Mr. Tusk Watercolor Illustration

#29: The Walrus and The Carpenter

*Danger, Will Robinson: Affiliate Links Ahead! Clicking on some links may compensate myself and the blog. Read the disclosure policy for complete info.*

Republished today in memory of Michael Parks, our own Howard Howe.


Tusk

I became acquainted with a Walrus when I was lost at sea.

I would describe Tusk as a horror-comedy. I really would. I’d also describe it as the most atrocious, upsetting, horrific concept I’ve ever had to wrap my head (and my poor, poor eyes) around. So, while Kevin Smith will offer you his usual jokes, I cannot be responsible for how many of you will not find this funny. Just not even a little bit at all.

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The Midnight Meat Train Watercolor Illustration

#31: Meat

Happy Halloween! Happy 31st Day of Horror! Let’s take one last ride. I promise, it’ll be quick.

The Midnight Meat Train

Step away from the meat.

There is no arguing for The Midnight Meat Train on anyone’s “Best Of” list; it offers nothing new, nothing overwhelmingly special. If you’ve heard of it at all, it probably took you a moment to remember what it was about, or where you saw it (probably on Chiller). But I bet you remembered that title. That title is to the point.

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It Follows Watercolor Illustration

#30: Certainty

*The giveaway is now closed*

By now you’ve realized that I like a slow build. A crawl even. This one walks with conviction.

It Follows

And the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within ten minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant – your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that this is certain. The worst thing is that it is certain.

The monster in It Follows moves only slightly faster than my favorite Night of the Living Dead zombies, yet it’s not so easily definable as either dead, zombie, person, ghost, or monster, even. There is some entity following Jay, but a label is not necessary to make whatever it is frightening. The threat is certain. That’s all a good horror movie needs.

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Heidi Hawthorne The Lords of Salem Watercolor Illustration

#28: The Lords

Time for another big-ass load of feminism. Hold onto your butts.

The Lords of Salem

Have you come here to stick your nosy cock inside her head and fuck her brain, Mr. Matthias?

This is unabashedly my favorite movie of the last couple years. I’ve been a believer in Rob Zombie as a game changing filmmaker since House of 1000 Corpses, and in particular, his ability to draw strong female characters that not only lead the genre, but the medium.

Yes, I really believe this man can do that.

Much of that is thanks to his relationship with Sheri Moon Zombie, whom he casts in every film and nearly every music video. She’s one of those “non-actor” type actors who serves to represent something – a look, a feel, in her case, an alternative, rock and roll beauty. In recent years, and with each film, I see her develop as a career actress, and The Lords of Salem presents the kind of role she deserves. I hope there will be more of them.

Heidi Hawthorne The Lords of Salem Watercolor Illustration
“Heidi Hawthorne” | Original Art by Alex Landers

Stories about witches can go one of two ways – they can villainize women or celebrate them. In Don’t Look Now, the psychic activity between women is viewed as threatening, cultish, frightening. It’s a perspective of a patriarchy uncomfortable with women as a unit – like the detective said, women seem to “converge.” In a movie like The Craft (how I love thee, let me count the ways…), we see the coven from a feminine perspective – there is a sisterly bond that, when taken care of, is good and safe.

The Lords of Salem presents something beautifully complicated that rests directly between the two – a fairness and evenness that Zombie excels at as a storyteller (I suspect this comes out of a real love for the genre, especially the slashers and baddies we are supposed to revile – in his work they remain evil, but illuminated with an extra bit of dimension that can only come from love – aw, he does <3 his monsters). The coven of witches is coming for Heidi Hawthorne. They wish evil upon her. But their vengeance is not undeserved. And though the film presents them as enemy, their final accomplishment is presented not with menace, but a glory fit for a Queen. I’m impressed by its spectacle every time. If you’re a silly horror fan like me, it could move you to tears.

There are those who will find this, in comparison to Zombie’s previous work, very, very slow. And also devoid of the kind of gore he specializes in (House of 1000 Corpses, even with its incredible sense of humor, is hard for most people to watch – I know, I made a lot of people watch it). But moving from Slashers to Sadists, the tonal shift is logical and necessary. Slow pans, long shots, incredibly pregnant pauses – these are the tools necessary to paint a piece of deeply unsettling psychological horror. He still manages a few gross-out creatures, and they fit well, in an Eraserhead meets Hellraiser sort of way. What I’m saying is, his visual stamp is there, don’t worry.

The witches in Lords aren’t Hocus-Pocus, long-nosed, green and warty witches. They are very real manifestations of a group of women based in history – those victimized by The Salem Witch Trials. Of course, the supernatural elements are those of a horror story, probably not historical fact, and so traversing this ground can be surprisingly difficult. From a feminist perspective, creating a coven of satanic witches, without demonizing them for their sex, is going to be really, really difficult. For a fairly weighted, and the most interesting representation, it’s incredibly important that the witches be real, authentic women – not cartoons or approximations. Why? Because witchcraft, and the burning of witches at Salem, was in its least magical interpretation, a crime against women. Again I look at Don’t Look Now and see a script and a film that is fearful not only of psychic women, but powerful women as a whole. Zombie manages something different.

The witches seeking vengeance in Lords are not merely monsters, but a pack of wronged women. Their characterization, and their union, is symbolic of the strength the bonds between women can create. In this coven, Zombie creates a group of women who are frightening, threatening, and scary – that gives them real power. They are also given reason, logic, and vindication – they have every reason to see the men around them crumble, and no problem using their women to do it. This, of course, makes The Lords definitively evil; their willingness to sacrifice other women to achieve their ends. But they only participate in the same evil the patriarchy had invented before them, because ultimately, that is how the women of Salem were always viewed, witches and non-witches alike – as property of the men they were born to.

