Halloween is an opportune time to break out the cinematic horror goodies – either the ones that you’ve accumulated over the years or maybe just the ones you’ve just never had the time or the inclination to take a look at before. For the benefit of the Pop Chomp reading community, I have compiled my personal 31-day Halloween movie-adventure-festival into a series of short reviews. Feel free to compare notes with me as I trek through some of the best and worst of all time…
1. THE EXORCIST
Yes, I started with this one. I don’t really have any patience for pacing, buildup, or expectation. Deal with it.
For many The Exorcist is the first name in terror – a movie that allegedly had moviegoers fleeing from the theater, tearing at their hair and clothes, wetting themselves, and asking God for forgiveness. I’d actually love to see that – a movie about people watching The Exorcist when it was first released. The film itself may be a frightening one (and it is), but it isn’t quite worthy of its legend.
Don’t get me wrong – the movie is very, very good. The script is fantastic. I had forgotten how much the non-supernatural elements of this movie work well and function all on their own. It’s as if the exorcism plot happens incidentally; that’s how good the character drama is. I also realized that things don’t really get going until about half way in, and by that point you’re just as into the individual stories going on with Chris and Father Karras separately as you are with the possession plot.
It holds up as a great film – not just a great horror film – though still annoyed that (SPOILER!!) Father Merrin and Burke Dennings’ deaths occur off-camera, as if in a Greek tragedy. Sophocles this is not.
Rating: 4/5 cans of pea soup
Worth noting: Lee J. Cobb is in this?!?!
2-3. THE CONJURING, ANNABELLE
Patrick Wilson is horror’s new leading man, and while his performances in the Insidious franchise are overall better than this one, I appreciate The Conjuring more than any of James Wan’s other movies. It’s well made, the characters are compelling (and there are a lot of them), and despite its ambitious reach, the movie is nicely paced and plenty scary. Lili Taylor holds the possession plot together in the film’s last act, and the promise of future tales of the Warrens (Wilson and Farmiga) is quite exciting. The Conjuring has held up under repeat viewing, and I have begun to credit the six young actresses playing the Perrons’ children and the Warren’s daughter, Judy, as the cause. They ditch the “kid acting” and give really terrifying (and terrified) performances.
The same cannot be said of Annabelle, the cash-grabbing prequel to The Conjuring that features not a single member of the original cast. I will not waste much of your time by talking about it other than to say: stay the hell away. The hideous, obviously cursed doll that was the least believable, least-interesting part of The Conjuring does little to make her spinoff any more worthwhile. Alfre Woodard does little to save the otherwise starless cast from a dull, vanilla haze.
The Conjuring: 4/5 Clap claps
Annabelle: .5/5 Assorted Doll Parts
Worth noting: The Perron’s dog, Sadie, dies in the first ten minutes of The Conjuring – and despite being the family’s beloved pet (with a special connection to the youngest daughter), they never mention her loss beyond the discovery of her body, not even to the paranormal investigators. They go into detail about strange smells and other minor happenings, but never mention the murder of their dog. It’s a grievous screenplay snafu that can’t be written off. The animal was a part of their family too.
4. THE NINTH GATE
Not one of Roman Polanski’s better-remembered films, The Ninth Gate is a movie about a man who employs another man to gather information from other men about books that may or may not be used to summon (possibly) the devil. Despite the tease that something truly sinister may eventually happen in The Ninth Gate, nothing really ever does – the hero, Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is always too far away from the action. On three separate occasions Corso stumbles upon the corpse of someone he was supposed to gain vital information from – but neither he, nor we, are ever treated to the circumstances of their deaths on screen. It becomes really exasperating. About 100 minutes into the 133 minute running time Corso knows barely more than he did at the start, and we seemingly know even less.
It still has its charm. Lena Olin is spectacularly deranged as Liana Telfer, and Frank Langella gives a legitimately frightening performance as Boris Balkan, the film’s only real villain. Corso is a neat character, cool in a way that only Depp could have made him, though his action scenes are mostly stolen by Emmanuelle Singer as The Girl, Corso’s otherworldly protector, of whom little is said and less is explained.
The film could have been saved by an ending that offered up more in way of – well – anything, really. The movie is too long and too fraught with riddles for a finale that (SPOILER) merely offers us the possibility that maybe perhaps the devil was likely summoned probably.
Rating: 3/5 Engravings Perchance Drawn By Conceivably the Devil
Worth noting: Despite traveling all over the world, Depp only ever has one little bag with him (half of which is occupied by a copy of The Nine Gates) at any given time. Where did he keep all of his clothes? Toiletries? Anything? It’s the only really scary thing about this entire movie.
5. THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE
It’s really close to being great. There are moments of greatness. And then there’s Keanu Reeves, whose dull, emotionless stare and mannequin expression leaves you wondering how someone so utterly talentless could end up alongside Al Pacino. I’ve always assumed the role of Kevin was written for Johnny Depp (Donnie Brasco was released the same year) – now that might have been one for the ages. Instead the movie is deliciously terrible.
The script is fun, dark, obscene, and extremely tacky. Everyone overacts. In other words, the re-watch value of the movie is extremely high. I’ve rarely passed up the chance to catch a few minutes of it when it’s on. The Devil’s Advocate has earned its place on many a cinephile’s list of guilty pleasures for a reason: when it works it works. Endlessly quotable, delightfully tasteless, and containing some actual horror (Charlize Theron’s sequences are particularly disturbing), it’s definitely worth a watch – and the over-the-top tacky ending goes unabashedly full walrus.
Rating: 3.5/5 Pacinologues “HE’S A SADIIIIST!”
Worth noting: Original VHS cover says it all: “The newest attorney at the world’s most powerful law firm has never lost a case… But he is about to lose his soul.” Seriously? Pass me the popcorn
Review: “Do you like scary movies?” Scream revitalized the horror genre in 1996 by subverting its tropes and celebrating its flaws. Somewhere along the way, the rest of the series got increasingly up its own butt, becoming a commentary on a commentary about horror films and the people who watch them. At least the original idea worked – and works well.
It’s smarter than it is scary, but the writing and performances are all solid. This is particularly true of Drew Barrymore’s iconic and often-spoofed opening sequence, which sparked a generation of horrible happenings before the title card. For me (and for most), Barrymore is the standout performance of the entire film, though her grisly murder only takes up the first ten minutes. Next in line for likability is Jamie Kennedy’s Randy, whose role as the harmless clown and lead commentator was always appreciated.
The rest of the cast is made up of big 90’s somebodies – more or less the cream of the crop at the time (even poor Skeet Ulrich gives a decent showing here). No one believably passes for a high school student, but I’m sure that was intentional too (isn’t that always the case?) – particularly Neve Campbell who is eternally 35.
Scream still holds up as one of the greats – intelligent, funny, and fun, though some folks seem to remember it less fondly due to the legacy of awful films that followed in its wake (including the loathsome Scary Movie franchise). The terror is still there, even if Wes Craven lets you see the strings.
Rating: 4.5/5 Buckets of Corn Syrup
Worth noting: (SPOILER) Dewey is completely unfazed by the murder of his sister, Tatum – both in this film and in the rest of the series. It’s a coin toss between careless writing and careless acting, but even Rose McGowan deserves to be mourned.
7. ARMY OF DARKNESS
The third installment in the Evil Dead trilogy, AOD abandons any attempt at being a legitimate horror film for the trappings of an all-out comedy. Bruce Campbell returns as Ash, the leading man of the franchise, here seen as a mouthy swashbuckling time-traveler who has come from the future to rid the medieval past of the deadites and their plot to reattain the Necronomicon (the Book of the Dead). Yep.
The only disappointment in this cult classic is that even the meager scares of the first two films have been washed away in a sea of cheap laughs. There’s nothing left to be afraid of. The conscious shift in tone is likely due to Raimi’s desire to reach a broader audience and capitalize on Campbell’s talent as a comedian. The result is a complete departure from anything the earlier films were dealing with – Army of Darkness has more in common with Back to the Future III than it does with Evil Dead 2.
That said, the film is incredibly fun. Everything is explained away in the interest of having a good time. Present Ash, who works in the housewares department at S-Mart (“Shop smart! Shop S-Mart!”), is apparently a scientific genius in the past, able to do everything from crafting a mechanical hand to manufacturing gunpowder. Wielding his chainsaw hand attachment and “boomstick,” the iconic poster of Ash atop a mound of car parts, skeletons, and Embeth Davidtz hung on my wall for many happy years in early adolescence (alas, we all grow up – it’s Lord of the Rings now).
The movie is a cult classic for a reason. The re-watch value is incredibly high and Bruce Campbell never ceases to dazzle as a living cartoon. Definitely required viewing this Halloween season – and safe for the squeamish. The bagpipe-playing skeletons aren’t likely to terrify.
Rating: 4/5 Sacred Words Spoken Correctly
Worth noting: Never was the early 90’s struggle with puppetry vs. computer-generated effects more apparent.
Never has more fun been had with the zombie survival genre (with one notable English exception) than in this movie. A still-lovable Jesse Eisenberg plays Columbus, a geeky WoW player-turned-hero who teams up with three other survivors far cooler and more savvy than he. These folks turn out to be Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson as a kind of redneck Rambo), Wichita (Emma Stone as Emma Stone, naturally), and Abigail Breslin as Little Rock, who sadly (SPOILER) does not die in this film.
In a ridiculous quest to make their way to Pacific Playland, a “zombie-free” theme park at the end of the world, the travelers come together as a family, all the while kicking major zass in the style of a next gen console FPS.
