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Sunday, May 19, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: A slew of slays for spooky season

Screen Grabs: A slew of slays for spooky season

From 'Ringu' and 'Anguish' to 'Phantasm' and 'Sex Demons,' local theaters have got your fright nights covered.

It may seem a bad moment to indulge in the frivolous faux-horrors of Halloween when so many are preoccupied by so much real horror, of that rarified international degree that raises the speculation “Could this be the lead-in to WW3?” Then again, we could all use a little frivolity, perhaps particularly at a time like this.

Barring any last-minute change in plans, Halloween in the Castro will officially rise from the dead for the first time in 15 years—although in a decidedly scaled-down, two-day, supposedly PG-rated fun fair kinda thang this Sat/28-Sun/29. We’re told not to expect the huge crowds or huger excesses (let alone gunfire) of fabled prior editions, as this version is not even intended to last long past dusk.

But if even that sounds a bit too people-y in our neverending pandemic era, you can always watch a seasonally festive (and/or gore-drenched) movie, either at home or in an actual theater. The latter options include the Castro Theatre itself, which will host a campily comedic quadruple bill (more info here) on Sat/28 consisting of Death Becomes HerEdward ScissorhandsHocus Pocus and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Admission is free to those in costume; otherwise, it’s $5 per show. More appealing (if also more expensive) to our taste is the prior night’s event at the same venue: Legendary Italian rock band Goblin playing live their soundtrack to accompany Lamberto Bava’s 1985 Demons (more info here), a gleefully over-the-top splatterfest that is one of that decade’s best genre films.

Down the street at the Roxie, Thu/26 brings Spanish director Bigas Luna’s 1987 English-language Anguish (more info here), in which a killing spree undertaken by an optician under the yoke of his mother (Poltergeist’s Zelda Rubinstein) is just one level of reality in a Mobius strip-like narrative that constantly turns in on itself. On Fri/27 and Sat/28 the Roxie presents the prior year’s movie of the Broadway musical of the original Roger Corman drive-in black comedy The Little Shop of Horrors (more info here) in the “Floating Features” series—shown at night aboard a Red and White Fleet ferry as it traverses the Bay. Back at the 16th Street theater, Halloween itself will be marked by the original 1998 Japanese Ringu, about a “cursed” VHS tape.

Around the corner at Alamo Drafthouse, they’ve got the ’73 Exorcist in its initial release cut (Mon/23-Tue/24), Sam Raimi’s old-school 2009 funfest Drag Me To Hell and Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (both Wed/25), plus easily-confused mid-Eighties cult faves Night of the Creeps (Mon/30) and Night of the Demons (Tues/31). God only knows what tawdry delights will be on tap at the annual vintage exploitation marathon Dismember the Alamo on Sat/28—don’t ask me, because they won’t reveal the titles, and in any case the event is already sold out.

Unlikely to suffer that fate, alas, is a current limited run of Vojtech Jasny’s recently restored 1963 The Cassandra Cat (more info here), a marvelous fantasy-cum-social satire in which the titular magic feline reveals all the hypocrises hidden beneath a small town’s placid surface. It was an early jewel of the Czech New Wave, as well as a herald for the kind of freewheeling, rule-breaking cinema that was just beginning to make the Sixties swing. A quarter century or so later, Seattle artpunk scenesters would do their bit for transgression via the little-remembered Shredder Orpheus (more info here), a dressup 1989 snarkfest that’s part dystopian sci-fi, part imitation Shock Treatment, and part skateboarding showcase. It’s the bad Eighties new wave movie you didn’t know you needed, though the one showing on Wed/25 will surely be more than enough to suffice.

Other Cinema at nearby ATA on Valencia is honoring ‘ween in its own way with a “Monster Mash-Up” program (http://www.othercinema.com/calendar/index.html ) including one hour-long documentary on the Fluxus art movement, plus an array of horror-ish and fantastical vintage shorts, all on Sat/28.

