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PopGap Diary: Octoblur 2021

PopGap Diary: Octoblur 2021

Written by dorrk
27 September 2021

A No-Theme Halloween

For Octoblur 2020 we focused on three recurring themes — Creepy Kids, Scorned Warnings, and Horrible Houses — and most of the 59 horror movies that made onto our schedule touched on one or more of these motifs. For Octoblur 2021, ain't nobody got time for that.

Instead, we'll focus on a rag-tag collection of new discoveries, ghosts of wallflowers past, and disreputable deplorables. That's not to say there won't be any themes, but more likely many mini-themes.

We have a "short" list of 165 potentials for Octoblur 2021's Horror Movie Marathon and it doesn't take more than a squint to see multivariant patterns running through these titles, the kinds of commonalities that may be fairly exploited as one-night double-or-triple-feature themes, many of which we have explored in the past and will explore again in the future (if there is one).

Mini-themes like: Asian Horror, Axes, Lisas, Black Horror, Black Rainbows, Creepy Kids Redux, Cult Favorites, Occult Savour-its, Cycles of Life and Death and Life after Death, Devil Dolls, Folk Horror, Foreign Horror, Freddie Francis, French Zombies, Giallo-ween, Gore Classics, Bollywood Horror, Italian Horror, Lo-fi Horror, TV Movies of the 1970s & 80s, Medical Mischief, Mexican Horror, Monsters, Party Crashers, Scary Scarecrows, WTF Craziness, Screams, Serial Killer Identity Crises, Sex Vamps, and, scariest of all, Wild Women.

Throw in some new horror titles, some possible classic and obscure franchise binges, and whatever classic revisits my kids talk me into.

Who knows what darkness lurks in the hearts of Octoblur 2021? Stay tuned here to find out.

PopGap Diary: Octoblur 2021


Octoblur 2021 Shortlist Sample


Octoblur 2021: 46. Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985)

Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985)

Movie #46
Dir.: Philippe Mora
Flickcharted: #3295 (37.72%)

Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (or, the more direct alternative subtitle: Stirba - Werewolf Bitch) has something of a cult following for its crazier moments, most of which involve Sybil Danning in a hair-suit, fondling furries during one of several werewolf orgies. And that’s something to see, for sure. But Howling II’s absence of plot and lead actors are obstacles that so-bad-its-good energy can’t always overcome. Reb Brown and Annie McEnroe are the two least impressive lead actors ever to star in a movie, lacking chemistry not only together but also alone, and likely in their private lives. They are black holes. Christopher Lee does what he can as their guide into the world of fighting werewolves, but even he eventually checks out and leaves them to aimlessly wander Transylvania on their own, much to the picture's deficit. Director Phillipe Mora — who would write and direct the truly fun and bonkers Howling III: The Marsupials (1987) — doesn’t seem to have a handle on this one. He interjects here and there a few lovely interstitial moments of monster expressions, and he’s got quite a ken for revealing Danning’s ample breasts (one such shot gets repeated nearly 20 times during the end credits), but there’s just too little going on during the middle of Howling II for such tricks to gain purchase. Still, an early scene at a new wave/punk club is a nice bit of nostalgia, and the climax, with Danning conjuring glowy werewolf magic (including a bat who indulgently violates a man’s mouth), is memorable. So is the bizarre coda, which is set on Halloween, putting a nice button on this Octoblur movie marathon.

Octoblur 2021: 45. The Howling (1981)

The Howling (1981)

Movie #45
Dir.: Joe Dante
Flickcharted: #646 (87.79%)

It’s a shame that The Howling has suffered in comparison to John Landis’ 1981 werewolf masterpiece An American Werewolf in London, released the same year, because Joe Dante’s take on the subject is quite good and gorgeous to look at. Dee Wallace stars as a TV reporter traumatized by her brush with a serial killer. She’s invited to recover at a New-Agey retreat run by and for werewolves, who have taken a special interest in her predicament. Wallace is a knockout in The Howling, and Dante surrounds her with a fun, brassy cast that seems to be enjoying the dark comic atmosphere. While the narrative feels a little light at points, the ending is a knockout, double-loaded with sincere emotion and some of the movie’s best gags. The special effects by Rob Bottin are (mostly) quite good, and have their own distinctive personality.

Octoblur 2021: 44. Isle of the Dead (1945)

Isle of the Dead (1945)

Movie #44
Dir.: Mark Robson
Flickcharted: #3653 (30.96%)

Boris Karloff stars in this 1945 Val Lewton production which milks as much as it can out of the great actor’s imposing presence and the Lewton team’s usual mastery of atmosphere. The story, however, written by Lewton regular Ardel Wray, just doesn’t seem full enough or menacing enough to bother with. A small group of travelers is quarantined on a Greek isle, and as if the imminent threat of death weren't enough, paranoia and superstition kick in, and a servent (Ellen Drew) is suspected of being a malevolent spirit from local folklore. Karloff is always interesting to watch, but his character is a dope, and no one else picks up the slack. Drew is beautiful, but for someone suspected of draining the life out of her companions, she seems barely present as a character. Directed by Mark Robson. My least favorite of seven Lewton movies so far.

Octoblur 2021: 43. I Bury the Living (1958)

I Bury the Living (1958)

Movie #43
Dir.: Albert Band
Flickcharted: #3346 (36.75%)

I Bury the Living (1958) is essentially an extended Twilight Zone episode, about a privileged man (Richard Boone) who is assigned, as a civic duty, custodianship of the town cemetery and comes to believe that he has the power to prematurely fill graves with the otherwise healthy owners of assigned burial plots. While brief at 76 minutes, and occasionally witty, Louis A. Garfinkle’s mostly dry script feels stretched. Director Albert Band (whose son Charles would propagate far less sophisticated horror and in far greater quantity with his Full Moon Production) indulges in moments of effective expressionism, but even those can’t sustain the thin premise or its disappointing ending.

Octoblur 2021: 42. Halloween (1978)

Halloween (1978)

Movie #42
Dir.: John Carpenter
Flickcharted: #120 (97.73%)

I introduced the youngest of my children to this movie this month. Here's a re-print of my review from 2018:

John Carpenter's 40-year-old horror hit is attracting fresh eyes with David Gordon Green's new sequel in theaters, raising all of the old arguments: Does Halloween deserve credit for launching the slasher wave of the 1980s? Does this subgenre deserve to be evaluated on its own terms or is it reprehensibly prurient and beneath consideration? Does Carpenter's relatively revered first installment in this long-running franchise live up to its reputation as a work of respectable film craft despite its content?

My answer to all three questions is an unqualified "Yes," and the third is the one in which I was most interested during this first re-watch of the original Halloween in over 15 years. I may well be affected by nostalgia — I was six years old when Carpenter's breakthrough movie was released, and by the time I was 12 I was on a steady diet of its imitators — but Halloween sets the aesthetic standard by which I judge most horror movies: quiet setup, establishing place and character through long takes of wide shots; naturalistic performances portraying a lack of drama, waiting for the extraordinary to crash through the mundane; minimal music, with environmental sound design establishing the verisimilitude of everyday life. Needless to say, Halloween 'has that Halloween feeling in spades,' as Jack Lipnick might say, so it's essentially perfect in that regard.

New audiences might criticize Halloween for doing too little. There is a long gap between its now-tropey opening scene and the start of Michael Myers' killing spree on Halloween night 15 years later, and, compared to the slasher movies that followed it, Halloween has a low body count with barely any gore. For me, a slasher movie is most valuable for how it handles the spaces between the murders, as those are what make the killing matter. Gore can add either macabre fun and/or visceral shock to a horror movie, but it will rarely equal the chilling effect of a death filmed at a silent distance, and the best scene in Halloween features Michael Myers, in a medium-long shot, quietly contemplating his own handiwork in almost the exact same way the audience might be watching him. This scene is key to the success of Carpenter's movie: it's not the effort of a sensationalist, but of a filmmaker taking his subject seriously.

While there are certainly absurd nits to be picked in Halloween — I've never cared for the slasher trope of dead bodies springing unnaturally from unlikely places perfectly timed to freak-out the final girl, and this might have been the movie which started that dumb business; and how did Loomis (the perfect Donald Pleasance) not see that car while standing in the same place for hours? — they aren't evidence of a director with nothing on his mind, but something bigger.

