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night nine: trouble every day. [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

“You were in love with her?”
“It’s not the right word for it.”

This one is disturbing, even by HMF standards.

It’s a slow burn. A very quiet film with long spans shot with no dialogue, and characters who aren’t particularly verbose even when they do speak.

The muted quality makes the scenes of violence that much more jarring. The bloody scenes are themselves still somewhat muted, the camera forces us to watch when we’d rather get a cut or a new angle, anything to give us some distance from the ordinariness of the horror.

Even the film’s quietest scenes are full of menace and danger. The is a movie colored with tones of insanity, desire, isolation, compulsion, power, and violence.

Rape is usually a subtext in vampire stories. However a given mythology works in a particular vampire world, there is almost always the inclusion of the forcible and violent penetration of another against their will. Clare Denis captured that violence to horrifying effect in this film.

These are stories about killing someone for their blood. It’s not that Trouble Every Day is the only film where this inherent violence is dealt with head on, but it definitely got under my skin more than most others.

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When the film came out it received a fair amount of hate. But while Trouble Every Day isn’t perfect, the reaction against it was undeserved. As with a film like Peeping Tom, the negative response might just underscore how intentionally troubling the film is. As years have passed, the film has found its audience and appreciators, making the recent Fandor list of 20 greatest films directed by women, based on responses from 50 critics and cinephiles.

Will I Ever Watch It Again? Give me some time to think about that. I’m not sure I can go back into this world again.

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night eight: dracula (a.k.a. the horror of dracula). [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

“If you look over there you can see the sun coming up.”

Hammer Films was a London-based film studio that dominated the international horror landscape for decades. They had big hits that weren’t vampire related, but it was their series of gothic, increasingly sexualized vampire movies that had the biggest impact on pop culture. Their films didn’t just influence future vampire movies, but future films in general, especially horror (unsurprisingly).

One large influence was that Hammer continually pushed the envelope in terms of what sorts of things were shown on the big screen. They found ways to show you what was happening, instead of merely implying it through reaction shots to the more violent moments.

For example, my favorite moment in Dracula… **I’m going to say spoiler alert, just in case, but this particular part of Dracula probably shouldn’t be a surprise.**

Still with me? Okay, my favorite moment was Dracula’s death by exposure to sunlight. It was impressively explicit for its time.

Dracula was the first of their vampire seriesretitled The Horror of Dracula in the US because of the fear that Americans are kind of dumb and would confuse the new film with the Bela Lugosi version released 27 years earlier.

This movie certainly has its silly bits, oh so many silly bits. Many of the bad bits were a product of the time the movie was made, but they were nonetheless distracting for me. To name a few: awkward or ham-fisted acting by many of the supporting cast, wooden blocking, and way too many moments where the story was moved forward by having a character sit and write thoughtfully while narrating their own thoughts through voiceover… we get it, the book was epistolary, that doesn’t mean I need to see your actors writing or reading letters or journals for 3 minutes at a time in the film version.

Overall, the winning moments outweigh the considerable weaknesses, especially in terms of legacy. There are so many iconic images and moments that still reverberate through horror films today, especially vampire films. If you’re making a vampire movie in general, or a Dracula movie in particular, you have to decide how you are going to interact with the legacy of these films. They’re that significant.

The most important aspect of that legacy is Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, roles they would go on revisit again and again. When Hammer Films decided to reinvent the franchise by moving it forward to present day, they even had Cushing play a descendent of Van Helsing to keep him around (which should be noted by current moviegoers who act like silly plot devices like that were created in the 80’s just in time to bring about the death of cinema).

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Will I Ever Watch It Again? If there comes a time for a larger vampire movie festival, I would watch a string of Hammer vampire movies, starting with a rewatch of this one.

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night seven: stake land. [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

“In desperate times, false gods abound.
People put their faith in the loudest preacher and hope they’re right.
But sometimes they’re wrong. Dead wrong.”

Stake Land found its way as a late addition to this year’s HMF when I couldn’t get my hands on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I chose it because it was watchable on Netflix, and people seemed to like it. The small number of critics who saw it were kind to it, and it was on a few lists of under-appreciated vampire films.

I didn’t like it, and don’t have anything particularly positive to say about it. Consider that a bit of a spoiler warning. If you love Stake Land, awesome. You might want to just skip my short write up. Mostly I think that shitting all over something is a waste of time. I usually try to just avoid writing about stuff I didn’t like, but HMF and other installments of “Another Day, Another Movie” make that harder. Just fair warning that the rest of this post is negative.

