Monday, October 31, 2022

H22 #29: The Birds (1963)

The creeping sense of dread in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds combined with its surreal siege narrative remains an uncanny cinematic experience. Hitchcock's apocalyptic adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier short story still gets under the skin. Anytime I catch site of a murder of crows flying overhead I feel some trepidation.

Tippi Hedren stars as socialite Melanie Daniels. The film begins with Melanie meeting Mitch (Rod Taylor) at a pet store. They banter about birds and their exchange is mildly flirtatious, leading Melanie to track him down at Bodega Bay. The first half the movie plays as a high brow melodrama with the various romantic intrigues at the idyllic seashore community. A sense of malaise and frustration serves as a foreshadowing of the terror to come. Interspersed throughout are signs our feathered friends are acting strangely.

Hitchcock's mastery is on full display during the attack scenes, done without music and only the high- pitched bird squawks. They find ways into houses, swoop down in large numbers on children playing in a schoolyard, each attack is an escalation. In my favorite scene at the diner, locals express their fears about what's going on, when a bird expert points out humans live at the mercy birds who outnumber them by the billions. In other words, nothing can stop them.

Many saw Cold War parallels, the birds a stand in for the threat of nuclear war. The helplessness of everyone in such an attack is captured with brilliantly by Hitchcock. Nature is a big theme as well, mocking all human pretensions with sheer power. An otherworldly grimness certainly takes over in the last 20 minutes. Other films have trod similar ground such as Luis Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel or Lars Von Trier's Melancholia. The Birds in representing a rebellion by nature, forces the audience to grasp an arcane possibility. 

An overblown melodrama for the first hour transforming into an outright horror spectacle is Hitchcock once again playing the audience with one grim joke after another.  

Sunday, October 30, 2022

H22 #28: Near Dark (1987)

Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark showcases her kinetic style and preference for characters who live on the extremes - in this case vampires. 

When Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) has a brief romance with Mae (Jenny Wright), she not only converts him to vampirism but also introduces him to her hellraising band of the undead. The Aliens reunion is a treat for movie fans including Bill Paxton, Lance Henricksen, and Jenette Goldstein. Paxton is at his most unhinged. These vampires are unlike any other to appear on the screen, a band of outlaws taking no prisoners. 

Shot throughout Arizona and Oklahoma, Bigelow paints a visceral portrait with the landscapes. A perfect synthesis of the horror-Western with shootouts worthy of Peckinpah.

H22 #27: Zodiac (2007)

David Fincher's Zodiac is a tour de force procedural told through the haze of 1970s discontent and bureaucratic inertia serving as a subterfuge for paranoia. A film bleeding with film history from Fritz Lang's M to the paranoid thrillers of Alan Pakula, Zodiac simmers in true crime obsession and harrowing encounters with the pursuit of the truth.

Zodiac is about the murders afflicting the Bay Area through the 1970s. Fincher is uninterested in criminal pathologies, and way more into how modern cities deal with a crisis. We follow detectives with the San Francisco Police department, principally Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and journalists for the San Francisco Chronicle, cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyellenhaal and crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr). 

The narrative drive of Zodiac is among the best of 21st Century cinema. Fincher drew upon All the President's Men as a primary influence: The brightly lit newspaper offices are contrasted with the darkness of the street where the killer lurks, striking at random. David Shire who composed the score for many '70s movies including ATPM was brought in for Zodiac. While many previous novels and films have dealt with killers terrorizing a city, Zodiac explores how mass media adds to the sense of paranoia. Television news feeds off the tension and makes it worse, the killer knows how to manipulate the media to stoke mass panic. 

Fincher relents from going too far into exploitative territory. Three of the killings are recreated, the scenes focus on the randomness of the killings, which is frightening enough, but not on the gory details. Neither does the film obsess over the psychology of the killer, James Vanderbilt's script is more of a puzzle. Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith as an amateur sleuth, spending most of the film trying to decode the clues in the countless letters the killer sent, in what would form the basis of his 1986 book Zodiac.

Meanwhile, the detectives on the case continually run into jurisdiction issues, which led to clumsy evidence collecting and a poor pooling of resources. Ruffalo as Inspector Toschi persists with the case despite all the setbacks - to his own detriment. When the authorities finally finger a likely suspect played by John Carroll Lynch in an icy performance, they fail to attain enough evidence. RDJ as Avery was targeted with letters by the killers and his own idealism is slowly shattered as his own investigation hits brick walls.

Graysmith becomes the main protagonist of the story, Gyllenhaal plays him with the right amount of virtue and intelligence. In perhaps the creepiest scene he follows a lead and ends up in a scary basement with a shady man offering information. Chloe Sevigny plays Robert's long-suffering wife in a thankless role who eventually leaves him over his obsession with the case.

In interviews Fincher spoke about growing up in the Bay Area being terrified of the Zodiac killer as a kid, almost in the way one speaks of fictional characters like Michael Myers or Freddy Kreuger, so there's a personal touch running through the film. The film was smart enough to create a vivid sense of '70s verisimilitude without trying to make grand statements about the era which has all been said before. It's all there on the screen. 

In the end I find Zodiac to be an oddly optimistic film in its thesis that the truth is attainable, thus eschewing the sense of ineffectual doom of so many paranoid thrillers.


Thursday, October 27, 2022

H22 #26 The Amityville Horror (1979)

George Lutz (James Brolin) wields the cross against evil forces, a common image in '70s horror.