The movie never aspires to be more than it is. Just a fun shoot-’em-up with a group of (mostly) really likable actors. The horror angle is light at best, but ultimately rewarding considering the film is certainly more about killing zombies and less about escaping from them. Rumors of a sequel have been circulating for quite some time, but for a great laugh, I recommend you hunt down the extremely short-lived Zombieland TV show that never made it to air. Now THAT was scary.
Rating: 4/5 Remaining Twinkies
Worth Noting: No one should be disappointed by a truck full of free Sno Balls. Come on.
9. THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (2005)
I remember once eating a tuna sandwich that tasted vaguely off, but I told myself I was being paranoid and proceeded to finish it anyway, pickle and all. Hours later, I contemplated a trip to the emergency room as my intestines threatened to secede from the rest of my body. This movie is that sandwich.
It starts off with good ingredients: Melissa George, baby Chloe Grace Moretz, Ryan Reynolds (for once not completely sucking), and Philip Baker Hall – a very competent cast for a remake with considerable expectations.
The film burns through any shot at dread or suspense immediately, as Reynolds goes full psycho not fifteen minutes into the film, leaping from likable stepdad to Mad Jack Torrance in a handful of scenes. A few lame scares occupy the middle, including an encounter with the porny babysitter who serves no purpose other than to – nothing. She serves no purpose. The end of the film is a split between Melissa George researching an evil preacher who tortured native Americans in the basement of their home (a subplot never approached previously) and Ryan Reynolds preparing for his role as The Green Lantern by (SPOILER) being as terrible as possible. All the time. Terrible. Pass me the bed pan.
You may still enjoy the film if you are 1) Ryan Reynolds’ mother, 2) Dead, 3) Ryan Reynolds.
Rating: 1/5 Windows that look like eyes
Worth noting: The realtor at the beginning of the movie informs the young couple that the house is one of the first Dutch colonials built IN Long Island. No one from Long Island says “in.” It’s “on.” The realtor is an alien bodysnatcher. Sequel.
Also: Apparently 1974 was the Neolithic age for Amityville, which used to have just that one house in it with no neighbors and lots of trees. And the Great South Bay was a lake. And there were no police or phones or bronze tools.
10. DONNIE DARKO
This movie used to be THE movie in high school. You might be talking about the new Offspring CD or the latest episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (…that was everyone, right?) and eventually the conversation would wander to this inevitable question: “Have you seen Donnie Darko?” And then – “What did you think happened?”
The first question is just as valid as the second. Opening in the wake of 9/11, no one was in the mood for a supernatural thriller featuring a jet engine landing in a suburban neighborhood (the event that is the catalyst for the film’s entire plot). Most people didn’t see it in theaters. Thusly, the movie is the definition of cult: it barely made back its initial budget but was a top DVD seller for 2001. And 2002. And 2003.
The second question is responsible for the movie’s success. No one can say with assurance that they know exactly what happens in Donnie Darko, a movie that is vaguely as much about time travel and fate vs. free will as it as about mental illness and growing up. Richard Kelly has apparently opened up on the more mysterious aspects of the plot via the director’s cut commentary and the film’s website, which still attracts a surprising number of visitors. For me, I don’t really care to know the answers to all the questions posed by the film. Much like HBO’s The Leftovers, sometimes the answers are better unknown.
Beyond awakening an existential pulse in the Millennial generation, Darko works on all fronts. It’s got great performances, an eclectic cast (and the last great Patrick Swayze showing), and a creepy, doomed riddle of screenplay that is at once rewarding, pretentious, and extremely cool. I still loved watching this movie.
Rating: 4.5/5 Songs by Tears for Fears
Worth noting: The film pays homage to other prominent works of horror and science fiction (all featured in the film): Stephen King’s It, Evil Dead, Back to the Future, The Last Temptation of Christ, Halloween, Psycho, The Shining, and others… Though the film likely owes more to Harvey (1950), for obvious reasons that Richard Kelly refuses to acknowledge, and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), in which the main character similarly has to decide if the world is better off without him in it. Heavy.
Also: Seth Rogen?! Ashely Tisdale?!
11. THE BIRDS
I had never seen The Birds in its entirety – one of those films that was always on but I never had the patience for. I’ll say this: it certainly holds up for a horror movie made in 1963. I expected a bunch of birds on strings, but they were pretty terrifying – apparently because they were actual birds that Hitchcock was just murdering by the bushel (flock?) on set. Because art. Great performance all around, though it was Suzanne Pleshette that caught my eye and not Tippi Hedren.
