Although it’s now receiving the accolades it deserved all along, John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy--The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness--has been through some rough times. Part of the blame rests with The Thing, a critical darling and, to be fair, one of the greatest horror movies ever produced, remake or not. It’s a bonafide classic, with all the hallmarks of a classic; and whether the technical aspects of Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness measure up to it or not, it can’t be denied that all three movies are pieces of a singular vision, one that owes as much to H.P. Lovecraft as it does to the westerns John Carpenter so loves to emulate, and whose mix of Wild West grit and gooey existential horror even feels, at times, like a spiritual ancestor to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.
Prince of Darkness is at once the silliest and most mysterious entry in the trilogy, and far more deserving of praise than its reputation suggests. Whether or not Carpenter knows what he wanted to say or do with its witches’ brew of theology, mathematics, and eschatology, it’s a novel and absorbing concoction only let down only by tough sell of a plot--although, amid the movie’s aura of intrigue and those ominous synth-strikes on the score, its outlandishness doesn’t really set in until after that haunting final shot. Prince of Darkness is the story of a group of university students brought together to study and decipher a series of mathematical and audiovisual phenomena occurring at a local church. These phenomena, we discover soon enough, are caused by a glowing green canister in the basement of the church. This canister is...Satan.
Carpenter never directly adapted Lovecraft, which is a shame: he nails the point of his fiction that we discussed back in Re-Animator. Prince of Darkness isn’t out to make us afraid of some green slime--the horror comes from its dramatic reframing of Genesis, positing that Jesus Christ and Satan were aliens, creatures of unknown origin whose feud defined our evolution, but wasn’t necessarily intended to (sound familiar?). It implies our existence is accidental, trivial, and unimportant, which is a horrifying prospect all on its own. It doesn’t need recurring dreams, body horror, or Alice Cooper as the leader of the horde of zombie-like Satan-worshippers that surround the church as night falls--but they certainly don’t hurt!
Mindhunter - David Fincher
There's something about a Fincher movie that's intoxicating to watch. Is it his meticulous directing that seems to capture every detail with ease? How his perfect camera movements that seem to hijack your eyes? Or is it just his understanding of his audience? It could be any one of them or none, but his work has such an impact on both ends of the audience spectrum. Without fail, Fincher will focus his efforts into something that takes him years and delivers a product that will floor critics and general audiences. I personally find Zodiac to be his best work, and it even crept up my favorite films of all time, ranking second. It’s a film that fuses slasher-style horror and police procedural, all while exploring how obsession can affect even the strongest will. By proxy, the actual case becomes as fascinating as the film and can drive you to your own little investigation. When word came through the grapevine that Fincher would be returning to the realm of serial killers and crime drama, every other season premiering this year went on the backburner. Sorry Mr. Robot, Stranger Things, Shameless, and final season of Halt and Catch Fire: there was never any winning this fight.
In the climate that arose following the Charles Manson murders, and other perplexingly heinous crimes, the FBI who observed these monsters through the lens of their classical understanding of criminality were dumbfounded. Special Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), a greenhorn hostage negotiator, sees the flawed system and sets out to understand the psychology of these individuals in hopes of uncovering their hidden motives ,or even commonalities that might help identify perpetrators in dead-end cases. The study leads him to Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) from the Behavioral Science Unit at the Bureau, and the two travel the country teaching local law enforcement about profiling. These visits sometimes gets them involved in local cases, and later helps facilitate interviews with high-profile killers.
This show is not for the faint-hearted. The investigations may not always be explicitly graphic, but the interviews can get under the skin of even seasoned viewers. Listening to someone like Edmund Kemper eloquently recount the murder of his mother will chill you to the bone. In those moments, it doesn’t feel like peering into the mind of a madman, but assuming his position. Much like the 1983 film Angst, the unfiltered monologue reaches beyond Holden and Bill to grasp the audience’s hand for the journey. The disturbing nature of these interviews may turn some viewers away; I have no doubt about it, and I wouldn’t argue. What certainly adds to the effect is Fincher’s preference for unflinching camera work, and the dichotomy between Holden and Bill. Bill is a grizzled, hardened agent that seems to embody the classical philosophies of the Bureau, while Holden is shockingly open-minded. Learning about these people disconcertingly flips a switch in him; he becomes apathetic or perverse in response to their stories, baiting and provoking interviewees into opening up. Mindhunter is all about interactions between people and their stories, which make it more compelling than most procedurals: there isn’t a DNA test or a call for forensic evidence in sight.