Based on the "true story" 1977 novel by Jan Anson and the countless urban legends to emerge from the Amityville Murders that occurred on November 13, 1974. The highly questionable saga of the Lutz family who moved into the Long Island house after the killing provided the material for the film.

Released in the summer of 1979, James Brolin and Margot Kidder starred as George and Kathy Lutz. I'm a fan of the film, in fact, it's one my favorite haunted house films. It pairs nicely with The Shining, even though the styles of both movies are different, they complement each other. While Kubrick's obsessions are on full display in The Shining, Amityville is all about middle class anxieties of the late 1970s.

These anxieties center around the purchasing a house. As many have noted, Stephen King and John Kenneth Muir of specific note, there are constant occurrences and dialogue revolving around money. George constantly complains about costs from groceries to the heating bill, while the IRS has questions about his business expenses. Kathy's brother loses a bunch of cash before his wedding. Owning a house brings many expenses and becomes an incessant source of tension. How can a nuclear family survive when burdened with taxes, rising energy costs, and stagflation?

Family decline was paralleled by organized religion's waning influence. With so much financial pressure many families still clung to the church for guidance and stability. Rod Steiger camps it up as Father Delaney. When he arrives to Christen the house, he's attacked by flies and later becomes seriously ill. Later when driving the breaks of his car go out, clearly the clergy are targets and unlike the priests in The Exorcist, are totally ineffectual against the supernatural.

Lastly, there's the fragile institution of marriage. It's of note, emphasized more in the book, that Kathy is divorced, and her kids are from a previous marriage, adding extra pressures on George who suddenly must take on a stepfather role. The divorce rate skyrocketed in the 1970s in part due to the gains of Second Wave Feminism. Changing gender roles are very much in the subtext, and the cultural debate over the meaning of marriage plays heavily into the Lutz story. 

The cocktail of horror goofiness and pop sociology in The Amityville Horror make it a staple of the Halloween season - and think twice before buying a fixer upper. Is anything more terrifying than bad plumbing? 

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

H22 #25: Carnival of Souls (1962)


If Ingmar Bergman had grown up in Kansas I could see him making a film like Carnival of Souls. Filmed in grainy black and white, Carnival of Souls is one greatest Midwestern Gothics ever made (it was mostly filmed in Lawrence, Kansas). The film tells the story of a young woman trying to make sense of reality after she's the unfortunate passenger in a tragic drag race.  

After the car crashes off the river bridge, a scene Tim Burton duplicated in Beetlejuice, young Mary arrives in a new town and lands a church organist job.  She gets a room in a boarding house with a nosy landlady, while trying to fend off the advances of her crude neighbor, meanwhile a sinister looking old man keeps appearing at random.  

I admire how the film gradually moves from the realistic to the surreal, common everyday activities like shopping and going on a walk take on a sinister quality.  Eventually Mary comes to realize she may no longer be among the living.  

We're also in the Kansas of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Mary's interactions with creepily bland locals ramps up the sense of foreboding. The minister, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, tries to offer Mary some spiritual guidance to no avail.  She also sees the local psychiatrist who advises her to get a boyfriend. All the men come up short in this film.  As Mary grows increasingly vulnerable, her innocence adds to the sense of dread. 

Carnival of Souls is a must see cult classic, the artistry of the cinematography and skillful use of local setting are expressionistic and haunting. These images really stick with you.  The look and feel of the film anticipated George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, David Lynch's weird America aesthetic, Tim Burton's playful creepiness, even Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  

Herk Harvey never directed another feature film, but left a real gem for movie fans everywhere. Watch it for free.

H22 #24: The Patient (2022)

The Patient
just completed its 10-episode run as a limited series on Hulu. Written by Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg the series stars Steve Carell and Domhnall Gleason, in an intense and often disturbing story of a serial killer imprisoning a therapist in his basement. Despite the heavy hitting premise, the series is leans into being a character study of violence and psychology. Themes of Jewish identity and the purpose of mental therapy are also explored, The Patient manages to transcend the tropes of its genre.

Carell plays Dr. Alan Stauss, a therapist with thriving practice mourning the death of his wife Beth (Laura Niemi) and estrangement from his son Ezra (Andrew Leeds) who converted to Orthodox Judaism. Flashbacks are used throughout to recall key moments in Strauss's life, not unlike Lost.

Little is revealed about the past of Sam Fortner (Gleeson) except that he's a serial killer who was abused by his father. A classic study of the banality of evil, Sam is a foodie and works as a restaurant inspector, and a big fan of Kenny Chesney. Almost fey in appearance, Sam is one of the least threatening figures to appear as cold blooded killer. Gleeson peppers his performance with minor nuances. 

Strauss wakes one morning and finds his foot chained to a wall. Sam informs he's been taken captive to "cure" him of killing people. Once the initial shock wears off, Alan tries to treat him. He gets to the root of Sam's rage going back to his father and being bullied in school. It's clear Sam is a psychopath leading a double life by hiding in plain sight. 

Their therapy sessions recall Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi from The Sopranos. Like that patient-doctor relationship, their exchanges are compelling but never lead to anything. Alan is fighting a two-front war, convincing Sam they are building a relationship while also plotting an escape. In fantasy sequences he talks to his own therapist played by David Alan Grier in a strong supporting performance, serving as his conscience in an unthinkable situation.

The series blends the mundane with sudden bursts of violence. In one horrific moment from an early episode, Sam brings one of his still living victims' home (a restaurant manager who argued with him) and forces Alan to deal with the horrendous scene. Flashes of progress in Sam are continually erased in predictable setbacks. Yet Sam does go through something of an evolution, while Alan's journey is more existential.

Episodes frequently reference and suggest parallels to the Holocaust, Alan is haunted by family members who died in the death camps. In the ninth episode "Auschwitz" Alan turns to Victor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning to find hope. Alan associates his captivity as a replay of what his relatives experienced. Issues of how to resist and the soul crushing sense of the losses from the atrocities committed by the Nazis. While Sam never does or says anything antisemitic, he fits the profile of a war criminal who would commit such awful acts. 

The heavy performances of Carell and Gleeson maintain an intensity throughout. An examination of evil as a malignant force in the past and present, the series is anxiety inducing and compelling, most of the episodes are only 30 minutes. Carell brings an inner strength to Alan, which is about the most heroic one could hope in such a situation. I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending, it's both inevitable and surprising. 


Tuesday, October 25, 2022

H22: #23: Tremors (1990)

Released in January of 1990, Tremors has persisted as one of the most enjoyable monster films ever made. It's also an excellent gateway movie for horror, the blend of scares and comedy have aged quite well. 

Kevin Bacon as "Valentine" and Fred Ward as "Earl" are handymen in Perfection, Nevada. Bored and looking for better opportunities elsewhere, they will soon be battling giant worms. When locals begin to get terrorized by strange creatures, the small population find themselves under siege at the general store and eventually end up in the desert for a duel. 

The supporting cast adds to the charm. Michael Gross of Family Ties fame steals scenes as a conspiracy theorist prepper along with country music star Reba McEntire as his straight talking wife. Today there would be much more sinister edge to these characters, but it was 1990 and conspiracy theorists were mostly non-threatening. 

At the heart of Tremors is the chemistry between Bacon and Ward, their banter was a step above most b-movies. Ron Underwood's direction was sharp, making for a fun and swift moving 95 minutes. 

Monday, October 24, 2022

H22 #22: You're Next

You're Next
could be considered a high brow slasher with its prestigious cast of Indie film luminaries. Propelled by the power pop of the Dwight Twilley Band song "Looking for the Magic", the film is about a family gathering of competing siblings. Things quickly get bloody when home invaders begin terrorizing them. 

Sharni Vinson stars as Erin, accompanying her boyfriend Crispin (A.J. Bowen) to meet the family, including his competitive brothers. Once the violence starts all bets are off as secrets are revealed about everyone. The film owes much to Agatha Christie and the verbose mumblecore aesthetic. The first half works fine as a situation comedy. When violence starts to flow, it's quite brutal (all axes and knives) but never loses its comedic edge. 

At 90 minutes You're Next could easily fit into any program in a slasher marathon. It could be filed under the genre of affluent white people getting psychotic, Get Out (2017) and or Ready or Not (2019).Vinson is the prototypical final girl, allowing the audience someone to root for. 

Saturday, October 22, 2022

H22 #21: Omen III: The Final Conflict

The concluding chapter to the Omen trilogy is built on the tantalizing premise of Damien becoming a nefarious player in world politics. There's potential for an epic story here but the film gets bogged down in the complexities of a half-baked plot involving a team of Italian assassins, astronomical predictions, prophecy, and many other narrative dead ends. 

A young Sam Neill takes on the role of Damian, a wealthy industrialist and youth influencer with an eye on politics. Neill plays Damien as smooth and charming, even a bit dull at times. Fully intent on a master plan for world domination, he's developed a secret following of people willing to carry out his diabolical designs. The how or why of this movement is never really explained. It was interesting how he fashioned his message to young people, fancying himself as an anti-establishment rebel like some wealthy white men today. 

The crux of the plot hinges on Damien's obsession with the second coming of Christ which he believes will happen on March 24. He orders all babies born on that day be killed by his followers in a disturbing sequence. The climax involves a scene one might imagine in apocalyptic books like the Left Behind series. Christian eschatology barely interests me except for research purposes, but millions still believe it.

Despite the myriad inconsistencies of the script*, The Final Conflict does sustain a grim early '80s atmosphere, effectively using locations throughout England and achieves some frightening moments. It's never clear if the film wants to be a political or supernatural thriller. A planned sequel entitled Armageddon was never made. If there were a part of the Omen saga ripe for a remake, following Damien as an adult in the 21st Century would have great potential, especially when considering the current state of world politics.

*The film is set in the 1980s, even though the previous films were clearly set in the 1970s when Damien was a child, so technically the film should've been set around the year 2000.

Friday, October 21, 2022

H22 #20: Damien: Omen II (1978)

In some ways Damien: Omen II is a smarter and scarier film than The Omen, but it does lack the directorial panache Richard Donner brought to the first chapter. Mike Hodges, the original director of Damien, was fired a month into filming by the producers and replaced by Don Taylor, a journeymen known for getting projects done on time. Despite the production issues there's a number of memorable set pieces and some good performances.

William Holden stars, playing the brother to Gregory Peck from the original film, as industrialist who took in Damien, now a teenager. Jonathan Scott-Taylor took on the role as Damien and managed to be both sinister and sympathetic. When he learns the truth about himself he initially reacts with horror but quickly comes to embrace his evil self. Other members of the cast include Lee Grant, Sylvia Sydney, Lance Henriksen, Allan Arbus, and Meshach Taylor.

The script for Omen II brought a sense of international intrigue with a plot involving archaeology and multi-national corporations. Part of the story is also set at a military academy, a setting many films used around this time, where Damien is being prepared for his future with the help of the Satanist commander played by Henriksen. In a favorite moment Damien gets into a historical trivia battle with his teacher. A vivid sense of fatalism and quiet terror pervades the film.

