John Carpenter’s Halloween–A Brief Review

johncarpentershalloweenposterFor the final day of my week-long Halloween-inspired horror film review-a-thon, I’m writing about that great classic of horror films—John Carpenter’s Halloween. I’m sure most of you have seen it (perhaps even all, since you’re all reading this because, presumably, you like horror movies), and I admit that this film is different from the others I’ve reviewed this week in that this is probably the third time I’ve watched it. The others were initial reactions from the first viewing. That fact colors the scope of this review, but let’s jump in anyway.

The film was made in 1978, and there are plenty of aspects that show its age (besides, you know, wardrobe and general lighting and all that). The dialogue can get pretty silly, the actions of the characters sometimes make no sense and seem so clichéd to our modern eyes, the villain seems to be omnipresent in a way that defies time and space, etc. But even after all that, the movie is iconic. The white William Shatner mask of Michael Myers has struck fear into the hearts of moviegoers for decades. When viewed with the proper timeframe in mind, the film is wonderful. But I’m not here to talk about how iconic Halloween is. I’m not even going to talk about how despite its sexuality and violence, the film is actually quite conservative in its message (since Myers seems to target high schoolers who are sexually active—and even Jamie Lee Curtis’ character isn’t a victim of violence until after the scene with Annie in which she reveals that she has a crush on a boy and therefore “thinks about those kinds of things” after all).

What I want to say is that this film holds up. It still has weight to it. There are real scares and creepiness and terror despite the fact that we all know about Michael Myers and we’ve all watched the film several times. In particular, the ghost scene. Just after Bob and Lynda have had sex, Bob goes for beer and ends up getting killed by Myers. And then: Myers stands in the doorway, a white sheet draped over his head like a ghost. Placed over the sheet are glasses pried from Bob’s cooling body downstairs. The scene drags on, with Lynda getting slowly pissed that “Bob” isn’t responding to her, doesn’t answer her when she pulls her sheet below her breasts and asks if he likes what he sees. The tension is slowly, expertly increased as the scene progresses—and it culminates in the moments just before Lynda’s death, when she turns to use the phone and, behind her but still captured by the camera, the shuffling Myers-ghost begins to amble toward her. I knew it was coming. I’d seen it before. And yet suddenly my heart was pounding and the only thing that kept me from shouting at Lynda to turn around was that I remembered my children were already asleep. It’s an excellent scene that epitomizes the slow build-up of tension that Carpenter weaved through the film (and it’s no secret that this style of horror is my favorite).

The other scene that captures an essential element of John Carpenter’s mastery of his craft is the final scene. Michael Myers has just been stabbed multiple times, shot about six times, and fallen from the second story of a rather large house. But when his psychiatrist looks down from the balcony, Myers’ body is gone. Aside from the trademark music, the viewer hears quiet but heavy breathing—as if a man is breathing through a mask. The noise crescendos as the camera zooms out, first to the house, then to other houses, then to the neighborhood itself. We realize, the viewers, that the apparently “silly” omnipresence of Michael Myers throughout the film is being toyed with here by the director. Myers is omnipresent. Because now he’s gone—we don’t know where he is. HE COULD BE ANYWHERE. It’s terrifying, sure. But what I like about that scene is that is shows Carpenter’s propensity to be artsy. (Another example could be the opening sequence that ends with a young Myers flanked by his parents as he holds the knife with which he has just murdered his own sister—specifically the fact that the actors all just freeze as the camera pans out. It’s unrealistic but artsy and purposeful). The thing about Carpenter, though, is that I never get a sense of pretentiousness from his films. In other hands, these artistic flairs could be seen as attention-grabs. But with Carpenter you just get a sense that he’s telling a story that he wants to tell, that he loves telling. It’s that love that comes through the screen, even in a horror film like Halloween.

Alright. This one has gone on quite long enough. If you’ve never seen John Carpenter’s Halloween, go see it. I’ve spoiled it by this point, surely, but c’mon. The thing came out in ’78. It’s your own fault.

I’m excited to announce that I bought the collection of Halloween films, so I’m going to watch all of them (culminating in the second of Rob Zombie’s reboots). Those reviews will come out as I watch the movies, but they won’t be daily like the past week.

Follow me on Letterboxd to see what I’m watching. I’ll be updating my profile with all these films and their ratings shortly.

