Photo illustration by John Lyman



What I Binged for Halloween in 2023

There’s a certain chill in the air when it gets to be October that always signals to me that the spooky season has indeed arrived. Someone recently mentioned to me that both Halloween and the holiday season have this thing of being, well, for lack of a better word, seasons, as opposed to many other holidays that are just a singular day. They both deserve to be celebrated as such; especially after the dark events the world has witnessed in recent weeks. I hope these titles inspire you and remind you of the Halloween season. Have a happy and safe Halloween.

New discoveries

Death Becomes Her (1992)

I love Robert Zemeckis. Back to the Future and Contact count among my favorite movies. From Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to Forrest Gump, he is a master at utilizing special effects to tell an engaging story full of believable performances. I also love Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, and Goldie Hawn. Three of the best actors of their generation; each actor always elevates the material they’re given to make it something truly memorable. So, why do I have mixed feelings about the project they all worked together on, 1992’s dark horror-comedy Death Becomes Her?

It’s a story about how both Hawn and Streep’s characters fell for Bruce Willis’ character at one point, with Streep’s character having married him. They both learn of a potion for eternal youth that promises to keep them beautiful and make them immortal, but shenanigans ensue as they push their bodies to the limit. There are some things I liked about the movie, but for a comedy, it’s not particularly funny. The special effects for the time are impressive, which helped the film garner an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Apparently, this movie has become something of a cult classic in recent years due to its reappraisal as a queer-themed movie. No disrespect to those who really like or connect with this movie, I can see what its strengths are in addition to its flaws. But after three decades, just like its age-obsessed protagonists at the end of the movie, it just can’t hold up the way it used to.

Death Becomes Her is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Totally Killer (2023)

Here’s a recent treat for horror movie fans. A time-travel-based horror comedy has high-schooler Jamie (Kiernan Shipka, best known as Sally Draper on Mad Men and Sabrina Spellman in the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) traveling back to the 1980’s to stop a serial killer. Jamie’s mom (Modern Family’s Julie Bowen) survived a series of attacks in the 1980’s in which her three closest friends were murdered by the “Sweet Sixteen Killer,” and was apparently murdered by the same killer in contemporary times.

This motivates Jamie to use the time machine her friend invented (just go with it) to travel back to 1987, figure out who the killer is, and stop the murders. Jamie meets the teenage versions of her mom (Olivia Holt), dad (Charlie Gillespie), and everyone from the future principal to future town sheriff as she struggles to adapt and blend in with the “decade of excess” as a member of Gen Z.

A lot of the comedy in the movie is derived from pointing out how dated staples of decades past would seem to a young person today. Jamie cringes as she points out what she sees as the rampant racism, sexism, and homophobia of the time. Shipka really shines as the lead, able to carry the movie as well as show confidence in her comedic timing.

The movie is a little too crass for my taste, and the ending feels a little contrived with a lot thrown at you in a very short period of time. I would have also liked it if the plot didn’t rely on a time machine (we get it, Back to the Future reference) so much as have Jamie just wake up in her new circumstances a la Groundhog Day. I also think your mileage might vary depending on your knowledge and/or love of 80s pop culture and the horror movies of that era. Nevertheless, this movie was really entertaining and pretty funny, if not a little too reliant on meta-humor and tropes, and is ultimately worth checking out.

Totally Killer is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Resident Evil: Death Island (2023)

I originally thought I could fit in an article this month about recent installments of this venerated survival horror franchise. That will have to wait, which will also allow me to review the critically lauded remake of my favorite game, Resident Evil 4. In the meantime, I decided to review a recently released CGI movie set in the same continuity as the video games.

It follows three previous CGI movies and a Netflix series called Infinite Darkness. The main appeal here seems to be uniting the beloved legacy characters from the series, like Leon Kennedy (voiced by Matthew Mercer), Jill Valentine (voiced by Nicole Tompkins), Rebecca Chambers (voiced by Erin Cahill), Chris Redfield (voiced by Kevin Dorman) and his sister Claire (voiced by Stephanie Panisello) against a new threat.

Here, the threat is at San Francisco’s famous Alcatraz Island. Dylan Blake (voiced by Daman Mills) merges with a bio-organic weapon to become a terrifying new monster. The climax involves our beloved protagonist working to defeat him before he can escape into the San Francisco Bay.

