To ring in the season, I’m rebrewing what is probably the best all-around homebrew I’ve ever made: my homebrewed Christmas Ale. I call it: Rantlers! A portmanteau of “reindeer antlers” coined by the one and only Rocky Balboa in Rocky V. Not a great movie, but it is a great name for homebrew.
I used to do this thing where I’d cross-post the brew-day recap here and on my Beer Blog, but I won’t bore you all with all the gory details here. Instead, I’ll just leverage the magic of hyperlinks to send you over to the Beer Blog, where you can inspect the recipe to your heart’s content. Thanks Vannevar Bush!
Update 12.3.23 – Bottling day has come, everything appears to be on track, including some fancy fortified versions that I’ve been playing with. Excruciating details at the Beer Blog thanks again to the magic power of hyperlinks.
It’s been a while since I posted about the Book Queue, but these books won’t read themselves, and I’ve found that posting about them publicly does tend to motivate me to actually read the books I have (rather than getting distracted by new shiny objects and the like). So let’s get to it:
Starter Villain, by John Scalzi – The last few Scalzi books have felt like he’s treading water, but his style is snappy and fun and not every book needs to be some sort of world-changing epic (which, to be fair, has never been Scalzi’s metier). This story about a guy inheriting his uncle’s supervillain business seems much more inclined to be comedic than anything else, which is fine by me. Probably would have gotten to this earlier if he didn’t release it during the Halloween season…
System Collapse, by Martha Wells – The latest Murderbot story has finally arrived, and that’s all I really needed to know. No idea bout the plot, but the Murderbot series has been consistently great (I obviously have not read this one yet, but I recommend you start with the initial novellas, they’re short and well done and you can come up to speed quickly…)
Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon – I apparently purchased this many moons ago, put it on a shelf somewhere, and promptly forgot I had it. I was doing some reorganizing recently and stumbled upon it and realized I should probably read the darn thing. Not sure what to expect as this could range anywhere from impenetrable literature to page-turning genre fare. I guess there’s only one way to find out.
A Half-Built Garden, by Ruthanna Emrys – Not sure how this got in the queue in the first place, other than that the premise sounds interesting and I’ve been somewhat neglectful of recent SF of late. Sounds like a first contact story that could be interesting enough.
The Blighted Stars, by Megan E. O’Keefe – Another recent SF book with a decent enough premise, and I don’t remember where I heard of it first, but it sounds good…
The Icarus Plot, by Timothy Zahn – About 25 years ago or so, Zahn wrote a book called The Icarus Hunt, a very enjoyable space opera in the vein of Star Wars (I mean, really quite inspired by Star Wars, like at this point they probably could put the Star Wars logo on it and while you might wonder why there’s no member-berries or, like, Jedi in it, you’d probably enjoy it). Anywho, Zahn has finally written a sorta stealth sequel to that book. As I understand it, it’s not particularly reliant on the events of the first book, it’s just set in the same universe (it’s not even particularly being marketed as a sequel, which sorta makes sense because this one has a different publisher than the first). Anyway, Zahn has long been a reliable genre page-turner, and I’m glad he seems to be finished with his Star Wars Thrawn novels for now…
Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon – Vintage SF Month is quickly approaching, and this one is rising to the top of the list for now. It appears to be a sorta history of the future, spanning billions of years, sounds like fun.
Obviously lots more on the queue, and all of the above are SF or SF-adjacent, so perhaps I’ll leave the other fiction book queue and non-fiction book queue for other posts.
“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”
A Cautionary Crime Data Tale – There’s a lot of talk about disinfo out there, but it’s worth noting that much of it isn’t intentional, though that doesn’t really make it any better. It just means that we need to do some basic vetting of the sorts of numbers we see put out there, perhaps especially when they confirm our priors.
From all appearances, the Six Weeks of Halloween is primarily a movie watching exercise, but all is not what it appears: the Halloween season is filled with other nominally spooky activities like hayrides, haunted houses (and haunted dining establishments and haunted mini-golf and haunted bonfires/cookouts, you get the picture), pumpkin mutilation carving ceremonies, and of course, lots of Halloween Reading. The past few years have led to several new discoveries on the horror writer front, but I also like to dip my toes into some more obvious choices, so let’s see how this year’s selections fared:
Halloween Reading Roundup 2023
Wounds, by Nathan Ballingrud (aka The Atlas of Hell) – A collection of six stories ranging from short to novella length, it’s named after a (not very well regarded) movie adaptation of one of the novellas, but the original title of The Atlas of Hell is a much more fitting descriptor of the collection. (Now that the movie has come and gone, future editions of this will revert back to The Atlas of Hell as title and man, even the artwork is much better…)
All of the stories touch on Ballingrud’s peculiar conception of hell as a physical location, some more than others, and “The Atlas of Hell” is also the name of the first story, a horror/crime hybrid that works well as an introduction to this vision of hell. “The Diabolist” veers in a completely different direction, taking a mournful first person perspective that speaks to the reader in an odd way. It’s a stylish approach which only serves to make the more traditional horror elements more effective. “Skullpocket” goes even further afield, telling the story of how a particular town is coexisting with literal ghouls with an almost YA tone to it (my guess is that this would be the most divisive of the stories). “The Maw” returns to more conventional territory, though as the characters start to explore Hell’s intrusion into our reality, the distressing imagery and creepy ideas become more effective. “The Visible Filth” is the aforementioned novella that got adapted into a movie. It’s about a bartender who finds a cellphone in his bar and starts getting increasingly disturbing text messages. It’s a neat setup, and it actually reminded me of a more serious and sober take on something like Unfriended 2: Dark Web. It wasn’t my favorite story and it’s not an obvious choice for an adaptation, but it’s certainly creepy.
“The Butchers Table” is the longest story in the collection, and by far the best. Ballingrud accomplishes in just 100 pages what most writers would spend 500 pages (or more) to do. Several of the other stories in the collection touch upon the mythology that Ballingrud is building, but mostly on the periphery. Here, it emerges fully formed and perfectly calibrated. This story packs in so much: pirates, satanists, cannibal priests, disturbing hellscapes where, like, the characters hang out in a giant corpse of an angel, and absolutely terrifying monsters called Carrion Angels that are hot on our protagonists’ heels. It’s truly impressive how much worldbuilding Ballingrud was able to pack into this story without descending into tedious info dumps and still finding room for the requisite intrigue and betrayals that you’d expect given the type of people involved. I will most certainly be reading more Ballingrud during future Six Weeks of Halloweens…
X’s For Eyes, by Laird Barron – A genre mashup evoking the like of the Hardy Boys and The Venture Brothers taking on elder gods and touching on cosmic horror, this is a short novella (novelette?) that incorporates plenty of corporate skullduggery, science fiction, and a heaping helping of adventure.
