Oct 18, 2021


Halloween (1978) is a classic. That statement will be true from now until the end of time. Halloween 2…not so much. Though it tries to recapture its predecessor’s magic, right down to aping Carpenter’s style and half of Halloween’s cast and crew, its sole identity is forged from the unnecessary and hammily executed twist that Laurie Strode and Michael Myers were siblings. After that seemingly definitive swan song for The Shape came Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, which blew the minds of audiences everywhere, but for all the wrong reasons. “Where is Michael Myers? Who is this Irish guy? Fucking Stonehenge?” Though this black sheep sequel has since enjoyed a long-overdue reevaluation, most audiences refused to accept its Shapeless design at the time, leaving the series as an inconsistently formed trilogy with rapidly diminishing returns.

By the time 1988 rolled around, Trancas Films/franchise godfather Moustapha Akkad (RIP) and John Carpenter/Debra Hill (RIP) had already fought in court over the Halloween rights, which the latter lost, so the rights reverted solely to Akkad, who wasted no time in moving forward on a new entry. At this point, Carpenter had peaced out of the franchise and was putting the finishing touches on the second movie of his Apocalypse Trilogy, Prince of Darkness, and Hill, who would informally remain with the franchise over the next two sequels to groom potential writers and helmers, was busy producing Adventures in Babysitting. And finally, following her consecutive appearances in The Fog, Prom Night, Terror Train, Road Games, and Halloween 2, Jamie Lee Curtis had waved bye-bye to the horror genre. By then, and as Scream will tell you, Trading Places had put her on the map and major Hollywood offers were rolling in.

With no Laurie Strode, what’s a screenwriter to do?

Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris) is seven years old and Halloween is just around the corner. She wants to be happy about it like other kids her age, but that’s impossible. She’s still reeling from the car accident that claimed the life of her mother (Laurie Strode) and father (assumed to be Jimmy, the surviving paramedic from Halloween 2) and has since been adopted by the Carruthers family. But there’s even more going on that she’s not privy to: in a move wisely avoiding being derivative of Halloween 2’s third-act twist, the audience is fully aware of who Jamie Lloyd is and her blood connection to Michael Myers. Though she has inexplicable dreams about him, referring to him as “the Nightmare Man,” she’s mercifully unaware of their family ties…unlike everyone else in Haddonfield, who know of or remember the sixteen people he killed a decade ago (an inaccurately high figure used in both marketing materials and the film itself), including the kids at school who bully her relentlessly, Tommy-Doyle-style. 

Bringing all of that trauma to her performance is an uncannily good Danielle Harris, who was only nine years old at the time of filming. Even though she’d worked scantly in television before her feature debut with Halloween 4, Harris proved she had the chops to be a sympathetic and likeable lead. With an almost unreasonable amount of dramatic responsibility, Harris is tasked with carrying the conflict of the movie on her shoulders, and when she ends her first scene with hugging a shoebox containing the photos of her dead parents on the floor of her closet and sobbing from her nightmares of the boogeyman, there’s no way you don’t feel for her.

Halloween 4 also marks the return of a familiar, reassuring, and haunted face: Donald Pleasence, who dons the trench coat of Dr. Loomis for a third time, and in a way that tests the durability of the phrase “suspension of disbelief.” Despite his valiant attempt to blow up Michael and himself at the conclusion of Halloween 2, which Halloween 4’s opening exposition dump reduces to Loomis “setting him on fire,” both have survived, though badly scarred. (A proposed but unfilmed opening for Halloween 4 picked up at the end of Halloween 2, which had Loomis begging firefighters dousing the flames on Michael Myers to “let him burn”—which Halloween Kills was happy to borrow.) When word hits that the ambulance transporting Michael to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium is found crashed and overturned below a bridge with all personnel dead and Michael missing, Dr. Loomis unpacks his steel-plated pistol and heads to Haddonfield, hoping to warn everyone in time that the boogeyman has returned.

Though Loomis essentially plays the same version of the character as before, this time he’s doing so with ten more years on his face and in his voice, and with ten more years of regret in his heart. In Halloween and Halloween 2, Loomis was curt, bossy, and domineering, but always with Haddonfield’s safety at heart. That bossiness remains, but this time it comes from a place of pure desperation. Though he’s not offered any standout monologue moments like his famous “devil’s eyes” scene from the original, he’s still given plenty of opportunities to chew the scenery, either by letting loose in explosive confrontational moments with cynical characters or by ably selling some pretty heavy-handed dialogue. (No one else could have pulled off, “They survived this ordeal; they’ll survive its memory.”) Along with the original, Halloween 4 presents the most archetypal iteration of Sam Loomis—the one that strays closest to fans’ perceptions of who the character is, what he looks like, and how haunted and broken he’s become over his self-professed failures.  

