31 Days of Horror: Film #30 MATANGO (AKA ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE)
As you may or may not know, I’m a big Godzilla fan and a fan of Japanese cinema in general. Matango is a cult-classic horror film from Japan, directed by Ishiro Honda, the man behind the original (and best) Godzilla film.
The film is a bit like Gilligan’s Island meets The Thing. It’s always been a personal favorite of mine. I wrote a full review for Matango over at City on Fire, a website specializing in Asian cinema. Read that review here.
31 Days of Horror: Film #29 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956)
Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers gets adapted to film every 10-20 years and has also served as the direct inspiration for many other books and films. The two most recent Body Snatcher films – 2007’s The Invasion and 93’s Body Snatchers – aren’t very good. The 2007 film is a studio screw-up (they took the film away from the director and had other people do major rewrites and reshoots. The director’s cut remains unavailable, I think) and while the 93 film has its genre charms, it seems to miss the point of what makes the story so relatable and frightening.
I think that the earlier Invasion of the Body Snatchers adaptations, the Don Siegel film from 1956 and the Philip Kaufman film from 1978, are some of the best sci-fi horror films ever made.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the story of a populace being taken over by unfeeling alien imposters – “pod people.” The pod people look, think, and sound just like us, but they don’t feel; they’re emotionless. They believe that they can create a better world by spreading the pod and changing us all to be like them.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers has often been called a thinly veiled allegory for the fear of communism. That really comes through in the 1956 version.
What makes the film frightening – and what the 93 adaptation missed – is the horror of watching something you’re familiar with turn into something cold and alien. In the 56 film it’s a small town, in the 78 film it’s San Francisco. (The 1993 Body Snatchers is set on a military base, which is cool, but not as easily relatable for most viewers, and as such it misses out on this twist in the story.)
This was my first time watching the 56 film in forever. It almost felt like watching it for the first time. It’s an excellent film; frightening, and ahead of its time. My favorite remains the 78 film, but there’s no real wrong choice between the two films. They’re both classics and deserve to be seen.
31 Days of Horror: Film #28 POLTERGEIST (2015)
The original Poltergeist is a great film. Scary, funny, and just plain cool. Though credited to director Tobe Hooper, most consider it a Steven Spielberg film, and it’s no secret that Spielberg directed at least some portion of the film (some say he directed the whole thing). Poltergeist is not one of my personal favorite horror movies of all time – though I totally understand if it makes your list – but if we were to limit that list to horror movies about ghosts and hauntings, then of course Poltergeist would have to rank pretty high.
The idea of remaking Poltergeist kept bouncing around for so long that you just knew that it was gonna happen one day, whether we wanted it or not (the same can be said about other future remakes like Escape from New York, Logan’s Run, Death Wish, and The Crow – they’re not going away).
2015’s Poltergeist actually isn’t a bad film, despite what I’d heard. It’s well-made and the actors all do good work. The thing is, it can’t escape the shadow of the original film. In fact, the remake doesn’t even really try. If you’ve seen the original, you’ve seen this film – except this one has cell phones, HDTVs, and that drone thing from RadioShack. It’s clear that no one had a brand new vision for the story other than, “but imagine that scene with CGI!”
I’ll say this: if you haven’t seen the original film or if it’s been a really long time, you’ll probably enjoy the remake. It’s still a good story. They didn’t change anything, really. They just updated it.
I mostly enjoyed the film. I don’t think we needed it, but since it’s here, at least it’s not a total loss. It lacks the heart and soul of the original but it keeps the scares and plot. Think of it like this: the original Poltergeist is totally Spielberg. I mean, even if it’s Tobe Hooper, it’s still very Spielberg. Spielbergian? Spielbergesque? I don’t know. Anyway. That was then. The Poltergeist remake is not Spielbergian. The Poltergeist remake takes after more recent haunted house movies like Insidious and Paranormal Activity. It’s meaner, colder, more difficult to fully embrace. It does its job well. The clown still scares me (damn clown). I just don’t really feel like I need to see it again. When I feel like rewatching Poltergeist, I’m gonna choose the original every single time.
31 Days of Horror: Film #27 ORGAN
Well, that was gross. I mean, when a film is called Organ, gross kind of figures into your expectations, but still…
Organ has the reputation of being a sick-ass movie and it more than lives up to that rep. Is it a good movie, though? Um, no, I don’t think so.
Organ is about illegal organ harvesting in one of Tokyo’s darker, nastier parts of town. A pair of undercover cops are investigating the organ harvesting ring and end up getting too close… Lots of dead bodies, nasty gore, and squishy stuff.
