The annual Astor Spooktacular has become one of the most keenly anticipated filmgoing events in Melbourne, uniting horror fans of all stripes for a Halloween celebration like no other. From psychosexual body-horror filth to satanic panic frights, this year’s line-up is stuffed to the gills with all sorts of dreadful delights.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
A decade after directing Night of the Living Dead (1968), the definitive zombie film of the late 60s-early 70s, George Romero revisited the subgenre with Dawn of the Dead, a follow-up which employed a far broader geographical scope to unleash an unprecedented amount of undead carnage. It’s a hell of a way to start this year’s Spooktacular. With the worldwide zombie apocalypse in full swing, the film follows a mismatched group of survivors bunkered down in a shopping mall. The setting itself is an ingenious playground, allowing for zombies and humans to run wild through abandoned fashion stores, arcades, and restaurants, all set to Goblin and Dario Argento’s pulsating score. Much of the fun lies within the innumerable gore gags, courtesy of SFX wizard Tom Savini, who demonstrates just how many ways there are to mutilate the human body.
The film’s satire might come off as awfully blunt, with its recurring imagery of zombies wandering the mall—but it still resonates in an age where people camp on sidewalks to line up for the newest iPhone. Somewhat ironically, the film’s sheer influence on popular culture has steadily worked against its own message, having spawned a sprawling empire of films, games, and toys. Rampant consumerism prevails, and we’re all still fucking dead inside.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
At its heart, A Nightmare on Elm Street is about a bunch of kids desperately trying to stay up past their bedtime by any means necessary. As such, it’ll likely strike a chord with anyone embarking on this year’s colossal marathon.
The film has a premise so ingenious that it completely changed the game for 80’s slashers, yet it remains fairly simple: Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a mangled goblin-man in desperate need of a skincare routine, torments and slices up a group of peppy highschoolers in their dreams, precipitating their real-life deaths.
Horror maestro Wes Craven has long been considered something of a generational turncoat, a director whose work frequently despairs at children being failed by neglectful parents, particularly within the smothering conformity of the Reagan era. Freddy Krueger may now be best remembered as an ironic, wise-cracking ghoul — little more than a wacky horror mascot in the public consciousness. But in the original Elm Street, he’s a terrifying symbol of buried neighbourhood secrets resurfacing with a vengeance. Every town has its Elm Street, and as Robert Englund put it, Freddy’s the “bastard father of us all”.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Four years before Halloween (1978) popularised the ‘slasher’ film, Tobe Hooper crafted one of the most viciously effective proto-masterpieces of the genre. Although the film tracks its unwitting cast of teens through dilapidated Texan farmhouses and their inevitable run-ins with various butchers equipment, it refrains from capturing more than a few drops of blood. Nonetheless, it harnesses a raw terror in its depraved visions of a wilderness left behind by America’s shifting landscape, all coated in dust, sweat, and grain. Every grimy frame imprints itself on eyeballs like a razor.
It famously scared Wes Craven shitless with its potent concoction of realism and mania; it has a grounded sense of immediacy but avoids lazy snuff film comparisons in its alienating, otherworldly touch. It certainly lives up to its reputation as the stuff of horror cinema legend, and each sordid detail will linger long after the next several films. You’ll practically be able to smell the animal carcasses putrefying in the stifling heat — which should more or less resemble the smell of The Astor by the end of the marathon.
Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Drag Me to Hell might just be the weakest entry in this year’s Spooktacular, but its bombastic thrills will likely make it a tough one to sleep through. It centres on bank loan officer, Christine (Alison Lohman), who denies a mortgage extension to a vengeful mystic and is consequently doomed to three days of demonic torment before eternal damnation. It sets the stage for some truly demented bedevilling, complete with projectile nose-bleed and maggot regurgitation, but there’s a simple, intriguing story at its core; in essence, it’s about a woman who sells her soul, and must decide how much she’s willing to pay for it back. Much has already been made about the film being released in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, and its protagonist’s deeply unsympathetic occupation, providing some semblance of catharsis in Christine’s messy misfortune. It’s a shame, however, that the film is so steeply mired in ‘gypsy’ mysticism and stereotypes.
Sam Raimi’s exhibitionist camerawork and gleeful sadism vault this over typical mainstream horror fare, but it’s a far cry from the gross-out zenith of his Evil Dead trilogy. For what it’s worth, he makes a meal out of the dated CGI with some wickedly inventive imagery, featuring one of the most memorable talking goats in cinema — that is, before The Witch’s (2015) Black Phillip asked if thou wouldst like to live deliciously.
The House of the Devil (2009)
It’s difficult to suggest how easy it’ll be to engage with this film in the early hours of the morning, but The House of The Devil is a unique indie gem which rewards patience and an attentive eye. It follows a simple premise: a cash-strapped babysitter agrees to a dodgy babysitting gig in an ominously empty house on the night of the total lunar eclipse of ’83 — you can probably guess the rest. It’s a lovingly crafted throwback which repurposes the aesthetics and tropes of VHS schlock to turn ‘trash into treasure’, as Scott Tobias observed.