Halloween is about fear on primal and expansive levels. Even though Loomis describes Michael as pure evil, "The Shape" operates in Halloween's narrative as even more of an abstraction than that: he is the relentless encroachment of mortality, a neutral delivery system for death lurking constantly on the periphery until it's time to strike. However, Carpenter doesn't leave his exploration of fear at that alone; Halloween studies an array of fears covering a spectrum of severities. Carpenter, along with co-writer Debra Hill, depicts superficial fears like those provoked by watching scary movies, playing pranks, or buying into superstitions; then there are normal fears like embarrassment and failure and loneliness; paranoid fears like being watched or confronted by a stranger, or being caught doing something you shouldn't, or being vulnerable and trapped in an unfamiliar space without anyone around to help; or the eerie fear of streets that are too dark and too quiet; then there is the fear of waiting for something horrible to happen without knowing when or where, and the fear that your reassurances, when others are fearful, are hollow; and the fear that your cries for help will be ignored. Nearly every line of dialog evinces some sense of trepidation about something. There's a lot going on in Halloween during its slow burn between instances of the ultimate fear: random and senseless but inevitable death.

The best horror movies — and these include the best of the slashers — marry skill behind the camera with something to say about fear. The holiday Halloween is about pretending that fear is fun, part of a game that gets rewarded with sweet treats. John Carpenter's Halloween uses the surface of that holiday to reveal the trick that fear, regardless of the devices we use to cope with it, lessen it, ignore it, or dismiss it, is everywhere all of the time, and it will get all of us, someday.

Octoblur 2021: 41. The Seventh Curse (1986)

The Seventh Curse (1986)

Movie #41
Dir.: Lam Ngai Kai
Flickcharted: #2534 (52.09%)

I can’t believe I nearly made it through an Octoblur without a slice of Hong Kong “black magic” wackiness. The Seventh Curse is more an action/adventure movie than it is horror, but like the Indiana Jones movies it emulates, it mingles supernatural elements with its more routine thrills; and even though some of these thrills are nakedly derivative, Hong Kong’s expression of otherworldly chills during the ‘70s and ‘80s is often bracingly weird and entertaining, as it is here. Chin Siu-ho and Maggie Cheung (the screwball comedy version) travel to Thailand to reverse a “blood curse” and wind up in battle with a sorcerer who juices children, a small slimy creature that burrows through bodies in a bloody instant, and a glowing-eyed corpse that transforms into a bat-winged variation of the Xenomorph from Alien. There are also several large-scale battle scenes, none of which seem pertinent to the narrative, and Chow Yun Fat shows up periodically to smoke a pipe and use a rocket launcher. As expected from director Lam Ngai Kai, who is best known for the GIF-able Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991), It’s wild and incoherent and silly and gory, and essentially everything you could ask for from this type of film. Maybe I’ve been spoiled, though: it doesn’t reach the insane heights of Mo (The Boxer’s Omen) (1983) or Black Magic (1975), so with its focus on action, it’s strictly a second-tier entry into the Hong Kong horror cannon.

Octoblur 2021: 40. Scream for Help (1984)

Scream for Help (1984)

Movie #40
Dir.: Michael Winner
Flickcharted: #1500 (71.63%)

If you've never had that moment where you can’t believe that you were unaware of a movie directed by Michael Winner (Death Wish) and written by Tom Holland (Fright Night), get ready: Scream for Help is that movie, and it’s weird, and either awful or great, depending on how you take it. Rachael Kelly stars as Christie, a teenager convinced that her step-father has murderous intentions toward her mother, but no one will believe her. (There is a lot of "listen to women" triggering in this one.) Although it starts like a morbid Nancy Drew mystery, Scream for Help is like five movies packed into one, zig-zagging genres and tones like Christie on her 10-speed, or in a car without breaks. Although the score — incongruously, the work of Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones — sounds like whimsical accompaniment to an episode of Hart to Hart or Fantasy Island, when Scream for Help goes dark it is pitch black, and with some visceral, shocking violence. Its deceptively middling (sometimes shitty) TV-quality sheen — especially the acting — makes Scream for Help feel like an afterschool special with foul language, nudity, and a little gore, a combination that turns out to be pretty fun, whether intentional or not.

Octoblur 2021: 39. StageFright: Aquarius (1987)

StageFright: Aquarius (1987)

Movie #39
Dir.: Michele Soavi
Flickcharted: #2973 (43.77%)

StageFright: Aquarius (1987) is one of the more critically acclaimed Italian horror efforts of the late 1980s, standing apart from the shlock mill that produced incoherent cheapies like Ghosthouse (1988) — even though they share the same producer, Eurosleaze legend Joe D’Amato. The directorial debut of Dario Argento’s former assistant Michele Soavi, StageFright is unavoidably ambitious and sports abundant visual flair, most notoriously for the memorable giant owl mask worn by its villain. That’s not the only indelible image on display: no one makes scared slutty women pop on-screen like the Italians do, and Soavi milks maximum value from the looks of his picturesque cast — playing a theatrical troupe whose late-night rehearsal of “a kind of intellectual musical” (LOL) is interrupted by an escaped serial killer. There are plenty of memorable images and moments in StageFright, especially during the mostly dialog-free final half-hour. The only problem that I have with StageFright is a big one, however: the characters range from bland to obnoxious. There is no interest in the story as anything other than as a vehicle for visual violence, leaving the audience who craves any hint of human emotional anchor wanting. There’s a lot for horror fans to appreciate about StageFright, including a propulsive rock score and some gruesome effects (the most gnarly of which is only hinted at, but it's a doozy), but Soavi’s narrow interests leave me mostly cold. Even in his more ambitious 1994 effort Cemetery Man / Dellamorte Dellamore, there was a repulsive obstacle between the obvious poetry of his creative vision and what seems to be an ugly distaste for people.

Octoblur 2021: 38. Ghosthouse (1988)

Ghosthouse (1988)

Movie #38
Dir.: Umberto Lenzi
Flickcharted: #3829 (27.56%)

During the 1980s several Italian horror directors came to America and went into full-"Who gives a shit?" mode, making cheap and often crazy shockers that feel like they were written in five minutes and shot in a week. The most infamous of these efforts is, of course, Troll 2 (featured in the documentary, Best Worst Movie (2008)), by certified maniac Claudio Fragasso. But that’s just the most absurd example of a glut of movies that were seemingly one monkey-and-typewriter short of that kind of inspired lunacy. Most of these movies follow essentially the same narrative template: an American family and/or young people move into an old house plagued by a grim secret and random monsters/frights assault them over the course of a couple of nights. At some point, a skull-faced creature crawling with maggots will appear. Producer Joe D'Amato took this formula and attempted to capitalize on the success of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 (known as La Casa and La Casa 2 in Italy), by marketing narratively unrelated movies as part of a fake La Casa franchise. Ghosthouse was the first of these, released as La Casa 3, and is more a rip-off of Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist (1982) than anything else, as the specter of a long-dead girl and her possessed clown doll wreak terror on a truly random collection of young people (including Eurosleaze legend Lara Wendel) in an old house. Directed by Italian exploitation master Umberto Lenzi (under the pseudonym “Humphrey Humbert”), Ghosthouse is a mere footnote near the end of his three-decade career (during which he was credited with pioneering the prolific jungle cannibal genre of the late 1970s). Lenzi haphazardly assembles uninteresting characters in a nondescript location and features far too many scenes of said characters listening to other people scream over a ham radio. That said, the ghost girl and her clown doll — and the unnerving backmasked carnival music that accompanies their appearances — are striking, even when the clown tries too hard to force some Poltergeist magic (and Wendel, like Bela Lugosi in Bride of the Monster, tries to make it look like the clown is strangling her by pushing his limp arms around her neck). Even though Ghosthouse is a lesser example of cheap derivative Italian schlock horror — for anyone who has seen a lot of these disposable efforts, it struggles to stand-out — it hits all the beats with some measure of effectiveness and is fun enough as camp.

