31 by 31 Challenge #31: HALLOWEEN (1978)

@craiggors

“I met him, fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; not even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes…the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil” -Dr. Sam Loomis

Michael Myers. Perhaps the single greatest icon of the horror film. His debut appearance as “The Shape” in Halloween (1978) saw the beginning of a new era in the genre . The film established John Carpenter as a cinematic genius, established the “rules of horror,” and kickstarted the slasher film sub-genre that reached somewhat nauseating heights in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Halloween has since become a staple of not only horror culture, but pop culture in general and still frequently places in the Top 3 or 4 horror films of all time from diehard fans to Fangoria to AFI.

October 31, 1963, in the quaint, all-American suburban utopia of Haddonfield, Illinois, an unseen figure watches a teenage girl engage in a “romantic dalliance” with her boyfriend. The viewer is placed in the figure’s mind, the camera moving as his body moves, the screen his vision. We move into the house where both a large kitchen knife and a ghoulish clown mask are acquired. Then, now peering through the hollowed eyes of the mask, we move up the stairs and into the girl’s bedroom, where she sits at her makeup table. She turns, and is stabbed repeatedly. The assailant is revealed to be six-year old Michael Myers (Will Sandin), and the victim, his older sister Judith (Sandy Johnson).

The now famous opening sequence of Halloween, inspired in part by the opening crane shot in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958),was not the first moment where a filmmaker put the audience into the eye of a maniac, but it become one of the most well-executed and well-known. It’s unsettling, even now, to watch and become an unwilling participant in the first of many Michael murders. And this is just the beginning of a relentlessly suspenseful film with a tight plot and an energetic pace. Fifteen years after Michael stumbles onto his front lawn to greet his parents with a bloody knife and a blank face, he escapes from Smith’s Grove Asylum, where he has sat, without speaking. His psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), tracks him back to Haddonfield, where Michael (Nick Castle) begins to stalk a trio of babysitters, none of them aware of the danger that has inserted itself into their community. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) proves the only one resourceful enough to fit back against this faceless and pursuant evil.

Halloween became one of the most profitable horror movies of all time, a well deserved but surprise success given that it had a budget of about $350,000. This attracted the attention of a number of filmmakers and studios who began to mimic Halloween and thus the slasher film became its own out of control vehicle, dominating horror well into the 1980’s, though none were near as skillful and inoffensive as their muse. As a scare machine, Halloween is virtually flawless. Carpenter’s memorable score alone has been known to send chills down people’s spines, even if they haven’t even seen the film. The tension is always high, and makes use of pantomime scares made possible by the Panavision format, a somewhat rare indulgence for a low-budget film at the time.

Everything from the set pieces to the neighbors pulling down the blinds and shutting out the lights as Laurie runs from house to house showcase Carpenter’s technical and visual flair. Michael Myers does not only stalk the streets of Haddonfield, he stalks the imaginations of the viewers, a villain so cold and brutal there is no way he won’t imprint himself on the psyches of anyone who watches him do battle against the wily Laurie Strode. Speaking of which, if Michael is the quintessential horror movie villain, it should be noted that four of every five horror fans will name Laurie Strode as the greatest horror movie heroine of all time. Jamie Lee Curtis was cast in the movie as the ultimate tribute to her mother Janet Leigh legendary star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and she remains the reigning scream queen of the horror genre, having belted her way through this and other great classics such as The Fog (1980), Terror Train (1980), and the original Prom Night (1980).

Given that Halloween is looked at as the birth of the slasher sub-genre (though truly the genre has origins in the splatter films of the 1960’s, Italian gialli films, and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974)–among a few other lesser-known sources), it must also be looked at as the beginning of the “rules of horror” that equate sex, drugs, and partial nudity with death. And turning your back on the seemingly dead killer with unreal physical abilities is also a big no-no. This formula was adopted wholesale by later slashers, and has been something that both Carpenter and Halloween have come under fire for–Michael kills his sister after watching her fornicate, and strikes down several other teens either after sex or while preparing to have sex, but the virginal Laurie survives.

Carpenter has defended this pattern as being a realistic portrayal of how teenagers behave. Laurie survives less because she is a virgin than because she has less to distract her as the ill-fated Lynda (P.J. Soles) and Annie (Nancy Kyes). In fact, the characters in Halloween are fairly well-drawn and sympathetic, almost nothing like the mindless drones that populate the abundance of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. We care about the characters in Halloween because we are given true insight into their lives. 

