Most movie nerds participate in some kind of annual ritual every October, whether it be attempting to cram in (at least) 31 new-to-them horror films over the course of the month or just slightly, generally shifting their viewing habits towards #spookycontent. My own personal project this year was to clear out my stack of unwatched horror DVD & Blu-ray purchases that have been gathering dust since last Shocktober, something I unexpectedly accomplished halfway into the month. That kind of single-genre overload can be a fun, celebratory way to commemorate one of the calendar’s best holidays (second only to Mardi Gras), but it also has a way of flattening the distinguishing details of individual titles. Catching up with a somber, stylistically restrained classic during these annual horror binges is always somewhat risky, as they’re often drowned out by the zanier, more attention-grabbing films you bookend them with. All of that is to say that I finally watched the beloved ghost story The Changeling this month and I did not get much out of the experience. Despite its reputation, I found it merely okay.
A lonely music professor—played with a severe grimace by George C. Scott—grieves a recent tragedy in his family by renting out an Old Dark House near the university where he works and haunting its hallways all by his lonesome. While sulking around this echoing, dusty Gothic palace, he uncovers another familial tragedy from decades past: the murder of a young disabled boy whose ghost becomes his roommate and partner in crime. The professor may not be able to heal the wounds of the abrupt tragedy that wrecked his own family life, but he can at least distract himself from the pain by pursuing justice for this drowned ghost-boy. The resulting vigilante mission is one of somber self-reflection and unexpected political intrigue, pitting the pitiful old man against corrupt politicians and the even more intimidating biddies of The Historical Preservation Society. A few haunting images of underwater phantasma, flaming staircases, and animated wheelchairs occasionally cut through the oppressively quiet, lonely misery that hangs over the house, but for the most part everything remains excessively morbid & low-key.
The other canonized title that The Changeling reminded me of the most was The Exorcist. That may read as a high compliment, but what I mean is that I found it an admirable drama but a boring horror film, unable to see the Exquisite Classic it is in others’ eyes. Weirdly enough, I do get a huge kick out of The Exorcist III, which also stars George C Scott. Go figure. It’s possible that had I seen The Changeling outside of the annual cram-session horror binge of Shocktober rituals, it might have made more of an impact. However, I can’t make too many excuses for it in that context, considering that my favorite new-to-me discovery this month was the 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which isn’t exactly a gag-a-minute riot. Regardless, The Changeling is a film I can’t muster much enthusiasm for outside discussing it in terms of this year’s Halloween season viewing docket. In that spirit, here’s a picture of what my to-watch stack looked like at the start of the season and a best-to-worst ranked list of how much I enjoyed each title.
The 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House is, in a word, a masterpiece. Even with its sterling reputation preceding it, I was shocked to immediately recognize it as such, as its genre and its source material are so overly familiar half a century later that I assumed I’d be numb to its wonders. Jackson’s novel has been both directly adapted and mined for indirect inspiration so many times over that I was skeptical there was anything left to discover in its pages. This MGM-distributed realization of that well-tread source material is also a by-the-books participation in the Old Dark House tradition that was intensely oversaturated in its own era even beyond adaptations of Jackson’s work. And yet I was impressed, captivated, and chilled from start to end – even more reenergized by this traditionalist approach to Jackson’s milieu than I was by Josephine Decker’s revisionist biopic Shirley earlier this year, something I did not at all expect.
It helps that former Val Lewton-collaborator Robert Wise directs the absolute shit out of this movie. The Haunting is shot in early Panavision on what had to be intimidatingly clunky equipment, but you wouldn’t know that judging by how incredibly active the camera is. Even in the opening sequence that explains the history of how the central haunted house “was born bad”, Wise pummels the audience with overachieving visuals. The camera swoops in ghostly, seemingly handheld maneuvers. It tumbles down the stairs in dizzying thuds. It emphasizes its format’s already drastically wide aspect ratio with fish-eye lenses out of a 1990s skateboarding video, drinking in as much ornate detail of the haunted house set as it can possibly cram down its gullet. Much of the in-the-moment action of The Haunting consists of people calmly talking in chilly, hollow rooms, but the film’s visual language is explosively alive throughout – matching the way the environment itself is quiet but teeming with ghosts.