Octoblur 2021: 37. Historia de lo Oculto (2020)

Historia de lo Oculto (2020)

Movie #37
Dir.: Cristian Ponce
Flickcharted: #4903 (7.23%)

I’m getting nowhere attempting to reconcile the rave reviews on Letterboxd for this sleepy Argentine art-horror film (most of the reviews are in Spanish; even the English ones, however, admit that the movie is confusing), which seems to me to be a case study in the poor marriage of plot and format. A late-night news program, for its final episode, attempts to expose the connections between the country’s President, a powerful corporation, and a Satanic cult. In the space of little more than an hour — the length of the TV program plus some before and after — Historia de lo Oculto hems and haws around its subject despite featuring front-and-center a character who seems happy to spill the beans on everything, to the point of making a skeptic bleed from the face live on television. Of course, the movie cuts-off at exactly the point of substantial revelation, thereby making it an art-film rather than a genre exercise. Historia de lo Oculto is frustrating, not because it skillfully builds tension, but because nearly every scene is a speedbump on the road to nowhere. There are some compelling interludes as the show’s crew, hiding at a remote location, becomes more aware of how a thin layer of artifice stands between what they accept as reality and the evil truth underlying society’s power matrix. I can’t figure out why such a big topic was tackled through such a limiting format — about an hour in real-time — and then handled so prosaically (essentially guys explaining things around a table). There is little mystery, no menace, and muddled stakes. Whatever is the point? The best feature of Historia de lo Oculto is the gently sinister TV commercials which play between segments, but even those are repetitive to the point that this barely 82-minute movie feels guilty of excessive time-wasting. Easily the most dull experience yet from this month's movie marathon.

Octoblur 2021: 36. The Initiation (1984)

The Initiation (1984)

Movie #36
Dir.: Larry Stewart
Flickcharted: #2953 (44.11%)

The Initiation is an interesting point of comparison to Halloween Kills (2021) concerning my rant about the sanctity of the slasher formula. There is little in The Initiation — a somewhat scattered and allwhat convoluted slasher obscurity about college kids getting killed one-by-one while locked inside a “shopping mall” overnight as part of a sorority prank — that comes near to the technical quality or cast power of David Gordon Green’s attempt to broaden the scope of the genre… and yet, even though The Initiation modestly probes at the edges of the formula itself, Larry Stewart’s movie works better because it accepts what it is and delivers what is wanted from it. The Initiation does have a solid cast, led by then-unknown Daphne Zuniga (whose only previous film credit was also a slasher, The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1982)) a year before her breakout in The Sure Thing (1985). Horror veterans Vera Miles and Clu Gulager add depth to a cast of largely appealing youngsters, for most of whom this was the extent of their movie careers. In some ways, The Initiation is a mess, with strange editing choices, a haphazard plot, and odd digressions into teen rom-com montage and even an incongruous recounting of childhood sexual abuse (part of Marilyn Kagan’s overall bright performance). But these digressions, modest as they are, serve to make The Initiation sort of charming; they pad rather than disrupt, giving the small core cast depth to wade through on their way to a bloody demise. The climactic twist may be hard to reconcile, but Zuniga chews it up with relish and her star quality is apparent throughout. As ramshackle as it is, The Initiation is fun and energetic and giving, which goes a long way to mitigating its many obvious flaws.

Octoblur 2021: 35. Society (1989)

Society (1989)

Movie #35
Dir.: Brian Yuzna
Flickcharted: #1977 (62.58%)

Some horror movies are all about their special effects, and if any movie deserves to perch triumphantly from atop a gooey, rubbery mountain of oozing ersatz flesh, it’s Brian Yuzna’s wackadoo Society (1989). And it’s a good thing that Society's climactic make-up effects orgy (literally) is so impressive because the rest of it barely qualifies as a passable first-draft screenplay. Bizarrely named Billy Warlock — an unholy mash-up of Charlie Sheen and Michael J. Fox— stars as an unimpressive character who takes close to 80 minutes to uncover the secret transhuman nature of his small town’s elite society, and if there’s a purpose to any of it beyond vague satire Yuzna never lets on. However, that late scene where high society lets loose with its excessive appetite for carnal consumption — courtesy of latex wizard Screaming Mad George  — is something to see and makes the aimless narrative and non-existent characterizations seem incidental.

Octoblur 2021: 34. Anguish (1987)

Anguish (1987)

Movie #34
Dir.: Bigas Luna
Flickcharted: #1384 (73.80%)

Whatever you think you might expect from Anguish (1987), you’re likely to be wrong. Spanish auteur Bigas Luna writes and directs this clever and nerve-wracking meta-horror — about, broadly, fear and watching — with no shortage of personality or gonzo style. American actors Zelda Rubinstein and Michael Lerner get top billing in this Spanish (but English language) art-house horror, but it’s young actress Talia Paul who provides the powerful beating heart of Anguish. Luna not only crafts a finely-tuned feedback loop of fearful movie-within-a-movie interaction, but loads on a healthy dollop of nightmarish imagery involving hypnotism, eye surgery, snails and birds living together, and plenty of eyeball trauma — but nothing matches the terror of Lerner slurping milk-sopped banana slices from a spoon or Rubenstein chanting “All the eyes of the city will be ours!” This is a unique and memorable tribute to (and example of) the power of horror movies. Would make a great double-feature with Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 debut Targets.

Octoblur 2021: 33. Brain Damage (1988)

Brain Damage (1988)

Movie #33
Dir.: Frank Henenlotter
Flickcharted: #2982 (43.53%)

1980s New York grindhouse splatter king Frank Henenlotter followed up his breakthrough cult hit Basket Case with this equally quirky and gross body horror drug addiction narrative. Rick Hearst stars as Brian, a young man who develops a symbiotic relationship with a little blue veiny creature who injects perception-altering chemicals into Brian’s brain in exchange for human brains to eat. Hennenlotter’s concept of the creature, Elmer (or, more correctly, Aylmer), steals the show, with his benign manner and droll voice executed through charming puppet and stop motion effects. There are some other neat 42nd avenue-quality gross-outs, like a plate of spaghetti and brain meatballs, a distinctly unpleasant incident of oral sex, and an ear-horror moment that stands alone atop its niche. But there’s also a strange lack of energy to Brain Damage, with moments between the shocks practically defying attention. For Hennelotter- and splatter/creature-fans, this is a must-see, but it’s a bit too drowsy for anyone else. 

Octoblur 2021: 32. The Video Dead (1987)

The Video Dead (1987)

Movie #32
Dir.: Robert Scott
Flickcharted: #3592 (31.97%)

This DYI zombie comedy from writer/director Robert Scott starts with a lot of pluck and humor, enough to offset the low quality of acting you expect from these types of upstart productions. It also has to be said, Greg Becker’s photography is surprisingly competent — this is a technically impressive effort given its constraints. However, as good as The Video Dead looks (to be honest, I wasn't even expecting it to be shot on film), and as fun as its concept of zombies with personalities and emotions is for half an hour, it doesn’t have enough in the script to sustain 40 minutes, let alone 90. All of the goodwill it builds with its modestly clever effects — including a truly disgusting zombie chainsaw vivisection, revealing live baby rats crawling inside — and modestly amusing jokes dissipates in a snooze-worthy fog once the zombies revert to more typical undead form and the movie barely tries to sustain itself with clumsy and unexceptional scares and action. Still, it was a promising debut and it’s too bad Scott never followed it up with anything of note.

Octoblur 2021: 31. Halloween Kills (2021)

Halloween Kills (2021)

Movie #31
Dir.: David Gordon Green
Flickcharted: #4361 (17.39%)

As a long-time fan of director David Gordon Green, it pleases me to say that his second addition to the Halloween franchise, Halloween Kills, bears none of the arch, self-conscious visual staging that felt so out-of-place in his 2018 revisionist sequel Halloween. Green, in fact, shows throughout Halloween Kills, as he did in moments of Halloween (2018), that he has a keen eye for vividly spooky evocations of the Halloween season. With his typically naturalistic style, Green should be capable of making a stylistically faithful continuation of John Carpenter's 1978 slasher classic. But there is a serious problem with the screenwriting of these new Halloween films, and maybe in the overall concept of what he and co-writers Danny McBride and Scott Teems want to accomplish within the franchise and slasher genre. I’m not sure that they know the answer to that question.

