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 provided our contemporary first yesterday, and now it’s time for classic and cult. This is cult! I’m also including some personal notes to provide context.
A loosey-goosey adaptation of a mediocre Stephen King novel that’s stuck in my mind since I watched it many years ago, mostly because it’s extremely chaotic for King. It’s probably not quantifiably good, but it’s a lot of fun. Max von Sydow as the devil — what more could you want?!
“Proto-90s post-modern horror. I’d say SCREAM before Wes Craven’s SCREAM, but that infers that it’s a lesser film than SCREAM whereas I think it’s one of the smartest self-reflexive horror films ever made; it’s an author reckoning with the perils of creating a horror film franchise that spirals out of their control, while still being an absurdly entertaining, winking, surreal and horrifying film. Smartly shot and absolutely ruthlessly paced — every scene expertly blends into the next — it’s Wes Craven besting himself.
“A brilliant film, even if you haven’t seen prior NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films, but so much better if you have.”
PROM NIGHT II: HELLO MARY LOU
The first PROM NIGHT is a pretty standard slasher, whereas PROM NIGHT II dodges into bonkers supernatural territory. It’s quite inventive — more like HELLRAISER — and lot of fun.
“MASSACRE was penned by Rita Mae Brown, a well-known feminist activist and writer, and Corman picked it up and gave it to Amy Holden Jones to direct, but only if she’d play it straight. It features wall-to-wall women, all more capable and unique than you’d normally see in a slasher film, and the film leans so heavily on the male gaze that it’s intentionally absurd, a sly way of gaining Corman’s approval while hoping others would recognize it as visually subversive.”
It’s a very smart, knowing, but also still fun, film which I find rare with slashers. You wouldn’t have SCREAM without it.
Trailer (warning: it’s very NSFW and gives everything away):
THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS (2013):
“Returning home from a business trip to discover his wife missing, a man delves deeper and deeper into a surreal kaleidoscope of half-baked leads, seduction, deceit, and murder. Does anyone in the building know something?”
Throwback giallo from the filmmakers of one of my recent favorite films: LET THE CORPSES TAN. One of those films I’ve listed in the past, but haven’t watched for myself because it’s too visually demanding.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
(Hulu/freevee/Pluto/tubi/VOD) I find Mike Flanagan to be a frustrating creator. He’s very clearly a sensitive, empathic person and he has a familial perspective that surprisingly rare nowadays. While I haven’t read the King novel that GERALD’S GAME is based on, I found it to be an exquisite one-room thriller. On the other hand, I found THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE — a well-executed horror mini-series — to be a severe distortion of Shirley Jackson’s original work, one that serves Flanagan’s themes instead of Jackson’s.
OCULUS, despite being Flanagan’s theatrical debut, is exceedingly confident with its themes and how it explores them. The surface-level premise starts with a prototypical family in the 90s consisting of husband Alan (CSI: MIAMI’s Rory Cochrane), his redhead wife Marie (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA’s Katee Sackhoff), pre-teen daughter Kaylie (redhead Annalise Basso), and adolescent son (Garrett Ryan). Alan buys an antique mirror that possesses both himself and Marie. He ultimately chains Marie up while ignoring the rest of the family until he ultimately kills Marie, has a moment of clarity, then forces his son to shoot him before he can do any more damage.
Newly orphaned, Ryan (now played by Brenton Thwaites) is institutionalized for years, while Kaylie (DOCTOR WHO’s Karen Gillan) floats around, spending her time trying to track down the mirror. She finally finds it and, when Ryan is finally given a clean bill of mental health and released, she pitches him an elaborate plan to destroy the mirror, to destroy the entity in it, forever.
In other words: it’s comprised of Flanagan’s major recurring themes: fractured families, brothers and sisters coping with loss and hurt and trauma, psychotic breaks, and obsession. You might be inclined to include addiction — Marie being chained up, Alan ignoring the world to the point where his children have nothing to eat — but I’m not completely confident in claiming that.
