I will turn 50 in November of this year, so my project for 2023 will be to watch and review one movie from each year of my life. The only qualification is that it has to be a movie I’ve not reviewed previously.
Title: ParaNorman Release Date: August 3, 2012 Director: Sam Fell & Chris Butler Production Company: Laika Summary/Review:
Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an 11-year-old who can see and talk with dead people. His talent is related to a curse of a woman executed for witchcraft in the colonial era of his hometown of Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts. But for Norman, it means he’s considered a weird and an outcast by his family and classmates. When the witch’s curse causes zombies to arise it’s up to Norman to find a solution along with an ad hoc crew of his only friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), his older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), his bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and Neil’s buff older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck).
The stop motion animation is impressive, making everyone and everything look grotesque which is on theme. I liked the way they used a zombie story to tell a story that focuses on themes of self-acceptance and reconciliation. On the other hand the running gags about mob mentality got tired quickly. Overall this is a clever and entertaining movie and should be enjoyed by families with older children. It would pair well in a double feature with Wendell & Wild.
Title: Slash/Back Release Date: 13 March 2022 Director: Nyla Innuksuk Production Company:Mixtape VR | Red Marrow Media | Scythia Films | Stellar Citizens Summary/Review:
On the summer solstice, all of the adults in the Inuit village of Pangnirtung, Nunavut have gone away to a dance. So when blood-sucking aliens who take on the skin of dead animals and humans invade the town, it’s up to four teenage girls to rely on their hunting skills to defend the village. Maika (Tasiana Shirley), Jesse (Alexis Wolfe), Uki (Nalajoss Ellsworth), and Leena (Chelsea Prusky) have relatable problems when they’re not killing aliens, such as attraction to boys, tension with their parents, and the desire to escape their “boring” hometown. More uniquely, they also struggle with identifying with their Inuit heritage or adapting to more “modern” culture.
Slash/Back name drops The Thing and a lot of people correctly note a similarity to Attack the Block. But I also feel there’s a connection to 80s childhood dramas like E.T. and Stand By Me. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the undeniably stiff acting of the nonprofessional actors in the cast. But personally I feel that it lends a feeling of authenticity to this contemporary Inuit tale. This is also helped by the fact that the girls in the film also worked with the filmmakers to inform the script and characterization. I also found the practical effects for the monsters to be simple but effective. In short this is a fun and interesting horror/coming of age film from well outside of Hollywood.
Title: Nope Release Date: July 18, 2022 Director: Jordan Peele Production Company: Monkeypaw Productions Summary/Review:
A brother and sister struggle to manage the family business of wrangling horses for Hollywood movies and commercials after the sudden death of their father (a small role for Keith David of The Thing and They Live). The laconic Otis “OJ” Haywood, Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) is determined to carry on the family business, but the more free-spirited Emerald “Em” Haywood (Keke Palmer) is ready to move on to other interests. They have an offer to buy the ranch from Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) a former child actor who runs a Western theme park on an adjacent ranch.
When they discover something mysterious hovering in the clouds above their ranch and taking their horses, OJ an Em determine that capturing a high-quality film of the UFO is their key to fame and fortune. They are soon joined by Angel (Brandon Perea), the technician from an electronics store who installs surveillance cameras on their party. Later, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), an auteur filmmaker, joins the team. As you can imagine from a horror movie, things don’t go to plan. In fact they go horrifyingly wrong.
I’ve seen a lot of commentary that this movies is Jordan Peele’s homage to early Steven Spielberg movies like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While they’re not wrong, the movie comparison that comes to my mind is Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. Both films have a carnival in the desert setting while thematically dealing with the idea of spectacle and the willingness of people to exploit human suffering. Black Americans especially are dehumanized for the entertainment of others, a point the movie makes with the Haywood’s claim that their ancestor was the jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s first motion picture but is invisible to history. Of course, OJ’s name brings to mind the spectacle of the O.J. Simpson trial, although Peele refrains from the obvious callback of having OJ ride a white bronco.
The movie is very good at building tension especially early on by not showing much about the mystery in the sky. Later in the film when we see more of what it is, the movie takes on a more surreal feel. I’m particularly impressed by the editing and the sound design of the movie. All the acting is great but Keke Palmer is the standout performer for me. While not quite as good as Get Out or Us, I think Peele has added another great horror flick that makes you think to his oeuvre.
Author: Bram Stoker Title: Dracula Publication Info: Archibald Constable and Company (UK), 1897 Summary/Review:
Reading Dracula for the first time makes me realize that I didn’t know Dracula at all! The film adaptations have never quite captured the book. I read this as part of Dracula Daily which sends out each diary entry, letter, and news article on the date that each entry is given in the novel. For about seven months, along with thousands of other readers on Tumblr, it’s been like a giant book club as we slowly read this book a bit each day. It’s a fun way to read a book since I gained a lot of insights from other readers’ observations and memes. Oh the memes!
