directed by John Carpenter
starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Nancy Kyes
It’s arguable whether or not 1978’s Halloween was the first true slasher film or not, many would say Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho laid the foundation, but it’s undeniable that the movie set a standard for the soon-to-flooded genre in the 1980’s. Many of the themes and techniques displayed in Halloween became standard practice of major franchises like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as countless one-off films that never spawned sequels. And before Halloween dove into countless sequels, it started with a film that is now nearly forty years old but still very effective at creating a great atmosphere at an intense pace. Halloween can also be credited with presenting a tremendous score that is widely recognizable and iconic, but also for creating a character that haunted without any reliance upon appearance.
Although I’ve seen Halloween so man times, probably at least fifty since I first sneaked a VHS copy into my house as a kid, something I’ve noticed more and more is how well the movie is shot. The first two segments are a very dark, sinister introduction intended to a provide backstory of Michael Myers as a villain, just before the film transfers to a small town in Indiana in the middle of the day. After that transition, we see long shots of suburban homes, quiet streets lined with fallen leaves, nice cars, and locals all well and conservatively dressed. The soundtrack is soft and subtle, synth-heavy and unthreatening in comparison to the harsher tracks later in the film. The shots of a typical middle-American town offer so much empty space early on, but as the film progresses, things are shot much tighter to give a sense of fear and claustrophobia. Characters are shown through the camera lens much closer, and an excellent shot of Myers chasing Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) up a set of stars is nearly broke in half by a railing at the top of the stairs. Everything in the final thirty minutes of the film makes the viewer feel closed in, before eventually presenting a few open shots familiar to viewers at the conclusion of the film.
Even with its age, Halloween will probably remain effective with audiences because of its simplicity. It is not an in-your-face horror movie soaked in blood or weighed down by a high body count. It’s a thrilling and scary movie because of the faceless and unrelenting villain. Donald Pleasance is fantastic in his role, as is Jamie Lee Curtis, but their characters are hardly fleshed out. What makes the viewer root for the pair is a certain source of evil, presented plainly but still mysteriously. Halloween influenced endless horror movies, but by itself is still a movie that every time I watch it I feel like I’ve forgotten how good it is.
Blair Witch, 2016
directed by Adam Wingard
starring James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott
When The Woods was revealed to be a new entry in the Blair Witch series, it induced some mixed reactions for me personally. The trailer was certainly promising, and seeing a new, original found footage horror movie is always exciting. Revealing the Blair Witch mythology was almost disappointing as a result, but as a fan of the original it was still exciting to see a sequel that was actually well-done. Watching Blair Witch, it doesn’t take too much time to see the film borrow heavily from the original, especially in the early and middle portions. There are a few twists, some of which are effective and interesting, but most don’t generate enough positive moments to make Blair Witch stand out as a solid film by itself or even a sequel.
Right away, the biggest thing that is irritating about Blair Witch is the over-edited and produced style. There are so many weird camera effects, supposedly simulating glitches and jump cuts in footage, but they are so obviously fake the film never achieves a realism that made the original so immersive. And not to just compare the film to the original, it doesn’t work as a found footage style film, either, because it really has too much of a commercial movie feel to it. The overproduction is also extremely annoying with the number of loud jump scares. Rather than a buildup in atmosphere (isolation and panic was so wonderfully palpable in the original), a loud bang is just thrown at the audience with little to no tension preceding the moment. There is a very ironic point after one of these jump scares where a character asks “can everyone just stop doing that?” It was very early on in the movie where I felt the same frustration.
Although far from salvaging the film, the final twenty minutes of the film are pretty intense and entertaining. Perhaps loosely predictable, but it’s executed well enough to be enjoyable and by far the best portion of the film. The special effects are impressive, creative and the film gets as close to actually being frightening than at any other point. It’s unfortunate that everything preceding it was so tedious and uninspired. The secrecy of this movie being a Blair Witch sequel is a weird one, because it ultimately never goes in an original direction. Maybe things would have been different if the same set of tools were applied to an original script, but this looks and plays like a very missable, straight-to-video sequel.
The Ruins, 2008
directed by Carter Smith
starring Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore
Although exciting and fast paced, The Ruins features shallow, underdeveloped characters and lacks a psychological edge resulting in a film that won’t leave too much of a lasting memory. A film adaptation of a novel with the same name, The Ruins has a fairly basic foundation for a plot. Four friends vacation in Mexico end up traveling from their resort into the jungle, seeking a new friend’s mission brother at an archaeological dig sit. From there, and even a few details from the beginning, the film makes rather dramatic changes from the source material. It’s annoying when anyone goes on about the differences between a book and a film, so I’ll avoid that for the most part, but do want to point a few things out quickly.
