Let’s Scare Jeff… To Death! Vol. 3

One week to Halloween! Horror train keeps on rolling.

Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) doesn’t have much to do with the first two outside of barrels of Trioxin and a preoccupation with sexy undead punk ladies. Prolific low-budger sci-fi/horror producer/director Brian Yuzna (Society) is behind the camera here, and unfortunately he’s a much better producer than director. His twisted take on Romeo and Juliet has some pretty cool gore effects and some decent ideas; plus, horror romances are somewhat rare. Still, it’s mostly memorable for the scene where Melinda Clarke (Spawn) shoves a bunch of spikes, glass, and rebar through herself to try to stave off the hunger — aka the moment that triggered puberty for a thousand metalheads.

Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990) was Barker’s most ambitious film, which of course means the studio had to take a knife to it. I’ve only ever seen the director’s cut but I have to imagine it improves on the butchered theatrical cut. Even still, it’s flawed. It’s a total “chosen one” narrative — basically Harry Potter with more bondage — but it’s not clear why Boone (Craig Sheffer) is the chosen one other than that he has a cool leather jacket. Still, the underground monster society is fascinating, and antagonist Decker (David Cronenberg from Jason X) makes a very creepy psycho therapist. It’s pretty characteristic of Barker. He’s more interested in the monsters than the audience characters — it’s not like Kirsty from Hellraiser has any memorable character traits besides screaming. It actually reminds me of a dark reflection of a Tim Burton movie (down to the Danny Elfman score) with its stunning production design, memorable supporting characters, fractured fairy tale narrative, and utter disinterest/antipathy towards the humans.

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) sure was a Friday the 13th movie. I’d previously only seen the last half hour, and it turns out the last half hour was the only part worth watching. I realize they still hadn’t established the formula but it takes way too long to get to the carnage. To its credit, the cannon fodder kids are much less obnoxious than they’d become in future entries, which makes the wait less tedious. The filmmakers figured it out more on the next one, perfected it on the fourth one, and by part 6 (the best one) it had become self-parody.

Suspiria (2018) could never outdo the original in terms of sheer batshit insanity, so director Luca Guadagnino took the exact opposite approach. Where the original burst with color to create a sense of the uncanny, this one goes for the muted grays of divided Cold War Germany. The original deliberately (sometimes frustratingly) avoided letting the audience know what the hell was going on, but this one delves into the internal politics of the coven and the workings of their witchcraft. The original’s discordant, jarring score from Goblin almost made itself another character in the movie, while the muted soundtrack here from Thom Yorke works in concert with the film but isn’t nearly as memorable. The original trapped its characters in a hermetically sealed world; this one constantly engages with the current events surrounding Berlin in 1977. That said, I surprisingly enjoyed it. Great performances from Tilda Swinton, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Dakota Johnson help anchor the film, and it builds its own kind of quiet tension until it explodes into what can only be described as an orgy of blood at the end. The more I think about it, however, the more the movie’s big twist bugs the hell out of me, so that tempers my enjoyment of the final product. I think it ultimately tried to do too much — the stark simplicity of the original (which seems confusing the first time you watch it but turns out to basically be “Hansel and Gretel”) makes it more effective.

Hack-O-Lantern (1988) has the word “hack” right in its title, and that should tell you all you need to know. Jag Mundhra would go on to direct a bunch of schlocky “erotic thrillers” after this. The biggest name in the cast, Hy Pyke, was best known for playing the Mayor in Dolemite, and he’s definitely playing for the cheap seats here. There’s incest, a few decent kills, Satanic cults, a surprising amount of nudity, an utterly unprompted stand-up comedy routine, and a music video by the (not very Satanic) hair metal obscurities D.C. Lacroix that turns out to be a dream? That makes this sound more entertaining than it is — which is not very. It’s got just enough weird to be a fun group watch, though. Kudos to Gregory Scott Cumins, who plays disturbed twenty-something metalhead Tommy, for parlaying his performance here into a bunch of guest roles in TV shows and a recurring character on Bosch. IMDb claims this had a budget of $5.5 million. I’d be surprised if it was a hundredth of that amount.  

Verotika (2020) still sucks. I can’t believe I watched this thing again. My review from last year still stands. Here’s a picture of my cat. He’s scarier than this movie.

The Endless (2018) was recommended to me by two very different friends in the space of a couple days, so I figured that was a good enough reason to check it out. Ostensibly about two brothers returning to visit the “UFO death cult” they escaped from a decade before, it slowly descends into one of the more inventive depictions of cosmic horror on film — not entirely a spoiler, considering that it opens with an HP Lovecraft quote. Filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead capture an existential dread much more terrifying than the business end of a killer’s knife. Not only that, but they couch it in affecting human stories. You genuinely feel for each of these characters. If you thought low-budget horror flicks had run out of innovative ways to scare you, consider my voice added to the recommendations mentioned above.

The Invisible Man (2020) did what The Mummy (2017) reboot could not: it reinvents a classic Universal monster for today’s world and makes it relevant and terrifying. Director Leigh Whannell (Upgrade, which I still need to see) does a phenomenal job here, using long takes and the negative space in the frame to build tension in a way only film can. I know it seems funny to be amazed when a director actually uses the medium to his advantage, but I’ve seen so many movies where the filmmaker utterly fails to do so that it’s a nice surprise when it happens. It feels very Carpenter-esque. The story does get a bit silly towards the end, granted — Whannell traps Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) in such a nightmarish situation that it requires some script liberties to get out of it. While it’s an easy joke to say that Moss’s performance is the best of the year, she works wonders in the role. She really strikes the difficult balance between making Kass seem desperate and traumatized to the audience and crazy to the other characters.

Asylum (1972) was apparently the fifth in a series of anthology films churned out by British horror house Amicus in the late 60s/early 70s. I’d previously seen The House That Dripped Blood, although the vignettes are probably more consistent and framing story more coherent here. Adapted from four Robert Bloch (Psycho) short stories centered around the theme of obsession, the most effective tale is the one that doesn’t have any supernatural elements at all — “Lucy Comes to Stay,” which features the perfectly-cast Charlotte Rampling and Britt Ekland right before their breakout roles. As with all these films, it relies heavily on its cast of professionals (Peter Cushing, Herbert Lom, Barry Morse) to sell some of the cheesier aspects. Its take on mental illness also isn’t the most sensitive. It’s still a fun throwback.

We Summon the Darkness (2019) is, frankly, a movie I’m disappointed in myself for not writing. 80s metal? Satanic Panic? Green Room-style siege scenario? Alas, it was some other 30-something metalhead dude attempting to write teenage girls (and it feels like it at times). Still, this was a blast. Almost more of a black comedy than a horror flick, it does deliver on the red stuff and suspense. I always enjoy stupid people doing stupid things and getting themselves in trouble. It helps that this was in a milieu that I understand very well — the metal subculture stuff felt honest and not just like they’d looked up the “heavy metal” page on Wikipedia. And if you thought the band at the beginning sounded pretty good, well, there’s a reason for that.

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