Halloween Countdown: HALLOWEEN

halloween

Could it end any other way?

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) has, to date, spawned 7 sequels, a reboot, a sequel to the reboot, and more homages and rip-offs than any sane person should ever try to digest. It’s the sort of legacy that can obscure that there’s actually a movie underneath all of that. And in the case of Halloween, a very good one, shot inventively on a shoestring for a producer who was impressed that Carpenter could make a cheap film that didn’t look cheap..

The result is a pure force of evil named Michael Myers descending on suburbia, and both “evil” and “suburbia” are critical in how the film works. I’m sure on Wikipedia there’s a large entry on Michael Myers, filled with canonical info from sequels and remakes that flesh out his backstory. I couldn’t care less. The original film presents him as nothing more than an irrational murderous desire. The best explanation we’re given is that he’s “the bogeyman”, and he’ll always be “the bogeyman” to me: an unkillable, unknowable entity that will reduce you to your childhood fears. (Just when you were discovering sex, too). And that irrationality is not only so much scarier than any bullshit mythology, it’s more mythic, too.

So Halloween should be remembered a primo model of stripped down simplicity: peekaboo games with the camera, well-placed music stings, atmospheric lighting and sound design, pacing that accumulates and climaxes, flashes of dark humor, and immature sexual content hiding a mature sexual subtext that the film is cheeky enough to include and too unpretentious to really explore (leave that to the critics). The film’s greatest sophistication is that it trains you how to watch and gooses you accordingly: each darkened doorway or window becomes a conscious red herring, a place where danger could come from. Like rock and roll, it’s a formula that sounds so easy, but only the purest of its practitioners can get it right.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

Halloween Countdown: KWAIDAN

kwaidan

Perhaps more than any other genre, horror has been at its most innovative on the lowest budget, and a historian of 1960s horror cinema might note that the decade began with Pyscho (1960) and ended with Night of the Living Dead (1968)—the former made by a Hollywood magnate scaling back, and the latter by a scrappy independent inventing a subgenre on a shoestring. Perhaps more than any other decade, the 1960s experimented with the boundaries of what a movie could be, and not just on the small end—the decade is dotted with behemoths where it’s nearly impossible to imagine the same pitch getting so deluxe a treatment today. Which brings us to the strange and wondrous Kwaidan (1964) by the great director Masaki Kobayashi.

Kwaidan is a omnibus of traditional ghost stories, four in total, each about a supernatural encounter in old Japan. There’s very little dialogue, with an omniscient narrator taking the lead. The pace is slow. Nothing ever really leaps out to startle you. There are few dramatic surprises, with the stories generally climaxing exactly how you’d expect them to. And the whole thing runs slightly over three hours long.

Obviously, this is not the most inviting method for those seeking a thrill. But Kwaidan did not come to thrill, but to haunt. At the time, it was one of the most expensive films ever made in Japan (not to mention an Oscar nominee), yet it’s not just interested in cinema as a modern, state-of-the-art medium, but in how cinema could best evoke much older (and quintessentially Japanese) forms of expression. The cinematic techniques are a model of precision and virtuosity. But this also may be the best cinema did at capturing the feeling of folklore, painting, or epic poetry.

Almost the whole thing takes place of lavish sets with unreal backdrops. When I say that Kwaidan is “strange”, a better word would perhaps be “alien”: the film is a trip to another world, and to see it on a big enough screen is to be immersed in a mythic past where the existence of spirits is taken as a given. Faces get paler and paler scene by scene; eyes watch down from the sky; a young man has Buddhist prayers painted on his body for protection. The ghosts in Kwaidan are a warning about the power of thoughts and ideas: memories you should be careful about obsessing over, secrets you should be careful about revealing, stories you should be careful about telling. And the film’s narrative coup is that it ends by bringing us back to the 20th century, with the spirits in hot pursuit.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

Halloween Countdown: THE BABADOOK

the-babadook

This, I suppose, is what our age of streaming media is good for. When The Babadook arrived in the US from Australia in 2014, it fell into a netherworld between genre cinema and arthouse cinema, as if it wasn’t enough of one or the other to be cleanly categorized. It was treated, essentially, as a niche release: it never played in more than 100 theaters at once and disappeared without grossing even $1 million. But after it spent several years of being streamable on Netflix, good luck finding any clique of millennials where at least one member of the group doesn’t know it. It’s enough of a cult sensation that the villain could be adopted, both deliciously and inexplicably, as an LGBT icon, which is the sort of thing only a generation that grew up on irony, social consciousness, and message boards could do.

