10 days has passed since the beginning of October and obviously that’s when I really begin bingeing on as many horror movies as I possibly can fit in my schedule. As of the morning of 10 October 2015, I have watched 13 such horror movies (and one zombie film that I wouldn’t exactly call horror). A lot of these are actually favorites that I expect to acknowledge later this month when Michael Margetis and I start listing our favorite horror movies and having a dialogue regarding our respective lists and every single one of these viewings I think warrants a full-length at some point in my life (who knows? Maybe they’ll come up this month!), but in the meantime, I figure I’d just give some more capsule reviews about some of the select ones I don’t have any problem spoiling my opinion on.
Sleepaway Camp (1983/dir. Robert Hiltzik/USA)
You know what really surprised me about Sleepaway Camp? Well, I mean, more than its notorious ending. I’ll get back to it, but the most pleasantly charming thing about Sleepaway Camp is how real it felt as a camp atmosphere (give or take, the pedo chef which I’d hope has never been an ordeal – maybe I’m depressingly wrong). The kids feel like kids and act like kids in any non-forced manner, the sexuality they try to portray (thankfully we lack any female nudity) is awkward and immature in a non-erotic manner but one reminiscent of our childhood thinking of girls and boys. Kids are pricks, camp counselors are well-meaning idiots. And it dedicates more to creating this environment than I expected. Even Friday the 13th does give as many fucks about the fact that it takes place in a camp as this movie does.
As for the ending twist itself, which goes beyond who the killer (which is obvious from the very first second)… well, it’s objectionable as hell for obvious reasons, but it’s also really really effective. It’s maybe the creepiest moment in the film and throws me at the wall with how quickly the movie makes itself really really dark in its final moments, then going into a full stop to leave you with a lot to ponder about. And best of all, when you really look back, the twist doesn’t seem to come out of nowhere (although the movie’s writing does a great job keeping the possibility anywhere near our mind) or add nothing to the story overall such as, say, Saw. Plus the creepy credits song (sounding enough like Blue Oyster Cult to avoid my hate) and final lingering shot helps its haunting effect. See it clean like I did and avoid spoiling the movie for yourself.
Nightbreed (1990/dir. Clive Barker/USA) – The Director’s Cut
For a very very very long while, this has been a Barker picture I’ve really been eager to see (Cabal is, for the record, the only Barker work I have not read yet). And now that I have, it’s troubling how disappointed I am with the movie. Hearing Barker’s inspiration to make a monster movie as big as Star Wars really hyped me up and don’t get me wrong – the design of Midian alone is actually fantastic, a winding frustrating maze of a world that still has enough craft within its tunnels to feel like a city carved under the world and enough weight given to the presence of Baphomet to make him sure a turning point (sort of like Eywa in Avatar). The monsters too for the most part (I hate monster Boone – it reminds me too much of vampire Angel – and Lylesburg looks too much like a character from Star Trek: The Next Generation or Babylon-5 to be anywhere near frightening) are imaginative grotesqueries walking and talking yet feeling like worthy races underneath their affrontive design. Hell, even David Cronenberg’s scenery chewing as Dr. Decker keeps me appeased at times…
But no matter how much Barker can try to blame studio meddling, even at its full form, Nightbreed is a mess of a narrative – something that can’t decide if it wants to a superhero movie or build up a universe for its ideas or anything. It gives away its game a little too quickly and then makes whiplash tone shifts that muddle the film rather than give it any true versatility. Its concept of more Honor Amongst Monsters than Humans is one I find delightfully endearing even when they never betray the savage nature of them, but the movie doesn’t seem dedicated enough to keep hold of that strand for the entirety of its two-hour runtime. And Decker’s involvement with lead character Boone alone adds complications the movie doesn’t need.
Saw (2004/dir. James Wan/USA)
Oh, I started off talking shit about Saw? Well allow me to add to that. Let me begin, by a semi-spoiler, although one that anybody with even a cursory knowledge of the franchise would not be affected by – There are a total of three twists in Saw and all of them are as frustratingly ineffectual as you’d expect of a movie that confuses twists for intellectual content. One of these is discovering that a character named, Zep (Michael Emerson), is not the Jigsaw killer but in fact another victim forced in his own game (by the time I’d seen the movie, Tobin Bell had already been the face of the franchise so… I don’t expect anybody who hasn’t seen the movie would want my head for this). Now, we’re introduced to the concept that Zep is Jigsaw very early on in the film as we see his face watching uncharismatic and less believable leads Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes still disappointing me post-Princess Bride) and Adam (Leigh Whannell, cast because he wrote the script, period) suffer through incongruous flashback narrative.
Later on, the lead characters in a subplot that is such a loose end that it literally ends with being cut out of the picture like one, the investigating detectives Tapp (a comatose Danny Glover) and Sing (Ken Leung saying lines that nooooooo human being can say without sounding like a puppet akin to Billy) meet Jigsaw and what happens… his face is covered. Under a hood. Never revealed. Forcing mystery. And ruining this twist we’re supposed to be reacting to at the end that Zep was not Jigsaw at all. We fucking know.
Whannell’s awful screenplay suffers from a lot more problems than that, but I can’t be here all night and he can’t take all the blame as James Wan and David Armstrong decide to shoot the movie by attaching a lens to one of the turds in the movie’s toilet, Kevin Greutert gives away through his editing that he’s watched way too much MTV (it’s especially laughable during car scenes where he’s trying really hard not to give away that the cars are not moving at all but being pushed in a garage), and the legendary Charlie Clouser (at least to me, given I’m a fan of his work with White Zombie/Marilyn Manson/Nine Inch Nails/Rob Zombie) is downgraded to giving the film its notorious theme, which sounds like a glorified ringtone to me when your mother calls rather than any really atmospheric work for the moment. It’s too mechanical, something Clouser is usually able to make organic.
And yet people defend this movie as a masterpiece for some reason or pretend it’s a bad word to call a movie focused primarily on its gruesome trap mechanics (and only averting the gore because the budget can’t provide it) as torture porn. Fuck it, I have a lot more to say when I eventually decide to let out my rage at how incompetent this movie is, even for a debut.
Annabelle (2014/dir. John Leonetti/USA)
And yet Saw isn’t nearly as incompetent as Annabelle, a movie that obviously rides the coattails of The Conjuring by basing its cash-in existence on the notorious doll from the opening moments of that infinitely superior film.
That’s right. A fucking doll. That’s the easiest thing to make creepy in any capacity and yet Annabelle can’t get it the fuck together enough to soak in that precious heebie-jeebie juice that any damn doll should have on it. Even the Raggedy-Ann type of doll that the real Annabelle was.
But no, not remotely scary in any way. Even when it tries to toss every page from the horror movie handbook – stealing the fuck out of elements of its predecessor Conjuring, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, the work of Emmanuel Lubezki, The Strangers, even the real-life Tate/LaBianca murders – all of it without an ounce of shame and even less wanted effect. And it doesn’t even allow itself to give its main thematic premise of “sacrifice” or “what is your child’s life worth?” that it tries to sell enough weight for us to give a shit, just a hope that the hour-and-a-half is over and done with.
Poor Alfre Woodard. She deserved better than this. None of the cast does as they having trouble living in Leave–It–to–Beaver-world alone, this is their own little circle of hell and they sleep in it, but Alfre Woodard should not be sitting in one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.
Pontypool (2008/dir. Bruce McDonald/Canada)
Like Nightbreed and Sleepaway Camp, this was a first time watch and I honestly am surprised that I don’t think the first watch is actually enough to tackle this movie. For an RKO War of the Worlds-esque turn against the zombie genre, it has a lot of things to unpack that I’m not halfway done thinking about. Norman Mailer concepts being introduced subtly, dissection of linguistics, shit that a guy as simple-minded as me really needs to actually stretch out in my brain before being confident enough to talk about surprisingly intelligent Pontypool‘s script by Tony Burgess truly is.
At the same time, as a low-budget genre film that it superficially tries to be, it does that damn well too. A bit of a disappointing beat-by-beat scenario with a character Dr. Mendez there to forcefeed us information about disease central to the film that sort of cheats its way out of being a locked-down isolated fright and a rushed ending, but Stephen McHattie’s lead performance is enough to keep me on the edge of my seat. I could hear that guy read a grocery list the way he’s talking into the mic during the movie and while he has help from co-star Lisa Houle upping the tension and dread from they hear and imagine going outside, the real centrifugal force is McHattie forcing the momentum up, down, and every which way but loose from his wit and desperate but still running charm.
Meanwhile, Bruce McDonald, cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak, and editor Jeremiah Munce do a terrific job of making this count as a damned movie rather than something that get the same effect off the theater like most single-location movies fail to satisfy (looking at you, Locke) though of course they eventually run out of ways to make the movie feel cinematic without being forced. The real MVP in the sound design of the whole thing is magnificent at once making the silence in the radio station every bit as unnerving as the horrific broadcasts coming in through the wire and broken in all the right places. It echoes and shakes and does everything perfect soundwork ought to do.
I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say and like Pontypool a lot more when I have time for a second viewing. In the meantime, reality awaits…