Halloween Kills carries on directly from the end of the 2018 film, with its events continuing on through the same Halloween night that brought masked killer Michael Myers and former babysitter Laurie Strode (Jami Lee Curtis) back into direct conflict. There is also, briefly, a flashback to 1978, establishing new events and backstory which act as a bridge between Carpenter’s original and Green’s reboot trilogy (all of the other films in-between are now considered non-canonical). Even though this new material feels, at first, like a studied extension of John Carpenter's original film, and features one of my new favorite actors, Jim Cummings, if there’s one thing the Halloween franchise doesn’t need it’s more backstory. Green & co. pile on several extra loads of melodrama and new quirky characters who get a few minutes each to indulge in contrived shtick prior to receiving a knife through the mouth (or an eyeball, or a fluorescent light bulb through the neck, or an excessive gouging of the eyes… this is by far the goriest of all Halloween films).

I can understand Green’s impulse to focus on the humanity of horror and how serial murders affect people and society, but this is problematic here in a couple of ways. First, it’s a sharp deviation from four decades of Halloween franchise tradition, so the onus is on the director to find a way to make it work or risk failing to honor the brand in tone and content. Second, Green is flat-out terrible at doing this gracefully or with any subtlety, and Halloween Kills is a shit-show of awful “character moments” and, now, ham-fisted social commentary. Anthony Michael Hall joins the cast this time around, as a grown-up Tommy Jarvis who assembles an angry mob to hunt down and kill Michael Myers, leading to a series of preposterous chaotic events which climax with Charles Cyphers (reprising his role from the 1978 film) saying out loud the most cliched theme in horror, one which best not be used let alone spoken: “Now he’s turning us into monsters.” Ugh.

Here’s the real problem with what Green & co. are trying to do with Halloween either through intent or carelessness: The slasher is a simple genre that presents a mundane reality — boring people going about their unexceptional lives — suddenly shattered by inexplicable terror. Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween arguably perfected the form, with its quiet rumination on prosaic fears — fears of parents, peers, dating, homework — smashed up against the faceless stalking inevitability of death. By attempting to complicate this formula, by attempting to make it work as drama and, worse, as moral lesson time, Green gets lost in the cumbersome minutiae of his complications and becomes distracted from why these movies exist as cultural phenomena.

This isn’t to say that no one should try to make original movies that explore deviations from genre formulas — Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's 2014 remake of The Town that Dreaded Sundown deconstructed the slasher genre quite elegantly — just that it’s increasingly perilous and ill-advised within a well-established franchise with set expectations, even one that has gotten as silly at times as Halloween. (That's another problem: going from silly to hyper self-serious in one move is whiplash-inducing, which may please the cultural revolutionaries remaking pop culture from the inside, but we spectators tend to find it deeply unpleasant if not outright hostile). And, it helps to be both aware of the pitfalls of this approach and to take extra care to ameliorate the possible problems, and it doesn’t look to me like Green has done either. It’s also fine if a filmmaker considers slasher movies to be beneath them or unworthy of their attention and talents, in which case they can please go fuck off and make something else, and leave our stupid gross formulaic exercises in juvenile visceral carnality alone.

Octoblur 2021: 30. J.D.'s Revenge (1976)

J.D.'s Revenge (1976)

Movie #30
Dir.: Arthur Marks
Flickcharted: #3462 (34.38%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

This previously obscure horror-tinged blaxploitation drama has gained a small cult following of late amongst those who enjoy discovering hidden gems on the fringes of cinema. It’s cine up frequently on recent lists of underseen horror classics, and it does have some impressive assets, such as early appearances from the likes of Glynn Turman and Louis Gosset, Jr. Turman stars as a mild-mannered law student who, during a nightclub hypnotism act, becomes possessed by the spirit of a nasty gangster thirsting for revenge against the man who killed his sister. While the narrative is underwhelming, Turman gives his all in a Jekyll & Hyde-style role which perhaps comments on the changing definitions of black masculinity using a 1970s blaxploitation stereotype at one end of the spectrum. However, especially early in his career, Turman has such a graceful theatricality about him, that he doesn’t always sell the authenticity of his performances. He looks like a dancer interpreting a character through movement, which is not always the most apt or effective style. Joan Pringle is solid as a  beleaguered girlfriend with the thankless duty of forgiving her abuser. Culturally interesting more than anything else. Includes some graphic, unsettling, and not completely necessary slaughterhouse footage.

Octoblur 2021: 29. Body Parts (1991)

Body Parts (1991)

Movie #29
Dir.: Eric Red
Flickcharted: #2353 (55.40%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

Body Parts (1991) was a late and unplanned addition to Pure Cinema week, spurred by Pure Cinema's Elric Kane, who proposed a spirited and controversial defense of the film while guesting on the Screen Drafts podcast’s Body Horror episode. A year before his ill-fated title role in The Lawnmower Man (1992), Jeff Fahey gives a pretty stellar performance here as a psychologist who loses an arm in a car accident and is given a second chance with an experimental limb transplant. The trouble is, the second-hand arm sometimes acts on its own, violently. To make matters worse, the recently executed death row convict who unwillingly donated his body parts to Fahey and a few other unlucky charity cases wants them all back. It’s hard to say anything critical of a movie in which Jeff Fahey punches both a child and a woman, and the strong, grisly climax in a treat, but the first hour of Body Parts is confusingly lackluster despite being otherwise decently paced. It’s fun to see, too briefly, Brad Dourif show up in another plot about a killer named Charles attempting to possess his way back into existence.

Octoblur 2021: 28. Night of the Scarecrow (1995)

Night of the Scarecrow (1995)

Movie #28
Dir.: Jeff Burr
Flickcharted: #1932 (63.38%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

Pure Cinema week has briefly turned into a "Scarecrow Night" double-feature.

My low expectations struck a modest jackpot with this surprisingly fun and energetic mid-1990s monster movie that was nowhere near as cheap and amateurish as the seasonal-themed shlock with which I associated it: Jack Frost (1997), Uncle Sam (1996), and Thankskilling (2008). On the contrary, director Jeff Burr pours vision and creativity into this ludicrous tale of a century-dead warlock whose spirit escapes his cornfield grave and possesses a scarecrow with the intent of conjuring himself back to life. The scarecrow looks great — like a post-puberty overgrown juvenile delinquent version of cute little Sackboy from the LittleBigPlanet video game — and his methods of killing are bizarre, macabre, and memorable, including some top-notch stop-motion animated effects. While the two leads in Night of the Scarecrow are unexceptional, the movie boasts an otherwise strong cast, with early key appearances from John Hawkes and Stephen Root complementing veterans like Dirk Blocker, Gary Lockwood, and former James Bond villain Bruce Glover (who is the spitting image of his son Crispin). Coincidentally, former two-time Bond girl Martine Beswick also makes an ill-fated appearance.

Octoblur 2021: 27. Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

Movie #27
Dir.: Frank De Felitta
Flickcharted: #1948 (63.07%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

Pure Cinema week has briefly turned into a "Scarecrow Night" double-feature.

I must have missed this legendary made-for-TV movie from my childhood years, as none of it seemed familiar, and I think I would recall its fantastic opening sequence during which Larry Drake, as a developmentally challenged adult, is hunted down by a bloodthirsty posse when he is mistakenly suspected of killing a young girl. It’s a perfect mix of the semi-wholesome aesthetic style of the 1980s TV movie mixed with content that you can’t believe made it to prime-time television. The rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to that standard, however, with a drawn-out series of too few mysterious weaksauce deaths. It’s fun to watch peak Charles Durning play a real piece of human garbage the year before his two delightful career-high performances in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) and Tootsie (1982). I guess my main point of disappointment with Dark Night of the Scarecrow is that its “shock ending” reveal would’ve made the overall movie more compelling had it not been withheld until the final scene.

Octoblur 2021: 26. Nightmare (1964)

Nightmare (1964)

Movie #26
Dir.: Freddie Francis
Flickcharted: #1921 (63.58%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

Pure Cinema week has briefly turned into a Freddie Francis / Hammer Studios double-feature.

This second of three Hammer Studios team-ups between director Freddie Francis and writer Jimmy Sangster within three years has a lot in common with their previous collaboration, Paranoiac (1963). Sangster was reportedly concerned about recycling stale ideas — both stories involve scheming imposters — but Francis wrings the story so tightly, with such a high caliber of precise, invested performances, that Nightmare never for a moment feels ordinary. With John Wilcox behind the camera exploring the moody shadows, and Sangster doling out layer upon layer of gaslighting, Nightmare makes a fair play at Diabolique-level suspense. The movie loses some of its emotional appeal when a plot shift backgrounds a key character for the final act, but this is otherwise a solid little creeper. Followed by Hysteria (1965).

