The Mortuary Collection (2020)

One of the more uniquely charming aspects of horror nerdom is its consistent enthusiasm for the genre. Whereas superfans of pop culture behemoths like Star Wars or the MCU tend to relentlessly complain about the very thing they supposedly love, horror nerds are almost enthusiastic to a fault. There’s no morally repugnant, shittily slapped together frivolity of a horror film that won’t attract some lone weirdo to defend its honor as a highlight of the genre, which is the exact kind of rehabilitative positivity I like to see in online film discourse – even when I personally dislike the movie in question. Unfortunately, that communal enthusiasm does come at a cost. Once you start following enough horror media types from online publications like Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and Dread Central it becomes near impossible to determine which hype cycle to believe and which to ignore. Every week, there’s a fresh slice of direct-to-streaming horror #content that’s met with drooling enthusiasm from online horror geeks, most of it terminally bland at best. The community’s exuberance is infectious, which is how you end up watching hours of serviceable, 3-star titles like Satanic Panic, Porno, The Beach House, and Riot Girls on the promise that they will Totally Blow Your Mind, bro. Puzzling through that persistent enthusiasm to pick out the titles actually worth your time can be exhausting, and it’s a code I’ve been working on cracking for years.

The Mortuary Collection might be one of the few Horror Media-hyped titles from this year that actually meets the expectations set by its rabid enthusiasm online – even if just barely. A by-the-books, straight-to-Shudder anthology film, there shouldn’t be much for this seasonal Halloween programming to live up to. This isn’t a situation like the recent Books of Blood anthology on Hulu, which “adapted” horror legend Clive Barker’s iconic short story collection by draining it of all its intelligence & discomforting sexuality for a flavorless TV show pilot. The Mortuary Collection is an entirely original set of horror vignettes directed by a first-time no-namer (Ryan Spindell) for a streaming service that specializes in churning out mediocre low-budget productions in this exact milieu. Still, it was met with instant online hyperpraise attempting to canonize it as the best horror anthology since Trick ‘r Treat, a guaranteed future cult classic that will be streamed on loop for infinite Halloweens to come. That’s difficult to believe, not only because most direct-to-streaming movies have the cultural longevity of a fart in the wind, but also because I’ve so recently seen a masterful film that pulled off its exact tone & structure to much greater success: 1995’s Tales from the Hood. In both films, an eccentric mortician leads a visiting stranger through a series of vignettes involving the deceased clients in his morbid place of business, while his captive audience reacts to each story incredulously until their own tale is told in due time. Both films are well made. Both mix broad humor, excessive violence, and moralistic social commentary in with their traditional scares. Only one achieves that mixture with a distinctive political or storytelling POV, however, and the other is likely to be forgotten among the dozens of other routine, decently told productions just like it.

If there’s any one thing that distinguishes The Mortuary Collection within the grander horror anthology tradition, it’s Clancy Brown’s performance as the horror-host mortician in the wraparound. Brown has had plenty of memorable, meaty roles as a character actor over the decades (most notably as the creepy preacher from Carnivàle), but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him have this much fun. He is living his full Vincent Price fantasy in the wraparound story (with some hints of Angus Scrimm in his costuming), making a full meal out of every line he’s afforded. His foil is a smartass, jaded teen who’s seen way too many horror movies to be fully won over by his Spooky Mortician schtick, a line of post-Kevin Williamson meta-humor that only underlines how familiar & routine everything surrounding Brown’s performance can feel. And even the novelty of that performance is reminiscent of Clarence Williams III’s over-the-top antics as the kooky mortician in the Tales from the Hood wraparound. Which is fine. The truth is that horror movies don’t have to be wholly original or The Greatest Thing Ever to be worthwhile. I don’t believe The Mortuary Collection earns its initial hype as the next great horror anthology we’re going to be collectively rewatching & discussing every Halloween into perpetuity. It doesn’t meet that metric, but it also shouldn’t have to. It’s worth at least one spooky-season watch as a well-behaved, over-the-plate horror anthology, which is a much more reasonable expectation for productions on its level of budget & prestige – one that many other Horror Nerd Darlings don’t come anywhere near satisfying.

-Brandon Ledet

The World is Full of Secrets (2019)

I often hear cinephile intellectuals on podcasts like Film Comment & The Important Cinema Club evangelize for the merits of #slowcinema, which is typified by long, lingering shots where little to nothing happens onscreen for minutes on end. I don’t know that I’ve ever fully bought their galaxy-brain explanations of how the medium artfully explores the textures of boredom or how the absence of action makes even the tiniest of movement or change mean everything. At least, I haven’t yet reached the point in my amateur cinephilia where I’m actively seeking out these experiments in artful boredom myself. However, this critical exaltation of #slowcinema was very much on my mind throughout the recent New Orleans Film Fest screening of The World is Full of Secrets, despite the film being too dialogue-heavy & eventful to fully qualify for the distinction. This is very much a writer’s movie, composed largely of single-take performances of monologues in intense close-up, deliberately boring its audience and luring us into a trance so that any minor action or change onscreen feels vitally significant. I genuinely can’t believe how much it worked for me as pop entertainment.