What you get is essentially Resident Evil meets The Rock, as our heroes square off against zombies and other monsters at the iconic former prison. I believe the purpose of this movie was to keep these characters in the public consciousness because speaking as someone who played and beat both Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and Resident Evil 8: Village this year, I can tell you these characters aren’t really represented in those games. Sure, Chris pops up briefly in both, but that’s about it, as the main focus is on the new character Ethan Winters.

This movie only seeks to satisfy die-hard fans and series completionists, wrapping up some loose, unresolved threads from previous games. If you’re not invested in that lore, this may not provide you with much. That being said, the initial zombie outbreak scene is as good as I’ve seen in any live-action movie in maybe the past decade.

Resident Evil: Death Island is available to rent on Amazon Prime.

Returning favorites

Friday the 13th (1980) and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

My love of all things Friday the 13th and Jason Voorhees is well-documented. This year, we were blessed with an October in which Friday the 13th fell. I decided to honor the occasion by seeking out two of my favorite installments in this franchise that are right on the line between legitimately cherished and a guilty pleasure.

The one that started it all, 1980’s Friday the 13th, is a low-budget slasher coming off the heels of the success of the first Halloween. It’s my favorite in the series, it’s not as tight or riveting as Halloween but establishes a lot of what become series mainstays: jaw-dropping kills and effects, a relatively young cast (including Kevin Bacon) getting murdered, the lone camp counselor confronting the villain, usually Jason but not the case here, and a tease at the end so they can keep making sequels.

While much of the appeal of the series derives from Jason, here the killer is actually his mother Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer). It’s funny to me that no one questions why Jason is the way he is after witnessing Pamela whisper “Kill her, mommy!” to herself before chasing after Adrienne King’s Alice. You understand from the get-go that this bloodline is tainted with madness and no mercy. Palmer hated the movie and was harassed after critic Gene Siskel included her home address in his review. But I think she brings a really unnerving presence here, and she feels impeccably cast.

I’ve been able to see a couple of the Friday the 13th movies theatrically, including an impressive 3D screening of Part III earlier this year that got me to appreciate it more. But the one I’ve wanted to see on the big screen that has eluded me until recently, where on Friday the 13th I got to see Part VII: The New Blood at a special event at Alamo Drafthouse on the same night the Taylor Swift concert movie dropped.

It surprises me how much The New Blood is divisive in the fan community. It’s easily one of the best installments in the series, with its protagonist, psychic teen Tina (Lar Park Lincoln), as compelling a character as the series ever produced. The movie is the victim of being chopped to bits by the MPAA, censoring some of its most gratuitous and impactful kills. No matter where this installment ranks for you, most seem to agree that its unmasked Jason, played by Kane Hodder in his first of four outings in the role, is a highlight.

Another is his final battle with Tina, where she uses everything from flying nails to gasoline to stop him. Watching this on the big screen was a special treat, and one that reminded me what an endearing chapter of the franchise it ended up being; I can see its influence on everything from Buffy to Alex Mack to Stranger Things. To those who dismiss it, I hope you give it a second chance. Part VII: The New Blood sums up everything fun, thrilling, scary, exhilarating, occasionally confusing, and ultimately captivating about this franchise I love.

The Friday the 13th movies are available to stream on Amazon Prime.

The Exorcist III: Legion (1990)

We lost the director of The Exorcist, William Friedkin, earlier this year. I love The Exorcist, and met Friedkin and William Peter Blatty, author of the original novel and the movie’s screenplay, at an event in DC commemorating the iconic “Exorcist steps” as a DC landmark. Blatty signed a copy of his novel Legion for me.

Legion is the basis for what was originally released as The Exorcist III in 1990, which Blatty also directed. The film is about Kinderman, a cop who was investigating the events of the original movie in a role originated by Lee J. Cobb and here played by the great George C. Scott. Needless to say, he knows something about demonic possession when he starts witnessing murders and other strange occurrences that remind him of the events of fifteen years prior. Kinderman’s close friend, a priest named Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) falls victim to a gruesome demise. Kinderman becomes convinced it’s the work of a dead serial killer known as the Gemini Killer. Kinderman encounters the man he believes is tied to the crimes (Brad Dourif), who reveals himself also having a connection to the events of the first film and the ongoing supernatural calamity.

I first saw The Exorcist III a few years ago, impressed by its riveting storyline and scary atmosphere. The iconic “Exorcist steps” feature prominently in the movie and its narrative, but beyond that, The Exorcist III is also one of the great DC movies, you can tell it was shot on location in Georgetown. As someone who ended up in Georgetown with out-of-town friends just a few weeks ago, I can tell you this movie captures the essence of walking in that storied neighborhood. It has one of the best jump scares ever, and features the likes of both Fabio and Patrick Ewing in cameos as angels, as well as an early appearance by Samuel L. Jackson.

