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MOVIES: 31 days of Halloween

MOVIES: 31 days of Halloween

Lili Taylor stars in James Wan's "The Conjuring." Photo: WENN

There’s no better way to get into the Halloween spirit than by watching some scary movies. Check back each weekday in October for a new spooky movie recommendation, courtesy of George Wolf.

Disclaimer: We take no responsibility for nightmares you may have from watching these films.

>> Movies 1 – 5 | 6 – 10  | 11 – 15 | 16 – 20 | 21 – 25 | 26 – 31 <<

Day 25: Slither (2006)

In this photo provided by Universal, (L to R) Starla Grant ( Elizabeth Banks), Chief Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) and Officer Wally Whale (Don Thompson) cautiously approach gruesome Grant Grant in "Slither."Photo provided by AP Photo/Universal Pictures

Slither | 95 min | Rated: R

Writer/director James Gunn took the best parts of B-movie Night of the Creeps and David Cronenberg’s They Came from Within, mashing the pieces into the exquisitely funny, gross and terrifying Slither.

A Troma alum with writing credits ranging from Scooby-Doo movies to the remake of Dawn of the Dead, Gunn possessed all the raw materials to pull it off. The film is equal parts silly and smart, grotesque and endearing, original and homage. More importantly, it’s just plain awesome.

Cutie pie Starla (Elizabeth Banks) is having some marital problems. Her husband Grant (the great horror actor Michael Rooker) is at the epicenter of an alien invasion. Smalltown sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) tries to set things straight as a giant mucous ball, a balloonlike womb-woman, a squid monster, projectile vomit, zombies, and loads and loads of slugs keep the action really hopping.

The cast is superb, especially Gregg Henry as foul mouthed Mayor MacReady. It helps that he gets all the best lines. Like, “If this #$%’s contagious and I turn into a ^&%$@ mollusk, I’m going to sue those $#@!^!”

Gunn lifts certain scenes – the best scenes – directly from both the Cronenberg and the lesser Creeps effort, but never steals. His film brims with affectionate nods, including the great early scene where white trash Margaret sits on her couch with her toddler watching Troma’s classic Toxic Avenger. Classy, mom!

Consistently funny, cleverly written, well paced, tense and scary and gross – Slither has it all. Watch it. Do it!


Day 24: Audition (1999)

Auditions

Audition | 115 min | Rated: R

The prolific director Takashi Miike made more than 70 films in his first 20 or so years in film. Among the best is Audition, a phenomenally creepy May/December romance gone awry.

Audition tells the story of a widower convinced by his TV producer friend to hold mock television auditions as a way of finding a suitable new mate. He is repaid for his deception.

The story itself follows a far more linear path than what’s commonly found in Japanese horror, but the usual preoccupations with hair, decorum, and bodily horror still abound. My favorite quote from the movie: “The police tried to recompose her body. Three extra fingers and an ear came up.”

That’s just solid detective work!

Nearly unwatchable and yet too compelling to turn away from, Audition is a remarkable piece of genre filmmaking. The slow moving picture builds anticipation, dread, then full-on horror.

Midway through, Miike punctuates the film with one of the most effective startles in modern horror, and then picks up the pace, building grisly momentum toward a perversely uncomfortable climax.

By the time Audition hits its ghastly conclusion, Miike and his exquisitely terrifying antagonist (Eihi Shina) have wrung the audience dry. She will not be the ideal stepmother.

Keep an eye on the burlap sack.


Day 23: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Texas Chainsaw

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre | 83 min | Rated: R

Not everyone considers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a classic. Those people are wrong.

Tobe Hooper‘s camera work, so home-movie like, worked with the “based on a true story” tag line like nothing before it, and the result seriously disturbed the folks of 1974. It has been ripped off and copied dozens of times since its release, but in the context of its time, it was so absolutely original it was terrifying.

Hooper sidestepped all the horror gimmicks audiences had grown accustomed to – a spooky score that let you know when to grow tense, shadowy interiors that predicted oncoming scares – and instead shot guerilla-style in broad daylight, outdoors, with no score at all. You just couldn’t predict what was coming.

Hooper also cast aside any concerns for dignity or fair play, a theme best personified by wheelchair-bound Franklin. Franklin is supremely unlikeable – whiney and selfish – ending horror’s long history of using personal vulnerability to make a character more sympathetic.

Films such as Wait Until Dark, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and Rear Window (all excellent movies) ratcheted up tension through the sympathy they could generate toward the helpless character. These films’ anxiety and payoff both owe everything to watching the vulnerable protagonist in danger, and waiting for them to overcome the odds.