Not quite as impressive or seamless as Ballingrud’s “The Butcher’s Table”, this nonetheless manages to pack a lot of ideas and worldbuilding into a quickly paced thriller. It’s not quite episodic, but there are some jarring and sudden twists and turns that might throw you for a loop, but I wound up quite enjoying this. Recommended!
Skeleton Crew, by Stephen King – Over the past several years, I’ve been working my way through King’s major short story collections. As with all such endeavors, especially longer ones like this, the stories can be hit or miss. But it’s Stephen King, so most are a hit.
Notable stories include “The Mist”, a novella that’s almost too perfectly constructed (with a great movie adaptation as well). “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” has a great progression and might be my favorite of the collection. “The Jaunt” is the odd science fiction story that King manages to add his usual touch to. “The Raft” is also quite effective for such a simple story (and the best part of Creepshow 2). “Survivor Type” has a delightfully macabre premise that would be a spoiler by itself. “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” is also quite effective and clearly taps into the fears writers (perhaps particularly fears of horror writers) have about where their inspiration comes from.
As usual, some of the stories fall into King’s standard traps. He sometimes writes himself into corners, and some of the stories can get wordy and go on for too long, which brings down the pacing some too. That said, he’s a consumate storyteller, and his skill is on ample display. I’m a little disappointed that I’ve seemingly exhausted his major short story collections, though there are a couple of other collections (of novellas and the like) that I could check out in future marathons. Or maybe I’ll finally bite the bullet and read It.
The Dead Friends Society, by Paul Gandersman & Peter Hall – Longtime readers of this blog know that I have an inexplicable love of slasher movies, but I’ve had a lot of trouble finding books that can execute the formula well. This is actually a decent example of that sort of thing, though there are some severe flaws. An old house with a tragic past is haunted by a masked killer known as The Fireman, and our heroes must find a way to prevent the tragedies of the past from being revisited upon the present.
There’s the shape of something quite good here, but several aspects of the story kept pulling me out of it. We spend too much time in our main character’s head. She has the makings of a solid final girl, but is hamstrung by uncertainty and constant whining about this or that. Look, there’s plenty to whine about, but it’s boring as hell and makes the story drag. Oddly, if they made a film out of this, I think it could be far more effective, as we wouldn’t get the agonizing inner monologue of the final girl. Her actions are competent and even effective, but it doesn’t feel like it because she’s constantly berating herself. Side characters are marginally better, but they come off as one dimensional and it’s still slow going after the exciting initial set-piece. The pacing bogs way, way down for a long time in the middle before picking up again towards the climax. The motivation and powers of the Fireman are unclear, though that’s more or less par for the course on this type of thing.
I listened to the audiobook for this one, and I didn’t especially like the reader, which I’m trying not to hold against it. Not sure if, for example, the excessive pop culture references are as annoying as they seem because of the way it was performed, but regardless: there’s too much of that sort of thing here. All of that said, there’s some surprising twists that I was definitely not expecting, and there’s an effective mix of slasher and ghost story going on here. I genuinely think a movie adaptation could greatly improve upon this story, if only because we wouldn’t have to deal with the constant whinging.
Traveling With the Dead, by Barbara Hambly – The sequel to Hambly’s Those Who Hunt the Night, one of my favorite discoveries of last year, comports itself quite well, though it does perhaps go on a bit too long. That first novel was about a former spy being recruited to hunt down a vampire killer that was plaguing London’s vampire community. This time around, Asher notices an infamous spy from a foreign power smuggling a vampire away from London. He immediately pursues, while his wife follows on his heels, enlisting the services of Don Simon Ysidro, the suave London vampire that has become something of a friend to the Asher family. Like the previous book, there’s plenty of tradecraft, intrigue, and vampire worldbuilding. This does bog down in the middle section as all of the chess pieces are being maneuvered for the final showdowns and revelations, and some of that maneuvering is repetitive, but Hambly is a good storyteller, and I appreciate the attention to detail. I don’t think this is as successful as the first book, but I like it well enough.
Dead Silence, by S.A. Barnes – A deep space salvage crew stumbles upon a long lost ghost ship and sets about securing a big payday. Naturally, they don’t call it a ghost ship for nothing, and our salvage crew starts to find all sorts of suspicious stuff about the long dead passengers, who all seemingly went insane and killed each other. Will our heroes suffer the same fate?
Unfortunately, I don’t think this novel clicked with me. Part of this might be that the main protagonist is absolutely obnoxious and, like the protagonist in The Dead Friends Society, we spend a lot of time getting inside her head. It also speaks to modern horror’s obsession with characters who are severely traumatized and emotionally stunted. I suppose it could be something of an empathy shortcut to give someone a tragic backstory, but it’s getting tired at this point, and the romantic angle feels a bit perfunctory as well. Later, we get the bog standard modern sci-fi explanation of corporate greed as the root of all evil, another trend that’s becoming overused these days.
It’s not a terrible novel, but it’s one of those things where I feel like the blend of horror and science fiction clash a bit. Sometimes that oil and water approach can work, but, um, you need an emulsifier like mustard to really get it going properly. How’s that for a tortured metaphor? Unfortunately, the science fiction elements generally take a back seat to the horror here, and the horror… isn’t very scary or even creepy. This does seem to be a popular book though, so I’m clearly the outlier, though it’s ratings are not astronomical…
Hidden Pictures, by Jason Rekulak – Fresh out of rehab, Mallory hopes to get her life back in order by taking a job as a nanny to 5-year old Teddy. Things are going well, but soon Teddy’s normally playful artwork starts to depict a grisly murder, and Mallory begins to suspect something supernatural at work. As she sets about to solve the mystery, she discovers more than she bargained for…
This apparently won the Goodreads award for Best Horror novel of 2022, and to be fair, Jason Rekulak does have a knack for turning pages. Unfortunately, the overall story leaves a lot to be desired. It spends too much time on a particular red herring, and once the revelations start flying later in the book, they all feel pretty implausible.
