So, I think it may be fair to say that of most of the posters on this great site, I am probably the one who least enjoys the horror genre…or at least is never as excited about it as everyone else. It isn’t that I do not like horror films – there are quite a few I really love – but I just expect a lot from them. Probably – unfairly – more than I expect from other films. Why? Because I honestly think that when done right, horror films can be some of the most emotionally affecting films from any genre. But when done wrong – as I think far too many of them are – it just feels cheap and manipulative – and as someone who loves film, who loves how they can generate empathy and tell interesting stories, it always just feels like a slap to the face.
This love/hate relationship usually makes me hesitant to watch most horror films, which of course is an issue come October. This month is wall to wall horror from 12:01AM on the 1st – to midnight on Halloween. With this comes the pressure to watch a ton of horror films, and although in the past I have watched a few, I’ve never taken part in any sort of marathon that so many bloggers partake in this time of year…until now. This is part one – of what I hope will be a month long series – of quick reviews for horror films I watch this month. I hope to watch at least one a day.
October 1st: ‘Thale’ (dir. Aleksander Nordaas)
A very low budget Norwegian fantasy/horror film, with a lot of interesting ideas, that sadly doesn’t execute on enough of them to reach any level of greatness…which I think was possible.
‘Thale’ is about two friends, working in a crime scene cleaning service, who stumble upon a hidden basement at one of the locations they have been hired to clean. Within they find a lab of sorts, and a beautiful young woman who is unable to speak – and is most certainly more than she appears to be. The result is a rather unique horror film with fantasy elements; one that thrives on atmosphere for the first hour or so, building a genuine level of suspense and mystery. It is an intriguing story, one that is slow to build but never boring. There is certainly a lot under the surface.
The only real issue I had was that there is narration throughout that tries a bit too hard to add depth to the story, both narratively and thematically, without much success. Mainly because the exposition within would benefit more from a ‘show don’t tell’ approach – and also because the actual narrative comes off as so simple that many of the themes expressed through the narration have nothing to do with what we have actually been shown.
This isn’t too big of an issue really, and I can’t fault it for trying to give more meaning to the story, but had it executed on some of the ideas it alludes to under the surface than maybe this wouldn’t have been an issue at all – especially if it had been a half hour longer, and explored the fantasy element in more detail.
Still, the performances are very good and – given its very low budget – so are the effects and overall production. It certainly has its flaws, but it still warrants a recommendation.
Oct. 2nd: ‘Pontypool’ (dir. Bruce McDonald)
‘Pontypool’ is a mostly lean – though often convoluted – and creative horror film that builds slowly and contains just the right dash of humor. It is at times essentially ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ in film form.
It stars Stephen McHattie as an ex-shock jock who has reached a point in his career where he is stuck doing an early morning radio gig in a small Canadian town. He is quick to try to cause a stir, but his producer reminds him that the listeners just want to know the weather. As the morning slowly passes by the station begins to get weird reports of people, herds of people, swarming the streets. Whats seems to them to initially be a joke begins to turn into a life or death emergency situation where a virus is infecting the town, keeping the workers at the studio locked indoors, trying to figure out how it all started.
This isn’t the scariest horror film you will ever see, neither is it the most suspenseful – yet the development of the story, the unraveling mystery and the urgency of the performances make it an absorbing viewing experience. Things do start to get a little convoluted as we begin to better understand how the “virus” infecting people is being spread. The film seems to be making it up as it goes, and ironically it can’t seem to think of the rights words to explain what is actually happening.
But it does managed to create an interesting subtext on how language has been simplified and diminished by gossip, social websites and the media. It would also probably benefit from multiple viewings. But for now, I recommend you at least watch it once.
Oct. 3rd: ‘Pumpkinhead’ (dir. Stan Winston)
‘Pumpkinhead’ is a creepy, cliche and cheesy as hell horror film about revenge, that manages to overcome all its faults with its brilliant creature design, a great central performance, and an emotional core that gives all the supernatural violence some resonance. The result isn’t a masterpiece – by any stretch – but it is a damn near perfect horror film for Halloween/October – especially with its eerie supernatural aesthetics.
The film stars Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley, a single father raising his son on a farm in the south. One day a group of teens (including a few blondes and a douchey “bad boy”) arrive in town. Their destination? A cabin in the woods…of course. On their way they encounter Harley at a local store he owns, which accidentally results in his son being killed by one of the teens in a dirt bike accident. The group heads for the cabin, fearing the repercussions, while Harley tracks down a creepy old lady who, according to local legend, can summon a demon-like creature to avenge the wrong doing done to a man.
From there we get a rather unoriginal creature feature – as the demon, called Pumpkinhead, hunts down the group of teens one by one. What kept this interesting, for me, was the structure of the events of the film and the development of Henriksen’s character. Henriksen is a great actor, and the bond that is built between him and his son, and the emotions he displays as he struggles with his son’s death and the revenge he seeks, manages to ground the film and gives it enough of an emotional relevancy to excuse the cheesiness of the supernatural horror elements – and some truly shitty dialogue.
On top of that are the great spooky horror aesthetics and atmosphere – moody lighting, fog…pumpkins – as well as the awesome design of the Pumpkinhead by special effects legend Stan Winston (‘Aliens’, ‘Terminator’) – who actually directed the film. It all adds up to an above average horror flick that I recommend everyone watch this October.
A horror film fan whom I am unable to identify for sure described the horror genre as “the bastard child of cinema”, as he expressed a similar lament about the frustratingly small percentage of good horror films, and how the mediocre-to-awful majority gives the genre as a whole a bad name and low credibility. (As revealed by some brief research in an attempt to credit it, the quoted phrase has been used by many to characterize horror films. So origin unknown, but description apt.)
But at their best, or at least somewhere near it, they can be so compelling and affecting. And, depending on one’s brain chemistry, so much fun.
I’ve seen Pontypool and Pumpkinhead (a few times).
Pontypool is a mostly dialogue-driven quasi-zombie film that probably would not satisfy most zombie purists or gorehounds but is clever and conceptually original. I like the minimalist setting, entirely in the radio station. It could probably be adapted to a play (though I don’t think it would make it to Broadway).
Pumpkinhead is so full of that atmosphere you described that it remains fun through repeated viewings. I like the folktale style of the story, and the monster within. And everything seems to be better with Lance Henriksen in it. I think the film did a great job establishing the father/son relationship in relatively few scenes, and much of that success is due to Henriksen. I agree that the film is guilty of pretty much all the flaws you cited, but now that you’ve put it in my mind, I’m in the mood to watch it again. I think it’s that good, or at least, that entertaining.
You don’t post often, but you are an excellent analyst and writer. I look forward to seeing your selections and musings as the Season of the Witch continues.
Oh man, a ‘Pontypool’ play would be very cool, and would definitely work.
Thale is one that I still need to see. It’s weird that I haven’t seen it considering that I’ve been following it through it’s production.
Now Pontypool and Pumpkinhead I’ve seen and many times (especially the latter). The former is definitely not your typical horror film. It’s even the rare zombie film where there’s barely any gore. Yet, the whole thing works in the end due to the performance of Stephen McHattie. I think put anyone else in that role and I have a feeling it wouldn’t be as good.
Pumpkinhead….what else can one say other than it’s a classic 80’s horror for a reason. It’s a shame that Stan Winston only made this one horror film. I think if he continued to direct he would’ve been a very good horror director with time.
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