Hunting Halloween, Part 2

I keep looking at Google Calendar, and expecting the bad blocks to go away, but it isn’t happening. Monday is going to kick off the most hellaciously busy week-and-a half I have had in some time. So busy that getting up at a ridiculously early hour to cook on Thanksgiving day is going to seem like a lovely break. So I better write about this backlog, quickly, and while I can.

Night before Halloween night belonged to Dead Snow (2009) a Norwegian flick I knew very little about, except it obviously concerns Nazi zombies. Yes, I know, I said I was done with zombie flicks almost ten years ago – House of the Dead was the straw that broke the undead camel’s back. But, like Al Pacino, they keep pulling me back in. The reason I own this? It was 99 cents at a dying Blockbuster. What the hell.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but five medical students go to a remote cabin for the weekend. Your plot twists here are that it’s in Norway, and the cabin is a ski cabin, so you’re dealing with some trees, but a whole lot of snow. Medical student #6 is the one whose family owns the cabin, but she’s a real outdoorsy type, and is cross-country skiing to the cabin. Except she’s not, as we see her die in the pre-credits sequence.

Now, the old-timer local drops in from Central Casting to tell the annoyed students about the Nazi occupation during WWII, and how the villagers turned on the greedy krauts at the tail end of the war, and the Nazis ran off to the mountains – with all the gold they’d stolen – never to be seen again. So there’s an eeeeeeevil in the vicinity. Well, haha, old-timer gets eviscerated in his tent that night – that’s what he gets for not heeding his own warnings – and Dead Owner Girl’s boyfriend goes looking for her with the only snowmobile, leaving the others to find Nazi gold in the world’s worst hiding place, have sex in outhouses, and be set upon by Stormtrooper Zombies who are after the gold.

Dead Snow, if nothing else, wears its inspirations rather nakedly. When Token Movie Nerd asks his friends, “How many movies start with people going to a cabin with no cell signal?” and Token Movie Nerd Girl answers with a number of them, notably Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2, it doesn’t get more blatant than that (yes, it does, Movie Nerd is wearing a Braindead T-shirt – Dead Alive to us Yanks) – of course Movie Nerd Me points out both movies were made before years before the current cell phone boom and that is not a plot point in any of them.

Anyway, once we reach zombie siege territory and (oh alright, SPOILER) both movie nerds get offed (end SPOILER) so we’re spared anymore annoying meta humor, things start moving at a brisk pace and rarely let up. The only real problem is the feeling that we’ve tread this ground before, it’s just that this time that ground covered in snow. The gore is enthusiastic, give them that, and well-done. It’s just that truly inspired moments – like one of the students, after raiding a tool shed, charges a Nazi with a crossed hammer and sickle – serve mainly to point out how familiar the other gags have become.

Absolutely no idea why the Nazis were killing people before that errant gold was found. Guess they just enjoy being evil fucks.

Entertaining enough, but this is a definite rent or Netflix. Although, Norway: Still beautiful.

Halloween night, I know I’m going to get stuck with door duty because a) my wife always goes next door to watch Survivor, b) then she has to pick up my son who is helping his classmate guide her younger siblings around their neighborhood for trick-or-treat. I might as well watch a movie, but it’ll have to be something I’ve already seen, so I don’t mind the interruptions. Last year it was John Carpenter’s The Thing. This year? Well, I’d bought this impressively cheap blu-ray of The Omen. The original, of course. Which is odd, because I’ve never really liked The Omen.

At the end of the horror boom started by The ExorcistOmen at least put an end to the seemingly infinite exorcism movies that were clogging the drive-ins and pointed the way to a wider variety of religion-based, or at least Catholicism-based, horror movies, to be carried on by The Sentinel and Holocaust 3000. Then 1977 came and Star Wars demonstrated that the new way to get rich was to throw spaceships at the screen.

