Halloween Every Day (for a Month) Day 1: Intro/The Cabin in the Woods

Halloween Every Day (for a Month)

By Andrew Neil Cole

Introduction:

Like a lot of cinephiles, I believe that Halloween is less about trick-or-treating, costumes, candy, and parties than it is about reclaiming a small piece of yesteryear through watching (or more likely re-watching) our favorite horror movies. In fact, Halloween is, for horror fans, much more than one single day denoted by a grinning jack-o’-lantern in the final calendar square for the month of October. No, Halloween begins on the first day of October and doesn’t end until the sun rises on the first day of November. That gives us 31 glorious days to bask in the warm, nostalgic glow that can only be created (or recreated) by our favorite cinematic boogeymen. After all, what better way to feel like a kid again then to relive what it felt like the first time you saw a movie that made you sleep with the lights on and the covers pulled tightly over your head?

So, in the true spirit of Halloween (as defined by us movie fans), I, your Humble Heckler, have decided to take on a challenge: I will watch one horror movie every day throughout the month of October and faithfully record my experiences here. The idea to do this comes from an assignment I was once given as a film student in college. A professor I greatly respected required his students to watch two films a week and simply respond to them in a diary of sorts. What did we like about each film? What didn’t we like? Did a certain film remind us of other films? If so, how?  He was looking for gut reactions—but informed, well-considered gut reactions. The assignment forced me to get out of my head, set all academic pretense aside, and simply let a movie happen to me. As a result, I found greatness in movies that had been written off by the critical community, and I found that I didn’t particularly care for certain films and filmmakers that had been universally adored. It was a great lesson. Therefore, the movies I choose to view will not necessarily be my favorites. My goal will not be to watch specific horror movies but to have a larger, more complete experience with the horror genre as a whole by watching a lot of movies in a relatively short period of time. I will not be making a “best of” list, nor will I be assigning films a rank or a grade of any kind. I’ll do my best to select a wide variety of horror types and classifications. I’ll also do my best to select movies from different eras and to avoid choosing too many obvious titles—there will be no Friday the 13th movies, no Scream movies, no Saw movies, and no sequels of any kind. What follows will not be a series of reviews but rather a collection of subject-specific responses, reflections, and musings.

Enough said. Let’s get started!

Day 1: The Cabin in the Woods (2012).  CabWoods

In the years following John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween, the horror genre took a turn for the worse. In fact, it can be argued that Halloween represents the genre’s definitive line of demarcation, in that virtually every horror film since 1978 has an appreciable pre-Halloween or post-Halloween feel to it. After Carpenter proved that a low-budget slasher flick could make untold millions for its producers, businessmen with absolutely no interest in film, let alone horror, saw an opportunity to cash in and pounced like carrion birds on a fresh carcass. To this assemblage of heartless capitalists, an investment of a few hundred thousand could mean tens of millions in profit, and soon the market was flooded with Halloween wannabes. Every weekend a new masked assailant stalked a collection of sexually promiscuous teens at a theater near you. Interesting, fleshed-out characters and strong, driving suspense narratives were instantly jettisoned and replaced by archetypal caricatures heedlessly meandering through a loose collection of slaughter scenarios. The horror genre would never be the same.

With The Cabin in the Woods, director Drew Goddard and co-writer/producer Joss Whedon seem to be pointing an accusatory finger directly at the kind of filmmaking that occurred on the post-Halloween side of that line of demarcation. Genre conventions are both openly mocked yet necessary to the film’s overall structure. Torture porn and the excessive use of graphic violence as entertainment in horror cinema are clearly criticized while the film dumps buckets of blood and goo on everyone and everything in sight. Characters are written to satirize the preordained fates of modern horror film caricatures (the dumb blonde, the jock, the virgin, etc …), and yet, in the end, these characters live and/or die by the same rules as the lazy, clichéd, cardboard characters they were created to lampoon—and all of this is intentional. It is also a lot of fun. I’m glad I decided to begin this month-long exploration of the horror genre with a movie that is clearly conducting an exploration of its own.

