By Shane McKevitt
With Halloween just around the corner, this is the perfect time to discuss the films I find myself reaching for every time October rolls around. I’ve avoided obvious examples like Halloween ( John Carpenter, 1978) or Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968) which, although great, have been covered ad nauseum already. While the films I’ve chosen aren’t obscure per say, they might have passed under your radar or, at the very least, are overdue a rewatch.
Pumpkinhead (Stan Winston, 1988)
Pumpkinhead follows a grief-stricken man (Lance Henriksen), who conjures up a demon to seek revenge against the group of teens who have wronged him. The film was directed by Stan Winston, a special make-up effects artist best known for his work on the Terminator and Jurassic Park franchises, among countless others. The practical effects are, unsurprisingly, Pumpkinhead’s brightest star. The film takes a leaf out of horror’s familiar playbook, shielding its creature from the audience as a means of building suspense, as well as hiding its budgetary restraints. Nonetheless, there are a number of sequences towards the end of the film with the demon on full display. It looks fantastic, rivaling any big-budget creature effects from the era.
Henriksen’s lead performance is a standout, aptly carrying the film’s emotional weight. The film’s color palette is worth noting as well; cool blues juxtaposed with warm oranges and browns make for some striking visuals from cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. It is also extremely well-paced and, at just under 90 minutes, never feels as though it has overstayed its welcome.
The sections of Pumpkinhead devoted to its young characters do, admittedly, rely on horror tropes a bit too often; the jock, the final girl, and the young woman paralyzed with fear, á la Night of the Living Dead, are all there. Their dialogue and delivery is often shaky at best. But these sequences are short-lived, seldom lingering before they are interrupted by another stellar, effects-laden scene of carnage. Overall, Pumpkinhead didn’t reinvent the wheel. Nevertheless, great pacing, an excellent lead performance and incredible special effects make it stand out from the crowd, and one of the 1980s best creature features.
Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton, 1999)
Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, a loose adaptation of the 1820 short story by Washington Irving, stars Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane, a police constable sent to investigate a series of murders in the titular village. Christina Ricci costars, while Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones, and Christopher Lee make up just some of the film’s massive supporting cast. The score, composed by Burton’s frequent collaborator Danny Elfman, is extraordinary and one of his best.
Equally impressive is the set design; the winding woodland trails, foggy village streets, and candlelit cottages are magnificently realized and equally well shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The action sequences are executed to perfection, with Lubezki’s visuals and Elfman’s score joining together seamlessly. Tonally, the film manages to strike an acute balance between grisly violence and comic relief. It is funny, yet its moments of levity never undermine the narrative’s dramatic weight.
While the cast is great, Christopher Walken as the horseman was an odd choice. Despite it being no fault of his own, he just doesn’t fit the role. Furthermore, the series of dream sequences peppered throughout the film that give insight into Crane’s backstory, drag on the pacing.
Finally, the nefarious aims of one character, detailed in a lengthy monologue before the action-packed climax, come across extremely contrived and convoluted. While the final action sequence is well-executed, the tying up of all the film’s plots feels rushed. All in all, despite an underwhelming final act, Sleepy Hollow’s acute balance of tone, star-studded cast, wonderful score, and breathtaking visuals combine to make it a well-realized, unique, and remarkably entertaining take on a timeless story.
The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009)
Ti West’s The House of the Devil follows Sam (Jocelin Donahue), a college student desperate for money, who accepts a babysitting job from an eccentric older couple, played by Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov.
Right from the get-go, its recognition and appreciation of past works is apparent. The film opens with a title card that proclaims it is “based on true, unexplained events.” The audience is given a clever nod to classics of the 70s and 80s like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobi Hooper, 1974) and The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979).
West’s approach to this “throwback” component throughout the film is remarkable. He didn’t just set a film in the 80s, but made it feel as though it truly could have come out of that era. Working with cinematographer Eliot Rockett, they chose to shoot on 16mm film, as well as use contemporary camera techniques, like exaggerated zooms and freeze frames. Jeff Grace’s score is also one of the best original scores in years. It evokes the likes of Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack to The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976), and remarkably supplements the film’s visuals.
The way West establishes tension is fantastic. He builds suspense, loosens it in brief reprieves, and then builds and builds until the climax. While House’s second act sees its pacing slow considerably, it’s here that the lion’s share of the tension is constructed, and that the seeds are methodically planted for the bombastic conclusion. West uses this downtime to actualize his protagonist, taking the time to characterize her in a way that lesser films simply don’t have the patience for.
Often missing from the types of films that House emulates, is a truly satisfying conclusion. Even after the buildup and anticipation, by the time the credits roll, the viewer is left underwhelmed. In House, this isn’t the case. While elements of the climax are predictable, plenty of unexpected hiccups are added to make the conclusion anything but routine. This all plays out via excellent performances across the board, with Donahue dazzling in a role that required long stretches without dialogue and had a physically demanding final scene.
The House of the Devil boasts the unique distinction of paying homage to films of the past while also being a fantastic horror film in its own right. It undoubtedly acts as a celebration of a bygone era in horror, but also feels like a redux of sorts. West approaches tried and tested horror conventions to not only pay tribute to these films, but to flesh out their anatomy to construct something that is even better.
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