When it comes to Halloween movies, it's easy enough to look at the horror genre, or, obviously, movies that are actually about Halloween in some way. However, there are a few genuinely creepy family features that fit just as well, not the least of which is 'Coraline', here. It's the first official film from Laika Studios, based on the Niel Gaiman book of the same name, and directed by Henry Selick of 'Nightmare Before Christmas' fame.
Our basic plot involves an 11-year-old girl named Coraline (Dakota Fanning) who moves into a new home with her all-too-average parents. I many ways, she's bored and frustrated. She misses her friends, her parents are too busy for her, and she certainly doesn't relish in the chore or unpacking.
She finds herself wandering the property, running into a fairly annoying boy named Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.) who gives her a mysterious doll that looks just like her. The doll sort of guides her to this mysterious crawl space door within the house, where Coraline discovers a strange but amazing new world. It's much like home, but with awesome, fun parents, who make sure there's never a dull moment for her. It's like the world was built special, just for her. However, this new, wonderful place, might just be a little more sinister than she imagines it to be.
Along the way, there are interesting comparisons between the real world and this mystery world. It often profiles a few other characters who, although very strange in the real world, become what Coraline might expect/want them to be in the other. Various additions to the voice cast include the likes of Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, Keith David, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, and Ian McShane, all of whom do a great job with their voice acting. However, I remain thoroughly impressed with Fanning on this one, as she very much comes across as that little girl who's a bit bratty, but sees the world through awed eyes.
The whole gist of the movie is a cautionary tale on being careful what one wishes for - the perfect life one dreams of isn't all it's cracked up to be, and may have creepy consequences and catches. For those who have seen this movie, you'll all know the role that button eyes play here, and that alone is eerie enough for this one to qualify for an annual Halloween watch. "ParaNorman' is way more up my alley that this, but 'Coraline' could be held accountable for breathing new life into the stop motion art of animation.
The film is considered by many to be a sort of instant classic, and it manages to reach the tip-top of a lot of peoples lists when it comes to top stop-motion animated films. Not that there's a whole whack to choose from, but it seems to have that sort of nostalgic power, in a sense. For myself, watching it reminds me very much of just being a kid with a crazy imagination, often being bored of the real world and wanting to escape some place fun. However, it does manage to hit home with a certain range of homesickness she gets, realizing that home isn't such a bad place, being so safe and comfortable.
For my money, this really is a great flick for the whole family. It's a nice little intro to scary stuff for the kids, and maintains its creepiness factor for us adults all the same. Even though it's not officially any sort of Halloween movie, it still carries that Halloween magic along with it, and again, could become a non-typical annual watch for many. It seems to have gone that route anyway.
Under the Radar
Not to be confused with the Emma Watson/Tom Hanks dramatic thriller, 'The Circle', here we have a relatively intense, relatively original sci-fi thriller involving 50 strangers, a mysterious chamber, and deadly odds.
A point of interest about this group is that they are all very different. Men, women, varying races, varying cultures, varying ages. I think the biggest name we have here is Carter Jenkins of 'Mad Men'. The rest of the cast, I didn't recognize, which either makes them no-names, or I've actually seen far less movies than I imagined.
The group wakes up, and starts dying off one by one, ridding us of several characters fairly quickly. They soon figure out that they each have the ability to "vote" for who dies next, and it becomes a gruesome process-of-elimination game. The thrill of the film not only comes from how they end up having to inevitably decide who goes next, but the fact that they really don't know where they are, or why they're made to do this. In other words, there's no creepy 'Saw' puppet to guide them. These, folks are left to their own devices.
The overall premise is really simple, and the film is definitely of the "bottle" variety, pretty much the whole way through. So if you don't wanna watch 50 strangers killing each other off for an hour and a half, this movie might not be for you. However, much like with a movie like 'Buried', there's more to the film than just claustrophobia.
