Happy Halloween! I’ve got a treat for ya, horror hounds. Today only, grab my survival horror novella RAKASA for free on Kindle!
If you’ve run out of candy and you’re afraid the glow of the TV may attract more trick-or-treaters demanding sugar, then a scary ebook is the perfect way to survive Halloween! But don’t delay, this deal won’t last long!
“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
Critics love The Witch (current RottenTomatoes score is 91% positive). Audiences are more divided (currently more like 55% positive). There are two reasons for the divide, I think. One is that this is an arthouse horror film that escaped the arthouse theatres and earned itself a wide release, giving general audiences something that wasn’t their usual cup of tea. And the other is a common thing we see with a lot of modern horror movie trailers today; the review quotes that potentially oversell the film’s scare factor. The quotes pulled from reviews for The Witch suggest one of the most frightening films of all time. And the fact that maybe you don’t see it that way shouldn’t be put on the critics who reacted so strongly to it. It’s just that the promotional materials set the bar pretty high. And listen: different people are scared by different things. For what it’s worth, I thought Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch was scarier than Robert Eggers’ The Witch… but I consider The Witch to be the better film.
The Witch is a “New England folk tale” about new settlers in America who are forced from their community and go to live at the edge of the woods. They’re puritans. Their faith is the #1 thing in their lives. The Witch finds their faith tested when their newborn is abducted. The mother is on the edge of madness, the father isn’t as righteous as he’d have you believe, and the eldest daughter is accused of being a witch.
I saw the film in theatres and found that I liked the film even more at home today. The dialogue is done in period accurate “old English” which can be difficult to understand at times. It’s the rare English film that I gotta recommend watching with subtitles.
The Witch is an unnerving film. It creeps under your skin and stays there. It’s not as interested in jump scares (though there are two killer jumps). I don’t consider it one of the most frightening films of all time, but there is something deeply disturbing about it.
The cast is excellent. The lead actress, young Anya Taylor-Joy, gives a star making performance. And writer/director Robert Eggers delivers what is one of the most confident directorial debuts in years.
My opinion of The Witch puts the movie somewhere between the hype and the criticisms – it’s not quite a masterpiece but it’s better than the gripes suggest. It’s one of 2016’s best films and, as long as you’re not faint of heart, it practically demands to be seen.
So ends my 31 Days of Horror.
I do not think I’ll be doing this again next year. Takes up too much time, receives too little feedback. I won’t completely shut down the holiday, though! I’ll do something else for Halloween next year.
My favorite new discoveries from this year’s 31 Days of Horror…
Ouija: Origin of Evil
Day 29 THE THING
Before sitting down to watch John Carpenter’s The Thing -- my favorite horror film of all time – I decided it was time for me to go back and rewatch Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World. Few people think of the Carpenter classic as a remake, but that’s exactly what it is. And it’s the best remake of all time, if you ask me. Based on a short story titled Who Goes There? 1982’s The Thing is actually the more faithful adaptation. The Hawks film is a fine, atomic era sci-fi monster movie that warned viewers to keep watching the skies. But there’s no sense of paranoia to the picture, no themes of disease, no sense of isolation, no overwhelming dread. The monster from the 1951 film is played by James Arness (Gunsmoke) and more closely resembles Frankenstein’s monster than the shape-shifting, slimy mess that Kurt Russell had to deal with in 82. The genetic makeup of 51’s monster is plantlike, and one character even compares the monster to a giant carrot man. Original though it may be, I can’t say it’s all that threatening. And other than using blood to feed its seedlings, the alien terror just fails to terrorize. I enjoy The Thing from Another World but I’ve just never been able to fully embrace it. I think this is partly because of how much I love Carpenter’s film and that I don’t understand the changes Hawks made. But even just taken as a classic monster movie, it’s overly crowded, too long, and lacking in scares. Happy I gave it a another viewing, but unlike the 1982 film I doubt I’ll be returning to it again very soon.
