2016 Halloween Countdown : Horror mini-reviews

Tonight is Halloween! I'm back to share my observations on the horror films (or films with horror elements) that I have watched so far during 2016. A word of warning, minor plot spoilers may occur. Hope you enjoy reading my journey through the classics and lesser known gems! Have you watched any of these? Agree or disagree? Will you be watching a spooky film this evening?

The Witch (2015) (Robert Eggers)
I really wanted to like it, and I admire they went for something we don’t see every day. A great premise with the setting and old language. Each frame looks authentic, but a forgettable story. Passable yet not as great as the hype indicated. Didn't get under my skin which the best horror films do. Maybe I was expecting to be shocked and scared, which didn’t happen at all.

The Neon Demon (2016) (Nicolas Winding Refn)
**Spoiler free review** Best film of 2016 so far. I love the colors, the Cliff Martinez score, and overall atmosphere. My god that ending. I've never seen anything like that before in my life. On one level I admire the imagination and guts, on another level I felt sick to the stomach which never usually happens to me. You may require a barf bag. I can't erase those images from my mind and wasn't able to sleep properly that same night. If a movie can provoke that kind of reaction it must have some merit. A cautionary tale about the dangers of modelling and fame seeking.

The Birds (1963) (Alfred Hitchcock)
Tippi Hedren is beautiful although I must admit she has an annoying nasal voice. The story is well-told and unsettling, because bird attacks could happen. The bird sound effects work well and particularly believable is the first bird attack at the birthday party. And it’s not just the attacks that are chilling, Hitchcock also generates suspense from moments when the birds gather in flocks and the townspeople walk by anxiously. Jessica Tandy is effective as the possessive mother to Mitch. According to a recent interview with Tippi Hedren real birds were used when she is trapped in the house. Yikes. People go on about that the special effects are laughably dated, but I'm not one of the naysayers. A masterpiece.

The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) (Dario Argento)
Suspenseful giallo mystery and I liked the idea of a blind former policeman helping with the investigation. The shaving scene is tense, and so is the car chase when the woman tries to lose the police. The underground tomb sequence is claustrophobic and the last place you want to be. Menacing eyes replace Argento’s usual black gloves.

Roar (1981) (Noel Marshall)
Highly entertaining. An unforgettable, unique watch. Lions and tigers in almost every frame. A miracle this movie even got made, with the actors putting themselves in dangerous situations. Imagine Hitchcock’s The Birds, only with African animals. I guess the message is that lions and tigers should be protected, and are not hostile, if you know how to treat them correctly.
According to IMDb trivia, the making of this film has been labeled as a horror due to the nightmare production shoot which was devastated by bushfire, flood, foreclosure, animal attacks, crew resignations, rain and outbreak of disease.
Favorite quotes: “It’s just like life, you get the funny with the tragic. It’s just with them you get the gentle and ferocious too. (…) “For my studies I have to get as close to them as possible”
“What do you think you’re running here, a country club for lions?”

Cronos (1993) (Guillermo del Toro)
The film that introduced the world to Guillermo del Toro’s style. Opening 15-20 min are especially captivating, although you have to wonder why the grandfather uses the device before hearing about its purpose. The blood in the bathroom scene was unexpected.
It’s a pity the story relies on the stupidity of the villain in not visiting the grandfather’s house to look for the device.
Not scary in the traditional sense. Cronos is a timeless dark fable/fairy tale. I certainly enjoy del Toro’s films, even if I don’t quite love them.

The Queen of Spades (1949) (Thorold Dickinson)
Nominated in 1949 for BAFTA award for best British film. An atmospheric period costume drama. About damnation and avarice, selling your soul to the devil in exchange for success. Considered the finest adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s short story.
My favorite part was the flashback sequence with the young Ranevskaya, although she becomes grouchy and overprotective in her old age. You wonder if her life choices are the reason for her attitude. I was surprised how much courting there was. Only at the beginning and end do we see gambling. The middle of the film is about the courting of Lizaveta, who is looked after by countess Ranevskaya. The last act was a tad implausible.
Favorite quote:
“Look at France, Napoleon Bonaparte, he was general at 26“
“My advice to you is to be content, as I am. Take life as you find it”
“I’d rather take it by the throat, and force it to give me what I want”

