The Black Castle (1952) — Review

Sometimes, the evilest monsters are human…

This year, I’ve been working towards seeing every movie from the Universal Classic Monsters era. The UCM is, in a sense, the very earliest example of a cinematic universe, with crossover films and numerous storylines playing out over the span of multiple films. It began in the 1920’s and lasted until 1960, and includes classics like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1932), The Mummy (1932), and The Wolf Man (1941) as well as their sequels and crossover films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and The House of Frankenstein (1944). Many of the films in the UCM, such as The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Invisible Ray (1936), and The Brute Man (1946), have no connection to one another. There was no Kevin Feige to mastermind a shared universe, which is why even the movies that are connected have many plot inconsistencies. After 1946, the UCM was on the decline. The horror icons of the Golden Age were on their way out, and the only two Universal horror films between 1947 and 1950 were Abbot and Costello comedies. Not exactly deliverers of chills.

In 1952, Universal would produce The Black Castle, a noir horror film that’s more in line with the sensibilities of the 40’s than those of its resident decade. The Black Castle, like most of Universal’s classic horror films, takes place in the 19th century. It’s about a British man named Ronald Burton who goes to Austria to investigate the disappearance of two of his wartime friends at the estate of the eyepatch-wearing Count von Bruno. It’s not long before the Count’s flair for the cruel and violent surfaces and Burton begins to suspect he may be in serious trouble.

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To show how much the stars of the Golden Age had lost their power by the 50’s, one need only look at the credits. Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr.? Not since The House of Frankenstein had those two worked together, and they were both major players in that movie. Here, they’re side characters. Boris Karloff gets the bigger part, playing Dr. Meissen, Count Bruno’s personal doctor. He’s cunning and secretive, and like every role, Karloff brings a lot to their part. First-time director Nathan Juran praised Karloff for how deep he went with the character, going well beyond the script to really develop the character into something more. It pays off here and shows that even though his career was on the decline, he wasn’t slacking. Lon Chaney Jr., on the other hand, has next to nothing to work with. He plays the brutish Gargon, the muscles behind the Count’s evil. He doesn’t have a single line and is barely in the movie for more than a few minutes. This kind of role would typify the later part of Chaney’s career, though he’d score a few bigger roles in Witchcraft (1964) and more significantly Spider Baby (1968). There’s not a lot to be said of his part as Gargon, but his presence is always a welcome one.

The stars of The Black Castle aren’t the horror icons of old, but rather the Count and his other underlings. Bruno is played by Stephen McNally, who plays the part of a suave psychopath brilliantly. He hams it up when necessary, but never to the detriment of the story. Count Bruno has some other Count friends who are equally cruel: Count Steiken (John Hoyt—not playing a Martian here, much to my disappointment) and Count Ernst (Michael Pate). Steiken is more of a no-nonsense guy than the other two counts, but he meets an early demise before he can reveal to Bruno what Burton’s true intentions are. Following Steiken’s death, Ernst is practically inseparable from Bruno. They transform into a diabolical duo, reveling in their evil schemes and killing without sympathy. Their villainous chemistry is quite unique because unlike your Dracula and Renfield, or your Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, Bruno and Ernst are completely on the same page. At the same time, they each feel like their own character. Bruno decides when things will be done, and Ernst loyally follows Bruno’s command. Name me a more in-sync duo. I’ll wait.

Black Castle - Poster

And while I’m waiting, I may as well continue this review. Perhaps what elevates this movie above your average UCM fare and contemporary horror, more than the shadowy noir cinematography and the performances, is the script itself. This movie is remarkably well-written and knows how to manage an assortment of characters on both sides of the good/bad spectrum. Each of the villainous characters is memorable, but so are the heroic sidekicks. Burton’s assistant Romley (Tudor Owens) and the carriage-driver Fender (Henry Corden) are two characters that would be cookie-cutter in most movies, but Jerry Sackheim’s script gives them the opportunity to be more. There’s a scene where Romley is told he can’t sit with Burton in the carriage because he’s a servant. Burton insists that Romley should and tells Fender that he’d invite him in as well if they didn’t need a driver. It’s a small, insignificant moment, but it almost feels like Sackheim speaking through Burton, insisting that these minor characters matter too. When one of them dies, you feel it. The same thing applies to the villains too. I wanted to watch this game of deception continue to play out. Never once in this game is there a dull beat.

If there is any true problem with the film, it’s that it isn’t especially original. You can predict where the story’s going, what characters’ true motivations are, and the movie itself doesn’t do much to chart its own path beyond the one laid by its predecessors. The ending is also somewhat anti-climactic, but considering the 77 minutes before the final confrontation are solid, it’s not a serious mark against the film. The Black Castle was one of Universal’s final classic horror films before a wave of sci-fi films about giant spiders and monolith monsters would define the decade. The unfortunate thing about this movie is how far it has fallen into obscurity. Part of what prompted my reviewing of this film had to do with a discovery I made on the app Letterboxd. I’ve cataloged all the UCM movies I’ve watched, and The Black Castle ranks solidly at the bottom as the least popular. Below the flop horror western Curse of the Undead (1959). Below the comically inept The Brute Man (1946). I asked myself, how could that be? Even with two horror icons, it ranks that low. That’s a damn shame. Consider this review my way of promoting the film. Seek it out, watch it, and tell other horror fans they should too. It’s too good to be forgotten. I hope, with the way Scream Factory has been releasing so many films from the UCM era, we’ll see The Black Castle come to Blu Ray in the near future. Until then, it exists as a gem buried deep in the Universal horror vault.

Black Castle - Lon Chaney

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The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964) — Review

“Ah, good old-fashioned nightmare fuel.”

According to the 2004 documentary The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies is the worst movie ever made. While it certainly could win for most absurdly long title, is it truly the worst?

First, let’s have a look at the plot and the characters. Jerry is a beatnik, a real cool guy who doesn’t care about work or being told what to do. He just wants to live his life, man. How he affords to live at all is irrelevant. Jerry is played by the director, Ray Dennis Steckler, under the pseudonym–I kid you not–Cash Flagg. Jerry has a friend named Harold who’s probably paying the rent while Jerry does his soul-searching. He’s the heavy-accented voice of reason in Jerry’s hedonistic mind. Jerry also has a girlfriend named Angela. She lives with her conservative mother and her college-bound brother who both look down on Jerry. These three friends go to the Pike to remind us here in the 21st century how much amusement parks have improved since the 60’s. There, they visit Estrella, a crazy fortune teller who mutilates men’s faces with acid and turns them into zombies. She’s aided in this horrific scheme by her filthy, deformed, and perpetually-smoking henchman Ortega. Jerry and friends go to have their fortunes read, but Jerry, being the lovable guy that he is, disregards the ominous vision Estrella has and doesn’t bother to pay. They leave. Next to Estrella’s is a strip show. Jerry feels a strong urge to see the show after locking eyes with a beautiful stripper named Carmelita, and he ditches Angela when she objects to seeing the show with him, leaving Harold to get her home safe. How’s that for a likable lead? Well, Jerry gets what’s coming to him, as Carmelita was actually a lure for Estrella. She hypnotizes Jerry, causing him to dream of facepainted women locking him in a maze of arms, imitating set a sentient amusement park turnstiles, and also making him kill the one of the musical acts in the film. It’s up to Harold and Angela to save their friend from this murderous spell. Will they? Should they?

