Friday, November 4, 2016

Doctor Strange Review

(dir. Scott Derrickson)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
After an arrogant doctor loses the use of his hands in car accident, he travels the world in search of a cure and discovers an order of sorcerers and the power selflessness that enable him to take on a rogue apprentice bent on delivering immortality to humanity at any cost.

There has been a certain sameness to Marvel Studios’ pictures of late, resulting in enjoyable but ultimately disappointing trips through a universe that feels increasingly stripped down in their efforts to deliver a more unified style and tone. While Doctor Strange may be a lesser known Marvel property, there was never any chance that the movie would fail financially, but artistically one could see it either going the way of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and introducing a new energy and style worthy of our investment in this cinematic universe, or the way of Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man by giving us a few new, fun concepts, but ultimately doing little (no pun-intended) to really give us something unlike anything else we’ve seen in blockbusters. Luckily, Doctor Strange falls far closer to Guardians of the Galaxy, not in tone or style, but in its sense that this is a film crafted by a director with a clear vision of how their voice can add to the MCU, not be swallowed whole by it.

While the superhero origin story has become a bit trying for moviegoers, the use of the origin in Doctor Strange is a necessity that firmly situates us within the new concepts introduced here. The Marvel formula the comics and films are built on are apparent in this film, as the hero learns the cost of his hubris and discovers, in so many words, that “with great power comes great responsibility.” This manta, true as it is, isn’t what makes these characters or this movie work, but rather the variations on this theme. Yes, in broad strokes, Doctor Strange’s journey to heroism isn’t too dissimilar from Iron Man, or Thor, or Star Lord, or Ant-Man but it’s the execution that matters with these characters and movies. What’s always potentially fresh and fascinating is not the why of these heroes, but the how, and on that front Doctor Strange delivers one of the best origin stories of the MCU. Despite the film’s brisk pace (it runs just under two hours), Doctor Strange manages to do what so few superhero films manage to do well, even with an extended runtime, which is to allow their hero to learn their lesson and increase their skills over a what feels like an extended period of time, rather than just a few days’ time (looking at you, Thor) or a montage that rushes the pacing (Captain America: The First Avenger). Even after Strange’s years of training in Nepal, he still isn’t a master of the mystic arts, nor has he completely learned humility yet. The character’s journey is constant and in the spirt of Mad Max: Fury Road happens through the action scenes and supporting characters, not outside of them. Whether it be because of Derrickson’s knowledge of the character, or Marvel’s realization that the superhero origin story had to be reworked in order to function, Doctor Strange is the most adept solo-origin character for the studio since they kicked things off with Iron Man in 2008.

Marvel Studios never whiffs when it comes to casting and Doctor Strange is no different. There was never any doubt that Benedict Cumberbatch would make an excellent Doctor Strange, what’s most surprising is that he actually got to play the role. His casting is of the kind that fifteen years ago fans would have clamored for while the studio system went with Nic Cage or Johnny Depp. Cumberbatch sells it completely, managing to live up to the suave intrigue of the comic character while adding his own bit of charm that surprisingly makes him more likeable and identifiable than his comic counterpart. While Strange is typically emotionally closed in the source material, Cumberbatch goes the opposite direction by allowing us to feel his anger, disappointment, confusion, and over-confidence. While some of these emotions may mask larger personal issues, as his teacher, the Ancient One, points out, they allow for a layered character whose flaws make him likeable. Mads Mikkelsen, Chitwetel Ejiofor, and Benedict Wong each respectively shine as Kaecilius, Mordo, and Wong respectively. These characters who were steeped in tropes of the 60s are given the same layered treatment as Strange, establishing this as a world with supporting characters and villains who hold just as much promise as their hero. The film doesn’t delve much into anyone’s backstory and while this may be prove frustrating for some, it creates a level of intrigue similar to that of Disney other major franchise, Star Wars. Unfortunately, this intrigue and layered presentation doesn’t hold true for Rachel McAdams’ Nurse Christine Palmer. McAdams gives a likeable performance as Strange’s love interest and semi-confidant but there’s not much to her character outside of being there to showcase Strange’s change from selfishness to selflessness. She’s not a character who works on her own, and wouldn’t be missed in a sequel, which is a shame given McAdams talents. But female characters aren’t left completely out of the loop of greatness as Tilda Swinton shines in her performance as the Ancient One. Typically, she’s given roles the rely on coldness, but Swinton displays and warmth and humor that’s so engaging that it’s evident why the Ancient One would have so many devout followers. Swinton’s casting was controversial given that in the comic’s the Ancient One is an elderly Asian man, and I had my doubts that this would be handled well. But Swinton’s Ancient One is that comic character in name only, her hinted background, and personality being one created entirely for the film. Together Swinton and Cumberbatch perform one of my very favorite scenes in the MCU, a quiet character moment right before the film’s climax that really showcases a film that resonates beyond its visual acumen.

There’s really no shortchanging what Scott Derrickson and cinematographer Ben Davis do visually with this film. We’ve seen some pretty spectacular action set-pieces in superhero movies, just in this year alone we’ve seen some standout ones, but we haven’t seen anything like Doctor Strange. All of those adjectives and descriptions that have been thrown around since the trailer, “trippy”, “InceptionX10” “Ditko by way of Escher” are all true, so it’s no wonder that we’re running out of ways to describe it. But this isn’t just a film of cool cinematic visuals, this is Derrickson playing with dimensions of space and time in a way we haven’t seen another director do in live-action. These are cool visuals with a rule-book that’s every bit as fascinating to hear the characters discuss as it is to see them. The magic in this film never just becomes characters shooting energy beams at each other, but is built on a more sci-fi principle that sorcerers pull energy from different dimensions and this energy comes with a cost. The cost of magic is a theme that runs throughout the film, leading to some surprising elements of darkness. Even with this newfound darkness that is obviously a result of Derrickson’s horror background, Marvel has an unfortunate tendency to shortchange their dramatic beats by immediately positioning a humorous one right after, but it’s less egregious here than in Civil War and ultimately does little damage to a strong film. Doctor Strange shows Marvel’s growing confidence with the weirdness of their universe, and while not every comedic beat works, it does feel more earned and like a celebration of the source material, than the “please like me” self-mockery some of the other films have employed in their efforts to appeal the widest of general audiences.

Doctor Strange is one of Marvel’s best films, a phrase that gets thrown around with every new Marvel Studios release, but this time it’s true. Doctor Strange manages to stay high-energy while still delivering the emotional character beats we want from these films. Even more impressive is that the film doesn’t hesitate to go deep into the comic mythology, introducing something in the last act that I’d guessed would be saved for a post-credit scene, and handling it with respect to character motivations on all sides. Marvel did right by hiring an experienced filmmaker who’s worked in the industry long enough to develop his own sensibilities. Scott Derrickson has become just as integral to the development of the MCU as Joss Whedon was and James Gunn is, and with luck he’ll be keeping magic alive in the MCU for a long time to come.

Grade: A-


*There are 2 post-credit sequences.

Monday, October 31, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 31: Pumpkinhead (1988)

(dir. Stan Winston)

United Artists/MGM

When a father loses his son to a group of careless young adults, he raises the demon Pumpkinhead to exact his vengeance.

