#31DaysofHorror with Famous Monsters… the final stretch!

Here are Part 1 and Part 2, in case you missed them.

Well, we’ve done it, folks. I managed to complete my quest without becoming certifiably insane, or even losing much sleep, as it were. And while the rest of the world was wearing costumes and inhaling candy on Halloween, I was closing out my horror marathon by watching a bunch of genre legends throw down in an underground prison.

I regret nothing. Mostly.

Director: David Guy Levy
Found: on Netflix
Thriller, USA, 2012

You know those days when you’re exhausted and you just need a super basic movie about psychological torture? No? Just me? Well, picking out WOULD YOU RATHER came on one of those days. Diabolical versions of children’s games are always a go, and the rather intriguing casting choices (Sasha Grey? John Heard? Robin Lord Taylor?) seemed more calculated than most other torture-features. WOULD YOU RATHER is a watchable, well-acted foray into pain—  with an unfortunately predictable ending. But what makes it all worthwhile is Jeffrey Combs. He plays the role of sadistic rich-bitch tycoon with such relish, you can almost hear him licking his lips between takes.

THE DEATH KING (Der Todesking)
Director: Jörg Buttgereit
Found: on Blu-ray at Cinefile in LA
Anthology, Germany, 1990

THE DEATH KING was made by the director of NEKROMANTIK and NEKROMANTIK 2, which should give you some idea of what’s in store when you watch it. And yes, the cringes come aplenty with Nazi violence and rotting corpses, but the segments themselves are thoughtful, psychologically fascinating, and beautifully filmed. Seven short pieces explore the theme of death, from found footage of a mass murder to a dying goldfish to a minimalist log of every person who committed suicide by jumping off a particular bridge. The final segment is one of the most impressively authentic depictions of major depression I’ve ever seen on film. It all adds up to something that can’t be categorized but is nevertheless remarkable, and absolutely worth watching. Recommended.

SHIVER (Eskalofrio)
Director: Isidro Ortiz
Found: in the “Spanish” section at Cinefile in LA
Horror, Spain, 2008

“From the team who made THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE,” it said. That’s all I needed. THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is one of my favorite films of all time, and although Guillermo del Toro was not involved in SHIVER, it has echoes of the melancholy loneliness that made that film so unforgettable (as well as the same boy who played the ghost — Junio Valverde — now grown up and playing a character with the same name: Santi). Santi suffers from a rare condition of being allergic to the sun, and he and his mother move to a small town. Of course, kids start dying, and there are suspicions of vampirism, but thankfully the movie does not play out exactly as you expect. The cast is all very good (and, coincidentally, includes the star of THE BAR, Bianca Suárez, in her very first role), the cinematography is lovely, and there are moments of real fear. Recommended.

Director: Jay Oliva
Found: on Hulu
Animation, USA, 2017

When the rumblings of a live action adaptation of DC’s magic-focused team-up series finally died down, no one was more disappointed than I was… except that after seeing this animated version, I can’t imagine any rendition of JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK doing a better job at capturing the characters and their personalities. Some comics fans will watch it for Batman, but the real treat is seeing quality animation tackle John Constantine and come out on the other side completely triumphant. Zatanna, Deadman, Etrigan, and Swamp Thing also join in, completing a cast that has chemistry and the badassery to engage in complex spell battles and hex wars that are just as exciting as any swordfight. Best of all, it’s rated mature, which means you get violence, swearing, and a massive insectoid toilet-creature killing people at a hospital. I strongly urge even non-DC fans to consider watching this. Recommended.

Director: Jackie Kong
Found: in the “General Horror” section of Cinefile in LA
Horror, USA, 1983

Jackie Kong directed BLOOD DINER, the greatest 80s trash cannibal comedy-slasher that nobody’s ever seen (at least not enough people), and that was my whole basis for watching THE BEING, which happens to be her directorial debut. While it’s not going to win any awards for believability, THE BEING is total retro Creature Feature perfection, complete with toxic sludge monster, small town prudes, strategically placed bottles of sulfuric acid, and cars that explode upon impact. Its gore and tentacles and self-aware snark make me think a lot of later 80s horror comedies owe the film big time, particularly in the context of contrasting oblivious suburbanites with sentient radioactive goo.

Director: Babak Anvari
Found: on Netflix
Horror Thriller, Iran, 2016

I wish I had more to say about UNDER THE SHADOW. In trying to branch out to more non-English speaking features for the month, I zeroed in on its listing as a horror story taking place during the Iran-Iraq bombings in Tehran — and while the film certainly captures the horror of civilians caught in violent conflict, the tired trope of hysterical-mom-refuses-to-consider-sense-or-leave-her-child almost made me turn it off. There are moments of unexpected terror, but the lowest common denominator method of putting a small helpless child at the center of a supernatural event should really be retired. The arc of Shideh being turned away from her studies due to political activism is tragic enough — there’s no need to drench everything in mom-guilt.

