banner2016

The Brood | They Look Like People | Vampyr | Monsters | Peeping Tom | Bram Stoker’s Dracula | Housebound | The Omen (1976) | The Fog (1980) | Blood Feast | Cat People (1942) | The Changeling | Altered States | The Guest | The Funhouse | Would You Rather | Christine | The Verdict


“Do you like scary movies?”

The days wane darker and the winds chill, the rustling of the leaves pregnant with our deepest doubts. October now arrives! And with it the season of horror movies. As in years past, I’ll be devouring as many celluloid cemeteries and fangorious flicks as I can shove in my eye-holes over the next month and reviewing them here. Each horror movie will be given a star rating between 1 (*) and 4 (****) in the following categories:

Iconic – Is it well-known or influential?
Scary – Does it creep you out or make you jump?
Bloody – Is it violent/gory?
Overall – Is it entertaining or does it have artistic value?

You can follow along as I update throughout the month, and I’ll make a ranked list and any final comments at the end. Navigation is at the top, so jump around if you like. Previous horror-thons herehere, here, and here. Let us away!



The Brood (1979)

brood

We kick off this year’s Horror-Thon with David Cronenberg’s The Brood, starring Samantha Eggar from The CollectorThe Canadian director’s name is synonymous with body horror, as epitomized in such movies as Videodrome and The Fly. If there’s one thing I can sure of with Cronenberg it’s that I’m going to have a mixed reaction to his films. The Brood is no exception.

What initially surprised me was the caliber of acting talent attracted to this project. Oliver Reed plays a doctor pioneering some experimental psychology called Psychoplasmics. The film opens on him having a dialog with a patient. Staged before an audience, we are not sure if it is real or a performance. Reed is resolutely serious throughout the movie and his presence is appropriately huge. His scenes with his patients are intense, reminding me of nothing so much as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s scenes with Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. Samantha Eggar, too, gives an otherworldly, out-sized performance in a small but crucial role as Nola Carveth, the institutionalized wife of our protagonist, Frank (Art Hindle). Frank finds wounds on his young daughter and suspects Nola has been beating her when the girl goes to visit on weekends. However, when he tries to remove young Candice from his unstable bride’s influence, things start to go wrong.

The final 15 minutes of The Brood pulls back the curtain on some serious gross-out material, but it’s too little too late to save what has largely been a slow, talky movie.  The explanation for everything is downright boneheaded when you hear it, but if you can accept it all as a heightened metaphor – the film is very much about divorce and custody – it softens the blow somewhat. Early scares work well enough and the kids in the coats are hanging around the uncanny valley, but they aren’t too threatening once you get a look at them (and owe a debt, perhaps, to Roeg’s Don’t Look Now). I feel like this is starting to become a pattern with Cronenberg. Scanners had two great scenes with a lot of nothing in between. The Brood is similar although it looks a bit more respectable overall.

Iconic: **
Scary: **
Bloody: **
Overall: **


They Look Like People (2015)

theylooklikepeople

There isn’t much to this low-budget creeper that feels like a sci-fi short story, but it has its moments. The first few shots create a palpable tension and give us a warning about how little the filmmakers are willing to show us. I always say less is more in horror, at least to a point. What is not seen is often scarier than what is seen, and this little thriller trades in the same type of paranoia as Carpenter’s The Thing (what if your friend has become your enemy?) and They Live (what if those around you aren’t human and you’re the only one who knows?). Unlike in They Live, the buddy protagonists in this film don’t have a protracted brawl in an alleyway; but what they do share is more harrowing and subtle. Sounds and camera angles often suggest distrust and signal to us that we should worry about everyone we come in contact with. A few key moments prime us for The-Ring-style scares, but they never come. There’s a low-key, humming menace to the proceedings that’s consistently effective but limited in what it can do, especially with amateur actors. They Look Like People has a few great ideas and manages some admirable tension, but needs to go further with its premise. It could almost be a treatment for a more complete horror movie, or trimmed to be a segment in an anthology.

