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.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 24: House (1986)

(dir. Steve Miner)

New World Pictures
*First time viewing

An author inherits his aunt’s house, but the house begins to drive him to madness when he tries to finish his latest book about his experiences in the Vietnam War.

Horror comedies are some of the toughest films to do, and they can rarely find the balance of being both frightening and funny in a way that sells the emotional honesty of both aspects. Steve Miner’s House goes for broke with its horror comedy, throwing a bunch of ideas out to see what sticks. A lot of it doesn’t, but the central concept is so fascinating that House can’t easily be dismissed. Writer Roger Cobb’s (William Katt) battle against a house with a mind of its own, is also a battle against his own PTSD  from the war and the disappearance of his son, who went missing in this very house years before. The house torments Cobb with closet monsters, a Vietnam zombie, a demonic version of his ex-wife, and doorways to Hellish dimensions, all while hiding the truth about his son. These supernatural forces are a manifestation or Cobb’s guilt over his failure to mercy kill a soldier in Vietnam, and the loss of his son which resulted in the collapse of his marriage. These are all heavy issues, but the film plays light and loose with them, aiming for a kind of slapstick humor that Katt can’t quite pull off, and a madness that never comes across as more than mild befuddlement.

House preceded Evil Dead II by a year, but it’s hard not see how that film succeeded with the moments of slapstick horror where this film doesn’t. Cobb’s neighbor, Harold (played by Cheers’ George Wendt) is meant to elevate the humor, through his suspicion of Cobb’s mental illness and constant interference in Cobb’s life, but the dynamic between the two characters never becomes compelling enough to make either likable. The bones of a great story are all evident, and there are moments, such as when Cobb seemingly shoots his ex-wife after seeing her as a demonic figure, that are genuinely startling, but that necessary tonal balance is never struck. Out of all the 80s horror films, House is one of the ones that’s most deserving of a remake because there’s enough good stuff here to make a film that completely works within our modern horror/comedy needs.

Scare Factor: 1/5 There are some great monster effects, and some truly clever ideas present, even if House doesn’t fully live up to its cult classic status. While the film may be a bit of a disappointment for adult viewers, especially considering the stakes, House is actually a great early horror introduction for kids. It’s a film that’s reputation is largely founded on nostalgia, and with an audience of the right age, Miner’s film may just hit that horror/comedy mark.

Monday, October 23, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 23: Deep Red (1975)

(dir. Dario Argento)

Blue Underground

After a psychic medium is murdered, her neighbor finds himself embroiled in a mystery involving a black-gloved killer who has a sinister fascination with dolls.

Deep Red is a bit more conventional that some of Argento’s later work. Yes, the POV shots of a black-gloved murderer, the anachronistic Goblin score, and wonderfully orchestrated deaths are all present. But Deep Red doesn’t have the same dream-like beauty of Suspiria (1977) or Phenomena (1985), perhaps because it caters towards the more traditional boundaries of the giallo film than the supernatural horror that would make up more of his later films.  For most of the film we follow pianist  Marcus Daly (David Hemmings, who looks like the love-child of Paul McCartney and James Spader) as he steps out of the boundaries of his profession to learn about the murder of someone he had no relationship to. Along with reporter, Gianna Brezzi (played by frequent Argento collaborator, Daria Nicolodi) Daly links the murder to a piece of music, connected to a children’s ghost story which has ties to an abandoned house. The connective tissue between these clues are tenuous, and Hemmings doesn’t make or the most compelling leading man, but there’s enough oddness and instances of tonal whiplash to keep the film engaging.

The highlight of Deep Red are the murder scenes and the reveal, both executed with a kind of stylishness that makes the lack of character development forgivable, if not entirely forgettable. The motives of the killer are ultimately nothing more than a vague sort of madness, but the way Argento constructs the film, with a madness of his own, is, from a horror film history perspective, a fascinating experience. There’s nothing in modern cinema that can quite compare to this genre smorgasbord.

Scream Factory: 2/5 While Deep Red isn’t anywhere near Argento’s top-tier, it’s a must-see for fans of the director. Its influence is evident, and in between some of the more impractical detective work are genuinely chilling moments that lead up to impeccably crafted death scenes that are each works of art in themselves, the film suceeds. Deep Red is arguably not the best introduction to Argento, but it is a great introduction to his take on Italian giallo films.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 22: Rabid (1977)

(dir. David Cronenberg)

Cinepix Film Properties Inc./New World Pictures
*First time viweing

After a motorcycle accident, a young woman receives experimental plastic surgery that leaves her with a appendage that creates a rabies-like epidemic.

One of the few David Cronenberg films I hadn’t seen, Rabid definitely fits in with the early Cronenberg canon, and works best as a companion piece to Shivers rather than to his later, more ambitious and thematically resonant body horror entries. While much of Cronenberg’s signatures, the body mutation, the unintentional AIDS metaphor, scientific mistakes given sinister power, are all present, Rabid doesn’t have the same confidence as Cronenberg’s later films or even the ones that immediately followed, like The Brood, or Scanners. Cronenberg struggled creatively with the film and while he managed to pull the film and himself together, Rabid still feels like its holding something back. Part of that is surely due to the budget, and part of that is a result of the not-so-great male leads. But the dissimilar elements of experimental skin grafts, a stinger like appendage that grows from lead Marilyn Chambers’ armpit, and the outbreak of a rage virus are all worthy of the uniqueness of Cronenberg’s name.

