Gravid With Decay: Issue #4
This is Gravid With Decay, a short newsletter by John Tolva about all things horror.
Greetings, programs! Some reviews and recommendations for you below.
Readers of this mailing from before it was a mailing may remember Zoombies, the low budget film that asked “What if zombies but at a zoo?” Great premise, but what I really wanted was zombie creatures from massive fishtanks. Wish fulfilled — and unfortunately disappointed — with Aquarium of the Dead. Apparently this is the cap-off to a trilogy (I missed Zoombies 2), but it really fails to deliver. Things might have gone better if the budget for all three films were focused on a single undead animal romp. What do you get in a film made in six days? Actors who cannot pronounce words like “telemetry” and “lesions” and CGI creatures that would be better hand-drawn over the video pixels. Did I have fun watching revenant sea stars, though? You bet I did.
Super Dark Times was a fantastic film, essentially a darker Stand By Me, answering a question that seems asked frequently in the last decade or so: what do you do if you have a dead body on your hands? It’s a bullied teen film, which adds an air of malaise (at least to this viewer). Strong acting performances and, if you’re starting your lists early, a qualifier for Christmas horror.
Due to dispute between the government and labor unions in the 1970’s London suffered rolling nightly blackouts. Perfect setting for a creepy hospital-based flick, no? The Power is atmospheric horror through and through. You almost don’t need a maniacal protagonist with a setting this dank and shadowy. Rose Williams does a phenomenal job as a novice night nurse encountering situation after situation that would make you or I nope right outta there.
James Wan of Saw fame is back with Malignant. It’s part whodunit, part body horror, part M. Night Shyamalan-y in its twist at the crescendo. And I should admit, dear reader, that I did not \ see it coming. Perhaps I was looking the wrong way? (Hint!)
The strongest film of my recent viewings, Slapface is, ultimately, about the consequences of bullying and domestic violence. Also monsters. But mostly about the grotesque relationship two brothers can have in the traumatic absence of their parents. Plus, now you can make Will Smith jokes while watching.
Though it sounds like an 80’s topless co-eds slasher, Student Body is a fairly serious film with one well-played creepo teacher at the center of it. I left this film feeling that opportunities were missed and significant gaps unfilled in the storytelling. I mean, the high school mascot is a blacksmith with a sledgehammer, a weapon not often seen in horror full of knives, machetes, and chainsaws. But it just isn’t used to great purpose. Student Body feels like a high school drama with some horror elements shoved in, rather than the other way around. Perhaps that’s a me problem though. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like it should be struck.
Speaking of chainsaws, I watched all nine films (and likely counting) in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre “franchise” (so you don’t have to). I had seen the original and bits and pieces of what followed — a sliced-up experience, if you will — but never in chronological order of their release or an eye towards narrative coherence. Turns out, that’s a fool’s errand, though there are attempts at picking up threads across movies. But if you like super dangerous power tools and people who wear others’ faces as masks, that’s not really your primary issue, is it? Hereunder a few sentences per installment.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) - A masterpiece that changed cinema utterly, this remarkably gore-free film of hippies-in-the-sticks holds up well, even though so many now-dull horror tropes today trace their lineage right back to this abattoir.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) - You know you’re in a new decade with this somewhat comedic take on Leatherface and his brood. It’s a completely different feel that might otherwise be off-putting if not for Dennis Hopper going chain-to-chain with butcher boy, Tom Savini’s effects, and a wonderfully lunatic supporting character named Chop-Top. The classic dinner table scene from the first movie is recapitulated here in a gawdy but gorgeous over-the-top set piece.
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) - This movie has a pre-Lord of the Rings Viggo Mortensen in it. It also features Leatherface moving through the forest in scenes overtly reminiscent of Friday the 13th. That’s all I’m gonna say of it.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1995) - Featuring Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey just prior to them becoming major stars, this may be the most 90s horror you’ll ever see. You’ll also notice just how close the normal acting style of Zellweger and McConaughey is to horror perfection. The former for her everywoman-turned-scream-queen demeanor, the latter because he’s got a crazy eyes delivery even when he’s not crazy. If you’re following narrative threads this film (loosely) completes one sequence.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) - Michael Bay sinks his gory claws into the series’ intellectual property with this one, sorta rebooting things. The standout here is R. Lee Ermey (the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket) as the gonzo redneck patriarch of Leatherface’s cannibal household. Confusingly the final girl, Jessica Biel, is listed as the character Erin Hardesty which would make her related to the original’s final girl Sally Hardesty which makes this not really a remake or a reboot … but some sort of alternate timeline? But hey, Jessica Biel!
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006) - Gotta admit, I really liked this one, mostly because it brings back Ermey from the previous film showing how he became the town sheriff and how ol’ Leathery was born (on the floor of a slaughterhouse, naturally) and became the man he is today. These two Bay/Ermey films constitute a narrative sequence as well, with no firm connection to anything else.
Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013) - A direct sequel to the original, ignoring everything in between, this is the first film where Leatherface is a genuinely sympathetic character. Alexandra Daddario plays the unknowing heir to the estate that houses Mr. Chainsaw. While she’s on the run from him most of the movie, they eventually team up to exact revenge on the local bumpkins who orphaned them both in the first place. Daddario’s line “Do your thing cuz!” as she kicks his chainsaw over to him actually made me squeal with glee. Also, I love Alexandra Daddario.
Leatherface (2017) - Another attempt at a prequel to the original (that’s two now, if you’re counting, and don’t even try to make it jibe with the origin story from “The Beginning” — not possible). Basically insane asylum horror (think Exorcist III vibe) that becomes a kind of fugitives-on-the-lam caper. The twist is that you don’t really know which of the characters running around is the youthful Leatherface … until someone needs a new face. Then you kinda know. I enjoyed this.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) - The IP shuffle continues with a new studio getting the rights to the characters so, naturally, it’s another film that picks up right after — which is to say, many decades after — the original film, ignoring everything else. Leatherface’s town is now a dusty relic and the site of a real estate re-development by young, not-from-around-here entrepreneurs. They’re social media influencers, you see, so you kinda want that chainsaw to start its spewy rampage before they even get their phones out. Great kills, super gory, and the return of Sally Hardesty, iconic final badass from the first film. (The original actress passed away in 2014, alas.) Definite Blumhouse Halloween reboot vibes here with old man Leather still doing his thing with lots of call-outs to the past.
Finally, some snacks for you, culled from links I collected during the depths of the pandemic:
A list of the 10 Greatest Horror Movie Needle Drops. All good choices, but where is Boards of Canada’s “Gyroscope” from Sinister (and, surprisingly, again in Sinister 2) or Creedence Clearwater Revival’’s “Midnight Special” from the prologue to Twilight Zone: The Movie? (Still makes me shudder.)
Horror apparently passes the Bechdel Test more often than any other genre of movie: Horror is the only film genre where women appear and speak as often as men.
Scuba diving in murky lakes is scary enough, then there’s this: Someone Put a Statue of Jason Voorhees in a Minnesota Lake For Divers to Stumble Across. (Apparently the regional park supervisor considers this “litter”. Boo.)
If you enjoy this little communique, please send to a friend or post about it. Always nice to spread the dread. Until next time …