Baby’s Fiftieth Birthday

As I mentioned in a previous post, the excellent documentary series Eli Roth’s History of Horror has sparked a desire in me to re-watch countless genre classics. First up on my list was Rosemary’s Baby, the 1968 Roman Polanski film (based on the Ira Levin bestseller) that is now an astounding fifty years old. Here are some thoughts upon viewing the DVD once again in 2018:

One ostensible key to the film’s longevity is that it succeeds in frightening its audience even when the supernatural element is subtracted from the plot. The body horror of Rosemary’s painful pregnancy strikes a chord with every prospective parent, as well as anyone who has ever feared being ravaged from within by some terrible disease.

Rosemary’s Baby, which transplants the witchcraft tale from Puritan New England to the heart of metropolitan Manhattan, continues to speak to our hyperpopulated urban modernity. The film underscores the perils of the apartment complex, of living in too close proximity to too many strangers. As Rosemary Woodhouse’s residence in the Bramford demonstrates, you never know who you might get as neighbors, or if you can trust the public face they present.

Ruth Gordon garnered Oscar glory for her portrayal of nasal busybody Minnie Castavet, but hers was a one-note performance bordering on cliche. In retrospect, Sidney Blackmer’s embodiment of Minnie’s husband Roman creates the much stronger character–one all the more sinister for his seemingly avuncular nature.

Mid-Twentieth Century values are on full display in the film: Guy is the breadwinner, Rosemary is the homemaker. Perhaps the most appallingly chauvinistic moment occurs when Guy pesters his drowsy wife to get up and cook him breakfast (on the morning after he fed her roofie-laced chocolate mousse and pimped her out to Lucifer!).

Rosemary’s climactic expectoration in the face of Guy (a quasi-Weinstein using sex to manipulate his own acting career) should elicit resounding cheers from supporters of the current Me Too Movement. [For an excellent look at the film through this particular lens, see the Laura Jacobs article “The Devil Inside: Watching Rosemary’s Baby in the Era of #MeToo”.]

Along with The Haunting (1963), Rosemary’s Baby–whose titular infernal infant never appears onscreen–forms a preeminent example of a film that prefers to hint at horror rather than hit viewers right in the face with it (Rosemary’s demand “What have you done to its eyes?” ranks right up with Eleanor’s “Whose hand was I holding?” in The Haunting as a moment that terrifies without overtly identifying). Rosemary’s Baby forms a polar opposite to another hit horror film from 1968, the unabashedly graphic Night of the Living Dead. It’s also the antithesis of the similarly-occult-themed film The Exorcist (1973), whose over-the-top garishness has lost its shock value over time.

Unlike The Exorcist (which I critiqued in an earlier post), Rosemary’s Baby warrants and rewards repeated viewings. Subsequent study highlights the various subtle clues of conspiracy–the Machiavellian machinations of the coven, not to mention the utter duplicity of John Cassavetes’s Guy (a virtuoso American Gothic hero-villain). The dramatic irony can also be savored: even after discovering witches in her midst, Rosemary mistakenly believes they want to steal her baby for a blood sacrifice, and is slow to realize that she’s bearing a half-breed with the actual blood of Satan in its veins.

Rosemary’s Baby is a clear product of its times, an era of considerable cultural turbulence. But a present-day viewing verifies that the film is still relevant, and still eerily effective, a half-century after its release.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “The Amber Gods”

The latest installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

“The Amber Gods” by Harriet Prescott Spofford

The title of Spofford’s 1863 novelette refers to a mysterious rosary whose beads are carved with figures of “hideous, tiny, heathen gods.” This uncanny amulet once belonged to an Asian dwarf (variously fashioned as a “witch,” “imp,” and “sprite”), a no-longer-living “legend” for the Willoughby family that briefly enslaved her. According to tradition, the dwarf vowed that “bane would burn the bearer” if the beads were ever brought back to the New World. A malefic object literally transported overseas to New England, a family line cursed by the sins of the past: these are the makings for an intriguing American Gothic tale.

