Halloween 2022 Programming: Contemporary

For over a decade, my wife and I have had a tradition where I draft up a selection of horror films for Halloween viewing, and she picks one from each group: contemporary, classic, and cult, and I thought I’d share my suggestions this year.

Due to timing and circumstances, I’m providing our contemporary first today, then classic and cult tomorrow. I will note that I have not seen all of the contemporary suggestions, but most of those that I have seen will have links to prior write-ups. I’m also including some personal notes to provide context.

HATCHING (2021)

“A young gymnast, who tries desperately to please her demanding mother, discovers a strange egg.”

Trailer, but I’d suggest passing on it as it gives a lot away:

THE DARK AND THE WICKED (2020)

“On a secluded farm, a man is bedridden and fighting through his final breaths while his wife slowly succumbs to overwhelming grief. Siblings Louise and Michael return home to help, but it doesn’t take long for them to see that something’s wrong with mom—something more than her heavy sorrow. Gradually, they begin to suffer a darkness similar to their mother’s, marked by waking nightmares and a growing sense that an evil entity is taking over their family.”

Been in my queue for a bit, but haven’t watched it yet.

THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

“A modern-day witch uses spells and magic to get men to fall in love with her, with deadly consequences.”

A delightfully colorful feminist work masquerading as a campy 70s throwback.

SLAXX (2021)

“A possessed pair of jeans is brought to life to punish the unscrupulous practices of a trendy clothing company. Shipped to the company’s flagship store, Slaxx proceeds to wreak carnage on staff locked in overnight to set up the new collection.”

I’ve been meaning to watch this campier version of IN FABRIC since it was released, but have yet to.

TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID (2017)

“A dark fairy tale about a gang of five children trying to survive the horrific violence of the cartels and the ghosts created every day by the drug war.”

That description makes it sound like a thriller, but it has more in common with THE COMPANY OF WOLVES.

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE (2018)

“Merricat, Constance and their Uncle Julian live in isolation after experiencing a family tragedy six years earlier. When cousin Charles arrives to steal the family fortune, he also threatens a dark secret they’ve been hiding.”

A fine adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s final novel of the same name.

THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

“Tells the story of Maria, a young woman who takes refuge in a house in southern Chile after escaping from a German colony.”

A stop-animation marvel that I’ve been meaning to watch for some time.

HARLEY QUINN (2019-)

(HBO MAX) Despite being a pretty hardcore comic book nerd as a youth — I still have the long boxes to prove it — I never quite embraced comic book movies or TV. Apart from the occasional oddity like MYSTERY MEN or BIRDS OF PREY or THE SUICIDE SQUAD or LOKI or that one trauma-laden flashback episode of WANDAVISION, they’re rarely as weird or imaginative enough to keep my interest.

I’ve previously stated that I stayed away from comics for years because I thought they were just endless stories of people punching each other and, while I eventually found comics that consisted of something more that endless fight scenes — or at least used the fight sequences to communicate something larger — most of the MCU and DCU works consist solely of sexless, soulless, dull rope-a-dope tropes that exist solely to prop up future films; all sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Sorry, Will.)

This lead me to initially punt on the animated DC TV show HARLEY QUINN. Sure, BIRDS OF PREY was a sparky lark, and I ate up BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES when it aired waaaay back in the day, but I assumed HARLEY QUINN would be just as defanged as most of its film brethren.

How wrong I was.

I don’t know how the fuck this show got made, but it’s such a filthy delight. The pilot itself is a marvel of a mission statement: it scrutinizes the toxic relationship between Harley and The Joker, sees her free herself from him (kind of) and discovers a new found family of D-list villains, including who I know to be her one-true-love, Poison Ivy.

It’s kinetic, it’s weird, it runs a mile a minute, it’s extraordinarily punk, and it’s unapologetically smutty but it’s always in service of the story. It’s an encapsulation of being liberated from live-action. It fully leans into all of the potential of animation, which given that most comic book movies nowadays are essentially an array of CGI sequences, you think there’d be more experimentation, but nope!

It also, just like LOKI, acknowledges that the characters are smart but completely askew. It literally features the following exchange from Harley to herself:

“Ooooh. You’re smart.”

“I know. I’m you.”

It ticks all of my boxes, and I haven’t even finished watching the first season yet. (So far, there are three seasons. I would not be surprised if HBO MAX shelved it, which is why I finally pulled the pin on watching it.)

Now, a few choice quotes:

JOKER: “You know she has HPV?”

BANE: “Most sexually active adults do.”