Cronenberg famously cast porn star Marilyn Chambers as the lead and originator of the virus, Rose. And despite her lack of classical acting training, Chambers is the most compelling part of the film, and the first in Cronenberg’s long line of protagonists who unwillingly and tragically, become threats to our very defined notions of humanity. While Canada becomes encompassed by the outbreak, Cronenberg stays focused on Rose and her almost blissful ignorance of her own role in the imminent destruction of the country. She’s a victim of body horror without even knowing the full extent of the horror her body has caused.  While Rabid is very much Cronenberg’s verson of Romero’s zombies (Dawn of the Dead wouldn’t be released until the year after, but pessimistic Rabid’s ending parallels Night of the Living Dead’s) it’s scope is narrower and more intimate and clearly points at the direction his future stories would venture.

Scare Factor: 1/5 Even as social commentary, we’ve seen many of Rabid’s ideas dealt with before in other properties, but for those interested in the evolution of the director, Rabid is a key film Cronenberg's development into an auteur.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 21: House of Wax (2005)

(dir. Jaume Collet-Serra)

Warner Bros.
After car problems strand a group of friends on their way to a football game in Louisiana, they find their way to a mysterious small-town that sits under the shadow of a wax museum with sinister secrets.

When House of Wax came out in 2005 I dismissed it. This was largely in part because of all the attention Paris Hilton was receiving for it, and I figured anything with her in a main role couldn’t be quality. I’m sure I’m not the only one who dismissed House of Wax on those merits and then simply forgot about it. Well, I was damn wrong. House of Wax is a fuckin’ blast that’s reminiscent of the drive-in films of an earlier era. It, along with Friday the 13th (2009), may be the closest film to capturing the spirit of 80s slasher fare. While it shares its name with a 1953 Vincent Price film, which was itself a remake of a 1933 film, Collet-Serra’s film has an entirely different plot. It actually shares a lot in common with the 1979 film, Tourist Trap, which I may cover later this month for comparison’s sake. While House of Wax isn’t revolutionary, it does hit all the right spots that nostalgic horror fans enjoy. It’s incredibly gory, expertly paced, narratively competent, and features a cast of attractive young 20-somethings. Oh, and Paris Hilton, isn’t any more grating than any other poorly acted character from the numerous slasher films over the years.

While Collet-Serra is carving out a name for himself with action movies, House of Wax and his later horror film, Orphan are the strongest showcases of his talents. Like his later horror film, House of Wax is so well crafted in terms of space. The abandoned town that Carly (Elisha Cuthbert) and her boyfriend Wade (Jared Padelecki) find themselves in perfectly marries dwindling sunlight and shadow to create a space in which we’re not quite sure what we’re seeing. While the twist in this film isn’t as great as Orphan, Collet-Serra displays a great poker face while providing just the right hints to lead us into darkness. The wax museum itself, composed entirely out of wax, is a thing of macabre beauty, and once the secrets of the museum are revealed, the wax figures take on new dimensions and their facial expressions of joy become tinged with pain. Additionally, the film makes good use of its slasher figure, giving him a kind of tortured artist, Phantom of the Opera mystique set loose inside a neo-Southern Gothic. There’s a layer of sweat and grime in the film that I sorely miss from Collet-Serra’s later works. While the film obviously pushes up against the torture porn explosion of the early 2000s (Saw was released the year before) and makes use of that within some of its scenes, House of Wax manages to marry the elements of old and new shock and exploitation horror better than most films of the time that were sold on their remake factor.

Scare Factor: 3/5 House of Wax is an ode to 80s horror, with some stomach-churning scenes of gore and horror. Whatever it lacks in originality, it makes up for in scene construction, production design, and the sense that everyone involved in this film is having the time of their lives.

Friday, October 20, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 20: The Other Side of the Door (2016)

(dir. Johannes Roberts)

20th Century Fox
*First time viewing

A grieving mother learns of a ritual through which she can gain closure by speaking to her son one last time. But she breaks the rules, and tries to bring her son back with her. Something else follows.

The Other Side of the Door gets a lot of mileage from its setting. Yes, we’ve seen the grieving parents seeking to bring back their child before. And we’ve also seen ancient rituals performed with deadly results, prolonged by things that go bump in the night. But we haven’t seen it in India (or at least, to my knowledge, not in a Hollywood production.) The Other Side of the Door isn’t particularily good, but it’s passable and does have an interesting mythology to play off of. The crux around this film revolves around a door in an ancient temple, a temple in which if you bring the ashes of the dead then you are able to speak to your loved one for one last time. The keepers of this temple are shamans who cover themselves in the ashes of the dead and eat dead flesh. That’s the stuff nightmare fuel is made out of, and couple in a four-armed specter of death, Myrtu, and The Other Side of the Door has some interesting imagery to play with. But Myrtu is introduced too late in the game and should have played a more prominent role in the narrative's horror in order for the film to have the kind impact it needed.

 I was impressed earlier this by Johannes Roberts’ 47 Meters Down, which is powerful in its depiction of tension, even if the performances faltered. And since he’s directing The Strangers 2, a sequel I’ve been waiting nearly a decade for, I’ve got high hopes for his continued success. The Other Side of the Door definitely doesn’t have any issues with the performances. Sarah Wayne Callies and Jeremy Sisto both give different, and layered portrayals of grief’s toll on a parent in the respective roles of Maria and Michael. But the film feels oddly devoid of tension at times and somewhat disconnected from the looming threat of death, which is after-all what this whole bussiness is about. The ever-reliable house creeks and ghostly images don’t feel creative enough for the film’s mythology and don’t do enough to play with the film’s unique setting. There are some creepy moments, especially one delivered by Michael and Maria’s young daughter, but for an R-rated horror film, there’s not enough ingenuity on display here.

