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.

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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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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.

 

The 31 Days of Halloween (2017): 10/8-10/14

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As the weather continues to get colder, The VHS Graveyard keeps things nice and warm with the second week of The 31 Days of Halloween. We screened seven films last week, a mixture of the new and the familiar and present the results for your humble perusal. Lock your doors, turn up the fire, check the windows, look under the bed and try to ignore that strange sound outside. The Season of the Witch continues!

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It Comes At Night

Some films are made to be consumed with boisterous audiences at rowdy midnight screenings and others are meant to be pondered over in somber meditation: call Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night one of the latter. In the wake of an undisclosed plague, a makeshift family holds their own in studied isolation. When another family arrives, however, forces both internal and external will strive to tear their lives apart.

Humorless, sober and slow-burning, Shults’ claustrophobic meditation on the evil that humans must do is rarely what I would call “fun” but never less than sturdily constructed and well-performed. While the film mostly operates in a kind of mournful neutral ground (think something like The Road or The Survivalist), the occasional bursts of action are well-done and kinetic. It’s an austere film, to be sure, no surprise when one considers that it’s being released by A24.

While questions may arise as to whether It Comes At Night truly counts as a horror film (I’m still on the fence, although lean towards the horror camp based on overall impact), there can be no doubt that Shults has constructed a lean, tense and effective little film. I doubt that I’ll ever watch it again, to be honest, but that probably says more about me than the film.

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Pumpkinhead

Special effects god Stan Winston only directed two films during his entire, illustrious career: 1990’s A Gnome Named Gnorm and this 1988 horror classic. While A Gnome Named Gnorm has faded almost completely from memory (for good reasons), Pumpkinhead has remained utterly unforgettable for nearly 30 years and counting.

This decidedly old-fashioned tale of revenge (essentially an even darker version of a Grimm’s fairy tale) features one of esteemed character actor Lance Henriksen’s very best lead performances, a truly ferocious creature design and a completely immersive, claustrophobic atmosphere that dunks you deep in Southern Gothic miasma and holds you there. Despite his “day” job, Winston has as firm a grasp on the mechanics of story and filmmaking as any seasoned director: the non-creature stuff in the film is just as powerful and gripping as the impressive special effects.

Tragic, frightening and badass, Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead has been one of my go-to films since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I’ve rented the movie at video stores, ordered the DVD and streamed the film. The methods may change but one thing will remain the same: I’ll still be watching Pumpkinhead as long as I’m still around.

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Gerald’s Game

2017 is truly the Year of King, with more Stephen King projects and adaptations popping up than you can shake a stick at. We’ve already had a smash-hit version of It, loads of upcoming releases and, now, a prestige version of one of King’s thorniest novels, Gerald’s Game, from rising genre luminary Mike Flanagan. It’s truly a great time to be a fan of the undisputed master of horror.

Writer-director Flanagan, hot off the surprisingly respectable Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), brings a version of King’s disturbing tale that hews fairly close to the printed word, right up to the highly divisive ending. Troubled married couple Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) plan a romantic weekend at their isolated cabin in order to respark their failing relationship. When Gerald suffers a heartache and dies, however, Jessie is left handcuffed to their bed, no hope for rescue on the horizon. As the hours tick on, Jessie is left with only her tormented thoughts about Gerald and her own childhood abuse for company. There’s also a hungry, stray dog that’s taken an interest in Gerald’s body, of course. And the Moonlight Man.

Mike Flanagan, known for works of mature, disturbing horror like Absentia and Oculus, brings that same sense of style to Gerald’s Game and manages to craft one of the best King adaptations ever. From first to last, the film is a work of beauty: gorgeously made yet never afraid to delve into the gritty end of the pool (the degloving scene is one of the most revolting things I’ve ever seen), this is a prestige film, through and through. In the past, films like Misery, Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption were always regarded as the “high literary marks” of cinematic King adaptations: Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game just joined that illustrious club.

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Don’t Kill It

While I may have been a wee bit disappointed with Mike Mendez’s previous film, The Last Heist (2016), all is soundly forgiven thanks to his newest gem, Don’t Kill It. In fact, Mendez’s new film isn’t just better than The Last Heist: it’s better than ever other film in his entire filmography, including personal favorite Big Ass Spider (2013). It’s actually one of the best horror films of 2017. That, friends and neighbors, is a comeback.

Possessed of a genius concept (a demon can only jump to a new host when its current host is killed), a towering lead performance (Dolph Lundgren’s Jebediah Woodley is this generation’s Snake Plissken), astounding levels of gore and mayhem, an exceptionally game supporting cast and truly smart, funny script, Don’t Kill It is the perfect throwback to similar films from the ’80s and ’90s and is an absolute blast from start to finish.

I laughed. I cheered. I quoted lines back at the screen. I never wanted it to end and, when it did, I wanted to start it all over again. It’s the best film of Mendez’s career, the best performance of Lundgren’s career and one of the very best horror films of this year. If you’re looking for good times this October, look no further than Don’t Kill It.

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Pet Sematary

With all the focus on Andy Muschietti’s current version of It, I thought it might be fun to revisit one of King’s earlier cinematic adaptations. While the master of horror has been a notoriously difficult visionary to successfully adapt to the silver screen, there have been a handful of films that got it right, over the past 30-odd years: Mary Lambert’s adaptation of Pet Sematary is one of those.

While the film is far from perfect (the comic relief involving Brad Greenquist’s undead Pascow was done far better in An American Werewolf in London and really grinds the film to a halt), this timeless tale of an old pet graveyard and the “sour ground” beyond it sticks faithfully to the novel, right up through the tragic, heartbreaking finale. Bolstered by a sturdy supporting turn from Fred Gwynne (a million miles from Mockingbird Lane) and an endless cauldron of creepy atmosphere (the Micmac burial ground is one of those iconic locations, right up there with the Overlook Hotel), Lambert’s version of King’s bestseller adds all of the odd, supporting characters and details that pepper the Master’s prose (like Missy Dandridge) and really nails his tone.

There’s an undeniable tragedy to the story that could, in the wrong hands, have been suffocated by the creepier elements (see the regrettable sequel). Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary finds the perfect balance between tragedy and terror, giving this one a bite that still endures.

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Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter

It doesn’t always happen but the 13th fell on a Friday, this October, and that means only one thing for the 31 Days of October: you gotta screen a Friday the 13th film. Since we just watched the original not too long ago, I decided to revisit the fourth and “final” entry in the series, The Final Chapter.

