Shocktober Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Picnic at Hanging Rock

I picked this movie for Shocktober because (1) I own it and it’s therefore part of my Watch All the Things marathon, (2) It has a reputation as a semi-horror film, and (3) I really love some of Peter Weir’s later work, particularly Master and Commander and The Truman Show. What’s so surprising, then, about this movie is that it’s both scarier and way less of a horror film than I expected, and it is quite different from his testosterone fueled films that I admire so much. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a strange outback-gothic film that I can see revisiting as I get older and wiser.

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Shocktober Review: Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr 1

Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1932 vampire film is only the third of its kind, though saying this is like anything else is a bit of a stretch. It’s closer to Nosferatu than Dracula (31), sure, but this film is so ephemeral as to almost not exist. If you read the supplementary materials and watch the visual essay included in the Criterion edition, you’ll discover that there were 3 versions of the film (in French, English, and German), one of which was lost forever (English) while the others are edited together for the restoration, and that the literary “source” of the film, le Fanu’s “Carmilla” is only vaguely referenced in the larger plot of the film. This haziness in the film’s origins extends to its visuals and story. If you told me I made up a creepy old man that appears at the inn at the beginning of the movie I’d probably believe you, since he doesn’t show up again and doesn’t seem to have any importance for either the story or the thematic elements.

The movie looks like it might disappear at any moment, too, following the creepy old man as he exits the picture. It’s always foggy any time the characters venture outside, and indoors the geography of the old mansion where much of the film takes place seems both out of whack and disconnected. Dreyer’s camera is almost constantly moving and it is exhilarating, especially during the film’s opening and closing 15 minutes. You never know what it’ll show you, and soon even benign shadows take on a malevolent malleability. For one of the few times while watching a horror film, I was actually afraid that what I was seeing might be revealed to be some dangerous other thing.

Vampyr 2

The first 15 minutes of this movie are a straight masterpiece of surreal horror filmmaking. From the eerie guy with a sickle to the strange inhabitants of the riverside inn to the walk through a nightmarish factory that seems to be the vampire’s lair, the film drips with menace and style. It’s also clever as hell. With just lighting and editing, Dreyer creates some fantastic images that equally delight and terrify. My favorite in the early goings is the shadow that prances along the river, but only in the water’s reflection. This is the introduction of the sourceless shadow trick that Dreyer gets the most out of in the first part of the film and I loved every iteration. In the back section, he relies on a different technique to get a totally different rise out of the audience: an extended POV shot of a presumably dead man getting screwed into his coffin (with a convenient glass window for his face!) and then carried to a graveyard. It’s a deeply unsettling setup and while it lasts maybe a bit too long, I can’t impugn something so remarkable and new (I had seen a version of this shot before, kinda, in Borzage’s A Farewell To Arms, one of the few great moments of that film). The vampire’s henchman also gets a glorious sendoff that will stick with me for some time.

The beginning and end of this movie are so spectacular that it is a pretty big disappointment when the middle is so unremarkable. Perhaps it’s because the middle contains the most of the typical vampyric stuff that, I understand, wasn’t so typical at the time. It’s one of those things where something new becomes so important to a genre or style of movie that it loses some of its impact on later viewers. But there’s also a noticeable drop-off in cleverness that sets in during the middle 40 minutes or so. The only thing that really stands out from this is the beguiling and seductive look that lights up the young female vampire’s face when she tries to lure her even younger sister in for a bite. The movie is sexy, to a degree, and it is also remarkable for having no male vampires on screen. For one of the few times, especially in early horror, it’s all about the women. Coming off of the wonderful character study that is The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer uses his formidable talents with framing and lighting the young woman’s face for maximum impact, and her performance matches his framing, even if it doesn’t make up as much of the film as it does in his previous attempt. It’s too bad everything around it feels perfunctory.

Vampyr 3

Vampyr is a movie that will not soon leave my mind. There’s a power to the opening and close of the film that will cement some of those images in my mind for a long while. There’s a whiff of missed opportunity here, given both the story and filmmaking boredom that sets in during the middle, but half of that can be explained away with the passage of time. Had I seen this movie when it first came out, or before I had seen dozens of other vampire movies, it probably would have impressed me more, at least I would lose that sense of over-familiarity. I think it still has plenty of merit, and is definitely necessary viewing for any fans of the gothic or film history or just great looking movies.

B+

Shocktober Review: The Curse of the Werewolf

curseofweretitle

I think I’ve told you already that werewolves scare the crap outta me. There’s something about the transformation and the uncanniness of the monster in most forms that really freak me out. I guess that’s why I like werewolf movies so much, too. I’ve seen so many horror movies that I’ve become harder and harder to scare. Werewolves can still raise the hair on my arms, so to speak. That’s why I watched The Curse of the Werewolf today, Hammer’s only werewolf movie. I was hoping for some cheap thrills. I got those, but I got something else too. (more…)

Shocktober Review: A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story 1

Anybody who has viewed A Ghost Story will likely balk at my including it in this horror-based month-long marathon. I get it. There’s maybe one total jump scare, made up of combining several small jump scares from different parts of the film. The rest isn’t particularly dread-inducing. While the ghostly figure does lurk in the house he lived in after his death, his visual depiction as the child-like sheet with cutout eyes negates much of the spooks another film might wring out of the setup. So if it isn’t quite a horror movie, how does it use horror tropes to tell a story about time, life, death, and the quest to mean something?

