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.

31 Days of Horror: Halloween Ends

halloween ends

Somewhere around 2007 or 2008, I started keeping track of all the films I was watching. It was a fun way of remembering what movies I had watched and when I watched them. I’ve since moved all my tracking to my Letterboxd account (which you can view here).

That first year I watched right at 100 movies. That seemed like a decent amount of films to watch, so I decided I would try to watch 100 movies every year. I quickly calculated and decided that I should watch 10 movies a month to meet my goal. Now, I’m bad at math, but I’m not that bad at math – I knew that 10 movies a month times 12 months equaled 120 per year but that was easier than doing the real math (it is 8.3333 movies per month if you really want to know) and 10 is a nice round number so I just went with it. Plus watching 120 movies a year is better than watching 100 movies a year and I was happy to increase my goal.

Ten movies a month is 2-3 movies per week and I worked diligently to meet that goal. Those of you who know me, you’ll know I actually stressed myself out more than once when I didn’t meet that goal. I managed to watch 120 movies or more for most of the years I was tracking it. For those of you keeping count, there were a couple of years in which my wife was in charge of a study abroad program and we spent three months a year living in Europe. I did not meet my goals during those years.

As my daughter got older I started watching more movies. She no longer needed my attention every moment of every day and so when she would play with her toys or whatever, I’d throw on a movie. She also started going to bed earlier and when she’d go down I’d put on another movie. My annual views went up.

Then COVID hit and we stopped going anywhere for a couple of years. I watched movies like a fiend. I’d get off work, spend a little time talking to my family then I’d start a movie. I might finish it, or I might not. Then there would be supper and clean up. Maybe a TV show or a game with the family. Then I’d put on another movie, or finish the one I started. But it was the weekends that made me a true movie addict. I’d watch something after work on Friday. Then I’d watch a horror movie that night, maybe two. Then on Saturdays, I’d watch 3 or 4 or 5. I think 6 was my record. I’d watch 2-4 more on Sunday. I was averaging something like 9 movies a week. Suddenly I was watching some 400 movies a year.

Even now when we are venturing out more on the weekends I’m still averaging about 1 movie per day or more.

Still, I watched a lot of movies this month. Fifty to be exact. Forty-four of these were horror movies. That’s a little crazy.

But I like stats so I’m going to break them down even more.

Twelve of the movies I had seen before. Twenty were made before I was born. The most movies I watched in one day were four. I did that twice. I only went to a movie theater once and that was to watch the original Halloween on the big screen. My final movie this month was indeed Halloween Ends. But it was kind of terrible and I don’t want to talk about it.

Truth is there was a bit of sickness in my family this month which kept us home on a couple of weekends. Also, the budget has been tight of late which kept us home even more. I tend to watch movies when I’m home.

I’ve done 31 Days of Horror for a few years now and I’ve never watched this many horror movies. Usually, I watch maybe 12 or 15 horror movies in October. I had no intention of writing about them every day either. But once I wrote my first 31 Days of Horror post I couldn’t stop. When I start something like that I have this weird need to keep it going. So I kept watching horror movies so that I could keep up with my posting. I’d watch multiple horror movies on the weekend so I could ensure that I’d have movies to write about even if I wasn’t able to watch a full movie on any given weekday.

To tell you the truth I’m kind of tired of watching horror movies

Next month is Noirvember. I’ll do a post about it tomorrow. I do not think that I will watch a film noir every day, nor do I plan to write about them every single day of the month. But I’ve said that before. I’m definitely looking forward to watching something that doesn’t have a lot of blood splatter.

31 Days of Horror: Gremlins (1984)

gremlins poster

I was eight years old in 1984 when Gremlins came out. I saw it at least once in the theater, but I suspect I saw it more than that. Certainly, I remember talking to my friends about it at school and on the playground. We all loved it. Famously it was one of the movies that created the PG-13 rating (the other was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). There is quite a bit of violence in the film including scenes in which Gremlins are pureed in a food processor and blown up in a microwave. Some audience members were disturbed by this, having taken their young children to the movie due to its PG rating. Steven Spielberg who produced this movie and directed Temple of Doom used his clout to suggest a rating between PG and R and thus the PG-13 rating was born.

As kids, of course, it was those very scenes that we loved and were talking about on the playground.

If you haven’t seen it, Gremlins is about how a father buys a cute little furry creature from a mystical old Chinese man (we’re gonna overlook the terrible caricature that trope has always been, but do note I am completely aware of it). for his son Billy (Zach Galligan). Well, technically he buys it from the man’s grandson, but that detail isn’t that important. The creature called a Mogwai and named Gizmo by Billy comes with three rules.