But the problem is, the amber beads are embedded in a sprawling narrative marked by overwrought prose and a murky, underdeveloped story (Spofford models her work on the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning, but that poetic device seems a poor fit here for the novelette form). The beads get lost time and again in the prolix proceedings, are mentioned only periodically and figure sporadically into the ostensible action. Spofford’s dominate note is one of sentimental romance, and the frisson of the piece’s final line (“I must have died at ten minutes past one”)–revealing a now-posthumous, ghostly narrator–fails to make up for the preceding lack of any sense of menace. All told, “The Amber Gods” represents editor Charles Crow’s least satisfying and most questionable selection for the anthology thus far.

 

Forgotten by History

One last post on Eli Roth’s History of Horror

Over the course of seven episodes, the documentary series covered an impressive array of films and television shows. Inevitably, though, there were omissions, either due to time constraints or oversights. Here is my list of the seven most glaring examples:

The Simpsons: Treehouse of HorrorAn annual Halloween institution for nearly three decades (one that has invoked/reworked countless horror classics) surely could have been given at least a passing nod.

Tim Burton’s oeuvreThe auteur of the Gothic and the macabre was basically MIA. Burton’s grimmer and gorier efforts (Sleepy HollowSweeney Todd) would have been perfect fare to savor.

Dark ShadowsA whole episode devoted to vampires, and not one mention of Barnabas Collins, who brought bloodsucking to the afternoon soap opera and captivated a slew of viewers on a daily basis?

It FollowsThe show’s talking heads would have had plenty to expound upon with this haunting and subtext-heavy sexual horror film.

The WitchPowerful, if polarizing, Robert Eggers’s frightening foray into the bedeviled New England wilderness would have been right at home in the “Demons Inside” episode (and could have culminated an episode devoted to the witch figure).

The Twilight ZoneThis eerie (and enduringly popular) series hosted by Rod Serling featured some of the scariest scenes ever to play on the small screen (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”: enough said), but you wouldn’t know it from watching Eli Roth’s History of Horror.

Alien. The titular predator is an iconic monster, and certain (chest-bursting) images from the film series have been seared into the viewing audience’s psyches. If sci-fi horror such as John Carpenter’s The Thing could be covered, then Alien should not have been foreign to the AMC program.

 

The preceding list is presented less as a critique than as a simple expression of surprise. A positive spin could be given in this sense: however inclusive Eli Roth’s History of Horror might have been, it wasn’t exhaustive (i.e. there’s room for future episodes!). Overall, I found the series finely edited and highly enjoyable to watch. The analysts added terrific insights and displayed an obvious love for the horror genre (which, time and again, was shown to have deeper significance and not merely form the pop cultural equivalent of junk food, filling the bovine masses with empty calories). Most importantly, the series got me excited to go and re-watch the classic films and TV shows covered. This illuminating history has pointed me toward a future of dark delights.

 

Best Lessons: Eli Roth’s History of Horror (Episodes 6-7)

Eli Roth’s History of Horror doesn’t quite provide the comprehensive overview that its title suggests, but the documentary series does offer fine analysis of landmark films within different horror subgenres, as well as compelling contextualization of such films in their cultural moment. The talking heads on the show make for a consistently fascinating listen. Gathered here are my selections of the best insights provided by the show’s various genre luminaries and film scholars.

 

Episode 6: Vampires

Stephen King: I grew up reading Dracula and reading about the stink of the grave, the graveyard earth that the vampire was in, with the worms crawling in it, about his fetid breath. It was supposed to be ugly and nasty.

Quentin Tarantino: One of the reasons that Dracula has persisted so long, as opposed to the Frankenstein Monster, as opposed to the Wolf Man or the Mummy, was he was a character. He was a genuine character.

David J. Skal: The makers of Nosferatu intended that vampire to represent war itself. War as a cosmic vampire that had drained the blood out of Europe.

John Edgar Browning: [In Bram Stoker’s DraculaWe see this extremely sympathetic Dracula, because he misses his wife, who was killed, and then sees sort of her reincarnation in this modern-day girl. That completely revolutionized Dracula performances. It changed the filmic Dracula mythos. And, in fact, you could argue that we’re still riding the wave from that film even today.

Eli Roth: The vampires Lestat, Louis, and Claudia [in Interview with the Vampireform a family of outsiders headed by two fathers. The arrangement suggested gay marriage, years before that was accepted by mainstream society.

