Showing posts with label horror movies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label horror movies. Show all posts

Sep 18, 2020

Z (2019)

[Contains minor spoilers.]

When I was a kid, I had an imaginary friend named Mr. Suit. I called him that because of the old looking clothes that hung from his tall and lanky body, completed by a matching bowler hat and a beard so thick that Grizzly Adams would’ve felt genetically deficient. I never told my parents about Mr. Suit, and I made sure never to “play” with or talk to him when they were around, because, by that time, I was already feeling a little ostracized by the other kids at school and I didn’t want to engage in any further behavior that might seem weird. You see, I somehow knew Mr. Suit was imaginary, and no one else could see or hear him, so why complicate my life even more? Still, he was my only friend, so I almost always did the things he’d tell me to – most of which were pranks, and fairly harmless. He used to make me pinch clothespins around the tail of a neighborhood cat that often wandered my small town’s backyards looking for food, or he told me to dig up large shrubs from the neighbor’s garden and plop them down in the middle of the busy road so cars would come along and plow into them in the dark. One night, very late, Mr. Suit told me to go stand next to my mother and stare at her as she slept; eventually, he said, I’d know what to do, because he would guide me. I did what he said, but after a while, no epiphany came, so I merely stood at her bedside and stared at her in the dark until she’d woken up on her own and, upon seeing me, let out a half scream of surprise. This was the most dramatic show of influence Mr. Suit ever perpetrated over me, and as time went by, he visited less and less until he never came again; I assumed he’d dismissed me as a disappointing protégé and moved onto a more promising kid. For a long time after, I questioned what Mr. Suit wanted from me until the day came when I finally understood that I was Mr. Suit, and I was the one telling myself to do these things. I wrote it off as childhood nonsense and eventually forgot about the whole thing. A few years ago, I was reading online about area serial killers and that was when I first learned about H.H. Holmes, known, infamously, as the first serial killer discovered in the United States and subject of the non-fiction book The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (the adaption of which is allegedly coming from Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company and possibly director Martin Scorsese). Upon seeing the last photograph taken of this murderer of 27 people before he was hung in 1896 in Philadelphia, roughly fifteen minutes away from my childhood home, I would’ve told you, without a moment’s hesitation, that this H.H. Holmes had been my childhood friend, only his name back then was Mr. Suit, and he’d slept standing up behind the curtains in my room at night while softly laughing at the funny dreams I assumed he was having, or maybe at all the weird, dangerous things he was conjuring in his imagination for me to do.

I’m obviously kidding. My point is: imaginary friends are creepy, aren’t they? And in horror, they are typically one of two things: the devilish, dangerous side of a child’s personality, or a walking entity masquerading as childhood fancy. The imaginary friend is an under-explored concept in horror, generally utilized in haunted house movies (The Conjuring, The Grudge) where it ceases being referred to as such after the first act, because by then it’s revealed that said imaginary friend is actually a trapped spirit or something much worse. Rarely does the imaginary friend concept stick around for the duration; the closest exception I can drop is, hilariously, Drop Dead Fred.

And that’s what makes co-writer/director Brandon Christensen’s Z so refreshing. Elizabeth (Keegan Connor Tracy) is one of many parents in the world who accepts the fact that her son, Josh (Jett Klyne), has an imaginary friend, this one named “Z.” Over time, however, Elizabeth begins to realize that “Z” has an unhealthy hold over her son, and may be persuading him into doing increasingly dangerous things. “Z,” also, becomes much more than imaginary, in that she begins to see him in the flesh, and with everyone else in her life, including Josh’s father, Kevin (Sean Rogerson), not experiencing the same things she is, her battle against “Z” soon becomes one she has to fight on her own.

Z seems to have picked the bones of the last ten years of supernatural fright flicks, including Lights Out, Sinister, and especially Insidious, but that’s not necessarily a complaint. The horror genre has always been cannibalistic, perpetuating itself by living off previously explored ideas. Ironically, even Insidious is a perfect example, in that it’s story of ghostly events leading a scared family to obtain the services of mystics and paranormal investigators has been lovingly borrowed from Poltergeist. On the surface level, Z is familiar territory – the peculiarly acting child and his creepy drawings, the lone parent who begins to question her sanity – but as Z plays on, it begins to forge its own identity. There’s a genuine attempt at establishing histories for our characters, which not only help us to sympathize with them, but which also provide just enough personal trauma to make us wonder if the creepy goings-on are actually the result of our lead character’s psychological break with reality instead of a surface-level supernatural infestation. 

The titular boogeyman is only spotted a handful of times, and only for a few frames. All told, “Z” appears on screen for less than three seconds across its entire running time, but what you see is genuinely unnerving. The golden rule in the haunted house sub-genre is the more you see the specter, the less effective it becomes. In that regard, Z presents its creepy figure in just the right way. (Resist all temptation to press pause on the figure, believe me.)

As a horror fan, I’m glad to see Keegan Connor Tracy enjoy a lead role, as she’s been a constant part of the genre since the 2000s, with turns in White Noise, the loony Final Destination 2, Bates Motel, and a handful of appearances on the CW’s never-ending Supernatural. (Amusingly, she was also in the direct-to-video sequel The Net 2.0, where she played a character named Z.Z.) As such, she’s well practiced as someone playing against a horrifying threat, which makes her turn as a beleaguered mother an easy and effective sell. Though she plays a familiar archetype, Z imbues Elizabeth with a history that moves the story into a more mythical and emotional direction, and thankfully, she doesn’t just play “the mother” or “the wife” – a bystander observing the action and offering a zero-hour nugget of advice that guides the hero to victory. She’s the hero, or at least she’s the only one who can vie for that role because she’s the only one who can, and when she descends into pure mania before film’s end, Tracy throws everything she has into the role with impressive dedication. That she spends the first act of the flick caring for a terminally ill mother alongside her sister, Jenna (Sara Canning), helps to both ground the movie’s wackier events and add an additional twist on the concept. In genre films, someone always dies, but in Z, someone is already in the process of dying, which helps it to feel different and poignant while basking in the cemetery of other films that came before it.

If you don’t expect a reinvention of the wheel, then give Z a fair chance. Though it makes a few of the same mistakes that its brethren often do, depending on visual effects it can’t quite afford, and with an ambiguous ending that borders on mean-spirited, Z still manages to offer a fair amount of creepy imagery, dense atmosphere, and a fresh twist on an old concept. 

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Aug 31, 2020

THE CHANGELING (1980)


The ghost movie has become my favorite faction of the horror genre over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy the more visceral thrills of seeing some masked ‘80s psycho remove a handful of teen heads, but if I want to feel unnerved and creeped out, I’ll go for the ghost flick every time. Either filmmakers are getting more refined, or the firewall of horror I spent my entire life reinforcing is being pared down as I get older, leaving me more vulnerable to those cinematic ghosts invading my psyche and giving me the super creepers.

In the pantheon of the haunted house film, 1980’s The Changeling easily joins the ranks of the original Robert Wise classic The Haunting as being one of the classiest ghost flicks of all time. Staffed exclusively with adult actors (gasp!) — legendary ones like George C. Scott at that — and made by an honest-to-gosh filmmaker, Peter Medak (The Ruling Class, Romeo is Bleeding), this modestly priced Canadian production doesn’t just hail from the old school approach of less is more, but exemplifies it. Much like The Haunting, which used off-screen noises, dramatic camera angles, and eerie ambiance to flavor its tone, The Changeling relies on restrained techniques and not a single large set piece or moment of gore or violence. It relies solely on the talent of its lead actors, Scott and his real-life wife Trish Van Devere, and Medak’s assured hand to wrench every possible scare from a scene.

