100 horror films in the 100 days leading up to Halloween
Not that it was the first time, but there were a couple of films in this section that really got me wondering about the horror genre label: there are so many different perspectives about what “horror” means and what it includes. And then there are those people who say “I don’t like horror films”, as though they are all the same type of thing; but as I’ve mentioned before, what I love most about the genre is the sheer breadth of variety.
It’s kind of silly: everyone knows what “comedy” means, so why not horror? Wikipedia describes comedy as “any discourse or work generally intended to be humorous or amusing by inducing laughter”; and even if individuals don’t find something particularly funny, we can recognise the intention (though granted it’s not always so obvious with some styles, such as black comedies). The Wikipedia definition of horror also relates to a feeling:
Horror is a film genre seeking to elicit a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience’s primal fears. Horror films often feature scenes that startle the viewer; the macabre and the supernatural are frequent themes. Thus they may overlap with the fantasy, supernatural, and thriller genres.
But here’s the thing: if it’s about feelings, then no wonder everyone has their own perspective. And I think it’s much more blurry than “seeking to elicit a negative emotional reaction”… many “horror” films are called that simply because they include some horror elements or extreme violence, but make no attempt to scare at all; and in contrast, I’ve found thrillers and science fiction sometimes more scary than horror films, simply because they are more plausible (the film which scared me the most was Strange Days). So I don’t expect all horror films to scare me, but at least have a good try.
One of the benefits I’ve gained from this #100DaysOfHorror project (this year and last), and from getting to know other fans and commentators online, is accepting the vagueness and blurriness of the genre definition. I’m OK with calling Get Out a “satire”, while others call it a “horror”: it can be both, and there can be different perspectives. Earlier this year, John Squires wrote “There are no rules within the horror genre, which is really the most wonderful thing about the genre.” Yes! But he also went on to describe Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead’s Spring and Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water as “monster movies”, as though that automatically made them “horror”: to me, those were exceptions which showed that monster movies aren’t horror by definition. My view is that “creature features” or “monster movies” are fantasy, and that some may be horror, but not necessarily.
So anyway, if you watch a film and tell me it’s horror, when I don’t think it is, I won’t declare you’re wrong, or anything so arrogant: it’s fine to disagree, or have different angles… but I may well ask you why, as I love to understand the different perspectives on this topic.
The Hitch-Hiker (1953, USA), directed by Ida Lupino
I was feeling very guilty that I’d only found one film to watch so far this season that had been directed by a woman; I can’t have seen them all already, surely? There must be more… So I asked around on Twitter and searched on Google, came away with some recommendations and lists. It turns out that of the films I am able to find or access, yes, I had seen most of them already, but a few were added to my watch list.
I found The Hitch-Hiker via a list on IMDb and watched it soon after as I’d not seen anything from the 1950s lately. And this is one of the films which made me question the genre label: it’s about two men heading for a fishing trip who pick up a hitchhiker, only to find out he’s a violent crook on the run. He takes charge (they’d call it car-jacking these days), and the two mates continue the journey on his terms and in fear for their lives.
The Hitch-Hiker is definitely more a film noir… But if IMDb calls it horror who am I to argue? Sure, the people in that situation would be scared (and I would if it were real life), but that can be said for shows and films in many genres.
But anyway, The Hitch-Hiker is indeed tense, a beautifully shot thriller. Apparently, it was the first film noir directed by a woman. The villain was as scary as the young Robert Mitchum or Richard Attenborough, and the film is definitely worth a watch, at least for historical curiosity, if not as a landmark horror.
Tourist Trap (1979, USA), directed by David Schmoeller
I grabbed a week’s trial of the Amazon Full Moon channel ostensibly for Puppetmaster (next) and found this film there too, the first film from the same director. Tourist Trap is deeply atmospheric and very unusual; unusual because of the way it successfully blends different subgenres into one plot: slasher, backwoods terror and supernatural.
