#31HorrorFilms31Days 2019: A Frank Postmortem

Every October I watch 31 horror films. I tweet about each film, but here are my more in-depth thoughts on what I watched. First, a snapshot of what I watched this year:

Arbitrary Awards:

Most Liked Tweet: Await Further Instructions

With 9 likes and 2 retweets including from the official movie’s Twitter page and one of the actors. This is one of two (!) arbitrary awards this film is being rewarded this year!

Best Movie for Someone Who Doesn’t Like Horror: Ghost Stories

The premise of seeing a professional debunker investigate three paranormal cases is a great entry point for non-horror fans to give the genre a shot.

Best Film to Play a Drinking Game To: Mirrors

The Mirrors Drinking Game:

  • Every time someone says the word mirror(s)
  • Every time Kiefer Sutherland attacks a mirror including shooting it (!)
  • Every time Kiefer Sutherland screams at a mirror or a nun
  • Every time Kiefer Sutherland explodes a nun like she was food he overcooked in a microwave
  • Drink for every mirror Kiefer Sutherland appears to paint over at his family’s house (SERIOUSLY HOW MANY MIRRORS DID THESE PEOPLE HAVE?)
This is a real screenshot from this movie

The Boy Award: Final Prayer

The Boy Award is named in honor of the twist in the film The Boy, and celebrates a twist that makes me:

Image result for surprised meme

Final Prayer aka The Borderlands wins the award this year for its final moments which I felt were a letdown but they were a surprise letdown.

Honorary Mention goes to The Visit, but it is marred by the “damn I should have called that one!” sensation I felt. Also props to my wife for calling it!

Best Title: The Blood on Satan’s Claw

The creator wanted to name this Satan’s Skin, but I’m glad they went with this title because it is so cool. That is pretty much the main reason I watched it.

My Wife’s Favorite Film: Await Further Instructions

Awarded to the film my wife liked the most from any given year. She is not typically a fan of horror films so as you can imagine #31HorrorFilms31Days is an especially exciting time for her. Her description of why this was her favorite film, “it was a really interesting premise, a well-executed, oppressive tense atmosphere. The callbacks to famous psychology experiments were a little heavy handed but still interesting to watch.”

Discounted Film: Overlord

Occasionally, a movie will slip into my list that in hindsight doesn’t really count as a horror film to me. Although I enjoyed this amazing war thriller (seriously this opening sequence is BRILLIANT), the film only has a smack of zombie to it so I removed it from my count.

Worst Film: Terrifier

Although there are multiple films I only rated as 1 star, none were as frustrating as watching this.

Best Film: Ghostwatch

This will not be discussed here as it will get its own write up. Needless to say, it is extremely entertaining and incredibly influential on films such as The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Conjuring…basically many found footage and/or paranormal films of the past two decades owe a debt to this BBC original drama.

Ranking of All the Films in Order of Best to Worst

This does not include the three films I rewatched (The Final Girls, Suspiria, Us). This is also based primarily on how entertaining I personally found the film, but I also factor in if I would rewatch it and/or show it to friends. This is NOT a ranking of which films I think are artisitically the best or more important to the genre or anything like that. So please don’t @ me with HoW dArE yOu RaNk ThE cRiTeRiOn CoLlEcTiOn EdItIoN oF hÄxAn BeLoW hElL fEsT? Because I wanted to that’s why.

  1. Ghostwatch
  2. What Keeps You Alive
  3. The Autopsy of Jane Doe
  4. The Visit
  5. Zombi 2
  6. The Bride of Frankenstein
  7. Ma
  8. The Prodigy
  9. Blood Feast
  10. Frankenstein
  11. Ghost Stories
  12. Final Prayer
  13. Hell Fest
  14. The Blood on Satan’s Claw
  15. Nightmare Cinema
  16. Häxan
  17. Await Further Instructions
  18. The Endless
  19. The Changeling
  20. Pet Sematary (2019)
  21. Brightburn
  22. Mirrors
  23. Assimilate
  24. Child’s Play (2019)
  25. The Curse of La Llorona
  26. Dead of Night
  27. The Possession of Hannah Grace
  28. Terrifier

Without further ado, here are more detailed descriptions of some of the films:

*****SPOILERS AHEAD*****

What Keeps You Alive

Image result for what keeps you alive imdb

One of the best of the lot. I was very skeptical going into a film focused on a same sex female couple written, directed, and produced by one man. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised when this avoided all the obvious queer lady movie tropes and focused on being a psychological thriller. Also Hannah Emily Anderson’s acting in this film is INCREDIBLE. The instant turn from pretending to be a concerned, emotionally anguished wife to a cold-blooded killer is one of the more brilliant moments in any film I watched this year.

