Picture the scene: it’s a Saturday afternoon, the morning of which has been spent at a 4-year-old’s birthday party. The rain, constant and grim, has killed any desire to leave the house for the foreseeable and our sloth is compounded by comfortable sofas, huge bags of crisps, and the choice of 3 separate streaming services. Making a hasty decision before option paralysis robs us of too much time, we decide to embark on a day of horror films.
Being a lily-livered coward, I am not a massive fan of horror films. My wife, being much harder than me, doesn’t mind the gore so much. We start with recent Scandinavian-set Brit-flick The Ritual on the strength of solid reviews and Rafe Spall, who is ace. It opens with a group of friends bullshitting in the pub, before one of them dies in an off-license robbery while another cowers in hiding instead of helping. We then have an interesting twist on the ‘lost on the woods’ horror staple; add the volatile elements of post-traumatic stress, guilt, and suspicion to a group of backpackers lost in Swedish woods and you have a great premise. Occult markings, Predator-like corpses in trees, and an ill-advised stay in a creepy abandoned cabin lend the film a heavy dose of atmosphere.
As one might expect, the group argues, splits, all very organically, and is picked off one by one before the Wicker Man-inspired titular ritual becomes clear. As with most horror films, it’s always better when you don’t see the creature, and I can’t help but feel some disappointment when all is revealed. The Scandinavian occult angle is fresh and different, but the film can’t escape from its own trappings.
I think it’s at this point where we start drinking and search through a seemingly endless list of films I’ve never heard of for one that isn’t absolutely dire. We settle on a found footage joint called Hell House LLC, which has a (relatively) decent IMDB rating of 6.4. Another good premise (documentary team investigates the mystery behind the deaths of 15 people at a haunted house), and presented in the style of a documentary rather than just a series of scenes bookended by lines like “This footage was recovered from blah blah blah…”, Hell House LLC is surprisingly good.
We find out early on about a mysterious disaster at the house, see some footage of the event, discover that nobody wants to talk about it, and then see the events leading up to the fateful night. There are horror clichés aplenty, including the house being cursed by previous deaths on the premises, and tropes which are played for maximum scares: dummies dressed as clowns, which move when nobody is looking, a piano playing itself, things moving in strobe lighting, a creepy girl who gets closer whenever you look away, and an increasing sense of dread through the characters. It’s nothing you’ve not seen before, but it’s presented in an interesting way, and primed for maximum scares. Actually not bad at all. We keep the drinks flowing and dive back in for something else.
Mother’s Day (2010) is our choice. Despite sharing a name with a 2016 Jennifer Aniston/Kate Hudson “comedy/drama”, this is actually a quite unpleasant home invasion movie. Thoroughly implausible and about half an hour too long, it boasts a good B-movie cast (Rebecca DeMornay is brutally cold as the eponymous mother, Frank Grillo, Shawn Ashmore, and Deborah Ann Woll are all dependable Marvel veterans).
A family of fugitives (one of whom has been shot), arrive at their former home to find a nice middle class family entertaining their guests. A hostage situation ensues, during which the residents (one of whom is, helpfully, a doctor) are beaten, tormented, killed, and threatened with sexual assault. The plot is absolutely preposterous, presenting increasingly flimsy reasons for keeping everyone in the house, before bumping people off left and right. It’s impressively brutal, quite distasteful, and not something |I’d rush to watch again. But in our increasingly drunken states, now supplemented by Chinese takeaway, we were thoroughly entertained.
Speaking of brutal and distasteful, the conversation turned to Eli Roth’s charming Hostel films and we decided that neither of us had seen either of the sequels. Much like the equally family friendly Saw films, it’s hard to remember which you’ve seen since they all blur into one. So, Hostel: Part 2 gets an airing. A further development of the premise of the first: wealthy businessmen pay shady company Elite Hunting to torture kidnapped tourists in a grotty Eastern European warehouse, and Part 2 treats us to the lovely auction and victim selection processes, and focuses on a group of female travellers this time.
While the first film built steadily up to a gory climax, this gives us some hideous scythe-related action midway through. As well as the power tool-fodder tourists, we also see the two American businessmen, who have bid on their lives. The arrogant and brash Todd, and the timid and reluctant Stuart are subtext personified: American wealth and its nonchalance towards the rest of the world; alpha male entitlement taken to its extreme; the elite at play when golf gets boring. It’s obvious and as subtle as a drill to the forehead, but not really a stretch to imagine Trump and his cronies using a service like this.
Anyway, Roth turns the premise on its head when Todd has an implausible crisis of conscience mid-scalping and decides he doesn’t want to kill his prey, and Stuart decides that he can use Beth to act out his misogynist fantasies of killing his wife. It ends badly for both when it transpires that Beth is richer-than-thou and outsmarts then outbids him, before leaving his genitals for the guard dogs.
Roth pulls off some inventive kills, some nice shots, and otherwise hits you in the face with a rusty hammer made from subtext, but it’s not something you’ll want to see more than once. As inventive as Roth’s kills are, they are nothing compared to what comes next. It’s getting late and we’re pushing the drunk envelope somewhat, but I make the executive decision to keep it going with The ABCs of Death 2. Possibly the strangest choice for a sequel since The Last Exorcism’s title turned out to be a lie, the first film was 26 vignettes, each representing a letter of the alphabet and an aspect of death. It was, to put it mildly, strange as fuck (F is for Fart, and L is for Libido are two you will not want to revisit). This anthology is more of the same, from 26 different directors. It opens well, with Amateur, Badger and Capital Punishment being both messed up and hilarious. D is for Deloused is a Robert Morgan claymation piece and one of strangest things I’ve ever seen.
Special mention goes to Grandad, Invincible, Jesus, Nexus and Questionnaire, for being brilliant and terrible in their own special, inventive way. It runs out of steam somewhat and a few are forgettable where they really should be seared onto your psyche. It often feels like watching 26 short episodes of Inside No. 9 without the quality control, however a film featuring a scene as outright wrong as X is for Xylophone can’t be all bad.
We call it a night with our heads spinning from a combination of gore, Chinese food and rum, but satisfied with a day well spent doing absolutely nothing.