HOT Day 15: It Follows

it-follows.35781“That’s my favorite mountain in Illinois,” snickers Mike during a Mystery Science Theatre 2000 screening of Beginning of the End. The movie ostensibly takes place in fictional Ludlow, Illinois, and then in Chicago, but from the outset it’s clear that, as Mike later says, “Guys, this is so not Illinois.” Because of cost and other factors, plenty of movies (and television shows) shoot on sets or disguise one city as another, rather than actually contend with the headache of filming on location. Honestly, the evidence that pops up on screen to reveal that it’s, say, Toronto subbing for New York rarely distracts me. I don’t usually notice license plates or the fact that there’s a random palm tree sprouting on what’s supposed to be a Midwestern lawn. (The one time I did notice something was amiss was during an early episode of Orphan Black when Tatiana Maslany receives a huge pile of colorful Canadian money, and my U.S.-centric reaction was, “Seriously, they couldn’t get the props department to make something that at least looks like real money?”)

follows.0There’s a lot — a lot — I love about David Mitchell’s film It Follows; it may actually be my favorite movie of the year. The quiet tone; the unstoppability of the “monster” (which may be setting a new horror trend, according to Noel Murray); the performance of all the young actors, anchored by the astonishing Maika Monroe (who also had a completely badass Final Girl role in The Guest, a really fun and bloody film).

But the thing that really sticks with me every time I rewatch It Follows is its sense of timelessness. Like the best horror movies, this film could be taking place right now, in modern times, or in 1979 (a great year for horror films), or in a slightly off-kilter future — who knows? I feel like if I see this movie in another ten or twenty years, it’s still going to fell both contemporary and like a throwback. That’s due in great part to the props (clamshell eReader!), sets, and wardrobe, all of which manage to indicate no time period and every (modern) time period at the same time. But I also think Mitchell’s decision to film on location in Detroit plays a big part in the film’s simultaneous familiarity and strangeness.

it-follows-03I’ve never been to Detroit, but I’m from the Midwest. I don’t think you even have to hail from the center of the country, though, for the city and suburbs of It Follows to look simultaneously familiar and strange to you. These suburban homes and distant cityscapes are familiar enough from other movies we’ve seen. Yet the blight and ruin that permeates the setting lend an eerie atmosphere. Being in the world of It Follows is akin to landing on Mars and discovering a small town just like the one you grew up in. It feels right to you, yet you can’t shake a feeling of wrongness.

It’s the same way I feel about the other trappings of It Follows — the details are just right, but also wrong. Every physical detail in the film combines to throw you off-kilter, so that you’re not certain of anything, including the nature of the monster that stalks the protagonists. It’s a terrifying monster, to be sure. But the atmosphere in which that monster lives amplifies the terror until it’s nearly unbearable.

Stray observations:

  • Birth.Movies.Death. used to be Badass Digest, and when it was, it ran this great interview with director David Mitchell about the inspirations and decisions behind It Follows.
  • This piece from Slate more deeply explores how setting the film in Detroit reflects the movie's themes and tone.
  • And this article has interesting ideas about how all those off-kilter elements combine to create the movie's tension.

HOT Day 14: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

AGWHAN_posterEarly adulthood can be a melancholy time. You're on the cusp of everything, your whole life before you -- it should be exhilarating. But you're also expected to be an adult, not a child. Those silly moments that seize you -- what are you supposed to do with those? Life is full of possibility, and you're independent, but that also means you're virtually resourceless; this is the time of crappy entry level jobs, ramen for dinner, and milk carton furniture. Saying hello to adulthood is saying goodbye, in many ways, to youth. But not if you're the titular girl in Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. She's a vampire, permanently ensconced in that in-between space. The whole movie manages to occupy that space, actually, with long, slow scenes in which characters stare into the darkness or make slow-motion passes at each other. Everyone is in a sort of stasis, waiting for a chance, for drugs, for a trick to turn, for a way out.

girlwalkshomeatnightThat is, until the Girl shows up and starts sinking her teeth into people. You'd think this would be a startling change -- and the attacks are startling, and bloody -- but what the Girl wants is unclear; blood, yes, but what else? She steals but squirrels her loot away in her apartment; she stalks a little boy but does nothing more than give him a fright. She rolls through Iranian streets on a skateboard and dances, trance-like, to the greatest movie soundtrack of all time. She's bored, and lonely till she meets Arash and chooses not to bite him. Here's where the Girl starts making decisions that change everything -- that open doors to a new chapter, potentially, in the lives of a couple of young adults.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is billed as a horror movie, and it has its shocking moments. But the real horror here is the kind that haunts you before you embark on something new.

Stray observations:

  • This article describes the film as Sergio Leone meets David Lynch -- accurate.
  • I love this interview with the director and the star of the film.
  • This blog entry feels a little low-energy to me, and lest you infer from it that I didn't like the movie:  I really liked this movie. This has just been a busy time, and it's currently almost 10 p.m. -- way past my pathetic grandma-Jamey bedtime.
  • This is the greatest cat in the history of cinema:

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HOT Day 13: The Fly

MV5BMTQ5OTgwOTExM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTE4ODE5OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_AL_David Cronenberg may have ultimately denied that The Fly, his 1986 remake of a 1958 movie, was meant to be an AIDS allegory, but that Seth Brundle’s transformation into “Brundlefly” is meant to reflect the deterioration of a body due to disease is clear. Heck, disease as a theme is made explicit:  “The disease has just revealed its purpose. We don't have to worry about contagion anymore. I know what the disease wants,” Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) explains to his girlfriend, Veronica (Geena Davis). “It wants to... turn me into something else.” It doesn’t even matter that what he’s talking about isn’t really a disease; it’s a genetic mutation, brought on by Brundle’s teleporting misadventures. But Cronenberg’s script keeps his characters talking in terms of disease, and in doing so, he gives us the most extreme version of what happens to a person — and to the people around him — when a disease takes hold of the body. Jeff Goldblum's sexiest role? Quite possibly.

I am by no means the first — or even the hundred-and-first — person to reflect upon The Fly and its portrayal of disease. But rewatching the film last night, I found myself moved by one scene in particular that struck me as an incredibly accurate depiction of what it’s like to be helpless before a disease.

The scene comes mid-movie, before Veronica realizes she’s pregnant with a Brundlefly baby, but well into the course of Brundle’s deterioration. Brundle, post-teleportation, has been kind of an arrogant prick up till now, what with his new, bulgy muscles and his supercharged sexual stamina and all the other stuff becoming genetically spliced with a fly apparently bestows upon you. He hasn’t passed over into horror movie monster territory yet, though. Here, he’s just a man, terrified of what’s happening to him.

After having fled Brundle’s apartment when he tried to get her to “Drink deep, or taste not, the plasma spring!” (er — be teleported so she could have sex as long as he can, basically), Veronica returns after Brundle gives her a call.

Jeff Goldblum's sexiest role? Quite possibly.

When she arrives, she is aghast at how he has already transformed. At this point in the movie, he is still recognizably a man, but he is stooped and walks with the aid of two canes. His skin is gray and lumpy, and it’s oozing some sort of mucus. His fingernails have all fallen out.

“There must be someone we can go to, some test that can be done,” Veronica rationalizes.

“No! I won’t be just another tumorous bore…” he insists.

“Then what do you want me to do?” she says. “Why did you call me?”

Brundle doesn’t answer. Instead, he pokes at some donuts on the table nearby, then holds one up — and immediately barfs on it. “That’s disgusting!” he says, just as horrified as Veronica is at what’s happened. Then he tried to scratch his ear — which promptly falls off. Veronica gasps.

“My—ear—no—” He looks at her helplessly. Then says:  “I’m scared…Help me. Please, please.”

And Veronica puts her arms around him.

How beautiful is Geena Davis in this role, even when she's depressed about her horror of a boyfriend?

It’s not a scene that lasts very long, but it’s memorable for its gross-out factor. It’s also notable, I think, for the way it gets at exactly what it feels like to be confronted with something awful, something that’s hurting a loved one — something you can do nothing to stop or ease or slow. When Veronica asks, “What do you want me to do? Why did you call me?” she’s almost angry; why did he call her? She can’t do anything for him, and it’s awful to have to see him in this state. It’s the response of someone who is utterly helpless to do anything for a person in pain — a person they love.

Brundle is pitiful as his former bravado completely dissolves and he says, simply, “Help me.” There’s no help; he has been joined with the fly on a molecular level. All either of them can do is watch him fall apart.

It’s a wrenching moment and, I imagine, a recognizable one for anyone who has watched someone succumb to sickness. Fortunately, the melancholy and heartbreak of The Fly is balanced by romance, humor and — naturally — body horror and gore. It’s a surprisingly emotional ride for a movie in which the main character barfs on his food before consuming it.

Stray observations:

  • His teeth fall out, he barfs on donuts then eats them, he melts a man's arm off -- but I swear the part that makes me squirm every time is when he pulls that first fingernail off. Yick.
  • Here's a great article that talks about the balance of tone Cronenberg achieves in this movie.
  • This piece is pretty hilarious, and also makes a good point about lady reporters falling in love with their subjects -- which, movies can just stop with that shit, thanks.
  • And here's the piece that led me to that piece.
  • Finally, I've linked to this episode of The Canon before, but it's a great discussion between Devin and Amy about The Fly.