I think I can see why this is successful and I didn’t hate it or anything, but there were just too many little things that kept bugging me… There’s always some tolerance for this sort of thing, but I’ve learned that when I find myself nitpicking things, it’s a sign of some sort of deeper problems in the story. In some ways, the protagonist here is more likable than the ones in Dead Silence or The Dead Friends Society, but there’s a similar sort of focus on a character who’s been traumatized that’s, again, getting kind of tired these days. And while she’s able to make progress on the mystery, she does seem way too willing to jump to the supernatural, and she makes some baffling choices throughout. Again, I can see why this became popular, but I wasn’t quite able to get on its wavelength…
Another successful Six Weeks of Halloween in the books (literally!) At 7 books, I didn’t really approach the pandemic fueled record of 9 in 2020, but I’m still averaging about a book a week, which is a pretty solid pace…
Time flies when you’re terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought. For some reason, these Six Weeks of Halloween went faster than ever this year, and now we’re already at the big day. In accordance with tradition, this is when we engage in a Speed Round of brief thoughts on films I watched during the 2023 marathon, but haven’t otherwise covered. Usually because it didn’t fit with a weekly theme. Or maybe I just didn’t have much to say about it. Or I had too much to say about it, but the moment and/or inspiration has passed. Or it’s a rewatch of an all time classic (or, uh, a non-classic) and you don’t need anyone, let alone me, telling you more about it.
As of right now, I’ve seen 69 (nice!) horror or horror-adjacent films during this Halloween season. This is a big increase from last year and actually relatively close to the pandemic-fueled record of 71 that was set in 2020, but it should be noted that 8 of this year’s entries were Cabinet of Curiosities episodes (and Letterboxd has separate entries for each episode) and the Phillies didn’t make it to the World Series (a different kind of horror!) which means the numbers are a bit inflated over last year.
As per usual, we’ll have one final 6WH post next week about the horror books I read during the 2023 Halloween season, but for now, let’s dive into this year’s Speed Round:
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Speed Round
A Haunting in Venice – Another perfectly cromulent mid-budget self-contained Poirot adaptation, it’s not perfect and it won’t blow you away or anything, but it’s got plenty of spooky vibes, more style than it needs, and plenty of twists and turns. Again, nothing incredible, but it’s the sort of movie I wish Hollywood would make more often. **1/2
13 Ghosts – I decided to go back and watch the original William Castle movie after watching the remake earlier in the marathon. Certainly a more staid production, old-fashioned and corny, actually the sort of thing that was ripe for a remake. It’s not great, but I somehow liked it better than the remake. **
No One Will Save You – The gimmick of this alien invasion flick is that there’s nearly no dialogue at all. There’s plenty of thematic heft that is underlined by this approach and Kaitlyn Dever’s lead performance sells the whole thing well.
The gimmick is cleverly done, but I’m getting a little tired of the genre’s obsession with Trauma and the aliens here are almost as dumb as the ones from Signs. Adventurous filmmaking and interesting because of that, but can’t quite sustain its momentum throughout the full runtime. **1/2
Its politics are a little ham-fisted, but it’s a ton of fun, and Sam Richardson and Milana Vayntrub are great together and really carry the movie. Recommended! ***
The Face Behind the Mask – 1941 Peter Lorre noir about a disfigured man becoming a criminal mastermind and trying to escape the life, to little success. It’s the sort of thing you’ve seen a hundred times (and barely a horror movie), but Lorre provides gravitas, even when he’s masked up (the masks are actually rather effective for what they are). **1/2
The Exorcist – RIP William Friedkin, the new 4k transfer looks great and the movie is as good as ever. Another movie I watched after a similar themed week, it’s obviously much better than all the movies I watched that week (and the direct influence is clear as well). There are still some things I don’t love about this movie, and the directors cut with the additional footage isn’t as good as the theatrical cut, but it’s still a stone cold classic. ****
Alien³ – David Fincher’s directorial debut is still a frustrating and disappointing exercise, though there are some genuine bright spots, notably Charles Dance’s doctor character, who has great chemistry with Sigourney Weaver, and some other performances (Charles S. Dutton, Brian Glover, etc…) Great ensemble! Terrible story, and I know the point is to be bleak and uncompromising and there are some people who claim to like how unsatisfying the whole thing is, but that’s a really hard trick to pull off and this movie doesn’t even come close (put a pin in this, we’ll come back to the idea below). **
Predator – Not a movie that I usually think of as a Halloween movie, but it’s got all the hallmarks, even if it’s more action than horror. You probably don’t need me to say much here, it’s still great! ***1/2
Casper – After a few weeks of watching nothing but horror movies, it’s easy to get burnt out, but goofy comedies like this are actually a nice way to bring levity to the situation, even if it’s not particularly great. Not bad either, and Christina Ricci and Bill Pullman are great, and there’s some bonkers stuff about Casper the friendly ghost that we learn. Fun. **1/2
Totally Killer – Self-aware slasher comedy mixed with time travel, it’s a whole boatload of fun. More focused on the humor than the horror or sci-fi elements, it’s still effective and well calibrated. The school mascot mask isn’t great and the time travel stuff isn’t particularly rigorous, though they do manage one clever thing I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a time travel story before, which is nice (even if I’m not entirely sure how it works). I think Final Girls and the Happy Death Day movies did it better, but it’s totally worthwhile and again, it’s always nice to find some levity in the midst of all the horror of the season. ***
The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre – Obscure 1964 TV movie starring Martin Landau as a paranormal investigator, this isn’t as twisty or goofy as I’d hoped, but it’s fine. I’ve generally had good luck with this sort of old TV movie type of thing in the past, but I’d say this one didn’t really pan out. **
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning – There was a Friday the 13th in October, so obviously I had to pop on a couple entries in the venerable series. Part V is one of the weirdest entries in the series and I kinda find it fascinating, despite it not being very good. ** (But ratings are kinda tough for movies like this…)
Happy Death Day – The slasher formula in a Groundhog Day framework works surprisingly well, and this is a movie I like more and more over time. After watching Totally Killer, I decided to revisit and yes, this is better than Totally Killer, with a more balanced blend of humor and horror leading to an overall quite fun experience (Totally Killer is still quite fun and worthwhile!) ***
Happy Death Day 2U – A surprisingly solid sequel that recontextualizes the Groundhog Day formula in a clever way, resulting in another fun movie that’s almost as good as the original. Another movie that’s only gotten better in my estimation the more times I watch it.
