Time flies when you’re terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought. For some reason, these Six Weeks of Halloween went faster than ever this year, and now we’re already at the big day. In accordance with tradition, this is when we engage in a Speed Round of brief thoughts on films I watched during the 2023 marathon, but haven’t otherwise covered. Usually because it didn’t fit with a weekly theme. Or maybe I just didn’t have much to say about it. Or I had too much to say about it, but the moment and/or inspiration has passed. Or it’s a rewatch of an all time classic (or, uh, a non-classic) and you don’t need anyone, let alone me, telling you more about it.
As of right now, I’ve seen 69 (nice!) horror or horror-adjacent films during this Halloween season. This is a big increase from last year and actually relatively close to the pandemic-fueled record of 71 that was set in 2020, but it should be noted that 8 of this year’s entries were Cabinet of Curiosities episodes (and Letterboxd has separate entries for each episode) and the Phillies didn’t make it to the World Series (a different kind of horror!) which means the numbers are a bit inflated over last year.
As per usual, we’ll have one final 6WH post next week about the horror books I read during the 2023 Halloween season, but for now, let’s dive into this year’s Speed Round:
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Speed Round
A Haunting in Venice – Another perfectly cromulent mid-budget self-contained Poirot adaptation, it’s not perfect and it won’t blow you away or anything, but it’s got plenty of spooky vibes, more style than it needs, and plenty of twists and turns. Again, nothing incredible, but it’s the sort of movie I wish Hollywood would make more often. **1/2
13 Ghosts – I decided to go back and watch the original William Castle movie after watching the remake earlier in the marathon. Certainly a more staid production, old-fashioned and corny, actually the sort of thing that was ripe for a remake. It’s not great, but I somehow liked it better than the remake. **
No One Will Save You – The gimmick of this alien invasion flick is that there’s nearly no dialogue at all. There’s plenty of thematic heft that is underlined by this approach and Kaitlyn Dever’s lead performance sells the whole thing well.
The gimmick is cleverly done, but I’m getting a little tired of the genre’s obsession with Trauma and the aliens here are almost as dumb as the ones from Signs. Adventurous filmmaking and interesting because of that, but can’t quite sustain its momentum throughout the full runtime. **1/2
Its politics are a little ham-fisted, but it’s a ton of fun, and Sam Richardson and Milana Vayntrub are great together and really carry the movie. Recommended! ***
The Face Behind the Mask – 1941 Peter Lorre noir about a disfigured man becoming a criminal mastermind and trying to escape the life, to little success. It’s the sort of thing you’ve seen a hundred times (and barely a horror movie), but Lorre provides gravitas, even when he’s masked up (the masks are actually rather effective for what they are). **1/2
The Exorcist – RIP William Friedkin, the new 4k transfer looks great and the movie is as good as ever. Another movie I watched after a similar themed week, it’s obviously much better than all the movies I watched that week (and the direct influence is clear as well). There are still some things I don’t love about this movie, and the directors cut with the additional footage isn’t as good as the theatrical cut, but it’s still a stone cold classic. ****
Alien³ – David Fincher’s directorial debut is still a frustrating and disappointing exercise, though there are some genuine bright spots, notably Charles Dance’s doctor character, who has great chemistry with Sigourney Weaver, and some other performances (Charles S. Dutton, Brian Glover, etc…) Great ensemble! Terrible story, and I know the point is to be bleak and uncompromising and there are some people who claim to like how unsatisfying the whole thing is, but that’s a really hard trick to pull off and this movie doesn’t even come close (put a pin in this, we’ll come back to the idea below). **
Predator – Not a movie that I usually think of as a Halloween movie, but it’s got all the hallmarks, even if it’s more action than horror. You probably don’t need me to say much here, it’s still great! ***1/2
