Me vs. Us

Midway through Us, NWA’s “F*** tha Police” is invoked to brilliant comedic/satiric effect. A track by a contemporaneous rap group, though, perhaps provides a better gloss on Jordan Peele’s much-anticipated sophomore effort (following 2017’s Get Out): Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype.”

Helmed by an Important Director who has previously demonstrated a knack for delivering a thrilling plot and probing message, this film is one we are predisposed to like. According to reviewers (by Metacritic metrics, Us has garnered “universal acclaim”), it’s one we should like. But the term “masterpiece” has been bandied about much too facilely, making such film critics sound more like hype-meisters than insightful commentators.

Get Out, a riveting mystery with a horrifying reveal, expertly explores the subject of race relations in America. In Us, the social commentary (concerning the uprising of the underclass) is much less coherent and more clumsily presented. It’s also somewhat disconcerting, since the victims of the sinister doubles here (most graphically, the drunken, obnoxious couple and bratty twins next door) are all conspicuously Caucasian. Maybe Poole felt that the film already depicted plentiful black-on-black violence (as the African American protagonists are menaced by, and fight back against, their doppelgangers), but the demographics of deadly demise in Us are nonetheless eyebrow-raising.

The hype machine for the film also has been busy generating Oscar buzz for Lupita Nyong’o for her dual role of heroic mother Adelaide and villainous revolutionary Shadow. But, again, I’m not buying it (no more so than I did the overvaluing of Toni Collette’s acting in Hereditary last year). Not that Nyong’o doesn’t give a fine performance; there’s just nothing extraordinary or distinctive about it. Audiences have seen the portrayal of traumatization, not to mention the stop-at-nothing defense of one’s family, countless times before. And while the antagonist role might naturally make for more memorable characterization, Nyong’o’s Shadow is a pale effort. Her croaking whisper comes across as more hokey than horripilating, more gimmicky than plot-motivated in any convincing way.

What frustrates me most about Us is that film gets off to such a promising start. Following an atmospheric prologue (leading to an uncanny encounter in a seaside hall-of-mirrors attraction) the action flashes forward to the present day. Peele adeptly establishes his characters (the nuclear quartet of the Wilson family, who are all likeable and lifelike) and sets the stage for the coming disruption of their summer vacation. The home invasion–one of the most harrowing incidents of its kind since A Clockwork Orange–comprises the strongest part of the film. The situation is wonderfully creepy in and of itself, and the suspense keeps increasing with the cuts back and forth between the Wilsons’ individual struggles with their respective doppelgangers. Besides being gripped by the protagonists’ peril, the viewer is stirred by curiosity: who/what are these homicidal lookalikes (dubbed the “Tethered”) terrorizing the Wilsons, and where have they come from?

Unfortunately, much like Paul Tremblay’s acclaimed 2018 home-invasion novel, The Cabin at the End of the World–Poole’s film fails to pay off on its intriguing set-up. The explanation (provided via a pair of unsatisfying infodumps) for the Tethered’s origins/motivations is downright absurd. This story of weird experiment and national conspiracy (I won’t get into more specifics here, for fear of spoilers) opens up plot holes the size of the underground tunnels featured in the film. While critiquing the plot dynamics of Us, I cannot fail to note that the climactic twist is forecast from the opening scene, and proves neither shocking nor mind-blowing.

There are elements of the film that I truly enjoyed, such as the allusions to Blade Runner (Adelaide’s daughter Zora shares a name with one of the replicants Deckard retires, and the somersaulting neighbor girls mimic Pris’s android gymnastics). Kudos, too, to Poole for his extensive Gothicizing of the Hands Across America event from the 1980’s. Us also features a killer score, which helps heighten the tension and darken the mood throughout.

In the end, though, the parts do not add up to as grand a sum as might have been achieved. Straining to make social commentary, the film approaches pretentiousness, and its determination to embed subtext ultimately subverts narrative logic. No doubt, this is a movie (apropos of its double theme) that will be better appreciated following a second viewing. But after the disappointing experience of our first relationship, I can’t say I’m eager to give Us another chance.

 

Kid You Not: A Review of The Prodigy

I caught a screening of The Prodigy yesterday, and in hindsight found it apropos that the previews before the start of the film included trailers for the remakes of Child’s Play and Pet Sematary. The basic premise of the former–the posthumous persistence (in pre-adolescent mold) of a killer–is forwarded here, while a central theme of the latter–parental love leading to poor choices and catastrophic consequences–resounds in director Nicholas McCarthy’s film (not coincidentally, Jeff Buhler, the writer of The Prodigy, also scripted the forthcoming Pet Sematary).

