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 #16: RINGU (1998)

@craiggors

To this day, the enormously successful Ringu, which follows TV reporter Reiko Asakawa and her ex-husband on an investigation into the origins of a cursed videotape, holds the record for being Japan’s highest-grossing horror film of all time. It spearheaded a renaissance not only in American remakes and remarketings of J-horror, but in Japanese horror overall, affecting dozens of films that didn’t even get (yet?) American screw-ups. Sorry, I mean adaptations.

Whereas Gore Verbinski’s 2002 American version of the tale relies on mood and a slowburn and coherent narrative to induce dread and suspense, Ringu is more about inciting a kind of pervasive eeriness, something that feels much more invasive and sticky. Watching The Ring, you feel as though you might encounter Samara…one day. Watching the original, you feel as though Sadako is right there in the room with you, thinly veiled behind each and every reflective surface. In Ringu, the investigation unravels through a series of startling images, non-sequiturs, free association, and psychic intuition, all of which lead to some incredibly unsettling moments absent from the watered-down American version. Chief among these would be the far bleaker, more ambiguous ending.

The overall atmosphere in Ringu, crafted so expertly by director Hideo Nakata, is one of oppressiveness and claustrophobic gloom that comes off very personal. The loose ends are intentionally denied resolution in order to increase tension in a manner absent from the American film. Western audiences tend to like their stories wrapped up with neat little bows, and studios are hesitant to move away from that kind of closure, though this has hesitation has lessened somewhat in recent years.

In Japan, the release of the film was met with a level of hysteria akin to that of The Exorcist (1973) in the United States. There have been claims that the apartment used in the film for Reiko’s home is actually haunted.  Ringu themed tours took place in the building for years, and there is now a theme park based on the original movie, as well as two sequels, a prequel, tv series, two remakes (one American, one Korean), and a host of pan-Asian clones that are mostly formula pieces parading an endless succession of wraith-like girls in long black hair and pallid features. Of these knockoffs I’d say that One Missed Call (2003) might be the only one worth checking out for the awesome set piece during the exorcism scene.

Few films are better enjoyed on a windy October night than Ringu. It’s a psychologically chilling and spine-tingling movie that’s full of genuinely upsetting and unsettling moments and features an unmatched oppressive atmosphere that even the most jaded and seasoned horror fans will be hard pressed to deny is palpable. Happily, Ringu is far more accessible than it used to be, and the advent of the internet and online horror communities have allowed fans of the genre a chance to see what inspired the Naomi Watts remake. Throw it on when you’re in the mood for mood. You know, just give yourself about a week’s time to set things in order afterwards…

Ringu

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

31 by 31 Challenge #14: BAD MOON (1996)

@craiggors

There’s a fascinating movement that’s been happening in the horror community in recent years wherein fright freaks are reevaluating movies from the early to mid-1990’s, long considered horror’s bleakest period in terms of quality film, and finding things to love in once universally panned films. Bad Moon is one such film for me, though I always loved it back in the day. I’m thrilled to see it find more cheerleaders now, not because it’s a game-changing revolutionary werewolf film, but because it’s heaps of fun and with the right audience, can be absolute viewing perfection.

Globe-trotting photographer Ted (Michael Pare) is romping around in the steeped forests of Nepal when he’s attacked by a werewolf. Upon returning home, Ted secludes himself in a trailer near the mountain home of his sister Janet (Mariel Hemingway) and nephew Brett (Mason Gamble). As Ted and Janet begin to reconnect, mutilated bodies begin appearing in the woods and Thor, the family dog, takes an instant dislike to Ted, attempting to warn the family that something is very, very wrong.

The werewolf is one of the most complex and layered monsters in horror, yet the werewolf film has proven an elusive beast to tame. Bad Moon is by no means the gold standard for the sub-genre, but it understands that at their core, werewolf stories are about tragedy. This movie gives that tragedy an interesting spin in that Ted, the victim-turned-monster, isn’t our tragic figure–he embraces his newfound violent tendencies all too easy and eagerly–but the family unit threatened by forces supernatural and as close to home, or kennel, as could be. The inherent sadness of the film is not Ted’s transformation from man to beast, but that of a family just on the brink of reconciliation and happiness being torn apart and subjected to grief and trauma at the hands of one of their own.

