Halloween Cinema Treats That Keep on Giving

We’ve gotten used to the Christmas holiday season beginning around Halloween, but how often has Halloween thriller season begun the week after Labor Day? As the studios and moviemakers have learned, there’s a huge audience for horror. If you are skeptical, look at the grosses for new latest in Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise. Major record-breaking!

For the longest time, producers/studios would grind out assembly-line horror, capitalizing on mindless or copycat sequels of original hits that would make you groan, “Been there, seen it.” But even the usual suspects have come around; and there seems to be a newbie at the game: Blumhouse Productions, which this season could be crowned Prince of Horror.

You might say that horror season began way before Halloween — even in February. That’s when Get Out! (Blumhouse Productions/Universal), featuring Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Allison Williams (TV’s Girls) and young Brit Daniel Kaluuya (TV’s Babylon; upcoming Watership Down mini-series based on Richard Adams novel) hit cineplexes. It wasn’t a cookie-cutter, standard-issue thriller, but smart and well made – and had a sense of humor. It also offered a thoughtful look at the race issues making headlines.

Young Anglo woman (Williams) invites Afro-American young man (Kaluuya) for a meet-the-parents getaway, where he finds the family overly accommodating — an effort to deal with their daughter’s interracial relationship. As the weekend progresses, disturbing discoveries come to a head and lead him to a truth he never could have imagined. Something different, yes? And, going even further, it was R-rated. That usually can be the death knell to a film pitched for teens, the catalyst for a film’s opening weekend. They came, whether accompanied by an adult or with fake I.D.s. A film budgeted at a minuscule $5 million has raked in over $175.5 million. 

Jeepers Creepers III (Infinity/Screen Media) quickly followed. Set between the first and second film, it was quickly obvious it was in the lesser category. Sergeant Tubbs (Brandon Smith) went about attempting to learn the secrets and identify of Creeper (Jonathan Breck), the monster terrorizes a local farming community. Lovely Trisha (Gina Phillips) was sort of pushed aside for the introduction of Gaylen Brandon (Meg Foster (TVs Pretty Little Liars and Ravenswood), stealing the film, as someone with a history with the Creeper. It didn’t help. Initial audiences were bored, word-of-mouth was a downer. Made for $18 million, it grossed a paltry $2.3 million (JC1 exploded at the box office with sales of $35.7 million). Maybe the gross will rise – a bit – with the DVDs’ December release.

Oscar nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bella Thorne (Boo!: A Madea Halloween; TV’s Famous in Love, Big Love), Thomas Mann (Kong: Skull Island), and Kurtwood Smith (TV’s That 70s Show) weren’t enough to turn the lack of horror in Amityville: The Awakening (Blumhouse Productions/Dimension/TWC) into a silk purse. After a two-year shelf life, it was comatose (like Belle‘s twin brother) on arrival.

Then Came September   

“When you are a kid you think the world revolves around you, that you’ll always be protected, care for. Then, one day: a friend goes missing.” The opening words of It (New Line/Warner Bros./RatPac-Dune Entertainment), the cinema adaptation of the 1990 three-hour mini-series based on Stephen King’s terrifying best-seller, leads audiences on a thrill ride as satisfying as any on a mega coaster. The plot line involves kids of a small town, rumored to be cursed, disappearing in bloody spades. A gang of seven, led by Richie (Finn Wolfhard, Mikie on Stranger Things), united by their horrifying and strange encounters with the evil Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård), mount their bikes determined to kill “It.” Been there, seen it? But, even with parallels to Stand By Me, The Goonies, and TV’s Stranger Things, it rises to the occasion. Here, though much condensed, it’s all about bonding and the paranormal, but the paranormal’s never been quite like this: Atmosphere (that haunted house; and especially the horrific finale, which even tops David Lean’s in The Third Man), piercing score by Benjamin Wallfisch (Blade Runner 2049, Annabelle: Creation, Hidden Figures), jump-scare sound effects, and, best of all, the brotherly-love kiss to bring back the living dead. Argentine Andy Muschietti (2013 horror thriller Mama) is set to helm the 2019 sequel.

Oddly, with a cast of youngsters, the film’s R-rated for violence and, something you don’t hear often, F words cascading out of the mouths of babes. That hasn’t stopped it from blockbuster status – grossing $179 million in less than two months, ($189.5 million worldwide) on a budget of $35 million.  Reminder: whether pouring cats and dogs or not, on Jackson Street or any other, never look deep into those corner drains!

Happy Death Day (Blumhouse Productions/Universal Pictures) is a dark comedy mystery horror thriller borrowing lavishly from the classic Groundhog Day. On her birthday, teenager Tree (excellent Jessica Rothe) concludes that it will be her last one. That is, IF she can figure out who her killer is. To do that, she relives the day over and over – dying in a different way on each one. No way you’ll snooze, as you get sucked in even before the film begins [You’ll see]. Keep a keen eye on Tree. Christopher Landon (Disturbia, Paranormal Activity) knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat. Shooting in New Orleans’ Garden District, home to the streetcar and fabled mansions, adds tons of atmosphere.

In Boo 2: A Madea Halloween (Tyler Perry Company/Lionsgate) Madea, Bam, and Hattie venture to a haunted campground where they end up running for their lives from a boogeyman, goblins, and monsters, goblins, and the boogeyman are unleashed. Perry has an audience for his sometimes amateurish movies that  segue between embarrassing and somewhat funny. He comes up with great ideas and one has to be envious of his multi-talents and following. In his films, he  plays a lot of characters – some, such as Madea, much better than others. Maybe the mistake is in doing it all: writing, directing, and co-producing.  Boo! 2. But the film shot out of the gate October 20 and astonished the industry selling performances out. Budgeted at $25 milion, it has already grossed $35.5 million. Boo! 2 became an instant hit. Budgeted at $25 million, it’s close to exceeding that in just over a week.