This film ends up being far more of a character study than anything, in that with such a variety of people, we see a lot of varying prejudices as well. The elderly, the dark-skinned, the gay, women (some pregnant), and yes, even a child, are all put to the test, usually against a mouthy, greedy, Caucasian dude. So there's definitely a sense of personal politics going on here, although I will say it doesn't cover everyone, it definitely gets its message across. The whole thing could be seen as a take on the white-washed world.
The only real problem the film has, in my opinion, is its acting. It's not all bad, but some of the delivery feels like I'm watching a high school (maybe college) play. But when I don't recognize any of these faces, I can't be too nit-picky about such a thing. The real draw to this is the overall concept, and the execution does feel pretty intense. One must keep in mind that at the end of this, only one person comes out alive. So, much like with 'Game of Thrones', try not to establish a favorite character.
'Circle' can currently be found on Canadian Netflix if you'd like to check it out for yourself. I don't highly recommend it to just anyone and everyone, but if you wanna see an hour and a half bottle movie about, essentially, how our world of prejudices works, I totally recommend it. I definitely enjoyed it, for the most part.
'Don't Breathe' is brought to us by 'Evil Dead' reboot director, Fede Alvarez. Some may recall that I put that particular reboot among my Screening Suggestions, so needless to say, I was already a fan of this relative newcomer. This was his next big title, and I gotta say, it was pretty solid.
The story centers on three young thieves; Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto). The trio makes their way by burglarizing neighborhood houses, secured by Alex's father's company, and selling the stolen goods.
So as to portray these people as "not all bad", we are shown that Rocky lives with an abusive mother and her alcoholic boyfriend. She has a tight bond with her little sister, Diddy (Emma Bercovici), and makes a deal with her to move to California, and escape their situation. However, when a deal goes raw, Rocky doesn't get the money she needs to help her and her sister out.
Money gets a tip that there's a Special Forces veteran's house worth the risk, for $300k. The catch is that they decide to do the job while this man's still at home, due to him being blind. The man is portrayed by Stephen Lang, who most would probably remember as that hard-ass Colonel from 'Avatar', and he actually gives a hell of a performance here. There is something about his delivery that's just downright disturbing, and he proves his range can extend beyond that of Colonel Miles Quaritch.
The film offers a twist perspective on the Home Invasion subgenre of horror that hosts such titles as 'The Purge', 'Panic Room' and 'The Strangers'. It was never necessarily a thing I got into, because it all felt essentially the same. This movie, however, twists it around, making the heroes of the story the home invaders, and making the guy defending his house the bad guy - and oh yes, he defends his house relentlessly, shooting at anything he hears, hence the title 'Don't Breathe'.
The other thing to really hand to this film is that it's overall kinda realistic. The real horror here comes from what seems to be a political statement about gun control, and the fact that everyone seems to need to have a firearm under their pillow. This manages to show the dangers of allowing firearms to be in the hands an individual who is clearly unstable. And the fact that Rocky's trying to escape a Hellish household situation as well as rescue her sister allows us some major leeway to see that this is something she feels she needs to do. It's not just a thrill for her, and she's far less disposable because of that.
I have to say that I was impressed, overall. It didn't entirely "wow" me, but it has enough going for it with its simple twist of an idea, likable characters, a rather creepy villain and its overall intensity, that I can recommend this to anyone looking for a recent, decent thriller. I quite enjoyed it, for myself.
Bad Times at the El Royale
This one isn't exactly what you'd call a "Halloween" title, but there's an air of mystery and thrill, and I thought it might be in the same vein, at least. Anyway, regardless, here we are with 'Bad Times at the El Royale' - a film that floated under many radars, despite its wide theatrical release. It even debuted at #7 for its opening weekend, according to the Box Office Top 10. However, despite mostly positive reviews, it simply didn't take off because too many people were busy, at the time, arguing about whether or not 'Venom' was any good.
