Tags: 14 days to Halloween

1 day to Halloween: Monster House

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So you might not think to look to children’s fare to find good examples of horror. And you certainly wouldn’t expect much from a cartoon, for Pete’s sake. Especially one with Spielberg and Zemeckis’ names on it. But if this means you missed Monster House, you missed out.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that the protagonists are kids. This is a grand spooky adventure with just enough of a dark twist to take off that sugary Halloween aftertaste. I’m actually pretty surprised it’s a straight-up PG. It features some really wonderful and imaginative, uh, creature design for lack of a better word. Because — spoiler — the creature is actually a house.

Furthermore, all the stuff with the kids is really well done. In fact, everything Super 8 attempted, Monster House does ten times better. It even uses the same motion capture technique that Zemeckis pressed into service for Polar Express, but it doesn’t make that movie’s mistake of trying to look photorealistic. By presenting animated characters instead of creepy lifelike dolls, Monster House skips nimbly over the uncanny valley.

If you can dig on Nightmare before Christmas, Coraline, Zombies Ate My Neighbors, and Costume Quest, then I promise the sadly overlooked Monster House will be right up your alley.

2 days to Halloween: The Haunting

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My esteemed colleague and fancy-pants film auteur, Tom Chick, likes to make fun of me for liking grandpa movies. I admit I like a lot of black and white movies, especially horror. Well, let me rephrase that. I like black and white horror movies that don’t involve actually seeing the monster. We all know how crappy the rubber suit monsters looked.

For me, picking a horror movie wasn’t an easy task. I wanted to talk about Devil’s Backbone and the original The Thing (as well as John Carpenter’s), but when it comes to scary movies, The Haunting always wins out. Set in a giant, haunted mansion, the movie is really great at establishing a cold and unwelcoming tone. The main characters have been invited to the house by Dr. John Markway, a college professor and paranormal investigator, to prove the existence of ghosts.

After the jump, I do believe in spooks! Continue reading →

3 Days to Halloween: Parasomnia

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You’d think a guy looking for some stupid so-bad-it’s-good horror could rely upon a movie titled Parasomnia to deliver. But no. Parasomnia has to go and betray me and be good. Thanks a lot, William Malone. You ruined my evening.

Of course when I say ‘good’ I really mean ‘student film good’ with a ridiculous amount of blue light filling the scenes and Lawnmower Man level special effects in the dream sequences and scads of amateur acting throughout and earnest lines that made me giggle. Still, good. Unexpectedly competent and creepy with an excellent discovery as its central performance. What the hell is going on here? I went in expecting a knock-off of those three movies that start with the same four letters as this one, something cheap and stupid. What I got is wholly its own thing, with some cool ideas and a decent payoff. Cheap, yes. Corny, sure. Still…good. And just when you thought spiral-eyed clowns had run their course!

When the name Dylan Purcell appeared in the opening credits I got nervous, thinking it was that slab of meat from The Gravedancers (see it while drinking with friends). Nope. Dylan Purcell is the son of actress Lee Purcell, and he’s really good in a Zach Braff kind of way. I don’t think he’s acting anymore, which is too bad. You don’t expect to find someone like him in a movie like this, especially when the female lead is…uh…let’s just say it’s a blessing her role calls for her to spend 90% of the movie asleep.

Some reasons you should watch Parasomnia, besides the lead actor: Sean Young gets an “And” before her name; the protagonist drives an AMC Pacer; great use of nose tape; one of those cute Starbucks bears makes an appearance; gum-chewing cops are always welcome; “He was a rare book dealer and a mesmerist” is how the killer is described. Also, it totally wins the Weird Nudity Award.

Parasomnia is available on Netflix Instant Watch Watch Instantly here.

4 days to Halloween: The Uninvited

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(Kelly Wand and some other folks will help close out the Halloween series. And please remember that these aren’t necessarily great movies. We endorse them only as relatively obscure horror movies with something to recommend them.)