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It’s important to note that The Incredibly Strange Creatures is a monster musical. It beat out the equally lambasted Horror of Party Beach (1964) by a month in its release, so it is also the first in this strange little subgenre. Interspersed throughout the plot of the film are musical numbers, but this film has more in common with The Ed Sullivan Show than it does The Sound of Music (1965). You see, the songs have nothing to do with the plot of the film. For example, the show Jerry ditches Angela for features three performances that pad the runtime by nearly ten minutes. In all, there are ten of these scenes, only four of which loosely connect to the story. They range from generic songs, to poorly-choreographed dance numbers, to even more-poorly-choreographed dance numbers. It’s like watching a bad variety show…which is kind of what I’d expect to see at an old amusement park.

Despite all of the film’s clear technical ineptitude, The Incredibly Strange Creatures is, well, incredibly watchable. Its runtime is padded by the musical numbers, but none of the music is unbearable. The songs are all relatively short, so even when they’re thrown back-to-back-to-back, you’re not clawing your eyes out waiting for the movie to get back on track. At its worst, you end up laughing at the ridiculous costumes and how little coordination there is between the backup dancers. The Incredibly Strange Creatures is like Horror of Party Beach in this enjoyably bad sense, though it never delivers a bop like “The Zombie Stomp”. Then again, it doesn’t force me to endure the second-hand embarrassment of watching the Del-Aires fake-cry during “Joy Ride”, so it does have that going for it. But I digress. The Incredibly Strange Creatures is a merciful movie. The fifty minutes of the film that isn’t padding is an unfocused assemblage of bad character writing, horrible dialogue, and trippy sequences preceded by “Hallucinogenic Hypnovision”, which is just a cute name for a hypnotic spiral Estrella uses on Jerry. All of this combined with the terrible acting create an entertaining mess of a movie. It’s hard not to laugh at exchanges like this, especially when Angela (Sharon Walsh) attempts to deliver the last line with such sincerity:

Angela’s Mother [after Jerry arrives at Angela’s house]: Someday, he’s going to meet a girl that’s just his type, and you’re going to be hurt.

Angela: I don’t think so.

Angela’s Mother: He didn’t even come to the door for you!

Angela: He wouldn’t be Jerry if he did.

And no more than a half hour of movie later, Angela’s mother’s words turn out to be true. Amazing.

The incompetence in front and behind the camera gives the film a certain appeal, but the what elevates it from comical flop to something more is its setting. I’m not just talking about the amusement park. I love the neon-lit rides, the old wooden roller coaster, and the creepy-ass animatronics, but there are a lot of films out there that also have that stuff and are significantly more competent, like the thriller Night Tide (1961) and the beach party musical (sans monsters) Beach Party (1963), both of which were filmed at or near the Pike. What makes The Incredibly Strange Creatures special is that it captures a moment in time. The mid-60’s was a time of great cultural change, between the innocence of the 50’s and the hippie counterculture of the late 60’s. It comes across in nearly every facet of the film, from the music to proto-psychedelic dream sequences to the fashion. Jerry’s outlook on work, life, and sticking it to the man originated in beatnik culture, but would continue through the hippie movement. This snapshot of the country in that moment, seeing the change manifest in art, is fascinating and makes The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies more than a funny name.

And that brings us back to the question I posed at the beginning of this review. Is this the worst movie ever made? If you took the film on its objective qualities alone, I think you could make a case for why it’s one of the worst. The plot is scatterbrain, and the movie crams in nearly a half hour of filler to get the runtime to a somewhat respectable 80 minutes. By most marks, that is the making of a bad film. But film is not something that operates on objective principles. It ain’t physics. It’s art, and art is inherently subjective. We can deconstruct this film all we want, laugh at every ridiculous decision made by a man who willingly uses the pseudonym Cash Flagg, but if I’m laughing, then I’m having a good time. It follows then that the movie isn’t actually that bad. Maybe it’s even, dare I say, good? Not in the same way as Tarkovsky, of course, but it explains why films like Hobgoblins (1988), Troll 2 (1990), and Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010) have gained cult followings over the years.

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So there you have it. The Incredibly Strange Creatures may’ve been grilled on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and named the “Worst Movie Ever Made” by some guys back in the 2000’s, but it’s a good movie to me, and at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters. Who knows, maybe you’ll think it’s a good movie too.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) – Review

The night he came home! …again.

This review contains spoilers.

How much do you like opening credits? Lately, it seems that opening credits have practically disappeared from movies. I saw Captain Marvel on its first weekend and there were no opening credits. I ended up staying after the movie for the mid-credits scene, so I saw the names of key cast and crew that you’d normally find in those credits. That’s all well and good, but opening credits are more than just names—or they should be more than that. They’re an opportunity to establish mood through the use of music and images. Sometimes, movies get lazy and open with credits over black (e.g. nearly the entire Friday the 13th franchise) or the credits are quietly and quickly inserted into action to speed the movie up (The Possession of Hannah Grace was a recent example of this). Neither is an optimal use of opening credits. But if they aren’t, then what is?

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Considering this is a review of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, I think you know where I’m going. Across its four decades of existence, the Halloween franchise has had some fantastic opening credits sequences. The one in Halloween (1978) is incredibly simple, but in its simplicity, became iconic. Halloween II (1981) and Halloween (2018) toy with the jack-o-lantern against a black background composition in imaginative ways. Neither simply copies the original. They illustrate what the movie’s essence is. Halloween II is a deeper look into Michael Myers as a character. It’s the movie where we learn about his relationship to Laurie Strode and know more about the man behind the mask (or the skull behind the jack-o-lantern, if you will). The resurrection of the jack-o-lantern in Halloween ’18 tells the audience that not only is this a revival of the character of Michael Myers, but that he is back to his original, mysterious ways. He is simply the Shape, and the relationship with Laurie established in Halloween II is no more. In 1982, Halloween III: Season of the Witch changed things up. The jack-o-lantern was shown on a TV screen in the credits. If we grant the idea that Michael Myers is represented by the jack-o-lantern, then this is another clever way to communicate to the audience what to expect. Michael Myers is in the movie…but only on television screens. He has no bearing on the actual plot involving Tom Atkins saving the world from an Irish warlock and a catchy jingle. The opening credits for each of the first three movies have revealed how Michael was going to be handled within the filmIt is odd, then, that when looking at Halloween 4 and sequels prior to Halloween ’18, that the pumpkin is not used in such a communicative way. Perhaps it was never the intention of the filmmakers, but given the aforementioned relationship between the jack-o-lantern and Myers, it seems unlikely that no one was giving this some consideration.

If Halloween 4’s credits buck the trend of jack-o-lanterns, then why am I writing three beefy paragraphs about opening credits? Well, because the credits that open Halloween 4 are amazing. They eschew from the established style, and so too does the movie as a whole. Halloween 4 doesn’t look or feel like the first three Halloween films. The change is felt immediately. A shot of a creepy farm with an assortment of pumpkins in front of it opens the film and serves as a backdrop for producer Moustapha Akkad’s credit. It’s a beautiful wide-shot captured at the magic hour. Everything is bathed in the warm light of evening. The autumnal spirit carries forward through the rest of the credits. Each shot of rural landscapes and deserted farms is gorgeous. An abandoned shack with a cheap plastic skeleton on its side as a light fog rolls by. A scarecrow with a jack-o-lantern for a head sitting on a tractor. These images conjure the Halloween spirit without even relying on the classic Halloween theme. A brooding electric drone blankets the credits instead. While some may find it detrimental, I believe it works in the credits’ favor. The Halloween theme is too distinct and upfront. It demands your attention, which is why it works so well when it was employed in Halloween and Halloween II, where the only visual accompaniment is the jack-o-lantern. The rural landscape demands something quieter, something creepier. That’s exactly what Alan Howarth provides here. These credits make up only one minute of the Halloween 4’s 88-minute runtime, but it may be the single-most praiseworthy minute in the movie.

