The other night, I was watching the thirty-first and final movie of my month-long Spooktober marathon; I was eating popcorn, as one does, when I felt a harder crunch than usual and realized that one of my teeth had cracked. It was the second time this had happened, so I recognized the sensation immediately. It was one of my back molars, one of the wisdom teeth I was so proud of having held on to; I’d even had a filling on this one just a couple of weeks ago (the other tooth that cracked, now gone, was another of these wisdom teeth). However, I wasn’t mad or distraught; it didn’t even hurt, at least not yet. I fished the wayward chip of tooth out of my mouth, sighed, and shrugged. I’m almost fifty, and after a certain point your body falling apart is just something you accept.
It’s also pretty minor in the scheme of things: most people don’t even have those back teeth, and aside from the inconvenience and expense of dealing with it, I’ll survive. Last month, my wife had surgery to remove her kidney along with a large tumor that had grown on it. Its presence was a shock, discovered at the end of summer, so we didn’t have a lot of time to process it before it was happening. She came out the other side okay, and has been recovering. Compared to what she went through, I’m getting off easy. Still, it was only about halfway through my October marathon, wading through Japanese body horror and American slasher gore, when I thought, “Hey, I wonder if there’s any connection between my current obsession with bloody abdominal wounds and the surgical ordeal I nursed my wife through last month?” Compartmentalization is a hell of a thing.
It is, I suppose, one of the reasons the made-up terrors of the movies don’t work on me like they once did. As I wrote last year, on the heels of broken bones and other mundane disasters, the world has a way of taking its toll even without black-gloved giallo killers or supernatural demons. There is a beach that makes us grow old, and its name is planet Earth; the shore we walk is the one between the unknowable prenatal past and the all-too-certain future: a fragile sandbar bounded on both sides by deep waters. When I was younger, I didn’t like looking too closely at suggestions of mortality. Now, it is simply a fact of life, and while individual films or books might thrill me with suspense or depress me with dark commentary on human nature, shock me with depictions of sudden violence or sicken me with visceral carnage, they are more likely to be momentary escapes from the worries of real life than the source of nightmares.
One theory I’ve encountered to explain the appeal of scary stories is that by experiencing frights vicariously, we gain a sense of control. There are, of course, different kinds of horror, which I’ll go into in more detail below as I expand on my list of movies I viewed this month, but it’s certainly true that the majority of movies and stories take for granted that you’ll exit the theater or close the book none the worse for wear, able to say that you made it through. Take that, Boogeyman! At the worst, maybe you’ll have a bad dream or you’ll jump the next time you hear a creaky door when you’re alone in the house at night, but perhaps you’ll be mentally fortified when something scary actually does happen in real life. I don’t entirely abide by this self-help view of art, but the theory that experiencing art allows us to mentally practice hypothetical situations ahead of time isn’t one I can completely deny, either.
But enough doom and gloom. For the first time in years, I am actually posting this on Halloween instead of the day after, so an evening of trick-or-treating (or, in my case, being on the other end of that transaction) is still ahead of us. The final weekend of October included a Halloween house party, the first we’ve held in ages, and yesterday we carved our Jack o’ lanterns. Even spending time on other seasonal activities, I was able to watch thirty-one horror and fantasy movies this month, and for the first time they were all first-time watches for me. (I saw a few films at the theater, but I skipped out on the retro screenings at the drive-in, cutting down on films I might have seen before.) I was also more consistent in watching only horror or Halloween-specific fare this month than most years, give or take a robotic geisha or children’s magic school. So, as always, here’s the complete list, with a few highlights singled out after:
1. My Best Friend’s Exorcism (Damon Thomas, 2022)
2. The Munsters (Rob Zombie, 2022)
3. DeadTectives (Tony West, 2018)
4. Sister Tempest (Joe Badon, 2020)
5. Attack of the Crab Monsters (Roger Corman, 1957)
6. Tokyo Gore Police (Yoshihiro Nishimura, 2008)
7. Hocus Pocus 2 (Anne Fletcher, 2022)
8. Meatball Machine (Yudai Yamaguchi and Jun’ichi Yamamoto, 2005)
9. Meatball Machine: Kodoku (Yoshihiro Nishimura, 2017)
10. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)*
11. The Island (Michael Ritchie, 1980)*
12. Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (Christopher Speeth, 1973)
13. RoboGeisha (Noboru Iguchi, 2009)
14. Suburban Gothic (Richard Bates Jr., 2014)
15. The Disembodied (Walter Grauman, 1957)
16. The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981)
17. Atom Age Vampire (Anton Giulio Majano, 1960)
18. X (Ti West, 2022)
19. The Raven (Roger Corman, 1963)
20. Doll Face (Stuart Paul, 2021)
21. Halloween Kills (David Gordon Green, 2021)
22. Bloody Muscle Body Builder in Hell aka “the Japanese Evil Dead” (Shinichi Fukazawa, 1995)
23. Blood Tea and Red String (Christiane Cegavske, 2006)
24. Aabra Ka Daabra: The School of Magic aka “the Bollywood Harry Potter” (Dheeraj Kumar, 2004)
25. Tenebre (Dario Argento, 1982)*
26. Opera (Dario Argento, 1987)*
27. Pieces (Juan Piquer Simón, 1982)*
28. Halloween Ends (David Gordon Green, 2022)*
29. Motel Hell (Kevin Connor, 1980)
30. Werewolf by Night (Michael Giacchino, 2022)
31. Wendell & Wild (Henry Selick, 2022)
*seen in theater
Best movie: In the past I might not have sought out a movie with a title like Meatball Machine, promising over-the-top gore, but since I was exploring the genre, I gave it a chance. Yoji (Issey Takahashi), a put-upon factory worker, finally makes time with the shy, pretty coworker he’s been flirting with, at the same time that an invasion of strange alien parasites arrives at his doorstep. The parasites turn their human victims into horrifying cyborg gladiators, single-mindedly battling others of their kind while their human consciousness remains helplessly trapped inside their hijacked bodies. (It’s gradually revealed that the parasite pods house tiny aliens engaging in a cosmic game, controlling their human “mounts”—the “meatball machines” of the title—through bio-mechanical linkages.) It’s a relatively somber film for such an outrageous premise, and the key to its success is balancing the bleakness of its outlook—it’s strongly suggested that the main couple have too many personal issues to overcome for a successful relationship, even before the aliens get involved—with the inventive special effects, action sequences, and heady concepts. This has been an educational month for me, as I realized that Sheborg, an Australian film I talked up a few years ago, owes a great deal to this movie; I suspect that they all trace their lineage back to Tetsuo: The Iron Man, but I haven’t gotten to that one yet. (As far as Meatball Machine goes, I also liked the belated sequel, Kodoku, even as it relies more on the absurd humor and T&A that are an element in many of the Japanese shockers I’ve seen.)
Goriest movie: Speaking of absurd humor, there’s a moment early in Tokyo Gore Police in which Ruka (Eihi Shiina), a leading member of the force, ascends to the top floor of a building by firing a rocket launcher into the ground and riding the recoil into the air. That’s as good an indicator as any that we’re not exactly in for realism (later, a character flies around a room, held aloft by geysers of his own blood, so ditto), but something like a live-action anime. Still, Tokyo Gore Police does what it says on the tin: it is super gory. In the near future, tumors turn criminal “engineers” into bizarre living weapons. The police force is dedicated to hunting down these vicious predators, but there is more to their story than simple mad science run amok. I was pleasantly surprised by the dystopian setting woven around the mayhem, with cutting and hara-kiri being so common that commercial products and PSAs acknowledge them, and of course the privatized, heavily propagandized police aren’t the force for good they claim to be. If this wasn’t influenced by Judge Dredd’s take on the police, it has a lot in common with it. Most of the Japanese “super-powered girl takes on monsters” films I‘ve seen don’t really try that hard to fit the pieces together and are just happy to be exploitation shockers, but on the other hand this still makes me suspect that it’s primarily made for export to the West with all the “Isn’t Japan wacky?” material pushed to the forefront. Tokyo Gore Police is just one of several blood-drenched movies I watched this month, so it was hard to pick just one winner in this category: in addition to the other Japanese splatterpunk I saw, there was The Beyond, X, Halloween Kills and Ends, Motel Hell, and Pieces. Really, they’re all winners.
Worst movie: I dislike going after small projects with hammer and tongs; it feels churlish to single out a backyard production when there are more worthy high-profile targets out there. As far as professionally-made films starring people I’d heard of with actual commercial aspirations, the limp Suburban Gothic was my biggest disappointment this month. But beyond that, what can you really say? Sometimes the scrappy can-do passion project doesn’t turn out. Doll Face was, I believe, a web series or something that got compiled into a feature; it’s no-budget and amateurish and is 75 minutes but only has enough good material for a 20-minute short. A timid young woman, Marmalade (Alix Villaret), inherits her grandmother’s condo, with the catch that it comes with her extensive doll collection, whom she must love as if they were her own children. The dolls are, of course, alive in some fashion, and there’s some business with an evil doll maker cursing his creations and a homeless “master doll repairman,” and the girl also sees a terrible therapist. The dolls start committing suicide in ways that are more hilarious than scary, and the line between human and doll begins to collapse for her. The weirdest detail is that Marmalade’s dialogue (in a thick French accent) is all post-recorded, as she never moves her lips. I thought at first we were hearing her thoughts, like Garfield, but no, she holds conversations that way. Nevertheless, despite her limitations, Villaret is quite charming: a living doll, you might say.
