PopGap Diary: Octoblur 2020
Written by dorrk
"Boo. I am The Ghost of Octoblur 2019. I died 11 months ago after watching a ridiculous 65 horror movies. In retrospect, that seems like a very stupid thing to have done. But I did it, and look where I am now. Dead. Kids, don’t try this at home! Especially if you live at The House Where Horror Hangs Out, or whatever."
Thanks, Ghost. We’re done with you. It’s 2020 and there’s a new Octoblur in town. But you just gave me a terrible idea: What if instead of our usual half-planned topical marathon of horror movies -- really just setting aside a week exclusively for Foreign Horror — we tried out a half-planned exploration of a few common horror themes? Well, it can’t be as bad of an idea as watching 65 horror movies in one month (don’t count on that happening again), so why not?
THE THREE THEMES OF OCTOBLUR 2020
Some of our favorite Kidsploitation movies:
Some past Octoblur favorites:
Applicable movies that we’re sure to watch during Octoblur2020:
A lot of horror movies have titles offering useful warnings, advice or instructions. These same horror movies are full of characters who willfully ignore such common sense admonitions. I like to call it Don’tsploitation. “Don’t be so unoriginal,” you say? That’s the spirit!
Some of our favorite Don’tsploitation movies:
Some past Octoblur titles that cost nothing and are worth the price:
Applicable movies that we’re sure to watch during Octoblur2020:
Some of our favorite Houses of Horror movies:
Some past Octoblur movies that live in places where bad things always happen:
Applicable movies that we’re sure to watch during Octoblur2020:
REVIEWS OF ALL OCTOBLUR 2020 MOVIES
The Devil's Candy (2015)
Dir.: Sean Byrne
Flickcharted: #2330 (52.97%)
Sean Byrne hit indie horror cult status pay-dirt with his 2009 feature debut THE LOVED ONES, a distinct and twisted prom night horror comedy romance. It took him seven years to produce his follow-up, The Devil’s Candy (2015), which takes a different direction, paring away the broad characterizations that leapt back and forth across the line between camp and insanity; Byrne’s second movie is lean (at only 78 minutes) and (mostly) stark and harrowing, but retains the same sense of visual creativity, just less playfully.
Ethan Embry stars as an artist struggling to reconcile his heavy metal roots with the requirements of financial success. After he moves his family — wife, Astrid (Shiri Appleby), and teen daughter, Zooey (Kiara Glasco) — into a cut-price farm house, he finds a new muse in the form of low, chanting voices in his head. A former resident (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who is still plagued by these same voices — which tell him to kill children — becomes fixated on Zooey.
The Devil's Candy is solid from start to finish, with fine performances, especially from Embry (when did he become so grizzled and intense?) and young Glasco, who is put through an emotional wringer by Byrne’s relentless vision. The Devil's Candy is missing that little bit of humor, or idiosyncrasy, or insanity that it needs to become something special, but it’s a good, short, brutal burst of darkness.
Trick or Treats (1982)
A.K.A.: Don't Prank the Babysitter
Dir.: Gary Graver
Flickcharted: #3445 (30.45%)
Trick or Treats (1982) is a very stupid movie, and barely a horror film, barely even a movie; but there’s something about the slapdash way that writer/director/cinematographer/editor Gary Graver goes about building this Halloween night tale that is consistently amusing, even if not for the right reasons.
The core of Trick or Treats is a battle of wills between a wily young prankster (Chris Graver) and his humorless and slow-witted babysitter (Jackelyn Giroux); little do they know, an escaped mental patient (Peter Jason) is headed their way. For a movie in which almost nothing happens until the final 15 minutes, Graver loads in an absurd amount of unnecessary plot and irrelevant characters, possibly for padding or, I suspect, opportunistically making use of whatever is convenient (David Carradine, Steve Railsback and Paul Bartel each show up for a few thankless minutes) with no plan.
As we are told in an odd, protracted interlude involving two female film editors, low budget movies are made in the editing room. This kind of cheeky humor is attempted throughout Trick or Treats, with varying success (and generally poor delivery), but there are some big laughs, and plenty of satisfying eye-rolls at the poor execution of just about everything. Graver went from shooting low-budget horror (like Horror of the Blood Monsters (1970)), to collaborating with late-period Orson Welles (he shot Welles’ F for Fake (1973) and the newly restored The Other Side of the Wind (2018)), but spent most of his career directing over 100+ hardcore pornos, taking the odd break for a “mainstream” (and sex/nudity-free) project like Trick or Treats. I think it’s safe to say that he probably developed a casual relationship to narrative during his career, and maybe wasn't used to having enough plot to fill a feature film, and it shows via overcompensation.
I’m not sure I would recommend Trick or Treats to anyone who isn’t looking for a filler-movie to fit a slot in an all-night Halloween movie marathon, but it’s weird enough without trying that it rises to the upper dregs of the holiday movie pantheon. It's worth a look for a few laughs with low low low low expectations.
Trick 'r Treat (2008)
Dir.: Michael Dougherty
Flickcharted: #1517 (69.37%)
While Michael Dougherty’s anthology Trick 'r Treat (2008) isn’t as sharp as I’d like it to be, I might be tempted to cast a vote for it as “The Most Halloweeny of Horror Movies.” It manages to be a lot of fun while also going to some very dark places; it looks great and is punchily edited, but maintains an indie sense of daring that you don’t always get with such high production values; and its depiction of Halloween, from the costumes to the decorations to the trick-or-treaters to the creeps and dangers lurking everywhere is creative yet accessible and full of love for this peculiar morbid holiday season.
Dougherty’s attempt at creating a new icon of Halloween fear, the sack-headed silent child Sam, has been slow to catch on — possibly because Sam’s chapter of Trick 'r Treat is the weakest, failing to define this enforcer of Halloween spirit with the needed clarity or sticky trademark — some refinement through one or two sequels would be more than welcome.
I’m also a fan of Dougherty’s Christmas monster movie Krampus (2015), which comes closest, I think, to capturing the mayhem of 1980s comedy horror classics like Gremlins (1984). I want more from him, and more from Trick 'r Treat; even though it’s far from perfect, it scratches the Halloween itch in a very satisfying manner.
Dir.: Natalie Erika James
Flickcharted: #1619 (67.31%)
One of the hallmarks of the so-called “elevated horror” boom of the last 10 years is taking a real life fear and symbolizing it through some kind of monster or other supernatural expression. For The Babadook (2014) it was the fear of parental failure; for It Follows (2014) it was the fear of sexual entanglement. Relic adds another high-quality variation to the genre with its dark look at the fear of aging.
Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote star as Kay and Sam, a mother and daughter who are called into action when Kay’s elderly mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), goes missing. Edna returns after a couple of days, but she doesn’t seem “right” to those who know her best.
Director Natalie Erika James, who co-wrote with Christian White, does a nice job of under-explaining Relic’s sinister hints and instead letting the experience of inevitable decay and mental narrowing speak for itself. There are several chilling set-pieces leading to a well-realized ending.
Relic is art-house slow-burn horror that isn’t for everyone, but it’s a good example of its kind, and features excellent performances from its three key actresses, especially Nevin.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Dir.: Sam Raimi
Flickcharted: #259 (94.77%)
I last watched and reviewed Sam Raimi’s career-launching indie hit The Evil Dead (1981) during Octoblur 2017, when I had the chance to catch it theatrically. I've revisited it this year in order to introduce it to my 14-year-old son.
