31 Days to Scare ~ Suspiria (2018)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the artistic director, an ambitious young dancer, and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.

Stars: Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper, Lutz Ebersdorf, Sylvie Testud

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Rated: R

Running Length: 152 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Though Dario Argento’s 1977 film Suspiria has long been considered a giallo classic, filmmakers have been trying to remake it for decades. Most recently, it was going to be a project for Natalie Portman and director David Gordon Green, until arguments over the budget caused the in-demand duo to move on to other projects. Portman, who had begun training for the dancing in Suspiria, went on to win an Oscar for Black Swan, which was considered by many to be a film in the same vein. Though he had put a lot of heart and soul into his vision of Suspiria, even casting the film with some impressive names, Green wouldn’t delve into horror again until 2018 when he successfully rebooted Halloween.

The person that brought the project to Green was director Luca Guadagnino who met with Argento and his co-screenwriter Daria Nicolodi to get their blessing to remake the film. With Green on to other projects and Guadagnino gathering strong accolades for his work, plans continued to simmer until it was officially announced in 2015. Three years later we have what Guadagnino considers an homage to the original film instead of an outright remake. Though the original Suspiria will always have a place in the horror history books for it’s gorgeous production design and creative visuals, Guadagnino’s version is the superior one with the director and screenwriter David Kajganich holding nothing back. It may lack the color and vibrant gothic-ness of Argento’s vision but it takes the morsel of an idea Argento set on the plate and turns it into a five course banquet of riches.

Once again, the film is set in 1977 but the political unrest at the time is felt throughout and becomes a secondary character at times. Televisions broadcast news of a plane hijacking and there are demonstrations in the street from youths rebelling against their parents and grandparents who are being held responsible for the atrocities conducted in WWII. Into this mix comes American Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey) who has arrived from the safety of her Mennonite upbringing. Growing up Susie always felt out of place in her devout and traditional family but an early exposure to the Markos Dance Academy creates a strange pull to the modern dance pieces they originated. It was her dream to attend and after an impressive audition she is granted a spot in the company.

Susie has shown up right after the disappearance of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz, Dark Shadows) who we see at the beginning telling her therapist Jozef Klemperer that she thinks the academy is being run by witches. When Patricia vanishes completely, Klemperer begins to investigate on his own which will drum up painful memories of his past and endanger his future. At the same time, Susie is drawn deeper into the darkness that haunts the academy as well as the intoxicating aura of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive) who takes her under her wing.

The bones of the film Argento created are still there, with Susie’s friends falling prey to an unseen evil but Guadagnino takes things further into more psychologically complex territory. With no male actors playing a major role in a film directed and written by men, the movie is completely void of a male point of view, a smart move made by Guadagnino and Kajganich to get out of the way of the imperious actresses hired to play their sinister characters. Suggesting the witchcraft at play is part of the undulating movements by the dance students and choreographed by Blanc, Guadagnino and Kajganich move away from our traditional thoughts of spells and sorcery.

As Susie, Johnson gets her best role to date, showing just how much the Fifty Shades series failed to utilize her strengths. Far more nuanced than the original character portrayed by Jessica Harper (who pops up in an important supporting role here), Johnson’s Susie is innocent but not naïve, green but not inexperienced, clever but not all-knowing. Where she begins at the start of the movie and where she ends are light years apart and Johnson skillfully takes us step by step through her journey. As Susie’s friend that begins to get more suspicious of her beloved academy and teachers, Mia Goth conveys a nice amount of terror as she becomes a target of evil and Moretz’s brief appearance fits in nicely with the paranoia of her character.

Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) has populated the staff of the academy with brilliant European actresses, all notable stars in their own right. It’s Swinton who is given center stage in not one, not two, but three different roles and the performances are, as expected, brilliant. That Swinton could so believably play multiple parts (and ages, and genders) is another tribute to her willingness to lose herself entirely in a role. The filmmakers at first tried to deny she was playing more than her central role of Madame Blanc but it quickly become a well-known fact that she was also playing Klemperer. The third role she’s playing I leave it to you to find out on your own.

