The new Pet Sematary (2019, Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer) is another adaption of Stephen King’s bestselling 1983 horror novel of the same name, the first adaption being the popular 1989 film directed by Mary Lambert. After the unpredicted success of It, (2017, Andy Muschietti) the trailer for the new Pet Sematary created a lot of hype and I was curious to see if this new version could live to fan expectations.
Louis and Rachel Creed (Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz) move their family from Boston to what they hope will be a quiet house in rural Maine so that Louis can start a new job at the local University health center. Neither the location or the job turns out to be quiet. Nine-year-old daughter Ellie (Jete Lourence) discovers a Pet Sematary used by the local kids to bury their deceased pets almost right in their backyard. She also meets lonely neighbor Judd (John Lithgow) who quickly becomes a confidant for Louis. When the family cat ‘Church’ is mangled by one of the massive oil tanker trucks that speed past the house a couple of times a day Judd shows Louis a way to bring him back from death, taking him behind the Pet Sematary to an ancient Native American burial ground. ‘Church’ is not a very nice cat when he comes back. Cue horror.
The plot is somewhat altered from the book; Judd’s wife is dead, the local man that was previously resurrected and had to be re-killed becomes Judd’s boyhood dog, Ellie is a much older 9 instead of 5 and SPOILER it is Ellie that gets hit by a tanker and resurrected rather than 2-year-old Gage. I imagine from the filmmakers perspective it was much much easier to have an older child come back from the dead. Gage is absent for most of the film so I am guessing that the rules around child actors these days are just too tough to have filmed the scenes necessary to have Gage as the ‘possessed’ child. I also got the feeling that a few things, including much of John Lithgow’s back story, were cut out. In my view that was a mistake because I felt Pet Sematary to be ultimately a bit light on content; constantly building atmosphere but never quite arriving at the horror.
Themes in Pet Sematary include; what happens after we die? Wishing we could have more time with a loved one, how to teach young children about death without scaring them, and the rational mind vs the grief-stricken traumatised mind. Probably the most interesting subject of the film is how to discuss death with children, especially if the parent feels unable to prosses death themselves as an adult.
In the film, finding the Pet Sematary prompts Ellie to ask her parents about whether her cat has to die one day. As a Doctor, Louis takes a ‘rational,’ scientific stance that death is natural and will affect us all but is reluctant to have Ellie believe in life after death. On the other hand, Rachel wants Ellie to believe that there is a heaven but is afraid to tackle the subject more directly having herself been traumatised by the death of her own sister as a young girl. In fact, the moments in the film that dealt with the psychological stress Rachel suffered during her sister’s illness, and subsequent horrific death are the most effectively terrifying in the movie.
A few of the ideas fizzle out as they go along including the masked kids visiting the cemetery (which Murray pointed out to me as we left the cinema have been immortalised on the film’s posters) which only happens at the start. Louis has disturbing visions of a dead patient trying to warn him from going to the sematary. These are really atmospheric but Louis takes them in his stride a bit too easily. SPOILER The most horrific event in the book/first film adaption, the death of their child, is reduced to melodrama with the adults lying in the road and a birdseye view camera that reminded me of the big stunt crashes they do in the soap operas sometimes.
John Lithgow is very good, even managing to wince on through the Winston Churchill references (Lithgow played Churchill in The Crown) and I would have like to see more of him. Amy Seimetz is also very good, I liked that there was a lot of emphasis on her backstory as often ‘the wife’ is the last to get any characterisation in most things. Jason Clarke is an actor that I like very much, especially in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but I think he got a bit lost here. Not his fault I don’t think, the audience is not given much insight into his psychological state between his daughter’s death and him making the choice to ‘bring her back.’ I was looking forward to seeing the complexities of dealing with a reincarnated child when he doesn’t believe in God. That is definitely a big chunk missing from the rationale of the story. On the plus side, I found child actor Jete Laurence to be a revelation. She gave an incredibly powerful performance as ‘dead Ellie’ and looks like one to watch in the future.
Pet Sematary is passable. It is neither a massive travesty or an earth-shatteringly brilliant new take on the novel. It’s definitely not that memorable. It’s another case of ‘the book is better,’ but If you are looking for a cinematic adaption Pet Sematary II (1992, Mary Lambert) is your best bet.
The original The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976, Charles B. Peirce) has one of the coolest horror movie titles ever. I had been meaning to see it for years, partly because of the evocative title and partly because it is one of the films name-checked in the iconic Scream (1996, Wes Craven). Sadly I am yet to have the pleasure. I did, however, watch Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s remake/re-imagining on its theatrical release back in 2014.
Unfortunately, it seems a beautiful title like Sundown’s is too long for a modern world where most communication is now shrunk to the length of a tweet and so, few people in the UK seemed to have realised that it was on release. The showing I attended was dead. (if you forgive the pun) The lack of fanfare was a huge shame because Sundown is actually a surprisingly well made and entertaining piece of genre work that deserved a wider audience. The plot is slightly complex so let us start with a word on the original.
The 1976 Sundown was a loose telling of a series of real murders that took place in and around Texarkana in 1946 committed by an unknown assailant who was later labeled ‘the phantom.’ The killer, who was never caught, targeted couples in rural locations. The original film follows the efforts of the police to capture the monster. Sundown used voice-over in a similar way to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper) and the film was marketed as a true telling of what really happened sparking rumors that the production crew knew the identity of the real murderer.