2008’s “The Uninvited,” directed and written by the aptly named Bob Badway and starring the delectably dark-eyed Marguerite Moreau, is an undistinguished title for any horror movie, since it’s generally assumed that most paranormal pains in the ass aren’t invited guests, except at seances, and even then they’re not even guests but more like unpaid magician entertainers. Good to know that if you’re murdered, you get to spend the rest of eternity waiting around for New Age douchebags to hold a dinner party and make you do a bunch of stupid pet tricks for their amusement. Actually, maybe only the ghosts of dogs show up at seances. That would explain a lot. Trust only psychics who eerily intone, “Here boy!”

After the jump, it gets worse/better Continue reading →

5 days to Halloween: The Cottage

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If you’re watching The Cottage without having read anything about it (this excepted, of course), you might not realize you’re watching a horror film. In fact, you might be put in mind of a certain Mark Twain story. Which is exactly how it should be. All you need to know is that you’re watching a movie from one of the most talented and little known directors working today. Meet Paul Andrew Williams, whose movies are as distinct as his name is banal. I use the acronym “PAW” to keep all his various first names in the right order, but I’m still liable to call him Peter Allen Williams or some such thing.

The Cottage is British and I promise you that it is indeed a horror movie, albeit unlike any other horror movie. And that’s about all I want to tell you. You’re lucky if you get to see it knowing only that. Frankly, I’m a little jealous.

Also, I’m tired of people saying adoring things about Andy Serkis based on having only seen Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Do you people even know what Serkis looks like? He’s just as riveting when he comes out from behind the CG. And, in the case of The Cottage, he’s perfectly at home in less serious settings.

Get The Cottage from Netflix here. Be ready to never look at frozen peas the same way again.

6 days to Halloween: Ghostwatch

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I’m not sure whether Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds is the first mockumentary, but it’s probably the first notable one for how it freaked out so many listeners. They weren’t yet accustomed to the wide range of stuff kicked off by Blair Witch Project’s success. Back then, there wasn’t even a word for mockumentaries. Another notable episode that predates jaded Blair Witch Project audiences is the 1992 BBC broadcast Ghostwatch, which is eerily prescient of reality TV and mockumentaries. There are conflicting reports about how much audiences were actually freaked out, but the reaction to the show was just as much a part of Ghostwatch as the show itself. And perhaps most surprising of all, the show itself actually holds up.

The premise is that a film crew visits a haunted house on Halloween night while a live studio broadcast checks in with them periodically. Callers call in, reporters on the scene offer updates, and experts unfold some obligatory backstory on a ghost with the unlikely name Pipes. It’s got a lot of Poltergeist going on, but with the dry British sensibility that got the Queen’s subjects through the fall of an empire, World War II, and Margaret Thatcher. BBC hosts react pretty much like you’d expect when confronted with strange goings on and unexpected developments. And I love how Ghostwatchers plays with the divide between the on-the-scene crew and the studio hosts.

You can watch the entire episode here. Save the money you would have spent on Paranormal Activity 3 and watch Ghostwatch instead. In fact, I recommend an annual Halloween viewing to share this with friends who haven’t seen it.

7 days to Halloween: Reeker

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Like so many horror movies, Reeker starts with a bunch of kids in a car going someplace to party. But the first striking thing about this movie is that none of these kids is annoying. How is this possible? The premise of many bad horror movies is that you secretly want these snotty grating kids to get killed. But I actually liked every single one of the characters in Reeker, without exception. Even the funny guy, who would usually be the most annoying of all, was likable. Much of the credit goes to the actors, but you can’t underestimate writer/director Dave Payne’s convincing dialogue and humor that’s actually humorous. Any of these characters in, say, Shark Night or Wrong Turn wouldn’t fare nearly so well.

