Tuesday, October 31, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 31: Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

(dir. Tommy Lee Wallace)

Universal Pictures
The only Michael Meyers-less film in the Halloween franchise, Season of the Witch follows a doctor (Tom Atkins in a role that so steeped in masculinity it becomes parody) and the daughter of a shop-owner (Stacey Nelkin) as they uncover a businessman/warlock’s plans to kill the world’s children through Halloween masks embedded with fragments of Stonehenge so that he can bring back the age of witchcraft. Yeah, it’s just as fucking zany as it sounds.

This film gets a lot of flak for not including Michael Meyers, and as a result it’s pretty underseen by comparison. I skipped over it for years in favor of the continuing story of the Meyers/Strode family, which was unfortunate because Halloween III is pretty awesome in that 80s B/C movie kind of way that only horror can really deliver. The first part of enjoying Season of the Witch is accepting that it’s not going to live up to the quality of John Carpenter’s film. Tommy Lee Wallace is a capable director who delivers some pretty chilling moments, but you’re not going to get the shot composition (though there are a couple standouts) and the careful pacing that made Halloween such a classic. On the script side of things, Wallace opts against the simplicity that’s allowed for the lasting appeal of Halloween and goes for a complicated set-up involving witchcraft, androids, and masks that turn kids’ heads into a mess of snakes and insects in a story that’s ambitious even if it doesn’t always make sense (there’s a very loose understanding of the popularity of cheap Halloween masks, and time zones that just has to be accepted for the story to work.) Wallace does deserve praise for switching up the format, especially considering the boom of slasher movies at the time. The corporate investigation that our leads find themselves involved in, and world-ending stakes are uncommon to the genre at the time, and even when the pieces don’t all fit, Wallace does deliver an incredible amount of tension. This tension is also helped along by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s score which really cements the feeling of Season of the Witch being a Halloween film.

What works in greatest favor of the film is how much it feels like the holiday. It’s funny, and frightening, gross, mysterious, and a little bit impenetrable from an outsider’s perspective. It delves right into the folklore of Halloween and our childlike fascination with masks, which is in some ways just as important as the lasting fear and legacy of the Halloween story of the babysitter alone in the house with a killer. As a companion piece to Carpenter’s films, you can really see how this would have worked as an anthology franchise that explored our changing views and fears of the holiday, past, present, and future. As an added bonus, the jingle for the Silver Shamrock Halloween mask commercial is sure to be stuck in your head long after Halloween is over, and you’ll either love or hate the film for that reason alone.

Scare Factor: 2/5 There are some genuinely impressive moments of horror, and a killer ending. While it’s obvious that not all the plot threads come together in a way that makes sense, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is such an immersive experience that you’ll buy into the nonsense it offers enough to be suitably chilled, and have a good time the whole way through. What more could you ask for on Halloween night?

And that’s it for this year! Thanks for reading and if this month was your introduction to the blog, be sure to stick around for full reviews of this fall’s awards contenders and blockbusters.

Lastly, if you’ve yet to get your fill of horror, I co-wrote a list of The 100 Best Horror Movies of the 2000s (so far) so be sure to check it out and browse the site!: http://www.audienceseverywhere.net/100-horror-2000s-lists/

Monday, October 30, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 30: Magic (1978)

(dir. Richard Attenborough)

20th Century Fox/Dark Sky Films
A struggling entertainer’s life is dominated by an ill-tempered ventriloquist dummy.

Right from the onset Magic establishes itself as a deeply sad movie. We watch as Corky Withers (Anthony Hopkins) stumbles through a magic set for late night club attendees who couldn’t care less that he’s on the stage. These scenes are interspersed with Corky recounting a positive reinvention of the night to his aging, and dying mentor, which only punctuates the sadness. The acute sense of failure and self-loathing that we witness in those opening minutes are horror scenes unto themselves, exquisite in their unflinching examination of human failure. This feeling of horror is doubled by the fact that Anthony Hopkins, at least from the modern perspective of looking back on this film, is so rarely depicted as fragile or unsure. While lacking a powerful frame or booming vocals, there’s often a level of control found in Hopkins' roles. But Corky is out of control, so much so that his failures in the face of being ignored or laughed at, feel only a few steps shy of being capped off by suicide. Attenborough carefully establishes the emotional horror and that’s the magic of this film. The sinister dummy, Fats, is simply an additional means to explore Corky’s fragile state.