As you might assume, in a film about a haunted mansion, the production design is astounding. The house, haunted or otherwise, and very run down in spots, is beautiful, including its artificial facade. Scott rides high on a career of having played very domineering and intimidating characters (Patton— enough said), so to see him traversing the wide, dark hallways of the Chessman Park house with fear in his eyes as he investigates a phantom pounding sound makes the audience even more afraid. If the guy who played George S. Patton is freaked, then we, the audience, really should be. Still, Scott’s John Russell is a quiet, docile, haunted, and gentle man — in stark contrast to some of the more acerbic characters he’s played in the past. In a few small moments, he lets his grief get the best of him, staringly forlornly at a painting or sobbing quietly in his new bed in his new home as he continues to come to grips with his newly severed family. He even only does the infamous George C. Scott yell once — once!


The film’s plot unfolds in the most realistic way possible — or, at least as realistic as one can be when your plot involves ghostly apparitions and noises, telepathic communication, and political conspiracies. The origin of this screenplay, however, is allegedly based on “real events.” From Wiki:
The film’s screenplay was inspired by mysterious events that allegedly took place at the Henry Treat Rogers mansion in Cheesman Park, Denver, Colorado, while playwright Russell Hunter was living there during the 1960s. After experiencing a series of unexplained phenomena, Hunter said he found a century-old journal in a hidden room detailing the life of a disabled boy who was kept in isolation by his parents. During a séance, he claimed, the spirit of a deceased boy directed him to another house, where he discovered human remains and a gold medallion bearing the dead boy’s name.
Believe as much or as little of that as you wish. It definitely won’t take away from your enjoyment of the film these so-called occurrences directly inspired.

If you’re a devotee of the haunted house sub-genre, it’s nearly impossible not to see how The Changeling inspired filmmakers like James Wan and even Hideo Nakata: the auto-writing scene with the paranormal investigator plays out very closely to Wan’s own Insidious; the strange music box, which enjoys the final shot of the film is straight out of The Conjuring; and then there’s the body-in-the-well revelation from Ringu, which unfolds the same way. Classics, even when they’re not heralded as much as they should be by mainstream audiences, never fully go away, so long as their inspiration carries over to the next generation of filmmakers. The Changeling proves this.


Aug 29, 2020

A DARK SONG (2016)


At some point after 2002’s The Ring, ghosts made a spirited (haw!) return to cinema, regaining their stature as one of the world’s first on-screen horror villains. Whether it was the pillaging of J-horror creepy wet ghost girls, or remakes of much more high-profile Hollywood films (The Haunting, for example), those undead, wispy/willowy, ectoplasm hurling specters were intent on scaring the dickens out of audiences. (I used the word “dickens,” so you know I mean it.) Sometimes it was a parapsychologist searching for emotional retribution, sometimes it was a bunch of hapless kids seeking the truth, and sometimes it was just a person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hardly ever was it someone going out of their way; risking personal health, comfort, safety, and even pride; paying a ridiculous amount of money, and dedicating MONTHS of shut-in living not just to see a ghost but to conjure one using dark magic. But that’s what A Dark Song presents, taking the well-worn concept of a big creepy house and a one creepy ghost but reinventing the “how” in an eerie, disturbing, and icky way.

A Dark Song introduces itself as a slow-burn, Polanski, Repulsion-like thriller, taking its time establishing the rules and mood of this universe. And as the ghostliness begins to unfold, all the trials and tribulations our poor Sophia has endured weighs heavily on our minds, leaving us to wonder if what she’s experiencing is real, or if she’s finally cracked under the pressure. Relying very little on bloodletting (there’s really only a goblet-sized amount – literally) and more on tension and intensity, A Dark Song has a very specific way it wants to tell its story, and it’s intent on not scaring its audience using cheap means.


A Dark Song only falters in its familiarity – the ghostly figure passing by unseen in the far background, the footsteps in the house, the bad omens that present once the rituals have begun – but it handles this familiarity well, teasing them rather than leaning on them. And it builds to a nutso finale that takes inspiration from the Hellraiser series, Jacob’s Ladder, and even Michael Winner’s little seen oddity The Sentinel – your personal diet of horror consumption will determine how unnerving this sequence is.

A Dark Song takes place in a dim, bleak, dreary mansion in the middle of nowhere. Not much for color, although any sequence relying on candlelight in a dark room (there are lots of these) look very striking. The sound design makes full use of ambiance and ghostly sounds to unnerve the viewer.

Those looking for Conjuring-type scares may not find much to grasp onto until the finale, which for most of these viewers may be too late. But for those with the patience to see it through, A Dark Song promises a new twist on an old classic and packs somewhat of a punch by its end.



Aug 21, 2020

BURNT OFFERINGS (1976)


The haunted house setting has been around long enough, in every form of artistic medium, for it to become cliché. Even its writer, William F. Nolan, believes so, stating that "the idea of a haunted house eating people is bullshit," but went ahead with that concept anyway (the film is based on his novel of the same name) while trying to do something different.

Keep in mind that when you read the plot summary as a man and wife and their son agreeing to watch over someone's private home and serve as caretakers, and the ghosts/spirits/evils of the house beginning to infest the man and make him act in increasingly aggressive ways, all while shivering from an imaginary cold, it's hard not to immediately think of The Shining and The Amityville Horror. "Rip-off!" you might claim, but Nolan's novel was published back in '73, while the novels for The Shining and The Amityville Horror wouldn't be released for another four years.


So, unfair allusions to unoriginality aside, is the concept of a haunted house eating people bullshit? Well, if you picture a house opening wide its front door mouth and cramming in victims with its trellis arms, then yeah, that'd be bullshit (although I'd see the hell out of that AND buy the Blu-ray). But what Burnt Offerings does present instead, and which has since become cliché, is that the house is spiritually feeding off of the poor unassuming Rolf family, turning them from a boring but loving American family to terrorized and slowly monstrous shadows of themselves.

Celebrated bad-ass and booze connoisseur Oliver Reed does an excellent job with what he's given to work with, which is pretty much Jack Torrance meets a cinemafied George Lutz, and before either of those characters ever existed. He manages to bring a lot of intensity to his role as the slowly overtaken patriarch of the Rolf family. Karen Black has always been kind of a quirky performer, acting with her non-traditional leading-woman face first and her performance second. But honestly, the real stand out here is Lee Montgomery as son David, who at a young age manages to give a pretty reliable and believable performance. We've seen terrorized child characters many times, and generally they are utterly indistinguishable from the other, not helping matters with either underwhelming or entirely irritating performances. But Montgomery honestly holds his own even in his scenes with Reed and Bette Davis, and that says a lot.


The most important thing to discuss, being that this is a horror film, is its fear factor. Is Burnt Offerings scary? Well, that definitely depends on your sensibilities. Not a single specter or presence of said specter ever appears on screen. Except for Ben's reoccurring waking nightmares of the admittedly creepy limousine chauffeur he had seen as a child while at his mother's funeral (something lifted from director Dan Curtis' childhood), there's never any kind of physical manifestation of the evil that resides in the Allardyce house. No ghostly children run down the hallway in the background while a character stares into the bathroom mirror. No dripping mouth ghouls appear behind someone as they bend down to pick up the newspaper. Everything eerie occurring in Burnt Offerings is established by mood, ominous music, and the slow and psychological breakdowns of our characters.