Sundown is about Jami, played by Addison Timlin, a teenager girl about to go off to college, who lives in Texarkana and has grown up with the legend of the ‘real’ phantom and his killings. It is also a world where filmmaker Charles B. Pierce came and made a film called The Town of The Dreaded Sundown, disrupting the lives of local residents still terrified that one day the real killer might suddenly return. Every year the kids of the town watch the film at the local drive-in but this time Jami and her boyfriend Corey are brutally attacked by a man with a sack mask. Jami is allowed to survive in order to make the townspeople remember the fear they felt in the ’70s when the original ‘moonlight killer’ was on the loose. Jami must investigate the original crimes to find the new killer.
The new Sundown movie takes its cues from films like Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (1982, Tommy Lee Wallace) and Scream 3, (2000, Wes Craven) going beyond postmodern to a film world aware of both our ‘real’ world through newsreel footage and the world of the film it spawned from. Meta.
Mutch of 2014’s Sundown is a response to the effect the original had on the local community affected by the real murders. A good job is done of weaving mythology around Sackhead who is a genuinely creepy figure. (Most real-life killers are!) The set design is superb and the use of character actors like Dennis O’Hare (playing Charles B. Peirce Jr) keeps us guessing about the identity of the killer for most of the proceedings.
A sympathetic portrayal of the main characters is juxtaposed with heavy violence during the murder set pieces. Events occasionally edge towards cliche or farce but generally, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon pulls off a clever balancing act tonally. Sundown is a constant seesaw with humor and sympathy on one side and graphic violence and horror on the other. For example, over the top nudity during a sex scene turns to flipped expectations with the engagement ring scene. Over-the-top humor with a severed head is counteracted by extreme violence during a car attack. It shouldn’t work and yet more often than not it does.
The idea of the film within a film works well for Sundown but could have benefited from a less heavy-handed approach to exposition. Aspects that are less successful include the narration, some of the ‘dream sequences’ and the convoluted ending. Unfortunately, the end reveal doesn’t really work if you pull it apart. I am getting a little tired of seeing beautiful people cast as ‘outcasts.’
So, plenty of flaws, The Town That Dreaded Sundown must be bad right? Actually, Sundown is surprisingly entertaining and well worth a watch for true horror fans. It is one of the few remakes from recent times to treat the original with respect. This Sundown is unashamedly proud of the 1976 film, not hiding it or re-writing it out of existence. The films use of narrative techniques and meta ideas give it an arthouse feel. In some ways, Sundown is also telling the story of regional independent filmmaking in Arkansas and commenting upon its place in society. Worth a watch.
“Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” Jeremiah 11:11
I was hyped to see Jordan Peele’s new horror Us this week. The trailer was brilliantly made but I think it has been Lupita Nyong’O’s expression in the poster that repelled and drew me in in equal measure. Murray and I often discuss the classic 80s VHS covers of films like House that had images that left a lasting impression in our subconscious. The Us poster is one of those.
Since his debut feature Get Out (2017) received such critical acclaim and garnered several main category Oscar noms (winning for original screenplay) Jordan Peel has been the new big thing. Us had become the big horror ‘event movie’ of the year so far with a huge weight of expectation on its shoulders. For me, some of this expectation was met but I was also left a little disappointed. Us is high on sociopolitical context (so far so good!) but low on consistency and scares. (sigh)
Let’s start with the plot; As a young girl Adelaide Wilson (played by the incomparable Lupita Nyong’O) is taken on a trip to the funfair at Santa Cruz beach by her parents. She wanders off and into a spooky hall of mirrors where she comes across an identical copy of herself. The event leaves her traumatised into adulthood. After the death of her mother, Adelaide and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) take their children; Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) on vacation, staying at the old family home. Taking her own children to the same beach results in Adelaide having to face the event from her past. Later that night the family is confronted by a family of identical evil doppelgangers who want to kill them and take their place. Soon the family realises that the whole of the country is being overthrown by lookalikes. The copies are referred to as shadows and as ‘the tethered.’
The ending of the film upsets a lot of the context and meaning so I will discuss a reading of the film up until the twist.
Us can also be read as ‘U.S.’ As the tethered’s aims seem political (they don’t merely kill for the fun of it but in order to experience the middle-class comforts of their counterparts like branded clothing and make-up) and they enjoy wearing red I would suggest that this is a comment on Trumps America. Once the tethered have killed they all join hands in a reenactment of 80s charity event Hands Across America but once their leader is dead their movement has no purpose or direction. The joining together of the tethered is visually striking but ultimately an empty gesture.
I wondered if this was also a critique of the current civil rights/social justice movement in America at the moment where ‘being woke’ can become just another lifestyle choice for Instagram likes or a tool to sell more soda.
The tethered live below the surface and must go through all of the motions of their real counterparts but with no rewards. Is this how blue-collar Americans see themselves?
During the film the Wilsons’ meet up with their friends the Tyler family; the stereotypical white, overprivileged, boozed-up acolytes of the consumer American dream. There is a lot of panic, mostly from Gabe, over who has the better car/boat. The Wilsons’ seem like a nice, normal, well-rounded family so it is not very clear why they want to spend time with the Tylers’ who don’t have many redeeming qualities.
Rabbits, mostly white rabbits, appear everywhere in Us. The real rabbits we see were originally part of whatever experiment went wrong in the tunnels and eventually became the main source of food for the tethered.
In modern iconography, the white rabbit is usually a reference to Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland stories where a rabbit is followed by Alice to traverse the tunnel between the ‘real world’ and the uncanny world of Wonderland.
In North America, the white rabbit is often a symbol of luck. However, in the British Isles rabbits and hares have Pagan associations and until recently it was believed that witches would transform themselves into rabbits and it was therefore unlucky for a rabbit or hare to cross your path.