John Landis: When the AIDS crisis hit, there was suddenly this renaissance of vampire movies. Vampires are metaphors, clearly, for sex and death.

Joe Hill: For me, the part of the vampire legend that has always remained powerful is the idea that they have to be invited in. So many times in people’s lives, you know, whatever that thing is that’s draining them of their life and vitality, so often they invited it in. If it’s drugs, if it’s alcohol, if it’s someone who’s just abusive, you know, who’s cruel to you. A lot of vampire stories are about inviting in something that you think will bring you bliss and that destroys you instead.

Ryan Turek: David Slade’s 30 Days of Nightwhich was written by Steve Niles and based on the graphic novel–that was the complete antithesis of what Twilight represented. You had vampires returning to their feral form, almost Nosferatu-like but something completely different.

Bryan Fuller: One of the most beautiful things about the horror genre is that the stakes are implicitly high, because you’re dealing with life and death. and that gives horror a certain operatic quality to it where there is no choice but to survive and thrive or be one of the body count.

Eli Roth: Ultimately, the story of the vampire is the story of our tenuous grip on life. The bite of the vampire symbolizes the hundreds of things that could kill us at any times, no matter how healthy or safe we think we are.

 

Episode 7: Ghost Stories

Eli Roth: Ghost movies have been with us since the dawn of cinema. The first horror film, La Manior du Diable from 1896, was a ghost story. But until the 1980’s, spirits were rarely seen onscreen, and if they were, they were rarely convincing.

Joe Hill: Poltergeist is a movie about the tremendous guilt we feel about leaving our children in front of the TV, letting the TV be the babysitter. We know it’s wrong; we do it anyway.

Leigh Whannell: Death is the one inevitable thing. It’s coming for all of us. There’s a human need to answer that question of life after death, and I think ghost films feed into that.

Bryan Fuller: And [The Hauntingis one of the most terrifying films because of Wise’s instinct to focus on the faces of those being terrified, because that is what you’re relating to, and that is what is informing your emotion, not the ghosts.

Stephen King: I can enjoy [Stanley Kubrick’s The Shiningon the same level that you can enjoy a beautifully restored Cadillac without a motor in it. You know? My rap about it is that there’s no character arc. In the book, Jack Torrance goes from a nice guy who’s trying to get better for his family and for himself. And I felt Jack Nicholson played Jack Torrance as if he was crazy from the start.

Eli Roth: Supernatural thriller. That was what they called The Sixth SenseAnd there were orders no to call it a horror film. One of the scariest, most brilliant films ever made, and they said, “Don’t call it a horror movie.” It was like horror was a dirty word.

Tony Timpone: The Changeling is, not only is it a horror movie, it’s also a murder mystery. We want to know what happened to this little boy. And it introduces sort of an element we’ve seen in a lot of ghost story movies since then, where the ghosts are reaching out to us to solve a mystery to help put their souls at rest. And it’s kind of a theme we’ve seen in the films of Guillermo del Toro, where we really feel the pain of the ghost.

John Landis: Ghosts mean different things in different religions and different cultures. Some ghosts are benevolent, some ghosts are malicious, but there’s always that struggle. Because what–when someone dies, where do they go? […] Because they are just here, and then they’re not here. And that’s why we create rituals, funerals, memorial services, to help us deal with the grief. And part of the grief is, where the hell did they go? Movies help you. They’re therapeutic. They deal with “where did they go?”.

 

 

Best Lessons: Eli Roth’s History of Horror (Episodes 4-5)

Eli Roth’s History of Horror doesn’t quite provide the comprehensive overview that its title suggests, but the documentary series does offer fine analysis of landmark films within different horror subgenres, as well as compelling contextualization of such films in their cultural moment. The talking heads on the show make for a consistently fascinating listen. Gathered here are my selections of the best insights provided by the show’s various genre luminaries and film scholars.

 

Episode 4: The Demons Inside

Eli Roth: Though our fears are ancient, films about demonic possession are a relatively recent phenomenon. Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code set strict moral guidelines on content from the early 1930’s to the late 1960’s. Outside of the Swedish film Haxan from 1922, demonic possessions rarely appear on screen until 1973, the year of The Exorcist.

Amanda Reyes: [Linda Blair’s] transformation from this very sweet, very typical young girl, into a monster, I think comments on this anxiety that the young people of the country were moving away from the conservative norms of society.

