Cinema Smack’s Second Annual 31 Days of Horror Part 2 (#11-20)

Welcome to Part 2 of Cinema Smack’s 31 Days of Horror! If you’ve yet to read Part 1, you can do so by clicking here!

Just as we did last year, we’re splitting our list into multiple parts for better readability. Again, this list isn’t meant to be a “greatest hits” or history of horror. Instead, it’s a collection of horror titles with some being classics, fan favorites, underrated gems, and maybe even a few unknowns for some people. It’s an eclectic mix of all things horror that people should check out this Halloween season!

Now, let’s get back to it with our first entry of Part 2!

October 11th: Psycho Goreman (2020)

Yesterday, we discussed how little levity had been on our 31 Days of Horror before delving into Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners. That film still manages to bring some chills along with its laughs. Today’s entry, though, is all laughs and also one that may have slipped under the radar this year. Psycho Goreman sees a young brother, Luke (Owen Myre), and sister, Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna), unearth a mysterious gem while playing a made up game. They unintentionally resurrect a bloodthirsty alien overlord, whom they dub Psycho Goreman AKA PG (played by Matt Ninaber and voiced by Steven Vlahos). PG vows to kill everyone but, unfortunately for him, is controlled by whoever has the gem. This causes the power hungry Mimi to make PG her unwilling friend as alien Templars plan to find PG and kill him once and for all.

For those that haven’t seen Psycho Goreman, you may be wondering if you should even waste your time with it. The answer is yes. As long as you don’t take things too seriously and are just looking for a fun and gory time, this film is absolutely worth a watch. Just by the plot outline alone, you can tell that Psycho Goreman isn’t meant to be taken seriously. In execution, it’s kind of like if a film spun off and followed a main character’s bratty younger sister for a day and somehow ended up in the middle of a Gwar concert by the end. The effects are often cheesy and the costuming, while pretty good, and obviously people in rubber body suits. Yet, there’s something so charming and simple about Psycho Goreman that you just don’t get in normal Hollywood horror films. Even something like 2013’s Evil Dead remake abandons some of the goofy charm of the original film for more legitimate, but still gory, thrills.

Psycho Goreman isn’t afraid to be its stupid, silly, and humorous self. Watching PG’s deadpan reactions to this annoying little girl bossing him around is just great. You can tell how much he just wants to slaughter everyone he sees but can’t. Over the course of the film, there’s definitely a reluctant bond formed between the characters which maybe isn’t heartwarming but there’s something sort of special there. Overall, Psycho Goreman is just fun. It’s a breeze to watch and the silly humor isn’t dull or dimwitted. The main attraction is a big, brooding alien hellbent on destruction being required to keep himself in check and essentially play dress up with children. Obviously, the film is a lot less horror than it is comedy but it still belongs on this list given its penchant for creative and disgusting gore to go with its absurdity.

October 12th: Mama (2013)

For the twelfth entry on our 31 Days of Horror, we’re going to discuss a somewhat polarizing film from the 2010’s that horror fans are often on the fence about. Andy Muschietti’s 2013 feature length debut, Mama, centers on young couple, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Annabel (Jessica Chastain), as they take in Lucas’s nieces after they had been missing for five years. After the girls’ father and Lucas’s brother, Jeff (also played by Coster-Waldau), abandons the girls (in a manner of speaking), they become almost feral while living in a rundown cabin in the woods. Upon their rescue, the girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), struggle to adapt to life with Lucas and Annabel while holding onto a seemingly made up maternal figure known only as Mama. However, strange things begin to happen to the new family and the girls, especially Lilly, can’t seem to separate themselves from their imaginary protector.

Mama is noteworthy due to being writer/director Andy Muschietti’s debut. He would then go on to make both It and It Chapter Two in 2017 and 2019 respectively to huge box office returns. Much of the promise he showed in the first It film is also on display throughout Mama. Though, so are some of Muschietti’s flaws like cartoonish CGI and wayward tone. There’s still an argument to be made for this film as it’s more focused and streamlined than Muschietti’s work on either It film. The acting across the board is great and the relationships formed between each of the characters is interesting and unique. For example, the relationships between both Annabel/Victoria and Annabel/Lilly are completely different and do have an effect on the film’s admittedly iffy ending. Yet, the relationships are done correctly given the eventual outcome. Of course, this review is spoiler free so we can’t really go into more detail about this here.