There comes a time when a topic can become exhaustively over-explored, which is why I’ve spent years writing about the Halloween series without ever specifically writing about the original, and which is why I’m also having trouble adequately celebrating the talents and legacy of Donald Pleasence. There’s absolutely nothing new to be said about him. Somehow, even the word “legend” feels lacking when addressing his power as an actor, his immortal staying power as Dr. Loomis (it’s the defining role of his career, yet he wasn’t Carpenter’s first choice), and whose sad eyes and obsessive madness will be sorely missed in every Halloween sequel to come. In Halloween 4, he turns Loomis up to eleven. The guilt and determination that’s driven him thus far has metastasized into maddening fixation; he’s gone from a psychiatrist disillusioned by his failure to counsel a child to a bounty hunter on the prowl in hopes of destroying the murderous man that child has become. His transformation into Ahab is complete and only death will stop him from hunting his white whale.

In response to savvier audiences, Halloween 4 smartly tweaks the concept of the “final girl,” made iconic by Jamie Lee Curtis, in an effort to keep the formula fresh while also remaining loyal to it. The screenplay by Alan McElroy deconstructs and redistributes the “final girl” title among our two female leads, maintaining all the expected characteristics but presenting them in a different dynamic. It’s the character of Rachel (Ellie Cornell) that falls in line with the classic heroic sense of the final girl, proving herself to be Ripley-tough—and not just against The Shape, but in everyday life when fending off her aggressive boyfriend, Brady (Sasha Jenson), or marking her territory against drugstore sexpot Kelly (Kathleen Kinmont), her competition for his affections. “Wise up to what men want,” Kelly tells her, all but confirming Rachel’s virginity—again in keeping with the final girl’s characteristic purity. Like Laurie Strode, Rachel is smart, capable, and aware of what’s going on around her, even when dealing with her own teenaged angst. Little Jamie, however, because of her age and the emotional baggage she carries, takes on the umbrage of the final girl’s victimization as the killer’s ultimate target, forced to endure most of The Shape’s wrath and unending rage. In response, Rachel has to be the strong one; she becomes the Kyle Reese to Jamie’s Sarah Connor, and with her parents out of town and Haddonfield’s remaining finest chasing down drunken, friendly-firing vigilantes, she’s the only one who can save her stepsister. 

Really, all of the screenplay is well constructed, with evident thought behind every creative decision. The movie’s best scripted scene is the one shared between Loomis and the eccentric Reverend Jackson P. Sayer (adorable character actor Carmen Filpi), who is kind enough to give Loomis a ride after his explosive confrontation with The Shape leaves him stranded on the road. Once Sayer’s antiquated truck appears to materialize within a cloud of dust, as if divine intervention—as if he’s an angel putting Loomis back on the path to his fate—the two share a drink…and a conversation about the apocalypse. "It always has a face and a name," Sayer claims, and Loomis can only agree. Both men acknowledge they are seeking the same thing, but both are seeking it in different places. Had this scene been excised from the final draft or first edit, no one beyond the writer would’ve noticed, but it's small touches like this that make Halloween 4 special. The mere mention of this end-times theme elevates this entry while enhancing Carpenter’s initial concept of “evil” as a force as opposed to a philosophy, and in what form we’re all expecting it to manifest…because if we’re all looking for something different, we’re doomed to let it pass right by.

Taking over the command for Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers in the previous films) is Ben Meeker, played exceedingly well by character actor Beau Starr (Goodfellas). His portrayal of Meeker as a no-nonsense lawman turns a potentially forgettable supporting role into strong and memorable work, and his first scene with Dr. Loomis establishes the makeup of his character. Upon Loomis entering the Haddonfield Police Department and telling them of Michael’s return, Meeker resists believing it from sheer audacity, but once Loomis convinces him, he doesn’t waste time. “What the hell can we do to prevent a repeat of ten years ago?” he growls, proving to be far more proactive and powerful than Sheriff Brackett ever was…but that’s because Brackett had been the overseer of a small, quiet, pre-tragedy town where nothing ever happened except for kids playing pranks, parking, and getting high. It’s Meeker who lords over post-tragedy Haddonfield, cursed with the knowledge that bad things can happen even in the sleepiest of towns and remaining on mental reserve just in case the Myers shit ever again hits the Haddonfield fan. Following Loomis’s revelation, he immediately scoops up The Shape’s likeliest targets and barricades them inside his fortified home outfitted with steel doors, a battery-powered CB radio, and of course, a robust arsenal. Ironically, in spite of how prepared he may have been, like his predecessor, Meeker suffers the loss of his daughter to The Shape; as has been a constant theme in the series, it would seem no amount of preparedness is enough when fate comes calling. The characters in Halloween and Halloween 2 made foolish choices and engaged in reckless behavior because they didn’t share the omniscient view of the audience and didn’t know of the danger creeping up on them in the dark. In Halloween 4, every character is given clear indication of the danger they’re in and every character makes the smartest possible decision in the moment, and yet most characters don’t survive the night. “Fate never changes,” indeed.