Alex Winter: There’s no place to hide–your religion, your relationship to God. No, none of that. There’s no safe haven anywhere. Even the afterlife isn’t safe. I mean, you’re gonna get there and be in hell like poor Father Damien. I mean, it’s this idea that there’s literally no escape, not even if you’re dead. That is, you know, to me the idea of a pure horror movie.

Oren Peli [discussing Paranormal Activity]: There’s something about the vulnerability that you have while you’re asleep, and which I think is something very kind of ingrained in human nature from the days we were cavemen and you don’t know if a tiger is gonna come into your cave and kill you while your asleep.

Karyn Kusama: The notion of the female as monstrous in itself has been a central tenet of horror, and that’s what remains profoundly meaningful to me about horror, is it’s one of the few genres that’s had the guts to say, as a culture we are terrified of women and girls.

Bryan Fuller: What is fascinating about the possession genre of horror films is your loved one is not who you assumed they were. That’s the most terrifying thing, and we saw that to wonderful effect in both of the Evil Dead films.

Mary Harron: One of things I really love about horror and the nightmares it touches on is the idea of security and a stable, normal place that turns out to be a place of danger, or a person who seems to be a friendly person. And, of course, one of the greatest things in Rosemary’s Baby is the [Satan-worshiping] neighbors.

Tananarive Due: The minute Chris is sent into the Sunken Place, I realized this movie [Get Out] was not just going to be scary and not just going to be interesting, but was also going to be important. Because he created a metaphor that now gives so many of us language to explain what a state of suppression looks like and feels like.

Eli Roth: And that’s what genre movies do at their best, especially great horror movies. It gives you a way to discuss the undiscussable. It gives you a context to talk about subjects that are just awful and painful for everyone. But you can put it in the context of a scary movie, whether it’s a zombie movie, whether it’s a Get Out movie, and it’s like you’re suddenly allowed to talk about it.

 

Episode 5: Killer Creatures

Jason Middleton: Beverly’s sexual abuse by her father is shown to be very much connected, we know, with the external threats embodied by ItBut it also reminds us the most unimaginable, horrific things really do happen. Fears are never just imaginary.

Joe Dante: I grew up on the James Whale films, and Whale’s pictures were always mordantly comic, and he was not afraid to mix tones. The Invisible Man, who is certifiably crazy, does a lot of funny things, but then in the middle of doing something funny he’ll kill somebody. Then all of a sudden your laugh catches in your throat. That’s always fascinated me, that dichotomy. 

Michael Dougherty: I think it’s good for kids to watch scary movies. It makes you learn how to process fear on a physical and mental level. I think your kid will probably be more messed up if you don’t show them anything scary, because they won’t be prepared for the real world, which is actually terrifying.

Victor LaValle: The horror of sort of truism was that things can be real good and scary until you see the monster, and Rob Bottin, the special effects guy [for The Thing] said, “Well, what if we show them the monster constantly?” But the trick is that the monster is a different monster every time. I mean, that’s just brilliantly leaning into the problem.

Tippi Hedren: I think Alfred Hitchcock was born to scare people. To make them uneasy, frighten them severely–and also really make them think. I think he relished that. Did he take it too far in his private life? probably. Probably. He had his own motion picture going on inside.

Dee Wallace: In a horror film, there’s a lot–if you’re doing it right–there’s a lot of emotional work. Your body does not know you are acting,. Your brain does not know you are acting. It goes through every chemical change that you would go through in fight-or-flight. So you can imagine doing a movie like Cujosix to eight weeks of fight-or-flight, every minute.

Greg Nicotero: That scene on the beach [in Jaws] is pure Hitchcock. You look at the tricks that Spielberg used in that scene–he used every trick in the book to just really make sure that you saw every single thing that was happening, but you could do nothing about it.

Doug Jones: I think horror films are very good at giving a voice to the voiceless and empowering the weak. We all have some kind of monster or demon that plagues us in some way, but to realize, “With the right dagger, I can kill that demon, so I’m gonna.” Right? That’s what a horror film teaches me.

