Friends In Low Places: A Look at Slasher Ensemble Casts

After excitedly watching Scream (2022) on opening night, the concept of slasher ensemble casts kept floating around in my mind. What exactly made the younger new cast in the latest entry in the iconic slasher franchise so effective? (Note: There will be no Scream (2022) spoilers here!) I continued thinking about this and so many of the slasher films that I really love. I realized that, while the final girl is the character that I am always particularly drawn to, the ensemble that is built around her really contributes a lot to my enjoyment of the film. A good slasher film that leaves a lasting impression almost always has a strong ensemble cast at its core.

From the inception of the horror sub-genre, the ensemble cast has been a staple of the slasher film. One need only to look at John Carpenter’s Halloween to see just how effective an ensemble cast can be. While the films always whittle down to the final girl figure arming herself with the killer’s phallic weapon to finally disarm and destroy the killer, along the way she loses many of her friends and loved ones. Laurie Strode’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) friends in Halloween may have booze and sex on the brain, but they still both clearly care about their bookish friend. Lynda (PJ Soles) and Annie (Nancy Kyes) prove that the bond shared between the final girl and her friends is a vital element in a slasher narrative. In order for the protagonist to be able to step up and defeat the killer at the end of the film, they must experience the loss of their friends along the way. If these characters are not engaging, why should we care if they are killed? Furthermore, why would we believe that the protagonist would care? And by engaging, I do not simply mean like-ability. Often times, the bully characters in a slasher film can be even more engaging than the friendly characters (look at Karen Fields as the psychotic Judy with the epic side ponytail in Sleepaway Camp). In constructing the ensemble cast, the filmmakers are forming these emotional connections with the audience that further our relationship with the protagonist. We need to feel her emotions as she watches her friends get slaughtered. That pain is what fuels her and enables her to confront the killer. If the film is full of characters with no personality that exist solely to be killed, why even bother developing a narrative? At that point, simply show one thoughtless death sequence after another.

So what happens when an ensemble cast deflates leaving only one or two pillars to maintain the weight of the film? In rewatching the Scream franchise in the week leading up to the premiere of Scream (2022), I found myself thinking about the Scream 4 (2011) cast. Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere as Jill and Kirby, respectively, are the two strong figures in the young cast, with the remaining cast members limping along while Roberts and Panettiere sprint through the narrative. Of the five Scream films, the cast of 4 proves to be the most troublesome for me. Obviously Kirby and her thorough horror film knowledge is a fantastic touchstone in the series, proving that one need not be a “friend-zoned” fan boy like Randy Meeks to watch the horror classics. Meanwhile, Emma Roberts gives a particularly unhinged performance as Jill that is still just as much fun to watch now as it was when I saw the film on opening night with my friends in 2011. It is the other characters in their friend group, particularly Nico Tortorella’s Trevor, that inhabit this rather bland space of the film, where they just do not really interest me much at all. Note: I still really enjoy Scream 4. I just found myself disengaged with them whenever the narrative looped back from Sidney to the young cast. While Jill and Kirby are both fantastic characters, the remainder of the group is made up of hollow characters that are simply trope fillers, Rory Culkin’s Charlie and Erik Knudsen’s Robbie are the awkward film geeks, Marielle Jaffe’s Olivia is literally included in the narrative so that she can be shown wearing her lingerie, and Tortorella’s Trevor is somehow the blandest of all as Jill’s ex-boyfriend. Charlie and Robbie are given a few comedic lines in the script, but even with Charlie’s role as one of the killers, they still feel lifeless in comparison to any of the other film geek characters or previous Ghostface killers. Scream 4 is the odd film in the franchise that also incorporates a mid-level tier of characters that are included solely as more adult victims of the killer, including Alison Brie, Adam Brody, and Anthony Anderson. These characters, particularly Brie’s Rebecca, are somehow more engaging than the majority of the film’s young cast.

