Tuesday, October 16, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 16

The Endless; 2017; written by Justin Benson; directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead

There's a mystery at the center of The Endless, one that loops and circles around on itself and might well keep viewers returning to it, just like the film's main characters.

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead play brothers--conveniently named Justin and Aaron--who escaped a "UFO death cult" ten years ago. Since then, their aimless lives have been stuck on repeat. Until the day a videotape from the group arrives in the mail, and Aaron convinces Justin to return for "closure."

They receive a warm welcome and find everyone no older than the day they left. When Justin expresses surprise at this the leader smiles ambiguously and says, "We're always here."

Strange events soon begin piling up. The group plays tug of war with a rope that rises into the night sky. Characters mysteriously leave and return. Two moons appear and a third is promised, which will herald something called "the ascension." Each causes the brothers--and viewers--to question what's real and what's attributable to the cult's influence.

Benson and Moorehead are known as purveyors of smart, low-budget horror, and The Endless is yet another entry in a career filling up with them. It proves that a big idea, handled well, can beat a big budget.

The Endless is available on Netflix, Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Monday, October 15, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 15

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles; 2011; written by Jon Foy and Colin Smith; directed by Jon Foy

If the name of this film alone isn't enough to slow you down and ask, "What the...?" maybe you're moving too fast.

Starting in the 1980s hundreds of enigmatic handmade tiles began appearing on the streets of Philadelphia, the United States and eventually South America. Most displayed a variation of the message TOYNBEE IDEA IN MOVIE 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.

You might dismiss a message like that as lunatic ravings. But isn't it more fun, especially at this time of year, to lend it just a bit of credence and see where it leads? As Justin Duerr, the man at the center of the film says, "When you start to realize that it's unusual and strange and unexplainable, it's like waking up from this dream."

The story of one man's obsession with another man's obsession, Resurrect Dead explores the shadows of underground culture, secret societies, America's crumbling railroads, a giant Chilean telescope, short wave radio broadcasts, 9/11 and arcane scientific theories about bringing dead molecules back to life. In doing so, it manages to tickle that part of your brain that wonders what else might be going on beneath the surface of our ordinary world. Or beyond it.

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles is available on Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 14

Irreversible; 2002; written and directed by Gaspar NoƩ

Instead of falling toward the middle of this list, Irreversible could well be its final entry. Anyone who's seen it (or failed to make it to the end) already understands why.

A tale of gruesome sexual violence and its equally violent revenge, Irreversible employs two techniques that transport it from mere exploitation into the realm of art.

The first is a reverse-chronological structure that throws viewers headfirst into the chaotic aftermath of a vicious attack, then works its way back, scene by scene, to demonstrate just how helpless the characters were against their fates.

The second is stunning camera work that both disorients and thrusts viewers into the action. Shot with a single camera in a roving and near-weightless style, it makes Irreversible feel not so much filmed as something that's happening all around you, like a dream. Or a nightmare.

And make no mistake, Irreversible is a nightmare. From the opening frames, which show the final credits, it's apparent this is a film that won't be respecting any rules. No one who might be triggered by scenes of extreme violence and punishing sexual assault should hazard watching it. Even the most hardened veterans of torture porn will find themselves flinching.

But. If you can somehow make it past the brutal rape scene at the story's center, you'll eventually find yourself at home with a happy couple, in the midst of a romantic interlude, on a beautiful summer's day, when this tragic tale all began. Despite everything it's (rightfully) notorious for, this is the true power of Irreversible: proof that heartbreak, and the despair that comes with knowing what might have been, are two of the most terrifying emotions there are.

Irreversible is available on Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 13

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer; 1986; written by Richard Fire & John McNaughton; directed by John McNaughton

Thirty-plus years have only added to the air of grime and desperation that pervades Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. This is not a shortcoming, since it only serves to make this tale of a murderous drifter that much more brutal and disturbing.

Michael Rooker stars as Henry, who shares a dingy apartment with his prison pal, Otis, and his sister Becky, on the run from an ugly divorce. All three occupy society's lowest rungs and are doing what they can--and must--just to hang on.

If there's a fourth major character in the film, it's the city of Chicago itself, which appears to be in similarly bad shape. It's a city of perpetually cloudy skies, rusted-out cars, cheap diners and run-down gas stations, all of it captured in low-budget grainy images reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Henry's murderous impulses form a vortex at the story's center, one that soon pulls in the other two--Otis as an apprentice, Becky into a dark romance. To say that neither survives doesn't really give anything away. By the film's end, we understand that Henry's time in Chicago was just a stop along a bloody trail, one extending far behind and ahead of him.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is available on Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Friday, October 12, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 12

Manhunter; 1986; written by Thomas Harris and Michael Mann; directed by Michael Mann

Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon, has very little in common with two other, more famous Thomas Harris adaptations, 1991's The Silence of the Lambs or 2002's Red Dragon.

