Breaking Out the Scalpel Early
With Halloween skulking on the far side of the weekend like some pumpkin-faced monster, I thought I’d get an early start on my picks of the month. After all, if you’re planning on watching some horror to celebrate the season, this weekend is probably when you’ll do it. So what better time to offer recommendations?
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 three times.
This is always the toughest category. The reason I watch so many horror films is simply that I love them. I can usually find some merit even the worst piece of dreck. When I go back over these films at the end of the month, my reaction to most is at least fondness. When a film stands out, it’s usually because it’s exceptional indeed.
There are a few near misses that still deserve special mention. Thirst is pretty much everything I want from a ’70s exploitation film, and its depiction of the mechanised farming of humans is genuinely disturbing. Luz: The Flower of Evil is a trippy, ambiguous piece of Colombian folk horror that will keep you off-balance throughout. And while I Came By might be closer to a thriller than a horror film, its constant reversals of expectations and growing sense of doom pack a hell of a punch.
This deliriously strange tale of a man who encounters a god lurking behind a rest stop glory hole was the biggest surprise of the month. What sounded like a one-note joke of a film turned out to have hidden depths, providing some real shocks towards the end. While the Lovecraftian aspects are little more than Easter eggs, they still added an extra layer of enjoyment. And there’s plenty of gore, weirdness and black comedy to keep you hooked throughout.
I don’t know whether Glorious benefitted from low expectations or if it really is as good as it seemed on a first viewing. It’s definitely a film I’ll have to go back to some day.
As I mentioned in my review, I’m trying to be less dismissive of found-footage horror. While the vast majority of such films are terrible, even by the standards of cheap horror movies, I’ve now seen enough good ones to give me hope.
Butterfly Kisses is something special indeed. Not only is it a critique of the found-footage format, using the characters’ analyses of a collection of disputed videos as a vehicle to point out the worst tropes of the genre, but it is also a chilling and entertaining found footage-film in its own right. I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a horror film on so many different levels at the same time before.
In my review of Mattie Do’s earlier film, Dearest Sister, I said that it showed real promise despite its flaws. The Long Walk is that promise fulfilled. This is a strange, haunting tale of the relationship between an ageing recluse in rural Laos and the ghost of a young woman who has walked by his side for 50 years. Their story is one of regrets, second chances and terrible secrets, rooted in the man’s traumatic childhood. This is a rich, beautifully shot film that will scare, delight and hurt you in equal measure.
Last year, I complained that I hadn’t picked enough terrible films. While I’ll always prefer to watch a good horror film, there’s a certain gleeful pleasure in tearing a bad one apart afterwards. While I still seem to have avoided picking too many stinkers, at least a couple of this year’s picks gave me an opportunity to rant.
It feels like a bit of a cheat to list Crystal Eyes here as it’s not really a bad film. There was just one particular aspect that soured me on it so utterly as to make it impossible to enjoy the rest. If you’re happy to be spoiled, read the full review to see what that was. Apart from this, however, Crystal Eyes was really just some low-budget, campy fun in the form of a giallo wannabe.
Again, I’m not sure I’d really call Broadcast Signal Intrusion bad. It was simply frustrating. There is a good film hiding in here somewhere — it’s just not the one that made its way onto the screen. Fundamentally, this is a classic paranoid thriller with some weird flourishes, taking inspiration from the infamous Max Headroom signal hijacking in 1987. Unfortunately, this premise is squandered on a narrative that goes around in circles, trying to hide its secrets so cleverly that we give up caring what they are.
OK, after being gentle about the last two picks, I shan’t hold back here. The Gore Gore Girls is one of the worst films I’ve seen in 50 years of horror film viewing. The cheapness and technical incompetence are a given with Herschell Gordon Lewis, but they usually just add to the charm of his work. Unfortunately, there is no charm at all here — just mean-spirited misogyny that feels uncomfortably fetishistic. It’s like watching an amateur porn movie, just one where the only pounding is a hammer on some unfortunate woman’s face.
It can be tough choosing whether a film goes into the Good category or the Weird one. As far as I’m concerned “weird” is generally an accolade. After seeing enough films over the decades to be inured to most frights, I watch horror more to be surprised and awed. A wildly imaginative but flawed film is going to appeal to me a lot more than a polished but dull one.
Barring some misgivings over the ending, I loved almost everything about A Ghost Waits. While it is absolutely a ghost story, it is more romantic comedy than horror. At the same time, I almost felt like I was watching a remake of Beetlejuice, shot in the style of Clerks. This is a zero-budget film largely limited to a single location and with makeup effects from the Halloween aisle of your local supermarket. Still, the result is unlike anything I have ever seen. Utterly charming.
I’m not sure how much of the weirdness of Eyes of Fire is deliberate. While its mixture of historical drama, folk horror and Stephen King pastiche is unusual, much of what makes the film strange lies in its execution. What little budget they had was largely spent wisely, with simple tricks creating memorable visual effects. The makeup in particular looks cheap, but in a way that makes it unsettling. At the same time, the acting varies wildly from competent if over-earnest to the worst kind of amateur dramatics nonsense. What really pushes Eyes of Fire over into true weirdness, however, is the editing. Scenes fly past at such a clip that you wonder if you hallucinated them. By the end, all attempts at coherent storytelling are abandoned in pursuit of pace. The result is fevered and jarring, but not altogether displeasing.
The White Reindeer might not fit most people’s concept of a weird film, but its combination of documentary-style footage and fairy-tale folk horror is so utterly unique that I didn’t know where else to place it.
This is the story of the sexually frustrated wife of a roving reindeer herder who makes a sacrifice to the stone god to give her the power to make men love her. Unfortunately, the witch blood in her ancestry perverts this desire and she becomes a vampiric shapeshifter, stalking the land in the form of a white reindeer.
What is already a fairly odd story is made all the stranger by the unrelenting bleakness of its snowy locations and the often confoundingly cheery soundtrack that accompanies every moment of the film. There is nothing else quite like this in the history of horror cinema.
If you’d like a recap of the full list, it went something like this:
- Werewolves Within (USA, 2021)
- Crystal Eyes (Argentina, 2018)
- Super Dark Times (USA, 2017)
- Thirst (Australia, 1979)
- A Ghost Waits (USA, 2020)
- Cemetery of Terror (Mexico, 1985)
- I Came By (UK, 2022)
- 100 Monsters (Japan, 1968)
- Sea Fever (Ireland, 2020)
- Mill of the Stone Women (Italy, 1960)
- Glorious (USA, 2022)
- All the Moons (Spain, 2021)
- Broadcast Signal Intrusion (USA, 2021)
- Incantation (Taiwan, 2022)
- The Gore Gore Girls (USA, 1972)
- Luz: The Flower of Evil (Colombia, 2019)
- Butterfly Kisses (USA, 2018)
- The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (Italy, 1971)
- Saloum (Senegal, 2021)
- The Addiction (USA, 1995)
- Good Madam (South Africa, 2021)
- The Freakmaker (UK, 1974)
- The Long Walk (Laos, 2019)
- Eyes of Fire (USA, 1983)
- Errors of the Human Body (Germany, 2013)
- Caveat (Ireland, 2020)
- The White Reindeer (Finland, 1952)
- His House (UK, 2020)
- Tourist Trap (USA, 1979)
- Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden, 1922)
- Flux Gourmet (UK, 2022)
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 Night House
- 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!