Happy Halloween Eve everyone! Here’s a treat for the night before: reviews on 13 scary movies I watched this month so you don’t have to.

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Intruders (2011)

Intruders benefits enormously from the presence of Clive Owen, manliest of the manly men. I hadn’t seen him in anything for a while, so it was a bit of a thrill.

Unfortunately, even with Clive Owen, this movie is just okay.

The film tells two parallel stories: one about a little boy named Juan in Spain, who is tormented by a demon/spirit/monster without a face, and another about a 12-year-old girl in England named Mia. On a trip to her grandparents’ country house, Mia finds an old, handwritten story in a hollow tree. The story is about a faceless creature called Hollowface, that stalks children to steal their features. She copies it and presents it as her own work in school, and apparently Hollowface takes this as permission to start messing with her. Her adoring father, John, is the only other person who can see this monster. As psychiatrists discuss the possibility of a folies a deux, John and Mia try to figure out how to vanquish this monster.

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Intruders has a solid premise, but it relies heavily on a double twist, the first of which is telegraphed well in advance. The end is anti-climactic, with the tired solution of love saving us all.

The has some genuinely creepy moments, as when Juan and his mother see Hollowface in a church (or do they?) but a sub-plot about a young priest trying to help the boy goes nowhere, and there is little character development for anyone besides Mia, John and Juan (Mia’s mother, so example, has little do but look worried a lot).

Intruders looks slick, with some nice CGI depicting Hollowface, but it’s not really worth 90 minutes unless there’s nothing else on.

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The Legend of Hell House (1973)

The Legend of Hell House has a good pedigree: based on a novel by speculative fiction legend Richard Matheson, and written by Matheson (who wrote some of the best Twilight Zone episodes). Sadly, it exists in the shadow of the similar novel/movie combo The Haunting of Hill House (by Shirley Jackson)/The Haunting, which is so stellar that no haunted house story could ever measure up.

The movie doesn’t screw around: within five minutes we’ve learned that physicist-turned-parapsychologist Bennet is being engaged by a rich old man to determine the veracity of life after death (probably because he’s old and not so far from death himself) at the only place he truly believes to be haunted: Belasco House. Apparently staggering amounts of debauchery occurred there under the influence of its evil owner, culminating in the deaths of 27 people. Bennett and his wife Edith will stay there a week, along with Florence, a medium, and Ben, another medium who is also the only sane, still-living member of the last parapsychological investigation into the house. Bennett is the classic scientist who disregards any data he can’t type up and analyze; Florence is overly-confident in her abilities as a medium, Ben is closed-off and refuses to interact with the house, and Edith is just along for the ride. Like in The Haunting, the characters are at odds with each other as much as they are the house, and the house’s sinister influence exacerbates their already-difficult personalities.

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The Legend of Hell House is typical of 1960’s/70’s horror: lots of weird camera angles, lenses shoved into the actors’ faces, and creepy incidental music. The ending is what eventually sinks the story. After the house and its spirit(s) have wreaked havoc on the investigators, Ben discovers the secret behind old man Belasco’s rage and why he’s still hanging around killing people and driving them crazy: he was short. He was short, and pissed off, so he presided over a house full of hedonism and now murders people who come into his place (this scene at least gives Roddy MacDowell, who plays Ben, the chance to be a bit of a screeching diva). The solution to getting Belasco out of the house for good is completely unsatisfying and (to a 21st century viewer) pretty goofy.

The Legend of Hell House isn’t a total waste of time, but if you want a truly terrifying haunted house movie, you can do no better than 1963’s The Haunting.

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The Unseeable (2006)

The title of this Thai ghost story is misleading; ‘the unseeable’ are seen pretty frequently, at least by the main character.

