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Korean Horror Weekend: “White”: The Melody of Death

I loved this stupid movie – and it was extremely stupid — but it also scared the shit out of me, because I don’t like ghosts. (At one point I actually screamed.  I don’t think I’ve ever done that while watching a horror movie.) You can kill zombies with a good whack over the head and you can check your closets for serial killers, but with ghosts, who can walk through walls and crawl out of things like mirrors or TV sets, you’re fucked.

Just from the subtitle, Melody of Death (or the literal translation, Melody of the Curse) I was expecting something a little closer to Ringu: instead of a haunted video tape, there would be a haunted song that would kill you because you listened to it.  Unfortunately, although the song is cursed, it’s a little more complicated and only curses people who perform the song.

White is a lot of fun because it introduced me a new aspect of South Korean culture that I didn’t know much about: the apparently cutthroat world of K-pop!   The movie centers around a girl group called the Pink Dolls who are having a hard time getting their career off the ground.  These girl groups are a lot like the boy bands that were popular here ten years ago: completely manufactured and chosen for the most superficial traits.  The four girls in Pink Dolls fit the roles of the hot girl, the nice girl, the girl who can dance, and the girl who can actually sing (not a lot of thought went into character development).

The main character, Eun-joo is a sweet (but not entirely innocent) girl who is trying to succeed as a pop star despite the fact that she is older than the other group members and is trying to distance herself from her past as a backup dancer (which apparently, in this world, is a shameful thing).  She doesn’t engage in the kind of pettiness and backstabbing that her group-mates do, but she also isn’t above sleeping with powerful men to improve her position.

Being a pop star isn’t just a job – it’s an all-consuming lifestyle.  The girls move into a facility where they have their own recording studio, dance studio, living quarters and dressing rooms.  They have a team of backup dancers, choreographers, and studio wizards who work for them, in addition to a testy agent who has little patience for the girls’ squabbles.  Soon after moving into the studios, Eun-joo (played by a real-life pop star from a group called T-ara) discovers an old videotape of a girl group dancing to a catchy song called “White.”  Since nobody has any claim to the song, they decide to use it as their own.  “White” becomes an instant hit, which is great until their agent informs them that they need to designate a lead singer, and the fight for who deserves the main spot proves to be the Pink Dolls’ undoing.

As soon as one girl claims the lead, she’s taken down by a mysterious force, and then the next girl, and the next.  Throughout the film, the ghostly white-haired figure from the videotape lurks in the periphery.  Basically, this dead pop singer isn’t happy that someone else is singing her song and she must avenge the thievery, as well as her death!

This is all very creepy, and the ghost attacks are impressively audacious even when they’re too ridiculous to be truly scary.  The movie undermines a lot of the fright factor by showing too much of the ghost too soon and making her a little too corporeal.  The ghost pop star doesn’t just attack the girls when they are alone in the dark; she does it even when the victim is surrounded by other people, in full view of the crowd, except that the victim is the only one who can see the evil spirit.  This is pretty terrifying as an idea, but a little silly as a visual.  I won’t lie, though.  I’m going to have trouble sleeping tonight.

The movie’s biggest weakness is that it strains credibility, and not just in the fact that it’s about the vengeful spirit of a dead pop singer.  The characters simply don’t behave in ways that are recognizably human.  When the curse of the song first strike, the lead singer of the moment sweats and looks violently ill, yet no one around her seems to notice?  This happens over and over again.  The sick-looking girl is expected to go onstage, or do a video shoot, an interview, or a strenuous dance routine and absolutely nobody notices that she’s on death’s door?

Complaints aside, I kind of loved this movie.  The blurry, white-haired, disfigured ghost really freaked me out, even as the reasonable side of me knew how ridiculous and convoluted it all was.  The pop star angle was a new twist that I’ve never seen in a horror film before and one I wouldn’t mind seeing again. It was a lot of fun to see all the music industry stuff, the bad dance music, the choreography, cat-fighting and costumes.  Also fun: the girl group super-fans camped outside band headquarters in their sleeping bags.  Seriously, is there an American remake in the works?  Someone needs to get on that.