Even for all of it’s realism, the film never loses that eerie emptiness that hangs over the streets and seeps through the glowing pumpkins, turning the whole town of Haddonfield into a menacing neverland. As the film progresses, Michael Myers becomes less the archetype of an escaped lunatic and more the sinister boogeyman so feared by the film’s two child characters, Tommy (Brian Andrews) and Lindsey (Kyle Richards). Though not as blatantly obvious as the sequels, something about Michael rings of a supernatural indestructibility, and there is no better evidence of this than the haunting final montage.

The much beloved Donald Pleasance, who would collaborate with Carpenter on several future projects after Halloween, delivers his lines with an admirable, albeit creepy, elegance, and gets at the heart of why we so fear The Shape–his pure, unsaturated evilness. There is something deeply frightening about a monster not the product of a dysfunctional family or warped society, but one who is filled with a malice and a darkness that cannot be reasoned with or explained.

It is this fear that slowly crawls over the viewer as they take in Halloween, elevating the movie to heights beyond babysitter murders and inefficient police backup. As the film ends, cutting from empty street to empty house to empty school, the heavy breathing of Michael growing louder and deeper in our ears, the audience is left with the sensation that Tommy may have been right, and thus wonders, what if? What could happen on Halloween this year, the night when the barriers between the living and the dead are thinnest, and we enter a world not of our own–a world of masks, knives, and ominous shapes?

Halloween

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

31 by 31 Challenge #30: HALLOWEEN (2018)

@craiggors

When it was announced that the new Halloween film would wash away every other film in the franchise and act as a direct follow-up to the original, fans were equal parts mystified and titillated. The fervor increased when it was solidified that Laurie Strode herself, Jamie Lee Curtis, would return to battle it out against her arch-tormentor Michael Myers for the first time in twenty years (I’m not counting Halloween: Resurrection or the Rob Zombie travesties). But could David Gordon Green’s film live up to the massive hype? Patient horror hounds got their answer last year, and what a bloody answer it was…

Halloween retcons all of the franchise’s canon outside of the 1978 original. Gone is the brother-sister connection established in Halloween II (1981) that was so large a part of the mythos, as well as both of Laurie’s previous children from Halloween 4 (1988) and Halloween H20 (1998), and all the crazy supernatural nonsense that went with those campy, lovable sequels. But Laurie remains. In this sequel, it’s been four decades since her run-in with Michael, and Laurie has become a doomsday survivalist, hellbent on exacting revenge for the inevitable night that she reunites with the thing that murdered her friends and traumatized her for life. Her estranged daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), however, wish that she would let the paranoia go and live a normal life. But it’s not so easy for Laurie; she knows that unless she puts Michael in the ground herself, he’ll haunt her forever.

This new backstory is established slowly through the film’s prologue, which follows a pair of true crime podcasters (Jefferson Hall & Rhian Rees) as they attempt interviews with both Michael, held in captivity at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium, and Laurie, holed up in her jerry-rigged isolation cabin. Through their probing, we learn of the crises and drama Laurie has experienced in the years since that fateful Halloween night and how she’s changed from the girl-next-door to the woman she is today. Yet even throughout all this exposition and character development, there’s still time for blood and carnage as Michael makes his escape and begins his rampage across Haddonfield.

And it’s quite the rampage. The body count of this new Halloween is far higher than the original, and a good majority of the prior sequels. There’s some great, varied sequences of The Shape doing his thing, including the oft-promoted scene in the truck stop bathroom that also acts as a nod to Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995). The brutality of the kills in the film is also worth noting, as Michael is far more savage than we’ve ever seen him, barring the Zombie films. Given that in this timeline Michael’s been stewing in his rage for forty years and now has the chance to finally unleash it, it makes sense that the kills are extra twisted.

What’s interesting about the film, especially given that it was promoted as the final showdown between Laurie and Michael–not to mention the theme of predator and prey throughout–is that Michael doesn’t actually appear to be hunting Laurie once he escapes. His kills are mainly random, whereas in the original, we see the progression of how he chooses to stalk and dispatch with Laurie and her cronies. In this installment, he doesn’t interact with anyone in Laurie’s life until late in the film, right before the third act showdown. Which, let’s be honest, is why everyone is here after all.

