Even though I could have easily watched HALLOWEEN ENDS at home on TV (cuz we got that Peacock channel), I ventured out into the rain to see it at my closest theater. I required the full experience. I wanted to walk through falling leaves past Halloween decorations on my way there and I wanted to absorb the film alongside fellow horror fans and possibly dangerous strangers. Hey, I’ve seen every single movie in the Halloween franchise in the theater on opening day since I was old enough to in 1982 (we’re talking HALLOWEEN 3: SOTW) and I wasn’t about to break with tradition now. The Halloween series is what kickstarted my obsessive horror fandom (when I viewed it on TV while babysitting no less). It holds a very special place in my heart and it has loyally offered me a place to escape and recharge whenever I’ve needed it over the years (which is often). Luck was not on my side this time though as halfway through the movie, the lights came on and there was an emergency evacuation of the theater. It turned out to be nothing (a bomb threat is nothing?) but of course, it felt like the last moments of my life anyway. I guess if I was going to kick the bucket it might as well be doing what I love.
So I walked home. I’d just have to watch the second half of the movie on television. Wait, did this mean I’d have to watch the first part again? Why did that concept exasperate me? Why did that idea produce an audible exhausted exhale? I had to admit it, I wasn’t loving HALLOWEEN ENDS. There was still a chance it could turn itself around and deliver a bang-up finale but the fact remained that I was a bit frustrated about what I’d seen and what the filmmakers were focusing on thus far. Worse still, I wasn’t buying a lot of what was going down. There was an air of hokey corniness wafting through the proceedings that I hadn’t smelt since CURSE or RESURRECTION. My inner Annie Wilkes was taking notes (Did they really expect me to swallow marching band bullies, evil-inducing eyeballs, and super conspicuous sewer hideouts?). I can’t say the counter-intuitive direction it was leaning wasn’t interesting, it just didn’t seem the right time for any of it. I felt like I was trying to read a recipe online but had to scroll through the author’s life story first (or that horrible feeling when you go see a concert for a nostalgia fix and the band says “Now, here’s a song from our new album”. Good ol’ Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) was present and accounted for so I didn’t feel completely abandoned but oh how the avalanche of missed opportunities hurt my head.
I ended up watching it three times hoping it would click with me but it never quite did (and I loved both previous installments from David Gordon Green and his cohorts). The new characters and actors did fine (Rohan Campbell particularly) but I’d much rather they were given their own film to play around in rather than this one. I’m getting the feeling I’m meant to decide definitively whether I love it or hate it but I don’t think I could ever really hate a HALLOWEEN film. I’m so grateful to get to hang out with my pal Laurie Strode again and listen to John Carpenter’s incredible score that I’ll quite honestly (and perhaps sadly) take whatever scraps I’m thrown. I enjoy simply being in Haddonfield and that will likely always be the case. There are fragments of this film that I’ll always appreciate (even if it’s just a chance encounter in a grocery store) but the catharsis I craved eluded me. I’m not mad, I’m too busy mourning what could so easily have been (the vision of Laurie, Lindsey, and Allyson taking turns pummeling Michael will just have to live on forever in my head). Oh, Haddonfield, so much to answer for; I admire your audacity but sometimes less is more.
Writer/director Parker Finn’s SMILE had my number from the get-go and appears to have been reading my diary. My very first kindertrauma involved haunting smiles (SATAN’S TRIANGLE (‘75)) and multiple freaky grimaces have haunted my psyche ever since (the ending of TV-movie DON’T GO TO SLEEP (‘82) is particularly culpable). Everything about SMILE from its sterile psychiatric setting, rampant paranoia, discombobulated protagonist (a flawless Sosie Bacon), aversion toward the familial, and trauma-fueled denouement was singing my name (albeit through clenched teeth). Remarkably though, SMILE went and pushed me even further than I was prepared to go. This is a horror movie that is not afraid to take the gloves (braces?) off, shelve subtlety, and roar directly in your face. I would never give away the multitude of surprises this flick has rolled up its sleeve but suffice to say, my jaw hit the popcorn-covered floor on more than a few occasions.
Well meaning psychiatrist Rose Cotter (Bacon) attempts to help a student who recently witnessed her professor beat himself to death with a hammer. Since the incident, the poor girl claims to have been haunted by a free-floating malignant entity that threatens to kill her and reveals itself by somehow entering random people and creepily smiling. Rose is of course skeptical until the student freaks out and commits suicide in front of her, basically announcing, “Tag! You’re it!” Now Rose is seeing super shady smiling people everywhere, receiving phone calls from beyond, and destroying all her professional and romantic relationships by acting like an absolute lunatic. It’s clear she has to find a way to break the curse she’s under soon or she will be the next person to die horribly and pass the supernatural cootie on. All this may sound familiar to fans of THE RING and IT FOLLOWS but SMILE offers a disquieting downward spiral all its own. Once Rose’s life is upended by the unknown force, the whole world seems to change around her and the alienation and profound paranoia she feels is palpable.
