With spooky season coming to an end, it’s time for my 3rd annual procrastinated writeup reviewing the 10 horror films I chose from my ever growing watchlist to prepare for this year’s Halloween. Did I start October planning on working on this throughout the month so I wouldn’t have to spend Halloween night writing this instead of living my best candy coma life? Yes. Did I succeed in doing that? Not even for a day. But hey, there are far worse ways to spend the night than thinking all about a bunch of horror films!
The Classic: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – This is definitely one of those instances in which I’m assuming my enjoyment of the film is largely hindered by the fact that I’m a 33 year old woman watching this almost 4 decades after it was initially released, because I can’t figure out for the life of me what this film is supposed to be. Am I supposed to take it seriously as a straight, scary horror film? Is it supposed to be scary with a side of humor? Is it supposed to be full camp, even so bad it’s good? Seeing as Freddy Krueger has become such an iconic horror film killer I’d assume I’m supposed to be terrified, but considering he’s presented as this demented clown with a bag full of disturbing party tricks who chases after people like a muppet it’s just impossible to take him seriously. That said, the film is far from without merit: the concept of a killer attacking people in their dreams is pretty genius considering a world without rules allows for a lot of creativity. There are a ton of off-putting visuals, clever details, location transitions and logic bending that all play with the dreamscape, and disorienting uncertainty that make this film stand apart from many straight slashers, and the majority of the practical effects are done incredibly well (I’d love to see behind the scenes footage showing how a lot of these scenes were shot). But apart from that, I couldn’t help but feel more and more exasperated as the movie went on. (A Nightmare on Elm Street is currently available to stream on HBO.)
The Trapped: Till Death – With the main character stranded in an isolated house, handcuffed in close proximity to a corpse, it’s hard not to compare Till Death to Gerald’s Game, and unfortunately Megan Fox is no Carla Gugino. Unless Fox intended to be completely dead-faced and numb, the first few scenes that required more emotion and nuance to express her character’s inner turmoil and anxiety within her abusive relationship leave a lot to be desired. But once the story truly kicks off, Fox proves she is capable of performing everything else the film asks of her as she brings the final girl energy that I absolutely love, disrespectfully (and rightfully cuz screw that guy) disregarding the “well-being” of the corpse and varying her exasperated “fucks” to a satisfactory degree. None of the characters are the sharpest tools in the shed – Does our lead not understand how loud she’s often being? How is one brother so blind to the other’s violent tendencies? Why does our lead not attempt to use one of the most obvious means of escape? – but the choreography as the characters maneuver around each other in and around the house is fun enough to make me be a bit more forgiving of the films shortcomings. (Till Death is currently available to stream on Netflix.)
The Wicked Witch: Gretel & Hansel – No one who watches Gretel & Hansel and takes in the creepy, daunting woods and the oddly perfect, retro sounding soundtrack of the film (that may have had me a bit concerned we were gonna get a super random twist ending a la The Village) can say that Oz Perkins doesn’t know how to create an immersively haunting atmosphere. The setting, the set dressing, the character design… It all works well together. The problem is I’m not exactly sure what it’s all trying to tell me. At its simple, corrupted heart, Gretel & Hansel seems to be about women’s empowerment and autonomy, with these strong female characters who find power within when they unshackle themselves from the burdens of womanhood that have impeded their ability to truly come into their own. That’s all well and good, but the story being told and the characters’ reactions to these journeys, as well as the comparisons drawn between the two leads, almost make it feel like their independence is evil. A woman to be feared is not inherently bad, but being feared because power corrupts and literally dirties the hands of all women who try to wield it sacrifices the girl power of it all. (Gretel & Hansel is currently available on Hulu.)
The Flesh Eaters: Demon Slayer: Mugen Train – I feel bad for anyone who tries watching this film having never seen the show before. Picking up right where the first season of Demon Slayer leaves off, Mugen Train finds everyone’s 2 favorite demon slayers, Tanjiro and Inosuke, best demon sibling Nezuko, and the world’s most obnoxious and future sexual predator Zenitsu (who should’ve been forgotten at the station) coming up against a demon capable of trapping people within their dreams. A tried and true concept that has often wrecked me when done previously, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed this time around because of how quickly the film moves through this section, relying heavily on previous knowledge of the show and the viewer’s ability to bring a deeper meaning and understanding to the devastation going through something like this would cause, keeping in mind everything Tanjiro has lost and what that loss has burdened him with emotionally and physically. Mugen Train does a good job with it, but I hoped for something so much more substantial that we could sink into, something so much more affecting (and something that has far more Nezuko in it, dammit!). And I definitely didn’t want the last 45 minutes of the film to be a completely disparate, tacked on plotline about a character we’ve barely had any time with to form a connection to up to this point. Fingers crossed the show’s retelling of this arc adds a bit more depth. (Demon Slayer: Mugen Train is currently available to stream through Funimation.)
The Auteur: Ouija: Origin of Evil – Good news is Ouija: Origin of Evil is better than the 2014 film that preceded it, bad news is it’s definitely one of Mike Flanagan’s lesser works, a disappointing discovery having just come straight from watching his Netflix series, Midnight Mass. A lot of the film rides on Lulu Wilson’s performance as the conduit of choice for the spirits of her character’s family home as she helps her mom conduct seances for paying customers, a responsibility Wilson shoulders impressively with her range: from the bigger moments of creepiness to the more subtle changes in expression, with one scene sticking out where she has to go from self-satisfied, to annoyed, to mad, all the while keeping her performance reserved as the spirit’s confidence in their control of the conversation changes. That performance, plus Flanagan’s manipulation of editing, framing, and understanding of the viewer’s eye to provide unpredictable scares (atypical of the cheaper jump scares that can often be over-relied on) all come together to make a pretty solid film. Until the last act, that is. Something about this ramped up section of reveals and scares seemed more generic and similar to most of the less impressive horror films I’m accustomed to, with an ending that really disappoints. Apparently there were originally 40 more minutes to this film, and considering how much I love Flanagan’s long form work I can’t help but wonder if those minutes could’ve helped this one out. Maybe the film would’ve stuck the landing better. (Ouija: Origin of Evil is currently available to stream on HBO.)
