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Hair of the dog: some notes on movie-watching during the pandemic

You know how a vaccine is really just a little bit of the same thing that makes you sick in the service of building your defenses against the thing? OK, good.

There are lots of people seeking respite from the real world this crazy year from TV and movies that take our minds off the horror of the virus, racial inequity, economic tumult, and climate change-fueled catastrophe. But an article from a peer-reviewed journal I stumbled upon a few months back — Pandemic Practice: Horror Fans and Morbidly Curious Individuals Are More Psychologically Resilient During the COVID-19 Pandemic  — makes the argument that fictional horror may actually be psychologically useful during this time, if not palliative then at least preventative.

Related: Everything I Need To Know To Survive Covid-19 I Learned By Watching Scifi & Horror Movies

I surely don’t need scientific rationale to watch a horror movie but, as it happens, my intake has increased noticeably since the earliest days of COVID-19. Whether that’s lack of travel or much of anything to do outside the house or some deep-seated need to build resilience as the article discusses, who knows? But I’ve been sharing short reviews with friends since May and thought you might like them too. (Mostly movies and television series with a few books, comics, and video games thrown in.)

78/52 is a documentary about a single scene in a single movie, Psycho‘s showertime. Sometimes horror changes the cultural imagination permanently.

Sea Fever is your standard trapped-in-a-confined-vessel-with-a-horrible-infection feature. Except with Irish fishermen and a pretty great, f***-your-superstitions female lead scientist. There’s an environmental message that wants to get out. Never quite does, but the nasties do.

A Dark Song is an excellent, weird flick about an arduous occult ritual. Two people locked in a house for months. Excellent performances. What I thought was a somewhat cheesy tableau at the end actually continues to haunt me. 

Carriers ages pretty well. Post-viral outbreak. Chris Pines early in his career. Not stupendous, but super on-point.

Related, I may be late to this, but Reelgood (app and website) is changing my life. Integrated across all video services, it’s a log of what you want to see and what you have seen.

Monster Party was a delightfully random find. Premise: upscale home dinner party for recovering addicts. But their addiction is gruesome. Subplot: three teenagers hired as party waitstaff who are really thieves intending to burgle the place. Tight film, gory kills, and there’s also a sub-subplot that had me wondering how it fit the whole time.

Wow, Bloodsucking Freaks. Ever seen A Serbian Film? If not, don’t, but if you have, this film exists in the same universe of WTF. Grindhouse sleaze at its best. No idea how this was ever released back in the day. Premise: Theater of the Macabre achieves dramatic realism by doing for the stage what snuff films do for celluloid. Also: every woman in this film is naked the entire time.

As documentaries go, To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story, was pretty good. Hodder wasn’t the original Jason, but he was the iconic Jason. His story is interesting, especially the part about setting himself on fire accidentally and suffering far more than he should have recovering from it. (There’s also a Tom Savini documentary out. I had no idea his connection to Pittsburgh and the original Night of the Living Dead!)

Ever watch a movie you’re pretty sure you have seen before and even when it’s over you’re not sure if you did? Well that was me with Absentia. And maybe that’s the point of the movie itself. Premise: husband goes missing and is declared officially dead after seven years by his wife. You’ll never guess what happens next. Mike Flanagan directs and you can see the beginnings of the creepy-as-shit blocking he used in The Haunting of Hill House. (If you have not seen that remake, you should ignore all the other recommendations here right now and go watch it.)

A guilty pleasure. I love The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs. It’s a double-feature every Friday night while the season lasts (also on demand of course), though the live part of it makes social media actually fun. Joe Bob provides commentary every 20 minutes or so. He’s a redneck, he’s wickedly smart, and he loves horror. Diverse selection of films including many whose covers I admired in the VHS rental shop growing up but never actually watched. 

There’s a show on the Travel Channel called Portals to Hell because … demons have wanderlust? I would not know this except that the show was profiling a house near me called The Croke-Patterson Mansion. Absolutely standard — no, sub-standard — “reality” ghost-hunting crap. And yet, having a neighborhood portal to hell is super convenient. (The real horror of this was the live Twitter feed during the show. An online wannabe parapsychologist convention, basically.)

More environmental horror, Underwater is a less hopeful version of the Abyss with better effects. 7 miles underwater with no zombies per se, but lots of things that will kill you. Like, being 7 miles underwater. First on-camera death is pretty great.

Hard to watch (at least for a parent of teenagers), The Dirties is whatever the found footage genre has grown into about two bullied high schoolers who make a documentary about being bullied and then decide to do something about the bullies. Not horror at all. Have we decided that Troubling is a genre unto itself?

The Apostle is like The Village with no twist ending or The VVitch without Black Phillip. But it does have a pagan vegetal sorceress. Welsh horror, folks. You heard it here first.

Rise of the Gargoyles is a terrible (TV) movie. I was legit surprised at one of the kills. Still awful. Worth watching. But it’s bad.

A few weeks back I watched the entire Resident Evil franchise. The first one is the best, in my opinion. It aged less poorly than many of its more recent sequels. Gimme an undead flick or a creature feature any day but not at the same time. I do like the idea of yoking together zombies and sci-fi elements. If you do too, I highly recommend the game Dead Space. Essentially, a first person what if Resident Evil but more Event Horizon-y. Playing this with my kids when they were way too young is simultaneously one of my lowest moments as a parent and some of their self-admitted fondest memories. 

