The VHS Graveyard Meets the Chattanooga Film Festival – Day Two (Part One)

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After a slower start to Day One than I expected, it was time to step my game up for the remainder of the festival: I only had three more days to get through 23 films, after all. To that end, I screened six films on the second day, including another one of those pesky “instant classics.” Like I mentioned earlier: there was no shortage of quality films at this year’s Chattanooga Film Fest…just a shortage of hours in the day.

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Dementer

Dementer

Indie writer/director/producer Chad Crawford Kinkle first landed on my radar with his excellent, backwoods creeper Jughead way back in 2013, so I was pretty excited to find out he had a new film hitting the festival circuit. When I saw indie auteur Larry Fessenden’s name in the cast, well, let’s just say that pretty much sealed the deal: one of the titans of independent cinema reuniting with one of its most promising indie up-and-comers? Done and done.

Kinkle’s ultra-naturalistic new film follows a troubled young woman (Katie Groshong) as she tries to piece her life together after a truly horrible trauma ripped it to shreds. Living out of her car and with no resources, Katie finds a job at a care facility for adults with special needs and comes to care deeply for one of her charges, Stephanie (Kinkle’s real-life sister), a young woman with Down Syndrome. Just as Katie begins to become comfortable in her new life, terrible flashes of her past begin to interject themselves, leading her to wonder if a truly evil figure (Fessenden) has returned to target poor Stephanie or whether Katie has finally lost the last frayed edges of her sanity.

Unlike Kinkle’s more polished debut, Dementer is pretty much the definition of no frills, low-budget indie filmmaking. Cinematographer Jeff Wedding shoots the film in such a way that, when combined with the mostly non-professional cast (the film is set at what appears to be an actual care facility and features the staff and residents), achieves a startling degree of realism. At times, I was reminded of something like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, if for no other reason than their shared ability to completely demolish the barrier between film fiction and reality.

This is also an extremely personal project for Kinkle since his real-life sister, Stephanie, stars as the woman that Katie tries to save from sinister forces. As such, the film never feels disrespectful of the residents of the home and nothing about it feels forced or exploitative. If anything, the various residents all receive ample opportunities to express themselves in the film, resulting in a work that feels notably character-driven for an ultra-low budget horror film. It’s something that I wish all films took the time to do, regardless of genre or finances.

All that being said, I must confess that I did not love this film, despite my deep respect for it. While the setting provides for an unbeatable atmosphere of reality, too much of the film involves Katie’s various duties around the care facility, broken up with regular interjections via flashback. After a certain point, it develops a pattern and becomes rather predictable, making the film seem repetitive on a narrative level. I also felt that the drama elements worked better than the horror ones: they felt more authentic and, ironically, interesting (workday routines not withstanding), although Fessenden was a force to be reckoned with whenever he was on-screen. Call this a near miss for me, although I eagerly await Kinkle’s next film.

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The Ringing Bell

The Ringing Bell

Poor Judah (Brandon Cole) has a bit of a problem: he’s a lucid dreamer and having an impossible time telling his vivid waking dreams from reality. This inability to tell fact from fantasy is messing with not only Judah’s ability to process grief (someone close to him is gone) but also with his participation in an ill-advised bank robbery concocted by his cousin, Brona (Anieya Walker), and her on-again/off-again lover, Orva (Joelyn Dormady). Will the contents of the mysterious box they seek have the answers that Judah is looking for or will the pursuit of forbidden knowledge be the downfall of them all?

It’s quite obvious that The Ringing Bell is a very personal project for multi-hyphenate filmmaker Casey T. Malone. He says as much, in a festival intro, but he also serves as writer/director/producer/editor/score composer and cinematographer: that’s a lot of hats  to wear, especially when the subject is personal pain, grief and loss. As such, there’s a weight to The Ringing Bell that you don’t often get in low-budget genre films, especially those rare ones that are fantasy-leaning.

The other thing you will remember about this film long after it’s over is how amazing so much of it looks. Combining animated sequences, surreal live-action and stop-motion effects, The Ringing Bell is, without a doubt, a truly singular, imaginative, mind-boggling film. I’m not sure if Malone was involved in the animation and effects or if that was the work of John Baker (creature designs) and Fred Franczak (production design) but whoever did it absolutely blew my mind, especially when you consider that this was most likely another very low-budget production. There’s a monster effect, at one point, that’s easily in my Top 20 moments of the year. Not all indie films have a discernible sense of style and design but The Ringing Bell brought enough for the whole class.

Here’s the thing, though: as much as I loved the film’s look and sense of surreal imagination, I’m pretty hard-pressed to tell you what it was actually about. Despite watching the film closely and being fully engaged, I still have no idea who Judah was mourning (or why), which made it difficult to get into his mindset. I have a feeling that much of the film was supposed to exist in a dream logic realm but I found myself along for the ride more than actively engaged. When combined with a particularly quiet sound mix that made it difficult to hear dialogue, too much of the film became the equivalent of visual interludes strung together.

Perhaps repeat viewings would prove beneficial in this case: I’m sure that I missed something that would have cleared up a few loose ends for me. It’s obvious that Malone and company brought a lot of passion and innovation to The Ringing Bell, even if it never fully clicked with me. I’m more than willing to see what they have up their sleeves next time around.

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Koko di Koko da

Koko-di Koko-da

As I mentioned earlier, most of the films playing at this year’s CFF were complete unknowns to me, but there were a few exceptions, chief among them being Swedish writer-director Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-di Koko-da. While I had purposefully avoided spoilers, I’d read enough advanced press on the film to know that it was being heralded as disturbing and surreal. Turns out, the critics hit it right on the nose.

Existing in the same general vicinity as the works of Alex van Warmerdam, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos, Nyholm’s thought-provoking sophomore feature plays out like a truly horrifying, demented fairy tale. Tobias and Elin (Leif Edlund and Ylva Gallon) take a camping trip and try to work on their collapsed marriage three years after a horrible tragedy destroyed their family and future happiness in one, fell swoop. As if trying to repair a fractured relationship isn’t hard enough, however, they soon discover that they’ve chosen a rather unfortunate place to set up camp, managing to cross paths with a trio of demented individuals who are only too happy to teach them a truly twisted lesson. And then things get really strange.

Right off the bat, let me issue a gentle warning: this is one severely fucked up film. Engaging in the same sort of psychological terrorism that’s been von Trier’s stock in trade for his entire career, there are elements of Koko-di Koko-da that will stick to your brain like plankton, whether you want them to or not. By turns powerfully sad, disturbing, odd, disgusting and eye-opening, Nyholm’s film makes a perfect compliment to works like Funny Games, Borgman, Antichrist and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. If there are not moments in this film that don’t absolutely sting you to your core, I daresay that you didn’t pay much attention.

From a production standpoint, the film is immaculate: Nyholm achieves a completely immersive sense of icy-cold magical-realism that makes one feel as if they’re taking an (unfortunate) look into a parallel universe that’s as beautiful as it is terrible. Cinematographers Tobias Holem-Flyckt and Johan Lundborg shoot some gorgeous images, including plenty of amazing overhead shots that turn the film’s repeated theme into something of a museum diorama: it’s awesome stuff and something I never got tired of. Combine this with Pia Aleborg’s insanely detailed production design and Koko-di Koko-da is a world that you never tire of looking at, even if it’s never a place you want to visit.

The acting is all top-notch, with heart-breaking performances from Edlund and Gallon that are almost too real and painful to be anything close to entertaining. The ghastly trio, bemusing as they are, are perfect antagonists, coming off as a bit of a marriage between Rob Zombie’s Firefly clan and van Warmerdam’s invasive Borgman. While the cast is small (essentially five people, two dogs and a cat), it plays in perfectly with the film’s general sense of isolation and alienation.

Is Koko-di Koka-da a well-made film? Without a doubt: in fact, I daresay it’s one of the best films of the year, from a purely technical standpoint. Is it a good film? Depending on your tolerance-level, I’d go so far as to say that it’s a great film: Nyholm has a singular vision and executes it perfectly. Is it a film that I intend to revisit any time soon? Not a chance, friends. Even as I type this, images and scenes keep popping into my head, none of which I’d prefer to remember. Like the best (most difficult?) works of the aforementioned filmmakers, Koko-di Koko-da is an uncompromising, unpleasant and unforgettable deep dive into the misery of the human condition. You won’t see much gore on display here but the characters are skinned and filleted, nonetheless.

