Baby’s Fiftieth Birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Forgotten by History

One last post on Eli Roth’s History of Horror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Episode 6: Vampires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Episode 7: Ghost Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

Episode 4: The Demons Inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Episode 5: Killer Creatures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Episode 1: Zombies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Episode 2: Slashers, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Episode 3: Slashers, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horseman Invasion

(plot spoilers below)

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

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

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

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

 

Even Pulpier Fiction: Reconsidering the Recursive Structure of Trick ‘r Treat

While being interviewed for the documentary “Trick ‘r Treat: The Lore and Legends of Halloween,” producer Bryan Singer alliteratively high-concepts Mike Dougherty’s film as “Crash meets Creepshow.” As an anthology horror film–one that employs comic-book-style opening credits–Trick ‘r Treat certainly mimics George Romero’s 1982 film (the zombie look of the kids who drowned in the Halloween School Bus Massacre in Trick ‘r Treat also recalls the vengeful revenants in the “Something to Tide You Over” segment of Creepshow). With its ensemble cast of characters whose narratives intersect in life-changing ways, Trick ‘r Treat also pairs well with Crash. Director Paul Haggis’s Academy-Award-winning picture, though, only plays minimally with chronology. The better comparison might be with a film that pushes the envelope further in terms of nonlinear (fragmented and looping) narrative structure: Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

Tarantino and Dougherty similarly suffuse their respective films with macabre humor and lurid imagery. Both Pulp Fiction and Trick ‘r Treat are quite self-conscious in their referencing of other movies. For example, Trick ‘r Treat pays ongoing homage to Halloween, from the use of behind-the-mask subjective camera work to Brian Cox modeling the appearance of his Mr. Kreeg character on John Carpenter (Kreeg’s incredulous ejaculation [when encountering the resilient Halloween demon Sam], “You gotta be fucking kidding me” also echoes a line from another Carpenter effort, The Thing). Pulp Fiction (with its oddly philosophical and profanely witty hitmen, Jules and Vincent) and Trick ‘r Treat also compare in their featuring of anti-heroes as main characters. As a stern enforcer of the rules of Halloween, Sam can be likened to Tarantino’s gangsters punishing those who violate the code of the criminal underworld.

One of the quirks of a looping narrative structure that recurs to earlier moments in the timeline is that a character already killed off returns onscreen. Most notably, John Travolta’s Vincent Vega is gunned down in the middle of Pulp Fiction but is still up and walking around in the closing scene. Likewise, the Halloween-hater Emma is dispatched by Sam in the opening of Trick ‘r Treat yet is later seen alive once again as the film circles back to the street parade earlier that evening. Such dynamic proves thematically appropriate to Trick ‘r Treat, since Halloween is a night known for blurring the lines between the living and the dead. As school principal/chocolate-poisoner Steven Wilkins (who resembles real-life murderer Ronald “The Candy Man” Clark O’Bryan) lectures to Charlie, “This is the one night when the dead and all sorts of things roam free and pay us a visit.” For sure, supernatural figures roam free in Trick ‘r Treat, penetrating other stories and proving alpha-predators (as seen when pseudo-vampire Steven attempts to pounce on the wrong victim and suffers comeuppance at the jaws of actual werewolf Danielle).

Guising is another familiar element of the October 31st holiday, and this, too, ties in to the narrative structure of Trick ‘r Treat. Masked tricksters run rampant in the Ohio town of Warren Valley, just as the film itself playfully jumps around between stories that ultimately are shown to overlap. Seeming trick-or-treater Sam (beneath his burlap mask lies an eldritch Halloween avatar) embodies this shiftiness as he pops up throughout in observance of various scenes of mayhem, and then in the climax performs acts of grim mischief himself against the beleaguered Mr. Kreeg. Dressed as a pajamaed child, Sam might look innocent, but he’s a violent menace to anyone lacking in holiday spirit. As Brian Cox narrates in the above-mentioned documentary, “Trick ‘r Treat‘s interconnected tales remind us that on Halloween, identity is as fluid as fog, and even the gentlest soul can shapeshift into a vicious killer.”

