The Holy Trinity of 80s Scream Queens

For the uninitiated, the Holy Trinity of 80s Scream Queens consists of Linnea Quigley, Michelle Bauer, and Brinke Stevens. We covered Linnea Quigley during the 6WH a couple years ago. Michelle and/or Brink sometimes show up in those movies too. Unfortunately, for actresses with 150-200 movie credits to their name, it’s more difficult to find good examples of their work (that I have not already seen) than you might think. They show up in some very high profile movies, but when you look into it, you see that they’re playing “Girl in Bathroom #3” (that’s Brinke in De Palma’s Body Double).

Of the three movies I watched this weekend, only one is a real showcase for the scream queen in question. That said, the two remaining films are actually kinda interesting, so it’s not a total fail. If you are looking for true showcases of their work and don’t mind watching absolute trash (*ahem*), a good double feature would be Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama and Nightmare Sisters (all three are prominent in both). You can add in Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers for a bonus, though it only has two of the trio… Anyway, let’s take a look at what we watched this weekend:

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 6 – The Holy Trinity of 80s Scream Queens

Creepozoids – A group of deserters from WWIII in a post-apocalyptic world take shelter from acid rain in what turns out to be an old scientific research facility. It soon becomes clear that they’re not alone! This is utter trash cinema. If you’re in the right mindset, it can be a little fun in a so-bad-its-good kinda way. There are only really two highlights though. One is Linnea Quigley, who (spoiler!) doesn’t exactly make it to the very end of the movie. She’s prominent, but doesn’t exactly get a ton to do. But then, most of the actors don’t get much to do either. Neither, really, does the monster. It’s that kind of movie.

Linnea Quigley in Creepozoids

The other is a pretty cool end stage monster design. I mean, both monster designs are derivative, but the second, baby-like design is actually pretty effective. The first, more Alien-like design with the oblong head and claws is pretty much exactly what you expect in an ultra-low-budget 80s movie: a dude in a plastic suit who has a limited range of motion. The baby is weirdly detailed and occupies a place in the uncanny valley that actually works in the movie’s favor.

There’s otherwise not much to recommend this movie, and it’s clearly the worst thing I watched this weekend. It might be fun for bad movie enthusiasts, which is certainly a thing that exists. Plus, at 72 minutes, it’s not going to waste too much of your time. But there’s movies that are far worse/better that I’d recommend ahead of this one. *

Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge – In 1941 Berlin, a lowly puppeteer named Andre Toulon attracts the attention of Nazis. They obviously don’t like the dissident themes of Toulon’s puppet shows, but are fascinated by his seeming ability to bring inanimate objects to life. In their bumbling attempts to steal Toulon’s secrets, they kill his wife. Enraged, Toulon unleashes his army of reanimated puppets on the local Gestapo troop.

Andre Toulon, the Puppet Master himself

The first two Puppet Master movies are pretty damn trashy stuff. What’s interesting about this movie is that it seems to have an actual point-of-view. It’s surprisingly ambitious, delivering a backstory and real pathos to Toulon (who was previously just a generic boogeyman and excuse for murderous puppet action). A big part of this is the performance of Guy Rolfe as Toulon. He provides depth and personality and would reprise the role in future installments. Director David DeCoteau also transforms a Universal backlot into Nazi Germany in a pretty convincing way. The whole thing has an almost dreamlike atmosphere that serves the film well. Funnily enough, DeCoteau also directed Creepozoids, though his heart was clearly not in that one the way it is here.

Look, I don’t want to oversell this movie. It’s still low-budget trash, but in the best way possible. The puppets are put to gory use in dismembering Nazis (always a fun target for this sort of thing), and the designs and puppet powers are as effective as ever. The old favorites are there and there’s a new six-armed puppet who is naturally called Six Shooter. That said, the Blade puppet doesn’t get nearly enough screen time (though the way he is deployed, mirroring the look of the Gestapo villain, is great).

Puppets from Puppet Master III

What’s more, we also get a backstory for the puppets, each possessing the spirit of a slain Jew from the war. That this movie is even attempting to grapple with the plight of oppressed peoples is admirable. Once again, they’re taking the silly premises established in the previous movies and trying to imbue them with some sense of gravitas. That they succeed at all is impressive, even if the result is still corny. I’m usually pretty hard on sequels, and doubly so on prequels, but this is oddly one of the best examples of a sequel/prequel I can think of…

I was hoping Michelle Bauer would have a more substantial role here, but it turns out to be more of a cameo than anything else. Ultimately, this was the biggest surprise of this year’s Six Weeks of Halloween. It’s not exactly fine cinema, but it’s doing much more than it gets credit for. ***

The Jigsaw Murders – A down-on-his-luck detective must catch a serial killer who preys on erotic models before his daughter becomes the next victim. Indian director Jag Mundhra produced a string of cheesy exploitation flicks throughout the 80s and early 90s. These infamously included Hack-O-Lantern, one of the stranger Halloween movies ever made. Those that tuned in to Joe Bob’s Halloween Hideaway on Friday night got to see it interspersed with commentary around the particulars of the movie that provide at least some context to the film’s odd choices.

The Jigsaw Murders could perhaps use such commentary. It’s an odd little film. It really wants to be a serious police procedural, but it’s almost like Mundhra gleaned everything he knew about American police from cheesy 80s movie clichés. Still, at least some of the clichés are subverted. The police captain isn’t some angry maniac constantly yelling at the detectives about how they’re rogue cops or whatever (he’s actually pretty supportive.) At one point our detectives conduct an illegal search, and as a viewer, I’m like, yeah it’s a movie, I guess I can go with that. But then there’s a discussion of “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine and the killer goes free. So the movie is certainly trying. It’s not exactly succeeding, but I appreciate the effort.