As horror franchises go, I’m fairly hot-and-cold on Friday the 13th. On one hand, I’ve always loved the first two films and have at least enjoyed the others, to a greater or lesser degree. On the other hand, as films…well…they’re really not that great. Full of amateur “acting” and usually censored to the point of neutering the kills (theoretically the focal point of the enterprise), the F13 series has been a real mixed bag: sorry die-hards!

The Final Chapter (yeah, right!) is no different: Corey Feldman’s Tommy Jarvis still holds up fairly well but the rest of the cast, including Crispin Glover, really grates and pretty much every murder setpiece has been hacked into incoherence (at least on the video version of the film). This definitely features one of the most menacingly physical incarnations of Jason, however, and the finale featuring Trish, Tommy and Jason is easily a highlight of the entire series. Like I said: a mixed bag but I’ll always have a soft-spot for ’80s horror sequels, in general.

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Deathgasm

Heavy metal and horror movies are a lot alike, when you think about it: they come in a myriad of forms and varieties, tend to get written off by the status quo and are the sanctuaries of misfits and loners the world around. They can be smart, topical and complex or they can be base, bloody and bludgeoning. Sometimes, you want something calculated, clinical and cold, something like Meshuggah or The Witch. Sometimes, however, you just want Gwar: blood, body parts, blasphemy and bad attitudes.

New Zealand writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s Deathgasm is the Gwar of horror films: loud, violent, immature, silly, drenched in bodily fluids and the best time possible. This charming tale of misunderstood Kiwi metal-heads who bring literal Hell to their sleepy little town owes a massive debt to neighbor Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (they must teach it in New Zealand film schools) but has the heavy metal soul that Jackson’s zombie howler never did.

Full of snarling neo-Deadites, death by dildo, at least 300 gallons of fake blood, ax-wielding preppies, true love, betrayal and some of the snappiest one-liners around, Deathgasm isn’t the film you want playing in the background of your rockin’ party: it IS the rockin’ party. Grab your corpse paint, plug in your amp and crank this sucker straight to 666!

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And with that, we bring the second week of October to a close. Join us next time as we continue to celebrate the 31 Days of Halloween. Remember, kids: keep it scary!

The 31 Days of Halloween (2017): 10/1-10/7

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At long last, The VHS Graveyard returns from its slumber to present the annual 31 Days of Halloween. As longtime readers will know, one day out of the year is a paltry celebration for the kaleidoscopic glory represented by horror films: as such, we celebrate horror for all 31 days of October, forgoing any and all cinema that does not, in fact, go bump in the night.

While previous Octobers have seen the VHS Graveyard plowing through mountains of cinematic goodies, from the most-current chillers to old favorites, we’ve scaled it back a little this year. As always, however, our goal remains the same: screen at least one horror film for every day of the month of October. We didn’t quite hit the quota for this week but, nonetheless, we humbly present the six films that make up the first week of our October viewing. As always, we invite you to discover new favorites and reconnect with old friends. Welcome to the Season of the Witch!

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American Fable

My October viewing got off to a bit of a false start with writer-director Anne Hamilton’s feature-length debut, American Fable. While I didn’t expect the film to feature overt horror elements, various discussions had pegged it as magical-realist and a spiritual successor to Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which definitely put it on my radar.

In actuality, American Fable is a dark coming-of-age drama with a consistently oppressive atmosphere and frequent forays into dream sequences and fantasies that put it closer to Peter Jackson’s striking Heavenly Creatures, albeit with a more mundane resolution. 11-year-old Gitty (the impressive Peyton Kennedy) has a lot going on in her world: her stressed-out parents are one thin dime away from losing their family farm…her shithead older brother, Martin, makes a game out of swinging an ax at her hand and threatening her beloved chicken, Happy…she’s dealing with the pangs of adolescence…oh yeah…there’s also the mysterious man (Richard Schiff) that Gitty finds trapped in her family’s abandoned grain silo, which, as always, can’t be a good sign.

American Fable was a lot easier to respect than actually enjoy, at least as far as I was concerned. Although the film looked and sounded fantastic (cinematographer Wyatt Garfield also shot Lila & Eve), with one carousel sequence that has to go down as the single most gorgeous shot of the entire year, it was also rather dull. The reveal did nothing to help things, turning the film into a much more middle-of-the-road crime drama than it was probably shooting for. The fantastic elements were an odd fit, to boot, feeling distinctly out-of-place with the grim seriousness of everything else.

There was enough here that worked (similar to Ryan Gosling’s odd Lost River) for me to be interested in Hamilton’s future work but American Fable certainly isn’t the calling-card it could have been.

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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

I’ve watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre more times than I can count, quite possibly more times than any other film on my “All-time Favorites” list. I don’t always screen it every October but I try to screen it most Octobers: it’s the kind of film I never get tired of seeing and it’s always as welcome as catching up with an old friend. I always find something new in this ageless tale of dumb teenagers getting on the wrong side of an insane family of cannibals, deep in the Texas badlands. It is, quite frankly, one of the very best horror films in the entirety of the genre and, might I add, one of the best films, in general.

There was no way I would miss screening TCM this October for one simple, sad reason: the man who made the saw scream, genre legend Tobe Hooper, shuffled off this mortal coil on August 26th of this year. While Hooper’s career was far from perfect (his last truly great film was actually The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, way back in 1986), he was still responsible for some of the films that I hold closest to my heart: the aforementioned Chainsaws, Eaten Alive, The Funhouse and Salem’s Lot. He was a unique visionary who burned bright and fast but left an indelible mark on the world of film.

If you have any doubt of Hooper’s lasting power, do one simple thing to realign your compass: turn off all the lights, put your phone away and watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre tonight. That feeling in your gut? That’s dread, buckaroo, and Hooper wrote the first and last word on it 43 years ago. Let that sink in.

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Night of the Living Dead (1968)

2017 has been a rather dreadful year, in general, but it’s been particularly shitty for old-school horror fanatics. Not only did we lose Tobe Hooper but we lost the Father of the Living Dead himself, George A. Romero. When you’re talking legends, they don’t get more legendary than the visionary who wrote the rule-book that zombie films (and pop culture) would follow for nearly 50 years and counting.

As simple in set-up as it is powerful in execution, Romero’s debut is an exercise in economy that does nothing to distill the apocalyptic fury that it contains. NOTLD planted the seeds for not only the entirety of zombie films that would follow but also laid the groundwork for siege films, ala Assault on Precinct 13 and Fort Apache: The Bronx. It featured a black lead who was portrayed as a strong, independent individual in the same year that the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was ripping the country apart. It featured graphic (remember, this was 1968) sequences of gut-munching and dismemberment and had no problem with killing off children (still somewhat of a cinematic taboo).

