31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 25- Zombie High (1987)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 25- Zombie High (1987)

A very exclusive school is lobotomising (what is it about lobotomies in my choice of films for this year’s 31 Days of Halloween?!) it’s students so that they become the kind of upstanding captains of industry that makes society great. This is the High School version of The Stepford Wives. 

Played more for comedy than horror, this film isn’t as irritating as many other horror-comedies. Great characters, especially the unconventional supporting players and nice art direction help proceedings pass very well indeed.

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The idea of the school being a kind of sausage factory to make capitalist highflyers out of isn’t really explored enough but who cares as this is a late 80’s horror comedy yarn after all.

Notable for it’s cast which includes Virginia Madsen, Sherilyn ‘Laura Palmer’ Fenn and Richard ‘Cruising’ Cox all of whom should be known to cult film/TV fans. 

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*** out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 24- Horror Hospital (1973)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 24- Horror Hospital (1973)

When I saw that Robin Askwith headed the cast of this British 70’s horror flick I instantly thought of the brilliant bawdy comedies The Confessions series which he starred in and were delightfully mucky and low-brow. Perfect for the era. If Mr Askwith could prove a huge hit with the sexploitation brigade surely he could score big when it came to another low brow form of entertainment, the horror film.

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Horror Hospital and The Corpse Grinders- what a double bill!

Here he plays Jason Jones who works in the music industry but after his manager rips off one of his songs he decides to escape via a company offering getaway breaks (‘Hairy Holidays’!) and heads away from London and the music scene. He meets a girl on a train and they get on handsomely. She is even going to the same ‘health farm’ that he is headed to.

And so the adventure begins. Even the ticket collector at the station they arrive at is like someone from a Hammer horror film. However, this holiday destination is actually a hospital in which the residents are wayward hippies and permissive types who are then lobotomised.

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The resulting adventure is part horror film, part groovy campathon which it accomplishes with relish. There is a cast of various oddball supporting characters that are just as entertaining as the main players and there are great touches such as the car fitted with a huge knife that shoots out to behead anyone brave enough to try and escape.

This film captures a great time in British film when films were made for the young with their content being just as boundary transgressing as the youth of the day themselves. Hence genres such as bawdy, racy comedies and bloody (but humorous) horror was the order of the day. A golden era.

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As lurid as the paisley underpants Askwith wore in the Confessions movies.

***and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 23- Halloween 4- The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 23- Halloween 4- The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

I remember when this was released on home video in 1988. I couldn’t wait to watch it as the poster alone harked back to the original film, it’s mythology and the very Panaglide soaked vision that helped make it such a masterpiece. I was hoping for the film to be just as impressive. If they could have a decent stab (pun not intended) at reproducing the feel of the first film with it’s excellent first sequel taking place in Haddonfield Memorial Hospital then they could do it with this new film. 

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Notice the imaginery on the poster- Michael’s mask and the view of the house over the road as Tommy Wallace would have seen it in the original film. The illustrations are great too.

However, the film was closer to the tacky UK poster made for the film. I saw H4 on home video and HATED it! Would I feel the same when I embarked on watching it recently as I did in 1989?

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The tacky poster for the UK release of H4. Take the great illustrations made for the original, add horrible fonts and an inappropriate and clumsy pic of Myers from the film.

The answer is ‘Yes’ I still hated it but with many more years of film criticism under my belt I was better equipped to articulate why I despise it so much.

So what is Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers? It’s part teen drama, part TV Movie of the Week, part very violent episode of Goosebumps and last but certainly not least, it’s a cynical horror franchise sequel for idiots who wouldn’t know a decent horror film if they tripped over it.

The plot of the film goes like this- both Dr Loomis and Myers sustained horrific injuries after the literally explosive ending of Halloween 2 but both survived (of course). Mikey Boy has been in a coma for the ten years following this (the action takes place here during Halloween 1988) and is just about to be (stop if you think you’ve heard this one before…) transferred between hospitals. In the ambulance during this journey he hears that he has in fact got a niece and as she’s unlucky enough to be within the female line of the Myers family tree he kills his escorts and escapes to try to get to his niece to finish her off.

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This is all so reminiscent of the first film that already the film shows that it’s been made to give the fans exactly what they want but whilst not adding anything new when it comes to the plot. It also very quickly establishes that everything that made the first film a masterpiece doesn’t get a look in.

Halloween 4 really is just a man in a Michael Myers mask (and a crap one at that) stalking and killing people. No art, all base level vacuous nonsense. Not that a horror film has to be ‘art’ but a sense of tension, imagination and innovation are always welcome within a horror film project. Even making a blatant cash cow of a film project can still have all of these qualities whilst still giving the fans what they want and making a decent film at the same time.

