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 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.
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] 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.
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.
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.
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.
This should go without saying, but SPOILERS!
Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later isn’t just one of my favorite scary movies; it’s also one of my favorite films, full stop. When Cillian Murphy’s character Jim wanders through the deserted streets of London, the effect is chilling and beautiful whether it’s my first or fifteenth viewing. The threat of the “rage virus” and the snarling hordes of infected people feels big and real, while the digital video and lived-in performances give the film an indie restraint that belies its apocalyptic subject matter. Murphy, Naomie Harris, and Christopher Eccleston are fantastic in their respective roles.
Some people complain, though, that the movie falls apart in its third act when the survivors finally arrive at the military outpost near Manchester only to find a handful of crazed soldiers and their queasily charismatic leader (Eccleston). Detractors argue that the movie shoehorns in political commentary with a trite message that reads like “Who’s the real monster here?” Does 28 Days Later muddy the water by throwing a human threat, the deranged inhabitants of the military camp, into a landscape already populated by raving, mindless flesh-eaters? I understand these criticisms because the movie raises several murky issues of morality that it doesn’t seem ready to solve in a definitive way. For me, though, the final sequence (in which Jim goes cuckoo, allows the soldiers to become infected, and slaughters them one by one) is consistent with one of the themes the movie has established: humanity isn’t just “people killing people,” as the major says – in extreme circumstances, the intentions behind our violent actions do make a difference. The movie teases moral ambiguity on the surface, but I’d say it draws a fairly clear line in the sand about who is naughty or nice, and it does so by showing the attitudes each group (Jim’s group vs. military) has toward the infected.
Our heroes, Selena, Jim, and Hannah, take no pleasure in killing. They understand that they are killing sick, living people, rather than faceless ghouls; but that sentiment can’t get in the way of survival. Selena tells Jim that she would hack him to death “in a heartbeat” if he ever gets infected. It’s not personal, just survival. In most “zombie” movies, the undead are treated with contempt, as if they were enemies with real agency rather than just walking corpses, and the heroes often gloat when they take the zombie down. This makes some sense in the context of a true zombie film, because the “enemy” is already dehumanized. But the kills in 28 Days Later are treated as self-defense; Selena reacts to her attacks with shocking violence but she never gloats.
Jim, most of all, is sensitive to the humanity of his adversaries, far gone though they might be. In the beginning of the film, he says, “Sorry, Father,” somewhat comically, after striking an infected priest who attempts to attack him. Jim later kills an infected child in the diner and is clearly disturbed by what he has done. No matter how monstrous or aggressive these people have become in their illness, Jim still sees them as people who no longer have control over their actions. This sensitivity could be explained by his comatose state during the outbreak, making him a newcomer still adjusting to this nightmare world, but the film seems keen to establish Jim as a fundamentally decent and empathetic man.
Contrast this against the attitude of the solders who treat killing the infected as a kind of game. Tucked safely away in their country manor with guns, food, walls, and barbed wire, they don’t need to kill to survive. Jim is sickened when he sees the soldiers’ glee over using the infected as target practice and their laughter at watching them get blown up in the landmines. At first their reaction seems natural to me as a viewer, because this is how I’m used to seeing survivors of the zombie apocalypse react – with a coping mechanism that finds humor or entertainment in the grim situation, or relieving stress by harming the people/things that terrify us. But it’s clear from Jim and Selena’s revulsion that there is something darker behind the men’s enjoyment, a lack of empathy and a sick pleasure in dehumanizing the enemy. Does this mean that Selena, Jim, and Hannah are righteous, compared to the soldiers? When Jim reaches his breaking point near the end and slaughters the soldiers wholesale, is he justified in his actions?
It’s never entirely clear if the film is inviting us to join Jim in his judgment on the men or if we have to judge him, too, for his barbarity. Are we meant to remember the general’s pronouncement that the infection changed nothing, that all you have, ultimately, is “people killing people”? The film wants us to ask whether Jim is really any different than the infected, or if he is really any different from the warped and depraved soldiers, but I call a bit of bullshit on that. Jim dispatches solders and infected both without discrimination because they are equally dangerous threats that have to be put down. The soldiers are pathetic by the time they meet their end, panicked, hunted, spreading infection, and they are clear objects of pity despite their previous distasteful actions. Yet still, neither Jim nor Selena gloat over their deaths. Maybe Hannah, a little bit — but she is a teenaged girl, after all. Personally, I’ve never taken issue with the film’s morality. The ending seems consistent with the rest of the film, since the characters do what they have to in order to survive.
So, the film represents three kinds of people. In the first group you have the infected who, through no fault of their own, have become slaves to their destructive instincts and no longer control their own actions. In the second, you have the fundamentally decent people who kill because they have to but choose to retain their human characteristics: warmth, empathy, and familial connection. And finally, there are people who have the capacity to choose good over evil, but give in to their more primitive and dangerous desires. On the surface the three groups might look the same, especially when they’re soaked in blood, but it matters what’s in their hearts and minds. That’s actually kind of sentimental, if you think about it. (Danny Boyle, you big softie)
Final thought. One very interesting moral sticking point is this: the infected are killed because they don’t have control over their actions, while the soldiers are killed because they do. What should one take from that?