Romero had a rich career outside of his landmark Dead film, including classics like The Crazies, Martin, Creepshow and The Dark Half, but it all started back in that little farmhouse, in grainy black and white, with legions of the freshly dead clawing at the windows. George Romero changed my world, no small feat, but he also changed the world and that’s why he’ll never be forgotten.

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Cult of Chucky

On a happier note: Don Mancini is still alive and kicking and I’m eternally grateful for that! He’s been writing the Child’s Play series all the way back since the first one, in 1988, but only took over the director’s reins beginning with 2004’s Seed of Chucky. While that effort wasn’t amazing, 2013’s Curse of Chucky most certainly was: introducing a Hitchcockian element that sounds ludicrous on paper but plays out perfectly, Curse of Chucky was not only a breath of fresh air but a clear signal that the Child’s Play franchise was alive and kicking.

This year’s brand-spanking-new Cult of Chucky isn’t quite as perfect as Curse but that’s a minor quibble: trading Hitchcock for Cronenberg, Mancini comes up with another delirious, giddy, gorgeously shot bit of blood-soaked eye candy, providing fan service for the long-timers while managing to keep things fresh and new for everybody else.

This time around, Nica (the thoroughly kickass Fiona Dourif, channeling her inner Ripley) is confined to a mental institution and accused of Chucky’s murders from the previous entry. When the ol’ Chuckster shows up to finish what he started, it sets into motion a complicated series of machinations involving long-time series hero Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent, grown-up), Chucky’s insane girlfriend, Tiffany Valentine (the always amazing Jennifer Tilly) and various incarnations of Chucky from the previous films. Nica is going to have to be strong, though: one Chucky might be a handful but a whole cult of Chuckys? That’s murder, buddy!

Self-referential, beautifully shot (one set-piece apes Argento in the best way possible) and with a fantastic, smart script, Cult of Chucky is quality filmmaking from first to last. The pleasures to be found here are virtually endless (one of the most sublime being the scene where Fiona gets to, essentially, perform as her father) but the brilliant finale, which flips the whole series on its keister, indicates that Mancini has plenty of fun left in his bag of tricks. An easy lock for one of my very favorite horror films of 2017, hands down.

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They’re Watching

Originally screened as part of my eternally on-going pursuit to see every horror film released in 2016, I decided to re-watch They’re Watching as part of this year’s seasonal festivities for one important reason: I really dug it the first time around and was in the mood for a fun romp. As hoped, this fit the bill quite nicely.

Coming from the demented minds of writer-director duo Jay Lender (Spongebob Squarepants, Phineas and Ferb) and Micah Wright (videogames like Destroy All Humans and Call of Duty) comes a film that, no surprise, is equal parts video game, live-action cartoon and gonzo horror-comedy. Parodying endless cable home improvement shows, They’re Watching follows a hapless, woefully unprepared film crew as they travel to rural Slovenia and collide with murderous locals and, perhaps, something much more ancient and fundamentally dangerous.

From beginning to end, They’re Watching is a giddy romp, taking a kitchen-sink approach to its subject matter that actually works. Combing elements of backwoods brutality, found-footage, witchcraft, possession, horror-comedies, home improvement shows and ’90s SFX spectacles (albeit with much cheaper digital FX) makes for a finished product that is never dull and, at times, genuinely surprising. Suffice to say that I liked this just as much as the first time around, indicating that They’re Watching has earned a spot on my seasonal rotation list.

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Housebound

I’ve written extensively about Gerard Johnstone’s delightful Housebound in the past, even going so far as to name it my favorite horror film of 2014. This wonderful tale of an obnoxious petty criminal who gets the ultimate punishment when she’s placed under house arrest in her overbearing mother’s possibly haunted house became a favorite of mine from the very first time I saw it and the love has diminished not one bit.

What more is there to say about this charmer (think fellow New Zealander Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners but with much more heart) than that you should see it immediately? With news coming in that Johnstone has just been pegged to pen the Justice League Dark script, this might be the last chance to catch him before the superhero machine sends this talented writer-director straight into the stratosphere.

 

Stay tuned for Week 2 and keep it spooky, boos and ghouls!

 

 

 

 

 

 

7/23/17: The Bad Batch

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Some films have such an impossibly fascinating premise that they demand your attention: writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), was one of those films. Billed as “the first Iranian vampire film,” this gorgeous, black-and-white homage to everything from John Hughes to Roman Polanski more than lived up to the premise, showcasing a fresh, exciting new voice that promised a truly fascinating career.

For her follow-up, The Bad Batch (2017), Amirpour moves the action from Iran to the badlands of west Texas, hammering down harder on the spaghetti-Western leanings of her debut to craft something that is far more visceral but no less gauzy, in its own way. One thing remains abundantly clear, however: Ana Lily Amirpour is an amazing filmmaker whose craft continues to impress at each new turn.

We find ourselves in a world that’s recognizably ours, yet smeared with a heavy coating of grease and grime: think early Mad Max, pre-Fury Road. “Undesirables” are processed through some vague penal system, dubbed the Bad Batch, tattooed with an identifying number and tossed out into the unforgiving, scorched Texas badlands. Your choices, at that point, are pretty slim: you can try to get to the frontier town of Comfort, led by smarmy New Age guru/Ibiza part host The Dream (Keanu Reeves and one seriously choice mustache) or you can try to avoid being dinner for the roving cannibals known as Bridgers, while surviving on whatever you can eke out of the cracked earth.

Arlen May Johnson (Suki Waterhouse), as it turns out, opts for more of an “all of the above” approach. She gets captured by cannibals, loses an arm and a leg, escapes and makes it to Comfort, only to realize that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. One day, while target shooting in the wastelands outside the town’s walls, Arlen comes upon a pair of cannibals, a mother and daughter, and makes the fateful choice that will put her into direct contact with the formidable Miami Man (Jason Momoa). Arlen will come to learn that when you’re already on the fringes of society, questions of “right” and “wrong” don’t mean much and that people with the least often have the most to lose.

To get the gushing praise out-of-the-way: I really loved The Bad Batch, part and parcel. I’m more than willing to admit that the film isn’t perfect, mind you, but the sheer level of invention on display here should more than gloss over some narrative wheel-spinning or any nitpicking. We need more filmmakers taking risks and this, if nothing else, is one helluva risky film.

