The Wicker Man (1973)

I got a chance to see the original 1973 Wicker Man for the first time recently and it’s every bit the freaky, messed up yet beautifully made folk horror nightmare I’d heard it was, I loved it to pieces. See the thing is the very words ‘wicker’ and ‘man’ put together in a sentence these days just evokes the mental image of Nicolas Cage with a beehive on his face, such is the pop culture absorption and frenzied notoriety of the much spat upon remake which, without going into too much diversion here, I think is actually a really good film. This one is too, in many different ways, it feels like the folk horror benchmark and I can see it’s cultural influence on much horror material in decades to come. It stars The Equalizer himself, Edward Woodward, as a London inspector sent to a wee tiny island off the coast in search of a missing girl, with not much of anything to go on in terms of intel except just that, a missing girl and a name. I’d be suspicious af, but he plows right into their earthen hippie community, pagan customs and frankly downright hilarious pageantry looking royally out of place with his crisp, chromed policeman’s uniform in such a colourful, wreath adorned, elemental backdrop. I enjoyed his ongoing abject horror at the local’s embracement of free love, loose values and rejection of staunch Christianity, the film is very… of its time and those certainly wouldn’t be things anyone would care about today but it’s fascinating to see how much of a big deal narrow-minded Christianity was for a lot of silly people back when. The film of course circles an ending that’s become legendary, where the titular wicker gentleman makes his appearance and everything kind of collectively goes bonkers for a finale that will wake the gods. Christopher Lee is at once amusing, endearing, charismatically sinister and somehow just a bit eccentric as the sort of “homestead regal” Lord Summerisle, the ringleader and pater manifest of this island dwelling bunch of cult loonies, it’s one of his best, and most entertaining performances, especially when he dons a great big wig for the final hoo-hah that is prophetic in a way, as he’d rock the exact same look decades later as Saruman in Lord Of The Rings. This film is a blast, full of strange editing, spooky music and eerie vocals that show up when you least expect them and a terrific ensemble cast that all do a splendid job of scaring the piss out of this poor, buttoned down big city copper with their collective antics, often funny, frequently frightening, consistently off the wall and always just what you’d expect a weird, island-bound, nature worshipping cult to act like. Excellent film.

Nate Hill

Child’s Play 3

Child’s Play 3 is the last of the films that focuses primarily on Chucky’s relentless pursuit of Andy’s soul, before the franchise reinvents itself and goes completely cuckoo bananas in the best way possible, but I’m getting ahead of myself. This is a solid entry, taking place a few odd years after the second film, with a teenage Andy (Justin Whalen, with heavy young Eddie Furlong vibes) yanked out of the foster care system and shipped off to military school. Chucky is still somehow back from the dead once again, resurrected in a slick opening credit sequence that features “plastic anatomy regrowth” effects that look like they inspired Brandon Cronenberg for some of the gooier stuff he put into his film Possessor. Now, military school is never a fun place to be in movies and I imagine it wouldn’t be very great in real life either, Andy has it tough because this particular venture is run by a power mad wannabe hairdresser sergeant played by Andy Robinson, who is great at being an absolutely unhinged loony, as we know from his turn as the zodiac killer in Dirty Harry. The rest of his fellow boot campers aren’t so nice either, apart from one girl (Perrey Reeves from Entourage, lovely here) who takes a shine to him until inevitable romantic sparks fly for a winning couple dynamic. Chucky arrives on scene after brutally butchering the amoral CEO of the toy company (Peter Haskell) that made his perennial rubber avatar and promptly but stealthily murders a garbage truck driver, arousing Andy’s suspicions that he’s finally tracked him down once again. The kills here and general arc at the military camp are fun enough, with the eventual villain’s confrontation between him and Robinson’s certifiable big boss a delirious, diabolically suspenseful set piece involving the world’s most disastrous botched straight razor shave. The film kicks into spectacular gear for the finale though, set in a giant abandoned amusement park in the nearby area, a hectic, hallucinatory howl of a showdown complete with underground roller coasters, tons of multicoloured lighting and acres of billowing dry ice, it’s a huge stylistic exhale after the drab visual palette of the military academy and lets Chucky and those trying to end him truly go nuts and play around with space, lighting and effects. It also has a ruthless send-off for this demon dolly involving some sort of giant industrial fan with big sharp blades, it’s a satisfyingly gory final death (of many this little fucker has bounced back from) for him and a nice cap off the last of the “Chucky vs. Andy” films in the canon, before new territories are charted. Great stuff.