And that's not a bad thing. Because thirty years after it was released to mixed (at best) reviews, Mann's version has since emerged as a hyper-stylized time capsule of the 1980s, a candy-colored kaleidoscope that makes both Silence and Red Dragon look somewhat, um... lifeless by comparison.

The dissonance between Manhunter's slick production and its tale of a police detective losing himself in a serial murder investigation makes the viewing experience that much more jarring and memorable. It's like seeing a human heart, still beating, under the glow of neon lights.

Manhunter is available on streaming rental.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 11

The Invitation; 2015; written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi; directed by Karyn Kusama

There's a moment near the beginning of The Invitation that not only tees up everything that follows, but puts the audience on a razor's edge as well. I won't say what it is, because that would ruin the fun. And it's that element of suspense--and its eventual release--that makes The Invitation work so well.

The initial premise is simple enough. Following an absence of two years, a couple invites a group of friends to dinner at their Hollywood Hills home. But from there it gets more complicated and weirder.

Among the assembled is Logan Marshall-Green, the female host's ex-husband. From the moment he arrives things seem off. There's a missing guest. Two odd friends no one has met before. An awkward party game. And a self-actualization movement called The Invitation that the hosts really, really want to share with the others.

The need to observe social niceties as the evening heats up leads to some excruciating tension and shocking reversals. If I have any complaint about 
The Invitation, it's that the film does such an outstanding job of increasing the anxiety and encouraging your  imagination to run away with itself, that by the time things boil over it seems just a tiny bit anti-climatic. 

But only a little. Because then there's that final shot, with its helicopters overhead and dogs barking in the distance. It's so unanticipated and unnerving that you might not enjoy dinner at a friend's house for some time.

The Invitation is available on Netflix and streaming rental.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 10

Creep 2; 2017; written by Mark Duplass & Patrick Brice; directed by Patrick Brice 

In the original Creep, Mark Duplass played a man with terminal cancer who wants to make a "day in the life" documentary and plays next-level mind games with his unsuspecting videographer. 

In Creep 2, Mark Duplass plays a serial killer who wants to make a "day in the life" documentary and plays next-next-level mind games with his unsuspecting videographer. 

And so, given all that, you'd be perfectly within your rights to ask why in the hell Creep 2 is on this list. 

1. Because Duplass delivers an amazing performance. By turns charming, sinister and terrifying (sometimes all in the same scene) he navigates some treacherous emotional terrain without a stumble. 

2. Because his co-star, Desiree Akhavan, delivers an amazing performance as well. Not only does she refuse to be intimidated by the antics of a serial killer, she proves to be every bit his equal. 

3. Because together, Duplass and Akhavan are doubly amazing. Throughout the film they play a non-stop cat-and-mouse game--with each other, the audience, and the serial killer genre itself. It's genuinely thrilling to watch as their characters push each others' buttons and boundaries, keeping everything and everyone dangerously off balance, right up to the end. 

Creep 2 was one of the best times I've had watching a movie this year. And I saw A Star is Born this past weekend. 

Creep 2 is available on Netflix and streaming rental.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 9

Falling Down; 1993; written by Ebbe Roe Smith; directed by Joel Schumacher

Occasionally, what once passed for a conventional film when it was released can, with time, turn into something more than its creators intended. Deeper. Weirder. Scarier.

Marketed in 1993 as "the adventures of an ordinary man at war with the everyday world," today Falling Down reads more like "the adventures of a mediocre white man at war with everything he blames for taking away his privilege."

Michael Douglas stars as the aforementioned ordinary man. In his Eisenhower-era glasses and white shirt and tie, he looks like a refugee from what he surely considers "a better time." Beginning with the film's opening scene, it's clear to 2018 viewers he sees himself as someone done wrong by an out-of-control world. 

It's probably no accident that world includes lots of people of color: the kids on a school bus, a Korean convenience store owner, a group of Latino men and women. The list goes on. (To be fair, Douglas's character is often provoked, but he definitely makes matters worse and his reactions are grossly out of proportion. He also vents on some white people, including his terrified ex-wife, but only after he's dispatched several examples of the city's ethnic populations.)

However, it's when Douglas brings a duffel bag of guns to his war against perceived injustice that the film achieves its most shocking moments. Because we live in a world in which aggrieved men shoot up public spaces on the regular, what might have been intended as "stand up and cheer for the little guy" scenes in 1993 now come across as dangerously unhinged and deadly. You simply can't watch Douglas shooting up a fast-food joint and not think of how horribly wrong it could go, and has before.

To say about Falling Down that "they just don't make 'em like that any more" is an understatement. Twenty-five years later, they just couldn't--and wouldn't dare--make 'em like that today.