Oh, fun fact: if the exterior of the house looks familiar, that's because it's been used in other films - most notably as the Tall Man's mortuary in the original Phantasm.

Burnt Offerings isn't anywhere near the king of the haunted house movie, but it might be one of the most underrated. Its foreboding events unfold at a somewhat snailish pace, which may prove insurmountable for more modern audiences used to something screaming at the camera every five minutes, but those with an appreciation for the old school approach will find a lot to like. That and its incredibly ballsy, shocking, and bleak ending makes Burnt Offerings an effective if somewhat silly watch for a cold autumn night.

Aug 19, 2020

DARK SUMMER (2016)


Dark Summer director Paul Solet became an overnight sensation in the horror world with the release of his film debut, zombie-baby shocker Grace. A film that wasn't fated to survive its own hype, it certainly presented a bold new vision from a filmmaker willing to undertake dark projects with taboo subject matter. Generally in situations like this, filmmakers waste no time in announcing their next project, whether it be solicited or unsolicited. Lucky McKee, for instance, went from May to The Woods. Brad Anderson jumped from Session 9 to The Machinist. But for whatever reason, it wasn't the same story for Grace's director. Six long years would go by before his next feature length project, this being the technology-haunting ghost thriller Dark Summer. Sadly, had it even been made just one year later, it still wouldn't have been worth the wait.


Dark Summer's biggest failure is its lack of originality; it's an amalgamation of other horror/thriller films, and it seems to know it. The most obvious comparison is Disturbia, D.J. Caruso's surprisingly solid teenage rendition of Rear Window, which also featured a troubled adolescent on house arrest after having made a very bad, emotionally-driven choice. In Dark Summer, one of its characters stares at the electronic bracelet on Daniel's ankle and remarks, "This is just like that Shia Lebeouf movie!" - as if by doing so, the film is calling itself out before the audience can. From the buzzing of flies to waking nightmares to spells of enchantment to spirited blowjobs lifted out of Ghostbusters, Dark Summer coasts as much as it can on preordained horror tropes before finally setting sail on its own merits, which, ironically, aren't strong enough to support it while remaining engaging for its rather short running time.

Dark Summer wants it both ways: it wants to present an old-school atmosphere and approach to paranormal horror, right down to the late '80s/early '90s hazy interiors, but add into the mix an almost nauseating dependency on and references to every modern Internet destination and social media site. Google, Facebook, Skype, "The Cloud" - all here, all accounted for, and all serving to handicap the story instead of servicing it. Try as filmmakers might, social media as a threat simply doesn't make for good horror-based conflict. Romero tried it with Diary of the Dead. Underground runaway hit Antisocial nearly achieved success, but became confused by its own rules. That these tools of instant communication are actually somewhat hindering our natural-given abilities for direct communication is certainly ripe for satirical reimagining, but Dark Summer doesn't do anything with it. The technological/social media aspect is presented just long enough to propel the conflict into being and then remains a background player until the third act, when the kids then begin literally Googling how to get rid of ghosts.


Though our young cast does solid work, our lead comes off  whiney and unlikeable, whereas one of his ghost-hunting friends, who remains a primary character through to the end, never even has his name spoken aloud, leaving us to wonder who he is. Peter Stormare is both completely miscast and entirely wasted as Daniel's parole officer, as well the worst police detective in probably the entire world: watch as he forbids Daniel from having contact with any of his friends, who then stay at Daniel's house day in and day out  and come/go as they please...without him noticing; watch as these same two kids sneak out of an abandoned house's closet directly behind him...without him noticing. The only bright spot to Dark Summer is Stella Maeve as Abby, who's able to convey her character's inner workings and motivations with just the nuances of her face and her longing glances. If there was only one character the audience would come away having cared about, it would be Abby. Sadly, the film saw fit to focus elsewhere.

If you've never seen a haunted house movie in your life, and if you think Twitter is #terrifying, Dark Summer just might be for you. But for the more seasoned horror crowd, its groan-inducing twist and its shock ending that for some reason resorts to black comedy at the very last second -- and this having followed eighty minutes of which there was none -- Dark Summer will feel both like familiar territory and a missed opportunity.

Thankfully, Dark Summer feels more like a stumble from a filmmaker who is capable of better rather than a sign of things to come from a one-hit wonder director. Just don't tweet about it, or adorable goth girl ghosts will haunt you.


Aug 15, 2020

LAST SHIFT (2014)


The more learned viewer will definitely notice right off the bat that Last Shift is borrowing from John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, but this time instead of a small band of cops and clerks taking on roving attacking gangs, it's just one rookie cop taking on the demons/ghosts/bloody secret history of the decommissioned police station of which she's in charge for its final shift. And it's not just thematically that director Anthony DiBlasi (Dread) is looking to Carpenter for inspiration, but also for the old-school approach.

Like Assault on Precinct 13, there are very few visual effects employed to scare the viewer; except for the minor use of green screen, nearly every gag is done with editing and camera tricks, and all of them work. There is no CGI on hand to offend the eye. And the cast is limited to just a handful of people, with most of Last Shift being a one-woman show (Juliana Harkavy).


Last Shift feels comprised of other horror films, some celebrated and some not (and that's not a condemnation). Along with Assault, there are shades of Silent Hill, The Shining, and Jacob's Ladder, mixed with real-life horror aspects, especially Charles Manson and his so-called family. Though a digital shoot, a '70s-era level of grain has been applied, preserving that old school approach toward which Last Shift is striving. What that ultimately achieves is something old and something new - old techniques married to new sensibilities - and it's created an effective horror offering that manages to out-scare most major horror theatrical releases all the way back to 2013's The Conjuring.

Most importantly? Last Shift is seriously scary, falling back on another '70s concept beyond Carpenter and that specific era of cinema: the fear of encroaching satanism. The boogeyman and his followers featured in the flick are not Charles Manson and his Family, and are never called such (his name is John Michael Paymon, the surname being that of a demon most recently immortalized by another seriously scary flick, 2017's Hereditary), but at the same time, they are. The hallmarks are there: the long-haired, crazy-eyed, charismatic leader; the hippie chicks who follow him around; and his very disturbing agenda.


DiBlasi's efforts in the horror genre have so far been worth at least a single watch, with each subsequent film being superior to the previous. Last Shift is his best effort to date. If this trend continues, his name will be one to watch with each new project he announces.

One of the best-kept secrets of 2015, Last Shift’s intimate location and strong performance by the lead heroine really helps to put you in the middle of the horror she's experiencing. Whether or not you'll find it creepy obviously depends on your sensibilities as a horror fan, but one thing that's certain is Last Shift is going to try its damnedest. Once the horror starts, it doesn't let up until its vicious finale, and for that alone, Last Shift is worth praising.


Aug 14, 2020

MUTANT FAMILY VALUES: JOE BOB BRIGGS AND KEEPING ‘THE LAST DRIVE-IN’ ALIVE


My love for horror was forged in my childhood. In many of the horror reviews I’ve written over the years, whether for home video reissues of cult classics or retrospectives to honor a specific anniversary, a good portion of them had a habit of going back in time to loop in a specific childhood memory or anecdote about the title and why it meant as much to me then as it does now. Adoring the horror genre was always written in the stars for me, but my father was a major influence in getting me to look at those stars in the first place. It wasn’t that he consciously took me aside as a child to impart any kind of cinematic history whenever a specific horror flick was playing on television; it’s more that he enjoyed the genre across the spectrum, from the terrific to the terrible, and also because, even at the scant nine or ten or eleven years of age I was during that era, he wasn’t one of those parents hovering over the remote and ready to switch off anything inappropriate should their child walk into the room. He allowed it to happen because, by that time, I was already gobbling up R.L. Stine and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and playing with Creepy Crawlers and Monsterface in the other room. He knew it was somewhere in my blood. That’s not to say the horror genre encompassed most of his chosen entertainment, but there was something about monsters, zombies, ghosts, and masked killers that struck a chord in me, and I always took notice when those particular faces were on the screen. Either sitting next to him on the couch, or peeking around the corner just behind his seat, I caught an eyeful. It was my first experience with an education that felt worth a damn because it wasn’t being forced down my throat. It was already out there, in the world, far from any school book, and I could choose it if I wanted to. 

And I did. 


I could keep you here for days and share memories of all the different flicks I caught during those years. There was the night I made acquaintance with Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers, which I think was my first exposure to the Halloween series. (Either this sequel or John Carpenter’s original always fight for that honor in my hazy memory.) I could talk at length about JAWS, Phantasm II, The Blob (1986), Darkman, Pet Sematary, along with fringe psycho-thrillers like The Boys from Brazil and Marathon Man. But one title that got repeat play in my house was 1985’s Return of the Living Dead. My father never turned down a zombie flick, no matter how bad it got (he’s still powering through The Walking Dead, so you know he’s willing to watch some bullshit), but Return of the Living Dead in particular was a favorite, due to the outrageous and vaudevillian humor that he responded to, being someone who grew up in the heyday of Laurel & Hardy. (The zombie picking up the police radio and telling command post to “send more cops” still elicits the same amount of laughter.) He is someone who'd watched so many films, horror and otherwise, that their titles alone weren’t enough to trigger association, and additional identification was needed. Return of the Living Dead often got misfiled in his brain alongside Night of the Living Dead (“the one with the basement”) and Dawn of the Dead (“the one in the mall”), and a nickname of sorts was eventually coined. Even years later, I’ll throw a mention to him of watching Return of the Living Dead, and he’s always quick to respond, “the one with the music?” It was a shorthand we developed over time, and one that still goes on to this day.

Soon after, once this foundation had been established, I set out on my own journey of discovery to see what else was out there in the world waiting for me. Sunday mornings, with the arrival of the newspaper, saw me leafing through that week’s television listings to see what horror flicks would be playing, on what channels, and at what time. The meatiest slots to check were late-night weekend lineups on the USA Network (Up All Night with Rhonda Shear was fertile ground for b-horror fun), the Sci-Fi channel, and TNT, who had a penchant for running the occasional Friday The 13th marathon for no reason whatsoever. I absorbed more movie knowledge from this mundane task than you might expect. I couldn’t have named you the first ten presidents of the United States, nor picked a prime number out of a math book lineup, but I easily could have told you that John Carpenter’s Christine was released in 1983, starred Keith Gordon, and had been awarded three stars by whoever it was that decided those things. I was a sponge, eager to absorb everything about this weird, gooey, icky genre that, for whatever reason, was calling to me.

 

I wish I knew how I first stumbled upon TNT’s Monstervision with Joe Bob Briggs. It may have been my father’s influence (he definitely knew who Joe Bob was, as he was quick to point out his cameo in Martin Scorsese’s Casino and ask, “Isn’t that the guy who watches all the goofy movies on TV?”), it may have been a happy accident, or it may have been a byproduct of Joe Bob’s hosting a particular flick that had been on my radar for a while, and which led me to his trailer, his silver bolo, and his amusing but charming southern drawl. Where things left off with my father’s influence, they continued with Joe Bob Briggs. For years after that discovery, every Saturday night was set aside for catching Joe Bob and hanging out with him during whatever double feature he had in store. Not every title that got the Monstervision treatment was a winner, but it was impossible to walk away from watching Joe Bob’s segments without learning something about the genre, or the production history of the movie, or the filmmakers and actors involved, all of which enhanced your appreciation of this title for which you may not have otherwise cared. Keep in mind that this was the mid-to-late ‘90s, and consumer internet hadn’t yet swept across the land. For every house that had a gigantic boxy computer and a dial-up subscription to Prodigy or AOL, ten houses in between did not, so the idea of “meeting” like-minded Monstervision fans in chat rooms and message boards had yet to become a mainstream, everyday reality. (And yet I still remember the URL for the old Monstervision website – “TNT dot Turner dot com forward slash Monstervision” – since it played during every commercial break.) Even the show’s set suggested Joe Bob was this strange, elusive figure living in isolation in the middle of the desert, far from the constraints of normality and good taste, and I’ll be damned if you didn’t wish you could park a trailer right next to him and hang out for the rest of eternity. The set was less of a gimmick – that of the typical redneck who lives in a trailer and watches television outside – but more of an indication of what Joe Bob Briggs and Monstervision were all about: appealing to the mutants and freaks on the outskirts of polite society. 

Monstervision was an anomaly on television. It didn’t feel like part of anyone’s plan, and certainly not the intended product of such a conservative network, thanks to Joe Bob’s at-times politically incorrect humor and the offscreen laughter of his crew, which violated the rule in the production handbook: never break the fourth wall. But there was a method to his madness: the whole point of Joe Bob’s schtick was to make his viewers feel as if they were sitting on the other side of that set as he talked to us, friend to friend, about the merits of Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing or Larry Cohen’s The Stuff. During this time, on another channel, you had Siskel & Ebert At the Movies where the persnickety critics were giving the thumbs down to stuff like Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine, but on TNT, you had Joe Bob rejoicing in the antithesis of that philosophy and exploring the kinds of films that were often left abandoned by the snoots who believed they were above it all. From his outlook, all films contained something to celebrate, and all films were worth seeing at least once. This was a wild and risky approach to a weekly television show, along with the fact that it didn’t air at the same time every Saturday night, sometimes getting pushed back almost an hour thanks to some basketball nonsense. It wasn’t a show that waited for you at the same time every week – you almost had to luck out and catch it, like an animal in the wild – but even when the show ended during its typical time, it was usually around one or two in the morning. In my mind, who in the blue fuck was watching this goofy show that didn’t appear to have a script or follow the rules and which highlighted cinematic bilge like Children of the Corn 2 and Project Metalbeast? Who was staying up this late to catch some weirdo movies hosted by some weirdo guy cracking wise in between commercial breaks? It all seemed so odd and accidental, like someone had hacked their way into TNT’s broadcast signal Max Headroom-style to feed some horror flicks to a hungry audience only to disappear before the sun rose and TNT’s board of directors had climbed out of their mansion beds.