The Loved Ones: Re-victimization in Horror Films

While I was watching The Loved Ones tonight, a question kept nagging at me: why do so many horror movies begin with a hero or heroine who is already broken in some way?  Why take a person who has already been traumatized and subject him/her to even more terror? Without a good reason, this trope just seems mean-spirited on the part of the filmmakers.

Brent, the main character in the Australian flick The Loved Ones, is a teenaged boy who accidentally caused his father’s death six months earlier in a car wreck.  He struggles with his guilt over the tragedy, isolating himself, practicing self-harm, and only half-heartedly taking solace in trysts with his sympathetic girlfriend.  Then, he is kidnapped and tortured by Lola, a quiet and obsessive classmate who he had rejected when she asked him to the school dance, accompanied by her equally deranged father.

Because horror movies often have a moral component, I found myself asking, What did he do to deserve all of this? Brent was polite when he said he couldn’t go to the dance with her.  And we’re clearly not meant to sympathize with Lola.  There’s no implication that she is crazy because she has been victimized in some way — she appears to be pure evil. I know I probably shouldn’t ask those kinds of questions — not everything has to have a moral — but horror flicks so often do that I’ve learned to seek it out.  When bad things happen in real life, they don’t always happen for a reason.  Life is chaotic and unpredictable; tragedy is often unexplained.  But no matter how much a filmmaker might try to mimic the unexplained nature of reality, a plot point is still a creative choice with an underlying intention. Bad things often happen to characters because they have done something to “deserve” it, whether it’s being unchaste, unkind, or arrogant.  We’ve been conditioned to expect this kind of punishment in horror movies.

So what to make of the relatively innocent character who is victimized once (prior to the film’s timeline) and then re-traumatized in the course of events?

In certain contexts, it makes sense.  Most protagonists of  ghost stories are already haunted by loss and grief, making them more susceptible to communion with the spirit world.  In revenge movies, prior trauma can provide the characters with a partial catalyst for their vengeance.  In films that deal with the supernatural or conspiracies, survivors have to deal with being discredited, dismissed, and further alienated because of their grief — other people believe that they are simply paranoid as a result of past experiences, and therefore unreliable, the boy who cried wolf.

But then there are the cases where the prior trauma doesn’t appear to have an immediate purpose, either as an origin story, catalyst, or cause for punishment.  The tragedy just serves to make the survivor even more of a victim.  I’m thinking of Sidney from the Scream series (murdered mother) and Sara from The Descent (husband and child died in a car wreck, best friend was having an affair with her husband) and it seems like the usual moral principle of “punishment” doesn’t apply anymore.  Ghost Face starts slashing and cave monsters attack and it seems like the whole universe is ganging up on these poor women for no real  reason.  These two examples suggest that recovering from prior trauma gives the heroines greater strength to face the current tribulations.  When Sara is nearly trapped in a collapsing tunnel, her friend tells her, “The worst thing that could have happened to you has already happened,” meaning, rock slides and cannibalistic creatures are a breeze compared to the death of a child.  Sara taps into a reserve of hidden strength and escapes certain death.  Sidney, too, eventually finds empowerment, refusing to be made a victim once again.

Brent’s situation in The Loved Ones is slightly different.  He was the driver in the wreck that killed his father.  Although it was an accident, he naturally feels guilty.  But neither the accident nor his guilt have anything to do with the nightmarish situation he currently finds himself in: Lola seeks revenge for an unrelated slight; Brent does not use the memory of his father as a talisman for staying alive; his abduction did not happen as the result of poor decision-making.

I worried for awhile that the movie was going to pull a bait-and-switch: that Lola, her father, and their sadistic games were a figment of Brent’s guilty conscience, or a manifestation of his personal demons (I was relieved when things did not go this way).  He doesn’t have much dialogue after the torture begins, but I wondered if ever he felt like he deserved what was happening.  Maybe he felt that way at first — the film doesn’t indicate — but maybe the pain he suffers helps him rediscover his will to live, despite everything. Fortunately, the movie never answers the question of why, beyond “Lola is a crazy bitch.”  That still doesn’t explain why he had to suffer to loss of his father — does it just make him a more sympathetic character?  Does it make his suffering more profound in some way?

I don’t know.  But I thought The Loved Ones was an interesting, well-crafted movie that managed to shock me and make me squirm.  Does anyone have any thoughts on the issue?

