31 Films of Halloween – 10/25/15: Extraordinary Tales

Throughout October, Madison Film Guy will post new mini-reviews/recommendations/musings on contemporary or classic horror films to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: Extraordinary Tales.

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Extraordinary Tales, 2015

Speaking of extraordinary, it has been an extraordinarily tricky proposition to  bring Edgar Allan Poe’s tales to the big screen.

Though many films—and many of them truly great—purport to be based on, inspired by, or loosely adapted from Poe’s masterworks, precious few have been able to actually convey the classic stories or poems as they were intended by the author.

The animated anthology Extraordinary Tales is the exception, and it is a scrumptious appetizer to this year’s delicious Halloween feast, faithfully adapting some of the best entries in Poe’s canon of “love letters to death.”

Loosely organized around a (largely perfunctory, unfortunately) conversation between the spirit of Poe—a raven—and Death herself, Extraordinary Tales spins five beautifully animated tales of madness and terror mostly narrated and/or voiced by masters of horror.

Sir Christopher Lee lends (in an original recording, one of his final performances) his authoritative baritone to the film’s take on The Fall of the House of Usher. Bela Lugosi gets inside the head of the unbalanced murderer of The Tell-Tale Heart. Julian Sands hisses his way through the grim procedural The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. Modern master Guillermo del Toro lends his grim tone to the torturous tale of the Spanish Inquisition, The Pit and the Pendulum. And Roger Corman—perhaps in a nod to his own rich catalogue of loose Poe adaptations—voices the decadent Prince Prospero in The Masque of the Red Death.

If Poe’s tales are, as the film notes, “love letters to death”, then Extraordinary Tales must be a love letter to Poe himself. Written and directed by Raul Garcia, who has worked on the animation teams for some of the biggest animated films in recent years, Extraordinary Tales brings each of Poe’s stories to life in a different style and tone. Each singularly captivating. Each gorgeous in its own way. Each expressing an inner or outer horror in ways that live-action filmmaking can rarely capture.

Though all are wonderful, there is particular joy to be found in Garcia’s take on The Tell-Tale Heart. Despite a poorly-recorded voice track (all scratches and hisses and ambient hum) that is thought to be nearly 70 years old, Lugosi’s interpretation of the narrator’s madness—from self-congratulatory calm to desperate paranoid confession—is absolutely intoxicating. At the same time, the gothic animation of the tale is bold and striking.

A close second (though why rank at all?) would be the film’s version of The Fall of the House of Usher, which perfectly captures Poe’s expression of the inexorable decay of the noble bloodline of Usher through the crumbling foundation, the collapsing walls, and the shattering windows of their ancient home.

There may be a more perfect cinematic adaptation of Poe’s greatest works…nevermore.

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31 Films of Halloween – 10/17/15: Werewolf of London

Throughout October, Madison Film Guy will post new mini-reviews/recommendation/musings on contemporary or classic horror films to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: Werewolf of London.

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Werewolf of London, 1935

To this day, the 1941 classic The Wolfman remains the definitive werewolf movie.

Six years earlier, the same studio—Universal Studios, the ultimate name in classic horror cinema—put out a werewolf movie that may have been even better than its successor: Werewolf of London.

Whereas The Wolfman is a legendary tale of personal tragedy and soulful anguish, Werewolf of London is more of a mythic morality play. Unlike its successor’s tortured victim, Larry Talbot, Werewolf of London’s werewolf is a scientist—a botanist by trade—who contracts his lycanthropic curse not from racing to the aid of a damsel in distress, but rather from venturing to the forbidden reaches of Tibet to steal nature’s rarest flower. Like a Greek myth, it is his arrogance and ambition—his own hubris—that causes his downfall.

Deep in the mountain of Tibet, Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is attacked and wounded by a strange animal. After returning to London, he finds himself turning nightly into a werewolf and terrorizing the city, his one hope for curing his affliction the rare Asian flower. A mysterious stranger named Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland) has followed him home, however, and wants the flower for himself to control his own beastly transformations.

Although clearly a werewolf tale, the creature of Werewolf of London is more man than beast. The Wolfman’s monster walks like a man but otherwise is a wild animal, savagely preying upon its victims and racing through the countryside like a mad beast. By contrast, Werewolf of London presents a werewolf that is driven not by animal impulses but by the darkest side of human emotion: jealousy and resentment. The creature resembles and acts more like Mr. Hyde than a traditional werewolf, and that casts the film in an entirely different light than its successor.

