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What I Binged for Halloween in 2021

It’s that time of the year again! I’ve been looking forward all year to my annual Halloween-related and/or horror movie binge, and I am excited to reveal my selections. No matter how you celebrate the spooky season, may you do so in a way that is invocative of the season for you in the company of those that matter most to you. Especially because this year it falls on a Sunday, leading to the potential of a true Halloween weekend, have a happy and safe Halloween, everybody!

New discoveries

Saw (2004)

If you asked me why I avoided Saw for so long, I’d say it came from its reputation for intensity and gore. You couldn’t dismiss it as fun and/or goofy as you could later installments of the Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th series. More than most other horror franchises, Saw demands you take it at least somewhat seriously. And the first installment, directed by James Wan, certainly lived up to that reputation for intensity, but thankfully not so much for gore. The plot is simple and straightforward: two men, Lawrence (Cary Elwes, who can’t help but remind me of his iconic role as Westley in The Princess Bride every time I see him) and Adam (Leigh Whannell, who wrote the screenplay and co-wrote the story with Wan) wake up chained in a disgusting room with no memory of how they got there. Instead, they are being fed clues about what they need to do in order to escape by the evil Jigsaw killer, who demands they inflict harm on themselves or each other in order to evade further horrors.

I was surprised with how engaged I was with the film and how it hardly ever showed its age. Even the presence of an early-2000s Nokia phone doesn’t diminish the movie’s impact as much as, say, the phone calls as depicted in the first Scream do to that movie. Saw can even hold itself together when its twisty narrative takes us outside the room, as a vindictive cop (Danny Glover, always wonderful) seeks vengeance against Jigsaw and appears to be our lead characters’ only chance to get out. The film’s themes and aesthetic recall David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), and Jigsaw himself feels like he shares more in common with Hannibal Lecter than he does either Freddy or Jason. However, Saw is not without flaws. While Elwes is dependable and you get a sense of what kind of man Lawrence is, Whannell struggles a bit and his character is hardly as well conveyed. There are also clunky scenes with even clunkier dialogue, wonky editing, and times where the film’s very low budget shines through (note the lack of any exterior shots throughout). But overall, I can see why Saw broke out so big. It’s very effective, and when it was first released, I’m sure it also had novelty. I’m glad that this embarrassing oversight on my part has finally been corrected.

Near Dark (1987)

If you’re looking for an unusual Western-set vampire tale, you’d be hard-pressed to find one as one-of-a-kind as Near Dark. This is actually the first movie from Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, best known today for Oscar-winning hits like Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, as well as action staples like Point Break. This movie revolves around a farm boy named Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) who meets the beautiful young drifter, Mae (Jenny Wright). But Mae packs an unexpected punch when she bites Caleb, causing his skin to burn in sunlight and turning him into something inhuman. Caleb is then abducted by the crew Mae associates with in an RV that diminishes their chances of being hit by sunlight. The gang roams the American West at night in search of people upon whose blood to feed. Meanwhile, Caleb’s worried father (Tim Thomerson) and little sister (Marcie Leeds) trek to find him.

The crew of vampires includes mainstays of Bigelow’s then-husband James Cameron, including the late, great Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jenette Goldstein, all of whom had starred in Cameron’s Aliens the year before. Also included is Joshua Miller, son of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright/The Exorcist star Jason Miller and best known outside of this as the food-obsessed little brother in Teen Witch, in a standout role of a long-lived vampire in the body of a little boy. What I like about Near Dark is that it’s the rare vampire movie that doesn’t even say the word “vampire” in it. Its tone and atmosphere strike the perfect mark where it is constantly entertaining, never veering towards outright silliness, though sometimes coming close. While I might not like it as much as the 1980s vampire classic Fright Night, it is in the same league as another that came out the same year: The Lost Boys. But, Near Dark feels like Lost Boys’ older, grungier brother, punk rock to Lost Boys’ MTV-inspired 80s aesthetic. If you’ve never seen it, now is the perfect time to catch it, there’s even a fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary about it that’s available to watch on YouTube for free.

Dead Heat (1988)

One of my most interesting picks from last year was The Stuff, a low-budget schlock movie from the 80s. This year, I wanted to seek out a movie from that era with a similar reputation and cult status. Enter Dead Heat, a buddy cop zombie comedy from the 80s high on violence and spooky thrills. Cops Roger Mortis (Treat Williams) and Doug Bigelow (Joe Piscopo) discover that a criminal who died in a shootout had indications he previously had an autopsy, meaning he had died once before. The two officers are then on the case, sending them to a corporation that houses a “resurrection machine.” But when Mortis is killed by assailants wanting to sabotage their mission, they have no choice but to bring him back to life using the infernal contraption. Eventually, the resurrection machine is revealed to be the result of a partnership between a head coroner (Darren McGavin, best known as the dad in A Christmas Story) and a rich businessman (Vincent Price, same as he ever was) wanting to achieve immortality. It’s then up to the two cops to save the day, even if Roger only has a few hours left to live.

