Category Archives: New Movies

Quiet Horror

We’re in a golden age for horror movies, particularly the quieter kind that rely less on gore and jump scares, and more on tense explorations of our deepest insecurities. At its best, horror as a genre has always done that. The Exorcist played with the violation of innocence, the loss of faith, single parenthood, and the limits of our understanding of the human mind. Alien played with forced impregnation, isolation, and the idea that humans aren’t the smartest sentient lifeforms out there. More recently, we’ve seen movies like Cabin in the Woods playing with standard horror tropes and asking audiences to look for a deeper meaning within the patterns of our cultural narratives and the stories we tell. All of that is a round about way of saying I like horror movies, and I want to highlight a few of the recent ones that do interesting things in terms of examining fear, flipping tropes, and asking questions beyond how much blood can we throw at the screen. I’m probably one of the last people to see and discuss these movies, but in case I’m not, beware – spoilers abound.

It Follows It Follows came out in 2014. It’s been much-lauded since, and rightly so. The premise is simple: you have sex with someone who is being followed, and from that moment on, you will be followed too. The creature that does the following can look like anyone, a stranger, or someone you know. It doesn’t want anything. It cannot be reasoned with. It will walk straight at you, slowly but relentlessly. It will never stop, not until you’re dead, and then it will turn back on the person who infected you. It Follows plays on the teen slasher trope of sex getting you killed. There’s an element of shame in the standard trope – being virginal earns you safety; being promiscuous earns you a violent death. It Follows turns the trope sideways. Your risk is also your safety. Sex exposes you to the monster, but it protects you as well. Having sex with someone else passes the monster on. Like the videotape in The Ring, the more copies that are made, the more sex that occurs, the more layers there are between the you and the monster. If the standard sex-as-death trope can be read as a metaphor for sexually transmitted disease, then It Follows’ take can be read as a metaphor for life itself. Nothing is safe. There is risk in everything, but some things are worthwhile. There’s a dreamy, timelessness to It Follows. It deliberately calls back to the horror movies of the 70s and 80s with its stylistic choices. At the same time, it is set in the here and now, with prominent use of modern technology like an e-reader. And it is set outside time, with that e-reader technology divorced from any recognizable form it exists in today, instead being housed inside what is essentially a make-up compact. The group of friends who band together against the monster of It Follows give the movie the feel of films like The Goonies, E.T., and Stand By Me – a buddy film about growing up and coming of age, rather than harkening to the teen slasher model where characters are picked off one by one and only one can survive. There’s a kind of childhood innocence to it, the idea that we are stronger together than alone. Which goes back to the way the movie treats sex, not as something adversarial, but something that brings people together. The ending of the movie is beautifully ambiguous. In the last scene, two characters walk down a sidewalk, while a third follows. Perhaps the monster is still with them, or maybe it’s merely coincidence.  My preferred interpretation is acceptance. The characters have chosen to let go of their fear, knowing they can’t control everything. Safety in life is never guaranteed, but you can’t let terror rule you.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at NightA Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is another 2014 release, similarly praised and similarly deserving. It’s an Iranian vampire film, shot in black and white, resulting in a piece that is stark, moody, and full of beautiful lighting and striking images. It plays with some of the same fears and insecurities as It Follows, but from a different angle. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night takes on the idea of deserved death, the idea that women putting themselves in ‘risky’ situations deserve whatever happens to them. Instead of being a cautionary tale where a girl breaking the rules is punished, thereby restoring order, the movie makes the girl alone at night the predator herself. There are shades of Let the Right One In, of innocence subverted, and those deadly supernatural beings giving protection to those who have been beaten down by life. The subversion of innocence in both movies – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Let the Right One In – also plays into the idea that there is no such thing as innocence. The people being protected are just that, people, flawed, and capable of doing terrible things in their own right. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night also deals with addiction, loneliness, and the ties that bind us to other people – money, sex, love, duty, and blood. Here monstrousness is being outside, separated from others and unable to relate to the basic elements of humanity. While the ending is less ambiguous than It Follows, the final scene of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is open-ended. Again, it calls back to Let the Right One In, with two characters leaving the familiarity of home, and surrendering themselves to possibility, uncertain of what the future might hold.

