31 Lists of Horror: The Gemma Files Halloween Horrorthon

However you want to say and/or spell it—Halloween, Hallowe’en, All Hallows Eve, Rotten Egg Thrownanza—October 31 is indisputably the (corporate-mandated) spookiest time of year. With that in mind, I present 31 lists of Halloween-centric horror, of my own and of my literary brethren both near and far.

These are personal, highly suggestive lists of recommendations, avoidances, and/or reminiscences. I make no guarantees, save one: if you don’t read the whole of each list, you will be cursed for all eternity. I don’t make the rules.

Today’s special guest lister: Gemma Files

Gemma Files was born in London, England and raised in Toronto. Her story “The Emperor’s Old Bones” won the 1999 International Horror Guild Award for Best Short Fiction. She has published two collections of short work (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart) and two chapbooks of poetry (Bent Under Night and Dust Radio). A Book of Tongues, her first Hexslinger novel, won the 2010 DarkScribe Magazine Black Quill Award for Small Press Chill. The two final Hexslinger novels, A Rope of Thorns and A Tree of Bones were published in 2011 and 2012. We Will All Go Down Together followed in 2014, and the Shirley Jackson and Sunburst Award-winning Experimental Film came out in 2015.

October 8, 2017
Gemma Files’ Movie Horrorthon


Some time back, I programmed twenty-four hours of horror to match Edgar Wright’s twenty-four hours of…just stuff he liked, I guess, when I ran across it on the Web somewhere [ED: It’s the AV Club’s 24 Hours of Horror with Edgar Wright]. My problem with recommending films to watch during October for Hallowe’en is that—hey ho—I don’t actually tend to watch much BUT horror, on my own time. Mine is not a big drama/comedy existence. That being said, here are roughly another full day’s worth of horror films, classic and otherwise, which I’ve watched/would watch multiple times. You will note that some of them are old as well as new, and I have absolutely no doubt there are entries here which other people will find risible, but it’s probably best to treat this roster like a visual playlist, a sampler which hopefully runs the gamut from operatic and edge-of-silly to genuinely disturbing. The answer to “Why that?” is usually just “Because I like it.”

Straight out the gate, I think we’ll start with something spooky yet silly: Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn. I’m in a strange place with Raimi’s series, since the first Evil Dead scared the absolute crap out of me—I actually had to turn it off while watching it at home in a mainly-empty house, simply because of the way all the possessed people talked (especially Ash’s former girlfriend, who spends much of the film picking her infected pencil-wound and giggling creepily while sing-songing: “We’re gonna get you, weeee’re gonna GET yooouuu…”)—while the third one I find more annoying than anything else, for the comparatively weird reason that Ash seems to have become a completely different character between Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, i.e. a raving male chauvinist idiot so incapable of admitting he’s made a mistake he literally unleashes hell instead of the sensitive yet increasingly unhinged guy he appears to be throughout the first two instalments. I put it down to all those head injuries.

At any rate, Evil Dead II remains perhaps the best horror-comedy blend I’ve ever encountered. The stuff with the Kandarian demons stays genuinely frightening even as the pitch-black physical humour approaches Warner Brothers cartoon levels of sheer surrealism, and Ash’s ever-accelerating psychological disintegration in the face of both brands of awfulness only serves to make it all the funnier. The “Can’t Control my Evil Hand!” sequence is particularly great, as Ash is forced to cut his dead girlfriend’s body apart with a chainsaw, gets bitten by her severed head and contracts evil, which isolates itself in his wounded hand. The hand then starts trying to kill him, which amounts to Bruce Campbell beating himself up and breaking dishes over his own head for maybe five straight minutes before nailing his offending appendage to the floor and bawling, like Quincy M.E. trying to make a point: “You bastards! Give me back my haaaaaand!”

