Some short reviews of Halloween-themed binge watches from this year (which isn’t over yet, obviously).
Horror is at once my least- and most-favorite genres. I don’t like stuff that too gross or gory. I’m not a big fan of torture, or grime, or people being torn apart. Misogynistic torture porn is my least favorite sort of movie. Spooky, evocative supernatural stories might be my favorite.
Anyway, this is what I’ve watched so far this year. And I’m sending this out as a first draft, so please forgive any awkward phrasing.
I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (Netflix streaming): A quiet, understated ghost story about a timid live-in nurse who comes to care for a horror writer with dementia. She slowly comes to realize that the author’s most famous work may not have been fiction, and that her house might be haunted. There’s not a lot of story here, but there is a lot of quiet dread.
The Shining (Netflix streaming): Kubrick’s horror classic still holds up today, and it does so without a lot of shadowy figures in dark rooms. King himself was unhappy with this adaptation because he wanted an everyman actor to play Jack Torrance, because to him it’s a story of an average man who loses control. King thought Jack Nicholson was too much of a wild man, and famous for his role in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. But this is Kubrick’s story, and he’s got other things on his mind. Brilliant film, full of unforgettable moments.
Ringu (library dvd): Somehow I’ve missed this up until now, but I confess that I admired it more than I enjoyed it. There are, as far as I can tell, two sorts of ghost story. One where the main purpose of the story is to uncover a hidden truth, and one that doesn’t have a hidden narrative to uncover. The Shining was the latter, while Ringu is the former. That hidden narrative was interesting enough, but it didn’t feel solid.
The Sixth Sense (Netflix streaming): Everyone talked about the twist ending of this show, but what really makes this movie work is that it has two twists. The first is spoiled by that famous four-word line of dialog, and it takes a long time to get there. Still an enjoyable movie, though.
1408 (library dvd): A haunted hotel room is a fine idea for a story, but this whole thing feels expensive but uninspired. I enjoyed it while I watched it, but I’ve already forgotten most of the story.
Kwaidan (Netflix dvd): A big hit at Cannes in 1965, this anthology of ghost stories is very long and very beautiful, in a lavish studio technicolor way.
The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix streaming): Probably the scariest thing I watched this year, and I loved it. The combination of kids in danger, sound design, and continually building tension made me turn it off, more than once. After the first few episodes, I felt acclimated to it and was happy to binge to the end. Loved it, except the end. Honestly, the ending was pretty much a betrayal of the first nine-and-a-half episodes. But the rest of it was ::chef’s kiss::
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (Netflix streaming): I never watched the sitcom or the various cartoons, and I never read the comics, so I put this one on my queue solely based on the strength of the trailer. The show aims high, mixing horror and comedy and a bit of camp, which is not an easy tone to hit. It has a great cast, sharp writing, and it amazing to look at.
Ash vs The Evil Dead season 3 (library dvd): Speaking of difficult tones that are hard to get right, this third season of Ash vs the Evil Dead works like gangbusters, introducing Ash’s daughter, and losing some of the convoluted plotting off the earlier seasons. Even Lee Majors makes a brief return. I said above that I didn’t much care for gore, but I make an exception here. They don’t always get the tone right, but but they get it right enough that I can stick with it. It’s a shame the show was cancelled, but what a send off. I loved it enough to take a chance on the dvd commentary (which I regretted, as usual).
Constantine (Netflix streaming): There’s a lot of money and energy and charisma behind this, but it just doesn’t hold up.
Frailty (library dvd): Axe murder is one of the horror tropes that I try to avoid as much as possible, because it’s usually an excuse for fake gore, and I’m not a fan. But this movie turns the camera away at just the right moment, leaving the focus on the murderous father on a mission from God and his relationship with his sons. Super effective and very creepy.
It (2017) (library dvd): There are a few problems with this film, especially the way they treat Beverly as a plot device. But it has tremendous energy and a fantastic balance between youthful camaraderie and the threats surrounding the kids, whether supernatural or not. The structure was so solid I did a beat sheet for it. Now I just need to find time to break it down farther.
