The Shape of Slash to Come

Film Title: Halloween

One of the easiest possible associations to make with Halloween, the 2018 horror film that is now the third movie in the franchise frustratingly by that name, is one with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. For indeed, Halloween ’18 (as I shall refer to it from here on in this review as this movie skips over all the other movies between it and the 1978 original but calling it Halloween II doesn’t work because there’s ALSO two other movies by that title) does more than a bit to imply a new future direction in the story of emotionless masked Shape of murderous evil Michael Myers’ (OG Nick Castle for special moments and James Jude Courtney for most of the screentime) and his semi-random focus on tormenting Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), one with final beats that imply that if Myers is to continue, he shall be focusing on someone new. And like The Force Awakens, Halloween ’18 sets this up by blatantly repeating the beats and greatest hits of not only John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece (who returns with his son Cody to score this iteration – I honestly think the difference is not all that remarkable but it was a perfect score to begin with), but at least giving the first three sequels knowing winks as well (as well as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre).

And like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Halloween ’18 opts to forego a steady core story with unnecessary tangents that are mostly dead ends and one of which seems like a contrivance to facilitate a result that already felt inevitable. I am particularly dismayed that Halloween ’18 opted to be a two-hour slasher film when a 90-minute version of itself would have sufficed just as well. This does not bode very well for Halloween ’18 in my heart because those Star Wars movies are ones that I mutedly enjoyed on first watch and slowly decayed the more I thought about it. But to give Halloween ’18, the benefit of the doubt I ask significantly less of my slasher movies than I do of my space operas and I DID end up satisfied nonetheless.

For one thing, the fan service that is littered throughout the movie is of a gleeful sort that argues the soul of Halloween is how Myers’ actions are just as much consistent as they are relentless. For another thing, this film is in the very capable directorial hands of David Gordon Green who I am more fond of than J.J. Abrams (I cannot say I prefer Green to Johnson but I did think about it a lot), who should be returning to form any day now.

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This is not that return but the two of these elements – the fan service and Green’s presence – mix very well in my eye. The familiar patterns within the kills (at least the ones where we don’t see the act, only the grisly results) and the shot styles as his rampage aligns us with the characters as they recognize what’s going on this Illinois Halloween night. Even if Green does not utilize the widescreen spacing as well as Carpenter, though he does have a knack for creating pools of shadow and distressing that with the harsh blues and reds of police lights when shit goes wrong. Green and Carpenter also share the ability to transform a far from Midwestern town (this film was shot in Charleston, South Carolina) into feeling breezily autumnal in a Midwest way. Green’s direction is particularly much better at selling the subversion of Strode’s previous role as victim than Green or Danny McBride’s half-baked and overgluttoned screenplay did, such as a set of shots that is so exciting in how it reversed the roles between Myers and Strode that it made me cheer in the theater.

Perhaps the best surprise out of the entirety of the film is Green’s happy intentions to make the carnage and any aftermath we are lucky to walk in on really count for something. I can’t honestly decide which is the bigger standout: a hovering duo of long-shots (there’s a cut between them but one so intelligently placed that it doesn’t kill the momentum at all) where Myers stalks into homes, stealing weapons and murdering the matriarchs without any pause, promising to us that he has no intentions to hunt Strode and simply kills because he kills. Or a messy explosion of blood as we witness Myers’ boot slam into the skull of a character, a gauche and cartoonish end to the film’s most harebrained character.

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It is perhaps most unfortunate that the best elements of these things take a while to get there because Halloween ’18 thinks it has a complex plot to set up. One that thinks it needs to set up the high school life of a teenage girl or the disinteresting investigation work of annoying podcasters, the elimination of both of these solving most of my problems with the movie (particularly that the character most easy to hate is never even in danger of being murdered). McBride and Green particularly. want to explore the concept of Laurie’s PTSD but don’t really do much of the work to cut into it – they turn her into Sarah Connor without giving much of a clear psychological path between the girl crying against a wall at the end of the 1978 film and the stonefaced woman living in her personal fortress of guns, traps, and panic rooms 40 years later waiting for him to try again*.

Most of the heavy-lifting is put upon a game Curtis, who turns in a determination with cracking resoluteness and a deflecting refusal to acknowledge how her paranoia has broken her relationship with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer). In fact, practically any sense of character the movie gets comes from the actors present in the second half as Judy Greer plays Karen as somehow trying very hard to pretend her comfortable suburbia life can stifle memories of repressed childhood that her mother continues to bring and Andi Matichak as Karen’s daughter Andi, totally naïve about the threat out there and trying to retain a relationship with Laurie despite the strain between generations and Laurie’s emotional instability. If there is any reason I prefer Green’s Halloween to Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, despite finding both films thematically clumsy about trauma, it is because of these three women. Toby Huss and Will Patton aren’t nearly up to those three women but they maintain a rustic personability as men trying to take control of situations they should be responsible but aren’t equipped for. The only real loose end is sadly Haluk Bilgener as Myers’ psychologist Dr. Sartain (“the new Loomis”, Laurie sarcastically calls him), but he’s also saddled with a character that has no sense or logic to him on paper. The clear standout isn’t even a main actor, Jibrail Nantambu’s babysat child of Julian who feels like a mixed transient in his effortless naturalism and charm from George Washington and Eastbound and Down (my two favorite things Green and McBride have done).