Trick ‘r Treat‘s chronological quirks succeed in drawing viewers back into the film. Throwaway lines and minor details (e.g., eating “bad Mexican,” “Sheep’s Meadow”) assume added significance in retrospect. The film encourages repeated viewings, which create new insights. I pop in the DVD every October, but it wasn’t until my most recent viewing that I noticed the man in the hot dog costume forming one of the werewolves’ victims (presumably this is Coach Taylor, last seen humping a pig-outfitted woman at Mrs. Henderson’s party; another adult guilty of hyper-sexualzing Halloween appears to have been fatally baited by the werewolf girls in risque costume).

At a swift 82 minutes, Trick ‘r Treat has half the run time of Pulp Fiction, but proves twice as committed to recursive techniques. Dougherty’s film makes its interweaving/backtracking intentions known earlier and more often. Tarantino’s revered vehicle has garnered plenty of attention for its permutation of cinematic narrative form, but the crafty complexity of Trick ‘r Treat no doubt deserves further appreciation.

 

The Night He Came Stumbling Home: A Review of Halloween (2018)

A film forty years in the making, Halloween unfortunately fails to make much of an impact.

Director David Gordon Green’s direct sequel to John Carpenter’s seminal slasher flick from autumn 1978 proves as dull and drab-looking as “Grandmother” Laurie Strode’s hair. The film lacks both overarching vision and particularly striking visuals (arguably, the most memorable image is an incongruous one: that giant, defiantly-unsoothing red-and-white grid painted at Smith’s Grove). It lacks characters interesting enough to fear for–or even to root for their victimization by Michael Myers. Perhaps most glaringly, it lacks the presence of Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis, replaced here by the loony, underdeveloped and unconvincing Dr. Sartain.

There are a few aspects of the film that I did appreciate. The callbacks to the original Halloween are cleverly done, and never employed in a heavy-handed manner. Terrific choreography is on display as Michael death waltzes in and out of a block of Haddonfield homes while trick-or-treaters traipse obliviously though the streets. The bits of comedy are also top-notch: Jibrail Nantambu nearly steals the whole movie in his brief appearances as Julian, a wisecracking child being babysat by Vicky, a friend of Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson.

Green’s film seems determined to overplay one major note: after living through the night of the Babysitter Murders, Jamie Lee Curtis’s final girl has transformed into a Michael-obsessed survivalist. While such a character arc is understandable, it’s also derivative: as moviegoers, we’ve seen all this before (cf. Linda Hamilton’s turn as doomsday-prepper Sarah Connor in Terminator 2). Furthermore, the extended timeline–the idea that this has been going on for forty years–skewed me towards disbelief. Such prolonged state of paranoid hyper-preparation probably would have resulted in fatal hypertension long ago. A one-woman militia movement, Laurie boasts an impressive arsenal of guns, but the elaborate booby-traps she has built into home border on the ridiculous. Her final solution for the invading Michael was maddeningly illogical (let’s just Laurie will be moving in with her daughter come tomorrow).

I found this film vastly inferior to Rob Zombie’s 2007 edition of Halloween. The shock rocker brought a stylistic flair, a certain brashness to the proceedings. By focusing on Michael’s childhood for the first third of the movie, he also endeavored to create some insight into the character. Robbed here of that backstory, as well as any sort of unfinished-family-business motivation, Michael reduces to a homicidal blank–the embodiment not of pure evil, but rather mundane mindless violence. The film does attempt to recapture the hulking rage of Zombie’s Michael, but again the timing seems off: such untiring ferocity in a now-sixtysomething psychopath strains belief (unless Sartain smuggled some HGH into the asylum, Michael at this point should be startling to shrivel up like a jack-o’-lantern in November). How ironic, then, that an ultimate lack of fight causes the most disappointment: Michael’s literally static ending is completely unsatisfying.

