There’s no better way to get into the Halloween spirit than by watching some scary movies. Check back on Oct. 6 for another set of spooky movie recommendations, courtesy of George Wolf.
Disclaimer: We take no responsibility for nightmares you may have from watching these films.
October 5th: The Orphanage (2007)
The Orphanage | 105 minutes | Rated: R
It’s true. On occasion, we’re going to recommend a foreign language film. If you steer clear of all foreign horror films, you will miss out on some of the globe’s very best and very scariest. Like this gem from Spain.
Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband reopen the orphanage where she grew up, with the goal of running a house for children with special needs – children like her adopted son Simón, who is HIV positive. But Simón’s new imaginary friends worry Laura, and when he disappears it looks like she may be imagining things herself.
This is a well worn tale at first glance: Is the distraught mother losing her mind, as those around her assume, or is something supernatural afoot? But it’s director Juan Antonio Bayona’s understated approach, along with Rueda’s measured performance and Óscar Faura’s superb cinematography, that buoy the film above the ordinary ghost story.
A scary movie can be elevated beyond measure by a masterful score and an artful camera. Because Bayona keeps the score and all ambient noise to a minimum, allowing the quiet to fill the scenes, he develops a truly haunting atmosphere. Faura captures the eerie beauty of the stately orphanage, but does it in a way that always suggests someone is watching. The effect is never heavy handed, but effortlessly eerie.
The Orphanage treads familiar ground, employing such iconic genre images as the lighthouse, scary dolls, scarecrows, a misshapen child – not to mention the many and varied things that go bump in the night – but it does so with an unusual integrity. Creepy images from early in the film are effectively replayed in the third act to punctuate the very real sense of dread Bayona creates throughout the film. While most of the horror is built with slow, spectral dread, there are a couple of outright shocks to keep the audience guessing.
One of the film’s great successes is its ability to take seriously both the logical, real world story line, and the supernatural one.
Screenwriter Sergio Sánchez doesn’t shortchange his characters or the audience by dismissing Laura’s anguished state of mind, or by neglecting the shadowy side of his tale. The Orphanage is reminiscent of producer Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, as well as The Others, and even of the classic The Innocents.
The Orphanage has more than the unsettling spectral images of children in common with these films; it boasts a sustaining, powerful female performance. Rueda carries the film with a restrained urgency – hysterical only when necessary, focused at all times, and absolutely committed to this character, who may or may not be seeing ghosts. The realism and tenderness in her performance help one overlook flaws in the film’s storyline.
Examine it too closely and the backstory starts to crumble before you. What happened to the rest of the orphanage’s staff? Why is there an article about one death, but no news of others? How did Benigna get Simón’s medical records? But all this can be forgiven because of the final payoff – an ending that suits the characters, is faithful to the truth of the ghosts as Laura sees them, does justice to the exquisite atmosphere created in the film, and never feels inauthentic or obvious. A good ghost story is hard to find. Apparently you have to look in Spain.
October 4th: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
The Cabin in the Woods | 95 minutes | Rated: R
You know the drill: 5 college kids head into the woods for a wild weekend of doobage, cocktails and hookups but find, instead, dismemberment, terror and pain. You can probably already picture the kids, too: a couple of hottie Alphas, the nice girl, the guy she may or may not be into, and the comic relief tag along. In fact, if you tried, you could almost predict who gets picked off when.
But that’s just the point, of course. Making his directorial debut, Drew Goddard, along with his co-scribe Joss Whedon, is going to use that preexisting knowledge to entertain holy hell out of you.
Though Goddard was an unproven entity behind the camera, the duo have written and produced some of the most intriguing projects in film and on TV in recent memory, including Cloverfield, Lost, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Whedon wrote Toy Story. There is nothing that garners higher praise from me than that particular credit.
Their quirky, dark humor is on full display in this effort.
Aside from the setup, the best thing to know about this film is nothing at all. The less you know, the more you’ll enjoy the savage, wickedly funny lunacy.
I will tell you this, though: Best onscreen elevator ride ever!
Goddard and Whedon’s nimble screenplay offers a spot-on deconstruction of horror tropes as well as a joyous celebration of the genre. Aided by exquisite casting – particularly the gloriously deadpan Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford – the filmmakers create something truly special.
Cabin is not a spoof. It’s not a satire. It’s sort of a celebratory homage, but not entirely. What you get with this film is a very different kind of horror comedy.
