Totally Killer (2023)
I was a bit skeptical concerning TOTALLY KILLER mostly out of loyalty to the fine film that is THE FINAL GIRLS (2015) which it seemed to be aping. In reality, it probably owes more to the HAPPY DEATH DAY flicks and I gotta say it eventually won me over due to its sense of humor and commitment to not caring if I bought its flimsy time travel logic or not. (Ultimately I preferred it to the more tedious HAPPY DEATH DAY films but it can never touch the magic of the aforementioned THE FINAL GIRLS). SABRINA’s forever teen Kiernan Shipka stars as Jamie Hughes, a gal who travels back to arguably the most eighties year in the eighties, 1987 with plans to thwart a slasher serial killer in a mask that resembles Max Headroom. Doing so will hopefully prevent the eventual Halloween night murder of her mother (Julie Bowen of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS ). Bloodshed ensues along with choice tunes by New Order & Bananarama. Much fun is had with Jaimie being consistently shocked by just how casually politically incorrect everyone was back in the day, particularly her beloved parents. Personally I wouldn’t have minded if this bubbly BACK TO THE FUTURE meets (pick an eighties slasher) lark had the gumption to explore darker territory (had more gruesome kills) but it’s got more than a couple twists that keep you guessing and the cast is obviously having a blast with the material. Plus, there can never be too many horror movies that take place on Halloween as far as I’m concerned so I’ll happily add this to my yearly October watch pile.
Pet Sematary: Bloodlines (2023)
I love the idea of a PET SEMATARY prequel that explores the town of Ludlow’ Maine’s past, the legend of deceased soldier Tim Baterman, the Native American origin of the cursed gravesite and the youth of cautioning oldster Judd Crandall. I’d certainly prefer it offshoot from Mary Lambert’s beloved take on the material rather than 2019’s misguided remake (I’ll never get over how they were somehow able to strip legendary traumatizer Zelda of her power to terrify) but I'm game to give it a shot. Unfortunately, PET SEMATARY: BLOODLINES frustratingly buries its endless potential along with its notable cast (David Duchovny, Henry Thomas, Pam Grier, Samantha Mathis and likable newcomer Jackson White) in muck both figuratively and literally (the climax degenerates to an underground mud wrestling match). Worse still, there’s an ever prevalent vacuum of actual horror; the undead look merely peeved, zombie cats are AWOL and the audience is inexcusably never assaulted by an actor attempting an irksome Maine accent. In fact, nothing new is offered besides the highly unwanted left field assertion that the reanimated will only die if you destroy their eyes. Lambert’s original take on King’s novel may have been off-kilter (and even courting campy) but at least it was colorful, unpredictable and unafraid to get weird, this true step backwards is just plain toothless.
Woodchipper Massacre (’88)
Here is a reminder that a movie doesn’t have to be technically brilliant to be entertaining. WOODCHIPPER MASSACRE cost a couple hundred bucks to make, was filmed on video in Connecticut in 1988 and is highly flawed (every hokey line is SCREAMED to assure it is recorded) and yet is a surprisingly fun black comedy. It’s sorta a cross between THE CAT IN THE HAT (kids getting into trouble while the authority figure is away) and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (inadvertent murderers make matters worse while attempting to hide their crime). Highly obnoxious Aunt Tess (Patricia McBride), a Halloween-wigged grating cross between “Billie” (Adrienne Barbeau) in CREEPSHOW and Momma (Anne Ramsey) in THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN, is tasked with caretaking her nephews (writer/director Jon McBride, pipsqueak Tom Casiello) and niece (eye-rolling sarcasm queen Denice Edeal) while their father is away on a nondescript business trip. Aunt Tess is a veritable harpy who when she attempts to confiscate young Tom’s recently acquired RAMBO-knife is accidentally stabbed and killed by it instead. Grim humor abounds as the three resourceful siblings eye the Woodchipper Pop rented out for the weekend to take care of any evidence and an unplanned visit from Tess’s psychotic son complicates matters further. I’m not going to lie, I snickered throughout this movie during a time that I really did not wish to snicker at anything and for that I’m forever in its debt. If you have a sick sense of humor and love to see awful people who beg for a comeuppance get the one they richly deserve, I highly suggest tracking this hilarious homemade treat down (look no further than Tubi).
Oy vey, the missteps, miscalculations and missed opportunities in THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER are legion. It would be nice if an, “Oh well, at least you tried” sentiment were applicable here but I’m not sure this movie even earns that much faith. No late in the game tacked on, finger waving speech about love, understanding and the power of community can diffuse the air of insincere opportunism that permeates throughout this picture. It looks and acts like a movie but it’s hard to see it as anything other than a device built to snatch money from the pockets of the converted with as little effort as humanly possible. I’m sure all involved are fans of the OG so why does this reboot feel like a creaky-wheeled medicine show cart rolling into town steered by a wax mustached charlatan barking, “Two for one sale on possessed girls, today!” The good news is that the blameless saintly duo of Ellen Burstyn & Linda Blair are guaranteed to selflessly hand over their paychecks to worthy causes.
