Summer Lovin’ (A Review of Stranger Things 3)

While the previous season of Stranger Things was decidedly autumnal (blighted pumpkin patches; Will’s Halloween-night glimpse of the Mind Flayer), Season 3 shifts the seasonal scene to the heart of summer. The time of year proves integral to the plot, from the strategic use of a sauna at the community pool to a stunning fireworks shoot-off that serves as much more than a holiday ritual. Apropos of the season it is set in, Stranger Things 3 also has all the feel of a summer blockbuster movie. There’s more action and suspense (seemingly nonstop after the build-up of the first few episodes), more romance, more gore than ever before. The creature effects are nothing short of amazing, as the show demonstrates that scenes of giant monsters running amok (we get to see the Mind Flayer in all its grotesque glory) are not the sole province of Godzilla this summer.

More characters are also incorporated into the story this time around. Lucas’s younger sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) deservedly gets a much bigger role, and seizes the opportunity to flash sass and sarcasm. I was delighted that Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) figures more prominently this season; the character consistently delivers the show’s best, and laugh-out-loud-funny, lines. The real scene-stealer here, though, is a new character, the adorable Robin (Maya Hawke, lookalike daughter of Uma Thurman), whose relationship with co-worker Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) takes several surprising turns.

The bad guys this season prove comparatively flatter. We get stereotypes like the sleazy politician (Cary Elwes as Mayor Kline) and the chauvinistic jerk in the workplace (Jake Busey as Bruce). The assassin Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko) is limited by the deliberate molding of his character as a walking, stalking, Schwarzeneggerian Terminator. Perhaps all of these shortcomings, though, are made up for by the development of Max’s stepbrother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), a pivotal player whose character arc constitutes one of the strongest elements of Season 3.

Several paragraphs in, and I haven’t even mentioned most of the series’ young heroes. They are all back doing what they do best; we not only get to watch many of the same aspects of their characters, but also new facets as the kids have gotten more mature (and hormone-driven) since last seen. As always, the standouts are Gaten Matarazzo as the endearingly nerdy and dentally challenged Dustin, and Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, who charms with her forays into typical teen activity and thrills with her bouts of monster-battling badassery.

Stranger Things 3 is amazingly entertaining, yet not a flawless effort. I felt the writers overutilized scenes of a blindfolded Eleven engaging in remote viewing. The season-long bickering between Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) quickly got tedious. A viewer’s suspension of disbelief is also sorely tested. I am almost willing to grant the notion of a foreign government setting up secret shop in a small, mid-American town, but the fact that nobody (other than our heroes) seems to notice that there is a supersized beast stomping through Hawkins is hard to fathom. Finally, that bound-to-be-infamous rendition (by Dustin and his long-distance girlfriend Suzy) of “Never Ending Story” forms an ill-timed, and ill-conceived, piece of comic relief.

Overall, the inclusion of Eighties music is spot on (there’s also terrific use of Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim”). Tears for Fears would have made for an appropriate choice, considering that Season 3 seems determined to wring both from the audience. The horror elements are ratcheted up (this is by far the most frightening installment of the series), and the story builds to a heartbreaking climax and absolute tearjerker of a conclusion. So keep those tissues handy; it’s not just Eleven’s trademark bloody nose that’ll need wiping.

Stranger Things 3 is the quintessence of a binge watch, filled with sublime sights and captivating action. The show goes so big this summer that it is hard to imagine it ever being topped (there seems nowhere else to take things now except outside the confines of Hawkins, and perhaps deeper into the Upside Down). But wherever the road in Season 4 might lead, the Duffer Brothers no doubt will draw a richly-detailed map, and I can’t wait to take that next trip.

Chill Ride

The track record for recent adaptations of epic horror novels (e.g. The PassageThe Terror) has been spotty, which led me to approach the AMC TV-series version of Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 with some caution. After three episodes, though, the show has alleviated my concerns.

