Hot on the heels of our Week One post, please make yourselves acquainted with the films screened during Week Two of the 31 Days of Halloween. You’ll find a few old favorites, a new favorite and a couple of near-misses. Without further ado, let’s all go to the movies!
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The Evil Dead (1981)
We began the second week of October with Sam Raimi’s first trip to the woods, the original Evil Dead. Similar to favorites such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead and Friday the 13th, I’ve already seen Raimi’s influential masterpiece enough times to have it mostly memorized. Why, then, watch it again?
The answer, of course, is that it’s just that good. Plain and simple. The original Evil Dead is a master class in lean, mean, indie film-making, regardless of the subject matter. It’s managed to influence nearly 40 years worth of film, both inside and outside the horror genre. It might be difficult to view The Evil Dead’s “Deadite POV/moving camera” effect as anything special in the year 2019 but turn the clock back to 1981 and see how often it turned up.
Aside from its influence on the genre, The Evil Dead endures because it’s pretty much the epitome of indie-horror: lots of guts (both internal and external), a thoroughly kickass hero/antihero (BRUUUUUUUUCE!), a simple set-up executed well, a creepy location and a nice, succinct run-time. Why keep watching The Evil Dead after so many years? Because it’s a classic: plain and simple.
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The Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987)
You can’t really have one without the other, right? While the sequel often seems to exist more as a soft reboot than an actual sequel, it’s all part of the same wacky Evil Dead universe and more Ash is never gonna be a bad thing!
While both films share similar elements, Dead By Dawn takes advantage of its larger budget to showcase some truly unforgettable setpieces and effects. Most importantly, the sequel moves Bruce Campbell’s Ash even more to the front and center, firmly establishing one of the greatest characters ever.
It’s always a toss-up, for me, as to which of the two I prefer at any given point: Evil Dead 1 and 2 often feel like two sides of the same coin. At the end of the day, the question is: can you really have too much Bruce Campbell? The answer is always “No. No, you cannot.”
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Event Horizon (1997)
I vividly recall seeing Paul W. S. Anderson’s sci-fi/horror chiller Event Horizon when it first came out in theaters. At twenty-years old, I already had over a decade of horror viewing under my belt but the film still creeped me out. Dark, disturbing and possessed of a demented vision that managed to toss Hellraiser and Solaris into a blender, Event Horizon had moments of cheese but more than enough blood-chilling material to stick in my head for years to come.
Over the years, I’ve revisited the film numerous times, usually treating it as cinematic comfort food but rarely giving it much critical thought. This time around, however, I decided to watch it with “fresh eyes,” as it were, and pretend that I was seeing it for the first time. Would the film still have the same effect more than twenty years later?
Turns out the answer is “yes” but to a much lesser degree. While this Gothic, Lovecraftian space fable still has plenty of disturbing elements (the film’s vision of Hell is the very best kind of Hellraiser ripoff), the cheese shows through in a more obvious way than it seemed to when I was younger. In particular, the film’s special effects are much more hit-or-miss than I remembered: while the makeup is generally pretty good, the fire effects are generally pretty terrible. At the end of the day, Event Horizon is very much a product of its time, despite my continued support and enjoyment. That being said: will I continue to program this into my spooky viewing in the coming years? Absolutely.
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The Ranger (2018)
There’s a lot going on in write/director/editor Jenn Wexler’s feature-length debut, The Ranger. The film is a punk rock slasher, while also being a serious meditation on grief, trauma and repressed memories. There are moments of deeply morbid gallows humor, followed by explosive violence (often in the same scene). The soundtrack is loud and proudly celebrates the counter-culture, ala Repo Man, yet the film is just as often quiet and meditative, which befits a film that’s as much about conservation as it is about rebellious youth.
While respecting The Ranger and what it set out to do, I’d be lying if I said I loved it. In fact, I often found the film’s boundless energy to be rather tedious and obnoxious, similar to the worst excesses of Gregg Araki or Harmony Korine. I genuinely disliked most of the characters and really found myself rooting for the antagonist (to a point, mind you), which might have been part of the point in the first place.
Despite those complaints, I must admit that The Ranger fascinated me. The film was never dull and, at times, could be as genuinely odd as the aforementioned Repo Man, always one of my favorites. If I really need to classify this as a “miss,” it was definitely by the narrowest of margins. I genuinely look forward to seeing what filmmaker Wexler does for the follow-up: this might not have always been my cup of tea but it was definitely a strong brew and one I wouldn’t mind trying again in the future.
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Little Monsters (2019)
As for Australian writer/director Abe Forsythe’s new rom-zom-com Little Monsters, suffice to say that I fell hopelessly in love with it early on and stayed in love for the whole of its run-time. A radiantly positive school-teacher teams up with a wastoid guitar player and lecherous children’s entertainer to save her wards from a zombie attack: that’s pretty much the film, in a nutshell. Despite its simplicity, this modern-day fable was just about as close to perfect as a film gets and an easy contender for one of the very best films of the whole year, if not the decade. Trust me, gentle readers: it really is that good.
The reasons are multifold (as but one example, the writing is impossibly tight and genuinely funny) but one of the most obvious and important is Lupita Nyong’o’s simply stunning portrayal of the perennially sunny Miss Caroline, protector of children and player of ukuleles. Everything about the performance works perfectly, creating one of the most instantly indelible characters in the history of the genre: stunning career notwithstanding, Nyong’o’s Miss Caroline would have made her a star all over again.