There’s another way to read the film, of course. This a work explicitly created around uncertainty of vision, of the reversible image of mirrors. I’ll keep my reading deliberately vague as to not lead potential viewers into how I perceive it, but it has depth if you want to seek it out.
The heart of the film is brother/sister bond, another strength of most of Flanagan’s works. There’s a care and interaction there that some folks simply cannot fictionalize, and it was delightful to see that represented on the screen.
While OCULUS is a stirring and expertly crafted film, my favorite part of watching it was my endless speculation as to the whats and whys and how it would be resolved. It’s a film that ignites your imagination, one that you’d walk out of a theater excitedly discussing the myriad possibilities of the film. The end result wasn’t as wild as where my mind went, but it was still extremely satisfying.
(Hulu) HELLRAISER (1987) never needed a sequel. Like the best horror films, it said all it had to say — a paean to want and need and physical sensations and hedonism — and got the fuck out. However, Hollywood is never content to leave a well-crafted character design alone, so we ended up with over ten Pinhead — excuse me, The Priest — films.
I bailed after the second. Maybe there’s a gem in there somewhere. I wouldn’t know; I’ve spent enough time trying to mine gold from long-running franchises to realize it’s usually a fool’s errand.
Reboots are another thing entirely, and a reboot of a singular BDSM horror film over thirty years old certainly intrigued me, especially since they recast Pinhead — excuse me again, The Priest — with SENSE8’s Jamie Clayton.
Unfortunately, they placed it in the hands of stolid David S. Goyer, then punted it to the creators of THE NIGHT HOUSE — a mighty fine film, but an incredibly icy work. The end result is a defanged property, almost completely removed from the messy, horny entity of its origin. This is just another slasher in different makeup.
So why am I recommending it? It is a visual marvel, a literal puzzle-box-in-a-puzzle-box. The decision to model the mansion around the original HELLRAISER puzzle box is inspired and expertly handled. The new puzzle box, and the explications regarding its transformations? There’s a lot going on there! Also, Odessa A’zion is amazing as the lead, all wild eyes and curls and smart and savvy while also being a fuck-up! It’s a fun time!
However, it’s a dull echo of the original film. There’s no sensuality; it’s simply a basic slasher film that leans a tad more into flayed flesh for scarlet fashions. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I wish that for once someone would embrace Barker’s original vision.
(Hulu) Within the first ten minutes of Hulu’s MAGGIE I thought: “Oh, the jokes are smart! And there’s SUPERSTORE’s Nichole Sakura! This feels pretty cozy and winsome, albeit a bit basic.”
As if in response, the show then started laying into folks named “Glenn with two N’s” which, if you haven’t read the About section of this site, is my first name. I did not react well:
“Well fuck you too, show. I didn’t want to like you in the first place.”
(I’ve had a hard past few months and had hoped this would be a slice of escapism, but apparently not!)
That said, I didn’t turn it off in anger, but let it wash over me and I’m glad I did because this rom-com has a quick wit and is far deeper than it may first appear to be.
MAGGIE, created by LIFE IN PIECES co-creator Justin Adler and alum Maggie Mull, centers around the titular Maggie (Rebecca Rittenhouse), a 30-something who has been psychic her entire life; she sees her visions via touch. It took a long time for her father, Jack (Chris Elliot) and mother Maria (Kerri Kenney) — those are some quality gets, folks — to believe that she truly could see the future, but they finally accept her, and she currently resides in half of the bungalow her parents own.
While her parents may have been skeptics during Maggie’s youth, her best friend Louise (the previously mentioned Nichole Sakura) was mostly there for her through high school, at least when she wasn’t studying night-and-day to get into med school.
In the first episode, Maggie is giving psychic readings at a party and one of the partygoers, Ben (David Del Rio), takes a shining to her, asks for a reading. Maggie obliges and sees a vision of herself marrying him, gets frightened and runs off.
The next night, while consoling Louise after a bad date, she runs into Ben, and Louise eggs her on to roll with it and Maggie does, right into bed with him.
The morning after, as Ben makes breakfast for her, Maggie sees another vision of him marrying someone else, and she rushes out.
