Welcome to 2018, folks: the VHS Graveyard has officially risen from its undead slumber to feast upon the free-time of unsuspecting passerby! We’ll address the protracted silence in a future update but, for now, let’s dive right into the meat of the matter with that best time of the year: the 31 Days of Halloween.
Long-time readers will know that October is regarded as the most sacred of months by yours truly: as such, I forego any and all films that aren’t (at least implicitly) horror. My intention for this year was to watch at least one horror film for every day in October: while the first part of the month hasn’t necessarily borne this out, there’s still plenty of October to get through. One that note, I now present the first week of the 31 Days of Halloween.
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The Witch (2016)
When I first watched Robert Eggers’ The Witch, I was endlessly impressed by the film’s reserve and creeping, oppressive atmosphere, finding it to be one of the highlights of a pretty good year for horror cinema. I didn’t like it as much this time around, although there’s no denying the moments of brilliance. In some ways, this is akin to my current response to the original Blair Witch Project: it just doesn’t grab me like it used to.
This tale of religious paranoia, persecution and the devil in New England may be timelier now than when it was released (particularly the focus on female agency) but my latest re-watch found me focusing much more on the stagey performances (the twins, in particular, are insufferable) than the subtext and I found myself wishing there were a bit more room for speculation regarding the title character. The whole thing comes off as both too blunt and too vague but it’s still a potent cocktail, when the mix is right.
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Writer/director Sergio G. Sanchez impressed with his script for slow-burner The Orphanage: his newest, Marrowbone, isn’t quite as successful. This Southern Gothic mashup of The Others, The Lovely Bones and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (yep) concerns the title decaying estate and the fractured family that have taken its name as their own. A tight-knit family of brothers and sisters must deal with hauntings both literal and metaphorical, along with the all-too concrete evils of the outside world. When an unfortunate chain of events topples the fragile balance, the results prove catastrophic.
In many ways, Sanchez’s Marrowbone is only nominally a horror film: the focus is firmly on the real-world miseries of these characters, much like Mike Flanagan’s new The Haunting of Hill House series, rather than any monsters. There’s still much here for genre fans to dig their teeth into, however, including a positively Hitchcockian sequence involving a signature and several tense cat-and-mouse chases. The downside, unfortunately, is that too much of the film plays as intensely silly and the resolution strains credulity way too much to be effective. There are lots of good intentions but the results are unfortunately average.
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The Lodgers (2018)
There’s a lot to like about Brian O’Malley’s The Lodgers, although I suspect it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Twin brother and sister live on their own in a secluded, crumbling mansion with something very strange in the basement. They live by three basic rules: be in bed by midnight, let no stranger inside the door and never leave each other’s side. When the twins turn eighteen and the sister starts falling for a recently-returned war veteran, however, the delicate balance is upset and the Lodgers come calling.
This Gothic fairy tale looks gorgeous and features one of the coolest decaying mansions this side of Crimson Peak: it also has a serious case of the Lovecrafts and that undercurrent of cosmic dread is a big part of the film’s atmosphere. The languid pace and uncomfortable subject matter might turn off viewers but I liked this quite a bit and might even have loved it with a few less side-plots and a tighter finale. If nothing else, this was a definite step up from O’Malley’s last film, the absurd Let Us Prey.
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Murder Party (2007)
An unassuming schlub finds an invitation to a Halloween eve “murder party” on the sidewalk and eagerly accepts because he’s got nothing else to do besides fight with the cat for his chair. Upon arrival at said destination (in his spiffy, handmade cardboard armor, no less), our hero finds a group of moronic, costumed hipsters who really do plan to kill him, provided they can get their heads out of their asses. What follows is one of the funniest, bloodiest and most memorable horror-comedies ever, predating Tucker & Dale vs Evil by several years and recalling nothing so much as the bonkers early films of Peter Jackson.
Before he was the talk of the town with indie hits like Blue Ruin and Green Room, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier kicked things off with this unsung gem. Murder Party is one of those rare films that just gets everything right: the humor is great, the practical effects are well-done and astoundingly gory, the script is smart and zippy, the acting is strong and it never feels shabby, despite its obviously low budget. There’s a great performance by Saulnier regular Macon Blair, firmly tying this to his canon. Murder Party is even set on Halloween, making this a no-brainer for seasonal consumption. And there’s a cute cat named Sir Lancelot. Just watch the damn thing already!
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A teen girl gets mad at her mom and does the only sensible thing: she summons a demon named Pyewacket to snuff her out. When the young lady has a change of heart, however, will it be as simple to call off the (Hell)hounds? This is the question posed by actor-turned-director Adam MacDonald’s newest film, Pyewacket, which follows up his killer bear debut, Backcountry. While I must admit ignorance regarding Backcountry (it’s still on my to-see list), I had heard many good things about his follow-up via festival performances. As usual, the buzz was a little overly enthusiastic.
While there are moments where MacDonald’s sophomore feature threatens to approach The Babadook, it never quite reaches those heady heights. Truth be told, Pyewacket is held back by a general lack of imagination and innovation: everything here has a familiar feel and the often iffy performances really don’t help matters. There are disturbing moments, without a doubt, but they’re too often undercut by the amateurish dramatics and lackluster payoffs. We never feel as connected to the core of the story as we should and that’s a real shame: Pyewacket isn’t a terrible film but it’s very rarely a great film and it could’ve been.
Stay tuned for week two: coming soon!