Director: Adrián García Bogliano
Found: in the “Eurotrash” section of Cinefile in LA
Horror Thriller, Mexico, 2012

Demons! Killer parents! Abandoned caves! Incest! Dream sequences! Graphic sex scenes! Evil children! Psychological trauma! HERE COMES THE DEVIL has everything a fan of exploitative cinema could ever want. But to call it merely exploitative would be doing the film a disservice: following the opening shock-scenes, the plot unfolds in a strikingly realistic way, beginning with an innocent trip to the beach and becoming more and more sinister until everything has fallen apart. Rather than use the pair of children as emotional tools of sympathy, HERE COMES THE DEVIL puts them into a strange limbo between pity and suspicion while their parents try to figure them out. It’s not a film I would recommend to everyone, but it held my attention, if only in morbid curiosity of what would come next.

Director: Na Hong-Jin
Found: in the “Korean” section of Cinefile in LA
Horror, Korea, 2016

Here’s the thing: it’s very difficult to get me to hate a movie. I dislike romantic comedies, yet I would never give a scathing review of one, simply because I am not the intended audience. Any horror film that receives a wholly negative review from me is one that made me actively frustrated during its runtime, and I’m sorry to say that THE WAILING is one of those films. Are we supposed to feel sympathy for the bumbling, inept, xenophobic main character? Are we supposed to think the shaman he hires is NOT full of sh-t? Are we supposed to be able to figure out what the hell the mysterious rock-throwing-woman represents? And how does a tiny child overcome a bunch of adults with a pair of scissors, anyway? When the film ended, I had no idea what I had just wasted two and a half hours on. I had nothing. In short: ptooey.

Director: L. Scott Castillo Jr.
Found: on Blu-ray at Cinefile in LA
Slasher, USA, 1984

SATAN’S BLADE is truly at the heart of the vintage “found VHS” era, wherein movies with no promotion or budget whatsoever to could end up on a shelf next to the latest franchise flick. This one was mined for Blu-ray release, although it’s difficult to understand why — despite the striking cover poster art, the film is a surprisingly standard slasher about a killer pursuing holiday skiers with a knife cursed by the devil. Truly, that curse is the only explanation for why so many of the naked women die immediately from one stab wound. I give it kudos for being admirably cheesy (soundtrack included) and not giving away the killer’s identity until the very end, but beyond that, it’s watchable on novelty value only.

Director: Kaneto Shindo
Found: on the “Directors” wall at Cinefile in LA, under Kaneto Shindo
Horror, Japan, 1968

By the director of ONIBABA, Kuroneko (“Black Cat”) is a quiet movie with strength in moments of stillness: a braid of hair curling like a cat’s tail, a smooth arm becoming suddenly clawed and covered in fur. Its impressively bleak opening takes the notion of honorable samurai and obliterates it, making the ensuing scenes of ghostly revenge all the more satisfying: you know these men are doomed, and they deserve it… until a husband returning from war throws a wrench into the scheme and the movie switches gears. I’ve been schooled to never again assume the trajectory of a Japanese ghost story, as it tilts inevitably toward the tragic where a Western tale might give an explosive ending. Also… cat ghosts. Woo. Recommended.

Director: B. Harrison Smith
Found: on a press screener courtesty of Cleopatra Entertainment
Horror, USA, 2018

So DEATH HOUSE is kind of a mess, but it’s a beautiful, gore-drenched, satisfying mess. It was also the perfect note to end my October marathon on: a video game-esque, inevitable technology disaster feature chock full of so many horror legends the cast list reads like a convention guest marquee: Kane Hodder, Sid Haig, Barbara Crampton, Adrienne Barbeau, Bill Moseley, Dee Wallace, Tony Todd, and so on (the film itself is a final pet project of original Leatherface Gunnar Hansen). The cast is half the fun, but definiely not all: DEATH HOUSE exists in a world where its mythology is too complex for for a single movie, so it’s overstuffed with poetic observation, nonsensical in places; both virtual and visceral. The bloated design of the nine-story underground prison could be mined for a 100-issue comic book series, and a 95 minute movie feels, alternately, both rushed and stalled into scenes of unnecessary suspense. Nevertheless, it manages to cover all of its bases — two rookies getting the “tour”, lots of scientific gobbledygook, mob scenes, zombified underground monsters, virtual reality sequences, stomach-digging, face-ripping, disembodied intestines that twist into occult messages, and haughty, immoral psychiatrists finally getting their comeuppance. Are there plot threads and characters that make no sense? Sure. Is it a hell of a lot of fun to watch anyway? You bet. Recommended.

Were you enlightened by this journey? Did you discover a movie you’ve never seen or heard of? Hidden gems keep horror interesting, so keep supporting those indie features!