Blumhouse’s newest re-imagining of the Universal Classic Monster back catalog, The Invisible Man, is really quite good. Most disturbing emotional/domestic abuse film I have seen since 10 Cloverfield Lane. Especially relevant given the truly horrific scenario we’re in with the lockdown-driven rise in home abuse. More sci-fi than the original, still super creepy. Basically the apotheosis of Leigh Whannell’s line from Insidious: “It’s not the house that’s haunted.”

Blood Quantum is Native American horror, something I do not think I have ever seen — at least not done from an indigenous perspective. Awesome plot point: in a reversal of the disease-based genocide inflicted by the European conquest of the New World, Native Americans are immune to whatever has turned the rest of the world into zombies. They are not, however, immune to being torn apart by them. So American Indian reservations become fortified sanctuaries against the onslaught. Amazing kills, amazing film — especially in a pandemic.

Fantasy Island coulda been great, but it wasn’t. My youth was shaped in part by the original Fantasy Island (and its Saturday night double-feature The Love Boat — also a great target for a horror re-do, come to think of it). Rare that Blum swings and misses, but this one was so convoluted and Michael Peña so hard to accept as a bad guy, that it just didn’t gel. Live your fantasies, pay the price is a great construct though. Can we get a do-over?

Took a while, but I finally watched Mandy. This is just a stunningly beautiful film. Scandinavian death metal liner note art come to life. But as a revenge flick it is just so-so. Nic Cage is of course an exceptional rage-filled lunatic and the cult members are suitably weird. I Spit On Your Grave wins by the landslide in this particular genre though.

What did we get from Get Out besides a phenomenal film? We got this great documentary: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. A mix of scholarly and first-person accounts from actors and crew, I learned a ton. Like so much horror, the positioning of of black characters in film through time maps to larger social forces: black as the scary Other, black as disposable, black as retribution for the sins of white. Get Out looms large, but so does Candyman. Lots of great stuff I had never seen too, Blacula in particular and this one …

The Girl With All The Gifts is basically the game The Last of Us (if you’re familiar) with great acting performances. Fungus-based infection turns people vicious and feral (but not, I think, undead) and ultimately into compost for spores to grow pods. Super creepy wide shots of the infected when they are not feasting — not ambling around Walking Dead-style, just standing motionless. Glenn Close is fantastic as is the young female African-American (British?) lead Sennia Nanua. She’s infected but second-generation so basically normal, unless she isn’t fed. But she’s treated like an animal (see documentary, above). The section on how the second generation came to be is unexpectedly nasty.

I had never seen The Exorcist III all the way through. Glad I did, though the story of the Exorcist sequels is a sad commentary on studio idiocy. This movie originally didn’t even have an exorcism and probably would have been better for it. I’m still trying to sort out how exactly this film is connected to the first. Zero connection to the second. But it has George C. Scott and Ed Flanders whose on-screen chemistry is awesome. Plus, as in The Changeling, Scott always seems like he’s on the verge of just being a complete asshole. Which, I suppose, is George C. Scott. Works here. Bonus: this movie contains what was voted somewhere the best jump scare in horror. I don’t disagree; it’s all about the setup. Will let you find it for yourselves. 

Back to documentaries, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street is the story of Mark Patton, lead from the second Nightmare, Freddy’s Revenge. The back story on any horror as iconic as this series is great, but this documentary is basically one man’s reply to his portrayal in another documentary, Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, itself wonderful. The problem? The screenwriter swears that the script was not intended to be homerotic or to create the first ever male scream queen. The lead, Patton, was a closeted gay man who simply played the part and ended up creating what many consider the gayest horror film ever. (The director seems like a dolt oblivious to any of this.) This was right as the AIDS crisis was shattering America and Hollywood padlocked closets closed. It seems to have ruined Patton’s career. He’s still pissed about it and ultimately confronts the screenwriter.

I’m pretty schooled in the weird Italian sub-genre of cannibal horror. I’ve seen Cannibal Ferox and Eaten Alive and I was the only person in the theater for the premiere of Eli Roth’s love letter to the genre The Green Inferno. But somehow I had never seen the granddaddy, Cannibal Holocaust. I vividly remember the bloody impalement cover of this VHS rental. Every Friday night we’d venture to the video store I’d pass it wondering how they pulled it off. (Turns out, that was a real actress. I mean, wow.) This is a very good film, way ahead of its time. Story within a story, found footage, stomach-churning gore. Yes it has real killings of animals — one is too many, but there are lots — and yes it is horrific in every way. But it’s better than anything that came after it, including Roth’s. 

Not a film, but if anyone is into horror comics (showing my age here, but I loved Tales from the Crypt), there’s a new one called Rogue Planet. Space horror, naturally, but pretty fresh. Example: the journey to the rogue planet has crew in hibernation (normal), but a subset of them are periodically awakened by the ship’s AI and used as unconscious, zombie-like drones to do work on the ship before they are returned to sleep and another set of crew are awakened to be human space Roombas. Art is 💯.