POISON IVY: “That potion makes people fall in love with me, and then kills them.”

KITEMAN: “Whaaat?”

POISON IVY: “YES! What did you think, you kite-fucking-freak? My name is Poison… Ivy!”

KITEMAN: “This is why I stick with the kites. So simple.”


“I hate you, dad.”

“I hate you, too, son.”

HARLEY: “This is so fucked up, but weirdly moving.”

(Plays far better here than it did in FLASHFORWARD!)


HARLEY to IVY: “I can’t listen to ya when you’re dressed like a 40s housewife who is fucking her husband’s boss.”


“You are truly the Shakespeare of the sea!”

AQUAMAN: “I prefer to think of myself as the Dickens of the deep!”


HARLEY: “Oh, I did it! Although no one said I could run a crew!”

IVY: “What? Hello? Hi. I said you could run a crew.”

HARLEY: “Yeah, but you’re my friend, I mean, come on, it’s like when your mom says you’re the prettiest girl in school.”

KING SHARK: “That’s what my mom said!”


HARLEY: “I just tried to touch myself! That is a stripper rule!”

To cap it all off, it has a banger of an intro/outro, one that I always have to fucking keep HBO MAX from skipping over because you can’t fucking prevent auto-play with HBO MAX.

I haven’t even touched on the amazing voice acting! Lake fucking Bell! Ron Funches! Kaley Cuoco! Alan Tudyk! Christopher Meloni! J.B. Smoove! Jim Rash! Tony Hale! Jason Alexander! It is an embarrassment of riches!

This show brings me so much joy at a time in my life when I’ve desperately needed it — although it is worth nothing that S01E05 deals with trauma-centric disassociation that is not fun if you’ve lived through it, but is still excellently well-played. And if you have lived through it, well, you’ll feel seen.

MADE FOR LOVE SEASON TWO (2022)

(HBO MAX, for now) I’ve written about MADE FOR LOVE twice before — first concerning the initial HBO season and second regarding the original novel. Now I’m writing about the second and, sadly, final HBO season so, this will probably be the last time I’ll write about it.

Both the initial novel and the first HBO season dialed in on a very sloppy woman named Hazel who routinely made bad decisions and rarely thought about or regretted them, which lead to the trauma of being a woman escaping from a technological bubble created by Byron Gogol, an obsessive man’s technological spider-web. She ultimately gets roped back into the bubble — The Hub — but MADE FOR LOVE’s second season is a tad more flip, far more darkly comic, albeit at the cost of a lack of focus.

While the end of the first season of MADE FOR LOVE aptly set the stage for a second season — going against the grain of its source material, I’ll add — the second season feels like a wild swing for the fences; it tackles a number of wide-eyed high-concepts in ways that recalls cyberpunk classic MAX HEADROOM while still hewing close to its character study of Hazel’s difficult relationship with her father, how she can course-correct her life, and ultimately find a better version of her self.

There are times when the season feels rushed, however there are also a number of subplots and character arcs that feel tantalizing but sputter out — especially the reintroduction of Zelda, the dolphin that aided Hazel’s escape in season one. However, the highs exceed the lows — this season ventures into batshit-crazy territory and completely exploit the universe. I wish I could say why without spoiling matters.

Season two bites off more than it can chew, certainly, but goddamn it is an aspirational piece of high-concept work that utilizes tech and humanity in ways that feels revitalizing.

THREE BUSY DEBRAS (2020-)

(adult swim/HBO MAX/VOD) Three housewives, each named Debra, get together for brunch and occasionally other activities in their vibrant suburban town of Lemoncurd. When together, they’re often passively-aggressively acting out against each other, indulging themselves in hedonistic activities, or partaking of bursts of violence, all while often adorned in white clothing and surrounded by similarly stark interior design.

These are the antics of adult swim‘s- THREE BUSY DEBRAS, aired in a half-hour block featuring two ten minute tales to bewilder and amuse. While THREE BUSY DEBRAS, the vision of Sandy Honig, Mitra Jouhari and Alyssa Stonoha, clearly comes from their improvisational roots, it feels like it has a self-imposed set of absurdist rules that gives the show a more mythic air.

