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!

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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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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.