Let’s Scare Jeff… to Death! Vol. 4

Man I’ve watched a lot of horror movies this month. Here’s the penultimate batch. I’ll be back Monday with my wrap up and thoughts on my Halloween day viewing.

Haunt (2019) takes the premise of an extreme haunted house experience to its natural conclusion. Nice slow burn before it gets to the carnage, which I always appreciate. Gnarly scares and a surprisingly fresh take on the villains make this one stand out — sure, it’s not really groundbreaking, but the directors’ understanding of the genre lets them craft a very effective thriller. The team of Scott Beck and Bryan Woods also wrote A Quiet Place. I thought that one got bogged down in the sci-fi rules, but the lean, mean, contained story here lets them unleash without hitting logic speed bumps. Also, while Eli Roth executive produces and there is some unpleasantness, it’s not nearly as torture porn-y as you might expect. Could’ve done without the melancholy indie rock cover of “Dragula” over the end credits, though.

Night of the Comet (1984) is a great little B-movie that’s even underrated by the text on the back of the Blu-Ray sleeve. Although the logline is ostensibly “The Last Man on Earth but with two valley girls,” the teenybopper duo of Regina Belmont (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney) turn out to be surprisingly well-rounded, capable characters with lots of nice contradictions and complexities. Lots of great lines and a very eighties aesthetic make this a treat. Serious bonus points for a great diegetic soundtrack — most of the background music comes from the radio station the girls always have on. Although there were only like three bands doing the music, the songs really capture the zeitgeist of the time. A real treat.

Deepstar Six (1989) proves that Miguel Ferrer is second only to Paul Reiser in the “untrustworthy scumbags in 80s sci-fi movies” category of character actors. A sort-of underwater version of Alien only it takes two-thirds of the movie for the alien to actually appear. The rest of the film would be better if there were characters that you cared about or had some sort of arc, but alas. At least the monster (designed by The Walking Dead‘s Greg Nicotero) looks pretty cool, even if it is just a giant mutant lobster. Director Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th) does a decent job with the budget, but this mostly shows he doesn’t know how to make a movie that doesn’t feature multiple shower scenes.

Leviathan (1989) comes from the director of Rambo: First Blood Part II, the writers of Blade Runner and Die Hard, the producers of Predator and Die Hard, and the deep-pocketed studio behind the Terminator movies. The exceptional cast features Peter Weller, Ernie Hudson, Daniel Stern, Richard Crenna, and Meg Foster. It has a much bigger budget than DeepStar Six, a score by Jerry Goldsmith, and creature effects by Stan Winston. It’s still a pretty inconsequential underwater Alien/Aliens knockoff despite all that. A fun little romp, but lacks the kind of solid grounding in theme and character someone like James Cameron would make sure to focus on, making it hard to really care.

The Rift (1990) is the zero-budget version of Leviathan and DeepStar Six, and Juan-Piquer Simon was not the man to make a scrappy little gem out of what little he had to work with. The Spanish, uh, auteur behind trash-terpieces like Pieces, Slugs, and MST3k fave The Pod People does have a bigger budget than usual here, and even real actors in the form of Dallas‘s Jack Scalia, R. Lee Ermey, and Ray Wise. It wasn’t enough, even though Ermey does a solid job and Wise gets to have fun once it’s revealed that (SPOILER) he’s a traitor! Some good laughs in the form of the nonsensical plot and special effects. It just takes them forever to get out of the damn sub, and the film languishes until they do. In typical fashion, Simon didn’t even bother to learn which part of the submarine was the front.

Eraserhead (1977) really makes you work for it, huh? David Lynch’s debut feature evokes very different reactions from people — some hail it as a masterpiece, some want their 90 minutes back. It feels remarkably self-assured, every image ripe with meaning. As abstract as it is, though, it actually feels less opaque than some of his later films. Lynch clearly uses the form to work through his struggles of fatherhood and the crushing claustrophobia of the modern, post-industrial age. The score and sound effects do as much heavy lifting as the visuals to squeeze the viewer in the movie’s oppressive vice grip. Not exactly horror in the traditional sense (although the worm baby is freaky), its existential terrors haunt you long after the final reel.

The Old Dark House (1932) is one of those movies considered to be a “forgotten classic” or whatever. It comes from director James Whale, tackling gothic horror between Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. His trademark larger-than-life flourishes and tongue-in-cheek script help enliven this “travelers stranded at a creepy house on a dark and stormy night” story, and those more versed in noticing these things have pointed out that, in its own subtle way, there’s just as much queer coding to this as a certain other (time) warped film with a similar setup. That said, the haphazard plotting, laughable love story and surplus of characters (each with their own entertaining quirks, admittedly) made this feel overstuffed to me –especially considering the scant 72 minute runtime. It’s like yard sale Legos. There are some really cool pieces but they don’t quite fit together.

The Car (1977) is basically Jaws with a demonically possessed car, but also better than that makes it sound? Sure, it’s a silly concept, but it’s a lot of fun. The cast is packed with great 70s character actors playing quirky roles, the Car itself is genuinely terrifying, and the stunts were coordinated by Everett Creach (who would choreograph the amazing chases in Walter Hill’s The Driver the following year). It’s also nihilistic as hell. The titular monster destroys everyone in the movie, even the people it doesn’t kill; the most likable character in the movie dies the most tragic death; the wife-beating racist turns out to be key to stopping the vehicle’s rampage. Very 70s, in other words. Critics at the time derided it, but I loved it. I guess it just wasn’t their speed.

All the Colors of the Dark (1972) has it all: sex, drugs, Satanic orgies, and a killer spaghetti psych soundtrack. This giallo entry from Sergio Martino does an excellent job of using cinematic techniques to make the audience question whether or not the weirdness happening on screen is reality or just a hallucination by its deeply traumatize subject, Jane (played by Edwige Fenech). The too-conventional ending undercuts all that, unfortunately, but up until that point it’s a total trip. Definitely lives up to the craziness one wants from Italo sleaze. It’s also VERY NSFW, but since you’re probably working from home, go ahead and watch! Also, listen to the song below that plays during the aforementioned Satanic orgy, it rules.

The Brood (1978) is definitely the strongest 70s work by David Cronenberg (best known for his acting roles in Nightbreed and Jason X). It’s more focused than Shivers and Rabid for sure, the start of his more intimate portrayals of individuals whose trauma and rage manifest in supernatural ways. Apparently he was going through a bad divorce and child custody battle and this was his response. Cronenberg does a good job of making everyone sympathetic. Even though the protagonist, Frank Carveth (Art Hindle, Black Christmas), seems the least damaged character, the ending indicates he was just better at suppressing his rage than his wife. Oliver Reed’s over-the-top persona works well here, especially once he dials it down in the climax. The reveal of where the demon children come from will be burned into my brain forever.

The Stepfather (1987) seems like it’s gonna be a cut rate Psycho knockoff, but the script was written by Donald E. Westlake, one of the greatest crime writers of the 20th century, so it’s got that little extra zing that sets it apart. As deft as his balance of violence and humor may be, though, this is the sort of film that relies on a great performance in the central role to carry it through. Terry O’Quinn certainly delivers. It’s not the most sensitive to people with mental health issues, but O’Quinn makes the character feel believable and multi-faceted, which helps ground the film. The acting and writing help elevate this above your average thriller — although the chintzy synth score courtesy of Moody Blues keyboardist Patrick Moraz makes it feel more bargain bin than it actually is.

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