Iconic: *
Scary: **
Bloody: *
Overall: **


Vampyr (1931)

vampyr

A talkie that wants to be a silent film, this vampire movie by Carl Theodor Dreyer (of The Passion of Joan of Arc – yes, that Carl Theodor Dreyer!) is more sleepy than dreamy. It tells the story of a man who is obsessed with the supernatural and who encounters a family with a vampire problem. The facts of the story are a little hard to lay out because so much of what happens is kind of unclear. The movie starts by giving us a lot of plot on cards, and then switches to reading to us from a book about vampire lore. Then there’s an old man who may or may not be in a dude’s hotel room, disembodied shadows moving around, premonitions of death, and apparently an actual vampire who infects a girl and must be slayed with an iron stake.

If all this sounds pretty interesting, it’s a lot moreso on paper. The movie rambles by at a languid pace, switching from this thing to that thing and not giving us much to hang on. The best scene in the film is just after one of the old man’s daughters is found bitten by a vampire. Sybille Schmitz shows the menace of her new thirst for blood in her facial expressions and she’s magnetic on screen. Nothing before or after is quite as interesting as watching her act.

Listening to the commentary provided on the Criterion disc, much is made of the way Dreyer confounds expectations and diverges from the already established genre cliches. It’s certainly true that he makes some bold choices. We see many compositions that stand out because another director would have done them in a more “standard” fashion – skeletons filmed upside down, shots playing in reverse, conspicuous use of negative space, plentiful double exposures, and more. So while from a technical standpoint there is plenty for a film buff to look for, the overall effect of the movie was mostly sedative. I can’t say I really enjoyed watching it save for a couple of visual moments here and there and one better than average performer who is mostly confined to a bed. I tend to think vampires are the most boring sub-genre of horror, and unfortunately I can now add this to the evidence stack.

Iconic: *
Scary: *
Bloody: *
Overall: *


Monsters (2010)

monsters

If vampires are my least favorite horror staple, giant monsters are right up there at the top. However, you won’t find many in Gareth Edwards’ film, which is horrific only in the sense that it is devastatingly miss-titled. After watching this movie, I now understand why Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla movie decided that the best way for us to see a battle between two kaiju was on a tiny television screen. Monsters is like a movie made by an evil genie who heard horror fans’ wish for more character development and build-up and delivered a film that’s all first act. You will long for Blair Witch‘s exciting trees while watching this.

Taking a page from Blade Runner, Monsters lays out its entire plot in a couple of pre-titles. Basically we brought aliens back to earth somehow and they holed up in northern Mexico/southern US, a place known as the Infected Zone. The aliens look like 10-story octopi. That’s it. They look like really big octopuses. But they live on land. How did we get them back to earth by accident when they are so big? Do they grow from little spores or something? All the interesting things in this movie are glossed over so we can watch Scoot McNairy try to hit on an engaged woman for 90 minutes. The absolute best thing I can say about it is that it looks really good for a low budget film and that it didn’t put me to sleep. However, when the filmmakers pool their resources for a big special effects moment in the finale, it’s eye-rolling trash. It’s not good horror, drama, or sci-fi.

Iconic: *
Scary: *
Bloody: *
Overall: *


Peeping Tom (1960)

peeping-tom

Well it’s about time. My horror-thon was starting to look at little grim this year. Thanks to Michael Powell of the inimitable Powell and Pressburger, the duo responsible for such films as The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I’ve watched my first actually good movie since October 1.

Peeping Tom feels surprising in a number of ways. If you didn’t know it was a Michael Powell film, you’d never suspect him based on the content; but you would immediately know him for the distinctive visual style. The film resembles the P&P dramas of the 1940s, saturated with warm, rich colors that almost feel incongruous for the genre (the stark black and white of Hitchcock’s Psycho, released the same year, would seem a more obvious fit). For 1960 it’s fairly lurid, with a murderous protagonist who stalks women and films their deaths at his hand. Mark works on a movie set and moonlights at a shady corner store where he shoots racy photos for models. Everywhere he go he carries a handheld camera. It’s become an extension of him. For him, the attention of his pretty red-haired neighbor Helen (Anna Massey) represents an uncomfortable dynamic shift from silent observer to both observing and being observed. Her interest threatens to expose his snuff films both literally and figuratively, and of course she risks becoming his next victim.

The longer I think about it the more I realize this is a movie full of remarkable moments. The opening POV shot predates Halloween by almost 20 years. Then this shot is seen again as Mark watches his footage at home, where we gain distance from it but at the same time it gathers distaste as we in a sense watch ourselves watching. The movie is very British and its stately appearance combined with the lush colors and assured direction make it almost cozy to watch despite its main character’s abberations. Moira Shearer of The Red Shoes fame shows up, lovely as ever, and does a dance for us! The hold on Massey’s face when she sees his movies. The way her mother’s face is distorted in different ways throughout their interaction. The way the victims’ faces are said to display a unique kind of horror – the kind of seeing their own deaths. Even death here is bound up in the act of seeing.

