Archive for October, 2016

9 More Films to Watch on Halloween

Posted in Best Of, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Halloween is upon us again! In response to a list I wrote up last year, here are a few more gruesome delights to conjure on this, the spookiest of days.

OVER THE GARDEN WALL (Hulu)

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While really a miniseries, the accumulated episodes equal film length (about 2 hours); and you’d be hard-pressed not to watch them all at once. This is a gorgeously animated and brilliantly plotted piece of cinematic art. The color palette, full of browns and oranges, evokes autumnal perfection; and the supernatural elements are legitimately frightening. A philosophical, charming, scary and beautiful October treat.

BASKIN (Netflix)

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Haunted houses are one of the foremost attractions of the season – paying good money to immerse yourself in a four-dimensional horror film. BASKIN is an actual film that looks, sounds and feels like one of these attractions, from the (dis)comfort of your living room. With stunning and colorful imagery, a bone-rattling score and hellish atmosphere for days, this chaotic descent into hell is an eye-popping blast.

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (Amazon)

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There are dozens of Shelley adaptations, and dozens of Hammer films, that are suitable for this list – but the Curse stands out. This is the film that started England’s reclamation of Gothic horror, in beautiful, bloody Technicolor. The images of corpses, desecrated graves, and finally the monster himself, are truly grotesque, especially considering the decade in which the film was made. It’s a ghoulish, brutal version of the Frankenstein story.

THE IRON ROSE (Shudder)

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One does not tread far into the realm of Eurohorror without hearing of Jean Rollin. He made his fame on erotic, poetic vampire films – such as Requiem for a Vampire and The Living Dead Girl – and this, while it contains no undead, is one of his finest. The plot is shockingly simple, with two horny kids stuck in a graveyard after dark; but Rollin’s direction creates a moody, existential work of dread that leaves its mental mark.

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (Netflix)

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While not necessarily a horror film in itself, aside from a few scenes, Ana Lily Amirpour’s ingenious production fits the season perfectly. The gloomy monochrome and the badass title character create an atmosphere of cool loneliness, echoing the quiet hours toward midnight on the 31st. It’s not frightening, but phantasmal – the perfect film for a less scary sabbath celebration. And it helps that it’s truly original, unlike anything else.

HABIT (Shudder)

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Another vampire offering, this one more traditionally frightening. Larry Fessenden’s indie game-changer starts on Halloween night as a man (played by Fessenden) meets a mysterious woman who starts plaguing his life, sexually and emotionally. It’s a slow-moving accumulation of atmosphere, evoking the Urban Gothic grunge of New York, and also depicting one of the most uncanny, elemental vampires I’ve ever seen on screen.

THE BEYOND (Shudder)

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Anyone who knows me well enough is aware that I am addicted to Italian horror films. Lucio Fulci’s cosmic, apocalyptic wackfest is one of the most fun offerings. Full of the walking dead, voodoo practices, disgusting death scenes and a sense of utter dread that sneaks up on you, this is a grand cinematic nightmare. It has all the creepy and gory flavor of a Halloween night gone wrong.

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (Hulu)

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Another Fessenden production, this time helmed by new indie horror icon Ti West. Not only was it one of the first ‘nostalgic’ horror films of recent years – it recreates 80s occult atmosphere perfectly – but it’s also wonderfully creepy in its own right. This demonic chiller uses silence, isolation and a mounting sense of wrongness to create dread; culminating in a grand climax of demonic evil. Pure horror fun.

BLACK SABBATH (Shudder)

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There are several Bava films that could qualify for this list; but this one has Boris Karloff in it. What else do you need? On top of Karloff’s presence, this anthology film is stocked with amazing visuals, and is surprisingly terrifying (the final story will cause nightmares). Go for the Italian cut if you can. This is Gothic cinema at its best, and sets a standard for structuring anthology films (Italian cut only).

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Short Story: OUT THERE

Posted in Halloween, Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2016 by smuckyproductions

A little mood piece about darkness for the Halloween season. 

OUT THERE

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The stars stared. Jem could see thousands of them, unshielded by clouds or pollution from the city. He wondered how many of them could see down this far – or perhaps the distance blinded them. But they are so big, Jem mused, that they can see as far as they like.

“Over here,” Jem’s father said.