This brings us to the latest cast assembled in the Scream franchise. Released eleven years after the previous entry in the series, a lot was riding on the new youths of Woodsboro. Personally, I really loved the new ensemble that we’re presented with. Jenna Ortega is phenomenal in the film as Tara, as is Melissa Barerra as Sam. While Tara and Sam are clearly the main focus of the narrative, Jasmin Savoy-Brown and Mason Gooding as the Meeks-Martin twins, stand out as the most enjoyable of the young cast. Sonia Ammar’s Liv was the only character in the group that did shine like the others, as her character was just not really given the depth and development of her peers, which is not the fault of the actor. With the one exception, the young cast proved a very worthy and welcome addition to support the foundation of the original trio of lead actors as Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette return as their iconic characters. So why do these character work when all but two of the Scream 4 younger characters do not? They’re actually given narrative relevance and proper character development. Without going into actual detail, we really are able to feel for these characters when they are killed and we miss them when they are gone. At least, I did. Scream 3 may be viewed by many as the worst film in the franchise, but at least the new cast members had campy character traits and they are memorable after the film is over. Parker Posey’s Jennifer is the legitimate highlight of the film. Can you remember anything that Olivia does in Scream 4 aside from take her clothes off?

To wrap up, slasher films with effective ensemble casts rise above those that showcase characters simply as quick victims of the killer. Looking at the current rise in slashers, films like Freaky, the Fear Street trilogy, Happy Death Day, and Werewolves Within give us solid ensemble casts that fill their narratives with engaging and entertaining moments. But, at the end of the day, film is a very subjective medium and you can like whatever you like. For me, I prefer slashers that allow their characters to breathe and live within the narrative instead of just including hollow figures that are simply thrown at the killer to give us a brief moment of blood and gore.

What are some of the slasher ensembles that have really stood out to you?

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31 Days of Slashers: Stagefright: Aquarius (1987)

The thirty-first and final entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series is Michele Soavi’s Stagefright: Aquarius (1987), also known simply as Stage Fright or Deliria. This Italian slasher film focuses on a group of actors who are locking themselves in their theatre to rehearse their new show. Unbeknownst to them, a madman (who happens to be a former actor) has escaped from the nearby mental institution and has been locked in with them. As rehearsals drag on and the cast starts feuding with one another and with the director, murders start occurring. Will any of them survive the masked madman that is slowly killing them off one by one?

One of my favorite elements of Stagefright: Aquarius is the incredible owl mask that the madman wears for the majority of the film. Masks are such an integral part of the slasher sub-genre, and so often they can be rather boring or simply repetitive. Soavi’s film features this overly theatrical mask because it was originally intended to be worn in the play by a dancer. While the idea of a large owl mask may seem peculiar and not particularly frightening, there is honestly just something incredibly eerie about it that really works in the film’s favor. Also, there is a moment in between kills where the killer just sits on stage with a black cat in his lap. There are so few moments in slasher films that really match this bizarre and still oddly chilling moment of a killer simply petting a cat and admiring his handiwork.

Michele Soavi was a protege of iconic Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, and Argento’s Giallo aesthetic is clearly a heavy influence on Soavi’s work. The death sequences are shot in really engaging ways that perfectly capture the terror of the actors being murdered by the masked madman. There is one where the Owl pops up behind a shower curtain that actually made me jump when I first watched the film.

Italian horror has always been a really rich resource to American horror fans. There is just so much artistic craft on display in these Giallo-infused slasher films that they are simply a visual delight. Soavi’s eye for color, while not as extreme as in some of Argento’s films, is utilized quite well here to highlight the rich textures of the theatrical space. The details on the owl mask, in particular, are quite striking. If you haven’t seen many, or any, Italian horror films, Stagefright: Aquarius is a perfect jumping-off point, as it features visual threads that you can follow into countless other films in the genre.

Through its fantastic costume design, its great use of location, and its shocking death sequences, Stagefright: Aquarius is an Italian horror masterpiece that is greatly underappreciated. It features so many captivating moments and proves to be a great stepping stone for folks developing a taste for Italian horror.

Stagefright: Aquarius is currently streaming for free on Tubi and Vudu and with membership on the Shudder, AMC+, and Arrow Video Player apps.

