Welcome to the third installment of "31 Days of Halloween". As you know if you've been reading along so far, I'm keeping the Big Picture Big Sound horror fans company throughout October, offering my suggestions for a seasonal movie to watch each day throughout the month. In case you missed them, check out week 1 and week 2.
Along with capsule reviews of each movie, I've also been tagging them to fit into a couple of different categories so you can mix and match and put together your own selections for a fun double or triple feature.
I hope you've been enjoying my "sleepers" (movies that didn't get high-profile releases but are definitely worth checking out), "auteur" picks (movies from directors with a strong body of work in the horror or thriller genres), and "challenges" (movies that may be tough to get through but I think will prove rewarding). And I'm pretty sure my "wicked 80s" tag speaks for itself.
And now on to week 3...
Sunday, October 14: In the Mouth of Madness
It has been said that HP Lovecraft's work is unfilmable – but apparently veteran moviemaker John Carpenter never got the memo on that, so he saddled up in 1995 to bring us "In the Mouth of Madness". "ITMoM" isn't based on any of Lovecraft's work per se, but it weaves in enough traditionally Lovecraftian elements – creepy proto-Christian religions, threats from slimy other-dimensional invaders, and a protagonist teetering on the edge of sanity – to be clearly recognizeable as an homage. Mr. Carpenter's prolific output and his go-for-it approach to filmmaking have combined to bring us some hits (1978's absolute classic, "Halloween"), some misses (the 2010 dud, "The Ward") , and some genuine head-scratchers (John Carpenter's "Elvis"? The tv movie??). "In the Mouth of Madness" isn't a Carpenter classic, but there's something weirdly compelling about so many of its elements that you have to forgive it for not ultimately holding together in the end.
Sam Neill plays insurance investigator John Trent, hired to look into the disappearance of best-selling horror writer Sutter Cane, whose latest novel seems to be triggering an outbreak of violent insanity among his readers. (Mind you, the film actually opens with Trent being dragged screaming into an asylum, so there may be something to this Sutter Cane theory.) Guessing that Cane is hiding in central New Hampshire, near the fictionalized setting of his latest novel, Trent travels there, accompanied by Cane's editor. After a long and unsettling drive northward they arrive and are shocked to find the town exactly as it's described in the books, filled with odd happenings and citizens who don’t know that they're not supposed to exist. They also figure out what writer Cane is up to – and it doesn't involve climbing the bestseller list. It all leads up to the apocalypse, perhaps; the ending tries to have it a couple of different ways, and some viewers may be left unsatisfied by that.
It's worth watching "ITMoM" for the moments that will stay with you: the chat in the coffee shop that's interrupted so unexpectedly; the haunted boy on the bicycle; the evolving lakeside portrait on the inn wall; the kindly Mrs. Pickman who's decidedly unkind to her husband; and that awful, looming black church. The whole thing is anchored by a solid performance from Sam Neill, who comes in protesting loudly about his sanity and goes out utterly untethered and apparently resigned to that fact. The stuff that happens in between may not make a ton of sense, but it's delivered with signature Carpenter style, and while you may occasionally find yourself frustrated with the story, I'm pretty sure you'll never be bored. (Tag: Auteur, Lovecraft Alert)
Monday, October 15: An American Werewolf in London
Werewolves don't get nearly as much screen time as vampires, but in John Landis' "An American Werewolf in London", they're given top billing. In fact, "AAWiL" is an example of a movie title telling you exactly what you're going to get; and boy, does this film deliver. The story is straightforward: two college students, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are backpacking across the English moors; they stop into a local pub and are warned to watch out for werewolves. They scoff, return to their hike - and are promptly attacked by an unseen beast. Jack is killed, and David wakes up in a London hospital some weeks later. It's up to David to figure out what happened to him, and decide if he's going crazy or if he should in fact heed the visions of his dead friend, who appears and tells him that he'll shortly be turning into a werewolf. Jack's advice is simple: David should kill himself before he starts killing others. However, there are complications; David has fallen in love with his nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter) and moved in with her. And he's trying to keep two suspicious Scotland Yard detectives off his trail.