The cast is well rounded, and while the majority are typecast, they deliver good performances--at worst, serviceable. It’s questionable where Groff, who plays Holden, falls on that spectrum. Whether it's the actor or how the character is written, this character seems to broadcast some mixed messages. Constant exposure to these kinds of people certainly takes a toll on Holden throughout the season, but his transformation is spotty, and unnaturally fast. Taking a quick look at a confrontation late in the season, Holden is visited by the wife of a man whose life was destroyed following Holden’s involvement. There is clearly shock and regret in his eyes, but immediately after, he brushes it off as nothing. There may be an argument that this transition from false remorse to dismissal is simply a side effect of the job, but it’s an angle that I’m still grappling with.
There are a few other issues that boil down to creative choices that Fincher may have delegated since he’s never worked on a full-length series before. Even though Fincher personally directs most of the season, the others are clearly do their best to replicate his work; and although they were probably working closely with Fincher, things still fall through the cracks. There are some brief moments of tonal clash, mainly with scene changes and transitions between cuts. They feel unexpectedly light. It's a tightrope walk, as evident when you compare Mindhunter to Zodiac, whose lighter moments never feel out of place. Lastly, there's the giant bold text that covers the screen for many major city changes. Just making the text smaller so the viewer can see what's going on in the moment would be an improvement, but the text also appears when we return to cities whose significance we’ve already established and recognize. The text is unnecessary in those moments. Nitpicky, I know, but it’s Fincher’s attention to detail that lends his work such extraordinary elegance.
The buzz surrounding Mindhunter is louder than it was for Zodiac, and while there's a lot to compare, I don’t think it approaches the greatness of Zodiac. That being said, it is undoubtedly the movie’s spiritual cousin and shares some of its atmosphere. While you may need to take a breather after a few episodes, the show is still bingeable, and if push comes to shove, there are logical breaks that let you off the hook if you can’t watch another episode immediately (*cough* Stranger Things *cough*). It's more proof that Fincher can really do no wrong, even working in an unfamiliar format.
- Alex B.
Yet another slice of Kiwi goodness, Braindead (more tamely retitled Dead Alive, thanks to some rights issues) is an insane piece of horror filmmaking from the suburbs of New Zealand. Let me emphasize the “insane” bit: this is not a movie for fans of understated haunted house flicks or traditional ghosts and under-the-skin fare. Braindead is a geyser of viscera and mayhem that is constantly and rapidly topping itself with scene after scene of gore and mayhem, and is about as politically incorrect as horror movies can get without getting maliciously crass. Give it about twenty minutes and you’ll see why this is such a feat.
Braindead begins with a cold-open in the canyons of Skull Island, where the mythical (and, indeed, fictional) Sumatran rat-monkey has been tracked down and caught for the first time. It is shipped away to be displayed in a zoo. A stop-motion animated atrocity that probably didn’t look any good then, the rat-monkey is where some viewers will jump off. Those that stick around will be rewarded with Lionel (Timothy Balme). He’s a teenager, who looks more like twentysomething, smitten with Paquita Maria Sanchez, a local shopkeeper’s daughter, but he is unable to so much as ask her on a date thanks to his domineering mother (Elizabeth Moody). The two plotlines intersect when Lionel asks her anyway, and the two head to the local zoo, where Lionel’s mother follows them to spy. She strays a little too close to the rat-monkey exhibit and is bitten, setting off a chain of events that just has to be seen to be believed.
I cannot stress the insanity of this movie enough, but suffice to say that you’re going to see at least one sequence you never thought possible. There are some familiar ideas, like ominous tarot readings, midnight cemeteries, and zombies, thrown into the mix; but they’re nothing compared to the dinner scene, the priest, the animal stimulants, the baby stroller, and the siege of Lionel’s mother’s Victorian mansion, where all bets are definitively off and someone sentient intestines admire themselves in a mirror. Does that sound like I just spoiled a major surprise? I haven’t. There’s so much going on by that point, and so much still to happen, that you’ll probably forget all about it.
Braindead takes the cake as the most over-the-top movie I’ve seen, like The Evil Dead movies gassed silly with the jenkem of Hausu and Happiness of the Katakuris. It’s also unquestionably the goriest movie I’ve ever seen, even accounting for Aftermath and Inside (A’linterieur)--so if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to go on a drug-fueled killing spree with, say, a lawnmower, this is your perfect simulation.