Casper – After a few weeks of watching nothing but horror movies, it’s easy to get burnt out, but goofy comedies like this are actually a nice way to bring levity to the situation, even if it’s not particularly great. Not bad either, and Christina Ricci and Bill Pullman are great, and there’s some bonkers stuff about Casper the friendly ghost that we learn. Fun. **1/2
Totally Killer – Self-aware slasher comedy mixed with time travel, it’s a whole boatload of fun. More focused on the humor than the horror or sci-fi elements, it’s still effective and well calibrated. The school mascot mask isn’t great and the time travel stuff isn’t particularly rigorous, though they do manage one clever thing I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a time travel story before, which is nice (even if I’m not entirely sure how it works). I think Final Girls and the Happy Death Day movies did it better, but it’s totally worthwhile and again, it’s always nice to find some levity in the midst of all the horror of the season. ***
The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre – Obscure 1964 TV movie starring Martin Landau as a paranormal investigator, this isn’t as twisty or goofy as I’d hoped, but it’s fine. I’ve generally had good luck with this sort of old TV movie type of thing in the past, but I’d say this one didn’t really pan out. **
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning – There was a Friday the 13th in October, so obviously I had to pop on a couple entries in the venerable series. Part V is one of the weirdest entries in the series and I kinda find it fascinating, despite it not being very good. ** (But ratings are kinda tough for movies like this…)
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives – Followed up the weirdest entry in the series with one of the best entries in the series, and the one I tend to watch most often. ***
Happy Death Day – The slasher formula in a Groundhog Day framework works surprisingly well, and this is a movie I like more and more over time. After watching Totally Killer, I decided to revisit and yes, this is better than Totally Killer, with a more balanced blend of humor and horror leading to an overall quite fun experience (Totally Killer is still quite fun and worthwhile!) ***
Happy Death Day 2U – A surprisingly solid sequel that recontextualizes the Groundhog Day formula in a clever way, resulting in another fun movie that’s almost as good as the original. Another movie that’s only gotten better in my estimation the more times I watch it.
If we still had cable classics, I think both of these would qualify (Maybe they’ll get on Netflix at some point and become super popular in the way a lot of underseen (and sometimes even bad) movies do, but that won’t happen on Peacock). ***
Murder, Anyone? – Two playwrights collaborate on a script, and as they do so, we see their story come to life on screen. As arguments arise, the resulting twists and turns manifest in wacky ways. A neat idea, but it doesn’t quite come together as well as I’d hoped. **
Shivers – Early Cronenberg about parasitic sex slugs in a futuristic apartment building, I first watched this for the 6WH almost ten years ago, and had a hankering to revisit. It’s actually become one of my favorite Cronenberg movies, and while it’s definitely dated, it still holds up pretty well. ***
There’s Nothing Out There – Pre-Scream self-aware monster flick about a group of kids vacationing in a remote cabin, and one of the kids is a horror movie dork and sees all the signs of an impending massacre. Points for originality, but the self-aware movie dork works better as a side character (a la Scream); here, his constant quips and complaints can come off as annoying. Creature design is also a bit lacking, though they do keep it mostly hidden in the early goings (with liberal use of POV shots and half-seen glimpses of something in the woods). Some interesting stuff here, but mostly only of interest to students of the genre. **