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Shocktober 2017: Week 1

It’s Shocktober again! I’ll put my capsule reviews here at the end of every week. Let’s get gross.

Gerald’s Game

Gerald's Game

I have avoided the Stephen King book this was based on because it all seemed, well, a bit basic. The story is simple, a husband handcuffs his wife to a bed in a remote vacation house to reinvigorate their sex life. Things go wrong, and she must find a way to escape before she dies from malnutrition. I love Stephen King, but this just seemed beneath him. Well, I’m an idiot, because if Mike Flanagan’s adaptation is anything to go by, the story has a lot more going for it and I should have known that.

I’m more a fan of supernatural stuff than strictly realistic depictions of terror-inducing situations. A serial killer movie will interest me, but rarely creep me out as much as something like Nightmare on Elm Street. The best, however, blend the two modes and make a seemingly realistic film into something that might be supernatural or might be just out of the ordinary. Halloween is a good example. Gerald’s Game is another. While much of the film could be explained rationally as products of a psychotic break that the character in fact comments on, there are a few details that will stand out in contrast. These details lie at the heart of the film’s creepiest scenes (though not it’s scariest, more on that in a moment) and there are a few images here–especially from the nighttime and eclipse scenes that take on a surreal quality thanks to some impressionist lighting and coloring techniques–that will stick with me for some time.

The other thing that will stick with me is the escape sequence. I don’t think it’s really a spoiler to say that Carla Gugino’s character, which she plays excellently by the way, tries to escape. The scene is shown in such terrible detail that I had a hard time watching it. Flanagan hasn’t gone this gross in his films yet, and it’s just another tool in his belt now that joins an ability to build tension and create believable characters in unbelievable situations. He’ll be a star soon enough. When he gets there, people will look back on Gerald’s Game as early evidence that he had it in him all along. It’s good, scary, funny at time, and supremely well acted. If this is a glimpse at what is to come in this Shocktober, color me very excited.

A-

The Thing (1981) (rewatch)

The Thing

Holy crap does this movie look good. There are a few standard topics when it comes to discussing The Thing. The first is usually how creepy the practical effects are, then conversation usually moves to the paranoia and the all-male cast. But the palate of this movie really stood out to me this time (perhaps because of the remaster?). There are three colors in the movie, basically: cold blue, bright red, and fiery yellow/orange. There are shades of white and black, too, of course, but it is those three bright colors that dominate the picture at all times. It makes the people seem alien at least as much as the plot does. In fact, the only time they really look like how they normally look is when the light from their back-mounted flamethrowers hits their faces. Then, in brief glimpses, they look like they did before that damn dog showed up. When the blue or red colors fill the frame, it feels like the people and thing-monsters are battling in another dimension. The rest of the movie is great and everything, one of my favorites. Next time you watch it, check out them colors. See if they mean something to you.

A+

It (1990) (rewatch)

It 1990.jpg

I used to love this. Now it feels like what it is: a made-for-tv miniseries which misses a lot of the book it is based on and replaces it with terrible acting and stunted scares. Perhaps it’s familiarity, but Tim Curry’s Pennywise, while still entertaining, just feels like an ineffectual mostly-human monster. That is, until he turns into a terrible puppet and loses all ability to even make an impression. It’s no wonder that I couldn’t really remember the ending, it’s so terrible here. It isn’t great in the book, that’s for sure, but hot damn if they didn’t screw it up even worse here. A greater sin, though, is that the back half is boring as hell. They get most of the kid stuff out of the way in the first half of the film, so the remainder just features bad acting and meaningless scenes. This really kinda scares me about the upcoming sequel to this year’s retelling. While the kid part works on its own, the adult sections divorced from a connection to the kids’ story just kinda sits there. The filmmakers behind the 2019 sequel will have to inject some really good stuff into the film to make it worthwhile. This film barely registers anymore. It’s sad.

D+

Resident Evil: The Last Chapter

RE The Final Chapter

I don’t know how this happened. Well, first, I don’t know how a movie series “based” on the RE games lasted for so long, and then I don’t know how the final entry is somehow the best since the opening chapter. It’s packed with ideas (half of them cribbed from Mad Max, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing), like Paul W.S. Anderson and company just threw everything they had left in the tank at it. It helps that they retained Jorah Mormont (several times!) to give Alice a compelling antagonist to work against. I love the silly biblical stuff they threw in here for literally the first time in the 7-part series. The whole movie is a massive ret-con/backstory thing that doesn’t really make a whole ton of sense but who cares? Its fun as heck. Wanna see Alice twirl around and shoot a bunch of zombies? Wanna see her fight what the press materials call a Jabberwocky (GET IT???) in an act of vehicular battle? Wanna see her fight Jorah like 6 times? I sure do. This was a blast. Not scary, like at all, but super entertaining.

B+

Tune in next week for a ton of Hammer and Universal monsters!