When the rabbits are first shown in Us I got a few Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy) vibes but probably they are used here as another reference to consumer consumption as rabbit are famously used for the testing of products such as make-up to make sure they are safe for humans and make-up is used by the tethered to show their need to experience the lifestyle of their copies.
11:11, The doubled number 11:11 appear as an omen each time Adelaide and her counterpart are about to meet. The Bible passage referred to in the film pertains to Gods wrath and, after a quick Google search, apparently the number 11 also represents the disorganisation of systems.
Us has a good amount of pop culture references. At the start when young Adelaide watches a commercial for Hands Across America we see VHS tapes of C.H.U.D, The Goonies, The Man With Two Brains, The Right Stuff and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Santa Cruz fairground was also the location of a lot of the action in classic vampire pic The Lost Boys (1987, Joel Schumacher) and when the Wilsons’ take their kids to the beach in the present day the visuals reference Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg).
At the fair, young Adelaide chooses Michael Jackson’s Thriller t-shirt as her prize from the games her dad wins. Within the film, the merchandise t-shirt represents the cushy way of life ‘real’ Adelaide experiences in comparison to Red (All of the tethered have their own names) whose t-shirts image has worn off. After the Leaving Neverland (2019, Dan Reed) documentary, the images of a little girl being handed a Thriller t-shirt by her father is incredibly sinister and foreboding but this may not have been Jordan Peel’s intention.
Later, The Beach Boys play as a family is murdered in their condo. This is likely a reference to the Manson family murders as Beach Boys member Dennis Wilson briefly spent time Charles Manson, (before the killings) even taking an interest in his songwriting.
Generally, the references are fun and add to the piece. The main exception is having Jason (Ref to F13 maybe?) walk around for part of the film in a Jaws t-shirt. It’s not clear what Jason’s age is but I find it unlikely that Jaws would be the kind of film he would be into or that protective Adelaide would allow him to watch yet so it feels out of place and stagey.
There are three sections to the movie; the introduction set in the ’80s where Adelaide encounters the world of the tethered for the first time, the middle ‘home invasion’ section which has Purge/Strangers/Funny Games vibes and the end ‘zombie apocalypse’ section where society has broken down and the family hit the road a la George A. Romero.
The opening is tight. The visuals are amazing. The lights of the fairground, the dark beach with a storm brewing in the distance, the creepy hall of mirrors drawing Adelaide in, the red candy apple that she drops in the sand.
Then the home invasion happens, the family members are all separated each having to face their doubles alone. This was the scariest point in the movie, filled with the most amount of threat. The concept of having to fight a person who is (at this point we assume) your equal in every way; strength, speed, thought process, is terrifying and novel.
In the third section of Us, we find out a large chunk of the backstory of ‘the tethered.’ It does not feel very well thought out, makes little sense and takes the fear factor (with horror often the more you leave to the imagination of the audience the better!) down considerably. Don’t get me wrong, I find the concept of ‘the tethered’ original and fascinating however a few of the big holes that bothered me were:
1 The underground space we see looks like some kind of abandoned testing center which implies that to some degree the natural laws apply to these doubles but every time the people above change clothes the people below also change into some version of those clothes. Where do the clothes come from?
2 The tethered only eat raw rabbit and are constantly enacting the actions of the people above i.e. you go for a run your double goes for a run. But even if they eat the rabbit when their counterpart eats they would still need to catch the rabbit first. So at some point during the day they may be free to follow their own actions.
3 For their murderous judgment upon the ‘upsiders’, the tethered all dress in matching red/orange boiler suits. Where did these come from? Did someone make all these uniforms?
4 If the people who created the experiment abandoned it then why are there still new tethereds e.g. Pluto and Umbrae? (unless it was abandoned really recently) Even if Adelaide and Gabe’s counterparts are genetically identical the chances of their offspring being so is almost nil without genetic intervention.
5 Then there is the ending. If Adelaide was the tethered child all along then why has she put so much effort into an uprising rather than into escaping and returning to her parents?
I feel the ending undermines the whole film for me. I get the subtext; if we all had the same opportunities in life etc but I feel like the story ought to work more broadly. Us feels like it was rushed out on the coattails of the success of Get Out and needed more development. Us has a lot of positives, the amazing performances for one, and I am glad it is receiving a lot of positive attention. It is by no means a bad movie but I wouldn’t rush to watch it again. To me, Us has a lot of good ideas that don’t come together but that’s OK there is potential there for next time.
Welcome back to my ‘lore of Halloween‘ series exploring just why the various studio’s involved in the Halloween franchise feel the constant need to change up the timeline of the films every few years. (It’s not Back to the Future after all!)
I am a huge fan of 1981’s Halloween 2, it is like a Shakespearean tragedy with added laughs. Where H1 is relentless, H2 is enjoyable and reluctant to take itself too seriously. It may be schlock but its highly entertaining schlock and, as it was written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, the lore it introduces to the series is more canon than some fans would care to admit.
H2 follows on directly from the events of H1 (an idea merrily ripped-off by Friday the 13th part 3) with Laurie being transported to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital for observation after her ordeal. Unfazed by being shot several times and falling from a balcony Michael Myers wonders away and quickly tracks her down again bumping off the staff of the lonely and very empty hospital one by one.
Style and criticism
H2 was directed by Rick Rosenthal who went on to receive plenty of negative attention for his efforts on Halloween Ressurection. (although Ressurection has seen a ‘revival’ amongst fans more recently) The reception to H2 from critics was also lukewarm but overall Rosenthal does a good job of matching the look, feel and tone of H1. For example; we still get the classic slow zoom pumpkin opening credits (just seeing the names Moustapha Akkad and Dino De Laurentiis appear still gives me a little thrill or anticipation)
With help from Alan Howarth, Carpenter’s score is souped up to 100 using a synth this time and giving H2 a deep 80’s feel. He signals to us through his faster more chaotic theme that the innocence of the ’70s is well over just as it is for the townsfolk in Haddonfield after Michael has slain their young.
