Horror Movie Month 2014

Last year, I forgot to write up our horror movie watching until about eleven months later. This year, I’m going to write things down while they’re still fresh!

A Slow Start

October 1 - The Bay
October 2 - Truth or Die
October 3 - Outpost

First up, we watched a few random things from our list. The Bay was a found footage movie, which lost it a lot of points with us, I think. Found footage has its place, but its place is not “every single movie.” I will also never forgive it for starting with the narrator’s deep reluctance to review the horrible events of that day… to be followed almost immediately with “gosh, look at those awful pants I was wearing.” Still, I liked parts of it. There’s something to be said for the creepiness of being eaten from the inside out by bugs, I guess.

Truth or Die was fair. It reminded me, quite a bit, of My Little Eye, one of the other English horror movies I’ve seen. A bunch of young people are invited to a party at an isolated cabin where someone will extract revenge on them for their poor treatment of some guy at a party. It had its moments.

Outpost was just crap. It was Dead Snow all over again, but worse.

The Big Re-Watch

Before horror movie month began, Gloria and I watched Never Sleep Again, a four hour (!) documentary on the making of the entire Nightmare on Elm Street series, and Crystal Lake Memories, a seven hour (!!) documentary on the making of the entire Friday the 13th series. Gloria said, “Maybe we should rewatch those,” so we did! We watched every one of the movies (and skipped the TV series) in the order of their release:

October 4 - Friday the 13th (1980)
October 5 - Friday the 13th Part 2
October 6 - Friday the 13th Part Ⅲ
October 7 - Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter

The first one is still probably the best, and worth watching if you like thrillers with some gore. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a good one, and sets up a lot of things to come, but will also surprise a lot of viewers, I think. The rest of the quartet ranges from mediocre to bad.

Did you know that Friday the 13th ends before A Nightmare on Elm Street even begins? Yup. You also might not know that it ends when Corey Feldman slices Jason’s head nearly in two with a machete. Jason’s face slides down the blade, and the long curse on Camp Crystal Lake is over. Four movies and done!

October 8 - A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

…and then we get into the first Nightmare on Elm Street, which still holds up pretty well. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. The body bag scene remains excellently weird, Johnny Depp’s bed still eats him, and John Saxon is still great as Nancy’s father.

October 9 - Friday the 13th: A New Beginning

Wait? A new beginning? How does that work?

Well, somebody decides to dress up like Jason and kill people. It’s not very good at all, but it might actually be better than some of the previous ones.

October 10 - A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge

Never Sleep Again had a lot of talk about how Freddy’s Revenge is often cited as “the gayest horror movie ever made.” I told Gloria that I didn’t remember any kind of homoerotic subtext in it from our previous watching and she looked at me like I was crazy. On re-watching, I can see why. In my defense, while the actors and screenwriter say that it was intentional, the director and producer say they had no idea at the time. Bizarre!

Either way, it’s a lousy sequel that really compromises the mythology. In fact, Gloria and I would go on to discuss how this was a big problem with the rest of the Nightmare movies. While it’s easy to say that “Jason is a scary monster who just keeps coming back,” Freddy is more complicated. He’s some kind of ghost, and we see him soundly defeated in the first movie. Then in the second movie, he’s defeated by another means. In the third, another. The series never quite settles on rules, and it becomes a big problem, because without rules, you don’t know what to expect. The whole thing becomes a mess.

On the other hand, Freddy’s Revenge has Clu Gulager, so that’s cool.

October 11 - Friday the 13th Part Ⅵ: Jason Lives and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

This was a Saturday, and we watched two movies: one during the afternoon while my parents watched the kid, and once after she was in bed. I was please by how it worked out, because these are two of the best movies in either series. I really like part six of Friday the 13th. I think it has a great balance of scary to funny, it establishes “Jason can’t die” much more firmly, and it looks great on screen. I will watch this one again and again, over the rest of my life, I bet. It really hits the sweet spot on my funny vs. gory plot.

Dream Warriors, on the other hand, mostly gets its “best of” ranking by virtue of being one of the least lousy. I don’t think it’s as good as the first one by half, but it does establish a fair bit of canon. It introduces hypnocil, the experimental drug that prevents dreaming, which I always liked. It also, unfortunately, introduces the idea that the dreamers can use their “dream powers” to fight Freddy. For example, if you often dream about being a ninja, you can fight Freddy in your dreams using ninjitsu. This leads to really childish scenes that just get worse as the series goes on.