Fast-forward a bit. Louise and Maggie are heading back to Maggie’s bungalow and they run into Ben. He explains that he and his on-again-off-again girlfriend Jessie (Chloe Bridges) are moving into the same bungalow as Maggie’s. Along the way, we meet Ben’s off-kilter sister Amy (UNDONE’s Angelique Cabral), who got married to people-pleasing partner Dave (WESTWORLD’s Leonardo Nam) at Burning Man.
The first half of the season is primarily concerned with Maggie and her love life in a way that recalls GILMORE GIRLS (Maggie :: Lorelai, Ben :: Luke) and, like GILMORE GIRLS, Maggie gets involved with bearded Daniel who is basically Max Medina in this situation, and it feels very formulaic, albeit with wildly vacillating tones; one ep in particular feels like a 90s three-camera sitcom.
Then the second half of the season kicks in and the show snaps into view. You realize that the psychic gimmick meant to individuate the show is essentially a stand-in for neurodivergent brains. The show fully leans into that and matters turns serious, without dialing down the jokes.
Without spoiling much, there is one moment where Maggie realizes that an important person in her life doesn’t believe that she is psychic, and she is absolutely crushed. It’s not just that she doesn’t feel seen, it’s not just that she feels this person doesn’t believe her, it’s not just that this person is utterly dismissive towards this foundational aspect of herself and her history, it’s also that she — an actual psychic — is blindsided by the news.
Anyone who lives with any kind of invisible issues can identify with the fear that you won’t be understood or believed. MAGGIE’s writers know it, and they are fully putting it on display.
One more example, although this has major spoilers for Episode 11 – ‘You Will Experience a Loss’:
Maggie is at a bachelorette party. She’s had an abnormal number of visions all day and immediately feels like she shouldn’t be there, feeling extra-sensitive. Nonetheless, she’s dragged onto the dance floor and bounced around like a pinball. As she pings off each tightly packed partygoer, every hit induces a vision until her world goes white, as if a flashbang has gone off in front of her. When her sight returns, she immediately grabs Louise and demands to ‘read’ her:
“What happened to no readings for friends?”
Maggie drags her from the dance floor and presses Louise’s hands.
“What do you see?”
Yes, the classic ‘powerless’ trope. While this is a tried-and-true superhero trope — for the first half of the season I mused to myself: you could have saved yourself so much trouble if you’d learn from X-MEN’s Rogue and just wear a thick pair of long sleeve leather gloves — it’s surprising to see the device deployed in a rom-com.
The rest of the season deals with the fallout of her loss of her mystic foresight, of her grappling with being normal, of no longer being the one looked to for answers, to problem solve, to shoulder it all, while lamenting the perks of being psychic.
While the show tackles mental matters in a surprisingly far more interesting way than most, it does have a number of issues, such as the shifting tone, spotty ground rules of Maggie’s abilities, and the fact that Maggie’s voracious Black psychic mentor self-named Angel (DON’T TRUST THE B— IN APT. 23’s Ray Ford) seems to be the sole queer representation on the show.* While Ford knows how to calibrate his performance, this approach feels very dated, and hard to overlook.
If there’s a second season — and that’s a big if — I could see this show really coming together and become something special. The end of the first season raises more questions than it answers, and exploring the potentials of its mysticism could open up a whole new world.
It’s possible that there are passing mentions regarding other characters, but if so, I missed them or they weren’t prominent enough to count.
(Hulu/FX) I have a few issues with the first season of THE BEAR — mostly typical first season problems regarding tone and clumsy character dynamics — but you should watch it if you’re into claustrophobic, high-strung, hyper-local character dramas, especially if you’re a Chicagoan who seeks out restaurants or have worked in restaurants.
Also, I was relieved to see that it skews closer to half-hour eps for its eight ep run. (That said, wouldn’t be surprised if the runtimes ballooned in the second season.)
One notable facet is its use of lighting and set decoration as a cleansing arc throughout the season. THE ORIGINAL BEEF space goes from looking like mud to gleaming like a private hospital, and watch for how light increasingly floods the space, beaming around the characters.