The final face off more than lives up to expectations. It’s a sustained, nasty affair that is visceral to watch unfold and emotionally taxing in the best way to experience as a viewer. Laurie’s booby-trapped home acts as the perfect battleground, and there’s all sorts of unexpected developments that make you wonder just how exactly this confrontation is going to end and who is going to come out on top, if anyone. Several moments are nail-bitingly tense, and the confluence of the main characters at the house during the conflict means the audience is constantly on the edge of their seat in fear of Michael’s next offing.

The cast is solid and supportive, with newcomer Matichak grounding the high school sequences that primarily serve as body fodder, and Greer as whiny, disbelieving Karen getting a nice redemptive moment at the climax. Naturally, the film belongs to Curtis, who is sensational in the role that launched her career and still defines her as a performer today. As a vehicle to reunite Laurie with Michael, the film triumphs, but it also succeeds quite well as a respectable, entertaining entry into the larger Halloween franchise and one that rewards longtime, diehard fans. Once again, Michael has come home. And so have we.

Halloween

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

31 by 31 Challenge #29: BOYS IN THE TREES (2016)

@craiggors

A coming-of-age story all taking place over one night–Halloween night, to be specific–involving ghosts, werewolves, bullies, creepy forests, life, love, romance, death, and the power of imagination. Interested yet?

Halloween, 1997. The last night of high school for Corey (Toby Wallace), his domineering friend Jango (Justin Holborow), and their skater gang. Childhood is over and the world of adulthood beckons. But Corey’s past has unfinished business. Business that must be resolved tonight. When he encounters Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), a former childhood friend now victimized by Jango’s cruel and insatiable bullying, Corey takes pity on him and agrees to walk him home for old times sake. The two estranged teenagers find themselves reviewing memories, dreams, and fears with one another in what soon turns into a surreal and dangerous game that will leave them both drastically altered.

Boys in the Trees is a nostalgia-fueled Halloween romp that will speak to the spirit of all true 90’s kids, fans of Stranger Things, and lovers of the spookiest time of year, no matter your age. The story unfolds slowly, revealing truths and mysteries to us as we progress. From the beginning, there is a promise of conventional horror thrills that is denied in favor of delivering something decidedly different and unexpected, but it achieves the same effect. Suspense is still generated in surprising and meaningful ways. The final turn loses a bit of the film’s careful balance and leaves the ending feeling a bit uncanny but not full-on phony. It’s not the most well-calculated move for the story, but it’s not a hole in the ship either.

In many ways, Boys in the Trees is a love story. Not romantic love, perhaps (though there are a few subtle hints that present the possibility and sexuality is a running theme), but the deep and sweeping love of first friendship. Corey and Jonah’s bygone kinship is something we come to understand was once binding, special, and powerful; something lost to the winds that echoes on this Halloween night, this night of the dead, as all lost things do. We’re treated to a few flashback scenes that confirm this and play out an important plot point, but not until late in the film do we really come to understand this based solely on the performances of the actors playing Corey and Jonah, both of whom are phenomenal, committed, and real. Toby Wallace, in particular, does an excellent job at communicating a mixture of surprise, guilt, and confusion as Corey discovers how much he still has in common with his old friend and pain at the buried truths that come to light during their time together.

The film isn’t heavy on scares, and the ones that do pop up are more creepy than frightening, but it’s all in keeping with the tone and thematic overhaul of the film’s message. It’s more focused on showcasing the trials and tribulations of growing up set against a Halloween backdrop. Nicholas Verso is a confident and assured filmmaker who conjures up surreal scenes and dreamscape imagery that wavers back and forth between sinister and ethereal, chief among them a memorable Day of the Dead-themed house party. The runtime might be a bit long, and the melancholic metaphors might seem obvious at first but by the time things wrap up and come full circle, the emotional imprint becomes deeply affecting.

Boys in the Trees is reminiscent of The Halloween Tree, a story about souls moving between places on Halloween night when spirits cross into this world with ease and if we are not careful, we may also cross into theirs. The narrative is dark, forcing us to confront uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our world and how toxic masculinity so easily traps boys and slowly destroys them, body and soul, before they’re even aware of themselves as functioning humans. Verso doesn’t let us look away from these hard truths, lingering on looks, songs, and feelings to make his point, but despite the heartbreaking turns in the story, the film ultimately ends on an uplifting note of hope and optimism. In Boys in the Trees, we are called to remind ourselves that no matter how deep our pain may be, we must still remember to dream. To dream very, very big.