It’s a film notable for just how little actually happens during its 95 minute runtime, much to the consternation of many an IMDb reviewer. It can be awfully easy to dismiss the film as airless wankery, but its minimalist style actually turns the film into a showcase of intricate compositions which manage to evoke the unspeakable from the mundane. When you’re not being jump scared to death every five seconds, you’re afforded the opportunity to carefully scan each millimetre of negative space, which frequently suffocates and isolates its characters. And for the art hoes reading this, you’ll be glad to know that it features a double denim-ed Greta Gerwig as the show-stealing best friend.
Brian Yuzna’s body-horror splatterfest Society follows Bill Witney (Billy Warlock), a Beverly Hills teen who discovers that the social elite are inhuman creatures who prey on the young inside perverse, clandestine orgy cults, while exercising unimaginable power over the police, the courts, and the government itself in order to act with near impunity. I assume this seemed like a more outlandish premise at the time. Joking aside, this really does play like a horned-up take on Carpenter’s They Live (1988), which gradually transposes itself into the realm of gloriously grotesque plastic reality. Screaming Mad George (aka Joji Tani) of Predator (1987) and Dream Warriors (1987) fame is responsible for the wretchedly vile effects on display, which often manages to find the funny side in barf-bag bodily disfigurement. However, before the iconic skin-melting climax (seriously, do not watch this while eating grilled cheese), it’s still worth keeping awake to watch how this off-kilter, ‘anti-Ferris Bueller’ teen comedy plays out. It may lack the prestige of other films on the program, but it is absolute midnight movie perfection, and a personal favourite of this writer.
The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
While it may seem mostly pointless to explain what The Slumber Party Massacre is about (because, well, duh), it’s a film which has a couple surprises up its sleeve. It’s a skilfully executed slasher, albeit one which still features characters inexplicably deaf and dumb enough to be stealthily hunted by a madman wielding a phallic-as-hell power drill. It’s worth noting that this isn’t exactly the movie Amy Holden Jones sought to direct. As a director working under Roger Corman — known for granting considerable creative freedom — she intended to adapt a screenplay by writer/activist Rita Mae Brown, which deconstructed the slasher genre through a feminist lens. However, the script was altered according to Corman’s demands, and a more straight-edged film was instead created.
Still, its gender politics are somewhat subversive, at least for a film which introduces its female ensemble via a revealing tracking shot through the school showers. The characters are fleshed out through extended scenes of conversation and are a genuinely funny, endearing bunch to hang out with in between all the nasty penetrative violence. In particular, the ending stresses their agency and strength in numbers, echoing the cathartic climax of last year’s Halloween (2018).
Next of Kin (1982)
Next of Kin isn’t just a desperately underseen slice of Aussie horror, it’s a bona fide classic in its own right. It tells the story of Linda (Jackie Kerin), a woman who inherits a nursing home from her recently deceased mother, and is soon marred by bizarre deaths, vengeful hauntings, and buried family secrets. The more she digs through her mother’s diary to uncover the truth, the less everything makes sense. With its European stylistic inflections and the understated, creeping dread of its psychological storytelling, it’s a far cry from the stereotypical Ozploitation flick — though it does feature a hunky performance by John Jarratt of Wolf Creek (2005) fame.
While it’s been frequently compared to The Shining (1980) for its foreboding interior setting and unravelling psychodrama, I found its connections to Don’t Look Now (1973) to be particularly compelling. Both films thread death, water, and vivid red garments together to beautifully express the pervasive melancholy of grief, trickling through daily life before building to a flood. Next of Kin still maintains a unique visual identity however, seamlessly blending its claustrophobic gothic setting with the dreamy expanse of the outback. While it suffers from a rushed third act, its eruptions of violence are something to behold, leading to a barnstorming final shot for the ages.
Wes Craven returns late in the program with yet another genre-revitalising slasher classic. While A Nightmare on Elm Street lamented the dysfunction of the family unit, Scream leans into its modern-day setting to examine a generation raised by Blockbuster Video. The film follows whip-smart teenager Sidney Prescott as she and her friends fall prey to a costumed killer by the name of Ghostface, who has a penchant for horror movie trivia. If you’ve ever expressed a less-than-glowing sentiment of a superhero film online, you’re likely quite familiar with the horrors of being menaced by overzealous film nerds who occasionally like to dress up with masks — but rest assured, Scream remains a brutally effective exercise in terror helmed by a veteran of the genre.
While it’s far from the first postmodern horror film to wink at the genre’s conventions, it endures predominantly due to its snappy cast of teens and effortless tonal balance. Its satiric edge doesn’t undermine the scares, instead amplifying suspense by unpredictably toying with well-worn tropes. The meta humour hasn’t entirely aged well, however: watching the self-aware characters belabour the movie tropes happening on screen veers dangerously close to becoming a fucking CinemaSins video.
While I’d obviously never prescribe the illicit use of amphetamines, I’d highly recommend trying to stay awake throughout as much of the marathon as humanly possible — it really is a stellar line-up. As usual, expect some surprise treats to crop up in the program, and for pity’s sake, come equipped with deodorant.
The Great Astor Spooktacular will take place on 26 October – 27 October 2019.
Jamie Tram is a writer, filmmaker, and screwball obsessive from Melbourne, Australia. His writing lurks at Senses of Cinema, Kill Your Darlings, and other places. You can direct all your complaints to @tram_i_am.