Special effects wizard Stan Winston only directed two feature films, Pumpkinhead and A Gnome Named Gnorm. The latter I haven’t seen and probably never will, but if the former is any indication of Winston’s skills as a director then it’s a shame he didn’t have a longer career as a horror filmmaker. All of the careful detail and eye-catching design that Winston put into his creature creations over the years is evident in his filmmaking too. The film’s lighting and use of shadows is a character of its own, creating a film that looks like a southern gothic fairy tale. The same detail goes for his casting choices, which are a celebration of a cinematically under-represented population of America—families who are remnants of the dustbowl, backwoods folks who aren’t inbred cannibals but people just trying to get by, people with their own folklore and legends. Pumpkinhead is horror by way of Norman Rockwell.

There are so many tales of vengeance in horror movies, but Pumpkinhead never loses sight of the personal, even once the bloodshed begins. The personal stakes of the movie are clearly defined by Lance Henriksen’s performance as Ed Harley. We feel the love for his son, and we feel the pain of his death. His desperation to find a way to exact vengeance allows for the film’s quick pacing to work. Even more effective is the fact that Ed is allowed to be a firsthand witness to the vengeance he wrought, seeing and experiencing Pumpkinhead’s exacting kills on those who wronged him. Through this, Pumpkinhead allows the viewer to find sympathy in the victims. These characters aren’t simply dumb teens, but real human beings who have real emotional reactions. Winston doesn’t spend his time constructing variations of kill scenes like a slasher movie, but instead uses this time to shade these characters and explore the ramifications of irresponsibility. The monster (and what a great monster it is!) may be the selling point but the emotional stakes are what keep me coming back for repeated viewings.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Pumpkinhead has an emotional weight to its narrative, a great creature, and a compelling lore that’s a perfect cap to the Halloween season. If it’s gone under your radar then it is surely worth a watch, especially on tonight of all nights. Happy Halloween!

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/

Sunday, October 30, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 30: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

(dir. John D. Hancock)

Paramount Pictures
*First time viewing

Jessica, recently released from a mental institution, moves to an island farmhouse with her husband and their mutual friend, only to find a mysterious woman already occupying the house…and perhaps the very town itself.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a frayed nerved ending of a film and I loved every minute of it. Despite a title reminiscent of a C-level 80s slasher movie, Hancock’s film is a haunting portrait of mental illness with a supernatural tinge. In many ways, it can be seen as the forebearer to the indie horror circuit today with their focus on interpersonal relationships, subdued horror, sense of dread, and ambiguity. Hancock’s film is far ahead of its time and completely unlike its contemporaries, so much so that it’s almost jarring how modern it feels in the midst of its early 70s trappings. Like David Robert Mitchell or Jennifer Kent, Hancock was not a horror director and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death was his only film in the genre. As a result, this film’s horror is unique and powerful, driven by a specific vision instead of catering to a demand or fad.

Zohra Lampert’s performance as Jessica is remarkable (she’s also very reminiscent of Rebecca Hall). The film juxtaposes her inner monologues with her reaction and actions, making for moments of ominous tension. She smiles and laughs while inside she wonders if the others around her see what she sees, if she’s going mad, and if her husband is still in love with her or the strange woman, Emily, that they’ve allowed to reside with them. Stephen King has cited this film as one of his favorites and the contrast between what is said and what is thought is featured prominently through Jack Torrance’s characterization in The Shining. Mariclare Costello is equally captivating as Emily, the woman who plays with the emotions of the house’s occupants and who may also be a vampire of sorts. What’s so great about Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is that so much of the horror could be real or a result of Jessica’s failing mental health, giving every action an extra layer of meaning. The film plays up these moments with jarring moments of music and extreme close-ups that create disorienting effect similar to what Jessica herself must be experiencing. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death isn’t just a film where the story is fascinating but where the production is equally attention-grabbing. The film’s sad, haunting beauty allows for a horror that’s deeply human.


Scare Factor: 4/5 Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is quiet, unnerving horror that feels extremely modern in its vision and lasting effect. It’s perfectly situated to become a new favorite of mine and hopefully a film that will increase in viewership.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 29: The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

(dir. Wes Craven)

Vanguard Monarch Releasing Corporation
*First time viewing

A family on their way to California is stranded in the Nevada desert and attacked by a disfigured family of cannibals.

Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes has long remained a blind spot in my horror knowledge, largely because I’m such a fan of Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake that I never felt all that compelled to seek out the original, faux pas that may be. Upon watching this film it’s clear how much of a remake Aja’s film is, with the 2006 following this film beat for beat with only a few new additions. What’s most surprising about Craven’s film is how tame the on-screen violence is, particularly given its original X rating. Yes, the exact actions that make up the violence are gruesome, but Craven never lingers on it and the film's gore is quite modest.  As his follow-up to The Last House on the Left (another of Craven’s that I’ve only seen the remake of) I fully expected a film as steeped in controversy as that previous film.

While The Hills Have Eyes may not as explicit as expected, the deaths and ramifications are still surprising—there’s nothing sacred about family, religion, or childhood innocence in this film. Not only do a mother’s prayers go unheard, but she also dies slowly and painfully. Already we can see Craven toying with the emotional and thematic stakes of horror instead of just the visceral elements. While he would learn to marry these elements better as his career progressed, the stepping stones are clearly placed here. What’s also interesting is how much of an affect this film had on the future of horror and particularly the boom of movies featuring inbred cannibal families and road breakdowns leading to doom. From the Wrong Turn series to the majority of Rob Zombie’s films, there’s a clear reverence in both style and language to Craven's Hills Have Eyes.


Scare Factor: 2/5 I prefer Aja’s version, but it’s important to understand where that vision came from and if I'd seen this version first it may have had more of an impact. The theme about the savagery of man on both a large and small scale is just as impactful within the frame of post-Vietnam as it is in the frame of the War on Terror. There’s an eternal resonance to Craven’s ideas here, and The Hills Have Eyes works as a horror movie version of Cain and Abel where no one comes out morally clean.

Friday, October 28, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 28: The Lost Boys (1987)

(dir. Joel Schumacher)

Warner Bros.
Two brothers move to a new town and discover it has a serious vampire problem.

In the 80s, the vampire movie had mostly fallen out of fashion, likely deemed too archaic in a genre run by mask-clad slashers and the gruesome deaths of sexy teenagers. The vampire, which had ruled so much of horror cinema prior to the 80s, had become too tied to period pieces starring old men with European accents. 1985’s Fright Night found a way to modernize the vampire slightly, but Fright Night was never sexy in the sense of the MTV generation and its vampire was still an older man. The Lost Boys re-purposed the vampire by way of the Peter Pan mythos and gave us youthful vampires with sex appeal whose need to drink blood came secondary to living life dangerously. These vampires, led by Kiefer Sutherland’s iconic David, modernized the vampire by making them rock stars instead of counts, by placing them in sunken hotels instead of castles. There’s a rebel appeal to the vampires of The Lost Boys and the entire movie’s aesthetic revolves around this rebellious idea to bring the appeal of vampirism back into focus for a nascent millennial generation infatuated with never growing up.

The Lost Boys exists under the shadow of Jim Morrison. From the film’s opening featuring “People Are Strange,” the poster of Morrison in the vampires’ lair, and even the look of Michael Emerson shows a reverence to Morrison. The film lacks his poetry, and perhaps even the complexity of his spirit, but there’s a purpose to his specter over the film. The near constant allusions suggest that lives like Morrison’s could have been led longer, eternally even, through vampirism—that Morrison’s zest for life is something unable to be contained by mortality and that only through immortality can greatness be achieved. This idea has an almost subliminal effect on the film’s 80s cool factor but the very idea of it is in juxtaposition with the fact that David and his vampires waste their time in an effort to find thrills, suggesting the film’s real message and theme that it’s mortality that keeps people grounded.