A widowed, stressed single mother, her disturbed son, and a creaky house: it is all director Jennifer Kent needs, and the ingredients are fraught with opportunity. Horror cinema has no shortage of either tyrannical parent figures or creepy children—but in The Babadook, which has been sent to torment which? Part of the cleverness of the film is that the answer keeps shifting, as a duo locked together finds themselves under attack by a demonic creature that appears mysteriously in a picture book. Kent said that she wanted to make a film addressing a taboo of motherhood: the idea that a mother under pressure can at times resent the presence of her child.

The film was a hit with critics, cinephiles, and genre buffs for having what so many horror films lack, like psychology, color schemes, and a point. Whether it has enough narrative material to fill 95 minutes is debatable, but that’s never stopped up-and-comers before. Jennifer Kent clearly studied her vintage Polanski thrillers, not just for the claustrophobia, horror, and paranoid hallucinations, but for the morbid sense of humor. (It also can’t be a coincidence that the maternal heroine bares a striking resemblance to Mia Farrow, Rosemary herself). She knows how to wield a camera, and she seems to be keeping Hollywood at something of a safe distance. I’m curious to see where she goes next.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

Halloween Countdown: CARNIVAL OF SOULS

carnival-of-souls

The story of Carnival of Souls (1962) may be a chiller, but the story of its making never fails to make me smile. After World War II, Herk Harvey was a young man set to pursue a career in chemical engineering before deciding to drop out and study theater instead. After graduation and some local theater gigs in Kansas City, he took a job for a company that made educational and industrial films.

But he had ambitions. One day, driving back from California after a business trip, he passed by an old abandoned carnival outside Salt Lake City. Inspired, and with $30,000 raised from friends and colleagues, he built a horror movie around it, described by him (ambitiously) as a fusion of Bergman and Cocteau. The film didn’t take off immediately, but after 20 years of drive-ins and late night TV screenings, it became a cult classic (fans included George Romero and David Lynch).

We open with a drag race—two cars, barreling (well, going gently) across a bridge in a case of mild 60s hot-rodding. Mary (Candace Hilligoss) is a passenger, and we catch a peculiar look on her face; she is in a car with, one presumes, friends of her, yet looks so very solitary. After a terrible car accident, she emerges from the scene as the sole survivor. She tries to carry on and have an independent life, moving on her own to take a job as an organist out in Utah. But she is haunted by spirits beckoning her to a deserted fairground, where the dead rise from the salt lake and start to dance.

It ends (for the time) with a surprise ending, which most jaded modern audiences will see coming a mile away. But that jaded modern audience, if it prizes “gotcha!” twists over emotional underpinnings, is also most likely to miss the point. This eerie movie, its atmosphere afloat on cinema’s creepiest organ music, is about being terrified of loneliness but unable to connect with anyone in the land of the living. Besides, for a young woman in 1962, what does the land of the living offer besides leering creeps and stern bosses?

Some scenes look Ed Wood cheap, and others are lit and framed with startling beauty. It’s some kind of quintessentially American low-budget triumph, and it deserves its cult following. Herk Harvey stayed active but never made another feature film (his last directing credit was, curiously enough, an episode of Reading Rainbow). But for anyone who loves independent cinema, or the way cheap B-movies can touch on serious emotional ideas, it was enough.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

Halloween Countdown: THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW & PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE

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phantom-of-the-paradise

Let’s try something new. Tonight’s review goes to not one film, but to a double bill: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974). A movie buff will sometimes mention both in the same sentence because of all they have in common: both are glam rock horror-musicals, both came out in the mid-70s, both traffic in a camp style, both heavily reference old movies, and both picked up an audience as “cult films”—even if Phantom remains a true cult, while Rocky Horror is now so large it may qualify as a bona fide religion. (Like any religion, some are devout, some practice only on the biggest holidays).