What’s more, the monster isn’t obvious for a while, so you can’t very well root for it. This is one of those “what the hell is going on?” movies in which characters are literally lost in the desert and the audience is metaphorically lost in the desert. Is it a slasher film? A creature feature? A metaphysical mind-bender? When it all comes together, it’s not the least bit surprising to anyone who’s seen more than a handful of horror movies. But it’s a good example of how a horror movie doesn’t have to be unique or even airtight. It just has to work.

The movie frequently shows us things the characters can’t see, which is usually a cheap shot. But Reeker has a good reason for doing this. In a couple of clever ways, it plays on the senses. The title refers to a bad smell, which is rendered with a silly visual effect you’d normally use to show the gas stove is turned on and it’s going to blow up the house when someone lights a match. I personally would have preferred something along the lines of how Charles Schulz drew Pigpen.

You can get Reeker on Netflix here.

8 days to Halloween: Mulberry Street

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One of the trademarks of indie horror is that it can’t get too ambitious. One haunted house, serial killer, or monster at a time, please. Mulberry Street didn’t get that memo. It’s a movie of limited resources, but considerable ambition for telling a story about a plague in Manhattan. And even though it tries to go big, it does something that I love about some movies set in New York: it lives comfortably in a specific neighborhood. This New York City consists of the people in a crowded apartment building, a neighborhood bar, and the route one character takes for his morning run. The Statue of Liberty and Times Square are nowhere to be seen.

These crowded city apartment buildings span generations and ethnicities. They aren’t unique to New York, or even America. [Rec], Phase 7, and Rammbock present the same thing in entirely different countries. Here are people who are different but close, their relationships tested by some horrible calamity. They are the new family unit.

Mulberry Street features a twist on the familiar soldier-returning-home motif that I really liked. And I love how much attention it pays to older folks. Normally, if you’re over 60, a movie isn’t going to bother with you for very long. Mulberry Street also features some neatly staged action sequences, including a fight scene that belongs alongside Disney’s Tangled as proof of the tactical advantage of weidling a skillet. Also, any movie where Larry Fessenden shows up gets extra points in my book (his vampire movie Habit was another great example a New York City neighborhood). Enjoy his mini character arc as Man Behind the Gate.

Director Jim Mickle and actor Nick Damici, who co-wrote Mulberry Street, recently made a more ambitious but ultimately less effective movie called Stake Land, which ranges across a vampire post-apocalypse. Sometimes it’s better to just keep your apocalypse local.

Mulberry Street is available on Netflix here.

9 days to Halloween: The Resurrected

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Movies simply can’t do HP Lovecraft*. You have to accept that as a starting point. You’re mostly going to get Stuart Gordon doing deviant things to Barbara Crampton or Jeffrey Coombs chewing scenery. So you should appreciate any movie that manages, however slightly, to evoke Lovecraft more faithfully. That’s the main thing The Resurrected has going for it. It’s loosely based on Lovecraft’s Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but not as loosely as other Lovecraft movies are based on their source material. By the time director Dan O’Bannon made this in 1992, he had earned his genre stripes with Dark Star, Alien, Return of the Living Dead, and the underappreciated Dead and Buried. He had obviously seen a lot of Dario Argento movies as well.

The Resurrected starts out as a slightly clumsy but winsome attempt at an old timey detective noire. This is obvious from the opening credits, soundtrack, and voiceover. John “Hawk the Slayer” Terry and his hopelessly 80s haircut stand in for what I presume was supposed to a hard-boiled protagonist. He’s more poached, or even over-easy. When the hot woman comes into his agency to enlist help finding her missing husband, Terry insists twice that he needs the husband’s social security number.

Jane Sibbett is delightfully awful as the distraught wife. Ten years later, she will be the voice of one of the snow dogs that vexes Cuba Gooding Jr. Chris Sarandon is cast probably because of his vampire role in Fright Night and I couldn’t help but notice he appears in a rather effeminate robe, much like he did in Dog Day Afternoon. The most watchable guy in this movie is Robert Romanus, who you’ll remember as Damone from Fast Times at Ridgement High. So this is where that guy went!