Risky, you say? Let’s see…you have a gritty, revenge-oriented, spaghetti-Western, complete with all the stock characters and trappings you would expect. You also, of course, have a Mad Max-style, post-apocalyptic film where people live in junkyards and a messianic guru holds court from atop a giant, neon boom box. Let’s not forget what could arguably be called a traditional, ’50s teen romance where kids from the wrong side of the tracks somehow find true love. Oh, yeah: it’s also got elements straight out of The Hills Have Eyes. Easy sell, right?

As with her debut, however, Amirpour is a natural when it comes to taking all these disparate elements and blending them into a completely organic, believable whole. Although the scale is certainly smaller, The Bad Batch definitely evokes some of the wonder of the Fury Road world: with its cannibalistic body builders, DJ-led cults, baroque prison system and dystopian wastelands, it’s not hard to place this in the same, general universe. I left the film wanting to know more about its world and denizens, always the biggest compliment I can pay any film, especially a stand-alone movie.

From a craft standpoint, The Bad Batch looks and sounds phenomenal. The cinematography, courtesy of Lyle Vincent (who also shot A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night), is simply gorgeous, full of rich wide shots and eye-popping, vibrant colors. The score and sound design make excellent use of songs to highlight scenes, in much the same way as AGWHAAN did, but puts a greater emphasis on sparse arrangements: for much of the film, there’s no score at all and it’s a powerful, well-executed choice.

For her cast, Amirpour collected a pretty diverse group of performers and manages to make the choices look like anything but stunt casting. Suki Waterhouse, equally great in last year’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, is simply superb as Arlen, turning in the kind of kickass turn that would make spiritual forebears like Clint Eastwood proud. Equally great is Jason Momoa, giving us the kind of tragic character that would be exceedingly hard to pull off with so little (largely garbled) dialogue, let alone as a violent cannibal. Keanu Reeves, continuing his latter-day trend of quirky roles, brings the proper amount of genuine pathos and complete sleaze to his cult/town leader role and is never less than magnetic when he’s on-screen.

To that core trio, let’s add a roster that includes: the always incredible Yolonda Ross as Miami Man’s wife, Maria; Jayda Fink, doing a fair amount of heavy-lifting in only her second performance, as the little girl; Jim Carrey, doing some of the best acting of his life, in a completely silent role (and I’m not being snarky, in the slightest); and Giovanni Ribisi, as a possibly prophetic madman. It’s a cast that looks odd, on paper, but plays together beautifully. In a film with plenty of sublime joys, the acting is certainly one of the foremost ones.

When all is said and done, The Bad Batch is an incredibly smart, self-assured experience. The film is about many things – one need only look at the marked contrast between the serious, family-oriented cannibals and the party-hardy, hedonistic townies to know that Amirpour has a few things to say about a few different subjects. From a purely cinematic viewpoint, however, she’s created a completely immersive experience and, as an avid cinephile, that’s something I just don’t get enough.

From the first spoken words, as the Bad Batch are processed, to that final, amazing campfire shot, Amirpour’s sophomore film holds your attention like a bear trap. It’s not always an easy film (shit gets hacked off and there will be blood) but there’s a genuine beauty to the ugliness and grime that’s undeniable. As someone who grew up on films like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, I appreciate that glorious combination of the panoramic shot and the gut shot…the decision of the individual to shrug, say “the hell with it,” and wade back into hell just because…the way that death is an ever-present given but life and love still manage to carve their own paths through the wilderness.

The Bad Batch might not be a perfect film but I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel close to perfect on at least a dozen times while watching it. That’s just about all I need to know, friends and neighbors.

The State of The Graveyard Address (June 2017)

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By their very nature, graveyards tend to be quiet: possessed of the sort of stillness and lack of activity that comes naturally when the vast majority of your occupants are dead, most graveyards are anything but hives of activity. Supermarkets are for hustle and bustle…graveyards are for quiet contemplation and mournful reflection. You shouldn’t have to convince anyone of this fundamental fact. Unless they’re a horror fan, of course.

You see, horror fans know that graveyards can be just as “alive,” active and bustling as any thriving metropolis. To horror fans, no graveyard could ever really be considered dormant or dead, not while so many numberless creatures of the night still roam this world. This is all by way of saying that neither The VHS Graveyard nor its humble caretaker are dead: we’ve just been moving at our own, decidedly funereal pace, much like the vampires, zombies and ghastly beasties that are our stock-in-trade.

As we near the midpoint of this calendar year, however, I thought it might be useful to check in with all of you loyal boos and ghouls and let you know just what monstrous abominations have been stirring from their deathless slumbers deep within The VHS Graveyard’s unhallowed halls: we may have been silent but we’ve been anything but idle.

First and foremost, The VHS Graveyard continues in its previously stated goal of screening every single horror film released in 2016. This, of course, might have been a little timelier last year but life has a funny way of imposing its will over any given situation. Nonetheless, we’re finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel and it does not, in fact, appear to be an approaching freight train: out of a grand total of 258 horror films released in 2016 (either theatrically or straight-to-VOD), we only have 28 titles left to screen.

What’s been taking so long? Life, as it turns out, but also a rather inherent truth: we’ve been scrapping the bottom of the 2016 barrel for a few weeks, now, and the pickings ain’t getting any choicer. While I screened more than my fair share of flat-out amazing films in 2016, I also saw an almost equal amount of pure and unmitigated crap: as the selections thin out, the crap has risen to the surface in some pretty unpleasant ways. Suffice to say that screening three awesome horror flicks a day is a dream job. Trudging through just one 80-minute shit-fest, however, can feel like the cinematic equivalent of the Bataan death march and tends to put the brakes on forward momentum.

But here’s the thing: I knew it wasn’t going to be all champagne and caviar when I picked this assignment. In essence, that’s one reason why I wanted to watch all 2016 horror films as opposed to just cherry-picking the best. This way, I’m getting a full picture of everything that 2016 horror had to offer, warts and all. It’s easy to say that “Film X” is the best horror film of the year if you’ve only screened a handful of films: giving that same proclamation after screening 258 films, however, is a whole other ballgame.

Additionally (but to a far lesser extent), I ending up screening a handful of films that proved to be fake horror films: whether thrillers, straight-up comedies or classic fake-outs, this group of 10ish films made the initial list but just ended up wasting my time, once the final credits had rolled. In the grand scheme of things, this factors more as a par-for-the-course thing than anything more frustrating but it still ate away a few valuable days of viewing time.

Nonetheless, we’re still committed to our original goal and getting closer by the day. We’re still a little undecided as to what form the final project will end up taking (we’ve even toyed with the idea of releasing this cinematic journey as a book, with the understanding that it would probably see light of day sometime around 2050) but rest assured that The VHS Graveyard will be documenting this (previous) year in horror cinema in some manner in the nearish future.