I didn’t love the ending, and the movie never really ramps up much tension, but it’s fascinating, well-made, and in some ways ahead of its time. I’ll likely revisit it in the future.

Iconic: **
Scary: *
Bloody: *
Overall: ***



Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

bram-stoker-dracula

It’s hard to believe this wasn’t a flop on the level of Waterworld. Francis Ford Coppola –  director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now –  brings us this lovingly crafted, sumptuously designed and vividly colored costume drama, a phantasmagoria of practical and in-camera effects, bursting with expressive compositions and awful, awful acting and incredible cheese. Dracula is high camp in the worst way. It’s hilariously overwrought. It’s bewilderingly cast. The dissonance between the painterly quality of the workmanship and the flailing, operatic tone almost make it as fascinating as a failure as it might have been as a triumph.

The basic story is now very familiar after so many incarnations. As in Nosferatu, Dracula (1931), and Nosferatu the Vampyre, the story begins with a highly undramatic land deal in which the reclusive Count Dracula from Transylvania buys up multiple plots in the city of London. Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves in an infamous performance) must travel to the Count’s castle to conclude the deal. In so doing he leaves behind his fiancee (Winona Ryder, his perfect confused-looking match) who happens to look exactly like the bride Dracula lost centuries ago. The Count traps Harker in the castle and travels to London to creep on Ryder and make a vampire out of her patrician friend and whatever else it is vampires do (turn into a werewolf?). Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) is then called in to diagnose un-death and mobilize a ragtag band of mustachioed noblemen to kill Dracula and rescue their fair maidens.

Gary Oldman’s performance is huge, but if we’re allowed an over-the-top performance it must be from the Slavic blood-sucker. Winona Ryder is a bit of a shrew in this but she’s not nearly as lost as Keanu Reeves who is indeed in way over his head. It’s not that his performance is decidedly worse than everyone else’s, but it’s of a different type. He seems to be half-assing an accent and just generally playing wide-eyed as his one character trait. Cary Elwes is in this and that sucks. How is it that the guy from the winningest movie ever, The Princess Bride, is so utterly unlikable in every other role? The saving grace is Hopkins, who simply can’t give a bad line reading. When he shows up about halfway through the film it gets a little easier to stomach. There are some moments in the second half that one might almost call exciting.

I can’t fathom what Coppola thought he had with this. What must he have envisioned? At least it’s not the worst version of Dracula. But if I never have to see this story again that will be a-okay.

Iconic: **
Scary: *
Bloody: **
Overall: *


Housebound (2014)

housebound

A young kiwi woman gets caught robbing an ATM and is sentenced to 8 months house arrest with her mother, a rambling superstitious type, and her step father, quiet and meek. Her mum thinks the house is haunted and it’s not long before Kylie begins to agree. Her parole officer thinks of himself as a ghost hunter and the film lampoons some ghost movie tropes as he tries and fails to pick up evidence of disturbed spirits in the house.

Like so many recent horror movies, Housebound showcases its leading lady – in this case, Morgana O’Reilly. She does disaffected/disgusted well and this should lead to more roles for her. A lot of the humor, though, comes from Rima Te Wiata as her mother. The mysteries are pretty simple and a little obvious, and the film could easily be both funnier and scarier. Still, it gets an infusion of life from surprising bursts of violence and some deadpan jokiness that make this good fun for genre fans. I was expecting a supernatural horror with dark humor in the vein of You’re Next. It isn’t as sharp as Wingard’s slasher but there are some similarities. I won’t say too much about where the film went because I went in knowing nothing and it managed to surprise me a little.

Iconic: *
Scary: *
Bloody: **
Overall: ***


The Omen (1976)

omen

To everyone wary of child performances or who don’t find creepy kids in movies all that creepy, a blessed comfort: there isn’t actually that much of the child Damien in this film. It revolves around his adopted father, Thorn (Atticus Fi… I mean Gregory Peck). Peck is an actor with easy charisma and a calm seriousness whose presence at the center of this picture is indispensable. Richard Donner said that he didn’t conceive of The Omen as a horror movie, but rather a drama/mystery/thriller. That’s evident from the film’s construction – it feels like it has the gravity of a drama and the structure of a detective story. Much of the second act involves Thorn and Jennings (David Warner) trying to discover exactly what Damien is.

