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Happy 2019, boos and ghouls! Welcome back to The VHS Graveyard and our annual 31 Days of Halloween coverage. Long time readers will know that we keep the motto “Better late than never” pretty close to our coal-black heart: as such, we present the first week of this month just a few days before October is officially wrapped-up. Such is life.

At some point, we’ll need to address the zombie elephant in the room (this is, after all, our first post in over a year) but we’ll cross that creepy, covered country bridge when we get to it. For now, sink into a comfortable chair, turn the way-back machine to the beginning of the month and prepare thyself: The 31 Days of Halloween is officially upon us!

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Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)

When New York b-movie guru Larry Cohen passed away in late March, it was a given that I’d screen at least one film from his prolific career this October: Cohen was not only one of the original bad boys of ’70s cinema but he was, hands-down, one of my personal favorite auteurs. The only question: which one (or more) of his indelible films to peruse?

While I could’ve gone with It’s Alive (1974), God Told Me To (1976), The Stuff (1985) or Maniac Cop (1988), I opted for eternal classic Q to kick-off this holiday season. Why do I love this film about a winged monster feasting on New Yorkers so much? Let’s see: a kickass creature design…strong humor and satirical elements (a Cohen hallmark)…a phenomenally sleazy performance from Michael Moriarty…David Carradine and Richard Roundtree as wise-cracking NYPD detectives…tons of b-movie fun and thrills…just enough gore to make this a Times Square grindhouse staple (the skinned corpse comes out of nowhere and is a real showstopper)…the list goes on and on.

If you’re in the mood for a fun, slightly smirking take on the monster film that’s equal parts Jaws and King Kong, you only need to remember one letter: Q. The unequaled Larry Cohen will take care of everything else.

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I Trapped the Devil (2019)

With a premise that strongly echoes key elements of the first season of Stephen King-centric TV series Castle Rock, multi-hyphenate-filmmaker Josh Lobo’s feature debut, I Trapped the Devil, was never going to score high marks for originality. Nonetheless, I was curious to see how this particular take on the old “Is that the Devil behind the door?” trope would turn out.

As it turns out, I Trapped the Devil picks the middle-lane of the freeway and sticks there for the entirety of his journey. The film certainly has its moments (the cloying atmosphere is constant and foreboding, while any of the red-lit basement scenes are easily visual highlights), moments which are offset by plenty of problems. The acting is stiff across the board, for one thing, with too much of the film coming off stagey. There’s also plenty of stuff that just doesn’t make sense, the longer one ruminates, but that ends up being a minor issue in the grand scheme.

The biggest problem with Lobo’s I Trapped the Devil turns out to be how naggingly familiar and mediocre everything is: there was plenty of potential here but the final product is virtually identical to any number of direct-to-video chillers. Let’s hope that the filmmaker’s next project has a bit more of its own identity.

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Uncanny Annie (2019)

Overall, I’m a big fan of Hulu’s Into the Dark series, even if the first season was a study in hit/miss. For my money, anything that gets horror fans more product (Into the Dark promises – and delivers – an original, holiday-themed full-length for each month of the year) can never be a bad thing, even if the productions run the gamut from decent-enough to intriguing. With the first season under my belt, I eagerly awaited the debut of Season 2: meet Uncanny Annie, Into the Dark’s second Halloween-themed episode.

Coming off like a horror version of Jumanji (1995) rather than a different take on Beyond the Gates (2016), Uncanny Annie deals with a group of college kids that find themselves sucked into a creepy board game and forced to do battle with the titular evil little girl. While the film has plenty of inventive moments, the whole thing is just a little too silly and over-the-top to be truly effective. In particular, the lead terror is kinda awful, bleeding any tension from key scenes where we really need things to go off the rails.

Uncanny Annie certainly isn’t the worst episode of Into the Dark, thus far, but that definitely doesn’t make it one of the best ones: for the first of twelve new installments, however, it does a fine job of whetting the appetite for future goodness. As long as I get some of the same greatness from last season (I’m lookin’ at you, Pooka!), I’ll be a happy boy.

