We are just past the halfway point of Sacred Walloween, and as those who follow me on Facebook and Twitter know, I have been participating in #31DaysOfHorror. The goal is to watch one horror movie for the first time each day of the month. For the most part, I’ve been keeping with this, sometimes falling a day or two behind, but always catching up. However, I wanted you to be able to see my thoughts in a neat, succinct way, so here are the first seventeen reviews in paragraph form, for your perusal.
This is my first time with John Boorman’s 1970s thriller, but believe me when I say I’m well aware of this film’s impact on pop culture. From “Dueling Banjos” to “Squeal like a pig,” I’ve known about this film for quite awhile. And after watching it…I’m not sure it really lived up to the hype. Sure, it looks pretty, and there’s something interesting to be said about man’s battle and abuse with nature, but I’m not sure the plot is really that necessary. Oh, don’t get me wrong, rednecks are frightening, especially when they’re rapey rednecks, but the film never feels as intelligent or as truly scary as it should be, rather feeling exploitative at every turn. Still, there’s some good stuff in it. The “Dueling Banjos” scene is scary as an act of foreboding, and Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight both give strong performances as men who understand their affect on nature and vice versa, but outside of that, and the pop culture significance, I would not recommend Deliverance.
2. The House on Haunted Hill
The House on Haunted Hill is the type of horror movie people describe when they think of schlocky, cheesy horror movies. However, I don’t see why that has to be a bad thing. When the horror has legitimate scares and a spooky, kooky mystery, why can’t it embrace the silliness of the whole ordeal? Haunted Hill certainly does that, raising questions about sanity, ghosts, and more. What’s great about this film is it can go from something as scary as the old woman emerging from the darkness to as silly as the skeleton emerging from the acid (and if you don’t think that skeleton was supposed to be silly, remember that in theaters at the time the studio had actual skeletons dangled from the ceiling). This is why we love horror films – because they’re silly, cheesy, spooky, and just plain old fun. I recommend this one for everyone, especially those who want to see Vincent Price just having the time of his life as the narrator/benefactor of the night in the haunted house. See it…if you dare!
3. Crimson Peak
In my first of many Guillermo del Toro films in the months building up to The Shape of Water, I watched the critically mixed Crimson Peak. Based on the reviews, I went in expecting to be lukewarm, and if I was lucky, to like it. What I did not expect was that I would love it. Well, that’s exactly what happened. I loved this film. I thought the throwbacks to the days of Jane Eyre and Rebecca were remarkable, I thought the blend of 40s Gothic and Argento excessive color was gorgeous, and I thought the mystery of the whole thing was stellar. Obviously, del Toro’s themes of oppression and the sins of the past are all there in plain sight for our enjoyment, but let’s not forget the wonderful cast, from Mia Wasikowska’s irreplaceable performance to Tom Hiddleston’s best Olivier impression to Jessica Chastain chewing scenery like it’s her godd*mn job. Everything about this movie screams wonderful throwback, and it really isn’t one to miss. If you like del Toro, you’ll love this movie, and even if you don’t, or are unfamiliar with his work, you’ll love this movie. See it, and see it now.
4. The Bye Bye Man
Ok, ok, I know. I only saw this one to make fun of it and to prepare my end of the year Worst Of list. I mean, how can The Bye Bye Man be any good? Look at that title! Well, I’ll break it to you now: it’s not. But that doesn’t mean that the cast and director didn’t try, godd*mmit Carol. They did what they could with a terrible script that doesn’t make any sense. I mean, The Bye Bye Man wants you to say his name, or think his name, so that he can locate you, and when he tries to catch you, he drives you insane so that you’ll kill yourself, except then he can’t catch you, and my brain hurts. No one could make this film work. However, what’s nice is that Stacy Title tries her hardest, and makes some actually spooky scenes out of the material, including the opening massacre scene and a couple sequences of creatures appearing in the dark. And while most of the cast is average, I do want to say that despite a terrible career after being blackballed for Mommie Dearest, it’s nice to see Faye Dunaway, the greatest living actress, show up and just completely kick ass, even in the smallest and dumbest of roles. She should really be in some more movies. Anyway, I do not recommend The Bye Bye Man to anyone, unless you want to use the meme and rename it “The Pee Pee Poo Poo Man,” but make sure you don’t miss Title’s next film – if this is a foot in the door, I’m excited to see what she does now that she’s entered.