"AAWiL" has stood the test of time in part because it doesn't shy away from the awkwardness and discomfort of David's situation. Actually, discomfort is an understatement: David does turn into a werewolf (come on, you saw that coming!), and, in a segment that became a landmark in movie makeup and effects accomplishments, the camera witnesses the entire transformation in agonizing detail. And David's friend Jack won't leave him alone, despite the fact that he has started decomposing, and he looks decidedly worse for wear every time he appears. Sure, that's awkward. But "AAWiL" also mines the humor inherent in the man-turning-into-wolf-and-back-again setup. David wakes up naked in the zoo one morning after a lycanthropic rampage, and his skulking trip home, as he covers himself with whatever's on hand, is a whole new spin on the morning-after walk-of-shame. All this is not to dismiss the fact that "AAWiL" is still a horror movie, and a scary one at that. Scenes of David as the werewolf stalking his victims are tense and gory. There are also some frighteningly effective dream sequences that come out of nowhere and are all the more jarring because they feel so disconnected. If you haven't seen "AAWiL" in a while, it's worth a revisit. And if you haven't seen it at all and you're getting tired of Hollywood's love affair with vampires - well, what are you waiting for? (Tag: Auteur, Wicked 80s)
Tuesday, October 16: The Ring
Director Gore Verbinski is perhaps best known for helming the absurdly successful "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, but before that he tried his hand at remaking the 1998 Japanese horror film, "Ringu", and the results were pretty impressive. The setup for "The Ring" sounds like a particularly ridiculous urban legend: you watch a cursed video tape, and seven days later, you die. Yeah, right. But of course, that's how these things work; it sounds so ludicrous that it would be silly to be scared, so you go ahead, and...
Giving away too much of the plot of "The Ring" would spoil it - though it's ok to tell you that Naomi Watts plays a journalist who's spurred by her niece's ghastly death to investigate the videotape rumors, and her search leads her to a remote island and a family history turned tragic through a mysterious adoption. Otherwise, I'd advise going in knowing that the aforementioned silly setup pays off in a series of grim scares made all the more daunting because you won't see them coming - the story definitely doesn't follow the usual horror movie formula. Instead, the film finds its scares in grey, desolate landscapes, weird unnatural phenomena, and a repeated set of images that shouldn't be anywhere near as deeply, deeply unsettling as they turn out to be.
"The Ring" clearly benefits from the heavy hitters shouldering the acting duties: in addition to the Oscar-nominated Ms. Watts, the cast also boasts veteran actors Brian Cox (the original Hannibal Lecter, by the way) and Jane Alexander, who both bring gravitas to any scene they're in. I've labeled this one a harbinger because it hit near beginning of a brief wave of Japanese-influenced horror films that seemed to arrive in a cluster in the mid-00s. Watch too many of them and you will start to see the so-called "J-Horror" formula; but if you're going to pick just one, make it "The Ring". And good luck getting those creepy video images out of your head. (Tag: Harbinger)
Wednesday, October 17: Angel Heart
It may be difficult to remember now, but back in the 80s, Mickey Rourke was something of a Hollywood golden boy. Before the disastrous attempt to resurrect his boxing career, the subsequent ill-advised plastic surgery, and his eventual against-all-odds cinematic comeback (see, "The Wrestler"), Mr. Rourke had developed a career as a compelling leading man with solid character acting credentials. 1987's "Angel Heart", a moody supernatural detective film, is an apt showcase for Mr. Rourke's ability to put a character actor's spin on a lead role.
Here he plays Harry Angel, a private detective in post-war New York City who's handed a case that ultimately leads him to New Orleans. He's chasing Johnny Favorite, a former bandleader and war veteran who owes something - he's not told exactly what - to the mysterious Mr. Cyphre. (With a name like that, how could he be anything but mysterious?) Frustratingly, Favorite always seems a step ahead of Angel; this becomes a serious problem when the trail Angel is following starts leading to dead bodies. Is Favorite committing murder to cover his tracks? Or is there some other mysterious killer hiding in the wings?