To no surprise, the film does leave open the possibility of another October follow-up. Such prospective sequel is not one I will be looking forward to, whether next year or decades hence.

 

The Shapes of Wrath: Michael Myers’s Nine Most Frightening Movie Moments

The High Holiday’s knife-wielding icon will be slashing his way across the big screen once again on Friday, October 19th. This will mark Michael Myers’s tenth appearance in the Halloween film series (every installment except Halloween III: Season of the Witch). To celebrate his murderous return, I have put together a list–presented here in reverse chronological order–of my choices for Michael’s most frightening moment in each of the preceding nine films:

 

9. Halloween II (2009)

“Trick or Tree.” The embodiment of hulking brutality, Michael has never been more savage in his attacks on the hapless populace of Haddonfield than in Rob Zombie’s sequel to his own series reboot. But for all his raging rampage, Michael arguably is at his most frightful in one of his stealthier moments: the scene where he materializes seemingly out of nowhere, stepping out from behind a shadowed tree to surprise and strangle the policeman posted in front of the Brackett home. Unnerving in and of itself, the kill is also chilling because it forebodes that the sun is about to go down for good on Annie.

 

8. Halloween (2007)

“Ahead of His Time.” Young Michael’s first-time donning of his mask gets the nod here. The sight of this creepy, oversized head perched on a child’s clown-costumed body is strangely disorienting, making the subsequent slashing of sister Judith that much more unsettling. This giant, adult mask might be mismatched here, but Michael is destined to grow into it and make it a perfect fit.

 

7. Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

“No More Laurie.” The acting of Jamie Lee Curtis (“I’ll see you in hell!”) is at its worst, as is the plot logic (the idea that Laurie would have the time or the means to set up a booby-trap for Michael on the rooftop of a psychiatric facility is ridiculous). But there’s no denying the shock value when a backstabbing Michael finally succeeds–after a quarter century and four previous cinematic attempts–in getting the best of his sibling nemesis. If Halloween‘s original final girl can meet her demise in this film’s opening, then all bets are off.

 

6. Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998)

“Dumbwaiter Outsmarting.” From our first glimpse of it in the campus mess hall kitchen, we all know that the dumbwaiter will come into later play, but nevertheless it is put to unsuspected use. For one thing, Michael never comes jump-scaring out of it (although one of his victims, Charlie, is discovered stuffed inside by the boy’s horrified girlfriend Sarah). When Sarah attempts to escape Michael by ascending in the mechanized contraption, Michael saws through the trailing rope but does not simply bring Sarah crashing back down. Instead he catches her as she is about to exit on the next floor; she does not suffer some graphic decapitation, but only has her leg injured by the plummeting dumbwaiter. From here, Michael climbs leisurely upstairs, and when he proceeds to press his boot down on the neck of the bleeding/pleading girl and hack away with his blade, we see just how methodical and merciless he can be.

 

5. Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

“Fear Window.” Admittedly, there’s not a helluva lot to choose from in this wretched entry (which makes a mishmash of the Michael Myers mythos). So I’ll go with the scene when heroine Kara Strode is on the phone with Beth and watches (through telephoto lens, in an upstairs bedroom directly across the street) Michael sneak up on the unsuspecting teen and deliver his sharp brand of post-coital punishment. To make matters even more terrifying, when Kara pans down, she sees her young son Danny crossing the street and heading straight towards the kill zone.

 

4. Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

“Out of the Closet.” As if it wasn’t painfully obvious already, Michael reveals his orientation as a violence-minded voyeur in this early scene. A police sweep of Rachel’s house has deemed it empty, but Michael is in fact hiding in the closet. We first see (via an effective I-camera shot) Michael’s hand reaching out from behind Rachel’s wardrobe; the scene then cuts to an interior view of Michael as he watches the naked, vulnerable, and oblivious Rachel throw a sweater over her head. The emphasis here is on simmering suspense, but Michael’s eventual exodus from his hiding spot makes for a nice pairing with his closet break-in scene in the original Halloween.

