Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Countdown: The Best of Horror

Looking back, it’s really been a great year for horror. Usually when I do these end-of-year roundups, I have way more terrible-to-okay movies to choose from, and far fewer great ones. Not the case for 2015, wherein I actually had to demote some of my favorites to make room for even better ones. Thank the horror gods, I guess, and I hope 2016 is as good as this year was!

Bone Tomahawk. The western made a comeback in a big way this year, and Bone Tomahawk did a fantastic job of seamlessly combining the western genre and the horror genre. This movie is chock full of everything a western should have – outlaws, a quest to save a damsel in distress, a desolate landscape, a sheriff and his sidekick (the inimitable Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins) – plus inbred cannibals and some particularly nasty gore. It’s a bit slow if you’re not already into westerns, but that’s not a detriment to fans of the genre.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. If there’s a movie that can get by on style alone, it’s this. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a bit slim in story, but man is it gorgeous to look at. Sheila Vand is mesmerizing as The Girl, and the perfect vehicle for conveying what is, at its heart, a rather sweet story. It’s also one of the most original horror movies of the year, which is why it’s one at the top of my list.

The Gift. One of the least horror-y horror films on this list, it still gets a place here because it masterfully illustrates the term “psychological horror.” This movie is so restrained, yet it’s positively brimming with suspense. There’s no big bang of an ending, just a simmering, lingering uneasiness, and yes, horror.

What We Do in the Shadows. A masterful horror comedy. I’m not sure any other movie this year has made me laugh as hard as this one. There’s not really much more to say, except that I hope the rumors of a werewolves-not-swear-wolves sequel are true!

Deathgasm. Heavy metal and horror is obviously a match made in heaven, and this movie has the gore, laughs, and loveable characters (Zakk + Brodie + Medina 4ever) to make this movie an instant favorite. Between this and Blood Punch, Milo Cawthorne is becoming someone to watch out for. Which brings me to…

Blood Punch. I was shocked by how much I liked Blood Punch. If we’re being totally honest, I’m not 100% sure this movie would have made the best-of list if it weren’t for the fact that I only saw it last Thursday, after I had already posted my notable horror films of the year list. Butttt, it’s definitely a toss-up, because I really, really enjoyed it. Milo Cawthorne and Olivia Tennet were fantastic – Tennet was really a standout – and the plot was of the twisty-Bermuda-Triangle type that I absolutely love. Definitely worth seeing multiple times.

Crimson Peak. I won’t lie, aesthetics are the main reason I loved this movie. The story is as predictable as any gothic-horror-fairytale, but that doesn’t detract at all from how enjoyable it is. Even so, it’s the lush costumes and unbelievably gorgeous sets that make this movie so worth watching. Just a feast for the eyes.

It Follows. Obviously this made the list, for all the reasons everyone has already said so many times in so many places: The unrelenting tension, the unique take on a supernatural monster, the beautiful cinematography. The sense of timelessness. Not to mention how rich the material is for analyzing (see my essay on it here). It Follows is sure to be talked about for years to come, and rightfully so.

So that's it! We've come to the end of another year of horror. Agree with my choices? Disagree? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter! And happy new year!

Monday, December 21, 2015

2015 Countdown: Notable Horror Films of the Year

These films aren’t necessarily excellent or awful, but they’re worth noting in the great scheme of horror for one reason or another.

Goodnight Mommy. This festival darling got a ton of buzz, and for good reason. It’s a creepy, capable psychological thriller with a healthy dose of cringe-worthy gore. Even so, Goodnight Mommy had just as many detractors, due to its incredibly obvious “twist” (which I literally figured out in the first five minutes of the film). Personally, I don’t think the twist mattered one way or the other; it didn’t effect my enjoyment of the film at all. Overall, it was a very good movie that I’m not sure deserved quite all the praise – or criticism – it got. (See my essay on it here.)

The Midnight Swim. I’m so darn down on found footage horror, I had to include one of the FF films that didn’t make me want to throw a brick at my TV screen this year. The Midnight Swim is distinguished by its inventive use of a worn out subgenre, and by the fact that it is a truly creepy and thought-provoking watch. (See my full review here.)

#Horror. I’m pretty much just mentioning this film because I haven’t mentioned it elsewhere on this blog, and it’s too weird to let the year go by without talking about it at least once. I guess you’d say this is a slasher-meets-bullying-PSA – which sounded great to me, but actually didn’t turn out all that good. The majority of the movie consists of tween-aged girls being horrible to one another (like, really horrible – at one point, several girls mock their chubby friend for being bulimic while she’s throwing up in the toilet), with some surprisingly daring gore towards the end. However, #Horror fails to deliver a coherent narrative or say anything in an original or compelling way. It’s mostly general weirdness peppered with weird scenes of Chloe Sevigny being weird. Actually, “Chloe Sevigny being weird” is my main takeaway from this movie.