Mama is one of those films that certainly feels like a product of its time. It’s an early to mid-2010’s film that seems to get lost in the shuffle with a bunch of good but not great horror films from that period. Last year, we covered Mike Flanagan’s Oculus which fell into this category a little bit as well even though we’d argue that Oculus is a bit more underrated than this film. Regardless, Mama is a bit like a mix of something like The Others meets The Ring meets Lights Out with its story and even the execution. There’s a lot to like about it as the plot moves quickly and viewers will constantly find themselves intrigued by Mama’s actions and how the girls act in their new surroundings with their surrogate family. Unfortunately, the film does lose a bit of steam by its conclusion but it’s still a spooky good time for the majority of its runtime. While it seems that some horror fans really don’t appreciate what Mama brings to the table, it’s a film that shouldn’t be completely overlooked as it does offer up an interesting ghost story that doesn’t feel bland or unoriginal. It may not be the best film on our list but it’s certainly one that deserves a watch.

October 13th: Friday the 13th (1980)

Alright. We’ve spent the last few days talking about either underrated or newer films so now it’s time to get back to something iconic. Even though audiences would have to wait until 1981 to get beloved horror villain, Jason Voorhees, we can’t go through another 31 Days of Horror without talking about Sean S. Cunningham’s 1980 classic, Friday the 13th. The first film in the long running slasher series opens with two young camp counselors being murdered at Camp Crystal Lake during the summer of 1958. Fast forward to the (at that time) present day and owner Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) looks to reopen what the locals now refer to as “Camp Blood” with a whole new crop of counselors. Though, things don’t go all that smoothly as an unknown maniac is stalking the woods around the campground and piling up bodies while doing so.

Friday the 13th is pretty standard fare at this point in 2021. We’ve all seen dozens of films where a killer stalks teenagers over the course of a 90 minute film. Yet, Friday the 13th still has a somewhat timeless appeal to it. Yes, it’s a simple story with a body count but, as the first in the series, it’s actually quite groundbreaking and impressive how the killer’s identity is hidden until the very end of the film. It’s a little less like John Carpenter’s Halloween (which was released two years before it) and more like Bob Clark’s Black Christmas because of this and its summer camp setting sets it even farther apart from the likes of these two films.

Of course, the most lasting aspect of Friday the 13th has been the hockey masked, machete wielding Jason but this first film didn’t have all that. It was more about the story and its characters. While there were certainly no Oscar worthy performances, this is easily one of the most memorable casts out of any of the Friday films. Adrienne King, Kevin Bacon, Robbi Morgan, and, of course, Betsy Palmer’s characters immediately come to mind from this first film with others like Walt Gorney’s Crazy Ralph rounding out an interesting and likable group of potential victims. While there’s a lot more fun to be had in later installments, there’s only one original and Friday the 13th is a must-see for every single horror fan.

October 14th: The Empty Man (2020)

Today, we have a film with not only an interesting story happening onscreen but also one that occurred behind the camera. David Prior’s 2020 box office bomb, The Empty Man, focuses on former detective James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) as he investigates the disappearance of his friend Nora’s (Marin Ireland) daughter, Amanda Quail (Sasha Frolova). The only clue left behind by Amanda is a message saying, “The empty man made me do it,” smeared in blood on a mirror. His search leads him to uncover some mysterious deaths all supposedly brought about by the empty man before landing him at the Pontifex Institute which is home to a cult seemingly dedicated to the supernatural figure.

The Empty Man is a tough film to discuss in more ways than one. Firstly, it’d be doing the film a disservice to ruin some of the surprises and revelations here but, also, it’s a film that’s kind of what the viewer makes of it. Much of The Empty Man’s appeal, and especially its horror, is psychological. It’s a slow burn of a film that requires the audience to fully absorb itself into its world and ideas. If you’re just going into the film for some mindless scares, then it’s not one for you. This seems to have been a big downfall for The Empty Man upon its theatrical release. Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey, The Empty Man was the last film released under the old 20th Century Fox banner (by mistake, no less) and its initial test screenings were poorly received. With the producers cut testing even worse, Prior was allowed to release his version of the film which only raked in $4.7 million worldwide against a budget of $16 million.

All of the negativity surrounding The Empty Man is largely unwarranted because, frankly, it’s not a bad film by any means. It’s very competently made and, even with its slow pacing, it does a good job building mystery and tension from start to finish. As previously mentioned, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea but for those looking for some deep seated psychological torment, you can do far worse than The Empty Man. While the film may be a bit too long for its own sake and lacking in the constant thrills that have become standard in the horror genre, it’s hard not to think about films like The Shining or The Ring while watching it. The Shining especially isn’t too far off from the style of filmmaking employed here for The Empty Man and it’s universally considered a classic in the horror genre. Again, The Empty Man is a horror experience that relies on its audience to make it whatever they want it to be. It’s a psychological journey that will either intrigue or exhaust depending on the person watching. The only thing that’s for sure is that The Empty Man is a horror film that’s going to make you think and should stick with you even after the credits roll.