If you didn’t know where the movie was going, the first few scenes would be ridiculously cheesy. The happy family bits along with a highly insistent Jerry Goldsmith score are saccharine, but only to set up a contrast. It’s not long before the first tragedy happens at Damien’s birthday party, and it’s a weird, chilling moment that kicks the movie into gear.

What doesn’t work: Lee Remick isn’t great at acting hysterical when she’s called on. The score is overused in spots. That baboon scene is just bizarre.

What works: The Thorns aren’t stupid parents (at least not totally). Their mysterious nanny could have done with more vetting, but they don’t let her overpower them. When she wants to leave Damien home from church or bring a strange dog into the house, they shut her down firmly. Finding mysterious information in photographs is an old horror trick but it’s one that I almost always respond to. Most of all, I never get the feeling that the movie is trying to scare me – I get the feeling that forces beyond his control are attempting to destroy Thorn, and I feel empathy for him. That empathy involves getting swept up into the foreboding nature of the whole thing. It works more powerfully than feeling like the director is toying with me as the audience. It’s dramatically satisfying.

Iconic: ****
Scary: **
Bloody: **
Overall: ****


The Fog (1980)

the-fog“Midnight til one belong to the dead.”

A perfect midnight movie, a scary bedtime story. Carpenter’s followup to Halloween is similar in some respects, with many cast and crew members returning including Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Loomis, and director of photography Dean Cundy – even the opening with the pocket watch is very much like the zoom into the jack-o-lantern in Halloween. Like that film, The Fog tells of a supernatural menace to a small town. In this case, it’s an undead crew of sailors who appear in a fog on the anniversary of their deaths. The tale is laid out as a campfire story in the movie’s prologue.

This is genial, low-key horror that relies mostly on Cundy’s atmospheric cinematography and Carpenter’s familiar but effective score. It’s a simple morality tale that sets up a small band of locals celebrating their town’s anniversary and discovering that their foundation as it were is bathed in blood. Watching over them is radio DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) whose smoky, soothing voice keeps them company through the night and who will eventually guide them away from the fog as it consumes the town. Once we see what we’re dealing with (ghosts, essentially, who want to kill 6 people in retribution), we’re content to just ride it out with these characters. There’s not a lot to it, but it’s that pleasant sort of creepy movie that you can almost fall asleep to. In a good way.

Iconic: **
Scary: *
Bloody: *
Overall: ***


Blood Feast (1963)

blood_feast

This influential drive-in classic is straight up one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. It’s The Room-level bad. About the best thing I can say for it is that its colors are vibrant, and it’s not very long. Oh, and some of the line readings are so bad that it made me laugh. Not very much. A little. It’s short but not so short that it isn’t boring in between shots of garish red gore. The killer looks ridiculous. He’s just a dude with chalk in his hair so that he looks “old.” He has a limp and doesn’t seem to take any particular care with his murder victims, but the police are baffled! He hasn’t left one clue! The police station “set” is just a desk in the corner of a room. Everyone talks as if the English language and human emotion are alien to them.

The only point of this film is to show gore, and in that respect alone it was transgressive for its time. Some of it is indeed nasty, but it’s not realistic enough nor shot well enough to be really revolting. Near the end of the film one victim has been laid out on a table with blood dripping after she’s been whipped. The camera lovingly, slowly pans from her head all the way down to her feet to show us this spread. There isn’t even any nudity. A lot of exploitation films would trade in both sex and violence but here it’s actually neither, it’s just bright images of indeterminate, artificial viscera and dire acting and a spare, repetitive, grating score. So while it was influential, a milestone in its time, as a movie it’s an utterly amateurish, artless slog with nothing cinematically to recommend.

Iconic: ***
Scary: *
Bloody: ***
Overall: no stars


Cat People (1942)

cat-people

Okay, movie-verse, I get it! You’re gonna make me eat my words over and over again. I said what you don’t see is scarier than what you see, but dammit I still want to see something. Watching Cat People just made me want to see the remake of Cat People. I know this classic is revered for its subtlety, but I just want it to be so much crazier and sleazier. After all, the premise of the movie is that a woman cannot even kiss her husband, lest the passion it awakens turn her into a panther who would then maul him to death. A movie like that at very least needs to smolder.