As a horror film, the movie delivers the shocks in several truly disturbing sequences that I’ve honestly had trouble shaking off. If you get woozy at the sight of blood this is definitely not the film for you as the last third of the movie is drenched in the red stuff. That being said, the violence is effective because it is so straight-forward and horrifying, some of it coming out of nowhere. A dynamite sequence interspersed with the troupe performing a new piece is a harrowing experience. There are also quiet moments, such as an outstanding epilogue that conjure the kind of emotions not usually felt in a horror movie.  Special mention must go to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke for his first feature film score that is all moody creepiness and melds perfectly with several of Guadagnino’s uncompromising sequences.

As is the case with many of these overtly arty horror films, Suspiria isn’t for everyone…nor should it be. At 152 minutes it’s a commitment but one that I felt flew by in a flash. Your experience will likely be different than mine, but I’m hoping people go into this one with their eyes wide open, knowing it’s a challenging film on many levels. I found it to be a largely unforgettable winner and a loving homage to the 1977 original.

31 Days to Scare ~ Suspiria (1977)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An American newcomer to a prestigious German ballet academy comes to realize that the school is a front for something sinister amid a series of grisly murders.

Stars: Jessica Harper, Joan Bennett, Alida Valli, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javicoli, Eva Axén

Director: Dario Argento

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Few movies considered classics can truly live up to their reputation and I think it’s especially hard for horror movies to hold up as the years go by. Audiences have become too desensitized to extreme violence, cheap scares, and ‘gotcha’ twists that looking back on what was once considered cutting edge becomes increasingly difficult. I’ll admit that re-watching director Dario Argento’s Suspiria I was keenly aware of all the moments that someone experiencing it for the first time might roll their eyes or check their watch. This is a movie that favors art over substance and atmosphere over narrative, possibly making it a rough sit for those looking for a traditionally structured fright flick. However, if you can settle in and let Argento’s most celebrated picture work its magic on you, you’re going to get a huge reward.

By the time Suspiria was released, its director was already well known in the film world for his lavishly ornate visions of horror. In films like Deep Red and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento had created a calling card of sorts for the look and feel of his films. Focusing on production design and complicated camera angles that often played a part in furthering the central mystery of his bloody thrillers, Argento’s films were unpredictable and quickly moved him to the top of the list of giallo filmmakers. Receiving good notices and distribution across Europe and the US for his earlier work, Argento hit a new level of box office success with Suspiria when it arrived in 1977 . We were at the tail end of the paranoid and demon possession horror entries of the early ‘70s (like The Exorcist) and a year before John Carpenter’s landmark Halloween gave birth to the slasher film. The timing was perfect for a movie that straddled the line between popular film and art-house exclusivity. Along comes Suspiria , dripping with amazing visuals and several hair-raising passages.

Arriving in Germany one rainy night, American Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper, Minority Report) has come to study dance at the renowned Tanz Dance Academy which is run by Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, 1950’s Father of the Bride). She’s barely made it to the front door when she sees a frantic girl running out of the academy into the darkness. We follow the girl as she seeks asylym with her friend, only to be stalked and elaborately slaughtered by an unseen creature. The next day Suzy begins her studies under the watchful eye of Miss Tanner (a devilishly manic Alida Valli) and soon begins to experience strange visions while people start to die horrible deaths around her. As Suzy investigates more into the origins of the academy, she begins to suspect it’s being run by a coven of witches who are more than willing to trim their student roster if anyone steps out of line.

There are many unforgettable sequences bestowed upon us by Argento. From the opening kill to a spooky death in a shadowy courtyard, the master takes his time toying with the victim and us. An extended chase sequence that ends with the victim falling into a nest of barbed wire is satisfying but feels like it plays out in real time. It’s all accompanied by a downright eerie score from frequent Argento collaborator, The Goblin. Having seen multiple Argento films I know the director likes to proceed slowly and with precision, often to the exhaustion of the viewer. There are times when you’re wondering how anyone could fall victim to a killer that moves so deliberately but it’s all constructed with such elegance you have to admire the effort.

Narrative has never been Argento’s strong-suit and having seen the remake of Suspiria released in 2018 before re-watching this I see how simple his idea for the film is. There’s nothing too deep about what he’s trying to say and while the overall impact of the movie is profound it’s hard to argue there’s very little story to sink your teeth into. Even a late in the game cameo by Udo Kier (Downsizing) as a professor who provides information on witches to Suzy doesn’t fully resonate.

Though Argento would receive critique throughout his career for not being overly kind to his female characters, there are several strong women in the film that are shown to have their wits about them. Harper’s wide eyes and general mousiness take her a long way in establishing her stranger in a strange country approach but her line delivery (even those that weren’t dubbed by her later) feels a little comatose. That stands in stark contrast to Bennett who speaks each of her lines without punctuation, pause, or purpose. She just sort of exhales and words happen to come with it. Most of the film was dubbed after the fact, creating some moments that are in sync and others that are way off.

This was the first film in a trilogy of movies surrounding covens of witches that Argento imagined. The second, Inferno, came out in 1980 and the final, Mother of Tears, arrived without much fanfare in 2007. I’ve yet to see the final film but Inferno suffers from much of the same issues present in Suspiria – a lot of great looking visuals without a truly intriguing story. There’s no question Suspiria deserves it’s spot on the list of influential horror films in history and you should absolutely see it, just be prepared for a pretty exterior and a frustratingly hollow center.

31 Days to Scare ~ Beetlejuice (1988)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A recently-deceased husband and wife commission a bizarre demon to drive an obnoxious family out of their home

Stars: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: PG

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Some movies feel like great equalizers, something we all can agree on even when we disagree on most everything else.  For me, Beetlejuice is one of those movies.  Even the hardest of hearts and the most unpleasant of critics are able to find something to praise in this loads of fun horror comedy first released in 1988.  Now celebrating it’s 30th Anniversary (and with a musical stage adaptation headed for Broadway in 2019), it’s a great time to revisit ‘the ghost with the most’ in all his ribald glory.

Director Tim Burton cut his teeth with many darkly comic shorts in the early ‘80s, making his big screen debut with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985.  Three years after that and one year before he’d officially be catapulted into the A-List with the summer smash, career-defining adaption of Batman, he gave us this endlessly creative and visually captivating flick.  Though originally intended to be a much darker film (and almost starring Sammy Davis Jr. as the titular character) it was wisely steered in the direction of going for more laughs than shrieks.  Sure, there are scary parts to Beetlejuice but with its focus on dynamite practical effects and ingenious make-up (which would win an Oscar) the majority of film wants to make your jaw drop in awe instead of in a scream.

Adam and Barbara Maitland are just settling in to a two-week vacation at their home in postcard perfect Winter River, CT when they die in a car crash after careening off a picturesque covered bridge.  They find themselves trapped on earth in their previous home with its new tenants, pretentious NYC transplants. Though they try to get rid of the family first in their own newbie ghostly way, they eventually summon Beetlejuice, a bio-exorcist for the undead that has more effective ways of cleaning house.  When Beetlejuice sets his sights on marrying the goth daughter of the owners, the Matilands take further action to evict the trouble-making exorcist.

Though later on in his career Burton would use his actors more like scenery in service to his muddy CGI vision (yikes! Sweeney Todd!) here he has cast the film to absolute perfection.  Alec Baldwin (Aloha) and Geena Davis (A League of Their Own) ably play the slightly square recently deceased couple who sees their house go from Norman Rockwell perfection to new wave mania.  It’s fun to see Jeffrey Jones (Howard the Duck) and Catherine O’Hara (Frankenweenie) play off of each other’s small town discomfort in a Green Acres-sorta way.  The film also nicely introduces Winona Ryder (Mermaids) to a larger audience with Ryder nailing her adolescent ambivalence toward most everything she comes in contact with.

Even if he has the least screen time of any of the principal actors, when you hear the word Beetlejuice you can’t help but instantly think of Michael Keaton (Spotlight, Gung-Ho, Pacific Heights).  Making the most out of his limited appearances, Keaton is a live wire with enough energy to practically lift him off of the ground.  His make-up and costuming could have been limiting or in the hands of a lesser actor could have done the work for him but Keaton mines every opportunity to go big before he goes home.  If the Oscars had been a bit more free-thinking, it’s the kind of memorable performance that should have put Keaton into the awards discussion as an outside of the box nominee for Best Supporting Actor.