If we still had cable classics, I think both of these would qualify (Maybe they’ll get on Netflix at some point and become super popular in the way a lot of underseen (and sometimes even bad) movies do, but that won’t happen on Peacock). ***
Murder, Anyone? – Two playwrights collaborate on a script, and as they do so, we see their story come to life on screen. As arguments arise, the resulting twists and turns manifest in wacky ways. A neat idea, but it doesn’t quite come together as well as I’d hoped. **
Shivers – Early Cronenberg about parasitic sex slugs in a futuristic apartment building, I first watched this for the 6WH almost ten years ago, and had a hankering to revisit. It’s actually become one of my favorite Cronenberg movies, and while it’s definitely dated, it still holds up pretty well. ***
There’s Nothing Out There – Pre-Scream self-aware monster flick about a group of kids vacationing in a remote cabin, and one of the kids is a horror movie dork and sees all the signs of an impending massacre. Points for originality, but the self-aware movie dork works better as a side character (a la Scream); here, his constant quips and complaints can come off as annoying. Creature design is also a bit lacking, though they do keep it mostly hidden in the early goings (with liberal use of POV shots and half-seen glimpses of something in the woods). Some interesting stuff here, but mostly only of interest to students of the genre. **
Phantom of the Opera – Universal remade the silent classic in 1943 with Claude Rains in the title role and glorious Technicolor. We get a little more of a backstory for the Phantom and there’s a goofy love triangle (er, rectangle?) and a whole lotta, I mean, just a ton of Opera. I guess it makes sense that they’d emphasize the singing and music in this version, given that the previous adaptation was a silent film, but at times this feels almost like a musical (though obviously not quite as much as the actual musical versions). The general shape of the Phantom story is there, but the horror elements are downplayed considerably, and the makeup and infamous reveal are nowhere near as shocking as the original (Lon Cheney’s appearance remains effective to this day, Rains just looks slightly singed). If you saw another version of this and thought: I want more singing and less Phantoming, this is the movie for you. It’s certainly a lavish production and the recent 4k restoration looks fantastic, but I was mildly disappointed. **
Demons 2 – The first part of Joe Bob’s Helloween double-feature, it’s a sequel to Demons and basically represents more of the same. This time, instead of being stuck in a movie theater with zombie-like demons, they’re stuck in an apartment building. Visually adept with plenty of gore and memorable moments, but none of it really adds up to anything meaningful and a lot of beats are simply rehashed from the first movie. **
Watchers II – For whatever reason, Dean Koontz adaptations never really caught on in Hollywood, and there hasn’t really been a good one. Watchers was one of Koontz’s most successful books (though middle tier in my rankings, it’s got some effective stuff for sure) and the first adaptation got turned into a crappy Corey Haim vehicle that barely resembled the book. This sequel is more like an alternate take, though once again many liberties have been taken with the story. It’s low budget B-movie 80s cheese starring the Beastmaster himself, Marc Singer. I haven’t seen the first film in a while, but this was at least marginally watchable. Someday, someone might make a good Koontz adaptation, but I’m not holding my breath. **
All Hallows’ Eve – The second part of Joe Bob’s Helloween, this is a horror anthology comprised of previously made short films with some newly filmed scenes used as a framing device. Low budget, mean-spirited, and tasteless, the only thing this really has going for it is that it’s the first screen appearance of Art the Clown, a fledgling horror icon who hasn’t quite broken into the mainstream yet, but is undeniably effective (honestly, his brief appearance in the first segment might be the best, even though the last segment is more dedicated to him). There’s clearly some potential on screen here, and director Damien Leone has some good instincts, but very little of the potential is realized in this first anthology. Poorly acted and visually slipshod (there are occasional shots that look ok, but it’s very inconsistent), this isn’t really recommended except for completists who want to see where Art the Clown originated. (Despite not loving this, I may end up doing an Art the Clown theme week/mid-week next year, as the Terrifier movies seem to get better as they go….) *1/2
The Fly – 1958 B-movie told mostly in flashback, it’s a tale of science gone awry, but what struck me most is that the real tragedy is that even after the accident, indeed, even after the death, the domestic situation of the household remains largely unchanged. The scientist was already so dedicated to his work that he didn’t spend much time on his family, so his avoidance after the accident isn’t much of a change, and honestly, after his death, his wife will most likely upgrade to his brother-in-law, played by Vincent Price, always a steady presence onscreen. The transformation and body horror bits are relatively staid here, even for 1958, but pale in comparison to the remake, speaking of which… **1/2
The Fly – David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly amps up the body horror in excruciating detail, but the vile minutiae of the transformation are so memorable that I always forget that this spends a lot of time on character and relationships. In 1986, the original Fly movie was 28 years old, but desperately needed an updating. Cronenberg’s movie is now 37 years old, and I don’t think you could do it any better today. The Scream Factory Blu Ray looks great, and there’s plenty of special features too. ****
Zodiac – David Fincher’s tour de force represents a completely different take on the serial killer movie, and unlike Alien³ (see above), the bleak worldview and deliberately unsatisfying narrative here is expertly calculated and perfectly executed. Also of note, this is a film that absolutely nailed the digital aesthetic, it looks amazing, and yet I feel like so many struggle with it to this day.