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Now that I’ve spent an entire page discussing opening credits, let’s talk about the movie they precede, shall we? Halloween 4 picks up ten years after the events of the first two movies. Michael Myers miraculously survived being incinerated and has been comatose for a decade. The night before Halloween, he is to be transferred to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium. On the ambulance ride over, Michael Myers wakes from his coma and escapes custody. Dr. Loomis, who also survived the explosion at the end of Halloween II, knows exactly where Michael is headed: Haddonfield. Michael Myers intends to finish what he started and kill Laurie Strode once and for all—or that’s what would’ve happened if Jamie Lee Curtis had returned to the role. Her character is written out, having died in a car accident between films. Ironic how the only person not killed in the explosion is the only one who is actually dead in this movie. Without Curtis, a new heroine was needed. Enter eleven-year-old Danielle Harris. She plays Jamie Lloyd, daughter of Laurie Strode. Jamie lives with a foster family, but she has a difficult time forming a relationship with Rachel, the teenage daughter of the Carruthers (played by Ellie Cornell). She’d rather spend time with her boyfriend than babysit Jamie. On Halloween, the two of them find themselves on the run from Michael Myers as he resumes the murder spree he started ten years earlier.

One thing that is immediately apparent about Halloween 4 is how much it borrows from Halloween. The plot loosely follows that of the original, with Myers escaping and trying to return to Haddonfield to kill a relative as well as Loomis pursuing him and seeing the aftermath of Myers’ killings and later working with a skeptical police force to capture Myers. It’s familiar territory, which is exactly what producer Moustapha Akkad wanted. After the disappointing box office return on Halloween III, he wanted to go the safe route and bring Michael Myers back in the flesh. Screenwriter Alan B. McElroy developed the story, pitched it, and produced the final draft of the script in eleven days, an incredibly tight window created by a looming writer’s strike. Unfortunately, that time crunch can be felt within the script. The rehashed plot isn’t the problem though. From scene-to-scene, Halloween 4 does feel like its own movie. It goes through similar motions, but throws in a new step every once in a while that hints at what the film could’ve had the script not been rushed. The problem with Halloween 4 is the lack of tension. Jamie wanders off while trick-or-treating and ends up getting lost. This could be a tense sequence, but it abruptly ends when Rachel finds Jamie. Nothing builds to this reunion—it just happens. Something similar happens later on when Jamie is fleeing from Myers. She runs into the one person who can help her, Dr. Loomis. It’s convenient. Characters are where the script needs them to be without the script justifying their paths crossing. It kills any chance of tension in a number of quieter scenes.

Despite its inability to create tension in quieter scenes, the movie is able to generate an occasional flicker of suspense. The rooftop confrontation Jamie and Rachel have with Michael is a particularly effective scene. They struggle to navigate the roof, sliding and falling in their frantic effort to evade the sure-footed Myers. Jamie is able to make it off the roof safely, but Rachel isn’t so lucky. She falls from the roof and is knocked unconscious. The fall ends up having little physical effect on Rachel, which eliminates any consequences of the scene, but the chase is suspenseful nevertheless. Other moments in the movie feature some good stunt work (Myers on the truck of rednecks) and acting (Jamie Lloyd’s nightmare), but Halloween IV is lackluster when it comes to creating gripping sequences. This could be attributed to the direction of Dwight H. Little’s direction, but the script doesn’t provide a whole lot to work with.

McElroy’s script isn’t without its strengths though. The redneck gang going rogue and trying to kill Michael Myers on their own is an idea so good that it could be the main plot of its own Halloween sequel. Here, it’s a half-baked subplot. Their conflict with Sheriff Meeker is weak. Meeker doesn’t want them trying to find Michael Myers themselves, fearing that they may kill innocent people. Sure enough, they accidentally do, but there’s no repercussion for this murder. They just keep on going and it’s never brought up again. Dr. Loomis even sides with the rednecks at one point, telling Meeker they’re the best chance he and the sheriff have at getting Myers since the local police are all dead. The rednecks could be scrapped from the movie altogether because their actions barely factor into the main story, but removing them would also remove the most interesting part of the plot.

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Michael Myer’s return to Haddonfield came with a recasting. The job went to stuntman George P. Wilbur. He’s noticeably taller and bulkier than Dick Warlock’s Shape in Halloween II, which begs the question–what on earth were the folks at Ridgemont Federal Sanitarium feeding Michael while he was in his coma? In the beginning, Michael’s face is bandaged. He only obtains his signature mask after reaching Haddonfield. Before then, he looks more like Darkman’s cousin. There’s a great moment where Loomis sees Michael in a diner. Myers looms like a giant in the kitchen and disappears when Loomis tries shooting him. It’s just like the good ol’ days when Michael would vanish from plain sight. When Michael finally gets his mask from a store, it’s no longer a mask of William Shatner. It lacks the menacing dark stare because the eyebrows sit too high on the forehead and the eyeholes are shaped differently. Combined with the slicked-back hair, the mask looks more like Lieutenant Data than Captain Kirk. There’s a brief scene in a school where a different mask can be seen. This one has blonde hair and the skin is a natural peach tone instead of ghostly white. This was the original choice for the mask in the film, but the producers did not like it, and it’s easy to see why. It’s shabby and doesn’t match the look of the original mask at all. If they were going to change it, why not go for something more radical than blonde hair? Have Michael Myers going around in a Silver Shamrock mask, or have him dress up in an ape costume. That’d spruce the movie up. The only justification I can come up with for the blonde mask is that it is more believable that a drug store would sell it. It’s generic-looking and bears only some resemblance to the Shatner mask. It may be in bad taste to sell the mask worn by a serial killer, after all.

Beyond the questionable look, Wilbur’s performance as Michael Myers is decent. He embraces the imposing motionlessness of Myers well, but doesn’t have the same intensity or malevolence of Dick Warlock’s portrayal despite his larger stature. The mask may be to blame though. The rest of the cast does a fine job. The explosion seems to have mellowed Dr. Loomis a bit. He feels more like he did in Halloween than the slightly-unhinged portrayal in the sequel. One of my favorite moments is when he catches a ride with Reverend Sayers. He and Sayers find common ground and after a drink of booze, Sayers begins singing and Loomis smiles. It’s a great little moment of levity for Loomis in what is mostly a serious performance. Danielle Harris does a great job in her first feature role. She is convincingly scared out of her wits when she’s being attacked by Myers. Ellie Cornell’s performance is serviceable, but lacks any great moments. The same can be said for the rest of the cast, the aforementioned Reverend Sayers notwithstanding. Carmen Filpi does a great job walking the line between crazy religious fanatic and likability, and his brief scene is one of the movie’s best moments.

As mentioned at the beginning of the review, this film looks different than the previous Halloween movies. There are a couple reasons for this, one being the change in filming location from South Pasadena to Salt Lake City. The more significant reason, however, is Dean Cundey’s absence from the production. He served as cinematographer on the first three Halloween films. The composition during night scenes combined the use of heavy shadows with depth. Careful attention was given to foreground, middleground, and background when lighting, and the result is some of the best-looking slashing to come out of the late 70’s and 80’s. While Cundey was off earning his first Oscar nomination for Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Peter Lyons Collister took over the role of cinematographer. Halloween 4 never looks bad, but it lacks the visual pop that had come to define the series. Outside of b-roll in the opening credits (likely handled by the second unit), it comes off more workmanlike than artistically inspired, which is a point that could be made about the movie as a whole.

