark, who, in one scene, holds a pair of scissors to Henry's jugular. And Henry earns it. Like a little Hannibal Lecter, he taunts, manipulates and throws his kid sister into an ice hole. Henry’s a major league creep, and when this finally dawns on someone with more authority than Mark, it resolves in an ending that, for me, hits exactly to the shocking, extreme, camp-adjacent emotional depths I prefer for this kind of material. Good all-around anti-family fun.

Octoblur 2020: 33. House at the End of the Street (2012)

House at the End of the Street (2012)

Movie #33
Dir.: Mark Tonderai
Flickcharted: #2445 (50.41%)

The movie at the end of the road for "House Week," is, fittingly, House at the End of the Street (2012). Although this fairly recent studio release receives very little critical love, for a slick mainstream PG-13 thriller, it packs in some surprisingly dark narrative turns.

Jennifer Lawrence — the same year that both The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook hit the screen — and Elisabeth Sue star as a daughter-mother combo who move in to a rental house hoping for a fresh start to their dysfunctional relationship, but those troubles are instead aggravated by the teenager's burgeoning relationship with a sensitive young man... whose family was murdered by his sister four years earlier.

Director Mark Tonderai presents everything as blandly as possible, but David Loucka’s script (Donnie Darko's Richard Kelly and Breakdown's Jonathan Mostow were also involved at different points in development) is unusually twisted for this level of tween-friendly thriller, and the casting makes everything pop more than it maybe should. Lawrence is in prime megastar ascendance, and Shue is always nice to see; Max Thieriot (who I only know from the TV series Bates Motel) has a compelling presence as exactly the kind of soulful, sad, “Fix Me” heartthrob no parent wants their daughter to date — and this movie backs up that lesson in spades. While there’s little original going on in House at the End of the Street, I would put it in company with I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) as acceptable above average glossy YA-adjacent horror for young teens whetting their appetite for stronger stuff.

Octoblur 2020: 32. House of Whipcord (1974)

House of Whipcord (1974)

Movie #32
Dir.: Pete Walker
Flickcharted: #2356 (52.21%)

Although he got his start on the swinging sex comedies of the late 1960s, Pete Walker became a significant — if still largely unheralded — contributor to England’s 1970s horror scene, with seven luridly titled horror features such as Die Screaming, Marianne (1971), The Flesh and Blood Show (1972), House of Mortal Sin (1975) and Schizo (1976). During this period, Walker was known for returning time and again to the idea of corporal punishment against young women, and House of Whipcord (1974) is no exception.

Penny Irving stars as a French model in London who, after being fined by the law for participating in an indecent photo shoot in public, is whisked away by a self-elected morals court and sentenced to a proper punishment for her crimes. Like The House that Screamed earlier this month, the captive women are ruled by lesbo-fascists, but Walker is more aggressive about depicting how the women in control sublimate the pleasure they derive from torture and humiliation underneath a stern Christian puritanism. Walker’s take on these common women-in-prison tropes is hard-edged, but he also injects a mordant humor — for example, the film opens with a dedication to its villains — and it’s all filmed very handsomely (by frequent Walker collaborator Peter Jessop) and with great confidence in its purpose. I don't love the "women in prison" genre, but this is a pretty strong example of its potential for scares, exploitation and social commentary.

I went into Horror House on Highway Five (1985) hoping for another enjoyably slipshod regional independently produced labor of twisted love, like last year’s discovery Nightbeast. Things got off to a good start with some amusing dialog, and if there’s one thing to be said about Richard Casey’s movie, it’s that it always seems to have humor on its mind. But there’s nothing else worth saying about it, because it’s overall pretty terrible, devoid of filmmaking talent in every respect, from story development -- I’m still not sure what it was about -- to the basics of editing and how to film a scene which contains action. It has something to do with students from a college rocket science class running into crazed acolytes of an engineer who murders people while wearing a Richard Nixon mask. The cultural iconography of Nixon is effective, especially when the mask is spattered with blood, but that $2 yard of rubber is doing all the work here. Almost none of the cast members can be bothered to even pretend to act, with the exception of
Noted rock critic and Blue Oyster Cult lyricist Richard Meltzer, who is so funny in his few minutes of screentime that his scene partner breaks character. Casey, incidentally, directed the music video for BOC’s “Burnin’ for You” a few years earlier (and also helmed one of my favorite early music videos, Aldo Nova’s “Fantasy,” which ambitiously featured an extended dystopian narrative including a helicopter and a guitar that shoots laser beams!), but Casey’s failure in the feature length form to create any notable death scenes or moments of suspense is bewildering. What made this guy want to make a horror film? Just his hate of Nixon? On this evidence, that’s not nearly enough.
Octoblur 2020: 31. Horror House on Highway Five (1985)

Horror House on Highway Five (1985)

Movie #31
Dir.: Richard Casey
Flickcharted: #4686 (4.93%)

I went into Horror House on Highway Five (1985) hoping for another enjoyably slipshod regional independently produced labor of twisted love, like last year’s discovery Nightbeast (1982). Things got off to a good start with some amusing dialog, and if there’s one thing to be said about Richard Casey’s movie, it’s that it always seems to have humor on its mind. But there’s nothing else worth saying about it, because it’s overall pretty terrible, devoid of filmmaking talent in every respect, from story development — I’m still not sure what it was about — to the basics of editing, and how to frame a scene in which action occurs. It has something to do with students from a college rocket science class running into crazed acolytes of a (Nazi?) scientist who now murders people while wearing a Richard Nixon mask. The cultural iconography of Nixon is effective, especially when the mask is spattered with blood, but that $2 yard of rubber is doing all the work here.

Almost none of the cast members can be bothered to even pretend to act, with the exception of noted rock critic and Blue Öyster Cult lyricist Richard Meltzer, who is so (relatively) funny in his few minutes of screen time that his scene partner breaks character. No time or budget for reshoots, apparently.  Casey, incidentally, directed the music video for BÖC’s “Burnin’ for You” a few years earlier (and also helmed one of my favorite early music videos, Aldo Nova’s “Fantasy,” which ambitiously featured both a helicopter and a guitar that shoots laser beams!), but Casey’s failure in the feature length form to create any notable death scenes or moments of suspense, or even make clear what any of the characters are doing or why, makes Horror House on Highway Five a total snooze. What made this guy want to make a horror film? Just his hate of Nixon? On this evidence, that’s not nearly enough.

I went into Horror House on Highway Five (1985) hoping for another enjoyably slipshod regional independently produced labor of twisted love, like last year’s discovery Nightbeast. Things got off to a good start with some amusing dialog, and if there’s one thing to be said about Richard Casey’s movie, it’s that it always seems to have humor on its mind. But there’s nothing else worth saying about it, because it’s overall pretty terrible, devoid of filmmaking talent in every respect, from story development -- I’m still not sure what it was about -- to the basics of editing and how to film a scene which contains action. It has something to do with students from a college rocket science class running into crazed acolytes of an engineer who murders people while wearing a Richard Nixon mask. The cultural iconography of Nixon is effective, especially when the mask is spattered with blood, but that $2 yard of rubber is doing all the work here. Almost none of the cast members can be bothered to even pretend to act, with the exception of
Noted rock critic and Blue Oyster Cult lyricist Richard Meltzer, who is so funny in his few minutes of screentime that his scene partner breaks character. Casey, incidentally, directed the music video for BOC’s “Burnin’ for You” a few years earlier (and also helmed one of my favorite early music videos, Aldo Nova’s “Fantasy,” which ambitiously featured an extended dystopian narrative including a helicopter and a guitar that shoots laser beams!), but Casey’s failure in the feature length form to create any notable death scenes or moments of suspense is bewildering. What made this guy want to make a horror film? Just his hate of Nixon? On this evidence, that’s not nearly enough.
Octoblur 2020: 30. House on Haunted Hill (1999)

House on Haunted Hill (1999)

Movie #30
Dir.: William Malone
Flickcharted: #4045 (17.92%)

As a kid who was raised on the horror movies of the 1980s and 1970s, the mainstream horror of the 1990s feels wrong: self-conscious and over-produced by film school graduates with ample technical know-how but none of the inspiration that comes from artists or entrepreneurs or even the do-it-yourself freaks who are driven to produce low-budget regional horror and grindhouse exploitation. There’s either no personality to a lot of 1990s horror, or it’s a personality I reject. While I can appreciate how William Malone’s House on Haunted Hill (1999) corrects the disappointing Scooby Doo ending of William Castle’s 1959 original, it does so with horrid digital era effects and is devoid of the older film’s campy and wholesome charm.