Also noteworthy is that it’s one of the few works out there which starts out with a dude being traumatized in many ways, he tries to be better, realizes he’s still not great at it, but learns how to reach out. He’s willing to learn, and willing to change, in a city that is often resistant to change.
In other words, S2 could be great. “What do you call it?”
(Hulu) While I’m well-aware that I occasionally describe a work as a dramedy, it’s simply meant as shorthand rather than for any love of the term. While I use it, it means: this work isn’t wall-to-wall empty laughs or overwrought heartbreak. Real human drama is often funny ha-ha, and sometimes comedically tragic; I believe that great dramas generously sprinkle in comedy, and great comedies are built on dramatic tension. A spoonful of sugar, etc. — one way or the other — so to say. Yet, I don’t think I’ve seen a show that so perfectly balances the two as Pamela Adlon’s BETTER THINGS.
BETTER THINGS centers around Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon, who has been a very hard-working character/voice actor for years), an L.A.-based middle-aged screen-and-voice-actor and the single mother of three daughters: teenage Max (Mikey Madison from SCREAM (2022) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD), pre-teen Frankie (Hannah Riley), and youth Duke (Olivia Edward, who occasionally popped up in CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND). Living next-door to her is her willful, very passive-aggressive British mother named Phyllis, but Sam solely calls her Phil. (You may sense a naming trend here.)
(I need to note: Louis C.K. — who admitted to sexual misconduct, and who did fictionally sexually assault Adlon’s character on LOUIE — was a credited writer, producer and co-creator for the show, but while he is no longer a writer or producer, he is still credited as co-creator. It’s also worth noting that Adlon was the best part of the greatest episodes of LOUIE, as well as his short-lived show LUCKY LOUIE. In other words, they have history and it’s complicated, and she isn’t discussing it. As far as I’ve read, he’s had no input on the show for some time.)
Initially, the show is about Sam navigating her life as she feels her age and feels those around her react to her age, all while she juggles the needs of motherhood. However, with each subsequent season, the show expands, and it becomes far more about maintaining family bonds as your brethren move forward and change.
Additionally, as the show progressed, it became far more experimental, indulging Adlon’s delightfully fanciful filmic flights, often through local trips, or through another character’s POV. It feels like a true exploration of life, of aging, of self-acceptance, self-discovery, self-improvement, and reckoning.
It makes time to luxuriate in life and the little joys: the tranquility of cooking, a brief nap in the park, people-watching, while never turning a blind eye to the harder parts of living, especially when you have to tend to the ever-changing needs of your children and yourself.
No, the show is not a gut-buster; it’s not meant to be. However, it always makes me laugh, and then two minutes later my eyes are welling up.
I’ve seen all but the finale — which airs tonight (April 25th) — but I wanted to boost it now because I’m impatient.
(Hulu/VOD) One of my favorite activities to attend when the world first re-opened in the summer of 2021 was Joe Swanberg’s Secret Screenings at Chicago’s Davis Theater. If you aren’t familiar with Swanberg, he’s perhaps best known for being a mumblecore pioneer — the low-rent indie film genre that emphasized language and small-scale human drama — but he’s also a prolific actor and producer and he loves Chicago, specifically his neighborhood of Lincoln Square, where the Davis is housed.
His secret screenings are exactly what they sound like: you buy a ticket solely knowing you’ll get to watch a film wouldn’t be possible to see otherwise. (I’ve previously written about a few of his prior screenings, including DETENTION). If you can attend, he has one more secret screening at the Davis on April 9th, and the writer/director will be present for a post-film Q&A. (Swanberg knows how to moderate these things, so it’ll be a quality Q&A!)
His first secret screening of 2022 was of Sundance darling HATCHING, a Finnish coming-of-age horror film from director Hanna Bergholm and writer Ilja Rautsi about Tinja (Siiri Solalinna), a gymnast teen with a monstrous social media-obsessed mother (a wicked Sophia Heikkilä), one who would rather break the neck of a raven that literally shatters the trappings of the family home as opposed to letting it free. Tinja later finds the crippled creature, puts it out of its misery, then sees a sole egg from the raven’s nest and decides to tend to it. Matters escalate in a brilliant way that explores puberty and terrible mothers.