Here are my social media posts from the 2017 review:
- I used to favor #EvilDead2 but recently I've valued the raw, direct assault of the original low budget #TheEvilDead even more. #Octoblur2017 https://t.co/ETH1BzVvXL
- With #TheEvilDead #SamRaimi loads the hard shocks of #LucioFulci into a lean, focused nightmare w/a touch of #LooneyTunes. #Octoblur2017 https://t.co/hCeRJgCiUQ
- There are expected flaws in #TheEvilDead - some #SamRaimi quirks are belabored & some acting is iffy, but it earns iconicism. #Octoblur2017 https://t.co/fFm5CGi4KZ
- #BruceCampbell is relatively restrained but it's hard to see #TheEvilDead working half as well without his unique presence. #Octoblur2017 https://t.co/9YIiOuLq5G
A Dark Song (2016)
Dir.: Liam Gavin
Flickcharted: #1352 (72.69%)
I first found A Dark Song (2016) on one of those lists of “Great Horror Movies That You’ve Never Heard Of,” and since then it’s been recommended to me multiple times. It is, indeed, a very neat and compelling piece of work from writer/director Liam Gavin, about a grieving woman (Catherine Walker) who hires an occultist (Steve Oram) to help her perform a difficult black magic rite.
Part of A Dark Song’s appeal is the matter-of-fact manner in which Gavin depicts the preparation for and performance of the ritual. For a subject that is often sensationalized, here it seems, if not practical, as realistic as is imaginable to a layman. In addition to its detailed and quiet faux-anthropological approach, there is also some finely tuned drama between the woman and her facilitator, as they hole up together for an uncertain period and cooperate towards their uncertain and foreboding goal.
The acting in A Dark Song is subtle and rich from both principals. Ray Harman’s spare, daggerish music is haunting, and the cinematography by Cathal Watters is beautiful. I have no complaints about A Dark Song; its ending does go against my personal preferences for its subject matter, but its ending is honest, earned and it works. I will definitely seek out Gavin’s next movie.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020)
Dir.: Jim Cummings
Flickcharted: #1852 (62.59%)
In his 2018 breakthrough feature Thunder Road, writer/director/actor Jim Cummings delivered my favorite acting performance of the year, so I was very excited for The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020). Once again, Cummings is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, as a stressed out alcoholic Sheriff’s deputy balancing family issues and overwhelming rage while a serial killer (who may be a werewolf) is killing young women in his Utah ski resort town. Riki Lindhome co-stars as an even-keeled colleague, Chloe East is affecting as his daughter, and the late Robert Forster is solid in his final role as Cummings' frail father.
My misgivings about Thunder Road were that its overall narrative structure failed to punch with the same degree of technical precision as did Cummings’ pitch-perfect sense of humor and pathos. The same is true of The Wolf of Snow Hollow: there is so much going on, from rich detail in the character- and world-building to some experimental scene transitions and meta story elements, but the execution of the latter is sometimes frustratingly vague, while, as a writer, Cummings is almost attempting too much and fulfilling too little of his ambition.
Still, I would rather watch Cummings half-fail than watch a boring filmmaker nail it, and there is something essentially gripping to me about how Cummings is able to write and perform such flawed, self-destructive, ill-mannered, and in-real-life likely intolerable characters and make them feel worth rooting for despite all reasonable misgivings. He’s a rare talent, and I hope his directing someday matches his wealth of inspiration.
Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)
A.K.A.: Le pacte des loups
Dir.: Christophe Gans
Flickcharted: #4339 (12.33%)
I have to confess that I spent the first 40 minutes of Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) wondering what compelled Michael Haneke to make something so narratively conventional and cinematically gimmicky. Eventually it dawned on me that I was confusing this movie with Haneke’s 2003 genre drama Time of the Wolf. With that cleared up, and my initial enthusiasm dented, I looked up director Christophe Gans, and my enthusiasm depleted entirely: this was the guy who would later direct Silent Hill (2006), which I hated and is among the 50 lowest-ranked movies on my Flickchart.
I can see why people like Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001): It’s handsomely produced, kind of like if Guy Ritchie directed a live action Disney fairy tale version of The Three Musketeers and threw in some nudity. Its action filmmaking sits firmly between The Matrix and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with lots of camera tricks like speed ramping and sudden slow motion (and even some still frames) featuring noble, square-jawed heroes who are damn near perfect. Everything is art-directed to excess. It’s French heritage cinema with a faux-horror touch.
The problem is, I don’t like most of those things that I listed above, and to have them all piled in together and stretched out to 142 minutes was excruciating. I hated star Samuel Le Bihan and his smug blonde pony-tailed douchebag character; I hated Vincent Cassell’s too-obvious casting as a "surprise" villain; I tolerated martial arts star Mark Dacascos (who was of the only things I liked about that John Wick movie he was in) but I loathed the use of his Native American character as some kind of idealized “magic savage;” I hated the overall look of Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), which was too pretty all of the time, and at its “prettiest” downright syrupy; I hated the bad CGI special effects and how some scenes looked processed behind a stock Photoshop filter; I kind of despise faux-horror with its supernatural flirting followed by Scooby Doo-ish shrugging; I hated the dreadful dwelling on tepid romance and political intrigue, which had the depth of a comic book but the length of an epic; I hated the disingenuous feint at commentary on rationality vs. superstition while romanticizing the supernatural and ultimately having nothing to say on the subject….
I liked a couple of things about Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001). It was nice to see Émilie Dequenne in something after being quite affected by her performance in Rosetta (1999). There’s also a neat transition in which Gans’ camera drifts across Monica Bellucci’s body in naked repose, and it dissolves into a landscape of snowy hills with the same contours.
That’s all I got. I never want to think about this bloated self-satisfied movie again or anything else that Christophe Gans directs.
The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1982)
Dir.: Stephen Carpenter, Jeffrey Obrow
Flickcharted: #4638 (6.27%)
If a horror-skeptic were to draw up a list of qualities that they associate with the “worst” of all horror subgenres, the slasher, it would probably include such indignities as: gratuitous nudity, dumb or bland characters, unimaginative writing, amateurish actors, unexamined misanthropy, and an overall lack of technical proficiency behind the camera. They might as well describe The Dorm that Dripped Blood (1982), which is, with few exceptions, exemplary of all of those common criticisms.
As a group of the least interesting college students imaginable cleans up an old dorm that is about to be demolished, a killer offs them (and a few unlucky bystanders) one-by-one.
The writing/directing/editing/shooting/producing team of Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow spare all effort, all skill, and all creativity for this dour, clumsy, and unmemorable exercise in low-budget opportunism intended to cash-in on the early 1980s slasher craze. That they began working on it while film students at UCLA is only surprising in that it’s totally lacking in energy, which is the least that one expects from young amateur filmmakers. Instead, it more resembles a mandatory class project in which no one was personally invested; a labor of labor, for both the filmmakers and the audience.
Carpenter went on to a successful career as a writer and TV showrunner (he created the cult series Grimm), and Obrow is now a film professor at USC. The two continued to collaborate on low-budget horror titles throughout the 1990s, but you won’t find any potential in evidence here. If everyone connected with The Dorm that Dripped Blood had gone on to zero other credits, it would not be surprising. The one future success in the cast, Daphne Zuniga, must not be very proud of this work, as even the most natural and mundane conversations are directed and edited to appear as labored and awkward as possible. The brightest cast member, Stephen Sachs, is now a heralded stage director. Composer Christopher Young, whose score is noticeable — which is more than can be said about most of the dismal technical aspects of The Dorm that Dripped Blood — has possibly been the biggest success, with scores for some major Hollywood releases (including several for Sam Raimi, like The Gift (2000) and Drag Me to Hell (2009)) mixed in with a very busy slate of B-pictures, but the rest of the cast and crew more or less disappeared from the industry.
There’s maybe a tiny spark near the end of The Dorm that Dripped Blood, as it includes an unusually chatty killer during its climax, and the bleak ending deserves a modicum of respect, but for the first hour-plus, everything — from the visuals to the writing to the ordinary death scenes — is a dull, dingy drag.
Dir.: Pollyanna McIntosh
Flickcharted: #2833 (42.73%)
Horror author Jack Ketchum, who died in 2018, started his career with the 1981 novel Off-Season, about a clan of cannibals living in coastal caves who occasionally raid seaside homes for food and mayhem. His sequel to this novel, Offspring, a decade later, introduced a female cannibal who director Lucky McKee would use as the title character of his controversial 2011 film festival sensation The Woman, which he developed with Ketchum, about a member of this cannibal tribe who is captured and abused by a hunter. Even though her character is debased to an extreme extent in The Woman, actress Pollyanna McIntosh has now revived this franchise to launch her own career as a filmmaker.