 

I don’t remember every episode of Monstervision I ever saw, but I do remember the ones that featured a particular flick that would go on to sustain my love of the genre: 1990’s Night of the Living Dead, 1988’s Phantasm II (watched in full this time), Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend, the legendary three-hour cut of Needful Things that’s never been released on video, even 1982’s Halloween III: Season Of The Witch – a movie I hated, hated, hated as a kid, but which I now love as an old-ass man. What was it about this show that stuck with me all these years? Why is it that, twenty-five years later, I can remember certain things Joe Bob said about the movies being shown that night, like Halloween III being the black sheep in the franchise for not having Michael Myers “with the white stuff on his face,” or Phantasm II being “the sequel that took Don Coscarelli nine years to make”? Joe Bob Briggs not only solidified and legitimized my love for horror, he inflated that love by adding new titles to my library or enhancing my knowledge of the ones I already knew, every week, without fail (unless goddamn basketball was on). Joe Bob Briggs was just fuckin’ cool, and he liked horror, so if I liked horror, then hell, I was cool, too, and what a nice feeling for a kid who didn’t have a lot of friends and who was fifty football fields away from being cool.

When Shudder announced in 2018 that they would be returning Joe Bob Briggs to the small screen for one last Monstervision-inspired Dusk-to-Dawn movie marathon, as well as giving him the sendoff he deserved but didn’t receive after being unceremoniously let go by TNT, it was kismet. It didn’t just feel like something I wanted to happen, but something the entire horror community needed to happen. The genre had been riding the nostalgia bandwagon for years at that point, getting lots of mileage from resurrecting old franchises and creating new ‘80s-inspired entertainment like the massively popular Stranger Things, which started out with good intentions and soon gave way to shameless fan-wanking with characters dressing as the Ghostbusters and singing the fucking theme song to The Neverending Story. You can pump all the ‘80s synthwave and John Carpenter fonts you want into your movie’s trailer, but it’s no easy feat to recapture the mood, the feel, the spirit, and the essence of a specific time period of the genre. 

But if anyone was going to do it, it was Joe Bob Briggs.

 

By now, we all know the rest is history. Shudder, Joe Bob, and his new sidekick Darcy the Mail Girl, who features much more prominently and significantly than the mail girls of Monstervision old (she’s the show’s preeminent superfan, social media guru, and street team all in one), broke the internet the night of the Dust-To-Dawn Marathon. Joe Bob’s return/“retirement” was so successful that Shudder brought him and Darcy back again and again and again. Monstervision had been reborn, this time known as The Last Drive-In. The fans demanded it, and not just because we wanted it, but we needed it. Briggs’ return to the format was a return to a simpler time – when event television was still experienced at the same time for every viewer, when there still existed the concept of live programming, when it was okay to be politically incorrect every so often, and when it was encouraged to celebrate weird, gooey, and icky cinema. But it was also a return to a time when life outside our front doors didn’t seem so alien and dangerous and downright sad. We needed entertainment, yes, but we needed a familiar and comforting presence to bring us that entertainment, too. And with his first on-screen appearance, it was beyond satisfying to see that Joe Bob and co. hadn’t missed a beat. Joe Bob’s trailer, both inside and out, had been faithfully recreated, littered with beer bottles and cans bearing Texas stars. The southern duds were back, along with the boots, the bolo, and that amusing but charming southern drawl; Joe Bob was still opening shows with unrelated rants and closing them with a double dose of jokes so bad you couldn’t believe you were laughing at them. To paraphrase Freddy Krueger, Joe Bob was back and better than ever.

Yet, there was and is something else about The Last Drive-In that feels new, different, but not altogether foreign. An awareness – exuded not just by Joe Bob himself, but by Darcy, and the crew, and Shudder themselves – that this was special and not to be taken for granted. That even though, in the grand scheme of things, this is a niche show for people with tastes in niche movies, it’s still important, and even therapeutic. Yes, of course the ultimate goal is to have fun, and watch flicks both terrific and terrible, and engage each other on social media through our shared love of the genre, but there’s something else we all need to do, and it’s this: to enjoy this now, for as long as we can, while we still can. Guys, it’s been fucking tough these past five years. The planet is dying. A highly divisive and some would say dangerous president is in the White House. Racial disharmony is at the highest it’s been since the 1960s. As I write this, we are approaching the fifth straight month of lockdown thanks to the raging COVID-19, which has taken the lives of so many people that I can’t give you the current number because I just don’t have the heart to look anymore. The party could end at any time, and for many of us it already has. I’m not saying that Joe Bob carries the burden of trying to counteract all this madness within the confines of his ultimately powerless show, because only a bleeding-hearted martyr thinks like that, but I do think Joe Bob genuinely wishes he had that kind of power. Though The Last Drive-In is nearly a carbon copy of Monstervision, yet massively improved by the presence of uncut HD movies and segment breaks much longer than the lousy forty-five seconds TNT allowed way back when, there’s a poignancy to his return, bolstered by an unexpected melancholy that appears during every final episode of the season. Whether it’s Joe Bob opining about the whole point of his various shows over the years – the 1980s’ Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater, or the 1990s’ Monstervision, or the 2010’s The Last Drive-In – which was to bring us mutants together to relish in our favorite genre, or it’s the production turning the set into a high school dance to give Darcy the prom she never had, or Joe Bob singing a soft, somewhat broken, and pensive iteration of The Last Drive-In’s normally rockabilly theme song, it’s the acknowledgment that every season could be the last season. Every show could be the last show. Every recitation of the drive-in oath could be the last promise we ever make. We are lucky we still have him as our host, and, if I can be bold, he is lucky we still look to him for that sense of need. We are lucky we still have each other – me, the person writing this, and you, the person hopefully reading it – even if we’ll never know each other in real life, even if Joe Bob will never be more than a face on a television screen. We are here right now, sharing space, acknowledging each other’s existence, because Joe Bob brought us together.

 

Along with his now famous, pre-movie Drive-In Totals, which let us know how many breasts and gallons of blood awaited us in that night’s double-bill, Joe Bob has coined many phrases over the years. There’s “aardvarking,” “Joe Bob says check it out,” “if you know what I mean, and I think you do,” and lastly, “the drive-in will never die.” That last one isn’t just a statement, or a wish, or a prayer to the gods of b-moviedom. It’s an acknowledgment – a promise made by him, and a command bequeathed to us all. The drive-in isn’t just a flat cut of vomit-splattered land with rows of crappy speakers and a large stained silver screen. It’s a movement. It’s a collection of genres. It’s a mindset and a community. That’s what Joe Bob’s drive-in oath was all about. He’s been doing his part since the 1980s to keep the drive-in alive, through his newspaper columns, his standup specials, his books, his DVD commentaries, his convention appearances, and his three – count ‘em, three – television shows over the years. The drive-in will never die, and such a trivial collection of words has never been more romantic.

But what is it about horror that’s so romantic? Why does this genre that so often runs gleefully away from sentimentality and good taste act as such a lightning rod for longing, wistfulness, and happy sighs? Why do I get goosebumps when I’m looking at side-by-side photos of John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis on set of 1978’s Halloween and 2018’s sequel of the same name? Why did I get hit with the feels during Phantasm Ravager (even though I kinda hated it) when seeing what the scourge of time had done to Mike Pearson and his best friend, Reggie? Is there something about this weird, gooey, icky genre that drives this notion of romance, or am I the one assigning the romance because the horror genre is the only thing that’s remained consistent throughout my life? Why does it fill me with such joy to see the likes of Kelli Maroney and Ashley Laurence and Tom Savini sitting alongside Joe Bob as their movies play, relishing in the fact that their work is still being celebrated all these years later? How am I supposed to feel that, when I was a kid, Barbara Crampton was among my first onscreen exposures to girls and sex and what that all meant, but that we’ve aged to the degree where I’m now a so-called man while she’s become an almost motherly figure in the horror community? Well, I can tell you how that feels: comforting, and right, and the tiniest bit sad. Is it because I spent a childhood watching their movies and seeing them in DVD supplements and reading their interviews in Fangoria? Is it because they were always there, enthusiastically taking part in this strange genre that none of the other kids at school were into? Is it because I got so used to seeing them that they felt like this odd, alternate family who never came to Christmas dinner, but who were no less important? 

