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?

 

Halloween Kills: Rapid Reactions

Just finished watching Halloween Kills on Peacock. Some immediate thoughts:

*I knew going in that the film would pick up right after the events of 2018’s Halloween. What I wasn’t expecting, and became fascinated by, was an early flashback to 1978 that picks up with the ending of the franchise originator. Events are considered from different angles, and holes in the storyline are filled in in quite interesting fashion.

*There are a lot of connections to Halloween history here, from the featuring of older versions of characters such as Tommy Doyle, Lindsey Wallace, and Leigh Brackett, to the importation of the iconic masks from Halloween III: Season of the WitchDr. Loomis also makes welcomed appearance here (woven so organically into the scene, you have no trouble believing that’s Donald Pleasance up there on the screen).

*Michael’s escape from the inferno that Laurie left him trapped in at the end of the previous film involves a bloody rampage through the first responders to the blaze. I-camera presentation of the slaughter through the viewpoint of a downed fireman’s face-shield creates a neat variation on the masked vantage point (young Michael’s murder of his sister Judith) in the first Halloween.

*Like its immediate predecessor, Halloween Kills offers some fine moments of comic relief, here in the form of a gay couple (the current occupants of the Myers house) who square off against a bratty pack of trick-or-treaters.

*Halloween Kills is a film very much about Haddonfield and Michael’s long-term effect on the community. That these people who have been victimized and terrorized by Michael’s evil assaults for so long would take to the streets seeking cathartic carnage just felt terrifically plausible. It also seemed a perfect reflection of the way Americans hasten to act these days. Of course, the vigilantes are overly rambunctious, and the situation soon goes sideways in spectacularly tragic fashion, but the emphasis here is on the psycho killer’s damaging legacy rather than on trumping up the grossly-outnumbered Michael by making the Haddonfield populace seem monstrous in their own right. All told, one of the best angry-mob scenes ever filmed for a horror flick.

*I’ll admit, I suffer from Jamie Lee fatigue, and wasn’t all that eager for another faceoff between her Laurie Strode character and Michael. But the film does a clever job of undercutting expectation and deemphasizing the connection between the two long-time nemeses. By decentering Laurie here, the film makes the scenes she does appear in that much more compelling.

*The commitment to telling a uniquely-angled story instead of rehashing a stale formula makes this one of the most satisfying entries in the entire Halloween series, and one of the smartest slasher films to be released in a long, long time. I wasn’t blown away by the 2018 movie, but Halloween Kills is aptly titled. When it comes to serving up entertaining horror fare, this film positively kills it.

Trope Trick: Six Killer Riffs on the Final Girl

Horror films are streaming seemingly everywhere this Halloween season. Classic slashers are out in full force, but I have been focusing more on the post-Scream variations that rework rather than just rehash the formula. Here are six films that have taken the final girl trope in fresh, new directions (spoilers below):

 

Identity (2003)

When is a final girl not a final girl? Answer: when she proves (along with nine other characters gathered at a remote Nevada motel one rainy night) to be a personality existing only in the mind of a disturbed killer. And even within this mental landscape, the orange-grove idyll of lone survivor Paris (Amanda Peet) gets undercut by a wicked twist at film’s end.

 

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Tongue is impaled in cheek in this mockumentary slasher, in which a film crew follows around an aspiring killer well-versed in slasher conventions. Matters take a hilarious turn when the character Vernon has been grooming as his final girl is revealed as the antithesis of virginal. The real twist, though, is that Vernon actually has tabbed the journalist Taylor (Angela Goethals) for final girl status all along.

 

You’re Next (2011)

The turn from frightened flight to vigorous fight has always been a central component of the final girl’s in-film development, but here Erin (Shari Vinson) is shown to be badass from the get-go. Moreover, a credible rationale is given for her formidable skill set (she grew up in a survival compound in Australia). Hardcore Erin also makes for an interesting final girl in her gross outnumbering–by a series of masked killers as well as the two-faced family members who contracted their home invasion.

 

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

This uber-clever effort takes the meta in another direction: the collegiate protagonists are mostly unaware of horror film conventions, unlike the adults who are technologically and scientifically manipulating the situation. The ultimate subversiveness is reserved for the climax, when the refusal by Dana (Kristen Connelly) to fulfill her designated archetypal role and be the last girl standing precipitates the fall of human civilization.