I’ve always loved the movie, but it has only grown in my estimation over the years and it’s been far too long since I’d revisited it. Thanks to the Blank Check podcast for prompting the idea to rewatch (and for a long, insightful review). ****
The Devil on Trial – This Netflix documentary seems, at first glance and for the first hour or so of its runtime, like a deeply uncritical examination of the famous court case where “demonic possession” was used as a defense against murder charges. Then the other shoe drops, and several more reasonable explanations are put forward, even if some in the family disagree. Even at just 81 minutes, there’s not really enough story here, so the filmmakers rely on extensive use of recreations, which are sometimes unnecessary or potentially misleading. On the other hand, they do have lots of actual source material, including audio tapes of the possessed child, and seem to have been able to interview all the principle players (with the exception of Ed and Lorraine Warren, though they are able to use lots of archival footage). Still, the last 20 or so minutes should have probably been explored more deeply (there’s something to be said for pulling the rug out on a narrative like this, but this movie only does a modest job of that). It’s entertaining, but not quite as enlightening as you might want from something like this. **1/2
Project Eerie – A found footage anthology with some decently constructed segments that are nevertheless mostly conventional (it’s got a sorta X-Files meets Blair Witch vibe). An ultra-low-budget affair that doesn’t look particularly great and suffers from typical found footage flaws, but might be worth a gander if you’re a found footage fan. I suspect the filmmaker Ricky Umberger could be capable of much better if given the opportunity. **1/2
Dark Harvest – David Slade’s stylish creature feature hasn’t garnered much attention and I’m not entirely sure why. It might be a bit heavy handed for general audiences, but horror fans should be eating this up. Lots of Stephen King-esque flavor, especially the subversion of 50s Rockwellian ideals and the rot behind small town veneers (not to mention all the bullies and greaser nonsense). It’s certainly not perfect; there are some twists that are easy to see coming, the writing ham-fisted, and the Purge-esque bloodlust on display seems improbable, but it’s an entertaining and stylish flick that more should be seeking out. **1/2
Halloween – Duh. (For the record, I prefer the Scream Factory 4K to the previous studio release, maybe one day I’ll figure out a good way to do comparisons, because I think it might be interesting to see a detailed analysis of different releases for a movie like this.) ****
Speed Round Appendix: 50 from 50
Earlier this year, I made a resolution to watch 50 movies from 50 different countries by the end of December (lots of caveats and rules for what qualifies, as enumerated in that introductory post.) We’ve already covered several qualifying movies earlier in the 6WH, but I watched a few more that should be covered:
Serbia – Vampir – Great atmosphere and creepy imagery, but incredibly tedious movie where the title is almost a spoiler. I say “almost” because “spoiler” implies there’s some sort of plot or surprise involved, and that’s not really relevant here. Or, at least, the surprises are nonsensical and don’t really build on anything other than an occasionally hallucinatory sequence. There’s something to be said for the isolation and vulnerability that a stranger can feel in a new and potentially hostile environment, but there’s not enough there to sustain this movie. I didn’t like it, but this sort of slow cinema approach is catnip to some people who can get by on “vibes” alone. *
South Africa – Gaia – I guess fungus-zombies are having a bit of a moment, this is a smaller scale story about a park ranger who gets lost in the woods and meets up with some survivalists who have a mysterious relationship with the fungal threat. Eco-horror with some memorable body horror and effective imagery, I enjoyed this well enough, though the relationship between the ranger and the two survivalists is odd at times, even if it ultimately plays out well enough. **1/2
Austria – Goodnight Mommy – The A24 “elevated horror” folks would probably get a kick out of this slow burn story about two kids who think their mom has been replaced by a doppleganger. Well photographed and slowly paced, things pick up towards the end in a rather sadistic way. There’s a big twist and I’m trying hard not to make a reference to the obvious South Korean analogue as it would be a spoiler (but given how deliberate and slow this movie is, you will probably see the twist coming anyway). It’s still a movie that would be solved if people just talked to each other instead of acting strangely all the time, and there’s a few things that don’t fit (not sure what the mom head-shaking bit is all about, for instance), but it’s undeniably effective in the end. **1/2
Hungary – Strangled – Based on a true story serial killer story that takes place behind the iron curtain. Brutal and unflinching, this has none of the lurid notes you sometimes get out of a serial killer movie, despite the killer’s MO and the innocent man behind bars angle (this is a good thing, though it makes the film less entertaining, but then, should a story like this be “fun”?) Thematically rich and technically proficient, it’s well made and looks great, even if it goes on perhaps a bit too long. **1/2
Phew, it’s been a great 6 weeks (and then some). Happy Halloween, and stay tuned for the recap of season’s readings coming soon.
Another entry from the Obscure Horror Auteurs file, this time catching up with a couple of Stuart Gordon films I had not seen before. Gordon is clearly a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft and is best known for making movies (loosely) based on his work, most notably Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Castle Freak (his episode of Masters of Horror is also a Lovecraft adaptation, and it’s one of the better episodes of that series). He’s become a fan favorite of the horror dork crowd, but hasn’t really broken out into true mainstream success. He has an interesting ability to balance horror, humor, and just plain weirdness in a sly way that often gets overlooked in favor of bigger names in the genre. So let’s dive into a couple of Stuart Gordon flicks:
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 6.5 – Stuart Gordon
Dolls – A motley crew of wayward travelers become the guests of a pair of doll-collecting senior citizens in their old, dark mansion. At night, the dolls come out to play. Hijinks ensue.
This is Stuart Gordon’s take on the Old Dark House trope combined with producer Charles Band’s obsession with killer dolls/toys/puppets (he’s perhaps most famous for producing the long running Puppet Master series). A VHS staple with memorable artwork that grabbed your attention in the video store horror aisle, it plays out almost like the horror version of Toy Story (before that movie even existed).
Tonally, it reminds me a little of Gremlins. There’s a clear vein of good natured humor throughout, but it also has a nasty streak and Gordon doesn’t skimp on the unsettling visuals and even some gore (even if it doesn’t quite ramp it up to absurd levels, it’s well established and effective). Part of this may just be the throughline involving a little girl and her unlikely friendship with a stranger who believes in the murderous dolls (most adults don’t, you see). That man is played by veteran character actor Stephen Lee (you may not recognize the name, but you will probably recognize him), and he puts on a lovable turn as a bumbling buffoon along for the ride. I don’t know that the themes of the story about keeping in touch with your inner child are entirely consistent or anything, but the two elderly doll-collectors are delightfully creepy and it all works out in the end.
Look, fine cinema… this is not. But it’s a whole boatload of fun, with surprisingly effective practical effects for the dolls (and there are a lot of dolls, dolls galore), and a svelt 77 minute runtime. What more do you want? ***
Dagon – A storm off the coast of Spain causes a boat accident. Paul and his girlfriend Barbara head ashore to the local fishing village to find help, but all is not what it seems, and they’re soon chased by a mysterious cult of fish-people.
This is a (loose, updated) mashup of two H.P. Lovecraft stories, Dagon and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. It’s all a bit silly, but played entirely straight. Once again, we’re treated to some surprisingly effective practical makeup for the fish-people, though there are a few far less effective CGI shots (made in 2001 on an obvious shoe-string budget and used sparingly, I think we can forgive that.) While the story starts and ends well enough, there’s a long interior portion of the film that consists of our hero being chased around town in circles. Some of this is fine, but it’s quite repetitive and wears out its welcome quickly, and by the time things pick up towards the end of the film, I wasn’t quite able to recover.
The acting and performances are clearly subpar as well. For example, the lead is played by Ezra Godden, who looks an awful lot like Jeffrey Combs (a longtime Gordon collaborator – I guess he has a type), but can’t quite sell the story (the way I presume Combs could). Much of the townfolk are simply assembled as a shambling mob, which is fine, but those who do have lines all feel a little… off. And I guess, as fish-people, they should feel a little otherworldly, but it doesn’t quite work as well as it should.
There’s lots of great atmosphere, some gnarly gore, and lots of icky aquatic imagery on display here, but I can’t help but feel that this should work better than it does. It’s not a blight on Gordon’s filmography or anything, but it’s clearly not his best work. **1/2
We’re in the homestretch of the Six Weeks of Halloween. Only the traditional Speed Round remains, though a small programming note: due to Halloween falling on a Tuesday, I may save the Speed Round for the big day itself (rather than the traditional Sunday publication).