Mayhem is a fun movie. Office Space as berserker rage horror-comedy. Steven Yeun, who you may have last seen getting his brains (and eyeball) bashed out on The Walking Dead, is a great pissed-off middle-management lead. Pay attention to the scene by the cubicles. That guy and girl humping like dogs are actually having sex. Why? Because they are local extras and this was filmed in Belgrade. Serbia, man. /shakes head

Re-Animator is one of my favorite horror movies of all time. Probably watch it once a year. But it had been a long time since I watched its immediate sequel, Bride of Re-Animator. Not a bad film at all — quite entertaining, really — but it reminded me that in attempting to capitalize on what came before sequels only ever succeed doing one of two things: 1) go in a completely different direction (e.g. A New Hope → Empire Strikes Back) or copy the first so slavishly that it is essentially the same film (e.g, A New Hope → The Force Awakens). Just don’t get caught in the middle, a celluloid Uncanny Valley kinda, which is precisely where Bride lives. I would have been happy with only reanimated human corpses. No need for weird animal appendage beasties. (And yet, the re-animated head of Dr. Carl Hill with grafted bat wings: A+ for ridiculousness.) Also, some great lines: “TISSUE REJECTION!” and “West, you stupid biped!” 

Earlier I mentioned I Spit On Your Grave, but I didn’t realize that a direct sequel called I Spit On Your Grave: Deja Vu — from the original director with the original actress — had been released last year. It tells the story of a woman horribly violated long ago whose vigilantism has made her a minor celebrity in a culture of male perversion that seems not to have evolved one iota in 40 years. In the first film all the blame sits squarely on the redneck rapists. Here it is that but also a much broader swath of society, directly or complicity. This film’s violence can’t possibly be as difficult to watch as the extended rape scenes were to audiences in 1978, but it should be. And maybe that’s the point. #MeToo shouldn’t cause deja vu. 

If you like anthology horror with nested narrative frames and lots of 80s video rental store nostalgia then Scare Package is for you. It’s a bit all over the place with wildly different story quality but good for snack-sized, disjointed viewing. I may have thought that Scream, Shaun of the Dead, and What We Do In The Shadows had exhausted the sub-genre of making fun of horror tropes, but I thought wrong. The segment that’s an obvious gooey homage to Troma is my favorite, but the final story’s machete-wielding killer and victim on treadmills as objects of scientific study is pretty hilarious. 

I highly recommend Ready or Not. Funny horror but not a comedy, a gothic mystery but the murder hasn’t happened yet. Great performances, lovely gore, and wow is aging Andie McDowell creepy. This should be required viewing the night before anyone gets married.

The Dead Center is a film I heard about on the year-end wrap-up for the Horror Movie Podcast. It’s  well-acted and fairly scary, but what I liked most was the premise. Mangled up dude comes into the ER, dies, and is zipped up off to the morgue. Wakes up, finds a gown and an open hospital bed, and then the movie happens. He’s not right, of course. Worth a watch.

I love Octavia Spencer and she didn’t let me down in Ma. Apparently she wasn’t the first choice for lead in this film, but man was she creepy. The flashback backstory is just enough to flesh out her character. And I could totally see myself falling into her trap like the teens in this movie do. Total recommend.

Sweetheart and Sorority Row: Any movies where the first death is by coral or which involve Carrie Fisher with a shotgun (Blues Brothers!) start off with an A on my grading scale.

The Beach House is a bleak, beautiful winner. Small cast, well-acted, eerie if not terrifying. The visual aesthetic may be the first time I think I see Ari Aster’s vibe in another director’s work. Also reminded me of some of Eli Roth’s non-Hostel films where the first half might as well be a good, normal-ish drama — and then it all falls to hell. Marine biochemist as final girl? Sign me up.

Turns out I had seen The Guest before, but I did not realize it until the very last (unsettling) shot. Must be good if that’s what stuck with me. It’s really about the family trauma of the Iraq/Afganistan wars — a thriller with a definite horror vibe, especially the final set-piece. If you’re suspicious of houseguests in general, you’ll probably like this.

Would you believe I had never seen Halloween III? I remember loving the VHS cover art, but that it was critically panned mostly because it had nothing to do with Michael Myers. (But he is in it briefly! Also I swear I heard a slowed-down version of the original Halloween theme, which would make sense since Carpenter scored it.) It’s a really good flick. Tom Atkins (the mean dad from the Creepshow frame story) is excellent and Dan O’Herlihy (the CEO from Robocop, I think) is perfect in his role. Great ending. Still don’t know what “Season of the Witch” means in the title. More like Leprechaun meets the commercial critique that became They Live. I think I would have dug the idea for the Halloween series being a totally different film each entry, but that didn’t happen. It’s what we have Trick R Treat for, if they’d ever make another one.

The Wretched is actually about a witch. In addition to being gross to look at and not at all nice, she also has the power of making people forget things, which is why this is a movie you gotta pay attention to. Truly excellent ending. It’s Smart Horror™. Is this a trend?

Need less high-minded, not even passably well-made horror? Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat is the movie for you. The original Blood Feast was made over 40 years ago and is interesting for how radical its gore was at the time. Premise: caterer falls under the spell of an Egyptian artifact and goes full cannibal chef. The sequel is exactly the same, but a thousand times worse. And by worse I mean absolutely gratuitous boobs, ridiculous gore, a bizarrely recurring sample from an Orbital tune, and masturbation into a creme brûlée. This is a good film to watch after smoking a lawn bag full of weed, I’d wager.