What else has The VHS Graveyard been brewing up in its Hammer-approved laboratory? It goes without saying (but we’ll say it anyway) that The Graveyard hasn’t been neglecting this current year in horror cinema, even though our eyes have been firmly planted in the rear-view mirror. We’ve managed to screen 10 current horror films, thus far, including a rare trip to the multiplex: except to see more complete analysis on these soon, including a preliminary look at what we consider to be the best films of 2017, so far.

This desire to document some of the newer films we’ve screened leads us directly to what may be one of the biggest changes for The VHS Graveyard. When I first started this blog, back in the early hours of 2014, my goal was to chronicle every single film that I screened, in order, by day. This initial goal held fast through mid-2015, after which the tremendous backlog of screened films (conservatively, I’d estimate that we watch somewhere between 200-300 movies a year) overtook us like a tsunami. After that point, postings became fewer and farther between and we lost, for the most part, that initial feeling of peeking into our daily viewing habits.

In order to unblock the jam and allow forward movement, The VHS Graveyard will be attempting to release reviews in a more timely, if non-linear manner. We currently have at least several hundred unwritten reviews, in the wings, and our ultimate goal is to get these out to you fine folks sometime before we all expire. That being said, The VHS Graveyard prides itself as a source for horror fans to discover all kinds of previously unknown treats and that’s just not possible unless we’re getting the reviews out. Like all promises, this one is contingent on life looking the other way but we feel good about it and that’s a start.

In closing, let me reiterate one thing: The VHS Graveyard is still here and we aren’t going anywhere quite yet…after all, there’s still a few acts left in this particular tale. Keep giving us your undivided attention (or divided…we’re not picky) and we’ll continue to bring you our unfiltered views on the world of cinematic horror, along with anything else that happens to catch our eye.

We may be late but we prefer to think of ourselves like that famed Transylvanian count: timeless.

 

 

5/20/17: In Space, No One Can Hear You Shrug

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It ain’t easy successfully continuing a film franchise after decades have passed: audiences change, filmmakers change, society changes…it’s a real dice toss. After all: who wants to potentially tarnish prior glories and dampen whatever warm feelings fans might have garnered over the years? For every Fury Road (2015), you have a Godfather Part III (1990)…like I said: dice toss.

Tasked with following up his own Alien (1979), Ridley Scott responded with a befuddling prequel, Prometheus (2012): part origin story, part gorgeous creation fable, it used the Alienverse as a springboard for a discussion on the creation of mankind and its inevitable destruction. Light on the franchise’s beloved Xenomorphs, Prometheus was its own beast, warts and all, although scarcely deserving of the derision piled upon it by franchise fans. For the follow-up, Alien: Covenant (2017), Scott doubles-down on the surface trappings of the Alienverse while neglecting to add the elements that made Alien so special in the first place:  genuine heart and soul.

Taking place a decade after Prometheus, Covenant introduces us to the crew of the titular generation ship that’s transporting thousands of cyrogenically-frozen colonists to a new home in a far-flung galaxy. We meet Oram (Billy Crudup), the ship’s second-in-command; Daniels (Katherine Waterston), this film’s Ripley; pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride); security-chief Lope (Demian Bichir); android Walter (Michael Fassbender, pulling double duty as sinister David); Karine (Carmen Ejogo), the resident biologist; and another half-dozen or so crew-members/cannon fodder.

After a freak accident costs the team their captain (James Franco, in a walk-on), Oram makes the questionable decision to investigate a strange audio transmission that comes from a previously undiscovered planet. Despite the protestations of ultra-sensible Daniels, the crew adjusts course and are promptly marooned on a world that seems to serve as both paradise and necropolis. In short order, they meet the planet’s sole inhabitant, Prometheus’ David, and find out the terrible truth behind the dead planet they’ve found themselves on.

Let’s get one thing out of the way, right off the bat: Covenant is not a good film. It’s not a good Alien film, in particular, but it’s also not a good film, in general, arguably representing the nadir of Scott’s impressive career. Lackluster CGI notwithstanding (generously speaking, the look is generic and the creature effects are severely lacking), the film suffers from a bad script (the dialogue is awful and the character building is non-existent), generally dismal performances (only Fassbender really acquits himself, with Waterston and McBride coming off particularly awkwardy) and the overall feeling that this is only a placeholder film for a much grander “finale.”

This is a film that strives to introduce new variants on the traditional Xenomorph (the new, albino version could have come from any of a dozen recent films) while shoehorning in scenes like the one where a hesitant character is practically goaded into sticking his head into one of the iconic egg pods, with the resulting re-introduction of the face-hugger coming not as an organic shock but a tired and foregone punchline to a bad joke. This is the worst case of “having your cake and wanting to eat it, too”: Covenant gorges on leftovers like they’re going out of style.

None of the cast or characters stick in the mind after viewing, unlike the original. Katherine Waterston is a poor patch on Sigourney Weaver, her Daniels more a reactive agent of the story than any iconic hero. Crudup blends into the background, as does Bichir and, to be fair, pretty much any actor that isn’t Fassbender. This isn’t to say that he puts out career-defining work, mind you, just that his Walter/David combo winds up with the lion’s share of the film’s smartest material: talk about a stacked deck!

On the plus side? The gore effects are plentiful and fairly juicy (for what that’s worth) and there are moments that approach the chilly, visual grandeur that elevated Prometheus to something beyond its B-movie trappings. The Pompei-inspired world surface is undeniably cool and the hints we get of a primordial source for the original contagion prove more tempting hints than anything substantial but I’d be lying if I said they weren’t both appreciated and well-done. Scattered moments out of a 2+hour film don’t really signify a smash success, however, no matter how you do the math.

As someone who genuinely enjoyed and respected Prometheus, I really wanted Covenant to knock this out of the park: that Scott managed to whiff it so completely comes as a bit more than a disappointment. In truth, however, the film lost me from the get-go and never got me back: there was no point where this felt like anything more than the disposable middle entry in a longer, better series. From the unnecessary intro to the disposable characters…from the forgettable creature designs to the truly stupid script…from the terrible, Starship Troopers-esque shower scene to the tedious, frenetically-edited action beats…Alien: Covenant has very little to recommend it.

