The Friday Night Horror Movie: The Wailing (2016)

the wailing

A policeman, Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won) is awakened from his slumber in the pre-dawn hours in a small Korean village. Someone had died, possibly murdered. But first Jong-Goo has his breakfast. The murder was brutal. The man was stabbed multiple times. His wife was chopped up and put into a bag. The likely suspect sits outside the scene, covered in blood and mud. He’s visibly shaken and does not speak.

The next night Jong-Goo and his partner are chatting about the case at the police station. In the midst of a powerful thunderstorm, just as the electricity goes out, a naked woman appears at the window covered in blood and dirt. She disappears before they can talk to her. The following day another murder was committed. That woman is at the scene screaming and yes, wailing. She’ll hang herself before the sun sets again.

As the eating his breakfast before attending to his murder scene attests, Jong-Goo is not a great policeman. In fact, he’s fairly useless. But he’s the only one that thinks there is more to these two cases than meets the eye. The official response from the higher-ups is that there has been a bad batch of mushrooms afflicting the village causing some psychotic breaks. He thinks, perhaps, there is a serial killer on the loose, or maybe something more sinister.

Local gossip points their fingers at a Japanese man who recently showed up in the village. Others think it might be an evil spirit. When Jon-Goo’s daughter stars acting strangely he pays the Japanese man a visit.

To go further into the plot would be to spoil The Wailing’s many surprises. Director Na Hong-jin’s film is busting at the seams with ideas and influences. It is a film full of mythology, folk tales, and religion. Jong-Goo will call upon both a shame and a Catholic priest for help. It feels like about four horror films in one. It is violent and goofy, thrilling and terrifying.

It is perhaps just a tad too much. With a run time of around 2 and a half hours, it feels a little longer than it needs to be. There are a lot of twists and turns, and red herrings galore. I’m not quite sure it will stand up under scrutiny, but I really enjoyed myself while in the midst of it. I’m too tired at the moment to write much more, but it is definitely worth checking out if you are a fan of horror and are looking for something a little different.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: John Dies At The End (2012)

john dies at the end

Don Coscarelli has had one interesting career as a director. After directing his very first feature film at the age of 18 he went on to create one of the more iconic horror mechanisms of the 1980s (Phantasm‘s flying silver ball). He followed that up with The Beastmaster a ridiculous, schlocky bit of fantasy starring Marc Singer as a bare-chested cross between Luke Skywalker and Doctor Doolittle which was a staple of late-night cable television in the early 1990s. He then made four increasingly bad Phantasm sequels which expanded the film’s mythology into incoherence. He also made Bubba Ho-Tep, a film that I haven’t seen but apparently stars Bruce Campbell as an elderly Elvis Presley who teams up with JFK to fight an ancient Egyptian mummy. His last film was this one which I just watched.

It is an absolute mess of a film, at times both brilliant and baffling. To explain the plot would be an exercise in futility. It involves a mind-altering drug, an alternate universe, bug aliens, and a lot of gross-out horror. It is a film so filled to the brim with ideas that it never pauses for a breath to let the viewer catch up, or to take stock of where it is going.

Coscarelli has a visual flair so it is generally interesting to look at (with the exception of some pretty dodgy CGI). It is well made and well acted (Paul Giamatti has a small role and he’s always great to see in anything – he also produced the film). There are lots of interesting things going on in the script, I just wished they had spent a little more time on any one idea and fleshed it out more, instead of throwing more and more and stuff at us. It has a tendency to be a little too jokey as well. In part, it wants to be this mind-bending, time-jumping sci-fi/horror film and in another part it wants to be a Judd Apatow-style bro-comedy. The two parts never really gel together in any coherent way.

It is definitely worth watching if you like Corscarelli or films that get a little crazy.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: The Vampire Doll (1970)

the vampire doll

I’ve talked about how the Criterion Channel is one of my favorite streaming services. Mubi is fast becoming a contender in that category. Mubi actually works as a kind of sister channel to Criterion. Where Criterion focuses on the world’s greatest films and lots of classic Hollywood films (and lots of other more esoteric themes like Snow Westerns and 1970s sci-fi) Mubi’s focus is on more modern art-house fair. They show films that premiere at film festivals like Cannes and Sundance, but that doesn’t necessarily reach a wider audience.

They also have a lot of what you might call cult films – genre movies that have been all but forgotten except by a small group of fans. The Vampire Doll is a good example of what I’m talking about. This was the Japanese film company Toho’s attempt at cashing in on the horror craze that so popular at the time.