Falling Down is available for streaming rental.

Monday, October 8, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 8

Cropsey; 2009; written by Joshua Zeman; directed by Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman 

A documentary can be scarier than even the most vampire/zombie/demon/alien/slasher-infested fictional film. Because documentaries are, after all, based on facts. And that can mean the difference between something that's scary in a girl-don't-go-in-there! kind of way and something that makes a reasonably solid case for sleeping with all the lights on. Or not sleeping at all. 

Case in point, Cropsey, which has everything your favorite horror film has and more. Creepy old abandoned asylum with a dark history of atrocities? Check. Series of brutal murders terrorizing a tight-knit community? Check. Wild legends about an escaped mental patient responsible for the mayhem? Weird old guy who's finally arrested for the crimes? And the possibility that something still stalks the woods in search of new victims? Check, check and check. 

Plus, Cropsey's creeping mood of dread will not only crawl up and down your spine while you're watching it, but stay there for days (and yes, long nights) afterward. You won't forget the experience of watching it, even though you'll probably wish you could. 

 Cropsey is available on Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 7

This is the End; 2013; written by Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg; directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan

Do you really need me to tell you that This is the End is both laugh-out-loud scary and scream-out-loud funny? Or that sometimes it's the other way around?

Are you not already aware that it stars Seth Rogan, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride (plus dozens more) all playing themselves? Or that it involves an incredibly debauched party at Franco's house that goes horribly wrong when the apocalypse occurs, unleashing all manner of hell?

Have you somehow missed the fact that it's one of the smartest and funniest skewerings of Hollywood douch-baggery in years, if not ever? Or that it somehow also manages to be a sweet tribute to the power and joys of friendship? Has no one yet told you that it boasts some of the goriest special effects and the filthiest jokes anyone, anywhere has probably ever seen and heard?

No? Well, now you have a great reason to see This is the End for the first time. And if you already knew all of the above, now you've been reminded why it's worth seeing yet again.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 6

Zombieland; 2010; written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick; directed by Ruben Fleischer

The moment Jesse Eisenberg wistfully begins explaining that the #1 rule of surviving a zombie apocalypse is "cardio" (along with "beware of bathrooms," "limber up" and "double tap," among many others) it's pretty much clear this is a guy--and film--we're going to like.

Eisenberg plays a wryly self-aware nerd who's finally getting himself together as the world falls apart around him. Woody Harrelson provides the perfect foil, a good ole' boy with equal parts kick-ass menace and aw-shucks charisma. Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin round out the cast as two savvy sisters who first high-jack, then join, the road trip across a ruined Southwest in search of Twinkies and an amusement park named Playland, where Stone promises her younger sister there are no zombies. But of course, there are.

The relentlessly clever script is matched by equally energetic direction and performances. It's a trip you won't mind taking more than once. The first time for all the surface laughs and jump scares (and there are plenty of both), then again for all the smart details and witty asides.

Zombieland is available for streaming rental.

Friday, October 5, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 5

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil; 2010; written by Eli Craig & Morgan Jurgenson; directed by Eli Craig 

This film could be called Big-Hearted Hillbillies vs. Clueless Preppies (who in many ways represent the real evil here). But summarizing the concept that way would also minimize its many charms, most of which hinge on two delightful lead performances.

Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine play lifelong friends Tucker and Dale, who've just purchased their dream a vacation home--actually a rundown cabin in the backwoods of West Virginia.

When Dale shyly attempts to talk to a young woman who's arrived with friends for a weekend of camping, he's rejected due to his appearance and demeanor. That initial misunderstanding sets into motion a series of increasingly ridiculous and gory catastrophes--some of them homages to classic horror films. Each time tragicomedy strikes, it's the direct results of the campers' inability to see past their own prejudices and into Tucker and Dale's sincerely good natures and intentions.

Underrated by audiences (but not critics) during its initial release, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil has since gained new relevance. Red-state viewers will appreciate the film's sympathetic treatment of its title characters. Blue state viewers should as well.

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is available on Netflix(!) and streaming rental.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 4

Beyond the Gates; 2016; written by Jackson Stewart & Stephen Scarlata; directed by Jackson Stewart

Set your watches back. About thirty years or so. When movies--and a few novelty board games--were played on VHS. Horror films were lit in super-saturated shades of fuchsia and purple. Their stories might have been a bit creaky, but the blood-soaked special effects did their best to make up for it. 

That's the era and type of film Beyond the Gates hopes to honor, and mostly succeeds at. 

Stars Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson play two brothers--one slightly nerdy, the other somewhat ne'er-do-well--whose father has been missing for seven months and is presumed dead. They meet up to go through his nearly defunct video rental store, where they find the eponymous board game way, way back in the office.