What I had feared most going in was that Zachary Quinto had been miscast as Yuletide ghoul Charlie Manx. I envisioned a variation on his role (as a snarky ghost) in the inaugural season of American Horror Story. Thankfully, I was dead wrong; thus far Quinto has been magnificent. His performance is at once understated and menacing. His old-age make-up is extraordinary (it reminds me of the aging of Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows), transforming him into one creepy geezer. Most importantly, Quinto does not play the character as a mustache-twirling villain. The audience might see through the predatorial Manx’s delusions of being a rescuer of neglected children and deliverer of perennial holiday joy, but Quinto at least makes us believe that Manx actually believes his cause is an honorable one.

Some critics have complained that the series gets off to a slow start, but I appreciate the fact that NOS4A2 is taking its time to unspool its story thread. A sincere effort here is made to establish the main cast of characters as identifiable people. As a viewer, I can easily invest in protagonist Vic McQueen and the conflicts she is facing on levels both mundane (the family drama of her parents’ separation) and supernatural (her newfound powers as a Strong Creative, which set the uncannily talented Manx sniffing after her). In its deliberate pacing, NOS4A2 seems to parallel another AMC horror series, The Walking Dead; hopefully, the eventual payoff will prove just as emotionally powerful as that of a typical TWD story arc.

If there is one aspect of the series I am not enjoying, it is Vic’s interaction with her teenage peers. These characters–most of whom don’t originate from Hill’s novel–just aren’t that interesting, and come across as annoying (Willa) or bland (Drew). Such drastic deviations from the source text are precisely where adaptations start to lose me. I bristle at the hubris of screenwriters determined to alter the blueprint for a proven product.

NOS4A2 isn’t flawless, but has captivated me thus far. I’m eager to ride along with the Wraith, and look forward to when the scene finally shifts to Manx’s vampiric theme park, Christmasland (this sinister inscape will probably go a long way toward determining the success of this series as a horror vehicle).

One last note: perhaps the most delightful gift of all shipped from Christmasland is Joe Hill’s weekly email recaps of NOS4A2‘s episodes. Hill provides commentary on what just aired the night before, interviews those involved in the series, and offers deeper insight into his own novel (e.g. this past week, he discusses the three inspirations for his creation of Christmasland). Terrific stuff, adding another element of fun to watching the series. Be sure to sign up for the recap newsletter here.

 

 

Test of Time: The Stand Miniseries, 25 Years Later

It has been a quarter-century now since Captain Trips first spread across the small screen and infected viewers throughout America. I can remember what an exciting television event The Stand miniseries was, a large-scale adaptation of Stephen King’s epic novel that aired in four two-hour segments over the course of a week. I can also remember, though, having a mixed reaction to this adaptation at the time. After listening to King and director Mick Garris reminisce about the miniseries on the Post Mortem podcast last month (which I posted about here), I was inspired to go watch the miniseries again. This would be my first time returning to the material in 25 years; I was curious how The Stand stood up over time, and if my initial impressions would be changed.

The first thing I can recall about the 1994 miniseries is that the acting was a mixed bag, and a second viewing only confirms this. To be sure, there are some strong performances, led by the never-less-than excellent Gary Sinise, who is perfectly cast as King’s Texan everyman Stu Redman. Ray Walston shines as Glen Bateman, as does Bill Fagerbakke as the mentally-challenged (it’s surprising here in 2019 to see how often the miniseries resorts to the term “retarded”) Tom Cullen. Yet there are also some starkly subpar efforts here, which might be the product of lazy writing (the stereotypically nerdy mannerisms of Corin Nemec’s Harold Lauder) or just bad acting (the single-note conveyed by Shawnee Smith as shrill shrew Julie Lawry). The loudest raspberry, though, has to be directed at Laura San Giacomo, who is painfully unconvincing in the pivotal role of Nadine Cross (or perhaps I am too distracted by those caterpillar eyebrows of hers).

My recent re-watch also reestablished my ambivalence towards the settings in the miniseries. Some of these are particularly striking: such as the scenes set in New York, both amidst riotous upheaval and in post-apocalyptic sprawl (the book’s legendary Lincoln Tunnel walk-through is translated nicely here by Garris). At other, more jarring, times, however, I can’t help but feel like I am watching a film set. The scenes (and not just those rooted in character’s dreams) of Mother Abigail’s Nebraska home and surrounding cornfield are colorful and atmospheric but lack realism.

