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 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 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 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 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 15- Village of the Damned (1960)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 15- Village of the Damned (1960)

Mysteriously one day everyone in the village of Midwich suddenly lapses into unconsciousness. After a few hours everyone just as mysteriously wakes up. Two months later every woman in the village who is able to become pregnant finds that they are pregnant.  Whats more the embryos are found to develop abnormally fast.

The children look eerily alike with blond hair and strange eyes. They are also shown to possess intelligence way beyond their years. As the children grown older they are shown to be able to control other’s actions through using their ‘stare’ in which their eyes seemingly glow and hypnotise their prey. They are also able to read other’s minds. As if that wasn’t enough, they display a telepathic bond between themselves also.

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There soon develops a separation between the ‘normal’ children and indeed people of the village and the ‘gifted’ children. The twain very rarely mix except within their respective families.

But then strange and unaccountable deaths of locals start to occur in the village. One example is of a villager who was an excellent swimmer suddenly drowning. Another example finds the children causing a man to crash his car into a wall at high speed. The dead man’s brother tries to avenge his death but is forced by the children to shoot himself instead.

The children appear to have a complete lack of empathy, compassion or indeed, humanity. They appear to be complete devoid of emotion or warmth.

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When dealing with such entities it is realised that drastic measures have to be taken as has been demonstrated by other countries who have also shown evidence of similar mutant children in recent years.

And that’s all I’m going to tell you! The ending is a real shocker! In fact this is a superb adaptation of one of my favourite books (The Midwich Cuckoos) by one of my favourite authors (John Wyndham- and if you haven’t read any of his books I implore you to read some NOW!)

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Amazing direction, perfectly acted, a great sense of tension until the shocking conclusion. This film wasn’t just taboo then but also feels taboo now, such is the power of the material. This was remade by John Carpenter in 1995.

There was a VERY funny parody of this movie within The Simpsons with a new movie called The Bloodening playing at a Springfield drive-in. Have a look on YouTube for the clip. It’s The Simpsons at their best.

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

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 13- The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 13- The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

A novel twist on the ‘demonic possession’ sub-genre. This is more a courtroom drama regarding the priest who tried to save a girl (Emily Rose) from possession by a demon but which resulted in her death. Father Moore faces life imprisonment for his activities trying to save the teenage girl’s life.

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There are of course flashbacks to the actual possession and how it manifested itself and also the resulting exorcism ritual.

Any film that deals with this topic will of course draw comparisons with The Exorcist and any film going up against the 1974 classic will ALWAYS lose.

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But The Exorcism of Emily Rose is passable even if it employs the broadest brushstrokes and whilst it may look great, there isn’t a great deal of detail, nuance or depth to the events.

If you flicked onto this whilst channel surfing this is perfectly enjoyable. But don’t scratch too far beneath the surface because you won’t find much.

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

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 12- Frightmare (1974)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 12- Frightmare (1974)

***TRIGGER WARNING!!!*** This is a Pete Walker movie.

In 1957 Dorothy Yates and her husband Edmund are convicted of murder and cannibalism (!) and sent to an asylum until the film’s present day (1974). They are then released supposedly fully cured and living a quiet life. But are they? The answer, of course, is no! The film shows Dorothy not being cured at all but using the cover of giving tarot readings to people who she then kills and eats.

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The film also deals with Jackie (Edmund’s daughter from a previous marriage) who regularly visits the couple offering gifts of animal brains whilst falsely telling them that they are actually human remains and that she is actually killing people so that her stepmother doesn’t relapse and remains free. It is also revealed that her father had actually faked being complicit in the crimes and faked madness so that he could stay with his wife. Jackie lives with Debbie, a wayward 15 year old who is the actual daughter of the couple who was placed into an orphanage as a baby just after her parents were institutionalised. She has recently been expelled from there as she is too much for the authorities to deal with and so spends most of her time with her boyfriend who is the leader of a violent biker gang.

Wow. There’s a lot going on in this film that is typical Pete Walker fare in that it’s dark, violent and dares to go to the places that other milder horror films dare not go. Which is exactly why I love him. He knows exactly what horror fans want and he delivers it in spades.