Tourist Trap sees a group of attractive young friends (including pre-Charlie’s Angels Tanya Roberts) whose Jeep gets a flat tyre and they seek help at a gas station they passed on the way, piquing the attention of a local (Chuck Connors) who is not entirely what he seems… Familiar? I watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre not long ago, and am a fan of Cabin in the Woods, so yes; but don’t let that opening make you think you know what to expect from here on. Sure, the friends get picked off one by one (and like Texas Chainsaw, there aren’t actually many deaths); but in this film, capture includes the risk of being added to a weird museum, turned into a mannequin while still alive.
In case you haven’t gotten the picture, Tourist Trap is damn creepy. This is partly thanks to the scenes of Connors playing with dolls etc, partly the way the mannequins look and move; but it is all reinforced by Pino Donaggio’s remarkable score. This is one I’ll almost certainly watch again; I’m intrigued to see if it will have the same goosebumps effect the second time around. The acting is reasonable, the plot is plain weird, but it’s the creepiness which gives this film its win.
Puppetmaster (1989, USA), directed by David Schmoeller
The new one‘s out, but I’ve not seen any of the Puppet Master films until now; hence, the Full Moon trial week. It wasn’t great, but I don’t think I ever expected it to be; I was intrigued, though, to see what film kicked off such a cult following that so many sequels followed (somewhere between ten and thirteen, apparently, depending on which ones you count).
Puppetmaster is atmospheric and very nicely made, but the bottom line is that there is a rather weak plot holding together a selection of psychics with different powers and a selection of puppets with different killing styles. I confess the puppet special effects (their violence and the camera angles) did endear me, but overall I found it rather unexciting.
I’ve heard the sequels are better… but fully aware that that doesn’t mean they will be to my taste. The best fun I had with Puppetmaster was in spotting Barbara Crampton in the carnival.
(Funny… I admired Tourist Trap, by the same director; sometimes I wonder how one person could be responsible for two utterly different results, and then I remember Takashi Miike.)
Blood Punch (2014, USA), directed by Madellaine Paxson
Just the second film so far directed by a woman, and right from the start, it looked very promising. Blood Punch starts with a young man, Milton (Milo Cawthorne), talking to the camera about a situation he’s in, that it may not be believed, and so on. Then the story goes back a little way to when he was trying to deal with an addiction and met Skyler (Olivia Tennet) at his group, who wanted him to cook up drugs for her and her boyfriend Russell (Ari Skyland) to sell.
Blood Punch becomes a love-triangle-and-betrayal type story then… but takes some unexpected twists and turns when it looks as though a day is repeating itself, and they cannot make it stop. It is sharply written and really bloody impressive! Maybe it’s horror, maybe not: I can see it both ways, and don’t entirely care: what’s important is that Blood Punch is clever, surprising and very entertaining, and that’s what I want in a film.
On a side note, it was interesting to discover that Paxton was directing a season of Power Rangers R.P.M. when she met the three main cast and asked them if they fancied doing something else…
I found Blood Punch on Amazon Prime, and heartily recommend it to, well, anyone who liked Cabin in the Woods, Timecrimes, The Prestige… yes, a strange mix of tastes: this is as fun as the first, and as clever as the others: loved it.
The Babysitter (2017, USA), directed by McG
The babysitter (Samara Weaving) appears to be as good as she is good-looking, but when Cole (Judah Lewis) is dared to stay up late to see what she gets up to, he gets a dreadful shock. He expected to see things he was too young to see, but it turned out to be worse than he could imagine; bad enough that he didn’t think anyone would believe him.
Dan has already reviewed The Babysitter, so I won’t get into it… except to say that I found it to be light, shallow, bloody fun, featuring good-looking people half my age; sometimes that’s just what you want. Perfect for a train to London…
Cannibal Holocaust (1980, Italy), directed by Ruggero Deodato
OK, you might remember I said I like variety in my horror watching… Cannibal Holocaust couldn’t be much more different to The Babysitter if it tried. I figured I’d use this project to cross some nasty films off from my watchlist; though I will heed Jonathon’s warning not to watch A Serbian Film…
Well yes, of course, Cannibal Holocaust is nasty; it was supposed to be. But I did find it kind of interesting, particularly because of the format. It was essentially a film-within-a-film, the nested one being a found footage. Cannibal Holocaust is about an academic investigating what happened to a film crew who went out to the Amazon rainforest to film native tribes. It turns out the film crew got too close to the tribes, who were revealed to be cannibals; their cameras were found, and the footage shown to the professor’s sponsor, who considers it so repulsive that both expeditions were essentially wasted.
