Hey, it’s Halloween time, which means I’m watching Halloweenish shows and movies. And I have opinions. (Spoilers for everything)
The Shining (1980): Supposedly one of the greatest horror movies of all time, this really hasn’t held up. Kubricks’ direction is terrific. The long, slow steadicam glide is unsettling here in a way it just isn’t in other films (and I don’t understand film well enough to know why. Soundtrack, maybe?). The performances are solid… except for Jack Nicholson.
When I was younger, people loved Jack Nicholson because he was doing that Jack Nicholson thing, with the raised eyebrows and the snide way of talking. Late in the movie, when he’s slipping into full-blown family killer mode, it works. Earlier scenes not so much. Kubrick let him mug his way through scene after scene, and instead of enjoying a movie I hadn’t revisited in a while, I sat there wondering how this dude managed to remain a movie star, and how he kept pulling in so many Oscar nominations.
Give me the Nicholson of Chinatown, not this.
Insidious: I was surprised to see this was made for only one and a half million dollars. Watching it a second time, I was disappointed in how it looked–even Stranger Things put more effort into their otherworldly environment. But on a million and a half dollar budget? Hat’s off.
It was also full of terrific performances, and the scares were clever, esp compared to the torture porn films this picture made unfashionable. And that scene with the mask? Thumbs up: solid scares.
Muppets Haunted Mansion: Here’s the deal: you watch this, you get great puppets, dad jokes, cute songs, and fantastic design. It’s the same thing the Muppets have been doing on screen for decades, and if you liked it in the past, you’ll like it even more now that the money they’re spending goes so much further. Plus celebrity guest stars having a blast playing broad comedy.
My only gripe: they mixed the music too loud, so it could be really difficult to make out the lyrics of the songs. I can’t tell if that’s a currently fashionable production choice (since it seems to come up in lots of different shows) or if it’s a problem with my aging hearing (since it seems to come up in lots of different shows).
Midnight Mass: I know reaction has been mixed on this, but I thought this was brilliant. Lot of folks thought it was talky, but sometimes I want to hear quality dialog, even in the horror genre. Reveal the characters with it. Create verisimilitude with it. Give the actors something really juicy to do. That’s why Child of Fire was so full of people telling their own stories, after all. I love books and shows where the characters tell stories that reveals who they are.
Another thing it had going for it was that it was gorgeous. Too much horror ignores visual appeal–or goes in the other direction to show only things that are repellant–but Mike Flanagan wisely seized on the opportunity to show truly gorgeous skies over Crockett Island, and that’s important. It establishes a world is worth fighting for, or at least living in, and it provides the contrast that makes the gross and/or repellant stuff stand out.
More beauty with terror, please. Make the forests look deep and green. Make the castles gothic and beautifully ruined. Pay attention to the environment. Too many horror movies cast good looking actors, then make everything else ugly or gross.
The Changeling (1980):
In a previous blog post, I’ve complained about ghost-oriented murder mysteries, because having a detective who depends on clues fed to them by a vengeful spirit makes your detective seem like they don’t detect very well. (I was writing specifically about the new Nancy Drew show, which I have since revisited and will talk about in another post).
However! When the lead character is not a detective, but is still driven by a haunting to look into a terrible crime, well, that’s a genre I really like.
In The Changeling, George C. Scott is a famous NYC composer who suffered a terrible tragedy and retreats to Seattle, to teach at the UW and compose in an overlarge house maintained by the Historical Society which turns out to be haunted by the spirit of a murdered child.
The haunting stuff is all the ordinary things you’re used to seeing in a ghost house movie–opening doors, secret rooms, the works. It’s the murder mystery where this movie stands out.
I should say that I like George C. Scott, but he never seems all that affected by the moving objects or thumps in the night. If Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrence lands on one end of the “frightened by all this spooky shit” bell curve, with her goggling eyes and wavering, one-second-from-fainting body language, Scott’s John Russell lands at the other end. He might be the most self-possessed hauntee in the history of non-comedic films.
Malignant: I really enjoyed this movie, but not as much as I should have. The buzz about it was that it had this gonzo twist that split audiences between those who noped out and those who thought it was new and weird and a goddam delight.
We fell into the second category. Unfortunately, it also felt a little flat. My wife kept saying “This is very TV” throughout, and not just because we kept recognizing the cast from Canadian SF shows.
One of the downsides of enjoying scary movies is that you end up seeing a lot of the same things over and over. The figure in the mirror. The door that creaks open on its own. The frightened co-ed sprinting through the woods. I’ve talked often about having to forgive books, movies, or TV shows in order to enjoy them, and these old tropes are high on that list. Malignant managed to put shit on screen that I hadn’t seen in a horror movie before.
Then you have a climactic fight that feels small and same-y. When most of the participants are also character I don’t know and am not invested in, it takes the energy out of me.
So, loved the movie but not as much as I wanted to.
The Old Dark House: Before James Whale did Bride of Frankenstein, he made this little gem, about unlucky travelers forced to seek shelter from a (vividly portrayed) thunderstorm in a house filled with dangerous weirdos.
It’s beautiful and a lot of fun. The camera work is inventive (for 1932) and we loved the characters, even the aggravated married couple. Great cast with terrific dialog (when they were given some, sorry Boris) and even though it’s not a horror film exactly, it was a perfect fit for the season.