Oct 22, 2019

HELLIONS (2015)


Halloween is not exploited nearly enough for cinematic use, though, thanks to the huge success of 2018’s Halloween, the season has made a small comeback and will pervade theaters for at least the next two years with Halloween Kills (October 2020) and Halloween Ends (October 2021). If you want to get your Halloween fix, you’ve got to stay out of theaters and look for those smaller, quieter titles that received much less fanfare. 2015 was a prolific year for the beloved October day, seeing the release of the surprisingly good Nicolas Cage vehicle Pay the Ghost, the horror-filmmaker smörgåsbord Tales of Halloween, and Hellions, Bruce McDonald’s follow-up to his acclaimed zombie film, Pontypool

Seventeen-year-old Dora Vogel (Chloe Rose) is having a bummer of a Halloween. Not only has her evening gone from attending a party with her boyfriend Jace (Luke Bilyk) to practicing her confession to him that she’s four weeks pregnant, but a swath of demonic trick-or-treaters have descended upon her family’s somewhat isolated rural home intent on, in some way, and for some reason, stealing her unborn baby. After being marked by one of these children with a bloody handprint on her princess costume, this leads to a primarily one-location siege with Dora fending off one attack after another from these costumed monster kids.


Based just on the synopsis, Hellions would appear to be a fun Halloween-infused action/horror hybrid doubling as an allegory. It makes great use of the October aesthetic, littering the screen with pumpkin fields, Halloween decorations, and an army of deranged trick-or-treaters, and though its very loose plot seems to be harvesting Halloween’s own history rooted in sacrifice and pagan worship. Meanwhile, Hellions also seems to be about Dora’s fears for her future – of choosing to be a mother, or not. That she finds herself battling evil children on the same day she finds out she’s pregnant is too on the nose to ignore, which is abetted by the musical score by Todor Kobakov and Ian LeFeuvre, whose main theme evocative of “Silent Night” manifests in the audience’s minds Christmas tidings, which in turn manifests images of baby Jesus. (Abort Jesus? No way! He’s Jesus!) But soon the straightforwardness of the plot begins to dissipate and slowly transforms into a Lynchian nightmare, brought to life by the story’s surreal developments and McDonald’s use of pink-tinting infrared film.

Hellions can occasionally prove a frustrating experience, as McDonald knows the genre and understands how to craft a creepy image, but can’t seem to sustain it. Every trick-or-treater’s design has the power to pulse with appropriate shiverage, and seeing them stand in crowds outside windows, in front of a flaming police cruiser, or idly on a swing set, is effortlessly eerie. Their manipulated childlike voices that whisper commands through their scarecrow burlap masks or oversized button-eyed doll faces cause the hair on the back of your neck to prick up. So why, when McDonald’s capable of concocting such eerie images, does he resort to cheap tactics like horrific dream sequences? Why does he utilize lame jump scares consisting of characters bursting around the corner, or a suddenly screaming television, or eggs smashing against a window – not once, but twice? Why is McDonald smart enough to know when to reign back in his film just as it’s getting a little too stupid (the mirror gag with Chloe is atrocious), but not smart enough to avoid the stupidity in the first place? The alternating infrared film and the disappearing/reappearing hand print on Chloe’s princess costume would seem to indicate that McDonald doesn’t quite know what he’s doing, but the strong points of Hellions, and of Pontypool in its entirety, are enough to prove he does know what he’s doing. The problem is the audience doesn’t, and if these seeming “continuity errors” are part of unlocking the mystery, they’re just not enough of a clue, and could easily be misconstrued as the uneven hand of an untested director.


The abstract script by Pascal Trottier (The Colony) isn’t necessarily at fault; it wasn’t a matter of being accidentally scarce with details. It’s evident by how McDonald shoots Hellions that the story was designed from the beginning to provide just enough details to allow the audience to follow the narrative, but not enough to know, unfortunately, the most important pieces of the puzzle. Pieces like: Who are these demonic children? Where do they come from? Why is it they want Dora’s unborn child? How does Sheriff Mike (Robert Patrick) figure into all this, being that “this has happened before”? But there’s likely only one question Hellions wants its audience to ponder: Is everything we’re seeing happening for real, or is it all just a big, nasty, Halloween-inspired nightmare? That kind of ambiguity has been permeating the horror genre for literally a hundred years and isn’t necessarily out of place within Hellions' story, but the problem is many of its events leading up to its finale were already so ambiguous that they counteract whatever revelation the filmmakers had intended. To really keep in mind Dora’s pregnancy and let it work parallel against the appearances of the demonic children, and the broken down sheriff allows what’s essentially an allegory about abortion to play out in dreamy, unnatural ways. (The whole film, itself a messed up fairy tale, pays multiple homages to The Wizard of Oz: the lead heroine’s name being Dora, two of her attackers dressed in scarecrow and “tin man” [a metal bucket head] costumes, the basket-adorning bicycle she rides through town, the tornado-like storm that occurs inside her house, etc.)

