Friday, December 26, 2008

Happy Holidays

Hey all.

Thank you for your kind comments and support, both from my friends and from my fellow bloggers out there. I'm gonna keep this macabre little ball rolling in the new year. I wanted to wish all of you a happy holidays.

Merry Christmas from the heart of horrorland.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Event Horizon

Comfort food.

Event Horizon doesn't do anything particularly original. The story is an almost textbook haunted-ship yarn, the narrow ship interiors look like some Swedish metalhead set designer reinterpreted Alien, and the images of hellish torment have a strong Clive Barker tone. There's even a big blood flood like The Shining.

It's also kinda dopey. Characters defy common sense outer space search and rescue rules against touching mysterious floating black puddles of goo and chasing after family members they left back on earth. The special effects come from the early days of CGI and they don't hold up well. It commits the cardinal sin of horror cinema: it relies heavily on the amplified volume jump shock.

It also lacks a central protagonist. The movie starts by following Sam Neill's histrionic scientist-on-the-edge, but he quickly falls under the sway of the haunted ship. The focus then switches to Lawrence Fishburne's captain-on-the-edge, who has remained aloof most of the movie and only gets our sympathy after he reveals the Tormenting Incident From His Past.

Despite all this, I still had a lot of fun watching it.

The whole thing is vaguely Lovecraftian. The unfortunate crew of the Event Horizon aren't simply murdered by whatever they encounter during their FTL jump. They go insane, joyfully, maniacally insane. Reality warps around our poor survivors as the ship draws them deeper into its horrible web. We get the sense that the Event Horizon is just the tip of the much grander, much more terrible reality hidden beneath. I like stories that utilize cosmic horror on that scale, and I think sci-fi/horror stories cover that subject well. Most aren't as ambitious as Event Horizon and even when it falls short it should be praised for trying to do something cool.

I also liked the cast. They tend to fall into the classic gruff character types you find in blue collar sci-fi, but they're well acted and appealing, even if the psychological hooks the ship uses against them are completely unsubtle.

It's kind of like a collage of better movies. Still, its worth checking out every few years.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

In Defense Of The Running Zombie

Floating around the interwebs is an article penned by Shawn of the Dead's Simon Pegg in which he discusses his objection to the new breed of running zombies famously shown in 28 Days Later (which, I know, isn't technically a zombie movie) and the Dawn of the Dead remake (which absolutely was.) If you want to get really technical, you can say that mainstream American running zombies started with Return of the Living Dead, but the argument mostly comes up when people refer to the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. How DARE they change the rules, the purists seem to say. George A. Romero invented the wheel, and how dare you change it for a few cheap scares to amuse the jump-cut MTV generation.

I LIKE the Dawn of the Dead remake. I think the story is well-written, intelligent, and did new and inventive things with the zombie mythos. It bums me out how often the remake gets brushed aside. Obviously, I'm not taking away from the original Romero work, which stands as one of the seminal horror movies ever made, but Pegg's comments seem to be taken as some kind of holy validation among traditionalists. I disagree with him, and I want to get on my soapbox and add my voice to the debate.

I tend to hear the arguments Pegg makes often from people of an older generation, people who saw the original Romero trilogy in theaters. I like to refer to the Dead movies as the Star Wars trilogy for the horror set, minus the reoccuring characters and creepy incest subtext. Romero created a world that was internally consistent, with clearly dilenated rules and a underlying philosophy people click into. It's the kind of world people want to live in, and those people don't like it when you mess with the walls holding up their fantasies.

The dead shamble. The dead creep. The dead moan.

They don't hiss like angry cats. They don't chase after you. They don't run you 'til you're ragged, then smash you down and rip you apart.


Another thing: speed simplifies the zombie, clarifying the threat and reducing any response to an emotional reflex. It's the difference between someone shouting "Boo!" and hearing the sound of the floorboards creaking in an upstairs room: a quick thrill at the expense of a more profound sense of dread.

Okay. But what if the amped up sense of terror never lets up. What if the audience never gets a chance to breathe, never gets a chance to find humor in the situation. What if you have to share the stress of the character, knowing at any second could be your last?

I own a copy of the Dawn remake and every time I watch it I feel like I leave the movie suffering from combat shock. The writers and performers do an incredible job creating characters I become emotionally engaged in, and we never get any sense of safety or comfort. The sun never comes out, the mall never feels safe, and any hope of rescue is clearly gone.

I've heard the arguments for the slow dead. Central to the argument is that the rush of panic is not as satisfying as the fine creeping terror of a wave of zombies inexorably staggering towards you. It's the horror epicurian's argument: panic is fast food and slowly escalating dread is fine wine. I generally believe this is true, especially in movies that rely solely on jump scares, but the best running zombie movies have so much more going on in them. Both DotD and 28 DL are not just a collection of jump scares. They're both absolutely effective because they never let up. Running zombie movie characters never get a chance to rest, never get a chance to plan, never get a chance to stare at their navels and wonder What It All Means. They are engaged in the purest example of survival horror. No rest. No respite. No heroics. Stay moving, stay alive.


One of the more interesting elements of Pegg's argument is the idea of the sympathetic monster:

The absence of rage or aggression in slow zombies makes them oddly sympathetic, a detail that enabled Romero to project depth on to their blankness, to create tragic anti-heroes; his were figures to be pitied, empathised with, even rooted for. The moment they appear angry or petulant, the second they emit furious
velociraptor screeches (as opposed to the correct mournful moans of longing), they cease to possess any ambiguity. They are simply mean.

Romero peopled his movies with zombies who seem to have died midway through their jobs or their hobbies. Dawn was filled with zombie cops, zombie housewives, zombie softball players, and zombie hare krishnas. Romero's characters would often stare at the zombies and ponder how thin the line between themselves and the walking dead actually was. Despite that, I never felt that Romero had much sympathy for most of his zombie cast (excluding Bub and Big Daddy.) They were more representatives of a world gone wrong, of your friends and neighbors turned against you. The "angry, petulant, velociraptor screeching" zombies have purpose. They are coming to EAT. YOU. ALIVE. Being reduced to prey is a frightening concept, like you're starring in one of those ghastly nature documentaries that show the gazelles being taken down by the lions. It's a very different kind of terror, I'll grant, but that doesn't mean it is worse.


At one point in the article Pegg argues the traditionalist's argument: that's not the way the rules work.

I know it is absurd to debate the rules of a reality that does not exist, but this genuinely irks me. You cannot kill a vampire with an MDF stake; werewolves can't fly; zombies do not run. It's a misconception, a bastardisation that
diminishes a classic movie monster. The best phantasmagoria uses reality to render the inconceivable conceivable. The speedy zombie seems implausible to me, even within the fantastic realm it inhabits. A biological agent, I'll buy. Some sort of super-virus? Sure, why not. But death? Death is a disability, not a superpower. It's hard to run with a cold, let alone the most debilitating malady of them all.

This is the kind of argument I have when I go to the comic book store. I don't actually believe in magic and it's foolish to debate the semantics of magic, ha ha, but this work conflicts with my definition of magic so it is wrong.

And, like comic book universes, an overly rigid need to conform to continuity can throw off new and innovative work. But there are people in fandom who would rather their gardens remain unruffled and pristine rather than let people enjoy things their own way.

Hey you kids, get offa my lawn!