There were plenty of great ideas here (the notion of an all-powerful mad scientist with a God complex trapped on a dead planet, by itself, is solid gold) but precious little in the way of skillful execution. Scott is capable of much better: he’s proven it, time and time again. By trying to please everyone, however, the pro and anti-Prometheus camps alike, Scott ends up disappointing everyone: neither significantly advancing the Prometheus storyline nor adding anything of value to the classic canon, Covenant just exists…nothing more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 2016 Academy Awards – Guesses and Speculation

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I’ll freely admit: there was just too much going on this year for me to pay as close attention to the Oscars as I usually do. From moving and starting a new job to focusing on 2016 horror films to general world affairs, my attention was often elsewhere. To that end, I find that my overall opinion on (non) 2016 cinema will carry even less weight than usual this year: many of the opinions below reflect a mixture of gut instinct, general scuttlebutt and a general sense of which way the Academy tends to lean, at any given time.

For the purpose of full disclosure, I only managed to screen seven films out all of the nominees: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Moonlight, Hail Caesar, Kubo and the Two Strings and The Lobster. As such, I’m sure that I missed lots of worthwhile films that may have influenced these (decidedly) uneducated opinions. Them, of course, is the breaks.

In that spirit and with those caveats, I present my guesses for the upcoming Oscar festivities.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

What Should Win: The Lobster

What Will Win: Manchester By the Sea

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

What Should Win: Moonlight

What Will Win: Hidden Figures

Visual Effects

What Should Win: Doctor Strange

What Will Win: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Sound Mixing:

What Should Win: Hacksaw Ridge

What Will Win: La La Land

Sound Editing

What Should Win: Hacksaw Ridge

What Will Win: Arrival

Production Design

What Should Win: Hail, Caesar!

What Will Win: La La Land

Music (Original Song)

What Should Win:

What Will Win: “City of Stars,” La La Land

Music (Original Score)

What Should Win: Moonlight

What Will Win: La La Land

Makeup and Hairstyling

What Should Win: Star Trek Beyond

What Will Win: Star Trek Beyond

Foreign Language Film

What Should Win: A Man Called Ove

What Will Win: Toni Erdmann

Film Editing

What Should Win: Hacksaw Ridge

What Will Win: Arrival

Documentary (Feature)

What Should Win: I Am Not Your Negro

What Will Win: 13th

Directing

Who Should Win: Moonlight

Who Will Win: Damien Chazelle

Costume Design

What Should Win: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

What Will Win: La La Land

Cinematography

What Should Win: Silence

What Will Win: Arrival

Animated Feature Film

What Should Win: Kubo and the Two Strings

What Will Win: Moana

Actress in a Supporting Role

Who Should Win: Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures

Who Will Win: Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures

Actor in a Supporting Role

Who Should Win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Who Will Win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Actress in a Leading Role

Who Should Win: Ruth Negga, Loving

Who Will Win: Natalie Portman, Jackie

Actor in a Leading Role

Who Should Win: Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic

Who Will Win: Denzel Washington, Fences

Best Picture

What Should Win: Moonlight

What Will Win: La La Land

The Year in Horror (2016) – The Best of Times (Part 3)

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When last we left off, I had just listed half of my Top 20 Horror Films of 2016, in no particular order. In a logical progression, I now present the other half, in likewise random order. As with the first half, there will probably be a few givens here, along with at least a few surprises. After the conclusion of this list, I’ve also listed the “rest of the best,” the 23 films that almost made this list and, quite possibly, might have on any other day.

Stay tuned for some final thoughts on this past year in horror, as well as a few ruminations on where it might go in the new year. Until then, however, I present the conclusion of the Top 20, in no particular order.

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The Gateway

They say that it’s hard to come up with new stories by this point in our civilization and, at times, I’m almost inclined to agree: almost, that is, until something truly wondrous and unique like The Gateway (aka Curtain) crosses my path. Like previous favorites Motivational Growth and Wrong, this seems to exist in a world so completely alien from our own, so fundamentally weird and amazing that I can’t help but be drawn in. This sense of wonder is one of the primary reasons I got into movies and tapping into it is what’s kept me a fan for my entire life.

Danni (Danni Smith), a burnt-out hospice nurse, rents a cruddy apartment and discovers something not listed in the lease: an apparent portal to somewhere (possibly another dimension, possibly Ohio) that seems to exist in her bathtub. She discovers this, by accident, when she realizes that her numerous missing shower drapes are actually being sucked through a hole into pure mystery. With the aid of a friend, Danni tries to discover where the portal leads, who put it there and what the ultimate purpose is. The truth, as she discovers, is much wilder than anything she could possibly have imagined.

Similar to Repo Man in its grungy look and anything-goes narrative, The Gateway is pure delight from the opening credits all the way to the pure gut-punch revelation. To say anything beyond the basics would be a total disservice, so let me just say this: as someone predisposed to look for twists and inclined to “figure out” whatever I’m watching, I can honestly say that Jaron Henrie-McCrea’s mind-blowing little film took me by complete surprise. If you thought you’d seen it all and you haven’t seen The Gateway, I’m willing to wager you haven’t seen it all, at all.

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Under the Shadow

Call it the “Iranian Babadook,” if you must, but writer/director Babak Anvari’s stylish debut actually has a bit more on its plate than its Australian predecessor. On the surface, the similarities might seem a bit uncanny: mother fighting evil forces (and, perhaps, her own sanity) to save her young child…claustrophobic environments…the presence of a sinister, possibly supernatural force…a child’s possession that becomes the source of the “haunting”…an atmospheric, austere style that puts a premium on mood and suspense over obvious shock effects…put ’em side-by-side and there are certainly parallels.

While The Babadook was focused solely on the relationship between a mother and her young son, however, Anvari’s film uses the backdrop of the Iranian Cultural Revolution to add additional social, gender and religious aspects that make this an overall richer experience. The mother, Shideh (the extremely impressive Narges Rashidi), is a gifted, smart and thoroughly worthy individual who has been marginalized and cast aside by her country after the regime change leads to a massive swing from more liberal policies (including the ability of women to study at universities) to more conservative ones (stay at home and don’t say a word). This conflict, along with the inherent struggles of trying to raise a child during wartime (shellings are a constant, formidable presence) add layers to Under the Shadow that just aren’t there in The Babadook.

