The end of October is always bittersweet for me. It’s a relief to be finished watching exclusively horror movies, but a part of me is also sad to see it go. I’m already working on my list for 2016, and there’s so many movies out there that I’m excited to watch. And I have to wait a whole year to see them! Plus, getting recommendations from real people is always a blast. But, time moves forward as it always does, so it’s on to bigger and better (or at least other) things. There’s an embarrassing number of quality films in theaters right now that I plan on devouring over the next few months. There’s a new Bond movie in a few weeks, and a new Quentin Tarantino movie in less than two months. It’s a great time to be a movie lover, even if it’s not necessarily a great time for horror movies. That said, Krampus looks guaranteed to give us our fix over the holidays. I can’t wait for that one.
And with that, let’s get to the final week (rankings towards the end):
Hocus Pocus (1993)
Max is new to Salem, Massachusetts. If you have even a cursory knowledge of history, you know witches aren’t. Max’s family has recently relocated from LA, which is clearly shorthand for Max being a pretty rad guy. Despite this radness, Max strikes out in his attempts to flirt with his newly-acquired crush, has his Nike’s stolen by local bullies, and to add insult to injury, is forced to take his kid sister trick-or-treating while his parents go to a Halloween party. Max needs to do something drastic in Salem before he gets a loser label he’ll never be able to shake! So, he unleashes a trio of 300 year old witches upon the town. Witches that, once unleashed, wreak surprisingly little havoc, and instead are content to break out into impromptu music videos on multiple occasions (hey, it was the 90s, people still watched MTV for the music). Spoiler alert – Max is able to eventually defeat these non-threatening witches, win the girl, AND save his sister. You’ll never see any of it coming, but by the end you’ll undoubtedly think, “that Max sure is cool!”
Mockery aside, Hocus Pocus, similar to the previously covered The Monster Squad, is a kid’s movie very much of its time, one that children of that time naturally feel nostalgic toward. In the grand scheme of things it’s a harmless trifle. It’s also bad. Very bad. There’s not much worse than a comedy that isn’t funny, and the jokes in Hocus Pocus uniformly fall flat. Unless incessant jokes about how witches from 1693 don’t understand how 1993 works tickle your funny bone. You’ll be LMAOing for 90 straight minutes if that’s the case. Of course, it’s worth pointing out those jokes were written for adolescents in the 90s, not grown men in 2015.
Since its release the movie has achieved a certain level of cult status, mostly among current women that were young girls once upon a time. It’s perfectly normal to have positive feelings towards something you grew up with and watched 1000 times. Just don’t try to convince me it’s any good. I mean, I still love Space Jam even though I recognize it’s a terrible movie created solely to sell toys. Hocus Pocus didn’t sell any toys, but it’s just as terrible.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
John Landis’ fascinating blend of black comedy and hardcore horror, An American Werewolf in London, takes the werewolf lore and applies a realistic touch. Beginning on The Moors and ending in London, the film is very explicitly about transformations, both literal and figurative. We meet David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), two American college students backpacking across England, as they are dropped off in rural England after hitching a ride with in the back of a sheep truck. It’s an unsubtle but clever bit of foreshadowing of what is to come, but also a way to peg this duo as naïve and inexperienced in the ways of the world. They encounter a suspicious, ominous group in the local pub, The Slaughtered Lamb. They decide they’re better off leaving the unwelcoming atmosphere of the pub, and eventually become the victims of a werewolf attack. Jack dies, but David survives awaking in London. The rest of the film depicts his struggle with his inevitable transformation. In going from sheep to wolf, David is harshly forced to learn a lesson – the world is cruel and indifferent to both your failure and success.
The strength of the movie is how it embraces the absurdity of the situation while also grounding in it in real emotion. There’s a large element of tragedy to David’s plight, you get the impression the film is more interested in the extinguishing of a life before it really got started than it is in exploiting that for scares. There’s a scene in a phone booth where David has accepted his fate and tries to call his parents to get/give closure, but instead gets his younger sister who thwarts his attempts at getting mushy the way any teenager would that’s absolutely heartbreaking. The laughs come organically from the way the characters respond to this outlandish situation – mostly in the form of David’s sarcastic quips – which adds an extra layer of authenticity. It’s a credit to Landis that the mix of humor and horror is balanced and realistic.
An American Werewolf in London is the rare films that’s as emotionally affecting as it is funny, while also managing to be legitimately scary. A large credit goes to Rick Baker’s makeup, which won the first Academy Award given out for Best Makeup, which is so disgusting that it’s impossible to look away. The abrupt ending is leaves a slightly sour aftertaste, but overall this is an impressive achievement.
The Changeling (1980)
Peter Medak’s The Changeling, ultimately one of the more hopeful entries into haunted house canon, begins with a personal tragedy. John Russell (George C. Scott) is an accomplished composer whose wife and daughter are killed in a traffic accident a few days after Thanksgiving in upstate New York. He doesn’t really deal with the trauma (at least this is never shown), and a few months later he moves to Seattle and accepts a teaching position, where the enormous Victorian home he rents from the local historical society turns out to be haunted. From there the film transitions into a classic mystery where Scott’s John has to unearth the dark, sinister secret of the house.
