Quick Bites of Terror: Septober 2020

Once again, my Halloween-themed blog post is coming out on the day after the holiday, so I hope you have enough leftover candy to snack on while I lay out the State of the ‘Ween for you again. The pandemic didn’t stop trick-or-treaters in my neighborhood: in addition to being on a Saturday with a full moon, we in Kansas were blessed with a perfect not-too-cold evening, a nice change from having snow on the ground earlier in the week. Everyone was doing a good job with social distancing, and to help out I constructed a candy chute out of a ten-foot PVC pipe to deliver candy into trick-or-treaters’ hands. There weren’t as many people out as I would have expected under normal circumstances, but it was a respectable turnout, and combined with the glimpses of other friends’ in-person or online gatherings, I think most people who wanted to were able to find some kind of outlet for their spooky seasonal urges. I won’t pretend that COVID didn’t have an impact, but it was okay.

As far as media consumption this month goes, I decided to take it (relatively) easy. As much as I enjoy indulging in horror movies and ghost stories at this time of year, I don’t like it to feel like homework, and with everything going on in the world and the upcoming election I felt it was just as important to safeguard my mental health and not stress over missing some self-imposed deadline or goal. That gave me more freedom to rewatch familiar classics or follow up on things that might not fit neatly into the Spooktoberween category.

It also meant watching more short films. Before I get on to the main event, I want to highlight a few of the odds and ends I encountered this month. The 1910 Frankenstein produced by Thomas Edison was actually only a little over ten minutes in length, but given the wide variability of film lengths in the silent era, I’m counting it on my main list; I had thought I might revisit other versions of the classic story, but didn’t follow through with it (Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster doesn’t count, as the title creature is a robot only nicknamed “Frankenstein”). For the record, I liked it a lot, and found its suggestion that the monster was only a product of the doctor’s imagination way ahead of its time.

Other shorts included some of The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” episodes and classic TV specials starring Garfield and Charlie Brown. I also revisited the 1977 special Witch’s Night Out, which I had seen as a very young child but probably not since. Watching it now, I was struck very strongly with the idea that Witch’s Night Out is a good portrayal of what it was like to grow up in a college town during the ‘70s, particularly the notion that an obviously burned-out hippie would make a good babysitter. Other than that, it’s hard to explain. I don’t think my family was too impressed with this one, but it was a blast from the past for me to be sure.

Finally, I had the opportunity (through Gofobo) to view a couple of episodes of 50 States of Fright, a horror anthology program on the short-content (and short-lived) app Quibi. This was after Quibi’s owners had already put the company up for sale, so I’m not sure what the point of the screening was: to drum up interest and spread positive word-of-mouth, perhaps, or maybe to get viewer feedback? I’m not sure. Maybe they were hoping that I would buy Quibi? Anyway, I was thrilled to be able to watch “The Golden Arm,” the only Quibi project that seems to have gotten much attention, even if it’s for how ridiculous it looked. The attempt to make an overt fable into a serious ghost story about a woman (Rachel Brosnahan) so obsessed with gold that she has a prosthetic arm made from the precious metal, even if wearing it kills her, doesn’t quite land, but to be fair it’s not that much sillier than many episodes of Tales From the Crypt or other horror anthology shows. Here’s hoping 50 States of Fright finds a home elsewhere now that Quibi is apparently closing down for good.

This year was a little different, to say the least, so I am making my list a little differently as well. I usually just list every movie I watch during October, whether it’s a rewatch or a first-time viewing, and a good portion of the list is made up of selections from the October at the Oldtown horror series. This year, with indoor theaters mostly closed, the horror series moved to the drive-in, starting in September; I made it to a few, but not all of the shows, but I’m taking their inspiration to count my “Septober” watches from both months. This time I’m leaving out movies that don’t fit the seasonal horror or fantasy mood as well as rewatches of movies I’ve seen before (anyone who wants to see what I left out can consult my Letterboxd Diary). Here’s the official list, all first-time watches (or, in a couple of cases, it’s been so long that they might as well be):

1. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

2. Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)

3. Creepshow (George A. Romero, 1982)

4. The People Under the Stairs (Wes Craven, 1991)

5. Pledges (DJ Red, 2018)

6. The Jurassic Dead aka Z-Rex (Milko Davis and Thomas Martwick, 2017)

7. Frankenstein (J. Searle Dawley, 1910)

8. Slither (James Gunn, 2006)

9. King Kong (John Guillermin, 1976)

10. They Came From Beyond Space (Freddie Francis, 1967)

11. Tokyo Living Dead Idol (Yuki Kumagai, 2018)

12. Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (Xavier Burgin, 2019)