Pregnant Nualjan has left her rural village to search for her husband, who left for a business trip and never returned. She arrives at a run-down estate where the owner sometimes rents rooms, and secures a room along with abrasive-yet-kindhearted Choy. The women are supervised by creepy servant Somjit, and instructed to stay away from the main house, where their reclusive landlord, a lady still mourning the death of her husband lives. In addition, there’s a crazy old lady living in a shack in the garden, and a mysterious silhouetted figure of a man who seems to be digging in the garden at night. Through a series of twists Nualjan discovers the identity of her landlord (and of Choy), what happened to her husband, and the truth about her own existence (and she gives birth to a baby somewhere in there too).

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The Unseeable is heavy with atmosphere, and an interesting look into the supernatural world of Thailand. Western ghosts seem pretty wimpy compared to Asian ones that can impersonate the living pretty convincingly, and how about those gut-sucking vampires?

Most viewers will probably figure out the various plot twists pretty quickly- I am pretty dense about movie twists, so I didn’t see anything coming.

The Unseeable isn’t particularly unique as Asian horror goes, and it’s not a stunning example of the genre. But it’s certainly not a bad way to spend 90 minutes of your time either.

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Axe Giant: The Legend of Paul Bunyan (2013)

There’s not much horror movies haven’t tried to twist (they are second only to porn in this matter). Axe Giant takes the beloved American tall tale of Paul Bunyan and turns it into a b-movie that isn’t really as bad as it sounds. It’s low-budget, yes, and amateurish, but in the same charmingly earnest manner of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Cannibal: The Musical.

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The film opens in the 19th century, with a group of loggers being gorily slaughtered by their foreman, who has suddenly lost his shit. The story then moves to modern times, when a group of young offenders is sent to a rehab/tough love program in the Minnesota forest. While out there they find the skeleton of a bull and take its huge horn for a souvenir (a bull…or is it an OX?), incurring the wrath of old Paul, who has grown to enormous size in the last hundred years, and also somehow constructed a giant double-bladed Viking ax (and also pants big enough to fit him).

Axe Giant hits all the b-horror high notes: group of attitude-heavy teens in the woods, crazy old man who tries to warn them of the ax giant, laughably gory murders (though there is little here to cringe at, as the giant ax mostly just cleaves people cleanly in two), and decent computer-generated menace. The acting is mostly decent as well, although some of the side characters are obviously not professionals. It’s worth noting that the music is done by Midnight Syndicate, so the film sounds creepy even if it actually isn’t.

Predictable, goofy, and surprisingly fun, Axe Giant is worth a look if you want something some not-quite-horrible horror after a long day at work.

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The Prophecy (1995)

The most horrifying thing about The Prophecy is Christopher Walken’s awful black wig. While it does provide a creepy contrast to his pale eyes, it’s ill-fitting and goofy.

The best part is Viggo Mostenson’s short turn as Scruffy Satan, especially when he eats Christopher Walken’s heart.

Thomas (Elisa Koteas, who is One of Those Actors Who is in Everything But You Don’t Know His Name) is all set to become a priest when he’s assailed by mental images of angels in agony. He wisely decides the priesthood is not for him, but being a cop is. Years later, he runs into a weird case of a guy with no eyes who has been pretty nastily killed (the guy being an angel and all). In addition, Eric Stolz starts stalking him.

It turns out that the war of angels has actually been going on forever and is still happening, with more angels defecting to the naughty side because they are sick of humans’ shit. The angel Gabriel is tired of being God’s warrior/hit man (which is odd if you think about it, since Michael is usually named as the fighter among the archangels) and wants to get hold of the soul of the evilest person alive so he can use it for…I don’t know. Something nefarious. But the evilest person alive (an Army colonel who killed and ate people during the Vietnam War) just died, so Eric Stolz- who is also an angel or something- takes the soul from his dead body and sticks it into this little girl to keep it safe from Gabriel, because obviously a murderous angel who burns people alive will hesitate to kill a little girl. Satan also eventually shows up because he isn’t too thrilled with the idea of Gabriel turning Earth into a new Hell, since that’s kind of his department.