Joel Schumacher gets a bad rap so often that it’s easy to forget how effortlessly entertaining he can make movies when he’s on the right project. So many of his traits and flourishes from wild camera angles, crane shots, flamboyant costumes, and general cheesiness are on display in The Lost Boys and they all make for welcome elements. 60% of what makes The Lost Boys work is its style which could easily lend itself to a musical. In fact, there’s a very musical nature to the film with its heavily detailed locations and set pieces, and a costume design that mixes a wide range of styles and periods. The frequent reprise of Gerard McMann’s excellent “Cry Little Sister” adds to the film’s theatrical element. The other 40% of this film’s appeal is its likable cast. Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, and Jamison Newlander’s side story involving their investigation into the vampires may sharply contrast with addiction metaphor Jason Patric’s Michael faces, yet somehow this blend of more kid-friendly horror aspects within an R-rated, teen/young adult centric movie is what makes the film such an interesting time capsule. The Lost Boys draws a wide circle and thus appeals to diverse range of moviegoers. While this may hamper some of its thematics, The Lost Boys is such an entertaining movie, so defined by the period it was made, that it’s really hard not fall in love with it.


Scare Factor: 1/5 There’s nothing scary about The Lost Boys, but it’s a constantly entertaining slice of 80s pop culture. For fans of vampire mythos it’s also an interesting look at how it changed that particular subgenre and led to the teenage-centric vampire stories that have gotten so much play in the 21st century.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 27: The Prowler (1981)

(dir. Joseph Zito)

Sandhurst
*First time viewing

35 years after a double-murder at a graduation dance in the aftermath of WWII, the killer seemingly returns to wreak havoc in a trail left in blood and roses.

The Prowler is another B-movie 80s slash semi-classic that’s been on my radar for years but didn’t get around to watching until this week. Zito, who would later go on to direct Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, goes through most of the familiar slasher beats with a group of young college kids serving as carving boards for an army combat uniform clad, pitchfork carrying killer. Effects legend Tom Savini delivers a brutal series of kills, culminating in an explosive finale of blood. The kills scenes become adrenaline shots in a somewhat sleepy film. The story itself is intriguing, backed up by a post-WWII prologue that gives the film a sense of history. But as intriguing as the mystery is, the pacing is slow, consisting of long stretches between moments of horror and mystery. Much of the film is driven by wholesome final girl, Pam (who may be one of the most likable final girls) and her love interest, (a cardboard box) Deputy Mark London. The film stalls as they attempt to investigate the series of murders by wandering through dark spaces for what seems like unnecessarily long stretches of time, particularly considering the reveal which I'll touch on momentarily.

Even when The Prowler’s pacing suffers, it’s obvious that Zito is a director who stands head and shoulders above many of his slasher movie contemporaries. The production value in this film is unmistakable and while it may have been made for cheap, it never looks cheap and that's key to this movie's lasting appeal. Zito’s lighting and careful framing is noticeable within the first 15 minutes, and The Prowler truly is a beauty to look at. For the most part The Prowler works…until we reach the conclusion which may be one of the weirdest (and not in a good way) endings to a slasher movie I’ve seen. There are Scooby-Doo episodes with better wrap-ups, and explorations into character motivations. It’s so utterly weird that I can’t help but think a major chunk of the film was cut out. Endings may not make a movie, but when it comes to slasher films that tend to be distinguishable because of them, The Prowler unfortunately deflates before the credits roll, and a Carrie-esque dream sequence doesn't do a bit to help matters..


Scare Factor: 1/5 The Prowler is mostly enjoyable despite a WTF ending, and while it won’t create any nightmares it’s worth watching for Savini’s work alone.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 26: Day of the Dead (1985)

(dir. George Romero)

United Film Distribution Company
*First time viewing

In the midst of the zombie apocalypse, communication breaks down between scientists and soldiers in military base.

There seems to be a general consensus that out of Romero’s famed Dead trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead) that this film is the weakest of the three. I’m going to the counter that notion and suggest that not only is Day of the Dead just as strong as its predecessors, it’s also the most interesting. With so much of our zombie media focused on either revisiting the themes, aesthetics, and design of Romero’s films, or aping them, so few actually take the chance to push the ideas forward. Day of the Dead was that forward motion 31 years ago, and while it’s less action-oriented than Dawn and less shocking than Night, Day of the Dead is the most intelligent.

The focus on the human element has always been a key factor of what made Romero’s zombie films work. Night took a look regional rural prejudices, Dawn examined mass consumerism in the U.S. ln Day, the conflict is global, focusing on the moral and spiritual battle of warfare, science, and ambivalence, with each of the characters falling on a different side of this conflict as their inability to communicate with each other leads to tragedy. Of all Romero’s zombie films, Day of the Dead clearly had the most influence on The Walking Dead, both the comic and show. Alongside the moral conundrums that our characters at the end of the world face, there is also the added factor that zombies can be taught, they can learn, and retain memories of their previous selves. The film makes no effort to hide its Frankenstein angle, with the lead scientist being nicknamed Frankenstein, but regardless of the overt allusion the result is no less effective. Bub, the smart zombie, is a fascinating furthering of the zombie lore. The scenes of him holding and firing a gun are evocative and powerful, not only in the sense that zombies are capable of this but that the true root of humanity, stripped away of life as we know it, is violent. The film may end on slight uptick of positivity, but humanity’s capabilities for warfare wins out in the end, and everyone loses because of it. That may be the most horrifying angle Romero has ever explored.

Scare Factor: 2/5 More cerebral than Romero’s previous Dead films, and less timeless in terms of acting and music, Day of the Dead remains a powerful conclusion to a great thematic trilogy. And Savini, with an assist from Nicotero, delivers the best make-up and gore of the trilogy with this film. Don’t mistake this for lesser Romero, it’s a classic.


**Available to watch on Hulu

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

31 Days of Horror-Day 25: The House on Sorority Row (1983)

(dir. Mark Rosman)

Artists Releasing Corporation/Film Ventures International
*First time viewing

After a group of sorority sisters pull a prank that goes terribly wrong on their housemother, the girls begin getting picked off one by one on the night of their big party.

I love 80s slasher movies. I absolutely adore them, even recognizing that so many follow a similar formula and are victim to poor creative choices. I’d call it a guilty pleasure, but I don’t believe in feeling guilty because of films I enjoy. So luckily, I was able to enjoy The House on Sorority Row entirely guilt free. The film is Friday the 13th-lite, to the point where parts of it feels like a rip-off, with the only thing being changed is the location and the primarily female cast. All of the familiar slasher beats, the wrongful prank, the irresponsible teens, the wholesome final girl, the vengeful mother, the secret son, and the POV kills with hands that could be anyone’s. And yet, despite all of these tropes, The House on Sorority Row is constantly engaging and suspenseful, to the point where there were moments I got genuine chills.

So why does this movie work? For one the cast is incredibly engaging. No one’s a good actor in this, the same is true for most of this particular horror sub-genre, yet each one of the girls has a defined personality and energy that just works for the film. Their panic works, their stupid ideas work, their bitchiness works, creating a perfect storm of bad acting that draws you in. Beyond that, a haunting score by legendary horror movie composer Richard Band heightens the eeriness and surreal quality that parts of the film have. On the subject of the surreal, the film begins with a flashback that looks like it was shot through cheesecloth and then cuts to years later and we open on an idyllic, dreamlike trek through campus. The film maintains this quality almost throughout its entire runtime, with scenes having slight shades of Heather in terms of look if not tone. And then this dreamlike gauze is ripped off during the climax as the killer is revealed and viewers are taken back to the bodies of each of the dead victims and forced to look upon the brutality reaped. This scenes of gore were added after production as studio notes, and while they may not have been part of the original vision they act as a kind of wake-up call that’ll make you go “oh shit.” For all of its expected motions, The House on Sorority Row does make a few surprise stops along the way.

