History Lessons: “Mad Scientists” (Episode 3.6)

“Mad Scientists,” the Season 3 finale of Eli Roth’s History of Horror, stitches together Promethean overreachers and preeminent speakers…


Leonard Maltin: Mary Shelley created an archetype in Doctor Frankenstein. He’s been copied. He’s been cloned. He’s been spoofed. But he exists in our consciousness in a way that very few characters 100 years, 150 years old, still do.


Quentin Tarantino: That’s where the mad scientist really kind of comes into his own. Because the whole concept of Peter Cushing as Doctor Frankenstein, and the whole concept of those [Hammer] films, is it’s the doctor that’s the monster.


Axelle Carolyn: There’s always that frontier that science is not supposed to cross, and we’re forever pushing it back. And now we’re talking about cloning people, you know, the ethics behind all the scientific decisions that we’re making today are actually echoed in all those movies back in the 30’s.


Andrew Kevin Walker: Altered States is a movie that’s both completely lowbrow genre, and at the same time, the highest kind of highbrow art. Altered States is so existentially and scientifically rigorous, but it still has a thing popping open and a guy jumping out as a Neanderthal man.


David J. Skal: The beast people rising up [in Island of Lost Souls] is almost like a Bolshevik Revolution. America wasn’t hashing this out on an intellectual level, but it certainly was on a pop cultural level.


Jessica Rothe: [Ex Machina] was such an interesting exploration into our dependency on technology, and AI, and the development of it, and what makes a person a person. But like in some ways, Alicia Vikander’s character was more humane and more of a human than our protagonist. […] What is so amazing about that character is you’re rooting for her the whole time. You think that she is the victim in this situation, but the tables turn quite quickly.


Rebekah McKendry: There’s no judging in [The Rocky Horror Picture Show] whatsoever. It just is. And the gender fluidity of Brad and Janet and that sexuality across the board is just separated, and gender boundaries get completely broken down in it. That is something we weren’t seeing in a lot of cinema at the time, so it felt dangerous, it felt transgressive, it felt like we were seeing something completely different.


Heidi Honeycutt: Look, you’re not gonna watch the new Invisible Man and feel the terror the same way that a woman who has been in an abusive, controlling relationship would feel. But I’ll say this. Everybody has trauma, and everybody experiences the bad stuff. And if you haven’t, don’t worry, you will. And that’s part of why people make horror films. It’s a cathartic way to express those terrors and those horrors in a safe way.


History Lessons: “Holiday Horror” (Episode 3.5)

Let’s celebrate the wise and witty words spoken on the pre-Halloween episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror


Eli Roth: Holidays are usually the time we get together with our families–for better or for worse. But even if you get along with your relatives, holidays can be stressful. Passive-aggressive behavior, forced cheerfulness, heavy drinking: they’re typical parts of the holiday experience. All that tension needs to be released. Enter the holiday horror film, bringing our wildest homicidal horror fantasies to life.


Ryan Turek: What made the first film scary, what made Michael Myers scary–you didn’t know who he was. All you knew is he killed his sister; you didn’t know why. You know, let’s go back [in 2018’s Halloween] to that pure dread that came with Halloween [1978], and let’s go back to that singular strong final girl that took him on, and let’s see what she’s like forty years later, and she’s, you know, she’s–she’s kinda messed up.


Nathaniel Thompson: And [Black Christmas] is one of the first great examples of the subjective camera in a slasher movie. But it’s something that critics jumped on later on; in Friday the 13th they really attacked it, because they’re saying “Oh, it’s putting you in the killer’s point of view, it’s attacking women, and it’s misogynist.” No, at least in the beginning, that’s not the point. The point is, you never see the face–that’s what’s so scary. You have no idea what this guy looks like; all you see is his eye.


Heidi Honeycutt: Because her boyfriend was not the killer, and the cops are wrong, and they didn’t get him, and now she’s probably going to die because of their incompetence. And [Black Christmas] is written that way deliberately to infuriate us. We’re supposed to see how society leaves this woman vulnerable.