5. John Dies At The End
I always try to throw in one tongue-in-cheek horror comedy every year, and this year that choice was John Dies At The End. Look, this film reaches for the stars, and kind of turns up short. It’s clearly the horror equivalent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, creating a drug trip frenzy that makes you lose path of the plot to focus on the craziness and the visuals. However, while the film doesn’t exactly stick the landing, or completely commit to any specific idea at any point and time (I honestly don’t know if John does indeed die at the end), the parts that work are really entertaining. The first exorcism sequence is hilarious, and the interviews with Paul Giamatti add a self-referential joy to the film’s odd narration. Things go off the rails near the end, and I’m not entirely sure I followed what happened. However, this is a film where the joy isn’t in the destination, it’s in the journey. I wouldn’t quite recommend this straight out as a film, but I would consider it an excellent guilty pleasure, entertaining in spite of its many faults.
6. Jacob’s Ladder
My God, I loved Jacob’s Ladder. I’ll admit I knew the twist going in, which allowed me to analyze it in a different way, but whether I knew it or not, I think I would have been absorbed by this intelligent thriller. The film plays as a wonderful metaphor for the generation that returned home from Vietnam in a daze, unsure of their future and haunted by their past, and the presence of demons serves as an apt allegory for PTSD. I also loved how the film wove in religious themes, ideas, and references, creating this timeless, deeply rich film apt for examination. Of course, all of this ignores what lies at the center of it all: a well-made horror story. Adrian Lyne crafts frightening scene after frightening scene, from the dance floor demon sex to the horrifying bathroom sequence as Jacob burns alive. The editing cuts between time and space, creating an eerie, surrealist journey. And the performances are phenomenal, especially the one at the heart of it all by Tim Robbins. This is a film that clears all the hurdles of the horror genre, and stands as one of the best of its kind. I highly recommend it, and the twist will blow your mind.
7. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Man, the early 30s were a different time. The Hayes Code wasn’t punishing Hollywood for creating art, everything was new and different, and films could win Oscars even if they were smutty horror films. For these reasons, the film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is utterly fascinating. The fact that most of the film is shot in 1st person, including the transformation sequence (which is still studied in film schools as a piece of brilliant visual filmmaking), makes this an astounding film, and the portrayal of sex and violence, while tame by today’s standards, still stand out as pretty shocking. However, the story itself just feels kind of stale, falling short on scares and lacking the oomph needed to impress. I feel the same way about Fredric March’s Oscar-winning performance of Dr. Jekyll, which feels boring and stale when compared to the compelling, energetic work he does as Mr. Hyde. Overall, I would recommend this film if you are an Oscar completionist, or someone studying the history of Hollywood filmmaking, but other than that, I think you’re ok skipping this Paramount classic.
I can honestly say there has never been a film like House, and there never will be again. It’s almost as if someone made The Room or Troll 2 on purpose, with the intention being to make an off-putting, unnaturally dumb film. And I say all this with absolute love for the filmmaking on display. This is the type of film that Buñuel would have made 80 years ago, or Tim and Eric would make today. Instructed to make a movie like Jaws, but about a house, director Nobuhiko Obayashi decided to run with the absurdity and turned to his young daughter to write the script. What came about was a nonsensical, silly film that intentionally got more and more ridiculous as it goes on. Cats are demons, watermelons turn into heads, and a piano eats a woman. And to top it all off, Obayashi directed the actresses to ham it up and used intentionally terrible effects to add to the film’s ridiculous charm, as if it were the result of an eight-year-old’s imagination. I absolutely adored this movie. I adored it from the minute it began and the title logo began talking to the audience. I loved the ridiculous piano theme that seems completely out of place throughout the film. This is a must-see film.