October 15th: The Last House on the Left (1972)

A couple days ago, we covered Sean S. Cunningham’s most lucrative contribution to the horror genre in Friday the 13th but that’s not his only one. What happens when one celebrated horror producer/director teams up with another nearly a decade before either of them release their horror opuses? You end up with one of the most notorious horror releases of all time in 1972’s The Last House on the Left. The film follows two friends, Mari (Sandra Peabody) and Phyllis (Lucy Grantham), as they head to a rock concert in the city. On the way, they look to purchase marijuana off of a stranger they meet named Junior (Marc Sheffler). Junior brings the two back to an apartment where a group of escaped criminals, led by Krug Stillo (David A. Hess), trap, assault, and brutalize the two young women. However, the criminals do not go unscathed by the film’s end either.

The Last House on the Left is not for the faint of heart and it’s not because the film is too gory or violent by today’s standards. It’s because of how real the action onscreen looks and feels. In his directorial debut, the “Master of Horror” Wes Craven crafts a demented tale of human monsters. Krug and his band of criminals are absolutely vile human beings who prey on the innocence and overall kindness of those around them. Throughout the film, Mari and Phyllis are physically, mentally, and emotionally tortured by the group but still fight to stay alive and escape their captors. Again, the true horror of The Last House on the Left is how real it feels. Nothing about this film should be considered “fun” to watch but it’s still an amazingly human story. It just may not be the side of humanity that everyone wants to see.

Upon its release and even to this day, the film was blasted as being repulsive and vulgar due to the graphic violence with some of it even being sexual. These types of criticism are certainly fair because The Last House on the Left is an ugly film about ugly people. Yet, it’s also a story about comeuppance and revenge. While maybe not a positive way to deal with one’s problems, these are very human reactions and it’s hard not to feel satisfied when the wrongdoers get theirs. Of course, we won’t ruin the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen the film but we do encourage any new viewers to stick with this one. As previously mentioned, The Last House on the Left is very ugly and it’s easy to see how certain audiences would be turned off by it. However, it’s not just a violent gore-fest either. There’s plenty of discussion to be had for its depictions of violence and the repercussions of committing such heinous acts against fellow man. As the directorial debut of A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Wes Craven along with being produced by Friday the 13th’s Sean S. Cunningham, The Last House on the Left is a possibly misunderstood landmark, as well as a curiosity, of the horror genre.

October 16th: The Ring (2002)

Towards the beginning of this year’s 31 Days of Horror, we reviewed Candyman, a film that landed at #9 on our Top 10 Favorite Horror Films, and today we cover another one. When October rolls around with Halloween just around the corner, it’s impossible for us not to think about Gore Verbinski’s 2002 J-horror remake, The Ring. The film centers on reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) whose niece, Katie (Amber Tamblyn), dies unexpectedly and in shocking fashion. While investigating Katie’s death, Rachel uncovers a story about a cursed video tape that kills whoever watches it in seven days. After stumbling onto the tape and watching it herself, Rachel finds herself in a race against time to solve the mystery behind the tape to save her own life as well as relieve her son, Aiden (David Dorfman), of his related visions.

Like its Japanese predecessor, 1998’s Ringu, Verbinski’s film is another atypical horror flick. It’s more of a procedural mystery/thriller than what most casual audiences think of as horror. Yet, The Ring is such an unsettling and atmospheric work of art that will keep viewers intrigued from start to finish. Not only does Rachel go on a physical journey all over the state of Washington but she goes on a deep rooted psychological one as well. This journey, marred by sadness, grief, and loss, emotionally cripples so many characters over the course of the film and this is all before the true horrors of the tape are even revealed.

We stated in a full review of the film back in 2019 that, “Director Gore Verbinski parlayed his success on this film into three extremely successful Pirates of the Caribbean films but The Ring may be his true crowning achievement.” This is a statement we still stand firmly behind today. Even though Ringu still has a loyal fanbase, it’s hard not to see the brilliance and masterful execution of this remake. Everything about it from its chilly blue color palette to Naomi Watts’ excellent performance to its iconic final scene has kept the film a genre fan favorite over the nearly twenty years since its release. While lesser filmmakers have tried to develop this into a moneymaking franchise, none have come close to matching Verbinski’s efforts. If you haven’t seen the original Japanese film, that comes recommended as well but it still doesn’t come close to the American remake of The Ring.