October 12 - Friday the 13th Part Ⅶ: The New Blood
October 13 - A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
October 14 - Friday the 13th Part Ⅷ: Jason Takes Manhattan
October 15 - A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child
October 16 - A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Final Nightmare
October 17 - Jason Goes to Hell

This is just a procession of crappier and crappier crap. Jason fights a psychic teenager. A kid who plays a lot of D&D goes to sleep and puts on his wizard robe and hat. Jason kills a bunch of teenagers on a dingy yacht before punching off the head of a guy down by the river. Several movies add rape scenes, showing us that horror movies have begun to go from goofy to gritty. Finally, Jason is reduced to a slug-like parasite that’s vomited from body to body, and Freddy is turned into a child by a stream of projectile vomit.

Skip these movies.

There is at least one tiny scene that I really liked, though. In Jason Takes Manhattan, a few teenagers have fled Jason and headed into the Manhattan sewer system. They run into some pipefitter who is horrified to see them. “We’ve gotta get out of here!” he cries. “Every night at midnight, the New York City sewer system is flooded with toxic waste, and that’s in just a few minutes!”

Love it.

October 18 - Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Jason X
October 19 - Freddy vs. Jason

These movies rock. They are the light at the end of the tunnel. New Nightmare is brilliant, working in an extradiegetic framework where the previous Nightmare films were acting as an escape valve for some well of evil, which now begins to haunt the cast and crew of the first, and now next, film. It’s creepy and intelligent, and that scene at Wes Craven’s house, at his word processor? Good stuff.

Jason X is great, too. It’s not cerebral by any means, but it’s fun. It gives you all the things that made the horror movies of the 80’s fun, but puts them in a space ship in the year 2450 because… why not? I have no serious complaints about this movie, and while I don’t begrudge anybody their opinion, I think it’s baffling that there are people who prefer the previous few movies to this one. Jason! In! Spaaaaaaaaaaace! Right?

Freddy vs. Jason was also a lot of fun. It did a good job of putting the feel of the previous movies — both series — into a modern setting. I was happy with the fight scenes, the characterization of the villains, and the tone. This movie could’ve been a complete wreck, and it wans’t. I’m not in a rush to watch it for a third time, but it was good. Main complaint: one character is utterly and without question a total clone of Jason Mewes’ “Jay” character. It’s dumb, and a distraction.

October 20 - Friday the 13th (2009)
October 21 - A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

I was bummed to get to these. I knew it would happen, but it was still a downer. If the previous three movies were the light at the end of the tunnel, these two began a new tunnel. They rebooted the franchises, and in doing so took them out of the 1980’s slasher tradition and brought them closer to the 2000’s torture porn. There are already some gritty, unflinching movies worth watching. Freddy and Jason didn’t need to join them.

A Nightmare on Elm Street keeps rubbing your face in the fact that Freddy was a child molester. That is not fun. That is awful.

Friday the 13th is shot to look like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. No surprise, given that its director, Marcus Nispel, also directed the 2003 remake of TCM. I think it’s much closer to the originals than the 2010 Nightmare was, but its naturalism makes everything seem dirty and awful. I would’ve preferred a bit more Tom Savini, I think.

That concluded our big rewatch, which I doubt we will attempt again, at least until Martha is old enough to watch with us. I was happier with the rewatch than I thought I would be, though, if only because we got to re-watch some of the good ones.

The whole thing left me thinking that I could produce a better set of plots for both series. I spent some time on this and concluded that it would be much easier to do for Friday than Nightmare. Jason can come back repeatedly at various inconvenient times and places, and the story of how the public responds could be an interesting one. The Nightmare movies have to deal with the fact that “beating Freddy” is really hard to explain, and if it’s some magic trick, seeing it over and over will be boring. On the other hand, the one good thing to come from the later Nightmare movies is the idea that Freddy wins, and finds himself with no more children to torment. The town is a ghost town and Freddy is powerless and bored. There’s a good movie to be made out of that.

Back to the Queue!

October 22 - Bad Kids Go to Hell
October 23 - Grabbers
October 24 - (out of town visitor)
October 25 - Stage Fright and Resolution

Bad Kids was clearly intended as something like “Breakfast Club, but horror.” It failed. It stank. It made me angry, because I really liked the idea. I think a movie like that would need to have a slow build of creepy events, maybe something like The Innkeepers. Instead, this was all over the place, and kept flashing back to events in the crowded school, totally contrary to how Breakfast Club works. As a big fan of Breakfast Club, I was predisposed to dislike this movie, and I disliked this movie.