Phantom of the Opera – Universal remade the silent classic in 1943 with Claude Rains in the title role and glorious Technicolor. We get a little more of a backstory for the Phantom and there’s a goofy love triangle (er, rectangle?) and a whole lotta, I mean, just a ton of Opera. I guess it makes sense that they’d emphasize the singing and music in this version, given that the previous adaptation was a silent film, but at times this feels almost like a musical (though obviously not quite as much as the actual musical versions). The general shape of the Phantom story is there, but the horror elements are downplayed considerably, and the makeup and infamous reveal are nowhere near as shocking as the original (Lon Cheney’s appearance remains effective to this day, Rains just looks slightly singed). If you saw another version of this and thought: I want more singing and less Phantoming, this is the movie for you. It’s certainly a lavish production and the recent 4k restoration looks fantastic, but I was mildly disappointed. **
Demons 2 – The first part of Joe Bob’s Helloween double-feature, it’s a sequel to Demons and basically represents more of the same. This time, instead of being stuck in a movie theater with zombie-like demons, they’re stuck in an apartment building. Visually adept with plenty of gore and memorable moments, but none of it really adds up to anything meaningful and a lot of beats are simply rehashed from the first movie. **
Watchers II – For whatever reason, Dean Koontz adaptations never really caught on in Hollywood, and there hasn’t really been a good one. Watchers was one of Koontz’s most successful books (though middle tier in my rankings, it’s got some effective stuff for sure) and the first adaptation got turned into a crappy Corey Haim vehicle that barely resembled the book. This sequel is more like an alternate take, though once again many liberties have been taken with the story. It’s low budget B-movie 80s cheese starring the Beastmaster himself, Marc Singer. I haven’t seen the first film in a while, but this was at least marginally watchable. Someday, someone might make a good Koontz adaptation, but I’m not holding my breath. **
All Hallows’ Eve – The second part of Joe Bob’s Helloween, this is a horror anthology comprised of previously made short films with some newly filmed scenes used as a framing device. Low budget, mean-spirited, and tasteless, the only thing this really has going for it is that it’s the first screen appearance of Art the Clown, a fledgling horror icon who hasn’t quite broken into the mainstream yet, but is undeniably effective (honestly, his brief appearance in the first segment might be the best, even though the last segment is more dedicated to him). There’s clearly some potential on screen here, and director Damien Leone has some good instincts, but very little of the potential is realized in this first anthology. Poorly acted and visually slipshod (there are occasional shots that look ok, but it’s very inconsistent), this isn’t really recommended except for completists who want to see where Art the Clown originated. (Despite not loving this, I may end up doing an Art the Clown theme week/mid-week next year, as the Terrifier movies seem to get better as they go….) *1/2
The Fly – 1958 B-movie told mostly in flashback, it’s a tale of science gone awry, but what struck me most is that the real tragedy is that even after the accident, indeed, even after the death, the domestic situation of the household remains largely unchanged. The scientist was already so dedicated to his work that he didn’t spend much time on his family, so his avoidance after the accident isn’t much of a change, and honestly, after his death, his wife will most likely upgrade to his brother-in-law, played by Vincent Price, always a steady presence onscreen. The transformation and body horror bits are relatively staid here, even for 1958, but pale in comparison to the remake, speaking of which… **1/2
The Fly – David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly amps up the body horror in excruciating detail, but the vile minutiae of the transformation are so memorable that I always forget that this spends a lot of time on character and relationships. In 1986, the original Fly movie was 28 years old, but desperately needed an updating. Cronenberg’s movie is now 37 years old, and I don’t think you could do it any better today. The Scream Factory Blu Ray looks great, and there’s plenty of special features too. ****
Zodiac – David Fincher’s tour de force represents a completely different take on the serial killer movie, and unlike Alien³ (see above), the bleak worldview and deliberately unsatisfying narrative here is expertly calculated and perfectly executed. Also of note, this is a film that absolutely nailed the digital aesthetic, it looks amazing, and yet I feel like so many struggle with it to this day.
