Halloween is my favorite holiday, and besides getting hammered on themed cocktails, there’s nothing more seasonally appropriate than hunkering down for a horror movie marathon. 2021 is offering a smorgasbord of frightening or not-so-frightening options for the scary fiends among us, and I have done the homework so you don’t have to.
Candyman (IN THEATERS & ON DEMAND)
Nia DaCosta’s reimagining/sequel to the 80’s classic is a handsomely mounted, thematically heavy, logically inconsistent, and somewhat dramatically inert addition to the Candyman mythology. Yahya Abdul Mateen is well-cast as a talented black artist adrift in the Chicago art world, only achieving placement in a boutique gallery ran by his live-in girlfriend (Teyonah Parris). He becomes obsessed with local urban legends about Candyman, learning of it through his lively future brother-in-law, and eventually incorporates the legend into his latest piece, inviting customers and sight-seers to summon the killer by reciting his name five times in front of a mirror of his own making. It’s meant as a commentary on everything from local history to racial violence to gentrification, much akin to the movie itself. DaCosta is so distracted, some might say lost, by defining what it all means that she forgets to have fun and focus on the honest-to-God horror of it all. And what it all means amounts to not much greater than a Twitter-sphere rant that goes nowhere. Candyman works when emphasizing some pretty gnarly body horror, as well as its unforgiving, vengeful eye towards police brutality. DaCosta’s film works as well as it does because she has a keen eye for staging, framing, and her use of subtlety, while not always useful, comes in handy for a kill or two, leaving us to our own imaginations. After being introduced to Yahya Abdul Mateen in Baywatch and Aquaman, I wasn’t sold on the many whispers of his untapped talents, having witnessed an utterly placid performance from him as Black Manta. Now, on the heels of Watchmen and The Trial of the Chicago 7, the man has arrived as a major new star. Among others, Candyman proves I was wrong.
For a good portion of its running time, Nightbooks is a fairly mundane if never dull trip down memory lane for those of us who grew up on Goosebumps and other examples of “horror for kids.” Krysten Ritter is a hoot as a harsh critic of a witch who kidnaps a young boy with an aptitude for writing scary stories. Less he be punished, she demands he write and read to her every night his original tales of things that go bump in the night. Much like last week’s Malignant, this is a picture that doesn’t truly gain steam until an infinitely more intriguing third act rears its ugly head. Nightbooks is certainly well-made, more so than Malignant, with horror maestro Sam Raimi serving as producer and proving he hasn’t lost a step at all in the years since his last foray into wicked witches which vomit on our wily, unsuspecting heroes. Winslow Fegley, young star of Timmy Failure and Come Play, is a mild revelation in the film’s final moments, his finally revealing what drove him to stop writing (before his wicked kidnapping anyway) an emotional powerhouse of a performance not many child actors could pull off, never mind pull off with flying colors. Though magical creatures such as a hissing (invisible) cat and a harrowing spider-esque nightmare called a “shredder” are certainly entertaining distractions, it’s a twist on the typical witch lore that sets apart Nightbooks. More than anything, it’s nice to see a kid flick that doesn’t shy away from true horror for fear of angering flaccid parents. Between the aforementioned shredder nearly shredding a child’s eyeball and a candy-coated house whose sweet, jelly shingles turn a twelve year-old into a gluttonous zombie, stuck in a psychedelic stupor, this “horror for kids” isn’t afraid to horrify when the chips are down.