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The Prophecy is set in the American West, so the scenery is pretty. Walken hams it up to pretty entertaining effect, and Mortenson’s brief screen time is pretty amusing. The movie mostly takes place on a reservation, and there is lots of American Indian ritual time as the elders try to eject the ‘enemy ghost’ from the little girl. But this clash of traditional religion and Judeo-Christian mythology is never really explored in any depth; in one scene angels and Satan wage bloody battle in a medicine tent while tribal elders look on; none of them seems particularly surprised or even interested that these agents of God and the devil are fighting it out in front of them.

It’s an okay film for a lazy Sunday afternoon (much like Warlock, actually) and apparently was popular enough to spawn two sequels, but now something I’d go out of my way for.

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The Frankenstein Theory (2013)

Here’s two things that should tell you everything you need to know about this movie.

  1. It seems to be either a found-footage deal, or a fake documentary. After a few minutes I determined it wasn’t either, but a film about a fake documentary crew looking for Frankenstein’s monster, which is real and living in the Yukon. The footage was fluid and not hand-held at all. Sometimes the characters glanced at the camera, but I thought they were doing some artsy experimental shit. Nope. AN HOUR into the film, the previously unseen, unacknowledged cameraman is spoken to and brought on camera (about two minutes before he dies). So this is found-footage, only it fails in even looking like found footage.

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  1. The monster slaughters everyone. Except one chick, who may be alive at the end, but we don’t know, because the monster either kidnaps her or takes her body, and he might equate her with this doll they find the middle of freaking nowhere that has the same hair color, or maybe he wants a bride, or maybe he’ll eat her. Also there is a weird scene early in the film that maybe is supposed to tie into the monster’s story and is about how rational humans can be turned by their anger into crazy rage monsters, but the links are tenuous and ill-explained. Like everything else in the movie.

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Don’t watch it. Save yourself, man.

 

 

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Black Sunday (1960)

Back in the 1600’s in Modavia this witch named Asa had a spiky mask hammered into her face as punishment for worshiping Satan. Despite the shame she causes her noble family, for some reason they bury her in their family tomb even though her Satanist lover is dumped in unconsecrated ground somewhere.

200 years later, this family has a daughter who looks exactly like Asa (only she’s a good girl, not a Satan-loving witch). Two researchers on their way to a conference that for some reason is being held at the ass end of Moldavia- and who see a coffin with a witch corpse in it and then take the sacred icon on her chest, like a couple morons- (one is old and one is young, of course, and guess who falls in love with the good girl?), and are drawn into the family’s situation when the older doctor is asked to tend the patriarch of this family, who has fallen ill. It’s not a normal sickness though, as Asa- without the icon holding her back- is intent on taking the good girl’s body and living again with her undead lover so they can worship Satan all they like, evily ever after.

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The movie is directed by Mario Bava, and has some truly great cinematography and lots of creepy atmosphere (made even better by black and white). Barbara Steele, the most famous of the 60’s scream queens, plays Asa/Katja. The few effects (there’s a lot of darkness in this film rather than special effects) might look goofy to 21st-century audiences, but the opening scene with the spiked mask is still cringe-inducing.

Black Sunday is a classic of the genre, and it deserves that title. It’s definitely a must-see for any serious student of celluloid horror.

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23:59 (2011)

23:59 in civilian time is 11:59 p.m. You’d better cherish those last 60 seconds before midnight, because midnight is when all the spooks come out.

A group of young men in the army are training on an island. As most young soldiers do, they tell ghost stories to pass the time and freak each other out. The group is pretty standard: the quiet guy and his protective best friend, the fat guy, the bully (who turns out to be a pretty decent dude, actually). It’s the seventh lunar month, when ghosts are able to walk the earth. Their superstitious sergeant is jumpy, to the chagrin of his unbelieving CO. Guess who’s right?

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Spirit possession is a main element of this movie, which is always interesting as you don’t see it very often in Western movies. But the characters and their relationships aren’t intriguing, the story is predictable and the ghosts are the same ones you see in every Asian horror movie.

23:59 isn’t terrible, but if you want a truly creepy military horror movie, check out the Korean film R-Point instead.