George Wilbur provides a perfectly satisfying performance as The Shape (with some assistance from Friday the 13th series alumnus Tom Morga), which is sometimes undone by the less interesting costume catalog mask and the hilariously thick shoulder pads that make him look like he's got on a few mom sweaters beneath his jumpsuit. Thankfully, Wilbur is able to counteract much of his character’s clumsy presentation with his subtle mannerisms and rock-solid stature. His stillness aids in the film’s ostensibly purposeful choice to present The Shape as slowly reforming after his ten-year coma: his first appearance has him wrapped in mummy-like bandages and strapped, unmoving, to a hospital gurney, his flaccid hand hanging loosely at his side…but then on his feet with his hospital gown hanging off him like shedding skin…and then free of his hospital garb and inside a freshly obtained mechanic’s jumpsuit…and then, finally, within a brand-new mask. The newfound knowledge of his niece’s existence has given him “purpose” again, and that purpose shows him regenerating until he’s back to being the masked maniac that’s lived only within the nightmares of Haddonfield for the last decade.

Though his screen time is limited, even Michael Pataki (Rocky 4) as Hoffman, medical administrator at Ridgemont Federal Sanitarium, offers a new dynamic as the “other” doctor—not the one chasing down evil in the night, but the one faced with the uncomfortable logistics and potential liability of keeping a comatose and evidently indestructible murderer in his hospital. Hoffman doesn’t want Michael destroyed, vanquished, or exorcised of the “evil” inside him—he just wants him gone and out of his medical jurisdiction. “Michael Myers is now in your hands,” he says to the Smith’s Grove personnel who come to transport him away from Ridgemont—and he says it for a reason: it’s his disclaimer, his end-of-watch sign-off, his mandate that whatever happens with Michael in the future won’t fall on his head. And yet his last scene sees him watching from the shore as Dr. Loomis, undaunted, walks into a shallow creek to examine the bloodied and mangled transport ambulance that’s been driven off the road. It’s then Hoffman understands Loomis has been right all along, that realization reflecting in his sorrowful eyes. 

Director Dwight Little (of Marked for Death fame, also starring Danielle Harris) deserved a more prolific career directing features, but he eventually made the successful jump to television, having helmed episodes of The X-Files, Prison Break, and 24. Similar to Hollywood’s modern practices, an independent film called Bloodstone caught the attention of Moustapha Akkad, who offered the unknown director the gig. Little proved he was the right man to follow in Carpenter’s footsteps, insisting on rich storytelling, fleshed out characters, mood, and terror. Little knows when to dial it back and rest on suspense, and he knows when to kick things into gear and get the pulse racing. Just look to the opening credit sequence—it doesn't feature the usual single glowing jack-o-lantern hugged by blackness or a montage of newspaper clippings to get us all caught up. Instead, Little presents static, abstract shots of small-town Haddonfield—Americana, really—on the cusp of October 31st. Familiar icons like pumpkins, skeletons, and scarecrows wielding rusty hatchets are on display in midwestern farmland settings and set to ominous, non-melodic music by returning composer Alan Howarth. That opening sequence exists for no other reason than to show you that behind Haddonfield's Halloween is an underbelly of fear and blood—that for other places in the world, Halloween is just another holiday, but in this small Illinois town, it’s a reminder of wounds long scarred over yet nowhere near healed. 

Though Michael’s carnage fills the streets and quite a few bodies drop, Halloween 4 is only occasionally violent, obscuring or suggesting much of its bloodletting and mostly falling back on a restrained approach. When compared to the entries in the Friday the 13th, Phantasm, and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises released that same year, and all which perpetrated an eye-popping level of violence against their audiences, Halloween 4 was downright tame by comparison—and that’s because Little looked to Carpenter’s original for inspiration. Dark and shadows, camera tricks suggesting violence without showing it, fleeting glimpses of The Shape, an emphasis on developed and likeable characters—these are things that made the first film great, and they are also the things that make Halloween 4 more than just another sequel. But in a move echoing Halloween 2's troubled production, several days of additional shooting occurred to beef up the movie's violence in favor of audience expectations, as early cuts had been stingy with the gore. This minor meddling isn’t a detriment, however; sudden violence in a movie otherwise trying to avoid it still contains the power to shock, whether or not it runs congruently with the director’s intention.