Scare Factor: 3/5 Maybe it was watching it alone in dark house at night, but The House on Sorority Row sent some shivers up my spine. If B-movie slashers are your thing, then this will be right up your alley.


**Available to watch on Hulu.

Monday, October 24, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 24: C.H.U.D. (1984)

(dir. Douglas Cheek)

New World Pictures
*First time viewing

A police officer, a shelter volunteer, and a photographer investigate the disappearance of NYC’s homeless population to creatures living in the sewers.

C.H.U.D. is one of those cult classics that I’ve heard about for years, one that I was told was an absolute must-watch. So I watched C.H.U.D. and…well, it’s definitely not good. The C-movie plot about creatures living in the sewers in NY is intriguing enough and its themes about humanity’s irresponsibility with radioactive waste is, at least in theory, a successor of the giant monster movies from the 60s that focused so heavily on nuclear fallout. But C.H.U.D. never manages to use these elements in any way that’s adds to a potentially relevant conversation or create a frightening scenario about a government that doesn’t care to see the most invisible portion of its population. C.H.U.D. plods along through a mystery that’s never mysterious enough and a monster movie that never takes full advantage of its monsters.

The design of the C.H.U.D. (cannibalistic humanoid underground dweller) is pretty neat looking, but they are used so sporadically throughout the film that they feel like background aspects in a movie that’s more interested in mundane preachiness than horror. There are some good ideas buried with these creatures in the sewer, but Cheek’s direction has all the personality of a Sunday afternoon TV movie in the 80s. With so many 80s horror movies being remade, C.H.U.D. is definitely one that could use a new vision to tackle today’s environmental concerns.

Scare Factor: 0/5 I wish someone had told me that I didn’t have to spend my time watching C.H.U.D., so my gift to you this Halloween season is this advice: don’t watch C.H.U.D. unless you’ve got plans to remake it.


**Available to watch on Hulu

Sunday, October 23, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 23: Demons (1985)

(dir. Lamberto Bava)

DACFILM Rome
*First time viewing

After being invited to a secret screening, a group of moviegoers are trapped in a theater full of demons.

Sometimes you encounter a movie that just feels like it was made for you, this is how I feel about Demons. Bava’s stylish horror film is a fountain of pure goodness of the very likes that made me fall in love with the genre in the first place. Thematically, there’s nothing to this film, but on a pure visceral level, Demons is a film for the horror heart, despite its severed relationship to the head. Produced and co-written by Dario Argento, Demons shares a lot with his style, be it in terms of the lighting, the singular setting of horror, and the story that almost kind of makes sense, but not quite. But Lamberto Bava, son of the famed giallo director Mario Bava, gives the film a modern touch that isn’t so out of sync with its American horror contemporaries; it just happens to be more stylish and seemingly less fearful of censors. Set to a catalog of 80s music from the likes of Billy Idol, Motley Crue, and Rick Springfield, and others, Demons has an energetic music video vibe that could be considered hip if it wasn’t for the laughable dubbing of the cast. While Italian horror films can sometimes be a bit plodding as they build to a tremendous climax, Demons is consistently entertaining and full of a high-energy that seems impossible for it to top, and yet it always does.

At its heart, Demons is a siege movie that feels like a love letter to the genre. The movie theater setting allows Bava to play with the genre’s tropes through the film within the film, as well as create a horror movie that feels like it’s taking place on a grand thematic stage. In terms of plot construction, Demons doesn’t differ from most other siege movies. You could replace demons with zombies and have the same effect, particularly given that a bite, scratch, or transference of fluid from a demon turns a human into one. But the filmmaking is what makes Demons stand out. Every transformation is given its due, and every kill scene is a unique depiction of gore that’s surprisingly realistic and gruesome for its time. There’s an artfulness to the way Bava handles the horror, and each shot is thing of beauty but also fan- service. By the time one of our lead characters is using a motorbike and sword to cut down demons, it’s clear that Bava, like so many of us, is just another kid raised on horror, finally given the chance to have the time of his life.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Demons features some of the best looking creatures of this particular subgenre as well as some wonderfully imaginative and gory transformations, and kill scenes. It’s silly in parts, but it’s so wonderfully outrageous that it’s hard not to love its good parts as equally as the bad. I may make this a yearly viewing, so give it a watch and join me for it next year!


**Available to watch on Hulu.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 22: Emelie (2015)

(dir. Michael Thelin)

Dark Sky Films

*First time viewing

A babysitter with, well let’s just say she has some issues, comes to look after three children.

We’ve reached the point in the evolution of the horror genre where babysitters don’t have to play victims to strangers, they are the strangers. If you’ve ever felt a little hesitant about leaving your child in another person’s hand then this may not be the film for you, or hell, maybe it’s the perfect film to tap into that deep-seated anxiety. Even as a non-parent, there’s so much to feel uncomfortable about in Thelin’s twisted babysitter tale, Emelie. From the get-go there’s something off about Sarah Bolger’s eager and overly-interested Emelie. Her desire to comes across as friendly to the family she’s sitting for seems like a cover for deep-seated anxiety, and once the parents leave it’s revealed that Emelie’s issues go far beyond anxiety or mental illness and into the blackness of nihilism. Needless to say, nihilism and children don’t mix.

Every scene becomes a game Emelie’s playing as she attempts to erode their morals and expose them to things no child should see. The film is at its most effective when Emelie’s cruelty is played casually, with a subversive level of abuse that isn’t horrendous but still sends up major red flags. As the film progresses Emelie’s actions become more drastic and violent and we don’t just fear for these children’s mental safety but their physical safety as well. Her frightening and tragic backstory, told to these children as a twisted bedtime story complete with hand-drawn pictures, seek to add rationale to her actions and show that her mind has “cracked.” But the backstory, while interesting, is also a bit of a misdirection in terms of Emelie’s motivation. She may claim that she was cracked by tragedy but if you read between the lines and look at her actions head on it’s clear that there was something wrong with Emelie long before the events of her flashback. There’s something so chilling in Emelie’s belief that her actions stem from this incident and not because of something rooted in her very person. She’s a fascinating character, brought to life in such a layered way by Bolger that I wouldn’t mind seeing a whole sequence of films depicting where this character goes next, as long as its somewhere different. I have an inkling that babysitting isn’t the end-game for her goals, and I want to see what she’ll do next because its guaranteed to create discomfort and further anxiety for smiling strangers.

Scare Factor: 3/5 Emelie is fucked up, in a good way. This is another good horror to watch with a small group of friends, pair it with Orphan and you’re in for a night wrongness.

Friday, October 21, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 21: Absentia (2011)

(dir. Mike Flanagan)

Phase 4 Films
*First time viewing

Two sisters find themselves tied to a mysterious tunnel linked to the disappearances of loved ones in the area.