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When it comes to lower budget fare, you often need to reset your gauges a bit. Acting, directing, editing, special effects, etc. will often be a bit rougher around the edges. That’s not always the case, with movies like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night making other small budget efforts look bad, but there is definitely a certain forgiveness factor you need to include when watching smaller horror films.

Even with that in effect, I still think Stake Land was bad. This is a zombie apocalypse movie, they just call the zombies vampires. Why? I don’t know. Apparently vampires are mindless killing machines capable of using only the “lizard part of their brain.” Oh, aside from the main bad guy, who somehow became a “thinking vamp” for no reason that holds any water. Otherwise, these are just the fast zombies from the updated Dawn of the Dead with sharp incisors.

This is Zombieland without a sense of humor or any characters to care about.

The writing is especially bad. Cliches abound, the dialogue is awful, the villainous Brotherhood is poorly drawn, and the vampires operate with almost no internal logic outside of “wouldn’t it be cool if…”

Narration is used to bypass any attempts at genuine character development. For example, we are supposed to feel like a group of survivors is a family, not because of a single moment where that seems to be the case, but because our narrator told us it was true. And not just any narration, but the sort that feels like prose from the bad, overwritten novel a struggling author is writing in the middle of a movie about a struggling writer.

Don’t get me wrong, there are great films that have flimsy characters, or empty stories, or rehash old cliches. This just isn’t one of them.

Will I Ever Watch It Again? I barely made it through the first time.

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night six: martin. [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

“Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There’s no real magic ever.”

Another day, another vampire movie.

Even with all of the success that George Romero had with his Living Dead movies, if you ask him, his favorite of all his films is 1977’s Martin, the story of a man who is definitely a sexually motivated serial killer, and may or may not be a vampire. He certainly believes he is an 84 year old undead monster, as does his hyper-religious and superstitious uncle.

Martin is another politically tinged B horror movie from Romero, with the director using this outing to engage themes of sex, sexual violence, mental illness, suburban ennui, and religion. This is a vampire movie for a skeptical, disillusioned generation.

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A small and quiet villain, relying on injecting his victims with sedatives to gain the upper hand, Martin is a disturbing character without ever being imposing. He is lonely, maladjusted, and strange. Whether he is right about being a vampire or not, he is certainly mentally ill. He is also the whiniest vampire I can remember, a bit like the Luke Skywalker of the undead set.

As always, Romero gets a lot out of very little when it comes to budget and resources. Like all of his major works, Martin could come out today and still be relevant and interesting.

Also of note is that this is the first time Romero worked with gore legend Tom Savini, a relationship that would pay immediate dividends the following year with Dawn of the Dead. 

Will I Ever Watch It Again? Probably. Especially if I decide to do a larger vampire movie fest for a whole month, which seems increasingly likely to me.

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night five: a girl walks home alone at night. [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

 “You’re sad. You don’t remember what you want. You don’t remember wanting.
It passed long ago. And nothing ever changes.”

Before getting started, I already summed my thoughts on this one up pretty well last year, without spoilers, which you can read: here.

After this year’s viewing, I still absolutely love this film.

A few specific things I love… spoilers follow.

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I love the performances. It’s no small thing to get to know the characters so well with such sparse dialogue, but these actors make it work. Sheila Vand and Arash Marandi are especially great. I’m sad I haven’t seen him in anything else.

I love the way writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour subverts roles in the movie, not just culturally and traditionally, but within the confines of the story itself.

The pimp is set up in every way as the predator, covered in tigers on his clothing, his jewelry, his tattoo. There’s an aggression in the SEX tattooed on his throat. He even has a tattoo of PAC-MAN about to eat a ghost (itself an example of the role of predator switching back and forth). He has animals of prey mounted on his walls. Multiple characters are victimized by him in short order. He takes whatever he wants. Yet he was the prey all along.

This is the most obvious example. It represents the Girl’s predilection for preying on men who prey on women, and the shift of power.

Less obvious role switching and subversion of expectations includes the fact that Arash is dressed as a cartoonish Dracula, coming across the Girl in the night while high on ecstasy to tell her he is Dracula, all the while she is an actual vampire. Yet, while being a vampire, it is the Girl who lets Arash pierce her with the earrings he stole.

The one dressed for the part isn’t what he looks like, the one you expect to bleed isn’t the one who bleeds, the one who normally has the power is actually helpless.

They are small things that can stand out in a movie that is this quiet and deliberate, where gestures and facial expressions do so much of the storytelling. Where everything is so intentional and reveals the characters to us so impressively.