Obviously anytime you’re taking an average length book and converting it to a movie, things need to be cut. The Ruins, for the most part, does a decent job of that. There are actually enough changes where if you’ve read the book there are actually surprises in terms of what happens to whom, but the events themselves are for the most part familiar. However, hacked out of the movie is the actual time of events portrayed, making the film seem almost shorter than it is, and more of a quick nightmare than a slow but tense fight for survival. I found the characters in the book lacking, but they seem so fleshed out in comparison when you take the inconsistent and stiff personalities in the film. The acting is decent, but it’s hard to gather any palpable sympathy for anyone, and left me personally feeling very detached from the action rather than immersed.
An annoying major fault with The Ruins is a the overproduced style, with jump scares and loud music taking the place of slow, tension-focused buildup. The special effects are also a bit inconsistent, fairly impressive at points but almost laughable at others. While the movie features some grisly, bloody scenes, it’s unfortunately diminished because the characters and story leading into the moments are flat. Although it’s an average 90 minute long movie, The Ruins sacrifices depth for action and style and feels like it’s rushing through the story. It might be enough to distract and entertain viewers for a single viewing, but it’s nothing remarkable or worth a second look.
The Ruins, 2006
written by Scott Smith
Part thriller and part horror-adventure, The Ruins by Scott Smith is a novel that at it’s best moments is tense, engrossing and difficult to put down, but unfortunately feels too slow and meandering at times with fairly hollow main characters. It’s a simple enough plot, featuring four friends vacationing before they enter graduate school in Cancun, Mexico. There, they befriend a German man who is about to venture from the safety of the resorts and beaches into the jungle to find his missing brother at an archeological dig site. But, of course, it becomes a decision all of them deeply regret. Revealing any more of the plot would be a disservice to the book, as the mysteries behind the apparent simplicity of the story are original and worth experiencing without anything spoiled.
As stated before, at the best points The Ruins is a very thrilling read. There are probably two or three of these peaks. However, what is apparent early on and slowly confirmed over the course of the story, is that the characters just don’t have the depth to try appeal to and engage the reader. There is much exposition of the characters backstories, with most of the characters getting a decent share of attention, but no one really stands out as extremely interesting or as a leading protagonist. As a result, even though the final act is a fast-paced and exciting conclusion, it doesn’t have too much of an emotional impact and I felt very separated from the characters in the book.
Another problem The Ruins had that really spoiled a bit of the mystery was the rather straightforward foreshadowing. Again, while fairly enjoyable, the reveals of the book failed to shock me with the clues so plainly placed in front of me. Many have described The Ruins as a gruesome book that is hard to stomach at points, but I honestly did not find it too difficult to get through, even often being a squeamish reader in particular. I’ve probably done more complaining here than complimenting, but it’s really a reaction to the book having a good story and pace to it and failing to deliver anything really special. Overall, it’s a fairly quick and unchallenging read that I can’t passionately recommend reading or avoiding. It’s almost right down the middle, enjoyable, but not something I’d revisit or praise.
Night of the Creeps, 1986
directed by Fred Dekker
starring Jason Lively, Steve Marshall, Tom Atkins
Perfectly blending together several aspects of multiple genres, Night of the Creeps ends up being a very fun, campy, multi-genre romp that can be enjoyed by many varied audiences. The film starts with science fiction, showing an alien spaceship fighting to keep control and possession of an experimental member of the crew, but it ultimately escapes and plummets to Earth. From there, we see the horror themes start with two college aged kids seeing the projectile land nearby and proceeding to investigate. When the arrive, slug-like creatures shoot into the body of victims and make them zombie-like creatures. For safe measure, intertwined with all of this is a chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking Tom Atkins (Lethal Weapon), who is investigating a local case involving a mental institution escape.
Everything comes together nicely, with exploding zombies, tongue-in-cheek and self-referential dialogue, and all the fun a self-aware B-horror movie should have. Night of the Creeps has a good number of creative and clever moments, but it’s not a horror-comedy that brings satire through a change of perspective. While the movie is indeed described by the director as a homage and collection of B-movie cliches, a lot of the movie is solely referential rather than parody. For horror and sci-fi nerds it’s an absolutely delight, for broader audiences, a lot of the movie won’t be quite as effective. That being said, the movie is still very broadly enjoyable, and even if you don’t pick up on every little reference it’s still a lot of fun.
Night of the Creeps is like a fun little time machine, even the start of the movie that takes place in the 50s is presented in glorious black and white. The music is time-appropriate as well, as it is when the movie vaults forward to the 80s. Atkins is the best of the cast, which is decent but not one of the better aspects of the film. If anything, the two “leads” of Jason Lively and Jill Whitlow I found to be serviceable, but a little underwhelming. The cheesy and gory makeup effects are a delight, and while things start perhaps a little slow, the finish to the movie is brisk, blood-filled ride. Throw in some funny lines and gas, and all together Night of the Creeps is the kind of movie any horror nerd would really enjoy.