And so it came to pass that the first six nights of Halloween Movie Fest 2015 were completed.
And it was good.
Far more than I’d expected or hoped, adding this structure back to my movie viewing habits has reminded me how much I love film. It’s hard to describe how one can forget that, especially someone like me, with a long track record of a passion for movies. I was genuinely wondering if I would ever get that old passion back. This last week, I’m remembering how life-giving film can be for me. The films themselves, along with going back through old iterations of Another Day, Another Movie, have stirred those embers, and it turns out there is still enough heat left to make fire.
I’m waking up, and HMF is playing no small part in that!
On with the movies:
1. Night One: The House of the Devil
“After tonight, everything will be complete.”
The first film of this year’s HMF is Ti West’s 2009 homage to vintage horror movies. It succeeds by being such a perfect recreation of creepy, atmospheric devil worship films of the 70’s and 80’s. Yet, it doesn’t offer anything new or have anything interesting to say.
West’s joy at celebrating and recreating the styles, editing, cinematography, and stilted acting of late 70’s/early 80’s horror is contagious, but also instantly forgettable.
The House of the Devil is a slow build of menacing tension. Taking its cues from films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, we find a story where the devil is real, and people do terrible things to follow his will.
I liked this film enough that it was worth a viewing, but it never becomes anything special. I wish that West would have done something different with the genre. In a world where films like Shaun of the Dead and Cabin in the Woods exist, a skillful homage to a beloved genre or sub-genre isn’t compelling without distinct style or the infusion of something new. West recreated the film styles he is celebrating perfectly, but never adds a voice of his own. The story also never gets particularly interesting, but is more paint by numbers devil worship yarn.
Will I Ever Watch It Again? I can’t imagine I will. There are just too many amazing films to revisit to waste time on the decent ones.
2. Night Two: Dawn of the Dead 
“Don’t do it until you’re sure I am coming back.
I’m gonna try not to… I’m gonna try not to come back.”
This is the one that really started it all. Sure, Romero created the genre in Night of the Living Dead in 1968, with flesh-eating corpses (Romero never called them zombies) rising from the grave in hordes to terrorize the world. Before that we had all the voodoo zombie films and Ed Wood’s 1959 “worst movie of all time,” Plan 9 From Outer Space, featuring corpses revived by aliens to take over the world (although they didn’t eat flesh). But it is this one, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, that is responsible for the zombie DNA we know and love today.
I wrote about this one for HMF ’10, and I’m still just as impressed that Romero got so much right here that folks are still recreating scenes and moments from this film almost 40 years later.
It’s dated. The blood is all bright red. The acting is clunky and ham-fisted. The zombie make-up is pretty silly much of the time. The soundtrack bizarrely tips over into an episode of the A-Team once or twice. Still, with all that, Dawn of the Dead remains compelling and relevant. This is one of the cultural artifacts portraying the rotting underbelly of nineteenth and twentieth century American life.
I do wish I could see it with the ending as it was originally written though. **Spoiler Alert** — Where Peter actually shoots himself and Francine puts her head in the helicopter blade in despair, then the film’s credits roll over the helicopter blades as the gasoline runs out and the blades stop rotating, showing they wouldn’t have made it anywhere if they’d tried. It’s a dark, fitting end to the story, even though they decided against it.
Will I Ever Watch It Again? Absolutely, yes. This one is in the canon.
3. Night Three: Day of the Dead
This was my first time watching the third film in the Dead series. Romero says it’s his favorite of those first three films.
Of the original trilogy, it is the angriest and the goriest (the makeup and gore effects age far better from this installment). The final act has some of the most intense, grotesque zombie mayhem in movie history. The horror of being overwhelmed by a zombie horde was fully realized and depicted.
Day of the Dead also features the worst acting of any of the three films… seriously bad acting. Oh man, so very bad.
I haven’t seen Land of the Dead yet, so I can’t speak to the human journey in that one, but in the first three there is a really satisfying movement of the human characters in general. This is true even though there are no recurring characters in any of the films. Night of the Living Dead is a siege film, it captures the panic and confusion of the initial outbreak. Dawn of the Dead is depression and despair, humanity is realizing that things aren’t going to get better, they are trying to adapt in various ways to the new world. Day of the Dead is rage and madness, the human characters have long since been pushed beyond their breaking point and left to live in that no-man’s land indefinitely.
