Let’s Scare Jeff… to Death! Vol. 2

Welcome to the second installment of my horror movie digest! This week we have werewolves, ghosts, demons, and — most terrifyingly of all — Bill Maher. Also, some of the movies have excellent theme songs, so I’ve included links to the videos below the blurbs.

House II: The Second Story (1987) unfortunately has nothing to do with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s bizarro haunted fantasy House (1977). It doesn’t even have anything to do with its actual predecessor, 1985’s House, other than that it takes place in a house. I guess the idea was to do an anthology series? The writer of the first one returns to direct this time, and it’s a much broader entry — more of a comedy adventure set in a haunted house. It also continues the series’ casting of Cheers regulars with John Ratzenberger stepping in for George Wendt this time, and his sequence is a highlight. Bill Maher appears as a yuppie scumbag but unfortunately doesn’t get his comeuppance. Boo. Otherwise, it’s filled with crazy left turns — if you’re gonna watch it (and I recommend it), don’t watch the trailer above so you can go in cold.

Demon Wind (1990) posits the question of what would happen if you made Evil Dead without Sam Raimi or Bruce Campbell. You don’t need a cheat sheet to guess the answer to that. Another protagonist who makes manila folders look exciting in comparison surrounded by a cast of unlikable dullards — EXCEPT, and that “except” is what makes the movie special, the kung fu magician duo of Chuck and Stacy. These bargain basement Sam and Deans keep things entertaining with their dumb repartee and sweet combination of martial arts and parlor tricks right up until they’re killed. Even then, their demonized versions continue to be the highlight of the movie. It’s a dud otherwise.

Kwaidan (1964) may very well be the longest horror movie ever made, clocking in at a phantasmagorical 3 hour run time. Usually horror anthologies are a mixed bag, but in this case the bag is filled with Twix, Snickers, and every flavor Starburst except the red one. While the stories themselves are pretty simple (I was able to summarize the whole thing to my wife in under five minutes), Masaki Kobayashi fills the time with eerily quiet, deliberately paced atmospheric sections that get under your skin more effectively than jump scares ever would. The inevitable tragedy of “The Woman in the Snow” struck me hardest, but each story is its own ghostly gem.

Amsterdamned (1988) comes from Dutch director Dick Maas (a name that made my very classy wife giggle each time it appeared on screen), who brought us the off-beat killer elevator flick The Lift. This entry centers on a killer stalking the canals of the titular city in SCUBA gear, a novel concept for a slasher killer indeed! Maas’s trademark quirky characters and sense of humor, some truly memorable kills (the tourist boat and the translucent raft in particular), and a genuinely great speedboat chase (courtesy of bonafide Bond stunt coordinator Dickey Beer and stunt legend Vic Armstrong) make this a winner that transcends some of the more pedestrian procedural elements. Bonus points for the excellent title theme at the end courtesy of Prince collaborators Loïs Lane!

Knife + Heart (2018) was called A Knife in the Heart in its original French, and I prefer that title — it captures the giallo sleaziness much better. I’ve seen a lot of queer-coded movies (Nightmare on Elm Street 2, anyone?) and a few “lesbian vampire” type flicks like Daughters of Darkness, but it’s funny how gay male eroticism is such a rarity in horror that I still found it somewhat shocking when presented this explicitly and unflinchingly. This film takes place in the LGBTQ+ underworld of 1979 Paris, specifically centering around a director of gay porn (Vanessa Paradis), so it throws you right into the deep end… if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Still, one of the prime purposes of horror is to make the viewer uncomfortable as a way of making them think — and I’m glad it made me confront my own unconscious biases. As the movie articulately points out, society’s mistreatment of marginalized people causes infinitely more damage than a masked man with a knife.

Side note: The excellent score is by the director’s brother, Anthony Gonzalez… better known as M83. Worth checking out on its own.

Ginger Snaps (2000) makes me wonder if it’s harder being a werewolf or a teenage girl — and based on this, I think I have to give the edge to teenage girl. Lycanthropy as a metaphor for puberty works pretty well. I just wish the second half was as fun as the first; once it turns into a straight-up werewolf movie it loses some of its Heathers-style satirical charm. One of the more inventive wolf(w0)man flicks I’ve seen, though. It has just the right amount of crunch to it and you genuinely care about the leads. Also, it’s SUPER late 90s if you want a punch to the face of nostalgia. The soundtrack dates it even more than the clothing: Junkie XL, Fear Factory, Machine Head, Glassjaw. Chunky guitar and techno beats galore!

Sugar Hill (1974) follows the Black exploitation tradition of naming the film after the protagonist, but don’t expect something straightforward like Foxy Brown. When racist gangsters murder Diana “Sugar” Hill’s (Marki Bey) fiancé, she seeks revenge the only way she knows how, and it ain’t how Fred Williamson or Jim Brown would: she summons the voodoo deity Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley, having a blast) and has him raise an army of the undead to “make them die slowly.” Although written and directed by white guys (the only directing credit for Paul Maslansky, producer of the Police Academy movies?!), the film’s portrayal of a strong, confident Black woman who gets what she wants — without every really getting put in sexual jeopardy — feels surprisingly refreshing. Add in some genuinely creepy zombies, a killer funk soundtrack (check out the infectious theme below), and a sparkling sense of humor, and you have a hidden gem as golden as the Baron’s teeth.

Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies (1999) comes from Jack Sholder, director of another infamous horror sequel: the aforementioned Nightmare on Elm Street 2. Needless to say, I didn’t have high hopes for this — especially since I wasn’t a big fan of the first one — but my wife special requested this one. I found it surprisingly entertaining! It helps that they didn’t have the budget to put Andrew Divoff in the Djinn prosthetics as much, and he’s much more fun when he’s not weighed down under all the makeup and just gets to grin creepily without blinking. Shoulder steers the ship well as long as he stays within his limitations — which means things definitely get a bit silly towards the end when he tries to go for a big special effects climax he clearly can’t afford. It’s no Phantasm II, but as far as straight-to-video horror sequels go it beats the hell out of any of the Leprechaun follow-ups.

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