And finally, am I really the only one who feels that way? 

 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this life, it’s that time is precious, but it’s also sadistic. It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with; it doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear; and it absolutely will not stop, ever, until we are dead. The horror community has already suffered tremendous blows over the last decade from the losses of Wes Craven, George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon, Larry Cohen, Joel Schumacher, and I have to stop because the tears are coming already. It’s impossible to replace a director who has made your favorite movies, who entertained you for twenty or thirty or forty years, who created a ninety-minute slice of escapism that allowed you to feel less lonely, that pulled you back from the precipice of depression and despair – and I’m talking to you, specifically, right now, because you know exactly what I’m talking about – but I am eternally thankful that we have the likes of Mike Flanagan, James Wan, Leigh Whannell, Guillermo Del Toro, Jason Blum, and many others working tirelessly in the horror genre to keep it alive and introduce it to new audiences. They’ll keep the candle burning in the terror tower to guide our entire, ever-expanding mutant family home. And for as long as Joe Bob Briggs has it in him, I hope he’ll continue introducing films made by the new generation to a new generation. 

We are people, which means we’ll die. It sucks, and it’s scary and sad, but that’s what we do. That’s our role. All we can do is fill this world with every positive thing we can while we’re still here – if we’re writers, then with our stories; if we’re directors, then with our films; and if we’re fans, then with our passions, our sense of community, and our want and need and responsibility to care for and about each other. These things will never die because they are eternal, and they’ll live forever on movie screens and in the eyes, ears, and hearts of every new generation that finds them. This is why horror. This is the point. Through this, we’ll all live forever, because this what the drive-in is all about.

And the drive-in will never die.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Aug 13, 2020

GHOST TOWN (1988)


Remember that one time you went on vacation with your family to Tombstone, Arizona, or Dodge City, Kansas, and just after finishing your "Buffalo Bill Burger Blast" you went outside and caught the noontime showdown in the street between those two guys in the really bad beards shooting each other with blank pistols whose gunfire seemed to be coming out of the crackling speakers behind you instead of the deadly instruments grasped in their hands?

That's Ghost Town, in a nutshell, with costume store make-up. It is glorified dinner theater with a horror bent and a budget slightly higher than the one possessed by those people who put a little too much effort into their front lawn Halloween displays. And of course, there's obviously nothing wrong with this, because Ghost Town, despite its obviously low budget, its lack of anyone with name recognition (beyond Bruce Glover), and its somewhat restrained use of visual effects (how many times "ghosts" disappear/reappear on screen after a while becomes hilarious), remains an infinitely watchable film, perfect for those late nights when you don't want to surrender to sleep just yet, but you don't want to watch anything heavy. It's Ghost Town, all the way.


What's refreshing about Ghost Town (and unlike many other Charles Band productions) is that everyone on screen knows they're making something silly, yet everyone is sincerely giving it their all. Not every performance is Day-Lewis caliber, but obviously that doesn't matter, because even though the film revolves around a hapless deputy wandering into a ghost town in the middle of the desert and stumbling upon a collection of ghosts, skeletons, and people trapped in time, every member of the cast does admirable work, including the Michael Bay lookalike lead character of Langley, played by Franc Luz.

With a typically quirky story by, at one time, go-to Full Moon Pictures auteur David Schmoeller (interviews with him here and here), Ghost Town is charmingly innocent and not the least bit pretentious. Band became a producer infamous for not only low budget horror, but low budget trash horror, which has only gotten worse over the years, so to see his name affiliated with a project built on good intentions of just trying to tell an old fashioned story is not only surprising but welcoming. Except for the icky ghost make-up exhibited by some of the on-screen ghouls, and a few moments of bullet carnage, Ghost Town isn't terribly violent, either. (It also exhibits the most restrained and tasteful allusion to ghost rape probably ever.) Its tone goes for serious but light at the same time, and except for a moment of side-boob, Ghost Town feels like something to put on for the kids on Halloween night.


Ghost Town's "rules" get a little fuzzy as the film progresses: sometimes the characters Langley encounters are ghosts, sometimes living skeletons, and sometimes living folks (?) "trapped in time," and after a while it's hard to figure out what exactly is going on, and who is in danger of what (apparently those trapped in time can still die - again, or for the first time), but Ghost Town's intentions are pure enough that after a while none of this really matters. There's no denying that the film is patently stupid, but that's okay, because the amount of love that went into this production evens out its inherent stupidity, resulting in a good time.

Ghost Town is deliciously, lovingly, charmingly, and acceptably stupid. It's the perfect example of a title that would have fallen into obscurity in the years following its release just because of how odd, quirky, and somewhat kid-like it is...and let's not forget those visual tricks on the same level of a ghostly Unsolved Mysteries episode.


Aug 9, 2020

THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS (1982)


Long before the short-lived J-horror phenomenon breached American shores, resulting in one good remake and boatloads of bad ones, The House Where Evil Dwells was already proving that Japanese ghosts could be so, so entertaining. Best described as a bold-faced rip-off of The Shining attempting to coalesce with America's then-fascination with everything ninja, this 1982 oddity about an American family living abroad while its patriarch finishes writing his "story" - and who then confront a trio of hilarious looking ghosts  - has to be seen to be believed. Hopefully the included screen grabs have done a pretty good job of indicating the sheer stupidity on hand and have enticed some unaware lovers of cinema cheese into pursuing this title: how utterly mad The House Where Evil Dwells is willing to go is a thing that every horror fan needs to experience.

The opening of the film, in which a full-on sexy affair is taking place while the unknowing husband is out walking around holding his lantern thing you only ever see in movies set in Japan, does a pretty good but albeit strange job of establishing the conflict of the plot: after the cheating wife gives to her lover a netsuke (a small totem) that she obtained from a witch, and which seems to be of a woman fucking the devil, the husband comes home to see their tryst in full kimono-shedding mode, so he understandably flips out and kills them both before committing harakiri, which is suicide by blade, not the former sports newscaster. (You know, this guy.)

At this point - yep, you guessed it - our American characters enter the story, and the house where all this sexy murder stuff went down, and are immediately haunted by the aforementioned ghosts of an Asian flavor.


The House Where Evil Dwells is insane, lovingly pedestrian, and earnest in its stupidity. Its attempts to be horrific consist of blue-tinted superimposed ghosts walking around, knocking shit off the wall, or temporarily possessing our married couple characters solely to puppet them into saying really inappropriate things and cause marital distress. But what those silly ghost appearances set up, the screaming ghost faces appearing in soup, or the hilarious moaning haunted crabs that chase a young girl up a tree, definitely help to knock down.