Rosenthal keeps the suburban Gothic feel going with shadowy wide shots down the long empty hospital corridors. And MM is as omnipresent as he is at the end of H1, continually appearing out of the dark top right of the frame to surprise his victims.
There are plenty of nods to the deaths in H1; the focus on Jill’s (Tawney Moyer) feet as she hangs in the air is similar to Bob’s (John Michael Graham) death, and Karen (the great Pamela Susan Shoop) is tricked into thinking MM is her boyfriend just as Lynda (P.J. Soles) is in 1.
Apparently, John Carpenter was among those less than impressed with Rosenthal’s interpretation of H2 resulting in a creative tussle and Carpenter shooting some additional shots and scenes to increase the overall level of violence/horror. But at the end of the day, it is hard to distinguish between who was adding vs who was subtracting to the overall quality of the final film.
Poor Laurie. Scared another one away. It’s tragic. You never go out – Annie Brackett H1
SPOILERS. It’s a double tragedy (triple if you consider that all her friends are dead) for Laurie in H2 as her prom crush from H1 Ben Tramer is burned to death in the most hilarious moment out of any Halloween film. I could literally watch this moment a thousand times and still enjoy it.
Loomis spots ‘Michael’ in the street and runs after him shouting jibberish and waving a gun. Unsurprisingly this distracts the poor kid long enough to walk into the path of a police car which slams into a truck and promptly explodes. Later we find out that Ben Tramer is missing. This plot twist is so cruel. It is clear that Carpenter and Hill were not afraid to ‘twist the knife’ into their heroine’s heart.
If that wasn’t enough at Haddonfield Memorial Hosptial Laurie meets sweet, young ambulance driver Jimmy (Lance Guest) who is one of the few people to A: recognise the seriousness of the situation B: bother to explain to Laurie what happened to her C: seems to actually care about her wellbeing. Jimmy seems like a catch.
Unfortunately, the most infuriatingly pointless thing happens to him at a crucial moment. MORE SPOILERS After discovering Nurse Alves (Gloria Gifford) drained of blood he slips up in the puddle and bashes his head. (It makes for an arresting image but it is infuriating for the audience) Later, when Laurie hides in an unlocked car, he reappears in a concussed state (though strangely not covered in blood) and briefly attempts to rescue her before passing out. She pushes him back to reveal a broken neck. From the looks of it in the theatrical cut, Jimmy is probably dead. However, there is a ‘TV’ cut where Jimmy turns up at the end with a bandage on his head.
I have the version of H2 from 2012’s Region 2 Halloween 1-5 collection which seems to be the theatrical version. The differences between the two versions are fairly confusing (luckily YouTube is here to explain) but aside from the conflict over whether Jimmy lives or dies the two cuts are fairly interchangeable. Poor Laurie!
Loomis is even more ‘out there’ than before. He easily slips into the classic Van Helsing archetype, he is also the first to start referencing Michael’s supernatural qualities hinting that MM might be an emissary of Samhain, Lord of the dead and that a burnt sacrifice may be needed to appease this spirit as in Pagan times.
Eagle-eyed viewers may notice that early on in the hunt for MM Loomis borrows a lighter from the Sheriff’s Deputy and does not return it thus nicely setting up the climax.
There is a conflict here! On the one hand, Michael is merely the shape; the body of a man but as Loomis says with “no reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong” but on the other hand Michael is out to get his last surviving sister (whether he wants to kill her or not is debatable) which is a more human quality.
Carpenter and Hill wrote this plot line but Carpenter himself was conflicted about writing the sequel at all and has often been reported as saying it was merely a plot device that he went on to regret. This is why some puritans of the original have been trying to stamp out this storyline in recent years.
Interestingly there are also several occasions in which Michael bleeds; (another human quality) he leaves blood on the grass after Loomis initially shoots him, he bleeds on poor Mrs. Elrod’s sandwiches (yum) and he ‘cries blood’ at the end.
MM’s killings become a bit more random in 2. Mrs. Elrod’s neighbor Alice is murdered but not Mr. and Mrs. Elrod themselves. Alice is not a babysitter or connected to Laurie in any way, Michael doesn’t need anything from her house as he has just swiped the knife from next door. It’s creepy but it’s out of place.
I would suggest that the notion that MM is a misogynist is more down to the portrayal of his crimes in H2 than 1 as we see much more of the female nurses dying than the guys. Karen’s jacuzzi death is the prime example; potty-mouthed paramedic Budd (Leo Rossi) is ‘tastefully’ killed behind some frosted glass but nurse Karen gets a naked backrub from MM and a big closeup during her murder.
In my view, Halloween 2 has the right combination of tension, scares, and camp to be one of the most memorable and enjoyable 80’s slashers. 2 tentatively begins to set up the lore that will become so vital to 4, 5 and 6 without getting bogged down. Many fans consider 2 their favorite in the series. Carpenter had a fair amount of influence of the film’s script and production and in my mind, I am happy to accept Lourie as Michael Myers sister.
Today I will be celebrating 40 years since the release of John Carpenter’s horror classic Halloween by seeing a special anniversary showing at our local Picture House. In light of this milestone, as well as the coinciding release of the as ever imaginatively titled ‘Halloween 2018,’ I am posting a series on the lore of the Halloween franchise. I will cover Halloween 1-3 individually, 5-6 together, and 7-8 together with maybe a brief note on Rob Zombie’s ‘re-imaginings.’