Horror Movie Round-up Part II

Now that Halloween season is winding down, I thought I’d continue the “comprehensive” list of horror movies I’ve watched in the last couple of months.  This includes a few that I’ve seen since the list I posted last week.

Recommended:

Dead Alive

I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get around to watching Dead Alive.  There’s no way to describe the blood and slime and hilarity and nausea in a way that would do this movie any justice.  I watched it with a friend the other night and we cringed and laughed our asses off the whole way through.  The only other movies I’ve seen that come close in terms of sheer, watching-with-mouth-hanging-open insanity are Hausu and Santa Sangre.  Whenever I think about Peter Jackson’s early films, like this or Meet the Feebles, I’m constantly amazed that this is the director they decided to entrust the Lord of the Rings trilogy with.  Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising, though.  Dead Alive is a lovingly made film, with impeccable attention to detail.  If you haven’t seen it, stop whatever you’re doing now and watch the bloody thing.  I’ll wait.

Entertaining Diversions:

The Gate

I discussed this one briefly in my last post about suburban horror.  It’s not a frightening movie, rather a very silly one in some ways, but being a child of the 80s, I enjoyed the weird goofiness of the whole kid-focused, creepy, horror/fantasy thing, reminiscent of old favorites like Poltergeist, The Goonies, Gremlins, and the Monster Squad.  Plus, it has baby Stephen Dorff in it (who has always looked like a surly old man, apparently)!  And I really loved the best friend, the dorky know-it-all friend who “acts out” by wearing a leather jacket and listening to Satanic metal.

Return to Horror High

This was a fun horror comedy about a film crew that’s making a movie in an abandoned high school where a massacre took place a few years earlier.  Return to Horror High features Lori Lethin, who also starred in Bloody Birthday (a film I covered in Part 1), as well as a young George Clooney in his very first role! The plotline gets a little convoluted, but it’s nice to see an early example of a horror film that skewers the genre conventions by having a movie-within-a-movie – long before Scream 3.

The Burning

This is a pretty decent slasher film from 1981 (the year I was born) that catches a lot of actors early in their careers (Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, Fisher Stevens).  There’s not too much suspense, since the killer and his motives are revealed from the get-go, but it’s a well-made movie with lots of gore and some neat twists on the summer camp slasher subgenre.  A scene near the beginning pretty much rips off Dario Argento – a prostitute gets stabbed in the heart, falls backwards through a shattering window.

Worth checking out if you’re bored:

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers

Speaking of summer camp slashers!  The sequel to Sleepaway Camp is insanely watchable, if not entirely thrilling.  Felissa Rose from the original is replaced here by Pamela Springsteen (Bruce’s sister) as the affable and perky camp counselor Angela, who murders campers when they get out of line.  This movie has one of the funniest “meta” scenes I’ve seen in recent memory, when Angela searches the cabin, testing out each item for its effectiveness as a murder weapon.  It’s a nice twist on the serial killer who always has every possible implement of death at his/her fingertips.

Silent House

This movie is worth watching for the gimmick (filmed in one long “take,” or at least made to appear so) and for the unsettling mood created in the first three quarters.  The criticism I’ve read almost unanimously pans the ending, and I agree – it’s a terrible, terrible ending that I had figured out before I ever even saw the movie.  But it’s still a fascinating mess to watch at times.  Elizabeth Olsen is wonderful, too.

The Caller

So, I don’t know how this movie ever got made, or how they talked Luis Guzman into appearing, but bless their batshit crazy hearts.  The Caller had me in the palm of its hand for at least the first forty-five minutes; a young woman leaves her abusive husband and moves into a grimy apartment with a possessed telephone.  She keeps getting creepy phone calls from an unhinged and manipulative woman from the freaking past.  The movie kind of unravels toward the end, getting more and more sadistic and nonsensical (seriously, DO NOT attempt to think too hard about this movie).  But I’d like to commend the set designers for creating that apartment, at once depressing, quirky, cozy, and shabby.

Sorority House Massacre

Nowhere near as good as Slumber Party Massacre (no connection, really, beyond being made in the 80s and having the word “massacre” in the title), but it has its own cheesy charms.  Lots of boobs.  And a bunch-of-girls-trying-on-clothes musical montage.