The immortal story of the Rocky Horror Picture Show: two straight-laced newlyweds are stranded at an Old Dark House (“we just want to use the phone”) and end up getting sucked into an only slightly logical plot involving mad scientists, monsters, aliens, greasers, dance crazes, and all the shirtless muscles that Susan Sarandon wants to touch-a-touch-a-touch. It is the very embodiment of camp, and you should always reject that notion that camp means “so bad it’s good.” In fact, looking at Rocky Horror, it strikes me that the people behind the camera didn’t screw up, but made the movie they wanted to make in their own stoned, self-pleasing way, even if the traditions it spawned were undoubtedly beyond their wildest dreams.

But the cult and legacy of Rocky Horror are unironic. Goofy, certainly. Bizarre. A vacation from narrative coherence and bourgeois taste. But there’s something sincere, even perversely lyrical, to Tim Curry’s exhortation to “don’t dream it, be it”, and to how the film recognizes the fun that can be had by taking the hilariously square heroes of cheesy 1950s monster movies and dropping them into a pansexual revolution. (Really, the only ironies are that the film’s genesis can be traced to Jesus Christ Superstar, and that the gods of cinema seem to have looked at Tim Curry in leggings and decided to put him in half a dozen 90s kids movies.)

Phantom of the Paradise is something else entirely: the work of an extremely accomplished and rigorous director. A fusion of FaustPhantom of the OperaThe Picture of Dorian Gray, and whatever else De Palma could get his cinephile hands on, it’s about a naive, somewhat hubristic composer (William Finley) who sells his work—and ultimately his soul—to a diabolical music producer (Paul Williams) who seems to have pulled the strings on every trend since rock began. De Palma is nothing if not precise and ambitious: Phantom emerges as a brutally sardonic satire of a bloated, uninspired pop music scene. Its jokes, its music, its cinematic techniques—all are incisive, sneaky rather than stoned. As filmmaking and as commentary, it’s miles ahead of anything Rocky Horror even attempts.

But then irony comes back into the equation. Brian De Palma has been accused over the years of being a cruel, smug, even misogynist impresario of horror. 99% of the time, I disagree—such moral outrage always struck me as a knee-jerk reaction to surfaces, not details. But there is a certain coldness to Phantom of the Paradise that never quite sits well with me, no matter how much I laugh. That is, it seems to take far too much pleasure in the horror its heroes are put through, without offering nearly enough empathy in return.

So for this battle of Cult Horror Musicals, it’s a wash: unashamedly loopy, warm parody vs. witty, jagged, technocratic satire. It’s totally your call which you prefer, less an aesthetic judgment than a kind of personality test. For the season, you should see them both.

The rating for both:

✬✬✬✬✩

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

Halloween Countdown: IT FOLLOWS

it-follows

Sexual anxiety, particularly female sexual anxiety, has been a horror mainstay since more or less always: Nosferatu (1920), Cat People (1942), Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and Halloween (1978) all fit into this in one way or another, and that’s just naming the ones I could think of in 10 seconds. It is as if a genre so frequently cheap, so frequently disreputable is the best way to process taboos. For more insight into this narrative trope, ask a Freudian theorist (or better yet, a woman). But it is into this legacy that It Follows (2014), a brilliantly fashioned horror flick and one of the strongest low-budget indies in memory, makes its bow.

It Follows is a little bit Repulsion, a lot Halloween, and some weird J-horror thrown in, and the synthesis of all of the above is remarkably cohesive, reviving the vibe of 80s VHS slumber parties while still being unmistakably of its own millennial moment. (If there’s a strange and earned tenderness to it, that’s in part because it is the rare horror film whose teenagers-in-peril actually look like teenagers).