I’m surprised this film isn’t brought up more often when people are heaping praise on classics like Psycho & Carnival of Souls in particular. It could be that its bulked-up budget scale obscures the common ground it shares with those leaner works, but it achieves a similarly eerie mood, especially in mapping out the inner life of its central, doomed protagonist, Eleanore. In a lot of ways, The Haunting is a seduction story. Eleanore is wooed by Hill House both in a romantic sense (its ghosts often play matchmaker between her and other visiting guests of various genders & vital stats) and in a residential sense. She begins the film haunted by her own mediocrity and her lack of a place in the world—dismissed by everyone around her (give or take her lesbian roommate) as a nervous, difficult woman—but the house accepts her flaws and all, beckoning for her to become a permanent fixture among the resident ghosts. It’s an unusually internal, intangible struggle for a genre built around haunted house scares – a delicate, elegant approach to horror that matches the care Wise takes with the film’s visual delights.
The Haunting is impressively smart, funny, and direct about even its touchiest themes (lesbian desire, generational depression, suicidal ideation) while remaining consistently gorgeous & creepy throughout. I’d be shocked to learn that there’s a more effectively scary G-rated horror film out there; and if there were, I doubt it’s this visually imaginative or exquisitely staged. This is clearly the pinnacle of the Old Dark House tradition. The only question is how many other Best Of __ horror lists it belongs at the top of.
The Indonesian ghost story Impetigore shocked me, chilled me, and left me guessing where its story was headed until its very last minute. That’s an extremely rare quality to find in a modern horror film, especially one that sticks this close to the tones & conventions of its genre. In an ideal, perfectly-functioning movie industry, Impetigore would be the kind of well-funded horror flick that hits wide theatrical release regularly: handsomely staged, efficiently creepy beyond the traumatizing shock of its imagery, and complicated enough in its mythology that it’s not just a simple morality play. Instead, it’s an international export that premiered to mildly positive reviews at this year’s Sundance before quietly finding its way to streaming on Shudder with little fanfare. Impetigore should be an industry norm. Instead, it’s a minor miracle.
It starts with a concise, conceptually brilliant cold open in which a highway tollbooth employee is stalked and eventually hunted in her glass cuboid prison by a machete-wielding maniac. Before he raises his weapon for the deathblow, the crazed killer complains in a reasonable, weary tone, “We don’t want what your family left behind. Please take it away.” That short-story slasher intro then opens up to a much wider, richer tale of an intergenerational curse. A young, desperate woman treks back to her seemingly well-to-do family’s isolated village, hoping to reclaim any generational wealth she may have left behind when she was whisked away to the big city as a child. It turns out her family’s domineering presence in the village is represented by more than just a large house & a fear-inciting name. It also lingers in the form of a vicious curse that torments & disfigures each new generation of the community, so that whatever exploitative evils they committed in the past continue to haunt the present in an active, malicious cycle.
Reductively speaking, Impetigore offers an on-the-surface metaphor about the persistent evils of communal betrayal & inherited wealth. However, the rules & origins of its ghostly curse mutate & self-complicate often enough that it doesn’t feel lazily considered or over-simplified. That’s rare in a modern horror film, where each plot development is typically expected to hold some metaphorical Meaning in a 1:1 allegory. Impetigore’s relationship with Extreme Gore freak-outs is similarly distinctive in the modern horror landscape – walking a difficult balance of being gradually, severely fucked up without rubbing your face in the grotesque details of its cruelty. This is a film that weaponizes your imagination against you for maximum dread, then somehow exceeds the worst-case-scenario imagery you conjure instead of shying away from the discomfort (often by depicting horrific violence against children in particular, it should be said). It’s also a movie that features several traditional Indonesian puppet shows, just in case you’re not already thoroughly entertained.
I very much wish Impetigore weren’t exceptional, that its handsomely executed but appropriately bleak grotesqueries were just another shock-of-the-day horror. As is, it feels like a role model for how well-funded modern horror should look & operate – offering a glimpse of a better, more fucked-up cinematic landscape. It is exceptional, and it should be celebrated as such.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss the haunted house creeper A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and where it fits in with the modern wave of internationally exported Korean genre films.