Thanks so much to everyone that read any of the 31 Days of Slashers posts this month. I hope that you were able to come away with at least one film that you haven’t seen before and that you’ll enjoy watching. This was a really fun little project and I will definitely do it again next year. That being said, horror films are not simply limited to October and are meant to be enjoyed all year. Have a great Halloween!

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31 Days of Slashers: My Bloody Valentine (1981)

The thirtieth entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series is George Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine (1981). This holiday-themed slasher tells the tale of miner Harry Warden, who was the sole survivor of a mine explosion on Valentine’s Day. After the deadly incident, Warden had to resort to cannibalism while waiting to be rescued and lost his mind. The town of Valentine Bluffs bans the annual Valentine’s Day dance following the disaster. Twenty years later, the young townspeople have decided to hold the dance again. Sarah (Lori Hallier) is also involved in a complicated love triangle with TJ (Paul Kelman) and Axel (Neil Affleck). When murders start taking place throughout town, the mayor decides to cancel the dance. The disappointed youth decide to have a party at the mining company canteen, anyhow. Could Harry Warden really be back to take revenge on the town that left him trapped in a mine twenty years ago? Will Sarah be able to choose the love of her life? Will any of them live to see another day?

The film does an excellent job of creating a sense of the holiday at the heart of its narrative. The storefronts in town, as well as many interior locations, are decorated in fun holiday displays. I always just love seeing holiday decorations from different decades. That is something that I always love about films set at Halloween, as well. You get to see all of the kitschy holiday decorations, and that is always a fun time. The film also features a folksy song entitled “The Ballad of Harry Warden” that adds a level of mythology and storytelling to the narrative. Everyone in town is familiar with the story of Harry Warden, so the song has become an embedded part of life in Valentine’s Bluff. Instead of simply being a creepy story told around campfires, Warden’s backstory has developed into a musical folktale.

The main draw of My Bloody Valentine is definitely the location and how it is so thoroughly integrated into the story. The small Canadian mining town serves as a perfect setting for this slasher. The small-town aesthetic is incredibly charming and also encourages the young folks to rebel against the adults in town. The most effective location of the film is easily the mine, however. Filming in an operational coal mine, Milhalka truly takes advantage of the eerie and dark corridors that create a labyrinthine effect that disorients the victims of the miner. It contrasts so nicely with the tidy appearance of the small town, as well, that the darker sequences become all the more engaging.

The film also features some tremendous death sequences that definitely set the film apart from the majority of its peers of the time. There are just so many iconic horror moments tucked away in this little film. One particular favorite of mine is the death of one of the partygoers in a crockpot full of hotdog water in the canteen kitchen. You just don’t really get more iconic than that. While that sequence may be quite comedic, the film also features many sequences in the mine that feature quite shocking practical gore effects.

Through its excellent use of location, its innovative death sequences, and the simple fact that there is a theme song for Harry Warden, My Bloody Valentine proves to be an excellent addition to your movie marathons this Spooky Season. While it is obviously required viewing on Valentine’s Day, this slasher is a great watch at any time of the year!

My Bloody Valentine can be streamed with membership on the Hulu, Paramount+, DirecTV, and Epix apps. It can also be rented on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, and Vudu. The Shout! Factory blu-ray, which features a fantastic restoration and an extended version of the film, can be purchased HERE.

I’ll be back tomorrow with the final entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series!

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31 Days of Slashers: Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers – The Producer’s Cut (1995)

I know what you’re thinking. He said he wasn’t going to include any films from the big franchises. But here we are. I just couldn’t help myself. The twenty-ninth entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series is the producer’s cut of Joe Chappelle’s Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. This is the film that gives us a young Paul Rudd as the twenty-something Tommy Doyle still dealing with the trauma of his encounter with Michael Myers in the original Halloween (1978). When Jamie Lloyd (J.C. Brandy) escapes from the Thorn cult after having given birth to a baby that is to be used in a deadly ritual, she hides the baby in a bus station but is soon killed by her evil uncle. Tommy finds the baby and joins forces with Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and Kara Strode (Marianne Hagan), to stop the cult of Thorn from completing their Samhain ritual. Will any of them survive?