Worse than a sequel
In my eyes, what is so much worse than a bad sequel or the modern ‘re-imagining’ of a classic film is the current craze for erasing the history and lore of a franchise so that it can run on and on unencumbered in a new direction. The Halloween films are undoubtedly the worst offenders with the latest installment, ‘Halloween 2018,’ depicting a Back to the Future 2 style vision of a possible outcome for Laurie Strode had she not died (technically more than once) earlier in the franchise. The series now has as many dead ends as dead bodies and it’s a shame; as nearly all the Halloween sequels have achieved some level of cult status and are beloved by fans if not critics.
One of the key messages put across in the ‘Halloween 2018‘ trailer is that the timeline in which Laurie Strode was Michael Myers brother is a rumor or FAKE NEWS as right-wing America might say. To me, this is a great pity. A sequel can be ‘of its time,’ relevant, and attract a new audience while still ‘making good on its promises’ if you will.
However, Loyal fans are rightly excited (as am I) to see Jamie Lee Curtis return to Haddonfield in full female action hero mode. And perhaps pop culture is merely reflecting the polarisation in our current climate, but my ideal Halloween sequel would build a bridge between the lore of Curse of Michael Myers and H20 rather than a wall.
Halloween 1978 The night he came home
The film opens with six-year-old Michael Myers murdering his older sister on Halloween night after witnessing her have sex with her boyfriend. We see the crime through the eyes of the killer and it is only after we get the shocking reveal that he is merely a child.
Michael Myers is stunted, trapped in that hideous moment and doomed to forever re-live it. His psychiatrist Sam Loomis, played by the late great Donald Pleasence, recognises this describing him with one of the greatest monologues in cinema:
“I met this… six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and… the blackest eyes – the Devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.” – Sam Loomis, Halloween
There is no Michael Myers after this point, he has no personality, no puberty, no adulthood. He instead becomes what John Carpenter likes to refer to as ‘the shape;’ a signifier for the terror or the unknown. His one drive is to return to Haddonfield to re-live the moment he killed his sister over and over. Which of course he does, escaping the Sanitarium and terrorising teenager Laurie Strode and her girlfriends.
Heroine Laurie Strode, played by the sublime Jamie Lee-Curtis in her debut film role, has very little backstory in the original movie. We know her dad is an estate agent because we briefly see him ask Laurie to drop off some keys at the old Myers house. (It is loosely suggested that this is the point at which she becomes a target for Myers) Her two best friends are the high-spirited, ill-fated Lynda (P.J. Soles) and Annie (Nancy Keyes) Laurie is the more studious, practical one of the three, taking her babysitter role the most seriously, but she does have a crush on a boy named Ben Tramer and she is happy to smoke pot with Annie on the way to babysitting.
While Myers stalks Laurie, Loomis is running around all over town trying to get the authorities, including Annie’s father Sheriff Brackett, to take steps to track Michael down before he kills. Loomis is largely treated as a crank because no one can imagine a beautiful, small town becoming the scene of horrible violence. This is likely one of the reasons that Halloween chimed with American audiences so well as during the seventies a spate of serial killings shocked the nation into re-evaluating how safe people felt in their own communities.
Style and criticism
A couple of things the original has that is not particularly carry over to its sequels are; the use of POV as Michael stalks the neighborhood. Some of the films try a similar approach but don’t pull it off as successfully. This was really unique and innovative at the time but also resulted in claims that the film was misogynistic (the film’s nudity probably didn’t help either)
This is a shame because a special thing Halloween has that its sequels and a lot of more modern movies (like Tarantino’s Deathproof, 2007) don’t are well written female characters that give a genuine portrayal of female friendship. Maybe Lynda and Annie sleep with their boyfriends but they are so fun, wise-talking and likable that it is all the more shocking and tragic when SPOILER ALERT they die.
Halloween was co-written and produced by the late great Debra Hill. Her contribution the scripting and the casting of the female leads cannot be overestimated. Thanks to her successful partnership with JC Halloween will hopefully be remembered for another 40 years!
Next time Halloween II
Halloween was as thrilling as ever at the showing I watched last night. It was preceded by a somewhat bizarre/laughable DVD extra style featurette on the career of John Carpenter. Although it was really great to see exerts of a (fairly dated) interview with JC I don’t recall Debra Hill’s name being mentioned once in relation to Halloween. It is so easy for women to get written out of history. Hearing about Hill’s contribution to one of my all-time favorite films really inspired me growing up and I urge horror fans to find out more about her. She regularly worked as a producer on Carpenter’s films and collaborated with him on the screenplays for Halloween II and The Fog.
It Follows is an innovative indi style horror from director David Robert Mitchell. Jay, played by IT girl of the contemporary horror scene Maika Monroe, goes on a date with Hugh, a guy she knows very little. They have consensual sex and yet she ends up drugged and tied to a wheelchair in a deserted underpass. Her date passes something on to her, a monster that follows its host wherever they go until they either pass it on to someone else (through sex) or end up dead. Hugh is very obliging with information about the entity that Jay is about to encounter because if it kills her it goes back down the line to him (Final Destination style) Only the host can see the entity, it can look like anybody; ‘a stranger in a crowd or somebody you love,’ and from the second Jay is unceremoniously dumped at the side of the road in her underwear until the end of the picture it is a grueling and exhausting race against time for her and us to outrun/walk this nightmare.