Spring. Spring didn’t quite make my best-of list for the year, but it is a great little sci-fi movie nonetheless. Lou Taylor-Pucci is excellent, as usual, and brings a lot of heart to what could have been nothing more than a bizarre creature feature. It’s not scary at all, but I think most horror fans will find something to like here anyway.

Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead. Another that just didn’t quite hit all the points I needed for a best-of, but was still a fantastic, super fun watch. I loved the Mad Max vibe, I adored the bad-ass female heroine, and I loved the zany gore. I’m sure I’ll be watching this again.

Zombeavers. Okay, seriously, though. I don’t think this horror-comedy gets enough love. Yes, it’s stupid and ridiculous. But it’s also genuinely funny and occasionally kind of smart, and I’d take it over a large number of the horror “comedies” that have come out this year, all of which failed to tickle my funny bone anywhere near as often as this one did.

The Green Inferno. This one is notable mainly for its notoriety – much of which, one could argue, is undeserved. This “controversial” film was deemed so before it even came out, because it’s the brainchild of “torture porn” (ugh, I hate that term) aficionado Eli Roth, and it’s about cannibals. Well, not only is it a movie about cannibals; it’s a movie inspired by some truly controversial and disturbing cannibal films, including Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox. The Green Inferno is nowhere near as disturbing as its predecessors, but I guess it’s easy to rile people up these days. (See my full review here.)

What do you think were the most note-worthy horror movies of this year? Tell me in the comments or on Twitter! And tune in next week to find out my picks for the best horror of 2015!

Monday, December 14, 2015

2015 Countdown: The Worst of Horror

Exeter. This jumbled confusion of a movie is little more than a bunch of exorcism clichés tossed onto a lovely set – which makes it all the more annoying. Exeter’s glossy look and high production value belies a hackneyed, chaotic story and uninspired characters. It’s a movie to watch while falling asleep, at best.

Cooties. Although this is really not one of the worst horror movies I’ve seen this year, it’s on this list because it was such a disappointment. I had high hopes for an Elijah Wood-produced and -starring zombie movie (it immediately brought to mind nostalgic memories of The Faculty for me), and I’m predisposed to like any movie with creepy, murderous children. Unfortunately, Cooties failed to satisfy on any level, be it laughs, gore, or suspense. It had a few good one-liners, but the majority of the plot was simply too static and slow.

The Gallows. As has been the case every year since forever, it seems, plenty of lame found footage horror movies came out this year – Unfriended, Nightlight, Creep – to varying degrees of middling success. However, The Gallows wins my personal prize for worst FF-style horror because it has all the hallmarks of a typical FF movie (annoying dialogue that does nothing to advance the plot, amateur acting, drab camera angles), and absolutely nothing else. It was a total drag.

The Lazarus Effect. A cool idea undone by the smallness of its scope. The Lazarus Effect took great actors, a creepy (if unoriginal) idea, and a great first half hour – and made it totally suck. I think its failure is due in large part to the fact that the story never leaves the laboratory or the course of a single night, so everything feels super rushed, cramped (both literally and figuratively), and colorless (again, both literally and figuratively). When the movie does briefly enter otherworldly territory, it’s mostly illogical and pointless.

Muck. Meant to be a “throwback to old-school horror,” this derivative, hollow dribble is anything but. Muck lacks the heart and soul of older slashers and tries to make up for it with boobs. Even for those who are really hard up, I think this movie will fail to engage or titillate in any way.

Sinister II. “Here’s an idea: let’s take the most boring, un-scary part of a great movie, and build an entire sequel around it!” I think those were the actual words of the people who came up with the plot of Sinister II. But seriously, everyone knows the ghost children were the weakest part of the original, and mostly fantastic, Sinister. So why the hell would you make them the main characters of the sequel?

Poltergeist. Of course a slick Hollywood cash-grab had to make this list. The most damning thing about this remake is the fact that it was marketed as a straight horror film, when that’s not what the original was at all. The original was a typical Spielberg mash-up of adventure and childlike wonder, sprinkled with a little horror after Tobe Hooper was called in to take over. This remake tries to be scary, but whoever made it didn’t have the chops to transform it into the horror movie the trailers promised, so it just comes off as another terrible PG-13 “horror” movie. I also hold this lame attempt responsible for slashing the funding on the upcoming It reboot, which actually sounded good before the bigwigs forced out any sort of creative interpretation based on the fact that the Poltergeist remake didn’t do well, and Hollywood deduced that to simply mean, “Americans don’t like clowns.”

Knock Knock. Eli Roth’s foray into erotic thriller territory is probably the most outstandingly bad movie on this list. Totally ridiculous and often nonsensical, laden with bad acting and risible dialogue (the pizza speech, my god), this movie almost seems proud of its badness. For that reason alone, it has a tiny bit of potential for rewatching. Who knows, in five or ten years it might be a campy favorite of mine. But I seriously doubt it.

So there you have it; my least favorite horror films of 2015. Sorry to the losers - but at least you're excelling at something.