So, yep: 1982’s The Thing is my favorite horror movie of all time. The brief rundown is that an Antarctic research base goes through hell when dealing with an alien shapeshifter that’s been discovered frozen in the ice. It’s bloody, it’s gooey, it’s dark, and it pulls no punches. I enjoy watching the film over and over again, focusing on different background characters every time. As paranoia grips the crew, everyone suspects the man next to him and there’s a lot to pay attention to. I like how the film doesn’t hold your hand. The finale still inspires debate amongst fans 30 years later.
As a creative writer, I can safely say that there’s no other piece of fiction or film that’s influenced me more. Little pieces of code from The Thing’s DNA can be found everywhere in my work. I look back and think that my first book Brain Mold was me attempting a weird take on The Thing’s isolation themes and body horror.
Carpenter is one of my favorite storytellers of all time and The Thing is his finest work. If I’m ever stranded on a deserted island with a working TV and DVD player, The Thing will be one of the first things I pull out of the wreckage.
I was happy to buy The Thing on the new Scream! Factory Blu-ray. It was a tough Blu-ray to track down for whatever reason, but it’s totally worth seeking out for fans. Lots of goodies! If you like the film, the Scream! Factory Blu-ray is the release to get.
Day 30 THE WAILING
The Wailing is a new Korean horror film about a country village suddenly stricken with illness and strange crimes. No one knows the cause, least of all our hero, the dimwitted cop Jong-goo. The village’s more superstitious residents point their fingers at the Japanese man who just moved into town. And though Jong-goo’s slow to believe the rumors, the bodies keep stacking up and the Japanese man does seem to be linked to them in some way…
To say much more would spoil things. Also, I don’t really fully understand everything I just watched. Still digesting things.
It’s a tale of good vs. evil, where good is woefully unprepared for the fight and evil keeps so many secrets. It’s unclear at the start whether this is a case of human evil, biological evil, or actual evil. What’s interesting is how the film plays with those expectations. It’s actually a fun dark comedy at the start, where most the scares come from characters frightening themselves with their own overactive imaginations. Superstition and prejudice also have a part to play, as the lone foreigner in town is singled out to be the one behind it all. Right up to the end, we’re not sure where we stand or who to trust. It’s very tricky.
The Wailing is yet further proof that Hong-jin Na is one of the best directors working today. This is only his third feature film, but so far he’s gone 3 for 3. His cast is excellent, from the leads down to the bit players. Do Won Kwak is great as the bumbling hero. Jun Kunimura, who plays the Japanese stranger, is in so many movies that sometimes we forget how good he can be when he’s allowed to sink his teeth into a role. And one of Korea’s best actors, Jung-min Hwang, has a nice supporting role as a shaman who’s in the fight for all the wrong reasons.
The Wailing is a horror film that’s not easy to classify. It’s a slippery snake of a movie, always tempting you, tricking you. Very clever, dark, and strange. One of 2016’s most interesting films.
Tomorrow: THE WITCH.
The Purge is one of the crazier horror concepts to come along in a few years, and it doesn’t even involve anything supernatural or otherworldly. It’s about a new American law that makes all crime legal (including murder) over the course of one night, once a year. The thinking being that, by acting on primal instincts, you become a better person the other 364 days of the year. It’s absurd. But it’s also not the craziest thing anyone’s ever thought up for a dark, dystopian future America in fiction and film. And the decision to make an Election Year entry in the series in an actual Election Year? Brilliant. I don’t know who to congratulate for their smart thinking, but somebody be thinking smart.
In this, the third film of the crazy Purge franchise, Senator Roan pledges to end the Purge if she’s elected President. Her opponent simply states that the right to Purge is an American right, and even attaches some religious significance to it. (No current political parties are attached to either candidate but some arguments should sound familiar.) On the Purge before the election, Roan’s enemies come gunning for her and it’s up to the idealistic underdogs to keep her safe through the night.
The Purge is a strange genre mash-up of horror, shoot ‘em ups, and bizarre political sci-fi. But maybe the political satire really isn’t that bizarre. I mean, has anybody been paying attention to our actual Election Year? It’s goddamn crazy, gang. Some of the madness of 2016 doesn’t seem that far off from the madness seen in the movie. I mean, I’m not the only one who noticed that the Purge: Election Year TV spots repeatedly played during the GOP debates earlier this year, right? And while we’re still a long way away from an actual Purge night in the real world, I do think it speaks to how messed up America is that the film can feel so distinctly American.