That brings me to another issue, not only with this version of House on Haunted Hill, but also with its genre cohorts of the era: the characters are uniformly unpleasant, and not in the guileless way of ignorant bullies and jock villains of the 1980s. These characters are knowing jerks, written by cynical screenwriters who are settling scores. In the 1970s we had horror movies from filmmakers who felt like they were breaking the system; in the 1980s we had horror movies from nerdy kids who grew up loving the monster movies of the 1950s; in the 1990s we had horror movies made by self-loathing empty suits who were paid well to make films they didn’t care about.

House on Haunted Hill is OK on its own merits, with a likable cast of familiar faces, some skill at building tension, and an overall gloss that makes it easy to swallow. It also seems to have a following among those who grew up in the Scream-era. I struggle to note anything worth remembering about it, because it all seems so very impersonal.

Octoblur 2020: 29. The Sweet House of Horrors (1989)

The Sweet House of Horrors (1989)

Movie #29
Dir.: Lucio Fulci
Flickcharted: #3840 (22.06%)

Is this Lucio Fulci’s idea of a kids’ movie? The notorious Italian gore and sleaze director kicks off this oddity with a gruesomely violent home invasion in which both brains and eyeballs ooze forth from their respective cavities. The rest of The Sweet House of Horrors (1989) concerns the resultant orphans from those opening murders, who must now cope with their indifferent new guardians and thwart attempts to sell the family house — and with a little unexpected supernatural assistance.

For the most part, The Sweet House of Horrors is a children’s drama about two budding sociopaths who laugh at the misfortunes of others and otherwise make inane chatter that could not have been written by a sentient human, but it's entirely free of Fulci's typical sleaze — no sex or nudity — save for that initial violence (although those murders are shown a few more times throughout, from additional angles, just as gory as the first). In all other respects, however, it is typical Fulci: horrible plotting, ludicrous dialog, ridiculous dubbing, not a shred of sane rational character motivation… and quite a few instances where that bewilderment equals fun.

You might have noticed that I complain about Fulci incessantly, and yet can't resist watching his movies, especially during the month of October. He's an inescapable genre figure and, despite all the areas in which he is distinctly untalented, he has a special something, a love for the unthinkable matched with no sense of self-editing, that makes him a master of horror if not a master of storytelling.

Octoblur 2020: 28. House of Usher (1960)

House of Usher (1960)

Movie #28
Dir.: Roger Corman
Flickcharted: #1881 (61.81%)

Unlike in past years, I haven't been watching much pre-1970s horror during the Octoblur 2020 movie marathon, so it’s a nice change of pace in a week that has included roughies like The House on the Edge of the Park and The Last House on Dead End Street to dip into some less transgressive gothic vibes.

During the first half of the 1960s, producer/director Roger Corman made no less than eight movie adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories, through his company American International Pictures, all but one starring Vincent Price. The first of Corman's Poe films, the hit that launched the series, was House of Usher (1960), Richard Matheson-penned adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher, the story of the remnants of a cursed aristocratic family, holed up in a decrepit manor, awaiting their inevitable doom. Price is terrific as the melancholy Roderick, always lurking just around the corner to interfere with the attempts of Philip (Mark Damon) to steal away with his betrothed Madeline (Myrna Fahey), who Roderick is convinced will spread the family curse if she were to ever leave the house (which raises questions about how she and Philip ever met and fell in love, but whatever).

It’s a solid production, with neat art direction, including a disturbing series of family portraits, a foreboding score by Les Baxter, and an admirable commitment to honoring the dark nature of its source material. Corman effectively captures both the resignation and the mania of self destruction, not only appearing to take some cues from the feverish finale of Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburge’s classic Black Narcissus (1947), but also foreshadowing the empty pampered listlessness of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). But most of all, House of Usher is a reminder that studio-era gothic horror needn't be stuffy; even PG-ish content by today's standards can be lurid, crazed and bloody.

I haven't been watching much pre-1970s horror during this year’s Octoblur movie marathon, so it’s a nice change of pace in a week that has encompassed The house on the edge of the Park and The Last house on dead end street to dip into some less transgressive gothic vibes. During the first half of the 1960s, Producer Roger Corman made no less than eight movie adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories, through his company American International Pictures, all but one starring Vincent Price.

The first of Corman's Poe films, the hit that launched the series, was this Richard Matheson adaptation of The Fall of the House Usher, the story of the remnants of a cursed aristocratic family, holed up in a decrepit manor, awaiting their inevitable doom. Price is terrific as the melancholy Roderick, always lurking just around the corner to interfere with the attempts of Philip (Mark Damon) to steal away with his betrothed Madeline (Myrna Fahey), who Roderick is convinced will spread the family curse if she were to ever leave (which raises questions about how she and Philip ever met and fell in love, but whatever).

It’s a solid production, with neat art direction, including a disturbing series of family portraits, a foreboding score by Les Baxter, and an admirable commitment to honoring the dark nature of its source material. Corman effectively captures both the resignation and the mania of self destruction, not only appearing to take some cues from the feverish finale of Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburge’s classic Black Narcissus (1947), but also foreshadowing the empty pampered listlessness of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011).
Octoblur 2020: 27. The Last House On Dead End Street (1977)

The Last House On Dead End Street (1977)

Movie #27
Dir.: Roger Watkins
Flickcharted: #1537 (68.79%)

Warning: Contains graphic slaughterhouse footage of harm against animals.

One of the trickier types of movies to review are the ones that aren't particularly ”good” in any common sense of the word, and are maybe even reprehensible in some aspects, but they are nevertheless effective at their primary goal. As Wes Mantooth concludes during the final moments of Anchorman: “From deep down in my stomach, with every inch of me, I pure, straight hate you. But goddammit, do I respect you!”

The Last House On Dead End Street (1977) is a gross, almost perniciously repugnant, low budget shit pie of gutter trash art that is also maybe among the 3-5 most terrifying movies I've ever watched. In its exceeding horribleness, it is nearly perfect, and that perfection is in the shape of a new hole in my soul.

Using a jumble of different pseudonyms, Roger Watkins writes, directs and stars in this super low budget nightmare of soft porn and pseudo snuff about an ex-con (Watkins, looking like a bloated Bill Hader) struggling to find his place in the free world of the early 1970s. After his attempts at porn direction are waved off as trite, he discovers a subject that will not only grip the attention of the jaded producers who previously dismissed him, but will finally allow him to express his true self: committing murder and filming it.

The first half of The Last House On Dead End Street is a grab-bag of amateur filmmaking flaws — the slipshod looped dialog is, at best, distracting — with a few notable shock sequences (a party scene stands out as, uh, memorable) and clips from seemingly unrelated porn shoots. There are flashes of some filmmaking talent, but never a talent that includes being able to keep shots in focus with any consistency. But there’s a creeping tone of sincere egocentric mania that is somewhat gripping.

It’s during its last half-hour that The Last House On Dead End Street fully becomes itself, with an orgiastic spasm of lunacy, during which it seems every third shot or so is some kind of inspired peek inside undiluted craziness. The haunting blood-splattered masked faces that appear to float in darkness. The repeated defiant exclamations of “I’m directing this f@#$ing movie!” The hippies-gone-wrong-ish sense of reveling in disorder. The film crew pointing directly at the audience. The Blood Feast-like surgery without a hint of camp. You can see in Watkins’ $3,000 movie more than glimpses of influence on later films like The Strangers (which I strongly dislike) and the work of Rob Zombie (which is tolerable in small doses), but where those imitators are self-conscious and even sometimes precious attempts to recreate the frenzied menace of Roger Watkins, The Last House On Dead End Street is pure in an indescribably unsettling manner. It wouldn’t be surprising, for instance, to learn that this movie had been made by the Manson Family while in the grip of an LSD trip. It is madness itself.