October 17th: It (1990)

Perhaps it shouldn’t be all that surprising but this entry makes it two years in a row that Stephen King has found himself on our 31 Days of Horror two different times. Last year, we covered Brian De Palma’s adaptation of King’s first published novel, Carrie, and also his collaboration with George A. Romero on 1982’s Creepshow. Similarly, we began this year’s list with the film adaptation of one of King’s most notable works in The Shining and now continue with another of his most beloved stories in the 1990 made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s It. The film centers on a group of seven friends, dubbed the Losers Club, as they battle an eternal being that takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Tim Curry) but is capable of manifesting itself as any child’s worst nightmare. The first part of the TV miniseries sees the friends as children growing up in 1960 whereas the second part sees them return as adults to do battle with Pennywise once again in 1990.

Since this is a mini review of the miniseries (or film as we’ll address it going forward), we won’t go into too much plot here since both the book and film are quite dense. All that most people need to know is that this film was terrifying as a child and, even today, the first half actually holds up very well. It has a timeless Stand By Me-esque appeal to it and the child actors, including the late Jonathan Brandis, are excellent in their respective roles. The same can’t quite be said for the adult actors in part two. They’re not bad but the chemistry isn’t quite there and the ending is just kind of bizarre especially in 2021. To be fair, the book gets a bit weird too but after such a wonderful first half, the second just doesn’t live up to expectations despite still being serviceable.

Many people nowadays are sure to look to 2017 and 2019’s It and It Chapter Two respectively as the films to watch when looking for a cinematic version of King’s novel but we disagree. While Andy Muschietti’s first It film is very good and almost what we wanted out of an R rated theatrical version of the King novel, the child actors just don’t live up to the lofty precedent set by the cast of the miniseries. Muschietti’s It Chapter Two should be far and away the better version of the adult story but, alas, that film is a bloated, overproduced slog of a sequel that will have some fans begging for the 1990’s part two adaptation. One thing that sets both apart even further is Tim Curry as Pennywise. Bill Skarsgård does a good job too but there’s no one that gets the character of Pennywise more than Curry. Even with its somewhat bland second half, the TV miniseries version of Stephen King’s benchmark tale of childhood terror is still the preferred way to absorb It on the screen.

October 18th: Halloween Kills (2021)

While normally our 31 Days of Horror is used to represent films we think people should watch and enjoy, this year we’re including some new releases. Unfortunately for horror fans everywhere, there’s a brand new film in a wildly popular horror franchise that we simply can’t recommend.

*Note: From this point on, we’re assuming that you’ve seen 2018’s confoundingly named Halloween so be prepared for spoilers from that film.*

David Gordon Green’s Halloween Kills, the second of his planned trilogy of sequels to John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece, kicks off where its predecessor ended. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), her daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), and granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), escape the inferno that they left masked killer Michael Myers AKA The Shape (James Jude Courtney) to burn to death in. However, Michael escapes and slaughters all of the emergency workers in sight before heading out on a killing spree in the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois. With Laurie in the hospital, an angry mob, including several returning characters from the original Halloween, forms to find and kill Michael once and for all in an attempt to lift his curse from the town.

On paper, this doesn’t sound like a horrible idea. A town full of disgruntled citizens want to rid themselves of the pain and suffering caused by the murderous hands of Michael Myers after all these years. It makes sense… if Halloween 2018 hadn’t retconned all the previous sequels. Though three separate incidents involving the same masked killer is certainly more damage than one little town would expect, all of the occurrences are so far apart to the point that it seems strange for all these people to be so angry that they’d turn into a bloodthirsty mob. Had all the other sequels happened, this absolutely makes more sense as Haddonfield truly does feel cursed as more bodies piled year after year because of Michael. Not to mention, returning characters such as Marion (Nancy Stephens), Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards), Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers), and Tommy Doyle (played by Anthony Michael Hall instead of the original actor) is a nice touch but they also don’t feel all that respected either. It probably doesn’t help that Halloween Kills boasts a really awful script with maybe some of the worst dialogue in the entire franchise for the cast to recite.

While we can look passed some iffy acting, bad dialogue, and a shaky overall story, Halloween Kills’ biggest issue is that it just doesn’t need to exist. There’s really nothing of serious consequence that happens in this film to drive the trilogy’s overall plot forward. All that Halloween Kills is good for is a body count which is largely given away in the film’s trailer. Most of the film’s best moments were already spoiled and you could see from a mile away that this film was going to lack focus and purpose. There should still be some intrigue for Green’s Halloween Ends, set for release next year, but it’s just a shame that Kills wasn’t a better overall product. It just has that “transition film” stench about it where the filmmakers were too busy setting up for the last film instead of focusing on the one they’re currently making. In the end, Halloween Kills just seems like a directionless crawl to the series finale. Some of the death scenes are pretty good but, again, almost all of them are in the trailer so there’s still no real point in watching this full movie unless you’re a diehard Halloween fan. If this is you, you might as well watch Halloween Kills but don’t really expect it to be any good.