Scare Factor: 2/5 The Other Side of the Door is pretty middle of the road horror fare, largely because it has the potential to explore new territory but never fully immerses itself in the world it sets itself in. There’s a solid display of production design, and Americans caught within a culture, though  afictional aspect of it, is always interesting, but The Other Side of the Door just never fully opens up.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 19: 1408 (2007)

(dir. Mikael Hafstrom)

Dimension Films
A paranormal guidebook writer who doesn’t believe in ghosts hopes to revive his career by checking into the Dolphin Hotel’s infamous Room 1408, where he experiences a lifetime of terror all within an hour’s time.

Stephen King novels, and adaptations, are filled with protagonists who are writers. It’s become an expected, though welcome trope of his work. 1408 once again gives us a protagonist who’s a writer, but because he’s not a fiction writer, but rather the author of the kind of non-fiction America’s greatest haunts book, he and the way he reacts to genuine horror feels unique. John Cusack’s performance as Mike Enslin is masterful and this movie wouldn’t be nearly as impactful as it is without his cynical turn as a washed up writer and atheist. I think what makes this King adaptation one of the stronger ones is how complete Enslin feels as a character, right down do his horrible fashion sense (a sports coat over a Hawaiian shirt? Please leave). Cusack has the guy pegged down, from the way he enters a room with a vague, undeserved arrogance, to the way he records notes for his books with a needlesome pretension. No, Enslin isn’t likeable, but he feels so much like a real person rather than a forced performance of unlikability, which ultimately makes him a bit endearing or at least someone we can empathize with.

The room, 1408, is plagued by a history of horrible suicides which the hotel’s manager, Olin, given both ominous charm and menace by Samuel L. Jackson, describes in great detail. No one has ever survived in 1408 more than an hour, he intones. The film really plays with the elemental forces at work within the supernatural. There are ghostly apparitions, that appear perversely illuminated like TV images, but there’s also the matter of the thermostat which takes the room from an inferno to a blizzard, and a faucet that floods the whole room in an attempt to drown Enslin. For a film primarily set in one location, Hafstrom really allows the film’s production design to put Enslin through the ringer. Ultimately, these visions, and painful accidents that Enslin goes through while within the room serve as an attempt by supernatural forces to drive him mad, and push him to the edge of rational sense. But Enslin has already been driven to the edge by the death of his young daughter, and thus the confrontation plays out like a battle of wills between the physical world and the supernatural, providing a small chance for Enslin to possible regain his faith. While the ending doesn’t hit the mark it needed to, there’s still some powerful concepts at play here, handled in a visually clever way.

Scare Factor: 2/5 1408 is a really strong modern ghost story that’s more spooky than horrific, but it feels like the perfect October film to watch on a chilly night.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 18: Rings (2017)

(dir. F. Javier Gutierrez)

Paramount Pictures
*First-time viewing.

Samara’s back in the third Ring movie that finds a couple looking into her origins after a college experiment to find proof of the afterlife goes terribly wrong.

Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, which unbelievably came out fifteen years ago today, is one of the few stellar examples of J-horror remakes that populated the early 2000s. The cast, the atmosphere, the elevation of PG-13 horror, and its lasting nightmares made The Ring a modern horror masterpiece. While The Ring Two (2005) couldn’t capture the same electricity, there were hopes that Gutierrez’s third entry in the franchise, Rings, would breathe life back into Samara and reignite our fear of unmarked video tapes. Admittedly, the fact that Rings was originally set for a 2015 release and placed on a shelf while Paramount rescheduled the film numerous times, didn’t inspire much confidence. But Cabin in the Woods, which has risen through the ranks to be favorite amongst horror fans, also had an extended shelf-life, so there was still a chance for Rings to surprise.

The film starts out promisingly enough, with a man on a plane running away from the curse. When all the monitors on the plane switch to that infamous video, it seems we’re in for a wild ride, some kind of mix of The Ring and Final Destination. But the film jumps ahead two years and we find a college professor (Johnny Galecki) in possession of the videotape. He uses the tape to create a college experiment by getting students to volunteer to watch the video, creating “tails” so that each person’s curse will be overridden by the person who follows them. This experiment, Galecki’s Gabriel says, is to prove the existence of a soul and the soul’s need to find a new host. This stretches credibility and logic, but it at least points to a semi-interesting direction. Gutierrez clearly tries to pick up the atmosphere Verbinki created in these early scenes, replacing the wet, blue palate, with a wet, green one. For 25 minutes of so, Rings actually seems like it could be pretty decent. But then the plot takes a turn when couple Julia and Holt (Matilda Lutz and Alex Roe) determine that in order to rid themselves of the curse they have to go to the town Samara was buried and properly lay her to rest. What follows is a mind-numbingly boring exploration into Samara’s origins, with a sleepy appearance from Vincent D’Onofrio that concludes with a climax that strongly suggests someone at Paramount watched Don’t Breathe during Rings reshoots phase. Even the atmosphere that Gutierrez established in the first act disappears in flat gray palates and standard establishing shots. Rings is so boring, so devoid of emotion or even of cheap jump scares that it’s hard to believe it was backed by a $25 million budget. And it ends with a twist that’s so cheap and so contradictory to the story that preceded it that it’s laughable. Still, I’m not sure Gutierrez is solely at fault here. Usually a mess this big, was the result of too many hands and you can feel Rings being pulled in at least four different directions.

Scare Factor: 0/5 When the film can’t even make Samara’s appearance frightening, you know something’s gone wrong. I almost went with the original Ring for this entry instead of watching this, but I decided to give it a shot, unfortunately for me. You’re better off taking a nap than watching Rings.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 17: Dawn of the the Dead (2004)

(dir. Zack Snyder)

Universal Pictures

During a zombie outbreak agroup of survivors take refuge in a mall.