That’s one of the issues I always have with these code-era movies. I can never tell when I’m supposed to be inferring something they can’t show or when I’m reading too much into it. For example, I assumed that the two main characters had sex on their first meeting: she invites him in, the next thing you know the lights are out and he’s smoking – classic shorthand for they just did it, right? But then we find out their marriage is unconsummated due to her issues. So I obviously misread that earlier scene.

Though there isn’t much passion felt in the movie, there is grace and beauty in the form of the black and white photography. Lots of high contrast and sharp, jagged shadows. A scene set in a drafting studio near the end of the film yields a half dozen remarkable shots. The filmmakers stage plenty of shots to reinforce their motifs. Irena is often seen wearing a fur coat like a cat, and photographed with Anubis-like statues in the frame. A sculpture seen near the start neatly prefigures a climactic development. And, too, the supernatural aspects are so low-key that the movie effectively becomes a domestic drama about mental illness, which is somewhat interesting. For all the times Irena is called pretty, it’s Alice (Jane Randolph) who makes the biggest splash on screen – literally and figuratively.

There’s just too little here to satiate a horror fan. The premise itself is so patently silly (any time someone says the titular phrase it’s a wonder they don’t break out in laughter) that it’s hard to imagine how it could be done in such a way that it wouldn’t be extraordinarily campy. So maybe less-is-more was the correct approach. But even when the cat is out of the bag, it’s only a mid-sized cat, emblematic of this movie’s modest approach to its B-movie material.

Iconic: **
Scary: *
Bloody: *
Overall: **


The Changeling (1980)

the-changeling

If The Omen  is The Exorcist lite, is The Changeling The Omen lite? It strikes me as similar in some ways, what with an older man played by a well-known actor with a younger family, tormented by a child or the loss of one. Creepy Shit™ happens and then the movie takes on the form of a mystery as he tries to uncover clues to the identity of a supernatural boy. In any case, The Changeling is probably the weakest of this unofficial trilogy but it’s still a solid haunted house story. The first 30 minutes are a little dry, then we start to lean into it.

What is the origin of the seance as an element in ghost movies? The one that takes place here (the mindless scribbling) is very much like others I’ve witnessed but it predates them. After that Russell jumps right in trying to figure out what this ghost wants and put it to rest. He’s not too bothered by the fact that there’s a ghost. Quite the pragmatist, really. I wouldn’t say this was scary, but it was creepy enough to get under your skin a little.

Iconic: **
Scary: **
Bloody: *
Overall: ***


Altered States (1980)

altered-states

Love conquers…uh, something? Like love conquers becoming one with the first living being, the primordial soul?

Altered States doesn’t totally succeed but I like that it tries. You’ll think you’re getting a head-trip, but what you’re really getting is a movie about headtrips. Jessup is a professor with a proclivity for going into isolation chambers and recording hallucinatory experiences that he has. This turns to him seeking out other mind-altering substances. He finds a Mexican drug that, combined with the effects of a chamber, allows him to physically actualize the effects of his dreams. The premise is rife for casting off restraint and whipping up creative, loopy fantasy sequences unbound by plot logic. And the movie tries this… sort of.

The dreams themselves, though, lack a certain imagination. That’s not to say that the seven-eyed, seven-horned goat from out of Revelation isn’t a cool and off-putting visual, but even the apocalyptic visions Jessup sees are almost too literally pulled from their Biblical sources. It’s basically there are lots of reptiles, and then we spend what feels like a full minute cutting back and forth between him and his wife slowly eroding into sand. The other more pervasive issue is that the effects simply aren’t there to convincingly do what this film wants to do, and it results in some interesting but in my opinion failed sequences especially at the end. The movie is working with a strange, complex idea that it doesn’t have the technical chops to pull off and it just looks, well, silly. The entire bit where he becomes an ape-like proto-human just about lost me. I can see what they’re going for but it’s just not quite coming across.

What this film has in its corner is some great performances from William Hurt, Blair Brown and Bob Balaban. Hurt and Brown are so good and so committed that they sell a lot of this movie that should never have worked. Hurt has this boyish charm and long-lost look in his eyes, he’s physically perfect for the part. Brown is believably smart, tough, and also vulnerable, and together they create a core that persists through the nuttiness.

