Hard to believe it’s been over a year since the last one of these, though there’ve been plenty of other posts covering the Hugo Awards or Halloween Reading, and so on. Still, I’ve built up a backlog of SF books that need reviewing, so here goes nothing:
Reunion by Christopher Farnsworth – Four teenagers save the world in a small town during an event that became known as “New Year’s Evil.” Twenty years later, and the cyclical evil has returned. The four heroes, now cynical adults, must return home to go to their high school reunion and face the evil again. Or do they?
It’s a premise that recalls Stephen King’s It in more than a few ways, though Farnsworth obviously puts his own spin on it and clocking in at just 332 pages, it’s clearly not going for the epic sensibility King was working through in his novel. Farnsworth does make ample use of archetypes though, and it’s almost like he’s using It as a structural archetype. Each of our heroes follows a well established model. Eric is a magician, a la Merlin. Carrie is the girl detective, as in Nancy Drew. Alana is the Warrior Princess, like Xena. And Danny is the boy genius who goes on super science adventures in the manner of Jonny Quest. Each character is introduced in a sorta where are they now chapter, then they come together to confront evil (again), and each also gets flashbacks extolling their teenaged adventures. It all culminates in dueling climaxes, where we get the true story of “New Year’s Evil” cross cut with a redux in the present.
I was a little hesitant at first, but the book quickly won me over, and by the end I was wishing it was an It sized doorstop. It’s a story that does play to Farnsworth’s strengths, as in his President’s Vampire novels, where he gets to mix and match various bits of classic folklore and modern urban legends to craft a page turning adventure. There are some twists and turns and unexpected character revelations, which all worked well enough for me, even if some of them are a tad predictable. It’s still fun seeing each character leverage their talents, then team up to defeat a seemingly unstoppable evil by using clever combinations of said talents. It’s clearly drafting on its archetypes, right down to the structure, but hey: they’re archetypes for a reason. It all resonates quite well in the end. Solid page-turning beach-read type stuff, and a lot of fun.
Fluency by Jennifer Foehner Wells – NASA discovered an alien ship hidden in the asteroid belt in the 1960s and the entire space program has been a covert attempt to develop the technology to reach it. Dr. Jane Holloway is a linguist recruited to help decipher any alien language they stumble upon. When they reach the ship, Holloway discovers it’s not completely uninhabited. A disembodied voice guides and helps the astronauts as they make their way through the ship. But is the voice on their side? Or is it manipulating them for some nefarious purpose?
Straightforward space opera comfort food, this turns the pages and presents a few interesting conflicts that drive tension throughout, but it’s also not going to blow your mind with anything especially new. Plenty of SF tropes and info-dumps, but nothing too unusual for the genre. Alas, the biggest issue here is that it’s all in service of a larger series of books, and while the ending is a natural conclusion for some of the characters, there are still lots of open questions that will presumably be explored in later books. That being said, I might be amenable to reading at least one more of these, which is usually a good sign…
Travel by Bullet by John Scalzi – This is the third novella in a series about “dispatchers”, people who are legally empowered to take a life (except in this world, anyone who is murdered survives – they just wake up in their home after being murdered. Natural deaths still occur uninterrupted, only murders are affected). It’s a silly premise, but Scalzi has set up internally consistent rules and used them to tell tightly plotted murder/mystery stories that rely on the vagaries of the dispatching process in some way. As per usual, lots of snappy dialogue and light humor keep the tone playful and the pace moving sprightly. For some reason, this entire series was conceived as an audio book exclusive (though I think the first two eventually got a print edition), but they’re solid listens and Zachary Quinto does a good job reading the stories. This has been a fun series and I look forward to more installments (for the record: each story is a self-contained mystery, so it’s not the kind of series that leaves you with lots of loose threads and open questions.)
Freedom™ by Daniel Suarez – The sequel to and conclusion of the story started in Suarez’s Daemon, about a quasi-AI system that attempts to take over the world after its inventor dies. I found that first book to be enjoyable enough in a surface-level pulpy fiction way, but was not inclined to immediately seek out the sequel. But I did seek out more Suarez, and he’s grown on me as an author, so I have finally circled back to this sequel. The first novel primarily saw the Daemon as a villain, but in this book Suarez attempts to soften the image a bit. It’s still a situation where the Daemon has to break some eggs to make the omelet, but maybe that omelet is worth it?
There are some interesting ideas floating around here about better ways to organize a society and its various supply chains given a high tech base to start from, though it all still feels like we’re only really scratching the surface, and a lot of plot elements are far-fetched to say the least. That being said, that sort of thing can be a lot of fun if you can get on its wavelength and don’t ask too many questions. I’m glad I read it and enjoyed it well enough, but my complaints from the first book remain and this would not be the first Suarez I’d recommend (if you’re interested, go for Influx or Delta-V first…)
Still a few more books to catch up with, and we’ve got Vintage Science Fiction Month coming soon too, so stay tuned…
After a devastating battle against a diabolical turtle, a team of five avengers – known as the “Tobacco Force” – is sent on a mandatory retreat to strengthen their decaying group cohesion. Their sojourn goes wonderfully well until Lézardin, Emperor of Evil, decides to annihilate planet Earth.
Alright, referencing a Quentin Dupieux movie for weird movie of the week is almost like cheating. After all, this is the guy who brought us the touching tale of a homicidal tire and a talking deerskin jacket, amongst other oddities. As these things go, a Power Rangers-style parody featuring anti-smoking vigilantes named Benzene, Methanol, Mercury, Ammonia, and Nicotine, along with a green rat mentor, is perhaps not as uniquely weird as the rest of Dupieux’s filmography, but it’s pretty damn weird for everyone else. Who’d have thunk that Smoking Causes Coughing?
We’ve finally come to the end of the Six Weeks of Halloween, and as I cope with the withdrawal symptoms, I leave you with this dump of interesting links from the depths of ye olde internets:
The Psychological Weirdness of “Prompt Engineering” – Apparently folks studying AI art prompts have discovered that the AIs have developed their own nonsense language. And I, for one, welcome our new artbot overlords. I’d like to remind them as a trusted blogging personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves.
A Matter of Rights: A Talk with Lee Tsiantis – Short interview with a lawyer who does rights research for TCM and Warner Home Video. Rights issues are complicated and somewhat infuriating when you realize that, most of the time, studios can’t distribute the films due to nonexistent creators and the difficulty of tracing who owns what after the original creator died decades ago.
Chloe Grace Moretz on Martin Scorsese – Buried in this interview are a few fun anecdotes about Scorsese that really prompt additional questions: What were those 25-30 movies? And what did they sing for karaoke?
AVC: What was it like to star in a Martin Scorsese movie when you were so young, especially one as grand and epic as this one?
CGM: It was all-encompassing, and I feel like [Scorsese is] very all-encompassing. He is such a cinephile, and he really imparted that knowledge to me, just in the time that I got to spend with him. One of the first things he did when I showed up to start preproduction is he had a big box dropped off, and it had probably 25, 30 movies in it. And he was like, “Before we start production, you have to watch all of these.” The movies that he gave me were different than movies he gave Asa [Butterfield]. So we had to do our homework, and then he would basically pop quiz us on it. He’d be like, “So, what do you think about this? What do you think about that?” He really got our muscles flexing.