Remaking George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was no small feat. The original 1978 film ushered in a seminal moment in horror, and still stands as the most impactful film within the subgenre that’s second only to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968.) There have been a surplus of great pieces about Romero and the impact of his zombie films since his passing in July. I debated devoting a space here to one of his entries, but with so much written on him this year I thought the best way to honor him within this space was to look at how his impact inspired the next generation of filmmakers and ushered in a rebirth of the zombie film. Now, it’s easy to take the zombie film for granted, what with the glut of films ranging from good to awful, and The Walking Dead devouring the minds of the binge-watching generation. But in 2004, the space for modern zombie movies was pretty open. 28 Days Later came out in 2002 (despite Danny Boyle’s claim that it isn’t a zombie movie, it most definitely is a zombie movie) and 2004 saw the realease of both Shaun of the Dead and Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. While Snyder’s film, is well-regarded it isn’t talked about in the same terms as Wright’s or Boyle’s films. Yes, Wright and Boyle's films are more original in their use of the zombies, but I think Snyder’s film really harkens back to the original appeal of these creatures Romero created.

What’s interesting about Dawn of the Dead, is that it shares the voices of both screenwriter, James Gunn, and Zack Snyder. There’s a distinct and sincere humor in the film that obviously paves the way for the tone of James Gunn’s Slither (2006), but there’s also a thematic undercurrent dealing with faith and punishment that feels very much tied to the themes Snyder would later tackle. Dawn of the Dead does enough to separate itself from the original by creating distinct (though ocassioanlly annoying) characters within a diverse cast of characters. Sarah Polley and Jake Weber both make for really strong, and likable leads and I wish we saw them in more horror films. And Ving Rhames, brings fierce passion and heart to his role. One of my favorite running bits throughout the movie is his character communicating with a white board to a gunshop owner the building across from the mall and the friendship that develops between them. While Dawn of the Dead doesn’t handle its consumerism aspect as well as the original, and it doesn’t feel like characters use the mall to its full capacity, the film certainly delivers on the zombie horror. Dawn of the Dead actually makes zombies scary, something we seem to have moved away from, and a birth scene near the end of the second act is perfectly orchestrated in its building tension. The last act, in which our characters try to escape the mall in two buses, is one of the best final acts in a zombie film and it really delivers on the shameless gore these films manage so well.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Dawn of the Dead is an absolutely thrilling experience that still stands as one of the best zombie films of the 21st century. Snyder and Gunn manage to pay homage to Romero’s original while creating their own beast. There’s a lot that the modern zombie explosion owes to this film, and while we’ve seen better character moments, and greater moments of tragedy, the pure joy found in the viewer experience here has yet to be topped.

Monday, October 16, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 16: The Neon Demon (2015)

(dir. Nicholas Winding Refn)

Amazon Studios/Broad Green Pictures/Scanbox Entertainment,The Jokers
Aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) encounters a world of lust, jealousy, and dark secrets within the modeling industry.

The Neon Demon won’t be for everyone. This statement could be said about every single one of Nicholas Winding Refn’s films. He is a filmmaker, who by design, goes against making films for everyone and seeks to find the artistry and meaning in alienation—the alienation of his characters and of himself as filmmaker. Jesse’s aspect of alienation is her beauty, a trait that pulls her into the modeling industry but also causes intense emotions, sometimes violently so, for those in her presence. Refn lingers on this beauty, not just the beauty of Jesse, but also the beauty of this neon world of seemingly perfect structures and dream-like spaces that are both inviting and menacing. It’s hard to argue against the claim that The Neon Demon is more style than substance, but oh, what delicious style it is. There’s a mesmerizing use of lights and a repeated triangle motif that acts of some kind of inverse-Trinity within the world of high-fashion, or a doorway to something wicked, ancient, and perceptively female.

Like much of Refn’s work outside of Drive, The Neon Demon isn’t particularly interested in plot-specifics, or creating a narrative that's simple to follow from point A to B. Instead there are flashes of heightened emotion that connect to actions that aren’t always what they seem. Jesse’s innocence is deceptive, though we’re not quite sure why, nor is Jesse herself. And the deception she’s pulled into by makeup artist Ruby (the excellent Jenna Malone) and a pair of models (Abby Lee and Bella Heathcote) is one of sexual menace but also an eerie lust for life, as if Jesse inhabits the space of both virgin and fountain of youth. While there’s very little overt horror throughout much of The Neon Demon, the last act takes a shocking turn that casts the entire movie in a new light-one that exists within some of our oldest horror mythos. At it’s core, The Neon Demon is a movie of vampires and witchcraft, figuratively through much of its runtime and literally in the film’s gut lurching conclusion. The message itself isn’t all that fascinating (beauty standards and industry menace have long been staples of horror) but what is fascinating is how Refn arrives there with this odd collection of images, alienated from any larger sense of story or aim. The Neon Demon is a triangular window into a world that only exists within the context of this film, making that its singularity all the more beautiful and haunting.

Scare Factor: 1/5 The Neon Demon probably won’t scare you, and its artistic attentions may come off as pretension, but the film looks and feels fascinating. It elicits, for me at least, an emotional response that isn’t easy to pinpoint but is nevertheless a refreshing one within my role as a spectator of the genre.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 15: The Void (2016)

(dir. Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie)

D Films

In this Lovecraftian inspired blending of horror subgenres, A group of people become trapped in a small-town hospital as a hooded cult surrounds the perimeter, and creatures spawned by a dark cosmic force grow inside.