And what’s worse, Michael’s niece, Jamie is so unlikeable that you’re just praying for Uncle Mikey to accomplish the job very quickly indeed.

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Annoying niece

Not even the odd mildly entertaining moment such as the lynch mob killing the wrong guy instead of Michael can save this stodgy mess. The ending is so bad it’s laughable. In fact, for a terrible moment the filmmakers even suggest with such an ending that a whole slew of movies which would feature Jamie as the killer. Now that would be REAL horror. 

You know you know nothing about horror or filmmaking in general if you walked out at the end of Halloween 3 and your first response was ‘Where’s Michael?!’ instead of marvelling at it’s brilliant cinematography, direction, soundtrack let alone being blessed enough to have spent an hour and a half in the company of Tom ‘The Man’ Atkins.

Halloween 4 is the film made for people who just watch horror films because people are killed in them, without knowing anything about what makes a great horror movie. Halloween 4 is the anti-Halloween 3. And that’s one of many reasons why I hate it so much.

*out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 22- The Ambulance (1990)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 22- The Ambulance (1990)

A young cartoonist Josh chats up a young woman named Cheryl in the street (the board at Gillette must be despairing at this) but when she collapses she is then taken to a nearby hospital in an ambulance which has been called for her. When Josh tries to track her down there appears to be no trace of her being taken to any hospital in an ambulance. Josh then learns that the same fate happened to Cheryl’s roommate. Something fishy is going on. Does it have anything to do with that specific ambulance?

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With such a great premise I was expecting a cross between Coma and Maniac Cop. But, alas instead this is more like a TV movie that feels very slight and somewhat hollow.

I was also expecting more as this was directed by the great Larry Cohen and whilst there are some great directorial flourishes and some great dialogue which Cohen also wrote (all of the supporting characters in Cohen’s films have the best in quirky left-field comebacks), they don’t save this movie.

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A wasted premise and a shame.

** out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 21- The House With Laughing Windows (1976)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 21- The House With Laughing Windows (1976)

A young man who can restore frescos (ancient works of art) arrives to restore one such artwork but finds events within the remote town to be far from normal. Indeed, they are downright bizarre. Does the fresco hold any clues? Does it depict what people have been led to believe it shows? Will the events directly affect Stefano?

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This Italian film is one hell of a gorgeous (and VERY disturbing) journey. Not only do we get the backstory of the artist who first painted the fresco but also the freaky events that are happening in the Valli di Commacchio area that the action takes place in. 

With all the best of Italian horror/gialli, it also makes you want to go to Italy and experience such a seemingly fantastic and aesthetically pleasing way of life. The photography is magnificent. I’d love to see this film on the big screen. 

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The locales are sumptuous, the characters are left field to the max (at times I kept think of the films of Jodorowsky) which all adds to the overall vision and atmosphere of this gorgeous film.

I’d love to speak about the conclusion of the film but that would massively spoil the entire film for those of you who haven’t been lucky enough to see it yet. Also, if I tried to write down what happens you probably wouldn’t believe me. Just to say- it’s surreal, can’t be predicted and gets under your skin and inside your head and remains there long after the actual film has ended. Fantastic.

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****and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 20- The Guardian (1990)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 20- The Guardian (1990)

A young couple have their young baby snatched away from them and offered as a human sacrifice to an ancient tree to prolong it’s life by the infant’s nanny. We then see a short time later the Druid nanny from Hell starts new employment caring for another couple’s child.

This tautly and stunningly beautiful film was director William Friedkin’s first excursion into the horror genre again after that low-key film that he directed in 1973 that no-one ever talks about anymore. Just kidding. Friedkin’s first horror movie after The Exorcist was bound to garner much press and this film did. It was also predictable that any film that wasn’t as genre-defining and revolutionary as The Exorcist would provide howls of derision and bad reviews which was the fate for The Guardian.

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I refuse to think of any film directed by William Friedkin to be irredeemably bad or massively flawed. And this truly is the case with The Guardian. Amazingly directed, beautifully shot, pinpoint perfect performances (a big shoutout goes to Jenny Seagrove as the anti-Mary Poppins) and you have a taut 1990 film that has more positives than negatives. If anything is lacking it’s maybe the generic source material and the constant re-writes that affected the film. But it’s interesting to see such a great director working on strictly genre fare and seeing what happens. This reminds me of Martin Scorsese directing Cape Fear and seeing what he could do within such parameters.