The "death by design" sequences reminded me of the underrated Final Destination films, as most of them involve freak mechanical accidents (also an ice rink and a crow.) Wintry and wicked in its logic, I remember this one frightening me as a kid, surprisingly underrated on re-watch. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

H22 #19: The Omen (1976)

 According to Wikipedia, The Omen sprung from a discussion among producers about the anti-Christ, one of whom was a born again evangelical. Mainstream religion in the 1970s was getting a little whacky (suddenly priests find a new purpose in the horror genre), and The Omen fits the era like a glove (and may also account for why the 2006 Bush era remake was a dud).

The Omen was written as a popcorn movie, a summer blockbuster for the Bicentennial year (it was the 7th highest grossing film.) It was also part of the cycle of movies on prophecy and the nature of evil that began with Rosemary's Baby in 1968 and continues on into the 21st Century. The '70s marked a middle ground between secularized religious fables leaning into some exploitative elements and the more earnest (unintentionally funny) religious made for the "faith based" crowd in the 2000s.

Watching The Omen in 2022, it plays as camp, a heightened version of a civilization in decline as the aristocracy finds itself infiltrated by Satan's acolytes. From an aging Gregory Peck slowly realizing he's a pawn in a plot far more consequential than Watergate to poor Lee Remick being terrorized at every turn (the film is especially harsh on women) family, kids, marriage, picket fences all looks like one bad trip. David Warner, who looks like he just came from a photo shoot with Led Zeppelin, labors hours in his darkroom connecting the dots of a vast satanic conspiracy! The animal kingdom also gets into the act with packs of jackals, baboons, and viscous guard dogs turning in some wild performances - no doubt a busy set for the wranglers!

Richard Donner's only horror film to my knowledge, excluding his vast catalog of TV work, used all the right influences from Hammer films, Giallos (the kills), and a touch of The Exorcist. I bet Donner and his editor Stuart Baird had a ton of fun editing these sequences. Whenever a mainstream director takes on horror it way too middle of the road, so I like how Donner really went for it and insisted viewers debate whether the kid Damian was really behind all the killings.

Jerry Goldsmith's score is delightfully over the top, a parody of sorts. 

I suppose Satan themed movies were entering a Baroque phase by 1976 and The Omen offers all that and more. Tell me what other movie you get to see Gregory Peck and David Warner wander through a graveyard digging graves and getting attacked by jackals?

Monday, October 17, 2022

H22 #18: Don't Worry Darling (2022)

Offscreen drama aside, Don't Worry Darling is a passable thriller that wears its influences a little too close, thinking The Stepford Wives and Get Back. Set at an undisclosed location near a desert, the film follows what appears to be Utopian community where gender norms are strictly enforced. 

Florence Pugh stars as Alice, an on the surface happy housewife, married to 9-5 husband Jack (Harry Styles) who works for a mysterious company named Victory. The film opens with a raucous cocktail party that appears to be around the year 1960. Alice and Jack have achieved domestic bliss but are being pressured by their peers to have children. Meanwhile, the elusive head of the Victory Project "Frank" played by Chris Pine routinely appears to deliver self-help speeches while keeping a close watch on his employees and their wives. 

All the Twilight Zone tropes are there as we follow Alice as more questions are raised about the nature of her reality. Pugh does what she can with the recycled material, Styles and Pine are both cyphers and lack charisma. We're alone with Pugh throughout the film, she's never allowed a friend or confidante, creating a hollowness that permeates the entire story.

The social commentary in Don't Worry Darling is aimed at the reactionary "trad" culture, contemporary men and women (mostly men?) who prefer a 1950s fantasy of church, marriage, office, and family. Men's Right advocates and anti-feminists who were the targets of The Stepford Wives, a novel and film that was more psychologically astute. The "reveal" in Don't Worry Darling  is actually interesting, but way too abrupt. 

Olivia Wilde's direction includes some sly sequences, including an Altmanesque pool party and a lavish New Year's reception. But in terms of plot, the narrative moves in fits and starts. Pugh is engaging, unfortunately the rest of the cast offers only meager returns. **1/2

Sunday, October 16, 2022

H22 #17: Don't Look Now (1973)

Never reliant on gore, jump scares, or cheap thrills, Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now is a remarkable modern Gothic full of dread and fatalism. The first and last five minutes mirror each other in devastating ways. 

Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie star as John and Laura Baxter a formerly happily married couple grieving the death of their young daughter. John has taken a job in Venice leading the restoration of an old church. The Venice setting adds to the haunted mood of the film, the city is gloomy and rainy, literally dripping with history. Every corner and tunnel loom as portals into underworlds of mystery. All the Christian iconography and Renaissance art perfectly tap into the film's idea of time spinning in erratic orbits.

Strange things begin happening to John and Laura. They encounter two elderly sisters, one of whom is a clairvoyant, claims to have visions of their deceased daughter. Laura begins to develop a close relationship with the sisters, and her mood begins to improve. She and John rekindle their marriage in of Roeg's great sequences of bending boundaries of past, present, and future.

The sisters also warn John his life is in danger if he stays in Venice, meanwhile Laura must go back to London to care for their son who was in a minor accident. Meanwhile, there's also a rash of murders around Venice and John becomes a person of interest to the authorities. He also begins to have visions. 

