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By Scott Dorward

October Horror Movie Challenge

Gretel & Hansel (USA, 2020)

“I know that’s your favourite story but you’ve been telling it wrong.”

While Osgood Perkins isn’t exactly a prolific director, his few feature films have made me a fan. February (AKA The Blackcoat’s Daughter) and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House both exemplify a thoughtful, deliberate strand of modern horror that I adore. So when I saw that he had directed a new fairytale-themed film, I knew I had to include Gretel & Hansel in this month’s reviews.

Gretel & Hansel 1

Synopsis

We open with Gretel telling us her favourite story, about a young girl cured from a serious illness by a sorceress and who became filled with darkness as a result. From there, we move into more familiar fairy tale territory, with teenage Gretel and her younger brother Hansel forced to leave home when their single mother can no longer feed them.

The children embark upon a journey to look for work and shelter. After a variety of encounters on the road, including an accidental psychedelic trip after eating the wrong mushrooms, the now starving pair come across a strange house in the woods. Looking through the window, they see a table spread with an impossible feast of pies, meats and pastries. When Hansel sneaks in through the window, he is immediately caught by the old woman who lives there.

The old woman, Holda, proves friendly and invites the children to stay as long as they would like. While she lets Hansel indulge his interest in learning to be a woodcutter, Holda’s real focus is Gretel. As well as an encyclopaedic knowledge of herbalism, the old woman turns out to have more uncanny abilities and wants to teach them to her new ward. But is her interest in Gretel as maternal as it seems? What price is Gretel expected to pay for this new power? And where is all this food coming from anyway?

Gretel & Hansel 2

General Thoughts

I am a sucker for fairy tales. My two favourite films of this month so far are Tigers Are Not Afraid and Evolution, both of which play with fairytale tropes in clever ways. While Gretel & Hansel has similar influences, it cleaves closer to them both in structure and setting. Many of the elements and story beats are lifted directly from the original Brothers Grimm tale. Ultimately, however, it becomes its own thing, while still keeping the basic theme of temptation. There probably won’t be many surprises for anyone familiar with the story, but Perkins is creative enough in rearranging the elements to his own purposes, making it feel like something new.

In the early stages of the film, I kept wondering where the story was meant to be set. Gretel and Hansel are Americans with German names, surrounded by people with Irish and English accents. While I’m sure this was a deliberate choice, suggesting that everything all takes place in a realm of the imagination, it took at least half an hour for it to stop distracting me. I kept waiting for there to be some narrative explanation. There wasn’t.

Gretel & Hansel 3

Verdict

Gretel & Hansel is a beautiful film to look at. Even when it struggles to find its way as much as its two young protagonists do, it never fails to engage. You can simply lose yourself in the beautiful nightmare unfolding on the screen. This is essential, as the first act meanders way too much. Almost everything that happens before Gretel and Hansel arrive at the witch’s house feels superfluous.

While maybe not that frightening, this is a visceral film in places, sometimes quite literally. Once we get into the hidden truths of the witch’s house, we encounter plenty of horrors. This is a much darker and less gentle tale than it seems at first, oozing with blood and guts.

But, ultimately, Gretel & Hansel is a story about the shifting relationships and power dynamics between Gretel and the witch, as well as Gretel and her brother. It plays with our sympathies much as the witch plays with Gretel’s. And in that respect, it is wholly successful.

As much as I love folk horror, twisted fairy tales and this kind of languid, dreamy storytelling, Gretel & Hansel fell a little short for me. Maybe watching it so soon after Tigers Are Not Afraid and Evolution set an impossibly high bar. It’s certainly not a bad film in any respect, just one that never quite engages as much as it could.

The October Horror Movie Challenge

Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.

If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:

Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.

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.

If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!

By Scott Dorward

October Horror Movie Challenge

Two Thousand Maniacs! (USA, 1964)

“…something’s very wrong in this town.”

Herschell Gordon Lewis, the godfather of gore, is still a major hole in my horror viewing. Until 2014’s October Horror Movie Challenge, I’d never seen any of his films. Back then, I reviewed Blood Feast and decided I needed to watch more of his work. Well, it’s taken me six years, but here we are with Two Thousand Maniacs!

Two Thousand Maniacs! 1

Synopsis

In an unnamed state in the American South, a couple of country yokel stereotypes place diversion signs on a rural road, redirecting three cars with number plates from northern states. These unlucky travellers find themselves in Pleasant Valley, a rural town with a population of two thousand. Hey, I wonder if that relates to the title of the film…

Crowds gather to greet the new arrivals. The mayor tells them that Pleasant Valley is throwing a centennial celebration, although he is vague on the details of what they are commemorating. All six of the new arrivals will be guests of honour for the celebrations.