Octoblur 2021: 25. Paranoiac (1963)

Paranoiac (1963)

Movie #25
Dir.: Freddie Francis
Flickcharted: #1592 (69.81%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

Pure Cinema week has briefly turned into a Freddie Francis / Hammer Studios double-feature.

There are few things in the world of cinema as glorious as Oliver Reed in full-tantrum mode (although Oliver Reed in barely-contained-rage mode comes pretty close). In Paranoiac, Reed gets free reign as a foul-spirited drunk tousling over an inheritance with his siblings — one of whom was until recently presumed dead — and it’s invigorating. Freddie Francis directs this intimate and creepy Hammer Studio thriller with precision and intent, both of which are apparent at all times. Arthur Grant's black & white Grant's cinematography is vivid and haunting. Hammer's one-man content machine Jimmy Sangster packs his dark and twisty screenplay with a few surprises and some emotionally compelling material with which the cast deals expertly. I do sometimes wish that these lean, brisk Hammer thrillers had more complicated, meatier endings, with more meaningful resolutions, but this one packs quite a bit into a scant 80 minutes.

Octoblur 2021: 24. The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971)

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971)

Movie #24
Dir.: Sergio Martino
Flickcharted: #2629 (50.13%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

Pure Cinema week has briefly turned into an Edwige Fenech giallo triple-feature.

Despite a jazzy start, with some viscerally filmed early scenes that suggest this may not be your typical giallo, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971) turns into a somewhat sleepy entry into the genre. Directed by Sergio Martino and starring, once again, lovely Edwige Fenech (as well as both George Hilton and Ivan Rassimov), it moves through some typical giallo scenarios — attacks in a shower, car park, elevator, park — but takes a little extra time and suffers due to its lack of urgency. Also, Fenech’s character is harder to empathize with this time around, at least until the end. On the plus-side, Emilio Foriscot’s cinematography is as good as it gets, and the final plot twist is more satisfying than usual. I suppose this suffered a bit in comparison to All the Colors of the Dark (which has, despite no narrative connection, been distributed in Asia as Strange Vice of Mrs. Ward No.2). It’s a solid mid-tier giallo.

Octoblur 2021: 23. All the Colors of the Dark (1972)

All the Colors of the Dark (1972)

Movie #23
Dir.: Sergio Martino
Flickcharted: #1336 (74.65%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

Pure Cinema week has briefly turned into an Edwige Fenech giallo triple-feature.

Some of the Italian mysteries in the giallo genre are only somewhat adjacent to horror, as they often involve serial murder and are considered proto-slashers, but many tend to focus primarily on the “whodunit?” aspect. Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark, however, goes full-horror as its heroine (played by genre mainstay Edwige Fenech) suffers from trauma-induced nightmares, is hunted by a blue-eyed creep (Ivan Rassimov), and is targeted by an occult conspiracy. Fenech is terrific, with meaty and emotional material that helps her prove that she is a fine actress in addition to a sexploitation icon. Martino’s direction is tight and Bruno Nicolai’s rock-infused score is even better than what I usually expect from him. Top-class giallo.

Octoblur 2021: 22. The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972)

The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972)

Movie #22
Dir.: Giuliano Carnimeo
Flickcharted: #2646 (49.79%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

Pure Cinema week has briefly turned into an Edwige Fenech giallo triple-feature.

While it doesn't necessarily belong amongst the greats of the giallo genre, The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972) (a.k.a. Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer?, or, Why those strange drops of blood on Jennifer's body?) has all of the expected hallmarks of these tawdry Italian pulp murder mysteries and also avoids many of the pitfalls that mar even the most famous of their kind. Sexploitation superstar Edwige Fenech stars as a model who escapes from her cult-ish ex-husband by moving into an apartment building where a masked killer is murdering beautiful young women. Director Giuliano Carnimeo keeps it humming at a nice pace, letting the bold early-1970s Rome fashions and architecture float by to the bouncy tinkle of Bruno Nicolai's era-specific score. Most importantly, where most gialli falter during long scenes of dull police babble, Carnimeo casts playful character actor Giampiero Albertini as the police commissioner, who has fun with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi's uncommon light touch. None of the big moments in The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972) stand out as superlative, but it gets all the small moments right making it a breezy and mild example of the genre's mid-tier.

Octoblur 2021: 21. Alucarda (1977)

Alucarda (1977)

Movie #21
Dir.: Juan López Moctezuma
Flickcharted: #2049 (61.11%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

This cheap little gonzo exploitation classic borrows heavily from 1970s headline makers like The Exorcist (1973) and The Devils (1971) while also tapping into still-hip literary classics from Bram Stoker and De Sade. It's hard to say that what comes of that mish-mash is "good," but it sure is an interesting mongrel and has moments of bracing over-the-top devilishness. The distinctive quality of Alucarda — other than the frequency with which women's names are yelled out with bloodcurdling ferocity — is its seriousness. Its obviously low budget notwithstanding, this is a well-shot movie full of 210%-energy performances; director Juan López Moctezuma and his crew & cast meant business as if this was an episode of Masterpiece Theater complete with naked orgies and a fiery climax featuring at least one combustible nun. There's not much of a story, just a series of plot points centered around the bad influence to end all bad influences, the title character played by Tina Romero, in a performance that has only been surpassed in its excess by Isabel Adjani in Possession (1981).

Octoblur 2021: 20. Dream Home (2010)

Dream Home (2010)

Movie #20
Dir.: Ho-Cheung Pang
Flickcharted: #1916 (63.63%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

Maybe I went in subconsciously expecting something at least adjacent to the 2011 turd Dream House starring Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig, but this Hong Kong combo of social commentary and shocking gore constantly surprised me, and also managed to navigate some potentially tricky sentiment thanks to confident direction from Ho-Cheung Pang and a subtle performance from star Josie Ho. Dream Home ably taps into early pangs of the current conspiratorial mindset that all forces are aligned against the aspirations of the modest, and does it with bloody, exhilarating contempt. Not for the squeamish.

Octoblur 2021: 19. Aenigma (1987)

Aenigma (1987)

Movie #19
Dir.: Lucio Fulci
Flickcharted: #2640 (49.89%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

Some horror movies need only a single striking scene to earn a place in the pantheon of nightmares. Lucio Fulci may be a master of pure nonsense, but he also has a knack for that which may never be forgotten, and he pulls a real doozy out of Aenigma (1987), his incomprehensible supernatural teen coma revenge boarding school possession romance movie starring a bunch of people with striking eyes and more snails than should ever be seen in one location. Yes, snails. Let’s all take a moment to honor actress Kathi Wise, who, in her only screen credit, allowed an Italian maniac to cover her naked body from head to toe in snails, some of which were alive. (Does it make it any better if some or most of the snails are dead? When one snail, living or dead, is in her mouth, does anything else ever matter at all?) It’s a show-stopping scene and deserves more notoriety than its place in this somewhat obscure Fulci afterthought. Aenigma is actually pretty well-paced, looks great, and is just as entertainingly ridiculous as any of Fulci’s more famous movies (starting with the baffling opening credits scene, set to the songsploitation classic tune “Head over Meels” (sic., that apparent typo is in the closing credits) by Douglas Meakin). Shot in Sarajevo standing in for Boston, Mass., because of course.

Octoblur 2021: 18. A Bucket of Blood (1959)

A Bucket of Blood (1959)

Movie #18
Dir.: Roger Corman
Flickcharted: #2022 (61.61%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

Famously shot in 5 days, this early Roger Corman cheapie sets the template for the next year’s more famous Little Shop of Horrors: a poor schmuck gets a shot at his wildest dreams as long as a little murder doesn’t get him down. Writer Charles B. Griffith delivers an improbably fun script given the timetable, mocking both the pretentious beatnik arts scene and the rich poverty tourists who crave its dubious authenticity. Dick Miller, who is best known as a “that guy” character actor from every 1980s Joe Dante movie, is perfectly cast as the morally dubious dimwit Walter. The Fred Katz jazz score ensures that the 65-minute running time never lags. Former game show host Bert Convy also makes an appearance. Yes, any given moment in A Bucket of Blood (1959) crumbles under the lightest scrutiny, but go with it and enjoy its dark thrift store energy.