Iconic: *
Scary: *
Bloody: **
Overall: **1/2


The Guest (2014)

the-guestSurprised it took me so long to watch this. Adam Wingard’s You’re Next was a great surprise, a pitch-black comic take on the slasher with a hot throwback Carpenter-esque score that had me cackling maniacally. The Guest doesn’t have quite the same verve but it’s a fairly effective paranoid thriller that accelerates towards horror territory in the last half hour. In any case it’s close enough to horror (and takes place around Halloween) that we’ll count it.

The basic premise is one we’ve seen many times before: eerily perfect stranger insinuates himself into a group’s good graces. Here the stranger is a man who calls himself David, and the group is the family of one of his fallen soldiers. He says he is a friend of their late son and has come on account of the dead man’s wish. Any initial wariness they have about him is lulled by their grief, along with David’s easy charm and quiet mannerisms. The film, however, never for a moment pretends that all is well. From the first scene it shoots David in such a way as to telegraph his menace without explaining exactly why we should worry. We just do. The 20-year-old daughter, played by Maika Monroe, distrusts him implicitly. Her younger brother, on the other hand, takes a shine to David for helping him fight back against the bullies at school.

That’s just where things go wrong. David has a violent streak. At a party he asks where he can buy a gun, and shit goes from 0 to 60 in a damn hurry. The explanation for it all is weirdly glossed over, it seems somewhat obligatory. The synth score doesn’t work the same way here as it did in You’re Next or It Follows, maybe because of all the high-key lighting and natural settings. It only really kicks into gear at the end when they’re in the Halloween maze at the school. What works more consistently and more subtly is loathing. The film brings it out in us every chance it gets. We loathe the characters who are too stupid or too complacent to see through David’s charade. We loathe David for his unfeeling, almost gleeful subterfuge. We loathe ourselves for not being as cool, capable, and good-looking as he is. For knowing that we envy him even though we shouldn’t. The whole thing makes us long for real people, real connection.

Iconic: *
Scary: *
Bloody: **
Overall: ***


The Funhouse (1981)

funhouse

Now this is that good schlock I hope for in an early 80’s … slasher? The Funhouse is a movie that is literally defined by its setting. It loves the atmosphere of the carnival with its freaks and charlatans and the strangely happy, strangely foreboding music that carries the visitor along like a specter among the tents and emcees promising so much more than they could ever deliver. In a way, the carnival is the perfect twin to the horror movie. It’s a place that trades in the illusion of danger and intrigue but that is ultimately harmless. At least, theoretically.

One might almost call The Funhouse hangout horror. The first half of the movie doesn’t so much plod as drift lightly along, bringing our four main characters to the carnival and following them as they indulge in various attractions, smoke, laugh, kiss, and just generally be youths. It isn’t until the midway (hah) that they decide to spend the night in the funhouse, only to stumble upon the Secret Life of Carnies.

Directed by Tobe Hooper, this is neither the masterpiece that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was nor as memorably gonzo as Lifeforce, but as a sideshow attraction it’s pretty enjoyable. The opening scene is a twist on the long take from the beginning of Halloween – and you’ll see the inversion coming a mile away – with a bit of Psycho, and a bit of skin to let you know the film has an eye for lurid and playfully macabre. It gets appreciably dark in places and the creature design is both repelling and a bit sad.

Iconic: *
Scary: **
Bloody: *
Overall: ***


Would You Rather (2012)

would-you-rather

I did not enjoy watching Would You Rather, and I don’t think it’s a particularly good film. That said, I can’t deny it was effective. The tone is relentlessly downbeat and once the titular game kicks into gear it’s almost nonstop dread building to quick violent episodes. It was a movie that had me reminding myself it was just a movie (the amateurish acting and spotty script helped) and kept me thinking about it after it was done. A lot of that effectiveness is almost inherent in the premise: presenting someone with two horrible choices and forcing them to pick one (I’m sure all the 2016 election jokes have already been made?)