Back to the movie: it’s probably the best of the series. I think The Purge series started off on the wrong foot, with the first film basically being a high-concept home invasion thriller. The Purge: Anarchy and Election Year take us out on the streets and that’s where the action is. Some of the best moments are little throwaway bits of the country going mad in the background, like a scene where our heroes pass by an old lady on a bench who’s singing to a man on fire a few feet away. None of the Purge films are modern horror classics but they’re interesting and peculiar in their own way, showing us a version of our country that’s worse than it really is, even if it still suffers from the same diseases.
Tomorrow: John Carpenter's THE THING.
When Greg McLean appeared on the scene with his terrifying, violent Outback survival horror thriller Wolf Creek, many believed it was the launching point for one of the next big names in horror movies. He followed it up with another film set in his native Australia, Rogue, a killer crocodile movie that’s pretty good but never succeeded in finding a large audience. After that, McLean kind of… went away? There was a six year gap between Rogue and his next directorial effort, Wolf Creek 2, a mostly satisfying sequel. And now, thankfully, McLean seems like he’s back and here to stay. Wolf Creek 2 was followed by production on a Wolf Creek TV series, The Darkness starring Kevin Bacon, and soon The Belko Experiment and Jungle. Sometimes artists just need a moment to collect themselves before starting on the next, apparently more prolific stage in their careers.
Today we’re talking about The Darkness, a film which… let’s just say it was not a critical success. On paper, this sounds like McLean’s most mainstream horror feature: Kevin Bacon’s family goes to the Grand Canyon, disturbs an angry spirit, and the spirit follows the family home, terrorizing them all the while. And yes, it is McLean’s most mainstream movie, if by mainstream you mean it’s conventional and lazy and formulaic and it reminds you of a hundred other movies all at once. It’s a little Poltergeist and a lot Poltergeist 2, with some generic Native American mysticism to help sell the supernatural elements of the film.
The thing that can often sink horror films is bad character development and lame acting. The Darkness is different. The characters are well drawn and the acting is solid. Kevin Bacon and Radha Mitchell are solid and Lucy Fry, who plays their troubled daughter in the film, gives a surprisingly raw performance.
It’s just that the film is so bland and generic. It’s boring. (The final act does provide a couple cool moments, though.) McLean’s first foray into big Hollywood filmmaking can’t be called a success but I hope that doesn’t discourage him from future big budget efforts. As a fan of his earlier films, I look forward to whatever comes next.
A couple years ago, there was a Ouija horror movie based on the popular board game. The only thing special about the film is that it featured two women who are fast becoming icons of genre film and TV, Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel) and Lin Shaye (Insidious). Other than that, it’s a totally unspectacular film. I hesitate to call it a bad film, though, for while I didn’t like it, I strongly feel it just wasn’t meant for me. Stiles White’s Ouija is a horror movie for teens that are just discovering the horror genre. It’s not a movie for critics or horror fiends.
So, I wasn’t exactly excited for a Ouija prequel. But the trailers suggested promise, director Mike Flanagan (Oculus) is one of today’s best horror filmmakers, and early buzz said it was good. I didn’t run to the theatres, but in an October movie season strangely lacking in new theatrical horror releases, I was curious enough to buy a ticket.
So… Ouija: Origin of Evil is one of the biggest, best surprises of 2016 movies. It is scary, methodical, classy, well-acted, and easy to recommend to both horror diehards and the genre’s newbies. In every conceivable way, Ouija: Origin of Evil blows the original film out of the water.
Going the prequel route, we follow a single mother and her two girls who are putting on fake séances in order to ease the hurt of those who’ve lost loved ones. When they decide to add the Ouija board to the mix, the youngest girl begins channeling something real, something from the other side. What begins with excitement and mystery quickly turns to terror as the true nature of the supernatural spirit makes itself known to the family.
