31 by 31 Challenge #24: SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)

@craiggors

Richly designed. Pervasive in atmosphere. Whimsical at turns and unrelenting at others, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow has become a Halloween staple since its debut, and with good reason. It’s a low-scare but high-gore horror film the likes of which could only be produced by the strange love affair between creator and star that’s gone a little tepid over the years but here is still quite potent.

New York City constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is sent to the small hamlet of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of mysterious deaths involving beheadings. The logical Crane searches for a human perpetrator, naturally, but is confounded when the locals insist that the culprit is none other than the ghost of the legendary Headless Horseman. A contemporary spin on the classic colonial tale, Burton’s take on the story involves witchcraft, superstition, myth, history, and science all in one delicious cocktail.

This Gothic take on the well-known story stays true to the bones of the original while adding wit, life, charm, and that particular Burtonesque touch that makes his films so signature and standout. Together with his longtime muse and partner-in-weird Johnny Depp the two craft a refreshing take on old lore. Ichabod Crane is less flashy than some of Depp’s other roles under Burton (or Disney, for that matter), but no less compelling. Depp plays off a deft balance between ironic squeamishness and overblown bravado in the character. His charisma brings lightness to the darkness of the narrative, themes, and tone of the film, which is spot-on October glee.

Dank woods and dead leaves flank the period-appropriate set that’s heightened by stylization but does not distract or displace the viewer. A never-ending mist hangs over everything and you can almost feel the cold seep from your screen as you watch. Color is brought out in eerie yet subtle magnitude–rich blood reds, stark chalk whites–contrasting the lingering gray and producing an almost mesmerizing effect. The costumes and props all evoke the tone and the era as well, making this one of the most beautifully visualized horror films you’ll ever find.

The liberties taken in the story are all justified ones for the most. A few times the story is in danger of becoming too convoluted, but there’s always enough time for plot points to breathe before the audience has to take the next sharp turn in the narrative. The backstories fashioned for both the Horseman and Ichabod are interesting and add depth. The spurts of violence and gore mingle well with the blustery, ghostly parts of the tale.

Professional, high-powered performances, supremely rendered sets, shots, and landscapes, and a near-perfect narrative balance between dark and comic make Sleepy Hollow a wicked, delightful, and enveloping film. There’s nothing like a New England October. Or a New England ghost story, and you can find both in spades with this film, filled with all sorts of newly imagined twists and turns. So have some fun, go for a ride. Just be careful not to lose your head.

Sleepy Hollow

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #23: THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE (2016)

@craiggors

Norwegian director Andre Øvredal followed up his satirical dark fantasy monster movie Trollhunter (2010) with a deadly serious chiller, also his English-language debut, that became a sleeper hit and in short time has gained traction as a beloved contemporary horror classic.

Small town coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) runs his family business out of a state-of-the-art mortuary and crematorium bunker underneath the family homestead. With son-in-training Austin (Emile Hirsch) assisting him, the two stay late one night in order to perform an autopsy on a recently delivered, and unidentified, female corpse from a local murder scene. The corpse exhibits no outward signs of distress or notable markings. But as the duo begin their extensive examinations in order to produce a c.o.d (cause of death) for the demanding sheriff, dark questions about the mysterious girl arise, and their answers prove sinister.

One excellent feature of the film to note right off the bat is the perfectly mapped structure of the film. The story is entirely linear in the best way, providing a sense of order the viewer can anticipate and follow. Father and son embark on their normal examination process the way they would for any other “new arrival,” and we’re told that this will involve a cursory exterior examination, an inspection of the internal organs, and then finally peeling back the skull to tackle the brain. All the while, they will speculate on possible c.o.d. based on their findings. The great thing about this set-up is that, after strange things begin to happen in that cold, clean basement, the viewer knows that there are more mysteries coming. They still have the next step ahead of them. As such, a very tangible sense of dread, anticipation, and danger develops.