Eli Roth: Monsters embody our deepest fears, the fears we can’t–or won’t–face, the primal fears we need to repress to stay sane. Fears of weakness and vulnerability. Fears of being shunned by society. Fears of giving in to our worst impulses. When the monster is defeated, we win a small victory, over the terror of being human.

 

Best Lessons: Eli Roth’s History of Horror (Episodes 1-3)

Eli Roth’s History of Horror doesn’t quite provide the comprehensive overview that its title suggests, but the documentary series does offer fine analysis of landmark films within different horror subgenres, as well as compelling contextualization of such films in their cultural moment. The talking heads on the show make for a consistently fascinating listen. Gathered here are my selections of the best insights provided by the show’s various genre luminaries and film scholars.

 

Episode 1: Zombies

Stephen KingWe’re getting our chance to exercise our most anti-social emotions. You know, that mob impulse that’s like, “Yeah, kill them all and let God sort them out.”

Jason Middleton: We don’t want zombies to come and destroy all our friends and families and institutions, but on some level, maybe we do. Like, on some level it provides us a chance to dismantle everything and possibly start over.

Elijah Wood: What are humans like when faced with the end of humanity? What are they like when they’re faced with very few choices in regards to how to survive? That’s the horror of zombie movies. It’s the wrong impulses that come out of people that are far more terrifying than the walking dead.

Tananarive Due: Let’s say you’re a white viewer in the late 1960’s who has a few prejudices, say, and is a little bit worried that the world is ending because of all of the racial legislation of the 60’s–the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act–and here’s this zombie film [Night of the Living Deadwhere the dead are coming back to life and a black man is in charge. I will contend that that might have been as frightening to some viewers as the child eating her mother in the basement.

Edgar Wright: When we thought up Shaun of the Dead, one of the impulses for it was because there hadn’t been a zombie film for like fifteen years. We always had this theory that  […] John Landis’s video for [Michael Jackson’s] “Thriller” had sort of killed off zombies for the second half of the 80’s and the early 90’s.

Eli Roth: This [George Romero’s Dawn of the Deadwas the first depiction of a full-scale zombie apocalypse, a nightmare vision of social collapse that became the template for virtually every end of the world story we see today.

Leonard Maltin: 28 Days Later is a perfect horror movie because it’s based on a premise you can completely believe. I don’t know what it’s like to be bitten by a vampire. I don’t know what it’s like to be threatened by a werewolf. But I can imagine what it’s like to have a plague spread like wildfire because it’s just too close to the headlines of today’s news. It could happen.

Max Brooks: Zombies that are slow are infinitely more terrifying. It’s the difference between getting shot and getting cancer. You get killed by, say, a fast zombie in the World War Z movie or 28 Days Later, You’re dead before you know it. Happens too fast. But the slow zombie, the zombie that gives you time to think, allows you to visualize your own death, and that is one of the darker elements of the human mind.

Stuart Gordon: My father passed away when I was fourteen years old, and I think that was the hook for me. People always say, “if you could bring anybody back to life, who would it be?” in my case, it’s a no-brainer. It would be my father. When you look at most horror movies, I think, they’re about an impossible dream.

John Landis: Zombies are representative of Alzheimer’s, a just terrifying disease. And zombies are representative of cancer. to me what’s happened to the zombie is now they’re representatives of anarchy and the collapse of government, the collapse of order.

 

Episode 2: Slashers, Part 1

Mick Garris: So much of horror is about mood, atmosphere, and cinematic style. John Carpenter using the wide screen and the Panaglide camera, starting with Halloweenit’s something that makes the film that much more effective.

David J Skal: Starting with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960, we started seeing a new approach to horror. It was the horror that didn’t come out of some grotesque radioactive anomaly, but it could be lurking next door. A nice young man like Norman Bates could be the new Frankenstein, the new Dracula.

Rob Zombie: Out of every movie that we’ve talked about, [The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is] the one that defined me. Like, that’s everything I ever wanted in a movie, and everything I ever wanted to do in movies. It was just disgusting and nasty, and that redneck thing. That movie changed the way I thought about movies. Instantly.

Kane Hodder: There’s a lot more to playing a character like Jason than throwing a mask on and, you know, walking around threateningly, because two of the major tools an actor uses are their facial expressions and their voices. So now, you take away both of those by making him silent and putting a mask on him. So I was always conscious of Jason never looking awkward or off-balance or weak. I would never look down to see where I was walking, because I thought that weakened the character.

