Horror Spooktober

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)
Director: Beom-sik Jeong
Writer: Beom-sik Jeong, Sang-min Park
Cast: Wi Ha-Joon, Yoo Je-Yoon, Seung-Wook Lee
Genre: Horror
Country: South Korea

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

You may have caught from my review of The Power, which immediately precedes this review, that I am a fan of horror movies in hospitals. I can hedge on that despite being generally inconsistent as a person, proven by how much I enjoyed Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum almost entirely on the principle that it’s set in the most decrepit hospital imaginable. So try to further imagine how joyed I was when I found out it had other things going for it, too.

The title does not mislead, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum does revolve around a haunted asylum named Gonjiam. Following the disappearance of two teenage boys who broke into the abandoned place, Ha-joon (Wi Ha-Joon) seizes the opportunity to prop up his YouTube channel “Horror Times,” enlisting a number of folks to help his venture and explore Gonjiam on a livestream. And since writer/director Beom-sik Jeong and co-writer Sang-min Park are thankfully not under any pretence that this movie is anything more than it is or needs to be, that about sums the plot (in keeping with its title, the movie is efficient), and from there we just watch this group of people get fucked around with for our delight, as these things tend to go.

More delightfully, Gonjiam manages to overcome many faults other found footage movies fall into by understanding an elemental rule in horror: simplicity is gold. This is not a movie with needless arcs or burdensome, contrived plot threads – we know why we’re here, it knows why we’re here, it doesn’t complicate things. Hell, it even understands we’re meant to like the characters – of whom one presumes a significant portion will face death or trauma of some sort – and so spends the first little bit establishing these characters and building their personalities, showing them doing everyday things and just being everyday people. Many a found footage film falls painfully flat when trying to get us to care for its expendable meatsacks, so all the better that such scenes in Gonjiam actually do endear us to this cast. They jive with each other quite pleasantly, and Charlotte (Ye-Won Mun) easily qualifies as a modern horror icon – of this I am certain.

But this isn’t a John Hughes film, we’re not here to see a tale of youthful camaraderie. Gonjiam, keeping in spirit with its aforementioned efficiency, shepherds us right to the namesake asylum and gets things going in earnest, starting us off with some light spooks and gradually getting more unsettling. This is mostly successful, though we get some House on Haunted Hill riffs that are admittedly a tad tired, as if we haven’t been subjected to the grand irony of “these characters are setting up fake scares, but we the viewers know the ghosts are actually real” over the last handful of decades, consequently making it feel like a narratively okay detour, though a detour nonetheless (it’s not the biggest deal, but for a movie so eager to get things going it feels like an unsatisfying cockblock).

When we do get to the ghosts they’re largely excellent – one particular scene with a Silent Hill-esque ghost creature, slowly stalking us through back-and-forth POV shots, is as intense as any horror scene the past decade – and Gonjiam typically opts for steadily mounting dread over outright jump scares. The movie’s nasty abandoned asylum set gives it an easy advantage: it frankly doesn’t have to do a whole lot to be exquisitely creepy, and cinematographer Yoon Byung-ho has an eye for optimal angles within the asylum’s spaces, the best of which being Room 402, warping reality and harbouring the majority of the film’s malevolent entities. The editing’s fairly decent – everyone’s outfitted in cameras and we’re constantly flitting from person to person, yet we maintain a consistent sense of where we and every character is, plus there’s discernible flow to everything. Thank god for this, as found footage movies have a tendency to go bugshit towards the end, usually culminating in an editing catastrophe.

Of course, it’s worth noting that what this all amounts to when said and done is textbook boilerplate. Gonjiam isn’t doing anything particularly novel, although one can argue – and I will – that it has no desire to, and functions more so as a case study on how good production design and a game cast and crew can take common, simple ingredients and present them in a satisfying way. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an annual haunted house: creepy and familiar, a bit of a fleeting memory afterward, yet a pleasure all the same.

Horror Spooktober

The Power (2021)

The Power (2021)
Director: Corinna Faith
Writer: Corinna Faith
Cast: Rose Williams, Emma Rigby, Shakira Rahman
Genre: Horror
Country: United Kingdom

Rating: 3 out of 5.

If you want to finetune a horror movie to my taste, you can either make it a period piece or set it in a hospital. The Power does both these things, so we’re off to a sterling start.

Better yet, writer/director Corinna Faith hinges the movie’s entire atmosphere on 1970s set dressing and accompanying hospital rooms and corridors, each littered with doors leading into seeming voids, and in darkness seem off-puttingly long. It’s the correct choice, a perfect environment to take the pure Val (Rose Williams) and ruin her evening. And what a setting! London, 1974, during the miner’s strike that led to evening blackouts – and Val, ever earnest and wishing to further understand the links between poverty and wellbeing, must prove her worth as a nurse to the hospital’s matron (Diveen Henry) by working the “dark shift.” As this is a horror movie, we can assume the barebones staff working through the darkness aren’t going to bide their time playing chess.

The Power‘s bones are very good, and the first 15 minutes or so do an excellent job establishing a general sense of ‘off-ness’ within the hospital, and establishing that Val is a protagonist I will feel quite bad for when terrible things start happening. There’s immediate tension, helped by an excellent motif in the sound design wherein the soundscape fills with crackles and droning noise as Val approaches dark closets and rooms.

Things get exciting when the hospital’s lights shut off, quickly enveloping Val in a darkness we’re well aware probably contains unsavoury things, and The Power keeps things in a consistent unnerving mode. Val’s an endearing protagonist, and has a purity that makes anything terrible happening to her all the more affecting. Unfortunately, this is also where The Power runs into something of a wall – you see, it never achieves much beyond that mode, and in fact becomes gradually less scary as the movie starts showing its true hand. Faith has a grim story to tell, but there’s a lightness to everything, it all feels a bit less serious and grave than the themes suggest it ought to. Case in point: most supporting characters are eclectic and theatrical, usually speaking in quips – and while that’s good for a haunted hospital movie that wants to be fun, it’s considerably less effective for ones that delve right into “oh shit” topics like The Power does.

There’s also the problem that we don’t have a sense for what’s happening narratively until the last half of the film. I don’t mean this as in it’s a slow-burn, unravelling a grand narrative that pays off in the end. That would be reasonable and something I can’t clock as much. Rather, The Power feels like it’s going through a rolodex of things that could each be The Point. At the beginning, you think it’s going to be a tale of poverty and the effects of political ineptitude, tying into the blackouts themselves and suggested as much by Val’s motive for becoming a nurse. Then you get the sense the movie will tie into the misogyny of the time period. It kind of ends up doing all that by the end, but somewhere around the midpoint the movie becomes about child abuse and plows full steam ahead on that, largely abandoning those prior two topics. It examines abuse in a fine though superficial way, relying more on the inherent horror of it than much else.

Aside from that, the hospital sets are terrific and fine-tuned for scary times, and Val’s face is often softly lit amongst the blackness, emphasising her routinely terrified expressions, and it all works to conjure that tense atmosphere I mentioned before. I ran into an issue – and I don’t know whether this is a Shudder (of which The Power‘s an exclusive) fault or a filmmaker fault – where said darkness was quite compressed, making its varying shades of blackness distractingly pixelated. I’d like to say this added a sense of grittiness to the proceedings and therefore heightened the movie’s spook factor, but alas, it just ended up bothering the hell out of me and making me yearn for glorious smooth gradients.

None of this is to say that The Power‘s bad. It isn’t. It’s competently made and boasts some excellent sequences of growing tension. It’s bursting with great ideas, the potential for something great is staring us in the face, but its too light on its feet to buckle down and manifest these ideas into something special in the horror realm. I found myself wanting more, and that can interpreted in both a good and bad sense.

Horror Spooktober

Candyman (2021)

Candyman (2021)
Director: Nia DeCosta
Writers: Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfield, Nia DeCosta
Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett
Genre: Horror
Country: United States

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

I wanted to love Candyman. The 1992 original stands as a rare gem in 90s horror – genuinely scary and bursting with theme in a remarkable way not oft seen – and it’s certainly a classic overall. Candyman ’21 acts as a direct sequel to Candyman ’92, continuing this trend of sequels to excellent horrors that show their sequeldom with neither numbers nor subtitles, but rather copy/pasting their predecessor’s title, ala 2018’s Halloween. I guess that’s the state of affairs these days. Regardless, here we are – Candyman, the sequel to Candyman.

Candyman has pros, quite a few in fact, but it has some exceptionally glaring problems, many of which stop the movie right in its tracks. Before anything else, though, the particulars: Cabrini-Green, an affordable housing project in Chicago rife with problems (it has a fascinating history and I encourage you to read into it) and where Candyman ’92 took place, has since been rezoned into upscale living. Artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), an art gallery director, have moved into one of these upscale developments, where Brianna’s brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), regales them on Cabrini-Green’s history. Anthony, struggling to make further headway in the Chicago art scene, meets Billy (Colman Domingo), who teaches him the legend of the Candyman – a hooked supernatural killer who, as you probably already know, can be easily summoned by saying his names five times in a mirror. Inspired by this legend, Anthony imbues the Candyman in his next exhibition, to which he receives decidedly mixed reception. However, Anthony’s exhibit handed out pamphlets inviting naïve visitors to summon the Candyman, and that bit got me particularly excited. Plus, Anthony got stung by a bee prior to meeting Billy, and it’s turning pretty nasty, and Anthony himself is becoming a tad unhinged. Off we go.

Credit where its due, exploring the gentrified neighbourhood where Cabrini-Green once stood is a brilliant idea for a Candyman sequel, and the idea of legends providing purpose – for better and for worse – and how that intersects with one’s capacity for violence is an excellent framework to hang the movie’s themes around. In fact, if you were to just read the entire story on Wikipedia or wherever you’d probably be impressed and think it sounds great.

So how the hell does Candyman drop the ball?

Candyman‘s conspicuously a Message Movie, that’s never not been in question, but it’s perhaps too conspicuous about it. It’s one of the worst types of message movies: patronizing in its inability to trust your sense of nuance, brimmed with expository dialogue that sounds like characters reading out dictionary definitions of the movie’s themes – and believe me, every theme gets its moment in the sun this way – and it’s all to the point where I’m thinking that DeCosta and company had no faith in the story itself to convey the ideas they wanted to express, and so had to add these stilted ‘assurances’ from the characters that, yes, we indeed understand what’s happening and the theme du jour. I get that in the year of our lord 2021 the notion of metaphor’s out the window, but it holds Candyman back quite a bit in that we’re spending more time spelling out these themes than, you know, actually diving into them.

The characters functioning like exposition/plot vessels than people don’t help. They more or less speak in tweets, with a kind of airy wit that sucks the gravity out of most scenes (much of the first half feels more like a Velvet Buzzsaw sequel than anything else). Everyone’s acting at the same register of lightly sassy with the notable exception of Abdul-Mateen II, who greatly succeeds at portraying somebody inching ever closer over a mental cliff, harbouring some primal, violent energy within that manifests in sporadic body movements and facial expressions. So there’s that if little else.

And, of course, one does not see a movie called Candyman without some expectation of hook-related slayings. This iteration has some splendid deaths, particularly one in an apartment window as we pan out on the Chicago skyline, the frame illuminated with a bunch of people going about their high-rise lives while the victim meets their fate, just excellent all around. The other kills are quite good, like a slaying in an art gallery with a brutal bloody throat slash, or a bathroom scene that’s conversely bloodlessly brutal. On top of this, we have Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s terrific score guiding us through these moments, playing on dissonance than Philip Glass’ bleak compositions, though Glass’ original theme makes some well-timed appearances. Alas, these kills aren’t perfect – Candyman relies on neon red blood that looks more like juice than actual blood, and some especially artificial-looking prosthetics, that take much away from the shock inherent to these killings and the occasional strides into body horror the movie makes.

Which, frankly, speaks to Candyman‘s broad problem in that its stylistic leanings tend to get in the whole movie’s way. The blood’s a simple example. More so, the polished visuals are too polished to invoke a sense of oppression and danger, something Candyman ’92 accomplished exquisitely well. Make no mistake, Candyman has some beautiful visuals and DeCosta has an eye for assembling very pleasing compositions, many of which play with colour and shadow, usually pushing the Candyman into the back of the frame (there’s a shot of the Candyman imposed in the dark next the soft neon of an art gallery that is simply A+), but these, again, are more pleasing than they are conducive to creating a sense of horror.

Not worst of all, but up there, the editing’s very choppy – surprisingly choppy – often lurching us awkwardly from scene to scene and usually missing the ideal cut points +/- a few seconds. It creates this sense of disjointedness that kills the movie’s momentum, making me feel like I’m watching a collection of scenes the filmmakers liked versus a cohesive story with an organic flow. These problems make it hard to feel arrested by Candyman, which is a deep shame considering there are key scenes, especially the excellent pre-credits scene (and the credits sequence itself, brilliantly toying with the 1992 version’s and reflecting the ominous mystery of a world that stretches well beyond our reach), that really do fire on all cylinders. It feels a bit like fan-fiction overall, like DeCosta, Peele, and company decided they wanted to add to the existing Candyman story but lack that certain zeal for the property their progenitors had.

That, and it feels like a movie for people who already agree to everything it has to say and already know everything it has to say, which makes its efforts to spell out everything particularly artless. It doesn’t pose many questions despite having many ideas; it doesn’t offer much to ponder and consider, and in that sense it isn’t even a landslide triumph over 1995’s Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and 1999’s Candyman: Day of the Dead (neither of which are achievements, to note). Again, the idea of gentrification is such fertile ground for a Candyman film, lending itself to so many plot arcs and visual storytelling tools, but this one barely cracks the surface. The themes are too conspicuous to be thoughtful, the characters too inhuman to be interesting but not so inhuman as to be strangely compelling, the visuals too precise on satisfying colour palettes but not on reflecting our increasingly unhinged protagonist and the horror of his circumstance, the gore plentiful but too stylized to be impactful. It’s all too much and not enough.

P.S. A quick moment to vent: Tony Todd reprising the Candyman role thrilled me much. I was just as deflated to find out he has no speaking lines throughout the film, and when he finally does the filmmakers opt to use wildly unnecessary CGI to de-age him. That is all.

Horror Spooktober

Hell House LLC (2015)

Hell House LLC (2015)
Director: Stephen Cognetti
Writers: Stephen Cognetti
Cast: Gore Abrams, Alice Bahlke, Danny Bellini
Genre: Horror
Country: United States

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Ever since The Blair Witch Project made a wild amount of bank for a group of folks shaking a camera in the woods, we’ve been inundated – or blessed, depending on your inclination, I don’t know you – with found footage horror. Some do novel things with the genre and are genuinely entertaining for it (e.g., Cloverfield), whereas most are gutter trash, and if you have even a passing interest in horror you’ve encountered these entities.

But, it is October, and that means there are many a horror film to watch, and after an extremely long absence I will be taking you on this journey, dear reader. Whether these movies are good or numbing, we will have each other.

All the above brings us to Hell House LLC, a very indie found footage film that doesn’t initially stick much from the pack, and with a title like that the chances are fairly high we’re in for a dire time, but it’s spawned two sequels, so obviously it must do something right. Right?

At any rate, Hell House tells the tale of a quintuple dressing the Abaddon Hotel, an abandoned squabble in upstate New York, as their annual haunt. Things go awry. Easy enough.

Off the bat, Hell House blows its load, informing us that a horrible tragedy occurred on opening night, fifteen people died, survivors are forever scarred, all that. We get some scattered footage and dramatic expert commentary, emphasising that Bad Things Have Happened, generally revolving around the basement. The movie very much wants us to know the basement’s important. A producer, Diane (Alice Bahlke), and her crew have nabbed Sara (Ryan Jennifer), the sole survivor of the Hell House company’s quintuple, who offers tapes of the event itself and what led up to it. And we have a movie.

None of this is exactly bad on paper. Hype up the tragedy so we’re always anticipating the impending Bad Things, that’s well and good. In doing this Hell House puts itself in a corner, though. Instead of relying on any organic buildup, which we would’ve gotten had we just followed the quintuple from the beginning, the movie sets itself an ultimatum: absolutely deliver on the basement and the tragedy or bust. We’ll get to that in a moment. In the meantime, we have the exploits of the Hell House company and their efforts to convert the Abaddon Hotel into something functional (the actual effort to turn it into a haunt is largely brushed past, which is probably for the best), all the while dealing with increasingly bizarre occurrences.

And thank god for these occurrences, because they swoop in to save a movie actively on the verge of cratering. This is especially true in the first half, where I grew ever more impatient waiting for something to happen. Right before I was about to write off the entire thing, Hell House brings out an ominous clown mannequin stained in fake blood and everything becomes rosier from there, as though writer/director Stephen Cognetti snapped out of making mostly flatlining character moments and went, “Oh, fuck, right, I’m making a scary movie.” There are many elements in Hell House‘s favour, almost all hedged within its production design. The bulk of the movie’s set in the Abaddon itself, chocked with narrow corridors, shadowy corners, and a general sense of decay. Cognetti and cinematographer Brian C. Harnick are broadly aware of how to use this space and how our eyes will wander within, how we’ll examine for anything ‘off,’ and they use it to supremely creepy effect. Even when things stop happening, you get the distinct feeling things could resurge right away, leading to a constant, palpable sense of danger.

Hell House mostly keeps that momentum going, despite cross-cutting these events with more present-day expert commentary in a traditional documentary format, most of which choreographs unfortunate happenings before said happenings happen. It’s kind of like two different movies intersecting – one about the Hell House company, the other about the aftermath of their Abaddon haunt – and I’m not sure Cognetti possesses the directorial prowess to strike the perfect balance between them. The present-day stuff’s always on the precipice of sabotaging the rest of the movie in that it’s a) the least engaging part, and b) adds little to the horror factor, opting to hype us for scary things when they speak for themselves just fine (one journalist describes how a person in the Hell House company cut their own throat, and later in the movie the Hell House guy does just that, and the movie lingers on this like it’s quite a shocker). That said, it feels like an exercise in trying to make scares work despite pre-emptively showing their hand, and it’s kind of impressive that most of them indeed still work.

These scares aren’t all perfect, however. Hell House relies a lot on the “creepy entity suddenly there, suddenly not” trick, and clown mannequins can only go so far, although I’ll note these get more mileage than one might think. This leads me to the basement/tragedy finale, and oh my is it a little bit of a disaster. Rather than capitalizing on the drawn out dread the movie partakes in, it opts for full on chaos – this would be fine, but remember that this is a found footage film, AKA “chaos” means a ton of shaking and a general sense that you have no fucking idea what’s happening. It does not establish well why the haunted housegoers – or us – ought to be horrified by whatever’s going on in the basement, for the tragedy involves a hooded paranormal figure (that’s clearly some guy in what looks like a cheap Spirit Halloween mask) wandering around and doing what I presume to be bad things, but the movie gives us no concept what these bad things really are, there isn’t a “wow” moment. Hell House isn’t a gory movie, but the big basement blowout presented the ideal opportunity for some spectacle. It kind of needed that spectacle, as what we have now is a lot of screaming, general confusion, and a sense of slap-dashedness that isn’t so much scary as it’s deflating and occasionally annoying (Cognetti’s a fan of cheap distortion effects here that are supposed to give the impression the camera’s getting fucked with, but it ends up being overtly amateur). There’s a ‘twist’ at the very end that I think I like for its tackiness, and how it kind of hilariously abandons the notion we’re watching some documentary of a real-life event, but it still lacks that oomph the movie needed to cap things off.

That said, it mostly gets its spooks right, and if you take the movie at pure face value (and watch it well aware it’s low-budget and you shouldn’t have many expectations) it’s fairly enjoyable. The characters are appallingly dumb in the best way – my favourite recurring bit is the clown mannequin showing up in random places and each character freaking out every time, essentially going, “I sure hope that third incident was a one-off.” There’s even a moment where one guy, Tony (Jared Hacker), has the good sense to quit the Hell House quintuple, but we cut to a scene where him and Andrew (Alex Schneider), who looks broadly like Linguini from Ratatouille, are sitting in a field, where both parties are lamenting over some vague reason they can’t leave, and how Tony should’ve known earlier. Nobody follows up on this, it’s just an easy plot device to guide Tony to his death with everyone else, and I love how Cognetti doesn’t even bother to justify it. That’s Hell House for you; it doesn’t make much sense, but it doesn’t have to when it knows its dark hallways and creepy mannequins carry the show anyway, and it largely wins that gamble in spite of its botched finale and a narrative structure that seems designed to harm the movie. You could do worse – not a glowing critique, but one almost uniquely fitting for Hell House LLC.

Horror Summer of Horror

The Neon Demon (2016)

The Neon Demon (2016)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Country: Denmark, France, United States

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It’s difficult to label The Neon Demon as any one thing – horror, thriller, what have you. If you really wanted to, you could label it a “psychological thriller” – that’s probably the most fitting – but the film doesn’t operate within genre constraints, at least not initially. Really, The Neon Demon comes off more as a project, an audio-visual experience with the trappings of storytelling serving little purpose other than to guide it accordingly. Which is all to say that if one is familiar with the works of Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon fits comfortably within that schema.

The Neon Demon owes much of its being to the works of Dario Argento – Suspiria, specifically (the influence is everywhere and immediate) – and is the best recent example of “not style over substance, but style as substance,” normally a coda used as an easy excuse to compensate for arduously thin story, but very few films wholly own that statement and nurture it like The Neon Demon. And to really get where the film’s coming from, you have to shed the idea that it’s a story about people. The Neon Demon is a story about things – it’s about Los Angeles, it’s about a sexually pervasive industry filled with beguiling and strange people absorbed in selfish realities, and it’s about a culture that places beauty above all else and consumes the young in the process.

We follow Jesse (Elle Fanning), a young woman who recently arrived to L.A., looking to model with no discernible talent other than “being pretty.” She meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a friendly makeup artist who takes it upon herself to watch over Jesse in a way, introducing her to model industry friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). Jesse’s very obviously the odd one out, behaviourally, but she quickly ascends the modelling ladder (not in a Star is Born-esque macro way), with everybody noting an undeniable magnetism about her, a perfection to her looks. Gigi and Sarah become increasingly scornful with Jesse, since her exquisite natural looks are affording her great opportunities despite their efforts to manufacture themselves for the same ones. Jesse’s very much the “it” girl, initially quietly so, but turmoil ratchets up along with her eventual narcissism.

Mostly everyone in The Neon Demon is creepy and/or off-kilter, aside from Jesse – this is partly due to the extremely deliberate, sparse dialogue (there are barely any monologues, with conversations mainly composed of quick back-and-forths), and to the pointed gazes towards Jesse, each harbouring clear intent of some kind, but probably not benevolent intent. This intensity can be brushed off as, you know, par for the industry course, but everything gets triply creepy when we find out Jesse is only 16 years old (and is told to pretend to be 19, as 18 is too “on the nose”), and it’s impossible to think of everybody’s intentions as anything more than uncomfortable.

The Neon Demon is kind (and clever) enough to withhold its shocks and violence until the last half, which departs heavily from the first. The first half is totally intoxicating, a slow-moving haze about Jesse finding her way to a modicum of success, with its allure predicated entirely on the stunning cinematography by Natasha Braier, who along with Refn flits between striking scenes of brilliant, vibrant colour to dreamier scenes, with characters lit softly, usually amid a gorgeous purple hue. There’s much to admire about these images, and the composition – with characters often centred in the frame – forces your eye to explore and it’s just a joy to view. The excellent score from regular Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez, mixing Vangelis’ thumping electronic soundscapes and Giorgio Moroder’s disco flair, marinates the background, accentuating the dreaminess of the visuals. It’s also sweetly melancholic, managing to add a layer of innocence to Jesse and her journey (credit also goes to Fanning, who owns the character and legitimizes her extremely well) while deepening her character where the screenplay doesn’t. That’s not a critique – it’s exactly what The Neon Demon sets out to do, I think, using filmmaking to carve emotion. It’s a film where experiences are louder than words and expressions, and sure, that might feel a little empty, but this is about a teenage girl navigating a morally bankrupt industry and various people who want to suck the life out of her, so it’s only apropos that we feel empty.

The transition to the second half is slightly abrupt, but has a clear dividing line in Jesse’s runway show, which we see in a hypnotically lovely mix between her runway walk and her internal feelings. Jesse falls in love with herself, and the film shifts along with her newfound narcissism. It’s a distinct shift in every way – the music becomes more grumbling and dissonant, the beautiful hues vanish in favour of natural light, the compositions are more claustrophobic. The people become less like people, going from someone to something, embracing archetypes and shedding personalities. It’s also far more dangerous. Where The Neon Demon reveled in being mildly creepy without being too explicit before, it’s very unshackled here and wastes little time doing it. Jesse ditches her friend and kind-of boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) with a sudden lack of empathy, abandoning her one genuine semblance of a support system (even though the guy is looking to shag a teenager, so we’re not overly pressed). Her landlord, Hank (Keanu Reeves, in probably the least “nice guy” role Keanu Reeves has ever done and he’s terrific), goes from being licentious to completely disturbing. Then you have Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah, whose unsettling intent unravels in full. This all happens very quickly, but that’s the point – like Jesse, we’re allured to the beauty and the dream of what could be, only for things to go to total shit once we’re cinched and unprepared. Refn manages to keep pushing the film to new extremes, forcing you from one strong reaction to the next. Say what you want about The Neon Demon, but my god it’s not safe – nothing is sacred here, not even the beauty most of its characters covet so fondly. And then when you think everything ought to end, it still goes, culminating in unabashed freakishness, spewing gore amidst some of the glossiest lighting and framing the film gives. In the actual end, we’re left feeling numb, angry, confused, all without respite.

It’s not satisfying, admittedly, and it’s not exactly an enjoyable experience. Refn mentioned he wanted to make a film about beauty without critique or attack, and I think that’s a stretch (one of the earliest lines in the film, “Are you food, or are you sex?” is as clear a statement as any, not an overt critique towards the culture of beauty but a decidedly pointed observation regardless), though The Neon Demon is really a film that says as much or as little as you allow it to. It’s a wash as a story in the traditional sense and its characters are more things than people, but that’s its game – it’s not about people, it’s about how people become things to achieve self-obsessed ideals, losing their humanity in the effort to become perfect humans. The Neon Demon isn’t pleasant, but it’s brazen, and is so assured in its ability to affect you through sensory experience that I can’t help but be very impressed at the grotesque pageant on offer.

Horror Science Fiction Summer of Horror

The Invisible Man (2020)

The Invisible Man (2020)
Director: Leigh Whannell
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge
Genre: Horror, Science Fiction
Country: United States

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Universal’s been attempting to restart their famous horror icons for a hot minute now, including an embarrassing effort to start a “Dark Universe” that had fancy cast photoshoots and everything, beginning with Tom Cruise’s ill-fated The Mummy. As with many forms of hubris, this did not pan out, and Universal let Blumhouse take a crack at their monsters with The Invisible Man. If their Invisible Man is the standard going forward, I am very much into whatever they have in the pipeline.

The Invisible Man of 2020 is not faithful to the H.G. Wells novel of the same name, nor to the 1933 movie. It takes the bones of the novel and creates something mostly different – what we get is a story of a sociopathic scientist engaging in domestic abuse rather than a crazed scientist terrorizing a town – and it’s effective in its own right, really. The opening alone is one of the most impressive in a while, with Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) quietly plotting to get away from her husband, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), in the middle of the night. There’s sparse music and sparser dialogue, we know nothing about these people, but we immediately clue into what’s happening and it is immediately tense.

The first half, I’d say, of The Invisible Man is masterful in building and sustaining tension, using many things a movie has in its toolbelt to full advantage, from Moss’ extremely expressive face to panning the camera towards negative space, priming us for jolts that usually don’t happen. It toys with expectations, acutely aware that we’re anticipating a man who is probably invisible, gradually showing its hand until dealing it in a most perfect way, kicking the movie from a relative slow-burn (it’s rather small-scale at first, mostly taking place at her friend James’ (Aldis Hodge) house) into a sprint.

That sprint isn’t as delicious as the simmering anxiety in the first half, and it’s tonally jarring at first – shifting from horror to more sci-fi thriller – but it does so in a way that doesn’t feel like a betrayal to the story, even if I’d argue trading its efficiency at horror is a bit of a letdown. But to be fair, I can recognize that there are only so many times you can do the “oOoOo is he there?” setup and throw around Elisabeth Moss before it’s rote. Cecilia is a textbook example of the core screenwriting tenet of taking nice people and doing absolutely horrible things to them, and it’s more impressive that she’s not a paper-thin character in turn. We get a legitimate sense of her aspirations and her past life before becoming entangled with Adrian and his schemes, we know any quirks or outbursts come from a place of deep trauma, so when she fights back it’s very satisfying, letting us overlook a couple actions that feel slightly out of place for her because goddamnit you want her to succeed. And the stakes here are elemental – an unseen evil seeks to ruin everything Cecilia has that can improve her life. By trying to escape that evil, it gets worse. The Invisible Man doesn’t elaborate on that much further, aside from serving as a commentary (albeit a relatively basic one) on abusive relationships and the lasting dysfunction resulting from them, but that’s the smart play as it keeps everything humming along nicely.

And despite being a 2-hour movie, The Invisible Man really does breeze. It knows when not to overstay its welcome, when you’re about to get bored of a sequence (the climactic fight scene is on the bleeding edge of going on for too long before ending at the most ideal time), plus I have to admire a movie that gets to the point without flourish and doesn’t feel like something’s missing. The only exception to that might be the last 10-15 minutes – they’re all over the place and eager to hurry to the end, even though the beats themselves make sense. For a movie that makes quite sure we know Cecilia is hurting and lets us feel the various impacts of that, it’s odd to feel like everything’s on fast-forward in the last moments that ought to be the most meaningful (I’m a fan of those individual moments themselves, however).

That’s not a significant critique when the rest of the movie is so proficient. The Invisible Man is well-versed in the fundamental ingredients that make horror effective and entertaining, and when it unshackles its horror trappings it still manages to be compelling viewing. It’s not big, it’s not aspiring to shift any paradigms, but it’s incredibly confident in the cat-and-mouse story it wants to deliver and just as gripping where it counts.

Action Horror Summer of Horror

The Hunt (2020)

The Hunt (2020)
Director: Craig Zobel
Writers: Nick Cuse, Damon Lindelof
Cast: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Ike Barinholtz
Genre: Action, Horror
Country: United States

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The Hunt wants you to believe it’s a clever movie. It’s not.

That sums it, feel free to exit now.

But really, probably the most frustrating thing about The Hunt is it wanting to eat its B-movie cake and have its message-movie cake too – derailing what really ought to be just a fun bloody rollick. Of course, The Hunt‘s premise feeds directly into the mediocre satire and messaging it delivers, so I guess I’m saying The Hunt is fundamentally flawed.

The Hunt follows a group of Republican folk kidnapped and thrown into a random forest, where they quickly discover they’re being murdered ad nauseam. One of these people, Crystal (Betty Gilpin), manages to survive the initial slaughter and heads to kill the group of liberal elites responsible.

A loaded premise, to be sure – and to be fair, movies better than The Hunt could do a lot more with it. Each character here is more or less a caricature of their political orientation, which makes sense as this is meant to be satirical, but holy fuck these are agonizing. They are very much Baby’s First Political Joke on left- and right-wing people, not so much pointing out how annoying the extremes on either spectrum tend to be than being annoying at how extremely low-brow it is. This has the unfortunate side effect of zapping any ounce of fun straight out of the film when we’re graced with such characters. When you have an SJW stereotype spouting off (and it is THE most basic incarnation you can conjure off the top of your head), bringing up hot-button issues without resolution or insight, it’s like writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof are actively trying to yank you from the movie for no satisfying purpose at all, making what’s supposed to be a Battle Royale-type B-movie an occasional chore instead.

Thank god, then, for Gilpin, who’s The Hunt’s secret weapon without even truly appreciating it, I think. Her body language tells Crystal’s story in lieu of a script that offers little, delivering a performance with an assured, slightly eccentric, almost Tarantino-esque vibe, including a “tortoise and hare” monologue that she chews the shit out of. Every scene with Gilpin is eminently watchable and The Hunt would be galling without her energy.

We get a few other familiar faces, like Emma Roberts and Ike Barinholtz, and all of them die very quickly and very brutally. To the extent of The Hunt being a gore movie, it plays that card effectively – you have people getting cut in half, getting their faces blasted off, getting heels stabbed through the eyes. It’s quite disgusting and the effects are excellent. Jane Rizzo’s editing is nicely consistent, keeping us well oriented in space, and the sound design is appropriately loud, with crunches and bangs getting the oomph you’d expect from this type of picture. The primal thrill of these moments tends to be dulled by those rascally caricatures, so they’re never too thrilling or ever very satisfying. Crystal’s fight with Athena (Hilary Swank), the ringleader of these murderous elites (“Athena” is also the goddess of war, in another example of The Hunt’s inertia towards subtlety), is a key exception to all this. It’s an amazing scene, one of the few moments in The Hunt with verve and electric ferocity – easily the best part of the movie, where everything it seems to want to be clicks, even if for a brief moment relative to the 90-minute runtime.

Then you have the twist towards the end, attempting to tie The Hunt’s commentary together, suggesting how extreme partisanship can impact everyday people. It’s a decent enough sentiment, yes, and it’s not wrong, but it’s also something a level-headed person is probably aware of already, so there’s that. Having to gruel through an hour and some of painfully written characters to get to the overall point still means grueling through an hour and some of painfully written characters, plus it’s not like this twist retroactively makes them any better.

So what we’re left with, aside from Gilpin and Swank (who’s very game and unhinged), are the technicalities. The naturalistic lighting from cinematographer Darran Tiernan hits the right amount of dreariness, with the large quantities of blood splatter offering the only true flashes of colour. Director Craig Zobel does a functional job until the final fight scene, which is full of style, and if the rest of the movie matched that scene it would be outstanding all around. That isn’t the case, and instead we’re asked to put up with a script that thinks throwing out rock-stupid obvious stereotypes amounts to cleverness, and that’s a tall order indeed.

Horror Summer of Horror

Halloween II (1981)

Halloween II (1981)
Director: Rick Rosenthal
Writers: John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Charles Cyphers
Genre: Horror
Country: United States

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Far be it from me to claim Halloween II is a good movie, but I ask you to detach yourself from the perfection of its predecessor and look at Halloween II on its own merits.

It’s still not good, surely not, but the trick to watching Halloween II isn’t to view it as a sequel to Halloween (bear with me). Rather, watch it as an ’80s slasher, as a contemporary to the Friday the 13th series, as a contemporary to all the other Halloween sequels. Relative to those movies, you can admire (again, relatively) what Halloween II offers. Because, frankly, trying to compare any of these movies to the original Halloween is a losing battle – Halloween is on such a distinct plane that at some point you’re better off leaving those lesser films to scrap with the others. This is not sound logic, but I have a bit of nostalgia for Halloween II and defending it is one of the more meaningless hills I will die on.

And to be fair, I’m asking you to distance Halloween II from the first despite it beginning directly where the first left off, so that’s helpful. But if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that they actually reshot the final moments from Halloween for the sequel. Like, remade it shot-for-shot, as if no remaining prints of Halloween were available for them to use. It’s immediately shittier, but in some abstract way lets you engage with Halloween II on its level. Afterward, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is carted off to Haddonfield General Hospital while Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) spouts some extra neurotic dialogue this round, reduced from a man speaking in eloquent horror prose to some guy in a trenchcoat screaming “SIX TIMES! I SHOT HIM SIX TIMES!” to anyone in passing, or this delicious exchange:

Guy: “Is this some kind of joke? I’ve been trick or treated to death tonight.”


Guy (in my imagination): “Okay.”

To say nothing of Michael Myers (Dick Warlock, who opted for a more robotic take to Myers versus Nick Castle’s methodical and purposeful approach, which isn’t really great but it suffices), who spends the first 10 minutes of the movie touring a Haddonfield neighbourhood, scaring and killing and all that. Loomis and Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) are searching for Michael and doing a spectacularly poor job of it, given Loomis runs right past a decently lit path that he’s on, with Brackett bowing out of the movie fairly early after the police find the body of his daughter, Annie (Nancy Loomis). That’s perhaps the only moment where Halloween II attempts to recognize the tragedy of its predecessor’s events and the consequent toll on the once-idyllic town, which you’d think would easily ring most true for Laurie, but alas. Where Brackett is shaken, taking out his anger on Loomis (the closest figure to Michael), Laurie is kind of, y’know, there, lounging around in a hospital. You could claim she’s in shock and that explains her nonchalance to everything around her, and that would be very nice of you since it’s obvious Jamie Lee Curtis gave not one fuck here, and more power to her really. After the police cart off Annie’s body and Brackett disappears with her, Halloween II unshackles itself from Halloween and plows full-steam into a hugely entertaining blitzing mess.

The gist of Halloween II is that Michael’s still out to hunt Laurie and finds out she’s being treated at Haddonfield General, a fact he comes across by a guy hitching a radio on his shoulder. What makes this especially divine is how Michael walks past said guy, is very in public, and nobody bats an eye – even though the police manage to spot Ben Tramer (Jack Verbois) in an off-off-Broadway Michael mask, go to chase him thinking he’s Michael, and a police cruiser speeds from nowhere, pins him into another car and just explodes. Divine.

You see, where Halloween is an exercise in restraint, Halloween II is in many ways an exercise in excess. There are many random characters, to the point where the movie forgets about some of them and they show up dead, because killing them on-screen would bloat the runtime I guess. Michael’s killings are more varied: he’s stabbing, slitting, choking, scalding, needling, hammering, lifting, draining, on and on. There’s an abundance of blood and gore relative to Halloween, and depending on whether you take to folklore you can thank John Carpenter for that (rumour is director Rick Rosenthal, who later directed the truly ungodly Halloween: Resurrection, didn’t intend to make Halloween II a bloody affair, and Carpenter, smelling the cash from the rising slasher genre, took the reins and reshot death scenes accordingly).

As far as slashers go, and as far as one watches a Halloween movie (the original is an anomaly among the 11 films in this franchise), these kills are pretty effective, corny in that ’80s way (e.g., scalding a promiscuous nurse in a hot tub after strangling her vaguely creepy coworker she hooked up with, or lifting another nurse with one hand via a scalpel in the back) and only helped by the disco swerve the score took, which I personally love – the organ swell in the theme feels like the Halloween season, evoking imagery of ghouls and witches and have you. It’s synthy as hell and delightful all the same. Even the visual elements lifted directly from Halloween, like Michael’s mask fading from the blackness before he sticks a syringe in a nurse’s skull, still work fine, thanks to the return of Halloween‘s DP Dean Cundey. Halloween II isn’t the surreal treat its predecessor was and doesn’t really have a distinctive visual acumen aside from “Halloween but duller,” yet it’s still Dean Cundey and he still knows how to shoot these movies: the nighttime is perfectly nighttimey, the hospital is oppressively sterile, and the shadows still press against the frame, promising evil within. Special credit to one shot of Michael enveloped in red light as he chases Laurie, the closest Halloween II comes to iconic horror imagery.

Regarding the hospital, it’s perfectly emblematic of how ridiculous Halloween II is. It seems impossibly large for the, like, less than a dozen people working there. Laurie, as far as we know, is the only overnight patient aside from some newborns in the maternity ward. It’s totally stupid and the movie does not care, yet it works: the hospital feels desolate and unsettling (on a superficial level; Halloween II is not frightening, but it does manage to be quite creepy from time to time), emphasizing Laurie’s isolation in her fight against the elemental Evil as it stalks the hospital corridors. If I’m stretching, I can call Halloween II surreal in how over-the-top everything seems when compared to Halloween, including the oddly empty hospital – but it’s more likely they couldn’t be bothered to fill a cast of staff.

Of course, that elemental Good vs. Evil story is annihilated by a drunk John Carpenter when Laurie is revealed to be none other than Michael’s sister, a hilariously useless twist that still served as the foundation of the Michael Myers saga going forward, because horror is both adaptable and submissive. It’s counterproductive against Halloween and even disrupts Halloween II‘s internal coherence (if Michael kills to get to Laurie, why did he kill that random young woman at the beginning of the movie?), but mainly it’s a giant middle finger to what made Halloween so perfect, and I imagine it’s the product of an apathetic John Carpenter and Debra Hill thumbing away at a screenplay like, “You want this movie, you little shits? We’ll give it to you.” They go further with Loomis discovering “Samhain” written in blood in an elementary school, connecting Michael to the occult in a low-brow attempt to explain his invulnerability. All of this is difficult to reconcile with, but it’s almost impressive how entertaining Halloween II is in spite of itself. Plus it’s harder to be mad about this when you can cherry-pick no less than three different timelines in the non-remake Halloween series, so if it bothers you that much you can just watch 2018’s Halloween and act as though Halloween II never happened.

I haven’t really touched on the characters aside from Laurie and Loomis, and that’s because… there’s not much to say? These are all stock slasher characters, though I’ve always found Mrs. Alves (Gloria Gifford) to be legitimately kind, one who seems to look out for Laurie’s best interests and is comforting accordingly. There’s one scene between two nurses that’s a decent bit of character work, reminiscent of that from Halloween (the grapevine suggests Carpenter directed this scene), hinting at inner lives and relationships for them as they go about their day, discussing work, who’s driving who and where, but my inability to remember their names should indicate it’s not that good, and it’s not like the movie’s keen to expand on any of it. Jimmy (Lance Guest) functions primarily to make Laurie emote, so that’s noble. Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), Loomis’ colleague, returns from Halloween, acting as an anchor for Loomis while smoking and looking sassy. Everyone else is either there then not there, sometimes dying later, or they die rather immediately. And that about covers it.

Yet, despite all its misgivings, I find myself craving Halloween II when Halloween time draws near. It’s reckless in the most endearing sense, a movie that clearly has no reason to exist but does it with a particular zest anyway. And for what it’s worth, Halloween II rolls its punches against the wave of slashers to follow, putting up inventive kills and a technical competency often overlooked in the genre. To the end of Halloween II being a sequel to Halloween, it really does fail more than it succeeds, but Halloween II shares plenty with the slasher as its commonly known, and to that end it’s one of the most successful realizations of those genes. I will always have a soft spot for its synth-infused atmosphere, coupled with perhaps the best embodiment of Michael Myers as a slasher-genre villain than the mythic Evil in Halloween. A step down, sure, but when step downs are this ideal for a cool October evening it’s difficult to feel too vexed.

Dark Comedies Horror Summer of Horror

Come to Daddy (2019)

Come to Daddy (2019)
Director: Ant Timpson
Writer: Toby Harvard
Cast: Elijah Wood, Stephen McHattie, Garfield Wilson
Genre: Horror, Comedy
Country: Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, United States

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Before anything else, I would like to bless Elijah Wood for his hand in giving us this recent trend of off-kilter horrors; namely, Mandy and Color Out of Space of late. Each are extremely odd, extremely bemusing pictures, very much for a specific audience, but goddamn do they do that niche well. Come to Daddy is no different. Whether that’s something that entices or puts you off is one of the more subjective questions here, and I can’t really blame you for either decision.

Come to Daddy shares a bit with the two movies above, though it’s far more in Mandy‘s camp: both movies tell a story about somebody unwittingly forced into conflict to rectify some sort of loss, both feature strange and darkly witty villains, and both have various sequences that satisfyingly use the colour red. Come to Daddy doesn’t match the intensity of Mandy‘s immediate otherworldly pull and is milder in almost every conceivable way, but the family resemblance is clear.

In this instance, we have Norval (Elijah Wood, boasting one of the most egregious haircuts put to film over the past year), an obvious loser whose desperation to be someone pushes him to look like a gentle Joe Exotic, trekking off the beaten path to reunite with his father, Gordon (Stephen McHattie), after receiving a letter asking him to visit. And since this is a horror picture, you can assume this won’t be a joyful rendezvous. Gordon is a creepy asshole and the movie wastes no time establishing this as we endure uncomfortable gazes and incredibly awkward conversations between him and Norval, which, dare I say, gets a little tedious as the movie waits to play its hand.

Thankfully, Come to Daddy is clever enough to anticipate where we think this is all going and bluntly shuts it down. It’s a trick used twice to excellent effect, shifting gears for the entire movie, and all the little fake-outs throughout (like a fantastically prolonged sequence with Norval gloating about being a big deal in music, only falling apart thanks to Elton John, revealing both he and Gordon are insufferable in their own ways) force you to just sit down and absorb how things pan out. The progression from terse words to Elijah Wood wildly stabbing a guy in the dick is very quick indeed, so dwelling on and trying to work things out doesn’t do favours for anyone.

This isn’t to say that Come to Daddy is a revelation in story structure, but it’s fun, knows its twists, and executes them well with little regard to the peripherals – a fancy way of saying the characters need to function more so on their personalities. How fortunate, then, that the people who inhabit Come to Daddy all vary on a spectrum of bizarre, with the only one approaching a remote semblance of ‘normal’ being local coroner Gladys (Madeleine Sami), who still opens with a joke about a fresh corpse. Even though the movie doesn’t care to do much with many of these characters, everyone involved makes an honest effort to stand out, succeeding where it matters.

Wood does well to embody the shift from hapless wannabe to an angrier, still mostly hapless person who’s had everything but has made nothing, and has yet to resolve the emotions that followed his father abandoning him and his mother, who remains offscreen, when he was 5 despite it being 30 years since. This loss isn’t nearly as tangible or raw as that of Nicolas Cage’s wife in Mandy, but it still fuels Norval’s every action, driving him to alcohol dependency, later driving him to kill so he can a) survive, and b) keep the option for a relationship with his father steady, emphasized in the end when they’re bloodied on the beach outside his father’s home (which itself is lovely. We’re never given a good orient for its layout, so it’s a confusing and lonely place), eventually holding hands, giving both Norval and his father a quiet sense of peace.

The other notable performance belongs to Michael Smiley, playing the villain Jethro, who’s very much like a murderous, Irish Weird Al. While I wouldn’t exactly call Come to Daddy hilarious – even though many seem to attribute it as a comedy first, which might be misleading since it’s really more of a comedy of circumstances (a scene where Norval is trying not to wake up a motel room full of swingers comes to mind) than a comedy of “ha ha” jokes – Smiley receives the bulk of the lines that come close to that and he’s wonderful with them. There’s a terrific shot of him hobbling along a road in the movie’s little town, mostly dark save for a blinking red light, with Norval following behind, neither bearing a sense of urgency nor much energy at all (leading to the funniest scene in the movie). At that moment both men are one and the same, merely tired shadows playing a tired game. There isn’t much in the way of striking imagery in Come to Daddy aside from that, with its visual style most aptly summed up with “dark”, but the occasional flashes of colour, like a cellar bathed in exquisite red, are delightful. These flashes are more prevalent as the intensity begins to boil, and I’m inclined to believe that Come to Daddy would improve much if it trimmed the time to get to Twist A, then the time in between Twist A and Twist B, since everything after that last interim is fantastic. Everything in-between is generally more content to beat around the bush, a direction that works well in retrospect after the movie’s revealed its cards, but in the moment starts to become a drag that one doesn’t anticipate from a 95-minute picture.

Come to Daddy isn’t ever scary, though it does play around with Gordon’s creepiness for the first 20 minutes, maybe. This isn’t a critique, it doesn’t go out of its way to scare you. But for those who aren’t aware of what they’re getting into (and this is a low-key enough movie where I don’t imagine that’s a huge problem) there’s a decent-to-good chance they’ll be underwhelmed, or unsatisfied. It’s a very particular kind of movie, one that sees horror as a reason to tell fun and eccentric stories, and it’s a welcome change from the usual haunts and jaunts we get these days. I’m well within Come to Daddy‘s target audience, though, so your mileage may vary. It’s maybe a milder option among its niche (save for a couple moments of spectacular brutality), but Come to Daddy functions perfectly well as a routinely involving strange adventure, and is one of the better choices if you’re on the lookout for such a thing.

Horror Summer of Horror

Halloween (1978)

Halloween (1978)
Director: John Carpenter
Writers: John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Cast: Donald Pleasance, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Loomis
Genre: Horror
Country: United States

Rating: 5 out of 5.

John Carpenter’s Halloween is arguably the most bulletproof horror movie ever made, holding up when grouped with its ten sequels by sheer cognitive dissonance. Halloween is a thing of its own, the sequels are the obvious others. You know this, though.

The legacy Halloween created has surpassed the movie – which in itself is a simple, unassuming thing – for both good and bad reasons, depending on how snobby you are over slashers (which is fair, many are horrible and I am equally horrible for loving them). Many attribute Halloween as the birth of that particular genre and, I mean, way to blow off The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas, both of which came out in 1974, but it’s disingenuous to say Halloween didn’t play the heaviest part by proving the genre was viable. And yet, compare Halloween to the wave of slashers that swept the 1980s. Hell, compare it to every other Halloween movie. All of them wished to replicate the success of Halloween, the most profitable independent movie ever made for a time, but none of them could understand how simplicity can beget perfection quite like Halloween.

And it really is simple, when you boil it down. Michael Myers (Will Sandin), a 6-year-old boy from an idyllic suburb town called Haddonfield in Illinois, remorselessly kills his teenage sister, Judith, on Halloween night after she has 30-second sex (the only thing you can really clock the movie for, and even then it’s so out there that why would you bother) with her boyfriend, and is locked away at Smith’s Grove sanitarium under the care of Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), who eventually gives up rehabilitation as he realizes there is no hope for Michael. Years later, 23-year-old Michael (and played by Nick Castle, embodying the quiet, slow killer archetype quite unlike anybody ever since, portraying simultaneous nothingness and distinct purpose), escapes Smith’s Grove before Halloween and returns to Haddonfield, where he happens to spot teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) placing the keys for his old house, up for sale by Laurie’s father, under the door. Michael decides to hunt her and kill her and those in the way. Laurie goes about her life, unaware that she’s been targeted for death as Loomis desperately tries to find Michael.

This has been beaten over and over, but it’s truly the most powerful concept: Evil finds an arbitrary target, Evil seeks to destroy said target no matter what, no matter the reason. Questions of motive are irrelevant, it’s just something that is. The terror of this is only exacerbated when you read real-life stories of similar happenings and realize it’s not that far-fetched.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Halloween is the surrealism that runs throughout the film. It’s primarily visual: the colours are pushed to the extreme, mostly due to shooting the movie in a California summer and needing to force the perspective of midwestern autumn, with daytime serving a strong orange and the nighttime a strong blue, as if everything’s reflecting a giant aquarium or the blue of a television screen, and it’s all similar enough to reality where it’s not unbelievable, but strong enough where it registers in a small part of your mind as odd but extremely pleasing regardless. It’s this atmosphere that absolves Halloween of guilts like having palm trees clear as day in Illinois, and instead allows them to add to the surrealist, not quite here state the film operates within. Even the acting, which is very 1970s acting, adds to the quiet little absurdities. Laurie’s friend Lynda (P.J. Soles) isn’t a real person in our world, but rather an amazing caricature of slutty teenagers, yet I can accept her without hesitation as a person in Halloween‘s world. It’s the type of world where the softness of film stock really helps – it’s a world that feels idyllic, a world where you can leave your door unlocked, a world where “bad” things are foreign, so it’s all the more jarring when Michael arrives and begins his hunt, the embodiment of Evil contaminating each frame. Suddenly those warm oranges seem menacing and foreboding, those blues outright threatening. No shot embodies that more than Michael’s mask slowly fading into view behind Laurie, one of the most iconic shots in horror history, if not cinematic history.

None of this would hold nearly as much weight if the characters were the lifeless sacks to follow in the genre over the next decade, but Halloween assembles a small roster of characters who you root for, each having particular souls and drives. These drives are basic things: for Laurie’s friends Lynda and Annie (Nancy Loomis), it’s about convincing Lindsey (Kyle Richards, a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills if that’s of interest to you) to stay with Laurie, who’s babysitting Tommy (Brian Andrews), so they can shag their boyfriends at Lindsey’s parents’ place. For Laurie, she’s unsure whether to ask a guy she likes to the prom. These are simple, quite like the film itself, but these are characters who lead lives independent of the movie, teenagers going about their days. They don’t obviously exist to die, even though you know some of them will. And the key to this success is how enjoyable Halloween makes these characters – Lynda is a delightful ditz, Annie is the biting sassy one, and Laurie is the one paving a way through life with quiet innocence, but these characters are written and portrayed so well, each riffing off and elevating each other, each having little details or mannerisms that imbue them with life. It wouldn’t take much effort at all to convert Halloween into a high school comedy, which is precisely why the horror – the creeping intrusion of Evil – works so effectively.

This characterization extends beyond the teenagers, as you really can’t go on without mentioning the lovable frump that is Loomis (the name being a Psycho homage), a strange man navigating a strange situation, spouting terrifically neurotic dialogue to Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers), who’s also Annie’s father. We’re made to feel that Loomis is the only one with a chance to stop Michael, but Loomis’ words bear a hint of resignation that Michael can’t be stopped, and you can sense how this drives Loomis’ desperation to find him, to disprove what he already knows probably can’t be disproved. Contrast that desperation in the face of unstoppable evil with Laurie, whose most pressing issue of the evening is Annie asking her crush to the prom on her behalf. Curtis’ performance is sublime, skirting Laurie away from tropes of “nerdy Final Girl” into a fully-realized human being. Sure, she navigates the uncertainties of teenagehood, but she also flits between kindness, decisiveness, and confidence, capable of taking charge when warranted but still means the best for everyone. She’s somebody who could be your friend, so watching her life crack and fall apart in real time, for no reason, is wrenching. As she sobs at the end, Loomis looking down at the empty patch of grass where a bullet-riddled Michael fell to seconds before (confirming his worst, deeply-held suspicions), we know that Evil has won.

Despite all this, I wouldn’t say Halloween is something that keeps you up at night. Whether that’s due to cultural shifts over the last four decades or genre saturation is your call. Likewise, it’s not a stretch that many of those inundated with modern horror would watch Halloween for the first time and consider it merely plain – perhaps symptomatic of the misnomer that Halloween is The One that set the standard for its genre. But Halloween hues closer to Argento-ian Italian horror than its past and future American contemporaries, what with its relatively stately imagery that emphasizes fear through composition over body count. Halloween is a more bloodless affair than a first-timer would likely anticipate and that pays dividends: the violence is infrequent enough where those flashes of it are striking and feel more brutal than they actually are (in the context of the slasher genre). The legendary score by John Carpenter, blessing us with that eternally recognizable theme, does more legwork for the film’s creep factor than wanton death ever could. If you look at Halloween with the expectation of a “slasher” you won’t get much mileage out of it, but it’s rude to do such a disservice to a film that had no intention of meeting those expectations to begin with, and is more content to serve as a fundamental cat-and-mouse story about Evil targeting the unassuming Good.

Yeah, you could argue that Halloween popularized the “sex = death” trope and I won’t stop you, but I’ve never bought the theory that Halloween is trying to pose a social critique on promiscuity, or trying to suggest some vulnerability inherent to the virginal innocent. In fact, I wouldn’t say Halloween tries to make any broader point about our society and its functioning, for that is anathema to the elegant ballet it weaves. Because Halloween isn’t about sex, teenage debauchery, or the Final Girl. It’s about the evil lurking in the background of our lives and our powerlessness when it sees you or I or your friend or your neighbour, because Evil doesn’t care about what you do or who you are, it only cares that you’re there.

Of course, Halloween II would spit on your face about all this, but I digress.