October Screening 49: Pop Skull (2007)
I traced mumblegore further back to this early gem from Adam Wingard (again, You’re Next is so fucking good) about a heartbroken Alabama pill addict who lives in his parents’ possibly-haunted basement. There’s an epilepsy warning right off-top, assuring us we’re strapping in for a very disorienting experience. If you find the first seizurrific trip-out sequence at all annoying, just turn the movie off, because it only cranks things up from there. It’s been labeled as “acid horror” and that’s spot-on, so you can either get irritated or just go with it. I went with it gladly.
It was made for about $2,000 total, clearly one of those movies made by somebody who was going to make a goddamn movie, no matter what, and I love that about it. Its resourcefulness is evident in every frame. I didn’t mind the early digital look of it at all - if anything, it helped me feel more like a fly on the wall for this poor kid’s trip through hell. There’s a lo-fi intimacy to it that lulled me into a kind of comfortable familiarity, like I was hanging out in a high school friend’s basement, which made the movie the movie that much scarier for me once it started spiraling into spooksville.
Pop Skull is a unique, chilling & surprisingly personal movie that couldn’t help but get its director more work. If you have the tolerance for experimental cinema, I heartily recommend. (watch the trailer!)
And holy shit, that’s a wrap on October! Only took me another month to catch up on writing about it…
October Screening 48: Equinox (1970)
I was curious about Equinox due to the involvement of Dennis Muren, who wrote & directed most of it uncredited & went on to do visual effects for Star Wars. Even without him, though, reading that an old drive-in picture like this was an influence on The Evil Dead is more than enough to get me interested, so when I saw Criterion’s DVD of it on sale used at Amoeba I had to give this thing a spin.
It’s a fun watch, but for all intents and purposes it’s really just Dennis Muren’s VFX Demo Tape. In other words, a collection of stop-motion & cell animation setpieces (I’ll admit I was genuinely impressed by the giant blue dude, he looked so real) strung together by a vague story that leaves room for a lot of random monster stuff. Four teens on an awkward double-day-date find a creepy old book in the woods & accidentally bring occult forces down upon them. At a trim 80 minutes the shenanigans go down pretty easy, but it still feels aimless at times - about 20 minutes was shot to pad it out to feature length, and approaching a story with “what else can we say” is never going to make things riveting.
You could look at it as a segue from tame drive-in horror cinema to the coming years of Evil Dead and Texas Chainsaw, when shit got a lot more harsh. Equinox is a fun little historical artifact nonetheless.
October Screening 47: Dawn of the Dead (1978)
There’s a great short story in Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts called “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead.” It’s actually a cute, nostalgic love story, one of the few non-horror stories in the anthology, it just takes place on the set of Dawn of the Dead during filming in 1977. I guess that makes it fan fiction, but it was good enough that I immediately had to watch Dawn of the Dead again as soon as I finished reading.
This movie never gets old to me. There’s some kind of intangible magic that keeps it timeless & memorable, defying outdated makeup effects or cheesy acting. The zombies are as certain & unstoppable a force of nature as cold winter weather, and their consumerist instinct to descend upon a shopping mall stings just as much if not moreso today (this would be a great pre-Black Friday watch). The story wanders around a bit, but that’s life in a shopping mall besieged by zombies. It’s pretty impressive that I got a better sense of how a zombie outbreak is affecting the world by watching Dawn of the Dead's four main characters for two hours than four seasons of countless boring people who can actually outside on The Walking Dead.
But I digress. This is the kind of movie that works whether I’m giving it my full, undivided attention, or cleaning my room, because it’s as thematically interesting as it is blood-splatteringly fun. For my money, that combination makes Dawn of the Dead the best zombie movie ever made.
October Screening 46: Black Swan (2010)
Real talk - I had to be dragged to see Black Swan in theaters. I was kind of cool off Darren Aronofsky after The Wrestler bummed me out so much, and I figured this would just be a dry, sad portrait like that but with a ballet dancer instead. The first shot of Black Swan took all those lesser expectations and kicked them off a bridge. The intense opening dream sequence was so unnerving, excessive, flashy and loud in all the best ways, and it dawned on me with a smile - this is a horror movie.