I could unpack this one for days. Please see this and comment about it so I can write about it some more.

Best Scene:

Too many! But today I choose Heidi sitting outside the church in the cemetery, dog in tow, watching a figure in a black jacket and inhuman head walk toward her. It reminds me a bit of the shaking-head men from Jacob’s Ladder, but there is no shaking or jerky editing of any kind. It is one, long, honest shot at a creature that is menacing and unearthly, and I believe some of Zombie’s best shot composition to date.

Other Things to Notice:

You may recognize the three witches, and you should be pleased to see Zombie sticking to his usual guns about hiring stars of classic horror (his use of Karen Black is some of the best work she ever did, and Sid Haig receives the appreciation he so richly deserves as a character actor). Dee Wallace (E.T.), Patricia Quinn (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and Judy Geeson (Berserk, 10 Rillington Place) round out one of the strangest, creepiest, most charismatic clan of witches I’ve ever seen. If you don’t laugh with them after they smack Bruce Davison over the head with a frying pan, and then have all the hairs stand up on your arms when they wheel poor Heidi into the Devil’s apartment, well, I don’t know what to tell you. You may not have a soul.

There’s a good amount of phallic symbolism going on here – in fact, it’s naive to call it symbolism. There’s a lot of cock in this movie. Prepare for that, and also notice what it means for the women.

Meg Foster (They Live) is IT. Her regular face is striking to me, her face in this film – unbelievable. I can’t think of better casting.

If you download The Lords of Salem soundtrack, you can listen to the The Lords’ song over, and over, and over again. I don’t recommend you do this in your car where other people can see you. It looks weird. Just an FYI. But it is real good, isn’t it?

If You Like It, Watch:

Halloween (2007): Yes, I think you should watch the remake of one of my favorite horror movies of all time, which absolutely didn’t need a remake for any reason. It took me many years to watch this, assuming that even with a director I admire at the helm, it would be a waste of time. It is not. It is in direct service of the Carpenter original. It takes a framework and does what Zombie does best – explores the characters to their very depths (or as is often the case, their lack of depths). The role he creates for Sheri in Michael Myers’ mother is layered and challenging. I highly recommend, especially if you are skeptical. *Streaming on Amazon Prime

The Ninth Gate: I’m going to leave the witches be and go the Satan-worshipping route for this one. This Polanski movie took a while for me to warm up to, but it’s become a real favorite. Johnny Depp is at his not-a-pirate best as a rare book dealer, and the Satan-loving people he works for are fantastically bizarre, including the always lovely Frank Langella. Wikipedia tells me that Polanski based this on a 1993 novel called The Club Dumas, but I’m going to tell you that it’s strikingly similar to a Jacques Tourneur film from 1957 called Night of the Demon. See them both, tell me what you think.

Up Next:

Tusk

*click for the trailer*

Doll Face Woman The Strangers Watercolor Illustration

#27: Other People

No, this isn’t the movie you were looking for.

The Strangers

-Why are you doing this to us?

-Because you were home.

Let me start by telling you a sad, sad story about how Netflix dupes me on the daily. Yes, I should have checked to make sure Beyond the Black Rainbow was still streaming. Yes, I should have made sure my queue was in the right order so The Haunting hadn’t showed up two weeks late. But you know what? It shouldn’t be this hard to watch good movies.

So it’s eight o’clock last night and I’m trying to find a suitable Black Rainbow replacement. I realize quickly that every new DVD I have from Netflix this week is a found footage movie, and sort of inexplicably so – like, had I not read the descriptions? I start one anyway, quickly turning it off because nausea. This is 50% of the reason I just can’t with nearly all found footage horror – the camera movements make me physically ill. The other 50% is that I find them unlikable, and well, I’d like the confidence during these 31 days of horror that I’m presenting you with something worthwhile – if not pleasurable viewing, than at least providing interesting discussion. This one wasn’t cutting it for me.

But then I was determined. Surely there’s a found footage option I can get down with. Blair Witch seemed an acceptable choice – but you’ve all been there, done that, right? (also, not on fucking Instant anymore). So I pull up this one I faintly remember finishing a few months back, and I see I’ve given it an unlikely four stars. That’s the money number of stars, I think, let’s do it! The beginning scene is WEIRD! I’m a little freaked out! This is going to work!

And then… it happens. It’s not good. Where have all these stars come from? Was I really anxious that night? Did someone break into my account and re-rate all my movies (an actual nightmare I have). I decide to move on.

To four more Netflix movies. It was a long night of half-watched mediocrity – found footage, narrative, all of it.

When it got very late, I went to the trusty DVD case (no longer trusty, as it’s leaning to the side and ready to fall apart any day now), and pulled out my copy of The Strangers. It’s not found footage. Not even close. But I’m hoping this little pity-party story might help you understand why I’m about to write about The Strangers in comparison to its found footage counterparts. Because I couldn’t get my mind off it.

A terrible story is always made more terrible when it starts terribly. In this case, the most innocuous, cuddly, and sweet of terrible things – a bad breakup. The Strangers begins its reign of terror with a relationship that has just dissolved before our eyes. The horror starts where they stop (yes, I do like that kind of silly, poetic shit – get over yourselves). And there’s that impending sense of doom, growing from the moment we see Liv Tyler tear up sitting in the front seat of the car. More so when she sits, dress unzipped, waiting for the bathtub to fill so she can drown her sorrows.

It’s so full of gloom, and doom, and sadness. I love it.

