At long last, I present the conclusion to my 31 Days of Halloween mini-reviews. It’s a little late, of course, given that we’ve now tip-toed into Saint Nick’s territory but my adage has always been that it’s better late than never at all. There have been quite a few films to get through and my slow recovery has made it difficult to be as consistent as I would like. Nonetheless, the finish line is finally in sight.
Stay tuned for a final wrap-up on my October viewings, including my picks for the very best and very worst films that I screened during the 31 Days of Halloween. After that, we’ll ease back into our regularly scheduled programming, albeit in a continued shortened form until I’m completely up to snuff. Without further ado, then:
Jaws — There’s a reason why Spielberg’s Jaws has lost precious little of its bite in the 40 years since it first scared viewers out of the water: when you build something right, you build it to last. Essentially a master class in how to scare the ever-loving shit out of a multiplex audience, Jaws is stuffed-to-bursting with action-packed set-pieces, likable characters, gorgeous cinematography (Hollywood journeyman Bill Butler turns in some of his best work here) and one hell of an unforgettable score that might (arguably) be the most recognized one in cinematic history.
Nearly as famous for what went wrong behind the scenes as what went right (the constantly broken mechanical shark and vein-popping fights between Spielberg and writer Peter Benchley being some of the most memorable mishaps), Jaws is testament to the fact that a masterful filmmaker can turn grief into gold. Hell, who knows how the film would’ve turned out if they’d been able to utilize the expensive mechanical shark in every single scene they wanted? By using nothing more than the obligatory fin, a rippling wake in the water and John Williams’ clarion call, Spielberg goes the Hitchcock route and trades in instant gratification for unrelenting tension and suspense: the results, of course, speak for themselves.
Although I’ve seen an awful lot of films since the very first time I saw Jaws, I’ll still never forget that damn body floating up in the sunken boat, its popped-out eyeball, literally, the stuff of nightmares. Or the amazing scene where Quint hauntingly recounts the tragic end of the USS Indianapolis. Or the subtle, quiet and sweet little scene where Chief Brody and his young son bond by mimicking each other at the dinner table. Come to think of it, I’m hard-pressed to think of many scenes in the film that haven’t become permanently glued to my brain: that iconic opening…Jaws pulling the dock (plus fisherman) into the water…the barrel-weights popping up, ominously, in the middle of the calm sea…the unbelievably pulse-pounding finale where Quint dies like the man that he is, while Brody becomes the one that he wants to be…it’s all part of one of the very best, most magical films in the history of cinema. An absolutely timeless classic.
Black Sabbath — Consisting of three unconnected tales, Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath has mood and atmosphere for miles, even if the film occasionally swerves over the dividing line that separates the eternally cool from the kinda cheesy. Of the three, the truly creepy adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Drop of Water” burrows the deepest under the skin (the dead old lady’s rictus grin really is the stuff of nightmares) but the segment featuring Boris Karloff is probably the best known. While Black Sabbath has never been my favorite Bava film, it’s earned its classic status (and then some) in the fifty years since its release.
Cannibal — Slow, stately, austere and gorgeously shot, Manuel Martin Cuenca’s Cannibal mixes things up by focusing on the drama and the characters rather than the bloodletting, becoming sort of the Merchant-Ivory of flesh-eating in the process. This story about a lonely, middle-aged tailor looking for love amidst a host of complications (not least of which is his propensity for butchering and consuming the lovely young ladies that he fixates on) features some great acting (Antonio de la Torre and Olimpia Melinte are simply phenomenal as the titular cannibal and the object of his obsession), lovely locations, beautiful cinematography and an almost oppressively sad tone.
Since we never really learn anything about what drives de la Torre to consume flesh, however, it’s hard to become fully invested in the great tragedy of it all. Most of the film breaks down into the tailor/cannibal moping around endlessly, with an emphasis on brooding melancholy over any kind of story or character development. It’s a beautiful film to look at and experience, don’t get me wrong, but it also feels disappointingly one-dimensional once all’s said and done. For my money, Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are (along with Jim Mickle’s exceptional remake) did the “brooding arthouse cannibal” thing much more successfully.
