From September 15th until October 30th, I’ll be watching at least one new to me horror film every day, and providing collections of capsule reviews week by week. On Halloween itself, as ever, I’m planning an all day marathon of some of my favourite horror films.
I hope you’ll find it interesting following as I dig further into a genre I’ve always loved, and maybe find some hidden gems along the way yourselves.
The Blob (1988)
Dir: Chuck Russell
Horror fans, and I count myself as guilty as any of them, are given to complaining about relentless remakes, but it’s worth remembering that they were never exactly thin on the ground. 30 years after Steve McQueen made his screen debut in the original version, this take on The Blob seems to be trying to do for that movie what John Carpenter did for The Thing.
The Blob isn’t, I would suggest, the most inspiring of monsters: it’s a pile of jelly with no appreciable consciousness or goal, it merely rolls ever onward, consuming people and using them to grow, a process that fast becomes exponential. Chuck Russell (who came to this from Nightmare on Elm Street 3, and would go on to The Mask, among others) doesn’t attempt to make anything more of the monster, he simply dumps it in a sleepy town and lets chaos and splattery effects ensue.
The script and characters are entertaining enough, but merely a framework on which to hang the effects. There is some interesting casting here, in that two of the leads are siblings of bigger stars. Kevin Dillon, who plays the rebellious biker kid who becomes the movie’s hero, is the brother of Matt Dillon, while Donovan Leitch (the nice kid whose date with cheerleader Shawnee Smith is interrupted when people start getting melted) is the brother of Ione Skye, and son of the musician Donovan. Dillon isn’t bad here, but is distractingly like his brother, without the same innate charisma, while the script plays a nice trick on us by putting Leitch so much to the forefront. For her part, Shawnee Smith (more recently a key part of the Saw franchise) does well as the typical horror heroine who finds her courage to take on the monster.
It’s all fun enough, but the price of admission here is paid for the effects, which are brilliantly nasty at times (the Blob sucking a guy in as he touches up his date, deflating her in the process). Tony Gardner led the practical effects team, his first major job, and his crew’s work stands up fantastically today. The effect of the Blob running over one key character, dissolving him before our eyes, is as good as anything Bottin or Savini were doing in this era.
As with all monster movies, there are readings here that go deeper (the conspiracy angle is very much present) but to me they all seem like minor hooks to hang what is simply a fun time and a technical showcase on. This is in no way a complaint, Russell keps the pace up, the actors are enjoying themselves and the effects are jaw-dropping. It’s a tremendously fun movie.
Thir13en Ghosts (2001)
Dir: Steve Beck
William Castle was one of cinema’s great showmen. His movies often employed gimmicks. Among them, Homicidal gave the audience a ‘fright break’; 10 minutes from the end the film stopped, and anyone who was too scared to watch the rest could leave and get a full refund. The Tingler featured ‘Percepto’; electric buzzers in seats that would give punters the sensation the film’s monster caused and 13 Ghosts featured ‘Illusion-O’; glasses that allowed you to look through a red filter to see the film’s ghosts or a blue filter to avoid them. Thir13en Ghosts (good god, I hate typing that) includes a version of that gimmick within its story, but is otherwise pretty standard stuff.
The impetus for this film probably came from the success of another gory Castle remake, House on Haunted Hill (which, sadly, didn’t replicate Castle’s Emergo, which flew cheap plastic skeletons over the heads of the audience at opportune moments).
The premise isn’t bad, Tony Shalhoub and his kids Shannon Elizabeth (because this was 2001) and Alec Roberts inherit a weird house from their long lost uncle (F. Murray Abraham). It turns out that the house is actually a complex machine in which 12 ghosts are trapped and a 13th must emerge to trigger the opening of a portal to hell. Everything here feels like it’s made for an audience that is overcaffeinated, from Matthew Lillard’s typically fingernails down the backboard annoying mugging to the editing, which pummels the audience with cuts, barely allowing us to settle to a single image. The script is terrible, giving the cast little to do but walk round in circles while ghosts appear around them (the characters can only see them through special glasses). This is a pity because Shalhoub, Abraham and Embeth Davidtz are all fine actors and they have little to do but shout people’s names and dump exposition.
What saves [sigh] Thir13en Ghosts from being a total loss is the design. The ghost make ups by KNB and especially the set and production design from Sean Hargreaves are spectacular. The house is constructed as one huge mechanism. The cutting often makes it a bit nonsensical, but the pure design of it is intricate and stunning. Watching the sets move is perhaps the greatest pleasure in the film, which is a real condemnation of it as a film, but also novel enough to make it worth 85 minutes of your time. Once.
The Addams Family 2 (2021)
Dir: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan
I quite enjoyed the first of these animated takes on Charles Addams’ cartoons. Of course it was never likely to match Barry Sonnenfeld’s pair of live action adaptations, but the character designs were fun (and much more faithful to the original look), it was well cast, and had a few laughs.
One of those things changed for this sequel.
You can tell that this was a rush job because it leans on one of the most bankrupt ‘we’ve got no ideas but we need a sequel’ tropes there is. ROADTRIP!! Yes, with Wednesday feeling disconnected from her family, and a lawyer who says he represents her real parents hot on their trail, Gomez whisks them away in the Addams camper for a trip around various macabre sights in the US. This could have been a promising idea: an Addams tour of America’s dark past, but instead the trip goes off the rails and a series of lame gags ensue, backed by the entirely unmotivated and brutally unfunny (to say nothing of reheated) storyline about Wednesday’s true parentage.