Set during a slumber party in 1996 suburbia, The World is Full of Secrets is structured like a horror anthology wherein teen girls take turns answering the prompt “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever heard?” They encourage each other to be as disgusting, terrifying, and brutal as possible. The stories they tell are almost universally about young women who’ve been cruelly battered & torn down by a society that’s been misogynist since the dawn of time. Meanwhile, an offscreen narrator warns that the night will conclude with an act of violence in that very house. This clash between innocence & violence and this eerie undermining of the assumed invincibility of privileged, suburban life aren’t especially novel in a thematic sense, but the way they’re couched in lengthy, meandering monologues instead of proper anthology vignettes feels like a major stylistic gamble (as well as a blatant budgetary choice). The film plays like Are You Afraid of the Dark? reimagined as a traumatizing stage play or audio book – with long takes of sub-professional teen actors struggling to conquer unnecessarily complex monologues. What’s amazing about this set-up is that the film not only finds room to establish a genuinely creepy mood, but it’s often prankishly hilarious and light on its feet despite its potential for academic pretention.

There’s a wry sense of humor on display throughout this chatty horror anthology. It opens with an old-fashioned intro to a 1950s sci-fi horror, as if it were hosted by an Elvira-type TV ghoul. An elderly narrator voice then cuts through to intone “It was the summer of 1996 . . .” as if that date were a hundred years in the past (or maybe this film is a dispatch from a #slowcinema future?). What I loved most, though, is that the film openly acknowledges in its dialogue when it’s boring us, as its lengthy stories of misogynist violence take the non-linear, detail-distracted paths of teens gabbing on a landline. As often happens with #slowcinema—or so I’m told—this absurdly patient approach to narrative leaves the audience in a loopy state where tiny, hallucinatory details that break through the spooky atmosphere register as major events. Did I imagine a skull or the Devil’s talons entering the frame between these lengthy tales of woman-hating cruelty or did those images actually appear onscreen? It’s hard to remember for sure as floods of details from the monologues overwhelm the slumber party drama, but I never lost the sense that the movie was fucking with me and having a great time doing so. I admire that.

This prankish experiment in traditional storytelling, cheeky atmosphere, and artful boredom is obviously not going to be for everyone. About half our audience walked out midway through the screening once they realized the full scope of what we were getting into. I was personally tickled by it. There’s enough layered, soft-focus imagery crammed into its cramped Academy Ratio framing to keep your mind busy as the stories being told lull you into a #slowcinema daze. Once you’re hypnotized in that state, it’s up to the movie whether it wants to creep you out or laugh in your face, depending on its minute-to-minute whims. If nothing else, I greatly enjoyed the tension of not knowing which of those effects it was going to choose next at any given moment.

-Brandon Ledet

The Field Guide to Evil (2019)

In theory, I understand the thinking behind programming a horror anthology like The Field Guide to Evil in the late-night slot at an arthouse theater or on the festival circuit. This is a format typically populated by 80-minute creature feature showcases, where a few like-minded directors put in wildly different short films only tied together by a flimsy wraparound. They’re an excuse to sample different tones & onscreen monsters in bite-sized horror morsels. The classic horror anthology in a genre film nerd party in that way, so it makes sense to relegate them to the late-night slot when those freaks (us) tend to come out. The Field Guide to Evil is a different beast entirely, though. At nearly two hours and often academic in tone, this is a film that would benefit from the sober light of the afternoon rather than the rowdy eeriness of a midnight screening. It’s too long, too dry, and too tonally consistent to satisfy the usual criteria of a fun, breezy horror anthology – which means a lot of festival goers & late night partiers are going to fight the urge to doze off midway through the picture, through no fault of the film’s. It’s just an experience that requires a little alertness in a proper atmosphere.

Whereas most horror anthologies are harshly criticized for being wildly inconsistent in quality & tone from segment to segment, it’s that very variation that gives the format an inherent sense of excitement. Featuring nine filmmakers from eight different countries, you’d think that The Filed Guide to Evil would traffic in that traditional inconsistency, but it’s a very cohesive, evenly curated piece – almost to a fault. The central, unifying conceit of the collection is clear in a way few anthologies are: some of the most exciting new filmmakers in the horror genre (all veterans of Fantastic Film Fest) are gathered to adapt folklore tales from their home countries in any way they see fit. Cautionary tales about djinns, goblins, demons, and witches vary only slightly across national borders, establishing a kind of Brothers Grimm collection for the “elevated horror” era. As an international horror folklore omnibus, the entirety of Field Guide recalls recent genre outliers like The Witch, November, and Tale of Tales, titles that look back to the fantasies & moralistic norms of the past to terrify audiences & diagnose societal ills of the present. The atmosphere, imagery, and academic discussion that arise from that end of the horror filmmaking spectrum can fascinate in the way they stir up an old-world sense of dread. However, it’s also a storytelling mode that requires a little patience & a lot of forgiveness for abrupt, obscured conclusions – which can be very trying at this length with this overwhelming wealth of contributors, especially at a late hour.