We already know I’m a sucker for pretty lights and nicely framed pictures. This movie has it in droves, along with a wicked skipping record player soundtrack and HUGE references to the Manson Family murders, which makes my hippie-dippie-60s-obsessed heart go all aflutter.

Doll Face Woman The Strangers Watercolor Illustration
“Woman in a Mask” | Original Art by Alex Landers

The atmosphere (like Don’t Look Now) is a lot of what makes The Strangers scary. The house in the middle of nowhere. The fog seeping in. The giant double doors. The masks that look just human enough*. But it’s also about shock.

*Check out the pretty solid list the A.V. club put out yesterday, which includes the history of super scary sack masks since the year 2000 (you’ll find that part under #12, The Orphanage)

Found footage does shock. A lot. And I complain about it most often. Someone coming around a corner there, a bang back here, a flash of a guy with no eyes and a disfigured face – it feels a little cheap when it’s the only thing you have to lean on. The Strangers is dependent on the incessant knock-knock-knocking on doors to make you jump, building to a brutal, slasher finish. Same thing, right? So why do I excuse it, even enjoy it, here?

I think it comes down to the camera as narrator. Basically, what kind of storyteller the camera wants to be. Consider that a found footage camera is inherently point-of-view. If the character holding the camera is not explicitly introduced to us, we recognize that there is one because the other characters speak directly to him/her/the camera, itself. This immediately introduces a level of realism that is otherwise up in the air in a lot of horror. The camera becomes a tool, a collector of evidence, an extension of a human being. That’s interesting – but it’s also problematic for those of us who require a little disbelief and a little distance to get a really good psychological, visceral scare. After all, a P.O.V. camera has the same level of knowledge as the person wielding it – and that virtually eliminates the possibility of dramatic irony. And I think to experience art-horror, we need that irony.

Per dictionary.com, dramatic irony is the “irony occurring when the implications of a situation, speech, etc, are understood by the audience but not by the characters…” If the camera is a character, and also our only viewpoint into the story, then we cannot be privy to something the characters are not. Unless that camera is left unattended (i.e. the security camera style footage of Paranormal Activity), dramatic irony becomes nearly impossible.

We also know from Noel Carroll’s work (discussed in this post on Dead Ringers) that art-horror is one step removed from experiencing actual trauma – the ability to observe is key. Found footage doesn’t let you observe, it inundates you in the story yourself. For some, this kind of “horror” may work. I think for those like myself, looking for that sweet little bit of “art-horror,” it takes away the necessary step back that asks us to think about what we’re seeing. The horror is in the thought of the thing, not the thing itself. 

In The Strangers, like any traditional narrative film, we are allowed to forget that the camera exists. What we are seeing is what is happening, like the pages inside a picture book, for the characters inside it. They have no concept of a camera recording them, so we don’t either. This allows for an artful use of cinematography and shot design, painting each frame with intentionality, adding another layer to potentially “art-horrify” the viewer.

But then why does The Strangers forsake the Steadicam and employ a shaky, handheld camera style like a found footage movie? (No worries, it’s not nearly enough to make you vomit) There is no doubt that a handheld camera delivers a fallible, human element to the look and feel of a film. Where a found footage film does this ad nauseam (to characterize the camera as a literal part of the action it records), I find that it often eliminates any trace of the type of fear only a God-like, inhuman Steadicam can create – that of an omniscient and omnipresent narrator. The Strangers keeps the traditional narrator type to induce maximum art-horror, but uses the shaky camera artistically to call attention to the very human nature of the monsters responsible for the violence: there is no supernatural element here.

Of course, by sacrificing this post to the found footage vs. traditional horror Gods, I’ve slipped past all the wonderful things The Strangers does that deserve your attention outside my personal struggle. So, let’s refocus a moment…

Best Scene:

Kristin left alone in the house when the knocking starts. It’s amazing to me that Liv Tyler hasn’t done more horror movies – her screams are top-notch, and her facial expressions are even better. Girl can make her eyes bug out and jump in fright with the best of them. But I’m even more impressed with sound design – knocks coming from one corner of the house, then another. If we were to assess “The History of Things Banging on Doors” in horror movies, we could make a list pages long. This scene recalls the axe-swings of Jack in The Shining, and the ambient bangs of the ghosts in The Haunting. Even the elegantly carved double doors are evocative of Hill House’s architecture – I find myself staring at them here, waiting for them to swell, too.

But of course, there isn’t anything otherworldly here. And that’s no more apparent than with the appearance of the sack-masked man in the left corner of the frame. While Kristin stares out a window, waiting for the knocks to come again, the man wearing the sack stands in the periphery unnoticed. A man in a ghost costume. He leaves when he wants to.

Other Things to Notice:

The many ways this calls to mind the nature of The Manson Family and their infamous series of home invasions and murders. The folk music on the record player references not only the time period, but the primary occupation of Charles Manson – wannabe folk singer. Also, the nonchalant, haphazard reasoning for the act itself is 99% The Family’s motto – “Because you were home.” The killing is out of curiosity’s sake, because why not? Make chaos, be free – the end of the hippie era would echo the mantra that fueled them in the first place, along with that Sartrean expression, “Hell is other people.”

I see all that embedded in the film here, along with a contemporary warning about just how “safe” our cell phones and supposed connectivity make us. The dissolution of the relationship first is part and parcel to this point.

If shock is your thing, the final scene of this film should do it for you. I can’t think of a better audience “get” than the hand shooting up out of the grave in Carrie.