Any film whose climax involves blood falling from the sky like rain while a hellish grotesquerie pulls itself from the resultant red mud will always get at least part of my vote.
Next up, because I can, I’m going to turn to a film that’s become a strange sort of comfort food viewing choice to me—Fede Alvarez’s much-maligned Evil Dead remake, which manages to be gritty, operatic and ridiculous at the same damn time. I’m a big fan of Jane Levy’s performance as Mia Hansen, possessee turned final girl, both because she manages to make me care deeply about an After-School Special trope of a character and because her suffering seems completely genuine even when she’s bisecting her own tongue with a box-cutter, or being raped by an evil molesting tree. The use of gore is over-the-top baroque but strangely beautiful throughout, while the mise-en-scène in general is similarly top-notch; both the cabin and the woods surrounding it seem constantly damp and horrid, saturated with a vivid, mossy decay that lends everything a Laird Barron/Richard Gavin sort of dark (super-)nature vibe. Any film whose climax involves blood falling from the sky like rain while a hellish grotesquerie pulls itself from the resultant red mud will always get at least part of my vote.

Next, we switch to the female-centric vampire movie double-shot of We Are The Night (dir. Dennis Gansel) and Byzantium (dir. Neil Jordan). The first is a crazy blend of coldly Germanic music-video madness and grindhouse punch, the type of film I used to dream about making, let alone finding—the very first time I saw it, I turned to my husband and said: “Man, I could have written this when I was sixteen.” It begins with haughty, gorgeous Louise—tall, blonde and gay as all Lesbos, a last regal remnant of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—and her two “children” Charlotte (a depressive former 1920s Weimar Republic film star, prone to wearing too much eyeliner and putting her cigarettes out on her eyeball) and Nora (a neon-coloured 1980s rebel Louise met the night the wall came down, whose idea of morality is not biting anyone she actually likes) tearing their way through a jet airliner in mid-flight, then just popping off the door and jumping out, counting on the crash to cover up the carnage they leave behind. When tough, nihilistic Girl With the Dragon Tattoo-style thief Lena bluffs her way into the after-hours rave club Louise and the others manage, Louise decides she needs to increase her family by at least one, and infects her. The eventual fallout from this impulsive act will be spectacularly destructive, for Louise and her girls as much as anyone else.

Byzantium, meanwhile—adapted from her own play by Moira Buffini, currently showrunner of the British TV series Harlotsis driven by the literal mother-daughter act of Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan). Once a young girl of the early 1800s, deflowered and sold into prostitution by casually evil Captain Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller), Clara gained immortality when she stole knowledge about a strange island off the Irish coast and the “Nameless Saint” who inhabits it, whose bite will transform even someone riddled with tuberculosis and syphilis into a deathless creature capable of amazing violence. That this knowledge is controlled by a cabal of male vampire elders who never turn women is enough to make Clara an automatic outcast, let alone the fact that she later uses her “gift” to save Eleanor—the daughter she didn’t kill because “love confounded her,” then gave away to an orphanage—from her own mortality. They now roam the United Kingdom, stopping in dilapidated coastal resort towns where Clara can practice her trade while Eleanor writes her story over and over, then throws the pages to the wind. Clara preys on johns and pimps—“limit[ing] the power of men,” as she promised to, back in the day—but Eleanor prefers to bring peaceful ends to the elderly, though she finds herself distracted and tempted by Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a young hemophiliac. Inevitably, however, Clara’s pursuers arrive, sparking a final conflict.

While both films are physically beautiful and emotionally engaging, Byzantium has a certain dark poetry to it that elevates it slightly above We Are The Night‘s slicker thrills—it’s resonant in ways that’ll have you thinking about it long after the final frame fades to black. But one way or the other, it’s always nice to see sisters doin’ it for themselves, especially when fangs are involved.

From the recent to the less, meanwhile—Clive Barker’s Nightbreed has always meant a lot to me, and its expanded and re-formatted Director’s Cut, available from Scream Factory, showcases all the reasosn why (the fabled Cabal Cut is twelve minutes longer, but I’ve seen both and I’m not convinced those extra minutes are necessary, especially in their degraded current form). Set in Canada(!), Nightbreed is the story of Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), a disturbed young man who keeps on dreaming of Midian, an underground city when monsters live. Unfortunately for him, the psychiatrist he turns to to keep these dreams in check—creepily level-headed Dr. Decker, played by CanCon horror icon David Cronenberg, director of Scanners, The Brood and Videodrome—happens to be a serial killer who carries his zipper-mouthed mask-face in his briefcase, and is only treating Boone in order to set him up for a series of murders he committed.