While Burton (Dark Shadows, Big Eyes) would go on to create they moody Batman and its sequel, he never has returned to this type of free-wheeling carnival of fun and that’s a damn shame.  He clearly knows his way around this tone and finds a perfect balance throughout.  When CGI became more available he started to rely on that way too much and all but abandoned the kind of in-camera effects and large scale production design employed here.  While his next film, Dumbo, looks like a heart-tugging triumph…all I can see is the overuse of CGI again.  If anything, Beetlejuice remains a reminder of the kind of filmmaker Burton originally started out as and what I hope he’ll continue to work back toward being.

This is one of the rare movies I manage to see at least once a year.  I watched it on a plane back in January and then attended a 30th Anniversary Screening of it recently and I could easily see watching it again before the year is through.   I’m seeing the musical in a month so I have a lot of Beetlejuice in my life right now…and so should you!

31 Days to Scare ~ The Frighteners (1996)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a tragic car accident kills his wife, a man discovers he can communicate with the dead to con people. However, when a demonic spirit appears, he may be the only one who can stop it from killing the living and the dead.

Stars: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes (Director’s Cut)

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: What I love so much about movies is that over time bad ones can become good and good movies can become bad. We’ve all had experiences where we have this certain vision of a movie in our head (positive or negative) and then, upon revisiting said movie, our opinions can change. Then there are the movies that you liked but didn’t quite catch on with others which eventually gained a cult following in the ensuing years. The Frighteners is one of those movies that I remember really liking when I first saw it but a prime example of a one that didn’t get the audience is richly deserved. With the rise in popularity of its director over the last two decades, more and more people are “discovering” this horror-comedy and claiming it as a spooky favorite. Better late than never, in my book.

In 1996 director Peter Jackson hadn’t yet become ‘Oscar winning director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy Peter Jackson’. He had found underground success with Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive, his first two movies that were truly out there in their oddity (both cult classics unto themselves). It was his 1994 film Heavenly Creatures (introducing most of us to Kate Winslet for the first time) that really put him on the map and caught the eye of big shot Hollywood director Robert Zemeckis (Flight). Originally bringing Jackson on to create another film in his Tales from the Crypt series, Zemeckis read the script from Jackson and Fran Walsh and decided it was good enough to be a standalone film. Using their homeland New Zealand as a stand-in for a seaside California town, Jackson and Walsh gathered their friends at WETA studios, the fledgling effects company that would explode with the LOTR films five years later, and set about to make a different kind of ghost story.

Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future) is an opportunistic ghost hunter looking to con unsuspecting people out of their money in exchange for ridding their houses of poltergeists. The catch is that he can actually see these ghosts and has conspired with them to swindle the townspeople of Fairwater. When otherwise healthy townsfolk starting dying at an alarming rate, Frank realizes a malevolent spectre is at work…one that he may just have a personal history with. And what of the meek woman (Dee Wallace Stone, The Lords of Salem) being terrorized by an unseen force in the home she shares with her mother on the outskirts of an abandoned mental hospital? Is the same ghost responsible for all of the shenanigans going on?  With the help of a local doctor (Trini Alverado) and his ghostly friends (John Astin, Chi McBride, and Jim Fyfe) Bannister avoids a creepy detective (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator) and goes further into the unknown as he seeks answers to who has gone-a-haunting (and a-hunting) within the town.

Jackson and Walsh have imbued their script with a truckload of dark humor and it’s easy to see why it may have been off-putting for audiences looking for a more straight-forward tale of terror in the summer of 1996. The movie takes a while to get hopping and when it does it blasts off like a locomotive with little reprieve. It’s an effects-heavy film and one that famously held one of the longest shooting schedules ever approved by Universal Studios. The extra time was worth it, though, as even twenty years later the movie holds up to CGI scrutiny with the best of them.  I recently watched the Director’s Cut for the first time and it’s about 10 minutes longer than the version released in theaters.  The added scenes flesh out the characters (pun mostly intended) and provide a little gasp of air while the movie is moving at lighting speed. Jackson is good with setting up extended scenes of delirium but he’s not simply out to give you the willies. He’s more concerned with the overall film experience and that speaks highly of the kind of filmmaker he was growing into.   Much like he immersed us in Middle Earth with his unimpeachable LOTR trilogy, he gives the audience checking out The Frighteners what they came for and much more.

31 Days to Scare ~ Sleepaway Camp (1983)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Angela Baker, a traumatized and very shy young girl, is sent to summer camp with her cousin. Shortly after her arrival, anyone with sinister or less than honorable intentions gets their comeuppance.

Stars: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tierston, Christopher Collet, Mike Kellin, Karen Fields, Katherine Kamhi, Paul DeAngelo

Director: Robert Hiltzik

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Though I combed the shelves of my local video store for all the horror goodies I could find, it took a while for me to get to Sleepaway Camp.  I’m not sure what kept me from it for so long but when I finally did I walked away a bit shell-shocked (more on that later).  I’ve revisited it several times over the years and each time I forget how relatively well made it was considering its budget and where it fell in the slasher genre.  Things were just reaching a fever pitch with every possible holiday and location providing fodder to pit a deranged killer against horny teens.  To have a film released in 1983 about a killer at a camp (hello, Friday the 13th and The Burning) didn’t seem all that interesting…until you get to the end.

After a creepy credits sequence that moves across the abandoned Camp Arawak, we enter a prologue that sees a tragic boating accident befall a family.  Years later, Angela (Felissa Rose), a survivor of the accident, is shipped off to summer camp with her cousin, Ricky (Jonathan Tierston)  A quiet girl with large eyes, she instantly runs afoul of Judy (Karen Fields), the queen bee in her cabinand catches the eye of Paul (Christopher Collet), a friend of her cousin.   While Paul gradually coaxes Angela out of her shyness, strange accidents start to happen around camp and bodies begin to pile up.  The reveal of the killer in the final seconds of the movie is a genuine shock, not just because of who it is (which isn’t much of a puzzle) but how they are introduced.  I’ll say no more because you have to see it for yourself.

Instead of hiring a bunch of twenty-somethings for his film, writer/director Robert Hiltzik wisely cast actual teens to play the campers…which has its pros and cons.  That these kids actually look like people that would be attending this camp gives the movie some authenticity, that is until they start getting killed and then it begins to feel a tad sleazy.  The casting also dictates that the movie isn’t built around copious nudity or exploitative situations which is one way this movie sets itself apart.  The kills are well staged but budget restrictions force Hiltzik to get creative and imply more than he shows, to generally effective results.

Another drawback to casting younger actors is that they haven’t developed much technique by this point and many performances are too broad which becomes grating as the movie goes on.  Even the adults seem to be gnawing on every piece of scenery they can find, many gaining laughs for their line readings that don’t seem to make total sense.  Add to that some thick New Yawk accents from several actors and it almost becomes an unintentional farce.

Still, the movie plays quite well for an 84-minute low-budget horror movie.  The music is sinister and Hiltizik feels like a director with good ideas.  Take the opening credit sequence in the empty camp.  As the camera pans over the vacated cabins, tennis courts, and activity center, Hiltzik overlays ghostly sounds of when there were people in these areas.  It sets a spooky tone right away and one he largely maintains over the course of the film.  Leading to its boffo ending and through the closing credits, the movie has a strong atmosphere throughout.

Spawning three increasingly ludicrously comic sequels that, while maintaining one specific character, feel like films that exist in another universe, Sleepaway Camp is an above average selection from the mass of similar genre films that were released in the early ‘80s.  It has a cult reputation and deservedly so – even if you know what happens at the end it doesn’t diminish your enjoyment revisiting it a second or third time.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Monster Squad (1987)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A small town is disrupted with the arrival of Dracula to retrieve an amulet controlling the balance between good and evil.

Stars: André Gower, Robby Kiger, Brent Chalem, Tom Noonan, Duncan Regehr, Ryan Lambert, Stephen Macht, Mary Ellen Trainor, Jack Gwillim, Jon Gries, Stan Shaw, Leonardo Cimino

Director: Fred Dekker

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 82 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Few films bring up such rich retro memories for me than 1987’s The Monster Squad.  I can still see it now.  I’m nervously biting my lip standing next to my dad at Home Video, our local rental haunt.  He’s holding the box for a movie he and my mom are checking out and I’m clutching the cardboard case (stuffed with a perfectly fitted Styrofoam rectangle) for The Monster Squad. I’m 10, it’s PG-13…I’m anxious.  I’d already asked about getting this and my dad agreed…but would he change his mind?  Will I get to take this home and see what looks like a rad flick filled with monsters, cool kids, and, best of all, Dracula?  Or will I be denied at the last minute and wind up empty-handed?  My dad turns to me, looks at the VHS and says to the clerk, “And my son is joining The Monster Squad.”  Score.

Aside from being a great memory of my dad and I, this evokes the kind of excitement that came with physically going to a store and renting movies which has become a lost art.  Being able to browse just the boxes of numerous movies without access to IMDb.com or watching the trailers on YouTube was the chance to create your own narrative as to what you thought the movie was going to be about.  With The Monster Squad, what you see on the box is definitely what you get.

Taking place in a small town that suggests mid-America (actually filmed on the back lot of Universal Studios…look for the Back to the Future clock tower in certain scenes), The Monster Squad doesn’t waste an iota of its short running time.  After an establishing prologue in Transylvania where we are introduced to a powerful amulet that Van Helsing desperately wants to use to send monsters into a black hole, we jump forward a hundred years to meet Sean (André Gower) and Patrick (Robby Kiger).  Typical high school teens, they just want to be able to talk monsters and not worry about silly things like school and chores.

At the same time, a plane carrying the remains of Frankenstein’s monster is hijacked by Count Dracula and winds up in the pond behind Sean and Patrick’s clubhouse.  When Count Dracula uses his power to resuscitate Frankenstein it also awakens The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Wolfman.  Dracula is after the same amulet we see at the beginning of the film which he hopes to use to unleash hell on earth.  The only problem is that he needs Van Helsing’s diary to locate the stone and unlucky for Sean, his mom just picked it up for him at a garage sale.  It’s up to Sean and his gang to vanquish the evil without getting picked off in the process.  So begins a battle between monsters and teens.

Co-screenwriter Shane Black would go on to become one of the highest paid scribes in the business (he wrote Lethal Weapon and was behind the recent reboot of The Predator) and his writing partner Fred Dekker sat behind the camera.  You can tell the two of them had a ball writing this and, though a lower-budgeted film, they make the whole thing look like a high class affair.  It has a ton of fun inside jokes that any classic monster fan will eat up and since most of the special effects are practical and not shoddy computer generated (thank you, Stan Winston), it has aged gracefully.  Admittedly, while the film has stood the test of time visually, it does have a few cringe inducing homophobic phrases that are hard to excuse away even in the most charitable sense.

I love that during the Halloween season instead of pulling the film back from free steaming services someone has allowed The Monster Squad to be readily available to any and all that want to revisit their childhood memories or introduce their kids to the fun.  Though nowhere near a hit when it was first released, it has rightfully gained a cult status over the last three decades.  It’s a bit scary for younger kids but instead of a few off-color potty mouth moments and the aforementioned regressive dialogue it’s fairly family friendly.

31 Days to Scare ~ Anna and the Apocalypse (2018) – Trailer

Synopsis: A zombie apocalypse threatens the sleepy town of Little Haven – at Christmas – forcing Anna and her friends to fight, slash and sing their way to survival, facing the undead in a desperate race to reach their loved ones.

Release Date: November 30, 2018

Thoughts: In all honesty, zombie movies are just so not my thing. You can keep your walking dead and brain loving slow walkers for all I care unless you’re going to do something different with the material.  Zombie movies like Warm Bodies gave us a unique slant to a familiar story which is another reason why the zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse looks like it might be one to keep an eye (and ear) out for.  Anytime a movie is compared to Shaun of the Dead and La La Land well, you have to take notice.  With a nice buzz coming out of the early fall festivals, this might be a bloody brilliant movie or another non-starter that played better with festival audiences geared toward this kind of material.  I’m thinking it looks like a riot…but I’ve been fooled before.  For now, count on my attendance to this apocalypse.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Haunting (1999)

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Eleanor, Theo, and Luke decide to take part in a sleep study at a huge mansion they get more than they bargained for when Dr. Marrow tells them of the house’s ghostly past.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Lili Taylor, Bruce Dern, Marian Seldes

Director: Jan de Bont

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Boy, The Haunting sure brings back a lot of memories for me.  It’s 1999 and I’ve finished my first year of college.  I’d been a hardcore movie fan all through high school and middle school but with my growing independence I was able to pick what movies I wanted to take myself to and involve friends with.  The net was still in its relative infancy so to watch trailers outside of a movie theater you had to go on the web and hope your connection was strong enough to keep the preview from buffering forever.  I remember watching the original teaser trailer for The Haunting on TrailerPark.com about a hundred times because it had everything going for it.  Scary movie? Check. Famous director? Check. Popular stars? Check. Prestige producers? Check.  It was all there.  Then the movie came out.