The Recommended (A Ben and Zac Pick): Possessor – Anyone who knows me knows that I am not cultured or sophisticated enough to enjoy most arthouse horror films, but oh boy did I love Possessor! I was fully invested in what I can only describe as a visually and conceptually fascinating exploration of a mind fuck. Like Being John Malkovich, but somehow more disturbing, and not just because it does not shy away from brutal violence as our lead takes over the bodies of others to commit crimes that cannot be tied back to them. The gore gets downright nauseating at times (at least in the uncut version), but the true masterwork comes in the visualization and performances of Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott as the film moves through this story of identity disconnect as one becomes untethered from their self and melded with another, leading to these psyches battling across a line that continues to blur. Honestly Possessor is one of those films that my appreciation continues to grow for the more I think about it because it is just so stunning and thought provoking. (Possessor is currently available to stream on Hulu.)
The Creature Feature: Sweetheart – With a main character with minimal survival skills (though admittedly way more than me) washing up on the shore of a deserted island it’d be impossible not to loosely compare this to Cast Away – Tom Hanks’ character is probably so annoyed fish didn’t just wash up on the shore of his island, nor did it come with a box of matches. Though I’d imagine he wouldn’t trade his hardships for a ravenous sea monster – and I wish J.D. Dillard had relied on Kiersey Clemons to carry this film as much as Robert Zemeckis relied on Tom Hanks. Clemons and her character’s lonely struggles to survive the nightly encounters with the monster are more than enough, and it is only when more variables are added to the story to give us a minuscule glimpse into Jenn’s past (and pad the runtime) that the film begins to suffer. This section is painful and unnecessary as all it does is annoy; it sure doesn’t inform the story seeing as who Jenn was before she was stranded doesn’t matter. I just care about the here and now, whatever the hell is going on at the bottom of the sea floor, and the major final girl energy she musters to deal with the creature terrorizing her. (Sweetheart is currently available to stream on Netflix.)
The Wrong Holiday: Black Christmas (1974) – As much as I respect Black Christmas for its place in the origin story of the slasher genre and the influence it had on creators of films like Halloween, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being mostly indifferent to this one. The editing, the juxtaposition of certain moments over each other (such as during the caroling scene), the shot selection and shadow work to keep the presence of the killer always on our minds, as well as Marian Waldman’s performance as Mrs. Mac, are all highlights for sure, but these elements did little to assuage how stretched this film feels as time is unnecessarily dedicated to two subplots of mixed importance: I’m still debating the significance and/or necessity of the search for the missing girl unrelated to the sorority house, and the film is really going out of its way to push one of the sorority girl’s boyfriends as the prime suspect. Considering the killer is seemingly presented as someone with either a mental disability or fully having a psychotic break, it’s hard not to be annoyed by what overwhelmingly feels like a red herring. The one thing that stands out about this film from the mid 70s is how relevant it feels to today’s “my body my choice” era with this apparent commentary on abortion rights and the invasion of men in women’s spaces, but considering Bob Clark has said he never intended to take a stance in the pro life / pro choice debate it’s hard to give the film credit for it. (Black Christmas is currently available to stream on Shudder.)
The Un-Caged: Color Out of Space – Going in I was prepared for some pretty out there sci-fi horror seeing as the only thing I knew about the film was that it is inspired by a work of H. P. Lovecraft (screw him and his racist assholery), and the film definitely does not disappoint where that is concerned. The slow build as the farm gradually gives itself to the influences of the alien presence is visualized perfectly by the set’s transformation, the lighting schemes, and the foreboding, deep, vibrational sounds and agitating whistles of the soundtrack steeped in sci-fi influences, all of which come together perfectly to build an atmosphere akin to something like Annihilation. And the body horror… my god the body horror… The grotesque monstrosities that spawn from this otherworldly presence are quite the sight, to say the least. But the one sight I could’ve done without was whatever the hell Nicolas Cage was doing. It was like an SNL impression of an impression of an impression of someone gradually turning into something sinister and dangerous, forgoing the less is more approach at times and fully reveling in the go big or go home mentality of this two-faced character. At one point it even sounded like he developed an accent. It was mind boggling, especially since none of the other actors matched this zany energy, and I could not get past it. (Color Out of Space is currently available to stream on Shudder.)
The Comedy: Freaky – With a hit and miss script that often feels like adults writing for teens – has anyone of any generation said “this is your chance to land that plane” about getting with a crush? Or expressed pride in a comment of theirs coming off as rapey? – Freaky is at its best when The Butcher is gruesomely murdering the shittiest people in Millie’s life, as well as when Kathryn Newton and Vince Vaughan are able to lean into the body swap – Freaky Friday but make one a murderer is honestly an ingenious horror comedy concept. That said, I do wish they’d shown a bit more restraint during the interactions between a teen girl in a grown man’s body and her crush: a bit more funny awkward and less awkward awkward please. Instead of that, I would’ve loved to have spent more time with what had the potential to be this film’s real emotional heart, exploring the strained relationships within Millie’s family as they continue to work through grieving the loss of her father. Or what about having the cop sister assimilated further into the story in which her sister’s body is out there committing a bunch of murders? Seriously, how are they going to explain why her prints are all over the crime scenes!? I need to know.
There you have it, the 10 horror films I used to prep for Halloween, coming to you with 30 minutes to spare. 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!