AVC: I love that Scorsese just gave you a giant pile of movies to watch. That’s exactly what I would imagine him doing.
CGM: That’s exactly it. And we spent Christmas dinner together, basically, and we all just sang karaoke on the floor.
What’s Your Favorite Pop Tart – This feels like a pitch perfect parody of dudebro podcast hosts, and yet it appears to be real, such that anyone parodying this sort of thing really has their work cut out for them. Anyway, I’m team strawberry, but do you guys remember Toaster Strudels? Good times.
Yes, we watch a lot of movies during the Six Weeks of Halloween, but that’s not the only way to celebrate the season. I don’t talk much about the hayrides or haunted houses (or haunted… dining establishments?) or pumpkin mutilation carving ceremonies that I partake in during this most hallowed of seasons, but there’s not really a ton to say about those experiences other than the fact that the pandemic has eased a bit, such that social interaction is actually possible these days, which is nice. Anywho, I also like to tailor my reading towards the season though, and while we’re a far cry from the pandemic fueled record of 9 books, we’re still averaging about a book a week (which is generally my target for the whole year). Let’s see what kinds of spooky literature we could scare up this year:
Halloween Reading Roundup 2022
Dark Entries by Robert Aikman – While most of his stories are pretty firmly categorized as horror, Aikman was an ornery sort who seemed to look down on the genre, instead referring to his stories as “strange tales.” Which isn’t entirely wrong, because these stories are unlike anything I’ve read. Even stories that hew to some semblance of conventional tropes end up in a flummoxing place. Like you get to the end of the story and ok, the woman’s house is haunted by the ghost of her father, but… is her father’s ghost also her baby’s father? Aikman, of course, would never answer that question directly and the story itself barely hints in that direction. Maybe I’m the weird one? That’s the sort of feeling an Aikman story gives you. Indeed, it’s difficult to capture what makes these stories work because almost anything I tell you about them will sound deeply unsatisfying. But they’re not, which is a neat trick that I don’t think many writers can pull off. The prose is not baroque or otherwise filled with hooptedoodle; Aikman certainly knows how to let things breath without making a story feel like an empty stylistic exercise. These aren’t propulsive action-packed stories, but neither are they dull literary experiments. Again, difficult to encapsulate.
Dark Entries was his second collection of stories, originally published in 1964, and it seems like a pretty good place to start. Six stories, most of them memorable and disconcerting in their own way. The highlight, to my mind, was “Ringing the Changes”, a sorta horror story about marriage, but as previously mentioned, it’s hard to really capture the essence of the story. It invokes a wonderful atmosphere of creeping dread that grows more and more surreal as the story progresses (while always remaining grounded). At one point, a crowd of townfolk parade through the town chanting:
‘The living and the dead dance together. Now’s the time. Now’s the place. Now’s the weather.
Page 76, Dark Entries by Robert Aikman
Something about the whole thing just struck me as wonderfully macabre, and it’s almost the perfect slogan for The Six Weeks of Halloween as a concept. You better believe Aikman will be revisited in future 6WH reading (I’ve already secured a copy of The Wine Dark Sea for just that purpose).
A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson – My favorite discovery of last year’s 6WH reading was Brian Evenson, so I took a flier on another short story collection of his. While I do think that the collection I read last year, Song for the Unraveling of the World, is superior, this one ended pretty strong. Unfortunately, it’s a little more uneven and it starts slow. About halfway through, things pick up, and Evenson’s stripped down, simple, but still evocative prose always keeps things moving. His stories tend to be on the shorter side as well, so even if you find yourself not like a story, it won’t be long until you get to the next one.
Highlights include the story “The Dust” (which is actually one of the longer stories), “The Window”, and the eponymous “A Collapse of Horses.” A couple of the stories contain Aikman-like strangeness, albeit in a more obviously horror story framework, like “Click” or “The Moans.” Altogether a solid, if more uneven, collection (which, to be fair, is generally what collections tend to be like.)
Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly – Alright, I think we’ve covered the highfalutin literary stuff I’ve read this year, let’s get to something a little more pulpy. And to be clear, I love pulpy, and this is a great example of that sort of thing. A retired British spy named James Asher is recruited to hunt down a vampire killer that’s been plaguing London’s vampire community. His handler is one Don Simon Ysidro, a 400 year old vampire that does not trust humans, but needs a human ally, as Ysidro cannot investigate during the daylight hours (which is when the vampire hunter strikes). Naturally, there is a deep lack of trust between Ysidro and Asher, both worried about the sudden but inevitable betrayal this situation seemingly demands of them.
There’s some nice bits of tradecraft as befits Asher’s history as a spy, and his background in linguistics comes in handy as well. There’s plenty of vampire lore which is slowly doled out as Asher investigates. This dynamic, where someone is trying to investigate an insular group who won’t share information, is normally something that might get on my nerves, but everyone’s motivations are well established and the consequences of sharing too much are also high enough that it all works without feeling like lazy storytelling.
Hambly is an established writer of fantasy and historical fiction, but her style here does appeal to the science fiction nerd’s attention to detail. Lots of speculation and exploration of unintended consequences, historical context, and so on, that I found quite engaging (though I suspect fans of more schlocky horror might be bored by this level of detail). Thematically, she’s exploring the ideas of predation and trust in a careful way (i.e. What are the ethics of hunting humans for survival’s sake?), and just in case you were concerned: the vampires here are basically portrayed as sympathetic but asexual monsters, only touching on attraction and desire as a tool for hunting (i.e. there’s no Twilight or Anne Rice-style fetishization of vampires to be found here).
This is apparently a long-running series, and yes, I will most definitely be revisiting this in future 6WH. Recommended!
October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween – An anthology featuring stories from a wide variety of authors. The stories themselves are a bit of a mixed bag, which is par for the course when it comes to this sort of thing, but one thing I will say about them: They really take the theme of the anthology seriously. When they say this is a “celebration of Halloween”, they mean it, and nearly every story takes place on Halloween night and prominently features the holiday in some way. As such, it’s kinda perfect reading for the season.
Highlights include Peter Straub’s excellent “Pork Pie Hat” about a jazz musician’s memorable childhood Halloween, “The Black Pumpkin” by Dean Koontz (about a pumpkin monster, I guess?), “The Circle” by Lewis Shiner (about authors reading spooky stories to each other on Halloween night), and several others. I also have to laugh at “Buckets” by F. Paul Wilson, the sort of story that touches a political third rail, but really goes for it.
The stories are interspersed with nonfiction chapters where authors share “My Favorite Halloween Memory” that are probably more miss than hit. Some are decent and interesting, but most come off as pure filler. Similarly, there are a few chapters about Halloween movies and stories that are solid, but not exactly authoritative. Still, all in all, a pretty fantastic little collection, especially for the time of year.
On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony – Pulpy tale of a man who inadvertently kills Death, and therefore must take over the job himself. He thus travels the world, reaping the souls of those whose balance between good and evil are in question, determining if they belong in heaven or in hell. New to the job, he quickly stumbles into a trap set by the devil himself.