Grabbers was a fun creature feature about weird tentacle monsters attaching an Irish town where everybody defends themselves by converging on the pub and getting wasted. I approve.

On Friday the 24th, I stayed late in Philly to have dinner with a friend. On Saturday, we watched two movies again, with Stage Fright as our “date night” movie. Woah. Stage Fright is a musical horror movie in which Meat Loaf murders Minnie Driver. It was pretty lousy, but I’m glad we watched it. As a proof of concept, it worked. You could, in fact, make a good musical horror movie. This just wasn’t one.

Resolution was really good. A truthy summary would be “a young man tries to detox his friend at a cabin in the woods built atop an ancient Indian burial ground.” It was creepy, subtle, and smart. The ending was maybe not entirely satisfying, but it was a solid ending for the story they told. Resolution would be on my list for best new movie we watched in Horror Movie Month.

The Final Week

October 26 - Cockneys vs. Zombies
October 27 - The Hole
October 28 - Castle Freak
October 29 - Oculus
October 30 - Grave Encounters

Cockneys vs. Zombies does what it says on the tin. I enjoyed it.

The Hole was made by Joe Dante, of Gremlins fame, as well as many other fine films. I enjoyed it. It was, in some ways, nothing special, but it was well made and enjoyable. I’m almost tempted to put it on the upcoming playlist for scary movies for Martha, but I think it’s just a little too creepy here and there.

Castle Freak was really lousy, but had Jeffrey Combs, who is always a real joy to watch. I think there was an idea for a good movie in there, they just didn’t make one.

Oculus was a good one. A brother and sister whose parents are killed in a haunted house return to the scene of the crime, ten years later, to destroy the evil entity. (I’m simplifying a bit, bit it’s close enough.) They take precautions to avoid letting the haunting get to them, too much, but their precautions slowly fail. The ending of this one bugged me, too, but the rest of the film was pretty darn good. There were a few scenes that really impressed me with their clever creepiness.

Grave Encounters was another found footage film, but I forgive it. The crew of a “Ghost Hunters”-like show spend the night in an abandoned, haunted asylum. They all go in seeming pretty sure that it’s not haunted, and probably that hauntings are bunk. They pay off the gardener to make up a story about seeing ghosts. Then, of course, the place really is haunted. None of this is interesting, but the way that the place torments them was really well done. It wasn’t just bloody walls and jump scares. The place ground them down and panicked them over time. I was happy to see some new, or at least rarely used, ideas being put to use so effectively.

Leslie Vernon

October 31 - Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

This was another re-watch. We saw this one years ago, very early on in the month, and it was so good that the rest of the month was jinxed. Nothing could live up to it. Behind the Mask is a clever deconstruction of the slasher movie, which ends with an extremely economical reconstruction. The title character, Leslie Vernon, is the killer, and he is great fun to watch. The film is a documentary, or rather, it’s a a film about the making of a documentary. The subject, Vernon, spends a lot of the movie discussing how one prepares for a slasher spree, and while doing so he’s energetic, funny, and charming. Later, he is not. The film is set in a world where Freddy, Jason, and others like them are real, but it’s not a fantasy world. Why, the documentarian wonders, do people go on these killing sprees? “I can’t explain,” Leslie says, “I have to show you.”

We’ll almost certainly watch this one again in a few years.

Bonus Movies

Since October we watched two more horror movies, and I might as well make a note of them.

Detention was amazing. Just go watch it. Don’t even read about it. Its structure is unusual, its tone is all over the place, and it doesn’t worry too much about making a lot of sense. I put this on thinking it would be background viewing, but I could not tear my eyes away from the TV. Probably this is my pick for best new horror movie we watched this year. I hesitate to even call it a horror movie, but I think that if I have to classify it, that’s where it goes.

Germ Z was lousy. It was a formulaic zombie movie with no new ideas of its own. It was poorly written, acted, and filmed. The only character who interested me, the doctor slash medical examiner slash part-time deputy, was given only about five minutes of screen time. Ugh.

We already have at least 31 movies we could watch for next year. Probably they’ll make a couple more between now and then. Here’s hoping we pick winners.

Written on November 11, 2014
movies