It’s very possible, and even highly likely, that others might judge The Last House On Dead End Street as bereft of ideas and talent, and even nauseatingly worthless. Horror fans, however, sometimes find themselves chasing the elusive specter of complete discord, the disquieting revelation that the world has, indeed, gone irretrievably crazy, and that's left is misery and pain. This movie is the incarnation of those feelings. Immediately after it was finished and I was in the process of reassembling my shattered psyche, I thought I would never recommend it to anyone, even though it came as close as anything to evoking the same feelings of dread and terror as my beloved The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)... And then, within five minutes, I thought of three people to whom I’d like to recommend it; and the next day I recommended it to someone else. Don’t trust people like me who recommend this. It is awful. While its advertising mimicked The Last House on the Left’s mantra of, “It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie…,” a more accurate mantra might be “It’s barely a movie… It’s barely a movie…” Whatever it is, it has impact, and there’s nothing else that quite captures the same kind of rough, stained, rotten bottom-of-the-barrel sociopathy.

Octoblur 2020: 26. The House That Screamed (1969)

The House That Screamed (1969)

Movie #26
Dir.: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Flickcharted: #2273 (53.84%)

Although it’s barely horror — more like a Reform School Girls-style exploitation drama with a slight giallo-esque edge to it — Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s The House That Screamed (1969) is a curious film, surprisingly reticent with its most lurid content and given to bursts of cinematic poetry where you least expect them. After her father dies, Teenager Teresa (Cristina Galbó) is sent away to a boarding school which, in typical Eurosleaze fashion, is governed by a strict headmistress (Lilli Palmer), terrorized by aspiring authoritarian students, and the air is ripe with sexual frustration and overall creepy vibes. There’s also the problem that a handful of girls have recently disappeared without a trace. Although Serrador’s film is filled with the usual boarding school tropes — there is cruel bullying, punitive torture, lesbian overtones everywhere, illicit trysts in the barn, a peeping tom, an occasional murder — the director keeps it mostly PG. Even in the extended 104-minute cut, the violence is mostly off-screen or obscured and the nudity kept almost barely pretty much just out of sight; even the obligatory group shower scene is tame, with all the girls in full-length bathing gowns that are only sort of see-through in moments. Serrador, who would later direct the compelling island mystery Who Can Kill a Child?, has high-brow intentions for his low-brow material, treating it mostly like a handsome period piece with memorable flourishes of energetic creativity. It’s a neat approach, and it does elevate the content, which otherwise doesn’t quite have the depth-of-story or characters to stand on its own without that or a harder lean into its exploitation elements. The acting is generally quite good and restrained, especially Mary Maude, who is compelling as the cruel student leader, Irene. John Moulder Brown, who would star in Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1970 coming-of-age drama Deep End, is also magnetic as Palmer’s oddball son, even though his voice seems weirdly mismatched.

Octoblur 2020: 25. The House That Dripped Blood (1971)

The House That Dripped Blood (1971)

Movie #25
Dir.: Peter Duffell
Flickcharted: #2765 (43.84%)

While horror anthology movies have been with us almost non-stop since the 1960s, and have been surging recently, the British horror industry went on a particularly strong run of them in the early 1970s, with one or more high profile releases nearly every year during that decade, starting with the 1971 Amicus Productions release The House That Dripped Blood. Heavy-hitter Thepians Denholm Elliott, Peter Cushing, Joss Ackland, Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt headline four stories set in and around a presumably cursed vacation home where every renter meets a premature end to their holiday and their life. As with all anthologies, there are strong stories and weak stories; of the four in The House That Dripped Blood — all written by or based on stories by Robert Bloch, author of Psycho and a frequent Amicus collaborator — two are pretty good while the other two are disposable.

The first, which stars Elliott as a horror writer haunted by his fictional character, is a solid example of the genre and its macabre twist endings, even though it is somewhat marred (or, depending on taste, improved) by a campy makeup design and performance by Tom Adams as the is-he-real killer. The best story of the lot, the third, stars Lee as a strict father who hires a teacher (Nyree Dawn Porter) to tend to his shut-in daughter (Chloe Franks, of Who Slew Auntie Roo?). Franks is a compelling child actor, especially when asked to play up the duality of innocence and menace, and Lee brings his considerable presence to bear on the fun but slight narrative. The second story, starring Cushing and Ackland, is barely a concept, and doesn’t even primarily take place inside the house, making it a strange selection; and the fourth and final tale is soured by an overly comical performance by Jon Pertwee, although I always welcome a glimpse of Pitt baring both fangs and cleavage.

Maybe my long attention span is simply unforgiving to short form movies, but anthologies often feel too insubstantial for my appetite, and I’d rather have the one or two strongest stories expanded into features. Still, Amicus produces them beautifully, as seen here, and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD is fun enough for a lazy October afternoon.

Octoblur 2020: 24. Hell House LLC (2015)

Hell House LLC (2015)

Movie #24
Dir.: Stephen Cognetti
Flickcharted: #2529 (48.62%)

I’m not the biggest fan of “found footage” horror, but I’d like to think I have enough respect for good mockumentary technique and deceptively subtle improvisation that I can appreciate it when I see it. Hell House LLC (2015) — about a Halloween haunt attraction with a few uninvited guests, as told via amateur video footage of its opening night — acquits itself pretty well on all counts, even if its scares lack originality. It also leans a little too hard on indecipherable shaky cam in order to obscure its mysterious events — it would be nice to be able to glean some kind of information from a movie’s climax without squinting at a dim frame-by-frame replay — and has just a little too much the kind of one-note frantic sweary yelling that has become a substitute for good character-based improv acting since The Blair Witch Project’s grating cast established it as the norm for this format. There’s probably a wider range of human reactions and coping mechanisms and personality types than are found in Hell House LLC’s dominant “freak out immediately” paradigm of threat-response. There are also some other minor nitpicks in the narrative logic — like, why don’t they ever turn on the lights when something scary is happening in the hotel? And did they need to use real, inescapable chains for that actress in the haunt basement? — but the filmmaking craft is good enough that these complaints are more amusing diversions than serious problems. Fans of found footage horror could do a lot worse.

MOTEL HELL
Octoblur 2020: 23. The House Where Evil Dwells (1982)

The House Where Evil Dwells (1982)

Movie #23
Dir.: Kevin Connor
Flickcharted: #3832 (22.13%)

The House Where Evil Dwells (1982) gets some credit, I suppose, for being different from the lion’s share of 1980s horror, with its Japanese setting and atypical depiction of a haunting and possession narrative, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it was pitched as “Amityville meets Shogun,” after the two monumentally successful productions from a few years earlier.

Edward Albert and Susan George star as a married couple temporarily transplanted to Japan, but what is meant as an opportunity for both better work prospects and a second honeymoon goes sour when a trio of ghosts from a century-old murder-suicide at their rental house nudges the couple into increasingly fraught situations. Directed by Kevin Connor, whose 1980 classic Motel Hell successfully combined horror and dark comedy, The House Where Evil Dwells seems meant to be taken wholly seriously — it goes to some pretty dark places, and there are no tonal hints anywhere near the start that humor is part of this package — but slips into inadvertent comedy again and again.

Central to the film’s problems is its depiction of the house’s evil spirits using old-school superimposition of the kind you might see in a light-hearted TV comedy from the 1960s. As the ghosts tiptoe around inside the house and occasionally slip into the husband or wife to wreak momentary havoc, the straightforward mundanity of their appearance and actions is hard to take seriously. It’s also perplexing to watch these spirits — who we first saw in their human state in the opening scene, in the rage-and-fear filled bloody massacre that made them ghosts — cooperating with each other so quietly and calmly to create similar tensions in the new residents of their house. There’s very little lingering sense of the strong emotions that must be fueling their everlasting existence.

