With no fanfare, I now present Week Two of the 31 Days of Halloween. The fifteen films below represent quite the gamut, from old classics to modern rubbish. The only uniting factor? They’re all horror (give or take) and they were all screened between October 8th and October 14th. On to the films!
The Alchemist Cookbook
Joel Potrykus’ insane Buzzard (Holden Caulfield with Krueger claws, stickin’ it to the phonies and getting frighteningly metaphysical) was one of my very favorite films of last year, so the wait for his follow-up, The Alchemist Cookbook, was nothing short of excruciating. Good thing it’s just as amazing, insane and mind-blowing. Imagine, if you can, a world where Evil Dead, Repulsion, A Field in England and the Sorceror’s Apprentice segment of Fantasia are all the same film. Easy, right? Now imagine that Mickey is a mentally unbalanced, potentially dangerous loner who just discovered either the secret to turning lead into gold or a portal straight into Hell. Or not. The beauty of Potrykus’ latest is that you just don’t know, right up until the point where he pulls the tablecloth off, leaving every last bit of crystalware standing, unmoved. As expected, one of my favorite films of the year, hands down.
I Am Not a Serial Killer
If there’s one thing you can’t call Irish writer/director Billy O’Brien’s coming-of-age/supernatural thriller I Am Not a Serial Killer, it would definitely have to be “middle-of-the-road.” The Isolation auteur’s latest involves a small-town teen (the absolutely astounding Max Records, who deserves an acting nomination) who must discover what dark force has been murdering the locals, all while surpressing his own, burgeoning psychopathic tendencies. The scene where Max calmly explains how he just starts complimenting people whenever he thinks about killing them, right before profusely complimenting the town bully, is an absolute masterstroke. Toss in Christopher Lloyd as a kindly old neighbor with a terrible secret, some genuinely disturbing violence and a creature design that’s suitably weird and you have the makings of a pretty fantastic little film. There’s also a nice streak of gallows’ humor that runs through the proceedings, lightening the mood considerably.
The Neon Demon
Full disclosure: I’m a pretty huge fanboy when it comes to Nicolas Winding Refn: I’ve dearly loved every one of his films that I’ve seen, from the extraordinary, magical-realism of Bronson to the “too cool for school” style over substance of Drive and Only God Forgives. Hell, I absolutely adore Valhalla Rising and that one’s even a tough sell for art film fans. This is all by way of saying that I really disliked his newest, The Neon Demon, almost to the point of actively hating the film. Tedious, silly, obvious and rather obnoxious, Refn approaches this moldy tale of the fashion industry literally chewing up and spitting out young women like he has something new to add, only to come up with something that feels like a lesser version of Starry Eyes. While the film looks absolutely stunning (from the glitter-imbued opening credits all the way through the Grand Guignol model shoot that ends the film, The Neon Demon is, without a doubt, one of the best looking films I’ve ever seen), it’s as empty as a foam mannequin head. Easily one of the biggest disappointments of the entire year.
Even when new films are on the agenda, you still have to sneak a few classics in: that’s just tradition. Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm has always been one of my favorite films (the series, not so much), so watching it in a glorious, cleaned-up, 4K transfer is pretty damn awesome. The film is still as weird and nonsensical as it ever was (Demon Jawas? Creepy, trans-dimensional undertakers? Reggie?!) but it now looks better than ever. If you’re an old fan, be sure not to skip this remaster: it’s absolutely worth another look.
I’ve seen a lot of truly terrible, bottom-of-the-barrel crap this year but Bunni earned it’s spot at the bottom with an ease that is truly scary. The film looks like shit, the actors aren’t (and never will be, I’m guessing), it’s impossibly tedious, has zero wit, invention or brains and seems to have been edited by someone who graduated from the Ed Wood School of Film and Stuff. It’s also only a little over an hour long, excluding credits, which ends up being the only bright spot, ironically. I have seen quite a few zero budget 2016 horror films that managed to be clever, unique, fun and interesting, despite their shortcomings. By comparison, watching Bunni is like willingly slamming your thumb in a door, over and over, for the better part of an hour. My advice? Don’t.
Some films dip a toe in the weird end of the pool and some films dive right in with gusto: writer/director Danny Perez’ Antibirth is a diver, through and through. Any mere description will fail to touch on just how fundamentally weird this is but here goes: after a wild night of drinkin’ and druggin,’ local burn-out Lou (the impossibly awesome and perfect Natashsa Lyonne, in a truly award-winning performance) wakes up sick, foggy and, apparently, very pregnant. With the help of her best friend, Sadie (the equally radical and amazing Chloe Sevigny), Lou must find what, exactly, happened to her before something even worse happens. By turns hilarious, sad, really weird, gross and a little frustrating, Antibirth isn’t as amazing and outrageous as it could have been but Lyonne and Sevigny make a dynamite combo and the finale will go down as one of the most unforgetttable, unpleasant and amazing things I’ve ever seen. It’s also great to see a horror film that not only focuses on female characters but also on female relationships, dynamics, gender issues and themes. Not perfect, by any means, but pretty darn cool.
Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? This “comedy” about a team of amateur ghosthunters is terrible…absolutely wretched. Caustically unfunny (it actually made me angry), smug, stupid, obvious, manic, idiotic and a complete waste of a rather serviceable cast (Jon Heder is capable of much better, although Justin Long will always be at home in shit like this), there isn’t one thing about this waste of time that I can recommend. Suffice to say, I got a free copy and it still wasn’t worth it. If this is the kind of thing that makes you chuckle, you might have already been lobotomized.