Here’s the original teaser to jog your memory:

Speaking of memories, I remember seeing The Haunting on its opening day and being more than a bit baffled by what was going on with my sure-fire sure thing.  I mean, I had spent $20 to have the glossy double sided theatrical one-sheet poster sent to me so I could display it in my room – I didn’t spend that much money on a turkey, did I?  At the time, I felt I had.  The audiences were laughing at moments meant to be scary and the effects felt like a let-down considering the budget and who was involved.  I was so frustrated I think I saw the movie once more when it came out on DVD but hadn’t seen it in probably a decade and a half.

We’re in the season of scary movies so I figured now would be better than ever to revisit this remake of Robert Wise’s undisputed 1963 classic.  Also, seeing that the original novel by Shirley Jackson has received another remake in the form of a 10-part Netflix show, I wanted to give this one another look before diving into that new production.  Produced by Steven Spielberg’s (JAWS) studio Dreamworks SKG, aside from a few admittedly cheesy bits and those same iffy effects, I was amazed to discover that The Haunting wasn’t the corny mess I remembered it to be. Not by half.

The same day her sister announces plans to sell the apartment she shared with her recently deceased invalid mother, Nell (Lili Taylor, The Conjuring) receives a call inviting her to participate in a sleep study at a secluded mansion.  She’ll be paid well and room and board is provided.  It seems the perfect solution to her dilemma.  Arriving at the ominous Hill House, she’s transfixed by the large estates beauty and ornate interior design.  Joined by bisexual vixen Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Side Effects) and all-American dude Luke (Owen Wilson, Inherent Vice), Nell settles in far easier than her fellow test subjects, seemingly unfazed by the house’s nighttime activities which involve strange noises and ghostly apparitions.

The study is being conducted by Dr. Marrow (Liam Neeson, The Commuter) and, unbeknownst to the three, the study they are participating in has less to do with their sleep patterns and more to do with their fear reflexes.  He’s chosen Hill House for its storied history of being haunted and before he knows it the ghosts truly do come out to play in increasingly aggressive methods.  Soon, Nell comes to realize there are two sets of ghosts at work in the house.  One group is steering them all to a mystery hidden within while another more malevolent force wants to make sure Nell never leaves.

The first hour or so of The Haunting is a well-constructed vice grip that continues to tighten as the people explore the house and its impressively crafted rooms.  The production design here is out of this world, rich and detailed with no two spaces looking exactly alike.  Much of the huge budget must have been devoted to these playing spaces because while you sort of always know they are sets and not practical rooms in a real mansion the overall illusion is a wonder.  From the large ballroom to a panic inducing revolving room of mirrors, each door opens up to a new feast of the eyes.  Even nearly twenty years later it’s remarkable.

Where the film tends to run off the rails (and was then savaged by critics) is in the visual effects which look one step up from Casper the Friendly Ghost-style floating images. Some of them are downright laughable, especially the wooden cherub faces that decorate Nell’s room.  One moment they are giving you the creeps as their dead eyes bore into you, the next you’re giggling when their expression changes to horror with wide eyes and their mouths forming an “O”.  The final sequence is nearly all CGI and it fails to captivate you, though cinematographer turned director Jan de Bont (Flatliners) does stir up some good camera work during the final act.

Yet for all these problems which do play a part in diminishing the overall effect The Haunting was going for, I still found myself enjoying this re-watch all these years later.  It’s well-intentioned and largely well-made with a great cast (more Lili Taylor in everything, please) and is a masterpiece of set-design.  I went in thinking it would still be that cornball loser I had written it off as being all those years ago but found myself invested in the material and characters.  Sadly, this hasn’t been released on BluRay (why the heck not?) but do yourself a favor and find an HD streaming copy to rent.  It’s worth another look.

31 Days to Scare ~ Summer of Fear (1978)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage girl’s life is turned upside down after her cousin moves into her house, and as time goes by, she begins to suspect that she may be a practitioner of witchcraft.

