Don’t put up those Christmas decorations just yet, because over the Halloween period I’ve seen a bunch of horrors.
Mandy a druggy descent into revenge thriller hell starring Nicholas Cage who definitely spends most of the film covered in blood. Halloween, the revival reboot of a classic horror franchise made 40 years after the original which may actually bring the slasher movie into vogue again. Possum, a more cerebral metaphorical horror about the monster inside… a monster from Matthew Holness the creator of Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place. Finally, not a film, but so good I don’t even care, The Haunting of Hill House the latest adaptation of the classic horror novel that is re imagined as a 10 part Netflix TV series by Mike Flannagan.
I saw Mandy as part of Nottingham’s Mayhem Film Festival within a packed audience who I think maybe had an inkling of what they were letting themselves in for, a glorious return to form from Nicholas Cage -the one true God – with added chainsaws, but maybe not to the extent the film actually ended up being. It was introduced by the festival curators as ‘if David Lynch took dropped acid, listened to ALOT of prog rock and decided to remake John Wick’. When you’re writing about films you want to do your best in describing things in your own words but as far as describing this film goes I really couldn’t do any better.
The plot is very simple, Nicholas Cage plays Red Miller, a lumberjack living out in the woods with his girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), an artist with a love for 80s hair metal. One day, Mandy is seen by Jeremiah, a leader of a hippie esque cult known as Children of the New Dawn. He is instantly enchanted by her and decides he must have her and so with the help of his disciples and a bunch of ‘crazy evil’ bikers resembling Hellraiser’s Cenobites who are summoned by blowing into this mystical rock (no really) they capture Mandy and end up killing her in front of Red. Red then understandably goes on a revenge rampage killing absolutely everyone culpable to the crime.
So the plot is very simple but the style and aesthetic director Panos Cosmatos tells it through this hypnotic LSD lens that can at once be very beautiful, whilst possessing an 80’s VHS griminess to when the movie high dives into grindhouse.
For the first half, Cage is very restrained and it is Andrea Riseborough who dominates the film, forming the emotional heart of this trippy ‘none more metal’ revenge experience. It is only after the tragedy that Cage comes into his own and effectivelly unleashes his inner Cage. One scene in a bathroom, effectively has Cage in his y-fronts having an emotional and mental breakdown, he cries and screams in rage, inbetween gulps of vodka. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Cage go full Cage, so this scene effectively feels like a ritualesque summoning of the beast. From there, it’s all forging metal chrome axes, dropping evil acid, chainsaw battles, and screaming ‘You’re in my shit’ over and over again at a snarling leather clad evil doer. It’s very important that in the pronounciation of ‘shit’ Cage whoops an octave higher like a demon hill billy. The moment in which Cage kills the dude, eyes wide and face covered in blood,’ the audience cheered jubilantly.
Superman had well and truly returned. Welcome back.
But behind all the violence and revenge schlock, the movie is utterly beguilling to look at, there is a real human sadness at it’s core conveyed by Riseborough/Cage coupled with a kind of cosmic ridiculousness to it all. On the other other hand, there is a silliness to Mandy. It knows exactly what it is, and appeals to your basest desires, the plot is only going to go one way. It’s a trip. It’s not for everyone. Do not under any circumstances take your mum to see it. If your going out on a date with someone, probably don’t take them to it unless you’re completely sure that this kind of movie would be something they’d be into.
I loved it.
What if 40 years had passed since the first Halloween movie and you forgot to make the soft reboot? What if despite Jamie Lee Curtis axing the head clean off Michael Myers in Halloween H20 – the twentieth anniversary of the first Halloween – never happened? What if Busta Rhymes never busted in to karate chop Michael Myers into some hastily arranged electrical cables? Remember that comedy movie Your Highness starring Danny McBride? What if the same creative team made the Halloween H40 movie? What if Danny McBride actually had a hand in writing it? What then? What would you think? How would you react?
Everything is spinning off out of control.
THE EVIL IS GONE.
THE EVIL IS…
[Please press play to complete the effect I’m trying to make here]
Back in 1978, John Carpenter’s original Halloween basically gave rise to the slasher film. Spawning multiple copycats throughout the 80s in which kids get iced, before experiencing a revival in the mid Nineties – largely being the main inspiration for Wes Craven’s meta-Slasher Scream. At this point there have been various sequels to the original movie and a reboot from Rob Zombie which somewhat admirably went completely in its own direction in it’s depiction of Michael Myers. The latest Halloween movie effectively washes its hands of all the sequels and reboots, even the one’s that starred Jamie Lee Curtis, even the one’s that happened 20 years after the original. This version of Halloween pitches itself as the direct sequel to the original. All the stuff about Michael Myers being Laurie Strode’s brother? All the teens murdered in all the other film’s? all bullshit made up by other people – in the film’s own words.