The novel’s format is very interesting, allowing perspectives from several characters (and some we don’t get to hear from at all). And the characters are really great too, especially the two women. Lucy Westenra is Dracula’s first victim upon arriving in England, and Mina Harker around whom a team of vampire hunters coalesce. In fact, Mina is given credit for assembling and transcribing all the diaries and letters, so Stoker essentially gives her authorship. All the men are interesting too, from Mina’s gentle but determined husband Jonathan to the Dutch polymath Abraham Van Helsing to the American cowboy Quincey Morris.
It’s a really interesting narrative with a lot of twists and turns and quite different than Nosferatu and Dracula, and other adaptations. There’s a basic wholesomeness to love and friendship among the Harkers and their friends that I just didn’t expect from a 19th century novel or a vampire story. Anyhow, now that I’ve read it once, I’ll definitely want to read it again.
Title: Wendell & Wild Release Date: October 21, 2022 Director: Henry Selick Production Company: Monkeypaw Productions | Gotham Group Summary/Review:
Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross) is the only survivor of a car crash that kills her parents, the owners of successful brewery in the town of Rust Bank. After five years cycling through foster service and juvenile detention, Kat returns to her home town to attend a private girls school on a rehabilitation program. Kat is accidentally marked as a “hell maiden,” which draws the attention of the demons Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele). They wish to escape their father Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames) and return the land of the living to create an amusement park. Wendell and Wild strike a deal with Kat to have her summon them to the surface in return for their resurrecting her parents.
There’s already a lot going on in this summary, and I’m barely scratching the surface. If there’s a major flaw to this movie, it’s that it has too much plot. Nevertheless, it is an imaginative and visually impressive film. Director Henry Selick’s previous films include The Nightmare Before Christmas(1993), James and the Giant Peach (1996), and Coraline (2009), and fans of his stop-motion animation style will like this film as well. Jordan Peele co-wrote the script with Selick and it reflects his comedy, horror, and social justice instincts. The metaphors are very heavy in this movie (one scene depicts a literal “school-to-prison pipeline” and one of the villains looks a lot like Donald Trump), but again the creativity of the story and imagination more than make up for any heavy-handedness.
I started off the month of October with the goal of watching and reviewing one horror movie each day of the month. Today I finish the project having achieved that goal. In fact, this will be my 34th scary movie review of the month, although you can quibble about whether or not all the movies were scary. I’m finishing off with an old favorite of mine.
Title: Shaun of the Dead Release Date: 29 March 2004 Director: Edgar Wright Production Company: Studio Canal | WT² Productions | Big Talk Productions[ Summary/Review:
Shaun of the Dead masterfully combines an homage to classic zombie horror movies with a comedy spoof of zombie horror movies and actually zombie horror movie scares. I remember really wanting to see this movie back when it was first released and then be very squicked out by the gore, especially one scene towards the end (I was a lot more sensitive to movie violence in my 20 & 30s than I was in my teens or now in my 40s). Despite that, this is a movie I’ve always loved and it remains my favorite of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy ahead of Hot Fuzz and World’s End.
Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a directionless young man in a dead end job and a disappointment to his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), who breaks up with him early in the movie. A lot of people believe that his problems stem from his lifelong friendship with deadbeat Ed (Nick Frost) dragging him down. When a zombie apocalypse breaks out, Shaun surprisingly rises to the moment as he rounds up Ed, Liz, her flatmates Diane (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran), his mother Barbara (Penelope Wilton) and his stepfather Phil (Bill Nighy). Their safe house, naturally is his local pub, The Winchester Arms.
I know a lot more horror/zombie lore now than I did in 2004, so I got more of the references on this viewing such as Ed shouting “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!” I’ve also learned in the interim that Pegg gained famed working with Jessica Stevenson Hynes on Spaced which explains the significance of her cameo as Shaun’s friend Yvonne. I’d forgotten how many of the most memorable scenes are packed into the end of the film, so I was really wondering “When is X going to happen?” when I saw there was only 20 minutes left. That’s not to say the early part of the film is just as good, as I especially enjoy the running gag of Shaun and Ed being completely oblivious to the zombie apocalypse.
Title: Dawn of the Dead Release Date: September 1, 1978 Director: George A. Romero Production Company: Laurel Group Summary/Review:
Dawn of the Dead was the first sequel to Night of the Living Dead, made ten years after the original. I’ve lived long enough for ten years to not feel like a long time, but the decade between 1968 and 1978 seems like it was full of change. American society changed dramatically, Hollywood movie-making was revolutionized, and horror movies became a lot more horrifying. Night of the Living Dead kicked off a new style of horror that became gorier with movies like Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. More mainstream Hollywood filmmakers showed that spending money on better special effects could make horror movies like The Exorcist and Jaws into blockbusters. And because Dawn of the Dead got funding from Italy, it was released there first, meaning American audiences saw Halloween first.
