Killtoberfest 4: Four Score and Severed Ears Ago is finally at an end. Once again I’ve not quite succeeded in the Herculean task of watching and reviewing 31 movies in 31 days, and once again I’m totally fine with that. Last year I finished 22 reviews in the month of October. This year I did 25, and as usual my reviews were better, long, and more in depth than ever before. Or even more pretentious and rambling, depending on how you look at it. The important thing is, I tried my best, and I’ll catch that 31-movie-sized white whale next time, yarrr.
For now, let’s relax with the traditional wrap-up post! This year is a little unique in that I decided to mostly focus on writing great reviews for classics I’d seen before as opposed to discovering new movies, so instead of making up funny awards I’ve decided to arbitrarily pit these movies against each other. We’ll do this tournament bracket style and ultimately crown one movie the first annual KilltoberBEST.
Here are the brackets:
As you can see, there are four major categories, to keep things a little bit fair. Seeds within brackets have been randomized.
The random tournament seeding starts us off with this apparently completely divergent pair of movies. In subject matter, styles, tones, and origins they’re totally different, and I wouldn’t necessarily call this a good double feature. But both films share an interest in narrative. Kwaidan, of course, is all about storytelling, using artful sets, costumes, and shots to give us a theatrical examination of the nature of our personal narratives. Are we who we say we are, or not? Green Room, on the other hand, is much more realistic, not to mention more violent. No ghosts here; instead the film concerns itself with a clash between NeoNazis and punk rockers. Both sides of the thriller’s conflict are attempting to determine which version of events the world will ultimately believe: did the skinheads commit murder to cover up their crimes, or die the band die in an unfortunate accident? Although Green Room is an excellent example of its genre, Kwaidan‘s unique and luxurious visual style gives it the win, and may carry it far through this tournament.
Although both of these movies are English language, they’re also imports that present a slightly different look at some very American concepts. Severance skewers the office comedy, sometimes literally, while Ginger Snaps is a werewolf movie by way of female teenage angst. What do those subjects have in common? In both films, the danger is essentially random. We can’t control what kind of unsavory history the companies we work for have, we just want to pay the rent. Likewise, most women are stuck with menstruation whether they like it or not. That these situations are punished with slashings and werewolf attacks is more than a little unfair. Severance translates that unfairness into the comedy of amusingly petty characters exasperated at their own impending murder, while Ginger Snaps explores some of the sadder difficulties facing young women in today’s society. For its compelling themes and more moving narrative, Ginger Snaps will survive to the next round.
My totally random seeding happened to pit the only two horror documentaries I watched this year against one another, saving me the trouble of having to pull a double feature connection out of my ass. But that also makes this a really tough choice. Häxan‘s blend of various styles, including re-enactments, to tackle the subject of witches from different directions does earn it points for innovation and creativity. On the other hand, Room 237 is an unusually restrained doc that doesn’t even put its interviewees on camera. Where Häxan intends to horrify and titillate, Room 237 lets its subjects ideas speak for themselves. What this match-up really comes down to is context and theme. Häxan‘s social relevance and brilliance-for-its-time can’t, for me, stand up to Room 237‘s hypnotic delve into pop culture obsessiveness. Room 237 moves on, with dreams of facing down The Shining later on. (Not that it will and not that it would win, but the doc would probably be honored to get clobbered by the masterpiece it idolizes.)
Another serendipitous match-up, this pair of films both feature characters with deteriorating mental states resulting in violence. Both protagonists are artists, both suffer from loneliness and isolation, both are haunted by traumatic childhoods. There’s a world of difference, though, between May‘s overly cute indie cringe horror and Hour of the Wolf‘s soulful black and white surrealism. This isn’t remotely a close match-up, so I’ll end May‘s suffering and give this round to Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, hands down.