I heard of this book decades ago, but never really pulled the trigger until now. I thought about a normal guy learning to become the personification of Death would be spooky, and to some extent, I suppose there’s a little of that. But ultimately, this becomes a sorta episodic story as each victim of death pleads their case (or doesn’t, as it were). The nuts and bolts of the afterlife are not especially interesting (and I’m once again struck by how many stories people tell about how badly human beings do succession planning – is this really the best way to fill the office of Death?) and there’s a whole love story subplot that is pretty cringey. Ultimately, the book winds up being fine, I guess, but I wasn’t taken with it enough to want to explore the whole series, so this is one thing you won’t see me revisiting in future 6WH marathons…
The Tomb by F. Paul Wilson – The Keep was one of my favorite horror books when I read it as a teenager, but for some reason, I’ve never revisited that series (dubbed The Adversary) or Wilson in general, so I thought it was time. This book is supposed to be the second in the series, but it’s the first appearance of another character that Wilson has built a series around, one Repairman Jack. He’s basically a mercenary, living off the grid, fixing things for people who cannot find help elsewhere.
As this novel opens, Jack is hired by two people. One, to find a necklace stolen in a mugging, and the other a British heiress who had disappeared. Wanna bet that these two stories connect? Of course they do, and along the way we’re treated to Indian folklore and monsters and magic elixers, and so on. As a character, Jack isn’t quite as impressive as he’s made out to be (it’s one of those things where everyone has a lot of respect for him and talk about how great he is, but when you see his working methods, they don’t seem particularly impressive), but he’s still a solid character and Wilson is a decent enough storyteller such that even when you can see where the story is going or you’ve predicted a twist, it doesn’t really matter that much.
This doesn’t really connect with The Keep at all, at least, not directly, but from what I gather, future books in both series have some sort of connection. This is not a total homerun, but I’m still amenable to revisiting the series at some point…
So there you have it: Six Weeks of Halloween, six books read. This pretty much wraps up the 6WH for 2022, but as per usual, I’m already looking forward to next year’s festivities…
Time flies when you’re terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought. Yes, the Six Weeks of Halloween is just about over, with just that most hallowed of e’en coming up tomorrow. In accordance with tradition, this is when we engage in a Speed Round of brief thoughts on films I watched during the 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 this writing, I’ve seen 54 horror (or horror-adjacent) movies during this Halloween season. This is basically comparable with last year, which was way down from the pandemic-fueled record of 71 movies. Nature is healing, etc… It’s nice to get back to pre-pandemic levels of socialization interrupting movie watching plans, not to mention the sudden emergence of Philadelphia sports excellence. Sports!
Um, anyways, we still have lots of things to cover in this here Speed Round, and we’ll wrap things up next Sunday with a Halloween Reading Roundup (it’s not all movies during the 6WH, after all). Anywho, let’s get to this speed round:
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Speed Round
Invaders from Mars (1953) – Another classic 50s Sci-Fi flick infused with Cold War paranoia, very entertaining with some memorable visuals. Not the best version of this sort of thing, but really quite solid and it’s another classic I inexplicably hadn’t caught up with until now. ***
The Spine of Night – Heavy Metal-esque adult animation that indulges in more than a little bit of the old ultraviolence. An ode to Ralph Bakshi and other rotoscope animators who made cartoons for adults. The brutal violence and cartoon dicks get old after a while, but it’s an interesting movie for sure. **1/2
Plan 9 from Outer Space – Infamously one of the worst movies of all time, it doesn’t quite live up to that label. There are far worse films out there, and there’s something delightfully odd about this, such that it’s not a surprise that it’s gained a cult following. I mean, it’s not exactly good and sorta defies a normal rating, but it has its moments. ???
Practical Magic – Young Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as cursed witches, sits comfortably in that weirdly unique 90s silliness that inflects a lot of movies of that era. It’s lightweight but somehow more than it seems. **1/2
The Shining – Kubrick’s classic still holds up and looks better than ever in the new(ish) 4K transfer. This isn’t a movie for everyone, but something about Kubrick always gets under my skin, and this movie has so many unsettling images and ideas.
There’s something to be said about adaptations that veer far from the source material, but this is a case where it’s all for the best. ***1/2
Invaders from Mars (1986) – Tobe Hooper’s remake of the 50s classic isn’t quite as successful as the other 80s remakes of 50s classics (like The Thing and The Fly) and I think the original is better, but this updates some things well enough, while almost leaving too much of the original in tact (and thus feeling a bit out of place in the 1980s). **1/2
The Addams Family 2 – It’s hard to believe that the mediocre animated Addams Family movie garnered a sequel, but here we are, a sequel that’s equally mediocre. That said, I kinda have a soft spot for The Addams Family as a general concept and enjoy spending time with them. Not great or anything, but it’s nice to mix in some lighter fare during the 6WH, which can get a bit morose after a while. **
Candyman (2021) – Gorgeous and well appointed sequel/reboot/whatever that suffers from modern horror’s tendency towards messy grasping for relevance and a desperate need to be didactic about Something Important. Still, there’s a solid throughline and some of the ideas they threw against the wall stuck, such that this remains a solid bite of genre fare with lots to chew on. **1/2
The Entity – The infamous ghost rape movie, it’s interesting how seriously they take the premise, such that it doesn’t feel as exploitative as it could have been. Indeed, this is a 1982 movie steeped in the experience of survivors, and this should work well given current Horror fans’ obsession with trauma. It’s repetitive, far too long (over 2 hours), repetitive, and devolves into weird histrionics later in the film, but it’s all firmly grounded and on point. **1/2
The Silence of the Lambs – An annual rewatch at this point, I’ve already said my piece on this, but it remains a classic standby. The newish 4K release is only a minor improvement over the Criterion release, but it still looks great. ****
Blood Red Sky – Interesting little slice of German vampire schlock highlighted as a Netflix programmer a while back (and similarly languishes in their archives, mostly undiscussed). There’s a fun premise here that is somewhat subverted by trying to be dark and more realistic. Fine for what it does, but it could have been more of a fun romp (but this is complaining about the movie I wanted it to be, not the movie it’s trying to be). **1/2
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions – More of the same, all in good fun. It looks good and has decent little puzzles strewn throughout, and the overarching conspiracy grows more and more ludicrous, but in a fun way. This should spawn a long-running series, and despite my distaste for sequels, this is exactly the kind of thing that begs for a franchise, and I’ll totally watch at least a couple more of these (which are presumably coming soon). **1/2
No Exit – Low-budget, snowy locked room mystery with Hitchcockian vibes that morphs into full-on, mean-spirited violence and gore in the third act. It’s a little overheated, derivative, and predictable at times, but they put this premise through its paces and execute well. Underseen 2022 release worth a look. ***
Hellraiser (2022) – It’s the best Hellraiser movie since Bloodline! Alas, that’s not saying much. It’s far too long, festooned with overly dark cinematography, and not nearly horny enough for a true Barker-like experience. Overstuffed with modern horror tropes (why is there a whole addiction subplot here?), it also takes some liberties with the mythology (not necessarily bad, given how far they’ve strayed). It does have some bright spots though! The new cenobites are great (er, when you can see them), and the Epstein stand-in villain was a nice touch. In the end, it feels a little safe, but perhaps that’s what the series needed. It does seem like there’s more Hellraiser stories to tell, so maybe we’ll get some more interesting stuff in later installments. **1/2
