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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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:
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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 classicmonstermovies 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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…
A recurring topic during the Six Weeks of Halloween for the last decade or so has been Giallo films, so when I saw Vinegar Syndrome’s recent-ish release of Forgotten Gialli: Volume 1, I jumped on it. Besides the Gialloconnection, this also recalls the sequence of 6WH themes a few years ago that highlighted purveyors of physical media, particularly those who restored genre flicks like Criterion, Scream Factory, and Arrow.
Vinegar Syndrome, so named after the acidic smell of deteriorating film, is decidedly trashier than those other physical media companies. Founded in 2012 with the goal of restoring and distributing lost and otherwise unavailable X-Rated films from the 1960s through the 1980s, they quickly expanded to include less prurient but still quite tawdry fare in the realm of horror, action, cult, and exploitation genres. This set is clearly from the latter, expanded catalog.
Funnily enough, two of these movies were originally released in 1978 (er, depending on who you ask – IMDB and TMDB have one of those at 1975, but Vinegar Syndrome insists 1978), which dovetails nicely with one of last year’s weekly themes as well as the overarching 1978 Project. While I enjoyed these movies, well, let’s just say I’m not exactly moved to revisit my 1978 Movie Awards or Top 10… I guess that’s the danger of watching movies labeled as “Forgotten Gialli”, as they were probably “forgotten” for a reason. That said, these exist at an interesting boundary of Giallo territory and it’s worth noting that Vinegar Syndrome has done an excellent job restoring these films. Let’s take a closer look:
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 2 – Forgotten Gialli: Volume 1
Trauma – Meet Daniel. He’s a swanky pervert writer looking to find a quiet place to finish his book and stumbles on a remote bed and breakfast run by a strange, mercurial young woman and her ill, wheelchair-bound husband. And then a razor-wielding killer shows up to slash the other guests. It’s a sorta gender-reversed spin on Psycho. Spoilers, I guess, but this will be immediately obvious to almost anyone who has seen Psycho (and if you haven’t seen Psycho, you really should go out and watch that before an obscure derivative effort like this). Sure, there are a few half-hearted attempts at red herrings, but they are far too conspicuous to actually work.
Despite its derivative nature, it’s an enjoyable enough watch. It hits many countryside Giallo tropes well enough, and there’s plenty of interesting choices being made throughout. It’s certainly got its lurid moments and plenty of razor blade attacks and vivid red blood, so the pacing is solid (it clocks in at a svelt 87 minutes, which also helps). The music starts off great, with a Goblin-esque theme, but then devolves into bland and sometimes even awkward. Director León Klimovsky was apparently known as a hackish journeyman who shot fast and cheap. While he does manage some decent compositions and camera movements at times, it’s overall pretty straightforward affair that probably earns the “forgotten” moniker, as does our previous experience with Klimovsky – A Dragonfly for Each Corpse. That said, the whole gender reversal thing does represent a bit of a subversion of the genre. I mean, not enough to overcome its dedication to lewd moments and bloodshed, but there’s something there if you’re looking for it (in a having your cake and eating it too kinda way).
Apparently a debate surrounds whether this is a real Giallo movie, mostly because it was made in Spain. I suppose the case could be made that this isn’t a true blue (er, true yellow!) Giallo, but it fits stylistically and thematically, so I’m going to say that distinction doesn’t entirely matter. Then again, the title of the movie is awfully plain considering the genre’s hallmark of ornate, baroque titles… but that’s not really enough to disqualify the movie. The commentary track on the Vinegar Syndrome disc by Troy Howarth is informative and entertaining on its own, and he makes a pretty solid case against this being a Giallo, so your mileage may vary. I’m not going to call it a hidden gem or anything and it’s certainly not a movie I’d recommend if you’re just getting started with Gialli, but I had a decent enough time with it and it scratched that Giallo itch for sure. **1/2
The Killer Is One of 13 – A recent widow has invited a group of family friends (thirteen of them!) to her secluded country estate… because she suspects one of them is her husband’s murderer. Dun dun dunnnnn! Another Spanish Giallo, this one is more arguably skirting the genre’s hallmarks. It’s certainly got the traditionally baroque Giallo title, but there’s decidedly less in the way of sex and violence, though you get small doses of each (this has to do with Spain’s censorship laws at the time – laws that were loosened significantly by the time Trauma was made). Still, spoiler alert, but the killer doesn’t even show up until an hour into the 95 minute movie. And, um, they’re not one of the thirteen?
