Franchise Fever vol. 3: Conjuringverse and the Insidious Tetralogy

James Wan rules. He’s given us three of the best and most important contemporary horror franchises (Saw, Insidious, and the Conjuringverse). We wrote about Saw in a previous post. Wan also directed one of the best Fast and Furious movies (Furious 7), one of the only recent superhero movies we like (Aquaman), one of the better modern revenge movies (Death Sentence, with Kevin Bacon going full Charles Bronson), and another very solid doll horror movie (Dead Silence). That’s an impressive body of work. So here we are stanning James Wan.

Wan directed The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 and produced the rest of the movies in the franchise (working with a number of collaborators, including Leigh Whannell). The series is a little uneven, but the very best entries are exceptional and even the worst entries have redeeming qualities. This is some of the most accessible horror you will find us recommending at Strohltopia: generally mild enough for people who shy away from the genre but scary enough for horror fans.

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The series is centered around Ed and Lorraine Warren, who are real life ghost hunters/demonologists/suspected scam artists. The fictionalized version of the couple is played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. She’s the tormented, gifted one who communes with spirits; he’s a sort of 50’s businessman-meets-religious zealot who takes the lead with both clients and the Catholic Church. The two Conjuring movies are the hubs that the other entries in the series branch off from. Both films are part of the “family in a captive space” haunting genre but feature all sorts of auxiliary menaces that open up spin-off possibilities.

Perhaps the most distinctive trope of James Wan’s empire of supernatural horror is that what initially appears to be a run-of-the-mill haunting is actually something far more malevolent. This runs through the Insidious series and most of the Conjuringverse. The Far More Malevolent trope is a big part of what makes these movies special. We get two levels of reveal and jump scare. First, there is the ordinary sort of haunting: banging sounds in the night and unexplained open doors escalate to grabbing and clawing and dragging. But once the Warrens are called in, they discover through paranormal sleuthing that this is no ghost: it’s a demon from hell, and it wants your child’s soul. The haunting phenomena are just a way of softening up the most vulnerable member of the family: the real endgame is demonic possession and/or soul devouring.

The films were released in following order:

The Conjuring (2013), Annabelle (2014), The Conjuring 2 (2016), Annabelle: Creation (2017), The Nun (2018), The Curse of La Llorona (2019), Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

There are a lot of prequels in the mix, however, so the chronology of the stories is totally different:

The Nun (1952), Annabelle: Creation (1953), Annabelle (1967), The Conjuring (1971), Annabelle Comes Home (1972), The Curse of La Llorona (1973), The Conjuring 2 (1977)

We can see the merit of both viewing orders but we think release order is clearly the best way to watch these the first time around. Here’s the overarching structure connecting the series: The Conjuring introduces us to the Warrens and follows one of their cases from beginning to end. We learn that they have a room full of evil artifacts and the most malevolent of these artifacts is the Annabelle doll. Annabelle is a prequel to The Conjuring, where we get the story of what the Annabelle doll was up to prior to the events of The Conjuring. The Conjuring 2 brings the Warrens to London, where they work on a fictionalized version of the real life Enfield Poltergeist case. Lorraine struggles a great deal because when she uses her gift she is assailed by a demon in the guise of a nun. The nun’s origin story is the subject of (you guessed it) The Nun. We also meet a character in The Conjuring 2 named The Crooked Man, who will be the subject of another spin-off. Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to Annabelle (we love nested prequels!) and gives us Annabelle’s origin story. Annabelle Comes Home jumps back forwards and takes place shortly after the events of The Conjuring in a single night when a very irresponsible friend of the Warrens’ babysitter lets Annabelle out of her case in the evil artifact room. We meet at least two other menaces in this movie that could potentially support further spin-offs: The Ferryman and The Black Shuck (a damn hellhound!). The Curse of La Llorona is the most tangential entry and is connected to the other movies only by the relatively brief appearance of Father Perez (Tony Amendola), a main character in Annabelle. In a deleted scene, La Llorona’s necklace ends up in the Warrens’ artifact room, so there’s some chance there could be further tie-ins.

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One of our favorite things about these movies is the music. Most of the Conjuringverse and Insidious tetralogy scores were done by Joseph Bishara (who appears in the Insidious series as the Lipstick-Face Demon) and they are incredible. Check out this short track titled “Black Bile” from The Conjuring, featuring Diamanda Galás:

Or this violin hellscape from Insidious: 

The Nun does not feature work from Bishara but has an excellent score from Abel Korzeniowski featuring more ominous chanting and droning synthesizer:

Strohltopia ranking:

Matt and Josh agreed on these rankings. It reflects some degree of compromise but we are both happy with it.

7) The Curse of La Llorona (Chaves)

Linda Cardellini plays a social worker who interferes with a mother of Mexican descent who is trying to save her child from dark spirits through folk practices that look awfully abusive out of context. She takes the haunting home with her and soon finds her own children threatened.

We love folk horror and we love the idea of a Conjuringverse movie based on Mexican folklore, but this is mostly a letdown. While we do think the commentary on child protective services is interesting, we really would have preferred a Latina protagonist over Linda Cardellini. Her generic white mom vibe waters down the cultural setting. The script is lazy, La Llorona herself is underwhelming, the CGI is lame, and the jump scares are mostly tepid. The haunting is too mundane. We really craved something Far More Malevolent. The best element of the movie is Raymond Cruz, the character actor who played Tuco on Breaking Bad. He usually plays a cartel guy, a cop, or a military guy. Here he plays a spiritual healer named Rafael Olvera. When the haunted family can’t get timely help from the Catholic Church, Father Perez recommends Olvera as a back-alley exorcist. Cruz really chews the scenery and it is delightful to see him deploy various Mexican folk remedies. We just wish it were a scarier movie.

6) Annabelle (Leonetti)

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A young couple, John and Mia Forn, are expecting a baby. Mia collects dolls. John tracks down a rare vintage (creepy) doll for her collection. Shortly afterward, their neighbors are murdered by their estranged cult member daughter Annabelle and her boyfriend, who then try to attack John and Mia and end up getting some blood on the doll. Paranormal activities begin occurring.  The movie becomes a sort of third rate Polanski-style paranoid apartment movie combined with a haunting movie.

A good haunting movie needs a steady crescendo of tension. The big problem with Annabelle, aside from the fact that it’s generally uninspired, is that it keeps breaking its own tension. There are too many temporary reprieves that disrupt the crescendo. It does have some very good jump scares, however, and we enjoy the late 60’s setting and the way cultural touchstones like the Manson family are deployed. The depiction of early parenthood is sometimes interesting: the movie laces the natural fears and anxieties of having a newborn with the intensity of Conjuringverse haunting.  We appreciate the restraint it took not to animate the doll at all: it’s much scarier this way.

Also, we didn’t dock the movie for this, but we have beef with director John Leonetti, who insulted the great Tobe Hooper by claiming that Spielberg in fact directed PoltergeistAnyone who knows anything about Tobe Hooper and has seen Poltergeist can tell it’s a Tobe Hooper movie. It also has some Speilbergian qualities, and the unlikely fusion is what makes it special.

5) Annabelle Comes Home (Dauberman)

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As soon as we see the evil artifact room in The Conjuring absolutely crammed with creepy trinkets, haunted board games and ominous samurai armor (!) we dread the day when someone without an appropriate sense of caution tromps around in there and unleashes a fleet of demons and ghosts. Annabelle Comes Home consummates this dread. The Warrens’ daughter Judy is left home with babysitter Mary Ellen, who invites her friend Daniela to join for the night. Daniela has lost her father in a tragic accident and is drawn to the evil artifact room and the promise it holds for contacting the dead. We sometimes enjoy an excess of foolishness from horror protagonists. It’s part of the grammar of certain subgenres. It’s nice to see a self-possessed protagonist put up a good fight in a horror movie, but it’s also fun to see someone do the most ill-advised possible thing at every juncture. Daniela makes us want to scream at the screen: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING, DANIELA! DO NOT TOUCH THAT! DO NOT OPEN THAT FUCKING CASE! ARE YOU KIDDING?! DO! NOT! OPEN! THE! ANNABELLE! CASE!”

We give the movie a mixed review. It is very fun. We like dark and serious horror and we like horror with heavy themes, but we also enjoy stupid ridiculous horror that doesn’t take itself seriously, and this is definitely that. Some very funny moments accrue from the slumber party scenario and the cute-but-clueless boy across the street’s attempts to woo Mary Ellen by ineptly serenading her from the lawn. The array of menaces we meet is fully delightful. But on the negative side this isn’t very scary, it has dull stretches, and it doesn’t have much bite. Given how brazenly Daniela taunts death, there are basically no consequences. Fans of the series will enjoy it, but it’s not a particularly great movie.