Se7en – David Fincher’s slice of 90s serial killer mayhem holds up really well. Everything still fits and the clever conceits work well. One thing that struck me in watching this (especially in close proximity to the new Hellraiser) – darkness in the cinematography here looks so, so much better than the modern digital dull mess that so many more modern movie (and shows) engage in. The darkness is actually used well here, but you can still see things you need to see. Imagine that! ***1/2
Werewolf by Night – Marvel tries to evoke classic Universal monster tropes in this short, 55 minute thriller, to middling success. It comports itself well enough and was a nice, fun, short watch. You’d think that Monster Hunters would have better succession planning though. **1/2
Hell House LLC – Rock solid found-footage movie that doesn’t quite crack the top tier, but is certainly top of the middle tier of the sub-genre. Interesting setup, and just enough reliance on interviews and news footage, etc… It does suffer from the usual found-footage problems, but not excessively so. Well worth a watch. ***
My Best Friend’s Exorcism – A bit of a tonal mess, this does smack of an adaptation that can’t quite encapsulate everything that’s going on in the book (which I have not read, to be sure, but it feels like there has to be a lot more here). That said, once it gets established, it comports itself well enough and some of the bits work pretty well. The comedic elements aren’t particularly well incorporated and undercut the scary stuff, but on the other hand, I did chuckle a few times. Perfectly cromulent, but not going to blow you away. **1/2
Prophecy – Prophecy’s screaming bear walked so that Annihilation’s screaming bear could run. This was one of those VHS covers I always saw at the video store, but never really pulled the trigger on… John Frankenheimer tries his best to keep things grounded and focus on the environmental politics and other 70s values, but it’s all injected into a pulpy monster bear narrative that’s kinda silly. Glad I finally watched it and it has lots of interesting elements, but is a bit too muddled to be fully successful. **1/2
Bird Box – Another Netflix programmer that suffers from its very nature. Derivative in the extreme (clearly generated by an algorithm – it’s The Happening meets A Quiet Place!), overlong, it was a popular hit for about a week, and has summarily disappeared from the cultural consciousness since then. That being said, it’s elevated a bit by performances from stars like Sandra Bullock and John Malkovitch, and there are a couple of interesting ideas floating in the mush. **
Elvira’s Haunted Hills – Part of Joe Bob’s Haunted Halloween Hangout, it’s always fun to hang out with Elvira. The movie is nothing particularly special, but it has some fun stuff going for it, I guess. Worth it if you enjoy Elvira’s schtick. **1/2
The Black Phone – This feels a bit like a YA pulp short story padded out to feature length. A bit too much of the alcoholic father and bullies and some other superfluous plot points, and not enough of Ethan Hawke’s suburban boogieman (the movie does get a lot of mileage out of Hawke’s admittedly great mask, but there was clearly more there). The supernatural gimmick works well enough, once it gets going. Remember talking on the phone? Scaaary! **1/2
Footprints on the Moon – Strange slice of Giallo involving a woman who wakes up not remembering her last three days. As she tries to solve that mystery, she has flashbacks to a weird movie within a movie about astronauts being stranded on the moon. Some interesting stuff and gorgeous to look at, but a little too slow and doesn’t quite earn it in the admittedly neat (but nonsensical) ending. **
Frankenstein (1931) – Still a classic, what struck me most this time around is that it’s only 70 minutes long (and 2-3 minutes are spent on stuff like showing the credits twice and having someone introduce the film and inform the audience that what you’re about to see will be shocking!), meaning that this is about the length of a lot of prestige TV episodes these days. ****
The Invisible Man (1933) – Part of the first Universal Monsters 4K boxed set I bought last year, but never got around to rewatching. It’s grown on me upon repeat viewings, and the new 4K transfer looks great too. ***
Popcorn – The other half of Joe Bob’s Haunted Halloween Hangout, this is one of those meta exercises where a group of film students puts on a horror-movie-thon of old movies featuring William Castle-like gimicks like schocked seats in the theater and a big remote-controlled mosquito. The fake 50s horror flicks you get glimpses of were all created for this movie, and they are fantastic. The reference to an old art film with a tragic history is interesting, but after a while it does feel like there’s a lot of stuff being crammed into this movie. Still, I had a lot of fun with it. **1/2
The Bride of Frankenstein – One of the better sequels of all time, but I still prefer the original. New 4K boxed set of Universal Monsters dropped a while back and I never noticed until too late in this marathon, but this one looks great, and I’m sure I’ll get to the others soon enough. ***1/2
The Midnight Club – Mike Flanagan continues to produce interesting stuff for Netflix, but man, it’s like he heard all the complaints about monologues in Midnight Mass and was like, I hear you, but what if there were more monologues? I’m only a couple episodes in, but it’s interesting enough so far, even if it still feels like it might be better as one 2-3 hour movie rather than a 10 episode series (but then, maybe I haven’t seen enough).
Tales From the Crypt (Season 2) – I’ve basically given up on these showing up on HBO Max (apparently it’s hampered by a hideous tangle of rights issues), so I went ahead and grabbed the DVDs. I really appreciate the short, 30 minutes or less, episodes, especially given more modern tendencies towards excess. I still haven’t finished the entire season, but I’ll be making my way through them in future 6WH for sure.
After well over a decade of the Six Weeks of Halloween, it’s easy to slide into niche, obscuresub-genres and forgotten foreign flicks, but there are honestly some bona-fide classics or at least famous (or infamous) franchise-spawning films that I inexplicably haven’t seen. Week 5’s Killer Kids theme was actually already a pretty good example of catching up with famous films I’d never seen before (well, two of them were.) Obviously, what constitutes a “classic” is a fraught topic, but on tap today are two flicks that I figure to be pretty mainstream successes, such that I’m actually familiar with a lot of details, just through cultural osmosis.
It’s also worth noting that I grew up in the cable television/VHS era, and I have definitely seen bits and pieces of these movies, but never watched them all the way through. Revisiting those movies is always interesting, because sometimes I’ve watched much more of the movie than I thought… but sometimes I realize I haven’t really seen it at all.
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 6.5 – Inexplicably Haven’t Seen These Movies
Fatal Attraction – A married man has a one-night stand and the affair comes back to haunt him as his new lover begins to stalk him and his family. It goes further than you might expect.
I’m sure there’ve been lots of revisionist readings of this as problematic or something, but that’s not a rabbit hole I want to go down right now. It’s a reasonably well constructed thriller, with a flawed man making a mistake that spirals further and further out of control. Each step escalates the stakes and indicates how fraught the situation is while also still remaining somewhat logical in structure, which is harder to do than it might seem. By the end, we’ve gotten to rather disturbing territory, but the progression was well established and grounded, so it doesn’t feel too improbable.
Michael Douglas does a good smarmy protagonist who should have just kept it in his pants here. It’s the sort of role that he’s played many times in his career, and for good reason: he’s really good at this sort of thing. It’s not an especially flattering specialty (and obviously it’s not the only type of role he has played), but I respect that he leaned into what he’s good at. The character is clearly flawed and the movie plays with sympathies a bit, but it’s obviously coming down on his side by the end (to my mind, once you start jeopardizing the wife and kid and pet, the proportion of wrongdoing/consequences has shifted a little too far).
This is a well made, mainstream Hollywood production, with all the slickness and competence behind the scenes that makes a the story and impacts seem effortless. Adrian Lyne has made a career out of restrained and yet somehow overheated premises like this, and the filmmaking is not flashy but still very effective. Great performances from Douglas and Glenn Close as leads, but a really solid supporting cast in Anne Archer and character actors like Stuart Pankin.
I already knew some of the more shocking moments of the film, but they’re still effective when watched in context, and while this movie isn’t exactly “enjoyable”, it’s effective and well made. ***
The Amityville Horror – The Lutz family moves into their dream home, which they were able to buy on the cheap because the previous owner murdered his entire family in that house. As they get settled, it seems that it’s less of a dream home… and more of a nightmare home!
This is a movie that has spawned almost a dozen sequels, spinoffs, reboots, whatever, not to mention setting a template that countless imitators have used over the intervening decades. Which is kinda funny, because the movie is a bit of a mess. Lots of individual components are well done, to be sure, and there are memorable and oft-imitated elements, but this is one of those less than the sum of its parts movies. There’s a distinct lack of cohesion that becomes especially pronounced in the ending. Look, I don’t need everything wrapped up in a tidy little bow and it’s fine for some ambiguity to be present, but the end here feels suspiciously indifferent.
Once again, this is a reasonably well crafted, mainsteam Hollywood production. The overheated, sweaty nature of the proceedings isn’t really counterbalanced by anything though, which makes things a little less plausible. Of course, this is a haunted house movie – not everything needs to be plausible, and as previously mentioned, a lot of individual scenes work well on their own. A priest comes to bless the house and is struck with nausea. He hears a mysterious voice ordering him to “Get Out!” of the house. When he fights with his superiors over what should be done, even more ills fall upon him. Weirdly, this subplot never really connects with the main plot (which is part of the point – the house is asserting its will, in a way, I guess), which is a good indication of how things don’t really add up in this movie.
There are several other effective elements here. A little girl has an imaginary friend named Jody… but Jody might be a ghost… or worse? A babysitter gets trapped in a closet. James Brolin plays the step-father and he’s almost immediately worn down by the house. The way his appearance unravels throughout the film is well done (the Grinch-like reversal at the end is yet another example of things not quite adding up). Bees and flies swarm rooms at odd times, the walls bleed, there’s a strange draft in the basement that leads to the discovery of a hidden room. The house itself looks like a face, with big windows for eyes, and so on… Each piece is put on the chess table, but it doesn’t feel like they’re playing the game very well.
Infamously presented as “Based on a True Story”, much of it has since been revealed as a hoax. There really was a Lutz family who moved into a murder house and left suddenly, but most everything else is just exaggerated and overblown. But that’s not a big deal in my boat. I’d rather have bleeding walls and hallucinations rather than the truth here – this isn’t a documentary and from what I can tell, the reality of what went on in the house was rather boring. Still, it would have been nice if the disparate elements here were tied together a little better in the end. Weirdly, this means it actually makes sense that there would be a long-running franchise. Lots of opportunity that is presumably covered in the sequels and reboots and whatnot. **
We’re really in the homestretch now. The standard Speed Round of films I’ve watched, but not otherwise covered coming up on Sunday, and then some reviews of spooky books read during the season the following week.
Horror franchises that live long enough almost inevitably reach a point of creative bankruptcy and jump the shark. This takes various forms, but one of the most amusing is when they send the franchise to outer space. There aren’t actually a ton of these, but there are enough, and while the conceit is irrevocably silly, the batting average for these movies is surprisingly good? Maybe “good” isn’t the right word, but they’re all pretty amusing and entertaining in their own way. The highest profile example is clearly Jason X, a movie we’ve already covered a few times here. Still, I was able to cobble together three more examples (oddly enough, all the fourth installment of their respective franchise) and despite this seeming like a weekly theme destined for a bad experience, I had a pretty good time with all these movies.
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 6 – Horror Franchises Go to Space!
Hellraiser: Bloodline – This fourth Hellraiser film tries to tell the full history of Lemerchand’s box. A prequel detailing the creation of the box by a French toymaker, a sequel to the excesses of Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth that explains the mysterious Lament Configuration building that appeared at the end of that movie, and the ultimate conclusion set in the far flung future of 2047 on a space station.
I actually saw this movie in the theater back in 1996. Had to travel to the dam tri-state mall to see it, and it turned out that the theater was basically empty. Me, a friend, and one other dude. I know the movie has some rather serious flaws and definitely muddles with the mythology of the series, but I rather enjoyed the idea back then, and I was surprised to find that I still had some fun with it, even today.
The film had a troubled production. Lots of studio interference, reshoots with another director, such that the original director, effects and makeup guru Kevin Yagher, formally disowned the project. Due to vagaries of film credit attribution, this makes Hellraiser: Bloodline one of the hallowed few to be attributed to the infamous Alan Smithee pseudonym. Watching the film, you can absolutely feel the behind-the-scenes tumult, but the skeleton of what Yagher (and Clive Barker) intended seems to still be in place and functioning. It’s not perfectly executed or anything, and I’m not entirely sure how good this could be even in the best of scenarios, but I still kinda like the idea at its core.
I know I just spent a bunch of time decrying Halloween Ends‘ ambitious take on that series, but even though Hellraiser: Bloodline isn’t especially accomplished, I think it actually delivers on more of its potential than Halloween Ends, which sounds absurd, I know. There are some severe flaws. The film opens in the future on a space station, then uses a flashback structure to tell the prequel/sequel stories before returning to the future. Using that as a framing device is awkward, since it removes any sense of suspense in the first two segments of the film. Granted, stopping every 20-30 minutes to say “200 years later” or whatever is also a bit clunky, but it would at least be surprising for those going into the film blind (and it could have had the surprising effect of stuff like Psycho or it’s many imitators like Scream).
The opening sequence is perhaps my favorite, with bad French wigs and sacrificial satanic rites and hammy overacting and a young Adam Scott? The middle segment, which is the longest, drags a little and suffers the most from the framing device (hard to worry about the continuation of the toymaker’s bloodline when we already know his descendent will end up on a space station in the future), but that’s where Pinhead shows up and starts dropping pretty great line readings of cheesy but actually kinda effective dialogue. The future segment pits Pinhead against space marines, which has to count for something.
A lot of the scare sequences that are supposed to be suspenseful come off as more perfunctory than anything else, but I still appreciate what they were going for here. Not a good movie, per say, but more enjoyable than you’d think (and certainly better than Part III and/or most of what follows in the franchise). ** (but this does sorta defy ratings)
Leprechaun 4: In Space – On a distant planet, a power hungry Leprechaun kidnaps a princess in the hopes that marrying her will grant him enough royal power to rule the universe. Or something like that, it doesn’t really matter, does it? This is not especially connected in any way with the previous entries in the series (not that I’m an expert there, to be honest), but again, I don’t think that really matters.
