Luck, wisdom, and desperation all play an important part in forcing the hand of cinema in new directions. A little over a decade ago, a small handful of streaming platforms were pushing for viability in the world of watching movies. That doesn’t sound like such a long time, considering the absolute dominance streaming now has. At the time, vulnerable and desperate, platforms like Netflix were an opportunity for new filmmakers to easily get their work seen by a massive amount of people. Those were the Wild West days and they are gone. Netflix is a prize now, not an easy opportunity. Despite the power shift, a new Golden Age of horror streaming has begun, specifically at Halloween time. Over the past few years, the quantity of original content released by streaming platforms during spooky season has skyrocketed. With so many different channels out there as well, the count is literally into the dozens ~ and this is not even considering previously released films finally making it onto streaming. Dozens of pure, released just for Halloween films and shows. While these don’t all benefit first-time filmmakers, for audiences the results are very similar: a wealth of new horror.
2020 and 2021 saw the release of a few future classics via streaming. Hubie Halloween (2020), Fear Street trilogy (2021), Nightbooks (2021), No One Gets Out Alive (2021), and Slumber Party Massacre (2021) all are worth seeing any year. In 2022 there are slews to choose from. Werewolf By Night is a solid take on gothic horror, although a bit held back by the typical Marvel Studios’ lack of big swings. Mike Flanagan fans know exactly what they’re going to get with The Midnight Club on Netflix. Syfy’s Bring it On: Cheer or Die, much like Werewolf By Night, is only a wild one by the definition that its franchise has already established, but otherwise a fairly run-of-the-mill slasher. Here though are three notable new releases, even if they aren’t notable for all the most glowing reasons.
For the discerning exploitation enthusiast, a new film from director Alex Zamm is to be celebrated. Operating in a netherworld of mainstream media, primarily making sequels to popular kids’ movies (Inspector Gadget 2 , Tooth Fairy 2 , Jingle All the Way 2 , etc.), there is less a subversion in his work than simply moments of pure inappropriateness. While Under Wraps 2 (2022), a new direct-to-Disney+ Halloween offering, doesn’t reach the foul depths of his Chairman of the Board (1998) with its explicit in-utero opening, or Woody Woodpecker (2017) where the titular bird says he would swipe left on a woman he literally just mutilated, there are still plenty of ethically questionable moments to be found here. Not the least of these is two gay men who tell their daughter it is okay for their wedding to be ruined because they should just be thankful they are allowed to be married by American society. It is hard to tell if this strange messaging is a miscalculation in how to convey their thankfulness or a subtle criticism of how messed up America still really is. Either way, the implication is they don’t see marriage as their human right, making for a shockingly tragic moment in this mostly slapstick narrative. That all said, the film does give the viewer five mummies instead of the two from Part One, and that is pretty festive at least.
Criticizing a film as “not as good as the book” is admittedly a cheap tactic that avoids engaging with the movie on its own terms, but it is difficult not to do that in this case. While the My Best Friend’s Exorcism novel excelled thanks to a combination of extremely foul-mouthed teens with cultural taste issues and truly brutal plot points, the movie strips most of this away leaving just the bare narrative structure and neither much style nor stakes. The impact feels castrated as a result. Where once the teens loved the very dad-rock Phil Collins, now they are hipper and love the gender revolutionary Boy George. Where once pet dogs tragically were murdered and people went to jail for their involvement in the exorcism, now there is just a straightforward happy ending. The novel wasn’t using these more exploitation elements as pure sensationalism though; they helped establish the concluding moral that sometimes being a good person and good friend is thankless and takes a real grit of character. Removing these elements to perhaps avoid accusations of being inappropriate also disintegrates the lesson, leaving nothing but a joy ride. The real tragedy here is that the ride of My Best Friend’s Exorcism (2022) is unfortunately fairly joyless.
Stephen King’s name is so synonymous with horror that even the mostly contemplative Mr. Harrigan’s Phone (2022) gets a pass as Halloween material. A slow-burn ghost story that only even reveals itself as a ghost story halfway through, the film is one of the most successful direct-to-streaming offerings of the Golden Age. Translating King’s voice into something a bit more Poe-ish highlights how impressive it is that this story genuinely adds to a very Victorian-based genre without much in terms of rehashing old ideas. The spookiness revolves around cell phones in a manner that says what Black Mirror tries to, but without the preaching. It is at once both eternally human and completely of the time. The patience and smallness of the story allow for something more potent than Mike Flanagan’s sprawling ensemble epics. It is a film that the current climate of theaters couldn’t sustain, combining both the strengths of King’s mainstream celebrity and the aspirations of indie filmmaking. It may not evoke exactly the right tone to be festive for Halloween, but it is truly an autumnal masterpiece.
There are of course countable more dropping this month. Three that avoid examination by not being released at the time of writing are Terror Train (2022), Cabinet of Curiosities (2022), and V/H/S/99 (2022). The quasi-legal existence of Tubi and their own Wild West Napster-esque image makes an original for the platform feel notable, let alone a remake of a classic like Terror Train (1980). Cabinet of Curiosities on Netflix offers so many different short films from interesting directors there better be at least one jaw-dropping takeaway. It is Shudder’s continuation of the V/H/S franchise (starting in 2012) that connects the current Golden Age of horror streaming back to the Wild West era of 2010 the most directly. This series has always been a rough gem, never operating on a comfort movie level, for better or worse.
Much like direct-to-video of the ’80s, moments occur that allow outlier filmmakers to bring their visions to wider audiences without the approval of major studios. Moments like these occur again and again, from the ’70s drive-in era to the Wild West birth of streaming. These moments can be seen as luck for timing, as wisdom for those who see beyond the norm, or as desperation for filmmakers that will just take any opportunity they can. One might as well run through any door that opens though, as time and again corporations find ways to plug these holes; be it from crushing mom-and-pop video stores with Blockbuster or the massive legitimization of streaming platforms. The current Golden Age of Halloween streaming may not be as revolutionary as what happened just about a decade ago, but it is nice to see a glimmer of that still existing in the data piped directly into homes. ★