You’re Next–A Brief Review

yourenextposterI just finished watching You’re Next and man, what a crazy film. The story follows a very rich family as they sit down for a meal together. Is it Christmas or Thanksgiving or something? I don’t know, actually. In all the hullabaloo that followed the setup sequences, I forgot some of the details. And yes, there is a lot of hullabaloo. Just as the family is starting to settle into their vacation home, they are attacked by mysterious people in horrifying animal masks.

The film is a slasher/home-invasion piece with elements of mystery thrown in. We don’t know why the killers are after the family. In fact, we only know a few select bits of information about each family member—enough to kind of get the hint that maybe they aren’t so likeable as people. I won’t spoil any of that here, but I will say that there is a lot of blood and killing in this film. So if you want to watch the movie, make sure you’re prepared for that.

That being said, I thought the film felt oddly… “playful” isn’t the word, because the stakes and tension were high. Maybe it’s because I just watched Creep, but You’re Next felt like basically a popcorn horror film. It was entertaining in the ways that we like horror films to be—that is, several scenes were harrowing, there were sometimes intricate methods of killing. Yada yada yada. But overall the killers didn’t seem as psychopathic or off as the antagonist of Creep. They felt a bit run-of-the-mill. Which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. I think it probably just speaks more to Creep’s quality. Plus they’re different subgenres of film.

I also didn’t really feel like You’re Next was saying much, unless the fact that the family is rich is some kind of nod toward a social issue. But I don’t think so. And again, this isn’t a bad thing for the film. Not all films are meant to be commentaries on society. Sometimes horror is escapism in a strange way—sometimes watching a scary movie allows us to get our adrenaline up and our fear out, allows us to take all those pent up anxieties that we have and just face them. There is a kind of release in some horror films. I think that’s more of what You’re Next is about, really. (Although leave me a comment if you think I missed something important beneath the surface of the film).

To summarize my feelings on You’re Next, I’ll say that it’s a decent film that does its job. But, for me, it doesn’t have the kind of under-your-skin staying power that a movie like Creep does. The latter’s power is shown by the fact that this is a review of You’re Next and yet I can’t stop talking about Creep.

Tomorrow is the seventh and final day of my Halloween horror film review-a-thon. As such, I’ll be reviewing what I consider the granddaddy of the genre—John Carpenter’s Halloween. Spoiler: it’s a classic.

Creep–A Brief Review

creep-poster-600x900I’ll be honest with you, faithful readers. I have a headache that is absolutely killing me right now. It’s difficult to focus without feeling like I need to vomit. So I’m going to keep this review even shorter than normal this week. For this installment, I’m reviewing the film Creep, which is filmed in that handheld style that swept the filmmaking world by storm in the past several years. It’s easy for that style to feel too clichéd already, but I’m happy to say that I think Creep does it well.

The reason for this success, I think, is that the narrative fits the style. The plot is about a young man who has answered a newspaper ad that requires him to spend eight hours filming someone in that person’s mountain home. Feeling adventurous, our protagonist agrees. What we’re watching is the film from that encounter.

Creep delivers on its name, and I was pleasantly surprised with how well the antagonist captures the feel of a creep. At first, he seems merely socially awkward. He says weird things, stares a bit too long, etc. But he isn’t terrifying exactly—he’s just creepy. And the film masterfully builds from there, ratcheting up the tension progressively in each scene.

I must admit that I watched Creep during the day, so I probably didn’t get the full horror effect that a night viewing would permit. But I thought it was great and very well made. I would definitely recommend it.

Stopping early because of my splitting headache. I hope you’ll forgive me.

Tomorrow’s review will be on You’re Next. Stay tuned.

It Follows–A Brief Review

it-follows posterIt Follows is one of my favorite horror films of the last few years. The movie’s plot revolves around a young woman as she flees from a terrifying menace that relentlessly pursues her. Mix in some quirky, art-film-type friends and the occasional quote from Dostoevsky and you’ve basically got the story down. I hope that doesn’t sound like a put down. In this case, simplicity is the film’s biggest asset. The careful balance of quirkiness, absurdity, and outright terror is the result of a writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s precise mastery of his craft.