A couple of other objects of ridicule in The House Where Evil Dwells are, unfortunately, Albert and George. Albert is a barely passable actor in the first place, and in this movie not only lacks the gravity required but simply looks ridiculous with a mullet and a Magnum PI mustache and a series of bad wardrobe picks (at one point apropos of nothing, he appears to be lounging around the house in a monk’s cowl). As for George, I always struggle with whether or not I find her unusually drippy presence interesting for how sharply it contrasts with attempts to portray her as a sex symbol. She has some decent moments in The House Where Evil Dwells, and she is intriguingly offbeat, but she also has some real howlers. Doug McClure co-stars as the typical 1980s man who is utterly incapable of the least resistance when a woman attempts to seduce him, even when his best friend, her husband, is in the same room, and that’s silly enough; but that’s before the absurd fist-fight turned possessed-karate match between him and Albert in the final reel. Amy Barrett (no relation to the supreme court nominee) gives a mostly lamentable child performance, despite featuring in the movie’s two most enjoyable scenes, one in which a ghost mugs at her from inside a bowl of soup, and another in which she is chased by incredibly slow large crabs. A lot of this sounds like it should be intentionally funny, but it’s not, which makes it pretty funny in all the wrong ways.

MOTEL HELL
Octoblur 2020: 22. The House on Sorority Row (1983)

The House on Sorority Row (1983)

Movie #22
Dir.: Mark Rosman
Flickcharted: #2158 (56.14%)

Of the many slashers that crowded the horror market in the early 1980s, The House on Sorority Row (1983) is generally well thought-of, both for its solid handling of the usual slasher tropes and some small flourishes that make a big difference.

One of the most immediately noticeable distinctions of Mark Rosman’s film is its score by Richard Band, which is, unusual for the genre, orchestral, like a classic Hollywood drama. This swelling music, accompanying an opening credits sequence fetishizing a romantic ideal of young womanhood, sets an unusual tone that carries throughout a series of scenes that are mostly unremarkable — graduating college seniors get picked off one-by-one at a sorority party after prank goes horribly wrong — except for how unimpeachably they are produced.

While it’s not bound to become one of my favorite slashers of the 1980s due to whatever idiosyncratic mental problem makes me consider these types of movies my “comfort food,” The House on Sorority Row is probably as good as any for an introduction to the genre to outsiders or skeptics. A subtle nod to the French suspense classic Diabolique earns it a little extra credit, as does a surreal hallucination sequence during the climax.

The cast of young women is pretty good, with the atypical Kathryn McNeil as the key protagonist. The only one to establish a high-profile career beyond soap operas is Harley Kozak, later of the movie Parenthood (1989) and the hit TV series thirtysomething; although Kozak has a relatively small role in The House on Sorority Row, she has so many of the same qualities as Jamie Lee Curtis, it would have been nice to see her star in a few slashers during this period of her career.

Octoblur 2020: 21. The House on the Edge of the Park (1981)

The House on the Edge of the Park (1980)

Movie #21
Dir.: Ruggero Deodato
Flickcharted: #3736 (24.05%)

The same year that Italian sleaze-meister Ruggero Deodato directed the infamous Cannibal Holocaust (1980) — considered so realistic it landed him in court under suspicion of having made a snuff film — he also filmed the far less exotic “video nasty” The House on the Edge of the Park (1980), which ended up shelved for three years, a casualty of the temporary revocation of his film license. Together, his two 1980 movies make Deodato look like one of history’s greatest supercreeps, obsessed with rape and other senseless brutalities. They also look like two versions of the same film, two expressions of the same maximally negative perspective on humanity.

David Hess, the folk singer who also played the raping psychopath in Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), is typecast here as Alex, who we first see running a woman off the road in order to rape and murder her, set to a typically lush pop song by composer Ritz Ortolani (who also provided the gorgeous musical counterpoint of Cannibal Holocaust’s title theme). The rest of The House on the Edge of the Park takes place at a swanky upscale party, to which blue collar Alex and his erratic companion Ricky (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), are inexplicably invited. Following some expected class conflict the two social spheres represented at the gathering — with Alex’s disco suit and Travolta hair, and the opening shots under the Brooklyn Bridge, this could be mistaken for a darkside look at the same class issues explored in Saturday Night Fever (1977) — the party turns violent. Alex and, more reluctantly, Ricky hold the guests hostage, and Alex gets up to some of his usual unpleasantness.

The House on the Edge of the Park is a cruel movie, but has little mysteries and contradictions that keep it interesting, up to a point. Deodato — along with cinematographer Sergio D'Offizi — knows how to make a good-looking film, and there’s a visual polish to The House on the Edge of the Park that runs counter to its grisly violence. At the same time, counter to its sophisticated technicals, the dialog is hopeless. Party guests at this chic shindig can be heard exclaiming, “Hot diggity!” and “Hey, dodo!” and one of them rebukes Alex with the old classic, “Rinse your brains out, King Kong!” This movie, which holds the distinction of having been edited more than any other horror film of its era by British censors, has dialog straight out of corny kids’ comedy. But Deodato seems to delight in subverting expectations, forcing on the party guests (a cast of perfect, unusually compelling faces) subdued-to-ice-cold reactions (with one notable exception) to the indignities they suffer at the hands of the brutes, including not one but two tenderly filmed and scored rape scenes that keep you guessing if Deodato is a completely tone deaf maniac or if he has something else up his flared silk sleeve.

There is, indeed, something else to The House on the Edge of the Park: a bizarre plot twist that at once makes sense of some of the strange behaviors exhibited after the party turns into a nightmare, but at the same time confounds regarding Deodato’s understanding of people. He’s essentially after the same theme he explored in the jungle with Cannibal Holocaust: Are the “civilized” people the real savages? In Deodato’s hands, such a cliched-yet-complicated moral question is bound to trade serious interrogation for sensationalized exploitation, lay waste to all of his characters in the process, and land somewhere between stupid and repugnant... but he also makes it very, very watchable, which is as impressive as it is soul crushingly gross. It’s a little bit nice to have finally seen The House on the Edge of the Park, and a little bit not.

Octoblur 2020: 20. Don't Look Up (1996)

Don't Look Up (1996)

Movie #20
A.k.a.: Joyû-rei
Dir.: Hideo Nakata
Flickcharted: #2707 (44.96%)

Two years before he would launch second wave Japanese horror into renewed international acclaim with the sensational Ringu, director Hideo Nakata took a practice run with this low-key and barely noticed ghost story about a young filmmaker whose directorial debut is cursed by a menacing presence. At first, the film’s dailies are plagued with interspersed clips from a decades-old unfinished film; later, an evil presence wreaks havoc on the set, echoing the tragedies that cut short the previous production.

You can see Nakata working out his careful, calm style in Don’t Look Up, and his distinctive concept of an apparition — a straight-haired girl in white with unnaturally deliberate movements and laughter — would quickly become an over-familiar subject of parody. It works here for the most part, punctuating Nakata’s slow build-up with some notably spooky moments.

The biggest problems in Don’t Look Up are the dull leading man (Yūrei Yanagi), who makes for a poor emotional anchor as his professional dream is ruined by supernatural events, and the 75-minute movie’s abrupt ending, with its revelatory musical sting that is accompanied by no actual narrative revelation. What was that all about? And why was there no return to the eye-catching doll-focused opening credits sequence? I don’t necessarily mind loose ends when they serve a sense of dread or uncertainty, but Don’t Look Up, ultimately, feels like a promising start with more than a few missed opportunities.

Octoblur 2020: 19. Don’t Hang Up (1974)

Don’t Hang Up (1974)

Movie #19
A.K.A. Don’t Open the Door!
Dir.: S.F. Brownrigg
Flickcharted: #2283 (53.57%)

Indie horror director S.F. Brownrigg liked “Don’t” titles so much that right after DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT (reviewed yesterday) he made a movie titled, first, DON’T HANG UP, and, upon wider re-release in 1979, DON’T OPEN THE DOOR!.

Susan Bracken stars as Mandy, a young woman who returns to her hometown 13 years after the murder of her mother. While attending to her sick grandmother, whose large old house is coveted by several shady characters, Mandy receives a series of increasingly creepy phone calls, possibly from her mother’s killer.

