31 Day Movie Challenge: Week 3
Feel free to join in on Facebook and Twitter using the #31DayFilmChallenge hashtag. Check out our week one selections here and week two selections here. Tune in next Friday for more spooky season movie picks!
Day 17: Italian Horror
Director: Dario Argento
Blurb: The set design and music are phenomenal. The slightly overwrought English dubbing was hard to get used to. The witches themselves aren't all that scary, but mainly because we never actually see them...you know...doing witch stuff. If you're creeped out by stern teachers, though, this film is sure to bother you.
Day 17: Italian Horror
Title: A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin
Director: Lucio Fulci
Blurb: The “acid western” sub-genre was in vogue in the late 60s and early 70s, due to countercultural forces that presumably need no introduction (folks were doing a whole lot of LSD, I’m given to understand). A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is what you might call an “acid slasher.” It’s a hallucinatory whodunit about a slain bohemian, a police inspector, and a troubled woman out to prove her innocence and reassert her grip on sanity. The whole thing is a bad trip, in the best possible way, from start to finish, and while some of its psychedelic imagery is dated, trippy kitsch, it also contains visuals that are bound to unnerve even the most jaded druggies in the audience. Its most nightmarish and inexplicable sequence — involving a quartet of living, vivisected dogs howling in agony upon an operating table — would be enough to make Hunter S. Thompson promptly empty his bowels.
Day 18: Remake/Reboot
Title: The Thing
Director: John Carpenter
Blurb: I feel a bit ashamed that this was my first watch through of The Thing (and I’ve never seen the 1951 sci-fi classic The Thing From Another World on which it is loosely based). Despite being new to the film, I’ve seen so many riffs, references, and throwbacks to The Thing that it felt very much familiar to me. Despite that familiarity, though, I'm happy/horrified to say that the shocks still land. Why didn't anyone warn me about the dogs????!?!
Title: House of Wax
Director: André De Toth
Blurb: Far be it from me to talk like one of those insufferable “bet’cha didn’t know” movie dweebs (as in, “bet’cha didn’t know Bogart’s Maltese Falcon is a remake”), but as it so happens, this classic Vincent Price flick is, in fact, a retread of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. That film was slower and statelier than it had any right to be; the 1953 version is pure schlock and a nonstop delight, right down to the utterly superfluous (and yet, completely indispensable) scene in which a paddle ball salesman hijacks the narrative and spends multiple minutes hawking his wares and demonstrating the jaw-dropping power of the audience’s 3D glasses. This interlude is hysterically funny nowadays, with the third dimension removed from the equation — it’s like watching the THX logo come up onscreen, accompanied solely by the semi-audible sound of a distant slide whistle or muffled whoopee cushion. House of Wax rules. I’ve still never seen the one with Paris Hilton.
Day 19: Witches/Warlocks
Title: The VVitch
Director: Robert Eggers
Blurb: Whew, this movie is bleak. It also contains about 200% more old witch-ass than I wanted or needed to see. But I will give it a lot of credit for the period-accurate dialogue and attention to the finer details of set design, props, costuming, and so on. I almost feel the film would have been more effective had there *not* been actual witches. Instead we’d see a family so overcome by puritanical zeal and overstressed by their inability to sustain a new life in the “colonies” that they slowly rip themselves apart from within. After all, the real hell IS other people.
Title: Gretel & Hansel
Director: Oz Perkins
Blurb: My personal pick for the finest horror film of the year. Alice Krige makes for a fearsome, silver-tongued crone, and her sinisterly angular house (to say nothing of the deep, dark woods in which it is situated) is every bit as forbidding. The entire production is invested with nigh mythical ominousness; it’s no small feat to helm the definitive screen version of such a well-tread fairytale, but I’d say Oz Perkins pulled it off. What really makes Gretel & Hansel the defining horror show of 2020, however, is the fact that it’s a low key, blink-and-you-miss-it zombie movie. Peripheral characters casually allude to a plague ravaging the countryside, and there’s one scene in which the titular siblings run afoul of a seemingly undead ghoul — but as soon as our heroes make it to the abode of the witch, all of that gets swiftly forgotten. Perkins was ahead of the curve on that one. Humans are hardy and single-minded creatures. Even in the midst of a pandemic, we’ve all got plenty of our own shit to deal with.
Day 20: 80's Slasher
Title: The Funhouse
Director: Tobe Hooper
Blurb: One of my horror movie pet peeves is feeling like a film is overexplaining or talking down to the audience. Anecdotally I feel like this has gotten worse over time, especially as horror films have longer run times, more competition, and the implied assumption that a sequel will follow if the film is successful. For all of those reasons, we tend to get more backstory and waaay more plot than we need for "four teenagers get chopped up." For this reason, I appreciate the simplicity of Tobe Hooper's 1981 slasher flick The Funhouse. We know very little about the main characters. We know very little about the slasher and his motivations. Despite what feels like a sparse plot, the characters are well-acted and interesting, but we still get in and out in a tight 96 minutes.