It’s ultimately more of an Agatha Christie style murder mystery than a Giallo, complete with quaint countryside setting, and dinners where all the suspects are gathered so the detective can reveal their embarrassing secrets that implicate them in a larger crime. It’s exposition heavy and very talky, but it works relatively well. I won’t claim that it’s as good as Christie’s large ensemble mysteries or even filmic imitations of same, like The Last of Sheila or more recently Knives Out, but it manages to differentiate a large cast of characters, and gives each of them something to hide and scheme about. The initial dinner sequence is well done and really sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Lots of crazy stuff is revealed and the camera expertly roams around the room as things come to light. Things slow down a bit in the second act, but ramp back up for the finale. Alas, it never quite reaches the heights of that first dinner sequence again…
It’s ultimately the best movie of the set, even if it’s the least like a Giallo. It’s got just enough of those elements to put it in the conversation, I guess, but I don’t know that it matters. I like this sort of mystery story and while this isn’t top tier, it’s interesting and entertaining enough. ***
The Police Are Blundering in the Dark – A series of murders involving models has the police blundering in the dark. When a reporter’s girlfriend (who he’s cheating on, by the way) turns up dead, he traces her movements back to a famous photographer’s home, where he discovers an odd collection of suspects. This is the most traditional Giallo of the three (and it’s Italian too), but also probably the worst of the three?
The first act is a bit sluggish and the second act somehow manages to get even more dull. The whole thing is saved by a rather odd third act, filled with weird music (a sorta disco inflected prog rock score) and the revelation that the photographer has invented a robot that can photograph people’s thoughts. Sure, why not!? Alas, I really couldn’t care less about any of the characters in the movie. It’s filled with the usual sex and violence, but none of it really gains traction because it doesn’t really matter. **
So yeah, they are definitely Forgotten Gialli for a reason, but there’s a lot of weird and interesting stuff to chew on, so it’s not a total wash. Stay tuned, because after two weeks of ridiculously obscure, and often not great, movies, I’m going mainstream for the next few weeks. Movies you’ve probably heard of! That were made within the last decade! Go figure!
I like to try and get a feel for what’s Now Playing in theaters at some point during the Six Weeks of Halloween, but that can be more difficult than it sounds. Last year was clearly a bit of a fluke, given the whole worldwide pandemic thing and most theaters not even being open for business and all. Even in a normal year, a lot of horror movies have rather odd release schedules. There often aren’t many that are released during Halloween season. Weirdly, many big horror movies come out on the big day itself. This must be a winning strategy since studios keep doing it, but this year is a little different. A bunch of horror movies are coming out in the leadup to Halloween. I figured I’d get an early jump on this with two recent releases: Malignant and Don’t Breathe 2 (and we’ll probably be able to do another later in the marathon, because there’s a few high profile flicks still to come):
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 1.5 – Now Playing
Malignant – A woman named Madison has endured mysterious tragedies in the past and is now having strange visions of murders and oh hell, this isn’t a movie that lends itself to a plot description. It starts out as a slick, Conjuring-like James Wan-directed haunted house movie, but the dialogue is oddly stilted and cheesy and it’s clear that there’s something simmering under the surface. Once that comes to the fore, things get bonkers quite quickly. There are twists and turns that aren’t so much surprising because you couldn’t figure them out ahead of time, but because you can’t believe a studio would allow a big release like this to hinge on such schlocky nonsense.
Don’t get me wrong, this is nonsense that I immediately fell in love with. It’s not exactly scary, per say, but I found myself laughing quite a lot, especially through the last half hour of the movie. Was that intentional? It’s certainly playing its premise straight. There’s no winking or fourth-wall-breaking or Scream-like self-reflexive parodic notes at all. But I can’t help but think that Wan knows what he’s doing here. That he wants you to laugh, not so much because it’s jokey, but because it’s just so absurd. I’m not sure it matters whether it was intentional or not, because I had an absolute blast watching the movie. Still it’s hard to believe that Wan starts Malignant with this shot of a hospital (yes, that’s a hospital, not Dracula’s castle) and doesn’t know how ridiculous that is:
Much has been made of this film’s reliance on Giallo tropes, but I have to say, I don’t really see it. Sure, there’s a killer who wears gloves and stabs people with an unconventional edged weapon and I guess the sort of weird twists that don’t entirely make sense could be part of that, but these are really just surface level comparisons. Tonally, it’s kinda reminiscent of early De Palma bombast (and there’s that one overhead shot that recalls De Palma’s visual flare, I guess), but even that doesn’t really fit. This is far too slick, nowhere near horny enough, and it almost feels more like an action movie at times. The scenes at the police station feel more like the Matrix (or maybe Upgrade) than a Giallo. Of course, none of this a bad thing. I love Giallos (stay tuned, we’re covering 3 obscure ones this weekend!), but not everything has to be a Giallo pastiche. And Malignant? I I have no idea what it is, and I like that about it.