Unlike DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT, which labored through too much shallow plotting before getting to the good stuff, DON’T HANG UP has the opposite problem, with a strong start and effective character introductions that ultimately wind themselves into an unsatisfactory and confusing conclusion. On nearly all other technical points, Brownrigg shows considerable improvement, especially early on with the opening credits montage of spooky doll faces and a potent flashback to the night of the murder. The overall look of the film is very good for its budget, and Robert Farrar’s music throughout DON’T HANG UP is funky and evocative in all the right ways. That all of these steps forward culminate in a head-scratcher of a climax is dispiriting. Most disappointing is that, for most of DON’T HANG UP, Bracken provides a solid, appealing presence in a tradition of sassy, tough women who refuse to be intimidated by sleazy men, but conveniently crumbles without commensurate provocation. Brownrigg’s script spoils the suspense by making it too obvious early on which of the local creeps is the likely murderer, and for Mandy’s mental state to hinge so delicately on her inability to recognize the obvious is a huge problem for Brownrigg’s preferred outcome.

Nevertheless, there are individual elements in DON’T HANG UP that rival any other movie of the period for transgressive creeping, with one scene in particular, despite remaining largely PG in terms of what it actually shows, suggesting too much in the simplest yet most perverse manner.

If you can ignore that neither title instruction — DON’T HANG UP nor DON’T OPEN THE DOOR! — amounts to good or coherent advice for the movie’s heroine, Brownrigg does raise, perhaps inadvertently, some of the same issues as in Craig Zobel’s 2012 movie COMPLIANCE, regarding the human inclination to please sketchy weirdos from the other end of a phone. Better title advice for this movie would have been the opposite: DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE or HANG UP ASAP. Or, upon re-release, OPEN THE DOOR AND LEAVE THE HOUSE AND NEVER COME BACK.

Octoblur 2020: 18. Don't Look in the Basement (1973)

Don't Look in the Basement (1973)

Movie #18
Dir.: S.F. Brownrigg
Flickcharted: #3827 (22.15%)

S.F. Brownrigg was, for a few years, a prolific independent regional horror director working out of Arkansas, producing a handful of small, low-budget movies that have been influential on the genre despite remaining obscure to the public-at-large. Coincidentally, for example, a scene from Don't Look in the Basement plays on a TV screen in the 1986 mainstream hit House, which I happened to watch earlier the same day. Don't Look in the Basement also contains a couple of moments that are evocative of the next year’s grindhouse hit The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Brownrigg clearly isn’t untalented, and gets both strong performances from his actors and a decent mood from his limited resources. But I found Don't Look in the Basement fairly dull, despite — or maybe because of — Brownrigg’s seriousness of purpose.

With one of those plots that seems to get recycled through the horror meat grinder once every few years — something is wrong at a remote care home for the mentally ill — Don't Look in the Basement follows a nurse (Rosie Holotik) whose new job at the small Stephens Sanitarium coincides with some predictably unfortunate results from the facility’s lax security and unorthodox treatment methods, and things get more disastrous from there.

Maybe part of my cold reaction to Don't Look in the Basement is due to my natural disinclination toward mental asylum settings; it’s a subject that seems too naturally sad for sensationalist treatment, and the “illogical” behavior of the mentally ill is too easy to exploit for screenwriting convenience. Brownrigg either attempts to have it both ways, or fails at both, but the lack of commitment to either wild exploitation or straight drama makes neither satisfying. Brownrigg spends a lot of time establishing his characters and the narratives of their individual delusions, but he’s working with shallow stereotypes that are better served with less deep attention and more surface plot antics rather than slow-paced paranoid tension. At the end, when the crazy horror takes over, you wonder why this wasn’t his approach from the beginning, as he’s clearly better at shocks than the pale storytelling that constitutes most of the 89-minute running time.

Octoblur 2020: 17. House (1986)

House (1986)

Movie #17
Dir.: Steve Miner
Flickcharted: #2520 (48.73%)

We interrupt “‘Don’t’ Week” of Octoblur 2020 with a sneak preview at the upcoming “‘House’ Week.”

House (1986) was a big deal when it was released in 1986, a mainstream horror comedy from some of the key creatives behind the the Friday the 13th franchise and starring high profile TV actors William Katt (The Greatest American Hero), George Wendt (Cheers) and Richard Moll (Night Court). It was a considerable hit, more than quadrupling its small budget at the box office, taking Evil Dead-style scares and humor and safely refactoring them for the blander palate of a wider audience. Katt stars as a popular horror author embarking on two new projects that challenge his deepest fears: writing a personal memoir of his traumatic experience as a soldier in Vietnam, and confronting the haunted domicile where his young son disappeared without a trace. House is solid introductory horror for kids. Despite its R-rating for a few rare bursts of foul language, the monsters in House are no scarier than anything in Ghostbusters, with many of them resembling the creature effects of the Critters series and engaging in somewhat threatening slapstick comedy. It’s well-done, with an overall light, jokey atmosphere, and the type of uncomplicated ending that is very rare in 1980s horror. Its many echoes of The Evil Dead may work for some, while making others pine for the more aggressive darkness of Sam Raimi’s cult hit.

Octoblur 2020: 16. Don't Go Near the Park (1979)

Don't Go Near the Park (1979)

Movie #16
Dir.: Lawrence D. Foldes
Flickcharted: #2349 (52.21%)

One of my goals during the annual Octoblur horror movie marathon is to uncover some weird, delightful, idiosyncratic cult movies of which I was previously unaware. While Don't Go Near the Park (1979) isn’t quite as odd or exciting a discovery as last year’s unique Shanks (1974), it’s a singular experience with ambition beyond its means. It starts 12,000 years ago, when a pair of siblings, Tra (Barbara Bain) and Gar (Robert Gribbin, using the suitably odd pseudonym “Crackers Phinn”), are banished for eating children for their restorative properties, and are cursed to walk the earth for 12,000 years, at which point they may gain eternal life by sacrificing a genetic descendent. No one bothers to question this confusing ultimatum — for most of us, the difference between 12,000 years and “eternal life” is marginal; and when one’s survival over that span requires eating several additional children, it’s an odd punishment for the same crime... Nevertheless, 11,984 years later Tra and Gar are still stalking the same neighborhood, which is now Los Angeles’ famed Griffith Park, and Gar unceremoniously courts a bride (Linnea Quigley, in her first major role) and sires a daughter, who will surely face some trials when she turns 16.

Don't Go Near the Park displays all of the usual so-bad-it's-good movie markers, from its terrible makeup and gore effects; to its few bizarrely executed action scenes; to its special kind of awful dialog; to an overall aimlessness in the narrative, the characters, and the direction of the actors. But there’s no denying that writer/director Lawrence David Foldes is chasing some kind of unattainable chalice with this oddball epic mix of horror, fantasy and family drama that even incorporates some of the sensational true history of Griffith Park namesake Griffith J. Griffith. At times, Don't Go Near the Park almost feels like a spiritual prequel to the wonderful 2018 conspiratorial mind-blower Under the Silver Lake, and it’s also given an added unlikely timeliness through the synchronicity of its child-eating theme with today’s Q-Anon fixation on adrenochrome-hungry Los Angelenos. With a Brady Bunch-like musical score by Chris Ledesma — which is at once too professional-sounding for this threadbare production and completely tonally inapt — the whole thing plays like a 1970s Saturday Morning TV show with some gore and T&A.

Most viewers will see in Don't Go Near the Park just another awful low-budget independent horror movie, but its aspiration to be both more than that and different than most everything else, and the strange ways in which it goes about failing at those goals, will make it a hidden treasure for others.

Octoblur 2020: 15. Don't Look Now (1973)

Don't Look Now (1973)

Movie #15
Dir.: Nicolas Roeg
Flickcharted: #1373 (72.06%)

Although its horror elements are reserved for key moments, Nicolas Roeg’s Don't Look Now (1973) is a giallo movie for the arthouse crowd, with brief Argento-like shocks punctuating what is otherwise a languorous and beautiful exercise in slowly creeping dread. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie star as a married couple living in Venice and doing their best to move forward following the drowning death of their daughter. A chance encounter with a blind psychic (Hilary Mason) and her caretaker sister (Clelia Matania) begins with welcome news about their departed daughter but turns into a worrying portent of doom when they report that Sutherland’s life is in danger. Despite this, and a subplot involving a concurrent series of murders in Venice, most of Don't Look Now is spent watching Sutherland and Christie, together or alone, walking the confusing alleys or boating the waterways of Venice, clawing through the various fogs of sadness and anxiety that constitute the futility of life. Not that life is all doom and gloom — Don't Look Now also features a notably controversial sex scene, evidence of the solace that love can offer even in the face of constant and irreversible loss. While the murder plot feels not only unexplored but practically an afterthought for something that ends up so key to the narrative, the final reveal of Don't Look Now has an emotional richness that makes up for its shortcomings. Based on a story by Daphne du Maurier.

