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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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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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 (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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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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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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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.

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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!

The 31 Days of Halloween (2017): 10/29-10/31

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With no further ado: the films screened during the final three days of the annual 31 Days of Halloween. These final films tended towards the “old favorites” variety but we still managed to sneak in a new, previously unseen film from this year, just to spice it up.

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Tales of Halloween

My very favorite seasonal anthology film will always and forever be Michael Dougherty’s Trick r Treat: he just nails the Halloween vibe so completely and authentically that there’s really no need to look further. That being said, you can only screen the film over so many consecutive All Hallows’ Eves before it begins to lose a smidgen of its precious luster.

That’s where the multi-director/writer effort Tales of Halloween comes in: it may not be the best Halloween-oriented anthology film out there but it’s a pretty damn close runner-up. Although this isn’t quite as unified as Dougherty’s classic, the shorts all take place in the same small town, on Halloween eve, so there’s definitely a little crossover/bleed-over between segments, leading to a nice sense of small-scale world-building. The segments also share the same rich production values and sense of style, so they all fit together visually, as well as thematically.

As with all anthology projects, not all of the shorts are winners but the scale is definitely tipped more towards the successful end of things than in something like The ABCs of Death or V/H/S: in particular, Mike Mendez (Big Ass Spider, Don’t Kill It) and Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw 2-4, Repo: The Genetic Opera) come up with impossibly fun segments that serve as highlights of both their respective careers. Tales of Halloween might not be quite as perfect as Trick r Treat but that’s no reason not to give it a turn in your seasonal programming.

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A Dark Song

Irish writer/director Liam Gavin’s debut, A Dark Song, is an often fascinating (if equally frustrating) treatise on love, loss, vengeance and forgiveness, set within the creepy confines of an isolated Welsh manor house. Grief-stricken Sophia (Catherine Walker) hires prickly occultist Solomon (the always prickly Steve Oram) to help her perform a long, arduous ritual that will (hopefully) allow her to communicate with her murdered son. As the days stretch into months, however, Sophia will come to question not only Solomon’s abilities but her own notions of reality.

Brooding, grim, leisurely paced and bolstered by a truly ominous, portentous score (courtesy of Ray Harman), Gavin’s debut layers on the atmosphere, to mostly good effect. The interplay between Walker and Oram is the real meat of the film and they play off each other pretty spectacularly: if nothing else, A Dark Song features two of the year’s sturdiest performances, hands down. The film also looks consistently great, thanks to Cathal Watters’ truly gorgeous cinematography: full of luxurious wide shots of the stunning countryside but equally comfortable with the dark, claustrophobic interiors of the main house setting, the camerawork is a key aspect of what makes A Dark Song work so well.

Despite all of the above, however, I’ll freely admit that the film’s finale thoroughly mystified me, leaving me with a distinctly unsatisfied feeling as the final credits rolled. While I think I know what happened, I’m really not sure, leaving me feeling as if I missed out on some important detail. To put it in gymnastic terms: Gavin’s A Dark Song nailed the performance but didn’t quite stick that all-important landing.

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An American Werewolf in London

Nearly forty years after it first debuted, John Landis’ landmark An American Werewolf in London (1981) still stands as one of the best werewolf films of all time, with precious few legitimate challengers since. The film is a perfect synthesis of real horror, tension, pitch-black humor, award-winning practical effects and genuinely likable characters: there are no shortage of truly horrifying moments and images in the film but the focus, first and foremost, is always on character and mood over gross-out gags.

Best buddies David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are backpacking through the misty British isles when they find themselves at the suitably unwelcoming Slaughtered Lamb Inn. After foolishly ignoring the superstitious locals advice to stay on the road, the dynamic duo stride into the wilds and are attacked by some sort of vicious animal. Jack is torn to pieces and David wakes up in the hospital, full of strange urges and haunted by terrible nightmares. When Jack comes back as a rapidly decomposing body and urges David to kill himself before the next full moon, the fun really begins.