Paranormal Activity 4

I talked about this one briefly in my last entry, too.  For me, this was the weakest entry in the series so far.  Most people complain about how formulaic the Paranormal Activity movies are, but I thought this one’s weakness was in how far it strayed from what works.  My roommate and I were freaked out by the earlier films because the slow burns were sooo slow.  Entire nights would pass by without any incident, but in the new film, the directors just couldn’t resist putting some kind of jump scare in every sequence.  This made it feel faster paced than its predecessors, but also too mechanical, with too much of a wink at the audience.

Next time — I’ll talk about the movies that didn’t work for me.

Suburban Horror: From 80s Fantasy to Paranormal Activity

The Paranormal Activity franchise is like the Ikea furniture of film: they’re minimalist, functional, and completely disposable.  Even when it’s not the greatest thing in the world, it works.  My former roommate and I went to see the 4th installment last night at the Alamo Drafthouse.  Back when we lived together, we watched the 2nd and 3rd in the series, and now that she’s visiting town for Halloween, we saw the latest for old time’s sake.

There’s a big difference between watching these movies at home and watching them in the theater.  Watching at home, I was hyper-aware of the movie’s generic, domestic interiors because we were also surrounded by drab walls, cabinets, closet doors, the cookie-cutter accoutrements of modern living. My roommate and I huddled on the sofa, covering our faces with blankets when we knew something scary was going to happen.

Watching the movie in the theater was scarier in some ways; the big screen is more immersive, but when surrounded by other movie-goers, you also have your pride to consider.  I will not jump, cry out, or cower, so I steel myself extra hard.  On the other hand, in the theater I lost that sense of identification between my home and the home on the screen.  Also, it’s hard to be too scared when you’re eating pizza.  That’s just science, folks.

Architecture has always been an important component of horror movies and fear itself.  I grew up in a very old house (pre-Civil War era), and as a girl who was often afraid of her own shadow, it was like living in a real-life horror movie sometimes.  So many dark corners and hidden spaces: attics, chimneys, crawl spaces, hollow walls.  It makes sense that the traditional haunted house is a very old one that creaks at night.  The older a home is, the more likely that someone died there.  It also makes sense that ghosts, demons and evil forces would attach themselves to older structures, that ancient beings would feel a kinship to homes with history.

So it’s interesting, then, that so much horror of the last few decades has been set in shiny, anonymous suburban homes.  I have a weakness for movies that play with this juxtaposition of the old (evil forces) and the new (tract housing) even though I have never lived in the suburbs, myself.  This is part of the reason why I liked Ringu and Ju-on so much; there wasn’t anything inherently creepy about the plain and modern-looking Japanese homes, but the setting threw the horrific images of the ghosts into sharp relief.  (As a side note on effective juxtapositions, I also have mad respect for films that set their scariest sequences in broad daylight.) As I’ve mentioned before, Poltergeist was my favorite movie when I was a kid.  Maybe it wasn’t the first house-built-on-an-Indian-burial-ground film, but I think it’s had a large influence on how horror films deal with the tension between modernity and antiquity.

I just watched The Gate, a 1987 movie about a couple of kids who discover a portal to hell when their favorite tree is cut down.  It ticks off all the Poltergeist boxes: suburban home, underground evil, magic tree, creature under the bed, people trapped in the walls.  I liked the movie a lot. People have complained about how cheesy-looking the demons are, and they are somewhat comical but the movie was still unnerving due to a weird dream-logic that pervades every scene.

Another movie that’s a blatant rip-off of Poltergeist is the 2010 movie Insidious, although it seems to be more loving and knowing homage than shameless forgery.  The Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series also belongs on a list of suburban horror; Joss Whedon went to great lengths to contrast the sunny California neighborhoods and the typical American high school against the torments unleashed by the underground Hellmouth.

In suburban horror, we see the uncanny at work.  The dilapidated old mansion is scary because of its otherness; we don’t necessarily recognize our lives or routines in its vaulted ceilings, hardwood floors, or vintage wallpaper.  But when evil spirits invade our modern houses, the cozy and familiar places we call home suddenly become unfamiliar.