Over the past few years, Mike Flanagan has quickly established himself as one of my favorite current horror directors. I decided it was finally time to check out his start in the genre with Absentia. Flanagan has developed a reputation for getting the maximum out a big idea with a small budget (Oculus is a prime example of this). Absentia, made for $70,000 and partially funded by Kickstarter, is about as small budget you can get today. And yet, Flanagan doesn’t refrain from playing with big ideas, carried out by grand emotions rather than an array of special effects. In this tale, and it really does feel like a horror tale you’d hear about on a supernatural podcast, a pregnant woman, Tricia (Courtney Bell) declares her husband dead in absentia after his seven-year disappearance. At the same time, her sister, Callie (Katie Parker) a former addict and born-again Christian has come to live with her. The vast majority of this film is a drama, dealing with two people’s attempts to move on, and redefine their lives. You could take out the horror aspect and the film would still work, propelled by a lingering sense of sadness and desire for reparation. In fact, the film shows us alternate possibilities of worlds where nothing supernatural has occurred (a fascinating narrative trick, Flanagan put to use earlier this year in Hush.) When the supernatural aspect first kicks in, it’s familiar though still chilling—ghostly visits from Tricia’s presumed dead husband. But once the mysterious tunnel in their neighborhood becomes a bigger part of the story Absentia becomes a much bolder and more inventive film.

Flanagan has cited Stephen King as a major inspiration on his work (he’ll be directing an adaptation of King’s Gerald’s Game) and even in this, his earliest horror film, the influence of King is clear. The tunnel responsible for the disappearance of Tricia’s husband, is depicted as King-like pathway to another world, a darker one ruled by an insect-like creature we only catch glimpses of, a creature that takes people as offerings, a sort of old testament God who will take back as quickly as he gives. Also in line with King is the importance of faith. Tricia’s loss of it and Callie’s newfound devotion to it, pushes up against the possibility of the supernatural and a force that doesn’t care about their faith. What’s frightening about Absentia is that characters as faced with a horror aspect that doesn’t operate according to logic, and yet they try to find logic in it, to force reality upon this situation and are left blind to the true nature of this neighborhood, perhaps even the world, as a result. Like the mythical Orpheus, the characters in this film are constantly looking in the wrong direction, all roped into Tricia's line of sight stretching backwards instead of forward, and find damnation in the darkness.


Scare Factor: 3/5 Absentia is melancholy horror that poses more questions than explanations and that’s the scariest part. Absentia introduces us to something unfamiliar, and builds its own folklore around it, leaving us to grapple with the possibility of its existence just like any good cryptid will do. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 20: Last Shift (2014)

(dir. Anthony DiBlasi)

Magnet Releasing
*First time viewing

A rookie cop is assigned to the last shift at a closing police station and encounters supernatural happenings tied to a satanic cult who killed themselves in holding.

There’s something pure about DiBlasi’s Last Shift. Its plot is simple, it’s cast small but functional, and it’s scares effective each and every time. Beyond the initial reference to Assault on Precinct 13, there’s something very reminiscent of Carpenter to the Last Shift-- a lack of pretense and a controlled delivery that never rushes from one scene to the next. All it’s missing is an interesting score (the one here left such an impression that I couldn't remember if it even had a score), and an 80s setting and this film would fit nicely alongside Carpenter’s works.

DiBlasi and cinematographer Austin Schmidt manage to create a near constant sense of palpable wrongness within the bland grayness of the station. Typically, such a mundane setting, and seemingly un-noteworthy production design would be damning for a horror film. But there’s a sense of order to the station, and sense of familiarity that would make us feel comfortable if not for its looming emptiness. Jessica, played by Juliana Harkavy, becomes the victim of this perfect storm of desertion, inexperience, and sinister forces. But to her credit, Jessica doesn’t realize she’s a victim until much later in the film, and attempts to exhibit control over the situation even as the station around her steadily transforms into a glimpse of Hell. Part of the film’s fun is the fact that we have a protagonist so entirely out of their depth and with something to prove, which magnifies every failure. If there’s one fault to her characterization, it’s that it takes her far too long to believe that there’s something otherworldly happening within the station.

When it comes to the otherworldly, Last Shift is master class at providing unique imagery that’s a cross between Barker and Raimi, outrageous and deeply unsettling anatomically. The cult members are of course a play on the Mansion family, and while we only get hints at their backstory, the film manages to make their mysteriousness frightening though I wish we had a greater sense of scope. While the ending gets a bit muddled in terms of intent and Jessica's arc, Last Shift manages to hit the right beats to make for a tense and engaging viewing experience.

Scare Factor: 3/5 Last Shift is a really well made indie horror film that looks more expensive than it is. While it never becomes shocking, it does deliver a winning combination of a familiar plot and unique visuals effects to scratch the itch that most people are looking for when they’re searching Netflix for a good horror movie that easily fits within expectations for the genre.


**Available to watch on Netflix Instant. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 19: The Forest (2016)

(dir. Jason Zada)

Gramercy Pictures
*First time viewing

A woman travels to Japan’s suicide forest to find her twin sister who has recently gone missing there.

The Forest had the potential be one of those surprise January horror films that actually worked. After all, it’s based on an ever-popular piece of lore and features rising star Natalie Dormer. Unfortunately, The Forest never manages to use either the history of the Aokigahara Forest or Dormer to its advantage. The Forest is listless, entirely lacking of personality. Tokyo isn’t given any sense of cultural flavor despite filming there, and the forest itself could be any wooded area in western America—there’s no sense of production design in this movie. Since filming is actual Aokigahara forest is illegal, those scenes were shot partly in Serbia and partly in a warehouse, but given how little sense of space there is in this movie, I would assume that most of it was shot in a warehouse.  I’m quite taken by the idea of using the forest to showcase a character’s position of feeling lost inside their own grief and mental illness, but the visuals never match the intent of the story…nor does the acting. Dormer seems at a loss in this movie, not simply because her character is constantly in a state of search and confusion, but because the script does little to give her any personality. Sara is given so few important actions that it never seems like she’s actually achieving anything another that passing time. Even with pulling double duty as Sara’s twin Jess, Dormer is never given a chance to put her impressive acting chops to use.

There are images in the film that taken alone work well. There’s a scene in a hotel hallway early on and a scene in a cave later in the movie that both show Zada’s ability to deliver scares when not bogged down by the laziest of jump noises. Even the film’s twist, achieved through its earlier use of flashbacks provides the film with an interesting theme, but it’s just delivered so flatly and surrounded by a film utterly lacking a pulse that it’s all a bit of a shrug. What’s frustrating about The Forest is that it doesn’t feel like a complete misfire. There are some truly good ideas hidden in this film, and in broad strokes there’s a worthwhile story searching to get out. Another draft of this script and a visionary direction could have really made The Forest something memorable.

Scare Factor:1/5 The Forest is reminiscent of the American J-horror remakes in the mid-2000s, only this time there’s no better-made, original version for me to recommend to you so the best I can do is suggest you skip this one.


**Available to rent at Redbox

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 18: Housebound (2014)

(dir. Gerard Johnstone)

Semi-Professional Pictures
*First time viewing

A young woman under house arrest at her parents’ house encounters what may be paranormal activity…or something far more surprising.

Housebound truly is something special, but it wasn’t until about halfway through that I realized how special it is, because this was never a movie about a haunted house. For the first half hour or so, I thought I knew how this story would play out, and the film had to fight for my attention. But as the film went on and I grew to know and like the characters I found myself growing increasingly invested, and by the time the first reveal hit I was pretty sure that this movie had won my heart. This reveal is the same as two other recent horror movies, but it’s such a cool one that it couldn’t hamper my enjoyment. My surprise increased once that reveal was unveiled as the first of many, each one stemming from character rather than shock value. Call Housebound a modern House on Haunted Hill if you will. To go much further into the plot construction would ruin the movie, but I will say that Housebound manages to pull off every single one of its reveals in ways that are funny, frightening, and sensible to this world we’re introduced to.

