31 Days of Halloween, American Fable, cinema, Cult of Chucky, film reviews, films, George Romero, horror, horror films, horror movies, Housebound, Movies, Night of the Living Dead, October, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, They're Watching, Tobe Hooper
At long last, The VHS Graveyard returns from its slumber to present the annual 31 Days of Halloween. As longtime readers will know, one day out of the year is a paltry celebration for the kaleidoscopic glory represented by horror films: as such, we celebrate horror for all 31 days of October, forgoing any and all cinema that does not, in fact, go bump in the night.
While previous Octobers have seen the VHS Graveyard plowing through mountains of cinematic goodies, from the most-current chillers to old favorites, we’ve scaled it back a little this year. As always, however, our goal remains the same: screen at least one horror film for every day of the month of October. We didn’t quite hit the quota for this week but, nonetheless, we humbly present the six films that make up the first week of our October viewing. As always, we invite you to discover new favorites and reconnect with old friends. Welcome to the Season of the Witch!
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My October viewing got off to a bit of a false start with writer-director Anne Hamilton’s feature-length debut, American Fable. While I didn’t expect the film to feature overt horror elements, various discussions had pegged it as magical-realist and a spiritual successor to Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which definitely put it on my radar.
In actuality, American Fable is a dark coming-of-age drama with a consistently oppressive atmosphere and frequent forays into dream sequences and fantasies that put it closer to Peter Jackson’s striking Heavenly Creatures, albeit with a more mundane resolution. 11-year-old Gitty (the impressive Peyton Kennedy) has a lot going on in her world: her stressed-out parents are one thin dime away from losing their family farm…her shithead older brother, Martin, makes a game out of swinging an ax at her hand and threatening her beloved chicken, Happy…she’s dealing with the pangs of adolescence…oh yeah…there’s also the mysterious man (Richard Schiff) that Gitty finds trapped in her family’s abandoned grain silo, which, as always, can’t be a good sign.
American Fable was a lot easier to respect than actually enjoy, at least as far as I was concerned. Although the film looked and sounded fantastic (cinematographer Wyatt Garfield also shot Lila & Eve), with one carousel sequence that has to go down as the single most gorgeous shot of the entire year, it was also rather dull. The reveal did nothing to help things, turning the film into a much more middle-of-the-road crime drama than it was probably shooting for. The fantastic elements were an odd fit, to boot, feeling distinctly out-of-place with the grim seriousness of everything else.
There was enough here that worked (similar to Ryan Gosling’s odd Lost River) for me to be interested in Hamilton’s future work but American Fable certainly isn’t the calling-card it could have been.
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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
I’ve watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre more times than I can count, quite possibly more times than any other film on my “All-time Favorites” list. I don’t always screen it every October but I try to screen it most Octobers: it’s the kind of film I never get tired of seeing and it’s always as welcome as catching up with an old friend. I always find something new in this ageless tale of dumb teenagers getting on the wrong side of an insane family of cannibals, deep in the Texas badlands. It is, quite frankly, one of the very best horror films in the entirety of the genre and, might I add, one of the best films, in general.
There was no way I would miss screening TCM this October for one simple, sad reason: the man who made the saw scream, genre legend Tobe Hooper, shuffled off this mortal coil on August 26th of this year. While Hooper’s career was far from perfect (his last truly great film was actually The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, way back in 1986), he was still responsible for some of the films that I hold closest to my heart: the aforementioned Chainsaws, Eaten Alive, The Funhouse and Salem’s Lot. He was a unique visionary who burned bright and fast but left an indelible mark on the world of film.
If you have any doubt of Hooper’s lasting power, do one simple thing to realign your compass: turn off all the lights, put your phone away and watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre tonight. That feeling in your gut? That’s dread, buckaroo, and Hooper wrote the first and last word on it 43 years ago. Let that sink in.
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Night of the Living Dead (1968)
2017 has been a rather dreadful year, in general, but it’s been particularly shitty for old-school horror fanatics. Not only did we lose Tobe Hooper but we lost the Father of the Living Dead himself, George A. Romero. When you’re talking legends, they don’t get more legendary than the visionary who wrote the rule-book that zombie films (and pop culture) would follow for nearly 50 years and counting.