Its reliance on often immature behavior, neediness, and willful oblivion to the wants of the more grounded folks around them reminds me of the extraordinarily silly character comedy STELLA, although unlike STELLA — which was delightfully nihilistic with its messaging — THREE BUSY DEBRAS is often unabashedly feminist, albeit often rendered through a very skewed sense of humor. For example, one episode in the second, current season, details several stories of Lemoncurd women in history, including the advent of ‘smoky eye’ when a woman in ‘one billion BCE’ (Before the Curded Era) garners two black eyes when she trips and falls face-first on a stone-built fire. The second tale in that episode celebrates Susan B. Shoppin’, who ‘bravely’ fought for the right of the women of Lemoncurd to be refused the right to vote.

The second season of THREE BUSY DEBRAS concludes this Sunday (May 22nd) at 10pm EST on adult swim/Cartoon Network, just enough time to catch up from beginning. However, if you’re pressed for time, I suggest jumping into the second season, as it feels sharper and wilder and well-honed. Or you can just watch at your leisure via HBO MAX, whichever suits your needs.

MADE FOR LOVE (2021-)

(HBOMAX) MADE FOR LOVE is not exactly the most enticing premise for a television series, despite the fact that Alissa Nutting’s novel that the show is based on was very well-received. (It is worth noting that Alissa Nutting is credited with writing on the show as well.)

The show is about a smart-ass firecracker, Hazel Green (an amazing fictional name, played by the astoundingly elastic Cristin Milioti) who, while down on her luck, selling false raffle tickets for free smartphones to make ends meet, ends up marrying tech capitalist Byron Gogol* (played by the delightfully creepy Billy Magnussen, who was Marcus in one of my favorite episodes of TV ever: THE LEFTOVER’s ‘Guest’). Byron then moves Hazel into his home: the Hub, a hyper virtual reality workplace campus, a place where she has no agency, where she has to periodically log orgasm ratings in order to play the flight simulator video game she uses to numb herself to her situation.

Hazel finds herself loathing Byron and this technological purgatory, and she finally snaps when she discovers that Byron has been using her — without her consent — to develop ‘Made for Love’: implants that ‘co-mingle’ two beings, tethering two together so one can see and feel and experience what the other is feeling.

Hazel then runs, falling backwards to home, to her sadsack father (a delightful Ray Romano, whose dramatic skills have been vastly underrated) who — after the death of his wife/Hazel’s mom — has adopted a realdoll to replace his romantic and physical urges. Byron, being the controlling megalomaniac that he is, is completely unwilling to let her go, for both personal and capitalist reasons.

What follows is a thrilling and heartfelt and intelligent exploration of human desire, tech and surveillance culture, infatuation & the kept woman, and the masculine, blinkered approach to problem-solving emotional relationships. All of this is bolstered by pitch-perfect sound design, music supervision, cinematography, and production design; the Hub is so expertly handled — a modernist dystopia of tech and interior design; watch for how the show constantly throws visual barriers between Hazel and Byron, and how Byron’s often lathered in an icy blue; there’s one moment in the third episode where Hazel literally smells agency, then acts upon it; and the integration of the Gogol logo to also reflect handcuffs is a stroke of brilliance.

MADE FOR LOVE is a show flexing all of its muscles. It is in complete command of what it wants to convey and how it wants to convey it. I initially thought it was a limited series, but no, it ends on an open note, and the second season airs April 28th.

  • I know a number of folks label him as an Elon Musk techbro, and yes, I think there’s some of that there, but personally I think his DNA is more Howard Hughes than Musk.

SEARCH PARTY (2016-2021)

(HBO MAX/hoopla) SEARCH PARTY would have been a memorable cult TV show even if it were a one season-and-done and, while I was a bit gobsmacked to see that it was renewed not twice, not three times, but four! — I had no idea how this show could sustain itself for a second season, much less five — it’s always had a very singular dry, but confident and clever, comedic voice.

The first season introduces us to a group of self-centered, off-putting millennials tearing themselves away from their guac-and-toast brunch to solve the mystery of a missing acquaintance they barely know, and matters go amazingly awry.

I can’t quite describe the following seasons without diving into spoilers regarding the end of the first season, but each season tackles a different sort of genre: the second turns into a crime thriller, the third a legal procedural, the fourth centers around a kidnapping, and the fifth jumps into the a cultish future before going full horror.

If you’re having a hard time wrapping your mind as to how all that works without it becoming some sort of Ryan Murphy-ish anthology series, I don’t blame you. On paper, it sounds absolutely bonkers and, in reality, it’s a high-wire balancing act without a net that they manage to walk without barely a wobble.