They learn that the mystery of their father's disappearance can only be solved by playing the game. Which of course they shouldn't do. But of course doesn't stop them. And before you know it, one of their girlfriends is possessed, a weird gate has appeared in the basement, and there's heavily backlit fog all over the place. 

The film's indie pedigree provides both its charms and rough edges. The practical sets have a slightly claustrophobic feel and some of the game's challenges resolve themselves a bit too neatly. But what Beyond the Gates lacks in finesse it makes up for with enthusiasm and unpredictability.

And perhaps most important, it really does look and feel like something that was released direct-to-video, was forgotten for a few decades, and has just risen from the dead.

Beyond the Gates is available on Netflix and streaming rental.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 3

An American Werewolf in London; 1981; written and directed by John Landis

Werewolves invaded movie theaters in 1981, with the release of three lycanthrope-themed films including Wolfen and The Howling. But skip those two because the best of them, then and now, is John Landis's version.

David Naughton and Griffin Dunne play two college-age backpackers who cross paths with something vicious during a rainy night on the moors. Three weeks later Naughton wakes up in the hospital, only to learn that his friend Dunne is dead. (And definitely undead, too, as it turns out.) Though everyone swears the pair were attacked by an escaped lunatic, Naughton believes it was something else.

Striking the right balance between laughs and screams is a difficult feat, too often leading to something that's neither funny or scary. But An American Werewolf in London walks the tightrope without a misstep. There's even a sweet romance between Naughton and a nurse (played by Jennie Augutter) that contributes greatly to the story's touching end.

The film's can't-miss centerpiece is an impressive man-to-wolf transformation that shook audiences and critics at the time, earning it several well-deserved rewards. After more than 35 years the sequence is beginning to show its age, but is still remarkable given that none of the special effects or makeup (designed by Rick Baker) relied on CGI.

If you haven't seen An American Werewolf in London, now is the time to correct that gap. If you have, you already know this is a great time to enjoy it again.

An American Werewolf in London is available for streaming rental.

Monday, October 1, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 2

Sleepy Hollow; 1999; written by Kevin Yagher & Andrew Kevin Walker, based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving; directed by Tim Burton

Tim Burton brings Washington Irving's classic tale of post-Revolutionary War haunts to beautiful (after-)life, with Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane and Christina Ricci as his love interest, Katrina Van Tassel.

Burton and his screenwriters take liberties with the story to increase its appeal to a more modern--and demanding--audience, but only fans of the original tale will quibble with the changes.

The result is a film that moves at a brisk gallop through sets and atmospheres that manage to be both gorgeous and gloomy at the same time. The entire thing looks like a series of Hudson School paintings with the brightness turned down fifty percent. Almost twenty years later, the production still looks as though it could be released next week.

There are just enough shudders and shocks to please horror fans, but not so many that fair ladies and gentlemen will find it objectionable.

Sleepy Hollow is available for streaming rental.

31 Days of Dread--Day 1

Goosebumps; 2015; written by Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski ; directed by Rob Letterman

I know what you're thinking. But Goosebumps is here because it's exactly like that scary movie you loved watching at sleepovers with your friends. Only funnier. And a bit smarter. And way more crazy.

It starts out as a boy-meets-girl, girl's-dad-turns-out-to-be-a-weird-dude tale, but switches gears when it's revealed that the girl's weird dad is none other than uber-best-selling young adult horror writer R.L. Stine. (Whose Goosebumps series the film is based on. Or a tribute to. Or licensed from. Or something.)

It turns out Stine's books--and the monsters in them--are actually real, and Stine--Jack Black, in some ways the creepiest thing in the movie--has protected his bajillions of tweenage readers by locking up his creatures in bound versions of his manuscripts. Of course, our hero accidentally lets them out, which is when all hell literally breaks loose in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink CGI cavalcade.

Filled with more snark than actual scares, Goosebumps is the perfect start to the season. Turn off the lights and snuggle into your sleeping bag. Halloween is here.

Goosebumps is available for streaming rental.

Introducing “31 Days of Dread”

Only one of these films is on the list. Image by Esquire.com.

In October, every night is a good reason to watch a scary movie.

And so, in celebration of the year's most frightening month, I'm unveiling a list of 31--count 'em!--movie recommendations. One per day, from now until Halloween.

But this isn't just any random list of recos. That would be far too simple. Instead, I came up with something that will be a bit more challenging for me, and I hope more enjoyable for you.

I'll start with easy stuff, films even fraidy cats can enjoy. Each day I'll work my way up the ladder. If you follow along, by the end of the month we should all be mainlining the really heavy stuff.

Oh--and (I hope) these won't be the same old same old flicks you'd find elsewhere this time of year. I'll be reaching back into the old, the off-beat, the overlooked and the obscure. 

Because no one who's found their way here needs to be told to put Jaws and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on their to-be-watched list.