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Strigoi (2009)

It’s tempting to call Strigoi a vampire movie, but it’s really not. Strigoi are the souls of the restless dead, not quite the vampires we know. While they’re eternally starving, they only turn on humans when all other food has been consumed, and mostly they just want to fuck with the people who betrayed them in life.

The film opens with the rich couple in a Romanian village being dragged out into a field and killed with shovels. It seems they’re not very nice people, and the poor villagers are sick of their shit. The villagers loot the richies’ house and go on about their lives.

Until Vlad shows up. He’s a former medical student (who couldn’t hack it because blood makes him faint) and has come to live with his unhinged grandfather while he decides what to do next. Vlad becomes suspicious of a local resident’s death, and this leads him to some shady business dealings and thus to the murder of the rich people…who have come back to eat everything in the village, scare the hell out of people and exact revenge for their own murders.

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Strigoi is by turns fascinating and subtly, darkly hilarious. According to the movie, Romania is a country painfully aware of its own turbulent past of Nazis and Communists. The humor is not so subtle you’d miss it, but also not in-your-face goofy either (at one point, one of the strigoi visits Vlad and his grandfather, and filches a jar of pickles on his way out. Vlad’s grandpa snaps, “Are you just going to let him leave with the pickles?!” and a police officer muses on how well a local field could be adapted for growing marijuana). There’s plenty of gore, but not too much. Strigoi maintains a delicate balance between dramatic and ridiculous.

The dialogue is in English, but most of the actors are from Eastern Europe and many have thick accents, but by paying attention you can catch everything. This isn’t a movie you can watch while going something else.

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Strigoi is a cool surprise; something a little different for the lover of horror and folklore. I recommend it.

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Event Horizon (1997)

There’s not enough space horror out there. A space ship as the setting for horror is perfect, because there is literally, absolutely no place to run.

A space ship with a snazzy special engine designed for faster-than-light travel disappears out beyond Neptune. Years later, the ship sends a distress signal, and a small rescue ship is sent to find what’s up, along with the original ship’s creator, Dr. Weir. No one knows where the Event Horizon has been for the past seven years, but they’re about to find out. The ship and her crew went someplace nasty, and they brought something back. The ship is alive, and she can get into the crews’ heads to present them with their worst nightmares. She wants company when she returns to the nasty place.

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When it first came out, the movie was appropriately called “Hellraiser in Space”. Not only is there a Hell dimension, but copious amounts of splatterpunk gore. The rescue crew get picked off in various disgusting ways (Jason Isaacs wins for most spectacular death), and the Event Horizon (particularly the room where the mysterious power core resides) looks like a medieval torture chamber. No one knows what’s powering the ship- as if her name isn’t enough of a clue.

Event Horizon is a beautiful movie. The 16-year-old special effects are still stunning. The characters are your normal horror movie lineup: the motherly type, the jocular pilot, the dour guy, the funny black dude, the slightly unhinged professional who refuses to admit anything is wrong because he wants to know what’s going on.

The film starts out like a classic haunted house movie, and for the first hour or so it’s nerve-wracking to watch. Once the secret of the ship is revealed, however, it becomes a breakneck gorefest, though there’s still enough plot to keep things tense. The end is a bit of a letdown; it seems that the way to destroy a living ship from a dimension of pure evil, like anything else, is to blow it up.

Event Horizon isn’t perfect, but it’s a good example of space horror. It’s no Alien or Sunshine, but it’s worth a watch if you want some Hellraiser in space.

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Hellraiser (1989)

Hellraiser is considered a classic of the genre, and rightly so. While the special effects (not to mention the 80’s hair and clothes) might make modern audiences snicker, the waves of blood and latex bits of ripped flesh are still realistic enough to make you squirm.

And there’s loads of torn body parts in this story, based on a novella by Clive Barker, one of the original splatterpunk authors.