This one kinda revisits the bottle mystery sub-genre; movies along the same lines as something like 'Clue', or to match this particular title a bit closer, 'Hateful Eight', as I actually found it to be rather Tarantino-esque in overall style. This one comes from Director Drew Goddard, who's most notable directorial film is 'The Cabin in the Woods' - a movie you either love, hate, or love to hate (I love). This is a step away from that style and, as I say, a bit more Tarantino-esque (maybe that was just me, but I stand by it).
The overall plot sees a group of characters come together by chance at the run down El Royale - a hotel with the border of Colorado and Nevada running through it, and a dark history. Each character - a priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a hippie (Dakota Johnson) and the hotel's only worker (Lewis Pullman) all have checkered pasts of their own. Before the night is through, true colours are exposed after the arrival of Rose Summerspring (Cailee Spaeny) and her manipulative love-interest, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth's Abs).
All in all, this is one of those times where I don't fully know what to make of a film. I'd have to say it was enjoyable, but by the end of it all, I kinda just wanted to rewatch it with familiar eyes. It's one of those movies that goes back and forth according to different character perspectives, and it's easy for a dude like me to lose track of exactly what's going on sometimes when a movie does this.
With that said, however, we had great performances, atmosphere, and intensity, so the film did a good enough job with its overall execution. So, the jumping around aspect of it really was my only major problem. I tend to find this can be fixed with multiple viewings, so odds are, I'll wanna check it out again at some point down the line. But really, it's still one of 2018's lesser titles, despite all it has working for it. I think if it's given some time once its released on DVD and Blu-ray, it has the potential to be a cult hit, but until then, it kinda stands as an enigma to me.
Somehow it manages to be good but forgettable all at once. Maybe it's because we've seen this kind of thing before. Maybe it was other titles at the time drowning it out. Maybe it's all the jumping around between time and characters. All I know is that I can't recommend or not recommend this movie to anyone for any reason. It's just kinda there. We'll see what happens, but I suspect this one will suffer for a while until the right audience discovers it and wonders if it was ever released in theaters.
What can I say about 1982's 'The Thing' that hasn't been said before? Probably not much. It lands in my "Screening Suggestions" category with very good reason. My opinion aside, however, this is a title that tends to end up on a lot of All Time Best Horror Movie lists - usually somewhere near the top. But is an alien invasion movie worth all that? What makes this one so special? Why was it criticized to pieces upon its initial release, but has grown to become a cult phenomenon among horror fans?
The basic plot involves a group of American researchers in Antarctica who, after a strange circumstance, investigate a Norwegian station, only to find some remains of a malformed body. The body is brought back to be researched, but nothing unusual is found. However, when a sled dog that was recently being pursued by the Norwegians is kenneled, and in a very grotesque way consumes the other dogs, we learn very quickly that there's something terrifying going on.
Eventually, it is discovered that a shape-shifting being of sorts is alone with the crew in this dark and desolate location. The scariest problem it carries with it, is the fact that it can turn into anything or anyone it wants. And that right there is what makes this movie such a great film for horror buffs. The film's scares are pretty abundant, but it's less about grossing us out, getting violent, or making us jump. The real horror lies in the overall seclusion of the group, and the idea that not one member of the crew can actually be trusted anymore. All of the on-the-surface scares still hold up quite well, but the intensity of the situation is what really sells the film.
Going back to this being released to negative reviews at the time, it's hard to say exactly what caused it. Some believe it was released too close to 'E.T.: The Extraterrestrial'; a much more family-friendly look at aliens. Others just see it as just bad timing due to the early 80's recession, and audiences didn't go for the more negative tones that this had to offer.
If you look at the film by today's standards, however, it holds up in a big way with its general themes of antitrust, and practical effects that SOMEHOW still hold up better than the 2011 prequel film of the same name, relying on bad CGI. Add to that a cast consisting of people like Kurt Russel, Wilford Brimley, and Kieth David, and you've got yourself a pretty solid flick.
If you happen to be reading this right now, haven't seen this movie, and you consider yourself a fan of horror, there's nothing you should be waiting for. Watch this movie. It may be a bit dated here and there, but the overall execution of it is great, and some of the imagery is bound to haunt your dreams.