Stars: Linda Blair, Lee Purcell, Jeff East, Fran Drescher, Jeff McCracken, Carol Lawrence

Director: Wes Craven

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I’ve said it before but man, I really miss the classic made-for-network-television movie that has long been extinct. I remember looking forward to all those Moment of Truth movies on NBC as well as the domestic thrillers, wacky comedies, and disease of week flicks that would show up anytime you were ready to change the dial. Without a movie studio behind them, so many of these films have been lost to time with many found only on YouTube in various degrees of quality.

There is the occasional TV movie that drew the kind of viewership that allowed the movie to live on (often being released theatrically in Europe) and one such example is Summer of Fear from 1978. Originally broadcast as Stranger in Our House, the title was officially changed once the movie was granted a run in overseas theaters. It then made it’s debut on DVD before getting a nice treatment on BluRay in 2017. While it’s relatively vanilla for today’s horror audiences, it’s a fun little time capsule that has several impressive names attached to it.

Star Linda Blair was a hot, if troubled, commodity when the movie went into production. An Oscar nominee for The Exorcist, she was also the lead of several notable TV movies which garnered her good notices. At the time, Blair was coming off of the much maligned The Exorcist II: The Heretic and some personal struggles when she signed on to star. Did I mention the film is an early effort from legendary horror director Wes Craven (Deadly Blessing, Nightmare on Elm Street)? Craven had directed a few intense adult horror movies before this and his overall restraint in the confines of television censors here is admirable.

Based on the popular YA novel by Lois Duncan (who had a run of creepy books that were adapted into movies on TV and in theaters), Summer of Fear follows Rachel, a horse-loving teen in California that goes through hell when her orphaned cousin comes to visit and turns her life upside down. After her parents die in a car crash, mousy Julia (Lee Purcell, Valley Girl) leaves her Ozark home to come to live with Rachel and her family in their ranch house. Soon, Julia gets a make-over and starts to ingratiate herself into the lives of her family…to increasingly deadly results. Most of this comes at the expense of Rachel who loses her friends, her boyfriend, and her horse to Julia’s increasing grip over her life. Is Julia just a master manipulator or is there something more sinister going on?

With her big perm and sometimes baby-ish line readings, Blair (Hell Night) is campy fun as the paranoid Rachel. You often can’t blame her for being amazed that people are falling over themselves around Julia, everyone in her life seems so terrible to her you often wonder why she just doesn’t pack a bag and find a new family. It’s nearly hilarious how her loved ones turn on her the moment Julia arrives. Even her father starts to make moony eyes over his niece from the start (ew) and I can’t believe no one has mentioned how gross it is that Blair tries to set her older brother up with Julia…his first cousin! That he turns into a lovestruck puppy over her earns another ‘ew’ from me. I actually shouted out loud more than once, “She’s Your Cousin!!”

At 92 minutes, it feels like a full film meal and Craven often gives us a heaping plate of over-the-top moments. Blair has a knock down, drag out fight with someone and the stunt people look like they are wearing the exact same style wig. It looks like twins are fighting eachother. Purcell is also notable as the mysterious Julia.  She’s evil, no doubt, but you aren’t quite sure if it’s just teen angst or if she’s harboring a darker secret. I’m surprised that this hasn’t had a remake, actually, as the story seems to be prime material to reexamine or reinterpret. As it is, the film manages to locate more than its share of creepy moments within it’s TV trappings and is quite worth seeking out.

31 Days to Scare ~ Escape Room (2019) – Trailer

Synopsis: Six strangers find themselves in circumstances beyond their control, and must use their wits to survive.

Release Date: January 4, 2019

Thoughts: Even if Escape Room has a concept that feels like a less extreme version of what was first cooked up in the Saw films, I have to say this teaser trailer definitely has me intrigued.  Over the past few years escape rooms have popped up all over the country to growing popularity so it seems natural that sooner or later someone would play off of the confusion and frustration of these diabolical rooms.  I’ve been in several and if there was a horror movie made of my experience it would just be 60 minutes of me growing frustrated while trying to unlock a safe that has nothing in it.  I have confidence in director Adam Robitel who gave us the freaky gift The Taking of Deborah Logan and helmed Insidious: The Last Key, and Escape Room feels like it could be the jumping off point for a clever new franchise.