Nate Hill

Child’s Play 2

Child’s Play 2 picks up not long after the first left off for a sequel that’s similar yet stronger in quite a few ways. Young Andy has been tossed into the foster care system after his mom can’t deal with the memories of their initial encounter with Chucky aka Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), and she has been remanded to a psychiatric facility. His social worker (always nice to see Grace Zabriskie) places him in a well meaning but not properly equipped suburban family with a foster mom (Jenny Agutter) who cares about him and a dad (Gerrit Graham) who is sceptical about his past affecting his mental state living with them. It’s not long before Chucky, resurrected with new spare doll parts in a neat assembly line opening credit sequence, comes looking for him once again, and all hell breaks loose. I felt sad for poor Andy, not only continuously tormented by that little ginger haired fucker, but also as a result now left without his birth mother and forced into the notoriously turbulent US foster care system. The film’s strongest aspect is a sweet, life affirming relationship he has with the family’s other adopted kid Kyle (Christine Elise) who takes him under her wing in a big sister capacity and looks out for him. It’s a believable, compassionate arc for both and they get an absolutely ferocious final battle with Chucky in the toy factory he came from, complete with all kinds of mangling machinery, buckets of oozing practical gore and melted plastic effects and a surge of climactic energy. This is an improvement on the already spectacular first film, especially so for me due to the affecting dynamic between Andy and Kyle, some rip snortin set pieces (I laughed hard when Chucky gets launched through a windshield at top speed) and more of the same manic, diabolically mischievous energy that only Brad Dourif as this character can bring us. Good times.

-Nate Hill

Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now

Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is one continuous bad dream in the best possible way, a chilly European nightmare that begins with a couple (Donald Sutherland & Julie Christie) losing their young daughter in a drowning accident and the subsequent mental trauma, bad luck and eerie visions that plague them one year later as he works to restore a Venice church for a malevolent Bishop (Massimo Serato) who notices his strange behaviour and she refuses to let go, taking up with three odd clairvoyant sisters who can apparently communicate with the dead. This is a moody piece to its very bones, the story itself could be told in several clipped beats or so but the real substance lies in the moments in between dialogue, the spectral apparitions they see running about the cluttered, labyrinthine Venice streets and their collective inability to let go of their shared tragedy manifested in the physical realm as terrifying apparitions. We sense this pain lingering over them both in a sex scene that is too strange to describe, a montage of sorts that feels sweet and awkward and carnal in a primordial sort of way, like a Lite version of the ferocious, voodoo tinged Mickey Rourke & Lisa Bonet sex scene in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, but no less unsettling and otherworldly. There’s a subplot about a serial killer in a little red jacket running loose, a jacket that looks suspiciously like the same one their kid was wearing when she drowned, which doesn’t help their overall mental state and provides one of the most frightening, heart attack inducing scenes I’ve ever seen in horror. Sutherland and Christie are both phenomenal here, the former adopting a feverish workaholic denial to avoid facing his pain and the latter stuck in a hyper-emotional terrain of manic and depressive episodes, hopeless hills and valleys of grief, confusion and despair. Venice has never looked more menacing here, the edifices, ancient structures and sentinel churches standing austere watch over these two lost souls, like a meticulously carved dream world of chilly fog, dead ends and kaleidoscopic stained glass backdrops. I can see why this has become such a classic and gone on to influence so many other great artists in horror pop culture, I can imagine everyone from David Lynch to the creators of Silent Hill were inspired. Dark, brooding, atmospheric meditation on loss and grief shot through the disorienting, beautiful and frighting prism of a ghost story, absolutely great film.