That is not to say this film is perfect – there are two very self-indulgent moments of pretentiousness. I could have forgiven the classical music black light piano scene, but adding the dying bear metaphor at the end was really pushing it. I’m sure the writer had a lot of endings in mind because this is the type of film you expect to end at least five times before it actually does. There are some really dumb character choices that will probably frustrate you. But I felt very engaged the entire time, and in particular I really enjoyed seeing one trope get completely flipped on its head. Horror films have this terrible trope of insisting the final girl must not just escape the killer – she must kill the killer to truly be free. Therefore, I love that Jules gets bested by Jackie when she gives up her clear getaway to go back and attack Jackie. If you have the road, a full tank of gas, and a getaway car please use it to get help.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

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This movie was so flipping good, and I should have watched it a long time ago. I also should have watched it after watching The Possession of Hannah Grace

This film packs a lot of neat twists to keep even the most seasoned horror fans on their toes. The ultimate reveal about Jane Doe is great, as are the last few nasty little surprises. It balances an rich & rewarding emotional ride with a thrilling amount of suspense.

If nothing else, this film proves you should also leave work when given the chance!

The Visit

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I regret avoiding this film for as long as I did. I was shocked at how engaging I found it, and how well-written and likable the characters were. Found footage almost always has characters I really attach too – the dialogue in them is typically so realistic that when it switches to horror you truly feel like you are watching real people go through atrocious situations.

This is an M. Night Shamalyan movie, and there is a twist. Even if you call this one at some point (like my wife did), the delivery is still a shell shocker.

Speaking of that twist, the only thing that prevents me from completely loving and recommending this film is its vilification of mental illness. Part of the intrigue is wondering if something supernatural is happening, or if the grandparents are truly just suffering from psychological issues. We learn that nothing in the film is supernatural, and in fact all the odd behavior of the evil grandparents is due to their severe mental illnesses. It isn’t as horrifically stigmatized as in Lights Out which truly might be one of the worst depictions of mental illness I have ever seen in a horror film, but it’s bad enough to add this paragraph criticizing a film I otherwise immensely enjoyed.

Zombi 2 aka Zombie aka Zombie Flesh Eaters

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This is an Italian film, and was released in Italy under the title Zombi 2 because it was meant to serve as an unofficial sequel to Dawn of the Dead which was released in Italy as Zombi. This was done for marketing purposes against the wishes of the creators of the film, and (not surprisingly!) makes no narrative sense. For what it’s worth, it could function as a prequel/concurrent film to Night of the Living Dead.

It was released in the US as Zombie, and Britain as Zombie Flesh Eaters. To me it’s the original Fyre Festival: white Americans running amok on a tiny Caribbean island.

This film is known mostly for a scene where a zombie fights a shark. This iconic scene happens less than halfway through the film which I found surprising. In most films, if you fed a live shark, shot them with a bunch of tranquilizers, and actually had them fight a real person playing a zombie that would be your climax. Not so in Zombi 2! I wondered what could possibly happen in the rest of the movie following this scene?

Image result for zombie vs. shark gif
I’m pretty sure it actually ends in a tie? It is also started when a woman goes scuba diving in nothing but her panties because the 70s

I did put this in my top 5 new watches this year. This film has a few things going for it besides the aforementioned zombie vs. shark scene: fantastic effects on the zombies and gore, a fantastic little score that really elevates some of the horror and incorporates elements of Caribbean music for atmosphere, and a nasty little twist at the ending. Even the beginning moments of the movie when a drifting, seemingly empty boat is found off the coast of Staten Island makes this movie a fun one to watch.

Frankenstein/ The Bride of Frankenstein

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Aw we’ve all been there monster!

Yes I had never seen these classics prior to this year. I enjoyed both, especially The Bride of Frankenstein which packs in some humor, and features more of my favorite elements of the original novel. I was an English Lit major who wrote multiple papers on the novel Frankenstein, so all I can say is Dr. Frankenstein and Elizabeth got off pretty damn easy in these film adaptations!