One of the most important things to remember about the traditional slow moving zombie is that they tended to be much less of a threat than the disorganized, terrified, angry, ignorant humans they attacked. Both NotLD and the original DotD had the vast majority of the characters killed by other humans or by their own mistakes. A lot of somewhat overblown philosophical junk gets laid at NotLD's doorstep, but I think the movie captured a certain vicious hopelessness that existed for during the Vietnam war. The Romero stories are essentially nihilistic: we could have pulled ourselves out of the zombie apocalypse if we just learned to work together.

All this is well and good, but it comes from a generation that dreaded things inside their culture. Slow moving zombies was an apocalpytic crisis, and Romero's movies showed how we fail as a species to meet the challenge. The real danger in Romero movies come from within. Running zombies represent threats that come from without.

I'm a big believer in the horror genre's ability to capture the zeitgeist of an age by showing us distorted, funhouse mirror reflections of the things that frighten us as a society. I think DotD's remake captured the degeneration of the (forgive the dreaded cliche here) post-9/11 America better than Romero's movies. The opening scares in the remake are absolutely relentless. As Ana makes her escape, we see her neighbors gets butchered around her before they can even understand they are under attack, cars crash into each other, people are dying along the edges of the frame, and the law enforcement officer she runs to sticks a gun in her face. The terror here comes from a very clear place. We are being attacked, We don't know why, we aren't prepared, and no one is coming to help us. As a young, liberal American, this resonates with me.

Also, put bluntly, I find it kind of strange that Pegg attacks running zombies as not being scary when he made a comedy showing that slow moving zombies don't pose much of a threat. Sure, the last half-hour turns into a nasty horror flick, but most of the movie treats the walking dead as gory slapstick props. Even Romero's original Dawn had the outlaw biker gang slamming pies into the ghoul's faces. In the Romero-penned remake of Night of the Living Dead, Barbara looks out at the wave of oncoming zombies and whispers "We can just walk past them." We're too familar with traditional zombies, we're too aware of the rules, and that affects the way we engage with the story. Humanity can contain a slow zombie, but would be wiped out by a running zombie wave.

If you want to keep the nihilism of the zombie mythos relevent, the running zombie has a place in the horror pantheon. Great works are still being done in the classic genre, specifically Max Brooks' terrific World War Z series, but I'm not going to condemn a new idea out-of-hand because it doesn't mesh well with tradition, particularly after strong work has already been produced within the new genre.

Long live the running zombie!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Let The Right One In

Thanks to my man Igor, who made the above Swedish cinema primer possible. It's not like I can run the trailer twice now, is it?

I tend to associate with women much smarter than me, and therefore I've seen a lot of foreign films. I think I was as prepared as anyone to check out Let The Right One In, the nifty vampire film currently making the art-house circuit. Let The Right One In is gonna be a hard sell for the average fan raised on the American style of horror cinema. For one, it's the close-uppiest movie you will ever see. Director Tomas Alfredson seems to believe that the best place for a camera is four inches from a character's face. It's also edited in a rough, jarring way that bats the viewer's focus so hard it makes the teeth rattle.

It's also really, really, friggin' good. It's a story about an isolated, angry young tweener who befriends a vampire and it absolutely works.

I was planning on my next post being about Twilight and the neutering of the vampire archetype, but Let The Right One In renewed my faith in this type of story. Ever since Buffy The Vampire Slayer (or, arguably, the Anne Rice vampire novels) vampires have become the bad boy archetype, basically human but with unusual diets and skin deficiencies who have a dark, conflicted, sexy edge but who can be redeemed with the love of a good, strong, pure girl. Eli, the conflicted vampire of LTROI, is cut from the same cloth as the classic vampire stories. She's a creature with barely controlled appetites, someone whose emotions and sensitivities may be human but whose impulses make her a constant threat.

She finds her perfect match in Oskar, the troubled and lonely boy she befriends. When we first meet Oskar, he is taking out imaginary revenge against the bullies who torment him at school, slashing at the air with a knife and practicing the things he'd say. He's well read and quiet, keeps a scrapbook of gruesome murders, and has a surprising knowledge in forensic pathology. When he's actually confronted by the school bullies he becomes timid and powerless, and this in turn makes his fantasy life darker and more violent. I've long held to my haunted house theory, namely that the best horror movies involve characters who are haunted even before they ever set foot into the realm of the supernatural, and Oskar makes a much better fit for the vampire tale than any goody-two-shoes flyover land blonde.

The story is focused almost purely as a tale between Eli and Oskar. Adults barely feature in the movie, and the parents and teachers who populate Oskar's world are mostly kept off-screen or filmed from behind like characters in a Charlie Brown special. There is a small cadre of locals who slowly become aware of what Eli is up to, but they're mostly used as victims, comedic relief, or targets of ridiculous CGI cat attacks.

My favorite part of the movie, the bit that I think other movies could learn from, is the slow way that Oskar and Eli become friends. In Hollywood movies, teen and tween characters toss out witty and insightful bon-mots, sprinkled with quickly outdated pop culture references. The characters in LTROI talk like kids. They're guarded and shy, insecure and awkward. They slowly up to each other, slowly offer their friendship, and it's tremendously realistic. These felt so natural and so perfectly captured that I dread the upcoming remake, which will no doubt make the kids older, prettier, and full of snappier dialogue and rock song. LTROI is a quiet sort of movie, and Hollywood doesn't do that well, not without being self-congratulating.

The horror in the movie is very well done and effective. The story's emphasis isn't really on the body count, but when the violence hits it's shocking and brutal. Eli is not a romantic seducer type, and she rips out people's throats with animalistic abandon. The gore is limited but effective, particularly the grisly scene where Eli demonstrates what happens when she enters a home uninvited. That scene stands out as one of my favorites in recent memory, along with the ghastly final sequence in the poolside, as Oskar's vampire buddy comes to his aid in the most shocking way, proving that it's probably not a good idea to make friends with monsters.

One of the big questions that I took away from the movie is about how honest the emotional connection is between Eli and Oskar. Eli, as portrayed in the movie, is clearly not bereft of humanity. When she is forced to find her own victims, she weeps after she kills people. She shows tremendous amounts of restraint around Oskar, and the connections they make are tender and very human. She is, however, very callow and heartless to Hakan, the older man who lives with her and kills people to feed her. We never learn the exact nature of Hakan and Eli's relationship, but I wonder if Hakan was once in Oskar's shoes. Did Eli strike up a friendship with someone her own age and then abandon him as he gets older. The story ends with the two of them leaving town, implying that Oskar has taken Hakan's place. Will Eli one day treat the older Oskar with the same contempt?

There are few horror flicks that I can think of where the setting is a perfect fit for the story. Blackeberg, the Stockholm suburb where the story takes place, is oppressively cold. The characters trudge through blank, lifeless landscapes, faces constantly bundled, struggling to move under the bindings of their heavy clothes. It conveys a sense of stillness that fits very well with vampire mythology. Frankly, Sweden is probably the best place to hide if you are a vampire. Everyone is already pale and gloomy.

Anyway, this movie isn't for everyone. I don't think anyone would accuse LTROI of being a particularly kinetic film, and I know that the cinematography turned some of my friends off, as did the particularly twisted nature of the kid's relationship. But it's still one of the best vampire movies I've ever seen. Check it out.

Repo! The Genetic Opera

It's very difficult to actually dislike a movie with this much energy and originality.