HushHush, released in 2016, is quiet horror in a very literal sense. The main character is a deaf-mute author living in an isolated house in the woods. Her nearest neighbor is murdered in what appears to be a random sport killing, and she becomes the next target of the killer’s pre-murder cat and mouse game. Not being part of deaf culture, I can only give the perspective of a hearing person on the effectiveness of the movie. It doesn’t feel exploitative, but that isn’t for me to judge. From my own perspective, it primarily feels like a standard home-invasion horror movie, but ramped up to an extra degree of difficulty. The character cannot call for help, and the would-be killer cuts power – and therefore internet access – to her home, preventing her from contacting the outside world in an other way. Everything takes place in a single location, over a few hours, with nothing extraneous padding the plot. The killer is never even given any motivation for his actions, but in this case, it’s a feature not a bug. Everything extraneous is stripped away, leaving only tension, fear, and a sense of desperation. Even though there’s nothing supernatural about Hush, the blank-slate nature of the killer gives him the relentless feel of a zombie. He cannot be reasoned with and nothing will stop him. The opening scene is brilliant in its use of sound, first giving the viewer a hyper-awareness of every day noises as the main character cooks dinner, then taking  those sounds away and giving them a glimpse into her world. There is very little dialogue in the movie, leaving the focus solely on action, and psychological fear. Despite all this, the main character never feels like a victim. She’s resourceful, and she refuses to give up. When one tactic doesn’t work, she tries another. What is particularly refreshing is that the protagonist is given space to experience the terror of her situation – as any human would – but she isn’t reduced to only her terror. In terms of horror tropes, Hush can be seen as taking the final girl as its starting point, and unrolling from there, showing just what someone isolated and alone can do against an unstoppable force. Despite the lack of the supernatural, Hush is an effective horror, one that takes our fears, and allows us to explore them at a safe remove through the medium of film, the way the best horror movies do.

These are just a few of the recent crop of quieter horror movies, and I have several more on my radar. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your opinion. If you’ve seen It Follows, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, or Hush, what did you think of them? What are your recent must-see horror movies? Let me know so I can add them to my list!

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Oculus: A Tale of Two (Or More) Movies

Oculus

Being in the mood for a Halloween-appropriate movie, we watched Oculus last  weekend. Warning: mildly spoilersish stuff ahead. I was hoping for was a tragically bad movie that would be good for a hate watch and yelling at the screen. What I got was a frustrating movie that had the seeds of a lot of really good ideas in it, but utterly failed on execution. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with ambiguity, or narratives that hint at possibilities, but leave things open-ended. In fact, when well-executed, I love that kind of story.

Alas, in the case of Oculus, what could have been a Turn of the Screw-style story, with its multiple threads hinting at many possible narrative realities came off as a simple inability to make a decision. I’d compare it to a puppy, trying to bound off after every exciting thing all at once. Does it want to be a supernatural thriller, or a chilling examination of domestic violence? Is it a psychological horror movie examining the coping mechanisms people develop to deal with pain, or is there a freaky evil mirror hell-bent on destroying people? Is it a story about the past, or the present? Is it a movie that relies on cheap jump-scares, or legitimately creepy and disturbing imagery? Even the poster makes very little sense. A moment that is tense in the film, isolated as a still image, loses all impact. Maybe the kids are cowering in terror, or maybe they’re just having a bad reaction to pollen.

Oddly enough, for a story about illusion and perception, Oculus suffers from being told through a visual medium. For the most part, the acting and direction are poorly done, so scenes that should be intensely creepy or emotional generally fall flat. The movie borrows heavily from other, far better films, like The Shinning, and suffers from it. All Work and No Play Make the Guy We Don’t Care About and Whose Name I Can’t Even Remember Go on a Murderous Rampage Against His Family Because Some Ghosts Told Him To, I Guess.

The best parts of the movie are thrown away. The way it plays with time. The way it questions whether you can you trust your eyes and your memory. The notion that a malevolent, supernatural entity – implacable and unstoppable – could be more comforting and the truth. As a result of all the juggling the movie does, the most intriguing threads get lost – the dog, the fiance, the dead plants, the fixation on teeth, and broken glass, and fingernails. The imagery of broken glass/broken ceramic in particular could have served as a callback to disturbing childhood memories throughout the movie, but there is only an attempt to give it emotional weight as an after-thought. The opportunity to explore the origins of an entity that feeds off pain and insists on the suffering be self-inflicted is wasted. Similarly, the idea that the entity allows people to experience hints of that pain, then immediately erases it from their memory goes nowhere nowhere. The truly unsettling ways in which the entity forces people to die,for instance a woman putting her children to sleep inside a well, then shattering her own bones with a hammer, could could have stood more exploration. But the whole history of the deaths the mirror caused is glossed over in less than two minutes.