"Angel Heart" takes full advantage of its New Orleans setting and its 1950s time frame, so there's lots of voodoo, jazz... and one huge pot of boiling gumbo. Of course it wouldn't be a real detective story without a twist at the end; turns out there's a hell of a good reason why Mr. Cyphre chose Angel for this particular case. Regarding Mr. Cyphre: he's played by Robert DeNiro with a mocking veneer of civility that masks something far more insidious beneath. In addition to the intriguing mystery and the great character work, "Angel Heart" supplies some evocative cinematography. Be sure to stay put for the memorable closing shot of Harry descending slowly in an old fashioned caged elevator; as the credits roll you'll know where he's headed, and you can be pretty sure it's a one-way trip. (Tag: Wicked 80s)
Thursday, October 18: The Frighteners
Director Peter Jackson wasn't always the Hollywood darling who figured out how to bring JRR Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy to the big screen and ultimately created three of the most lucrative, high profile fantasy films of all time. In fact, the New Zeland-based filmmaker started his career with a couple of low-budget, high-energy, supercreative grossout horror movies: "Bad Taste", about an invasion of hungry aliens, and "Dead Alive", concerning a nasty animal bite that turns people into zombies. Bridging the gap between these go for broke shockers and the elegantly orchestrated "LoTR" productions is "The Frighteners", a creative horror-comedy that mixes high concept storytelling with a smorgasboard of special effects and a grab bag of great character performances.
The 1996 film casts Michael J. Fox as reluctant psychic Frank Bannister, whose abilities allow him to befriend spirits and scratch out a living as a sham "ghost exterminator". Trying to sketch out a quick story synopsis of "The Frighteners" is darn near impossible; there are so many plot points that it's a wonder that Mr. Jackson could keep track of them all, but here's a quick shot: Through his contact with the spirit world Frank stumbles upon the spirit of a dead spree killer who's back in action from beyond the grave and marking his intended victims by carving their foreheads with glowing numbers that only Frank can see. Frank's pressed into action as a reluctant hero, battling the murderous spirit with the help of his ghostly associates and his plucky new ladylove (Trini Alvarado). Frank's pursuit of the killer unveils a spinetingling backstory, and leads to a tumultuous segment that cuts back and forth between a tense present-day battle and the horrific unfolding of the original murder spree. Will Frank vanquish the evil spirit, or become his next victim?
"The Frighteners" is a fun seasonal pick when you're not quite sure what you're in the mood for: it's got some slapstick humor, plenty of chills and thrills, and a couple of bittersweet moments to give it a little depth. Michael J. Fox's effortless lead performance is up to his usual standard of excellence; fans won't be disappointed. Turning in equally strong work is Dee Wallace, whose many genre credits ("The Hills Have Eyes", "Cujo", "The Howling") have earned her the admiration of horror fans. Here she plays a woman who's trappd by her overbearing mother and haunted – perhaps willingly – by the tragic events of the past. The role is a great showcase for Ms. Wallace. Also be on the lookout for a wacky turn from Jeffrey Combs ("Re-Animator"), who really plays to the rafters as the horribly scarred, perpetually on edge FBI agent/cult investigator who's obsessed with body armor. See? This movie really does have a little bit of everything in it. (Tag: Auteur)
Friday, October 19: Near Dark
"Near Dark", the second film from Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker"), came out in 1987 aiming to hit the reset button on vampire movies. Prior to this, the decade had seen funny vampires ("Once Bitten"), stylish vampires ("The Hunger"), alien vampires ("Lifeforce"), and vampires who... own a strip club?? ("Vamp") "Near Dark" reminded us that vampires don't spend their time thinking up punchlines, shopping for window treatments, or hitching rides on spacecraft... and they definitely don't own strip clubs. They kill. They feed. They move on. The vampires in "Near Dark" are a tribe of bloodthirsty wanderers who travel the back roads in survival mode, holing up in old cars or cheap motels and plastering the windows with foil to keep out the light. They wreak havoc on anyone unlucky enough to cross their path.
Smalltown teenager Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) has no idea what he's in for when he meets and romances one of them: Mae (Jenny Wright), who bites him and then kidnaps him. Soon Caleb's dragged into the tribe's life on the road. He struggles to come to terms with his new vampire appetite, and fights to prove himself to the others who, aside from Mae, would just as soon kill him. Caleb gets a firsthand look at vampire viciousness and amorality when the clan descends on a rural bar. Led by the utterly inhuman Severen (Bill Paxton), they taunt and then decimate the bar's patrons. But for Caleb, the final straw comes when the vampires also kidnap his younger sister - he's forced to take action in order to prevent her from befalling his fate.
