Welcome back, boos and ghouls, to The VHS Graveyard’s 31 Days of Halloween (2015 edition). Last time around, we gave some brief discussions on our first week’s worth of movies: this time around, we’ll be tackling the films perused during the second week of October, from 10/5 to 10/11. As always, expect more in-depth discussion of these in the (hopefully) near future: for the time being, here are mini-reviews for the twenty-five films we screened last week.
A Christmas Horror Story — Anthologies are nothing new in the world of horror films but horror-oriented Christmas anthologies? As rare as Kris Kringle in August. Here to remedy this sad little disparity is the multi-director/writer effort A Christmas Horror Story, soon to be joined by at least two other Christmas/Krampus-related anthologies in the next few months. ACHS looks absolutely gorgeous, thanks to some truly beautiful cinematography, and sports a pretty expert use of CGI to create things like a buffed-out Krampus and some pretty authentic gore. If only one of the stories has a truly satisfying finale (the Santa vs zombie elves episode is just about perfect), at least only one of them is kind of a stinker: when you’re dealing with anthologies, sometimes that’s the most you can hope for.
Gremlins — Growing up, I watched Gremlins so often that I pretty much had the film’s entire blocking memorized. While the film, itself, is just about the best example of evil besieging a small town that’s ever been put to film (“Norman Rockwell meets hellspawn”), it’s the slyly subversive sense of humor that really makes this one so memorable. If you were a horror fanatic who came of age in the ’80s, I’m more than willing to wager that Phoebe Cates’ infamous Santa story was as integral to your formative years as it was to mine. Bonus points for effects that have not only aged well but actually surpass more modern, CGI-heavy spectacles.
The Stranger — I wasn’t really sure what to expect before starting this and, once the end credits rolled, I still wasn’t quite sure. Nominally a vampire film, The Stranger really owes more to mean-spirited ’80s revenge films. The dialogue is often awkward, as are the line deliveries from the predominately Chilean cast (the cast deliver their lines in English, which recalls nothing so much as similarly-made Itallo-gore films of the ’80s), and the acting can be earnest to the point of self-parody. Written and directed by frequent Eli Roth collaborator Guillermo Amoedo (who also wrote Roth’s upcoming The Green Inferno and Knock Knock), The Stranger is light years better than the patently awful Aftershock but, ultimately, that’s not much of a selling point.
Saw V — Tedious, bland and full of performances that confuse shouting with passion, the fifth entry in the Saw franchise continues to grind out the increasingly complex and navel-gazing storyline but there’s not a whole lot of fun to be found here. There is a nice subtext about the need to work together in order to survive but it’s hopelessly buried in the muck like a rapidly dying star.
Alien Outpost — In many ways, Alien Outpost is like a mockbuster version of Monsters: Dark Continent. Both films use the pretext of alien invasions as a way to make yet another comment on U.S. military incursions into the Middle East. Both films feature groups of largely anonymous, interchangeable soldiers (Alien Outpost, at the very least, has the benefit of Highlander’s Adrian Paul, the patron saint of poverty-row sci-fi productions) duking it out with insurgents in the desert. Both films relegate their creatures to the extreme background. Both films, as it turns out, are not only mostly interchangeable but largely forgettable.
The Monster Squad — One of the most important films of my formative years (along with Night of the Creeps), The Monster Squad began my lifelong love affair with those conjoined geniuses, Fred Dekker and Shane Black. While Dekker would only direct three features in his entire career (Night of the Creeps, The Monster Squad and RoboCop 3), Black would go on to write such little-seen indie sleepers as the Lethal Weapon franchise, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Smart-mouthed kids fighting famous monsters as written by the guy that created Lethal Weapon? Yeah…it’s kind of awesome.
Escape to Witch Mountain — Another of my favorite films as a youngster, Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain feels a little dated, these days, but still largely holds up. Featuring Ray Milland and Donald Pleasence as nefarious 1%ers out to exploit the psychic abilities of a couple of cherubic extraterrestrial kids and Eddie Albert as the kindly (if curmudgeonly) guy who takes them under his wing, there’s lots of the usual Disney shenanigans (dancing puppets in an extended, almost overly jubilant bit) but also just enough real menace to give the whole thing a little bite.
We Are Still Here — Before it collapses a little in the final third, writer/director Ted Geoghegan’s debut, We Are Still Here, is an appropriately chilling little homage to films like Lucio Fulci’s House By the Cemetery and The Beyond. Up until the Grand Guignol finale, the film is a mostly glacier-paced exercise in sustained tension that makes good use of its chilly, isolated locations, puncturing the relative calm with bracing moments of intense, physical violence. Although the film becomes much more predictable when it turns into something of a supernatural Straw Dogs by the end, what leads up to that is suitably chilling and bodes well for Geoghegan’s future output. And besides: any film that features both Larry Fessenden (his séance scene is fantastic) and Barbara Crampton obviously has its heart in the right place.