Fans of the genre will be elated. Those who generally avoid horror cannot help but be entertained. I left the theater absolutely giddy. As smart as Scream, as much fun as Evil Dead, this film is as thoroughly enjoyable a horror flick as anything you’ll find.
October 3rd: Funny Games (1997, 2007)
Image courtesy of AP Photo
Michael Haneke, an amazing creator of both tension and soul-touching drama, continues to prove he is a filmmaking genius. From the creepy, mysterious Cache (Hidden), to The White Ribbon – his incandescent and terrifying pre-WWII masterpiece – to last year’s Oscar-nominated Amour, everything Haneke has done deserves repeated viewing. This is a bit easier with Funny Games, as he made it twice.
A family pulls into their vacation lake home, and are quickly bothered by two young men in white gloves. Things, to put it mildly, deteriorate.
Haneke begins this nerve wracking exercise by treading tensions created through etiquette, toying with subtle social mores and yet building dread so deftly, so authentically, that you begin to clench your teeth long before the first act of true violence.
Asks the victimized father, “Why are you doing this?”
Replies the villain, “Why not?”
Haneke is hardly the first filmmaker to use adolescent boredom as a source of frightening possibility. Kubrick mined Anthony Burgess’s similar theme to icy perfection in A Clockwork Orange, perhaps the definitive work on the topic, but Haneke’s material refuses to follow conventions.
His teen thugs’ calm, bemused sadism leaves you both indignant and terrified as they put the family through a series of horrifying games. And several times, they (and Haneke) remind us that we are participating in this ugliness, too, as we’ve tuned in to see the family suffer. Sure, we root for the innocent to prevail, but we came into this with the specific intention of seeing harm come to them. So, the villains insist we play, too.
Once Haneke’s establishes that he’ll break the 4th wall, the director chooses – in a particularly famous scene that will likely determine your overall view of the film – to play games with us as well.
His English language remake is a shot for shot repeat of the German language original. In both films, the performances are meticulous, realistic, unnerving. The family is sympathetic, but not overbearingly so. They’re real.
But in both films, it is the villains who sell the premise. Whether the German actors Arno Frisch and Frank Giering or the Americans Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt, the bored sadism that wafts from these kids is seriously unsettling, as, in turn, is each film.
October 2nd: Dog Soldiers (2002)
Dog Soldiers | 105 minutes | Rated: R
Let’s get October’s first creature feature out of the way with a fun, bloody, exciting trip to the Scottish highlands. Wry humor, impenetrable accents, a true sense of isolation and blood by the gallon help separate Neil Marshall’s (The Descent) Dog Soldiers from legions of other wolfmen tales.
Marshall creates a familiarly tense feeling, brilliantly straddling monster movie and war movie. A military platoon is dropped into an enormous forest for a military exercise. There’s a surprise, bloody skirmish. The remaining soldiers hunker down in an isolated cabin to mend, figure out WTF, and strategize for survival.
This is like any good genre pic where a battalion is trapped behind enemy lines – just as vivid, bloody and intense. Who’s gone soft? Who will risk what to save a buddy? How to outsmart the enemy?
But the enemies this time are giant, hairy, hungry monsters. Woo hoo!
The fantastically realized idea of traitors takes on a little extra something-something, I’ll tell you that right now.
Though the rubber suits – shown fairly minimally and with some flair – do lessen the film’s horrific impact, solid writing, dark humor and a good deal of ripping and tearing energize this blast of a lycanthropic Alamo.
October 1st: Halloween (1978)
Photo courtesy of AP Photo/AMC, Anchor Bay Entertainment
Halloween | 91 minutes | Rated: R
Look past the ton of weak imitations, the awful sequels and the jokes about the Shatner mask, and remember that the original Halloween was pretty effective. No film is more responsible for the explosion of teen slashers than John Carpenter’s babysitter butchering classic.
Sure, you’ve seen it, but from the creepy opening piano notes to the disappearing body ending, this low budget surprise changed everything. Agreed, there are several terribly flat lines, and P.J. Soles as a giggling, dead-eyed airhead irritates you, but Carpenter develops anxiety well, and plants it right in a wholesome Midwestern neighborhood. You don’t have to go camping or take a road trip or do anything at all – the boogeyman is right there at home.
Michael Myers – that hulking, unstoppable, blank menace – is scary. Pair that with the down-to-earth charm of lead Jamie Lee Curtis, who brought a little class and talent to the genre, and add the bellowing melodrama of horror veteran Donald Pleasance, and you’ve hit all the important notes. For the coup de grace, John Carpenter’s minimalistic score is always there to ratchet up the anxiety. Nice.