Boys in the Trees

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

31 by 31 Challenge #28: THE HAUNTING (1963)

@craiggors

Regarded as the definitive haunted house novel, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a mainstay in classic horror fiction and is beloved by fans of all ages and generations; Stephen King calls it one of the most frightening books he’s ever read. Given that great works of literature have a tough time becoming great works of film as well, it would not have been a surprise if the first cinematic adaptation of Jackson’s seminal work was a flop; but in the careful hands of director Robert Wise, flop status was happily avoided (until the Jan de Bont 1999 remake, of course) and we were left with one of the all-time greatest haunted house movies ever. Assuming, of course, that the house is actually haunted…

Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a lonely, shut-in spinster who has spent the  majority of her adult life caring for her recently deceased mother, takes a chance on an adventure at Hill House, an old Victorian mansion with a sordid past, where she will take part in a psychic experiment led by Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), who hopes to prove the existence of the supernatural. They are joined by Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), playboy heir to Hill House, and Theodora (Claire Bloom), a mysterious bohemian woman with purported telekinetic abilities. As soon as the four are settled and left to their devices by the caretakers, strange things begin happening at Hill House, things that seem to revolve around Eleanor — but are they paranormal phenomenon or the fantasies of a young woman coming undone? Both the characters and the viewer are tasked to find out, but the film is resolute in its detail of clarity.

It can be said that The Haunting set the standard for great haunted house movies, perhaps even the rulebook. One such rule that usually proves particularly beneficial is that the haunted house film must be psychologically driven, and so character is everything. Certainly we question the sanity of Eleanor, our focal point, but can we trust stability and motives of the other characters any better? Upon closer inspection, none of them can be entirely trustworthy witnesses. Dr. Markway gave up an aristocratic lifestyle to prove the supernatural to the academic world, and so he very much wants, if not needs, to discover a ghost or two. Theodora exhibits jealousy at the attention given to Nell and is an admitted psychic, a dubious profession in the public eye, and there’s always a lingering question of whether or not she’s making a game out of the whole experience. It’s the beauty of the film to have crafted characters and placed them in such an unsure situation that we can never ground ourselves as a viewer to a point of trust. We’re left drifting about the house, much like Eleanor in the midst of one of her musings.

Eleanor is the soul and star of the story, however, and is played brilliantly by Julie Harris, whose performance elevates Nell above the histrionic women we might expect from a William Castle film of the same era. Her character is matched only by the presence of the house itself, brought to life by an exceptional production value full of misshapen rooms, flock wallpaper, sinister cherubs, angled mirrors, and suffocating Victorian clutter. From the set dressings alone we feel the sinister sense of this house that was born bad, and that’s before unseen presences pound their way down a corridor and on a bedroom door, which is still today one of the most chilling sequences in horror cinema.

Of course, the brilliance of The Haunting is that it never confirms the origin of that horrendous knocking. It certainly seems and sounds like a malevolent spirit, but perhaps it’s rooted in Nell, somewhere deep and subconscious. She’s come to Hill House to escape the drudgery of her everyday life and sees an opportunity to finally “belong,” both to the group and to the House. Is she somehow causing the noises in the old manor? Is she unstable and hallucinating? Or, and perhaps most disturbing of all, is she pretending that all the experiences are real? Wise, like Jackson with the source material, provides many hallways which we might walk down to find the truth and so the tension in The Haunting comes as much from the interpersonal dynamics of the strangers locked inside as it does from the stressful environment or the possible actions of the house itself. As Dr. Markway says, the house’s occupation by spirits can only be suspected, not confirmed. And that is perhaps the most haunting thing of all.

The Haunting

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

31 by 31 Challenge #27: VIY (1967)

@melmoy

Shudder is a great app. It’s about $4 for a subscription and you have access to some pretty great horror films, TV shows, and documentaries. This is mainstream classics  (Halloween, Evil Dead, Heathers, Black Christmas), critically acclaimed films (A Girl Walks Alone at Night, Train to Busan), and some wild stuff I’d previously never heard of but found a ton of fun (Deadtectives, The Void). It’s especially great for an October night when you’re bored, maybe getting sick and looking for something to do while you’re lighting your pumpkin candles.

One such October night was last night when I stumbled across 1967’s Viy on their catalog. This was the first Soviet era horror film ever produced and is based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story of the same name about a philosophy student who finds himself forced to stand three night’s vigil over the corpse of a vengeful witch. It’s the goofiest film I’ve watched in a while, 1960s Russian special effects capabilities and ridiculous English dubbing making it weird enough to watch but there’s something particular about Russian produced art that hits western audiences in a weird way.

Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov) and his friends make the mistake of taking shelter with a haggard old woman in the wilderness when they become lost on their way to holiday from school. Khoma is singled out by the hag who seems to put a spell on him and forces him to gallop like a horse while she rides, and eventually flies, on his back. Khoma escapes and leaves the witch—now a beautiful young woman—for dead. His peace is short lived, however, when he is called back from the seminary by a wealthy landowner whose dying daughter has asked for Khoma by name and bribes the deacon. Khoma is forced back to face the witch over three nights of vigil over her dead body. Ultimately he succumbs to her magical assault.

First and foremost, it’s a hefty cultural film. The feudal culture of rural Ukraine, the specific kind of folklore and local legends passed between rural Russians and Ukrainians, the kinds of folk heroes rural folk aspire to be in Russian-controlled lands. It’s also a bleak and depressing film without any real emotional catharsis or overall thesis statement. Our protagonist, Khoma, is a rambunctious and drunkard of a philosopher, he’s selfish and immature. We don’t really feel bad for his plight, though it feels less like punishment and more like a freak occurrence of bad luck. He does not die as the result of any Biblical edict he broke or any concrete moral code. He simply became worn down after 3 nights of torment.

If the film makes any specific note, it’s on corruption of landowning classes and the church—and how they work together to ensure profit for themselves. It’s implied the woman’s father knows about her supposed witchcraft and trafficking with demons and offers Khoma a thousand gold pieces if he can cure his daughter’s soul and threatens him with beating and torture if he fails. Khoma, a promising if misguided young student, is sacrificed in the attempt by a rich man to cover up a dark family secret. Typical communist sensibilities around money and landowners.

Another interesting note about this film is its reliance on the traditional motifs in Eastern European folklore. Gogol posits in his story, the movie does the same thing, that Viy is a well known and renown demonic figure in Ukrainian folklore. That’s not true. Though Khoma comes in contact with many traditional figures of Slavic folklore including the “midnight dead” and the rusalka. But the story relies on the rule of proximity found in Slavic folklore (the farther from home you are, the more dangerous it is) as well as the widespread use of “trebling” in western folklore (things happen in threes).

What’s the point here? I watched a weird and fun movie, that was visually pretty stunning, despite the outdated and almost corny effects. The mood and tone built excellent tension that even got me a little nervous at times. I’ve always enjoyed “The Viy” and thought it had more potential as a horror film, though it never seemed to take off (likely because of the hyper-Slavic elements that would probably just confuse modern audiences in the west). Still, this was a pretty fun find on a Tuesday night in the fall. Maybe this whole thing was a plug for Shudder while I vomited my thoughts about an obscure Soviet horror film. If you made it this far, join Shudder and read the short story.

31 by 31 Challenge #26: THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)

@craiggors

A strange, sinister, and melancholy descent into loneliness and tragedy, The Seventh Victim is an anomaly among the films of its time, even other Val Lewton productions. Instead of setting out from the real world and slowly finding ourselves drawn into the supernatural, this film peels away the paranormal bit by bit until we’re left with a very human source for despair, making the already baffling ending even more horrifying and morose.

A young woman (Kim Hunter) searches for her missing sister (Jean Brooks), her only remaining family, who, unknown to her, has become involved with a group of devil worshipers in upscale Greenwich Village. The Seventh Victim is part of the Val Lewton cycle, a series of horror films produced by RKO in the 1940’s that involved ordinary people drawn into the strange and supernatural; only this film eschews that formula to provide an all-too-human face for evil. It’s difficult to discern where the plot is going all the way up to the abrupt ending, but the uncertainty makes for a strangely captivating little movie.

The Seventh Victim is a complex and compelling noir mystery wrapped in a horror film. The mystery of what happened to Jacqueline, and later, how to untangle her from the Satanists’ web, is full of secret spouses, shady business dealings, and shadowy secret societies. The devil worshipers are an odd, kooky bunch who seem slightly remorseful that they’ve chosen to hail Satan, until a bizarre and tragic turn of events sucks the fun right out of our sophisticated group of villains. Then the film’s true core is revealed and it is one of genuine despair. About looking at life and looking at death and being unsure which of the two one prefers and which to choose.

