6 Weeks of Halloween

Halloween Reading Roundup

We watch a lot of movies during the Six Weeks of Halloween, but there’s also a fair amount of spooky season’s readings to cover as well. As with this year’s movie watching, our Halloween reading pace has also slackened somewhat from the pandemic-fueled record set last year. I still ended up getting through eight books, which actually isn’t that far off the record, though a couple were shorter and I was still chiseling away at one even after the big day. I used to interweave some book posts throughout the marathon, but we’ll just have to do this one big roundup at the end of the season. We’ve got a lot to get through, so not all will be particularly in-depth analyses, but let’s take a looksee:

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Reading Roundup

Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King – At this point, it’s almost a cliché to read Stephen King during the Halloween Season, but after reading Night Shift last year, I resolved to explore more of King’s short fiction. As it turns out this was the first book I started and the last book I finished during the season. Short Story collections tend to be, by their very nature, uneven affairs. But when you’ve got a stack of seasonal reads, a book like this makes for the perfect transition between larger works. As such, I was continually dipping into this collection throughout the entire marathon, only finishing it off yesterday (almost a week after Halloween). Clocking in at around 700 pages, that’s not too surprising, I guess, but it was an overall enjoyable read.

“Dolan’s Cadillac” kicks off the collection with a bang and it’s one of the best in the entire collection. More of a horror inflected crime/revenge story than anything else, I appreciated the procedural attention to detail and care with which King constructed the story. “The Night Flier” is a neat little modern (er, for the 80s) spin on vampires, and I very distinctly remember enjoying the movie adaptation that probably won’t live up to my memory (but it’s conspicuously absent from streaming and I’m not willing to spend $65 for a used VHS or DVD to test that theory out). “Home Delivery” is my kinda zombie story. “The Ten O’Clock People” is great, reminiscent of Carpenter’s They Live, but to my mind, better and more horrific (perhaps less pointed or angry in political terms, but creepier in execution for sure). “Crouch End” features the obligatory Lovecraft homage, and is pretty well done iteration of those tropes.

As expected, some stories didn’t really strike a nerve with me (like “The Moving Finger” or “My Pretty Pony”) and one thing I noticed in comparison to Night Shift is that these newer stories all seem longer and more verbose than the earlier ones. When it comes to the good stories mentioned above, that’s not really a problem, but there are a fair amount of stories that I thought were decent but dragged a bit (like “Sneakers” or “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band”). Finally, there are some things that don’t especially fit at all, notably “Head Down”, which is non-fiction about King’s son’s little league baseball team (which, oddly, is also the longest story of the bunch). All in all, though, it’s a pretty solid collection, and while it sags at times, it feels like it got stronger as it went. I will probably continue this trend of a Stephen King short story collection next year, as I kinda enjoy having something to slip in and out of throughout the season.

Winter Moon by Dean Koontz – I know Koontz takes a lot of heat, especially from Stephen King fans, but he’s always been a favorite. That said, he’s extremely repetitive and I’ve never quite managed to rekindle that initial burst of enthusiasm I got from his stuff when I discovered his books in high school. Part of that may be because I’m older and wiser now (haha, right – ed), part of it may be that I’ve already read his best stuff, but most likely it’s that Koontz is very prolific and tends to repeat certain tropes over and over again. That said, there was a period in the 80s and early 90s in which he was really on fire. I’ve actually had some luck earlier this year reading Mr. Murder and The Bad Place, both of which were quite fun (especially the latter, which I found surprisingly entertaining and weird).

Winter Moon was apparently a rewrite of one of Koontz’s earlier works, published under a pseudonym. Supposedly the rewrite used very little of the original text, so it was kinda considered a new novel at the time. Anyway, it’s a fun little alien invasion flick, with the usual sprinkling of Koontzian tropes. Great opening shootout with our police officer protagonist, after which his wife becomes a little paranoid (but not without reason), and the precocious child does his best, etc… Then there’s a parallel story in set in Montana that’s a little more unusual, but you eventually see how the two stories will dovetail. There’s some time spent just kinda waiting for the pieces to fall into place, but it’s easy-going page-turner stuff. Certainly not one of Koontz’s best and not something I’d recommend starting with, but it was entertaining enough.

Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror by W. Scott Poole – The premise of this nonfiction book is that the devastating violence and bloodshed of World War I planted the seeds of all modern horror. Poole is a historian, so it’s not surprising that a fair proportion of this book is spent chronicling various factual aspects of WWI. He’s good at capturing the outrage and senselessness of the war and even if you’re more interested in the artistic side of this premise, the historical details are still engaging and interesting.

These details are then applied to the emergence of various horror trends of the era, particularly given the prominence and influence of German filmmakers on the genre. He briefly sketches out the lives of several prominent authors and directors, including the likes of F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, James Whale, H.P. Lovecraft, Franz Kafka, and several others. Biographical information is relayed in addition to the prominent works of horror they produced.

Unfortunately, it does feel a bit like he’s stretching to make the details fit his thesis, rather than truly developing it. As a result, the book feels narrowly focused, like Poole was only concerned with a small part of what makes a lot of these works great. There’s also not much in the way of tracing this influence far beyond the war. It seems obvious that art produced during the 20s and 30s would be influenced by the war, but how does that influence expand beyond those works through the subsequent decades (even up until today).

None of which is to belittle what the book is doing here. If you’re already interested in the horror stories of the era, it’s a pretty good overview (if you’re not, then it might not hold interest – as mentioned, it doesn’t do much connecting those works to contemporary horror, so there’s not even an in there). I suppose if you were a history buff who never had much interest in the horror genre, it might be eye opening. I liked it well enough, though again, I do feel it was stretching to fit the thesis.

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix – I feel like I should like Hendrix’s work more than I do. I really enjoyed the nonfiction Paperbacks from Hell, and We Sold Our Souls was a nice spin on some specific tropes that I found diverting enough (if not amazing or anything). This book, chronicling the travails of real-life final girls as a killer starts picking them off one by one, should really be up my alley.

To be sure, there are a lot of interesting elements here. In the world of this book, all the slasher franchises we know and love from the eighties were based on real stories with real final girls. They have slightly modified names (i.e. our main protagonist is the basis for the Slay Bells series of movies, which are very obviously styled after Silent Night, Deadly Night), but they’re all there. Of course, this sort of exposure comes with its own challenges. There’s a whole seedy and exploitative side to the situation that Hendrix covers aptly. Some of the girls handle it well, others do not. Twenty years later, they’re mostly a group of basket cases. This is perhaps not unrealistic, but it’s also no fun at all. Which I get. The trauma of such events should not be minimized. But you have to make up for that somehow, and Hendrix seems to think having a main protagonist be utterly and completely incompetent is compelling, and it’s not.

I really, really disliked our protagonist. It’s excusable that she did dumb stuff as a teen that wasn’t expecting to be hunted buy a Santa killer. Twenty years later, being paranoid and supposedly prepared, it turns out that she still constantly makes dumb decisions. Perhaps this is more of a “me” thing than the book’s fault, but I really had a hard time rooting for her. The reason we like final girls in horror movies is that they aren’t generally dumb and are capable of fighting back and even defeating the killer. I get that this story is supposed to be more based in realism, but the precept holds: competent protagonists are much more likeable than stupid ones. She even admits, late in the story when she did something tremendously stupid and underestimates a suspect: “I am stupid. I am dumb.” Right, but self-awareness does not inoculate the author from having a stupid protagonist. The worst thing is that she doesn’t need to be incompetent for this story to work. You could make a commentary on how paranoia and preparedness are sometimes not enough and maybe even the price of such precautions is too much… without having to make the character a total dunce.

There’s arguably too much weight on realism in this story, but otherwise, there’s a skeleton of a good plot here. Even some of the realistic stuff represents interesting extrapolations on a world where final girls were real things, and the various explorations of each final girl’s story and the franchises they spawned are great. As mentioned above, though, Hendrix chose perhaps the least likeable of the bunch as his main protagonist – the others all seem much more interesting and active. I listened to the audiobook for this, which probably didn’t help. It’s read by Adrienne King, who was the final girl in the original Friday the 13th. She’s not the worst reader I’ve heard, but it still comes off as more of a stunt than a great choice. I found a lot of things grating about the book, so maybe it’s hard to separate that from the performance, but whatever. I really did not enjoy this book, which is a shame, because it should have been up my alley. One of these days I’ll find a slasher novel that works for me…

Last Days by Brian Evenson – Evenson is my favorite discovery of the year. There’s something of a cult status being built up around him, and after having read a couple books during this Halloween season, I can easily see why. He’s got a simplistic, straightforward style that is deceptively cerebral in nature, and deeply unsettling.