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In the Tall Grass (2019)

Full disclosure: I think that American-Canadian film auteur Vincenzo Natali is one of the best, smartest filmmakers working today. From his mindbending debut, Cube (1997) to disturbing sci-fi/horror hybrid Splice (2009) to quietly stunning “ghost story” Haunter (2013), he’s spent two decades finding intriguing new ways to tell familiar stories. While Natali doesn’t have a lot of easily recognizable stylistic elements, there is one aspect of his films that’s consistent, across the board: just when you think his film is going one way, it flips the script and goes the other way with frightening ease. In other words, when Natali’s name is on the marquee, expect the unexpected.

His newest film, a full-length adaptation of Stephen King and Joe Hill’s novella, In the Tall Grass, is nowhere near as brilliant or groundbreaking as Cube or Haunter but it still looks and feels like a Natali film, through and through. In fact, the biggest complaint I really have with the film is that it feels a bit like two pretty decent movies jammed together: the original novella is handily dealt with in the first 30 minutes or so of the film, leaving a whole hour’s worth of “new material” that works but also dilutes from the core idea.

This story about a brother and sister following a child’s voice into an endless field of grass and becoming trapped in a bizarre, horrendous cycle of violence has plenty to recommend it: the central concept of the “ritual rock” is just as strong as it was in the novella, Patrick Wilson gives one helluva performance as the mysterious boy’s father and the multiple timelines/multiverses allows for one of the very best, creepiest images I’ve ever seen in a film, hands down. If In the Tall Grass isn’t as revelatory as the rest of Natali’s catalog, it’s also his first mainstream adaptation, so he gets a pass. I know he’ll get back to his patented brand of weirdness soon enough and I’ll be right there when he does.

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Waxwork (1988)

If you know me well, you know that some films are pure comfort food for me: there are certain titles I could watch on repeat for weeks and never tire of. While the list is pretty long, there’s one title that always manages to land somewhere at the top. Anthony Hickox’s pitch-perfect Waxwork may not be one of the best horror films ever but it sure as hell is one of my favorites.

What makes this grisly, darkly-comic fable about young people falling prey to an evil wax museum’s exhibits so special? I could probably come up with a page full of reasons, including one of the niftiest ’80s casts ever, but it’s just as easy to boil it down to just the essentials: Waxwork is pure fun with a big, ol’ capital F.

From one great set-piece to the next, Hickox and crew deliver just what horror fanatics look for in our fare: some blood, some jumps, some clever dialogue and references to the classics, a brisk pace and precious little wasted space. Not all of the set-pieces/exhibits are equally neat but there’s never a point in the film where it becomes tedious or tiresome. Individual results may vary but if you consider yourself a fan of ’80s horror and haven’t seen this one yet, you should probably rectify that as soon as possible.

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Head Count (2018)

What would you get if you were to splice It Follows (2014) and Coherence (2014) into one unified film? Chances are, you’d end up with something that looks and feels a whole lot like writer/director Elle Callahan’s debut feature, Head Count. Set in the hard-baked, desert climes of Joshua Tree, California, Callahan’s debut involves a pair of estranged brothers, a group of partying twenty-somethings and some sort of evil, shape-shifting creature known as a Hisji. If that description gives you an instant visual of the kind of film Head Count is, you’re probably right on the money: there’s very little, if anything, that will surprise any but the most casual of horror fans.

This is not to say that Head Count is a bad movie, mind you: it’s actually quite well-made and possessed of a small handful of genuinely effective moments, most based around the unnerving notion that the person in front of you might not be exactly who they seem to be. The biggest problem with the film, aside from the very generic characters (we learn almost nothing about any of them short of their various relationship statuses), is the almost suffocating sense of deja vu: so much of the elements involved are instantly familiar (you even call the Hisji by repeating its name several times, just like…well…take your pick) that it often feels like a series of references to other works.

Here’s the thing, though: there’s enough of a strong foundation to Head Count that writing off the filmmaker would be a fool’s errand. I’ve seen plenty of debuts that were much worse than this and led to pretty substantial careers: I’m more than willing to wait and see what Callahan and team will come up with in the future. Until then, consider this a pretty decent, if awfully familiar, calling card.

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Coming soon: Week Two of the 31 Days of Halloween.