The Hidden — More of a relentless action film than a horror or sci-fi film (similar to the modus operandi behind The Terminator), The Hidden is a giddy, full-throttle and gently mindless bit of cinematic cotton candy. The interplay between a young Kyle MacLachlan and tough-as-nails Michael Nouri is the real star of the show, although elements like the kickass punk/metal soundtrack and a suitably slimy slug-alien creature do their job to keep the home fires burning. Add in a slightly subversive sense of humor (the scene where the alien becomes a woman for the first time is kind of great) and you’ve got yourself the recipe for a fun, if largely forgotten, bit of ’80s action fluff.
Air — With an intriguing premise (two blue-collar guys are responsible for taking care of the rest of humanity, who are all cryogenically frozen) and a pair of solid performances from The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus and Amistad’s Djimon Hounsou, indie sci-fi thriller Air should have been an easy home-run. When the film just focuses on the nitty-gritty of Reedus and Hounsou surviving against the odds, it’s an enthralling watch. Once the two end up at odds, however, the whole thing becomes much more conventional and much less interesting, winding up in a “happy” ending that feels as undeserved as it is contrived. Moon, Gravity and All is Lost did much more interesting things from roughly the same area code.
Hidden — Rarely have I been as genuinely frustrated with a film as I was with Hidden. For the first half or so, the film is virtually flawless, managing to make the plight of a family of three in an underground bunker seem as white-knuckle and relentless as a rollercoaster. Once the twists start to pour in, however (three major ones, in a row, which is at least two twists too many), the genuinely interesting survival aspect is put on the back burner for an “us against them” trope that’s as old and musty as an ossuary. This was far from a terrible film, which actually made the let-down that much more frustrating. Call it the case of the front-runner who snaps their ankle right before the finish line: the true definition of tragedy.
The Beyond — The effects are largely unconvincing (although extremely enthusiastic), the acting is rather rudimentary and any sense of logic or continuity is largely absent but I’ll be damned if legendary Itallo gore-godfather Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond isn’t one of the most unintentionally badass films in the horror universe. With a storyline that tosses Lovecraft, King and graphic splatter into a blender and punches “liquify,” The Beyond is pretty much the epitome of a film better experienced than pondered. Fabbio Frizzi’s kinetic synth scores hits all the requisite Goblin tones, the oppressive atmosphere is as thick as denim and that final shot of the “beyond” is as unforgettable today as it was 34 years ago. Fulci might have been somewhat of a spiritual bratty little brother to Argento’s assured maestro but The Beyond proves that the irritable auteur earned his place in the horror pantheon. And then some.
Some Kind of Hate — This had a pretty unbeatable concept for a teen slasher (bullied misfit gets sent to a camp for troubled teens and unleashes the spirit of a vengeful, dead bullied teen) and a great concept for the “ghost” (she harms herself in order to harm her victims) but was pretty much DOA from the jump. Obnoxious, full of eye-rolling performances and never with more than a Wikipedia-lite grasp on teen bullying, this was a complete chore to sit through. Lead Ronen Rubenstein isn’t terrible, even if his character gets annoying before the final reel, but Sierra McCormick’s pivotal Moira (the ghost) is pretty awful, concept notwithstanding. Obvious, blunt to the point of being lunk-headed and ridiculously fidgety, this was a pretty big disappointment.
Knock Knock — For a filmmaker who’s been something of a trend-setter since the early aughts, it’s important to remember that Eli Roth only had three full-lengths under his belt prior to this year (Cabin Fever, Hostel and Hostel 2). With his 2013 cannibal film The Green Inferno (finally seeing release this year) being more of an homage to classic Itallo-cannibal epics, this leaves Knock Knock with the onus of being Roth’s first truly “original” film since Hostel punched our gorge reflexes in the solar plexus over a decade ago. If you think about it, that’s quite a bit of anticipation…could anything actually live up to the hype?
Right off the bat, Knock Knock exhibits many of the issues that I’ve always had with Roth’s films: he can’t direct actors to save his life (he wrings an absolutely awful performance out of poor Keanu Reeves, who seemed to be on an upswing, as of late), his wild tonal shifts fail as much as they connect (his insistence on sneaking slapstick into his films is the kind of smirking affectation that should really be slapped out of him) and his continued reliance on friend/writer Guillermo Amoedo has produced more terrible scripts than bad (Aftershock, The Stranger and Knock Knock all have simply terrible scripts).