Oculus might have been a slow, creeping, suffocating suspense movie. Instead, some people it’s hard to care about do irrational things for 100 or so minutes, and then the movie ends. Except it does all this while giving you tantalizing glimpses of what the movie could have been. Frustrating.

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Year-End Wrap-Up 2013: Watching

Normally I integrate my recommending watching into my recommended reading in my year-end wrap-up posts, but my reading posts tend to get long and I know people’s eyes glaze over, so why should movies and television get short shrift by being tacked on to the end of a post about books and short fiction? I’ve blogged about many of these shows and movies before, here and elsewhere, but I still think they’re worth highlighting among my favorite things of 2013.

Orange is the New Black – I really can’t recommend this show strongly enough. It’s a compelling and well-written, brilliantly acted, and it has a female-centric cast. All of these things are sadly under-represented on TV these days. Shows tend to be primarily male-centric, re-enforce the cultural norms, and too often neglect acting and story in favor of shiny things that are shiny. Orange is the New Black may not be perfect – nothing is – but it never fails for lack of trying. It doesn’t take the expected routes through plots, it allows its characters (and thus actors) to shine, and it offers unflinching and positive portrayals of race and gender issues that are sadly lacking in the majority of other shows currently on TV.

Gravity –  A female lead carries a major motion picture that is visually stunning, action-focused, and set in space. Sure, some character moments are a bit heavy-handed and the science is often inaccurate, but the movie is flat-out gorgeous, the performances are just as stunning, and it’s proof that a female lead can carry a movie and people will pay good money to see it. We need more movies like this. Plus, Gravity offers one of the most effective uses of 3D technology in recent memory. Rather than being gimmicky, it actually puts viewers in the characters’ shoes in a very tense and visceral way in addition to providing truly stunning ‘background scenery shots’ throughout the movie.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild – This wasn’t a new movie this year, and while it was nominated for multiple awards, I still feel it deserves more attention than it got. The visuals are breath-taking and the fact that primarily unknown actors were cast really works to the movie’s advantage. I watched it back-to-back with the remake of Total Recall and holy crap was that to Total Recall’s disadvantage. One movie presented a slick and highly stylized movie version of what poverty will look like in the future, and Beasts of the Southern Wild presented a wholly plausible depiction of poverty based on the way people actually live. The surreal portions where the movie shifted into dream-like fantasy sequences worked for me, and oddly didn’t feel out of place with the realistic segments. The performances were truly incredible as well, especially Quvenzhane Wallis, particularly given her young age and, if you watch the film’s extras, what her acting process seems to be like.

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Gravity

Gravity I finally got around to seeing Gravity yesterday. My gut reaction? We need more movies like Gravity. [Warning: spoilers ahead.]

First of all, the film is flat-out gorgeous, and worth seeing in 3D. It provides a sense of perspective and scale that I don’t think would be adequately conveyed in a 2D version. More than once the objects flying at the screen engaged my flinch/blink reflex, but it never felt gimmicky or cheap. It adds to the overall tension, and makes the characters’ plight all the more real.

That isn’t what really wowed me though, or why I think more movies like it need to be made. What matters (to me) is this: We have a major, big-budget SF-ish/Action-ish movie with a female lead. Not only that, for the majority of the movie, said female is the only one on screen. Sandra Bullock carries the movie, and despite the ‘common wisdom’ that audiences won’t pay to see an action movie with a female lead, even several weeks after its release, the theater I went to was more than half full. The audience wasn’t all women, and it wasn’t all adults. There were little boys and little girls in the audience seeing a female scientist character front and center on the big screen. Maybe it won’t change their lives, but it’s a damned good message to have out there in the world. Finally, not only is there a female lead, she saves herself. The movie ends on an image of her alone, triumphant, keeping the focus on her as the agent of her own fate.

For extra bonus points, Gravity is an original script. In a movie age so crowded with sequels, remakes, and adaptions, it’s nice to see an original movie can still get made.

Sure, the science may be a bit crap, but the movie is so stunning, you’re willing to forgive it. The story is straightforward and simple, and honestly a bit implausible at times, but in its own way, it’s the simplicity that lets the actor shine. And does Sandra Bullock ever shine. For all its simplicity, the story is a good example of character wants something, character has increasing obstacles put in their way to prevent them from getting something, character ultimately triumphs storytelling. Call it fiction 101. Even better, the story isn’t padded unnecessarily. There’s character growth, albeit accompanied by some heavy-handed visual metaphors, but there is growth, and it’s refreshing to see a stream-lined movie that isn’t afraid to only be an hour and a half long without a lot of flashback, flash sideways, and whatnot thrown in to make it longer. Highly recommended.

