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:
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.
Not all scary movies can be classified as horror, and not all horror movies are scary. Horror of the non-scary variety can have a multitude of thrills outside the fear factor: action, humor, colorful characters, bizarre locations, blood and guts, campiness, group dynamics, social commentary and general entertaining wackiness.
But what is “scary?”
I used to measure the value of a horror film by how many chills and jumps it produced. However, there are so few movies that make me legitimately afraid, either because I’ve developed a high tolerance or because only specific things frighten me. I’ve recently figured out that the one kind of film that really gets under my skin is a good ghost story. On an intellectual level, I don’t believe in ghosts, but although I try to keep that in mind, I’ve spent a few sleepless nights staring at the odd shadows in the corner of my bedroom.
Ghosts scare me because you can’t fight them or run away. You can’t stop yourself seeing the spirit if it wants to be seen. The ghost doesn’t really have an inner life of its own; it exists solely to scare the shit out of you. Why? Who knows? Spirits don’t always have the clearest motives, nor do they always have a focused target for their haunting. They haunt indiscriminately, even if you haven’t done anything to deserve their wrath. At least 99% of what makes a ghost movie scary is anticipation. You know the spook is going to pop up at some point — that’s a given, but you don’t know when or where.
The success of the Paranormal Activity movies relies on a mostly stationary camera that, in each sequence, gives us a view of a single room. In that shot, we can see doorways, corners, furniture, hallways, and staircases, all excellent locations from which a shadow can emerge. We want to keep an eye on everything so the ghost will not catch us unawares, but it’s not possible; there are too many corners to keep in our gazes. We want to peek down hallways, under the furniture, or around corners, but the camera does not move, showing us too much and not enough at the same time. We don’t get to control where we look.
Ghosts scare me in the movies, but they also scare me after the fact. Much like Samara in The Ring (or, if you prefer, Sadako in Ringu) the power of a ghost lies in its image. Once the image of the ghost has imprinted itself upon my mind, I have a hard time shaking it off. This doesn’t happen to me with zombies, slashers, or monsters. But those are physical things. They can be sliced and diced. Ghosts appeal to my fear of powerlessness because I cannot exert my will over them. They have won simply by existing. If I see them, they have won. For a ghost, causing fear is the ultimate goal – not killing, maiming, or giving chase.
So why do I do this to myself? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect it’s about wanting to feel something different, a little surge of adrenaline. Or it’s a weird way of proving to myself that I’m a tough girl (I’m not tough). I don’t watch ghost movies very often because I know how much they creep me out, and when I do watch them, I try not to do it alone. Or before bedtime.
Here’s a handful of ghost movies I have found effective:
J-horror got played out pretty quickly, but I liked the contrast in sensibility between Japanese and American ghosts. American ghosts seem to have a bit more method in their haunting; they are either seeking to avenge their deaths or they have some unfinished business to attend to. The protagonists of the story will fix this ghost’s “issues” so that the spirit can finally move on to the other side and stop scaring people. I don’t know if this is a symptom of our Western therapy-obsessed culture, or what. Japanese ghosts, on the other hand, seem to be relentless, single-minded and completely unforgiving in their pursuit of causing crap-your-pants terror. They don’t care if you’ve been naughty or nice, and trying to help them sort out their issues will get you just as dead as all the victims before you. Facing such an irrational and unstoppable force is scary. It doesn’t hurt that these two movies have some heart-stopping sensory details: the clicking death rattle and rigor mortis movement of the woman crawling down the stairs, the black hair spilling out of the screen as the dead girl emerges from the television set…
The Devil’s Backbone
If you haven’t seen this movie, stop what you are doing and watch it right now. I should probably re-watch it since I saw it years ago, but it’s one of Guillermo del Toro’s earlier films and it’s fabulous. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, it is set during the Spanish Civil War and uses the setting as much to make social commentary as it does to tell a good ghost story.
I really like Ti West’s old school approach to making a horror movie here, as well as his other acclaimed film, The House of the Devil. I even enjoyed ¾ of Cabin Fever 2, with its retro-pastiche silliness. The Innkeepers is a relatively straightforward ghost story that makes full use of its setting in an empty, old hotel that’s about to be shut down. The two leads, hotel employees who do a little paranormal investigation on the side, are charming and have a good rapport that makes for a nice tension reliever between the spooky scenes.
Paranormal Activity 1, 2 & 3
These movies are so simple. And almost nothing happens! And yet… My roommate and I spent most of 2 and 3 peeking through our fingers or over a blanket. As I said above, the way the shots are framed makes it hard to know where to look. The houses where the films take place are so normal, so suburban, it’s easy to put yourself in the characters’ places. And the way the films seem to waste time, with whole sequences in which nothing happens, makes the anticipation burn just a bit more. By the time there are only 20 minutes left, you know shit has to happen and it has to happen fast. Looking forward to number four.
What ghost movies have you found effective?