Nailbiter — Writer/director Patrick Rea’s Nailbiter ends up being a pretty average film and…well, that actually suits it just fine. Full of understated performances, slightly clunky dialogue and an overall style that could best be described as “functional,” this mid-Western update of Lovecraft’s Shadow Over Innsmouth hits most of its marks, even if it never really stands apart from the pack. Dragged down by its nagging familiarity (the creatures have pretty much been lifted wholesale from The Descent, for one thing), Nailbiter surprised me by becoming gradually more grim and uncompromising as it went along: it’s not spoiling anything to say that this story of a family trapped with something evil in a storm cellar during a tornado doesn’t have a happy ending…those kinds of stories rarely do.
Tooth and Nail — What happens when you toss Neil Marshall’s Doomsday, a bevy of reliable B-actors (Vinnie Jones, Robert Carradine and Michael “Whatta ya got” Madsen, among others) and an elephant-sized pile of genre clichés into a big, loud and dumb dinner-theateresque re-imagining of Mad Max? I’m willing to wager that you’d end up with something that looks an awful lot like writer/director Mark Young’s Tooth and Nail. Despite being incredibly silly and bombastic, this familiar tale of a group of survivors trying to stand strong against cannibal marauders in the burned-out remains of our collapsed society (as expected, our reliance on oil and fossil fuels fucks us royally here, too) is also very energetic, endearingly earnest and just entertaining enough to make the abject familiarity wash down a bit easier.
Even when the cliches pile up high enough to block out the sun (the scene where formerly “mild” Dakota dons warpaint and proceeds to kick major ass is so old that I’m worried about it breaking a hip), Tooth and Nail is undeniably watchable, with Carradine providing a nice turn on the old “crazy genius” character. There’s nothing here that most astute genre fans haven’t seen at least several times in the past (if you’ve seen the aforementioned post-apocalyptic flicks, you’ve already seen about a quarter of this, give or take) but it’s handled competently enough, sort of the equivalent of a particularly gory Syfy flick, if you will.
Contracted: Phase Two — While the first Contracted was no classic, it managed to capably juggle several different horror tropes (body horror, sexual assault, zombie/infection films, STDs, for starters) while showcasing a strong performance by lead Najarra Townsend and some remarkably disgusting gore effects. Since the original film ends on a direct cliffhanger, a sequel was inevitable, if a little baffling (after all, most B-horror films don’t really warrant sequels, much less franchises), which leads us directly to Phase 2.
This time around, original writer/director Eric England hands the reins to a pair of newcomers (director Josh Forbes and writer Craig Walendziak) and the resulting personnel shift does, indeed, affect the tone of the film. Picking up directly where the first film ended, Phase 2 is much more of a straight-forward action/conspiracy thriller, unlike the original’s distinctly body-horror angle. This time around, we follow returning/surviving character Riley (Matt Mercer) as he races around and tries to figure out a cure for the necrotizing STD that Sam passed on to him in the first film.
Unlike the relatively straight-forward (at least until the “twist” finale) Contracted, Phase 2 is a fairly jumbled mess, equal parts thriller, mystery, horror, sci-fi, drama and conspiracy film. We get plenty of large-scale dastardly plans (ala James Bond villains), some truly revolting effects work (which somehow manages to one-up the retch-worthy grue from the first film) and some pretty inexplicable nods to films like Run, Lola Run and Dead Alive. Since I didn’t love the original film, it’s hard to call the sequel a disappoint, although my default emotion for most of it was a sort of gentle bemusement. File this with the stack of “fair to middlings” but gentler stomachs be forewarned: if pus, open wounds and rotted body parts aren’t your thing, you won’t make it past the opening credits.
Avenged — If you’re going to make an exploitation film, might as well go all in, right? Take cinematographer-turned-writer/director Michael S. Ojeda’s Avenged, for example. The storyline certainly smacks of ’70s-era grindhouses: a sweet and innocent deaf girl is on a solo trip through the Southwest when she runs afoul of a gang of sleazy, villainous rednecks. After she witnesses them enthusiastically kill a pair of Apache men, they take her captive, brutalize her in some pretty terrible ways, stab her and leave her for dead in a shallow grave in the middle of the desert. Cue the kindly Apache medicine man who finds her body and performs a healing ritual that somehow imbues her with the spirit of Magnus Coloradus, a murdered Apache chief who wants vengeance on his killers’ ancestors…who just happen to be the same sleazebags that raped and murdered the deaf girl. If you guessed that formerly sweet Zoe becomes a dead-eyed killing machine prone to doing things like hanging sleazebags with their own intestines and scalping them, well, go ahead and give yourself the prize.
Avenged (which originally went by the more implictly offensive title Savaged) is many things but confused is probably as good a descriptor as any. With a tone that veers wildly between gritty, in-your-face, thoroughly unpleasant sleaze (I Spit On Your Grave is an obvious reference/influence) and silly, over-the-top fantasy action (the scene where the green ghost of Magnus pounds the ground and produces a mystical knife and tomahawk for Zoe is straight out of Big Trouble in Little China), there’s never a consistent feel or flow. The acting tends towards the broad (the rednecks are all straight from Central Casting, right down to their tedious hatred of “Injuns,” and Zoe’s boyfriend is so earnest that it hurts), the film is often over-the-top and a little silly (despite the subject matter) and the frequent attempts at pulling on heartstrings tend to grind the film to an awkward stop far too often.
On the other hand, however, Avenged does manage to deliver on one of the key tenets of exploitation cinema: it’s an absolutely unabashed, visceral thrill ride, full of pretty astounding violence and some genuinely exciting action sequences. Zoe/Magnus is a pretty striking figure as she cuts a bloody swath through the beasts who violated her and, as with all rape-revenge films, there’s certainly a sense of satisfaction and, dare I say, enjoyment that accompanies her incredibly gory trip to retribution. When Zoe is kicking ass on the inbreds, Avenged achieves a sort of sublimity that helps carry over the (many) rough patches. The dramatic, humanizing elements, then, are the ones that really prevent the film from making the most of its gutter-trawl. While it’s certainly possible to create an exploitation-shocker with heart (I’m thinking of Hobo With a Shotgun, primarily), Avenged veers between sleazy and maudlin, which splits the difference in the worst possible way.
And that whole notion of a young white girl getting possessed by the spirit of a dispossessed, murdered Native American in order for him to achieve the justice that he couldn’t while alive? Yeah…that’s a subject for a whole different conversation, friends and neighbors.
The Twelve Tasks of Asterix — As a kid, there were a few movies that were my go-tos whenever I was stuck at home, sick: The Last Unicorn, any of the Sean Connery James Bond films, The Gold Bug (an obscure Edgar Allen Poe adaptation starring the incredible Jeffrey Holder) and this little gem: the Twelve Tasks of Asterix. Based on a popular French comic strip, this joyously silly, giddy little treat is sort of like a beginner’s Monty Python, throwing one absurd, fourth-wall-busting gag after another at viewers until the only possible recourse is to just give in and experience the film: any attempt to wring perfect sense from the proceedings is as moot as trying to explicate a pie-in-the-face gag.
Full of sly in-jokes and references (the bit where Caesar cautions Brutus to be careful of his knife because he’ll “hurt someone” is but one breezy example among hundreds), snappy dialogue and genuinely odd occurrences (the Cave of the Beast is straight out of The Holy Grail and I’ve always wondered why people would willingly pay the hypnotist to turn them into animals), The Twelve Tasks of Asterix is a complete sugar rush from start to finish. Unlike some of my childhood favorites, the film holds up remarkably well today, outdated racial stereotypes and humor notwithstanding, of course. Although much of the humor toes the line between racy adult fare and tamer kiddie viewing (the isle of women ends up firmly on the adult side, whereas the bureaucratic insanity of the permit office will likely fly right over the head of anyone too young to deal with government paperwork), this still seems appropriate for young viewers.
The Twelve Tasks of Asterix will always be a nostalgic favorite and reminder of my childhood but that does nothing to take away from the actual quality of the film. In fact, to this day, the separate segments involving the permit office and the plain of departed souls still stand as two of my very favorite scenes in any film, animated or otherwise. The films of our youth establish the foundations of our adulthood and, with this little delight, we can see one of the cornerstones of my own development.