As a voracious horror nerd who feels absolutely spoiled by the wealth of talent & #content out there in the current landscape, I found plenty to be excited by in this picture’s impressive lineup of filmmakers. Any anthology that manages to feature contributions from Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy), Agnieszka Smoczynska (The Lure), Veronika Franz, and Severin Fiala (Goodnight Mommy) is automatically going to have my attention. I suspect my biases there determined most of my preferences for individual vignettes. Those specific contributors’ segments were all clear favorites for me, while filmmakers I knew nothing about or whose work I don’t appreciate as much (Baskin’s Can Evrenol, to name names) left me a little cold . . and very sleepy. Strickland’s concluding segment was a particular must-see standout, one that reimagines German Expressionist horror filmmaking in a new, vibrantly psychedelic light I felt lucky to catch on the big screen. I was so deliriously exhausted by the time that conclusion arrived, however, that I feel like I owe it a bright-eyed sober rewatch over a morning coffee to fully soak it in. It’s a dark blessing that this anthology was released on VOD the same weekend as it hit arthouse theaters; most venues are going to be tempted to screen it in a late-hour cult movie slot that does its slow, peculiar rhythms a disservice. As is, I was thrilled by individual images & ideas on display in this horror folklore collection, but too exhausted by its late-night time slot to recall it vividly; it lingers in my mind only as a half-remembered nightmare. I’m hoping I can remedy that dilemma soon with an early morning revisit on my couch.

-Brandon Ledet

Ghost Stories (2018)

It can be amazing how much an ambitious, go-for-broke ending can raise a horror film out of genre-faithful tedium. Every now and then a potentially so-so horror film like The Boy, Marrowbone, or The House on Sorority Row will go so deliriously off the rails in its final stretch that its conclusion will elevate the entire middling picture that unfolded before it to a retroactive artistic high. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film pull that trick off as well as the cheapo British horror anthology Ghost Stories. For most of its runtime, Ghost Stories pretends to be a very well-behaved, Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level horror anthology with open-ended, unsatisfying conclusions to its three mildly spooky vignettes. It turns out that dissatisfaction is deliberate, as it sets the film up for a supernaturally menacing prank on an unsuspecting audience. As its individual pieces start lining up into a clear, distinct gestalt, the film devolves into a playfully bizarre, sinister mindfuck. Ghost Stories had me shrugging off its minor charms as a cheekily funny horror anthology for nearly 2/3rds of its runtime, and then somehow turned the experience around in its final half hour to make me reconsider it as one of the more cleverly conceived genre films I’ve seen all year.

Adapted from a stage play by the same name, Ghost Stories is about an “arrogant & disrespectful” celebrity skeptic with “modern disregard for the spiritual life,” who’s achieved minor fame as the host of the (fictional) television show Psychic Cheats. His life’s work is called into question when his aging hero, another famous skeptic who he’s been worshiping since he was a child, reveals himself to now be a true believer in the paranormal. The older skeptic offers a challenge to the younger one in the form of three unsolved case files he could not himself prove to be hoaxes. Anchored by recognizable Brits Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, and The End of the Fucking World’s Alex Lawther, these three case files are laid out in rigidly segmented vignettes that slowly chip away at the younger skeptic’s sense of reality. Their stories of psych ward hauntings, ghostly apparitions, and woodland demons are a little too toothless in their shocks & gore to leave much of an impression individually. However, as strange, menacing details build up & recur around the skeptic as he investigates the cases, a cold undercurrent beneath the film’s deceptively well-behaved horror anthology surface begins to pick up strength & speed. By the end of the film, the individual case stories cease to matter as a much more sinister narrative builds around the details lurking at the edge of the frame.

As a genre, horror is built on the foundation of disruption. Whether supernaturally or via a real-world force, there must be a break in the daily routine of reality for a film to qualify as horror in the first place. Following titles like Trick ‘r Treat & Southbound that have been playing with the structure of the horror anthology as medium in recent years, Ghost Stories presents its own disruption of reality by way of disguise. The film boldly masks itself as a middling, decent enough supernatural picture for most of its runtime, exploiting audience familiarity with the horror anthology structure to lure viewers into a false, unearned comfort. I’ve never had a film border so close to outright boredom, then pull the rug out from under me so confidently that I felt both genuinely unnerved & foolish for losing faith. That kind of patience is not going to work for everyone. Without the distraction-free environment of a movie theater, I can see many VOD viewers walking away from Ghost Stories mid-film or scrolling through social media throughout, feeling like they’ve already seen everything it has to offer before. The ending only works if you stick with the film’s minor visual details and moments of unexplained pause, affording it patience & attention. It’s a glorious, surprisingly heady prank of a conclusion, though, one of the best horror film turnarounds I’ve ever seen.