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This takes us through the first half of Day Two: in service of trying to break up a rather considerable chunk of text, I’ve opted to split the screenings into two posts. Tune in for the remainder as we continue to move through our experience at this year’s Chattanooga Film Festival. As always, boos and ghouls, stay safe and remember: there’s always room for one more at The VHS Graveyard.

The VHS Graveyard Meets the Chattanooga Film Festival – Day One

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As usually happens at festivals, Day One is all about getting your bearings, making plans and easing into the serious business of having fun. As such, my first day at the Chattanooga Film Fest only involved three full lengths, four shorts and about 45 minutes of a filmmakers’ commentary session (full disclosure: I guess I’m not super fond of talking during a film regardless of who does it). I’d make up time in the following few days, however, and that’s really all that matters when you’re playing the long game.

Ultimately, though, it’s about quality and there was no shortage of that on display. Let’s start everything in earnest now, shall we? With no further ado, in order, I present my Friday screenings from this year’s Chattanooga Film Festival.

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Attack of the Demons

Attack of the Demons

As outsiders descend on the small Colorado town of Barrington for its annual Halloween/battle-of-the-bands festival, we see that all isn’t quite as hunky-dory as it seems. In particular, one robed stranger has literally brought Hell to town in the form of a virulently infectious demonic plague that brings gruesome death and even more gruesome rebirth to all it touches. The only hope for the world lies in the hands of a group of survivors brought together by fate and a desperate need to escape…the Attack of the Demons!

As with nearly every film I screened during the festival, I knew nothing about Attack of the Demons before I actually sat down to watch it, aside from the fact that is was animated. Within moments, I was hooked. By the end credits, the film had entered that rare ground that I like to call “Instant Classics.” There haven’t been many of them but this is most certainly one of those.

What makes director Eric Power’s homage to horror of all eras so unforgettable? In this case, the answer is in the attention to detail. While Attack of the Demons utilizes the same sort of “moving paper” style that South Park has made so famous, the filmmakers have packed every inch of the film with so many lovingly rendered details that it makes the whole thing feel impossibly alive and practically demands repeat viewings. From the intricacies of the various humans, demons and animals presented to all the truly amusing in-jokes that reference not only horror but music (the obviously Misfits-inspired Banshee Riders are as brilliant as the amazing ’70s Italian horror flick that we glimpse), there’s almost too much to take in on the first go.

None of the cool details would mean a thing if everything else in the film wasn’t firing on all cylinders but this is the complete package: the voice acting is excellent and nuanced, the score is brilliant (one of the best Carpenter clones I’ve heard yet), the editing, writing and production elements are all top-notch, the humor and horror halves are perfectly balanced (the film is consistently funny) and it’s quite obvious that the filmmakers dearly love horror. While I’ve heard this described as “South Park meets Evil Dead,” I actually got more of a Demons vibe (lots of references to Italian horror) mixed with lots of The Thing. For all you gore-hounds out there, just know that this thing is so splattery, if it were live action, it might out-do Peter Jackson’s immortal Dead Alive.

This was the kind of movie that I never wanted to end which, if you think about it, is really the best kind of film. Suffice to say that I’ll keep my beady eyes fixed on Power and company from now on: this is as close to a perfect film as it gets, at least as far as I’m concerned.

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The Vice Guide to Bigfoot

The Vice Guide to Bigfoot

Opting to keep the mood light, I decided to follow with one of my favorite sub-genres: the mockumentary. As with the best of these kinds of films, the plot is as streamlined as necessary: egotistical, jackass Vice reporter Brian (co-writer Brian Emond) and his put-upon producer/cameraman/friend Zach (director/co-writer Zach Lamplugh) are sent to the wilds of Georgia to meet up with cryptid hunter/YouTube celebrity, Jeff (Jeffrey Stephenson), and hunt for Bigfoot. The problem? Smart-ass Brian thinks this is all a bunch of click-bait bullshit while goofy Jeff truly believes. When strange things start to happen in the woods, will this be the proof that Jeff needs or Brian’s chance to finally crack a “real” story?

Finding the perfect balance between snide and sincere, Lamplugh and Emond’s film is not only smart and well-made but genuinely funny and full of plenty of surprising, organic twists and turns. The characters all end up being so well-developed and likable that the film develops real stakes by the seat-of-your pants finale, something that many horror-comedies struggle with: you come to care about all of these idiots so much that you really don’t want anything bad to befall them, regardless of how stupid they behave. The horror aspect, while not overpowering, was still nicely realized with some surprisingly effective touches of gore.

Where the film really excels, however, is with the deftly handled humor. Whether coming from Brian and Zach’s push-me/pull-you relationship, the subtle skewering of YouTube/Soundcloud celebrities, Jeff’s general buffoonery or Brian’s essentially caustic view of anything that isn’t him,  there’s a lot of funny stuff being thrown at the screen and the vast majority of it works, especially once we get to that bonkers finale.

Perhaps the highest praise that I can give The Vice Guide to Bigfoot, however, is that I would love to see this become a franchise: while the film isn’t perfect, these are the kinds of characters I want to spend more time with. Hell, The Vice Guide to the Jersey Devil is playing in my head, as I type, and it’s great. Talk about the power of cinema!

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The Beach House

The Beach House

After a couple of comedies, it was finally time to get into the serious stuff and writer-director Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House was one that had me intrigued based on the synopsis alone. It promised to be weird and creepy, two things that have me responding faster than Pavlov’s pooch.

A couple with relationship issues decide to get away from the world at a secluded beach house owned by the guy’s family. Once there, however, they discover that they aren’t alone: a couple of family friends are already there, although they’re only too happy to share the gorgeous ocean view. While this seems a little odd, the intense bio-luminescence and gathering fog outside seem even odder still. And then things get really weird.

Recalling films as diverse as Richard Stanley’s recent adaptation of The Color Out of Space, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! and The Mist, Brown’s feature-length debut is quite the accomplished bit of filmmaking. In fact, cinematographer Owen Levelle might just have provided us with some of the most singularly gorgeous shots of the whole year: there are moments in The Beach House, like the opening deep dive to the ocean floor, that truly take your breath away. The sound design, editing, production design and performances are all apiece with the camerawork, making this one of the most immaculately crafted movies I’ve seen in some time.

And yet, for all that, I didn’t love The Beach House. Despite being thought-provoking and visually lush, I also found it a bit overlong and repetitive: I also wasn’t fond of a particular story element, something that I felt was a little below the film’s overall reach. If the worst thing you can really accuse a film of is doing things that you don’t agree with, however, than the film must inherently be doing something right. There was a lot to like here and somethings that I’ll never forget: the scenes with the bio-luminescence, for example, probably rank with some of the most awe-inspiring things I’ve ever seen in a film. I predict a very interesting career for those involved: this was a helluva calling card.

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While I didn’t get through quite as many features as I wanted and barely even scratched the surface of the other content, this first day of the CFF would bode well for the days ahead. At this point, there was still 23 films to go: who knew what was in store? Stay tuned, dear readers, and find out.

The VHS Graveyard Meets the Chattanooga Film Festival – Intro

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Hello, boos and ghouls, and welcome to the very first VHS Graveyard post of what has turned out to be quite the eventful year. When last we spoke in November 2019, your humble host was mid-way through the annual 31 Days of Halloween spooktacular (albeit with his usual flair for tardiness) and the future seemed relatively uneventful. If this were a post-apocalyptic film, it would be the cold opener depicting the world as we know it.

Flash-forward almost six months later, however, and you would be hard-pressed to find much that looks familiar. If this were a film, it would be the part after the cold open where we first meet our protagonist attempting to carve out a place in the brutal new reality. Hundreds of thousands of deaths and a crushed global economy have not so much rewritten the rules as set them on fire. With live entertainment of almost any sort on hold and theatrical film releases pushed into the near future, it’s certainly not an easy time to be an entertainer, much less a critic.

Humans are nothing if not adaptable, however, so adapt we have, in ways both big and small. While the notion of streaming movies in the modern era has become as humdrum as checking your watch, the pandemic has given rise to a truly revolutionary idea: streaming film festivals. With leisurely travel and large gatherings temporarily off the table, an online version of destination film festivals really is the next best thing. 2020 has been a year of firsts, for better or worse, and in that spirit, I decided to throw my support behind one of the best and brightest fests: the Chattanooga Film Festival (CFF).