He stood several yards away, at the edge of the street where the grass began. Winnie waited at his knee. Jem skipped closer and looked behind them, at the strip of subdivision. Its lights almost overpowered the stars, if you looked at them too long; but they could not shut out the mounds of hills, heaped on all sides. From far away, Jem imagined, these houses would look pitiful, and at any moment the hills could lean forward and swallow them. He blinked, cleared his eyes of electric light, and turned back toward his father. The flashlight he held revealed a patch of grass in front of them, and the beginnings of the forest. Otherwise everything was shadow – the stars glowed but did not illuminate. Jem knew that, when he stood behind the flashlight, he was a shadow, too. He kept himself there, wondering if he felt any different, ensured that he was only two steps away from the flashlight and reality.

“Go on,” his father said to Winnie. She perked up and trotted away into the grass, which half-devoured her. Jem’s father kept the flashlight trained on her without fault. He did not blink or flinch; in fact, Jem noticed that his hand bulged with veins, from the strain of keeping still. The beam did not waver, either – it cut a single hole in the dark, allowing the trees and rocks beyond to remain formless until sunrise.

Jem’s father had protested when Jem asked to go outside, too, and wait for Winnie to take care of herself. He said he did not want to deal with Jem being frightened in the dark. Their first night in the mountains, after being accustomed to the suburbs and the city where darkness was just a lower grade of light, Jem really had been afraid – he did not sleep for fear that the dark, so heavy and complete in the mountains, would break through the window of his room. But, when morning came and proved his survival, Jem realized that the dark was not an enemy. It allowed him to transform; without the watchful streetlights and windows, always keeping his body illuminated, he could become anything. He did not express these notions to his father, who would have snorted and shaken his head. He simply promised that he would not be afraid of the dark. Though the shadows were strong beyond the flashlight and hinted at moving shapes, Jem felt no fear. Besides, if anything should approach, Winnie would alert them.

She squatted now, glancing back at them with something like embarrassment, and marked her territory –she always did so over a small hole, once occupied by a fox. “Good girl,” said Jem’s father, almost like a command. Winnie straightened herself and trotted back, a bit faster than before. Jem’s father turned to follow, but Jem lingered and faced the dark again – did they have to go inside so soon? He felt the shadow on his skin, and marveled at how strong it seemed. His eyes strained to see detail and failed. A thrill wormed into his abdomen and worked its away up until he was grinning. Stay like this, he thought. Stay.

“What, girl?” his father was saying. “What’s there?”

Jem glanced up and saw Winnie staring at him. Her face was rigid, nose pointed at his head, or something behind it. The flashlight blasted into his eyes as his father followed Winnie’s lead. While his eyes danced with red and readjusted, Jem heard his father mutter something, a nasty sounding word. He looked where Winnie pointed, and his face was slack with dread.

The grass rustled behind Jem – a soft, inviting sound – and he turned to see what everyone else did. “Don’t,” his father snapped.

Jem would have disregarded the command, but he had never heard his father’s voice crack like that, as if he was being choked. Jem turned back to him and frowned in silent inquiry. His father waved a hand, beckoning, and Winnie took a step back. A low growl rumbled in her chest as she stared.

“Come here,” his father said, and the grass rustled again.

He walked toward the flashlight only to satisfy his father. The dark still felt calm and exciting on his skin. The flashlight was so loud in comparison. His father was shaking it now, as if flicking a whip. “Back,” he barked, not to Jem. “Back.”

Now behind his father, Jem turned to look. His eyes had quite recovered from the flashlight’s glare, so he was blind to the dark; and before he could blink away the light his father’s hand was over his face. “Don’t look,” his father cried.

“Why?”

“Because I said so.” It was not a demand but a plea. Jem looked back at the house; but slowly, long enough to glimpse something in the grass, whose movement was utterly wrong as it crept closer. The flashlight’s dancing beam did not allow for a more concrete view. His father continued to growl, “Back, back;” and something hissed, or sighed, in protest. Jem did not hear the sound so much as imagine it – no physical vocal chords could have produced it. He was suddenly glad that he had looked away.

Winnie had already raced back toward the house, and now his father followed, pushing Jem alongside him. The flashlight was weak next to the streetlamps. Jem took a last glance up, at the far away stars, and then the door slammed shut, and his father was coughing out a grotesque noise. Jem thought he might be laughing, maybe, and left him alone.

