Halloween 2018 Roundup

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It is once again the last day of October, and as always I am here to report on what I have been doing with my time in activities both spooky and spoopy. October was quite a busy month for me this year, and I consciously made an effort to keep some balance in my life (I even read some books, including such seasonal fare as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and a reread of Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October). After last year’s high-water mark of watching thirty-nine films, I felt glutted with movies, as if I had gorged all month long. Sure, there are many fans who watch more movies than that in October, but for me that is a lot. So while I kept track of my viewing, and took advantage of screening opportunities when I could, I wanted to keep my goals reasonable, watching thirty-one films. Imagine my surprise when I reached the weekend before Halloween with only a couple left to go, necessitating some tough choices: what would be left out?

My screening of Dawn of the Dead in 3-D was scheduled for last night, so I decided to make that movie no. 31. I go back and forth on which of Romero’s Dead trilogy is my favorite, but seeing Dawn on the big screen, and with a beautiful (and until now rarely-seen) 3-D conversion, made it a fitting culmination to my Halloween pregaming.

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This year I didn’t approach my viewing with much of a plan, other than working my way through the pile of unwatched movies I already own and checking out the offerings at the Regal Horrorfest (formerly October at the Oldtown) organized by Leif Jonker and Big Screen Wichita. The resulting list is less diverse than in some years, with over a third from the 1980s and nothing from earlier than the 1960s. There was also very little foreign film on my list this year. On the other hand, it’s been a boom year for new horror, and I watched more films from the current year than in past Octobers, both in theaters and catching up with films released earlier in the year on home video.

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1. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)
2. Evil Dead 2 (Sam Raimi, 1987)*, **
3. Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1992)**
4. Happy Death Day (Christopher Landon, 2017)
5. Puppet Master II (David Allen, 1990)
6. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (Don Coscarelli, 1994)
7. Phantasm IV: Oblivion (Don Coscarelli, 1998)
8. Chopping Mall (Jim Wynorski, 1986)
9. Hell Fest (Gregory Plotkin, 2018)*
10. House of the Damned (Maury Dexter, 1963)
11. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)*
12. Venom (Ruben Fleischer, 2018)*
13. Horror Hotel aka The City of the Dead (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1960)
14. The Devil’s Bride aka The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1968)
15. Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, 2013)
16. A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018)
17. Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)*, **
18. Slaughterhouse Rock (Dimitri Logothetis, 1988)
19. Hellbent (Richard Casey, 1988)
20. Blood Diner (Jackie Kong, 1987)
21. Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)
22. The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)*
23. C.H.U.D. (Douglas Cheek, 1984)*
24. C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud (David Irving, 1989)
25. Waxwork (Anthony Hickox, 1988)
26. Winchester (Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, 2018)
27. Paganini Horror (Luigi Cozzi, 1989)
28. The Midnight Hour (Jack Bender, 1985)
29. The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selick, 1993)*, **
30. John Dies at the End (Don Coscarelli, 2013)
31. Dawn of the Dead 3-D (George A. Romero, 1978) *, **

* seen in the theater
** rewatch

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Best movie: Groundhog Day as a slasher? Sure, why not? Happy Death Day delivers on that high-concept premise, as spoiled sorority girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) relives the same day over and over again, each time dying at the hands of a mysterious baby-masked stalker, only to wake up again on the morning of her birthday, the clock reset. Lots of fun is had as she comes to understand her situation and uses it to discover her killer; a montage in which she follows various suspects, crossing them off her list, is one of the most purely joyous sequences I’ve seen this year; she learns a few lessons and grows as a person, as you might expect. But the film isn’t content only to hit the beats of its model, and even when Tree thinks she’s got it all figured out, it doesn’t let her (or us) off the hook quite so easily. I loved this movie: it’s funny and scary and satisfying, a movie about death brimming with life, anchored by a fantastic lead performance from Rothe.

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Worst Movie: I didn’t see anything that struck me as truly terrible this month, but horror as a genre often means gambling on the unknown, and they can’t all be winners. The most disappointing film I saw this month was surely House of the Damned; at barely over an hour, it feels padded: it opens with an estate lawyer calling architect Scott Campbell (Ron Foster) to offer him a job surveying a long-empty mansion built by an eccentric heiress so it can be sold; then Scott repeats the same information to his wife in a second conversation. Once the pair move into the house and begin their work, strange things begin to happen: doors are locked, keys are missing or found moved, and they are watched by unseen eyes. Perhaps the last tenants never really left? The middle section features some eerie imagery reminiscent of the classic Freaks (and includes an early performance by Richard “Jaws” Kiel), but just as it’s getting good the whole thing winds up and all the tension and mystery dissolve in a puff of smoke with an explanation even tamer than I would have guessed. This was shown on FXM Retro, with movie channel FXM taking a page from Turner Classic Movies and showing old movies from the Fox vault, uncut and without commercials. Sometimes the movies are pleasantly surprising discoveries; other times they are justifiably forgotten programmers like House of the Damned. Oh, well, it least it had a cool poster.

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Scariest Movie: Would I lose credibility if I named Hell Fest as the movie that most tightened the screws on me while I watched it? I’ve been in the position of heroine Natalie (Amy Forsyth), as the scaredy-cat dragged into things by friends with thicker skin, and the movie ramps up so subtly that I was convinced in the first forty-five minutes or so that it wasn’t scary at all. Only once I grew attached to the characters and invested in their story did things get intense, but it worked on me. I’ve previously expressed my relative lack of interest in slashers (although I did see several this year, including the classic original Halloween, finally), but Hell Fest‘s setting–a pop-up theme park devoted to horror, of the sort that have become popular in recent years–is colorful and intriguing, and the idea of a real killer being loose in such a place provides copious opportunities to explore one of my favorite horror tropes: the thin line between theater and reality. Some of the best moments in Hell Fest involve killings taking place in front of blasé parkgoers, convinced that they’re just seeing another performance; and who will believe someone is really stalking Natalie when the entire park is set up to instill and exploit that fear?

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Also Scariest, In a Different Way, Movie: Another movie from this year, Hereditary, has gotten a lot of buzz, with comparisons to The Exorcist (although in my opinion Rosemary’s Baby might be the more apt comparison). Suffice it to say that this was one of the most intense, dread-inducing films I watched this month, but much of that came from the barrage of horrible events that befall the family at the center of the story (made all the worse because they are things that could plausibly happen, outside of the supernatural business) and Toni Collette’s volcanic performance as the mother of the family whiplashed by grief, guilt, and fear for her own sanity. One could imagine tackling this material as a psychological drama without the occult overlay, but the film telegraphs early on that witchcraft is brewing, so there’s not as much tension as there could be in the notion that Collette is losing her mind. This was still a disturbing film whose imagery will linger with me for a long time, though.

Goriest Movie: Only two films are really in the running this year: Blood Diner features a cannibal cult hiding behind the façade of a vegetarian eatery (O irony!); as such, it gleefully transgresses all notions of good taste, filling the screen with severed limbs and dismembered body parts, all washed down with gallons of stage blood. But since Blood Diner is a comedy (no, really!), it’s all phony and it’s hard to take too seriously. By contrast, the 2013 Evil Dead remake is in deadly earnest, and is one of the most violent movies I’ve seen recently. (Since I revisited Sam Raimi’s original trilogy this month, I figured I might as well check out this later installment. It earns points for remixing some of the original’s iconic moments in the context of a new story rather than remaking the original beat-for-beat: for one thing, there’s no replacing Bruce Campbell’s Ash.) The original Evil Dead was a grotty supernatural spin on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and it is quite intense (only in the later sequels did the comedy come to the fore), but realistic it is not. The 2013 Evil Dead is both more graphic (and plays nothing for laughs) and doesn’t flinch; there’s no cutting away from the self-mutilation of the demon-possessed victims or the extreme measures the heroes must take to save themselves; director Fede Alvarez dares you to watch.

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Weirdest Movie: After reading director Don Coscarelli’s memoir, True Indie: Life and Death in Film Making this month, I decided to fill in some of my blind spots in his filmography, including the Phantasm sequels I hadn’t seen and his most recent feature, John Dies at the End. I haven’t read the David Wong novel upon which John is based, but it’s easy to see the appeal the material would have for the director of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep, including parallel dimensions, mysterious supernatural adversaries, and grotesque monsters (there’s even a cameo by Angus Scrimm, Phantasm‘s “Tall Man,” as a priest). Like the Raimi-influenced Phantasm sequels, John Dies at the End handles its ideas in a tongue-in-cheek manner, centering on a drug nicknamed “soy sauce”; the drug gives its users psychic abilities with the unfortunate side effect of opening rifts in time and space, placing (authorial self-insert) Wong in the middle of an interdimensional invasion. John riffs giddily on themes pioneered by H. P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, and William Burroughs, and the snarky humor, frequently scrambled chronology, and unreliable narrator (as Wong, in fits and starts, tells his story to a skeptical reporter played by Paul Giamatti) bring to mind cult film forebears like Donnie Darko and Fight Club.