Werewolf of London is significantly darker and grittier than The Wolfman and in many ways more sophisticated. Although it uses similar time-lapse photography trickery in several transformation scenes, for example, Dr. Glendon’s first transformation is much more cleverly done: while walking through his laboratory, a series of camera occlusions trigger his step-by-step transformation. While not as “cutting edge” (this was 1935, remember) as the time-lapse trick, it’s much more impactful and shocking. Watch that initial transformation in the first few seconds of this clip (0:00 – 0:11:

The first feature-length werewolf movie ever made, Werewolf of London absolutely stands the test of time, even eighty years later. Thoughtful, interesting, and engaging: if you consider The Wolfman the class of the genre but haven’t given its predecessor a chance, check out Werewolf of London and you just might find that sometimes the first really is the best.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/15/15: The Green Inferno

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Throughout October, Madison Film Guy will post new mini-reviews/recommendations/musings on contemporary or classic horror films to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: The Green Inferno.

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The Green Inferno, 2015

The Green Inferno is Eli Roth’s first big screen directorial effort since 2007’s Hostel 2. It’s the story of a group of intrepid college kids who travel to Peru to fight the man, get captured by a lost tribe of indigenous cannibals, and are—by and large—eaten. (Spoiler alert)

Here’s what I learned from The Green Inferno:

1. “Only a freshman would speak with such insolence!” It’s an actual line from the movie. Spoken without irony. So, now you have a feel for the script.

2. Apparently, there is a “lost” tribe in Peru that no other human has ever had any contact with, but that a student at a northeastern college not only knows about but can find after merely a 3-hour boat ride. Just in case you were still thinking that the script might have merit.

3. Indigenous tribe = cannibals. On that there can be no disagreement.

4. If you are at all concerned about female genital mutilation, perhaps just give money to an NGO and skip trying to do something personally to stop it.

5. There are people out there who may murder and eat all the people you know, but that does NOT mean that they aren’t your friends. Don’t judge.

And that, in a nutshell, is The Green Inferno.

Let’s just hope that Eli Roth waits another eight years before directing his next film.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/9/15: What We Do in the Shadows

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: What We Do in the Shadows.

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This review of What We Do in the Shadows was originally published by Madison Film Guy on June 21, 2015. It was the first published piece on the site.

What We Do in the Shadows, 2014

There’s tension in any—any—flatting situation.”

Wise words, indeed, but then wisdom does come with age. And at 862 years old, Jermaine Clement’s vampire Vladislav—from the pitch-perfect What We do in the Shadows—has had centuries to hone his personal flatting philosophy.

The particular flatting situation at the heart of What We Do in the Shadows (now streaming at a variety of venues) involves four undead roommates who share a gothic old house in Wellington, New Zealand. Seemingly mismatched—there’s the swashbuckling Vladislav, the prissy Viago, the chore-slacker Deacon, and the crotchety 8000-year-old Petyr—these vampires bicker and snarl at each other from time-to-time, but have clearly fallen into an easy, pleasant co-existence. They’re friends. But their comfortable arrangement faces significant challenges when Petyr turns their servant’s vacuous ex-boyfriend Nick into a vampire. Nick promptly moves in with the boys and upsets the whole dynamic. Lucky for us, there is a film crew from the New Zealand Documentary Board on-hand to capture the evolving conflict.

Think MTV’s Real World but set in Victorian England but actually modern-day Wellington—so maybe a sort of pseudo-Victorian Wellington?—and you will have a good sense of what to expect. Together, the vampire pals discover the internet and the wonders of video chatting. They negotiate the exclusive Wellington club scene. And when they want to keep a low profile, they eschew flying across the countryside and instead take public transportation out for their night on the town.

Clement and Taika Waititi (as Viago) both pull triple-duty here: co-starring, co-writing, and co-directing. Although American audiences will know Clement best from two hilarious seasons of Flight of the Conchords (well, one hilarious season, and then a follow-up), their previous cinematic collaboration was 2007’s Eagle vs. Shark. In that film, Clement starred and Waititi wrote and directed. Where Eagle vs. Shark was charming but uneven, their work on What We Do in the Shadows represents much more confident, effective movie making.

Their script is sharp. Their cast—from the central characters to the walk-on parts, especially Rhys Darby as the alpha male among a pack of personally-conflicted rival werewolves—is spot-on. And what it lacks in story the movie more than makes up for with intelligent, character-driven humor, terrific visual gags and asides, and an obvious affection for the classics of the horror genre.