This is an interesting match-up primarily because these both of these movies exhibit the pulpier side of early Stephen King, and because neither are super great. Should Creepshow get points for its visual creativity? Should Cujo win just for having a single story? The real question is, given that both films are pretty uneven, do I judge their highs or their lows against one another? Creepshow probably has a higher variance, with segments like “Something to Tide You Over” and “They’re Creeping Up on You” surpassing even Cujo‘s scenes in the Pinto, but segments like “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” are much worse than, well, everything not in the car in Cujo. Overall I have to go with the more consistent entry–not that it matters, because unlike that rabid Saint Bernard, Cujo won’t get out of this category alive.
Now things are getting interesting. These are both classics in the genre, both dealing with psychic abilities. For Carrie White, her abilities are a destructive, outward force that give her the chance to strike back at the kids who bully and humiliate her. For Johnny Smith, his abilities are a painful, inward vision that force him to shoulder a terrible responsibility. One is a fairy tale for teens, a twisted Cinderella tale; the other is a political fable, a what-if story of justified assassination. And that, I think, is the key difference between them. For all its historical value, Carrie has aged poorly, whereas The Dead Zone is unfortunately more relevant now than ever. Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone lives to take another shot.
There’s really no contest here. John Carpenter’s Christine found a fun B-movie in King’s somewhat overwrought novel; it’s a smart adaptation that’s always worth catching on cable. But Stanley Kubrick took one of Stephen King’s best novels and crafted one of the best horror movies ever made, an inventive, iconic, and seriously disturbing work. The Shining takes this round handily, and has a strong chance to walk away with the top prize.
The random seeding continues to give excellent dividends. Here, it’s chosen the two PA movies that most embody the series’ harsh divide between quality of concept and quality of execution. The original PA is very effective at creeping audiences out, even if it’s poorly written, poorly acted, poorly lit… okay, you get the idea. Whereas PA 3 makes all the wrong decisions for the franchise, decisions that will lead the series off the cliff, but does so with a strong unity of theme and direction. This is a tough choice, but in a weird way I have to respect the third movie’s single-minded devotion to going down exactly the wrong path. Plus, at least PA 3 doesn’t have frigging Micah in it. Shockingly, Paranormal Activity 3 survives round one.
Here we have the very best Paranormal Activity film set against the very worst. The first sequel in the franchise is a textbook example of how to fulfill and expand upon the promises of an earlier film, while The Marked Ones decides to throw everything PA away in favor of a really, really awful found footage movie. Even PA 2‘s sexism issues are somewhat canceled out by the probably racist narrative The Marked Ones features where young ethnic men suddenly become violent, evil criminals when they turn 18. But enough about the franchise’s most terrible folly. PA 2 wins easily on its way to dominating this whole category.
Another close match-up pits two late series entries that are both kinda stupid but also kinda fun. PA 4 actually contains one of the best scenes in the whole series, the one time the demon tries to murder somebody in a clever way instead of just snapping necks and throwing people down stairs. Meanwhile, The Ghost Dimension valiantly attempts to tie the entire franchises’ nonsensical plot into one semi-reasonable story. Even if The Ghost Dimension really isn’t scary at all, it still manages to drag Paranormal Activity back from the brink. Meanwhile, PA 4‘s biggest sin is that it never justifies its own existence, as the entire movie consists of Katie kidnapping Hunter, something that already happened at the end of PA 2 and whose repetition here is never explained. For ending the franchise with a little dignity and fun, The Ghost Dimension gets to live a little longer.
Oof, what a decision! Both of these movies are truly excellent films about a group of people in a very tight spot. Although the crew of the Icarus 2 are in deep space and the women in The Descent find themselves deep below the earth, both groups are trapped in a hellish, dangerous place with little chance for survival. If they manage to get out, it’ll be a matter of whose sheer will can stand up to both enormous pressures and the killers amongst them. Both films are marvels of direction, production design, and screenplay structure, and both work as non-horror for significant portions of their running time. Ultimately, though, I think the choice comes down to theme–while The Descent presents a situation where despair is inevitable, Sunshine argues strongly for the possibility of hope. In these turbulent, stressful times, I gotta go with hope. Sunshine slips the surly bonds of round one.