HOT Day 12: Housebound

HB POSTER FINAL_BLEED_3Housebound, a 2014 New Zealand horror/comedy, is another one of those delightful surprises you might come across, say, when you’re scrolling through Netflix on a rainy evening, looking for something spooky. That’s sort of what happened to me and a friend I’d invited over for dinner and a scary movie; we didn’t have anything specific in mind, but after one false start (a found-footage movie called Daylight, available on iTunes, which ended up being a BIG pass), we discovered this weird, creepy, funny film. Housebound stars Morgana O’Reilly as Kylie, an angry, trouble-making young woman who gets busted after smashing an ATM with a sledgehammer then immediately wrecking her car. She’s sentenced to house arrest — which turns out to be an ingenious set-up for a horror movie. Like horror films set in extremely cold environments (The Thing, The Shining), Housebound derives a lot of its tension from the idea that no matter how bad things get, its protagonist can’t escape.

Binoculars-0-800-0-450-cropA lot weighs on that protagonist, and watching O’Reilly, I was excited to discover another strong horror heroine (or, as The Mary Sue prefers it, a Nuanced Female Character — a description I can get behind). It made me reflect that, actually, we’ve seen a lot of great, nuanced ladies at the helm of horror movies lately. Jennifer from Jennifer’s Body is the baddie, but she’s also complex, and the protagonist, Needy, is just as complicated. Jay from It Follows, Amelia from The Babadook, both Edith and Lucille from Crimson Peak — we’re living in an era when horror movies give us complicated, flawed, smart women as both heroes and villains, and I’m frankly loving it.

I’m not saying a whole lot about Housebound’s plot, in part because I hope you’ll seek it out, and I don’t want to give the plot away. I will say that the film cleverly plays with the way a house can be both a home and a prison, and the paranoia you can feel when you’re the only one at home (or think you are). It’s a horror comedy that actually manages to be both scary and funny — and satisfyingly gory.

houseboundI’m also hoping you’ll check out this version of the film because I just read that it’s being remade. The good news is, Peter Jackson is attached to the remake. But my question is:  Why remake this at all? (I know the answer is because everything gets remade, even Poltergeist.) A remake will probably cast some better-known American actress in the main role and maybe amp up the gore factor, I guess. But half of the joy of the original is meeting new, unfamiliar faces in both the lead and the supporting roles.

Stray observations:

  • I'm a big fan of this film, though I do agree with some of what the AV Club's Mike D'Angelo has to say about the film's final act. (D'Angelo is a little harsh in my opinion, but the last part of the film could be a little tighter.)

HOT Day 11: Crimson Peak

MV5BNTY2OTI5MjAyOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTkzMjQ0NDE@._V1_UY1200_CR64,0,630,1200_AL_Spoiler alert:  Run, don't walk, to see Crimson Peak, then come back for this mildly spoiler-ific post. I’ve written before about CGI effects versus practical effects and my preference for the latter, in most cases. So when I saw initial trailers for Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak and took note of what looked like computer-generated ghosts scratching walls with their spidery fingers and scaring the shit out of Mia Wasikowska, I admit I was a little worried. The movie looked lush and Gothic and scary, but I was put off by what I thought would end up being fake-looking, cheesy ghouls.

Crimson Peak’s ghosts are CGI, as it turns out — and they’re also not CGI. From Bustle:

[T]he Crimson Peak ghosts are especially scary and are also unlike anything seen in a movie before.

How they were created is a fascinating process. Most of the time these days, Hollywood ghosts are created using either actors in makeup or CGI effects, but Crimson Peak's ghouls utilize both techniques. In order for his ghosts to feel as real as possible while still maintaining an other-worldly appearance, del Toro opted to use real actors on set with make-up, according to IGN, acting out their scenes with the film's stars. Then, in post-production, the actors were overlaid with digital effects, giving them an added level of intangibility and distinct smoke-like trails.

I don’t think the results of del Toro’s innovative technique hit exactly the mark he hoped for; I, for one, felt the ghosts still looked too slick. But they also look cool, and more importantly, they didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the movie, the way that some disappointing computer effects have in the past (I’m looking at you, hair-pulling ghost from Paranormal Activity 3).

Screen-shot-2015-02-13-at-1.04.42-PM-620x400This might be due, in part, to the fact that while I found it scary (whereas some critics did not), Crimson Peak isn’t really a ghost story. “The ghosts are a metaphor,” says the protagonist, a writer named Edith Cushing (Wasikowska), when she describes her latest story. The same is true for the actual ghosts that will come to haunt her when she marries Tom Hiddleston’s Thomas Sharpe, a dashing baronet who, of course, has a dark past. Del Toro effectively deploys his spirits to frighten and instigate uneasiness, but the real action of the movie comes from its living characters’ desires and secrets. Be afraid of the ghouls who haunt the halls of Allerdale Hall; be more afraid of the deteriorating home’s master and mistress.

Jessica-Chastain-in-Crimson-PeakSpeaking of the mistress:  This may be one of Jessica Chastain’s best performances (and I like her in virtually every role she’s played so far in her career). She is cool and forbidding right up until the point when she becomes completely unhinged, and her climactic scene is horrifying and wonderful. Wasikowska is also excellent, stubborn and determined but also fragile and flawed — both women have meaty, well-rounded roles, which is a welcome change in a time when actresses are lamenting the shameful (continued) lack of decent roles for women. (There was a brief moment when I became convinced that Edith was going to be relegated to a damsel-in-distress role, and I think I might have audibly sighed — until the tables were turned, much to my happy relief.) Also welcome is the way Edith Cushing as a writer is portrayed; she’s not a modern novelist, but she comes closer to representing what it’s actually like to be a writer than most portrayals I’ve seen on t.v. or in the movies.

To top it all off, Crimson Peak is gorgeous, with one of the most original settings I can crimson-peakremember seeing recently; Allerdale Hall is a kind of mad house, in the sense that Shirley Jackson’s Hill House was mad — it is a living organism, in its way, and it is not a sane one.

 

Additional Reading:

  • Devin Faraci of Birth.Movies.Death. didn't find Crimson Peak very scary. I think he's wrong, but I still like his review.
  • I also really enjoyed Sheila O'Malley's review on Roger Ebert.com, where she talks quite a bit about the older films del Toro references as well as how his visual style permeates the movie.
  • And one more review, this one from The Nerdist's Clarke Wolfe, who talks about the roles of women in Crimson Peak.
  • We Are Still Here might be Fulci as fuck, but Crimson Peak is Gothic as hell. And Vulture very kindly gave us all a Gothic primer (or post...er?) as a companion to the film.

HOT Day 10: We Are Still Here

we-are-still-here-posterA few years ago, I went to see Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, a Korean monster movie. I went into the theater expecting scares; I came out slightly confused. There had been some good horror moments, and there had been scenes of genuine emotion, and there had also been some supremely silly moments that seemed to undermine the film entirely. I just wasn’t sure how to feel about the film. Later, I learned more about Bong Joon-ho and his sensibility. He’s known for mixing genres — for pairing a bit of slapstick comedy with domestic family drama to see how they play off of each other. (“The films of the South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho operate like slyly constructed Rube Goldberg machines. His 2007 The Host, which made my list of 10 best films for that year, was a Godzilla-style monster movie that popped open to reveal a ghost story and a touching family drama hidden inside,” wrote film critic Dana Stevens.)

What are the odds this house is haunted? Like, a bazillion percent

All this is to say, sometimes it helps to know a little something going in. When I saw Bong’s later film, Snowpiercer, I was more familiar with the director’s style, and I pretty much instantly fell in love with this funny, thrilling, dystopian sci-fi epic.

Last night, I watched We Are Still Here. I knew virtually nothing about the film going in, except what I’d read in the review that made me want to watch it. The review, from Birth.Movies.Death, mentioned Lucio Fulci, about whom I also knew nothing. (This is, perhaps, a major oversight on the part of a horror movie fan, but I’ve never been a huge fan of giallo. I understand the historical and cultural importance of films like Suspiria or Delirium, but I just can’t get invested in them.) “We Are Still Here is Fulci as fuck,” Meredith Borders wrote in her BMD review, and I shrugged and thought, “Whatever, sounds like a good watch.”

If your hippie-fied house guest suggests conducting a seance in your haunted house...you say, "NO."

Well…We Are Still Here started off promising. In his review for Roger Ebert.com, Glenn Kenny wrote, “For its first half-hour, We Are Still Here might give the impression that it’s one of those new-fangled ‘subtle’ independent horror movies. You know, the kind that depends more on ‘mood’ and ‘atmosphere’ than on Guignol scares and shocks to reach its viewers.” Thing is, I like those moody, atmospheric movies, so for the first few minutes, I was in We Are Still Here.