After Corky’s tumultuous beginning, the film jumps ahead a year and we find Corky as a successful stage entertainer, accompanied by a ventriloquist Dummy, Fats, and manged by entertainment mogul, Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith). What’s great about Corky’s sudden shift in fortune is that it’s obviously attributed to Fats, and yet we get no information about where the dummy comes from. Hopkins voices Fats, and there’s an obvious psychological link between the two, but we’re never given any details into how that bond was formed. That missing year is situated as a darkly brewing threat that’s never accounted for, and the repercussions come back tenfold. Refusing the psych evaluation that stands as a must for his impending TV contract, Corky leaves NY and returns back to his hometown where he strikes up a romance with his teenage crush, Peggy (Ann-Margaret). What follows is a tension filled romance as Corky must contend with Peggy’s abusive husband (Ed Lauter), and Fats increasing insistence that he’s all Corky needs. Within the horror realm, Anthony Hopkins is synonymous with Hannibal Lecter, but as the profusely sweating, and agitated Corky Wither, Hopkins delivers a performance that’s just as worthy of our attention. Perhaps the greatest surprise of Magic is how little attention its given among genre fans, because it is a truly outstanding character study with horrific insights.

Scare Factor: 3/5 Built on carefully constructed character moments along with surprising bursts of violence, Magic is one of the best horror films of the 70s with a finale that’s hard to shake.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 29: Demons 2 (1986)

(dir. Lamberto Bava)

Titanus Distribuzione
* First time viewing

Tenants of a high-rise apartment building must contend with a horde of demons.

Demons (1985) was one of my favorite first-time watches of last year, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to check out Demons 2. Bava’s sequel is amps up the set pieces by moving the stage for conflict from a movie theater to an apartment complex. While the space is bigger, Demons 2 doesn’t have the same magic as its predecessor. Don’t get me wrong, the film is still enjoyable, and filled with exquisite practical effects, but it’s not as startling, ambitious, or gorgeously shot as its predecessor. The acting, in which the voices are dubbed over, is of course not great, but there is a certain try-hard earnestness to them that’s enjoyable in a kitschy sort of way. The central characters for this night of terror are a call-girl, a couple expecting a baby, an unhappy party girl throwing her 16th birthday party, a ten-year old boy, and a group of weight lifters. It’s the party girl who unleashes the first demon, and much in the same way as the first film, it’s a movie that provides the doorway through which these monsters from hell enter our world. It’s a bit nonsensical and the film within the film aspect doesn’t work as well as the first film, but it’s still a cool concept. From that point them film plays our much like the first, (there’s even another group of punk teenagers speeding a car towards the apartment, listening to hit 80s tunes, who have no bearing on the plot whatsoever.) But it’s not the people that make Bava’s film something to marvel at.

Demons 2 may be a bit less gory than the first film, but in terms of practical gore standards, this film is still a high mark. The initial transformation of party girl, Sally, is exquisite. Fangs push out of her gums, shoving her teeth out of her mouth as blood streaked runnels make their way down her face. Another scene sees a Gremlins-esque mini demon claw its way out of its victim’s abdomen and wreak havoc on a couple. This film plays looser with the rules than the first film did, but it does allow for some really cleverly executed set pieces, including a great one that takes place in elevator shaft, and some gory finishes. Special effects artist, Sergio Stivaletti is once again the true hero of this film, and the visages of these demons still stand as some of horror’s best and most creative works.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Demons 2 is a solid sequel that fans of the first will enjoy, and it’s a make-up and special effects enthusiasts’ blood soaked dream. It's kind of a shame that Bava didn't follow this film up with a third entry. Even in the realm of diminishing returns, Demons 2 is a breath of fresh air within 80s horror fare.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

31 Days of Horror – Day 28: The Stuff (1985)

(dir. Larry Cohen)

New World Pictures
*First time viewing

Railroad workers discover a tasty alien substance bubbling out of the ground, and the goo is marketed as healthy ice cream replacement, The Stuff. But when an industrial saboteur is hired to find out the secret of The Stuff’s addictive power, he finds himself caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse that stretches across America.