Many regard the sixth entry in the Halloween franchise as trash. Personally, I have always found it to be a very entertaining (albeit a bit cheesy) extension of the fourth and fifth films. I love the fall aesthetic that the film creates, and the Strode house is a prime example of classic 1990s Halloween decor, which I always appreciate. The film may not make a lot of narrative sense, but it is a campy and odd journey that remains quite fun. Released a year before Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), Halloween 6 proves to be one of the final slasher films released that was not directly influenced by the meta-narrative tropes of the Scream franchise. This is the last journey of the 1980s slasher model.

The performances also make this film quite memorable. This was Paul Rudd’s first film, and while his role as Tommy Doyle is definitely not his strongest, the unintended comedy of the character is just such a hoot. Donald Pleasance also brings his A-game in his final turn as one of the series most iconic characters, Dr. Loomis. Pleasance has always been able to add a level of gravitas and quality to the films through his charismatic and incredibly engaging performances. Halloween 6 sees Loomis return to his more controlled and driven self following his quite manic turn in Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989).

The Cult of Thorn has always been a bit contentious with fans of the franchise. Obviously, it is incredibly over-the-top and an odd direction for the franchise to head in, but that doesn’t take any enjoyment out of the film for me. It has quite the opposite effect, actually. There is just something wild about a robed Paul Rudd tossing ancient Celtic dice on the floor to stop Michael from completing his Samhain ritual. While this one is definitely not for everyone, I still greatly enjoy it.

Through its absolutely crazy narrative, campy performances, and the fantastic return of Donald Pleasance, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers is a fun trip late in a franchise that many had thought had run its course. While it is a bit hard to track down, the producer’s cut of the film features a great many scenes that differ from the theatrical cut and really expand the story in a more comprehensive direction. It is definitely worth the watch this Spooky Season!

The producer’s cut of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers is currently only available on DVD and Blu-ray and isn’t streaming on any platforms. The disk is out of print but is probably available at your local library.

I’ll be back tomorrow with another entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series!

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31 Days of Slashers: Peeping Tom (1960)

The twenty-eighth entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series is the granddaddy of the slasher genre, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Mark (Carl Boehm) is a creepy young man with an increasingly violent voyeuristic side. He enjoys filming beautiful women with a camera hidden under his jacket. He also enjoys filming women as he kills them with a knife attached to his camera, capturing the fear in their eyes during the act. Helen (Anna Massey), a young woman that lives in his apartment building, catches him spying on her and decides to strike up a friendship with him. Will Helen manage to escape his murderous lust or will she be the star of his next film?

Many credit Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) as the film that singularly established the slasher sub-genre by introducing Anthony Perkins’ charming Norman Bates to the world. But four months prior to the release of Psycho, this British film was released. While not as commercially successful as Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Michael Powell’s film remains an absolute masterwork of voyeuristic terror that clearly influenced the slasher films of the following decades. Michael Powell is most well-known for his directorial collaborations with Emeric Pressburger: Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and many more. Peeping Tom would be the second film that Powell made after his creative partnership with Pressburger ended.

Voyeurism has always played a huge part in the slasher sub-genre. Nearly every slasher film features sequences of the killer watching their intended victims from a distance. Norman Bates peeks through a hole in the wall as Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) disrobes for her shower in Psycho. Michael Myers (Nick Castle) spends an entire afternoon following Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) before killing off her friends in Halloween (1978). The trope is an essential element of the slasher. It gives us an eerie insight into the mindset of the killer. While Psycho is definitely most acknowledged for this contribution, Peeping Tom takes it a step further and allows us to see Mark’s victims’ final moments of life as he kills them. There is no distance between the viewer and the murderous act. Instead, we are forced to view the murders as though we are committing them ourselves. Powell’s focus on this first-person perspective greatly heightens the terror of the film, and would clearly inspire many horror directors in the coming decades.