SMILE is beautifully done. Finn’s direction is superb and there’s always something going on visually to back up Rose’s sudden estrangement with her once familiar world (I was reminded of Philip Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (‘78) on several occasions). The score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer is like nothing you’ve ever heard before and does wonders enhancing the film’s off-kilter atmosphere. The acting too is spot on; Sosie Bacon makes you believe the impossible and fearlessly disassembles herself piece by piece on screen. Scary, thrilling, and with a moving undercurrent that urges you to let go of guilt from the past, SMILE is everything I hoped it would be and substantially more.
It seems like just yesterday I was singing the praises of Ti West’s “X” and now here comes PEARL, the prequel that reveals the foundation of horror that film is built on. PEARL is a truly singular experience and quite a sight to behold. It openly borrows from many a classic film before it (everything from THE WIZARD OF OZ (’39) to MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)) and yet feels just about as fresh and forward-bound as a film can be. Freakishly effervescent Mia Goth portrays the title character Pearl, a young girl with big dreams who is trapped on a farm taking care of her scowling deadweight parents, some standard livestock, and a friendly alligator with a big appetite. Feel free to place this lunatic character study right up there with the all-time greats (Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) Willard Stiles (Bruce Davidson & Crispin Glover) May (Angela Bettis), and maybe Iif I may be so bold) that crazy kid Jamie (Sammy Snyders) from THE PIT (’81) to name a mere few). West has never been more confident on a visual level (especially when it comes time to whip out the red hues) and there are more than a few scenes that I just can’t seem to shake from my head, try as I might.
On my way to see PEARL I got some worrisome news (it’s a long story, but suffice to say everything turned out as wretchedly as possible and my attempts to fix the troublesome situation failed miserably) and I have to say it really affected my viewing experience though I’m not sure for the better or worse. I do know that from the trailer of PEARL I was really expecting a hilariously morbid quirky romp but I ended up with so much more than I anticipated. Turns out PEARL is just so damn tragic that it began to actually pain me to watch it. Goth gives an incredible, for the ages lengthy monologue (while seemingly channeling the entire cast of THE SHINING (’81)) explaining her morose feelings, motivations, insecurities, and general psychotic history and it’s legit glorious but it’s also gut-wrenching to visit the depths of her delusions and self-hatred. I’m sure I was a bit over-sensitive at the time of my viewing but geez, I almost felt the urge to tap out before I too joined in her woeful sobs (seriously, it makes my depressing boo THE ATTIC (’80) look like XANADU (’80)). I loved it; Goth & West make an incredible team but ouch! I may have to watch GREASE 2 (’82) to recover my equilibrium.
Late one night during a raging storm, Tess Marshall (a relatable Georgina Campbell) arrives at the small house she rented for the weekend only to find the key missing from the lock box outside. She sees light and a figure inside so understandably exasperated; she bangs on the door, which is answered by an odd man named Keith (Bill Skarsgard, inadvertently carrying the baggage of previously portraying a psychotic killer clown). It turns out the domicile was accidentally rented to two parties for the same weekend! Since it’s raining cats and dogs and they just happen to be in the most dilapidated and depressing area of Detroit, the two form an awkward alliance and agree to share the place together. What could go wrong? Everything could go wrong. Everything you could imagine and a dozen things your mind could never comprehend can go wrong.
I’m not going to be the one to spoil this film’s surprises. Nope, I knew nothing about it going in and I’m a hundred percent sure that’s the best way to see it. (Now whispering) I will say, writer/director Zach Cregger’s BARBARIAN absolutely feels like being trapped in a nightmare that you can’t wake up from. There’s this horrible force that keeps pushing you forward against your better judgment as you go deeper and deeper and sense that where you came from is disintegrating behind you. There is nobody to help, in fact, your every plea for assistance is misconstrued and digs your grave deeper. Every choice you make to fix the situation backfires and makes things worse. You witness the darkest heartlessness of humanity and the unfathomable pain and despair that it fosters. There are no happy endings here, just inevitable decay and rot. It’s all so outlandish it can’t possibly be real but it’s happening all the same. You have a few glimmers of light, a few hopes for escape but you squander them trying to do that right thing for people you have no idea don’t deserve it. Something primal makes you want to cry out for your mother and that may be the biggest mistake of all. BARBARIAN is an ordeal. It can be furiously frustrating at times when the most backward choices are made but I think that just adds to the anxiety and the feeling of hopelessness. It’s a bad dream of a movie and like many bad dreams, it can’t help being as fascinating as it is thrilling.