But there is more than meets the eye. Frightmare is also blackly funny, almost (and intentionally) vaudevillian at times and extremely intelligent. This is not just a horror movie but also a funny and very perceptive satire on family values and blood (pardon the pun) being thicker than water.

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Add to that gorgeous cinematography, amazing locales (loving the London scenes and surrounding area shots) and a moment in time being captured not just on film but also regarding film (this was a boon time for British horror with Hammer, Tigon, Amicus and directors like Walker all making great horror movies which would do amazing business at the box office).

I love the scene where Jackie drags her new boyfriend out of a screening of Blow Up. What a great statement on art movies which were then in vogue in some quarters of the mainstream.

All of the characters are brilliantly drawn and portrayed fantastically well with Walker regular Sheila Keith playing Dorothy with twisted relish. She is also able to be completely nuts one minute and then change into a repentant innocent little wife persona when her husband has seen what she’s done.

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The magnificent Sheila Keith

Kim Butcher as Debbie is also great when it comes to portraying a young girl with the quality to make others do her evil bidding for her. This is shown when she tells her biker boyfriend about the barman who wouldn’t serve her but then embellishes the story. Her boyfriend and his biker friends wait for him after the nightclub they are in has closed up to give him a good hiding. She reminds me of Chris Hargensen from Carrie.

The film hits every target it aims for with a bullseye and is pretty much perfect. I honestly think Frightmare is a twisted masterpiece.

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

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 9- Ringu (1998)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 9- Ringu (1998)

Every now and again a horror film’s reputation builds through word of mouth and because the first horror fans who have seen it rave about it and this snowballs until it can’t be denied or ignored by fans and film journalists alike. This happened in 1998 when Japanese film Ringu was made. This was also when the internet was in it’s infancy still and so this was actual word of mouth which made it’s way into print media such as Empire magazine and other publications. Everyone was saying that Ringu was one of the most imaginative, innovative and scary movies that had been seen in some time.

When I finally saw the film I had to agree. Again, this was before the internet and social media when fanboys (and girls) can build up hype about a film just as filming has started. The consequence of this is that when the film is actually released it turns out to be a huge damp squib (take a bow recent woke Halloween reimagining). And so the acclaim and word of mouth before the internet boom felt a lot more sincere and genuine.

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The film concerns a cursed VHS tape which brings death to it’s viewers seven days after they have watched it. When the niece of an investigative reporter watches it and then has an apparent heart attack, the journalist Reiko Asakawa starts to dig deeper. When she goes to a cabin that friends of her niece’s had died in in much the same way as her niece she finds a videotape. She then recruits her ex-husband to unfathom the mystery and hopefully break the curse.

This film works on so many levels. Firstly, there is the whole adventure that we are whisked away on which is extremely dark and full of mystery and intrigue. It never lets up for the viewer and never lags. There are also so genuine shocks along the way, one that involves Reiko’s son.

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The film also mines into the culture of VHS tapes that was still prevalent at that time amongst horror fans. Before the internet took off and made it possible to order first generation video tapes from overseas (hello Amazon!) the main way to obtain videotapes of films that were unavailable or banned in the UK was through film fairs. Films were taped from other sources onto blank video tapes (the picture and sound quality of these ‘pirate videos’ could vary massively!). The timing of the Ringu’s production and release was impeccable because DVD was just about to take off and make the whole VHS horror film fair scene obsolete. No more fifth generation pirate tapes when a pristine and legitimate copy of The New York Ripper could be bought online and delivered to your door (customs permitting).

The film also brings centre stage the continued relevance of urban myths and urban legends. The schoolgirls who watch the video tape have heard about the dangers attached through the myths told regarding it. So even in the advanced age in which the film takes place the power of a shared story told between friends still shocks and frightens just like the film itself for the viewer.

The use of photographs that show it’s subjects as distorted is also interesting and brings to mind The Omen. Photographs taken of subjects within the 1976 film show distortions and imperfections of how that person will die. The same is true within Ringu. 

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And then there is the tape itself and it’s contents. I’m not going to spoil the surprise of watching the tape for the first time for cineastes here but I’d just like to say that it lives up to the hype and will make your skin crawl.

In fact ‘lives up to the hype’ could be an expression used when describing Ringu as a whole. Unmissable. 

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