Yaphet Kotto in The Jigsaw Murders

Chad Everett plays the alcoholic detective well enough and Michelle Johnson is fine as the daughter-in-peril (who gets in a nice turn-the-tables moment at the end). But the real scene stealer is Yaphet Kotto as the demented medical examiner. He’s only in the movie for a few scenes, but he’s fantastic. I mean, you’ve seen this character before. He’s eating a jelly donut whilst working, that wacky medical examiner! But it’s Yaphet Kotto, so it’s much better than normal. Brinke Stevens is, alas, barely in the movie, playing one of the models for our sleazy photographer suspect. It turns out that Michelle Bauer is also in the movie, sorta. She’s the model that appears on the titular Jigsaw Puzzle, which we get glimpses of from time to time. Ultimately, this is kinda interesting for how weird and cheesy it is, but it’s not exactly great. **

I can’t believe we’re already at week 6 of the Six Weeks of Halloween. While the whole Holy Trinity of 80s Scream Queens thing was a bit of a bust, I still think that, on whole, we’ve had a very successful six weeks. And we still have a couple more posts coming up! On Wednesday, we’ll tackle a Halloween season movie quiz. And next weekend is the big day, plus the traditional Speed Round of movies watched but not yet covered. Oh, and we’ll probably continue into November, because I never got around to posting about what I read during the spooky season, so that’ll be on the agenda too…

Fellow Travelers in the Halloween Ways

It seems I’m not the only lunatic that is practicing in the Halloween ways, so let’s take a look at our fellow travelers. You will recognize a few of these as mainstays of the Halloween game, but I’m trying to branch out to some newer folks this year too. Let’s take a spin through ye olde internets and see what people are doing to celebrate the Halloween season.

Old Hands

Film Thoughts – Zack has been a long time practitioner of the Six Weeks of Halloween, and as per usual, he’s watching at an even higher pace than I am and doing writeups nearly every day. This year, he’s been tackling a crapton of the Amityville Horror movies, some Coffin Joe, and much, much moar.

Final Girl – The quasi-annual Shocktober is another countdown of user-submitted votes resulting in… 951 different films. Just blowing previous polls out of the water. Anywho, lots of good stuff going on over there, including some deep dives into particular lists, which is a nice touch.

Horror Movie a Day – Brian Collins doesn’t post a review every day of the year anymore, but he appears to be doing so during the Halloween season. He’s always got an interesting take. HMaD is always a good reference as well, and I do still refer to his book when seeking out themes or more obscure movies to watch. If you find yourself looking for movies beyond the recognized classics, the book is worth checking out!

New Hands

The Dwrayger Dungeon – Seems more focused on spooky television, like this excellent episode of The Twilight Zone called The Howling Man. But will also tackle horror movies like The Beyond. All good stuff, and it appears to strike a good balance between familiar and obscure stuff.

Cinema Crazed – Another blog doing a Halloween Horror series of posts including reviews, like Scare Package, and various roundups, like this roundup of Horror Shorts (which may come in handy while I’m trying to schedule the shorts between movies, as I like to do).

Severed Hands

Joe Nazare – It’s not all movies for the Halloween season. Joe Nazare covers lots of things, including podcasts, book reviews, and even original content, like a two sentence horror story.

LimerWrecks – A series of horror movie themed poetry, complete with screenshots. The movies covered seem to be classics, including a recent bevvy of RKO/Val Lewton favorites.

Countdown to Halloween – If you’re still craving that Halloween punch, this blog has a long list of blogs participating in some form of Halloween marathon. (The new and severed hands in this post mostly came from here.)

Phew, hard to believe we’re already in the homestretch of the Six Weeks of Halloween. This weekend, we plan to watch a few movies starring the Trinity of 80s Scream Queens. However, depending on how Joe Bob’s Halloween Hideway goes, I might call an audible and cover that. I’ll be watching both, so don’t worry. Whichever one I don’t cover on Sunday, I will cover in the traditional Speed Round (just in less detail)).

Now Playing for The Six Weeks of Halloween

This is perhaps a misnomer since these movies probably aren’t playing now in movie theaters (if theaters are even open at all), but since we just watched a bunch of films from 1978, I figured it was time too look at some things released this year. The one movie I wanted to get to and is legitimately only playing in theaters is Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor. It sounds like a hoot, but it’s not actually playing anywhere near me and oh yeah, there’s a pandemic on. It’s supposed to come to streaming… in early November (which is no good for Halloween viewing!) In any case, I did manage to rustle up three relatively recent releases, all of which are pretty great.

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 5 – Now Playing

The Wolf of Snow Hollow – A series of murders coinciding with the full moon stresses out a small mountain town’s police force. What a strange little beast this movie is. Too dark to be a comedy, but too funny to be scary and too wacky to be dramatic. And yet! It’s all of those things and more. It might take a while to get on writer/director/actor Jim Cummings’ wavelength, but once you’re there, this movie is fantastic. I suspect, though, that this movie will alienate a lot of folks.

The Wolf of Snow Hollow

Still, the pitch black parody of 80s ski-lodge comedies works well, and as Cummings’ character enters a full-on breakdown, he puts on a Tim Robinson-esque performance that is, well, an odd but perfect and surprisingly funny choice. The supporting cast, led by elder statesman Robert Forster and the quietly proficient Riki Lindhome, do their job well too, finding a similar dark balance. The movie also looks great, and perhaps it’s that craft that helps sell the weirdly contradictory aspects of the film. For instance, some of the attack sequences are cross cut in a way that is simultaneously scary and funny and yeah, this is a difficult movie to describe. And that’s before we get into the family drama and addiction stuff! I had a ton of fun with it and all the math added up for me… but your mileage may vary. This may be the one movie in this post that is now playing in theaters, but it’s available for purchase on a bunch of streaming sites as well… ***1/2

Sputnik – During the Cold War, a Soviet spacecraft encounters something odd and crashes back to earth. A psychologist is brought in to examine the lone surviving cosmonaut and begins to suspect that he may have brought something back from space. A neat little Russian monster flick, it starts slowly and establishes a grim sense of dread. This is paid off once the monster is revealed, though as the film progresses and revelations are doled out, the pacing suffers a bit. Some of the choices are cliched and I don’t think the final revelation lands quite as well as desired, but it’s ultimately a very well done monster movie.

Sputnik

The creature design is great, and the effects are just good enough to get by. It obviously owes a debt to Alien, a comparison that does it no favors (i.e. few films can compete with Alien) but as these things go, this is a pretty good take on the alien parasite sub-genre. It’s certainly better than the more recent Alien movies and I think it compares favorably to stuff like Life.

