Boo Tube: Seven non-franchise, psychologically twisted double features for Halloween
Halloween is upon us, in what has turned out to be Hollywood’s biggest year ever for horror. Box office figures indicate that you’ve probably seen the latest and most obvious such flicks. And anyway, I say it’s better to scare yourself into catatonia at home, so I’ve meditated on my own video-rental past to come up with a list of streaming ideas for you.
Yes, I worked at one of those old stores briefly, and speaking of terror: Do you have any idea how many people would come in and just rent every scary-movie franchise and sequel they could find? I didn’t know there were nine Children of the Corn movies. Better rent ’em all! I recall having this actual exchange with a customer:
“You guys got the first Chucky?”
“Child’s Play, yeah, it’s right here next to the rest of them.”
“No, I want the first Chucky.”
Maybe our collective lack of consumer imagination helped kill Blockbuster.
But you don’t have to live that way, watching characters die at the hands of a little doll over and over. There’s a panoply of blood-curdling titles just waiting to be dialed up on your device — enough to fill out a long pre-Halloween weekend of double features. Do yourself some damage with your pick of these time-tested categories.
Love it or hate it, Darren Aronofsky’s recent Mother! (I loved it), with its multiple biblical allegories, made me want to rewatch a couple of WTF gems. Start with Frailty, the extraordinary 2001 directorial debut of the late great Bill Paxton. Paxton plays a father who believes he’s been visited by an angel — who has told him he must slay demons on Earth, in human form. His kids are terrified that Dad is taking innocent people to the toolshed and murdering them with an ax. Paxton’s unwavering faith leads him to do unspeakable things, and the story is told in flashbacks by an adult Matthew McConaughey, who plays one of the brothers as an adult. It’s a slow-burn psychological thriller with a wacko premise, carried out with 100 percent commitment.
Unwavering faith is also what gets the 17th-century Puritan family of last year’s The Witch into trouble. Watch this one next. The slow pace, meticulous art direction, and period-specific dialogue are engrossing if you have patience for them. On their own, building a home at the edge of a mysterious forest, a family spirals out of control, and the parents assume they are being tested by God. Increasingly, the mother begins blaming their misfortunes on what she says are the satanic tendencies of their teenage daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy). The trick of both The Witch and Frailty is that you may find yourself asking oddly Puritanical questions about the nature of evil. Is blaming it all on Satan really such an outlandish explanation? Maybe not!
The Witch streams on Amazon Prime. Rent Frailty on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu — or find either as a cheapo Blu-ray in a bin near you.
In the 2014 Austrian import Goodnight Mommy, two 10-year-old brothers suffer from Cargras delusion. That is, they are convinced that their mother — who has returned home after reconstructive facial surgery — is a different person. It’s a chamber piece in an isolated house, shot from the POV of the kids as they convince each other of this fact, then conspire to do awful things to the “impostor.” A squirm-inducing birth-control movie, I warn you.
“What the devil hath joined together let no man cut asunder!” That’s the tagline for Brain De Palma’s 1973 cult classic, Sisters, which is strange because it’s pretty late in the film that we realize there’s a pair of conjoined twins in the story at all. Before it turns into a psychotic bloodbath, the film’s Rear Window–like premise has a reporter (Jennifer Salt) believing she has witnessed an actress (Margot Kidder) commit a murder. Sisters is pre–big budget De Palma at his showy B-movie best, and features the best split-screen murder sequence ever put to film.
Goodnight Mommy streams on Vudu, or you can rent on Amazon, Google Play, itunes, vudu. Sisters streams on Filmstruck, or rent it from Amazon.
Bad Choices & Sexual Guilt
Back in the early 1980s, at the zenith of the slasher movie, sexually active teenagers were punished by knife-wielding maniacs seemingly every month at the multiplex (or whenever you wanted at your local VHS rental house). But the under-seen 2010 button-pusher Splice approaches sexuality as a source of unbearable tension within the dynamic of a repressed married couple (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley), who also happen to be genetic engineers. They’ve created a new life form — a female creature with a tail that matures from innocent baby to sexualized homewrecker, and fast. Naturally, they decide to keep it a secret.
David Robert Mitchell’s 2015 horror film, It Follows, punishes its sexually active teenagers more like the slashers of yesteryear, but with a Terminator-like “unrelenting force” twist. A curse is passed on when you have sex with someone, and the moment you’ve got it, a being (taking a different form each time) is set in motion with only one goal: your imminent demise. The only way to stop the being is to pass on the curse by — you got it — having sex with someone else. The synth-heavy soundtrack and obvious AIDS allegory recall the 1980s, while the handsome widescreen framing and mounting dread channel Kubrick. But It Follows, like Splice, also has a sick sense of humor. The simplicity of its design falters a bit in the end (also like Splice), but there’s plenty of formal filmmaking chops on display here.
It Follows streams on Netflix. Rent either film on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, or buy the Splice Blu-ray in a clearance used bin near you.