Listen: you’ve seen some of this stuff before. Spirit boards, ghosts in the house, possession, etc. Some horror fans may bemoan that the film adds nothing new. And that may be true on some level but I don’t really care. The movie is solid. Like, rock solid. With the 60’s décor, 60’s Universal logo, and even some added cigarette burns for changing reels, it plays like a classic horror film that’s been unearthed fifty years later. It’s one of the best horror sequels/prequels you’re ever gonna see, if for no other reason than because it so clearly outdoes the original in every capacity.
If you saw 2014’s Ouija and were left unimpressed, I don’t blame ya one bit. But don’t let that convince you that Origin of Evil is the same thing. This movie delivers.
“You don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“But I do and I’m sorry.”
In the early 2000’s, Asia went through a big horror boom. Ghostly apparitions that some have called “dead wet girls” populated many movies for a time, and directly influenced films on the other side of the world. Hollywood remade a lot of J-horror movies. Most of the remakes were lame (some were holy shit awful) but there were a few highlights of the era, and I consider Gore Verbinski’s remake of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu to be the best of the bunch.
The Ring is a horror movie about urban legend detailing a videotape that kills you seven days after watching it. What seems like a spooky ghost story becomes horrifyingly real for the viewers of the tape, as they are haunted by supernatural visions.
It’s a fine mystery in addition to being a horror film, as investigative reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) follows the clues in order to lift the curse. What I like is, the film explains the why of the mystery but never gets into the how. And that’s a good thing, because some of this is so otherworldly that scientific explanation would hurt the story more than enrich it.
As a remake, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. There are two major departures. In Nakata’s Ringu, the “ring” of the title only refers to the telephone ring, not the visual ring. The addition in Verbinski’s film is a clever one. It not only adds the film’s most memorable visual of a flickering ring, but it also provides the poster’s tagline: “Before you die, you see the ring.” The other major difference is that in Ringu, the ghost is not the only supernatural thing to the story. The boyfriend of Rachel’s Japanese equivalent has psychic abilities and he’s passed it onto the son their son. There’s none of this in Hollywood’s The Ring. I cannot say which is better, psychic Hiroyuki Sanada or totally normal Martin Henderson; it likely comes down to what version you saw first.
You know, I miss the J-horror craze. It was a time when international horror cinema was widely seen by all and the fans could look forward to seeing the new movies by Japan’s best horror filmmakers not long after the releases in their home countries. The world got to know the films of Hideo Nakata (Dark Water), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse), Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On: The Grudge), Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), Takashi Miike (Audition). Now, the craze is over and the remakes have died off, so most people count that as a win. But it’s come at a cost, in that fans overseas don’t get to see the new Nakata, Kurosawa, Shimizu, etc. films anymore.
Plus, some of the remakes weren’t bad. The Ring is a solid film, regardless of your general opinion on remakes. And in the larger scheme of things, it gave director Gore Verbinski his first big box office hit (the man would go on to direct Pirates of the Caribbean) and also helped make Naomi Watts a star (she remains a favorite actress of mine). It’s one of the best studio horror movies of the past couple decades. If you dismissed it during the J-horror craze as more of the same, it’s time to give it another look. Damn good horror movie.
I’ve fallen behind.
But I’m back.
Day 22: Carrie
In Stephen King’s long career, he’s written some crazy stories. Carrie, King’s first published novel, is one of his most accessible and cinematic stories. Sissy Spacek plays the title character in the Brian De Palma film. Carrie is the most unloved teenager in her high school – she’s picked on by her peers and her teachers, she’s awkward as all hell, and she’s abused by her self-righteous tyrant of a mother at home. Carrie’s also special: she has telekinesis. And when forced to the breaking point, she will unleash her power on the bullies and the innocent alike.
I’ve never been a huge fan of this film. Every time I watch it, I expect my opinion to change and I’ll embrace it in a big, blood-drenched hug or something. It just never happens. More than anything, I feel that Carrie is one of those films that’s so familiar to pop culture that it hurts the film. It’s a film that builds and builds and builds until it reaches its iconic sequence at the prom. But that building isn’t particularly suspenseful or entertaining in my eyes. It’s all climax. Not a bad film but still not a favorite of mine.