Neither of them spoke for some time. Jem’s father vanished into the bathroom for a while, where he continued making the noise, and Jem watched through the living room window in his absence. He could not see much beyond his reflection. It was possible that something looked back, and he would have turned off all the lights in order to see it, but then his father emerged, red-faced and sniffling.

“Why couldn’t I look?” Jem said immediately.

His father stared at him, as if not recognizing him. “Some things you don’t need to see quite yet,” he muttered. “There’s things out there that don’t leave you once you see them. That was one. You’ll have your time someday. But not yet.”

Jem nodded and pretended to understand.

“Promise me you won’t go out there,” his father said; his voice croaked again.

I’m not scared, Jem thought, but whispered, “I promise.”

His father smiled and murmured, “Good boy.” Then he retreated to his room again, shut the door, and locked it.

Jem stayed at the window and looked at his reflection. The glass made it look faded, uncertain, and small. He scowled and tried to see beyond. The darkness was still there, and would be for hours. Perhaps that meant the sighing thing was still there, too. He pushed away from the window and crept toward the front door. Winnie stared at him as he went, but did not protest. His hand fell on the knob, heavy and final; he would wait until his father started to snore, then he would go look.

Dark Musings: The Art of Homage

Posted in Dark Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Returning from Sitges International Film Festival, I realize that three of the eight films I saw were explicit homages – SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL; THE LOVE WITCH; and THE VOID. If you get liberal, you might be able to throw THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE in there as well. These films make a point of visiting a bygone age of horror not only through style, but through plot, character and theme. LONELY GIRL is a psychosexual Gothic thriller with cold, beautiful imagery and a frail protagonist straight from the 70s; you could actually convince me that LOVE WITCH was filmed in the 60s, aside from the final act (more on that later); and THE VOID feels like a Carpenter film that never got made.

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This is no surprise – in fact, it has become almost commonplace. So many of the horror films we see today either feel like or are constructed as throwbacks to other eras. CRIMSON PEAK revisits Roger Corman and Mario Bava. THE CONJURING sits right next to THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and POLTERGEIST. WE ARE STILL HERE is a stylistic and thematic marriage of Lucio Fulci and H.P. Lovecraft, who had come back into vogue in the 1970s. We hear synths in the scores again, we see long and patient zooms, we find practical effects favoring CGI (for the most part).

This is, in many ways, a positive thing. Many fans would argue that these eras were the best, partially due to techniques that we seemed to have forgotten about in the early 21st century. To see them coming back into play is thrilling. It just means that many of the films feel like something that came before – there isn’t much originality going around. For the most part. Alongside the homages, there have been some incredible feats of meta-cinema. These are the films that continue to reshape and invigorate the genre.

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One of the best horror films to hit the screens recently was IT FOLLOWS – an homage in its cinematography, plot and score, all of which are masterful. But it also feels deeply rooted in this generation. The films it draws from (HALLOWEEN, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) mostly operate on the idea that sex leads to death, a classic slasher cliché. The plot of IT FOLLOWS reflects this – have sex and inherit a supernatural entity that stalks you until it catches you – but also inverts the idea completely, because in order to survive, one must continue having sex. The story is also rendered so uniquely by David Robert Mitchell’s direction and Maika Monroe’s heartbreaking performance. Rather than going for camp and cheese, Mitchell and Monroe create a portrait of trauma. The disease is horrifying, world-changing, but no one else can see it… until they experience it. Sexual shame and assault are much the same.

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Similarly, THE LOVE WITCH exists staunchly in the world of 60s soft-core cinema. The titular witch uses her brews and spells to seduce men. But, here’s the catch – this is not a supernatural film. Anna Biller, the director (and costume designer), recreates the aesthetic and atmosphere down to the quality of light; but the story does not follow quite as faithfully. Within the first ten minutes, someone calls the protagonist out for her old-fashioned views – her continual insistence that “We must give men what they want.” The film spends its running time dissecting dangerous ideas of idolization, romanticism and delusion, eventually proving that these ideas end only in tragedy. What could have been just another sexploitation pic becomes a commentary on the themes it embodies.

