Well, the 31 days of thrills, chills, spooks, and scares are now behind us, so it’s time to bid farewell to October Horror. And, presumably, move on to Naughty November, during which we compile a list of 30 sexploitation films and frantically watch them all. (This is, I hope, not an actual thing. I’m a little done with list challenges at this point, as fun as that sounds.)
How did I do? For the first time, I actually did first-watch 31 horror movies for the month, and satisfied all the criteria I’d laid out except for one category. Take that, October Horror naysayers!
Seven franchise entries, seven different countries and one self-governing island, not just five decades but at least one film from every decade since the 20s, nine from before 1970, four silents, an original and its remake, two classic Universal horrors, a Stephen King adaptation, five involving witchcraft, and two Tobe Hooper films. The ball was only dropped when it came to including five movies from Bava, Argento, Lenzi, Fulci, Henenlotter, Romero, and Stuart Gordon. I can live with that.
The final handful of mini-reviews are below. My favorites for the month?
If you haven’t seen these, seek them out! If you don’t, all of my efforts will have been in vain, like a guy who travels miles to come to your aid and is promptly stabbed by a minor character as he enters the house where you’ve been cornered at roughly the 80 minute mark.
Point being, they are quite good.
The Cat and the Canary (U.S., 1927, before 1970, silent)
The first of three Paul Leni films included in this batch of October horror, The Cat and the Canary finds the German Expressionist in his most purely enjoyable mode, and the one in which he seemed most comfortable: horror comedy. Like his final film The Last Warning, released two years later, 1927’s The Cat and the Canary leans heavy on shadows for the scares and a cowardly proto-Shaggy for the laughs. He gets both. The plot — about an inheritance, several family members sequestered together to read the will, and one nefarious plotter out to bump off whoever stands in their way — is almost incidental, treated with all the solemnity of Scooby-Doo. And I mean that as a compliment. It’s a lot of fun.
Dead Snow (Norway, 2009)
Like many a film before it, Dead Snow features a bunch of youngsters, off for some partying and pairing up in the country, who encounter unimaginable October horror from beyond the grave. The twists? That country is Norway, and that horror arrives thanks to … Nazi zombies.
In other zombie films, there is a lingering sense of empathy even for the face-biting, entrail-eating undead. These were, after all, people once, and there’s a tragedy in their transition to the monstrous. Dead Snow isn’t having any of that! Nazi zombies elicit no such touchy-feely emotions, so, once the film finally gets going, it is all in on the gore.
A hilarious set-piece involves one protagonist dangling from a cliff by the bloody, unspooled intestines of a zombie. Only you can determine whether that sounds like a good time at the movies.
Guilt (Denmark/Faroe Islands, 2014)
Heidrik á Heygum’s creepy short is only 30 minutes long, and makes the most of its compression. The subglacial Faroe Islands provide an ideal backdrop for this expertly-paced and beautifully uneasy film’s meditations on loss, repression, and (yes) guilt. A suitably shocking ending ties it all together. If you’ve got a half an hour and you’re looking to be both entranced and creeped out, queue this one up.
I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives Inside The House (U.S., 2016)
Last Friday, I wrote:
This is, above all, a strikingly intelligent haunted house story. There’s nothing wrong with a strikingly dumb one, per se, and I’m a fan of many. But I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives Inside The House comes across like Under The Skin by way of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, mining issues of sight, agency, and the repressed feminine through a horror lens.
The subsequent five days have not changed my view.
The Innkeepers (U.S., 2011)
I know many horror fans who adore Ti West, but I’ve yet to join the club. Maybe one of his films will reel me in, but it won’t be The Innkeepers.
All the aspects of West’s filmmaking that grate — its stylistic remove, faux-hip mannerisms, self-conscious throwbacks to older horror conventions that play out more ironic than affectionate — are in evidence here, draining The Innkeepers of both horror and comedy. (In this regard, the movie reminded me of James Wan’s underwhelming The Conjuring 2.) When the scariest and funniest moment in your horror movie arrives via a fake-out jump-scare on an in-frame laptop, I’d submit that your movie is neither very scary nor funny. There are moments when West amps up some real anxiety, and he clearly has a good eye for ominous visuals, but nothing ever really coheres, and then it’s all over.
I obviously won’t write off Ti West until I see some more (I haven’t even checked out The House of the Devil, which trusted friends assure me is a masterpiece), but The Innkeepers disappointed.
Island of Lost Souls (U.S., 1932, before 1970)
Edward Kenton’s adaptation of H.G. Wells alternates between frightening Mad Scientist tropes and total pre-Code camp, less October Horror than dystopian sci-fi infused with screwball laughs. Charles Laughton gobbles up the scenery, Bela Lugosi’s on hand to play another tragically monstrous antagonist, and much of the photography is luminous in Criterion’s restoration. There’s a broad goofiness underlying all the science vs. nature themes — not to mention the apparent idea that human-animal hybrids will mostly be defined by their hairier-than-usual backs — but, released in 1932, they’re of a piece with the anxieties haunting the Western world at the time: eugenics, fascism, the horrifying implications of science in service to pathology.
Of course, those are anxieties that haunted society before 1932 and since, which is at least part of the reason films like Island of Lost Souls are so immediately recognizable and resonant. Generally speaking, there’s always someone willing to seize power, control lives, and “tamper in God’s domain,” as a famous man once put it, in the celebrated film Bride of the Monster.
The Man Who Laughs (U.S. 1928, silent)
Paul Leni returns to the list with a film that I almost hesitate to count as “horror,” October horror or otherwise. But The Man Who Laughs does often get included under that rubric, mainly for its central conceit and influence on the character of The Joker. It is, after all, the story of a guy who kills a man he believes slighted him, and then has a permanent grin carved into the face of the man’s son, so that he might laugh forever at his father’s folly. That’s pretty horrifying.
We’ll take a much longer look at this film later in the week — it’s next up in the Ebert’s Great Movies series — but for now: despite the esteem in which it’s held, The Man Who Laughs felt over-long, over-stuffed, and too many genres all at once. It’s a horror, a love story, a historical drama, a tragedy, and a swashbuckling adventure, at a minimum. The result feels muddled, and Leni, brought over to Hollywood on the strength of his earlier work, seems unsure how to balance it all. There are lovely and menacing set-pieces that evoke the visual splendor of his pure horror and horror-comedy films, but, taken as a whole, the film is exhausting and frustratingly scatter-shot.
The image of Conrad Veight’s impossibly unmoving grin, however, will live on, regardless of any of the film’s shortcomings.
Waxworks (Germany, 1924, before 1970, silent)
Long before V/H/S, Creepshow, or even Kwaidan, Paul Leni brought an anthology horror to the screen. The film’s framing device — a writer is commissioned to pen eerie tales for various figures in a wax museum, which we then watch play out with him in the lead — is surprisingly daring for 1924, and, as usual with Leni, the off-kilter sets and shadowy production design amps up the dread.
Truth be told, the first story runs on a bit long, and the second is mostly redeemed by its creepy climax. But the final moments of Waxworks are pure October Horror, as Jack The Ripper takes center stage and Leni rolls out every in-camera trick he can think of to startle and discomfit. If The Cat and the Canary and The Last Warning find the director in his most comfortable wheelhouse, Waxworks might still be the best distillation of his sensibility — narratively adventurous, excited about the camera’s possibilities, and gleefully macabre.
It’s a fitting place to end this month. See you next October.