This double feature should follow your viewing of the one above, if only because Maika Monroe (of It Follows) also stars in the ultra-creepy The Guest. As high-school girl Anna, she recently lost her older brother in Afghanistan, and her family is still grieving when a mysterious stranger (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) shows up at their door, claiming to be her brother’s best friend from the war. He ingratiates himself almost immediately, but Anna senses that all is not well. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (You’re Next) draw inspiration from Hitchcock’s masterful Shadow of a Doubt and give it a dash of modern-day menace.
The Dutch import Borgman is set in 2013, but its main character feels centuries old, as though he possesses knowledge of old-world secrets we’ve long since forgotten. A raggedy hobo who is chased from a hole in the ground by men with guns and a priest, he soon winnows his way into the good graces of a housewife and her kids when Daddy’s not at home. Everything about this movie feels off — in the best possible way. Although it’s not a traditional horror movie by any standards, Borgman creates of unease and peculiarity that will have you questioning what you just witnessed and taking stock of the people that you trust in your life. Have fun trying to sleep after this one.
Stream Borgman at Hulu, Yahoo, Shudder or SundanceNow. Rent both on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes or Vudu.
Two Takes, Both Great
It’s an accepted rule: English-language remakes of foreign films are never any good. But rules were made to be broken, and in 2010, a mere two years after the unorthodox Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In (directed by The Snowman director Tomas Alfredson) set the horror underground on fire, American Matt Reeves (who would later re-energize the current Planet of the Apes series) wrote and directed Let Me In. The latter changes the location from the snowy, economically depressed suburb of Stockholm in 1981 to the desert environs of Los Alamos, New Mexico — birthplace of the atomic bomb — in 1983. Somehow, the tortured soul of the film absolutely survives.
Both revolve around a 12-year-old boy, bullied at school, who befriends a girl who looks his age but is mature beyond her years. In both, vampirism is decidedly unsexy. It’s a curse that relegates you to outsider status. It’s practical. It’s unnerving. It’s disgusting. Each film has memorable set pieces and performances that will linger with you. Since Let the Right One In is a little more ambiguous and has an otherworldly quality that Let Me In doesn’t quite have, watch the Right One first, and then see how Reeves makes it work in a setting that’s very recognizable.
Let the Right One In streams at Shudder, and you can rent either movie on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes or Vudu.
A single mother of two places a “lonely hearts” ad. A grifter answers it, and she leaves her kids to be with him. Together, they go on a brutal murder spree. The Lonely Hearts Killers have several books and movies loosely based on their late-1940s crimes, and the best two would make a truly twisted home-alone double feature or date night. On the surface, the ultra–low budget 1970 black-and-white The Honeymoon Killers feels like an exploitation film, but because of its raw authenticity, romantic underpinnings and lurid sense of humor, it’s now a blood-speckled jewel in the crown of the Criterion Collection. The 2014 Belgian-French provocation Alleluia uses online dating as its impetus and is even more graphic in its violence than you would think a modern retelling of this story might be. Even though you may feel like you know the story by now, count on director Fabrice Du Welz to serve up plenty of nasty surprises, by way of deadpan shocking imagery and emotional hysterics.
The Honeymoon Killers streams on Filmstruck, and you can rent it from Amazon, iTunes or Vudu. Alleluia streams on Shudder or can be rented on Vudu.
Gonzo Weirdness Turning 40
Strange year, 1977: Disco was king, New York City suffered a blackout, the Son of Sam killer terrorized Gotham before being caught, and Elvis died on the crapper.
It was also the year two masterpieces of madness were released just three months apart. Start with Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, a stupidly glorious slice of outsider art about a 19th-century English artist who is granted immortality but trapped behind a mirror, forced to forever watch a bed slowly devour everyone who lies on it. Surprisingly, despite the pretentious voice-over and the stilted acting, the close-up scenes of the bed doing its thing are legitimately surreal. It’s required viewing for anyone who appreciates the novelty of a truly singular vision; that is seeing something so weird that it very existence defies all logic.
Death Bed is only 80 minutes but it feels longer, so reward yourself with House (Hausu), the post-psychedelic, pre-CGI Japanese freakout from Nobuhiko Obayashi that I am hereby calling the strangest movie ever. Unlike Death Bed, Hausu unfolds at a brisk pace and may have you hitting rewind just to confirm that you did in fact just see a reanimated severed head bite a girl on the ass.
A schoolgirl brings six of her friends to visit a mysterious aunt she just recently found out about in an old house that seems to live and breathe. Nobuhiko believed that children’s minds worked different than adults and they could conceive of unexplainable nightmares. His inspiration for this unique vision: the dreams of his 11-year-old daughter, filtered through his anger at losing many of his childhood friends in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More than anything, Hausu is a joyful, jolting experience. The old movie-critic cliché of calling summer blockbusters a “rollercoaster thrill ride” rarely applies anymore in this age of computers. Forty years after Hausu was made, its old-school analog special effects and wacky-beater madness make the cliché feel like it actually means something again.
Death Bed streams on Shudder or can be rented on Amazon. Hausu streams on Filmstruck, and you can rent it on Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu. Or just buy the Blu-ray, sight unseen. It’s worth it.