Arrested, Boone breaks custody and runs for Midian, where he’s quickly turned into one of the same monsters he dreams about; when his girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) tries to retrieve him, Decker soon shows up to incite the local police chief to “exterminate this nest of freaks and breeders!” In any version, Nightbreed remains a delirious, amazing mess of a film, surreal, political and odd in the extreme, and while I’m totally unsurprised it never did very well in wide release, I think its time may well have come…frankly, this headlong apocalyptic culture-clash between unashamed transhuman fetishists and secretly perverse law-and-order authoritarian types is looking more relevant by the second.

Nightbreed remains a delirious, amazing mess of a film, surreal, political and odd in the extreme.
From the department of Cool Flicks No One Else Seems To Have Seen, meanwhile, comes Nicholas McCarthy’s At the Devil’s Door, a rather wonderful spin on the hoary old Satan’s Chosen Babymama trope. Weaving back and forth through time non-linearly, we’re introduced first to Hannah (Ashley Rickards), a sweet young thing who once made the bad mistake of speaking her name at the crossroads outside her vacation boyfriend’s creepy uncle’s trailer-park in exchange for $300, then to Vera (Naya Rivera), who wants to know why her realtor sister Leigh (Catalina Sandero Moreno) suddenly died while preparing a vacant house—once Hannah’s, as it turns out—for sale. Much like Ti West’s The House of the Devil, it starts out sounding a bit like any given Chick tract, only to turn into a deconstruction of Rosemary’s Baby run through a filter of low-budget 1980s/2010s Americana—a disconnected, alienated post-rampant consumerism world under constant economic threat in which people don’t know enough to protect themselves against the things they no longer believe in: Satanists, the devil, a ghost that isn’t quite a ghost. Add in the fact that the antichrist produced in this case is female, not male, and the whole scenario really starts to pop in interesting ways.

Mariano Baino’s Dark Waters also revolves around a woman under pressure from various supernatural sources—but here, instead of being the prospective not-so-Virgin Mary, she’s more of a grown-up Damien coming home for the first time since the end of The Omen, if the cult that monitored Damien worshipped Mother Hydra instead of el Diablo. After the death of both her estranged father and her best friend brings Elizabeth back to the remote island where her mother died giving birth to her, small enough it only supports a fishing village and a convent staffed entirely by nuns given to performing rituals in the underground catacombs every night (either to raise something horrible from the sea, or perhaps keep it imprisoned), she hooks up with a young novice—Sarah—to investigate the apparent link between her family and the nuns’ beliefs. This inquiry soon ensnares both women in an ever-tightening web of weird religious iconography, murderous attacks, bodily mutations and sudden yet inevitable betrayals.  Possibly the first Western movie shot in the Ukraine after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the movie plays like a cross between Michele Soavi’s The Church and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, jam-packed full of strangeness and dread.

Then there’s Dario Argento’s Phenomena, the film which—via its badly re-edited American release version, Creepers—first introduced me to the weird little genre of Italian crime-horror known as giallo. Jennifer Connelly stars as Jennifer Corvino, daughter of an American film star, whose already-stormy tenure at an exclusive girls’ boarding school in the Swiss Alps is soon interrupted by the discovery of a fellow student’s mutilated body. As prone to sleepwalking as she is rebellious while awake, Jennifer discovers she also has a mild form of telepathy which allows her to see through the eyes of the carrion-flies that incubate on dead bodies. This leads her to form a friendship with retired forensic entomologist John Mcgregor (Donald Pleasance), who’s currently consulting on the case, along with his service chimp Inga (who famously bit off the tip of Connelly’s finger during filming). The investigation leads Jennifer deeper and deeper into trouble, as handily symbolized by her increasing tendency to fall headlong into pits full of rotting corpses, until eventually she finds herself facing off alone against the killer to the sweet strains of Iron Maiden’s “Flash of the Blade,” with only “her” flies to defend her.