Warning: this paragraph is going to have what some spoilers, so read ahead at your own risk. Or just skip down to the next paragraph. Here we go. One of the things that I found interesting about It Follows was its subversion of the common portrayal of sexuality within the horror genre. We often see teenagers gettin’ it on in horror films only to be killed in the next scene—almost as a tacit punishment for their sexual acts. And yes, the “it” of It Follows is basically a sexually transmitted horror, so it would be easy to write this film off as playing into the familiar stereotype. But I think that by being so open and blatant about the “have-sex-and-therefore-pay-the-price” trope, the film allows its characters to (equally openly) oppose that system. In other words, other films affirm that set-up by being silent about its justice; It Follows opposes that set-up by making it the focal point of the film and thereby having its characters war against it. Furthermore, the film isn’t actually about sex (in my opinion). Rather, when you take the Dostoevsky quotes into account, the film is about the inevitable death that comes for us all. It’s about inevitability. Sex is just a byproduct of that, since it is so connected with life—and I suspect that this connection with life is the exact reason that horror and sexuality are so often paired… one represents the taking of a life; the other represents, possibly, the conception of new life. (Side note: there is a lot that could be said for the film being, actually, about sex and the social systems we’ve developed around it, and becoming sexually active as a teenager, and all that mess as well. So we could have a conversation about that).

Anyway, I think It Follows is a beautifully constructed film that builds tension very well. There is ambiguity, there is (in my opinion) a believable plot in the sense of people believing or disbelieving characters’ stories, and the teenagers in the film act like actual teenagers. If you like artsier films and films that go a little deeper than simple jump scares (though I love those too), It Follows is probably up your alley.

Tomorrow’s edition of this Halloween marathon of reviews is going to be about the film Creep.

Insidious–A Brief Review

insidious posterIn the past two days, I’ve written reviews of The House of the Devil and The Babadook. Today, I want to talk about Insidious, and though I did not plan it this way, my talking points here are going to draw heavily from both of those reviews. Insidious sort of splits the middle between the two other films—or at least between the effects that those others had on me.

Insidious is about a young boy who falls into an extended sleep, though doctors note significant differences between his condition and what we normally call a “coma.” Long story short: we find out that there is some supernatural stuff going on here. As I said in my review of The House of the Devil, hauntings and possessions aren’t really the things that get me truly scared. Sure, I’ll hop at a few jump scares (and Insidious has them), but the subject matter itself doesn’t disturb me. For comparison, a non-horror movie like Prisoners, in which the enemy is very human, makes me shiver. This is obviously because I find the threat of the supernatural to be too unreal, too disconnected from everyday life, to be a viable fear. Such a conclusion holds up to Insidious. Aside from the aforementioned jump scares and funky costume and makeup design, I wasn’t all that terrified while watching this film. However, the movie forced me not to treat it as a farce or a B-movie, fit mostly for popcorn entertainment, because of its second essential element.

Like The Babadook, parental love is at the heart of Insidious. I won’t spoil the ending or anything, but the relationship between parent and child is the focal point of the film. This single fact and the surprisingly nuanced handling of it (especially the notion of parents or genetic lineage passing on past problems) made me take notice of the film and get over its supernatural slant. The movie is really about the lengths to which a parent will go to save his or her child. And I can connect with that. What also helped was the way that movie made no bones about its supernatural angle. I felt like there was sufficient emphasis on the other-worldly toward the beginning of the film to warrant its eventual payoff. In comparison, I think what bothered me about The House of the Devil was that it felt very grounded in real-world reality for too long, and then all of a sudden weird stuff started happening. In Insidious, I knew from early on that things were going to get weird.

As far as rating the film goes, I’ll put it this way: I don’t necessarily think it warrants a second viewing, but I do plan on watching its sequels, which I’ve heard are pretty good as far as sequels go. That should help you gauge the quality of Insidious.

Add me on Letterboxd to see what movies I’m watching.

Stay tuned tomorrow for a review of It Follows.

The Babadook–A Brief Review


It’s difficult to make a review of The Babadook short and have it capture all the emotions and complexities of the movie, but I’ll do my best. If you’re just looking for brevity, the film’s tag line basically says all you need to know: you can’t get rid of the Babadook. The film has stayed with me in the months since I first saw it, and I suspect it will remain with me forever. Hopefully I’ll explain why that is here.