 

Terrifier (2016)

Art the Clown is a coulrophobe’s worst nightmare in this most savage of slashers (which has a grindhouse vibe and near-torture-porn approach). But what lands the film on this list is its surprising looping structure. Vicky (Samantha Scaffidi) goes through hell to survive Art’s horrific assault, but this gritty final girl turns out to be the disfigured wretch we’ve already watch commit a gory murder, dispatching her disparaging interviewer in Terrifier‘s opening frame.

 

Happy Death Day (2017)

Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) parties hard, isn’t studious, sleeps with her professor, is a mean sorority girl, and (as is the wont of her character type in a slasher) gets killed early in the film. But while her repeated slaying take a physical toll, her each return to relive Monday the 18th pushes her further along on her slasher-unmasking, final-girl-worthy redemption arc in this witty variation on Groundhog Day.

 

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.

Spoon River Sopranos

Edgar Lee Masters’s preeminent book of American Gothic poetry, Spoon River Anthology, captivates with its unusual structure: each entry is framed as the ghostly (and often gossipy) monologue of a Spoon River resident now buried in the town cemetery. It’s an approach, to my pleasant surprise, that David Chase has adopted for his Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark. The film opens by panning through a graveyard, and as each headstone is passed, the decedent can be heard sharing his/her life story in voiceover. Finally, the camera settles on the marker of Christopher Moltisanti, whom Chase has tabbed to serve as the film’s posthumous, omniscient narrator.

Naturally, the late Christopher isn’t enamored with his “cousin” Tony Soprano, the man who choked him to death one dark night on Route 23. The film makes clever use of this grim fate, showing newborn Christopher’s sensitivity to Tony’s future dangerousness (the baby wails whenever teenage Tony tries to hold him). Many Saints also ends on an unholy note, accenting the sinister repercussions of Christopher’s association with Tony.

The Sopranos series was no stranger to horror (e.g., Tony’s disturbing dreams, Paulie’s haunting by the image of the Madonna in the Bada Bing, Christopher’s comatose vision of hell), so it’s only appropriate that similar darkness manifests in the prequel film.

The Many Saints of Newark is currently in theaters, and streaming on HBO Max.

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.

 

Slasher Antho Anniversary

I can’t believe the Dark Scribe Press volume, Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, and Fun of the Slasher Film, is now ten years old. A decade later, I still count it as a great thrill to have placed my essay “Music to Our Fears” (which traces Sweeney Todd as a slasher film) alongside the work of so many horror genre luminaries (including one of my literary idols, Jack Ketchum).

Weighing in at nearly 500 pages and featuring over 90 entries, the book is an absolute treasure trove for anyone interested in the subgenre. Unfortunately, it is now out of print, and used copies are hard to come by. For certain, it deserves a reissue (and even an eBook edition).

Some sort of sequel volume (covering the years 2011-2021) would be highly welcome as well. The past decade has been a strong one for the slasher, in films (You’re Next, Happy Death Day, Halloween, Freaky), on TV (Scream, Scream Queens, AHS: 1984)and in fiction (about which I’ll have more to post in the coming weeks). Plenty of select material to essay upon!

As any fan knows, slashers don’t stay down the first time. So here’s hoping to a higher Body Count…

Mob Scene: Love at First Bite

In my last Dracula Extrapolated post, I noted Love at First Bite‘s splendid spoof of the Universal vampire film. The George Hamilton-starring comedy also treats viewers to a classic send-up of that staple of Universal horror movies: the angry mob scene.

Given an eviction notice by the Communist government, Dracula decides to find a new home in America. Before the undead Count can depart, though, he discovers a crowd of locals gathered outside his castle. Viewing the torchbearers and pitchfork-wielders outside, Dracula marvels: “So they’ve come to pay their respects, have they?” The prompt sound of a rock crashing through a castle window bespeaks a much different motive for the mob.

The laughs come rapid-fire as Dracula attempts to make his way to his carriage through the crowd of rough-justice-seeking rustics. While a violin-player serenades the passing vampire with suspenseful music, an opportunistic hawker chants offscreen: “Get your wolfsbane!” The bumbling sidekick Renfield does the exact opposite of quenching the mob’s ire when he tries to defend his master: “What do you want from him–blood?” One of the “yokels” accosts the Count: “You dirty bat, you bit my mother!” Suave but snarky, Dracula clarifies: “No, Alexei, I bit your mother and your grandmother.” Dracula’s parting words arguably pack the most bite, as the Count warns his harassers: “Have your fun, but remember this. Without me, Transylvania will be as exciting as Bucharest on  a Monday night.”