Octoblur 2020: 14. Don't Go To Sleep (1982)

Don't Go To Sleep (1982)

Movie #14
Dir.: Richard Lang
Flickcharted: #1973 (59.85%)

Every year I go into a couple of these horror-ish TV movies from the 1970s-80s with low expectations, and find something that goes much darker than how I remember the television programming of my childhood, and Don't Go To Sleep (1982) is a perfect example. Shortly after moving into a new house, a family reeling from the recent death of its oldest daughter faces new tragedies, this time revolving around the youngest daughter. Although an all-star cast fills out several of the roles — Ruth Gordon, Valerie Harper, Dennis Weaver and Poltergeist’s Oliver Robins — with expected style, it’s Robin Ignico as the nightmare-plagued, ghost-seeing, bed-on-fire Mary who runs away with Don't Go To Sleep, gradually transforming from an everyday annoying sister to a Bad Seed-like sociopath of epic (for a TV movie) proportions. From her sharp banter with a psychiatrist (Robert Webber) to her feverish finale, she’s unrecognizable from her early scenes, revealing a canny and mature talent — under sharp direction from Richard Lang — that makes this a real treat.

Octoblur 2020: 13. Don't Answer the Phone (1980)

Don't Answer the Phone (1980)

Movie #12
Dir.: Robert Hammer
Flickcharted: #4727 (3.79%)

Horror movies are often accused of misogyny and moral bankruptcy; usually, in my opinion, unfairly. Every now and then there are exceptions that make perfect targets, like Don't Answer the Phone (1980), a sick piece of trash about a killer photographer preying on models. I’d like to praise Nicholas Worth for his over-the-top performance as the focal creep, but his character is so essentially ugly that watching Worth give it 200% never approaches fun. It's just gross. There’s some comic business involving the police, but it’s weak and especially sour in proximity to the overall ghoulishness of the death scenes. More importantly, however, there’s no real danger posed by answering phones in this movie, making its title warning a non sequitur. There are phones nearby and even once in use during a murder, but they are incidental. A more apt warning might have been Don’t Answer the Phone When a PERV is hiding in your Apartment because you won’t hear him when he creeps up on you or Don't Answer the Phone Even though you’re a radio psychologist and answering the phone is part of your job; or, a better piece of title advice would have been, Don’t Fall for the "I’m a Photographer" Line, or Don’t Get Strangled, or, better, Don’t Watch This Movie.

Octoblur 2020: 12. Don't Be Afraid of Aunt Martha (1988)

Don't Be Afraid of Aunt Martha (1988)

Movie #12
A.K.A.: The Murder Secret; The Broken Mirror
Dir.: Mario Bianchi
Flickcharted: #3674 (25.20%)

A few days after complaining about Lucio Fulci’s deficiency as a screenwriter, we come to a Fulci-produced project that is so underwritten it borders on the avant-garde. Don't Be Afraid of Aunt Martha (1988) was written by director Mario Bianchi, and by written I mean that he came up with the most spare of concepts — a family travels to the country to visit the father's Aunt Martha, whom he hasn’t seen since she was institutionalized 30 years prior — and lets it dangle uneventfully for 40 minutes, followed by an avalanche of crazy gore and inexplicable plot twists. As weirdly boring as Don't Be Afraid of Aunt Martha is for half of its running time, it’s peacefully free of Fulci’s errant attempts to make sense. Instead, we watch a family do nothing for two days while waiting for Martha to arrive, like a Samuel Beckett play without the poetry or purpose. There are pranks, false alarms, breakfasts, a brother watching his sister shower, and long slow walks. And then the heads start to roll. Bianchi (who is primarily a hardcore porn director) may not have Fulci’s knack for atmosphere, but he’s not afraid of gratuitous nudity or ridiculous gory shocks or pure nonsense, and there’s enough of each during the final third to make Don't Be Afraid of Aunt Martha a cut-rate diversion where being a waste of time is part of its dubious charm. It's more fun than it deserves to be.

Octoblur 2020: 11. Don't Click (2012)

Don't Click (2012)

Movie #11
Dir.: Tae-kyeong Kim
Flickcharted: #4222 (14.03%)

The Octoblur 2020 Horror Movie Marathon has only been going for a week and I’m already having trouble remembering movies which I watched the previous night. Or maybe that’s simply reflective of the qualities of Don’t Click (2012), a South Korean social media paranoia horror that becomes a blur of Ringu-esque tropes. Probably the most memorable thing about Don’t Click is how awkwardly it forces a light teen movie tone onto its subject matter of illegal taboo videos, cyberbullying and possession horror. A haunted USB stick — not quite, but close enough for brevity — gets revenge for the ruin resulting from reckless doxxing mob by possessing an internet-obsessed teen girl, causing her to:

  • publish a “naked” video of a herself dancing in her underwear,
  • experience the fear of rice and hair falling out of her blouse (really),
  • and eat a lot of half-cooked eggs.

For some reason, the girl, her sister, and her sister’s boyfriend end up in an abandoned doll factory where a ghost causes them to scream a lot near piles of dismembered doll parts. This all ties into the meta-fear that everyone everywhere is under constant video surveillance and the threat of being made into a viral video and/or a target for harassment, giving the movie some social issues cred while also making a mockery of its seriousness with its insanely sanitized PG-13 universe.

Oh, there’s also a scene in which the two sisters try to remember “mom’s boob.” The subtitles weren’t great. It's streaming on Amazon Prime, but it’s less fun than I just made it sound.

Octoblur 2020: 10. Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)

Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)

Movie #10
Dir.: Lucio Fulci
Flickcharted: #3087 (37.13%)

Cue my annual rant about the quality of screenwriting in the Italian giallo genre. Director Lucio Fulci is capable of conjuring up some of the most lurid and weird sex and gore imagery of any of his peers, but more so than the others is godawful at writing story and dialog. He tends to space out his memorable shock moments with painfully inert stretches of exposition, and Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) is no exception. A series of child murders plagues a village, bringing out prejudices and superstitions that draw a stark contrast between stubborn provincialism and the advance of modernity. Between the fantastic opening shot of a raggedy woman unearthing the tiny skeleton of a toddler and the final hill-top fight scene with its ridiculous conclusion, Don't Torture a Duckling is mostly one achingly dull sleuthing scene after another. Not enough time is spent with the feral pre-teens — who, when not being murdered, smoke, spy on prostitutes and bully simpletons -- and too much time with cardboard humorless journalists and police. Eurohottie Barbara Bouchet adds some eye candy to these latter scenes, but Fulci’s attempts at mystery and social commentary are lifeless. The one other significant scene in the film, as a beaten woman dies beside a road busy with holiday traffic — set to a nice counter-tonal Ritz Ortolani song — captures Fulci’s contradictions, making its banal point with absurdly operatic emotions but is stretched out well beyond the point of optimal effectiveness, and is followed by a character explaining in simplistic terms its meaning, in case anyone missed the heavily flogged metaphor.

Octoblur 2020: 09. Don't Go in the Woods (1981)

Don't Go in the Woods (1981)

Movie #09
Dir.: James Bryan
Flickcharted: #4596 (6.38%)

I could tell within the first five minutes that Don't Go in the Woods (1981) was going to be one of the worst movies that I have ever seen. Characters are introduced mere seconds before their incoherently edited deaths, and the listless acting (it feels like a violation to use that word here) from the most uncharismatic cast ever put on film makes its 82 minutes feel like four hours. There isn’t a single moment in James Bryan’s movie that evinces a spark of talent on his part or that of anyone else involved, and, thankfully, very few of them, except for Bryan with his staggering 21 directorial efforts, have more than handful other credits to their names (although the two main actresses have gone on to successful careers as a casting director and TV producer). H. Kingsley Thurber’s score is a series of ear aches for men and animals alike. The one sort-of-not-awful aspect of Don't Go in the Woods is the unusual conception of the killer, which is at least atypical, even if it is probably ripped off in part from Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. A total waste of time. I can only assume that its cult following is based solely on brief clips, as anyone who sat through the entire thing and doesn’t hate it or hate themselves is either a monster or a mannequin.

