The Invitation (2015, Directed by Karyn Kusama) English 8

Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Emayatzy CorinealdiLindsay Burdge, Toby Huss, John Carroll Lynch

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Slow-Burn. Gripping. Unhinged.

   Dinner parties can be dreadfully awkward affairs. This film is the dinner party from hell. Will (Marshall-Green) is surprised one day with an invitation from his ex-wife, Eden, played by Tammy Blanchard (they tragically lost a son), and her new husband, David (Huisman). Will arrives, greeted by his old friends, but quickly comes to suspect that something strange is going on. In classic mystery-thriller fashion, no one’s suspicious but him. The hosts, Eden and David, are acting really odd, one friend, Choi, hasn’t shown up even though he said he would, plus, there’s two unexplained strangers as guests, and why did David lock all of the doors? Excellent psychological thriller smartly done. You know that something is going to happen, you’re certain it won’t be any good, but director, Kusama, builds the suspense to a fever pitch, and the resulting climax is well-worth the wait. Plays off of the anxiety of someone who is antisocial having to interact with a large group of people. You could also point out its relationship to Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel wherein a group of people at a dinner party are unable to leave a dining room, and react to the growing madness. Terrific finale, strong acting from a terrifying premise.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(1)

Hocus Pocus (1993, Directed by Kenny Ortega) English 6

Starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimi, Omri Katz, Thora Birch, Vinessa Shaw

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(6-Good Film)

Silly. Good-humored. Fun.

People really love this movie. Its poor reviews and middling box-office performance left well behind, Hocus Pocus has become a true cult classic in the 25 years since its release. Is it good? A difficult question for me as, truth be told, I enjoy a nice camp film. In fact, I generally prefer camp to prestige, and Hocus Pocus is a strong testament to the value of the former. It’s ridiculous, over-the-top fun, with Bette Midler leading the charge. She plays Winnifred Sanderson, a 17th century witch always accompanied by her doltish sisters, Mary and Sarah (Parker and Najimi). Resurrected in 20th century Salem, Massachusetts by a cynical teenager, Max (Katz), along with his young sister (Birch) and a beautiful girl from school, Allison (Shaw), the Sandersons attempt to adjust to modern times while seeking to devour the souls of the town’s children before sunrise (when they’ll be turned to dust). Hocus Pocus offers a number of guilty pleasures: Halloween mischief, teen romance, a musical number, magic, and it does so without taking itself too seriously.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(4)

 

Christmas Challenge Film #1: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, Directed by Henry Selick)

First, the clichéd, age-old question: is it a Christmas or a Halloween film? The clear, non-insightful, only-correct answer is that The Nightmare Before Christmas is bizarrely, wonderfully both. I’ve made a habit of watching it either Halloween or the day after as an essential Holiday transitional piece. I gobble up the Halloween candy and fortify myself mentally for the onslaught of too-early, bad Christmas music around the immediate corner. I love The Nightmare Before Christmas, and prefer it as my first Christmas movie each year, because it’s dark, sly, and has a hint of malice to it. Until late in November, my yuletide cheer hasn’t switched on yet- it’s not Christmas time until Thanksgiving is over- and I’m not ready for all of your red and green treacle. Films like this one, Bad Santa, or Die Hard are more my speed until that point, at which time I fall victim to the Christmas spirit, and you can throw any level of corn at me, and I’ll bite.

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Anyways, I watched The Nightmare Before Christmas this year before work, on the first of November, by myself through Netflix, on a small computer screen. I’ve seen it enough times for the setting and conditions of my viewing it to be irrelevant. It’s a wonderful film.

If you haven’t seen it, I’d like to invite you to reexamine your priorities. Sprung from the mind of Tim Burton (Batman), executed and rendered in stop-motion by Henry Selick (Coraline, James and the Giant Peach), it tells the story of Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon and Danny Elfman), loved and revered in his home community of Halloweentown, a land dedicated to the Fall holiday. Jack’s going through something of an existential crisis (there’s really no way of gauging how old he is, but I assume he’s middle aged). “Is this all there is?” he ponders.

         Year after year, it’s the same routine

And I grow so weary at the sound of screams

And I, Jack the Pumpkin King

Have grown so tired of the same old thing.