It’s not even the tonal shift of the movie that threw movie. About halfway through, We Are Still Here tosses aside any subtlety in favor of straight-up Guignol and begins splattering blood, squishing heads, and incinerating bodies like nobody’s business. I approve of this sort of gore-fest.

"I still feel like Bobby is -- " "Shut the eff up, woman, this house is fucking haunted!"

But something felt off to me. The performances were so stilted and almost amateurish in some cases. The writing was unnecessarily repetitive; at one point, when the grieving mother played by Barbara Crampton, insists for the thousandth time, “I still feel Bobby here!” (referring to her dead son, whom she’s convinced is haunting the house she and her husband have moved into), I yelled at the t.v., “WE GET IT.” And how many damn times do characters have to say, “Gee, there seems to be something dark happening inside this house?” I’m watching a horror movie; who are they trying to convince?

There were nevertheless some good scares and some effective scenes. A seance during which a house guest rapidly goes from communicating with a spirit to serving as the ghost’s conduit is sufficiently disturbing, and several of the deaths (particularly those involving a certain staircase) are inventive. But I couldn’t get past the awkward acting, the uneven tone, and the nonsensical ending.

After the movie, I looked up additional reviews to see if I was missing something. “Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery (1981) is one clear model here, with its slightly ‘off’ foreigner’s vision of American life and crude yet effective ghoul in the basement,” writes Dennis Harvey for Variety. He goes on:

[T]he performances here often have an exaggerated comedic tinge that’s not quite parodic but still creates some distance between the viewer and the spooky atmosphere. […]  But they fit into a general thematic and design scheme that faithfully echoes a seminal era’s often garish horror conventions, particularly in Karim Hussain’s widescreen lensing and Wojciech Golczewski’s original score. Even the occasional gaps in narrative and character logic make sense in the context of homage — particularly to Fulci, but also to such cultish U.S. indie horror films of the era as Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Of course, viewers with a shallower genre viewing history to draw on will simply fault We Are Still Here as being corny and careless.

Haunted. Told you.

Ah, so that’s my problem. I’m one of those viewers with a shallower genre-viewing history. Which brings up a question:  What’s my responsibility in terms of well-roundedness? As a lover of the horror genre, I don’t want to be a shallow viewer; I like knowing the history behind certain directors’ choices and the legacy behind classic monsters. And not knowing how We Are Still Here pays homage to Fulci and older cult films, I clearly missed out on something.

But like I said, I don’t love giallo, and I’m not always into deliberate awkwardness. More importantly, as NPR’s Linda Holmes once pointed out, you can only consume so much, and that means you have to make choices. This time, my choice has meant that I don’t appreciate We Are Still Here, perhaps, as I should have.

HOT Day 9: Paranormal Activity

Paranormal_Activity_posterIn the commentary track for Ghostbusters, director Ivan Reitman explains his strategy for getting the audience on board with a fairly ridiculous concept while still managing to maintain the movie’s realism. He calls it his “domino theory of reality,” explaining, “As long as you took the [audience] step by step through a series of credible choices, you could start to believe this sort of stuff could happen.” There’s an alternate theory, a sort of opposite to the domino theory of reality, that I would like to put forth:  the crescendo theory of unreality. Most horror movies that strive to maintain a sense of verisimilitude operate on this theory. Found footage horror films, in particular, rely upon the crescendo in order to create a plausibly real enough situation that both the viewer and the characters on screen find it easy — and realistic — to believe in the otherwise totally implausible situation that’s occurring.

27119911_The crescendo theory:  Just as Reitman sets up a series of credible choices that gradually lead the viewer into what should be an unbelievable situation without losing the trust of that audience, horror film directors must often set up a series of events that start relatively mundane but gradually intensify as they usher viewers from reality to the unreality of the film’s supernatural subject.

That’s an awfully long sentence to communicate a simple idea:  People ain’t gonna believe the shit you throw at them if you throw the super crazy shit first. Start with the simple shit, though, and gradually get crazier, and people will follow right along. There are lots of great examples of this method, but Paranormal Activity provides a classic demonstration.

hqdefaultProtagonists Katie and Micah are already in the midst of whatever’s troubling them when the film opens. Katie claims to have been bothered by strange occurrences — whispering voices, flickering lights — and a psychic who pays the couple a visit explains to them that what they’re experiencing is probably demonic activity, not a haunting. But all of this is talk, and talk is cheap,  and easily disregarded. The director’s not yet asking you to believe something you’re seeing with your own eyes, and so as a viewer, it’s easy to either take what’s said at face value, or dismiss it.

Since Katie and Micah have already been experiencing strange phenomena, in the world of the movie, it wouldn’t be surprising for something really unsettling to happen once Micah sets up his camera to catch what’s going on while he and Katie are asleep. But director Oren Peli knows you can’t just throw a demon onto the screen or start dragging characters out of bed right off the bat. It’s too much to ask a viewer to jump with both feet into that unreality right away. Instead, Micah and Katie’s first night is fairly uneventful, and subsequent nights reveal only minor disturbances:  There are strange noises, the door opens and closes by itself. Katie and Micah are weirded out, but not terrified, and the audience feels the same.

200_sBut then things start to escalate. In the world of the movie, the psychic has warned Micah, especially, that antagonizing the demon will only make it more active. Micah being Micah, he pretty much immediately starts taunting the demon and fooling around with a friend's Ouija board. So not only does Peli gradually intensify the strange happenings, he gives the audience a reason for why things start to escalate, thus easing us into belief in the paranormal. Something ruffles the sheets as Katie and Micah sleep. Katie begins to act as though she’s possessed. Then we see the actual footsteps of the demon as it walks through a baby-powder booby trap set up by Micah. By the time an invisible something is dragging Katie out of bed in the middle of the night, we’re fully on board with the new reality the movie presents. Demons are, in fact, real — as long as we’re watching this film.

The crescendo theory isn’t complicated, but it has always pretty essential for getting buy-in from an audience, especially as found footage became popular, starting with The Blair Witch Project. That’s another film that’s set in “reality”; the shaky cam, the poorly framed shots, the accidental recordings all combine to make us feel like the world of the movie is the real world. Gradually inserting the paranormal into that real world invites the viewer to believe, no matter how unbelievable the strange goings-on become.

Stray observations:

  • In preparation for the upcoming release of Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, which is the fifth (I know!) movie of this franchise, I'm going to be rewatching all the Paranormal Activity movies. But I probably won't write separate posts about every single one -- I may double up on a couple, especially the latter ones, which I imagine I won't have much to say about.
  • If you, like me, are planning on seeing The Ghost Dimension when it comes out but you don't feel like watching the other four movies, here's a nice primer on the main things you need to remember going in to The Ghost Dimension.
  • Here's a pretty good article about Oren Peli's inspiration and how he made this film on a shoestring budget (and in his own house, to boot).
  • According to Wikipedia, Oren Peli was super-impressed with the chemistry between actors Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloat. (He reportedly said, "If you saw the [audition] footage, you would've thought they had known each other for years.") This is one more facet that really drives home the reality of the film; not only do the actors have great chemistry, but they're totally believable, normal people individually.

HOT Day 8: Jennifer's Body

jennifers_body_ver2Horror is littered with female bodies. Final Girls get to survive their movies to fight another day, but every non-Final Girl is just one more corpse to be gutted, sliced up, hung from a meat hook, or decapitated. Plenty of men die in horror movies, too, but the quintessential horror victim is a woman:  fleeing in terror, half-dressed, tripping in her own heels. The classic scream of terror is a woman’s scream. And the most time-honored weapon for horror movie villains? The knife — a phallic-shaped instrument that penetrates its victim. With Jennifer’s Body, writer Diablo Cody both honors and subverts this tradition. High schooler Jennifer Check (Megan Fox, in the role that made me go, “Oh, maybe Megan Fox is actually talented”) is sacrificed by the eyeliner-wearing members of an indie band looking to make a pact with Satan for musical success. But it turns out that when a Satanic ritual calls for a virgin and you offer up someone who’s “not even a backdoor virgin anymore” (Jennifer confides to her BFF, Needy, played by Amanda Seyfried), you do achieve fame, but you also accidentally create a succubus. Oops.

JenBody8“I mean, they did go all Benihana on my ass with that knife, and it should’ve killed me, but for some reason…it didn’t,” Jennifer explains to Needy after she’s been sacrificed. Her body, in a sense, is no longer her own; Jennifer, now possessed by a demon and transformed into a succubus, devours boys to keep herself beautiful and full of life. She’s one more female victim in a long line of dead ladies who lose control of their own bodies.

Except she’s not. Jennifer might be effectively dead, but she retains her snarky personality, her confidence (sexual and otherwise), and superior attitude. By simultaneously killing Jennifer off and making her the film’s antagonist, Cody gets to have her cake and bleed all over it, too.

Jennifer's_Body,_demon_within“Horror has always had kind of a feminist angle to it in a weird way and, at the same time, it’s kind of delightfully exploitative,” Cody said in an interview with MoviesOnline. “[Director Karyn Kusama and I] wanted to subvert the classic horror model of women being terrorized.” The writer and the director succeeded:  It’s the men who are terrorized by Jennifer — the men who are exploited, or protected, or objectified before being consumed by a ravenous girl with a hinged jaw.