And who, you might be wondering, directed this still-banned-in-several-countries movie?
Peter "Lord of the Rings" Jackson.
Night of the Demons is a treasure. Specifically, buried treasure--it’s another entry in the long line of ’80s horror movies about teens getting their comeuppance when they take the party to a haunted locale, but all the elements that would normally come into question for critical analysis are just dressing with this movie. The real attraction is its unabashed Halloween spirit, a holiday gusto that surges out of the screen from the opening credits: an animated sequence like something out of Scooby-Doo without the Mystery Gang. The cast are Cabin in the Woods archetypes all, their unique traits and differences are mapped out in no uncertain terms. They’re preparing for a night at Hull House, an abandoned and supposedly haunted mortuary that was the site of a grisly murder-suicide, and….
We know this drill. The movie really get started when an invisible spirit zooms, Evil Dead-POV style, out of the basement furnace and up the stairs, hauling us from one Halloween-drenched sequence to the next, dropping one-liners left and right--“Eat a bowl of fuck!” being only one of the movie’s many choice selections of dialogue--and images you couldn’t erase with a brand. There’s ’80s horror legend Linnea Quigley bending down to grab some dropped candy; a strobe-light dance sequence with legendary Goth-chick-turned-flesh-craving-demon Angela, whose visage adorns the movie’s famous original poster art; and, of course, the disappearing lipstick. You’ll know it when you see it. There’s also a perfectly macabre little subplot involving an old couple and their mismatched outlooks on Halloween, culminating in a sharp satire of a certain holiday myth.
Night of the Demons is a blast. You can smell the rotting pumpkin guts and taste the chocolate smeared across the script, and for once, its sequel is equally inspired despite a new director and slightly different writers--so feel free to extend your stay at Hull House a little while more, if so inclined. “Happy Halloween, dear!”
H.P. Lovecraft is a notoriously difficult writer to adapt because his stories lack the visceral grit or overt relatability that characterize later, more bankable authors like Elmore Leonard and Stephen King. His fiction tends to feature highly rational people, often scientists, confronted by total irrationality, which drives them to madness through the simple fact of their existence rather than the number of tentacles on their unutterable bodies or syllables in their unspeakable names. This is a point most adaptations don’t seem to grasp--it’s the offense to our sense of cosmic order, and not the offender, that constitutes Lovecraftian horror.
Stuart Gordon doesn’t give a fuck. His three adaptations of the Rhode Islander’s work (and a half, if we’re counting his Masters of Horror segment for “Dreams in the Witch-House”) miss the point and yet stand as the very best Lovecraft movies we have, each a ferociously entertaining and fun movie in its own right. Of the three, Re-Animator is the very best, a re-imagining of one of Lovecraft’s (ironically) least Lovecraftian stories, “Herbert West - Re-Animator.” It was lauded on release, remained a cult horror staple through the years, and has rightfully entered the horror pantheon as one of the best-loved horror movies of the 80s with Arrow Video’s recent deluxe edition, featuring the 86-minute theatrical cut and the 106-minute extended cut, available for the first time in North America. It’s a big deal.
Ostensibly a mad scientist story, it follows the brilliant Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) from his botched tenure in Switzerland to the fictional Miskatonic University of New England, where he intends to continue his experiments with reanimation: bringing the dead to life. A couple of things get in his way: friction with Miskatonic professor Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), and medical student roommate Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), who isn’t much of a fan of West--especially after he kills his cat Rufus. West and Cain are forced into an uneasy partnership when Dr. Hill’s lust for Cain’s girlfriend Megan Halsey (the incredible Barbara Crampton) goes too far. The movie catches its tempo the moment Rufus is resurrected, and never stops: it’s a blistering ride through zombies, decapitations, nudity, murder, and more, summing up to a near-perfect horror movie and an indispensable October viewing.
On the surface, Let Us Prey bears a few similarities to Last Shift, released the same year. Both movies follow troubled cops in unfriendly environments, which both happen to be police stations, but Let Us Prey has the upper hand in sheer madness. Officer Rachel Heggie (Pollyanna McIntosh, of The Woman, Tales of Halloween, and most recently The Walking Dead) is stuck on overnight duty at a police station in the unpleasant company of nymphomaniacs, drunk teenagers, and a sinister older gentleman in a dapper overcoat (Liam Cunningham). As the night goes on, it becomes clear that something isn’t right, and things go from bad to worse, and then get even worse.