Funniest Movie: Every year, there is at least one film in my October viewing that stretches the category of horror movie: this year that film is Venom, the action-horror-comedy hybrid starring Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock, a loser who becomes entangled with a hungry alien symbiote. I was skeptical when I heard about this project: in the comics, Venom is inextricably linked with Spider-Man, but with Spider-Man busy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, how would Sony credibly produce a spin-off without the main character? That turns out to be less of a hurdle than I expected, but the comic-book origins are still, in my opinion, the main challenge to categorizing Venom as a horror movie. Of course, I will be the first to admit that Venom isn’t scary, and while there’s quite a bit of violence there’s not a drop of blood; still, based on its premise and plot points, this is a movie about a shape-changing alien who takes possession of a human and bites off the heads of his enemies, leading to scenes of body horror and split personality. What really makes Venom take off is Hardy’s commitment to the bizarre premise (and his penchant for adopting funny voices, even before the symbiote takes over his body), throwing himself into contortions and chewing the scenery like Jim Carrey in The Mask. That’s not a comparison I would usually make as a compliment in a superhero movie, but the key to the movie is just how little actual heroism is involved: Eddie Brock is a loser, and he finds the friend and supporter he needs in his alien companion–who, it turns out, is also a bit of a loser. Forget the requisite CGI monster battle, which comes off blurry and incomprehensible anyway: it’s beside the point. The heart of Venom is an off-the-wall, sometimes kinky buddy comedy.

Most Inspired by Actual Events: We all know that when Sarah Winchester began, on the advice of a spiritualist, the decades-long expansion of her California mansion in order to evade the pursuing spirits of those killed by her late husband’s rifles, she couldn’t have been in her right mind. What this year’s Winchester supposes is, maybe she was? The words “inspired by” do a lot of heavy lifting in this tale of an alcoholic physician (Jason Clarke), himself marked by death, who arrives at the constantly under-construction mansion in order to evaluate Mrs. Winchester’s (Helen Mirren) state of mind. Will it surprise you to learn that the place really is haunted? The labyrinthine Winchester house is a fantastic setting, and the film is a well-constructed ghost story, but the elegant Western gothic that could have been is overpowered by a constant need to prod the audience. If jump scares produced actual fright instead of momentary surprise, this would be the scariest movie of the month by far, and I would now be under treatment for acute hypertension.

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Musical Horror: Finally, longtime readers of Medleyana may be aware of my longstanding interest in musical horror, particularly fables in which musicians trade their souls to the devil in exchange for success (“Instruments of Death,” still my most-read entry, is a good introduction to this topic). Of the three music-related films I watched this month, two had exactly that premise (Slaughterhouse Rock, despite its title and the presence of Toni Basil as the ghost of a dead rock star, isn’t really about the rock scene at all): in Hellbent, punk Lemmy (Phil Ward) makes a deal with “Mr. Tanas” (David Marciano)–the film is not exactly subtle; it similarly makes much of the anagrammatic relation between Santa and Satan–and becomes a junky almost overnight, crossing paths with other desperate people caught in Tanas’ web. A quintessential indie film, Hellbent features plenty of grimy L.A. atmosphere and broadly-drawn characters, as well as some big laughs (whether they are intentional or not, I can’t say for sure, but I was never bored with it).

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Paganini Horror came to my attention on Twitter as a movie that was hilariously inept but all the more entertaining because of it, a description that fits it exactly. Made by infamous Italian low-budget filmmaker Luigi Cozzi, this one filters themes of Dominic Argento through the context of MTV music videos and the legend of the violinist Niccolò Paganini selling his soul; Paganini himself turns up, wearing a gold Carnaval mask like the Commandatore in Don Giovanni, killing off the members of the all-girl rock band who hope to turn his lost composition into New Wave gold. Those who aren’t murdered directly fall victim to increasingly bizarre ends, such as the girl whose body is consumed by a mold only found in the wood of Cremona and Stradivarius violins. Also, Donald Pleasence was there for a day to film a couple of scenes and wrap things up with a suitably diabolical explanation. Ah, Italian genre film, never change.

That wraps up October until next year. Happy Halloween!

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Review: Ready Player One

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When I was a kid, back in the 1980s, one of my favorite computer games was Lode Runner, an action-puzzle game in which the player traversed a maze of brick platforms, ladders, and monkey bars rounding up gold bars while avoiding the evil minions of the “Bungeling Empire.” The best part of the game was that it included a level editor so the user could create their own mazes, save them, and play through them. I probably spent as much time creating new puzzles as I did playing the game. Games that include this feature can be a doorway into game design, but even as a kid it was enjoyable to create a setting from a godlike perspective and then play through it, seeing it in action from the player’s perspective. Although I would have killed for a Super Mario Bros. level editor back then, I actually haven’t gotten around to trying Nintendo’s Mario Maker, mostly because I’m afraid if I started using it I wouldn’t be able to stop.

As a child of the ’80s and longtime consumer of pop culture, I’m sure I was predisposed to like Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One. The futuristic setting is the best of times and the worst of times: post-Peak Oil, the world is a mess, with economically-depressed mobs placated by logging onto the OASIS, a comprehensive virtual-reality environment containing whole worlds to visit, socialize, and game in. And because the late designer of the OASIS, James Halliday, (like me, and like Cline) grew up himself in the ’80s, the entire online environment is saturated with references to Dungeons & Dragons, Back to the Future, MTV, Atari, and numerous other icons of 1980s nerd culture. Halliday’s posthumous announcement that he had hidden an “Easter egg” behind a series of puzzles in the OASIS, and that whoever solved them would get control of the entire thing, had set off a hunt for those clues and, by extension, a mania for all things ’80s, with “gunters” (egg hunters) devoting themselves to the lore of that magical decade in hopes of cracking Halliday’s code.

It is, in short, a nerd fantasy–now everyone will like the stuff I like–and it is clear that while the book’s protagonist is Wade Watts, a nobody living in the piled-up slums of Columbus, Ohio, Cline really identifies with Halliday, the gamemaker and magic man whose obsessions end up consuming everyone else. It’s Halliday’s world, and Wade Watts just lives in it, or rather gets to play through the maze that Halliday created. Cline’s book has received its share of criticism for various reasons (not least of all its choice of overwhelmingly white and male cultural touchstones), but the biggest tell that this is nerd escapism is that no one in the OASIS appears to resent having to learn about Atari’s unfinished Swordquest series or memorize the lyrics to songs that played on cable more than fifty years earlier. They love it as much as Halliday did, and never seem to view it as homework or history. Cline seems incapable of believing that anyone wouldn’t be jazzed by all this stuff. It’s either endearing or infuriating, depending on your point of view. If you already felt alienated from 1980s nostalgia or don’t fit Cline’s particular demographic, I can imagine it would be repellant indeed, and Cline isn’t the writer to get under the surface of the material and turn skeptics into believers.

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When I read Ready Player One, I felt that it would either be made into a very good or very terrible film: it appears to be written with an eye on adaptation into a screenplay (Cline was previously best-known for his screenplay to Fanboys, a love letter to Star Wars and George Lucas), with minimal style and a straight-ahead plot, with few “literary” flourishes. The reams of description of mashed-up costumes, vehicles, and settings (Wade, as Parzival, his online avatar, drives a DeLorean with the Ghostbusters logo on the side and an onboard computer like KITT from Knight Rider, etc.), in particular, would go down much more smoothly in a visual medium like film or comics, where they could be taken in at a glance, or as background clues, rather than having to be spelled out.

And I will confess that as much as I feel criticism of the book is justified, it occupied a disproportionately large part of my imagination after I read it, just thinking about how its sample-driven, narrowly specific amalgamation of all things ’80s would look onscreen; how deep and multilayered its references could be; what songs would accompany scenes; how a filmmaker might play with the pixilated, airbrushed, and screen-printed visuals of the era and translate them into cinema; and so forth. When I learned that Steven Spielberg was set to direct the inevitable film adaptation, I was a little concerned: I was sure that Cline would be thrilled to have one of the giants of ’80s genre film adapt his work, but the strain of the story that caught my imagination was one of cultural inheritance and transformation, and to me it made more sense to have someone who grew up with Spielberg’s work and could filter it through their own sensibility make this film.

To give an idea of what I had in mind, imagine Ready Player One made by Edgar Wright (whose Scott Pilgrim vs. the World already does something like this, full of video-game and music video references) or Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who in The Lego Movie created a tapestry of references but were also able to call into question the premises of their own fantasy). As one of the fathers of modern blockbuster filmmaking and the creator of numerous iconic movies of the ’80s and beyond, Spielberg is an obvious choice; but it is notable that his style is to breathe a life of realism and naturalism into fantastical ideas. My imagined Ready Player One was one of screens and surfaces–this is how I remember the 1980s–in which the artifice was brought to the foreground.

When reviewing a film, it is of course unfair to criticize it for being what it is not, and in any case the existence of a realized film doesn’t prevent me from imagining my own version. But part of reviewing is being honest about one’s reaction, and it would only tell half of the story if I didn’t mention my reservations.

Obviously, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which opened this past weekend, is different from the movie I imagined, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. As expected, it makes many changes from the book’s plot, mostly for the better. With a screenplay by Cline with Zak Penn, much of the action is streamlined, some characters strengthened and given more to do, and the actual challenges Wade and his friends overcome are thoroughly revamped (I don’t think anyone actually wanted to see Wade reenact WarGames line-by-line, as happens in the book) and turned into satisfying cinematic set-pieces.