Lately, I’m super behind on my horror television viewing but recently I got a heads up that the latest episode of the stand-alone horror anthology series AMERICAN HORROR STORIES revolves around the legend of Bloody Mary so I could not resist checking it out. Bloody Mary was one of the many mental phantoms that haunted my young brain and seemed to follow me from home to summer camp and to every sleepover I ever attended. I was never brave enough to say her name three times into a mirror but I can tell you that just looking at my own reflection seemingly mutate while staring at it in the dark was freaky enough to force me to turn the lights back on in a frenzied panic.
This particular re-telling of Bloody Mary involves a “Monkey’s Paw” wish-granting twist to the familiar folk legend. Four teen girls, sisters Elise and Bianca (Raven Scott and ANNIE (2014)’s Quvenzhané Wallis) and pals Lena (Kyanna Simone) & Maggie (Kyla-Drew) seek out Bloody Mary (Dominique Jackson) believing that she might improve their less than ideal living situations. Mary is happy to oblige with the caveat that the gals must commit heinous immoral acts (paralyze a competitor, leak nude photos of a classmate, accuse a teacher of rape) to have their dreams come true. Declining to fulfill Mary’s request is an option as well but then she gets to fatally rip your eyes out. This moral dilemma adds a sharp new edge to Mary’s usual mirror-bound modus operandi.
Directed by SJ Main Muñoz, Bloody Mary is a fresh and twisty take on the ubiquitous campfire story. It’s got many unique curveballs to deliver while also charmingly stoking nostalgia for ‘80s/’90s supernatural slashers like the ELM STREET series and CANDYMAN (’92). There’s a fun, past-curfew vibe to the entire affair and the likable characters feel like more than cannon fodder when their numbers eventually dwindle. Our antagonist’s harrowing backstory is equally compelling and a fine job is done adding flourishes to the malleable tale many of us grew up with. Thanks to high production values, quality writing, and impressive direction this stand-alone, hour-long tale feels like it could have easily been a feature film if it was so inclined. Even if you’ve missed previous entries in this series, check out Bloody Mary, it’s exactly the kind of spooky fun the approaching Halloween season calls for.
Oh, me of little faith. As a big fan of Jaume Collet-Serra’s ORPHAN (2009), I was excited to hear that there would be a sequel but when I heard it would actually be a prequel that took place before the first film, I couldn’t help but be a bit skeptical. How in the world were they going to pull that off? Isabelle Fuhrman was even reprising her role as pint-sized nogoodnik Esther! Say what now? Like many of us, I don’t think Isabelle has gotten younger in the last 13 years. Obviously, they were going to use CGI in some capacity but that’s always less than convincing or a downright annoying eyesore. Well, I’m happy to say they pulled it off with flying colors. There’s actually a lot of practical effects and captivating forced perspective trickery involved, and I’d even say that the few moments when the effect isn’t 100 percent convincing only adds to the film’s overall devilish uncanny weirdness. They somehow transformed an obstacle into an attribute. Praise be.
The year is 2007 and kooky Estonian Leena Klammer (who suffers from a physical disorder that makes her look like a kid even though she’s 31) cleverly escapes the mental hospital where she so clearly belongs. A little computer research reveals that she resembles a girl named Esther who had disappeared four years prior in the United States, so she hatches a plan to take her place. Poor, unsuspecting Allen and Tricia Albright (Rossif Sutherland and Julia Stiles, who apparently has been hiding her light under a bushel for years) welcome the imposter Esther into the home they share with snotty son Gunner (Matthew Finlan) but there are little hints that something just ain’t right. All this may sound like a slightly modified version of the film’s predecessor but stand warned, the film is as clever as “Esther” herself, it anticipates your every assumption and merrily dances on the grave of your expectations (and to the tune of “Maniac” by Michael Sembello no less)
Director William Brent Bell and writer David Coggeshall (with story assist by OG screenwriters Leslie Johnson McGoldrick and Alex Mace) truly understood the assignment as they say.