It’s the rare show that gets to have its cake and eat it too: the actors (including Alia Shawkat as Dory, the propulsive element of the group) imbue the characters with a certain quizzical ennui that is irrestable, so you both love and hate them. You get to see them reckon with their selfish attitudes, but also empathize with them. Add to that some whipsmart dialogue, vibrant cinematography, a haunting electro score, and a litany of fantastic cameos from actors you’d never expect to see on a TBS show* (including Michaela Watkins, Ann Dowd, and one of Louie Anderson’s final performances which, unsurprisingly, is amazing), and you have an idiosyncratic show for the ages (or at least for ages 25-40).

For those brave enough to endure a trailer for the first two seasons (and the second season spoilers are very vague):

  • It’s worth noting that the last two seasons were HBO MAX-exclusives.

THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT (2021)

(HBO MAX) This is the real fucking deal, a vodka-fueled tonic for the litany of sad, isolated wine-women thrillers. It’s a Hitchcockian/De Palma-esque thriller that gives every woman agency and nuance and, while it’s nowhere near subtle, it is far more substantial than you’d think for a story about a woman who drinks far too much and sleeps in too many beds and wakes up to find her fling viciously murdered next to her.

To quote Brian Grubb, “it’s a goddamn blast,” and it wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for lead/executive producer Kaley Cuoco (BIG BANG THEORY) who read this book by a dude and saw her vision for it, and made it happen.

HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON (2020+)

(HBO/HBO MAX) HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON just wrapped its second season, but for the purposes of this recommendation, I will stick to the first season, solely because I’m a bit behind on the second season. (That said, the second season enlisted the skills of one of the best writerly documentarian of the current generation, Susan Orlean, so take that as a full-throated recommendation for skipping ahead if you’re impatient.)

John Wilson is an obsessive documentarian. He always has a camera in his hand and he’s always looking out for some oddity, searching for thirty-seconds of visual intrigue in New York City. However, he’s also capable of a meandering weaver of cultural insight.

Each episode of HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON starts off with an innocuous ideal: “How to Make Small Talk”; “How to Improve Your Memory”; “How to Cover Your Furniture” but each episode is like a strange stream-of-consciousness/exquisite corpse-like tale where he wanders to a larger humanist insight. It’s funny, warm, smart, and occasionally scary. The season one finale, which saw him documenting the spread of COVID-19 via his Greek landlord was so heartwarming, while also being heartbreaking.

My wife asked me: “Is there a name for this sort of genre? Overly-sincere dudes examine the lives they witness around them?” I wish I could lay a name to the genre, but shows like these — NATHAN FOR YOU, JOE PERA TALKS WITH YOU, and HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON, escape classification. We’re simply used to dude-based TV works as being meditations about cruelty, and I’m happy to see that we’re finally rounding the curve, that we’re seeing works about men questioning their world, reaching out, being empathic. It gives me hope and warms my cynical heart.

“You don’t always realize you’re in the middle of history until it’s over.”

Halloween 2021 Programming: CLASSIC

As previously noted, my wife and I have a tradition where I draft up a selection of horror films for Halloween viewing, and she picks one from each group: Contemporary, Classic, and Cult, and I thought I’d share my suggestions this year. Today features classic horror films, and mostly features the exact text I sent her.

This time I will apologize not for leaning on prior works, but for posting about films I have yet to watch, but they all have stellar reputations, and at least one of them will be viewed tonight!

DOCTOR X (1932, Criterion/VOD)

While I purchased a copy of the newly restored DOCTOR X — it was one of the rare early horror films shot on a very distinct, very early two-color Technicolor process (see also: THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)) I have yet to watch it. It’s directed by Michael Curtiz, during his infamous horror run at Warner Bros, and stars Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.

Excerpt:

SISTERS (1973, Criterion/HBO MAX/VOD)

Also previously suggested. Classic Brian De Palma film about two sisters, two sides of the same coin.

DIABOLIQUE (1955, Criterion/HBO MAX/Plex/Roku)

Also previously suggested. “More of a thriller than a horror film, but it’s a seminal piece of film history for both. I haven’t seen it in over twenty years, and I’m eager to revisit it.”

THE VANISHING (1988, Criterion/VOD)

This has been on my watchlist for years. I think I had a copy on the DVR via TCM, but it may have been auto-deleted due to space.

THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971, DVD/YouTube)

It’s campy, but very intelligent and darkly comic. Also, Vincent Price AND Joseph Cotten! (There’s a sequel I’ve been meaning to watch, but haven’t gotten around to.)