Peeping Tom features shockingly great performances. Carl Boehm gives such a complex performance as Mark. Outwardly he conveys a shy tenderness that clearly appeals to his victims, but beneath the surface, you can see his murderous psychology bubbling. There are moments where you can see this transition in just his eyes and it is incredibly effective. While I do have an affinity for Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, I do believe that Boehm’s characterization of Mark is a bit creepier than Bates.

This is where it all started. Peeping Tom is an incredibly effective slasher film that constructed the template that so many films would adhere to in the coming decades. Personally, I think pairing it with Psycho as a double feature is a great way to see how two phenomenal filmmakers branched out from their larger scale and more dramatic work to pave new ground in the horror genre. Hitchcock and Powell are both so well known for creating lavish films such as Rebecca and The Red Shoes (respectively), that it is just so exciting to see them tone their scale back and create horror masterpieces that stand apart from their other works. Peeping Tom is a horror masterwork and is definitely an essential watch this spooky season!

Peeping Tom is currently playing for free on the Tubi and Roku apps and with membership on Amazon Prime Video. It can be rented on Google Play, iTunes, Amazon, and YouTube.

I’ll be back tomorrow with another entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series!

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31 Days of Slashers: The Initiation (1984)

The twenty-seventh entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series is Larry Stewart and Peter Crane’s The Initiation (1984). Kelly (Daphne Zuniga) has been having nightmares about a man on fire in her house since she was a small girl. She discusses them with the graduate student Peter (James Read) who teaches her psychology class. He suggests doing a sleep study, which her mother (Vera Miles) flatly refuses. As this is happening, a mysterious man with burn marks escapes from the nearby mental institution. To add even more drama, Kelly is currently pledging a sorority on campus and is forced to steal something from her dad’s department store for her initiation. She and her friends enter the mall at night and find themselves the targets of a murderer. Will Kelly be able to escape from the department store?

I absolutely love this film. During quarantine last year, it was one of my favorite discoveries when I was binging slasher films to escape from the reality of the pandemic. It is just the absolute epitome of a college-set slasher film and is incredibly entertaining. The performances throughout are excellent, featuring appearances by Vera Miles (of Psycho fame) and Clu Gulager (Jesse’s dad in Nightmare on Elm Street 2, and more) as Kelly’s parents. Daphne Zuniga also gives a really standout performance as Kelly in her first leading role. She proves to be a very engaging and charismatic lead that really helps the viewer connect with her character. James Read is also enjoyable as Peter, but Heidi (Joy Jones), his assistant, steals every scene that she appears in and is just an absolute hoot!

The campus themes are explored quite nicely in The Initiation, as we see Kelly in class, in extracurriculars, and engaging with faculty. As a graduate student myself, it was nice to see that Peter was actually referred to as a graduate instructor instead of a professor, as so many movies fail to label their graduate student characters correctly. The Southern Methodist University campus was used quite effectively to showcase the campus environment, as well.

One of my favorite elements of the film is the closed mall that is used for the last act of the narrative. It is a huge structure that just allows for so many creative moments and the directors make full use of the space. Malls at night are generally on the creepier side, and this one is no exception. The dark hallways allow for fantastic jump scares and the darkened window displays of the various storefronts add fun opportunities for the killer to blend into the background. The mall sequence was shot at the Dallas Market Center, and the details of the real stores and the landscape really enrich the depth of the film. It is honestly one of my favorite locations in a slasher film to date.

Through its excellent use of location, its great performances, and the care of its direction, The Initiation is an absolute must-watch this spooky season. This is one of my favorite slasher films of the 1980s, and if you know me at all, you know that that speaks very highly of this one. It is just such a blast! Also, be sure to not look anything else up about the film before you watch it, as it features a twist that will really surprise you.

The Initiation is currently streaming for free on the Tubi and Hoopla apps and with membership on the Arrow Player app. It can also be rented from Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube. The Arrow blu-ray might also be available at your local library.

I’ll be back tomorrow with another entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series!