The Creature Design from Sputnik

Basically, it’s a perfectly cromulent trip through well tread territory. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll enjoy this. It’s the only movie I watched this weekend that played its premise straight, which was also nice. ***

Extra Ordinary – Goofy tale of a driving instructor with the magical ability to manipulate ghosts, a lonely man with serious dead-wife issues, and a musician who wants to sacrifice a virgin to get another hit. This actually came out last year, though it didn’t make it to the U.S. until earlier this year. It’s certainly not a conventional comedy, but it is clever and very funny. It strikes me as the sort of quirky movie that could find an audience, if only it were more widely known (or available – it is on Kanopy if you’re interested).

Extra Ordinary

Will Forte is probably the most well known actor involved and his performance is certainly big and showy and fantastic. But the real standout is Maeve Higgins, who plays Rose the driving instructor with a perfect balance of reluctance, resign, and yet hope. The other lead is played by Barry Ward, who gets ample opportunity to ham it up when possessed by ghosts. It’s quirky and it’s weird and it’s probably the best horror comedy I’ve seen all year. ***1/2

I can’t believe we’re already 5 weeks into the 6 Weeks of Halloween. Coming down the homestretch! We’ve got some 80s Scream Queens coming. After that, we’ve got the traditional Speed Round of stuff I’ve watched but not otherwise covered… Plus the usual Season’s Readings! Keep your eyes peeled. Or, uh, don’t. That sounds painful.

The Giallo Films of 1978

Continuing this week’s theme of 1978 movies, here we’ll cover two Giallo films of that era. Giallos have been a recurring topic during the Six Weeks of Halloween for the last decade or so. As such, I’ve already covered the origins and several iterations of the sub-genre. The real golden age of Giallos was in the early 1970s. The genre was running out of steam in 1975 when Dario Argento put out Deep Red, which reinvigorated things for a few years. Even then, by 1978, Giallos were at the tail end of their popularity. When combined with other factors influencing the Italian film industry (rising competition from television, etc…), the decline became more precipitous in the 80s and 90s, though the genre limped along with temporary boosts from Argento (Tenebre in 1982) and Lucio Fulci (The New York Ripper in 1987).

Still, in 1978 there was enough juice in the engine to crank out 6 Giallos. Availability is limited though and indeed, one of the films I’m watching has never had a good home video release until recently. None are available on any sort of streaming service (even for purchase/rent), though I’m sure less *ahem* reputable sources could be found. That said, Kaedrin’s procurement department was able to rustle up some glorious physical media to view, so let’s get to it:

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 4.5 – The Giallo Films of 1978

The Bloodstained Shadow – Two brothers get caught up in a rash of murders on an island near Venice. The murders seem connected to a 7 year old unsolved case, and our heroes are desperate to figure out what connects the victims. Not a well known Giallo, but it features all the hallmarks of a good one. A murder mystery with lots of red herrings, everyone has something to hide, the obligatory J&B whiskey appearance, incompetent police, and a cascade of revelations towards the end that might not entirely make sense, it’s all here.

The Bloodstained Shadow

The filmmaking craft is on point as well. Venice is a setting that provides a more interesting canvas than most giallos, and director Antonio Bido takes full advantage. The funky rock music is from the infamous Goblin, which always stands out (though perhaps not as much as in Deep Red). The performances are all pretty good, though the traditional Italian practice of dubbing (it’s unusual at first, but the more giallos I watch, the more it’s become endearing) sometimes makes it difficult to tell.

Look, it’s not the best giallo out there and coming later in the cycle means that this one has some repetitive elements compared to earlier giallos, but it’s well done and I think probably a bit underrated. It’s a deep cut for fans of the genre and I think there’s plenty to love about it, even if it can’t quite reach that top tier. **1/2

Rings of Fear (aka Red Rings of Fear aka Enigma rosso) – A young girl is found dead in a river and the inspector assigned to the case traces her back to an all girls school where some of the girls are receiving threatening poems. One by one, they start experiencing mysterious accidents, resulting in injury or even death. Will the inspector put together enough clues to stop the mayhem?! Spoiler alert: yes he will! And you probably won’t see it coming!

Part of a sorta unofficial “school girls in peril” trilogy started by writer/director Massimo Dallamano, who made one of the most well regarded giallos in What Have You Done to Solange? Unfortunately, Dallamano died before he could complete the script to this, so the end result is perhaps a little more messy than his earlier entries, but replacement director Alberto Negrin does just fine. Still, you can see the seams here and there. There are some plot threads, such as a subplot involving our inspector’s girlfriend, that are suddenly dropped for seemingly no reason. I suspect there was more here that didn’t make it in to the finished film (the relatively short running time of 87 minutes seems to support that).

Like the Bloodstained Shadow, there isn’t a ton here that is really new to the giallo, but it does manage a few standouts. One is a solid lead performance from Fabio Testi, who starred in the aforementioned Solange as well as another 1978 flick from a waning sub-genre, the spaghetti western China 9, Liberty 37. The score composed by Riz Ortolani is a little more swanky than the Goblin type soundtrack, but it works really well.

And finally, this movie is really, truly, deeply sleazy. Even to jaded eyes, this movie has some grody stuff. There is one notable scene where an abortion is cross cut with an orgy where young women are being slapped with a giant dildo and woof; maybe this isn’t the sort of innovation the giallo needed and that’s why it was dying out. Look, giallos have never been subtle, especially when it comes to sexuality, but I think they may have vaulted a little too far past the line on this one. It certainly stands out, even if I don’t think it’s exactly a good thing.

On the other hand, this is worth watching for the scene in which Testi interrogates a suspect by dragging him onto a rollercoaster and haranguing the poor guy as they whip around the tracks. I also think the double-fake-out ending, which I definitely did not see coming, was pretty solid stuff. I do sorta question Testi’s inspector is all that dedicated to his job though, as he basically just lets a murderer go with a laugh and a head pat. Aw shucks, you wacky murderer, you got me this time!