Credit where credit’s due- for a B horror movie made for less than two million dollars, The Stuff has an expansive scope that goes above and beyond what a lot of horror movies were doing at the time. Initially focusing on the separate stories of saboteur David “Mo” Rutherford’s (Michael Moriarty) industrial espionage, and a young boy named Jason coming to terms with his family’s addiction to The Stuff, Cohen looks at the power of consumerism on multiple levels. Labeled as satirical horror, The Stuff is actually right on target in its analysis of consumer fads, aggressively inescapable advertisements (those jingles!) and the kind of cult mentality that arises from new products. While Cohen is known as a B-movie filmmaker extraordinaire, his films also tackle issues and agendas that elevate them to highest heights of the B-movie catalogue. Yes, The Stuff is a revealing reflection of humanity, but it’s also batshit crazy.

Michael Moriarty operates a whole other level in this film, his tics and deliveries a highlight in every scene. Nearly every line uttered is quotable (“They call me “Mo” because I always want mo,” “Are you eating it…or is it eating you?”) Once Mo discovers that The Stuff is turning people into mindless masses with a need only to consume more of The Stuff, and destroy those who would prevent them, his path crosses with Jason’s. From there, they and The Stuff’s advertising lead Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), plot to destroy the factory mining The Stuff. This ultimately sees them teaming up with an independent militia led by Paul Sorvino and battling Stuff-addled hordes. While the film’s blending of horror and humor doesn’t always gel, and the film’s scares never quite tops the scene where Jason’s family tries to force him to eat the stuff, there’s a glut of oddness and gross out moments. The Stuff is ultimately a rather charming blend of social message and creature feature that feels like an 80s take on the monster movies of the 50s.

Scare Factor: 1/5 While more strange than scary, The Stuff is a memorable blending of genres with some fascinating and committed creative decisions. “Enough is never enough.”

Friday, October 27, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 27: Interview with the Vampire (1994)

(dir. Neil Jordan)

Warner Bros.
A vampire details his decades spanning life story of loneliness, love, and dark urges to a curious reporter.

Interview with the Vampire has the dark, richly alluring mystique that the very best vampire films are composed of. There’s a bold theatricality to it, multiplied by delicious, scenery-chewing performances by Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise’s portrayals of Anne Rice’s famed Vampire Chronicles characters, Louis and Lestat. Despite the theatricality, and over-the-top moments, Interview with the Vampire takes itself seriously. Jordan approaches the vampire movie like a prestige picture, and carefully plots the course for these characters in a way that relies on genuine emotion, and thus illicits genuine emotion from the viewer. Within a wraparound set in 90s New York, Louis tells his story of how he was turned from a widowed plantation owner in New Orleans, to a vampire reluctant to shed himself of his humanity. Alongside his maker, Lestat, he forms a friendship and implied sexual relationship, that lasts for decades. But their relationship begins to wither upon their adoption of the eternally youthful vampire child, Claudia (Kirsten Dunst). What ensues is a battle of vampire morality as Lestat urges Claudia to give into her darker humanity, while Louis hopes to maintain her innocence, and thus his own.

There’s a sprawling mythology within the film, rules and sects, and worldly vampires like Armand (Antonio Banderas) who give this world the feeling of being lived in. What’s interesting is that although Louis is our lead, and the other vampires end up as antagonists of sorts, each of these characters could make for a worthy protagonist (and they have in Rice’s expansive series of novels). The film isn’t interested in these characters as archetypical villains, but real characters navigating the moral quandaries that living forever and living off other people entails. There’s a bitter loneliness in the questions that the vampires’ face, and the film never strays too far from that moroseness even in its moments of black levity. While the film excels on a level of pure entertainment (Pitt dispatching a theater company of vampires with a scythe), it’s the honesty internal struggle of these characters that makes Interview with the Vampire a classic of its kind.

Scare Factor: 2/5 More poetic and epic, in true novelistic fashion, than genuinely frightening, Interview with the Vampire still stands as one of our strongest vampire films. Compelling characterizations, lavish costume and productions designs, and unrestrained helpings of blood and gore, there’s a lot to love about Jordan’s first foray into the vampire subgenre. It’s a shame that Rice’s subsequent novels weren’t adapted with this cast. Pair it with Jordan’s 2012 vampire film, Byzantium, and you’ll find there’s still plenty of juice coursing through the veins of one of horrors most classic creatures.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 26: Flatliners (1990)

(dir. Joel Schumacher)

Columbia Pictures
On Halloween night, five medical students undergo an experiment to find out what lies beyond death, but they bring manifestations of their sins back with them.