To be honest, the notion hadn’t even crossed my mind right up until the very moment, this past Friday, when I happened to read an article about the Chattanooga Film Fest. Equally intrigued by the large lineup (26 features and perhaps twice that number of shorts) and low price point (roughly the equivalent of renting five new releases), I made the spur of the moment decision to put the long weekend to good use and purchased an all-access pass.

With nothing to compare it to, I’d have to automatically rate the CFF as the best streaming fest I’ve personally attended. On size and merit, alone, however, it also held its own with genre spectaculars like Fantastic Fest. The site layout was easy to use and there was an embarrassment of riches. Along with the features and shorts, the festival featured all the usual staples: lots of industry panel discussions, celebrations of genre icons, live commentaries and award presentations. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was only able to scratch the tip of the iceberg with all the extra content: my focus was always going to be those 26 features and there are only so many hours in a weekend. It’s to the Chattanooga Film Fest’s great credit, however, that I really wanted to attend pretty much all of them: I’ll try to budget my time better in the future.

After spending four full days with the CFF and plowing my way through 20 of the 26 features, I really don’t have any complaints. In fact, I enjoyed myself so much that I wouldn’t mind checking out the in-person version of the festival some day when the world isn’t on fire. Until that time, however, I’ll have my memories and you, dear readers, will have a full write-up on the goodies that I laid my eyes upon. While not every one of the 20 was a home-run, several hit it so hard outta the park that it circled the globe and bopped ’em in the back of the head.

Stay tuned for a deeper dive into what wonders this weekend held: from animated carnage to surreal tearjerkers, from knee-slappers to screaming psychological torment, there was a little bit of everything and we’re only too happy to share it with you lovely people.

The VHS Graveyard may have been away for a while but we’re back now: take a deep breath, grab our hand and follow us into the dark woods. We have such sights to show, my children…such beautiful, terrible sights to show.

 

The 31 Days of Halloween (2019): 10/7-10/13

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Hot on the heels of our Week One post, please make yourselves acquainted with the films screened during Week Two of the 31 Days of Halloween. You’ll find a few old favorites, a new favorite and a couple of near-misses. Without further ado, let’s all go to the movies!

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evildead

The Evil Dead (1981)

We began the second week of October with Sam Raimi’s first trip to the woods, the original Evil Dead. Similar to favorites such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead and Friday the 13th, I’ve already seen Raimi’s influential masterpiece enough times to have it mostly memorized. Why, then, watch it again?

The answer, of course, is that it’s just that good. Plain and simple. The original Evil Dead is a master class in lean, mean, indie film-making, regardless of the subject matter. It’s managed to influence nearly 40 years worth of film, both inside and outside the horror genre. It might be difficult to view The Evil Dead’s “Deadite POV/moving camera” effect as anything special in the year 2019 but turn the clock back to 1981 and see how often it turned up.

Aside from its influence on the genre, The Evil Dead endures because it’s pretty much the epitome of indie-horror: lots of guts (both internal and external), a thoroughly kickass hero/antihero (BRUUUUUUUUCE!), a simple set-up executed well, a creepy location and a nice, succinct run-time. Why keep watching The Evil Dead after so many years? Because it’s a classic: plain and simple.

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evildead2

The Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987)

You can’t really have one without the other, right? While the sequel often seems to exist more as a soft reboot than an actual sequel, it’s all part of the same wacky Evil Dead universe and more Ash is never gonna be a bad thing!

While both films share similar elements, Dead By Dawn takes advantage of its larger budget to showcase some truly unforgettable setpieces and effects. Most importantly, the sequel moves Bruce Campbell’s Ash even more to the front and center, firmly establishing one of the greatest characters ever.

It’s always a toss-up, for me, as to which of the two I prefer at any given point: Evil Dead 1 and 2 often feel like two sides of the same coin. At the end of the day, the question is: can you really have too much Bruce Campbell? The answer is always “No. No, you cannot.”

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eventhorizon

Event Horizon (1997)

I vividly recall seeing Paul W. S. Anderson’s sci-fi/horror chiller Event Horizon when it first came out in theaters. At twenty-years old, I already had over a decade of horror viewing under my belt but the film still creeped me out. Dark, disturbing and possessed of a demented vision that managed to toss Hellraiser and Solaris into a blender, Event Horizon had moments of cheese but more than enough blood-chilling material to stick in my head for years to come.

Over the years, I’ve revisited the film numerous times, usually treating it as cinematic comfort food but rarely giving it much critical thought. This time around, however, I decided to watch it with “fresh eyes,” as it were, and pretend that I was seeing it for the first time. Would the film still have the same effect more than twenty years later?

Turns out the answer is “yes” but to a much lesser degree. While this Gothic, Lovecraftian space fable still has plenty of disturbing elements (the film’s vision of Hell is the very best kind of Hellraiser ripoff), the cheese shows through in a more obvious way than it seemed to when I was younger. In particular, the film’s special effects are much more hit-or-miss than I remembered: while the makeup is generally pretty good, the fire effects are generally pretty terrible. At the end of the day, Event Horizon is very much a product of its time, despite my continued support and enjoyment. That being said: will I continue to program this into my spooky viewing in the coming years? Absolutely.

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the_ranger_poster

The Ranger (2018)

There’s a lot going on in write/director/editor Jenn Wexler’s feature-length debut, The Ranger. The film is a punk rock slasher, while also being a serious meditation on grief, trauma and repressed memories. There are moments of deeply morbid gallows humor, followed by explosive violence (often in the same scene). The soundtrack is loud and proudly celebrates the counter-culture, ala Repo Man, yet the film is just as often quiet and meditative, which befits a film that’s as much about conservation as it is about rebellious youth.

While respecting The Ranger and what it set out to do, I’d be lying if I said I loved it. In fact, I often found the film’s boundless energy to be rather tedious and obnoxious, similar to the worst excesses of Gregg Araki or Harmony Korine. I genuinely disliked most of the characters and really found myself rooting for the antagonist (to a point, mind you), which might have been part of the point in the first place.

Despite those  complaints, I must admit that The Ranger fascinated me. The film was never dull and, at times, could be as genuinely odd as the aforementioned Repo Man, always one of my favorites. If I really need to classify this as a “miss,” it was definitely by the narrowest of margins. I genuinely look forward to seeing what filmmaker Wexler does for the follow-up: this might not have always been my cup of tea but it was definitely a strong brew and one I wouldn’t mind trying again in the future.

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littlemonsters

Little Monsters (2019)

As for Australian writer/director Abe Forsythe’s new rom-zom-com Little Monsters, suffice to say that I fell hopelessly in love with it early on and stayed in love for the whole of its run-time. A radiantly positive school-teacher teams up with a wastoid guitar player and lecherous children’s entertainer to save her wards from a zombie attack: that’s pretty much the film, in a nutshell. Despite its simplicity, this modern-day fable was just about as close to perfect as a film gets and an easy contender for one of the very best films of the whole year, if not the decade. Trust me, gentle readers: it really is that good.

The reasons are multifold (as but one example, the writing is impossibly tight and genuinely funny) but one of the most obvious and important is Lupita Nyong’o’s simply stunning portrayal of the perennially sunny Miss Caroline, protector of children and player of ukuleles. Everything about the performance works perfectly, creating one of the most instantly indelible characters in the history of the genre: stunning career notwithstanding, Nyong’o’s Miss Caroline would have made her a star all over again.

And that’s still only the tip of the iceberg: this is a film where the laughs, fist-raising moments (there’s a bit involving a young boy, a Darth Vader mask and a horde of zombies that’s as good as anything that Edgar Wright ever put on film) and nail-biting near-misses all come in equal measures. Just when I thought the zombie sub-genre was totally wrung-dry, here comes a fresh, new take that wins me over with some surprisingly old-fashioned ingredients: genuine heart, phenomenal acting, great practical effects and a strong script. I deeply love this film and cannot wait for Forsythe’s next project. And let’s get Nyong’o some more horror scripts, stat!

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deadend

Dead End (2004)

Ironically enough, the final destination for French writer/directors Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa’s English-language debut, Dead End, is nowhere near as interesting as the journey. While the conclusion is decidedly old-hat and more than a little moldy, the lead-up features plenty of creepy atmosphere, odd situations and genre vets like Lin Shaye and Ray Wise giving all-in performances.