Day 2: Hausu (House)

Halloween Every Day (for a month)

By Andrew Neil Cole

Day 2: Hausu (House) (1977).    houseposter_500

Hausu is a Japanese horror film that tells the relatively pedestrian tale of seven teen girls spending their vacation in a creepy old house; however, there’s probably never been a haunted house movie quite like this. This is an outrageous, hyper-stylized, unpredictable little horror gem that viewers will either love or hate. There is no middle ground.

Sometimes the film’s style can be overwhelming: animation, stop-motion animation, black-and-white photography, sepia-tones, pink tones (yes, pink), lap dissolves, matte paintings, etc … Every single frame of this film seems to be screaming YOU ARE WATCHING A MOVIE! The constant visual fireworks are complemented (if you can call it that) by an intrusive musical score that almost never stops. But if you can see through the film’s overbearingly cartoony style, Hausu delivers on a rather audacious conceit, in that the film works as both a horror film and a commentary on horror tropes and clichés (and it does this decades before films like Scream and The Cabin in the Woods would mine similar thematic territory). For example, all of the principal characters are literally named after character types, as if their behavior has been genetically predestined. I’m not kidding. The attractive girl is named Gorgeous. The girl with an overactive imagination is named Fantasy. The studious, bespectacled girl is named Prof. The hearty girl who likes to eat is named Mac. The music-lover/pianist is named Melody. The ridiculously companionable, eager-to-please girl is named Sweet. And, my personal favorite, the martial arts enthusiast is named Kung Fu. Subtlety is clearly not this film’s forte. Nonetheless, Hausu is a movie experience that really feels like an experience. This is a movie that, once seen, must be talked about with anyone who will listen.

Much has been made of the film’s impact on future filmmakers, specifically Sam Raimi and his Evil Dead films, so I won’t bother to stir that pot again. Nor will I bother to comment on certain sexist aspects of the movie that have confounded and angered so many viewers over the years. It should be remembered that this movie, like any movie, is a product of its time and place. It is what it is and nothing more. (Although, to modern sensibilities, it is pretty sexist.)

Day 3: The Addiction

Halloween Every Day (for a month)

By Andrew Neil Cole

Day 3: The Addiction (1995).

Addiction

Abel Ferrara’s vampire film is a strange viewing experience, compelling and frustrating in equal measure. With its gloomy urban set pieces, stark black-and-white photography, hip-hop soundtrack, and a cast of rhetoric-spouting intellectuals, The Addiction feels like Bram Stoker by way of Noah Baumbach. Lili Taylor (one of my all-time favorites) stars as Kathleen Conklin, a graduate student who, early in the film, is attacked and bitten by a mysterious stranger. From that point onward the movie plays like a fever dream, riding the physical and emotional extremes of Kathleen’s transformation from likable Ph. D. candidate to insufferable narcissist/monster. For the most part, the film succeeds wildly. The story deftly appropriates vampire lore as an allegory for all manner of modern addictive behaviors. Subtle similarities between heroin addiction and vampirism are cleverly drawn: both require the penetration of flesh and an exchange of bodily fluids that leads to an altered or euphoric state in the user (addict) or the attacker (vampire). Of course, there is also an obvious sexual metaphor attached both to heroin addiction and vampirism, one that is also made manifest (and not by coincidence) through physical penetration and fluid exchange—a process that requires the use of phallic instruments (hypodermic needles for addicts) or dental anatomy (teeth or fangs for vampires) in order to attain completion. Okay, maybe some of this stuff isn’t so subtle, after all. But it is still immensely effective.