This is quintessential so-bad-it’s-good cheese. Low budget, shamelessly juvenile, dumb, and rather entertaining. Macho space marines that are clearly dollar-store imitations of the Colonial Marines from Aliens, with the sergeant in particular hamming things up with his delivery of cliched dialogue. A mad scientist that gets Cronenberged also gives it his all, to amusing effect. His assistant is perhaps more restrained, but almost as weird. Warwick Davis still seems to be having fun as the titular mischievous imp. Instead of copious rhyming puns, he monologues and quotes Shakespeare. There’s a rebigulator/debigulator that is introduced, and eventually enlarges the Leprechaun, because of course there’s a giant Leprechaun wreaking havoc on this space station.
Look, this isn’t in any way good, but it’s so delightfully bugnuts that I couldn’t help being thoroughly entertained throughout the runtime. **1/2 (but again, this defies ratings)
Critters 4 – Bounty Hunter Charlie has discovered the last two Critters eggs in existence, but he gets stuck in a transportation probe that gets lost in space. He’s picked up by a salvage crew and brought to an abandoned space station. Naturally, the Critters escape and do their thing.
Of the horror franchises that have gone to space, this is probably the most logical one. Indeed, all the Critters movies feature space in some way, so it actually makes sense that they’d eventually set an entire installment in space. Of course, there’s not really much to do once they get there. Indeed, the Critters don’t even really show up until 30 minutes into the movie, and there’s only two of them. There’s one pretty gnarly death scene, but the rest are somewhat rote (or even worse, offscreen).
What saves the movie from being a complete and utter mediocrity is the cast. A young Angela Bassett, a rare heroic Brad Dourif, and the guy who played Leo from Twin Peaks are all present and giving it their all. It’s all presented a bit too serious and the pacing is lethargic, but there’s something divertingly odd about his movie. It’s far from the hoot that the first two movies represent, but it’s a step above part 3. Not particularly necessary, but just weird enough to hold interest. **
I don’t know how these 6 weeks flew by so quickly, but we’ve still got plenty to come. We should have some movies I inexplicably haven’t seen yet on Wednesday, and next Sunday will be the usual Speed Round of quick hits on movies I watched, but haven’t covered in depth (and we’ll catch up on some horror books the following week)…
Alright, still being facetious here, and clearly Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers is pretty bad (it’s not quite the absolute nadir of the list, which is definitively Resurrection, but it’s not far off), but I just can’t bring myself to care that much about all of the sequels and reboots and sequels to reboots and sequels that branch off from other points in the timeline and so on. But here’s the thing: The original Halloween is one of my all time favorites and would rank somewhere in my personal top 100 movies of all time list (perhaps top 20 or maybe even top 10). According to Letterboxd, I’ve seen somewhere on the order of 4500 movies, and the rest of the Halloween sequels probably range in the 3000-4000 range (alright, again, maybe I’m exaggerating – but the point is that there’s a tremendous chasm between #1 and #2 on the list above). Even Halloween III, which has seen a well-deserved rehabilitation over the last decade or so after being unfairly maligned for so long, isn’t that great of a movie. I do appreciate what they were trying to do there though.
A lot of these movies are perfectly cromulent (for a sequel/reboot/whatever) and I’m certainly not immune to nostalgia. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers has some intriguing elements, and I must admit that I always loved how game Donald Pleasance was in all these sequels. Rob Zombie’s remake could have been a solid neo-slasher if they changed the title, a few names, and used different theme music (it would have clearly been derivative of Halloween, but it’d work much better if it was an “original” concept and wasn’t constantly forcing you to compare to a genuine classic). And so on.
David Gordon Green’s recent trilogy, concluding with the release of Halloween Ends last week, has been a real mixed bag for me. The 2018 Reboot had some nice elements and some interesting ideas, but it was overstuffed and messy and never really delivered on its potential. Halloween Kills was downright disappointing, with a tacky and desperate overreliance on legacy characters and a frankly bizarre attempt to monologue responsibility away from the townsfolk, who had formed a mob and murdered some random guy (amongst many other dumb things). Again, some interesting ideas, but none were particularly well executed. So now we come to the concluding entry in this most recent series (Spoilers to follow)…
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 5.5 – Halloween Ends
A young man named Corey Cunningham accidentally kills a kid he was babysitting. Three years later, he’s trying to put his life back together, but Haddonfield will have none of it, as they still think of him as a pedophilic murderer of children who got off on a technicality. As pressure mounts, he begins to think that maybe he should stand up for himself… and start murdering those who blame him for killing the child. And oh yeah, he runs into Michael Myers at some point, and I guess they’re kinda friends? Kindred evil spirits with dead eyes or something like that? Whatever. Corey is also sorta dating Laurie Strode’s granddaughter, so eventually Corey and his new friend Michael try to kill Laurie, with predictable results.
Spoilers, I guess, but at this point, does it really matter? It’s telling that this movie isn’t really about Laurie or Michael, but rather a brand new character introduced in this movie. Which is actually a bold choice! As someone who generally bemoans lazy sequels and desperate reliance on legacy characters, I have a lot of respect for this approach. I actually don’t need them to rehash the Halloween slasher formula, and I wasn’t really looking forward to an epic showdown between Michael and Laurie, rinse and repeat. But if you do this, you have to do it well, and I don’t think they pulled it off.
David Gordon Green is a talented director, and the movie looks good. There’s some effective jump scares and some wonderful visuals sprinkled throughout. As with previous movies in the series, there are lots of interesting ideas thrown out there. Laurie’s new strategy for coping with PTSD continues a theme that’s been present throughout this new trilogy and despite modern horror’s obsession with trauwwwma, it makes sense to explore that here (even if it’s an… odd take, more on this below). The way contagious fear and tragedy has weighed on the town of Haddonfield, marked by a cyclical evil manifesting as a boogeyman that’s not always Michael Myers, but just as often the way the town reacts to Myers (as in the “Evil Dies Tonight” mob from Halloween Kills). These are all through lines of the trilogy, but this final installment also adds in a whole new theme about a tortured soul succumbing to pressures and his own trauma to become a murderer himself. It sometimes feels like each new scene introduces a new theme.
These are all weighty topics, worthy of deep exploration. Unfortunately, that’s not what we get. All these ideas and themes are just crammed into each movie with no regard to whether or not they’re actually well depicted or thoroughly established. It’s just like, oh, new scene, maybe this one will be a commentary on consumerism, is that something? We should draw parallels between the band nerds and the police, because bullies become fascist cops, amirite? These sudden turns end up feeling like they come out of nowhere and then just disappear without a trace, turning the whole experience into a disjointed, thematic vacuum where it tries to do so much that it doesn’t really accomplish any one thing particularly well.
I suspect this movie will garner a niche following. People like what they like and I’m glad some folks are really connecting with this. There’s a lot to like here and plenty to dig your teeth into, so maybe my dumbass engineer brain was in a mood for a more cohesive plot or something. However, even the folks I’ve seen who like these movies would probably agree that they’re messy. For example, one person I follow described Halloween Ends as “kind of a bozo masterpiece.”