It looks and feels like a Hammer Horror film with its creaky old mansion as a setting and its moody supernatural storyline. A man who has been traveling abroad for the last few months returns home to Japan. He immediately rides out to the country to see his girlfriend Yuko (Yukiko Kobayashi). Upon arrival, he is told by her mother (Yôko Minakaze) that Yuko is dead. She died in an automobile accident a few weeks prior.

That evening he sees a woman that appears to be Yuko. Flash forward a few days and the man’s sister, Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) and her fiancee Hiroshi (Akira Nakao) visit the old mansion because they have not heard from her brother in a while and that is unusual. Keiko immediately senses something is wrong and decides to stick around and investigate.

With a 70-minute run time, the plot moves along pretty quickly. Honestly, storywise the film isn’t great. It doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before. But it works really well as a mood piece. The mansion is full of creepy shadows, and the music is particularly moody. I mentioned Hammer Horror earlier and that is fitting. If you’ve ever seen any of those old movies then you’ll know what I’m talking about. They have a particular look and feel to them that is perfect for this type of gothic horror.

And that’s why I love sites like Mubi. I’d never heard of this film before, but they spotlighted it and now I’ve seen it and I’m glad that I did.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: The Black Phone (2021)

the black phone

As much as possible I try to go into a movie knowing very little. I find not having expectations on what to expect really helps the viewing experience. That’s probably a funny thing to say from a guy who regularly reviews movies a lot of you haven’t seen, but it is true.

The Black Phone is a movie I kept seeing people excitedly talking about when it came out, but I successfully kept myself from actually reading those things, and thus I came to it knowing nothing more than Ethan Hawke apparently wears a lot of scary-looking masks.

I’ll tell you all just slightly more about it. Hawke plays a crazy dude who abducts children and…well I won’t spoil what he does. Actually, I don’t really know because I haven’t finished the film. The main story revolves around one boy who is abducted and placed into a large basement. There is a phone on the wall, but it is disconnected. Except it keeps ringing and the people who answer on the other end are boys Ethan Hawke previously abducted.

I’m maybe 45 minutes into it and so far I’m digging it. It has that Blumhouse slickness to it that tends to keep me from loving films that come under that banner, but Hawke is creepy and the 1970s setting is done well. I especially was enjoying a foul-mouthed, and tough girl who is our hero’s sister. I hope she comes to his rescue before it is all said and done.

And now I must get back to it.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: The Ring (2002)

the ring

In the early 2000s, horror nerds like myself began to discover what was then called J-Horror. This was a cycle of horror movies made in Japan that started in the early 1990s. Unlike the films made in the United States at the time, J-Horror relied more on atmosphere and mood to create their scares. They often involved haunted houses and evil spirits, the supernatural rather than knife-wielding psychopaths that were so popular in America at the time.

Discovering these films was like a fresh of breath air for folks like me who had long since grown tired of slashers. I believe Ringu (1998) was the first J-Horror film to really make a splash here in the US (I’m sure some horror hound could pop in now to tell me they were watching Japanese Hororr films long before Ringu popularized the genre, but whatever). It was a huge film in Japan and had decent success in America.

Enough so that an American producer decided to remake it as The Ring (2002). That movie was a surprise success and started a succession of American remakes of J-Horror films. Snob that I am I watched pretty much all of them, but always preferred the Japanese originals.

Tonight I decided to rewatch The Ring. I liked it more this time than my previous watches.

It is about a VHS tape that kills you after seven days after your first viewing. Typing that out just now makes me realize how dumb that summary sounds. The film on the tape is like a short film some goth art school kid would make to try and freak everybody out. A couple of teenagers watch the tape and seven days later they die horrible deaths. Naomi Watts plays a journalist who was related to one of the teens. She sniffs a story and investigates.

She finds, then watches the creepy tape and immediately after she receives a phone call telling her she has seven days to live. When her young son accidentally watches the tape and starts drawing creepy drawings she knows she has to solve the mystery.

The original Japanese film is super creepy and atmospheric and really good (you can read my review of it over at Cinema Sentries). The remake is very Americanized in that it provides a few more jump scares, has slicker production values, and juices up the narrative a little bit so that the story is explained to the viewer in clearer turns.

Still, it is effective in its own way. The jump scares work for the most part, and it is still moody enough to give it that J-Horror feels even if it is a little sanitized.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: Down (2001)

down

Friday night comes and I need a horror movie to watch. I really want to watch something I’ve not seen before, but scrolling through my current streaming services doesn’t turn up much. I start to put on The Ring (2002) the American remake of the excellent Japanese film Ringu (1988) with Naomi Watts, but I’ve seen it before, and as I said I’m wanting something new. I land on this film which also stars Naomi Watts. It is about an evil elevator in a New York skyrise and that sounds like fun.