Ma

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I am typically very turned off by horror films that seem to side with the villain, but this one is an exception for me. I wasn’t sure based on the trailers who we were really meant to be rooting for. Is Sue Ann truly just a villain? Are we meant to find some of her revenge funny? Watching it, I feel they were going for a sympathetic depiction of Sue Ann, bordering on outright making it fun to cheer her on. There is a moment when she is taking vengeance on one of her former high school classmates who pleads “I was just a kid!” and she fires back “so was I, motherfucker.” in a way that just sells you on her. I will also say the teenagers are written well. They truly sound like privileged teenagers used to running amok in their small town, making it even easier to focus on Sue Ann.

My reservation comes from a sense that this movie is not sure what it wants to be. I think over time it will be appreciated for offering something different in the “Woman Scorned” subgenre.

The Prodigy

This doesn’t break new ground in the Evil Kid subgenre, but I really like moments in the execution, especially this scene:

This film is formulaic but edgy, and definitely doesn’t deserve to be classified as rotten on Rotten Tomatoes. It really is worth a shot if you like this subgenre.

The film wisely establishes Miles as a sweet kid before going full on Evil Kid. Unlike other Evil Kid movies that just vomit out crazy from the get go, I really understood the love between John, Sarah, and Miles.

This movie also escalates very quickly. Most films wait to drop truth bombs on unsuspecting parents about their Evil Kids, but Sarah is introduced pretty early on to a specialist who diagnoses Miles with a good ole case of the “past life regression.” Of course Sarah immediately dismisses this claim, but concedes when Miles begins to sound more and more like a Hungarian serial killer and less and less like an eight-year-old boy. The movie also dips into other mystical territories with the implication that Miles can astral project out of his body when the serial killer sharing his physical abode is doing his thing (which to be clear is killing stuff). I really wanted a moment when Sarah would tell the specialist “I think my son can astral project” just so he could say “don’t be fucking ridiculous, astral projection isn’t real! Now let’s talk about the very real past life regression that is happening.”

Also can I just say how hilarious it is in hindsight to realize Miles asks for paprika to douse on his food because they wanted to hint a Hungarian man has been living in his body?

Blood Feast

Image result for blood feast

It WILL play in Peoria! Because that is seriously where this film made its debut. I knew I was in for a treat when there was a DVD option to watch an introduction from the director.

This film came out in 1963, and is considered the first Western splatter film (the first being the Japanese film Jigoku). It is also the oldest film to be designated a Video Nasty. I had not realized how influential it was till reading David Konow’s Reel Terror.

I’m glad I watched it. As crudely as this sleazy B-movie is made, it does have its moments. In particular, the murder scenes which often begin with an ominous, steady kettledrum beat before transitioning to organ music are unnerving. No doubt this was done to avoid having to sound edit murders, but the effect works. You will spend most of this film’s lean 67 minute run time laughing at the acting, but those moments do feel a bit uncanny even by (or perhaps because of) today’s standards of horror sound editing.

Ghost Stories

This is a great premise and execution, but the ending was such an incredible letdown to me that it really dropped it in the ratings system. The first of the three investigations is so suspenseful your whole body will tense waiting for the inevitable jump. The second starts with some uncannily creepy moments but ultimately devolves in horror comedy. The third is engaging but also a bit anticlimactic in terms of the reveal (and rather negative in its depiction of a woman who puts her career first before having children; then her fertility treatments result in a demonic creature of a child). The final reveal that it was “all in the protagonist’s head” is a huge letdown, and strips away from the more interesting dilemma posed at the beginning of the film regarding the merits of choosing to believe in an afterlife for a sense of comfort, or ripping the band aid off from those who want to believe their dead relatives are still there by exposing psychic frauds.

Hell Fest

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Hell Fest is a slasher set in 2018. It does not tread exciting new ground, but it also updates and adapts the material for a modern audience. In the bonus features, the director mentions the anonymous but realistic killer being inspired by how hateful people can be online when they are essentially wearing a mask like the killer in the film is. This film is also set at a horror-themed amusement park, and we are shown twice (once with the protagonists and again with the killer) that anyone who enters needs to go through metal detectors. Although this film is formulaic otherwise, this reminder of the contemporary setting makes it hard not to be reminded of the many, many mass shooters which have transpired since the heyday of slasher films in the 80s. This particular aspect, and the decision to make the killer relatively realistic compared to Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, feels uniquely modern. It is revealed at the end that the killer who escapes back to his suburban McMansion is a family man with a young daughter. This also features characters making lighthearted jokes about gender fluidity, and a queer actress playing the horror-crazed jokester of the group.