Quentin Tarantino: People who don’t understand the concept of slasher movies, to them it’s all violent porno as far as they’re concerned, because they just don’t get it. And most of the films that they made a big deal about, I wish they were closer to what they think they were. I wish they were that strong. [But] Silent Night, Deadly Night is fucked up for a horror film fan.


Michael Dougherty[Krampus] is a very personal statement for myself, just how hard it is to maintain optimism and a belief in the goodness of human beings when you’re confronted with the opposite every time you wake up in the morning and turn on the news.


Christopher Landon: These woman [in Mother’s Day] actively said, “We’re gonna go back, and we’re gonna hunt these people down, and we’re gonna kill them and get revenge for what they did to our friend.” That was badass. There was a certain feminist element to it that I really appreciate, that was unusual for a film of that time.


Jessica Rothe: I love the message that [Happy Death Day] has when it comes to grief and loss, and how you have to, kind of, confront it and really go through it, and spend some real time with that loss and not run away from it, because I think Tree’s been running for a really, really long time.


Joe Hill: Good horror is all about uncomfortable juxtapositions. It’s about taking something like Christmas, something we love and find comforting, and then ruining it for everyone forever. It is in the nature of horror fiction, horror cinema, to be a little bit like punk rock. If you fail to piss anyone off, you’re probably doing it wrong!


History Lessons: “Apocalyptic Horror” (Episode 3.4)

Talking heads cover undeath and destruction in the latest episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror.


Ruben Fleischer: I think it’s a human trait that we imagine that we’re the last civilization. I think every civilization throughout time has thought they’re probably going to be the ones who end it for everybody that comes to follow. So it’s generated this whole genre where we get to see or imagine what that might be like.


Max Brooks: I think that future zombie historians will see [World War Z] as a turning point for zombies in pop culture. The special effects are now copied in every zombie movie. Because I was just watching Train to Busan, and the zombies coming together in a river of humans? That’s straight out of World War Z.


Margaret Cho: Train to Busan is probably one of the greatest Korean films. There’s something about Koreans where we have a lot of protocol in terms of, like, hierarchy and age, and manners are so deeply ingrained in your being. Part of the horror if you’re Korean is watching it and seeing people lose all of those kind of protocols, all of those social niceties.


Joe Hill: So the biggest problem with zombie films at this point is the idea that anyone would be surprised by zombies. Everyone has a zombie apocalypse plan and Zombieland is the first movie to sort of take that head-on. To admit that this is a scenario that is almost cliché at this point and that everyone is prepared for it and here are the rules you need to follow to keep you alive.


Joe Dante: When you look at it with Night of the Living Dead, you see that George Romero was definitely inspired by The Last Man on Earth. His treatment of the zombie characters is extremely similar to the ones in this movie. They’re lethargic and they moan and groan and they call the name of the hero.


Lydia Hearst: I think that [I Am Legend] really plays into one of the greatest fears that we all have, which is, yes, of course, we’re all afraid of the apocalypse and the end of the world, zombies, that whole thing. But also just being alone.


Rebekah McKendry: All of them [The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man, I Am Legend] have the same thread that at some point, man is the monster. That society will keep reinventing itself over and over, and if you stay stuck in the past and don’t evolve, you may be the source of legend. You may become the monster.


Eli Roth: Steven Spielberg’s 2006 adaptation [War of the Worlds] had an equally blunt message about American complacency and overconfidence. Set in New York and made just a few years after 9/11, it’s a nightmare vision of a terrorist attack waged by shadowy enemies we don’t understand.


Jonah Ray: Like this is the height of, you know, valley girl mentality. This culture that’s very ditzy LA women. And to see a movie where they end up surviving and kicking ass just makes it really stand the test of time with how, like, great [Night of the Comet] is.


