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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.

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