A quarterly-century later, I am still impressed by how skillfully the plot of King’s novel was adapted for the small screen (the fact that King himself scripted the miniseries no doubt is a major factor). I like how certain elements, such as Frannie Goldsmith’s pregnancy, unfold in a more understated manner and are only gradually revealed. The miniseries also makes crafted use of time jumps (aided by title cards updating the day and place), condensing the events of the novel and moving the action along sensibly. There is one sizable plot hole that I failed to spot back in 1994, but which stood out upon re-watch. It involves the scene when Randall Flagg and Nadine first arrive in Las Vegas. Nadine is practically catatonic (following her desert rape and impregnation by Flagg) as she is ushered upstairs to the would-be honeymoon suite. Later that very same afternoon, she taunts Flagg with alleged knowledge of discontent brewing among his minions; how, though, could Nadine know that “They’re saying that a simple retarded boy outwitted Randall Flagg. They’re saying Judge Farris got away from your man in Idaho. They’re asking questions about Dayna, too.”?

For a miniseries airing on 90’s broadcast TV, The Stand surely features some strong horror. Glimpses of moldering crucifixion victims are hard to forget, much like the scene of corpse clean-up inside a church. On the other hand, the archfiend Flagg (Jamey Sheridan, looking like Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon stunt double) proves grossly disappointing on screen, with his pointy demon teeth and lightning shooting from his fingertips. Garris’s direction also demonstrates an unfortunate over-reliance on “morphing” technology; the repeated emergence of Flagg’s monster face plays like a twisted version of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video. More hokey than horrifying, Flagg formed the glaring weakness of the miniseries for me back in 1994, and the representation definitely has not aged well.

Despite its various strong points, The Stand miniseries in the end is marred by a distinct cheesiness (the “Hand of God,” King’s blatant deus ex machina plot-resolver, does not translate well to the screen, and that closing montage of the heroic characters who died along the way seems like a ridiculous rip-off of the “In Memoriam” segment of the Oscars). In this post-Game-of-Thrones age, viewers are ready for a darker, grimmer adaptation of King’s novel, one infused with special fx that don’t prove oxymoronic. I can only hope that the miniseries remake forthcoming on CBS All Access evinces the same maturation that 2017’s theatrical release of It showed over its own television predecessor.

 

More King on Post Mortem

Eli Roth’s sit-down with Stephen King (which I posted on yesterday) isn’t the only interview with the author to be released in the past week. In the latest episode of his podcast Post Mortem, Mick Garris talks with his old friend and frequent collaborator. The occasion for this interview is the 25th anniversary of The Stand, the grand-scale (“100 days of shooting, 95 scripted locations, 460 script pages, 6 states, 125 speaking roles, 1 year away from home,” Garris details in the intro) ABC miniseries adaptation of King’s epic novel.

I don’t want to spoil the fun for anyone who hasn’t listened to the podcast yet, so in lieu of a review, I’ll just tease some of the highlights:

*King discusses the two disparate (real-world) events that sparked the idea for his novel, and also discusses what almost caused him to give up on the book mid-draft

*King explains why he finds screenwriting easier than fiction writing

*Garris and King reminisce about the famous actor and actress (a pair of veteran King players, at that) who have uncredited cameos in the miniseries

*King (who admits to writing a trial screenplay for Something Wicked This Way Comes when first practicing the craft) elaborates on why filmmaking is like an amusement park

*King speaks at length about his experience working on Maximum Overdrive, and reveals whether he has any desire to direct again

*The director and writer of the original miniseries consider the new 10-hour adaptation forthcoming on CBS All-Access, and King points out “why it’s a good time for The Stand to come back”

*Garris prompts King to identify his biggest literary influence

 

How to Go Wendigo

One of the most disappointing aspects of the remake of Pet Sematary (reviewed here) was the film’s failure to bring the Wendigo onscreen as a woods-haunting monstrosity. The movie barely even references the creature from Native American myth (which is so central to Stephen King’s novel). It also abandons the cannibalism element from the original (1989) film adaptation, with the transgressions of Louis Creed’s undead offspring (emphasis on “off”) here being confined to savage slashing with a scalpel. Going into the theater, I’d hoped that the new Pet Sematary would form the preeminent example of the horror genre’s use of the Wendigo myth. That distinction, though, still belongs to “Skin and Bones,” the signature episode from NBC’s 2008 anthology series Fear Itself.