Dan Trachtenberg: I kept on saying to everyone that we’re sort of the inverse and that in Misery, you meet Kathy Bates and you like her and trust her, and then you’re not sure if there’s a darkness. In our movie [10 Cloverfield Lane], we meet this guy, and we’re immediately going, “He’s trouble. I’ve seen this horror movie before. I got to get out of here.” And then it flips on us and we go, “Oh wait, maybe he’s not trouble,” you know?


Michael Dougherty: [Leonard] Nimoy, who up until then had always been seen as a good guy, as Spock from Star Trek, suddenly playing a villain, made [Invasion of the Body Snatchers] extra frightening. But he was also, like, a strange sort of ambassador or emissary for their point of view. He almost made becoming a pod person sound somewhat appealing.



The Horseman Goes Hog Wild

As I discuss in my essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (included in my 2020 eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition), “headless biker” has been a recurrent figure in post-Washington-Irving depictions of the Horseman. To my delight, this character update also appeared on last night’s episode of Outrageous Pumpkins. Carver extraordinaire Kristina Patenaude created this amazing display, of ol’ Headless on a Halloween Harley. I’ll admit I’m biased, but I thought this pumpkin sculpt rode roughshod over the competition!

For more on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition, check out the book’s dedicated page here on my website, and then head on over to Amazon to get your copy (I’ve expanded the Look Inside percentage, so browsers can now preview thirteen [and there are still over a hundred more to follow] of my detailed annotations of Irving’s classic story).

History Lessons: “Psychics” (Episode 3.3)

From last night’s episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror, some insightful words about films dealing with psychic phenomena…


Joe Hill: We’re enticed by the idea that we could be so much more powerful if only we could read other people’s minds. But, in fact, not being able to shut out other people’s thoughts sounds pretty terrifying.


Mike Flanagan: Really, if you take The Shining and Doctor Sleep together, the cycle of addiction and recovery and alcoholism, that’s the story that’s being told. And that’s where Doctor Sleep doesn’t feel like a sequel to me. It feels like the conclusion of one long conversation.


Cate Blanchett: But I think that’s what I really love about “horror,” is that there’s no sentimentality, and so if you looked at that story [The Gift], you know, there’s another way we could have turned it and it could’ve been quite sentimental. But there’s something about Sam [Raimi’s] perspective on stuff and putting the notion of genre within that story, that allows you to kind of Trojan horse this really quite painful family drama without it ever veering off into sort of mawkish territory, which I think is great.


Joe Dante: You know, in the 70’s, everybody was being exploited for sinister purposes. I mean, it was the Nixon era: everybody was a little paranoid about the government. All those movies that basically said that you can’t trust the government, it’s up to something and it’s spying on you and they’re taking these young kids who have these abilities and making sure that they use them for ill.


Edgar Wright: There are things that are in The Fury that have been ripped off in every film about psychic powers, including superhero movies, ever since. It’s like the
Rick Baker effect of the throbbing veins in the head.


Eli Roth: With The Dead Zone, Cronenberg swapped the cold objectivity of Scanners for a much more intimate approach to psychic phenomena.


Geena Davis: You’re probably supposed to interpret [Beetlejuice] through Lydia’s perspective, and she is very much an outsider who comes to belong through very unusual means by having ghost parents who are better parents to her than her real parents.


Jeffrey Combs:  [The Frighteners] corkscrews into something that you’re not even prepared for, and that’s the genius of it. It’s a movie that you can’t quite categorize, because it’s many things. After setting you up thinking this is just gonna be some pleasant, safe little ride, it takes you down a rabbit hole of true horror. Isn’t that what a movie is supposed to do, is take you on an unexpected journey?


Mob Scenes: Treehouse of Horror XXXII

The non-canonical status of the Treehouse of Horror episodes allows all hell to break loose–and it typically does. Last night’s 32nd(!) installment of The Simpsons‘ annual Halloween special didn’t disappoint, as it proved resplendent with mob violence.