What's on your list of worst horror for the year? Tell me in the comments!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Review: Krampus

Holiday-themed movies have always been a bit of an iffy area in horror. Aside from Halloween, which naturally lends itself to horror stories, the majority of holidays haven’t inspired much greatness in the way of horror cinema. From Leprechaun, to April Fool’s Day, to Uncle Sam, to Thankskilling – for the most part, holiday horror movies are just sort of there to laugh at when the appropriate holiday rolls around.

Because Christmas is arguably the biggest holiday of the year (even for non-Christians, who are nonetheless forced to suffer through the interminable shopping season), there are a few more options to choose from, but the pickings are still fairly slim. For decades, horror fans have had to satiate themselves with viewings of Gremlins and Black Christmas, year after year, as nothing better ever seemed to come along. Not that those aren’t excellent movies; but you’d think that someone would have made at least one equally good Christmas horror film in the 30+ years since those movies came out.

This is the part where I tell you that Krampus, the latest offering from Trick ‘r Treat director Michael Dougherty – celebrated by horror fans the world over – is the greatest Christmas horror movie to be seen in decades. Right? Well… sort of. Not exactly. But kind of.

Let me get there.

I’ll spare you the details of Krampus’s plot, because if you’re reading this blog I’m guessing you’ve already been following the hype of this movie for a while now. Trick ‘r Treat is widely considered an instant classic and genre staple, so it was exciting to hear that Dougherty had another holiday horror movie in the pipeline. In many ways, Krampus is every bit the film I hoped it would be. In other ways, it doesn’t – and perhaps shouldn’t be expected to – live up to the high bar set by Trick ‘r Treat. After all, that standard exists only in my mind, and is most likely an unfair one.

Let me start with everything Krampus does right – and that’s a lot. The cast is roundly impressive and likeable (even the redneck relatives are loveable when it counts), with Krista Stadler being a standout as Omi, the grandmother who knows the dark history of Krampus. Even the child actors are winning, from main character Max to mouth-breathing Howie Junior, the kids are all entertaining, if mostly one-note. As a blizzard sets in and the situation escalates, the actors do an excellent job of making you care what happens to them. Unfortunately, the plot undoes that hard work to a certain extent… but I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Something I trusted Dougherty would bring were the special (and practical) effects, and bring it he did. Krampus is simply a wonder, from the way he is revealed – leaping from one suburban rooftop to another in the misty snow with the force of an earthquake – to the slow pan from his giant hooves to a chain-laden cloak seen from beneath a car, to the horror of his grisly face, Krampus is all that one could hope for in a Christmas nightmare. And then there’s his army of minions: murderous gingerbread cookies that happily bring to mind Gremlins, a jack-in-the-box truly from hell, and “elves” that look like they were plucked straight out of a Greek tragedy. The effects here are on point, to say the least, and are often quite frightening.

But there were disappointments, as I suppose there were bound to be, what with the high hopes I’d been harboring. My first quibble is a small one, but I found the jokes annoyingly hit or miss. An opening montage of Black Friday shoppers battling it out in slow motion to the tune of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is perfectly scathing and timely, and a great way to introduce the main theme of the movie. When the rightwing, redneck relatives show up at the uptight liberals’ house for Christmas dinner, however, the gags rest heavily on broad, stale jokes, and more discouraging, jokes that outright mock the young characters for being fat and ugly. I’m not one to shy away from some nasty humor, believe me, but many of these supposed witticisms were outdated and undercooked.

The bigger complaints I had will surely depend on whether you go to see Krampus because you love horror, or because you love Christmas. Gore is basically nonexistent in Krampus’ world, despite that the demonic creature is constantly yanking people away under the snow, accompanied by ghastly (and seemingly irrevocable) crunching noises. And that’s a real problem; although Omi sets the stage by giving us the folklore of Krampus, we never find out exactly where he’s taking the people he drags off under the snow. Are they being killed? And if so, are they then taken to Hell, or somewhere else? This lack of parameters, and the quickness of the characters’ picking off, has the opposite effect of what I think was intended. Rather than feeling all hope is lost, the audience gets the sense that there must be some loophole that will save everyone in the end.

Then there’s the ending. Without spoiling it, let me just say that the ending can be read in a couple of ways, both of them somewhat clichéd (though I’m partial to one over the other, and as a horror fan, you’ll probably be able to guess which one). Multiple fake outs result in an ending that’s more jumbled than shocking, an ending that just sort of tapers off when it should’ve ended with a bang – or at least something not so wishy-washy. It feels like Dougherty was trying to please both the horror crowd and the family crowd, to poor effect for at least one of those factions. Perhaps he will please the parent who takes their ten-year-old to see it, and that’s fine. Krampus is probably the kind of movie that would have terrified and thrilled me as a child. Whether Krampus will end up on rotation year after year for adult horror watchers, however, remains to be seen. I deeply enjoyed parts of it, and it’s certainly the best Christmas horror film I’ve seen in quite a long time, but I’m not sure it has what it takes to endure years of viewings and be labeled a classic.

