Hooray for October, the wickedest of months.
Yes, it’s true that 2020 has thrust us all into a world that’s scarier in real life than any unstoppable killer from a classic 1980s slasher. Despite our strange new existence that’s fraught with more peril than inching through the dark to investigate a strange noise, we have to persevere.
If you’re like me, then your safe harbor in the storm is cinema.
Here are all the new horror, science-fiction and potential cult-classic flicks that debuted in the past week to add to your queue.
The Pale Door
2 stars, 96 minutes, Blu-Ray and streaming
If you’re a horror fiend like me, you subscribe to Fangoria, and that’s exactly where I first heard about director/co-writer Aaron B. Koontz’s “The Pale Door.” This horror-western centering on two brothers, a family curse and a coven of witches has all the ingredients to be an instant cult classic. Instead, sadly, it feels wholly derivative, a Wild West redo of “From Dusk Till Dawn,” minus any of that classic’s ample gore, originality or subversive wit.
The Cleansing Hour
2 stars, 94 minutes, Shudder
Forty-seven years after the debut of “The Exorcist,” filmmakers are still trying to emulate the precision, terror and unnerving realness of William Friedkin’s classic. “The Cleansing Hour” starts strong, introducing viewers to Father Max (Ryan Guzman, “9-1-1”), a self-proclaimed savior of the damned, who livestreams exorcisms online. The catch? The show is entirely staged with a film crew. You know where this is going. Max is about to meet a real demon face-to-face. His “faith” is about to be tested in a way he is not prepared for. And that in and of itself could have been a fun, fright-filled roller-coaster. But director Damien LeVeck takes a huge swerve late in the third-act, which introduces an even better idea that should been the focus of the entire film. Instead, just when “The Cleansing Hour” gets good, it ends.
2 stars, 100 minutes, Amazon Prime
Trust me, I get it. You’re gun shy. I am, too. After “Fantasy Island,” “Truth or Dare,” “You Should have Left,” and other recent disappointing releases, the shine has officially worn off of Blumhouse Productions. The home of “The Purge” and “Get Out” has taken some significant dings to its artistic credibility, even as the genre company moves firmly into a new entertainment vertical with the introduction of "Welcome to the Blumhouse," a spate of four original, made-for-TV movies debuting in October on Amazon Prime. The first release, “Black Box,” is a should-have-been fascinating deep dive into science fiction about a mad scientist hellbent on harnessing the brain to implant not just memories, but a human soul. If “Black Box” was intended to play like an extended episode of “Black Mirror,” it doesn’t work. Too many questions are left unanswered. And when two-thirds of your movie drags ass in search of a dramatic thrust, that’s a problem.
3.5 stars, 97 minutes, Amazon Prime
Thankfully, the second "Welcome to the Blumhouse" release, “The Lie,” is a significant improvement, and offers hope for the last two films, which release Oct. 13. “The Lie” also isn’t a traditional horror movie, but it expertly details the insidious ways that an innocent fib can become an unstoppable force of human devastation. Peter Sarsgaard and Mireille Enos play Jay and Rebecca, parents to Kayla (Joey King, “Wish Upon”), who claims to have intentionally killed her best friend, Britney. “The Lie” is taunt, unnerving and surprising.
4 stars, 93 minutes, Blu-Ray and streaming
“Save Yourselves!” is a hysterical riff on the first contact/alien invasion genre that places its extraterrestrial antagonists—which look like “tiny, furry footstools” according to Jack (John Reynolds)—firmly in the backseat. Jack and his girlfriend Su (Sunita Mani) are prototypical New York millennials. They spend their nights hardwired to electronic devices, whether a laptop or their phones, constantly checking emails and updating their status. When they decide to completely unplug for a week, and retreat to a friend’s remote cabin upstate, little do they know that cruel karma is about to send a blitzkrieg of space tribbles to ransack Earth. “Save Yourselves!” takes meta to a whole new level by shining a bright, uncomfortable light on our growing reliance and addiction to technology, but it also unspools a sweet love story and allows Jack and Su to discover a level of resourcefulness they never knew they possessed.
3 stars, 84 minutes, streaming
Secrets, lies and murderabilia. “Souvenirs,” the debut feature from director Anna Mikami (“Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey”), tells the story of Gail (Isabella Pisacane), a young woman trapped by responsibility and left to care for her ailing grandmother, Margot (Jamie Donnelly), and the little shop of horrors where her grandmother sells macabre items culled from crime scenes and the homes of serial killers. Shortly after Gail finds a mysterious package packed with chachkies, she gets a phone call from a woman who claims the items belonged to victims of a killer that may or may not be Gail’s father. “Souvenirs” is a dark, delicious dive, and a perfect watch leading up to Halloween.
Let’s Scare Julie
3 stars, 83 minutes, streaming
Kudos to writer-director Jud Cremata for taking a huge swing and a risk with his first feature film. This slow-burn thriller, shot in one continuous take, focuses almost entirely on the origin of fear, the way an idea can induce severe dread that slowly creeps up through your chest to form a tightening knot in your throat. The idea at the core of “Let’s Scare Julie” is an urban legend about a neighborhood recluse that a group of young women decide to exploit in order to spook their friend, Emma. Cremata, to his credit, is steadfast in his decision not to show what’s happening next door. The lack of jump scares and gore may turn off some hardcore horror fans, but for people who love seeing an artist play with expectations and upend the conventional YA horror template, “Let’s Scare Julie” is a perfect late night in the dark delight.
1.5 stars, 66 minutes, streaming
Horror comedies are a tough nut. They have to be both funny and scary, which is a difficult tightrope to navigate. “Mass Hysteria” has an excellent premise—a supernatural force consumes the iconic town of Salem, Massachusetts, on Halloween, pitting a ragtag group of witch trial re-enactment performers against a fanatical religious leader and his growing legion of minions. But when it comes to execution, “Mass Hysteria” missteps repeatedly. Jokes miss their mark. Scares never materialize. Yes, there’s gore and a few inspired sequences, but for a movie barely more than an hour long, “Mass Hysteria” is an interminable exercise in frustration.
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw
3 stars, 93 minutes, streaming
Fresh off a festival run, including the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival, writer-director Thomas Robert Lee’s period thriller, “The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw,” is a dour rumination on the tragic consequences that accompany ignorance and fear. Fans enthralled by Robert Egger’s “The Witch” will find many similarities here. Both films use witchcraft as a means to explore the extreme beliefs of uneducated, close-minded communities. “The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw” lacks the visceral imagery, the chilling twists and the masterful storytelling that Eggers brought to play, but it still leaves an imprint.
John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films that often get overlooked and interviews with cult cinema favorites like George A. Romero, Bruce Campbell and Dee Wallace. Contact him at BloodViolenceandBabes.com, on Facebook @BloodViolenceBabes or on Twitter @BVB_reviews.