31 Days of Halloween, films, Grabbers, Halloween, Halloween traditions, horror, horror films, horror-comedies, Mom and Dad, October, reviews, The Alchemist Cookbook, The Cleanse, The Monster Squad, The Witch in the Window
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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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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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!