I've really been looking forward to this movie, ever since its big marketing push during the San Diego Comic Convention this past summer. Clips from the trailer, downloadable songs, and the awesome posters were available to fans. I thought it looked visually cool and daring and gruesome and I wanted very badly to see it.

This past weekend I got a gang of my friends together and we went to our Local Indie Cinema. We sat down, got our beers and our pizzas and our popcorn and we saw it through. We listened through the songs, cringed through the eviscerations, and were amused by the wild sights that Repo! laid before us. Yet the strangest thing happened when the lights went on. We all liked it....sorta. We mumbled and grumbled, struggled to put our finger on it, but I think we simply wanted to like it more.

Repo! The Genetic Opera is kind of a stretch on my single-topic blog rules. The horror is mostly of the visceral variety as the Repo Men stalk the streets, gruesomely vivisecting any organ transplant patients who can't keep up with their medical payments. The rest of the story is a gonzo rock opera set in a dystopian future, where a small family of psychopaths and degenerates live a decadent lifestyle as the people below them scrape by in poverty, completely dependent on the sinister GeneCo for their health and entertainment. There's something wonderfully grand guignol in the way this story is told, as we watch flesh split and entrails torn out of screaming victims by cackling madmen while crazy industrial songs are sung.

Despite the cheerfully ludicrous setting, the story itself is as outlandish as most musicals. There are lost loves, tragic heroes, monstrous villains, secrets, liars, tragic victims, all-knowing narrators, and all that jazz. All of this is, of course, wrapped up in a heavy gothic/industrial aesthetic.

I used to be much heavier into the goth scene when I was younger, before I realized that the personality affectations and kabuki-style look was more trouble than it was worth. Still, I have a strong affinity for the subculture and it's participants and I get a little Pavlovian response to anything marketed to the community. If ever a movie was tailor-made to the goth crowd, this is it. It takes place in one of those grim, ground-down futures where the sun never seems to turn up. The ever-awesome Ogre from Skinny Puppy plays a supporting character. Everything is so dark and grand and over-the-top and majestic. The heroine is a wan, sickly girl, trapped in a tower and forever melancholy in that theatrical way only goth kids can be, because everything is so unfair to her, goddamnit!

Here's the deal: for a musical, the songs in Repo! The Genetic Opera aren't particularly memorable. They're well shot and well sung, especially by Anthony Stewart Head, who absolutely rules as the Repo Man, but aside from one or two standouts everything kind of blends into each other. The singers and performers assembled for this movie are top-notch and they're able to elevate the material, but you tend to get swept up in the energy and the visuals more than the actual music.

The second issue I had with the movie is that it's one of those films that was hampered by it's budget. The movie mostly takes place on a handful of small sets, which makes the story suffer from a feeling of claustrophobia that seems at odds with the dark grandeur of the performances and the music.

I suppose I should say something about Paris Hilton's performance in the movie, where she portrays one of the three spoiled children who stand to inherit GeneCo after their father passes. She apparently irritates a lot of people, particularly my friend Kwame, who shouted some rather harsh criticisms at her while she blocked traffic during her appearance at the SDCC. I'm sure she's going to pull some people into theaters based on sheer WTF factor alone, but she's barely in the movie. She sings a couple songs in that breathy Marilyn Monroe faux-sexy way that mostly grates on the nerves, and her surgery-addicted character's face falls off during her closing number. All together, Repo! was a highly amusing vehicle for her talents. Bravo!

I totally think Repo! is absolutely worth seeing, if for no other reason than I want to see more of this sort of thing produced. It's a little too precious and self-aware to be a cult movie, but I think it'll find a loyal audience. It's one you have to see in theaters, when you can be completely overwhelmed by the razzle-dazzle onscreen. In a smaller, more intimate setting, the flaws of the movie would become more apparent. Still, go check it out, especially if your formative years were more Bauhaus than Backstreet Boys.

Alliteration, suckas!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dark Harvest

It is such a pleasure to read Norman Partridge's work.

I was first introduced to Partridge by people who knew of my affection for Joe R. Lansdale's work. I was looking for idols, people to emulate, and I really connected to the energy and enthusiasm of his stories and the joy that was evident in the craft. I read some of the anthologies that he contributed to, picked up the issues of Cemetery Dance that showcased his work, and quickly breezed through his novels.

Some years later, I found myself in a small liberal arts college in Northern California. I was walking through the quad when I overheard a couple of students chatting nearby. The name Norman Partridge came up. I asked if they were fans and they regarded me blankly. Turns out Partridge held employment at the university.

I sprinted over to his department, where I found him chatting with a coworker. I stammered out an introduction, told him I was a huge fan of his work, and proceeded to act like a fanboy. While I attended the university I must have bugged him a thousand times, hitting him up for autographs of my well-thumbed paperbacks. He was always gracious and kind. One time he stopped by at the video store I part-timed at. We chatted for a bit, I gave him a copy of Pumpkinhead, and he presented me with a fresh, autographed copy of his hardcover short story collection The Man With The Barbed-Wire Fists.

Somewhere in the back of my head, I think I always knew that I wanted to turn my hand toward this writing thing, and I tended to gravitate toward writers who made it look fun. I've yet to come across a Partridge story that I didn't fly through with a big, stupid grin on my face. It's been a long time since I revisited his work, and I heard that his novel Dark Harvest had won serious accolades so I picked it up.

Dark Harvest is another one of those haiku stories, one where the form is fairly familiar but the artistry lies in the execution. It's essentially a "sacrifice of the harvest" tale, one where the security of a rural farming community is kept up by quasi-pagan human sacrifice. The form, most famously used in King's "Children of the Corn" and Jackson's "The Lottery", tends to be a hard one for me to connect to. I'm a city boy and seasons pretty much look the same to me, plus or minus variations on temperature, but I really got into the tale.

The story takes place in the early sixties, where the teenagers of an isolated corn belt town are locked up for five days and then turned loose to attack the October Boy, a pumpkin-headed sacrificial avatar the town butchers at the behest of the mysterious Harvester's Guild. The winner of the contest gets a large cash prize and is allowed to leave the town. Thrown into the mix are mobs of insane teenagers, a young protagonist itching to leave his dead-end life, and a sadistic brute of a cop who acts as the town executioner. Eventually the secrets of the town are revealed, including the ghastly truth behind the contest, and disaster comes to the town.

One of my favorite elements of Dark Harvest is the narrative voice. The story is told in a breezy, conversational style that is characteristic of Partridge's work, but as the tale unfolds we see that the narrator has specific, terrible connections with the dreadful ritual the town participates in. As the story progresses, the secrets that are uncovered hit the reader dramatically. Not unlike Clive Barker's recent Mister B. Gone, we become directly involved with the story.

There is a lot to like about Dark Harvest. Partridge captures the itchy, impatient rage of adolescent males, the trapped, ominous doom of small town secrets left to rot, and the anxious complacency of life in the early sixties. My complaints with the story were fairly minor, mostly that a secondary female lead was almost irrelevant to the story and that a wonderful character moment was missed for the mournful man who waited for the October Boy in the church with the riot gun, but these little gaffes are overshadowed by the energy of the narrative and the strength of the writing.