4) The Conjuring 2 (Wan)

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The Enfield Poltergeist is one of the most famous suspected real world hauntings.  The Conjuring 2 focuses a great deal on aspects of the situation that made it seem especially credible to many people (levitating children in front of police, etc) and also tries to explain away the eventual discovery that the whole thing was a hoax. In this heavily fictionalized version, the malevolent presence forces the child to pretend to be staging a hoax so that the Warrens and the church will stop interfering. At the same time, Lorraine is tormented by the demon Valak the Defiler in the form of a nun. It’s extremely treacherous for her to contact the spirit realm–it gives Valak a way in–but she also can’t bring herself to abandon the Hodgson family. This conflict is among of the most interesting elements of the movie, and it brings a great deal of depth to the character of Lorraine. We really like The Conjuring 2 overall. It is not as good as The Conjuring and it has the same problem that Annabelle has with breaking its tension and disrupting its crescendo, but it is properly terrifying, the jump scares are legit, and the Valak subplot is well-integrated.

3) The Nun (Hardy)

The setup is that a nun in an isolated convent in Romania has committed suicide and a priest travels to investigate along with a young nun-in-training (Taissa Farmiga) who is originally from the region. It turns out that the convent is the site of a gate to hell that the nuns have been struggling to contain. We learn how the demon Valak from The Conjuring 2 came to take the form of a nun.

This is a sharp stylistic departure from the rest of the series. It is an homage to two great horror traditions: Italian maximalism and Hammer Horror. The main Italian influence is clearly Fulci, but Bava’s gothic horror is also a point of reference alongside Hammer. This movie got pretty bad reviews from mainstream critics, which does not surprise us very much because most of these people don’t know a thing about Italian horror or Hammer and they don’t have the context to see what the movie is trying to do. But don’t be deterred: The Nun has many direct pleasures to offer for the open-minded. You have to be okay with maximalism, though, because this movie is stuffed to the gills. Every possible time there could be a jump scare, there’s a jump scare. The production design is absurd. I would wager a great deal that there have never been more crucifixes in a single movie. The last time I watched it (my sixth viewing) I resolved to count the crucifixes, but I gave up because there are several dozen in the first few minutes. The climax is at a fever pitch and it goes on for a looooong time. Screaming! Jumping out of the shadows! Opening a gaping chasm to hell! All the nuns praying at once to hold back the evil! The literal blood of Jesus! This movie throws the kitchen sink at you. 

2) Annabelle: Creation (Sandberg)

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Annabelle: Creation is a banger. Sandberg previously directed Lights Out (2016), which revealed that he has formidable chops. This is the origin story of the Annabelle doll and it mostly takes place 14 years before the events of Annabelle. Doll-maker Samuel Mullins and his wife Esther lose their 7 year old daughter Annabelle in a tragic accident. 12 years later they invite a nun and six orphaned girls left homeless by the closing of an orphanage to live in their home. The whole situation is intensely creepy and there is one rule that we really hope none of the orphans will break: don’t go in Annabelle’s locked bedroom!

Alas, the rule is broken. We eventually learn of a dark pact the parents made in an effort to contact their daughter again which has invited something Far More Malevolent than the average ghost into the Annabelle doll. This movie is a tightly constructed piece of horror and it is terrifying. The jump scares will send you airborne. We love it. Even though Annabelle is pretty weak, it’s well worth watching to get to this. Play it as loud as possible with all the lights off.

1) The Conjuring (Wan)

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The Conjuring is in many ways a very traditional haunting movie. It hits all of the expected narrative marks and the plot solution is pretty much standard. Where it really stands out is in its relentless intensity and bombastic craftsmanship. It’s a straight up modern horror classic. People will watch this movie for decades and it will continue to scare the shit out of everyone. It’s nearly universal in its appeal: Christians love it, Satanists love it, teenagers love it, our mom loves it. Sometimes the most popular thing really is the best.

 

Insidious Tetralogy

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Insidious predates The Conjuring. The first film was released in 2010, Chapter 2 was released in 2013, Chapter 3 was released in 2015, and The Last Key was released in 2018.  Chronologically, the order is basically: Chapter 3, The Last Key, Insidious, Chapter 2, but the films also contain extensive flashbacks that make the timeline more complicated than this. There is a fifth movie coming.

Insidious is PG-13, which we are normally strongly against, but in this case it is in no way a problem. This is some terrifying PG-13 horror. Wan wanted to make a movie without gore as a response to critics of the Saw series who thought he had nothing to offer but blood and guts.

The center of the Insidious tetralogy is veteran actress Lin Shaye. She’s 74 years old and she’s a total badass. She’s played a lot of smaller roles over the years and it’s awesome to see a whole series built around her. She plays a powerful psychic named Elise Rainier who has a multi-generational connection to the Lambert family, the primary haunting/possession target in the first and second movies.

The other element that is distinctive of the series is The Further, which is the name given to the astral plane where the dead who have not passed on reside and where various demons and evil spirits who are trying to reach the living world get stuck. The production design of The Further is fantastic. Poltergeist is a clear point of reference but this is its own thing. It’s a black and desolate place, but it’s not empty. The sparseness of The Further makes the jump scares double plus effective.  If you’re going to put an astral plane in your horror movie, it better be cool as hell and viscerally terrifying. And this certainly is.

The overall structure of the narrative goes like this: Insidious tells the story of the haunting and possession of Dalton Lambert. Dalton’s parents Josh and Renai are played by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne (and so, alas, the Conjuringverse and the Insidiousverse don’t stand much of a chance of overlapping, since Patrick Wilson plays Ed Warren in The Conjuring). The grandma (Barbara Hershey!) calls in her demonologist/psychic friend Elise Rainier who works with a pair of ghosthunter lackeys, Specs and Tucker. It turns out that Elise had also been called in for a paranormal incident in Josh’s childhood. Dark secrets are revealed and tie in with Dalton’s predicament. I won’t say anything else but it rules so hard. Chapter 2 picks up directly from the end of Insidious and continues the story directly. Chapter 3 is a prequel, set several years before Insidious. It documents a previous case Elise worked on and also tells the story of how she came to team up with Specs and Tucker. The Last Key is about another case that occurs between Chapter 3 and Insidious. The case involves Elise’s childhood home and there’s a whole flashback narrative about her time living there.

Strohltopia ranking:

4)Insidious 3 (Whannell)

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Decent, but clearly the weakest entry. This is the first movie chronologically but Elise is already retired from demonology. She is drawn back in by a young woman named Quinn who has psychic gifts of her own. Despite Elise’s warnings, Quinn tries to contact her dead mother and ends up encountering a malevolent force. It’s not particularly scary compared to the rest of the series and it feels half-baked.

3) Insidious: Chapter 2 (Wan)

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Chapter 2 is nuts, in a good way. We really can’t describe the movie at all with spoilers for part 1, so we’ll just say that Patrick Wilson is great and the movie is a hoot.

2) Insidious: The Last Key (Robitel)

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This is by far the darkest movie out of both series. Drawn back to her childhood home in Five Keys, New Mexico by the resurfacing of a malevolent entity (Key Face!) that she previously encountered as a child, Elise confronts her horrifying past. We learn that Elise’s father was terribly abusive and tried to violently prevent her from using her abilities. But that’s just the beginning of the dark secrets that unravel in The Last Key. It’s a very disturbing movie that brings weight and depth to the series as a whole. We love it.

1) Insidious (Whannell)

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“But there are other entities who are malevolent and have a more insidious agenda. And then there’s this… A demon who seeks Dalton’s body for one reason – to cause pain to others.”

Insidious is our personal favorite of the whole James Wan supernatural constellation. This is a movie that knows how scary empty space can be. It knows how to use sound and music to shape and intensify the audience’s emotional response. Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, and Lynne Shay just slay in this. Turn the lights out, turn your phone off, and turn up the volume.

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 9: Month of Horror

‘Tis the season for carnage. We are recommending only horror movies for this installment. We usually try to avoid overly obvious recommendations and repeat recommendations, but this time we are lifting all such restrictions. We figure a lot of people who don’t watch many horror movies make an exception in October (do it!) and might appreciate more obvious recommendations.

Amazon Prime

Stagefright (1987)

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Michele Soavi is responsible for some of the very best efforts from the twilight of the golden age of Italian horror. Stagefright is tremendous and very much my jam. A theater troupe rehearses a play about a contemporary psychopath while they are terrorized by the very same psychopath.  In an owl costume.

Gothic (1986); Lair of the White Worm (1988)

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This is a pair of 80’s gems from the great Ken Russell. Gothic is about the night Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein and features Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley, Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron, Julian Sands as Percy Bysshe Shelley, and an unforgettable Timothy Spall as Dr. John William Polidori. It is batshit. Lair of the White Worm is comedic folk horror with Hugh Grant and Amanda Donohoe.

Wolf Creek 2 (2014)

Genre fans only. This is a very grimy exercise in disturbing excess, but it has a sense of fun (a very depraved sense of fun).

Child’s Play (1988)

Still lit! It’s amazing how long it manages to hold out on its big reveal.

Humanoids from the Deep (1980)

Barbara Peeters’ Roger Corman-produced creature feature is thoroughly messed up. She is one of many great unsung female horror directors from this era. But yeah, the premise is that fishmen seek non-consensual reproduction with human females. It doesn’t pull its punches, so proceed with caution. This is a new restoration and it looks great.