Trick ‘r Treat — Not much can be said about Michael Dougherty’s instant classic that I haven’t already said in much greater detail prior to this (interested readers are always encouraged to revisit my original thoughts on the film from a previous year’s viewings), so I’ll just go ahead and restate the obvious: I love this fucking film to death. I love everything about Trick ‘r Treat: the look, the feel, the performances, the writing, the cinematography, the storyline, the twists and turns, the iconic nods to my favorite time of the year…if there was ever a film that felt explicitly made to my individual tastes, this is it, without a doubt.
Like It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street did for Christmas, Trick ‘r Treat is the quintessential Halloween film, a remarkably detailed, complex and interconnected love letter to the season that manages to incorporate not only horror elements and seasonal affectations like Halloween parties and trick or treating but also color palettes, symbolism and an overall Autumnal atmosphere. The effect is wholly immersive and all-encompassing: Trick ‘r Treat isn’t a film set during Halloween…it’s a film ABOUT Halloween and that’s a huge difference.
This was the film that not only put writer/director Dougherty on my radar but made him one of the modern filmmakers I’m most excited about. With his Christmas horror film, Krampus, actually opening in theaters this weekend and rumors of a Trick ‘r Treat sequel in the air, I’m really hoping that we get a whole lot more Dougherty in the near future. A filmmaker who worships Halloween like I do? There’s no way that dude’s not stealing a big piece of my heart.
Swamp Thing — When horror auteur Wes Craven died at the end of August, I had every intention of honoring his legacy by re-watching his filmography during my 31 Days of Halloween celebration. As it turned out, I wouldn’t get very far in my Cravenathon: the original Nightmare on Elm Street, A New Nightmare and Craven’s sole attempt at superhero/comic book films, Swamp Thing.
In every way, Swamp Thing is an old-fashioned superhero film, the kind that was de rigueur before ultra-serious, violent and brooding heroes became the cultural norm. With its over-the-top performances, wipe transitions, rousing score (courtesy of Friday the 13th’s Harry Manfredini) and A-Team-level violence (for the most part, Swamp Thing throws bad guys around like rag dolls and there isn’t a single character in the film who can actually hit anything with a firearm, be it pistol or machine gun), Craven’s Swamp Thing is a decidedly kid-friendly affair, despite the usual mature themes of greed, loss, love and murder and, in this case, it fits the subject matter like a glove.
As a film, Swamp Thing is a fun, if arguably disposable, bit of fluff. A very young Ray Wise is perfect as the pre-mutation Thing, playing against type as the noble, easy-going and romantic scientist with hopes for humanity but a fate that will cast him as the ultimate outcast. Genre royalty Adrienne Barbeau is equally excellent as the government agent who captures Wise’s heart and Louis Jourdan is massively entertaining as the dastardly Dr. Arcane, managing to project poise, gravitas and sly humor even when he’s saddled with ridiculous, long-maned boar-man makeup. The rest of the cast is broad, if fun (Reggie Batts is the easy stand-out as young Jude, Barbeau’s droll, laid-back sidekick and deserved his own spinoff), which certainly befits the style/material. Craftwise, Swamp Thing is certainly adequate, although it often looks cheap and the only truly memorable visual moments are the brilliant, green mutagen and the impossibly cool sunken church.
For the most part, Craven’s Swamp Thing strikes me as pretty typical fare for the writer/director/producer, despite the obvious lack of blood or menacing situations: perfectly serviceable, often inspired, frequently run-of-the-mill. In a career that spanned over four decades, there was a lot of Craven’s work that I consider to be utterly indispensable, particularly as regards horror history: A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left and Scream have all earned their places in the Horror Hall of Fame, no two ways about it. Swamp Thing is certainly not an essential film but it is a fun one and, at the end of the day, that might be the single most important thing of all.
Wes Craven was responsible for a handful of essential films and a double-handful of entertaining ones: The Hills Have Eyes 2 may be a terrible film but it’s also the only film I’ve ever seen with a dog flashback and that certainly has to count for something. Craven may not have had the consistent brilliance of Carpenter or Romero but he left a mark on the cinematic world that will never be forgotten. I didn’t know him personally but I’m sure going to miss him now that he’s gone.