Rings of Fear - Roller Coaster Interrogation

One last note, which is that one of the reasons this film is so obscure is that there really wasn’t a decent copy of this film available until the 2018 Blu-Ray rescued the film, restored the proper aspect ratio (apparently this movie really suffered from the pan-and-scan treatment), and so on. I’m sure at some point the transfer will start showing up on streaming services somewhere, but the BD is pretty fantastic and includes an informative commentary. Yay physical media! Ultimately, this is probably only of interest to confirmed giallo fanatics, but despite my misgivings and lowish rating, it’s a pretty interesting film. **

So there you have it, lots of 1978 giallo schlock to go around, for sure. Next up for the Six Weeks of Halloween will probably be a more modern set of flicks, perhaps even stuff made this year. Movie Theaters aren’t exactly in great shape these days and there’s a couple of things coming out that I want to catch up with that aren’t playing very widely, but I’m sure I can find a few 2020 movies to watch…

The Horror Films of 1978

About a year ago, I embarked on the 1978 Project, a deep dive into the films of a single year (guess which one?!) There were indeed some horror heavy hitters that year, including the likes of Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the surprisingly good remake), and Magic. The problem here is that I’ve already seen all of those classics (some for the 6WH itself). Plus, I’ve already covered some of the smaller stuff too. Highlights include Coma, The Fury, and The Eyes of Laura Mars. So what we’re left with is obscure, but actually pretty interesting. I don’t think any of these will rival those classics, but I’m glad I caught up with them.

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 4 – The Horror Films of 1978

The Grapes of Death – A woman gets stranded in mountainous wine country where there happens to be an outbreak of zombieism. That’s pretty much it, and I think you can fill in the rest. It’s an atmosphere-heavy, episodic film, with our heroine bumbling from one infected vineyard to the next, encountering people in all stages of the zombie sickness. Also, they’re french zombies, so there’s lots of angst and ennui to go around. Like most zombie movies, there’s some ham handed social commentary, this time it’s that pesticides are, like, really bad. It feels a bit tacked on, with bits at the very beginning and end, like director Jean Rollin realized he had made a pretty simple zombie flick and needed to inject something “important” in there. Because zombies are the blankest of slates, it’s pretty easy to project whatever thematic elements you want onto the story. So a quick scene of people spraying pesticids and boom, you’ve got yourself an eco-terror flick.

I suppose I’m being a little hard on this movie, but it is actually quite well made. The landscapes and vistas in whatever wine region they filmed at are gorgeous and well photographed. The makeup and gore effects are also well done. The disease manifests as blister like welts all over the body which pulse and ooze and it’s all very gross (as it should be). It’s not exactly Dawn of the Dead (which features some of Tom Savini’s best effects), but it gets the job done.

The Grapes of Death

Like a lot of episodic films, some of the episodes are better than others. There is one sequence where Brigitte Lahaie is a sorta uninfected queen of the zombies. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the dreamlike atmosphere is effective and, like, Brigitte Lahaie is nice to look at too. (Apparently she was an adult films actress who successfully made the transition to mainstream.) Ultimately, it’s par for the zombie course. If you’re into that sort of thing, you may like the uncommon French arthouse aesthetic applied to the usual low-art zombie tale. I found myself respecting the film on an intellectual level without getting too worked up. **1/2

The Evil – A doctor buys an old dilapidated mansion with the intention of renovating it for his practice. To help clean the place up, he enlists friends and volunteers. Naturally, there’s a reason the place hasn’t been occupied for decades and our hapless heroes get trapped in the house by an unseen malevolence.

This starts out as pretty standard, by-the-books haunted house stuff. A little slow to start, but it picks up once the ghost starts his attacks. He seems to enjoy setting people on fire, but there are some other methods mixed in for good measure. Richard Crenna plays the stubborn, unbelieving doctor and gets plenty of opportunities to overact. Some other members of the cast, notably Andrew Prine, try their best to keep up with Crenna’s hammy performance and mostly succeed. Joanna Pettet plays Crenna’s wife, who is a little more open-minded and figures out what’s going on pretty quickly. Which is fortunate, because Crenna’s pig-headed character is pretty much the cause of most of the problems.

The Evil

For most of the movie, I was thinking that this was fine, but it needed an extra little something to push it over the edge into “good” territory. Until the ending, which goes a little off the rails into batshit bonkers territory. In, uh, a good way. I won’t spoil it, but it’s the sort of thing that will either work for you or make you burst out laughing. Either way, it helps make the movie something a little more unique, even if there are better evil-locked-in-its-prison stories out there. It’s a love it or hate it ending that will make or break the film for you. Fortunately, I kinda loved it. I just wish it didn’t take so long to get there. **1/2

The Legacy – An architect heads to England for a mysterious job with her boyfriend. They stumble into a sprawling mansion in the English countryside where a rich patriarch has assembled the potential heirs to his legacy. His… satanic legacy! This is an odd, messy little movie that doesn’t entirely make sense… but I do kinda like it? It has a pretty great cast and is directed by Richard Marquand, he of Return of the Jedi. I can’t say as though he’s a groundbreaking auteur or anything, but he’s competently shot a visually interesting little film.

The Legacy

It’s got lots of fun elements. Wealthy satanists! Nazi factory owners! A sinister nurse who is also somehow a cat?! Actually, lots of cats! Cats galore! A sensitive 70s horror movie theme song! Crossbows?! Rings that, once put on, won’t come off! The smoldering power couple of Stepford Wife Katharine Ross and Roadhouse bouncer Sam Elliot! Wait a sec, is that… Roger Daltrey from The Who?! Did… did he just choke to death on a ham bone?! You bet he did!

Look, I’m not sure if this is a “good” movie, but it sure is a strange agglomeration of haunted house movies, satanists, kinda reminiscent of The Omen (without any evil kids), you know, that sort of thing. The ending here isn’t quite as banana-pants as The Evil, but it is certainly an eye opener and the whole thing is all just very 1970s. I certainly had fun with it, but your mileage may vary. **1/2

So there you have it. Keep an eye out for Wednesday’s post where we’ll cover a couple more 1978 movies. I’m sure I’ll also have a couple others in the traditional Speed Round at the end of the Six Weeks marathon as well…

The Marathon Will Be Televised

While the Six Weeks of Halloween marathon is mostly about watching horror movies, it’s also nice to dip our toes into the realms of television from time to time. I suspect the whole “Golden Age of Television” thing has passed, but there is truly an astounding amount of great television to catch up with. Even for horror nerds, which is a little surprising. Every year, I watch some horror television shows just to switch things up, and this year I’m finally catching up with a few programs that have been on my watchlist for a while now…

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 3.5 – Horror Television

The Haunting of Hill House S1: E1-E4 – I watched the first episode of this back when it came out, and while I was mostly impressed, I never quite followed through to the rest of the episodes. That first episode is a good introduction though. There are a lot of characters in this show, and we move back and forth through time enough that things could get very confusing, but it’s all handled reasonably well. There’s some skillfully crafted horror sequences and a really great button on the end of the episode that sets up the rest of the series well.