In fact, my favorite parts of the movie were those that were changed so much from the book that I couldn’t possibly have predicted them or had a preconception of what they should look like. There is still a sizeable infodump at the beginning, delivered by Wade (Tye Sheridan) through voice-over, but the viewer’s introduction to the OASIS at least shows why it would be popular. There’s a lot of emphasis on how you can be whatever you want to be online (a notion that becomes relevant later), but it also makes the games look like they might actually be fun to play (a hurdle not every filmmaker can overcome when it comes to creating fictional games onscreen). Spielberg is reportedly an avid gamer in real life, and his experience and affection for the medium shows in these sequences.

In its depiction of the real world outside the OASIS, Ready Player One could almost be a sequel to Spielberg’s Minority Report: its extremes of wealth and poverty, omnipresent advertising, and debt slavery form a similar background, and it is clear that the ultimate power in this near future is corporate. As in the book, the bad guys, IOI, are both a stand-in for whichever megacorporation–Microsoft, Google, Amazon, etc.–is most worrisome at the moment, as well as the “evil empire” of so many genre films. IOI’s CEO, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), is a soulless money man (you can tell because he only pretends to like stuff from the ’80s when he’s trying to win over Parzival), in charge of an army of gamers trying to find the Easter egg first (and a department of genuinely enthusiastic pop culture nerds, the “mission control” types) so that IOI can monetize the OASIS, dividing users’ experiences by price tiers and filling their VR viewers with pop-up ads (Boo! Hiss!). (I got a good laugh at Sorrento’s gigantic overcompensating gamer chair, although I think I was the only one in the theater.)

It’s easy to accuse Spielberg of swimming in the shallow water with this material: it’s a break from his more serious recent films and a return to his youthful blockbuster roots, in more ways than one. A sequence recreating a classic horror movie, in particular, is the kind of fun-scary thrill ride we haven’t seen from Spielberg since maybe Jurassic Park and The Lost World (War of the Worlds and parts of A.I. were scary but not fun; Tintin was fun but not scary). Although he shies away from recreating his earlier triumphs, the Indiana Jones movies he made with his fellow “movie brat” George Lucas are just as much a mosaic of ideas from an earlier generation of pop culture as Ready Player One–if you thought I’d come all this way without at least mentioning serials, the joke’s on you–the crucial difference being that Indiana Jones and Star Wars rebranded those ideas, fusing them into new mythologies; Ready Player One is concerned with that process of repackaging in an environment in which nothing ever really goes away.

There’s also no question that Spielberg is calling into question the utility of all this spectacle: like Cline’s book, Ready Player One indulges the fetish for nostalgia and escapism while ultimately concluding that it’s important to go outside once in a while, too. There’s a similar contradiction in its celebration of fan culture and open borders between intellectual properties while mostly including characters owned by producing partner Warner Bros. and a few recognizable Japanese icons (so no Marvel, Star Wars, or anything else owned by Disney, as far as I can tell). For all its flaws, Cline’s book felt like a genuinely personal project, full of weird deep cuts (I for one had never heard of the Japanese Spider-Man TV show in which the web-slinger has a giant robot!) and a citizen of the internet’s embrace of Fair Use to justify borrowing just about anything at all, rolled together into one giant ball, Katamari Damacy-style (see, I can do it too!).

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A battle between the Iron Giant and Mechagodzilla sums up the dumb appeal of this premise, and if you’re not on board for that there’s probably not much I can say to change your mind. On the other hand, in a world in which Facebook memes may have been used to turn the tide of our last election and nations and ideologies contend with one another in virtual spaces to win hearts and minds, the final battle for control of the OASIS, the ultimate mash-up that brings those metal titans together, doesn’t strike me as entirely frivolous. Ready Player One never uses the phrase “Net Neutrality,” but it’s at the heart of Cline’s belief that online connectivity can bring people together just as easily as it separates them, and that it is up to us to choose. (And if that sounds impossibly high-minded, a guy also gets killed by a Madball, and it’s hilarious.)

Mark Rylance as James Halliday (shown in retrospective video and as his online avatar, the wizard Anorak) is the film’s real emotional center, and Ready Player One also touches on the deep sadness at the root of Halliday’s creation, a world in which he could be in control as a substitute for the unpredictability, messiness, and possibility of being hurt in the real. As Wade and his online companions Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe) discover, Halliday’s own aborted attempts to connect with other people turn out to be the key to unlocking his puzzles, and Wade’s arc (drawn more clearly here than in the book) is one of getting his head out of the game and connecting to the world around him.

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In conclusion, Ready Player One is funny, exciting, sometimes scary, and mostly satisfying in the same way it’s satisfying to see those stuck-up kids from the ritzy camp on the other side of the lake get beaten by the rag-tag misfits in every slobs vs. snobs comedy that came out in the 1980s. If it’s ultimately a little shallow and we’re never in doubt that the good guys will win this one, well, that’s part of the package. Will today’s kids be as inspired by this film as Cline and I were by Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark? Despite tips of the hat to post-’80s properties like Minecraft and HALO, if the audience I saw this with is any indication (mostly middle-aged white guys like me), I doubt it. It will likely be an amusing blip in Steven Spielberg’s late career. But for myself, I’ll continue to imagine what could have been, proving that books are the real portals to the imagination. (You might think that I am above deploying such a cliché, but seeing as I have just written over two thousand words about Ready Player One, clearly I am not.)

My 2017 in Film

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2017 was a strange, rough year for everybody. Like a lot of people, I’m looking back at my output in the last twelve months and finding that the impulse to blog was either weak or nonexistent. I was, at the very least, distracted by a heavier workload and by events in the world at large (I managed to put in some writing on some larger projects as well, but those remain unpublished). If it weren’t for serials and the Kamandi Challenge I wouldn’t have posted very much at all. The same lack of motivation also hit my movie-watching: I don’t think I watched any less than last year, but the quality of what I watched was much lower, with a lot of cheap thrills and junk food in the mix. I just wasn’t in the mood for movies that promised to be too heavy or challenging–I was getting enough of that from real life.

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So while last year I watched enough new releases to compile a respectable Top 10 list, I don’t think I’m going to take that approach this year. (I won’t be writing a year in television column at all, but for the record I watched and recommend GLOW and American Vandal on Netflix.) Instead of highlighting and ranking individual films, I’m going to examine some common themes that emerged in my viewing. This includes both 2017 releases (of which I watched 21) and older films that I caught up with for the first time this year.

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My love of monster movies has been no secret in this blog, so you might consider this an extension of my heavy kaiju viewing from 2016: I continued to watch entries in the Godzilla series, and of course I went through the (much shorter) Gamera series for my discussion with Zack Clopton. But filmmakers were, for once, on the same wavelength as me this year, and it was possible to draw out this theme even from new releases. Okay, King Kong is not exactly “friendly” in Kong: Skull Island (dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts), but as in most classic kaiju movies he does eventually get the audience’s sympathies on his side in this interesting mash-up of monster and Vietnam War movies. I happened to watch this a second time at home (whenever my wife and sister get together, Tom Hiddleston is sure to be on the viewing schedule) and I felt that it was even tighter on a repeat viewing; it left me eagerly awaiting a continuation of the “Monsterverse” that began with Gareth Edward’s Godzilla in 2014.

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In another shake-up of the typical formula, Colossal (dir. Nacho Vigalando) put a magical-realist spin on the kaiju genre, with Anne Hathaway as a woman with a mysterious psychic connection to a giant monster appearing in South Korea. Again, it might be a stretch to call the Colossal beast a “friendly” monster, but as in the best fairy tales, what starts out as a source of fear helps lead the heroine to understand her own strength. To reveal any more about this one would be unfair–it works better unspooling at its own pace–but suffice it to say that there are worse monsters in this film than the big critter on the poster.

The really cuddly monsters could be found in releases like Monster Trucks and Okja, and even (thematically) in the otherwise imperfect Ferdinand: kids are the true fans and friends of monsters, and as with Gamera they sometimes end up protecting these fantastic companions just as much as the monsters protect them. With Okja, Bong Joon Ho continues his genre-bending critique of capitalism and imperialism, introducing a genetically-engineered “superpig” designed as an ideal, environmentally-friendly source of meat, if it weren’t for the creature’s friendship with the little girl (Seo-hyun Ahn) who raised him on her isolated family farm. Tilda Swinton is also memorable in a dual role, and I don’t care what anyone says: Jake Gyllenhaal is good in this.