It Follows is a film built around feeling and impression rather than dialogue or action and is a good example of American independent horror’s move towards art house. Whilst the paranoid premise of the film is undeniably conveyed in an original way, the idea that someone has been replaced or taken over by a malevolent copy is a long-standing theme within the sci-fi genre. It Follows owes a small debt to films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, (1956, Don Siegel & 1978, Philip Kaufman) The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) and The Faculty, (1998, Robert Rodriguez) the film itself tips its hat early on to the films of the ’50s in which it has it’s roots, during a scene were the main group of kids sit around a small television watching a late night black and white sci-fi. (if anyone can identify the film feel free to name it in the comments) This idea of eating from a bowl of snacks while watching an influential but perhaps overlooked B movie seems to me to be a reference to the other big influence on this film; John Carpenter, the next biggest being Wes Craven.
Films from this new wave of young American horror filmmakers like It Follows, or recently The Guest, seem to engage in a kind of neo-postmodernism where they are obviously heavily influenced by those who came before like JC and Argento, but chose to be much more subtle with their references than their 90’s pop culture cousins like Scream. (1996, Wes Craven) It Follows may begin with a girl named Annie running out of a familiar house in a familiar street looking like she is being chased by Michael Myers but that really is as heavy-handed as it gets. (aside from the music) This low fi approach may be in response to a culture so over-saturated with on-demand TV and film that the traditional ‘water cooler’ moment has been eroded to a point where it is now unattainable for an individual to have a rounded knowledge of popular culture like the geeks of yesteryear. It has become preferential to include small details that audience members can choose to look for without jarring the flow of the narrative for those without the same referential framework.
The 8-bit, video game style soundtrack is on point yet over the top, verging on distracting, while edging perilously in the direction of style over substance. I like the general idea of the soundtrack and in someways, I like the music, but a soundtrack needs to be able to be subtle as well as showy to bring a range of tones to its subject. When someone is simply looking in a mirror and the soundtrack is going hell for leather it becomes almost comical. The sound design, on the other hand, was really impressive, not just chilling, but one of the only times in a cinema when I feel I have genuinely experienced the fabled ‘surround sound’ experience.
There were a few (I presume) unintentional laughs, the ‘Jaws (1975, Stephen Speilberg) beach moment,’ and the ‘mother as succubus moment’ are a couple of examples. For me, this lightness played well against the impressively oppressive terror and added charm to the film. This seems like a good point to briefly mention the recurring use of pretentious literary quotes, that did not fit in at all, but let’s move on to the underlying themes of It Follows;
In the run-up to its release, I heard via word of mouth a lot of people bandying around the idea that It Follows is about the horror of sexually transmitted diseases, and to an extent, I a sure that this is the case. On the surface, the kids in the film are all quite ordinary, melancholic perhaps, but without any particularly obvious problems. But there is an undercurrent of sexual perversion, abuse, disease, and drug-induced mental problems. What follows Jay and the others in my view are the horrors of childhood sexual abuse. We hear about, and at one point catch a faceless glimpse of Jay and Kelly’s mother, but it is not until the end sequence of the film that we become truly aware of the absence of their father. The creature following them goes through many incarnations but it’s final face (look away now if you think this spoils it for you) is the face of her father. The father is the root of the terror that follows her, her whole life and blights her future relationships.
The effects of what Jay is given include sleeplessness, anxiety, and an inability to get close to individuals. Embarking on a new physical relationship becomes a huge decision and her decision making in general when it comes to relationships has been impaired. The girl’s empathetic childhood friend Paul twice questions why Jay has chosen to date/sleep with first Hugh and then Greg over himself. If I were to take a guess I would suggest it is because Jay’s self-worth has been destroyed and it is easier for her to do the opposite of what might be best for her. Before Jay gets tied to the wheelchair and stuff gets nuts there are two moments where we are given either a first-person perspective, or a general opportunity to empathise with the character; in the garden pool, and post-coital in the car. These moments could be seen as the equilibrium before the storm, but to me, these moments hint that something was already not right before Hugh passes the thing onto her, something that caused her to make the retrospectively bad decision to sleep with someone she barely knew in the first place.
Jay receives a huge amount of support during the events of the film from her sister and young friends. Adults are largely absent from the narrative, the kids must rely on each other. It is a common theme of the films of Wes Craven that parents and authority figures are at worst a threat and at best completely ineffectual in understanding the issues affecting the young people this, coupled with the idea of staying up all night, is why as I mentioned earlier I see Craven as probably the second biggest influence on the film.
From a horror point of view, it would have been best for the end titles to come up over the blood swirling outwards across the swimming pool, but I can understand why the filmmaker chose to clear up a few plot points after that. The ending is in some ways a happy one with an unsettling edge. It is almost obligatory these days to hint that the horror might be inescapable, but in this case, it was a necessity. It is a delight to be able to go to the cinema an see a horror film (or any film for that matter) where you don’t know for certain what might happen in the end. I can say with a high level of certainty that It Follows is an instant classic, and will be the joy of film theorists for decades. I fully recommended you see this film.
Hammer’s The Woman in Black (dir James Watkins) was the runaway smash hit of 2012 and it was almost inevitable that a sequel would come along. The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (dir Tom Harper) is set during WWII and is the story of Eve, played by Phoebe Fox, a teacher who, along with her headmistress, (Helen McCrory) is tasked with evacuating a group of school children from London to relative safety in the countryside. The group must stay at the ill-famed Eel Marsh house, but upon arrival, they learn that they are the first group to arrive and will be alone in the house for a week. Eve is drawn to look after one child in particular; Edward, who has recently been orphaned and is so traumatised that he cannot speak. Eve feels connected to him because she has not recovered from the lost her own child upon birth to the authorities. Eve and Jean her headmistress have very different ideas about how to deal with children (Eve is soft and Jean is stern) All of these factors make Eve and Edward extremely susceptible to the effects of the eponymous ‘woman in black’ who, still bitter from the loss of her own son out in the bay, enjoys killing children and snatching their souls just by appearing to them. Needless to say all the evacuee children are in danger.