The next few episodes are a little less successful. While we got a good introduction, the characters and timelines do get a bit fuzzy at times in the ensuing episodes. Still, there’s great atmosphere and set design; you’re constantly scanning the screen looking for things happening in the background… and often finding things that are worthy of our attention (even if they’re not noticed by the characters in the scene – we notice them, and that produces some tension in and of itself). After a good first episode, though, it does feel a bit like the series suffers from the typical Netflix disease of being a little too long for the story it’s trying to tell. Then again, as we’ll see below, this might all just be really good setup for the rest of the series.

Mike Flanagan is the creator and director of all the episodes, and he’s been doing a lot of unsung work in the horror genre for a while now. I’m glad he’s found something of a patron in Netflix, who has given him a bunch of great opportunities over the past few years.

The Haunting of Hill House S1:E5 “The Bent-Neck Lady” – I wasn’t going to give up on the series or anything, but it was starting to become something of a slog… until I hit this episode. I’ve been deliberately avoiding plot descriptions here, in part because it does get very complication, but also because I don’t want to spoil anything. Still, in this episode, a lot of threads that may have seemed random in earlier episodes start to get pulled together. It turns out that a bunch of the spooky scenes in earlier episodes aren’t just there to provide a convenient scare in the moment, but also build towards a larger revelation and narrative purpose.

The Haunting of Hill House

This is the episode that really hooked me. It being halfway through the series does seem to indicate that maybe there are too many episodes, but perhaps other threads will be tightened in a way that justifies the length further. As I reach further in the series it seems less bloated and more like a generous sharing of screentime for all characters. Anyway, this episode was good enough to justify separating it out from the rest of the pack though, so here we are.

The Haunting of Hill House S1:E6 “Two Storms” – And I’m separating this one out too, just in recognition of the technical achievement. The entire episode consists of three long-take shots. This sort of thing can be gimmicky and showy and maybe too much style over substance, but I think this episode warrants the effort and the result really is a compelling episode. It is, of course, not the most pleasant story we’re engaging with here, but it has its spooky moments as well as a few well-placed emotional punches. I’m looking forward to finishing off the remaining episodes.

Ash vs. Evil Dead S1:E1-E4 – In the spirit of perhaps finding something a little lighter and more fun, I fired this series up. It doesn’t quite have the same energy that Raimi brings, but it does an adequate job imitating that style. I generally like the character of Ash, so I think the initial view of the character that we get is a bit of a turnoff, but it gets better as the series goes on. Bruce Campbell is great, as always, though perhaps not quite the amazing physical talent that he was in the early films (not that anyone could expect that, but still).

As an overall narrative, I’m not entirely sold, but really, the story and plot are not what make the Evil Dead universe so much fun, so who cares? I’ve only watched a few episodes, so I’m not sure it can maintain and improve where its at, but I’m optimistic. I’m having fun with it, even if it’s not the most amazingest thing evar.

What We Do in the Shadows S1 and S2 – Speaking of amazing things, this show has really won me over in a big way. Like Ash vs Evil Dead this is a television spinoff of a movie, but one that seems to have really found its feet. The first few episodes of season 1 are a bit repetitive, featuring some of the same bits from the movie. But as the season progresses it slowly but surely starts to assert an identity of its own. By season 2, they’re really firing on all cylinders.

What We Do In The Shadows

A lot of this is due to an incredible core cast of five actors. Every single one is perfect for their respective role and you quickly fall in love with them. This is an overall more comedic treatment than Ash vs Evil Dead but its parody comes from a place of love (whereas a lot of this sort of thing could be mocking its subjects). It’s really just nice to have a show that has some vampires but isn’t an existential slog of angst and ennui or overly gory, dark violence. If it touches on such topics it manages to do so with a comedic bent that really helps. Recommended!

Up next on the horror television docket (once I finish Hill House) will be Dark, a show that I’ve heard great things about (but which will apparently require every ounce of attention available and is, um, probably quite thematically dark.) And then, of course, there’s also The Haunting of Bly Manor, a sorta anthology-like follow up to Hill House by Flanagan and team (apparently being released this weekend). The cup truly runneth over with good horror television shows.

In Honor of Fantastic Fest

Almost ten years ago, I attended Fantastic Fest at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX. A film festival dedicated to genre movies (mostly horror, fantasy, SF and action), it was quite an experience. Alas, in the times of Covid, large gatherings like film festivals were canceled. They did some virtual stuff, showing a few movies from years past online, but that’s obviously a pale comparison to the real thing. So I figured I’d watch a few movies that were shown at last year’s festival in honor of Fantastic Fest:

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 3 – Fantastic Fest

The Platform – The rules are simple. Two people per level. You change levels randomly every month. Your only sustenance is a giant platform of food lowered through the center of the level. At the top levels, the platform is full of gourmet food. There’s enough food for all levels, but only if everyone rations what they eat. At level 50, the pickings are sparse. At level 200 you might as well kill your fellow prisoner and eat them because no food makes it down that far. As blunt critiques of trickle-down capitalism go, it’s not especially trenchant and once the premise is established, the movie essentially has nowhere to go. As a result, the ending is less than satisfying.

