Film Reviews

What I Watched This Halloween – Mini-Reviews of Channel Zero, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 & 6 Others

Here’s a list of all the horror related films and TV shows I watched this Halloween. Since actual Halloween fell on a Monday this year I kickstarted my horror marathon on Saturday and stretched it out across three days, realizing as I went that I no longer have much patience for the slasher genre. There were far superior new horror offerings available through the likes of Netflix, yet I seriously watched a couple of Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Sleepaway Camp movies? As that old priest from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade might say, I chose poorly.

Here’s the list in the order in which I watched them:


halloween-mainDon’t get me wrong, though. The first Halloween is still a classic. This was maybe my 4th overall time watching it, first in years. As such, there were plenty of moments I’d forgotten about, such as did you remember Michael Meyers kills a dog in this movie? Well, he does, and then the rat bastard turns around and does it again in Halloween 4.

More than anything else, re-watching Halloween reminded me why Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis was once such a compelling figure, chasing after his white whale while also functioning as an exposition machine. Pleasance didn’t particularly care for the script, and only took the part because his daughter liked the music in John Carpenter’s prior film, Assault on Precinct 13. However, Pleasance’s years of acting experience show in the way he delivers lines such as “I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes… the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.” Pure gold coming from Pleasance’s mouth. It’s only in the sequels Loomis morphed into the more mockable figure prone to histrionical shouting.

Channel Zero: Candle Cove

candlecove-fbThis wasn’t supposed to happen. I wasn’t supposed to get sucked into this show. I met with fellow WMIFer Julianne for a horror movie marathon, and after Halloween we were supposed to pick something else from the stack of Blu-Rays or on Netflix or Shudder. But, sure, why not fit in the pilot for SyFy’s new scary series Channel Zero, which I wrote about back when it was first announced. It’s just the pilot. It’ll only take 40+ minutes.

Yeah, cut to two hours later and we’d streamed the first three episodes, which are the only ones to have aired at this point. Max Lindis and Nick Antosca (a former Hannibal writer) co-created this show which feels a bit like It meets Angel‘s “Smile Time” meets, well, Hannibal. The plot involves a child psychologist (played by Parks & Recreation‘s Paul Schneider) returning to his home town where an ill-defined tragedy occurred during his childhood in the late 80s, claiming his twin brother’s life as well as the lives of several other kids. Now, history seems to be repeating itself with the town’s kids, and it’s all somehow linked to a mysterious children’s program, Candle Cove, featuring mischievoius marionette dolls. As the episodes progress we learn more about the past tragedy via flashback and watch as the town gradually comes around to the psychologist’s seemingly insane claims of “I’m telling you, that damn TV show is making them do it!”

While the mystery plot is sufficiently engrossing the true star of the show is its tone, which I’d describe as a close cousin to Hannibal in its unrelenting dread and focus on the psychological deterioration of its main character. This translates to plenty of held shots and extra long tracking shots to establish mood. To some, this might come off as overly pretentious, and perhaps the show is a tad too self-indulgent on occasion. However, it sucked me in, turning scenes which would otherwise seem standard (a guy sleeps in his car, unaware a monster is advancing on his location) into squirm-inducing marvels (a low angle camera shot from a relatively far away ield overlooking the car tracks the monster’s progress and refuses to cut to a close-up until the very end, ensuring we are hyper-aware of the distance between man and monster but can’t actually see any of the details).

There are only three episodes left, and then there will be a second 6-episode season next year, likely featuring a new plot and characters since this is meant to be an anthology series. Unless things go seriously off the rails, this first season of Channel Zero is easily one of my TV highlights of the year. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever seen on the SyFy Channel, which has plenty of quality shows to go along with its terrible original movies but has never done anything as purely horror movie as this.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

texas_chainsaw_massacre_2_posterThe We Hate Movies podcast guys and I must have words after this because I only watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 based on their recent enthusiastic recommendation. In fact, I trusted their opinion so much I actually bought this on sale at Best Buy, spending just a couple dollars more than renting it online. So, um, anyone want a Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 Blu-Ray? Because I’ve got one I’m probably never going to re-watch.

Well, that’s not true. I’ll probably watch the special features. Maybe listen to a bit of one of the commentaries because there are actually parts of this movie that I liked. The opening, in particular, is a meta-delight, wasting almost no time in introducing the dead meat (i.e., two coked up 80s movie assholes driving into Texas for a big college football game) and the killers (i.e., the idiots needlessly antagonize a truck driver who hunts them down and unleashes Leatherface on them in a Tom Savini gore-fest which is far funnier than it is scary). Yes! This is going to be the horror-comedy I wanted.

Not so much. This is, after all, still a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie, just 12 years removed from the original with the same director (Tobe Hooper) and same two-fourths of the primary cast (Grandpa and Leatherface have been recast thist ime around). The Sawyer family (consisting of The Cook and Croptop in addition to Leatherface and Grandpa) is still at large, hunted by Dennis Hopper as the brother of one of their victims in the original film. When a local DJ (Caroline Williams) lucks into an audio recording of the family’s latest killing Hopper convinces her to play it on the radio to draw the Sawyers out. Unbeknownst to the DJ, Hopper is actually using her as bait, and, well, shit goes south pretty fast, leaving you to ask “What exactly do you think his/her ultimate plan was here?”

