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.

Aquaman_Poster

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.

Aquaman_Aquaman

Advertisements

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)

20. Die Monster Die! (1965)

A bad 80’s film made in the 1960’s. Trust me, it makes sense.

Previously in 31 Nights of Horror, we’ve looked at two different Lovecraft-inspired horror films: In the Mouth of Madness (1994) and The Resurrected (1992). The latter was based on the H.P. Lovecraft story The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which was also adapted loosely in the 1960’s as Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace (1963). This was one of the only movies based on a Lovecraft story in the 1960’s. The other was Die Monster Die! Made two years later, it was based on The Colour Out of Space, which was the story Lovecraft wrote after completing The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Like The Haunted Palace, the filmmakers only lift concepts from the source material, not the plot. If memory serves correct, Die Monster Die! does credit H.P. Lovecraft’s source material in the credits. The Haunted Palace did not.

Night 20_Die Monster Die Poster

Die Monster Die! is without question the stranger of these two beasts. The plot revolves around an American scientist named Stephen Reinhart (played by Xilien-fighting badass Nick Adams) visiting his British fiancée, Susan (Suzan Farmer). She lives with her parents still, however, and they carry quite the reputation in the little town of Arkham. The father, Nahum Witley (Boris Karloff), is a mysterious scientist hiding a dark secret beneath his house. The mother, Latetia (Freda Jackson), is disfigured and bedridden. Nahum is protective of his daughter and insists Reinhart leave. Reinhart doesn’t budge, and the longer he stays in the house, the more horror he and Susan discover.

One of the things that fascinates me about this movie is the abundance of ideas and subplots. On top of the central mystery, there’s a story about the Witley maid, Helga, who cosplays as the Woman in Black. While she’s creepy, her story is completely overlooked. There’s another story about Witley’s greenhouse of sentient plants and abominations. They show up for a scene, and then they’re never brought up again. There’s also some family history thing going on with Nahum, but it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. The story just meanders wherever it feels like, and you as the viewer are caught on this roller coaster of a movie.

Perhaps, if the characters were more developed, this Frankenstein’s monster of a plot would come alive. Reinhart is the dashing, defiant young protagonist. He spends a lot of the movie walking around, receiving an earful of exposition, or ordering Susan around. Susan, the poor woman, doesn’t have much to do other than say, “Oh, Steve” with every possible inflection. Letitia is a decent character, but because the movie never can focus on one thing, she feels somewhat forgotten when it launches into the third act. Patrick Magee appears in a scene as a local doctor who has abandoned his practice and drinks away his days. Does he offer anything new to the story? Not really. And last but certainly not least is Nahum, a character made memorable simply because Boris Karloff is present. Even in his later years, Karloff brought dignity to every one of his roles. He’s the guy you came to see, and he does not disappoint.

Boris Karloff may be what gets you in the seat, but it’s the effects-heavy story that’ll makes you stay. Die Monster Die! is, in some ways, a bad but imaginative 80’s horror film two decades before its time. When the second half rolls around, the movie throws everything it has at you. Disfigured people, melting faces, explosions, monsters with tentacles, evil plants, glowing stones, and, of course, a radioactive metal man. It’s positively bonkers and certainly a deviation from the norm when it comes to misguided horror movies of the time.

This really helps to set Die Monster Die! apart from the pack. It certainly doesn’t remedy the glaring issues in the narrative, characters, or pacing. But think of how many 80’s horror movies fall into the same camp with regards to quality. Weak story with an emphasis on special effects…what a familiar mantra that is.

Night 20_Die Monster Die Window Watcher

Other Reviews

Night 19: Nosferatu (1922) Night 21: Demon Wind (1990)

19. Nosferatu (1922)

You can’t kill an iconic vampire with mere copyright infringement, you fools!

We all remember how we first stumbled upon some of our favorite movies. Sometimes, it’s a bit unorthodox. My introduction to Nosferatu, for example, wasn’t by means of a 50-horror movie box set or the video store. No, it was quite unusual. You see, it was Spongebob Squarepants that gave me my first look at Count Orlok. In the classic episode “Graveyard Shift”, Spongebob and Squidward are forced to work a 24-hour shift by Mr. Krabs. The night brings with it few customers but many scares. This is made all the worse by a story Squidward tells of the Hash-Slinging Slasher. While the story is made up and a job applicant is mistaken for the Slasher, the culprit behind the lights flickering turns out to be none other than Count Orlok.