“Instant classic” is, of course, a perilously high bar to set, and the comparisons to Trick ‘r Treat are made all the more difficult because Halloween is a pagan’s holiday, tailored-made for the horror genre. It’s meant to trick and treat, whereas Christmas has always solely delivered treacle-sweet messages of love and morality, making it hard to break the mold and deliver a sellable movie to theaters during the holiday season. Dougherty was clearly going for widespread appeal and a PG-13 rating with Krampus, two things that were happily absent from his earlier work. But in straddling that line of pleasing the holiday industrial complex and delivering something more, I think Krampus leans far to the side of settling.

The savage bite of Trick ‘r Treat is what is lacking in Krampus; aside from the broad-strokes conservative/liberal jokes and the fat kid/lesbian jokes – which will, yes, have twelve-year-olds and Tea Partiers rolling in the aisles – there is very little that is subversive or edgy about Krampus. At its heart, it is a movie that by all measures appears to be a throwback to the Christmas movies of old, from A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. And those are great movies, but they’re not horror films. They’re not beholden to anything other than a happy ending. Call me crazy, but I think horror fans can be some of the most discerning fans, and I think we demand more than straightforward moralizing. Perhaps Dougherty was trying to give horror fans that something more at the very end, but I found it to be too little, too late.

…But I’m being harsh. (It’s only because I love Trick ‘r Treat so much, man.) Krampus is a wild, mischievous, very enjoyable flick. It’s a bright spot in the horror wasteland that typically is December. I fully recommend that you go see it. But the fact remains – and oh, how I wish it didn’t! – I wanted more.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

November Movie Roundup

Movies I've watched and haven't written about, and movies I've written about but haven't given my opinion on...

The Visit. The Visit was kind of a strange blend of creepy and off-the-wall weird. Overall, it worked for me, because there were some really scary parts (your mileage will vary based on how scared you are of old people before seeing the movie), and most of the gonzo bits mixed in nicely with the unsettling atmosphere to give the movie an off-kilter feeling. There were a few things that were hard for me to get past, though: I didn’t like Tyler (the younger brother played by Ed Oxenbould), and a lot of the quirks surrounding his character were really hard for me to buy into. I thought Olivia DeJonge (as Becca) did the best she could with her character, and overall it worked for me, but again, the way she was written seemed somewhat forced on more than one occasion. I think the kids were a bit of a weak spot, and I’m inclined to blame the writing. (See my essay on The Visit here.)

Stung. This is a movie about gigantic wasps that attack a fancy party – and that’s pretty much all you need to know. It’s a midnight movie, a get-a-bowl-of-popcorn-and-a-blanket creature feature. It’s not anything groundbreaking, but it serves that purpose quite nicely. Plus Matt O’Leary is a main character, and he’s been quietly popping up in a lot of good movies lately.

Harbinger Down. Color me disappointed in this one. I read a while back about how a practical effects team decided to make its own movie when their practical effects got scrapped from the remake of The Thing, and I was definitely intrigued. I love good practical effects – the Evil Dead movies (including and especially the 2013 reboot) are some of my favorite horror films of all time, due largely in part to the fantastic practical effects. Unfortunately, Harbinger Down’s effects are not roundly impressive, and don’t seem worth building an entire film around. What’s more, the plot is nearly identical to The Thing, but with subpar acting. I wanted to like it, guys… but I can’t pretend it was awesome.

Cooties. Cooties was a pretty big disappointment, too. I won’t discount it completely, as there were some very funny bits (though most of them were of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety), and it did have some nostalgic value going for it (read my essay on it here), at least for this viewer. Overall, though, it wasn’t paced well; it started off fairly strong, but it really petered out as it went on. Furthermore, the characters, while amusing at first glance, were too one-dimensional and not compelling enough to carry the audience through the entire story. I didn’t hate it, but I won’t be watching it again.

Kristy. So… knowing that the U.S. premier of this movie took place on Lifetime, I was pleasantly surprised by Kristy. I’ve always liked Haley Bennett (a.k.a. the only reason I’ve watched the dull-as-ditchwater The Haunting of Molly Hartley more than once), and she makes for a likeable heroine to root for here. The premise is simple – college girl alone on campus is stalked by an online cult obsessed with killing “Kristy’s,” i.e. pretty girls with nice lives – and it works. Don’t watch it if you’re looking for a lot of gore and straight-up horror. It’s sort of The Strangers meets a 90s thriller, and I dig that.

The Gift. I actually saw this in theaters and never wrote about it, I guess because it’s not necessarily what most would consider horror. But hey, this is my blog and I like thrillers, too, so I’m gonna mention it! The Gift is an exercise in restraint, keeping you on the edge of your set right up until the end credits roll. It may not be horror, per se, but it certainly leaves you with a lingering sense of dread – for the characters, and for humanity. It also brings to mind Sleep Tight (“Mientras duermes”), which you should also watch. One last thing: why isn’t Rebecca Hall in all the movies?