Ultimately, Under the Shadow is a supremely well-made, fully-realized supernatural chiller that has a bit more on its mind than easy scares. That’s not to say, of course, that scares aren’t important: as with the best horror films, Under the Shadow uses its rich background and believable performances to pull the audience in, inch by inch, before unleashing hell in the final third of the film. Intelligent, measured and self-assured, Under the Shadow will, hopefully, lead to a renaissance in Iranian film. At the very least, it’s made Babak Anvari a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

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Last Girl Standing

If you’re a horror fan, I’m willing to wager that you’ve seen at least one slasher flick in your life, regardless of whether it’s your cup o’ tea or not. It might have been Friday the 13th, The Burning or Sleepaway Camp (if you’re a little older) or it might’ve been Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer or Hatchet (if you’re a little younger). At the very least, as a fan of the genre, you probably know the “rules”: horny teens go out to the woods (or suburbs, in the ’90s-’00s) for a little drinkin’, druggin’ and screwin’; a masked killer doesn’t approve and makes his/her case for abstinence/sobriety via any number of extremely sharp, dangerous weapons; everyone gets slaughtered with the exception of the one young woman who has, thus far, abstained from any of the “bad stuff”; this “final girl” takes up arms against the maniac and brings him/her to ultimate justice; credits roll and we get ready for the sequel.

It’s a formula that’s as ingrained with horror fans as a vampire’s aversion to garlic or the need to shoot a zombie in the head: someone else came up with the rules, long ago, and we all just agree and go with it. This unthinking acceptance of genre “rules” is where writer/director Benjamin R. Moody’s debut feature, Last Girl Standing, begins but it ends in a mindset that’s just about as revolutionary for slasher films as you could possibly get. You see, Moody’s exceptional little sleeper begins with the “final girl” surviving the carnage, killing the masked maniac and then asks the question that few fans have probably thought to ask: what’s the rest of her life going to be like? After seeing all her friends butchered, before her eyes, and violently taking the life of a psychotic killer with her own two hands…can things ever be “normal”?

Dealing with issues like post-traumatic stress, survivor’s guilt and the heightened sense of “fight or flight” that affects victims of abuse as they try to navigate a post-assault world, Last Girl Standing is that greatest of meta-horror films: like Behind the Mask, Moody’s film is incredibly smart and insightful  but still more than capable of swinging back into trad slasher territory at the drop of a hat. Akasha Villalobos turns in an outstanding performance as the “final girl,” bringing a nuance that keeps us guessing until the final frame: is this heading for Repulsion or is the terrifying killer really back? While I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the answer, suffice to say that Moody and crew know what they’re doing and you’re in good hands, from the first frame to the end credits.

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The Eyes of My Mother

There were lots of prevalent themes running through 2016 horror offerings (lots of witches, Ouija boards, demonic possessions and haunted houses that offered moral quandaries, to name but a few) but one of the more notable themes was a return to a genre staple that never seems to go out of fashion: the marginalized, not-quite-right young woman who is just a few steps out of sync with the rest of the world and might be/probably is an insane killer.

While Polanski’s classic Repulsion will always be the gold-standard that I measure these by, there’s been quite a bit of competition, this year, and one of the very best has to be first-time writer/director/editor Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother. Filmed in gorgeous black and white and informed by films as disparate as Repulsion, the French New Wave and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Eyes of My Mother takes a good, long and extremely uncomfortable look at Francisca (played as a child by the stunning Olivia Bond and as an adult by the equally stunning Kika Magalhaes) as she takes the first tentative steps towards becoming the sort of person who clinically dismembers other people.

An art film, through and through, Pesce’s movie moves with a dreamlike sense of flow and purpose, taking its time to arrive at the foregone conclusion even though the whole thing clocks in at well under 90 minutes. Like Henry, this is a film that not only doesn’t shy away from violence but purposefully shoves our noses in it, like a wayward puppy. Impossibly ugly, despite being full of some of the most gorgeous “art” shots of the year, The Eyes of My Mother is a film that I have intention of revisiting, in the future, which is the highest possible praise I can give to this type of film. Some films are for enjoyment, others need to be seen, regardless of how unpleasant they are: this, without a doubt, is one of the latter.

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The Windmill

As a lifelong horror fan, I love all facets of the genre, from super-intelligent art films to blood-n-guts slashers, from ultra-cheapie, no-budget grime to ridiculously polished megaplex fare. My definition of horror is pretty broad, no two ways about it, but I love it all.

Dutch writer/director Nick Jongerius’ debut feature, The Windmill (aka The Windmill Massacre), isn’t one of the smartest films I saw all year, although it’s certainly not the class dunce. It doesn’t rewrite the rule book, flipping us into a head-expanding realm where we question everything about life and our place in the cosmic scheme: it’s about a bunch of tourists who head to Holland, visit windmills and run afoul of a resurrected, medieval miller who guards the gate to Hell and grinds up bones to make his bread (literally). There are no huge “twists” no big “reveals” that flip the entire film on its head and leave the audience grasping for air.

No, The Windmill isn’t that kind of a film. What it is, however, is a nearly flawless, breakneck paced, exquisitely shot and ruthlessly entertaining old-fashioned horror film, the kind where a group of disparate folks get systematically torn up (in some very inventive ways) by a very scary monster, up to the point where they band together and start kicking some serious ass. This, friends and neighbors, is the film that horror fanatics are talking about when they say they want a return to the “old school”: no frills, no metaphor, no “pretense” or bigger purpose. As the tag line reads: “This isn’t Hell. It’s Holland.” It just doesn’t get more old-school than that.

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Scherzo Diabolico

There are a handful of contemporary genre filmmakers that I would gladly follow anywhere, regardless of what they do, if for no other reason than the simple fact that they have never let me down. Ben Wheatley is right at the top of that list, as are Marjane Satrapi, Quentin Dupieux, Alex de la Iglesia and Joel Potrykus. This group wouldn’t be complete, however, without Spanish auteur Adrian Garcia Bogliano. As expected, his newest fiendish delight, Scherzo Diabolico, is one of the year’s very best, by a landslide.

As with the best Bogliano films, Scherzo Diabolico begins with a simple concept, in this case the old chestnut of a put-upon middle manager deciding to advance his career by kidnapping the boss’ daughter, only to have the whole thing shatter in some thoroughly jaw-dropping ways. With viewer alliances whiplashing as the various players start to do some astoundingly terrible things, we’re never sure who to root for or even trust: there’s no gray area, here, only an unending void of pitch black. The title means “diabolical prank” and that, friends, is truth in advertising.

As impish and playful as he is brutal and unflinching, Bogliano dances his principal characters around each other on marionette strings, his ever-present shears ready to lop them loose at a moment’s notice. This is a horror film in the explicit sense of the term, make no mistake, but it’s also a horror film in the most implicit ways, as well: these are characters that, under any other situation, might have been the “heroes.” Hell, they might’ve been us and that’s the scariest thing of all.

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Ava’s Possessions

Without a doubt, one of this year’s most delightful surprises was writer/director Jordan Galland’s Ava’s Possessions. I went into this expecting very little (another theme for a year with so many anonymous films) and came out with huge grin on my face. Turns out, this little sleeper is as far from an anonymous film as you can get.