CinemaSF’s three theaters are weighing in with tons of terrifying entertainment. The Balboa also features The Exorcist Mon/23-Tue/24, followed by Raimi’s original The Evil Dead (Wed/25), George Romero’s ’68 Night of the Living Dead (Fri/27), more Rocky Horror (Sat/28 & Tue/31), 1979 DIY horror fave Phantasm, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s much more recent The Neon Demon (Mon/30)—hey, every long list needs at least one dud.

SEX DEMON (dir. J.C. Cricket, 1975) from Spectacle on Vimeo.

The 4Star has The Ring (Thu/26), Ringu’s 2002 US remake; the original Japanese Pulse (Thu/26); Bowie-Deneuve-Sarandon goth New Wave vampire blowout The Hunger (Fri/27), and family-friendlier animation Coraline (Sat/28-Sun/29). Strictly for consenting adults is the Mon/30 presentation of Sex Demon, a 1975 gay porn sally into kinda-sorta Exorcist terrain that was thought lost for 40 years, and sounds like a hoot. The Vogue is limiting itself to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on Fri/27… but we’ll take it, particularly as a first gander at that influential drive-in smash remains probably my own single-most-alarming moviegoing experience ever.

The above is a sampling of Halloween-focused screenings at some (but not all) San Francisco venues. There’s plenty more farther afield, including an extensive lineup (from Blair Witch and The Lost Boys to the 1931 Spanish-language Dracula that was filmed concurrently with Bela Lugosi’s famous version) all week at Oakland’s New Parkway.

Also, Fathom Events is doing a 60th anniversary re-release of Hitchcock’s avian creature feature The Birds at many theaters nationwide Mon/22-Tue/23. Opening for regular theatrical runs this Fri/27 are two new comedy horrors, the mainstream Five Fights at Freddy’s—about ghoulish doings after-hours at a Chuck E. Cheese-type family restaurant—and the more indie Suitable Flesh, a loose H.P. Lovecraft update with Heather Graham as a psychiatrist who acquires a shape-shifting usurper from one of her clients.

But perhaps you’d rather just stay home and watch a scary movie—or a funny one, a weird one, or whatever your wont. To that purpose we have surveyed a range of new streaming titles that might scratch that itch, whichever itch it is.

When Evil Lurks

For those who were disappointed by the recent Exorcist reboot—who wasn’t?—there may be some compensation in this thematically-adjacent tale from Argentine writer-director Demian Rugna. Ezequiel Rodriguez and Demian Salomon play taciturn rural brothers who discover a neighbor is dealing with some kind of demonic possession issue. Unfortunately, it won’t stay put, and in trying to flee the peril, the siblings only spread its contagion further. This isn’t a home run, but it’s got the nasty narrative and visceral surprises that completely eluded expensive Hollywood talent a couple weeks ago. After being released to US theaters earlier this month, it becomes available on genre-focused streaming platform Shudder this Fri/27.


Shudder’s own most popular horror movie franchise has been this omnibus series that began with V/H/S in 2012 and has now had five entries (not counting a short-lived 2018 spinoff show that lasted just four episodes). They all involve the discovery of old videotapes recording disparate sinister doings, allowing for otherwise entirely unrelated shorts to be commissioned from by various directors and writers, some outside the US, then combined in each new feature package.

It’s all been very hit-and-miss, with the best segments in #2 (2013’s V/H/S/2) and #4 (2021’s V/H/S/94). This latest isn’t a complete bust, but nothing here is all that good, let alone memorable. The best sections are a celebratory suburban home video that turns out to have a macabre connection to an indifferent prior story, and the culmination of wraparound “Unsolved Mysteries”-type program about an apparent space alien baby dubbed “Rory.” The V/H/S films have provided a good springboard for some emerging talent, but these nearly two hours feel notably lacking in inspiration, stylistically or in terms of fresh ideas. 85 is currently streaming on Shudder.

Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor

Also tilling the frequently arid soil of found-footage-horror are the Hell House LLC films, whose 2015 first chapter (about a group of twenty-somethings unwisely renting a supposedly-haunted old hotel to stage a seasonal haunted house attraction) was actually pretty damn unsettling. Two subsequent followups were reportedly weaker, but this tangential fourth entry—again by writer-director Stephen Cognetti—brings the mojo back, at least somewhat.