Night 19_Nosferatu Poster

And that’s the first time I saw him. Shortly thereafter, I believe I read one of the Crestwood Monster books about Dracula from my elementary school library, which included a section on Nosferatu and the illegality surrounding it. I didn’t understand what copyright was at the time, of course, but the look of Count Orlok always stuck with me.

It’d be years before I actually saw Nosferatu. The first time I watched it, I thought it was alright. It was good, but kinda slow. I preferred the gothic atmosphere of Dracula (1931). Bela Lugosi was the original vampire. Repeated viewings have changed my opinion, however. I don’t know if Nosferatu tops Dracula, but it is a horror masterpiece, sitting right alongside Häxan as one of the creepiest and most entertaining silent era horror flicks.

The lack of style I originally perceived was wrong. The style of Nosferatu has elements of German expressionism, but it isn’t as apparent as in the surrealistic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Nosferatu was made on a tight budget and was the only film produced by Prana Film, as they folded to avoid copyright infringement by Bram Stoker’s estate. This shows in the practicality of locations. There are many scenes that are filmed in actual locations and not sets. The result is a more realistic experience than Caligari, although the exaggerated acting of the silent era keeps the movie hovering a couple inches above reality at all times.

The plot is familiar to most everyone because it’s adapted largely adapted from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Names are changed, some secondary characters are removed, and the ending is changed as well, but these are the only major differences. For a silent film, the movie along at a brisk pace—almost as fast as Orlok’s carriage, which, in one scene, nearly crashes into the woods. I’ve watched the shorter and restored versions of the film, and the shorter version might actually work better. It’s better paced, at the very least. The longer version allows the mood to sink in a little deeper. The dread of Orlok’s castle creeps in on you slowly in the restored version, where in the shorter cut, Orlok is practically leaping on Hutter the moment he enters the castle.

Speaking of the Count, he is a vile creature, a gross incarnation of evil with piercing eyes and an unsettlingly long body. Max Schreck was 6’3” (aside: F.W. Murnau was a colossal 6’11”!), and he wears a long coat that accentuates his height. Add to this his poise, the lowered-arm posture and the way the frame is used and he feels like a giant. Later incarnations of Dracula would not be as ghastly, but in 1979, we were treated to the incredibly spooky Salem’s Lot, in which the main vampire, Kurt Barlow, resembles Nosferatu. Director Tobe Hooper ups the creepiness factor by making Barlow a voiceless fiend with hypnotic yellow eyes. Barlow is the single scariest vampire put to film, in my opinion, and he is made that way thanks to the iconic look brought to the screen over seventy years earlier by Max Schreck and F.W. Murnau.

Night 19_Nosferatu Look

Other Reviews

Night 18: The Resurrected (1992) Night 20: Die Monster Die! (1965)

First Thoughts: HALLOWEEN (2018)

The perfect revival for a new generation of horror fans.

[Spoiler Free Territory Below!]

I’m going to go ahead and say it: this is the best Halloween sequel ever. Actually, I’ll add a caveat to that—the best sequel featuring Michael Myers. Halloween III holds a very special place in my heart. The Shape has come home to Haddonfield, and he’s more ruthless than ever.

I was nervous going into this movie, I’ll be honest. My expectations were high. While some people expressed mixed feelings about it, horror fans and enthusiasts seemed to be in universal agreement. I didn’t want to be the one to report back and say, “guys, it isn’t as good as everyone thinks it is”.

Halloween Poster

The great news is that I don’t have to say that.  The writing trio of Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, and David Gordon Green have put together an intense and incredibly effective slasher film. There are nods to the original (as well as to Halloween III) and a decent amount of humor as well, but this is a serious movie. I’m thankful they went with that tone, because I don’t want another humorous slasher movie. We already got Hell Fest this year and Happy Death Day last year—which, by the way, I got a trailer for its sequel before this movie, and I’m 100% ready for February to get here.