Ganja & Hess (library dvd): This is art-horror from the early seventies, a vampire movie directed by a Bill Gunn, a black playwright, actor, and director who also plays a supporting role here. Like a lot of older artsy movies, it tries the patience at times, but it also thwarts every genre expectation (in a good way). The original film was butchered by a distributor who wanted to show a blaxploitation film, but it’s been restored to the 110 minutes it’s supposed to be. Worth seeing, mostly because it’s different and an under appreciated classic.
The Night Stalker (my own dvd): One of the few movies I own. It has problems, but the structure is perfect, and it deserved to be a huge hit when it first aired. I watch it every year, and still love it.
Salem’s Lot (1979) (my own dvd): Far superior to the 2004 version, this simplification of Stephen King’s original novel still has chills, even 40 years later. My wife didn’t think much of it, since much of the staging and performances are dated, but revisiting it over the summer convinced me to pick up a copy of my own, and I’m glad I did.
The Transfiguration (Netflix streaming): Another art-horror film, this time one that combines the vampire story with hood dramas. The protagonist is a fourteen-year-old boy in Harlem who is obsessed with vampires and blood-drinking. This is another slow, quiet film, without much in the way of supernatural elements. I’m glad I saw it, but I probably won’t watch it again.
He Never Died (Netflix streaming): Like Kwaidan, this isn’t exactly horror, but it’s close enough to qualify. Henry Rollins plays a sort of immortal vampire, but one who feasts on flesh as well as blood. And he’s lived for so long that he has pretty much given up on life. Then he discovers that he has a daughter, and his quiet, controlled life begins to spin out of control. The movie is funnier than it sounds, with Rollins giving a quiet, droll performance, but it looks like that miniseries about the character will never happen.
Interview with a Vampire (Netflix streaming): This holds up much better than I expected, possibly because it’s a period piece that feels so grounded in its period. Few things become dated as quickly as a child actor’s performance (see Salem’s Lot above) but not Dunst. But the real strength of this film is the relationship between Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. They’re great together.
Hereditary (Netflix dvd): Probably the second scariest thing I’ve watched so far this year. It felt a little confused, but it was one of a number of stories where the protagonists were threatened by spells and magic rather than traditional monsters or hauntings. Great performances, with a whole bunch of scary images at the end that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It’s not often that I see horror films that make magical rituals or other spell casting work, but boy, does it.
The Ritual (Netflix streaming): This one combines a ritual magic story with a lost-in-the-woods monster story, and is mostly getting good word of mouth based on its unusual (and highly effective) monster design. The monster is not the real appeal, though. It’s the mounting tension and inexplicable threats the characters face.
The Wailing (library dvd): The third and final film about horror driven by magic spells, and this one had my wife and I guessing until the very end. Who is trying to do harm? Who is trying to help? It’s a longish film and starts off as a sort of horror comedy, with a buffoonish protagonist. As it progresses, shit gets more and more serious, and the buffoon turns into something else. I don’t think the film was playing fair 100% of the time, but I still loved it.
Evolution (library dvd): A quiet piece of French body horror about children in an island community who are being experimented on by their “mothers”. It’s weird and unsettling, filled with long quiet moments and blank, staring expressions. I liked it, but sometimes I thought it was deliberately trying my patience. Art/body-horror, if you can believe it. Side note: the ocean is creepy.
Slither (library dvd): This James Gunn horror comedy isn’t as funny as I remember it, but it was still pretty great. It’s hard to believe this was a huge flop that scared filmmakers off horror comedies for years. Nathan Fillion was his usual charming self, but some of his dialog could have been sharper. it was Elizabeth Banks and Michael Rooker that really make the film work. We could stand to have more alien invasion horror.
The Endless (Netflix streaming): A bunch of people have recommended this to me, but the sound mix made it hard for me to hear. I’ll have to try again another time, maybe when I have a chance to really crank the volume.
The Monolith Monsters (library dvd): I’ve seen this several times over the course of my life, and it was nice to revisit. It’s the only black and white show on this year’s list, which is unusual for me, but I really love the central conceit, about mindless alien stones that petrifies people.
Stranger Things (Netflix streaming): Oh hey there’s this sci-fi horror thing on Netflix you might have heard of. It’s pretty great. I’ve watched it a bunch of times, but every time I put it on, I end up getting hooked.