In Darlin’ (2019), McIntosh reprises her iconic role yet again, but this time in a supporting capacity, with her film focusing instead on a younger girl (Lauryn Canny), raised by The Woman, who winds up in a "civilized" Catholic orphanage where the Bishop (Bryan Batt of Mad Men) takes a personal interest in civilizing the feral teenager.
This Ketchum/McKee/McIntosh world of savage cannibals living just outside the safe bounds of contemporary society is fascinating material, and Darlin’ is instantly compelling, as a result. Canny’s empathetic performance is central to the movie’s best moments, and McIntosh also gets some good mileage through the reprise of her role, especially in The Woman’s interactions with other people and technology. McIntosh has described Darlin’ as a “social issues horror movie,” which is where it gets into trouble. Its messages are too obvious and simplistic, and its villains too arch, to sustain interest in the movie’s plot and themes. This might be merely the inelegant fumbling of a first-time writer/director; McIntosh certainly has vision and finds some good imagery in the juxtaposition of her rough characters in both wild and civilized surroundings — The Woman’s first encounter with a clown is fun, as is a later ride in a car — and even though the acting overall is bit clunky, it seems like McIntosh has a good rapport with the young actresses in the orphanage, and their characters feel increasingly natural and lived in as the film progresses.
Overall, I’m not sure that McIntosh found the best story possible for Darlin’ — certainly, by the end, there are some questionable choices that feel too easy, or confusing, or anticlimactic, or like missed opportunities for something bigger and bolder — but there’s still a strong sense of the world and characters, and plenty of gruesome mischief that should make fans of The Woman and Ketchum's earlier iterations happy to spend a little more time among these filthy man-eating cretins.
The Wretched (2019)
Dir.: Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce
Flickcharted: #4052 (18.08%)
When cinemas in the United States closed en masse during 2020, The Wretched (2019) managed to set a box office record by raking in a measly $4 million on drive-in screens across six weeks. Moviegoers, and horror fans, must’ve been hard-up, because this movie is not good.
The Pierce Brothers, writer-director team Brett and Drew, show a familiarity with horror film language but don’t seem to have any grasp on what it means or when to use it. Take the opening scene, set, as we’re told, “35 years ago.” A lot of horror movies start with this kind of flashback, which includes motivating factors that inform later events. In The Wretched, however, this scene is completely superfluous. When The Wretched continues on in the present day — or, for some reason, inexplicably, "5 days ago" — The Pierce Brothers create a lore so complicated that they are unable to set or follow any discernible patterns.
As best as can be understood, there is a supernatural creature living in the woods that “feeds” on making people forget their loved ones, especially children. If this seems unusually convoluted, try figuring out how The Pierce Brothers depict it. Sometimes this monster eats children, sometimes it hides them in a cave; sometimes it makes people forget kids whom it has abducted or eaten, sometimes it makes them forget before finding the kid, and sometimes it makes families forget kids that are standing right in front of them, and sometimes before having any contact with the monster; sometimes the presence of the monster makes flowers wilt, but sometimes only when other people are around to see it… everything is arbitrary.
Maybe it doesn’t help that earlier this year the HBO series Outsider covered some of the same ground, but with a much more careful attention to dramatic detail. Technically, The Wretched is OK, with decent creature makeup and a nice birth-like taking-off-the-skin-suit sequence, which is one of my favorite horror gross-out tropes. The acting is passable, the characters are forgettable (maybe this is the monster at work!), and the script includes hacky stuff like two drunk characters about to kiss, but one of them pukes. It's nothing special, nor specially objectionable, at least until the “shocking” twist just prior to the climax, which is the kind of too-smart-for-itself revelation that only works on stoned people; for everyone else it makes the movie seem irredeemably stupid and made by filmmakers who never bothered to check their own work.
The Hunger (1983)
Dir.: Tony Scott
Flickcharted: #3881 (21.52%)
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this long overdue re-watch of The Hunger (1983), Tony Scott’s stylish 1983 vampire drama, as all I remembered from it were the parts that would have specifically appealed to the teenage boy that I was in the mid-1980s. While I suspected that its aesthetic and effects might seem especially dated today, lately I have very much enjoyed movies with a strong early-80s “new wave” vibe, such as Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake Cat People.
To my pleasant surprise, The Hunger looks fantastic — shot by Stephen Goldblatt, who previously did the fetchingly new wave Breaking Glass in 1980, and next would shoot Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984) — and Dick Smith’s makeup effects, which involve aging David Bowie 70 years over the course of an hour, look great. Too bad the rest of it — with Catherine Deneuve as an ancient Vampire on the hunt for a new young lover — is so godawfully lifeless.
It’s no coincidence, I think that, a year earlier, Tony Scott’s brother Ridley also directed a visually breathtaking snoozefest about robotic characters coldly resisting the imposition of artificial emotions via oppressive art direction — Blade Runner (1982) — these are people who shoot what are essentially fashion magazine ad layouts and try to pass them off as narrative movies. It’s very frustrating to have neat, magnetic performers like Deneuve, Bowie and Sarandon stripped of personality, almost as if Scott’s aim was to turn them into real vampire-like husks of former humans.
There’s some fancy (read: incoherent) editing that attempts to liven up the inert (but potentially powerful) narrative with confusing flash forwards of upcoming events which are both lacking context and eventually unimportant; and then there’s the nonsensical ending which is at odds with the meat of the climax (it was gratifying to find an interview with Sarandon in which she expressed the same befuddled sentiment). Several times during The Hunger, I found myself asking, “What is happening, and why is it taking so long to happen?”
Back when I was a kid in the 1980s, my mom would have annoyed me by calling something like The Hunger “a music video movie.” Maybe I’ve become my mom, but it is really just a bunch of posing, with some blood and boobs, in front of billowing backlit drapes with pigeons fluttering around, which is great for a 4-minute Prince video, but makes 96 minutes feel like four hours.
Willem Dafoe and John Pankow briefly appear as male prostitutes.
Dir.: Dennis Dimster
Flickcharted: #1849 (62.60%)
I kicked off “Kids Week” of Octoblur 2020 with the studio-produced Macauley Culkin thriller The Good Son, which I thought pushed the darkness of the “killer kid” formula as far as it could go for a movie that was also trying to maintain mainstream acceptability. A year earlier, however, the independent, low-budget Mikey took an even nastier — and more basely satisfying — approach to the same subject.
Brian Bonsall — one of the most derided child actors of 1980s TV, for his late addition to the popular Family Ties sitcom — stars as the titular psychopath, an 11-year-old foster kid whose guardians keep dying. We meet Mikey in the midst of terminating one such relationship by knocking the little sister into the deep end of the swimming pool, electrocuting his bathing foster mother, and bashing in the dad’s head with a baseball bat. He videotapes it all, adds a laugh track, and calls it “Mikey’s Funniest Home Videos.” Mikey ain’t playing. When he moves on to the next family, headed by John Diehl and Mimi Craven, he develops a deadly crush on his teenage neighbor (Josie Bissett) and it doesn’t end well for anybody.
Directed by Dennis Dimster, who spent the late 1970s as a child actor mostly on TV series like Charlie’s Angels, Mikey is aesthetically pedestrian but extremely competent as a low-budget no-frills thriller, especially as it establishes very quickly that it has nothing but ill-intentions up its sleeve. Jonathan Glassner, who cut his teeth on horror anthology series like the 1980s reboot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Freddy’s Nightmares, sticks to the tropes and does them right. Bonsall, who would two years later star in the famously lambasted family comedy Blank Check, has a pretty good blank stare along with a soulless innocence that sells the part well enough for genre pulp. He actually looks a bit like a human Chucky doll — and even throws out some punchy Chucky-like post-mortem quips — adding to his menace. By the time Mikey launches into its surprising (and, admittedly, impractical) finale, it’s too much fun to scold for any shortcomings. This is premium Bad Seed-style killer kid movie for die-hard horror fans only.
Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1992)
Dir.: David Price
Flickcharted: #3944 (20.21%)
Fun fact: I started this website as a distraction from a dubious urge to watch all 42 or whatever of the Children of the Corn movies. I successfully avoided it then, but I’m always aware that they’re lurking out there, somewhere, waiting for me. I don't know why this franchise haunts me — I don't even like the original very much beyond its cultural stickiness — but something about the fact of its existence, and that so many of its movies look like awful low-budget name brand cash-ins, is somehow alluring to me.
Despite its release 8 years after the 1984 original, Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1992; horror movie titles really need to avoid using that word, “Final”) picks up immediately after the first movie’s resolution, as the surviving kids from Gatlin are moved to a neighboring town where volunteers have agreed to house them. Surprise, surprise: they get back up to their old tricks… sort of. The very first kill in Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice is performed by the corn itself, so it’s not even clear why the corn needs an army of evil kids, when it can launch itself like a missile at will. None of it makes any sense — the plot or characters aren't even worth recalling — but the sense of humor informing the distinct death scenes is appreciated, even though they all defy at least one of the following: logic, technology, physics, and/or normal human reaction times. This ambitiousness alone might qualify Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice as better than its predecessor, but then it lacks the iconic villains that make Fritz Kiersch’s movie more memorable than it maybe deserves. At the very least, Children of the Corn II has better special effects than the 1984 movie, but that’s not saying much. Georges Melies’ 1902 science fiction epic A Trip to the Moon has better special effects than Children of the Corn, which looks like its post-production was performed on an Amiga Video Toaster.
Of course, neither of these first two movies in the series address the big problem with the entire Children of the Corn franchise: It is based on an extremely short story by Stephen King which mostly consists of a marital argument and then only briefly the compelling concept of a corn-based cult of killer kids. So, the filmmakers are responsible for taking a glimmer of an idea and expanding it, but there’s almost nothing about that expansion that isn’t stupid. Take, for example, the oft-repeated phrase of ominous reverence, “He who walks behind the rows;” I can only imagine King meant this as an arch parody of overblown puritan language, and to hear it said so earnestly so often in these movies is just ridiculous. It’s not scary, it taps into no existing anxiety, and it makes the series risible.
The part of me that seems to find passing comfort in low-budget, low-accomplishment horror movies didn’t hate Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice, but none of me found it interesting or in any way special, outside of its effort to concoct silly death scenes. Does this mean I won't ever watch Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest? Of course not. Maybe not this year, but I can already feel it watching me, and waiting.
Death Valley (1982)
Dir.: Dick Richards
Flickcharted: #1712 (65.36%)
What would you get if you crossed a light Neil Simon comedy with the Australian slasher movie Road Games (1981)? Something a lot like Death Valley (1982), an oddball mix of childhood angst and horror starring young Peter Billingsley, one year before his iconic role as Ralphie in A Christmas Story (1983).
Billy (Billingsley) is a New York kid reluctantly shipped out west for an Arizona vacation with his divorced mom (Catherine Hicks) and her new boyfriend (Paul Le Mat). While staying at a hotel near an "old west"-themed tourist attraction, Billy stumbles onto a murder scene and collects a piece of evidence that makes him the killer’s next target.
Directed by Dick Richards (during the same year that he produced Tootsie (1982)), and shot by Stephen H. Burum (who would later shoot The Outsiders (1983) and The Untouchables (1987), Death Valley looks perfect, and its cast is a delight. Billingsley is a fantastically watchable kid, always funny and interesting without doing anything unnatural, and Hicks is a pleasure even in garbage like the TV series 7th Heaven. The small cast is rounded out with peak Wilford Brimley and a young Stephen McHattie.
Death Valley has some flaws, however, including a stupid scene with a food-obsessed babysitter (playwright Mary Steelsmith) that belongs in a much dumber movie, and there are an alarming number of contrivances, especially in the final act. But, it’s breezy, compact and fun, if you like this sort of thing, and a nice surprise to discover on the obscure outskirts of the 1980s horror boom.
The Other (1972)
Dir.: Robert Mulligan
Flickcharted: #4088 (17.26%)
I try to approach older movies as products of their time and appreciate ideas that might have been fresh at the time but are now considered clichés; I may even admire such movies as pioneers, even if their execution of such ideas seems clumsy or rudimentary by today’s standards. I also don’t care much for twist-based plotting, as movies should be just as if not more interesting on second viewing, and successful twists need to inform more than just a momentary surprise. But Robert Mulligan’s The Other (1972) is formulated around what might have been a then-novel twist, but which is now so obvious within minutes of the opening credits that the rest of the film is excruciating as it feigns ignorance of and then build suspense toward something which isn’t at all revelatory. But that’s not all.
Mulligan’s direction is consistently at odds with the narrative in The Other, as it aims for prestige rather than focusing on the interiority of its Bad Seed-adjacent subject. For most of it running time, The Other carries the air of an idyllic boyhood fantasy, such as Tom Sawyer; except that the mischief in this case is serial murder. This could work as expression of a delusional character’s altered perception of reality, but Mulligan seems incapable of striking a subtle discordant note — when one is finally required, the soundtrack is absurdly drowned out in shrill whistles; we get it — really, subtlety is altogether eschewed and with such tone deafness it seems like a miracle that Mulligan did such an accomplished job mixing childhood whimsy and fear in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) a decade earlier.
The Other is also, at times, confusing, as if it wants to half-commit to gauche supernatural possibilities — will someone please explain “the great game” and the first death in some manner that doesn’t include rampant contrivance or divine providence? — while also retaining the respectability of a Depression-era “life on the farm” drama, and obscures its waffling with incoherent expressionistic editing. Even if Mulligan had some clever plan behind his shambolic execution of The Other, it is, fundamentally, a movie of technical tricks rather than a movie of meaning, and once its twist is revealed with a half-hour remaining, the climax is simply tedious dramatic grandstanding. I couldn’t wait for The Other to be over.
Dir.: Jonas Govaerts
Flickcharted: #1709 (65.40%)
A common problem with horror movies about kids is that many filmmakers are themselves afraid of depicting children in truly terrible situations, partially concerned that crossing some assumed line of bad taste will alienate the audience. Horror audiences, though, are different, and tend to feel cheated when their movies play it safe.
I don’t think that Jonas Govaerts, director of the Belgian shocker Cub (2014), gave second thought to decorum; his movie, while not relentlessly offensive, has some pretty gnarly surprises in it which are sure to turn viewers against him. Children, animals and women receive some seriously foul play in Cub, with one scene in particular likely to elicit howls of protest. But, those aren’t necessarily demerits for a horror movie, and Cub was pretty interesting and effective overall.
The story is simple-ish: a pack of scouts go camping, but they pick a section of forest that is inhospitable to visitors. The key characters are well-drawn with minimal information — including a memorably terrible pack leader played by Stef Aerts — and, despite featuring the same generically slick aesthetic of many recent indie movies, Cub is well-shot, briskly paced, and suspenseful even if its ending feels inevitable early on. It’s a fun, dark, quick ride, and not for the squeamish or anyone sensitive to wanton inhumanity.
The Babysitter (1980)
Dir.: Peter Medak
Flickcharted: #2585 (47.66%)
The Babysitter (1980) features one of those notorious TV movie plots — a sexy teenage babysitter wreaks havoc on a dysfunctional family, preying on the mother’s worst fears by seducing her husband and endangering the child — but is a little too tame to pay off that lurid premise.