The serious tone is important because it makes Michael Myers scary again. He’s not taking any kicks from Busta Rhymes here. He stabs, strangles, and stabs his way through person after person. This Michael is reenergized. When he needs to be terrifying, he is. I appreciate the fact that they brought back not only Nick Castle, but also Tony Moran, the guy who portrayed Michael when he wasn’t wearing his mask in the original. It doesn’t make or break the movie, but it demonstrates the care Green took in making this movie and love he has for the franchise.

Halloween, to me, is what Halloween H2O should’ve been. Laurie Strode finally gets to confront the Boogeyman that has driven her into isolation and ruined her life. Jamie Lee Curtis is a badass. She’s been training for decades for the night he came home again. However, she’s also a deeply troubled character. Her paranoia broke her family apart. She is on bad terms with her daughter, but has a secretive and closer relationship with her granddaughter. The dynamic between three generations of Strodes is well-executed and one of many highlights in the movie.

Lastly, I want to talk about the makeup effects in Halloween (designed by Christopher Nelson). I was talking with someone on Twitter about how the series hasn’t relied heavily on bloody death scenes to be scary. The original is practically bloodless, and the sequels aren’t known for their excessive brutality. This Halloween…it is brutal. One character mentions early on how the killings back in 1978 weren’t anything special and that a lot worse has happened since. And he’s right…a lot worse happens this Halloween night. Halloween doesn’t beat out The Littlest Reich or Terrifier for goriest picture of the year, and that’s certainly for the best, but it is the bloodiest a Halloween movie has ever been—yes, even more than Rob Zombie’s Halloween movies.

The music is a refreshing update, and the opening credits are a brilliant nod to the original’s iconic credits. There. I’ve said all I’m going to say. If you’re a Halloween fan and you haven’t bought your tickets yet to see this movie, stop what you’re doing and go buy them right now! Do it or the Boogeyman will getcha!

Halloween Jamie Lee

18. The Resurrected (1992)

Is it too late to resurrect the original title, Shatterbrain?

Tonight’s movie is another Lovecraft-inspired story, this time directed by Alien-co-creator Dan O’Bannon. The Resurrected is based on the H.P. Lovecraft novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which had previously been adapted in the 1960’s by Roger Corman in The Haunted Palace (1963). The Resurrected is a more faithful adaptation written by Brent V. Friedman, whose credits include Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and uh…Foodfight!…? Oh no…

Night 18_Resurrected Poster

Pay no heed to those credits, friend! The Resurrected is an unironically enjoyable movie. For one thing, the movie is elevated by the presence of veteran actors like John Terry and Chris Sarandon. Robert Romanus and Jane Sibbett round out the main cast, and they all do an excellent job, especially Sarandon. His role requires him to jump from one personality to the next, and, like Vincent Price in The Haunted Palace, he hits it out of the park. Robert Romanus is my favorite of the bunch as Lonnie Peck, John Terry’s investigative partner and jokey sidekick. He has a recurring gag in the movie about smoking that’s pretty amusing.

The movie’s plot is straightforward, but it’s complicated slightly by layers of flashbacks. It never becomes incomprehensible or even that hard to follow, but keeping up with all the exposition is a bit of work. Granted, this is a detective movie about private investigator John March looking into the strange behavior of Charles Dexter Ward, so lots of exposition is to be expected. The Resurrected may dump novels worth of backstory on you, but it manages to maintain a level of intrigue thanks to the tight editing and performances.

It reaches what seems to be the final act pretty quickly, in fact, as John March and Co. set out to investigate Ward’s house and blow it up. Up until this point, the movie has been cut in such a way that it more or less shows what is necessary to tell the story. Upon arriving at the house, the movie’s pace slows tremendously. It allows us to get immersed into the creepy vibes of the old house, but it is also a dramatic shift that makes the time spent in the house and its catacombs feel twice as long as it actually is. One of the things that makes these scenes in the dark and dank catacombs unique, however, is the lighting. Dan O’Bannon was insistent that all the scenes be shot with natural light only. That amounts to a flashlight, a lantern, and matches. When the producers found out what O’Bannon had done, they were terrified of what the results would look like. They may be entirely unusable because of how dark it is. Fortunately, this is not the case, and these scenes are enhanced greatly because of this creative decision. The catacombs were a massive set created for the film, but most of the time, they’re bathed in darkness. You don’t see everything, but what you do see is creepy. This works better than what adding artificial lighting would’ve done. You notice the absence of extra light. If it were lit in a more traditional way, the slowed pace of the house and catacombs scenes would be even more detrimental.