As patriarch Frank (Wise) grudgingly drives the family to Laura (Shaye)’s parents house for their 20th Christmas in a row, he decides to break tradition and take a shortcut: big mistake, as it turns out. In no time, the feuding couple, along with their grown children, are trapped in a terrible cycle that features a seemingly endless road, an ominous hearse and a mysterious woman-in-white. Will they be able to get back to sane ground or will the holidays really end up being the death of them all?

Despite a handful of issues, including that irksome ending, Dead End is a fairly intriguing, creepy film, bolstered to no small extent by Shaye and Wise’s classic interplay. While the film has a tendency to lean into the silly end of things, it never tips over enough to make the film seem inane or lightweight. If you’re into The Twilight Zone or Tales From the Dark Side, Dead End might be a route you should consider adding to your GPS. Just don’t expect an overly smooth ride: like most shortcuts, this comes with plenty of bumps in the road.

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europareport

Europa Report (2013)

I’m a sucker for anything that involves deep space exploration, especially when it bisects the horror genre, so I’ve always had a soft spot for this quiet, meditative found-footage(esqe) film. Despite a focus that is definitively more dramatic than horrific, I think there are plenty of reasons to include this unsung gem in your October viewing: after all, what’s more terrifying than stepping foot on an alien planet and searching for intelligent life that may or may not want to say hello?

While rarely directly horrific, Europa Report deals with lots of horror-adjacent themes including loss, the unknown, grief and insanity: there’s one intense scene, set during a spacewalk repair mission, that manages to combine horror and pathos in equal quantities. It’s pretty heady stuff but the focus is always on wonder and exploration rather than doom and gloom. By comparison, I’ve always felt that Danny Boyle’s earlier Sunshine (2007) was too morose and downcast to really satisfy that needed sense of wonder. Europa Report is an inherently sad film, in many ways, but it never skimps on the genuine sense of wonder found in any kind of exploration, especially the deep space kind.

Europa Report asks one question (is life possible in an alien ocean that covers an entire planet?) and then posits an answer that is by turns moving, inspiring, frightening and intelligent. This might not be as explicitly horror-leaning a film as something like Alien (1979) or even the aforementioned Sunshine but it more than makes up for a lack of generic scares with a focus on intelligent, thought-provoking ideas: I’ll take that over a paint-by-numbers slasher any day of the week.

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Tone-Deaf (2019)

When it comes to the best genre filmmakers of the 2010s, no conversation should exclude oddball auteur Richard Bates, Jr. After all, in less than a decade, Bates has managed to write and direct three of the most challenging, impressive and daring genre hybrids to hit our frontal cortex in quite some time: Excision (2012), Suburban Gothic (2014) and Trash Fire (2016). With his newest film, Tone-Deaf, debuting at the tail end of this decade, I was all but positive that Bates would not only get the final word  in on the 2010s but  that it would be a glorious word, indeed.

Unfortunately, as often happens, my hopes and assumptions didn’t quite hit the mark. Not only is Tone-Deaf the weakest entry in Bates’ filmography, thus far, but it also managed to be one of the more middling efforts of the whole year. What gives? How did one of my favorite modern filmmakers manage to make one of the lesser films of 2019?

The problem, as it turns out, is that Tone-Deaf is all text, no subtext. Bates seems to have had but one goal in mind: hammer home the ever-widening gulf between “Baby Boomers” and “Millennials,” making the whole thing as obvious as possible. This tale of a ruthlessly self-entitled Millennial (Amanda Crew) renting an AirBnB from a murderous Baby Boomer (Robert Patrick) has no surprises whatsoever because everything is telegraphed right to the audience, often via monologues that Patrick delivers right to the camera.

It’s a shame, really, because the film looks and sounds absolutely gorgeous: cinematographer Ed Wu shoots the mansion location to excellent effect and there’s a neatly trippy acid sequence, at one point, that manages to stake claim as being one of the better cinematic drug trips out there. Visually, Tone-Deaf is as good as Bates gets. Thematically, however, it feels more like a collapsed souffle than any sort of intelligent discourse on this battle of the ages (literally). Bates has traded in the scalding discourse and ideas of his first three films (particularly the scathing Trash Fire) for mindless sniping and the kind of notions that are probably more appropriate for memes than indie cinema. It’s a real shame but I’m confident he’ll course-correct on his next project: after all, they can’t all be hits, right?

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And with that, our Week Two coverage has come to an end. Stay tuned for Week Three, faithful readers!

The 31 Days of Halloween (2019): 10/1-10/6

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Happy 2019, boos and ghouls! Welcome back to The VHS Graveyard and our annual 31 Days of Halloween coverage. Long time readers will know that we keep the motto “Better late than never” pretty close to our coal-black heart: as such, we present the first week of this month just a few days before October is officially wrapped-up. Such is life.

At some point, we’ll need to address the zombie elephant in the room (this is, after all, our first post in over a year) but we’ll cross that creepy, covered country bridge when we get to it. For now, sink into a comfortable chair, turn the way-back machine to the beginning of the month and prepare thyself: The 31 Days of Halloween is officially upon us!

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Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)

When New York b-movie guru Larry Cohen passed away in late March, it was a given that I’d screen at least one film from his prolific career this October: Cohen was not only one of the original bad boys of ’70s cinema but he was, hands-down, one of my personal favorite auteurs. The only question: which one (or more) of his indelible films to peruse?

While I could’ve gone with It’s Alive (1974), God Told Me To (1976), The Stuff (1985) or Maniac Cop (1988), I opted for eternal classic Q to kick-off this holiday season. Why do I love this film about a winged monster feasting on New Yorkers so much? Let’s see: a kickass creature design…strong humor and satirical elements (a Cohen hallmark)…a phenomenally sleazy performance from Michael Moriarty…David Carradine and Richard Roundtree as wise-cracking NYPD detectives…tons of b-movie fun and thrills…just enough gore to make this a Times Square grindhouse staple (the skinned corpse comes out of nowhere and is a real showstopper)…the list goes on and on.

If you’re in the mood for a fun, slightly smirking take on the monster film that’s equal parts Jaws and King Kong, you only need to remember one letter: Q. The unequaled Larry Cohen will take care of everything else.

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I Trapped the Devil (2019)

With a premise that strongly echoes key elements of the first season of Stephen King-centric TV series Castle Rock, multi-hyphenate-filmmaker Josh Lobo’s feature debut, I Trapped the Devil, was never going to score high marks for originality. Nonetheless, I was curious to see how this particular take on the old “Is that the Devil behind the door?” trope would turn out.

As it turns out, I Trapped the Devil picks the middle-lane of the freeway and sticks there for the entirety of his journey. The film certainly has its moments (the cloying atmosphere is constant and foreboding, while any of the red-lit basement scenes are easily visual highlights), moments which are offset by plenty of problems. The acting is stiff across the board, for one thing, with too much of the film coming off stagey. There’s also plenty of stuff that just doesn’t make sense, the longer one ruminates, but that ends up being a minor issue in the grand scheme.

The biggest problem with Lobo’s I Trapped the Devil turns out to be how naggingly familiar and mediocre everything is: there was plenty of potential here but the final product is virtually identical to any number of direct-to-video chillers. Let’s hope that the filmmaker’s next project has a bit more of its own identity.

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Uncanny Annie (2019)

Overall, I’m a big fan of Hulu’s Into the Dark series, even if the first season was a study in hit/miss. For my money, anything that gets horror fans more product (Into the Dark promises – and delivers – an original, holiday-themed full-length for each month of the year) can never be a bad thing, even if the productions run the gamut from decent-enough to intriguing. With the first season under my belt, I eagerly awaited the debut of Season 2: meet Uncanny Annie, Into the Dark’s second Halloween-themed episode.

Coming off like a horror version of Jumanji (1995) rather than a different take on Beyond the Gates (2016), Uncanny Annie deals with a group of college kids that find themselves sucked into a creepy board game and forced to do battle with the titular evil little girl. While the film has plenty of inventive moments, the whole thing is just a little too silly and over-the-top to be truly effective. In particular, the lead terror is kinda awful, bleeding any tension from key scenes where we really need things to go off the rails.

Uncanny Annie certainly isn’t the worst episode of Into the Dark, thus far, but that definitely doesn’t make it one of the best ones: for the first of twelve new installments, however, it does a fine job of whetting the appetite for future goodness. As long as I get some of the same greatness from last season (I’m lookin’ at you, Pooka!), I’ll be a happy boy.