Class of 1984 (1982)

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So you know all those movies where an idealistic teacher starts working at an urban school and is shocked by the violence? This is probably the single most extreme riff on the premise. It goes so far.

Blood Rage (1987)

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We recommended this recently but it’s worth emphasizing: Terry and Todd are identical twins. Terry commits a brutal murder as a child and frames Todd for it. Now, many years later, Todd has escaped. All time Louise Lasser performance. This is a stellar example of American 80’s horror.

Deep Red (1975)

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One of Argento’s peak masterworks and arguably the single greatest giallo, absolutely watch it if you haven’t seen it. Daria Nicolodi is peerless. This is the shorter cut, which I think is fine but there are trade offs. The pace is livelier but there are some unexplained plot developments (stuff like “wait, how did they know to look here?”). It’s worth seeing both cuts.

Inferno (1980)

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The second entry in Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy (the other parts are Suspira and the underrated Mother of Tears), about a trio of powerful witches who have taken up residence in a trio of creepy buildings. Suspiria is set in the Black Forest,  this one is set in NYC, and Mother of Tears is set in Rome. This lacks a Claudio Simonetti score but Keith Emerson’s work here has started to grow on me. The movie itself is straight fire. It’s arguably Argento’s most abstract, surreal movie.

Phenomena (1985)

Another banger from Argento. Jennifer Connelly can telepathically communicate with bugs. I love it with my whole heart and I could watch it a hundred more times.

City of the Living Dead (1980)

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Part of Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy. It has some of his most potent imagery and is a great introduction to his work.

Sleepaway Camp 1-3 (1983, 1988, 1989)

The gender depictions in these movies are certainly “problematic” (in contemporary parlance) but also radical and subversive. I love this series, especially parts 1 and 3. Check them out if you want classic summer camp slasher with a subversive gender twist and you aren’t too worried about offensiveness.

Prom Night (1980) and Prom Night 2: Hello Mary Lou (1987)

The first one is a classic slasher with Jamie Lee Curtis. It takes its time but the payoff is awesome. I like it but definitely prefer the sequel Hello Mary Lou, which is much campier. It’s like Carrie meets A Nightmare on Elm Street. 

Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

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Amy Holden Jones’ essential slasher classic. Girl gang vs. pervert monster with death phallus power drill.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

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The best horror sequel of all time, it’s the perfect comedic companion piece to the best horror movie of all time.

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The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017)

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I really love this. It’s an atmospheric slow burn set in a girl’s boarding school in the icy, desolate wasteland of upstate NY in February (my homeland). A malevolent presence seeks to exploit a young woman’s loneliness. Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton are all terrific. This is my favorite sort of haunting movie: the narrative is sparse and elusive and the setting and context are abstract and suggestive.

Terrifier (2016)

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Hardcore. This is a stripped-down, supremely nasty dose of nihilistic clown horror. Practical effects, very little story. What motivates the clown to do such horrible things? Well, his name is Art.

Hush (2016)

Pretty much everything Mike Flanagan has done is great and this is no exception. There’s been a recent trend of sensory deprivation horror and this is far, far better than most of the other titles. A deaf writer (Kate Siegel) at a house in the woods copes with a home invader. At 82 minutes it’s lean and efficient.

Candyman (1992)

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A classic of urban horror. I intend to revisit it myself

Carrie (1976)

Perfect in every way. You’ve probably seen it and you’re probably due for a rewatch. I know I am.

Insidous (2010); The Conjuring (2013)

A couple bangers from James Wan. Haunting done right. Insidious is in the running for scariest PG-13 horror movie of all time. Lin Shaye owns. The Conjuring was quite popular and you’ve probably seen it but if not I highly recommend. Both of these are appropriate for non-genre fans.

The Witch (2015)

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This is one of the A24 horror movies that I wholeheartedly defend. The period dialogue is awesome and the movie has a strong sense of atmosphere and setting. Anya Taylor Joy is a great talent and the movie is scary af.

Truth or Dare (2017)

For a Blumhouse movie targeted at teenagers, this pretty much rules. Evil truth or dare.

47 Meters Down (2017)

Underrated Mandy Moore shark horror. This is another rare example of exceptional PG-13 horror. It’s so scary that at one point I screamed a full-on involuntary high-pitched scream.

Train to Busan (2016)

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One of the only good non-Romero zombie movies of the 21st century.

Hulu

The first four movies are absolutely central to the horror canon and essential viewing for anyone interested in the genre.

Hellraiser (1987)

Part of the peak horror pantheon, absolutely watch it if you haven’t seen it. Clive Barker’s peerless imagination is on full display.

The Beyond (1981)

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Fulci’s masterpiece.

The Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II (1987)

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The height of 80’s splatter. Raimi’s maniacal energy is singular.

Pumpkinhead (1988)

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Stellar 80’s schlock with exquisite practical effects.

Ravenous (1999)

Well-done western cannibal horror.

Saw (2004), Saw 2 (2005), Saw 6 (2009)

I’ve written about Saw here. 2 and 6 are my favorite entries but I wouldn’t advise watching 6 without first seeing 3-5.

I Spit on Your Grave (2011); I Spit on Your Grave 2 (2013); I Spit on Your Grave 3 (2015)

Not for everyone! I repeat: not for everyone! These are dyed-in-the-wool rape-revenge movies and they are gnarly. The subgenre is not exactly in vogue right now and I completely understand why most people don’t want to put themselves through this sort of thing, but if you do want to put yourself through this sort of thing, you could do much worse than the I Spit on Your Grave extended universe. The original 1978 I Spit on Your Grave features possibly the most disturbing rape scene of all time (calling it a “scene” is perhaps misleading, given that it lasts for nearly half the movie). I was scared to watch it for most of my life and when I finally got around to it earlier this year I found that it lived up to my fears: it’s a horrible masterpiece and it should be approached with maximum caution. The remake and its sequels are far more accessible, but still quite difficult. The 2011 film follows the rough plot of the original; writer Jennifer Hills rents a quiet cabin in the country to work on her new book. She rejects the attention of various townsfolk who seethe with toxic masculinity and eventually group up to brutally attack her in her rental home. She survives despite their best efforts and returns to kill them one-by-one with brutal methods that fit their crimes. The impressive creativity of the kills elevates the movie. The 2013 sequel is quite vile and not nearly as creative. It is to the 2011 film as The Human Centipede 2 is to The Human Centipede. It doubles down on the grime. Like half the movie takes place in a literal sewer. Even a lot of people who would be into the first and third movies should probably skip the second one. But if you want max vileness, go for it. It made me physically nauseous, which is a rare accomplishment. The third one returns to Jennifer Hills, who is now living in a new city under an assumed name. There is no big rape spectacle in the movie. Instead, the action centers around a rape survivor’s support group where Hills bonds with other survivors while struggling with PTSD and ongoing violent fantasies. Harkening back to 1974’s Act of Vengeance (a very ahead of its time movie about a group of survivors who decide the police are worse than useless for rape victims and form their own support squad), it depicts members of the survivor’s group taking matters into their own hands. I think this third movie is especially interesting and unusual. The first half plays like a serious drama about a rape survivor’s group. It’s so sensitive by comparison with typical rape-revenge movies that I started to feel like it wasn’t going to be a rape-revenge movie at all. When the blood did finally start flowing, it genuinely shocked me.

Two quick takes: Wu-Tang (yes) and Booksmart (no)

Wu-Tang:  An American Saga

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The problem with the musical biopic as a genre is that these movies tend to put their focus into pulling off a good karaoke impersonation and ticking off the obligatory recognizable milestones (early failure, big break, escalating success, drugs and sex, hard times, and finally either redemption or an early death) rather than on telling a good story or exploring the subject’s creative process or doing something interesting with form. I find most of these movies unwatchable, though I do sometimes find myself deriving mild enjoyment from karaoke movies about artists that I like (e.g., the Biggie movie or Straight Outta Compton). There are several excellent movies about classical artists, which I think is much easier to achieve because no one is tempted to build their Mahler biopic around a gimmicky Mahler impression and a bunch of Behind the Music cliches. The ones I really love are Straub-Huillet’s Chronicles of Anna Magdalena Bach, Ken Russell’s Lisztomania and Mahler, and Zulawski’s La Note Bleue (about Chopin).

I can think of exactly one exceptional biopic about a pop musician: Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, about Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. It’s great because it totally eschews the standard formula and instead focuses on Brian Wilson’s unique way of experiencing the world and how it manifested in his creative process. It uses innovative sound design and editing techniques to depict Wilson’s point of view. I don’t see how anyone could watch that movie and not go listen to Pet Sounds a couple dozen times afterwards.