Of course, this wouldn’t be much of a horror film if everything was what it appears to be. Soon enough, the locals start murdering their visitors in a variety of charmingly rustic ways. But why are they doing this? Will any of their victims escape? And why doesn’t Pleasant Valley appear on any local maps?

Two Thousand Maniacs! 2

General Thoughts

It’s funny how Two Thousand Maniacs! is almost as provocative 56 years on, for reasons that should have fallen into history long ago. The sight of masses of angry people waving Confederate flags is almost as frightening today as it was in the peak of the US civil rights movement, when this film was made. And yet this is not a film about race. All the characters are white and the division between them is more rooted in history than simple bigotry.

While there is no racism in Two Thousand Maniacs!, some of the stereotypes it employs are still pretty jarring. The portrayal of dim-witted, gurning Southern yokels feels strangely meanspirited. Even though this is obviously played for laughs, I found it grating enough that it quite put me off. Of course, if the characters had been played straight, this would have been a very different film. I just wonder if it might have been possible to find the comedy in them without punching down so much.

There are some odd parallels between Two Thousand Maniacs! and The Wicker Man. While I can’t imagine Two Thousand Maniacs! was an influence on Anthony Shaffer, it’s striking how they both involve remote rural communities luring outsiders into their midst through deception, treating them as honoured guests, and then sacrificing them horribly. Each film is even punctuated by diegetic songs by local troubadours.

Two Thousand Maniacs! 3

Verdict

Two Thousand Maniacs! is a very uneven film. Some of the murderous set-pieces are imaginative and grotesquely funny. The more expository scenes, however, are a slog. This isn’t helped by the awful sound; in some smaller rooms, the clacking of the camera almost drowns out the dialogue, making it difficult to follow what is going on.

Herschell Gordon Lewis famously went from making nudie films to largely inventing the gore subgenre. The direction here certainly feels like it could have come from an old-fashioned porno. There are plenty of static, talky scenes with little camera movement. The acting is either wooden or wildly over the top. When the dialogue isn’t aiming for comedy, it is dully functional. But, let’s face it, people don’t watch films like this for their sparkling repartee.

The horror aspects of Two Thousand Maniacs! still stand up fairly well. This isn’t a scary film, however, but one that revels in Grand Guignol gore. Limbs are hacked off, bodies are torn apart, human flesh is barbecued, and someone is crushed with a very large rock. While the make-up effects are a bit hokey by today’s standards, they’re still pleasingly gruesome. The only really laughable effect is when one of the locals is sucked down by the least convincing quicksand in cinematic history.

And, ultimately, it seems unfair to compare Two Thousand Maniacs! to more modern or higher-budget films. This is a gleefully cheap and nasty piece of horror history, and fans will still find plenty to enjoy about it. Just maybe don’t go back for a second helping of that barbecue.

The October Horror Movie Challenge

Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.

If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:

Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.

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.

If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!

By Scott Dorward

October Horror Movie Challenge

Here Comes the Devil (Mexico, 2012)

“To them, we’re only a shell. They use us to do evil and then throw us away.”

Here Comes the Devil is another film I’ve been meaning to catch up with for a while. Mexico has long been a hotbed of horror cinema and I find myself taking notice whenever I notice that a film was made there. The Mexican films I’ve seen offer as broad a range of horror as anywhere else, but seem to have a weirder, more morbid sensibility that meshes nicely with my tastes. While Here Comes the Devil doesn’t come close to the polish or explosive imagination of, say, Tigers Are Not Afraid, it still has some engaging unpleasantness to offer.

Here Comes the Devil 1

Synopsis

Here Comes the Devil opens with a sex scene that really has little to do with the main plot. Two young women are having an affair that one of them wants to keep secret. As they discuss their relationship, a serial killer comes calling and attacks them with a machete. He chops off some fingers before being driven away, fleeing to a hillside where he appears to have a seizure. And that’s the last we see of him or the women.

Our actual protagonists are a family with two children — an adolescent girl and her younger brother. On a family outing to the same hill we saw in the opening, the kids wander off to give their parents some sexy alone time. When the children fail to return, their parents understandably panic. After an intensely emotional night in a local motel, filled with recriminations and culminating in an earthquake, the children return.

While the children appear unharmed barring some bruises, their mother, Sol, begins to suspect something is wrong. Both kids are sullen and withdrawn. Sol and her husband Felix decide that the weird loner who lives in a nearby trailer might have abused the children, and they decide to take bloody revenge upon him.