Home is where Hell is.

Ginger Snaps: A Rant about Horror for Girls

I made the mistake about halfway through watching Ginger Snaps of reading what Brian Collins of Horror Movie A Day had to say about it, and, boy, it got me fired up!  He said the movie wasn’t “great,” which, fair enough, maybe it isn’t, but he also dismissed the main characters (two Goth sisters from Canada who battle with lycanthropy and puberty) as unlikable.  Even worse, he commented on the unattractiveness of the younger sister and the hotness of the older sister.  Way to react like a typical bro-dude.

Horror as a genre typically panders to the male gaze by serving up tits (and lots of them), but part of the whole point of this movie is that the girls, at least up to a point, don’t want the attention of boys and do everything they can to avoid it.  When the older sister does finally have her sexual awakening, it’s horrific and doesn’t turn out well for the boys who objectified her. And the younger sister hasn’t even had her period yet, for fuck’s sake!  Commenting on her attractiveness, or lack thereof, epically and ironically misses the point.

And so what if the sisters are unlikable?  Of course they are.  Teenage girls are The Worst.  You know who else is The Worst?  Teenage boys, but somehow we’ve spent decades – millennia, really – glorifying The Worst tendencies of teenage boys and nobody complains that it isn’t fun to watch.  It was nice, in a way, to see teen girl characters that didn’t fit the stereotypes of either the “plucky female heroine” or “bitchy popular girl.”  They were unpleasant in a realistic way that actually served a function: to cover up the fears and uncertainties of adolescence.

I know Collins’ attitude isn’t exactly an egregious example of sexism, and it’s perfectly valid for someone to find the movie lacking in various ways, but it still really bummed me out.  The failure of a male viewer to understand how much it could mean to girls who love horror but seldom see anything they can identify with bummed me out. I don’t want to turn everything into some kind of feminist issue, but there’s such a dearth of good, female-centric horror with emphasis on feminine anxieties that, in the rare case where a horror film handles these anxieties honestly, I think it’s worth having a conversation.  The existence of the Final Girl does very little to make a horror film female-centric and exploiting the (too obvious) fear of vulnerability and rape is just as much about male titillation as it is about a woman’s anxiety.  I’m interested to see more about the everyday terror of being a girl, which I thought Ginger Snaps delivered on very well.

Puberty is scary for everyone, but at least boys get cool deep voices, fun erections to play with and a newfound sense of camaraderie.  For girls, everything fractures.  Formerly close bonds between friends fall apart as secrets become currency and insecurity deepens into an all-encompassing paranoia. Before puberty, you had an identity: a tomboy, a storyteller, a trouble-maker; but after puberty everything that you are is reduced to your sex. You’re either an ugly freak like Bridget or a dirty slut-bitch like Ginger, and there’s no real in-between, unless being invisible counts.

I imagine when a boy is told, “You’re a man, now,” there’s a sense of pride in hearing that.  But when you get your first period and someone says that godawful fucking line about being a woman, part of your soul dies because there’s no implication of exciting possibilities or new discoveries.  It’s about the crushing responsibility of being a woman, of one day being a mother, of keeping your body safe and your reputation clean.  Instead of boners, you get a bloody crotch.  Instead of thinking about all the sexy sex you want to have, you think about getting pregnant and turning into a walking cliché – losing your figure, losing your identity.

Being a woman (or a mother) isn’t that miserable, really, but everything feels more dramatic when you’re thirteen.  I cringed so hard when Ginger’s mother reminded her she would be getting her period for the next 30 years or so.  When I was that age, thinking about those things, I could feel imaginary chains wrapping around me.  And I cringed for Bridget, too, watching her older sister cross that line and knowing that the horrors of growing up were waiting for her, lurking around the corner.

No wonder the sisters in Ginger Snaps are so obsessed with suicide.  I thought about death a lot when I was that age, too, not because I was truly suicidal but because it seemed so much cleaner than the messy, slow-moving tragedy of life.  No wonder they, like all teenage girls, are so sour and unpleasant most of the time.  The end of every single day felt like a miracle of endurance, and that is really terrifying.

