Halloween 2022 Programming: Classic

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 classic! I’m also including some personal notes to provide context.

DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)

“A married couple grieving the recent death of their young daughter are in Venice when they encounter two elderly sisters, one of whom is psychic and brings a warning from beyond.”

One of the most popular non-Hitchcock Daphne du Maurier film adaptations, and also one of the greatest portraits of Venice. Certain facets of it haven’t aged well, but it’s still very thrilling.

FRIGHT NIGHT (1985)

“A teenager discovers that the newcomer in his neighborhood is a vampire, so he turns to an actor in a television horror show for help dealing with the undead.”

There was a recent remake of FRIGHT NIGHT, oddly starring David Tennent and penned by Marti Noxon (BUFFY, UnREAL, DIETLAND). While it’s surprisingly good for a remake, the original is more fun.

SISTERS (1992)

“The Staten Island apartment of lovely model Danielle becomes the scene of a grisly murder that is witnessed by her neighbor, Grace, a reporter. But the police don’t believe her story, so it’s up to Grace to solve the murder mystery on her own.”

Brian De Palma’s breakthrough film. (We just saw the end of his OBSESSION.) It also features Margot Kidder, and has some very inventive visuals that — while cribbed from Hitchcock — manage to feel fresh.

Halloween 2022 Programming: Cult

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.

DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971)

“While passing through a vacation resort, a newlywed couple encounters a mysterious, strikingly beautiful countess and her aide.”

A stylish, surreal cult queer vampire film, featuring the brilliant Delphine Seyrig.

NEEDFUL THINGS (1993)

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?!

NEW NIGHTMARE (1994)

“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.

SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982)

“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.

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.

ORPHAN: FIRST KILL (2022)

WARNING: The following contains major spoilers for ORPHAN, some minor spoilers for ORPHAN: FIRST KILL, and mentions of sexual abuse.

(Paramount+/VOD) ORPHAN: FIRST KILL contains one of the most intense hard-left turns I’ve seen in a horror franchise. Esther was clearly the villain in the first film — which was certainly set up as a franchise due to her signature look: choker and cuffs and Victorian wear and all, as well as her history — but…

Esther pivots hard from being a malicious thirty-something man-eater in the body of a pre-teen to being a hard-scrapple Dickensian survivor. ORPHAN: FIRST KILL becomes a very complicated tale of prioritizing manipulation while also skewering it.

The story takes place several years prior to ORPHAN: artist Alan (Rossif Sutherland) and wife Tricia (the amazing Julia Styles) believe they’ve found their long-lost daughter, Esther, who is actually Leena/Esther in ORPHAN (Isabelle Fuhrman, who is ten years older, but expected to play even younger than she was in the first film) in disguise. They take ‘Esther’ into their home, but Tricia and teen son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) quickly see right through her deceit, and they start commanding her like a puppet; Tricia to keep her husband happy, and Gunnar simply because he can.

What follows is a revenge tale that can be read as posited towards emotionally and sexually abused youths, despite the fact that Esther is well-into adulthood. At this point, she still doesn’t know how to fully manipulate people and, thus, people manipulate her.

That extrapolation may sound odd, given how most critics have glibly stated that ORPHAN: FIRST KILL is bonkers crazy and fully leans into being fun and, consequently, lacking depth. However, like the best horror films, I feel like it was born from a place of hurt and it resonates, even if it was unintentionally brazen.

I’ll note that I don’t love how all of Esther’s idiosyncratic affectations seem to be collected via this first ‘father’. The film leans hard on the black light artwork, and I honestly wished that Esther had come up with that idea on her own, that it had it not been wormed into her head by someone else.

Nonetheless, this is a singular work of domestic horror that also manages to make the most of a pre-existing film.

Postscript

This is my 500th recommendation via this site. I told myself I’d stop after a year, then kept mindlessly going, then said: “Okay, 500, that’s a good number.” I’m going to see the month out with horror recs, then go on hiatus for NaNoWriMo. I doubt I’ll ever quit this site, but updates will probably be few-and-far between. Best if you have an RSS reader!

OCULUS (2012)

(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.

ORPHAN (2009)

(VOD) There’s been renewed interest in ORPHAN primarily because of the recent release of a prequel to the original featuring Isabelle Fuhrman — the lead child actor of the 2009 film — returning to play an even younger Ester. ORPHAN: FIRST KILL is a bonkers conceit that reportedly pays off handsomely, although I have yet to see it. (I imagine it won’t be too long before I pen some accolades regarding it on these digital pages, though.)