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Mommy Dearest

CarrieAfter pumpkin carving last night, we were in the mood for some Halloween-appropriate viewing. We decided on the original 1976 Carrie, and watching it got me thinking about the role of mothers in horror movies overall. [Uh, warning: spoilers for various movies ranging from 1960 to 2013 ensue.]

It’s been remarked elsewhere (and bloody hell, of course I can’t find the specific posts/articles) that there’s a shortage of depictions of motherhood, pregnancy, and even women over 30 in speculative fiction, and generally positive portrayals are even scarcer. When it comes to horror movies, things get worse. Let’s take a look.

Carrie’s mother actively harms her through physical and mental abuse; she inactively harms her by withholding information and through her choice of an extreme religious lifestyle. If she hadn’t been so repressed and felt the need to rebel, would Carrie have turned out the way she did? On the other end of the religious spectrum, Regan’s mother in The Exorcist is offered up in multiple ways as a possible cause for her daughter’s condition. Living an atheist lifestyle and failing to provide her daughter with a religious education and moral guidance has either left Regan open as a vessel for a literal devil, caused her to crave religion so badly she acts as though she’s possessed, or caused her severe delusions that manifest as a demonic possession. Either way, her mother harmed her through her choice of lifestyle, and in the end, only the church can save the day.

So, mothers, whether they mean to or not, are detrimental to their children. Moving on, we have mothers who have absorbed cultural values and actively pursue their children’s downfall.

Black Swan presents the stereotypical mother living her dreams through her child, causing the problems that ultimately lead to her daughter’s death. This motif harkens back to fairy tales such as Snow White, where the jealous mother or stepmother hates and fears her daughter’s youth and beauty with its unspoken implication that now that her childbearing years are behind her, the mother is obsolete and all value will be transferred to the next generation. Norman Bates’ mother doesn’t even get a break, and she’s dead. While it’s clear in Psycho that Norman has problems of his own, its strongly implied that most of said problems are rooted in his mother’s controlling nature, which persists beyond the grave. He is subsumed, adopting her persona to commit his murders, allowing her to continue into life after death through her son, and in the process, erasing him.

Those are only a few examples.

So where can we go for a positive portrayal of mothers in horror movies? Mama. Bear with me. I’ll present a semi-convincing argument, I promise. Perhaps it’s because the movie’s dirty little secret is that it isn’t a horror movie at all. Regardless, it puts not one but two positive (if unconventional) mother-figures on the screen.

On one hand, we have the entity referred to as Mama. Over the course of the movie we see she wasn’t the best of mothers while alive. When they tried to take her baby away, she chose suicide, taking her child with her. In a twisted way, her choice shows a fierce kind of protectiveness, an extreme love leading her to believe that even death would be better than letting her child be raised by someone else. It’s the same logic that informs her protectiveness of the two abandoned  girls she adopts after her death. Sure, to the outside eye the girls aren’t being raised in a healthy environment: They’re at least half-feral, and anyone who thinks they can do a better job raising them tends to die or be threatened with death at Mama’s hand, but still – Mama’s heart is in the right place. She loves the girls; she saves their lives initially, and continues to keep them alive against all odds. She protects them, and beyond that, she’s an engaged parent. She plays with the girls, she spends time with them and takes an interest in their lives – something many living parents neglect on a regular basis. Certainly Carrie, Regan, Nina, and Norman’s mothers never really took an interest in their lives beyond trying to impose their desires and values.

On the other side of things, we have Annabel, a woman thrust into motherhood when her boyfriend finally finds his long-lost nieces after years of searching. Annabel actively hates the idea of motherhood, but she does her best, and in the end she comes to love the girls in her own way. Despite her own fears, she chooses to make them her family and in the end, her love is what saves Victoria. By the same token, it’s Mama’s love, as twisted as it is, that saves Lily. (Yes, I choose to see the scene where Lily is taken away as positive, so there.)

Mama

At it’s heart, Mama is a rather sweet movie about the power of the family you choose, all dressed up in horror’s clothing. Sure the jump scares are there, along with the moody lighting, the unsettled atmosphere, and the sense of creeping dread. It works as a horror movie, but it also works as a movie about love, and in its own weird way, it shows motherhood in a positive light – a rare thing for horror movies from any age.

