The second third of this year’s HMF was a mixed bag. A few underwhelming films, two favorites I was revisiting, a trendsetting classic in the horror genre, and a film that will become that in time. Let’s just get right to the films:
Night Seven: It Follows
“It could look like someone you know or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.”
It Follows is a really great movie. It is also one of those movies that may be impossible to talk about with folks who have never seen it before. For one, the film is pretty spoiler-friendly. If I explain anything about the premise to someone who hasn’t seen it, then I will ruin the early build of tension and strangeness. And two, the film doesn’t have a clear narrative point. It has a lot to say, but not in simple allegory. It Follows engages many ideas concerning sex, death, relationship, family, absentee parenting, and coming of age. Yet it doesn’t engage any of those ideas in a way that offers answers or morals, but instead insinuates mercurial questions and open-ended thoughts.
David Robert Mitchell has created a film that is moody, atmospheric, and wonderfully creepy. Also, Maika Monroe is fantastic as the terrorized lead, Jay.
This is a film that will be a genre classic, and I expect to see this referenced, honored, parodied, and copied in coming years.
Will I Ever Watch It Again? Yes. This feels like the sort of movie that can be watched again and again with varying takeaways and reactions every time.
Night Eight: Pan’s Labyrinth
“Me? I’ve had so many names. Old names that only the wind and the trees can pronounce.
I am the mountain, the forest and the earth. I am… I am a faun. Your most humble servant, Your Highness.”
This was my third time watching Pan’s Labyrinth, but the first time in quite a while. The computer effects are certainly more dated now, but the film is still as darkly beautiful and moving as I remember it to be. This is Guillermo del Toro’s rendering of how story and imagination can sometimes be our only salve in a violent, often ugly world.
Escapism can get a bad rap when it comes to stories and art, but Pan’s Labyrinth illustrates the reality that sometimes escape into story is our only hope.
As Tolkien said about the scorn escapism faces: “Evidently, we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
The escape story offers can function in two possible ways. In some instances, it can actually help us escape from our prejudices, small-mindedness, fear, anxiety, etc. In others, we are powerless to change our circumstances, like Ofelia. Then, story and fantasy might be the most sane way to respond and keep hope burning in a hopeless situation. Story might not always save us, but it may be the only thing that makes the impending darkness bearable. Pan’s Labyrinth remains one of my two or three favorite artifacts of this idea.
Will I Ever Watch It Again? Obviously. Del Toro’s work is the sort that reminds me of the power of storytelling.
Night Nine: The Devil’s Backbone
“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”
Revisiting another del Toro film. I saw this for the first time during a previous HMF, which I wrote about here. The Devil’s Backbone is the lens through which I see del Toro’s work, as it’s an early film for him, it took him 16 years to develop, and he described it afterward as the first time he was fully satisfied with the final product of a film (which is in itself an amazing thing to say when your first feature length movie was fucking Cronos).
There are so many similarities between Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, and I believe it is because they are the closest to the DNA of del Toro’s heart and his storytelling sensibilities. In both, we see the themes of violence, cruelty, power, innocence, gender, and humanity’s capacity for both monstrosity and beauty. In both we have scary supernatural elements that pale in comparison to the terror of what people are capable of doing to each other.
This time, rewatching both del Toro films, a primary thing that struck me was that each had a villain who was truly horrible, but complicated. Even though it doesn’t go into detail, each film’s villain had a rich subtext, the implication that a deep wound was the source of their ability to do evil things. It didn’t act as an apology or justification for their actions, but it made the characters richer and more satisfying. It made the fairly binary separation between good and evil in the films easier to buy into. The human ability to do monstrous things is so often rooted in our own fear and brokenness.
Whenever I rewatch things I previously loved I’m worried I’ll see new cracks or weaknesses that will ruin it for me, but I was happy to see that The Devil’s Backbone stands up as a beautifully crafted story and film.
Will I Ever Watch It Again? See above.
Night Ten: Witching and Bitching
“What’s she doing with the broom?”
“Not sweeping up, that’s for sure.”
Witching and Bitching is a crazy film from Spain that I wish I liked more than I did. After a jewelry heist, some robbers and hostages are on the lam when they run afoul of some evil cannibal witches.
It’s really weird and original. It has a lot of enjoyable energy. At times it’s hard to tell if the film is sexist, or challenging sexism, which I think is actually a strength.
In the end the storytelling just gets a little too cartoony for me to keep enjoying it. For example, two characters fall in love because they need to for the filmmakers to make certain jokes and points, even though those characters had previously only been in the same room for maybe twenty minutes, none of which involved believable emotional connection.
Witching and Bitching felt to me like they ran with the kernel of a good idea with abandon, when they should have spent more time solidifying things early on. The energy and craziness were good, but without the needed foundation and structure that makes films like Shaun of the Dead or the original Dead Snow work so well.
Will I Ever Watch It Again? No, but I didn’t feel like once was a waste of time.
Night Eleven: The Wicker Man 
“Come. It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.”
The Wicker Man has been referred to as the Citizen Kane of horror films. Mostly, this is simply a hyperbolic way of praising it by comparing it to one of the few films that is always on the shortlist as greatest film of all time. However, there are ways this comparison is actually accurate. Citizen Kane set a new standard for visual storytelling, and The Wicker Man was a new way of making a horror film. Robin Hardy abandoned the horror sensibility of the time. Gone were the broad strokes and gaudy make-up and melodramatic overacting, replacing them with creepy subtlety and weirdness. The perfect microcosm of this is horror star Christopher Lee’s appearance as your friendly neighborhood cult leader.
The movie is definitely weird, for example it has a nude musical number by one character. It needs to be weird to throw the audience off balance along with the protagonist.
The plot definitely has a few major holes in it, and the main character is so hard to like that the stakes and danger never felt real to me. Yet, for the most part the film is still compellingly well-crafted in terms of visuals and atmosphere. From the slow burn of the film’s opening act to the impressive final shot, The Wicker Man is a solid movie that deserves its place in the cult film canon.
Will I Ever Watch It Again? Eventually. This will be a good one to revisit for film and genre study.
Night Twelve: Dead Snow 2
“The operation was a success. We managed to put your arm right back on.”
Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead is so over the top and insane that it’s hard to fault it for being so empty and nonsensical. As a movie to watch with some friends to laugh at its ongoing self-aware absurdity it is worth the price of admission. However, it pales in comparison to Dead Snow and other similar films.
The movie revels in its over the top gore and cartoonish violence as much as the original, but it lacks all the internal logic and structure that made the first one so satisfying. The first film was full of fairly interesting characters, ultimately ill-fated but tough enough to be competent in a zombie fight, in part thanks to their film knowledge. The second film had mostly annoying characters who didn’t make much sense.
This was fun while it lasted, in the right context, but lacks all the craft of the first film.
Will I Ever Watch It Again? I’ll watch Dead Snow again, repeatedly. I imagine this will be my only viewing of Red vs. Dead.