On the other hand, it’s impossible to deny that Knock Knock is a huge evolution in Roth’s filmmaking. While his grasp on tension, in the past, was always precipitated on the promise of extreme, mind-searing gore, Knock Knock manages to maintain its white-knuckle tension with nothing more extreme than a fork in the shoulder (for Roth, that’s pretty much the equivalent of a Disney film) and an escalating series of bad decisions that end up bearing enormously bad fruit. Knock Knock is an absolute blast from start to finish, regardless of (and, occasionally, because of) all the aforementioned issues. Reeves goes full Nic Cage, shit goes from bad to worse in record time and the various twists are genuinely smart, regardless of the clunky dialogue. Without a doubt, my favorite Roth film (I’ve yet to see The Green Inferno) and one of the most intriguing films I’ve screened in a while.
All Hallows’ Eve 2 — The first All Hallows’ Eve came out of nowhere and completely bowled me over when I watched it last October, so I was pretty darn excited when the sequel popped up just as mysteriously. This time around, there are eight stories instead of three and multiple writers/directors handle the tales rather than the unified vision of the first one’s Damien Leone (definitely a filmmaker to watch). This is a whole lot more polished and flashy than Leone’s gritty, lo-fi original, which actually works against the whole “found footage on a VHS tape” angle. That being said, the stories are all interesting, even if only three of the eight could properly be considered “shorts” with full structures: the others are more vignettes than anything else (one short is only two minutes long, after all). A post-apocalyptic trick or treat session yields some real chills and “A Boy’s Life” surprises with its genuine emotional heft and great acting. There are a lot worse horror anthologies out there than All Hallows’ Eve 2, even if it never approaches the disturbing heights of its predecessor.
Curse of Chucky — I didn’t expect much when I started this, which made it all the more surprising when I fell head over heels for it. In the purest ways possible, Don Mancini’s Curse of Chucky (the sixth in the series, all of which have been written by Mancini) is a perfect horror film: the villain is fantastic and genuinely menacing, the acting is top-notch, the scares and tension are based around suspense and anticipation and the effects are astounding. Everything about the film shot for the sky and, for the most part, had no problem hitting orbit. Whether it was the way in which the film’s numerous set-pieces managed to channel Hitchcock (there’s a dinner scene that manages to sit nicely on the shelf next to ol’ Hitch’s classics), the subtle ways in which Chucky’s face gradually changed throughout the film or the brilliant ways in which Mancini not only tied the film in with the others but managed to expand on the mythos, Curse of Chucky is easily the best film in the series (that includes the original, ya purists) and one of the very best horror films I’ve seen in forever. Friends to the end, indeed!
American Mary — I’ve already written extensively about the Soska Sisters’ American Mary when I first saw the film a few years back, so here’s the Cliff Notes version: this is an absolutely brilliant film and one of my very favorites, genre be damned. Impossibly ugly, heart-rendingly beautiful and featuring one of the most iconic protagonists in modern cinema, American Mary is one of those works of art that seems to descend from elsewhere, fully created and ready to set the world on fire. Completely badass, full of instantly memorable characters, thoroughly self-assured and absolutely fearless, American Mary is definitely one of the highlights of modern cinema. While this story of revenge, self-discovery and extreme body modification is a difficult pill to swallow, it’s the instant antidote to anyone who bemoans the lack of quality modern genre films. They exist: you just have to dig a little deeper, that’s all.
The Final Girls — I went into Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls fully expecting to love it and, to my extreme joy, I was not disappointed. Incredibly smart, cleverly meta, full of fantastic performances and genuinely emotionally resonant, this is easily one of the best horror films (well…horror-comedies) of the year. AHS’ Taissa Farmiga is simply stunning as the grief-choked daughter who gets a chance to reunite with her now-dead mother, albeit by “stepping into” an ’80s slasher film (blending Friday the 13th with The Purple Rose of Cairo is but one of the brilliant things presented here). There’s plenty of reliably comic performances here from the likes of Alia Shawkat, Thomas Middleditch and the always amazing Adam Devine but if you don’t choke up at the interactions between Farmiga and mom Malin Akerman, well…you might just have a heart of stone, buddy.
The Midnight Swim — Leisurely paced to the point of occasionally feeling inert, writer/director Sarah Adina Smith’s The Midnight Swim is the furthest thing from a thrill-ride. For patient viewers, however, this haunting tale of sisters returning to their childhood home to mourn their dead mother really pays off in the long run. While I wasn’t always on-board with some of Smith’s choices (there’s a goofy lip-synching scene that sort of sticks out and some of the scenes are held past the point of “evocative” straight into “navel-gazing”), I genuinely liked and respected the film. While the end may seem like a bit of a left-field twist, there are plenty of road signs to help guide us there and the whole thing ended up feeling impossibly uplifting and rather inspirational. Combine all of this with the fact that the film is, essentially, a found-footage movie and you have one of the most surprising, effective little films of the past few years. I, for one, cannot wait to see where Smith goes from here.