If You Like It, Watch:

You’re Next: This was not a personal favorite, but it is brought up so often lately by people I respect, I have to think maybe I missed something. What it definitely does is subvert the home invasion plot in a new way. If you like this premise, I’d suggest giving it a go. *Streaming on Amazon Prime

Bug: This is a home invasion in the sense that something is invading, though whether it’s human, insect, or bad psychology is a little harder to define. This is Friedkin at his best, and Michael Shannon before everybody knew just how good he was at playing crazy.

And finally, a PSA for the Found Footage Society of America (that exists, right?):

I’m sorry I bashed your thing. But let it be known, I think there’s a real argument for found footage. It certainly induces anxiety, and itss scares are akin to falling down the highest drop on the roller coaster- when they work, they work. But let’s leave that discussion for a better day, and a different post, and in the meantime, maybe I can implore all those that love FF to please tell me what I’m missing. Maybe I’m watching the wrong ones. Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong. Enlighten me. I want to understand the subgenre that’s taken over my beloved horror. Gift me your knowledge and your readings – I’ll thank you for it. 

Up Next:

The Lords of Salem

*click for the trailer*

Red Coat Don't Look Now Watercolor Illustration

#26: Premonitions

It’s the last week of October and the last week of the HorrorThon – what to watch? Favorites. And here’s yours

Don’t Look Now

She says it’s like a city in aspic, wrapped over from a dinner party where all the guests are dead and gone.

When I asked for your favorite horror suggestions, I did not expect Don’t Look Now. Not one, not two, but several people specified this 1973 Nicolas Roeg film, which is known in America for having an explicitly long sex scene, and everywhere else for giving people the legitimate creeps. I couldn’t be happier, really, because if there was ever an example of “art-horror,” here it is. Plus, it’s going to allow me to recommend The Witches to everyone, and that’s just perfect.

If you’re unfamiliar with Nicolas Roeg, that’s no surprise, because he’s truly the auteur that goes under everybody’s radar. But he is a film artist, in my opinion: there’s no way you can watch a Roeg movie and not see a distinct visual signature. His shot composition evokes something between Terrence Malick’s expanses of space and William Friedkin’s crowding of the frame. This film, a sort of suspense-thriller with a supernatural condition, may remind you of The Exorcist, which released the same year – and though far more subtle, it may provide the same sense of disturbance and malaise as that legendary film did. Depends on the type of person you are. Depends on what it is that scares you.

What Don’t Look Now does best is atmosphere. Set in Venice, there is a sense of inescapable entrapment, both for the characters and ourselves; the camera work focuses on tight alleyways, the corners of rooms, empty hotels with furniture wrapped in sheets. After the drowning death of their daughter in England, the ironic beauty of Venice is even more apparent for its surrounding of the couple by water.

The church that Donald Sutherland’s character, John Baxter, is restoring is crumbling (all the more beautiful for it), and haunted by its own living bishop, who has a distinct air of aloof and possibly corrupt about him. OSHA is nowhere near this construction site, and it presents its own series of threats to the architect as he works to complete it. At times (most of the time), it would seem the church itself is against him. Venice, too, which keeps showing him glimpses of his dead daughter, running in her red macintosh through the night.

Red Coat Don't Look Now Watercolor Illustration
“Red Mac” | Original Art by Alex Landers

Those sort of visions – premonitions – are what drive Don’t Look Now to an unsettling, and bizarre, conclusion. On this third watch, it all makes quite a bit of sense to me. In fact, its pieces fit together so nicely, the supernatural logic seems absolutely inevitable to me, if not totally normal and expected. This is not how I remember feeling the first time I saw it, so don’t worry. I’d expect you may feel shocked by the ending – at the very least, I presume you’ll have a similar reaction to John, as he walks to a place he has been before, eyes wide, asking, “Wait.”

You could focus on any number of themes in analyzing this film, but in light of the women we’ve been looking at in others, I’m drawn to the way the ladies of Don’t Look Now are seen by the other characters and Roeg’s camera. An inspector, looking over police sketches of two women Baxter has described as potential kidnappers, notes that as women age, they look more and more like each other. Unlike men, who become more distinct, women “converge.” Women, especially as a unit, are a threat. Enough for the police to arrest two elderly women, one of whom is blind, for suspicion of murder, before the woman they are looking for is even ruled as missing.

In some beautifully poetic editing, shots of these two threatening women laughing are interspersed with otherwise serious moments that would seem not to involve them at all. But as the famous Soviet Kuleshov experiment teaches us, when two shots are intercut, our brains immediately try to create meaning in order to connect them. The gut reaction in this case is that these women are sinister, and somehow responsible for the goings on in the other scene. Roeg also superimposes the blind woman’s face, specifically her white eyes, over other shots. For Exorcist fans, this should evoke the quick flashes of this fellow between scenes. What Friedkin used as a device to subconsciously prime his audience for fright, Roeg uses in a much more delicate and visible manner, her face lying across the scene for whole seconds. The effect is still subconscious, but the painterly hand with which it’s applied makes it stranger, surreal, and longer lasting on the psyche. It should make you skeptical, and leery, of the women, too.

Best Shot:

The body being pulled from the water in Venice. It’s the first mention we’ve ever had of a murderer being on the loose in the city, but John and the Bishop speak as though they’ve known of it this whole time. Meanwhile, as the viewer, we’re absorbing that information, while watching direct evidence be dragged up and out like a piece of meat. Not to mention, the red coat she’s wearing, and her faint resemblance to Sutherland’s wife.

