Monday, October 31, 2016

31 Days of Horror, Part 3: The Meat

It always seems to me that October speeds up as it goes along, and with a snap of the fingers winter is here. It's a transition that many people dread, but I would urge you to savor it. Life goes by quickly enough without us wishing that the present was past, and every season and every day offers us something. Don't miss out on Halloween and Thanksgiving because advertising won't stop shouting about Christmas. The problem with wishing away the present moment is that you always get your wish. Savor it.

I have already written about some horror movies I've seen this season; you can read Part 1 and Part 2 of "31 Days of Horror" on this blog, and it looks like I'm on pace to beat my previous record (maybe one year I'll take the challenge and actually watch 31 movies in 31 days. For now, life gets in the way). I don't have a lengthy introduction to Part 3 - with November breathing down our necks, I'm going to unload a longer list of movies this time. This post will be the meat of this season's list.

So let's get this going. Like Sheriff Brackett says in John Carpenter's Halloween: "It's Halloween, everyone's entitled to one good scare."

Honeymoon (2014)
Director: Leigh Janiak

 The Setup: A newlywed couple escapes to the bride's family cottage in the woods to celebrate their new life together. But after she wanders out into the woods at night, she comes back changed.

Relationships are tricky and fluid things, and it is often the small and mundane things in a partnership that make all the difference. This I think is an idea that lives at the heart of this low budget horror movie from first time director Leigh Janiak. When newlywed Bea (Rose Leslie) "sleepwalks" into the woods at night and comes back acting strangely, we can see the mounting desperation in her husband Paul (Harry Treadaway) as he tries to reconnect with a person he thought he knew. Very few gimmicks or special effects are needed to create a sense of nerve-jangling dread that comes from this basic premise, and the final act is satisfyingly strange and fatal, though it will frustrate viewers looking for a tidy resolution.

Availability: Netflix Streaming, Digital Rental on YouTube, iTunes and Google Play

A Serbian Film (2010)
Director: Srdjan Spasojevic

 The Setup: A retired porn star decides to sign one final contract with a mysterious adult film director in order to provide for his wife and son. As it turns out, no amount of money is worth it.

If you haven't seen or heard of this film, you're doing something right in your life. Srdjan Spasojevic's cinematic affront to good taste is infamous for its scenes of sexual violence and torture, causing it to be banned in no fewer than 46 countries. It required a record 19 minutes of cuts in order for it to earn an NC-17 rating in the United States. English film critic and writer Mark Kermode called it "a nasty piece of exploitation trash," and American writer Tim Anderson of Bloody Disgusting concluded his review of it with the statement: "If what I have written here is enough to turn your feelings of wonder into a burning desire to watch this monstrosity, then perhaps I haven't been clear enough. You don't want to see A Serbian Film. You just think you do." I don't have a good reason to explain why I watched it myself, other than a questionable desire to test my own boundaries. I will say that the film is not entirely without merit from a cinematic perspective, but I would not recommend it to anyone.

Availability: Streaming YouTube (poor quality), Purchase on Amazon

We Are Still Here (2015)
Director: Ted Geoghegan

 The Setup: A couple grieving the untimely death of their son look for a new start in an old New England home in a small town. Strange occurrences and obtuse warnings from the neighbors slowly reveal a dark and bloody secret.

The first half of We Are Still Here unfolds like a horror trope checklist: Old house with a creepy basement? Check. Unexplained noises and slamming doors? Check. Unsettling small town neighbors? Check. A séance with disastrous results? Check. I appreciated the 1970s era and art direction - it was a choice decade for horror movies, and we've seen plenty of modern directors reach back to that setting for their own stories. This is not meant to be an outright review but I can't help but mention that I thought the story developed unevenly, revealed the mysterious beings in the house too early, and didn't convince us to like any of the characters involved. The finale does finally explode into an exciting and climactic bloodbath, but it's not enough to pull it out of the realm of lukewarm horror mediocrity. This is a generally well-reviewed film (95% on RT!) so feel free to disagree with me.

Availability: Netflix Streaming, Shudder Streaming, Digital Rental on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play

Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Director: Robert Hiltzik

 The Setup: Years after a tragic boating accident, a pair of young cousins are sent to a summer camp where the baseball and water sports are interrupted by a series of gruesome murders.