Octoblur 2020: 08. Don't Go in the House (1980)

Don't Go in the House (1980)

Movie #08
Dir.: Joseph Ellison
Flickcharted: #2049 (58.25%)

I’m not sure how I missed Don't Go in the House (1980) when I was a teenager in the 1980s, renting those lurid oversized-box VHS tapes from the horror section, but only in the past few years have I learned of its reputation as classic of grimy exploitation sleaze. A few years ago I bought a copy of Stephen Thrower’s massive (7 lbs!) NIGHTMARE USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents, which features Don't Go in the House’s deranged flame-throwing ghoul front-and-center on its cover, and I skipped those chapters, waiting until I could summon the nerve to watch this infamous “video nasty.”

This might make me sound like a real creep, but I never expected Don't Go in the House to be, well, fun. Yes, there is one particularly gruesome scene at about the half-hour mark, but that’s it; the rest is a dark and campy tour through a few choice horror tropes with a little of the blue collar disco touch that was all the rage at the time. Dan Grimaldi, who 20 years later would have a recurring role on The Sopranos as Patsy Parisi, gives a fairly compelling and fully committed performance as a young man still suffering, literally, from the scars of his abusive childhood, and when his domineering mother dies, he takes it as an opportunity to indulge in previously forbidden hijinks, like turning up the volume of his stereo, jumping on the furniture, and burning young women to cleanse them of their evil ways.

As told from the perspective of a burgeoning killer, Don't Go in the House is very much in the same vein as its cult classic contemporary Maniac! (1980), but has the added bonus of cinematography by Oliver Wood, who emerged in 1970 with the stark underground hit The Honeymoon Killers (1970), and would later shoot the distinctive teen drug drama Alphabet City (1984) before hitting the mainstream with titles like Rudy (1993) and The Bourne Identity (2002) among many more major studio projects. All that is to say that Don't Go in the House, while looking like the typical brooding horror shot on a low budget, also looks pretty great, sometimes even grimly beautiful — including a surreal fiery dream interlude that is frankly kind of poetic — making the most of its cheap film stock. Interestingly, Joseph Ellison would only direct one other movie, the 1986 teen drama Joey.

At 82 minutes, there may be times when Don't Go in the House feels a bit stagnant, but it always rebounds with something weird or compelling, like Grimaldi’s bizarre conversation with his priest, or the strangely powerful cheapo special effects, or that time that Grimaldi sets a woman’s head on fire at a nightclub. These bold moments more than compensate for the movie’s many weaknesses, and belong among the iconic scenes of the peak horror generation.

Octoblur 2020: 07. Emelie (2015)

Emelie (2015)

Movie #07
Dir.: Michael Thelin
Flickcharted: #2359 (51.93%)

One of the “pleasures” of watching horror movies is flirting with the transgressive, those moments when you can’t believe someone actually had the nerve to write and film a scene that is really wild or taboo or flat-out insane. Michael Thelin’s Emelie goes to those kinds of dark places a few times, and manages to pull back just after you question whether you should even be watching it but before your better sense turns into action. As “bad babysitter” movies go, Emelie deserves a lot of credit. Sarah Bolger plays the title role — a young woman impersonating a teen babysitter — with unflinching commitment, leading to several unsettling and memorably subversive moments (this isn’t a movie for anyone who is especially sensitive to child actors being put into potentially uncomfortable situations). I’m not sure that Thelin — whose career seems to mostly consist of directing live events and music videos — nails the non-creepy material all that well, however. Unfortunately, the kid actors aren’t great, and key points in this ostensibly “realist” narrative suffer from confusing logistics and conveniently ignored opportunities. And then there’s that whole issue of: If you’re going to put kid actors into pervy situations for shock value, you better have some larger thematic purpose that at least kind of excuses it. Too many indie movies of the last decade hand-wave that away with pragmatic nihilism, and I’m not sure that’s good enough. Although I’m often annoyed by twee, droning and/or moody covers of old pop songs, I nevertheless enjoyed the version of Blondie’s “One way or Another” (by Until the Ribbon Breaks) that plays over the end credits.

Octoblur 2020: 06. The Rental (2020)

The Rental (2020)

Movie #06
Dir.: Dave Franco
Flickcharted: #2770 (43.54%)

It’s a bit strange to watch this year’s new millennial paranoia feature The Rental just a couple of days after Keep Watching (2017), as the narrative similarities are obvious despite the directorial approaches making a substantial difference. Two couples (Dan Stevens and Alison Brie; Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White) rent a beach house for a weekend, and struggle with mundane relationship issues until they discover micro cameras in the showers, kicking off a cascading series of unpleasant events. With cinematography by Christian Sprenger (of Brigsby Bear and the TV series Atlanta), and directed by actor Dave Franco, The Rental looks and feels like “elevated” A24-calibre horror, and at times its rejection of some genre tropes is refreshing… But aside from the more subtle tone, a few dots of wry humor, the always-welcome presence of character actor Toby Huss, and the less-contrived plot, it suffers from the same emptiness that made Keep Watching essentially unpleasant. It’s no surprise at all when one of the first credits to roll up at the end is for co-writer Joe Swanberg, whose mumblecore canon is overloaded with “two couples rent a beach house…” adjacent material. This one adds little to either its domestic indie drama or horror halves, except as a reminder that we’re in an age of extreme artistic proficiency without a commensurate skill at storytelling.

Octoblur 2020: 05. Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong! (2008)

Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong! (2008)

Movie #05
Dir.: Tom Wyrsch
Flickcharted: #2447 (50.11%)

This fan-service documentary chronicles the Bay Area’s popular late-night TV series “Creature Features,” which from 1971-1984 aired syndicated low-budget horror and science fiction movies with comedic introductions and commercial breaks featuring local hosts. While the craft of this doc is pedestrian — a montage of clips and talking head interviews, including the two hosts, Bob Wilkins and John Stanley (the latter of whom also wrote the popular Creature Features movie guide books) — it’s made with a great love for its subject, which should please anyone with a nostalgic attachment to this early niche in nerd pop culture. For everyone else, it’s a neat but probably overlong peek into the distant era when professional TV programming looked like amateur cable access productions. Archival clips include snippets of interviews with Boris Karloff, Forrest Ackerman, George Takai, and a Jawa.

Octoblur 2020: 04. The House of the Devil (2009)

The House of the Devil (2009)

Movie #04
Dir.: Ti West
Flickcharted: #334 (93.19%)

When I last watched The House of the Devil (2009) for the first and only time a decade ago, I thought that it was perfect for nearly 75 minutes prior to its frenetic ending, which almost undermined the good hard work that director Ti West put into the set-up. I had a more exaggerated version of that same reaction to West’s subsequent movie, The Innkeepers (2011), which entirely skipped having an ending; and the less said about West’s later movies, The Sacrament (2013) and In a Valley of Violence (2016) , the better. So I’ve been wondering how I would feel about The House of the Devil on re-watch, now that West is no longer a promising up-and-comer.

Even more so than when I first watched it, The House of the Devil is close to a horror masterpiece. Despite some of the rougher edges of low budget indie filmmaking — like the poorly written introductory titles, and some clumsily inserted exposition — it’s hard to think of a better example of a filmmaker carefully and confidently using minimalism to build atmosphere. Up until the roller-coaster climax, The House of the Devil is refreshingly austere, an antidote to the preceding decade of over-the-top torture porn and the next 10 years of Blumhouse’s anxious aesthetic neediness.

For well over an hour, every moment of The House of the Devil is pitch-perfect, full of fun small touches, with Eliot Rockett’s cinematography evoking the naturalism of the early 1980s, and newcomer Jocelin Donahue commanding the center of attention as a wholly unassuming everygirl. It’s really remarkable how Donahue pulls off carrying this movie with a role that calls for her to appear to do so little, and even opposite veteran scene-chewers like Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, plus dynamic just-about-to-emerge indie darling Greta Gerwig. Donahue gives a less showy version of the same kind of virtuoso performance that Mary Elizabeth Winstead delivered years later in 10 Cloverfield Lane: focused on small behaviors and quiet reactions, mostly using the eyes. It's a role that should have established her as a major actress.