Thin plotting aside, my real issue with the film is the acting. This, too, was part of my marathon with Juli, who informed me these characters are considered iconic and beloved by many. However, after around 20 minutes with this version of the Sawyers I just wanted them to shut up, stop with their endless (clearly improvised) ramblings and tired variations on “Yeah, Leather, get that bitch!” Similarly, I grew tired of Caroline Williams’ endless screaming, and didn’t even know what to do with Leatherface’s affection for her, which starts out as remarkably creepy before morphing into purposefully campy.

What was I thinking? I’ve never been a Texas Chainsaw fan, either of the original or any of the later films to bear its name. Hockey-masked zombies? Sure. Why not. Jokester dream demons? 1, 2, I’m waiting for you. Cannibal family? Screw that noise. I simply don’t enjoy seeing someone’s face being cut off.

Yet I can’t completely dismiss Chainsaw 2. It is essentially a repeat of the original just with more money behind it, though not much more considering this was a Cannon Films product. There was at least enough money for them to depict full-on gore instead of merely suggesting it as with the original. However, the black comedy was good enough to get a couple of chuckles out of me. Plus, Dennis Hopper has a chainsaw fight!

Talk about the whims of a madman!

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait

texas-chainsaw-massacre-a-family-portraitI watched this documentary about the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre because I thought it might provide some interesting trivia for a list I could write for the site since those types of articles light up Google searches around Halloween. It wasn’t quite what I expected, though.

To be more clear, this hour-long Brad Shellady 1986 documentary (which I found on Amazon Prime) might seem like pretty standard viewing as far as docs about low-budget classic movies go. Everyone interviewed describes the trials and tribulations of working on a movie which has no money, and recounts how they had no idea nor any reason to expect anything big from the movie until weeks if not months until after it came out. Then, sadly, post-success they were instantly typecast and struggled to find work outside the genre, and thus have mixed feelings about their association with the whole thing. Rinse and repeat ad nauseum throughout Hollywood history.

The interesting wrinkle with Shellady’s doc is he only interviews the actors who played the family of killers (and in Jim Siedow and Bill Mosely’s case, were about to reprise their roles in the sequel, which is never referenced). On top of that, the interviews were filmed in such a low-cost VHS manner the whole thing comes off more like somewhat static 80s home videos than anything else. This lack of slickness actually endears, depending on your patience for non-HD quality video (but, come on, it was 1986!).

Of course, by only interviewing a subset of the cast the actual insight into the production of the film is rather limited meaning this is not the place to go to for a trivia dump. However, if you want a stark reminder that the actors behind the insanely over-the-top killer characters are indeed just actors you can find no better source. For example, Jim Siedow, who chews so much scenery in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 even Al Pacino would tell him to take it down a notch, comes off as an incredibly soft-spoken, Texas gentlemen. Bill Mosely, equally over the top in Massacre 2, similarly comes off as a consummate actor with an interesting anecodote about the moment during the original Texas Chainsaw shoot when the absurdity and morbid nature of the film came crashing down on him.

At the very least, the whole thing is worth watching to hear Gunner Hanson’s, aka, the original Leatherface, story about taking a date to see Texas Chainsaw since she was impressed to hear he was a movie star. Didn’t end well for him, as you could guess.

Sleepaway Camp 2 + 3 (Kind Of)

512v62b5k1l02msleepawaycampFull disclosure: I didn’t actually watch all of Sleepaway Camp 2. Same goes for Sleepaway Camp 3. Heck, I’ve never even seen the first Sleepaway Camp, though I have seen the infamous “chick with a dick” ending. I’ve generally stayed away from the franchise over the years, warned off by those who deemed it to be one of the lesser entities in the slasher genre, which is really saying a lot. However, there the sequels were at the bottom of Amazon Prime’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait page, promising me if I liked Family Portrait I’d probably really like Sleepaway Camp 2 & 3, a seemingly dubious claim. Curiosity got the better of me, though. “Just how bad are they?” I thought, secretly hoping these low-budget sequels were actually little hidden gems in the sea of 80s slashers.

They’re not. They’re terrible, as evident in the opening scene of Sleepaway Camp 2 in which the plot of the first film is rehashed by teen and tween summer campers around a fire, one actor after another firing off such unmistakably wooden line readings you realize these were probably all the people who couldn’t even get an audition for whatever Friday the 13th sequel was in production at the time.

There is a fun twist, though, in that you know who the killer is from the very beginning. Not only that, the killer is a woman (or at least played by one), and she regularly interacts with everyone in the cast rather than stalking from the shadows. That’s enough to stand out from the rest of the Halloween clones.

Angela, the first film’s surprise killer, is back, but she looks different enough now that no one recognizes her (maybe because in the sequels she’s played by Pamela Springsteen, Bruce’s little sister, whereas Felissa Rose originated the role in the first film). As such, she’s parading as a camp counselor, blissfully enforcing a strict moral code on the campers and then casually killing them off once they cross her, appearing to take little to no pleasure in doing so. This basic set-up repeats itself in the slightly campier third film, although there someone finally notices Angela looks a little too old to be at camp.