The strong lead performance by Chloe Rose (uncanny in sight and sound to a Chasing Amy-era Joey Lauren Adams) makes Dora an empathetic hero, but her ability to command the screen is disregarded too often by the audience trying to decipher all the weirdness. Unavoidably, the final destination of “did-it or didn’t-it-happen?” – regardless if that had been the intended interpretation – doesn’t matter if the audience has no clue how they got there in the first place.


Some viewers may find Hellions’ message too preachy, and that’s fine – abortion is the most hot-button topic in today’s political world – but there’s no denying that McDonald and screenwriter Pascal Trottier have concocted a clever, unique, if somewhat uneven film to find a way to talk about it without really talking about it. In a pivotal scene preserving that sense of ambiguity, Dora peers down at a newborn baby in a hospital maternity ward. Is it hers? Is it someone else’s? How much time has passed? If everything she experienced was a Halloween-inspired nightmare, why does she have those scratches all over her arms?

Hellions provides no easy answers. Sometimes audiences don’t mind that, and sometimes they really do. It’s likely that Hellions will fall into that latter camp, as its events are very dreamy, very abstract, and difficult to accurately summarize. Concocted of scenes with genuine eeriness and clever story – and who doesn’t love a good Halloween yarn? – Hellions is one of those titles that could be yearly visited come that final October week, but it’ll likely be for the Halloween ambiance it invokes, rather than its bizarre and unclear storytelling. 

Oct 19, 2019

HALLOWEEN (2018): ONE YEAR LATER

I wrote this archival piece nearly two years ago, and nearly one year before Halloween (2018) was released upon the world (exactly one year ago today, in fact). More than just a musing on what I thought David Gordon Green might add to the franchise, it was a reflection on growing up alongside the Halloween franchise, how it forged my love for the genre, and how absurdly, ridiculously excited I was, at fourteen years old, for Halloween: H20 (1998) -- the first Halloween sequel to seize on a 20-year anniversary, and to bring Jamie Lee Curtis back to the franchise. At this point, production on the next entry in the franchise, Halloween Kills, which returns all the major participants from Halloween (2018) for another go-round with the Shape, is well underway. While we all anticipate this next sequel, let's go back in time a little for a melancholy dose of watching both Michael Myers as well as the calendar...


As a kid, I was a devout Michael Myers fan. Granted, I was a horror junkie in general, but there was something about that white-masked boogeyman that fueled my imagination and struck fear into my bones like lightning. I can still remember my elementary-school self waiting impatiently in the living room, on Halloween, for my older brother and his friend to complete their dead hockey player costumes by gluing half-pucks to their faces. It took so long, and I was so antsy to get out there and trick-or-treat, that I flipped on the television hoping to find distraction in the cadre of Halloween-appropriate titles sure to be on. While surfing, a burst of screams and frantic chaos in the dark caught my attention. Feeling good about my choice, I’d put down the remote and began to watch.

That was how I first discovered John Carpenter’s Halloween.

Okay, fine, it was only the last ten minutes or so, but as a young horror-loving fiend, what better time to tune in? The film was at its frenzied peak, and the suddenness and ambiguity of the terror helped to heighten the experience. Who was this man in the mask? Who was this old man in the trench coat trying to stop him? Why here, why now? What is this?

I saw it all — Laurie Strode fleeing and shrieking across the street from masked maniac Michael Myers; her frantic pounding against the locked front door; the couch attack, the closet attack, and the final confrontation where Michael was unmasked and Dr. Sam Loomis shot him directly in the jumpsuit.

For a moment, everything was quiet. The shot had knocked Michael offscreen into a back room. Surely he was dead, right?

Loomis ran into that same back room after him. Michael waited in the darkness — still, and very much alive.

At that moment, seeing his unnatural stillness framed by darkness, I was petrified. Beyond petrified. I couldn’t move — something so simple as a scary mask in silhouette, with a bit of inhuman breathing, and I couldn’t fucking move.

Five more gunshots rang out. Michael flew backwards off the balcony and landed with a crash on the  cold hard October ground. Finally, he appeared dead.

But after a quick cut away, his body was gone.

And thus began a forty-year legacy.

After that fateful television viewing of Halloween, I was hooked. One by one I sought every remaining sequel, skipping Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, as I’d go on to learn that it didn’t feature the babysitter murderer known as The Shape. (I’d eventually mature and warm to this entry, which I now watch every Halloween.) This love for the series continued for years. I bought every Halloween available on VHS, including multiple copies of the original. I bought every magazine or book or figure or poster or anything that bared the face of Michael Myers. Had there been a Halloween secret society, I’d’ve been a charter member.

1995 rolled around and I was in the fifth grade. One Friday in September, a childhood chum named Barry and I were swapping weekend plans on the bus ride home.