Wu-Tang: An American Saga takes a totally new approach and I loooooooooooove it. Forget the biopic, this is a bio-miniseries. It uses the larger canvas to craft a mythic origin story that focuses on the parts that are normally glossed over. We are 4/10 episodes in and no one even has their rap nickname yet. Method Man and Ghost are still enemies. This is closer to a musical version of The Wire (minus the cops) than to Straight Outta Compton. There’s certainly a degree of embellishment and narrative liberty and as far as I’m concerned THAT’S FINE. If I want to be informed about the actual history here I can watch the Wu documentary and read the wikipedia articles. Tell me a good story, I don’t care if you made some of it up.

So far, this is a Wu-Tang gangster saga with rap greatness simmering just below the surface. The RZA (Ashton Sanders from Moonlight) is at the center of it all, making beats in his basement, forced to hustle when his brother is imprisoned, torn between his duties to family and his own boundless creative drive. He’s the visionary, the one with his eye on the prize, but he keeps getting pulled towards the street game. He sees his friends, family, and even enemies as MC’s lying in wait. He’s constantly trying to pull them away from the corner spot and into his basement to lay down verses, while they are trying to pull him back out to sell blue tops. Kung fu movies play in the background. Five Percenters preach in the streets. As a fan of Wu-Tang since 36 Chambers dropped when I was 12 years old, it all feels familiar. But it feels more like the Wu Tang fictional universe developed across their body of work than like a rote wikipedia survey of noteworthy biographical events. This is the Wu-Tang Clan as they see themselves: superheroes emerging from the Slums of Shaolin. They’re gaining their powers now, and soon they will don their alter-egos. I also really appreciate that Hulu is releasing this week-by-week instead of all at once. I like having something to look forward to: Wu Wednesdays, highlight of the week.

Booksmart

Image result for booksmart

(warning: spoilers)

There aren’t many movies I dislike this strongly. I put it on late at night, imagining it would be a funny and entertaining high school comedy updated for contemporary moment. Not only did I not find it funny, I spent several days ruminating on how intensely I disliked it. It’s instructive to compare it with Kay Cannon’s Blockers, which is also a female-centric take on a familiar highschool formula. Blockers is a gender-inverted American Pie. Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart is often compared to Superbad, which is apt, but it’s closer to Can’t Hardly Wait, with a pinch of Ghost World. So far, so good. One feature of the high school comedy subgenre is that it can withstand a high degree of reiteration. All those American Pie sequels are solid, for instance. Blockers is very effective about both hitting all the genre norms and doing something new and refreshing. I really admire it for giving the female characters unflinchingly raunchy dialogue. Also, the way the parents’ side of the story ends up resolving is a brilliant revision. Usually in a movie like this, the parents discourage their daughter from having sex, she tries anyways, and at the moment of truth she realizes they were right all along and she should really wait to lose her precious flower. Here it’s the opposite: at least in one arc, the parents learn that it’s fine if their daughter has sex. Hallelujah.

What I really dislike about Booksmart is the way that it forsakes an absolutely essential element of the high school comedy: sincere sentimentality. I think you will find that every single great highschool comedy has a streak of saccharin sweetness. It needs to be there. Booksmart seems to want to be funny at all times. Whenever there is a moment of sweetness, it sees a chance for a cheap laugh. Its schtick is to disrupt any sense of sincerity that starts to develop with a joke on the level of a loud fart. At no point in the movie did I get a sense that the two leads are best friends. I believed that they hang out together, but I did not believe that they love each other. Their ultimate separation when one leaves for a year abroad has no impact, and in any case is disrupted with a joke on the level of a loud fart. That’s right, not even the final goodbye lets you feel anything.

The scene that I hated the most is the bathroom sex scene. In fact, I think this is my least favorite scene in recent memory. One of the two female leads is out as gay but hasn’t yet consummated her sexuality. She crushes on a quirky girl who may or may not be gay, which leads to an unsurprising and genre-typical humiliation when she turns out to be straight. Then we get a delightful twist where the Hot Mean Girl (Diana Silvers– her performance is the best thing about the movie and she’s also great in Ma) turns out to be into her and they start making out in the bathroom. The scene starts out charmingly awkward and sweet. I had really been hating the movie and I thought to myself, “how does this terrible movie have a lovely sweet scene like this?” And then…. we get a “wrong hole” joke directly into a vomit joke.

Fuck this movie. The character has already been humiliated enough at this point and deserves a win. It would be highly appropriate to genre conventions: I thought we were getting the equivalent of the Lauren Ambrose bathroom scene in Can’t Hardly Wait. There is no good reason to humiliate the character again. It’s not funny. The movie turns around and gives her a small redemption: the Hot Mean Girl stops by to say goodbye at the end and makes it clear she’s still interested. But if you were going to give her this win, why not give it to her in the sex scene, where it can have far more emotional impact, rather than as a hasty afterthought? We are told to see this as a win, but we can’t feel it. One might think that the sex scene functions to let people know that it’s okay if their first sexual encounter is a bit of a shit show. But the movie could have accomplished this without tawdry, lazy gross out jokes. The embarrassment and awkwardness could have stood hand-in-hand with sweetness and sincerity.

Small note: I also really did not appreciate Feldstein’s arc, where she is rejected by the goy boy and ends up settling for the desperate kid coded as rich and Jewish. The subtext there is off-putting. See Blockers if you skipped it. It’s so much better.

Notes on Midsommar (Director’s Cut)

Warning: spoilers lie within.