I want to take a moment to talk about the lead, Morgana O’Reilly. A good chunk of Housebound thrives simply on her facial expressions alone. Her comedic timing is on point. What could have easily been a grating character, given Kylie’s plethora of attitude problems and bad behavior, becomes a complex figure whose mistake filled arc only makes her more endearing in O’Reilly’s hands. Kylie is prickly to be sure, but we’re also given the chance to see beneath her exterior and find someone far more vulnerable. Vulnerability is really what Housebound is all about. A vulnerable woman in a vulnerable house with vulnerable parents, all beset by vulnerable “others.” The scariest thing in Housebound isn’t the presence of these “others” but the way in which they act as a catalyst for these characters to be stripped down to the rawest of nerve endings so that they may truly see each other for the first time. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little misty-eyed.


Scare Factor: 1/5 Housebound steps away from the Raimi-inspired over-the-top aspects that so many horror comedies now utilize. More important is the rare factor that Housebound is a film that cares deeply about its characters, and makes their lives matter instead of fodder. I’m all for unending pits of the human spirit, but sometimes it’s nice to encounter a horror movie that actually makes you feel good.

**Available to watch on Netflix Instant

Monday, October 17, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 17: The Shallows (2016)

(dir. Jaume Collet-Serra)

Columbia Pictures
*First time viewing

A woman is stranded a short distance offshore by a shark.

Animal horror isn’t really my thing, but sometimes they surprise me (Backcountry, for example). Since I’d heard great things about The Shallows I figured I’d give it a shot, if for no reason other than to continue to use these yearly 31 Days of Horror posts to celebrate the diversity of the genre. So let’s dive in.

The Shallows is a beautiful looking film. Flavio Labiano’s cinematography is lush, colorful, and exotic. There’s a wonderful sense of surrounding, and the film never becomes disorienting, or visually murky even during the underwater scenes. The clarity of images is truly noteworthy, and the film looks great on Blu-Ray. On the performance side of things, this truly is a one woman show and Blake Lively turns in a solid performance as Nancy, a former med student looking for purpose and coping with the death of her mother. The film claws for the viewer’s sympathy but I never found myself caring about Nancy, her past, or her future. This is no fault of Lively’s, but a fault of the film as a whole. Despite looking beautiful, The Shallows is mostly tedious to sit through, and the cinematography and Lively’s performance can only carry the film so far. But the shark saves it, right? Well…

The Shallows is exactly the film the trailers promised: a simple story of surfer girl vs shark that doesn’t add anything to the aquatic horror subgenre. I’d expected something more after the rave reviews, and that’s my fault, but at the same time The Shallows doesn’t even fulfill the basics of survival and shark horror stories in my book. We’ve seen so many survival movies that I expect new cinematic experiences to be harrowing in their realism. The Shallows isn’t; the danger Nancy faces rarely feels real and her battle against the shark loses authenticity with every minute. It doesn’t help that the CGI shark doesn’t look great. There’s a lack of weight to it, that makes it impossible to feel any sense of threat. But a fake looking shark isn’t the big issue. The big issue is that when the shark is off-screen, it’s presence isn’t felt. What Jaws managed to do so well is make audiences afraid of something they rarely saw, something with a presence that could be felt in every ocean set scene. For a film that takes place almost entirely in the ocean, there’s rarely any sense of tension and at times I found myself forgetting the shark was even in the waters around Nancy. Instead of existing for horror, the shark exists as a finned plot device so that Nancy can recover from her loss and rediscover she’s really good at med school. By the end, The Shallows becomes far too sappy a film, backed by too little moments of hardship and introspection to really feel genuine.

Scare Factor: 0/5 I’m on minority on this one and some of you, either into animal horror or simply curious about the film, may really enjoy it. For me, The Shallows is just nice scenery I’ll never visit again.


**Available to rent at Redbox

Sunday, October 16, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 16: Clown (2014)

(dir. Jon Watts)

Dimension Films
*First time viewing

A father finds a clown suit to wear to his son’s birthday party and slowly finds himself turning into a clown-demon that eats children.

There’s no denying that America has a serious clown problem. As if there was some foresight involved, Clown was finished two years ago and pushed to release this year of all years, when we’re facing what may very well be a clown apocalypse that fell far beyond the realms of even Orwell’s ability to predict. Given the real clown attacks that have been happening, Clown takes on an added relevance that’s sure to make those suffering from coulrophobia even more distrusting of men and women with painted white faces and bright red noses. But even without the benefit of being a topical horror movie, Clown is a really solid piece of work from a director who is certain to see his career sky-rocket next year with his feature, Spider-Man: Homecoming. Watts joins a long line of blockbuster directors who gained their footing in horror movies.

Seeing Eli Roth’s name attached to a film is always a bit of a roll of the dice in terms of quality, but what apparent in Clown from the beginning is that this is a mature film—not in terms of the R rating, but in terms of emotional component. Despite its subject matter, Clown doesn’t go in for the immature antics Roth’s involvement usually denotes, and while the film is gory it never becomes anything close to the torture porn subgenre that Roth helped shape. All of this is to say that this is Watts’ film, and if Roth’s name has you on the edge of the fence, it’s time to hop over and join the party.

The family at the center of Clown feels like a real family, and this remains a grounding aspect even as the body horror aspect of Kent’s transformation takes hold. We feel for their struggle while leaning in to see where this tragedy will take them. Like The Fly, Clown’s body horror is one of deep sadness, punctuated by bursts of gross-out and dark humor. Andy Powers gives a memorable performance as Kent, the father turned clown, but it’s Peter Stormare who steals the show as the man who previously inhabited the clown outfit. Due to its casting and direction, the whole film is driven by an energy usually reserved for big-budget films, and Clown feels like it gets the most out of premise, instead of leaving the viewer wanting or anticipating a superior sequel. Clown manages to capture the emotional gamut of the Halloween spirit, similar to Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat. With any luck, this won’t be Watts’ last journey into the genre.


Scare Factor: 2/5 Clown’s fright effectiveness will depend on how afraid you are of clowns, but regardless of whether you are or aren’t, Clown is a must-watch movie for this year’s Halloween season. 

**Available to rent at Redbox

Saturday, October 15, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 15: The Dead Zone (1983)

(dir. David Cronenberg)

Paramount Pictures
An accident leaves a man with the physic power to see a person’s past, present, and future, which sends him on a collision course with a senate candidate who will destroy the world.

I’ve been thinking a lot about The Dead Zone, a lot about how seemingly small choices can snowball into something potentially ruinous, leaving us to ask “how did we come to this?” Call it 2016 election anxiety. Election Anxiety is paramount to Cronenberg’s adaptation of one of my favorite Stephen King novels. But before we get to Greg Stillson and his army of supporters and hauntingly familiar campaign slogan “send mediocrity to hell!” we have a film about a series of tiny deaths and rebirths, leading to a destiny dictated by choice.

It’s easy to forget that Christopher Walken was once a true screen presence before becoming the self-parody version that so many films utilize him for today. Walken brings a haunting charm and sorrow to Johnny Smith which blends in nicely with Cronenberg’s particular weirdness. Coming out the same year as Videodrome and three years before The Fly, The Dead Zone seems like a break in Cronenberg’s then oeuvre of body horror and strange births. But all the still pieces are there. Johnny’s accident occurs when he collides with an overturned milk truck, an immovable symbol of new birth if ever there was one. And the body horror is of the internal variety, similar to the kind of body horror Cronenberg would begin more exclusively tackling in 2002’s Spider and beyond. The fact that Johnny’s accident occurred after turning down the opportunity to spend the night at his girlfriend's, declaring that “some things ae worth waiting for” is no small degree of body horror itself. While the film omits some of the smaller character-centric moments and attachments that made the book so heartbreaking, Cronenberg still manages to find a way to create a new kind of heartbreak through the film’s consistently chilly aesthetic. Johnny’s series of deaths and rebirths operate almost as trials, each one more dangerous than the last as saving a little girl from a fire, leads to stopping a serial killer, to finally defeating an insane political candidate who many very well be the antichrist.