Horror for Girls

Making a distinction between horror about girls and horror for girls can be a little difficult.  A lot of critics cite Carrie when talking about Ginger Snaps; I don’t know if Carrie is really “for girls” the way Ginger Snaps is, but sexual awakening certainly causes anxiety that can be exploited for horror.  A recent example is Teeth, a movie about a young girl who discovers that she has a literal vagina dentata.  The film touches on many of the conflicting fears a girl can have about her body: sexual assault, sexual prowess, and sexual rejection.

A horror movie doesn’t even necessarily have to be about “women’s issues” to be female-centric; one of my favorite movies is The Descent, about a group of friends who go on a caving trip and discover that they are not alone.  The movie doesn’t force a conspicuous “Girls kick ass!” message.  The characters happen to be women and they happen to like adventures – this empowers the characters by not making an issue out of it.  There’s friendship, betrayal, and loss.  Also, monsters.

Another movie I enjoyed was May, about an isolated, socially awkward woman who is more than a little deranged and so starved for companionship that she turns into a clingy mess at any sign of affection.  She’s creepy and overbearing, but I sympathized with her, too.  I wanted her to make a friend, to have a boyfriend, to maintain any kind of healthy connection that might pull her out of her pathetic weirdness.  But I wanted her to still be a little weird.  The movie also seemed to comment on what we now call the Manic Pixie Dream Girl phenomenon; other characters in the film see May as quirky and interesting, even though she is clearly insane.  People see her as they want to, instead of seeing her as she is – and when they finally have a moment of clarity, they reject her.  This is a good example of how women sometimes get trapped in roles they don’t choose for themselves, and punished when they don’t conform to the lie.

May was directed by Lucky McKee, who made another interesting specimen of seemingly “feminist” horror, The Woman.  In the film, a man finds a feral woman in the woods and captures her, keeping her tied up in a shed.  He tortures the woman in order to “civilize” her and, as he recruits his wife and children to help out, it becomes clear that he terrorizes his family in equal measure.  At first, The Woman could seem like another exploitation film, using the blunt instruments of rape and torture to shock the audience, but when the wife and teenage daughter look at the wild girl with empathy in their eyes, the movie becomes an interesting comment on misogyny and how certain men still can’t stand to see a liberated woman.  Not exactly a subtle film, but definitely interesting.

This is all to say that I am a woman and I like horror movies.  I can get down with the slashing, the damsels who need saving, and the gratuitous boobage of the 80s, but every once in awhile I like my dismemberment with a little feminism.

Horror Movie Round-Up: Part I

Attack of the shorts! (from Sleepaway Camp)

First of all, I’d like to say I have mad respect for Brian Collins, the super dedicated guy who runs the Horror Movie a Day blog and also writes columns for Badass Digest.  True to his blog title, he has watched a horror movie every single day for the last five years.  As much as I love horror, I don’t think I have the stomach for that (or the time!), but when the fall season approached I vowed to do the best I could.  Mr. Collins and his blog have been an invaluable resource for choosing films to watch; horror is a big genre, and as with any genre, the tropes can get a little well-worn and clichéd after a while.  People who don’t watch a lot of scary films tend to complain about how derivative and predictable they can be — and they’re not wrong – but once you’ve watched a shit ton of movies, you start to see the nuances and slight variations that can make a film valuable or interesting despite what might seem, on the surface, to be just another retread.  So naturally, as someone who has watched over 1500 horror films over the course of five years, Collins should know what he’s talking about when distinguishing the gems, the curiosities, or the fun twists from the plain old crap.

While not exactly a horror movie a day, here is a comprehensive list of the movies I’ve watched in the last two months:

Recommended:

Sleepaway Camp: I watched this on my friend Holland’s suggestion and I’m so glad I did.  She also recommended Slumber Party Massacre to me, which would make a great double feature with Sleepaway Camp because they are both gloriously silly 80s movies that make you wonder how much the filmmakers were in on the joke.  My favorite parts of the movie: the short-shorts and cropped shirts worn by all the boys, the cop’s hilariously fake moustache, the scenery chewing aunt, and the creative kill sequences.  Also, the ending – oh, the ending!