The characters all behave against type. This, again, could be funny if it were at all motivated, but from Wednesday’s sudden scientific brilliance, to Gomez being anxious about the lack of affection his daughter is showing him and Pugsley complaining when Wednesday tries to kill him (the ENTIRE joke of this having always been how accepting he is of it), everybody seems to be imported from some sort of bizzaro world, and the film never acknowledges it.
The design and animation, while obviously not at the very top end, is still well done enough and Oscar Isaac as Gomez, Charlize Theron as Morticia and Chloe Grace Moretz as Wednesday are still fine casting, but all of them are audibly bored this time out. It’s hard to blame them as we trudge through this laugh free desert of a movie.
Embrace of the Vampire (1995)
Dir: Anne Goursaud
There are, of course, many reasons that some movies survive while others fall by the wayside, disappearing from circulation or public consciousness. The reason Embrace of the Vampire survives more than 25 years on can be summed up in one word. Boobs.
You could argue that Alyssa Milano’s breasts are the true stars of this film, certainly they have enough screen time to get fairly high billing, are the most remembered aspect of the production at this point, and arguably have a more nuanced role than many of the rest of the cast. I’m joking about the last bit, but probably only about the last bit.
The plot, should you care more than the film does, concerns a vampire (Martin Kemp, looking more like a slightly annoyed banker than an eternal creature of the night pining for his lost love) who will die in three days unless he can make college student Charlotte (Milano) fall in love with him. He tries to do this by making her have sexual dreams in the hopes that she’ll become promiscuous leave her boyfriend. It’s very stupid. That said, it works.
The annoying thing about this film is that it actually has a pretty solid cast. With a better screenplay, Milano’s switch from virginal good girl to sexually experimental vamp might have worked well, and she plays both with some conviction. Kemp is terrible, but Rachel True and Jordan Ladd have fun as Milano’s friends and Jennifer Tilly appears for five minutes to vamp it up seducing Charlotte’s boyfriend, a thankless part she nevertheless fully shows up for.
The problem isn’t always the acting, it’s the direction. Anne Goursaud brings little to the table in terms of style. I think she’s aiming for a Jean Rollin like atmosphere of dreamlike eroticism, but she misses both, and the film feels disjointed, instead of gliding easily between the real and the imagined, which it should be convincingly blending by the end.
This is a bad, bad movie, but if you’re attracted to women and saw it when you were fifteen, I get how it would be memorable.
Shock Waves (1977)
Dir: Ken Wiederhorn
This has been in my collection for years, but I got around to it for this series because I only recently discovered that its director, a few years later, would make the underrated Eyes of a Stranger, and thus give Jennifer Jason Leigh her first film role. Having now seen this, King Frat and knowing that he made the poorly received Meatballs Part 2, I’m going to say that Eyes of a Stranger was a fluke.
Shock Waves belongs to the shockingly plentiful subgenre of zombie Nazi movies. In this one, holidaymakers are stuck when the navigation equipment on their boat malfunctions and they run around near an apparently deserted island. The only other inhabitants turn out to be Peter Cushing and a platoon of water dwelling zombie Nazis.
To its credit, Shock Waves IS in focus and does make basic sense, so it’s better than Zombie Lake. It also has a couple of good actors in the cast; the aforementioned Cushing and, just prior to a far better horror film, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Brooke Adams in the survivor role (this isn’t a spoiler, the film is told in flashback).
Just 82 minutes long, Shock Waves is a long sit. The zombies don’t appear until about half way in, and up until the last ten minutes or so, most of the film is taken up by watching the characters trudge around the island while very little happens. The attacks, when they do come, are bloodless, the zombies strangling and drowning victims rather than indulging in any flesh ripping. I’d assume this was budgetary concern, but there have been films made for about 14p that managed to have some gore effects.
On the plus side, the zombie make up isn’t bad, these things look like they’re decaying, and the repeated image of several zombies rising out of the water in their uniforms and goggles does manage to be creepy on occasion. On the whole though, this shambles forward to little effect.
Dir: Menhaj Huda
I wasn’t expecting much. So called hoodie horror hasn’t really connected with me. The moral panic aspect always seemed distasteful, but I don’t identify with it either, so it never worked on either of the levels it seemed pitched at. That said, Comedown was a little bit of a surprise.
Tasked to put up an aerial on a disused block of flats to broadcast an illegal radio station for the night, Lloyd (Jacob Anderson), his girlfriend Gemma (Sophie Stuckey) and a few of their friends (including Adam Deacon and one of my favourite British actresses, Jessica Barden) break in. Lloyd just wants to do the job and go, but the others want to party. The problem is there’s someone else in the building. Someone who wants them dead.
The best thing about Comedown is how it mixes a variety of horror subgenres. The hoodie horror aspect is there, but that is soon shifted aside for an embrace of the traditional slasher, with a leaning towards Saw in a council flat. The slasher is well executed and pretty brutal, with a nail gun death being particularly nasty. The villain’s identity (and because of it the method of dispatch for one character) is glaringly obvious early on, but director Menhaj Huda makes the most of the sequences of the characters being stalked by the offscreen killer, giving us the sense that he could be just about anywhere. He also creates a foreboding atmosphere in the largely empty flats, the abundance of doors adding to the creepiness.
The script is the weak link here, but the performances are spirited. Jacob Anderson makes for a sympathetic lead, which gives the ending (at least prior to a slightly overextended coda) some punch and the rest of the cast also bring personality to some rather flat dialogue. For her part, Jessica Barden isn’t stretched here, but it’s nice to see her character, Kelly, discover her inner badass when confronted by the killer.
Comedown isn’t a hidden masterpiece, but it’s a good solid piece of genre entertainment, well realised on a low budget, which is more varied and more engaging than you might expect. Take a chance on this one.