Stillson isn’t explored nearly as intimately as he is in the novel, but Martin Sheen’s convincing performance and the way his supporters react around him still make him a frightening figure. Smartly, the film keeps Stillson in the background during the first half of the film, we hear him, get a sense of his growing presence, but only fully understand what he's capable of when it seems too late. This use of Stillson as a spectre mirrors our real-world inability to pay attention to future threats, despite all the signs, because we become distracted by so many other things. The film's major questions about how much responsibility we have to prevent damnation surround the growing threat of Stillson, and Smith’s vision of his future. Using the “if you had a chance to kill Hitler, would you?” narrative, as a jumping off point the film leads to an conclusion where we expect a certain outcome but are delivered another one. Unlike so many horror films, The Dead Zone isn’t a film about the taking of lives but the saving of them. So it makes sense that it isn’t a bullet that saves the world, but a scenario that creates a revelation where the simplicity both good and evil stand revealed.


Scare Factor: 3/5 The Dead Zone is psychological horror and political horror that creates an emotional horror for the viewer, one that lingers. There’s an inescapable sense of sadness to Cronenberg’s film but also a thread of hope that exists in the reminder that every choice we make matters, and that destiny isn’t written in stone. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 14: Evil Dead II (1987)

(dir. Sam Raimi)

Rosebud Releasing/Embassy Communications/ De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

Ash Williams romantic getaway to a cabin in the woods with his girlfriend turns into a night of strange terror thanks to the Book of the Dead.

I won’t hesitate to admit that despite Evil Dead II’s superior reputation, I actually prefer Raimi’s first film, The Evil Dead, significantly more. Evil Dead II is well put together and creative as all get-out but it lacks the surprise factor of the first film, even with the bonus of Ash becoming the iconic horror hero in this film. Part of what makes The Evil Dead so successful is its amateur production and the fact that Raimi and his crew were able to pull off so much on such a small budget and only a recently acquired knowledge of how to make a horror movie. While Evil Dead II is more closely in line with Raimi’s subsequent filmography, it isn’t genuinely frightening like that first film.

I think what defines the popular opinion of The Evil Dead vs. Evil Dead II comes down moreso to a taste in comedy than in horror. Bruce Campbell’s antics as Ash Williams are undoubtedly ionic and he’s a master of physical comedy, a live-action Looney Toon. But physical comedy is quite my temp and there’s only so many times I can watch Ash crash into objects and smash plates against his head without it becoming a bit trying. The one-liners are though, are groovy as hell, and that’s where I find the comedy aspect of Evil Dead II to be the most successful.

Even given my preference for the first film and lack of love for the comedic aspect, Evil Dead II is still a film that I like quite a lot. Tonally, there was nothing quite like it at its time and it really set the precedence for the over-the-top horror comedies that followed in its wake. While some of the films that followed Evil Dead II were more humorous, none achieved the same remarkable design work or ingenuity of scenes like the laughing cabin or the film’s climax. The level of insanity at work in this film isn’t something to downplay, and while I may go against the grain on its placement in the trilogy, I can find no fault in the popular opinion that Evil Dead II is the best of the three films.


Scare Factor: 1/5 Evil Dead II is a must watch for fans of the first or Army of Darkness, and fans of Raimi’s particular style and brand of humor. The Evil Dead set the bar too high for its sequel to have the same effect on me, but I will admit that the film’s ending remains one of the genre’s best.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 13: The Blob (1988)

(dir. Chuck Russell)

Paramount Pictures
The inhabitants of a small-town are attacked by a strange organism that eats everything in its path.

The Blob holds a special place for me. It was the first R-rated movie I ever saw, and introduced me the larger realm of horror (it also happened to be how I learned about condoms, thanks to that drugstore scene.) There are parts of The Blob that make the film feel like a satire of high-school movies of its time. All the familiar tropes are there: the stable of teenage stereotypes, the buffoonish cops, and small-town, conservative morals. Kevin Dillon and Shawnee Smith make for likeable leads, because they don’t play their characters with an awareness of their own archetypal trappings. The Blob manages slight satire without feeling like its winking or nudging its audience, and the result is a film that feels sincere, when it easily could have come across as mean-spirited mockery in lesser hands. Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont offset the familiar by killing off the characters you’d expect to live through any other film, and by upping the threat level of the titular creature and the humor that stems from the traditional archetypes. Despite the absurdism at play in the film, The Blob is smartly crafted. It takes the original film’s themes about the fear of outsiders and flips the script to make it a film about our fear of our neighbors, institutions, and the very things we think will protect us from harm.

The Blob is a master-class example of practical effects works, featuring some of the most inventive and memorable death scenes of its era. The depiction of The Blob and its growth through consumption clearly had an influence on James Gunn’s Slither and this film can be seen as its forbearer in both its affinity for gross-out gore and small-town allegiances. While so many remakes either stick too close to the original or try too hard to completely out-do the original, The Blob keeps things simple and effective by establishing its rules and themes clearly from the beginning which surely accounts for the film's legacy and influence. The Blob is a gem of a film that's just as thrilling for me to watch now as it was sixteen years ago, because The Blob sticks to you rather effortlessly.


Scare Factor: 1/5 The Blob is just a blast to watch; old-fashioned horror with some of the best effects and gore you can find in horror’s diverse history. It won’t keep you from sleeping, but it’s a crowd pleaser for sure, and a great introduction to horror for younger viewers. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 12: The Fog (1980)

(dir. John Carpenter)

AVCO Embassy Pictures
*First time viewing

A coastal California town is sent into a panic when a mysterious fog rolls in, carrying with it the ghosts of vengeance-driven lepers.

Without belaying the point, The Fog was a bit of an endurance test in terms of my wakefulness. As someone who loves John Carpenter, I can easily say that this one won’t go into my favorites of his, but I also wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to watch it again. The story is stretched too thin, it’s ninety-minute runtime feeling perilously padded and its large cast of characters offering little impact individually to the proceedings, with the exception of Adrienne Barbeau. That being said, the film is fantastically directed, not just in hindsight of Carpenter’s legacy, but because even on its own it’s impeccably filmed. When we think of Carpenter now, often through the eyes of his successors, we often think about his soundtracks, his production designs, or his sparse but often effective narratives. But where Carpenter’s greatest strengths lie is in shot composition. I couldn’t really care less about the protagonists of this film, but nearly every shot is a masterpiece of mood and spatial relation. Filmed in widescreen, The Fog, feels more cinematic than most of Carpenter’s earlier work, and its neo-Gothic moodiness makes the film feel more like an example of 70s European horror than the 80s American horror The Fog would be lumped in with. Even when the film isn’t going for horror, and instead focuses on this idyllic coastal town, Carpenter frames everything with a sense of stylish purpose. A little boy stands hunched over the shoreline with the camera frames him against the sky, cutting out the ground to make it seem as if being he is engulfed by the heavens. The ghosts are kept as silhouettes, distant and unreachable, even after the protagonists believe they have them figured out. Whatever The Fog lacks in storytelling ability, Carpenter makes up for on a technical level.

Despite the story being a bit tedious for the most part, the climax works exceptionally well, as do the film’s themes of forgetfulness and forgiveness. Just because something is remembered and amends are attempted does not mean that the sins of the past are forgiven, and for a horror film steeped in America’s troubled history, it ends on pretty powerful note with striking imagery to match.