There are some horror films that become so immersive in the experiences they create, that whatever flaws exist within it become moot as you become swept up in the whirlwind of curiosity that comes with exploring a frightening new territory. While the acting is a bit spotty at parts, and the connective story tissue ultimately becomes impenetrable in classic H.P. Lovecraft fashion, The Void is a practical effects lover’s haven and an ambitious cathedral of gore and weirdness that make it one of the year’s best horror films. Kostanski and Gillespie, primarily known for their art department and makeup work, with credits including Suicide Squad, Crimson Peak, and Pacific Rim, announce themselves as forces to be reckoned with through The Void. The set-up is simple, and the utilization of the classic “trapped in a single location” scenario is an almost effortless horror movie tool. But The Void stretches far beyond the classic, despite its wide range of inspirations and manages to top itself from scene to scene and effect to effect as we’re taken down the dark spiral of the pain that humans' cling to despite their best interests.

Grief is the fulcrum that the film rests on, and The Void is the messy afterbirth of that grief, afterbirth teeming with strange new half-life. Deputy Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) and his estranged wife and nurse, Alison (Kathleen Munroe), divided by the death of their unborn daughter, are central to the film’s examination of how loss isn’t only horrific but transformative. Along with a pregnant woman and her father, a nursing intern, a Doctor, and a pair of outsiders on the run from the mysterious cult, Daniel and Alison entangled in the forces of death that exist beyond all concepts of Heaven and Hell. The film enables us to care about these characters so that even as creatures overrun the hospital and blood conceals in the halls, The Void remains a story of human beings. After all, any probing into the afterlife remains unimportant unless its tethered to human beings and their fragility.

The Void is gorgeous in its production design. Every creature, and almost every shot is impressively crafted and designed with a voice that gives the film its own identity despite its debts to The Thing, Re-Animator, From Beyond, and any number of Cronenberg films. Unlike another impressively designed modern film that wears its influences on its sleeves, Beyond the Black Rainbow, The Void is quickly paced, creating a rollercoaster like experience that maintains thrills even as it refuses to answer the questions it poses. It’s not that the unanswered questions don’t matter, but that the surrounding experience carries such a force, that you can’t feel cheated. And perhaps, like any cosmic based horror worth its blood-sheened stars, the fear can only remain when it's in the unknown and inexplicable.

Scare Factor: 3/5 In many ways, The Void is the Resident Evil movie so many fans of the games wanted and never received. Even for a small-scale independent horror movie, there’s a grandness to Kostanski and Gillespie’s film, one that makes these filmmakers primed to take on larger horror worlds (the things these guys could do with a big-budget Stephen King property!). The Void maintains a sense of authenticity while feeling simultaneously novel in its designs and concerns. The Void sure to be regarded as a modern horror cult classic, and hopefully the first step in what will be an long and impressive horror filmography.

*Available on Netflix

Saturday, October 14, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 14: Village of the Damned (1995)

(dir. John Carpenter)

Universal Pictures
*First time viewing

After an incident leaves the residents of a small town briefly unconscious, its women wake to find themselves mysteriously pregnant. Years later, the strange, emotionless children born from this incident control the town through fear.

Based on John Wyndham’s 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos, and a remake of the popular 1960 film of the same name, the biggest selling point of John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned is that it’s John Carpenter’s. Despite the film’s negative reception upon release, and its seeming lack of necessity (particularly given Carpenter’s history with creating unique stories), Village of the Damned remains a compelling example of the director’s late work. Carpenter recreates the small, coastal town feel of his earlier work The Fog, and populates it with stock characters that are largely forgettable outside of Christopher Reeve, Kristie Alley, and a criminally underused Mark Hamill. Despite the fact that we never connect with any of the characters outside of Reeve’s widowed, and altruistic father of one of the mysterious children, Carpenter’s sunny, sea-side neo gothic remains engaging. Its engagement is largely on the basis that the glowing-eyed, towheaded children are creepy as hell, but as with most of Carpenter’s work, there’s something deeper at play.

Like so much of Carpenter’s work, there is a social allegory at the center of it. As we watch the parents of this small town struggle to control their nearly identical children, children who lack empathy and therefore humanity, it’s hard not to be reminded of the generational struggles that have defined, and still do define, America. Village of the Damned is inherently about our collective fears of the next generation, the answer to the question of what happens when the children we raise refuse to buy into our morals, and refuse to learn from their parents. It’s the strangeness of failed legacy carried out in a small town from which there is no escape from that fact. The fate of our world is, as it always was, determined by our children, and as their views depart from ours, we have no choice but to live stranded in a place that exhibits all the familiar locations but feels unquestionably alien.

Scare Factor: 1/5 While Village of the Damned doesn’t feel as complete as some of Carpenter's prior films, I’d argue that it is still a necessary part of his filmography.  Come for the creepy, red-eyed kids, but stay for Carpenter’s expression of parental terror.

Friday, October 13, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 13: Maniac (1980)

(dir. William Lustig)

Analysis Film Releasing Corporation
One of the most controversial films of all time, the cult classic Maniac follows serial killer, Frank Zito as he stalks women, murders them, and adds their scalps to his collection of preserved mannequins. 