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In the Tall Grass (2019)

Full disclosure: I think that American-Canadian film auteur Vincenzo Natali is one of the best, smartest filmmakers working today. From his mindbending debut, Cube (1997) to disturbing sci-fi/horror hybrid Splice (2009) to quietly stunning “ghost story” Haunter (2013), he’s spent two decades finding intriguing new ways to tell familiar stories. While Natali doesn’t have a lot of easily recognizable stylistic elements, there is one aspect of his films that’s consistent, across the board: just when you think his film is going one way, it flips the script and goes the other way with frightening ease. In other words, when Natali’s name is on the marquee, expect the unexpected.

His newest film, a full-length adaptation of Stephen King and Joe Hill’s novella, In the Tall Grass, is nowhere near as brilliant or groundbreaking as Cube or Haunter but it still looks and feels like a Natali film, through and through. In fact, the biggest complaint I really have with the film is that it feels a bit like two pretty decent movies jammed together: the original novella is handily dealt with in the first 30 minutes or so of the film, leaving a whole hour’s worth of “new material” that works but also dilutes from the core idea.

This story about a brother and sister following a child’s voice into an endless field of grass and becoming trapped in a bizarre, horrendous cycle of violence has plenty to recommend it: the central concept of the “ritual rock” is just as strong as it was in the novella, Patrick Wilson gives one helluva performance as the mysterious boy’s father and the multiple timelines/multiverses allows for one of the very best, creepiest images I’ve ever seen in a film, hands down. If In the Tall Grass isn’t as revelatory as the rest of Natali’s catalog, it’s also his first mainstream adaptation, so he gets a pass. I know he’ll get back to his patented brand of weirdness soon enough and I’ll be right there when he does.

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Waxwork (1988)

If you know me well, you know that some films are pure comfort food for me: there are certain titles I could watch on repeat for weeks and never tire of. While the list is pretty long, there’s one title that always manages to land somewhere at the top. Anthony Hickox’s pitch-perfect Waxwork may not be one of the best horror films ever but it sure as hell is one of my favorites.

What makes this grisly, darkly-comic fable about young people falling prey to an evil wax museum’s exhibits so special? I could probably come up with a page full of reasons, including one of the niftiest ’80s casts ever, but it’s just as easy to boil it down to just the essentials: Waxwork is pure fun with a big, ol’ capital F.

From one great set-piece to the next, Hickox and crew deliver just what horror fanatics look for in our fare: some blood, some jumps, some clever dialogue and references to the classics, a brisk pace and precious little wasted space. Not all of the set-pieces/exhibits are equally neat but there’s never a point in the film where it becomes tedious or tiresome. Individual results may vary but if you consider yourself a fan of ’80s horror and haven’t seen this one yet, you should probably rectify that as soon as possible.

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Head Count (2018)

What would you get if you were to splice It Follows (2014) and Coherence (2014) into one unified film? Chances are, you’d end up with something that looks and feels a whole lot like writer/director Elle Callahan’s debut feature, Head Count. Set in the hard-baked, desert climes of Joshua Tree, California, Callahan’s debut involves a pair of estranged brothers, a group of partying twenty-somethings and some sort of evil, shape-shifting creature known as a Hisji. If that description gives you an instant visual of the kind of film Head Count is, you’re probably right on the money: there’s very little, if anything, that will surprise any but the most casual of horror fans.

This is not to say that Head Count is a bad movie, mind you: it’s actually quite well-made and possessed of a small handful of genuinely effective moments, most based around the unnerving notion that the person in front of you might not be exactly who they seem to be. The biggest problem with the film, aside from the very generic characters (we learn almost nothing about any of them short of their various relationship statuses), is the almost suffocating sense of deja vu: so much of the elements involved are instantly familiar (you even call the Hisji by repeating its name several times, just like…well…take your pick) that it often feels like a series of references to other works.

Here’s the thing, though: there’s enough of a strong foundation to Head Count that writing off the filmmaker would be a fool’s errand. I’ve seen plenty of debuts that were much worse than this and led to pretty substantial careers: I’m more than willing to wait and see what Callahan and team will come up with in the future. Until then, consider this a pretty decent, if awfully familiar, calling card.

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Coming soon: Week Two of the 31 Days of Halloween.

The 31 Days of Halloween (2018): 10/29-10/31

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At long last: the fifth and final week of the annual 31 Days of Halloween! For the final three days, we screened three films, all of which are personally beloved classics: when it comes down to it, you really can’t go wrong with some classics.

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Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Although it seems rather hard to believe, the proof is in the pudding: George Romero’s landmark Night of the Living Dead really did turn 50 years old this October. They must’ve built ’em to last back then because the film still retains all of its power today, despite the technological, cinematic and special effects achievements in the following decades. The farmhouse is still claustrophobic, the violence is still jarring, Duane Jones’ Ben is still a helluva hero and that ending is still a real gut-punch.

It’s tempting to allow NOTLD to fade into the background: after all, it’s (unintentional) public domain status has made it one of the most ubiquitous horror movies of all time. How many films can you name that feature a scene where Romero’s black-and-white shocker is playing on a TV somewhere? Like the original Universal monster films, Night of the Living Dead is one of those films that has come to define the horror genre. The repercussions of this modest little indie are still felt throughout the film and television industries fifty years later: if that’s not testament to the immortality of this unbeatable icon, then I don’t know what is.

This time around, I found myself drawn to NOTLD’s simplicity and sense of isolation. This is certainly a situation where the non-existent budget led to a “less is more” approach that created a truly unforgettable environment. Future “Dead” movies would revel in clutter and background detail to an occasionally distracting degree but the sparseness found here is as essential a character as the zombies or doomed humans.

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The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

If there was any particular theme for this last week of October, I suppose it might loosely be seen as “films that represent the season.” While Night of the Living Dead might seem an imperfect fit, who would argue against Tim Burton’s (via Henry Selick) delightful classic The Nightmare Before Christmas as being one of the very best Halloween films ever?

In truth, this tale of Jack Skellington and the merry citizens of Halloween Town, pretty much has it all: thrills, chills (Oogie Boogie is a genuinely creepy dude), laughs, great songs, a rousing score, romance, drama, more Halloween and October imagery than you can shake a femur at and even a little Christmas (if that’s your bag).

The film has aged exceptionally well (certainly better than much of Burton’s 2000s-era output) and continues to bear all the hallmarks of a classic: I look forward to watching this little jewel for many, many Halloweens to come.

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Trick ‘r Treat (2009)

If you’re going with “horror films that symbolize Halloween,” there’s just no way you’re not talking about Michael Dougherty’s much-delayed, insta-classic Trick ‘r Treat. The stuff of legend before it was even (belatedly) released, Dougherty’s anthology film is, in many ways, the quintessential Halloween film: it’s not just a film set on Halloween, it’s a film about Halloween and all of its traditions, norms, expectations and spirits.

From age-old traditions like trick or treating to even older ones like contacting the dead, Trick ‘r Treat is a ghastly, candy-colored primer on All Hallow’s Eve. Each of the interconnected tales (think of this as the horror version of Pulp Fiction) is built organically around the autumnal oranges and funeral blacks that make up the culmination of October’s promise, the reason for the season: Halloween.

There are many films that could be screened during October and on Halloween: the list is so much longer than anything we could possibly program in a single month of viewing. In that list, however, there are precious few films that truly symbolize Halloween in the same way that Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat does. There is a genuine love and admiration for the holiday and season that you don’t find in many places. Trick ‘r Treat isn’t about Halloween: Trick ‘r Treat IS Halloween…that’s a mighty big difference.

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And with that, we come to the conclusion of this year’s 31 Days of Halloween. We managed to screen 27 films across 31 days, so we didn’t quite hit our goal for the year. Despite that, we did manage to screen several intriguing new films, including rather unforgettable fare like Can Evrenol’s Housewife, the new Puppet Master film and killer parent epic Mom and Dad. Just as important, however, we revisited old favorites like Halloween, Night of the Living Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, proving that there’s nothing quite like your favorite films during your favorite time of the year.

Stay tuned for end of the year wrap-ups as The VHS Graveyard begins to bid adieu to 2018. As always, thanks for reading!

The 31 Days of Halloween (2018): 10/22-10/28

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As promised, we return with Week Four of the 31 Days of Halloween. We came up a little short on titles, for this particular week, and what we did screen definitely leaned towards the “classics” end of the spectrum, including one film that hadn’t been seen for quite some time. This week did include one new film, however, as well as one of the VHS Graveyard’s favorites. Take a trip with us now to that bygone time last month, as the Halloween train starts to approach its final destination.