He doesn’t like bright lights, and sunlight will kill him.
Never get him wet.
Never, ever, feed him after midnight.

As a side note, I once bought the woman who would become my wife a stuffed Gizmo but made her recite the rules to me before I would give it to her. She still has it, and pulled him out while watching the movie.

Naturally, all three of these rules will be broken in the course of the movie.

When water is accidentally spilled onto Gizmo he spawns a bunch of other Mogwai. Unlike Gizmo these spawns are more mischievous and malevolent. They trick Billy into feeding them after midnight which metamorphosizes them into larger, nastier creatures with evil intent.

Mayhem and quite a bit of pretty bloody violence ensue.

Director Joe Dante directs Gremlins from a script by Chris Columbus with a wonderful mix of humor and gore. As a kid I loved it. As an adult I still do.

It takes place on Christmas Eve so technically you could call it a Christmas movie rather than a Halloween one, but I’m still counting it for my 31 Days of Horror scoreboard.

31 Days of Horror: Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)

summer of sam poster

I’ve talked quite a bit about how I grew up watching slasher movies like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc. I am a child of the ’80s and slashers were all the rage. But while I am a child of the ’80s I really came of age in the ’90s. This is a fallow period for horror movies. Slasher movies were either straight-to-video schlock or the 7th or 8th sequel to a long-since stale franchise.

Then in 1996 Scream was released and things changed. Written by Kevin Williamson, a horror buff, and directed by Wes Craven who directed many a horror film including the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. These were people who knew the genre and loved it. They also knew the tropes, and how tired they had become and made a film that played around with them. The characters in Scream are fans of horror movies and talk about the rules and tropes of the genre whilst simultaneously living through one. It is a self-aware slasher film, but one that is also a really good version of the genre.

I injected it straight into my veins. It was hugely successful and like all cinematic successes, it spawned countless imitators. They all had a cast of attractive up-and-comers (who were usually stars on the small screen but had yet to break onto the big screen) were filled with self-aware characters and the music was very much of the time (mostly 1990s alt-rock). Most of them were also instantly forgettable.

When Halloween H20: 20 Years Later came out I was all on board. I loved the original John Carpenter film (which essentially ignited the slasher craze of the 1980s) and I thought it would be really fun to give that film a boost with this new updated version of the old film. I hated it on that first viewing.

It is here that I admit that at this point I had only seen the original Halloween, but none of the sequels. So I was not well knowledged in the Halloween-verse lore. I was also expecting more Scream-esque shenanigans and got very little of that.

But I’ve seen the film a few times since that initial viewing and I’ve really come around to the film. I’ve also seen all the other Halloween films (excepting the Rob Zombie-directed Halloween II) so I’m better prepared to see how it fits into the canon.

Halloween H20 essentially pretends that every film after Halloween II (the original not the Rob Zombie remake, man this series gets weird with their naming) doesn’t exist. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) survived the attacks from Michael Myers, then faked her death and got on with her life. She’s now the headmistress of a posh, exclusive, and secluded prep school in California. She might be a functioning alcoholic, and she pops a lot of ills, but she’s not living in fear. Well, maybe she lives in a little fear, especially when the calendar gets closer to Halloween. Maybe a lot of fear when it is almost Halloween, and her son, John (Josh Hartnett) is about to turn 17, the same age she was when Michael Myers attacked.

Much like the original, this Halloween movie takes its time getting to the killings. Oh, there is a pretty great opening scene in which Michael Myers kills his former nurse to get some files on where Laurie is currently living, and he kills a couple of people along his route. But mostly the film is about how Laurie has started her new life. She seems to be a good teacher. She has a steady boyfriend (Adam Arkin). She is learning how to deal with her growing son, etc. We spend quite a bit of time with her son and his friends.

I liked these scenes. It is a film about trauma and how the violence of the early films has stayed with Laurie even as she tries to pretend everything is fine. These days it seems like every other film is about trauma (and certainly the new Halloween movies dig deep into that idea), but at the time this was something of a rarity. There are callbacks to earlier films but they don’t hit you on that head with it.

This isn’t a film that is self-aware like the Scream movies are. Nobody reference other horror movies or their tropes. LL Cool J provides some comic relief as a security guard who secretly wants to write romance novels, but that’s as jokey as it gets. The teenagers are young, and attractive, and populated by up-and-coming actors (Michelle Williams and Joseph Gordon-Levitt appear). The soundtrack is filled with cool alt-rock from the period. But it feels less like a 1990s new-slasher film than an update of the original.