Man, I didn’t think I would like the classic 1931 Frankenstein because of how different it was from the book, but I was wrong. I loved it. It’s wonderful filmmaking, and while it shares only bare-bones similarities to the original novel, it still captures the heart of Mary Shelley’s classic gothic tragedy. Despite years of misinterpretations and hidden innuendo for audiences, it is clear that the movie’s sympathies lie with the monster, just as the book intended. Boris Karloff plays the ferocious monster who didn’t ask to be created, and didn’t want to be feared by everyone, but knows no other way, because no one loves him enough to teach him. The real monsters are on display when the mob turns out to murder a living creature, and I think that’s exactly what James Whale intended. This is peak filmmaking, from the cinematography to the storytelling to the score. I loved the performance of Karloff, and even Colin Clive is entertaining with his “It’s alive” speech (the follow-up line is, for me, much more memorable). And even if you are rooting for the monster, I don’t know how anyone could come away unfazed by the Little Girl scene (incidentally, wonderfully spoofed in Young Frankenstein). This is the type of movie that makes us love the monster movies of old, and I fully recommend it to everyone, of any age.
I continued my Guillermo del Toro journey with his breakthrough film, Cronos. A weird take on the vampire film, Cronos explores the Faustian deal required for eternal life. Ironically, this deal is made with someone who doesn’t even realize he’s made it. Several key del Toro themes are introduced here, including a critique of a ruling class (here the Inquisition and the Industrialists), the grotesque nature of the human body, and a childish sense of shock humor. Scenes of peeling skin and the licking of blood off the ground are off-putting, and yet they appeal to something within ourselves that fascinates us. What’s more, we first get introduced to Ron Perlman, who explodes onto the scene with a great performance out of the gate. However, Cronos really does feel like a first film in all the worst ways. It never feels completely together, and the greenness of del Toro as a director shows throughout. Overall, I’d say it’s worth seeing as part of La Trilogía del Toro, but as an individual viewing, I’d say it’s fine to skip as an interesting, but disappointing first time effort.
If John Carpenter truly didn’t try when he made Christine, as he’s implied for years, then he is truly one of our greatest directors. I wasn’t over the moon with Christine – it gets kind of boring in the middle, thanks to Stephen King’s repetitive plot. However, thanks to some cool, crisp direction, it ends up being a wonderfully constructed, intelligently created horror film. As a villain, Christine looks incredibly cool, and her powers awe and terrify us. Meanwhile, Keith Gordon makes choices as the nerdy Arnie, who slowly becomes cool and douchey thanks to Christine’s influence. It’s kind of dorky and silly in nature, but when it works – like the scene where Christine tries to murder Leigh, or the opening and closing scenes scored to “Bad to the Bone” – it really works. Oh, and who can forget the incredible work of Harry Dean Stanton as the detective who’s onto Arnie’s behavior. Look, this isn’t a very good film when push comes to shove, but it’s made great at every turn by Carpenter’s direction. If you want to see Christine, go into it knowing that the only thing saving it is Carpenter’s direction, and he’s an all-time great American director.
12. Gerald’s Game
My review for this one is coming later this week, so I won’t say too much, but I’ll give you a quick rundown. Carla Gugino is great, the film is average (and disappointing), and considering how badly it falls apart in the final fifteen minutes, I wouldn’t really recommend it.
13. V/H/S 2
I’m willing to confirm, here and now, that Adam Wingard is the greatest horror director working today, especially when he pairs with the talented writer Simon Barrett. Last year for #31DaysOfHorror, I watched his first major breakout, V/H/S (ok, since it’s an anthology, he only made one part of it, but it was his idea to begin with). I liked the film more for the sum of its parts than as a whole, but it was definitely evidence of his talent. I don’t know if the lack of acclaimed directors affected my thoughts on what the sequel, V/H/S 2 would be, but whether it did or not, it is without question that the sequel surpasses the original in every sense of the word. The stories are scarier, the films are better shot and edited, and the mystery of the whole thing is more intriguing. I jumped a good four or five times throughout, as opposed to the original, where I only jumped once at most. If I had to pick a favorite story, I would say it’s either “Tape 49” or “Phase I,” the ones directed by the maestros, but each story has something to offer the audience. Look, if you’re a fan of what horror can do or be, and you like modern horror movies that have a bit of tongue-in-cheek commentary in them, then you should check out all of Wingard’s filmography, and you can bet V/H/S 2 belongs in it.