The Black Cat (1934) (Edgar G. Ulmer)
What sticks out the most is the filmmakers create a gradual sense of dread with hardly any special effects. The horror is all done with the music, and the performances of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Gave me chills when Karloff’s character Poelzig played that famous piece on the organ. Ambiguous how many at the house had been put under his spell or were there of their own free will.
Favorite quote: “I wanted to have her beauty, always”

The Cat and the Canary (1927) (Paul Leni)
Considered an influential silent in the "old dark house" genre of films. I liked the opening with Cyrus West, a canary surrounded by giant cats.
Paul Jones character is the comic relief, raising his arms as if at gunpoint when the car tyre exploded, or becoming trapped under a bed and mistaken for a ghost. Those two scenes put a smile on my face.
The scenes discussing the will were a bit forgettable, and the pacing was slow. Has its moments, such as a creepy arm reaching out, and unexpected disappearances, but not as great as I had hoped. The music that accompanied the film by Dionysis Boukouvalas was well done.

All the Colors of the Dark (1972) (Sergio Martino)
Italian giallo, dubbed in English, and set in autumnal London. Sergio Martino’s muse Edwige Fenech plays a fragile, delusional woman, haunted by her past, who is threatened by a creepy man with bright blue eyes. You don’t know if he is real or a figment of her imagination, for instance in the waiting room and when she locks herself outside her flat. She strikes up a friendship with a neighbour who gives advice about fighting anxiety.
A watchable giallo, but if I had to criticize, it’s too repetitive, many times we see her being followed by the blue-eyed man.
Perhaps the most disturbing scenes are when she is chased by dogs, surrounded by weirdos during the ritual at the castle, and staying with Mr and Mrs Main at their house.
Thematically points in several directions, about mental health, social anxiety, sexual liberation, and the dangers of religious cults. In some respects, a B-movie Eyes Wide Shut. As another letterboxd reviewer writes, very different to your normal black gloved killer Giallo.
On a side note, I love the angle when the camera is positioned behind the fire place, facing the room.
This was my fourth Martino giallo, and I’ve liked all of them so far. Torso (1973) next.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949) (34 min short)
Bing Crosby narrates this Disney classic. A kids-friendly, mostly comedic Sleepy Hollow focusing on the rivalry to win Katrina. Has its visually inventive moments, especially in the scene when Ichabod Crane dreams of Katrina's inheritance. Pumpkins and autumnal leaves can be seen at the dance and we are told that it’s Halloween night. The headless horseman depicted in Tim Burton’s darker vision makes an appearance in the suspenseful horseback ride in the final minutes. The Disney-fied Ichabod is a more lanky and anxious fellow than Johnny Depp’s Icabod. The 1949 short sticks to Washington Irving's original story, and there’s an ambiguity if Brom Bones was the headless horseman.

The Servant (1963) (Joseph Losey)
Very British. I wouldn't go so far as to label it horror, but there are definitely chilling moments. In fact the LA times wrote: Could "The Servant" be the coldest film ever made?
I found these characters dull, lacking in personality, and the slow pacing and bloated running time weakened its impact. Dirk Bogarde plays the enigmatic Jekyll-and-Hyde servant well, but I didn’t care who fell in love with who. The class differences felt a bit dated. It’s implied that unemployment is unhealthy. A precursor to The Magus (1965) and Sleuth (1972).

Messiah of Evil (1973) (Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz)
Sporadically memorable. There’s an ominous sense of doom that pervades the story. Worth seeing for the cinematography and Jack Fisk’s art direction. The colors are beautiful and so is the interior of the house by the shore. There’s an eerie scene by a gas station, a relatable uneasiness of being in that vulnerable place in the middle of nowhere. The scariest sequence was the supermarket when the woman meets the crowd of weirdos. The sequence inside the cinema is creepy too by placing the horror in a confined space, although by that point you know what to expect.
There’s a twist near the end which has been used in other horror films. A little-known low-budget 70s gem that's worth seeing for any horror fan.