40 years after the events of the original movie. Two Guardian readers are making a true crime podcast about the murders of Michael Myers in an attempt to better understand why he did what he did under the vague hope that he can be cured. Bless your liberal hearts for thinking pure evil is just misunderstood. Try telling that to 60 year old Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) who has spent the last 40 years prepping for the inevitable within her secluded shack in the woods complete with Home Alone style traps, a Matrix amount of guns and a Panic Room styled panic room. All this, and her belief that Myers will return to kill again has isolated her from everyone including her family – daughter (Judy Greer) and grand daughter (Andi Matichak). And so as Halloween night rolls in, Michael Myers escapes after a routine prison transfer goes wrong, he proceeds to go on a killing screen across the suburbs, whilst Laurie Strode attempts to keep her daughter and grand daughter safe from the bogeyman.
The first Halloween was relatively simple, masked man goes around indiscriminately killing teenagers of which Jamie Lee Curtis becomes the lone female survivor. As the authorities unwittingly rally, Dr Loomis – the Van Helsing styled character is the only one who understands completely what the killer is. Evil in it’s purest form. At the start of Halloween H40, the point is made – why would anyone care about a handful of people Myers killed in the 70s compared to what is happened in the world in the years after. What is so scary about a dude in black overalls in a melted William Shatner likeness mask butchering promiscuous teens? Halloween H40 keeps things back to basics here. As Myers escapes he proceeds to kill without mercy or any rational, in one long shot we see him go from house to house murdering in a pedestrian fashion – he just keeps killing and moving. His victims on the other hand are given just enough humanity and humour, which feels a little like Superbad styled improv. I mean, if you were to remake Superbad but add in Michael Myers that would be a way to make a slasher movie of course.
Halloween H40 successfully plays into the fun of the slasher genre without doing anything particularly new and interesting or providing anything that betters the original. With exception to maybe the score, in which John Carpenter returns adding in synths and grungey guitars to amplify the 40 year rage and added blood and guts. They do try to allude to this idea of Laurie Strode becoming a kind of monster in herself, born out of the trauma of the first movie, there are a number of clever subversions of shots from the first movie, in which she effectively becomes Michael Myers. Unfortunately, it never really goes anywhere beyond just that. For the most part this is Laurie Strode as Sarah Connor from Terminator 2. We never get a full sense of how big a monster she is. Even after what happened, she still managed to have kids, granted she’s estranged from most of her family, I mean she owns enough guns to imply that she may have voted for Trump, but I still doubted she was that much a monster. When it comes to the cat and mouse of monster hunting monster within the Home Alone house, Jamie Lee Curtis is Ripley.
I enjoyed it about as much as last year’s It. It’s nice to see horror in the mainstream again, and the cinema full of people willing to scream. Save from the original film Michael Myers has probably never been as scary. There will most likely be a sequel. Which will be retconned in 20 years with the release of the hotly anticipated Halloween H60.
Director Mathhew Holness is most famous for creating Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place. A show I remember discovering at universtiy, a few years after it was first broadcasted on Channel 4. It’s a show I think about a lot, it’s something I quote everyday. Holness played Garth Marenghi, a hack horror writer with a planetary ego who in the 80s wrote and starred in his own TV show that takes place in a haunted hospital. At the start of each episode Marenghi the auteur creator would introduce each story as a masterpiece in horror fiction or cautionary parables which only voiced his own narrow minded prejudices. Garth Marenghi was a buffoon, whatever horror there was becomes laughing stock through the show’s cheap execution and terrible acting.
Dark Place was a nexus for so much British comedy talent. Since Dark Place, Richard Ayoade and Matt Berry have basically become household names. Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding who only had cameos, went on to do the Mighty Boosh, the TV show of which definitely owed a lot to Dark Place. Alice Lowe has become a writer and director, releasing last year’s Prevenge in which she played a pregnant lady driven to murder by the voice of her unborn child. The real star of the show Matthew Holness went away for a little while, delving head first into writing and specifically the horror genre. Possum represents his first feature film and whilst it is no Dark Place it definitely does come from a dark place. Grappling perhaps with the darkest of places.
Could I sound more like Garth Marenghi right now?
The plot of Possum revolves around Philip (Sean Harris), a disgraced children’s entertainer/puppeteer, who returns to his debilitated childhood homestead, where he is forced to confront his dark past personified mostly by his oily step father (Alun Armstrong) but perhaps most defined by the dark entity that lives withing his bag – a spidery puppet called Possum that, well let’s just say, you probably wouldn’t want appearing at your child’s birthday party or any party for that matter.