And that’s still only the tip of the iceberg: this is a film where the laughs, fist-raising moments (there’s a bit involving a young boy, a Darth Vader mask and a horde of zombies that’s as good as anything that Edgar Wright ever put on film) and nail-biting near-misses all come in equal measures. Just when I thought the zombie sub-genre was totally wrung-dry, here comes a fresh, new take that wins me over with some surprisingly old-fashioned ingredients: genuine heart, phenomenal acting, great practical effects and a strong script. I deeply love this film and cannot wait for Forsythe’s next project. And let’s get Nyong’o some more horror scripts, stat!
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Dead End (2004)
Ironically enough, the final destination for French writer/directors Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa’s English-language debut, Dead End, is nowhere near as interesting as the journey. While the conclusion is decidedly old-hat and more than a little moldy, the lead-up features plenty of creepy atmosphere, odd situations and genre vets like Lin Shaye and Ray Wise giving all-in performances.
As patriarch Frank (Wise) grudgingly drives the family to Laura (Shaye)’s parents house for their 20th Christmas in a row, he decides to break tradition and take a shortcut: big mistake, as it turns out. In no time, the feuding couple, along with their grown children, are trapped in a terrible cycle that features a seemingly endless road, an ominous hearse and a mysterious woman-in-white. Will they be able to get back to sane ground or will the holidays really end up being the death of them all?
Despite a handful of issues, including that irksome ending, Dead End is a fairly intriguing, creepy film, bolstered to no small extent by Shaye and Wise’s classic interplay. While the film has a tendency to lean into the silly end of things, it never tips over enough to make the film seem inane or lightweight. If you’re into The Twilight Zone or Tales From the Dark Side, Dead End might be a route you should consider adding to your GPS. Just don’t expect an overly smooth ride: like most shortcuts, this comes with plenty of bumps in the road.
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Europa Report (2013)
I’m a sucker for anything that involves deep space exploration, especially when it bisects the horror genre, so I’ve always had a soft spot for this quiet, meditative found-footage(esqe) film. Despite a focus that is definitively more dramatic than horrific, I think there are plenty of reasons to include this unsung gem in your October viewing: after all, what’s more terrifying than stepping foot on an alien planet and searching for intelligent life that may or may not want to say hello?
While rarely directly horrific, Europa Report deals with lots of horror-adjacent themes including loss, the unknown, grief and insanity: there’s one intense scene, set during a spacewalk repair mission, that manages to combine horror and pathos in equal quantities. It’s pretty heady stuff but the focus is always on wonder and exploration rather than doom and gloom. By comparison, I’ve always felt that Danny Boyle’s earlier Sunshine (2007) was too morose and downcast to really satisfy that needed sense of wonder. Europa Report is an inherently sad film, in many ways, but it never skimps on the genuine sense of wonder found in any kind of exploration, especially the deep space kind.
Europa Report asks one question (is life possible in an alien ocean that covers an entire planet?) and then posits an answer that is by turns moving, inspiring, frightening and intelligent. This might not be as explicitly horror-leaning a film as something like Alien (1979) or even the aforementioned Sunshine but it more than makes up for a lack of generic scares with a focus on intelligent, thought-provoking ideas: I’ll take that over a paint-by-numbers slasher any day of the week.
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When it comes to the best genre filmmakers of the 2010s, no conversation should exclude oddball auteur Richard Bates, Jr. After all, in less than a decade, Bates has managed to write and direct three of the most challenging, impressive and daring genre hybrids to hit our frontal cortex in quite some time: Excision (2012), Suburban Gothic (2014) and Trash Fire (2016). With his newest film, Tone-Deaf, debuting at the tail end of this decade, I was all but positive that Bates would not only get the final word in on the 2010s but that it would be a glorious word, indeed.
Unfortunately, as often happens, my hopes and assumptions didn’t quite hit the mark. Not only is Tone-Deaf the weakest entry in Bates’ filmography, thus far, but it also managed to be one of the more middling efforts of the whole year. What gives? How did one of my favorite modern filmmakers manage to make one of the lesser films of 2019?
The problem, as it turns out, is that Tone-Deaf is all text, no subtext. Bates seems to have had but one goal in mind: hammer home the ever-widening gulf between “Baby Boomers” and “Millennials,” making the whole thing as obvious as possible. This tale of a ruthlessly self-entitled Millennial (Amanda Crew) renting an AirBnB from a murderous Baby Boomer (Robert Patrick) has no surprises whatsoever because everything is telegraphed right to the audience, often via monologues that Patrick delivers right to the camera.
It’s a shame, really, because the film looks and sounds absolutely gorgeous: cinematographer Ed Wu shoots the mansion location to excellent effect and there’s a neatly trippy acid sequence, at one point, that manages to stake claim as being one of the better cinematic drug trips out there. Visually, Tone-Deaf is as good as Bates gets. Thematically, however, it feels more like a collapsed souffle than any sort of intelligent discourse on this battle of the ages (literally). Bates has traded in the scalding discourse and ideas of his first three films (particularly the scathing Trash Fire) for mindless sniping and the kind of notions that are probably more appropriate for memes than indie cinema. It’s a real shame but I’m confident he’ll course-correct on his next project: after all, they can’t all be hits, right?
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And with that, our Week Two coverage has come to an end. Stay tuned for Week Three, faithful readers!