Now that Halloween season is winding down, I thought I’d continue the “comprehensive” list of horror movies I’ve watched in the last couple of months. This includes a few that I’ve seen since the list I posted last week.
I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get around to watching Dead Alive. There’s no way to describe the blood and slime and hilarity and nausea in a way that would do this movie any justice. I watched it with a friend the other night and we cringed and laughed our asses off the whole way through. The only other movies I’ve seen that come close in terms of sheer, watching-with-mouth-hanging-open insanity are Hausu and Santa Sangre. Whenever I think about Peter Jackson’s early films, like this or Meet the Feebles, I’m constantly amazed that this is the director they decided to entrust the Lord of the Rings trilogy with. Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising, though. Dead Alive is a lovingly made film, with impeccable attention to detail. If you haven’t seen it, stop whatever you’re doing now and watch the bloody thing. I’ll wait.
I discussed this one briefly in my last post about suburban horror. It’s not a frightening movie, rather a very silly one in some ways, but being a child of the 80s, I enjoyed the weird goofiness of the whole kid-focused, creepy, horror/fantasy thing, reminiscent of old favorites like Poltergeist, The Goonies, Gremlins, and the Monster Squad. Plus, it has baby Stephen Dorff in it (who has always looked like a surly old man, apparently)! And I really loved the best friend, the dorky know-it-all friend who “acts out” by wearing a leather jacket and listening to Satanic metal.
Return to Horror High
This was a fun horror comedy about a film crew that’s making a movie in an abandoned high school where a massacre took place a few years earlier. Return to Horror High features Lori Lethin, who also starred in Bloody Birthday (a film I covered in Part 1), as well as a young George Clooney in his very first role! The plotline gets a little convoluted, but it’s nice to see an early example of a horror film that skewers the genre conventions by having a movie-within-a-movie – long before Scream 3.
This is a pretty decent slasher film from 1981 (the year I was born) that catches a lot of actors early in their careers (Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, Fisher Stevens). There’s not too much suspense, since the killer and his motives are revealed from the get-go, but it’s a well-made movie with lots of gore and some neat twists on the summer camp slasher subgenre. A scene near the beginning pretty much rips off Dario Argento – a prostitute gets stabbed in the heart, falls backwards through a shattering window.
Worth checking out if you’re bored:
Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers
Speaking of summer camp slashers! The sequel to Sleepaway Camp is insanely watchable, if not entirely thrilling. Felissa Rose from the original is replaced here by Pamela Springsteen (Bruce’s sister) as the affable and perky camp counselor Angela, who murders campers when they get out of line. This movie has one of the funniest “meta” scenes I’ve seen in recent memory, when Angela searches the cabin, testing out each item for its effectiveness as a murder weapon. It’s a nice twist on the serial killer who always has every possible implement of death at his/her fingertips.
This movie is worth watching for the gimmick (filmed in one long “take,” or at least made to appear so) and for the unsettling mood created in the first three quarters. The criticism I’ve read almost unanimously pans the ending, and I agree – it’s a terrible, terrible ending that I had figured out before I ever even saw the movie. But it’s still a fascinating mess to watch at times. Elizabeth Olsen is wonderful, too.
So, I don’t know how this movie ever got made, or how they talked Luis Guzman into appearing, but bless their batshit crazy hearts. The Caller had me in the palm of its hand for at least the first forty-five minutes; a young woman leaves her abusive husband and moves into a grimy apartment with a possessed telephone. She keeps getting creepy phone calls from an unhinged and manipulative woman from the freaking past. The movie kind of unravels toward the end, getting more and more sadistic and nonsensical (seriously, DO NOT attempt to think too hard about this movie). But I’d like to commend the set designers for creating that apartment, at once depressing, quirky, cozy, and shabby.
Sorority House Massacre
Nowhere near as good as Slumber Party Massacre (no connection, really, beyond being made in the 80s and having the word “massacre” in the title), but it has its own cheesy charms. Lots of boobs. And a bunch-of-girls-trying-on-clothes musical montage.
Paranormal Activity 4
I talked about this one briefly in my last entry, too. For me, this was the weakest entry in the series so far. Most people complain about how formulaic the Paranormal Activity movies are, but I thought this one’s weakness was in how far it strayed from what works. My roommate and I were freaked out by the earlier films because the slow burns were sooo slow. Entire nights would pass by without any incident, but in the new film, the directors just couldn’t resist putting some kind of jump scare in every sequence. This made it feel faster paced than its predecessors, but also too mechanical, with too much of a wink at the audience.
Next time — I’ll talk about the movies that didn’t work for me.
First of all, I’d like to say I have mad respect for Brian Collins, the super dedicated guy who runs the Horror Movie a Day blog and also writes columns for Badass Digest. True to his blog title, he has watched a horror movie every single day for the last five years. As much as I love horror, I don’t think I have the stomach for that (or the time!), but when the fall season approached I vowed to do the best I could. Mr. Collins and his blog have been an invaluable resource for choosing films to watch; horror is a big genre, and as with any genre, the tropes can get a little well-worn and clichéd after a while. People who don’t watch a lot of scary films tend to complain about how derivative and predictable they can be — and they’re not wrong – but once you’ve watched a shit ton of movies, you start to see the nuances and slight variations that can make a film valuable or interesting despite what might seem, on the surface, to be just another retread. So naturally, as someone who has watched over 1500 horror films over the course of five years, Collins should know what he’s talking about when distinguishing the gems, the curiosities, or the fun twists from the plain old crap.