The true standing power of Bad Moon is in the creature effects, however. Being that it was the 90’s, all the effects are practical, of course, and it’s truly stellar costuming and makeup, courtesy of Steve Johnson. The werewolf is hulking, feral, and gnarly. It’s a pure reflection of the earliest, most brutal werewolf myths that emphasized the savage nature of the monster. The werewolf is the ultimate killer, and each attack and mauling is appropriately gory, none more so than the opening scene, an in-your-face juxtaposition of sex and violence that was rare to see in 90’s horror flicks after the MPAA came down hard on that sort of the thing in the late 80’s. The film is all the better for it, however; a bold promise on what the rest of the movie has in store.

Bad Moon is not an everyman’s horror film, but just because it was overlooked and undervalued in 1996 doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. There’s plenty to love here for those that appreciate top notch practical gore and creature effects, an assured sense of story, and gorgeous scenery all packed into a neat runtime. A victim of an era when werewolf and monster films, hell even horror in general, were struggling to find an audience, this onetime runt is perfectly primed to lead the pack.

Bad Moon

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

31 by 31 Challenge #12: BODY BAGS (1993)

@craiggors

When compiling a list of great horror anthologies, Body Bags is an oft yet criminally overlooked contender, which is mind boggling if you’ve ever seen it, or even if you just glance at the film’s roster. Directed by John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper for Showtime, and featuring a veritable who’s who of early 90’s celebrities and horror icons–including cameos by Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, and Tom Arnold–the film was meant to be a creepy-story-of-the-week TV show to compete with HBO’s massively successful Tales From the Crypt (1989-1996). After filming only three episodes, however, the show was canceled, and the segments were compiled into Body Bags, leaving us all to pine for what might have been.

John Carpenter plays The Coroner, a wise-cracking cross between the Crypt Keeper and Beetlejuice, who welcomes the viewer to the county morgue and introduces each of the three tales while drinking formaldehyde and searching for the most grisly and mangled bodies he can find. Despite only popping up between segments, Carpenter absolutely steals the show as The Coroner, and framing the stories as explanations for how these bodies ended up in the morgue is clever and fresh. Carpenter’s clearly having a blast in the role, and his energy translates well, making it just an absolute blast to kick back and enjoy Body Bags.

Carpenter directs the first two segments, “The Gas Station,” and “Hair.” In the first–which is set in Haddonfield, Illinois–a young woman (Alex Datcher) working the late shift at an isolated gas station/mechanics is plagued by strange visitors and unnerved by news of an active serial killer in the area. David Naughton, Wes Craven, and Robert Carradine all drop by at one point or another and the whole thing makes for a wonderfully tight and tense mini-Halloween. “Hair” is equally fun though more goofy; a body horror morality play featuring Stacy Keach as a middle-aged man obsessed with making sure he doesn’t go bald and willing to go to great lengths to keep a full head of hair. David Warner and Sheena Easton round out the players in this icky yet charming little terror fable.

Then there’s the fantastically nutso performance of Mark Hamill in “Eye,” the third and final segment directed by Tobe Hooper. As a baseball player that loses an eye and has it replaced with the eye of a deceased serial killer, Hamill goes all in and brings a few moments of genuine dread to the otherwise campy piece. There’s a twisted sense of glee in watching Luke Skywalker descend into madness in such an unsettling fashion, and the ending is appropriately bloody for a serial killer story.

Carpenter has stated that he never thought of himself as a talented actor, and so ceased casting himself in roles. Watching Body Bags, it’s a shame to think of what might have been if he had at least stuck with this particular character, and if Showtime had more faith in their Crypt-copycat. As with many things in life, and in the horror genre, fans must wonder what-if, but at the very least we have this taste of what should have been, a solid entry in the body of work of not one but two horror legends. Now, bag that up and take it with you.

Body Bags

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