– Mark “Boomer” Redmond & Brandon Ledet
I’ve already spilled gallons of digital ink praising high-concept horror films about The Evils of The Internet and how technology is going to kill us all. I promise it’s not a bit. I’m genuinely enamored with movies that fully commit to an Online Horror gimmick, especially the ones that hone in on a specific app or social media platform for a temporal anchor (Skype in Unfriended, OnlyFans in Cam, CandyCrush in #horror, Snapchat in Sickhouse, Facebook timelines in Friend Request, etc.). The argument against the Online Horror gimmick is that it makes these films feel instantly dated, which I’d contend is more of a virtue than a fault. We spend so much of our modern lives online, navigating virtual spaces, that it feels outright dishonest that contemporary cinema would not reflect that digitized reality. Yet, it seems only gimmicky horror films are the ones brave enough to truthfully document & preserve our daily “lived” experience. They’re no more dated than Citizen Kane was for capturing the media mogul megalomania of contemporary figures like William Randolph Hearst or Casablanca was for reflecting America’s selfish isolationism in the earliest days of WWII. Evil Internet novelty horrors capture the moods & textures of our current era, where most of our lives play out in the eerie spaces beyond touchscreens & keyboards.
In that context, the new Shudder original Host is likely to remain one of the most vital, honest films released this year. Written, filmed, edited, and released in the months since the world went into lockdown for the current COVID-19 pandemic, Host is an instantly dated horror film and damn proud of it. Like the real-time Skype session gimmick of Unfriended (and plenty of other online found footage horrors besides), the film is staged as a fictional hour-long Zoom meeting. It’s a digital space many of us have had to become quickly acquainted with in recent months as working remotely has become more of a norm. Host smartly builds a lot of its scares around Zoom-specific quirks like the eeriness of lag time, the obscured view of pixilation, the uncanny-valley creepiness of artificial backgrounds & facial-recognition filters, and the feedback echo of a user logging into the same meeting on two separate devices. Its end credits are even scrolled through as a Zoom Participants list, which is a wonderfully thorough commitment to the premise. Other COVID-era details like a character scrambling to put on a face mask before fleeing out of their apartment or a young couple in quarantine becoming increasingly frustrated with each other’s constant presence drives home the nowness of the film even further for a shockingly unnerving experience. A decade from now (assuming we’re all alive a decade from now), this will be a priceless cultural time capsule of what life has been like this incredibly bizarre year. Of course, watching it while those wounds are still fresh only makes it more perversely fun & horrific in the interim.
Story-wise, there’s not much going on here that hasn’t already been accomplished in Unfriended (or Unfriended 2: Dark Web or Searching or The Den or so on). If anything, this is basically just a kinder, gentler Unfriended with genuinely likeable characters. That doesn’t necessarily make it an improvement on the formula, but it at least opens it up to a different flavor palate. A group of college-age women gather in a Zoom meeting for an online séance led by a spiritual guide who becomes disconnected mid-call, leaving them vulnerable to whatever ghosts or demons they may have conjured in the process. They’re generally likeable kids, and their only sin, really, is not taking the idea of an online séance very seriously (a sentiment likely shared by most of the film’s audience), which results in supernatural backlash from spirits on the other side of barrier between realms. Once the spirits start punishing these women for their careless indulgences in sarcasm & edgelord humor (they seem to be particularly miffed about a tasteless suicide joke), the movie mostly devolves into a series of haunted house gags where each Zoom participant is snuffed out one by one. The scares are impressively staged, combining practical & computerized effects to really stretch how much can be collaboratively achieved in a social-distance lockdown. And, honestly, it’s impressive that anything was achieved at all, considering how difficult it’s been to complete simple tasks and function as a human being in recent months.
Perhaps the most COVID-aware aspect of Host is that it’s only an hour long, which graciously accommodates how scattered & limited our attention spans have been since the world stopped in its tracks. Even if you’re not fully convinced that this kind of high-gimmick novelty horror about The Evils of The Internet is worthy of your attention, that hour-long commitment is such a small ask. It’s unlikely that we’ll see another feature film this year that so directly, accurately captures what life is like right now, and I’m honestly not shocked that my beloved Online Horror subgenre was the engine that got us there. It’s perfectly suited for that kind of of-the-moment documentation, with plenty of other entertaining payoffs besides.
It was only a matter of time before Taika Waititi’s brand of sweet, understated humor started registering as a direct influence on other comedic media. I already felt that influence last year on the minor Kiwi comedy The Breaker Upperers (which was produced by Waititi and featured several of his regular collaborators), but this year’s Extra Ordinary feels like evidence that it’s now reaching out even further into the ether. Borrowing a humble, reserved approach to the horror comedy genre that Waititi previously explored in What We Do in the Shadows, Extra Ordinary is an absurdly polite, underplayed farce about ghost hunters in small-town Ireland. It’s not quite as comedically successful as Waititi’s modern-day vampire comedy (nor the What We Do in the Shadows TV show, nor its closest competitor Los Espookys), but it does nail the lowkey charm that made it such a success. This is an adorably sweet, character-driven comedy about relatable people dealing with a seemingly insurmountable crisis they don’t deserve to suffer; that crisis just happens to involve demons, ghosts, and other supernatural phenomena.
A meek, reclusive driving instructor with a past as a paranormal medium (Maeve Higgins) is drawn out of her shell to help stop a washed-up rock star (Will Forte) from completing a Satanic sacrifice that would revive his career. The ghosts she encounters along the way are mostly pretty mundane, taking the shape of animated electrical appliances, squawking birds, and a domestically abusive, chain-smoking housewife. She reluctantly gets back into the rhythm of interacting with these apparitions for the sake of saving her nemesis’s intended virgin sacrifice. That sounds like a heroic cause in the abstract, but the process mostly involves making her equally shy love interest vomit up a semen-like ectoplasm after briefly engaging each ghost in a polite chat. Even the Satanic ritual at the climax is undercut from achieving anything genuinely Cool or Horrific by mundane interruptions like minor traffic accidents, bickering couples, and Chinese food delivery. It’s an extremely silly, absurd movie when considered in totality, but in the moment everything is so aggressively pleasant that its cartoonish qualities don’t immediately register.
It takes a minute for Extra Ordinary’s sense of humor to fully heat up, by which I mean that it takes the audience a minute to adjust to its characters’ peculiarly muted wavelengths. The film is plenty funny once it builds that momentum, though, and it eventually stages a hugely satisfying farcical payoff in its final Satanic showdown that makes everything that preceded feel like a movie-long setup to a remarkably solid punchline. It traffics in grotesque, horrific scenarios involving demonic possessions, domestic abuse, and paranormal sex fluids, but the characters who navigate them are so quietly sweet that you hardly notice how harsh or over-the-top the whole thing feels from afar. It’s close enough to the Waititi formula that you recognize the influence, but specific enough in its own characterizations that it succeeds at being its own distinct thing. It’s also the kind of comedy that likely rewards repeat viewings, since it centers remarkably sweet characters you can’t help but want to spend more time with once you get to know them.
As bottomless as my hunger for low-grade genre trash can be in general, I do have a limited appetite for particular cheap-o subgenres that I never developed a proper palate for. One of my most glaring shortcomings as a B-movie enthusiast is a dulled, limited appreciation for the martial arts film. I’m not talking about artily psychedelic wuxia epics or the 1980s heyday of Hong Kong visionaries like John Woo. I mean the real cheap stuff, the kind of public domain outliers that pad out local broadcast television schedules. While I grew up watching tons of sci-fi & horror schlock on TV, I don’t remember martial arts cheapies ever being part of that diet. As a result, I have a hard time brushing off my annoyances with the genre’s worst idiosyncrasies—mainly the inert sense of pacing and the repetitive fight choreography sound effects from its near-universally shoddy English dubs—things I’d likely find more charming had I been indoctrinated with this stuff at an earlier age.