An American Werewolf in London is that rarest of horror-comedies that actually does justice to both sides of the coin without tipping the balance into the silly or slight. There is genuine menace to be found here (the scenes on the moors are just about as good as it gets, as are those truly horrifying nightmares), along with plenty of well-executed action sequences (the Piccadilly Circus setpiece is just perfect) but Landis is, as always, a deft hand with the comedy elements. Dunne gets most of the film’s best lines as the ever charismatic, if increasingly repulsive, Jack but his comic interplay with Naughton forms the backbone of the film. There’s a good reason why this movie is considered a classic: it’s that damn good.

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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

What is the quintessential ’80s horror movie? While there really is no right answer (the discussion would be longer than every 31 Days of Halloween post, combined), there is one film that pretty much sums up the ’80s, for me, and will always stand as one of my very favorite films from that illustrious decade. When I think of ’80s horror, the first thing I think about is always the late Tobe Hooper’s brilliant The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986).

Loud, garish, over-the-top and gleefully demented, TCM 2 may seem like an ill-fit to its more low-budget, gritty older sibling but I’ve always seen them as two sides of the same coin. In fact, had the franchise ended with Hooper’s contributions, I daresay it might have been one of the most perfect, singular one-two punches in cinematic history. All of the societal themes that were simmering in TCM’s ’70s have come to a full boil in Part 2’s ’80s, allowing Hooper to poke bloody holes in the dead-eyed capitalism that Gordon Gekko held so sacred. After all, this is a film that sees grubby, gas-station cannibal Drayton Sawyer transformed into an uber-slick, ultra-popular civic leader: all hail the mighty dollar!

There’s so much good stuff here that pulling out highlights is both reductive and nearly impossible. TCM 2 is a virtual catalog of memorable setpieces, locations, characters and insanity: Dennis Hopper bringin’ down the temple via chainsaw…every single scene involving Bill Moseley’s iconic Chop Top…Leatherface “impersonating” L.G…that awesome freeway chase where the family makes frat-boy hash…the Sawyers’ impossibly cool, Christmas light-bedecked underground lair…the list could go on and on.

It’s always mystified me that fans and critics, alike, have savaged The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. It may be a very different film from Hooper’s original but it’s an equally masterful piece of filmcraft and deserving of just as many accolades. The saw will always be family, to me, and TCM 2 is an important member of that family.

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And there you have it, folks: the 31 Days of Halloween, 2017 edition. With October now officially in the rear-view mirror, join us as we begin to take a look back at the year, highlighting some of the very best (and worst) that the genre had to offer. Until then, keep it spooky, boos and ghouls.

The 31 Days of Halloween (2017): 10/22-10/28

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Better late than never, The VHS Graveyard now presents the four films screened during the fourth week of the recent 31 Days of Halloween. While there might not be many films here, we managed to screen a pretty diverse array, including a couple of brand-new (as of last month, at least) ones. Let the haunting begin!

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1922

1922

In a year stacked to the brim with cinematic adaptations of Stephen King stories, Zak Hilditch’s note-perfect 1922 is easily one of the very best. From the ominous opening image straight through to the fantastic final moment, everything about this exquisite period-piece is top-notch, leading me to one conclusion: this, friends and neighbors, is how you adapt Stephen King to the silver screen.

Beginning in the titular year, in Nebraska, we’re introduced to farmer Wilfred James (Thomas Jane), his long-suffering wife, Arlette (Molly Parker) and teenage son, Henry (Dylan Schmid). When Arlette decides to sell the lions’ share of their 100-acre-property and move to the big city, Wilf decides to kill her and keep the property: after all, in 1922, who’s going to come looking for a missing wife? While the murder, itself, proceeds without a hitch, Wilf must now deal with his son’s guilt over his complicity in the murder of his own mother, as well as the suspicion of those who Arlette planned to sell the property to. There’s also, of course, the little matter of Arlette’s decomposed, yet surprisingly ambulatory body, and the horde of voracious rats that follow it wherever it goes.

In every way, Hilditch’s adaptation of 1922 is the epitome of “the right way” to bring King to the big screen: this lean, mean, no-frills chiller doubles down on craft (the acting, cinematography, score, editing and pace are all flawless) while resisting the need to add unnecessary subplots and bric-a-brac to clutter the narrative. From Jane’s sturdy voice-over narration to the razor-sharp line of pitch-black humor that subtly underscores everything (the bit with the cow and the well might be one of the best, nastiest moments of the entire year), this twist on Poe’s classic The Telltale Heart is easily one of the year’s best horror films, provided you like them smart, bleak and stylish. My advice? Hand Zak Hilditch the rest of King’s short story collections and let him get to work: the dude knows what he’s doing.