Prisoners of the Ghostland (ON DEMAND)
A Nicholas Cage picture and Sion Sono joint that is self-consciously trying to live up to such promises, slipping on its own carefully spiked banana peels. This nonsensical bit of cinematic rabble-rousing is too slow, too unfocused, and too concerned with vagaries in pursuit of mysterious subtext. Ghostland wants so badly to be a confusing art film, to ask Get It? of us that it forgets to give something worth inquiring about. To make matters worse, the vibrant cinematography seen in the trailer comprises only a few shots in the film. As it turns out, it’s an ugly-looking picture with only a few images of note. Sono takes western and samurai iconography, two genres that historically have gone hand in hand, and renders them completely disparate when juxtaposed against this gussied-up narrative about ghosts, creepy mannequins, and Cage mugging for the camera. There’s a big gag of giddy-up straps tying grenades to both of Cage’s testicles, going so far as to tie individual bombs to each of them. Once the amusement of such wears off and Cage begins spewing awkward, intentionally stilted dialogue for reasons neither funny nor interesting, the fog lifts on whatever enjoyment may have been wrung from this notable chapter in his career. Between Prisoners of the Ghostland and this summer’s Willy’s Wonderland, it’s more evident than ever that Mandy was a fluke of choice in the laundry list of B-movie endeavors he’s made over the last ten years. What was once charming isn’t anymore.
The Addams Family 2 (IN THEATERS & ON DEMAND)
The 2019 animated original was already a mediocre reimagining of the 60’s series and 90’s film franchise. The 2021 animated sequel is a tossed-off, near-terrible follow-up, utilizing the now-cliched premise of sending these ooky characters on a cross-country vacation. Only, instead of living up to its own promise to plumb America’s dark secrets in spooky locales such as Salem and Sleepy Hollow, they plop this macabre family in the most mundane of vacation spots: beaches, camping trips, and big-haired San Antonio, Texas. Is this set in the 80’s? When will Hollywood learn that big hair in Texas went the way of fanny packs and Furbies? There’s a stop in Sleepy Hollow for nothing more than a campfire, no horrific shenanigans, and Salem is skipped for Niagara Falls instead. Their last stop is the Grand Canyon, a natural marvel that is nonetheless on everybody and their mothers’ bucket list. What is the point of celebrating the Addams family’s iconic strangeness if they’re simply going to vacation like every other American family? Chloe Grace’s dead-on deadpan vocal performance enlivens some of the proceedings, and Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron are no stranger to excellence. Altogether, however, the cast is let down by an unfunny script and an emphasis on rambunctious chaos that is more exhausting than entertaining. Even worse, they resort to pop-rap musical acts, as most animated films do when they run out of jokes, and they onerously remove the Addams’ Halloween aesthetic as much as possible. At least the animation itself is a looker.
Halloween Kills (PEACOCK)
2018’s reboot/sequel to the John Carpenter original already felt like a rehash, so it’s no surprise that a sequel to said film doesn’t exactly break the mold or buck any trends. Slasher films work for one of two reasons, either they’re genuinely funny, campy, and full of loathsome characters who need comeuppance at the hands of our knife-wielding killer, or they’re works of grimy, bubble gum art like the 1978 original. David Gordon Green, despite the occasional off-kilter humor, seems to be aiming for the latter. Unless you’re a Carpenter-level genius, the latter requires a surplus of good actors or at least a surfeit of pop-stardom performers the likes of which we haven’t seen in horror since the late 90’s, when every WB star and their mother turned up for ritual stabbings and dismemberment. Green spends most of his time setting up killer fodder characters who are amiable Joes and Janes, only to cut them down in the most gruesome manner imaginable. Given a lack of scares and a dearth of laughs or even fun, I question the point of it all, of watching Michael Meyers slice and dice for the twentieth time, and typically not even very creatively. There’s a moment or two that lives up to slasher infamy, such as a wicked gunshot and a doozy on a staircase, but otherwise there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. Grandmother heroine Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is mostly sidelined in a hospital for the film’s duration, which wouldn’t be a problem if any one character stepped up to fill her shoes. Anthony Michael Hall tries to fill those shoes as a middle-aged Tommy Doyle, a man on a mission trying to corral the town in pursuit of vigilante justice, and he’s ultimately hampered by a script too distracted by one too many threads. Green’s sublime craft shows up in fits and starts, such as dollies following folks around hallway corners and town park shadows. He aims for commentary on mob chaos and the dangers of majority rule, the signals often lost in a lot of perfunctory noise.