Day 23: Sauna
In 1595, following a war between Russia and Finland/Sweden, men must journey across the country to define the new borders on the maps. They are led to a village that exists on the border line. The people who live there did not build the place, but rather settled in the ghost town and have no clue as to who built it. The natives also prove unhelpful when asked about the strange sauna in the middle of the swamp. There is an evil in this place but whether it’s always lurked there or has awoken to greet the new visitors is a mystery.
I hate to be that guy, but I don’t get this movie. It’s interesting, original, and often quite good looking, but I feel the film kept me at arm’s length for too long and I didn’t connect with what it was trying to do or why.
Early in the film, a character wonders if Hell does not exist beneath us, but is rather a place that is simply devoid of God’s attention and love. The discovered village would seem to be such a place. And if it is Hell they have wandered into, then fine, but the film doesn’t conjure an ‘otherness’ the way I would’ve liked. There is little sense of dread or alarm. The final moments manage a fright, but mostly I watched the film with a vague, detached puzzlement.
Day 24: Halloween III: Season of the Witch
I’m going to be doing a full review of this for City on Fire shortly but here’s the gist, ya’ll.
Halloween III is the oddball in the horror series. There is no Michael Myers going around stabbing people. And this time, Jamie Lee Curtis is only a disembodied voice and Dr. Loomis couldn’t be bothered to show up and rant about evil. Halloween creator John Carpenter never envisioned a series about a slasher haunting Haddonfield, Illinois. He wanted a horror anthology series with a Halloween brand, where each sequel brought new concepts and new scares to the holiday. Thing is, Halloween 2 was a Michael Myers movie, so it was assumed that Halloween III would be, too. When it wasn’t, fans rejected the movie as the ugly duckling of the series. With time (and new fans discovering the series on DVD), people have begun to appreciate Halloween III more, and that’s a good thing. Because while it doesn’t exactly fit in with the rest of the bunch, Halloween III is without a doubt one of the best films in the nearly four decade old series.
Owing more to Invasion of the Body Snatchers than slasher movies, Halloween III is original, high-concept horror at its best. If you’ve dismissed the film before, I suggest you give it another chance with a more open mind. It’s time to give the film its due.
I’ve changed the lineup on the last week of my 31 Days of Horror. The new schedule is as follows:
Tuesday the 25th: Gore Verbinski’s The Ring
Wednesday the 26th: Greg McLean’s The Darkness
Thursday the 27th: Mike Flanagan’s Ouija: Origin of Evil (in theatres)
Friday the 28th: Hong-jin Na’s The Wailing
Saturday the 29th: John Carpenter’s The Thing
Sunday the 30th: Jaume Balagueró’s [REC] 4 (on Netflix)
Monday the 31st: Robert Eggers’ The Witch (on Amazon Prime)
“The patient that came in yesterday is having a fit.”
“The one that bit the cow.”
In 1922, Nosferatu became one of the first Dracula adaptations to make it to the silver screen. It was also an illegal adaptation, changing names but ultimately keeping the story the same without licensing permission. Bram Stoker’s widow sued and many prints were destroyed, but the film (thankfully) survived in other nations across the world. The original Nosferatu, though obviously owing much to Stoker’s text, is a masterpiece of horror cinema and one of the finest films made during the silent period.
In 1979, Werner Herzog, one of the most interesting filmmakers working today, remade Nosferatu in color and sound with his regular madman Klaus Kinski playing the vampire fiend. It’s an odd film for Herzog, a director known for his original vision of the world. And while I like it, I don’t really consider it one of his best. At times, I feel like he’s mimicking the classic’s scenes too closely, particularly when hero Bruno Ganz recoils in horror from the vampire in a way that’s too theatrical for a 70’s genre film.
The film works better when it starts doing its own thing in the final act. When the vampire finds his way to civilization, he brings the black plague with him. The streets are clogged with plague-carrying rats. Coffins pile up outside homes. Sheep wander without a shepherd to guide them. The people dance and party, knowing death will soon claim them as well. It’s the most surreal section of the film and the most Herzogian. I believe that the original Nosferatu and other Dracula tales had similar sequences, but Herzog’s Nosferatu makes the most of the awful concept of a vampire-orchestrated plague.
