Annual Halloween Watchlist: Week 1

Three years ago, I began reviewing horror movies on Twitter for the month of October. I saw it as a fun little project to distract myself during college, but what I didn’t expect was how much of a hit it became overnight. So now, what was just a simple distraction from has now become an annual event and I’m excited to do it to you once again! In this first weekly piece we’ll be discussing vengeful Japanese spirits and the hidden subtext behind some of horror’s classic movie monsters. Break out the pumpkin spice and candy corn, it’s time to get spooky!

October 1st – The Bride of Frankenstien

For as long as there’s been things that went bump in the night, human beings have looked at ways of explaining the unexplainable. Men fear most what they don’t understand and The Bride of Frankenstein illustrates that point candidly. Counted among the rare instances where the sequel surpasses the original, The Bride of Frankenstein is one of the earliest examples of a horror film exploring heavy, relevant themes in a brilliantly subtle way. 

At its core, the story of Frankenstein, as written by Mary Shelley, is a tale of creation, acceptance, parental responsibility, and the consequences of unbridled ambition. However, a large portion of the book was cut, changed, and toned down in the original 1931 adaptation in order to elevate the book’s Gothic atmosphere. It became a commercial success, albeit at the cost of the central themes Shelley was trying to convey. 

When James Whale returned to make the sequel, he decided to focus more on Shelley’s themes, but in a more nuanced way. As the only openly gay celebrity in Hollywood at the time, much of the film’s subtext can be viewed as a queer reading, as seen in the relationship between Henry Frankenstein and Septimus Pretorius, and Whale’s use of Christian imagery is often juxtaposed by the townsfolk’s anti-christian behavior towards the Monster and Henry Frankenstein as Boris Karloff’s performance poignantly expresses the emotional toll the Monster takes. It plays on my heart strings to the point where it moves me to tears everytime. This hauntingly beautiful film needs to be seen by everyone and it’s an amazing way to start the spooky holiday off right! ~ I give it a 5/5

October 2nd – The Devil’s Backbone

The second part of Guillermo del Toro’s Trilgía is a grizzly meditation on the effects war has on society. Set during the final year of the Spanish Civil, the film follows young Carlos’ supernatural exploits at an orphanage, headed by two Republican Loyalists in the remote part of Spain. 

While not a war film in the strictest sense, the conflict still looms over the characters throughout the film and how they deal with it – particularly Carlos’ interactions with the ghost haunting the orphanage – depends on how affected they were by the war itself. And since Carlos is the only one who speaks to the ghost, Del Toro deliberately makes the ghost’s existence vague, leaving the audience to question whether or not what we’re seeing is true. 

These themes of children using imagination and fantasy as coping mechanisms during traumatic events would later be explored in his 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth but in a more refined way than in The Devil’s Backbone. Still, this is one of the earliest examples of Del Toro’s excellent capacity to tell serious, Academy worthy stories well before Hellboy made him a household name. ~ I give it a 4/5

October 3rd – Army of Darkness

This is basically Sam Raimi’s Gladiator, and yes it’s as amazing as it sounds! The film picks up after the events of Evil Dead 2, where Ash Williams is accidentally transported to 14th century Europe by the Necronomicon. In an effort to get back to his own time, Ash must wage war against the same unholy forces that brought him there in the first place. 

Unlike the bloody spectacle that defined the first two films, its claustrophobic atmosphere takes a backseat in favor of an epic high stakes action-adventure that, while derivative at the time, perfectly makes sense in Ash’s evolution from the dim witted survivor we knew in the early 80s into the iconic action hero we’ve come to know and love. Without Army of Darkness Ash Williams would’ve faded into obscurity. ~ I give it a 4/5

October 4th – Spawn

Listen, I know Spawn’s bad. I’m aware of its attrious effects, incoherent plot, and overly exaggerated performances, but it’s the type of movie I can just turn my brain off and just have a blast making fun of it. To me, it’s a movie that’s so bad it’s good and it perfectly encapsulates the edgy atmosphere that dominated pop culture during the mid to late 90s. John Leguizamo is absolutely hilarious as the Violator and it’s great how Michael Jai White wound up being the first African American actor to portray a major comic book superhero. It’s just a shame it nearly destroyed his career in the process. 