What've you been watching lately? Do you have your own opinions about any of these movies? Talk to me in the comments!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

We'll be back with our regularly scheduled programming next week, but until then... happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy turkey and family and this Thanksgiving horror movie trailer from Grindhouse.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Exploring Our Fear of the Elderly in The Visit

This post contains spoilers for The Visit.

There’s a wonderful, sad poem by Philip Larkin about our collective fear of the elderly. It’s called “The Old Fools,” and it goes like this (emphasis mine):

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange;
                                    Why aren't they screaming?

At death you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can't pretend
There'll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they're for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines -
                                    How can they ignore it?
Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside you head, and people in them, acting
People you know, yet can't quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun's
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
                                    This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
                                    We shall find out.”

(I was going to just post an excerpt, but the poem is so perfect, and so true, that I had to post it all. Really, go back and read it again. Absorb it.)
The poem popped into my head as the credits rolled on The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest fairytale-cum-horror film about two children visiting their grandparents, alone, for the first time. Much like Larkin’s poem, The Visit uses the imagery of the elderly to provoke frightened and disgusted reactions. Both rely on what seems to be an almost instinctual fear of the elderly. The poem begins haughtily removed in its description of the elderly – “Do they somehow suppose/It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools”, “Why aren’t they screaming?” – and becomes more empathetic – “That is where they live:/Not here and now, but where all happened once./This is why they give/An air of baffled absence” – and finally, ends in foreboding. Those final lines, “Well, we shall find out,” are like a reprimand and portent for all. You think old people are scary? Just wait until you become one.
The Visit, on the other hand, is decidedly from a child’s perspective, and necessarily less nuanced in its portrayal of elderly characters. It's a found footage-style film, meant to be a documentary-in-progress made by Becca, one of the two grandchildren. Becca’s mother has been estranged from her parents since Becca was born, but the grandparents reach out, asking to meet their grandchildren. Eager to give their mom some alone time with her new boyfriend (the mother has had a litany of failed relationships for as long as the kids can remember), Becca and her younger brother, Tyler, head off on the train to spend a week with the grandparents they’ve never met before.
At the beginning, Nana and Pop Pop are sweet, if timid and a little odd. The kids are told under no uncertain terms to remain in their bedroom after 9:30 each night, and peculiar things begin happening in those dark hours. Time and again, the kids chalk up strange behavior to the grandparents being “old,” a seemingly innocuous word that nevertheless conjures up all manner of clichés and fears. Those fears, it turns out, are not unfounded: Nana careens around the house in the middle of the night like an animal; Pop Pop forgets where he is or thinks a man on the street is following him. The Visit plays to some of our most deeply rooted phobias, from losing our minds to dealing with gross bodily functions. Things escalate over the course of the film, eventually culminating in the reveal of the Big Twist for which Shyamalan is so well known.
Until the very end, I was convinced that something supernatural was going on in The Visit, but there wasn’t. Everything I, and I’m guessing most audience members, interpreted as horrifying were merely symptoms – normal, albeit unhappy, symptoms – of aging. Everything the characters of Nana and Pop Pop did was something that could happen in real life to a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia, or merely a body ravaged by time. From incontinence, to odd behavior and “sundowning,” to accidentally flashing naked body parts – parts made disturbing only by the fact that they’re somewhat wrinklier than our own naked body parts – these are all the little indignities the elderly may experience on a regular basis. They’re things the majority of us should be used to, since we all have grandparents, aging parents, and older relatives – but we’re not, not necessarily. When you think about it, it’s almost shockingly easy to frighten us when it comes to the elderly.
Perhaps The Visit owes some of its sheer terror to the fact that the audience is seeing it through a child’s eyes. After all, who among us was never at least a little scared of that one relative as a child? You know, the one with the gaudy makeup who smelled weird and left slimy kisses on your cheek? Or the grouchy, liver-spotted grandpa who yelled and pounded his cane on the floor when he made you bring him his coffee? There certainly is a visceral aspect to our fear of the elderly, but I do think it’s more than that. Maybe it’s because we tend to hold the elderly at a distance, even as we grow up; we put them away in homes to be cared for by low-paid workers (signaling that it’s not important, worthwhile work), we don’t often ask them about their feelings or experiences, and too many of us don’t make the effort to connect with them on a meaningful level. As a society, Americans would rather ship off citizens of a certain age than face what is a consistently growing part of our population.
This is all the more troubling when you consider that other countries surpass us so completely in their respect for and treatment of older people. In Japan, there is a national holiday, “Respect for the Aged Day,” that puts America’s (largely ignored) “Grandparents Day” to shame; in Vietnam, elders are recognized as the carriers of tradition, knowledge, and wisdom. And we’re not only ignoble in how we view our elderly; Americans seem alarmingly uninterested in making sure the elderly are properly cared for, both physically and emotionally. While we often lock our aged citizens away in nursing homes with poor conditions and little mental stimulation or human companionship, other countries are searching for more humane solutions. An experimental facility for people with dementia now exists in the Netherlands, where the people living there are free to roam the self-contained, and completely safe, “village.” The residents are able to live as normally and independently as they wish while still remaining looked after. Meanwhile, we Americans struggle to meet the growing demand for caretakers, and continue to undervalue the work of the ones we have.
Maybe it is simply, as Larkin said, that we see our own lonely, addled futures in the elderly. (A recent poll showed that although 70 percent of Americans will likely need long-term care as they age, one-third of those polled said they'd rather not prepare or think about it at all.) But if so, how long can we pretend that “out of sight, out of mind” is a valid or useful response? The elderly population in the U.S. is expected to nearly double in the next 20 years, and it’s obvious we need to find better ways of dealing with that. Giving the elderly a little respect and a voice of their own would be a good start. Until then, movies like The Visit will continue to haunt us in more ways than one.