“My sister’s taking me to see Halloween 6 tonight,” Barry said casually.

My face went full :O and I begged him to take me along.

He did, and soon after, he became a boyhood best friend.

Flash forward a few years. It’s 1998, and I’m in eighth grade. My love for horror continues, and sometimes I’m successful in forcing my friends to go along with it. Scream 2 had proved such a massive box office success that Dimension Films re-released the sequel for encore showings. And so of course I went. It was then, in the popcorn-smelling dimness of the auditorium, that one particular trailer stuck out among all others:


From the audience’s point of view, we glided down long hallways as heavy winds made curtains billow and dry autumn leaves dance across the floor. An ominous voice growled, “he has pursued her relentlessly…”

Meanwhile, the tick-tock piano music in the background sounded so familiar

“He has hunted her…everywhere…”

I knew I’d heard that music somewhere…

“Twenty years later, the face of good and the face of evil will meet…one last time.”

The music was a track called “Laurie’s Theme” from the Halloween soundtrack, and the trailer, which suddenly flashed to Jamie Lee Curtis looking through a window directly into the darkened eyeholes of Michael Myers, would end with the Halloween theme and the title Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later shrieking across the screen.

What I felt at that moment was indescribable — an insane amount of shock and surprise and excitement that I still haven’t felt for a movie to this day. It was euphoria. It was like meeting a superhero, or winning the lottery. A franchise that had seemed all but dead after the abysmal Curse of Michael Myers was suddenly back with a vengeance, and not only that, it was also hailing the return of Laurie Fucking Strode, the ultimate final girl.

In the dark, I could feel my friends look over at me and make their own :O faces. They didn’t care nearly as much for horror and the Halloween franchise as I did, but I could feel their excitement for me. And they were right. At that moment, I didn’t care about anything else. Once I regained my composure, I excitedly ran out of the auditorium and to the nearest payphone. (Yes, a payphone — it was 1998, ok? The only people with cell phones at that time were Mulder and Scully.) There was one person who needed to know – Barry, my horror movie/Halloween partner in crime – and he needed to know NOW. I was overjoyed, over the moon, and not thinking clearly. I felt like a celebrity, as if I had been the first person in the world to experience such groundbreaking news, and it was my privilege and duty to alert the masses.

Seeing that trailer was magical. To be taken completely by surprise still lives on in my mind as one of the happiest moments I’ve ever experienced. And here I am, nearly 20 years later, and the idea behind what I am saying – undying devotion for what is essentially Halloween 7 – sounds completely ludicrous. But that’s the kind of magic I suspect dies off as your childhood does.

By the time I got back to the auditorium, Jada Pinkett was already dead. I was so excited by this revelation that the exploits of Ghostface and the stabbing of Sarah Michelle Gellar barely registered in my mind. Suddenly, Scream 2 didn’t mean shit in the face of Halloween: H20.

For months after that, I waited impatiently for the poster to appear in the theater’s lobby — to confirm that it wasn’t all just a dream, but a reality. And once it arrived, I stared at that poster and marveled at The Shape’s mask, and took in the pure pleasure of knowing it was coming soon…


Consumer-grade internet had just become a thing (we’re talking AOL 3.0), so naturally, for the next several months until Halloween: H20’s release, I would Ask Jeeves and AOL Netfind everything I could about this new sequel. I’d click over and over on distributor Dimension Films’ official website and watch the trailers and look at the photos. Every fold of my brain needed to be saturated with every bit of info I could find. Though I’m now of the age where I depend significantly on an internet lifestyle, I can also remember what life was like before it. Back then, if you wanted to know about the next installments of Phantasm or Halloween, you only had Fangoria Magazine. And all you were allowed to know about their productions was what Fangoria allowed you to know – a quote here, description of a scene there, and topped off with a publicity still that, nine times out of ten, wasn’t indicative of the final film. Back then, I wasn’t in the habit of bookmarking film sites and receiving daily news updates about projects in production. Nowadays, as a grumpy adult with the internet on his phone, I can assure you that finding out about a new Halloween sequel coming soon in the form of an article by an online pipsqueak movie writer isn’t nearly as magical as seeing that same sequel’s trailer in a theater for the first time — the very first sign to you that it existed.

Always the pioneer, I began assembling my own version of Halloween: H20 “special features” on a VHS tape based on material recorded off television; it included a Sci-Fi Channel hour-long making-of special; an MTV thing where the cast and story writer, Kevin Williamson, hosted Dawson’s Creek trivia in between music videos; and multiple appearances of the cast on late-night talk shows. I watched that tape over and over until I could finally see the film for myself.

