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Grains of sand are curious things: if you have one, you really don’t have much of anything…if you have a couple trillion, you have a beach. This is, of course, all by way of saying that the scattered grains of sand that were my pending film reviews have quickly grown to something that more closely resembles a dune. Since it will still be some time before I can completely catch up, I figured I’d do the next best thing and write up some mini-reviews in the meantime, lest I quickly find myself buried beneath a solid month’s worth of films.

To that end, I now present a few thoughts about the films I screened during the first week of this year’s 31 Days of Halloween (10/1-10/4). Since one of the main purposes of this humble little blog is to turn folks on to new films, I wanted to make sure to get some recommendations out there while folks can still program a little Halloween goodness of their own. With no further ado, then..

Thursday, 10/1

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The Nightmare — This fascinating little documentary about the frightening phenomenon of sleep paralysis comes to us from the filmmakers behind the recent Shining/conspiracy theory doc, Room 237. Through a mixture of interviews and re-enactments, we get a front-row seat to a genuinely disturbing, almost impossible strange malady that might affect more people than you at first realize.

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Dark Was the Night — Coming across as a sturdy combination of Feast and 30 Days of Night, DWtN is a thoroughly competent “monster invades a small town” flick that features strong performances from Kevin Durand, Lukas Haas and Nick Damici (one of my all-time favorites) and a suitably bleak resolution.

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The Blood Lands — Starting strong before gradually losing its way, The Blood Lands (formerly known by the much more incendiary but pointless title White Settlers) ended up on my shit-list by taking one of the best genre actresses in the business, Pollyana McIntosh, and saddling her with a simpering ninny of a character. Imagine if Lt. Ripley took one look at the Queen Xenomorph and decided to let the boys handle it, instead: yeah, I didn’t buy it, either. McIntosh’s glorious “The Woman” character would take one look at The Blood Lands’ Sarah and knock her straight into next week.

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They — Despite some effective (if minor) chills, Robert Harmon’s They is just about as beige and generic as its title would indicate. While this tale about now-grown friends confronting (literally) the demons of their childhood makes some minor nods to classic “confronting-the-past” horrors like It, it really plays out as more of a watered-down version of the already tepid Under the Bed. Even Ethan Embry can’t make this particularly interesting: make of that what you will.

Friday, 10/2

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The Houses October Built — This modest little found-footage flick about friends looking for the ultimate haunted house experience (as in “professional haunts with people in masks,” not “actually haunted houses,” which is an important distinction) genuinely surprised me: gritty, unnerving, fairly realistic and genuinely creepy, there’s a whole lot to like here. The “villains” are all quite memorable (scary clowns never get old, for one thing) and the film never quite devolves into “torture porn” territory, even though it toes the line. Pretty much the definition of a sleeper.

Saturday, 10/3

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The American Scream — A charming, thoroughly winning documentary about three families in a small American town who go all out for Halloween, turning their respective homes into some of the most impressive, cool amateur haunted houses that I’ve ever seen. Growing up, we always turned our home and garage into elaborate haunts every year, so The American Scream ended up being the best kind of nostalgia for me.

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Saw — Despite some truly terrible performances (Leigh Whannell, in particular, is astoundingly bad and poor Danny Glover isn’t much better) and a really ugly look, there’s something inherently feral about James Wan’s surprise hit debut. More of a mystery, ala Se7en, than the latter entries in the series, Saw features some great twists (I’ll forget the audience reaction to the final revelation when I watched this on opening night) and introduced the sense of moral relativism to torture porn that it so desperately needed (and still needs, to be honest). It’ll never end up on any “Best of…” lists but it’s also not the worst thing out there.

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Monsters — I was never a huge fan of this film when I first saw it, although my opinion has softened a bit in the ensuing years. In a nutshell, Monsters is sort of a mumblecore creature feature: we follow our hesitant “will they?/won’t they?” potential romantic couple as they attempt to make their way from monster-infested South America into the relative safety of the United States. Just as much an immigration/border parable as a monster movie, Monsters keeps its creatures firmly in the background, allowing the humans to take the stage. Think of this as the “anti-Pacific Rim,” if you will.

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Saw II — Continuing to expand on the original film’s “mythos,” the first sequel introduces Donnie Wahlberg and puts more of an emphasis on the traps. It’s a solid step-down from the first film, mostly due to writer/director Darren Lynn Bousman’s obnoxious stylistic quirks and some of the most unpleasant characters to grace the screen in some time. No wonder audiences rooted for Jigsaw: if it was up to me, I woulda nuked ’em all and been done with it.