In fact, The Prodigy manifests a broad horror lineage. Its most obvious relation is to the Evil Kid film, a subgenre stretching from The Bad Seed to The Good Son (with The Omen in between). But it hearkens back, too, to The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that ur-werewolf narrative (as identified by Stephen King in Danse Macabre) of conflicting figures in a singular body. The Prodigy is arguably also a ghost story–only in this case it’s a house of flesh that’s haunted, and the restless spirit isn’t seeking to have the story of its bloody death unearthed.

Film reviewers have failed to catch an intriguing connection that The Prodigy makes: the name of the paranormal problem child, “Miles,” is also that of the young boy watched over by the governess in The Turn of the Screw. To note this allusion, though, is also to highlight a shortcoming: whereas Henry James’s supernatural/psychological horror novella is a masterpiece of ambiguity (the question of whether Miles has fallen under the evil influence of a ghost is never resolved), The Prodigy (thanks to the precise imagery of its cross-cutting prologue) makes its uncanny aspects clear to the audience from the start. Miles’s parents seem the only ones who haven’t caught on (failing to do so until the boy is eight), and the dramatic irony drags on a bit too long.

The scenes dramatizing early instances of disturbing behavior underwhelm here because they have become overly familiar; like his cinematic brethren, Miles is the bane of babysitters and family pets. McCarthy steers the film in a more impressive direction when he touches on the taboo–the subtle gestures that “Miles” makes toward his mother that raise the specter of incest. For me, the most unnerving moment in the whole film occurred when the scheming Miles, like some juvenile (and decidedly foul-mouthed) Machiavelli, blackmails the reincarnation expert Arthur Jacobson with the threat of alleging sexual misconduct during their hypnotherapy session.

At times, the film’s plot strains disbelief: there’s not a chance in hell that Miles would have been allowed to set foot back into the classroom after his spectacularly violent outburst against a fellow student (the legal repercussions of the incident are completely glossed over as well). Trading in notions of reincarnation, The Prodigy inevitably approaches the hokey, so credible performances are a must. Taylor Schilling gives a strong one as Sarah, a mother beleaguered by her beloved boy’s bad turn. And Jackson Robert Scott is undeniably creepy as the eponymous savant. Scott, who gave his arm and his life to Pennywise as Georgie Denbrough in IT, here plays a role that recalls another Stephen King kiddie: the adorable but deadly Gage Creed in Pet Sematary.

Where The Prodigy really hits its stride is in the home stretch. When Sarah finally realizes what she is dealing with, her actions to save Miles lead to some terrific suspense. The climax ties back nicely to the film’s opening, while also presenting a question likely to linger in viewers’ minds long after the closing credits: How far would you be willing to go to protect the life of your child? I wish more screentime had been devoted to this moral dilemma, which proves much more gripping than the standard scares stocking the first two-thirds of the film.

While falling short of the extraordinary, The Prodigy is an effectively entertaining horror movie, one that just might cause prospective parents in the audience to consider contraception instead.

 

Of a Different Feather

Let me begin by offering a pair of disclaimers. First, I’m not a big fan of Sandra Bullock, whose acting seems to range between bitchy yelling and the delivery of sarcastic zingers. Second, I’m the guy who always grouses that movies “based on the novel” never are as good as the book.

Which brings me to today’s release to Netflix’s streaming service, Bird Box, an adaptation of Josh Malerman’s harrowing 2014 novel. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Bullock gives a convincing and complex performance; she conveys both gritty determination and emotional vulnerability as a single mother, Malorie, desperately struggling to deliver her children to safety across a post-apocalyptic American scene (“landscape” doesn’t seem the right word here, considering that a good chunk of the film involves a rowboat journey downriver). And my concerns that I would have to title this posted review “Turd Box” thankfully proved unfounded. The film is a gripping and entertaining thriller, effectively dramatizing the sudden breakdown of civilization when the world is overrun by mysterious creatures that drive anyone who beholds them to a prompt (and often gruesome) suicide.