The human on human violence in Dawn of the Dead contains a certain amount of perverse joy, people reveling and pillaging in the destruction of the old boundaries and rules that kept us civilized. But in Day of the Dead, the human violence is all frenzied despair. Characters might whoop and laugh, but it is an empty playacting, a hollow shell to cover their blind rage and hopelessness. We see more and more Romero’s assertion that there has only ever been a thin veneer that separates the living from the living dead.
Obviously, the films also do far more than that in terms of satire and commentary, but that was a huge takeaway for me after my first viewing of Day.
I do still need some time to decide if I’m on board with the whole ‘learning zombies’ thing. For me it might stretch the internal credulity of this world’s logic a bit too much. In time I might continue to warm to it though.
Will I Ever Watch It Again? Definitely.
4. Night Four: The Haunting
“An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.”
THIS is the sort film that reminds me why I fell in love with doing various versions of Another Day, Another Movie. The Haunting is really, really good.
It’s hard to call a movie that Martin Scorsese listed as the scariest movie of all time underrated, but I think this one is. This should be on more lists of historically great films.
An adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting on Hill House, The Haunting is one of those films that could be enjoyed without volume. That’s not to say anything negative about the dialogue or music, it’s just that this film is so visually captivating, the cinematography so well-crafted, that the story would come across without audio. Every frame in this movie is beautiful, but not an empty beauty, each frame is also meaningful. Freeze and capture any frame and you’ll still be able to sense the anxiety, the madness, the terror, and the tension in each scene. Robert Wise, in-between directing West Side Story and The Sound of Music, used lighting effects, shot framing, contrast, and blocking beautifully. This is a great director delighting in a change of pace.
Some plot holes aside, The Haunting was a joy to watch, and unnerved me far than I expected.
Will I Ever Watch It Again? Oh my god, yes. This joins films like Peeping Tom as one of the most delightful surprises I’ve come across in my time doing HMF. This is a new favorite.
5. Night Five: Kairo
“Help… help…. help… help.”
Kairo is a 2001 Japanese horror film written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Ghosts have crossed over into the world of the living and are using our technology against us.
The writing is uneven, at times the allegory of how our technology isolates us instead of bringing us together is too on the nose. Other times, the story gets convoluted and confused. As is always the case when subtitles are involved, there is the possibility that things were lost in translation. I have a suspicion that was at play for Kairo.
Yet, even with the writing issues, Kairo succeeds because of how effectively unnerving it is. When they’re on their game, and hell, even most times when they’re not, J-Horror directors craft atmospheres and visuals which are creepy as fuck! Kurosawa is really good in this regard. All the terror in this film is from nuance and details. No gore, no cheap jump scares created with manipulative music and lazy lunging villains. Every scene is imbued with dread and menace because of the way the camera moves to reveal something which has appeared in the frame but wasn’t there a moment before. Even the scenes that would be horrifying anyway are made all the more creepy by framing and movement.
This won’t be in the running for my favorite ‘new-to-me’ film from the HMF ’15, but it was definitely an enjoyably creepy way to spend two hours.
Will I Ever Watch It Again? Perhaps. First I need to see more of the J-Horror films I’m missing, as it’s a sub-genre I’m underexposed to.
6. Night Six: Byzantium
“I had eyes that cut through lies, I had lungs that breathed eternity. I felt I’d lived my whole wretched life just to prepare me for that moment.”
I really enjoyed this one. A small gothic horror tale of mother and daughter vampires. Like House of the Devil, this doesn’t really do anything to offer a new twist. Nothing is added to vampire lore. The difference is that Neil Jordan has a distinct visual voice on display here. The story is compelling, the film is stylish and beautiful to look at, the actors all offer absolutely wonderful performances, and the writing feels like a good novel, it’s warm and inviting and made me want to curl up and keep watching these dark, violent characters well past the film’s runtime.
I love well crafted, dark, romantic stories (in the 18th century Romanticism sense, not the romance novel sense) about the nature of life and death and terror and awe. Byzantium was very much one of those stories.
Will I Ever Watch It Again? I’d love to. For a long time I’ve wondered what possible genre or sub-genre I could pick to do another original ‘Another Day, Another Movie’ series. I think I just realized it needs to be a week or two of beautiful gothic horror and related films. Crimson Peak is coming up soon in that same vein!