13. Ghost Stories (Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, 2017)

14. The Awful Dr. Orlof (Jess Franco, 1962)

15. Nocturne (Zu Quirke, 2020)

16. Dr. Orloff’s Monster aka The Secret of Dr. Orloff aka The Mistresses of Dr. Jekyll (Jess Franco, 1964)

17. Orloff and the Invisible Man aka Dr. Orloff’s Invisible Monster aka The Amorous Life of the Invisible Man (Pierre Chevalier, 1970)

18. Revenge in the House of Usher aka Neurosis aka Zombie 5 (Jess Franco as “J. P. Johnson,” 1982)

19. Hubie Halloween (Steven Brill, 2020)

20. Vibes (Ken Kwapis, 1988)

21. Prom Night (Paul Lynch, 1980)

22. Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Bruce Pittman, 1987)

23. Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (Peter R. Simpson and Ron Oliver, 1990)

24. Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil (Clay Borris, 1992)

25. Invitation to Hell (Wes Craven, 1984)

26. Robot Monster (Phil Tucker, 1953)

27. Cat-Women of the Moon (Arthur Hilton, 1953)

28. Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (Robert Gaffney, 1965)

29. Snatchers (Stephen Cedars and Benji Kleiman, 2019)

Best Movie: Director Wes Craven’s output is among the most variable of big-name horror directors (the same year he made the classic A Nightmare on Elm Street he directed the goofy TV movie Invitation to Hell, starring Susan Lucci as the head of a sinister country club). The People Under the Stairs successfully brings together a number of his pet themes, with a young black kid (Brandon Adams) facing off against a deranged couple whose rent-seeking predations have drained the ghetto of money and hope for years (and who bear a not-coincidental resemblance to Ronald and Nancy Reagan). If the porous membrane between dreams and reality doesn’t come in for examination here as it does in some of Craven’s other films, perhaps it’s because the reality of the film is already so bonkers: “Daddy” and “Mommy” live in a fortified house, imprisoning foster children and intruders alike in feral conditions in the basement, while covering their cruelty, criminality, and sexual deviancy with a Father Knows Best veneer. This is an angry film that manages to deliver its message while remaining both scary and fun, and the continuing relevance of its plot means that it’s not surprising Jordan Peele is reportedly producing a remake.

The poster
The reality

Worst Movie: Possibly the worst movie I’ve watched all year, not just this fall, The Jurassic Dead promises hordes of undead dinosaurs, or at least one ferocious zombie tyrannosaur, and gives us instead a nearly incomprehensible plot about a scientist who discovers the secret of re-animation, loses his positions with first the government and then a university, and decides to exact his revenge on the world by releasing a zombie virus at the same time the earth is struck by the asteroid that only he predicted. There’s also a dinosaur in it. The protagonists are a band of mercenaries sent to take out the baddie at his compound and a group of college kids who wind up in the same place after getting lost in the desert. Somehow they have to work together. It’s not boring, I’ll give it that, but other than that it’s awful.

Scariest Movie: “The brain sees what it wants to see” is the tagline (and a key piece of dialogue) in Ghost Stories, in which a professional skeptic and debunker (co-writer/director Andy Nyman) is challenged to examine three seemingly inexplicable cases of the supernatural. As he tracks down the original witnesses and hears their stories, it’s clear that he himself is haunted, but only at the end do the threads come together. Thus Ghost Stories has a favorite form of mine, the anthology of stories-within-a-story, and whether or not you find the ending satisfying, the film has a chilling atmosphere and some hair-raising incidents. Ending a film this bleak with “The Monster Mash” over the end credits feels like a final ironic joke at the audience’s expense.

Least Scary Movie: I didn’t watch a ton of really terrifying films this month, but I’ll highlight Nocturne, part of Amazon’s Welcome to the Blumhouse series, as one that I think was trying to be scary. Nocturne centers on a pair of twin sisters attending a prestigious music prep school: Vivian (Madison Iseman), the prodigy, has been accepted to Juilliard, while Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) remains an underachiever. Until, that is, Juliet recovers a notebook belonging to a former student who had committed suicide, and discovers what seems like a set of occult signs: things start to go well for her, but her successes are accompanied by disturbing visions and fear that she is being taken over by some outside force. The elevator pitch seems to be “Whiplash meets Hereditary,” and I want to be clear that I did enjoy it, but I found its depiction of the high-pressure music world much more compelling than the rote horror elements, which had an ominous, dread-inducing mood, but never really came together and, worse yet, played out almost exactly the way the audience was led to expect.