In an effort to meet martial arts schlock halfway as a latecomer to genre, I’ve been seeking out fringe titles where it overlaps with the horror tropes I’m more accustomed to. The “boutique” bargain bin Blu-ray label Gold Ninja Video has been an excellent resource in this endeavor, releasing such horror-tinged martial arts titles as the post-modern Brucesploitation castoff The Dragon Lives Again and the delightfully amateurish wuxia nightmare Wolf Devil Woman in the past year, both of which I enjoyed immensely. While I wasn’t quite as enamored with their recent selection Kung-Fu Zombie as those other two titles, it did help further drag me into an appreciation for horror-themed martial arts schlock in a couple key ways. Firstly, it includes an excellent video essay from critic (and label-runner) Justin Decloux titled “Punch a Ghost: A Beginner’s Guide to Hong Kong Horror” that highlighted the charm & historical context of the subgenre (along with a 90-minute “Hong Kong Horror Trailer Reel” packed with recommendations for what to watch next). More importantly, Kung-Fu Zombie itself was one of the quickest-paced films I have ever seen in any genre, which sidestepped one of my usual sticking points with martial arts schlock in particular.
Kung Fu Zombie is a public domain Taiwanese martial arts horror cheapie that’s very light on spooks & gore but plentiful in broad comedy & breakneck fight choreography. It mostly concerns a father-son duo who’re haunted by criminal nemeses from their past. The son’s petty dispute is with a thief whose robbery he interrupted, landing the scoundrel in jail. Once released, the thief hires a Taoist priest to reanimate a small militia of corpses to attack his foil as retribution, fearing the young hero’s superior fighting skills in one-on-one combat. Through a series of mishaps, the thief & the priest manage to resurrect a vicious murderer with a heartless vendetta against the hero’s father (and martial arts trainer) as well, a much more formidable foe our hero has unknowingly been training to defeat his entire life. The title is something of a misnomer. This really isn’t a Romero-style zombie invasion picture with fight choreography interludes as much as it is a full-on martial arts picture that happens to feature a grab bag of generically Spooky archetypes: a couple zombies, a ghost, occultist rituals, etc. It’s all played more for broad humor than genuine horror atmosphere, which is fine, except that the jokes aren’t especially funny (and often backslide into juvenile sexual assault humor at women’s expense).
While the horror elements of this genre-hybrid cheapie didn’t deliver anything especially memorable, the kung-fu sequences are plentiful and plenty entertaining on their own. The movie is insanely shrewd in its editing – speeding up & trimming down everything surrounding those fights until all that’s left is a lean 78-minute whirlwind. Kung-Fu Zombie isn’t nearly as funny nor as innovative as the Peter Jackson classic, but the way it delivers broad jokes & a wide range of classic spooks at a breakneck pace makes it feel like the martial arts equivalent of Dead Alive. I won’t say that it was a mind-blowing revelation that cracked open the martial arts genre for me as an outsider or anything, but its rapid-fire looniness made for an amusing enough novelty, one I likely should have enjoyed with friends & beers instead of alone on the couch as a midnight snack. I plan to continue seeking out these cheap-o titles where horror & martial arts schlock overlap just to expand my appreciation of everything low-end genre filmmaking has to offer. Even if this particular film didn’t fully hit the spot, its Gold Ninja Video release gifted me with dozens of other titles in its same vicinity that look even more promising. It’s more of a breezy genre primer than it is its genre’s artistic pinnacle.
I purchased a Blu-ray copy of Impossible Horror mostly as a means of contributing financial support to a podcaster I admire. The film’s director, Justin Decloux, cohosts The Important Cinema Club out of Toronto, where he also programs repertory genre screenings under the Laser Blast Film Society brand. The film arrived with an endearing thank-you note from Decloux’s creative partner Emily Milling, who scored, co-produced, and contributed sound editing on the film (likely among other duties). I’m mentioning all of this to note that Impossible Horror is very much a microbudget backyard production, a modern entry in the Regional Horror canon with all the charms & limitations that descriptor implies. Decloux & Milling briefly appear in the film themselves as side characters among a local community of friends & collaborators (including Important Cinema Club’s other cohost, Will Sloan) as their film’s “backyard” setting expands into the late-night urban streets of Toronto. Taking a gamble on these kinds of no-budget horror cheapies is always a tough sell for anyone outside the local social circles that appear on the screen in that way, but Impossible Horror is overflowing with enough creative ideas & genuine genre fandom that it’s well worth the effort. A 76min, dialogue-light sampler of a wide range of well-staged scares (ghost possessions, cursed VHS tapes, evil dolls, suicide cults, etc.) the film is very careful to not test its audience’s patience. Decloux & Milling are clearly fans of this D.I.Y. end of genre filmmaking themselves. Along with co-writer Nate Wilson, they energetically flood the screen with the ideas & imagery they love to see in these kinds of movies, conscious of just how easily the exercise could slip into tedium if they eased off the gas pedal. The result is surprisingly effective considering the limitations of their means, even if there are instances where they have to prompt the audience to [imagine a bigger budget here].