Jigsaw (Serendipity Productions/Lionsgate) is the eighth title in the Saw franchise, which became a popular slasher series with face-cringing, spine tingling twists to the serial killer saga and a look at the day’s social mores. Then it ended, until this past weekend when it’s been reborn in hopes of bringing in more moola. As bodies drop everywhere – each with gruesome demise that fit Jigsaw’s style, police find themselves chasing the ghost of a man presumed dead for over a decade (Tobin Bell), and become embroiled in a new cat and mouse game. Is Jiggy/John Kramer back? Is this a copy cat? Or  are they falling into a trap set by another monster? The story is told in such a fast pace that there’s little time for character development. However, it gets props for the show-stopping, head-rolling finale. The film got a knife in its back from critics and moviegoers. One reviewer’s assessment: “Watching Jigsaw is a dumb, ugly waste of energy.”

There Was Another Horror at the Weekend Box Office

Suburbicon (Paramount/Dark Castle/Black Bear Pictures) – It had the cache of George Clooney as director when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, but was received with a few boos. Conceived by Joel and Ethan Coen (remember their 2016 misfire Hail, Caesar!, about a tough Hollywood studio “fixer”), Clooney (a Hail, Caesar! co-star), and Grant Heslov (co-writer, Matt Damon’s Best Picture Argo), is a racially-charged farce that “draws parallels between the U.S.’ ugly past and the situation today.” Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac, Summer of 1959, are in an Eden to raise a family: an idyllic community with affordable homes and manicured lawns. However, tranquility changes to disturbing reality in the town’s s dark underbelly of betrayal, deceit, and violence [including flaming Confederate flags]. Come critics went “Huh?” and “Huh!” The often kind Rotten Tomatoes wrote: “It’s A Raisin in the Sun Meets The Donna Reed Show. Only occasionally does an image strike a lyrical blow and yield the creepy effect Clooney is aiming for.” Worse, audiences weren’t camping overnight to be the first at box offices. Maybe it will develop a cult following.

At Home 24/7 Horror and Halloween Fright Fest  

Is this not the best time of year to revisit famous Halloween spook with everything from zombies and slashers to séances and lots of screams? There’s so much horror to enjoy spread on the couch with a beer or soda and chips and dip. Can anything top the original Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, Hitch’s Psycho, Kubrick’s The Shining [Where’s Jack? Bring him back!]? Maybe a bit of Poltergeist; or some Stephen King? How about Halloween, The Fog, Christine or anything by John Carpenter, because he knows how to scare your pants off? There’s Wes Craven’s bad ole Freddy in  Nightmare on Elm Street; or the original Saw; contemporary grand guignol of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?; and any season of American Horror Story – because Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck know how to creep you out. Then, there’s family-friendly “horror” in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein/Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde/The Invisible Man.

3-D is having a much-longer shelf life than expected. For a great at-home theatrical experience, check out the Blu-ray 3-D edition of the edge-of-your-cushioned-seat 1953 blockbuster House of Wax [Warner Home Entertainment, SRP $40]. Vincent Price, so fantastic playing madmen, is perfect casting for demented Professor Henry Jarrod. The Technicolor, pre-digital 3-D two-projector image realignment, and sound track have been meticulously remastered with a 4K scan. Don’t spill your popcorn as you experience one of the most incredible horror flick finales. Beware: You can’t escape the flames!

If your dream is a near lifetime of at-home horror, get 50 Horror  Classics (Mill Creek Entertainment; 3,743 minutes/12 discs; $15.65 on Amazon). The massive set contains some classics – keep in mind the majority are from the 30s and 40s and most, if not all, fall into Public Domain, so they haven’t been remastered: The Ape (Boris Karloff), Bluebeard (John Carradine), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John Barrymore, Silent), Allan Dwan’s comic romp The Gorilla (Ritz Brothers, Bela Lugosi), William Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill (Vincent Price),

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Lon Chaney, Silent), Roger Corman’s  Little Shop of Horrors (Jack Nicholson),  Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Murnau’s Nosferatu (Max Schreck, Silent), The Phantom of the Opera (Lon Chaney, Silent), and, among numerous others, White Zombie (Lugosi).

Universal Studios’ horror period produced first-rate thrillers. Six have been remastered for Blu-ray for Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection (Universal Home Entertainment; eight discs/710 minutes; $45 on Amazon): James Whale’s  Bride of Frankenstein (Elsa Lancaster, Karloff, Colin Clive) – many feel this sequel surpasses its predecessor, Tod Browning’s Dracula (Lugosi) – note how the mood is set with a lack of score, Whale’s Frankenstein (Karloff, Clive, Mae Clark), The Invisible Man (Claude Rains) – with humor to offset the horror, The Mummy (Karloff), and The Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr.). There’s bonus material galore, including an alternate Dracula score by Philip Glass, performed by the Kronos Quartet.


ellis-nassour

Ellis Nassour is an Ole Miss alum and noted arts journalist and author who recently donated an ever-growing exhibition of performing arts history to the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the best-selling Patsy Cline biography, Honky Tonk Angel, as well as the hit musical revue, Always, Patsy Cline. He can be reached at ENassour@aol.com

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