Meanwhile, the children’s behaviour grows stranger and stranger. They drive away their regular babysitter and start playing truant from school, visiting the hill instead. As Sol tries to determine what is wrong with them, she comes to a terrible realisation…

Here Comes the Devil 2

General Thoughts

Here Comes the Devil looks fairly cheaply made. It makes good use of locations to work around its limitations, but the lack of budget is still obvious. The lighting and camera work make it feel like a television drama from the 1970s, especially with the overuse of zoom shots. At least the filmmakers saved what money they had for make-up effects, giving us some memorably gory moments.

As the name implies, the protagonists of Here Comes the Devil perceive its horrors in fairly traditional Christian terms. There seems to be more than that going under the surface, however. We keep hearing about how old the cave and the legends surrounding it are. Whatever is lurking there, it seems to pre-date our conceptions of the Devil and his minions.

This idea of ancient, incomprehensible evils hiding behind more traditional symbolism strikes me as oddly Lovecraftian. We never really learn what the entities in this film are, what their agenda is (if any) or what is so special about the cave. People are drawn to the location, creating shrines to ward against the evil that dwells there, or maybe to make offerings. The fact that we’re left wondering about all these things makes them more unnerving than if the spirits had been revealed as, say, demons.

Here Comes the Devil 3

Verdict

While the premise of Here Comes the Devil is nothing special, its willingness to go to some pretty dark places saves it. Like yesterday’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, it relies more on shock than imagination to engage the audience. Between the completely gratuitous sex scene that opens the film, the demonic entities’ focus on breasts, and the sheer bloodiness of the murder scene, this is a film that wants to show you how naughty it’s being.

The various elements of the story — possession, creepy children, a sinister and ancient cave — are well-worn ones. Some of the scenes with, say, the kids floating in the air are completely undermined by overfamiliarity, coming across as more silly than frightening.

Despite these flaws, there is still plenty to enjoy in Here Comes the Devil. There is some real tension and horror in Sol’s creeping realisation of what has happened to her children. And the film’s readiness to its premise to a horrible conclusion certainly won me over. If it had flinched, offering us an inappropriately happy resolution, I would probably have hated this film. Instead, while I still found it a little disappointing, its sheer nastiness saves it from mediocrity.

The October Horror Movie Challenge

Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.

If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:

Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.

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.

If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!

By Scott Dorward

October Horror Movie Challenge

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Italy, 1972)

“Murder has a habit of involving all sorts of people for no reason.”

OK, I admit it. The main reason I selected Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key was its name. Sure, I’ve heard good things about the film over the years, but how can you resist a title like that? Also, while I reviewed The Editor, I haven’t tackled a proper giallo yet this month. So here we go…

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key 1

Synopsis

Irina is married to a horrible man. Her husband, Oliviero, is an alcoholic and second-rate writer who takes every opportunity to abuse and belittle her. At least part of the strain in their relationship stems from Oliviero’s twisted relationship with his late mother. While she may be dead, her influence lives on in the house, embodied by her vicious black cat, Satan, who hates Irina.

When a mysterious murderer first kills Oliviero’s mistress and then the couple’s maid, the two begin to suspect each other. In their paranoia, they decide to hide the maid’s body in the cellar of their sprawling villa out of fear that the police will suspect them too.

The situation grows more complicated when Oliviero’s niece, Floriana, comes to stay with the couple. She seems to have her own agenda, seducing everyone around her in an attempt to establish control. As the string of murders reaches an unexpected conclusion, Floriana’s machinations initiate a new cycle of violence and betrayal.

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key 2

General Thoughts

While it’s not immediately obvious, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key has an interesting and unusual narrative structure. The standard giallo murders of the first half are almost a red herring. While they set up what follows, the murders themselves are almost incidental. The actual story owes more to Edgar Allan Poe than, say, Mario Bava.

I assume that the sheer sexuality of Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key must have been daring for its time. This is a film with a great deal of nudity, not to mention sex between women and incest. To a modern audience, however, I suspect the abuse heaped upon Irina and some of the other women will be far more shocking. This is a film where sex is a means of coercion and cruelty more than an expression of love or desire.

As an aside, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key must have been a boon for lazy film critics. All you have to do is mention the title a few times and that’s half the word count of your review!

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key 3

Verdict

The reviews I’ve read of Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key have been uniformly glowing. By the halfway point, I found myself wondering if I was watching the same film as everyone else. Barring a couple of fairly by-the-numbers giallo murders and the casual cruelty heaped on Irina by Oliviero, not very much was happening. The dialogue was clunky but at least the production design was pretty enough. Still, if I hadn’t been reviewing the film, I might have given up.