What We Do in the Shadows succeeds due in large part to that palpable love and appreciation of horror classics. Its humor may be modern, but its roots and inspiration burrow through more than a century of classic horror cinema. More Young Frankenstein than Scary Movie 5, Shadows’ affectionate take on the horror comedy offers equal parts satire and homage, with dashes of genuine melancholy and dread thrown in for good measure.

That tone represents a welcome departure from the current trend in horror comedy.

Comedy and horror have been kissing cousins since the early days of cinema. Moments of humor have been the go-to safety valve that horror filmmakers use consistently to relieve audience tension and to provide a break from the suspense and terror. But then a subgenre emerged and fused the horror film with the movie comedy.

The dark humor of The Bride of Frankenstein, for instance, eventually evolved into movies like An American Werewolf in London, The Evil Dead 2, and Re-Animator: horror movies first but with a wildly comic spin at the same time. Early full-throated horror satires like The Cat and the Canary, The Ghost Breakers, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (and the Mummy, and the Killer Boris Karloff, and on and on) eventually became Young Frankenstein and Ghostbusters.

But then something changed.

Over the past 20 years or so, any genuine appreciation of the genre has essentially disappeared from the horror-comedy. With the rare exception (say something like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland), the modern horror-comedy either wants you to know how very hip and smart it is…or doesn’t really care how stupid it becomes.

Scream introduced the concept of “meta” into the horror genre, primarily by telling its audience over and over and over again just how “meta” it was. It is unclear if more damage was done in Scream by knife-wielding maniacs or by the main characters (and filmmakers, included) breaking their own arms by incessantly patting themselves on the back. That is not to say that Scream is a bad movie or that “meta” horror is all bad. Funny Games, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, and Cabin in the Woods are all interesting, fun (well, Funny Games isn’t fun at all), creative takes on “meta” horror.

At the other end of the spectrum is the brain-dead horror-comedy. The Wayans brothers are not entirely to blame here, but they have certainly done more to dumb-down the genre than any family in the history of cinema. Their Scary Movie(s) and Haunted House(s) take the lowest common denominator and somehow still manage to divide it by two. The audience isn’t so much expected to actually find these movies funny but simply to recognize that they are MEANT to be funny, and that is apparently good enough for them.

In that context, What We Do in the Shadows is more than a breath of fresh air.

It’s an instant classic.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/8/15: The Appointment in Sammara

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s topic: The Appointment in Sammara.

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The Appointment in Sammara (from Targets, 1968)

First off, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a fan of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 directorial debut, Targets.  It’s the story of an elderly horror film star–making a personal appearance at a drive-in theater–who gets tangled up with a boy-next-store brand of mass-murdering sniper. It’s uneven, largely uninteresting, and it hasn’t aged well.

However, it does star Boris Karloff as the aging film legend, and he’s terrific, no more so than in this classic scene in which he relates to a group of young fans the story of “The Appointment in Sammara”.

Here is one of Karloff’s finest final scenes of a distinguished horror career:

Classic Karloff. Thanks, Boris.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/7/15: Godzilla

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: Godzilla.

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Godzilla, 2014

When I first saw the 2014 remake of Godzilla, I told anyone who would listen that the film’s opening credit sequence was the most interesting and creative two minutes of film I’d seen all year. The rest of the film? Eh.

But we’ll get back to that in a minute.

Godzilla should have been a much better film. Visually, it’s terrific. Director Gareth Edwards—whose low-budget creature flick Monsters was a special effects revelation—delivers an absolutely wonderfully-designed and constructed title monster, as well as a couple of worthy radiation-fed adversaries for the big man to battle: the MUTO’s (“Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms” for the uninitiated). Whenever Godzilla or the MUTO’s dominate the narrative or the screen, the movie comes to life.

Unfortunately, though, the human protagonists—especially our hero, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and his long-suffering wife, Elizabeth Olsen—spend their scenes completely sucking the oxygen out of the movie. Dull, uninteresting, and entirely two-dimensional, the human leads seem to understand that nobody is watching this movie to see them, and they offer up performances that live up to that standard. More monsters and less mankind would have made for a significantly better result.

The exception to that rule, however, is Bryan Cranston, who plays a crusading scientist obsessed with unearthing the government conspiracy that he believes led to his wife’s death. Cranston is exceptional in the role—imbuing it with passion and tragedy and real pathos—but the movie casts him aside early on and leaves it in the hands of the next generation. And they fail miserably.

But back to those opening credits.