One last great match-up from the random seeder, this pair of films both feature female protagonists whose very reality is upended by the psychologically manipulative men around them. Other than that, though, these films are nearly opposites. Wait Until Dark is a brilliantly controlled thriller taking place almost entirely in a single room, while Candyman ranges across Chicago and the boundaries of the mind to tell a story very much about horror and legend. While Candyman is more colorful, Wait Until Dark is more visually rigorous; while Candyman finds iconic imagery, Wait Until Dark gives us two iconic performances. But in the end, I think perfect form needs to take a slight backseat to perfect function. Candyman is so deep, so heavily laden with symbolism, theme, and even social commentary that Wait Until Dark‘s beautifully executed, stacked-deck depiction of the very Evil versus the very Good can’t help but lose–if only barely. The toughest match of round one goes to Candyman, but there’s no shame in losing this one.
M0v13s: Thir13en Ghosts (bye)
As the 25th movie, Thir13en Ghosts manages to be the odd film out. As such, it gets a bye for rounds one and two, mainly because I find that hilarious. We’ll see which all-time classic crushes this goofy favorite all the way in round three.
Social Pressures: Kwaidan vs Ginger Snaps
One old movie and one modern film, but both interested in the way our behavior is proscribed by social roles. Each protagonist in Kwaidan ends up breaking some kind of rule of decency, or stepping outside their social station, and incurring some form of ghostly revenge as a result. Likewise, Ginger Snaps demonstrates the ways in which social expectations placed on women make adolescence into a painful minefield of hurt feelings and spontaneous murders. Once again, though, their styles are worlds apart, and that makes all the difference. Ginger Snaps is all one style; the conformity-minded suburban scenes are shot the same way as the more violent sequences. On the other hand, Kwaidan‘s strict theatrical style is broken in new and exciting ways whenever the supernatural is involved. Plus, it’s one of the most beautiful movies in this entire tournament. Point to Kwaidan.
Art’s Obsession: Room 237 vs Hour of the Wolf
One documentary, one faux documentary wrapped around a surrealist nightmare; two movies about the power of art to drive people insane. But when it comes to horror movies, we have to judge how scary they actually are. Hour of the Wolf‘s painter is ultimately devoured by his inner demons, whereas the eccentrics in Room 237 have had their lives altered, not destroyed, by their obsession with The Shining. And you can’t beat Bergman’s haunting, original imagery. Goodnight, Room 237. Now is the Hour of the Wolf.
The Frank Dodd saga: Cujo vs The Dead Zone
Frank Dodd, Castle Rock Deputy Sheriff and secret killer of women, is first discovered in The Dead Zone; later, his ghost haunts the town, inhabiting first little Tad’s closet and then the body of a rabid dog. There’s a similar difference in tone between the serious horror of Cronenberg’s film and the heightened melodrama of Cujo. There are a lot of reasons why there’s no way Johnny Smith doesn’t walk away from this match-up, but if you need just one, Walken’s haunting performance should be enough. The Dead Zone moves on.
Overlooked: The Shining (bye)
Kubrick’s masterpiece isn’t getting a free round from the other Stephen King movies. They’re getting a free round from having to face The Shining. Bye.
Battle of the Sequels: PA 2 vs PA 3
These films represent two competing visions of the franchise. The fact that the third movie’s turn toward passive viewing, creepy children, and incomprehensible plotting did manage to take over speaks to why it shouldn’t win this round. Even better, PA 2 manages to be a more solid and scary movie at one fifth the budget. All glory to Paranormal Activity 2.
Dignity Wraith: The Ghost Dimension (bye)
If nothing else, Ghost Dimension finally shows us what Toby looks like: a big pile of sentient black sludge. For inspiring fond memories of Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest, Ghost Dimension is rewarded with a bye for the round.