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Monsters: Dark Continent — A fairly massive disappointment, this belated follow-up to Gareth Edwards’ effective original is really just another film about U.S. soldiers in the Middle East. It’s telling when the filmmakers opt to make local insurgents the real threat over the massive monsters that blithely roam around the Iraqi desert. We get it, guys: this isn’t “just” another monster movie….it’s about “bigger things.” They’re right: it’s not just another monster movie…it’s actually another dull, generic and clichéd war film. Huzzah!

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Saw III — Part from the first film, the third in the series is, hands-down, my favorite. The twisting machinations of Jigsaw’s convoluted plan are suitably gripping but it’s the downright nefarious traps that really get the blood pumping. There’s an honest-to-god story arc here about a father trying to get over the hit-and-run death of his young child and it really works. Plus, ya know, that bit with the liquified pig carcasses is pretty impossible to forget.

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Saw IV — More convoluted than the previous entry and decidedly less fun, the fourth entry in the series isn’t terrible (that would be the second and fifth) but it is pretty forgettable. This fully introduces Costas Mandylor’s Hoffman character and starts the series down the winding, twisting path that ultimately leads to its resolution. More than anything, though, it’s the fourth entry in a multiplex horror series: innovative, it is not.

Sunday, 10/4

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Cooties — Thus far, this gleefully misanthropic horror-comedy is not only my favorite film of October but one of my favorite films of the entire year (and then some). The concept is unbeatable (chicken nuggets turn pre-pubescent kids into ravenous flesh-eaters and it’s up to a motley group of grade school teachers to save the day), the cast is amazing (Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer, Nasim Pedrad and the single best performance by actor/writer Leigh Whannell that he’s ever done) and the whole thing expertly toes the line between laugh-out-loud funny and edge-of-your-seat tense. I instantly loved this as much as Tucker & Dale vs. Evil and I definitely don’t say that lightly.

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The Boy — The polar-opposite of Cooties, Craig William Macneill’s The Boy is a stunning examination of a burgeoning serial killer’s first, tentative, boyhood steps towards ultimate evil. Nothing about the film is pleasant in any conventional way but, like the iconic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, I dare you to tear your eyes from the screen. David Morse and Rainn Wilson are fabulous playing against their usual types but it’s young Jared Breeze (who’s also in Cooties, ironically) who will stomp your heart into a mud-hole. This is the kind of film that everyone should see, especially as terrible acts of random violence continue to plague our world.

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Deathgasm — Heavy metal and horror go together like beer and Slayer shows: you can have either/or but it’s always the best when they’re paired up. Screaming out of New Zealand, writer/director Jason Lei Howden’s full-length-debut is hilarious, heart-felt and full of more fist-raising set-pieces than you can shake a Flying V at. Sort of like the tragically under-rated Canadian TV marvel Todd and the Book of Pure Evil, Deathgasm doesn’t take any cheap shots at his corpse-paint-bedecked heroes: the “beautiful” people are the fodder and it’s up to the outcasts to save the day. Extra points for Kimberley Crossman’s frankly adorable transformation from stereotypical blonde princess to ridiculously epic ass-kicker: she needs her own stand-alone movie, stat.

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Hellions — I absolutely loved Canadian wunderkind Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool (easily one of the best, most ingenious and freshest zombie film to come out in a good 15 years), so my anticipation was through the roof for Hellions: after all, how could a film about a pregnant teenager making a desperate Halloween-eve stand against demonic trick or treaters fail? Turns out, it’s not quite as difficult as I imagined. While Hellions is far from a terrible film (the film’s pink-tinted look, alone, makes it one of the most visually interesting films I’ve ever seen, assorted creepy, hallucinatory images notwithstanding), it is a terribly confusing, cluttered and rather haphazard one. Similar to Rob Zombie’s Fulci homage The Lords of Salem, Hellions emphasizes odd, evocative visuals and dreamy, nightmare scenarios over any kind of narrative cohesion. I didn’t hate Hellions, by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s no denying it’s an odd, often off-putting film.

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Turbo Kid — My level of anticipation for this throwback to the VHS ’80s was so high that it’s probably inevitable I would be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong: there’s an awful lot to like here and even quite a few things to love. The synthy score is spot-on, the over-the-top violence comes close to Jason Eisener’s ridiculously radical Hobo With a Shotgun and the sense of world building (albeit on an extreme budget) is admirable. For all that, however, the film never fully connected with me. Perhaps it was the awkward love story (Laurence Leboeuf’s performance as Apple is so unrelentingly weird and strange that I was genuinely baffled as to what Munro Chambers’ Kid saw in her), the too-often self-conscious acting or the overall scattershot feel. Whatever the reason, I went into this expecting Turbo Kid to be my new favorite film and came out extolling the virtues of Hobo With a Shotgun, instead. Gotta love Skeletron, though!

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