Release Date: July 3, 2019
Director: Ari Aster
It’s hard to spoil this movie, since it’s pretty obvious that when American college students go to a remote village in Sweden to observe a folk ritual that very bad things are going to happen. Nevertheless, I’m glad I went into this movie mostly blind. Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) joins her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and several of his friends on the trip to the Hårga commune as she deals with the grief of a traumatic event in her family. Swedish student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites them all to observe a ritual that happens only once every 90 years, and Josh (William Jackson Harper) plans to observe it for his anthropology dissertation.
It doesn’t take long for things to start going weird in Hårga, but nevertheless the movie is a slow burn and really earns its long running time. It’s also unique for a horror film in that it’s almost entirely set in broad daylight with lots of bright colors. Like any good horror film, it’s about more than just jump scares, with the horrific events serving as metaphors for the collapse of Dani and Christian relationships. I also think there’s a commentary on American exceptionalism as the students go into the rituals expecting to just observe without affecting them.
This is a powerful film and I will be thinking about it for some time. I expect I will need to rewatch at some point as well. Even if you don’t typically like horror, this is an excellent film worth checking out.
Title: The Phantom Carriage
Release Date: 1 January 1921
Director: Victor Sjöström
Production Company: AB Svensk Filmindustri
According to the legend at the heart of this film, the last person to die before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve will have to spend the next year as the driver of Death’s carriage and collect the souls of the dead. Naturally, ne’er-do-well drunkard David Holm (Victor Sjöström) dies after hearing this story and is introduced to his new existence by an old friend Georges (Tore Svennberg). Through flashbacks, they revisit David’s life and mistakes in kind of a topsy-turvy It’s a Wonderful Life. The story is intercut with the present day story of Salvation Army Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) who is dying of tuberculosis and wishes to see David to see if her prayers have changed him any. The movie is very much a morality play more than a horror film, but it does have a great spooky atmosphere and special effects that are still impressive 100 years later.
Title: Let the Right One In
Release Date: 26 January 2008
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Production Company: EFTI | Sveriges Television | Filmpool Nord | Sandrew Metronome | WAG | Fido Film | The Chimney Pot | Ljudligan | Svenska Filminstitutet | Nordisk Film & TV Fond | Canal+
Let the Right One In is your typical romantic coming-of-age film about an awkward 12-year-old boy befriending the new girl next door and learning to stand up to the bullies at school. Except that she’s not a girl but a centuries old vampire in the body of a 12-year-old girl. This film is a fresh take on vampire lore that has elements of European arthouse drama with touches of Amblin-style films of the 1980s. In fact, the movie is set in the 1980s in a mid-century style suburban development that gives it a universal feel beyond it’s Swedish setting. Kåre Hedebrant is strong as the lead character Oskar and Lina Leandersson is just phenomenal as the eternally young vampire Eli. While the movie has its share of blood and gore, it goes well beyond being just horror and is a great film worth watching.
Title: What We Do in the Shadows
Release Date: 19 June 2014
Director: Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi
Production Company: Resnick Interactive Development | Unison Films | Defender Films | New Zealand Film Commission
What We Do in the Shadows shows the everyday life of a quartet of vampires sharing a house in Wellington, New Zealand and how the deal with the struggles of the 21st-century world. While the mockumentary format has gotten a bit tired it works well here, especially since the characters keep observing how absurd it is for a camera crew to be filming the vampires’ secret behaviors. The vampires include the foppish Viago (Taika Waititi), the tyrannical Vladislav the Poker (Jemaine Clement), the playboy Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and the ancient, Nosferatu-like Petyr (Ben Fransham). Tensions rise when Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), a dudebro in his 20s, is accidentally turned into a vampire and decides to move into the house.
This movie is full of a lot of great gags that spoof horror tropes as well as the challenges of sharing a house with different people. While the movie is mostly played for comedy, it does have its share of blood and gore, so consider yourself warned if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing. Waititi is extremely charming and sweet in his role as a fastidious vampire and kind of irresistible. The jokes are fast and funny and I think I’ll have to watch it again to get the ones I missed.
Title: Ganja & Hess
Release Date: April 20, 1973
Director: Bill Gunn
Production Company: Kelly-Jordan Enterprises
As a film made in the 1970s by a Black filmmaker with a Black cast, I’ve seen Ganja & Hess filed under the Blaxploitation label. I think this is a mistake as this movie is an experimental, art house film in the horror genre. In Ganja & Hess, the craving for blood serves as a metaphor for substance abuse. It also deals with issues of religion, Black assimilation, and relationships. Pretty heavy stuff.
Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones, Night of the Living Dead) is a wealthy anthropologist who lives in a mansion in the Hudson River Valley. He hires a live-in assistant, George Meda (Bill Gunn) who suffers from mental illness, and in an altercation stabs Dr. Green with an ancient artifact. The infection on the blade grants him powers over death and an insatiable craving for human blood. Later, Meda’s wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes looking for her husband, but instead develops a romance with Hess and eventually is also turned into a vampire.
It sounds like a simple plot, but it’s hard to describe what’s so different about this movie. The cinematography, the lighting, themusic, and the acting all create an atmosphere of the ordinary world turned akilter. It’s definitely worth checking out, even as I can’t say I totally “get” it.
