Thu October 31, 2013
Scary Movie Night: Settle In And Unsettle Yourself
It's Halloween again, and now that we know there will be no Game 7 of the World Series, that leaves you an open evening to enjoy running back and forth to the door to drop tiny Snickers bars into plastic bags carried by children dressed as superheroes.
But this strange ritual is not the evening's only appropriate entertainment. Perhaps you just want to scare the pants off yourself. Perhaps you just want a Scary Movie Night. Fortunately, with the proliferation of distribution methods for films both scary and less so, you've got plenty of options.
New last week to DVD, Blu-ray and digital download, The Conjuring was the year's biggest horror movie at the box office, and a solid choice for a Halloween scary movie night at home. It's a bit more hokey than it needs to be, maybe, but it's the good kind of hokey.
The Conjuring takes a more-is-more approach by trotting out every haunted house trope in the book — fleeting apparitions, secret cellars, creepy dolls, off-key music boxes, scary things in mirrors and spooky little girls. Ostensibly based on a true story (aren't they all?), the movie splits its attention between the Perron family, victims of a violent haunting, and paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, called in to bust the ghosts. The Warrens are real-life paranormal investigators — they were first on the scene at the Amityville haunting — and the film has that veneer of truthiness that always makes ghost stories more effective.
The film's 1970s setting helps, too, I think. In those simpler days before 24-hour cable news and the Internet, it was a lot easier to believe in all things paranormal. Leonard Nimoy's grave descriptions of hauntings on In Search Of... were breaking news reports, so far as we knew. It seemed perfectly reasonable that there might be uncanny things happening in New England that science and the media just couldn't explain.
Anyway, if you're in the market for some other scary movie options this Halloween, most of the year's other horror films have already rotated onto DVD and digital download. I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to Halloween thrillers. I prefer atmosphere and spookiness to hyperviolence and splatter porn. Here are some of the year's best options for Halloween movie night at home.
My vote for the year's best scary movie is Mama, the very effective paranormal thriller from producer Guillermo del Toro and first-time director Andrés Muschietti. Fans of del Toro's previous horror movies (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth) will recognize his sensibilities all over this thing.
Two feral little girls are found in the woods, skittering around on all fours and apparently abandoned years ago. The girls are identified and adopted by their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jaime Lannister to you Game of Thrones fans) and his goth-rocker girlfriend Annabelle (Jessica Chastain), who isn't crazy about the idea of raising two little wolf kids.
It soon becomes apparent that the little girls have brought a companion with them, a maternal yet decidedly terrifying presence from the other side of the grave. This is Mama. She's been looking after the kids for years and is none too happy with the new custody situation.
There are five or six code-red scares in this movie, shocks so jolting that at one point I literally did the thing where the popcorn goes flying. Mama is a good scary movie with flashes of greatness. Don't read up too much on it if you want to preserve the surprises. And hold onto your popcorn.
A weird and artsy thriller that flew under the radar upon theatrical release, Stoker stars Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska as a mother and daughter with some serious trust issues. When a creepy, mysterious uncle (Charlie Goode) enters the picture, things get complicated. Family secrets are revealed, a bizarre psychosexual vibe descends, and the body count starts to rise.
Throughout the film, director Park Chan-wook establishes an eerie tone of Gothic tension around the family manor. The colors around the house are all wrong. Everything seems a little too washed out. Angles and geometries are weird. Even the lighting has a pallid, corpse-like quality. If you're in the mood for a grown-up horror thriller in the key of Hitchcock, Stoker is a bloody good time.
For a lighter Halloween movie night, the zombie apocalypse rom-com Warm Bodies has an agreeable horror-comedy tone reminiscent of classics like An American Werewolf in London. Nicholas Hoult plays "R," a sad and thoughtful zombie who falls in love with Julie (Teresa Palmer), a human survivor from the local enclave. The reason why R falls for Julie is one of the film's several playful updates to zombie movie mythology. Zombies prefer brains, it seems, because they give access to the victim's memories.
So when R eats the head of Julie's departed boyfriend, he gets to feel love once again. Julie likes R, too, since he doesn't try to eat her and isn't too zombified – just a little pale. He looks like a Smiths fan circa 1985. Warm Bodies wrings lots of good laughs out of its premise, and even a little heart. Some of the movie's best moments belong to former Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry as a fellow zombie who leads a kind of undead hippie revolution.
Filmmaker Barry Levinson (!) directs this found-footage horror film about a seaside tourist town and the worst Fourth of July weekend ever. When a suspicious tide rolls in and the locals start hemorrhaging, things go haywire fast. It seems that the bay has been poisoned over the years with nuclear materials and steroid-laced runoff from the local chicken processing plant. We hear alarming things about fungal bacteria, crustaceous isopods and something ominously referred to as "a new form evolve." Rumors fly: Is it biological warfare? Terrorism? Cults? Aliens?
Whatever it is, the government wants it kept quiet at all costs. The Bay is thoroughly steeped in ecological anxieties about pollution, pandemics, infections and runaway superbugs finding interesting disease vectors into your body. It's uncommonly thoughtful in its use of found-footage technique, too. Levinson leverages the very limitations of the form, leaving some details maddeningly obscured and confounding our expectations of how horror scenes are supposed to play out.
Some other Halloween movie night options this year might include the comedy R.I.P.D. (bloated but funny), the franchise reboot Evil Dead (extremely gory), the zombie blockbuster World War Z (ambitious and scary) and the PG-13 exorcism riff The Possession (sufficiently creepy).
Somewhere, there exists a film just scary enough, creepy enough, or weird enough to keep you so bolted to your couch that you might forget to answer the door when another tiny Iron Man or Katniss Everdeen comes to the door. Of course, if that happens: more candy for you.