Kathleen’s academic pursuits are unpacked in a creative, thought-provoking manner that simultaneously illustrates her evolution as a killer and her de-evolution as a humanitarian. For example, early conversations between Kathleen and a classmate/friend named Jean (played by Edie Falco) suggest that the intense study of war atrocities has enhanced and sharpened Kathleen’s innate regard for the whole of humanity; she feels very deeply for those who have been victimized. However, after she is attacked and begins to change, it becomes apparent that the continued study of war atrocities has splintered Kathleen’s natural capacity for empathy or sympathy, perhaps even making her a more proficient predator. This portrayal of Good and Evil as two sides of the same coin is a recurring theme in The Addiction: Kathleen, the student of particularly violent atrocities, is inherently good. But when an atrocity is inflicted upon her, she steadily becomes more capable of evil. By becoming a vampire, Kathleen quite literally loses her humanity. In turn, vampires need to take human lives (or commit atrocities, if you will) in order to survive. And the continued survival of a vampire depends on the perversion of the natural world (or the perversion of all things Good). In other words, the sun nourishes human life but inflicts fiery death upon a vampire, who, unlike most of the natural world, thrives in the dark. (By the way, this ever-raging thematic battle between the forces of light and dark is also represented visually in the film’s the use of black-and-white photography.)

In the spirit of complete honesty and fairness, I will say that this film, though mostly excellent, does come with a ready supply of nits to be picked. By far my biggest problem with this movie is the dialogue. Consider a scene in a coffee house between Kathleen and one of her professors. After a prolonged silence, the professor asks if something is wrong. This is her response: “Silence has two aspects. One according to Sartre, the other to Max Picard. Why don’t you guess why I’m quiet?” The whole movie is like that—snotty, judgmental commentary delivered in disinterested monotone voices by pale, sunglass-clad self-proclaimed intellectuals. And that includes all of the vampires. Be prepared for a frenetic tirade performed by a vamped-out Christopher Walken, in which the myriad virtues to be found for newly transformed vampires within the drug-addled pages of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch are extolled with the subtlety of a coked-up giraffe in church. It’s as if the film is saying: “Here’s an intelligent idea—let’s jam it into the movie any way we possibly can, even if it doesn’t make sense, even if it isn’t germane to the story, even if we have to use a tube of Vaseline and a sledgehammer to make it fit!”

Which brings me to another minor but annoying flaw on display in The Addiction: the characters constantly quote other people to make their own points. Whenever I see this in a movie or a TV show I’m reminded of something a creative writing professor of mine once said: “Simply quoting intelligent people does not mean that your characters are intelligent people.” She was right, and the characters in The Addiction spend way too much time playing the quotation game.

But other than these mostly forgivable quibbles, this is a fascinating, exciting, challenging movie that provides a truly unique filmic experience for the viewer. While this might not be what most casual movie fans and traditional vampire enthusiasts are looking for in a horror film, it is exactly what more discerning fans have been waiting for—a horror movie that is defined by substance rather than a need to pander to modern popular sensibilities. (For what it’s worth, casual fans who stick it out all the way to the end will have their patience rewarded with one of the greatest full-blown horror scenes of the ’90s.)

Day 4: Creepshow

Halloween Every Day (for a Month)

By Andrew Neil Cole

Day 4: Creepshow (1982). cree[

Every now and then I’ll hear or read something concerning the difference between a great horror movie and a great Halloween movie. The broad-strokes definition of a great Halloween movie is any horror movie that people look forward to watching around Halloween time. These movies are usually a little more fun and a little less intense, a little more focused on atmosphere and a little less focused on slaughter. Of course, the precise definition of what is and what is not a Halloween movie will change from person to person, but the overall point remains the same: It is possible for a horror movie to be great without being a great Halloween movie, and vice versa. For example, a friend of mine loves The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but finds the film’s tone much too dark and ominous to be a great Halloween movie. At the same time, this same friend loves the outrageously silly fun of Fright Night (the original 1985 version, of course), but only feels like watching it in the month of October, when the nostalgia factor will be significantly amped up.