Sometimes, a film can suffer by being too similar to another film, whether by design or accident. Rebirth, about a boring, middle-management type who is given the opportunity to completely “reinvent” himself via a strange, invitation-only “seminar,” is basically The Game, for better or worse, with a few twists. The film certainly looks good and gathers up a reasonable amount of tension along the way: it also features typically standout performances from genre mainstays Adam Goldberg (simply superb) and Pat Healy. The biggest problem ends up being how familiar the whole thing is: if you don’t get the big “twist” before the main character does, I’m willing to wager you stopped paying attention, which is a perfectly suitable reaction. Decent but distinctly middle-of-the-road and light on actual horror.
The Greasy Strangler
Sometimes, you know right off the bat whether a film is for you: this is one of those films. Grungy, gross, cringe-worthy, awkward, weird, silly and, above all, absolutely amazing, The Greasy Strangler is the love child of Herschell Gordon Lewis and John Waters, conceived in a filthy Times Square bathroom and raised on Twinkies, bathtub hooch and lots of grease. If the notion of a greasy old man with a huge, greasy prosthetic penis bothers you, walk on by. If the idea of a 5-minute scene where the leads yell “Bullshit artist” at each other sounds tedious, walk on by. If the very notion of a film that could best be described as the work of a brain-damaged Wes Anderson doesn’t sound like your cup of grease, walk on by. If you watch this and don’t feel anything, however, I have just one thing to say: “Bullshit artist!”
As someone who abhors remakes, in general, I was already predisposed to dislike the new Ghostbusters reboot on principle. On the other hand, I also genuinely like writer/director Paul Feig and think that Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon are amazing, especially when they’re allowed to cut loose. Turns out the only way to know, unlike plenty of internet ragers, was to actually watch the film. After all, if remakes are inevitable, they might as well be made by genuinely creative people, right?
As luck would have it, the film really isn’t very good but for reasons that have nothing to do with the cast (which is actually one of the film’s few saving graces) and everything to do with most modern, mega-budget tentpole films: the new Ghostbusters is a heavy-handed CGI spectacle that is ridiculously colorful and “cool” but as empty and pointless as a carnival ride. Everything is spoon-fed, every hand held. It dials down the horror aspect of the original almost completely: the terrifying Zuul setpiece has been replaced by a silly, action-packed Times Square segment that owes more to The Avengers than the original Ghostbusters. The film is ridiculously overlong and bloated (well over two hours in the version I watched). The script is pointedly unfunny (particularly odd considering Feig and the cast’s largely comedy background) and the film manages to be an uncomfortable mix of blatant fan-service (much of the original cast make silly, unrelated cameos, along with characters like Slimer and Stay Puft) and snarky critique of the original, much of which seems to be aimed at the mouth-breathing, bro-dog bloggers who blasted the film before it even started shooting. There was plenty of potential for this cast and creative team to deliver gold: we got pyrite, at best.
Easily one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, this was a sleeper, in the very best sense. A woman and her friend go to a storage facility, before closing, in order to retrieve a particular item. They misread the key and get into the wrong (very wrong) storage unit, kicking off a chain of events that’s much smarter, eerier and well-realized than these kinds of films usually are. The production values and cinematography are really good, the acting is consistently strong and the film is disturbing without being overly gory. One of the better indie horrors of the year.
Sort of All is Lost, if Robert Redford were replaced by Blake Lively and the boat was replaced by a ridiculously cool, evil shark. Quite good, full of tense, well-staged sequences and more than a few bits of full-on horror, along with a supremely cute seagull named Steven, this was the epitome of a good popcorn film. Lively is great as the potentially doomed surfer, despite being saddled with a few too many syrupy dramatic moments: she plays the role with a combination of steely determination and whistful flightiness that makes her character one of the more likeable of the summer. That shark, though…when ol’ dead eyes gets his murder instinct up, he’s quite the pulpy cinematic creation and easily one of the better villains of the year.
As a rule, this year’s horror-related theatrical offerings have been pretty weak, quality-wise, which ends up making Greg McClean’s The Darkness one of the better ones, ironically. Kevin Bacon and Radha Mitchell are predicatably solid, the opening is strong, the general concept is certainly original and the “creatures” are pretty great. That being said, the whole thing is also decidedly low stakes and non-lethal, making this PG-13 film more of a family-oriented title than anything else. Still a little hard to believe this is the mad genius behind Wolf Creek, though.
Another ultra-low budget film that ended up surprising me, in a good way, the horror anthology Terrortory actually had more spirit and good intentions than many mega-budget films I’ve seen. The concept is pretty killer (a particular township in America is home to every manner of monster, creepy occurance and urban legend possible, many of which end up as stories in the film), the effects are rather extraordinary, considering the poverty-row budget and each of the stories featured decent twists and plenty of genuinely creepy moments. The acting may have been a bit iffy (the Siren segment, in particular, is rough) and they overuse the generic woods setting a bit too much but this was consistently fun and never painful to sit through, even at its most amateurish. I may not want to live in the Terrortory full-time but I certainly wouldn’t mind another visit sometime.
Concerning a young woman suffering a mental breakdown in her apartment, during a city-wide blackout in New York, writer/director Nick Basile’s Dark never comes across as anything but a much lesser version of Polanski’s classic Repulsion. The film is never terrible, merely dull and uneventful, taking an extraordinarily long time to arrive at a punchline that most genre fans will see coming a mile away. The LGBT themes are refreshing (horror films rarely feature gay or lesbian lead characters), to be sure, and the flashlit apartment stairwells and lofts make for some suitably creepy locations. At the end of the day, however, Dark is never more than functional and obvious, qualities that it shares with a few too many films for comfort.
Coming soon: Week Three of the 31 Days of Halloween. Stay tuned, folks!