Sometimes when you randomly watch something after flipping through the streaming channels you discover something really good. Sometimes, like tonight, you realize you’ve made a terrible mistake.

Down is a remake of a Dutch film called The Lift which is something of a cult classic. Dick Maas directed both of them. I haven’t seen the original but if the remake is anything like it I won’t be bothering with it at all.

It seems to be trying for some sort of blending of horror and comedy but it fails at both. The comedy is broad and bad and not all of the actors seem to understand they should be going for laughs, while others seem to think they are in a Marx Brothers film. It was made just before Watts became a star so while she is featured prominently in all the promotional material she actually isn’t the lead. That role goes to James Marshall who, if you are like me, you’ll stare at for a long time trying to remember where you know him from before you finally look it up and realize he was in Twin Peaks. He plays everything quite straight whereas Naomi Watts seems to have walked in from some SNL skit from the early 1990s. She lays it on thick and broad and sports the worst Brooklyn accent I’ve heard in a while.

The film has great character actors like Dan Hedaya and Michael Ironside, Ron Perlman and Edward Hermann in small roles, all of which seem to be playing in different movies.

This is a movie that begins with two security mooks looking through those tourist telescope things on the observation deck of this big skyscraper. They are looking into the window of a nearby window watching a couple of prostitutes get sexy with some dude. It is played for laughs like it’s one of those low-budget comedies the USA Network used to play on Friday nights. It goes downhill from there.

While the comedy is bad the horror is worse. It builds very little suspense, the deaths are sometimes gruesome but never effective. I’d say it was more of a supernatural thriller instead of horror but it isn’t very thrilling either. In the last 15 minutes or so it does switch from just bad to so-bad-its-good territory but by then I was just ready for it to be over.

As an interesting bit of trivia, the film was scheduled for a 2001 release but then 9/11 happened and for obvious reasons, it got pushed back into oblivion. At some point, they think the elevator mishaps are caused by terrorists. There are actually characters who talk about how Bin Laden tried to take down the twin towers which is now kind of creepy. And that’s about as creepy at the film gets.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: The House of the Devil (2009)

the house of the devil

I’ve been hearing good things about Pearl and X, both films that were directed by Ti West and came out this year, and so when I saw that his 2009 film House of the Devil was on The Criterion Channel I decided to give it a shot.

I mostly loved it and I’m gonna try not to spoil anything as this is definitely a film that’s best if you go into it not knowing very much. It is also a film that clearly takes its influences from late 1970s/early 1980s horror. It is definitely a slow burn, that only gets “exciting” in the last twenty minutes. I put exciting in quotes because I found the rest of the film exhilarating, but not a whole lot happens in that build-up.

Joceline Donahue plays Samantha, a college student in need of help. Her roommate is terrible and she desperately wants to move. She’s found a place to rent, but she’s got to come up with the first month’s deposit, and she’s unemployed and broke. When she sees a flyer for someone needing a babysitter she immediately gives it a call. Despite the guy who answers the phone sounding like a creep and standing her up on their first meeting, she takes the job.

She gets her friend (Greta Gerwig) to drive her out to the isolated (and close to a cemetery) house where she meets Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan). He is strange, and kind of creepy. The house is big, old, and creepy as well. He tells her he lied, that this isn’t a babysitting job, but rather a looking after his elderly mother-in-law job. She is healthy and gets around just fine, so really all Sam has to do is make sure no emergencies happen and it will be smooth sailing. Especially since the mom is a private person and will likely stay in her room.

Despite the creepiness, and the warnings from her friend Sam stays. It should be easy, and besides the guy is offering $400 for one night’s work.

This is a horror movie called The Devil’s House so we are primed for Mr. Ulman to be a serial killer, or the mother-in-law to be a holy terror, or for devil worshipers to try to get into the house. Ti West knows this expectation and plays with it. For most of the film’s run-time literally, nothing happens. Sam sits in the house alone and bored. She watches TV. She orders a pizza. She plays pool while listening to her Walkman. She explores the house. But the way the film is shot. The way the camera lingers in certain places. The way it was shot in 16mm giving it a grainy look. The way the music acts like a creepy horror movie score. The way the house looks with its weird rooms, and deep shadows. The way Sam is perpetually scared. All of these things build up unrelenting tension.

There is one scene, relatively early on, that happens to someone who is not Sam, that lets you know all this tension building isn’t for naught, but mostly it’s just playing with your expectations. I loved it. So much so that I was actually kind of disappointed when things actually started to happen.