Born of Man and Woman: Sunshine vs Candyman
These are two films whose sensual use of light and sound conjures our deepest dreams and darkest nightmares. Candyman tackles issues of racial guilt, while Sunshine tells a sci-fi story about the impulse toward irrationality and suicide. If there’s one thing that truly sets them apart, though, it’s that Sunshine‘s characters are smart people struggling to figure out how to survive, while Candyman‘s protagonist tragically loses her agency to Candyman’s hypnotic presence halfway through the film. The horror of having your self taken away by a creepy, manipulative ghost kinda pales in comparison to the horror of trying your absolute hardest when the stakes couldn’t be higher–and still failing. I’m as surprised as anyone to see Sunshine continue to rocket up the ranks, but there you have it.
Rah Digga Says Hi: Thir13en Ghosts (bye)
Artful Horror: Kwaidan vs Hour of the Wolf
Two movies, two distinct visions of what art cinema meant in the 1960s. Hour of the Wolf is classic Bergman, a black and white masterpiece of buried (or drowned) emotions coming to the surface in that infinite span of time between midnight and sunrise. Kwaidan is a glamorous reconstruction of Japanese theater in cinematic form, carefully orchestrated to conjure the feeling of ghost stories around the campfire. One is loose and deeply personal, the other exquisitely controlled and broadly philosophical. My personal preference leans slightly towards the Japanese film for its focus on the nature of stories themselves, but both movies feature indelible images of beauty, horror, and sadness. Kwaidan moves on to the Final Four.
The King of King: The Dead Zone vs The Shining
This is a very tough call. As truly great as The Shining is, it’s a cold and off-putting movie. Like Jack himself, it’s easy to fear but hard to love. Meanwhile, The Dead Zone is a very moving, low-key portrait of a man struggling between his pain and his responsibilities. Everything he loved was taken from him, but he still steps up when the world needs him. On the other hand, The Shining is the story of a man who has everything he wants and destroys it. The tie-breaker, though? There’s only one film in this match-up so worthy of study that it inspired another movie in this tournament. As much as I love The Dead Zone, my cinephile’s heart swoons for Kubrick’s infinite labyrinth of mystery. The Shining strolls to the Final Four.
Supernatural Events: PA 2 vs The Ghost Dimension
Is the original Paranormal Activity, flawed as it is, better than The Ghost Dimension? Even though it’s already out of the running, that feels like the right question to ask. These three movies are the best this series has to offer, and the big difference between the first two PA movies and the last one is the fear factor. PA 2 specifically is a very creepy movie, with its excellent use of cinematography and pacing to create a constant sense of tension. As much as Ghost Dimension was a welcome bit of dumb fun at the end of a bad run of movies, it still doesn’t match the heights of the best Paranormal Activity movie. PA 2 enters the Final Four.
Machine of the Dead: Sunshine vs Thir13en Ghosts
Let’s admit it: both of these movies are a little bit silly. One more than the other, but still–Sunshine only works as long as you buy into its absurdly unscientific concept. Thir13en Ghosts, on the other hand, works because it wears its goofy heart on its ghostpunk sleeve. As much as I love it, though, the film’s great design sense is at least equalled by Sunshine‘s unique visual take on space travel. Plus, Sunshine manages to have even better deaths–burning to ash from the sun, freezing in space and shattering horribly, stabbed to death with a vibro-blade, etc. Even in terms of which movie’s better at being ridiculous and gory, Sunshine wins out and heads to the Final Four.