From Switzerland via Italy and back to America, where the team behind the later Saw franchise entries  (director/-co-writer Marcus Dunstan, co-writer Patrick Melton) attempts to apply giallo tactics to the good ol’ U.S. slasher film. The Collection is one of my favourite supposedly guilty pleasures—yes, it’s ostensibly a sequel to The Collector, but I genuinely don’t think you need to see that first in order to understand it, because much like the first The Purge movie, it’s a 90-minute thesis statement. All you really need to know is there’s this guy, see—the Collector—who targets groups in controlled spaces, kills everybody except one person using ridiculously sadistic Rube Goldberg torture-traps, then stuffs that last survivor into a box and dumps them at his next prospective kill-site as a preview of what his new victims can expect. In this case, the dump-ee is incredibly unlucky career criminal Arkin O’Brien (Josh Stewart), who falls out of the box only to find himself inside a dance club the Collector’s turned into his very own human-sized food processor. He manages to escape, leaving behind surprisingly tough deaf rich girl Elena (Emma Fitzpatrick), who the Collector takes back to his murder palace for softening up, but almost immediately manages to escape and start moving from room to trap-infested room. That’s when a squad headed by Elena’s Dad’s right-hand man Lucello (Lee Tergesen) blackmails Arkin into taking them back to the Collector’s place so they can rescue her, and all hell, etc.

I love this stupid movie unreservedly: it’s inventively cruel and gruesome in a Grand Guignol body horror way, with a great colour scheme and a hundred tiny twists. And after three emotionally ambiguous seasons of Hannibal, I also somewhat love what a sheer dick the Collector is allowed to be right from the get-go, all kill-crazy ego and theatrical emptiness—Dunstan and Melton refuse to empathize with him even a little bit, never dignifying him much beyond his obviously strong work ethic. He deserves everything that’s coming to him, which makes the main characters’ incredibly bloodily-won eventual victory (spoiler alert!) all the sweeter.

From the Dark begins when an old man cutting peat pulls what soon proves to be absolutely the wrong fucking stick out of a partially-buried mess of brown-stained flesh.
A brand-new favourite next: the tiny, almost-silent Irish horror film From the Dark, first watched on Shudder TV, which begins when an old man cutting peat pulls what soon proves to be absolutely the wrong fucking stick out of a partially-buried mess of brown-stained flesh. Suddenly there’s something bald dressed in a very pre-Mediaeval-looking robe biting him in the throat, after which we cut to two young lovers driving into the country to see her Da; they get lost, night starts falling, they’re stuck in sucking mud, they end up at a farm that turns out the belong to old peat-cutting man, slowly discover someone’s already broken all the bulbs in the fixtures, and things go from there. The rules are learned haphazardly, on the run—light becomes our protagonists’ only weapon, their only possible shelter against a creature that mainly seems to hunt by sense of smell, touch and hearing, though holding still and holding your breath will at least work for a little while. Overall, however, this is a literal shadow-show: no explanations, no respite, plus the thing goes like a son-of-a-bitch. It’s less than 90 minutes long, yet you feel every single second.

If you’re looking for darkness, though—and who isn’t?—there’s no one working in horror today who does that particular effect better, in my opinion, than Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The director of Cure, Creepy and Retribution, all of which could occupy this same slot, Kurosawa specializes in oblique but increasingly horrifying scenarios that branch out in very odd ways, and in Kairo (sometimes known as Pulse), he became perhaps the first person to make a movie exploring the full potential horror of the Internet—an interesting feat, considering that this was in 2001, when people were still using dial-up modems and at least one main character has managed to make it all the way to university without ever having gotten himself a personal email account. After this guy signs on for the first time, he gets an email which simply says: Do you want to see a ghost?, plus a website click-through link he declines to take advantage of, deleting it instead—at which point the website appears to call him back. As he makes inquiries into this phenomenon, however, he discovers that many other people seem to have already taken advantage of this offer, with increasingly apocalyptic results.