Last Days by Brian Evenson book cover

This story of this novel concerns an amputation-obsessed cult that hires a detective (who had his hand chopped off during his last case – and thus is considered trustworthy by the cult) to solve a murder. Naturally, all is not what it seems. What starts as a detective procedural with a Kafka-esque bent, eventually turns (or perhaps curdles) into something more odd and violent than you might expect.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t spend much more time on it, though I guess that implies the story has more surprises and gotcha twists than it really does. I mean, our detective certainly makes deductions I wasn’t expecting and there are twists, but they’re hard to describe and unlike your usual mysteries. I really enjoyed the weirdness though, and while it’s subtly stylish stuff, it’s still page turning material. Worth seeking out if you’re not scared of strange stuff off the beaten path…

Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson – This collection of short stories might be a better place to start than Last Days, but they’re both pretty short books. I found it interesting reading this in contrast to King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes. Where I found King’s stories to be relatively long (approximately 30 pages with small type/spacing) and verbose, Evenson’s are generally very short (approximately 10 pages, not as densely printed), stripped down, and simple… but no less disturbing.

Stories range from the straightforward horror type, to more adventurous blends of genres, even including a few science fiction tales. You’ve got the obligatory Lovecraft homage (one of the aforementioned SF stories), and there are multiple stories about filmmakers that delve into the horrific.

I liked the initial entries in the book, but either the stories got better as it it went or I simply got on Evenson’s wavelength, because my opinion of this book kept rising as I read (an unusual experience with a short story collection, which is typically more of a wave of ups and downs – I suppose that’s also true here, but the stories are short enough that the amplitude of said waves isn’t that high). If Evenson’s brand of weird and disquieting horror sounds like your thing, check it out. I will most certainly be revisiting his work next year.

Chasing the Boogeyman by Richard Chizmar – A serial killer story with a metafictional twist, this novel is essentially a fictional true crime novel. As such, you don’t get the bombastic serial killer tropes here, only the difficult to reconstruct details of each murder scene and a little about the victim’s life. It’s a fascinating exercise and a premise that mostly delivers what it promises, though I will say that I’m not exactly an expert on true crime.

It did feel more like a memoir than true crime at times, but again, I’m not sure how much of this is a departure from true crime or not (i.e. are a lot of true crime novels also sorta memoirs about the author’s life too?) Either way, the story works well enough for what it is. Again, don’t expect the exciting, pulse-pounding tropes of more trashy serial killer narratives. But it’s not a hollow, overheated stylistic exercise either. It’s a sorta sober examination of a series of murders in the author’s hometown. Unlike a lot of true crime, this one is eventually solved, and the book takes the form of a second edition, with some additional chapters at the end (because the fictional crimes were solved long after the fictional true crime book was fictionally published, so the fictional author was approached by the fictional publisher to revise the fictional book for a fictional second edition – everyone got that?) It works as a story, but also as a metatextual narrative, which is pretty interesting.

Danse Macabre by Stephen King – And so we return to Stephen King, this time working in non-fiction mode as he examines what makes the horror genre tick. Writing in the early 80s, he’s mostly covering older works from his childhood, though he does spend some time on contemporary (i.e. late 70s) horror as well. That part represents an interesting time capsule to see what horror movies resonated at the time, versus the ones that have survived the test of time and are still well known today.

He covers literature and movies, with some time spent on radio and the pulps and whatnot. There’s good overviews of a lot of what makes the genre tick, and he traces things back to originators like Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (the latter of which King posits as the origin of modern werewolf stories, which I’m not sure I’d ever heard before).

It’s always interesting to get some perspective on an author like King and how he understands his own work, but I’m guessing there’s a lot to quibble with too. If you’ve ever read King’s column in Entertainment magazine back in the day, well, it’s perhaps not quite that lightweight, but sometimes he strikes off in a direction that seems a bit more flimsy than you might expect. Still, if you’re interested in horror’s evolution through the 50s and 60s, with a little of the 70s, this book will be most interesting for you. Personally, it feels like he might have written it a few years too early – the 80s were an interesting time for horror, and most of that is elided here simply because of when he wrote the book. Hard to blame him for that, so this is definitely another me problem, but the horror heart wants what it wants. I’d recommend King’s On Writing much more than Danse Macabre, but they’re also very different takes on non-fiction, so make of that what you will. King’s always interesting though…

Another Season’s Readings in the books. I’m allready thinking of things I’m going to watch and read for next year’s Six Weeks of Halloween marathon, which is always a good sign…

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Speed Round

In accordance with tradition, we finish off the Six Weeks of Halloween with 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 56 horror (or horror-adjacent) movies during this Halloween season (likely to jump up to 58 tonight). This is a welcome dip from last year’s pandemic-fueled record pace of 71 films and much more in line with pre-pandemic viewing patterns. Still plenty of stuff to cover in this Speed Round though, and we’ll have another post next week to cover Season’s Readings (which experienced a similar dip from a record setting pace last year).

Hard to believe it’s already the big day. As per usual, time flies when you’re terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought. Let’s finish this marathon off:

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Speed Round

The Thing – An all timer, and one of those movies I watch almost every year. Practical effects still hold up and the sheer creativity on display is still impressive, even on this umpteenth viewing. ****

Escape Room – All in good fun, the sort of thing I could see spawning a long running franchise (I meant to catch up with the sequel, but never got around to it). Still, I quite enjoyed the puzzles and execution of it all. Maybe a bit derivative, but it puts enough clever spins on the familiar stuff that it never gets boring. **1/2

The Craft – The oh so 90s answer to The Lost Boys , entertaining enough for what it is. I’m positive I saw this on cable back in the day, but I remembered almost none of the twists and turns, even if it was still a bit on the predictable side. **1/2

Christine – Another revisit, partially inspired by the Black Check Carpenter mini-series, but also I just really like this movie, apparently a lot more than most. At a certain point, the film starts to feel rushed, but it’s still one of the better Stephen King adaptations and there’s lots of great visual bits scattered throughout (the car rebuilding itself, the flaming car chase, etc…) ***

Elvira: Mistress of the Dark – I watched this because Shudder is single handedly trying to keep the idea of horror hosts alive and did an Elvira 40th Anniversary special with four movies. I only ended up watching two of them (I’d seen the other two before), including Elvira’s own, which is still quite amusing in a nostalgic way. **1/2

The City of the Dead – The other new-to-me flick from Elvira’s Shudder special, this has a wonderful atmosphere, just boatloads of fog all over, really quite spooky. I quite enjoyed it. **1/2

Deathtrap – This Sidney Lumet drama (adapted from the theater) might be my favorite discovery of the marathon, even if it barely skirts the horror genre. Certainly some creepy stuff here, and very suspenseful with a tremendous amount of clever twists and turns.

Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve in Deathtrap

Michael Caine and Dyan Cannon are great, as usual, but Christopher Reeve is the real surprising standout here. Just a delightful little film. ***1/2

Willard – Interesting and weird tale of a meek loner who befriends the rats at his mother’s dilapidated mansion and eventually grows the ability to command them to take revenge! Neat idea but it’s ultimately a bit slow and more than a little silly, though it picks up towards the end. **

The Silence of the Lambs – Another annual rewatch, I’ve already said my piece on this, but it remains a classic standby. ****

The Black Room – It seems that Boris Karloff programmers are starting to become something of an annual tradition around here. This one has great atmosphere and a few clever twists that I quite enjoyed. Karloff is great, as always, and can even make something as mundane as eating a pear into something compelling to watch. **1/2

Night Key – Another Karloff, this one distinctly less horror-focused, but he’s sorta approaching the mad-scientist-out-for-revenge territory that he excels at, though it never quite reaches horror levels. **

Angel – Part of Joe Bob’s Halloween Hoedown, this serial killer flick about sex workers in Hollywood is a weird one. Trashy but not as depraved as it could be, with a colorful supporting cast (especially Rory Calhoun) providing an almost sweet street family vibe. **1/2

Terror Train – The other Hoedown pick, I watched this during the 6WH over a decade ago, so it was nice to revisit. My thoughts on it haven’t changed much though – surprisingly tame, but ultimately entertaining and a nice spin on the slasher. **1/2

House – After the success of the first few Friday the 13th flicks, producer Sean Cunningham got the band back together for this haunted house flick. Steve Miner directs and Harry Manfredini provides the score. Then they went out and cast several sitcom stars, giving the whole thing a slight comic edge that does differentiate it from the throngs of other haunted house flicks. They do get pretty good performances out of William Katt and George Wendt, which I guess shouldn’t be surprising. Decent practical effects and some interesting designs make for an entertaining time, if not especially accomplished. **1/2

Unmasked Part 25 – What if Jason got sick of murdering amorous teens, fell in love, and settled down? Neat idea, and the opening of the film sells that premise well… but unfortunately it then descends into lots and lots of talking and whining before picking up again for the finale. The costume doesn’t have much going for it, though I guess there’s something parodic about the whole thing that glides us past the low budget. Some decent gags and a couple of laughs, but not especially a classic or anything. **

The Wolf Man – The Universal Classic Monsters: Icons of Horror Collection, which features 4K remasters of four Universal Classics. The perfect excuse to revisit these. The Wolf Man looks fantastic, really cleaned up since the last time I saw it and the story remains as effective as ever. There’s an almost unintentional quaintness to the sincerity with which it goes about explaining werewolf lore. While the concept has been around for thousands of years, much of what we think of as modern werewolf lore is established (or at least popularized) by this movie. And it helps that Lon Chaney Jr. gives a pitch perfect performance. ***

Halloween Kills – I was mixed on the 2018 Halloween reboot, but I found this sequel downright disappointing. Some stuff still works. I like that Michael Myers is portrayed as a force of nature, like a shark, always moving, always killing, always crafting ironic, elaborate dioramas out of his victims’ bodies. A scene where Myers keeps stabbing a guy with different knives walks this perfect line between funny and creepy and is just perfectly executed. There are some other bits and pieces of business sprinkled throughout. David Gordon Green is clearly a talented dude and the film looks great and has some interesting ideas. That said, it’s disappointing that Jamie Lee Curtis spends most of the movie laying in a hospital bed (and, like, not in the good way of Halloween II).

Halloween Kills

Then you get to the the whole out of control mob situation. It’s a ripe target for our times and it kinda makes sense even in context of the film, but it has really glaring execution issues. First, it makes me not like anyone (there are times when its ok to cheer for the slasher villain, but not to this extent). I know the movie isn’t trying to endorse mob justice, but the whole thing just comes off as obnoxious posturing. The over-reliance on legacy characters riling up the mob also feels kinda tacky and desperate. Second, multiple characters, including Laurie Strode, attempt to monologue away responsibility for the mob, attributing it wholly to Myers, as if it was his six-dimensional-chess plan or somesuch. It’s one thing to reflect on what we’ve become in the face of Myers, it’s another to say “look what he made us do”. The mob killed an innocent man and even when they eventually caught up with Myers, they did an awful job, hurt themselves, and didn’t know what they were dealing with. It’s sort of reactionary, but again, there’s a monologue that tries to reckon with this and it’s absolutely awful. “Michael Myers is the anger that divides us” is an actual line, delivered with a straight face. Just dreadful stuff. There was precisely one character I liked in this movie, and she was killed in a weirdly unceremonious kinda way (I’m still not sure how it happened).

I guess you could write some of this off as middle-of-a-trilogy struggles, but being self-aware that your movie is disappointing doesn’t inoculate you from the disappointment. I’m not especially excited to see where this is all heading. **

House II: The Second Story – I can’t decide if the punny subtitle is the best or the worst. Anyway, this is one of those weird 80s phenomena where a movie is successful so they greenlight a sequel, but because the first movie resolved all its issues, they end up just finding another haunted house script that’s completely disconnected and making that instead. They also reprise the whole sitcom casting strategy, this time with different folks. Don’t get me wrong: I actually tend to like this approach (Prom Night II, anyone?) That said, this is a weird movie in that it’s barely horror. It leans way more heavily into a sorta adventure story. Yeah, there’s ghosts and dead people and monsters, but none of it is played for scares. It’s entertaining enough, I guess. **

Vampire Academy – Look, this is not a good movie, but there’s the bones of something decent in here somewhere. It tends to collapse under the clumsy exposition needed to establish the worldbuilding so common in the boom of self-serious YA adaptations that was occurring at the time. However, some of the bitchy teen high school DNA from the writer and the director (who worked on stuff like Mean Girls and Heathers) sneaks in, and perhaps some polishing or budgetary help would have made this work a little better. Zoey Deutch is great, and the rest of the cast is trying, at least. Not really something I’d recommend, but I seem to have a thing for really bad modern takes on vampires. **

A Bay of Blood – Revisiting Mario Bava’s lakeside proto-slasher, I can’t help but continue laughing at how the Friday the 13th movies cribbed from the kills here (something I’ve always thought funny about this) and the absolutely bonkers ending always gets me, even though I know its coming. Worth watching for fans of Italian schlock. ***

In Search of Darkness: Part II – Basically more of the same, this sequel just goes deeper and more obscure, which is actually pretty cool. We’ve all seen the talking heads discuss the classics of 80s horror, what about obscure schlock like Nightmare? They try to break up the checklist format with quick dives into directors or actors or makeup artists, but it’s ultimately just a list of movies with talking heads commenting on them. Which is fine for what it is, and it’s actually pretty cool to dip in to this a little at a time (which you kinda have to do, given the 4.5 hour runtime). It’s solid if you like that sort of thing, which I guess I do because I watched the whole damn thing… **1/2

Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown – Perfectly cromulent documentary about the life and work of H.P. Lovecraft. A little weird that so much of the movie is focused on filmmakers inspired by Lovecraft, but there’s actually pretty decent access here, and they do spread it around to writers as well. Folks like John Carpenter, Guillermo Del Toro, and Neil Gaiman all show up, which is better than you expect from something like this. **1/2

Dracula & Drácula – More from the 4K boxed set mentioned above, both versions of Dracula have been upgraded to 4K. A lot has been made out of the contrarian opinion that the Spanish language version of this movie is the superior effort, but I don’t think I fall into that camp. Sure, there’s a few camera moves and shots that are better, but not as many as I was expecting given the hype. Lupita Tovar as Eva/Mina is an improvement over Helen Chandler from the English language version. She’s more energetic and seductive (this is emphasized even in the costumes, which are more risque), which fits better than the more chaste portrayal in the other version.

However, I still find that Tod Browning’s use of atmosphere and negative space are more effective and subtle than most of the Spanish version adherents give it credit for. Also, it’s hard to beat Bela Lugosi’s otherworldly affect and piercing stares. I was also struck by how much I liked Dwight Frye’s over-the-top Renfield portrayal. Anyway, the 4K looks great, and I think the English language Dracula is probably the better of the two (also significantly shorter), but it’s nice that the Spanish language version survived and got the 4K treatment too. *** and **1/2

Lake Bodom – Stylish slasher pastiche from Finland, this turns into something different as it goes, but it makes up for the lack of slasher gore with good cinematography and tons of relatively clever twists and turns and revelations about this or that. More like All the Boys Love Mandy Lane than a typical slasher, but that’s probably a good thing. **1/2

Ghostbusters – Why do people keep trying to capture lighting in a bottle when the original did it so well? I mean, I know why, but they keep failing and boy does the new one coming (a month after Halloween for some reason) look awful. The original remains classic horror comedy comfort food. ****

Spiral – From the Book of Saw, which I guess is a thing now. This Chris Rock fronted installment comports itself well enough and compares favorably to the middle tier of the series. Not as bad as the reviews would have you believe, but it’s not really the shot in the arm it promised for the franchise either. **

Sisters – I really enjoy early De Palma, even though he’s mostly just aping Hitchcock. I mean, if you’re going to copy something, copy from the best. I first watched this almost a decade ago, and it holds up reasonably well. The split screen approach utilized a few times is really quite well done, and the Rear Window vibes are real. It kinda loses its way towards the ending, but it all works well. ***

Frankenstein – Always my favorite of the Universal Monster movies, this holds up. Maybe a little more talky than I remembered, but incredible atmosphere and a great performance from Karloff as the monster. Looks great in 4K too. ****

Halloween – I’m cheating a bit because I’m going to watch this tonight, but you don’t need me to say anything about this all time classic. There’s a reason it took top honors in the 1978 Project, and I expect this rewatch to put Halloween Kills in stark relief. ****

I’ll probably also watch Trick ‘r Treat, as I do most years, but again, you don’t need me to say more about that (it’s worth a look, though it’s perhaps not as universally beloved as the original Halloween).