Maniac is a filthy film, so much so that it’s alive with it.  It’s grimy right down to its very pores, every film cell choked by the cinematic reek of cum-stained movie theater seats, cigarette smoke, and back alley butchershops whose meat has soured from fear induced night sweats. The film’s miniscule budget ($350,000) and guerilla style filmmaking certainly has a large role in creating this utterly dismal depiction of New York and its godless inhabitants. But the soul of the film, that filth and reek embodied can be solely attributed to the film’s lead and screenwriter Joe Spinell, and his transformative performance as Frank Zito. When we talk about the body language of monsters, it’s hard not to immediately think of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein. Spinell gives us a monster that’s just as worthy, just as complete in its conception in Maniac. He’s captivating to watch, and yet gives off such a disgusting presence as Zito that we don’t want to, yet we can’t turn away. With his deep-set eyes, strong Italian features, and large physical presence, Spinell cuts a sharp contrast to the traditional meek and slender depiction of the serial killer. When out about town, Zito exudes confidence and charm. Despite lacking classic looks, women are drawn towards Zito, like the clean-cut and gorgeous photographer Anna (Caroline Munro). Zito is able to camouflage his predatory nature in a way that becomes believable, so much so that for brief moments we can almost forget what he is. It’s only when Zito returns to his dank inner sanctum, and becomes overwhelmed by the abuse suffered as a child that a nebbish and disturbingly unhinged personality surfaces and makes unclean any notions of Zito’s normalcy.

While the murders are brutal, they’re not quite as disturbing as the film’s reputation would let on, particularly within the 21st century. It’s not so much the execution of Zito’s killing spree that’s alarming, but the tone of it. There’s a detachment to them, a nihilistic deliberateness that earns a bit of queasiness. Maniac features some of the earliest work of effects legend Tom Savini, whose experience in Vietnam further tinges the film with a damp misery that’s so evident as a product of its time. The film’s climax remains a standout moment in practical effects, and pushes the film towards an achievement of its thematic conceit in such a way that’s simple yet memorable in its derangement. And the very idea of taking parts of women to create mannequins so loaded with subtext, and questions of masculine desire that even the seeming simplicity loses its varnish the more you delve into the undiagnosed psychosis at play here.

Scare Factor 3/5 While Maniac isn’t traditionally frightening, it does leave a lasting feeling of discomfort. Maniac is an essential part of horror history, and while it lacks the overt enjoyability of some of the other slasher movies on this list (not even its cheapness is a source of humor), it’s so unique in its vision that even if you don’t love it, I challenge you not to respect it.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 12: The Exorcist III (1990)

(dir. William Peter Blatty)

20th Century Fox

*First time viewing

Set seventeen years after The Exorcist (and ignoring The Exorcist II), this sequel follows police lieutant Jospeph Kinderman as he investagates a series of brutal murders that match the modus operandi of the Gemini Killer, who was executed years before.

We all know that The Exorcist (1973) is an unparalleled classic, not just of horror, but of film in general. We also know that no exorcism based movie has come close to touching it, despite how many films have attempted to imitate it and managed to create serviceable chills of their own. I’d avoided watching The Exorcist III for years, assuming that it would be a poor follow-up to the original, which ultimately feels like a complete experience. No, The Exorcist never needed a sequel, but let me tell you something:  I’ve been missing out on watching this one. The hospital-set Exorcist III is a striking follow-up because it doesn’t try to recapture the original film. Instead does something different by using some of the same characters from The Exorcist and creating an entirely new context for the horror they find themselves in (similar to what the surprisingly wonderful Exorcist television show is doing.) Based on Blatty’s novel Legion, The Exorcist III blends supernatural elements with the serial killer thriller. The central antagonist, the Gemini killer, is a clear reference to the Zodiac killer, but Blatty weaves that historical basis in expertly with the lore of his own design and the mythology established within the original novel and subsequent film adaptation.

For most of the film, the supernatural exists as a background element, while the central plot focuses on Kinderman’s investigations into a series of murders that have left victims beheaded, neatly drained of blood, and mutilated in sacrilegious ways. While Blatty doesn’t show all of the violence directly, the suggestion of it, and the open discussion of it, showcases the change in horror cinema from 70s to the 90s. While the original film was extreme and controversial for its time, it was relatively bloodless. This is of course didn’t deter the horror aspect as the The Exorcist is still one of the most frightening films ever released. The Exorcist III is less subtle in its horror, opting for shock value, but there’s a deliciousness to the way Blatty fetishizes it that the horror is satisfying in its own right, though not quite as mysterious or emotional. George C. Scott takes on the role of Kinderman in this film, and brings a big, masculine presence to the film. While the first film is very much women-centric in its focus on motherhood and female maturity, Exorcist III is overtly masculine in its focus on aging men coming to grips with their faith and lives as they approach their end.

There’s a dreamy sheen that encases parts of the movie like a second skin, a theatrically that overlays the film’s grounded manhunt. When Kinderman meets the mysterious Patient X, a possessed Damian Karras, the portrayal switches between the bodies of actor Jason Scott and Brad Dourif’s Gemini Killer, creating an interesting if somewhat jarring depiction of possession. Dourif gives a schizophrenic performance, his voice changing tones and octaves as he shifts between the Gemini Killer, a mockery of Karras, and Pazuzu. It’s a tremendous performance from an actor who has become a horror icon over the years. These scenes between Kinderman and Patient X have a stage-show quality, feeling somewhat removed from the rest of the film, as if the cell where they talk is only a stand-in for a tight-spaced purgatory. While the discussions between Kinderman and Patient X are largely expository, they’re also fascinating psychological examinations of two men whose concepts of religion and faith never extend beyond shifting personal needs. While the original film supposed that God and the Devil were forces that worked through the human characters, Exorcist III posits some level of human control over the divine.  By the time the film reaches the exorcism near the very end, there’s a very clear sense that this aspect of the film is more plot device than anything. The central conflict of The Exorcist III is a more visceral and physical clash of morality, with the presence of the divine and demonic existing as tools in a battle between two people who would have been enemies regardless.