I love a lot of the gore-ridden, bloody imagery in this movie, my favorite scene is when a resurrection machine is activated in a butcher’s freezer, turning the dead pigs, cows, and ducks into ravenous beasts that want to devour humans. Another highlight is the bodily disintegration of a love interest character played by Lindsay Frost. All that to be said, it only lives up to the potential of its premise just a few times, and can honestly get boring in stretches. Just like The Stuff before it, I’m definitely glad I checked it out, it’s a unique and different kind of movie for the season. And while it has flaws, its short runtime more than makes up for at least a few of them.

Dead Heat is available to stream on Tubi.

Halloween Kills (2021)

I championed David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018) when it came out three years ago. It felt reminiscent of Terminator 2, turning Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode into a battle-hardened badass driven to take down a resurgent and recently-escaped Michael Myers. Sure, they haphazardly chopped all canon and continuity outside of the original 1978 classic away, but it felt like it served a purpose. Now, that goodwill I had seems diminished in light of watching its sequel, the recently released Halloween Kills. I don’t have much to say about it because it’s not terribly entertaining, sidelining Curtis’ Strode for most of it and giving way more attention to way less interesting characters and subplots. Most characters exist solely to be killed by Michael Myers. While its predecessor thrived by checking in on the main character from the first film, this one opts to reintroduce the now-grown characters Laurie was babysitting in the first one. They all get together at a talent show at a bar every Halloween, and watching them is awkward, to say the least. The whole movie feels like that: awkward, as well as underwhelming. I’ve seen most of the movies in this franchise, and this installment easily ranks towards the bottom for me. Hopefully, they learn their lessons in time for the next installment, entitled Halloween Ends, expected to be released next year.

Halloween Kills is available to stream on Peacock.

The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

Al Pacino plays the Devil. Nothing more needs to be said.

Returning favorites

The Frighteners (1996)

Imagine, dear reader, my dismay that one of the best discoveries of my Halloween-time movie binge last year actually happened after press time, so it didn’t make last year’s recap. Luckily, I’ve decided to revisit it and include it in this year’s selection. The Frighteners is actually the last movie director Peter Jackson made before tackling a little trilogy you might have heard of called The Lord of the Rings. It stars Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister, a supernatural con-artist who can actually talk to ghosts. He uses two of them, Cyrus (played by Che McBride, best known for his role as Detective Emerson Cod on the much-beloved, canceled-too-soon Pushing Daisies) and Stuart (Jim Fyfe), to con people. With their help, Frank convinces people that their house is actually haunted, and then “exorcises” it for them for a hefty price. But a ghost far more powerful than any Frank has encountered before has emerged right when he’s beginning to fall for the widow (Trini Alvarado) of a former client (Peter Dobson), the latter of which now nags him as a ghost. With proceedings in the small, coastal village becoming deadlier and more chaotic, only Frank and his ghostly, supernatural pals can stop the threat.

This movie is a blast, featuring great supporting roles by the likes of horror movie mainstay Jeffrey Combs, best known for Re-Animator (1985), and playing a more sinister role here as an eccentric FBI agent specializing in cults and the occult (perhaps satirizing the then-popular The X-Files?); John Astin, the original Gomez Addams and dad to Jackson’s eventual choice to play Samwise Gamgee, as the ghost of an old Western gunslinger; Jake Busey, every bit his father Gary’s son, as the menacing spirit of a serial killer; and even the mom from E.T. herself, Dee Wallace Stone, in what might be her best and most memorable non-E.T. role ever, but to say too much about it would be giving too much away. The Frighteners is charming and quirky, fun and entertaining, and while it might not be on the same level as Lord of the Rings, it feels indicative of Jackson’s horror-comedy roots. I really enjoy how well Jackson establishes the setting of the town of Fairview, there is a true sense of setting. This really does feel like a place where not only everyone knows everyone else, but urban legends and superstitions can easily take hold. The Frighteners has more than plenty of spooky delights and funny moments, and seems tailor-made to watch this time of year, especially now during its 25th anniversary!