"Near Dark" looks great, with lots of low-angle long shots that take advantage of the movie's wide-open southwestern filming locations. Danger's always visible from a long way off here, but that only adds to the tension. The movie sounds great too, with a layered, insistent, percussive soundtrack from 80s staple Tangerine Dream. "Near Dark" is a sordid reminder that life as a vampire wouldn't be easy: it's ugly and messy, and there's no time to shop for curtains. Luckily, we don't have to live like vampires, we just get to watch them - and that's actually pretty entertaining. (Tag: Wicked 80s, Vampires!)
Saturday, October 20: Fear Itself
"Fear Itself", the successor to Showtime's "Masters of Horror", ran on NBC as a summer replacement series in 2008. It's an odd fit for primetime network television, which may explain why it disappeared partway through its scheduled run, leaving behind a handful of unaired episodes and some mighty disappointed viewers. Like "MoH", "Fear Itself" is an anthology of creepy tales offered up by a selection of directors known for their accomplishments in the horror genre. Many of the "FI" directors had also contributed segments to "Masters of Horror". As is often the case with anthologies, not every pick here is a winner. But, again, as with "MoH" (see week 2), I'm recommending "FI" on the basis of several memorable episodes.
First up is "Eater", from director Stuart Gordon, who's a giant in the genre on the basis of his film, "Re-Animator". "Eater" stars Elizabeth Moss ("Mad Men") as a rookie cop who's part of a small cadre of officers assigned to the night shift at a station that's temporarily housing a cannibalistic serial murderer. The flashbacks to the killer's crimes are pretty grisly, and it's easy to empathize with Ms. Moss as she reads the case reports and becomes increasingly unnerved by her proximity to such evil. The killer is clearly getting into her head; is he doing the same to the other officers? Watch this one for Moss's performance – she channels Jody Foster's Clarice Starling in her fierce determination to win at all costs – and for the skillful way that Mr. Gordon manages the rhythm and pacing of the story. It's an admirably produced piece of work.
"New Year's Day", directed by Darren Lynn Bousman ("The Barrens", "Repo! The Genetic Opera"), uses flashbacks to tell the story of Helen (Briana Evigan), a young urbanite who wakes up following a disastrous New Year's Eve party to find the city battling a raging zombie plague. We follow Helen's halting progress as she traverses the city to rejoin her friends, simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls of the plague-addled streets and trying to piece together the events of the night before. Mr. Bousman directs with a sure hand that pulls the viewer into the story and sets the stage effectively for the twist at the end. I really didn't see this one coming.
Ernest Dickerson ("Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight", "The Walking Dead") brings some levity to the series with his entry, "Something With Bite". Star Wendell Pierce ("The Wire") only needs two or three scenes to create a fully realized character: Dr. Orwell, a disenchanted veterenarian (check out the the quickie montage where he diagnoses his animal patients) with an uninspiring family life who needs a wakeup call. That call comes in the form of a bite from a werewolf. "Bite" is a fun hour with some great comic touches, and a charismatic performance from Mr. Pierce. Use this one as a palate cleanser before diving back into some of "FI"'s darker chapters.
Rounding out my episode recommendations are "Skin and Bones", from Larry Fessenden ("The Last Winter"), and the great John Landis' "In Sickness and In Health". I'm abandoning all restraint to say how much I love "Skin and Bones". There's so much going on in this short piece that it plays like a full-length movie. The story concerns Grady Edlund (Doug Jones, credits too numerous to cite), who disappears from his family ranch while on a hunting trip, and returns a week later with a grim story to tell. It involves being trapped in the mountains, and...cannibalism. (See "Ravenous", week 2, for a similar tale of winter survival.) "In Sickness and In Health", from Mr. Landis, unfolds on the wedding day of Carlos (James Roday) and Samantha (Maggie Lawson), who fell in love after a short acquaintance and are flouting the advice of friends and family by getting married. This episode is long on atmosphere, and it hints at lots of unanswered questions that could come back to haunt the newlyweds. For instance, the possibility that your beloved is a serial killer is something you'd probably want to know before taking your vows. "In Sickness…" is a must-see for fans of "Psych", who will enjoy seeing Mr. Roday and Ms. Lawson in roles that take them far away from their work on the comedy series, and for fans of Mr. Landis's work. Absent the comic notes that balance some of the director's darker material, "In Sickness…" is something of a departure for him, but it's an interesting outing nonetheless. (Tag: Cram Session)
That's all for week 3. See you next week!