Although it boasts an R rating it barely takes advantage of the rating. I still liked it because it was fun to watch a slasher about a group of college friends which also touched on the growing pains/tension of introducing childhood friends to college ones. The cast had great chemistry, and the setting was fun.

Image result for hell fest masks
The killer’s killer mask collection with some neat homages to Onibaba and Scream Queens

The Blood on Satan’s Claw

Image result for the blood on satan's claw

I have been listening to “The Evolution of Horror” podcast, and didn’t really understand what the host of the show meant by folklore. I decided to give this a watch since he mentioned it being one of the forefathers of the small subgenre.

There is a lot to appreciate about this film. The story is an interesting tale of evil polluting innocence in a small village. There are some really creepy moments, like when a young bride-to-be sees a tiny door in her attic room start to creepy open. The atmosphere oozes with a sense of Gothic tension, but comes replete with bloody Satanic rituals and children committing horrific acts of violence. It is a shocking film for its time in the way it combines a period piece with such a visceral onslaught of horror.

I enjoyed this for what it was, but I was particularly disturbed by a shocking rape scene I didn’t realize would be in the film. I generally avoid sexual violence in horror films, and if that is something that would be upsetting to you I would definitely avoid this film. While I wasn’t surprised to see rape in a 70s horror film, I was surprised this one occurred. The victim is a child who is raped by another child as part of a ritualistic murder to bring forth Satan. The lead up to the scene is crosscut with her love interest looking for her in the forest. I kept thinking he would find her before the ritual was done, which made the scene all the more disturbing. I am glad I did not know about this scene ahead of time as I would not have watched the film, and I did enjoy it aside from this portion. Even the director has expressed regret about this scene.

The film also reinforces a very puritanical, Christian philosophy. Satan’s cult really functions like a pagan group, and is eventually vanquished by the men of the town and more specifically a judge who functions as the lead witch hunter of the group and stabs Satan with his giant sword. I’m not making this up:

Image result for the blood on satan's claw judge

The horror was pretty effective in many scenes, and I would definitely suggest it for people who are very interested in the genre.

Nightmare Cinema

Nightmare Cinema (2018)

This is a decent anthology made by people who know how to make practical effects on a budget. The conceit of the film involves people who wander into a deserted movie theater, only to witness a short film depicting their worst fears. Because the short films are a projection of their own anxieties and thoughts, I really liked that the writing was intentionally ham-handed in each short. The short films felt performative in ways that reflect each character. The variety of subgenres represented and directing styles are great, with neat nods to other films packed throughout. “The Thing in the Woods” starts as a typical slasher and flips into a sort of alien bug invasion action film. “Mashit” combines Italian giallo sensibilities with a Catholic possession movie. “This Way to Egress” is Twilight Zone meets Silent Hill.

Unfortunately, this film’s greatest flaw is its female characters. All three female patrons to the Rialto are focused on their relationships to men in their lives, with two processing breakups and one losing sight of herself in her quest to look good for her boyfriend. Even without this observation, the weaker entries would have derailed my enjoyment of this anthology, but its depiction of its female characters is the final nail in the coffin.

The Endless

There are a lot of books and movies with themes, plots, and concepts that sound amazing, but the execution just falls flat for you. This, like the duo’s previous film Resolution, was a real let down for me. I wish I could appreciate this film the way so many other horror fans do, but it just doesn’t work for me. It feels like we are supposed to immediately care for the side characters in this film (especially the characters from Resolution; this functions as a sequel to that film), but I don’t care about them. The plot is engaging, but messy in its delivery of the story. Why does Shitty Carl’s body still hang in the background while he talks to Aaron, but none of the other time looped bodies hang around after the reset? Why does the creature play tug of war with the cult? Why are the time loops different?

I’m sorry I didn’t like this more given how original it is. I do think they are doing great things, and hope one day their films will click for me.

Pet Sematary (2019)

This experience was enriched by one of our cats deciding to be a total creep while I watched the movie:

This movie really relies on you having seen the original, and sets up almost every scene to either reinforce or subvert what you expect based on the original. Since my wife had not seen the original, this led to a lot of moments when I would say “see this is interesting because in the original…”

Brightburn

Jackson A. Dunn in Brightburn (2019)

Imagine if Lex Luthor executive produced a Superman reboot, and you have a good sense of what this movie is like. This movie is Evil Superman meats Evil Kid trope which is more than enough to decide whether you should watch it or not.