Stephanie Zimbalist stars as Joanna, a former foster child who fixates on vulnerable families. At first, she’s a dream housekeeper for the upper class Benedicts (Patty Duke Astin, William Shatner, and child actress Quinn Cummings, who is best known for playing Marsha Mason’s daughter in The Goodbye Girl), but she soon zeroes in on their insecurities with potentially devastating consequences.
Zimbalist, who would later co-star on the series Remington Steele, is pretty good as a delusional psychopath, and has a fun scene in which she pulverizes a freshly caught fish in front of a boat full of concerned spectators; you also get some prime Shatner-isms and a top-class Duke meltdown. But, considering the damage Joanna has left in her past, the Benedicts get off with far too little actual danger, and the ending is milquetoast, especially compared to Don't Go to Sleep, which we watched earlier this month.
John Houseman appears, against type, as a very haughty British person. Peter Medak directs with some style, coming off of the very good ghost story The Changeling (1980); his next movie, however, would be Zorro, The Gay Blade (1981).
Strange Behavior (1981)
A.K.A.: Dead Kids
Dir.: Michael Laughlin
Flickcharted: #2181 (55.83%)
My dad took me to see director Michael Laughlin’s alien invasion mystery Strange Invaders when it played theatrically in 1983 or 1984, and even at age 11 or 12 I had a sense that this was an off-beat movie that wasn’t like the other science-fiction movies I had seen up to that point. I’ve watched it a few times since then and have liked its atmosphere more than its events. Laughlin seemed to have a knack for eerie small-town world building but no real grasp on making the most of his plots or their key moments. Little did I know, until this week, that Laughlin made another “strange” genre movie a couple of years earlier, Strange Behavior (1981), which offers better execution of his distinct qualities and yet still disappoints in all the same ways.
In Strange Behavior, Dan Shor stars as Pete Brady, a half-serious teenager who likes to party and mess around with girls, but who also wants to go to the local college — against the wishes of his dad (Michael Murphy), the town sheriff. Desperate for quick cash for the application fee, Pete signs up as a guinea pig for some drug trials at the college’s psychiatry department, unaware that their unorthodox behavior modification experiments are responsible for a rash of recent child murders.
Strange Behavior is intriguing, dark fun with such subtle and specific character development that it feels like it could’ve been derived from a novel (it wasn’t; Laughlin co-wrote the original script with first-timer Bill Condon, who would win the Oscar in 1999 for writing Gods and Monsters). The cast — including Louise Fletcher, plus Back to the Future’s Mark McClure and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’s Dey Young — is low-key quirky and interesting, giving the small town a lived-in vibe, and the story is compelling both as a mad scientist thriller and as a family drama. Laughlin fills the soundtrack with catchy obscure new wave pop tracks, while Tangerine Dream provides an obtrusive score. All of this, along with a few memorable disquieting scenes, makes Strange Behavior sound like an unqualified hit.
And yet, there’s an odd clumsiness to the way that Laughlin directs big moments. In some ways, this adds to the verisimilitude of the situations — it can be difficult, for example, to climb out of your bedroom window and down a tree — but when it really counts, like in a murder scene, ideally Laughlin could make the gravity of the action felt, but instead his placid approach feels awkwardly amateurish, like he didn’t really give much though how to best execute his scene. The first murder in the movie, in its opening scene, looks like a first rehearsal. But this isn’t even the biggest problem with Strange Behavior — and there are a couple of really well done shocks, which only make the failures more glaring — which is that it has one of the most abrupt non-sequitur endings I can remember, almost as if Laughlin had no idea how to end his movie, or even a vague ballpark idea of what kind of ending might best serve the material, and then ran out of money before he could finish writing an ending and shooting it. And even after the stunningly absent conclusion, he once again ran out of money before he could properly edit a transition from the final scene to the end credits (and, again, from the first part of the end credits to the second part). It’s a very weird series of formal lapses, and jarring, and not in the good way you want from a horror movie. It seems unfair to say this, but a different final 3 minutes, followed by something revolutionary like, say, a fade to black, might have made Strange Behavior the substantially better movie it comes very close to being.
The Night Child (1975)
A.K.A.: Il medaglione insanguinato; The Cursed Medallion; Together Forever
Dir.: Massimo Dallamano
Flickcharted: #2320 (53.01%)
For all of my generalized accusations about Italian horror’s dubious screenwriting tendencies, Massimo Dallamano’s The Night Child (1975) avoids most of those problems, effectively focusing its writing on character relationships rather than generic plot minutiae.
Richard Johnson stars as an English art historian who brings his daughter, Emily (Nicoletta Elmi), and her nanny (Ida Galli) to Rome, where he is filming a TV special on depictions of The Devil in fine art. Obsessed with his work, Johnson is oblivious to his pre-teen daughter’s attachment issues, which endanger any woman who takes a fancy to him. The Night Child isn’t the most compellingly crafted story, but it’s blissfully free of all the problems that repel my attention during many other Italian genre movies of the era. I’m also somewhat of a sucker for movies about art, so that helps, but what I found most inviting about The Night Child was its focus on its (admittedly uncomplicated) characters and the atmosphere created by Stelvio Cipriani’s unobtrusively catchy score and Franco Delli Colli’s naturalist cinematography. Sadly, the latter is not flattered by what must be fading of the source film print, which seems to coat nearly every other scenes with a fog of gray crud, not something you might expect from a director who was Sergio Leone's D.P. for the first two Dollars movies. One scene that isn't faded, unfortunately, is one of the worst "falling" special effect shots in movie history (so bad, they show it twice!). Overall though, I just enjoyed basking in The Night Child's unaggressive, low-impact thrills.
This was one of red-headed 11-year-old Elmi's last movie appearances of the decade, after becoming a genre child star with notable roles in Bay of Blood (1971), Deep Red (1975) and Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), among others. Her next, and final horror appearance would be in Demons (1985).
The Children (1980)
Dir.: Max Kalmanowicz
Flickcharted: #1846 (62.60%)
The first thing that struck me about the independently produced horror movie The Children (1980) is how startlingly and refreshingly competent it is. Maybe I’ve dived too deep into amateurism this month, but right from start The Children looks and feels like it was made by people with a firm grasp on what they were doing. As they tell the story of a small town in which a handful of school children are turned by a radioactive fog into adorable zombies with lethal hugs, director Max Kalmanowicz and writer/producer Carlton J. Albright — despite only a couple of other directing and writing credits between them — are in near-total control of their material, from awareness of the script’s inherent goofiness, to the seriousness of its characters' emotions, to the coherent storytelling and continuity action, and to even the occasionally clever shot compositions (the best of which is a smart twist on a famous moment from The Night of the Hunter).
The Children is full of nicely detailed personality types and quirky character interactions, with the right balance between humor and restraint; none of the more arch comic types are ever "too much." Sometimes The Children's solid world building introduces or emphasizes characters with no narrative utility, but even those add texture more than they derail the momentum. Familiar character actors like Martin Shakar (the older brother in Saturday Night Fever) and Peter Maloney (The Thing) reinforce the overall quality of The Children, while the lesser known Gil Rogers is an engaging figure at the movie's center. If the music sounds familiar, that's Harry Manfredini essentially repurposing the same score he used in 1980's bigger horror hit, Friday the 13th. A fun surprise!
Cathy's Curse (1977)
Dir.: Eddy Matalon
Flickcharted: #2346 (52.46%)
The 1970s had three major child-centered horror movies which spawned endless rip-offs, The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and Carrie (1976). The Canadian shocker Cathy’s Curse (1977) borrows a little bit from each and mixes them into a simultaneously weird and lackluster but nevertheless amusing supernatural family drama.
A family moves into the father’s childhood home, hoping the change will help heal the fragile mother (Beverly Murray), who is recovering from a nervous breakdown. What better to drive mom over the edge, though, than her 8-year-old daughter (Randi Allen) becoming possessed by a vengeful spirit let loose from years dwelling inside a doll in the attic?