-Nate Hill

Tom Holland’s Child’s Play

So I’ve been marathoning the Chucky movies for the first time lately and oh my god what a balls out franchise. I’ll start with the first, Tom Holland’s Child’s Play from 1988, because this series starts out slowly, modestly and gradually builds to such a fever pitch extravaganza of meta goofiness and deranged, Joe Dante level lunacy it has me giddy. Everyone knows the story of the first by now: Chicago serial killer Charles Lee Ray (the inimitable, legendary Brad Dourif) is gunned down by a ferocious police detective (Chris Sarandon, always awesome) in a toy factory, but not before using dark voodoo to transfer his soul into a Good Guy doll, which runs about the city on a murderous rampage, eventually finding his way to the home of young Andy (Alex Vincent, adorable), where he proceeds to make life hell for him and his mom (Catherine Hicks). Dourif is key to what makes this character work so well that we’ve gotten as many sequels as we have, I’ve rarely seen an actor do more with his voice, give more dimension, dark humour and genuine malice from behind a recording booth, but this is Dourif we’re talking about after all, this man can pretty much do anything. The first film is a great introduction into the franchise, a series that if anything gets better and better with each sequel, which is really rare in horror but sometimes does happen. The film benefits from Sarandon who is always a rugged, charismatic presence, switching up his evil vampire character in director Tom Holland’s other seminal horror classic Fright Night for a good guy role here, albeit one that’s very rough around the edges, and better for it. It’s fun watching him square off against Chucky and there is one hell of a fiery climax complete with ooey-gooey melting/burning plastic effects and a tirade of madness from the doll and Dourif that is genuinely scary, as far as killer dolls go. Stay tuned for my thoughts on each and every film in this franchise, because they are all gems, and you don’t often get that level of consistency and improvement on quality in slasher franchises.

-Nate Hill

William Malone’s The Fair Haired Child

William Malone’s The Fair Haired Child is part of Showtime’s Masters Of Horror series from the early 2000’s, a brilliant compendium of voices in the genre gathering to spin spooky yarns in a fashion that feels episodic yet still standalone, the best form of horror anthology. Malone is a severely underrated horror filmmaker whose praises I have been singing for a long time; most know him as the dude who directed the House On Haunted Hill remake and FearDotCom, two films not held in high regard (I deeply love them both). Yet if you examine his career and really pay attention to the level of visual artistry and stark surrealism in those two films as well as two episodes of Tales From The Crypt he helmed in the 90’s, it becomes clear that he is a horror filmmaker and visual poet who is as much in control of a specific vision, style and tone as are the best atmospheric wizards in the genre like Argento and Lynch. I’m pleased he was included in the Masters Of Horror run and his effort here is terrific, a pitch dark, nightmarish fairytale that accommodates all his stylistic flourishes and hallmarks including pale, subconsciously influenced dream sequences and ghosts with horrifyingly staccato, eerily displaced body movement. His story here concerns a creepy couple (William Samples & the always awesome Lori Petty) who kidnap a high school girl (Lindsay Pulsipher) from a nearby county to use her in a sacrificial ritual they are performing with dark magic, offering up souls to a strange demon to bring back their son who drowned years earlier. Locked in a spooky basement, she finds she’s not alone down there as the couple’s half resurrected kid (Jesse Haddock) does his best to help her when he’s normal and becomes a terrifying otherworldly creature when he’s not. It’s a great setup for some hair raising suspense, punctuated nicely with flashbacks and dreams that tell the rest of their collective backstory. Now this has a runtime of 55 minutes and is part of the tv series so it doesn’t feel as singular or immersive a vision as Malone’s features, but the off kilter style and bizarre visual abstraction are still present, making for quite the unnerving experience. I’d recommend checking out his filmography overall if you like straightforward horror stories told by someone whose artistic methods and visual sensibilities are anything but routine or straightforward, and I’d recommend Masters Of Horror on the whole, if you can find each episode’s standalone dvd release which is how they distributed them.