The Gate (1987)

I checked this movie out for the first time on a whim two years ago, and ended up really charmed by it. I hadn’t revisited it since, and sure am glad I did! Glen (Stephen Dorff, best known as the villain in the first Blade) is a twelve-year-old boy who discovers that his treehouse has been hit by lightning, and been replaced with a giant hole. The hole does produce a geode that Glen and his best friend Terry (Louis Tripp) investigate. But when Glen’s parents leave for vacation, putting his big sister Al (Christa Denton) in charge, scary occurrences start to occur around the house. Soon enough, they have to be the ones to stop demons from passing through the gate in order to create a Hell on Earth. From kid protagonists reminiscent of those in E.T. and The Goonies to violent little sabotaging monsters reminiscent of Gremlins, with a supernatural emergence and end-of-the-word stakes like Ghostbusters, this movie is undoubtedly of its time. Even the then-current paranoia about subliminal demonic messages from listening to albums backward comes out.

But I like how authentic these kid characters are, from the inquisitive, toy rocket-experimenting Glen to the heavy metal & punk rock-obsessed Terry. All the kid actors put in good performances, especially Denton as Al, who displays both a big sister’s confidence, as well as the typical insecurity of an adolescent coming into adulthood. There’s a surprising amount of scary imagery, and the kids are in a constant state of danger. Because of that, I actually wouldn’t recommend it for kids, it might be too intense for anyone except your most horror-hardened little monster. The creature effects by Randall William Cook, who already had The Thing and Ghostbusters under his belt by the time this was made, as well as his Oscar-winning work on Lord of the Rings yet to come, are some of the highlights of the movie. For those seeking fun, retro thrills (seriously, it’s hard not to think of Stranger Things when watching this movie), The Gate is full of frightful sites and more than plenty of 80s horror iconography.

The Gate is available to stream for free on YouTube.

Nostalgic favorites

The X-Files- “The Post-Modern Prometheus”

One of my favorite TV shows of all time is The X-Files. For eleven seasons and two movies, FBI agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) searched for the truth, encountering everything from aliens to ghosts, vampires to monsters. Some of the best episodes of the show have their tongue somewhat in their cheek, and that’s as true as ever for an appropriately Halloween-themed selection, an episode from the show’s fifth season called “The Post-Modern Prometheus”. The title is an allusion to the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s original 1818 Frankenstein novel: “The Modern Prometheus”. But, as the title suggests, it adds a level of post-modern commentary on the classic Frankenstein story, as even its opening shot, revealing a cover to a comic book recounting the episode’s story, leans into that.

Mulder and Scully end up in a small town where the women are being impregnated with monster babies after hearing the music of Cher (or, as Scully reads from a letter, “the one who was married to Sonny”). An urban legend of a “Great Mutato” and the FBI agents’ presence makes the town’s citizens believe they have a shot of landing on The Jerry Springer Show (Springer himself eventually cameos). Showrunner and episode director Chris Carter decided to shoot the episode entirely in black-and-white with a wide-angle lens. From the macabre score inspired by the music in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man to a great supporting turn from John O’Hurley, best known as J. Peterman on Seinfeld and one-time host of Family Feud, this is easily one of the show’s funniest episodes. It also contains a very sweet ending, and I assure you that you’ll never be able to hear Cher’s cover of Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” the same way ever again.

All episodes of The X-Files, including “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” are available to stream on Hulu.

AAAHH!!! Real Monsters

Before Pixar gave us Monsters, Inc. in 2001, all 90s kids knew a different set of monsters whose job it was to scare kids. AAAHH!!! Real Monsters was a cartoon staple on Nickelodeon back in the day, lasting for four seasons from 1994 to 1997. Given its entire premise revolves around scares, and better yet, the first episode is actually about the monsters celebrating Halloween, it all seemed more than fitting. Monsters Ickis (voiced by Charlie Adler), Oblina (voiced by the late Christine Cavanaugh, who also voiced Chuckie Finster on Rugrats, Dexter on Dexter’s Laboratory and the titular role in Babe), and Krumm (voiced by David Eccles) attend a monster school in a garbage dump in New York City run by a manic headmaster named The Gromble (voiced by Gregg Berger).

The first episode is about a human boy named Nicky, who dressed as Ickis for Halloween, accidentally switching places with him, as Ickis tries to blend in with the human world and get home. The next one, a remake of an unaired pilot, is about Ickis leaving his monster manual behind in the human world. The show has a strange aesthetic that mostly works, the monster designs are very creative, even if now as a grown-up, it’s hard not to notice how much Krumm suspiciously resembles a scrotum. His two eyeballs that he constantly carries in his hands only add to his overall testicular look. For any 90s baby raised on Nickelodeon, there’s no better time of year to revisit this classic cartoon.

All episodes of Aahhh!!! Real Monsters are available to stream on Paramount+.