Cathy’s Curse features the usual round of demonic child behaviors: thrashing around in bed, cajoling neighborhood kids into inappropriate games, cursing at old ladies, covering drunk old men in snakes and spiders, and throwing the hired help out of a second story window. The fun element that director Eddy Matalon brings to his movie is a milquetoast plainness that contrasts nicely with Cathy’s supernatural hijinks.
Cathy’s Curse does run itself out of steam near its facile end, and is nowhere near the wholly satisfying experience of its forebears, but as a WTF unintentional camp thriller, it’s as good as The Visitor (1979) and better than The Fury (1978).
The Child (1977)
A.K.A.: Children of the Night; Hide and Go Kill
Dir.: Robert Voskanian
Flickcharted: #2921 (40.80%)
When you see the name Harry Novak come up at the start of a movie, you know you’re in trouble. Novak is the producer behind such refined titles as The Sinful Dwarf (1973) and Wham! Bam! Thank You, Spaceman! (1975) and 80+ other equally lurid exploitation movies over two decades. The Child (1977) is one of the four final releases of Novak’s prolific sleaze machine Boxoffice International Pictures — along with the anomalously very good survival thriller Rituals (1977), which kicked off Octoblur 2019 — and bears several Novak trademarks.
Foremost, The Child features god-awful acting of a lethargic half-written script (with barely any story), both so bad they are almost unbelievable… unless you’re familiar with Novak’s ignominious body of work. It’s hard to blame the actors, most of whom have few if any other credits to their name, but neither cast nor director appears to be pushing the other to excel, and no one stands out as a diamelle in the rough. However, The Child does have some qualities to recommend it. One-time director Robert Voskanian and one-time cinematographer Mori Alavi somehow conspire to capture some terrific atmosphere in the opening scene — in which we see the title tween girl offer a kitten as sacrifice to a skeletal hand lurking behind a cemetery headstone — and pretty much whenever a scene takes place outdoors. Indoors is a different matter, where Alavi struggles to keep actors heads from jutting out the top of the frame; maybe it’s a problem with The Child’s transfer from film to digital, but on this evidence Alavi stands accused of more decapitations than the ghoul army of “friends” who do the sinister girl’s bidding.
There are some enthusiastically goopy bloody heads in The Child, and a couple of hilariously stilted yet creepy dialog exchanges, and, surprisingly given Novak's body of work, no sex or nudity; but, just like Alice, Sweet Alice, Ralph Lucas’ script writes out the title character for long uninspired stretches, resulting in a 25-minute long climax that is no more than a generic zombie chase. As undeniably terrible as it is, though, there’s something likeable about The Child: you get the sense that for isolated moments here and there, someone on the set was really trying. What they were trying to do is not always apparent, but it’s the effort that counts. Maybe I’m punch-drunk at this point of the month, or maybe I'm just a sucker for the colors of cheap, grainy 1970s filmstock, but I liked this more than I should.
The Baby's Room (2006)
A.K.A.: Películas para no dormir: La habitación del niño
Dir.: Álex de la Iglesia
Flickcharted: #2450 (50.33%)
Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia’s contribution to the revived “Films to Keep You Awake” anthology TV series is the amusing sort-of-ghost story The Baby's Room (2006), which pits a young family — Javier Gutiérrez, Leonor Watling and an infant child — against mysterious apparitions who appear on baby monitors in the old house they are renovating. Gutiérrez and Watling are eminently watchable, and there’s a solid creep factor to both the initial sightings and de la Iglesia’s narrative conclusion, but for a movie that only runs 79 minutes, more than half of it feels like padding. Little bits of subplot are raised and then dropped with no expansion or expanded with no purpose. The tone of The Baby's Room is also bumpy, overall more comical than sinister, which is especially awkward when the climax includes an inexplicable series of bi-directional face punches between husband and wife. Ultimately, The Baby's Room feels like a rushed idea only one-quarter baked, but it’s short just different enough to be worth checking out for its assets alone.
Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
A.K.A.: Communion; Holy Terror
Dir.: Alfred Sole
Flickcharted: #3968 (19.55%)
All of my usual complaints about the Italian giallo genre can be aimed squarely at this giallo-influenced American indie horror movie. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) looks great — in fact, I can’t believe how great it looks after reading that, as an independent production, it reportedly had six different camera operators due to constant budget-related delays. For a movie with no consistent professional cinematographer, the visual artfulness of Alice, Sweet Alice is really incredible and a profound achievement. Sadly, this is also a movie that has no idea how to organize its story, or what is worth focusing on, or how to go about developing characters who are not either painfully one-note or practically anonymous.
Alice, Sweet Alice begins with a fiery sibling rivalry between two young sisters meeting a premature end when the youngest (Brooke Shields, in her film debut) is murdered during her Catholic confirmation ceremony. Suspicions abound that the mischievous older sister, Alice (Paula Sheppard), might have had a hand in her sister’s death, and these suspicions increase as a series of stabbing attacks by a masked figure plagues the mourning family.
As the title character, Sheppard is compelling, but director Alfred Sole and his co-writer Rosemary Ritvo, shove her off to the side for a long stretch in the middle, splitting their attention across three dead zones: a lethargic police investigation, the wooden relationship between Alice’s mother (Linda Miller) and her ex-husband (Niles McMaster), and some church office drama. Prior to sidelining the movie’s one major asset, the first act is intermittently plagued with hysterical grating performances from Jane Lowry, as the girls’ idiotic aunt, and Alphonso DeNoble as their obese pervy landlord. These two actors are excruciating to watch, and yet they are missed when the movie nosedives into its snoozeworthy "adults try to figure it out" procedural.
There are flashes of excitement that enliven Alice, Sweet Alice — including a scene ripped straight out of Don’t Look Now, as McMaster follows a mysterious diminutive figure in a bright yellow rain slicker — and its opening and closing church scenes are gripping, but there is no middle worth speaking of. It’s a real disappointment, especially given how accomplished it is visually, and how it uses the same masks that freaked me out so much last week in The Last House on Dead End Street. I want to like Alice, Sweet Alice, especially when I gaze at its lurid poster, or scroll through still of its exemplary photography, but sitting through it just makes me annoyed, bored and miserable.
The Good Son (1993)
Dir.: Joseph Ruben
Flickcharted: #1548 (68.61%)
It’s the start of Octoblur 2020’s “Kid Week” — not movies for kids, but about kids being either scary or scared — and if there’s one thing I want from a “creepy kid” movie, it’s feeling like the filmmakers didn’t hold back. I want them to give me as creepy a kid as they could manage, and then a little extra.
In The Good Son (1993), Elijah “Frodo” Wood stars as Mark, a sad kid sent to live with relatives following the death of his mother. His cousin, Henry (Macaulay Culkin), isn’t crazy about the new competition, but is crazy, period. Various people are threatened, some have near-death experiences, and animals might want to skip this one.
I expected The Good Son, a major studio release starring “it” kid Culkin, to play it safe, with soft edges and maybe even cop-out at the end. While it’s by no means gritty or exploitive, and gets pretty dewy about Mark's sense of loss, for a mainstream movie, the filmmakers pretty much go for it. The Good Son was directed by Joseph Ruben (and written by English novelist Ian McEwan), who, a few years earlier, made a splash with another familial sociopath, The Stepfather (1987). He knows his way around fitting psychosis into a Hollywood simulacrum of idealized middle class life with traumatic results. Where The Good Son does tiptoes around its subject — it’s glossy, there’s no on-screen violence and it has a very low body count — it compensates with a strong sense of menace emanating from Henry and even from Mark, who, in one scene, holds a pair of scissors to Henry's jugular. And Henry earns it. Like a little Hannibal Lecter, he taunts, manipulates and throws his kid sister into an ice hole. Henry’s a major league creep, and when this finally dawns on someone with more authority than Mark, it resolves in an ending that, for me, hits exactly to the shocking, extreme, camp-adjacent emotional depths I prefer for this kind of material. Good all-around anti-family fun.