Like a lot of Kurosawa’s films, Kairo works best as a commentary on Japanese society—once victims of the haunted website receive a visit from one of the horrifyingly animated spectres inhabiting it, they tend to exchange places with those apparitions, leaving behind a flaking, burnt sort of shadow reminiscent of human remains at Hiroshima. Similarly, it’s implied that the ultimate horror of the afterlife is much the same as that of life in super-conformist Tokyo, i.e. feeling yourself doomed to an existence of endless unloved loneliness inside a crowd of strangers. But Kurosawa’s more universal achievement lies in creating a mood of sheer accelerating doom throughout, making the last half of the film wonderfully difficult to watch.

[The Exorcist III contains the] legendary “hospital hallway sequence,” whose seemingly static single-camera long-shot ends in one of the horror world’s single best jump-cut moments ever.
Shout Factory’s recent re-issue of William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III: Legion comes next—yet another movie that flopped headlong on release, only to grow itself a nice little cult following once it was released for home viewing. Here we finally get a restoration of Blatty’s fabled Director’s Cut, cobbled together from not-so-great video elements, which adheres far more closely to his own novel yet sacrifices at least one amazing moment: the triumphal climactic monologue in which Lieutenant Kinderman (George C. Scott) is forced to admit that belief in the devil constitutes negative proof of a sidelong belief in God. That said, either version retains Blatty’s dark-hued admixture of magic realism and outright surrealism, as well as the entire legendary “hospital hallway sequence,” whose seemingly static single-camera long-shot ends in one of the horror world’s single best jump-cut moments ever.

As we move towards the end of the program, I’m sticking in two recent films that should really be viewed as a single narrative chopped into parts—James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s Insidious and Insidious Chapter 2, the New Classic haunted-people-not-haunted-houses movies that caused Orrin Grey and I to coin the phrase “vaudeville creep.” Love them or hate them (and many do the latter, apparently), the Insidiouses are rightly credited with resurrecting both Wan’s career—dormant in the wake of a evil ventriloquist saga Dead Silence and genre misstep Death Sentence‘s double failure—and that of elder horror stateswoman Lin Shaye, who stars in both entries (plus Insidious Chapter 3 and the upcoming Insidious: The Last Key) as medium Elise Reiner.

For myself, I’m a huge fan, obviously; I love how firmly Wan roots his weirdness in a recognizable world, how effective, spooky and odd his mythology is, how well his recognition that composer Joseph Bishara looks creepy af with lipstick all over his face intersects with David Lynch’s on-set “discovery” of Frank Silva/Killer Bob. In fact, my sole complaint about the series lies in my understanding that the character of Parker Crane—the gothically resonant “Bride in Black,” who stalks our hapless protagonist Josh Lambert (Patrick Watson) both inside and outside the Further—could easily be seen as a transphobic cliché rather than yet more proof that Wan and Whannell are ass-terrified of creepy old ladies with too much makeup on, so if that’s likely to upset you, then know it going in. If not, strap yourself down and enjoy!

Because I (generally) like to end things on a note of fun, I’ve lined up three prime monster mashes for our final entries—two from Universal in its heyday, one a 1970s-era Spanish-shot frippery starring two Hammer Horror stalwarts. For a shamefully long time, Son of Frankenstein—the main source of inspiration for Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein—was ridiculously difficult to find, which is a pity, because this direct sequel to Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein is a neat little romp. Basil Rathbone stars as Baron-Doctor Wolf von Frankenstein, who’s bent on rehabilitating his infamous father’s scientific reputation; he moves his wife and son into his family castle, where he’s immediately met with widespread mistrust and targeted by local police inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill), whose arm was ripped out by Daddy Frankenstein’s creation as a child. Soon enough, with the help of devious hunchback Ygor (Bela Lugosi), he discovers the creature (Boris Karloff) lying dormant in Dad’s old lab underneath the castle and throws himself headlong into bringing it back to life. As ever, this turns out to be a hellaciously bad idea.