Halloween 4 wasn’t what Moustapha Akkad hoped for. The return of Michael Myers didn’t achieve the big box office numbers posted by the first two Halloween films. It only made $3 million more than Halloween III. There are number of reasons for this, the most significant being the declining interest in the slasher genre. By 1988, it was over-saturated with dream killers and camp counselor slayers. From a critical standpoint, Halloween 4 didn’t fare well either. Contemporary response was largely negative, citing the film’s inability to produce scares and its overall derivativeness. Though the film currently sits below 20% on Rotten Tomatoes, recent evaluation has been more favorable and deservedly so. Halloween 4 may struggle to live up to the standard set by the first three Halloween films, but there are some good ideas and enough memorable moments to overcome its recycled plot and lack of tension.

Oh yeah, and it has a fantastic credits sequence too.

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The Guardian (1990) – Review

The killer tree from The Evil Dead gets its own movie, and it’s directed by…William Friedkin? Huh…

I covered this film briefly for 31 Nights of Horror: The Guardian (1990). This review hits some of the same points, but goes into greater depth.

The year is 1990. After almost two decades away from the genre, William Friedkin has returned to helm another horror movie. Genre fans rejoice! The man responsible for millions of nightmares is back with The Guardian. It’s loosely based off of a novel called The Nanny written by Dan Greenburg, which, if Goodreads reviews are any indication, is neither popular nor very good. That can’t be a bad omen, right?

The movie begins with opening text about druids and their spiritual connection to trees. After the short mythology lesson, the movie hits you with the first scare—“A Joe Wizan Production”, a seemingly innocuous credit to a reader of this review. However, it is accompanied by a sudden burst of music that’ll almost certainly catch you off guard. Funnily enough, it’s one of the movie’s most effective jump scares. Once the credits end, we’re introduced to the Sheridan family. They have a nanny named Diana who lurks about the house behind heavy shadows and in dramatic slow-motion shots. Surprising no one, Diana is evil, and she kidnaps the Sheridan baby to sacrifice to an evil tree. When the baby is absorbed into the tree, Diana says that the cycle is complete, and another shall begin. This is when we’re introduced to Phil and Kate Sterling. Phil (Dwier Brown, who I swear is a dead ringer for Eric Bana) works for an advertising agency and he and his wife Kate (Carey Lowell, of License to Kill fame) have moved into a beautiful modern home. After giving birth, Kate and Eric Bana begin looking for a nanny. One woman stands out from the others: Camilla Grandier (Jenny Seagrove). She’s hired by the Sterlings, but it quickly becomes apparent that Camilla is no ordinary nanny.

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The plot is taken very seriously, and the actors aren’t sleepwalking through the material either. This is William Friedkin we’re talking about here, and he was responsible for one of the scariest horror films of all time in 1973 with The Exorcist. Even with something as strange as sentient killer trees and a druid tree woman, it doesn’t seem like an impossibility for Friedkin to turn out something creepy. In one scene, he almost does. Ned Runcie (Brad Hall), architect and friend of the Sterlings, follows Camilla into the woods and discovers the truth about her. He is chased back to his house by coyotes. When he finally gets inside, he’s been cut up pretty bad, but the coyotes are still after him. It’s a tense and quiet game of cat and mouse. He sneaks around the house, has a couple close calls, and ends up in his basement with a shotgun pointed up at the door. This sequence works thanks to Hall’s exasperated and terrified performance as well as the lighting. The house is drenched in nighttime blue and heavy shadows. Even in the well-lit areas, the windows around Runcie keep him exposed to the darkness of the woods. There is no getting away from the evil of the trees. He’s surrounded.

This sequence is one of the only, however, where the serious tone benefits the horror shown on screen. More often than not, there’s dissonance between the intended tone and what’s happening. The opening scene is a perfect example of this problem. The lighting is too low-key and unnatural. The dramatic way in which Diana is shot undermines any of the surprise that may’ve come from the reveal of her intentions. On top of that, Friedkin utilizes slow-motion in a couple shots, and it elicits head-scratches instead of chills. The Exorcist works so well as a horror movie because it feels like something that is taking place in the real world. The lighting and editing both work to produce that realism. The Guardian may be attempting something more fairy tale-esque, but if that is the case, then Friedkin’s attempt feels half-baked at best.

There are also instances where what happens in the movie is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. These moments are scattered throughout, but they primarily involve the tree. The most comical of these is a scene in which Camilla is in a field with the Sterlings’ baby and three generic thugs approach and harass her. She leads them on a chase back to the evil tree, which protects her in a shocking display of bloody practical effects. The thugs are torn limb from limb and consumed. The scene itself contributes nothing to the plot except to show the power of the tree and how capable the effects crew is in realizing that power. Later in the movie, Camilla returns to the tree where she rests and is physically restored. She becomes part of the tree, which caresses her (well, as much as the animatronic branches can caress) as her skin turns to bark. It’s an adequate but cheesy transformation sequence. And lastly, there is the finale, which can only be described as blood bath. After the couple scenes featuring gore teased what carnage could look like, the movie goes all the way. It’s something to see, and I love every second of it. Does it belong in a serious horror movie though? Absolutely not.

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Between all those bits that do work and those that don’t but are still enjoyable, The Guardian grows somewhat dull. The pacing isn’t the issue, but it is easy to become disengaged from what’s going on with the Sterlings, particularly in the first half. Neither Kate or Phil are well-developed characters, so spending time with them by the fireplace or at a dinner party isn’t interesting. It’s not the fault of actors Carey Lowell or Dwier Brown though. They both are trying to make the most of what they’re given with the script. The movie spans the length of a year in its first twenty minutes. Scenes in this first act with Kate and Phil cut abruptly as the movie races to get through the character development. An important moment when Kate tells Phil she’s pregnant is made unintentionally hilarious when Phil’s reaction is just one word: “Jesus”. He’s shot in such a way that you can’t see his face well either, so it very well may be the most devastating news Phil has ever received but the movie cuts before it can really sink in. Joking aside, it is moments like this where The Guardian falters. A few moments more in the scene with Phil and Kate isn’t technically necessary, but it would help develop them as characters and make their relationship more believable and possibly even remedy the dullness of the first half.

The second half doesn’t have the same problems, but it leans more into cheesy territory. Camilla’s plan quickly starts to unravel after Ned warns Eric Bana not to let her back into his house, and it isn’t long before the Sterlings face the same supernatural threat that Ned did. Jenny Seagrove plays both sides of her character with ease. The loving and knowledgeable nanny becomes sinister and cold after she is fired by Phil. She stalks the Sterlings, following them to the hospital and back home. She shows off her abilities, which include siccing coyotes on them and levitating towards Phil as he tries to run from her. This supernatural sequence lacks any scare power, and it’s hard to believe that it came from the director responsible for The Exorcist, but it still manages to be entertaining in the same way many of its less serious contemporaries are.

Perhaps if William Friedkin had gotten his way from the beginning, things would’ve turned out better. Friedkin wanted to do a psychological thriller, but the studio rejected it because Friedkin was known for The Exorcist, a supernatural horror movie. Something in the same vein would be easier to market. It is possible that a straight horror film about an unhinged nanny would’ve ended up better, or at the very least, more tonally cohesive. But, if that were the case, there wouldn’t be a bloody tree massacre, or a druid woman covered in bark fighting Pam Bouvier for a baby. It’s easy to speculate about what might’ve been, but it’s important as well to be thankful for what is, and what is ended up being entertaining in spite of the obvious flaws.

Also, an alternate TV cut of The Guardian exists. It has a different ending than the version that can be found on home video now, but don’t get too excited. As it turns out, the TV cut, which had Friedkin’s credit removed and “Alan von Smithee” listed instead, ends after the scene in the police station. The final showdown is completely cut out, so if you don’t want to have fun watching The Guardian, go ahead and turn off the movie when the police station scene is over.