Leslie Odom Jr. plays Victor Fielding, a man who once had to choose between the life of his wife and unborn daughter during a bad-timing, pregnancy meets Haitian earthquake mishap. The ordeal, like many a Sophie’s choice, douses Victor’s belief in a higher power. Thirteen years later, his decision seems clear as he is now raising a spirited teen daughter named Angela (Lidya Jewett) who grieves her mother enough to try to contact her via seance with bestie Katherine (Olivia Neil). Depending on your outlook, the girls are either really good or really bad at communicating with the dead because they go missing for three days and are found in a barn suffering from every lazy writer’s favorite ailment, amnesia (depriving the audience of the film’s potentially most frightening scenes) and (too) slowly escalating demonic possession. Luckily (by the grace of God), Victor lives next door to critic-bait character actress Ann Dowd (whose character is also named Ann) who is not only a nurse at the local hospital but a lapsed would-be nun who eventually orchestrates a potluck-style exorcism that dominates the second half of the film. In order to (try to) insure proceedings are taken seriously, legacy character Chris MacNeil (the always welcome Burstyn) is dusted off for a Ted Talk about how possession and exorcisms are an important part of many religions (and a balanced breakfast) and by the way, Catholics don’t own the corner on them, thank ya much.
David Gordon Green’s scattered collage approach combined with cinematographer Michael Simmond’s makeshift homegrown honeycomb hideout aesthetic previously fit hand in glove with HALLOWEEN’s plucky indie roots (albeit to diminishing returns). The idea though that a monolithic religious epic like THE EXORCIST would work well shoved into the same grungy sausage wrapping is bizarre at best and just plain thoughtless at worst; the result resembles a soap box race car. The contraption is able to periodically stroke the universal fear of sickness befalling a loved one and the innate anxiety of guardianship but it feels more inadvertently dredged from the environment (forever yikes to hospitals) than truly earned. To be fair, every once in a while, a demonic image or two strikes a nerve but they are few and far between in the “see what sticks” barrage. Perhaps there is some campy fun to be had here but it’s the kind that comes almost automatically with a snarling possession film (I mean who doesn’t enjoy freaked-out mortals being roasted by a trolling demonic spirit who thinks it’s Don Rickles) and I'd like to think one of the very few critically lauded horror masterpieces deserves more (at least EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC had tap-dancing). It should go without saying that if you ever have the honor of working with Ellen Burstyn that the least you do, is not saddle her with cringey lines like, “In the name of my beloved daughter Regan…” or have her endure crucifixes being shoved into her eyes. The woman is a horror legend for God’s sake.
It’s October, the autumn air is turning cool and crisp, and I’m itching to watch as many horror movies as I can this month. Every year I make room in the Halloween watchlist for old favorites, but also for relatively new classics. One of those more recent classics is The Lords of Salem (2012). Written and directed by Rob Zombie, The Lords of Salem explores what happens when a Salem, Massachusetts disc jockey becomes dangerously entangled with an ancient coven of Satan-worshipping witches. Zombie’s wife and frequent collaborator Sheri Moon Zombie plays the hard rock DJ Heidi, while horror and cult movie veterans Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson, Meg Foster, and Ken Foree, among others, round out the cast.
In the decade since its release, The Lords of Salem has become a bit of a cult classic, at least among discerning horror fans who love a good, scary witch story. In my opinion, Zombie has never made a better film. His movies are often hit or miss for me, with House of 1,000 Corpses(2003) and Devil’s Rejects (2005) being major hits, while his two Halloween remakes and 31 (2016) were less impressive. As much as I love House of 1,000 Corpses and Devil’s Rejects though, The Lords of Salem exists on a different level. It’s a haunting and impactful work of art, the sort of movie that sticks with you forever, giving you instant shivers any time you recall it’s finest, most disturbing moments.
Zombie establishes a thick, suffocating sense of dread from the start that never lets up. The film is drenched in chilling, autumnal atmospherics. Between cinematography, editing, score, and performances, all elements work in perfect harmony to create something altogether unsettling. There are several disturbing shots in the film that linger in the mind’s eye long after the end credits. Zombie was at his creative peak with The Lords of Salem, no doubt about it. It sure doesn’t hurt that he has legends like Meg Foster and Bruce Davison turning in stellar performances, or that the Salem, Massachusetts locations are obviously perfect for a horror story about witches.
Let’s take a minute to praise Sheri Moon Zombie’s lead performance. Whatever you may think of Mrs. Zombie’s talents, she has earned her stripes in several of her husband’s flicks, during which she’s delivered what the roles demand. In House of 1,000 Corpses, she’s a demented loose cannon, cackling and strutting around the Firefly clan’s house of horrors. With The Lords of Salem, she’s called on to play it much more low key, even solemn at times, and she succeeds at matching the film’s excessively gloomy tone. In her hands, Heidi’s harrowing descent into the ancient coven’s grasp is sad to watch.
Once we realize why the witches want Heidi, it begins to feel like she’s practically helpless to defend herself. That’s a bold move by Zombie: as the movie progresses, any hopes for a happy ending feel increasingly unlikely. If this all sounds like a bummer, it is, but that’s why I love it so much! It commits to relentless tension building and doesn’t give us any easy outs. For me, that’s why The Lords of Salem is Rob Zombie’s masterwork, and the film of his that sits most comfortably alongside other excellent, slow-burn horror classics like Messiah of Evil (1973) and Next of Kin (1982). It’s a remarkable display of restraint from Zombie, a filmmaker more associated with frenzied chaos than with this film’s stark, autumnal horror. If you’re looking for a perfect Halloween season movie to watch on a chilly October evening this year, then turn the lights down low, fire up The Lords of Salem, and prepare to have trouble sleeping that night.
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