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Control Issues

My recent post about women in horror movies sent my brain on a tangent regarding possession and exorcism. I held Regan from The Exorcist up as a a female character allowed to be monstrous, until I really thought about it, and realized Regan is a problematic example. Her body becomes monstrous, her actions are monstrous, and at no point is she in control.

Then I tried to come up with a possession/exorcism movie where a male character is the one possessed. I drew a blank. A quick internet search suggested The Amityville Horror and the Shinning as possible candidates. To my embarrassment, I haven’t seen the Amityville Horror, so I can’t speak to that one, but the Shining is pretty questionable. The possession issue is pretty open to interpretation, and I personally lean toward the he-just-went-bat-shit-crazy-no-demonic-possession-involved school of thought. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that’s one male possession candidate, which I had to search for, whereas just off the top of my head I identified The Exorcist, the Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Devil Inside, and Stigmata, as movies featuring female possession.

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Women in Horror

February is Women in Horror Month, and ChiZine Press is celebrating with a month of interviews with purveyors of horror. They were kind enough to interview me; you can read the results of said interview here.

The interview got me thinking about women in horror in more general terms. While the genre is by no means 50-50, as evidenced by the table of contents for many horror magazines and anthologies, it’s not as much of a boys club as it used to be. People are (hopefully) no longer as hard-pressed to come up with the name of a female horror author, and they’re (hopefully) no longer stunned to learn such strange creatures exist in the first place. What I’ve been thinking about though, is women on the content side, not the production side, particularly women in horror movies.

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Harry Potter: It All Ends

Or, the epic vs. the personal

We watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II over the weekend. While I wouldn’t consider myself a crazy-obsessive fan, I admit to having read every book at least twice. It’s a matter of practicality; my brain is like a sieve and I needed a refresher before jumping into each new book. Overall, I’m pleased with the series’ translation to film. It wasn’t perfect, but nothing is. What I missed the most when things ended up on the cutting room floor were the little character moments, bits the story could do without (in that they could be easily removed without the plot collapsing), but which made the books so much richer. It’s perfectly understandable – a two and a half hour movie doesn’t have the same luxury to explore every nuance as an eight hundred-page book. After all, that’s part of the reason people still read.

Something that only struck me with the last film adaptation was J.K. Rowling’s relentless insistence on characters. Even when spells are flying and the world is coming to an end, it’s all about the characters.

Spoilers below the cut.

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Batman: Under the Red Hood

We watched Batman: Under the Red Hood yesterday. The short version: I loved it. The longer version, while still trying to remain relatively spoiler free, follows.

Under the Red Hood brought together several Batman story lines that I have a particular fondness for, and echoed and mirrored others in a way that made my little fan-girl heart go squee. While one could probably get away with watching it and not having a solid grounding in Bat-history, having such a grounding certainly helps add to the depth of the movie. The voice actors do a fantastic job. Even though there’s no Joker like Mark Hamill, and no Batman like Kevin Conroy, John DiMaggio and Bruce Greenwood certainly hold their own. On a side note, I thought Gary Cole was under-used, but as a general rule, I think all movies and television need more Gary Cole. Maybe that’s just me. Brandon Vietti did a fantastic job with the direction. Some shots were lifted directly from comic panels, but they were lifted from the best of them, and that’s a good thing. Oddly enough, some of the most visually stunning moments were those in the background of the opening and closing credits, go figure. That said, I have no complaints about the art style of the film itself. And then there’s the violence. Oh, the violence. The comics code is most definitely not in effect here. Despite the fact that the film is animated, it does not shy away from blood, or death. People are killed, on screen, and viciously. It’s brutal, and unapologetically so, which, sometimes, Batman should be.

So, really, if you’re a Bat-fan, you need to see this. If you aren’t, you still should see it anyway, because I said so. But also, you should see it because it’s well-written, because it questions Batman’s fucked-up moral code, because it separates superheroes from mere mortals, and does a bunch of other shit that’s just…well, it’s just cool. Seriously, does anyone out there still believe comic books and the movies derived from them are just for kids? This, in my opinion, is a movie to change their minds.

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Tangled Threads

I watched The Black Dahlia last night, and it got me thinking about stories. A story that weaves together multiple plots and subplots can be very effective when it’s well done, for example Catherynne Valente’s Orphan’s Tales duology. The stories build upon each other, making the whole richer. The way the stories interlock have real consequences for the characters, and change the meaning of the tale as a whole. In the hands of the right story-teller, multiple story threads become a beautiful tapestry. When handled poorly, they turn into a horribly tangled knot.

Musings and movie spoilers below the cut.
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