The October Project: Week 1

As a part of my love of horror and the fact that it’s Halloween, largely accepted in Western culture (or at least American) as the best time for horror, I’m watching a horror movie per day in the month. So far, it has been thoroughly successful, thankfully, though we’ll see how it gets once work starts up again…

Day One: Black Sheep (2006)

It first started watching this with friends back in–I don’t know, 2009? 2010? I’m not sure. I was called away and ended up missing the whole bloody (heh) thing.

It made sense, then, as my first foray into this project.

Henry (Nathan Meister) and Angus (Peter Feeney) Oldfield are the descendants of a New Zealand farm-owner, but a prank on Angus’s part left Henry with a deep-seated fear of sheep, and thus a distinct distance from the farm they grew up on. Attempting to face his fear at the worst imaginable time, Henry returns and runs into farmhand Tucker (Tammy Davis) and two environmentalist activists, Experience (Danielle Mason) and Grant (Oliver Driver), who inadvertently cause the creation of the worst of Henry’s nightmares, just as Angus is attempting to announce and reveal the (more positive) end result of the genetic engineering that led to that nightmare.

Look, it’s a movie about carnivorous sheep and were-sheep. Unless you suffer Henry’s phobia in reality, this is patently absurd, and quite deliberately so. There are strains of Braindead (aka Dead Alive) which seems as though it may indicate that either Jonathan King (writer/director) was heavily inspired by Peter Jackson’s early works, or there’s just something about New Zealand. He uses WETA workshop for effects, so there’s at least one clear connection–which also means the gore is actually relatively reminiscent of Jackson’s mid-period–but otherwise, it’s unique enough that, despite a beat here or there (particularly the deranged sheep foetus that starts the whole thing) that reminds, it’s very much its own.

There are some pretty great gags and moments, and a nice bit of rounding to characters who are intentionally functional archetypes–ones which also lampoon both extremes of the spectrum, with Experience (nevermind her name!) being devoted to strange things (which sometimes work, actually!), and Angus being, uh, strangely involved in the farm. There’s a great bit to the sheep attacking–it’s one thing to watch thundering, fluffy herds and know there should be some fear, but another when they’re lashing out viciously and the perfect “klak!” of their teeth coming together really sells the threat, even as it remains ridiculous.

In the end: it does exactly what it sets out to do, and does it well.

Day Two: The Vault of Horror (1973)

Tales from the Crypt (the HBO show, not the other Amicus production) scared the bejeezus out of me as a child, but I came back around to E.C. (and the show) in my adolescence and adulthood. So it was with a reasonably formidable background that I came in to viewing this one-of-two film productions explicitly of those stories.

Roy Ward Baker directs five short vignettes that replicate some (amusingly, non-Vault) E.C. stories with the use of actors like Daniel and Anna Massey (in “Midnight Mess”), Terry-Thomas and Glynis Johns (in “The Neat Job”), Curt Jurgens and Dawn Addams (in “This Trick’ll Kill You”), Michael Craig (in “Bargain in Death”) and a pre-Doctor Who Tom Baker with Denholm Elliott (you know, from Raiders!) and a few others (in “Drawn and Quartered”).

They’re E.C. stories–they’re built on weird, gory twists, so synopses would be silly.

Everyone does very well with all of these–Roy Ward Baker directs them all through reasonably serious performances of a bunch of stories that were originally narrated by characters like the Old Witch and the Crypt-Keepr, and had some tongues firmly in cheeks (even if, maybe those tongues were someone removed from someone else’s mouth first). It’s a very strange thing to see–a played-straight E.C. story, and that much stranger as they go on in a row. Baker (the other one, the to-be-scarfed one) is very brooding and ominous, Terry-Thomas makes the most of what could easily be a stupidly over-the-top caricature, and Glynis Johns and Ward get themselves through a series of scenes that teeters on the edge of ridiculousness, but the direction and her performance sell the heck out of it.