Throughout the procedure there’s some excellent dialogue exchanged between the two leads, Tommy and Austin. The elder Tilden is unceremonial and by-the-books in his work, as one needs to be in such a profession, and Austin is the loyal son who sacrifices time spent with his girlfriend to help his father get the work done. What’s great is that, even with this sacrifice, the relationship between father and son is never painted as strained or difficult as so many films do in order to fashion drama and tension. They are normal people thrown into a very abnormal situation and it is their relationship that allows them to move together through this trial. Hirsch and Cox both deserve credit for this, and for creating real characters easy to identify with and follow on their unusual journey. But the anchoring performance of the film would have to be Olwen Kelly as the Jane Doe corpse. Playing dead is an art, and a difficult one at that. She’s got no lines, barely moves, and is nude pretty much the entire time, and yet somehow still manages to deliver a great performance. Who would have guessed?

The film is also, thankfully, full of frights. The scares are not necessarily abundant, but there’s just enough, and they are so excellently and deftly executed that I want to avoid even the tiniest bit of discussion of them here in order to save you the surprise later. I will say that even if you spot one of the scares coming early on (there’s some pretty obvious throwaway dialogue that hints at it), you’ll still find your heart racing and your pulse quickening when things start to go awry. 

If all of this sounds sufficiently vague, then good. The less clues you have to the mystery, the better. Piece by piece the film weaves together who Jane Doe is, why her body bears no signs of outward physical trauma, and what exactly happened to her and the revelation is both haunting and satisfying, though the third act itself is not entirely original. But such a minor flaw can be forgiven for the sake of great, likable characters, a steady supply of the creepiness and unease, and beautiful production design. The coroner’s facility in the basement is an excellent set, creating a sort of locked-room effect as the action never leaves the mortuary. There’s lots of playing with shadows and corners and the excellent placement of a corner mirror that figures in some of the film’s most terrifying moments. A definite recommendation, full of spooks that will make it impossible for you to just lie still…

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #22: HELL FEST (2018)

@craiggors

Lovers of local haunts will find this bloody little gem to be right up their alley, and an excellent film to enjoy in October and bask in all the Halloween happiness that comes with it. It’s our time once again, Chatters. Let us fly into the dark, dark night…

Perma-studier Natalie (Amy Forsyth) comes to visit her best friend Brooke (Reign Edwards) during Halloweekend in the hopes that they can reconnect after drifting apart from attending different colleges. Natalie is dismayed to find that she won’t get to hang out with Brooke alone, however, as Brooke’s wild friend Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) and her boyfriend Asher (Matt Mercurio) have secured six tickets to Hell Fest, a traveling horror carnival made up of rides, haunts, games, and other assorted frights. It’s all jump scares and cuddly moments with Gavin (Roby Attal) until Natalie realizes that their group is being stalked and taunted by a masked serial killer posing as one of the actors.

Hell Fest accomplishes two feats that make it worth your time. One, it delivers an old school slasher story straight out of the 80’s slasher heyday, with heads getting pummeled by hammers, eyes jabbed with syringes, a group of relatable, obnoxious teens who are somehow all likable, and a creepy, silent killer with an equally creepy mask and a creative repertoire of kill tactics. Add in the themed, expansive-yet-contained amusement park setting, and it’s like watching a lost Carpenter or Cunningham film. The production team nailed the set design and clearly did their homework when it comes to professional haunts. The various mazes and rides look like they could have been lifted from your hometown haunt; colorful, crazy, scary, and detailed. And they’re pulling double duty as well. Not only do the sets and extras serve to establish a sense of authenticity, but they’re the source of a lot of the film’s scares as well. As such, Hell Fest becomes the one horror film where excessive jump scares don’t wear thin.