All this talk of backyard D.I.Y. art productions would normally be extratextual, but Impossible Horror is largely a film about outsider art & for-its-own-sake creativity. Sinking into the emotional slump that follows a devastating romantic breakup, our protagonist finds herself unsure what to do with her sudden influx of alone time beside throwing herself back into long-abandoned creative projects – drawing comics & making films. She first picks up her old video camera out of spite for The Asshole who left it behind in the breakup, but soon finds herself supernaturally compelled to see her new filmmaking project through. Unable to sleep through her heartache & her resentment of The Asshole, she finds herself going on late-night walks in those eerie post-midnight hours when, as Whodini would say, The Freaks come out. Suddenly, the absence of dialogue that comes with living alone is supplanted by a torrent of mysterious, paranoid ramblings from a newfound friend discovered on those late-night walks. Our once-lonely protagonist spends the rest of the film sinking further into her new friend’s own creative project: investigating a phenomenon of ghostly screams that routinely echo in the night and are always accompanied by mysteriously materialized objects – typewriters, VHS cassettes, dildos, hammers, etc. Solving the origin, meaning, and answer to this paranormal puzzle can often feel like trying to work your way through the storyline of a video game after skipping all of the dialogue screens that explain everything. What’s more important is that our protagonist reacts to this confounding experience by obsessively documenting it for an amateur film at the risk of her own safety & sanity. It can be difficult to track what the story is logically doing from minute to minute, but it all ultimately adds up to a Lovecraftian splatter comedy about amateur artists being driven mad by their own creativity. That’s a fitting theme for a no-budget movie made among friends that’s so ambitious in how it doles out its synths, gore, and ghosts that even this long-winded paragraph is only scratching the surface of its full narrative.
It does feel like a little bit of a betrayal to reduce Impossible Horror to its value as a backyard horror production & a nightmare-logic splatter comedy. Usually, horror films on this scale apologize for their limited means by leaning into their camp value, intentionally playing up their “so-bad-it’s good” humor. The earnestness of Impossible Horror is something much braver; its scares, jokes, and practical effects are all genuine attempts to make the best movie possible under the circumstances, all with a surprising success rate. The most poignant scene in the film is a voiceover performance from the protagonist as she shows her new ghost-hunter friend an old short film she made, continually apologizing for its quality in cruel self-deprecation. Every theme explored in the film is on display in full potency in that moment: how we’re haunted by our own past, the never-ending ways we self-harm, the insuppressible urge to keep making outsider amateur art even though putting your own work out in the world is fucking embarrassing. As fans of the microbudget horror genre on its own terms, Decloux & Milling instinctively understand the need to deliver the goods elsewhere, filling the screen with plenty gross-out gore & slapstick gags to entertain fellow fans of the Regional Horror tradition. What sets Impossible Horror apart from most of those self-published films, however, is its earnest, ambitious reach for something greater than a winking-at-the-camera joke. It’s wiling to comment at length about its own limited means, but only in a genuine exploration of how making art on this scale walks a fine line between partying with friends & overworking yourself into a lethal mania. Not everything it hurls at the screen to entertain the audience (and the creators) works, especially not all in tandem, but it does amount to a genuinely satisfying reflection on the nature of loneliness & self-published art in the 2010s. It’s the kind of D.I.Y. art project that’ll make you want to seek out & support more outsider films on its scale & budget, if not make some of your own – perhaps to your own peril.