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 #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 #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

31 by 31 Challenge #17: ABSENTIA (2011)

@craiggors

Though he’s a horror darling these days, in 2011 Mike Flanagan was just getting started. His first feature, Absentia, was a critical hit on the festival circuit, and with good reason. Though it’s been somewhat overshadowed by his later efforts (Oculus, Hush, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House), Flanagan’s debut film is a pleasantly freaky movie, squeezing an impressive amount of atmosphere and effective scares out of a meager $70,000 budget. Those looking for outlandish special effects and other studio-money embellishments should seek other fare, but fans of psychological terror and personal hauntings will find that this film has been crafted just for you.

Absentia is a taught psychological foray into the mind of a woman, Tricia (Courtney Bell), who is about to declare her husband, vanished seven years past, legally dead, or, “death in absentia.” In order to face the moment when her husband will not exist in a legal sense, Tricia calls on her younger sister Callie (Katie Parker) to help her in the final steps of moving out and moving on. But when strange things start happening in a neighborhood where “things go missing,” old wounds are opened between the sisters and the tension skyrockets. And there’s something strange about the tunnel across the road.

At first it seems that Absentia will adhere to predictable horror beats, but then comes a wicked punch to the chin that follows with a few other revelations soaring in from left field. The story continues to work these interesting angles and relies on atmosphere and mystery rather than violence, shock value, or profound digital visuals. Flanagan plays on sinister, old folklore then turns it around to make it his own. There are times when the plot advances based only on conjecture, but the pacing is spot-on and makes even the weak moments work. Following a tried and true horror storytelling technique, the film shows as little as possible while spinning the mystery. As the climax crawls nearer and nearer, the audience knows that something is going on, can feel that something is lurking, but we can’t see the whole picture just yet. The imagination is flexed here, and that always makes a good horror story stand out.

The cast also elevates the film, despite their generally inexperienced nature, which is great considering Absentia is very much a character-driven story. Katie Parker plays the lead as comfortably charismatic, while Bell convincingly taps into the ideal image of the older, responsible put-upon sister.  Their relationship as sisters feels lived-in, each of the actors conscious to maintain a sense of realism even amidst the inexplicable.

A few plot points remain somewhat murky when the credits roll, and that may mean this film should be avoided by mainstream horror fans, but Absentia is still great in that it presents a fresh idea, a compelling story, and explores themes that have not been run into the ground by lesser works. It reminds us that capable storytellers and strong performers can always serve up creepy joyrides without the big bucks.

Absentia

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