To those of us with aging parents or grandparents the premise of Relic might cut a little close. It’s about an elderly mom/grandma suffering from dementia. Or is it demonic possession? (These pathologies are not etymologically related; I looked it up. But would have been cool.) It’s disturbing in the same way Hereditary proposes a kind of inherited evil. This film is not to be confused with the so-90’s film The Relic, which was shot at Chicago’s Field Museum, also worth a watch.

In The Darkness the central character is an autistic child with a special way of seeing and relating to something really bad he picked up in the Grand Canyon. It’s a rip-off of Poltergeist mostly but worth mentioning because Kevin Bacon is in it. Setting aside his iconic, pattern-setting death in the original Friday the 13th (just had sex + laying in bed smoking a joint = you about to die horribly) there’s an Ethan Hawke-in-Sinister vibe here. Talented, established actor coming to horror late in his/her career. Paul Reiser is also in this film, for some reason.

As background listening/watching I’ve enjoyed the amateur — but very smart — “Anatomy of a Franchise” series on YouTube. The narrator deconstructs six horror franchises focusing mostly on the evolution of their stories as a series. You’d think the pattern would be a great film (maybe two) followed by dreck, but that isn’t always the case. And even when it is, the narrator explains why. I learned things.

Lastly, if you like experimental horror fiction I was recently reminded of House of Leaves, which I read years ago, by the map my Roomba drew of the second floor of my house. See, the book is about a guy trapped in a house that seemingly never ends, a kind of architectural Tardis which is also a book. The creepiness comes mostly from the non-Euclidean geometry of the rooms (as in, for instance, doors where they physically could not exist — sorta the way Kubrick built The Overlook interiors to make no contiguous sense — watch the documentary Room 237 if you want more on that). Anyhoo, here’s the map that shows the other dimensions the Roomba burrowed into in my house.

Primal Screen is a weird multiple person “memoir” about the creepiness of ventriloquist dolls. It’s a very personal attempt at figuring out what makes dolls so disturbing. 

The Siren – A modern retelling of the Greek myth. That it takes place on a lake somehow makes the idea of a seductive sea creature scarier to me. The protagonist is mute, which makes for some very emotive acting. (Probably some deeper meaning I’m not grasping too, since the sailors in the original story made themselves temporarily deaf to thwart the sirens.) Worth a watch, er, listen.

If you’re in the mood for an epically long documentary, have a look at In Search of Darkness: A Journey into Iconic 80’s Horror. It covers basically everything about 80s horror from the franchises to some films I had never heard of, sound design to cover art, nudity to final girl feminism. It’s comprehensive, but there’s basically zero editing. The doc jumps from topic to topic scattershot. Still, I learned stuff. Makes great background watching.

Talk about a movie of/for the moment, Host is what happens when a Zoom videoconference goes to hell. I had low expectations, figuring it would be a knockoff of Unfriended, but it was actually really novel in places. I suppose you have to know Zoom’s quirks to fully get it. There’s one feature of Zoom — and how it could be twisted in the film — that was supposedly the inspiration for the whole thing. 

Watched this a while back, but was reminded of it in the doc above. Society is one perverse movie. From 1989, I’m not even sure it could get made today. Suffice to say that this deeply anti-classist flick culminates in one of the nastiest endings I’ve ever seen. It’s called The Shunting and it’s basically what an orgy orchestrated by H.R. Giger would look like.

We Summon The Darkness is an ode to 80’s metalhead culture and the conservative forces who thought we were all satanists. But the real reason I watched it is that I have been a sucker for anything Alexandra Daddario is in since the Texas Chainsaw remake. I’m surprised there have not been more films that play with the Tipper Gore mania around pentagrams and dove-decapitation of that time. This one kinda nails the tone as I recall it.

I mean, a horror movie about a vinyl record that kills you when you listen to it? TAKE MY MONEY. Deadwax is a series of super-short “episodes” totaling less than two hours. (Maybe they were going for tracks-on-a-record thing?) Given that audiophiles and vinyl collectors are somewhat insane to begin with, this is fertile subject matter. I particularly liked the subplot involving Lac beetles, the creepy-crawlies that make natural shellac, a rare early material used to make records.

The Rental falls into a category I am now thinking of as Sharing Economy Horror. Clearly inspired by stories of creepo Airbnb owners, this is the tale of two intertwined couples on a weekend getaway that ends disastrously. Really the protagonists are the horrible people in this film, though there is of course more to it. Incredible sound design.

Cold Prey, because sometimes you just need a bunch of horny young adults trapped by a pickaxe-wielding killer — and nothing more. This film is standard fare in every way, except that it’s Norwegian.  (I switched the overdubbing on briefly, ruining the tone of the film completely. Recommend subtitles.)

1BR explores the fine line between homeowner associations and death cults. Sounds funny, but it’s played completely straight, and it works. Final shot is wonderful and frightening.

This one kinda messed me up. Swallow is about pica, the compulsion to eat dangerous things. I’m not sure why reviewers call it horror, except that this is exactly what I felt watching the lead do the swallowing. It’s aesthetically beautiful, deeply unsettling, and superbly edited. 

I had high hopes for the horror comedy Extra Ordinary, but maybe it was too British for my taste. Some good moments — homage to The Exorcist poster art, strategy for saving the virgin from sacrifice — but I did not find myself LOL’ing like I did during What We Do In The Shadows.