Style Over Substance: Kwaidan vs The Shining
At first glance, these two films couldn’t be more different, although both involve ghosts. Kwaidan is a 1960s Japanese anthology film about the nature of stories, and The Shining is a 1980s Stephen King adaptation about family dysfunction (or the moon landing, or something). But in terms of the horror genre, both of these truly excellent movies present a unique stylistic take on the scary story. Kwaidan‘s images are controlled and painterly–in fact, they’re sometimes literally painted, as in the many matte backdrops or the story of the ancient sea battle. The Shining is put together just as meticulously, under the direction of master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, but it’s designed to feel uncontrolled, unsettling and wrong. Where Kwaidan‘s actors use graceful, precise movements to seem as designed as the sets and costumes that surround them, The Shining‘s performances feel so drained of humanity (after Kubrick put them through dozens and dozens of takes) that they match the insanity of their situation. Both films use their strategies perfectly to achieve their desired effect; but only The Shining truly gets at the horror of watching a film that seems capable of anything. I think Kubrick’s film is more just plain entertaining, as well, with generally better pacing. I respect Kwaidan immensely and I’m glad it made it to the Final Four, but The Shining continues on.
Families in Peril: Paranormal Activity 2 vs Sunshine
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Although Paranormal Activity 2 is easily the best Paranormal Activity movie, PA is nowhere near my favorite horror franchise. It’s a scary, effective concept, well-executed; but none of these movies are rich enough to compare with truly great, original horror. PA 2 made it all the way to the Final Four thanks to the categories I laid out, but there’s no way it beats out Sunshine‘s awesome sci-fi horror vision. This was always a gimme. Sunshine is our second finalist.
Adventures in Claustrophobia: The Shining vs Sunshine
I was going to talk about how PA 2 and Sunshine were both movies about menaced families, even Sunshine‘s crew is an ad-hoc workplace family; but then I realized that as far as the Final Four goes, only Kwaidan is the odd film out on that score, because of course The Shining is also about a family facing both internal and external threats. In that sense, these two very different films share a common backbone, each working hard to establish the fracture lines in a close-knit group trapped by the elements in their living space for a specific duration, each film eventually exploding those fracture lines into violence. Sunshine‘s external threat eventually overwhelms the internal one, with its crew members banding together at the end to try to complete their mission, while the Torrances’ illusion of happiness simply falls apart under minimal influence from The Overlook’s supernatural inhabitants. There are other interesting intersections between these two stories, particularly the way each is structured around a series of poor decisions leading to tragic results. But in style and message, the two movies are drastically different, as The Shining presents an unnerving puzzle box story about human weakness and Sunshine a rollicking sci-fi thriller about man’s drives toward success and failure.
I can’t say I’m surprised to see The Shining make it to the final match-up, but I am pleasantly surprised to see it facing Sunshine, and I think this final choice reflects my experience this Killtoberfest. Both of these movies are ones I had seen multiple times before, but in deciding to review them, I gave them both a fresh, honest look, and came away enjoying and admiring both of them better than I ever have. With The Shining, I spent a long time unfairly judging Kubrick’s film as a misguided Stephen King adaptation; while it’s taken me several viewings to understand and appreciate how Sunshine‘s apparent third act turn really does fit with the whole. This time around, I was able to look at both movies on their own terms, without such a weight of expectations, and as a result I really enjoyed revisiting them.
That said, I don’t think this is all that difficult of a choice. As much as I love Sunshine, there’s just so much about Kubrick’s film that is groundbreaking, iconic, and inimitable, and even after so many viewings I feel like I’ve still only scratched the surface at understanding it. There’s certainly no shame in this for Sunshine; it’s legitimately a great and very underappreciated horror movie that deserves far more discussion, analysis, and praise than it receives. Plus, it’s no insult to say that Danny Boyle is no Stanley Kubrick, or that Cillian Murphy is no Jack Nicholson. Moment to moment, The Shining is so deeply disturbing, yet so incredibly engrossing, that this film taking the top prize was never really in doubt. For Killtoberfest 4, for 2016, The Shining is the KilltoberBEST of the year. Congratulations!
And that’s it for this year’s Killtoberfest. Thanks to everyone for reading and watching! Click here to find all my Killtoberfest reviews, past and present, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken for future projects. Finally, given that, whoever wins the Presidential election, we’ll likely be dealing with impeachment proceedings next year, tune in next October for Killtoberfest 5: Bleeding the Fifth.