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These are not the only films that transcend homage, but they stand out vividly as an example for future filmmakers. It is possible to pay tribute to another era without falling into its trap and feeling like a replica. Horror has always been rich in theme and commentary, and much of past cinema explores ideas that are relevant in our era. Going back to those decades can unearth their commentary and make it fresh. WE ARE STILL HERE uses its 70s atmosphere to dissect grief and mob mentality; or THE WITCH, revisiting the occult obsession of the 60s and 70s, finds feminist themes that feel vital today. Here we find filmmakers who respect their cinematic history, but do not fall into its stagnant clutches. Art must always move forward.

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Then, of course, there are films that feel (to me) entirely of this generation – Mattie Do’s sociological Gothic chiller DEAREST SISTER; the already-infamous WE ARE THE FLESH; and Richard Bates Jr.’s TRASH FIRE, which, while taking grotesque cues from BABY JANE, still exists in the 21st century. They free themselves fully from nostalgia, in the process finding new themes and styles that invigorate the genre. They might be rarer, or less celebrated, because that nostalgia is such a strong pull (as evidenced by the success of THE CONJURING and STRANGER THINGS); but they give evidence that, one day, filmmakers may pay homage to the style of this decade.

It is a thrilling time for horror cinema, both of the past and present. New filmmakers must make the choice, though – exist in bygone eras or create something new, something of their times. For fans, it is enough to have a bit of both.

Short Story: A FINE DAY FOR A WEDDING

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Autumn has enfolded us fully; so why don’t we look back to the heat of summer for a little love story?

A FINE DAY FOR A WEDDING

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You’ll likely remember that Midsummer day when young Tom O’Riley got it into his head that he should propose to the apple of his eye, Amaryllis Jones. What a fine, hot day it was, too! The sun celebrated its own glow on the streets of our pride and joy Little Creek Bend, and that Tom O’Riley took to them like the stones had been lain in his name. Scarce is an individual who did not see good Tom on his way, head high and holding out that velvet pouch for all to acknowledge, the pouch that bore the jewel to sit upon his beloved’s finger.

Tom had put on his favorite checked shirt and pressed blue jeans, the ones that work had not worn down, and over his hair he wore that grand beacon of a hat, the color of raw chicken’s skin. He stuck his head up as high as it would go so even the merchants in their offices up top could see it bobbing on by. There was sweat a’plenty running under the brim and inside his best shirt, but Tom would not be stopped by anything, let alone the heat. His smile was bright enough to set you on fire if you looked at it too long. The air itself, perfumed so gently with Mrs. Bernard’s roses and the wildflowers in Farmer Leigh’s field, carried him along toward his divine purpose. Watching Tom O’Riley go to meet his sweetheart on that fine June morning was enough to melt the heart of the coldest miser, and make the mute sing praises. Even after the way it turned out.

Rare, too, is the soul who did not know beforehand of Tom’s intentions for sweet Miss Jones. They had been seen all over town, her delicate hand wrapped around his big young arm, gazing at each other like their necks had petrified. More and more did Tom’s demeanor turn on his fishing buddies down at the saloon – where once a burly and brutish bull had held court, there was now a twittery, pink-cheeked, thoughtful stallion who was always preoccupied by something he didn’t dare proclaim. Quite a thing to see, such a big boy broken up over a little flower. But she was, we all know, the loveliest flower that ever was, with skin like precious metal and hair that floated about her head like angel’s breath. Many a young soul – and, I might add, a few old ones – pined for the heart of Amaryllis. Not all of them were too pleased to see Mr. O’Riley toting that velvet pouch, either. He paid none of them any attention as he made his pilgrimage down the streets of our pride and joy Little Creek Bend. Even if he’d had a mind to look and see his competition, the brim of his hat would have prevented it. That hat, by God, was the joke of all the young folks around, for the way it overshadowed Tom’s face and weighed twice as much as his skull; but as he walked so tall and regal, his hat took on the aspect of the grandest crown.

At about ten after nine did Tom round the corner of Amaryllis’s street. Widow McNally gave him a shy little wave, and that good-hearted merchant Stalmouth tipped his hat in congratulations. Tom regarded them all with the most pleasant manly grin as he ascended the white steps of his beloved’s mamma’s veranda. He waited at the top, as if exploring all the phases of his life and all that could come after, the endless versions, and deciding that the one before him was the only one worth going for; so he rapped his hand against the door.