One of the hallmarks of the Giallo film is the ornate, baroque titles. The best of these is quite obviously Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, but there’s plenty of other contenders out there. Many of these titles involve some sort of animal, though I suppose I should note that I’m not covering Dario Argento’s entire Animal Trilogy, the first of which, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, really kicked the Giallo genre into high gear in 1970 (though we will take a gander at the last entry in the Animal Trilogy). Giallo flicks have become a staple of my Six Weeks of Halloween celebration, and these three flicks are quite solid (this was probably the most successful weekly theme of the year). As it turns out, all three films were made in 1971 and they all have Ennio Morricone scores, which is an added bonus.
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 6 – Giallo Animals
Four Flies on Grey Velvet – A musician gets pulled into a blackmailing scheme which quickly escalates into murder and mayhem. Hijinks ensue.
The aforementioned third of Dario Argento’s Animal Trilogy, everything is amped up a bit here. There’s your typical Argento protagonist, unobservant and gullible, who falls into a blackmail trap by inadvertently murdering a stalker. A goofy looking masked killer is toying with him. Police forensics that veer more towards the science fiction fringe than CSI. A never ending cast of colorful supporting characters: A flamboyantly gay private detective. A pair of hobo beatniks nicknamed “The Professor” and “God”. Slapstick coffin salesmen (a customer who worries that his prospective coffin/sarcophagus is “too tight” gets the response that no customers have ever come back with complaints).
Through it all, Argento pushes the stylistic boundaries of genre conventions he established only a year earlier. The visual compositions and camera movements become more complex and ambitious. Canted angles, several different types of POV shots, slow motion, elaborate set pieces, and numerous short tracking shots that all prefigure what would become Argento’s calling cards in later films. Plus, all of this is anchored by a fizzy, percussion-heavy Ennio Morricone rock score. Almost all of these stylistic conventions would be later taken to an extreme in Argento’s Deep Red (still my favorite Argento), but they’re fully formed here and the visual flare can add something interesting to even the most simplistic sequence (take, for instance, a scene where a rock band is rehearsing – pretty straightforward, but then Argento places the camera inside a guitar’s sound hole.)
The plot is probably the weakest point of the film, but the final reveal is effective enough and the stylistic excess that’s on display keeps the pace in check, even when the story starts to meander through the requisite red herrings (which aren’t numerous or particularly convincing – the killer is actually somewhat obvious). The way our musician protagonist escapes the killer at the end is a bit perfunctory, but without giving too much away, the film ends on a bravura note. So the overall story may have some plot holes and loose threads, but let there be no mistake: this is how you end a movie.
The Severin 4K looks fantastic, though it appears to be unavailable at the moment (unless you want to pay through the nose on the secondary market). It should come back in stock at some point, though you might not get the full 4 disc/slipcover experience. These niche physical media companies are great, but some of them, especially the smaller ones like Severin and Vinegar Syndrome, tend to have small production runs, so if you’re ever interested in something you see, you should probably buy it right away. Anywho, I’m already planning to include an Argento weekly theme in next year’s 6 Weeks of Halloween to catch up with the last few films of his that I haven’t seen (er, at least, the good ones). ***
Black Belly of the Tarantula – A police inspector investigates a series of sadistic murders where the victim is paralyzed while they’re stabbed in the bellies, a method similar to how the black wasp kills tarantulas.
From the director of Mondo Cane comes this more conventional take on the genre, albeit one filled with red herrings, another elaborate blackmailing scheme, and a drug smuggling ring. Plus, we’ve got a few impressively conceived (if a bit repetitive) murders, and another lush soundtrack from Ennio Morricone. While not as stylish as Argento, director Paolo Cavara does manage to craft a few suspenseful set pieces, and of course there’s still plenty of nice compositions on display.
The story’s various red herrings feel a bit disjointed and the ultimate solution to the mystery is underwhelming, even if the sequence does carry a sense of suspense with it. For a movie with so many tangents and false starts, it winds up feeling very straightforward. It’s a solid example of the genre, but middle tier at best. **
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin – A sexually repressed housewife is having bizarre, erotic dreams about her uninhibited neighbor, who presides over literal orgies on a regular basis. When the neighbor shows up dead, the housewife becomes a prime suspect. Did she do it, or is she being framed?
Director Lucio Fulci is known more for his zombie gorefest jams than his Giallos, but this certainly exemplifies his more lurid approach to the already pretty horny genre. Depending on your preferences, this movie has two things going for it. First, a series of colorful, surrealistic dream sequences that emphasize our heroine’s psychosexual hangups and also kinda, sorta bleed into reality. There is, for example, one sequence in which she is being chased by a drug-fueled hippie and takes a wrong turn in a hospital, only to be confronted by a series of vivisected dogs with their insides exposed. It’s a memorable and quite disturbing sight, and I have no idea why it’s in the film at all, other than to shock viewers and potentially underline our protagonist’s mania.
The other thing this movie has going for it is the convoluted plot. Look, Giallo’s aren’t really known for their plots and this isn’t a great one or anything, but once the film establishes its surreal nature early on, there’s a surprising shift in the plot as some characters start to puzzle out what could be driving all the madness… and it actually sorta makes sense? I was surprised by how much I enjoyed that turn in the film, as that sort of thing actually appeals to me more than the shapeless dreamlike flow the film starts with. Your mileage may vary, but the juxtaposition of these two elements, the surreal dreams and more grounded mystery plot, are what make this film work as well as it does.
Certainly not my favorite Giallo and I don’t love Fulci’s more sleazy takes on the genre in general, but there’s lots to chew on here, and I found myself surprisingly engaged in the end. **1/2
It’s hard to believe we’re already in the final week (and a half, I guess) of the Six Weeks of Halloween… Stay tuned, we might get one more mid-week update in addition to the traditional Speed Round of stuff I watched, but didn’t cover yet…
Those who celebrate the Halloween season do so in many and varied ways and hard as it may be to believe here in 2023, they even maintain blogs to document their celebration. Here, we do the Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, but there are lots of other approaches. While most folks have migrated over to social media, blogs are still around – and truth be told, blogs are continually being reinvented and remain popular in some ways – witness the success of Substack, which represents, in theory, an even more antiquated internet practice: the email newsletter (even if I suspect most people read posts like they’re a blog.) But I digress.