In honor of October and Halloween, I’ve started watching a lot of horror movies. “A lot” of horror movies for me is pretty relative, considering I watch them any time of year and, in my mind, the Halloween season started at least a month ago. I get really excited about fall.
For a while, I’ve been mulling over the question of whether there is some “ultimate” fear, some fundamental, primal trigger that unites us all in terror, and whether that ultimate fear is manifested in all horror films. Of course, “death” seems to be the obvious answer since it’s always a prominent feature of horror, either in the form of ghosts or actual corpses. But not all horror films rely on death (or threat of death) as the main source of tension; in some cases, characters are afraid of what they can or can’t see, afraid of living with a terrible guilt, or afraid of being permanently maimed. One could argue that all of those things connect back to death at some point, and I believe they do; but I also want to go one step further to argue that fear of death might actually represent an even greater, deeper fear.
To start with, let’s quickly go over what I see as the four most common fears represented across the many genres of horror. First, we have fear of the end of civilization (zombies, vampires, plague, apocalypse). Second, we have fear of pain and mutilation (torture porn, body horror, rape/revenge). Third, we have fear of people who are evil or crazy (slashers, possession, home invasion), which may overlap with fear numero dos considering that crazy/evil people are often responsible for a fair amount of mutilation. And fourth, we have fear of loss and uncertainty (ghosts, monsters, general supernatural).
For me, what all of these things have in common is loss of control. Nothing scares us more than feeling like we don’t have control over our own destinies, actions, desires, or physical agency. Helplessness.
Even worse, there are the situations where you do have control at the start, but a wrong choice suddenly takes the outcome out of your hands. The horror comes in knowing, on some level, what’s happening to you is your fault, that somewhere along the way you made a tiny mistake that set horrific events into motion.
Nothing is more terrifying than the moment you can’t take back. The left turn you made before realizing how close the oncoming traffic was. You can see your doom coming but it’s too late to stop it. Scream all you want, but it won’t make the seconds tick backward to undo what you’ve done.
Those are the twin fears that underlie all horror: powerlessness and regret. They don’t always co-exist, but stakes (and tension) are higher when they are found in combination.
In horror films, it goes like this: you say Bloody Mary three times into the mirror; you watch a video tape and wait seven days; you run up the stairs to escape a killer even though there’s nowhere to go but down; you ignored the warnings not to go into the woods; because you weren’t paying attention, a zombie bit you and now you’re infected.
Not only do you die, you know you’re dead before it even happens and there’s nothing you can do except watch yourself die. Live your final moments with the knowledge this could have been prevented.
If only you weren’t the way you are: too stubborn, too curious, too brash or arrogant or oblivious or skeptical.
Maybe horror films are our Greek tragedies, catharsis through pity and fear in situations created by a character’s fatal flaw. The horror and tragedy of Oedipus wasn’t that he killed his father or entered an incestuous marriage unknowingly; the horror was the realization that he was not in control of his destiny and that his actions, while predetermined, exposed the lie of free will and destroyed his life.
The people who make genuinely scary horror films understand the potent cocktail of helplessness and regret. All horror deals with the things we can’t fight.
When the end of humanity comes, the threat is too big; the infection spreads too quickly, the undead rise in numbers too great, the desperation of survivors turns everything to chaos. A character’s every decision becomes weighted with life or death significance.
When a character falls into a trap (which may or may not be of her own making), she is bound, hobbled, and mutilated. She is physically overpowered and intellectually outwitted. Assuming she makes it out alive, she is psychically wounded; she also has no control over the traumatic memories that haunt her in the aftermath.
When confronted with true evil or true insanity, the character fails because he has mistakenly believed all humans to be rational. He has prided himself on his empathy and ability to reason with other people. But evil resists. Crazy does not find him charming and does not care that he has a wife and three kids.
And lastly, when confronted with the supernatural, the character finds that, having released the vengeful spirit into the world, it’s simply not possible to fight a ghost. She can’t fight the unknowable and the unseen. The uncertainty. What she can never really comprehend is loss, absence, or grief. By the time it’s all over, she is afraid of being afraid.
So could the ultimate fear be powerlessness, mixed with regret? Sounds a lot like death, after all. Dying is scary because of those things, because it silences us and takes away our agency. No more body, no more mind.
It’s also possible that loss of power is my personal deepest fear, and thus influences the things I find scary or compelling in horror films. It would be potentially foolish for me to assume that my ultimate fear is something primal and universal to all of humanity. Fear is one of the most personal things in the world. I tried to explain to my mother once why The Ring got under my skin so much. I told her that the seven day window o’ death scared the hell out of me because I couldn’t stand the idea of knowing that something terrible was going to happen to me, and that I didn’t know what, and there was nothing I could do but just sit and wait for it to happen.
She just laughed at me and said, “Oh, Candice. You’re such a control freak.”