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In 2016, when I saw Kubo and the Two Strings, the preview for Monster Trucks (dir. Chris Wedge) preceded it, and the little boy sitting behind me said after every other preview, “I want to see Monster Trucks!” This led me to overestimate its box office potential by a wide margin, but I still found it a charming (if familiar) movie. Reportedly inspired by a Paramount executive’s three-year-old son (it shows), Monster Trucks asks the question, “what if monster trucks were literally trucks powered by monsters?” The adorable “Creech” (an oil-eating, amphibious blob halfway between a manatee and a squid) has become something of a mascot for the Dissolve Facebook group, but I’m equally charmed by the chemistry between leads Lucas Till and Jane Levy as the human teenagers who first befriend Creech and then help him return to his home deep underground. With its nefarious oil company baddies and truck-themed shenanigans, Monster Trucks could be described as “Splash + Pete’s Dragon + License to Drive.” Worth noting is its troubled production history: initial designs for Creech and his relatives were much too scary, leading to disastrous test screenings that sent terrified children running for the exits; if it weren’t for the expense of redesigning them, Monster Trucks might have had a shot at turning a profit.

The Day of the Dead
coco
Somehow I ended up seeing three films centered on the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration this year: Pixar’s latest, Coco (dir. Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina), of course, was one of them, and one of my favorites of the year. (It was refreshing to see Pixar’s world-building applied to themes and characters that weren’t white office park dwellers, although plot-wise I might have liked it even better if I hadn’t seen any previous Pixar films: one might say this perfects the formula they’ve been working on for some time.) I also happened to see the other animated Day of the Dead feature, The Book of Life from 2014, which I enjoyed for its flights of fantasy: instead of the supernatural bureaucracy depicted in Coco, which (like all Pixar settings) is set up with rules to make the action that follows clear, The Book of Life has the logic of a dream or a fairy tale (although there are still rules, they are on the scale of balancing universal principles of light and darkness rather than the regulations of a post-mortem customs agency). This makes it sound like I’m putting down Coco in favor of The Book of Life, but I liked both: they just take different approaches (however, The Book of Life has banditos whose sombreros are spinning saw-blades: advantage Book). At the beginning of the year, following my interest in Mexican horror, I watched the 1960 classic Macario. Macario turned out to be less of a horror story than I expected, and more of a supernatural fable in the vein of Ingmar Bergman, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Troubled visionaries
brigsbybear
Brigsby Bear (dir. Dave McCary) was a film I almost didn’t get to see this year: I don’t believe it screened in Wichita, but I heard so many raves about it I felt compelled to pick it up when a used Blu-ray turned up at my local CD Tradepost. I was fortunate to go into it without much foreknowledge of its plot, so I won’t say more than what I knew: in the words of the Blu-ray package copy, “James has grown up with the goofy kids’ show Brigsby Bear and the program has grown with him as well. One dramatic night, James’ insular world is upended. Upon learning the series has been cancelled, he adopts the old adage that the show must go on. By becoming Brigsby Bear‘s new creator, James finally builds meaningful connections his life has lacked.” The theme of an amateur filmmaker using his movie to work out his issues is similar to The Disaster Artist (a movie I enjoyed but didn’t love quite as much as some did), but it most reminded me of a movie I watched for the first time at the beginning of the year, Gentleman Broncos, and the two might make an interesting double feature. Like Brigsby Bear, Gentleman Broncos includes an amateur production of a science fiction epic, but in Broncos the film is a travesty that humiliates its creator, and in addition the quirkiness of the film feels contrived; Brigsby Bear‘s oddity flows directly out of the circumstances of its central character, James (Kyle Mooney, who came up with the story), and achieves a striking level of empathy. In it, creation becomes cathartic in itself, regardless of how others perceive the final product. Also, both films take place in Utah, so make of that what you will.

Space opera
thelastjedi
2017 was a great year for space adventures. Sequels to the Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn) and Thor (dir. Taika Waititi) series felt more like science fiction adventures than superhero slugfests. (Guardians of the Galaxy 2, for its part, actually increased my appreciation for the first GotG, as it completes several arcs set up in the first movie; it’s the rare sequel that really feels like a resolution of unfinished business from the first film.) Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (dir. Luc Besson) had some fantastic visuals and wild ideas (and an optimistic prelude set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that justified the price of admission, even if the rest of the film couldn’t live up to it). More pessimistic and existential, Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve) takes place in a space opera universe, but on ground level, among the detritus left behind after humanity makes its push into the stars. From that angle, it makes sense that the most cosmic-minded character, the replicant-production mogul Wallace (Jared Leto), is presented as a terrifying monster with delusions of godhood (and while the Blade Runner universe has become quite distant from its roots in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the author’s skepticism of typical heroic narratives still comes through). Speaking of subverted expectations, the lastest Star Wars installment, The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson), capped off the year with a visually striking and heartfelt journey that managed to call into question many long-held assumptions about the Jedi, the Force, and the narrative rhythms of the series. I loved the twists and turns the story in The Last Jedi took and found the moral complexity exhilarating; the sequence in a high-class casino, among the arms dealers and black marketeers who profit from the conflict no matter who wins, was a highlight. Writer-director Rian Johnson took risks and created something challenging and affecting, especially surprising for a franchise that has mostly played it safe since Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm.

Musical fantasy
Musicals continued to be a source of escapism as well, although some ended up being better than others. As I mentioned in my round-up of this year’s reading, Star! turned out to be a dud, although the musical numbers are the only parts that redeem it. At the beginning of the year, last year’s La La Land made it to Wichita. I’ve been a fan of director Damien Chazelle’s earlier work, and I liked La La Land, but it would have benefited from a little more of the perfectionism Chazelle explored in Whiplash. As far as older musicals, I revisited The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which I ended up liking much more than the first time I saw it, years ago) and explored its 1981 sequel, Shock Treatment (maligned and misunderstood at the time, but increasingly the object of its own cult; it’s the product of a different, more anxious moment in time, and its obsessions with celebrity and television were ahead of its time).

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I ended up enjoying Madam Satan, the bizarre musical comedy from director Cecil B. DeMille (not noted for his intimate chamber pieces, although he handles the slamming-door farce very well); the musical elements are pretty dated and bound to the conventions of Broadway circa 1930, but the dazzling art deco visuals of its third act, a masquerade ball aboard a zeppelin (!), are still striking, and Kay Johnson is wonderful in the film as a jilted wife who adopts a femme fatale persona to win back her husband (no, it isn’t exactly woke).

Boyfriend

Best of all was The Boy Friend, Ken Russell’s 1971 adapation of Sandy Wilson’s hit stage musical, a spoof of 1920s Noël Coward and Cole Porter shows. True to form, Russell adapts his sources by first turning them inside-out, with the film a stylized backstage musical that amplifies the cheapness of a threadbare production and contrasting it with the outsized dreams of the cast and crew. Among my favorite sequences of any film I’ve seen this year is an extended dream of a Greek pastoral filtered through a Jazz Age bacchanale, a frenzy of jitterbugging nymphs and satyrs poised halfway between Jean Cocteau and Max Fleischer. Every once in a while you encounter a film that feels like it was made just for you: for me, this is one of them.

Pure crap
StoneHand
As I indicated above, I watched a lot of stuff this year that’s hard to justify as anything more than comfort food, and some of it failed to even live up to that low ambition. In some cases, I found myself disappointed by choices I hoped would be more rewarding: this is the state almost all fans of genre fiction or films end up in at some point, the “victory of hope over experience” in the pursuit of thrills. Such was the case with A Werewolf in the Amazon, the fourth film in the collection of movies by Ivan Cardoso that I began in October; the first three films were varying levels of engaging, but Werewolf was just bad. Seeing something you don’t like is sometimes the price of expanding your horizons: they can’t all be winners.

Batwoman

I have a harder time explaining how I spent so much time delving into the filmography of Jerry Warren, the 1960s shlock auteur whose motto was “Never, ever try in any way to make anything worthwhile.” I’m not a big believer in “hate-watching” or even the concept of “so bad it’s good”–if something entertains or interests me, I’ll say so, whatever its flaws. The film that sent me down the Warren rabbit hole was 1966’s Wild World of Batwoman, a spoof on the TV superhero craze that attracted the unwelcome attention of DC Comics itself: beyond that loopy film (the only Warren joint I’ve seen that comes close to justifying comparisons to Edward D. Wood, Jr.), only one or two even rise to the level of being almost good. So why did I subject myself to them? Ironically, it’s Warren’s antagonistic attitude (according to those who worked with him, Warren claimed that audiences couldn’t recognize anything good anyway, so there was no point in trying, although that sounds at best like a preemptive excuse) that attracted my interest. Sitting down with a Jerry Warren film felt like pitting myself against an opponent, with extracting the entertainment value that Warren was determined to withhold from me as my goal; or like a wrestling heel, whose whole performance depended on my negative reaction, I suspected that Warren’s negativity was an act that I was determined to see through. Well, folks, it wasn’t an act, and for the most part he succeeded in creating products that had me scratching my head afterwards: the worst of them weren’t merely boring or incompetent–they weren’t anything, just footage edited together (in many cases “patch-ups” from Mexican or South American films to which he added his own connecting scenes) until it hit feature length. No point other than sucking dollars out of the pockets of teenagers at the drive-in who weren’t going to pay attention to the screen anyway.

The best of the year
getout
It wasn’t all bad, however: one side effect of only seeing a few new releases this year is that I didn’t see very many that I really disliked. Most of the new films I saw this year were at least passable, and a few were downright great. Aside from films already mentioned, Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele) deserves every bit of acclaim that has come its way. Get Out has already inspired thousands of words as a sharply-observed horror-satire, a “socially conscious thriller” that takes its charge from the real-life horrors daily visited upon Black America in ways large and small, from overt racism to the insidious microaggressions that add up over time. I have little to add other than to say it is one of the most vital films of the year (as well as another one that benefits from knowing little about the plot going in), but also one of the most entertaining.

