In anticipation of this second round of Halloween prep horror film watching, I’ve been telling myself all year to do better, spread the films out throughout the month so I don’t burn myself out on the spoops. But then The Haunting of Bly Manor happened, and then a second viewing of Bly Manor happened, so here I sit the day after Halloween working to finish this writeup. Better late than never I suppose!
So here they are: 10 horror films that I can now scratch off my ever growing “Must See Films” list. Similarly to last year’s swath, the quality of these picks varies as much as the “sub-genres / categories” I chose from.
The Found Footage (Of Sorts): Host – This year I thought I’d start my Halloween prep off right by watching what is turning out to be the surprise hit of the pandemic, Host. Shot during quarantine, Host makes the best of the worst situation by creatively taking what has become a lifeline for many during these stay at home times when a group of girls find out that technical difficulties are the least of their Zoom worries when a seance over the internet goes horribly wrong. On its own, Host would be up there in uncomfortable, expectant dread with The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, but the creepiness was exponentially increased by my decision to watch this on my iPad, with a camera facing back to me as if I was a part of the call, and I couldn’t help but feel like I’d opened myself up to the dangers these girls brought on themselves when they disrespected the spirits, especially as one of my dogs started acting weird, whining as she stared out into the dark hallway outside my room, before eventually abandoning me to watch the rest of the film by myself. Fortunately I survived the ordeal, but not before being extremely freaked out by all the ways these filmmakers managed to genuinely scare the shit out of me, so much so that it got to the point that I was averting my eyes from the screen thanks to the moments made possible by using features as simple as the digital masks and the cycling background videos available to Zoom users, along with all the stunts these actresses had to pull off themselves. Seriously, I need all the behind the scenes details I can get about the process of making Host. It is beyond impressive what everyone involved managed to pull off. (Host is currently available to stream on Shudder.)
The Conjuring Extended Universe: The Curse of La Llorona – As a follow up to last year’s Halloween prep viewing of The Nun, I thought I’d give the Conjuring universe a chance to redeem itself with The Curse of La Llorona. And though I can say it is at least better than that garbage fire of a creepy painting origin story, it’s not that much better. In actuality, this film inspired by the Hispanic American urban legend of a woman’s spirit cursed to forever search for the children she drowned is rather forgettable. The titular spirit isn’t developed in any way that makes her interesting past her origin story (and why has she relocated to LA to hunt these kids at the start of the film in the first place?), and her scares are as predictable as they get, with only one The Haunting of Hill House esque hidden ghost of a spine tingling chill buried deep beneath countless jump scares that never surprise as characters are constantly investigating random noises and avoiding confiding in each other about what they’re experiencing. You can pick every shadow La Llorona will emerge from, and the editing tricks and quick camera movements to work her into scenes aren’t clever enough to overcompensate for how disinteresting this movie is. Maybe if the film truly explored the theme of grief it could’ve risen above the cookie cutter end result, but unfortunately it makes no attempt to be anything more than the lazy horror film it is. (The Curse of La Llorona is currently available to stream on HBO Max.)
The (F)Arthouse: The Lighthouse – As much as I keep trying to make it my thing, I continue to be on the outside looking in when it comes to arthouse horror films. Not that I expected it would be The Lighthouse that’d turn the tide given I was already going in not looking forward to watching a black and white film at this dated aspect ratio. Though I will say I eventually got over these aesthetic choices, and the black and white had strong enough contrast to not be a muddied mess, being able to see the imagery more clearly doesn’t mean I understood what I was seeing between the handful of times I checked the runtime to see the little progress I was making (nor could I understand half of what was being said sans subtitles, if I’m being honest). I do have a theory about what is going on between those two men stranded on an island with the lighthouse they’re drawn to like moths, but it could be nonsense for all I know. What I do know is that this theory is the only thing that brought me any real enjoyment. The rest was the typical arthouse apathy I generally settle into once I get too frustrated by my own confusion. (The Lighthouse is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.)