-Nate Hill

Freaks (2018)

Freaks is… something, to say the least. I don’t think I understood every law of nature, paranormal phenomena or mutant related plot point in this narratively nebulous, kaleidoscopic and brazenly unique indie SciFi effort but I can tell you this might be one of the most ambitious things ever attempted with a lower budget, like if a young Chris Nolan did an X Men film with the first signs of his playing with time, space and physics in full blossom. The story tells of a young girl (Lexy Kolker) who has spent the first seven years or so of her life in a strange, dilapidated Vancouver house with her paranoid, protective father (Emilie Hirsch). He keeps her there and tells her of a dangerous world out there that they must not venture out into, for fear of sinister forces that want to hurt them. As she gets older her curiosity coupled with bizarre dreams prompt her to evade his efforts and leave the house, where she finds a threatening world in which her kind are hunted and prosecuted, while a mysterious, benevolent ice cream truck driver (Bruce Dern) who seems to know she is tries his best to help her. That’s only the first ten minutes or so I’ve described and only the tip of a very complex, indescribably reality bending puzzle box of a story that I feel like I’d have to watch at least a half dozen times to properly work out in my THC scorched brain. It concerns a form of time travel, clandestine government agents, harvesting brain material, brain stimulated altered visual perception, multigenerational family ties and how they affect genetic abilities and a plot line that defies the laws of time, space, nature and the act of screenwriting itself. I can’t help but think what they would have wrought here with a blockbuster level budget but I also ponder if that might gloss over the scrappy, lo-fi, boundless charm and careening creativity to be found here. Kolker is a phenomenal young actress and you feel believably alongside her protagonist every step of the way through danger, confusion and self discovery. Hirsch, relegated to fascinating work since his fall from A-list grace, is wonderfully haggard and intense here while Dern is his usual excellent, scene stealing, salt of the earth old self. They’re supported by a host of others including Amanda Crew and Grace Park as a ruthlessly efficient agent. I can’t say I understood the whole thing or was able to follow the multiple crisscrossing story threads entirely but they weave together a tapestry that has to be seen to be believed, and is one impressive effort overall.

-Nate Hill

Intruders (2011)

The word Intruders can mean a lot of things, it’s a nice title for a film that gets a lot more ambiguous than it’s standard horror vibe may put out. Here ‘intruders’ on the surface level refers to a faceless marauding monster that terrorizes two children at night by showing up in their bedrooms, but curiously they are in completely different regions, one a girl (Ella Purnell) in London and the other a boy (Izán Corchero) somewhere far away in Spain. What is this evil cloaked figure, where does it come from, why does it only torment these poor kids and what’s the connection between them? These are questions with answers that lie like dark secrets within this shadowy, challenging narrative and I was pleased to note that this is anything but a routine monster/ghost story and has some disturbing, sad revelations that are hard to see coming. The boy in Spain wrestles with this demon as his mother (Pilar Lopez De Alaya) confers with a concerned local priest (Daniel Bruhl) about the situation. Over in London the young girl’s mother (Carice Van Houten) and father (Clive Owen) grow increasingly hopeless and desperate as this thing won’t stop showing up in their daughter’s bedroom and her mental state gets worse and worse. In this case the word ‘Intruders’ sort of means memories more than anything else, decades old trauma passed from one generation to the next until it’s somehow resolved and the monsters can be put to rest. I like the two different locations, bustling metropolitan London and creaky, eerie rural Spain juxtapose nicely while the multinational, eclectic cast are all fantastic with Owen a standout in the film’s key role. It’s a great script with some truly unsettling fright sequences, a twist ending that I dare you to guess even a few minutes ahead of time and some emotional catharsis in the third act that hits home, hard. Highly recommended.