I love this scene:

She is immortal, we don’t know for sure how old she is, but we can sense the emptiness and loneliness. She’s not sure why, but somehow Arash gets into her head. She dreams of him at night, walking to her out of the light, down into the darkness where she lives forever.

There’s that moment, when she’s alone in the frame, that big space of emptiness behind her. We know Arash is going to enter, but it takes several beats longer than it normally would in another film. When it seems like he is going to enter, he still doesn’t. It makes us feel the anticipation, the waiting, the loneliness. And then he does enter the frame, and they slowly come together.

He exposes his throat to her, having no idea how vulnerable he is in that moment, how dangerous she is. Yet, that’s how vulnerability works. We’re always giving the other the potential to destroy us.

And I love that scene at the end. Arash knows what the Girl has done. We’re not sure if he can go through with it, still run away with her. He gets back in the car, the cat sitting between them. The cat would be hilarious and adorable regardless of context. However, here, it represents what she’s done. It represents what he knows she’s done. It sits there between them, but then, they look at each other.

I love this movie.

Will I Ever Watch It Again? Yes. As I wrote last year, I’d watch this on on repeat.

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night four: what we do in the shadows [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

“I think we drink virgin blood because it sounds cool.”

“I think of it like this. If you were going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it.”

I absolutely love this movie.

Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement have a comedic voice that is unendingly amusing to me.

What We Do In the Shadows is hilarious, smart, clever, impressively filmed, and never overstretches it’s premise. That last bit is miraculous, given how quickly this could have gotten old, especially with the mockumentary format. The film takes a lighthearted approach to the necessarily murderous behavior of vampires, and they nail the tone perfectly. It works.

All of Waititi’s writing has this rare combination, where it’s so sharp and funny, but also genuinely sweet and warm. He revels in the flaws and awkwardness of his characters, and it’s where I find so much joy in his work.

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Word has it that there is going to be a sequel to What We Do In the Shadows called We’re Wolves, obviously focused on the pack of werewolves from this film. There is also a show in development, Paranormal Event Response Unit, which will follow the two police officers from What We Do… going around encountering more of Wellington’s thriving supernatural element. 

I’m also super excited for Waititi’s current directorial gig at Marvel, Thor: Ragnarok. Although, however successful that is, I hope he keeps making original stuff, too, like What We Do…, the criminally underseen and underappreciated Boy, and most recently Hunt for the Wilderpeople. He’s also a co-writer on the upcoming Disney animated feature, Moana, which features Clement in a voice role.

Will I Ever Watch It Again? Yes.Yes. Yes. All the yes. This was my third time and will absolutely not be the last. Taika Waititi forever!

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night three: the lost boys. [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

Now you know what we are. Now you know what you are. You’ll never grow old, Michael, and you’ll never die. But you must feed!

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I’m probably one of the last 80’s kids to see this movie for the first time.

The Lost Boys is awesome and terrible, but it is awesome in ways that are mostly silly, and terrible in ways that are mostly enjoyable.

Interestingly, since they came out the same year, The Lost Boys has pretty much the same story as Near Dark, but with a more playful tone, and some family drama and Goonies thrown in. Also, some-crazy-how, there is significantly more narrative sense in The Lost Boys. For example, no inexplicable blood transfusions in a garage that cure vampirism.

Anyway, this movie is delightfully absurd, and I was never fully sure if that absurdity was intentional or accidental. Kiefer Sutherland is growling away like a crazy person, as he is wont to do. The Coreys added some lovable, terribly acted exuberance and silliness. The vampire deaths mostly don’t make any sense (but its okay, because they explained it away with a line of dialogue). It also did for water guns what Little Monsters would eventually do for flashlights.

This is the vampire movie the 80’s simply needed to produce. It just had to happen.

Also, concerning the 80’s, one question:

As someone who lived through most of the 80’s, I still need to ask, what the hell was happening in the 80’s?!? How did Hollywood produce an R rated kids movie?! The Lost Boys is largely about adjusting to divorce, growing up, potential step-parents, the dangers of peer pressure and drugs, and what it’s like as siblings change at different speeds as they become adults.

Those themes all make sense for a vampire movie for teens. Obviously, vampires are a great way to tell stories of addiction, adjustment, estrangement, and alienation. It’s the R rating that is just so amusingly nonsensical. Somehow, it worked in the 80’s

All in all, The Lost Boys is a worthy addition to the HMF canon

Also, there’s this fucking guy! The 80’s, amirite?!