It’s been a fun six weeks, and don’t worry, even though the grand holiday is passing, I’ll have one more post next week covering the Season’s Readings. Otherwise, I’ve already got some ideas for weekly themes for next year, just so you know where my head’s at. Happy Halloween folks!

Late Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors, but while I’ll often tackle a film or two of his during the Six Weeks of Halloween, they don’t always come with Halloween vibes. The master of suspense is certainly capable of crafting amazing thrillers, and in some cases they are very influential in horror (we’re going to rewatch one of those this weekend), but sometimes you just end up with really tense thrillers.

We’ve got a pretty good mixture of elements with this selection from later in Hitch’s career, and it certainly makes for a, er, contrast to last week’s celebration of gutter trash (*ahem*). It’s also fascinating to see the texture and depth of the visuals that Hitchcock and his cinematographers achieved in contrast to the flat digital affect of the Netflix house style. As such, even though two of these are perhaps not traditional Halloween watches, I really quite enjoyed them:

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 6 – Late Hitchcock

Psycho – Look, there’s not much to say about this that hasn’t been said already by people much smarter than I, but I’m going to try. Let’s just say that if you’re reading this and you haven’t seen it, you should get thee a copy of the new 4K release and watch it, post haste!

It might seem obvious to say that the 4K restoration is the best Psycho has ever looked (on home video, at least), but Psycho wasn’t meant to be a glossy, elegant affair. It was shot on a very low budget and Hitchcock meant for the film to appear a bit grimy, as befits the story being told. The 4K release preserves that dingy feel, maintaining film grain while increasing clarity. My first viewing of Psycho was on a pan-and-scan VHS… we’ve come a long way since then.


There’s also an “uncut” version of the film that supposedly represents what Hitchcock originally intended, but don’t worry (or get too excited, depending on your feelings on this sort of thing), the new footage only represents about a minute of screentime. There’s a shot of Marion starting to remove her bra, more focus on Norman’s bloody hands while cleaning up the murder, and a few more knife jabs at the end of the Arbogast murder represent the biggest additions. 

The movie itself remains a classic and perhaps due to its influence, it still feels modern. Indeed, its more transgressive qualities remain fully intact, even as the culture has shifted around it in the intervening decades. For instance, the sequences where Marion keeps seeing the police officer are probably more impactful today than they were at the time. Just visually, the simple choice to have him wearing sunglasses is almost comically effective, and the way Hitchcock deploys closeups of both Marion and the cop ratchet tension up. The sexy stuff is incredibly tame by today’s standards, but it still feels a little risque, especially when you consider the ending.


I don’t normally rewatch movies for these weekly theme posts (which is why a lot of these posts feature obscure or forgotten works), but I figured this was a worthy exception to that rule. It’s the most “horror” centric film Hitchcock ever made and it’s a measure of the shadow this film casts that Hitch is seen as a horror director when this is really more of an exception in his filmography… Gets better every time I watch it. ****

Marnie – Meet Marnie! Played by Tippi Hedron, she’s a kleptomaniac whose latest boss, played by Sean Connery, is on to her game. How will Marnie deal with his blackmail games? Hitchcock often plays with certain recurrent themes in his work, and there are some who view this sort of personal indulgence as the height of his career. This sort of praise is most evident with respect to the more famous Vertigo, but Marnie hits many of the same notes. Perhaps because it’s a bit more complicated (read: problematic) on the psychosexual front, it hasn’t garnered more of a following.


I’m reminded of a Hitchock ripoff we watched earlier in the 6WH, Trauma. A sorta female-centric retread of Psycho, that movie also recalls Marnie. The character of Marnie is not a murderer, to be sure, but her criminal mind is the result of deep-seated trauma. The film does represent an excellent character study of Marnie though, and Tippi Hedron gives a fantastic performance. Unfortunately, Hitch has a bit of a problem, as represented by Sean Connery’s character. As a sorta psychology dilettante, his efforts to “cure” Marnie of her trauma are undercut by his methods, which include blackmail and even rape. There’s something interesting there worth exploring, but Hitch ends up leaving it hanging like a bad curveball, perhaps expecting the character to get away with it because of Connery’s star power and charisma.

So maybe he bit off more than he could chew, but Hitch is still operating at the height of his craft here. Lots of visual flourishes and motifs are spread throughout the film, and there are several memorable shots and sequences. The only thing resembling traditional horror/suspense flare is the robbery sequence, which is not split-screen but almost framed as such, and Hitch wrings every drop of suspense he can out of it. Textbook stuff, so much so that it might seem cliched at this point, but it’s still a joy to watch the master at work.

There’s a crane shot moving from the second floor down to the first that recalls a similar movement from Notorious, this time leading into a reveal of someone from Marnie’s past that could cause problems (it’s hard to call this a setpiece, but Hitch draws the tension out here as well). The rape sequence is surprisingly restrained, and like Psycho‘s shower scene, almost more disturbing because you don’t really see anything. We just see Marnie’s glassy eyes as the camera dollys and tilts towards the bed. Distressingly effective, even if it’s the most troubling scene of the movie. Finally, there’s a fox hunt scene where Marnie has a horseback riding accident that is just masterfully captured. There’s one aerial shot that almost makes me wish Hitch would have made a classic Hollywood style western.

So it might not quite be the incisive exploration of trauma that was intended, as there are some serious flaws, but I can’t help but appreciate the filmmaking arsenal that Hitch deploys. It almost makes up for the story’s deficiencies. At 131 minutes, it’s a tad long, but I think justified. I can’t help but think that this sort of impeccably crafted dramatic thriller is rarely made anymore, which is also a point in its favor. Perhaps not top tier Hitchcock, but that’s a high bar to clear. ***

Family Plot – Hitchcock’s final film might not light the screen on fire and given where cinema was in 1976, it doesn’t quite stack up, but as a sorta throwback thriller it works better than you might think. And whatever you may think of the film, ending legendary career with a literal wink at the camera is absolutely perfect.

Family Plot

The story concerns a psychic tasked by one of her wealthy clients to find a missing heir. As it turns out, the heir is a cartoonishly evil dude. The whole thing plays out like a subversion, almost a parody, of Hitchcock’s favored tropes. Sometimes this works (that ending wink, again) and sometimes it’s a bit odd (the sequence where a car with malfunctioning breaks careens down a mountain grates a bit). It sometimes approaches (but never fully commits to) farce, incorporating a knowing affect throughout. Still, there’s lots of tightly plotted twists and turns, with a central irony to the mystery that is almost textbook Hitchcock. There’s some great private detective procedural bits and the ending works pretty well.

Ultimately, there’s no way to end a career like Hitchcock’s without generating some sort of disappointment. This isn’t one of his best movies, but it’s certainly not a dud and it might even be an appropriate swansong. **1/2

Hard to believe we’re in the last week already. Stay tuned for the traditional Speed Round of movies I watched but haven’t covered in these weekly theme posts. That should go up on the big day next week.

Fellow Travelers in the Halloween Ways

It seems I’m not the only practitioner in the Halloween ways. Blogs have fallen on hard times these days, but lots of folks perk up for the spooky season. Maybe not for six weeks (like a few of us), but still, it’s fun to see what other people are doing to celebrate the Halloween season. Some of them don’t even *gasp* watch horror movies! Will wonders never cease. You might recognize a few of these, but I also tried to sprinkle in some new-to-me links, so let’s get to it.

Old Hands

Film Thoughts – Zack has long been a kindred spirit and fellow practitioner of the Six Weeks of Halloween. As per usual, the pace and scope of both what he’s watching and what he’s writing about far outstrips my output. Highlights include rewatches of the Friday the 13th series and much, much more.

Cinema Crazed – A new addition last year, I’ve enjoyed following along this year as well. Highlights include his Ranking of Michael Myers masks and a nice review of the new Alone in the Dark Blu-Ray.