(Shh)

THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927, epix/kanopy/Paramount+/VOD

I haven’t seen this yet but, similar to THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) — which we watched a few years ago — it’s an ensemble film along the lines of Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (although this film predates both works). It’s directed by Paul Leni, who directed THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, notable for Conrad Veidt’s (THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI) performance that was blatantly ripped off for the look of the Joker.

Excerpt:

TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992)

Predictably, I’m a big TWIN PEAKS fan, and have seen the entirety of the series and FIRE WALK WITH ME several times over, although I was a relative late-comer to the series. (I’m old enough that, when I was first watching them, it was via renting them through two-episode VHS tapes from the Hollywood Video two blocks away from my first Chicago apartment.)

The prior times I’ve seen the film, I’ve found it to be profoundly unpleasant, cruel and mostly unnecessary from a story perspective, but did believe it to be an artistic, auteur marvel. (There will be no specific spoilers in this piece regarding the series or the film, apart from Laura Palmer’s death and the fact that she was heavily traumatized so, if you haven’t seen any of it, don’t worry.)

If you haven’t seen it, FIRE WALK WITH ME scrutinizes the intense week prior to Laura Palmer’s death, the launchpad for the TV series. It doesn’t include much more than that — if you’ve seen the initial season and half of the second — there’s little you don’t already know, but director David Lynch leans into a hard-R rating intensity that is tonally brutal and bleak when compared to the original show.

When I saw it in early September 2021 — the fourth or maybe fifth time I’d seen it, but the first time I saw a projected 35mm print of it and, wow oh wow, the colors and contrast really popped and to be slightly overwhelming — I finally found it to be necessary. It’s still profoundly unpleasant — even more than I remember — but I realized it’s Lynch feeling like he did Laura wrong with the TV show, his show which reinvigorated the ‘Dead Girl’ genre. (See Alice Bolin’s essay regarding TWIN PEAKS here and Bolin’s subsequent, insightful book on the subject, DEAD GIRLS: ESSAYS ON SURVIVING AN AMERICAN OBSESSION.)

As Bolin notes regarding Twin Peaks and the ‘Dead Girl’ genre in general: “[the] Dead Girl is not a ‘character’ in the show, but rather, the memory of her is.” While the show itself actively tried to demystify and complicate the idyllic memory that the residents of Twin Peaks had of Laura Palmer, it never quite succeeded in that regard, thanks to some languid plotting and how most of the details of her life prior to her murder were kept from the general townspeoples’ eyes. FIRE WALK WITH ME corrects that.

With FIRE WALK WITH ME, we live with Laura Palmer for the entirety of the film, and we are seated front-and-center to see the amount of abuse and trauma she’s had to endure, to witness her terrible and numbing coping mechanisms, and to well-up at her wilted attempts to reach out to those close to her. While Lynch unrelentingly puts Laura through the wringer, it’s to finally give Laura a voice, a scream, for her to be more than just a dead girl, to be more than a prop that sets off a number of soapy narrative devices. It’s the character profile she deserved, while also being an examination of how men take and take, and how folks often avert their eyes to exploitation and abuse.

I’ll confess that, due to watching a fully sold-out screening of FIRE WALK WITH ME while fretting about contracting a case of breakthrough COVID-19, I wondered why the hell I was attending a screening of a film that’s so focused on trauma and abuse, followed up by a Q&A with Sheryl Lee, Laura Palmer herself. The film made me feel dirty enough that the prospect of a post-film Q&A with the actor who clearly had to endure and inhabit an extraordinarily difficult performance felt cruel. However, one of the first things Lee asked of the audience was:

“How many of you out there just saw this for the first time?”

From my estimate, ~15% of the audience raised their hands, and I knew one of the people seated behind me definitely had never seen it, because 1) they said so and 2) declared that it was way darker than they expected and 3) did not want to leave because 4) they spent a lot on their tickets and 5) wanted to hear what Lee had to say, despite the dude clearly wanting to further their initial date by getting a bite to eat afterwards and 6) who asks someone out to FIRE WALK WITH ME as an initial date?!

Lee then said: “I wish I could give you all a hug!” and I realized she knew what she was getting into, and is well-versed with managing it. A lot of the Q&A circled back to simply being an actor and rolling with Lynch and his scripts. In other words: you show up and you do the work and trust the director and live with what’s on the screen.

Lastly, this screening reminded me that I picked up a copy of Courtenay Stallings’s LAURA’S GHOST: WOMEN SPEAK ABOUT TWIN PEAKS from media writer Matt Zoller Seitz’s bookstore and while I have yet to read it — it’s top in my queue — given Seitz’s quality taste, I feel secure in recommending it.