Opening weekend, I finally did — myself and a whole host of my chums I’d likely strong-armed into going. My eighth-grade self was not disappointed. Seeing Jamie Lee Curtis holding an ax and furiously bellowing her brother’s name gave me chills. By film’s end, I was legitimately shocked and a little heartbroken to see Michael lose his head. I was very happy with it, and my chums seemed to have enjoyed themselves as well. After months of foreplay, the big moment had arrived: the rolling out of Halloween: H20 felt like the successful culmination of a plan I had nothing to fucking to do with, yet I couldn’t have been more pleased with myself. At home I put together a framed Michael Myers memorial, complete with birthdate and death date, because I was a silly nerd/psychopath. Too young to understand the concept of commerce over creativity, I felt assured Halloween: H20 would be Michael Myers’ final hurrah (LOL), and while that made me sad, I felt that it was a perfect finale. (As an “adult,” I look at Halloween: H20 with a more critical eye, as its shortcomings are no longer veiled by childhood romanticism. The mask, which changes frequently, even relying on CGI for one scene, is terrible; the California shooting location lacks that small-town and autumn feel of Haddonfield, Illinois; the stuntman who donned Michael’s mask and jumpsuit was just a hair too pint-sized to be fully intimidating; and except for the lush and orchestral rendition of the Halloween theme, John Ottman’s score, Frankensteined with Marco Beltrami cues from Scream and Mimc, is all wrong. Those misgivings aside, I still think it’s the best Myers-centric sequel since Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.)

What might be the longest intro in the world leads us to the point of all this.

I was born in 1984. By then, the original Halloween was six years old, though I wouldn’t know it existed until the mid-’90s. That’s ten years. When you’re a kid, ten years is forever. Halloween: H20 was the twentieth anniversary of the original film, but to me it was basically Halloween: H4VR. Anything that predated my existence didn’t jive with the timeline of my life. I couldn’t appreciate the full sense of that anniversary because I didn’t exist or wasn’t cognizant for most of it.

Halloween: H20 may as well have been the bicentennial.

Here were are, in 2017, just a couple weeks away from 2018. And with it comes the twentieth anniversary of Halloween: H20, and the fortieth(!) anniversary of the original. A new Halloween film is in production — for the intent of my point, let’s call it Halloween: H40. Like Halloween: H20, this new film will be ignoring all the sequels and getting back to the original’s roots of dread, suspense, and little emphasis on violence. And Jamie Lee Curtis returns as the embattled Laurie Strode.


If you can avoid getting caught in the petty trappings of the internet, Halloween: H40 has a lot going for it. The production is in good hands with Jason Blum, who has kick started the horror genre over the last decade by sacrificing multi-million dollar budgets in exchange for handing off full creative control to the films’ talented writers and directors (a refreshing change of pace from former rights-holding and extremely meddlesome Dimension Films/the Weinstein brothers), with this approach resulting in new classics Insidious, Sinister, and more. (Dude might also be nominated for an Oscar for producing Get Out — you read it here first.) Jamie Lee Curtis is returning, of course, but the casting of Judy Greer as her daughter shows that the production is more interested in talent than vapid Facebook-level recognition value. John Carpenter returns to compose and consult. And it’s being directed by David Gordon Green — an actual filmmaker — who, comedies aside, has a solid body of work, including the very underrated, Night Of The Hunter-ish stalker thriller Undertow.

As of this writing, not a single frame of Halloween: H40 has been shot, but it’s already as terrifying to me as the original was all those Halloween nights ago. Because, to me, Halloween: H20 is only a few years old. I remember everything about the excitement I felt in the months leading up to its release. I remember going to see it, that all my boyhood chums came with me, and what each and every one of them said about it after the credits rolled. I even remember, upon Michael’s first on-screen appearance, my friend Kevin jokingly whispering to me, “It’s him, the guy from the ad!,” quoting from an episode of The Simpsons — something we did constantly.

Within the confines and timeline of my life, Halloween: H20 feels like it just happened to me. There’s no possible way it’s been twenty years. Yes, I’ve lost friends and family; I’ve moved multiple times; I’ve gotten numerous jobs; I’ve been lucky enough to have fallen in love a couple times. Those childhood friends who went with me to share in my excitement of Laurie Strode’s return, all of whom I miss dearly, eventually scattered to different parts of the world, and it’s been years since I’ve spoken to any of them. All of that makes a solid case for a two-decade timeline. But there’s just no way. I can’t fathom it. And I don’t want to.

As a film fan, a horror fan, and a Halloween fan who has weathered some serious mediocrity over the years, I’m more excited than anyone for the coming of Halloween: H40.

But as a mere mortal keeping a wary eye on the clock and the calendar, it just might be one of the most terrifying films I ever see.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Oct 18, 2019

THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT 2 (2017)



The Houses October Built seemed like an unlikely candidate for a franchise starter. It was a reasonably well made found footage horror film back during the era when audiences still cared about those. It provided a handful of creepy moments, but honestly, overall, it was kind of a failure as a straight-up horror narrative. The five haunt-hopping characters in the film play fictionalized versions of themselves — they’re real people who traveled the country to document the various haunts and celebrations that spring up during the Halloween season. Personally, this is why I found enjoyment in the first film, and why I was able to mine some from its sequel.

