Get ready for the horror flicks . . . .

It’s October, so naturally it’s time for a flood of horror movies.

Check out the new trailer for “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension.”

  

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Hidden Netflix Gems – The Toxic Avenger

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

If you’ve never heard of Troma Entertainment, there is no better place to start than their 1984 masterpiece, The Toxic Avenger. Though at first glance, this may seem like a terrible movie, it is actually that rarest of all “so bad it’s good” movies: the kind that is simultaneously self-aware and very sincere. Sure, it’s filled with cheesy puns and one-liners, and the performances are uniformly over-the-top and cartoonish, but that’s all part of director Lloyd Kaufman‘s unique, immediately recognizable style. Kaufman may be a trash filmmaker, but he has embraced sleaze so fully that he almost transcends it. He is truly the greatest trash auteur since Roger Corman; in fact, he’s greater, because his films are even trashier than Corman’s ever were.

The Toxic Avenger takes place, as all canon Troma films do, in the fictional town of Tromaville, New Jersey, “the toxic waste dumping capital of the world.” Melvin Ferd (Mark Torgl) is a scrawny, awkward nerd who works as a janitor at a local health club, where he is perpetually tormented by a quartet of bullies. Bozo (Gary Schneider) and Slug (Robert Prichard) are a couple of meat-head juvenile delinquents who spend their free time either working out or going on vehicular homicide sprees with their equally unredeemable girlfriends, Wanda (Jennifer Babtist) and Julie (Cindy Manion). Early on in the film, we see them run over an innocent boy on a bicycle (D.J. Calvitto) in an obscenely graphic shot gloriously preserved on Netflix in the original unrated version. When Wanda later pleasures herself to a photo of the messy murder, it’s almost as if the film is commenting on the exact kind of repugnant titillation it so gleefully provides.

At any rate, a prank the gang plays on Melvin goes horribly awry and ends with him falling through a window and landing in a barrel of toxic waste, transforming him into a “hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength.” Played by Mitchell Cohen and voiced by Kenneth Kessler, the Toxic Avenger fights not only the bullies responsible for his transformation, but also the rampant corruption found everywhere in Tromaville, leading right up to its evil boss, Mayor Peter Belgoody (Pat Ryan, Jr.). Along the way, he rescues and falls in love with a beautiful blind woman named Sara (Andree Maranda), who loves him for who he is and not what he looks like.

The Toxic Avenger is a wonderful blend of superhero and monster movies, with comedy at the forefront. It’s raunchy, violent comedy, and certainly not for everyone, but it strikes a unique cultural chord as a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but also presents an unusually smart and intriguing worldview. Its environmental and political concerns are blatant, but no one could seriously accuse a movie this silly of being preachy. I highly recommend this film to anyone with a taste for “bad” movies, with a caveat that its first two sequels are genuinely not very good. Luckily, Citizen Tonie: The Toxic Avenger IV brings the franchise back to its peak form, and is considered “the real sequel.”

  

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Session 9

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

Most films classified within the horror genre are not so much truly scary as they are fun in a sort of morbid way, at least to true horror fans. A real horror fan is too jaded to actually jump when the killer jumps out of the shadows, and certainly most monster movies are more eye candy to the true fan than they are actually frightening. The one thing most of the scariest films ever made have in common is a strong atmosphere of claustrophobia, a sense of no escape from a terrifying situation. Whether it’s in outer space (Alien), a remote arctic wilderness (The Thing), or an isolated building haunted by the past (The Shining), the feeling of being either physically or psychologically trapped is essential to real terror.

Brad Anderson‘s Session 9 has this atmosphere in spades, which is one reason it is probably the scariest film of the past decade. Though its characters can and do leave the location of the horror, a defunct mental hospital from which they have been contracted to remove asbestos, once they have set foot in it the horror never really leaves them. Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan) is the owner of the company, a man troubled by a failing marriage and seemingly a lack of proper sleep. The rest of his team has their problems as well, all integral to the horror that befalls them. Mike (Stephen Gevedon, the film’s co-writer) is a law school dropout who has some prior knowledge of the asylum, which gradually begins to seem like an unhealthy obsession. Phil (David Caruso) and Hank (Josh Lucas) have an uncomfortable shared history, in that Phil’s former girlfriend is now with Hank, and Gordon’s nephew, Jeff (Brendan Sexton III), has a severe case of nyctophobia, or fear of the dark.

The rising terror of this film is wonderfully slow-burning, as all great haunted house stories should be, but this is ultimately more than just a haunted house story. As Mike begins to obsessively listen to the session tapes of former patient Mary Hobbes, from which the film gets its title, the others begin to gradually sense that something is wrong in this place and that all of their lives may be in danger. It is almost as though the playing of the tapes has summoned an ancient evil that has been lying dormant in the hospital, though the true revelation is far more intelligent and less cheesy than that might sound. Session 9 never takes the easy or expected way out, instead opting to sink its claws deep into the viewer’s brain for a more deeply haunting experience. The film’s final moments especially will really stick with you, and may even give you your own case of nyctophobia for days afterward.

