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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!

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