Honestly, I can probably get behind the “bozo masterpiece” label for this installment. I can certainly appreciate that these movies have ambitions and ideas, but to my mind, if you go that route, you really need to deliver on that ambition. I’ll take a movie with a simple theme that’s executed perfectly over a movie with a jumble of interesting but not very well established ideas. Your mileage may vary, and there’s plenty to chew on here if you really want to. I guess it does deliver on the promise of the title of the movie… at least, until Blumhouse decides to reboot it again in a few years:
Ok, now that I’ve resorted to just posting fun tweets, I think it’s time for more freakish, disjointed thoughts:
One of my favorite parts of this recent trilogy is that Michael Myers was always portrayed as a force of nature. The personification of evil, like a shark, always moving, always killing, always crafting ironic, elaborate dioramas out of his victims’ bodies like a homicidal Banksy producing spontaneous art installations all throughout Haddonfield (which, believe it or not, actually kinda fits with what he does in the original movie). Unfortunately, that isn’t as present in Halloween Ends, due to the focus on young Corey. That might not be the worst thing in the world, but…
Speaking of whom: Why doesn’t Michael kill Corey? Michael’s role in this whole movie seems weirdly out of place with his established character traits. It’s kinda implied that maybe Corey is kinda/sorta possessed by the same evil that drives Michael and I guess Mikey senses that? But that makes no sense, because he has lovey dovey conversations with Allyson all movie. Like, I get that the kid is a tortured soul, but why does he think murdering everyone will make things better? When cornered by a disarmed Laurie later in the movie, instead of trying to kill her, he just stabs himself in the neck? Not because he’s conflicted or senses that he’s becoming evil, but because he wants to make a half-hearted, easy-to-see-through effort to frame Laurie as his killer? What the hell is going on here? I mentioned above that I like the idea of taking the franchise in a completely new direction and introducing a new character like this… but man, this really falls down in the execution of that idea.
Corey’s last name is Cunningham, which seems like a reference to Arnie Cunningham from another John Carpenter movie, Christine. Arnie and Corey have plenty of similarities – bullied nerds who are influenced by a great evil to kill their enemies (and thus become less awkward and more confident). This is one of those referential type things that some people like, but once again, it makes you think of a movie that did the same thing, only much better (in my mind, Christine is one of Carpenter’s more underrated efforts and is certainly a step up from this one).
Alright, so, after the original Halloween, Laurie Strode (quite understandably!) suffers from PTSD and spends 40 years in a paranoid survivalist funk. She is then completely and utterly vindicated when Michael Myers escapes and goes on a rampage, killing dozens of people (including Laurie’s own daughter!), then mysteriously disappears with no trace. He could return again at any time. Haddonfield has gone absolutely bonkers as a result. But Laurie… decides to buy a new house and live a more carefree life, free from paranoia or fear? I guess you could say it was all a facade, but it was still a jarring decision.
Laurie kinda sets up a meet cute with Corey and her granddaughter Allyson and keeps encouraging her to get with the nice boy who’s had a rough go of it. Then, halfway through the movie, someone says they didn’t like his eyes, and Laurie executes an about-face, forbidding Allyson to see him anymore? What the hell happened there? Like many things in the movie, this leads to some unintentional comedy and what the fuck? exclamations.
Extra-special spoiler alert here, but towards the end of the movie, Laurie fights Michael in an epic battle to end them all or whatever. It’s fine, I guess, the sort of conventional decision everyone was expecting and which the movie marketed heavily on (and which undercuts the effectiveness of the whole “Corey is actually the main character here” approach), but Laurie gets the upper hand, pins Michael to the table with some knives, drops a refrigerator on him, and slits his throat. Michael, ever the sneakster, plays dead for a moment then grabs Laurie by the neck. Allyson joins the scene to save the day, they slit his wrist and now he’s dead for sure, right? Actually, yes. Despite decades of Michael always coming back from impossible-to-survive wounds, he just lays there. They strap his body to the top of their car (!?), then lead a procession of police and townfolk to the local dump, where they dump Michael’s body in an industrial shredder. What happened to the guy that took several gunshots and stabbings, then stood up and slaughtered the entire crowd, evaded the police, and snuck up to kill Laurie’s daughter? I wonder if the next Halloween movie, we’re going to see everyone start driving off towards the dump, then the camera will pull back, track into Laurie’s house to find the body of Corey Cunningham, suddenly awakening and grabbing a mask and knife, ready to continue Samhain. Are you ready for the Corey and Allyson saga, which will take us in the 2060s? Ok, I shouldn’t even joke about this sort of thing, should I?
One of the best and funniest decisions in the movie was to make the bullies that are always pestering Corey a group of high school marching band dorks (as opposed to the traditional jocks). There were many things that made me laugh unintentionally during the movie, but this one made me laugh in a way that I think was right on target. (Not because band nerds are bad people or anything, just because it’s such a random, unexpected choice.)
I can’t decide if no one chanting “Evil ends tonight!” in this movie was a good thing or a bad thing.
For all my complaints, there were still some nice touches throughout the movie. The opening pre-credits sequence is fantastic and shocking, even if they fumble the aftermath later in the movie. The Scarecrow mask that Corey uses a couple times is actually pretty cool (and recalls Rob Zombie’s alternate mask usage in his remake). The tongue on the record was a nice, macabre touch. The score, once again provided by John Carpenter himself (along with his son Cody), is fantastic stuff, with just the right amount of nods to the original score while still updating and modernizing. The opening pre-credits sequence is pretty fantastic, even if they fumble the aftermath.
Diana Prince, aka Darcy the Mail Girl, shows up in a bit part as the radio station receptionist who is cutting paper ghosts, which is nice. It’s only a quick scene; I did the Leo from OUATIH pointing meme in my seat. Apparently her death scene was cut from the film, but will allegedly be available in bonus features (or maybe an extended cut).
So there you have it, a decidedly mixed trilogy in my mind, but I have to admit: they were never boring! Sometimes infuriating and other times baffling, but not boring! I dunno, I’m more excited to rewatch the original for the 40th time in a couple weeks than I would be to rewatch any of these new ones, which is probably the final word on this for me…
One of the odder little sub-genres of horror concerns killer kids. Real world tragedies involving dead kids generally make movies like this a difficult sell (both from a “making” and “watching” standpoint). I don’t have any kids, but it’s almost universally acknowledged that once you do, watching movies where kids are dying become more difficult to watch as well. On the other hand, that’s what horror movies are all about (at least, some of the time). A couple of these are older classics that I’ve somehow not seen (and tame by modern standards), but one is relatively batshit (though when the point of comparison is something like Cathy’s Curse, you’ve got an uphill battle). We’ve tackled a few of these movies in previous 6WH posts, but always on a weird generic-themed sorta week. So let’s watch some sneaky little shits engage in murderous shenanigans:
Village of the Damned – Everyone in a small English village suddenly falls unconscious, and when they awaken, they find that every woman of childbearing age is pregnant. The resulting children have similar traits like blond hair and strange eyes, and after a few years, they begin to manifest odd psychic powers.
This is one of those classic movies that has seeped into the collective consciousness, such that you’ve probably seen many images or scenes laying around that you have an idea of the plot just from cultural osmosis. I’d definitely seen parts of this flicking around cable back in the day, but I never sat down and watched it from start to finish until this weekend. And it’s great!
This brand of British science fiction/horror hybrid was popular in the 1950s and 1960s. We’ve already covered a couple of the Quatermass movies this year, but this film represents a significant step up from those. Perhaps it’s the source material (John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos) or just the overall production values, but this hangs together much better.