-Brandon Ledet

XX (2017)

Traditional horror anthologies are difficult to critique as an artform since they often leave a lot of room for error in experimentation. Recent films like Trick ‘r Treat & Southbound have modernized the horror anthology format into a familiar everything-is-connected structure that used to be a go-to for indie dramas in the mid 00s. This allows characters & storylines to cross paths & blend borders so that each short story segment coagulates into one all-encompassing gestalt. A more traditional horror anthology format would keep each of these segments rigidly separated, connected only through a wraparound buffer. Isolating each segment usually means that the film’s overall value as a collection is often ignored in favor of critiquing each individual story on their own terms. I don’t, for instance, knock Creepshow as a whole just because I despise the segment where Stephen King plays a hick farmer or dismiss Twilight Zone: The Movie because of John Landis or Stephen Spielberg’s duds of contributions. Instead, I tend to forget to even recall those segments and focus entirely on the short form experiments that did work for me: the Howard Hughes archetype who’s terrorized by roaches, that ludicrous Joe Dante segment with the cartoon demons, etc. Horror anthologies, like sketch or improv comedy, allow directors to take big chances in small doses. When these short form experiments pay off, they can be seared in your brain forever. When they fall flat, it’s easy to forget they even exist, which leaves little impact on the overall quality of the anthologies that contain them.

XX is the rare kind of horror anthology where each individual experiment pays off. Four concise, slickly directed, but stylistically varied horror shorts each take a chance on a premise rich enough to justify an 80 minute feature’s leg room, but is instead boiled down to a digestible, bite-sized morsel. The stories are connected only by a delicately beautiful stop-motion wraparound (seemingly inspired by the stop motion animation classic Alice) and the gender of their directors, but together form a solid unit of efficient, effective horror filmmaking where every moving part manages to pull its own weight. The four female filmmakers involved in the project (five if you include the wraparound’s animator Sofia Carrillo) worked independently of each other, unaware of the ways their own contributions might visually or thematically overlap. This goes against recent pushes to homogenize anthology segments into a single everything-is-connected unit (a style at least partly pioneered by one of XX‘s contributors, Southbound producer/co-director Roxanne Benjamin), but feels very much in line with horror anthology classics, not to mention the horror comics like Tales from the Crypt & Tales from the Darkside that inspired them. As a contribution to the horror anthology as a medium & a tradition, XX is a winning success in two significant ways: each individual segment stands on its own as a worthwhile sketch of a larger idea & the collection as a whole functions only to provide breathing room for those short-form experiments. On top of all that, XX also boasts the added bonus of employing five women in directorial roles, something that’s sadly rare in any cinematic tradition, not just horror anthologies.

Although their connections are entirely incidental, three of the four stories told in XX touch on motherhood and the anxiety of raising children in their respective segments. Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son” makes a parent’s fear of their own child a literal threat. Kusama shows her chops as the most accomplished director of the batch (last year’s The Invitation is a must-see) by expertly building tension between a single mother in hiding and her increasingly beastly teenage son. The opening segment, “The Box” is a lot less literal with this anxiety, ruminating on the ways raising children can suck the life out you in a spiritual, philosophical sense reminiscent of a classic Twilight Zone episode or the music video for Radiohead’s “Just. Annie Clark (of St. Vincent, guitar-shredding fame) directs the always-welcome Melanie Lynskey in the segment “The Birthday Party,” which lightens the mood of the motherhood anxiety by ending on its own music video style comedic punchline involving a death at a child’s birthday/costume party. The only outlier of the bunch is “Don’t Fall,” a motherless creature feature set on a camping trip that goes horrifically wrong when a young group of cityfolk desecrate sacred ground in the wild. It’d be understandable to argue that having one outlier in an otherwise thematically​ cohesive collection somewhat dampens XX‘s overall value as an anthology. I just see it as a natural part of horror anthology tradition, where uneven, off-kilter variance in themes & mode of expression is a highlight & an asset, not a drawback. One (competently made) outlier like “Don’t Fall” is just as much of a necessary feature for XX to feel like an old-school horror anthology as its rigid, animated wraparound buffers or its individualized title cards. It’s perfect in the way it invites imperfection into what shouldn’t be a tightly controlled environment in the first place.