I think when I was younger I enjoyed his work on a more superficial level. Partridge's work is high energy and wacky, full of bikini killers and burned out boxers and split-personality Nation of Islam hitmen, but rereading his work I am struck by the poetry woven into his writing. The October Boy's lonely quest to reach the old church is told with real emotional weight that lesser writers would have dismissed in favor of the raw visceral action of the tale. Partridge doesn't have the same elegant sensuality that I love in Clive Barker's work, but Dark Harvest draws it's sense of poetry and imagery from the sensibilities of the isolated, small-town Midwestern setting. There's a real working-class lyricism in Partridge's work, and the strong, masculine tales that he spins have a real grace under their barbed-wire fists.

Partridge is one of my favorite writers. If you haven't read any of his work, do yourself a huge favor and read Dark Harvest.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Gingerdead Man

If there is something you need to understand about me, it's this: I paid money to watch this movie.

The Gingerdead Man is one of Charles Band's Full Moon Features productions. If you haven't seen any of his direct to video flicks, I highly recommend that you check them out, as Band seems to be highly sensitive to the fact that anything scary is automatically more terrifying in puppet form.

This movie is pretty much unreviewable. It's special effects consist of a some lights and a sock puppet with Gary Busey's face. Actors stand three abreast, facing the camera, reciting their lines in clipped, terse delivery. It's got the heroin addict from Deadwood in it. And Gary Busey is the Gingerdead Man.

I love Gary Busey, the walking poster child for motorcycle helmet laws. I was a big fan of I'm With Busey, mostly because I was genuinely unsure of how real it was. Was it an act? Was he really that far gone? Here's a taste of the magic:

Anyway, he plays the best goddamn twelve inch serial killing Gingerbread Man that has ever been committed to film, brought to life by haunted dough infused with wrestler blood and baked in the fires of perdition. Evil never tasted so good.

It strikes me as kind of hypocritical that I reacted so negatively to Return To Sleepaway Camp and I kinda enjoyed Gingerdead Man. Both movies are no-budget goofball ideas with a cult following and a wry sense of irony. Gingerdead Man is, if anything, even more ineptly executed. Maybe I was in the right mood this time, but I think it had more to do with the fact that there was some missed potential in RTSC that Gingerdead Man cheerfully avoids. It's the movie equivalent of the kid you knew in high school, the one who had potential but chose to hide out behind the cafeteria getting high rather than apply himself.

When I was a kid I got a lifetime membership in the Full Moon Fan Club. It came with a little membership card, a quarterly catalogue, a tee-shirt, and a free tour of the Full Moon Studios that I never took. I liked the mystique of the company, the cheerfully goofy nature of the movies, and I like the way that Charles Band is sort of the Stan Lee of direct to video schlock flicks. At the end of all his old VHS movies there would be a little video of Band thanking you for watching his movies and telling you what projects were currently being developed. You didn't feel like you were just watching one silly movie, but that you were part of a little community. Check out his blog here.

This is the sail on your boat of life.

ia ia cthulhu fhtagn


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Friday the 13th Trailer

Friday the 13th is tremendously important to me.

I am fully aware that the movies weren't actually GOOD. But they were central to my imaginative development, in the same way that comic books and Star Wars. They were the playground my dark side took root.

I think Slasher monsters have this superhero appeal to kids. They're not removed from the action like the Jigsaw killer is. They're doing the dirty work. They're strong and tough and capable. And they scared the CRAP out of people. They're essentially cyphers, so you can pretty much ascribe any kind of motivation you wanted to them.

There were elements to the broadly-sketched mythology of Jason that I clicked into, specifically that Jason was ugly and he was tormented by the other kids. Having been a city kid who went to summer camp, I couldn't think think of a scarier place to be stalked. And the fucking hockey mask, that goddamn, bone white hockey mask. Before I was brave enough to see the movie myself, I asked other kids what Jason's face looked like. One kid told me he had no skin on his face. I stayed up all night on that one.

I think the movies had a strange two-sided appeal for me. On one hand, when I wanted to be a monster, I was Jason. I got to live the vicarious thrill of hacking up pretty people that I didn't feel that I could be. On the other hand, I was one of those kids and there was this impossible, terrifying monster after me. How would I run away? How would I fight? Would I be brave, or would I cower and completely lose my cool?

Plus, god help me, they were titillating. By today's standards, the sex and violence of Friday The 13th is tame by comparison, but when I was a kid it was the only place to see boobies and violence, both things my mom would have disapproved of.

I get that there's a lot of hostility in the Internet horror community to the idea of remakes, as if the fucking original series is some saintly work of underground art that needs to be preserved and kept in the underground horror ghetto and kept away from mainstream appeal. I am in complete disagreement. It's a new age. Make him scary again.

Watching this filled me with a fine dark glee. Will you join me?

There's a legend around here. A killer buried, but not dead. A curse on Crystal Lake. A death curse.

Jason Voorhees curse.

ia ia cthulhu fhtagn


Monsters Vs. Aliens Trailer


I think this looks really cute. Kaiju big battle time.

ia ia cthulhu fhtagn


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Return To Sleepaway Camp

This movie begins with a bunch of kids in a cabin lighting their farts on fire and ends with a guy laying skinned on the ground and a cackling madwoman howling into the camera.

I love horror movies.

Okay, I get that Sleepaway Camp is a strange cult classic among our tribe, well known for its infamous twist ending and flamboyantly campy style. Next to Norman Bates, Angela is the most famous tranny serial killer in cinema history. The later movies gleefully embraced and magnified the goofy campiness of the original, and they became the ultimate movie to watch when you were in a certain kinda mood with a certain kinda friend.

But movies like these, and like Return To Sleepaway Camp completely flummox me as a reviewer, because they're not actually "good" in the conventional sense of the term. Yet here I am, forced to articulate the fact that there's something twisted and enjoyable in these kinds of films. Watching a Z movie that embraces it's z-movieness is kinda like watching one of those summer camp sketch comedy shows, where you're laughing at the execution as much as the jokes.

Long and the short, you gotta judge these movies by a different criteria.

RTSC is made by the original director, and the movie directly follows the first movie. SC2 and 3 were created by a different guy, and aren't technically 'canon'. The story takes place in a camp staffed by unprofessional, negligent councilors and seemly completely free from scheduled activities. Teenagers (all of whom appear to be slightly too old to be in camp in the first place) seem to spend all their time hanging out and getting killed. Slasher movies are essentially campfire ghost story distilled into cinematic form, so the camp setting is a natural locale for gory mayhem. Some bastards get bumped off in inventive ways, there's a "twist" ending, and blah blah blah. You already know the plot. You've seen this movie, in different form, a dozen times over. These movies are like haiku anyway. The basic structure doesn't change, but the art is found in what the creators do within the limitations.

I think one of the big problems of the movie is that it is too aware of the cult following surrounding the original and it plays up to that audience. RTSC knows that people are coming for the campy, grisly joy of the previous features, so it doesn't bother with building tension. Instead, the movie puts far too much of the focus on setting up a red herring around the killer's identity, painting a big red bullseye around the the damaged Alan (Michael Gibney.)

Man, these last two posts all seem to focus around fat guys playing awkward, damaged characters. While Michael Gibney doesn't have the same dramatic pull as Bostin Christopher, the character he creates in Alan is fascinating and realistic. I've known guys like Alan before. He's angry and damaged, clueless to the intricacies of basic human interaction, and completely at the mercy of the other campers. A lot of slasher movies are thinly-disguised revenge fantasies, and Angela's motivation always centered around cruel and immoral kids getting their just desserts. I think a fantastic coming-of-age movie could have been made around Alan growing up and moving away from the loneliness and fury that binds him, but he's painted to be the most likely candidate to be the murderer, which of course means that he's innocent.