Title: The Cabin in the Woods
Release Date: April 13, 2012
Director: Drew Goddard
Production Company:Mutant Enemy Productions
Five college students (Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, and Jesse Williams) spend a weekend at a remote cabin which is full of oddities. Soon enough they are being pursued by a Zombie Redneck Torture Family. But weirder still, through all of this they are being watched by engineers in an underground facility, lead by Gary Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Steve Hadley (Bradley Whitford), who crack jokes, take bets, and celebrate their deaths. Is it a reality tv show? Is it a commentary on how audiences are appeased with increasingly graphic and torturous slasher films? Or is there something bigger behind it all?
Hint: there is something bigger behind it all. As for horror films, this one feels somewhat tame up until the final act when it becomes horrifically bloody (although even then a lot of the carnage is filmed in long shots), so consider yourself warned. The Cabin in the Woods is a clever, thoughtful, and funny addition to the horror film canon.
Title: The City of the Dead
Release Date: September 1960
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Production Company: Vulcan
This is a horror film that is earnestly built on the premise that the people executed as witches in the hysteria of 1692 were not only actually practicing witchcraft but were in league with Lucifer himself. In the present day, the fictional town of Whitewood, Massachusetts is home to a coven of the survivors of the panic where nearly 300-year-old witches still practice their dark rights. College student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) visits the remote and mysterious town to conduct ethnographic research with the encouragement of her creepy professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee). Nan stays at the Raven’s Inn run by the mysterious innkeeper Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel).
Strange things happen. The plot is straightforward, predictable, and kind of cheezy. But for whatever else this film lacks it makes up for it with atmosphere. The black & white cinematography and the rickety wooden buildings of the set are suitably spooky. And the budget for artificial fog must’ve been enormous. I thought the film was largely a dud but if you’re a fan of old-fashioned horror films you could do a lot worse.
The movie was released in 1960, so similarities with Psycho (woman protagonist stays at a hotel and goes missing halfway through the movie and her family and friends team up to find out what happened to her) are coincidental. I do wonder if Monty Python watched this film, because the scenes of the witch burning ritual in this film and in Monty Python and the Holy Grail are shot in almost identical ways. The City of the Dead was made in Britain so I suppose they can be forgiven for the inaccuracy of people driving around with their windows open and only wearing light coats in February in Massachusetts. But they also make the common error of depicting witch burning when witches were only executed by hanging in New England. Nice American accents though.
Release Date: October 2, 2009
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Relativity Media | Pariah
Zombieland came out during the Great Zombie Boom of the late Oughts so it’s able to zip right into a comical take of a zombie apocalypse without much prelude. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is a socially-awkward college student who has managed to survive the outbreak by following a set of rules that are key to the movies plot. He meets tough guy Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and they team up despite the fact that they annoy each other. Ironically, they both survived the outbreak due to their inability to make connections with other people. Soon after they are joined by sister con artists Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and follow rumors of a theme park near Los Angeles that is uninfected.
I don’t know if the world needed another zombie story, much less a funny one, but the one we got is pretty enjoyable. Plus, Bill Murray is great in a small role!
Author: Kelly Link
Title: Stranger Things Happen
Publication Info: Small Beer Press (2001)
Kelly Link’s collection of short stories take place at various locations around the world, most with a young woman as protagonist. The tales, for the most part, are grounded in reality but contain elements of fantasy, fairy tale, or horror as if each story is haunted by something outside of reality. Some stories are better than others but I didn’t find any of them particularly satisfying, if that’s even something one can ask of fiction. Still Link has a vivid imagination and as this was her first story collection it could be worth checking out her more recent fiction.
One thing I do need to do is make a note about where I find out of books I add to be reading list. While I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, I am glad I read it, and I really wonder what inspired me to put on my TBR list in the first place.
Release Date: May 25, 1979
Director: Ridley Scott
Production Company: Brandywine Productions
At its heart, Alien is a very simple story. The crew of the spaceship Nostromo are diverted to a mysterious planet. They pick up a parasitic life form (in the most disturbing and disgusting way). The creature runs amok and picks off crew members one by one. Only a single crew member (and her cat) survive to the tell the tale.
The movie is built on atmosphere. The Nostromo is a gritty, live-in spaceship with way too many places for a hungry xenomorph to hide. The movie builds up the tension slowly making it all the more effective when things spiral out of control. In that sense it’s not unlike another 70s film I watched recently, The French Connection. It’s also a character story. The first hour of the movie is establishing the crew of ordinary working grunts before anything happens.
The cast is made up mostly of older characters actors. In fact at least four of the crew members are played by That Guy. Tom Skerrit, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, and Yaphet Kotto are all “That Guy!” when you recognize them in the many movies and tv shows they appeared in. Veronica Cartwright is not a That Guy but her career ranges from a child actor appearing in The Birds to playing an astronaut’s wife in The Right Stuff. Ian Holm is far from being a lovable hobbit in his creepy performance as Ash. Sigourney Weaver was unknown in film at the time and there’s little indication that her character Ellen Ripley will be the sole survivor early on in the film. And yet, Ripley is also smart and confident, and if the rest of the crew had listened to her, none of the bad things would’ve happened. Weaver also has to carry the film for basically the final half hour on her own and does a terrific job of showing pure terror and yet the necessity of doing what needs to be done.
When I was a kid I saw Aliens first and watched it repeatedly before ever seeing Alien. I remember liking it less because of its spareness and the lack of humor and camaraderie that is found in Aliens. I may have only watched it twice before. I’m glad I’ve revisited it as an adult because I realize it is actually a masterpiece. It’s a lot like Jaws in that it is a lot deeper than the horror/thriller blockbuster it appears on the surface in the way that it works with realistic depictions of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I’ll will have to revisit this film again soon.