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Friday, December 8, 2023

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Must-see horror films for the Halloween that...

Screen Grabs: Must-see horror films for the Halloween that wasn’t

Drive-ins step in for trick-or-treating in 2020—plus, flicks following quarantine seances, malevolence-plagued asylum seekers, bedeviled hairdos, and Kazahk-Bulgarian dystopian futures visible from the gloom of home.

COVID-19 will no doubt be putting something of a crimp in the usual Halloween festivities—though now you really have an excuse to make a mask part of that costume. With parties, bar-hopping, and clubbing hopefully off the holiday to-do list for responsible resident, there’s all the more reason to celebrate by watching some seasonally-appropriate motion picture entertainment.

This does not, however, necessarily mean home viewing. While indoor Bay Area theaters have been slow to re-open due to the economically restrictive protocols various municipalities have required to discourage contagion, drive-ins have been flourishing, including some temporary new ones. If you’re willing to drive as far as Concord, San Jose, or Sacramento, the West Wind Drive-Ins—the country’s largest extant such chain—is programming 13 Nights of Fright through Halloween, encompassing both family-friendly titles and horror classics. 

In SF, there are two pop-up outdoor venues: Fort Mason Flix likewise mixes all-ages 7 p.m. shows (like Beetlejuice and Hotel Transylvania) with more grownup later scare-fare such as The ExorcistThe Hunger, and Interview With the Vampire (which closes this series on October 31). On Halloween itself, a short run of “Dinner & Drive-In Movie Nights” at Pier 70 will climax with Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake—in our opinion the greatest San Francisco-set thriller ever (sorry, Vertigo). Tickets here.

There are scattered other ‘Ween-ie programs in various local venues’ virtual cinemas, including the Roxie’s current hosting both SpookFest 2020, a “best of” shorts compilation, and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the 2014 indie feature that out-deadpan-hipster’d even Jim Jarmusch’s vampire entry (Only Lovers Left Alive) from the year before. 

Among more mainstream entertainment options, this Friday brings to HBO Max a new version of Roald Dahl’s delicious 1983 book The Witches, which was already filmed to great effect by (of all people) Nicolas Roeg 30 years ago. As this one will be directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest GumpPolar Express, et al.), one can reasonably expect the comic fantasy to feature a whole lotta CGI, alongside a cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, and Chris Rock. 

Playing actual theaters (where they’re open) as of Fri/30 is Come Play, an expansion of a 2017 short film by writer-director Jacob Chase. Pivoting on a monster that manifests through digital devices, it sounds like a jump-scare-a-thon fit for horror fans who’ve been missing their usual slasher franchises. 

Those who seek something a tad more refined may feel the pull of Netflix’s new Rebecca (premiering Wed/21), which early reviews suggest will not erase your memory of Hitchcock’s classic 1940 film. Nonetheless, this remake with Lily James, Armie Hammer, and Kristin Scott Thomas should appeal to those who prefer their chills light, Gothic-romantic, and swathed in sumptuous period trappings. 

On the streaming-releases front, there is a predictable October glut of newly arriving horror and fantasy product, including plenty of unpromising-sounding cheapies with titles like Tokyo Home Stay MassacreChop Chop, and Redwood Massacre: Annihilation. But we’ve weeded through a certain amount of dreck to find some above-average genre fare suitable for viewing on or in preparation for All Hallows’ Eve::

Bad Hair

Justin Simien’s first feature since the memorable Dear White People six years ago (he was also involved with the subsequent TV series) is racial identity-politics satire of a different sort, set in 1989 Los Angeles. After slaving for years to scant career rewards for a BET-type cable network, Anna (Elle Lorraine) is dismayed to learn the new programming chief (Vanessa Williams) is an imperious ex-supermodel who wants to drastically change the network’s content to attract a “wider” (or is that “whiter”?) audience. Staff are encouraged to follow that trend in their own personal appearance, so Anna dutifully if reluctantly goes to get her nappy hair straightened. But the witchy salon diva (Laverne Cox) who gives her a weave also seems to implant some kind of predatory, usurping force. 

This “hair of terror” concept may seem like the silliest thing you’ve ever heard … if you’re unaware of 2007’s Exte: Hair Extensions and other Japanese horrors which traded on the same idea. The layer of cutting social commentary Simien adds may not be subtle, but then neither was The Stepford Wives, which was fun in a similar way. Others in the good cast include Jay Pharoah, Judith Scott, Blair Underwood, Kelly Rowland, Usher, and James Van Der Beek. Bad Hair is available as of Fri/23 via streaming service Hulu. 

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw

Likewise setting the clock back a few decades is Thomas Robert Lee’s Canadian film, which takes place in 1973. But it might as well be a century earlier within the rural religious community he portrays, which eschews all mod cons as well as any association with the (presumably wicked) outside world. Isolated even within their ranks is widow Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker), shunned for suspected evil practices because her farm is the only one whose crops and livestock haven’t been afflicted by some mystery plague. 