A lesbian couple who moonlight as online cold case investigators (Bridget Rose Perrotta, Destiny Leilani Brown) decide to make their next webisode about the titular isolated rural estate, where a family met a dreadful fate some years back. Joined by one ne’er-do-well brother (James Liddell), they poke around, and very quickly get poked back. Indeed, the major flaw here is that we cannot believe these people don’t get the hell outta Dodge at the first sign of creepy clown statues that move and balls that bounce down halls despite no one having thrown them. Nonetheless, once again the goings-on manage to be quite satisfyingly quease-making. Carmichael House premieres on Shudder as of Mon/30.


Aiming for something more ambitious than a few chills and thrills is Tereza Nvotova’s prize-winning Slovakian feature. Having fled an abusive home and an accidental tragedy 20 years earlier, Sarlota (Natalia Germani) returns as a young woman to her native village in the mountains, summoned by news of an inheritance from her late mother. But that arrival stirs the locals’ unreconstructed superstitious fears of the unknown, while rousing equally unwelcome interest from the dominant neighborhood illustrations of toxic masculinity. Is there indeed some witchery afoot hereabouts? If so, some wife beaters and rapey drunks definitely deserve to be hexxed first.

Part Straw Dogs, part Grimm fairy tale, this is a complex story that’s less horror than a drama of timeless persecution (mostly the sexist kind) whose supernatural elements are ambiguous, perhaps not real—even when they’re as vivid as a psychedelic forest orgy. It’s a very handsome-looking movie that doesn’t entirely pull together, but provides a lot of intriguing elements to chew on. Breaking Glass Pictures is releasing it to US digital platforms on Tues/24.

Damsels in distress: Fuzzy Head, Night of the Hunted

Finding oneself is also a crisis for the heroines in two very different US indie thrillers on the edge of horror. In Fuzzy Head, Marla (writer/director/star Wendy McColm) is the very damaged survivor of a childhood terrorized by a mentally unstable mother (Alicia Witt), and god knows what other traumas since. Diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, she has no idea what is real, whether it’s reassuring moments with only friend Blank (Jonathan Tolliver), hanging out with her child self (Cassidy Butler), or even speaking to the doctor who provided that diagnosis.

Fuzzy Head is stylistically busy and assertive, but also patience-testing; it starts out with our heroine (and the scrambled narrative) already so disconnected from psychological terra firma, we never get our bearings. This approximation of a fugue state would seem more pure, if not necessarily any more impactful, if some sequences didn’t seem gratuitous digressions designed to utilize some “guest star”: Fred Melamed as a sort of emotional-vampire bordello client, or Rain Phoenix as a theremin soloist. Too often forced quirkiness overwhelms more heartfelt content here. Still, you have to admire McColm’s singularity of purpose, even if the results sometimes seem too private for a viewer to decipher. Gravitas Ventures is releasing it to streaming platforms on Tues/24.

Introduced in a motel room cheating on the husband she’s trying to have a child with, Night of the Hunted’s Alice (Camille Rowe) has enough problems—albeit of a more prosaic nature than Marla’s—before she and work colleague John (Jeremy Scippio) pull into a gas station on the way home from a conference. But they take a backseat in a hurry to the more immediate new peril. Trapped in the station’s mini-market by a sniper’s bullet, she’s wounded, alone (an attendant is already dead), and under constant fire from an unseen perp, for unknown reasons.

It’s a good premise, well-enough directed by Franck Khalfoun and competently acted—though nobody apart from Rowe lives long enough to get much screentime. Yet the intensity of Alice’s plight eventually bogs down in a script that cloddishly turns the villain (who communicates with her via store walkie-talkie) into a cliche-spouting summation of every current reactionary sociopolitical trend in the U.S. of A. He protests people like him being “labeled and vilified” (as anti-woke, anti-vax, et al.), but as written, he is exactly the stereotype he says people like her (yuppies?) reduce him to. After a certain point, I wished him dead… less so innocent lives could be saved, and more just so he would shut upNight of the Hunted is now streaming on Shudder.

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