I can’t objectively say exactly why XX struck such a chord with me while it’s left a lot of critics lukewarm or even bitterly cold. Some of my personal resonation might be linked to the way certain titles or themes echo the accomplishments of movies I already dearly love without retreading any of the same ground. “The Box” & “The Birthday Party” in particular share names with two of my all-time favorite features (directed by Richard Kelly & William Friedkin, respectively) and Karyn Kusama’s contribution functions as a semi-sequel to another one of my personal favorites (in print and onscreen) so well that even speaking its name might be a kind of spoiler. This sense of tradition obviously also extends into the way XX follows the rigidly segmented format of horror anthology past, recalling some all-time greats like Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and (a recent discovery for me) Necronomicon: Book of the Dead. My appreciation of this feature-length collection might be even more simple than that, though. From the way food is dreamily framed in “The Box” to the way sound design is playfully jarring in “The Birthday Party” to the way the whole world crumbles around us in “Her Only Living Son” to the basic creature feature surface pleasures of “Don’t Fall,” there’s something worth latching onto in each segment of XX, some feature that can never outwear its welcome or play itself too thin thanks to the temporal limitations of its format. I find great, long-lasting pleasure in that, especially in the way each experiment becomes more sketched out as I mull them over in my mind long after the credits roll. It’s a damn good horror anthology in that way.

-Brandon Ledet

Southbound (2016)

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The horror anthology is a tried & true genre formula that opens up an opportunity for directors (often in collaboration) to experiment with several short-form narratives & modes of cruelty without having to fully commit to a single, dead end morality tale at feature length. Since the genre’s heyday in the 70s & 80s, however, it’s been stuck in a very rigid structural form that’s far more limiting than what its playfully experimental storytelling style calls for. A typical horror anthology presents a wraparound segment, say Debbie Harry preparing to cook & eat a child in Tales from the Darkside, that provides a reason or a context for its several short form stories to be told. It’s an easy, functional structure, but one that feels increasingly stilted in a modern context. The best horror anthologies in recent memory are the ones that attempt to break away from this classic formula by establishing a looser, more freeform mode of connecting their segments. Michael Dougherty’s Halloween-themed anthology feature Trick ‘r Treat was an interesting development in the genre in the way it repurposed the everything-is-connected structure of indie-dramedies from the aughts for something much more eerie & amusingly sinister. The 2016 feature Southbound picks up the torch from Trick ‘r Treat in this way, dropping a lot of that film’s campy humor, but keeping & developing its ideas on how the horror anthology genre can potentially be reshaped & modernized.

Directed by an art collective known as Radio Silence, who had a hand in the recent anthology feature V/H/S, Southbound escapes the anthology genre’s wraparound segment requirement by anchoring its interwoven narratives to a single location: a desert hellscape. Much like the straight-to-VHS minor cult classic Highway to Hell, Southbound finds the desert to be a perfectly appropriate (and attractively affordable) blank slate backdrop for its supernatural, hellbound terrors. This is a Tales from the Crypt-meets-Twilight Zone collection of morality tales in which several travelers on “a road that doesn’t seem to exist” feel remorse for crimes they’ve committed (ranging from abandoning a friend or texting while driving to full-blown homicide) and, thus, end up in a continuous loop that looks, feels, and sounds a lot like purgatory. Each tormented soul, from a business man to a small time crook who recently committed murder to the lead singer of a Coathangers-style punk band, attempts to rationalize their lives’ mistakes & convince themselves they’re not in the wrong, but their guilt continues to torment them all the same along that “long road to redemption.” Also eager to torment them are the much more literal threats of 70s era Satanic cults, vampiric demon alcoholics, cruel EMT phone operators, and floating jellyfish-esque Angels of Death that recall CGI recreations of Harryhausen’s stop motion skeleton army. Southbound is loaded with the same body horror, spooky ghosts, and general devilry that populates just about every modern horror you can name. It even falls into that faux 1970s vibe of recent productions like We are Still Here & The Conjuring that has become such a ubiquitous trend as of late. The film finds its own eerie groove in its supernatural dilemmas, though, where everything just feels off, as if in a nightmare or a stress dream. It also wraps around to complete its own circle in an impressively ambitious way, a closed loop terror I tend to fall for in similar fare like the severely underappreciated Triangle.

It’s easy to fault Southbound for common 2010s horror tropes like cribbing from The Devil’s Rain-era Satanism or borrowing some John Carpenter notes in its score or using an old, innocuous pop song in a spooky context (in this case a girl group singing “Don’t let the party end” in an endless, horrific purgatory), but the film really does push itself in ambition & weird ideas in other ways. The acting & the CGI can be a little weak, but the film more than makes up for it in its supernaturally uneasy mood and in its willingness to linger in a situation once its initial shock has already settled. For instance, many a horror anthology might reveal a Satanic cult as a threat in a stray segment, but Southbound puts care in its revelation of that threat, which slips out during the following summertime prayer: “Oh, Divine One, we offer our gratitude for this beast, for this blood, for these vessels of anew. We bow to you, for you are all-knowing. We offer ourselves to you, for you are the master” and continues to slowly develop from there. Weird stuff. I also feel like I’m burying the lede here by failing to mention until this point that The Jesus Lizard/Scratch Acid front man David Yow stops by as an unhinged feature player, one that humorously demands the desert road’s demonic inhabitants “Quit being so fucking mysterious!” The one stretch of Southbound that kind of lost me was the final segment’s indulgence in one of my least favorite genres, the home invasion thriller, but that’s mostly a matter of taste & eventually it proves itself useful by completing the film’s closed circuit of desert-bound purgatory horror. As a modern horror anthology, the film mostly delivers both on its genre-specific surface pleasures & its interest in boundary-pushing narrative innovation, which is more than you can say for most modern horror films it resembles. Besides, it features David Yow wielding a shotgun like a raving lunatic. Where else are you going to find that? (Please don’t ever tell me there’s an answer to that question.)