The Platform

Along the way, we’re treated to the standard single-location horror fare that is entertaining enough, just out of pure ridiculousness. The filmmaking craft is on point and it looks good. Er, as good as the brutalist architecture allows. The performances are fine (make sure you switch away from the dubbing that’s the default on Netflix though) and it’s paced well enough. Still, there are other movies that have done this sort of thing better, notably Cube. Which, like, isn’t a movie I’d call subtle or nuanced, but compared to The Platform, it’s an Ozu masterpiece. The central metaphor, with it’s zero-sum game and randomly assigned levels, is strained at best. I suspect even the most steadfast critic would find this heavy handed and didactic. Well, I certainly did. It’s got its moments for sure, but I don’t think it’s as important as it wants to be. *1/2

VHYes – 12 year-old Ralph gets a VHS video camera as a gift. The movie consists entirely of a week’s worth of home videos and recorded clips of TV shows, all (accidentally?) taped over his parents’ wedding tape. It’s a pastiche of 80s TV tropes and found footage flicks. The horror bits only really emerge towards the ending, which takes on a more surreal bent than the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the episodic bits are uneven and disjointed. It tries to make some points about television and media, amongst other topics, but the whole thing is so jumbled that they don’t especially land. This is the sort of thing that works better as a short TV show, and indeed, it’s reminiscent of stuff like Wonder Showzen and Too Many Cooks… only it can’t quite reach those levels.

VHYes

Clocking in at a mere 72 minutes, its hard to say that it overstays its welcome, but… maybe it does? The bits that work, though, are quite fun. I particularly enjoyed the true crime witch burning skit and the Antiques Roadshow parody. It’s also filled with a surprising amount of recognizable faces, ranging from the likes of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon to lesser-known talents like Thomas Lennon, Mark Proksch, and Charlyne Yi.

I suspect watching it as part of the Six Weeks of Halloween was a bit of a mistake. The horror elements are lacking and don’t show up until later. Even once we get to them, they’re rote found footage that barely scratches the horror itch. I might have been a little more receptive had I watched it with less horror expectations (even then, it doesn’t really compare to the best of this sort of thing). As nostalgic, found footage, VHS-based, 80s TV pastiches go, I think the WNUF Halloween Special does a better job and is obviously a better fit for the season. **

Come to Daddy – Hipster DJ Norval gets a cryptic letter from his estranged father and travels to his dad’s home to reconnect. Alas, his father has gotten himself into something of a pickle, and things go sideways rather quickly. Coming from consummate weirdo Ant Timpson and starring Elijah Wood, this is a fairly singular experience. Much like Wood’s unfortunate hair style and mustache, this is an unusual movie. Unlike the other films mentioned in this post, I wasn’t constantly reminded of better films doing similar things, which was nice. The opening of the movie is more of a character sketch, with two very different men basically trapped in a location and dealing with each other.

Come to Daddy

Things take a bit of a turn towards a more conventional thriller narrative about halfway through, but it still retains its own eccentric personality. Along the way we’re treated to some off kilter dialogue (“Got them little raisin eyes. Only evil men got them raisin eyes.” or “Semen contains more proteins and nutrients than an ear.”) and offbeat humor, as well as some well done violence and gore. Certainly the best movie covered in this post. Not exactly for mainstream audiences, but it could work if you’re in the mood for something edgy and weird. ***

So that covers a few picks from last year’s Fantastic Fest. Up next on the 6WH front is some horror TV, followed by the Horror of 1978. Stay tuned!

Chinese Ghost Stories

The Six Weeks of Halloween marches on with a pair of Chinese Ghost stories. Literally! The title is A Chinese Ghost Story (and we watched the sequel too). While not notably “scary”, per say, these movies do feature lots of spooky imagery, plenty of unexpected, bonkers elements, and a not-exactly-seamless blend of horror, romance, fantasy, martial arts, comedy, and even musical numbers. We’ve tackled similar fare before in the 6WH, and these types of movies represent an interesting change of pace.

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 2.5 – Chinese Ghost Stories

A Chinese Ghost Story – A down-on-his-luck debt collector arrives in a small town and is almost immediately kicked out. Forced to find shelter in a local (haunted) temple, he encounters an outlaw swordsman and falls in love with a ghost. Alas, said ghost is the property of a tree demon and is set to be married off in order to allow the tree demon to live forever. Or something like that. Honestly, the plot does hold together better than a lot of martial arts films, and the core romance works well enough to drive the film.

A Chinese Ghost Story

Along the way, we’re treated to a broad assortment of genre tropes and references. At times, this resembles Raimi’s Evil Dead, what with a deadly roaming camera representing an unseen evil force and the way trees come to life to attack our heroes. But this movie goes beyond that to incorporate even more bizarre imagery, including the tree demon’s use of a giant, seemingly miles long tongue that splits open to reveal a crocodile like maw at its tip. Or when a demon lord tears off his robe to reveal a giant vista of human heads (representing the souls he’s stolen or something like that). Some of the creepy bits are softened by comedic touches. There’s some neat shambling, stop-motion zombies that our hero is frequently dispatching by accident. They encounter “head soup” at one point. And so on.

The action doesn’t come as frequently as your typical martial arts film, but when it shows up, it’s pretty well done. Done in the Wuxia style, it features lots of wire-work and some fantastical magic energy attacks that are quite well done. There’s also a couple of musical numbers, which aren’t exactly my thing and might be a bit too jarring but why not? This movie has everything else! Ultimately, it all comes down to a King Hu-esque period drama with a romantic core that makes you care about the characters. It may be a bit tonally inconsistent to my Western sensibilities, but I certainly enjoyed myself! ***

A Chinese Ghost Story II – Our hapless debt collector returns home to find things a bit more hostile than he remembers. He’s immediately thrown into jail, escapes, and falls in with a group of rebels who are trying to warn the Emperor of government corruption. Or something like that. This time, the plot doesn’t hold together quite as well. Most of the same elements from the first film are present here, but they’re a little worse for wear.

A Chinese Ghost Story II

There’s still some roaming Evil Dead-like unseen forces, monsters, and comedic interludes, but none of it feels as wacky or creative as the first film (though maybe overall it’s still decent enough – I mean, I guess they do fight a giant flying centipede and ride a wave of swords like skateboards through the air). The martial arts are a step down too, even when you factor in the magical Wuxia stuff. The King Hu-esque period romance is back, and this time our hero falls for a woman who looks the same as the ghost he falls for in the first film (but they’re totally different people). Unlike the first film, the romance doesn’t really anchor the story and as a result, it feels less cohesive.