Jennifer is just a body, but she’s also in control of her body, but she’s also at the mercy of her body — just like every teenage girl. Puberty hits, emotions ride high, menstrual tides roll in, and suddenly the pre-pubescent girl who was perfectly pleasant becomes a monster, as far as most people around her are concerned. Like Jennifer, most girls have to negotiate that period of their lives when they are simultaneously unable to control their own bodies, and struggling to figure out how to use those bodies, and at the mercy of how others perceive them on the basis of those bodies.

Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried“My tit,” Jennifer sighs after Needy stabs in her in the chest during their standoff.

“No,” Needy has to correct her. “Your heart.” But for Jennifer, it’s all about her body; that’s what she’s been struggling to maintain control over. In the end, she becomes one more victim, but not of a crazed (male) serial killer. It takes another teenage girl to kill Jennifer.

And like any rite of passage, killing Jennifer has left its mark on Needy. Literally. Needy reveals a bite mark on her shoulder and informs the audience that sometimes, when you survive a demon-inflicted injury, you get a little of the demon inside you. And then she levitates to freedom from the facility she’s been living in since Jennifer’s death. As the credits roll, we see how Needy spends her first day back on the outside:  Murdering the members of the band who sacrificed Jennifer’s body.

Stray observations:

  • I didn't mention it above, but this movie is also really funny. Shouldn't be shocking with a Diablo Cody script; she gets flack for being too quirky with dialog, but you can't deny she's funny. I mean, c'mon:  "She can fly?!" "She's just hovering. It's not that impressive!"
  • Also, this cast. J.K. Simmons. Kyle Gallner. Amy Sedaris! CHRIS FREAKING PRATT!
  • There's also a lot out there about the portrayal of female friendship, particularly among teen girls, in this movie, but it's 7:45 p.m. and I need to watch another horror movie for my next post so, you know...Google some shit, if you're interested.

HOT Day 7: Pontypool

220px-PontypoolposterThis is where the spoiler would go if there was going to be one. But there’s not. In fact, I’m barely going to say anything about the 2008 Canadian film Pontypool. And that’s because I want to talk about going in blind. Before I knew about the movie, I discovered the book Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess. Aside from having a cool title, the book was evidently about zombies; I knew this because it was on a list called something like “Great Books About Zombies.” Despite ordering Pontypool from Amazon, I never got around to reading it, and it eventually found itself donated to the local used bookstore after having been relegated to the Pile of Stuff I’ll Probably Never Get Around To.

Then Netflix decided that I ought to watch Pontypool, the movie adapted by author Tony Burgess from his own novel. Netflix queued that puppy up in every list of suggestions it had for me. But I’m good at ignoring things.

But then. Then I started listening to a great horror movie podcast called Faculty of Horror, hosted by two intelligent ladies who also happen to be Canadian. Their country of origin only matters because they value the culture that comes from their homeland, which led them to do an episode on Pontypool. I didn’t listen to that episode when it first downloaded. No, I decided that the universe was trying to tell me something. And so I finally watched Pontypool.

pontypool-picture-1Most of the time, we know at least something about the movies we see before we see them. We are bombarded by trailers and ads that give us some inkling about what the movie is about and how it might play out. Since the dawn of the internet, information has been particularly abundant; movie nerds who like to unearth every detail, or movie lovers who want to stoke their own anticipation and excitement, can feed off of a steady stream of rumors, leaks, interviews, and sneak peaks practically from the moment a movie is conceived to the day it opens in theaters.

As someone who reads a lot of film criticism, I fall prey to this consumption of anticipatory information frequently enough. Usually it’s just because I’m excited to see something, and usually, it doesn’t ruin my eventual movie experience. I’m not a spoiler-phobe; I believe you can know things about a movie, even big things, and still get pleasure from the way a film unfolds.

2392_4But every once in a while, it’s refreshing to go into a movie without knowing much of anything about it. That’s what happened when I finally watched Pontypool. I knew it had zombies, and that was literally it. Fast zombies? Slow zombies? Voodoo zombies? Who could say? I didn’t know if I was in store for a gore fest or a thoughtful art film. No idea whether this thing took place in a city, near a farm, or on an island (Anne of Zombie Gables, anyone?).

Pontypool hinges on the slow, baffling, and increasingly terrifying trickle of information. Its main characters know almost as little as I knew going in. This made for an exciting symmetry between characters and viewer:  As Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie, who seemsstill-of-lisa-houle-and-stephen-mchattie-in-pontypool-(2008) born for this role) and Sydney (Lisa Houle) sort through the puzzling information that comes their way, I was doing the same. Every time a question was answered, my reaction mirrored theirs. Listening plays a huge role in this film, and every time the characters sat, rapt, as they listened, I know my face looked just like theirs — wide-eyed, open-mouthed, desperate to hear what would unfold next.

I’m guessing a good number of people who read this won’t have seen Pontypool. Check it out — it’s a good scare. And if you do, try watching it without learning anything more about it first. It’s an experience worth having.

Stray observations:

  • I will say this: Some of Pontypool is a little problematic, particularly the "solution" toward the end. How, exactly, is it supposed to work? What's the pattern? I still don't know. But by the end of the movie, I'm so caught up in the experience, I also sort of don't care.
  • Apparently, there is or was a sequel called Pontypool Changes in development. From what I read on IMDB, Pontypool might be the first of three related movies. Although nothing's happened since 2008, so maybe that whole project got cancelled?
  • Pontypool is an actual town in Canada. Roadtrip!
  • Back when The Dissolve was still around, writer Keith Phipps recommended Pontypool as an "underrated" horror film. Check out his conversation with Matt Singer (but only after you watch the movie!)
  • Mrs. French's cat is missing.

HOT Day 6: Se7en

1411689224552Twenty years after Brad Pitt asked the least rhetorical question in cinema history, moviegoers still remember Se7en for its ending — its bleak, unrelenting, punch-in-the-gut ending. Sure, before the credits roll, Morgan Freeman tries to put a bright spin on things by quoting Ernest Hemingway. But we, the audience, know better:  The world is not, in fact, worth fighting for — not if it really is the box of shit this movie has taught us to think of it as. The head-in-the-box reveal is what people remember, but what sticks with me long after David Bowie’s “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” has stopped playing is that bleakness. The tragic ending of Detective Mills’s (Brad Pitt) marriage and career is shocking and horrible, but it’s really the grace note at the end of a dirge that’s been playing through the whole film. “This isn’t going to have a happy ending,” Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) says about the John Doe case, but he’s talking about the movie itself. There’s no way Se7en can end happily (despite what studio execs apparently wanted back in 1995). From its cold open and credit sequence, Se7en tells us it’s going to end exactly as it began: without hope.

The first crime scene we see Somerset investigate is a domestic dispute that ended with shots fired and a dead body. “Did the kid see it?” Somerset asks. And the cop he’s working with scoffs cynically:  “What kind of fucking question is that?[…] ‘Did the kid see it?’ Who gives a fuck? He’s dead, his wife killed him. Anything else has nothing to do with us.” It’s an attitude that will resurface throughout the movie — mind your own business, even as the screams from next door grow louder and louder — that sets the film’s tone of helplessness and cynicism.

Does it ever stop raining in this city?

Everything about Se7en serves to emphasize the very worst parts of Nameless City that is never identified as New York, but very clearly is. It’s almost always raining, and the gutters are full of dirty water. Browns, blacks, and grays dominate the color palette. The brightest settings — Somerset’s apartment, the Pride victim’s home — are toned down by ample shadows or composed of shots in close-up that emphasize the claustrophobia and hemmed-in-ness of the city. There are bodily fluids and cockroaches and garbage everywhere. And, everywhere, evidence that everything is terrible.

Nothing better than a tickled Morgan Freeman.

Morgan Freeman is the moral center of the film, and we look to him for some glimmer of hope. He is at the heart of most of the movie’s moments of levity. Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D Major soars as he does research in the library — one of the few settings with high ceilings and open spaces. And he tries to hold onto hope with the final line of the film. But he is just as susceptible to the reality of the film. He is only seven days from retirement when the film begins. “What in the hell are you gonna do with yourself out there, Somerset?” the Police Captain asks. “Don’t you feel it? Don’t you feel that feeling? You’re not going to be a cop anymore.”

200_s“That’s the whole idea,” Somerset tells him. And then he relates a story about a man who got attacked, robbed, and then stabbed in both eyes. “This happened just last night, about four blocks from here.”

“Yeah, I read about it,” says the Police Captain.

It’s just another violent act in a violent city to him. To everyone.

“I don’t understand this place anymore,” Somerset says.

“It’s the way it’s always been,” insists the Captain.

And that is precisely the problem. It’s too hard to be the only beacon of hope in the world of Se7en. Somerset walks away from the scene of the final crime, nothing but a shadow, as dark as the landscape around him.