The movie spends so much time trying to gross you out and disturb you that it totally forgets about telling a good story. There’s not much of a plot here. There’s not even much of a linear, sensible backbone of a story. It’s somewhat experimental, and that’s cool, but the viewer never feels like they’re allowed to be a part of the experiment.
I was curious about Organ after reading about it briefly in a book about director Shinya Tsukamoto. Organ is written/directed/shot/and stars Kei Fujiwara, who'd worked with Tsukamoto in the past on Tetsuo: The Iron Man (brilliant film). Fujiwara is impressive because of her unflinching style and her do-it-all-by-myself skillset, but she has a long way to go as a storyteller.
Organ’s a nasty mess of a movie.
31 Days of Horror: Film #26 YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN
Okay, so it’s a comedy, not a horror film. Still, you know, it’s Frankenstein. I know it's cheating but I figure it fits with the October theme well enough.
I’m not really a Mel Brooks fan. But I LOVE Young Frankenstein.
Young Frankenstein is about the grandson of the infamous Dr. Frankenstein who discovers his grandfather’s notebook (titled ‘How I Did It’) and decides to try his hand and reanimating the dead. Hilarity ensues.
The cast is brilliant. Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, there’s not a weak link to be found.
The script written by Brooks and Wilder is the best work that either have done, I think. It packs more laughs per minute than most comedies could ever hope for.
One of the things I love most about Young Frankenstein is the decision to shoot it in black and white. The Blu-ray I just added to my collection actually shows color photos on the case and I was left wondering if I remembered the movie wrong. I guess color sells better than black and white. And that’s too bad. This is a gorgeous looking movie and it really evokes the visual qualities of the original James Whale film with Boris Karloff.
I like that the film clearly has some love for the original Frankenstein and the monster movies of old. Other ‘spoof’-like comedies have a somewhat more cynical edge, like they’re laughing at the source material instead of just having fun with it. Cynical comedy is fine but it may be that it doesn’t age as well.
Young Frankenstein is a movie that I could watch again and again. I find that I don’t feel that way about many comedies. This one’s special.
31 Days of Horror: Film #25 RETRIBUTION
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one of my favorite directors working today (Kiyoshi is not related to Akira Kurosawa, probably my favorite director of all time). Kiyoshi Kurosawa is mainly thought of as a horror director, which is understandable but it doesn’t tell the whole story. He’s worked in many genres, and his drama Tokyo Sonata is considered by many to be his masterpiece. I think that honor belongs to his apocalyptic ghost story Pulse, personally (do not watch the Hollywood remake. It’s awful).
Retribution is not one of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s best films, though it does have many of the ingredients found in his finest work. Released about a year before Tokyo Sonata, Retribution is an unusually crowded and confusing film for Kurosawa. By the end, it doesn’t make as much sense as I would like (and I’ve seen the film three times), and maybe it would’ve been better if it’d been cut down and streamlined a little.
The film is about a detective that finds a woman drowned in a puddle of sea water. At the crime scene the detective finds evidence that he was responsible for the crime. Later a doctor drowns his son in a puddle of sea water, and again the detective finds something from his home was used to commit the crime. Soon the detective is seeing the ghost of a woman in a red dress and remembering things from long ago – things that don’t seem connected, but probably are.
Saying much more would spoil some of the film’s biggest surprises. Overall I like Retribution. It’s a creepy, interesting mystery mixed up with a ghost story. Almost every frame screams that it’s a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film – close-ups are rare, scenes are often done in one extended take, and he lets suggestive atmosphere creates scares instead of violence or jumpy editing. No filmmaker inspires dread the way that Kiyoshi Kurosawa does. If I ever get the chance to make a horror film, this is the man I’m gonna try to emulate.
This film has its issues and they can all be traced back to the crowded and confusing screenplay (written by Kurosawa). It’s largely held together by Kurosawa’s abilities as a director and a great cast led by one of modern Japan’s best actors, Koji Yakusho. Check out Retribution if you enjoy international horror movies and want to see a genre mashup. It’s pretty good and definitely interesting, it’s just not the best that Kiyoshi Kurosawa has to offer.
One unfortunate thing about being a fan of an artist from a different country is that I’ll probably never get to see all of their work. As I write this, Kiyoshi Kurosawa has more than 30 directorial credits, and I believe only 10 of those are available on DVD in the US. Here’s hoping that changes someday. Of the Kurosawa films available in the US, allow me to recommend Pulse, Cure, Séance, Charisma, Doppelganger, and Tokyo Sonata.
31 Days of Horror: Film #24 CIRCLE
Sometimes you don’t need to see a trailer, learn about a film’s cast, or hear any kind of buzz about a movie to decide whether you want to see it or not. Sometimes a single sentence describing the film is enough to convince you if the movie is for you.