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Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

In many ways, the late Wes Craven’s return to the Elm Street that he created can be seen as a dry-run for mega-hit Scream, which would follow two years later. Self-referential, ultra-meta, glossy, bloody and lined with a dry sense of humor, the origins of Scream’s hip revival of the slasher genre are easy to read all over New Nightmare.

For his second foray into the Elm Street franchise after the 1984 original, Craven posits a scenario where the principal actors from the first film (Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund and John Saxon), along with himself, find themselves smack dab in the middle of their own nightmarish run-in with the real Freddy Krueger (also played by Englund, natch). The whole thing might play as a bit too goofy if New Nightmare wasn’t also the most serious Elm Street film after the original: Craven plays it all fairly lean and mean, keeps the wise-cracking to a minimum and manages to bring much of the menace back to horror’s favorite subdivision.

While I’ll always cherish Dream Warriors and hold it as the pinnacle of the entire series, New Nightmare ended up being a respectable way for Craven to both return to the franchise and put it to an end (for the most part). It’s a smart trick from a filmmaker who had more than his fair share of smart tricks up his sleeve: Craven will be missed.

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Creep

Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass’ Creep impressed the hell out of me when I first saw it, more than living up to the title. This twisted tale of a videographer (Brice) who answers the wrong Craigslist ad and runs afoul of Duplass’ Josef is a claustrophobic bit of insanity that starts odd and ends nightmarishly. The whole film is so simple that it almost sounds like a style exercise: two actors, first-person/found-footage style, no effects, one location (for the most part).

In reality, Creep is a thoroughly unnerving tale of madness that works its way under your skin and refuses to let go. There’s something about Duplass’ performance that transcends acting and becomes something entirely, uncomfortably, different. For much of the film, Duplass plays Josef like the kind of high-maintenance pain-in-the-ass that most of us would relish booting through the ceiling. By the time you begin to notice how truly deranged he is, however, it’s too late for everyone involved, audience included. It’s a film that’s entirely dependent on its performances and Duplass and Brice don’t let down in the slightest.

Creep would be good just based on the performances but the filmcraft is pretty damn seamless, to boot. It’s actually one of the best found-footage films out there, finding some truly surprising ways to mess with perspective and play with the established rules of the sub-genre. The pacing is exquisite and the script (which often seems improvised) is incredibly smart and barbed. In every way, Creep is the epitome of a great film, horror or otherwise.

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Creep 2

Perhaps it was the heavy weight of expectations, considering how much I enjoyed the first film, but I couldn’t help but feel more than a little let down after screening Brice and Duplass’ recently released sequel, Creep 2. Here, unfortunately, is a prime example of how truly difficult it is to replicate what makes a sleeper so special.

We’re reintroduced to good, ol’ insane Josef (Duplass, still great), now going by Aaron but still up to his old tricks. This time around, Aaron is going through a bit of a midlife crisis and has all but lost his former spark for murdering innocent people. “Salvation” comes in the form of Sara (the absolutely fearless Desiree Akhavan), host of a web-series about meeting strange men through Craigslist personal ads. Sara is going through her own existential crisis, as luck would have it, and eagerly jumps into the deep end of Aaron’s psychosis, encouraging him to open up for her ever-present video camera. Who’s playing who, however, and to what end? Has Aaron actually found love? Does Sara actually believe what Aaron tells her? And what about Peachfuzz?

Despite being a solid step-down from the first film, Duplass and Brice still pack plenty of good stuff into the sequel. As before, Duplass’ performance is pitch-perfect and it’s a genuine pleasure to watch him continue to develop and refine his character. Akhavan provides a more than capable foil: Sara isn’t a helpless waif…quite the opposite. She’s actually a crafty, calculating manipulator who may be as fundamentally “damaged” as Aaron, if in slightly more socially acceptable ways. There are plenty of powerhouse scenes to be found (the one where Aaron and Sara doff their clothes in order to be totally open and honest with each other is a real corker) but the climax comes across as silly and unbelievable, while the final coda feels unnecessary and forced.