Stray observations:

  • Here are 14 things you might not know about Se7en from Mental Floss.
  • I have to link to this article just because the title cracks me up. (Also, it addresses the ending of the film, which in revised drafts was apparently very different.)
  • Se7en writer Andrew Kevin Walker was evidently very depressed when he lived in New York and sort of hated the city. See how hatred fuels the artistic process!
  • In a movie with not a lot of laughs (although it's got some memorable humorous moments, for sure), my very favorite comes from R. Lee Ermey as the Police Captain.
  • Here's a really great piece about Se7en's opening credit sequence, which does a lot to set the tone of the film.
  • Best Se7en-inspired internet meme ever:

28f7831c3fb32c7efdd210876aceff5b

HOT Day 5: Lyle

lyle-posterSpoilers ahoy: Lyle is a fairly new movie, just now available On Demand and on iTunes. This discussion will include spoilers, so if you plan on checking the movie out, do that first, then come back. Onward!

When I first heard about Lyle, thanks to an online marketing campaign, it was billed as “Rosemary’s Baby with lesbians.” I didn’t bother watching the miniseries remake of Rosemary’s Baby that came out earlier this year; I like Zoe Saldana, but when you are a person who regards the original as not just a great horror movie but your own personal favorite film of all time, you don’t bother with the second-rate version. But a reinterpretation set in modern Brooklyn with two female leads? My curiosity was piqued.

What’s good about Lyle is that it really is a reinterpretation. It takes the basic structure of Rosemary’s Baby — young couple (one of whom has aspirations for a career in the arts), new baby on the way, new apartment, creepy neighbor, paranoia — and tosses a few new ideas at it. As the young couple, Leah (Gaby Hoffmann in a solid performance) and June (Ingrid Jungermann) aren’t just expecting a baby; they already have a toddler in tow, a little girl named Lyle who suffers a fatal fall from a window that Leah is certain she didn’t leave open.

lyle_aThis opens the story up to become an exploration of grief. Unfortunately, the time we could spend watching how Leah’s grief transforms her and her relationship — not to mention how it converges with the increasing paranoia she feels — is collapsed. We see Lyle vanish, and then seven months later, we see Leah insist that she’s no longer “inventing” stories about how Lyle died during a session with a therapist. The therapist, meanwhile, looks on skeptically as Leah bursts into hysterical laughter at how disappointed June was to discover that their soon-to-be-born baby isn’t a boy. We see the end effect of grief, but there’s a missed opportunity here, I think. Especially in a horror movie, where tension needs to build before the climax, it helps, sometimes, for the viewer to see the lived experience of the characters. Instead, we get this jarring jump ahead, and Leah’s suddenly a paranoid mess.

LYLE-stillOnce she starts to suspect that her paranoia isn’t entirely off base, the movie quickly clips through the familiar beats:  creepy shit starts happening in the apartment where Lyle died; Leah confides in a seemingly concerned and well-meaning neighbor; the weirdo landlady grows weirder and starts talking about pacts with Satan; and June grows more and more distant even as she enjoys more and more career success. Lyle, then, becomes a new take on the themes at the core of Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s a glancing one, dispensed with too quickly to really engage with any of the ideas it initially lays on the table.

This may be partly due to the nature of the film’s production. Originally conceived as a web series by writer-director Stewart Thorndike, it became a film when Thorndike realized it would work better as a single piece. She was also working with a tiny budget and planned to make the movie available online for free just to attract support for her next feature, but when distributors took interest in the film, Thorndike realized she had a potential Lylestilltheatrical release on her hands. Ultimately, though, she stuck to her decision to release the film herself. (It’s available now On Demand and on iTunes as a $3.99 rental.)

There are the seeds of a lot of great ideas in Lyle that don’t quite get explored to satisfaction. But Thorndike seems like an energetic director with interesting ideas; right now, she’s seeking funding for her next horror film, Putney, which she describes as “a haunted TED Talk.” Color me intrigued. While Lyle turned out to be a decent snack rather than a full meal, I’m still interested to see what Thorndike comes up with next.

Stray observations:

  • I'm as sick to death as the next sucker with found footage and tech-heavy horror movies, but Lyle does manage to pull off a pretty great scene during which two character Skype with each other while the goings-on in the background of one Skype window slowly ratchet up the tension.
  • "Stewart Thorndike" may sound like a male director's name to you, but Thorndike is, in fact, a woman. And she wrote an essay about why horror is good for women.
  • Here's a piece on the influences and themes behind Lyle, as well as an interview about Thorndike's decision to go a nontraditional route with filmmaking.
  • If you hate yourself, have a look at the trailer for the Rosemary's Baby remake and marvel while Ruth Gordon rolls in her goddamn grave.
  • I swear I'm not obsessed with pregnancy and babies and motherhood and how they all get portrayed in horror movies. It's an interest, but not an obsession. It's just that Halloween-o-Thon has apparently become sentient and decided that these are the things I need to think about this year.

HOT Day 4: Rosemary's Baby

MV5BMTY0NzkxMzIwM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjg2Njk3OA@@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_AL_Here is where I'd normally say, "Hey, spoilers, people!" But...this film is over forty years old. By now, even if you haven't seen it, you've either absorbed knowledge of the film's ending from the ether, or you need to consume more pop culture. How important, really, is surprise in a horror film? Whether you’re talking about the now-ubiquitous jump scare or a Shyamalan-ian twist, we get a lot of pleasure out of surprise. There’s the initial shock, followed by the recovery — a one-two punch that mirrors what the characters in the movie experience, after which we, the audience, can say, “Whew. That was scary, but I’m still alive. Can’t say the same for these suckers on the screen…”

But what if you can see the surprise from a mile away? Not because you’re particularly astute (I am generally not a good guesser of what’s going to happen next in a movie, whereas my friend and frequent movie buddy, Sara, often correctly predicts plot developments), but because that’s exactly what the director wanted? That’s what happens in Rosemary’s Baby. Director Roman Polanski doesn’t exactly hide the fact that the neighbors of the young couple at the center of the movie (Guy and Rosemary, played by John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow) are probably Satanists or that they might be up to no good when it comes to Rosemary’s pregnancy. Part of Polanski’s intent here is to heighten the atmosphere of paranoia:  Is Rosemary imagining that her neighbors, the Castevets, are sinister, or is she being oversuspicious? Has her husband actually made a pact with the devil, or is the distance between them that Rosemary perceives just a natural progression of marriage? Are we actually seeing what we’re seeing, or are we just as paranoid as Rosemary?

"For real, does this feel like the devil's spawn to you?"

The evidence is all around Rosemary, but she doubts herself until she discovers that Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) is the son of a notorious Satanist. Until that point, though, Polanski throws Rosemary's every suspicion into doubt. Throughout the movie, he emphasizes Rosemary’s paranoia by using camera shots that either place the audience in Rosemary’s point of view or that obscure some important element. (One example of the latter: When Minnie — played by the excellent Ruth Gordon — calls Dr. Saperstein to get pregnant Rosemary an appointment, the camera is situated so that Minnie is blocked from view. We hear her voice, but we can’t see her face.)

But we know we’re watching a horror movie. No matter how much Rosemary doubts herself, the audience understands:  Minnie and Roman are straight-up devil worshippers.

If I had a significant other, I would insist that we dress as the Castevets for every Halloween party. No compromise on that.

We know the likeliest outcome. Even as we root for Rosemary, even as we hope against hope that she finds the help she needs, then feel anguish as she’s thwarted again and again, we have a feeling that this story is going to run its course straight back to that tacky apartment where the Castevets and all their friends like to chant Satanic verses and play the recorder.

The moment of this movie that always makes me the angriest is the scene in Dr. Hill’s office. Nearly out of options, unable to trust anyone — including her own husband, and including Dr. Saperstein — Rosemary finagles an appointment with her original OB/GYN, Dr. Hill (the doctor who is presumably not in league with a dozen elderly cult members). She confides her fears to Hill, and Hill — played by Acclaimed Character Actor Charles Grodin — soothes Rosemary, agreeing to help her.

“I was afraid you wouldn’t believe me!” she says, relieved.

“I don’t believe in witchcraft, but there are plenty of maniacs and crazy people in this city,” Hill reasons.

Acclaimed Character Actor Charles Grodin as Dr. Snitchy McTraitor-Pants Hill.

He shows Rosemary to a quiet office where she can lay down for a bit. Finally having found someone she can trust — finally able to feel safe for the first time in months — Rosemary falls asleep. But when she wakes, it’s only to discover that Hill, in fact, was never to be trusted. He has called Guy and Dr. Saperstein, who snatch Rosemary and shove her into a taxi that takes her not to a hospital but back home — into the loving arms of the Castevets and all their Satan-worshipping friends.

I always wonder this about Dr. Hill:  Was he in on it from the beginning? Is he a devil-worshipper, too? Or was he just doing the thing he thought was right — getting a (possibly crazy) pregnant woman the care she needs from the doctor with whom she has a long-term relationship? Either way, the result is the same. Despite all of Rosemary’s efforts, she’s back in the clutches of the cult. And the end we saw coming is the end we get.