In the first full segment, “Bong Joon-Ho’s This Side of Parasite,” the Simpsons are accosted by a group of squatters in Rainier Wolfcastle’s basement, who blame the titular family (hired on here to various house staff positions) for their lowly socioeconomic status. These angry Springfielders wield frying pans and pipes, bricks and chains (one guess as to what Crazy Cat Lady is brandishing…). Sideshow Mel’s impalement by the bone ripped from his hairdo kicks off a battle royale that spills out of the house and into the streets, and ultimately leaves Springfield’s citizenship decimated–save for the Simpsons.

Such riotous outbreak would have been satisfactory alone, but is quickly trumped by another mob scene in the ensuing segment, “Nightmare on Elm Tree.” A lightning strike animates the tree containing the Simpsons’ treehouse; it pulls up roots and runs amok through Springfield, liberating its arboreal comrades along the way. A heavily-armed street mob aims to stop the rampage, a group spurred by Homer’s wonderful war cry: “First we kill them, then we hang our hammocks!” The jokes and sight gags come fast and furious thereafter, making for an entertaining carnival of carnage as the trees saw through the would-be lumberjacks.

Treehouse of Horror XXXII‘s sampling of the Dropkick Murphys’ rollicking song “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” in the intro furnished an early hint of a massive-aggressive approach, and the rest of this fun episode certainly delivered on the unruliness.


History Lessons: “Infection” (Episode 3.2)

Some of the cinematic wisdom from this week’s installment of Eli Roth’s History of Horror:

Eli Roth: Horror stories are built around our fear of threats we know exist but can’t stop, or the threats we don’t know about until it’s too late. Pathogens inspire both kinds of fear. At first, we don’t know what’s killing us, then we realize an invisible monster is on the loose, and it’s coming for everyone.


Bryan Fuller: You had [in Outbreak] the monkey, you had the sneezing in the theaters. And you had these visual expressions that taught people, like, oh shit, it’s actually dangerous to be a human being and have lungs that can absorb bacteria in a way that destroys our entire system.


Scott Z. BurnsWhat I was hoping for [when writing Contagion] was to get to a place where reality was scarier than fiction, and so I was very interested in what human beings perceive as dangerous. As opposed to what really is. It turns out that it tends to be our habits and our lack of willpower that is probably a greater existential threat.


Madeline Stowe: 12 Monkeys is based on La Jetée by Chris Marker, who was a French filmmaker, and he took a really unique concept of using stills–still images–to convey the arc of a love story and a man’s witnessing his own death. And 12 Monkeys took that story, and made a feature film from it.


Rebekah McHendry: Found footage [in REC] became part of the horror, it became part of really using the camera to show the isolation. It uses it so well in the final scene where we’re hurting for light, and so then we get this limited view where she goes into night vision and we are experiencing the exact same limited periphery that the character is.


Nathaniel Thompson: When [Pontypool] came out, it seemed something very alien, like, how can a word or a phrase be something that can actually hurt you? And now, social media, of course, has come such a long way since that movie came out; it’s all about words, it’s so violent right now, that if you just say the wrong thing to someone like, boom–all you say is one sentence and suddenly you’ve got people rioting in the capitol building.


Max Brooks: Marilyn Chambers [in Rabid] didn’t even know that she was Typhoid Mary until it was too late. that’s what’s so scary about being a spreader–you don’t even know you’re a spreader until you’ve already spread.


Axelle Carolyn: [Roger Corman] shot in beautiful Technicolor, and that’s one of the most amazing aspects of [The Masque of the Red Death], actually, the cinematography of Nicolas Roeg–it’s just stunning. The camera’s constantly moving one way or another. There’s a lot of very wide shots because those sets allow a lot of scope. It’s just–it’s stunning. It’s a really, really beautiful movie.


Joe Hill: [Color Out of Space] features a classically unhinged performance by Nic Cage. His performance is a stunner, but in and around that performance is a story about a family’s shared sense of reality being smashed into tinier and tinier fragments by an environmental poison that has leaked into their well water.