The horror scenes are great and the buildup of tension is lovingly established. The film establishes the feeling of placing the well being of your baby into someone else’s life and that someone turning out to be a nutjob (if only the film had ditched the supernatural element and made it about a psycho nanny instead. This film could have been to childcare what Jaws was to sharks). The loss of control and the erosion of some of the most precious parental boundaries are fully explored here and the result makes for a very chilling film.

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Time has been very kind to The Guardian. It’s established a fanbase and isn’t the disaster some critics would have you believe it was at the time. In fact, it’s a very good movie.

***and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 19- Dawn of the Dead (2004)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 19- Dawn of the Dead (2004)

A remake of the much loved and revered masterpiece Dawn of the Dead was always going to be sneered at by fans and film scholars alike when the project was announced.

I actually saw the film on it’s release when I was visiting Glasgow and was expecting to roll my eyes constantly whilst saying ‘Psst!’ under my breath a few hundred times (but not too loudly…) during the film’s running time. I was pleasantly surprised though. Whilst it was no worthy competition for Romero’s original film in terms of it’s coveted place in horror history, it was far from mediocre. In fact, it was really rather good!

The opening scenes show central character Ana finish a long shift as a nurse at her local hospital and return home. The next day a little girl from her neighbourhood comes into her house and shows that all it not well. She has changed into a zombie and fatally attacks her partner, ripping out a chunk of his neck with her teeth. Very quickly, he then springs back to life and also in a zombiefied state like the girl who attacked him.

Ana gets to her car and we then see that the very fabric of society has broken down almost completely. People are either dead and running around as zombies and trying to kill others, or they are still human but have either gone completely crazy (witness Ana’s neighbour armed with a gun) or are in ‘survival of the fittest’ mode with no regard for anyone else around them (someone attempts to hijack Ana’s car by trying to jump into it).

After running off the road, Ana crosses paths with cop Kenneth who, with other characters (one of them pregnant!), goes to the neighbouring mall for refuge.

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The mall is where the majority of the rest of the movie takes place just like the original. There’s even a nod to the first film with a sign for a shop called Gaylen Ross. The theme of a crisis bringing out the best and worst in a person’s character is explored well here with the security guards who are already in the shopping centre having marked it as their territory and only letting the new arrivals take refuge if they surrender their weapons and adhere to their rules and laws. This is very Lord of the Flies.

The next day even more characters are interjected into the narrative by way of a delivery truck and we now have our cast in place for the rest of the film. And this is one of the major strengths for the remake and that is that the characters are so brilliantly sketched and well rounded. There is a fantastic diversity and range within the characters with some changing by the time of the film’s conclusion so that our expectations are constantly being challenged and contradicted with seemingly vile people redeeming themselves and vice versa.

The film also perceptively displays human relationships at work. On first arrival most of the characters rub along pretty well. But being in a confined space together soon causes divisions and differences to develop and flare up. The film soon becomes something akin to events in a season of Big Brother but with, obviously, more at stake.

As well as great characterisation we also get great make up and effects. The special effects for the film were actually by the company owned by Heather Langenkamp aka Nancy Thompson from the Nightmare on Elm Street films! She should be very proud with the results as they are fabulous.

Scott Reiniger, Ken Foree and Tom Savini from the original all get cameos well as the Gaylen Ross reference/homage.

The zombies in this film move a lot faster than their blue-skinned counterparts from the original which massively divided fans with Romero himself saying that he didn’t like this aspect. I personally think it doesn’t really bother me as it’s something new just like the film itself. There’s also a new rule regarding the dead turning into zombies with there being a set time of a few seconds before the dead arise again. I thought this was also an interesting new aspect of this remake/reimagining.

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There is also some great humour in the movie also. Witness the ‘Celebrity Squares’ game that Kenneth plays with his gun shop buddy who is trapped on the roof of his business nearby. This also blossoms into a great moment of camaraderie and dare I say bromance between the two characters. Again, this echoes the same kind of relationship that Scott and Peter had in the original. I thought that it was great that this was reproduced in the remake.

I have to say though that on watching this film again for this review after seeing it on it’s original release brought diminishing returns this time around. It was almost like when you know what to expect with this remake half of the fun has gone.

This remake will never come close to the original film. But on first viewing it was interesting, innovative and had some artistic merit. It’s also a great rollercoaster ride that didn’t make me roll my eyes once.

***and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 18- Children of the Damned (1964)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 18- Children of the Damned (1964)

A sequel to Village of the Damned which is less a continuation of the plot and instead like a film containing characters who possess the same powers as the children in the original but under different circumstances.

Whereas the original took part in a countryside idyll, the action within this film is based in London. A gifted child called Paul is studied and observed by the relevant governmental authorities. Other almost supernaturally gifted children are also discovered and brought to the city so that UNESCO researchers can witness them at work. They are brought from places as varied as China, Russia and Nigeria.

