31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 29- Carnival of Souls (1962)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 29- Carnival of Souls (1962)

A teenage drag race goes dreadfully wrong with one car being forced off a bridge and into a river. From the car a woman, Mary manages to escape and clamber ashore.

However, Mary’s life after that isn’t the same. She seems to see ghostly figures when she seemingly disassociates herself with everyday life that is going on around her. One example takes place on a bus when she sees seemingly dead people coming for her. The film very creepily plays with space and time and does so without warning. The film is just as disconcerting and disorientating for the audience as it is for Mary.

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The ghostly figures she sees seem to be led by a man (in reality, the film’s director Herk Harvey) who seems intent on somehow coming for Mary to take her somewhere as yet unknown.

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Mary is a church organist by occupation but even this is affected now with her only playing the kind of funereal pieces that in the future The Cure would be playing in 1981. Yes, they’re that bleak! One priest who hears her playing stops her and deems her playing as ‘Profane! Sacrilege!’

Add to this a very sleazy and creepy housemate who gets off on perving on her as she gets out of the bath and won’t let up.

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The action builds up to an ending that actually takes place in an abandoned fairground. This all adds up to a truly great cinematic experience. There are sequences of this film that are far removed from anything I’ve ever seen in a motion picture before or since. The haunting photography, the use of some sequences such as a dancing scene in the carnival being sped up, the way the film takes the audience with Mary as she enters her limbo world where the dead walk and stalk her.

The idea of a limbo world between life and death was also brilliantly explored later on in the classic movie Don’t Look Now. Carnival of Souls went on to influence George A Romero who said that it was a huge influence on Night of the Living Dead as did David Lynch on Blue Velvet. The influence of the film can also be seen within the better parts of the Goth movement. The sequence where the undead run after Mary on the beach feels like a fantastic Goth version of something from a Fellini film.

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Carnival of Souls is an anomaly in cinematic terms, a one-off which is like no other. It’s also a masterpiece. I’m so glad it wasn’t forgotten. It was restored and released cinematically in 1989 after it’s original 1962 release and is now on the Criterion collection on Blu ray alongside the best of cinema. And rightly so!

***** out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 28- Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 28- Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

As soon as I saw that this 1965 Amicus film was directed by Freddie Francis I knew that the direction and photography would be beautiful. And I was right! I was also excited as I knew that this was a horror anthology film and starred two heavyweights of the genre, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

As well as Cushing and Lee the cast also includes Alan ‘Fluff’ Friedman, Donald Sutherland and Roy ‘You’re a Record Breaker!’ Castle. We even get Kenny Lynch appearing in a cameo role.

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Travellers in a train compartment are joined by the very sinister Dr Schreck who whips out his deck of tarot cards and tells each of his fellow traveller’s fortunes. Each fortune told is a separate episode in this anthology.

The separate stories involve vampirism, a vine seemingly related to a Triffid that comes to life, lycanthropy, voodoo and black magic and a severed hand. I want to give more details away about each segment but there are so many brilliant twists and turns that writing any more would be like trying to tiptoe through a field full of landmines.

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Each episode is completely different from each other, taking place in a real breadth of locales and circumstances which keeps the film as a whole really varied and interesting.

This film has all the ingenuity of five separate mini episodes of Tales of the Unexpected. Each concept is unpredictable, genuinely ingenious and likely to surprise most viewers.

A joy from start to finish with perhaps the biggest twist coming after each of the characters fortunes has been told.

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

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 27- Beyond Evil (1980)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 27- Beyond Evil (1980)

A few things about this film should attract cult film aficionados. Firstly, it stars John Saxon and Lynda Day George. It was also released on the infamous video label VIPCO (home of Zombie Flesh Eaters and Shogun Assassin in the early 80’s). It’s also features some of the cheapest special effects I’ve ever seen which have aged incredibly badly. In other words, it’s great fun and has plenty of things going for it.

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A couple move to a tropical island and find a mansion that is so cheap that they have to buy it. But it then becomes apparent that Barbara (George) is showing signs of being possessed by the evil spirit of the wife of the previous owner who was practising the occult before she ended up killing and being killed by her husband.

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This is kitsch cult cinema at it’s purest- bad effects, bad acting, bad plot. BUT, very enjoyable because of it. This film has, erm, character! This movie would be perfect if you stumbled upon it on an obscure cable channel late at night.

*** out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 26- Diary of the Dead (2009)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 26- Diary of the Dead (2009)

George A Romero’s 2009 zombie flick and a concept that involves the found footage of a film student assembled into a movie by one of the film’s other characters. All of the movie is shot on camcorders and other similar devices available at the time commercially.

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This found footage chronicles a group of film studies students who are travelling home across country. They witness firsthand and record the apparent dead coming back to life as zombies.

The film gets the balance right between narrative for the casual film viewer, gore for the purist horror fans and metaphor/soul searching content for the serious cineaste (there are plenty of issues raised about what the truth actually is, the suppression of the truth by the mainstream media, the truth being conveyed by bloggers and those not working in the corporate media. The idea of what the truth is is also relevant regarding filmmaking in general as the ‘truth’ you are seeing is in fact the truth of the person who has shot the footage and also the person who has edited it).

The film never lags and feels like a fresh perspective on the zombie genre and Romero’s Living Dead series in general. The characters are interesting with the audience fully engaging with them and wanting to see what will happen to them. Most importantly, they’re not irritating.

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But for the horror fans there are also new and innovative kills concerning how to kill a zombie. The scene involving a pickaxe being used whereby a freshly bitten human kills both himself and the zombie who has just taken a chunk out of him at the same time has to be seen to be believed.

We even get Romero’s take on if zombies should run or not after the Dawn remake and the undead’s speed and athleticism therein. A character says that zombies would never run as their ankles would break as (duh) they’re dead. And he’s right.

***and a half 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 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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