History Lessons: “Sequels That Don’t Suck” (Episode 3.1)

O horror-filled October! One of the best documentary series, Eli Roth’s History of Horror, has returned for a third season, and thus so has this blog feature. Here’s my selection of the best commentary provided by industry insiders and genre scholars in last night’s premiere episode, “Sequels That Don’t Suck”:


Eli Roth: For a sequel to be great, you have to give the audience what they’re expecting, just not in the way they think they’re gonna get it. You gotta be like a magician. You know the trick’s coming, I’m telling you the trick’s coming, I’m telling you the trick’s coming, and then you still do it, and they go, ‘Wow, I didn’t see that coming.’


Jonah Rey: The thing that made A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 stick out so much is that it was the first entry into fun Freddy before he became silly Freddy. So he was still scary in this, but having a bit more time to quip. That all of a sudden becomes scarier–of this guy, just like, not only is he gonna kill you, but he’s gonna have a little too much fun doing it.


Robert Englund: Wes [Craven] would tell you that he’s a little upset with the exploitation of the humorous part of Freddy’s personality. And I back him on that. But Wes is responsible for that. Wes created a character that cracked wise.


Kevin Williamson: Scream 1 basically asked the question, ‘If you can’t blame the movies, who can you blame?’ Scream 2 suggested who you can blame. And look who the killer was: it was the mother. So Scream 2, in a weird way, is saying: ‘We can blame the parents. Bad parenting creates psychos.’


Jason Blum: Working in the horror genre allows you to not necessarily explore themes that are different than would be in a drama, but it allows those themes to reach a much broader audience. The Purge is a great example of that. I think this country has gone off the rails in its relationship to guns, and The Purge is about, if that keeps going where we might wind up, kind of a cautionary tale.


Don Mancini: The Tiffany character [in Bride of Chucky] is an abused woman. You know, she’s an abused spouse. The movie’s throwing its sympathies in with the woman victim. And at the end, she turns the tables on her abuser.


Jennifer Tilly: I feel like the Bride of Chucky is a romantic tragedy, because it’s almost Romero and Juliet. It’s almost like a love that was never meant to be.


Tom Holland: Tony [Perkins] had felt that Norman Bates was a curse. And so he didn’t want to do a sequel. So I had to figure out how to write a script that would be so terrific for the actor that he’d have to do it. And so it was how to give him a character arc, how to make it into an acting piece. And that’s how I came up with, well, you just ask logically, if it’s twenty-two years later–which is what the time had been since the original–where would Norman have been?


Anthony Masi: Well, this is why the sequel [Psycho II] doesn’t suck, is because the ending makes sense. Typically in good sequels, the rules of that movie then change what happened in the first movie.


Quentin Tarantino: I think Joe Dante became a director so he could do Gremlins 2. There always is a little bit of a Mad Magazine parody of his own movie running in the margin of a Joe Dante film. And with Gremlins 2, he was able to do a Mad Magazine takeoff on the first Gremlins for the entire movie, for the length of the movie.


“Mums” Bumbled

Joe Hill has been intimately connected with Creepshow from the get-go. Long before he became a renowned writer in his own right, the son of Stephen King starred as the comics-loving monsterkid Billy in the frame story of the original film. So when Creepshow was turned into an anthology series on Shudder in 2019, it was only natural that the inaugural season would feature a segment based on one Hill’s stories–“By the Silver Waters of Lake Champlain.” Now, the Creepshow series digs into Hill once again with the opening segment of Season 3, an adaptation (co-written by horror legend David J. Schow) of the author’s novelette “Mums.” First published Full Throttle, “Mums” forms a standout piece in Hill’s collection. It is a work that also seems tailor-made for a Creepshow adaptation: “rooted in tragedy, betrayal, and revenge” (as the Creep’s introductory headnote to the episode segment states), the story showcases a “grotesque garden of ghoulish gore.” And that is what makes it so disappointing to discover that the adaptation has been utterly flubbed.

