Scary Movie Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Title: Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Release Date: February 5, 1956
Director: Don Siegel
Production Company: Walter Wanger Productions

A lot of times ideas about iconic movies in the popular imagination (especially when that movie spawns remakes and sequels) don’t quite hold up when you go back and watch the original film.  Today the idea of “pod people” is that they have vacant expressions and show no emotions.  But while the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers don’t form attachments, they do remain expressive and startlingly similar to the humans they replaced, which makes them more scary in my mind.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers could be a metaphor fold Cold War America’s fears of communist infiltration.  Or it could be the complete opposite, satirizing the conformity of 1950’s America brought on by anti-communist hysteria.  It’s entirely possible that it’s a just a scary story of seeing everyone you know and love replaced by something alien.  Probably because I’m watching this in the midst of a global panic, but I feel that the pod people are like a viral infection.  It has no purpose but to reproduce and survive, taking advantage of its hosts (in this case, human sociability) to propagate.

Kevin McCarthy plays the small-town doctor Miles Bennell who slowly uncovers the mystery of people being replaced by exact replicas. Assisted by his love interest Becky (Dana Wynter) and friends Jack (King Donovan) and Teddy (Carolyn Jones), they soon find all of Santa Mira aligned against them. The movie has a framing device of Miles telling his story to a psychiatrist in Los Angeles, but I remember seeing this as a kid without the frame and think the ending with Miles standing on a freeway shouting a warning at passing drivers is much more effective.  While the movie is low budget and feels more like a tv show (perhaps a long episode of The Twilight Zone) I found it holds up very well and builds a menacing feeling of suspense.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: It Follows (2014)

Title: It Follows
Release Date: May 17, 2014
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Production Company: Northern Lights Films | Animal Kingdom | Two Flints

Spectral demons as a metaphor for sexually-transmitted disease?  Perhaps.  It Follows is a movie that like Jennifer’s Body I wrongly assumed would be very raunchy and gorey.  Instead, It Follows is a slow burn in building tension.  The way that it is artfully filmed and paced reminds me of Let the Right One in (and both movies climax with a bloody scene in a swimming pool).

After Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex for the first time with her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary), he informs her that he has passed on an evil entity that will slowly walk toward her and pursue her that no one else can see.  It takes on the form of different people, including people she knows, and if it catches her it will kill her. Jay can pass it on to someone else but if that person is killed it will resume pursuing the previous person who passed it on. Luckily, Jay has a group of resourceful friends including Greg (Daniel Zovatto) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist) who accompany her and try to figure out a solution to her problem.

The movie is a bit on the long side, but the cinematography, the score and Monroe’s naturalistic performance make it a gripping experience.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: Extra Ordinary (2019)

Title: Extra Ordinary
Release Date: September 13, 2019
Director: Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman
Production Company: Blinder Films

Rose Dooley (Maeve Higgins) has a talent for talking with ghosts but after an accident leads to the death of her paranormal investigator father (Risteárd Cooper), she refuses to use them. Insead she becomes a driving instructor.  Meanwhile, Martin Martin (Barry Ward) is a man haunted by the ghost of his wife, which is played out as a long henpecked husband joke.  And one-hit wonder rock musician Christian Winter (Will Forte) who has decided to summon a demon to revive his career and needs a virgin to sacrifice (is this going to be the theme of movies I watch this month?). Martin’s teenage daughter Sarah becomes his target (Emma Coleman).  Rose and Martin partner up to defend Sarah from spectral forces and begin forming a romantic attachment.

There are things I like about this movie.  I like Maeve Higgins and she was the main reason I chose to watch this movie and her performance is suitably charming.  The gently quirky romcom/paranormal relationship between Rose and Martin is enjoyable.  On the other hand Forte’s performance is overly-broad to the point of annoyance.  There’s a tonal shift in the final act to more gross-out comedy and there’s a number of plot twists thrown in but none of them really work.  In all it’s a likable noble failure, but not a particularly good film.