  1. On the director’s cut: My sense is the longer cut is the way to go. I didn’t see the original theatrical cut because I knew that it was much shorter than Aster’s preferred cut and I wanted my first experience of the movie to be of the more authoritative version. The director’s cut includes more scenes that give us a sense of Christian and Dani’s relationship and more depictions of rituals that aren’t integral to the main narrative. The one element of the director’s cut that I could see a case for cutting would be some of the thesis material, but my sister-in-law Izzy makes the point that this is the one place where the movie gets into racial themes and it does a lot to establish Christian’s entitled white guy douchiness. The other question is pacing. I can’t attest to the way the pacing feels in the shorter cut but I don’t expect that the movie would benefit from trimming down. One of the most interesting things about the movie is the way it pushes the classic slow burn horror arc past its traditional scope (see below). I think the longer runtime is crucial here. Image result for midsommar
  2. On “elevated horror”: Some of the most hardcore horror fans whose opinions I follow love to shit on A24 horror releases. I totally understand where they are coming from, but I think that each movie deserves a fair shake. A24 tends to release some of my favorite movies and some of my least favorite movies every year, without too much in the middle. The bad stuff wouldn’t be so infuriating if all the hipster critics didn’t wet their pants over it and throw around phrases like “elevated horror.” Here’s a tip: if you ever see that phrase being used unironically, ignore the author’s views. The problem is the presumption that horror needed to be elevated. The sorts of themes that these “elevated”  indie horror movies bring to the surface are already there in the subtext of reams and reams of unpretentious genre movies. There are vast numbers of haunted house movies that are about grief, trauma, abuse, and family secrets, for instance. They typically address these themes in subtle ways, keeping the outward focus on the horror action. “Elevated horror” movies take a heavy hand to what was already there. They turn the subtext into text. Critics who throw the phrase “elevated horror” around (think Indiewire) don’t actually like horror, and they praise A24 releases at the expense of the genre. They say things like, “this isn’t just a horror movie, this is a piercing study of grief and trauma.” Horror fans want to say: “fuck you, horror doesn’t need all this indie film festival bullshit to be a piercing study of grief and trauma, you just don’t know how to watch a horror movie.” That said, I think Midsommar is far from elevated bullshit like The Babadook. It’s a horror movie to its bones. I liked Aster’s previous movie, Hereditary, but I didn’t love it. That movie mushes together a prestige drama and a bargain basement haunted house movie somewhere between Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring, with a Rosemary’s Baby ending tacked on. I was concerned when I saw the long runtime of Midsommer that he was giving us a feature length prestige drama conjoined with a feature length horror movie. Nope! The extra length is devoted to the slow burn. It’s a movie with broad connections to the history of the genre, coming from a place of love and admiration, rather than the sort of condescension that characterizes the worst examples of “elevated horror.”
  3. There’s a beautiful and perfect Texas Chainsaw Massacre nod that announces the beginning of the final act. It’s the scene where Josh sneaks into the forbidden temple to photograph the forbidden book. His grisly demise closely echos the first kill from Texas Chainsaw: 
    Notice the mask of human skin, the smash, the squeals, the dragging. It’s unmistakable. Aster knows that any serious horror fan will catch this reference, and to me it felt like a warm reassurance: “This right here is a horror movie, buckle up.”Image result for midsommar ending smile
  4. There are two respects in which Midsommar is notably original: the three-hour scale and the aggressive brightness of the cinematography. There aren’t many horror movies where most of the action takes place in sunlight. The Wicker Man is the most obvious point of comparison (in many respects), but Midsommar not only takes place in sunlight, it is one of the brightest movies I’ve ever seen. It is the inversion of the neglected vampire gem 30 Days of Night, which takes place in Northern Alaska during the winter solstice.
  5. Midsommar connects with three venerable horror traditions: folk horror, the Italian Cannibal movie, and the slow burn. Folk horror– horror based on dark folklore–is most closely associated with late 60’s-early 70’s British films like Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw, and of course The Wicker Man. We’ve seen a resurgence of interest in the subgenre in recent years, with titles like The Witch, Hagazussa, and The Curse of La Llorona. Midsommar has a high degree of continuity with the British classics, but also pushes the subgenre in new directions. Most notably, it fuses folk horror with the Italian Cannibal movie. Italian Cannibal movies typically depict a group of westerners– usually anthropologists and/or resource exploiting capitalists– journeying into the heart of the jungle to the territory of an uncontacted tribe, where they both brutalize and are brutalized by the tribe’s members. On the way in, the westerners romanticize the tribe. The typical end result is the ceremonial slaughter and consumption of any westerners who are still alive. By this point, the westerners have perpetrated enough atrocities on the tribe that it’s a pleasure to see them eaten. The theme of these movies is that civilization is a way of institutionalizing rather than transcending violence. Civilizations that imagine themselves more developed are really just more developed in their savagery. There have been two recent titles that revive the Italian Cannibal movie: Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno and S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk. The former is a pretty classic rendition while the latter fuses the Italian Cannibal movie with the Western. Both of these movies more-or-less flew under the radar, but can you just imagine how the hot take brigade would react to a proper Italian Cannibal movie making it to the mainstream? There is no question that the racial politics of these movies is vexed (not to mention the gender politics) but the genre has much to offer and deserves rehabilitation. I think Aster’s solution is genius: make the tribe the whitest people in the world! This racial shift and the corresponding gender inversion of the sexual violence give Aster space to make an Italian Cannibal movie for the age of the woke take. The main point of reference is definitely The Wicker Man, but Italian Cannibal movies like Cannibal Holocaust are a close second. And then there’s the slow burn. This is a 60’s and 70’s tradition and the paradigmatic example is Rosemary’s Baby, but we have seen some excellent slow burns in recent years, my favorites being Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem and Ti West’s House of the Devil. The art of the slow burn is to stretch the crescendo out as far as possible and escalate the tension until it becomes unbearable and ultimately explodes into a frenzied catharsis. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a slow burn quite at the scale of the director’s cut of Midsommar. The closest thing I can think of is Polanski’s The Ninth Gate. By the time the movie really shows its teeth (the Texas Chainsaw scene!), half of the protagonists are already dead. And then you couldn’t ask for a more frenzied catharsis *Italian chef kiss*.
  6. The score is straight fire, courtesy of Haxan Cloak. There have been some worrisome trends in horror scores. Namely: scores that are not creepy or scary. That Thom Yorke Suspiria score is one of the worst damn horror scores I can think of. More of this, less of that, please.
  7. I don’t even know how many cinematic representations of drug-induced hallucinations I’ve seen in my life and this is literally the only movie I can think of that effectively captures what drug-induced hallucinations are actually like. The persistent use of these excellent effects helps the viewer to become immersed in Dani’s state of mind, which for me greatly enhanced both the buildup of tension and the visceral release of the climax. Image result for midsommar
  8. Thank you for the ambiguous City Lights ending. There are still bits and pieces of immaturity (Gaspar Noé has ruined the upside-down shot and I wish everyone would refrain from using it for a good long while), but Aster has come a long way from Hereditary. Rather than giving us both a disappointingly literal prestige drama and a horror movie like he did in Hereditary, he’s just given us an excellent horror movie that lets the audience draw connections for ourselves between the opening sequence with Dani’s family, the depiction of her relationship with Christian, and the ending. There are themes of co-dependence, grief, alienation, etc., but nothing is spelled out explicitly, and the audience is allowed multiple ways of reacting to her fate. One of my favorite things about the movie is the incongruity between the foreshadowing and the conclusion. Being familiar with the relevant genre conventions, when Pelle initially tells Dani about the May Queen competition I thought, “OH FUCK NO, YOU DO *NOT* WANT TO BE THE MAY QUEEN!!!!!”. We expect that the May Queen will be the one sacrificed. The surprising inversion of the finale– she’s the only one NOT sacrificed– abruptly inflects everything that preceded it with new significance, particularly the opening sequences.
  9. Concluding summer movie rant: This was one of the worse summers for movies that I can remember. Fuck Disney! Anyone who boycotts companies like Amazon and Walmart should look long and hard at Disney. They have bought up all the most popular properties and given them the New Disney Treatment of ironing out as much distinctness as possible and delivering safe, predictable box office products that pander to audience expectations. Any time I thought about going to the movies this summer I was dismayed to see that I only had one or two non-Disney options. I’ll keep going to see Lucasfilms movies, because I can’t not, but otherwise I’m done with this shit. The live action remakes of classic 2D animated movies are the last straw for me. This is the most cynical cash grab bullshit of all time. Amidst this landscape of cultural decay, we must cherish the few gems that make it into the multiplex. Midsommar is one of them. I just have to give props to Aster and A24 for making a hit out of a long, slow burn folk horror movie, even if they had to cut a half hour out of it. I saw the three-hour version at the local multiplex, and that’s remarkable. The other horror gem from this summer that I would urge people to check out is Aja’s Crawl. It’s a wonderfully old-fashioned creature feature. It’s not goofy and self-aware like Snakes on a Plane (and most other creature features from recent memory– the Australian crocodile flick Rogue being the most notable exception). It’s an efficient, scary, tense, chomptastic alligators-in-a-hurricane genre exercise and it rules. Go see Midsommar and Crawl if you still have the opportunity. Support the good shit. Fuck Disney.

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 8

Featured image from 10 to Midnight. 

Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime continues to overflow with riches. This time I have an impressive batch of 70’s and 80’s exploitation movies to recommend along with some very nice odds and ends.

The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)Millie Perkins in The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)

Featuring a memorable lead performance from Millie Perkins, this slow burn is at the far “arthouse-feminist” end of the exploitation spectrum. It’s got buckets of grime, but it’s also a potent dramatic portrayal of trauma and mental illness. Essential 70’s horror.

10 to Midnight (1983)Image result for 10 to midnight

Wall-to-wall sleaze. A repulsive incel serial killer runs afoul of Charles Bronson, a Dirty Harry type. Directed by J. Lee Thompson, who also made the original Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone.

Blood Rage (1987)
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Bonkers! Blood Rage is top tier 80’s horror. Terry and Todd are identical twins. Todd has been locked up for a decade for a grisly childhood murder at a drive-in theater but has now escaped, Michael Myers style. But has Terry been the real psychopath all along?? Absolutely incredible Louise Lasser performance as the mom.

Night Train Murders (1975)Image result for night train murders

Heading over to Italy, this Aldo Lado jam is a particularly depraved riff on Last House on the Left (which in turn is a riff on The Virgin Spring). A couple of girls headed home to visit family end up on a train with a trio of violent sadists. Every content warning certainly applies. Lado’s stylistic chops are on full display and Ennio Morricone contributes a sparse and unnerving score.

Under the Silver Lake (2019)Image result for under the silver lake

This is from David Robert Mitchell, who also made The Myth of the American Sleepover and It Follows. After the success of the latter, he got a pretty nice budget for this one, and what he ended up doing is deeply weird. So much so that A24 dumped it to VOD just three days after its theatrical release. I was *definitely* vibing on this. It’s a 2 hour and 20 minute stoner Philip Marlowe odyssey into the surreal underbelly of LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood. It’s in the tradition of The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski, and Inherent Vice, but it’s very much its own thing. One of my favorite new releases of the year.

Peterloo (2019)Image result for peterloo movie

A powerful, richly detailed study of a clash between activism and tyranny, vitally relevant to today’s world. Worthwhile political films are in short supply nowadays and I wish everyone would watch this.

Lord of Illusions (1995)Image result for lord of illusions clive barker

Clive Barker made three movies and they are all horror masterpieces. This one was severely underappreciated when it came out, partly because the theatrical cut was butchered. It has since been rehabilitated on home video and taken its rightful place in the canon. A cult of magicians is led by Swann, a popular illusionist  who is in fact performing real magic on stage. Swann’s wife (Famke Janssen) hires private detective Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) when she fears that other cult members are conspiring against her husband. Madness ensues.

Serenity (2019)Image result for serenity movie

My favorite good-bad movie of 2019. I admit I had started to become a little bit of a Matthew McConaughey detractor. I very strongly disliked him in Dallas Buyer’s Club and let myself get carried away. Between this and The Beach Bum (see below), I stand corrected. I am ashamed of myself: Matthew McConaughey is a gift to be cherished. In this GLORIOUS movie, he plays a salty charter boat captain who pleasures Diane Lane for rent money and spends his days on a quest to catch one specific fish (the fish’s name is Justice). The plot thickens when his ex-wife (Anne Hathaway) pays him to take her abusive husband (peak Jason Clarke!) out on a day trip. I love this movie from the bottom of my heart.

Belladonna of Sadness (1973)Image result for belladonna of sadness

Someone pointed out to me recently that I don’t spend much time on Strohltopia talking about animated movies and asked whether I’m partial to anything in particular. I thought for a minute and said “well I love Belladonna of Sadness!” 86 minutes of insane phantasmagoria, witchcraft, and vengeance.