Happily, things pick up once Floriana enters the story. Her coquettish manipulations may not be overly original but they are compelling. And as the serial murder subplot is resolved and the story develops down more gothic lines, the film grows more and more interesting. While any Poe fans will see the ending coming a mile off, it is still gratifying when it arrives.

For all the gothic elements of Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, it definitely has the dreamy atmosphere and twisted eroticism of giallo. It is, however, a lot more coherent than similar offerings from, say, Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci. More interestingly, it isn’t really a murder mystery, especially following the narrative gear-change around halfway through. This makes it stand out in a fairly crowded subgenre.

All in all, I was a little disappointed with Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. While it won me over in the end, the first half of the film tried my patience. And although its cruelties prove essential to the story, it’s still hard not to see them as misogynistic. Still, it’s an interesting piece of genre history and one of the more unusual approaches to Poe I’ve seen on screen.

The October Horror Movie Challenge

Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.

If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:

Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.

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.

If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!

By Scott Dorward

October Horror Movie Challenge

The Dead Center (USA, 2019)

“What is it that’s inside of you?”

Horror is a broad church, if a profane one. Largely by accident, my choices this month have been dominated by the artistic, weird or outright comedic. There haven’t been that many straightforward horror films. So there’s something quite refreshing about watching The Dead Center this late in the month. It’s a timeless piece of investigative horror that feels both modern and very traditional.

And, yes, I’ll stick to the American spelling of the title in this review. It’s just what the film is called. My spell-checker can go and cry in the corner.

The Dead Center 1

Synopsis

An unidentified corpse is delivered to a hospital morgue. He is a middle-aged man who appears to have committed suicide by slashing his wrists. Once the staff have gone home, however, this John Doe wakes up and staggers around the hospital in confusion before finding an unoccupied bed to slip into.

Conveniently, this bed turns out to be in the acute psychiatric unit. As our John Doe is unresponsive, apparently in a fugue state, he is admitted as a patient. Even when he does begin to talk, he seems to have retrograde amnesia. As the people around him start dying in a strange and unnatural way, his psychiatrist, the obsessive Dr Forester, begins to suspect that his patient’s talk of being possessed and returning from the dead might not be completely delusional.

At the same time, Dr Graham, a medical examiner, investigates why the body he has been called to autopsy is missing. As he tries to identify who this John Doe was, he starts unravelling the weird set of events that set all this in motion, growing convinced that they are leading to something apocalyptic.

The Dead Center 2

General Thoughts

Mental illness is a staple of horror, and one that is often handled terribly. While there is plenty of horror to be found in the simple realities of losing one’s faculties, everything about the failings of the human mind and its treatments has been sensationalised in awful ways throughout the history of the genre. So when a film like The Dead Center comes along that portrays the running of a psychiatric ward in a relatively down-to-earth way, it is a welcome change. There is a bit of a stretch when it comes to Dr Forrester’s increasingly unprofessional actions. Even then, he’s been established as having problems playing within the rules and we do see him face consequences for his transgressions.

It has been a while since I’ve seen a horror film where scientific professionals find themselves faced with the impossible. This is something that filled horror in the 1970s, especially in the work of Nigel Kneale, but it seems to have fallen out of fashion. Something about the investigation of an impending doom with ancient origins reminded me of Peter Weir’s largely forgotten classic, _The Last Wave_.

The Dead Center 3

Verdict

The basic story of The Dead Center is one of the most simple I’ve seen in a horror film for a while. A man is possessed by some ancient evil that threatens destruction; other people try to prevent this. Handled badly, it could have been trite and painfully obvious. Happily, however, some imagination and skilful storytelling save it from being average.

Having two investigative strands, each conducted by experts who know nothing of the other, creates some juicy dramatic tension. Each doctor gathers clues that would prove vital to the other but has no opportunity to share them. We, as the audience, can see how they all fit together while our protagonists operate at a deadly disadvantage.

While The Dead Center is definitely a good film, it falls short of being great. The resolution is anticlimactic, given some of the stakes established earlier. I understand that this was a deliberate choice by the filmmakers, and one that appeals to me intellectually, but it still felt unfulfilling. And some of Dr Forrester’s character flaws and the conflicts they lead to feel a little too neatly engineered for story purposes to ring true.

Despite these flaws, it is still nice to see a horror film that is serious, intelligent and well-made. This one is well worth your time.

Thank you again to Jon Cohorn for bringing this one to my attention.

The October Horror Movie Challenge

Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.

If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:

Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.

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.

If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!