Little isn’t content to just crib from Carpenter’s playbook, though, infusing new concepts into the series and new ways to execute them. The movie’s last act, in which some truck-driving good-ol-boys transport Rachel and Jamie out of Haddonfield, is the highlight of Halloween 4, filled with propulsive action and bonafide fear, as Michael dispatches one character after the other, tearing faces, stabbing spines, and tossing them off a speeding truck. The entire sequence is sublime, embracing one of the core philosophies of the sequel: go bigger. Like the first Halloween, the action of Halloween 4 builds and builds before “ending” inside a dark suburban home, but unlike the first film, The Shape doesn’t disappear into the night because he’s not yet done with our characters. The carnage continues, spilling out of that dark suburban home and onto its own high-peaked roof before ending up on the nearest highway out of town, not only opening up the “world” of Haddonfield but eerily reminding the audience that Michael Myers can go anywhere—that he’s not constrained by a town boundary line—that all he needs is a ride. And as for that shock ending, holy fuck. That last-act moment of Jamie holding those bloody scissors and Loomis seeing his vilest nightmare starting over from the beginning and shouting himself hoarse before beginning to sob—all playing out over the Halloween theme—has never once failed to give me chills.

Speaking of, Halloween 4 sees longtime series composer Alan Howarth going solo without Carpenter for the first time, and though he’s eager to jump right into the Halloween theme, he’s sly with his approach. While the film utilizes the infamous theme several times, it never sounds the same from one sequence to the next: when The Shape is being loaded onto the Smith’s Grove ambulance, it’s propulsive and ominous; when the convoy of beer bellies are patrolling the town with their rifles and shotguns, it’s focused and militaristic; and when The Shape is on the roof of the truck during the highway finale, the theme truly comes to life—it’s quick-paced, frantic, and relentless, matching the most action-oriented sequence seen in the series up to that point. Outside of the main theme, Howarth doesn’t rest on his laurels and barely revisits some of the previous movies’ themes, intent on injecting his own original music into the franchise. Like the very movie he’s scoring, Howarth’s music is the peak of his solo work across all the sequels.

Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers was a new beginning for the re-born series, but also the beginning of the end, as the next two lackluster sequels would get mired in new directions so strange and mythology so confounding that audience interest couldn’t sustain, leading the series to be retconned twice—first by 1998’s Halloween: H20, which rendered parts 4-6 irrelevant, and again by 2018’s sequel, which rendered everything irrelevant except Carpenter’s original. Until this era of reboots and retcons, Halloween 4 had been the only worthwhile entry that preserved the core story begun in 1978 and had proven to be the last entry that focused more on thrills, suspense, and well-developed characters as opposed to one-dimensional bloodbags destined for garish and graphic kill scenes. Poor Halloween 4 had done the impossible: resurrected the boogeyman, created new characters to carry the mantle, and revived the series after Halloween 2 had concluded it and Halloween 3 had reinvented it. Time has proven the series’ intermittent fresh-start approach to be the right call each time, as they consistently returned reasonable respectability to the Halloween name, even if they left behind a wacky trajectory of three different continuities for fans to navigate. Proving that is the fresh release of the polarizing and disappointing Halloween Kills, which sees interest in the series at an all-time high while once again boasting the return of Jamie Lee Curtis in her sixth appearance as Laurie Strode, the quintessential final girl. (Her seventh and “final” go-round will be in next year’s Halloween Ends.) Though Halloween: H20 was the first sequel to reboot the Michael Myers story and resurrect its towering reputation after the dismal Halloween 6 (which had done so much damage to the series that the initial version of Halloween 7 sans Curtis was destined for a direct-to-video debut), it was also a little sad: seeing Laurie Strode battle the boogeyman once again was the stuff of fan dreams, but her return to the series had erased her daughter completely out of existence—and while Halloween: H20 was a worthy sequel, it was no Halloween 4.

