Friday, October 28, 2016

(My) Definitive List of Movies to Watch on Halloween

For most people, picking which movies to watch on Halloween isn’t a fraught decision – pop in any “scary” movie (from Hocus Pocus to Saw XI-whatever), and they’re set. For horror junkies who already watch scary movies 24/7, though, not just any movie will do when Halloween rolls around. After all, how do you commemorate the best day of the year (come at me, Christmas people) when what you’re doing isn’t all that different from a normal Monday night?

For me, Halloween isn’t so much about being scared out of my wits (a feeling I strive for the other 364 days of the year) as it is about capturing the spirit of the day, and maybe recapturing a little of what it was like when you were a kid. Thus, I give you my list of the absolute best movies to watch on Halloween night.

Idle Hands. If you’re in the mood for something purely fun, Idle Hands is where it’s at. This 90s teen-stoner-serial-killer-possession movie about a kid with a murderous hand is goofy, gross, a little scary, and full of Halloween goodness without delving into kids’ movie territory (sorry, but I just can’t get into Hocus Pocus like other people can). In what will prove to be a running theme in this list, it also takes place on Halloween, and therefore highlights some awesomely 90s costumes (there’s something so Britney Spears circa Baby One More Time about Jessica Alba in an angel costume… or is that just me?). Yes, this is a nostalgic pick, but it still holds up all these years later in the pantheon of teen comedies, and it’s a good horror comedy to boot.

Anything Stephen King. There’s something so quintessentially Halloween about a Stephen King adaptation, isn’t there? Something about the way King tells a story just feels classic, cozy, and creepy all at once. Some of my favorites are Pet Sematary, Misery, and The Shining. I also recently enjoyed Mercy, though that’s more a matter of taste. Hell, this could be your theme for the whole day if you let it – there are so many King adaptations (but be prepared for a broad range in quality). Bonus points if you watch with a Redrum cocktail.

May. If you need something scarier – or gorier – I recommend May, a film about a lonely young woman who endeavors to make herself a new best friend by any means necessary. This early film from Lucky McKee is heart wrenching and repulsive in equal measure, and Angela Bettis is fantastic in the vulnerable lead role. If weird is your schtick, or you fancy yourself a true outsider in a world of posers, or if you just couldn’t find anyone to go trick-or-treating with you, May will help let your freak flag fly on Halloween night.

Trick ’r Treat. Full disclosure: this has been my Halloween movie of choice for at least the last five years. I know it’s not a revolutionary stance in the horror world, but I just don’t think there’s any movie out there that quite encapsulates the feeling of Halloween like this one. It’s silly and fun, but also shockingly nasty at times. The vignette style ensures that there’s something in there for everyone, and the film even introduces an indelible new horror icon in the form of Sam. I hope every year for a movie that can top this one, but a part of me is pleased each year that nothing has.

Halloween. You knew this had to be on the list, right? And I’m obviously talking original, 1978, John Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis with bad hair Halloween, for which there is no replacement. (To be fair, I do watch Rob Zombie’s Halloween movies pretty much every year, for reasons mostly unknown to me… but to watch those on Halloween night would seem truly blasphemous.) Maybe it’s because I grew up watching AMC’s Halloween marathon every year as a kid – do they still do that? I don’t have cable anymore, so I don’t know, but I hope they do – but to me, this movie is Halloween.

So what are your favorite Halloween flicks? Let me know what you'll be watching this year in the comments or on Twitter!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Movie Roundup #12: All the Movies I Watched Before #31HorrorFilms31Days

You know, Halloween Month (known to regular people as October, I guess) has not been going as it normally does for me. I’m just not feeling it as much as usual, and #31HorrorFilms31Days actually feels like a bit of a struggle for the first time ever. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think it’s horror’s fault (I would never blame you, horror). There have been some amazing movies in the last several months; in fact, it’s been one of the best years for horror that I can remember. But it kind of seems like all the great movies came out before October, and there’s very little left to look forward to or enjoy right now. And some of the movies I am still looking forward to aren’t coming out until November or December (Trash Fire, The Monster, Evolution, The Autopsy of Jane Doe). So I’ve mostly been watching old favorites and, honestly, a lot of middling horror that's been sitting in my Netflix queue forever.

BUT, I guess that isn’t terrible news – it means I saw a lot of great (or at least noteworthy) horror in September, and I think I have some excellent stuff to look forward to as the year comes to an end. So let’s take a little look.