When Michael Myers does show up the kills and the final battle are well-staged. There is nothing here that will make a highlight reel of the best kill scenes, but it does the job. And that really sums up the film. It is well made and well acted, it works as a serviceable slasher and a nice updating of the original. But there is nothing here that makes it special. But in a world filled with really terrible horror films, perfectly serviceable is a perfectly reasonable thing to hope for.

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.

31 Days of Horror: Werewolf By Night (2022)

werewolf at night

I’ve recently dissed Marvel movies and TV shows in this very blog. The truth is I actually like most of their movies. I am a fan of the MCU. What I’m not a fan of is how they’ve basically pushed everybody else out of the sandbox. The cinematic landscape has changed dramatically since Iron Man (2008) first landed in cinemas. I live in a small town. We have one movie theatre. It only shows big-budget, blockbuster-type movies. I yearn for the days of mid-budget, smaller films that weren’t about superheroes and saving the world.

Yes, I can get those through Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO and the like. No, it is not the same. And Disney is doing their best to take over the television as well.

While I do like a lot of the MCU I have to admit I’m growing tired of it. I saw the new Dr. Strange movie in the theater when it came out. I mostly liked it. But it also felt like I had to do homework before I watched it. You really need to have seen the previous Dr. Strange movies, the last Spider-Man movie, and the entire season of Wandavision for it to make sense. And like all Marvel movies these days it spent part of its runtime setting up movies that haven’t come out yet. That’s a lot to ask for what should be a dumb summertime popcorn flick.

But like I keep saying, I do like a lot of the Marvel stuff, and I enjoy watching them with my family. Enter Werewolf by Night.

Pleasantly this is a film that essentially exists on its own. It is mostly in black and white and it has a unique visual style. The plot isn’t amazing, but it is fun and exciting. It involves a group of monster hunters who have gathered to mourn their fallen leader and to fight for his throne and some magic hubajoob.

The magic thingy is placed on a big, bad monster and the group must find and slay the beast inside a maze of buildings and capture the stone. Oh, and it is totally okay to kill each other too. There are two fighters who do not belong. The first is the daughter of the fallen leader (Laura Donnelly) who wants the magic stone so she can rid herself of her evil family once and for all. The other is someone (Gael Garcia Bernal) with a dark, mysterious secret.

It exists inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but you could easily watch this film without having seen anything else in the MCU. There aren’t any callbacks and it doesn’t push toward another sequel. I imagine if it is popular enough they will probably throw these characters into another story, or give it a sequel, but for now it is nice that it exists on its own. Like all Marvel things, it is full of action and humor. I don’t mean to pretend this is some brilliant new thing they are doing. But it feels different enough to make it refreshing before jumping back into another Thor or Spider-Man movie.

31 Days of Horror: The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (1974)

the killer reserved nine seats

A rich man, Patrick Davenant (Chris Avram) invites a group of friends to an old abandoned theater that he owns. Once there they get locked inside and someone starts killing them one by one. Who is the killer? Why is he or she killing these nine people?

The Killer Reserved Nine Seats is an Italian Giallo by way of Agatha Christie.

All of the guests are financially connected to Davenant, in that he mostly supports them through various means. His death will benefit them all in various ways. It is his life that is almost taken first. I say almost because he is saved at the last minute. A large beam is cut free from its holding rope and it drops down on top of him, but just seconds before someone calls the man’s name, he moves and is saved.

Others are not so lucky. As the bodies pile up so do the accusations as to who could be the killer.

But first, there is a lot of silliness. Because this is a 1970s Italian Giallo and not some actual Christie adaptation by the BBC or some old 1940s movie, the characters spend a lot of their time taking off their clothes and getting horny with one another. What I love about that stuff is they are getting naked with one another even after the bodies start piling up.

There is one scene in which one of the women is attacked by the killer (he’s in a mask so she can’t tell who it is). She screams and shouts for help. A man comes in and fights off the killer. The woman escapes and runs to the others. None of them believe her. They say she is hysterical and hallucinating. When they return to the room where she was attacked and find the man who helped her dead by hanging. They decide he was the real killer and guilt drove him to suicide.

I couldn’t help but watch this scene and think of the #metoo movement. About all the statistics showing that when women cry for help, when they report harassment and sexual assault they all so often aren’t believed. I have no idea if the filmmakers were thinking about such things when they created this scene, but it feels very modern.