By unfolding as a mystery, The Resurrected captures the investigation aspect of Lovecraft’s stories most often ignored in movies in favor of monsters and magical rites. The Resurrected has its share of monsters and magical rites, but it earns them first. O’Bannon’s previous experience serves him well with the special effects and a nifty dungeon crawl sequence. By the time it’s over, you can almost forgive The Resurrected its “wizard did it” resolution, featuring something unfortunately called “the reflux”. Go ahead, try not to think of the Duran Duran song.

The Resurrected, which somehow came to be listed as Shatterbrain on IMDB, is avaiable on Netflix instant watch.

* Andrew Leman’s brilliant silent short, Call of Cthulhu, excepted

10 days to Halloween: The Woman

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At a Sundance screening of The Woman, some guy sat patiently through the movie and then loudly berated the director during the ensuing Q&A. Then he stormed out of the theater. In the lobby, he held forth in front of a videocamera about how the movie should never have been made.

After the jump, I agree with him Continue reading →

11 days to Halloween: Isolation

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One of the great things about Isolation, a beautifully bleak movie that takes place at the intersection of science, agriculture, industry, machinery, biology, and provincial paranoia, is that it’s so very non-American. Over there in Europe, people freak out about genetic research on crops and livestock (considering a silly movie called Black Sheep, they freak out about it in New Zealand, too). But here in America, we don’t care too much, so long as it doesn’t involve stem cells. In fact, we don’t think much at all about what happens at farms. I suppose people grow wheat, raise cows, and build baseball diamonds. In the last farm-themed movie I saw, Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant did various shenanigans that rekindled their strained marriage. I think they were on a farm. There were horses there.

But Isolation is about the icky stuff that goes on at a farm. Farm animals are stinky and big and kind of weird. They’re huge bags of meat, really. You can’t even ride most of them. Isolation is about that. It’s about what kinds of gross things might happen where giant bags of meat just hang around all day, pooing and peeing and stepping in mud until they get slaughtered and sent to supermarkets so we can eat them.

This Irish movie is also uniquely Irish in a few ways. For instance, everyone speaks Irish, except for the one guy who doesn’t. The movie makes certain assumptions about people living in caravans that we wouldn’t make in America, where we don’t even call them caravans. The police have the word “garda” written on their uniforms, presumably because “police” would be too obvious (I learned about this from the Brendan Gleeson vehicle, The Guard, which is a gleefully Irish middle finger to America and England). I wouldn’t call Isolation as Irish as, say, Far and Away. But it has a lovely provincial sense of place that isn’t just West Virginia or some other state where they have cows.

Watch Isolation on Netflix instant view here, but don’t get too comfortable. Tomorrow, you’re going to have to go out to the theater.

12 days to Halloween: Infestation

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The last thing to come out of Project Greenlight, HBO’s reality show in which an amateur filmmaker makes a movie, was Feast. That bad horror movie turned into a trilogy, with each movie worst than the last. In the second Feast, some biker chicks have to take off their tops and combine them with a motorcycle to make a catapult that will fling midget wrestlers across the street. But Feast 2 wouldn’t even rank among the top ten movies in which biker chicks have to take off their tops and combine them with a motorcycle to make a catapult that will fling midget wrestlers across the street. I can’t think of any other movies in which that happens, but I’m holding the top ten slots in reserve, becuase there’s no way Feast 2 belongs on a top ten list of anything.

At the end of the Feast 3, which is not about giant robots, a giant robot comes out of the desert and steps on the movie’s only survivors. Roll credits. That’s how little John Gulager, the son of a famous actor who probably could have gotten his stupid movies made without taking up an entire season of Project Greenlight that could have been used on someone else, cares about his characters.