Beyond the Gates
Under the Radar
Upon surfing Netflix for something to fit "under the radar", I stumbled on this 'Jumanji' sounding movie about a board game that holds secrets that effect the outside world. I figured why not, watched it, and my opinion at the end of the day is... mixed.
Upon learning that their father is missing, two estranged brothers, Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John (Chase Williamson), come together at their dad's old video store to pack things in and sell off his stuff. Gordon finds a key that unlocks their Dad's back office where they discover a video board game called 'Beyond the Gates'.
The game is brought over to Gordon and his Wife, Margot's (Brea Grant) house where they decide to start playing it. They soon learn that the game intends to lead them to their missing father, and despite dire consequences the game seems to carry with it, the group (more specifically the brothers) stop at nothing to find their dad.
Now, to get into my mixed feelings on the film. The overall concept was something enjoyable. It managed to do the whole board-game-come-to-life concept without really ripping anything off. For a large part of it, the brothers don't fully realize what's going on outside of the game, and this time around it's a video board game. These were a big hit back in the late 80s and early 90s, perhaps most famous of which was 'Nightmare' (along with many sequels).
I also have to appreciate the makeup effects here, which add some fairly over the top and freakish gore, and a great look to some of the more demonic entities throughout the climactic portion of the film. Hell even the actng throughout this otherwise low-budget flick isn't that bad. Not great, but not as bad as one might expect. But that's where the twist comes in for me.
It's good to see some of the drama here, but there's a backstory that really goes nowhere (unless I just completely missed something) having to do with a prior drinking problem that Gordon had. It's touched on a few times through the movie, but it never really goes anywhere. It's just thrown in for us to try to sympathize with Gordon, as he regrets his actions so badly. I mean, I guess it's touching to see that he has something he's struggling with, but at the end of the day, it feels like filler.
That side story aside, I also think that one of the weaker actors here was Evelyn (Barbara Crampton), the host of the game. She represents the "name" for the movie. Every low budget movie needs some sort of a name to give it a bit of fuel. I've seen this actress in other things where she's been much better. She's barely intimidating here, and she could have done more to be more creepy. But I guess that's just how it was directed.
The film can be found on Netflix, so if you have an hour and a half to kill, you might wanna check it out for yourself. It's another one of those movies that I'm probably just gonna eventually forget about. Worth checking out once just to see it, but it certainly doesn't demand any kind of revisit either. It's a 3, but it's a low 3.
Let the Right One In
In this Swedish film from director Tomas Alfredson, author of the book of the same title, John Ajvide Lindqvist, also delivers the screenplay, allowing the original writer some varying creative leeway on the film. Generally a good, or at least promising thing, overall.
This particular film starts out with a kid named Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) practicing his killing moves and speech with a knife in his room with his shirt off. So pretty disturbing stuff from the get-go. However we quickly learn that Oskar is a victim of constant bullying, and our perspective changes from "I dunno if I wanna watch this" to "Let's see where this goes" petty abruptly. It's a good way to show us in just a few scenes just how troubled this boy is.
Soon, we are also introduced to the likes of Eli (Lina Leandersson), a girl who has moved into a neighboring apartment. The pair befriend each other, and we learn that there's more than meets the eye with Eli when we discover that she's, in fact, a vampire. However, this is unknown by Oskar. All he understands is that this girl seems to like him for who he is, and helps him out with his bullies.
Much of the pursuing story has to do with the more tragic side of being a vampire; having to consume nothing but blood, perhaps the idea of losing your loved ones, and in Eli's case, trying to be friends with a boy who seems understands her, but without revealing what she is. And yeah, there's a romantic side to this as well.
That said, the aspects of vampirism are a bit more scattered through the movie. The main focus of this IS the relationship between Oskar and Eli. I personally found that they used it more to show how much Eli cares for Oskar as opposed to just showing off a bunch of special effects. In fact, the overall execution of anything vampiric here is fairly subtle, once again proving that big budgets aren't necessarily... necessary.