It swung on its hinges not into the bright and welcoming corridor that old Mrs. Jones always maintained for her guests, but a dark and gloomy one. In the dim light it was a challenge to see what was making smacking so, or to pick out the unnatural shadow at the foot of the stairs. Tom did something he had never done before – he faltered in his step. And he further surprised all us watching when he let out a high-pitched and desperate scream.

It took the watchers a moment to find the reason for his outburst, but when it slithered onto the porch, we all understood. A first impression reminded one of a tumor with the arms and legs of a soft-shelled crab, bearing an old man’s toothless face and four unevenly arranged, red-rimmed eyes; but the skin was too muddy, flecked with red, and after a good look, it was clear that the legs were covered in hair. Tom was confronted by this striking creature, in whose misshapen jaws dangled the well-chewed body of his intended. He staggered back and nearly fell down the steps as he gaped and tried to think of the proper response. The velvet pouch clattered on the veranda and was forgotten.

After dropping Amaryllis’s leg from its jaws, the creature said, “Who the hell are you?”

“T-t-t-Tom O’Riley,” the poor boy stuttered, always polite.

“Well, T-t-t-Tom, you’ve got real great timing,” the creature said. “Now, unless you’re here for a good reason, I’ll ask you to kindly go away.”

Now Tom, being a fine boy, did not appreciate being talked to in such an inconsiderate manner. He puffed up his chest and widened his stance. I daresay he felt foolish having left his pistol at home, but Tom, he was not one to shy from hand to hand combat, even if his opponent had seven to his two. “I came here today to make Amaryllis Jones my wife in the eyes of the Lord,” Tom bellowed. It wasn’t his fault that his voice cracked. “You have no right to keep a man from that.”

The creature shrugged its shoulders and lumps. “Not to be rude, but that doesn’t sound much like my problem,” it said.

“Hell it isn’t!” Tom yelled.

“I don’t like this attitude of yours,” it said. “And when a body is just minding his own damn business. How am I supposed to know you’re coming over here to do such and such bullshit? I didn’t even mean anything personal. This just happened to be the toilet that I crawled out of today. A body’s got to eat, you know. If you want to get all fussy with someone, why don’t you talk to the asshole that planned the sewers? He’s got more to do with it than I do.”

By this time, I’m sorry to say, the smell of the creature and the sight of the girl’s half-eaten flesh got to Tom, and he spilled his breakfast all over his shoes. “Now isn’t that pleasant,” the creature said in response.

But like a good boy, Tom puffed himself out again and wiped the spillage off of his mouth. “You got no right, doing this to a man,” he said.

“I’ll take you to court if you try anything,” the creature said.

Tom stepped up to his opponent, putting out his fists, avoiding Amaryllis’s head. “I want you out,” he said. “You got no right eating up a man’s wife. Get out of this house and go back to the hole you crawled out of! I see you around here again, I’ll really give you something to bawl about.”

All of us watching were real quiet while they waited to hear what the creature might say. It gurgled, twitched its hemorrhaged eyes, and then snorted in a nasty gulp of air. Something like a smile wriggled over its mouth. “Well, I guess you aren’t such a dope after all,” it said. “You smell real nice, as a matter of fact. I’ve been looking for a nice-smelling thing to keep me company. The sewers get real lonely, all that waste and bad insulation. Why don’t you come down with me, huh? What do you say?”

Sure as anyone, Tom did not have the slightest idea how to respond to that request. He just blubbered along and took a glance at his beloved, splayed out underneath him. But the creature was impatient, I suppose, and didn’t have a mind to wait around for an answer; so it reached out one of its arms and took hold of Tom’s collar, another latching onto his sleeve, then retreated into the house with Tom flailing behind it. “You’ll like it down there, a big guy like you; we’ll have a good time. And I got some new records, too…” Then they were down the hall, something splashed a few times, and there were no more sounds to be heard from either of them. His grand hat was left on top of Amaryllis, and the sparkling jewel lay soaked through in unmentionables.

Suffice to say that none of us expected it to happen in such a way; you never know, I suppose, how one day will turn out. You never know what’s going to pop out of your sewer, either. And it’s easy to imagine that folks in Little Creek Bend were confused for a long time at the outcome of Tom’s proposal. We don’t see much of that nice boy anymore, though sometimes you can hear him hollering from down there, in the bridal suite. But those folks did get what they expected, after all, even if it came in a different shape. After all, those hot days in June are fine days for a wedding.