The year before Feast, one of the winners of Project Greenlight was a guy named Kyle Rankin. He and his partner co-directed Battle of Shaker Heights. After that, Rankin’s next movie was Infestation, which has an ending that many of you will absolutely hate, much like you might hate the ending of Feast 3. But Infestation ends the way it ends because Rankin cares about his characters. He didn’t like the ending he shot, so he used the footage he had to make a very different ending than what he’d originally written. The result is pitch perfect and I love it partly because so many people will hate it.

Infestation is a goofily irresistable creature feature with heart, a budget, and enough twists to keep it lively. For instance, the hero isn’t who you’d expect. It’s as if the traditionally square-jawed former TV star wasn’t available, so they had to use someone from the supporting cast as the hero. And whereas most creature features stay in one place because a) it’s cheaper to shoot a movie in one place, and b) they’re just aping Alien, Infestation has far too much energy to stay at home.

Infestation is available from Netflix here.

13 days to Halloween: Laid to Rest

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Bobbi Sue Luther should have been the typical acting-challenged slasher heroine/victim, but Laid to Rest does something cute with the usual amnesia gimmick. After Luther makes a 911 call, it’s kind of adorable the way she wants to take shelter at the “police lady’s house”, because she can’t remember the name of a police station. Sometimes you forget more than just your name. Kudos to writer/director/husband Robert Hall for giving her something to do in addition to running away, looking scared, and filling out a tank top.

Also, she’s not alone. For much of the movie, Kevin Gage and Sean Whalen are along for the ride. Laid to Rest imagines an ensemble cast where the final survivor is instead a group of three people who mostly do what you’d expect actual people to do. Gage is immensely appealing as a gruff good-old-boy who knows enough to get his gun and cares enough to be affected by the deaths around him. Whalen is the more traditional comic relief geek whose solution to contacting the police when the phones are out is to email them. Unlike most movies where the phones don’t work, Laid to Rest is well aware of how dumb this sounds.

And what a lovely Lena Headey appearance. Headey is probably best known for 300 and Game of Thrones, but she should be known for a road movie called Aberdeen with Stellan Skarsgard. Road movies tend to be uniquely American. But Aberdeen considers what a road movie would be like in Europe. I’m not sure what Headey is doing slumming it in a low-budget old-school gore-fest about a killer who wears a ridiculous chrome skull mask, but she and Kevin Gage lend the whole thing a touch of class. As much as that’s possible with all this latex and fake blood.

Laid to Rest is available on Netflix here. Warning: don’t bother with the sequel, which is enitrely missing the clever touches that make the first one worth watching.

14 days to Halloween: A Horrible Way to Die

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Most horror movies aren’t too concerned with character development or acting. They just shoot for the lowest common denominator of gore and pacing. A Horrible Way to Die, from a startlingly talented young director out of Alabama named Adam Wingard, is the exact opposite. The trappings are straight-up genre stuff about a serial killer, but the format is a languid character study that lets three very good actors breathe as their relationships develop, coalesce, and finally do what they’re going to do.

The subject at hand is the worst kind of relationship PTSD, with Amy Seimetz’ frail performance as the emotional core of the movie. AJ Bowen, who is unforgettable in an indie horror triptych called The Signal, is the movie’s id, once again balancing a fine line between funny and gruesome. But the real star of this movie is Wingard’s bold camerawork. The handheld camera sways and struggles to find focus, like someone waking up from a dream, trying to find her bearings. If you want your camera on sticks for 90 minutes, with maybe the occasionally dolly shot and a crane shot right before the credits, you will hate A Horrible Way to Die. But if you accept that a camera is just as much a part of telling a story as a script or a performance, then A Horrible Way to Die is a provocative horror movie about three characters and how the director shoots them.

A Horrible Way to Die is available on Netflix here. I heartily recommend the gorgeous Blu-ray version.

(In case you’re wondering what this is, it’s my opportunity to recommend obscure horror films that you otherwise might have missed. I consider this a year-round job, but what better time to do it daily than the two weeks leading up to Halloween?)