Scare Factor: 4/5 Watch this in the dark on a late night and you’re bound to be checking your doors several times before bed. The Exorcist III famously features one of the best jump scares in horror history, but the rest of the film surrounding that scene is filled with startling imagery and nightmare fuel. The Exorcist III isn’t only a great sequel, it’s one of the best horror films of the 90s.

Also, watch The Exorcist series on Fox. It's great and if you dig the movies, it ties them together in some really unique ways.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 11: Phantasm (1979)

(dir. Don Coscarelli)

AVCO Embassy Pictures

13-year old Mike becomes caught in the mysterious machinations of an otherworldly undertaker, The Tall Man, and must convince his older brother and their family friend that evil has invaded their small town.

Phantasm, the first film in Don Coscarelli’s five-film, decades spanning and dimension hopping horror franchise is an animal unlike any I’ve encountered before. There’s a certain, and valid expectation, that comes with most horror films in from the late 70s and 80s that they are simply riffs of one another. The expectation certainly comes into play when watching Phantasm for the first time, but Coscarelli who made the film in his early 20s on a budget of $300,000 defies nearly all expectations and genre conventions. A significant part of this defiance comes from his having to get creative with the budget, and his decision to a three hour cut of the film to nearly half that length. The resulting film, is a fragmented dreamscape that tackles a young boy’s coming to terms with death.

There’s much of Phantasm that makes it hard to decipher dream from reality. As viewer, we’re forced to cling to what few concrete details we know in order to move forward. Those concrete details? Mike’s parents recently died, and his environment is alarmingly empty even for a small town. With those few details, we begin to piece together the nightmare that Mike finds himself in as an encounter with the Tall Man leads him to explore an elaborate mausoleum where he encounters evil dwarves, and the iconic bladed silver spheres. While the sphere scene, a tense chase through the extended halls of the mausoleum has become the principal image of the Phantasm franchise, and is likely familiar before seeing the film in totality, the lasting appeal of Phantasm is the family element at the heart of the horror. While the relationships in Phantasm grow more rewarding as the series progresses (a factor I learned through watching all five films back-to-back) we do get a sense of that here. Mike, Jody, and Reggie, respectively portrayed by A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, and Reggie Banister form a make-shift family of aimless young men, given purpose in the fight against death. This of course becomes increasingly harder as the series progresses and the characters age along with the story, but this initial chapter makes that fight a fulfilling, if futile journey.

Mike, Jody, and Reggie, discover that the Tall Man (the imposing Angus Scrimm) has been stealing corpses and turning them into dwarves who serve as his slaves in another dimension. Phantasm manages to create some lofty ideas, and the hint of sci-fi spectacle within its modest parameters. But even in the midst of the grand ideas that lurk below the surface is the fact that so much of Phantasm’s horror stems from the mind of a 13-year old boy and the things that are frightening come attached with a subconscious fear of maturity, the realization of one’s own mortality and the inescapability of decay, as signified by Mike’s dying town. The ending, without spoiling it, further re-contextualizes the whole the film. It's intially frustrating if you're trying to view the film literally, but the gaps in logic ultimately serve as a fulfillment of this nightmarish coming of age tale.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Phantasm is must-see horror, but perhaps not in the way you’re expecting. It’s certainly chilling thanks to Scrimm’s wonderful performance, but it also has a lot of heart thanks to the character at the center of the film. While the acting isn’t pitch-perfect, there’s an emotional connection made to these characters and this world, one that only increases as the series continues. And Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave’s Goblin-influenced score gives the nightmares a rhythm that’s impossible to shake. While the film might not give adults night-terrors, Phantasm is great introduction to more serious horror for younger viewers looking to delve into the genre.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 10: Terror Train (1980)

(dir. Roger Spottiswoode)

20th Century Fox

*First time viewing

Another entry in Jamie Lee Curtis’ scream queen canon, Terror Train brings the tropes of the slasher film aboard as a pre-med fraternity’s New Year’s Eve costume party goes off the rails as a masked killer conducts gruesome murders one by one.

When it comes to slasher movies, a great location can make all the difference. There’s so much of Terror Train that is familiar, Jamie Lee Curtis as the virginal lead, Alana, her friends and acquaintances fulfilling all the fundamental supporting character clichĂ©s, a masked killer set on a path of vengeance by a prank gone wrong. All of those aspects are enjoyable in their own right, but the simple fact that the film is set on a train rather than a suburb, or camp grounds elevates the material by creating a new spatial dynamic. Spottiswoode carefully uses the claustrophobic conditions of the train to create an inescapable sense that these college co-eds are trapped even before any of the characters are aware of what’s at play. The costume party, drunken sexual entanglements, and overly-decorated rooms with disco balls and neon lights create a fever dream like scenario that’s bacchanalian in its madness. Add in the presence of David Copperfield as the party’s entertainer known only as The Magician, and there’s a delightful sense of unreality within these tight corridors, which Spottiswoode with the significant help from unique lighting devised by cinematographer, John Alcott, pulls off some beautiful shots from.

Given the costume party element, the killer changes costumes throughout the film, inhabiting the roles and guises of his victims. Besides the location, this is the film’s most unique element and something that surprisingly didn’t occur more often as slasher films had their boom throughout the 80s. Even though we’re made aware of the prank gone awry at the beginning of the film, Terror Train maintains a sense of “Who Done It?”, and still manages to pull off a fantastic twist. But more memorable than the twist, is the role of sex in the film, the fear of it and obsession with it that propels all the central characters in this film. Of course, sex isn’t anything new in horror movies, but Terror Train is less concerned with the morality of it, and rather the impact and memory of it- the potential horror that stems from the acceptance or rejection of it.