Title: Friday the 13th: Part VI - Jason Lives
Director: Tom McLoughlin
Blurb: Jason Lives is a standout example of an 80s slasher flick that’s funny on purpose. But this isn’t an Elm Street sequel, in which the killer himself is able to crack jokes and wink at the audience. Rather, the humor in Jason Lives is derived from the essential ludicrousness of its premise. It’s impossible to take this material seriously. A lot of filmmakers slumming it in the slasher genre back in the day took that as an excuse to not bother trying; the people behind Jason Lives, to their credit, elected to try something weird. A slasher movie isn’t good simply by virtue of having jokes shoehorned into it, mind you. Jason X is full of gags, most of which are pure amateur hour (“this sucks on so many levels,” exclaims a woman being ejected into space through a hull breach). The humor in Jason Lives is sneakier, sturdier, and more organic than you might expect. You don’t have to take a chance on it, but you do have to treat yourself to the Alice Cooper song that plays over the end credits. “He’s back! He’s the maaan behind the maaask!”
Day 21: Animated
Title: The Nightmare Before Christmas
Director: Henry Selick
Blurb: So far with this challenge I’ve been watching only films that are new to me, but for this entry I feel the need to cheat a little. Not to be the Hot Topic version of a basic bitch, but The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my all-time favorite movies – not just animated, not just holiday, but movies in general. I grew up watching and rewatching it on VHS until the tape wore down and needed replaced, long before you could buy Jack Skellington wax warmers from Scentsy and Sally socks at Wal-Mart. That isn’t to say “I liked it before it was cool” but that I love this film so much that I’m endlessly thrilled it has been embraced by those both older and younger than myself.
Title: The Tell-Tale Heart
Director: Ted Parmelee
Blurb: Far and away the creepiest adaptation of this particular macabre tale, and one of the top three or four best films ever adapted from Poe’s body of work. The jagged, shadowy animation is a marvel. All the architecture looks non-euclidian, and all the human figures look sallow and sickly (when they resemble human beings at all). You can practically watch the insanity drip off the screen, like beads of sweat running down the forehead of a frightened man. The Tell-Tale Heart is an abstract painting that moves, an impressionistic artwork that rustles and whispers and twitches and judders and sears itself into your brain. James Mason sinks his teeth into every last line; when I reread the original story, it’s always his voice I hear in my head.
Day 22: Queer Horror
Director: Julia Ducournau
Blurb: I had no idea what to expect from this French film, other than that it had made several lists for top-ranked feminist and/or queer horror films in the past decade. I'm glad I went into the film blind, because it truly needs to be experienced firsthand. Raw reminded me a bit of the films of Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster): sometimes absurdist, sometimes disturbing, but always invested in exploring the horrible things humans will do to one another, often without understanding why we even do them. Raw is probably brilliant, but I'd need to watch it a few more times to decide what I really think - and frankly I'm not sure I have the stomach for that.
Title: Stranger by the Lake
Director: Alain Guiraudie
Blurb: The un-simulated hanky-panky that transpires in Stranger by the Lake may or may not titillate you, but regardless, it does wonders for the film’s credibility. Ersatz onscreen sex serves to remind the viewer that they’re watching a movie, and it’s all just make believe. When an honest to god handjob happens before your eyes, however, your brain buys into the possibility that the violence might be real this time too. Aesthetically, Stranger by the Lake is an arthouse European slow burn, the furthest possible thing from a grungy, grimy underground snuff movie. And yet, you’re not supposed to see this kind of hardcore action in “normal” cinema. Once the graphic sex taboo is broken (graphic gay sex, at that), all bets are off and anything goes. If you find yourself on pins and needles, watching this movie, that might be why. On some level, you’re afraid the blood is more than mere corn syrup and food coloring this time.
Day 23: Post-2010
Director: Demián Rugna
Blurb: I've already discussed above my irritation with horror movies that over-explain the plot, undercutting the whole purpose of the genre (in my mind, at least) - showing the unseen, making known the unknowable, but ultimately pulling back before anything is truly settled or certain. Terrified does a great job walking that tightrope, which is especially impressive given how much of the film is focused on investigators attempting to discern the nature and origins of paranormal phenomenon overtaking a small neighborhood. The film gives several possible explanations, but doesn't settle on any one - just like it doesn't settle on following any one character, but shuttles back and forth between several affected parties. The most compelling reveal in Terrified is that the ghosts/ghouls/spirits can only be seen from certain perspectives; from one angle, there seems to be nothing there at all, but from a different vantage point the ghoul is visible. For the paranoid film-viewer, this device is sure to make you shift around uncomfortably in your seat, wondering what may become visible at just the right angle.
Title: Under the Shadow
Director: Babak Anvari
Blurb: Under the Shadow is a haunted house story that plays out against the backdrop of war-torn Tehran in the 1980s. The setup is simple, and the encroaching dread is inexorable. As the city becomes more depopulated, and as the apartment building in which most of the film is set becomes steadily emptier, the shadows lengthen and the sense of foreboding deepens. In that respect, Under the Shadow plays like an inversion of the old Polanski formula. You’re not afraid of the neighbors, as in Rosemary’s Baby or The Tenant — rather, it’s their absence that’s disconcerting. The specters in this film are off-the-charts, old school eerie. There’s something intrinsically spooky about the sight of an unoccupied chādor standing upright and swaying gently, as if dangling from an invisible clothesline on a breezy day. Anyone who’s ever freaked themselves out in their bedroom, late at night, wondering if that towel draped over the back of a chair is actually a ghost, will get the willies while watching this film.