And I can’t leave out: thanks to a State-side PG rating, the movie is butchered. In particular, the ending of “Midnight Mess” is particularly egregious, with a full-motion scene replaced with a freeze-frame (spoilers, obviously, because ending–visible here) that is laughably awful–as it also includes a hand-blacked/cut out portion of the image. It’s shocking for all the wrong reasons–who in the hell would think that a good solution?! This is the highly “offensive”/shocking original version. Shame, that.

Still, it’s quite the curiosity, as no other adaptations I’m familiar with (I guess probably the other flick they did, titled Tales from the Crypt, but that’s just a guess) are quite so straightforward about the adaptations, which gives them a pretty weird bend.

Day Three: 1408 (2007)

I’ve always had a weird relationship with Stephen King. I started reading his stuff when I was–I don’t know, nine? Ten? Something like that. I rapidly found myself dissatisfied with it, and remained very “he’s hit-or-miss” from then on.

A few people suggested that I go with 1408 this year, so I decided I would. I pulled the disc out blind and in the semi-dark, so I didn’t see that the 2-disc version I have includes an alternate cut. So, what I watched was the theatrical version.

Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a paranormal investigator of sorts who visits “haunted” locations and writes books about them, though he’s found little or no evidence of a reality whatsoever. When a strange postcard points him to room 1408 in the Dolphin Hotel, he’s faced with manager Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) who insists that he not spend the night there, because he’s tired of cleaning up after it.

I had mixed feelings about this one over all–plenty of it I spent thinking, “Yes. I’ve seen haunted room/house/etc movies before, thanks,” and other parts thinking, “Man, if this is where we’re going with this, I would much rather be re-watching In the Mouth of Madness,” but here and there it did things I found unusual and unexpected, and largely edged away from straight horror–from my perspective, at least, and made some peculiar turns into set-pieces more in line with fantasy than horror, and a few bits that hint slightly at the idea of a “Dante’s Inferno” approach to the room’s supernatural elements.

Not the worst thing, to be sure, as it was very well put together in all of that.

Day Four: Burnt Offerings (1976)

More hauntings!

The Rolfs (Oliver Reed, Karen Black, and Lee Montgomery) go to investigate a large house up for rent from two siblings (?), Ronald (Burgess Meredith) and Roz (Eileen Heckart) Allardyce. After Marian convinces her husband to take up the $900-for-three-months offer, they move in with Ben’s aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) and slowly discover that perhaps it’s not the dream hoped for.

There’s a lot of horror bloodline hanging out there–from The Amityville Horror to The Shining to House of the Devil. You’ll note that, even including original writings inspiring the first two, all of it post-dates this movie. Hmm.

Anyway, with a core cast like that, how can you expect anything but excellent performances? Well, if you figure out how, don’t bother telling me, because you’ll still turn out wrong once we’re past expectation. I will say Black seemed a bit off, but she was surrounded by Reed and Davis, so maybe that’s not her fault–Davis was later critical of her on-set behaviour, so maybe there’s more to it. I don’t know. It could also be the way her character goes through things–but it’s pretty clear that that’s not really on Black (or, for that matter, Marian).

It’s a really slow-burner (which, in retrospect, is another association with the 4-decades-later, but totally excellent House of the Devil), and it keeps things meandering around the original Haunting‘s territory on some levels–is there really anything strange going on here? Is hallucination in play?

Dan Curtis, who directed, co-wrote, and co-produced, does interesting things here–while plenty of beats are familiar, the pacing and structure (probably also thanks to playwrite/novelist of the inspiration Robert Marasco) are thoroughly unusual, both in their tempo and in their placement. Ebert apparently noted that the characters end up the only ones not sure what is going to happen (which brings up my issues with his clever turns of phrase–this is how we operate on dramatic tension, see: Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” discussion), but that’s largely true–it’s just not a flaw.

There are numerous moments of discomfort in how characters act, but no one utterly ignores them, or pretends they didn’t happen just to justify hanging out in this house anyway, despite awfulness. Tempers flare, as do suspicions, but all reasonably, and without the sense that anyone is ignoring any of it.

It’s an effective little flick, to be honest. A good entry in the “haunted” subgenre (in contrast, then, to the previous, I suppose).

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