The Neon Demon (2016). Girl moves to L.A. to become a model and becomes wildly successful – not least because she’s only 16 (15?) years old. As a comment on our society’s obsession with youth, this wasn’t half bad. As a piece of entertainment… well, let me put it this way: I’m a huge fan of movies that don’t make a ton of narrative sense, but are gorgeous to look at and pick apart, and even I didn’t really like this movie. It is lovely to look at, but the message behind the pretty imagery is so overt and simple, there’s not much to say once the credits roll. Like a pretty face in a magazine, there’s just not a lot beneath the surface that makes this all that worth delving into.

I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016). John Wayne Cleaver is a teenager with all the markers of a sociopath (with a name like that, what did his mother expect?), but who’s trying very hard to be a good person. When a serial killer comes to his town, John becomes obsessed with catching and stopping him. I liked so much about this movie – the bleak setting, the excellent acting (Christopher Lloyd!), the weird premise. On those points alone, I would recommend it. But there’s also a lot that’s just… strange. For example, the fact that John’s mother knows he has homicidal tendencies and he’s been seeing a psychiatrist about it just seemed odd and a little weirdly blasé. There’s also a big twist that completely changes the genre of the movie from what you thought it was to what it really is… and how much you like that twist will probably determine how much you like the film. I enjoyed it overall, but I didn’t love the direction it took once the twist was revealed – but like I said, that’s more about personal preference in terms of genre than a comment on the quality of the film.

Into the Forest (2016). Give me Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, and a post-apocalyptic premise, and I am all in. This is a fairly simple story: two sisters come of age in the wake of a massive (worldwide?) power outage. There are no zombies, no radiation poisoning, and hardly any characters other than the two women, but it’s an affecting little drama nonetheless. I suppose it’s a stretch to call it horror, but it has many of the same themes as any great apocalypse horror flick, as well as some gut-wrenching moments – and this is my blog, dammit, so I’m recommending it.

31 (2016). I was excited about Rob Zombie’s latest (and notably, crowd-funded) film, because it seemed like the story was contained enough that it might not have the same issues as so many of his other films. Although there certainly were things I liked about 31, it unfortunately still suffered from its fair share of poor writing, dialogue, and pacing (and… not beat a dead horse, but its reliance on Sheri Moon Zombie’s acting). For example, I loved how video-gamey the setup and progression was: the captured and unwilling “contestants” are put in a closed-course maze of sorts and forced to fight increasingly bloodthirsty killers to the death. However, the finale was an immense letdown that soured the entire film for me. Worth watching once if you’re a Zombie fan, but I seriously doubt non-fans will find much to like.

Don’t Breathe (2016). I wrote a bit about this movie here, but the general gist of it is: I loved this movie. It was full of twists and turns and suspense that truly never lets up until the credits roll. I can only hope that director Fede Alvarez and actress Jane Levy continue to work in horror, because Don’t Breathe and Evil Dead (2013) were two of my favorite horror-watching experiences in recent memory. Don’t Breathe is a movie like The Strangers, in that I imagine I’ll be able to watch it for years to come and still feel thrilled by it, despite knowing what’s coming.

Satanic (2016). What is with all these horror movies with adjectives as titles? Although I’ve liked some of them (Insidious, Sinister), I hate the trend, and this film’s title is as generic as the movie itself. Well, maybe that’s not entirely fair. I did enjoy the setup: four friends on their way to Coachella (yeah…) make a detour in L.A. to tour true-crime occult sites and encounter a mysterious woman who knows quite a bit about one particular crime. That’s kind of a great premise, if you ask me. I would watch that movie, in theory (minus the Coachella part). But what starts out as a mildly intriguing affair devolves into something so full of horror clichés and so dull, I couldn’t possibly recommend it in good conscience.

The Forest (2016). I know this came out quite a while ago, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, so I thought I should mention it. A woman heads into Japan’s Suicide Forest (yes, that is a real, and really creepy, place) to find her missing twin sister. There’s nothing revolutionary, or even very unique, about this movie aside from the setting, but it hit all the right notes as far as creeping me out while watching it in my house on a dark night alone. I’d give it a shot, especially if Japanese-inspired horror tends to spook you like it does me.

Tell Me How I Die (2016). I could barely finish this one. Students looking for a way to make extra cash agree to take part in an experiment that has unexpected (and frankly, ridiculous) side effects: chiefly, they allow some subjects to see the future. Oh, and there’s also a serial killer on the loose inside the lab, because how else are you going to spice things up? Actually: there are a million other directions this movie could have gone that would have made more sense and been more entertaining.

Friend Request (2016). I actually didn’t finish this one. Let this be the death knell for social media-themed horror movies, please. (I know it won't be.)

What movies have you seen lately? What are you looking forward to?

Friday, October 14, 2016

Guest Post: Tracing Innovative Women Characters in Horror

The following is a guest post.