I’ve always loved the movie, but it has only grown in my estimation over the years and it’s been far too long since I’d revisited it. Thanks to the Blank Check podcast for prompting the idea to rewatch (and for a long, insightful review). ****
The Devil on Trial – This Netflix documentary seems, at first glance and for the first hour or so of its runtime, like a deeply uncritical examination of the famous court case where “demonic possession” was used as a defense against murder charges. Then the other shoe drops, and several more reasonable explanations are put forward, even if some in the family disagree. Even at just 81 minutes, there’s not really enough story here, so the filmmakers rely on extensive use of recreations, which are sometimes unnecessary or potentially misleading. On the other hand, they do have lots of actual source material, including audio tapes of the possessed child, and seem to have been able to interview all the principle players (with the exception of Ed and Lorraine Warren, though they are able to use lots of archival footage). Still, the last 20 or so minutes should have probably been explored more deeply (there’s something to be said for pulling the rug out on a narrative like this, but this movie only does a modest job of that). It’s entertaining, but not quite as enlightening as you might want from something like this. **1/2
Project Eerie – A found footage anthology with some decently constructed segments that are nevertheless mostly conventional (it’s got a sorta X-Files meets Blair Witch vibe). An ultra-low-budget affair that doesn’t look particularly great and suffers from typical found footage flaws, but might be worth a gander if you’re a found footage fan. I suspect the filmmaker Ricky Umberger could be capable of much better if given the opportunity. **1/2
Dark Harvest – David Slade’s stylish creature feature hasn’t garnered much attention and I’m not entirely sure why. It might be a bit heavy handed for general audiences, but horror fans should be eating this up. Lots of Stephen King-esque flavor, especially the subversion of 50s Rockwellian ideals and the rot behind small town veneers (not to mention all the bullies and greaser nonsense). It’s certainly not perfect; there are some twists that are easy to see coming, the writing ham-fisted, and the Purge-esque bloodlust on display seems improbable, but it’s an entertaining and stylish flick that more should be seeking out. **1/2
Halloween – Duh. (For the record, I prefer the Scream Factory 4K to the previous studio release, maybe one day I’ll figure out a good way to do comparisons, because I think it might be interesting to see a detailed analysis of different releases for a movie like this.) ****
Speed Round Appendix: 50 from 50
Earlier this year, I made a resolution to watch 50 movies from 50 different countries by the end of December (lots of caveats and rules for what qualifies, as enumerated in that introductory post.) We’ve already covered several qualifying movies earlier in the 6WH, but I watched a few more that should be covered:
Serbia – Vampir – Great atmosphere and creepy imagery, but incredibly tedious movie where the title is almost a spoiler. I say “almost” because “spoiler” implies there’s some sort of plot or surprise involved, and that’s not really relevant here. Or, at least, the surprises are nonsensical and don’t really build on anything other than an occasionally hallucinatory sequence. There’s something to be said for the isolation and vulnerability that a stranger can feel in a new and potentially hostile environment, but there’s not enough there to sustain this movie. I didn’t like it, but this sort of slow cinema approach is catnip to some people who can get by on “vibes” alone. *
South Africa – Gaia – I guess fungus-zombies are having a bit of a moment, this is a smaller scale story about a park ranger who gets lost in the woods and meets up with some survivalists who have a mysterious relationship with the fungal threat. Eco-horror with some memorable body horror and effective imagery, I enjoyed this well enough, though the relationship between the ranger and the two survivalists is odd at times, even if it ultimately plays out well enough. **1/2
Austria – Goodnight Mommy – The A24 “elevated horror” folks would probably get a kick out of this slow burn story about two kids who think their mom has been replaced by a doppleganger. Well photographed and slowly paced, things pick up towards the end in a rather sadistic way. There’s a big twist and I’m trying hard not to make a reference to the obvious South Korean analogue as it would be a spoiler (but given how deliberate and slow this movie is, you will probably see the twist coming anyway). It’s still a movie that would be solved if people just talked to each other instead of acting strangely all the time, and there’s a few things that don’t fit (not sure what the mom head-shaking bit is all about, for instance), but it’s undeniably effective in the end. **1/2
Hungary – Strangled – Based on a true story serial killer story that takes place behind the iron curtain. Brutal and unflinching, this has none of the lurid notes you sometimes get out of a serial killer movie, despite the killer’s MO and the innocent man behind bars angle (this is a good thing, though it makes the film less entertaining, but then, should a story like this be “fun”?) Thematically rich and technically proficient, it’s well made and looks great, even if it goes on perhaps a bit too long. **1/2
Phew, it’s been a great 6 weeks (and then some). Happy Halloween, and stay tuned for the recap of season’s readings coming soon.