Opera (1987)


Dario Argento is one of the true greats in horror. And while his films usually produce mixed reactions, there’s no doubt that they’re disquieting products of a unique mind. Opera is not one of his best, but damn it’s got some fine horror in the middle of the morass.

Following the injury of the leading lady in a production of Verdi’s Macbeth, understudy soprano Betty (Cristina Marsillach) finds herself thrust into the lead role. But almost the second that she takes the stage, a masked man begins murdering the cast and crew, forcing Betty to watch by tying her up and propping her eyelids open with pins. The film interweaves numerous POV shots from the killer’s perspective as he pursues Betty in a lethal game of sadistic voyeurism with an operatic soundtrack.

The setting of an opera is tailor-made for Argento, a chance to indulge in the gaudy giallo that made his films famous. And the film’s murders are appropriately extreme and well-done, horrifying without being off-puttingThe use of the POV shots is especially unnerving, the camera jiggling and jerking and bringing us up close to acts of sadistic violence in a way that no other filmmaker has approximated.

Unfortunately, Opera suffers from a lack of coherent plot. While Argento’s favorite themes of sadism, murder, and repressed childhood memories abound, he can’t seem to bring them all together to a clear conclusion. He wastes the central conceit of the opera-which has so many possibilities-by focusing instead on Betty’s bizarre tendency to not report the crimes she’s seen committed. Where Suspiria gave us a plucky heroine plunged into a surreal nightmare world, Opera gives us a disconnected young woman who takes multiple murders in stride. The final act especially is tacked on, a twisty conclusion that actually reminded me of the breakdown at the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. While none of Argento’s films hang together in the perfect narrative sense, this one in particular just lacks any notion of coherency.

That being said, Opera does have a nightmarish quality that makes it an enjoyable, if lesser, example of Argento’s work. The violence is so gaudy that it’s almost funny. Imperfect and a lesser film than many an Argento, Opera has enough surreal, nightmarish horror to make for a delirious indulgence.

Beyond The Walls (2016)


It’s always exciting to discover an interesting and evocative horror story that manages to do something new with a potentially tired sub-genre. The French miniseries Beyond the Walls, directed by Herve Hadmar and now airing on AMC’s Shudder, is exactly that.

Beyond the Walls is a three-part miniseries about a lonely young French woman named Lisa (Veerle Baetens) who suddenly inherits the strange house across the street from her apartment building. A man’s body was recently discovered in the house, which hasn’t been opened for thirty years – no one seems to know who he is, or where he came from, and Lisa has no idea why she was made his heir. Detached from her life and her friends, Lisa moves into the derelict house, throwing down most of her stuff in a single room and wandering the place in search of things to do. One night, she hears weird noises coming from beyond the walls, and promptly smashes a hole in the plaster to investigate. She wanders down winding corridors and through broken doorways until she realizes, all too late, that she doesn’t know her way back. Stumbling upon Julien (Francois Deblock), another lost soul in the walls, Lisa tries to find her way out and evade the weird Others who threaten to keep her in the house forever.

Beyond the Walls interweaves some standard horror narratives into a new, complex mythology that the series manages to keep mysterious without sacrificing coherency. The story begins like a twisted Alice in Wonderland, with Lisa plunging into the house within the house largely because she’s curious about what lies beyond. But as the film proceeds and the layers of the house deepen into something darker and more meaningful, an interesting – if occasionally confusing – philosophy begins to emerge. What opens as a straight haunted house horror story becomes a truly complex narrative, replete with tenderness, desire, and the need to accept both guilt and redemption.

Aesthetically, Beyond the Walls occasionally relies too much on what are becoming common horror tropes: a man with the head of a pig, zombie-like creatures twisting their way down corridors, men with blackened eyes. The house is in a constant state of decay and acts as a labyrinthine metaphor for the complex interaction of guilt and love. Julien inscribes a map of the house on the walls of a hidden cellar, and writes cryptic symbols all over his body, as though reminding himself who and what he is as the house threatens to take more of him.

There’s an episodic, video-game feel to some of the sequences, as Lisa collects more stories, rules, and information that will enable her to escape the house, but these are all brought together in the final act. The final episode is intense and lyrical, drawing together the strands that have been slowly revealed over the course of the previous two into a moving and terrifying conclusion (one that features Geraldine Chaplin, no less). Although I watched it as three separate episodes, it’s really an extended film and should be experienced as such.