Octoblur 2021: 17. Rapture (1979)

Rapture (1979)

Movie #17
Dir.: Iván Zulueta
Flickcharted: #4600 (12.65%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

Rapture (1979) a.k.a. Arrebato is one of those tricky art films that is either far more or far less than it seems. Either way, it probably wasn’t a good choice for a horror movie marathon, as it barely approaches anything conventionally considered within the genre. Eusebio Poncela stars as José, a frustrated movie director who is intrigued by the experimental home movies made by his acquaintance Pedro (Will More). Like Pedro, José becomes addicted to watching Pedro’s nonlinear movies (some of which resemble Godfrey Reggio’s Koyanisqaatsi) in a way that is meant to mirror heroin addiction. Fine, I suppose, although I don’t often respond well to movies that use horror as a too-obvious allegory for drug use (please, no more vampire drug allegories!), but the long path to get to this fairly simplistic and unexplored metaphor is mostly a drag. Arrebato looks great — cinematographer Ángel Luis Fernández gets some striking images out of a dark palette — but the narrative is both long-winded and static, and when the horror-ish payoff finally comes, it’s more bewildering than creepy, and less than resonant. Cecilia Roth, as José's forsaken girlfriend, provides some moments of brightness in what is otherwise a relentlessly pointless indulgence.

Octoblur 2021: 16. Bloody Muscle Body Builder in Hell (2012)

Bloody Muscle Body Builder in Hell (2012)

Movie #16
Dir.: Shinichi Fukazawa
Flickcharted: #3351 (36.37%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

This DIY effort was shot in 1995 but was unearthed in 2012. It’s been called “The Japanese Evil Dead,” which is a far more descriptive title than the mostly irrelevant or inapt details to be mined from Bloody Muscle Body Builder in Hell. Yes, the main character, played by writer/director Shinichi Fukazawa, is a bodybuilder, a fact which is only peripherally germane to the story of a trio who find themselves besieged and/or possessed by the ghost of a vengeful woman in an empty house. Bloody Muscle Body Builder in Hell directly references Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead movies in both content and ethic, utilizing a creative mix of stop motion animation and other effects in its brief but amusing showcase of mayhem. Some of the animation recalls Obayashi’s Hausu or Terry Gilliam’s work for Monty Python. However much Fukazawa learned from watching Raimi’s effects, though, he didn’t seem to pick up on pacing or structure. Bloody Muscle Body Builder in Hell doesn’t escalate, but moves from one rudimentarily gruesome creep to another, which becomes monotonous rather than tense, and Fukazawa as a performed simply doesn’t have the unique charm of a Bruce Campbell, which goes a long way toward making this kind of horror feel like it matters. And I can't think of a single reason why I would ever watch this when I could watch Raimi’s original. Still, it’s a nice accomplishment for a lo-fi wannabe, and it’s too bad that Fukazawa didn’t get to parlay this modest achievement into a career working with greater means on more original ideas.

Octoblur 2021: 15. The Battery (2012)

The Battery (2012)

Movie #15
Dir.: Jeremy Gardner
Flickcharted: #1341 (74.53%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

I have considered myself “over” zombie movies since Zombieland and The Walking Dead turned the genre into edge-less mainstream entertainment, so I was reluctant to watch The Battery, despite constant praise from the Pure Cinema podcast. Luckily, The Battery is barely a zombie movie; it’s a buddy-character-study-road-slice-of-life movie that happens to take place in a world overrun by the dead. Writer/director Jeremy Gardner and Adam Cronheim star as Ben and Mickey, former minor league baseball players moving like nomads through the northeast U.S., scavenging for food and supplies while avoiding the slow and stupid hungry monsters who have replaced their fellow humans. Ben is predisposed for a life of isolation, self-defense, and hunting, but Mickey isn’t. The tension in this imbalance informs most of the interactions within their unlikely partnership, and writer Gardner ably explores it through the skill of actor Gardner, who makes a big impression with his crusty performance. I’m not sure that the climax of The Battery withstands scrutiny, especially its final moment, and that takes a little of the shine off an otherwise elegant and impressive directorial debut, but Gardner is one to watch.

Octoblur 2021: 14. You Might Be the Killer (2018)

You Might Be the Killer (2018)

Movie #14
Dir.: Brett Simmons
Flickcharted: #2030 (61.44%)

This week’s Octoblur 2021 programming has come from the Pure Cinema and the Colors of the Dark podcasts — invaluable sources for offbeat movies suggestions — as well as recommendations from members of the Pure Cinema Movie Club Facebook group.

Both horror comedy and meta-horror come with an implicit threat of denigrating the genre, as insecure filmmakers jockey to prove they are more clever than their choice of subject matter suggests. You Might Be the Killer skillfully avoids those pitfalls, managing to work out a twist on the typical slasher point-of-view, and showing awareness of horror tropes, while unashamedly engaging in them. Fran Kranz (of the meta-horror standard-bearer Cabin in the Woods) stars as a summer camp owner whose orientation of his counselors turns deadly when a legendary local curse is reactivated. With the meta-elements limited to affectionate nods — mostly delivered by Alyson Hannigan, whose character is simply a narrative device — writer/director Brett Simmons gets the benefit of showy contemporary pop culture knowingness while simultaneously producing a solid old-school slasher film. He also nails another facet where I find many self-referential or 1980s horror homages going awry: he doesn’t fall into the film school trap of showing off new aesthetic tricks, but opts for a dark, grainy, no-nonsense style that faithfully recalls the visual tone of classic slashers in a comforting, if not groundbreaking, way.

Octoblur 2021: 13. Slumber Party Massacre III (1990)

Slumber Party Massacre III (1990)

Movie #13
Dir.: Sally Mattison
Flickcharted: #2721 (48.31%)

Impromptu theme: This has turned into “Bad Parties” week.

This third entry into the Slumber Party Massacre franchise is the most schizophrenic chapter of what might be the most schizophrenic horror franchise of them all. It’s also, at times, the best; at least, it’s a giant step up from the train wreck of Slumber Party Massacre II (1987). From the start,  Slumber Party Massacre III (1990) has a loose style that gives it a cinematic vitality rarely found in either of the preceding chapters. As its group of young women convenes for an ill-fated pajama party, writer Catherine Cyran and director Sally Mattison pile on the creeps, with a relentless series of badly behaving men causing discomfort until one turns deadly. In this way, Slumber Party Massacre III is the most faithful to the series’ supposed “feminist” themes, with nearly every male figure some form of coward, disbeliever, loaf, stalker, peeping tom, incel, or impotent maniac. That none of these men are well-written or interesting is beside the point; the likable female cast is stacked with should’ve-been-bigger-stars on this evidence, and they seem to revel in the opportunity to indulge in spirited female bonding, abject fear,, and even some effective moments of quiet intimacy and poignant despair (skin-flick mainstay Maria Ford, who initially seems to have been cast for one reason only, gets a shockingly genuine and emotional scene). Even the killer gets an unusually bold and complex backstory. It’s all very messy, of course, this being a low-budget Roger Corman production that probably wasn’t allowed multiple rewrites or any level of quality control, but it tries to do some tough and ambitious things and that effort is appreciated.

Octoblur 2021: 12. Slumber Party Massacre II (1987)

Slumber Party Massacre II (1987)

Movie #12
Dir.: Deborah Brock
Flickcharted: #4410 (16.21%)

Impromptu theme: This has turned into “Bad Parties” week.

Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) is something of a cult favorite for how it supplants the straightforward ugliness of its predecessor with some puzzling, arguably batshit crazy, choices. But where the original doubled-down on dour realism, this sequel mires itself in tacky fantasy of the fractured reality variety, which grows old quickly. Crystal Bernard stars as Courtney, the youngest survivor from the events of the first film, now turning 17 and plagued by a combination of trauma-induced anxiety and hormones. During a weekend away with her all-girl rock bandmates, her nightmares about a rockabilly fiend (Atanas Ilitch) with a power drill extending from his electric guitar manifest in reality… or do they? Like the original Slumber Party Massacre, Slumber Party Massacre II has some claim as a “feminist slasher,” with a woman making the primary creative decisions, in this case, writer/director Deborah Brock. Brock continues some of the hallmarks established in the first film, such as creating female characters with strong interests — in this case, their Go-Gos-like rock band — and as direct victims of the puerile male gaze. Rather than focus this time on impotent male sexual violence, however, Brock ostensibly centers Slumber Party Massacre II on the female fear of losing virginity, but spends far more of her scant 75-minute runtime on redundant nightmare sequences and trying to turn Ilitch’s Andrew “Dice” Clay-like dream-fiend into another Freddy Krueger, who was the big new name in horror in the mid-1980s. This goes nowhere, fast, and repeatedly. Brock wastes a cast of largely appealing young actors by pointlessly running them in circles until they make easy targets, and against a foe who can’t be escaped or killed, until he can, just because. There’s never an internal logic to “The Driller Killer” except as a drawn-out metaphor, so there’s no tension. Overall, Slumber Party Massacre II looks and feels cheap, like a bargain music video (and features, in its climax, an extended bargain music video sequence) with a few Troma-quality gory make-up effects. It’s too bad that none of it works, because it is weird in a potentially fun way, and Brock seems enthusiastic about genre film. She would later direct Rock 'n' Roll High School Forever (1991).

Octoblur 2021: 11. The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

Movie #11
Dir.: Amy Holden Jones
Flickcharted: #2298 (56.33%)

Impromptu theme: This has turned into “Bad Parties” week.

As weird as it may sound, I have a sentimental attachment to The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), from its prominent place on cable television in the 1980s. Among the more prominent slasher movies of its time, it stood out as harder and meaner than its peers, giving it some prestige in one of the most valuable facets of the horror film: the sense that teenage boys like myself shouldn’t be watching it, even if we were already on a diet of Haloweens and Friday the 13ths. Since those taboo days, The Slumber Party Massacre has gained some unlikely cred as a feminist slasher, written by Rita Mae Brown and directed by Amy Holden Jones. Divorced from those meta-criteria, it’s a pretty ugly movie, maybe by design. I suppose it plays a sort of feminist long-game, indulging in the male-gaze tropes of the day — at one point literally, with teenage boys spying on half-naked girls through a window — concluding its series of subtle tweaks on formula with an obvious castration metaphor. Most notably, the girls in The Slumber Party Massacre are not uniformly petite damsels, but are sturdier physically and often seen performing typically male roles. The girls are, predominately, varsity basketball players, and peripherally the movie also includes a female coach, a female handyman, and a telephone repair woman.

Unfortunately, these attempts at broadening detail aren’t backed up with qualities like charm or empathy: most of the characters in the film range between dour and nasty, as if a rejection of the idea that there is any fun to be had watching horror seeped into every pore of the production. It probably doesn’t help that the movie is scored to funereal organ music, sucking any energy out of it from the start. It’s not badly shot, but it’s also never technically elegant or distinguished, just plain, and without achieving either the affecting realism or gritty lyricism of other low-budget horror films. Yet, it does build to a tense climax, and even though there’s something one-dimensionally unconvincing about Michael Villella as the escaped serial killer who always holds his power drill at crotch-level, when he finally speaks — “It takes a lot of love for a person to do this…” — there is a penetrating creepiness to his words as informed by the point-of-view of the female filmmakers.

I probably wouldn’t recommend The Slumber Party Massacre to anyone, and certainly not to anyone who already has a negative attitude toward slashers, but it’s a contextually interesting entry in the genre if not a fun experience in any way.

Octoblur 2021: 10. Alison's Birthday (1981)

Alison's Birthday (1981)

Movie #10
Dir.: Ian Coughlan
Flickcharted: #1829 (65.24%)

Impromptu theme: This has turned into “Bad Parties” week.

Alison's Birthday (1981) hits a sweet spot for me with regard to several factors: it’s from a period of Australian film that I’ve grown to admire quite a bit over the past few years, it has the intimate feel of early 1980s TV movies, it has elements of folk horror, and it’s about occult conspiracy-fueled paranoia. Joanne Samuel (only a couple of years after playing the title character’s unfortunate wife in Mad Max (1979)) stars as Alison, a teenage girl who is warned from beyond the grave not to return home for her 19th birthday, but does it anyway, and probably regrets that decision Samuel gives a strong quiet performance, as does Lou Brown as her persistent boyfriend. While Alison's Birthday doesn’t pioneer anything, it’s a solid minor offering in the same vein as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Hereditary (2017) and worthy of that more esteemed company.

Octoblur 2021: 09. Don't Panic (1988)

Don't Panic (1988)

Movie #09
Dir.: Rubén Galindo Jr.
Flickcharted: #2722 (48.26%)

Impromptu theme: This has turned into “Bad Parties” week.

Dig just below the mainstream surface of horror and/or cult movies and you’re sure to hit a wellspring of “so bad it's good” and “so bad it's excruciating” oddities, and it’s not always easy to understand the difference. Mexican director Rubén Galindo Jr. — whose Cemetery of Terror was part of Octoblur 2017 — is one of the masters of shit-show horror, and the reason his terrible movies are delightful is pretty easy to understand: every deranged person involved seems to be earnestly attempting their best work. No cynicism, no phoned-in performances, nothing but 110% energy and joy making the absurd plots and even worse dialog sing. Recounting the narrative is a fool’s errand. It's a gloriously incoherent spasm of cliches from unrelated movies. There’s some possession, some premonitions, bloody hands, bloody faces, a Freddy Krueger rip-off ghoul, a girl wearing a sombrero while holding three balloons, a guy who calls the Devil “Virgil,” a bathroom with shag carpeting, a teenage boy wearing dinosaur PJs, some bullshit about a magic rose… It’s all silly and yet kind of enchanting in its childlike obliviousness. Star Jon Michael Bischof’s facial expressions are, uh, special, as are Gabriela Hassel’s eyebrows. A perfect horror movie for parties where no one is paying attention except to glance over periodically and say, “Is this a real movie, or a prank?”

Octoblur 2021: 08. All My Friends Are Dead (2020)

All My Friends Are Dead (2020)

Movie #08
Dir.: Jan Belcl
Flickcharted: #2029 (61.43%)

Impromptu theme: This has turned into “Bad Parties” week.

Every year, because I try to know as little as possible about some of these movies before I watch them, I end up with a few that are not really horror movies, but horror-adjacent. Dark Polish comedy All My Friends Are Dead (2020) (a.k.a Wszyscy moi przyjaciele nie żyją) is one of these, but still may well end up with the largest body count of Octoblur 2021. A New Year’s Eve house party that starts with a million little tensions bubbling underneath the festivities ends with few survivors. Writer/director Jan Belcl sets himself the ambitious task of balancing a comic tone with a narrative of relentless tragedy and just about pulls it off. His characters are mostly distinctive and likable even when being loathsome. But there's a slickness and almost a fear of its own subject matter that makes All My Friends Are Dead a little unsatisfying. It’s hard not to consider what kind of gonzo masterpiece someone like Gaspar Noe might have made out of this subject matter (his 2018 “one crazy night”-er Climax is not too far removed, but darker, stranger, scarier, and, ultimately, kind of exhilarating), especially when Belcl's contrivances become too forced or sloppy, or the utter sadness of the plot pokes in for a too-real moment, but All My Friends Are Dead usually snaps back into shape just when it seems to be going awry, and has neat dark bits of inspiration scattered throughout. While I’m not crazy about the almost heart-warming coda, I appreciate that Belcl keeps it just a little edgy rather than going full-saccharine.

Octoblur 2021: 07. Edge of the Axe (1988)

Edge of the Axe (1988)

Movie #07
Dir.: José Ramón Larraz
Flickcharted: #3807 (27.61%)

The second part of an "Axe"-themed double feature. Oddly, both movies end with an identical misdirection.