Narratively, The Changeling doesn’t break new ground. That’s not to say it’s poorly written, just that the typical plot points associated with haunted house films are all touched on here. The film is interested in exploring its theme to its inevitable end, however. It’s this aspect where the writing is able to shine. The haunting of the house and John’s personal demons are intertwined in a way to suggest that this specific house needed him as much as he needed it. It’s a perfect pairing, as one is able to give the other the closure he/it truly needs.
Technically, The Changeling is uncommonly impressive. Early on Medak highlights John’s inability/unwillingness to deal with his recent trauma with abrupt cuts to end scenes and time jumps seemingly out of nowhere. It’s jarring, but purposeful. Once inside the haunted house scenes are films in extremely long takes as the camera floats through the hallways and staircases of the enormous house that give the impression someone is watching. Medak references previous shots a handful of times to emphasize his theme. It’s formula, but well-crafted and assembled with care.
And now, the rankings:
1. Starry Eyes – ♥♥♥♥1/2
2. Backcountry – ♥♥♥♥1/2
3. Re-Animator – ♥♥♥♥
4. An American Werewolf in London – ♥♥♥♥
5. Pontypool – ♥♥♥♥
6. Session 9 – ♥♥♥♥
7. The Changeling – ♥♥♥1/2
8. Cube – ♥♥♥1/2
9. Creepshow – ♥♥♥
10. The Green Inferno – ♥♥
11. Sleepaway Camp – ♥♥
12. Crimson Peak – ♥1/2
13. Hocus Pocus – ♥1/2
14. The Monster Squad – ♥
15. Tusk – NO LOVE!!!
The Visit (2015)
M. Night Shyamalan’s recent track record has been well documented. Basically, he sucks now. He rocked our worlds in 1999 with The Sixth Sense, entertained some (not me) with Unbreakable, entertained others (me) with Signs and then shot out crapfest after crapfest until they stopped attaching his name to movies he directed (like After Earth, which entertained absolutely no one).
Then some rumblings started mid-2015… maybe Shyamalan was back. He had created a relatively successful TV show (“Wayward Pines”) and the first trailer for his new horror flick was garnering sneaky good buzz. Was it possible he could turn it all around?
In a word: No.
The Visit is not terrible by any stretch. It’s a legit idea (yes, I’m currently praising Shyamalan for having good ideas now) and there is a decent amount of creepiness during the night scenes where the kids’ grandparents go, in a word, batshitcrazy.
Let me be clear, though: it’s not a good movie. So many aspects of it are poorly executed at best. It’s yet ANOTHER handicam film (in this one, a teenage girl is a wannabe filmmaker and is documenting her trip to see her grandparents) and this, as always, gives the director a license to shake the camera around, use terrible angles, and make sure that there’s always a reason to have the camera around. There are precisely two decent jump scares, but as we all know, that’s not what makes horror horror. The story becomes super contrived and there’s a plotline that involves a rapping thirteen-year-old boy that will make you wish that you were playing Yahtzee with your grandparents instead of watching another second of Shyamalan’s musings.
Graphically speaking, there’s a pretty spot-on metaphor for what M. Night Shyamalan has turned into that is found within the film’s final moments… the grandfather, battling a wicked combination of psychotic behavior and fecal incontinence, drops his pants, removes his diaper, and smashes it into the face of his grandson, a genuine germaphobe.
You don’t have to be an English major to figure that one out…
The Crazies (2010)
What’s really unfortunate is that my favorite film that I watched this October is going to get the short end of the stick in terms of reviews… but trust me when I say that this one is worth your time.
The movie begins in a small Iowa town where its citizens are suddenly plagued by insanity and then death after a mysterious toxin contaminates their water supply. Sometimes, this insanity also includes taking lives and often in horrifying fashion. Tremendously intense at times, The Crazies stars Timothy Olyphant as the town’s sheriff and if that bit of information intrigues you, then you should already be seeking out your copy. He’s Raylan-lite only he’s battling the walking undead instead of Kentucky drug dealers. And that’s awesome in and of itself.
Ultimately, this film gets the higher ranking for a twisted idea (there’s a Big Brother aspect to the film that suggests something much more sinister is afoot), incredibly tense moments, and one of the single most frightening scenes in a horror film I’ve ever seen. The slightest bit of back story for you… I have a fear of water and I’m just a tad bit claustrophobic. So I’ll set the stage for this horrific scene with just two words: car wash. It’s a tremendously choreographed scene, putting you on the literal edge of your seat, and even when it’s over, there’s still more on its way. This scene alone blew me away, but there’s plenty more that rival it and left me wondering why it took me so damn long to investigate it in the first place.
C’mon now… you know you can’t go wrong with Raylan Givens!
And now, my final rankings:
The Crazies: ♥♥♥♥
The Thing: ♥♥
The Blair Witch Project: ♥1/2
The Visit: ♥1/2
Tusk: NO LOVE!
And that’s it for this year! Thanks for joining us as we got scared!
We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!