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 #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 #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

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 #18: IN THE TALL GRASS (2019)

@craiggors

It’s always tricky taking a short story or a novella and adapting the events into a longer narrative. Stephen King and Joe Hill’s In the Tall Grass is known for it’s shocking violence and gut-punch ending, a simple story told in a tight, brisk novella. In stretching that story out to feature-film length for Netflix, director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) expands on the surreal hints of the original pages, plunging the viewer into a weird fiction universe of ancient, ritualized evil aided by sinister, semi-sentient grass.

Pregnant Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) is traveling across the country with her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) to meet her unborn child’s potential adoptive parents in San Diego. Driving the empty back roads of the nation, the two are attempting to keep things as positive as possible given the heavy situation. On a particularly deserted country road, the siblings hear a cry for help coming from the tall, thick fields of grass stretching for miles on either side of the highway. Entering into the grass to help find the lost boy (Will Buie Jr.), Becky and Cal soon find themselves lost in a dizzying maze of grass that seems to defy logic. As dehydration and heat exhaustion set in and the siblings are separated, they soon come to realize that something else moves through the grass, something that has no intention of letting them go…

Though De Oliveira and Whitted are more than fine in their roles, along with Buie Jr. as the lost, innocent Tobin and Harrison Gilbertson as baby daddy Travis, the film really belongs to Patrick Wilson who plays Tobin’s father Ross. The shifty, shady nature of the character allows for Wilson to swing from his trademark charisma to being rivetingly unhinged at the drop of a pin. The rest of the characters are somewhat shallow, even given the expansion of the relationship between Becky and Travis, and the focus on the emotional and psychological weight of being in the grass as supposed to the in-your-face gore of the father/son novella. Not that the gore isn’t present, it’s just overshadowed by an invented mythology that thrusts the story into a bizarre Lynchian-esque world that, while visually stimulating, can be difficult to track in terms of story beats and character development.

Natali knows how to move the camera, play with light, and craft striking imagery. It just so happens that, in this particular instance, these artistic choices to favor a surrealist aesthetic over surface-level characterization prevent the viewer from ever really attaching themselves to the characters or feeling their peril. Given the narrative loops, it’s hard not to wonder if any of the danger that lurks behind the grass is even worth fretting about, thus lowering if not entirely negating the stakes, and you can’t have a horror movie without stakes (insert vampire joke here). Yet this has been sacrificed for a more idiosyncratic storytelling approach.

In The Tall Grass – Patrick Wilson, Harrison Gilbertson, Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted – Photo Credit: Netflix

I think Natali was hoping to create a sense of disorientation for the viewer in an effort to mirror how the characters felt once they realized they were trapped within the tall grass. It’s a stylistic move worthy of attempting, and he doesn’t fail entirely, but he leaves his characters to fend for themselves too much and as a result they’re under-baked, leaving us with a film that’s heavy on atmosphere and stimulating to watch, but with little real heart. Wilson is able to pull layers from Ross and deliver an engaging performance, but you can feel that that’s his own doing. Everyone else’s characterization has been sacrificed in the name of tone and mood. Lost, as it were, in the weeds.

In the Tall Grass

  • 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