SINISTER (2012): I try not to be too hard on modern American horror movies, but movies like Sinister don't make it easy. This slow-moving turkey from the producers of Paranormal Activity and Insidious crosses The Shining with 8 MM and has only about one decent scare in it (it's the one with the lawnmower). A true-crime writer named Ellison Oswalt (really?) and his family move into a house whose most recent inhabitants, a family of five, met an unhappy end--four of them were hung to death, while the youngest daughter has disappeared. Oswalt, played by Ethan Hawke, plans on solving the murder himself, and writing a new best seller about it. Things get weird when he finds a film projector and several film reels that show the final moments of the family, as well as the murders of several other families in other towns. In each case, one child has never been found. A pasty-faced spectre can be glimpsed lurking around in each of the films, who is later identified by a college professor (Vincent D'Onofrio, in an irritating, overly-affected performance) as some sort of creepy deity named B'Gool. Now, I'm no true crime writer, but I had it figured out about ten minutes in that the missing kids were committing the murders and filming them under the influence of B'Gool, but it takes Ellison Oswalt almost the entire running time of the movie to put it together. The movie is filled with seemingly endless scenes of Oswalt bickering with his inexplicably British wife and comparing notes with a helpful deputy (a nice supporting turn by James Ransone--Ziggy from Season 2 of The Wire!), bookended by footage of the doomed families being inventively bumped off while Oswalt gets drunker, sweatier, and more obsessed. Skip this one unless you enjoy feeling smarter than the protagonists of the movies you watch.
CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957): My DVR menu unhelpfully described the story of Curse Of The Demon thusly: "An American psychologist travels to London for a symposium." Ooh, scary! Not being too overly afraid of symposia, I ventured forward into this classic chiller (which is sometimes known as Night Of The Demon) from director Jacques Tourneur excited to finally see if the film's titular demon--whom I'd glimpsed in many a book about movie monsters growing up--was as cool and crazy looking as I'd hoped he would be. And he was! The satanic beastie rears his shaggy head pretty early on too, conjured up by a practicioner of black magic named Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) to destroy his enemies. Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews of The Day The Earth Stood Still) comes to London to help expose Karswell as a fraud, and finds himself the object of the demon's curse. This highly atmospheric flick relies mostly on the suggestion of supernatural shenanigans rather than showing it all that often, with the exception of the demon's appearances at the beginning and end of the movie. The demon, represented by a pretty cool animatronic that emerges from a cloud of smoke to burn and maim its victims to death, looks otherworldly in a way that must have blown people's minds back in 1957. No stuntman in a suit and visibility-blocking headpiece here. This is a classy, briskly-paced spookshow with a genuinely suspenseful third act.
TRICK OR TREAT (1986): I'm a little surprised that Trick Or Treat didn't really catch on back in 1986, and furthermore, that it's kind of faded into obscurity now. It has a premise that's kind of perfect, while being a clever little time capsule of sorts. Eddie Weinbauer, an angsty teen mullethead, (played by Marc Price--Skippy from Family Ties!) finds solace from his hellish high school bullies and pranksters in the heavy metal stylings of his hero, Sammi Curr (Tony Fields). When Curr, whose dislikes include censorship and whose likes include delving into the occult, perishes in a hotel fire, Eddie is crushed...until a local DJ named Nuke (Gene Simmons!) gives him a studio pressing of the rocker's final, unreleased album. When Eddie plays it backwards, he finds he can communicate with the now-ghostly Curr, who helps him wreak supernatural revenge on his preppie tormentors. Things start getting a bit too dark for Eddie, but Curr still manages to resurrect himself as a vengeful spirit with a penchant for shooting purple lightning out of his guitar. Curr turns the high school Halloween dance into a heavy metal hell, while Eddie and the girl he has a crush on (Lisa Orgolini) try to find a way to pull the plug on him. Directed by Charles Martin Smith, the actor (American Graffiti, The Untouchables) turned director (the pilot episode for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and, um, Air Bud) shows a flair for the material, which he treats with kid gloves; one missed step and the whole thing could be either too silly (it's inherently goofy stuff already, but it never quite devolves into parody) or too real (although the relentlessly bullied Eddie does allude to some suicidal thoughts in a fan letter to Curr that opens the film). There's also a pretty funny cameo by Ozzy Osbourne as a right-wing evangelist crusading against the evils of rock and roll, and a not-bad metal score by Fastway.
This lost relic of a bygone era, currently out of print on DVD, badly deserves a Collector's Edition reissue (I'm looking at you, Scream Factory!). Crank this one up to eleven.
HALLOWEEN II (1981): Picking up directly where John Carpenter's 1978 classic left off, Halloween II follows Michael Myers as he continues his October 31 massacre. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis once again, doped to the gills and confined to a bed for most of the movie's running time) is rushed off to the hospital after the events of the first film, and Myers is in hot pursuit while Donald Pleasance's Dr. Loomis continues to bumble around Haddonfield, chasing false leads and ordering the local cops around. Halloween II has a significantly higher body count than its predecessor, and a much more sadistic tone--early on there's a joke (I guess?) involving a trick-or-treater who had the misfortune to bite into an apple with a razor blade hidden in it. Rick Rosenthal takes up the directorial reins here, keeping the film's style close to Carpenter's trailblazing original: there are plenty of steadicam POV shots and nice widescreen compositions for Myers to creep in and out of (having original Halloween DP Dean Cundey on board doesn't hurt). A somewhat forced revelation about a connection between Laurie and Michael explains his obsession with her, but ultimately doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Halloween II is not as skillful or original as Carpenter's classic, but it carries over enough elements of the inaugural film to make it a decent example of state-of-the-slasher-art circa 1981, and it brings enough of its own sick inventiveness to the table to justify itself somewhat. Should you want to own Halloween II in high definition, you've got your work cut out for you. Universal's release from last year comes with a cool bonus not available anywhere else--the 1984 clip show/documentary Terror In The Aisles, a breezy show reel of great scenes from most of the classic "terror films", as hosts Donald Pleasance's and Nancy Allen insist on calling them. Also, the aforementioned Scream Factory just issued their own extras-packed competing edition of Halloween II as part of their ambitious and thoroughly welcome slate of classic '80s horror flicks. The decision is ultimately up to you. Or, you could just buy both...
Lifelong genre enthusiast. I made the comics SCENESTER and SLAM-A-RAMA (both available at tucocomics.blogspot.com and slamaramacomic.com), I write comic and movie reviews for NerdSpan (nerdspan.com), and I'm sure I do other stuff that I'm not remembering right now.