Directed by Larry Fessenden (who drew on similar mythology in his films Wendigo and The Last Winter), “Skin and Bones” stars Doug Jones as Grady Edlund, a rancher who takes a turn for the perverse. Stranded in the mountains while on a hunting trip, Grady resorts to cannibalism, is possessed by a Wendigo as a result, and then returns home to terrorize his wife, children, and cuckolding brother. Jones is an absolute nightmare figure in his portrayal of the voracious Grady; sinisterly sinewy, he embodies the episode’s title. His frostbitten, black fingertips and ears are horrifying, and his inhuman yowls are chilling as a blast of a nor’easter. Jones’s character unnerves even when prostrate in bed with the covers pulled up to his neck, and epitomizes the jump scare when suddenly springing at his prey with supernatural speed. Grady does descend into Freddy Krueger-ish campiness when forcing his wife to serve up some human stew, but remains seriously scary with his strange combination of ungainliness and unnatural strength.

Jones has made a career out of portraying fantastic and horrific creatures in film (The Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water; The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth) and on TV (The Lead Gentleman on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; one of the Ancients in The Strain), but, for me, Grady Edlund is his meatiest and most memorable role. And while the Wendigo has figured into the plots of countless shows (from Haven and Sleepy Hollow to Hannibal and Supernatural) and films (such as the black-humor masterpiece Ravenous), “Skin and Bones” still provides the most terrifying vision of the entity’s supernatural invasion of the human frame.

 

 

Whisperers Shout Out

The wasteland is a red state, as The Walking Dead has donned its M.A.G.A. (Macabre and Gripping Again) hat.

The unevenness of the AMC series in recent years has been bemoaned and belabored by fans and critics (I’ve contributed my own pair of pennies to the discussion when posting here–and here). But with Angela Kang’s succession of Scott Gimple as showrunner, and the recent six-years’ time jump in the action following the send-off of protagonist Rick Grimes, the show seems to be making a conscious effort to reset itself, to refocus its creative energies. Apparently this involves a renewed emphasis on the horrific, as evidenced by the shocking murder of Jesus by a Whisperer in a fog-shrouded cemetery at the end of the season-splittling episode 9.8, “Evolution.”

Last night’s mid-season premiere, “Adaptation,” picks right up where the show left off, and instantly demonstrates the significance of the Whisperers to TWD‘s rebound. The introduction of this group revitalizes the human-zombie conflict that had grown understandably mundane. When it comes to fearmongering, familiarity breeds diminished returns; after so many seasons, the countless walker attacks lost a lot of their bite. The zombie horde ostensibly served as decayed clay pigeons, heroically obliterated by gun and sword and hatchet. With the advent of the Whisperers, however, the rules of close-up enemy engagement have been altered dramatically, since now a more calculating and dexterous nemesis can be lurking in the midst of the staggering cannibals. My anxiety was appreciably high last night as I watched Negan take swing at some walkers outside the Sanctuary, as I wondered if one of the gruesome opponents would suddenly show its true, living color (my concern for Negan’s safety also says a lot about the redemptive character arc this former Big Bad has been given).

For certain, the Whisperers’ subterfuge makes for a sinister modus operandi, but these figures also prove quite frightful in and of themselves. Their very appearance arrests the viewer, who can’t help but question the mindset of anyone willing to dress up in someone else’s flayed skin. As they stood looming in the tall grass in last night’s episode, the Whisperers also reminded me of another classic horror bogey–the killer scarecrow (in her first appearance, the Whisperer leader Alpha suggests less a latter-day Leatherface than a glorious product of the Grim Stitch Factory). Just as the raggedy straw-man staked as a cornfield sentinel unnervingly blurs the line between the animate and inanimate, the scarecrow-evoking Whisperers muddle the distinction between the living and the undead. From its inception, TWD has presented a clear duality, as the survivors of the zombie apocalypse faced threats from human and posthumous antagonists alike. Now, those two groups of foes can no longer be easily distinguished.