  

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Red State

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

I am always excited to see my favorite filmmakers stretch beyond what they normally produce and explore other genres. For that reason, I applaud Kevin Smith for stepping away from the talky, visually underwhelming comedies for which he is known with his latest film, Red State, a nasty, tense, visceral thriller that, while satirical and occasionally funny, is miles away from a comedy.

Red State is a cinematic middle finger to the vicious, hateful Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, an organization best known for the highly tasteful and respectable practice of protesting funerals in order to garner controversy. Though Phelps is eventually mentioned by name in the film’s narrative, his overt fictional surrogate is one Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a malevolent, fire-and-brimstone preacher who looks a bit like a more diminutive Kris Kristofferson with eyeglasses. Cooper and his followers regularly hold demonstrations in which they hold up signs offering such charming sentiments as “Anal Penetration = Eternal Damnation.”

As the film begins, it tricks the audience into expecting the kind of lame teen sex comedy that detractors of Smith’s Mallrats or Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back might expect from him. High school students Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) receive an invitation for group sex from a mysterious woman Jarod met on a sex chat site. Being the horny teen boys that they are, they borrow a car from Travis’s parents and head out to the trailer home of the woman, whose name just so happens to be Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo). Of course, Cooper is a common name and the boys are way too horny to think twice about it, nor do they seem disturbed by her insistence that they chug a couple of beers before getting down to the “devil’s business,” so of course they are quickly drugged into unconsciousness and wake up in a world of horror. The boys soon find out the hard way that the Coopers hate not only homosexuals, but any type of “deviant” sexuality or immorality, which includes teen boys curious about group sex with an older woman.

One of the things that works so well about Smith veering so sharply away from the type of film for which he is known is how unpredictable the film quickly becomes. We assume from the start of the film that Travis is the main protagonist, but quickly find that no one is safe in this nasty, uncompromising movie. Likewise, ATF agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) doesn’t show up until the beginning of the film’s second act, at which point he becomes the main protagonist. Goodman is excellent in the film, but the true star of the show is undoubtedly Michael Parks as Abin. He manages to be hateful enough to boil the viewer’s blood while simultaneously displaying the kind of natural charisma that makes his followers’ hero-worship all too believable.

Throughout his career, Smith has been criticized for a lack of visual style as a director, and he seems to have taken this particular criticism to heart. In some of his later period films, he seems to have been actively trying to step up to this challenge, but this is the first film I’ve seen from him that really knocks the visual style out of the park. This is easily my favorite Smith film since Chasing Amy, a film that Smith claims he made for his gay brother to make up for a shortage of gay characters in romantic comedies, and that same sympathy for issues of civil rights for homosexuals is at the heart of this one. Part torture-porn, part action movie and part satire, Red State is a very mature work for Smith, a film that shows his tremendous growth as a writer and filmmaker without being pretentious about it.

  

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Hidden Netflix Gems – House

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

This is a film for hardcore fans of things like Tales from the Crypt, Stephen King novels, and the more horror-heavy pages of the classic Heavy Metal magazine. In fact, in many ways it is very much like a feature-length Tales from the Crypt episode, one that is especially heavy on the comic relief. Produced by Friday the 13th director Sean S. Cunningham and directed by Steve Miner, who helmed the first two sequels to that film, this is decidedly campy, deliciously cheesy and immensely satisfying B-movie fun.

Not to be confused with the 1977 Japanese cult movie of the same name, the 1986 film House (aka Ding Dong, You’re Dead, its original video release subtitle) stars William Katt as best-selling horror novelist Roger Cobb, a Vietnam vet who has been struggling with writing about his experiences in the war. One of his problems is that no one else seems particularly interested in this story, preferring he write another horror story instead, but more importantly, he is also dealing with the fact that his wife, popular TV actress Sandy Sinclair (Kay Lenz), has recently left him. Even more recently, his beloved Aunt Elizabeth (Susan French), committed suicide by hanging herself in her creepy old Victorian mansion, where Roger and Sandy’s young son Jimmy (played alternately by twins Erik and Mark Silver) disappeared some time ago. Roger inherits the house and decides to try and finish his new book there, in solitude, while also dealing with the demons of his past.

Of course, he doesn’t exactly find the solitude he’s looking for, due to a bumbling but well-intentioned neighbor named Harold Gorton (George Wendt), who provides much of the films comedy, and a series of strange monsters that seem to come from another dimension within the house, who provide the rest. Saying the monsters are more funny than scary is not a criticism of the film, however, as this is clearly intentional most of the time. Though the effects will look dated to viewers in the modern CGI era, they are quite well-done; they are not the nightmare creations of other films of the time like John Carpenter’s The Thing or David Cronenberg’s The Fly, but they stand up nicely alongside more silly films like Ghostbusters or Gremlins.

As it turns out, Roger’s preoccupation with his Vietnam memories is especially relevant to the literal demons he faces in the strange old house, and though the film takes some rather dead-end narrative turns along the way, its central story is pure pulp horror in the most classic sense. House is not a good horror film to watch if you want something genuinely frightening, but if you’re in the mood for tongue-in-cheek fun that only takes itself seriously enough to deliver a few cheap scares, it’s well worth a look.

  

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