ORPHAN: FIRST KILL is a delightfully suspenseful, high-camp-infused, LIFETIME movie-bludgeoning, riotous throwback thriller that is every bit as entertaining as the (beloved, by me) sneaky gem that came before it. I’m not even sure we as a society deserve to have such a cinematic joy-dispenser after all of the dumb decisions we as humans have made over the years. Isabelle Fuhrman is a true marvel in her role that somehow harkens back to classic performances like Patty McCormack in THE BAD SEED (‘56) and Bette Davis in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (‘62) at the same time; she truly owns this character. I thought I knew what I wanted from this film and I was worried I wasn’t going to get it but the truth is it’s better than I had the capacity to imagine. Now, I just hope I don’t have to wait 13 years for the next one! Time’s a wastin! We’re not getting any younger!
One of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had going to the movies in many moons is when I went to see Ti West’s X. It just looked so glorious on the big screen with its huge skies, stark horizons, and broad, eye-popping aerial shots. It’s like an exquisite painting that uses every inch of the canvas properly, a perfectly designed iconic flag I cannot resist saluting. And of course, it stands on the shoulders of giants proudly declaring its loyalty to horror greats like Hitchcock, De Palma, Carpenter, and especially, the one and only, Tobe Hooper. Yet I forgot to post about it and the reason for that is that I talked about the movie so much to myself inside my head that I honestly thought that I had. But I recently snagged a copy on DVD and watched it again so now’s the perfect time to remedy that.
It’s 1979 and Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson) has a brilliant plan to take advantage of the burgeoning home video market by producing a porn movie. He gathers together the perfect cast with his main-squeeze, starry-eyed Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), leggy blonde bombshell Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), and the generously endowed Jackson Hole (Kid Cudi). Helping out with directing duties is RJ (Owen Campbell) who brings along his meek girlfriend Lorraine (Jenny Ortega) to handle sound. The film is to be called “The Farmer’s Daughters” so Wayne rents out a rustic farmhouse in the middle of Texas (actually New Zealand) from two of the scariest oldsters you ever laid eyes on. Things get off to an uncomfortable and shaky start and go swiftly downhill from there. I’m not going to give anything away but it’s like watching that “American Gothic” painting by Grant Wood being ripped to shreds by an alligator but both the figures in the painting and the alligator are aging and decomposing at an accelerated speed.
There’s nothing quite like watching a horror film made by someone who truly loves the genre and X sends off love letter vibes in every frame. There’s a certain type of eerie, menacing magic going on here that truly transports; it’s like strolling at dusk through a midsummer night’s nightmare and when the you-know-what hits the fan the horror is palpable and feels as ancient and ubiquitous as time itself. My public service announcement is that if you suffer to any degree with gerascophobia (fear of aging) make sure you bring a blanket to hide under while watching this movie. I’m pretty sure I grew a gray beard and developed liver spots before the end credits.
Unsurprisingly and as usual, a major reason that I hold this film in such high regard is because of the people in it and the humanity it displays even in its darkest moments. Writer, director, producer, and editor Ti West gallantly makes a point not to look down upon, judge, or mock his rag-tag team of complicated yet personable outsiders. In one simple scene, they explain themselves and their outlooks and you kind of have to admire their freedom and ability to live outside societal norms unapologetically. It doesn’t hurt that Britney Snow’s Bobby Lynne sings a surprisingly moving rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” which seems to momentarily stop the world from spinning. X is simply great filmmaking that is capable of conjuring up a cornucopia of emotions, horror being just one of them. Now, I better go buy some hair dye to cover this gray and maybe get some Geritol and prune juice while I’m at it. (Sobs quietly). Hey, why didn’t I get a senior discount when I bought my movie ticket!?! Whippersnappers!
Is modern life so bleak that THE BLACK PHONE, a horror-thriller concerning a boy who is abused both at home and at school and is abducted and kept prisoner by a devil-masked lunatic known as “the grabber” is somehow the feel-good movie of the summer? Yes. Don’t blame the messenger. I’d even say it covertly sports the poignant reminder that we all survive and exist thanks to the acts and sacrifices of those who passed before us.
Ergo, I’d like to thank all my guardian angel ghosts out there. I see you and I’m mentally pouring one out to you.
Finney Blake (Mason Thames) is an affable 13-year-old living in an inadvertently hyper-stylish suburb in the aesthetically appealing golden year of 1978. Because he is modest and unassuming, most of his time is spent trying not to be beaten by marauding bullies or his brutish alcoholic father. Luckily he has a fantastic relationship with his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) who has inherited their deceased mother’s psychic gifts (and is routinely punished for them). Shortly after Finney’s only friend and protector becomes yet another missing boy in their neighborhood, Finney himself bumps into a horrifically bizarre character driving a very conspicuous Magician’s Van filled with black balloons. It doesn’t end well. Finney finds himself in exactly the type of single mattress basement lair all sane minds fear. This one has a phone though- and it receives calls from his captor’s past victims who are generous enough to share helpful advice.