This is a long way of saying that George Romero really had to up his game, and for the most part he did. This is still a very low-budget film but it deals with a larger perspective on the zombie apocalypse than the original. It begins in Philadelphia where the city is in chaos as police and National Guard enforce martial law on low-income Black and Latin American communities. A definite social statement there that picks up from the posse carelessly murdering Duane at the end of the original film.
At a local TV station, an executive Francine (Gaylen Ross), who is pregnant, and her helicopter pilot boyfriend Stephen a.k.a Flyboy (David Emge) plan to escape in the station’s weather chopper. They are joined by two SWAT team policemen, Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger). They end up flying to a shopping mall in the suburbs of Pittsburgh which they are able to fortify and actually live a pretty good life. They are even able to watch TV which seems to just be panels of experts shouting at one another (very dark satire). All is well until a motorcycle gang arrives.
The movie is full of action and gore (with the worst of it occurring after the 2 hr mark), but it also is hilariously funny. I mean, how can you not laugh at zombies shuffling through the mall to the tune of piped-in Muzak? And if the zombies represent mindless consumerism, than our four survivors have other human foibles. I thought Roger was the dumbest person in this movie until the final act where Flyboy out-stupids everyone with grave consequences.
It’s hard to say whether Night or Dawn is the better movie as they both have their strengths. I think Dawn could be judiciously trimmed to be about 30 minutes shorter. But a lot of the “scenes of people doing ordinary things during a zombie apocalypse” is what makes this movie fun.
Title: Ginger Snaps Release Date: May 11, 2001 Director: John Fawcett Production Company: Motion International Summary/Review:
The Fitzgerald sisters – Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) – are teenage sisters born a year apart who are also the closest friends. Their morbid interests make them social outcasts at school. Ginger, the older sister, is the leader and they have a relationship a lot like Jennifer and Needy in the later film Jennifer’s Body. Actually, that movie is a good comparison since they both have feminist themes, in this case with lycanthropy standing in for the changes of puberty, as well as dealing with the struggles of female friendship.
Towards the beginning of the film Ginger has her first period (several years later than is typical) which draws the attention of a werewolf who attacks her. As Ginger slowly transforms into a werewolf, her social behavior and the way she treats Brigitte also change. The movie is interesting in that Ginger turns into a werewolf, including growing a tale, over the course of a month rather than all at once. Brigitte seeks help from the local arborist/drug dealer Sam Miller (Kris Lemche) who has experience with the plants that might cure Ginger’s lycanthropy.
The movie has some disturbing body horror but most of the worst gore occurs off-screen. I feel the movie has some strong ideas but the execution is hit or miss. But it’s definitely a notch above your typical teen horror film.
Title: Carnival of Souls Release Date: September 26, 1962 Director: Herk Harvey Production Company: Harcourt Productions Summary/Review:
This movie begins in media res, three young women in a car at a stoplight are challenged to a drag race by young men in another car. In the course of the contest, the men’s car pushes the women’s car over a bridge. In the midst of the efforts to pull the car out of the deep, muddy river, one of the women, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), emerges from the water. She seems unharmed but also unaffected by the crash.
A few days later, Mary drives to Utah where she takes a job as a church organist and lives in a rooming house. She finds herself haunted by the vision of a corpselike man (director Herk Harvey) wherever she goes. Mary is also inexplicably drawn to an abandoned pavilion on shore of Great Salt Lake that was once used for a carnival. In addition to supernatural torments, Mary also has to deal with persistent come-ons from the creepy John Linden (Sidney Berger), a fellow boarder.
The movie oozes atmosphere as Mary deals with the increasing mystery and terror of her life. The film feels a lot like a Twilight Zone episode and its style influenced directors such as George Romero and David Lynch. One thing for sure is I’ll never hear church organ music the same way again.
Title: El Esqueleto de la señora Morales Release Date: May 26, 1960 Director: Rogelio A. González Production Company: Alfa Film S.A. Summary/Review:
The Morales are an unhappy couple. At first, it appears that Pablo (Arturo de Córdova), a taxidermist by trade, ignores his disabled wife Gloria (Amparo Rivelles) to go drinking with his friends. But its soon revealed that Pablo is actually a kind and amiable person, and Gloria is manipulative, overly pious, and downright untruthful about what she says about her husband. Tensions build to a breaking point. Did I mention that Pablo also mounts human skeletons for medical study? That turns out to be important to the plot of this film.
This movie is wickedly funny and deeply uncomfortable, witnessing the bad blood between a long married couple. Córdova does a good job making Pablo a likable character even when his actions are beyond the pale. Will he find justice on earth, or in heaven?