Circle is about 50 people that have been abducted by aliens, put into a circle in a dark room, and forced to decide on the single person among them that deserves to live. Huh. Okay. Cool. I was interested. I hit play.
The 50 people find themselves in a circle that looks a bit like a neon roulette wheel. At the center of the circle is a black sphere. If you step off your place of the circle, you die. If you touch anyone else in the circle, you die. The people are forced to vote every two minutes for the next person to go. If no one is elected to die every two minutes, someone dies at random. As for how people die, the black sphere takes care of that.
Instead of trying to really figure out the situation (no one ever thought to throw something at the sphere, attempt to break the circle in some way?), the 50 people spend more time debating on who deserves to live and who deserves to die. They turn on each other, make sides, and reveal their prejudices and darker selves.
It’s an interesting movie but it’s not entirely successful. At the start I was sure that it was going to be a new, cult favorite. However, it’s unable to sustain itself for the full 87 minutes. By the time an hour is up, Circle feels like an endless version of Survivor’s Tribal Council. The idea is cool, it's just not enough. It needed an extra ingredient in there somewhere, maybe.
Circle is a tough film to recommend. Just the same, I’d never tell anyone to skip it, either. It’s different and that counts for something.
To be honest, Circle is more science fiction than it is horror. I saw it with a horror tag, so that's why I watched it now and put it on this list. I figure it fits in well enough, though.
Circle is now available to stream on Netflix in the US.
31 Days of Horror: Film #23 A NIGHTMATE ON ELM STREET (2010)
Yesterday I watched and reviewed a good horror remake. Today, not so lucky.
Not long after directing Pearl Harbor, Michael Bay started producing films on the side. Films like the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seem like the typical Bay product, but TMNT is outnumbered by a number of horror films Bay produced. This is interesting because Bay never really showed an interest in horror for the films he directed. The majority of the horror films Bay produced were remakes, which should give us all yet another reason to dislike the guy. Let’s see… The Amityville Horror remake, The Hitcher remake, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (that one is actually pretty effective, easily the best of the bunch), The Friday the 13th remake, and the Nightmare on Elm Street remake. Just so I’m being fair, Bay also produced some original horror films – The Unborn, Ouija, and The Purge series. Of those, the only one I like is The Purge: Anarchy.
But anyway. Let’s talk about Freddy Krueger.
On the day that Wes Craven died, I rewatched the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. It seemed like the thing to do. The film remains a classic. The Nightmare series is entertaining but there’s a whole lot of crap to be found in the sequels. I maintain that the only Nightmare films that are truly any good are the ones that Craven had a hand in – the original, the 3rd film Dream Warriors, and the mega-meta New Nightmare. One thing that I disliked about the majority of the sequels is that they’d turned Freddy Krueger into something funny, bringing dark comedy into the slasher mix. That creative decision rubs me the wrong way, especially when considering what Freddy is: the dark spirit of a child murderer with other unsavory interests.
2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street remake returns the slasher icon to his darker, more menacing roots. Jackie Earle Haley takes over for series star Robert Englund and mostly manages to make the role his own. Some fans didn’t like Haley’s take on the character. To me, Haley’s just about the only thing in the film that makes it worth watching. While the film never succeeds in making Freddy frightening, he is intimidating and instantly unlikable. He’s a monster, something the original series forgot along the way.
The movie itself is a dull affair. There are few types of films more boring than a slasher movie that’s just going through the motions. Everything here feels recycled and stale, and that’s not just because it’s a remake, either. Directed by music video man Samuel Bayer, the film might look okay, but the scenes move without any sense of tension or dread. I’ll give it points for a decent final 15 minutes when it stops flirting with scares and gets down to the nitty-gritty, but it’s just too little too late.
Also, I didn’t believe for a second that any of these high school characters were teenagers. I mean, I get it, that’s something that goes with the territory of “dead teenager movies,” as Ebert called them. But some of these actors look like they should be getting out of college soon. Among the cast is Rooney Mara, who would soon go onto better things like Her and The Social Network, but she’s very bad as this film’s female lead. I think that Nightmare on Elm Street was her first big starring role. She would be nominated for an Oscar a year later for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. So, I guess she figured stuff out pretty fast.
This is not the worst film in the Nightmare on Elm Street series but it offers so little to justify its existence. Watch the original again, then watch New Nightmare, and leave this one on the shelf.
31 Days of Horror: Day #22 THE CRAZIES
Remakes rarely manage to measure up to the originals, and that seems especially true when talking about horror film remakes. There are exceptions, of course. Horror master George A. Romero has seen a few of his films receive the remake treatment. Those remakes have actually been rather decent for the most part. The Night of the Living Dead remake has its fans. The Dawn of the Dead remake from Zack Snyder is stylish and cool. And, well, let’s not talk about the Day of the Dead remake… Let’s talk about The Crazies instead.