Millennium Actress (2003)Related image

Another animated favorite. This is Satoshi Kon’s journey through the memories of an aging actress. It’s a sister film to Perfect Blue, offering a more positive variation on similar material.

Netflix

I resent Netflix for cancelling their best show (The OA!) but I can’t stay mad at them long when they deliver stuff like Wu Assassins.

Wu Assassins (2019)Image result for wu assassins

Angela and I are having a great time with this series. It’s like Iron Fist but good. It’s got all my favorite stuff: Iko Uwais (aka The Guy from The Raid), superhuman martial arts powers, food, triads and tongs. It’s a compulsively watchable delight.

The Box (2009)Related image

This didn’t cause quite the stir of Donnie Darko or Southland Tales but it’s probably my favorite Richard Kelly movie. It begins with an ethics class thought experiment where a sublimely creepy Frank Langella gives Cameron Diaz a black box with a red button and tells her that if she presses the button she will receive a million dollars while a stranger somewhere in the world will die. Her choice begins a dark spiral into batshit sci-fi territory.

Lady in the Water (2006)Related image

As I wrote in my Shyamalan piece, this is easily my favorite M. Night movie. I was delighted to see it featured front and center on Netflix. Often used as a punching bag by dour detractors, it deserves reappraisal. I was struck on my most recent viewing by how hilarious Cindy Cheung is.

Horns (2013)Image result for horns movie

Aja has put together a very impressive body of work. Not exactly being a Daniel Radcliffe fan, I was skeptical, but he’s good here. He stands accused of murdering his girlfriend and spontaneously sprouts horns and gains the power to compel people to confess and then act on their most depraved impulses. Aja is in fine form stylistically.

The Wandering Earth (2019)Image result for wandering earth

Armageddon times a thousand. This is the first big budget sci-fi extravaganza produced in China. The entire earth has become a space vessel being propelled out of the solar system by giant thrusters. Threatened by a collision with Jupiter, a rag-tag team of misfits must save the day. I enjoyed how massive and excessive this movie is, and I also enjoyed the way that it packs in the “collective before individual!” themes wherever it can.

Hulu

Hulu was starting to wear out its welcome with me but they’ve done a lot to redeem themselves by bringing us a fourth season of Veronica Mars. They’ve added a few notable movies as well.

Veronica Mars (2019)Image result for veronica mars season 4

Yeehaw! I devoured S4 like the delicious meal that it is. It feels like home. I love how seamlessly it connects to the previous seasons and the movie. If you’re into the show, a great delight awaits. If you’ve never gotten into it, Hulu also has seasons 1-3. Certainly this is one of my favorite TV shows of all time.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)Related image

My opinion of Moonlight is that the first act is transcendently gorgeous but that the second and third acts let it down. Jenkins’ follow up lives up to the promise of that first act.  A period piece set in 70’s Harlem, this is a superlatively sumptuous, sensual piece of film-making. The acting is so expressive that this could have worked as a silent film. Curl up on the couch with your beloved and/or your cat or your dog or your favorite stuffed animal– someone or something to snuggle– and be ready to cry your eyes out.

Joe (2013)Image result for joe nicolas cage

Arguably David Gordon Green’s best movie, featuring an exceptionally great serious dramatic performance from Nic Cage as an ex con with a soft spot for a hard luck kid working on his crew.

The Beach Bum (2019)Image result for the beach bum

A gentler, sweeter side of Harmony Korine. Featuring one of two great salty wharf rat performances this year from McConaughey (see Serenity above), this is a loving and unapologetic ode to the life of a stoner degenerate. It warmed my heart.

Final Destination 1-3 (2000, 2003, 2006)Image result for final destination 1

I love these movies. The formula is simple: several individuals are saved from a disaster when one of them has a prophetic vision, but then death comes to claim them anyways and they die one by one in elaborate freak accidents. Each film is a collection of grisly, imaginative set pieces. The fourth one is also on Hulu but it’s not very good (it was the first 3D entry, and it substitutes 3D for creativity), but the fifth one (not on Hulu) is amazing and completists may just want to watch them all.

Shivers (1975)Image result for shivers

This might be my favorite early Cronenberg. There’s a sexually transmitted parasite that turns the people it infests into sex-crazed maniacs. Mayhem ensues. Works great on the “zombie orgy of gore” level but also gets into Cronenberg’s abiding interest in the relationship between the body and technology.

 

 

 

TV Roundup

Featured image from Too Old to Die Young (also the next two images)

TV is pretty lit right now.  I was getting pessimistic about the state of the medium but this summer’s fare has changed my tune. I’m having trouble keeping up. I have not started Stranger Things season 3 yet but I’m excited for it. It seems like credible people love it and less credible people hate it.

First, let’s divide things up into three categories: Meh, Very Good, and Where Have You Been All My Life.  I will also comment on the Deadwood movie at the end. I can’t put it in any of these categories.

MehGood Omens, Legion S3, Chernobyl

Very GoodFleabag S2, Big Little Lies S2, Billions S4

Where Have You Been All My LifeEuphoriaToo Old to Die Young

Commentary:

First the good news: ambitious, transgressive TV is back on the menu. Refn’s Too Old to Die Young (Amazon Prime) is an absolute banger. Let me be clear: it is NOT for everyone. A list of the relevant content warnings would pretty much include every possible content warning. It is fucking dark. If you ever avoid things because of content warnings, this is probably something you should avoid. I was a little skeptical going in because Refn’s so full of himself that it’s kind of hard to self-identify as a fan, but I really, really loved both of his last two movies (Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon), so I guess I can say that I am a huge fan of post-Drive Refn (Drive is okay, but nowhere near the level of what’s come after).

I think it’s fruitful to compare Too Old to Die Young and Chernobyl.  Before starting Chernobyl I thought, “I really hope this isn’t too heavy handed with the Trump/Putin connections,” and then BAM! the opening narration spouts the dreaded cliche: “If you repeat a lie enough times…”

There are glimpses of something really interesting that could have made for a very special TV show. In particular, amidst all the olive-drab-so-you-know-it’s-the-USSR production design there are bits and pieces of expressionistic radioactive imagery that scream to be fleshed out further. Make like 50% of the show radiation horror and add a pulsing synth score in the style of John Carpenter and you could really have something. Instead, the show mostly goes for a “banality of evil” approach, where we see horrible consequences accrue from a bunch of bureaucrats making self-serving decisions and other bureaucrats following orders. There’s some very nice body horror, especially in episode 3, but I would have enjoyed a more hysterical and less sentimental approach to the hospital material. In any case, my overall opinion of the show as a work of horror is that it manages to take some of the most viscerally horrifying material imaginable and make it relatively mundane. It’s a black rain nightmare that wants to be a stodgy procedural.

Image result for too old to die young yaritza

Too Old to Die Young is the exact opposite. It takes commonplace elements of the contemporary zeitgeist and filters them through a neon prism of hallucinatory existential panic. Sex trafficking, #metoo, drug cartels, border violence, hedge fund managers, police corruption, collapse of the gender binary, Trump, even cultural appropriation of the taco by white hipsters: it’s all in there, but in the manner of a nightmare. If you’ve seen Refn’s more recent films you might worry that the whole thing becomes too incomprehensible, but there’s no need to fear, his collaborator Ed Brubaker (of comics fame) moderates his more extreme experimental impulses. Brubaker pulls the show in the direction of an aggressively dark border noir with a tight narrative while Refn pulls it in the direction of a glacially-paced, neon pink Inland Empire. Add pulsing synth music from Cliff Martinez and the result is completely and utterly exhilarating. Best show since Twin Peaks: The Return and it’s not close. To reemphasize, though, this is definitely not for everyone. It is very hostile to audience expectations. I find this quality thrilling. But if you don’t like being messed with, this is probably not the show for you.

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It doesn’t compare to Too Old to Die Young, but the other show that’s really impressing me is HBO’s Euphoria. It’s been stealing Big Little Lies’ thunder on Sundays. Euphoria is at its core a new entry in the well-worn high school soap opera genre with a heavy dose of hard NC-17 Kids/Thirteen-style teens behaving badly. Initially I was skeptical. It seemed to me like the business model here was to be as shocking as possible to promote controversy to get people curious enough to subscribe to HBO. All the lurid content seemed to be framed in terms of pro-helicopter parenting moralism.  DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOUR KIDS ARE DOING?? But it’s sooooo lurid and seemed to have mischief in its heart, so I stayed with it. Four episodes in it has just gotten better and better. The fourth episode shows that Sam Levinson has some chops, with its vivid carnival setting and well-executed cross cutting between multiple subplots.  I thought homeboy was a hack after seeing Assassination Nation but I can’t fault what he’s doing here. The moralism, I’ve realized, is just to clear the way for some seriously risque fun. It’s like those early 60’s exploitation movies that would frame themselves as warnings about the dangers of homosexuality (or whatever)  but really just as a pretense to portray subject matter that couldn’t otherwise pass the censors. Euphoria is not here to lecture us, it’s here for subversive fun. 