Oct 17, 2021


Following my previous fan edit "broadcast" of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, I decided to do something similar in honor of the spooky season. Much like Dawn of the Dead, some of the Halloween sequels never enjoyed network broadcasts in their heyday. To date, the most high profile broadcast of a Halloween movie was the 1978 original, which premiered on NBC in 1981 the same weekend that Halloween II opened in theaters. (This was the edit that's become known as the "television version," which includes three new sequences shot by Carpenter using Halloween II's crew to help pad the running time to fit within a two-hour time slot.) While Halloween II and Halloween III: Season of the Witch did air on television in the mid-1980s, both aired on affiliate channels with pre-existing licensing agreements with Universal Studios, who owned both sequels (and who also own the current Halloween timeline, comprising 2018's reboot and this year's disappointing Halloween Kills). Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers were made independently and never aired on network television or even on local syndicates outside of premium cable channels. Because of this, and being someone who owns a copy of every known broadcast of a Halloween movie, the lack of Halloween 4 always felt...wrong. 

Decades spent watching the Halloween series has allowed me to embrace a possibly controversial truth: after Carpenter's original, Halloween 4 is my favorite of the series by a lot (not counting the Shapeless Halloween III, which is nearly tied). There's a variety of reasoning behind this: one, it's well made and appears genuinely respectful of the source material; two, because if you've stuck with the series through thick and thin, then you know how off-the-rails the series went with each timeline, making Halloween 4 look better and better by comparison; and three, and this is the biggest one—nostalgia. While the series' original run that began with the very first and ended with 1998's Halloween: H20 all lovingly exists under that warm and comforting nostalgia blanket, there's something about Halloween 4 that really hits me in the feels. All of that is what led me not just to fan-editing a network broadcast that never actually happened, but it had direct influence on how I designed the edit. 

With my Dawn of the Dead edit, I kept all commercials confined to a late-70s and very-early-80s aesthetic, with most of the commercials being in-jokes based on Dawn of the Dead's content. (There's a bonafide commercial for Monroeville Mall—that kinda thing.) With Halloween 4, I kept the era appropriate to 1989 or close to it, but I also I made it a full-on nostalgia boner for everything Halloween season—commercials for costumes and makeup, all kinds of weird and spooky 900 numbers geared towards children (including Freddy Krueger's infamous hotline), and of course, TV spots for notable or infamous horror flicks released that year. It was designed for background play during your Halloween party, or to sit down and watch in its entirety—the hope is to stoke your own fires of nostalgia as you get lost in this more and more celebrated decade. 

Like Dawn of the Dead, this edit of Halloween 4 has been censored for content to adhere to network standards, but luckily, unlike Dawn of the Dead, Halloween 4 didn't have that much content to remove because it was a pretty tame and chaste sequel compared to what would come in the franchise's future, so this edit isn't very jarring. It also felt right using NBC as the hosting network, as it had aired the premiere of the original almost a decade previous to this one—it felt like the series had gone home. I hope you enjoy this newest addition of TEOS Theater and can embrace the shitty-on-purpose look and feel of a broadcast recording designed to look like a 37th generation copy—all blips, static, and tracking issues included.

Oct 11, 2021


Something I made for a laugh to celebrate the spooky season: a remix of the 1985 Centron Halloween Safety PSA, this time with footage from Halloween, along with cameos from Halloween 2 and Halloween 3: Season of the Witch.

Every apology in the world to John Carpenter.

Oct 7, 2021


A complete and total tip of the hat to ShellHawk's Nest for turning me onto this beautiful short film entitled "The Legend of the Scarecrow," about a lonely scarecrow who only wants to befriend the crows that visit his field. It has elements of Frankenstein and Poe and TEARS. Be sure to check it out.

Oct 5, 2021


Another round of Halloween listenin' for the year of our gourd 2021.

This one really fought me this year. Hopefully it doesn't suck.

Allow me to soundtrack your spooky season: 

Oct 4, 2021


There’s never been a more abused horror title than George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (1968), as its strange and immediate classification as a public domain title allowed decades of ensuing filmmakers to pick its bones in all kinds of ways without legal ramifications, from creating unauthorized remakes to remixing the movie with new edits and presentations to straight up showing scenes from the movie in their own low budget endeavors. At this point, I’ve seen more characters in horror films settle down in front of their TVs on Halloween night and begin watching Night of the Living Dead then I’ve seen them wandering around dark houses or backyards while asking, “Is anyone there?” (I can speak with authority on this because even I’ve been personally involved with two crappy projects that desperately clung to the OG movie’s coattails. Any moron can do it.)