There is no actual HORROR in this movie. We rarely get any sense of tension, none of the victims are particularly sympathetic and the whole situation is so over-the-top and farcical that it becomes impossible to actually get engaged enough to be scared. The make-up effect work is pretty good, especially the murder lifted from 1984, but the only scares you'll get out of this come if you're particularly squeamish.

In the end, I don't think I can recommend this movie to people who aren't already twisted enough to have enjoyed the first few. There is fun to be had here, but it's also trying to be a little too precious for their own good.

Also, how far you have fallen, Big Pussy. How far you have fallen.

Anyway, check out Final Girl's review here.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Man, I hated this movie.

I'm not a big fan of torture porn in general, and when I heard that Otis was a black comedy take on the sub-genre I was excited to see it. Torture porn, for all its peccadilloes, has a lot of tropes that could be mined for laughs if done by someone halfway clever. In addition, the big fishies in the internet horror fan scene sang this movie's praises.

Otis commits the most unpardonable crime a black comedy can commit: it's vile without being particularly funny.

I guess that the sense of humor is supposed to come from the bickering, dysfunctional family who loses their daughter to the pizza-delivering maniac. I think we're supposed to be amused by the domineering mother, the milquetoast father, the sleazy teenaged son, and the heartless Fed assigned to the case.

I really hated the family. I hated spending time with them. I hated the fact that someone thought it was funny to name a family of idiot vigilantes the Lawsons. I hated the fact that we're supposed to find it amusing that they torture Otis's asshole brother when five seconds of brainpower could have avoided this hilarious gaffe. Oh, the comedy that ensues! There were a few moments that rang clever, mostly the humorously vicious tone the media would use to describe Otis's actions, but occasional shock-funny moments don't really redeem the movie.

I think a big part of the problem I had with Otis was the schizophrenia of its intent. Watching the trailer, you get the sense that the movie is trying to be sold as a straight up, justifiable-revenge red state fantasy. Then the story goes on and you're told that it's a parable of misplaced vengeance and the consequences of unchecked fury masquerading as righteousness. But wait, isn't the victim a complete asshole? So isn't it kinda justified what they do to him? If so, why is the scene where they dispose of Elmo's corpse played (poorly) for laughs. The scenes where Otis and Riley are enacting scenes from his fantasies set against his shoddy backdrops have a strangely tender turn, as if the characters are forming genuine connections, but then they're jarred by shockingly graphic moments of sexual hostility.

There's the usual torture porn subtext of sexual violence against the female lead, but it's much more up front in this movie. When Otis starts pulling Riley deeper into his "Kim" fantasy, he keeps asking her how wet she is. When Riley shows resistance to playing along with Otis's fantasies, the threats become very sexual. When Riley finally escapes, her family fixates on the erroneous possibility that she was raped. While I get that sexualized violence is part and parcel with serial killer lore, and that Otis may only feel comfortable acting out his sexual drive in the context of his fantasy with a captured victim, it becomes a bit too much of the focus of the story for my taste.

Also, it's a fundamentally ugly movie. I get that Otis is a low budget film, but it's shot like a porn and it has that sleazy jazzy porn soundtrack. People have done much more with much less.

The one thing that held the movie together for me was Bostin Christopher's performance as Otis. I can't imagine this would be an easy role for an actor to take. Otis, as written, seems to require both innocent, bashful sorrow, and barely suppressed rage. Bostin has the right baby face for the role but he does a fantastic job imbuing Otis with a strange and genuinely sweet mix of pain and rage. I've seen a lot of torture porn films and the murderers tend to be portrayed as disembodied intellectuals or creatures of incandescent misanthropic fury. Otis, with his silly high school fantasy and crippling shyness, seems just as trapped in his cheap little dungeon as the poor girls he drags down with him. I like Bostin Christopher and I will keep an eye out for any future projects he gets involved in.

Generally speaking, I thought the performances were good. The actors simply aren't given enough to work with, particularly Jere Burns as unsympathetic FBI Special Agent Hotchkiss. Hotchkiss could have been a neat creation, a glib and heartless counterpoint to all those smooth feds we're used to seeing. Instead, the filmmakers turned the character completely insufferable, delivering smarmy lines while chewing gum in every fucking scene he's in.

Hated, hated, HATED this movie. Still, I'm now a Bostin Christopher fan. Check out his blog.

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Who, in the absence of any good horror flicks this season outside of Quarantine, will probably see Saw 5.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

House Trailer

Okay, I'm not easily weirded out, but a Christian horror movie?

There's always been a puritanical streak in horror stories that I've never been comfortable with, but that's an essay for another time. Alls I know is that certain elements of this trailer set off alarm bells. On the surface House looks like another goofy haunted house flick, but I did some research and found that both authors are heavily steeped in contemporary Christian literature and the movie will feature Christian heavy metal.

Alarm bells. Great, something else telling me I'm going to hell.

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Oh, man. I wanna be Alfred Hitchcock when I grow up.

Okay, writing a review of Psycho is an act not entirely dissimilar to reinventing the wheel. It's been decades since the movie terrified people out of their showers and a thousand commentaries have been written about the movie. Nothing I say, nothing I observe, hasn't been studied more thoroughly by wiser heads than mine. So alls I can do is tell you a story.

I met Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano when I was seventeen. I had just graduated high school and a bunch of friends and I decided to drive down to the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in Pasadena, CA. There was a bunch of razzle dazzle around the various franchise horror flicks coming down the pipeline, and a bunch of odd fliers appeared about the disappearance of three amateur filmmakers in the woods outside of Burkittsville, MD, but somewhere lost in the commotion was an ill-attended appearance by the man who wrote Psycho.

I don't recall why I went to the panel or what burning question I had that compelled me to the podium, but I remember that sweet old face smiling down at me from the stage and saying "I think monsters should be beautiful."

Damn. I was very deeply affected by that. Even to this day that accidental little piece of poetry stays with me. The notion that the embodiments of our lusts and our terrors and our animal passions could hold a strange dark beauty was something I responded to. Obviously, I am not talking about the real monsters of the world, the sick and mean among us that go out and do real harm to real people. But those things we create, the stuff that affects us as deeply as a proper monster can, there is something genuinely seductive in that.

Anyway, Psycho. I assume you all know the history of the book, the case it was based on, and the ties to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There's a lot of interesting background to the story but generally speaking horror movies play fast and loose with the stories they are inspired from. I would rather get into my views on the movie than go on about some nutjob from Wisconsin and the ways he decorated his house.

It drives me nuts when people call Psycho the first slasher movie. Yeah, a naked broad in a Bad Place gets done in through the gross misuse of kitchen cutlery But aside from a couple of frightening murders, it fundamentally doesn't feel like a slasher movie. Slasher movies, as I've come to understand the term, require the murderer to be a cipher. Norman is painfully, painfully human.

I like Norman Bates. Norman Bates breaks my heart. People tend to fixate on the justifiably famous shower murder, but my favorite scene in the movie is the parlor scene between Bates and the ill-fated Marion Crane. In the darkly shadowed room, trapped by his own obsessions, this lonely little weirdo shares his misery with the increasingly uneasy Marion. It's heartbreaking. Psycho came along before the serial killer archetype calcified into what we understand it to be. Norman Bates isn't a cold, calculating, misanthropic genius. He isn't even aware he's killing people. He's just deeply fucked up.

