Bloody October: Ringu (1998)

Ringu (1998)

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In movies as in life, look for originals. Rather than going for the American remake of The Ring, I decided to read some subtitles and watch the original Japanese Ringu first – mostly because the Japanese generally have a unique and profoundly disturbing outlook on ghosts, curses, and the trappings of horror. I must say that I was not disappointed.

Ringu begins with a surprisingly expositional sequence in which two teenage girls try to scare each other by talking about a mysterious videotape that, once watched, kills you a week later. When one of the girls dies and the other goes mad, it attracts the attention of a news organization and investigator Reiko (Nanako Matsushima), the aunt of Tomoko (Yuko Takeuchi), the girl who died. As Reiko delves into the origins of the curse story, she discovers that Tomoko and each of her friends who supposedly watched the tape died on the same day. This leads her finally to Izu and the cabin where Tomoko discovered the tape. When Reiko watches the strange video, she begins to believe in the curse, and seeks the help of her ex-husband Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada), a teacher with ESP, to discover a way to break the curse.

Due to its popularity in and out of Japan, Ringu bears many hallmarks and images that have become ingrained in world cinematic culture. It’s a testament to the film’s brilliance that it’s still scary, almost twenty years on. Although dependent on outmoded technology, the grainy nature of VHS, the ability to record long swathes of programming (or static) and keep it, have a bizarre and frightening quality to them. And Ringu keeps the visual horror to a minimum, relying instead on stories about spirits, whispered threats, vague rumors, and strange noises in the middle of the night to develop the tension. The “monster” of the film doesn’t appear until quite late, and then arrives with such a pop that it’s still impossible not to be frightened.

Japanese culture has a far different relationship to the spirit world than contemporary American culture – like its counterpart Ju-on (The Grudge), Ringu relies on complex concepts of ghosts and vengeful spirits that outstretch the modern period. The horror goes on, because it is based in betrayal or vengeance and not in demand for something that can be appeased. It can attach itself even to those who don’t deserve it, or who aren’t involved in the original violation, and will destroy them just as surely as the violators. That’s a terrifying notion.

Ringu definitely stands as my favorite (thus far) of the films I’ve seen this spooky season.

Bloody October: Black Sunday (1960)

Black Sunday (1960)

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Mario Bava is another one of those classic horror filmmakers whose work I have (unforgivably) managed to miss. Considered the grand-daddy of Italian giallo – and one of the most influential of Italian horror artists – Bava married Corman-esque gothic sensibilities with more extreme (for 1960) horror gore. Black Sunday was one of his biggest critical and popular successes, and remains a touchstone for horror filmmakers to this day.

Black Sunday features Barbara Steele as Asa Vajda, a beautiful vampire/witch sentenced to death by her own brother. Following the execution of her lover Javuto (Arturo Dominici), Asa vows vengeance on her brother’s descendants, right before a devil’s mask studded with spikes is pounded into her flesh (the original title of the film was The Mask of Satan). Two hundred years later, we meet the descendants of the cursed family: Katia (Steele again), her father Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani), and her brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri). They become acquainted with two traveling doctors who stumble upon Asa’s tomb one stormy afternoon. Investigating the crypt, the elder doctor Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) accidentally awakens Asa after cutting his hand and dripping blood on her corpse. This sets off a chain of events as Asa attempts to take back her life – and her beauty – while wreaking horrible vengeance on her descendants.

Black Sunday is very similar to a 60s Corman film, down to the involvement of Steele (who appeared in Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum one year later), the gothic trappings, and the use of more gruesome violence than we expect from a black and white horror movie. Corpses ooze pus and blood, masks are nailed into living flesh, and witches are burned alive. While the black and white takes away some of the impact, the chiaroscuro is so deep and pulsating that it makes up for the lack of lurid splashes of red and green. The opening execution in particular is perfect horror filmmaking, the camera unflinching in documenting all the nastiness. In some ways, Black Sunday more closely approximates the weird sadism of 18th and 19th Century sensationalist literature than do the more sanitized versions of Frankenstein and Dracula produced by Universal.

Black Sunday fits right into the context of the horror films made by Corman in America and Hammer Studios in England, becoming a precursor to the far nastier films made by Dario Argento and Bava himself. And it’s a good film, if read in that context. But, Black Sunday misses the key ingredient that Corman managed with his Poe adaptations by failing to hire even one competent male actor as a lead. Vincent Price made Corman’s films wild-eyed and palatable, chewing the scenery with such loving gusto that one wants to enjoy the luridness just as much as he does. Neither the romantic lead John Richardson, playing the young doctor Andre, nor the actors in the villainous roles are of any real note. Steele is the real draw here, but a girl can only do so much.

Black Sunday is a perfectly enjoyable horror film. Does it make much sense? No. Is the acting all that great? Not really. But there’s a reason it’s a classic.

Black Sunday is available to stream on Shudder.

Bloody October: Piranha (1978)

Piranha (1978)

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As a self-proclaimed Joe Dante fan, I am heartily ashamed that it took me this long to get around to seeing Piranha. The ridiculous 1978 Jaws rip-off, from a script by John Sayles, is nothing short of delirious monster movie fun that can only come to us from the loving camera of the director of The Howling and Gremlins.

Piranha opens with two teenagers making the unhygienic decision to skinny-dip in a government reservoir near Lost River Lake, surrounded by a massive fence and signs that say “Do Not Enter.” When the teenagers are consumed by underwater forces unknown and vanish without a trace, private insurance investigator Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) comes in to look for them. She buddies up with alcoholic curmudgeon Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) who lives in the mountains of Lost River, and together they hunt down the government facility where the teenagers went missing. Draining the reservoir to try and locate the bodies, the pair are set upon by Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy), who provides the exposition: they’ve unwittingly released hyper-intelligent, weaponized piranha into the river.

Piranha is spectacularly ludicrous and knows it. Dr. Hoak gives an extensive explanation as to why he’s been weaponizing piranha at a secret government facility, itself just as ridiculous as the idea of creating a breed of carnivorous fish that can now organize themselves, outwit human beings, and survive in fresh and salt water. But while much time is spent on setting up the situation, even more is spent in the gleeful indulgence of B-movie mayhem. The piranha attack without mercy, ripping up fishermen, beach-goers, and innocent campers on their journey downriver. The violence is actually quite gory and very well-done – not exactly Jaws, but good enough to make me cringe quite a bit.

In addition to McCarthy, the film features the always welcome faces of Keenan Wynn and B-movie superstar Barbara Steele (providing probably the best final close-up of any monster movie…ever), as well as Dante’s usual character actors, including Dick Miller and Belinda Balaski. Because the film knows its status as a Jaws rip-off, Dante gets to indulge in subversive humor, weird secondary characters, and ripping on military authority with a loving glee. This is a movie about how amazing horror movies are, and how much fun they should be.

While Piranha is unlikely to replace The Howling in my affections, it comes in a pretty close second. It’s just good fun, right down to the cheesy one-liners and silly open-ending.

Bloody October: Opera (1987)

Opera (1987)

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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.

Bloody October: Beyond The Walls (2016)

Beyond The Walls (2016)

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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.

Bloody October: The Host (2006)

The Host (2006)

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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).

Bloody October: The Shallows (2016)

The Shallows (2016)

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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.