13 Ghosts (1960) The last time I watched William Castle’s 13 Ghosts, I must’ve been so excited by finally getting to see the thing in its original Illusion-O process that I cut it some serious slack. Seeing it again, this time with the gimmick removed, the appeal is gone. This picture is a bit of a dud, with a rambling plot, limited frights, and unmemorable characters. (I suppose it says something about the film that I forgot Margaret Hamilton was in this; how do you make Margaret Hamilton forgettable?) The ghosts in question aim for a fun spook house approach, but their campiness is dialed down too far, earning shrugs, not shrieks. Compared to the over-the-top antics of House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler, the sluggishness of 13 Ghosts makes Castle look asleep at the wheel.
The Uninvited (1944) Speaking of revisits, I’ve watched The Uninvited only once before, years ago. I was rather let down then, and feel the same way now, finding it unable to hold up against its reputation as a genuinely creepy affair. Despite some absolutely gorgeous visuals (Charles Lang’s cinematography is top notch) and solid effects work, the whole thing leans too heavy on the romance and too little on the ghostly mood, leaving the whole picture rather draggy.
Frankenweenie (2012) A while back, I joked something along the lines of Tim Burton’s remaking his own movies now. We’ve come full circle. (Zing!) Turns out Burton remaking Burton is a good move. The new Frankenweenie never matches the heart, whimsy, and wonder of the original short, but it works quite well on its own terms. There’s an unironic sweetness here (something I haven’t seen from Burton in years), a gentleness that allows us to love the characters, to cry and cheer with them. John August’s screenplay does a nice job of opening up the story to feature length, and while the anarchic third act, involving an invasion of monsters big and small, overwhelms the emotional core, it’s inventive enough and fun enough to still work. Most interesting is a science-beats-ignorance subplot, which doubles as a nice nose-thumbing at fundamentalists and a celebration of education and curiosity. Well played, unnecessary yet endearing remake.
The American Scream (2012) I was already enjoying this lo-fi documentary, which follows the lives of three families who stage elaborate amateur “haunts” every Halloween, but then we get to the end, and one of the subjects gets philosophical about how Thanksgiving and Christmas are family holidays but Halloween is a community holiday, perhaps the only time of the year the neighborhood truly gets together. It’s a kind-hearted moment that hooked me good and, better still, will likely stick with me for a long, long time. The rest of the film is solid stuff, too, filled with flawed eccentrics yet protective of them, never mocking, never sneering. Not a perfect movie by any means, but perfect pre-Halloween viewing.
ParaNorman (2012), The Halloween Tree (1993), and The Thing from Another World (1951) My Halloween triple feature this year. ParaNorman holds up splendidly on a second viewing; this revisit left me struck by just how beautiful it is, both visually and emotionally. Meanwhile, Halloween Tree and The Thing are annual Halloween viewing traditions for me; I look forward to them every year – especially The Thing, which has so much packed into it that it still manages to reveal something new every time.
Cat People (1942) I’ve never warmed to Cat People the way most have. It’s a solid film with a handful of slick scares, but the sexual psychology behind it just doesn’t click with me in the slightest, perhaps because of its heavy-handedness, perhaps because of its datedness, perhaps because I’m not much of a Simone Simon fan. The film’s main accomplishment is in its less-is-more approach, but I always end up studying and admiring those moments rather than enjoying them.
Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) The career path of Edgar G. Ulmer is an odd one, starting big with the masterful The Black Cat for Universal, winding through the Poverty Row houses (and knocking out something as great as Detour despite the limitations), ending up churning out sci-fi filler at American International. Beyond the Time Barrier is one of his last works, ambitious yet clunky as heck thanks to a teeny budget and a rushed shooting schedule. (It’s tough to sell a massive post-apocalyptic mutant uprising when you’re limited to a handful of extras in ill-fitting bald caps.) The script borrows liberally from multiple sci-fi predecessors but improves on none of them. Ulmer’s eye for framing and love of abstract set design are the only things worth seeing here.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012) What could’ve been a lazy, hokey jokefest in the worst DreamWorks fashion is instead witty and warm, a comic adventure built not on gimmicks but heart. Oh, the gimmicks are there, to be sure – the whole thing is a winky parade of video game characters both legendary and original, sort of a Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Toy Story for the joystick crowd – but the script rarely leans on them. Instead, it presents a gentle giant antihero meandering through a fantastic world, and we not only enjoy watching him trek through brilliantly realized parodies of various video game genres, we root for him all the way. The other characters are developed with equal care, too. This is a wonderful line-up of misfits, and it’s a joy to see them connect in strange, fun ways, especially the relationship between Ralph and Vanelope, which floored me with its tenderness. You bet your patoot I got misty here; Disney is working on a Pixar level in terms of both storytelling and animation. Wreck-It Ralph could easily stand among the best of its sister studio’s work. (And if nothing else, Ralph is worth it just to see Paperman, the short preceding it. An eye-popping blend of hand-drawn and computer animation, Paperman may wind up among my favorite films of the year. It’s a simple boy-meets-girl tale that left me literally gasping, both from its stunning imagery and, more importantly, its lovely story. You’re not allowed to miss this one.)