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon: This is a neat little piece of meta-horror comedy.  Behind the Mask takes place in a universe where Jason and Michael Myers are real and a film crew sets out to document up-and-coming local slasher, Leslie Vernon, as he prepares to execute his first massacre.  The humor is winking and deadpan, but not overly precious when it comes to skewering horror conventions.  Leslie Vernon himself is charming, affable, and charismatic, nicely subverting the mystique of the evil villain.

Hatchet and Hatchet II: The people who criticize these movies as being dumb don’t seem to understand that the schlocky, over-the-top goofiness is intentional.  I liked seeing horror movies that take place around New Orleans and in the Louisiana swamps.  Some of the characters are likable, some of the characters you want to see get hacked up (and they do), and Tony Todd of Candyman is always an engaging presence.  Mercedes McNabb (Harmony from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is delightfully daffy as an aspiring porn star who shows her tits a lot.  All around, these movies are crowd-pleasers.

Recommended with caveats:

Lovely Molly: This is a stripped-down, no-frills “haunting” movie by the guys who made the Blair Witch Project.  Even though it’s not exactly a found footage film, it still has the intimacy and simple scares like its predecessor.  Halfway through, I realized it wasn’t really a horror movie, but something more psychological.  The symbols and themes get a little heavy-handed and your mileage may vary regarding the film’s handling of drugs and abuse.  I think I liked the movie because it reminded me favorably of Absentia, another movie that portrays the relationship between sisters and how they confront events that may or may not be supernatural.

The Tall Man: I still don’t know how to feel about this movie, but something about it struck a chord with me.  I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will say it’s interesting because of its contradictions: it’s a horror movie that isn’t horror, as well as a nakedly sentimental film that is undercut by a big streak of nihilism.  The Tall Man is a film set in America (but made in Canada) by a French director whose other films appear to fall into the extreme horror category, which could explain some of the disconnect in the movie’s tone.  The rural setting has a fairy-tale quality that is grim and beautiful, but also suggests the director has never set foot in America, giving it an out of time, out of place atmosphere.

Cabin Fever 2: Spring Break: The first half of this movie is great.  Ti West indulges in the quirks that he’s become well known for: retro stylistic flourishes, loving nods to genre convention, and long scenes of characters talking about nothing.  For about 45 minutes, this was my new favorite movie, but then the last half hour just got nasty and kind of boring as everything went batshit.  I still love you, Noah Segan (from Deadgirl, Brick, and Looper).  So glad your career is taking off.

Bloody Birthday: It’s kind of sad this movie has mostly been forgotten about because it’s really well-made for an 80s slasher-type film.  And as far as killer kid movies go, this one has some pretty impressive child actors, especially the little girl who is the ringleader of the evil pack.  She is equal parts innocent and freaky, but never vamps around or hams it up while playing the villain.  Bloody Birthday can be a little slow, but the loose structure and unresolved ending keeps it from being too formulaic.

YellowBrickRoad: The caveat here is that the ending is terrible.  Like, really, really terrible.  But up until that last 5-10 minutes, it’s a really interesting film, kind of a cross between The Blair Witch Project and Lost.  A group of academic types decide to write a book about the inhabitants of a small town in New Hampshire who suddenly walked down a road in 1940 and disappeared forever.  As part of their research, they decide to travel the same path; freaky shit ensues.  It’s actually a lot like Lost – the overarching question was “What is the island?” and here the question is “What is the road?”  Something supernatural is obviously going on and one by one the characters go insane.  The movie wisely plays coy about a definitive explanation.

Quarantine 2: Terminal: I thought this was a surprisingly decent zombie/infection movie, considering that it’s a sequel to an American remake of a superior Spanish series.  Again, Quarantine 2 is not a remake of [REC] 2, even though the first Quarantine was a remake of the original [REC].  Quarantine 2 takes place first on a plane and then in the personnel areas of an airport where the flight’s survivors are locked in by the CDC.  I was bummed out that the characters never escaped into the actual airport because it would be fun to watch the virus run rampant through all the concourses.  The film probably didn’t have that kind of budget.

Next time I’ll talk about the movies that aren’t great but are worth checking out for one reason or another and the movies that started strong but squandered their potential.