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Even people not watching the show may have seen headlines about transgender model Hunter Schafer’s performance. She is really phenomenal. Her character is easily the most complex, three-dimensional transgender character I’ve seen in popular media. Too often, characters that occupy particularly marginalized social roles are saddled with moral sainthood. This is an insidious tendency. It reflects the impulse of guilty privileged progressives to idealize the moral purity of the oppressed, which is its own sort of dehumanization. Schafer’s character, Jules, is both flawed and profoundly sympathetic. Euphoria strikes the perfect balance of filthy dirty fun and sincere poignancy. 

And now, the bad news: Legion continues to languish. I thought the first season was stellar. That season was short and tight, and the weirdness was focused around a few good ideas that gave the whole thing structure. Several episodes take place in the time it takes a single bullet to travel across a room. That’s a really good idea! Season 2 was bloated and aimless, with whole episodes devoted to uninteresting tangents and an excess of godawful Don Draper pseudo-philosophical voiceover soliloquies (the smartphone sermon was where I admitted the show had jumped the shark). The finale of S2 was kind of a banger, however, and it left the door open for the show to redeem itself. So far, I’m disappointed. S3 started out with some pretty entertaining time travel action but now it’s back to slow and uninteresting tangents that pack less dramatic punch than their posture indicates.

I watched three episodes of Good Omens on Prime and bailed. Stylistically, it’s like a toothless American Gods. I was intrigued enough by the apocalyptic premise and the fact that the Antichrist is a character, but the show is much more interested in the friendship between an angel and a demon who have taken to enjoy life on Earth. The concept seems to be to get two very fine UK actors (Michael Sheen and David Tennant) buddied up and just let them banter. But the writing is nowhere near compelling enough to render this interesting. And once the apocalypse does start breaking out it is far too goofy. Not for me.

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Turning back to the Very Good, I certainly enjoyed the latest season of Billions, though it does have some major flaws. Some of the plotting is lazy. The first couple seasons felt fairly grounded in the show’s internal logic but at this point all such pretense has been abandoned and the writers take whatever contrived narrative shortcuts are necessary to set up the desired rivalries and give each character ammunition against the others. This complaint aside, though, the rivalries themselves are very entertaining. The show’s become a character study of the two most vindictive people in the world. I fear that we may be headed towards a cold shower of moralism, but we’ll see. For now, it’s all horrible people screwing each other over in ingenious ways and tons and tons of excellent dialogue in the show’s sui generis style.

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Big Little Lies is delightful. The show was teetering between preachy and campy at the end of S1 and now it’s doubled down on the camp. It’s basically like “let’s round up all our hammiest actresses and let them go absolutely apeshit on a hothouse melodrama.” Meryl Streep rehashes her glorious Mommy from Hell from Demme’s’ The Manchurian Candidate remake, but with fake teeth added and some very loopy dialogue. I love her so much in this! Laura Dern continues to absolutely slay, and Shailene Woodley is actually pretty good in this season. I’m still not fully onboard with the Reese Witherspoon performance, though, which seems really obvious and one-dimensional compared with all the genius around her.

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This brings us to Fleabag, which I think is very good indeed. It’s short and there’s no reason not to watch it. It’s witty, dirty, and relatively original. I appreciate how efficiently it turned Andrew Scott’s priest into a sex symbol. Olivia Colman continues to be amazing. Good show.

Deadwood: The Movie

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Alas, I wanted it to be better. I rewatched seasons 2 and 3 and they hold up incredibly well. The show has some of the best dialogue ever written. As for the movie, I don’t think it’s good, but at the same time I have affection for it as a Milch swan song.

The three seasons of Deadwood reflect the progression of the western genre. S1 is a heroic western with a relatively black and white moral landscape where we know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. S2 is more in the territory of a 60’s Italian western where most of the characters fall somewhere in a moral grey area and the audience is invited to identify with less than savory characters as they manipulate and connive against even worse assholes. S3 resembles the late westerns that chronicle the fall of the last honorable men as the inevitable westward march of progress brings the intertwined forces of modernization and exploitation.  Aside from some unfortunate loose ends, the end of S3 was already perfect. It’s sad and dissatisfying but that’s how the west went out. Deadwood: The Movie is at its worst when it plays as fan service. It essentially returns to the heroic western paradigm, riles us up anew about Hearst, and then gives us a small victory to quench our dissatisfaction.  But this undermines the poignancy of the original ending. My other complaint is all the flashbacks from the original series reminding people who didn’t rewatch it of things that they may have forgotten. These flashbacks are uniformly disruptive and the scenes they intrude into would have been much more powerful if we could have inferred the relevant memory rather than being shown it. Just rewatch the series, it’s worth it. On the positive side, the Deadwood movie is at its best when Milch is foregrounding his own showdown with mortality and sense of abiding regret. There are some powerful moments, particularly surrounding Al on the one hand and Joanie and Jane on the other. Alas, I’m grateful to have this, but it’s not what I hoped it might be.

Franchise Fever vol. 2: Halloween

Halloween recently turned 40, a perfect occasion for a fresh installment (courtesy of David Gordon Green) and reappraisal of the series. I think it’s easily the greatest multi-director horror franchise. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a hot mess and there’s little solace for the purist, but if you’re willing to take each movie on its own and forsake all concern for continuity, it has many pleasures to offer.

Speaking of continuity, there are no less than five timelines in the franchise. It will be helpful to begin by laying them all out:

Original Timeline

Halloween (Carpenter, 1978), Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981), Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988), Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989), Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Chappelle, 1995)

There’s a lot of lore surrounding the way the series was originally prolonged into multiple sequels and as a John Carpenter fan it’s easy to be annoyed by it, but the shit show that surrounded the production of these movies is what caused the later ones to turn out so distinctive and crazy. Basically, Carpenter wanted the Halloween franchise to be a disconnected anthology of Halloween-themed horror movies, but the public and the studio wanted more Michael Myers. He was contractually obligated to write part 2 and he made the screenplay deliberately bad out of disdain for the task. Tommy Lee Wallace, Carpenter’s right-hand man, was supposed to direct but washed his hands of it after reading the script. Rick Rosenthal felt differently, however, and directed the ever living shit out of Carpenter’s script. Carpenter got his way with part III, which broke away from the Michael Myers timeline in an attempt to turn the series into a disconnected anthology. It sadly flopped and so part IV brought back Myers, retconned the ending of II and proceeded to rehash the original. IV was more successful than III, and so V and VI continued on the same timeline. The productions for parts V and VI were notorious disasters and the story veers off into outstandingly bizarre directions in these entries (which I personally love). One thing the movies that make up the original timeline have in common is that they all feature Donald Pleasence as Loomis. If you ask me, Pleasence is the best element of the entire franchise. He just totally rules. He’s the British Klaus Kinski.

Season of the Witch Timeline

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)

Halloween is a movie in the Season of the Witch universe. This is the only entry without Michael Myers. It’s a totally independent story about a nefarious scheme involving Halloween masks and Stonehenge. It flopped and was long neglected, but it’s been reappraised and is now considered a horror classic.

H20 Timeline

Halloween (Carpenter, 1978), Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981), Halloween: H20 (Miner, 1998), Halloween Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)

After the last couple entries in the original timeline were box office failures and the story had been irreparably written into a corner, the H20 reboot was launched with Jamie Lee Curtis back in the fray (her first appearance since part II). The narrative developments of IV-VI were discarded and on this timeline Laurie Strode (Curtis) survived her youth and has taken up at a secluded boarding school. Michael was thought to have died at the end of part II, but he has been alive all along and returns 20 years later to pursue Laurie.  Resurrection does not have Jamie Lee Curtis, but it does continue directly from the end of H20,

Blumhouse Timeline

Halloween (Carpenter, 1978), Halloween (Green, 2018)

David Gordon Green and Danny McBride’s reboot for Blumhouse discards the narrative developments of all the sequels. In this one, Michael Myers hasn’t killed anyone for 40 years and has been locked up the whole time. Jamie Lee Curtis is back and Laurie Strode is more like Sarah Conner in this version, having long alienated her family with her Michael Myers-prepper lifestyle.

Zombieverse

Halloween (Zombie, 2007), Halloween 2 (Zombie, 2009)

Zombie’s Halloween remakes the original Carpenter film and has a timeline all its own. It begins before the events of the original and fleshes out Michael’s origins further. In the original, Michael is from a suburban middle class family. In the Zombieverse, he’s white trash. Zombie wanted to focus on this prequel material, but he was forced to include a quick rehash of the plot of the original film in the second half of the movie. His Halloween 2 goes off in a totally different direction from the original timeline. It has strong thematic continuity with Zombie’s other work.

Matt’s ranking

It probably won’t surprise Strohltopia readers to learn that my ranking of these movies is a bit heterodox. I’m just being honest. Let me be very clear that *I love all of these movies* and for the most part it’s very hard for me to rank them.