Beyond the Walls contains much, but explains very little – the meaning behind the house and the connections of the characters are not fully elucidated by the conclusion. Yet, it still satisfies. It’s a surprising story, mixing common themes together in a haunting melody that echoes long after it has ended.

Beyond The Walls is available exclusively on Shudder.

The Host (2006)


While a South Korean monster comedy might seem a contradiction in terms, The Host proves itself both unique and of its time, a mocking commentary on the depredations of toxic waste in South Korea and the government mistreatment of its own people.

The film opens with an American military scientist instructing his South Korean assistant to dump bottles of formaldehyde down the drain, where it will eventually flow in the Han River. Many years later, a deformed fish-monster, mutated from the toxic waste, crawls from the river and runs amok, killing and consuming. The film zeroes in on the Park family who run a noodle stand by the Han. The monster grabs Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung) and drags her down into the river, while her horrified father Gang-du (Song Kang-hu) and grandfather Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong) look on. But the nightmare is only beginning: Gang-du and his family must face off against government officials, the American military, and even Korean businessmen to escape from a government containment facility to search the sewers for Hyun-seo.

Rather than a straight monster movie for the 00s, The Host veers into comedic territory whenever it has the chance, mocking the incompetent government forces and increasingly dangerous attempts to eradicate the monster through biological warfare. Like many of the kaiju and Atomic Age monsters, The Host‘s monster is brought to life by scientific hubris and inattention – and was, in fact, inspired by an actual incident in 2000 when a Korean mortician working for the Americans admitted to dumping formaldehyde down a drain and poisoning the river. The efforts of the Park family to recover their daughter are met with absurd bureaucracy and manipulation, to the degree that the family actually resorts to criminals to escape a government facility. The heroes are all members of the underclass – shop owners, criminals, poor children, students, and the homeless – while government, military, and business forces (American and Korean) are at best sycophantic and at worst diabolical.

The Host is a deceptively complex monster movie. Monstrosity itself is neither good nor evil – the monster is simply an animal attempting to survive, and the Parks a family who don’t care about government bureaucracy and only want to rescue their child. Monster movie tropes are subverted and new ones introduced, making the film unpredictable and phenomenally entertaining. I only wish I spoke Korean.

The Host is happily available to watch on AMC’s Shudder streaming service.

(Incidentally, director Bong Joon-ho was also behind the spectacular Memories of Murder, a very different kind of horror film, more than worth checking out).

The Shallows (2016)


The Shallows is certainly the most contemporary film you’re going to see on my Bloody October list (and it probably wouldn’t be on here at all save for my roommate reminding me of its existence). The Shallows hit cinemas this past summer, shocking everyone by being a “decently scary shark” movie instead of a “Blake Lively in a bathing suit, with a shark” movie. And while it ain’t Jaws, I’d say that The Shallows is a damn enjoyable film.

The plot is lovely in its simplicity. Surfer-girl and medical student Nancy (Lively) goes to Mexico to decompress from the emotions following the death of her mother. Heading to a “secret beach,” she has a nice day of surfing and sun. But when she tries to catch her final wave back to shore, a shark knocks her from her surfboard and takes a bite out of her leg. Bleeding and succumbing to shock, Nancy manages to pull herself onto a jutting rock in the middle of the shallows. She’s trapped there, hunted by a shark with a taste for human flesh, with no rescue in sight.

The Shallows hits all the right notes for a menacing monster movie without banking on complicated twists or needless exposition. All of the necessary elements are introduced early on: Nancy goes to the beach alone because her sister was supposed to go with her and bailed at the last minute; her medical training is established long before it becomes a necessary plot point; the presence of fire corral and jellyfish, which will figure into her attempts at escape, are points clearly dropped in without making an issue out of them. The leanness of the plot means that the film can focus on the trials of Nancy, for awhile the only character on the screen.

Lively makes for a sympathetic protagonist, pulling The Shallows away from a gimmick-laden genre film to an honestly decent movie that understands its predictability and revels in it. Without descending to parody, the film manages to be tense and frightening. Neither Nancy nor the shark strain credulity with their abilities – the latter is just an animal looking for food, the former prey trying to escape. While the film does hint at some deeper meaning – Nancy questions what’s the point of fighting when it’s all going to end the same anyways – it thankfully shies away from giving too much importance to philosophical life lessons.

The weakest point of The Shallows is the CGI shark, which makes its appearance way too early and takes away some of the menace. One of the strengths of Jaws was not showing too much of an animatronic animal, allowing the unseen evil to suffice for horror. The Shallows’ shark appears several times, and at each appearance becomes less believable. It’s so obviously CGI that it dissipates the menace of an actual animal hunting an injured woman.