Horror Movie a Day – He hasn’t posted every day for a while now, but Brian Collins’ blog remains an invaluable resource for those looking to dive deep into the genre, and I frequently find myself digging through the archives to see what he thought of something. His book is also quite helpful when it comes to weekly themes or more obscure films to seek out.

New Hands

Silent Wierdness – Yes, it’s spelled incorrectly on purpose. This is a blog that focuses on Silent Horror films, and thus I might be circling back there when looking for ideas next year. Silent Horror isn’t a weekly theme here every year, but it probably should be…

Hellowe’en Horror -Well curated collection of images, posters, screenshots, and gifs from various horror flicks.

Severed Hands

Wonderful Wonderblog – Spreading the love beyond just movies and into various spooky versions of stuff like food and merchandise and whatnot.

2021 Halloween Mix – 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 a nice playlist of Halloween themed music (and a long archive of similar lists).

Countdown to Halloween – If you’re still craving more brains blogs, this one has a long list of folks participating in some form of Halloween marathon…

So there you have it, I’m not the only weirdo doing stuff like this. Hard to believe we’re well into the homestretch of the Six Weeks of Halloween. Stay tuned for some Late Hitchcock on Sunday and the usual Speed Round on the big day itself…

The Toxic Avenger

Troma Entertainment is an infamous independent film production and distribution company that generally focuses on a particular brand of crude, low-budget horror and comedy fare. The Toxic Avenger was their biggest success and it’s known as the film that “built the house of Troma.” As such, it was followed by several sequels and Toxie even became something of a mascot for the company.

Back in the 1990s, pay cable channels like Cinemax and HBO used to do more movie curation than they do today. Much like we have weekly themes for The Six Weeks of Halloween, they’d do weekly or monthly themes on various aspects of film. Sometimes, this would focus on a specific director or actor, but one I distinctly remember was Troma. That was my first exposure to the low-budget gutter trash that represents their house style. But it’s been thirty years. Would this sort of crude, juvenile schlock hold up now that I’m not twelve anymore?

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 5 – The Toxic Avenger

The Toxic Avenger – Clumsy mop boy Melvin falls prey to health club bullies who trick him into a vat of toxic waste. This has the effect of turning him into a superhero out to stop evildoers. As a spin on the typical wronged nerd gets revenge trope (think Terror Train or Slaughter High), it works surprisingly well.

One of the books I’ve been reading during the 6WH is Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, in which he expounds at length on what makes horror tick. One comment he made regarding the role of crossing into taboo subjects crystalized what makes The Toxic Avenger work so well. He says “stepping over the borderline into taboo country is as often apt to cause wild laughter as it is horror,” and that’s precisely the line that writer and director (and founder of Troma) Lloyd Kaufman walks throughout this movie.

There’s a lot of gross stuff going on in this movie. It’s full of inappropriate one-liners, slimy gore, punks running down kids on the road for points, gloopy toxic waste, street punk brawls, a blind woman has sex with Toxie, car explosions, boobs, the list goes on. And Kaufman manages to harness all that trash into comedy gold. What should be revolting ends up feeling funny, perhaps because there’s no mean spirit behind the inappropriate stuff. Of course, not everyone will see it that way, and I can’t really blame them. It’s a delicate balancing act they’re managing, and my tolerance for such nonsense is probably far too high.

The Toxic Avenger

That said, while we cheer Toxie on when he takes revenge of the bullies (the movie goes to great lengths to establish this group as true, irredeemable scum), the ending isn’t quite as effective because the narrative shifts to a more generalized fight against the corrupt local politician and his evil cronies. It works fine, but it’s reaching to make more of a statement that’s hard to take seriously given, you know, the absurd filth this movie is peddling. It’s a minor complaint here, but this will come up again and again as the series progresses.

Troma has never really been my thing, but I really enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. It’s clearly gutter trash, but it’s got a sorta low-budget charm that’s hard to define and quite frankly, I’ve spent far too much time trying to justify it. I’ll fully admit that I haven’t seen a huge portion of Troma’s catalog, but this is clearly my favorite, and one of the best bad movies out there. ***

The Toxic Avenger Part II – Alas, the symphony of chintzy taboo comedy the first film managed falls off a cliff in the second installment of the series. I usually try for a quick plot summary, but this is little more than a series of disjointed, barely connected sequences in which Toxie fights nameless throngs of bad guys.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the grungy low-fi appeal shines through at moments. The fights manage all manner of creative schlock, and there are some A+ bits scattered throughout. For instance, at once point a monologuing villain quotes Shakespeare to an old lady, who responds “Fuck you!” and attributes it to David Mamet. Another small one: a larval Michael Jai White playing one of the villain’s goons beats a homeless woman with a baguette. Toxie is still in love with a blind woman, but it’s a different one from the first movie and played by a different actress, who really goes for it. She’s not given a ton to do, but she plays the part to a tee (she’s played by Phoebe Legere, who is apparently a Juilliard trained musician and quite successful on that front.)

The Toxic Avenger Part II

I suppose this could have worked, but it’s too disconnected and weightless, and far, far too long. This is a common complaint with the standard 103 minute runtime, but for whatever reason, the version I rented was 109 minutes long, which makes a lot of these bits even more interminable. One of the reasons the first movie worked was that it clocked in at a lean 82 minutes. This just keeps droning on and on, and there’s this whole detour through Japan that just feels tacked on for no real reason (though I do like that he windsurfs from New Jersey to Japan somehow). Then there’s this dark rider villain meant to be kinda like the final boss battle of the movie, but he just shows up at the end without any idea who he is or what he’s doing.

The movie is supposedly organized around an evil corporation trying to retake Tromaville, and thus the whole thing is meant to be an incisive commentary on capitalism. As with the first film, this sort of explicit statement doesn’t quite jibe with the juvenile tone of the piece. It’s just hard to take anything about this movie seriously, which probably implies that it’s funnier than it actually is. For whatever reason, this one didn’t work for me, and it’s difficult to articulate why. Many of the ways I’d describe this movie sound the same as the first movie, yet everything just falls flat here. *

The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie – Filmed at the same time as Part II, apparently there was originally a 4 hour movie that got split into these two sequels. While not exactly a return to form, this one does represent a slight improvement over the excesses of Part II.

In part, this is due to a somewhat more cohesive, if still quite absurd, plot. Toxie wants to help his blind girlfriend regain her sight, but the surgery is so expensive that he has to go to work for the evil corporation. As blunt commentary on the evils of capitalism, it still rings a bit hollow, but the exploration of selling out and heroes becoming easily corrupted… well, it’s still not great, but there’s something there I guess.

The practical effects work, prosthetics, and gore in both of these sequels are great for sure, and there are some creative fight sequences throughout. Like Part II his movie is far too long, but there is a sequence where the CEO of the corporation literally turns into the devil and drives a school bus full of children through the suburbs, smashing everything in sight, so there’s that.

The Toxic Avenger III

I liked it more than Part II, but that’s not saying much. I dunno, maybe I can only take so much Troma schlock at once. **

Apparently Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV is the best entry since the original, but I didn’t figure that out until just now, writing this post. I’m sure I’ll get to it eventually. Hard to believe we’re already 5 weeks into the 6 Weeks of Halloween; stay tuned for next week, when we’ll cover some late Hitchcock (and maybe a rewatch of one of his classics). It should be, um, more respectable than this week.

Never Hike Alone

After the Friday the 13th reboot in 2009, the franchise entered a phase of legal squabbles that continue to this day. Since new entries in the series are nowhere in sight, some fans took up the machete and made a few chapters of their own. The concept of “fan films” don’t exactly have a great reputation, but these examples seem to be more professionally produced than most. While both are shorter than feature-length, they do make an interesting addition to the series, if not particularly necessary. But for die hard fans of the series, they’re probably worth checking out…

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 4.5 – Never Hike Alone Fan Films

Never Hike Alone (YouTube)- A guy goes hiking alone, even though the title of the movie says never to do so. Anyway, he stumbles on the old Crystal Lake campground and naturally runs afoul of Jason Vorhees. It looks pretty good for a fan film, with some nice overhead shots (presumably from drones) and some good wooded landscapes.