The leading ladies (Forsyth, Edwards, & Taylor-Klaus) shine, and their chemistry is natural and believable for college students. Taylor-Klaus in particular brings a perfect energy to her character and steals every frame she’s in (something she did in the Scream TV series as well). Any annoyance felt with the characters is due to the writing, not their portrayal, and it’s lucky that the performances are so strong because the writing is certainly the film’s weakest point. This clunkiness is likely due to the fact that there are three credited screenwriters and two story contributors, which is far too many cooks in the kitchen for such straightforward horror fare.

What’s perhaps most interesting about Hell Fest, however, is that it’s not actually frightening until the final scene; or rather, the implications of that scene and the resulting question of whether or not we are safe anywhere in society anymore. It’s a chilling coda to end the movie on, while also opening the door to a potential sequel or franchise, and I for one would not be opposed at all. As long as any future properties adhere to the standards of the original, they’re sure to be one hell of a good time.

Hell Fest

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

Battle of the Haunted House Films (Not the Ones You’re Thinking Of)

@melmoy

We’ve seen a lot of haunted house movies out there. But there are precious few films about haunted houses—that is, the Halloween time attraction of staged scenes and complicit audience members. It seems to make sense. It’s a little too obvious, right? We expect to be scared inside a haunted house because it’s what we’re there for.  Things will jump around corners, spiders will drop from the ceiling, creatures might chase us down a hallway. The beauty of a haunted house film, in the traditional sense, is the uncanny, the sudden vilification of a sanctuary. But, a few gem films out there have mastered the art of making something incredibly obvious, still entirely disturbing. The Houses That October Built (2014) and Hell House LLC (2015) are two films that tackle the terror waiting behind the walls of a Halloween attraction, but they handle it in very different ways.

Let’s go chronologically.

The Houses That October Built is a 2014 film written and directed by Bobby Roe, who has since been tapped to write a film based in The Walking Dead universe. It follows a group of documentary filmmakers who are traveling across the country, visiting famous haunted attractions all throughout the month of October until their grand finale in New Orleans on Halloween night. Along the way, they find themselves stalked by an anonymous group associated with an underground, extreme haunt. Hell House LLC is a 2015 film written and directed by Stephen Cognetti about a production crew behind a new haunted attraction where, on opening night, a tragedy took place in the basement of the haunt that still hasn’t been fully explained.

The films have similarities and some stark differences. First off, both films feature a predominantly male cast with a single female in the group. It’s not a deep take, nor is it important to the plot, but in the larger conversation of how horror likes to feature diversity, both films—written by men—depict a group of young white men chasing a dangerous dream, with a single female in the group who gets some obligatory sexualization from at least one or more of the men around her. It’s frustrating, especially when parts of the film lean hard into the flaring tensions which usually means angry white men screaming at each other, occasionally throwing a shove or punch. Both films also focus on in this female as the final escapee/victim of the situation. With Sara (Hell House) being the only one to make it out of the house alive and Brandy (Houses That October Built) as the one holding the camera at the end. There’s an interesting psychological here to explore, the Halloween fantasy of a group of men secluded with a woman in a haunted attraction where she has no agency or place in the story until they are thrust upon her as the men around her drop like flies.

Let’s look at some more similarities: they’re both found footage. Ever since The Blair Witch Project popularized the medium in 1999, found footage has been utilized by independent filmmakers, likely because it’s so cheap. It’s easier to hand a camera off to an actor than it is to pay a few cameramen for omniscient camera shots, so steady cam work, or figure out how to get a crane shot. It’s also a way to skirt on creativity, no one is going to complain about the cinematography when it’s purposefully messy. No one’s going to compliment either, of course. But it’s become a quick way for film school hopefuls to get some stories out there and it’s mostly come at the cost of the medium itself. Found footage gets elicits something of a groan these days. Since Blair Witch, few films have found believable occasions for a camera to be capturing the escalating events and nuanced stories in between jump scares. Neither of these films are particularly engaging where that is concerned. In Houses That October Built, they’re putting together a travel documentary. Why? How are they funding this? Who is the audience? Doesn’t matter even though it should. In Hell House footage has been turned over to an investigative reporter that’s a series of home movies about the weeks creating the new haunt. Don’t know why we’re filming or why when someone wakes up in the middle of the night their first instinct is to turn on a camera before taking a drink of water. But whatever, in both instances we’re along for the ride, however contrived our reasons are for being there.