That being said, I’ll still be first in line for Creep 3 (this was originally announced as a trilogy). Missteps notwithstanding, Creep 2 was odd, uncomfortable, unsettling and more than a little thought-provoking: here’s to hoping that Brice and Duplass can give this modest little franchise the send-off that it truly deserves. Creep 2 is good but they can do much better.

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Stay tuned for the final week of The 31 Days of Halloween, including the day of honor, itself.

The 31 Days of Halloween (2017): 10/15-10/21

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Almost in time for the next installment, The VHS Graveyard now presents Week Three of the 31 Days of Halloween. We came up one film short this week but never fear: there’s still a week left until the big day and plenty of films up on the horizon. Now: kick back, grab a six-pack of blood (or diet blood, if you prefer) and journey back to the wilds of last week as we visit headless horsemen, killer clowns, vengeful ghosts and so much more…right here on The VHS Graveyard.

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Sleepy Hollow

This zippy adaptation of the classic Washington Irving story captures both Tim Burton and muse Johnny Depp at a point in their collaborative partnership where the well still felt deep and the possibilities endless. Burton is (relatively) restrained, although there are plenty of audacious and thrilling set-pieces (one wonders if the flaming windmill here inspired the similar visual in Windmill Massacre), and the material is allowed to breathe and feel much more organic than later efforts like the Alice in Wonderland films.

For his part, Depp is rather delightful, light years from his smarmy, played-out schtick of the last several years. He plays Ichabod as an eager greenhorn but stops short of playing him for a fool, ala Jack Sparrow, and his interplay with the rest of the impressive ensemble (including Christina Ricci, Jeffrey Jones, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon and the always awesome Christopher Walken), is as much about give-and-take as stealing the show.

If you think about it, Sleepy Hollow is the most overtly “horror” film that Tim Burton ever made: gratuitous decapitations, a (relative) lack of whimsy, heavy Gothic atmosphere, deep sense of foreboding…that’s just one Christopher Lee short of a Hammer film! In other words, perfect Halloween fare.

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Dark Exorcism

I avoided watching writer/director David Spaltro’s Dark Exorcism for one simple reason: everything about it screamed “generic possession flick” at first glance. As part of my never-ending list of 2016 horror films, however, it was going to get viewed at some point and October 2017 seemed as good a time as any. Turns out I shouldn’t have waited so long: Spaltro’s film is a real sleeper and probably the best indie exorcism/possession film I’ve seen in some time.

A non-believing grad student (Lynn Justinger) and her supernatural-debunking mentor (Fiona Horrigan) meet their match when a terrified mother (Catherine Cobb Ryan) begs for help with her tormented daughter (Grace Folsom). What first seems like a cut-and-dried haunting is revealed to be something much more sinister, requiring a little bit of the ol’ title ceremony. Will the cynical student and burned-out master have what it takes to triumph or will evil be chalking up another win?

Although it never reinvents the wheel, Dark Exorcism is also a breezy, painless experience that manages to avoid most of the pitfalls inherent in exorcism films. Much credit goes to the filmcraft: from the clever opening credit sequence to the colorful cinematography and subtle score, Dark Exorcism always looks and sounds good, even when it takes the occasional foray into the silly or insipid. It does everything that I expect from this kind of film and does it better than most of its peers: that’s good enough for me, neighborino.

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Innkeepers

The Innkeepers

Full disclosure: I didn’t care for Ti West’s slow-burn ghost film when I first saw it in theaters back in 2011. Everything up to the finale was fine enough but the climax really ticked me off: I honestly can’t even recall my specific issue but I distinctly remember walking out irritated and let-down. It’s a feeling so strong that I completely avoided the film until this year’s 31 Days of Halloween.

In hindsight, I was wrong. There’s nothing wrong with the ending of this modest tale of amateur ghost-hunters (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) in a haunted New England hotel. In fact, the whole film is pretty darn good, giving me another reason to like Ti West (for those keeping count, this makes the third of his films that I’ve genuinely enjoyed, right behind In a Valley of Violence and House of the Devil).