The first two minutes of Godzilla are a masterclass in creative filmmaking. As the opening credits roll, we are treated to muddy, choppy images that appear to be archival government footage—ostensibly from the 1950’s—presenting Godzilla’s classified backstory. It begins with quick cuts through scientific documents and tantalizing newspaper headlines that hint at some sort of government conspiracy. From there we see snippets of military documents and black and white footage of aquatic military maneuvers. All the while, the credits roll, flashing on screen only to be immediately redacted right before our eyes. And the whole thing builds to a big reveal—a momentary glimpse of Godzilla rising from the ocean—only to be cast back to the depths by a nuclear blast.

It’s brilliant, and you can watch it here:

Godzilla 2014 isn’t awful and it certainly isn’t great. If you’re a fan of creature features, you’ll probably enjoy much of what the movie has to offer…and you’ll definitely geek out at the final confrontation between Godzilla and the MUTO’s. But if you’re not much of a creature feature fan, just watch the two minute clip above, enjoy, and then find a classic horror film on TV (or elsewhere!) to fill the rest of your evening. It will be a much better use of your time.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/6/15: House on Haunted Hill

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: House on Haunted Hill.

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House on Haunted Hill, 1959

Let’s call it a Vincent Price double feature.

Yesterday’s film was the 1959 Price guilty pleasure The Bat. Today’s film is the 1959 Price guilty pleasure House on Haunted Hill. Turns out that 1959 was a pretty fun, campy year for Vincent Price.

Directed by master of movie gimmicks William Castle, House on Haunted Hill takes place over the course of a single night in a (maybe, maybe not) haunted mansion. Price’s eccentric millionaire, Frederick Loren, has invited a group of not-so-random strangers to attend a haunted birthday party for his estranged wife. “There’ll be food and drink and ghosts,” Price explains in the film’s prologue, “and perhaps even a few murders.” The catch? Any guest who stays the whole night in the house—and manages to stay alive in the process—gets $10,000. If someone leaves or dies, the remaining guests who make it through the night will split their share.

At the core of House on Haunted Hill is the dysfunctional relationship between Price’s Loren and his wife, Annabelle (played by Carol Ohmart). Both are convinced that the other is a murderer, and ultimately—in their own way—both are proved right. The chemistry between Price and Ohmart is outstanding. You can practically taste the venom each spits at the other in their far too few scenes together. Most of their screen time together is talky exposition, but it never drags and is always wickedly delicious.

For all its camp and clichés, House on Haunted Hill really is a surprisingly effective little horror film. With plenty of creepy atmosphere, a twisty plot, and some genuine scares, Castle’s film succeeds as a pure genre film and ranks among Price’s top performances.

For the record, and in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the 1999 House on Haunted Hill remake gets a bit of a bad rap and is actually an effective horror film in its own right. Forty years later the stakes went up from $10,000 per guest to a cool million per, and the special effects were taken up a few notches, as you might expect. In the lead role, Geoffrey Rush spends much of the film doing his best Vincent Price impersonation, which is actually more fun than it may sound.

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But while the 1999 version is far more violent and bloody than the 1959 version, it also features some creatively unsettling imagery that elevates it above some of its same-generation cinematic peers. The nightmarish visuals—including a terrifically effective ghost surgery featuring a cameo by Jeffrey Combs—are outstanding.

For the purists, though, you simply can’t beat Vincent Price and William Castle, so make House on Haunted Hill 1959 a Halloween season treat.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/5/15: The Bat

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: The Bat.

The Bat, 1959

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To be clear, The Bat is a guilty pleasure. It’s not great filmmaking, and it’s not very scary. But whatever the reason, I have seen The Bat more times than I’d care to admit. And there is little chance that I will make it through October without seeing it again.

With two feet firmly planted in the old dark house tradition, The Bat opens with a narrated introduction by the lead character, Cornelia van Gorder. “This is the Oaks,” her voice intones portentously, “a house in the country which I’ve rented for the summer. As an author I write tales of mystery and murder, but the things that have happened in this house are far more fantastic than any book I’ve ever had published.”

Of course, nothing all that fantastic actually happens, but that’s beside the point.

The Bat is the kind of movie in which a bank president and his doctor go to an isolated cabin in the woods for an entire summer, and nobody finds it odd. It’s the kind of movie in which lots of ordinary people seem perfectly comfortable murdering their friends and neighbors. And it’s the kind of movie in which, well, the lead character’s name would actually be Cornelia van Gorder.

In short, it’s a lot of old-time wicked fun.

Most of that fun comes courtesy of the ongoing game of cat-and-mouse-and-cat played by the three leads: Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead (who later played Endora, the mother-in-law from hell on Bewitched), and Gavin Gordon. Considering that they play a respected doctor, a prestigious writer, and the Chief of Detectives for the local police force, there are an awful lot of sinister motives and paranoid accusations flying around amongst them.