This movie has always been extensively analyzed by film students and Hitchcock fans, and at this point I am certain that more has been said about the film than the film says itself… Perilously I will state that I appreciated the suspense and the atmosphere created by Hitchcock, but found all of the side characters contained in the screenplay more distracting than helpful in engendering a sense of terror. This is especially true in the diner scene, where a bunch of zany, too-interesting characters converge to speak about how scary everything is. They include a hysterical mother and her children, a wisecracking traveling salesman, a drunken doomsayer, and a conveniently-placed ornithologist. I am sure it can be chalked up as a compliment to Hitchcock’s craft that he is able to draw even the smallest characters as vividly as possible – but even the befuddled twin post office owners seem over the top, adding to the feeling that everyone in Bodega Bay may be utterly insane – a problem to rival homicidal fowl.
Rating: 3/5 Buckets of Skinless Fried
Worth noting: All the children in the school speak their lines in unison. I am unsure if this was intentional. They may as well have uttered, “A fire drill?! Home?! Etcetera?!”
Also: I am pretty sure Mitch is sleeping with all the women in that town, Mrs. Brenner included.
12 -13. THE ALIEN QUADRILOGY (ALIEN, ALIENS, ALIEN 3, ALIEN: RESURRECTION) and PROMETHEUS
Yes, I’m counting them all as just two movies. I don’t want to have a longer conversation about them.
There are few films that invoke the same strange terror of the Alien franchise, four films that (for better or worse) put Sigourney Weaver on the map and put the words “xenomorph” and “face-hugger” into our vocabulary. The popularity of the films is largely due to the uniqueness of the monster, a Lovecraftian insectoid with its own set of rules, personifying the worst aspects of sex, infection, birth, and rebirth. Couple that with some of the greatest non-CG effects of all time and you’re left with an intimidating legacy.
ALIEN is the strongest of the series by far, a legitimate horror movie with legitimate scares. The doomed Nostromo is the stage for an interstellar version of And Then There Were None, the monster picking off the crew members one at a time. The terror is very real and the performances are award caliber. Weaver, Hurt, Skerritt, Holm, Stanton, Cartwright, and Kotto are the best of the series’ casts, playing out a host of scenes that later became iconic to the franchise, the genre, and the culture of movies as a whole. “In space no one can hear you scream” is the film’s popular tagline, a maxim that in no way applied to my living room. Sorry, Mom and Pop. *Note: Androids are bad.
ALIENS (plural)… More aliens equals more scary? Not quite. Subtlety is not James Cameron’s strongest suit, so when he takes over for Ridley Scott, it’s hard not to notice a jarring shift in tone. The isolated horror of the first film is abandoned for a more traditional action movie. Oddly, this is the best-loved film of the franchise – perhaps because the effects are better and there are more guns and monsters. I don’t know. The verdict seems to be “more exciting than the original,” but I just find a lot of it loud and sloppy. Another great cast – but only great in the sense that they can handle the intensity of the film without their faces melting off. *Note: Androids are good.
ALIEN 3… There’s not much to say here. Good try? Should have stopped at 2? David Fincher takes the reins from James Cameron and famously has a tough time of it in this badly-written, hard-to-sit-through sequel. Set on a prison, the monster begins murdering and raping murderers and rapists. It’s about as interesting as it sounds. *Note: Androids are bad.
ALIEN: RESURRECTION… I like this movie far more than it deserves. It’s penned by Joss Whedon, so it features a plucky crew of strong females surrounded by buffoonish men. Ripley’s back (and she’s better than ever, for Christmas this yeaaaar!), somehow resurrected – aaaah! – and has become sympathetic to the alien mission to murder everyone, especially the Weyland-Yutani corporation who was planning to murder everyone already. It’s more fun to watch than Aliens or Alien 3, but it’s still a far cry from the original films. *Note: Androids are good.
PROMETHEUS was the all or nothing shot to revitalize the franchise. Lots of good stuff going on here: best cast since the original, led by Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, and Michael Fassbender, the return of Ridley Scott in the director’s chair, and a huge budget to accommodate some majorly impressive (albeit mostly CG) effects. Unfortunately Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) was the screenwriter, so many found the movie incredibly pretentious, arcane, and too smart for its own good. I’ve seen the film well over ten times, because I am a reasonable person, and have determined that it ultimately attempts to answer the wrong question. The audience wanted to know where the alien (“xenomorph”) came from, not where humans came from. In the attempt to imply that both creatures have the same origin, the screenplay encapsulates too much, becomes bloated, and sinks into itself. A sequel may do more harm than good, but the initial attempt is still worth a watch. *Note: Androids are bad.
Alien: 5/5 Cats Who Won’t Cooperate
Aliens: 3.5/5 Handshakes from the Power Loader
Alien 3: 2/5 Bald People Who Can Act
Alien: Resurrection: 3/5 Weird Twitchy Noses
Prometheus: 4/5 Questions with No Answers
Worth noting: Androids need to make up their f***ing minds.