It’s an instantly relatable feeling, and The Nightmare Before Christmas has its heart and depth, that something that makes it more than just a breakthrough in stop-motion animation, more than a series of special effects, or a ghoul show. When Jack stumbles into a new world, one dedicated to Christmas, he believes he’s found his new destiny. Astounded by what he sees, he breaks into the film’s best song (which is saying something), What’s This. He decides to give Santa Claus a vacation, and fill in for him during Christmas. This proves a folly, one foreseen by Sally (voiced by Catherine O’Hara), always nearby, who, too, longs for something else in life. She’s desperately in love with Jack (clueless), and wants to be more than  Dr. Finkelstein’s lab assistant. Unable to convince Jack that his Christmas idea is a disastrous one, he goes through with it, and the results are humorously macabre. In the end, like John L. Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels, Jack Skellington finds meaning in being himself, and takes pride in doing what he does best. It’s a meaningful theme given special credence considering how weird and oddball of a story we’re just gifted with, pulled off beautifully by filmmakers being themselves.

The whole production is a testament to strangeness and originality. How much time do you allow for appreciating the little things in film? Take some time with The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s a gorgeous movie from a design standpoint, and seemless, technically amazing in its craft. No strings attached, you don’t see the hands of the artists unless you want to peak behind the curtains. You can watch it and be swept up in the incredibly efficient storytelling (76 minutes) without wondering how they make clay models look like they are talking (moving their lips) effectively. Howver, when you’v seen it twenty times and that question persists, perhaps it’s time to investigate. I’m sure there’s some “Making of” featurette I could watch.

Danny Elfman’s soundtrack is pretty iconic and it, like the film, is a major part of an entire counterculture. It’s to the goths what Easy Rider and its soundtrack was to hippies.

Strong and dependable start to my Christmas movie viewing.

(9-Great Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

 

Halloween (2018, Directed by David Gordon Green) English 7

Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Will Patton, Andi Matichak, Virginia Gardner, Haluk Bilginer, Toby Huss

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(7-Very Good Film)

Adept. Brutal. Successful.

It’s the return of the original boogeyman: Michael Myers; master of hide and seek, teleporter, Trappist monk, hand-to-hand fighting expert, strongman champion of the world, and cat with nine lives. Forty years after he terrorized a neighborhood, stalking babysitters and their boyfriends in the original John Carpenter classic, this Halloween opens with Myers chained up in a rehabilitation hospital, where a couple of over-eager journalists hope to meet and interview him. You’ll note right away that writers, Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, and David Gordon Green (also director), wisely throw away all previous sequels. They even score a fun bit of meta humor off of it when one character asks, “Wasn’t it her (Strode’s) brother who murdered all those babysitters?” “No,” replies another, “He was not her brother, that’s something that people made up.” While Myers has been locked up and dormant for forty years, Laurie Strode (Lee Curtis), iconic final girl and retired babysitter, got married (twice) and divorced (twice), and had a daughter, Karen (Greer). Strode, embittered and cynical from the events of the first film (who wouldn’t be), becomes reclusive and a self-made soldier preparing for a day when Myers might return. She was also incredibly tough on Karen, who came to resent her for it, and now, seems to want nothing to do with her infamous mother. Her own daughter, Allyson (Matichak), is going through high school, and about the age Laurie Strode was in the first one. Sidenote: I understand that Laurie wants to confront Myers, and would wait in that small town of Hattonfield for him, but why the rest of the family still lives there is beyond me. I guess they’re counting on the lightning never strikes the same place twice principle. In any case, Myers escapes a day before Halloween, the town’s children still go trick or treating the night of, parents still go on dinner dates and leave their loved ones with promiscuous babysitters. It’s what we expect and want, and Halloween delivers and even surprises.

Halloween proves early that it’s going to be a well-made film. The actors are strong and each character is given adequate time to develop (at least, relative to other slashers). In fact, I’d say the strongest part of the flick is the structure which makes several characters the focal point of whatever scene their in at separate times. Obviously, we know Laurie Strode is the star, but by making it more of an ensemble piece, Halloween makes us identify with characters we know will die. Even worse are scenes featuring characters we aren’t sure about.  With doomed characters, it’s only a question of when, but there were a couple of characters in the movie that I could see living or dying, and the suspense then is stifling. Will they or won’t they? Another great decision on the filmmakers’ part was to make Laurie Strode this traumatized vigilante with family issues. We are 99% sure she’s not going to die right? So how do you make a character interesting in a slasher when we’re basically comfortable anytime she’s on screen? Comfortable because she’s not going to die. We can breathe easy when she’s around, right? Laurie is obsessed with a reunion with Myers. She wants to kill him. By making her the predator, the suspense is on the other side. Will she get him?