A man and his wife move into a house owned by his ne’er-do-well brother, who has mysteriously disappeared. The wife- who had a passionate affair with the rather douchebaggy brother- discovered that he’s not dead, he’s living- sort of- in the attic. It seems brother has been to Hell and back, literally, after opening a puzzle box that called a quartet of demons called Cenobites to drag him into a dimension of pure pleasure and even purer agony. But he can escape them and come back to the human world- if the wife/mistress will kill a bunch of people so he absorb their flesh and blood to become whole again.

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The only person who’s suspicious is grown daughter Kirstie, who visits now and again, and has never liked her stepmother. Of course, disliking your stepmother and finding out she’s killing dudes with a hammer to bring back your gross dead uncle are two different things…

Luckily for her, the Cenobites aren’t entirely unreasonable, and as long as Kirstie tricks her uncle into going back to Hell with them, they’ll leave her alone (at least until Hellraiser II).

The really enduring thing about Hellraiser is the design: the Cenobites are half S&M, half grossness, and the other demons you glimpse are pretty wild. The house is creepy, the puzzle box is weirdly beautiful…you get the idea.

Hellraiser is pretty much required viewing for any horror fan. If you haven’t seen it yet, get thee to Netflix.

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Pumpkinhead (1987)

Pumpkinhead is directed by Stan Winston, better known as the makeup/SFX guy behind Terminator and Aliens. So you know the monster makeup is going to look awesome (and it really, truly does).

Lance Henriksen plays Ed, a widower who lives with his son in backwoods America somewhere (in a place so poverty-stricken, backwards and just plain dirty that you can’t quite believe anyone would live like this in the 20th century – except they do). Ed has a little store, so when some teenagers planning a stay in the classic Cabin in the Woods need supplies, they stop there. But these city folk have a dangerous hobby: dirt biking! And in showing off their cool dirt bike moves, one of the kids accidentally kills Ed’s son. In his grief, Ed goes to a totally creepy old witch-woman and asks her to call up a demon locally known as ‘Pumpkinhead’ to secure his revenge.

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Despite its name, Pumpkinhead doesn’t actually have a pumpkin for a head. In fact, it’s kind of gross and definitely creepy, sharing quite a few characteristics with the titular Aliens.

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The story is predictable, the teen characters each have a single characteristic that defines them, and the ‘good kids’ outlast the demon. But Pumpkinhead is surprisingly moving, as much time is spent building the relationship between Ed and his son- although I may feel this way just because I am the parent of a little boy myself. Henriksen turns in a deep performance. It’s nice to see horror movie set in the boonies where the monster isn’t the inbred, redneck local populace…although the incessant use of banjos in the background score gets one one’s nerves after a while.

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Shock Labyrinth (2009)

I’m not really a big fan of Takashi Shimizu. I think his movies tend to be derivative, over-long and packed full of nice imagery that seems to be there for no other reason than that he thought it looked cool. Sadly, Shock Labyrinth is not the movie to change my mind.

Back in the day, five kids sneak away from their moms at an amusement park and go into the closed Shock Labyrinth, a particularly gruesome sort of haunted house. One of the vanishes. Ten years later the survivors meet up again, and are surprised when their disappeared friend Yuki- now an adult- shows up. She manages to fall down a flight of stairs, and for some reason the only hospital around is in the middle of nowhere, creep, packed with ghosts, rundown and completely depopulated (a common problem in Asian horror movies. Whatever you think of health care in America, at least our hospitals are staffed, well-lit and not usually haunted). Of course when they venture deeper into the corridors they realize it’s not really a hospital, but the good old Shock Labyrinth. Their friend is dead (maybe) and now she wants revenge. As the group progresses they begin to reform their collective memory of what actually happened that day…with the help of a floating creepy bunny backpack.

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Shock Labyrinth is visually interesting to a degree, and the actors seem sincere enough. The soundtrack has a lot of kids’ singing played backwards, which starts out unnerving but quickly becomes annoying. The film attempting a couple twists near the end, which aren’t exactly surprising, and watching the character stumble around, running into various creepy things, takes up most of the movie. At around 90 minutes, Shock Labyrinth is at least 15 minutes too long. The characters and their dilemma just aren’t 90 minutes’ worth of interesting.