The acting was much better than average, and the special effects horribly remarkable; so, on one hand, the film looked believable, but the action and script completely not believable, by way of a bizarre contrast. It wasn’t an exciting film but the build-up of the story was nicely paced, giving the script something positive.
Well, I can now say I have seen Cannibal Holocaust, and it had some plus points, but it’s not a film I would recommend or watch again.
Let’s Not Meet (2018, USA), directed by Ryan Callaway
Let’s Not Meet is a new arrival onto Amazon Prime, and is a terrific little gem. It has a well put together (but ludicrous) story, though cheap production and comparatively novice acting… but the cast puts plenty of commitment in, and the characters really are engaging.
Let’s Not Meet is about two bad situations, with Aya, a brave young pizza delivery woman (Breanna Engle) in common. First, she finds herself walking into a trap while making her last delivery of the night; then stumbles into a group of friends camping in the woods, who are not having a terribly good time to say the least! One is injured, another disappears, and who can guess what’s in store for the rest?
As I said at the start, there are some real positives to Let’s Not Meet… there is a diverse cast; the tough guys are not heroes for a change, but the women; and the film is nicely tense, aided by an atmospheric score. The plot is kind of daft though, but it’s OK: the actors may be sincere, but they’re hardly taking it seriously.
Anyway, variety includes watching low-grade films as well as the big famous ones; and low-budget indie films deserve some attention. The three stars are for a great effort and a fun story.
Incident in a Ghostland (2018, France/Canada), directed by Pascal Laugier
When I first decided to watch Incident in a Ghostland, I didn’t know it was by the same director as Martyrs (a film which I have great admiration for); I was just aware it had an interesting reputation. I can see why: Laugier is clearly trying to push some buttons here. Victims are double-plus-victims, and villains are caricatures (one transvestite and one probably mentally handicapped).
The story is about two sisters (Crystal Reed and Anastasia Phillips) who reunite when it becomes clear one of them is not coping very well with a persistent old trauma; she is still living in the old house full of antiques where they were both – with their mother – attacked by two vicious strangers many years ago, but seems to be reliving the event in her mind. And the strangers return…
Incident in a Ghostland is – of course – about more than just its plot; which is why I can forgive the caricatures and familiar devices. It’s about the resilience of children through trauma, the strength of the sibling bond, and the near-infinite power of imagination. It is also beautifully shot and produced, with fabulous lighting (especially the wide landscape sets) and intricate details. The acting and characters were also superb… but what is really worthy of note is the clever and moving structure of the film; I can’t explain: watch it and see.
So why didn’t I give it more than 3.5? I don’t know: it just didn’t feel like a 4. And as I said in my introduction, “feeling” counts for a lot.
Rupture (2016, Canada/USA), directed by Steven Shainberg
Considering how much I love Shainberg’s Secretary, Rupture was deeply disappointing. Secretary had insight, passion and compassion: this film, on the other hand, presented layers of mystery and weirdness, only to show something hollow and unsatisfying underneath.
Rupture is about Renee (Noomi Rapace), who is kidnapped and held by a shadowy group, and for no apparent reason. Over some time, she encounters other captives and discovers that terrible things happen to them. Rupture is directed with tension that builds up until one of the captors spills the beans and shows her true face; but despite trying to be intelligent and deep, the ending falls flat.
Malevolent (2018, UK), directed by Olaf de Fleur
I’ve already issued a full review of Netflix’s Malevolent, (about a group of fake ghostbusters who find themselves out of their depths) and it may have been a little generous… no, I stand by my four stars: I loved it, and why shouldn’t I?
Yes, there may have been some far-fetched aspects (especially to the ending), but it was creepy enough that I was sucked right into the film by then; and if it worked for that reason, then so be it: it worked. The acting was superb, the casting was genius, and… stuff it: go read the full review, or watch the film if you want to know more.
The bottom line is Malevolent is the best “Netflix original” horror film I’ve seen so far.