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31 Days of Slashers: The Funhouse (1981)

The twenty-sixth entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series is Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse (1981), also known as Carnival of Terror. Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) is a rather rebellious young woman. She defies her parents by sneaking out of the house to meet up with friends at the traveling carnival that is in town. The teens have a fun night at the carnival, but when Richie (Miles Chapin) dares the teens to spend the night in the creepy funhouse, terror inevitably takes over. As her friends start disappearing and dying in mysterious and violent ways, Amy must battle whatever monster is hidden in the funhouse. Will she be able to survive?

The main draw for The Funhouse is its direction by iconic horror filmmaker Tobe Hooper. Regardless of whatever film of his that you’re watching, it is guaranteed to be well-executed and full of his creepy signature touches. The Funhouse is no different. While the narrative may be rather simple, that only allows for the aesthetic and production design of the film to add even more to the viewing experience. Hooper is most well-known for his films The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Poltergeist (1982), but he has dabbled in many sub-genres within the horror genre, ranging from possession to creature feature to vampire films. The late director was genuinely a master of the genre and he is greatly missed.

Another element of the film that I really love is the carnival setting. Hooper clearly relishes the small details in the set design for the film. The carnival is brought to life through colorful sets and lively carnival workers. The titular funhouse itself features one creepy room after another and allows for very engaging camera setups that show us the dark corners where evil might be lurking. Hooper also utilizes a really distinct design for the murderous creature that lives in the funhouse. The practical makeup effects in the film are very impressive.

The performances in the film are also pretty solid, as Elizabeth Berridge’s Amy proves to be a very effective Final Girl figure. The remainder of the cast delivers decent performances as her friends. Wayne Doba does a nice job at portraying manic bloodlust as the monster. The many actors that portray the carnival workers also give very entertaining performances that bring life to the carnival setting.

Through its great use of setting, its fantastic practical makeup effects, and its excellent direction from Tobe Hooper, The Funhouse proves a worthy addition to your Halloween watchlist this spooky season.

The Funhouse is currently streaming with membership on the Peacock app. It can also be rented from Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube. The Shout! Factory blu-ray can be purchased HERE.

I will be back tomorrow with another entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series!

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31 Days of Slashers: When a Stranger Calls Back (1993)

The twenty-fifth entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series is Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls Back (1993), a direct sequel to Walton’s When a Stranger Calls (1979). The film starts with Julia (Jill Schoelen) babysitting, much like Carol Kane’s Jill in the original film. Instead of a creepy phone call, however, Julia is greeted by a mysterious man knocking on the door. He claims to have been in a car accident and asks her to use the phone. She says she’ll call the auto club for him if he waits outside. The phone is not working when she picks it up, but she tells him that she called. Hoping he’ll go away, she continues lying to him saying that she called the auto club. She then starts to notice that things around the house have been moved. Julia goes upstairs to check on the children to find that they’ve been abducted and is lucky to escape when she realizes the killer is still in the house. Shockingly, the children are never seen or heard from again. Five years later, she’s in college. Jill from the original film is now a counselor at Julia’s school and becomes very invested in her story, as it is so similar to her own. Julia tells her that she thinks she has a stalker and that it’s the same mysterious man. They team up with private detective John (Charles Durning), who had stopped the intruder in the original film. Will Julia and Jill be able to stop the murderous stalker or will they fall prey to his violence?

When a Stranger Calls Back is an odd little phenomenon. Walton’s made-for-TV thriller was originally produced for Showtime. While it is easy to think that the quality of an early 1990s TV film would be far below a classic horror film, that is most certainly not the case here. This film is a rare exception where the sequel is far superior to the original. This film finds Jill, nearly twenty years later, still dealing with the trauma from the original film and using that as a tool to assist young women in similar situations. There is just a level of power to Jill in the film that really elevates it beyond the other slasher films of the early 1990s. Carol Kane delivers a fantastic performance here and is a continuous joy to watch.