Weirdest movie: In Sister Tempest, art teacher Anne (Kali Russell), estranged from her younger sister, takes a student, Ginger (Linnea Gregg), under her wing, perhaps to fill the void in her family life. Soon, Ginger becomes angrily possessive, destroying Anne’s remaining relationships and even holding her hostage in her own home. Through fractured chronological storytelling, Anne is also being held by an alien tribunal, presumably after death, who demand that she describe and explain her actions, and the collapse of real life and fantasy is explored from numerous angles. (The constant presence of “Xiolans,” an alien camera crew who document Anne’s life for dissection by the tribunal, is a highlight.) It doesn’t take long to realize that Anne is one of those “unreliable narrators” we’ve heard about. Writer-director Joe Badon is firmly in the DIY indy camp, combining elements of animation, music video, and homemade special effects with a deliberately confounding and contradictory tale. Dream and religious imagery is where it’s at. Sister Tempest has many of the same idiosyncrasies as Badon’s previous film, The God Inside My Ear, and could even be seen as a continuation of it; it’s much more assured, however, even as it takes bigger swings (for one thing, you’ll probably see the ending coming but I still found it effective, a hurdle TGIME didn’t quite overcome).
Most fun: I like all of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films in varying degrees, but The Raven was just flat-out fun. Vincent Price plays Dr. Craven, a sorcerer who has chosen to avoid the internecine struggles of his fellow wizards, sitting at home, mooning over his deceased (or so he thinks!) wife Lenore (Hazel Court). When a raven appears at his window, revealing himself as a fellow wizard (Peter Lorre) and asking for help, claiming to have seen Lenore alive at the castle of Dr. Scarabus, the plot (which, you can tell, has only a nominal relation to Poe’s original poem) gets rolling. I had a big grin when Boris Karloff first appeared as Scarabus, graciously inviting his guests into his castle and shocked—shocked!—that they could believe him capable of any evil deeds. Of course, Karloff could do comedy very well, and it’s just a gas to see him, Price, and Lorre trying to out-ham each other. All that and young Jack Nicholson! (I must confess that I saw Karloff and Nicholson in The Terror when I was in high school and I thought it was the most boring “horror” movie I had ever seen, and since then I’ve kind of scoffed every time I see it in one of those public domain DVD collections, but I should probably check it out again now that I have more appreciation for atmosphere and the “slow burn.”) The final magical duel between Craven and Scarabus is also one for the ages. Finally, the one constant in every phase of Corman’s career is that he absolutely put the most beautiful women he could find in his pictures—did anyone tell Hazel Court this movie was for kids?
Legacies: Many of this year’s new films are parts of long-running franchises: sure, you’ve seen werewolves before, but what about a werewolf who could someday share the screen with Spider-Man? Rob Zombie’s goofy take on The Munsters is true to the TV show, silly sight gags and dad jokes included, and forms a prequel to the series. And I’ll admit to enjoying Hocus Pocus 2 more than I expected to, even acknowledging how unnecessary I thought it was. But the big one is the conclusion of David Gordon Green’s trilogy with Halloween Ends.
I don’t have a huge investment in the Halloween series—aside from the DGG trilogy I’ve only seen the 1978 original and the non-Michael Myers Halloween III. I’m aware of it, of course, and I appreciate the absurdity of needing a timeline map to keep track of how the sequels are (or aren’t) related to one another. Multiverses are all the rage now, though, so perhaps the series was simply ahead of its time. Green’s Halloween, which I saw in the theater in 2018, is a true legacy sequel, building on Halloween (1978) alone and jettisoning everything else (so no, Michael isn’t Laurie’s brother in this version). In Green’s vision, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is an ultimate survivor, training herself for the inevitable moment when Michael returns to finish the job he started forty years earlier, but his real theme (repeatedly and explicitly stated) is how violence, and its attendant grief and anger, can warp a community. I liked the idea of a cohesive trilogy that takes place on one crazy Halloween forty years after the original attacks, so having Halloween Ends swerve into a very different story separated in time from Halloween (2018) and Halloween Kills, and with relatively little screen time for Michael, well, I can see why that left some fans disconcerted.
Having said that, I found the story of Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell), a young man marked by a terrible mistake that left a child dead, compelling. After years of being a pariah, Corey finds new power through a chance encounter with Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney), still alive and hiding out in the sewer like an evil spirit. It’s like Christine, but with a nearly-immortal mass murderer instead of a car. Also, the teenagers who push Corey to the edge are all in the marching band, showing that anyone can be a bully; it’s an empowering message, really. The final act and the over-the-top effort to prove that (spoiler!) Michael is really dead this time seem like the collision of real-world thinking with the mythic world of the movies, and I don’t know if it’s going to be as satisfying in the long run as it probably was in the moment. But even a casual fan like me isn’t immune to the weight of forty years of history/histories between Michael and Laurie. RIP, Michael Myers of Earth-G, at least until the next time someone wants to start printing Halloween money.
Well, that’s it for this year. Maybe next year I’ll concentrate on revisiting old favorites or reappraising stuff I need to give another chance. Happy Halloween!