Psycho, in a weird way, is almost a ghost story. Norman's mother is, in a very real sense, haunting the Bates motel. The atmosphere of isolation and decay, the very tangible sense of claustrophobia and loneliness, and the looming, tombstone-like presence of the old house on the hill, all add a nearly supernatural air to the events that occur.

Then there's the shower scene.

There are three things that work really strongly for me. I like the fact that the violence happens so suddenly, that she's attacked with such brutal speed and viciousness in the sanctuary of the shower. I like the graceful way that Marion Crane slides down the wall, hand reaching out to us as if for help. Finally, I really like the slow pull away from the lifeless eye. It's a horrible image, and Hitchcock forces us to linger in on it in silence.

As for the rest of the movie, the discovery of the corpse in the Bates home still freaks the shit out of me. The big reveal of Mrs. Bates is still genuinely scary and Hitchcock forces us to linger on the image, this grotesque parody of life, poorly preserved and staring back at us with hollow eyes. It's a shocking image, especially considering the era this was filmed.

I don't really have a problem with the Psycho remake. I listen to cover bands, too. I even thought that Vince Vaughn did a pretty good job as Norman Bates. My big issue was the simple fact that he's physically too imposing for the role. Anthony Perkins had a more boyish look to him, which fit better with a character in arrested development. He's more unassuming, more innocent, and his final descent into madness becomes all the more chilling in his guiltless features.

I've always wondered about the final monologue, which comes as a chilling counterpoint to the false reassurance offered by the forensic psychologist. How deep was Norman into his own lunacy? How unaware was he of his mother's actions? Or was he even there at all, a hollow man from the start, his mother's skeletal smile superimposed over his features as the movie ends.


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Creature (who thinks Janet Leigh was quite a hottie in her day)

Let The Right One In

Sorry for the delay, y'all. I've been caught up in various wild and sexy activities, like the death of my computer and the coming war with my neighbor over their "Yes On Proposition 8" lawn sign.

I'm very excited about this one. I think horror is rooted in childhood fear and to do a horror movie with children protagonists that isn't campy or safe is a very exciting prospect. Plus, y'know, it's Swedish.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

A word on reviews

I created this blog to get involved in the discussions going around the webs, particularly the Final Girl Film Club.

I don't really have a lot of genre fans in my personal life. None of my friends or loved ones are brain-damaged enough to really love this stuff. Furthermore, I'm always the one guy in my group who, after leaving the movie, wants to pick apart the stupid thing. Everyone else is thinking about dinner and I'm griping/ranting/praising the thematic stuff going on within the story. Once I start going on, I can see my friend's eyes begin to glaze over.

So, I figured, I might as well put this junk on the interwebs, let those of you who want to engage in this sort of thing come and find me.

On my end, I'm going to do my best not to ape professional film reviewers. It's been my experience that a lot of cats who are doing this thing with me tend to follow the format laid down by the critics we grew up with. The critics are writing for people who are still deciding on whether or not they want to see a movie. I'm a special-interest blogger. I'm writing for people who've already seen it.

Which means no synopsis, unless I need one for whatever point I'm trying to make. There's not much point in me explaining what happens in Dawn of the Dead. You've seen it. That also means SPOILER ALERT!

I say that again. SPOILER ALERT! I get that you don't want your experience and appreciation of a work ruined by some mouthy idiot spilling secrets. I cover my ears and LaLaLAAAA whenever people start talking about Dexter. Consider yourselves warned.

Also, obviously, I'm not a professional film/book/vidjya game reviewer. I didn't study film or English or Vidjya Game History in college. I will probably miss a lot of the technique and craftsmanship that goes on behind a work. I can only discuss what resonated with me.

Finally, I'm gonna try not to review crap unless it's something that really demands my vitriol. We horror fans are a sad, sad bunch of people. Our interests pretty much require that we wade through an ocean of shit to find the rare diamonds. Frankly, life's too short to talk about every lousy thing that's out there.

Think that's it. I'm working on reviews of Psycho, Rosemary's Baby, and the novel Heart Shaped Box. Thanks for sticking around. If you got a unique point of view on something, chuck it into my Comments box. Like I said, I'm here for the discussion.

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Heart Shaped Box

Man, I didn't expect to be jumping into the reviews so early. I thought I had more essays to write, more nonsense to cheerfully babble into the ether, before I got down to the hard task of letting people know my opinions on stuff. But I had a weird week this week, and insomnia came part of the package. At sometime around 5:22AM this morning, I finally finished Joe Hill's debut novel, Heart Shaped Box and I got some thoughts on it I want to share.

I've been really excited about reading this one. It's probably no secret by now that Joe Hill is Stephen King's kid, and while it's not necessarily fair for me as a reader to be bringing expectations to his work based on my experiences as a Constant Reader of his father's books, I'm only human. King had a strong effect on me as a young teenager and I wanted to see what's been distilled into him, and what he's made his own.

By and large, Heart Shaped Box succeeds. Joe Hill's got game, and it's very much his own. Heart Shaped Box passed my two basic tests for genre work: Does it successfully create a strong atmosphere of dread and does the story/characterization stand on it's own without the horrific elements.

I found myself genuinely engaged with the leads. My general problem with most horror fiction is that the characterization tends to be painfully bland: Brooding But Capable Guy With A Dark Past, Plucky Yet Strangely Conservative Girl, Likeable First Victim, Irritating Complication Character The Villain Later Uses Against The Protagonists. Washed up heavy metal icon Judas Coyne, the unfortunate Danny Wooten, and the damaged Georgia are unique creations, their lives framed with tragedy and their dialogue deeply Southern in inflection. Put bluntly, I give a shit about these characters and strong reader identification is much more essential in horror fiction than in horror films.

One thing that I particularly appreciated was the evolution of Jude and Georgia as the story progressed. Judas Coyne is clearly depicted as a man who both carries and welcomes pain into his life, both from his guilt at outliving his bandmates to his intense immersion within his childhood trauma to his constantly rotating harem of damaged goods runaway girlfriends. I really appreciated the fact that the guy Jude is at the end of the story isn't the same selfish, disconnected, emotionally abusive prick that he was at the story, and that the transformation felt natural and not like some I-Have-Seen-The-Light moment. I dug the fact that Georgia (later Marybeth) can start out as a stereotypical shrewish, grating rawk star groupie and become sweet and sad and strong by the end.

As for the ghost Judas foolishly purchases off the interwebs.....ooooh. The ghost of Craddock is one creepy, creepy dude. He creates a very strong presence in the work, and his rage works in very cool, clever ways. He tends to pop up a little bit too often, and the bit about Craddock's spirit using tricks on Jude that he picked up while serving as a psychological warfare officer in 'Nam is kinda goofy, but otherwise I think he's a worthy boogeyman to add to the horror field.

A very intense southern gothic sensibility fills Heart Shaped Box and I dug these elements. The character's melancholy and family strife brought me into their world very effectively.

The story was not perfect, by any sense of the imagination. The story is so lean and so intensely focused on the leads that it feels at times like a drawn out version of a shorter piece. As such, certain passages feel longer than necessary. While I thought the early haunting in the book were more effectively scary, I would have liked to see Jude and Georgia get on the road quicker, if that's where they're truly meant to find salvation.