No doubt part of the problem stems from the fact that Hill’s 45-page text has a lot of story to it; Creepshow severely condenses the narrative, stripping it in the process of its complexity and nuance. For starters, the protagonist Jack’s great-great-great grandmother “Meemaw”–a terrifically witchy figure central to Hill’s tale–is written right out of the adaptation, never appearing onscreen. The mystery of the fate of Jack’s mom Bloom is almost immediately resolved (and her demise attributed to a different character than in the novelette). Jack’s father Hank, whom Hill depicts as a powerful and quietly menacing leader of an  American separatist movement, here gets reduced to a one-note cliché (the abusive redneck). Any ambiguity that Hill originally inscribed (the question of whether the horrors are a product of mental illness or supernatural agency) is also lost. Even the monster effects, which one would expect Creepshow to nail, prove underwhelming, like something ordered up from the Little Shop of Horrors.

“Mums,” though, positively shines compared to the episode’s second segment, “Queen Bee”–a nonsensical story rife with cheesy effect (those green glowing eyes flashed by the hospital staff look like props bought at a Spirit Halloween store; the titular monster, however, is quite impressive). Overall, this episode represents a definite step down in quality from the Season 2 premiere (reviewed here). Fans will have to keep their fingerbones crossed that Creepshow issues more satisfying frights in the coming weeks.


The Haunting, Season 3? Three Prospective Source Texts

In a recent conversation with Entertainment Weekly to promote his new Netflix series Midnight Mass, Mike Flanagan reiterated that (alas) there are no current plans for a third season of The Haunting. The EW piece, though, did shed some insight onto Flanagan’s criteria for selecting a ghost-centric literary property to bring to the small screen. If a third season of The Haunting ever is considered, here are three books that I think would make excellent candidates for adaptation.


Summer of Night by Dan Simmons

Flanagan has proven himself a master of the Stephen King adaptation, so Simmons’s IT-inspired horror epic would be right up his dark alley. This novel about a haunted school spreading evil throughout the town of Elm Haven, Illinois, features both quiet dread (other-worldly voices intoning on a radio) and spectacular ghoulishness (you thought you had some awful teachers growing up!). Simmons’s sequel A Winter Haunting (which centers on the ghostly encounters of one of the protagonists from Summer of Night, who returns to Elm Haven as an adult) would also furnish material for a terrific coda to a stretch of episodes. A big-screen version has been long-rumored, but in the absence of such a film, Netflix could provide an ideal home for Summer of Night.


Coldheart Canyon: A Hollywood Ghost Story by Clive Barker

This ambitious and arguably under-appreciated novel mixes dark fantasy (the Wild Hunt is brought to California) and supernatural horror (the predations by a former film vamp) into a biting satire of the modern movie industry. The secluded Old Hollywood mansion where much of the action takes place can loom sinisterly right alongside Shirley Jackson’s Hill House (Season 1 of The Haunting) and Henry James’s Bly Manor (Season 2). Barker’s specters here have a particularly carnal bent, which would bring a much edgier element and more carnivalesque air to the typical ghostly proceedings on The Haunting.


Haunted: A Novel by Chuck Palahniuk

Palahniuk’s unabashedly macabre novel/linked-collection riffs on (and references) the famous spook-story-telling sessions of Mary Shelley, her husband Percy, Lord Byron, and John Polidori at the Villa Diodati in 1816.  Here a group of aspiring modern-day artists discover that their writers’ retreat is actually a site of nightmarish entrapment (inside an abandoned theater). The book’s structure–characters’ recited works interpolated within the ongoing, ever-darkening captivity narrative–would lend itself perfectly to episodic televisual format. Yes, the ghosts that Palahniuk scares up might not be of the traditional variety, but as the novel’s title portends, there is plenty of haunting experience in store.