Again, like the former, The Houses October Built 2, as a horror film, is a failure. It’s just not scary at all, and unlike the first one where there was an attempt to build suspense and slowly increase the terror, this time around, there’s very little of that. It plays out much like the first one — our characters traipse around the country in an RV, go to different haunts, and every once in a while they’ll hear from a haunt worker that there’s one haunt in particular they’ve definitely got to check out. Last year it was the Blue Skeleton, and this year, it’s Hell Bent.

You know that thing about being doomed to repeat history if you don’t learn from it?

Welcome to the sequel.

Again, like the first, the sequel is a documentary masquerading as a horror film. And I don’t mean that it’s a fake documentary or a mockumentary presenting itself as reality. Granted, a certain percentage of the film is fictionalized. But much of the footage captured is from real haunts and of real haunt actors, and this is why horror fans tend to look at these films as “boring” and “slow.” They’re not wrong to feel like that, because the films are definitely marketed as your typical found-footage horror scarefests; trickery is involved in getting people to watch.


The sequel throws a bit of variety into the batch, this time adding a Zombie 5K Run and even a trip to an “R-Rated” haunt, where its performers use ungodly amounts of profanity and walk around topless. “This way, assholes,” the haunt host says to our characters at one point, beckoning them into the entrance of the haunt, which offered a legit guffaw on my part.

The synopsis explains the rationale behind why these characters would ever go back out on the road after almost dying the last time as the characters “facing their fears,” but really, Brandy (Brandy Schaeffer) is the only one doing that. The other four members — all men — are doing it entirely for the money, as their notoriety has made them hot commodities in the haunt industry. Not only that, not a single one of them seems bothered by their experiences last time. One of them even admits, “I had a blast last year.” It’s…odd.

One thing The Houses October Built 2 has done to improve on its predecessor is its photography, mostly in the form of some beautiful sweeping drone footage that helps to capture very expansive looks at the different places they visit around the country. It’s most impressive during the Zombie 5K Run, whose grounds cover several acres and with very impressive set designs featuring demolished buildings and parking garages, some of which is flooded and dotted with submerged cars. But there are different forms of footage on display, from standard digital camera to phone footage.

Cautiously, I would recommend this sequel if you love Halloween, and its ambience, celebrations, and the different attractions out in the world. If you want to relive your own times spent at haunted houses or hayrides or Halloween parades but you’ve grown too curmudgeonly to leave the house anymore, these films do serve a purpose. Basically, if you’re here for the horror, look elsewhere. If you’re here to celebrate Halloween vicariously through our characters, “This way, assholes.”

Oct 16, 2019

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018)


I’ve been following director Mike Flanagan’s career ever since his debut, Absentia, was quietly released to video following a successful film festival run. I’d been so eager to see it that I’d messaged him on Facebook to inquire where I could find it and he’d politely responded. Now look at him: in less than eight years, he’s matriculated from a kind fellow answering Facebook inquiries to landing the gig of making a sorta-sequel to one of the greatest horror films of all time, The Shining. (He is also still politely answering questions, this time on Twitter.) As we gear up for the release of his next film, Doctor Sleep, which sees the return of Danny Torrance (this time played by Ewan MacGregor), Paramount has done the unthinkable: released a physical media version of a Netflix production--the wildly successful miniseries, The Haunting of Hill House

Following the release of Absentia, Flanagan has remained loyal to the horror genre, writing and directing the haunted mirror flick Oculus, the criminally underseen sequel, Ouija: Origin Of Evil, the similarly criminally underseen horror fairy tale, Before I Wake, and Netflix originals Hush and the Stephen King adaptation Gerald’s Game. Flanagan has yet to make a horror film that’s not been at the very least engaging, with nearly all of them being frightening in some manner, and in different ways. (Ouija: Origin Of Evil is legitimately spooky, and if you’ve been ignoring it because the first Ouija is so terrible, I don't blame you, but please rectify that immediately.)

Though Flanagan is still early on in his career, I’m tempted to call The Haunting of Hill House his masterpiece. While it heavily revises the source 1959 novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson (previously and abysmally adapted for the screen with 1998’s The Haunting), all the characters from the novel appear in the new take, though rewritten to be members of the same family (one of them named after the novelist herself). Instead of a group of volunteers gathering in the infamous Hill house to take part in a study on the paranormal, those volunteers are now siblings growing up under the guidance of their romantic, dreamy parents (Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino), who have somehow taken the concept of flipping houses and turned it into an admirable, artistic act. Hill house is just their latest endeavor, and a huge financial risk, but if all goes well with the restoration, it will be the last house they ever flip, and they can finally build their own “forever home” to live out the rest of their days. Soon, the ghosts of the house begin to victimize them all, especially setting their sights on the emotionally unwell Olivia (Gugino), pushing her to a mental breaking point and permanently altering the family dynamic.