Don't Look Now is immersive in its sense of mood and setting. The mysteries linger. Not everything is explained, and the ending eschews any definitive interpretation. Questions are raised from the nature of coincidence to that of existence itself. Whether one is spiritual or secular in worldview, the film suggests reality is never what it seems nor are the forces within us and surrounding us. 


Friday, October 14, 2022

H22 #16: Halloween Ends (2022)

The third and concluding chapter of David Gordon Green's Halloween trilogy (Halloween Ends) serves as a fitting epilogue. By turning some of the tropes inside out and slightly changing the tone, the film asks: What makes a monster?

Set a few years after the first two films, which both took place on the same Halloween night, Laurie Strode has achieved some semblance of normalcy living with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matachak). Meanwhile Haddonfield remains in the grip of paranoia, terrified of Michael Myers reappearing.  

In a harrowing prologue sequence, echoing the opening of the original 1978 Halloween and Wes Craven's Scream, we're introduced to Corey (Rohan Campbell), a young man about to start a babysitting job for the evening. When a tragedy ensues that's not directly Corey's fault, his character begins a tragic journey.

Halloween Ends draws upon elements of the King/Carpenter film Christine and Bram Stoker's classic Dracula. Michael Myers almost becomes rudimentary to the plot and these are the strongest parts of the film. The last section falls into more conventional mode with the inevitable confrontations and call backs to other moments in the saga. 

The collaborative music score led by John Carpenter's team delivered on its brand of retro creepiness. Jamie Lee Curtis continued the long journey of Laurie from final girl to matriarch. Fans of the franchise may scoff at the somber tone of this finale, but it works as a fitting conclusion to this incarnation of the Halloween mythos.  ***

Thursday, October 13, 2022

H22 #15: Halloween Kills (2021)

The second entry in the reboot Halloween trilogy, Halloween Kills strikes a curious balance between schlocky horror and being a thoughtful examination of repressed trauma boiling to the surface. 

The action picks up on the same night of the first film with Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) recovering in the hospital from her recent, almost fatal, encounter with Michael Myers. Falsely believing her nemesis is gone for good, the focus of this entry turns to the residents of Haddonfield, Illinois. 

At a local watering hole, a group of survivors of the initial attack of Myers 40 years before gather in a communal sharing of support. When word starts to spread Myers is back in town and on another rampage, Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall), the character appeared as one of the kids Laurie was babysitting in the original movie, gathers a mob intent on killing Michael. As a character states, "He won't stop killing until we stop him."

Much of the action, like the 1981 sequel to the original, takes place at the hospital. Believing it's the location where Michael is heading, the mob stages a standoff. As those seeking mob justice often discover, they make many errors and more harm and damage. Upon its release a year ago, many drew comparisons to the 1/6/21 assault on the U.S. Capitol by a hateful mob incited by a sitting president. 

But relations between angry mobs and monsters goes all the way back to James Whale's 1931 version of Frankenstein. The unsettling element of Halloween Kills is that we know some of the people in the mob and recoil at their behavior turning ugly. Eventually they realize they've made a mistake and inflamed the situation. A recurring theme running though these reboot films is a frustration and shock that old threats once relegated to the past keep recurring. 

That's where Halloween and Halloween Kills channel the unease and terror of our current era. In a new century, horrors once relegated to previous eras have returned. Facing the existential challenges of the future feels even more foreboding with so much boiling back to the surface. Whatever Michael Myers is as a force of nature or spiritual entity, the bogeyman has proved himself resilient as a catch all symbol for what we fear. 

H22 #14: Halloween (2018)


The highly anticipated reboot of Halloween set 40 years after the 1978 original has its share of good qualities: good characterizations, a retro soundtrack from John Carpenter, and a satisfactory update of the story. Jamie Lee Curtis is back as Laurie Strode, the final girl from the original. Audiences may forget Curtis had already returned to the franchise twice in Halloween H20 (1998) and Halloween Resurrection (2002), but now her character is given a completely new arc. Instead of being a psychologist, Laurie is still reeling from the events of the first film.

Halloween is indicative of the current reboot trend, telling the same story with some variations on the beats. While the 2018 incarnation of Halloween is better than all the sequels in every respect, it never transcends the source material. What the original accomplished cannot be replicated. Carpenter's original was an experiment in suspense and horror that found its way into the collective unconscious, while the reboot plays like a greatest hits of slasher horror for a new generation. Entertaining, but derivative.

In terms of plot the new story lends itself to some baffling coincidences, the fact that all this goes down 40 years to the day of the original is a bit much. While the gender politics of the film are progressive, the relationships among Laurie, her daughter and granddaughter are never developed fully. 

When the film moves into slasher territory the "kills" get repetitive. As for "the shape," we learn little about Michael except he hasn't changed much, maybe a little bit older and a little bit slower. When Laurie's adult daughter Julie (Judy Greer) says "I don't believe in the bogeyman," Laurie replies, "You should." That's about as profound as the dialogue gets regarding Michael, although there are some nice moments of levity among the supporting characters.

Halloween is a competent horror film, with non-offensive fan service, just a bit short on substance. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

H22 #13: Frankenstein (1931)

Along with Tod Browning's Dracula, James Whale's Frankenstein marked the year 1931 as a watershed for the horror genre. Released as the Great Depression was wreaking havoc and fear in America and the world, monsters hit a major nerve with the public. While Frankenstein has long transcended its shock value, it remains iconic.

A loose adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic 1818 novel, the film leaned more its folkloric elements, quite like the Golem from Jewish traditions. When the brilliant, but mad, scientist Henry Frankenstein played by Colin Clive in a nervy performance, conducts experiments to reanimate the dead from dug up corpses. But his assistant Fritz makes critical mistake at the last minute by selecting a "criminal brain."