The violence and gore, once it gets going, is visceral and memorable. David Gordon Green blends cutaways, reveals, shocking gore, and a very, beautifully limited amount of jump scares. You need to have at least 2 or 3 especially nasty moments in these movies to successfully establish what the audience should be afraid of. What are the consequences of being caught? In Halloween, the consequences of being caught are graphic and deeply unsettling. This makes the long sequences of quiet, like when one of the characters in this film cuts through the woods, truly suspenseful.

My problems with the film can barely be said to be problems. More accurately put, they’re limitations of the Michael Myers character that were present in the original and still persist here. It shouldn’t be a spoiler if you’re a fan of Halloween for me to say the guy just will not die. For some, it’s what makes him scary. Not for me. I find human villains scarier, or if not human, monsters with rules. Dracula can’t deal with sunlight. Werewolves can’t withstand silver bullets. The Thing is susceptible to fire. If a villain is unbeatable, I get really negative, and start thinking why bother trying. If you can’t win, why play? A second limitation is that much of the enjoyment, thrill, and fear for Halloween come from not knowing when it’s coming (it being Myers). Now that I’ve seen the film, will it be as enjoyable the second time? The masterpieces of the genre( The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Thing) get under my skin every time.

Halloween is everything I could have hoped for in a sequel made forty years after the original: a deeper Laurie Strode, excellent script and direction, same old brutal Michael Myers.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

The Seventh Victim (1943, Directed by Mark Robson) English 6

Starring Kim Hunter, Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Hugh Beaumont, Ben Bard

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(6-Good Film)

Stark. Incomplete. Erratic.

An innocent young woman, Mary Gibson (Hunter), gets sucked in to the plotting of an underground satanic cult while searching for her missing sister, Jacqueline (Brooks). The premise sounds more exciting than its tame representation in The Seventh Victim, perhaps strongly hampered by its contemporary Hollywood production codes. It’s not that I demand gore and action in a horror film. The Seventh Victim is produced by the great Val Lewton who made several better features working with less. I also don’t mind the idea of the satanic cult being a society of intellectuals rather than violent sadists, which would be more obvious, and a less fresh take on the subject, but by the end of the show, I was struck by how abruptly the film ends, and how little really happens. It’s an amazing case when the most memorable, interesting thing about a movie is the hair of someone in the supporting cast. Jean Brooks as the lost sister is stunning, unforgettable, and iconic thanks to what I would describe as a long haired bob that matches her fur coat. The story, unfortunately, as it unravels, is confounding.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(5)

Secret Beyond the Door (1947, Directed by Fritz Lang) English 5

Starring Joan Bennett, Michael Redgrave, Anne Revere, Natalie Schafer, Barbara O’Neil

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(5-Mediocre Film)

Ridiculous. Resplendent. Unsatisfying.

If the theories and ideas of Sigmund Freud were going to make their way into film, then noir was the natural destination. Noirs were typically psychological thrillers built around ambiguous characters and sordid settings. The great German director Fritz Lang made several noir films after moving to Hollywood, and although Secret Beyond the Door might be his most articulate in terms of surrealism and psychological motivations, it’s ultimately unsatisfying thanks to a plot borrowed from Hitchcock’s Rebecca and twisted until it makes no sense literally. A woman, Celia (Bennett), is swept off her feet by an enigmatic architect, Mark (Redgrave), and marries him after a quick courtship. Come wedding night, she finds that Mark has a son from a previous marriage that ended in his wife’s death, and that might not even be his biggest secret.  As an exercise in style, genre, and symbolic expression, Secret Beyond the Door is fascinating, but this is a rare case for me when the superficial positives (as potent as they are) don’t outweigh the story’s clumsiness and contrived happy ending, which is simply preposterous. A product of its time, but the conclusion might have worked better as a more explicitly perverse love story rather than a happy ending that’s only happy because in classic Hollywood, it had to be.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(47)

Corpse Bride (2005, Directed by Tim Burton) English 7

Voices of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Joanna Lumley, Richard E. Grant, Christopher Lee, Albert Finney

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(7-Very Good Film)

Offbeat. Beguiling. Distinctive.

Tim Burton has his own style of film. Ornate visuals, bizarre stories. His Corpse Bride, a lovely Gothic fantasy, follows awkward Victor Van Gort (Depp), unsure about his upcoming arranged marriage to Victoria (Watson), and, through a chance mishap, newly engaged to the corpse of Emily (Bonham Carter), murdered years before. Burton and his team of animators do amazing work from the elegant character design to the dark lighting scheme. It’s a morbidly beautiful film, and a fittingly oddball tale. Emily is a wonderful character. The major drawback is the slight runtime. I would have enjoyed a fuller story, and more time.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(48)