Despite a few shortcomings, The Shallows is an effective film, never trying to be more than it is. This is a movie about woman vs. shark, and it’s allowed to be just that.

It (1990)


I will confess something: I’m not a fan of Stephen King. I’ve read a few of his novels and there’s always a point at which he becomes sadistic in the treatment of his characters. I had to finally abandon Salem’s Lot for just this reason, and Pet Sematary stands as one of my least favorite books. But somehow, I’ve always enjoyed the adaptations of King’s books far more than the books themselves.

The 1990 miniseries It is based on King’s 1000+ page novel of the same name. It tells the story of a group of kids in Derry, Maine who face a nameless evil in the form of the diabolical clown Pennywise (Tim Curry). Pennywise has been slowly picking off the kids of the town one by one, luring them down into the sewers with promises of balloons and cotton candy. The Losers Club – seven kids who face different kinds of bullying from the local toughs – band together to stop Pennywise once and for all.

Like the novel, the miniseries spans thirty years. The final member to join the club Mike (Tim Reid) is also the only one to stay in Derry, acting as the local librarian. He’s the one who calls them all back together when a series of killings reminds him of Pennywise. As each member of the group filters back to town, their stories are revealed.

It suffers somewhat from its overlong, episodic structure. Rather than going in chronological order, the constant flashbacks as each Loser remembers his or her past becomes a wearing device, bouncing the viewer back and forth between the past and present day. It also slightly confuses some of the plot elements that are deemed important in the second half of the miniseries, when the Losers finally get back together in Derry. They all claim to have limited memories of what happened, yet the flashbacks, told from the perspective of each character, are very clear.

It might have worked better as a shorter film, cutting down on some of the episodes and allowing the story of friendship and loss of innocence to develop over time. There are quite a lot of themes that are only cursorily touched on here – including what “It” is, exactly, and why it has chosen Derry – yet the miniseries still feels overlong. Nor is it always clear that It manifests itself as something that each child fears. Apparently Beverly is afraid of sinks backing up?

The first half of It is saved by the presence of Tim Curry, who makes one hell of a scary clown. Curry’s peculiar brand of indulgent, delicious evil is well-suited to Pennywise, a sadistic trickster as well as a manifestation of evil. Pennywise isn’t just content with eating children every thirty years – he wants to scare the bejeezus out of them first. As he torments the children and their adult selves alike, his presence becomes something to look forward to. It’s rather disappointing, in fact, when It’s true form is revealed…

It is a serviceable film that nonetheless would play better, with all its flaws, as a two hour movie and not a 3+ hour miniseries. A little whittling down of the story – or at least making it less episodic – would have gone a long way to making even this TV version higher quality. To that end, a new version of It is currently being produced as a two-part film, which is both interesting and a little worrying. I’m not sure that clowns need any more bad rap at the moment.

Night of the Demon (1957)


There are surprisingly few film adaptations of M.R. James’s short stories – I assume because many of James’s stories are more creepy than they scary. His works are populated with professors, researchers, and antiquarians digging up weird myths, creepy factoids, and bizarre histories, but – unlike fellow acronym H.P. Lovecraft – very often that’s where the stories end. Night of the Demon, however, takes the basis of James’s short story “Casting the Runes” and builds a more complex narrative around it, with Dana Andrews in the professorial lead.

Andrews is John Holden, professional skeptic, who arrives in London to attend a convention with the purpose of exposing a devil cult run by former magician Dr. Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). When Holden arrives, he finds that one member of the convention, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), is already dead, while the others are troubled by weird reports surrounding his death. Enter Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins), not nearly as skeptical as Holden, who believes that her uncle was cursed by Karswell. When Karswell informs Holden that he must cease his investigations or be subject to the curse, Holden refuses. Karswell tells him told that he will have three days to live before the demon comes for him.

Night of the Demon is directed by Jacques Tourneur, perhaps best known for Cat People, another horror film that pits skepticism against belief. That dynamic is – a bit more annoyingly – on display in Night of the Demon, with Andrews playing a man so skeptical that he’d probably deny the existence of gravity because he can’t actually see an apparatus that produces it. As Joanna leads Holden around to seances and even scientific demonstrations in an attempt to convince him to take the curse seriously, she and the audience become increasingly exasperated. This reaches its height when Holden actually sees the demon begin to manifest in the woods, and subsequently concludes that it must be a magician’s trick.

