Friday, October 7, 2016

31 Days of Horror

 I remember a moment as a young adult in suburban Michigan when I stepped outside in the falling dusk and felt the summer end. Growing up as a kid, summer was my favorite time of year because it meant long and languorous days with no school, and at least one lengthy adventure with my family. It meant that wonderful and excruciating boredom of being young and having your whole life ahead of you. It was the sound of lawn mowers and the feeling of dirty, calloused feet at the end of the day. The possibilities were infinite.

Fast-forward to adulthood and stepping outside at the end of the day and feeling suddenly a gust of wind that didn't belong to the summer. I remember feeling distinctly that I had just felt the first air of autumn, and I felt very privileged to have been there for that moment. It made me feel the deep kind of happiness that brings sadness along with it. Now, fall is my favorite season. The weather is cool and gusty, the trees blaze with color, and the season doesn't overstay its welcome. You have a brief time to drink cider and pumpkin beer, to murder an innocent pumpkin and, if you're like me, bask in the macabre.

For the last three years including this one, I've made a strangely satisfying personal tradition out of watching as many horror movies as I can pack into the season. In my head I've been calling it "31 days of horror," and the tradition is for me its own reward. This year I'm going to do a short write-up on everything I watch, partly for my own sake, but also in the hope that it provides you with some brief entertainment or edification. Perhaps you will get an idea for what to watch (or what not to) in the chilly nights ahead.
They are in no particular order or theme (not this year, at least) and I'm sure they will vary drastically in quality. So here goes. 

The Invitation (2015)
Director: Karyn Kusama


The Setup: A group of old friends are invited to a dinner party. As the night goes on it becomes clear that the hosts have some insidious and ulterior motives.

The strength of The Invitation is the same thing that might turn some viewers off: patience. Some might find the slow boil nearly interminable, and it probably depends on how much you buy into the sinister implications that are communicated through the mounting clues and effectively unnerving original score by Theodore Shapiro. The ultimate payoff happens with satisfying suddenness, even if it doesn't quite live up to the horrors of my own imagination. Overall it is an impressively cohesive thriller by director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer's Body), an unsettling journey for the patient viewer.

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

We Are What We Are (2013)
Director: Jim Mickle


The Setup: The Parkers are a small-town family that keeps mostly to themselves, until Mrs. Parker dies suddenly and mysteriously, leaving her two daughters and young son under the care of their stern patriarch. As torrential rain and flooding washes over the town, the disturbing truth about this reclusive family comes to light.

We Are What We Are is well shot and decently acted, and to its credit not over-eager to spill the beans on the thinly-veiled mystery surrounding its central family. This is a well-received effort from director Jim Mickle (he helmed the gory and satisfying vampire thriller Stake Land), but I'm having trouble getting on board. I was brought out of it by some fairly significant flaws in the script and, more importantly, I just didn't feel as horrified by the premise as the film clearly wanted me to be. It does finally lead to a climax that is equal parts grisly and absurd, which helped up the gore factor but made me groan and even laugh out loud (which I don't think was the point).

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

Martyrs (2015)
Directors: Kevin and Michael Goetz


The Setup: A girl traumatized by a childhood kidnapping and subsequent abuse seeks vengeance years later, bringing her best friend into the fold. What they discover while seeking to settle old scores is larger and more insidious than they could have imagined.

I'm not going to lie, I watched this movie by accident. I was looking for the 2008 French original and didn't pay enough attention to the details when I was "shopping" on the, uh...internet store. Oblivious boob that I am, I watched the entire movie curiously underwhelmed before heading to IMDB to find out my mistake. Remember when Spike Lee remade Chan-wook Park's Oldboy to the disappointment of audiences everywhere? This is the French-to-American version of that, though I can't directly compare the remakes since I steered clear of Lee's Oldboy adaptation. I will say that Martyrs is not entirely hapless; it has moments of narrative intrigue and unsettling violence, but ultimately it somehow amounts to less than the sum of its parts. Stay tuned for notes on the (higher-regarded) original!

Availability: Digital Rental on iTunes, Google Play and YouTube

Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (2014)
Director: Kiah Roache-Turner

The Setup: A mysterious outbreak causes the vast majority of the population to become zombies overnight, and the few (un)lucky immune need to go to desperate lengths to survive.

Australia has produced some noteworthy horror films in the recent past (The Babadook, The Snowtown Murders, Lake Mungo to name a few) and Wyrmwood will definitely appeal to a certain blood-thirsty audience. It largely pushes aside exposition and characterization in its eagerness to show off its love for gore and visual style. While this seriously inhibits our ability to care deeply about any of the characters, there are a handful of genuine chuckles and memorable scenes to be found in what is essentially a high-functioning B-movie. For fans of zombie movies and dark humor, you could probably do a lot worse.

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

- Jonathan Ross

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