Spooktober: The Aftermath

It is November first, the day after Halloween. The candy has been handed out, and all that remains is to put away the costumes and take the decorations out of the yard. Elsewhere online, people are already gearing up for Noirvember or NaNoWriMo or “No-Shave November.” As I write this I am watching a compilation of horror movie trailers to keep the mood going, after having hit the Spirit Halloween Store to check out the after-holiday sales.

I usually like to post this October summary on the 31st, but the holiday itself turned out to be busy with work during the day and taking the kids trick-or-treating in the evening (this year I went as my namesake, celebrity chef Guy Fieri), not to mention cramming in a few last-minute horror movies. As always, I kept track of my viewing in the last month: the results are a little less varied than in some years, partly because I watched more series and sequels this time. I had a pile of movies set aside for this month, and watched quite a few of them, but since I bought more movies during the month, the pile I have left is almost as big.

Blade Runner 2049 was the only film I watched that isn’t horror, but in the past I’ve included movies that are better described as fantasy or science fiction or that belong to horror-adjacent genres such as thrillers or kaiju eiga; I’m not much for splitting hairs. (It was good, by the way.)

There were also theatrical screenings at the Warren Oldtown Horrorfest (formerly October at the Oldtown), organized by local filmmaker and presenter Leif Jonker (and shown nationwide by the Regal Cinemas chain, which purchased the Warren theaters earlier this year). The only Horrorfest film I skipped was Jaws, which is great but feels more like a summer movie to me. In addition to the Horrorfest screenings, my viewing included films on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube, and cable television (thanks, TCM!). (I’m not really a VHS collector, but I appreciate a bargain, and when I found a copy of Saturday the 14th at a church flea market on Saturday the 14th, how could I not pick it up?)

1. The Awakening (Mike Newell, 1980)
2. Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971)
3. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)*
4. Fright Night (Tom Holland, 1985)*,**
5. Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998)
6. Blade II (Guillermo del Toro, 2002)
7. Blade: Trinity (David S. Goyer, 2004)
8. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)
9. The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983)*
10. Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert, 1989)*
11. The Monster Squad (Fred Dekker, 1987)*
12. Slave of the Cannibal God aka Mountain of the Cannibal God (Sergio Martino, 1978)
13. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (José Mojica Marins, 1964)
14. This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (José Mojica Marins, 1967)
15. Embodiment of Evil (José Mojica Marins, 2008)
16. Saturday the 14th (Howard R. Cohen, 1981)
17. Saturday the 14th Strikes Back (Howard R. Cohen, 1988)
18. Blacula (William Crain, 1972)
19. King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)*, **
20. Them! (Gordon Douglas, 1954)*, **
21. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)*
22. Scream, Blacula, Scream (Bob Kelljan, 1973)
23. Society (Brian Yuzna, 1989)
24. The Mad Executioners (Edwin Zbonek, 1963)
25. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)*
26. Vampires (John Carpenter, 1998)
27. Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)*
28. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)*
29. Torture Dungeon (Andy Milligan, 1970)
30. The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921)
31. Salem’s Lot (Tobe Hooper, 1979)
32. The Ghost of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1942)
33. The Vault of Horror (Roy Ward Baker, 1973)
34. The Whip and the Body (Mario Bava, 1963)
35. The Crimson Cult (Vernon Sewell, 1968)
36. House of the Long Shadows (Pete Walker, 1983)
37. The Secret of the Mummy (Ivan Cardoso, 1982)
38. Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968)*, **
39. Theater of Blood (Douglas Hickox, 1973)

* theatrical screening
** rewatch

Best movie: It’s hard to pick a clear-cut winner out of so many films. Aside from rewatches, Suspiria, Theater of Blood, Frankenweenie, and Blacula were all very solid films. I was also very taken by A Nightmare on Elm Street after years of thinking I wouldn’t like it. In fact, I enjoyed most of the movies I watched for the first time this month, with only a few duds.

Ultimately, I think David Cronenberg’s prescient media fantasia Videodrome (which, admittedly, I had seen bits and pieces of previously) is going to stay with me the longest. In addition to its Philip K. Dick-like meditations on perception vs. reality and weird body horror (an element Cronenberg is obviously known for), Videodrome captures and anticipates the reality of lives half lived through screens and the attendant social changes. I hadn’t realized just how much Max Headroom and The Matrix owed to Videodrome, from the analog futurism of hand-delivered videotape messages (maybe we could call it . . . “v-mail”?) to the overwhelming importance of television for people’s spiritual well-being (the “Cathode Ray Mission,” where the homeless could get a meal and some precious screen-time, being an obvious example, and one that Max Headroom borrowed almost verbatim). And, as in They Live (another film that could almost fit in the same universe), the question of who is ultimately behind the signals the TV stations broadcast, and what impact they have, has an answer that is anything but reassuring.

Scariest movie: I had waited to see Dario Argento’s giallo-inflected supernatural mystery Suspiria until I could see it on the big screen, and my patience wasn’t disappointed: the colors were vibrant and the story suitably suspenseful and frightening. And I’ve come to look forward to performances by lead Jessica Harper, who around this time seemed to specialize in movies that made use of her uneasy brittleness. However, the most surprising revelation of all was finding an Italian horror movie with a plot that makes sense!

Goriest movie(s): Two movies are tied for this category. The first, Slave of the Cannibal God, has many of the hallmarks of the Italian cannibal genre, including an emphasis on realism (although unlike many cannibal films, Slave does not pretend to be a documentary) that extends to filming the real deaths of animals in both native rituals and in (staged) fights that purport to show the cruelty of the jungle. No thanks. There is also a tremendous amount of (hopefully simulated!) human gore once the fearsome cannibal tribe is reached, and a third-act sequence of horrors that gets hard to take long before it is over. No wonder it was included on the infamous “video nasties” list by censors in the United Kingdom.

The other contender is Embodiment of Evil by Brazilian writer-director-star José Mojica Marins, who has made an industry of his character Zé do Caixão, better known in English as “Coffin Joe.” The evil undertaker, who began his career in the 1960s with At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, demonstrates a cruelty and indifference to conventional morality that makes him a unique antihero for a conservative society, with many similarities to the characters of the Marquis de Sade. Embodiment of Evil, Coffin Joe’s 2008 “comeback,” bears that comparison even more than his earlier films, since sophisticated special effects and more relaxed mores make it possible for Joe to terrorize his victims with much more graphic punishments (the cast also appears to include a number of body-modification practitioners, so it’s not even obvious to me that all of the piercings and other mortifications are strictly fake). I found the Coffin Joe movies interesting (and I liked the second one, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, quite a bit), but ultimately Embodiment of Evil was as close to “torture porn” as I care to explore.

Dumbest movie I will probably watch again: Several of the movies I watched were either comedies or included frequent humor. Saturday the 14th was the most obviously jokey, a spoof of all kinds of horror movies thrown into a blender of a story about a book that will release all the evil in the world if read on the titular date. Jeffrey Tambor (in one of his first movie roles) appears as a vampire who appears to be going through a mid-life crisis, and the comedy really takes off when the monster hunter Van Helsing (Severn Darden) shows up as an “exterminator.” Silly stuff, but amusing for what it is and I could see it becoming an every few years tradition.

Worst movie: The first movie spawned a sequel, Saturday the 14th Strikes Back, a few years later, so of course I had to watch it. The good news is that there is no narrative connection or continuity to the first one beyond the simple idea that bad things are going to happen on the date in question. Also, while researching this, I discovered that none other than Gahan Wilson created the poster for the film, so there’s that. The bad news is that the movie is cheaply made and even dopier in its humor than the first one. It’s a candidate for weirdest movie, but the substitution of wackiness and off-the-wall behavior for actual jokes feels desperate. It also doesn’t make much sense: the premise of the film is that an ordinary family starts acting strangely when a crack in the basement begins releasing evil into the world, but they’re pretty nutty to begin with, eating candy for every meal and going through OCD-like precautions to protect themselves from germs. It feels like a movie straight from the imagination of the little boy in “It’s a Good Life.”

Actual Weirdest movie: In addition to the Saturday the 14th movies, there was quite a bit of weirdness in Videodrome and the similarly ooky Society; The Crimson Cult was frankly not weird enough for a film supposedly based on H. P. Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch-House,” and its Scooby-Doo-like ending bummed me out. I have in the past made a distinction between movies that are weird in themselves and movies that appear to have been made by weirdoes: The Secret of the Mummy, by Brazilian provocateur Ivan Cardoso, qualifies as both. Jumping between black and white and color and incorporating stock travelogue and newsreel footage, as well as impressionistic montages and rapid cuts between isolated details, The Secret of the Mummy tells the story of an obsessed scientist who recovers an Egyptian mummy in order to test out his elixir of life and revive it. The fact that the young Pharaoh was a sex-crazed serial killer in life doesn’t faze the scientist, and once the mummy is up and about he resumes his favorite pastime. It feels like a collision of a Universal monster movie (as well as the sexed-up mummy, there are shades of Frankenstein, including a hunchbacked lab assistant) and a Carry On sex comedy. The Secret of the Mummy is unapologetically kinky, but extremely stylish, and Cardoso reminds me (based on this single film–I have three more to watch) of a straight, Brazilian John Waters.