The "It's Alive" scene is one of the most memorable in film history. Whale creates a frightening atmosphere of science gone wrong and hubris as Henry proclaims himself a God. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein has limited screen time, but you cannot look away when he's on screen. The creature's tragic encounter with the little girl was censored for decades, it remains chilling to this day.

Wedged in between the sequences with Karloff are more stagy scenes with the Frankenstein family. While the Shelley novel remains a timeless meditation on what it means to be human, the film climaxes with a warning about mob justice as the crowd takes out its anger on the creature, the ultimate example of being treated as the other by the masses. Karloff's performance elicited both empathy and compassion.

At 70 minutes, Frankenstein now plays like a museum piece, a journey into the psyche of another time that continues to echo into our own. 

Sunday, October 9, 2022

H22 #12: Strange Behavior (1981)

Strange Behavior
is often classified as a 1980s slasher, but that's far too simple of a classification. Elements from Sci-Fi, murder mystery, even family drama is woven into a wonderfully cultish film. Currently streaming on the Criterion Channel as part of its '80s Horror programmer in what's described as a precursor to Twin Peaks, an apt comparison, although Michael Laughlin's direction is more modulated than something like Blue Velvet, maintaining a middle ground between the real and the surreal. 

For instance, in one of the most memorable scenes 80s teenagers are all dressed up like '60s TV characters dancing to the 1965 pop hit "Lighten' Strikes." It's a little real, a little spontaneous, ramshackle, surreal, purely cinematic. Supposedly set in the America Midwest, it's actually filmed in New Zealand which adds to the offbeat tone. 

The only shortcomings are the shaggy dog plot and occasional diversions in a story involving mad German scientists conducting experiments at the local high school - possibly connected to a recent rash of murders. The cast includes Michael Murphy, Louise Fletcher, Fiona Lewis, Dan Shor, Dey Young, and Marc McClure. Intended as the first of trilogy, Strange Behavior was followed by Strange Invaders, but unfortunately for cult movie fans the trilogy was left incomplete. ***1/2

Saturday, October 8, 2022

H22 #11: Don't Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012)

Motern Media is the cinematic universe of Matt Farley and Charles Roxburgh. Based in New England, they typically release a movie every year with their own stock company of actors who appear in most of their films. It's difficult to describe their movies, you have to experience them yourself. The films defy genre, usually blending different ones into the story. Don't Let the Riverbeast Get You! is one of the jewels in their canon.

Going by the title and poster art you would conclude you're about to watch a spoof of Creature from the Black Lagoon. That's not wrong, but there's deadpan humor, unnatural dialogue, musical sequences, romantic comedy, and a confrontation with the titular riverbeast. It's also the story of Neil Stuart (Matt Farley) a once famous English tutor returning to his hometown after leaving in disgrace years before after being left alone at the altar. Meanwhile, the dreaded riverbeast is terrorizing locals.

The dramatic structure is Shakespearean with multiple subplots and romantic intrigue. You meet a variety of characters. All sides of human nature are explored from the heroic to the cowardly. If I had to describe the humor, The Simpsons comes to mind, the Zucker Brothers, Monty Python, and old school screwball comedy. Well versed in low budget horror movies, especially those of the regional variety, are also a major influence. 

Chances are you may dismiss the movie as bad in the first 10 minutes, but if you get in synch with its tone and rhythm it will become an annual re-watch.  ****

You can purchase the Blu-ray here:

Friday, October 7, 2022

H22 #10: Scanners (1981)

David Cronenberg's Scanners is dreary, strange, uniquely masterful. Watching it in the middle of day plays like a walking nightmare, at night a downbeat head trip. 

Howard Shore's music over the opening titles is anxiety inducing, futuristic and full of dread. Then the opening scene at a shopping mall where protagonist Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) unintentionally uses his telekinetic abilities to put two shoppers into a deadly seizure. Vale's later informed by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) he's a "scanner", a gifted individual who can harness the power of his mind. Dr. Ruth is affiliated with a company working for the military-industrial complex who view scanners as a national security issue, while he believes they are the next stage of human evolution. 

Meanwhile, a renegade group of scanners led by "Revok" played by Michael Ironside at his creepiest have their own diabolical plans. It's a revealed an experimental drug called ephemerol was used in the 1950s causing the mutations, a parallel to thalidomide (which deformed children). Revok is sending assassin squads against other scanners not joining him.

Cronenberg's violence is bloody and nasty. The strikes by the hit squad eerily parallel mass shootings. Every scanner struggles with their sanity. One uses art as therapy to deal with the voices in his head, while others act out in more extreme ways. Analogies can be made to drug addiction and mental illness in that many still blame violent acts on those two factors. The film also is prescient in portraying the growing power of big pharma. Good scanners who have learned to live with their condition have their own support groups and form supportive communities, while the diabolical ones use their gift (or curse) for power. 

Scanners presents a gloomy world of psychokinetic death squads, exploding heads, and body transference that would influence pop culture, specifically the TV shows of Chris Carter and J.J. Abrams.  The human condition in Scanners is both powerful and fragile, ripe for exploitation yet always seeking a transcendence. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

H22 #9: The Mephisto Waltz (1971)


A post-Rosemary's Baby supernatural thriller, The Mephisto Waltz is a plot heavy odyssey into 1970s witchcraft, soul transference, and dark sorcery. 