Like Last Girl Standing, Ava’s Possessions begins at the end of another story and proceeds to expand upon its target in some truly fascinating ways. In this case, the story is a stereotypical possession one and we first meet our amazing lead, Ava (Louisa Krause, simply superb), as she’s being successfully exorcised of a very nasty demon. After finally being free of her demonic possession, however, Ava is now looking at the wreckage of her former life: she did just spend several days indulging in every violent, carnal and evil act possible, after all, so her friends and family are probably gonna be a little unhappy with her.

Part AA parable, part Beetlejuice, part self-empowerment and all awesome, Ava’s Possessions is that rare horror-comedy that gets both halves right, charming with an easy, dark wit that makes the swings into full-bore horror (Ava’s demon is not, in any way, nice) that much more effective. The performances are great (Carol Kane, in particular, is perfect), the effects are impressive and the whole thing is shot in a colorful, vibrant way that is thoroughly eye-catching. In a year where a lot of films managed to get a lot of different elements right, Galland’s Ava’s Possessions is one of the few that managed to put them all in the same film.

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Nina Forever

There are few real taboos left in horror but one of the few that still remains is sex and death. I’m not talking about that old slasher greatest hit where young people humping equals machete or the even older one where a little T&A helps the medicine go down. Nothing as easy as that, friends and neighbors. I’m talking about the actual intersection of sex and death, the zip-code where Jorg Buttgereit built the house of Nekromantik and the one part of town where most filmmakers (and viewers) fear to tread. Thank your lucky stars that the Blaine Brothers (Ben and Chris) didn’t get the memo, however, otherwise we never would have got the twisted marvel that is Nina Forever.

Released on Valentine’s Day, in the most inspired bit of serendipity since the last time a Friday the 13th film actually opened on the 13th,  Nina Forever manages to be that most unholy and difficult to achieve combination of genuinely erotic, romantic, disturbing and tragic. A young man finds it difficult to move on after the death of his beloved, Nina, in a terrible car accident, mostly because said beloved won’t actually stay dead. More specifically, Nina displays the rather inappropriate tendency to manifest physically while the new couple are making love. Despite this being the kind of thing that would normally wreck a new relationship before it can start, the new girlfriend is more than willing to give this arrangement a shot, doing everything she can to make Nina feel welcome in their love nest. Nina, on the other hand, isn’t really the sharing type.

There’s a lot to unpack in this film and I’m sure that plenty of more sensitive viewers will steer clear before they get much deeper than the surface necrophilia angle: as mentioned earlier, that’s a fair reaction to a taboo subject. If you give it a chance, however, you’ll see that there’s a truly tender, affecting love story here, the kind that you rarely (if ever) get in a horror film. That’s not to say that the Blaines shy from the bloody stuff, however…far from it. In reality, they’ve come up with a perfect synthesis of grue and glow, just the right combination of dramatic weight, emotional impact and exposed viscera. There’s genuine tragedy to Nina’s story but that doesn’t make anything that happens less horrifying or unforgettable. In a year where many films tried to do something different, Nina Forever actually did, earning its place on this list.

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Darling

If they gave an award for hardest-working over-achiever in contemporary genre cinema, I’m pretty sure that Mickey Keating would be the odds-on favorite. After releasing the above-average alien invasion flick Pod last year, Keating dropped not one but two of this year’s best genre flicks, Carnage Park and Darling, with another proposed film, Psychopaths, getting bumped to 2017. Keating releases films like old punk bands used to release albums and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This time around, Keating does a 360 and gives us a skittery, schizophrenic bit of paranoia with Darling, a black-and-white examination of a young woman’s extremely quick slide into full-blown psychosis. Repulsion is the obvious influence but Keating isn’t interested in merely paying homage, bringing every facet of the film into play (the constantly erratic, ominous score is a particular highlight) to bludgeon the viewer into submission. By the time the film descends into stroboscopic madness, it will, literally, feel as if you’ve joined Lauren Ashley Carter in her howling hell of insanity.

And lest I forget to single out Carter, who has been a shining star in such recent genre standouts as Jug Face, The Mind’s Eye, The Woman and Keating’s own Pod, let me take a moment to do so now: her fearless, frightfully immersive performance as the titular character is one of those tours de force that feels less like acting than channeling. Any film that focuses on a central character having a mental breakdown is going to live or die based on that central performance: Darling is one of the year’s very best films, so I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

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Train to Busan

Several years ago, South Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho wowed the world with The Host, a monster film about a rampaging, Cloverfieldian creature that was equal parts affecting family drama and giddy Godzilla knock-off. It was fresh, fun and added a great new entry to the canon. This year, Joon-ho’s countryman, Yeon Sang-ho, has repeated history, presenting one of the best, freshest, most action-packed and emotionally resonant films of the year amd giving a shot in the arm to the moribund zombie genre, in the process. The film is Train to Busan and it is, without a doubt, the best zombie film of the year.

Built around likable characters and believable family dynamics, Train to Busan introduces us to a group of stock characters (a workaholic divorced dad, expectant couple, group of high school athletes, shithead businessman, elderly sisters, etc..) and then makes us care for them (except for that shithead businessman, of course) by making them fully-rounded. There’s all kinds of zombie mayhem going on left and right (all of which, might I add, is top-shelf and much more effective than World War Z, which this occasionally resembles) but none of it would pack any punch if we didn’t care about the characters. In particular, Ma Dong-seok (who was equally amazing in Kundo: Age of the Rampart and The Good, the Bad and the Weird) makes his hot-headed, blue-collar, father-to-be such an instantly iconic, ridiculously badass presence that I wanted a full movie devoted just to that guy.

And so it goes: Train to Busan is the kind of film that features a fist-pumping action setpiece one minute (no lie: some of the setpieces are so good, it hurts) and then makes you tear up the next. It’s the kind of fully-realized vision that understands that gut-munching and character development don’t have to be mutually exclusive, that the pursuit of horror entertainment doesn’t automatically mean one has no interest in the non-red crayons in the box. I’m all for horror films stripped right to the bloody bone but, sometimes, you just want a little more. Train to Busan is that “little more” writ large and I’ll take it any old day of the week.

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Honorable Mentions

The Greasy Strangler

The Dark Stranger

Hush

They Look Like People

Freaks of Nature

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

Carnage Park

Anguish

10 Cloverfield Land

The Mind’s Eye

The Invitation

They’re Watching

Emelie

Feed the Devil

Lake Nowhere

Observance

The Funhouse Massacre

Evolution

Scare Campaign

The Pack

Baskin

The Piper

Fender Bender