Funniest Movie: Romancing the Stone and Ghostbusters were two of the biggest hits of the early 1980s, so it’s not surprising that someone thought to combine elements of the two. Vibes isn’t a horror film at all, but rather a supernatural comedy in which Jeff Goldblum and Cyndi Lauper play psychics recruited by sketchy-but-lovable Peter Falk to track down a missing expedition to a lost city in the Andes. The lost city is supposedly full of gold, but it’s actually the home of a powerful artifact full of psychic energy, sought after by other, less scrupulous psychics who hope to use it to conquer the world. Vibes is a lot of fun, but it’s extremely lightweight: there’s never much suspense, even during the big finale, but it’s worth watching for Goldblum and Lauper’s sexy chemistry and for the rest of the cast having a ball. In particular, it makes me wish Lauper had found more vehicles to act in: she nails the kind of streetwise screwball throwback that Madonna was trying to portray in movies at around the same time.

Weirdest Movie: Pledges was a Dollar Tree find, and like many of the movies I find there it’s low-budget and not very high-profile. The premise is one of the oldest in horror: a group of fraternity and sorority pledges go into the woods overnight as part of their initiation, and something bad happens. I was expecting typical teens-in-the-woods slasher hijinks, either from hazing gone wrong or from learning They’re Not Alone, but after an unsurprising setup it goes in much stranger directions, more like The Blair Witch Project or even Annihilation. There’s a hint that the woods are part of an off-limits government site, but whether the occurrences, which include time dilation, weird tumors, and creepy doppelgangers, are part of a mad science experiment, an alien invasion, or something else, is never explained. It’s not a particularly great film, but in a season in which I mostly watched straight-ahead horror, it was one of the oddest.

Most Informative Movie: For the first time, a documentary appears on one of these Halloween lists. Horror Noire investigates cinematic horror by and starring African Americans from the early days (by chance, I had watched Son of Ingagi earlier this summer) up to the current success of Jordan Peele (I’m glad I had already seen Get Out, as Horror Noire’s coverage of it goes into detail explaining why it is so cathartic, including the ending). Black audiences have often been among the biggest fans of horror, even while the film industry was slow to cater to them or even recognize their humanity. On the other hand, the fact that horror is often a low-budget entry point into the film industry has made it more welcoming to minority filmmakers than more high-profile genres, and Horror Noire includes plenty of examples of great, ambitious films from black filmmakers, including some that I intend to add to my watchlist.

Biggest Surprise: A few years ago I read a book that rewired some of my thinking on genre film, Atomic Bomb Cinema by Jerome F. Shapiro. Looking at the range of cautionary films that came out after the detonations that ended World War II and ushered in the Atomic Age, Shapiro is uninterested in purely “political” or “sentimental” films like On the Beach or The Day After, and instead takes notions of the Apocalypse back to their roots in the visionary religious texts of the Torah and the Bible. He points out the way modern apocalyptic films use ancient tropes such as journeys to the heavens, visitation from prophets or historical figures, and communication through dreams; even Godzilla has roots in the fantastic monsters that appear in Japanese fables. I don’t recall if Shapiro discusses Robot Monster in his book, but I didn’t expect it to fit into that context as neatly as it does: I only remembered the easily-mocked Ro-Man costume, a gorilla suit with a space helmet, from It Came From Hollywood and similarly selective looks back at the good-old, bad-old days of cheap B-movies. Make no mistake, Robot Monster is cheap, but it’s much more ambitious than I expected. The heroes, a small family, are the last humans left on earth after Ro-Man, in advance of an invasion of his kind, has wiped out all of humanity with incredible space weapons. Space battles and communication with other planets are part of the story as well, but much of the bigger picture is only alluded to rather than shown, and the scale is very much down-to-earth as the family huddles in a bombed-out house, protected by an electric fence, and Ro-Man sits in a nearby cave, conflicted over whether to carry out his programming or spare Alice, the pretty young daughter of the family. What are these new feelings Ro-Man is experiencing? They are counter to the Program! He is becoming more like a Hu-Man than a Ro-Man! It would be a stretch to call Robot Monster completely successful—as storytelling it is garbled, it attempts a George Pal epic on a Roger Corman budget, and I haven’t even gotten to the bubble machine Ro-Man uses as a computer—but I have to agree with my friend Zack Clopton’s assessment that it has an enjoyable “dream logic,” and there is more in it to chew on than one might expect.

That wraps up Halloween and Septober 2020! How was your Halloween? Did you watch anything exciting or scary this month? Have a great fall, everyone!

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