It’s that spookerific time of year, and with quarantine still ongoing, this Halloween is the perfect time to get your fear fix.
INSIDE THE BLUMHOUSE
Known for horror hits like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Happy Death Day, Blumhouse Productions has now started a television division that has released four new productions through Prime. Here are the first two I watched.
In Black Box, an African-American photographer named Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) suffers a traumatic brain injury following the car crash that kills his wife, and he struggles to maintain a sense of normalcy while his 7 year-old daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) helps to take care of him. But then a doctor (Phylicia Rashad) offers him the chance to try an experimental virtual reality treatment that could open up his subconscious and help him regain memories he has lost. If the hypnosis sequence in Get Out made you squeamish, Black Box won’t ease your skittishness, as Nolan’s journey deep into the dark depths of his subconscious reveal that he may not have been the nice person everyone claims he was. There may also be other people in his life he cannot recall. Director/co-writer Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour gets outstanding performances from his leads, and the twists he explores within the labyrinth of Nolan’s mind not only provide clever plot twists but actually fit the narrative trajectory. He even takes the familiar concept of the spider walk and makes it creepy again. Beyond its horror aspects, this film should resonate with anybody who’s often struggled to figure out who they are or where their life is going.
Another interesting new Blumhouse release on Prime is Evil Eye which walks the line between psychological thriller and supernatural chiller. It’s a cross-Atlantic story in which an Indian-American student named Pallavi (Sunita Mani) studying in New Orleans is constantly being badgered about marriage by her mother Usha (Mississippi Masala‘s Sarita Choudhury) who has moved back to India with her father (Bernard White). When Pallavi meets the man of her dreams (Omar Maskati), her mother experiences troubling visions and fears that he is the reincarnation of her abusive stalker ex-boyfriend from the past. Directors Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani, working from Madhuri Shekar’s adaptation of her Audible book, stay free of jump scares or ghostly imagery throughout Evil Eye, which is impressive given their joint visual effects background. That will likely disappoint horror fans seeking such visceral thrills, but since the truth is not revealed into the final act of the story, the filmmakers wisely focus on how such a scenario would play out in real life which makes it refreshing. The narrative does tread through some familiar ground which could have been different, but the strong lead performances, notably from Mani and Choudhury in a highly contentious and believable mother-daughter relationship, and a look at a culture not often explored in Western horror films, make this worthwhile viewing for those seeking a change of pace from bombastic fear fare.
Gentrification in your hood can really suck, as the three barely teenage protagonists (Jaden Michael, Gerald Jones III, and Gregory Diaz IV) of Vampires Vs. The Bronx learn when they suspect a nest of pasty white ghouls is taking over a local condo development. Naturally, no one believes them, but they do as much research into fighting the bloodsuckers as they can which includes watching Wesley Snipes in action in Blade. Director/co-writer Oz Rodriguez (an SNL veteran) transplants the Lost Boys concept into an urban setting which lends itself to a different style of humor than that 1987 classic. On top of the fear of their loved ones becoming fresh meat for the fanged ones, the boys also worry that their beloved Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Haitian bodegas and businesses will be replaced by bland hipster outlets. (Hey, that’s legit.) One of them is also tempted into a life of crime by a neighborhood drug lord, which is the one aspect that feels a bit overextended here. While Vampires Vs. The Bronx is not staking out any new territory cinematically, and its metaphor about battling gentrification is pretty literal, this Netflix production is a fun, family-friendly affair with a likable cast and just the right amount of profanity and gore for its intended PG-13 crowd. The vampires are appropriately creepy which adds to the sense of danger. Rodriguez also pokes fun at movie stereotypes, and he brings in a guest appearance from SNL cast member Chris Redd and rapper Method Man as a cagey priest who wants those kids to behave themselves. Bonus points for the “Puerto Rican Harry Potter” who wears Ghost and Slayer t-shirts.
If you’re a fan of older screen adaptations of our Master of Horror, Paramount’s 5-Movie Stephen King Collection should serve you well. It features both versions of Pet Sematary, Silver Bullet, the 1994 mini-series adaptation of The Stand, and the David Cronenberg-directed The Dead Zone, which is the only place one can get this particular movie on Blu-ray. With the set going on sale for $25 online and many discs including special features, it’s a great value.
Adapted from the King novella Cycle of the Werewolf, 1985’s Silver Bullet is a decent if dated lycanthrope ditty with some underlying humor. A small town is beset under fear and paranoia after a string of brutal slayings erodes their faith in law and order; even the local pastor cannot keep them from forming an ill-advised night posse. It’s also a family bonding experience for a crippled boy (Corey Haim) with a super speedy wheelchair, his slightly older sister (future Reign star Megan Follows), and their drunk but well-meaning uncle (Gary Busey). It’s very ‘80s but fun.