Joe Hill: I’ve always thought that the slasher films of the 1980’s didn’t really work as horror fiction, but they worked pretty well as slapstick comedies. And the reason for that is, you know, the characters are never allowed to be anything except one-dimensional types. You’ve got a gang of teenagers. You’ve got the jock. You’ve got the stoner. You’ve got the slut. You’ve got the virgin. You never care about them, you never fall in love with them, so when the serial killer starts knocking them off one by one, you laugh instead of recoil in horror, because he’s actually more of a personality than they are.

Amanda Reyes: I don’t feel like the film [Maniac] is misogynistic at all. As a matter of fact, I feel, as a woman, it really represents a realism to me. It’s like a cathartic experience in a way, because women live in that sort of world every day, where we have to be hyper-aware of who’s around us and what could happen.

Eli Roth: But don’t you find that in a really effective horror movie, blood stains the critics’ eyes? Like, once you get blood in your eyes, you can’t wash it out. They can’t see anything else other than the kill, and they also feel like if they like the movie, that they’re endorsing that for real, or that kind of violence. So most often, those reviewers just become a soapbox to be like, “Look, I’m a good person, I’m a good person, I don’t like this sort of thing,” but the truth is we love it. It’s like it’s–it’s like the enjoying fantasy, enjoying a scary story. It’s no different than Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Leigh Whannell: To me, horror is always about violating the sacred. Take a child, something that we look at and coo over and dote on, and make them the most evil —- out there. And a child’s toy is sacred, too. These are things we grow up with, and [in Child’s Play] you basically cast horror’s black shadow over all this sacred, righteous stuff.

 

Episode 3: Slashers, Part 2

Robert Englund: But when I got the part [of Freddy Krueger] I didn’t know what I was going to do. And the makeup sessions informed a lot of what I did. They were dabbing at me with a crusty brush and basting me like a turkey with Vaseline so I picked up the light better. and in comes Johnny Depp and Heather Langenkamp, arguably the two most attractive young people in the world at that moment, and it got me angry and envious of their youth and their beauty and the fact that these two kids had their whole careers ahead of them. And I went, “Wait a minute, I can use that.”

Victor LaValle: If you were to explain, “It’s about this black dude who was murdered for having sex with a white lady, and then he comes back and hunts the white lady and lots of other people, too,” you’d be like, “Nah, I don’t think we’re gonna make that movie.” You know what I mean? But somehow, through his level of magnetism and charm, [Tony Todd] manages to make Candyman someone–I don’t know if they love him, but who they love to fear.

Joe Hill: I think that mixture of terror and empathy is very powerful. Every great work of horror fiction is an exercise in extreme empathy. It’s about falling in love with characters and then staying with them as they endure the worst.

Kevin Williamson: My whole goal when writing Scream was, I wanted a horror movie to sort of live and breathe in a time where the other horror movies existed.

Bryan Fuller: The Silence of the Lambs is a perfect film. It kind of shirked the in-your-face occasionally vulgarities of the horror genre and painted them with a much finer brush that made it a story that was about being human, as opposed to a story that was about the horrors of the world.

Greg Nicotero: It’s also coming to grips with our own mortality. Maybe there’s some weird catharsis of, like, “Okay, well, thank God my death could never be nearly as bad as what I just saw.”

Eli Roth: People always ask me, “How do you make a horror film scary?” And I think the only common thread that I’ve found is when the filmmaker, the director, is truly terrified of the subject matter.

Max Brooks: One of the issues with the Saw movies–and you can take it however you want–is the fact that we invented a whole new term, “torture porn.” But we invented it at the very same time America, as a nation, was under world indictment, for actually torturing people.

Aaron Michael Kerner: One of the things about torture porn is that we are no longer afraid of bogeymen. Michael and Jason and those characters lost a certain currency. And what really strikes fear, in the United States in a post-9/11 moment, is other people. Other people are frightening. The Hostel franchise speaks truth to power and presents Americans in the way that the world perceives us.

Tony Timpone: The real world is much scarier than anything that Eli Roth or Stephen King could come up with. It’s a really disturbing, sick, violent world we live in. Horror films reflect that. And horror films are a way of people coming to terms with the violence in society, trying to deal with it, and trying, you know, to escape it in a lot of ways.