The movie had a difficult production and was reworked to be more in line with the original Exorcist. Blatty wanted it to be its own thing, but as the film was reworked, elements were added because people observed there was no exorcism in this third Exorcist movie. Blatty’s original vision would go unseen by fans until a few years back when the good people at Scream! Factory cobbled together a new cut of the film more in line with Blatty’s wishes from what original film elements and scenes ended up surviving.

The end result is The Exorcist III: Legion. I had never seen this cut before, and while its ending feels a little anticlimactic compared to the original, it’s a different take on the material, less a sequel to The Exorcist and more of an in-universe spin-off. I don’t know how widely accessible this particular cut is online, but any version of this movie is worth seeking out.

Nostalgic favorites

Salute Your Shorts: Zeke the Plumber

One of my favorite live-action series back during Nickelodeon’s golden age run in the 90s was Salute Your Shorts, a hilarious send-up of summer camp starring a group of mischievous campers and featuring the antics that they get into. My nostalgic love for the series is so well-known, that a friend got me a signed photo of the entire cast while I was navigating a difficult personal time earlier this year. I can still recite its iconic theme song in its entirety, and chalk up the fact that one of my favorite comedies ever is Wet Hot American Summer as being influenced by this show as a kid.

Budnick (Danny Cooksey, best known outside of this as John Connor’s best friend in Terminator 2), Donkey Lips (Michael Bower), Sponge (Tim Syster), Dina (Heidi Lucas), Telly (Venus DeMilo), Z.Z. (Megan Berwick), and depending on the season, either Michael (Erik MacArthur) or Pinsky (Blake Soper), are the camp-goers. They battle against counselor “Ug” Lee (the late Kirk Baily), who is frequently the target of their pranks. In this episode, Budnick weaves a terrible tale involving a spirit who supposedly haunts the camp named Zeke the Plumber, armed only with a haunted plunger.

Soon enough, Michael and Telly start having nightmares that feature Zeke, and Budnick makes a deal to see who can stay outside the longest at night without wimping out. This episode is a fan-favorite despite being rarely seen in syndication for its alleged scariness, and for good reason: it invokes classic ghost stories told by the fire at summer camp. This episode is as charming as the show ever was, invoking the kid anarchy and playfulness that endeared an entire generation to those classic Nickelodeon shows.

Salute Your Shorts: Zeke the Plumber is available on Paramount+.

Spawn (1997)

If you had told me at the beginning of the month that Spawn would be one of my great rediscoveries of the Halloween season, I’m not sure I would’ve believed you. And that’s the thing: despite catching it countless times on HBO and then on cable throughout the years, I’m not sure I had ever sat down and watched it all the way through. For those that don’t know, the movie is an adaptation of Todd McFarlane’s comic of the same name, which was a milestone indie comic for publisher Image Comics, which McFarlane co-founded along with Rob Liefeld and others in the midst of a broader comic book industry revolution in the 90s.

Michael Jai White plays Al Simmons, our main character who is betrayed by his boss (Martin Sheen), who kills Al and sends him to Hell. While there, Al makes a deal with the Devil to lead his armies, and obtains supernatural power himself, becoming Spawn.

Along for the ride is the fat, blue-faced, demonic Clown (John Leguizamo), who serves as an Uncle Screwtape of sorts, but with more potty humor and fart jokes. He’s trying to navigate Spawn toward the side of darkness and evil as Spawn comes to grips with his new powers and purpose. But, in a plotline that felt oddly reminiscent of Robocop, his pining to be with his family is what grounds him and makes him more human, despite his wife (Theresa Randle) having remarried his best friend (D.B. Sweeney).

Watching it now, it’s wonderful how of its moment it seems, how indisputably 90s in its aesthetic, choice of music, and tone. Sure, the CGI, particularly the depiction of Hell, has aged terribly. But I think it felt like the movie was so familiar because Spawn, as a character and concept, is so cool, captivating, and even in the superhero landscape of today, unique because of his demonic background.

They’ve been trying to get a reboot off the ground with Jamie Foxx in the lead role for a number of years now, and I’d be curious to see what the character looks like in the modern era. But for now, I feel satisfied knowing that there is this movie that serves as a salute to everything over the top about the decade Spawn initially debuted in.

Spawn is available to rent on YouTube.