The content is where these films differ, and also where they are at their strongest. Houses That October Built takes on a fear we don’t really talk about: how vulnerable we are while in a haunted attraction. Dr. Margee Kerr cites in much of her work that the reasons we find haunted attractions so fun is the assumption of safety, the ability to play out a fantasy while knowing we can go to the bar afterward. Houses That October Built twists this. The characters are not safe, we’re not sure if the ghoul in makeup is holding a plastic knife or a real one, whether that’s real blood or not, if that person staring at them is part of the haunt or something else. And it forces you to think about that in your own experiences. This is especially true for the over 18 “extreme haunts” that utilize full physical contact and safe words. You sign waivers and assume the chain saw they’re waving in your face isn’t real. But what if it was? The demons in this film are ultimately human, a group of serial killers using internet forums and urban legends to lure people into their extreme, and fatal, haunted attraction. It’s clever and unsettling and knocks at the door of some real psychological questions about haunted attractions and the people who seek them out.

Hell House takes a very different approach. The terror of attraction guests is a quick jumping-off point, not much else. We begin with cell phone footage which, according to the lore of the film, is the only known footage of the night of a terrible disaster that killed 15 people, both staff and attendees. The footage is jumbled, the event confusing, but the meat of the film will ultimately take us back to that night and the truth behind it. This film doesn’t go as deep psychologically as Houses That October Built. It’s not exploring a subconscious fear. Ultimately, it’s little more, at the end of the day, than a haunted house film with a very unique setting and premise. But that’s also what makes it fun. The group is staying in a house of horrors of their own creation. If it dives in their psychologies and stories, maybe that element would be more pronounced. But, it’s ultimately a movie that is fun and creepy because the idea of sleeping in a haunted attraction is fun and creepy. The demons aren’t human here, there’s talk of satanic rituals in the building before they bought it, suicides and creepy histories. The end makes it clear something supernatural was going on the entire time. There’s no deeper meaning, it’s just some fun atmosphere and creepy scares.

That being said, a lot was left on the cutting room floor that would have made for a truly complex film. Through some Q&A on a reddit thread, director and writer Stephen Cognetti shed some light on the larger story going on in the film—a story that was largely cut out when the script switched to a found-footage documentary. The idea behind much of the film’s plot was cosmic forces and fate, if you can believe that. The original owners of the hotel were cultists who opened up a hungry gate to the other side. Those monsters seemed to never be satisfied. Alex and his crew are drawn to the hotel when their capital runs out for their haunt in New York City, the hotel luring them there knowing they’d bring with them even more souls to feed off of once their haunted attraction opened. It’s an interesting dive into similar predestination themes in The House on Haunted Hill, the agency of place memory where there is history, the way we line up for violent scares every Halloween and fake bloodshed can be bait to us like sharks—or more like minows. But, as Cognetti pointed out in his reddit discussions, it’s hard to get all of that into a tight 90 minute found footage film. Which begs the question: why do a found footage film if it sacrifices the better portions of your story?

So, if I were to put these in a battle next to each other, who wins? Houses That October Built is psychological and unique and takes full advantage of its premise. Hell House is fun and atmospheric and the ideal lights off movie. The answer? Watch both this Halloween and decide for yourself.