Now about that climax; I liked it better on this viewing — after all, I knew it was coming this time — but I still find it disruptive in a couple of different ways. First, while it’s stylistically justifiable both organically and as homage, the shift in look is simply ugly; I just don’t like looking at the shots during the final act. Second, while I appreciate the dramatic change-up in pacing theoretically, I think it shortchanges all of the emotional investment earned through Donahue’s terrific performance. My only great reservation about The House of the Devil is that it overwhelms a potentially richer payoff for the aesthetic equivalent of shock value. But that that rich investment is happening at all is a great testament to what West and Donahue were able to accomplish with so little, and THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009) has few peers among horror movies of the 2000s.

When I last watched The House of the Devil (2009) for the first and only time a decade ago, I thought that it was perfect for nearly 75 minutes prior to its frenetic ending, which almost undermined the good hard work that director Ti West put into the set-up. I had a more exaggerated version of that same reaction to West’s subsequent movie, The Innkeepers (2011), which entirely skipped having an ending; and the less said about West’s later movies, The Sacrament (2013) and In a Valley of Violence (2016) , the better. So I’ve been wondering how I would feel about The House of the Devil on re-watch, now that West is no longer a promising up-and-comer.

Even more so than when I first watched it, The House of the Devil is close to a horror masterpiece. Despite some of the rougher edges of low budget indie filmmaking -- like the poorly written introductory titles, and some clumsily inserted exposition -- it’s hard to think of a better example of a filmmaker carefully and confidently using minimalism to build atmosphere. Up until the roller-coaster climax, The House of the Devil is refreshingly austere, an antidote to the preceding decade of over-the-top torture porn and the next 10 years of Blumhouse’s anxious aesthetic neediness.

For well over an hour, every moment of The House of the Devil is pitch perfect, full of fun small touches, with Eliot Rockett’s cinematography evoking the naturalism of the early 1980s, and newcomer Jocelyn Donahue commanding the center of attention as a wholly unassuming everygirl. It’s really remarkable how Donahue pulls off carrying this movie with a role that calls for her to appear to do so little, and even opposite veteran scene chewers like Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, plus the dynamic just-about-to-emerge indie darling Greta Gerwig. Donahue gives a less showy version of the same kind of virtuoso performance that Mary Elizabeth Winstead delivered years later in 10 Cloverfield Lane: focused on small behaviors and quiet reactions, mostly using the eyes.

Now about that climax; I like it better on this viewing -- after all, I knew it was coming this time -- but I still find it disruptive in a couple of different ways. First, while it’s stylistically justifiable both organically and as homage, the shift in look is simply ugly; I just don’t like looking at the shots during the final act. Second, while I appreciate the dramatic change-up in pacing theoretically, I think it shortchanges all of the emotional investment earned through Donahue’s terrific performance. My only great reservation about The House of the Devil is that it overwhelms a potentially richer payoff for the aesthetic equivalent of shock value. But that that rich investment is happening at all is a great testament to what West and Donahue were able to accomplish with so little.
Octoblur 2020: 03. Keep Watching (2017)

Keep Watching (2017)

Movie #03
Dir.: Sean Carter
Flickcharted: #4050 (17.41%)

I suppose that Keep Watching (2017) is OK for what it is — an absurd found footage-y hi-tech home invasion scenario, starring former Disney ingenue Bella Thorne,  which makes even less sense after its final reveal, sort of like The Strangers meets Enemy of the State — but I didn’t like it much. While I consider myself a horror fan, there are broadly two types of this kind of killer-centered horror. I like the type that acts as a hyper-powered empathy machine, where I’m expected to feel for the characters and dread their deaths and fear the monsters/killers; the type of horror that values people. Keep Watching is the other type of horror, the misanthropic kind, that revels in fear and senseless violence because it revels in nothing else. I find this second type of horror, ugly horror, to apply to most home invasion movies, which is why that is my least favorite horror subgenre.

Sean Carter’s movie is tense and slick, even if the concept is logistically inexplicable, and there’s a little Easter egg for horror fans with Leigh Whannell (co-writer of Saw (2004); director of 2020's very good The Invisible Man remake) popping in with a guest appearance... but I really found the experience of watching Keep Watching mostly unpleasant and mean. Plus, it turns out that the title, as ultimately used in the movie, is neither advice nor a warning, which makes it double disappointing as a choice related to this month’s themes.

Octoblur 2020: 02. Let the Right One In (2008)

Let the Right One In (2008)

Movie #02
Dir.: Tomas Alfredson
Flickcharted: #1549 (68.41%)

With a piece of key advice in its title, Octoblur2020 seemed like the year to revisit the acclaimed Swedish horror movie Let the Right One In, which I haven’t watched since it first appeared on home video over 10 years ago. In some ways it still stands as a bracing refresh of the vampire genre, with a series of grisly new takes on bloodsucker lore set against an austere wintery backdrop and within a narrative about misfit kids, the pros and cons of bullying, and dealing with the tricky uncertainties that stand in the way of adolescent self-acceptance.

As the movie that introduced cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema to international movie audiences, Let the Right One In looks terrific, and its two young principal actors are compelling. On this viewing, however, I wasn’t sold on the ideas in Let the Right One In’s script; or, at least, I wasn’t sold on director Tomas Alfredson’s muddled treatment of them. He throws quite a bit of tasty red meat onto a blank canvas — there’s a lot of sexuality questioning and trust issues and some emerging psychopathic tendencies brewing on, under and all over the surface — but he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it: is it generic fodder for a too-precious coming-of-age afterschool drama, or is it the dark seeds of a serial killing couple origin story, or is it a love letter to child grooming? I like to think I prize moral cognitive dissonance in challenging movies, but I like it most when it’s pointed, not sloppy. If Alfredson wants me to feel uncomfortable confronted by his movie's implications, I don't; his touch is too simplistic and even mushy.

There’s still quite a bit to like about Let the Right One In — again, the restrained actors; and the cat attack, and the fiery death — but its flaws suggest that Alfredson’s abject failure to follow it with another success — including his most-recent directorial disaster The Snowman — might not be a fluke, but the opposite.

Octoblur 2020: 01. Neverknock (2017)

Neverknock (2017)

Movie #01
Dir.: Sheldon Wilson
Flickcharted: #3514 (28.33%)

I picked Neverknock (2017) — which I had never heard of prior to prepping for this year's horror movie marathon — to kick-off Octoblur2020 for a few reasons:

  1. It sounded appropriate to watch with an 11-year-old. It was.
  2. It takes place on Halloween. Bonus: It takes place on several Halloweens.
  3. And I was hoping that it would hit all three of this month’s themes: Creepy (or Creeped On) Kids, Scorned Warnings (in the title), and Horrible Houses (in the title). Almost, but not quite.
    It does, in fact, feature kids being creeped on and even murdered; and it does, in fact, repeat the title warning over and over and, no, no one heeds that worthwhile advice; but “Nevernock” is disappointingly not a reference to the nickname of a house, but, rather, a nonsensical monster that either is or lives in the front door to a house..

I have to admit my heart sunk when Neverknock announced up front that it’s a SyFy Original, but on those low expectations, it’s a decent enough TV-14 horror. Sure, it fails at establishing coherent rules for its title creep — some characters think they are being killed by their deepest fears, while others are merely strangled nearby the source of their fears; it’s all very arbitrary. The movie does, however, find at least one chilling notion to exploit — the unsettling visage of a burned woman reoccurs — and doesn't chicken out from its grim choices the way that so many youth-aimed horror movies do. I also kind of liked the too-rubbery-looking monster costume in Neverknock, which, while never approximating "real," looks like it was fun to design. It's also nice to see Nicholas Campbell, from The Brood and The Dead Zone, pop up late in a key role, and the Halloween flavor in Neverknock is just enough to mask the YA-fiction-lite lack of originality and how this 86-minute movie feels a half-hour too long.