Horseman Invasion

(plot spoilers below)

Does The Strangers: Prey at Night invoke one of the most familiar nocturnal bogeys of all time?

I know I have “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” on the brain of late, but it seems to me that the ending of the 2018 home-invasion thriller alludes to the climax of the Washington Irving story. In the film, fiery final girl Kinsey is chased across a quasi-covered bridge by a flaming pickup truck. Kinsey stumbles before she can reach safety, but (in a reverse of the events of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) the axe-wielding Man in the Mask doesn’t get to deliver his capitally-punishing blow after climbing down from his steel steed (his burns/injuries cause him to topple headlong).

Admittedly, I could be reading too much into this scene, but perhaps not, considering that The Strangers: Prey at Night proves repeatedly allusive. The setting in a town named Gatlin Lake recalls Stephen King’s Children of the Corn. A scene where Dollface taunts Kinsey (who has locked herself inside a police cruiser) by waving the vehicle’s keys at her mimics Ghostface’s menacing in Scream. And the conclusion here, which has Kinsey narrowly escape her attacker (the Man in the Mask has gotten up for another go at her) by jumping into the bed of a passerby’s pickup, is an obvious nod to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

One other thought on the way things play out in The Strangers: Prey at Night: in my unsolicited opinion, the film missed the opportunity for a wicked climactic twist. The plot is set in motion as Kinsey’s family drives the troubled teenager (who clearly is not happy about being shipped off) to her new boarding school; wouldn’t it have been great if the Strangers turned out to be the avowed bad influences her parents were attempting to get Kinsey away from in the first place? Their murderous ambush could have been given Kinsey’s conspiratorial blessing, or conducted without her knowledge (until a devastating realization at film’s end). Alas, the screenwriters didn’t pursue either possibility, but they nevertheless scripted an entertaining follow-up to the harrowing 2008 original.

 

Lofty Status: A Review of Stephen King’s Elevation

“Really weird shit” is happening once again in Castle Rock, Maine, but Elevation isn’t the typical Stephen King return to that oft-horrified town.

In one sense, King is up to some (not so) old tricks: just as his previous revisiting of Castle Rock, 2017’s Gwendy’s Button Box, hearkens back to Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button,” Elevation (which cites Matheson on its dedication page) invokes The Shrinking Man. Like the homonymous protagonist of Matheson’s novel, Scott Carey is subjected to a strange case of reducing. King’s Carey is steadily losing weight but somehow his size and muscle mass remain unaltered. His scale gives the same readout whether he is naked or clothed, barehanded or holding a pair of dumbbells.

The narrative is deliberately vague as to the origin of Carey’s condition: is it medical, metaphysical, or even extra-terrestrial in nature? And while Carey presumes his situation is terminal (as he anticipates the approach of “Zero Day”) his story does not unfold as a desperate quest to discover the cause or effects-reducing cure for his weightlessness. This isn’t a redux of Thinner–Carey hasn’t been cursed by a vengeful gypsy, but instead considers himself singled out by “antic providence.” Yes, he is dropping pounds, yet gravity’s inexplicably lessening hold on him is also raising his spirits. His predicament becomes oddly exhilarating, something even better than what a long-distance runner experiences: “Not a wind, not even a high, exactly, but an elevation. A sense that you had gone beyond yourself and could go farther still.”

King is less interested in the outre here: Carey’s curious condition is used as a means to getting at the true heart of the narrative, the developing (initially unfriendly) relationship between the divorced, isolated Carey and his neighbors, Deirdre McComb and Missy Donaldson. These partners in a same-sex marriage have recently moved into town, but haven’t been welcomed with open arms by most of the populace. Whereas the Castle Rock setting of Gwendy’s Button Box felt extraneous (less charitably: like a cheap marketing ploy), here it makes for an appropriate choice of story place. Conservatively Republican in its politics, King’s fictional small town is given to provincial thought and prejudicial verbiage, and Deirdre and Missy struggle to keep their new restaurant afloat financially amidst such cold-shouldering by the locals. It’s up to Carey, then, to help the couple carry on in this town, and to help Castle Rock rise above its discriminatory attitudes.