Color Out Of Space feels like a companion to Mandy at least from a visual saturation and Crazy Nic Cage perspective. I don’t know the original Lovecraft story so I can’t compare, but it had it’s moments for sure, e.g. horribly mangled, still-writhing devil alpacas. I like the idea of an evil that is just a color, but I could not unhear “Colorspace Error” from improperly rendered PDF files.

I had seen Life before but did not realize it until the very last scene (that’s twice now), which is easily the most unsettling. Great acting lineup — though if you are in it for Ryan Reynolds he’s not really the lead. It’s maybe a good reminder about the resilience/persistence of life in these dark times, but in a most horrible way. If you like spaceship corridors and killer aliens, dial this up.

Gretel & Hansel is a gorgeous film. Sophia Lillis of IT fame is wonderful too. Not pee-your-pants scary, but the effects are great and the witch is suitably witchy. Worth a watch if only to ask yourself how on earth Grimm’s tales ever were thought appropriate for children.

Bulbbul is Bollywood horror because of course that exists. This is a beautiful film that absolutely does not follow western horror conventions. More of this, please.

I missed Eden Lake when it came out, but I’m sorta glad I did because I’m not sure I would have understood it in the same way if I saw it in 2008. Basically UK torture porn with some nasty classism as scaffolding. I was troubled by this flick since the overall message, if one was meant, is exactly the bring-back-the-good-old-days of Merry England delusion that powered the Brexit vote 8 years later.

Devil’s Gate was one ambitious take on aliens and crazy rural folk. Enjoyed it as I repeatedly thought I wasn’t enjoying it. Two points of note: 1) I think this is the first time I have seen Jonathan Frakes in anything since Star Trek: TNG. He is also borderline obese. 2) The female lead is quite good, but I did not realize until I looked it up that she is not, in fact, Naomi Watts.

Deep Blue Sea 2 – This is an atrocious movie. Not a remake of the Renny Harlin goofiness (which I loved), but almost the exact same movie. Do not view.

Deep Blue Sea 3 – Also atrocious, with a side of white savior. Thanks Shark Week! Also a do not view.

The Babysitter legit made me laugh and cheer  throughout. Its sequel, The Babysitter: Killer Queen, was not quite as funny and did not have the same shock value, but I recommend a watch. The dialogue is rapid and witty. Ken Marino as the dad was hilarious. (Alas Leslie Bibb as the mom was underused. A shame since she was A+ in Hell Baby.)

What a unique film is Belzebuth. This take on the second third coming of the Antichrist is equal parts disturbing, scary, and fresh. Plus, it’s as much a Mexican film as an American one. The dialog just switches back and forth between languages depending what a person would naturally speak. Understated but powerful commentary on border crossings and imperial evil, too.

I loved the horror-thriller The Perfection. Twist after twist after twist. Features Allison Williams from Get Out who I am now convinced is a straight-faced maestra. I’d hate to play her in a game of poker. You can almost feel the specter of Harvey Weinstein in this story (irony: a Miramax film). Best line in a long time: “There are maggots in my puke”. Highly recommend! 

I should have known that House of the Witch was a horrible movie, given that it was made for TV. Production values and trope/trick rehashing are laughable. Thesis: Amazon Prime’s cellar-grade films are shittier than Netflix’s stinkers.

Usually it’s a bad idea to watch a movie based on its title alone, but The Cleaning Lady did not disappoint. Simple, tight, and not at all what I was expecting. Note: a sub-plot around child abuse, though the worst of it is not depicted, is stomach-churning. Ending was a bit head-scratching.

Sidenote: I rarely read horror, but I thought I would give The Living Dead by George Romero a shot. It was unfinished at his death so completed by a collaborator. Not as jaunty as Brooks’ World War Z novel (which I loved more than the film that I liked a lot), but I am reminded of how different — and lingering — the narrative description of terror can be from when I tore through the Stephen King catalog as a high schooler. I have not finished the book yet and some reviews note that it’s not what it seems like at first, so …

The Binding (Il legame) – Southern Italian curse. Lots of creepy old Italian women. The plot is basically my extended family. I wanted this to be great. It was not great. Consider it watched so you don’t have to. But happy to scare you with tales of my crazy ancestors.

American Murder: The Family Next Door – Documentary on the Colorado dad who murdered his wife, two daughters, and unborn child. What I found engaging was that it was neither a re-enactment nor just talking head experts. Most of the footage here is primary source: social media family videos and personal videos (the wife, Shanann, recorded herself a lot), police body cam video, and contemporaneous news footage. If you believe in the horror of the mundane, this is it. And sadly true, of course.

The Walking Dead: Season 10 Finale – Not sure how many of you have followed this show through the years, but this season — which I found quite a bit more original than previous — was cut off by the pandemic right before the final episode, an unintentional cliffhanger. Possibly unintentionally climactic too. Might have flowed better without building expectations all these months. But it was still great. And the actual ending has a fantastic cliff scene. No hanging.

The Strangers: Prey at Night – I had seen this flick a while ago, but I must have forgotten about it the moment I watched it. Which, well, there’s your review. Not nearly as simple or creepy as the first one. And yet I do have a soft spot for the home invasion genre, so what if the homes are a trailer park. You really can’t beat the answer in the first film to “Why are you doing this to us?” (“Because you were home”), though this one tries: “Why not?” Completely motiveless murder (not unlike Eden Lake).

