Though the temperatures in Oklahoma have remained in the 90s all week, it is technically Autumn and it is technically October, traditionally two of my favorite times of the year. I love the cool, crisp air. I adore the changing colors, and the potpourri of smells. I always enjoy October when we throw our traditional pumpkin carving party, dress the daughter in a silly costume and I get to watch lots and lots of horror movies.
This week has been hot and humid, the leaves haven’t changed, and I’ve not had a single bit of anything that tastes like pumpkin, but I have started watching horror movies, many of which we will be talking about. But first a comedic drama from the 1930s.
When I was in college, I was friends with a couple of guys named Jason and Charlie. They were both theater majors; they were friends and sometimes roommates. They also fought like cats and dogs. They were like The Odd Couple (they actually played Oscar and Felix in The Odd Couple for their senior play). Charlie used to make fun of Jason at every opportunity. Jason owned a copy of The Women on VHS and for unknown reasons, Charlie latched on to this and made relentless fun of him for it. So much so that it became a kind of code word. Whenever Jason would do something ridiculous, Charlie would turn to me and other guys in on the joke and say in a sarcastic tone. “The Women!” as if that explained everything.
It wasn’t until years later that I actually bothered to see what the movie was about and just this week that I actually watched it. To my surprise, it's quite good. It has a great cast including Norman Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell. There isn’t a single male in the cast and that includes the horses and the dog. It was also written by women, Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, and based upon the play by another woman, Claire Boothe Luce. It was directed by a man, but if you are gonna have your all-woman movie directed by a man, you couldn’t do better than George Cukor.
Strangely though it is an all-woman cast, I don’t think it actually passes the Bechdel Test as all the women seem to talk about is their no-good men. But oh, how they talk. They talk fast and furiously funny. It is a film you need to watch twice just to catch all the jokes and jabs.
The Blair Witch Project
In 1997, two unknown filmmakers tracked into the Maryland woods with three unknown actors and made a micro-budget horror film. It became the film to see at the Sundance Film Festival and thanks to an imaginative viral internet campaign it became the highest grossing independent film of all time. I remember my buddy Charlie (yes, the same one who made fun of The Women) e-mailing me about this new movie coming out about a group of filmmakers who went into the woods to make a documentary about a witch and never came back. He was pretty sure it was a fake story, but it might actually be true. The movie looked really cool either way. I spent some time on the website, all of which was designed to make it look like a true story (even the IMDB page listed the actors as missing and presumed dead).
When it finally hit theaters I was psyched. I saw it opening weekend. It scared the holy crap out of me. I’d never seen anything like it before. It wasn’t the first found-footage horror film ever made but it was definitely the biggest and it absolutely influenced all of the ones that came after it. Thing is though, while I loved it, I also felt it was a film that would only work once. I didn’t watch it again in the theater and was secretly upset when my brother bought it on DVD for me at Christmas. I still have that DVD but I’ve never watched it.
This week, nearly 20 years after its release, I decided to give it another chance. It mostly holds up. The first act in which these three characters are interviewing the townsfolk and making their pretentious documentary is a bit of a slog. It is important as it gives us the information we need to understand what happens after, but knowing all that stuff ahead of time makes it all really dull. It is (intentionally) poorly shot and the acting is bad and I just wanted to fast forward. Once they get lost in the woods and the creepy stuff starts happening, I was all tuned in. It isn’t nearly as shocking now, and I wasn’t surprised by anything (amazingly, I remembered pretty much all of the film two decades later) but there are still some truly terrifying moments. The noises at night still freaked me out and when they come back to the same log is still a really affecting scene. That ending still lands completely.
Now that I’ve seen it again, I have no desire to watch it for another twenty years, but I’m glad it can still scare me.
Hold the Dark
Jeremy Saulnier’s latest film is a Netflix release. It stars Jeffrey Wright as a writer and wolf expert who is called to a tiny village in a remote part of Alaska by Medora Sloan (Riley Keough). She says her son was dragged off into the woods by wolves and she wants him to track the animal down and kill it. He soon learns there is more to this story than he originally believed, especially when Medora’s husband (Alexander Skarsgård) comes back from the war and begins a streak of terrible violence.
Saulnier leaves a lot to the imagination in terms of plot pieces (but not in violence, that’s pretty graphic) which makes it a bit hard to follow at times. I had to do some research to fully understand its ending. But it's beautifully shot and has some really nice set pieces. It's definitely not his best film, but it is well worth watching.
The Curse of Frankenstein
By the end of the 1940s, audiences had turned away from the classic horror film and more toward science fiction/horror hybrids featuring atomic monsters and villains. In the late 1950s, a little studio in England brought all the classic monsters back. Through the rest of the 1960s, Hammer Film Productions churned out dozens of gothic horror films starring many of the monsters Universal had made famous two decades before. The films were immensely popular and hugely influential.
Made in 1957, The Curse of Frankenstein was the first. It stars Peter Cushing as Dr. Victor Frankenstein and Christoper Lee as the monster. It retells the classic Frankenstein story (though it is careful not to look too much like the original Universal picture as they were poised to sue) but this time in color and with more violence. There are severed hands, acid baths, and a pair of eyes in a jar. Yet it is a rather bloodless affair with most of the actual violence occurring just off screen.
It was my fist venture into Hammer Horror and it was exactly what I was hoping for. Its a bit cheesy, fabulously gothic and a whole lot of fun.
Daleks' Invasion of Earth 2150 A.D.
With the summer over and the daughter back in school, I cancelled my subscription to Britbox and with it all the classic Doctor Who episodes. I signed back up to Filmstruck and found that they have both of the old non-canon Doctor Who movies starring Peter Cushing. It is based on the very much part of the canon Doctor Who serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth (which I have not seen).
It isn’t very good, but it is fun to see old Doctor Who in color and with a bigger budget. Cushing seems a bit confused most of the time and Bernard Cribbins (who played Donna’s daddy in the new series) is quite fun as a bumbling police man. I’d recommend it to hard core fans, but pretty much everyone else can stay away.
Forty years ago, a little known filmmaker made a tiny budget horror movie with a cast of mostly unknown actors. It became a huge success and changed horror movies forever. John Carpenter’s Halloween remains one of the greatest horror movies ever made and helped usher in, for better and for worse, the 1980s infatuation with knife-wielding maniacs. I am forever grateful.
Film critic (and person who seems to be on every podcast I listen to these days) Amy Nicholson has created a new eight-part podcast series on the movie, how it got made, and where it got us. The first two episodes have dropped and they are both amazing.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina