Halloween and the Horror Revival

Movie Reviews by Jeremy Billingsley

 

These have been a great couple of years for horror, and the pace doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. While there is always the drivel that is Hell Fest (watch it only for the up-and-coming Amy Forsyth, who also recently starred in one of the Channel Zero seasons), or Slenderman (as one of my friends recently asked, since when did we become afraid of a white guy in a suit), there are real gems coming out that stand the test of time, like the second part of It. While Blumhouse productions are usually hit or miss, they have a consistent release schedule, and the Conjuring and Insidious universes are only growing. Combine that with recent monster movie revival with Kong: Skull Island, and Godzilla, and it looks as though horror has a strong foundation for growth in Hollywood.

 

Recently, I read a tepid listicle that had the audacity to rank Rob Zombie’s foray into the Halloween franchise above the 2018 remake. It was obvious to me that the writer of the listicle had missed the point entirely. Rob Zombie’s tactic of horrifying the audience with a blend of rednecks, gore, and jump scares brought a trailer park origin to the story of Michael Myers, and the biggest “twist” came in the sequel with the path the director chose for Laurie.

 

HALLOWEEN

 

That Halloween (2018) came out with the promise of erasing all the sequels worried me at first. While he didn’t direct Halloween II (not R.Z.’s yawner), John Carpenter did write the sequel which established Laurie Strode was Michael Myers long lost sister. While this brought an intimacy to the killing, it also humanized the character. He was going after family all along. (All Zombie did was humanize the character to the level of poor white trash who snapped.)

 

What this latest installment does, in erasing all that, dehumanizes Michael Myers. He’s a killer who killed his sister at age six, then 15 years later escaped from an asylum and murdered babysitters in his hometown. He’s caught, and forty years after that, he escapes again to resume his rampage.

 

The beauty of the new film is that is an homage to the original. It challenges us as a desensitized society to return to a time when the horror isn’t always onscreen, but the aftermath that we see can be just as gruesome. It is a story as much about women’s empowerment in this age of #MeToo as it is a beautiful love letter to Carpenter, the progenitor of the slasher flick, even down to the opening sequence with the jack-o’-lantern and the pumpkin-bright orange title cards reminiscent of the original film. That this director got the original Myers to again don the mask after forty years (that’s right, folks, it’s been a different actor under that William Shatner mask almost each time he’s appeared) and returned Jamie Lee Curtis to the role that introduced her to Hollywood, is a testament to the power of the script and the dedication to all those who worked to bring this film to the screen (so much better tribute to her than the abysmal Halloween Resurrection that did Laurie Strode’s character a disservice).

 

As I said earlier, Laurie is not his mystical, long-lost sister, but a survivor of a horrific night that has never been explained, crippled by PTSD to the point of estrangement from her family. When two journalists come to interview Michael on the eave of (not just Halloween, but also his transfer from the mental institution to a real prison), carrying his mask like a trophy hunter might wield the head of a recent kill, they set off a chain of events that multiplies Michael’s killing spree tenfold (I counted: he kills nearly 20 people in this new film; it was like four or five in the original).

 

Is the film perfect? No. When Laurie says that Michael had been plotting this and broke out this night, it’s rather convenient. The reporters have his mask, he’s transferred on the 40th anniversary of his killing spree. I come closer to believe this once the audience learns the true nature of the doctor who replaced Michael’s iconic psychiatrist: Dr. Loomis.

 

But the film is damn near…Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance is raw and passionate, scared and empowered, and bleeds over to her daughter played by Judy Greer and her granddaughter, played by Andi Matichak. And Nick Castle (screenwriter and director), returns to his most famous role as the murderous killer with great abs (seriously, folks, look at how he just sits up; I challenge anyone over forty to sit up like that).

 

If I did a listicle ranking the Halloween films, it’d probably be tied with John Carpenter’s Part II with the original still being the best. This film is definitely worth your attention. My next mission is to watch it on Blu Ray right after the original.

 

ASSASSINATION NATION

 

Okay, this isn’t horror, I’ll admit, but it has some horrific images in it as it plays as a dark satire of our current political times.

 

The film stars Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Anika Noni Rose, Bill Skarsgard, Joel McHale, and Bella Thorne. Set in Salem, Massachusetts (an intentional choice for setting), the story involves young high school girls who are struggling to make their way in this linked in world. When Young’s character is called into the principal’s office for pornographic drawings in Art class, she carefully explains the true resemblance to life that the drawings really show: the hours of poses and make-up and careful concealing of imperfections so that the woman looks perfect. No flaws. Just like in real life. Later, at a party, her character delves deep into the dark thoughts of the modern American teenage girl through a soliloquy that reveals the rock and hard place between which these young women find themselves.

 

When an internet hacker lets loose the town’s deepest secrets on the web, people begin turning on each other till the town devolves into a base murderous mob intent on purity, fueled by Joel McHale obsession with Young.

 

Cinematically, there is an amazing sequence of invaders into the house that is a continuous shot from the third floor to the ground, watching as the core group of girls are abducted by the mob, all donned in masks.

 

And masks are an integral part of this, as this is a central theme of the movie. We all wear masks. Who we present to be online is not who we are when we are at work, nor who we are when we are at home. Down to the final showdown and the redemption of an unlikely character, the audience finds that the masks are stripped away revealing our naked selves. The picture is not pretty, but it is illuminating. This is a powerful, unwavering movie, a violent a horrific pushback to the puritanism our country is built upon.

 

THE LITTLE STRANGER

 

American audiences probably won’t recognize the starring names in this piece, but that shouldn’t deter you from checking out this film if it is still in a theater near you, or, if not, once it is streaming.

 

A ghost story set in rural England just a few years after the second world war, the novel witnesses the crumbling of the once great Hundreds Hall with great allusions to the short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” by Edgar Allan Poe. Dr. Faraday, a country physician whose childhood was based in near poverty, is called to the estate to attend to the maid, Betty, who claims to see and hear apparitions. He’d once visited the manor years earlier when he was a child, invited for a birthday party to one of the Ayres children, a daughter now long since lost by the time of the present events.

 

The story, like the novel upon which it’s based by Sarah Waters, is a study in atmosphere and the unsettling realization that we are all haunted. Faraday is haunted by his humble beginnings. The Ayres family is haunted by their past and their legacy as it eats at their future. Tension builds slowly over the course of the film, as the audience realizes this is a tragedy and there is no happy ending. But that is the true nature of horror, isn’t it? There is no happy ending.

 

THE NUN

 

Sigh.

 

This latest installment to the Conjuring universe wants to be scary. It really does. It might have better served as an homage to Sam Raimi, which would have better expanded the universe of this terminally dreadful atmosphere that now is tiresome, elevating the unintentional comedy to intentional and so rejoicing in the more ridiculous scenes.

 

Actual line of dialogue:

 

When the heroine finds the thing to kill the demon nun, and explains what it is, the adventurer character says, “Holy Shit.”

 

The third character, the priest, says, “The Holiest.”

 

I so wanted Sam Raimi here. I wanted to see the heroine taking her vows as the rogue hero loads a shotgun, not shown as seriously as it was in this film, but tongue-in-cheek, with some eighties montage music playing in the background. When the demon confronted the rogue hero, I wanted his quip comeback to be something cleverer than, “I’m French Canadian.” I think she asked something mundane like, “Are you ready to die, Frenchie?” or some crap like that.

 

Be clever, writers. Be humorous. “Maple I am, and maple I’m not.”

 

Embrace the cheese that you’ve so eagerly set up for us. This movie is a series of jump scares and illogical leaps (how did she know it was the priest ringing the bell in the cemetery, and if you suggest telepathy as is displayed later in the film, then the filmmakers should have showed it in that scene?).

 

Overall, the movie was ridiculous, and while it made a lot of money, it did little to advance the genre.

 

THE PREDATOR

 

Oh. Oh dear Shane Black. Not only have you made an Iron Movie without Iron Man (I applaud the character development of the film, but put him in the goddamn suit), and you set all your movies around the holidays, but now you’ve proved you are stuck in the nineties.

 

There are special forces soldiers and a bullied boy and a big predator and a little predator and yes, it’s clever when the characters debate the accuracy of the prescribed name, and Olivia Munn and Yvonne Strahovski are in it, so bonus, and Thomas Jane has Tourette Syndrome.

 

But the movie is a mess and the character development is weak and, though not set around Christmas like a lot of Black’s films, but around Halloween, the whole thing feels phoned in and completely unnecessary. It serves mainly to establish this universe, connect it to the previous films (especially the original with Schwarzenegger and the sequel, with Danny Glover), and serve as a baseline for a new franchise. Black has the talent to have used this movie to take us back to the roots of the series, ala the above installment of Halloween. Instead he gives us the Predator version of Halloween 5: Why won’t you just die, Michael Myers, where we learn some garbage like Michael is a superhuman killing machine imbued with immortality by the god of Jabba the Hut, or some garbage like that (trust me, the “twist” in The Predator is just about as ridiculous).

 

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

 

Okay, not a horror film. But I love this movie and I had to write about it. It’s not getting the proper acclaim nor is it getting the ticket sales, it deserves, but it is a wonderful movie. SEE THIS MOVIE!!! It is this generation’s, Pulp Fiction.

 

It is a masterclass study in character conflict/crisis/resolution. If you want to learn to be a writer, watch this movie.

 

This neo-noir thriller set in 1969 was written, produced, and directed by Drew Goddard, who wrote for the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer,  Angel, Alias, and Lost, created the Netflix series Daredevil, and wrote Cloverfield and World War Z, and The Martian.

 

Seven strangers meet up at the hotel that sits on the border of California and Nevada. A singer, an aged priest, a vacuum cleaner salesman, a hippie girl, and the desk clerk are our initial characters. I want the soundtrack to this, by the way, and I want it on vinyl.

 

Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, John Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, and Chris Hemsworth star in the film. Hamm and Hemsworth serve as bookends to the movie, each chewing up the scenery in their own scenes admirably. Hamm is not the lowlife racist he presents as, and Hemsworth is definitely not the messianic figure that appears to Boots. Each of these actors are having fun with their characters as the plot unfolds. And guys, it gets wild.

 

I suppose, empathetically speaking, this is a horrific night. There are FBI conspiracies and abductions and cults and robbers and Vietnam vets with PTSD. There’s drug use and hidden wire taps and hidden treasure.

 

This is a story of duality. Every character wears two faces. This is all juxtaposed against the duality of the hotel: half in California, half in Nevada.

 

Technically, this isn’t a horror film, but it subscribes to all of horror’s conventions. And it is a film you should watch.

 

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