Horror on a Budget: The crudeness of The Secret of the Mummy‘s production also reminds me of another outsider filmmaker I encountered this month, Andy Milligan, who in Torture Dungeon attempts to stage a medieval “epic” with a shoestring budget on Staten Island. One of Milligan’s techniques is to hide the paltriness of his sets by filming in tight close-up–so tight, in fact, that I didn’t realize until halfway through the movie that a main character only has one arm. Torture Dungeon is as raw as I was led to expect–the titular dungeon is onscreen for not more than three or four minutes, and the gore is of the Herschell Gordon Lewis papier-mâché variety–but was mostly enjoyable. It helps that I enjoy movies in which the seams show. By far the worst parts were the walk-on characters who do nothing to advance the story but deliver community theater-style stage business.

Finally, for the first time this year I took part in an October horror movie challenge, watching films to match specific categories. I generally just follow my whims when choosing what to watch, but it was fun expanding my horizons with some of the requirements. The Spooktober Challenge consisted of 31 categories, voted on from a list of nominees by members of The HORRORS . . . of THE DISSOLVE! Facebook group, with one movie counting for each category. Here are the categories and the movies that satisfied each one:

1. A horror movie by a female director: Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert)
2. A black and white horror movie: King Kong
3. A horror movie from a country other than your own: The Mad Executioners (Germany)
4. A horror anthology: The Vault of Horror
5. A horror movie marketed to kids: The Monster Squad
6. A horror-comedy: Saturday the 14th
7. A silent horror movie: The Phantom Carriage
8. An avant-garde or experimental horror movie: Videodrome
9. A horror movie featuring a non-white protagonist: Blade
10. A classic Universal monster movie: The Ghost of Frankenstein
11. A horror movie by an LGBTQ writer or director: Torture Dungeon (Andy Milligan)
12. A Hammer horror movie: Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb
13. A horror movie involving a non-Christian/Satanic religion: Scream, Blacula, Scream (Voodoo)
14. A horror movie from the year you were born: Theater of Blood (1973)
15. An “all-time great” horror movie that you’ve never seen: A Nightmare on Elm Street
16. A giallo: Suspiria
17. A horror movie starring Vincent Price: House of the Long Shadows
18. A horror movie from Latin America: The Secret of the Mummy (Brazil)
19. A Mario Bava movie: The Whip and the Body
20. A made-for-TV horror movie: Salem’s Lot
21. A horror movie that terrified you as a child: Them!
22. A John Carpenter movie: Vampires
23. A Lovecraftian horror movie: The Crimson Cult
24. A horror movie by a non-white director: Blacula (William Crain)
25. A slasher movie that is not part of a franchise: Corruption (Robert Hartford-Davis, 1968)
26. A video nasty: Slave of the Cannibal God
27. A body horror: Society
28. A horror movie featuring a witch or witchcraft: Embodiment of Evil
29. A horror movie where someone turns into an animal – but NOT a werewolf: Cat People
30. An animated horror movie or short: Frankenweenie
31. A horror movie by a typically non-horror director: The Awakening (Mike Newell)

The terms of the challenge allowed for movies viewed in September to count, but I only needed to count one: Corruption is something of a proto-slasher, with Peter Cushing as an increasingly-unhinged surgeon who kills women to supply his disfigured girlfriend with the pituitary gland extract that keeps her beautiful. I’m not a huge fan of slashers, anyway, so this was close enough for me.

In addition, there were three “bonus challenges” that I successfully completed: at least one movie from each decade, 1920s to 2010s; no more than five movies that you have already seen (King Kong and Them! were the only rewatches I counted toward the challenge); and only one movie per director (it was lucky for me that Blacula and its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream didn’t have the same director!).

I hope you had a happy Halloween and saw something good or at least surprising in the past month. Let me know if you recommend anything else based on what I’ve listed here or if you just have a horror movie you’re enthusiastic about. I’ve already got my list for next year started: after all, it’s only twelve months until next Halloween!

The Ten Silliest Giant Movie Monsters

giantclaw1

All this month, I’ve been observing “kaiju month” on the blog, writing about giant monsters in various forms, while at the same time catching up on movies I hadn’t seen yet. The movies show varying degrees of seriousness, ranging from the deadly grimness of the original Godzilla (and the dry wit of this year’s Shin Godzilla) to movies that are all about men in rubber suits waling on each other and stomping model cities to bits, with little regard to characterization or story logic. Whatever your view of the genre or which approach you favor, there’s no question that some of these monsters can be downright goofy. To prove it, here are ten movie monsters that inspire more laughter than awe.

A few ground rules: I’m thinking mainly of movies in which the giant monster is either the main character or central to the plot: that includes most Japanese kaiju eiga and their imitators, as well as many of the American monster movies of the 1950s and later. I’m excluding characters that are deliberately humorous or parodies (sorry, Queen Kong); it’s too easy, and anyway there’s nothing sillier than someone trying too hard to be taken seriously (although I’ve included at least one monster that walks the line between serious and parody–it’s a judgment call). Finally, I’m primarily looking at silly monsters: if the movie around the monster is ridiculous, but there’s nothing particularly funny or silly about the creature itself, that doesn’t fit my requirements for this list. (The reverse is also true: plenty of good movies have laughable creatures at their center, and just because I’ve included a movie here doesn’t mean it’s bad or that I don’t enjoy it. Sometimes the tone is clearly light-hearted, and sometimes the laughs stem from a severe miscalculation or a skimpy budget.)

I’m sure that you’ll think of some that I’ve overlooked, or have a different opinion about something I’ve included; please feel free to add your suggestions or counterpoints in the comments. I haven’t seen every monster movie ever made, and I’d be happy to discover something new to me!

Gamera

gamera1

Now, don’t get me wrong: Gamera is terrific. I have great affection for Gamera. Years before Mystery Science Theater 3000 presented the terrapin terror to a new generation of fans, I was watching his films on Commander USA’s Groovy Movies (probably because they were cheaper to show than Godzilla movies). But there’s no question that a giant fire-breathing turtle who can turn himself into a flying saucer by shooting flames out of the leg-holes in his shell is, well, not exactly serious. In addition, the kid appeal that eventually overtook Toho’s Godzilla series was baked into rival studio Daiei’s Gamera right from the beginning, with Gamera being a “friend to all children” and an emphasis on comic brawling with a series of mostly interchangeable kaiju opponents. Eventually, the Shusuke Kaneko-led Gamera revival from the 1990s would prove that a goofy leading monster could be put into a serious context and yield good, even great results. However, some have argued that Shusuke and company were given free reign in making their trilogy in part because expectations were so low: who thought a serious Gamera movie would actually be good?

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Giant Killer Rabbits

lepus1

Let this stand in for all of the American “giant animals on the loose” movies that invaded screens from the 1950s to the 1970s. 1972’s Night of the Lepus follows the pattern of many other “eco-horror” pictures of the era, as a scientific experiment meant to curb out-of-control rabbit populations in the American West backfires, resulting in a stampede of vicious bunnies the size of trucks. Never mind that the film (and the novel it was based on) was inspired by real-life rabbit plagues, or that rabbits can be mean as hell. The domestic bunnies, filmed bounding across miniature sets, with slow motion and rumbling sound effects to give the impression of massive size, are just too cute to take seriously. If Night of the Lepus ever acknowledged how preposterous it was, it would just be another Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, a spoof about an unlikely part of the environment turning against humanity. But it’s the film’s utter solemnity and desperation to be taken seriously–including an incredible trailer that bends over backwards to avoid revealing what it’s really about–that make it a camp classic.

Gigan and Megalon

gigan-megalon2

Godzilla fans can be a bit like Batman fans: for years, the public perception of both series was dominated by the corniest iterations: the campy 1966 Batman TV show and the wrestling-influenced Godzilla movies from the 1960s and ’70s. This perception can make fans defensive and apt to reject all but the grimmest, most “adult” portrayals of their heroes. Fortunately, that tide has begun to turn, with greater appreciation of both Batman ’66 and the “fun” Godzilla movies in recent years.

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The Bebop and Rocksteady of the Godzilla canon, Gigan and Megalon were introduced as opponents of the Big G in a pair of films in 1972 and 1973 (both directed by Jun Fukuda, the man most responsible for the turn away from the darker tone favored by original Godzilla director Ishiro Honda). Gigan, as revealed in Godzilla vs. Gigan, is a cyborg from Nebula M Spacehunter; Megalon, in Godzilla vs. Megalon, is the insectoid protector deity of the Seatopians, a long-lost underground civilization. Gigan has curved hooks for hands and matching horns and mandibles, as well as a punk-looking Cyclops visor, and most bizarrely a deadly rotary sawblade embedded in his chest; it’s the definition of trying too hard to be edgy (no pun intended). Megalon has giant drills for hands and a single horn-like antenna, and moves about by burrowing and leaping through the air (like a cricket, I guess?). As mentioned, the Godzilla series had already been kid-friendly for years by the time Gigan and Megalon came along, and the saurian designs of previous kaiju were easily turned into toys, but Gigan and Megalon feel like they were designed as toys first and characters second. (On that note, check out Gigan in Godzilla: Final Wars, where he’s outfitted with interchangeable chainsaw hands.) While Gigan is presented in his movie as a scary threat, the monster who might finally defeat Godzilla (he doesn’t), in Godzilla vs. Megalon both monsters join together in a sort of tag team, giving Godzilla (and the robotic Jet Jaguar) “the business.” All that’s missing is the ropes around the wrestling ring.