I think I can actually admit without much hesitation that this falls somewhere on my list of favorite vampire movies. Although there are some truly disturbing moments within the film, it's just a different take on the whole thing. With it's moderately artistic execution, it's an intriguing change from any vampire stuff I'm more used to. By bringing down the aspects of Eli being a vampire and focusing more on the blossoming friendship, the whole thing could be seen symbolically as how strong a friendship can hold upon discovering stranger and stranger things about your friend. Will you be scared off, or will you stay because you still like who the person is?
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween
Let me first be honest in fully admitting that yes, I actually did enjoy the first 'Goosebumps' film. It was a neat nostalgic trip for me, as I was a fan of some of the books, and even watched a bit of the show when I was younger. 'Goosebumps' is pretty much in the same realm as 'Are You Afraid of the Dark' for me in that it kinda represents my first little tiptoes into the horror genre. It's family friendly fun, but still kinda genuinely creepy in its own right.
The first film had kids find some of RL Stine's original Goosebumps manuscripts, opening them up, and unleashing a horrible magic on the town, having the books come to life and terrorize everything in sight, lead by none other than Slappy of, perhaps Stine's most famous 'Goosebumps' title, 'Night of the Living Dummy'. It was just a lot of fun for any inner child fanboy of Stine's. However here, we have the sequel, which is quite literally more of the same and, in fact, much weaker than the original.
This time around we have a couple of "loser" kids who have their own junk collecting company (equivalent to something like a lawn mowing business or a snow shoveling business, getting a bit of cash along the way). On one of their jobs, they find a book with scripture that one of the kids reads, and brings Slappy back to life. This time around, Slappy DOES end up being a bit more of the dummy from the books, however, in that at first, he's a little more tame. He's just looking at these guys, Sonny and Sam (Jeremy Ray Taylor and Caleel Harris, respectively) as potential brothers, and wants to be part of a family. Ultimately, it's mentioned that all he wants is a mother, but we sadly never really find out why at all he wants this. It's just kind of an excuse of a plot device that doesn't really go anywhere.
Anyway, sure enough, when Slappy starts going a bit overboard with his obsessions and gets denied, he heads to a Halloween store to bring a bunch of Halloween merch to life and terrorize a town again. So like I say, it's generally the same movie as before.
Jack Black does make his return as the fame author, however this time he's far less a part of things. He's kind of just a crowbarred in cameo here, and at the end of the day, there's no real other purpose for him being there. The film is basically an excuse to grab a few extra dollars, and didn't have the same feel as the original. From my perspective, the first was more something made for nostalgic fans to enjoy, whereas this was more something that had no excuse NOT to go straight to video. It actually has that "straight-to-video" feel to it.
With that last part said, I'll have to conclude that this might still be fun to bring the kids to. However, watching it as a nostalgic fan, it's not entirely worth the cheap Tuesday matinee price of the big screen experience, let alone a full price experience. I'd recommend just waiting for it to be released where you can check it out for free. It's a bit of fun, but it's just not that great altogether.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
An interesting title that really needs no introduction due to its overall popularity, here's one I consider to be one of a few different titles you can enjoy for both Halloween and Christmas, although personally, I consider it more of a Halloween-focused movie, so here we are.
For the approximate two or three people out there who haven't seen this one, 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' is a lovely, dark family musical from the early 90s. The film gives us an interesting concept of the world's holidays by showing us that somewhere out there, there's a forest with a series of doors that led to specialized towns for each holiday. However, we start in Halloween Town, where we're introduced to the King of Halloween, Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon/Danny Elfman). Day in, day out, it's the same old routine for Jack, and things are getting kinda stale.
While Jack wonders off, lamenting about the dark and dull holiday, wishing for something more, he stumbles on the forest where he finds the doors leading to different holiday towns. The one he follows in particular is the one to Christmas Town, where he discovers the bizarre but very different traditions of Christmas, and decides it'd be a cool idea to kidnap Santa and take things over. In his mind, he's kinda just giving Santa a break, however there's more than meets the eye when it comes to trying to take over something he doesn't quite fully understand.