I goofed off with some AI image generators using the prompt “Fellow Travelers in the Halloween Ways” and huh, that’s certainly a disturbing but kinda appropriate result, I think. Anywho, it’s always interesting to take a look at how others are celebrating the season. It’s sometimes challenging to find new stuff, but there’s enough old hands out there that, wonder of wonders, still post up a storm during this hallowed season. Let’s look at some blogs celebrating the Halloween season:
Film Thoughts – Zack is the only other remaining practitioner of the Six Weeks of Halloween (we both followed a guy named kernunrex down this path, but he went dark many moons ago. One assumes he still engages in the practice, but no longer documents it.) As usual, Zack’s pace of both watching and writing outstrips mine by a significant degree, and his reviews are long and insightful. This year, he’s been going through the Terrifier movies and he also watched all the Cabinet of Curiosities episodes, amongst tons of other things.
Horror Movie a Day – Brian doesn’t post every day anymore, but he did so for an absurdly long time, so his blog has an almost comprehensive list of reviews in the archives, and it’s an invaluable resource if you’re looking for thoughts on an obscure horror movie. He’s actually been keeping pace with most of the new releases, including theatrical releases like the new Exorcist sequel/legacyqual/soft-reboot/whateveryoucallit, as well as some of the hyped streaming releases like No One Will Save You and Totally Killer (look for my thoughts on those in the traditional Speed Round at the end of the Six Weeks), and more. His book is also quite helpful when it comes to weekly themes or more obscure films to seek out.
Hellowe’en Horror -Well curated collection of images, posters, screenshots, and gifs from various horror flicks, still marching along with the season…
Final Girl – Shocktober is back! This time around, Stacie is pulling from her 2020 readers’ poll of favorite horror movies. There were a whopping 950+ different movies named by her readers, so she went through what people had ranked #1 on their list, and selected 31 movies she hadn’t seen before. As usual, Stacie’s reviews have a unique perspective and are quite funny.
Autumn Lives Here – Hey, remember when I said that Substack kinda represented the undead weblog concept risen from the grave? Well here’s an example of a spooky season centered Substack from Jennifer Morrow that mostly focuses on books, but covers lots of other ground too.
Scare Me on Fridays – Do you like screenshots from movies? I mean, there are reviews too, but lots of screenshots. This is something I used to do more often, but while I always try to include a screenshot, I don’t go all out like this blog does…
Wonderful Wonderblog – Spreading the love beyond just movies and into various spooky versions of stuff like lottery tickets and records and whatnot.
Halloween Mixes – Well, technically, this blog is titled “The Murderer’s Plague Of The Phantasmagoric Beast Of The Haunted Screaming Horror Of The Mad Scientist’s Monster’s Bride Of The Vampire’s Bloody Psychotic Alien Werewolf Curse Of The Ghost Of The Zombie That Ate The Return of Dav’s Ultimate Halloween”, but uh, yeah it’s got an archive of nice playlists of Halloween themed music (Apparently the 2022 music mix is coming soon).
Zombie Crossings – An assortment of Halloween themed goings-on (music, images, fun facts, that sort of thing).
So there you have it. Halloween blogs are still a thing and going strong. It’s not just me. Anywho, stay tuned, we’ve got some Giallo movies coming in hot on Sunday…
Nunsploitation is a sub-genre that thrived in the 1970s, drawing on cultural shifts in religion and sexuality for its dramatic conflict. The archetypal examples are often set in the middle-ages, sometimes incorporating the Inquisition for added exploitation flare. I must admit only a passing familiarity with Nunsploitation, though I have seen The Devils, an infamous, x-rated, early art-house take on the genre with an impressive pedigree (i.e. directed by Ken Russel based on an Aldous Huxley book and starring Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed). It’s hard to find, even these days, but worth seeking out.
To be honest, the three movies I watched recently are only loosely affiliated with Nunspoitation, if at all. Two are actually listed on the Wikipedia page, but they both feature modern-day settings and have some cross-genre elements. None are as successful as The Devils, but there are some interesting things going on in a couple of these. Let’s get to it!
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 5 – Nunsploitation
The Nun – A priest and novitiate are sent to investigate a suicide committed at a cloistered abbey in Romania. Naturally, they discover spooky secrets and eventually confront the demonic nun from The Conjuring 2.
I feel like a lot of critics value a film’s ambition more than they should. I tend to respect and find value in such films, but unless they can actually fulfill that ambition, I generally come away disappointed. On the other hand, there are some films that don’t have a lot of ambition, but execute perfectly on their premise, and I tend to prefer that approach to an interesting failure. My typical example of this phenomenon is pitting The Last Broadcast against The Blair Witch Project. Both feature found-footage of kids getting lost in the woods, but the former is a hugely ambitious critique of the media landscape that doesn’t quite stick the landing while the latter is a more straightforward genre tale. I like Last Broadcast and find the ideas it presents fascinating, but I love Blair Witch, even if it’s not as ambitous.
All of which is to say that The Nun aspires to mediocrity, and somehow can’t even really clear that bar. What’s more frustrating is that it actually comes close before falling apart. It’s got a great cast, with Taissa Farmiga providing an interesting spark of life to an otherwise dull mess. Demián Bichir is solid and of course, the demonic nun has become marginally iconic due to Bonnie Aarons’s performance. The set design is fantastic. Alas, the writing is abysmal, relying almost exclusively on thinly veiled excuses to separate characters and expose them to poorly executed jump scares. The backstory is barebones and uninteresting, the powers of the demonic nun are vague and ever-changing, the plan to defeat her is even more opaque than that, while the cinematography veers towards that overly dark trend that has become a common flaw in recent horror (which, I will admit, has gotten worse over the past few years since this movie came out, but it’s still not great here).
It’s a shame that the Conjuring Cinematic Universe has experienced such a severe dropoff in filmmaking quality after James Wan left the franchise. The curve of diminishing returns is really quite steep. Funnily enough, this particular movie frequently reminded me of The Pope’s Exorcist, which isn’t exactly a great movie, but has a lot of similar elements that are just executed better. Honestly, I would much rather see Taissa Farmiga’s nun teamed up with Russell Crowe’s exorcist in a crossover event (which honestly feels like it could work, given the incredibly loose “based on a true story” premises of both franchises) than whatever The Nun 2 holds in store (though I do see that it’s marginally better rated than the first Nun, so I guess there is that). I don’t think anyone truly considers this to be a Nunsploitation flick, but I think there are maybe some elements here that fit. *1/2
Killer Nun – Sister Gertrude is the head nurse at a general hospital who has become addicted to morphine and slid into sex crazed madness. Her doctor and a fellow nun try to help her, but her increasingly psychotic behavior becomes harder and harder to control.