Writer and director Vincente DiSanti makes some interesting choices here. One is that there’s basically just one protagonist for the majority of the runtime. This keep things economical and straightforward, but since he has no one to talk to, they have to give him some sort of expository device instead. He’s basically making a sorta YouTube diary of his long hike (I think he mentions it’s something like 46 miles), complete with sponsors and botched ad reads. It’s easy to see why this choice was made, but it does feel a bit contrived and while the guy’s fine, he’s not as charismatic as some of the final girls from the series.

Never Hike Alone

You get most of what you’d expect out of a typical entry in the series. Some POV shots, some jump scares, some Jason teleportation action, a quick shot of Jason sans mask, and so on. It’s not doing anything we haven’t seen before, but that’s kinda the point.

There is some tension build up here and there, and DiSanti makes extensive use of the Ki Ki Ki, Ma Ma Ma soundtrack (something that was inexplicably missing from the 2009 entry), but this isn’t going to hold a candle to the greats. Of which, I have to say, most F13 films are not. I love them to death, but they’re not fine cinema. This is perhaps a bit of a step down from even that bar, but not as big as you’d expect. Some other characters show up towards the end and there’s a nice cameo to cap things off (I won’t spoil who it is, but it’s not just the character name, they got the actual actor to reprise the role.) Probably only worth it for F13 obsessives, but it’s better than I thought it would be…

Never Hike in the Snow (YouTube)- There’ve been rumors for years (probably over a decade at this point) that the next official Friday the 13th movie would have a snowbound setting, and it’s always seemed like a neat idea. Snow makes for great contrasts and cold weather is sorta isolating on its own. Naturally, the second fan film in the series tries to take advantage of this, perhaps giving us a sneak peak at what we can expect.

Never Hike in the Snow

Clocking in at just 31 minutes, this doesn’t feel as complete as the first film, but it does amp up the cast and the kills and so on, the way a sequel should. As with the first film, we start the film with a person who chose to do what the title told them not to being chased by Jason, who toys with him a bit before dispatching him in gruesome fashion. It’s not Savini-level gore, but it’s fine (and it’s practical, which is good). Then the police show up and the older of them is basically trying to cover up the murder. The cameo from the first film shows up again to stir things up, and the younger cop takes it upon himself to investigate further.

We get some more Jason lore (his mom shows up) and a couple of good sequences, but this ultimately feels less cohesive and more just an excuse to have Jason walking around in the snow. Which is cool and all, but it just sorta ends. I believe they’re making more entries in the series, so maybe in the end, it’ll all fit together better. Again, probably only worth it for F13 completists, of which I guess I’m one. I’ll totally watch more of these though, especially if the the lawsuits continue…

Stay tuned, we return to the world of extra-schlocky horror this weekend…

Fear Street

Based on the series of books by R.L. Stine, Fear Street is a trilogy set in three distinct time periods. As near as I can tell, these movies are not specific adaptations of particular books in Stine’s long-running series, but they do keep the pattern of generally focusing on older teens and thus more gruesome stories than Stine’s more famous Goosebumps series. Like our last 6WH entry on television series, this is a trilogy that seemingly blurs the line between mediums. Is it three movies, or one 4-6 episode series (depending on how you break things up)? Does it matter? Let’s take a closer look:

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 4 – Fear Street

Fear Street: 1994 – A killer shows up in a town famous for killers showing up, supposedly due to the curse of local witch Sarah Fier. It’s like finding a dusty box filled with old Tor horror paperbacks, 90s pop music CD collections, some Stephen King, and VHS copies of Scream and Blair Witch. This sort of nostalgic kitsch might not appeal to everyone, but while its influences are clear, it remixes them with enough vigor to keep things interesting.

Fear Street: 1994

There are some well constructed twists and turns and the actions our heroes take are generally logical. There was only one I’m going to walk off alone now even though there’s a killer out there moment, and even that works out well enough. The way they figure out how the curse is working and leverage that to their advantage is clever, as is the ultimate (er, penultimate, I guess) conclusion.

Writer and director Leigh Janiak made the whole trilogy and she ensured that it was thematically of the moment. You can read a lot into the movie, but it isn’t super preachy about it (they lean on some things heavily at times, but it’s not pedantic about it). Our heroes are doomed outsiders, there’s the blessed rich town next to the cursed poor town, a healthy distrust of authority, and the old standby of cyclical violence that pervades the entire series.

While it’s certainly competently made, it does look a little flat. Call it the Netflix programmer house style. I’m not a photography expert or anything, but something about this just lacks distinction. They try to make up for it by darkening everything (a technique that gets progressively worse throughout the series – it’s not that bad here), but that just makes some scenes hard to see. Also, while I can appreciate the soundtrack’s nostalgic appeal (it’s the soundtrack to my teen years, so it was a bit of a trip), the needle drops are excessive. Just a very high density of needle drops, sometimes one leading right into another without any break. It’s a bit of a crutch and can get distracting at times.

So I have some complaints, but it’s ultimately a good time and I really enjoyed it. While it has that thing where movies can’t just end anymore, I knew that going in and as hinted at above, this really does feel like it’s straddling that line between movie and tv show. What I did know was that I did want to watch the next movie, which is not always the case when a movie ends with a blatant setup for the next movie. ***

Fear Street: 1978 – This prequel is framed by segments still set in 1994 where a character recounts her tragic involvement in the 1978 Camp Nightwing massacre. It’s one of those killers, inspired by witchery, that the town is famous for, and we actually saw him in the first film… which represents the real problem here.

Fear Street: 1978

It’s the typical prequel problem: how do you tell a story set in the past without repeating yourself or completely telegraphing the ending because you know where certain characters will be in the original/sequel/whatever. There are ways to do it, but this movie can’t quite manage it. You start off knowing that two figures who are consistently put in danger throughout the movie are going to survive (one of them is telling us the story in the first place). And you know that one character you care about is going to die going into it. It’s also the middle film of a trilogy, which has its own constraints.

Which is a shame, because as I’ve amply demonstrated during these Six Weeks of Halloween marathons, I genuinely enjoy a good slasher movie. This is ostensibly playing Friday the 13th to 1994’s Scream, but it winds up just feeling repetitive, right down to the overuse of needle drops. Again, it’s competently made but a little flat, and the technique of turning down the brightness gets more noticeable here. One thing I should mention that stuck out to me as a good thing is the production design, especially of the witchy stuff (but they also capture the camp vibe pretty well). There are a few chunks of witch lore that are revealed that are important to the overarching story, but that’s not quite enough to sustain the full runtime, which is a tad long for a slasher.

I’m coming down hard on this movie, but it’s not unwatchable or anything. It’s just repetitive and as a prequel, we already know a fair amount of this stuff. It’s repetitive, is what I’m saying. I had a fine time watching it, I guess, but have I mentioned that it’s repetitive? Right. **

Fear Street: 1666 – And now we flash back even further, to the origins of the witch Sarah Fier’s curse. Here we mix up subgenres a bit, heading more towards gothic witchcraft than self-aware slasher. It’s a classic tale of blights followed by a witch hunt pursued with righteous fervor by a mob of townfolk, literally carrying pitchforks and torches. But all is not what it seems!

Fear Street: 1666

There’s a nice twist revealed in the first half of this movie, at which point the action returns to 1994, where our heroes must reckon with what they’ve learned. In a big showdown at the mall, they put the curse to rest. Spoilers, I guess, but that seems pretty obvious. The 1994: Part 2 section shows the characters relying on similar tactics to the first movie, though they put some clever twists on it. It reminds me of the way science fiction takes some seemingly innocuous rules, then spins out implication after implication that can be leveraged by clever characters to achieve various aims. Alas, these moments are mostly glossed over because the real action is happening elsewhere.

Both segments of this movie feature that same flat visual affect. The 1666 portion, in particular, is excessively dark. I guess the idea here is to rely on more natural lighting due to the setting. It’s a good instinct! Stanley Kubrick and John Alcott used that approach on Barry Lyndon, but they had these insane cameras and lenses that were great at photographing low light subjects. Alas, the 1666 segment just comes off muddy and overly dark (not sure if that’s a digital after-effect, or a limitation of the equipment used, or maybe both). Ok, it’s probably not fair to compare something like this to Kubrick, but still. The 1994 segment opts for a neon glow-in-the-dark aesthetic that’s certainly different. The production design remains great.