The script is mostly nonsense. At least the parts I could understand. There were several moments in which the characters inexplicably started speaking Italian and there were no subtitles. Italian films from this era often had the actors speak in whatever language was native to them, and then they would dub in the proper languages in post-production. Presumably, these sections were moments when the English dub has been lost.

What works in the film is its vibe. The theater setting gives us several different locations with different feels. The stage has working sets for the characters to play with. Curtains rise and fall. The auditorium and lobby are beautiful and ornate. The backstage area is filled with props and costumes. Upstairs the attic is dusty and filled with cobwebs. There is even an old crypt filled with candles downstairs. All of this gives the film atmosphere. The women are dressed in fabulous gowns, and the men are in nice suits. The camera moves about, and the lighting is filled with shadows.

I love that stuff. I can put up with all sorts of bewildering things in a script if the filmmaking is interesting.

31 Days of Horror: Macabre (1980)

macabre poster

There has been a lot of discourse over on Twitter lately about how cinema is more than just plot. This stems from a certain contingency of filmbros who loudly complain about things like perceived plot holes or a lack of narrative or some other problem within the film’s story without paying attention to the atmosphere or direction, acting or other aspects of a film’s artistry. The argument is that what makes movies special is not what actually happens, but how it happens, or how the story is told.

Lamberto Bava’s first film as a director Macabre is a good example of what I’m talking about. The plot is razor-thin. A woman returns to a rambling old mansion where she rents an apartment after being away for several years. The apartment is not her home, but rather a place she used to sneak away to and have an extra-marital affair. This was before her daughter drowned her son and before an automobile accident decapitated her lover (which happened just moments after she learned about the dead son). The reason she was away was due to being in a mental institute, having broken down after those two deaths.

All of this happens within the first five minutes of the film. For the rest of the movie the lady spends most of her time in her apartment having spirited relations with some unknown lover all the while the blind man who owns the building listens attentively downstairs. The woman’s daughter (who was not arrested for her brother’s murder as she made it look like an accident) periodically shows up and asks a lot of questions.

There is a mystery around the woman’s lover as he is never seen. And she has the freezer locked up for some reason. It is pretty easy to figure out what’s going on, especially since the posters and synopsis tend to give away the surprise.

But Bava (who is the son of Mario Bava, one of the grandfathers of Italian horror) knows how to make a movie, even when the plot is slim and rather hokey. The mansion is filled with creaky old stuff and interesting bric-a-brac. He films it from various angles with lots of shadows and light giving it a great gothic feel.

It reminded me a lot of really old films that clearly didn’t have much of a budget and were hemmed in by the censors from creating something really creepy. But were still able to create a mood, a vibe, and then had some ridiculous twist at the end. Bava does his best to create tension about what it is that freezer. He moves his camera slowly towards it, adds in mysterious music, etc. Even though you know what it is, and how ridiculous the idea is, you are still along for the ride. At least I was.

31 Days of Horror: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

jekyll and hyde

Over the last few months, I have watched no fewer than four different versions of this story. Honestly, at this point, they are all starting to blend together. This is especially true since three of the adaptations I watched all follow what is called the Sullivan plot. In 1887 Thomas Russell Sullivan created the first serious theatrical rendering of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book for the stage. He reworked the plot around a romantic love interest (apparently there is no romance in the book).

Each film (this one from 1920, a 1931 adaptation starring Frederic March and another one from 1941 with Spencer Tracy) does its own variations on that central plot, but they are mostly the same. The differences are in the staging and the performances.

Over the last year or two I’ve been trying to watch more silent films, a part of film history I don’t really know much about. I have to admit I’ve struggled with the project. Silent Films obviously rely heavily on the visuals, since there is no dialogue, except what is periodically written on card inserts. And while many silent films contain some very striking images, they often also present what I’d consider to be fairly flat visuals.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde does some interesting things with the visuals, there are some nice sets and the transformation of Dr. Jekyll to Mr Hyde is pretty cool. But there is also any number of scenes in which characters sit and the dinner table, or stand in the drawing room and talk. Sometimes, my mind wandered. It is a struggle to stay focused on the acting and the scenery. This is again, especially true with a film like this in which I am all too familiar with the story.

Still, there are some nice moments. John Barrymore shines as the titular characters. He is especially great when he transforms into the manic Mr. Hyde.

The more silent films I watch the more I am able to get into their particular groove. The do make you be more attentive to what is happening on the screen, versus allowing your eyes to wander to your phone or some other object, relying just on the dialogue to tell the story. This is a good thing, even if I still do struggle a bit with them.