-Brandon Ledet

Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

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Over the last few years the 2007 horror anthology Trick ‘r Treat has joined the ranks of titles like Hocus Pocus & The Monster Squad as one of the films folks in my age range dutifully watch every Halloween season. Curious about the hype, I finally gave the film a shot & was pleasantly surprised to find a mostly goofy, sometimes bloody horror comedy that turns the spirit of my second-favorite holiday (no offense; Mardi Gras is still king) into lore of urban legend proportions. Although the film is far from perfect in terms of consistency & tone, its reverence for Halloween as a social & spiritual institution makes it a perfect candidate for the annual revisits I usually reserve for The Monster Squad & The Worst Witch. As soon as one of the first characters introduced is brutally murdered for offense of griping, “I hate Halloween,” and talking down their decorations a day early, the film establishes its mission statement: to protect the sanctity of dressing up in costumes & eating candy at all costs.

One of my favorite things that Trick ‘r Treat does is punishing the grumps & chumps that casually disparage the sacred holiday of All Hallows Eve. All of the following transgressions against the most unholiest of holidays are punished in the film: ignoring the “take one” signs on candy jars, not costuming, couples bickering instead of having fun, curmudgeons refusing to hand out candy to trick or treaters, horny dudes using the occasion as an excuse to hit on girls in skimpy costumes, snot-nosed punk kids mindlessly smashing jack o’ lanterns, bullies taking scare-pranks a step too far, and (as mentioned) taking down decorations a day early out of fatigue with the holiday. There’s probably more offenses that I can’t even recall. The film takes the sanctity of its temporal setting very seriously. It also puts a lot of stock into the power of urban legends, constructing new legends like The Halloween School Bus Massacre and turning old traditions like the classic “trick or treat” rhyme into a deadly ultimatum. Even the candy that holds the whole holiday together is given an almost religious significance, sometimes saving lives (when dispensed properly) and sometimes ending them (through poison & razor sharp shards brandished as weapons).

There’s only a minimum amount of genuine scares to be found in Trick ‘r Treat, mostly achieved through the confusion of real life ghouls & monsters mixing in with the drunken, costumed crowd. The film’s much more concerned with trope play & subverted expectations than scares. Victims turn out to be killers; killers turn out to be victims; when you think you’re getting one kind of famous monster the film delivers another, etc. Also surprising is the way Trick ‘r Treat interconnects its vignettes so that they’re all smoothly part of one large narrative, a rare ambition for an anthology horror. As for the individual players in the story, only actor Dylan Baker stands out in his performance, building nicely off his dark comedy work in past films like Happiness & Fido. I guess it’s also remarkable that Anna Paquin was put mostly to good use here, as she is always eager to remind the world that she is, objectively speaking, a terrible, godawful, not good at all actress. I was also relieved that besides brief use of Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” the film avoids devolving into the late 90s-early 00s mall goth aesthetic that ruins films like American Mary for me. Instead, it builds most of its visual palette off of the inherent spookiness of the holiday (in details like blood moons & jack o lanterns) as well as the comic book framing that worked so well for classic anthology horrors like Creepshow & Tales from the Crypt in the past. What works most for Trick ‘r Treat, though, is the effortless reverence it shows for Halloween traditions & urban legends. That’s surely the aspect of the film that has opened it up to annual cinematic traditions, despite its tepid reception upon its initial straight-to-DVD release almost a decade ago.

-Brandon Ledet

Due occhi diabolici (aka Two Evil Eyes, 1990)

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Following Opera, Dario Argento set to work drumming up enthusiasm from his peers for a collaborative horror anthology film based upon the works of Edgar Allan Poe, despite that genre having already gone fairly quietly into the night after peaking with 1982’s Creepshow. By 1989, the only two directors still involved with the project, Argento and George A. Romero, each directed a roughly hour-long horror short, with both episodes released under the banner film title Due occhi diabolici, or Two Evil Eyes.