31 by 31 Challenge #21: THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT 2 (2017)

@craiggors

Though the fount footage sub-genre and paranormal investigators motif had become stale by the mid-2010’s, The Houses October Built (2014) was a sleeper hit thanks to its realism and authentic presentation of the world of “extreme haunts,” full contact immersive experiences that blur the line between entertainment and psychological torture. And perhaps even physical torture. How does the sequel stack up? Let’s investigate…

Recovering from the trauma of their ordeal last Halloween–which involved kidnapping and apparent attempted murder–by the mysterious group the Blue Skeleton–who take “extreme haunt” to another level–five friends decide they must face their fears in order to move on with their lives. Heading back out on the road to visit more haunted house attractions, signs of the Blue Skeleton start appearing again and it seems that a new, fresh terror is just around the bend.

Houses 2, like its predecessor, is a meta-film. This go-around, it is also a love letter to some of the most famous names and faces in American haunt culture. The group travel to and namedrop real extreme haunted attractions, including Ohio’s “Haunted Hoochie” and Philadelphia’s “Terror Behind the Walls” (I’ve been, and I definitely recommend btw). There’s cameos from actual organizers, artists, and researchers that work with and in these haunts to create waking nightmares. It’s an illuminating peek behind the curtain for people who don’t know just how much organization it takes to put on these incredible attractions, and just how big their culture has become. In this fashion, Houses 2 is a send-up and celebration of all things Halloween, particularly in how this holiday can create a sense of community among artists, scarehounds, and horror freaks, much in the way the first film was as well.

There’s a fun turn the story takes this time around where our heroes’ documentary is inter-cut with voyeuristic footage of the group, letting us know that the true subject of this exploration is not the haunts anymore, it’s the people hunting them down. The retconning that resets the board opens the door to some inconsistencies and plot holes, and if you scrutinize too close you start to wonder why you should even care about any of these people because the film doesn’t make any sense but I think the trick here is to watch Houses 2 not as a horror film but as a horror documentary. It works far better this way, with each visit to a haunt just a chapter in a larger wrap-around story that the Blue Skeleton confrontation at the end ties up as neatly as can be expected.

The extreme haunt phenomenon is on the rise. It’s fascinating to experience, to read about in analytic texts like Margee Kerr’s Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear (author and book both featured in this film), and to watch here in Houses 2. People are voluntarily paying to be subjected to potentially traumatizing experiences; the privilege to be emotionally rocked in the confines of a supposedly safe space. Is it a jaded mentality commonly attributed to millennials? Adrenaline-addicted experience-over-possessions mentality? Something else entirely? It’s titillating territory to explore, and The Houses October 2 is the perfect place to begin your hunt.

The Houses October Built 2

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #20: THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT (2014)

@craiggors

Found footage has been called a horror subgenre that burned bright and faded fast. Aside from a few milestones that utilized the format in creative and forward-thinking ways, found footage has mostly been repetitive, lazy, and uncreative. On the plus, it’s a great genre to work in for low-budget and indie filmmakers, a group of artists whose creativity is often more unrestrained than mainstream and studio moviemakers. It’s from these minds that we can still get creative found footage. Or, at the very least, a genuine effort to deliver something unpredictable.

Beneath the fake blood and cheap masks of countless haunted house attractions across the country, there are whispers of truly terrifying alternatives. Looking to find an authentic, blood-curdling good fright for Halloween, five friends set off on a road trip in an RV to track down these underground haunts. Just when their search seems to reach a dead end, strange and disturbing things start happening around them. Soon it becomes clear that the haunt has come to them.

Halloween and horror go hand in hand and diehard fans love to see horror movies taking place in, around, or about All Hallows’ Eve. It’s just our jam, and it’s why genre lovers have added The Houses October Built to their season lineup since its release five years ago, and why there seems to be a growing niche genre of Halloween-haunts-gone-wrong films. With the basest ingredients, Houses is a great Halloween movie. It captures the aura of autumn and the chill factor of this spookiest of holidays without being overly cloying about either. It feels and looks like real-world Halloween.