It’s also a high-concept elevator pitch if there ever was one: a curse gets passed from person to person through sex, and the only way to get rid of it is to pass it on—a kind of supernatural coital hot potato that will threaten a permanent reckoning for anyone who touches it. Some have said is a metaphor for STDs, but I think there’s something shrewder and less puritanical going on. The film’s horror is less about the physical consequences of sex than the emotional ones. And it is less a screed against post-adolescent permissiveness than it is a coming-of-age piece about young people who stumble into sex, as everyone does, and try to figure out where it intersects with intimacy—or rather, where it doesn’t.

So after an intensely paranoid middle that can spook the hell out of you, it comes to the valuable realization that the logic and fate of its monster, and the marketing coup of a good elevator pitch, is less important than the emotional lives of its characters. It is outlandishly fantastical without being silly, serious-minded without being pretentious—here is a teen scream flick that takes time out to quote Dostoyevsky and actually gets away with it. The camera movements and haunted small town may evoke De Palma and Carpenter, but the most shocking thing about it is its sensitivity.

All that, and it would still make an excellent slumber party.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

Halloween Countdown: DAY OF THE DEAD

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The late great George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) are considered scary movie masterpieces, that much is incontestable. But what of the third movie, 1985’s Day of the Dead? Here we are in murkier territory, the dark midnight of fetish objects and occult fan debates. I was told by some trusted colleagues that I needed to give it a go, and by others that I should avoid it at all costs. There’s no surer way to pique curiosity. Besides, what could be more appropriate for a scary movie marathon than doing something people have warned you not to?

Romero is famed as the father of all zombie movies (never mind he avoided that word), and it’s still striking how sincerely and seriously he takes the idea of the zombie apocalypse. Night and Dawn are both allegories: Night for the chaos of the 60s, and Dawn (even less subtly) for mass consumerism. Day, set at a military base where survivors plot our species’ next move, is a far less likable film, somehow the most claustrophobic and abrasive film in a franchise built around people trapped in close quarters shouting at one another. Dawn of the Dead, where humanity’s last stand comes at a mall, was in retrospect an insane balancing act, mixing the silly with the gruesome in a way that obeyed no logic but its own. In Day, the clash of tones starts to crack.

But what remains fascinating is the timing. “It was 1968, everyone had a message” is what Romero said about Night of the Living Dead. But now it’s 1985, and the two things that are most startling about Day of the Dead are a) its unreconstructed 60s liberalism during Reagan’s morning in America, and b) its ultimate conclusion that no amount of utopian idealism will ever save us. It’s a sour, detached film, covered in red corn syrup and fake intestines.

Already, Romero seemed to be running out of new things to say about zombies. And yet even the film’s fatigue feels sincere. Maybe Day of the Dead was just his way of wanting to say “fuck it all” to the world of 1985 and run away to an uncharted island. It’s the best idea anyone had.

✬✬✬✩✩

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

Halloween Countdown: DON’T LOOK NOW

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There’s a fine moment near the center of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) where a police inspector looks Donald Sutherland in the eye and says, in a voice dripping with dark possibility, “What are you fearing, Mr. Baxter?” It’s a provocative question for the film. Normally in a horror movie, we know what’s out to get us: slashers, ghosts, the living dead, the birds, the fog, etc. But who or what is the villain in Don’t Look Now? There is one, I suppose, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the infamous scare that comes at the end. But the overriding mood of Don’t Look Now is one of exquisitely evocative paranoia: a trap where we feel that some unknown conspiracy of some unknown purpose is afoot, and every bit player—even the hotel chambermaid, even the police inspector himself—seems like they’re in on it.

And so, from the Golden Age of Paranoia (the 1970s) comes a film whose very irrationality elevates it above its brethren: for once, we can’t so easily tell where it’s going. I can’t help but think of how fitting it is that it came out at almost the precise midpoint between Alfred Hitchcock’s last masterpiece and David Lynch’s first. The Hitchcock link is more than spiritual; the story derives from Daphne Du Maurier, who provided the source material for The Birds (1963) and Rebecca (1940). Thus we open when a couple (Sutherland and Julie Christie) lose their daughter in a terrible accident. And, then, some years later, on a trip to Venice, they begin to think they see her…