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) (Henry Selick)
I guess you can watch this to celebrate Halloween or Christmas? Atmospheric and timeless, a masterful piece of stop motion animation. I love the opening sequence. There are countless details which add to the charm and rewatchability, such as when the father opens his head and scratches his brain, the walking bath tub, the dog ghost, or the girl sewing her body parts back on.
I didn’t need to have Christmas explained to me. Although I admit it’s healthy to look at traditions with fresh eyes like a child does, so as to (re)discover what makes things magical in the first place. Hijacking Christmas is a unique idea and we can all relate to Jack’s feeling of something missing in our lives and tired of the old routine. Part of me feels like Burton as a kid would have preferred the ghoulish Christmas presents.
I admire the film more than I love it, but there’s enough to enjoy here in terms of visuals, music and quirky characters. The effects hold up well and so do the songs. Memorable tunes, especially ”This is Halloween” from the opening, “What's This?” when Jack Skellington encounters Christmastown, and the sad ballad Sally's Song.

Ms .45 (1981) (Abel Ferrara)
Easy to watch and visually remarkable. There is hardly need for any dialogue, everything is told with images. Set in the 80s, the story could have been about a big city in America today. Zoƫ Tamerlis plays the mute, a complex and memorable character who gets a kick out of her vengeance. This is a woman who just wants to be left alone.
The scene of the street harassment is realistic and reminded me of the recent viral video "10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman". Men are creepier and more offhandedly predatory than they think. Other specific scenes had an American Psycho-ish vibe.
A suspenseful and well-paced exploitation flick that glued me to the screen, and which at only 80 minutes doesn't outstay its welcome. My only complaint is the last act at the party when the guests behave illogically. I should explore Abel Ferrara's filmography.

The Addiction (1995) (Abel Ferrara)
Arthouse horror. It's not perfect, but the strength of the film is how it links vampirism with addiction. Parallels can be made to real life. Even if you want to stop the addiction you can’t. Friends don’t recognize you anymore and are concerned. Always on the lookout for the next fix regardless of the pain it causes others. How addicts can influence other people to become addicts. Controlling your habit with your will. etc
Injecting needles is unsettling to watch, even more so if the blood is taken from a random stranger.
For me, the weakness was the philosophy. The classes and quotes were a bit random and didn’t add much to the overall story. Christopher Walken's role is pretty small, he reminded me of the characters in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). The hip hop soundtrack did feel appropriate.
Favorite quote: “dulls are perception so you’re helped to forget how ill you really are. We drink to escape the fact we are alcoholics”

The Craft (1996) (Andrew Fleming)
Apparently the lead is not the girl from Gilmore Girls. The opening 45 minutes are especially enjoyable, the second half is a bit over the top.
There are weaknesses, such as the showy SFX scenes in the middle of the film that hardly serve any purpose, the floating body, hair color change, and walking on water scene.
The story threads involving lovestruck Skeet Ulrich, the racist blond girl, and the dream sequence were handled quite well, where there was an ambiguity of whether there was a spell cast or not.
According to what I’ve read, Fairuza Balk (Nancy) was an actual practicing Wiccan for a while. Yikes. "The Craft" has been credited as the main influence on the growth of real-life teen interest in Wicca over the past 20 years. I can see why this has become a cult favorite, definitely rewatch potential.
Favorite quotes: “Don’t touch me, everything I touch turns to shit” “We are the weirdos, mister”

The Last Man on Earth (1964) (Ubaldo Ragona)
In this case, the vampire is a metaphor for a disease which can potentially wipe out humanity. The film goes for atmosphere and lacks scares. The action scenes are sparse. The deliberately slow pacing may put some people off and I admit I fell asleep (more than once) while watching and had to go back. The flash backs about the family humanize Vincent Price's character, but because these scenes are in the middle of the film, it was predictable what would happen, and maybe instead should have been the first part of the film?  Isolation and loneliness are also themes that are given attention. An unsettling vision of a dystopian future and there are some twists in the last third which justify sticking around to the end. Perhaps the Will Smith adaptation I Am Legend (2007) is a step up?

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) (David Lynch)
Rewatch and it’s not growing on me. Probably my least favorite Lynch film. The opening 30 minutes involving two FBI agents investigating the murder of Teresa Banks feels disconnected from the rest. Most of the time has a dream-like quality with weird nightmarish imagery, but very abstract and doesn’t add up to anything important. An unnecessary and overlong prequel. Darker, colder, and slower paced than the tv-series, not as entertaining. The soundtrack is excellent though and Sheryl Lee (as Laura Palmer) makes it at least watchable by delivering a complex performance.What The Flick?! said about the movie: "it really wasn't about who killed Laura Palmer, it was about how we all failed her"

Ginger Snaps (2000) (John Fawcett)
While I don't think it has much new to say about adolescence, it is quite cleverly conceived in how the werewolf aspects mirror the changing teenagers. The actual story was effective, especially in that I couldn't predict how it would play out. Well-acted too.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) (Joe Dante)
A big budget sequel that goes in a more comedic direction than the first film, and isn’t as scary because you know what to expect. There are enough wacky ideas here for two sequels and you can see it cost a lot of money to make. But a flawed film. The filmmakers go too far and lose grip with reality. Many things are illogical, such as the new born gremlins knowing Mogwai’s name, the hijacking of the movie, the gremlin in the answering machine, the talking Gremlin knowing things, etc.
I do have some praise, as the end credits music by Jerry Goldsmith is arguably more iconic than the theme from the original.
In recent years, the film was described by director Joe Dante as an anti-sequel, with an anti-capitalist message. "So I made Gremlins 2, which was essentially about how there didn’t need to be a sequel to Gremlins”. Dante uses the image of the megalomaniac and his skyscraper as a metaphor for production companies churning out sequels purely in an attempt to replicate the success of the originals.

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) (Roger Corman)
The last in his series of eight films loosely based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Starring Vincent Price, The Tomb of Ligeia was quite intriguing, a man grieving his dead wife(Ligeia) is a timeless theme. When the redhead is trapped by the bell, the bell starts ringing, and you wonder why. A supernatural reason or simply the hourly chime?
There are some impressive sets by the old mansion and the love interest is a beauty. The last act is weaker than the first hour. I’ve now seen 4 of 8, and I’d rate The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and House of Usher (1960) slightly higher for the story. Tomb Of Ligeia is good, but a tad predictable towards the end.

Nightbreed (1990) (Clive Barker)
I watched the director’s cut, considered closer to Clive Barker's vision than the theatrical cut. The creature effects are impressive and the story held my attention despite a two hour running time. Not sure I understood the reasons for the hatred towards the outcasts. The killing all seems so cruel and unjustified. Envy of immortality is given as a reason for destroying. The police are the real monsters, hunting for sport. Decker is a mystery to me, what does he have against the nightbreed? Perhaps that’s the point of the story, that evil is not easily explained. People complain there is no real character development and also disjointed pacing, but I wasn’t bothered by either. It isn't perfect, but I'm giving it 4 stars because Nightbreed contains far more imagination than any recent horror films I've seen. On a side note, I owned the Amiga game when I was 9, I didn't know what I was getting into, creepy stuff for a kid!

The Others (2001)
Rewatch. I used to think this movie was simply a clever twist ending, but it's more than that and better than I remembered. An old-fashioned haunted house story, which is quite visually striking, mist, shadows and candle-lit rooms.
Nicole Kidman is excellent as the wavering yet protective mother. We can empathize because she is in the same position as the audience, wanting to get to the bottom of the mystery. The presence in the house is quite eerie with its unknown agenda.
The questions the children ask their mother about believing in ghosts and the bible, and who is good or bad in war, gives the story realism. Normal for children to be curious.
It's unfortunate the filmmakers seem so eager to explain everything during the ending, to the point where it’s too spelled out in the dialogue and neatly resolved. Of course you could say we have had the entire film to use our brain and think about what's wrong in the house, and can find out if we were right or wrong. There are one or two things for the audience to ponder afterwards, especially in regards to Kidman’s character and also her past.
A film that will likely still hold up in 100 years. The soundtrack is slightly bland, yet timeless.

Ranking of horror seen in 2016 so far


  1. I've seen half a dozen or so of these. In fact, I watched Ginger Snaps for the first time just a couple of days ago. I liked it quite a bit.

    I also seem to like The Servant a lot more than you do. It's a disturbing film, and I can see people either really liking it or really not. It would be dull if we agreed on everything, right?

    1. @SJHoneywell: Yes, would be dull to always agree! The Servant does have a distinctive mood and is well-acted, I’ll give it that. I did appreciate the gradual change in the main characters, even if I didn’t quite have the patience or interest. In the kitchen seduction scene, the drip from the tap increasing the sexual tension was memorable. As you can see from the lowest ratings here, slow pacing in films tends to hurt my enjoyment.


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