14. The Haunting
When people talk about smart horror films, they’re usually referring to The Haunting. As it turns out, the guy who made West Side Story and The Sound of Music is a really good horror director, too. I think the reason I love this film is because it is, at its heart, ambiguous. Are there actually ghosts haunting Hill House, or is main character Eleanor going insane? Every scare has a perfectly logical explanation, and I think Robert Wise even prefers the scientific answers more than the truth. However, the fact it is so ambiguous makes it that much scarier. Not only do the main characters lack the answers, but we the audience do as well. Everyone is equally in the dark about what is going on, and that goes beyond the horror of it all. Is Theo a lesbian? Is Dr. Markway flirting with Eleanor? Why does everyone seem out to get them? Lots of great questions stem out of this film. I want to praise the entire cast, from Julie Harris to Claire Bloom to Russ Tamblyn, but above all I want to praise the Hand sequence, which is truly one of the most off-putting sequences ever put on film, in the best possible way. There’s a reason that both Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg consider this the greatest horror movie ever made, and why it so greatly impacted their work. I fully recommend this one, and I think it might end up being my favorite from 31 Days of Horror (with the exception of one)
Man, Kathy Bates sure can act. I think Misery works best as a play as opposed to a film, because the one setting can grow stale after awhile, and the painted backdrop is pretty shoddy in hindsight. However, when you watch two great actors sparring onscreen, then you can put anything aside. Truly, Bates is a wonder in this movie, flying off the handle at a moment’s notice and yet still luring us in with her innocence. She’s a true sociopath to her core, and watching the crazy ways it manifests itself is a wonder to behold. Let’s not kid ourselves: the Hobbling Scene is just as scary nearly thirty years later. Bates earned her Oscar for this film, but I do want to give credit to James Caan. It’s not as easy as you think to lie in a bed experiencing pain for the entirety of a movie, especially when playing the straight man, so the panache that Caan brings to the film is impressive. Oh, and while most people don’t think about this aspect of the film, the performances by Richard Farnsworth and Frances Sternhagen as the married sheriff and deputy provide the movie with a much-needed comic relief, and we root for them to solve the mystery (even if the subversion of that trope ends in a shockingly twisted way). While it isn’t quite as good as you’ve been hearing, Misery is still a very, very good film, and I do indeed recommend it. It’ll be the best Stephen King product I watch this year.
16. The Others
The Others is the type of horror movie I love. It’s smart, it’s got something to say, it has deep themes, it’s scares are well-constructed, and I can distract myself from pissing my pants through the sheer craftsmanship of the whole thing. This is the type of horror movie that a true master makes, one that explores religion and post-war malaise and familial dynamics all through a scary story. What’s more, it fixes the oldest joke in the book for haunted house movies – “oh, you want to know why they won’t leave the house if it’s haunted? Well, what if sunlight will kill them because they’re photosensitive? Ever think of that? Now piss off.” Anyway, the scares in this movie are real, in the worst/best possible way. The early scene where Victor’s hand touches Nicholas is creepy as hell, and let’s not forget how legendary the “Are you mad? I am your daughter” scene has become, for good reason. Nicole Kidman is this movie’s rock as a put-upon mother trying to use her faith to battle supernatural events, and personally I think the performance by Alakina Mann is one of the best child performances of all time. Watch this movie now, and have your mind blown by the ending. Do it – it’s one of the greats.
17. Cult of Chucky
I am also reviewing this one later this week, so I won’t spoil too much of my thoughts on it. But I will say I found it quite muddled, and a weird entry in the Child’s Play mythology. No recommendation is given.
Thanks for reading! I’ll be finishing up and writing about Pet Semetary, The Devil’s Backbone, and Cat People soon. Oh, and in the meantime, I’ve also been watching Twin Peaks as part of the month, and I am falling in love with the wacky, creepy town. It’s groundbreaking television. I hope to finish the original run soon so I can write about the third season by the end of the year. In the meantime, feel free to write in the comments about what horror movies you’ve been watching!