Spread out over ten, approximately one-hour episodes (several of those appearing as extended director’s cuts exclusively on the new Blu-ray release), The Haunting of Hill House is a magnificent piece of filmmaking—one intent on positioning horror and human emotion side by side, in the same way the Crain family lives side by side with the varied ghosts of Hill house. The series is honest about many human issues, some of them taboo topics trapped in the constant debate of everyday news cycles—chief among them, depression and mental illness. Because of this, The Haunting of Hill House is a brutal gut punch in many ways, and one of the Crain siblings, Steven (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones), lays out in one of the opening scenes what a ghost actually is: “A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt. But, in my experience, most times they're just what we want to see. Most times, a ghost is a wish.” That right there is the foundation on which The Haunting of Hill House has been erected. Along with the typical, spooky-faced specters, all of those things—grief, anger, guilt—bleed through every episode, haunting our characters in different, meaningful ways. (Each of the characters also represent the different stages of the grieving process, and their specific episodes appear in that same order.) Though Flanagan has drastically changed Jackson’s story structure, he remains firmly true to the intent of her novel. The haunted house exists in the background, but the story itself is about Nell (Victoria Pedretti), her unhappiness, her inability to fit in, and that being surrounded by people who don’t understand her, and who dismiss her struggles and feelings of isolation, leads to her ruin. This is the crux of the show, so it’s no surprise that the siblings’ relationships to each other serve as the emotional center; the back-and-forth timeline technique juxtaposes their children and adult counterparts, and the prologue scenes will break your heart once you begin to suspect how badly things will go for the Crain family.

In many ways, The Haunting of Hill House is a Rorschach test. If you’re in it solely for the horror, you won’t be disappointed; there are numerous moments that will give you serious, earned chills, and you’ll have fun trying to spot all the background ghosts hidden throughout the show (there are a lot). Meanwhile, if you’re more interested in the drama, you’ll get that too, and if you truly invest in the characters and manage to relate to any one of them, you’ll find yourself in tears. And if you want both, I can’t think of a single piece of genre filmmaking in recent memory that’s gone anywhere as close to offering and achieving those combined sensibilities. You will bring out of The Haunting of Hill House exactly what you want to put into it—like the mysterious Red Room itself. 


It’s a bold claim, but for my money, The Haunting of Hill House is the best thing Netflix has ever done (I’ll certainly say that “Two Storms” is one of the greatest episodes of any television show—ever), and it’s touched many of its viewers in different ways. (DG’s own Samantha Schorsch wrote a beautiful and deeply personal piece about it, which you need to check out ASAP.) For as long as I’ve delved into films and television as a means for exploring artistic expression, I’ve been hearing people say, “Such and such changed my life,” and for years I wrote that off as a clichéd, bullshit expression that didn’t mean anything—a haughtier but equally vague way of saying something was “amazing.” Following my now multiple viewings of The Haunting of Hill House, I finally understand what those people were saying. Its many themes about life, its ruminations on death, and the way it presents real struggles of people both ordinary and extraordinary have resonated with me in a profound way, and I can honestly say The Haunting of Hill House has changed my life.

Flanagan is currently hard at work on a spiritual follow-up, The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Another tale of children growing up in a haunted house, it premieres October of 2020. Between that and Halloween Kills, this next year is going to be the most agonizing wait of my life.

The Haunting of Hill House is now available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment. Even though we’re all slaves to Netflix and have access to it whenever we wish, I would implore you to buy this release. Encourage Netflix to consider further physical releases of their properties—something I wish would become commonplace, as far too many Netflix originals are languishing behind the streaming service’s paywall—but more importantly, buy this release to encourage smart, honest, and emotional horror. We could use more of it.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Oct 15, 2019

THE WITCHES (1990)


[Contains spoilers for the film and book, The Witches.]

Whether you’re a genre person or a typical cinephile, certain films leave an indelible impression on you, especially at a young age. And if you’re a genre person, certain titles with a slight horror bent have the power to stick with you—especially if said film, though marketed as being kid- and family-friendly, doesn’t necessarily feel like something a kid should be watching. Depending on your sensibilities, those kinds of titles can differ. (I still get nervous when Christopher Lloyd’s eyes go cartoon-3D in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) One of those titles, for me, is definitely The Witches, an adaptation of the novel by famed author Roald Dahl, himself no stranger to seeing his works adapted into certain kinds of other so-called kid-friendly insanities. See: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.