-Nate Hill

Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction

Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction isn’t your typical vampire film, which fits his groove because I’ve always considered his work to be full of genre films that secretly dream of arthouse ambition and can’t really be caged into a one sentence log-line or classification. This has the look and feel of something akin to Jim Jarmusch’s work, a laidback, atmospheric New York City story shot in beautiful black and white tones by cinematographer Ken Kelsch, visual poetry that looks magnificent on the Arrow Blu Ray transfer which can be viewed streaming on Shudder. The film stars Lili Taylor as a philosophy major learning all about the monstrosities that humans are capable of, when she runs into a monster herself in the form of deadly vampire Casanova (the great Annabella Sciorra), who drags her into a dark alleyway one night and bites her in the neck. From there she must come to terms with the changes happening in her body and soul, the need to feed on other humans and what it means to transition from one being into a different creature of the night. The film shirks usual vampire lore and motifs for something denser, more philosophical and intellectually prickly in terms of theme, which sometimes went a bit above my head but it’s obvious that Ferrara is fascinated by the ideas of guilt, penance and absolution rooted in catholic faith, and it’s fascinating to see him explore these things through the stark prism of a vampire story. He always surrounds himself with fascinating and wonderful actors too, like Taylor has spent her career doing curious work that’s hard to pin her down by in any one arena, much like Abel himself, and she’s terrific here, with an arc of existential curiosity that is slowly metamorphosing into deep fear of the inner machinations of nature and the soul. The cast here is terrific, with Sciorra doing a dark, vicious turn and other excellent work from Paul Calderon, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Kathryn Erbe and a spectral Christopher Walken as another vampire she runs into by chance, who briefly and cryptically mentors her on the ways of the night. It won’t be for everyone because it contains none of the sweeping grandeur and baroque romanticism that many are used to and expect from their vampire films, but the thick, cerebrally frictional themes, moody visual palette full of shadows, smoke and concrete and the offbeat, dangerous style were very impressive to me. Streaming now on Shudder.

-Nate Hill

Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes

Jack Clayton’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is Disney at its darkest and is a ton of spooky fun. Based on a novel by the great Ray Bradbury, here adapting his own work for the screen, it tells of a sleepy, picturesque Vermont town sometime in the 40’s, a place where not much of anything really happens until a mysterious travelling carnival shows up one night via train with little notice, as if borne on the very October wind that howls over the region itself. Their arrival peaks the interest of many townsfolk, especially two young boys who grow quickly suspicious of this outfit, especially its outwardly affable yet intangibly sinister ringmaster, a fellow called Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce). Pryce is an actor who has mastered the art of coming across as nervous, stressed and vaguely sympathetic but guards an untapped darkness beneath his terse half smile and he’s positively terrifying here, another sterling villain in his rogue’s gallery of a career. I won’t spoil what this carnival is really up to, but suffice to say it isn’t just to hand out cotton candy and wow the locals with their sideshows and Ferris wheels. There’s an innate, elemental supernatural force at work in each of these carnies, they’re like a pack of ravenous wolves that feed on the human element of both wish and wonder, collecting souls in the process. Most malicious of their group is a mute, animalistic sorceress called the ‘Dust Witch’, played by the always awesome Pam Grier in the kind of dark, fairytale oriented role that she doesn’t get casted in too often, she’s scary, sexy and severely compelling. Also terrific is Jason Robards as one of the boy’s father, his deep, clear speaking voice goes a long way with Bradbury’s wonderfully ornate poetic, prose. It’s a dark, sumptuous jewel of a spooky season watch, with heavy, hazy small town nostalgia captured in elegiac, wistful words by this legendary author and a genuine sense of both eerie wonder and horrifyingly immediate danger. Great stuff.

-Nate Hill