Too sleazy to be a respectable drama, but nowhere near lurid enough to be a shining example of the genre (though apparently it had enough racy content to become a Video Nasty). Indeed, it almost feels a little like a Giallo crossover in the end, but the pacing never really picks up even when twists start flying towards the conclusion of the film. As usual with this sort of Italian exploitation production, you get some stylish flourishes anchored by an excellent Alessandro Alessandroni musical score that is atypical but quite effective.
There are a couple of effective set-pieces, notably a morphine induced freakout about halfway through the film, filled with hallucinatory imagery and punctuated by that great Alessandroni score. Alas, that sort of psychedelic experience isn’t quite enough to make up for the wonky pacing, which never really finds a groove or builds properly. The conclusion has a nice twist, but I’m not sure it entirely fits.
Of the films covered in this post, this is perhaps the most fitting of the Nunsploitation label, though its “present day” setting is unusual for the sub-genre. It’s a fascinating little film, but not entirely successful. **
Agnes – Rumors of demonic possession at a religious convent prompts a church investigation by a priest and his student. Things do not go as planned, even when they call on a former priest who has become a famous TV exorcist.
Writer/Director Mickey Reece currently has 39 directorial credits on his IMDB page (it also claims 25 are feature films produced within about 10 years), which is impressive… but I’m guessing you haven’t heard of any of them because they’re mostly DIY micro-budget affairs (that are mostly unavailable on streaming). Agnes got some buzz when it premiered at Fantastic Fest a couple years ago, and it supposedly represented an increase in ambition for the indie director.
I’ve seen some folks refer to it as a horror comedy, but that doesn’t feel like the best way to capture it. It’s not so much funny as it is eccentric. For the first half of the film or so, there’s all the standard hallmarks of a possession/exorcism film, but everything is just slightly… off. This leads to some darkly comic moments (priests laughing about a student’s concerns for safety, the nuns commenting on how attractive the priests are, etc…), but I don’t think you could call it a comedy.
Furthermore, without giving anything away, there’s an abrupt shift in the narrative about halfway through the film. We move from the cliched but engaging exorcism narrative in the first half of the film to a more grounded drama in the second half. Whether or not you like this movie will greatly depend on how this shift hits you. I was, more or less, willing to go with it, but it’s certainly not a perfectly executed switcharoo, and it could leave a lot of viewers with some severe disappointment. I could kinda see what they were going for by the end, and there’s a thread involving a crisis of faith that wends its way through both segments reasonably well, but it almost seems designed to annoy people.
Hayley McFarland plays the titular Sister Agnes, and her ability to smoothly transition from innocent nun to demon-possessed monster and back again works quite well. Molly Quinn (probably most famous as Castle‘s daughter in the long running CBS procedural) plays Agnes’ best friend, and the star of the back half of the movie. Ben Hall and Jake Horowitz do fine work as the priests assigned to investigate, and Chris Browning is great as the sleazy former priest turned TV exorcist. For his part, Mickey Reece shows some stylistic flourishes and manages to give the film a 70s vibe, with effective use of camera movements and zooms, as well as the general tonal oddness and even the performances he evokes out of the aforementioned cast (particularly in the more sedate second half).
So I’ll chalk this one up as one of those interesting failures that has lots on its mind and plenty of ambition, but isn’t quite able to deliver on that potential. On the other hand, I’m not sure there’s an obvious way to “fix” this, other than making two almost completely separate movies. It does appear on the Wikipedia page as a Nunsploitation movie, but this is even more atypical of the subgenre than Killer Nun. This is one of those movies I’m really glad I caught up with, but would find hard to recommend except to more adventurous film dorks (it’s not a snobby movie, but snobs might like it). **1/2
It’s hard to believe we’ve already reached week five of the Six Weeks, though the way things timed out, it’s more like 6.5 weeks this year. Next week, we tackle some Giallo animals. In the meantime, if you’re still in the mood for some horror reviews, head on over to Film Thoughts where Zack is posting nearly daily updates (and covering far more films than I do, as per usual).
A recurring type of theme we seek out during the Six Weeks of Halloween is what I like to call “Obscure Horror Auteurs” and this year, we’re going to tackle one of Indonesia’s most popular directors, Joko Anwar. He first came to my attention a few years ago with the film Satan’s Slaves, a well appointed haunted house/satanic cult flick that was one of Indonesia’s highest grossing films (and subsequently became a popular stream on Shudder). Since that film’s sequel has recently been released, I figured it was time to check it out as well as one of his older flicks. As an added bonus, this represents another country on the 50 from 50 tour.
Impetigore – A young woman and her best friend, having fallen on hard times, travel to her remote ancestral village in the hopes of claiming an inheritance. As is usually the case, the town is under some sort of curse, and the young woman unexpectedly learns something unsettling about her family’s past.
Opening with an unnerving sequence set at the toll booth in which the young woman works, the action quickly shifts to a small backwoods village. The pacing slows a bit after that initial rush, but continuously builds towards an impressive conclusion. Lower budget and perhaps not as slick as the Satan’s Slave movies, it nonetheless looks great, has a solid score, stylish camerawork, and great atmosphere. I’m not usually a big fan of folk horror, but this movie struck a chord, and indeed, I found myself surprised several times at various developments. Of course, the curse and our heroine’s place in it are pretty clear early on in the film, and the initial revelation happens in an info-dump that confirms rather than shocks, but there are some unexpected twists after that to keep things interesting.
It’s the sort of thing you’ve seen before, but Anwar’s technique is impressive and he manages to put some interesting spins on well worn tropes. ***
Satan’s Slaves 2: Communion – The family from the first film, still reeling from the loss of the matriarch and youngest child, moves into an apartment building. Alas, it seems that their family’s history of dabbling in satanic cults has followed them.
This is basically a long succession of well crafted horror movie tropes. Slicker and more stylish than Impetigore, it doesn’t have as much of a narrative drive, but there is one breathtaking sequence involving an elevator that was perfectly executed and utterly shocking. You might see where it’s going as Anwar maneuvers the various pieces of the tragedy in place, but it’s not any less effective when it happens. It’s perhaps a little too reliant on jump scares and stingers, along with the attendant camera movements that evoke the expectation of such, even if a few of them are excellent examples of that sort of thing. Once the power goes out in the building, the use of darkness and inconsistent light sources, while effective, is a bit overused. A climactic sequence is lit only by periodic camera flashes that goes on far too long and becomes somewhat annoying.
The story progresses a bit, and we get a little more history and satanic cult stuff, but it’s all a pretty thin excuse to engage in various horror tropes. It’s mostly well executed, and they make great use of the brutalist architecture of the building, but could be more effective if there was a more cohesive story. **1/2
Stay tuned, we’ve got some Killer Nun movies coming soon…