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”

twohalfstar
Initially, Romero conceived of his segment as an adaptation of “The Masque of the Red Death,” reimagining it as a parable about AIDS and updating the setting to a luxurious high rise. Argento argued that this would be inconsistent with his vision of the film. With Argento’s segment capitalizing on many of Poe’s most famous pieces, Romero was forced to choose from the writer’s lesser known works, finally settling on “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

The 55-minute segment opens as Jessica Valdemar (Adrienne Barbeau) makes her way to the office of Steven Pike (E.G. Marshall), the lawyer of her dying husband, Ernest (Bingo O’Malley). Jessica was once a flight attendant whom the much-older Ernest brought home after a trip, and she’s ready to get her literal and metaphorical payment for acting as his escort and trophy all these years. Pike’s suspicious protests about Ernest’s deathbed money reshuffling are overturned when he speaks with the man himself over the phone. He is, of course, unaware that Ernest is doing so under hypnosis, perpetrated by his physician, Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada), who was Jessica’s lover many years before. Jessica and Hoffman must keep Ernest alive in order to make sure that Jessica inherits everything, but he succumbs to his disease while hypnotized. Although his body is dead, his mind is trapped between worlds, and he begins to bemoan that wherever he is, there are “Others” there who want to use his body as a gateway into the world of the living; he begs to be released from his hypnosis and embrace death.

This segment is not without its merits. Barbeau’s appearance here further connects this film to Creepshow, although this segment (and the next) lacks the dark comedy that made that anthology so memorable. When the Others finally track down Hoffman after he escapes, their spectral appearance and creepy, featureless humanoid forms are legitimately scary; film legend Tom Savini’s makeup on both the undead Ernest and the rotting corpse of Hoffman is the work of a craftsman at the top of his game. The problem is that the story feels somehow like a very small story. Watching it, you get the sense that you aren’t watching the first half of a movie as much as you’re viewing a vaguely familiar episode of Night Gallery. The mediocre “Valdemar” takes place almost entirely within a single location, but instead of inspiring feelings of claustrophobia or entrapment, it contributes to the overall perception that it was produced on a budget more suited for television than a theatrical release. If you happen to catch it on television, give it a watch; that’s where it belongs.

“The Black Cat”

fourstar

Dario Argento’s contribution to Two Evil Eyes was much more compelling, although it too suffers in comparison to the source material. Its other primary weakness is in the seemingly odd choices Argento makes about what to spend time on given the segment’s 63ish minute run time. Primarily based upon (and sharing its name with) Poe’s “The Black Cat,” Argento’s segment of the film also incorporates elements from various other Poe stories, well-known and otherwise, as the director paid homage to one of his favorite writers.

Roderick Usher (Harvey Keitel) is a photographer with a morbid streak; his amicable relationship with Detective LeGrand (John Amos) gets him into plenty of crime scenes, where he captures intimate images of the grotesquery that humans can visit upon one another. His live-in girlfriend of four years, Annabel (Madeleine Potter), is a contrasting spirit: a sensitive, meditating concert violinist who gives lessons to teenagers. Annabel adopts a stray black cat with a white spot on her chest, and Roderick takes an instant disliking to the animal. Under pressure from his editor to shoot some material with the same tone as his crime photos but a different subject matter, Usher waits until Annabel takes a couple of her students (Holter Graham and adorable widdle 17-year-old Julie Benz in her first film role) to the opera and then tortures and strangles her poor cat, photographing the whole thing.

Annabel becomes distraught and is correctly suspicious that something horrible has befallen her pet and that she did not run away, as Usher insists. He grows increasingly irritated by Annabel’s grief and, after an afternoon of drinking, he slaps her; he then falls asleep and has vivid dream about a medieval witch who looks like Annabel. She cryptically says that his fate is written in the cat’s white spot before he is brutally executed and starts awake. Annabel discovers Usher’s newest book, Metropolitan Horrors, and realizes that her earlier suspicions were true. Meanwhile, Usher is haunted by the sudden appearance of an identical cat, which he takes back to his home and attempts to kill again, but not before noticing that the cat’s white spot is in the shape of a gallows. He is interrupted by Annabel, and the true horror begins.

Although the plot structure is mostly based upon “The Black Cat,” Argento’s interpretation is also a pastiche of Poe’s other works. When we first meet Usher, who is named for the narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” he is attending a crime scene where a woman was murdered via a descending blade, just as in “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Later, he takes photos of a woman whose body was dug up by her cousin (an uncredited Tom Savini) so that he could remove her teeth, as in “Berenice.” The inspiration for Annabel’s name is obvious, while the couple’s elderly neighbors (Martin Balsam and Kim Hunter) have the surname Pym in honor of the main character of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe’s only complete novel; yet another character takes her name from the title character of “Eleonora.” There are probably even more that I missed, and, as a love letter to Poe, the number of references packed into this relatively brief outing show how much Argento deeply cares about Poe’s work.

The primary issue here is that the truncated running time of the piece works both for and against it. Argento is, for the most part, forced to keep the focus tight and thus is allowed no weird and unnecessary digressions from the plot. On the other hand, Roderick’s downslide from safety-negligent pranking to drunken domestic abuse to coldly calculated murder cover-up occurs too quickly to incur the kind of gravitas that Argento is presumably hoping to invoke, which makes Usher’s indulgently overlong medieval dream sequence seem even more out-of-place upon reflection. I suppose he could have been banking on Keitel’s general “perpetually on the verge of losing it” aura, but Usher consequently seems like a horrible person from the beginning, so it’s hard to elicit the kind of sympathy that was present in the original text. There, the unnamed narrator struggles with his alcoholism, decrying it as something akin to a curse or a hex, which possesses and controls him in a way that he despises but cannot escape. Here, it’s just Harvey Keitel knocking back tequila shots at a bar and one scene in which he becomes enraged and hits Annabel, and then it’s on to full blown murder and sealing corpses up in walls.