Even though women have started playing a wider variety of roles in horror movies, many still have stereotypical female characters. However, there are some truly excellent horror movies with unconventional female characters, and it appears that women’s roles in the genre are slowly changing. The following films have female leads who don’t fit any of the usual genre stereotypes. Fair warning: Due to the nature of this post, there are spoilers.

Scream (1996)

Scream is a slasher film about a high school student, Sidney (Neve Campbell), who is targeted by a killer called Ghostface. At first the story follows the typical course of a slasher flick, with various teenagers being killed in gory ways. However, Scream soon reveals itself to be a satirical take on traditional slasher movies. After many deaths, some hilarious moments and a few twists, Sidney discovers her friend Stu is the killer. She eventually kills him, only to discover Ghostface is not one killer but two - Sidney's boyfriend is the second killer, and she manages to kill him as well.

As a satirical take on slasher flicks, Scream mocks many of the features of typical slasher movies. One of the major tropes in slasher movies is the "final girl" - the female character who ultimately defeats the killer. She must be a virgin who avoids vices such as drinking and drugs. Usually, the girls who get killed in slasher films are not virgins or considered virtuous. Both Halloween and Friday the 13th are good examples of this motif, wherein the final girl is a "wholesome" virgin. Scream, however, breaks this trope. The characters in Scream even point out the rules of horror movies. The number one rule is “don’t have sex.”

At the beginning of the movie, Sydney is a virgin, but in the course of the film she has sex with her boyfriend, Billy. Yet she survives and goes on to kill Ghostface (both of them!). Despite learning some horrible truths about her mother, watching her friends being murdered and fighting for her life, Sidney survives and turns the final girl trope on its head. Scream ultimately allowed slasher films to break the rule of the virtuous final girl in a way that still resonates today. The 2013 movie Chastity Bites is an excellent example of this.

The Descent (2005)

The Descent is an adventure horror movie about six women who go spelunking in an attempt to help one member of the group, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), cope with the death of her family. After they enter the cave, the mouth of the cave collapses, trapping the women. As they try to find a way out, they realize creatures that have a taste for human flesh are hunting them. In their fight for survival, the women are killed off one by one. Eventually, only Sarah is left, and the movie ends with Sarah still trapped in the cave, listening as the hungry creatures approach.

In adventure horror movies where people are trapped with a monster, women are often portrayed as mere arm candy or as damsels in distress. It’s also uncommon to find a horror movie that solely stars women. While The Descent is an action horror movie, all the characters are women, and they do not take on stereotypical roles. Instead, they’re an adventurous group of friends looking for some excitement. Despite losing her family, Sarah isn’t a helpless wreck. Rather, she shows a huge amount of strength and only continues to grow stronger as the movie progresses. Indeed, The Descent offers a take on women in horror movies that remains somewhat uncommon today.

The Babadook (2014)

The Babadook is a psychological horror movie that tells the story of Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Sam. After Sam’s father dies, a troubled Amelia has to raise Sam on her own, though she finds it increasingly difficult to manage. One night, Sam asks Amelia to read him a book about a monster called the Babadook. Sam becomes obsessed with the Babadook and believes it’s hunting them. To her horror, Amelia soon realizes that the Babadook is real and is stalking them. After a harrowing ordeal, Amelia finally overcomes the Babadook and keeps it locked in the basement where she occasionally feeds it worms.

On its face, The Babadook appears to be a movie about a monster, and in a way it is. But the monster is actually a metaphor for Amelia’s grief. Initially, Amelia tries to deny her grief, but the Babadook won’t allow it. At one point, it even tells her that if she keeps trying to deny its existence, it will only get stronger. Eventually, Amelia comes to the realization that the only way to overcome the Babadook is to accept it. After she accepts that it is real, she gains control over it. She keeps it in the basement and occasionally feeds it, just as one occasionally revisits grief psychologically.

This insightful movie is really a story about one woman’s struggle to accept her own grief, thereby preventing it from destroying her son and herself. Her struggle takes her through the many stages of grief, from denial to acceptance. Essie Davis’ excellent acting portrays Amelia as a troubled woman who finds the strength within herself to deal with grief, as well as its physical manifestation as the Babadook. Incidentally (or not), The Babadook was written and directed by a woman, Jennifer Kent.

With their tough (both mentally and physically) and unique female characters, these three horror movies trace a positive trend in the genre: a move away from stereotypical roles for women toward more empowering ones. Hopefully, this trend will only continue, and we'll see more nontraditional female leads in future horror movies. Perhaps we’ll even see a few more convincing female villains!

These are by no means the only horror movies with innovative female characters. What is your favorite horror movie with strong or unusual female stars?

Cassie Philips writes blog posts about tech and entertainment at SecureThoughts. She’s particularly interested in how women’s roles in movies have changed over the last few decades and what that says about society’s views on women in general.