Yes, it’s too late for a compilation of reviews for the 2014 Halloween season, but with 2015 promising to be a vastly more interesting year for horror and genre films in general, what with the likes of It Follows, Hellions, The Witch, The Duke of Burgundy, Tales of Halloween, Rob Zombie’s 31, Krampus, Crimson Peak, and Green Room on their way, it feels right to stoke the flames before these and more hit theaters. Their bulk arrival only makes 2014’s drought all the more glaring, and it’s due to this drought that I took to experimenting with my annual marathon viewings. What follows is a sampling of a pretty ropey Halloween season.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death – This wispy, low-budget country thriller is anchored by Zohra Lampert’s performance as the mentally fragile Jessica, whose friends’ skepticism of her brushes with spooky specters only further her decline. Fresh out of a mental institution, she restarts her life on a farm with her husband, a friend, and the mysterious squatter they’ve allowed to stay with them. Lampert plays the role for maximum pity, her every action a loud declaration that she is doing better, which only makes it harder for her friends to believe her. Between her new squatter friend, an archetypal vanishing woman in white, and the secretive hippie-hating townies, the tension mounts steadily, if a little slowly, as Jessica’s tiny world becomes ever more hallucinatory. It has a laconic, earthy charm, and manages to stir up some eerie imagery, but the terse 70’s editing spoils the overall wooziness. Amiable it may be, but the camera never feels invested in the characters.
Mystics in Bali – A high tolerance for unworldly cackling is necessary to finish this Indonesian horror whose greatest attraction is its space on the endangered movies list as an obscure, black market castaway thanks to a government banning (granted, one by Indonesia, but a banning nonetheless). An American student wishing to learn more about local Leyak magic gets in over her head, then occasionally loses her head as she’s transformed into a gruesome, floating bloodsucker by an evil witch’s spell. Pretty much the only thing worthy of praise is its makers’ hardscrabble attempts at special effects, as well as the boldness to play with a subject so taboo in its native state that it qualified as an Indonesian video nasty. Scenes of the Leyak in action are a bizarre treat, but the rest is too shrill and unfocused to hold it together.
Cheap Thrills – A marriage of likeable cast and simple concept keeps this darkly comic, recession-conscious thriller buoyant. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but for whoever enjoyed Pat Healy and Sara Paxton’s rapport in The Innkeepers or who is just as oddly pleased to see Ethan “Russ Griswold” Embry’s career reinvention as a gruff character actor (see also The Guest), watching them all share the screen in the film’s centerpiece McMansion living room is enough of a diversion. Healy plays Craig, a down-on-his-luck husband and father who is drawn into an escalating competition of dares with an old high school friend when a mysterious man offers wads of cash for each stunt accomplished. A wrong mix of its ingredients and it could’ve veered off into the unforgivably repugnant, but director E.L. Katz, fully aware that tastelessness is the whole point, strikes the right balance between sadism and humor – even down to his last shot, a hilariously awful summary of the selflessness required to get by in today’s world – while Healy makes Craig’s downward spiral disturbingly convincing. Aside from the very valid complaint that Paxton, as the rich bankroller’s trophy wife, isn’t given nearly enough to do, David Koechner as her husband is often pegged as the weakest link, but the natural oafishness he brings to the character makes his power over his fellow schmos all the more infuriating.
Carrie (1976) – What else can be asked of a bonafide classic except that most clichéd question of the jaded contemporary viewer, “does it still hold up”? There’s no denying the debt Carrie owes to Brian De Palma’s stylish direction, which saves the fireworks for when it truly needs them. Working off one of Stephen King’s most economical stories, De Palma has a firm grip on the waking nightmare of Carrie (Sissy Spacek)’s life, best exemplified in what ends up being two versions of the same scene: the opening shower room scene that begins with a leering, ethereal admiration of Carrie’s figure before frantically conveying her horror at menstruation and subsequent humiliation, all by way of her misunderstanding of her own body, and the prom night climax, a heightened version of that same event, its famous split screen effect going a long way to suggest Carrie’s repressed desires curdling into a shocking display of calculated carnage. Carrie remains a thing of beauty, technically unassailable, narratively concise, and symbolically loaded. In retrospect, its trappings do work against it to a degree, a large bulk of the movie falling under the shadow of its most influential moments. King’s teenage villains’ are a bit much, but his more developed characters prove his warped version of an old adage. Between Carrie’s mother’s abusive extremism and Sue Snell’s lofty attempt to integrate Carrie into the in-crowd, there’s no better reminder that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
Here Comes The Devil – the sluggishness of this Mexican import could be explained by screenwriter/director Adrián García Bogliano’s admission that he also has no clue where it’s supposed to be going. There’s no other reason that it should stall so badly that by the time it reaches its conclusion you’ve shifted your attention to ironing your dishrags. Mashing up Picnic At Hanging Rock with The Omen, or any other children-behaving-queerly horror for that matter, its blasé approach to storytelling is present from the start, when a married couple lose their children on a day trip near a reportedly evil local landmark. When the children are found, naturally there’s something off about them, at which point the movie wastes considerable time pursuing a red herring concerning an alleged pervert that culminates in a bafflingly inconsequential act of violence. There’s no saying that Bogliano corrects course after this because no other course becomes clear. He just tries something else time after time, finding no traction with any plot development. His worst crime is being vague, wanting to say something about sex, selfishness, parenthood, faith, or psychology, wanting to be scary, ominous, or disturbing, but not having the level of concentration to say or show anything particular at all. The music is vague. The acting is vague. Whatever is wrong with the kids is vague. At best it toys with interesting ideas, but like the worst of first dates, it can’t make up its mind.