Monday, November 2, 2015

31 Horror Films in 31 Days Challenge - Second Half Highlights

So we've come to the end of October, the end of the #31HorrorFilms31Days Challenge... and pretty much the most depressing day of my year. Christmas decorations had already begun to creep into my beloved Halloween aisle weeks ago, and now there's nothing to stop the onslaught! Ugh. At least we'll always have these memories... (scroll over the images in the slideshow to read my tweets about each movie).

Instant Classics. The second half of October was good to me - there were some really excellent new films that came out, my favorites being Deathgasm, Crimson Peak, and Bone Tomahawk. Deathgasm was fun, fast-paced, and full of gore, plus I loved the metalhead angle. It also featured some truly lovable characters; Brodie and tough-as-nails Medina are my new favorite horror couple. Crimson Peak was a good old-fashioned gothic romance with beyond gorgeous sets and buckets of atmosphere. Jessica Chastain was a revelation, and whoever said she was miscast in Mama because she can't pull off a goth(ic) chick... well, I think this proves otherwise. Finally, Bone Tomahawk was exactly the horror western I've been waiting for - gritty and gory and full of Kurt Russell. It scratched an itch that desperately needed scratching.

Top of the Barrel. There were a few others I really liked that I'd never seen before, some of which fell just short of being instant classics for me: Wyrmwood (fun and original, if a little scattered), Trouble Every Day (meandering but worthwhile), and Ravenous (I didn't love it like I hoped I would, but it was still a good watch).

Oldies But Goodies. As usual, I couldn't help but indulge in some favorites I'd already seen: Burying the Ex (dude, I like it), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (plus a bunch of extras from the 40th anniversary DVD, which were great), Super 8 (okay, not exactly a horror movie, but... it has aliens and zombies, sort of, so I'm counting it), We Are What We Are (I love this movie), and Trick 'R Treat (the ultimate Halloween movie, hands down).

The Meh. These weren't necessarily bad, they just didn't hit enough of the right notes: The Stranger (I liked how nihilistic it felt, but it was overall a little dull), Suspension (larger review here), See No Evil 2 (let's be real, I only watched it for Danielle Harris and Katherine Isabelle, so it was worth it), and Dark Was the Night (just... okay). Oh, and Dead Silence, which I've seen before and knew I didn't like much, but... that old lady really does freak me out.

The Uggggh. There was only one movie I truly hated, and that was The Gallows. It checked off every found footage cliche that I hate, so much so that I even refuse to waste my time going into detail. Just... ugh.

So that's it. We've come to the end. So sad. Do me a solid and regale me with tales of your favorite October watches so I can pretend it's not over yet! Until next year.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Phrase 'Torture Porn' Needs to Die Already, Because We’re Butchering It

The term “torture porn” has been used and abused since David Edelstein coined it in his review of Hostel back in 2006, referring to, among other things, the “money shots” he believes horror fans flock to theaters to see. What seemed a nebulous concept from the beginning (did Edelstein mean to imply that horror fans were getting some form of sexual pleasure from scenes of graphic violence? or was he merely incorporating the word “porn” as a condescending pejorative?) has morphed into something completely meaningless over the years, a phrase thrown by critics and detractors at any horror movie they simply don’t like. In a world where “shoe porn,” “food porn,” and “real estate porn” exist, I know I shouldn’t be sensitive about this inane phrase, but as a habitual watcher of horror, I am.

Take Goodnight Mommy, a German horror film that recently picked up quite a bit of hype on the festival trail, for instance. It’s the story of twin brothers who are convinced that their mother, recovering at home from reconstructive surgery after an ambiguous accident, is not really their mother. It’s a simple, human story, beautifully rendered and filled with evocative images that capture the characters’ feelings and simultaneously unnerve the viewer. It’s just barely a horror movie, though; more of a drama or psychological thriller, it's merely peppered with some of the signposts of horror. One of those signposts, however, is literally a scene in which one character is tortured.