Given that climate of hostility, she’s hidden the existence of her now-teenaged daughter Audrey (Jessica Reynolds)—presumably to keep the girl safe. But perhaps she’s really protecting the townspeople from Audrey, who’s growing up fast into a malevolent (if pretty) thing with frightening powers. This handsome, slow-burning tale of supernatural suspense is not as distinctive or memorable as 2015’s The Witch, while inhabiting much the same frontier-Gothic-melodrama terrain. Nonetheless, it takes itself with admirable seriousness, even if the payoff could use a little more punch. Curse is available on VOD and digital platforms. 

His House

One of the better-received titles in the Midnight section at Sundance this year, Remi Weekes’ film is not complex, plotwise: A South Sudanese couple (Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku) who’ve fled civil war are granted asylum by the British government, and settled in a nondescript council flat. But whatever difficulties they have from PTSD, culture shock, et al. soon pale against the elusive threat of the place itself—something malevolent seems to exist in the walls, driving the husband in particular to acts of paranoia and insanity. 

His House may be minimalist in terms of narrative and dialogue, but it extracts the maximum of dread from its undeniably unsettling atmospherics. You might not guess an immigration-themed spin on Polanski’s Repulsion would be a winning concept, but Weekes really pulls it off. The film premieres on Netflix Fri/30. 

Bullets of Justice

If you think the outer geographic limits of our Halloween survey are England and Canada, all we can say is: Oh, pshaw. This whopper of a retro action whatsit is a Kazahk-Bulgarian coproduction, which represents just the iceberg-tip of its weirdness. In a post-WWIII dystopian future, an underground human resistance struggles to regain control from the biological mutations of half-pig “Muzzles.” Its greatest hope may be Rob Justice (co-scenarist Timur Turisbekov), mercenary son to briefly-seen guest star Danny Trejo and sibling to mustachio’d sister Raksha (Doroteya Toleva). 

Styled vaguely like European exploitation schlock of the mid-’70s through early ’80s, with deliberately awkward post-synched dialogue in several languages and low-grade FX, Bullets also throws in gratuitous midgets, jet packs, boob jobs, incest, manthongs, teleportation, dance-fighting, and full frontal nudity. Plus: A long-tressed escapee from Zoolander who keeps doing the splits, robots very much resembling decrepit seniors, Rambo-type quasi-military machismo, and some gender blurrage you won’t be seeing anytime soon on Here! This joint is deliberately ridiculous, senseless and tasteless—as well as close to priceless, if your capacity for absurdism and knowledge of cinematic esoterica is sufficient to get director Valeri Milev’s singular joke. It’s currently available on most digital/VOD platforms. 

The Mortuary Collection

No horror roundup would be complete without at least one omnibus feature, the sort of joint that’s been a staple in the genre since at least 1945’s Dead of Night. But despite their ubiquity, these packagings of multiple macabre tales are often pretty weak. While I wasn’t as enthused as many fans so far, Ryan Spindell’s feature debut (now available on streaming service Shudder) is definitely, refreshingly better-crafted than most such exercises. 

Confronted with a pushy young visitor (Caitlin Custer), the proprietor (Clancy Brown) of a creepy funeral home regales her with a few stories of how some recent “clients” got to be, well, dead. They include a lady pickpocket’s monstrous end, a campus stud’s ironic comeuppance, a married couple’s grim adherence to “till death do us part,” and yet another variation on the perils of babysitting. Complete with myriad sly genre in-jokes, Collection is energetic and polished, though the individual tales struck me more mean-spirited than clever (or scary). 


The only film here that’s not a brand-new release, Rob Savage’s frightfest sounded eminently worth skipping when it premiered on Shudder nearly three months ago. Seriously, a movie about a seance held via the videoconferencing software Zoom? That’s only 57 minutes long? Pffft. But after hearing consistently good things, I finally caved, and it turns out Host is that rare thing: A “found footage” horror that’s not only effective, but actually does something at least semi-new within its wildly overtaxed subgenre.

Stuck in COVID-19 quarantine, six friends—five young women and a guy—gather in front of their separate screens for the novelty of a seance to be presided over by a professional medium. Not everybody is prepared to take this at all seriously, however, and it is that “disrespect” for the spirit realm that allows something very bad to enter this world. Disturbing phenomena soon impact everyone in on the call, then escalate to fatal degrees. This is basically just a series of jump scares, offering little you haven’t more or less seen the likes of in various Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity knockoffs. But Host works, in that it is short, sweet, and scary. Lacking nudity, gore, or any other “adult” content, it offers the perfect sleep-depriving horror watch for your tweenagers’ next sleepover. 

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