Trust me, the less you know about the rest is best, but it’s a thrilling, wild, disgusting, intense ride. It’s a film that would make a great late-night double-feature with GINGER SNAPS.
I’d like to digress a bit from the film though, solely to discuss horror and bodies, as HATCHING — more than any other film I’ve seen in some time — scrutinizes physicality. Horror, perhaps more than any other genre than action, relies on people’s bodies being thrown around, either self-imposed or done by others. As someone who was infatuated with tumbling, bar work, and gymnastics in general as a youth, you’re repeatedly told to trust yourself, to get over your fears, to think of your appendages as tools; you specifically toss yourself around like an object for the amusement — or bemusement — of others. I look back and am shocked at the acts I put my body through, for no goddamn good reason apart from the fact that it felt good and it was expected.
I was not a gifted gymnast and, similarly, HATCHING’s Tinja is not a gifted gymnast, but unlike her, I was never pressured by a desperate mother to pursue it. It was just an extracurricular I latched onto.
I can’t imagine putting myself through those routines now as I’m too old and creaky, but I do miss it. That feeling is much what horror films capture and encapsulate: the thrill of youthfully putting yourself in perilous situations, of exploiting the belief of immortality of the young which is, at least in most horror films, often then cut short; victims of hubris, of launching themselves too high towards the sky and failing to stick the landing.
(As usual, including a trailer, but probably best to stay away if you have any interest in the film.)
DIETLAND was a one-season wonder from Marti Noxon (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, MAD MEN, UNREAL) based on Sarai Walker’s novel. The show was canceled too soon, but was one hell of a ride, something that starts as DEVIL WEARS PRADA that turns into a woman-focused FIGHT CLUB.
DIETLAND is unabashedly about fashion-and-capitalism, faux-feminism and body positivity and faith and, while it’s uniquely about women, it wildly resonates.
I would have loved to have seen a second season, as I’m sure it would have been absolutely bonkers in all the right ways, and certainly take place in the future, but I’m happy that there’s at least one season.
(Hulu/VOD) I rarely watch reality shows but, somehow, I’ve watched each and every episode of CBS’ THE AMAZING RACE, a show that has been endlessly airing in the shadow of SURVIVOR for thirty-plus seasons over twenty — yes, twenty — years. (I’m unwilling to do the math as to how much time I’ve spent on the show, so I’ll leave it to you.)
If you aren’t familiar with THE AMAZING RACE — for a show that has been around for twenty years and has received numerous Emmy wins, it’s flown surprisingly under the radar — it’s a family-friendly reality show hosted by New Zealander and avid traveler Phil Keoghan in which a number of teams fly around the world while participating in competitive tasks. There’s some game theory that goes on, as teams have a variety of options they can use to disrupt other teams progress, but usually the winners who make it across the finish line are those who are young and quick on their feet, don’t overthink challenges, and have a lot of luck with flights and taxis.
So, yes, it’s a reality show competition, but really? It’s first and foremost a throwback to the days of travelogue films, exposing audiences to foreign lands and traditions they’d more than likely never experience. If you’re interested in world culture, and don’t mind the occasional ugly American team or somewhat squicky task, the show is endlessly compelling.
Given the nature of the show, obviously COVID-19 completely thew a wrench into production. They were a few legs into the thirty-third season when the pandemic hit, so they sent the contestants home and instead aired a series they had filmed several years ago and shelved for some reason. (It wasn’t a great season, but it certainly wasn’t one of the worst.)
Now Phil and the show is back and, while it will be difficult to watch knowing how events unfurl, and how they adapted to CVOID, and now with the omicron wave, I’ll be more than happy to check it out. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I teared up a bit upon watching the teaser for the new season.
While there -is- a new season, if you haven’t seen the show, I suggest starting with the fifth season, as it has a number of iconic moments and compelling drama.
If you’ve seen a handful of seasons and haven’t seen the first season, it’s a fascinating curio as it is radically different from what the show would become.