George A. Romero wrote and directed The Crazies in 1973. It was a low-budget film that featured violence and the collapse of society, things seen in many of Romero’s best work. Romero’s The Crazies is not a great film, though. And while I don’t want to call the 2010 remake of The Crazies a great film either, I do think that it’s one of those rare remakes that’s superior to the original.
The Crazies is about a small farming town in Iowa that’s losing its mind. A military plane carrying a biological weapon went down in the river and it’s poisoning the town’s water supply. People start acting strange before eventually becoming violent, turning on their families and neighbors. The military quickly moves in and puts the town under quarantine, but it’s clear they’re not really there to help. The film focuses on the town’s sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) as he tries to get his wife and friends out of town safely.
The film is directed by Breck Eisner, whose credits include the awful adventure movie Sahara and the dull looking Vin Diesel fantasy film The Last Witch Hunter (in theaters now!). I don’t consider myself a fan of Eisner, but The Crazies proves he can deliver when he has the right script. The Crazies is a handsome looking film with a dark, nihilistic worldview. Just when you think you’ve seen the worst that the characters will go through, The Crazies says, ‘Oh no, son, it can always get worse!’
Apocalyptic entertainment is popular now. I like the genre, personally, and I write my own apocalyptic storylines with some regularity. What I like about The Crazies is that it’s not an end of the world thriller, but it remains an apocalyptic tale, though on a smaller scale. We see the town lose its way, come under attack, and burn to ash with alarming speed. While the infected mad men running around are frightening, one of the film’s most terrifying moments features a trio of good ol’ boys who are using this opportunity to hunt down their fellow man, piling bodies into the back of their pickup truck like human hunting season is in full swing. The monster is us, but the film thankfully avoids getting pretentious and spelling it out for us.
I really like this movie. It’s dark, stylish, scary, and thrilling. Plus, Timothy Olyphant is cool. The movie’s like Raylan Givens vs. the Apocalypse. It would’ve made for a weird final season of Justified, but you know I’d be watching it.
31 Days of Horror: Film #21 CRIMSON PEAK
In the time leading up to Crimson Peak’s release, director Guillermo del Toro stressed the fact that the film was a gothic romance, not a horror film. I had thought he was just being picky about genre classification. Turns out, yeah, he was right on. Crimson Peak has its fair share of scares and violent deaths but it is much more of a gothic romance than a horror film. It’s more along the lines of Jane Eyre and Rebecca than House on Haunted Hill or The Shining. So while the trailer may be misleading – a horror film in October is an easier sell than a gothic romance in any month – does that hurt the film any? Not really, no. If you come expecting ghosts, you’re gonna get them. If you come hoping for suspense and mystery, you’ll get that, too. It just adds a romance to the mix.
The main character Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is a writer with hopes of having her work of fiction published. The story involves ghosts (Edith herself has seen ghosts in her youth), but Edith insists that it’s not a ghost story. “Ghosts are a metaphor for the past,” she explains. Guillermo del Toro uses ghosts in the same way for his film, as a metaphor or a lingering trace of the past. Simply because there’s a ghost in the story does not necessarily make it a “ghost story.”
Edith marries the mysterious stranger Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and moves into his English mansion which is shared with his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain, who is excellent in her supporting role). Something’s not quite right about the Sharpe family and the house is incredibly creepy. It’s not long before Edith is seeing ghosts, suspecting her new husband of dark deeds, and fearing for her life.
Crimson Peak is an absolutely gorgeous film. Every shot has an idea behind it. One of the things about Guillermo del Toro is that he loves monsters and ghosts and he manages to find something beautiful where others would only see something horrifying and disturbing. Whether by beautiful production design or a visionary use of color, the film is simply amazing to look at.
Until now, Guillermo del Toro’s mature, artistic films and his blockbuster crowd-pleasers had been separated by a language barrier. His Spanish language films were more thought-provoking and adult, with The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth still representing his very best work. His English language films were comic book movies like Blade 2 and Hellboy or monster movies like Pacific Rim and Mimic. I’m not knocking his American productions – far from it – but there is a distinctive difference in tone between his Spanish and his English films, even though they were all clearly made by the same artist. Crimson Peak bridges that gap. This film is more like his Spanish films (most notably The Devil’s Backbone), with dark drama and a slow-burn pace instead of the explosions and fight scenes that populate most of the director’s Hollywood productions.
I really liked Crimson Peak. Guillermo del Toro remains one of my favorite directors. . . partly because he tells the kind of stories that I want to tell. Crimson Peak is a beautifully made film and one of the year’s very best.
Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of books and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
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