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Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) – Review

The night he came home! …again……again…

It makes sense that when talking about a legendary horror franchise like Halloween I’d start with the fifth entry. You see, everything in the series is rooted in The Revenge of Michael Myers. That may be news to you, but in this review, I’ll prove to you that the Myers house is actually a shape-shifting gateway to hell, and that the Man in Black is an MIB agent that wipes everyone in Haddonfield’s memory when the house changes between sequels.

Perhaps I’m being ridiculous, but with Halloween V’s plot, it doesn’t seem so ludicrous. Michael Myers, to the surprise of no one, survived the death by firing squad in Halloween IV (1988) and has laid dormant in a hermit’s shack for a year. When Halloween season rolls back around, Myers awakens and kills the man who’s been watching over his body without even asking a question about who he. The original scene involved a cultist finding Myer’s body, which would’ve made more sense in relation to Halloween VI (1995; more on that one later…). Plus, there’s a strange tattoo on Michael’s wrist that hasn’t appeared in any of the other movies. Wonder what that’s about. The point is, Michael Myers is back. The Shape stalks again! He lurks through Haddonfield in search of Jamie Lloyd, his niece, with whom he has developed an unexplained psychic link. Jamie is also a mute now and can see what Michael sees, and Loomis understands that she has a psychic connection somehow. People want Jamie dead because of her familial link to Michael, which would be an interesting plot point if it were brought up again in the movie.

So, as you can see, in only fifteen minutes the movie has already become a jumbled mess. The retcon of Halloween IV’s ending combined with the introduction of a supernatural element and the Man in Black turns what should be a simple “revenge” into a convoluted disaster. Some of it could be forgiven if The Curse of Michael Myers hadn’t dropped the ball. According to Michael Myers’ actor Don Shanks, the Man in Black (whom he also played) wasn’t figured out by the filmmakers at the time. He was thrown in without defining his connection to Myers and the series’ plot. That’s emblematic of the movie’s greatest faults. It doesn’t seem to know where it’s going or what it wants, only that it wants to throw things at you in hopes that you’ll see the next one.

That being said, Halloween V has its moments where it shines brighter than any of the sequels pre-Halloween (2018). In scenes of that build tension and suspense, this movie succeeds. Michael lurks in the background of shots frequently, harkening back to the unsettling omnipresence of the Shape in Halloween (1978). The music is restrained and doesn’t feel the need to announce his presence either. He’s simply there, stalking like the good ol’ days. The psychic connection Jamie has with Michael, while a questionable creative decision, does give us a great moment of tension. As Tina gets into the car of her boyfriend Michael, she doesn’t realize that the man behind the mask isn’t the Michael she thinks it is. Jamie does though. Other times Jamie has demonstrated her psychic connection, there’s been looming danger. It’s a scene where Tina seems like she could be killed too, so when she’s teasing Michael and trying to get him to talk to her, there’s an uneasiness building. Tina is eventually saved by the fastest-responding police force on the planet, but that moment is one that has always stood out for me. Action sequences are even better. In one scene, Michael chases Jamie through a field and woods in a vehicle. It’s shot well and is more suspenseful than anything in Halloween IV, though it ends rather weakly. The other highlight, and perhaps the best scene in the entire movie, is when Jamie is caught in a laundry chute in the Myers’ house. It’s intense and works thanks in large part to the genuine terror that Danielle Harris is able to convey.

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Danielle Harris is the one bright spot when it comes to the acting in the movie. She’s acting her heart out. Donald Pleasance, on the other hand, has a uncharacteristically aggressive spin as Dr. Loomis. For whatever reason, the doctor has gone off the rails. He yells at Jamie and tries to shake information out of her while she’s bawling her eyes out. Later on, he holds a cop at gunpoint to keep him from calling reinforcements and baits Michael into a trap by holding Jamie in front of him. Hell, Donald Pleasance even breaks Don Shanks’ nose in a scene. The doctor is mad! While I can accept the slightly more unhinged portrayal in Halloween II (1981), this pushes the character too far and makes him almost a villain in his own right. Ellie Cornell appears briefly in a reprised role, but the main teenage character is her friend Tina, played by Wendy Kaplan. She’s wild from beginning to end, even saying to Loomis in one scene that she’s “never sensible if [she] can help it”. Kaplan’s performance is over-the-top, but it fits the character’s wild personality. Tina’s boyfriend, Michael, is played by Jonathan Chapin. He had previously appeared in another horror movie called Twice Dead, in which he sported the exact same look as he does here. There’s not much to say about his performance because he gets a rake to the head shortly after he’s introduced. The other two teenage characters are forgettable aside from an uncomfortably long sex scene in a barn. You can go ahead and guess how that ends for the both of them. Lastly, there’s Don Shanks as both the Shape and the Man in Black. His portrayal of Michael feels more like the classic Michael, but that may have more to do with how he’s written than the body movements. He certainly doesn’t have the look though. The mask in this movie is awful. It has a rounder face than previous version and the edges of the neck are bent outwards for no good reason. It’s a bad look, and I would have gladly taken the Lieutenant Data look of Halloween IV over whatever this is.

As the middle entry in the Thorn trilogy, Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers is certainly a mixed bag. It introduces a few too many new elements including supernatural ones without knowing how to resolve them. Another year in pre-production may’ve helped iron out the confusing plot elements and given the filmmakers a stronger foundation to build Halloween VI upon. Then again, the golden era of the slasher was on the decline. Better to cash in quick than have a slasher sequel in the 90’s that isn’t meta.

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Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972) – Review

Good life advice, but perhaps the scope of said advice should be broadened to adults too.

This review contains spoilers.

The zombie subgenre was forever changed by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). It altered what the common perception of zombies was, so much so that flesh eating is generally assumed to be typical behavior, despite it being a characteristic adopted only half a century ago. Four years After Night was released, another horror icon in Bob Clark would try his hand at this brand of zombie movie. Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things was the result, a movie that lacks the timelessness of Night, but has a style that is all its own.

The plot follows a theatre troupe led by the egomaniacal Alan that enter a graveyard with the intent to raise the dead. He chooses the grave of a man named Orville Dunworth as the site of the ritual. As it turns out, the body in the casket is just another actor who was put there to scare the rest of the troupe. The actual Orville is dragged back over to bear witness to the occult happenings. Two séances later, however, the dead remain dead. Alan, unsatisfied, takes Orville back to the cottage where they’re staying. There, he jokingly marries the corpse and continues to verbally abuse the other actors when they object. Just as the troupe decides enough is enough, the dead rise, and Alan and the troupe quickly find themselves trapped in the cottage.

What I’ve described sounds like the first half of an ordinary movie. The second half would hypothetically play out like Night of the Living Dead, with zombie encounters sprinkled in with human conflict. Children is not that way. The first hour is almost exclusively devoted to the finely-dressed bunch of actors, and the zombies aren’t active until the final twenty-five minutes. With such an insufferable character as Alan owning the spotlight during that first hour, the movie’s focus should be the killing blow. But it isn’t, at least not to me. The foggy graveyard setting paired with the atonal electronic moaning created by Carl Zittrer provide a chilling backdrop for the séances and stories of murder told by Alan. The music is subdued and rarely rises to anything as grandiose as a theme or melody. It lingers in the air like an evil spirit, before finally rising into monstrous roars and piercing stings when the zombies awake. The atmosphere generated is important, because it makes dealing with Alan a little easier.