What is Scary?: Zombies

from Shaun of the Dead

Not all zombie movies are scary.  In a way, zombies are fundamentally not scary.  They are slow, uncoordinated, and mindless; in other words, easy to run away from, easy to fight, and you don’t have to worry about outsmarting them. Not even the filmmakers take them all that seriously in many cases, offering the movies purely as vehicles for creative kills and cheap-looking dismemberment gags. (Any movie featuring strangulation via entrails is cool by me.  Bonus points for a character strangled by his own entrails.)

But zombies can be frightening for a lot of obvious reasons: many of us are still squeamish about death, dead bodies, and putrefaction.  The undead also trigger our fears of disease, pandemic, chaos, and apocalypse.  However, what really freaks me out in a good zombie film is the “Uncanny valley” factor.

Quick primer: The word “uncanny” refers to a concept loosely defined as “the opposite of familiar” (or the German word “unheimlich”).  The term “Uncanny Valley” was coined in reference to robots and how they fit on a spectrum of human-like qualities.  The theory is that we find comfort and familiarity in robots that have a certain amount of human traits (body shape, limbs, facial features), up until the point where it looks too life-like.  Because we can sense that this life-like machine is still something less than human, the disparity triggers our fear and revulsion. The robot is familiar in form, yet at the same time completely alien to us.

from Wikipedia

The concept of Uncanny Valley applies to zombies quite easily: as much as they look like us, they are not us. Not anymore.  The horror factor is even higher if the zombie used to be your wife, mother, boyfriend, or child, because the degree of familiarity heightens the disconnect between who they were before and what they have become.

Zombie movies play on the same fears as movies about madmen (nobody home, nothing to reason with) and ghosts (used to be human).  We can empathize with our fellow living humans who are sound of mind, but when the dead rise, vacant of their former personalities, all bets are off.

Further note: there’s some controversy among horror nerds about what is considered a “true” zombie.  Many people cite Romero’s rules: zombies are truly dead, show little to no evidence of brain activity, and move slowly.  Additionally, in Romero’s films, people can reanimate after death, regardless of whether they were bitten or infected by another zombie.  However, I believe the concept of infection is at the heart of zombie mythology; this means I’m willing to include films like 28 Days Later and [REC] in the subgenre, despite the fact that these are really plague stories, with infected people who are technically alive, somewhat conscious, and extremely spry.

A smattering of zombie movies that are interesting:

[REC]

[REC] is a tense, tight Spanish film about a television reporter and her cameraman who get trapped in an apartment building during a deadly outbreak.  This movie has one of the most terrifying endings I’ve ever seen.  The American adaptation, Quarantine, just doesn’t have the same punch, even though it’s essentially a shot-by-shot remake.  [REC] 2 is a decently scary follow-up, and even Quarantine 2 (not actually a remake of [REC] 2, weirdly) is a pretty good time, albeit in a different way.

Dead Snow

Nazi zombies.  I shouldn’t have to say anything else, but this is an enjoyable Norwegian film that doubles as a “cabin in the woods” type story about a group of students who go on a skiing trip and get picked off one-by-one.  Entrail and toilet humor abounds.

Rammbock: Berlin Undead

This German zom-rom-com (sort of like Shaun of the Dead) is short – barely an hour long – and fun.  Not too groundbreaking, but solid and entertaining.

Shaun of the Dead

Duh.  The gold standard for horror comedy, because it works as commentary on zombie tropes while making use of them successfully.

Pontypool

This movie didn’t really work for me as it did for others, but the premise is interesting: the zombie plague is spread through language, and a radio DJ finds himself at the center of the maelstrom.  Action is scarce, since most of the film takes place inside the radio station, but the atmosphere is creepy and the situation intriguing.

Deadgirl

I had a hard time including this one because it’s pretty nasty and, depending on your tolerance for disturbing shit, thoroughly reprehensible.  Two teenage boys stumble upon a zombie woman tied up in an old mental hospital and have to decide what to do about her.  To say that what follows is kinky gives kinkiness a bad name.  The movie is fascinating in a trainwreck kind of way, and it either comments on misogyny or revels in it.  Also, I’m glad that Noah Segan (Looper), who has been effectively douchy in indie films like this and Brick, is finally getting more mainstream attention.

Finally, I continue to defend the remake of Dawn of the Dead.