I really wish that I jumped on this sooner and got to watch it with a large crowd. My showing wasn’t crowded, but I can imagine the sort of raucous energy of a large crowd, and it could be really fun. Or maybe it would be one of those uncomfortable situations where I’m the only one laughing in the theater (always worth it). Look, this clearly isn’t for everyone, but I really had a lot of fun with it and I suspect it will be the most fun I have all season. If you’re unsure and you have HBO Max, Malignant is definitely worth a flier. ***
Don’t Breathe 2 – Several years after the events of the first film, the Blind Man has taken in and raised a young girl orphaned from a deadly house fire. When a local gang of organ thieves attempt to kidnap the girl, they run into… more resistance than they expected.
This feels like one of those things that was maybe conceived as a standalone story, then sorta got crammed into the Don’t Breath mold because Hollywood can’t be bothered with non-sequels anymore. Even if it was originally planned as a sequel, it makes odd use of the Blind Man. First of all, we’ve all seen the first movie and we remember that damn Turkey Baster. He’s not the most sympathetic of characters to start off with, so some of the moments and revelations that are supposed to hit hard in this movie fall a bit flat because, yeah, come on, he’s the turkey baster guy. Second, the whole point of the first movie was that even though he’s blind, he’s got an advantage over intruders because he knows his home like the back of his hand and he can use his Navy SEAL skills to defend himself. This sequel nullifies that by setting the second half of the movie outside of his new home.
The first half of the film actually works reasonably well, and for a while, I almost thought they were going to pull this thing off. There’s some great cat and mouse stuff set in the house, and the addition of the little girl represents an added wrinkle in the formula that actually works well (you see, she’s been getting survival training from the Blind Man, so she’s not entirely defenseless). The second half goes a little off the rails. There are revelations and twists that are meant to turn your sympathies around, perhaps, but as mentioned above, we still remember the turkey baster. I’m sorry to keep bringing that up, but it’s the most bonkers part of the first movie and I don’t understand how anyone thought we could forget about that (or even excuse it, whatever). There’s probably a standalone version of this movie that works a little better here. He doesn’t even need to be a blind man (for the most part, his blindness plays no role in this movie whatsoever).
Look, there should be a market for Liam Neeson-style old-man-action flicks starring Stephen Lang, is what I’m saying here. I know he’s not a household name and so they have to rely on IP and sequelizing modestly successful genre flicks, but this movie could have been better if it wasn’t calling to mind the tighter, more stylish first film. This isn’t entirely without its charms, of course. The first half is fun and there are some story beats that work reasonably well. The Blind Man saves and befriends the dog that was sent to attack him earlier in the movie! Some action beats work reasonably well! The villains are kinda interesting; the one with the blond mullet is a real prick and it’s fun to hate him! It’s got a nice sleaze factor, I guess. It’s ridiculous enough that maybe I’m just putting too much thought into it – I had some fun watching it for sure. Nowhere near as much fun as Malignant though, and it could have been much better… **
Stay tuned, we’ve got some obscure Giallo movies coming this weekend and much more to come. Including, if all goes well, another Now Playing post later in the Six Weeks…
There’s a chill in the air, people are breaking out comfy sweaters and afghans, gourds are being mutilated and put on display along with all manner of decorative corpses, ornamental headstones covered with ironic puns, and picturesque cobwebs adorned with plastic mutant spiders. And naturally, the (pumpkin) spice must flow. These and other nominally ghastly signifiers can mean only one thing: it’s Halloween season! Given that we’re still dealing with a worldwide pandemic and drowning in ever-encroaching partisan politics, this might seem a tad frivolous, but it’s sometimes nice to submit to the vicarious (yet safe) thrills of horror movies.
