By Scott Dorward
Another Month of Horrors
The shadows have grown longer and the nights colder. Ghosts and goblins are gambolling through the gloaming. The dead whisper terrible things by night, hidden in the rustling of fallen leaves, daring us to listen. All of this can mean only one thing. Halloween is here!
Halloween is a time to reflect upon mortality, to contemplate the fragility of human life and of what lies beyond it. More importantly, it is time to think about all the films I’ve watched throughout the month. Better to dwell on horrors on the screen than those in the shadows.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
The reviews I’ve posted each day this month are my way of taking part in the October Horror Movie Challenge. Everyone has their own approach, but the main requirement is that you must watch a horror film every day throughout October. The only hard rule I had was that the films had to be ones I hadn’t seen before.
As much fun as watching all these films can be, talking about them is even better. If you fancy joining in the conversation, I would love to hear from you. The main hub of discussion is our Discord server, where we have a channel dedicated to the October Horror Movie Challenge. Alternatively, you can contact me on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or by speaking my name into a mirror at night.
If I made a mistake in my selections this month, it was picking too many good films. That may sound like a strange complaint, but it does present problems. The less obvious one is that a lot of awful horror films are still entertaining, arguably reflecting the genre better than more polished, artistic efforts. I’m sure we all have our favourite bad horror movies that make us laugh for all the wrong reasons, or just win us over with their charming, amateurish earnestness.
The main problem, however, lies in picking highlights from a month filled with them. I’ll have to skip over a number of films that really deserve more attention. The omission of titles like Raw, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Island of Lost Souls from this selection is no slight upon them — they are simply up against some incredible competition.
If I had to pick my three favourite films from this month, they would be The Lighthouse, After Midnight, and Only Lovers Left Alive. Each reinvents the tropes of horror in unexpected and delightful ways, playing with a wider range of emotions than most genre films. But that is also a problem when it comes to the challenge — each is only tangentially a horror film, and only The Lighthouse is likely to evoke any sense of dread.
So, if I were to pick my three favourite unabashed horror films of the month, they would be Frightmare, mon mon mon MONSTERS, and Jakob’s Wife. Each surprised me in different ways, reflecting varied aspects of what I love about the genre.
While I would never claim Frightmare is high art, it represents a kind of simple, direct, but still imaginative horror that I associate with the 1970s. It is sometimes ludicrous, but never dull. While Frightmare may be slower paced than today’s horrors and tamer in its gore, it still hits us with a deliciously nasty resolution. Plus, it brought the word “caribanthropy” into my life, for which I shall be forever grateful.
mon mon mon MONSTERS was the month’s biggest surprise. Hiding behind a silly title and a kinetic style that suggests comedy lies one of the darkest, most nihilistic horror films I’ve seen in recent years. A couple of weeks on and I’m still reeling from the audacious brutality of its ending.
While Jakob’s Wife is a straightforward vampire film, drawing heavily upon classics of the genre, its characters transform it into something special. Using vampirism to explore societal expectations and gender roles is hardly new either, but doing so through the lens of a woman in her sixties seeking to redefine her marriage is. Barbara Crampton’s performance is a career best, bringing an already sparkling story to life.
I’m not sure I’ve seen a genuinely bad film this month. Again, this seems to be a shortcoming of my selection process. I really need to pick some stinkers just so I can tear into them.
There were still a few films I found disappointing, however.
While Hagazussa was probably the most beautiful film I watched this month, its glacial pace and lack of dialogue robbed it of any sense of menace. There were plenty of individual moments I enjoyed, but they were lost in otherwise overly ponderous storytelling. As I suggest in the full review, watching Hagazussa on the big screen would probably be far more satisfying. For home viewing, however, I need something more than pretty countryside to engage me.
Again, The Eyes of My Mother is a visually appealing film with plenty of potential. But like Hagazussa, it relies on long, slow scenes filled with menace to build tension, but draws them out for too long. It’s a fine character study of a young woman driven to atrocity by loneliness, but it feels bloated even at 75 minutes.
Sator failed to engage me for similar reasons as the last two films, but had the added barrier of being cryptic. The sparse dialogue and oblique storytelling mask what is otherwise a slight plot. Too much of the film involves Blair Witch-style running around in the woods, screaming at things no one can see. The tragedy is that there is a terrific backstory to the film, based in the director’s family history, that casts Sator in a far more compelling light. It’s a shame we see so little of this on the screen.
And the Weird
As much as I like dark, bloody or even funny horror films, the weird ones usually win my heart. It’s easy to set out to make a cult film but this is rarely successful. The best weird horror films are the ones that don’t know that they’re weird. Some strange alchemy of low budget, incompetence and imagination transforms them into cinematic gold.
I almost put The Boogey Man in the Bad section, but I decided that I enjoyed it more than some of the worthier films this month. Don’t get me wrong — it’s terrible, but it’s entertainingly terrible. As I’ve said so many times, the worst thing a horror film can be is boring, which The Boogey Man assuredly is not.
This low-budget ’80s shocker is a mishmash of ideas and scenes lifted from better films, thrown together and attached to a meagre story about a haunted mirror. Half the fun comes from identifying the films it steals from. I should create a bingo card so people can play along at home.
As odd as this tale of a developmentally challenged man forced to live as a baby is, it is more knowingly weird than the other two selections. And in this it falls short. The premise calls for something far wilder and more transgressive than we get. That said, it has moments of genuine discomfort, and the ending is likely to provoke all sorts of conflicting emotions.
Damn, is The Wizard of Gore a weird film. I was expecting some oddness, as it was made by Herschell Gordon Lewis, but I wasn’t ready for its all-out assault on our perception of reality. This is a cheapie exploitation gore film, filled with fake blood and real animal guts. But at the same time it delves into truly nightmarish territory before going absolutely batshit insane in the final minutes. This one is going to haunt me.
If you’d like a recap of the full list, it went something like this:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!