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Minilla and Gabara

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Speaking of Godzilla, it’s unlikely that any character in the series has been more divisive than Minilla (sometimes rendered as “Minira” or “Minya”–don’t call him “Godzookie” unless you want some serious side-eye from G-fans). Introduced in 1967’s Son of Godzilla, the diminutive kaiju was the embodiment of the series’ turn to juvenilia. In his first film appearance, newly hatched from a giant egg, Minilla is disturbing rather than cute: “more-fetus-than-infant” in the words of G-scholar William Tsutsui, Minilla is the kaiju version of the Eraserhead baby. In later appearances, Minilla is an obvious stand-in for Godzilla’s child audiences, learning to control his powers and stand up for himself under the grudging guidance of his single father (some versions of Godzilla have suggested the creature reproduces asexually; in any case, the whereabouts of any other parent of Minilla are unknown). In 1969’s much-maligned All Monsters Attack, the metaphor is made literal as Godzilla, Minilla, and the other denizens of “Monster Island” are treated as daydreams of a young boy, Ichiro, who learns to stand up to a bully named Gabara, inspired by Minilla’s fight against a kaiju also named Gabara. The “son of Godzilla” was later revived as the more saurian “Godzilla Junior” in the 1990s, but it’s Minilla, smoke-ring breath and all, who is remembered, fondly or otherwise.

By the way, here’s Gabara, the “kaiju bully” from All Monsters Attack. For the one-off character, special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya and his crew came up with a suitably misfit creature, with a reptilian body, feline facial features, and a shock of red hair. No wonder he had such a bad disposition.

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The Yeti

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Specifically, the one in Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century, a 1977 Italian knock-off of King Kong. Frozen in a glacier for thousands of years until his body is discovered and thawed out in the northern tundra of Canada, this Yeti is a hominid covered with brown hair, made gigantic through very primitive special effects. Once thawed, the Yeti follows Kong’s trajectory en manqué, falling for the granddaughter of the tycoon financing the expedition and running amok in Toronto. What makes the Yeti, played by Mimmo Crao, so amusing is the emphasis on his romantic nature: even in scenes that don’t seem to call for it, the camera lingers on the Yeti’s bedroom eyes, luxurious, flowing mane, and erect nipples (yes, really), and the film spends almost as much time on the relationship between beast and beauty as Peter Jackson’s 2003 King Kong, in a much shorter running time.

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Back when Johnny Weissmuller was playing Tarzan, MGM claimed that Tarzan’s iconic call was produced by combining the recorded calls of lions, apes, and elephants. It was pure hooey, of course, but the Italian Yeti appears to have actually done just that, as the Yeti’s sound effects are a mix of animal growls and roars spliced together. Combined with Sante Maria Romitelli’s stately, even majestic score, it makes for an atmospheric soundtrack appropriate for the film’s purely cinematic montages (the sequence of the Yeti carrying Antonella Interlenghi around Toronto, marveling at the skyscrapers, so foreign to his experience, is a favorite). I’m reminded of my friend Craig Stephen Tower’s observation that even the trashiest Italian film is a little bit arty, and even the artiest a little bit trashy. As shameless as this movie is (and it is shameless, hitting the trifecta of putting a woman, a child, and a dog in peril), there’s a lot to like about it, particularly its winning sincerity.

Antimatter Space Buzzard

“It doesn’t make sense. It’s just a bird, a big bird! Guns, cannons, rockets, it’s just a bird!”

“Sure, just a bird. Ten million dollars’ worth of radar can’t track it. Enough fire power to wipe out a regiment can’t even slow it down. Sure . . . just a bird.”

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When I was a kid, The Giant Claw was on TV all the time. I guess the TV station had their own print or something, but along with Them! and The Blob, The Giant Claw was the old monster movie I saw more times than any other during childhood. I didn’t give it a lot of thought until recent years, when I noticed this once-forgotten B movie from 1957 gaining a new cult following. It’s a typical monster mystery film, beginning with sightings of a UFO and the unexplained disappearance of planes in the far North. (The combination of Arctic setting, military-civilian conflict, and aggressively hard-boiled dialogue give the impression of a low-budget reworking of Howard Hawks’ classic The Thing From Another World.) Once revealed, the threat is a giant (possibly extraterrestrial) bird with a long neck and googly eyes, “as big as a battleship” and protected by an “antimatter screen.”

Upon rewatching The Giant Claw, I was surprised to see several names from the serials I’ve watched in my Fates Worse Than Death series, including producer Sam Katzman and musical director Mischa Bakaleinikoff. It’s not hard to imagine this story padded out into serial length with the addition of a spy ring or a mine cave-in. By 1957 the serials were dead, replaced by television, but quickly-made thrillers like The Giant Claw took their place in theaters and drive-ins, providing excitement and spectacle without the entanglements of serialization. (The space buzzard still looks ridiculous, though.)

Daigoro

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In 1972’s Daigoro vs. Goliath, Daigoro combines the childlike qualities of Minilla with the friendliness of Gamera. Resembling a bidepal hippopotamus with feline whiskers, Daigoro is the orphaned child of a Godzilla-like marauder (seen in flashback), raised on an island (complete with a giant outhouse) by a zookeeper and his staff. As the film begins, the Japanese government struggles to find room in its budget to keep feeding the beloved creature, and hoards of schoolchildren attempt to make up the difference by soliciting donations. An attempt is made to slow Daigoro’s growth with “Anti-Grow,” but when the “Great Stellar Monster” Goliath arrives via meteorite and begins a destructive rampage, Daigoro is called upon to defend his adopted home. The scenes of Daigoro’s training, including learning to roar and breathe fire, will look familiar to anyone who’s seen Son of Godzilla or All Monsters Attack (apparently this film began as a Godzilla concept, so perhaps this similarity isn’t so surprising). Daigoro skews toward a younger audience than even Godzilla vs. Megalon: it reminded me most of the live-action Disney films of the 1960s, and anticipates Miyazaki’s films (particularly My Neighbor Totoro) with its environmental message and big, cuddly monster hero. The tone is relentlessly wacky, with broad slapstick comedy leavening the cloying sentimentality (but so help me, I laughed).

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Guilala aka Monster X

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Guilala, star of the 1967 film The X From Outer Space, is perhaps the silliest monster at least ostensibly meant to be taken seriously. The film is a brisk mix of space-age bachelor pad sci-fi and traditional kaiju action, with the title “X” inadvertently brought back to earth as a spore on the tailfins of a rocket expedition. Once on earth, the mysterious substance quickly grows into a living beast, the giant monster named Guilala (or Girara), which goes on the rampage as it draws energy from power lines and reactors. Guilala’s design is a mixture of a reptilian body, a flat, beak-like head, and “deely-bopper” antennae; it’s been described as a “giant space chicken.” Even if the creature itself were more sober, the film that surrounds it is delightfully lightweight. The X From Outer Space was the Japanese studio Shochiku’s only venture into the kaiju genre, but Guilala made a comeback in 2008 as the star of Minoru Kawasaki’s spoof, Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit. In the film, a sort of Japanese version of Team America, Guilala’s return (including quite a bit of reused footage from the original X) is the subject of endless debate at a G8 summit, with satirical versions of each country’s leaders taking turns trying to stop the monster. Ultimately, Guilala faces off against a local protective deity, brought to life by the collective prayers of the people.

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So, what have I missed? Let me know in the comments and I’ll check it out!

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The Secret Life of Sausages

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In The Secret Life of Pets, released last week, rival dogs Max and Duke, on the run after losing their collars and being separated from their owner, sneak into a Brooklyn sausage factory and eat to their hearts’ content. Their binge is interpreted as a dream sequence full of singing and dancing sausage links, set to Grease‘s “We Go Together” in a giant production number. (Co-director Chris Renaud has more to say about it here.) Of course it ends with Max and Duke chomping down on the wieners, even as the musical number continues. Yes, it’s reminiscent of the “Land of Chocolate” sequence from The Simpsons; Secret Life felt like it borrowed quite a few spare parts from other animated films, but that’s beside the point.

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I hadn’t heard about this sequence or seen it in any of the advertising for The Secret Life of Pets, but it’s actually the first of three films scheduled for release this year that feature anthropomorphized hot dogs or sausages. Sausage Party, scheduled for an August 12 release, is an animated feature (story by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) about a hot dog whose idyllic life in the grocery store comes to a horrifying end when he learns that the whole point of his (and his friends’) existence is to be eaten. From the trailer it looks to be a savage, raunchy twist on the Pixar “secret life of _______” formula, but no matter what, it definitely features a crew of talking hot dogs.