The lead-up to the game is incoherent and boring. Brittany Snow’s acting is only just passable, and the way she’s invited to participate makes no sense. The doctor calls her in specially to talk about her bills? She has to remind the doctor that her brother needs a bone marrow transplant? There’s randomly a guy in the office who starts telling her she needs to win a game in order for him to help her? It’s all beyond ludicrous. Anyone with a brain would peace out immediately, but I guess she’s desperate enough that none of this matters. The movie looks its low budget; it’s clean but nondescript, with kind of a green-brown palette throughout. Nothing really memorable about its presentation. The big redeeming aspect is Jeffrey Combs of ReAnimator fame who stars as the wealthy conductor of the sinister game.

Yet when the challenges begin, there’s a morbid curiosity that draws you in, the same I suppose that makes shows like Fear Factor a success. Each dinner guest – 8 in total – must in turn decide between two increasingly difficult and violent choices, usually whether to hurt themselves or someone else. If they refuse to make a choice, they are instantly shot. The audience instinctively imagines what they would do in the same situation, which is where a lot of the discomfort of the film will come from. The squeamish needn’t worry too much – most of the worst stuff is offscreen. However the emotional stress registers strongly anyway.

As rife for drama as the premise is, it isn’t executed very creatively for most of the movie. The first two rounds force every player to essentially make the same choice, which gets monotonous pretty fast. At least Saw was imaginative in its cruelty. I wished that the “challenges” would have had a more psychological aspect to them, focusing more on how each character chooses and less on the group dynamic since the table was full of non-characters. I would have also liked to see the challenges ramp up more gradually. The tech thriller Nerve that came out earlier this year is a better example of a dangerous game that raises the stakes for its participants. That movie is also really well shot and thrilling, unlike the drab and dour Would You Rather. The ending goes for a final cheap shot and misses.

Iconic: *
Scary: ***
Bloody: **
Overall: **


Christine (1983)

christine

The second John Carpenter film of this year’s Horror-Thon, Christine is the story of a boy who falls in love with his car. Thankfully, we never find out if that love is consummated.

The idea of a killer car is so dopey it’s a minor miracle the movie isn’t utter trash. It is a credit to Carpenter’s direction (and score) that Christine is even watchable, but by golly it is. It manages to somehow straight-face the “It’s the car!” pronouncements that Death Proof made fun of. In some ways it’s a very similar movie to Carrie: social outsider suddenly gains the power to exact revenge on enemies. I dug the lens flares and the shots of the car reconstituting itself. I couldn’t get into the choking business. It starts to get a little lame when the radio clicks on and then bad stuff happens. Not bad, just a little by-the-numbers.

Iconic: **
Scary: *
Bloody: *
Overall: **1/2



The Verdict

Well the calendar has turned to November and that means I’m out of time for this horror-thon. This year I watched 187 horror films, which seems to be about the usual range. I feel sure I would have had a record year if not for the week of vacation I took just before the end of the month. Oh well, ifs and buts, candy and nuts. I’ve ranked this month’s movies below from favorite to to least favorite.

Top 5
1. The Omen
2. Peeping Tom
3. The Guest
4. The Changeling
5. The Funhouse

and the rest…

Housebound
The Fog
Altered States
Christine
The Brood
They Look Like People
Cat People
Would You Rather
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Monsters
Vampyr
Blood Feast

Bonus Awards

Scariest
1. The Changeling
2. Would You Rather
3. The Brood

Bloodiest
Blood Feast

Favorite male performances
Gregory Peck – The Omen
William Hurt – Altered States
Oliver Reed – The Brood
George C Scott – The Changeling
Dan Stevens – The Guest

Favorite female performances
Blair Brown – Altered States
Anna Massey – Peeping Tom
Rema Te Wiata – Housebound
Jane Randolph – Cat People
Maika Monroe – The Guest

Performances worse than Keanu Reeves in Dracula
The entire cast of Blood Feast

Movies that follow the “Final Girl” trope in some way
The Guest, The Funhouse, Housebound, Would You Rather

Movies in which a horror veteran returns to play a supporting role
The Fog (Janet Leigh)
Would You Rather (Jeffrey Combs)

Worst deaths
Tongue pulled out (Blood Feast)
Beaten with whipping stick (Would You Rather)
Run over/set aflame (Christine)
Drowning (Would You Rather)
Head asplode (Housebound)

Movies with people in the title
They Look Like People, Cat People, Christine, Peeping Tom

Movies with cat in the title
Cat People

Movies that have since been remade
The Omen, The Fog, Cat People

Movies I wish would be remade, and that they’d be good this time
Monsters

That’s all I have. See you next year!

Advertisements