Once again, Jill Schoelen turns in another fantastic lead performance. This was her last film in the horror genre and she does not disappoint. I’ve always really loved her performances in her brief stay in the genre, and When a Stranger Calls Back is no exception. It’s fun to see two generations of women team up to fight the creepy killer in this film, and it’s always a treat to see Charles Durning as a bitter and moody cop-figure. While clearly channeling Danny Glover’s “I’m getting too old for this shit!” energy from Lethal Weapon, Durning is still a very engaging presence in the film and it is interesting to see how his character has developed since the original film.

When a Stranger Calls Back also greatly advances the creepy factor with this entry in the film duo. The killer is a ventriloquist who is very skilled at camouflage make-up that makes him disappear into his surroundings (as the pictures above and below demonstrate). While the phone caller in the original film does have the eerie voice that is somewhat chilling, the killer in this film is truly quite terrifying. Watson has also greatly raised the stakes by putting an older John (Charles Durning) in contention with this young and agile killer.

With it’s incredibly creepy killer, its empowering narrative, and its excellent performances from Kane, Schoelen, and Durning, When a Stranger Calls Back proves to be a perfect candidate for your horror viewing this month. While it is necessary to watch the first film to fully appreciate the sequel, knowing that this film is far more engaging and well-acted leaves you something to look forward to.

When a Stranger Calls Back is currently free to stream on the Tubi app. The Shout! Factory blu-ray, which features a great restoration and special features, might be available at your local library and can be purchased HERE.

I’ll be back tomorrow with another entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series!

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31 Days of Slashers: Freaky (2020)

The twenty-fourth entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series is Christopher Landon’s Freaky (2020). Millie (Kathryn Newton) is a somewhat awkward high school student. She and her friends don’t really get into anything too adventurous or dangerous. Her only after school activity seems to be her role as the school mascot. Following the death of her father, her mother has become an alcoholic and her sister has retreated into her career as a police officer, leaving Millie to fend for herself. After a football game, her mom has fallen asleep and doesn’t arrive to pick Millie up. Sitting alone outside of the stadium in the dark, she encounters the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn). He stabs her in the shoulder with a mystical knife that forces them to switch bodies, ala Freaky Friday. They wake up the next morning in the other’s body. Will Millie (in the Butcher’s body) be able to save her friends and family? Or will the Butcher (in Millie’s body) continue his murderous rampage through Blissfield?

Coming from Christopher Landon, the director of the Happy Death Day films (2017, 2019) and Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015), you can expect the same excellent combination of horror and comedy. Landon and Michael Kennedy have constructed a film that pays tribute to decades of slasher films while paving new ground. The queer sensibility provided by Landon and Kennedy makes the film stand apart from its peers in a very progressive and fun way. There is an incredibly sweet moment shared between Millie (in the Butcher’s body) and Booker (Uriah Shelton), the boy that she has been crushing on, that transcends the gendered limitations of Vaughn’s physicality and proves that Booker genuinely cares for Millie regardless of her gendered body.

The performances of Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton as the film’s leads are the most captivating reason to watch the film. Vaughn truly impressed me with his performance as Millie (in the Butcher’s body). What could have easily just been overly used gendered stereotypes was a completely nuanced and clearly well-researched performance of a high school-aged young woman. His physical performance when he is portraying Millie is comical, but it is also so strongly mirroring of Newton’s original performance of Millie (in her own body). Newton, in turn, delivers a phenomenal performance as the Butcher (in Millie’s body), which showcases the character’s limitations with her smaller stature and lesser strength. Millie’s friends Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich) also turn in very engaging performances. But Vaughn and Newton are just on another level in this film, and their performances alone make Freaky a must watch.

Landon has really honed his craft over the several horror films that he has made, and Freaky proves to be very visually engaging with its use of fun settings and visual gags that are highlighted by the performances of Vaughn and Newton. As a huge fan of the Happy Death Day films (which I hope will still get its closing film in the trilogy!), I found even more to love in Freaky. Landon and Kennedy have really proven that they are truly passionate about the slasher sub-genre and that they clearly know their stuff when it comes to constructing death sequences that are somehow both comical and violently shocking. This film just felt tailor made for me, and I will definitely be sharing it with as many friends as I possibly can in the future. My parents both really enjoyed it, as well.