 

3. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

“Michael-plicity.” Characters Sam Loomis and Jamie Lloyd have been experiencing respective visions of Michael throughout, but here in this scene they both (along with Rachel and Sheriff Meeker) see not one, not two, but three different Michaels surround a squad car. Their collective reaction to the trio suggests that this is no mere hallucination. The would-be slashers are soon revealed as costumed imposters (punk teens playing a Halloween prank), but for a brief moment it seems as if the franchise has taken a bizarro turn.

 

2. Halloween II (1981)

“Hallway Stalking.” Thinness of plot is made up for by unity of setting in this hospital-focused follow-up to the John Carpenter classic. Michael cuts down almost the entire staff of Haddonfield Memorial, but his scalpel-stabbing of nurse Jill constitutes the most frightening kill of all. Jill calls out to a wounded, drugged Laurie stumbling down the hallway, who turns back only to watch Michael step out behind Jill and impale her. Jill is no wicked fornicator (unlike her nurse counterpart Karen, who sneaks off while on duty for a tryst in a hydrotherapy tub) doomed by the conservative sexual politics of the slasher film, and so her murder proves especially disturbing. Jill’s death sentence is poignantly punctuated when her shoes slip off her feet and clatter to the floor as she is held aloft by Michael.

 

1. Halloween (1978)

“Exercise in Terror.” The extended climax (Michael’s pursuit of Laurie) is a textbook frightfest, but its signature moment occurs when the Shape gets back in shape via a single sit-up. Like Count Orlock emerging from his coffin in Nosferatu, the presumed-dead Michael rises up stiffly into sitting position. The maneuver brings dramatic irony to its height, as Laurie is completely unaware of Michael’s resurrection behind her. Also, for the first time, the audience must wonder if Michael is no run-of- the-mill serial killer but somehow supernaturally enhanced. Even before Laurie famously inquires at film’s end, the question crosses the viewer’s mind: is this the Boogeyman?

 

Zombie Omissions: Thoughts on Episode 1 of Eli Roth’s History of Horror

Roll out the talking heads and the walking dead. “Zombies”–the inaugural installment of Eli Roth’s History of Horror–ironically begins in the modern moment, with “the monster of the 21st Century” (as the undead flesh-eater is dubbed here by John Landis). I have to admit, I was a bit thrown by the outset of the series. First, because the decision to proceed via theme episodes portends an abridged history, and the exclusion of various facets of horror that don’t fall within clear categories. Second, the skeptic in me found this primary focus on zombies suspiciously self-serving, considering that AMC is the network that also airs The Walking Dead (which had its season premiere just last week). I’d call last night’s episode of the documentary series a crypto-commercial for the sagging drama, except for the fact that there’s little subtlety involved: Greg Nicotero literally has a seat at the table right next to Eli Roth!

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to be entertained by here. The myriad of film clips are aptly chosen, and the show presents a slew of genre luminaries as commentators. A lot of the discussion likely will fail to be groundbreaking (this just in: Romero’s zombie films feature socio-political subtext) for the veteran fan. Nevertheless, intriguing points are made throughout: Edgar Wright’s account of the impact of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video on the zombie subgenre; Stephen King’s thoughts on the mob mentality on display in such films; Max Brooks’s philosophizing about what makes the slow zombie so much more frightening than its faster counterpart.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given Roth’s resumé as a horror director, the show adopts a Fangorial approach, emphasizing more recent, and more graphic, titles (films such as White Zombie, I Walked With a Zombie, and Frankenstein are treated cursorily). While I understand that only so much can be covered within 42 minutes of run time, I wish more attention had been given to films/TV shows that provide fresh perspectives on zombies and the post-apocalypse. My biggest disappointment, though, is that this History of Horror appears to posit a strictly visual, aliterate audience: zero exploration is made of the zombie in horror fiction. For the love of all that is unholy at the Micmac burial ground, couldn’t Roth have asked King about the author’s foray into zombie territory in Pet Sematary?

Watching horror is great, but sometimes (having) read is better.