What sucks about The House Where Evil Dwells - that is, beyond the typical kind of suck you come to expect from very low-budget horror flicks - is its pace. To be honest, unless ghostly things are occurring, The House Where Evil Dwells isn't really that interesting. It's slow, and dull, and momentarily brought to life by okay performances (unless we're talking about the daughter character, who's at her least offensive when she's not saying a word). If blue ghosts are egging each other on to commit harm or tomfoolery, then great; otherwise, The House Where Evil Dwells is boredom on celluloid. Still, it's a house where I'd want to spend all my time where I'm probably shooing demon crabs out of my nagaya with my bamboo houki.

Fans of campy and "oops, it's stupid!" horror entertainment shouldn't miss it, or else moaning ghost faces will end up in your soup, and they will be so awful.



Aug 7, 2020

ECHOES (2016)


Anna (Kate French), a blogger who has been offered her first screenwriting assignment, is struggling to get a workable draft to her manager (and lover), Paul (Steven Brand), so Paul suggests they abscond to his house in the desert to give her a change of scenery and perhaps a bout of inspiration. There only a day, Paul announces that he has to leave to go deal with a client, and Anna suggests she stay behind, hoping that her isolation will force her to be productive. Without a car, and with Paul's dog, Shadow, her only company, Anna tries to do just that, but instead begins to suffer from increasingly worsening instances of the nightmares she's been having for a while now - that of an ash-faced figure with black eyes. With each new visitation from his demon figure, she is left with a new piece of the puzzle, so Anna begins to follow the trail of clues until she pieces together the mystery of her haunting - and what she discovers might have best been left undiscovered.

Echoes, simply put, doesn't really work - not as a ghost film, not as a mysticism film, and not as a murder mystery film. It really wants to be all three, but because of the time it has to share among those other sub-genres, all of them are left feeling unfinished and obligatory. What's suggested by the film's opener - someone haunted by sleep paralysis, a genuinely fascinating phenomenon - is abandoned nearly immediately after in favor of more waking-nightmare/possession nonsense that audiences have seen so many times before.

Speaking of things audiences have seen before, it would appear that writer/director Nils Timm has certainly seen The Conjuring, being that more than one visual trick is stolen from James Wan's surprise 2013 shocker. From flapping sheets revealing ghostly forms to black-eyed monsters possessing their victims, so much of Echoes has been done before and in far better ways that its title is actually perfectly ironic.


One of Kate French's eyebrows alone is sexier than any screenwriter I've ever seen, so her casting as such is dubious at best, and shameless at worst. As a lead she's merely competent, although the script doesn't demand she do much beyond look scared or take sad sit-down showers. Her constant appearances in tight tank tops or skintight exercise pants do more to show off why she was cast than anything having to do with her range as a performer. Alternately, Steven Brand offers up a nice performance as Paul. At first the audience isn't sure what to make of him, but he's likable and charming, and proves to offer the most defined character and solid performance in what is admittedly a small and intimate film with less than a handful of speaking parts.

Echoes brings nothing new to the table, but perhaps it will bring more attention to the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. Leafing through its Wiki entry is infinitely more intriguing and entertaining than anything that Echoes has to offer. Even the most die-hard aficionado won't feel the need to add Echoes to their collection. It's a bland and generic story that jumps from one overused trope to the next, none of which is as satisfying as what the summary promises. Sleep paralysis, also known as Old Hag Syndrome, is a strange ailment affecting an alarmingly high number of people, and has slowly become more and more common knowledge over the years - a shame that the film did away with the concept after an intriguing opening. Echoes is a rental at best.


Aug 1, 2020

AUGUST IS AUGHOST


I am someone who loves nearly every sub-genre of horror there is, though some more than others. My sub-genre of choice has changed over the years, from slashers to zombies to a short-lived affair with horror-action (of which there isn’t nearly enough). 

But I always come back to the haunted house sub-genre. There’s something about a ghost story that feels timeless, more culturally intrinsic, and mythological. Ghost stories are passed down, told around campfires, but really, it’s because they are the most in tune with our own fear of death. In a way, all  horror flicks are about death, but the ghost sub-genre forces you to postulate on what death actually is. As I grow older, I become more and more interested in, but also terrified by, the haunted house movie. I don’t see that ever going away. From big studio stuff to quiet indie stuff to completely anonymous streaming stuff – if your plot include the words “haunted” and “ghost,” then I’ll come running.

Which leads us to Aughost – the next and most awfully titled blog theme yet. Throughout the month of August, I’ll be blogging about the haunted house/ghost genre, and, as usual, I’ll be focusing on lesser known titles both great and terrible. Come with me through the creaking front door and see what horrors (or total silliness) awaits us on the other side... 

Jul 31, 2020

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)


George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead changed everything. And I’m not just talking about the advent of “the zombie” as we know it. I’d go further and argue it planted the seed for the idea that cheap horror films usually destined for drive-ins and double-feature theaters could smuggle in themes relating to the social experience. For anyone who has closely followed Romero’s career, or at least the genesis of Night of the Living Dead, then you already know Romero has spent his entire life modestly dismissing the idea that he purposely cast a black man (Duane Jones) as Ben, the lead, as nothing more than critics reaching for something that wasn’t intended. “He was the best actor we knew,” was Romero’s go-to line, and the film’s “upstairs” versus “the basement” argument — segregated worlds — that reached a fevered pitch between two dominant men of different races, or the hordes of cops and rednecks with their snarling German shepherds, or the very end when Ben is shot down in the house in too casual of a manner, or when his dead body is handled with hooks and chains, was all just a coincidence. Romero asserts that the script was the same during production as it had been before they’d cast Jones in the lead. 

I can take Romero at his word when it comes to all this. I can accept Jones got the job for his acting alone and not for what his casting would symbolize. But I can’t believe that Romero didn’t know, deep down, that audiences wouldn’t walk away from Night of the Living Dead without reading into all of that themselves, anyway. With a grin, Romero would admit he was fine with people calling him a prescient and philosophical storyteller — and if we’re being honest, he was — but he still cast an African-American man in the lead during a time when that wasn’t happening, which was further bolstered by the character of Ben being much more than just “the black guy.”


From a construct point of view, Night of the Living Dead isn’t within throwing distance of polished. It’s hasty, at times disarmingly edited, and offers a few instances of weak performances from its cast (almost all of whom doubled up in other behind-the-scenes production roles). It very much feels like a stolen film — something shot on weekends (it was) with scenes picked up guerrilla style. (Romero and co. having stolen an exterior Washington D.C. interview sequence, with Romero cameoing as a reporter, while the Capitol Building looms in the background, is one of the ballsiest moments of guerrilla film-making I’ve ever seen.) All of this aids Night of the Living Dead’s purposeful design, which was to deny the polished look of other genre films from that era or earlier (Psycho had been released eight years prior, but looked like a newer production) and instead present as newsreel footage. It was documentary-like in its use of a static camera, serving more as a witness to the tension and terror unfolding in that house without ever distracting with its fluid or showy presence. Romero wanted Night of the Living Dead to feel raw and real, and because it was made with the intent of highlighting experience over entertainment, it does.