Other Things to Notice: 

Don’t Look Now is sort of the anti-Exorcist for me. The films evoke each other many times – Catholicism, the supernatural, little girls in danger, good men threatened by something wicked (and something female, by the way). But while Friedkin’s Exorcist sees a potential solution to the problem by way of, well, exorcism, Roeg’s film doesn’t even pretend such a resolution exists. Everything in Don’t Look Now is fated from the first frame. That, to me, is what makes it so disturbing, and so different – most films rely on the notion that the antagonist can be defeated. If the antagonist in Don’t Look Now is fate itself, or Sutherland’s premonitions of what will occur, then there is no way around it. The antagonist will win. Yet, as viewers, we are somehow still captivated, and still surprised, when the last frame echoes the first.

Oh – when you watch The Witches (required), remember the intercut scenes of the ladies laughing – cackling, even. It’s like Roeg is practicing.

If You Like it, Watch:

The Witches: I told you, it’s required. I was going to make this the “show the kids” recommendation, and then I remembered how terrible this scene is. Think twice before you scar your child with this one (or show it to them – your kid might turn out a lot like me). But do watch it yourself on a dark, stormy night and bow down to the Queen of all witches ever, Ms. Anjelica Huston.

Walkabout: I really believe more Americans film-goers should be familiar with Roeg, so let’s not beat around the bush. Check out this drama/adventure/terrifying-horror-story about a brother and sister abandoned and lost in the Australian outback. It is stunning, both visually and psychologically.

Up Next:

The Strangers

*click for the trailer*

**Curious what’s to come next? Be on the lookout this week for a clue at next month’s theme and where One Critical Bitch is headed next. And a giveaway – there should always be a giveaway.

Dennis Alan The Serpent and The Rainbow Watercolor Illustration

#25: Powder of Life

You may have noticed I haven’t watched a single zombie movie in the last 25 days. Here we go:

The Serpent and The Rainbow

Don’t let them bury me; I’m not dead!

Okay, so, it’s not a zombie movie. Not like these guys, or this girl, and especially not these guys. Many of you are disappointed, but I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m tired of zombies. Sometimes I’m sure we’ve done them to death. I enjoyed Zombieland as much as the next person, but maybe that was a cue to scale it back for a decade or so? While we’re still working that out, I’ll be here watching this anthropologist’s nightmare in Haiti, where the real “zombies” are.

The Serpent and The Rainbow concerns voodoo zombification, a part of the Vodun faith practiced in Haiti. Vodun, a mixture of healing arts and Christianity is a complex religion, and it is where somebody probably got the idea for those Night of the Living Dead sort of zombies. However, catch up on your occurrences of reported actual Haitian zombification – it’s enough to spark some unease in the pit of your stomach.

This Wes Craven film is one of my favorites, not just for its gorgeous setting and presentation of Haitian culture, but because it has a real knack for creeping up under your skin. It is based on a true story, in that the screenwriters adapted the story from a non-fiction narrative by ethnobotanist Wade Davis. His experience isn’t quite so dramatic as this, but, zombi powder? A real thing.

I spoke for about three sentences in my critique of Scream 2 about some problems with race and cultural presentation in characterization. In short, I found it problematic. In this earlier film, much more akin to its predecessor, The People Under the Stairs, I find exactly the opposite – a realistic and powerful presentation of community and culture that honors the place and the people within. I think the fact that it manages to keep that feeling, in the midst of a rather extra-villainous villain, is impressive to me. And although the supernatural element is imperative, it is not so exaggerated that it lampoons any part of Vodun or its practice. In fact, I’d say it’s very faithful to faith – something Wes Craven is no stranger to thematically or in real life (he was raised Baptist in the midwest).

In A Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s belief that gives Freddy Krueger his power to kill you inside a dream. In Scream, morality and traditional values are being openly critiqued, defied, and rewritten. In The People Under The Stairs, faith in the neighborhood (as well as Mommy and Daddy’s loose – very loose – use of biblical lessons) is what allows Fool to escape the confines of a literal hell-in-a-basement scenario. If I stood by the Auteur theory on this one, I could confidently find Craven’s career directorial through-line to be one dedicated to examining the nature of human faith. And like the very best philosopher, he rarely answers, only continues to question – what is it to live? to die? to move between? I don’t believe the answers to be important, however, I do think it’s clear that Wes Craven’s films illustrate human beings having a universal good in common – a soul. That’s never clearer than it is here, as Dennis Alan’s is taken from him, and he’s left for dead – though he is anything but.

Dennis Alan The Serpent and The Rainbow Watercolor Illustration
“Dennis” | Original Art by Alex Landers

Best Scene:

Zombie hand retreating into soup. “Aren’t you hungry, Dennis?” Nope. Not anymore.

Other Things to Notice:

Wes is a practical effects man. Things get a little loony with some early CGI towards the end (this always seems to happen in Act II, doesn’t it?), but everything before that demonstrates how well his camera is trained to capture the best of makeup effects and visual trickery. 

That zombie bride pulling her jawbone down is gross.

Dennis’s nightmares in general are terrifying and cerebral. I know this is a horror film, and veers directly into blood, guts, and torture territory, but the first half is a really tight thriller, the dreams serving as the only inkling that anything truly supernatural is occurring. This one is particularly unnerving. This one, too.

And I told you Bill Pullman would be back. Love Bill. He’s a bit of alright, always.

*For a double dose of “The Bills,” as I like to call them, enjoy the bizarre Brain Dead (not to be confused with Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive aka Brain Dead), with both Pullman and Paxton! For no reason other than my two favorite Bills are present and accounted for. 

This concludes #WesCravenWeekend.

It seems unfair, because there are so many films, either produced, written, or directed by Wes that we could have devoted the entire 31 days to him. And, if I’ve managed to do anything in looking at 4 of his works, I hope it’s convince you that he deserves all 31 of them. May the Master rest in peace – but not so much that he can’t drift into a nightmare or two.