Alan Alda received top billing as journalist Myles Clarkson, a one-time promising concert pianist. But the true star of the film Jacqueline Bisset as Myles's wife Paula who becomes a supernatural investigator. After Myles interviews reclusive pianist Duncan Ely played by German actor Curd Jurgens who takes a liking to the couple, aided along by his mysterious "daughter" Roxanne (Barbara Perkins). Soon Myles and Paula are invited to Ely's mansion for swinging masquerade parties. Myles is enthralled by the revelry, while Paula is skeptical, especially after stumbling upon a strange shrine. 

Jerry Goldsmith's score is the real star of the film, creating a creepy and psychedelic mood - blending classical with electronic music. Music also plays an important role in the story, serving as a means to tap into the supernatural or a higher state of being. 

There are many twists and turns in The Mephisto Waltz, some of them inexplicable! If plot holes and inconsistencies take you out of a movie, I wouldn't recommend it. As a depiction the early 1970s when bourgeois folks were dabbling in the occult the film is an amusing time capsule. Decadent living rooms and secret rooms with dark paraphernalia, of its time but also a precursor to Eyes Wide Shut

Bisset carries the film along as it gradually becomes her story. A pre-MASH Alda seems out of place in a horror movie about Satanic cults! Production wise, it looks and feels just a cut above a TV movie, but the freaky scenes involving the magic are well staged. The L.A. landscapes and architecture are also captured nicely.  ***

Monday, October 3, 2022

H22 #8: Ghostbusters (1984)

was the highest grossing film of 1984, the only new release to surpass $200 million, topping the Spielberg/Lucas production Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and also the Spielberg produced holiday hit Gremlins. It goes without saying 1984 stands as a watershed of the blockbuster era that began in 1975 with Jaws. The film also proved a landmark in moving horror further into the mainstream, as the film repackaged themes in more adult oriented films like The Exorcist and The Shining for a tentpole movie.

Dan Aykroyd wrote the initial and ambitious treatment for Ghostbusters with characters written for himself, SNL cast mate John Belushi and his co-star from Trading Places Eddie Murphy. With the passing of Belushi in 1982, the Peter Venkman role went to Bill Murray. Aykroyd took on the role of Ray Stantz, written to be the "heart" of the group, Harold Ramis as the "brains" Egon Spengler, and Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddemore, the everyman who joins them. 

A product of the Reagan Era in its tale of a small business going up against the forces of government bureaucracy, but also a classic underdog story. William Atherton as the comically antagonistic EPA official would look strange and highly reactionary to viewers in 2022. At the same time, the Ghostbusters proved to be politically savvy in persuading the mayor to let them fight the supernatural forces threatening the city. Venkman sees the group as a profit making enterprise, while Ray and Egon are more passionate about the scientific and metaphysical possibilities.

The film begins with the three of them living off research grants in academia. When the university decides their research is too out there their funding is cut off so they must go into business on their own. It's a replaying of the old cliché that colleges are out of touch and entrepreneurs are the true drivers of innovation. Or maybe it's more about anti-authoritarians and outsiders overcoming prevailing ethos whether it comes from the right or left. 

Politics aside, Ghostbusters takes the classic format of misfits joining together and succeeding against long odds. With Bill Murray's irreverent attitude towards authority, Aykroyd's heartfelt expertise, and Egon's self-assured, nervy demeanor. They become folk heroes overnight, the dynamic is not unlike that of the SNL's "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" becoming a voice of the people by becoming pop culture icons. 

Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis also make an unlikely comic pairing. Weaver plays Dana Barrett, a professional musician having strange visions in her apartment, unaware her building is haunted. Moranis as her geeky neighbor Louis Tully. The yin/yang of the casting is uncanny. Weaver played the most iconic female action ever in the Alien franchise, while Moranis was a comic prodigy on SCTV. Pairing Weaver with the inept suitor Louis and Murray as the immature (slightly sketchy) but ultimately good guy - it's screwball comedy with an '80s bent. 

The parody of haunted apartment in Ghostbusters life draws parallels to Rosemary's Baby. Space is used in several creative ways throughout. On location shooting in New York provides a vibrant verisimilitude, not unlike the use of Iraq and Georgetown in The Exorcist. Gothic buildings are made ominous, the city serves as a supernatural amusement park. Hotels, apartments, and libraries are universes onto themselves.   

The most fascinating aspect of Ghostbusters is how it interweaves comedy with the supernatural. Aykroyd's original story leaned harder into the horror elements with some whacky Sci-Fi concepts of other dimensions. The streamlined script completed with Ramis and director Ivan Reitman feels like it left out quite a bit and that's part of the movie's magic. One can imagine an entire movie about a culture war debate over the existence of ghosts or a religious crusade against them. We get just enough technobabble - and played for comedy not seriousness. There's no Donald Pleasance or Max Von Sydow meditating on the nature of evil. Instead of we have Aykroyd making eschatological banter as part of his everyday conversation. 

While also rooted in the old Universal comedies with Abbott and Costello, Ghostbusters still manages to create a sense of menace, but always deflected by the humor. The film's achievement ranks even higher when so many movies have never managed to get the tone right with mainstream horror-comedy. The personas of the actors are a big part of it, but also the writing and the brilliant cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs.

I don't have much more to add on Ghostbusters. For an epic in depth analysis I would point all readers to Overthinking Ghostbusters by Adam Bertocci. If you think you know the movie, you'll learn much more there. 