None of this stuff works as well as it did in the first movie, though I do tend to feel that way about sequels, so your mileage may vary. It’s far from the worst sequel, but it doesn’t hang together as well as the first movie. **

There is a third film (amongst other iterations, remakes, animated versions, etc…) that I may get to at some point, but next up on the docket are some films featured at Fantastic Fest 2019. Since film festivals are canceled this year, I figured it might be nice to see what they had going on last year.

MonsterVision

Back in the 1990s, TNT aired a program called MonsterVision. The show took many forms over the course of the decade, including narrators and guest hosts. There was even a short stint in which famed magicians Penn and Teller hosted marathons of old B-Movies from the 1950s and 1960s.

Ultimately, though, the reason MonsterVision looms large is because Joe Bob Briggs hosted the program from 1996 until the show’s demise in 2000. A drive-in movie critic that covered a beat consisting of trashy, grindhouse fare, Briggs brought an irreverent personality to the show and joined the ranks of great horror hosts. It’s a noble tradition, and unlike a lot of horror hosts, Briggs brings a wealth of knowledge about films and filmmakers. I distinctly remember his commentary on Halloween II. It’s not that it was mind-blowingly insightful or anything, but it was much more interesting information than I was accustomed to coming from TV hosts.

These days, the internet not only gives everyone a voice, but also makes the obscure accessible. In the 80s and 90s, no one covered low-budget horror flicks that only ran in run-down theaters and drive-ins… except for the likes of Joe Bob Briggs. A few years ago, the streaming service Shudder (well worth your money, especially at this time of year!) essentially revived MonsterVision, now calling it The Last Drive-In. The second season roughly coincided with the Covid outbreak in the US, and it was a welcome weekly respite from the all-too-real horrors of the world.

Since I’ve already watched all the newer Last Drive-In installments, I figured we’d take a look back at the TNT years. It was a little tricky finding three movies I hadn’t seen before, but I think this is a pretty solid trio…

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 2 – MonsterVision

Ice Cream Man – Gregory just wants to make the neighborhood kids happy. So he reopens the local ice cream factory and revs up the ice cream truck to spread joy. The rude little snots and policemen that get in his way simply get reprocessed into the flavor of the week. This had one of the more eyecatching VHS covers that stood out on shelves at Blockbuster. I always remember giving it a chuckle while passing by. It turns out that I had not seen this all the way through before, though I definitely caught parts of it here or there (perhaps even on MonsterVision?)

The titular Ice Cream Man

It’s basically the Clint Howard show; the part he was born to play. He’s the only one who could pull off something like this, and he’s genuinely great in the roll. The supporting cast is surprisingly stacked for a movie like this. I have no idea how they got David Warner, Olivia Hussey, and Jan Michael Vincent to sign on for this thing. Warner and Hussey seem to be having lots of fun, and I always enjoy seeing them in stuff like this. Vincent doesn’t look like he wants to be there (and I’m sure he was smashed the whole shoot).

This was made right at the end of the practical effects heyday, and the gory bits are well done. It also captures that mid-nineties zeitgeist that probably only works for folks of my generation. Still, it’s funny seeing the fashions and hairstyles and the one kid who looks like JTT. While it’s clear the film has its tongue placed firmly in cheek, it still has a weird tonal inconsistency that doesn’t quite work… and yet becomes part of its charm. It’s clearly not a very good movie in most respects, but I kinda love it anyway. **

Deadly Friend – A literal teenage mad scientist tries to save his crush’s life by implanting computer chips in her brain. Naturally, she comes back seeking vengeance. Another Wes Craven film I’d never seen, it turns out there’s a pretty good reason for that. He’s all but disowned the thing. Originally intended to be his Starman (John Carpenter’s sappy sci-fi drama), the studio had other aims. Reshoots were ordered and edited into the movie, including some gory dream sequences and an A+ basketball gag that’s become a true classic. Kristy Swanson is the standout performance and gets plenty to do as she ping-pongs between male figures vying for dominance and control over her. Also, when she becomes a robo-zombie, she gets perfect smokey makeup around her eyes (instead of the more traditional rot and decay). It’s a very 80s affair.

The titular Deadly Friend

All of which is to say that the movie feels disjointed and uneven. The robot bits, capitalizing on the 80s trend (Short Circuit and Chopping Mall were also released this year and in fact, the first robot we see in this movie is literally using the same chassis as Johnny 5), are silly and unconvincing and while I can kinda see what the movie was going for from a dramatic perspective… I think the studio’s imperative to add some gory nightmare sequences was probably justified. I really enjoy Starman, but while I understand that Deadly Friend was chopped up and reassembled, I still don’t quite see it turning out as well as Starman. Unfortunately, the gore and the drama just sorta cancel each other out. That being said, like all of Craven’s films, this one gets under your skin at moments. It’s definitely an interesting mid-80s artifact. There’s some gold at its core, but it’s not exactly a must-watch. **1/2

Raising Cain – As local children start disappearing, a woman suspects her child psychologist husband may be involved. Brian De Palma infamously rips off Hitchcock whenever possible, but by this point in his career, he’d been doing it for so long that he began ripping off himself ripping off Hitchcock. This sorta self-referential exercise gets goofy at times, but I actually really ended up enjoying the movie. Sure, it’s not as good as De Palma’s other Hitchcock pastiches like Dressed to Kill, Body Double, and Sisters, but it has its moments. I mean, if you’re going to appropriate another filmmaker, you could do a lot worse than Hitch!

John Lithgow, Bad Boy

In particular, John Lithgow’s multifaceted performance is something to behold. He’s really chewing the scenery throughout the film, playing at least 5 different characters at various times. The “bad boy” twin is a little laughable and there are some moments of unintentional hilarity spread throughout the movie. Lithgow is certainly able to play up an evil character (witness his chilling performance in De Palma’s Blow Out), but that “bad boy” getup just makes me laugh every time it shows up. He still carries the movie, and it’s always nice to see someone really going for it like that.