I’ll stop myself there. I have a few reservations about the ending, but mostly I really liked this one.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: Psycho II (1983)

psycho II

Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho is about as close to perfection as horror films come. I love it. I’ve seen it probably half a dozen times over the years. Yet, I’ve never had any desire to see any of the sequels. There was no need to, in my opinion. Psycho said everything that needed to be said about Norman Bates. Hitchock never indicated he wanted to make any other films and all of the sequels came about after he had died. The general consensus of the sequels is that they are pretty bad, and so I never bothered with them.

But then the other day one of my favorite critics, Keith Phipps, wrote a piece about Psycho II and it intrigued me, and so it became my Friday Night Horror Movie.

As it turns out Psycho II is way better than it has any right to be.

Set 22 years after the events of Psycho, this sequel follows Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) as he is released from the psychiatric institute he’s lived in since being found guilty of the murders from the original film. He’s been found mentally sound by his psychiatrist (Robert Loggia) and sent back to his (surprisingly still intact) home. The hotel is there too and so is Mr. Toomey (a never-sleazier Dennis Franz), a guy hired by the institute to run the place in Norman’s absence.

The hotel has never been much of a money maker so Norman gets a job as a cook’s assistant at a nearby diner. There he meets Mary (Meg Tilly). They get chummy and when Mary’s boyfriend kicks her out Norman lets her sleep (and shower) at his place. Things go ok until little notes start showing up from Norman’s mother. And somebody keeps calling his house claiming to be his mother, too. Then the bodies start piling up.

Is Norman going crazy once again? Or is somebody else trying to get him locked back up?

What I find interesting about the film is that Norman Bates is a true protagonist. The film takes his side, it makes us like him. Anthony Perkins’s portrayal is sympathetic. It was sympathetic in the original, but here we really like him. Or at least I did. The murders in the first film were due to a deep psychosis. We believe he is cured. That’s a really interesting route to take in this film.

Director Richard Franklin (who had just come off the terrific Australian thriller Road Games) knows what he’s doing. There are lots of visual homages to Hitchcock throughout the film, but he makes it his own. This is a film that didn’t need to be made, but it makes you glad it exists.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: Dark Glasses (2022)

dark glasses argento poster<

I am a very big fan of Dario Argento. He was one of the originators and the perfector of the Italian Giallo. Throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, he churned out one masterpiece after another. But the hard truth is he hasn’t made a good movie in a very long time, and most of his output since the 1990s has been terrible.

So it was with some trepidation that I came to Dark Glasses, his first film since the godawful Dracula in 2012. Well, I’m happy to say Argento is back, baby.

This is not Argento at his peak. It isn’t as good as Suspiria or Dark Red, but it is still pretty darn good. Gone is the shoddy CGI and dull cinematography. The film looks great and it absolutely contains some of his famous stylistic flairs.

The story involves a woman who is blinded in an accident and chased by a crazed maniac. It is none too special in that department but it works well enough. There are enough surprises to keep you guessing, and while the killer’s reveal is pretty dumb, getting there is quite effective.

This is a film that were it directed by someone else, some up-and-comer, you’d be hearing a lot more chatter about it. But because it is from a master of horror, and that it is perhaps not the peak of his career it is already being forgotten about. That’s a shame because I really liked it.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: Wolfen (1981)

wolfen poster

If you are any sort of cinephile. If you have grown tired of the latest Marvel movie, or are looking for something besides the next big blockbuster coming soon to Disney+ then I highly recommend the Criterion Channel. They not only have some of the world’s greatest cinema, but they do an incredible job of curation. Most streaming services seem content to just throw a whole lot of stuff at your screen and hope that something sticks.

It amazes me that Netflix and Amazon and most of the other streamers will spend a ton of money to make a film or gather exclusive rights to a movie – movies with great stars and directors, etc. – and then will just dump it in next to all the other crap they bought on the cheap and give it absolutely no advertising.

The Criterion Channel actually thinks about the films they bring in, they support them and curate them. They come with themes and bring in critics to talk about them. I love it. I won’t say that every film they have available is the greatest ever, but I’ve never been disappointed that I watched something through their service.

What I really love is that they often bring to my attention films that I’ve never heard of. Like tonight’s film, Wolfen. I didn’t know it existed until it shows up in the 1980s horror collection.

It stars Albert Finney as a disgraced New York City detective who is brought back to solve a high-profile case of a rich mover and shaker who was ripped to shreds by someone (or something – one imagines it will be a werewolf given the title of the film, but I haven’t gotten that far yet).

I’m just a half hour in, but so far I’m loving it. And I would have never have seen it were it not for Criterion. God bless ’em.