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You see, Alan (played by co-writer and makeup effects Alan Ormsby) is a pretentious tyrant who loves the sound of his own voice. He subjects his underlings to cruel jokes and threatens their employment the second they question his authority. To his credit, Alan plays Alan well. He’s downright unlikable, and his theatrics are believably over-the-top. The rest of the troupe is colorful too, or at least their wardrobe is. Anya (played by Alan Ormsby’s sister Anya—real original character names, Bob) wanders about wide-eyed, and is accurately described by another character as likely to float away at any moment. She’s in her own little world and is also the first to sense that they’ve done something horribly wrong. Val (played by an actress named Valerie) is the only character who can seemingly stand up to Alan’s behavior and not be berated. There’s no stated reason for this, but it’s fun to watch Alan smolder when Val knocks him down a peg. Jeff (Jeff Gillen) is the comic relief character, and he does a pretty decent job of it when he isn’t repeating the same line over and over about peeing in his pants. There are some other supporting characters, such as the stereotypically gay actors Roy (Roy Engleman) and Emerson (Robert Philip—wait, why do characters get different names now?!) as well as Paul and Terry, but they’re not as memorable or important to the plot. The last character of note is Orville Dunworth, the corpse and zombie subjected to Alan’s will. Seth Sklarey plays the part remarkably well. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have assumed he was actually a corpse that was resurrected by Bob Clark and Co. for this movie. That may explain why this is Sklarey’s only film role.

Being stuck with this collection of characters makes for a slow hour, but the atmosphere and writing do make up for it. The script, penned by Clark and Ormsby, has some witty exchanges every once in a while, as well as creepy lines about the dead and the supernatural. Characters are well-defined by their dialogue too, especially Alan, who, as I said before, loves to talk. The plot is simple and straightforward, though it leaves the supernatural elements of the plot somewhat ambiguous. The reason the zombies rise is implied to be because of Alan’s séance. Val blames it all on him as the zombies surround the house, and the counter-spell he reads also suggests that it was his ritual behind it all. It seemingly repels the zombies, but it doesn’t work completely because Orville’s body is not returned to its grave. Then again, that may not have worked either. After Alan finished his incantation, Val tried her own in much more dramatic fashion. Perhaps that was what caused the zombies to awaken. Or, there’s always the possibility that there is some unexplained phenomenon that no one is aware of. It’s highly speculative, but that bit of ambiguity in the plot makes what happens slightly more interesting than if it could all be explained away.

The third act is what makes the rest of Children worth sitting through. If Clark had mishandled it, the movie would be a total flop. It isn’t. The ending is nightmarish. The cottage can barely keep the zombies out even when it is fortified. Alan, normally haughty, is reduced to a quiet survivalist. He does nothing to redeem himself, and in a desperate attempt to stay alive, he shoves Anya to the zombies, who all look up at him like they’re surprised. Anya looks horrified as she’s quietly floated back down the steps and out of sight. It’s a great moment, followed by another in which Alan comes face-to-face with his monster—Orville. Orville’s design is simple but awesome. Alan Ormsby was responsible for the makeup work here, and it is great. He doesn’t skimp out on the other zombie’s makeup either. Some are more decayed than others, but nearly every one of them is creepy. Clark does a good job making the zombies feel like a threat. They’re not ones you can just run by. They’re slow, but they’re strong, and some of them are even agile. It makes scenes where the characters are trying to escape tenser because the zombies feel like they pose an actual threat, unlike in, say, some Italian zombie movies that’d come out later in the decade.

Writer/director Bob Clark would go on to do more successful and critically acclaimed films, like the iconic slasher film Black Christmas (1974) and the cult-film-turned-classic A Christmas Story (1983). Given that there’s a throwaway reference to Christmas in Children as well, I’d say he had a thing for the happiest time of the year. Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things isn’t his best film, but it is an experience all its own, standing out in the saturated subgenre of zombie films thanks to its atmosphere, dated fashion, and chilling ending. I like to consider Children a prequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968). The zombies that set sail at the end of the movie went on to create the zombie outbreak in Night. All that death and suffering because some hippie theater director wanted to see if he could raise the dead. Thanks a lot, Alan.

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Deadly Blessing (1981) – Review

If a blessing is deadly, is it really a blessing at all?

This review contains spoilers.

Wes Craven is one of the most important directors in the history of horror. His contributions to the genre are near impossible to overlook. He made waves with the controversial The Last House on the Left (1972), but it would be over a decade before his major breakthrough with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Other major hits would follow, most notably the meta-horror film Scream (1996). Despite his status as a horror auteur, however, a number of his films have fallen through the cracks and slipped into obscurity. Sometimes, as in the case of The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985) and Chiller (1985), that’s not an all bad thing. Deadly Blessing (1981) is not one of those films that deserves the same fate though. It’s an important part of Craven’s legacy, and a fine horror film as well.

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The plot appears, at first glance, simple as Amish life. Martha Schmidt (Maren Jensen) and her husband Jim live on a farm near a community of Hittites, a backwards people that “make the Amish look like swingers”. Jim is an ex-Hittite, having left the community for an education in the city. He and Martha live happily on their farm, even with the likes of William Gluntz (Michael Berryman, of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes fame) stalking about. One night, Jim is killed under mysterious circumstances, and there’s a slew of suspects. Hittite leader Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine) is one, but so are the eccentric Stohlers, who resent the Hittite way. Martha’s friends (played by Sharon Stone in one of her earliest roles, and Susan Buckner, who never appeared in anything after this) come to stay with her to help her cope with the loss. It is not long before another murder occurs, and tensions rise between the deeply religious community and their neighbors.

To explain the issues of Deadly Blessing requires me to spoil the film, so this is your fair warning that the next paragraph is going to lay it all out there. The third act throws a lot at the audience, and ends up leaving more them with more questions than answers, the main one being, quite simply, why? Louisa and Faith have a brief conversation during their chase with Martha about how Faith could never have Martha because Martha was pregnant with Jim’s child. Louisa’s motivation is unclear though. She hates men, even going so far to say that if Faith had been a boy she’d have killed him, yet she tries to kill Martha with a snake in a scene. After three viewings, it still doesn’t make sense to me. Then, for good measure, it throws a curveball at the audience by revealing Faith to be intersex. It’s unnecessary in the grand scheme and it lacks the shock value of the reveal in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, so it probably should’ve been scrapped altogether. That’s only one of the major issues plot-wise. The character of Melissa also has psychotic tendencies, and has a possible psychic link to her would-be husband John Schmidt that is never explained. At first, she seems to be the killer behind it all. She kills John and Vicky when they’re making out in her car, then travels to the Stohler in a crazed trance. She eventually kills Faith, and there’s no follow-up after that. And as if all that isn’t enough, none of what I just described explains the supernatural goings-on in the movie. Shutters closing on their own, Sharon Stone’s nightmares, and the demon that pops out of the floor and drags Martha to Hell…none of these things are explainable. Is it worth the headache trying to rationalize these events?

It isn’t, but that’s not because the movie isn’t worth your time. On the contrary, it is an effective horror movie that succeeds more when it is taken as its parts and not the sum thereof. The plot and character motivations may be convoluted, but what happens is at times incredibly engaging. Certain scenes stand out, such as when Sharon Stone’s character goes into the barn and encounters someone—or something—who wants to kill her. It gradually builds up suspense as Stone grows more desperate to escape. After a doozy of a jump scare (one of several instances where the seeds for A Nightmare on Elm Street show signs that they’ve already been sown), she encounters a spider. It’s a recurring thing with her character that goes completely unexplained, but does culminate in an unsettling nightmare scene in which a spider is dropped into her mouth. Yep, a real spider. If you suffer from arachnophobia, this may not be the Wes Craven film for you. I highlight the barn scene because it is, in my mind, Craven at his best. It generates tension, then is able to pay off that tension with a couple well-placed scares. Another scene that can’t go without mention is the climax. Martha has to defend herself from people that want her dead, and this results in a chaotic frenzy. The cinematography by Robert Jessup captures the whole scene nicely, while Robert Bracken does his part by not over-editing it. The climax could very well have been sliced up more and used more close-ups, but Wes Craven finds the perfect balance. Even on my third viewing, I found my heart beating faster during this sequence.