I remember hearing people screaming at the jump-scares and being thrilled to realize, wow, this movie has jump-scares! It dances in & out of reality without ever losing steam, taking us on a full-speed tour through schizophrenia with a helpless guide in Natalie Portman’s star ballerina who every other character seems to have devious plans about. Telling the story from her perspective is a stroke of genius, as we see what she thinks she sees, and almost begin to wonder if she even knows what “safe” feels like.
The camerawork is as impressive as the dancing, weaving effortlessly through the action, defying physics & lighting. The original score (and repurposed Swan Lake score) underlines the melodrama to great effect, and the performances are unbeatable. He makes a lot of movies about doomed people, but this is Aronofsky’s most fun meltdown to watch by far. I could never have predicted I’d love it so much, but here I am having watched it for the fourth time, still blown away. Black Swan is a great movie.
October Screening 45: John Dies at the End (2012)
HORRARTHON2K13’s closing film! I’d been obsessed with seeing John Dies at the End since its fantastic teaser trailer showed up online a couple years ago & assured me this movie would be just my kind of strange. This was my third time seeing it, and its ludicrous energy remained as infectious as ever, sleep be damned. It’s essentially the origin story of a couple midwestern twentysomething slackers turned paranormal investigators, who are tasked with saving the world from a tyrannical bio-computer-lizard-eye thing from an alternate universe after a reality-bending drug grants them some kind of selective omniscence/immortality.
…Essentially. There’s a lot of other weirdo shit thrown in for good measure - meat monsters, flying moustaches, cartoon massacres, flesh-eating slugs, Doug Jones… The movie can’t seem to stop itself from adding bizarre details & complications. I’m still in awe of just how much it packs into 99 minutes, so congrats if you get the whole story on the first run-through. Its psychotic stream-of-consciousness is probably the most fun you’ll ever have being so confused.
I’m currently almost done reading the novel it was based on, and holy shit, if you enjoy this movie at all the book is required reading. The film’s a great adaptation, probably the best single movie that could’ve been made from the source material (though I fantastize about an ongoing TV series of John & Dave’s adventures) but I’d recommend reading the book after seeing the movie, because it only gets better. A sequel's been published, as well, and I can only hope there'll be some cinematic follow-up someday (so, yknow, please pay for this movie).
And that’s a wrap on HORRARTHON2K13!! I couldn’t remember the rest of my day if you held a gun to my head, but I’m sure I passed out somewhere I don’t usually sleep.
October Screening 44: The Living Skeleton (1968)
I have no earthly idea why I thought a 1968 black & white Japanese ghost story would be a great thing to watch second-to-last in a 24-hour horror movie marathon. I fucking love my When Horror Came to Shochiku Eclipse box set & this was the only film from it I hadn’t watched yet, so maybe I thought of it as an interesting final boss for my weary attention span before the closing movie. Whatever the reason, the lineup had been set in stone (well, slate… we have a chalkboard) and god damn if I’m going to break horrarthon tradition, but there was a palpable feeling of “god help us” in the room as I hit play at 10am.
I liked it, in spite of more than a few several-minute blinks I just couldn’t help. There’s something lush & alluring about Japan’s horror cinema from the 60s (see also Kuroneko, Kwaidan et al) that apparently sucks me in even at my most sleep-deprived. It turns out The Living Skeleton is like a jazzier version of The Fog but twelve years earlier & with a less memorable score. A boatload of people are killed by pirates just outside a small town/island, and their ghosts continue to haunt the bay three years later, seeking vengeance. Their vengeance is achieved in a very roundabout way that involves scaring a couple teenagers & the local priest before the pirates re-appear & things get all twisty-turny.
About halfway through, my roommate woke up & stumbled into the room: “What’s going on in this one?” “There’s a buncha skeletons in the ocean and if you go scuba diving they’ll kinda shake & dance at ya.” “So… what’s the problem?” I could only shrug.
October Screening 43: Evil Dead (2013)
Say what you will about this movie, but it was way easier to handle at the tail-end of a 24-hour horror movie marathon than The Exorcist III. It’s gross enough that you can kind of watch it the same way you’d watch a Jackass movie, paying very little attention to “dialogue” or “story” and just shouting WWWOOOAAAGGGHHHH with the rest of the room when something messy happens.