If You Like It, Watch:

Red Eye: A true thriller, directed by Wes in 2005. Set on a plane with a terrorist plot, it is exquisitely tight in concept and execution. Riveting dynamic between Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy.

Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy: This is a pretty okay documentary on the Nightmare saga, and a whopping four hours long, it is extensive. Wes had very little to do with the Nightmare franchise, but his relationship with Robert Shaye and the creation of New Line Cinema is important info for any Craven or Horror fan. And Freddy Krueger remains, in my mind, one of the scariest slashers ever dreamt up, by Wes or anyone since. *Streaming on Netflix

Up Next:

You asked for it…

Don’t Look Now

Sydney Scream 2 Watercolor Illustration

#24: Ghostface; Again

In less than a year, Wes Craven was back directing the second installment of the hit horror film of the decade. A sequel about sequels, Scream 2 is, well, the same thing all over again.

Scream 2

The entire horror genre was destroyed by sequels.

One look at the cast and you know everybody’s agent was trying to get them in on this one. Timothy Olyphant, Rebecca Gayheart, Portia de Rossi, Jerry O’Connell, Joshua Jackson, Luke Wilson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Liev Schreiber, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Omar Epps – everyone about to be famous makes an appearance. It’s fun. No need to complicate it because the film addresses it in its own script: sequels can ruin a film or take it up a notch. Either way, it better be fun.

So in the spirit of fun, let’s hone in on the one kind of serious element Scream 2 has to offer: Neve Campbell as Sydney Prescott, playing Cassandra in the drama department’s dramatization of the classic Greek myth, simply titled Troy.

Sydney Scream 2 Watercolor Illustration
“Sydney as Cassandra” | Original Art by Alex Landers

I know, I’m the kid that wants silent reading instead of recess. Sue me.

Maybe it’s the historical depth in contrast to the constant pop culture references, maybe it’s that I think of Wes as a college professor in filmmaker’s clothing, but including Troy and Cassandra as a contextual metaphor feels like a directorial signature. It’s smart, it’s a little deep (just enough), and it comes complete with a wise-sage theater director who just wants Sydney to be strong. This is Wes in disguise. (I not-so-secretly wish this dude ended up being the new Ghostface – metaphorically and ACTUALLY directing Sydney in the stage drama of her life. How Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood is that? Alas, my fantasy is not even entertained for a second. Nerd can dream, though, right?)

The story of Cassandra in Greek mythology is Sydney’s in both Scream and Scream 2. Cassandra, Princess of Troy, attracts the attention of Apollo, who gives her the gift of foresight. Ultimately, she rejects him. In response, the jilted God lets her keep the prophecies but curses her, so that no one she speaks to will believe her. Way harsh. Curse of a contemporary college girl labelled a tease.

Sydney knows how the sequel will go – she’s lived the first film. Yet her thoughts are still dismissed with doubt, especially by men. Her new boyfriend (I’m really impressed she’s gotten over the Billy-trying-to-emotionally-torture-and-murder-her thing, already) just cannot understand her need for space in light of the murders – both to keep him safe, and to keep herself safe from the copycat killer. Why doesn’t she trust him? Because every asshole on campus has been calling her dorm for the last semester pretending to be Ghostface? Because, well, history? Sydney is, for all intents and purposes, doomed. Because Scream is as much about archetypes as it is about these particular characters, we can surmise that Craven and writer Williamson think the horror female is doomed by the set-up, too.

Do they change it? I’m going to say with this one, no. Scream 2 is, like it claims sequels to be, pretty unnecessary. It manages to advance characters by inches, not yards, and generally repeats, to greater or bloodier effect, what was achieved in the first film. But then, it’s hard to make a judgment when you’re satirizing the whole concept of your existence to begin with. This is a fluffy movie. It can also be a think piece. Take your pick, and have fun.

Best Scene:

I picked the Troy element not just because it’s a concise little analogy, but because Wes directs one of the best articulated scenes in the film during the dress rehearsal. It’s a little artsy-fartsy, but it’s a bit of visual relief, with bright Suspiria-red and a different bunch of masked-ghouls. Sydney’s sudden flash of Ghostface in the Greek chorus provides a genuine startle and begins a chase sequence more artful and twisting than any other in the film (except maybe Courtney Cox in the sound studio, moving between sound-proofed walls). It is again an example of the kind of camera movement and shot composition that makes Wes a master of the craft, and of a genre that is dependent on angles, lines, and cuts to make suspense and scares work.

Other Things to Notice:

Scream was a very, very white movie. The opener with Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps is in direct response, and I still find it witty and in good spirits. But I wonder if it really works to put that idea to rest. There are two African-American characters added to the general cast, and they are not much more than the usual “token” ethnic variety Hollywood invests in. Again, it’s hard to decide at this point whether Scream 2 is satirizing sequels, or is one, but in either context, this is an important element and one that deserves your attention and analysis.

*SPOILER* The Debbie Loomis as Jason’s Mother gag is just straight-up funny, and Laurie Metcalfe plays her with the same wide-eyes and terrible hair cut. It makes me chuckle.

*Scream 2 is now streaming on Amazon Prime and Netflix, until Oct. 31st.

If You Like It, Watch:

They: Wes produced this 2002 psychological horror/thriller, and I think it’s often overlooked. I’d be curious if anyone besides me has seen it. This, like Scream 2, is about college-aged students, and specifically, about the night terrors they experienced as children. *Streaming on Amazon Prime and Netflix 

Jeepers Creepers (1 & 2): Francis Ford Coppola produced these B-style monster movies, and word is he’ll be financing a third. I think that’s great news, because the moth-monster is pretty damn cool, and both of these were solid films in their own right. Creepy, gross, and hilarious.