One thing that did surprise me about this movie (perhaps the only thing to be honest – it plays out just as you expect it will), was the incredibly gory practical effects. If you want to see one of the grossest things I have ever witnessed in a horror film check this out. Yikes.

The end credits end this film on a bizarre, darkly amusing note where it sounds like Billie Eilish is straight up cheering Evil Superman.

Mirrors

Oh boy. I will say this gave me some nice Silent Hill vibes, but mostly I just laughed. This movie is awesomely bad. It was a great setting with this abandoned department store in the smack dab middle of New York City, but uses that setting and some great atmosphere to tell an utterly inane story about haunted mirrors. The way the plot devolves into a possessed woman who somehow transplanted her demon into the mirrors is wild enough, but then the film has that same woman (albeit reluctantly) agree to go BACK to the mirror and sacrifice herself by letting the demon back into her body…

wat senior citizen

The only reason this is rated so highly is because I found it so hilarious.

Child’s Play (2019)

I went into this film certain Aubrey Plaza was way too young to play the mom of a boy Andy’s age, only to later discover she is in her mid 30s so this was entirely possible. (The film does hint she is playing a younger mom – when someone asks if Andy is her son, she mentions having had a “very production sweet sixteenth birthday.”)

I like that they show her having a love life and not just being the constantly put upon, now suddenly asexual single mom by having Andy come home early to accidentally witness her about to cover some bases with her boyfriend. Unfortunately they eventually make her boyfriend so cartoonishly unlikable it taints our perception of her in comparison just for putting up with him. They also establish her as someone who doesn’t suffer fools, so her putting up with her terrible boyfriend seems out of character.

I thought the twist on Chucky’s origin was clever enough, and there is one creepy part where he uses his ability to mime other voices to impersonate a cat. But everything else falls flat. They also move it from being in Chicago to a generic city.

Save yourself the time, and just watch the trailer for this film.

The Curse of La Llorona

This film is pretty bad which is a shame given its diverse cast and its focus on Latin American folklore. But much like the flying dead body which inexplicably becomes animated for just this moment in Ouija: Origin of Evil, this film also has a really awkward flying body edit I can’t stop thinking about: Sam goes flying. Another part of this film I find fascinating is the implication that religious faith can undo the curse of the spirit. The main character reveals she is not religious, yet ultimately kills the La Llorona by stabbing her with a giant cross (!?). Yet there is no resolution implying she suddenly had faith in God or a higher power. I have taken it upon myself to write this resolution:

Anna: I didn’t believe till that moment.

Father Perez: You didn’t believe till you had to Anna.

A fake deleted scene created by me to explain the third act of this film

The Possession of Hannah Grace

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Yikes!

Terrifier

This film is promoted as a throwback to 80s slashers, but in reality is a throwback to 70s exploitation movies. The problem is culture has come a long way in the past 4-5 decades, and this film’s sensibilities are still stuck in the 70s despite the film being set in our contemporary time. It feels like it was written by a 13-year-old who was tasked with writing an edgy horror film.

Most people who like this movie seem to like the central villain Art the Clown, who is setup to be the character we cheer for, even as he smears feces around bathrooms and saws naked women in half longways starting with their vagina. Never mind that this character is doing horrendous things; it’s cool simply because “he’s funny” or “he’s creepy” or “you never know what he will do next.”

This might seem hypocritical, given my higher ratings films which function as throwbacks (Hell Fest) and films which encourage us to root for the villain (Ma). But this is not doing what does films are doing. Hell Fest is grounded in modern sensibilities and reflect our evolving understanding of the world around us. It also cares about the protagonist and her friends, whereas this movie seems to hate its characters (with a special zeal for hating the women). Ma helps us see the humanity in a traumatized human turned villain, without 100% losing sight of which of hers acts cross a line (namely an overprotective love for her daughter which turns into abuse). Even the later entries in the Nightmare on Elm Street series having us laughing with Freddy Krueger, but also rooting for relatable, likable protagonists. Torture porn films like Hostel and Saw have themes that relate to their gore, and use their gore to horrify the audience. Terrifier, on the other hand, invites the viewer to take pleasure in watching a woman get sawed in half. It results in a nihilistic, grim film that doesn’t grow the genre in any meaningful or interesting way.

And that’s a wrap for this year!

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