House at the End of the Street (2012)
Dir.: Mark Tonderai
Flickcharted: #2445 (50.41%)
The movie at the end of the road for "House Week," is, fittingly, House at the End of the Street (2012). Although this fairly recent studio release receives very little critical love, for a slick mainstream PG-13 thriller, it packs in some surprisingly dark narrative turns.
Jennifer Lawrence — the same year that both The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook hit the screen — and Elisabeth Sue star as a daughter-mother combo who move in to a rental house hoping for a fresh start to their dysfunctional relationship, but those troubles are instead aggravated by the teenager's burgeoning relationship with a sensitive young man... whose family was murdered by his sister four years earlier.
Director Mark Tonderai presents everything as blandly as possible, but David Loucka’s script (Donnie Darko's Richard Kelly and Breakdown's Jonathan Mostow were also involved at different points in development) is unusually twisted for this level of tween-friendly thriller, and the casting makes everything pop more than it maybe should. Lawrence is in prime megastar ascendance, and Shue is always nice to see; Max Thieriot (who I only know from the TV series Bates Motel) has a compelling presence as exactly the kind of soulful, sad, “Fix Me” heartthrob no parent wants their daughter to date — and this movie backs up that lesson in spades. While there’s little original going on in House at the End of the Street, I would put it in company with I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) as acceptable above average glossy YA-adjacent horror for young teens whetting their appetite for stronger stuff.
House of Whipcord (1974)
Dir.: Pete Walker
Flickcharted: #2356 (52.21%)
Although he got his start on the swinging sex comedies of the late 1960s, Pete Walker became a significant — if still largely unheralded — contributor to England’s 1970s horror scene, with seven luridly titled horror features such as Die Screaming, Marianne (1971), The Flesh and Blood Show (1972), House of Mortal Sin (1975) and Schizo (1976). During this period, Walker was known for returning time and again to the idea of corporal punishment against young women, and House of Whipcord (1974) is no exception.
Penny Irving stars as a French model in London who, after being fined by the law for participating in an indecent photo shoot in public, is whisked away by a self-elected morals court and sentenced to a proper punishment for her crimes. Like The House that Screamed earlier this month, the captive women are ruled by lesbo-fascists, but Walker is more aggressive about depicting how the women in control sublimate the pleasure they derive from torture and humiliation underneath a stern Christian puritanism. Walker’s take on these common women-in-prison tropes is hard-edged, but he also injects a mordant humor — for example, the film opens with a dedication to its villains — and it’s all filmed very handsomely (by frequent Walker collaborator Peter Jessop) and with great confidence in its purpose. I don't love the "women in prison" genre, but this is a pretty strong example of its potential for scares, exploitation and social commentary.
Horror House on Highway Five (1985)
Dir.: Richard Casey
Flickcharted: #4686 (4.93%)
I went into Horror House on Highway Five (1985) hoping for another enjoyably slipshod regional independently produced labor of twisted love, like last year’s discovery Nightbeast (1982). Things got off to a good start with some amusing dialog, and if there’s one thing to be said about Richard Casey’s movie, it’s that it always seems to have humor on its mind. But there’s nothing else worth saying about it, because it’s overall pretty terrible, devoid of filmmaking talent in every respect, from story development — I’m still not sure what it was about — to the basics of editing, and how to frame a scene in which action occurs. It has something to do with students from a college rocket science class running into crazed acolytes of a (Nazi?) scientist who now murders people while wearing a Richard Nixon mask. The cultural iconography of Nixon is effective, especially when the mask is spattered with blood, but that $2 yard of rubber is doing all the work here.
Almost none of the cast members can be bothered to even pretend to act, with the exception of noted rock critic and Blue Öyster Cult lyricist Richard Meltzer, who is so (relatively) funny in his few minutes of screen time that his scene partner breaks character. No time or budget for reshoots, apparently. Casey, incidentally, directed the music video for BÖC’s “Burnin’ for You” a few years earlier (and also helmed one of my favorite early music videos, Aldo Nova’s “Fantasy,” which ambitiously featured both a helicopter and a guitar that shoots laser beams!), but Casey’s failure in the feature length form to create any notable death scenes or moments of suspense, or even make clear what any of the characters are doing or why, makes Horror House on Highway Five a total snooze. What made this guy want to make a horror film? Just his hate of Nixon? On this evidence, that’s not nearly enough.
House on Haunted Hill (1999)
Dir.: William Malone
Flickcharted: #4045 (17.92%)
As a kid who was raised on the horror movies of the 1980s and 1970s, the mainstream horror of the 1990s feels wrong: self-conscious and over-produced by film school graduates with ample technical know-how but none of the inspiration that comes from artists or entrepreneurs or even the do-it-yourself freaks who are driven to produce low-budget regional horror and grindhouse exploitation. There’s either no personality to a lot of 1990s horror, or it’s a personality I reject. While I can appreciate how William Malone’s House on Haunted Hill (1999) corrects the disappointing Scooby Doo ending of William Castle’s 1959 original, it does so with horrid digital era effects and is devoid of the older film’s campy and wholesome charm.
That brings me to another issue, not only with this version of House on Haunted Hill, but also with its genre cohorts of the era: the characters are uniformly unpleasant, and not in the guileless way of ignorant bullies and jock villains of the 1980s. These characters are knowing jerks, written by cynical screenwriters who are settling scores. In the 1970s we had horror movies from filmmakers who felt like they were breaking the system; in the 1980s we had horror movies from nerdy kids who grew up loving the monster movies of the 1950s; in the 1990s we had horror movies made by self-loathing empty suits who were paid well to make films they didn’t care about.
House on Haunted Hill is OK on its own merits, with a likable cast of familiar faces, some skill at building tension, and an overall gloss that makes it easy to swallow. It also seems to have a following among those who grew up in the Scream-era. I struggle to note anything worth remembering about it, because it all seems so very impersonal.
The Sweet House of Horrors (1989)
Dir.: Lucio Fulci
Flickcharted: #3840 (22.06%)
Is this Lucio Fulci’s idea of a kids’ movie? The notorious Italian gore and sleaze director kicks off this oddity with a gruesomely violent home invasion in which both brains and eyeballs ooze forth from their respective cavities. The rest of The Sweet House of Horrors (1989) concerns the resultant orphans from those opening murders, who must now cope with their indifferent new guardians and thwart attempts to sell the family house — and with a little unexpected supernatural assistance.
For the most part, The Sweet House of Horrors is a children’s drama about two budding sociopaths who laugh at the misfortunes of others and otherwise make inane chatter that could not have been written by a sentient human, but it's entirely free of Fulci's typical sleaze — no sex or nudity — save for that initial violence (although those murders are shown a few more times throughout, from additional angles, just as gory as the first). In all other respects, however, it is typical Fulci: horrible plotting, ludicrous dialog, ridiculous dubbing, not a shred of sane rational character motivation… and quite a few instances where that bewilderment equals fun.
You might have noticed that I complain about Fulci incessantly, and yet can't resist watching his movies, especially during the month of October. He's an inescapable genre figure and, despite all the areas in which he is distinctly untalented, he has a special something, a love for the unthinkable matched with no sense of self-editing, that makes him a master of horror if not a master of storytelling.
House of Usher (1960)
Dir.: Roger Corman
Flickcharted: #1881 (61.81%)
Unlike in past years, I haven't been watching much pre-1970s horror during the Octoblur 2020 movie marathon, so it’s a nice change of pace in a week that has included roughies like The House on the Edge of the Park and The Last House on Dead End Street to dip into some less transgressive gothic vibes.
During the first half of the 1960s, producer/director Roger Corman made no less than eight movie adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories, through his company American International Pictures, all but one starring Vincent Price. The first of Corman's Poe films, the hit that launched the series, was House of Usher (1960), Richard Matheson-penned adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher, the story of the remnants of a cursed aristocratic family, holed up in a decrepit manor, awaiting their inevitable doom. Price is terrific as the melancholy Roderick, always lurking just around the corner to interfere with the attempts of Philip (Mark Damon) to steal away with his betrothed Madeline (Myrna Fahey), who Roderick is convinced will spread the family curse if she were to ever leave the house (which raises questions about how she and Philip ever met and fell in love, but whatever).