Despite being based upon Poe’s narratives, there is Argento to spare here as well. The director’s giallo trademark of a character struggling to cognitively and consciously understand a clue that was passively observed is given a slight twist, in that the clue comes in a dream rather than the waking world. Instead of observing other characters talking and later discern what was said, the main character watches the Pyms and one of Annabel’s students discuss the possibility that he is a murderer, reading their lips in the moment. Still, there’s something quintessentially American about Poe’s work that shines through in this, the oddly culturally cryptic first film Argento made in the states. (I’ve heard conflicting stories about whether or not any part of Inferno was actually filmed stateside, with the primary point of contention being whether or not the scene at Central Park Lake was shot in NYC or Italy; most sources say NYC, but an interview with Inferno‘s SFX director on that film’s DVD seems to suggest otherwise.) The place where this is most notable however, is in the presence of people of color. Argento’s films are usually awash in white faces, even in crowd scenes. Part of that may largely be the result of ethnic homogeneity in the Italy of the era in which Argento was doing his primary work, but this film is a refreshing exception. John Amos’s character is very likable, as is the pastor with whom Annabel is friends. Even many of the extras are black, causing “Cat” to stand out among Argento’s other work. Overall, it’s definitely worth watching, despite its problems with pacing and tempo.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

V/H/S (2012)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Something about the traditional, pessimistic story arc of the horror genre can wear you down after overexposure. For instance, when a DVD sale sent me on a Tales from the Crypt binge a few years back, I started to get really weary of watching a horrible person suffer horrible punishment for their horrible deeds episode after episode. Although V/H/S is just one film, its anthology format allows the marathon of its segments to be equally exhausting, especially considering the kind of cretins the movie punishes in various, horrible ways. In abstract, I like the idea of a horror movie attacking bro culture archetypes as punishment for their predatory misogyny & sexual assault, but in practice I was a little worn down by the end of its too-long, two hour runtime. Besides, the movie did at times veer into the grotesque leering & sexual exploitation that it supposedly abhors. Still, there were too many enjoyable moments & interesting ideas in the film for me to brush it off completely, exhausting & compromised or not.

V/H/S‘ wraparound story sets the brotesque horror tone early. In a crude montage that faithfully recreates the blue screens & static flashes of an overused VHS cassette, a gang of reprehensible bro monsters are loosely profiled. The scumbags in question are prone to filming themselves having sex without their partners’ knowledge, forcibly stripping strangers for the camera to shouts of “Show her tits!”, casually using racist language, and mindlessly destroying private property with aluminium bats. The found footage format of the film works greatly to its advantage in the depiction of these atrocities (even if the shaky cam can be a bit tiresome), making the characters feel like real people that you really, really want to see brutally murdered. It’s a godsend, then, that they’re subjected to watching haunted VHS tapes that supernaturally end up offing them one at a time.

In the first, strongest segment a group of bro thugs are punished for attempting to film a hidden camera porno without the participants’ knowledge. They’re viciously ripped to shreds by some sort of humanoid, vampiric gargoyle for their transgression. Other segments include similar sexist pricks getting stabbed in their sleep, tormented by ghosts in the woods, and running a bizarre guantlet in a real-life, occult-themed haunted house. There’s one incongruous vigniette involving an Unfriended-esque videochat that doesn’t fit in with the film’s general Bro Culture on Trial vibe, slightly undercutting any clear message the film may be trying to get across (not to mention the lack of explanation as to why or how a Skype session would be committed to a VHS cassette in the first place), but that’s to be expected in a horror anthology that features ten different directors (including up & comers Ti West & Adam Wingard).

It’s interesting to see such a wide variety of voices fused together in a single work, which is often how the horror anthology excels as a format, but in other ways it’s that very same variety that also works to the V/H/S‘ detriment. Not only does the relentless horrible people horribly punished cycle get a little tiresome after a few segments, but some segments uncomfortably cross over from bro shaming into bro voyeurism. For instance, the awful “Show her tits!” scene from the wraparound is shown repetitiously in the end credits to a dance beat (provided by The Death Set) as if it were (worst case scenario) originally purposed for titillation & not abject terror. A compromised tone/message or not, V/H/S is a serviceable horror anthology. It’s just one that can either feel like an example of reprehensible bro culture or an indictment of the very same thing depending on exactly which minute of the film you’re watching. I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t often fascinating stuff or that the surface pleasures of the special effects & gore didn’t overpower my occasional moral objections with a few of its individual choices. I was by no means enthusiastic about V/H/S as a whole, but as far as generic, late night horror fodder goes, it’ll do.

-Brandon Ledet