Sometimes a great opening scene can work against a movie. Edge of the Axe (1988) begins with a beautifully shot murder in a car wash and nothing else in it comes close. It has some interesting moments — including the unusual staging of two ax murders which depict, without editing, victims being struck repeatedly with a prop ax that leaves bloody residue — but it’s mostly dull relationship drama and lackluster whodunit leading to a typically convoluted Giallo-like twist. Every Octoblur I contemplate with wonder the European filmmakers who overload their movies with third-rate expository plot that consumes the too-wide spaces between murders as if anyone cares. The truth is, horror fans are there primarily for the lurid sex and violence, the transgressions, and not to see if José Ramón Larraz is the new Hitchcock. While good writing is a definite plus that elevates the best genre movies into classics, blandly bad writing is a suicide trap that not even the biggest shocks can revive. For that matter, Edge of the Axe is not nearly sleazy enough to earn its narrative indulgences, although some of the glib, callous dialog between the mostly unpleasant characters is amusingly antiquated.

Octoblur 2021: 06. Axe (1977)

Axe (1977)

Movie #06
Dir.: Frederick R. Friedel
Flickcharted: #3852 (26.74%)

The first part of an "Axe"-themed double-feature.

Axe (1974) is one of those lo-fi, barely-there productions that can only exist in horror and porn. Clocking in at a meager 67 minutes (with most of the 7 consisting of an excruciatingly pokey end credits crawl), the plot languorously pits a trio of cruel gangsters against a taciturn farm girl (she of director Friedel's preferred alternate title, Lisa, Lisa). The thugs are mean to Lisa and her catatonic grandpa and learn that a life of near-isolation has made Lisa a pitiless hostess who is handy with sharp tools. Some of the 35mm photography looks nice, especially in exterior shots, and the spare score is evocative, but there’s little else to Axe aside from the garish, paint-red blood that earned it a spot on the Video Nasties list.

Octoblur 2021: 05. The Scary of Sixty-First (2021)

The Scary of Sixty-First (2021)

Movie #05
Dir.: Dasha Nekrasova
Flickcharted: #2927 (44.32%)

The Scary of Sixty-First (2021) is not for everyone. First, there's the question of taste. At the center of its semi-arch story of psychological and sexual deterioration is the subject of infamous sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. Madeline Quinn (also a co-writer) and Betsey Brown star as Noelle and Addie, roommates in a new Upper East Side Manhattan apartment, whose relationship comes under strain when a stranger (played by director and co-writer Dasha Nekrasova) informs them that their new home was once one of Epstein's secret rendevous points for his illicit activities. The roomies react differently: Noelle joins the stranger in obsessively cataloging every detail of the Epstein conspiracy, while Addie seems to become possessed by a hyper-sexualized fixation on both Epstein and his associate Prince Andrew. For its mix of true crime, social satire, and sex abuse, The Scary of Sixty-First is uneasily funny and extreme and violent. One of the bluntest and effective tools against accusations of bad taste, however, is not caring, and one suspects that Nekrasova doesn't give a f**k about anything beyond exploring this psychosexual dysfunction wherever unpleasant it may lead her. Even though I'm not sure that The Scary of Sixty-First hits all it targets with the most precision or impact, Nekrasova's cavalier approach is sort of freeing. After some bumpy acting during the set-up, all of the performers hit some kind of brazen comic frightening stride during the messy climax, which at its best moments recalls Roman Polanski's Repulsion. Whether The Scary of Sixty-First has anything interesting to say about its sensitive real-life subject matter, I'm not likely to forget the 80 minutes Nekrasova spent wildly vibing off its disturbing emanations, and I'm even less likely to figure out whether or not I liked the experience.

Octoblur 2021: 04. Howard's Mill (2021)

Howard's Mill (2021)

Movie #04
Dir.: Shannon Houchins, Potsy Ponciroli, Kaiser Whitmire
Flickcharted: #4275 (18.66%)

Making a fake documentary may seem like an easier project than a fictional narrative — you can get away with lower quality visuals and a rougher spontaneous tone — but some of those doc-like qualities are harder to fake than they seem. Even more important, however, is that the supposed advantages of the mockumentary tend to obscure some hidden pitfalls that can call the entire enterprise into question. A good real documentary, for example, is still a narrative, expressing a story/idea that hopefully begins with intrigue and concludes with substance. Even when the end of the narrative is inconclusive, a skilled documentary filmmaker has a strong point of view that can frame realistic ambiguity with meaning. A good fake documentary has an even tougher challenge: unlike their authentic cousins which often discover stories spontaneously, mockumentaries need a well-planned narrative that appears spontaneous and a conclusion that justifies the indulgence of the format. There's really no excuse for an ersatz doc to punt on its ending. To their credit, the production team behind Howard's Mill (2021) gets the technique of the fake doc pretty close to spot-on. The acting is mostly convincing and the editing closely mimics the new breed of slick, hyper-professional reality-TV style documentaries that are sometimes better at hyping their subjects than clarifying them. Sadly, that's also where Howard's Mill fails. Directors Shannon Houchins, Potsy Ponciroli and Kaiser Whitmire propose a potentially chilling subject matter — a Tennesee property at the locus of decades of missing persons cases — poke around the edges of it, introduce some weird twists, and then cop-out from building anything substantial on its foundation of half-ideas. Now, this may be how real TV docs often end their hour-long wank sessions on mysterious occurrences, but it's a drag for a fictional narrative to end the same way, choosing fidelity to a lesser form of throwaway documentary over bridging the novelty of the style with a compelling and complete narrative.

Octoblur 2021: 03. Night of the Creeps (1986)

Night of the Creeps (1986)

Movie #03
Dir.: Fred Dekker
Flickcharted: #1071 (79.62%)
Re-ranked from: #691 (86.85%)

Previously reviewed as part of Octoblur 2014.

The thing about Fred Dekker is that you sense that he really cares about his movies. Like his sophomore effort The Monster Squad (1987), his debut Night of the Creeps (1986) is often silly but doesn't contain a throwaway moment. Dekker takes his time to hang out with his college student characters (most named after horror directors) and build a convoluted mish-mash plot of pulpy sci-fi and horror tropes, but even when it meanders, it doesn't feel wasteful: Dekker likes these people and his crazy, deliberate genre fixations. Tom Atkins and Jill Whitlow are overflowing with screen presence, compensating for their weaker co-stars, and give a more than satisfying taste of the glorious comic horror tone that Dekker would perfect on The Monster Squad. One of the great overlooked 1980s horror movies.

Octoblur 2021: 02. Idle Hands (1999)

Idle Hands (1999)

Movie #02
Dir.: Rodman Flender
Flickcharted: #2929 (44.26%)

An extended riff on the hand scene from The Evil Dead, Part 2, Idle Hands (1999, dir.: Rodman Flender), is technically snappy and occasionally clever, enough to mostly compensate for a typically loathsome collection of late 90s teen characters. Devon Sawa stars as a feckless stoner whose right hand becomes possessed by a murderous force. Seth Green, Elden Henson, Vivica A. Fox and Jack Noseworthy help director Flender maintain an appealing comic tone to balance some creatively gruesome body horror, while Jessica Alba provides eye-candy in an otherwise pointless role. This could’ve been a lot worse, but it also couldv'e been been a lot better.

Octoblur 2021: 01. The Midnight Hour (1985)

The Midnight Hour (1985)

Movie #01
Dir.: Jack Bender
Flickcharted: #1922 (63.42%)

There couldn’t be a more perfect start to a Halloween horror marathon than the light, silly Thriller-inspired monster romp The Midnight Hour (1985). An affectionate & energetic mix of comic horror riffs plus some borderline surreal indulgences as an iconic American small town is overrun by a confusing assortment of witches, werewolves, vampires, zombies, and more on Halloween night. Great '80s TV cast includes Shari Belafonte, Peter DeLuise, LeVar Burton, Dedee Pfeiffer, Cindy Morgan, Kurtwood Smith, Mark Blankfield, Dick Van Patten, and Kevin McCarthy — plus Lee Montgomery (one of my favorite child performers, in Ben (1972)) and the appealing Jonna Lee — not to mention the voice of legendary radio DJ Wolfman Jack. Nice soundtrack of mostly oldies, including the title song more than once. There’s an endearing sweetness to The Midnight Hour, as some ghouls simply prefer to party, but director Jack Bender throws in some arresting weirdness, climaxing in a bizarre chaos montage which includes a milkman apocalyptically pouring out his product set to music from the opera Pagliacci. Belafonte seizes on her relatively meaty role — which includes a fun dance number — with a committed performance that’s as good as I’ve ever seen her.

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