Belief and skepticism fuel this film, with the usual arguments about mass hysteria and psychological experience becoming more diabolical as Karswell’s own fears are revealed. MacGinnis is delicious as the devil-bearded magician whose apparent faith in himself conceals a slightly hysterical nature. The film, in fact, is populated with excellent character actors of the period, including Athene Seyler as Mrs. Karswell (you’ll recognize her as one of the old ladies in the Avengers episode “Build a Better Mousetrap”), and Richard Leech (of “Traitor in Zebra”) as a police inspector.

I heard someone refer to this as “horror noir,” and it’s an apt description. As with Cat People, the use of chiaroscuro makes every-day scenes take on demonic significance. Hotel hallways stretch off into the dark unknown, POV shots create a wobbly world of demoniacal interference. The only blot on Night of the Demon’s escutcheon is the rather hokey appearance of the actual demon (which occurs within the first five minutes, so I promise I’m not spoiling anything). Part wolfman and part Muppet, the demon unfortunately removes a bit of the mystery and some of the argument of the film by externalizing the evil. I was reassured, however, to learn that this element was actually forced on Tourneur by producer Hal E. Chester, who inserted the monster over the objections of director, writer Charles Bennett, and Dana Andrews. I don’t have to blame Tourneur for this one, then.

Night of the Demon is a very enjoyable piece of British horror, straddling the divide between studio filmmaking of the 1950s and the more location-heavy horrors of the 1960s. If one ignores the hokey-ness of the actual demon and the occasional pedantry of Dana Andrews, it’s a film that stands right up there with Cat People. 

The Blair Witch Project (1999)


Every year in the run-up to Halloween, I watch as many horror movies as my little horror-loving brain can stand. I also attempt to rectify the oversights of past years and see some classics (cult or otherwise) that have somehow managed to escape notice. This year, the first up is The Blair Witch Project, the horror smash from 1999 that inaugurated our ongoing obsession with the found-footage sub-genre.

Contrary to popular belief, The Blair Witch Project is not the first found-footage horror film. That distinction goes to Cannibal Holocaust, the controversial Italian cannibal film made in 1980. But Blair Witch definitely established some of the hallmarks of the sub-genre that we now see today.

The story is pretty simple: three student filmmakers (Heather, Mike, and Josh) embark on a documentary trip into the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland to make a movie about the local “Blair Witch” legend. After they vanish, their footage is discovered and edited into the film we see. The film combines the faux documentary made by the students – including talking-head interviews with local residents to establish the Blair Witch legend – and the “real-life” footage the students take as they get lost in the woods, stalked by an unseen force.

The conceit of The Blair Witch Project is provocative in itself: the documentary footage feels very much like a student film project, with leading questions to residents and silly, posed scenes at cemeteries. As the students head into the woods, the documentary elements are slowly abandoned and the students become the subjects of their own work. They fight among themselves, breaking down psychologically as they wander off map and bizarre things begin to happen. Some of the film’s more iconic images, like stick-dolls hanging in the trees, are incredibly creepy, while others – the POV camera shots of trembling hikers – have become so iconic as to lose their power.

The Blair Witch Project is a weak film in many ways. While it has some good ideas, the conceit begins to strain credulity. Although some excuse is made for Heather’s obsession with continuing to film even in the direst of circumstances, it feels just like that: an excuse. As time goes on, the conceit itself began to pull me out of the film and remind me that these were not actually documentarians lost in the woods, but fiction-filmmakers pretending to be lost in the woods.

The found-footage concept is a difficult one to pull off for just that reason, and it’s to Blair Witch’s credit that they manage to keep it going as long as they do. Still, the shaking camera and heavy breathing does become wearing after a while. Rather than creating horrific tension, it becomes an exercise in trying to understand just what is going on. What am I supposed to be afraid of and why? After all, this is a fiction film; it does need some kind of coherent arc and coherent horror. Not being able to see the monster can often be terrifying, but The Blair Witch Project does not manage to create tension surrounding it.

I also struggled with understanding the actual legend behind the Blair Witch, and the film doesn’t take many pains to establish why certain elements are important. The dolls hanging in the trees, the piles of rocks, the weird abandoned house that makes up the film’s denouement…what are we really supposed to get from all this? I don’t insist that all elements of a film be explained – and a film like this has difficulty providing exposition without it coming off as an info drop – but there was still a sense that the characters knew more than they ever explain.

I’m glad that I have The Blair Witch Project under my belt – it’s a seminal horror film, and influenced quite a few of my favorite contemporary horror films. But it’s far less successful in 2016 than it was in 1999.