After the first two movies, the 1666 part of this movie is blessedly free from needle-drops, relying on a more traditional music score. Of course, the hits of the 90s return in full force in the second segment of the movie. I’m being hard on this aspect of the movies, but maybe I just got used to it by the end, because it wasn’t that awful this time around.

It’s a fine ending and continues the themes established throughout the series. It’s not as repetitive as the 1978 movie, and it ties together a lot of what we’ve seen, often subverting some aspects of the genre, which was a nice touch. It’s a fun series, and the stinger at the end of this indicates we’ll probably see more Fear Street stories on Netflix at some point. While I have my complaints, the movies were a lot of fun and I look forward to future entries in the series. **1/2

Overall an above average Netflix programmer, well worth checking out even though I whined about a bunch of stuff above. Not sure what we’ll do next, but stay tuned. Two more weeks of Halloween to go, followed by the big day and traditional Speed round…

The Six Weeks of Halloween Is Also Televised

The line between movies and television has been blurring more and more of late, but both Midnight Mass and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace are pretty clearly series and it’s always good to liven up The Six Weeks of Halloween with some television peppered in between all the movies.

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 3.5 – Televised Horror

Midnight Mass – A mysterious, charismatic new priest joins a fishing community on a remote island. With him comes a series of enigmatic omens, and an epidemic of monologues. Just craptons of monologues.

Midnight Mass

Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan has slowly and steadily built up a reputation for thoughtful work in the horror genre. What the normals tend to call “elevated horror” or somesuch (whatever that means). He has found something of a patron in Netflix, and the majority of his recent work has been released there – whether that be movies, like Hush and Gerald’s Game, or series, like The Haunting of Hill House. Midnight Mass might not be as much of a crowd-pleaser, but it will really fire up the A24 “elevated horror” crowd. The number of people falling all over themselves to say something like “this isn’t really horror” because it deals with complex themes in a mature manner is a little strange (these aren’t uncommon themes in the genre), but not that surprising.

Granted, it’s unusual to see this sort of thing stretched out to 7 hours, which lets some of these complicated topics breathe. It’s an ambitious blend of themes ranging from religion and fanaticism to addiction and recovery to grief and family and the intersection of all of the above. Despite what some Vox critics might think, it’s deeply critical of organized religion and in particular, Catholicism. At first glance this does come off as a bit cliched in that Hollywood has some pretty glaring political biases in these directions (thus you can predict certain things about the series with remarkable accuracy early on in the going), but it’s hard to argue with the idea of, for example, the Church hiding a murder in light of the sexual abuse scandals that have arisen in the past few decades (and in the case of the series, it’s a much, much smaller and isolated conspiracy.) Still, there are some folks who seem reasonable that go along with some pretty heinous things, almost immediately after being presented with them.

The tradeoff that comes with delving into these themes, as hinted at above, is the proliferation of monologues throughout the series. It’s very talky and every episode features multiple monologues that could grate on some folks, but for the most part they are effectively written and well performed. Again, sometimes biases are shown. For example, one conversation between priest and atheist basically comes down to the fact that there are no satisfactory Theodicies (i.e. attempts to reconcile the existence of evil with God). Maybe it’s just my 16 years of Catholic schooling, but this is not something Catholics are unfamiliar with, nor is it particularly comforting (another confusing argument leveled towards the priest).

Some of these monologues could potentially come off as smug and self-satisfied, but as an illustration of a more general point, they work and again, they’re well written and performed. Human beings tend to twist unexplained events to fit with their beliefs or their needs and desires, and this is well illustrated during the course of the series. As a result, the series does come off as very writerly, in that it’s clearly constructed to make various points. There’s a lot of interesting choices made about the setting and characters that fit together and are almost designed to reach certain conclusions.

There are some more traditional horror elements presented throughout the series. Slowly at first, but moreso as it goes on. This is a mild spoiler, but it does seem rather odd that no one seems to recognize traditional vampire tropes when they see them. Hmm, this guy just drank someone’s blood and when they put their hand in sunlight it bursts into flame… I guess he’s an angel? Beyond that, Flanagan’s usual visual flare and talent for suspense is in evidence, especially as the series progresses. There isn’t quite the density of scares that you see in Hill House, but it’s not unbalanced or anything.

Ultimately, Midnight Mass is a good series and I enjoyed it. I’m perhaps not quite as high on it as a large proportion of the audience, but I can certainly see this hitting some people much harder than it did me, and while I might be making various quibbles about cliches and whatnot, it’s definitely nice to see an ambitious long-form story that tackles these themes with this sort of poise.

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace – This 6 episode British series is a spot-on parody of the 70s and 80s boom of horror fiction and low budget television. It’s framed by the fictional character of Garth Marenghi (“Author. Dreamweaver. Visionary. Plus actor.”) looking back at a series he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in years ago. Each episode comes with an introduction from Marenghi, usually reading a ridiculous quote from one of his many novels (“I’m one of the few people you’ll meet who’s written more books than they’ve read.”), then the episode of the show he made is interspersed with commentary by him, and a couple other folks.

The cast of Darkplace

In short, it’s hilarious. It actually made quite a nice change of pace from the relatively heavy episodes of Midnight Mass. I can be a little hit-or-miss when it comes to British humor, but this is a definite hit for me. There’s a high joke density throughout, and while it is distinctly British, it also reminded me a bit of Zucker/Abrahams parodies like Airplane and Police Squad. The dialog comes fast and the jokes layered and complex, with supporting visual gags sprinkled throughout.

Garth Marenghi comments on other writers

I’ve heard about this for years and seen tidbits here and there, but it hasn’t really been widely available until recently (it’s on Amazon Prime now, if you’re curious). It’s short and sweet, and if you like this sort of humor and you’re a genre fan, you’ll probably get a kick out of it. Give it a shot!

I actually finished both of these series, so we’ll see if I get to some others. I’ve been keeping up with season 3 of What We Do in the Shadows (the whole series is highly recommended) and am trying to decide if I’ll tackle anything else during the 6 Weeks. Notable candidates include Wellington Paranormal and Dark. I suspect I’ll watch at least a little of both. Anyways, stay tuned, this weekend we visit Fear Street!

The Conjuring Cinematic Universe

Ever since The Avengers became a box-office sensation, other studios have been attempting to replicate Marvel’s success… with little to show for their efforts. Warner Bros has had mixed results with some individual movies, but their shared universe has turned out to be quite messy. Universal, recognizing that they already had a template for this sort of thing with their classic monster movies from the 1930s and 1940s, attempted their infamous Dark Universe, an endeavor that couldn’t survive the initial installment. But there has been one successful cinematic universe that quietly slipped through the cracks, and that’s the Conjuring Cinematic Universe.

James Wan’s The Conjuring kicked things off in 2013. A sequel followed, then a couple of spinoffs, more sequels, sequels to spinoffs, and soon we found that another cinematic universe was flourishing. While there are some worldbuilding aspects of the series that lend itself to the usual web of interconnectivity needed to drive such an enterprise, the Conjuring Cinematic Universe has perhaps succeeded because the connections are so light, the stories so episodic, that each entry generally works as a standalone.

For my part, while I really quite enjoyed the first Conjuring movie, I’ve basically failed to keep up with all the sequels and spinoffs. After well over a decade of this Six Weeks of Halloween marathoning of horror movies, it’s easy for me to go down obscure rabbit holes and explore movies no one has heard of before. Hell, last week’s theme was literally about “Forgotten” Giallo movies. I also watched a couple of Silent Movies last week, and we all know how popular those are these days. As such, it’s nice to get back to the mainstream and watch some movies that people might actually be familiar with.

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 3 – The Conjuring Cinematic Universe

The Conjuring 2 – The husband and wife paranormal investigatory team of Lorraine and Ed Warren check out the Amityville home, meet a deranged demon nun who gives Lorraine a vision of Ed’s death, then travel to London to help a single mother whose family is dealing with a malevolent haunting.

It’s not doing anything that hasn’t already been established in the first movie, but James Wan’s slick, formalist style suits the genre well. The way he cuts (i.e. not often), blocks and composes shots, and moves the camera is all expertly done. In particular, the way he’s able to hold on shots and keep them moving in single takes works to heighten tension. Quick cuts and shaky cam can be deployed well, but for a while, they were dominant in the genre and it’s nice to see someone who knows how to shoot a tense scene.