11) Halloween: H20 (Miner, 1998)

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This one is definitely last. I do love it, but it’s the one that gives me the least joy. Lots of people who dislike IV-VI think that this entry saved the series, and some people even think it’s the best sequel (I see that the ever detestable “Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus” summary blurb makes this claim). I could not disagree more strongly. Yes, it does get back to the series’ roots in certain ways, but Halloween purism is off the table as far as I’m concerned, since literally none of the sequels do the original justice. Once you let go of the purist impulse and embrace the absurdity of IV-VI, H20 just looks tepid. It’s technically an R but at heart this is bloodless PG-13 horror. Not one kill stands out and we see Michael Myers doing very un-Michael things like stealing someone’s keys at a rest stop and just taking off when he could have easily murdered their entire family. I’m only being negative because I find the claim that this is better than IV-VI so irksome. Even with its flaws, it’s still delightful to see Jamie Lee Curtis again and her performance makes this worthwhile.

 10) Halloween Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)

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I find it agonizing to rank Resurrection so low, because IT RULES. People hate it, but they are wrong. It’s great. The premise is that none other than Busta Rhymes has a reality webseries called Dangertainment (!) where he live-streams people doing something dangerous. (NB, given that this was made in 2002 it looks pretty prescient about the direction the internet was going.) A bunch of teenagers agree to spend the night in the abandoned Myers house. Of course, Michael himself shows up.

The problem that Resurrection does have (which I find easy to overlook) is that the abandoned house doesn’t have any lights and so there ends up being way too much stumbling around in the dark. It gets repetitive. But this is easily the funniest Halloween movie and it has no delusions about its own limitations. It’s having fun with itself. I suspect that some of the humor actually went over the heads of the Tomato critics who haughtily panned it. For example, there’s a scene where the Smart Girl is about to hook up with the Meathead Guy in the cellar. In a moment of escalating passion, he requests, “say something smart!” and she blurts out, “existence precedes essence!” I frickin’ lost it.  Also, you better believe Busta Rhymes attempts to use kung fu against Michael Myers.

9) Halloween (Green, 2018)

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The Blumhouse Halloween (written by David Gordon Green and Danny McBride) reboots the series, discarding the narrative developments of all the sequels. The first act is a pleasantly acrid satire of true crime podcasts and then we meet up with Laurie Strode, who has become a sort of Sarah Conner 40 years after the events of the original. Michael has been incarcerated the entire time.

I did not much care for this the first time I saw it, but watching it again after a fresh rewatch of the rest of the franchise changed my opinion. My original complaint was that it felt like mostly lazy rehash. I realize now that while it is indeed rehash, it is far from lazy. This movie is extremely dense fan porn. While it discards the narrative of the sequels, it makes at least one reference to every single one of them. By the end I had noticed allusions to every installment except IV and I started to despair “am I just missing the reference to IV? what kind of horror geek am I??” but then the final shot is a pitch perfect Halloween IV nod. I’m generally not into Easter Eggism, but this movie is so hardcore about it that I’m impressed. For example, there’s a scene in the original where they couldn’t afford rights to music so they just had Laurie and John sing a made-up song “I wish I had you all alone…”  Green had a frickin’ band record this song and then played it on the radio in a parallel scene. And the sets are packed full of props from the other entries.

The finale very closely mirrors certain aspects of the finale of the original and the first time I saw it I was annoyed by this. I realized on my second viewing that it’s actually doing something much more precise and purposeful than I thought. It reenacts all the most iconic moments from the original’s finale, but with the power dynamics between Michael and Laurie swapped. This sort of thing doesn’t exactly blow my mind (we are up to our ears in gender-swap remakes) but as a fan porn exercise it’s pretty cool.

My overall opinion is that this is decent as fan service but also limited by the modesty of its ambition. On the plus side, the opening is *amazing*, the random bits of writing where Danny McBride’s sense of humor shines through are bizarre and delightful, and I welcome the brutality of many of the kills. I appreciate the way the rest area scene deliberately corrects the tepidness of H20. This is a movie that should please franchise fans, and I’m looking forward to the sequel. At the same time, it can play as reasonably effective jump-scare horror for multiplex audiences who won’t catch all the geeky references.

8) Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988)

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There’s a lot to love about IV: some great kills, funny jokes, excellent Loomis, and terrific child acting from Danielle Harris. I have a pretty low threshold for annoyance at child protagonists in horror movies, but Harris doesn’t register as even slightly annoying. In fact, her performances in this and V are among my very favorite child acting performances. On the downside, though, IV is the least imaginative of the original timeline. It’s pretty straight rehash of the original, but with a cheekier tone that reflects the direction the genre had gone in the 80’s. But also, the ending is amazing. Some people discount this consideration because V takes it back, but I don’t see it that way. Taken on its own, the ending is great, but then it had to be undone so that part V could do an incompatible thing that’s also great.

7) Halloween (Zombie, 2007)

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I go with the director’s cut for both this and the sequel. It’s more important for the sequel. I love Rob Zombie’s Halloween, though it clearly could have been better. I especially love the gritty, grimy first half, with William Forsythe’s glorious performance as the abusive stepdad and all the Gummo-esque adolescent nihilism. The second half, where the story of the Carpenter original is rehashed, is a big letdown (though hurray for casting Danielle Harris!). Zombie didn’t want to do this part and it shows. Also, his style here is immature compared to the sequel. He’s still doing Hellabilly-infected Tobe Hooper karaoke at this point.

6) Halloween 2 (Zombie, 2009)

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This movie was a huge leap forward for Zombie. Here he developed a very distinctive style that he further elaborated in 2012’s Lords of Salem (which I think is his best film). He shot this on 16 mm and it looks awesome. Grindhouse meets arthouse. The director’s cut is absolutely mandatory here; anyone who just saw the theatrical version is missing out. Zombie picks up from the end of his remake and takes the story in a totally different direction, much more like The Devils Rejects than the original 1981 Halloween II. With respect to mise-en-scène, this towers above most contemporary horror. Many people, including my brother Josh, consider this to be one of the best Halloween movies overall. While I agree that it’s great, I don’t think it’s that great. I miss the aggressive grime of the first Zombie movie and I think the Loomis arc here is just straight bad. Malcolm McDowell is a fine choice, and while he’s no Donald Pleasence he does a good job with the first movie. The turn the character takes here totally loses me, though. He becomes a vain wannabe true crime celebrity and we lose all sense of his obsession with Michael, which is absolutely essential to the character (I guess we’ve found a place where I am indeed a purist). When he does confront Michael and seek redemption it feels hollow. Also, the title card explaining how to interpret the symbolism of the white horse is a bit on the nose.

5) Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)

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“I shot him SIX TIMES!!! SIX TIMES!!! SIX TIMES!!!” Halloween II is all about the Loomis factor. There is so much Donald Pleasence waving a gun around and raving like a lunatic. Also, Rosenthal directs the ever living shit out of this. There are some seriously dope tracking shots. This does have some pacing problems and goes for more rehash than I would have preferred, but overall it’s a tremendous delight.

4) Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers [part VI] (Chappelle, 1995)

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Producer’s cut mandatory! Here my opinions admittedly get a bit… eccentric. Let me emphasize again that the producer’s cut is the only version that counts here. It bombed with test audiences and some new footage was shot and cut into the movie. The new footage is crap quality (though it does include what would be the movie’s most memorable kill), and the theatrical cut seriously tones down the best aspect of the movie: the DRUID INCEST CULT. The purist complaint about this movie is that what makes Michael Myers so compelling is that he lacks a motivation beyond pure evil, and so any more detailed mythology can only detract. This is correct in principle, but that ship has sailed 10 times over. If Michael is going to get a richer mythology, I don’t think you could do any better than druid incest cult. Also: grown up Tommy Doyle is played by *Paul Rudd* and it is one loopy performance.

3) Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)

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This is the only entry after the original that looks and feels like a John Carpenter movie. He did the music and it was directed by his right hand man. This is a sui generis entry, without Michael Myers, and it was an abject box office failure, with the result that Carpenter’s anthology idea was abandoned. As mentioned above, this has benefited from reappraisal and is now rightly considered a classic. I think the series is clearly better for containing this oddball installment. I mean c’mon, the plot revolves around Stonehenge and secretly nefarious masks for children (it actually does very loosely connect with some of the druid lore that is alluded to in II and developed later in VI).

2) Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989)

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This is an indefensible opinion, but it is very much my opinion. I accept that I am out on my own here (even Josh thinks this is ridiculous), but I am a total stan for part V. First of all, you’ve got Danielle Harris back for an even better performance than part IV, because now she’s gone all The Fury and has TELEPATHIC SEIZURES whenever Michael kills someone. But what really sends this over the moon for me is PEAK LOOMIS. Pleasence was totally shitfaced while filming this and his performance is truly spectacular. Also, there’s a mysterious and pivotal Man in Black and we get zero idea of what his deal is. They just left this for part VI to explain, which didn’t happen for six years. They had no plan. I love it.

1) Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)

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Perfect in every way. You can safely dismiss the opinions of anyone who ranks the Halloween movies and doesn’t put this number 1.