The way I see it, every Black actor and every Black superhero owes a debt to White in his role as Spawn, and I would even go as far to call it a landmark film. Not every landmark film has to be “good,” but if we ignore it, it would be the same as saying it didn’t exist at all; robbing White of his legacy. Here’s hoping they have another stellar soundtrack for the reboot. ~ I give it a 2/5

October 5th – Chernobyl

Cosmic horror is a sub-genre visual media rarely gets right. It’s hard for something as abstract as the “unknown” to be the point of tension for a movie, least of all a show. Yet, HBO’s 2019 miniseries Chernobyl successfully pulled it off in stride. The 6 hour dramatization of the 1986 nuclear catastrophe, and the events that followed, provides a new face to Lovecraftian horror by portraying the radiation spewing out from the reactors as an invisible, existential threat to the characters we follow and the world they’re living in. 

Few understand just how close Europe was to being slowly poisoned to death, as well as how shockingly inept the response was to mitigate the disaster. What’s more, experts and concerned citizens, who tried to help, were repeatedly threatened by their country’s leaders, knowing well they were probably just as much responsible as the individuals who directly caused the disaster. Not only were human lives under attack, but the truth was as well. It’s not hard to see the events that happened with Chernobyl and not compare them to what’s been happening these past few years. And that, in my mind, is the most terrifying aspect of this show. ~ I give it a 4/5

October 6th – Starship Troopers

“The only good Bug is a dead Bug.” Words often spoken by exterminators and arachnophobes alike, but what if I told you those words were subtly fascist given a certain context? Paul Verhoeven’s cult classic Starship Troopers explores that context in a satirical way by showcasing what a world devoid of critical thinkers and ruled by a nationalist, militaristic society would look like. 

Here, citizenship participation is only guaranteed through military service and the main philosophical constant is that conflict breeds progression. These tenants are indoctrinated by the characters we follow and much of what they learn is often applicable by what they do throughout the film, thereby excusing the fascist world they live in. This was one of the major criticisms of the film when Verhoeven first premiered it back in 1997, but that can’t be further from the truth. The film showcases the extent an aggressive militaristic society is willing to go at the expense of the young and the naive. It’s an indictment on fascism itself and one of the few instances where you want the heroes to lose. ~ I give it a 4/5

October 7th – Kuroneko

While not their original intent, the works of Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Koboyashi, and Hiroshi Inagaki have etched the samurai into our collective consciousness as noble warriors dedicated to the art of war and their code of honor. It’s hard not to view the samurai as such, but like most things in history the image of the honorable samurai cannot be further from the truth, and it’s in the Japanese horror film, Kuroneko, where this trope is brilliantly deconstructed. The samurai in Kaneto Shindo’s masterpiece are portrayed as piggish thugs, who squander their privileged status every chance they get. They got their positions by opportunistic means or were given to them by some inept lord who cares little for the citizenry he governs. 

This is in stark contrast to the chivalrous picture that defines the samurai as we know it, but believe it or not the samurai acted just as cruel and just as malicious as any soldier during war time. Although the title of samurai was hereditary, historically some became samurai by who they knew and what they did to the determinant of those more deserving of being samurai. Shindo’s criticism of the samurai can be seen in their violent behavior and their attempts to foolishly rid the forest of the spirits that haunt it, who themselves were murdered by samurai in a past life. 

Haunting, tragic, and beautifully shot, its themes of injustice in the face of incompetence are just as sharp today as they were when it first premiered in 1968. It’s the single most anti-imperialism piece to come out of Post-War Japan, and a film worthy to be counted among the greats in cinema. ~ I give it a 5/5

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