However, while all of that was enough to briefly hold my attention both films gradually lost hold of it rather quickly. As far as 80s slasher go, the acting in the Sleepaway Camp sequels is worse than usual, gratuitous tit shots even more gratuitous and sleazy, death scenes even more amateurish and uninspired and plotting even more predictable. I eventually grew impatient and fast-forwarded to the end just to see if either sequel produced a twist ending remotely on par with the original. They don’t. Just standard “final scare” slasher stuff.

The only redeeming value in either film is arguably Pamela Springsteen, who is equally as challenged as her castmates in terms of acting but has the far more interesting part to play, occasionally turning Angela’s unhinged qualities into assets and putting her wooden line readings to good use when Angela has to come off as delightfully matter-of-fact in her description of the killings. Other than that, well, that box cover for the second film with Angela sporting Jason’s mask and Freddy’s glove is pretty fun.

Halloween II

halloween2Yep, this is the one in a hospital, specifically a curiously patient-less hospital where the nurses and EMTS are way too randy. It’s also the one AMC airs as part of its annual Fright Fest marathon consisting of Halloweens 1-2 and 3-6. This year they also aired Rob Zombie’s hillbilly Halloween movies, but we shall speak of those moives no more. Such TV marathons are how I ingested the Elm Street, Friday the 13th and Halloween films growing up, but I may have only ever seen Halloween II once or twice. It was high time to revisit it.

Sure enough, Halloween II was practically a brand new movie to me. I recalled how Michael and Dr. Loomis met their mutual, but short-lived demise, but I didn’t completely recall how they got there. I recalled the reveal about Michael actually being Laurie’s brother, but I couldn’t quite picture how this exposition bomb was dropped. I certainly didn’t remember the longer-than-you’d-expect mid-section of the film where Michael is held off screen to maintain the mystery of whether or not the masked man Loomis and the cops accidentally burned alive was Michael (spoiler: it’s not).

Speaking of Loomis, his transition from badass Ahab to campy Ahab clearly starts here considering one of his first lines sees him hysterically shouting, “I shot him 6 times! I shot him 6 times! I shot him in the heart! This man, this guy, he’s not human!” Oh, Loomis. You’ve come a long way since “Death has come to your little town, Sheriff.” He slips back into reserved exposition machine for the rest of the film until learning of Michael’s connection to Laurie, at which point he again, for lack of a better description, loses his shit.

The knock on Halloween II has always been that it’s simply a repeat of the first film just in a different setting, with Carpenter and Debra Hill crapping out a sub-par script and new director Rick Rosenthal simply replicating all of Carpenter’s camera tricks from the original. Loomis’ speeches this time, forced to patter on about “Samhein” in one scene, don’t have the same ring to them. The Empire Strikes Back-esque reveal of Michael and Laurie’s relationship retroactively weakens the first film. The kills just aren’t as effective. Jamie Lee Curtis (and her terrible wig) looks around as bored to be there as Jennifer Lawrence in X-Men: Apocalypse. And so on and so on.

All fair arguments. You know what, though? Try watching a Sleepaway Camp movie, and then come back to Halloween II. You’ll see the stark difference between ineptitute and competence. Rosenthal should at least get some credit for not only making a competent-enough slasher but also one which cleverly uses the hospital’s security cameras to raise tension in much the same way James Cameron would in Terminator 2 to far more critical acclaim a decade later.

Halloween 4

halloween-4-posterThe initial run of Halloween movies, from 1978’s Halloween to 1995’s Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers, heavily subscribed to the law of diminishing returns. Each new film was worse than the one before it, deterioriating in quality about as quickly as the actual Michael Meyers mask (seriously, by Part 6 it looks like they just bought a cheap knock-off Michael Meyers mask from a costume store). After the experimental, non-Michael Meyers Halloween 3 underperformed it was time to bring back the mute, Shatner mask enthusiast, transferring his quest to cancel out his own blood line from sister to 8-year-old niece (Danielle Harris), as one does when Jamie Lee Curtis says, “Another Halloween? Um, I’m a little busy making a little movie called A Fish Called Wanda. Call me again in 10 years when my career stalls out.” Thus we have Halloween 4, somewhat unique among the major slasher films in that the true final girl of the story hasn’t even hit puberty yet.

Similar to Halloween II, I had not seen this particular sequel in years, and had perhaps only ever seen it just that one time. It was practically new to me, clearly elevating Michael into a more Jason Voorhees-like killer in terms of body count (for starters, he massacres everyone at Haddonfield Police Headquarters) while also adding some interesting new wrinkles on the same old formula. For example, once news of Michael’s return gets out the town quickly forms a posse to hunt him down and promptly proceed to kill the wrong person because, well, they’re really just a bunch of idiots from a bar. That at least checks off the “hadn’t seen that in an 80s slasher movie before” box.

The rest of Halloween 4 has a lot of Donald Pleasance yelling, teen sex melodrama and interesting enough variations on the norm to make it a surprisingly solid sequel.

What did you watch this Halloween?

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