Still, the viewer fortunate to have read the Malerman book beforehand is likely to sense some missteps by the movie version. There’s no denying that the source text presented a difficult case for adaptation: readers are able to get right inside the head of the frequently-blindfolded “viewpoint” characters and share their fear of the unknown, whereas the medium of film automatically enforces a more externalized perspective. The fact that Bird Box‘s viewers are able to see what the characters cannot steers the experience from dread toward dramatic irony (the film attempts to address this dilemma by employing close-ups and random cuts to an occluded “I-camera” to simulate Malorie’s sightless perspective). A second area of difficulty concerns what to do with the monsters: unlike A Quiet Placewhere the grotesque predators are spectacularly visualized, Bird Box (in a wise adherence to Malerman’s approach in the book) never brings the suicide-inducing nightmares front and center. But how then to present an invisible menace? Shadows and swirled leaves are deftly employed, but the (over-reliant) resort to whispered temptations feels more hokey than horrific.

My major issue, though, is the sea change the filmmakers create by turning from suspense to action. The movie is filled with scenes of exciting adventure (e.g. the river here features roaring rapids), which while well-choreographed also give the proceedings a rushed feel despite Bird Box‘s two-hour-plus run time. Nowhere is this more regrettably evident than when Gary invades the plot. In the film, this obvious lunatic confirms our first impression all too soon, whereas the book wrings sweat from the uneasy reader because of the uncertainty of situation (Malorie’s mounting suspicion of Gary, and her indecision after realizing that her concerns about him are justified). In retrospect, a ten-episode series (cf. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House) rather than a feature-length film would have made for a stronger adaptation. This would have allowed for a more natural development of characters (especially the supporting cast) and set-up of incident, and enabled viewers to have a keener sense of the housemates’ entrapment and their day-to-day difficulties of living in a world where willful blindness has become the first rule of survival.

In and of itself, Bird Box is an eminently watchable film, but those hoping for the height of terror are advised to migrate straight back to Malerman’s novel.

 

Mob Scene–Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh

 

The 1992 film Candyman made a couple of key revisions when adapting Clive Barker’s story “The Forbidden.” First, it relocated the action from (the fictional) Spector Street Estate in England to Cabrini-Green, Chicago’s most notorious housing project. It also furnished a backstory for the titular killer: no mere urban legend, Candyman was actually a black artist named Daniel Robitaille, who ended up lynched by a miscegenation-hating mob after impregnating a white woman. In Candyman, Professor Purcell conveys this exposition (the transcript of his speech can be read here) to protagonist Helen Lyle over the dinner table. The graphic picture Purcell paints is framed as a strictly verbal account, but in the film’s 1995 sequel, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, Daniel’s torture/murder is fully dramatized onscreen.

This mob scene begins in horrific fashion, with the gruesome sawing off of the subdued Daniel’s right hand. But the sudden swarming of a black cloud of bees (and just as quick retreat of this quasi-Biblical plague of insects) is a nonsensical bit marked by silly CGI. The drama also gets melo-, thanks to the hammy histrionics of Daniel’s protesting lover Caroline. Perhaps most dissatisfying of all, the scene is too on-the-nose in its explanation of the origins of the Candyman legend. A child present at the spectacle of violence tastes a drop of honey splattered on his cheek as Daniel is smeared with honeycomb, and proceeds to christen Daniel with the hybrid moniker “Candyman.” A parasol-carrying woman picks up on this lead, and laughingly chants “sweets to the sweet” (we’ve come a long way from the allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Barker’s story). Finally, Caroline’s vengeful father feels a strange need to stick a handheld mirror in the ravaged Daniel’s face; the mirror conveniently capture’s Daniel’s soul as he dies uttering “Candyman.”

Yes, the execution here leaves a lot to be desired, but this mob scene undeniably succeeds in establishing the modern-day bogey as a formerly human victim. The erstwhile Daniel Robitaille is transformed into a sympathetic figure, an innocent man (in life) whose romance with Caroline precipitated a tragic death. Candyman–who provides a voiceover to the flashback–was forced to become “the reflection of [the racist rabble’s] hatred, their evil.” His mortal demise is much more pitiable than that of another horror icon, the child murderer Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street, who suffers a boiler-room immolation by a mob of outraged, vigilante-justice-seeking parents.

Recently, a remake of the original Candyman was announced, with Jordan Peele at the helm. If the forthcoming film chooses to give a similar backstory to the legend, it might be worth the price of admission just to see what sort of mob scene the Get Out director envisions.

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.