The building in Last Shift is haunted by the ghosts of a cult that worshiped something older and more evil than Satan, although their scare tactics are indistinguishable from your usual Satanist hijinks (however well-staged). The building in Let Us Prey isn’t haunted, per se, but all police stations have a certain mood after dark--one of loneliness, of dark and wet; and they usually hang onto the smell of puke, sweat, and cigarettes. It’s not hard to imagine that stench just looking at the dimly-lit interiors of Let Us Prey, but they take on a new dimension when Liam Cunningham stops by to visit. He doesn’t have a name other than Six, which is the number of the cell Officer Heggie locks him into, but coupled with the opening scene--where he appears amid the chaotic ocean spray and ancient rocks of the Irish coast, coat swishing and a murder of crows circling overhead--it’s hard not to imagine him as some devil, if not the devil.
Other than smoke, glower, and growl some ominous dialogue, he doesn’t do much other than brood in his cell, like a cross between Hannibal Lecter and The Exorcist’s possessed Regan, but he doesn’t need to. His mere presence seems to incite, or elicit, the very worst in those trapped with him at the police station--and for Game of Thrones fans more accustomed to seeing Cunningham play devil’s advocate as Ser Davos than plain old devil, watching him sink his teeth into this role a delicious treat all on its own. As the traumas, psychoses, and Biblical mayhem spiral out of control, Officer Heggie, like us, is drawn toward the cool, dark mystery of his character, the black hole around which the movie turns, inviting the viewer to rewatch after rewatch.
“During the dead of winter, a troubled young woman embarks on a mysterious journey to an isolated prep school where two stranded students face a sinister threat from an unseen evil force.” That’s Google’s synopsis. Emma Roberts plays the “troubled young woman” Joan, while the “two stranded students” are Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton). Joan is Kat and Rose are stranded at their Catholic prep school, which just let out for winter break, because Kat’s parents seem to have vanished en route to pick her up. Rose’s didn’t know school was getting out earlier than Friday. It’s decided that Rose, a senior, will watch over freshman Kat until Rose’s parents arrive to take her away and Kat’s situation is sorted out.
The mood is thick and slow as the two storylines dance around each other. For a while, it seems as if they won’t ever meet, but give it time--the movie has to build up a head of disquieting imagery first, so that when things finally begin to fall into place, they do so with the suddenness of an axe striking on concrete. The Blackcoat’s Daughter will just be slow for some; but for others, it’s a movie that positively oozes dread, laying it on as heavy as oil as we wait for an early spark of intrigue--Rose coolly informs her trustee that the school was once the site of some illicit devil-worshipping--to ignite. And it does.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter relies on atmosphere and structure to scare us more than it uses gore, although if that’s what you’re after, you’ll find it here too. Like The Witch and The Babadook, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a Bechdel-approved, psychologically-intensive, bonafide and exemplary piece of atmospheric modern horror, and among the top ten must-sees of the genre this year.
- Brian L.
Ken Russell’s The Devils may be the biggest horror movie ever made--not in sales, not in cultural impact, and not even in notoriety, but purely in size. It’ll hit you about halfway in, all at once, how huge The Devils is, and you’ll sit there incredulous of its obscurity and in awe of its self-appointed, but well-earned prestige. Wikipedia’s summary gives us the structure of the movie: “The Devils is a dramatised historical account of the rise and fall of Urbain Grandier, a 17th-century Roman Catholic priest executed for witchcraft following the supposed possessions in Loudun, France. [Oliver] Reed plays Grandier in the film and Vanessa Redgrave plays a hunchbacked sexually repressed nun who finds herself inadvertently responsible for the accusations.” And that’s only the bones of it.
Watching The Devils is like watching some old-Hollywood mega-epic--think The Ten Commandments; Ben-Hur; Gone With the Wind--shrunken down into a vat of grindhouse trash and left to dry on a stack of softcore erotica. Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave prove themselves actors of the first order, instilling humanity and gravitas in characters that are really just bombastic archetypes, trouncing and crawling and brooding amid eye-wateringly lavish sets. There’s a scene of Redgrave’s Sister Joanne of the Angels simply walking toward the camera, her slumping figure locked in center-screen as she moves through the monastery, that is both sublimely unsettling and an example of the film’s ability to transform the simple into the extraordinary through little more than willpower. Characters unspool grandiloquent monologues to cathedral-like silence or to raving, stadium-sized audiences; they have asides, revealing their innermost motivations to the viewer as if they’re on a stage rather than in front of a camera, feeding into the delicious artifice of the whole experience. Characters indulge in the most repugnant of cruelties and the most debaucherous of pleasures with equal zeal amid a narrative that careens from scenes of torture to scenes of prostitution and bacchanalia; from nightmarish fantasies of the “rape of Christ” to passages of serious religious introspection.