To date, only one project, officially sanctioned by Romero, has brought any class to the Night of the Living Dead name and that’s been the 1990 remake by longtime Romero collaborator and special effects maestro Tom Savini, which starred Candyman himself, Tony Todd, as the ill-fated Ben. Since then, we’ve had 1998’s 30th anniversary edition of Night of the Living Dead, which went back to the original movie and added newly filmed scenes to fill in some of the “gaps,” and which included returning actors who were very clearly thirty years older, as well as 2001’s Children Of The Living Dead, starring a now-regretful Savini, which was designed to be a direct sequel to that specific version of the movie and has since been disowned by nearly everyone involved in its making. Then came Night of the Living Dead 3D (2006) with Sid Haig, in which zombie Johnny TEXTS his beleaguered sister with “COMING 4 U BARB,” and its prequel Night of the Living Dead 3D: Re-Animation (2012) with Jeffrey Combs. Mimesis: Night of the Living Dead (2011) vied for a meta-approach by taking its own universe and meshing it with that of the classic undead zombie shocker. 2015’s Night of the Living Dead: Darkest Dawn was the first attempt to present an all-animated take on the zombie classic and was produced by, of all people, Con Air’s Simon West, and featured voicework by Danielle Harris and a returning Tony Todd. Honestly, this list could keep going but it’s already becoming tedious, so the last one I’ll mention is the recently filmed, odd-but-curious sounding project Night of the Living Dead II, which seems to be more of a straight-up sequel to Day of the Dead (1985), as it brings back the main trio of Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, and Jarlath Conroy. As you can see, nothing about Romero’s original is safe – not the concept, not the title, and not the actual film, which is a trend that refuses to stay buried, as we now have Night of the Animated Dead, courtesy of Warner Bros., who hasn’t touched hands with anything remotely tied to this universe since 1988’s lousy but harmless Return of the Living Dead II.

With voicework by people you’ve actually heard of, like The West Wing’s Dulé Hill, the Transformers series’ Josh Duhamel, and It’s Always Sunny’s Jimmi Simpson, as well as the animation’s mostly loyal depictions of the characters/actors from the original film, it’s tempting to think this return trip to the well has finally figured out how to rebirth Romero’s film in a way that’s honorable, entertaining, and even substantive. Known actors, familiar characters, a major studio – clearly, they’ve nailed it this time, right? But if you think Night of the Animated Dead is going to be the title that finally gets it right, then buddy, you’re chewing a mouthful of Greek salad.

Die-hard fans of Night of the Living Dead will notice as soon as it starts that Night of the Animated Dead is using the original screenplay nearly word for word, which immediately robs the movie of any suspense. Instead of pondering what will happen and the new directions the movie will explore, your anticipation will be reduced to a basic curiosity for how the animators will present some of the original’s more notable sequences. This kind of approach to a movie, especially one you know so well, frankly isn’t enough to keep interest sustained, so once the novelty of the animation wears off, and once the first few words of each voice performer are spoken and you get the sense of how that performer meshes with his or her character, Night of the Animated Dead has trouble keeping viewers invested. One would also assume, being what it is, that the animation on display would be impressive, what with it being the selling point of the movie, but it’s not. It’s haphazardly done and very cheap looking, with herky-jerky movements that, at times, can actually be nausea-inducing. It’s that kind of Hanna-Barbera animation where if none of the characters are speaking to each other, everyone’s at a dead still like a photograph, and this happens so many times that you begin to wonder if your Blu-ray player is on the fritz.

The voicework ranges from perfectly fine to downright confounding, and it’s difficult to ascertain if certain choices were purposely made or accidental byproducts of the actors’ voice performances. Hill’s take on Ben is much gruffer than Duane Jones’, while Duhamel’s take on Harry is more subdued than Karl Hardman’s, whose Harry Cooper is still one of the all-time great dicks in cinema—and this while recognizing that Hardman wasn’t a professional actor. This might not feel like a big deal, but the dynamic shared between Jones and Hardman in the original movie put them on equal footing: they were both comparably bossy, domineering, and alpha male. Meanwhile, Hill comes off as the aggressor while Duhamel makes Harry Cooper seem more desperate and afraid, and whose dickishness seems to spur from fear instead of dominance and egotism. For reasons that should be obvious, and considering the decades of film theory that have examined the racial themes in the original movie, that’s…not a good thing to present for 2021. Really, the only voice actor who seems entirely comfortable with her work is Nancy Travis, who voices Helen Cooper. Confident with the medium and with a firm grasp on her character, hers is the only performance that blends well into the presentation; meanwhile, the other actors’ voice performances consistently blast you back out again. (Katee Sackhoff as Judy is bewilderingly bad.)