Rating: **

Scary Movie Review: The Black Cat (1934)

Title: The Black Cat
Release Date: May 7, 1934
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Production Company: Universal Pictures

The Black Cat is a Universal Horror film that united Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi onscreen for the first of eight movies together.  It also introduced psychological horror to Hollywood horror.  Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop) are a newlywed American couple in eastern Europe where they meet the mysterious Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi) on a train.  Later, after a bus crash, they all end up in the mansion of Werdegast’s old friend and rival Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). Weird things happen including taxidermied women under glass,  a game of chess, and the rites of a satanic cult.

It’s fun watching Karloff and Lugosi trying to out-ham one another, but the rest of the cast is uninspired.  I like setting of Modernist mansion built on the site of a fort where Austrian soldiers were slaughtered in the First World War as the house of horrors, although that concept didn’t seem to catch on.  But overall, I found this movie to be dull and to not make much sense.

Rating: **

Scary Movie Review: Clearcut (1991)

Title: Clearcut
Release Date: 10 September 1991
Director: Ryszard Bugajski
Production Company: Cinexus Capital Corporation

A white lawyer from Toronto, Peter Maguire (Ron Lea), represents an indigenous community in a remote region of an unnamed Canadian province against the logging company that is clearcutting the forests to build a new road.  Peter visits with the tribal leaders on a First Nations reserve, none of whom seem particularly impressed by his promises to make an appeal.  Upon meeting an Indian man named Arthur (Graham Greene), Peter offhandedly suggests the solution is capturing the company’s plant manager and skinning him alive.  Peter is shocked when Arthur abducts him and the plant manager, Bud Rickets (Michael Hogan), and takes them both into the wilderness for several days.

The movie is a psychological standoff between Peter and Arthur, while Arthur also physically tortures Bud.  While there are scenes of graphic violence, they are nowhere near as frequent or intense as I expected.  The horror of this movie is more of a slow burn building of tension.  If I interpret it correctly, the main point of the story is to resolve Peter’s impotence and inaction because the plot resolves when Peter finally takes action.  There are also indications that Arthur may be a mythical trickster figure, Wisakedjak, and that the whole movie could be something Peter sees in a vision. But nothing about this movie is that clearcut (pun fully intended).

Greene is terrific in his role as the menacing antagonist who also makes a lot of sense, and Greene has described this as his favorite part he’s ever played.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: Jennifer’s Body (2009)

The past few years I’ve celebrated Halloween by watching and reviewing a bunch of scary movies.  This year I’m going to try to review one movie a day for the month of October.  I can’t make any promises that I’ll actually get to 31, but I’ll do as many as I can.  

Title: Jennifer’s Body
Release Date: September 18, 2009
Director: Karyn Kusama
Production Company: Fox Atomic | Dune Entertainment

Jennifer’s Body explores the toxicity of teenage girls accommodating misogynistic societal expectations through a comedic horror story about demonic possession.  Kind of like Mean Girls, but with cannibalism.  Nerdy teen Anita Lesnicki, with the on-the-nose nickname  of “Needy” (Amanda Seyfried) is the unlikely lifelong friend of cheerleader Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) although there’s a clear power imbalance in the relationship. After a night out at a gig at a roadside bar ends in disaster, Jennifer is abducted by the band to be sacrificed in a demonic ritual that will help them get a hit record. The ceremony goes wrong, however, and instead Jennifer is possessed by a demon and must feed on boys to survive.

I expected this movie to be really graphic, but while there is some gore I feel the worst violence happens off screen and there’s no nudity at all. A significant scene in the movie is inspired by The Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, and since I have a phobia regarding fires and crowd crushes, I found it a lot more disturbing than any of the demonic stuff. I also didn’t expect the quirky humor that makes the movie so quotable, although Jennifer especially uses a lot of strange slang.  It remind me of the controversy over the film Juno about how “teenagers don’t talk like that.”  Later, I learned that Diablo Cody wrote the screenplays for both Juno and Jennifer’s Body and that her dialogue style is very polarizing among movie viewers.