This movie is just a full fledged classic by today's standards, which is interesting, 'cause not a lot of people had much to say about it upon its initial release. However, since then, it has been re-released and re-released again with several different versions to chose from on DVD and Blu-ray, and it even gets a lot of theatrical play around this time of year if you know where to look. And don't even get me started on the merchandise that, at one time, was probably seen as clothing store Hot Topic's main fuel source. But why so popular?
I tend to see it as something as simple as just the dark look of everything coming along just a few years before the whole Goth trend took off, and it's a sort of easy go to as a "first goth thing". I personally see the trend landing somewhere between 'The Craft' and Marilyn Manson, but this predating both makes things much more debatable. And then there's just the whole underlying concept.
My personal takeaway from this is actually something that I don't think we see done a whole hell of a lot in film nowadays, although I'm sure I can be quickly corrected on it. The simplicity is that Jack tries to do something that he doesn't fully understand, and not much more than disaster comes from any of it. Basically, the underlying moral is just don't try to tackle something you don't know. I, myself, have found myself in this boat with a few of my reviews; it's a good thing to try to understand and support, but to put it in my own words, there's always that remote chance I could land myself in trouble with people claiming "he just doesn't get it". That's kinda what's going on here with Jack. I'd consider it a cautionary tale of sorts.
However, at the end of the day, one might just wanna take this as a family friendly musical, good for anywhere between October and December. The film has a lovely soundtrack, likable characters (good and bad), interesting concepts, cool animation, and a beautifully dark sense of humour. There's nothing quite like the scene where a kid pulls a shrunken head from his Christmas gift, freaking his parents out. So take from it what you will, but either way, it's a must-watch for this time of year. And hey, if you miss it at Halloween, you've still got Christmas to look forward to.
Let's Scare Jessica to Death
Under the Radar
In my search for Halloween-ish movies that float under the radar, this particular recommendation caught my interest. Aside from the disturbingly intriguing title, the concept sounded good to me. As far as I knew, going into it, we had Jessica (Zohra Lampert); a recently released mental patient who may or may not be losing touch with reality again. And what I got was... well, pretty much that, but in a much different way than I had assumed.
Jessica and her husband, Duncan (Barton Heyman) move into a quiet farm house only to find a girl named Emily (Mariclare Costello) is squatting there. The couple end up inviting her to stay, and soon, Jessica starts seeing strange things - namely a girl's body floating around in the lake, know to have not been found after she apparently drowned. It really does end up being a bit of a Michigan J. Frog situation in that whenever Jessica wants to show and/or tell her husband and friends something, they kinda just brush it off and wonder if she's mentally healthy.
For the most part, I honestly found the film to be pretty dull and boring. It does carry a decent atmosphere, has some pretty genuinely creepy moments, and attempts to tackle the truly horrific matter of mental health issues, but does so in a sort of lame way. It's just another ghost movie at the end of the day, at least for me. I just think I've seen it done much better.
This may not be a bad movie for those seeking something that's not truly horrific, but eerie. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it just sort of dull. Not without its moments, but overall just dry and dull. I guess its meant to be something more psychological, but again, it's just been done better since, in my humble opinion.
When all said and done, I don't think I can take much away from this one, and I don't really recommend it for those seeking a good scary movie. This almost turns out to be something you could find on Sunday afternoon TV. I can't truly give it to the performances, the soundtrack, the overall execution, or much else. The only leeway I can give it is that it was 1971, and this is well-before a lot of the better horror out there anyway.
So, here I sit wanting to write something a little more genuine about the film, but I've honestly said all there is to say from my perspective. For myself, this was straight up watching paint dry for the most part. Small points for atmosphere and creepy imagery, but again, I have seen creepier. This is just a one-off 70's flick no one needs to revisit, or hardly even visit once. I'm just glad the dialogue wasn't insultingly bad.