The plot that unfolds puts us in the realm of schlock and pulp, with murderers and clairvoyants wandering about. But Roeg—formerly a cinematographer, and it shows—exercises a rigorous control over the visuals, carrying it into the realm of dreams. I know viewers who find it slow, who chafe at the dialogue-free stretches and absence of chances to laugh, which means that it’s become the kind of “director’s movie” treasured by cinephiles and formalists above all else. But I couldn’t go without its way of spooking you. Tense and ambiguous to the end, it hits the sweet spot where it leaves just enough said and unsaid to be both lucid, coherent, and aimed directly at the subconscious.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

Halloween Countdown: THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE

devils-backbone

Supposedly, during the production of The Shining (1980), Stanley Kubrick once called Stephen King and asked him, “Don’t you think ghost stories are inherently optimistic, because it means we continue to exist after we die?” King sounded unsure. But something of that essential optimism is very much at work in the first few films of Guillermo del Toro.

Del Toro is at home in the world of monsters—a walking encyclopedia of filmdom’s strange abominations, and a true acolyte of the idea that “the creature” could be the misunderstood hero of every movie it’s in. His reputation (a “visionary”, said the trailer for Crimson Peak (2015)) got knocked to the IMDb stratosphere by Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), the rare pop masterpiece that felt equally at home at the Cannes Film Festival, the Oscar stage, and Comic-Con. The Devil’s Backbone (2001) is its predecessor: a young boy gets sent to an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, where adult trouble brews while a ghostly child wanders the halls.

It is, more or less, a straightforward ghost story, done with del Toro’s visual sense for quasi-surreal proportions and super-saturated colors. Almost nothing in the narrative should scare or surprise you. But on the way home, you might find yourself thinking about how richly del Toro layered his characters, how much he feels for them, and how much the movie is about the hope that there’s something more lasting to human life than just what’s physical. In its own morbidly, bittersweet way, it is an optimistic film. Perhaps because, when del Toro shows you a ghost at night, he doesn’t want you to jump. He wants you to find it beautiful.

Fingers crossed that this year’s The Shape of Water can keep up with the hype.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.

Halloween Countdown: ERASERHEAD

eraserhead

There’s an art to picking a movie for a Halloween movie night: it should be scary but not disturbing, it should have laughs, it should play well in a social setting, and it should leave people pleasantly spooked and not, ya know, traumatized. In other words, no matter how often your friend Lauren feels the need to look away, it should create more smiles than provocation. So here’s one you should definitely not use—unless you have a rarified group of friends, in which case, power to you: David Lynch’s 1977 debut Eraserhead.

Lynch’s place in “horror cinema” is a debate about genres I find fascinating. On one hand, films of his that sometimes get tagged with the label—like Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001)—have almost none of the plot tropes we commonly associate with horror. But on the other hand, they’re really fucking scary, and just as a comedy is supposed to make you laugh, isn’t that the point? Eraserhead, essentially the most famous student film ever made, is a repulsive feature-length nightmare, and it owes its midnight-hit reputation to downtown hipsters who dared each other to see it.

For the newcomers, the tune goes something likes this. In a toxic industrial city, a timid young man’s girlfriend gives premature birth to a mutant baby and then runs off, leaving him to care for the thing. As the baby laughs, mewls, and rots, the young man grapples with sordid attraction for his next door neighbor, has a nightmare in which his head is cracked open and his brains are used to make erasers, and daydreams about crawling inside his apartment radiator where a woman with swollen cheeks assures him that “in Heaven, everything is fine”.

In short, it’s a film that’s almost impossible to spoil. You could describe Eraserhead shot for shot to someone, and then when they sit down to watch it, the irrational terror would be undiminished: Lynch is a master of ideas that don’t “make sense” but somehow strike directly into the subconscious. That much I expected the first time I watched it. But what’s even more surprising, for such a low-budget production, is the film’s utter control of technique, the perfect completeness of its imaginary universe, the moments of bizarre humor, and the way that even though its setting is through the looking glass, it feels uniquely American.

Just tread carefully. Its imagery will be superimposed over everything you look at for at least a day or two.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.