Hardware — This genuinely frightening tale of technology run amok is impossibly weird, which only makes sense when you consider the source: auteur Richard Stanley is a genuinely weird genius. Full of hallucinatory images, nonsensical dream sequences, astounding moments of ultra-gore and some of the flat-out oddest characters this side of Mad Max (the scrap-dealing dwarf is great but the outrageously vulgar peeping tom is utterly unforgettable), this has been one of my favorite films since the very first time I saw it as an impressionable kid. I can guarantee one thing: you’ve never seen anything like this before and I seriously doubt we’ll see its like again. Apple pie nerve toxin: delicious!
Tremors 5: Bloodlines — While I genuinely enjoy the first few films in the Tremors franchise (the original is an absolute classic), everything about the newest one is strictly by-the-book and rather silly. While the film looks pretty good and features decent performances from series mainstay Michael Gross and newcomer Jamie Kennedy, it’s strictly Sy-Fy when it comes to tone and intention. Add to this an uncomfortable tendency for the film to humiliate Gross’ heroic Burt Gummer at every possible turn (the scene where he gets trapped in a cage and is forced to drink his own urine, right before a large lion comes over and, literally, pisses all over him, is the worst kind of unforgettable) and you have a film that just isn’t a lot of fun.
Saw VI — When I was younger, the Saw series was one of my favorites and I eagerly looked forward to each new installment. Years later, as I re-watch the entire series for the first time, I’m struck by one, simple thought: these films are actually kinda shitty. Aside from the invention of the first and the third entries, none of them have grabbed me anew and, to that end, Part 6 is one of the worst and most tedious. From the obnoxious hyper-kinetic editing to the genuinely ugly look to the impossibly stupid and increasingly complex motivations of the characters, everything about this film is like getting pounded in the face with a sledgehammer. Helmed by “filmmaker” Kevin Greutert, who would go on to helm the notoriously execrable Jessebelle, the only emotion Saw VI elicits is the overwhelming desire for Jigsaw to help the series end its pain. Wanna play a game? Naw…I’m good, dude.
The Omen — Helmed by future Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner, The Omen is pretty much the epitome of multiplex horror circa the mid-’70s: based on a best-selling book, full of familiar faces, melodramatic and just violent enough to get the point across (the window-pane decapitation is a great setpiece, no matter how you slice it), it’s easy to see this appealing to the Saturday night, popcorn-and-soda crowd. On the plus-side, the film features sturdy performances from leads Peck and Remick and a handful of genuinely creepy moments (the graveyard scene is an easy highlight, as is the birthday party suicide). On the down side, it’s almost unrelentingly loud, heavy-handed and kind of dumb: add to that one of the most “Vasoliney” lenses since the glory days of Liz Taylor’s “White Diamonds” commercials and the whole thing feels fairly dated.
Damien: Omen II — Despite being much more grounded and decidedly less hysterical than the first film, the second movie in the Omen series is still kind of a dud. None of the deaths have any impact (aside from the utterly batshit elevator scene, which easily tops anything in the entire series) and the military school setting is woefully under-used (as is poor Lance Henriksen). There is some interesting discussion based around Thorn Industries becoming a sort of proto-Monsanto but it’s more interesting in theory than execution. This is also where the first film’s mythos about stabbing the Antichrist with the seven daggers starts to get awfully slippery, leading to the final film’s veritable free-for-all. When the scariest thing in your horror film is a sinister crow, you might have a problem.
Omen III: The Final Conflict — Finishing off the series, The Final Conflict lets the narrative from the first two films play to its conclusion, albeit influenced and modified by the burgeoning slasher trend of the early ’80s. There’s some first-person-stalker POV here (unlike the first two films) and the performances and violence certainly seem influenced by the era. Sam Neill is good as the now-grown Damien, even if his gentle gnawing of the scenery erupts into a full-on gluttonous orgy by the film’s final reel. For all that, however, the third Omen film is just serviceable, much like the first two. Extra points for the goofy, straight-faced religious salvation of the finale, which proves that evil always loses…especially when it chews the scenery like the Tasmanian Devil on speed. There are a couple genuinely shocking moments here (the attempted interview assassination begins on a slightly humorous edge before quickly nose-diving into pure horror) but, for the most part, is the dictionary definition of “middle-of-the-road.”