The Classic Monster: An American Werewolf in London – I thought following up the arthouse film with a beloved classic about a werewolf was the safest route to take forward to getting me back on a positive track during this horror watch, but unfortunately the fact this weirdly noncommittal, toneless blah of a film seemingly fails to truly accomplish or satisfactorily explore any of what it presents, from the mythology surrounding the werewolf’s lineage and history with a town extremely incapable of keeping their secret under wraps (seriously, I have a billion questions about this place and the werewolf that sets the action of the film in motion), to the guilt David never completely grapples with seeing as he waffles between taking things seriously and being much too cheerfully distracted for a man who just abandoned his best friend to die, keeps it from becoming anything of any substance. And don’t even get me started on Nurse Price. Honestly I’m still waiting for my friend to explain how this film is a critique on the Nightingale trope because I’m not seeing it. She’s simply here to be the sexual object of the manchild she’s falling for for who knows what reasons, and for an unearned ending, and that’s it. But hey, at least An American Werewolf in London will always have the transformation scene. That, the first scene with postmortem Jack, and the mayhem in London was fun. The rest? The rest can be thrown away. (An American Werewolf in London is currently available to stream on HBO Max.)
The Wicked Witch: The Wretched – When a witch takes over the life of a teen’s neighbor, he must do everything he can to protect everyone from her corruptive hunger. Though somewhat comparable to Disturbia and Fright Night (with a weird hint of Hocus Pocus – though honestly that could just be the witch’s proclivity towards children talking), The Wretched doesn’t quite live up to these predecessors largely because I just don’t care about the somewhat obnoxious jerk of a protagonist, Ben, who’s having trouble dealing with the impending divorce of his parents. Time is wasted dealing with bullies instead of further developing the familial tension within his own home spurred by his typical teen acting out drama and his father’s desire to move on with his love life, something that would’ve gone a long way towards making the late film reveal as impactful as possible. And though I wouldn’t say Ben’s co-worker Mallory should also be done away with seeing as he needs someone to confide in and conspire with, she’s just not strong enough of a presence to feel like anything more than a tag-along as is, not fully developed into something truly integral to the story. Fortunately the one element that The Wretched never disappoints with is the witch herself, whose physicality and lurking presence are creepy enough to keep anyone engaged with the film until everything finally came together in the last third, where every element from the gore, to the music, to the overall visuals present a style that was severely lacking up to this point. (The Wretched is currently available to stream on Hulu.)
The Stephen King Adaptation: Gerald’s Game – Seeing as both The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor have already come up in this post, it should surprise no one that I used my Stephen King pick to squeeze in more Mike Flanagan content this month, with his directing and chosen cast being the key reason why I was willing to finally move past a friend’s warning about being unable to finish this film when he gave it a shot years ago. And why I was willing to push through the uncomfortability surrounding the initial setup in the early minutes of a film that leaves a woman handcuffed to the bed when what we can only describe as her husband’s rape fantasy goes horribly wrong. Fortunately there’s an abrupt shift in character dynamic between Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood’s characters that leads to an unexpectedly fun exploration of a psychotic break, and the horrors that come along when one is held captive by their own thoughts, memories, and fears, free to assail our lead as her defenses are down in this most vulnerable state. Some of it continues to be uncomfortable, as childhood trauma often is, and some of it continues to hide in the shadows of my home late at night, even if the last 10 or so minutes of the film are a big swing and a miss as Stephen King “and then”ed the situation in true Stephen King fashion. (Gerald’s Game is currently available to stream on Netflix.)
The Foreign Original: Let the Right One In – Honesty I’ve always felt a little bad for not having seen the Swedish film that was remade with Chloe Grace Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee a decade ago now, so I figured I’d finally rectify this failing on my part. The good news is there is a ton to like about the original, from the infrequent but striking blood and violence that falls in stark contrast to the setting of this blossoming relationship between a bullied kid and a lonely vampire, to the presentation of our lead vamp feeling remorseful for what she has become. The bad news is seeing the American remake first made it all the more apparent in what ways the original was vastly improved upon. And I’m not just talking about the axing of those ridiculous CG cats, but further trimming the fat of peripheral characters’ scenes that unnecessarily shift focus away from our leads, by actually building a deeper relationship between our vampire and her caregiver as we further understand why someone would be willing to sacrifice himself to becoming a monster so she won’t have to, to making the relationship between the two leads far less uncomfortable. Let’s just say the older I get the harder it is for me to look past how inherently creepy a lot of vampire stories are, making it super disturbing to see how many people describe Let the Right One In as a great romance considering they’re talking about a 12 year old boy and a 200+ year old vampire. At least in Let Me In there’s a sense of arrested mental development where our vampire feels as if she’s suspended at the age of 12, whereas in Let the Right One In the film goes out of its way to remind us of Eli’s real age by flashing an adult face over her ownoccassionally. It’s icky, plain and simple. And though I can force myself to see the relationship as simply symbiotic and not romantic, it’s not an easy thing to do. So sorry, Let the Right One In, but if I can only choose one, you are in fact the wrong one. (Let the Right One In is available to stream on Hulu.)
The Recommendation: Green Room – Seeing as Ben’s recommendation of The Blackcoat’s Daughter didn’t work out so well for me last year, I figured I’d go with a suggestion from Zac this time. And though I can’t say I’d give Green Room the same 5/5 score on Letterboxd that he did, it’s impossible not to at least somewhat agree that there’s always enjoyment to be found in watching Neo-Nazis get any level or comeuppance. Especially when it comes at the hand of the always missed Anton Yelchin. Honestly I am in a love/hate relationship with how simple Green Room’s story is because I keep trying to add more details to the thin reasoning given for everything that happens: was the murder victim really killed for the non-reason they gave? What was so special about that baseball bat? And that gun? Admittedly I googled the plot post film because I felt like I missed some important details, but it turns out skinheads don’t really need some intricate, complicated reason to be garbage human beings, they just are. And embracing the simplicity of the story allowed me to further appreciate the tension the film builds out of so little. It’s just the fight of a small group of friends to survive a situation where they’re clearly out of their depth, making the plot unpredictable, the tiny victories all the more palpable, and the loses all the more deflating. The gore will make you uncomfortable, but it’s the tension and anticipation that’ll do you in. (Green Room is currently available to stream on Netflix.)
The Devil Inside: The Prodigy – Last year Ben warned me that The Prodigy was absolute garbage (it’s his least favorite film of 2019), but he was wrong about Gerard’s Game being unfinishable, so surely he could be wrong about a second film on my list. Taylor Schilling wouldn’t lead me astray, right? (I asked myself, clearly forgetting all about The Lucky Ones.) Welp, this time Ben had it right. Honestly there’s so little of interest in this movie about a serial killer sharing the body with a little boy after being reincarnated into Miles’ baby body the night he was murdered by police. There’s the typical creepy kid acting – we’re all secretly afraid that our kids could murder us in our sleep at any time, right? I don’t even have kids yet, but the thought has definitely crossed my mind far more than it ever should – as the serial killer slowly pulls more and more control from Miles over his own body, but it’s all so forgettable as it goes through the motions. Honestly if it wasn’t for how angry the end of the film makes me in its sheer ridiculousness and unbelievability in what this mom is willing to do to save her son, I probably would’ve already forgotten the film completely. I sure hope I do eventually. (The Prodigy is currently available to stream on Hulu.)
The Wrong Holiday: Anna and the Apocalypse – Admittedly it’s much too early to start watching Christmas movies, but when it’s a Christmas musical with zombies I’m willing to make an exception to end my Halloween prep with something light and fun. The awkwardly danced music numbers are catchy as hell as the film gives off strong High School Musical vibes with songs about your place in the world, hoping for more to life, struggling to connect, and the difficulties of love (highlights being “Break Away” and “Turning My Life Around”), but I gotta ask: where are all the songs about Christmas and zombies? I feel robbed! Good news is that even if they’re not singing about it, there’s still plenty of Shaun of the Dead levels of blood and guts during the skull smashing fun as our main group of teens fight their way to their loved ones hiding out at the high school. There’s laughs, there’s heart, there’s even some tears, and then there’s one hell of a WTF turn of events when a cartoon character level antagonist hijacks the last half hour of the film. Seriously, what the hell was that final act? (Anna and the Apocalypse is currently available to stream on Hulu and Amazon Prime.)
There you have it, the 10 horror films I used to prep for Halloween, coming to you a day late. Whoops! Anyway… time to rank ‘em! Drumroll please!
Now that the months over I’m ready to move on to watching other genres of film again, but let’s face it, there are still so many horror films out there high on my to watch list, so I might just keep at it through the start of November. Any suggestions? Or any thoughts on the films above? Be sure to let me know in the comments below! And remember, you can always find me over on twitter @BewareOfTrees!