Though plotted as a traditional noir mystery, the emphasis of the film is on atmosphere. A pervasive sense of dread hangs over the movie from the moment we’re introduced to the noose, and its shadow looms over the remaining runtime, a disquieting sense of inevitability tailing the characters at every turn. The characters in this film, whether hero or villain, are lost souls. They’re wandering around looking for meaning and grasping for answers. Some of them find safety at boarding school, others in psychological medicine, some in religion, and some in romance. No matter where these characters align, we know that reality is too depressing for them to handle, and so what we’re seeing play out is a confused, desperate grab for stability.

Even the Kim Hunter character, naive but mature Mary, is filmed and presented through a dreamlike gauze, making complete empathy for her character unobtainable. Hats off to director Mark Robson, the RKO production team, and Val Lewton for keeping this steady, ethereal aura throughout, maintaining that consistent tone of dread, especially since the film was mangled so much from conception to completion. Like most 40’s movies, the film hints at rather than shows, leaving the viewer to fill in jagged gaps with unseemly possibilities. Unlike other contemporary films of the time, however, it ends on an unsettling and unexpected note that is devastating, bleak, confusing, and brutally pessimistic.

The Seventh Victim is a beguiling and rewarding movie; unlike other films of its ilk at the time, like Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), the heart of this movie is a black one. The arresting images and morose mise-en-scene undercut both the 40s melodrama in which this film existed amongst, and decades of future horror and experimental film-making. I’d bet good money David Lynch is a fan, as kernels of this movie can be observed fully popped in Mulholland Drive (2001)and Twin Peaks (1990-1991; 2017). Though the odd one out in terms of influential horror films from the 1940’s, it is still without a doubt amongst the greatest offerings of that subdued and curious decade.

The Seventh Victim

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

31 by 31 Challenge #25: WRONG TURN (2003)

@craiggors

Inbreeding. Deformed mutants. Cannibalism. Victims making the worst possible decision in any given scenario. That’s right, it’s time to take a bite out of Wrong Turn if you’ve got the stomach for it…

Brooding hero Chris (Desmond Harrington) is attempting to get home as fast as he can, winding away down the highways of West Virginia. When traffic screeches to a halt, he takes a detour through a mountain pass and ends up crashing into some fellow youths who popped a flat tire on their way to go camping and partake in assorted debaucheries. Now they’re one big lost happy family and oh right, they’re being hunted by three cannibals that have been warped physically and mentally by generations of inbreeding.

The Wrong Turn series is a curious fixture in the world of horror. When it first came out it gained a reputation for being sick and slick, but if you compare it to other major studio horror releases from 2000-2005 it’s actually not quite up to par. This first entry feels very indie, in fact, though there are some decent gross-out scenes when the group stumbles upon the mountain men’s homestead and finds out what’s cooking. The makeup for the cannibals is definitely big budget too, and probably the movie’s strongest feature. But the rest comes off very low-budget.

That’s not a bad thing by any means, but when your production value doesn’t match the very clearly studio mandated level of storytelling, it’s somewhat jarring. Typically, independent horror films offer something new or fresh to the genre. This is either because a studio won’t take the risk of telling a darker, more complicated, or confusing story, or because budget and time constraints force independent filmmakers to get extra creative in how to tell their tale. But there’s nothing new about the plot, characters, or setting of Wrong Turn. Teenagers get lost. Teenagers get hacked. Teenagers fight back. Setup to repeat in sequels ad nauseam. It’s a mix of The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Deliverance (1972), and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1973) resulting in a somewhat bland milkshake.

But a milkshake is still a milkshake, after all, and there are good points to bring up here. There are some great camera angles and shots that work perfectly for a backwoods horror film, the special effects are effective and fairly seamless, and the actors do a solid job with parts that are neither particularly challenging or interesting. The shortened 84-minute runtime also ensures that not a single frame is wasted. This is impressive given that the film actually takes time setting up the atmosphere before unleashing the cannibals on both the characters and the audience. They’re often shielded from view or played in shadow until the most climactic moments, heightening the dread and the shock value when we finally get a glimpse of their monstrous faces.

Overall, Wrong Turn is a very paint-by-numbers horror film that still gets the job done and delivers on violence and visuals without overstaying its welcome and making you feel as though you’ve wasted your time. It’s a perfect movie for the Halloween season when your brain just isn’t up to something more cerebral or complex but you still want to watch a fright flick. A true popcorn movie. So grab a bowl and throw it on some time; you’ll have fun. Just make sure you look down each time you grab a handful, or you never know what you’ll end up eating…

Wrong Turn

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

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