Scare Factor: 2/5 There are some chilling moments that are quite effective when you’re watching this in the dark alone (take it from experience.) And the setting allows for a unique experience, and series of twists that make Terror Train worthy of sitting alongside your favorite 80s slasher. But the real surprise here is John Alcott’s cinematography. Alcott worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Barry Lyndon, and A Clockwork Orange. While Terror Train is a far-cry from those films, Alcott displays the same commitment to presenting unique lighting and shots that makes Terror Train a horror experience that that deserves to be part of the conversation.

Monday, October 9, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 9: From Beyond (1986)

(dir. Stuart Gordon)

Empire Pictures
*First time viewing

Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s story of the same name, From Beyond follows two scientists and a detective’s efforts to advance their sensory perception through a device that opens a breach to another dimension filled with evil, ravenous creatures. Yeah, it’s crazy.

From Beyond is a wet movie. Nearly every frame of the film is soaked in a gratuitous amount of extra-dimensional fluid and sexual overtones that always skirt the line between discomfort and perversion. At its most basic, From Beyond is a film made to disgust. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise given that it’s Stuart Gordon’s follow-up to Re-Animator. Re-Animator is a wonderfully gross film, but From Beyond tops it in terms of pushing the limits. If you remember Dr. Hill’s decapitated head between Megan Halsey legs in the Re-Animator, then you can get pretty close to imagining what the tone of From Beyond is like across its runtime. With almost all of the central cast and crew from Re-Animator returning for this film, it’s difficult not to compare the two. Yet, despite From Beyond’s gross-out intentions, it’s more ambitious with its ideas than former…which is ultimately the film’s triumph and detriment.

In typical Lovecraftian fashion, From Beyond taps into deep, cosmic, primordial horror that doesn’t make a ton of sense in the realm of specific details, at least how it’s depicted here. The threads of exactly what the characters are doing, or why, or how are sometimes lost, but man does the film look great in its blending of 1950s sci-fi aesthetics and Giallo films. Also great is the cast. Jeffrey Combs, Barabra Crampton, and Ken Foree, all horror legends, each add to the film in their own unique way, and offer a major assistance on the front of Gordon’s juggling act of tones. Ted Sorel, who plays the villainous Dr. Pretorius, provides plenty of menace, but it’s John Carl Buechler’s special effects that steal the show in terms of creating a larger threat. The influence of the effects work here can clearly be seen in James Gunn’s Slither and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. Even when the plot points don’t live up the special effects, a hand has got be given to Gordon for pushing his directorial skills and vision forward when he could have just made a Re-Animator sequel using the tricks he’d already shown us. What’s most impressive about From Beyond, is that it’s clearly the work of a director still testing his limits, and that’s a joy to watch. A sopping wet joy, but a joy nonetheless.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Gordon’s sensibilities lean more on perverse grotesqueries, and weird body horror than outright scares, but there’s enough grossness and weirdness to keep any horror fan engaged. From Beyond may be lesser than Re-Animator but it’s essential 80s horror viewing.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 8: Blood Rage (1987)

(dir. John Grissmer)

Prism Entertainment

*First-time viewing

As children, identical twin brothers, Todd and Terry, are involved in a murder. But when the wrong brother is sent away, he escapes from an asylum 10 years later to confront the real madman behind that night’s fatal attack, just in time for Thanksgiving.

Blood Rage, also released under the under the titles Nightmare at Shadow Woods, and the even more creative, Slasher, came near the tail end of the slasher craze. It really makes no effort to do something different within the sub-genre, but it does an ok job meeting the basics. The twin aspect is always a welcome element in horror movies, and Mark Soper does a serviceable job as the adult Todd and Terry. Todd, the innocent brother wrongly sent away, is portrayed with an awkwardness that borders on mental deficiency, while Terry is given a winning personality and popularity that could almost be considered normal, if it wasn’t for his aversion to sex and the rage that stems from witnessing the act od it. If the film spent most of its time focusing on them, and Terry’s teenage friends and unwanted love-interest, Blood Rage could have actually developed some momentum behind it. But the film, spends an unseemly amount of time focused on Todd and Terry’s mother, played by Louise Lasser, and her fiancĂ©. Lasser gives an absurd performance that quickly enters the realm of irritation and makes the film’s pacing drag. She drifts wildly from joy to sadness with a manic fury that’s almost terrifying, but it never amounts to anything. It’s weirdness for the sake of weirdness, or a strange attempt at humor that’s never strange enough to feel purposeful.

There’s an overall lack of Thanksgiving horror movies, and while Blood Rage isn’t a particularly strong film, that holiday element does elevate it a bit. Though other than a short-lived dinner and Terry’s absurd habit of tasting the blood of his victims and proclaiming “that’s not cranberry sauce,” the Thanksgiving element doesn’t really have any bearing on the plot. The film’s strongest elements are its kill scenes, which while lacking creativity, do deliver on the gore and bloodshed. Blood Rage also delivers a strong ending, filled with the kind of tragedy and mass bloodshed that made me long for a stronger movie proceeding it and more interesting supporting characters.

Scare Factor: 1/5 Blood Rage is a traditional mixed bag. It’s not a good movie, and it’s too inoffensive to be comically bad…though it’s got moments of that too. There are instants that make it worth watching, but I’d only recommend if you’re a slasher movie junkie looking to catch-up on something that may have flown under the radar.