"Oh...my...god. Did you spill cabernet on the carpet?!"

In his July 29, 1968, review of Rosemary’s Baby, film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “When the conclusion comes, it works not because it is a surprise but because it is horrifyingly inevitable. Rosemary makes her dreadful discovery, and we are wrenched because we knew what was going to happen -- and couldn't help her.”

Inevitability is an immensely satisfying element of fiction. The best endings of novels and movies are satisfying because they feel right, and that rightness often comes down to the idea that this is the only possible way things could have ended. Inevitability isn’t the same as predictability, although I think Polanski makes use of both in this film. It’s predictable that somehow those rascally Satanists are going to get their hands on Rosemary’s baby. But it’s inevitable, perhaps, that when they do, Rosemary is going to confront them…and then find that even when her son is the devil’s progeny, she is still its mother.

Stray observations:

  • Roman Polanski adapted the script for Rosemary's Baby from Ira Levin's novel -- rosemary5possibly the most faithful book-to-film adaptation in the history of time. I have heard the apocryphal tale (told by producer William Castle) that since this was the first time Polanski was adapting someone else's work, he just didn't realize he could make significant changes. Probably not true, but I kind of like that story.
  • Speaking of:  For an insightful book-to-movie comparison, here's a lengthy entry from some rando who's super into Roman Polanski.
  • The entire story of how Polanski came to direct Rosemary (when it was Castle who found the property and wanted to direct, himself) is actually pretty fascinating, as told in Jason Zinoman's excellent book, Shock Value, which covers how horror was transformed in the 1970s and '80s.
  • I know Polanski is a polarizing figure. Nevertheless, Rosemary's Baby remains my all-time favorite movie -- not just my favorite horror movie, but my favorite movie, period. I feel about Polanski pretty much the way Alex Ross Perry talks about him in this AV Club interview.
  • And there's more! If you are enthralled by tales of Hollywood and murder, you should immediately check out You Must Remember This, particularly episodes 23 and 24, and all of season 4, which tells the tale of Charles Manson's Hollywood, including the murder of Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski's wife.
  • From IMDB: "Burt Reynolds tested for the role of Guy Woodhouse." !!!!!!!!
  • Ruth Fucking Gordon, yo.

HOT Day 3: The Visit

The_Visit_(2015_film)_posterSpoilers ahoy: The Visit is a relatively new movie, so I probably don't have to tell you that this post will spoil the shit out of it. Proceed with caution.

When I was living in Namibia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had a nightmare that has never left me. Vivid nightmares (among other side effects) were common among the PCVs who were taking mefloquine to prevent malaria. Unlike most dreams, this one didn’t burn off with the rising of the sun. Nope; I can still summon up images and sounds from it with almost no effort. It’s too long and complicated to go into here, but the ending is all that matters. In the dream, I’ve been watching an insane woman on a gurney in a hospital cackle and scream. She’s terrifying. I look around for help and can’t find any, and then when I turn back to look at the crazy woman, I realize that I am her. I’m the one laughing and screaming. I’m the one who’s clearly insane.

Laughter is a weird thing. When you fake it, it usually sounds fake. Real laughter is something uncontrollable and reflexive. Which makes laughter a pretty close cousin to screaming. They’re both unplanned reactions, natural and spontaneous. When you get scared or find something truly funny, you don’t sit around deciding how to react. The scare happens, the joke is told, and the reaction follows without thought.

When critics talk about the use of humor in horror films, they usually focus on laughter as a necessary release. A director sets the spooky scene, lets the tension build until it’s almost unbearable, then hits you with the reveal (which is, more often than not these days, a jump scare). Then you scream or laugh. Or a script might give the audience an opportunity for release by immediately deflating a frightening moment with a funny one.

FB_visitThis is what M. Night Shyamalan does throughout The Visit, a film many critics are hailing as the writer-director’s “comeback” and “return to form.” Shyamalan has demonstrated a deft ability to pair humor with scares in the past (in Signs, particularly), but he’s also been pretty dour (as good as The Sixth Sense is, it’s not exactly a joyful film) and he has completely whiffed on tone when making what should have been a modern, winking take on classic B-horror schlock. (No one can convince me that’s not what he was trying to do with The Happening because why the hell else would you allow Mark Wahlberg to give you that performance?)

Yup. Just a totally normal visit with the grandparents. Nothing wrong here.

With The Visit, Shyamalan gets the balance between scary and funny just right, often undercutting many unsettling moments with a joke. In one scene, the film’s preteen male protagonist witnesses a disturbing sight when he opens his bedroom door to discover his grandmother, decked out in her birthday suit, clawing at the walls like a demented cat. When he closes the door and turns to the camera, he immediately deadpans, “I’m blind.”

The moment works like gangbusters. There are a lot more beats like that one — so many that the crowd I saw the movie with was busting up just as often as it was screaming. Shyamalan understands that laughter is as natural a response to being scared as screaming.

Walls: hilarious.

He also manages to tap into the madness that always lies just below the surface when someone laughs. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that the grandparents who are being visited turn out not to be grandparents, at all. In fact, they are escapees from a local asylum. At one point, before this revelation comes, the teenage girl who is ostensibly doing the movie’s filming (The Visit is a found-footage-type movie but manages to put a different spin on the genre) comes upon her “grandma” staring at the wall, rocking in her chair, and laughing wildly. “Nana?” the girl filmmaker says. Nana abruptly stops laughing and turns around. Laughter, she explains, keeps the darkness away.

Hey, Kathryn Hahn. Maybe don't blindly send your kids on vacation with the parents you haven't seen in 17 years.

She might as well say, “I am crazy, therefore I laugh.” We associate laughter with humor, but it’s also a companion to insanity; think of all the chuckling, howling, giggling, and guffawing lunatics in any scene set in any madhouse in any movie you’ve ever seen. Like screaming, real laughter is a reflex — a loss of control. It’s a momentary relinquishing of your ability to conduct yourself within the confines of acceptable social behavior. And that loss of control is scary.

Maybe this is why humor in horror films is so satisfying. Yes, it’s about getting a release from the mounting tension. But it’s also a connection to a primal terror, to the madness that exists behind the facade of polite society. We laugh at something funny, and in the back of our minds is the fear that maybe this time, the laughter won’t stop. Maybe it’ll keep going, long after whatever was funny becomes less so. Maybe this time, you’ll find that the laughing, screaming madwoman turns out to be you.

Stray observations:

  • The Verge has a review of The Visit, along with an interview with Shyamalan.
  • Did anybody else watch Shyamalan's t.v. miniseries, Wayward Pines? It was a pretty decent summer-(television)-slump distraction.
  • Speaking of Signs, I never get tired of this scene. It illustrates exactly what I mean by Shyamalan's ability to follow a funny moment with a terrifying one, or vice-versa.
  • Speaking of The Happening, this is a scene that happened in that movie.

HOT Day 2: The Babadook

11181166_oriSpoilers ahoy: In this discussion of the 2014 film, The Babadook, I'll be talking about the ending, so if you've never seen the movie and you're spoiler-averse, take heed. In classic horror movies, you can typically be one thing or the other:  the virgin or the whore. The brain or the jock. Victim or perpetrator. Good mommy or bad. Modern horror is fond of playing with these tropes, upending our expectations for shock or consideration. Sometimes, this is done in service of a scare or a laugh — movies like Scream or The Cabin in the Woods reverse our assumptions to get a reaction out of us.

With The Babadook, writer and director Jennifer Kent doesn’t set out to upend a trope. Instead, by telling a story about motherhood, grief, isolation and depression, she creates a character who transcends archetype to become palpably human. As Amelia, Essie Davis starts the movie as a sweet, doormat-y sort, loathe to be a burden on anyone even as her young son begins to act violently. But as her situation worsens — and the titular Babadook insinuates himself into her home — Amelia becomes transformed, and all the anger, frustration, and madness inside her rockets to the surface.

Seriously, kid. You need to cut this shit out.

She’s a mother; she’s a monster. She would die for her son; she would kill him with her bare hands. Like lots of parents, she feels the entire gamut of emotions at varying times, and sometimes all at once.

As a childless adult watching The Babadook, I’m always amazed at the rollercoaster of emotions I go through during Amelia’s transformation. Early on, as she copes with her son firing jerry-rigged weapons in the house, attacking other kids in school, kicking the back of her seat, and screaming — oh, god, the endless screaming — my pity and sympathy know no depths. My god, this poor woman! This awful brat! Amelia can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t even masturbate, for crying out loud, without her son barging in and wailing at her.

Horror movie rule #1: When you see a pet, don't get too attached.

But when the Babadook comes a-knocking and Amelia lets him in and begins to change, I’m shocked by how quickly I start judging her. She screams at her son, I go tsk-tsk. She drugs him to make him sleep — what kind of mother is this?

Then she gets out the knife, and I’m no longer judging. I’m straight-up scared.

Amelia is an extreme version of parenting, obviously. But tone her down a bit and lose the monster who’s terrorizing her and her son, and you’ve got a normal parent, with all the love and frustration and joy and anger and anxiety and excitement and layers upon layers of complicated stuff that comes with being one.

