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 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 *****