Up Next:

Wes Craven Weekend continues with…

The Serpent and The Rainbow

Ghostface Scream Watercolor Illustration

#23: Ghostface

This one’s for the kids. And by kids, I guess I mean people my age, so, grown-ups. This one’s for grown-ups.

Scream

 If you were the only suspect in a senseless blood bath, would you be standing in the horror section?

This was just itThis was what you wanted to see, sneak into, rent, own, show your friends. Scream was the movie of the late 90s. It was the movie that reaffirmed Wes Craven’s relevancy to a new generation of horror fans, and reinvented the genre as fully “self-aware.” Call it meta, call it cynical, call it kids who watch too many scary movies – this was a breaking point that colored and informed every. single. movie. made after it.

*And yes, New Nightmare fans, I am one of you, and I know it came first – but this was the biggie that everybody and their mother saw, spurring a whole new franchise. 

The basic premise for those late to the party (I imagine you’re irresponsible baby boomers that didn’t screen what your children watched or millennial babies who haven’t watched a film made before 2005 – again, I know you exist and I’m going to fix you), is a slasher on the loose in a suburban town, knocking off guys and girls alike, wearing a run-of-the-mill ghost costume from the local Party City. Sydney Prescott is our supposed “final girl,” virginal and sweet as ever, never letting her boyfriend get farther than PG-13, and a little bit depressed by the rape and murder of her mother the year before. How’s this different from anything else prior? Every teenager, thanks to Kevin Williamson’s catchy, pre-Dawson’s Creek snark, knows everything about horror movies. They know about Michael, they know about Jason, Freddy, even that Texarkana “true-story,” The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Crazy kids!

Most importantly, it uses the sarcasm and know-it-all mentality to subvert the typical outcomes of slasher movies we know and love. And, though it’s a little harder to find it scary now, this was one of the first horror films I can remember seeing that was both seriously scary and seriously funny. But in today’s post-post-modern horror world, how are we to look at something like Scream anymore?

Consent. Oh, man, it’s like a bad word lately. It can easily shut down a conversation, and probably a bad date (as it should). If you think Scream is no longer relevant (I mean, there’s a television show on MTV, so…), immediately focus your attentions on the absurdly cruel and telling things that the male student body has to say.

The point of this film was always to inflate those motifs of the genre that simply won’t go away: the evils of teenage sex, drinking, using drugs, and general misbehavior, because punishment is delivered by Slashers for all those adolescents who would dare to deviate from traditional morality. In attempts to get Sydney, virgin, to do this, her boyfriend Billy (played by the super brooding, super pushy Skeet Ulrich) delivers so many flagrant passive-aggressive threats that I just can’t help but think “Campus Police! This dude needs a sexual assault course, QUICK!” Let’s take a look, shall we?

Things Billy Says in Act I:

  • I was home watching television and The Exorcist was on. It got me thinking of you… It was edited for TV, all the good stuff was cut out. And it got me thinking of us. How two years ago we started off hot and heavy. Nice solid R rating on our way to an NC-17. And now, things have changed and, lately, we’re just sort of edited for television.
  • It occurred to me that I had never snuck through your bedroom window.
  • I wouldn’t dream of breaking your underwear rule.
  • See what you do to me?

The last one’s definitely my favorite. Not just because it’s such an EYE ROLL, but because it illustrates a truth. We have a real problem defining “consent” in this country at the moment (I think we always have) and as comical as this line should be, it’s not one I haven’t heard before outside of a movie. And the labelling of women as sluts, teases, prudes, and whores isn’t just a horror movie gag. It’s a real life thing. Of course, Sydney interprets the whole scene as “a romantic gesture,” and that’s clearly a bit of an EYE ROLL for Billy – he wants sex. And he would like it now, please.

If previous slashers punished teenagers for having sex, and the virgin was preserved for her resistance of temptation, then Ghostface thinks that’s got to change.

Ghostface Scream Watercolor Illustration
“Ghostface” | Original Art by Alex Landers

 To be a tramp is still inexcusable (like Sydney’s mother – whom she is terrified of “becoming”), but to withhold, to tease, to refuse sex to those you owe it to, is even worse.

But Syd, she’s no dummy. She catches on. And although she’ll be chastised for it shortly after, her ultimate epiphany comes only after sex. Where in Halloween or Friday the 13th, having sex would have made her an immediate victim, in Scream, having consensual sex grants the kind of knowledge that only such a close, emotional encounter can. Sex can help you know a person. Their good and bad parts.

For all its one-liners and stabby blood shed, I might have just made this into a pretty heavy film. Apologies. But, you know, not really. #sorrynotsorry

But what about Wes? Kevin Williamson gets a lot of credit for the success of this film; no doubt, the fast-talking banter and cynicism of its teenagers are the crux of the film’s concept. The cynicism (despite Freddy Krueger’s penchant for dirty jokes, BITCH!), is decidedly un-Wes to me. However, I don’t believe Scream would have worked without Craven.

A script this loaded with language and action requires an accomplished director. Watch these actors run seamlessly from room to room – that action is felt, and it’s what allows a funny script to also read as really scary. The kills are absolutely a Craven signature – the fights are bloody, disgusting, and downright crude (so much stabbing!). His composition is as poignant as always, pulling off a weird canted angle here, getting Ghostface’s reflection across Drew Barrymore’s face just right in the glass door, there. Can you make a satirical film about the genre with just anybody behind the camera? Sure. Can you subvert it and actually change its entire perspective? Not without one of its own making it happen. Having the Nightmare on Elm Street creator helm this redux is what makes it legendary.

