The Halloween season always finds me in a desperate rush to distinguish October’s horror viewings from the rest of the year. Should I find a theme? Should I branch out in unexpected directions? Or should I just indulge in all the old favorites as my favorite holiday of the year approaches? Of course, this year’s effort proved to be as hopeless as ever, but in my wild thrashing about I still found plenty of items of interest, including the following four films. They constitute a pair of double features that, depending on your tastes, you’d do well to queue up soon.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – Blasphemous it may be, but this is one reviewer who never got swept up in one of the most popular horror franchises of all time. It took Wes Craven’s passing to finally convince me to sit down and assess his original creation, the offspring of which became the most ubiquitous definition of self-parody out there, which mostly explains why it never appealed to this budding horror fan in search of something new to call his own. Upon viewing, it’s immediately apparent why audiences clamored for so, so much more. Craven makes it fun to be scared, and layers humor and joy on top of the insidious concept of a murderer who kills you in your dreams. Try to imagine seeing Freddy Krueger for the first time, a monster who can’t get enough attention, who loves showing off his own grotesqueness, and played with such relish by Robert Englund to boot. Take or leave the endless sequels, tie-ins, and merchandise, there’s plenty to enjoy in Craven’s spunky original: it’s taking full advantage of its dream logic, its relentless pace, Heather Langenkamp’s resourceful Nancy Thompson, Johnny Depp’s feature film debut, and most important of all, the initiatory thrill of seeing Freddy as he was first conceived, cackling his way through a firelit maze of a boiler room in search of teenage blood.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977) – Another Craven, another blasphemy. Having seen Alexandre Aja’s remake and developed a distaste for his attention to gory details, I was always curious to see what he was trying to improve upon, so, taking Craven’s passing to heart yet again, I introduced myself to another of his name-makers in honor of his legacy. This lean thriller of his finds the bourgeoisie Carter family breaking down in the Nevada desert en route to California and set upon by a hill-dwelling clan of cannibalistic savages. Dispense with Aja’s nuclear mutant grotesquerie and gratuitous violence and you’re left with a much cleaner vision that highlights the fine line between domesticity and incivility. The cannibals of Craven’s vision are little more than isolated white trash, no less vulnerable, no less human, than the folks they’re targeting. Down to the infamous final freeze frame, Craven simultaneously goads us on and indicts us for our blood lust as the Carters fight back. Nothing detracts Craven from showing the vicious spiral of a good old-fashioned feud, proving that when it comes down to it, blood is thicker, and will flow much more freely, than water. Sure, it’s rough around the edges, but that’s all a part of its grubby appeal, and makes it much harder to swallow. And as with Nightmare’s Freddy, you’ll get to see Michael Berryman’s famous mug as he does his thing.
Sheitan – A trio of clubbing Parisian nimrods are led by a couple girls to their home in the country in this at-first-glance promising bucolic horror, which becomes little more than an excuse for producer-star Vincent Cassel to go full weirdo as a Nigel Thorneberry-profiled, Beavis-laughing shepherd with a dark agenda. Based on your opinion of Cassel this might still be a good proposition, but considering the meandering result that director Kim Chapiron delivers after setting the bar high with a spastic club-based intro, you’ll spend your time wondering where all that manic energy disappeared to. Very low on characterization, two of its three main boys are nothing more than blind horndogs, while Olivier Barthelemy’s Bart is the moody fifth wheel left fending off the advances of Cassel’s very forward Joseph. It’s a unique diversion, notable for its Cassel-inflected brand of French eccentricity, but even at the expense of depth it’s bereft of any shallow thrills, either.
Calvaire – This harrowing country horror from Belgian filmmaker Farbice Du Welz about a stranded journeyman musician who finds himself at the mercy of an off-kilter innkeeper takes a gonzo turn when the nearby village proves to be no less insane. Owing debts to raw predecessors like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s made better by Laurent Lucas’s performance as the unlucky musician and Jackie Berroyer as the mad proprietor, as well as by a surreal, psychosexual subtext. The irony of Lucas’s position makes for a bitter pill to take, as the fame-seeking entertainer finds himself wantonly coveted by all those around him. Let yourself get swept up in its piled-on absurdities and you’ll be immersed in a haunting dreamscape with a surprise at every turn. Predictable as Lucas’s fate may be, Du Welz sets a hallucinatory tone that lets him get away with all sorts of delightfully dark imagery and bizarre interludes to scale up this quaint little chiller.