Despite coming in immediately after the tail-end of 80s horror, Flatliners set a precedent for 90s horror. While other early 90s films still felt distinctly stuck in 80s mentality, Flatliners shrugs off those trappings, opting for a moody high-concept, slightly cerebral-minded film that straddles the line between genres. Schumacher, and screenwriter Peter Filardi, who also wrote defining 90s horror flick, The Craft, do an admirable job of venturing into new territory and creating a new mythology that doesn’t feel like a reworking or copycat of other films. Flatliners also looks like it has money (and a shit ton of fog machines) behind it, and whether you love or hate Schumacher, the guy has always delivered top notch set pieces and productions. While 90s horror isn’t held in quite the same nostalgic regard as those from the 80s, it’s hard not to admit that the properties that came from major studios had quality production values even when the narratives missed the mark. Flatliners is also noteworthy for its charismatic cast of big name stars, (Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, William Baldwin, and Oliver Platt), stepping away from the novice newcomers and C-listers that defined much of the previous decade. While it’s by no means a great film, and I personally prefer Schumacher’s other venture into the horror genre, The Lost Boys, Flatliners feels like a significant step in the evolution of horror.

The central question of what exists after death is always a fascinating concept to start with, and Flatliners creates a feasible pseudo-scientific method to answer this question. But the question and resulting foray into horror doesn’t work without an interesting group of characters behind it. While an emotional connection between the viewer and the characters is never quite struck, this group of college students are at least interesting reflections of their neo-grunge world, and are individually defined by their own desires, longings, and torments. If there’s one major flaw to Flatliners, it’s that none of the characters are morally compromised enough. Sutherland’s Nelson, haunted by a boy who he and his classmates accidently made fall to his death as children, and Baldwin’s Joe, a sex addict who repeatedly cheats on his wife, come the closest to moral failure. But they are also too situated as charming leads for the film to entirely allow for their ruination.  Robert’s Rachel, haunted by the death of her father, and Bacon’s David, tormented by a girl he’d bullied as a child, seem less at fault for their sins, or are at least placed within more normalized positions of guilt. The characters are forced to face their guilt after flatlining and bringing physical manifestations of their sins back with them into the physical world. But the film never pushes that concept all the way, and the terrors unleashed by these characters seem like timid toe-dipping into tepid horror, when the narrative calls for something more soul shattering.

Scare Factor: 1/5 Flatliners is entertaining, conceptually interesting, and well-performed by some of our finest actors, but it’s hard not wish that the film was harder on these characters, and didn’t offer so clean a resolution. Flatliners is built on the idea of forgiveness, but sometimes actions can’t be forgiven and that’s a far more frightening territory to venture into.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 25: Tourist Trap (1979)

(dir. David Schmoeller)

Compass International Pictures

A group of friends become stranded in the desert and are forced to take refuge at mannequin museum run by the eccentric Mr. Slausen.

It’s difficult to predict what’s in store when the film’s jaunty theme plays over the opening credits. That and the film’s PG rating may not inspire much confidence. But rest assured, Tourist Trap is a nightmarish look at creativity without purpose, and the death of curiosity museums in the face of motion picture special effects. Chuck Connor’s Mr. Slausen plays welcoming, if perpetually randy, host to the group of friends, but there’s an identifiable resentment that stems from the decline of the tourism industry he founded his life on. Amidst the scenes of lurching mannequins with moving eyes, the spectral choir of girlish voices, and the ultimate question of reality, there’s an inescapable sense of western decline.

Released a year after Halloween and right before the boom of slasher film, Tourist Trap crafts its own disturbing look at evil shaped like a human being. While Schmoeller’s film doesn’t have the competent pacing or tonal control of Carpenter’s masterpiece, Tourist Trap is a stranger horror film and perhaps more likely to make your skin crawl. Stephen King praised the film as one of his favorite horror movies, noting its “spooky power.” Tourist Trap does seem to have a dreamlike power in its use of uncanny mannequins that move on their own, and a killer in a humanity-mocking mask who wants to preserve this group of stranded friends as an attraction in the museum. There are moments in the film, where the action slows down, to something that’s not quite slow motion but rather a lurching rhythm, like a puppet show. While it may lack the bloodletting of its R-rated contemporaries, Tourist Trap’s methods of horror are equally unsettling.

Scare Factor: 3/5 Tourist Trap is an eerie tour of idiosyncrasies and anachronisms, that ultimately turn what would become the tropes of the slasher genre into unexpected surrealism. Like a practical joke gone terribly wrong, Tourist Trap has a forbidden quality to it that feels dangerous in its desperation to disorient. Pair it with the previously discussed House of Wax (2005), and feel your nerves melt away.