If you’re in the mood for an atmospheric, creepy and slow-paced little chiller, go ahead and check-in with The Innkeepers. And remember: there’s nothing wrong with being wrong, kids.

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Clown

Not much more to say about this modern classic than what I’ve already gushed about in the past but the Cliff Notes version goes a little something like this: Jon Watts and Christopher Ford’s loving tribute to pure horror should be required viewing for anyone who considers themself a horror fanatic and right at the top of the list for those looking for that elusive “truly scary movie.” Beep, beep, Richie!

A doting father (Andy Powers) puts on an old clown costume, as a last-minute replacement for his birthday boy’s absent entertainment, and can’t take the darn thing off. Because, you know, it’s attached to his skin. As his blood-lust grows, the doomed dad discovers that only one dish truly hits the spot: fresh child.

With no hyperbole, Clown is easily one of the best pure horror films since the genre’s heyday in the ’80s and ’90s. Streamlined, mean, inventive, colorful and possessed of one fantastic setpiece after the other, this is in the best vein of films like Pumpkinhead and The Fly: it’s a horror film that centers itself around relatable, likable characters and then builds horror from the tragedy around them. Toss in a phenomenally great origin story for the clown menace and Clown is one of those films that’s just impossible to forget.

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The ABCs of Death

As concepts go, The ABCs of Death series has always had one of the best ones: give 26 different filmmakers a letter of the alphabet and free-rein to create whatever associated horror-oriented treat strikes their fancy. It’s a pretty genius concept but, as with almost every anthology film ever, the results are decidedly mixed. In this case, unfortunately, the results definitely tend towards the drearier end of the spectrum.

Personal favorites? Marcel Sarmiento’s sleek and mean “D is for Dogfight,”  Timo Tjahjanto’s impossibly repulsive “L is for Libido,” Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s elegant “O is for Orgasm,” Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s silly but effective “Q is for Quack” and Jon Schnepp’s truly demented “W is for WTF.” As for the rest, they range from disappointing efforts from respected filmmakers (Bogliano, Wheatley, Rumley, Vigalondo, West) to shorts that I actively disliked (Noburo Aguchi’s “F is for Fart” and Ti West’s “M is for Miscarriage” are still two of my least-favorite things since I first saw this collection years ago).

All in all, this is a decidedly disappointing first shot across the bow that would go on to produce much more impressive offerings in the second go-around. Still, you really can’t beat the anthology-short format when it comes time to program a little spooky viewing.

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Wendigo

When it comes to indie filmmakers, writer/director/actor/producer/studio-head/all-around maven Larry Fessenden is easily one of my all-time faves. Ever since bursting onto the scene in 1982 with his vampire/junkie parable Habit, Fessenden has dedicated his life to indie cinema. His Glass Eye Pix is responsible for releasing more quality genre flicks than any company this side of A24 (I Sell the Dead, House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, Stake Land, Late Phases, and Darling, to name just a few) and he’s the kind of character actor who can handily steal the film from the leads.

As a director, Fessenden has been responsible for one of my very favorite horror films of the last 15 years (The Last Winter) and one of my very least favorite (Beneath). His follow-up to Habit, Wendigo (2001), manages to sit square between those polar opposites. This icy tale of city folks running afoul of backwoods evil (both human and otherwise) is long on atmosphere and features one of the most nightmarishly memorable creatures I’ve ever seen in a film. It owes an obvious debt to Stan Winston’s classic Pumpkinhead but pays it back in some pretty unique ways. It also features one helluva cast: Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber and Malcolm in the Middle’s Erik Per Sullivan…now that’s an ensemble!

Larry Fessenden approaches the genre from a fan’s perspective and that genuine love shows through in everything he does (including the odious Beneath). Although it misses the high-water mark set by the follow-up, Wendigo is still a fascinating slice of indie horror-psychedelia and handily shows why the filmmaker deserves a lot more acclaim than he gets.

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That does it for Week Three of the 31 Days of Halloween: stay tuned for next time, as we screen another batch of new films (including a few that we’ve been looking forward to) and lots of old favorites.