Angel of Death’s World War II setting adds to the haunting air created by the beautiful, and atmospheric set design, cinematography and costume. Using the experiences of the evacuees as a backdrop is very interesting and evokes the loneliness and isolation of life in a strange place in the middle of nowhere. Angel of Death keeps true to the period thematically; the women are left on their own to look after the kids in a house with limited resources, the only adult male figure is Dr. Rhodes, (Adrian Rawlins) who was presumably not called up to fight due to his age and job role, and is extremely busy playing his part for the War effort in other ways which, as he explains to Eve at one point is why he is unable to help the women with the repairs of the house. There is, of course, Jeremy Irvine as pilot Harry Burnstow, who is perhaps a little wooden, however, I presume this is intentional as I believe his character represents the ghosts of all the young men who have gone off to War never to return. So although he is a love interest for Eve and a real live character I cannot really count him as a live male figure within the film because he is fated from the first to forever live with his dead flight crew at the bottom of the sea.
Trauma is a prominent theme in this film. Characters like Jean, who comes from a family of professional soldiers, and the Doctor who has his training find it easier to cope and carry on with everyday life but characters like Eve and Edward, who represent the ordinary civilian population, find it harder to deal with the pressures of War and loss. Harry is so traumatised by the deaths of his crew that he can no longer fly due to his acute fear of water, he has become a shell. Fox gives a brilliantly subtle performance as Eve, who tries to smile through her sadness, suicide is another big theme of the Woman in Black films, and there are a few moments during the film where it is hard to know if Eve (or Harry for that matter) has the will to make it through to the end.
Angel of Death has not had quite the commercial success enjoyed by its predecessor, this is likely to be because Fox is a relative unknown and Irvine does not have the same star power as Daniel Radcliffe to pull people in. (Although if you were wondering where you had seen Dr. Rhodes before it is because Rawlins played James Potter, Harry’s father in the Harry Potter films)
Despite the lackluster reviews I personally prefer the classic ‘British ghost story’ atmosphere of Angel of Death. The film is rammed full of hard jump scares, mostly genuine ones too, which keep you glued to the edge of your seat. Angel of Death may not be an earth-shattering horror film, but Hammer consistently produces good quality horror films with a beautiful, classically Gothic aesthetic. Worth a watch.
2014 is well and truly over so I thought I would post my belated review of what emerged as the best original horror or the year; The Babadook. The Babadook is the story of a single mother Amelia, played by Essie Davis, who is struggling to come to terms with bringing up her troubled son Samuel alone after the tragic death of her husband in a car accident. Samuel is already rambunctious but after he finds a mysterious kids pop-up book called ‘The Babadook’ that gives him nightmares he becomes even more unruly leaving Amelia sleepless and vulnerable as the Babadook slowly starts to step off the page into the real world. The Babadook wants Amelia to kill her dog, her son and then kill herself.
The figure of the Babadook represents mental illness; Amelia isn’t coping with the loss of her husband. The husband’s death coincided with the birth of her son. She and her son are isolated, with only each other for company the son’s presence is a constant reminder of the husband’s absence. The popup book states that ‘you can’t get rid of the Babadook’ just as you can’t fully get rid of mental illness you can only learn to cope with it. Amelia has to learn to compartmentalise her illness and not to let it run her life, her ‘real self’ has to want to be stronger than the Babadook in order to stop it from taking everything she cares about from her. Spoiler alert; this is why at the end of the film we see that she is keeping the Babadook in the basement and bringing it food every day; because you can’t get rid of the Babadook, only keep it under control.
The Babadook is a scary film (some have called it the scariest of the year) because in many ways it is a realistic portrayal of how child abuse happens. A vulnerable person develops mental illness and the wider society is unwilling to help. Institutions (the police and child services in this film) are disapproving and seek to place blame, relatives take the ‘pull yourself together’ approach and stay distant. The only person in the film who shows understanding towards Amelia is her elderly neighbor Mrs. Roach who has her own struggle with Parkinson’s to contend with.
One of the reasons this is able to happen is because modern Western capitalist society is geared towards making money with the ability to be a consumer seen as a key to social status. Someone like Amelia who finds it hard to make it to work because of her personal struggles is therefore simply seen as a broken link in a chain to be discarded. This is lightly touched on in the scene where Amelia and Samuel visit her sister for her sister’s daughters Birthday party. The scene opens with the young girl complaining that she has been gifted the same doll twice, her mother’s response is that now the doll has a twin that she can go shopping with. All the other mums are immaculately made up and spend their time talking about their husbands business acquisitions. When Amelia suggests that the women’s perceived problem, such as not having enough time to go to the gym, are not very important in the grand scheme of things she is immediately ostracised by the group. The resulting social embarrassment persuades Amelia’s sister to stop seeing Amelia and Samuel for the foreseeable future leaving the pair even more isolated and at greater risk from ‘the Babadook.’
In the scenes when the Babadook appears it takes on the physical form of the dead husband’s suit of clothes that Amelia has kept hanging up in the basement. Occasionally in dream sequences and during delirium the Babadook visits Amelia with her husband’s face and speaks to her as if through her husband suggesting that they can be together again after she gives him her son. This choice of imagery for the Babadook emphasizes that Amelia’s psychological state is deeply tied to the loss of her husband.