A quick word on Elevation‘s packaging: Scribner has published a fine 5×7 hardcover, complete with cosmic cover art (whose significance becomes clear by novel’s end) and interior illustrations. The physical book feels good to hold; still, the $19.95 price tag could be a hold-up for some. Buyers will have to decide if the Kindle edition is the more sensible option.

While its page count doesn’t weigh in anywhere near that of the hefty tomes King usually produces, Elevation proves anything but slight. This thematically-resonant narrative is heavy on human decency, exploring the various ways we extend a (literal and figurative) helping hand to each other. A pick-me-up is also what King offers his Constant Readers here, as Elevation represents the most uplifting, downright transcendent effort in the author’s illustrious career.

 

Walker Bait and Switch

Sunday night’s Rick Grimes finale encapsulated everything that is great–and frustrating–about The Walking Dead.

(Spoilers below)

The episode, “What Comes After,” continues the strong bounce-back the series has demonstrated this season. There’s an emphasis on moral dilemma, as evidenced by vigilante Maggie’s face off with Michonne and ensuing confrontation with Negan. There are clever call backs, all the way back to the show’s very first episode in 2010 (the hospital scene; Rick and Shane conversing in the police cruiser). There is payoff on long-teased elements, as that mysterious helicopter finally touches down on the plot line. There’s sublime imagery: the Boschean vision of a field of infinite corpses in huddled sprawl. Most of all, there’s the grandeur of Rick Grimes, who heroically lures a pair of zombie herds away from the settlements and onto the still-under-construction bridge, which he then destroys in a fiery act of self-sacrifice.

If only the episode had stopped there.

Instead, it proceeded to stifle the audience’s catharsis. Turns out, Rick didn’t die in the explosion, but washed ashore somewhere downstream, where he’s discovered by Jadis and whisked away by the helicopter people. I am okay with the decision not to definitively kill off Rick, and could even live with some lingering open-endedness (might he return to the series at some future point?). But no sooner did the episode finish airing than the show’s brass released word that Andrew Lincoln would be reprising his Rick Grimes character in a trilogy of TWD movies on AMC. Surprise! the tricksy producers proclaim, Rick’s ballyhooed send-off is actually into a spin-off. This takes the infamous dumpster fake-out with Glenn to a whole other level. The timing of the breaking news felt both off and off-putting: I was left with a bitter sense of emotional manipulation, of deceptive hype (that this would be the last we’d see of Rick) used to spike ratings.

This latest swerve points to the fundamental problem:The Walking Dead has gotten too big for its own good, and is too concerned with expanding its brand (seemingly to the point of media saturation). Once again it has lost sight of its own basic appeal to viewers, who are eager to invest in a core cast of characters and their week-by-week struggle for survival in a post-apocalyptic world.

The Walking Dead botched the opportunity for an unforgettable TV moment by reducing Rick Grimes’s fate to a Gimple gimmick.

 

Hair of the Werewolf

It’s the darkest time of year, when the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder has nothing to do with the end of Daylight Savings Time. No, I’m talking about the inevitable letdown as the calendar turns to November. Another Halloween has come (all too quickly, despite all your anticipation and preparation) and gone. How to deal with this disheartening problem? Go ask Alice:

The best cure for a Halloween hangover is not to turn cold sober. Instead, keep enjoying spirits, stay lit with a warm inner glow. Carry October over into November, and carry on with your favorite activities. Start (or finish) bingeing on all those spooky shows you want to watch. Catch up with your reading, whether its the latest horror novels/anthologies or High-Holiday-related articles (two suggestions: scholar Lesley Bannatyne’s essay on the history of Halloween mischief, and this profile of pumpkin-carving savant Ray Villafane). Scour social media for images of the best costumes from this year–although none will be able to surpass the following get-up (highlighted on Bloody Disgusting), which had me barking out laughter:

Here in the Macabre Republic, Halloween is not just a day, or even a season, but a 52-weeks-a-year ethos. This blog aims to maintain the mood, to keep the Dispatches coming. And work continues on a special project that wasn’t quite ready for release this year, but will certainly be completed in time for the Halloween ’19 celebration.

In the meantime, let’s keep imbibing the frightful, and guzzling the Gothic. Such strange brew will be a heady remedy for the winter blues.