The only new thing Night of the Animated Dead brings to the table is its graphic depiction of violence, which was left unexplored in the original movie (at least by comparison). Instead of Johnny bumping his head on a tombstone, now his skull cracks open, brains leak out, and blood pours from every hole in his face. Instead of Tom and Judy blowing up unseen in a pickup truck, the engine block explodes through their windshield and takes out whole chunks of his face and her neck. It’s gratuitous, for sure, but it also comes across as disrespectful, though I can’t say why, considering how hyperviolent Romero himself would make his later sequels. And maybe that’s because the filmmakers felt constrained by sticking with the original screenplay and even the physical appearances of the original actors, so this was their way of putting their stamp on the movie…but then again, who asked them to stay so loyal in the first place?

Really, Night of the Animated Dead never feels respectful to its parentage, even if it does reuse the same words Romero wrote and the physical embodiments of the actors Romero cast. Even certain scenes’ choreography and staging are re-used, as if the filmmakers were looking at the original movie’s storyboards when creating their animations. But one thing stuck out more than anything else: in spite of Night of the Animated Dead borrowing the script, the actors, and the shot setups from the original movie, one scene in particular was pared down from its original incarnation, which Romero and co. had filmed guerilla style in Washington, DC, and depicted several governmental figures being grilled by the media while walking down the busy city street on the way to their car. Instead of re-using this walk-and-talk sequence, those same three government figures are placed in front of a static shot of the Capitol Dome while fielding questions from off-screen reporters—which, in essence, completely removes Romero’s in-film cameo as a reporter from this new iteration. I have to wonder if the filmmakers of this new version even knew he was in that scene to begin with. I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t, because if they did, why cut the director out of his own movie? Why not take that moment to tip their hat to the man whose seminal film they’re making a buck off? That, right there, seems to sum up Night of the Animated Dead: it’s the same screenplay, the same “actors,” and mostly the same shot compositions, and yet, somehow, there’s a complete lack of George A. Romero. And that’s the worst thing this newest take on the title could’ve done.

I wish I could delude myself and believe that, at the very least, Night of the Animated Dead might help to introduce the original film to newer audiences, but I doubt that’ll be the case. If you’re born with horror in your blood, that path was always going to lead you to the godfather of the zombie sub-genre anyway; for the newest generation, however, there are an army of imitators to wade through before arriving at the main event. One thing’s for sure: it’s more than worth the journey.

Aug 24, 2021


And The Conjuring train keeps chuggin’ along! After four spin-offs of varying quality following the release of The Conjuring 2 in 2016, The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It returns us to the primary series. Following its production announcement, there were a lot of “oh, really?” reactions in the horror community. The first worrisome development was that James Wan, who had directed the previous two Conjuring films along with new classic Insidious and unfortunate cultural touchstone Saw, had opted to reduce his involvement to a producer capacity, citing a desired break from working in the horror genre (that is, before making Malignant, an unrelated horror film). Being someone who considers himself a fan of Wan’s horror output, and also being someone who recognizes that the scripts for the first two Conjuring films had been bland, rote, and very familiar but which had become solid genre pics because of Wan’s direction, I assumed the magic was over. When it was additionally announced that The Conjuring 3 would be directed by Michael Chaves, an untested director who only had The Curse of La Llorona to his name – one of the blandest genre movies to come out in a long time (and which crammed in a five-second appearance from Tony Amendola’s Father Perez from Annabelle to force an otherwise non-existing association with the Conjuring series) – The Conjuring 3 seemed doomed. And here we are, all these years, pandemic delays, and strange rumored plot points later (werewolves! Amityville!) and The Conjuring 3 has landed with a soft okay.

It’s the ‘80s! And the Warrens are still driving around in their Mystery Machine solving spooky cases like the meddlesome kids they are. Their opening-scene reintroduction sees them assisting on an exorcism of a young boy named David (The Haunting of Hill House’s Julian Hilliard), which doesn’t go all that well until one of the main characters, Arne Johnson (Ruairi O'Connor), wills the infesting demon out of David and into his own body. The Warrens soon discover that this isn’t a “simple” case of possession like so many of their previous romps, but that Arne is actually in the midst of a “curse,” which means whomever has cursed him can basically rent him out to an interested demon for a few minutes at a time so said demon can get its avatar on and do some murderous mischief…and only one frumpily-dressed, demonologically-experted middle-aged couple can stop them.