The other interesting aspect of these scenes, and the movie in general, are the special effects by Todd Masters. The animatronic monstrosities created by Sarandon’s, such as the one that washes up on the riverbank, are excellent. The physical suit for the main monster (played by Deep Roy) and other makeup effects are great too. The only glaring flaw is in the stop motion. The nod to Ray Harryhausen in the climax aside, the animation isn’t very good. This is a problem especially in the catacombs where it’s already hard to tell what’s going on. When the main monster isn’t stop motion though, he looks fantastic.

Of all the Lovecraft-inspired horror films that I’ve seen, The Resurrected very well might be my favorite of the bunch. It struggles in places, but the cast is strong and there’s an engaging mystery at the core of the story. The only mystery left at the end of the movie is how in the hell it didn’t get a theatrical release in the United States.

Night 18_Resurrected Chris

Other Reviews

Night 17: In the Mouth of Madness (1994) Night 19: Nosferatu (1922)

17. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Live any good movies lately?

Everybody knows who John Carpenter is. Everybody knows that he was THE horror master of the 70’s and 80’s, with films like Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982) ranking among the best ever made. However, when it comes to which of his films is the scariest, there isn’t as definitive of an answer. Halloween and The Thing both have their moments, but I personally am more entertained by them than I am terrified. I actually find Prince of Darkness to be a more unnerving sit than either of those films. But if we are talking about the scariest film that John Carpenter ever directed, the answer for me is easy: In the Mouth of Madness.

Night 17_Mouth of Madness Poster

I had seen every John Carpenter horror movie made before In the Mouth of Madness, from Halloween to Body Bags (1993). I had certain expectations about how the film would look and how the scares would be presented. In the Mouth of Madness eschewed from the familiar Carpenter conventions in favor of something different. The screenplay wasn’t written by Carpenter, so that may contribute to the lack of distinguishable characteristics. Screenwriter Michael De Luca offered it to Carpenter, who initially passed on it. Tony Randel (Hellraiser II: Hellbound, Amityville 1992: It’s About Time) was set to direct in 1989, and then Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary, Pet Sematary Two) before the project fell back in Carpenter’s lap in 1993.

In the Mouth of Madness is the story of John Trent, a mental patient who previously worked as a freelance insurance investigator. Trent is brought on by Arcane Publishing to find acclaimed horror writer Sutter Cane, who has mysteriously vanished. Cane’s stories are known to induce disorientation and paranoia, but Trent is skeptical of these claims. That is, until he reads the books himself. He begins seeing things, and these visions follow him on his journey, eventually manifesting as the fictional town of Hobb’s End, a town from Cane’s stories and where he continues to write his newest book, In the Mouth of Madness.

The H.P. Lovecraft influences are undeniably creepy. The reveal is gradual, but once Trent is on his own in Hobb’s End, he witnesses bodily transformations that rivals the likes of films like Society (1989). This movie really is an excellent showcase for some awesome practical effects work from Greg Nicotero, Robert Kurtzman, and Howard Berger—all of whom have filmographies way too large to pick highlights from.

What really gets me isn’t the tentacles or the Exorcist-esque spider-walk. The most terrifying part of this movie is when Trent is on the road with editor Linda Styles. She’s driving when she passes a kid on a bicycle riding in the same direction, who eerily fades in her taillights. Then, she passes him again, only this time he’s an old man riding in the opposite direction. She keeps on driving and looks down at a map when suddenly, the bicyclist is in her lane. She hits him. When she rushes back to help him, in a boyish voice he gasps “it won’t let me out”. Tanya stands back up, only to notice the bicyclist behind her, smiling. He rides off into the darkness once more. This scene scares the hell out of me largely because it reminds me of a nightmare I had when I was younger. The movie taps into a childhood fear that few other films ever have. There are other scares in movie that are creepy too, but none come as close as that scene.