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Then there’s Yoga Hosers (September 2), the latest from Clerks mastermind Kevin Smith, and the second installment of his planned “Canadian trilogy” after the gonzo body-horror movie Tusk. Although live action, Yoga Hosers looks to be cartoony in its own way, as it features a pair of convenience store cashiers (Lily-Rose Depp and Harley Quinn Smith) who confront an army of living Nazi bratwursts (“Bratzis,” of course). I’m not gonna lie: as dumb as this looks, it’s the kind of movie I would have loved when I was thirteen, and even now I appreciate a film that takes an absurd-on-its-face premise and runs with it. (At the very least, it’s a suitably weird follow-up to a movie about a mad scientist surgically transforming a man into a walrus.)

So what is the explanation for this coincidence? (Other than sausages being hilarious, I guess.) Paid product placement by Big Sausage (or, more likely, since all of these examples end up making meat-eating look kind of horrible, pro-vegetarian propaganda)? Synchronicity? A message from an alien race of talking wieners? I have no answers. All I know is that these three movies would make for one heck of a triple feature, or at least a very strange montage at the Academy Awards when all three films are inevitably nominated for Best Picture.

My 2015 in Film

This year I saw 17 new releases (US release in 2015), mostly action blockbusters and animated family films, with a few outliers. As always, I didn’t see nearly enough to offer a comprehensive ranking (as subjective as those things are to begin with), but I can at least point to some of my favorites. (Also, I’m terrible at ranking things, so this could easily change tomorrow, and in fact has already undergone changes since I started drafting this.)

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5. The Duke of Burgundy
I loved a lot about this movie, the story of a troubled dominant-submissive lesbian relationship. Director Peter Strickland’s appropriation of a 1970s European soft porn aesthetic, all soft focus and chanteuse-style pop music, is right in my postmodern wheelhouse (one of the opening credits, after “Dress and Lingerie” is for “Perfume by Je suis Gizella“). And there is a surprising streak of dry humor amidst the angst-filled meditations on control and the rigid boundaries we set for ourselves and each other. However, too many of the visual and auditory flourishes were straight out of David Lynch, particularly a sequence that felt uncomfortably indebted to Mulholland Drive, crossing the line beyond “homage.” I still liked the movie, but it may have been a victim of my high expectations.

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4. Crimson Peak
After Guillermo Del Toro’s previous film, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak was a welcome return to focus on human characters and their problems, while still featuring the director’s trademark grotesque monsters (this time the bloody ghosts that haunt the titular mansion). A gloriously gloomy gothic romance, it starred a perfectly cast Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain as siblings with a dark secret, and Mia Wasikowska as the innocent caught in their web.

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3. Mad Max: Fury Road
I was as surprised as anyone to see the post-apocalyptic Mad Max series come roaring back after a thirty year absence from the screen, but director George Miller had clearly spent the time away thinking about the logistics and meaning of his future-primitive setting. Tom Hardy is fine as the title character, but it’s really Charlize Theron’s show as the bad-ass Furiosa. In addition to updating the setting in light of concerns about environmental collapse and climate change, Fury Road gives a fiercely feminist reading of the traditionally testosterone-filled “road warrior” genre (here’s what I thought immediately after seeing it).

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2. Inside Out
A return to the daring conceptual heights of Ratatouille and Wall-E, Inside Out is simply the best Pixar film in years. Unsurprisingly, Inside Out was written and directed by Pete Docter, who also created Monsters, Inc.: there’s a similar fascination with factory-like spaces and a unique “backstage” interpretation of Pixar’s usual “secret life of ______” formula. Although the focus is on Joy, Sadness, and the other personified emotions inside eleven-year-old Riley’s head, the film benefits from the animation studio’s increasing confidence in creating expressive human characters that don’t resemble creepy dolls. I doubt it would work as well as it does if Riley and her parents didn’t hold up their end of the story in their scenes.

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1. What We Do in the Shadows
I already talked up this one as the funniest movie I had seen all year when I saw it in October, and in the two months since I haven’t seen anything to topple it from my top spot. In addition to its humor, however, What We Do in the Shadows is as tightly-plotted as an Edgar Wright film while appearing as off-the-cuff as a Christopher Guest mockumentary or The Office. It also turns out to have some clever (and often poignant) observations about family, friendship, romance, and ambition (the last represented by Jackie van Beek, a “thrall” who hopes to ascend to vampirehood, a process that resembles an unpaid internship and virtual slavery to her vampire “master”).

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Honorable Mention: Speaking of Edgar Wright, like many I was disappointed when Wright left Marvel’s Ant-Man, citing creative differences. But the movie we got, directed by Peyton Reed, still has Wright’s fingerprints all over it, from the fast cutting and clever narrative tricks to the visuals, which play with scale in a number of humorous and dramatic ways. In general I’ve enjoyed the free-standing Marvel movies more than the big team-ups: as exhilarating as it is as a comic book fan to see stories overlap and interact on screen just as they do in the comics, there’s a limit to how many characters and plot lines can comfortably fit in a feature film before I stop caring about any of them.

Surprisingly Good: Home did very well for itself at the box office and mostly got decent reviews. But unless you saw it you wouldn’t know how visually inventive it is and how its sense of humor is frequently a lot weirder than the clips of Jim Parsons as an overly-literal alien shown in the trailers suggested. (I’m willing to believe that the film’s stranger touches are drawn from the book it was based on, The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex, but I haven’t read it.) I also appreciated the film’s emotional stakes and the revelation that Inside Out wasn’t the only family movie this year to stress the importance of empathy and accepting that sadness and grief have their place as healthy emotions. Finally, props for the good use it made of Steve Martin, who should really be considered more often as a voice actor.

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Best Reboot (non-Mad Max category): I was pretty high on Star Wars: The Force Awakens after I saw it, and even after cooling off there’s still a lot I like about it. Under the new management of corporate owner Disney and director J. J. Abrams, The Force Awakens feels like a Star Wars film, visually and aurally. The return to largely practical effects is appreciated, and the new characters and their stories have some compelling hooks. As a passing of the torch to the new generation, it’s much more successful than, say, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which did little to make me care about Jones’ son Mutt. In fact, I liked just about everything about The Force Awakens except the plot, which is just too much of a rehash of the original 1977 film (especially considering the Death Star had already been redone in 1983’s Return of the Jedi). Considering that The Force Awakens‘ planet-sized Starkiller follows Star Trek Into Darkness, which used the same ploy of “like the Enterprise, but bigger” for its bad guy’s ship, I’m glad Abrams will be stepping aside for the next installment of the Star Wars saga. After the much-maligned prequel trilogy, however, this was probably just what was needed to right the ship and get audiences excited again.

Most Forgettable: Fortunately, this year I haven’t seen any new releases that I really hated, so I don’t have a pick for “the worst.” However, at the bottom of my list is Jurassic World, which delivered the big dinosaur action it promised but was lackluster in all other respects, both derivative and lazy. I also didn’t get much out of Avengers: Age of Ultron (see my above comments about team-ups), but unlike Jurassic World it at least had compelling characters and the advancement of the ongoing Marvel plot going for it.

2015 was also another big year for catching up on movies from the past. In addition to the second summer of exploring serials in my Fates Worse Than Death series and my successful attempt to take in 31 horror films in October, I took advantage of repertory screenings, DVDs, TCM, Netflix, and YouTube to watch a variety of older films throughout the year.

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First-time non-2015 movies that I liked were (in no particular order) El Hombre y el Monstruo (a Mexican riff on Jekyll and Hyde featuring a classical pianist who has sold his soul to the devil: whenever he plays a particular piece he transforms into a murderous wolfman), Polyester, The Man Who Laughed, The Thing, Repo Man, The Wicked Lady (1945), and the double feature Grindhouse (particularly Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s half, but I appreciated the spirit of the whole project). I also caught up with a few movies from 2014 that I had missed the first time around, among them The Babadook, Under the Skin (a film I respected more than loved, but which isn’t looking for my approval anyway), and Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live/Die/Repeat), which did something I wouldn’t have thought possible: delivered a military sci-fi movie that both held my interest and made me care about its characters.

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Worst non-2015 movie: This is easy. After seeing Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead last year, I wasn’t exactly a fan: the movie was pretty hard for me to take, both extremely gory and nerve-wracking in its disregard for conventional plotting. Still, that’s one way to make a memorable horror movie, and although I didn’t love it I was willing to explore Fulci’s filmography further. Unfortunately, the next Fulci movie I watched was 1981’s Conquest, a dismal sword-and-sorcery picture that was clearly made in work-for-hire mode. It has some stylish character designs and graphic fight scenes, and the trailer puts enough cool moments together that I expected a passable Conan the Barbarian rip-off. Alas, those moments are doled out in an extremely stingy manner and the rest is filled with walking and talking scenes that have almost no energy, resulting in a dull, lifeless slog. (As far as Fulci goes, I also ended up seeing The House by the Cemetery recently, and while I didn’t care for it much, it was a lot better than Conquest.)

That’s about it for my look back at 2015. Happy New Year, and see you in 2016!