With long fingernails, pointed teeth, giant ears, and black circles around his eyes, Kinski’s Count is one of the best realized vampires in movies. The look is directly based on the original, of course. However, it’s Kinski’s ability to go from a steady calm to fury that made his performance noteworthy. I recently discovered that Kinski played the part again in the Herzog-less Nosferatu in Venice, so that’s now on my list.
Tomorrow: Brian De Palma’s Carrie.
It’s a Triple Threat!
Day 18 GREEN ROOM
When I saw Green Room for the first time in July, it became my “favorite” film of 2016. I put favorite in quotes because damn this is a mean movie. It’s incredibly well-made, creating suspense in the first 10 minutes and then not letting you go until the end credits, but it’s also so very dark and violent. As with most movies that I put on the yearly top spot, I have to revisit them a couple months later to see how they stand up. And oh boy, Green Room is just as intense the second time as it is the first. I might’ve known what was coming but I remained on the edge of my seat anyway. Actually, it added something more the second time, as I knew what would happen and was left hoping it wouldn’t this time, because our heroes do not deserve their fates.
If you don’t know what Green Room is about, the film follows a young metal band on a failed tour across the country. In need of gas money to get back home, they take a gig at a skinhead bar, not because that’s their scene but because they’re desperate. After the band witnesses a murder, the bar employees lock them in the green room and both sides are left in a state of unease as they plot against the other. The band just wants to get away and the bar’s owner wants to contain the situation, by any means necessary.
The movie feels unexpectedly topical as the bandmates are forced to contend with Donald Trump’s most deplorable in order to survive. Trump is never mentioned in the movie, nor is his campaign alluded to, but you know what I mean. America’s white supremacist hate culture has been legitimized by a candidate who refuses to condemn that section of his followers. The cockroaches that we’ve always known were there aren’t as frightened by the light as they used to be. Green Room isn’t a political movie – at least not obviously political – but the choice to shine the spotlight on white supremacists for a modern horror movie seems very precisely 2016 to me. And while I know that the film is fiction, I also know that places like the bar in the movie do exist in our country… and man, I hate that.
The villain, quietly played by Patrick Stewart, is one of the most chilling you’ll see in movies this year and the young star Anton Yelchin gives his most layered performance of his tragically short career. Green Room is also further proof that director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) is the real deal. This movie may be too brutal for some but it’s a thrilling experience for the rest of us.
DAY 19 HE NEVER DIED
First of all, this isn’t much of a horror film. Though the character gets lost in sounds of the Apocalypse ringing through his head, and there’s a fair amount of blood and weirdness, He Never Died seems an oddball on this list of Halloween-themed movies.
Even so, I’m glad I watched it yesterday, because this movie is frickin’ awesome. Henry Rollins plays Jack, a quiet guy who leads a boring life. He sleeps most the day, goes to the same diner every night, doesn’t drink, plays bingo with seniors… and also doesn’t seem to feel pain. I can’t go into too much detail on this without spoiling things. He Never Died is an urban fantasy with a hilarious sense of humor, a few crazy scenes of violence, and one awesome character at the center of it all.
I’m left hoping for more, like a He Never Died 2: He’s Still Not Dead. Please, World. Make it so.
DAY 20 THE HALLOW
Corin Hardy’s Irish supernatural horror film The Hallow starts fairly familiar – a young couple moves to a woodsy town with some superstitious ideas – but it quickly veers right into nightmare territory. The Hallow is a fairy tale horror movie, something rare in cinemas but a sub-genre I’ve always liked. Taking a bit from Straw Dogs and then going into Guillermo del Toro territory, it’s one of the coolest feature directorial debuts in recent years, and one helluva monster movie. If you dig stuff like Pan’s Labyrinth, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and Pumpkinhead, then give this a go. If there’s any justice in the world of horror movie fandom, The Hallow will soon be considered a cult classic.
Tomorrow: Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu.
Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of fiction and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
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