But Hooper is after an entirely different kind of tension. He dashes your expectations, making you uncomfortable, as if you have no idea what you could be in for. As if, in watching this film, you yourself are in more danger than you’d predicted.

But not more danger than Franklin is in, because Franklin is not in for a good time.

So, poor, unlikeable Franklin Hardesty, his pretty sister Sally, and a few other friends head out to Grampa Hardesty’s final resting place after hearing the news of some Texas cemeteries being grave-robbed. They just want to make sure Grampy’s still resting in peace – an adventure which eventually leads to most of them making a second trip to a cemetery. Well, what’s left of them.


Day 22: The Conjuring (2013)

The Conjuring

The Conjuring | 112 minutes | Rated: R

Out today on DVD, BluRay and streaming is the scariest movie of 2013: The Conjuring.

Welcome to 1971, the year the Perron family took one step inside their new home and screamed with horror, “My God, this wallpaper is hideous!”

Seriously, it often surprises me that civilization made it through the Seventies. Must every surface and ream of fabric be patterned? Still, the Perrons found survival tougher than most.

The farmhouse’s previous residents may be dead, but they haven’t left, and they are testy! So the Perrons have no choice but to look up paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren – the real life couple linked to many famous American hauntings, including one in Amityville, NY. The Conjuring is allegedly based on one of the couple’s cases.

Yes, this is an old-fashioned ghost story, built from the ground up to push buttons of childhood terror. But don’t expect a long, slow burn. Director James Wan expertly balances suspense with quick, satisfying bursts of visual terror.

Wan cut his teeth – and Cary Elwes’s bones – with 2004’s corporeal horror Saw. He’s since turned his attention to something more spectral, and his skill with supernatural cinema only strengthens with each film.

Ghost stories are hard to pull off, though, especially in the age of instant gratification. Few modern moviegoers have the patience for atmospheric dread, so filmmakers now turn to CGI to ramp up thrills. The results range from the visceral fun of The Woman in Black to the needless disappointment of Mama.

But Wan understands the power of a flesh and blood villain in a way that other directors don’t seem to. He proved this with the creepy fun of Insidious, and surpasses those scares with his newest effort.

A game cast helps. Joining five believably terrified girls in solid performances are Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, and the surprisingly well-suited Ron Livingston as the helpless patriarch. The usually sublime Lili Taylor is uncharacteristically flat as the clan’s loving mother, unfortunately, but there’s more than enough to distract you from that.

Wan’s expert timing and clear joy when wielding spectral menace help him and his impressive cast overcome the handful of weaknesses in the script by brothers Chad and Carey Hayes. Claustrophobic when it needs to be and full of fun house moments, The Conjuring will scare you while you’re in the theater and stick with you after. At the very least, you’ll keep your feet tucked safely under the covers.


Day 21: The Descent (2005) Descent

The Descent | 99 min | Rated: R

A caving expedition turns ugly for a group of friends, who will quickly realize that being trapped inside the earth is not the worst thing that could happen. The Descent is the most profoundly claustrophobic film since The Vanishing (the original, not that wussy Keifer Sutherland remake).

This spelunking adventure comes with a familiar cast of characters: arrogant authority figure, maverick, emotionally scarred question mark, bickering siblings, and a sad-sack tag along.  And yet, somehow, the interaction among them feels surprisingly authentic, and not just because each is cast as a woman.

These ladies are not Green Berets who, unlike the audience, are trained for extreme circumstances. These particular thrill seekers are just working stiffs on vacation. It hits a lot closer to home.

More importantly, the cast is rock solid, each bringing a naturalness to her character that makes her absolutely horrifying, merciless, stunningly brutal final moments on this earth that much more meaningful.

Writer/director Neil Marshall must be commended for sidestepping the obvious trap of exploiting the characters for their sexuality – I’m not saying he avoids this entirely, but for a horror director he is fantastically restrained. He also manages to use the characters’ vulnerability without patronizing or stereotyping.

He makes even better use of the story’s structure. Between that and the way film and sound editing are employed, Marshall squeezes every available ounce of anxiety from the audience.

The film begins with an emotionally jolting shock, quickly follows with some awfully unsettling cave crawling, squeezing and generally hyperventilating, then turns dizzyingly panicky before it snaps a bone right in two.

And then we find out there are monsters.

Long before the first drop of blood is drawn by the monsters – which are surprisingly well-conceived and tremendously creepy – the audience has already been wrung out emotionally.

The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers – a gory fun werewolf adventure. But Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier.

For full-on horror, this is one heck of a monster movie.

>> Movies 1 – 5 | 6 – 10  | 11 – 15 | 16 – 20 | 21 – 25 | 26 – 31 <<

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