It’s a solid production, with neat art direction, including a disturbing series of family portraits, a foreboding score by Les Baxter, and an admirable commitment to honoring the dark nature of its source material. Corman effectively captures both the resignation and the mania of self destruction, not only appearing to take some cues from the feverish finale of Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburge’s classic Black Narcissus (1947), but also foreshadowing the empty pampered listlessness of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). But most of all, House of Usher is a reminder that studio-era gothic horror needn't be stuffy; even PG-ish content by today's standards can be lurid, crazed and bloody.
The Last House On Dead End Street (1977)
Dir.: Roger Watkins
Flickcharted: #1537 (68.79%)
Warning: Contains graphic slaughterhouse footage of harm against animals.
One of the trickier types of movies to review are the ones that aren't particularly ”good” in any common sense of the word, and are maybe even reprehensible in some aspects, but they are nevertheless effective at their primary goal. As Wes Mantooth concludes during the final moments of Anchorman: “From deep down in my stomach, with every inch of me, I pure, straight hate you. But goddammit, do I respect you!”
The Last House On Dead End Street (1977) is a gross, almost perniciously repugnant, low budget shit pie of gutter trash art that is also maybe among the 3-5 most terrifying movies I've ever watched. In its exceeding horribleness, it is nearly perfect, and that perfection is in the shape of a new hole in my soul.
Using a jumble of different pseudonyms, Roger Watkins writes, directs and stars in this super low budget nightmare of soft porn and pseudo snuff about an ex-con (Watkins, looking like a bloated Bill Hader) struggling to find his place in the free world of the early 1970s. After his attempts at porn direction are waved off as trite, he discovers a subject that will not only grip the attention of the jaded producers who previously dismissed him, but will finally allow him to express his true self: committing murder and filming it.
The first half of The Last House On Dead End Street is a grab-bag of amateur filmmaking flaws — the slipshod looped dialog is, at best, distracting — with a few notable shock sequences (a party scene stands out as, uh, memorable) and clips from seemingly unrelated porn shoots. There are flashes of some filmmaking talent, but never a talent that includes being able to keep shots in focus with any consistency. But there’s a creeping tone of sincere egocentric mania that is somewhat gripping.
It’s during its last half-hour that The Last House On Dead End Street fully becomes itself, with an orgiastic spasm of lunacy, during which it seems every third shot or so is some kind of inspired peek inside undiluted craziness. The haunting blood-splattered masked faces that appear to float in darkness. The repeated defiant exclamations of “I’m directing this f@#$ing movie!” The hippies-gone-wrong-ish sense of reveling in disorder. The film crew pointing directly at the audience. The Blood Feast-like surgery without a hint of camp. You can see in Watkins’ $3,000 movie more than glimpses of influence on later films like The Strangers (which I strongly dislike) and the work of Rob Zombie (which is tolerable in small doses), but where those imitators are self-conscious and even sometimes precious attempts to recreate the frenzied menace of Roger Watkins, The Last House On Dead End Street is pure in an indescribably unsettling manner. It wouldn’t be surprising, for instance, to learn that this movie had been made by the Manson Family while in the grip of an LSD trip. It is madness itself.
It’s very possible, and even highly likely, that others might judge The Last House On Dead End Street as bereft of ideas and talent, and even nauseatingly worthless. Horror fans, however, sometimes find themselves chasing the elusive specter of complete discord, the disquieting revelation that the world has, indeed, gone irretrievably crazy, and that's left is misery and pain. This movie is the incarnation of those feelings. Immediately after it was finished and I was in the process of reassembling my shattered psyche, I thought I would never recommend it to anyone, even though it came as close as anything to evoking the same feelings of dread and terror as my beloved The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)... And then, within five minutes, I thought of three people to whom I’d like to recommend it; and the next day I recommended it to someone else. Don’t trust people like me who recommend this. It is awful. While its advertising mimicked The Last House on the Left’s mantra of, “It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie…,” a more accurate mantra might be “It’s barely a movie… It’s barely a movie…” Whatever it is, it has impact, and there’s nothing else that quite captures the same kind of rough, stained, rotten bottom-of-the-barrel sociopathy.
The House That Screamed (1969)
Dir.: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Flickcharted: #2273 (53.84%)
Although it’s barely horror — more like a Reform School Girls-style exploitation drama with a slight giallo-esque edge to it — Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s The House That Screamed (1969) is a curious film, surprisingly reticent with its most lurid content and given to bursts of cinematic poetry where you least expect them. After her father dies, Teenager Teresa (Cristina Galbó) is sent away to a boarding school which, in typical Eurosleaze fashion, is governed by a strict headmistress (Lilli Palmer), terrorized by aspiring authoritarian students, and the air is ripe with sexual frustration and overall creepy vibes. There’s also the problem that a handful of girls have recently disappeared without a trace. Although Serrador’s film is filled with the usual boarding school tropes — there is cruel bullying, punitive torture, lesbian overtones everywhere, illicit trysts in the barn, a peeping tom, an occasional murder — the director keeps it mostly PG. Even in the extended 104-minute cut, the violence is mostly off-screen or obscured and the nudity kept almost barely pretty much just out of sight; even the obligatory group shower scene is tame, with all the girls in full-length bathing gowns that are only sort of see-through in moments. Serrador, who would later direct the compelling island mystery Who Can Kill a Child?, has high-brow intentions for his low-brow material, treating it mostly like a handsome period piece with memorable flourishes of energetic creativity. It’s a neat approach, and it does elevate the content, which otherwise doesn’t quite have the depth-of-story or characters to stand on its own without that or a harder lean into its exploitation elements. The acting is generally quite good and restrained, especially Mary Maude, who is compelling as the cruel student leader, Irene. John Moulder Brown, who would star in Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1970 coming-of-age drama Deep End, is also magnetic as Palmer’s oddball son, even though his voice seems weirdly mismatched.
The House That Dripped Blood (1971)
Dir.: Peter Duffell
Flickcharted: #2765 (43.84%)
While horror anthology movies have been with us almost non-stop since the 1960s, and have been surging recently, the British horror industry went on a particularly strong run of them in the early 1970s, with one or more high profile releases nearly every year during that decade, starting with the 1971 Amicus Productions release The House That Dripped Blood. Heavy-hitter Thepians Denholm Elliott, Peter Cushing, Joss Ackland, Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt headline four stories set in and around a presumably cursed vacation home where every renter meets a premature end to their holiday and their life. As with all anthologies, there are strong stories and weak stories; of the four in The House That Dripped Blood — all written by or based on stories by Robert Bloch, author of Psycho and a frequent Amicus collaborator — two are pretty good while the other two are disposable.
The first, which stars Elliott as a horror writer haunted by his fictional character, is a solid example of the genre and its macabre twist endings, even though it is somewhat marred (or, depending on taste, improved) by a campy makeup design and performance by Tom Adams as the is-he-real killer. The best story of the lot, the third, stars Lee as a strict father who hires a teacher (Nyree Dawn Porter) to tend to his shut-in daughter (Chloe Franks, of Who Slew Auntie Roo?). Franks is a compelling child actor, especially when asked to play up the duality of innocence and menace, and Lee brings his considerable presence to bear on the fun but slight narrative. The second story, starring Cushing and Ackland, is barely a concept, and doesn’t even primarily take place inside the house, making it a strange selection; and the fourth and final tale is soured by an overly comical performance by Jon Pertwee, although I always welcome a glimpse of Pitt baring both fangs and cleavage.
Maybe my long attention span is simply unforgiving to short form movies, but anthologies often feel too insubstantial for my appetite, and I’d rather have the one or two strongest stories expanded into features. Still, Amicus produces them beautifully, as seen here, and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD is fun enough for a lazy October afternoon.