The acting, like the plot, is uneven. Sharon Stone is the standout here, showing the full range of her acting abilities. She’s charming and confident, but with a flick of the switch can appear genuinely terrified and traumatized or even sinister in one instance. The switch to sinister feels unnatural, but that has more to do with the writing than because of Stone. It’s clear watching her in this movie that she’d go on to far greater things. For both Maren Jensen and Susan Buckner, this would be their final acting role. They do an okay job, but both lack the screen presence of Stone. The supporting cast is fine as well, but Ernest Borgnine is the only real standout. He plays the Hittite leader Isaiah, a role which earned him a Razzie nomination. Like Zelda Rubinstein in Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), the nomination feels unearned. The dialogue is a bit silly, and so is Borgnine’s beard, but he plays the part of a cult-like leader pretty damn well. I suppose The Devil’s Rain (1975) was warm-up for this role. He continues to spout thee’s and thy’s as Isaiah, but sadly does not transform into a ram-man in this movie. A missed opportunity, I’d say.

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While the acting and plot are uneven, one of the strengths that is consistent through the whole movie is the atmosphere. Jessup’s cinematography is once again a point of praise. He captures the autumnal farmland through frequent use of wide-shots. It is beautiful, but it also emphasizes the isolation Martha and her friends are dealing with. The sheriff explicitly states what can already be felt when he says he could only be there for clean-up if something were to go wrong. James Horner’s soundtrack compliments both the beauty and the horror of such an environment. The main theme is a standout piece of music for Horner, who went on to score more celebrated films in the next few decades from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) to James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). The score for Deadly Blessing, on the whole, is not in the same ballpark as The Wrath of Khan, but the main theme might very well be. It has an ominous vibe while simultaneously emphasizing the beauty of the landscape. The other parts of the soundtrack fit nicely within the movie, but aren’t nearly as rewarding to listen to independent of the film. Combined with the cinematography, James Horner’s music helps make Deadly Blessing arguably Wes Craven’s most atmospheric film.

It is interesting to watch Deadly Blessing and see how it stacks up to Craven’s major works before and after this. Outside of some nudity, it lacks the exploitive edge of his first two films, but it can’t quite grasp the supernatural terror of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Having both human and supernatural antagonists within the movie emphasizes the nature of this film. It’s a transitory work for Craven. Deadly Blessing is the first step in another direction for him. Certain ideas and scares found in this movie would be reworked and eventually find their way into a suburban community in 1984, where they would take on iconic status with a knife-glove wearing slasher.

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First Thoughts: Aquaman (2018)

A movie true to its environmentalist theme, in that it recycle all of its parts from better movies.

[This review contains spoilers.]

The DC Extended Universe has had its struggles. In its effort to keep up with Marvel, they rushed into Justice League after four movies. They were profitable, but only one of them managed to be good. Wonder Woman presented a glimmer of hope for the cinematic universe, a way to right the ship. The tone was lighter, and it was far more engaging than the haphazard mess of Batman v. Superman. It also felt more like a Marvel superhero movie. Thus began DC’s attempt to imitate Marvel. Justice League is good if one were to use a time machine and release it before The Avengers came out. On all fronts, it is inferior to what has already been made. Nothing about it is fresh, which was an issue in Age of Ultron as well, though to a lesser degree. By that count, that makes five bad DCEU movies, and one good one. How does Aquaman compare? Within its first fifteen minutes, it becomes clear that Aquaman sits right alongside the likes of Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad at the bottom of the sea of superhero films.

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Moving beyond that forced line, Aquaman is an artificial film. This isn’t a jab at the visual effects, but rather the storytelling. It is downright lousy. The script by David Leslie Jonhson-McGoldrick and Will Beall is painfully predictable. If you watch movies on even a semi-regular basis, you’ll be able to call nearly every plant and payoff. Granted, superhero films usually rely on a tried and true formula. What helps movies like Black Panther or Thor: Ragnarok stand out are the strengths beyond the familiar beats. Characters matter, and a good hero matters just as much as a good villain. Killmonger was one of the best villains in the entire MCU thanks to the time devoted to exploring his motivation. In Aquaman, there are two villains: Black Manta and Orm. The movie quickly establishes Black Manta’s motivation, but it’s hard to tell exactly what the script was intending to do with him. After meeting with Orm’s men and receiving compensation for hijacking a submarine, the movie forgets about him for about forty-five minutes. Then, there’s an attempt to humanize him with a montage of him designing his signature outfit. Once he fights Aquaman, he’s forgotten once again and relegated to a mid-credits scene, which shows him still thirsting for revenge against Aquaman. His arc is half-baked and feels like a long setup for a sequel. There’s practically no consequence in removing him altogether from the movie, and it’s a decision they should’ve made. The real focus is on Orm, a one-dimensional, screaming tyrant played by Patrick Wilson. He fits the mold established by all the other DCEU of a completely generic villain. Wilson attempts to be intense and evil, but it’s unconvincing and unintentionally funny thanks to the bad dialogue.

The heroes don’t fare much better than the villains, unfortunately. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman is, frankly, boring. Justice League set him up as a loud, wild, and energetic guy. He’s like Thor. Here, however, Aquaman is quieter and less likable. He has a few one-liners here and there, but he isn’t nearly as fun as he was before. Mera is Aquaman’s love interest, and, aside from a couple “badass moments”, that’s all she is. The moments where she does cool stuff feel like they were tacked on in an effort to make her more than just good-looking. Her chemistry with Momoa is forced to the point of eliciting eye rolls every time they have an intimate moment. The rest of the cast is completely forgettable. This is also one of an alarmingly high number of movies that wastes the talents of Djimon Hounsou. Can someone give him a major role again, please?

On a technical level, Aquaman isn’t very good. The cinematography is far too flashy. Long takes are great and they can make an action sequence incredibly intense, but the problem is that every single one of them looks awful. The visual effects are not good, so as the camera whips this way and that, your attention is drawn towards how completely artificial it all is. Even with better CGI, the camera movements are distracting and do nothing in telling the story any better. The CGI is also a problem in scenes where nothing is going on. It’s a problem that has popped up in other movies, but is more noticeable here because there’s nothing good to cling onto. Scenes that take place on the dock near the lighthouse look laughably fake. Another scene in which Aquaman and Mera are on a boat has a similar lighting setup, with the “sun” setting behind the characters as they talk, and it looks terrible. Would it have been too much trouble to actually go out and shoot these things on location? And, if I’m wrong and they did film it on location, why did they make it look so fake?

The music is also a problem, but not to the same extent. Music underpins nearly every scene in the entire movie. It’s hard to recall a moment when there was silence in its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Often times, it feels like it is used to compensate for the script’s lack of emotional weight. The music tells you as a viewer should feel, even if you never actually feel those things. However, it is important to give credit where it’s due. There are a couple themes that sound good. One where Mera and Aquaman are traveling through Atlantis combines traditional symphonic sound with synths, and it is pretty cool. Orm and Black Manta both have leitmotifs that are comically sinister. Nearly every time Orm is onscreen, there’s a “dun-dun-dun” in the off chance you forget he’s supposed to be the villain. If the movie leaned more into this over-the-top style and was written in a similar way, it could’ve been a great time.