The reality factor, always a necessity for any convincing found footage film and rarely one that achieves its goal, is heightened by convincing performances from the capable cast. Zack (Zack Andrews) is the spirited ringleader always pushing the friend group into their crazy schemes and plots, Brandy (Brandy Schaefer) is the logical mom-friend happy to have fun but also always on the lookout for when its time to call it quits, and Jeff (Jeff Larson) is charismatic but underused. The life of the group and the movie is Mikey (Mikey Roe), an opinionated jokester who draws you into his onscreen presence. We all know guys like Mikey. They’re great to have around in large groups because they always make sure the fun keeps flowing. This is a seasoned group, committed to behaving how people actually behave (as far as the script allows, of course), which is unusual in most found footage fodder. 

The Houses October Built is a well-structured movie that doesn’t rely on standard scares, is brave enough to provide you with intelligent, capable protagonists who feel like individuals and not just “characters,” and an engaging story. Are there missteps? Of course. Some of the maneuvers feel flat or ill-thought out at times, but the movie is still a break from the pack. It’s not quite Blair Witch greatness, but I’d comfortably rank it alongside other strong found footage gems like Trollhunter (2010) and [REC] (2007). So even if you’re sick to death of found footage, give this one a try. You’ll be pleased with the Hallowed atmosphere, interesting, relatable characters, and terrifying sense of realism. Just, you know, maybe watch it after you’ve gone to your local haunted house. If you’re still around, that is…

The Houses October Built

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #19: HELL HOUSE LLC (2015)

@craiggors

It’s no secret in the horror community, and amongst general film fans, that the found footage sub-genre is drastically hit or miss. For every Cloverfield (2008) and Blair Witch Project (1999) there’s a dozen clunkers that waste the time, money, and brain cells of the viewer. Happily, Hell House LLC (2015) is no clunker, and while it may not have reached the exalted heights of REC (2007) or Paranormal Activity (2009), it’s achieved quite a cult status and accompanying fan base in the few short years since it’s release, not to mention two sequels of decent though not matching quality.

The film presents itself as a documentary featuring the recovered footage of a group of haunted attraction employees who opened a haunt, Hell House, in an abandoned hotel in Abaddon, New York, along with accompanying interviews and news clips speculating about the nature of a mysterious tragedy that occurred on opening night of the haunt that resulted in the deaths of several people. Through interviews with Sara (Ryan Jennifer), the only surviving member of the Hell House crew, we come to learn and see of the strange and sinister events that plagued the production of Hell House leading up to opening night, and we begin to piece together how and why everything went so horrifically wrong.

The buildup of tension is masterful in Hell House LLC, reminiscent of Paranormal Activity‘s use of title cards every time night fell and the resultant mounting dread. The use of different footage from varying sources speculating on the cause and nature of the tragedy at Hell House layers the mystery, each of them dropping subtle hints and clues for the audience to piece together an increasingly macabre puzzle. It’s an effective way for the filmmakers to manipulate the audience into feeling exactly what they wish the viewer to feel for any given scene and it works masterfully.

The characters aren’t too far from generic horror stock models, but they do break the mold in that, for the most part, they don’t make cliche or stupid mistakes, a welcome and refreshing change of pace. Though we don’t get to know any of them all that deeply, they’re a charming and likable group and it’s easy to feel for them when the scares start mounting. There are few, if any, jump scares to be found in the film. Director Stephen Cognetti uses a subtle hand to weave in quiet moments of terror that serve to elevate the story and tick up the suspense, a true slow-burn approach absent in much found footage but highly effective here.

It’s all about atmosphere in Hell House LLC, and the film is a perfect capsule of autumn in the northeast as well as the world of Halloween haunts and the community that supports and puts on haunted attractions. In many ways, the movie is more concerned with establishing and maintaining a sinister mood and an atmosphere of dread than with closing narrative loops, and the ending is offered to the audience with gaps to be filled by each individual viewer (or, I suppose, the two sequels that have followed). Those that like their mysteries completely unraveled may find this irritating, but there’s no denying that this is one hell of a tense and entertaining ride.

Hell House LLC

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror