So sadly I did not get a chance to undertake the October Horror Movie Challenge in proper this time around, “in proper” meaning for me not only watching the requisite 31 films but watching 31 films that were completely new to me that I would later blog about here as well. I love holding myself to ridiculous standards, apparently.
But for certain reasons, none of which were bad, including an extravagant, awesome, and fairly epic Hallow-Teen Party event that I’d been planning for my library since summer that brought in a record number of YA-specific participants (woot-woot!), the past month proved to be a real time-cruncher, so I thought that the least I could do was throw together a slapdash post enumerating the rest of the un-blogged movies I watched in time for Samhain with some brief words on each.
• HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (UK, 1959)
Do you know what Michael Gough eats for breakfast? Scenery. The literal teeth-gnashing that the actor displays in this goofy proto-slasher film’s final moments has few rivals in all the annals of ham-dom. Don’t be surprised to find yourself checking your face for spittle.
• THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE (US, 2015)
I’d heard opinions concerning this film from respected sources that ranged the entire taste spectrum, and after seeing it for myself I’d have to place myself closer to the “yay” camp than the “nay.” It’s a very quiet and patient film–all the better to get under your skin, my dear–that shows appreciation for the little moments in life that bring us child-like joy (playing muck monsters with your best friend using bedsheets) as well as the cracks in reality’s armor that become exposed to us during our most desperate moments. Watching the film’s nightmare sequences is to have them yourself and remember all of the insecurities that ever kept you awake in the dark. It’s also a rare horror film to end with a gratifying and beautiful moment of redemption.
• PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (Australia, 1975)
It might not read as Halloween-spooky, but there’s plenty in Peter Weir’s landmark production to distemper the nerves, especially everything that follows the return of one schoolgirl who, with a few of her friends, disappeared without a trace during a Valentine’s Day picnic in a stretch of monolithic terrain. Like the former film, HANGING ROCK is haunted by the presence of invisible forces; you have the impression that at any moment the earth will swallow everyone up. And that it does, but not necessarily in the same manner as those missing girls but in ways certainly no less heartbreaking.
• THE GHOST BREAKERS (US, 1940)
Now here’s one that definitely does read as Halloween-spooky, with a healthy flavoring of the holiday’s jovial nature to boot. Hope and Goddard have more chemistry together than Frankenstein’s laboratory, and their jaunts around the menacing castle estate Goddard has just inherited is filled with enough wandering Spanish spooks and Haitian zombies to bewitch the Mystery Inc. gang. Hope plays his typical yellow-bellied hero but is a bit more refined and snappy in this go-round. The regaining of his muscle coordination following a prolonged stint inside a steamer trunk is worth the price of admission alone.
• THE CAT AND THE CANARY (US, 1939)
It was on the same DVD set as THE GHOST BREAKERS so I figured, hey, why not? More old-dark-house bang for my buck! Those who have already seen the silent Paul Leni version will find less to be surprised by here than GHOST and Hope’s witticisms don’t crackle as much this time out, but CAT does impress with a supporting cast that features familiar faces like George Zucco as a doomed, foreboding lawyer and Gale Sondergaard as a menacing and, in the final moments, rifle-toting (!) housekeeper. Like Miss Sondergaard’s weapon of choice, the finale really does go out with a bang.
• DOCTOR X (US, 1932)
A prime example of pre-Atom Age horror that will invigorate viewers with its bubbling doses of mad science and Gothic bearing and try the patience of same with the tepid humor intersticed between from our snappy reporter Lee Tracy. Thankfully the film is anchored by Lionel Atwill’s rosy-red herring villainy and the medical school he runs which essentially acts a creepy retreat for suspect eccentrics. Stay tuned for the grandiose, nuttier-than-squirrel-poop climax. “Synthetic flesssshhh…”
• VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (Czechoslovakia, 1970)
I admit it: I fell asleep during this one. Several times. But I’ve never used that as a yardstick to measure a film by. (I’ve counted sheep during plenty of great ones.) Some movies have that narcotic power to lull you into a dreamy state, and this one, with its airy orchestrations and lullaby vocals and the whole disjointed, phantasmal narrative is not unlike a vision brought straight to you by Hoffmann’s very own Sandman.
• THE NIGHTMARE (US, 2015)
I was able to stay awake for this one. The irony hasn’t escaped me. A few personal experiences with sleep paralysis led to my initial interest in this documentary. It chronicles the visions experienced by a handful of haunted people between the U.S. and U.K. and how they’ve (attempted to) come to grips with a condition that defies easy definition as either neural misfiring or supernatural encounter. I know where I stand on the matter, but it’s easy to feel the terror of the subjects as they recount their nightly visitations and to know that, if given the proper conditions, our brains could easily put us through this at any given time.
• THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN (US, 1975)
A film you can hear ticking like a clockwork. One of the most deliberately-paced and literate productions to have used a true crime as its basis. It is able to take an historical outcome to which (most of) the audience is already aware–in this case, Borden being found not guilty in the double homicide of her father and stepmother–and still make the lead-up to this conclusion fraught with tension. Everything that happens in the climactic scenes may just be speculation, but it’s damn effective speculation and it’s delivered to wrinkled-brow perfection by Elizabeth Montgomery as the elusive Borden.
• FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (UK, 1969)
The proper send-off that Hammer’s pioneering series deserved, and I say that as someone who has a considerable amount of affection for the four-color bombast of FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974). Though of disreputable nature in previous entries, Peter Cushing’s doctor enters legitimate fiend territory with this film, a remorseless man of progress who shows nary a flicker of regret at the thought of blackmailing and exploiting a young couple into servitude, least of all his usual business of murder and bodily abduction. For me the film truly sings when Freddie Jones’ Dr. Richter, as Frankenstein’s latest brain transplant experiment, assumes his role as the movie’s “Creature” and instigates a final showdown with the good doctor that runs like a Holmes-Moriarty confrontation straight from the pen of Conan Doyle. Smashing stuff.
• THE UNINVITED (US, 1944)
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with ghosts in it before that was so unconcerned with its ghosts. The spirits residing in the seaside mansion recently purchased by Ray Milland’s and Ruth Hussey’s fresh-faced siblings are certainly present and even a force to be reckoned with, but this haunting is more of the “restless” quality rather than the “thrill ride” favored by contemporary filmmakers who lob every conceivable horror at their characters under the anything-goes nature of the haunted house subgenre. This is more like the bad family business that everyone would prefer to forget that insists on bubbling up to the surface when everyone would like to try to make a go of their own lives, damn it all. Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS (1961) marketed itself as a ghost story made expressly for the “adult movie-goer”, but THE UNINVITED had it beat by nearly two decades.
• GHOSTWATCH (UK, 1992)
Now, I’m sure I sounded like a right ol’ fuddy-duddy in the last entry there, but if there was any concern that I didn’t enjoy a solid spookfest whose sole purpose was to raise the hackle and pimple the flesh, allow me to offer up my admiration of GHOSTWATCH now. A veritable “War of the Worlds” for the television generation, this faux-documentary special is completely unashamed in its appropriating of every play from the scare handbook, relying on such primal fears as tight spaces, figures detected in shadows and suicide to entering some genuinely discomforting territory with the introduction of child murderers and molesters into the mix. Watching it late at night on a laptop with some headphones as I did only enhances the you-are-the-only-one-seeing-this-cursed-transmission vibe. A film that made me smile in recognition of how it was frightening me but one that goosed me nonetheless.
• ZEDER (Italy, 1983)
I have yet to see THE HOUSE OF THE LAUGHING WINDOWS (1976), Pupi Avati’s other directorial effort in the genre, or MACABRE (1980), the film he penned for Lamberto Bava, but from what I’ve heard of each they both uphold the restrained, quiet approach that Avati took to horror and this film specifically that was at odds with the stylistic flourishes of Argento and the visceral excesses of Fulci. Avati, it seems, was much more interested in unsettling his viewers, in giving them the prickly sensation that perhaps they were being watched and that the tangible reality around them, like a body of water, would begin to ripple upon being touched. ZEDER a.k.a. REVENGE OF THE DEAD might prove too slow-moving for some, but those willing to puzzle out the cosmic mystery of the resurrecting K-Zone will be gifted with a climax that has provided the film with its staple image, a moment ripped straight out of a nightmare where there is no one but you to witness the impossible, awful thing occurring or hear the terrible laughter of your world coming undone. ZEDER may be low on Euro-sleaze shocks, but it will un-center you.
• DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (Canada, 2002)
And here, finally, the film I chose to ring in the final witching hour of the season. It might have been twelve o’clock. I can’t be entirely sure. That’s right; I fell asleep again. I have no pride. I can’t help but wonder if there is something inherent in the vampire myth that conks me out. Is it all the coffin-napping? The virginal brides in their jammies and flowing evening wear? The idea of living on for eternity with no true rest and only the occasional release of bloodshed to bring a spark back into the knotty cord of old, dessicated veins? Ooh, my word. Started dozing off there for second. But this silent ballet is an enchanting piece of work, “The Nutcracker”with penny dreadful sensibilities, and yet another version of Stoker’s novel that casts Van Helsing and his bland army of suitors in an appropriately self-righteous light where crusty white men wage war against an ethnic Lothario showing the ladies too much of a good time when they should be back at home swooning or something. The graceful movements of Dracula and his dancing partners against a chilly backdrop of endless snow are not unlike the motions of sugarplums twirling in your head, and as such I can’t think of a more fitting film to sing this viewer down into gentle repose.
Here is the final tally of films that I watched for the 2016 edition of the October Horror Movie Challenge.
- MALATESTA’S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD (US; 1973)
- I BURY THE LIVING (US; 1958)
- NOROI: THE CURSE (Japan; 2005)
- FROSTBITER: WRATH OF THE WENDIGO (US; 1995)
- EXTRAORDINARY TALES (Begium, Luxembourg, Spain, US; 2013)
- CURTAINS (Canada; 1983)
- THE UNDERTAKER AND HIS PALS (US; 1966)
- CAST A DEADLY SPELL (US; 1991)
- HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (UK; 1959)
- THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE (US; 2015)
- PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (Australia; 1975)
- THE GHOST BREAKERS (US; 1940)
- THE CAT AND THE CANARY (US; 1939)
- DOCTOR X (US; 1932)
- VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (Czechoslovakia; 1970)
- THE NIGHTMARE (US; 2015)
- THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN (US; 1975)
- FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (UK; 1969)
- THE UNINVITED (US; 1944)
- GHOSTWATCH (UK; 1992)
- ZEDER (Italy; 1983)
- DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (Canada; 2002)
Not too bad, all told. Happy to see that I was able to crack the 20-film mark. I would’ve liked to have gotten a lot more foreign and non-English films in there, but hey, that’s what next year’s for, right?
He said, swallowing nervously.