So here is, I guess, my major problem with movies like The Exorcist or The Omen: I don’t find them particularly frightening, because I am simply not very religious. Not in the traditional Christian sense, anyway. I can appreciate the horror elements in both stories, the structure, the build-up, the FX  – but that’s all they are to me. Elements. Ingredients in a recipe. I don’t experience these flicks the same way as the rest of the Western world, apparently.

Something else weighing against The Omen, thirty-five years later, is its deliberate pace. Its refusal to get to the Good Stuff, the stuff I was told about breathlessly on its first theatrical run – is actually something I respect. A movie this long was a bit of an anomaly in ’76, and usually the sign of a prestige Hollywood product… and make no mistake, this is what that was, with full-page newspaper ads and one hell of a cast, from Gregory Peck and Lee Remick to David Warner, Patrick Troughton and Leo McKern.  The Omen franchise became known for its extreme death scenes, and you don’t really get the first one until 45 minutes into the movie, The second, another 45 minutes later. I never bothered with the remake (go figure!), but did it have the same structure? Were more Damien-inspired setpieces inserted for today’s ADD audiences?

I will likely never know. And I’m actually pretty okay with that.

So I admire The Omen for its craft, if not its status as a horror classic. What I do find interesting (and not at all surprising) is that David Warner’s death scene, in my memory, had become something quite more realistic, and done in a way that would be possible today with CGI, but not in 1976. (David Letterman used the beheading scene from the new Omen to punctuate a joke, and I admit it was well done. Then I have to point out that we live in an age when a bloody decapitation is used to punctuate a joke.)

That blu-ray is also packed with three commentary tracks, two of which feature Richard Donner. Those will be worthwhile.

I need to skip forward in time a week or so to keep a thematic thing going. In other words, about a week later, I saw another horror movie, and that movie was Grave Encounters. Oh yeah. Another found footage movie.

Grave Encounters‘ hook is that the footage was shot by the crew of a TV series called – um hm – Grave Encounters. A producer type, at the very beginning, tells us its production preceded all the other ghost hunting shows by a couple of years, and was showing great promise – “until they got to episode 6.”

For “Episode 6” the crew is going to be locked overnight in an abandoned mental hospital, hopefully to actually find some sort of evidence of the paranormal. Unedited footage as they scope out and set up in the hospital reveals they’ve pretty much had no luck in the previous five eps, and therefore none of them is a true believer, least of all their “psychic” – an actor who’s padding his resume.

Needless to say, as the night wears on, they find themselves rather in over their heads.

Grave Encounters has some decent scares, though too many are of the Paranormal Activity “Ooooh, that shouldn’t be moving by itself” type. When it reaches outside that economical comfort zone and get really weird, it hits paydirt. It’s tempting to go into some detail, but… no. If you’re interested, you deserve to experience them on your own.

I will say this, however: this is another movie that shows it’s inspirations, though not with a sense of humor as Dead Snow does. The influence of  other abandoned asylum movies like Session 9 and the remake of House on Haunted Hill are dreadfully, wincingly obvious.

But I’m inclined to cut Grave Encounters some slack. It gets creative many times, and let’s face it: I really hate ghost hunter shows. My son is addicted to them, and frequently gets my wife sucked into them, too, but all I see is some people who found a way to monetize standing in dark rooms freaking themselves out.

Currently available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. You could do worse. I certainly have.


  1. Grave Encounters 2 is, unusually, an improvement over the original. Less of the poltergeist activity, more outright weirdness. And the ending is much less derivative than the standard “everyone disappeared and all we found is this tape” ending that “found footage” usually has.

    • Good to hear! I’ll actually look forward to that one!

      • Fair warning, I just checked IMDB and rotten tomatoes and both rate the sequel lower than the original. But then again, there are four freaking “Paranormal Activity” movies (with a fifth on the way!), so my tastes in horror clearly don’t match the mainstream.

        Oh, I saw VHS after reading your review, definitely worth it, especially the first and last segments. Thanks for pointing it out!

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