Creepshow, at least for me, works as both a great horror movie and a great Halloween movie. Written by Stephen King and directed by George A. Romero, the movie couldn’t have a better pedigree for pure horror, while the subject matter (a portmanteau-style homage to ’50s horror comics) clearly draws on the kind of nostalgia that makes Halloween (and Halloween movies) so much fun. The five short films that define the corpus of the anthology play like a walking tour of a horror-story museum: revenge from the beyond the grave, unstoppable terror from outer space, shambling corpses proving that love never dies, a ravenously wild creature in a crate, and cockroaches by the ton. The film plays out in a series of cleverly crafted, highly stylized vignettes that themselves resemble the panels of the great EC horror comics—canted angles, strikes of purple, blue, pink, and green light, a wraparound voodoo story that includes a skeletal creature leering through a boy’s bedroom window, and animated comic book-style introductions to each story.

For anyone who likes old-school horror tales, Creepshow works like gangbusters, even if, in my opinion, the final story (a cockroach infestation nightmare called “They’re Creeping Up on You), feels totally unnecessary. Also, I won’t bother blathering on about the outstanding cast, but I will say that it is refreshing to watch an entire anthology film in which none of the stories features sullen teens in peril or angst-ridden vampires.

Day 5: Them!

Halloween Every Day (for a Month)

By Andrew Neil Cole

Day 5: Them! (1954). them-movie-poster-1954-1020544319

There exists, among horror fans and historians, a need to illuminate the ways in which the socioeconomic and political factors of a specific era have influenced the genre. This comes from an inherent need within those who love horror to legitimize the genre, make it appear more relevant and weighty to those who snootily dismiss the very idea that something meant to be scary can also be germane to a larger societal discussion. Unfortunately, this need to assign intrinsic cultural value to horror cinema often leads to some wild hypothesizing. For example, I agree that the zombies in Night of the Living Dead are more indelibly terrifying because they represent revolution in a time of social discord; however, I do not agree that the killer rabbits in Night of the Lepus (1972) are somehow scarier because, according to some, they symbolize the American people’s fear of government power run amuck in the wake of the Attica prison riot and the Kent State shootings. I mean, think about it: If you were trying to create a lasting, powerful metaphor for the government using violence against its own people to suppress individual thought and impose its own evil agenda, would you choose killer rabbits? I doubt it. Some horror films are just silly—or even stupid—and that’s the way it should be.

The one era that has had arguably the most obvious impact on the horror genre began when the end of World War II gave birth to the Cold War and all of its attendant hostilities and paranoia. Fear of atomic obliteration signified the inevitable dawn of mutant, giant monsters in the movies. In my opinion, the best of these atomic-age nightmares is Them!, the giant mutant atomic ant movie from 1954. As silly as this movie may seem at first blush (the exclamation point in the title certainly doesn’t instill in the viewer a sense of gravitas), the potential dangers of atomic energy are actually unpacked with great care, and the actors bring real life and much-needed urgency to characters that could have easily become genre clichés. James Whitmore is the local cop who first realizes the danger. Edmund Gwenn is the scientist called upon to solve the problem before the ants spread uncontrollably and kill us all! James Arness is the dashing, heroic G-man (a not-so-subtle reminder that the government employs its share of good guys). And Joan Weldon plays a scientist, who, while strikingly beautiful, is no screaming damsel in distress or wilting flower. No, she willingly plunges headfirst into the path of encroaching danger; moreover, she’s actually respected for her intellect, which is pretty rare for a female character in a horror film of this era. Of course, the ants look ridiculous—with their rubbery thoraxes and crooked mandibles in a state of constant shimmy—but, to be honest, even if this production had had access to the most amazing, groundbreaking, state-of-the-art special effects, we’re still talking about giant ants here. How cool could they possibly look?

Perhaps Them!’s crowning achievement is that it succeeds as a worthy and watchable giant-ant horror film despite the lack of believable giant ants—the rest of the movie is just that good. And, in the spirit of complete honesty, I have to admit to kind of loving the ants, no matter how cheesy.