The Haunting of Bly Manor – I put some time into this follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House which is still the best horror I have seen in the last few years. Bly Manor is not in any way connected to Hill House except that some cast members return in new roles. But it’s Mike Flanagan so there’s always something lurking out-of-frame. Much deeper, more philosophical, and frankly less scary. But worth the investment of time. It’s a great remix of The Turn of the Screw. Plus setting a show in the 1980’s amidst the poshness of an English country estate is itself weirdly unsettling. Recommend.

Scare Me – Very interesting film. Just two people (then three, then two again) telling each other ghost stories. Like, that’s really all there is. Except that there’s more, ultimately. Creative, funny at times, and super tight. Highly recommend. (If you go looking for this, make sure you grab the film by Josh Ruben. There’s another horror film with the same name released this year.)

The Cleansing Hour – Fair to say there’s an entire horror sub-genre now where fake exorcists (or ghost-hunters) do their exploitative thing until — uh oh! — they stumble upon real evil. This is that. Kind of a good plot too. Very uneven though. It’s like some parts of the film had talented actors and a decent budget and other parts did not. Might have worked better not played straight. I mean, if you’re gonna make your audience chuckle you might as well intend to do it.

Lessons from Zombiefest, Part the First

Gather ’round, members of the living. You are about to become educated on the finer points of the undead film genre.

A while back my brother and I watched every film begotten (and misbegotten) from Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead — 16, plus one trailer.

That’s right. We’ve done the hard work so you don’t have to.

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Zombie films almost always contrast human incompetence, ignorance, or incompatibility with the external threat of the revenant hordes. Which is to say, humans nearly always screw themselves worse than the zombies do. Zombies are not stalkers or serial killers. They frighten because they are single-minded and unstoppable — unstoppable because of quantity rather than invulnerability. Like a virus. In fact, substitute viruses for the undead and you basically have the same movie.

Even so, fear of the undead usually stands for something else. It’s always the fear of others, a group that shifts with mainstream society’s notion of norms. So, for instance, it has been argued that Night of the Living Dead‘s zombies represent drug-addled hippies, out of their minds and focused on getting their fix. It was 1968, after all. That symbolism is debatable — and it gets a lot more complex, though no less true, when the zombies become somewhat sympathetic in later films — but it is clear that Romero at least always tries to depict the pitched battle of humans vs. undead as something more than just that.

A note for the true fan, there are spoilers below because, well, all zombies spoil eventually. Also, some of the clips are gory, duh.

We watched the films based on release date, but they are here grouped according to main series and remakes.

Lastly, please forgive the stylistic schizophrenia of the write-ups. That’s what you get when you mix a collaborative spreadsheet and several personal kegs of beer over a weekend of sedentary film-viewing.

Romero Series:

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The granddaddy, near perfect. Black-and-white. Zombies are not slow, mindless or lumbering. They are the living recently-dead, not rotting corpses. Some even use tools to kill. (Joey: “That may be the most un-zombielike thing I have ever seen.”) No crawling out of the grave. Some confusion about whether they can be killed in any way that a human can be or if you have to shoot them in the head (which becomes the standard later on). Seems they cannot “infect” the living. Mention of a Venus satellite coming back to Earth and starting the “epidemic”. Mr. Cooper is a dead ringer for Rob Corddry. Odd fixation on taxidermy. Little girl zombie confronting her parents as disturbing now as it surely must have been in 1968. Lead character is a black man, unusual for 1968. He never gets it from the zombies but is killed in the end (mistakenly?) by a group of rescuers that looks exactly like a lynch mob. Best quote: “They’re coming to get you, Bahr-bah-rah.”

One of the reasons that Night spawned so many remakes and derivatives is that it has lapsed into the public domain. As such the entire thing is online for your viewing pleasure.

Rating: ★★★★★

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Hard to argue with a movie whose setting is the locus of the real undead in America: the suburban shopping mall. This continuation is conceptually brilliant, but executed not as well as the original. Possibly influenced by Network (released two years earlier), the film starts in a TV edit suite broadcasting news of the sprawling zombie epidemic. (Interesting flipside to the always-on TV in the first film, basically a character unto itself. At one point in Night someone justifies his actions by saying “Well, the television told us to.”) Action shifts to a mall where a small band of survivors takes refuge from the madding crowd, a consumerist utopia vs. unstructured lust (the urban street, natch). The agent of zombification is now officially viral. The voice of reason, again, is a black man. Firsts: Tom Savini (make-up effects auteur) cameos as a biker; disembowelment; helicopter scalping; obese zombie (rare!). Also, entire biker gang is drinking High Life, which in itself merits applause.

Here’s Savini fending off the shoppers, er, zombies and coming to his own end.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Day of the Dead (1985)

An undead movie with a message. That sucks. Or rather, doesn’t live up to the Romero standard, which disappoints all the more. (For true suckage, we must wait for a few remakes, coming in future post installaments.) So, the outbreak is basically worldwide, lots of shots of overrun cities. A group of scientists and military folk hole up in a vast underground bunker. The scientists are running experiments on captured, shackled zombies because, you see, even zombies have feelings. Bud, the only zombie in any Romero flick that speaks a line, is the central figure. Behind him is this weird three cross motif on the wall. What is he, the messiah? The whole thing is paced through rubber cement, e.g. the first kill (of a zombie, no less) is 58 minutes into the film. The brainy scientists vs. brawny military disagreements tire after, oh, the first one. In the end, it’s too much preach, not enough gore. One of the sensitive humans says “How can we set an example for them if we act like barbarians ourselves?” Gag.

Here’s an unchained Bub actually shooting (and saluting) the head military guy, who is then gang-dismembered.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Land of the Dead (2005)

Twenty years separate this from Day and thank god for that. This is a great movie. The world is completely overrun with the undead. Uninfected humans are barricaded in walled urban centers (hello Baghdad Green Zone!); there’s something of a comfortable equilibrium. Frequent sorties for supplies are undertaken outside the city in a heavily-armored truck-tank that can mow down zombies and distract them with fireworks (“sky flowers”). The twist is that the undead are beginning to remember things, are getting smarter, acting braver. Oh, also they learn to swim. There’s a bit of a zombies-are-people-too vibe which annoys and I’m no great fan of zombies seeking revenge (meaning they are compelled by more than just a hunger for flesh, boo), but overall this is one great flick. Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo are fantastic.

Here’s the original, unreleased trailer that integrates some footage from the first three movies, plus the creepy quote from Night.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Stay tuned for the next riveting installment of the undead marathon recap. And for god’s sake aim for the head.

Zombiefest

The Weekend of the Living Dead has begun over here at Ascent Stage HQ.

My kid brother Joey and I are long-time horror film fans. There isn’t a sub-genre that doesn’t delight: vampire flicks, Japanese stuff, Italian stuff, classic slashers, supernatural, psychological, torture porn, you name it.

But there’s a special place in every horror buff’s heart for George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead from 1968. It is the granddaddy of the hundreds, possibly thousands, of zombie flicks that have eaten our brains ever since.

Recently I came across a crude “genealogy” of the films spawned by Night of the Living Dead. Got me thinking about doing an undead marathon. Did a little research, added a few films and … here we are, a birthday present for the Leap Day Kid. 17 films, 25 hours, some beer ok a mini-keg of beer, rum, vodka, and scotch, and two little boys watching scary movies while the family is out of town.

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It’s wrong to call all these movies a franchise as you’d do with Friday the 13th or Halloween given the divergent creative visions of the two original writers George Romero and John Russo. They each took the series down very different paths. With remakes, unauthorized sequels, and special editions thrown in you get, well, you get a lot of the living dead.

Romero
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Day of the Dead (1985)
Land of the Dead (2005)
Diary of the Dead (2008)

Remakes
Night of the Living Dead (1990, Savini)
Dawn of the Dead (2004, Snyder)
Day of the Dead (2007, Miner)

Russo
Return of the Living Dead (1986)
Return of the Living Dead 2 (1988)
Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)
Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (2005)
Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave (2005)
Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition (1998)
Children of the Living Dead (2001)

Unofficial
Day of the Dead 2: Contagium (2005)
Night of the Living Dead 3D (2006)

Netflix provided most of the movies. I’d get three at a time, rip them to the Apple TV and back they’d go. But a few — the Savini remake, 30th anniversary edition, and Children of the Living Dead — proved very difficult to find. (Facets and Specialty Video & DVD in Chicago are great places to find the most bizarre of your cinema needs.) At least one had not even made it to video yet. (Thank you, torrenters.) The very last in the list chronologically, Diary of the Dead, just left theaters and is represented here as a trailer only. Boo.

So we’ve just begun. Joey recommended a strictly chronological progression through the lot, regardless of series coherence. He thinks it’ll be interesting to map the evolution against social/historical climate and larger trends in horror. There are of course other ways to slice it, as this chart shows.

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We’ll no doubt be posting the findings of our research as the weekend proceeds.

If you’re interested in trying this out yourself, might I recommend a survival manual?

Laboratory Conditions

The past spring I went on a field trip to scout vintage hardware for a film project with Steve Delahoyde of Coudal Partners. We ended up in Los Alamos, New Mexico. We ended up making a slightly different film.

Nudebomb

Presented in five parts, one per day this week. Start here.

(Wow, glad that came along. The image of the impaled turkey was making me ill.)

Sto-Mo

So here’s our first test of stop-motion animation with LEGOs. My son and I have grand plans to create our own alternate storylines. But given the difficulty in creating even this C-grade animation we may be scaling back our vision. Still, this is really fun.

Couple things:

  • Lighting is the hardest part. LEGOs are shiny. Really need a diffuse light tent.
  • Timing is the second hardest part. You can calculate shots per second, of course. But even then you have to be constantly doing math for dramatic pauses and such.
  • iStopMotion is an invaluable app if you are interested in this sort of thing. Easy enough to do with a regular digital camera, but iStopMotion lets you use an iSight and leaves the last frame semi-transparent on the screen so you can see what you are trying to line up with.
  • That’s a half-destroyed Hutt sail barge in the background.
  • Shout out to Wilhelm.

The inspiration for this little family project was my son coming across the hardcopy of a flipbook animation I mentioned in this post years ago.

Heading for a black hole

This is how things get done in Hollywood, so why not for the new Coudal film 72°?

“It’s always the sign of a good meeting when you decide to go grab a quick drink right after work and you wind up leaving the neighborhood bar at around 8:00.”

My god, what have we done?

Shudder

Yesterday I watched two extremely disturbing movies, Open Water 2: Adrift and Jesus Camp. One was infinitely more troubling than the other.