Jude and Georgia become much more interesting on the road. Unfortunately, putting them on the road eliminates the claustrophobic effect that Craddock's ghost has inside Jude's home. While the lyricism of the Craddock's frequent threatening broadcasts over haunted radios and TVs offers some of the best chills in the book, I felt his vengeful spirit became less threatening as the narrative progressed.

One of the more effective elements of my favorite haunting stories is the idea of characters who have to confront the things from their past as they're fending off the supernatural. Jude's alcoholic, abusive father looms heavily in Jude's characterization, yet the inevitable final meeting between father and son fails to hold much confrontation or catharsis, as the dying man becomes yet another vessel for Craddock to attack Jude. I would have liked to see this scene expanded, especially since Jude's childhood was profoundly affected by the abuse he suffered at the man's hands.

Oh, and a quibbler's note: the definition of "goth" that Hill uses tends to be pretty far away from the Gothic subculture as I've experienced it. Black nail polish and sour faced tales of childhood trauma does not a goth make.

Anyway, give this one a look-see. I dug it for the traditional ghost story elements and the unique and energetic prose.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

The First Horror Movie I Ever Saw...

...was Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare.

What? Do I have to turn in my horror card now? Am I not cooooool enough for the cool kids anymore? Whatevs.

As a little kid, my mom would take me to Diamond Video in San Francisco, which was a tiny little store nestled in the upper class strip mall a few blocks from Twin Peaks. All the original boxes were shrink-wrapped and displayed in the front. You took the box up to the surly teenagers at the front and they'd pull the cassette from a wall of black boxed videos behind them. You weren't allowed to take the original boxes home, but instead you got this ugly little boxes with the name printed on a little slip of paper.

I loved that place.

I think I was simply predisposed to escapism. I had a big imagination, and anything that sparked it could hold my attention forever. When I was really small, I watched Wizard of Oz over and over, every day, for a year. A couple of years later, it was Return of the Jedi. I wasn't necessarily a sedentary kid. Rather, exposure to fantastic worlds gave me a framework to base my imagination off of. When my parents or my au pairs took me to the gigantic playground near my house, I'd build entire games and adventures based on what I'd just seen or read about. One week, the play structure was the second Death Star's throne room, the next week it was Captain Hook's pirate ship, the next it was Voltron's battleground, and so forth.

All these bright, fun, kid-friendly stories could be found on the right side of the store, lined up bright and neat and shiny, like toy soldiers in formation for inspection. But what about the left side, behind the wall partition? What about the boxes lined up in the towering shelves, in the shadows away from the windows?


I remember sneaking away from my mom and wandering down that aisle, looking at the boxes and their lurid cover art, studying the back cover summaries carefully, trying to get as much as I could of the story from the still photos on the back of the boxes. I remember being fascinated by the multi-sequel series, particularly the maddeningly vague, beautifully designed Friday the 13th box art. Inevitably, my mom would either come looking for me or I'd see something so scary that I'd leave the left side of the store and go back to Family or Comedy or Sci-Fi.

I didn't watch a horror movie for most of my childhood. This is probably a good thing. It took next to nothing to scare Little Creature. Scary stories, the scary songs my classmates sang in Halloween music class. Shit, I saw this scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit when I was eight and it TRAUMATIZED me!

Anyway, time passed, I got a bit older, and my intense attraction/repulsion to the genre only grew. We moved, there were other video stores, and eventually I picked up Freddy's Dead.

For the life of me, I can't remember why I started with this one. Maybe someone recommended it to me, or I heard it wasn't very scary, or maybe I just had some brand recognition thing going on. But I loved it.

I just rewatched it again last night, for the sake of this posting. Freddy's Dead is, by most standards, a failure as a horror film. It's absolutely not scary, full of now-dated pop-culture references, and it has Breckin Meyer getting killed in a video game while he's banged around a cartoon version of Freddy's home.

The weakest link of the movie in undoubtably Freddy. By this point in the series he'd been essentially neutered, with his cringe-inducing puns, his drag show costume changes, and the campy, cartoonish overacting that later directors forced poor Robert Englund to do. Because he was so de-fanged, this made a perfect entry point for me to get into horror. Sure, bad stuff happened, but it was so hokey and over-the-top and completely harmless that it wasn't going to keep me up at night. Better still, the universe Freddy operated in was strange and exotic and magical. I was absolutely hooked.

Coming back to the movie years later, I still really dig about Freddy's Dead.

I really liked the dream sequences. Sure, they're completely bereft of anything even remotely scary, but they're visually imaginative and entertaining. I liked the use of sound in Carlos's dream, the creepy echoes that move through the scene as he gets killed. I liked the cheesy exploration of Freddy Krueger's memories. And, Cthulhu help me, I liked the video game death scene, especially the bit where the room changes around Spencer as Freddy appears in the TV.

I also dig the fact that the lead protagonists all come from an at-risk youth juvenile care facility. Freddy movies tend to have slightly better defined characterization, if only so the viewer can know what vulnerabilities the characters have that Freddy can attack. Granted, this idea was done better in The Dream Warriors but I still like the environment of the facility, with the overworked and understaffed councilors, the edgy, angry kids, and the decay that filled the backdrop in every scene.

I also really liked the effect Freddy's work has on the town of Springwood. With all the teenagers dead, the town is essentially haunted by the living. People speak to imaginary children, offer cryptic warning to the doomed travelers, and generally act batshit psycho. It is implied that Freddy has become significantly more powerful since the start of the series, as Dr. Billy Zane's Sister discovers when she tries to report the death of her charges, only to find that they've been erased from the universe.

I dunno if I can actually recommend this movie. The fact that I lost my horror virginity to Freddy's Dead taints my objectivity. The jokes are pretty goddamn stupid, the Wile-E-Coyote sounds that Spencer makes when he demolishes the house are as ridiculous as clown shoes, and Freddy has the poor taste to die in 3-D.

Still, the movie does have a cameo by Johnny Depp. It can't be all bad, right?

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

So What Is Horror?

Horror, to me, is any form of art that is created with intention of instilling dread and/or revulsion in the viewer. It's a dangerous, outlaw, gruesome medium that has been ghettoized as a backwards, lowbrow form of entertainment.

My definition of a GOOD horror story is anything that can create a proper sense of doom and dread while telling an entertaining and engaging story. The stuff that sticks with me, the stuff that I come back to over and over again, are the stories that click with my imagination, slip under my skin and keep me up at night, listening for things that can't possibly exist.

People like me, the nutty minority who identify ourselves as genre fans, are a strange bunch. We like getting our bell rung, we like that jolt of adrenaline, we like the sense of taboo and the safe exploration of the forbidden that comes with being a fan of this stuff. This sort of thing especially appeals to the young. Every time I go to a horror movie I always check out the audience. Without fail, there is always the group of teenage girls, conspicuously without any boys present, who jump all over each other, shrieking and laughing in terror.

Obviously, people have different levels of tolerance for this stuff. One man's endurance limit ends at the original Halloween and another is unaffected by anything short of Cannibal Holocaust. By extension, the stuff that triggers different people's sense of dread varies. Torture porn, for example, really doesn't do anything for me except make me feel mildly sleazy and uncomfortable, but The Blair Witch Project scared the bejeezus out of me. A lot of people, especially people in this generation, don't really connect to the supernatural, off-camera scares of BWP but they can easily identify with the body-mutilation scenarios of the Saw and Hostel franchises.