Raising Cain

Look, it’s another rehash of Psycho with a dash of Peeping Tom. But De Palma is good at this, and it’s an excuse for his trademark but needlessly showy bravura camera tricks. Take the walk-and-talk sequence at a police station where character actor Gregg Henry seemingly directs the blocking of his counterparts. It’s a fun sequence and a microcosm of what De Palma is doing to the viewers of his film. Some of the plot twists and turns are hokey and might not make sense, but again, who cares? De Palma’s here grabbing our arm and pointing us back in the right direction with his stylistic flourishes. The climax also has some showy formal camerawork. Once again, we see De Palma folding in upon himself, referencing yet another of his own films with the baby carriage gag. It’s not De Palma’s best and it’s got its flaws, but I kinda love it. ***

That’s week 2 in the books. Stay tuned, we’ve got more horrific fun coming your way.

Screen Life Horror

Director Timur Bekmambetov coined the phrase “Screen Life” (usually used for a horror film) to describe an emerging form where the action takes place entirely on a screen of some kind. Computers, cell phones, laptops, whatever. A cousin of the Found Footage sub-genre, it shares many of the same strengths and weaknesses. A low budget approach with an eminently familiar aesthetic, it speaks to the unglamorous, unending march of technology, social media, and our compulsion to engage online.

It’s easy to see this as a gimmick, and it does have all the hallmarks of a temporary flash in the pan… but I suspect it’s here to stay, at least for a little while. In fact, as filmmakers struggle with the restrictions of a worldwide pandemic, I suspect we’ll see a surge in this sort of thing in the nearish future. This week, I covered four examples of the sub-genre, but there are plenty of others, including Searching, which isn’t really horror (though it has some thriller-ish elements), but is better than all the films covered here and well worth checking out as an exemplar of the form.

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 1.5 – Screen Life Horror Films

Open Windows – Director Nacho Vigalondo and star Elijah Wood teamed up on this screen life horror flick about a fan who wins a date with his favorite actress. When she unexpectedly cancels the date, the fan gets a mysterious invitation to spy on her via computers. Naturally, all is not what it seems, and hijinks ensue. Vigalondo and Wood are fixtures at Fantastic Fest (we will be revisiting that hallowed fest later in the 6WH), so it’s only natural that they’d team up for a flick like this. While not the first screen life film and not quite a mainstream release, it did (barely) precede the most well known examples of the form. At its best, it plays like a sorta high-tech re-imagining of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but that also turns out to be its downfall, because in execution, this movie is clunky and not especially believable. The comparison does it no favors.

Sasha Grey in Open Windows

A lot of plot machinations strain believability, to put it lightly, but on the other hand, it’s a perfectly cromulent experience if you get on its wavelength. Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey do their best to sell the concept, and manage to help things along. One thing of note is that the interface and applications aren’t especially familiar, and yet they’re still well done (unlike a lot of fake movie/TV computer screens). The ending goes for some bigger twists and a lot of the elements rely on near magical technology and omniscient hackers and so on, but if I’m being generous, it kinda reminds me of some sort of Giallo-style climax. Sure, it doesn’t entirely make sense… but it’s fun enough! If it’s a failure, it’s at least an interesting failure. **1/2

Unfriended – This is probably the most well known example of the screen life horror sub-genre. It’s about a group of teens terrorized by the Facebook account of a girl who committed suicide earlier in the recent past. Naturally, death has given the dead girl l33t h4x0r skills, and she’s able to join their skype calls and do all manner of technical wizardry. It’s not exactly trenchant social commentary, but it does touch on how technology has changed bullying and other social conventions in ways that are unpredictable and sometimes worse. Given the pace of technological change, I imagine these will also be interesting snapshots of society and technology as well. Unlike Open Windows, the Unfriended franchise could afford to use real applications like Facebook and Apple apps, etc…

Facebook screen from Unfriended

The film itself is actually pretty slickly produced, and it looks more cinematic than you’d expect given the gimmick. It’s also incredibly mean-spirited, especially as the movie proceeds. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, as I basically disliked all of the characters, and that doesn’t always make for a good experience. The supernatural bits add something interesting to the story, but are also a bit hokey, so your mileage may vary. Overall, once again, it’s a perfectly croument movie. Gimicky and and a bit silly, but mean spirited and reasonably well executed. **1/2

Unfriended 2: Dark Web – This is basically a sequel in name only. None of the characters are carried over from the first movie and the supernatural elements are removed entirely. All that remains is the l33t h4x0rs (human this time, but honestly no less magical) and some mean-spirited horror. Funnily enough, this one has some twists that more resemble Open Windows than the first Unfriended. The characters are marginally more likable this time around, which also helps, such that when they start getting subjected to distressing violence, you actually care about them.

Unfriended 2: Dark Web

The premise itself, delving into urban legends around snuff films and human trafficking rings, is actually a pretty good one. Once our main character realizes that the laptop he picked out of a lost and found box contains all sorts of suspicious material, things get really hairy really quickly. Some of the videos found on the laptop are genuinely disturbing to watch, all the more so because you don’t actually see a lot. The whole thing culminates with a series of twists that tend to strain credibility (again, in very similar ways to Open Windows), but are entertaining enough. All in all, it’s a minor improvement to the first Unfriended and Open Windows, but is still hampered by similar constraints. **1/2

Host – Hey, remember when I said that the restrictions of a worldwide pandemic would drive a surge in this sort of format? Well, it’s already begun. A group of friends, bored out of their mind during lockdown, hire a medium to hold a séance via Zoom, with predictably tragic results. That’s what happens when you use the free version of Zoom for your séance: you accidentally summon a demon.

Unsuspecting victims make a toast in Host

For something that was clearly put together quickly and on the cheap, this turned out really well. Clocking in at a mere 56 minutes, I’m not even sure this qualifies as a feature film, but it’s definitely worth a watch during the spooky season, and it’s probably the most effective screen life movie covered in this post (except for maybe Searching, which was only mentioned at the top of this post). Well worth checking out, even if I suspect I might be overrating it because new and interesting content during the lockdown tends to be greeted with open arms. ***

Phew, that’s a full week in the books. Stay tuned for Sunday’s update. I’m pretty sure we’ll be doing some Monstervision throwback picks from the 80s and 90s, so you Joe Bob fans will want to check it out.