Released three years after the original Friday the 13th, Robert Hiltzik's Sleepaway Camp understandably draws its fair share of comparisons to that better-known series. It lives squarely in the realm of exploitative teen slasher flicks, including the idyllic lake setting, mysterious murders and retroactive sense of camp. What sets SC apart is its absolutely bizarre combination of bad acting and production along with overt themes of pedophilia, incest and gender fluidity. This is a truly strange film that did remarkably (even curiously) well in reviews and box office at the time. For the people out there that hunt for entertainingly bad cult movies (you know who you are), you owe it to yourself to watch this movie. And just in case you need more convincing: just when I thought I figured this movie out, it showed me one of the most surprising and deeply unnerving final shots of any horror movie I've ever seen.

Availability: YouTube Streaming (full movie!), Shudder Streaming, Digital Rental on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play

Starry Eyes (2014)
Directors: Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer


 The Setup: An aspiring actress lands a promising audition, and with it her chance at stardom. But the price for fame is darker and more twisted than she could have imagined.

It doesn't take a long time scrolling through Netflix's ever-shrinking catalog of titles to find yourself in a wasteland of anonymously bad movies, horror or otherwise. While scrolling down and feeling your eyes glaze over you may have already scrolled right past Starry Eyes, which has a cover just awful enough to help it blend into the movie purgatory in the bowels of Netflix. As it turns out, Starry Eyes stands out among the others. Solid acting (particularly by the lead Alex Essoe), confident direction and an eerie synth-loving soundtrack turn this into one of the better Netflix options this October. And while I can't say the film was wildly unpredictable, I was not expecting the level of carnage and body horror in its devilish third act.

Availability: Netflix Streaming, Digital Rental on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube and Google Play

Pumpkinhead (1988)
Director: Stan Winston

 The Setup: After tragedy befalls his son, a vengeful father puts himself at risk to summon an evil monster.  

It makes a lot of sense that Pumpkinhead was the directorial debut of Stan Winston, a man known mostly for his work as a special effects wizard. His career as a visual effects and creatures artist spanned over three decades, and includes such films as Aliens, Congo, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Jurassic Park 3, Iron Man and the Terminator series. Pumpkinhead has a rather simplistic, fable-like story based off a poem by Ed Justin. There's not a whole lot of characterization or narrative complexity to this movie, but maybe I'm stating the obvious. There is a simple and somewhat satisfying moral here about the poisoning quality of vengeance and hatred, but mostly Pumpkinhead is an excuse to watch a hideous monster indelicately dispatch a group of teenagers. 

Availability: Digital Rental on iTunes, YouTube and Google Play

Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead
Director: Tommy Wirkola

 The Setup: An undead Nazi commander leads an attack on a Norwegian town, and stopping them will mean raising the dead soldiers of an old Nazi enemy.

This jubilantly violent sequel picks up at the exact moment of Dead Snow's conclusion (found in Part 2 of this series). The surviving protagonist of that film - who regrettably stabbed his girlfriend in the neck with a hatchet - is arrested in connection with the murders at the cabin. But when the doctors reattach the arm of a Nazi commander to his body, he doesn't stay in custody for long (think Evil Dead or Idle Hands). This sequel takes the core of the first film and cranks the dial to 11 in every category: higher production value, increased violence and body horror, more zombies, and a script that fully embraces its identity as a balls-out dark comedy. It is absurd in its violence and often downright silly in its plot and execution - but for the right people, this is a dark comic gem. 

Availability: Netflix Streaming, Digital Rental on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes and Google Play

High Tension (2003)
Director: Alexandre Aja

 The Setup: Two young women retreat to a family estate in southern France to escape city life and study for school. But a home invasion turns their idyllic retreat into a night of horror and bloodshed. 

French students Marie and Alexia look for a peaceful respite in the country, but all it takes is one backwoods freak to bust that plan wide open. It doesn't take long for this movie to go brutally sideways in a violent way, and once it starts it doesn't let up. High Tension is home invasion meets slasher, with a psychological twist thrown in for good measure. When it came out in 2003, it put director Alexandre Aja on the map, and purportedly it is the reason he was contacted by Wes Craven to direct the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Aja says he was inspired by horror slashers of the 1970s and 80s, and it shows in the visual style and straightforward storytelling of High Tension. He is now one of the directors in the "Splat Pack," and one of the names to watch in modern horror. 

Availability: Digital Rental on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes and Google Play

- Jonathan Ross

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