I was an easily scared child. When I was really young, like the 4 to 6 range, my family used to go to drive-in movies on the weekends. To keep families happy, each screen usually had a double-feature, with a family friendly early movie and a less family friendly late movie for when the kids went to sleep. But even the family friendly movies scared me. I remember being frightened by The Incredible Shrinking Woman starring Lily Tomlin. E.T., Howard the Duck, Ghostbusters. Ghostbusters scared the shit out of me. Since normal movies scared me so much, I was definitely not allowed to watch horror movies for most of my childhood, nor did I want to watch them. My only exposure to scary movies was to walk through the horror aisles of video stores to catch glimpses of old, trashy VHS covers, but never picking the boxes up.
Then at some point in my adolescence, but especially once I hit high school and got a job at one of those video stores, I just snapped out of it. I picked up a huge appetite for horror. I still got scared. But I like to think that having grown up sequestered from horror, I developed a unique respect for it, and eventually a unique appreciation for the joys of self-inflicted fear. Fast forward to being a full grown human being, and I still have a pretty similar relationship to horror movies. I still love them, they still scare me (not all of them, but some of them), and I still enjoy it.
This attraction is never so strong as in the month of October. For most of my adult life, once October 1 rolls around each year, I go on a horror movie binge. It’s really pretty much all I watch until the month is over. In the past I’ve tweeted the occasional quick reviews here and there, but I had an especially good run this October. So I thought I’d do a full post, reviewing very briefly all 15 horror movies I watched this October. Roughly chronological.
1. The Bay - I knew almost nothing about this movie when I started it, other than hearing that people liked it and that maybe it was a found footage movie. Most horror movies are actually pretty bad, even if they are scary, but sometimes they are so bad they make me angry, and this was one of them. The Bay is like watching a whole movie adapted from a BuzzFeed article from two years ago. I gave it a pass, mostly because I thought it was by some fledgling director. Then roll credits and it’s Barry. Effing. Levinson. Unforgivable. You, sir, have disgraced Toys.
2. The Awakening - Things took a real upswing when I fired up the Awakening. After a disappointing start with The Bay, this was a delightful surprise. Again, I knew nothing about it, but found a frigid little ghost story with Jimmy McNulty, and a Sixth Sense sort of ending that amazingly felt fresh. You could see it coming, but it was somehow still effective and didn’t feel like a gimmick at all. Mostly because it was well earned with human emotion, built on pangs of childhood guilt, sexual or otherwise. And there’s one particular scene involving a dollhouse that is the most frightening scene in any of the 15, by far.
3. The Possession - The exorcism genre was getting super played with tired religious themes. But this strain of horror movie has really been resurrected by Sam Raimi’s non-Christian-demon subgenre, as seen in Drag Me To Hell, and now The Possession. I think I liked Drag Me To Hell better, but The Possession was great, and pretty scary. This was the first one of the month that had me checking behind shower curtains and guest room doors. Also continued this year’s theme of scary children. Which are scary.
4. Evil Dead (remake) - The Evil Dead movies were some of my favorites when I first got back into horror. So naturally I was pretty excited for this generally well received reboot. After watching it, I can say that I enjoyed it, found it both compelling on its own while still being a nice tribute. But I have to say, even coming away with both of those sentiments, I still don’t think it needed to be made at all. It felt like a cash grab. Still, a good splatfest, and while not particularly frightening, very cringe-inducing. I’m on a good little streak here!
5. Mama - Oh, the first disappointment. But mostly because I had such high expectations. It wasn’t bad by any means, but beyond some of the early scenes with the scary kids walking around like animals, it was far too full of digital spectacle to be very scary. Very well acted movie though, with Jessica Chastain in punk rock costume, proving that she can carry pretty much any movie she’s in. She’s like the superior version of Julia Roberts we always deserved. Oh also Jamie Lannister, whose character does, in fact, pay his debts.
6. John Dies at the End - Another letdown. This one started out so strong and had so much potential. But about halfway through, I had only about 3/4 a grasp on the plot, and cared about maybe 1/10 of it. One of my least favorite things in movies is intentional weirdness and this was almost nothing but. I usually like Don Coscarelli movies, but this one really lost me. Maybe I’ll give the book a try.
7. Paranormal Activity 4 - So aside from Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures as a main competitor, Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions basically owns horror right now. I didn’t know it until I read this NYT profile, but practically every commercially successful horror movie that has come out in recent years has been Jason Blum’s handiwork. He has the found footage, low budget, make teenagers jump out of movie theater chairs thing perfected to a fine art. And the Paranormal Activity movies are his flagship. Probably the most successful horror franchise since Saw, they are so formulaic, but the formula creates a near perfect scary Friday night movie.