Open Water 2 is a sequel only in that it uses the same premise as the first which is simply and completely this: people stranded in the water at sea. Horrible, of course, but this one tries to up the ante by plopping the bobbing humans into the drink right next to a yacht that they cannot climb back onto. Whoops, forgot to put the ladder down! Panic ensues. People die. But wait there’s more. Did I mention that there is a baby who’s been left on board the boat? And a monitor on deck that faithfully transmits her hungry, neglected wailing to the stranded floaters (including her parents) boatside? Sound awful? It is. Most movies of this ilk ask for a generous suspension of disbelief, but Open Water 2’s premise manages to be completely unbelievable yet still disturbing. I don’t recommend this movie if you are a poor swimmer, afraid of the water or being alone, a parent, or if you’ve ever been a child.

But the stomach-churn caused by Adrift pales in comparison to Jesus Camp, last year’s documentary about an evangelical summer camp for young Christians. I actually had to turn away a few times. Simply couldn’t watch as little kids trembled and cried and threw themselves to the ground for God. The adult organizers of this camp are truly scary as they prompt the kids into ever more ridiculous shows of their faith. The implicit — and a few times stated — impulse is that if the Muslim world is creating armies of mindless devotees in madrasas then Christianity best do it too. What’s so troubling is how mature these little kids act. Like they are reading from a script. There’s absolutely no shred of free-thinking or even childishness. And that’s the great shame: to be raised in an environment of such unquestioning dogma that the wonder and curiosity of childhood is not even an option.

I’d rather be the kid trapped on the boat, frankly.

Superfriendly

Pardon the Al Bundy moment here, but I gotta say that reliving childhood via your own kids can be damn fun. Possibly my strongest memory of pre-8 year old life is watching the Superfriends cartoon (followed by Scooby Doo) with my dad in the basement on Saturday mornings. I loved the Superfriends intensely, so it was with some trepidation that I bought the recently released first season of The Challenge of the Superfriends for my five-year-old son. Trepidation because, of course, nothing ages well from the 1970’s. Or very little besides Pink Floyd. I didn’t want to load the DVD initially, afraid that’d I’d fracture a time-honed nostalgia that remembered the Superfriends as gallant, smart, and timeless.

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Certainly the Superfriends is simplistic. The Legion of Doom’s goal is simply to spread evil and conquer the universe. Dialogue is overt and crude. And the whole thing is borderline racist with token ethnic superheroes that are clearly secondary to the main stock. And yet, I wasn’t disappointed. The storylines are suprisingly unique and clever. Yes, each episode starts with a new plot by Lex and friends (none Super) to overthrow the Hall of Justice with the Superfriends having always to react (how about some proactive justice, people?), but there was a lot of thought put into each episode’s twist. Time travel, summoning of the undead, alternate universes — the type of thing that was way beyond me as a kind but now strikes me as fairly interesting for a saturday morning ‘toon. And if the the recent upsurge in nightmares of my son is an indicator also fairly “adult” in content.

The real evidence of the value of The Challenge of the Superfriends comes from comparing the seasons that preceded it. Challenge was the first where they got rid of the awful, basically useless teen sidekicks and pets. You recall Wendy, Marvin (I’m sorry, Marvin the Superhero?), and their dog Wonderdog and of course the Wonder Twins and their annoying monkey Gleek, yes? Well, sorry about that. What a dark period that was.
Viva Green Lantern.

SOAMFP

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What are you doing reading this blog and not standing in line to see this movie?

UPDATE: So I got to see this movie about snakes. Believe it or not, they are actually in the plane, not on it. So you can imagine the problems this causes! Good fun. The movie was sublime perfection, everything I could possibly have imagined. Best part: the story doesn’t so much as imply a reason why a gangster would try to down a plane with a crate load of snakes. Plausbility is for the weak.

Airplane movies

For some reason on my flight to Turkey I was compelled to watch not one but two thrillers that take place on an airplane. I’m not sure my seatmates were altogether thrilled.

Flightplan is more-than-decent. Jodie Foster is excellent as a mom on the verge of hysteria having lost her child on a massive new airplane clearly modelled on the double-decker Airbus A380. I can’t think of when I’ve seen Foster in a role coming apart like that. The suspense is remarkable given the oft-voiced point in the movie “how can you lose a child on an airplane?” And there’s a twist that only Sept. 11 could give us.

No less surprising was Red Eye, Wes Craven’s slow extrication from the horror genre he’s so comfortable in. Yes, you can make a compelling movie two-thirds of which takes place between two people sitting in plane seats. It isn’t as clean as Flightplan, but it has its moments and Cillian Murphy is perfect as a charming seatmate psychopath. Wes Craven does a good job substituting the latent fear of dying because a madman killed you in your dreams with the post-9/11 fear that you never quite know who you are sitting next to on an airplane.

Of course none of this matters. The countdown is on for Snakes On A Plane . You think losing a child on an airplane is tough? How about getting away from several hundred snakes? Kudos to the studio for merging title and plot synopsis in one pithy phrase — a sure sign that this will be a winner.

Also a tip: if you are watching a movie on your laptop when dinner arrives and you have a backpack, just prop it up between your knees. Take the laptop off the tray table and rest it on the pack, stabilizing it with your knees. Watch, eat.