These gifted children then abscond from each of their respective embassies that they are staying in and take refuge in an abandoned church. It’s here that the authorities and the army find them and have to decide whether to try to coax the children out or destroy them if they pose a threat to humanity. It’s here that a tense standoff encroaches.

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This film as opposed to the original is firmly on the side of the children who we see as persecuted and in need of human support. The original depicted them as inhuman, devoid of emotion and empathy and very much as villains in a horror film. Children of the Damned elicits sympathy and compassion for the children who are shown as unjustly discriminated against, ostracised and treated as freaks in many ways. Having high levels of intelligence and other powers such as telekinesis are gifts but also hindrances. Witness the speech Paul’s mother shrieks at him that she should have destroyed him before she took him in her arms for the first time.

I made the mistake of reading the reviews for this film before I actually watched it. The few examples I could find were derogatory and very unflattering. They were also wrong, in my humble opinion. Children of the Damned may not be as good as the original film it is a sequel to but is still a vivid, well written, engaging film that is well worth a view. The shots of 60’s London are beautiful. A special mention to Ian Hendry (Repulsion) who heads a stellar cast.

***and a half out of *****

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31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 17- Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 17- Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972)

The head of a theatre troupe Alan (think of a cross between Charles Manson and Timothy Claypole in lurid and very colourful 60’s clothing) takes his fellow thespians (who he refers to as his ‘children’) to an island which is used as a kind of graveyard for dead criminals. He then assumes the role of a religious leader, puts on robe he just happens to have brought with him and  proceeds to try and raise the dead using his knowledge of magic. Whilst this (seemingly) doesn’t work they dig up the dead body of a man called Orville. However later on in the film the dead do indeed rise again and get their revenge. They board the actor’s boat at the end of the film.

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The director of this film is listed as Benjamin Clark but is in fact Bob Clark who went on to make the masterpieces Dead of Night and Black Christmas. Allan Ormsby who plays Alan went on to direct the excellent Ed Gein biopic Deranged.

This film has an interesting vibe to it that is similar to the counterculture early 70’s vibe of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (but without the violence or genuine transgression). This is gritty low budget filmmaking that points to the drive-in but also to the arthouse realm.

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The colour palette of the cast’s wardrobe is like watching an acid trip with each character wearing a different very bright colour and when more than one cast member is in the frame together it’s a trip. In fact theres a shot in the movie of the cast members all lines up behind each other and it’s like a spectrum of colour. The audience members on certain substances must have loved this sequence.

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This is an interesting film but far from being some kind of 60’s classic. The title is very misleading also.

**and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 16- House of Whipcord (1974)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 16- House of Whipcord (1974)

It’s 1974. A French starlet who isn’t averse to modelling with no clothes on is seduced by an enigmatic young man who asks to take her home to meet his parents. However, his home appears to be some kind of old institution like a long forgotten prison. And this is exactly what it is. His mother is the sadistic Governor of her own prison where her son takes flagrant examples of the new ‘permissive’ society so that they can be punished and even executed because of their lax ways.

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This is Within These Walls on steroids. I love the fact that there is a notice at the start of the film that reads “This film is dedicated to those who are disturbed by today’s lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment.” This is obviously a film that is parodying and sticking up two fingers to the puritanical types who didn’t like that the society of the time was becoming more permissive and free, the ‘Bring Back Hanging’ brigade. Britain was moving away from it’s more conservative ways and some weren’t happy about this as they flocked to fill the letters pages of every national newspaper. Precedents were falling and were set to fall even further as during the 70’s. One prime example of this movement that directly affected film was Mary Whitehouse and her Caravan of Light both of which would try to get exploitation films like House of Whipcord banned. Whitehouse was massively active during the Video Nasties furore that would occur during the next decade.

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But within the film’s duration there are currents of dissent as prisoners held at the institution secretly plan to overthrow the evil wardens and hopefully escape this kangeroo prison. This film adheres to but also subverts the conventions of prison genres but especially the ‘women in prison’ genre and only excludes lesbianism which maybe for the time in Britain would have been a step too far for that still conservative time. Had it have been included then the film may have fallen foul of the BBFC. The theme of an uprising is one of the prime tropes of this genre and I love that this was so brilliantly depicted. But I also love the result of this which ironically delivers back to the prison the woman who had successfully escaped.

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Special mentions go out to Barbara Markham as the deranged Governor and Sheila Keith as one of the sadistic wardens. House of Whipcord was called Flagellations abroad. Quite. 

Another Pete Walker masterpiece. Now, can we have a Blu Ray boxset of his back catalogue please?

****and a half out of *****