What’s perfect about Night of the Living Dead is that you, the viewer, can manifest your own allegories about what it’s really about: racial unrest, generational rebellion (the hippie movement was in full swing), a reaction to the Vietnam war, communism, anti-establishment, and who knows what else? In the excellent documentary The American Nightmare, Romero referred to Night of the Living Dead as “one culture devouring another and changing everything,” and while he meant this about the film’s themes, he very well could have been talking about genre film-making in general. Like most genre filmmakers, Romero fell off his game in later years, going back to the same zombie well too many times, but that will never diminish his mark on the horror genre, and it will never change the fact that phenomena like the Resident Evil franchise (film and video game), The Walking Dead (and its spinoff), IZombie, Netflix's The Santa Clarita Diet, and so many other shows and film series wouldn’t exist without him. If the world is just, then, like his own zombie creations, George A. Romero will never truly die.

Jul 22, 2020

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (2016)


There is no one on planet Earth more sick of zombies than I am. Even before The Walking Dead premiered to firmly launch both zombies and maudlin mediocrity into the mainstream, Danny Boyle’s “non-zombie” zombie movie, 28 Days Later… (it’s a zombie movie, btw), the Resident Evil franchise, and a thriving direct-to-video market ensured there would be no shortage of flesh-ripping clumsy ghouls. That zombie movies are still being made, not in spite of but directly because of The Walking Dead, has pushed the sub-genre to the stage of saturation, and regardless of well-meaning producers who claim to have done something different, they are all very much the same. A foreign body creates a virus; a virus creates a ghoul; a ghoul creates many ghouls; many ghouls create a ghoul apocalypse; a ghoul apocalypse creates a franchise; a franchise creates exasperation.

Upon the release of The Girl with All the Gifts, based on the novel by M.R. Carey, I’ll admit I didn’t pay much attention. And when the words “dystopian future” and “young lead female character” filtered into my brain, I shut it down entirely, writing it off as yet another film based on an alternafuture young adult book series featuring a strong and plucky girl to lead yet another revolution.


Within moments of the film’s opening, I knew I was in for something different – and not a film ready to rely only on zombie carnage and helicopter shots of a post-human world. Instead, The Girl with All the Gifts is a philosophical, scientific, and at times alarmingly charming new take on the zombie story, looking beyond the cause of the zombie outbreak (called “hungries” here) and at a future where a zombie crossbreed species exists and calls into question the well-worn “us vs. them” concept that has been at the forefront of every zombie movie conflict. Told from the point of a young “girl” named Melanie (an extraordinary Sennia Nanua), one of a dozen special children being held in captivity and studied by what appears to be the last of the world’s military, The Girl with All the Gifts looks not to the far reaches of outer space, a government lab, or to an unspoken cause for all the zombiery on which our characters can ruminate. It looks to the very world we inhabit – something birthed from nature – that brings about the downfall of man. A far less stupid version of The Happening, but with the same basic concept, The Girl with All the Gifts suggests that our planet soon tires of us and relies on fungus – yes, fungus – to bring about the destruction of man.

Director Colm McCarthy, making his feature directorial debut after a long career in television, wants to take this material as seriously as a Vietnam-era George Romero, Danny Boyle, or even Jim Mickle with his underappreciated Mulberry Street, and he does quite handily, falling back and letting the camera linger on intimate environments and small moments between characters. Astoundingly, the audience is thrust into the same confusing environments where Melanie thrives, but where we’re struggling to put together who she is, where she is, and what’s being done to her, she’s instead existing in a place where she always has; she knows nothing else about the outside world, so the cold manner in which she’s treated by the soldiers who point automatic weapons at her face as her shackles are done, or undone, isn’t the least bit surreal to her. That’s been her whole life. 

And this is where The Girl with All the Gifts will begin to feel familiar.

 

At the core of every zombie movie has been the aforementioned “us vs. them” conflict, but always with a suggestion that the “us” had the potential to be far more monstrous than the “them.” Helen Justineau (Gemma Arteron) is the special children’s teacher; someone who shows them kindness and love. Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) wants to cut them open and look for the cure to the infection she believes to be inside. Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine) hovers somewhere in between, not allowing his empathy for young Melanie to supersede his purpose and drive to survive. The Girl with All the Gifts tows that familiar line but with new and ponderous ways, leaving you to wonder about the final sequence and what it means – who’s really in charge? And who, really, is the enemy? Us, or them?

The very unusual musical score by composer Cristobal Tapia De Veer, comprised of a chorus of robotic-sounding human voices and something akin to a theremin, sounds both utterly foreign but completely appropriate for the zombie-ridden environment. It also makes for one of the best musical scores of the year. There aren’t too many instances when the audioscape comes alive in the typical blockbuster movie sense, but when there’s carnage, you hear it — so much that it nearly pierces you with its surprising intensity.

Zombie fans unfettered by mass consumption of their favorite ghouligans have no reason not to love The Girl with All the Gifts. Even those, like me, who need a long breather from the zombie phenomenon will find a lot to respect and adore in this latest take on the walking dead. Anchored in place by a preternaturally confident performance by Sennia Nanua, it’s the best kind of horror film one could ever hope to see — something that’s not just horrific, but about something. 

Jul 20, 2020

THE DEAD NEXT DOOR (1989)


More zombies!

Sick of them yet?

I know I am, and not just because it's Ghouly (say it with me now: Ghoul-Eye) here at TEOS. I've been sick of zombies since the third season of The Walking Dead (the same point at which I quit that show altogether).

But perhaps you remember a time — as I do — when zombies hadn’t breached these pop culture shores beyond the every-decade release of George A. Romero’s revered zombie series. Zombies weren’t emblazoned on t-shirts or kids’ lunch boxes or burned into game apps found on tablets. They were for “weirdos” — ya know, those same “weirdos” who liked horror films in general, and enjoyed seeing heads get cut off or eaten in half.

Made on a shoe-stringiest of shoe-string budgets back over four years, The Dead Next Door finally saw a release in 1989 — another four years after the release of Romero’s own Day of the Dead, which didn’t set the box office on fire. By all accounts, whatever life there had been in the zombie sub-genre was dead. And The Dead Next Door, written and directed by J.R. Bookwalter, wasn’t going to change that.


When compared even against Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which was made for about the price of a half a pack of cigarettes, The Dead Next Door still comes off incredibly cheap looking, so it shouldn’t surprise you that it was made for $125,000. (Okay, to put things in real perspective, Night of the Living Dead was made for about $115,000, and that was in mid-1960s dollars.) When you watch them back to back, The Dead Next Door suffers even more, but even to watch it on its own and judging it on its own merits, it still looks unbearably cheap. Damn it all if it ain’t charming, though. Lousy acting, directing, writing — nearly everything — aside, The Dead Next Door shoots for the rafters but tears the roof off the place with its impressive and unrestrained gore effects. The amount of gore on display puts to shame any of Romero’s most well-known zombie gags, though Bookwalter is obviously going for the outrageous over the cringe-inducing. Numerous characters are named after legendary horror directors — ie, Carpenter, Raimi*, etc. — so Bookwalter is obviously a genre fan at heart, and is trying to make a film akin to the more visceral from those directors’ career. (*And Raimi had better get a shout-out — he ghost-produced the film and helped fund it with whatever profits he earned from Evil Dead 2.)

Low budget films have their defenders, especially in the horror genre, and The Dead Next Door is a beloved title along the same lines as The Evil Dead and Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead (sensing a theme here?). Though it may lack those films’ directorial flair or legendary status, it’s got an awful lot of heart — and it’s flying just past your head along with all the brains.