Despite my glibness, The Conjuring 3 isn’t the disaster I expected it to be, even walking away with what I’d confidently describe as the richest and most complex screen story yet from the entire Conjuring universe. As mentioned, the first two Conjurings, though far superior to this newest entry, were built on a foundation of very familiar stories, bandying plot points we’ve seen before in the genre. In fact, the story that inspired The Conjuring 2 had been previously explored with 1992’s incredible and controversial Ghostwatch and 2015’s solid BBC miniseries The Enfield Haunting. In the face of their stories’ familiarity, Wan ably brought them to life using his uncanny talent for creating shockingly creepy images – and each entry directed by him has more than one example. The Conjuring has the leaping wardrobe demon and hanging specter; The Conjuring 2 has the Crooked Man – eerie creations brought to life and depicted in such a manner that they stick with you after the movie has concluded. The Conjuring 3, though it sidesteps the typical haunted house story in favor of murder mysteries, courtroom drama (which it needed more of), and witchcraft, is desperate for this same feat, leaning not once but twice on a chase sequence involving a very rotund and bloated corpse seemingly borrowed in concept from 2019’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, but which doesn’t contain the same staying power. Though this feels like one random example, it sums up the experience of The Conjuring 3 as a whole – not as good as what’s come before, somehow including the two most recent Annabelle spinoffs, but also much better than tripe like The Nun. The makings for terror are there, and the opening exorcism scene involving a small-statured stunt actor depicting some insane (and very real) body contortionism is genuinely unsettling, but it also unfortunately establishes a level of scares that the remainder of the film simply can’t recapture.

The Conjuring 3’s main issue is that it’s overdone, as if Chaves believes on-screen chaos and fear are interchangeable, whereas Wan had previously proven many times over that a calm, stationary shot which builds on that misleading foundation of calm is ripe for sudden terror – see the “let’s play Hide and Clap” sequence from the first film for an ideal example. Wan’s Conjuring films established and maintained dread; Chaves doesn’t know how to do that. Though he doesn’t flat-out rely on cheap jump scares like the ol’ cat in the closet, some of his “boo!” choices border on that kind of style, like boosting the decibels of a little kid doing nothing more than ripping a sheet off a bed. Instances like these are harmless of course, as the flick knows that genuine scares are coming soon, but they are leaned on a little too often and they set the tone early on that this new entry doesn’t have anything in store beyond gotcha moments.

Keeping things alive are the returning Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the ghost-chasing couple, whose performances and holds on their respective characters haven’t changed in the face of a new director. They are the constant component in these films and the rock around which their various conflicts are eventually cleansed. The script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick offers them small moments of humanity to bring light into another dark story, notably the scene where Lorraine insists on investigating a cobweb-ridden crawlspace and Ed tries to deter her by saying it will ruin her dress, leading her to say, literally, “hold my purse.” Is it too on the nose? Sure. But it also works because we’ve seen the horrors this couple has lived through and it’s nice to see them act like real people instead of the somewhat cartoonish bible-brandishing superheroes the film world has turned them into.

Speaking of, nothing annoys a horror fan more than using the words “based on a true story” across a film’s marketing, because in so many instances, the studio is testing the durability of the word “based.” The real-life Warrens have left behind a lifetime of strange and unexplained work with seemingly irrefutable proof of the supernatural, but you’ve also got a large, vocal group of naysayers who called the couple charlatans and frauds. Even if you accept their body of work as fact, the Conjuring series has always pushed those facts to their breaking points, with this latest entry going so far off the reservation that you have to wonder how much people who see the words “based on a true story” are willing to believe. In a historical sense, the Arne Johnson saga – the murder of his landlord and subsequent court case – was faithfully retold; everything having to do with the curse and “the Occultist” (Eugenie Bondurant) was entirely fabricated, and though that sounds like a fair balance, the Warrens’ hunt of the Occultist makes for the bulk of the flick, and once the finale arrives and takes place in a ludicrously complex underground tunnel system beneath a simple farmhouse that is given zero explanation for its existence is what tips the movie’s scales from true morbid history to utter farce. (For those interested, there exists a 1983 made-for-TV movie called The Demon Murder Case, also based on the Johnson case, starring Kevin Bacon.)

With The Conjuring 3 having gone to theaters and HBO Max during the eye of the pandemic, the flick still managed to rake in 200 million, becoming another bonafide hit for the franchise. Despite that, there’s been no chatter involving The Conjuring 4 (except for a dozen websites running “here’s everything we know” articles that conclude absolutely nothing is known), and none of the previously announced spins offs like The Crooked Man and The Nun 2 appear to be moving forward. I would, of course, welcome The Conjuring 4 – also, of course, depending on who’s at the helm.