Scare Factor: 1/5 As Carpenter’s follow-up to Halloween, The Fog doesn’t achieve the same iconic status or chilling horror—something that surely led to the film’s mixed reaction upon release. But The Fog is a film that shows the growth of a filmmaker and makes it easier to see Carpenter’s progress from Halloween to The Thing. I don’t think The Fog is a must-see horror movie, but it is a must-see for anyone fascinated by Carpenter’s filmography.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 11: Nightbreed (1990)

(dir. Clive Barker)

20th Century Fox
*First time viewing

A newly resurrected man discovers, Midian, an underground city of monsters and must protect it from a crazed serial killer looking to wipe them out.

Holy shit! This movie! Nightbreed is basically a smorgasbord for fans of the horror genre. Blending elements of the sympathetic monster as made popular by the Universal horror series, the psychological thriller of the 60s, the fresh blockbuster perspective of the 70s, and the slasher craze of the 80s, Nightbreed is jam-packed full of horror history that used to deliver a film unlike anything before or since. Visionary writer and director Clive Barker envisioned Nightbreed as a trilogy that would serve as his Star Wars for horror fans. Unfortunately, studio cuts, mis-marketing, and poor reception of the film squashed its chances. But in Barker’s Cabal Cut, the film he originally intended, Nightbreed stands as one of the best horror films of the 90s.

Nightbreed is packed full of grandiose ideas about where all of our monster stories disappeared to, and the very nature of the changing genre. Craig Sheffer’s man-turned-monster protagonist, Boone, is a compelling enough messiah, but the film really goes to another level when David Cronenberg’s Dr. Decker takes the screen. Decker is one of Cronenberg’s few onscreen roles and he delivers the monster hunter with a chilling conviction that's magnetic and entirely convincing. He’s Van Helsing, twisted through the lens of the slasher film and set loose on a world of monsters that is every bit, if not more, imaginative than Star Wars’ Mos Eisley Cantina or Hellboy II’s marketplace. None of the film’s imagination or my enthusiasm for it can mask some issues in character motivation or the surplus of  rules that are occasionally muddled, but by the time the film reaches its action-packed climax it no longer really matters. Nightbreed is a no holds barred peek into the mind of Clive Barker that’s effortlessly entertaining and a reminder that he should have more than just three films under his belt.


Scare Factor: 2/5 Nightbreed is huge, spectacle horror that works more like an epic fantasy or superhero film that it does a horror movie. Like Hellraiser, the gore effects push the limit between creative and obscene, though likable characters create a vastly different feeling movie. More modern horror directors looking to take a page from the 80s should go back to the madcap creativity of Barker’s work. Or hell, just convince Barker to finally do that sequel he planned.

**Available to watch on Netflix Instant

Monday, October 10, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 10: The Howling (1981)

(dir. Joe Dante)

Avco Embassy Pictures

*First time viewing

After a run-in with a serial killer, a news anchor and her husband go to an experimental resort called The Colony, whose residents are more than they initially seem.

It often seems like there a few unexplored places to go with our classic monster archetypes, and few have been explored so thoroughly as the lycanthrope. Released the same year as the more iconic An American Werewolf in London, Dante’s The Howling is usually regarded as second fiddle to Landis’s film. While Werewolf in London is the better crafted film, The Howling contains the more interesting ideas that actually do take the familiar to the unexplored.

The Howling is both a sexual and societal nightmare. Karen (Dee Wallace) is plagued by nightmares of her encounter with the serial killer, Eddie, an encounter that took place in a peep show and one filled with sexual overtones. Werewolf mythos are filled with the kind of raw look at sexuality that The Howling examines. The Colony’s leader, Doc, broaches ideas of tapping into one’s inner beast, and primal nature, which manifest in a lot of sexual tension throughout. Karen, and her husband Bill are sexually out of synch, repressed due to the nature of Karen’s trauma, but Bill has a sexual awakening once he’s bitten by Marsha. Their entire conflict of infidelity and sexual urges is explored through the existence of the werewolf, and transformation. With sex comes society, which is where The Howling’s most interesting ideas come into play.

Doc’s idea for The Colony as a sort of training ground for werewolves to learn to control their urges so that they can exist among society is rather brilliant narrative beat that we’ve seen with vampires but not with werewolves. The very concept of werewolves is predicated on the idea that they can’t be tamed. But The Colony as a means to create culture and society is a fascinating step. While the film is at times humorous, and occasionally plagued by a soundtrack that sometimes great and other times wildly out of tonal synchronicity, The Howling presents a far darker and more horrific look at the werewolf beyond body horror and death by silver bullet. Aided by Rob Bottin’s memorable special effects (not better than Rick Baker’s, but worthy to stand alongside them), and an ending that's unforgettable, The Howling is a top-tier werewolf movie that should be considered more classic than cult.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Through the werewolf transformation it’s easy to see where Bottin’s work would take him on The Fly and few years later. And Dante’s brutal blend of tragedy and humor is a clear precursor to Gremlins. While it’s neither artist’s finest work, The Howling is an impressive foundational piece for careers that would soon become legendary, and legends that had become too entrenched in their foundations.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 9: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

(dir. Tobe Hooper)

Bryanston Pictures

A group of friends on a road-trip become the victims of a cannibalistic family.

No matter how many times I’ve seen this film, it gets me every time. From John Larroquette’s opening narration I am all in and on edge. This entire film sweats. You can feel the heat rising off the Texas back-roads as the Hitchhiker ambles to towards the van, smell the cow farms and undercurrent of rotting flesh underneath as you watch Pam make her approach to that infamous house, taste the spoiled waste of America as you join Sally at the dinner table. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains one of the most visceral cinematic experiences to ever play across our screens, and no matter how many horror movies we’ve seen since then, some gorier, some more emotionally involving, and some better directed, nothing packs the same kind of punch as Hooper’s film.

What’s amazing is that despite it’s reputation and initial controversy upon release, the film has very little gore. Growing up, a decade or more before I saw the film, I remember seeing Todd McFarlane’s Movie Maniac figure of Leatherface and thinking that this movie was peak horror film, something forbidden and perhaps beyond my ability to handle—the most disturbing thing conceivably put on film. I was right about it being peak horror film; it is, but not for the reasons I imagined.

It’s not the level of violence of even the subject matter that makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so horrific, but the stained reality of it that makes it look like a portrait created by a PST-suffering Norman Rockwell. Hooper films from low angles, most famously in the shot of Pam’s approach to the house, but this affect makes the viewer feel small and as if we’re approaching something so large that it’s impossible to look at head on. Even on its small budget and limited use of locations, there’s something massive about this film, mirrored by Leatherface’s own hulking frame. Our first glimpse of Leatherface as he comes into the door frame and slams the metal doors in front of him gives me chills without pause each and every time I see it. There’s something deeply human about Gunnar Hansen’s performance, a childlike confusion and an all-consuming savagery that can viewed as the changing face of America during Vietnam and afterwards. The hugeness of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre stems from the fact that it taps into something about this country, something too big and dark, to face sanely. Sally’s mad howls and laughs as she escapes, not to safety, but to insanity, is a reflection of inescapable violence that America’s youth faced, and still faces. And Leatherface, dancing in frustration with chainsaw in hand is not a display of defeat but a spiraling promise that this horror story will continue, saw blades cycling towards infinity.

Scare Factor: 5/5 A masterpiece that even 42 years after it’s release is still one of the most affecting horror movies you’ll ever see.