As simple in set-up as it is powerful in execution, Romero’s debut is an exercise in economy that does nothing to distill the apocalyptic fury that it contains. NOTLD planted the seeds for not only the entirety of zombie films that would follow but also laid the groundwork for siege films, ala Assault on Precinct 13 and Fort Apache: The Bronx. It featured a black lead who was portrayed as a strong, independent individual in the same year that the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was ripping the country apart. It featured graphic (remember, this was 1968) sequences of gut-munching and dismemberment and had no problem with killing off children (still somewhat of a cinematic taboo).
Romero had a rich career outside of his landmark Dead film, including classics like The Crazies, Martin, Creepshow and The Dark Half, but it all started back in that little farmhouse, in grainy black and white, with legions of the freshly dead clawing at the windows. George Romero changed my world, no small feat, but he also changed the world and that’s why he’ll never be forgotten.
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Cult of Chucky
On a happier note: Don Mancini is still alive and kicking and I’m eternally grateful for that! He’s been writing the Child’s Play series all the way back since the first one, in 1988, but only took over the director’s reins beginning with 2004’s Seed of Chucky. While that effort wasn’t amazing, 2013’s Curse of Chucky most certainly was: introducing a Hitchcockian element that sounds ludicrous on paper but plays out perfectly, Curse of Chucky was not only a breath of fresh air but a clear signal that the Child’s Play franchise was alive and kicking.
This year’s brand-spanking-new Cult of Chucky isn’t quite as perfect as Curse but that’s a minor quibble: trading Hitchcock for Cronenberg, Mancini comes up with another delirious, giddy, gorgeously shot bit of blood-soaked eye candy, providing fan service for the long-timers while managing to keep things fresh and new for everybody else.
This time around, Nica (the thoroughly kickass Fiona Dourif, channeling her inner Ripley) is confined to a mental institution and accused of Chucky’s murders from the previous entry. When the ol’ Chuckster shows up to finish what he started, it sets into motion a complicated series of machinations involving long-time series hero Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent, grown-up), Chucky’s insane girlfriend, Tiffany Valentine (the always amazing Jennifer Tilly) and various incarnations of Chucky from the previous films. Nica is going to have to be strong, though: one Chucky might be a handful but a whole cult of Chuckys? That’s murder, buddy!
Self-referential, beautifully shot (one set-piece apes Argento in the best way possible) and with a fantastic, smart script, Cult of Chucky is quality filmmaking from first to last. The pleasures to be found here are virtually endless (one of the most sublime being the scene where Fiona gets to, essentially, perform as her father) but the brilliant finale, which flips the whole series on its keister, indicates that Mancini has plenty of fun left in his bag of tricks. An easy lock for one of my very favorite horror films of 2017, hands down.
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Originally screened as part of my eternally on-going pursuit to see every horror film released in 2016, I decided to re-watch They’re Watching as part of this year’s seasonal festivities for one important reason: I really dug it the first time around and was in the mood for a fun romp. As hoped, this fit the bill quite nicely.
Coming from the demented minds of writer-director duo Jay Lender (Spongebob Squarepants, Phineas and Ferb) and Micah Wright (videogames like Destroy All Humans and Call of Duty) comes a film that, no surprise, is equal parts video game, live-action cartoon and gonzo horror-comedy. Parodying endless cable home improvement shows, They’re Watching follows a hapless, woefully unprepared film crew as they travel to rural Slovenia and collide with murderous locals and, perhaps, something much more ancient and fundamentally dangerous.
From beginning to end, They’re Watching is a giddy romp, taking a kitchen-sink approach to its subject matter that actually works. Combing elements of backwoods brutality, found-footage, witchcraft, possession, horror-comedies, home improvement shows and ’90s SFX spectacles (albeit with much cheaper digital FX) makes for a finished product that is never dull and, at times, genuinely surprising. Suffice to say that I liked this just as much as the first time around, indicating that They’re Watching has earned a spot on my seasonal rotation list.
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I’ve written extensively about Gerard Johnstone’s delightful Housebound in the past, even going so far as to name it my favorite horror film of 2014. This wonderful tale of an obnoxious petty criminal who gets the ultimate punishment when she’s placed under house arrest in her overbearing mother’s possibly haunted house became a favorite of mine from the very first time I saw it and the love has diminished not one bit.
What more is there to say about this charmer (think fellow New Zealander Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners but with much more heart) than that you should see it immediately? With news coming in that Johnstone has just been pegged to pen the Justice League Dark script, this might be the last chance to catch him before the superhero machine sends this talented writer-director straight into the stratosphere.
Stay tuned for Week 2 and keep it spooky, boos and ghouls!