I wouldn’t consider In the Mouth of Madness my favorite John Carpenter film. The scares are there, but I feel like it lacks his signature touch. Maybe it’s the cinematography, or the downplayed soundtrack. I can’t place my finger on it. However, if what you’re looking for is a spiral into Lovecraftian madness, this movie is practically unrivaled.

Night 17_Mouth of Madness Ax

Other Reviews

Night 16: Amityville II: The Possession (1982) Night 18: The Resurrected (1992)

16. Amityville II: The Possession (1982)

The world’s most dysfunctional family moves into the world’s evilest house. What could go possibly go wrong?

The Amityville Horror (1979) was a box office success upon release, grossing nearly twenty times its budget. It was based loosely on the debunked story of George and Kathleen Lutz moving into a haunted house, where two years prior Ronald DeFeo murdered his family in their sleep. In spite of its success, the movie was not well received by critics. Even today, it holds a mediocre 31% on Rotten Tomatoes. Like all successful films, good or bad, it earned a sequel.

Night 16_Amityville II Poster

Amityville II: The Possession is not a sequel. Even if the Walkman, vehicles, and televisions suggest otherwise, this film is in fact a prequel to The Amityville Horror. It tells the story of the fictional Montelli family, stand-ins for the real-life DeFeo family. The Montellis are, simply put, a disaster. This family would self-destruct whether the Amityville house was haunted or not, but it just so happens they’re dealing with the most hyperactive ghosts put to film. Within minutes of the movie starting, Dolores has seen the sink bleed and felt a presence in the basement. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. The ghosts write all over the kids’ wall and go full-Poltergeist briefly, and they cause the kitchen to explode when Sonny shakes hands with Father Adamsky. Meanwhile, Burt Young is assaulting his wife and children, Dolores is sent into a murderous rage, and Patricia is shrieking for all the madness to stop. The last thing this family needed was an evil spirit, but dagnabbit, they got one.

As if the fighting isn’t enough, director Damiano Damiani inserted an incest subplot into the movie. There’s an immediate sexual tension between Sonny and Patricia, but you don’t really expect it to go there. Sure enough, it does. The scene is sleazy as hell. Damiani said he wanted to make audiences feel uncomfortable. It was longer at one point and showed them having sex, but it was trimmed. I have no idea what compelled the producers to do that.

One of the things that I find so fascinating about Amityville II is that it’s a movie where half the scares are effective and the other half are laughably bad. The scene in which Sonny is stalked by an unseen demonic presence and then jumped on is overlong and poorly executed, generating more groans than chills. Then the movie turns around and delivers a downright terrifying sequence in which Sonny executes his entire family in the middle of a thunderstorm. Sonny is completely ruthless, and it is distressing seeing most of the characters we’ve developed connections to, including the two innocent children, Jan and Mark, die so suddenly. The makeup work by Joe Cuervo gives the somewhat unimposing Jack Magner a demonic expression that ups the creepy big time.

The second half of the movie turns into an 80’s remake of The Exorcist, but because of its uneven tone and a story that always feels like it’s one sharp turn from going off the rails, it can’t hope to match that film’s atmosphere. Again, the makeup work is impressive, especially the final transformation. A couple good scares make it a satisfying but unoriginal ending.

The Amityville franchise would go on to get its first actual sequel in 1983 with Amityville 3-D. The gimmickry is on par with other horror films at the time, but it was a bomb critically and commercially and would be the last Amityville movie to be released theatrically until the 2005 remake. Six more films related to The Amityville Horror came out before then, all weirdly enough dealing with furniture from the house (and sometimes not even from the house). After the remake, twelve more were released. Yes, twelve. I’ve seen most of them, and they are categorically terrible. I’d go so far as to call them some of the worst horror films I’ve ever seen.