This early scene provides a perfect setup for the rest of the film. It establishes Dracula as a formidable yet admirable character, someone who can handle a dire situation with a cool head and a witty tongue. The playful restaging of the familiar angry-villager scene also points to the satiric skewering of vampire conventions that the remainder of Love at First Bite so entertainingly presents.

 

Dracula Extrapolated: Love at First Bite

Exploring various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Bram Stoker’s source text.

What if Dracula emigrated to New York City?

Central to the plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the Count’s decision to abandon his castle in Transylvania and set his deadly sights on England. Such horrific relocation has provided a template for many subsequent vampire works, but not all of them are concerned with a specifically British invasion. The American comedy film Love at First Bite (1979) imagines a transatlantic Dracula. When the Count, along with his loyal if bumbling manservant Renfield, is evicted from his Gothic abode by the Communist government of Romania (so gymnasts such as Nadia Comaneci can use the place as a training facility), he chooses to become an expatriate exsanguinator. The eviction gives him the impetus to travel to America and pursue New York fashion model Cindy Sondheim, whom he has identified as the reincarnation of his beloved Mina Harker.

Since Love at First Bite is a vampire comedy, Dracula’s coming to America leads to some hilarious developments. After a baggage claim mix-up at the airport, the Count’s casket lands in the middle of a black funeral ceremony. His bat-flight into the apartment of a poor, starving Latino family quickly goes awry when the New Yorkers deem the intruder a “black chicken” and hungrily chase after him. When Dracula has to resort instead to taking a nip from a stereotypical wino, he gets terrifically tipsy, and ends up with a queasy stomach and bloodshot eyes (lamenting his nightcap, Dracula says the soused donor tasted “like the Volga River at low tide”).

In Stoker’s novel, Dracula plans his move to England with fiendish precision, but here in Love at First Bite he engages in a romantic lark. Accordingly, he is quite unprepared for what he encounters in the new world. This fish-out-of-water (bat-out-of-sky?) element propels much of the film’s plot, and because the Count is presented as more debonair than debased, he forms a sympathetic lead, not the frightful foreigner of Stoker tradition. Dracula is just an exaggerated version of any disoriented visitor to Manhattan, overwhelmed by the course of life in the big city.

Love at First Bite spoofs the Universal film Dracula more than Stoker’s book, as star George Hamilton affects the attire and accent of Bela Lugosi. The film’s transplanting of a classic storyline also works as a sendup of American modernity, by drawing extensively on the popular image of late 70’s New York City. The Big Apple is represented as an urban jungle, rife with street crime (in an early scene, Dracula makes like a nonlethal, nosferatu Charles Bronson when accosted by a group of hoodlums in Harlem) and subject to sudden outbreaks of chaos (the mass looting that transpires during the borough-wide blackout that forms the backdrop to the film’s climax). It’s a city of illicit subway trysts and discotheque glitz; narcissism and hedonism abound. Casual drug use is depicted, and inspires one of the film’s best lines. When Cindy offers Dracula some booze and a marijuana joint, enthusing that the latter is “really heavy shit,” Dracula evocatively responds: “I do not drink…wine. And I do not smoke…shit.”

This film proves that not all Dracula stories need be dire retellings. Hamilton is delightful as the undead Count, a dashing figure who dashes off a slew of deadpan jokes. Arte Johnson (who has the Dwight Frye cackle down pat) is hysterical as the insect-dieting, scene-chewing Renfield, and Richard Benjamin provides supreme silliness as the obsessive offspring of Van Helsing, Dr. Jeffrey Rosenberg. From I Am Legend to Salem’s Lot and The Strain and the film/TV adaptations thereof, there have been plenty of (American-set) extrapolations of a vampire plague–the very epidemic of terror that Stoker’s heroes risked their lives to avert. Love at First Bite‘s Dracula Abroad storyline takes a decidedly more laughing approach, and remains quite enjoyable four decades after its cinematic release.