Cue the outraged and operatic cries of “torture porn,” in one of the cases where I truly - if naively - didn't see it coming. To be clear, I’m not entirely sure that there is a valid use for the term. However, if I were to apply it to any movie, I suppose I’d apply it to movies like those in the Saw franchise, where torture and gore has become the raison d’etre of the film itself, in lieu of plot or characterization. How that is different from most of the slashers and exploitation films of the seventies and eighties (many of which are revered today), I’m not sure. (Edelstein claims that in those older movies, the characters were “interchangeable” and “expendable,” and the characters in these newer “torture porn” movies are not. It’s the first time I’ve seen anyone consider good writing a detriment.) Goodnight Mommy is just the “torture porn” witch of the moment; I could point to at least ten other films that have been stamped with that moniker time and again, and give at least ten reasons why I disagree with each instance.

Although there is literal torture shown in Goodnight Mommy, I would not – could not – categorize the
movie as “torture porn.” The torture scene was intense and difficult to watch, certainly – at one point I actually said out loud, “I can’t handle this!” while throwing my hands in front of my eyes, albeit briefly – but I find myself hard-pressed to claim that the violence was gratuitous, assuming one is even remotely aware of the conventions of the horror genre and the methods used to elicit emotion therein. Rather, the violence was present in service of the story it was telling. I won’t go into details for fear of giving too much away, but the film deals with difficult subjects, from grief to paranoia and beyond, and horror has long been one medium for exploring those dark subjects. Perhaps it’s not the medium everyone would choose to examine those issues, but does that make the attempt, or the feelings it does manage to provoke, any less valid?

Edelstein, and many others, might very well say yes. The people who most often toss around the term “torture porn” are those who typically don’t like, “get,” or even watch horror films, and so I’m not sure those people could ever understand the movies they’re intent on dismissing. Edelstein declares, “As potential victims, we fear serial killers, yet we also seek to identify with their power.” I can’t speak for other horror fans, but I find that statement laughably off the mark. The truth is, even I’m not sure I know every reason I enjoy being scared, but I do know that it’s not because I like to play-act at being a murderer. The fact that so many watchers and lovers of horror are women also points at a larger reality Edelstein is missing. That he would assume to project his own desire for power and need to identify with the killer onto others seems symptomatically male. He fails to consider that viewers, especially women, may identify with the feelings of powerlessness and subjection expressed by the victims, but in a far more manageable way than we are forced to do in daily life.

I like watching things that challenge me, that make me face uncomfortable truths in uncomfortable ways. I like films that force others to face my uncomfortable truths, the truths I identify with but am afraid to speak aloud. I like things that make my heart beat fast, that make me squirm, that make jump out of my seat and run for cover. And I know that after watching a particularly intense horror film, I'm left feeling a kind of relief. It is cathartic, in a way, to feel completely horrified and paralyzed for a concise amount of time, and then be able to turn off the television and walk away.

But that catharsis is of an entirely different sort than the “money shot” Edelstein spoke of in his pivotal review. That’s fine; his experience with horror is rooted in detached moralism. Mine is rooted in my humanity, no matter how messy or offensive you may find it.

Monday, October 19, 2015

When A Twist Isn’t A Twist: Why You Should Plow Through Anyway

There’s a Portlandia sketch about spoilers: four people at a dinner party can’t mutually talk about TV shows for fear of “spoiling” the plot twists for the other guests. The sketch spirals further and further into ridiculousness, as each guest outlines exactly how far they are into various popular series, thus dictating what everyone else is allowed to talk about until no one can talk about anything at all.

This sketch came to mind back when I was watching Goodnight Mommy, a German horror film with a “twist” ending that everyone and his brother lamented for being too obvious, and again as I watched Suspension, part of the 8 Films to Die For released last Friday. The former is a fantastic film, but since I’ve written about it here before, I’m going to focus on the latter.

Emily MacNevin in Suspension.
Suspension is about a high school girl, Emily (Ellen MacNevin), whose father committed some heinous murders in their small town and is now locked up in a mental ward. Within the first scene we learn that Emily is attempting to deal with her tragic past by drawing a gruesome graphic novel of sorts, in which her father is the main character, on the loose and killing again. Unbeknownst to Emily, however, everything she draws in her sketchbook seems to be coming true in the real world.

Suspension telegraphs its “twist” ending within the first fifteen minutes with a single bit of clumsy dialogue. I can’t definitively say whether the filmmakers meant to make the endgame so clear from the beginning, but based on an interview I recently heard with one of them, I’d hazard to guess that they know it’s fairly obvious, but that making it obvious was not their original intention. With that in mind, I have to ask: Does it really matter?

Granted, we all love to be shocked by a truly great twist. I remember the first time I saw The Sixth Sense, back when twist endings weren’t nearly as abundant as they are now, and it seemed like the entire world was taken by surprise by Bruce Willis’s ghostly revelation. Didn’t we all go back through the movie, picking it apart for clues? In fact, the movie itself did a lot of the work for us, treating us like the babes in the twist-ending-woods we were and providing flashbacks of all the evidence we failed to notice the first time around. Today, however, audiences are much savvier and harder to fool. It’s been a long while since a movie has managed to pull the wool over my eyes until the very end.