Samuel must take on additional responsibility in the absence of the ‘normal’ mother, and he must fight to rid his mother of the Babadook’s influence. Samuel sees his mother as infected or possessed by the Babadook. Whereas the mother sees the father’s personal traits and possessions as painful things to be forgotten or hidden Samuel uses these as strengths to use to stop the Babadook. Samuel’s fascination with magic and magicians is the most notable example of this; he uses magic tricks and traps to escape when his mother is infected by the creature.
The Babadook is a well-made film; the constant visual references to magic tricks, use of silent film clips and affecting sound design when the creature is around is impressive. Director Jennifer Kent shows a good understanding of the mother-child relationship and manages to represent a psychological horror that is consistently intense without becoming melodramatic. One of the things that usually put me off of watching psychological horrors is the tendency for the woman, who is usually at the center of events, to be portrayed as psychologically or supernaturally vulnerable due to ‘weak-mindedness.’ This is not the case with Babadook; Amelia may indeed be suffering from mental health issues, but she is always portrayed in a fair and even-handed manner. I look forward to seeing more from Kent in the future.
An 80’s B movie influenced thriller with horror elements from Your Next (2011) director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. The Guest is a big departure for Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as “David” a soldier returning from duty who stops to pass on a message to the family of his dead comrade. David claims to have instructions to look after the Petersons, but the still grieving family are letting themselves in for more than they bargained for by inviting David into their home and lives.
The Guest is a mixed bag of genres with about 2/3 small town thriller and 1/3 slasher movie. The initial suspense surrounding David’s intentions trickles away quickly as bad things start happening to the films supporting characters. The lack of tension is made up for with heaps of visual style, although personally, I am a bit sick of pink and blue as a color scheme, (Only God Forgives, Hummingbird, Drive) however Wingard couples this with an impressive and innovative soundtrack which elevates proceeding to what can only be described as ‘modern Argento,’ where visuals and sound combine to create a surrealist, dreamy atmosphere.
The most interesting thing about The Guest is that despite the sinister aspects of David’s presence in the home David actually brings something important to each individual family member. For the mother he fills the position in the family left by her dead son. This is of course also what initially unsettles daughter Anna and her father. Mr. Peterson is quickly won around as he needs someone who can act as a soundboard for his inadequacies in the workplace. David is happy to sit silently and drink beer with him. David teaches the Peterson’s son Luke who is bullied at school self defense (or maybe self preservation) Thinking that he has found a ‘friend’ Luke is perfectly happy to become a mini David. Anna is harder to convince. She is suspicious of David from the start. At a party David attempts to win her over by assimilating with her friends, partaking in recreational drug use, and when he drives her home he tells her that he likes her taste in music and wants her to make him a mixtape.
It is clear that each family member is lonely and needs someone that they can confide in who will listen without judgment. (This is a fascinating comment on a society where whole groups of people can have a conversation where everyone is talking about themselves but no one is listening, just waiting for the next cue to speak) We could perhaps presume that the dead older son used to fulfill that role (or perhaps not) either way the families lines of communication are broken and each individual is quick to put feelings of intuition to one side in exchange for what David offers them. When Anna is making her playlist we can see that she is starting to fall hard for David. But the next day she overhears him talking mysteriously on his phone and her suspicion is reignited. Things must come to a head.
I get the impression that David on some level does genuinely care about the family , and wants to make things better for them, but he is also driven to react in the way he does by forces beyond his control. David is an emotionless character (played brilliantly by Stevens) so it is hard to say whether things, like desire, are things he feels or things that others project onto him. This is illustrated by David’s sex scene; when he sleeps with Anna’s friend Kristen she suggests that he isn’t into it and then all of a sudden he becomes very ‘passionate.’
Anna is a very restrained person like David is. At one point we see her on a set of swings with her boyfriend. She is reluctant to show emotion about her dead brother and pulls away when her boyfriend tries to show her physical affection. Anna and David seem to share a connection deeper than with the rest of her family, even the girl he sleeps with means nothing to him. The emotional psyche of the characters is played out through the films soundtrack choices with a host of songs about whether or not people are sharing genuine emotions. Even at the end after some truly terrible things have happened it is as if Anna and David still share their connection.
The Guest is disjointed and is intense rather than tense, but I enjoyed it in spite of or maybe because of these quirks. The film didn’t quite grab me around the throat in the way that Your Next did, but I am still thinking about the deeper meaning of the piece which is an important quality for a film to have. Wingard is good with actors and, in partnership with Barrett, he is very competent with bringing out the intimate family drama in a piece as well as some really great moments of black comedy. If there is anything that bothers me it is that I would love to watch a film from Wingard solely based on the last sequence of The Guest because as a concept for a slasher film it was so tantalising. But I suppose it is best not to get pigeonholed.
The Guest is also filled with some great references to classic films as well as Wingard and Barrett’s earlier work. The Guest is set in the run-up to Halloween, so for much of the time it looks like the set of a Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) sequel, (preferably to six) there are a couple of references to Halloween 3, at one point we see some of the extras wearing the animal masks from Your Next, and there is a great cameo near the end from AJ Bowen. When Anna’s boyfriend gets arrested and her father won’t listen to her it is reminiscent of A Nightmare on Elm Street, (Wes Craven, 1984) and the horror maze at the end is very the Man With the Golden Gun. Plus the android in Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012) is also called David and the UK trailer for The Guest was definitely riffing on the Prometheus viral ads for David 8.
All in all The Guest is a very fascinating and enjoyable movie, I am glad it got a wide release, and I look forward to seeing what Wingard and his team come up with next.