Overall, it’s an entertaining film, and the performances by Fox and especially Seyfried.  But I think the pacing is uneven and the tonal shifts between horror and comedy aren’t well-balanced.  I feel the satire juuuust misses the mark for me and thus the movie fall short of being as good as it could be.

Rating: **1/2

Scary Movie Marathon: What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

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.

Rating: ****1/2

Scary Movie Marathon: Muppets Haunted Mansion (2021)

TitleMuppets Haunted Mansion
Release Date:  October 8, 2021
Director: Kirk Thatcher
Production Company: Soapbox Films | The Muppets Studio
Summary/Review: Kicking off this Halloween watch-a-thon with a brand new special on Disney+.

The Muppets and Disney’s Haunted Mansion are two of my favorite things, so bringing them together is right in my wheelhouse. The Great Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Pepe the King Prawn (Bill Barretta) skip the Muppets’ Halloween party to take the challenge of staying in a haunted mansion overnight.  Will Arnett plays the ghost house and numerous other celebrities (many of whom I don’t recognize) make cameos.  Probably the best cameo for Haunted Mansion  fans is Kim Irvine, an imagineer whose mother Leota Toombs appears in the original attraction. There are a few jump scares, including one with John Stamos of all people, but for the most part the show is corny dad jokes and clever songs.  It starts off slow but it gets a lot better as it goes along.  Definitely worth adding to the annual Halloween viewing rotation.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020)

Title: Vampires vs. the Bronx
Release Date: October 2, 2020
Director: Oz Rodriguez
Production Company: Broadway Video | Caviar

Vampires vs. the Bronx uses the invasion of vampires into a Bronx neighborhood as a metaphor for gentrification, and not at all in a subtle manner. The movie blends horror and social satire with humor and a lot of heart. It’s very 80s Spielberg-ian in the way that kids must team up to fight the evil threatening their community. In this case the threat is a real estate company buying up local businesses and buildings, not to make luxury condos, but to make a nest for vampires. The most chilling line in the film is when a vampire states that they want to be in a neighborhood where no one cares if people go missing.

A team of young teenagers are the lead vampire fighters. Their leader is Miguel (Jaden Michael), a young activist known as Lil Mayor. His nerdy friend Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) has the knowledge of vampire lore. The wild card is Bobby (Gerald W. Jones III) who is being recruited to join the local street gang. Their hangout is the local bodega run by Tony (a great performance by Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez). A late addition to the team is Rita (Coco Jones) an older girl who is Miguel’s crush. All the young actors are great and seem like real kids.

The movie is not a groundbreaking in horror and/or social messaging, but it’s also not overly scary or gory like, say, Get Out. So a family could potentially watch it together. It is also is feel-good movie depicting a community coming together to save their neighborhood.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: A Ghost Story (2017)

Title: A Ghost Story
Release Date: July 7, 2017
Director: David Lowery
Production Company: Sailor Bear | Zero Trans Fat Productions | Ideaman Studios | Scared Sheetless

I’ll say it up front that this movie is not at all scary as it is basically Casey Affleck wearing a sheet with eye holes and standing still for most of its 90-minute run time. But it is a movie that cinematically deals with the ideas of grief, mortality, and what last legacy we leave during our short time on earth. So that’s a little bit scary, or at least unnerving, right?

Affleck plays a man killed in a car crash who haunts his house, observing his wife (played by Rooney Mara), and then future occupants of the house, and time travels to a future when the house is replaced by a skyscraper and a past when the land is staked out by a pioneer family. The movie is very slow-moving with minimal dialogue so it really makes you ponder the passage of time. On the other hand, if you have a fetish for Rooney Mara eating pie, well this is definitely a movie for you.

This movie is an interesting experiment, and worth watching once, but I don’t think I need to ever revisit it.

Rating: ***