So although I’m never not jonesing for a film with a truly unpredictable ending, it’s necessarily become far less important to me than the content and effectiveness of the film overall. Because even if a film surprises you with its finale, it’s never going to hold up to a second or third watch if the quality of story isn’t there. Which brings me back to Suspension.

As I said, I’d wager that Suspension gives its ending away for most seasoned horror watchers within a few minutes. For me, though, I kind of considered it a blessing that it was so apparent, because I didn’t have to waste all my energy looking for clues to bolster my hypothesis. While that can be fun, so many good movies get the guts of their stories glossed over and ignored by audiences doing just that. Then, when their theory turns out to be correct, they complain about it being too obvious and never bother to rewatch the movie for what it is – which is, hopefully, more than just a twist ending.

And Suspension is more than its twist: it’s a fun, nasty little horror movie with a lot of heart, some good acting, and some great campy moments. It caught my eye because of the graphic novel angle – which made for some cool scenes, especially at the beginning – and kept my attention throughout, regardless of the fact that I knew what was coming. Ellen MacNevin is excellent as the lead (she gave me some serious Angela Bettis vibes, which is definitely a compliment), and it’s her story that matters through the whole movie, not just where it ends up. The gore and effects are also on-point and a lot of fun, making for a movie that I’m not sorry to have paid to see (which is more than I can say for some of the other horror movies I’ve spent money on lately). It’s not a perfect film, and I might argue that it would have been better had the filmmakers not tried to conceal the ending at all, but its twist, or lack thereof, had little to nothing to do with my assessment or enjoyment of it.

Our culture’s obsession with spoilers - and the spoiler's mother, the twist - has become a bit of a detriment to film and television alike. Sure, we all love to be surprised (the exponential growth of the subscription box industry testifies to that – even as adults, we all clamor at the chance to pay for a shiny new package to open without knowing what’s inside), but relying solely on shock value to make a story interesting, or demanding a shocking ending above all else… seems childish, and beside the point. Good storytelling, period, should be the point. As audience members, it’s also our duty to recognize and reward that when we see it, rather than whine about the fact that we got exactly what we asked for on Christmas morning.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

31 Horror Films in 31 Days Challenge - The First Half Highlights

The #31HorrorFilms31Days Challenge is halfway over! In case you haven't been following along on Twitter, you can scroll through the slideshow above to see what I've been watching these last couple weeks (make sure to mouse over the images to see what I had to say about each one). To sum up...

The Good. Highlights so far have been Lyle (full review here), The Final Girls, and Crystal Lake Memories (a doc about all the Friday the 13th movies that I’d never seen before). Lyle is a small slice of modern (dare I say feminist?) horror inspired by Rosemary’s Baby; it’s short but packs a wallop and a lot to think about. The Final Girls is a horror comedy that won me over despite being a horror comedy (and that’s not easy, let me tell you). Aside from those, nothing new has really stuck with me as of yet, but I did watch a lot of oldies but goodies – some Friday the 13th movies, The House of the Devil, All Cheerleaders Die. Oh, and I finally got to see Witch’s Brew, which is a low budget horror comedy my husband has a small part in. So that was fun!

The So-Bad-It’s-Good. Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest takes the cake for this category. Storylines include: a strain of corn that can grow in a city plot with terrible soil, out of season no less; an adoptive father who tries to sell said strain of corn to his company; a twelve-year-old who preaches the gospel of He Who Walks Behind the Rows and gets tons of hardened “urban” teenagers to follow him; Charlize Theron getting brutally killed by a corn monster; and basketball. Pure gold.

The Meh. The Blood Lands definitely belongs here. It was a serviceable home invasion movie that reminded me a lot of Them (Ils, in French); sadly, though, it wasn’t as suspenseful, and the ending... well, I guess I prefer my endings to be more harrowing than uplifting. As I mentioned in my tweet, I also wasn’t a fan of the non-scary pig masks. The Green Inferno also lands squarely in the “meh” for me (full review here).

The Ugly. I deliberated a lot before putting Exeter in this slot… but after much consideration, and despite some lovely, creepy visuals, I have to admit that this movie just didn’t do it for me. The kills were cool, but the overall movie wasn’t scary at all, and the slick production could only go so far in concealing the fact that this movie had no heart. Knock Knock is also “ugly,” but for different reasons. Much like The Green Inferno, I think what Roth was purportedly trying to say and what he did say are two very different things, the latter being fairly nonsensical. However, where I could sort of ignore that and just ride the thrills with The Green Inferno, I found little to enjoy in Knock Knock. It didn’t scare me, and it certainly didn’t get me clutching my pearls like I’m sure it was meant to. I found the mind games tame, the story muddled, and the tone inconsistent. Sorry, guys!

Tune in two weeks from now for the rest of the challenge results. And let me know in the comments what movies you’re watching this October!