While many of us enjoyed the Pet Sematary adaptation from 1989, a new one emerged 30 years later from Paramount to attract a younger, newer audience. In both versions and the book, the Creed family moves into a rural home located near a “pet sematary” (yes, misspelled) where kids go to bury their beloved furry ones. But after their cat dies, the older next-door neighbor Jud Crandall shows the father a place beyond that burial ground where seemingly magic or cursed earth can revive the dead. First, the cat is brought back but not the same and rather sinister. But after the death of one of their two kids, desperate dad Creed does the same with his son…and then things really go to hell. Both films maintain much of the original tale, but deviate in different ways. Notably, in the introduction of the titular place, which kid dies, the dynamic between the Creed and Crandall men, and the chosen ending of each version. Oddly, the new version’s unused alternate ending is closest to the book which is better than the more pedestrian one they picked. Given the three-decade gap between versions, their look and tone vary which offers something different for fans of the story.
David Cronenberg’s cinematic rendering of The Dead Zone from 1983 is one of the best King adaptations ever put on film. Christopher Walken is superb as a teacher who wakes up after a five-year coma following a near fatal car accident. By then, the woman he loves (Brooke Adams) is married to someone else, but they still care for each other. To make matters worse, he can now touch people and see visions of past, present, and future tragedy in their lives, including one involving a slimy local politician (Martin Sheen) that has dire consequences for humanity. But does he have the power to stop it? The visual effects are great, the acting top notch, and Cronenberg maintains that sense of dread in his own special way.
I’ll admit I still have yet to watch the four-part The Stand mini-series from 1994 with Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, and Rob Lowe. But now I can get on that before the new version arrives!
THE POWER OF CULT
We cult movie buffs and fanatics are a quirky bunch. We have a passion for pursuing obscure movies that few people know about yet lure us in because they offer a fresh or different take on tried and true movie formulas. If you’re one of these cinematic nonconformists or are looking to understand them better, the recent documentary Survival Of The Film Freaks from directors Bill Fulkerson and Kyle Kuchta seeks to enlighten you. Interviewees such as actor Ted Raimi, directors Luigi Cozzi and Adam Green, cult savvy critic Joe Bob Briggs, producer Lloyd Kaufman, and many others delve into the history of cult movies, how a movie becomes a cult item, why they have sustained such an appeal over the years, and how the internet has both helped and hurt their stature. Time periods from grindhouse cinemas and the VHS years through to the streaming revolution gets covered, along with how people setting out to purposely make cult movies now are missing the point. It’s difficult to explore this topic in only 90 minutes – it’s more about the nature of cult and the joy of discovery rather than diving deeper into select titles. And what generally gets defined as “cult” here is a misfit, low budget movie, often of an exploitation nature, that a select group of people celebrates. But the truth is the term has a broader umbrella than that, and many cult films are genuinely good by a wider critical standard. They just did not get the love they deserved upon their original release. Sure, Pieces, The Apple, and Star Crash are cult flicks. But larger budget or slightly more “mainstream” movies like This Is Spinal Tap, The Big Lebowski, andMonty Python and the Holy Grail also qualify in their fans’ ardent passion for them over the decades. Further, of the two dozen interviewees, only two are women and two others are African-American and Japanese men, leaving it to the domain of mainly nerdy white men. While that’s still true, the demographics in this area, particularly horror, have broadened a bit in recent years. Despite these complaints, Survival of the Film Freaks offers some good insight into the nature of cult films and the people who adore them. One person’s cinematic trash can indeed be another one’s treasure, but sometime I’d love to hear about why some cult fans (myself included) tolerate too much junk to get to the good stuff.
There’s a lot of spooky goodness available via streaming this fall.
Amazon keeps unloading a lot of vintage horror into their “free for Prime members” section, including Fright Night, Planet of the Vampires, Night of the Demons, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again.
Netflix has released The Haunting Of Bly Manor, an adaptation of the classic Henry James ghost story The Turn Of The Screw.
Shudder continues to expand their scary repertoire, including The Mortuary Collection, The Void, Color Out Of Space, and the in-depth documentary In Search of Darkness: A Journey Into Iconic 80s Horror.
Let’s not forget the HBO series Lovecraft Country based on Matt Ruff’s novel. A black sci-fi author in search of his father in 1950s America confronts the horrific racism and terrifying monsters which ran through H.P. Lovecraft’s creepy works from an earlier era.