While not exactly a horror movie a day, here is a comprehensive list of the movies I’ve watched in the last two months:
Sleepaway Camp: I watched this on my friend Holland’s suggestion and I’m so glad I did. She also recommended Slumber Party Massacre to me, which would make a great double feature with Sleepaway Camp because they are both gloriously silly 80s movies that make you wonder how much the filmmakers were in on the joke. My favorite parts of the movie: the short-shorts and cropped shirts worn by all the boys, the cop’s hilariously fake moustache, the scenery chewing aunt, and the creative kill sequences. Also, the ending – oh, the ending!
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon: This is a neat little piece of meta-horror comedy. Behind the Mask takes place in a universe where Jason and Michael Myers are real and a film crew sets out to document up-and-coming local slasher, Leslie Vernon, as he prepares to execute his first massacre. The humor is winking and deadpan, but not overly precious when it comes to skewering horror conventions. Leslie Vernon himself is charming, affable, and charismatic, nicely subverting the mystique of the evil villain.
Hatchet and Hatchet II: The people who criticize these movies as being dumb don’t seem to understand that the schlocky, over-the-top goofiness is intentional. I liked seeing horror movies that take place around New Orleans and in the Louisiana swamps. Some of the characters are likable, some of the characters you want to see get hacked up (and they do), and Tony Todd of Candyman is always an engaging presence. Mercedes McNabb (Harmony from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is delightfully daffy as an aspiring porn star who shows her tits a lot. All around, these movies are crowd-pleasers.
Recommended with caveats:
Lovely Molly: This is a stripped-down, no-frills “haunting” movie by the guys who made the Blair Witch Project. Even though it’s not exactly a found footage film, it still has the intimacy and simple scares like its predecessor. Halfway through, I realized it wasn’t really a horror movie, but something more psychological. The symbols and themes get a little heavy-handed and your mileage may vary regarding the film’s handling of drugs and abuse. I think I liked the movie because it reminded me favorably of Absentia, another movie that portrays the relationship between sisters and how they confront events that may or may not be supernatural.
The Tall Man: I still don’t know how to feel about this movie, but something about it struck a chord with me. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will say it’s interesting because of its contradictions: it’s a horror movie that isn’t horror, as well as a nakedly sentimental film that is undercut by a big streak of nihilism. The Tall Man is a film set in America (but made in Canada) by a French director whose other films appear to fall into the extreme horror category, which could explain some of the disconnect in the movie’s tone. The rural setting has a fairy-tale quality that is grim and beautiful, but also suggests the director has never set foot in America, giving it an out of time, out of place atmosphere.
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Break: The first half of this movie is great. Ti West indulges in the quirks that he’s become well known for: retro stylistic flourishes, loving nods to genre convention, and long scenes of characters talking about nothing. For about 45 minutes, this was my new favorite movie, but then the last half hour just got nasty and kind of boring as everything went batshit. I still love you, Noah Segan (from Deadgirl, Brick, and Looper). So glad your career is taking off.
Bloody Birthday: It’s kind of sad this movie has mostly been forgotten about because it’s really well-made for an 80s slasher-type film. And as far as killer kid movies go, this one has some pretty impressive child actors, especially the little girl who is the ringleader of the evil pack. She is equal parts innocent and freaky, but never vamps around or hams it up while playing the villain. Bloody Birthday can be a little slow, but the loose structure and unresolved ending keeps it from being too formulaic.
YellowBrickRoad: The caveat here is that the ending is terrible. Like, really, really terrible. But up until that last 5-10 minutes, it’s a really interesting film, kind of a cross between The Blair Witch Project and Lost. A group of academic types decide to write a book about the inhabitants of a small town in New Hampshire who suddenly walked down a road in 1940 and disappeared forever. As part of their research, they decide to travel the same path; freaky shit ensues. It’s actually a lot like Lost – the overarching question was “What is the island?” and here the question is “What is the road?” Something supernatural is obviously going on and one by one the characters go insane. The movie wisely plays coy about a definitive explanation.
Quarantine 2: Terminal: I thought this was a surprisingly decent zombie/infection movie, considering that it’s a sequel to an American remake of a superior Spanish series. Again, Quarantine 2 is not a remake of [REC] 2, even though the first Quarantine was a remake of the original [REC]. Quarantine 2 takes place first on a plane and then in the personnel areas of an airport where the flight’s survivors are locked in by the CDC. I was bummed out that the characters never escaped into the actual airport because it would be fun to watch the virus run rampant through all the concourses. The film probably didn’t have that kind of budget.
Next time I’ll talk about the movies that aren’t great but are worth checking out for one reason or another and the movies that started strong but squandered their potential.