Starring Angelica Huston as the German-bred Miss Ernst, the Grand High Witch of the world’s entire witch population, and unexpectedly directed by Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now), The Witches, on its surface, is your typical kid-friendly adventure story. A young boy, Luke (Jasen Fisher), while on holiday with his Swedish grandmother, Helga (Mai Zetterling), discovers that representatives of witches all over the world have gathered to have a witches’ convention in their very same hotel. After Luke crashes the closed-door convention, he overhears that Miss Ernst has a plan to disappear the children of the world: she orders her fellow witches to open up candy shops in their homelands and spike their delectable sweets and deserts with her magical potion called Formula 86, which will turn the children who eat them into mice. Naturally, Luke is discovered eavesdropping, and after attempting to escape, he’s caught and turned into a mouse himself—along with a fellow adolescent hotel miscreant, Bruno (Charlie Potter). Now trapped in mouse form, Luke and Bruno work together, along with Luke’s wily grandmother, to save the day—and, hopefully, return themselves to boyhood. 

Along the way, so many disturbing mouse mutant puppets will be wrangled.


And that right there is what caused so many childhood nightmares, courtesy of the puppet effects from the legendary Jim Henson Puppet company, not to mention the overall themes of the story itself. The most disturbing aspect of the film is that witches, though it’s never explained why, utterly abhor children—not just enough that they’re planning a near mass-extermination of them, but that, beforehand, witches have been known to kidnap children and do dastardly things to them behind closed doors. Granted, by comparison, the scheme to essentially kill the world’s children is worse than the errant kid kidnapping, but that scheme is only ever a scheme—an idea—something that’s said out loud, but could never be depicted. However, the film opens with a story of witchcraft, and of kidnapping, and of seeing a young girl disappear while her parents scream her name in the streets and police investigate a missing pail the young girl was known to be carrying.

A girl that is never seen again.

Helga, her past which is also kept a little vague, knows an awful lot about witches, schooling her grandson Luke during the opening moments, showing off the nub where her little finger used to be that she lost while confronting a witch at some point in her past. Take that, and add some double-parental vehicular death, and bam—you’ve got your first EIGHT MINUTES of the movie.


The Witches has always been a personal favorite, and that likely has to do with the hard, somewhat maniacal, and whimsical edge that the film shows off. This isn’t what one would call a “safe” flick to put on for kids. It’s certainly not violent—at least not till the end, but even then, the impact of violence tends to lessen when violent acts are being committed against non-human beings, and that’s how The Witches ends. No, the real disturbing moments come from the witches’ utter hatred of children, and the diabolical schemes they hope to enact to rid the world of them for good. More disturbing, however, are when the witches shed their human disguises when in shared company, sliding off their wigs and peeling off their faces to reveal live-action versions of cartoon witch faces: long, peppery noses, terrible complexion, large bulbous eyes, and totally bald. 

Angelica Huston has a blast with the role, despite having to undergo long and grueling make-up sessions to put her into full-on witch mode, and with her German accent, she very subtly calls forth allusions to other, real-world events in which a race of people were nearly exterminated off the face of the earth. Whether or not this was intentional, the association is there all the same, and this only adds to the dark tone. Mai Zetterling, largely unknown to American audiences, also does admirable work in a role that’s more restrained, and in a film with a concept as ludicrous as witches turning children into mice. Granted, she’s a tired, elderly woman hampered with diabetes, but she’s also Luke’s protector, and a fierce one at that. 


Amusingly, Dahl was distressed and angered by the film, calling it mean-spirited and scary, even though the adaptation had mellowed some of the novel’s darker tone. (The ending of the book even has Luke, still in mouse form, postulating that a mouse’s brief lifespan means he and his grandmother would probably die around the same time. (Yikes.) This ending was shot but not used, as Roeg had vied for the happier end instead, which angered Dahl, causing him to boycott the film’s release and dissuade audiences from going to see it. )

The Witches is now on Blu-ray from Warner Archives in time for the best, witchiest time of year, and for those of us who grew up with the film, but are old enough to have kids of our own, it’s the perfect time to introduce a new generation to this weird, wacky, and somewhat morbid tale of witches, mice, and cress soup. 

Besides, Rowan Atkinson’s in it, and if kids love one thing, it’s Rowan Atkinson! 


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Oct 12, 2019

EXTRAORDINARY TALES (2016)


Hey, have you heard of Edgar Allan Poe?

Good.

Because at this point in time, nearly 170 years after his mysterious death, there is nothing more that needs to be said about him. He is the Shakespeare of the macabre, and his prose remains as beautiful as it is intimidating. He’s been a constant source of inspiration for an array of artists – from H.R. Giger to Roger Corman – and he’s as popular today as he’s ever been. From the little seen but frankly wondrous episode of Masters of Horror entitled "The Black Cat," to the one-man show starring actor Jeffry Combs that production inspired, to the big budget The Raven (I didn't say they were all good), Poe-inspired projects are constantly coming along to whet the appetites of his legions of devotees.