Here at Kaedrin, we celebrate the season with a lavish spread of horror movies and literature for the six weeks leading up to Halloween. Why six weeks? Well, it used to be two weeks better than most people’s horror movie marathon (which was usually confined to October), but the starting line has been creeping backwards to the point where a lot of folks officially begin their observance of the season in early September. Heck, I’d already figured out a solid 4 weekly themes for this year’s marathon in March. Seasonal creep is real… and maybe a good thing?
It’s traditional to start the marathon with a theme that’s more classy and respectable. Things like silent movies, foreign films, well curated flicks, classic anthologies, and the like. Way back in 2013, we covered Kaiju movies, including the granddaddy of them all: Godzilla. The influence of the King of the Monsters was immediately apparent with the proliferation of other Kaiju and the various sequels and versus films that cropped up over the intervening decades… right up until massive-budget multi-national blockbusters like this year’s Godzilla vs. Kong. The popularity of Godzilla and friends had long and wide-reaching influence.
Among Japanese movie studios, Shochiku was mostly known for stately family dramas, like those of Yasujirō Ozu. In the early sixties, such movies were considered “old fashioned” compared to their competitors, who were more youth-oriented. Shochiku employed various strategies to combat this perception, one of which included a brief flirtation with batty horror flicks. These films were collected together in the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series, and that’s our first week of the 6WH. Alas, calling these movies “classy and respectable” might be a bit of a stretch. On the other hand, they’re utterly fascinating…
The X from Outer Space – Dopey tale of astronauts on a mission to Mars who encounter a UFO and bring a strange glowing spore back to earth. Naturally, the spore grows into a gigantic space chicken that rampages through Tokyo, all set to lounge music. Everything about this is so silly that it almost plays as a self-parody, but you have to admire the movie’s commitment to being the kookiest entry in a sub-genre known for being kooky.
The first half plays as a sorta mild space adventure, pulling from all the ridiculous 50s SF B-movie tropes. Is everyone wearing unitards? You bet. Does the ship encounter an asteroid storm? You know it. Is there a hull breach that sucks a crew member to the hole butt first? Of course there is! Is there a flying saucer that looks more like a floating apple pie than anything else? Yes, and it looks delicious. I know this sounds like great fun, but it does kinda wear out its welcome eventually, but then…
The kaiju shows up around the halfway point, and then things kick into high gear. Again, it looks pretty silly. It’s clearly a dude in a rubber lizard suit, but the head has a strange beak-like protrusion, giving the whole thing a chicken monster look. Naturally, the space chicken is all about consuming energy, especially nuclear energy (as befitting Japan’s unique relationship with nuclear technology, even though it’s hard to talk about such things with a movie this preposterous). Of course he’s able to shoot energy beams out of his mouth, and his rampage through the countryside and several cities (all very clearly models populated with toy vehicles) is the best part of the movie. While clearly a low budget affair, they really pour it on with these attacks. Lots of missiles, tanks, and airplanes try to fight back, and the space chicken fends them off admirably until the end.
As per usual for this type of movie, there are some human subplots – love triangles and the like – but they’re laughably outgunned by the monster rampage sequences. If you’re a Kaiju movie fan, this is probably much more your speed. It’s quite derivative of Godzilla and other Kaiju (not to mention some of the space rocket SF movies of the 50s), but if that’s your jam, you’ll like it. I have a slight appreciation for the sub-genre, but it’s not one of my favorites and while this movie has its charms and I enjoy its bananapants weirdness, it didn’t really do a whole lot for me overall. **
Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell – An airplane flying over Japan has just received word that there’s a bomb on the plane! In their covert search for the bomb, they inadvertently spook an assassin (he recently killed a visiting politician or somesuch), who then attempts to hijack the plane. Then, because this wasn’t enough, the plane is overflown by a glowing UFO, which takes out their engines and forces the pilots to do a crash landing. And… we’re just getting started here. Now the crash survivors now have to contend with alien blobs that turn people into space vampires by crawling into slits they carve in their victims’ foreheads.
Every bit as silly and hokey as The X from Outer Space, this one actually feels more successful and effective. There’s a bit more visual flare here, especially when it comes to the flying saucer, and the filmmakers make great use of the interior of the airplane, sometimes evoking claustrophobia or just hinting that something’s out there.