Director Scott Derrickson and screenwriter C. Robert McGraw have already made it abundantly clear they know how to deliver the creeps with their previous collaboration SINISTER (2012). But whereas that film sometimes strained credibility in regards to human behavior, THE BLACK PHONE (based on a story by Joe Hill) has enough heart and soul to fully immerse you in the nightmare it’s selling. Much credit goes to young actor Mason Thames’ portrayal of Finney who comes across as a fusion of the grounded stalwart Laurie Strode (as played by Jamie Lee Curtis) in HALLOWEEN (’78) and the mournful and inquisitive every-kid Mike Pearson (as played by A. Michael Baldwin) in PHANTASM (‘79). He instantly reads as someone you know or have known and if you don’t recognize him it might be because you were him. Ethan Hawke is equally convincing as the chuckling twisted predator who thankfully keeps his monstrous cards close to his chest. And who among us can look the gift horse of a hilarious supporting part delivered by the incredible James Ransone (SINISTER 1&2, IT: Chapter II) in the mouth?
THE BLACK PHONE is able to elicit sympathy for its characters in a way that is sadly too unique in modern horror which ramps the suspense up to stellar heights. It wants to scare you silly on one end of the receiver but the other end wants to remind you that maybe with a little help from some friends (living or dead) all of us are capable of sticking up for ourselves, fighting back, and finally treasuring those closest to us. As a kid from the seventies, I couldn’t help but appreciate how it presented a very recognizable sun-bleached world to me full of humiliations, aggravations, injustices, and the frustration of always getting a busy signal when you give Jesus a ring through prayer.
Ultimately, THE BLACK PHONE is a great reminder that horror films can do so much more than scare us, they can also inspire us to be brave in the face of what seems like insurmountable odds. It’s frightening, yet ultimately exhilarating; like an unholy cross between THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and THE KARATE KID. Additionally, if you needed an extra reminder to stay the hell away from black vans this fine flick provides that too, and in spades.
I finally did it. I finally watched DAY OF THE DEAD again. I’ve been talking about doing it for years. Here’s the thing: back in let’s say, 1986 after DOTD had completed its initial run, me and my younger brother went to see it at a midnight show at a local mall in Texas where my family had just moved to. I thought the movie was great, very thought-provoking and frightening but it also left me with a terrible feeling. It was like this dour, depressive, hopeless ennui that was difficult to shake. It was such a nasty mental residue that even though I’ve revisited George A. Romero’s other films multiple times, I never checked it out again because it seemed like gambling with my psychological well-being. Jeez, I even own DAY OF THE DEAD on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray knowing one day I’d bite the bullet but somehow I always found an excuse to avoid it until just recently (coincidentally right before the anniversary of its release date). Anyway, here’s how it went…
What was I thinking? DAY OF THE DEAD is awesome and sure, there are a few nihilistic moments but it’s not anywhere near as depressing as I thought it was. In fact, it’s kinda rousing and exciting, introduces the most personable living dead creature I’ve ever encountered (“Bub”) and features a very rare (for a zombie flick) happy ending. Ironically it’s rather an uplifting or at least cathartic affair as all the bad guys are treated to horrible fates and the few decent characters are treated to an island paradise. I couldn’t have been more wrong, there’s plenty of fun to be had here. There’s almost a carnival-like video game shoot ‘em up atmosphere when a couple of the heroes are trapped in a funhouse-like cavern and must press forward to get to the exit on the other side.
It turns out my experience had much to do with my own baggage. I was not in a good place in life and I guess the movie exasperated some of my fears and insecurities at the time. Looking back, I remember that I had recently had some frightening drug experiences, had to say goodbye to a few friends and was living in a new state I felt extremely uncomfortable in. Plus it was the eighties and AIDS was everywhere and I think a movie about a contamination so damning it would lead you to suicide hit my vulnerable psyche hard as a young gay man. Even the idea of the civilization coming to a halt was more frightening to me back then; these days I think I’d have more of a “Well, we kinda deserve it” reaction to such a calamity. Romero’s previous dead-flick (DAWN OF THE DEAD) had that semi- enticing “live in a mall” aspect going for it. Wet blanket DAY OF THE DEAD pointedly confirms there are NO MORE MALLS and that alone was a devastating concept to this eighties kid. Sadly, I’ve gotten used to the idea of “no more malls” at this point (Amazon is its own sort of zombie invasion) and yikes, maybe DAY OF THE DEAD doesn’t seem as dark these days because the real world has gotten so much darker (or maybe that’s my steadily declining eyesight