I love these movies, because they are sort of a combination of a horror movie and a Photo Hunt game, as you try to spot the haunted element in the frame. The fixed surveillance camera shots capitalize on that unique terror of your own home turning against you, and that creepy sensation we’ve all felt as the only person awake in a sleeping house.
That said, this is the first PA that didn’t hit the already predictable and silly mark. It’s the first one that didn’t have at least one, if not a handful, genuinely frightening moments. I could write a lot of criticism about Paranormal Activity 4, but I’ll just say that, in a satisfyingly schlocky horror series, this one was genuinely bad. I fear they’ve pushed this premise as far as it will go.
8. The House at the End of the Street - I have very little to say about this movie, which is telling. Jennifer Lawrence in tank tops. Aging Elizabeth Shue. Otherwise poor acting. A decent little twist at the end and a couple good jumps. A forgettable, C-level scary movie.
9. Dark Skies - After a run of disappointments, things picked up again with Dark Skies. Another Blumhouse movie, this one was well acted by Josh Hamilton and Felicity. More scary kids. The twist at the end was unnecessary, but this was maybe the scariest of the month on the whole. Alien movies, for some reason, really get me maybe because they feel marginally more plausible. But this movie succeeds, I think, because there’s a nice layer of family anxiety running underneath the surface horror. Struggling marriage, chronically sick kids, puberty, middle class poverty. And loaded with jumpy moments. Pleasantly surprised by Dark Skies.
10. Pumpkinhead - I started to exhaust modern options within reach and decided to dip back into classics for a bit. When I was younger, my friend Ryan had a standup cutout of Pumpkinhead that scared the shit out of me. So this one held some reverse nostalgia, I guess you’d call it. But again, a pleasant surprise. I was expecting trashy, low-budget rubber suit territory. But one of the only movies Stan Winston directed himself, it’s a well-paced, seedy, backwoods monster movie. A classic, awful young people getting what they deserve plot, but with an off-kilter setting and look to it. And Lance Henriksen.
11. The Serpent and the Rainbow - I realized watching this movie that Wes Craven movies always have this knockdown dragout one-on-one fight with a big bad magic villain at the end. In this way, they’re more like action blockbusters than horror movies. But Craven does have an incredible sense of gore and body horror. The terror of the gross. The Serpent and the Rainbow, a Hatian voodoo zombie flick, is no different. It also has the most dated and ridiculous love scene I have maybe ever seen. Bill Pullman boning down Haiti-style in actual slow motion. Truly terrifying. Oh and later he gets a railroad spike through his ballsack.
12. Children of the Corn - This movie is pretty famous and had a string of sequels. I remember the Stephen King short story, but had never watched the original film. The premise, murderous kids (again, the scary kids), is admittedly pretty scary. And the two kids cast in the main villain roles are so weird-looking, especially Isaac, this kid with an old man face and voice. But aside from that, this movie did not age well. It is actually horrible. Terribly acted, heavy handed in weird ways, ridiculous violence. Children of the Corn sucks.
13. C.H.U.D. - Another one I always meant to see but never did, this one is in many ways, far, far worse than any of the other movies of the month. But it’s actually so terrible that it crosses over into that annoying, hipster dimension of being so bad it’s good. But still bad. Not good at all. The weirdest thing about C.H.U.D, though, is that it is jam packed with future stars! Okay, mid-level stars, and not that jam packed. But still, John Goodman, Daniel Stern, John Heard, Kim Greist, Jay Thomas. Star struck yet?? Actually, never mind, don’t watch C.H.U.D.
14. Cabin in the Woods - I used to be sure to watch Night of the Living Dead every Halloween season, and I still usually do. But Cabin in the Woods is quickly replacing it as a Halloween tradition. Not intentionally, just because I could watch it endlessly. Funny, scary, smart, this is both the best scary movie, the best parody of a scary movie, and the best intelligent critique of a scary movie, all rolled into one.
15. Sinister - And now, after a month of scary children movies, the scariest of the scary children, in Sinister. Yet another Blum movie, and this I believe is the best I've seen thus far. More found footage, but this time gruesome Super 8 footage of serial murders. In fact, this one almost slips into Saw territory, a style of horror I cannot stand, but not quite. While most of the Blumhouse movies are one-trick ponies, Sinister actually has a few different breeds of scare, ranging from vague eeriness to straight up terror. Ethan Hawke really chews up the scenery, but not in a campy way. And for a horror movie, there are some surprisingly strong bit characters. Sinister is just a notch up in sophistication, but not so much that it sucks out any of the fun.
So there you have it. October 2013. Lot of scary little kids. Some zombies. A big gourd-skulled revenge monster. Watch some of them. Don't watch others. Turn out the lights and have a scare. It's good for you.