Best Scene:

The end fight is brutal and hilarious and fantastic. But that opener – Drew Barrymore making jiffy pop, getting ready to watch a video, flirting on the phone? The new standard. Not to mention, watching her parents walk in the door right as she’s being dragged away and hung up to dry. Now that’s a solid scene.

Other Things to Notice: 

This is a really early role for Liev Schrieber – he plays the accused Cotton Weary, and you can see his handsome face being escorted from courtroom to cop car.

Why doesn’t Matthew Lillard get more work? I love him.

*Scream is currently streaming on Netflix, but only until Oct. 31st!

If You Like It, Watch:

Friday the 13th (2009): I think you should watch this remake because a) it is pretty darn good and b) it’s a product of this self-aware, metahorror that Wes and Williamson created. Enjoy.

Cabin in the Woods: The most meta it’s ever gotten. Not my favorite (honestly, even I’m surprised), but it’s very good and lovers of the genre will be tickled pink by its all-knowing-ness. You’ll want to be up on your horror tropes before watching for peak enjoyment.

Cursed: Craven and Williamson worked together again in 2005 on this underrated werewolf movie. It’s fun, and has a very young Jesse Eisenberg. Also, Christina Ricci and Dawson’s Creek alum Joshua Jackson. *Streaming on Amazon Prime

Up Next:

I haven’t gotten a chance, and now seems like as good a time as any – let’s watch a SEQUEL!

Scream 2

*click for the trailer*

Mommy and Daddy The People Under The Stairs Watercolor Illustration

#22: Mommy and Daddy

This weekend, I want to celebrate Wes.

The People Under the Stairs

That’s who Daddy’s hunting.

If you were a child of the 80s or 90s, Wes Craven’s horror stories were your horror stories. From A Nightmare on Elm Street on, this was the man making the movies you weren’t supposed to watch. The back of the VHS you shouldn’t be looking at, just to get a peek at what lurked on the tape. He was the people’s horror director – making relatable stories about regular people, be they teenagers, children, or your next door neighbor. The People Under the Stairs is the ultimate representation of that ideal.

Wes Craven was a professor. He had a master’s in philosophy and writing. He was raised Baptist in the midwest. Instead of starting at the beginning of his filmography with Last House on the Left, or hitting with the ultimate monster/slasher hybrid, A Nightmare on Elm Street, I wanted to start here in the middle. With a movie that is a clear-cut, message-driven film, with a real sense of morality, social values, and heart. And also sadomasochism, incest, decaying bodies, and yes, people under stairs.

This was a big hit at sleepovers when I was about ten. It had already been out for a number of years, but it had one of those covers that caught your eye walking the aisles at the video store, and somebody always seemed to have an older, irresponsible sibling willing to rent it for you (Candyman was an even bigger get – have you seen the cover for that?). It had a seedy, made-for-tv vibe, and the promise of a man dressed head to toe in a leather body suit, doing something awful. 

Basically, it had a reputation. Like every Craven movie.

As an adult, you’ll notice it’s actually very funny. You’ll also notice that it’s a social issue film. A social issue film with ashen children who have no tongues rummaging through the walls. But still.

Everett McGill and Wendy Robie of Twin Peaks fame (they are famous to me) play “Mommy” and “Daddy,”

Mommy and Daddy The People Under The Stairs Watercolor Illustration
“Mommy + Daddy” | Original Art by Alex Landers

who in addition to being the world’s worst parents, are also landlords to much of the neighborhood outside their padlocked doors (and windows). And as far as bad landlords go, these two are the worst. Bad, bad landlords.

They’ve warped the standard biblical moral values into something hellish and sexually deviant. If you wondered where American Horror Story got the idea for the Rubber Man, it was probably here. Though McGill looks even cooler with the additional spikes, rifle, and a gait that can only be described as “in control.” Seriously, he just owns those hallways, hunting basement kids.

The film is self-explanatory. It isn’t the complex nightmare-scape Craven invented for Freddy to haunt. Nor is it the baseless violence and assault he was experimenting with in Last House. What it is, is a commentary on community and stereotypical expectations. It’s about divisions between the wealthy and the poor. And it’s undeniably about race.

In light of recent events in this country, it’d be a good film to get everybody watching again. Because despite what Mommy and Daddy think behind closed doors, outside there is a neighborhood – and it’s a community of people willing to stand up and fight for one another.

Best Scene:

I’m a sucker for Daddy running around in that suit, but I’m going to go with Alice’s admission to Fool about what he’s actually doing. Roach, the boy in the walls – “that’s who Daddy’s hunting.” My eyes bug out; it’s just such a normal admission for her, as this obviously happens all the time. Damn kids.

Other Things to Notice:

If You Like It, Watch:

Candyman: I am a huge fan of this Bernard Rose film, released just a year after this one. It’s also racially charged and tackles a number of social issues, including a bit of my favorite – that’s right, feminism. It’s also fucking terrifying and an incredible piece of art. If nothing else, enjoy the score by Philip Glass, and the stunning cinematography shot inside Cabrini-Green in Chicago. And Tony Todd. Bow down to Tony Todd. Watch the trailer

Shocker: If you’re digging that low-budget made-for-tv vibe, or you just want a little comic relief, you’ll get it here, along with the most 90s visual effects ever designed. I know there are real fans of this Craven movie, and perhaps you’ll be one of them. For me, it’s a highly entertaining time capsule watch. Watch the trailer

Up Next:

Scream

*click for the trailer*