If Son of Frankenstein is a high-class “B” picture shot with faux German Expressionist flair on James Whale’s old sets, then House of Dracula is the exact opposite—a “C” picture infused with demented energy and the courage of its pretensions, full of rubber bats, slow dissolve transformation/disintegration sequences and some very weird costume choices (in this film, for example, Count Dracula wears a top hat). Its jam-packed cast includes Dracula (John Carradine), tragic original-brand Wolfman Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jnr.), Lionel Atwill as an Inspector Krogh knockoff, sexy female hunchbacked nurse Nina (Poni Adams) and Onslow Stevens as the tragically misguided mad scientist I like to call “Franz Edelmann, Monster Psychiatrist.” After discovering a plant mould that can soften bone and kill parasites, Edelmann convinces himself he can cure first vampirism, then lycanthropy, then—after being infected by Dracula during a reverse transfusion and turning into a sort of half-vampire/Jekyll and Hyde monster himself—decides oh what the hell, why not bring Frankenstein’s creature (which he and the Wolfman accidentally find in a sea-cave underneath Edelmann’s castle, half-buried in a mudslide) back to life and use it as a weapon against his enemies? Because that always helps. (Pro-tip: it doesn’t.)

Watching House of Dracula is probably the closest we’ll ever come to a filmed version of Marvel’s equally crazy Tomb of Dracula comic. Regardless of budgetary considerations, however, both these films are deliriously cheesy fun that you owe it to yourself to check out, especially considering their eventual mutual impact on Glow-in-the-Dark Build Your Own monster figure displays everywhere.

And now, at last, we come to Horror Express, perhaps the single whackadoodliest movie the bunch—a grandiosely-mounted headlong rush into genre-bending craziness. Turn of the (19th) century adventurer Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) believes a skull-faced apeman fossil he dug up on the frozen steppes of Manchuria to be just the missing link to prove the heretical theory of evolution. So naturally, he packs it in a big crate and gets on the Orient Express, where he accidentally collides with his old colleague and rival Doctor Wells (Peter Cushing), a blithely seedy amateur who thinks nothing of bribing the baggage car guard to drill a hole in Saxton’s crate just so he can see what all the fuss is about. Unfortunately, it just so happens that the wildman’s frozen corpse is inhabited by a body-hopping alien that reads people’s minds so strenuously it cooks their brains, sowing a trail of bloody, white-eyed corpses in its wake as it moves from possessee to possessee.

As befits their status as Hammer Horror’s best tag-team, Lee and Cushing are an absolutely joy to behold together, especially since they’ve finally got a script Lee apparently finds worthy of memorizing to work on. Other passengers include: A beautiful red-headed adventuress in Chinese finery who may be a spy, slutty Countess Irena and her much-older industrialist/inventor husband—who seems to have no problem with her setting her cap for Saxton—plus the mad monk they’re toting around with them for no particular reason, as well as Wells’s no-nonsense biologist assistant, the possibly lesbian (or Canadian) Miss Jones. The red-headed adventuress has no ticket and ends up bunking with both Saxton and Wells, who’ve been inadvertently assigned the same berth; “I’m sure we will alllll be VERY COMFORTABLE,” she says, lying back on Wells’s bunk, who actually looks like he’d be up for a threesome if Saxon wasn’t such a literally huge prig.

Saxton and Wells end up with the creature’s eye (don’t ask), and manage to peel its lens off. Through science, they are then able to project the images contained therein onto the carriage wall, including one that seems to be of the Earth as seen from space—the mind-sucking creature is an alien! They then come up with an are-you-possessed test, which proves to be—I shit you not—“let’s just turn out the lights and see whose eyes glow in the dark.” “But what if one of YOU is the monster?” The local cop asks, to which Wells immediately snaps back: “Monster? We’re British, you know!”

So there we have it: 24 hours’ worth of horror, give or take—from the ridiculous to the sublime, and right on back again. Happy Halloween.

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