Clocking in at just 77 minutes, this moves quickly and packs in a fair amount of interesting ideas. Indeed, the creepy kids don’t even show up for quite a while. Much time is spent on the British authorities trying to figure out what’s happening in the town where everyone has fallen unconscious, plotting the boundaries and experimenting as best they can. As that event ends and the mysterious pregnancies arrive, we get lots of speculation. Is this some sort of extraterrestrial plot or just the next stage in human evolution? Other similar events have apparently been happening in other towns throughout the world, sometimes with tragic consequences. Ultimately, no explanation arises for any of this, which is exactly the right approach.
The children themselves certainly present as otherworldly. They’re not necessarily saying spooky things, but they are so calm and collected that they take on an uncanny affect. Once it becomes clear that they can read people’s thoughts, it does start to get creepy, and while they’re clearly intelligent beyond their years, they do retain the child’s almost sociopathic attitude as they start to force their will on others. Their appearance as little blond kids, while probably chosen for contrast in the excellent black and white cinematography, also calls to mind the Hitler youth. The way they move in unison, with scientists hypothesizing some sort of hive mind, again adds to their eerie nature.
This was remade by John Carpenter in the 1990s and for whatever reason, I actually saw that in the theater and while it was fine, I wasn’t much moved by it. This is perhaps part of the reason I never made an effort to revisit this original, which was clearly a bad instinct, as I really enjoyed this. Well worth checking out. ***1/2
The Bad Seed – Young Rhoda seems like your average, sweet little girl, but she has a bit of a temper and a selfish streak. When a schoolmate rival of hers dies in mysterious circumstances, her mother begins to suspect she’s responsible.
Based on a novel and subsequent stage play, this movie is clearly modeled on the play, with limited locations and melodramatic dialogue delivered in a distinctly theatrical manner. The stagebound nature of the film is a bit hokey and old-fashioned, but it does lull you into a certain mindset that is cleverly subverted as the film proceeds. It also provides an ample opportunity for the actors to give their performances a little extra push. Patty McCormack was nominated for an Oscar for her sociopathic performance as young Rhoda. Other performances are perhaps less successful, but everyone is absolutely going for it, and even the more overwrought takes fit with the overall tone.
At 129 minutes, it certainly takes its time establishing its premises and themes, but it’s not exactly slow. It moves along at a decent pace, even if some things feel repetitive or perhaps too baldly stated. The whole nature vs nurture debate was probably more intriguing at the time, but it’s well established and obviously represents a common parental fear.
I won’t get into spoilers here, but I will say that there were a couple of genuinely shocking moments later in the picture (this is one reason I’m willing to forgive the length of the movie). The closing shot does feel a bit rushed and I have to believe there were some Hayes Code shenanigans at play here. On the other hand, the whole walk-on roll call bit at the very end is an inspired bit of lunacy. If that closing shot strikes you as odd, this playful curtain call will take the bad taste out of your mouth, and we need to bring this tradition back. ***
The Pit – Twelve year-old Jamie is a solitary pervert and budding sociopath who has discovered a pit populated by man-eating troglodytes (he calls them trollogs) in the forest behind his home. Bullied and shunned at school, Jamie decides to hit two birds with one stone by feeding his enemies to his new pit dwelling friends.
After the staid, mannered approach the previous two films took, it was nice to descend into batshit 80s cheese to finish out the week. I’ve used words like “odd” and “uncanny” and “otherworldly” above, but The Pit is the sort of movie that really embodies those words in a way that will have you exclaiming “What the fuck?” rather frequently throughout the more standard 97 minute runtime.
Tonally all over the place, this movie rockets from standard horror movie contrivances to “so bad it’s good” laughter to genuinely discomfiting weirdness (there’s a bathroom scene that’s just… oof). It feels like we’ve got bits and pieces from several different movies just thrown into a blender. The perverted loner kid in love with his babysitter is one, the pit where a bullied kid gets revenge on his enemies feels like a different movie altogether, and I haven’t even mentioned the teddy bear that talks to our budding sociopath and gives him creepy advice.
This movie toys with the idea that maybe the bullies had it coming. I man, sure, Jamie’s a weirdo, but the level of vitriol and hate he experiences for basically no reason is almost funny. He says hello to a kid on the playground and literally gets a fist to the face. A neighbor girl is incredibly mean to him (though the bicycle gag is A+ material). Even random old ladies on the street call him a freak out of nowhere. On the other hand, almost everything this kid does is uncomfortable and cringeworthy in the extreme.
The ironic, mean-spirited ending is laughably perfect though, and while this movie has a warped sense of humor and strange idea of what constitutes entertainment, it scratches a very specific, cult-movie type of itch. It’s a hard movie to recommend to normal people, but for seekers of strange cinema, it’s worthwhile. **1/2 (but this is the sort of movie that defies ratings)
How on earth is it already week 5? Well, we’ve still got a few things to look forward to, including next week’s theme of Horror Franchises in Space, and the subsequent Speed Round where I catch up with all the other stuff I’ve been watching but haven’t written about… so don’t touch that dial! Or, like, whatever you use to navigate the interwebs. Uh, don’t close this tab! Or whatever. Still plenty to come…
Naturally, I’m not the only practitioner in the Halloween ways. The very notion of Weblogs has become somewhat quaint and old-fashioned, but some of us get back into the swing of things in accordance with spooky season. Maybe not for a whole six weeks (though indeed, while most go for the traditional October timeframe, some swing the pendulum in the other direction and start in early September), but it’s always fun to see what other folks are doing to celebrate this hallowed season. Some of them don’t even *gasp* watch horror movies! Will wonders never cease. I’ll try not to hold that against them. As usual, I’m trying to sprinkle in some new links along with the old, so let’s take a look:
Film Thoughts – Zack is the sole other practitioner of the Six Weeks of Halloween (we both cottoned onto the idea from a fella named kernunrex, but he went dark, hmm, wow, around 7 years ago. How time flies when you’re terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought). As usual, his 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 Paranormal Activity movies and watching Munsters episodes, amongst tons of other things.
Cinema Crazed – Only discovered a couple years ago, this crew is still going strong, covering new stuff like The Munsters and Prey, but also have regular features like Bad Movie Monday, which are a blast.
Horror Movie a Day – Horror dorks had something of an early fright this Halloween season when HMaD mysteriously got taken down by Google/Blogger, but fear not, it’s been reinstated. Brian doesn’t post every day anymore, but he did so for an absurdly long time, so the blog has an almost comprehensive list of reviews in the archives, so it’s an invaluable resource if you’re looking for thoughts on an obscure horror movie. He’s got some recent reviews of the new Hellraiser reboot/legacyquel/whatever you call it, 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, it consists of Stacie’s favorite random characters from horror movies (including stuff like people’s wigs or hats, because sometimes they’re important enough to be considered characters too, you know).
With Gourley and Rust – A podcast that covers classic horror franchises, including all the Friday the 13th movies and Halloween movies, you get the picture (they just finished going through the Child’s Play franchise). They’re long, freeform episodes that take a little while to build steam, but are ultimately always interesting.
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, I’m not the only weirdo celebrating the season. Stay tuned, we’ve got a trio of Killer Kids movies coming this weekend, including some famous ones I’ve inexplicably never seen before.