October 19th: The Wolf Man (1941)

Today, we’re going from one lone killer to another as we go back 80 years to the second oldest film on our 31 Days of Horror. Unlike the homicidal maniac that is Michael Myers, though, this monster is an unknowing and sympathetic one. 1941’s The Wolf Man sees Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) return to his estranged father’s castle in Wales to bury his recently deceased brother. Upon his arrival, Larry is immediately smitten with Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) and tries to gain her affection. Unfortunately for Larry, he’s soon bitten by what he believes to be a wolf while attempting to save Gwen’s friend, Jenny (Fay Helm), from a sudden attack. A Romani fortuneteller, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), reveals to Larry that it was a werewolf that bit him and that he will also become one during the next full moon.

Everything about The Wolf Man is just classic Universal monster storytelling. Like Dracula did with vampires, The Wolf Man established many of the modern day werewolf tropes seen in every werewolf story that’s come after it. The only thing that’s really missing from the film is a full-on werewolf transformation scene as is normally the highlight in most werewolf films now. For that, we’d have to wait for 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Regardless, Lon Chaney Jr. is fantastic in the film and looks great in his full Wolf Man getup. However, it’s his portrayal of Larry Talbot that separates this film from many of the other Universal horror titles. A sympathetic, likable, and normal guy, Larry becomes a monster while sacrificing himself to danger and, while he doesn’t die, he still pays an ultimate price for his heroics. Viewers will truly feel for him as you know he’s not really a monster and it’s the curse that turns him into one.

By today’s standards, The Wolf Man is quite tame with even something like Frankenstein being more horrific in execution. Still though, Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot is something totally different than what his contemporaries, Bela Lugosi (who actually does appear in The Wolf Man) and Boris Karloff, are as their Universal monsters. That’s what makes the character into such a horror icon. Something like David Cronenberg’s The Fly owes a ton to The Wolf Man as they’re essentially the same idea with a kind hearted and likable protagonist unintentionally turning into something carnal and instinctive. It’s an added dimension to movie monsters that’s everlasting and actually relatable. Even though Frankenstein featured a sympathetic monster ten years earlier, The Wolf Man marked an evolution of this idea and has become one of the most iconic and recognizable horror films of all time in the process.

October 20th: The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Yesterday, we covered an outright horror classic but, today, we’re going to get a bit weirder. The late Dan O’Bannon’s cult classic The Return of the Living Dead opens with medical warehouse foreman, Frank (James Karen), showing off some old military drums that arrived by mistake to new employee, Freddy (Thom Mathews). Frank accidentally releases a toxic gas from the drums that causes the duo to pass out while also reanimating a cadaver. Their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), arrives to help them dispose of the reanimated corpse before anyone finds out about what’s happened but, in turn, they contaminate the rest of the small town and the dead start coming back to life.

This probably doesn’t sound very original when it comes to a zombie film but, upon The Return of the Living Dead’s release in 1985, there really wasn’t a universal standard for zombie flicks. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead had laid the groundwork for what a zombie film could be and Romero’s Day of the Dead was released just a month before this one. O’Bannon’s film actually popularized the idea of zombies eating brains while also allowing them to run and even speak. The film makes its zombies out to be more than just mindless and starved hunters. They’re crafty, manipulative, and actually quite funny as their insatiable hunger for brains drives their every action.

While maybe not iconic as something like Dawn of the Dead or as insanely bloody as Braindead, The Return of the Living Dead has its own appeal as a sort of punk rock zombie flick. To date, it has also spawned four sequels (of varying quality) further proving its lasting legacy in the horror genre. The differences between The Return of the Living Dead and the classic Romero zombie films provide a lot of laughs as well as some more tense moments as the characters don’t really know how to stop the horde they face. Even though we probably can’t give it a higher recommendation than something like Dawn of the Dead, The Return of the Living Dead provides something different than many horror fans expect from their zombies. It’s lighthearted and fun while also having a few iconic moments of its own such as the emergence of Tarman. If you like zombies and haven’t seen The Return of the Living Dead, give it a shot.

That’s it for Part 2 of our 31 Days of Horror! Click here for the third and final part of our list!

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