Day 6: Creature from the Black Lagoon

Halloween Every Day (for a Month)

By Andrew Neil Cole

Day 6: Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). creature-from-the-black-lagoon-movie-poster-1954-1010141460

Watching Creature from the Black Lagoon is like having a beer with a friend I haven’t seen in years. I’ve always been a sucker for the Universal Monsters, and I’ve always been a sucker for aquatic horror tales; therefore, Creature represents a lovely confluence of nostalgia and personal preference. Believe me, I’ve heard all of the criticism before, and, believe me, much of that criticism is deserved. The score is often screechy and obtrusive; Richard Carlson spends way too much time shirtless; Julie Adams’s character exists primarily to look sexy and scream at the slightest hint of danger; the Amazon River looks suspiciously like Florida; and the Gill-Man is obviously just a guy in a suit … But, come on … it’s one heck of a suit. Sure, in the grand pecking order of the Universal Monsters, this movie doesn’t compare to sheer the brilliance of James Whale’s Frankenstein films, nor does it hold a candle to the visual splendor of The Wolf Man, but such comparisons really aren’t fair. After all, Frankenstein isn’t nearly as much fun as Creature. And let’s not forget that the underwater sequences are actually pretty fantastic, particularly the extended scene in which Julie Adams glides effortlessly through the water, totally unaware that she is being pursued, while the creature keeps pace below her, safely out of sight in the murky depths of the Amazon.

Creature from the Black Lagoon isn’t a perfect movie, but, if you find yourself in the right frame of mind, it can be an integral part of a perfect movie night at home. (Note: I saw this film in 3D on Blu-ray. Honestly, I think it works better in good old-fashioned 2D. Something about the 3D made many of the scenes blurry to the point of inducing nausea.)

Day 7: Ouija

Halloween Every Day (for a Month)

By Andrew Neil Cole

Day 7: Ouija (2014).     Ouija_2014_poster

Here’s an unholy filmic trinity: a movie conceived in a boardroom, based on a board game, with a storyline and character arcs that are flat as an ironing board. Ouija represents everything that is wrong with mainstream Hollywood filmmaking today. It’s a lazy, cynical cash-grab utterly bereft of even the slightest hint of artistic integrity or innovation. This is one of those movies—like The Haunted Mansion or Battleship—that was just to bound to happen eventually because everyone—and I mean ever-y-one—has heard of Ouija boards. They’re an established brand, every bit as recognizable as a Campbell’s Soup can or a Nike swoosh, so there’s just got to be a built-in audience just dying to see a Ouija movie, right? … Right? … Anyone?

Right from the start, Ouija bombards us with one obligatory moment after another, ticking off the requisite genre banalities as it goes: Introduction of potential teen victims? Check. Scene (or scenes) in which the absence of all parents and/or legal guardians is made clear? Check. Creepy attic scene? Check. Creepy basement scene? Check. Even the actual Ouija board sequences are done entirely by the numbers—“Come on, guys. Someone’s making it move!” “It’s not funny anymore!”—and it gets old fast. Perhaps what’s most disappointing is the story, or, more to the point, the total lack of a decent story, since the Ouija board actually does have an inherently creepy history. Hell, the Internet is overflowing with truly terrifying tales of Ouija board experiences gone horribly wrong, so there’s just no excuse for a movie like Ouija to be so vanilla, so bland, so ultimately forgettable.

And yet, for all its faults, Ouija isn’t completely without its merits. There are moments where the dark, shadowy cinematography creates a palpable funhouse effect. And the young cast is actually rather likable. In particular, Olivia Cooke, the film’s star/final girl, I believe is destined for bigger and better things. Okay, we do have to put up with yet another annoying angsty teen sibling character, but that’s not the fault of the actress (Ana Coto) playing the role. And it’s always a joy to watch the great Lin Shaye chew the scenery into a soupy pulp. In the end, Ouija is an artistic failure, to be sure, but the blame for this failure needs to be placed at the feet of the big-money producers and studio executives who push movies like this through the development process to make a quick buck and not on the heads of the artists who are just trying to make a living in an industry that clearly favors style over substance.

Adults and more discerning teens will likely find Ouija a tedious affair, but this might be an effective Halloween sleepover film for young, burgeoning horror fans who are more susceptible to the thrill of the jump scare.