Four weeks down, one to go! In the penultimate week of the 31 Days of Horror challenge, I decided to focus on films that have been sitting in my watchlist for far too long. Though I found some films to be disappointing, there were some gems hidden in the pile, making for a great week of horror films.
Oct. 18: Ganja and Hess (1973) dir. Bill Gunn
The challenge: Watch a horror film featuring a “scream queen.”
Pros: Black vampires!!!
Cons: Difficult to follow at times
Bill Gunn’s experimental vampire horror film Ganja and Hess is an under-watched cult classic that deserves your attention. Wealthy anthropologist Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones) develops an insatiable thirst for blood after being stabbed by his research assistant with an ancient knife. Following the incident, the research assistant commits suicide, leading his estranged wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) and Hess to meet in the aftermath. The two become lovers and Ganja quickly learns that Hess was left with more than just a scar after being stabbed by his colleague. The film feels disorienting and dream-like as shots of gushing blood and screams punctuate avant garde-style sequences of close ups, poetic dialogue, and unique montages. Ganja and Hess is a meditation on addiction and identity shown through vampirism that is truly an experience to watch.
Oct. 19: Pet Sematary (2019) dir. Kevin Kolsh and Dennis Widmyer
The challenge: It’s John Lithgow’s birthday. Watch a horror film featuring him!
Pros: Good sound design
Cons: Longer than it needs to be
Oh, how I wanted to enjoy this one. Pet Sematary is slow and lacks character development, making it feel like a chore to watch at times. This iteration of the classic Steven King novel shows a family facing the loss of a pet and a child who are partially brought back to life after being buried in a mysterious burial ground in the nearby woods. The premise is deeply unsettling, so there is a certain level of dread possible, but the poor execution prevents the story from reaching its full potential.
Oct. 20: Orphan (2009) dir. Jaume Collet-Serra
The challenge: Watch something you have NEVER seen before.
Pros: Vera Farmiga screaming “I’m not your f—king mommy”
Cons: Gets a bit messy in the second half
At a sleepover in middle school, I watched the trailer for Orphan and could not stop thinking about it. I was horrified without ever seeing the movie. The IMDB Parents’ Guide and Wikipedia page fueled many a sleepless night as I read every weird and terrifying detail with immediate regret, but kept scrolling due to morbid fascination. I’m happy to report that Orphan is a solid horror movie and it is nowhere near as scary as I thought it was when I was 13. The film follows Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a young girl who is adopted by a well-intentioned couple. Esther has some behavioural problems and doesn’t get along well with her adoptive siblings or mother. Her adoptive mother Kate (Vera Farmiga) suspects Esther is hiding something and things escalate when she confronts her. Orphan takes the creepy child trope and runs with it, making for a horror film that is unexpected and pretty scary, though it is a bit over the top and campy at moments.
Oct. 21: Trouble Every Day (2001) dir. Claire Denis
The challenge: Watch something French.
Pros: Everyone is very attractive
Cons: Characters feel underdeveloped
Claire Denis’ erotic cannibal thriller Trouble Every Day shows the dark side of desire through the story of a couple on their honeymoon in Paris. The film falls into the New French Extremity category, marked by the use of gore, sex, and other extreme elements with experimental and arthouse influences. That being said, Denis film depicts rape crossed with cannibalism in a gorey scene that is very well done but difficult to watch, even for people who aren’t usually squeamish.
Oct. 22: It (2017) dir. Andy Muschietti
The challenge: Watch a horror film that features a clown.
Pros: All of the performances are great
Cons: About 30 minutes longer than necessary
For a bleak movie about a clown that kills children, It is a very entertaining movie to watch. The Losers’ Club — made up of seven teens who are mercilessly bullied by their peers — finds themselves face-to-face with a demonic clown, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), that they are determined to take down. The film is very dark, as it deals with themes of loss of innocence and children in danger, but the members of the Losers’ Club provide moments of solace in the form of comic relief and silly summertime antics. It is a well-made horror movie that injects new energy into Steven King’s story, introducing it to a new generation of horror fans.
Oct. 23: Sleepy Hollow (1999) dir. Tim Burton
The challenge: RIP: Watch a horror film featuring Martin Landau.
Pros: Gorgeous costumes and set design
Cons: Atmosphere is stronger than the story
Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) goes to the town of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of brutal decapitations committed by an unknown offender. It’s revealed that the town is anything but “sleepy” and is, in fact, bursting with secrets, lies, and betrayal. As with all of Burton’s work, the visual appearance of the film is remarkably immersive and clearly took an incredible amount of work and attention to detail to craft. The story, though, falls a bit short of the excellence of the design, leaving a bit more character and plot development to be desired. Regardless, the dark Victorian look fits right in with the Halloween season, making this a good movie to put on to get in the holiday spirit.
Oct. 24: Eraserhead (1977) dir. David Lynch
The challenge: Watch a black and white horror film.
Pros: The baby creature is so gross and cool
Cons: Very weird, definitely not for everyone
David Lynch’s Eraserhead is a strange experimental horror film that includes visuals and themes emblematic of Lynch’s later work. The midnight movie is full of body horror and surreal moments strung together by the story of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance). Henry creeps toward insanity living in a small home with his discontented girlfriend and mutant baby. Eraserhead is Lynch’s debut feature and he put his all into it; working as the director, writer, editor, producer, and sound designer. He even made the infamous alien/monster infant with his own two hands! The film shows Lynch’s passion and creativity, making it a must-watch for fans of Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, and Lynch’s other work.
I’m officially in the home stretch! Only seven films to go which feels like a small amount compared to the 24 I’ve watched for the challenge so far. To keep me going through the month, I picked some of my most anticipated watches for the last week. Look forward to reviews of a few recent releases and classics including Candyman, The Lost Boys, and Halloween.