I think interest for the horror genre tends to start early with most people. Remember when Goosebumps used to take up whole sections of the bookstore? Kids ate that stuff up, mostly because fear is a universal component of childhood. I remember always feeling overwhelmed and afraid as a kid, and these emotions are very easy to tap into, to explore, and ultimately to control.

Maybe I'm being presumptuous here, but I think that characterization is almost secondary to the genre. Horror is first and foremost about setting mood, about engaging the audience directly. The characters in horror fiction are the cyphers the creators use to affect the audience. We can't be in the story, opening the door to the Evil House On The Hilltop(tm) so we have some stand-ins do it for us.

On the flip side, the horror genre tends to be full of grotesquely overdone stock characters. The virginal survivor, the unbelieving knucklehead, the cop-on-the-edge, the burned out mystic, cryptic warning dispenser. Shit, it's become a cliche.

Find the middle ground. Create characters I can care about, but don't forget to scare me. I will love your work forever.

Death's Rich Pageantry

One of my favorite books from when I was a kid was "Cut: Horror Writers on Horror Films." Some day I'll get around to writing an I-Dig-It post on it, but basically it's a collection of essays on the horror genre, written by the major writers of the early nineties. The writing styles and subjects ranged from the thickly academic work of Katherine Ramsland to the folksy, conversational tone of Joe R. Lansdale. I can't recommend this book highly enough. Go buy it.

One of the essays in the book is the highly entertaining "Death's Rich Pageantry" by splatterpunk authors John Skipp and Craig Spector. The core idea that they present is that horror is the engine that powers every movie you've ever loved. The anxiety that drives the story forward, that compels the characters to act, comes from the emotion of dread.

I used to really back this theory. When I saw No Country For Old Men I categorized it as a horror movie. How can I not? Anton Chigurh is as cold, as uncommunicative, and as motiveless and purposeful as any slasher movie killer, and the story is as bleak and nihilistic as any early Romero piece. My girlfriend accused me of wanting to shoehorn everything into the horror genre just because certain tropes are present. In the end, the movie is not about us being afraid of Chigurh but it's about the characters in the film and their spiral into annihilation. It's not a happy piece and anxiety abounds, but it doesn't have a lot of horror as I understand the emotion and how it relates to the genre.

horror, lower case, is a very broad emotion. I feel a minor sense of horror every time I look into my bank account or when I have to clean up after my pet rabbit. Anxiety exists for all of us on a daily level. Horror, capital letter, is a specific genre. The anxiety is not a side effect of the drama, it's the meaning of the piece.

Besides, stuff that wants to be catagorized as horror tends to be fairly obvious. Blood, death, shadows on the box art, bloody lettering on the dust jacket, vampires, ghosts, chainsaws, and the other tropes of genre. Good, bad, or just banal, horror tends to wear it's heart on it's sleeve.

I do think that it's important that horror pay attention and assimilate stuff from other genres, particularly the emphasis on story and character development, but if the work compromises the end goal of scaring the audience, it becomes a less effective hybrid. It becomes a horror comedy. Or it becomes a thriller.

The Fine Line Between "Horror" and "Thriller."

Man, I love Hannibal Lector. He is so dangerous, so utterly without conscious, they have to keep him locked away behind plexiglas in the deepest, darkest crypt they could find. He's erudite, cerebral, and so utterly devoid of morality that he's essentially alienated from the rest of the human species. He eats people! Man, could this dude be any more a monster?

No, my friends say. Silence of the Lambs is a psychological thriller. Calling it a horror movie is so base, so vile, so....wrong.

There are some obvious bullet points between the two genres that can be compared.
  • Thrillers tend to have a stronger basis in "reality", especially police-procedural thrillers. Horror tends to play fast and loose with the rules of the world, especially when it comes to the supernatural.
  • The antagonists in thrillers tend to be better developed characters, their actions most often triggered by intense obsession. Horror antagonists tend to be much more linear; they simply are. They are outsiders, problems to be solved, situations to be overcome.
  • Thrillers tend to emphasize the slow building of tension, placing their characters in isolated, claustrophobic, stressful situations and then roasting them slowly. The "average" horror tends to go for a wider variety of emotional engagement, using everything from tension build-up to jump scares to ghastly displays of body violation.
  • Thrillers are "respectable." By and large, they are marketed to an older, more mature, more educated audience as a way for intelligent people to get the shivers. Horror is marketed to kids, the immature, and the maladjusted.
This last point seems to be the most contentious when I bring up my theories to my friends, but I stand by it. The vast majority of thrillers seem to star middle class white people in peril, suburbanites who find the sanctity of their homes violated by madmen who, gosh darn, just don't listen to reason.

Look at Lakeview Terrace. You have a young, successful couple who just want to move into their successful little house, and suddenly some madman comes around being all irrational. And he's black. And he's a cop! Oh noes!

I want to show a couple of scenes from my favorite movies. The two I've chosen are strong examples of the different philosophies and techniques of their respective genres. Check them out, see what kind of fears they are trying to play on, and see how they go after the emotions they are trying to engage in the viewer. Turn the lights off first.

The tension from Silence comes from the setup of the scene, the performances, and the strength of the dialogue. Clarice Starling is alone, inexperienced, and vulnerable, manipulated by her supervisor in an attempt to get Lector's assistance. She's left alone in a gloomy little pit, sitting across from a man who is still a threat despite the safety precautions taken to keep him caged. Lector, with his vast intellect and contemptuous mannerisms, psychologically assaults her, probes her insecurities, and dismisses her. Is it any wonder that Starling breaks down in tears almost immediately after this scene?

Now, let's look at a traditional horror scene, one of my favorites: the death of Noah in The Ring.

In The Ring, the threat is more supernatural, something the human mind is fundamentally not capable from understanding. The scene begins to immediately build dread as Aidan poetically informs us that Samara is still a threat, that the steps the heroes took to lay her spirit to rest failed to address her boundless rage. After all, she never sleeps. The spirit of Samara Morgan crawls out of the TV, does her thing, and I don't get a good night's sleep for a week.

Both scenes, as you can see, have very different constructions and very different outcomes. The entirety of the Silence piece takes place on a single set and involves nothing more than a dialogue between the characters. By this point in the film we've gotten some degree of insight into Clarice Starling, and the way Hannibal Lector goes right to her vulnerability shows just how capable and brutal a monster he is. Conversely, the scene in The Ring is a culmination of the journey Rachel and Noah have taken to protect themselves and lay the angry spirits to rest. It's a classic campfire ghost story, and the scene is more visceral and primal than Clarice's encounter with Lector.

Soooo, what's your point, cousin?

I think a lot of entertainment marketed to the thriller audience has elements that cross over into stark, bleak horror. But I can't really include them in the category any more that I can buy Skipp and Spector's horror engine theory. In the end, I think thrillers have their toes too deeply into other genres. It's not fundamentally a bad thing, obviously, but I think it limits a thriller's ability to generate that primeval creeping dread that I enjoy in works of horror. I'm too detached, too aware than I'm watching characters in a drama. Thrillers are a different thing, marketed to a different group, feeding to a different sense of anxieties.

I'm still claiming Hannibal Lector as one of ours, though.