These people in ghouls’ clothing not only model a clever (if outre) survival strategy; their blending in with the grave masses also allows them to turn zombies to tactical advantage. Accordingly, the Whisperers can help redress one of the show’s shortcomings from a past season. I felt the Wolves’ run (in season 6) was cut way short; I wanted to see more of their morbid mousetraps, created by the recruiting of the resurrected dead as shock troops. The herd-infiltrating/-influencing Whisperers, though, promise to take the weaponizing of walkers to a whole other level.

I’ve never read the Kirkman comics, so I don’t know much about the story arc concerning this faux-putrified faction (and have been trying hard to avoid all plot spoilers when reading up on the AMC series of late). But needless to say, I will be attending closely to the Whisperers as TWD moves through the back half of season 9.

 

A Series of Wrong Turns: Fox’s The Passage

I hate to sound like the neighborhood crank, offering up yet another not-as-good-as-the-source-novel rant, but my shaking fist has been forced. Fox’s new series The Passage utterly disappoints with its egregious deviations from Justin Cronin’s trilogy-opening literary chiller.

The “Pilot” episode proves jarring from its opening moment: the use of young Amy Bellafonte’s voiceover (like the lazy, info-dumping dialogue the writers subsequently give to the characters) not only leads to some clunky conveyance of exposition, but also seems nonsensical (if Amy–whose extraordinary lifetime spans generations–is speaking in retrospect, why is she doing so in prepubescent voice?). Worse, such loquaciousness is completely out of character with the quiet, withdrawn figure we are introduced to in Cronin’s novel. The TV series transforms Amy into a sassy 10-year-old, and even more strikingly, changes her race from white to black. My immediate reaction to this latter switch is to question why it was made. Is it just change for change’s sake, an attempt (similar to the tricks played by The Walking Dead) to render the adaptation distinct from the original narrative? Is it a compensation for the deletion of Sister Lacey (a significant character in the book) from the series? What bothers me most here is that the change results in racial stereotyping: Amy’s story is set in motion when her “stupid crackhead” (Amy’s term of besmirchment) mother dies on the street of a drug overdose.

Not just Amy, but almost all of Cronin’s characters appear to have been dramatically altered. The novel’s vampiric villain, Giles Babcock, becomes fetching blonde “Shauna” Babcock. Cold-blooded government agent Clark Richards is given a romantic side (anyone who’s read the book was likely shocked to watch him fall into bed with [the now-female] Sykes), and is presented as a longtime friend of protagonist Brad Wolgast. Wolgast’s novelistic backstory, meanwhile, is flipped: here he’s revealed as the one who left home following the tragic death of his daughter Eva; his ex-wife Lila (played by Emmanuelle Chriqui, an actress whose painful attempts to emote consistently strike me as the expression of a constipation-sufferer) openly seeks to resume relations.

I also feel compelled to grouse about the the not-so-special makeup effects. The test subjects in Cronin’s novel undergo a radical transformation into monstrosity that fails to manifest (at least not yet) in the series. For all the experimenting doctors’ don’t-call-them-vampires rhetoric, the show appears content to employ standard bloodsucker imagery. Pointy fangs, gleaming eyes: these nemeses look like castoffs from 1979’s Salem’s Lot adaptation.

Ironically, Cronin’s Passage does trace straight back to the work of Stephen King (The Stand in particular). But such intertextual connection (though perhaps to no surprise at this point) is stupefyingly simplified by the TV series. Exhibit A (as in Aargh!): the superpowers of Carrie-like telekinesis that Amy now apparently possesses.

Judging from the pilot and previews of upcoming episodes, The Passage reduces the marvelous (and elaborate) storytelling of Cronin’s post-apocalyptic epic to televisual shorthand. The unabashed bastardization on display thus far portends a series ultimately more absurd than absorbing.

 

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.