Complicating things further for Amelia is the fact that her husband died the day their son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), was born. In addition to adjusting to life as a single parent, Amelia is coping with grief and depression. Is it any wonder she goes a little crazy?

Which is why I find the ending of the movie so touching. The monster isn’t destroyed in the end. It’s still a part of this little two-person family. Amelia and Samuel play, and plant flowers in their garden, and collect monster-food until it’s time for the monster to be fed. Amelia stands outside the basement door with her bowl of worms and tells Samuel to go outside and not to come in, no matter what, until she says it’s okay.

“Am I ever going to see it?” asks Samuel.ruzkhxw5eqzu0wgcpwtj

“One day. When you're bigger,” Amelia tells him.

This is another facet of parenting:  protecting your kids from the dark stuff. Amelia goes down to the basement — because where do we keep our monsters, all the dark stuff, the grief and madness, depression and pain, if not the basement? She tends to the monster and tells Samuel he won’t have to do this job until he’s older. Because isn’t that the hope of all parents? — that their children won’t have to encounter the truly dark stuff until they’re much, much older.

Stray observations:

  • Here's a great interview with the movie's director, Jennifer Kent, from The Dissolve (which has sadly been dissolved).
  • And a review from Slate's movie critic, Dana Stevens, that had some influence on how I interpreted the movie.
  • I swear to god, nothing makes me laugh harder in this movie than this exchange: Amelia:  Where did you get those fire-crackers? Samuel:  You got them for me on the internet! Amelia:  Well, that's the end of the internet.
  • Also, this scene. (I am a cruel person.)
  • Hey, everybody! I found this year's Christmas card!

screenshot-2014-12-22-at-15-34-03-the-babadook-stole-christmas-but-horror-fans-will-still-love-it-png-206017

HOT Day 1: John Carpenter's The Thing

thing_poster_01Every time I watch John Carpenter’s The Thing, one particular element stands out to me: the all-male cast. There’s plenty that’s effective about The Thing — the Antarctic setting, the themes of paranoia and nihilism, the practical special effects by Rob Bottin. But the thing I find myself thinking about every time is Carpenter’s decision to cast the movie with twelve men. It’s a deliberate choice. John Carpenter’s The Thing is a remake of a 1951 movie called The Thing from Another World, the cast of which included Margaret Sheridan as a secretary named Nikki and Sally Creighton as the wife of one of the doctors serving at a U.S. Air Force outpost in the Arctic. The 2011 prequel (also titled The Thing — not confusing at all) stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the lead. But in 1982, Carpenter saw fit to cast men only.

From IMDB:  “There are no female characters in the film. The only female presence in the movie is in the voice of MacReady's chess computer and the contestants seen on the game show that Palmer watches. A scene containing a blow-up doll was filmed and then left on the cutting room floor. According to John Carpenter, only one crew member was female but she was pregnant and this forced her to leave the shoot; she was replaced by a male.”

Norris thingThat pregnant crew member sparked a thought in me as I re-watched The Thing last night. This is ultimately a movie about a parasite. It finds a host, devours it, becomes it, and integrates itself into the population. Not to imply that babies are parasites (they are), but the Thing in The Thing is as close to pregnancy as a man can get. Each of the men in this movie knows he could be carrying something strange inside him, and each one worries how it might change him. When a man is impregnated — er, infected — with the Thing, he suffers aches and pains and cramps. When the Thing is “born,” it comes out covered in blood and goop and tissue. Just worrying that he might be playing host to a foreign being sends emotions running high in each of the men. Once the parasite has infected one of the men, his body is transformed. And the only way of knowing for sure that someone’s carrying a Thing? A blood test.

Sounds an awful lot like pregnancy and childbirth to me.

Oh, snap, MacReady, look behind you!

The thought that there could be some Other growing inside them is terrifying to these men. But women have been playing host to Others practically since time began. No big. The terror of pregnancy and childbirth is a familiar horror-movie theme (see: The Brood, Rosemary’s Baby, Demon Seed), but it’s not a fear men usually have to contend with. Would the presence of a woman in the cast of The Thing lessen the terror of playing host to a strange creature? Maybe not. But by stacking the cast with men, Carpenter ramps up the terror of what it means to grow something unknown inside of you.

Part of what’s fun about watching a smart horror movie — and I would argue that The Thing, in addition to being a great deal of fun as well as a major gross-out, is a very smart horror movie — is interpreting the meaning, both intentional and unintentional, of what’s on the screen. I don’t necessarily believe that John Carpenter set out to make a movie about pregnancy horror; so many other themes (like paranoia, self-doubt, isolation) are much more at the forefront of the film. But the interesting thing about a creative work that’s made for an audience is that the audience brings its own interpretations to that work. Carpenter may not have intended for his movie to evoke pregnancy horror, but for this viewer, at least, that’s what happened.

Stray observations:

  • For a thoughtful discussion on The Thing and paranoia, diversity, and the movie’s ambiguous ending, check out this recent episode of The Canon.
  • A fun bit of trivia, courtesy of IMDB:  “In the DVD commentary, John Carpenter said Wilford Brimley was the only cast member not initially grossed out by the autopsy scene where they used real animal organs. Brimley had been a real-life cowboy, and gutting animals and removing organs was a normal experience for him.”

Wilford Brimley: Not afraid of guts.

  • Here’s an article from The Paris Review, if you can believe it, about a viewing of The Thing at a horror retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music just this year.
  • Apparently, Ennio Morricone’s score was up for a Razzy the year The Thing came out. Wha? I honestly think the score to this film is one of the more effective horror movie soundtracks, on par with the score from Halloween or Jaws.
  • Has anybody out there seen the 2011 prequel? I just couldn’t bring myself to, but I’d be interested in hearing what others think of it.

There is some seriously gorgeous fan art for The Thing.

Flowchart of horror

Today is September 30, and that means one thing:  Halloween-o-Thon starts tomorrow! I'm going to kick things off with John Carpenter's great '80s horror classic, The Thing. In the meantime, for those of you who want to bone up on your horror movie knowledge, here's a handy flowchart I discovered:

RbTL7Mj(Click here for the full-sized version.)

What do you think of the example films given? Do they fit within the categories where they've been placed? I've seen a good number of the movies on this chart, but there are several I've never even heard of -- I'll have to put them on the list!

Halloween-o-Thon 2015

halloween3_buddyTVAs I have made clear in the past, Halloween is my favorite holiday. I’ve long outgrown trick-or-treating, and while I enjoy a good costume party, somehow every year I feel like I fall a little short of my dress-up aspirations. No, I’m not in it for the costumes and candy. I love Halloween for the scares. More specifically, Halloween is the one time of year when there’s a bounty of horror movies—for free!—on television. In an era of on-demand t.v. and Netflix streaming any ole time you like, this is less special than it used to be; if I want to watch all eighty-six installments of Friday the 13th back to back, I can do it whenever I please, without even getting up from the couch to run down to my local Blockbuster (RIP). But I get a certain amount of delight when I’m channel surfing on a random October evening and I come acrossblockbuster_placeholder horror flicks on a dozen different channels, all there for my choosing. It’s like going to a buffet and realizing someone put out all your favorite foods.

Throughout October, I also get to be normal. When I tell people that I regularly lull myself to sleep at bedtime by watching The Exorcist because I find it familiar and comforting, I get nothing but side-eyes and raised eyebrows. But if I mention that I spent a random October Saturday afternoon comparing The Ring with its Japanese predecessor, Ringu, no one thinks anything of it. October is the time of year when my year-round love of horror movies isn’t deemed weird; it’s perfectly natural to indulge in a few spine-tingles as Halloween approaches.

A few years ago, inspired by Joe Reid (of Extra Hot Great Mark 1 fame), I decided to embark on a horror-movie binge-watch. In episode 4 of EHG, Joe had talked about watching as many as 17 horror films in one October week; his only criteria for the movies he watched was that they had to be available on t.v. for free — no DVDs, no Netflix instant streaming, no iTunes rentals. My quest, I decided, would be a little different:  I would watch scary stuff in any format, but I wouldn’t limit myself to just one week. I would, instead, watch one horror movie every single day in October. Thus, the Halloween-o-Thon was born.

AwakeningThe first year, I managed something like 26 movies — fairly respectable. The next year, I decided that not only would I aim for a horror movie a day; I would only watch films I’d never seen before. That year, I discovered great, new-to-me movies like The Awakening and House, MST3K-able trash like Ghost Ship, and classics like Carnival of Souls and April Fool’s Day. But I still only managed to watch about 20 movies that month.

I’ve taken a couple years off since the last Halloween-o-Thon, but I’m giving it another go this year. The rules have changed a little, though. In the past, I posted a couple thoughts on Facebook after watching each movie. This year, however, I have a blog, so I thought I’d use it to talk about each movie I watch. And since those ideas will probably take the form of a few paragraphs instead of one sentence — and since I also have a job and a book to write and a life — I’m not going to shoot for a movie a day for 31 days. Instead, I’m going to try and watch five movies each week of October, for a total of 20 movies that month. My goal will be to post something about each film the day after I watch it. This Halloween-o-Thon will cover both new movies and movies I’ve seen dozens of times. The main criteria for a film will be whether I think I might have something to say about it that’s worth reading (hopefully).