Extraordinary Tales stands as one of the best. Five of Poe's most famous stories are told (separately), with very different animation techniques utilized to help suit each story as well as stress the anthological nature of the project. It does an excellent job of, if not fully covering the breadth of Poe's original stories, at least capturing their essence. Though Garcia hasn't transposed 100% of the text of each story, but he has captured what made those stories so powerful, and he's brought them to life using the same kind of striking imagery that's certainly worthy of the legendary texts they complement. Keeping it all contained is a somewhat awkward wraparound segment that sees the spirit of Poe embodied by - you guessed it - a raven, as he returns to what appears to be the cemetery of his legacies while he's pursued by Death, who seems to be speaking to him through the many tombstones baring the names of his most famous female creations. Though this segment doesn't quite work, and the raven itself looks somewhat cheap, the actual cemetery "set" is a gorgeous creation - what appears to be a digitized version of a handcrafted paper model.

The Fall of the House of Usher kicks things off with its use of what looks to be wooden models, made both blocky and somewhat angular with heightened features. Christopher Lee provides the narration as well as the voices of the story's sole two characters. The original text, much like the other stories to come, has been pared down, but also kept mostly intact. This isn't the case of a writer retelling the story while taking it in his own direction: the story as you remember it is the same as presented here, if in a somewhat truncated manner. The animation looks quite good, and the musical score by Sergio De La Puente (who scores every segment) is absolutely beautiful.


The Tell-Tale Heart switches to an all black-and-white aesthetic recently utilized by the likes of Sin City and the under-seen Renaissance, and is complemented by archival audio of Bela Lugosi. In terms of guest narrator impact, this one just might play the best, as the pops and hisses from the original recording (purposely left intact by the director) add an old-school charm and somehow helps to heighten the tension of this story. Unfortunately, the brief running time of this particular segment doesn't allow the original text to stretch its legs. The remarkable thing about the story is how unbearable the murder finds the old man's beating heart to be, growing terrified that the policemen in his house are going to hear it and arrest him for murder. But it's the story's short running time that severs a lot of this tension; the murder's confession is so immediate and surprising that any established tension immediately dissipates. Had it been longer, it would've been a highlight of the anthology.

The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valedemar utilizes the most clever of animation techniques, implanting the story in an EC Comics-come-to-life design in which every panel is colored relying only on vivid comic book colors. Being that Valedmar is one of Poe's most ghastly stories, and certainly the most drippy and gooey in the anthology, it was a perfect tactic to use. That the Mesmerist is clearly modeled after Vincent Price (who starred in a lot of Poe-inspired films and voiced many audio versions of his stories) is an awesome bonus and one geared directly to the super nerd. Julian Sands voices all the on-screen characters and does a commendable job.


The most surprising aspect of The Pit and the Pendulum is how much of a good job guest narrator Guillermo Del Toro does in bringing the story to life. His is not a voice one would typically think of in terms of narration, but he does a tremendous job in bringing a lot of emotion and tension to the story (and being that the story is about a man taken prisoner during the Spanish inquisition, he's also an appropriate choice). However, the adaptation of the story falls a little flat, being that it's mostly about a prisoner fighting off rats and then easily escaping from the swinging pendulum. (Spoiler?) Perhaps Pendulum is one of those stories that simply works best on the page. The animation is pretty impressive, however, brought to life by a near Pixar-level of quality, emboldened by a lot of detailed textures.

The Masque of the Red Death caps off the anthology in beautiful watercolor and is a largely narration-free story. Roger Corman, who directed several Poe adaptations with Vincent Price, gets exactly one line in the entire thing (and he does pretty good!), but the beauty of the images and how the camera moves about them more than aptly propels the story. (If the kids have been in the room during every segment up to this one, now's a good time to send them to bed. Unless you want them to see an animated orgy.)


The biggest bummer about Extraordinary Tales is its running time. Clocking in at a respectable 73 minutes, it's a shame that writer/director Raul Garcia (an animator for many famous Disney films) couldn't have added just one more story - or poem. (His artistic take on The Raven has the potential to be excellent.) It's also a shame that he couldn't have added just a few more minutes of running time to his adaptation of The Tell Tale Heart, as it really could have benefited from it.

Extraordinary Tales isn't the definitive take on the word of Edgar Allan Poe, although it may have come the closest in terms of preserving much of the author's original prose in the film medium. Poe remains a pop culture phenomenon even today, acting not just as the godfather of gothic literature, but also as a conduit of comfort for kids who don't quite feel like they connect with the rest of society (which Poe barely did). His emotional instability, as well as his equal parts egocentricity and inferiority complex influenced much of his writing, and it's also come to represent his reputation. His is an existence that will always prove different things to different kinds of people, but one thing remains certain: Poe had an uncanny ability for invoking sadness alongside more traditional horror iconography - he's probably the only author in existence who could write effectively about horror and despair - and, if nothing else, Extraordinary Tales ably captures that.