The Warrens in The Conjuring 2

I know a lot of people think the Warrens are real-life charlatans and hate that they get valorized in this way, but I love their cinematic counterparts. Obviously these are not true stories we’re watching, but the Warrens are a warm, comforting screen presence in an often cruel and nihilistic genre. It’s just really nice to see a married couple who aren’t incredibly dysfunctional; who don’t fall apart at the slightest provocation.

Clocking in at 134 minutes, the movie is far too long, and the Warrens don’t meet the family they’re helping until around the 1 hour mark (which is pretty late). For a large proportion of the running time, the ghost in question seems to be rather routine and underwhelming (I mean, sure, if I were part of the family I’d be pretty whelmed, but as a horror movie, it seems mundane). The scares are mostly formulaic and even though Wan is great in execution, it’s difficult to sustain that feeling over such a long runtime. I still really enjoyed this movie. While not as good as the original, it’s easy to see why this has grown into a franchise. **1/2

Annabelle: Creation – Years after the tragic death of their daughter, a doll maker and his wife take in a nun and several orphans. Naturally, one of the orphans decides to explore the “forbidden” room in the house, thereby unleashing Annabelle, the possessed doll.

Annabelle: Creation

This prequel to Annabelle seems to be the best regarded of the three movies focused on the titular doll, so I started here. It turns out that the ending would probably be more effective if you’ve seen the first movie, but otherwise this works well enough as a standalone. Like Wan’s entries in the Conjuring Cinematic Universe, this is slick and has some well executed sequences that are enhanced with camerawork, lighting, and other technical work. But there’s nothing new here, and while the filmmaking is solid, it’s not enough to overcome the derivative formula in play. You’ve got the titular creepy doll, a spooky well, a menacing scarecrow, and a CGI demon that the filmmakers somehow think is creepier than the genuinely unsettling doll.

It’s reasonably well executed, and director David F. Sandberg has chops, but the whole enterprise comes off as diminishing returns. Look, this is the way of genre films and especially genre sequels, so if you’re a fan of this sort of thing, you will get something out of it. I enjoyed it well enough, but here I am one day later and I’m having trouble remembering what went on in the movie. I’m being pretty hard on this, but your mileage may vary. **

The Curse of La Llorona – A single mother and social worker takes on a case of two missing children. When they turn up dead, she starts to fear for her own children.

Have I already mentioned diminishing returns? Because this feels a bit like a 5th generation analog copy of a decent enough movie (for all the youths reading this, analog copies lose quality with each copy). Director Michael Chaves is a step down from Wan and maybe even Sandberg, though he does competent work. There are some technically proficient shots in the film, but it all comes out to be profoundly mediocre. For a certain type of person, this sort of mediocrity is the worst thing a movie can be. It’s derivative and formulaic, nothing new at all, and it is surely sanitizing the cultural significance and historical relevance of La Llorona (I’m no expert, but I’m guessing we only see the faintest sketch of the legend in this movie). The script also requires some of the characters to act stupidly so that the rest of the movie can happen.

The Curse of La Llorona

That said, Linda Cardellini as the mom and Raymond Cruz as the scary (former) priest are doing good work and, for me at least, saved this movie from being a total waste. It’s definitely not something I’d recommend, but despite what the mediocrity haters think, I don’t mind a mediocre movie from time to time. **

That last movie was directed by Michael Chaves, who would go on to make The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, released earlier this year. I watched it when it came out, so I’m not doing a full review here, but I’d rank it below the other two Conjuring movies, but far above La Llorona.

Silent Horror

Another recurring topic during the Six Weeks of Halloween is Silent Horror films. Most of this sort of thing wouldn’t appeal to a wide audience these days, but for film dorks it can be illuminating to see where many horror tropes originated. Things we think of as modern filmmaking techniques can often be observed in films from a century ago. These two silent horror movies are not the most high-profile examples, but even they cast a long shadow, with influence stretching to the present day.

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 2.5 – Silent Horror

The Haunted House – Alright, maybe I’m stretching the notion of horror movie by including this Buster Keaton short that isn’t particularly scary. But it does have a haunted house! Sorta! Keaton plays a bank teller who gets mixed up with counterfeiters and bank robbers. Chased by the police, he seeks refuge in a house that is purported to be haunted. Hijinks ensue.

The staircase slide from The Haunted House with Buster Keaton

Certainly not top tier Keaton, but there’s some good bits of business going on here. They make extensive use of a staircase that converts to a slide; I can’t imagine this being the first time of such a thing was seen, but from what I can tell, Keaton’s usage set the template that most cinematic examples reference. At minimum he was the trope codifier, especially when it comes to the ending button, which employs the whole stairway to heaven transforming into a slide to hell gag.

Humor is not something that ages particularly well, but I chuckled at a few things here and there, and Keaton’s physical antics are always impressive (I mean, nothing as crazy as his classic train bit in The General, but I enjoyed the glue-related stuff in the bank and there’s a few sequences that prefigure the whole Benny Hill Yakety Sax hallway & doors routine). Slapstick isn’t exactly in fashion these days, but it still works well enough, I guess. Again, not especially horror, but there are some visuals that recall the spooky well enough (I liked the skeleton people). This won’t become an annual seasonal watch (even if it’s a short) and it wouldn’t be the first Keaton I’d recommend, but it purports itself well enough. **1/2

The Man Who Laughs – German director Paul Leni’s follow up to The Cat and the Canary came in the leadup to Universal’s string of classic monster movies, but is often lost in the shuffle. After watching it, I can see why. It’s not that the movie is bad, just that it isn’t really horror.

The King of England has a permanent smile carved upon a child’s face in retribution for the father’s treachery (for his part, the father spends some quality time in an Iron Maiden). In the film’s most horrific sequence, the abandoned child makes his way through a hellish winter landscape that is scattered with the hanging skeletons of gypsy traitors. There he rescues another child whose mother had frozen to death. The pair eventually make their way to a philosopher and travelling showman who takes them in. The child’s permanent rictus grin makes him a sideshow star as the Laughing Man, at which point he’s recognized as an heir to an important English family. Therein begins a story of court intrigue that threatens to interrupt the life the Laughing Man was trying to make for himself, including the love of a blind woman (who is thus not repulsed by his scars).

The Man Who Laughs

As horror, it’s a definite step backwards from The Cat and the Canary, but Leni’s talent shows through and the story is told well enough. There are some effective side characters, including an unusually influential court jester and a flighty Duchess who views the Laughing Man as a toy to be played with… but the really enduring aspect of this film is the striking appearance of The Laughing Man, played by Conrad Veidt. The unsettling makeup by Jack Pierce rivals other famous visages of the era, especially The Phantom of the Opera, and its clear and lasting influence can be seen in the form of Batman’s most famous foe, the Joker. Indeed, the resemblance is uncanny. Despite the rigidity of the deformed smile, Veidt’s performance is vibrant and expressive, suggesting a wide range of emotions using only his eyes. He’s playing a sad character and that’s quite apparent, even though he’s always got that smile plastered on his face.

Of course, the true hero of the film is Homo, the pet wolf who intervenes on multiple occasions to save our other, lesser protagonists. The name is apparently a play on the latin phrase “Homo homini lupus”, which roughly translates to “Man is wolf to man” (which, given the way people treat one another during the course of the movie, is appropriate.) For the record, Homo is played by a German Shephard credited as “Zimbo”, a worthy companion to Veidt.

It’s not my favorite of the silent films I’ve seen or anything, but it comports itself well and the recent restoration by Universal looks better than most films I’ve seen from the era (even the version on the Internet Archive is in HD). It’s got some of the standard flaws of the silent era. For example, it overemphasizes some of the exposition, which can get tiresome and affect the pacing (it’s a bit longer than it needs to be). There are lots of notes and papers that are shown in full, then each part of the paper is zoomed in upon, then the full shown again, which gets repetitive. Also, you can see that the actors are speaking but you can’t hear what they’re saying! And so on. But I was really taken in by the opening of the movie, which was atmospheric and expressionistic, but as the film proceeds it ventures more into melodrama and court intrigue, which is a bit disappointing given the opening (and its reputation as an early Universal horror flick). But perhaps if I weren’t so focused on genre at the moment, I’d have a better view of it… **1/2

Alright, that’s enough of the highfalutin fancy stuff for this 6WH. It’s time to go more mainstream. Stay tuned for three selections from the CCU on Sunday…