So stay tuned for scares! Like the titular “it” in It Follows, Halloween-o-Thon is slowly, inexorably coming your way.

3

The Un Cover Letter

frustrated-writerI guess it's fair to say I've been feeling a little frustrated lately. I've been struggling to settle into a new writing project. For once, I'm actually happy with my day job, but I don't derive much satisfaction from it. I've gotten to a point in life where I've achieved a measure of contentedness but lack direction. I guess you could say I don't have a real sense of purpose at the moment. Anytime I start feeling this way--it comes at least once a year, generally--I start flailing about and trying to figure out how to completely change everything. Once, that resulted in my joining the Peace Corps. Another time, it resulted in me going to grad school. And for about three years in a row, it meant that I applied to a bunch of writing fellowships and residencies and was summarily rejected from all of them. Somewhere, in the midst of all the application-filling-out and cover-letter-writing, I felt the need to blow off a little steam. Here's the result.

Dear Selection Committee:

I am not writing to apply for the 2014-2016 Big Deal Fellowship. I mean, honestly? I know what you're thinking. You’re thinking, Ah, perfect, cover letter number 13,472 telling me why some schmuck is an ideal candidate for this fellowship, remind me again why I volunteered to be on this selection committee when I could be mainlining the last season of Scandal? But good news: This isn’t a cover letter, and I’m not going to brag about my short story publications (there are only three, anyway; like that’s impressive?) or tell you about the residencies I’ve landed (zero) or detail my teaching experience (almost nonexistent!). I’m not going to convince you that you should choose me over every other, probably more qualified, applicant.

Because let’s face it: You could do better. It’s not like I’ve written over half a novel by consistently dragging my ass out of bed every morning between 5:30 and 6 a.m. just so I can squeeze in a couple hours of writing time before I shuffle off, bleary-eyed, to my full-time job. And even if that were the case, I certainly don’t stay at my desk, chipping away at paragraphs for eighty-nine minutes until, in that ninetieth minute, I finally, finally feel like I’ve hit my stride—only to look at the clock and realize, as usual, that the moment I have become fully submerged in the world I’ve created, oh look, time to get in the shower so I’m not late for work. Certainly not. So why on earth would I try to make you understand how valuable the simple gift of time would be to me? It wouldn’t. I’ve got all the time in the world! Seriously, besides my job, I’ve got no obligations. No second job as a freelance writer, no family or friends to attend to, no bills to pay. It’s a free and easy lifestyle for this slacker.

What’s more, I hate kids. I say this only because of the whole teaching component of the fellowship. I guess college students don’t really count as “kids,” but they’re close enough to give me the creeps. All that idealism and interest and enthusiasm—ugh. I got saddled with a teaching internship as a graduate student, and let me tell you: Having to twist myself into a knot to come up with ways to allow the students to build from what they knew to what they didn’t? That was no walk in the park. That class was an Intro to Literature class, full of non-majors; can you think of anything worse? Because it’s not like I believe that helping students develop an aptitude for creative writing could possibly engage them more deeply in their other studies.

And like I even have a project to work on during this fellowship. It’s not like I have a plan to finish a full draft of my first novel by February, send it to a handful of trusted readers, and be ready to revise, equipped with feedback, by the time this fellowship rolls around, aiming to complete a polished manuscript during my stay at Big Deal College. Like I’m that forward-thinking. Please, I’ve barely written two pages of a novel that borrows devices from horror fiction to tell a story set in rural Alaska about a fourteen-year-old girl who ############* while struggling to find her place in the male-dominated world of dog sled racing. You’re on crack, Selection Committee.

I’ve taken up enough of your time, trust me. I’m not even going to get into how my happiest and most productive time was the year I served as the fiction editor for The Greensboro Review, how working with emerging writers to revise and prepare their stories for publication was maybe the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had, or how thrilled I was to find out that this fellowship includes an opportunity to work on creative and editorial projects for The Big Deal Review. You don’t need me to kiss your ass, and I don’t need your fellowship. So we’re good.

Sincerely, Jamey Bradbury

*Plot spoiler has been redacted

New to me: Recent podcast discoveries

81b648aaf8ec9493b25d002485d1b35bI need a new podcast like the proverbial fish needs its proverbial bicycle. I just counted:  I listen regularly to 42 podcasts. This number doesn't include the podcasts that I only occasionally check in on, or the ones I download only to listen to the one episode I'm interested in because someone told me about it ("someone" most likely being the host of another podcast). But you can't deny an addiction. You can only admit you have a problem and try to control it. Hello, my name is Jamey, and I'm a podcast addict.

Thanks in part to a (work-mandated) trip to a podcast conference a couple weeks ago, I've recently discovered several new dealers who truck in my drug of choice. Some of these podcasts have been around a good while; I'm just late to the game. Others are still in their infancy. But here are a few of the new-ish podcasts that I've recently become obsessed with.

The Canon The premise is simple:  Hosts Amy Nicholson (of the LA Weekly) and Devin Faraci (of Birth.Movies.Death) debate which films should be entered in the "canon" of great movies. The conversation can get pretty heated, especially when Amy and Devin strongly disagree about a particular film, but both hosts bring a wealth of film knowledge, critical insight, and (in Amy's case, at least) a ream of research about every movie they discuss. The episode that got me hooked was the one that pondered whether It's a Wonderful Life should be entered into the canon; a recent favorite is the episode on The Sound of Music. (They also discuss more recent films. I'm just an old-movie nerd, I guess.)

Another Round with Heben & Tracy Some podcasts are powered by a gimmick or a theme; others are just two people talking. Ano0bnXv8ZAther Round, a podcast from BuzzFeed, falls into the latter category, but there are few duos I'd rather listen to than Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton. They have a casual rapport that nevertheless sounds polished, they're hilarious, and they talk about topics that are often ignored by media elsewhere (race, gender, casual discrimination). I am in love with Tracy's corny joke segment and "What Had Happened Was." Best episode so far:  Episode 19, in which NPR's Audie Cornish turns out to share my pre-interview anxieties and I learn that the best name ever for a goldfish is "Cornbread."

Faculty of Horror Another podcast hosted by two women! Bonus:  This is a horror movie podcast hosted by two women. Did someone sneak a peek at my Christmas wish list? Delightful Canadians Alex West and Andrea Subissati take an in-depth look horror movies each episode, sometimes tackling one film at a time or occasionally choosing a theme (monster brides; witches in film) to unite a discussion. What I love about this podcast is it isn't just two hosts talking about what they like or dislike about a film; the approach Andrea and Alex take to each movie favors analysis over critique, and as a result, their explorations have an academic flavor (as the podcast title suggests) that draws me in. But here "academic" isn't a synonym for dry. Conversation between the hosts is always lively, and their occasional forays into radio sketch improv make me giggle. My favorite episode so far has been the one on Rosemary's Baby.

I Was There, Too Often, it's the host who decides for me whether or not I'll stick with a podcast. While I Was 20141101_222943_4138_680374There, Too has an interesting enough premise to keep me listening, host Matt Gourley's offbeat presence and oddball segments are the big draw for me. Each episode, Matt interviews an actor who was a small part of a big film, giving you the inside dirt on, say, what it's like to shoot the same scene with Bill Murray in every kind of weather possible, or what the heck Arcturian poontang is. You also get "bonus" segments like "I Was There, Tune" which gives you insight into movie music, and "I Was There, Mew," an interview between Matt and his cat, Margeaux the Fat Guy. (You read that right.)

Lore Lore would be the perfect podcast to play as you sit around a fire in the dark of night, sharing scary stories. Writer and host Aaron Mahnke offers a new, true scary tale every episode and always manages to creep me out with his careful research, well crafted storytelling, and excellent narration. Episode 8, "The Castle," is truly creeptastic, while Episode 2, "The Bloody Pit," is a sad and horrifying look at a historical disaster.

You Must Remember This If you love old Hollywood, then I don't know how you aren't already listening to Karina imgres-1Longworth's You Must Remember This, a show that explores "the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood's first century," as Karina reminds listeners each episode. Whether speculating if Errol Flynn was a Nazi spy, relating the story behind Hollywood's night club for servicemen, or freaking you the fuck out with Charles Manson's on-again, off-again flirtation with Hollywood fame, Karina's research is methodical and her storytelling is incredibly absorbing. While earlier seasons comprised one-off episodes about different subjects, the most recent season was dedicated completely to the story of Charles Manson's Hollywood, and the result was an historical serialized story that, for me, rivaled Serial itself.

New articles published in Alaska Innovator

2015-Innovator-CoverMy freelance work with Alaska Dispatch News connected me with an opportunity to write for Alaska Innovator, the publication of a local economic development company. Check out my piece on branding. Or you can take a look at the legal hurdles faced by entrepreneurs getting in on Alaska's two new industries:  drones and legalized marijuana.