The screening of Possum I attended included a Q and A with Matthew Holness who spoke about the film’s origin, as a children’s short story with Freudian themes. He talked about being inspired by the German Expressionist horrors of early film and how he wanted to make Possum almost as a silent movie. The Possum puppet itself is obviously a nightmarish metaphor for the darkness and reprehensible urges within Philip – a pedophile who is guilty of past crimes and is likely to perform these crimes again. Much of the film, involves Philip actively rejecting these urges, throwing the bag away only for it and it’s shadowy occupant to reappear later. Shots of Possum’s face shining out of the darkness are obvious nods to Nosferatu. Glimpses of spidery legs silently planting themselves from out of the doorway are creepy and unnerving.
Possum won’t be for everyone. Not even fans of Dark Place. Some may not even have time for this story about a child molestor’s personal Hell. But for those who do have time for more arthouse fair, or at least believe in film as an empathetic device, where things aren’t always black and white, where films can illustrate another person’s perspective, fiction or otherwise. Where you can, from a safe distance, shed light on the darkness to gain a certain degree of understanding, even empathy, Possum is worth a look. There is after all a lacking of empathy in this escalating shit storm of a world we inhabit.
Haunting of Hill House
Based on Shirley Jackson’s classic 1953 novel, The Haunting of Hill House has already been adapted into several films over the last 60 years. The original adaptation is still revered as a horror to this day, 1999’s The Haunting… less so. This latest adaptation takes the form of a 10 part TV series produced and distributed by Netflix.
The show is about a family – the Crains – mum, dad and their five children who 20 years ago moved into Hill House with the objective to do it up and sell it for a tidy profit. As these old stately manor houses usually are, Hill House is extremely haunted but more than that, the house seems to have the ability to speak to people via their deepest darkest fears and paranoid delusions. This all leads to a singular tragedy, in which the family are forced to flee from the house. 20 years later however, the house still calls for the Crains to come home – which is where the show picks up.
I don’t usually include TV shows on this blog. Actually, come to think of it – I don’t usually include films released directly to Netflix or other streaming services either. This may be down to vague prejudice, I always will prefer the big screen to the small. The TV golden age of 5 years ago has given rise to so many TV shows all braying for your attention, TV is the format driven now by the rise of streaming services. I believe Netflix have a habit of creating a brilliant first season but are guilty of running the original idea into the ground by successive seasons. There never seems to be an end in sight, no complete story to tell. This in reality doesn’t apply to just Netflix, I suppose…
As I am trying to keep everything suitably Halloween-y here, I’d be remiss not to mention Haunting of Hill House, because it is the thing that has kept me awake most nights.
The first half of the series takes its time to introduce and define each of the 5 Crain children, now all grown up but each of their lives has significantly been moulded by their experiences at Hill House 20 years ago. The eldest son, Steven has utilised his family’s time in Hill House to build a successful career as a horror writer and a kind of freelance ghost buster – in which he debunks any hauntings or presence of the paranorma, despite his time at Hill House he has never experienced a haunting himself. Eldest daugther Shirley has grown up to become a mortician. Middle child Theo has grown to become a childhood psychiatrist who prefers her own company. Youngest son Luke is the problem child of the family with a history of drug addiction and finally his twin Nell – suffers from severe sleep paralysis and occassional hauntings from The Bent Necked Lady – a spectre she first began seeing since living in Hill House.
Those first five episodes, introduce each character and where they are punctuated and given further clarity by flashback sequences of them as children at Hill House. Hauntings and jump out scares are a plenty, whether it’s a ghostly sighting at hill house as children – resurfacing in the present. The really clever aspect of the show is that throughout these episodes these hauntings can be read as real as equally as they as they could be viewed as not real. We come to understand each character quite implicity that whatever they see could just be a figment of their own imagination each of which is a different reaction to the same moment of childhood trauma.
This all builds up to Episode 6 of the show, a tour de force in one take story telling that I’ve watched about 3 times now – probably one of the greatest stand alone episodes of any TV show ever. It’s almost like watching a play and it can be appreciated on so many different levels, from writing, to ingenious storytelling and technical execution.
I really hope there isn’t a second series. Following Episode 6 the show wraps up to its conclusion which involves a climatic return to Hill House. Some people have been put off by the way this series concludes, forgoing the horror and nastiness of the first half of the season to something that attempts to include a sci-fi reasoning. For me, so much of the show is about havign the courage to face your fears both as individuals and as a family unit. So the conclusion ultimately has to move past a place of horror because that’s where we can only hope our courage will take us.
I really hope they don’t make a second season – Haunting of Hill House tells a complete story and does so spectacularly. Show runner Mike Flanagan is definitely somebody I will be paying close attention to from now on.