So count your blessings, folks, even if one of those blessings is an uneven, cash-in “sequel” to a mediocre horror film. You may find that it works in its own unique, twisted way.

Night 16_Amityville II Gun

Other Reviews

Night 15: Curse of the Demon (1957) Night 17: In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

15. Curse of the Demon (1957)

At 10:00, it arrives. At 10:01, you’re dead.

We’re halfway through the month of October. Where I live, the autumnal air has finally vanquished the summer heat. The leaves are beginning to lose their summer green. Everyone has their Halloween decorations set up outside, and there’s that one neighbor who gets really into it and has way more decorations than anyone else on the street. You know the one. All signs that Halloween night is drawing nearer.

Curse of the Demon (originally Night of the Demon in the UK, not to be confused with the 80’s cult hit Night of the Demons) is the perfect movie to bisect this October. If you’ve been following along with 31 Nights of Horror, then you may recognize the similarities between The Wicker Man, Curse of the Demon, and Halloween III: Season of the Witch. In The Wicker Man, a fertility ritual takes place in a circle of stones similar to those in Stonehenge. Curse of the Demon opens on a shot of Stonehenge, and it factors lightly into the plot. And in Halloween III, Stonehenge plays an integral part in the story’s plot. Curse of the Demon is the midway point between the grounded reality of The Wicker Man and the supernatural world of Halloween III.

Night 15_Curse FPoster

After the opening scene in which a professor is killed by a giant demon, we are introduced to Dr. John Holden, a skeptic of all things supernatural. When he finds out about his colleague’s death, Holden investigates. His meeting with the enigmatic and sinister Julian Karswell sets off a series of events that shake Holden’s beliefs in a purely scientific world to the core.

Curse of the Demon was directed by Jacques Tourneur, the man who pioneered the jump scare in the horror classic Cat People (1942). He throws in a number of jump scares here, and they’re effective fake outs, even by today’s standards. Like in Cat People, Tourneur wanted to keep the monster off screen, leaving the viewer to conjure up the demon in their own heads. Producer Hal E. Chester differed with Tourneur and had the demon show up onscreen at the beginning and end of the film. This was a decision that infuriated both Tourneur and screenwriter Charles Bennett, the latter of whom was so belligerent that he said he’d have shot Chester dead if showed up at his house. Yikes. This is a rare instance where I find myself siding with the producer’s decision. We’ve seen how badly these things can go (*cough* Halloween VI *cough*), but here, the demon’s inclusion works to the film’s benefit. Is it hokey looking? Yeah, a little. At the same time, it’s a creepy effect as the demon materializes out of the smoke and floats towards its prey. The plan originally was to get stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen to create the demon, which, as cool as that could’ve been, may not have had the same impact. The demon has a ghostly presence. It’s movements from faraway are subtle and add to its eeriness. I don’t believe stop motion could’ve captured that ethereal vibe.

Beyond the demon and the scares, the story is quite engaging. Julian Karswell is one of the best horror villains of the 1950’s. When he isn’t conjuring a giant demon to kill his enemies, he’s entertaining children with Halloween shows and keeping to himself. I wonder how much happier of a movie this could’ve been if no one bothered to investigate Karswell’s cult. But that’s not the movie we got. People need to die, and Karswell’s going to be the one to see it happen. The ever-skeptic Dr. Holden is a perfect adversary for Karswell. As he investigates, Holden does not let himself jump to any supernatural conclusions. He’s scientific, but finally relents and believes that the demon is real as the time of its arrival draws nearer. This leads to an amazing confrontation between Karswell and Holden where the tables are turned and Karswell is doing everything in his power not to fall victim to his own curse. In the end, one of them must face the demon’s wrath.

Curse of the Demon is as good as old school horror gets. From a technical standpoint, it’s stellar. The cinematography is a particular strength of the film, much as it was in Tourneur’s other horror classics Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). As we enter the second half of October, the supernatural has become the natural. Demons, vampires, werewolves…they’re all undeniably real. The horrors of the night draw closer. There’s no turning back now.

Night 15_Curse Clown

Other Reviews

Night 14: The Blair Witch Project (1999) Night 16: Amityville II: The Possession (1982)