For now, however, I’m here to extoll the first film. ORPHAN, from director Jaume Collet-Serra (BLACK ADAM, THE SHALLOWS) and writer David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (AQUAMAN, THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT) flew under my radar as it was released around the time of a fair number of middling domestic horror thrillers and I felt had more pressing works to watch. Sadly, my intuition there was misguided, as it’s an economical, inventive take on the ‘monster child’ trope.

The premise reads relatively simply: a middle-aged couple, wife Kate (Vera Farmiga) and husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) were expecting a third child to accompany their adolescent son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and young, deaf daughter Max (Aryana Engineer), but there was a problem with the pregnancy, then Kate started drinking, then they almost lost Max when Kate was drunk and didn’t notice Max was drowning in the creek by their house. She then lost her teaching job at Yale, got sober, and they decided to adopt instead. They immediately become enamored with the hyper-articulate nine-year-old Ester (Isabelle Fuhrman) and take her into their home, and matters escalate from there.

To say more could ruin matters, although due to the recent prequel release, I already knew the twists going into it and it didn’t spoil the experience. Fuhrman is absolutely brilliant as Ester — it’s a shockingly nuanced performance from a 12-year-old, especially for a genre flick — but Farmiga also commands your attention as the stock ‘woman no one believes’. There’s also under-utilized character actors CCH Pounder and Margo Martindale, subtle soundtrack work, surprising attention paid to background window tableaus, as well as nuanced camerawork making the most of the architecture of their home.

While it’s meant to be a slow burn, it could have been at least 15-20 minutes shorter, but it never sags. This film doesn’t pull its punches and, even if you do know the beats, you desperately want to see how they handle them.

Again, while there’s a trailer below, it gives away some of the best set-pieces so perhaps stay away if you are interested in going in blind.

HELLRAISER (1987)

(hoopla/Pluto/Prime/tubi/VOD) The original HELLRAISER is a very specific film. You are either very into it or you are not. I remember watching it as a young teen and laughing at it. My friends and I would routinely trot out the line: “The box. It summons us.” as camp, but the film held an odd, unknown allure to me. Then I rewatched it early on in college — I still have my HELLRAISER 1 & 2 VHS box set — and as a burgeoning club-going goth realized how it is literally wall-to-wall kink.

I’ve seen it more than several times since — once at the Music Box with Clive Barker to discuss it, which was amazing and I still can’t believe happened — and my appreciation for it only grows. The costume and creature and production design is absolute perfection. Jane Wildgoose does not get enough credit for her contributions.

The film is relentlessly, unapologetically horny in an unsettlingly thrilling way. The great Amy Nicholson posited that, at the heart of it, it’s a neo-noir, that Julia is a femme fatale and I certainly agree: it is a film centered around morally dubious people who are off-kilter, and what is more noir than that?

THE BAY (2012)

(VOD) A found-footage horror film might not be the type of project you would expect from the director of THE NATURAL, DINER, GOOD MORNING VIETNAM, and RAIN MAN, but Barry Levinson’s always been game for tackling genre films. The most blatant example is the box office sci-fi bomb SPHERE, but also the thriller DISCLOSURE as well as ENVY, a comedy that features Jack Black as the inventor of a spray that dissolves dog shit.

Clearly some of his genre offerings have been misfires, but THE BAY is not one of them. It’s an inventive and taut take on the genre which is an accomplishment that even some seasoned horror directors have failed at.

The premise is simple: a water-based parasite is mutating and killing whatever they can wriggle into, including humans. The story is told via a pastiche of media footage, cell phone video and surveillance cameras, resulting in a satisfyingly gruesome flick.

DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971)

“While passing through a vacation resort, a newlywed couple encounters a mysterious, strikingly beautiful countess and her aide.”

A stylish, surreal cult queer vampire film, featuring the brilliant Delphine Seyrig. Very giallo, prioritizing sensation over plot, like most quality vampire films.

NEEDFUL THINGS (1993)

(DVD/VOD) NEEDFUL THINGS is a Stephen King novel I can’t recall reading, but the film has stuck in my mind since I watched it many years ago, mostly because it’s extremely chaotic for King, but also exceedingly devious in more ways than one.

It’s probably not quantifiably good, but it is a lot of fun. It reminds me of FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES and features Max von Sydow as the devil; what more could you ask for?!