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Tales of Halloween (2016)

As far as I’m concerned, it’s gonna take one helluva film to unseat Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat from its current position as the ultimate Halloween-themed horror anthology. The multi-director/writer Tales of Halloween isn’t that film but that doesn’t stop it from being the second best Halloween-themed horror anthology out there.

By virtue of its format, Tales of Halloween isn’t a perfect film: a couple of the shorts were bound to be duds. When the shorts work, however, as in the case with Mike Mendez, Darren Lynn Bousman and Neil Marshall’s contributions, they work spectacularly well. Mendez’s short, “Friday the 31st” may just be one of the cleverest, best horror shorts I’ve ever seen and the central gag never wears thin with me. Most importantly, the whole anthology screams “Halloween” from the first frame to the last, making this somewhat of a no-brainer as far as seasonal programming goes.

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Holidays (2016)

Another anthology film, this time based around various holidays. We get a wide-range of holidays (Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Halloween, Christmas and New Year’s Eve), a wide-range of directors (including Starry Eyes’ Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, The Midnight Swim’s Sarah Adina Smith, indie auteur Kevin Smith, The Pact’s Nicholas McCarthy and Some Kind of Hate’s Adam Egypt Mortimer) and a wide-range of results: pretty much par for the course with any anthology film.

While this definitely ends up on the lesser end of the spectrum, there is still much to laud here: the chronological structure works really nicely, the production values are pretty consistent and a few of the shorts (St. Patrick’s Day and Easter, in particular) are quite disturbing. That being said, there are definitely better horror anthologies out there, including the previously mentioned Tales of Halloween.

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Night of the Demons (1988)

It’s probably been at least a decade and a half since I’ve seen this fun little cult flick, so I figured that this year was as good as any to revisit Angela and her deadly shindig. Although nothing about Night of the Demons is necessarily amazing, it ends up being one of the more cohesive, well-made Evil Dead ripoffs to clog video store shelves in the late ’80s/early ’90s.

This age-old tale of teens partying in the wrong abandoned mortuary (is there really a right kind of abandoned mortuary?) features lots of ’80s staples: hair metal on the soundtrack, stereotypical characters (punker Stooge is a real riot), loud musical stingers, unnecessary slo-mo, scream queen Linnea Quigley, teenagers that are at least 25 years old, lots of gory effects and tons of questionable decisions. It’s fast-paced, goofy, a little odd and, as previously mentioned, lots of fun. It also gets bonus points for being set on Halloween night, making it a great choice for October viewing. Classic film? Not really. Worth your time? You betcha!

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Summer of ’84 (2018)

I wasn’t a huge fan of Turbo Kid (2015), to be honest, finding the film a bit heavy-handed with its ’80s worship and possessed of a few too many obnoxious characters for my taste. This is only relevant because the team behind Turbo Kid (writer/directors Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell) have just released a new film, set in the ’80s, and guess what? Yeah…I’m not a huge fan of this one, either.

This time around, we get a film that manages to graft Stranger Things, Rear Window and Cape Fear together and the result is a mixed bag. As with Turbo Kid, the ’80s homages are so heavy-handed as to be almost parody but the characters are more likable and grounded. Much of the film still stretches credibility but never enough to make me tune out. Nothing about this tale of youthful friends trying to stop a serial killer in their sleepy suburban neighborhood is revolutionary or particularly innovative but it gets the job done.

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A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987)

Of all the horror franchises, the Nightmare on Elm Street series is easily my favorite. For my money, it’s not only the best, in general, but also the most consistent: while the Friday the 13th, Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchises all have strong individual films, they also have plenty of lunk-headed clunkers. Nightmare on Elm Street films might not always have been amazing but they were always solid and supported the same, consistent story-line (ala the Child’s Play series).

The third entry in the Elm Street saga, The Dream Warriors, is easily my favorite in the series, as well as one of my favorite films, in general. I actually got to see the film in the theater, at the very impressionable age of 10, and I can still remember the experience over thirty years later. This one features tons of inventive kills (the marionette, snake and TV being three easy examples), a Freddy who still possesses genuine menace and the final “regular” appearance of Heather Langenkamp’s iconic Nancy. Hell, it’s even got a totally kick-ass ass, hair metal theme song. They truly don’t make ’em like Dream Warriors anymore.

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That finishes off the penultimate week of the 31 Days of Halloween. Stay tuned for the final week and the conclusion to this year’s spooky event. Don’t dig into that turkey just yet, boos and ghouls: that jack o’ lantern still has a little spark left in it!

The 31 Days of Halloween (2018): 10/15-10/21

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October may be over for another year, but its spirit lives on as the VHS Graveyard presents the 3rd week of the 31 Days of Halloween. For this week, the lineup was split almost evenly between the old and the new, including one of the most essential seasonal horror films you could possibly find. With no further ado, let’s jump right into Week Three of the 31 Days of Halloween.

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The Witch in the Window (2018)

I really dug writer/director Andy Mitton’s trippy, Wizard of Oz via Blair Witch debut Yellowbrickroad (2010): the film was weird, disturbing and featured one of the best sound designs I’ve ever experienced in a film. Suffice to say I’m much less impressed with his newest offering, The Witch in the Window.

This tale of a recently divorced father and his obnoxious thirteen-year-old son renovating a country estate where a supposed witch died (hence the title) is mostly a moody, atmospheric haunted house flick. When it’s not that, however, it has a tendency to be an incredibly silly Conjuring ripoff. There were a couple of genuinely creepy moments to be found here but nothing had the impact or lasting feeling of dread that Yellowbrickroad did. Decent enough but certainly not essential.

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Halloween (1978)

I fully intended to see the new Halloween reboot in theaters this October, despite my general dislike of remakes. When that didn’t pan out, I figured that I needed to cut out the middleman and go straight for John Carpenter’s classic original: like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead, it’s one of the few films that I could watch endlessly and never tire of.

40 years old this year, Halloween is just as powerful now as it was then. The film continues to be a textbook example of building suspense and fear in a cinematic mode, utilizing every tool in the bag: everything from writer/director Carpenter’s chilling synth score to legendary cinematographer Dean Cundey’s much-imitated camera moves help to establish one of the true cornerstones of modern cinematic horror. Suffice to say, this version of Michael, Laurie and Dr. Loomis has aged considerably well and should still be considered required viewing for horror fanatics both new and seasoned.

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The Alchemist Cookbook (2016)

I really loved indie grime auteur Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard (2014): I’d even go so far as to call that little marvel one of my very favorite films of all time. It’s that good. The eagerly-awaited follow-up, The Alchemist Cookbook, wasn’t quite as brilliant and kickass but it still had more than its fair share of ridiculous riches to appreciate.

This bare-bones, existential head-fuck involves a decidedly disturbed loner who appears to be trying to crack the secrets of the universe and procure untold riches. Or he may just be off his meds. The beauty of Potrykus’ film is that it really does keep us guessing all the way to the final frame. The Alchemist Cookbook is, essentially, a one-man show and lead Ty Hickson is more than up for the task. As with all of Potrykus’ films, this is definitely not for everyone but fans of the outre will find much to enjoy.

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The Monster Squad

I’ve dearly loved Fred Dekker’s Universal Monsters/Goonies mashup ever since I was a starry-eyed preteen. The dialogue is razor-sharp (Shane Black and Fred Dekker are one of the best script-writing duos of all time), the comedy works, there are plenty of epic moments and it features creature effects courtesy of the legendary Stan Winston. I’ve written about the film extensively, in the past, and didn’t really feel that a rewatch would reveal anything new.

Turns out, however, that a rewatch did unveil another facet of the film to me: the casual homophobia and misogyny that were endemic to so many ’80s comedies and action films are definitely present here and just as grating. The Monster Squad certainly isn’t a worse offender than something like Porky’s or Animal House but the constant slurs and horn-dog ogling definitely doesn’t play well in 2018. The film is never mean-spirited, mind you, but it’s not particularly enlightened, either.

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Grabbers (2012)

If you want a truly terrific log-line, look no further than Irish horror-comedy Grabbers: when a small fishing village is invaded of blood-thirsty, tentacled monstrosities, the townsfolk discover that the only way to survive the alcohol-allergic aliens is to stay constantly drunk. Someone’s gotta stay sober enough to repel the invasion, however, and that particular task falls to the town drunk…who also happens to be the local law enforcement. Heads will roll, tentacles will fly and pints will be quaffed, not necessarily in that order.