Price, especially, makes the proceedings as delightful as possible. He doesn’t exactly chew the scenery, but his smirking innuendos, questionable experiments, and violent confrontations make The Bat a classic horror lover’s dream. It may not be Price’s best movie, but he gives it all he’s got.

And, perhaps best of all, The Bat is in the public domain, which means that you can pretty much see it anywhere you can get streaming video.

Halloween season should be all about the guilty pleasures, so if you can spare 80 minutes at some point in October, sink your teeth into The Bat and enjoy.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/4/15: Jaws

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: Jaws.

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Jaws, 1975

It is hard to believe that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws turned 40 years old this year. Four decades after its initial release and three sequels later—you would have guessed more than that, right?—Jaws remains one of the most ground-breaking films of any genre of all time.

Ranked number 48 on the American Film Institute’s roster of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, Jaws is not only an outstanding film on the merits, but it also single-handedly created the idea of the summer blockbuster, which had never before existed until Spielberg’s masterpiece came along. For all the amazing things about Jaws, however—the phenomenal performances, the terrific writing, and on and on—what is often lost about this timeless classic is just how good a horror film it really is.

Jaws actually scares you. And it doesn’t just scare you in the moment: it lingers with you, it haunts you, and it plays with your mind whenever you dip your toe into the deep blue sea. It is not hype to say that an entire generation of moviegoers learned to be afraid of the water from Jaws.

The real genius of Jaws was its ability to—really for the first time—come up with something as terrifying as the dark. For as long as long as humans have had the capacity for fear, they have been afraid of the dark. You can’t see in it, so there could be anything there. When you step into it, you are rendered all but helpless. And no matter what is in there, odds are that it would not be nearly as terrifying if you could actually see it. Jaws took everything that we’ve always feared about the dark and applied it to the sea.

The power of that approach was rendered even more potent by the happy accident of the malfunctioning mechanical shark. Spielberg’s difficulties with his malfunctioning monster have been well-documented, and the production’s inability to keep the shark prop functioning properly during the shoot forced Spielberg to adjust his style on the fly. So, rather than seeing the shark in all its glory early and often, Spielberg instead offers us subtle suggestions of the shark’s presence—the simple chords of the brilliant score, a swimmer’s reaction to the shark’s attack, a shadow in the water—and brief glimpses. By making the shark the thing behind the door, by the time we actually see it, we are already terrified of it.

Jaws may have been the first summer blockbuster, but it will always be a Halloween movie to me.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/3/15: The Babadook

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: The Babadook.

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The Babadook, 2014

One of the most interesting and inventive horror movies of the last year has been, hands down, Australia’s The Babadook.

Based on her own short film “Monster” (click here to watch “Monster” for free), The Babadook is an intimate little horror film about a difficult child (Sam), an exhausted mother (Amelia), and the demon that haunts them (the B himself). The demon of the title is actually the subject of a sinister popup book, Mister Babadook, which pops up mysteriously in Sam and Amelia’s troubled home one night. When Amelia reads the book to Sam at bedtime, she becomes disturbed by the violence it depicts and the strange resemblance the book has to their home and their life. Amelia tears up the book and throws it away, but if that were the end of the Babadook, then The Babadook wouldn’t be a very interesting film.

The best parts of The Babadook put atmosphere before action and character before carnage. Truth be told, Sam and Amelia don’t need a demonic interloper to make their relationship difficult. The loss of Sam’s dad and the helpless desperation of Amelia’s struggle with single motherhood pose problems aplenty for them, and when Mister Babadook does show up, it is practically a relief in that it gives them a problem that they might actually have a shot at solving. The nuance and maturity with which Kent depicts that difficult relationship creates investment in the characters and ultimately drives the emotional impact of the film.

The Babadook himself—whether viewed on the pages of Mr. Babadook or spied in the background of the frame for just an instant—is a creation of pure nightmare, with an affectionate nod to early horror cinema. Kent has said that she based the look of the creature on Man of a Thousand Faces Lon Chaney’s famous makeup from London After Midnight, the lost film that exists today only in the still photos that represent all that’s left of the film.

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Her homage to that 1927 film gives The Babadook a classical feel, suggesting a film that does not belong to this time but that could have come from any number of past eras of horror.

Regardless of where or when it comes from, however, The Babadook succeeds the fundamentals of horror: creeps, screams, and scares.

And once you have that, it’s hard to ask for much more.