The Devils has been cut, censored, banned, protested, slapped with an X rating. It’s been scorned and admired. It’s been buried and forgotten, dug up and reevaluated. Nothing like this movie has ever been made. Nothing like it will probably ever be made again--and now it’s streaming on Shudder.
Stephen King gets a bad rap, but not always unjustly. His endings are either rushed, sloppy, or too pat--sometimes all three at once, as Mike Flanagan’s otherwise superb adaptation of Gerald’s Game makes clear with its patch-job ending, lifted directly from the novel. But I can assure you, The Night Flier does not have this problem. As easy as it is to rag on his novels, we often forget that King’s short stories--Apt Pupil, The Mist, and of course, The Night Flier--are where the magic lies, and that the movies based on these make for lean, dirty, and engrossing horror movies, to which The Night Flier is no exception. Centered on a corrupt journalist on the trail of a serial killer who quite literally flies by night, draining his victims of blood and take back off into the sky (in a black Cessna Skymaster--settle down, now), it’s a small-scale mystery with more ambition than one might think.
Like Nightcrawler, The Night Flier is about fundamentally corrupt people pursuing their passions to whatever dark ends they lead. Ferrer plaus Richard Dees, a senior journalist and mainstay at a National Enquirer-esque newspaper who lives and works by one of those haunting, haunted little turns of phrase King excels at crafting: “Never believe what you publish, never publish what you believe.” It’s an axiom that worms in and out the movie, its significance shifting and growing in a remarkably accurate recreation of King’s technique on the page once the competition heats up between Dees and upstart reporter Katherine Blair (Julie Entwhistle), both intent on tracking down the enigmatic Night Flier and getting the scoop. Whether or not The Night Flier is as smart as it thinks it is, or as it could be, nothing beats watching Miguel Ferrer sink his teeth into the bitter and cantankerous role of Dees, or watching the tables turn so quickly and satisfyingly on him. Obsession, betrayal, and bloodshed abound, culminating in an ending worthy of The Twilight Zone at it pitch-black best.
The Night Flier is an eerier, more entertaining, and more complete movie than many of its bigger-budget peers can claim. It doesn’t need a massive cast or too many flashy setpieces to get by: all the movie needs is a wonderfully seedy turn from the late Miguel Ferrer, and a gobsmack of an ending to qualify as a truly underappreciated gem of horror.
Whether you’re more of a Pulse/Dark Water fan than a Ju-On/Ringu person, you can recognize the hallmarks of Japanese horror from miles away: loneliness, cramped spaces, and a preoccupation with creepy children are fixtures of the landscape. Oh, and curses, hexes, maledictions--any power or entity too ancient and powerful to combat by conventional means is a staple of the Japanese brand of horror, as are small casts and limited dialogue. More often than not, movies like Audition, Marebito, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and so forth are character studies that use their limited casts and settings to intensify the horror of isolation and vice versa, often in reflection of the ills of Japanese society.
By those rules, Noroi: The Curse barely qualifies. It’s a movie that seems to have read the book on J-horror and decided, “nah.” A spiritual ancestor to The Wailing (and, of course, The Blair Witch Project), Noroi: The Curse is early example of what found-footage horror could have been: patiently, methodically, and with a sense of naturalistic dread so thick you could cut it, Noroi connects the dots between a series of seemingly unrelated incidents all across Japan, spanning the nation and reaching into the long and troubled history of the country as it amasses a headcount of twenty-five central characters (!) and subverts nearly every J-horror trope along the way. Most of the movie occurs in daylight, and the children, for once, are not to be feared.
But in order to preserve Noroi’'s singularly terrifying way of unfolding, I’ll abstain from providing any further plot details. Suffice to say that this is a mystery worth the time and effort to see to the end. It doesn’t mince words and it doesn’t shy away from hard answers, but you might just wish it had.
- Brian L.
"Curtains" is where you can catch movie reviews by the Metal Lifestyle staff.