The characters are much better established here too. Sure, they’re still a clichéd bunch, but the notion of collecting varying character types and dumping them into a pressure cooker is a time honored tradition that is reasonably well executed here. You’ve got the aforementioned bomber and the assassin/hijacker, but also the corrupt politician and his crass arms-dealer crony, a psychologist who’s stirring up shit because he wants to see how people react in extreme situations (I kinda love that guy), an American war widow, and so on and so forth. It’s a good mixture that generates all manner of interactions.
It gets pretty silly at times, especially the dialogue. Perhaps its a lost in translation sorta thing, but monologues about UFOs and aliens are difficult to pull off and there are multiple here that don’t quite work. I was reminded of Boris Karloff’s string of mad scientist movies where he always monologues about the power of science to much, much greater effect – no one here can pull that sort of thing off. That said, this has the standard alien invasion tropes. Some kvetching about American misadventures in Vietnam and the bomb (fair enough), lots of criticism of politicians and war profiteering, and so on. All par for the course, but reasonably well done.
I’m not going to claim this is some sort of unheralded masterpiece or anything, but it was a great deal more enjoyable than the first film in the set, and it has some things going for it (beyond the absurd stuff). **1/2
The Living Skeleton – Pirates attack a ship for its valuable cargo and in the process, they murder a newlywed doctor and his wife. Three years later, the wife’s twin sister disappears when the ship (thought lost at sea) reappears and the pirates, each having invested their spoils and moved on, start dying in mysterious circumstances.
While the first two movies were inspired by nuclear age fears like giant monsters and UFOs, this one takes a decidedly more traditional path. It’s more reminiscent of Val Lewton’s RKO run than anything else, and thus it focuses more on grounded shadows than schlocky UFOs (also note the evocative, tawdry title that is only, like, tangentially relevant to what actually happens in the movie). It’s the only film shot in black and white, and perhaps as a consequence of that, it’s the best looking and most atmospheric of the bunch. It’s filled with moonlit foggy waters, thunderstorms, echoing footsteps, gothic imagery, ghostly visions, and a heaping helping of rubber bats. It’s got a boatload of well composed, meticulous compositions, but it still retains that low budget charm.
There’s plenty of twists and turns and sure, some of that does start to stretch plausibility, but I was much more willing to go with it in this case. While all the films in this set seem to be a bit derivative because Shochiku was chasing the competition, I can see this movie prefiguring future works too. I wouldn’t be surprised if Carpenter saw this before making The Fog, for instance. This is clearly the best movie in the set, and I don’t think that’s just because I tend to like this sorta story better than the others. ***
Genocide – An American plane goes down on an island populated by swarms of killer bugs. As the American military seeks to recover the Hydrogen bomb lost in the crash, scientists rush to discover why the bugs are rampaging in the first place.
Here we have another film that’s a stepping stone in a particular sub-genre. This is clearly following in the footsteps of the likes of Them! and Tarantula, but also prefigures the eco-thrillers of the 70s, like The Bees and The Swarm. There’s actually a ton of plot in this one, and the above description is only the setup. There’s so much going on here, and it’s all very nihilistic and hyper-critical of the era’s political establishment. The Americans, probably fairly, come in for the brunt of criticism, but you’ve also got eastern block spies, general Cold War paranoia, and even a Holocaust survivor mad scientist. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Japan’s own involvement in Word War II isn’t given much thought, which isn’t great).
It’s certainly a strangely potent brew of elements, but I don’t think it ever coalesces into anything coherent enough to be all that effective. It’s certainly got an angry energy to it that is never boring, but it just didn’t come together for me in the end, and was probably my least favorite of the four movies in this set. Or maybe I was just getting burned out on bonkers Japanese horror… **
So there you have it. I don’t know that any of these are stone cold classics, but I was surprised at how different each one was from each other, and while I didn’t love all of them, they were all at least interesting to watch. Stay tuned, we’ve got lots more to come, including Forgotten Gialli, Recent Releases, the Conjuring Cinematic Universe, and much, much moar! Also, if you’re looking for more Six Weeks of Halloween goodness, don’t forget to check in with Zack over at Film Thoughts. He tends to watch even more stuff than me, and updates almost daily…