Horror-comedy is never an easy hybrid to pull off but Grabbers definitely falls on the successful side of the scale. Jon Wright’s direction is rock-solid, Kevin Lehane’s script is genuinely funny and the village setting is fantastically fresh. If anything, the production comes across as a younger sibling to Edgar Wright’s films, particularly something like The World’s End (which, ironically, came after). Special mention must be given to the amazing Richard Coyle (Jeff on the UK TV show Coupling and, more recently, Father Faustus Blackwood on the new Chilling Adventures of Sabrina): his portrayal of boozy garda Ciaran O’Shea is equally as iconic as the best horror heroes, propelled by his peerless comic timing. One of the very best modern-day sleepers.

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Mom and Dad (2018)

Top-lined by my second favorite Nic Cage performance of the year, writer/director Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad is both genuinely odd and absolutely fascinating. The plot, delivered with no shortage of manic energy, is rather ingenious: something has caused parents to spontaneously decide to murder their children (of all ages), a compulsion that extends to the titular duo of Selma Blair and Nicolas Cage. The film basically plays out like a pitch-black, lethal version of Home Alone, albeit one where parents sub for the “Wet Bandits.”

I’ve never been a big fan of Taylor’s Crank films but have no problem admitting that I thoroughly enjoyed Mom and Dad. The cast is great (Blair and Cage, in particular), the sense of humor is spot-on and the violence is both bracing and thrilling. There’s no denying that the film is in poor taste but it’s also got enough subtext to support the taboo subject material. And really: are you going to pass up the opportunity to watch Nic Cage wreak havoc with a sledgehammer while shouting “The Hokey Pokey”? I think not.

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The Cleanse (2018)

Writer/director Bobby Miller’s feature debut, The Cleanse (aka The Master Cleanse), is probably one of the least “horror” films I screened this October, despite the subject matter. This tale of a sad sack (Johnny Galecki) and his soulmate (Anna Friel) exorcising their inner demons at a wilderness cleanse is really more in the Yorgos Lanthimos mode (particularly The Lobster) than it is a fright flick but probably includes enough base elements to let it slide.

Despite a strong cast (which also includes Anjelica Huston, Oliver Platt and Kevin J. O’Connor) and some pretty good production values, the film ends up feeling both rushed and unfinished. The ending, in particular, seems abrupt, leading to a 9-minute final credit crawl that feels like the worst kind of padding. There are plenty of good ideas here and the acting is strong enough, by itself, to warrant a look. By and large, though, I’m more curious to see what Miller comes up with next.

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Thus concludes Week Three of our little program. Stay tuned for Week Four and, as always, your patronage and patience is greatly appreciated!

The 31 Days of Halloween (2018): 10/8-10/14

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A little late but, at long last: Week Two of the 31 Days of Halloween! This week featured three unplanned variations on the word “terror” (Terrifier, Terrified and Terrortory 2), along with a couple of older favorites and one of the most gonzo, over-the-top headfucks I’ve seen in some time. With no further ado: the 31 Days of Halloween continues.

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Terrifier (2018)

Picking up where writer/director Damien Leone’s All Hallows’ Eve left off, Terrifier puts us back in the bad company of Art the Clown, serial killer extraordinaire. This time around, the anthology format is ditched for a more straight-forward, grindhouse slasher feel that focuses exclusively on Art and the mess he makes over the course of one very gory Halloween eve. As the body count rises, will anyone be able to put an end to the evil clown’s reign of terror?

Here’s the thing with Terrifier: it’s the cinematic equivalent of a game of freeway chicken and your appreciation of said offering will really depend on whether you swerve first. Leone and crew have perfectly captured the feel of sleazy, vile, unrepentant “golden era” slasher films, the kind that played in back-alley dives rather than big theaters. The film is ridiculously gory (one setpiece involves sawing someone in half with a hacksaw) and features truly impressive practical effects. It’s ugly, arguably misogynistic (although just as many men as women are slaughtered in the film), full of casual “acting,” oddly paced and possessed by one of the truly unforgettable modern-day boogeymen in Art the Clown. Terrifier is inventive, disgusting, tedious and, every so often, mind-blowing. It’s a film that my teenaged self would have probably obsessed over but one that my middle-aged self might accuse of trying a little too hard. If you’re looking for blood, guts and grime, look no further than Terrifier but be forewarned: this is just about as extreme as non-underground horror offerings get.

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Stitches (2012)

Sleazebag birthday clown Stitches (comedian Ross Noble) meets an untimely end at the hands of a bunch of truly shitty kids. Years later, Stitches returns from the dead, seeking revenge on his now-teenaged antagonists, determined to kill them all in the clowniest of ways. It’s up to sixteen-year-old protagonist Tommy to put an end to the infernal funnyman once and for all and stop his lethal shenanigans.

Full disclosure: I’m madly in love with this film…hopelessly, completely and madly. There’s not one frame I would change, one awful character I would modify, a single catch-phrase I would delete. I think that the backstory involving the shadowy clown cabal is fascinating, fully believe that the death set-pieces easily equal the best of the Nightmare on Elm Street series (the ice cream pieta is just perfect) and consider Ross Noble’s Stitches to be one of the very best horror villains ever. The film is funny and scary, tense and silly. As far as I’m concerned, there are really only two evil clown films that ever need to be bothered with: Jon Watt’s Clown and Conor McMahon’s Stitches.

Beep, beep, Pennywise.

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The Windmill (2016)

A bus full of tourists break down during a tour of Dutch windmills and wind up at the stomping grounds of a Satanic medieval miller who ground people’s bones to make his bread. Literally. As luck would have it, the miller isn’t totally dead (these things happen) and he proceeds to cut a mighty swath through our collected stereotypes with a mighty scythe. The survivors must band together and find some way to send this particular demon straight back to Hell before they all get turned into meat scraps. Amsterdamned, indeed!

I first saw writer/director Nick Jongerius’ The Windmill as part of my effort to see every horror film released in 2016, regardless of content or quality. I didn’t expect much, at the time, but was quickly blown away by not only the film’s overall quality (it looks simply smashing) but also by how fun it ended up being. Simply put, The Windmill is a blast, the kind of old-school horror film that demands you yell at the screen and throw your fist in the air when something truly epic happens. The film isn’t perfect, mind you, but none of its flaws are critical: in pretty much every regard, The Windmill is just about as good as slick, big-screen, gory, pop-horror films get. Add in a pretty memorable villain and you have the recipe for a damned good seasonal treat.

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Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018)

For the latest installment in Charles Band’s long-running franchise (30 years young in 2019), the keys to the kingdom are handed over to a few interesting choices: Swedish Evil Dead devotees Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund direct, while pulp wunderkind S. Craig Zahler handles the writing duties. The results, which concern chaos and carnage at an auction devoted to the lethal puppets, are some of the bloodiest, funniest and most outrageous of the entire series.

Right off the bat, the newest Puppet Master is two things: genuinely funny and zealously determined to offend. Whether via the astoundingly gory effects (the film starts slow but ends closer to Dead Alive territory, gore-wise), the brazenly politically-incorrect humor or focus on taboo situations, this is a film that will absolutely not be for everyone.

Give it a chance, however, and the new Puppet Master reveals itself as more than just a cheap provocateur. The film is not only extremely well-made and ruthlessly effective, but it also has a genuine heart, albeit a smirking, blood-smeared one. In many ways, the film is kindred spirits with the equally raunchy Hobo With a Shotgun: if the content and grue don’t turn you off, the emotion might pull you in. Plus, that opening credit sequence really is one of the best of the whole year.

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Housewife (2018)

A few years back, Turkish filmmaker Can Evrenol blew me away with a disturbing little ditty that was equal parts Reservoir Dogs and Hellraiser: Baskin was a little talky, in the opening stretch, but devolved into nothing short of a nightmare by the time it all went, literally, to Hell. Suffice to say, anticipation was pretty high for the follow-up: is there any way it could possibly be as fucked up as its predecessor?

The answer, it turns out, is a resounding “yes.” For only his second full-length, writer/director Evrenol has created something that feels like a companion piece to Ari Aster’s Hereditary, an austere, psychological nightmare that descends into complete and unmitigated, howling insanity. The less said about this, the better (some of the surprises really do need to wallop you over the head, for maximum impact) but the film manages to take elements of the aforementioned Hereditary, Aronofsky’s Mother, Phantasm, Rosemary’s Baby and H.P. Lovecraft and turn them into something completely unique and impossibly disturbing. Right on the edge between arthouse and grindhouse, I’m willing to wager that you’ll never get Housewife out of your head…for better or worse.