Anyway, whole lot of fat is in Halloween ’18. Ignoring that part of the beauty of the original is its elegant simplicity. Simplicity that could have been recreated wholly from elements that are in Halloween ’18. So, it’s understandable why it’s been a disappointment to some. Hell, it’s already fading for me. I don’t see it holding up on rewatch where the deadwood will be prevalent and I have a remote that can fast-forward. But for right now, on first watch, I can’t lie and say that I got all I really wanted out of Halloween ’18: a functioning slasher film that delivered on the puerile violence I go to these movies for anyway. Even if I had to squint to get it.

*There is the attitude that this is a failed premise to begin with because Halloween H20: 20 Years Later… already had that fated reunion and just erasing the sequels doesn’t salvage the impact. It would be much easier for me to agree if I gave a fuck about H20.

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You Blow That Candle Out, We’re Gonna Kill You. Kill You.

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen a slasher film as pleasant as Happy Death Day and I doubt I ever will. The only true contender for that spot is Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and there’s definitely a bit more viciousness in its third act than there is in the entirety of Christopher B. Landon’s third feature film. For most people that might be quite the dealbreaker, especially in the expectation that a horror film has to… y’know horrify kind of. But I’ve never been one to consider slasher films a subgenre to hold to for its scariness and the fact that Happy Death Day takes full pleasure in stretching out the novelty of its premise in a manner that’s kind of genial doesn’t make me regret the number of times I laughed and enjoyed myself during the whole thing.

That very premise being how nursing student Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) has been living her life in flippant antagonism towards everyone and everything around her and her hedonistic life has found her at the end of a butcher’s knife the night of her birthday. Only she wakes up again on her birthday morning in the same boy’s dorm of Carter’s (Israel Broussard) and a bit more wary of what she might assume was a dream that felt too real, tries to deviate her path slightly only to once again find herself stabbed to death by the same BabyFace Masked. And with that death, she wakes once again understandably freak out by the time loop she’s stuck in – enduring her birthday over and over with the same violent end, trying to find a way to circumvent the loop and stop her murderer.

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Or the elevator pitch version “Groundhog Day as a slasher”. There’s even a button of a scene where they name-drop Groundhog Day as a “yeah, we totally ripped off that movie” statement without adding the weird attitude of “… And because we said it, you can’t call us out for that” that most self-aware horror seems to want to adopt as bet-hedging. Happy Death Day‘s script by comic book writer Scott Lobdell is less concerned with pointing out the absurdity of its premise and more concerned with finding a way to make it fun without being the butt of a joke. And it certainly has a sense of humor about itself, but one that gets to exist side-by-side with Tree’s frustrations at waking up, being killed, and repeated and how that affects her day-to-day mood. It’s that dissimilar from the idea that we’re all different people every time we wake up, though I’m doubtful that was on Lobdell or Landon’s mind and that they merely wanted some semblance of a character development arc as Tree recognizes just how arbitrarily she was treating her sorority sisters, her father, Carter, and the professor she’s having an affair with and see how much of her problems she can shelve in the hopes that she survives to the next night.

It’s a lot shallower than that on paper but Jessica Rothe is pretty much a miracle of a performer, an exhausted and sarcastic pillar of charisma that gives this movie all she can to have some semblance of momentum based on the way she evolves and learns about herself. And despite indulging at points in the sort of shallow catty bitchiness that outs movies like this as obviously written by a guy who saw Mean Girls once and didn’t get it, it also has the same sort of forgivability as Mean Girls. We don’t really hate Tree on the first loop and by the middle of the film, we feel her annoyance at every single slip-up that lands her in bloodless mortem (the editing takes advantage of the PG-13 nature of the film to make smash cuts play as punchlines a la Edge of Tomorrow and Groundhog Day, especially in a Demi Lovato-tuned montage and a ringtone allegedly created for the movie that actually sounds creepier than anything in Bear McCreary’s cliched score), and by the time she’s kind of figured it out, her joie du vivre is pleasantly earned in the face of how Rothe takes every new step differently (Broussard kind of follows up with different responses to the same event, but even at second-best in show – partly because he just shows up the longest – he’s just not on Rothe’s level). Maybe it’s partly in the aftermath of having just finished binging The Good Place, which accomplishes similar things but honestly better, but Happy Death Day‘s intention to see a miserable unhealthy person grow into something better makes me more willing to see it all the way through, even in spite of Lobdell’s ethic lapses. It certainly has some obvious Eszterhas-level attitudes about women (especially in its third act which feels like the weakest element of the script), Macklemore-level naivete about sexuality, and the in-sorority bullying of the one non-murderer character we’re meant to hate is clearly racially coded. But none of those things pop their heads long enough for me to not have fun.

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And this is all sounding like I’m not really interested in it as a horror film and I don’t want to pretend I think it’s a bad horror film. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but its treatment of the blue cold hospital, the tall cavernous clock tower, and a creepily cartoon killer mask based on the college setting’s mascot (by the way, who would possibly find a football team called the Babys intimidating?) is at the very least on the better side of Blumhouse cliches as possible and Happy Death Day certainly wants you to know that even if Tree’s never truly in danger, she still feels threatened and trapped in slowly canting angles and surprise light blowouts. But it also isn’t very much concerned with elevating itself as horror. Honestly, if it weren’t for the comedic tone which isn’t even all that unique, Happy Death Day would feel entirely like just another forgettable horror film that happens to work enough that you don’t demand a refund.

Still and all, Happy Death Day can’t help sharing its enjoyment of digging into a hat of tropes and using its horror identity as a source of things beyond the genre. Like It, the bigger horror film of the year, I’m not singing its praises high and far but I am more than willing to relive it like Tree did (given that I literally walked out of a second screening before I could finish this review) and it’s not freaking me out that I did.

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25 for 25 – We Accept the Challenge to Fight and Never Lose.

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This movie is going to be a conglomeration of things I had earlier explored and now bring full circle. I already came down on some of the best of Canadian cinema – as provided by the National Film Board itself. Even earlier, I took a look at some slasher culture. And even earlier than that came the look at movies that I deemed part of my fascinating trinity of inadequately produced ego trips, with our particular subject today flat-out mentioned as the last end of that. There was Miami Connection which was essentially Y.K. Kim’s attempt to leave a wise self-gravitas-granting message of peace and love sincere yet completely contradictory to its violent content. There was The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s warped and twisted life fantasy that allegedly provides him with a blanket of company he couldn’t find or reasonably match in his film that gave him lifetime adoration that may not be what he’s looking for. And now, we close that trinity off with Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare (although it is credited within the film as The Edge of Hella title much less descriptive and absolutely not applicable at all to the film it is attached to). Now, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare is much shallower than the previous films in its intentions. Produced and written by its star Jon Mikl Thor (the director John Fasano mainly had his career as a script doctor) – a Canadian bodybuilding Mr. USA and Mr. Canada champion who later took a dip into heavy metal music under the his last name as the mononymous Thor – The Legendary Rock Warrior! – all Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare really wants or tries to do is make Thor look really awesome and cool and badass.

It does not make him look cool or badass. It frankly makes him look silly.

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That is obviously bound to happen when your film starts with the bloodless death of a family by an unseen evil monster from the kitchen oven in their apparent farm home in the middle of Nowhere, Ontario. Following such an underwhelming overlit, broad daylight “massacre” of footage with the title card The Edge of Hell is very confident of them. And then once the credits are done, inexplicably, a band and their girlfriends somehow deciding this farm was a good place to record their new album and develop material for themselves despite the very obvious Horrible Over Monster Event That Happened Ten Years Prior to the Movie Proper (which just makes me think of how Trent Reznor made The Downward Spiral in the house where Helter Skelter happened and the sensationalism behind it kind of spills over to this) and Thor (the character is actually named Triton, but it’s so much easier for me to square with Thor as a character himself)’s trying to tell us Toronto is a culturally nourishing place to be making arts at. They’re not in Toronto. They’re on a farm that ain’t Toronto. Might be close to it geographically, but…

Anyway, the band also brings their girlfriends because this is essentially trying to be a slasher film and so we need gratuitous scenes of attempted shower sex while the actors waltz right into that shower in an insanely cartoonish amount of make-up making them look like extras from a Whitesnake video only randomly pulled together for the most softcore porn video you could ever imagine. Hell, most of the things this band does are pretty clean for 80s metal stars, they put in a good name for hair metal after Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization portrays all the sexual promiscuity and drugs in the culture, but heck away these guys just wanna make music and be with their own girls.

And my word… the music is catnip to a bad hair metal deviant like I. Hair metal is emblematic of nearly everything I think is silly and stupid about the 1980s and why I’m so lucky to have missed out on it. Big and loud and monotonous, but running like the train that could in high voices screeching voices and obviously Scorpions and Ratt inspired guitar riffs. And they’re earwormy in the worst ways, like hook worms, bruh. Every once in a while, “We Accept the Challenge” and “Energy” keep popping over and over in my head and I need the tunes from Miami Connection to save me.

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By the way, I’m not bothering elaborating on the characters or cast names beyond Thor because much as I ironically love Rock n Roll Nightmare, it’s a movie so bad I’d rather retain my dignity by only affording it cursory research because got damn, but from what I understand an unusual amount of it is made up of Assistant Directors. In any case, the only really distinguishable person is the drummer who starts off with the fakest most-Spinal-Tap-sounding Australian accent and somehow it gets dropped halfway through thus making him wholly anonymous amongst the other band members.

Anyway, this being a slasher film, they all get picked off in complete darkness with their deaths usually witnessed by a monsters that looks like color-coded versions of Beaker the muppet, except with an eye removed. There’s never any tension or horror because Fasano is simply not a good filmmaker with this roaming around and Thor clearly didn’t shell out too much for his glamor flick, but even if this were a well-shot and edited film… how on Earth can you see these creatures and not laugh? Are these the motherfuckers that were in the oven? What were they doing there?

Well, I’ll tell you what they are and this is unfortunately going to be SPOILER ALERT for a film that you’re probably better off EXPERIENCING THIS FIRST HAND so if you can hunt a copy of Rock n Roll Nightmare (which frankly tough for me but doable), GET ON IT.

But for those who stay….

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The events of this movie didn’t happen. It is a punch-drunk version of Six Characters In Search of an Author. Nobody who died (apparently not even the ten years ago family) ever really existed except as creations of Triton, an archangel, in order to lure and entrap the killer The Devil (or maybe the exhaustive laundry list of names Triton elaborates on when they finally come face to face) so that Triton can grab his 30 dollar Halloween decoration looking ass (which he seriously does look like the most expensive prop in the whole movie. Definitely less expensive than the metal makeup. And yet cheaper than my work shoes.) and bring him back to hell. And obviously this does not happen without a heavy metal battle, so while the music by the band never existed blasts as Thor suddenly Super Saiyans himself and wrassles with those Beaker muppets attaching themselves to his swollen pecs as he struggles.

It gets at its most pathetic Triton explains he was inspired by slasher movies as though he knew only the Devil could possibly be a fan of them. It’s an attempt to be self-reflexive that ends up having the movie trip and fall all over its face. And the moralistic (?) Christianity probably explains why the hair metal band is all into clean monogamous drug-free fun rather than actually acting like Poison or Warrant. Anyway, it’s ambitious of Thor, that’s for sure and the fact that he wanted himself to be at the center of this is hella braver than punching the Devil right in the face.

This is why I love the movie so much as trash and am willing to show it to as many people as possible. It’s insane, it’s bizarre, and it’s all in some shallow way that’s much less demanding than the psychoanalysis that seems imperative with movies like The Room and Plan 9 from Outer Space. And now that I wrote it out, maybe it does make Thor look cool now that I think of it. I wish I could look that constipated wrassling muppets.

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25 for 25 – Psycho Killer, Qu’est-Ce Que C’est

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I wrote a 6000-word essay on this blog on the history of the slasher subgenre in horror films. I don’t think I need to qualify my love for that genre to any regular viewers, but yeah, I adore that trashy subgenre as a wonderful guilty pleasure. And if you read that essay (Godspeed to you), you may recall I optioned to end it on the note of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon‘s release as a small gem in the ruins of the slasher genre’s popularity.

It’s more than just a singular event in the slasher genre… I mean, not that singular, given how Scream precedes it notably as a slasher parody and the careers of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett also attempt some amount of slasher commentary, but I universally am not a fan of either of those… so I guess singular in being a much beloved slasher parody gem that I actually love and admire and find a lot of intelligence in. But it’s also the only feature film credit to director Scott Glosserman (his only other two directors credits is a documentary on Wikipedia and an MTV tv film) and writer David J. Stieve, who have spent most of the time between Behind the Mask‘s 2006 release and now in trying to will the existence of a sequel to the picture. And this is absolutely unfortunate because goddammit, it’s not just that I think Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a great standout in 2000s horror, it’s also got a pretty loud enough cult following.

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The premise essentially functions as a 21st century version of the French serial killer mockumentary Man Bites Dog (though they’re distinctive in that BTM takes place in a movie world while MBD wants to live in the real world and thus comment more on documentaries and real-world serial killer fascinations than the horror genre itself), especially in being presented with that infamous 21st Century style of pseudo-documentary for the first 2/3: Journalism Graduates Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), Doug (Ben Pace), and Todd (Britain Spellings) invited to the New England town of Glen Echo by a man named Leslie Vernon, who intends to embody a legendary slasher for the town akin to the in-film existence of Jason Voorhees for Crystal Lake, Freddy Krueger for Springwood, and Michael Myers for Haddonfield. When they meet Vernon (Baesel), it’s surprising to find he’s a young, energetic nerd who tries to make himself as personable and approachable as possible while elaborating on both his status within the town as a living ghost and all of the good ol’ prep stuff he’s getting into for the great big ol’ slash-a-thon with his selected Final Girl Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson).

Vernon is obviously Stieve and Glosserman as one person trying to show off everything they notice and love about all those big franchises, even to the point of Vernon getting to have his own little fan moment showing off his friendship to another legend Eugene (Scott Wilson; it’s a popular fan rumor that the character is Billy from Black Christmas but nothing in the movie implies that). Meanwhile, Vernon is proud to show off all the research and work he’s been doing and involve the team in his antics.

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And that’s more or less where Behind the Mask can actually flex its superiority in my opinion above Scream: the very premise of Behind the Mask demands that the movie call attention to so many physical leaps and inconsistencies like the ability of a stalker to catch up to running prey without breaking a sweat or the contrivances of a killer’s backstory and connection to his Final Girl. I’m imposing my own attitudes towards parodies in general, but you can’t just put a couple namedrops and an attitude of smug contempt for your genre (something BTM absolutely lacks and I love it all the more for it) and pass off your film as critic-proof satire. You need to have something to say about the genre, dammit, you need to dig real deep into it.

And Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon goes deeper than it even needs to. What at first begins as an invitation to join Glosserman and Stieve in their own little fake “behind-the-scenes” dissection of heightened slasher films, suddenly becomes an indictment of the genre writing new motivations for their characters and the arbitrariness of them (leading to one of my favorite jokes in the movie when confronted about Leslie’s newly concocted fiction: “A lot of what we use is CGI.”). Then there’s the really psychoanalytical stuff it jumps headfirst into in a manner that even Taylor herself feels uncomfortable with, the gender attitudes inherent in a slasher plot and Leslie insistence that Taylor needs to respect his orthodox conventions if he will allow her to continue asking him about this.

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And then there’s STILL the unsubtle callout about the amorality of the slasher genre (given a much headier divide from the viewer because they’re watching a movie while Taylor and the crew are witnessing real life) and how he could be as interested into this, but this is kind of flawed in how the movie earlier answers that question preemptively with “Well, it’s fun, isn’t it?” (and again, the fact that Taylor has to be more involved than the audience shoots itself in the foot). But BTM also makes up for that, kind of, by becoming its own slasher movie in a conventional shooting manner. The first-person camera is abandoned and now we are witnessing it with an objective third-person eye (and something fun about this is how Leslie’s explanation of his plan early on mirrors a lot of the subsequent moments). And there’s obviously only so much meta-commentary to dissect from such a third act shift, but I honestly enjoy it on the shallowest level more than anything: Glosserman and Stieve putting their money where their mouth is at the end of it all and indulging in a smartly-craftey, unexpected slasher movie all the way through its third act.

I mean, I did say I’m a fan of slasher movies.

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Plus, Baesel’s just a very captivating presence to be around. He’s got a casual yet off-beat energy that makes him constantly watchable and a twisted sort of subject/interviewer chemistry with Goethals that gets close to “oh boy, they’re into each other, aren’t they?”. I might go so far as claiming I prefer him to Benoit Poelvoorde in Man Bites Dog, which is a tall order as I love Poelvoorde as an actor and nothing in Baesel’s acting resume implies he’d ever do much of note again (editing, on the other hand…). And there’s such a home-crafted sense to the film that’s probably thanks to the limited resources… the New England town feels full and lived in and the area Leslie’s legend revolves around so decrepit and abandoned but still an obvious part of Glen Echo. The costume he makes for himself primitive and dusty and yet so obviously a costume that it’s all thanks to Baesel’s performance that he can actually feel like a killer underneath it (indeed one of his killings involves the literal mask being removed and it’s an understated character moment). The world within Behind the Mask feels like a slasher reality – haunting, isolated, small – guided by Vernon’s confident and eager smiles and showcases.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is the sort of fan-service I enjoy indulging in when I watch. On the surface, it’s all “isn’t this kind of great?” are horror movies with its own little allowances for visual references and callbacks and throwbacks (those who just look for visual gags will have a ball in the early first act). On the back end, just a great genre piece for night time watching. And on the inside, a pop culture inquiry on that genre for anybody who wants to unpack it all. That’s a lot to juggle and I’m not sure you CAN do so perfectly (alongside the “isn’t this kind of bad? But here’s a horror movie anyway” aspect, there’s the inconsistency in having Robert Englund act in a film where Freddy Krueger is acknowledged as a real person and really was 2006 the perfect point to comment on found-footage craze pre-Paranormal Activity), Glosserman and Stieve do it with such gusto that it’s unacceptable they don’t have more films under their belt to show for it.

At least we’ll always have this movie.

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31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 1 – Welcome to the Family

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of horror films selected at random, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. Tonight, we’re looking at the 40th anniversary of one of the most harrowing nightmares of the Americana road trip and one of the first progenitors of the “true story” horror film.

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I remember 2003 being the year of revival for many a slasher flick. Since Freddy vs. Jason had become an event movie that year, a lot of my classmates just started shooting back to the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th genres to anticipate their fight. But one of my younger neighbors, disturbed as he clearly was at maybe five years younger than me, got really excited for a different movie and insisted that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of his favorite movies. He kind of showed a very corrupted memory of the film immediately at his age: perceiving sexual organs cut or Freudian moments with a chainsaw that even 11-year-old me could catch out of him without knowing that the term to use for it yet is “Freud”. But regardless of how much the child perceived it falsely, it was my first introduction to the concept of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, to later be accented by the hype of the remake which was released later that year. I also had a huge affinity for the avant-garde guitarist Buckethead (still one of my favorite musical artists today), whose aesthetic is largely inspired by this movie, naming songs after quotes or lines and having soundbytes appear on some tracks.

I was 11 and put off of horror movies for a long while since images of the Cryptkeeper, The Cigarette Smoking Man and Freddy Krueger gave me heart attacks alone. So I didn’t see either film. Which I half-regret, for it at least didn’t make me half as questionable as my neighbor, and half-am glad for it being well after I had to endure Two-Lane BlacktopEasy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and so many other Americana road films made in the 60s to 70s age of freedom. I mean, can really moments like the Hitchhiker chasing the van with arms wide open smiling in the sun not be perceived as a gip against the Summer of Love after that group of pictures? Probably, but I’m easily overwhelmed by juxtaposition and suggestion. I first saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at age 17 in a dark room by myself and that impact made it one of my favorite movies I’ve seen now.

Following a very melodramatic but surprisingly effective text intro narrated coldly by a just debuting John Larroquette that adds more to the true crime feel, we get introduced into a world of harrowing imagery with a sit-your-ass-down-and-live-through-this montage of flashing washed-out imagery of carnage and Texas sun-dried remains of what are very obviously human beings accompanied by the old sound of a camera flash’s lights dying out like the untuned strings of a violin sliding down a razor as the imagery immediately fades out. It’s a sadistic little bit of visual entrance music giving you a glimpse of what was left behind by the violence that ideally shocked the same country that had The Exorcist and A Clockwork Orange released earlier that decade… a sick tease of “See that? Wanna know how it got that way?” before drenching itself in all red saturation with the matter-of-factly title The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (even though the body count being four seems to reflecting how sensationalized the term “massacre” is as in, say, the Revolution-inciting five-body Boston Massacre).

That deliberate saturation showcases something great to come in the 16mm shot film and that’s on the part of its also-debuting cinematographer Daniel Pearl. To my knowledge, Pearl hasn’t done much since other than an army of music videos, some huge, and some not-that-great horror movies (he had interestingly enough worked as cinematographer for the 2003 remake of this film 29 years later, but I might just explore his work there later this month). What we have here out of Pearl is a really grainy, dirty ugly little piece of filmmaking that makes some pretty great low-fi touches of ugly filmmaking that makes the movie feel as real as a snuff film – something we’re not supposed to be watching and should turn away from. This is such a fragile sensibility to the mise en scene providing the mood of the film that every second I haven’t seen the recent 40K resolution of the film bugs me out (the DVD I currently own is the 2003 Pioneer release and let me tell you, it’s bad… I’m finally making the switch to Blu-Ray and the 40K release will be one of my first buys). It is shit like that that gives the movie its true character before anything else, this rotten look.

But moving on into the whole meat of the tale, we’ve got ourselves one of the most generic slasher provisions ever. We got five teens, none of them with any real characteristics except for two of them being siblings – Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul A. Partain), the latter being invalid and agitated so much and the former being particularly screamy. They are all for the most part non-entities that, to the movie’s flaw, mean nothing as people. They will come to approach a house that is heralded by a large and vicious killer who we don’t know anything about beyond having an affinity for butchery and showcasing this by donning a chainsaw, an apron and a mask made of human skin. These teens will die. That is the plot in a nutshell, but the main point of how it upsets the viewer comes not from what’s happening to the characters, but how much it feels involving. It’s not exactly documentary-esque – especially since the shot construction and angles feel more deliberated than amateur – but the way these moments are captured with Pearl’s little filthy lens feel like a tasteless little re-enactment from one of those true crime series. And director Tobe Hooper, who was just green behind the ears while making this movie, keeps up the realism and grounding to great effect with his sense of timing and patience.

This approach is what leads to really really weird and crazy moments becoming unnerving notes of impending terror… The film intercuts the opening moments of the five friends making sure the lead siblings’ late grandparents’ resting place is not ransacked or vandalised with shots of a man writhing on the ground as Sally consults the Sheriff, a long description of the practices of a slaughterhouse, to a very standoffish gas station owner whose station has no gas, and a particularly infamous long moment where they pick up a clearly insane Hitchhiker (played most unnervingly by Edwin Neal, whose looks remind me of James Franco and acts a whole lot more believably than James Franco too). This particular hitchhiker is the loudest omen as he gleefully continues the description of the work of slaughterhouses, having pictures to show and causes a ruckus by lighting a fire in their van and cutting Franklin’s arm before being kicked out. These scenes are covered by an abrupt editing style that slams images as hard as the mallet against the head of the animals.

And then there’s no better illustration to this point of Hooper’s sensibilities than our very first meeting with Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), the towering nemesis of this film, himself. It begins with one of the more nameless characters entering the Sawyer house to ask for gas after continuously calling out for anyone home. He’s met with an empty hallway nearly sterile in color, but right at the end next to the staircase, a grisly bright red wall adorned with animal skulls (the movie has made no secret that it bases itself on the horrific practices of infamous serial killer Ed Gein and, unlike the many other films that have based themselves on Gein like Psycho, seems to make a celebration of this fact in a sense) that should already be a sign to shout out “Dude, get the fuck out!” But said man doesn’t really regard this warning of set design and rushes into THAT very hallway, tripping on his own ass as Leatherface happens to waltz up into the door frame MOTHERFUCKER YOU SHOULD HAVE WAITED BECAUSE HE WAS ON HIS WAY TO MEET YOU HE WAS COMING TO GET YOUR ASS. Before we even get a chance to breathe or this guy gets to adjust himself, the man is slammed in the fucking brain with a hammer and his body spasms on the ground to the godawful soundtrack of pig squeals that we can’t tell where they come from. Leatherface drags his new kill into the red zone and slams it shut with a cold steel sliding door that expresses finality. The shock of that moment, even after seeing that clip and knowing it was coming, the brief silence that came after the slaughter, it was just asphyxiating of terror… like the moment Nemesis slams through the walls to chase you in Resident Evil 3.

But the worst is yet to come as the victim’s girlfriend, waiting outside the house herself, approaches taking a different path before tripping also and falling into a room that is built on the unfortunate remains of the dead. Furniture created from human bones, not a spot on the floor that doesn’t have tiny little rat or chicken or whatever skulls that break easily under the hysteria of finding all of this carnage, a little nightmare room for anyone brilliantly dressed and designed by Robert Burns, before this woman runs away, Leatherface on her trail…

I’m not going to go over much else to ruin the surprise, but these two consecutive scenes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre really paint and develop under the worst conditions how the true technical brilliance of the film is constructed to hammer on a point of brutality. Because that brutality is exactly what the film is all about: what can a movie show and how can it show that for the world to go “Oh my lord, that is ghastly”? Especially in the world that is going through such incomprehensible cultural turmoil, like the Vietnam War (Neal is himself a veteran) or Watergate? Or the movie watching public that dealt with A Clockwork Orange and The Exorcist? Just look at the surroundings of its production. I already mentioned it’s inspired – though not based – on Gein, a serial killer that is just scary to think about having existed and takes some inspiration from the Manson family and Elmer Wayne Henley. The actual production just as hellseeking, with the sufferable heat taking its toll on the cast and crew, 16 hour days and actual animal remains used at points and Burns actually suffering some actual injuries (this clip on YouTube shows Hansen ghoulishly laughing as he recounts actually cutting Burns’ finger).

The result of all of this reflected savagery is how Hooper and company answered that question for the world: You give them something so realistic and so in the face that the people aren’t ready for it. Something to say “Yeah, never mind. The world can be so much worse too.” And it pays off in spades, the movie is like being a dinner guest with Ted Bundy.

But it especially gets some props for doing without showing really much blood. It is easily one of the blood-less horror films I have ever seen and easily the blood-less slasher. After the first kill, it’s really quick and sudden getting rid of the other three victims that the movie just about has 30 other minutes to have of an exhaustive ride of torture and as Sally has to avoid Leatherface and scream her way out of being murdered. And these moments are just too intimate for me, I can’t really feel right sitting down in this house of blood.

And the climax. Oof, I haven’t spoken a word about the climax because if you don’t know what it is (and I’d argue it is the most famous scene in the movie, so it’s possible you do), you’re gonna have to deal with it solid up. And it is just as nasty and unsophisticated and real as everything else in this film. So bottoms up as you drink it in, telling yourself “this is only a movie”.

Because of this movie, I find it very easy to argue that film doesn’t have to be the sharpest imagery possible. It doesn’t have to award itself for its existence the highest quality. Sometimes, you just need to dig deep down into the ugliness and get some really black, really amoral to showcase as honestly as possible. Sometimes, you don’t need the brightest light, but the emptiest abyss all to the sound of a chainsaw, a sound that will never ever have me calm around it again and part of that is because of this movie.

His Name Was Jason… And Today’s His Birthday

You know what day it is. I know what day it is.

I feel compelled to address this movie that is so well endeared to the horror community as a classic that it is irreversibly attached to the day of Friday the 13th.

Shit, it’s in the movie’s fucking name.

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In spite of becoming a cultural phenomenon over the past 34 years and having made an icon out of hockey masks and machetes, I have to admit I, an unabashed fan of horror fiction and non-fiction to an obsessive state, think very little of the Friday the 13th series on an objective standpoint and I especially think little of the debut film – which features very little of Jason Voorhees and is completely devoid of hockey mask. And really there’s not much of the film that comes of as necessarily anything more than an attempt to get some money…

You get Sean S. Cunningham, director, producer, and father of the franchise, who decides he wants to drum up money based on the success of recent slasher films on the coattails of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween and he makes it without any intention of rising up above the rising white noise of [Insert Generic Teen Slasher 80s Flick Here] (though that criticism is unfair and I’ll explain in a second) and matching the quality. So he goes ahead and grabs probably the first name he can grab to write, Victor Miller, and, in possibly the only show of inspiration out of the whole production has gore magician Tom Savini, straight from Dawn of the Dead to create a bloody whirlwind with bland substance.

The substance can be easily translated as: Friday, June 13th – Robbi Morgan, trying to be a character, arrives at Camp Crystal Lake to help Peter Brouwer, pretending to be a guy named Steve Christy, and a few other soon-to-be counselors into re-opening the camp, 20 years after a young boy named Jason Voorhees drowned and the camp closed down.

Except Robbi Morgan never makes it. She is killed in hilariously outrageous fashion on the way and the film instead focuses on the seven people who did make it to the camp, as they go through their repairing shenanigans while being warned by the only convincing performance in the whole movie, “Crazy Ralph” (played by Walt Gorney, a man on a bike who is exactly what I picture when I hear Chamillionaire’s “Riding Dirty”).

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HATERS GONNA HATE.

It doesn’t take long before his warning of a death curse proves true as every single character starts losing themselves to the designs of Savini’s comic-book-red glee and we’re meant to ponder as to which of the survivors is the killer, before each suspect is murdered as well.

Until Pamela Voorhees – a small little woman who won’t shut the fuck up about how her son died here in a sycophantically smiling fashion – shows up out of nowhere, at which exact point, we know she’s the killer. You don’t need to be familiar with the series to realize that they are introducing her so that she can be revealed as a villain and motherfucker, I gots words about that shit.

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When I read Arthur Conan Doyle’s works of Sherlock Holmes in high school, I was very quick to pick out how the dirty secret of the stories were that some detail would only come up after Holmes would find it and reveal, leaving us to find the mystery unsolvable until Holmes solves it first. It got on my nerves fairly quickly, but I forgave it because it was a deliberate trick with only the intention to heighten Holmes’ skills as an observer.

This shit, pulling that shit where we don’t get the killer introduced until the last 20 fucking minutes of the movie, this shit is unforgivable. Especially when the movie has barely anything going for it to begin with.

Honestly, Savini’s kills, as realistic as they are in this film, are very underwhelming and not in a graciously low-key manner, but like I feel he must have been frustrated with how small his scope had to have been for the designs in this movie. Even if he had as much fun as we knew him to have, the camera does it no favors – among its many shots of total dark with no possible knowledge of how to reasonably light a night scene… It’s the sort of crap I made when I was a little kid with a camera, not knowing why my camera didn’t work at night.

And the plot is boilerplate: Nothing is meant to be taken out of it except for a situation for kids to do bad things and get bad things done to them. And if you’re going to say that slashers are only meant to be watched for their sex and suspense – First off, you have got to put a higher standard to film, brah! Second, disappointment there too… The suspense is not there at all and the sex is condensed to one flash.

And there’s no Jason until, well, I’ll leave that appearance to surprise you if you haven’t seen the film yet. But even then, the basis of his appearance is so frustratingly ambiguous that, given how shitty the script is, I’m to assume Miller had no idea what he was doing rather than making it deliberate.

It’s the sort of bad movie I would’ve been into back in middle school when I was fascinated with the slasher genre of films and listened to Slipknot and such (I still listen to Slipknot, but you get my point). Its only intention is to exist with a killer, killings and the only shock being the revealing of the killer, like a dimestore EC comics knockoff that you still feel ripped off by buying.

Part of what I hold against Friday the 13th is that those white noise relatively-sleepy not-really-scary generic 80s slasher films, they came out after the movie. You know why?

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Because Friday the 13th showed you don’t have to care how you make your slasher film movie. Its unwarranted success by being grade-school racy in a semi-conservative time basically said “Hey, guys, you can make it cheap… you can make it shitty… and you can still make money.” Roger Corman had better respect than that.

But, there is one credit that is to be owed from Cunningham not knowing what he was doing: The movie is pretty savage. It is clunky in a very brutal way, it only knows how to show the gore in close-ups, it only knows how to rawly grab the dark rain in little lines of white light poking through the darkness…

And it does have a certain garish aesthetic that probably would have never been found if not accidentally by cinematic buffoonery. It’s worth keeping in the back of the mind when a slasher movie is made by someone who does have a semblance of cinematic talent, like John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper.

But, that doesn’t outweigh the blandness of the film – the brute peeks through once in a while, but it doesn’t pass over the whole film, which is way to stuck in its very obvious 80s feel. In spite of its attempted vibes as a slasher film worth its weight in bloody gold, Friday the 13th as a film and its series remains a bad omen in the back of my mind as what horror filmmakers are used to doing with a genre that can terrorize people when done right.

It can smash a reflection of the beauty of the fright and then try to imitate the original in the cracked and fractured glass. Well, you may get your money that way…

But remember, you bootleggers, a broken mirror is seven years bad luck… And this franchise’s luck ran out relatively quick.

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