With its truly excellent performances, its fun take on the slasher sub-genre, and its great combination of horror and comedy, Freaky proves to be an incredibly well-constructed slasher that is absolutely a must-watch this Halloween season. There are too few films out there that are simply this fun to watch. So, when one does pop up, it needs to be appreciated for all that it has to offer. Definitely check this one out!

Freaky is currently streaming with membership on HBO Max and DirecTV. It can also be rented on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube. It is also available to check out at your local library!

I’ll be back tomorrow with another entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series!

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31 Days of Slashers: House of Wax (2005)

The twenty-third entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series is Jaume Collet-Serra’s House of Wax (2005). A remake of the great Vincent Price House of Wax (1953), Collet-Serra’s film ventures into much nastier territory than the classic horror film, which worked more as a creepy early-1900’s mystery. Carly (Elisha Cuthbert), her twin brother Nick (Chad Michael Murray), and their friends are on their way to a big football game. They stop to camp for the night and are spied on by a creepy stranger in a rundown pickup truck. They yell at him to leave and after Nick throws a beer bottle at his truck, the stranger finally drives off. They wake up the next morning to find that the fan belt on Nick’s (Jared Padalecki) car is broken. Lester, a resident of Ambrose, a nearby town, drives by and offers to drive Wade and Carly into town to get a new belt. The others stay behind to get ready to leave for the football game. They arrive in Ambrose to discover an eerie ghost town. Soon, Carly’s friends start disappearing. And there is something incredibly creepy about the wax figures that she discovers in the town. Will Carly be able to escape from Ambrose alive? Will anything be left of her friends?

Collet-Serra’s film is incredibly dark and visually disgusting. There are few modern mainstream horror films that I can think of that really feature a production design that harkens back to the truly visceral and horrifying aesthetic of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), but House of Wax definitely tries to leave the viewer feeling gross for watching the events unfold. There is a really menacing and nasty vibe that hangs over the entire film. It works so perfectly with the creepy design of the Ambrose location, which features many haunting storefronts and buildings, including a movie theatre that repeatedly plays Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962). For those expecting just another fun teen slasher film, this one really delivers the gory moments that you’ll definitely remember long after the film is over.

At the time of its release, many were quick to speak negatively of the film simply because socialite Paris Hilton was in the cast. Without even seeing the film, it was condemned as simply an extension of her media persona that pre-dated the Kardashian empire that rules social media today. As any loyal horror fan can attest, Paris Hilton delivered respectable performances in two horror films of the 2000s, in House of Wax and in horror-musical Repo: The Genetic Opera (2008). The entire cast of House of Wax turn in solid performances here. Elisha Cuthbert as Carly and Chad Michael Murray as Nick are perhaps the strongest, but the remainder of their group are entertaining and enjoyable.

House of Wax is one of the films released by Dark Castle in the late 1990s and early 2000s that attempted to revive classic horror films with remakes that would appeal to younger modern audiences but also get them interested in the older films, as well. House on Haunted Hill (1999), Thir13en Ghosts (2001), and Ghost Ship (2002) are among the other films produced by Dark Castle during this time. While remakes are always a hot topic, as so many look down on them, I have always felt that the Dark Castle films were really engaging and always took new directions with their films instead of simply rehashing the exact same narrative as the original productions. House of Wax is certainly no exception. The film is very loosely based on the Vincent Price narrative, and the titular house of wax attraction is really one of the few similarities.

With its gritty and nasty aesthetic, its fun performances, and its amazing production and set design, House of Wax proves to be an absolutely essential watch this Halloween season. If you haven’t seen this film based on the negative word of mouth when the film was released, it is time to look past that thoughtless negativity and enjoy the dark film beneath the surface.

House of Wax is streaming with membership on HBO Max and AMC+. It can be rented on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube. The Shout! Factory blu-ray, which features a new restoration and excellent special features, can be purchased HERE.

I’ll be back tomorrow with another entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series!

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