The Babadook follows a mother and her son after the tragic death of her husband years prior. In lieu of summarizing the film and giving away any meaningful spoilers, I’ll just say that it is at once an allegory for grief and something else. It transcends labels of “monster movie,” or “psychological thriller,” or “allegory.” It doesn’t fall neatly into those kinds of categories, in my opinion. Instead, it pulls from each and combines the best elements into what is a pretty stellar horror film.

All of the above is vague, and I’m sorry about that. I just don’t want to give away spoilers. But I’ll tell you what I think The Babadook is truly about: I think it’s about grief over tragedies we can’t change. It’s about our condition, as humans, within an uncaring universe. We can screw things up. We can really, truly screw things up. And sometimes things can get screwed up and it isn’t anyone’s fault—but that doesn’t alleviate the anguish of being screwed up. What the film is trying to say, in my opinion, is that the way to approach grief over these bad cards we’re dealt is to try to contain it—to live with our grief in such a way that it doesn’t totally destroy you. We have to do this because we can’t undo the hurt. There is no way to go back and erase the mistakes of the past.

I also want to say that the film touches on the obvious parent-child relationship, which for me has become particularly poignant since becoming a father. Such a theme isn’t new, but it has remained a trope precisely because parental love is one of the strongest biological imperatives we humans have—if not the strongest. So while I’ve heard some talk about that narrative line being a bit too worn out in horror, it didn’t bother me in the slightest. The Babadook manages to walk the tightrope of using archetypal tropes and yet making them fresh and new and interesting.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen The Babadook, you should. I won’t tell you the specifics because you need to discover this film for yourself. Let it connect with you and I’m sure you’ll wind up captured by its message.

Stay tuned for the third installment of this week-long horror movie review-a-thon. Tomorrow’s film will be Insidious.

House of the Devil — A Brief Review

poster artIn this final week before Halloween, I am going to post short daily reviews of horror films. This first installment in the series is about the film The House of the Devil. Filmed with 1980s-technology and capturing the aesthetic of that era, The House of the Devil follows a college student who is struggling to make ends meet after she decides to move out of her dorm room and find her own place. In order to earn some extra cash, she responds to a babysitting advertisement. As you can expect, the whole situation goes awry. I want to keep these reviews as spoiler-free as I can (though a bit farther down in this review, I get a little spoilery), so I’m going to leave my plot recap at that.

This film does a lot of things right. As I said, it absolutely nails the 80s horror film aesthetic. The acting is believable when it is supposed to be, and the creepy house owner is perfectly portrayed. I think the rhythm and pacing of the script is also good, since it takes just enough time to set up the main character before getting into the creepiness. The film doesn’t make you wait so long that you give up on it, but it also doesn’t rush into the horror without connecting you to these characters.

However, I did have some issues with the film. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for me to pin down exactly what I found “wrong” with it. But I’m going to try (warning: spoilers coming up). The film’s title implies the supernatural, which sometimes doesn’t really get me truly scared. I was more afraid of the human element in this film—the creepy dude, his wife, the slow reveal of the photos that imply a much more sinister story than the babysitting adverts, etc. The only human element that didn’t really scare me was the pizza guy, who just sort of came out of nowhere and therefore had no tension built into his villainy, for me. So by the end of the film, when some weird supernatural full-moon Rosemary’s-baby-type stuff happens and we finally see the “mother,” it kind of took me out of the moment and seemed… “Silly” is the wrong word, because it wasn’t just pure silliness. But it wasn’t frightening to me and the final scene was predictable. Yet:

I get the sense that I’m also supposed to feel that way. The movie, filmed in time-period-appropriate style, is very self-aware. It’s an homage to that era of filmmaking—a sort of love letter to those horror movies. So it makes some of the same predictable moves that have become predictable precisely because we’ve watched those old classic horror films so many times. I guess what I’m saying is that at the end of the day I’m not sure that my lack of total enthusiasm for The House of the Devil represents a fault in the movie or if it’s more of a fault in me—perhaps a fault in the way I watched it, my expectation of having expectations subverted, whatever.

I liked the film, but I didn’t love it. I’d recommend it, but I probably won’t watch it again.

Stay tuned this week for my daily reviews, and add me on Letterboxd if you’re into movies.