As it is, though, Aquaman is a drag. It’s all been done before, and better. This movie also proves that a tonal shift for the DCEU is not necessarily the solution. The problem is the writing itself. All of it feels like an inferior clone of Marvel. At this point, there’s nothing to differentiate DC’s tone from Marvel’s, and it may be too late to reverse course. The dark tone has been cast to the bottom of the ocean, and DC has chosen to cling onto levity in the hopes that they’ll stay afloat in the sea of superhero films. What they really need is a life vest made of stronger writing. Aaaand this metaphor is really getting away from me so I’m going to stop now before I soil my reputation forever as a reviewer.

DC, get better writers.

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31. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

The night no one comes home–except everyone who’s watching the big giveaway at 9!

This review contains spoilers.

Here we are! At long last, Halloween has arrived. You can feel it in the air. We’ve spent the past thirty days visiting a Scottish island where paganism reigns supreme, conjuring up our worst fears with Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, and getting lost in the woods whilst filming a documentary. We made it through thirty days of horror, but tonight is different. The evil we’ll be seeing tonight has stealthily been infiltrating our lives this season through the innocent façade of Halloween masks. Tonight, for the first time in three thousand years, the hills will run red with the blood of animals and children.

Night 31_Halloween III Poster

After Halloween II followed the trend of slasher films in the early 80’s, Halloween III: Season of the Witch opted to relegate the iconic Michael Myers to a brief appearance on a TV within the movie. This was to be a different kind of Halloween movie. Some elements would be carried over from the previous two Halloween movies, such as key members of the crew like Dean Cundey and Tommy Lee Wallace, the focus on Samhain, and the presence of Myers actor and stunt coordinator Dick Warlock. Warlock and the other Irish automatons are like dapper Michael Myers clones. They remind me of the men in black – the more sinister, non-Will Smith variety. Dick Warlock himself gets a chance to recreate the Myers-appearing-out-of-the-dark shot that had appeared in the previous two Halloweens.  All of these things considered, the transition from Halloween II to Halloween III is surprisingly graceful, despite the two movies existing in different horror subgenres.

The movie, despite lacking the slasher label, doesn’t shy away from brutal death. It was the reason why Season of the Witch’s first screenwriter, Quatermass-creator Nigel Kneale, had his name removed from the film. Conal Cochran and his robot Irishmen rack up a modest body count in the film’s runtime. Even those not directly in opposition to Cochran’s sinister plan are murdered, be it by “misfire” or simply as a sick demonstration for Dr. Challis. I find Marge Guttman’s death to be the most unsettling. After taking an energy beam to the face, her mouth is horrifically mutilated. Her lips have been blown apart, revealing a shattered set of front teeth. The giant insect that crawls out of her gaping mouth is the cherry on top. The demonstration scene may show what happens when Cochran’s power is channeled properly, but it is even more gruesome when things don’t go quite right.

The soundtrack is a notable deviation from the other Halloween films. While it is created by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, the feeling is vastly different. The music underpins almost every scene in the movie. Droning synths stretch endlessly, with little flairs of melody rising up on occasion. Other times, the melodic patterns are short and highly repetitive. The only excerpt from the soundtrack that deviates from this trend is “Drive to Santa Mira”, which, interestingly enough, doesn’t sound too far removed from Laurie’s Theme. It has a faster tempo, but the rhythmic pattern feels the same. Everything else, however, is a mechanical drone. I don’t mind that it is though. I think, in its own way, it works, and serves the movie exactly as it ought to. The music is meant to set the mood after all, and this score does just that.

Conal Cochran is, in my opinion, one of the best baddies in horror. He’s not a disfigured monster or a psychotic slasher. He’s a businessman. It’s an innocuous occupation, selling cheap gags and Halloween masks, but from it he has yielded a fortune. It’s not all fun and games though. He holds the town of Santa Mira in his Orwellian grasp. The true motive behind his business, as it turns out, is to celebrate the festival of Samhain through a mass sacrifice. He explains it all in great detail in a chilling monologue to Challis. Cochran is a man who loves the October season, the season of the witch. It goes beyond his grand scheme. Halloween morning, he marches Challis along to a holding cell. Outside the factory, Cochran stops. He takes a deep breath, savoring the feeling in the air, before continuing with a little extra giddiness in his step. It seems the movie too savors this feeling, whether it be in establishing shots of Santa Mira or the trick-or-treating montage. Halloween III channels the spirit of the season perfectly.

And that’s ultimately why I chose it as the final film in this year’s 31 Nights of Horror. It is everything I love about Halloween stuffed into 98 minutes. In the same way that The Wicker Man has become a staple every October 1st, Halloween III is a must-watch for me on October 31st. I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has been following this review series. It was certainly a learning experience for me, but I am pleased with the results. I absolutely intend to do it again next October. I hope that you will join me then and help bring in the best time of the year in proper fashion. Thank you again, and…Happy Halloween.

Night 31_Halloween III Sunset

Other Reviews

Night 30: Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

30. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

And you thought there were a lot of jack-o-lanterns in the Halloween films…

For All Hallow’s Eve Eve, let’s have a look at Trick ‘r Treat. No, not the awesome 1986 horror film about an undead glam metal guitarist. That’s Trick OR Treat. And it’s not that godawful horror movie about a babysitter stuck with the director’s brat of a son while his fictional father breaks out of a mental institution. That one’s Trick or Treats. Plural. I assure you the movie has no treats. Only one big trick…

But what about Trick ‘r Treat? It’s a horror anthology written and directed by Michael Dougherty, who you may recognize for directing Krampus and the upcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters. There are four stories, but unlike other horror anthologies, these ones are interwoven and not chronological. Despite this, it’s easy to follow along because each story is distinct.

Night 30_Trick r Treat Poster

My favorite story is about the Halloween vandal. A kid goes around a neighborhood smashing jack-o-lanterns and taking more candy than he should. He gets caught by his school principal, Steven Wilkins (played perfectly by Dylan Baker), who gives him a stern lecture about Halloween. The kid suddenly vomits up blood. He was poisoned by Wilkins. Now the principal has to dispose of the body, which ends up being a little more complicated than he’d like. This is the most darkly humorous of the stories. It’s the first story and is the only one that’s told all in one go. However, Wilkins’ story does not end there. He pops up in another story as well, but things don’t go nearly as well for him there.

I also like the Halloween School Bus Massacre story. It’s an urban legend in the fictional town of Warren Valley about a school bus driver who murdered eight mentally handicapped children because their parents didn’t want to deal with them anymore. The school bus was driven into a quarry, and the driver was the only survivor. I’m a sucker for ghost stories and urban legends. The opening campfire scene in The Fog (1980), for instance, might be my favorite scene in the whole movie, so having characters explore the urban legend of the massacre is a surefire success in my book.

Trick ‘r Treat is one of the finest films to celebrate Halloween with. It’s creepy, but not terrifying. People who aren’t usually into horror movies may find that this is perfectly watchable. There are a few jump scares, but you’ll get that in just about anything horror in the past fifty years. Comes with the territory. Trick ‘r Treat is a seasonal delight, and it presents everything that makes Halloween and the season surrounding it so wonderful. From the Halloween decorations to the excessive number of jack-o-lanterns to werewolves and ghosts, this movie has it all. And it also gives us a horror icon in Sam. He looks a bit like child-sized scarecrow and goes around with a jack-o-lantern lollipop, which serves less as candy and more as a weapon to slice up Halloween misers and other wrong-doers. He’s great, and fills a similar role to the Creep in Creepshow. Sam is more the silent type though. No creepy laugh or puns. Just a lollipop and a mission.

So get ready for the Halloween festivities, and make sure you’re passing out candy. Otherwise, Sam might just visit you too…

Night 30_Trick r Treat Kids

Other Reviews

Night 29: House of 1000 Corpses (2003) Night 31: Halloween III (!982)