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Terrortory 2 (2018)

Whenever possible, I like to root for the underdog. Case in point: multi-director, indie anthology Terrortory. I screened this a few years ago for my 2016 project and was rather impressed. Despite being a micro-budget indie horror film with a mostly amateur cast, the film had tons of heart and creativity. It was nowhere close to perfect but never less than watchable. At the time, I made a personal vow to keep up with the filmmakers…and then promptly forgot all about ’em. Flash-forward to this year and I finally get to keep my promise as writer/director Kevin Kangas delivers Terrortory 2.

Like the original, the sequel is an anthology film taking place in the mystical Terrortory, a spot of land where a myriad of monsters, ghosts, demons and generally weird things all happen to hang out together. Similar to the first film, the sequel is ultra-low budget and features a cast that ranges from rather blank to decent enough. The stories range from effective to slightly less so (“The Fountain” is appropriately Lovecraftian and well-paced, whereas “The Wendigo” is nothing more than a minute-long setup for a punchline: the other handful of tales fall between these poles), the effects are decent and the original story-line is continued in a logical way. Terrortory 2 may be a far-cry from the best horror films of 2018 but it’s got more passion and heart than many films of its ilk. At this rate, I’m already booking my next trip to the Terrortory, presumably sometime around Halloween 2019.

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Terrified (2018)

A sleepy, suburban neighborhood finds itself under assault from a myriad of paranormal terrors, including creepy voices in the sink, a dead child who won’t stay buried and a terrifying, gangly humanoid with a propensity for hiding under beds and emerging in the wee hours of the night. It’s up to a trio of ghost hunters, along with a local police captain, to get to the bottom of the eerie events before all Hell breaks loose and takes the suburbs with it.

This Argentinian export had ferociously good word-of-mouth at recent genre festivals, making it one of my most anticipated screenings of the year. After watching it, however, I found myself more than a little conflicted. On the one hand, Terrified does feature several instantly memorable setpieces and plenty of creepy moments: the scene involving the dead kid at the kitchen table is just about as good as horror gets, for one thing. On the other hand, the whole film is batshit crazy and makes not one whit of sense. As a champion of plenty of nonsensical films in the past, I must also freely admit that Terrified takes that inch and runs for a country mile.

Imagine a cross between more traditional entries in the Waniverse (think Insidious) and something totally nuts like Obayashi’s Hausu. Terrified has plenty of atmosphere but also plenty of insanely-loud jump scares, making it a constant see-saw between loud, obvious, dumb scares and more subtly, creepy moments. When Demian Rugna’s film works, though, it’s a pretty singular experience and one of the more memorable films of the year.

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That takes care of Week Two. As we approach the big day, stay tuned for recaps on Weeks Three and Four. Stay spooky, boos and ghouls!

The 31 Days of Halloween (2018): 10/1-10/7

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Welcome to 2018, folks: the VHS Graveyard has officially risen from its undead slumber to feast upon the free-time of unsuspecting passerby! We’ll address the protracted silence in a future update but, for now, let’s dive right into the meat of the matter with that best time of the year: the 31 Days of Halloween.

Long-time readers will know that October is regarded as the most sacred of months by yours truly: as such, I forego any and all films that aren’t (at least implicitly) horror. My intention for this year was to watch at least one horror film for every day in October: while the first part of the month hasn’t necessarily borne this out, there’s still  plenty of October to get through. One that note, I now present the first week of the 31 Days of Halloween.

10/01/2018-10/07/2018

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The Witch (2016)

When I first watched Robert Eggers’ The Witch, I was endlessly impressed by the film’s reserve and creeping, oppressive atmosphere, finding it to be one of the highlights of a pretty good year for horror cinema. I didn’t like it as much this time around, although there’s no denying the moments of brilliance. In some ways, this is akin to my current response to the original Blair Witch Project: it just doesn’t grab me like it used to.

This tale of religious paranoia, persecution and the devil in New England may be timelier now than when it was released (particularly the focus on female agency) but my latest re-watch found me focusing much more on the stagey performances (the twins, in particular, are insufferable) than the subtext and I found myself wishing there were a bit more room for speculation regarding the title character. The whole thing comes off as both too blunt and too vague but it’s still a potent cocktail, when the mix is right.

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Marrowbone (2018)

Writer/director Sergio G. Sanchez impressed with his script for slow-burner The Orphanage: his newest, Marrowbone, isn’t quite as successful. This Southern Gothic mashup of The Others, The Lovely Bones and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (yep) concerns the title decaying estate and the fractured family that have taken its name as their own. A tight-knit family of brothers and sisters must deal with hauntings both literal and metaphorical, along with the all-too concrete evils of the outside world. When an unfortunate chain of events topples the fragile balance, the results prove catastrophic.

In many ways, Sanchez’s Marrowbone is only nominally a horror film: the focus is firmly on the real-world miseries of these characters, much like Mike Flanagan’s new The Haunting of Hill House series, rather than any monsters. There’s still much here for genre fans to dig their teeth into, however, including a positively Hitchcockian sequence involving a signature and several tense cat-and-mouse chases. The downside, unfortunately, is that too much of the film plays as intensely silly and the resolution strains credulity way too much to be effective. There are lots of good intentions but the results are unfortunately average.

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The Lodgers (2018)

There’s a lot to like about Brian O’Malley’s The Lodgers, although I suspect it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Twin brother and sister live on their own in a secluded, crumbling mansion with something very strange in the basement. They live by three basic rules: be in bed by midnight, let no stranger inside the door and never leave each other’s side. When the twins turn eighteen and the sister starts falling for a recently-returned war veteran, however, the delicate balance is upset and the Lodgers come calling.

This Gothic fairy tale looks gorgeous and features one of the coolest decaying mansions this side of Crimson Peak: it also has a serious case of the Lovecrafts and that undercurrent of cosmic dread is a big part of the film’s atmosphere. The languid pace and uncomfortable subject matter might turn off viewers but I liked this quite a bit and might even have loved it with a few less side-plots and a tighter finale. If nothing else, this was a definite step up from O’Malley’s last film, the absurd Let Us Prey.

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Murder Party (2007)

An unassuming schlub finds an invitation to a Halloween eve “murder party” on the sidewalk and eagerly accepts because he’s got nothing else to do besides fight with the cat for his chair. Upon arrival at said destination (in his spiffy, handmade cardboard armor, no less), our hero finds a group of moronic, costumed hipsters who really do plan to kill him, provided they can get their heads out of their asses. What follows is one of the funniest, bloodiest and most memorable horror-comedies ever, predating Tucker & Dale vs Evil by several years and recalling nothing so much as the bonkers early films of Peter Jackson.

Before he was the talk of the town with indie hits like Blue Ruin and Green Room, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier kicked things off with this unsung gem. Murder Party is one of those rare films that just gets everything right: the humor is great, the practical effects are well-done and astoundingly gory, the script is smart and zippy, the acting is strong and it never feels shabby, despite its obviously low budget. There’s a great performance by Saulnier regular Macon Blair, firmly tying this to his canon. Murder Party is even set on Halloween, making this a no-brainer for seasonal consumption. And there’s a cute cat named Sir Lancelot. Just watch the damn thing already!

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Pyewacket

A teen girl gets mad at her mom and does the only sensible thing: she summons a demon named Pyewacket to snuff her out. When the young lady has a change of heart, however, will it be as simple to call off the (Hell)hounds? This is the question posed by actor-turned-director Adam MacDonald’s newest film, Pyewacket, which follows up his killer bear debut, Backcountry. While I must admit ignorance regarding Backcountry (it’s still on my to-see list), I had heard many good things about his follow-up via festival performances. As usual, the buzz was a little overly enthusiastic.

While there are moments where MacDonald’s sophomore feature threatens to approach The Babadook, it never quite reaches those heady heights. Truth be told, Pyewacket is held back by a general lack of imagination and innovation: everything here has a familiar feel and the often iffy performances really don’t help matters. There are disturbing moments, without a doubt, but they’re too often undercut by the amateurish dramatics and lackluster payoffs. We never feel as connected to the core of the story as we should and that’s a real shame: Pyewacket isn’t a terrible film but it’s very rarely a great film and it could’ve been.

Stay tuned for week two: coming soon!