I actually enjoy this remake quite a bit, though it’s more of a stylish exercise than a movie. It barely elaborates on the threadbare plot of the original, basically throwing a bunch of Gap models into a cabin with a demon and shaking the room ‘til only one’s left alive. The practical gore effects are great, and the progression of carnage makes it like the most entertaining possible version of watching all your Sims die - but that’s all the characters really are, and without anybody as charismatic as Bruce Campbell to root for the film begins to feel downright perverse. I also have to scold this movie for a brief ripoff of the machete scene from The Raid towards the end, too. Dick move, Evil Dead.
But any complaints about the film eventually just get nitpicky. It’s a fun, blood-soaked thrillride, and better than anybody could’ve expected.
October Screening 42: The Exorcist III (1990)
Just as HORRARTHON2k13’s twelfth movie since 1pm started rolling, the morning light began to creep in, so I spent a chunk of The Exorcist III only half-attentive as I frantically began taping black garbage bags over the windows. Its deliberately slow pace was kind of brutal at that point in the night/morning, though, so I could only give it so much anyway. I do recall a serious lack of exorcising, the story being more of a howdunit police procedural. It was all nicely done on a technical level, but it’s kind of hard to follow a mystery with much interest when you already know the answer is “demonic possession.” If it were called anything but The Exorcist III, it probably wouldn’t have the deck stacked against it like that, but once that title card pops up you’re really just waiting for somebody to get exorcised already. For an exorcism movie, I was underwhelmed.
It does contain some unexpectedly bugfuck-crazy sequences, including a dream-sequence trip to heaven to question some murder victims and at least one fantastic jump-scare. It also reinforced my theory that George C. Scott is great in scary movies (The Changeling like a mofuckaaaa) and that Brad Dourif is great in everything (okay, so’s George C. Scott, but he’s got an oscar already). If you have the time & patience for an interesting movie, if not an entirely successful one, you could do a lot worse than The Exorcist III, but I found it pretty frustrating at 5am.
October Screening 41: Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Now this is a surprisingly appropriate movie for when you’re so tired you can’t even be bothered to ask wwwhhyyyyy. People start mysteriously dying at a filthy summer camp filled with a lot of mean-spirited horny kids and also one shy girl, basically. I really meant “filthy,” though; Sleepaway Camp feels flat-out dirty to watch, like you ought to check yourself for open wounds first & try not to get any of it in your mouth. The kills are harsh & disgusting (my god, that poor attempted rapist who gets drenched in boiling water) and nobody is safe, to the point that you almost want it to stop and please show a little restraint. But it has none. It just keeps locking eyes with you and shouting “Call the cops! I DON’T GIVE A FUCK.” It pushes the envelope until the big-reveal climax, then starts wiping its hairy ass with it.
That, uh, “big reveal” of the murderer is a real shocker, by the way - I actually had this movie spoiled for me years ago & I still let out a “holy shit" at the ending. Again, this movie really doesn’t give a fuck, it does whatever it wants, but that kind of gross relentlessness is a little refreshing given the amount of forgettable PG-13 single-serving slasher movies that have been wheeled through theaters in the past couple decades. I’m definitely not going to forget about Sleepaway Camp anytime soon.
October Screening 40: StageFright: Aquarius (1987)
Aka Stage Fright aka Bloody Bird aka Deliria, I have no idea why this movie has so many titles and why it’s so hard to find, but I was really, really excited to watch it for the first time. So of course I programmed it to play at about 3am during the HORRARTHON, hoping it’d be weird enough to carry us into the deliriously-tired phase of the night. It was. It was. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
StageFright: Aquarius is a giallo movie about the production of an erotically-charged play in which a man in an owl costume murders prostitutes. A psycho killer/former stage actor escapes from a nearby mental hospital, sneaks into the theater, puts on the owl costume and starts actually murdering the cast & crew.
That’s more or less what actually happens in the story, but its shamelessly stylistic presentation is what makes this movie truly special. It’s as effective a slasher movie as you could want, with satisfyingly gruesome chases & kills, and a great final-girl climactic showdown - let’s just say the killer finds a way to bring everybody back for the last curtain call. But there’s also an almost hyper-unreal tone and pace (helped by the sometimes-neon sometimes-normal color palette and apparently improvised framerate) that gives the film a feeling of descent into madness, like one of those long, confusing nightmares you don’t even want to tell people about in the morning. It’s the kind of movie that’ll linger on a shot of an exotic fish tank while the original score pumps out another wailing synth solo. I loved it so much. It broke my brain just right for the five more movies I had left to watch.