Sunday, October 2, 2022

H22 #7: Society (1989)

continues to gain prominence as a cult classic of modern horror. A satire on class and elitism, it's primarily remembered for the gross out last 20 minutes. Set in Beverly Hills at the end of the 1980s, we follow rich, popular white kids as they jockey for social position. Billy is starting to suspect something is up with his parents after a friend provides with a disturbing recording of his sister and parents in a bizarre discussion. As the story ramps it becomes clear, something really is amiss and about to get really strange.

Like George Romero's horror, the social commentary in Society makes for what it lacks in nuance with shock. In a world where elites have unlimited advantages in every aspect of life, the theme in the movie is painfully relevant. Living through a pandemic and a time of rising fascism, one wonders how far the elites will go to secure their status. The film suggest they view anyone below them as chattel to be exploited for their own ends. The grotesque and enraging entitlement all boils over during the climax as taboos are broken.

Is Society a good movie? The vacuous nature of the characters and somewhat mundane lead up don't quite place it up there with the sociological horror classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Night of the Living Dead. But as a springboard for discussion on class and the nature of modern world - it's perfect. 

H22 #6: The Funhouse (1981)

Highly regarded, but never widely available, I was finally able to watch Tobe Hooper's 1981 film The Funhouse on the Criterion Channel. At his best, Hooper was often ahead of the curve, one of the true innovators in modern horror cinema. In 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre proved a landmark. His 1977 follow up a horror-comedy Eaten Alive was somewhat less regarded but deserves cult classic status. Many at the time remarked on the reflexive elements in The Funhouse, or in today's the parlance- it went meta. 

The opening scene directly alludes to Psycho and Halloween, setting the reflexive tone. Amy (Elizabeth Berridge), the teenager protagonist, heads out to the carnival with her boyfriend Buzz where they meet friends Liz and Richie. Hooper spends a fair amount of time setting up the atmosphere of the carnival with all its attractions, reminding me of Ray Bradbury's classic novel Something Wicked Comes This Way Comes. Whereas Bradbury was concerned with childhood ending and mortality and the carnival being a playground for such themes, Hooper is more focused on the carnival to explore the dark side of humanity, similar to Tod Browning's Freaks, and how the young are often unprepared to face it.

After checking out the attractions including a macabre magic show and fortune tellers, the four of them get high on pot and decide to stay the night inside the funhouse. Things begin to take a horrific turn as they realize there are literal monsters running around inside. Some of the beats from Chainsaw Massacre are repeated but in a new context, Hooper is interrogating the conventions of horror movies and the way teenagers are represented. But it's also meaner and less fun (but more human) than the other slasher franchises that would rule the decade. In real peril and facing terrifying threats, the four of them realize they may not survive the night.

The Funhouse anticipated the "post-modern" approach to horror that would dominate the 1990s with Scream and The Blair Witch Project. If I could identify one flaw it would the casting of the teenagers, with the exception of Amy, they bring little to their roles except being clueless caricatures. Creating smarter and less annoying teenage archetypes may have added even more punch to the story. The cinematography was incredible and Hooper's feel for the horror genre remains impressive in retrospect. Images stay with you - the closing shot hits a variety of notes in keeping with the complex tone of the film. 


Saturday, October 1, 2022

H22 #5: Road Games (1981)

Road Games
is the inverse of Spielberg's Duel, in this film it's the truck driver who must thwart the killer. Stacy Keach is magnetic as Jack of all Trades Pat Quid, a truck driver (don't call him that) hauling meat across Australia. Richard Franklin's direction hits all the Hitchcock beats, although I could not help to think of Peter Weir's Aussie thrillers like The Cars That Ate Paris

A string of murders have the police and populace on edge and Quid even becomes a suspect himself as he picks up hitchhikers who find his behavior strange. Jamie Lee Curtis appears a young women he picks up and they form a sort of partnership. Everett De Roche's sharp dialogue and Brian May's (not from Queen) score is suspenseful with elements of classic Western and Bernard Herrmann. 

The setting is established well. The highways look and feel desolate, filled with eccentric and menacing characters. The Who's "Going Mobile" also came to mind:

I can pull up by the curbI can make it on the roadGoin' mobileI can stop in any streetInvite in people that we meetGoin' mobileKeep me moving, mmm


H22 #4: Master (2022)

Set at a fictional elite Northeast college campus, Master uses horror conventions to confront elitism and systematic racism that are historically ingrained into Higher Education. Regina Hall stars as the newly appointed "Master" of the university, while Zoe Renee co-stars as a freshman Jasmine and Amber Gray as a popular literature professor. Written and directed by Mariama Diallo, Master speaks to the current moment in America and its ongoing struggle to reckon with its past.

Diallo's direction keeps us in the perspective of three African American female leads, feeling constantly surrounded and being judged gatekeeping faculty and privileged students. Jasmine's interaction with the white students takes on thorny power dynamics and microaggressions (constant compliments that border on condescension), such as her roommate's condescension or a patronizing librarian casually accusing her of stealing just after. The guys on campus, mostly pot smoking louses, also act towards her with a more overt derision. As incidents of racial hatred escalate, ghosts from the past appear in an allusion to The Shining. Hall is equally effective as an academic who earned her place through determination and hard work, enduring slights from the white dominated world of elite colleges. 

Master offers blunt honesty about higher education as it remains one of America's most troubled institutions. When the film moves into horror territory, it reveals nothing we've never seen before, these elements serve as more of a texture to the story. Melancholy, but never preachy, Master strikes a balance of distinctly American gothic motifs grounded in a chilly realism.