Doom Shanty

The Terror Tourist is my occasional segment on the Heavy Leather Horror Show, a weekly podcast about all things horror out of Salem, Massachusetts. These segments are also available as an email newsletter. Sign up here, if interested.

Welcome back to The Terror Tourist. This week our journey leads straight under the waves. We don’t have a map since only about 25% of the sea floor has been mapped in detail — and we’re not going anywhere near those places anyway. We’re headed to maria incognita in this segment called “Doom Shanty”.

Here’s a great word for you: Thalassophobia [noun]: the persistent and intense fear of deep bodies of water, such as the ocean, seas, or lakes. Not to be confused with aquaphobia, which is classified as the fear of water itself. Thalassophobia can include fears of being in deep bodies of water, the vastness of the sea, sea waves, aquatic animals, and great distance from land.

Does this scare you?

But water aside, what’s to fear? Well, here is a non-exhaustive list of all the different ways to die underwater:

Attacked by a shark. Does it happen? Yes. About 80 times per year. Only three species really account for these attacks — Great White, Tiger, and Bull sharks — and usually it’s a case of mistaken identity. Stop swimming like a seal or with actively bleeding wounds and you’ll be fine.  For comparison, humans kill approximately 80 million sharks per year. So the ratio is, you know, lopsided.

Not an herbivore

Swallowed by a whale. This has happened as recently as 2021 off of Cape Cod. Usually when this happens, it’s a brief, accidental gulping-down of plankton and whatever else — like a hapless human — happens to be in the water. And then a big ol’ regurgitation. But it does happen. Note for book-lovers: Whalefall by Daniel Kraus takes the concept of interior monologue to horrific depths.

Cephalopod attack! Lotta creatures in this category, but mostly we’re looking at giant octopus and squid. Obviously the tentacles are an issue, but so is the very hard and pointy beak. Also, all octopuses are venomous, though almost none can deliver a fatal dose to humans. Except the greater blue-ringed octopus whose venom in one dose can kill 10 people. (So … don’t touch that one.) For what it’s worth, cephalopod attacks are extremely rare. But you gotta admit that going down in a writing mass of tentacles, while being stabbed by a beak, and filling with poison — oh, also while drowning — seems a terrible way meet Davy Jones.

Speaking of poison, there’s a lot of it under the waves. Basically every category of critter — from invertebrate slime to complex things with backbones — has some member of its class that stings with the nasty juice or which simply cannot be touched because they’re covered in it. (Terminological note: venom is injected; poison is ingested.) Stung by a box jellyfish? Hope your affairs are in order. Walking in tidal pools without foot protection and whoops! that wasn’t a rock it was a stonefish. You’re an idiot and also in for the worst pain imaginable, possibly death if you’re not near help. There are sea snakes, pufferfish, even snails whose toxins will kill you. Oh and the lionfish? That bugger found all throughout the Caribbean because someone no longer wanted it as a pet decades ago? Invasive and venomous. (I blame the first Naked Gun movie.) Even the pretty things that can’t move at all — like coral — are full of nasty. Many coral contain palytoxin, the second most poisonous substance on the planet. Palytoxin kills by way of rhabdomyolysis which is the process by which your muscles literally disintegrate into your bloodstream. You basically melt into yourself. So be on the safe side and don’t inhale or ingest coral.

Everything in this photo can hurt you

OK those are all ways to die from being attacked. But what about just being in the water in a human body that long ago evolved away from being able to live in water?

Of course you can be stranded where, eventually, you will tire to the point that you can’t stay afloat. Likely you’ll succumb to dehydration or hypothermia — much worse ways to go — before this happens since the human meatbag itself is positively buoyant even if you’re exhausted. 

Let’s not forget air embolism, which is why you never hold your breath when ascending from depth (whether you’re snorkeling, scuba diving, or whatever). For every 33 feet you go underwater the pressure on your body (and lungs) increases by one sea level air pressure. And the reverse is true when you ascend. So if you hold your breath while coming up the air in your lungs will expand sorta like hot air balloons that expand as they go up into less dense air. This is a problem as it can rupture your lungs, especially if they were already “full” down deep in high pressure. Explosive decompression of lungs is bad, I think we can all agree. But it’s worse: the body keeps air in all kinds of places — the eye balls, the ears — those will explode too. 

Then there are the bends — also known as decompression sickness. This is related to air embolism except in this case the rapid ascent makes nitrogen gas in your blood expand rapidly into bubbles. Those bubbles can go anywhere in the body but often settle in the joints causing people to bend over in excruciating pain. You can die from the bends or be permanently impaired. It can be cured though, if you’re close enough to a hyperbaric chamber — which is a whole different kind of misery. There is also in-water recompression if you’re too far away from help. But this requires going back underwater to depth while you are in excruciating pain. And often doesn’t work.

This cage gave numerous people embolisms … for a game show

If you’ve seen the end of the movie 47 Meters Down you are familiar with nitrogen narcosis. Simply put, the way our bodies react to otherwise harmless gases at sea level can be very different to those gases under pressure. In this case nitrogen at depths over 100 feet causes an anesthetic, sometimes delirious change in consciousness. That in itself is not a problem, if you recognize it. The issue is that being nitrogen drunk can cause you to lose track of time, air availability, where you are, who you are, etc. The good news: all you need to do to get sober is ascend a little bit. A great device for screenwriters!

Speaking of gases, guess what becomes literal poison is you inhale too much of it? Oxygen! The very thing that normally keeps us alive. The air we breathe on land is 21% oxygen but sometimes scuba divers bump that percentage up for all kinds reasons. Suck that down for too long and you can suffer convulsions and death. With oxygen, like water, it’s fine line between life-giving and life-taking.

Look, there are a zillion ways to die underwater. You could be boiled alive near a geothermal vent or poisoned by accidentally ingesting too much salt water. You and your flimsy tourist sub could be crushed by the incredible pressure way down deep. (Interestingly, physically the human body can go a lot deeper under pressure than you might think. As humans are mostly just squishy flesh and liquid it all compresses fairly well. The problem is the parts of our bodies that hold air. That stuff only compresses or expands so much before your insides look like they’ve been puree’d.)

This won’t help

I’m often asked — sometimes by family members who I have forced to scuba dive with me — what’s the most scared I have ever been under the waves. It isn’t sharks. I have never encountered a shark that wanted anything to do with people. It isn’t equipment failure. There’s so much redundancy built-in, it’s just not an overwhelming concern. What has scared me, though, is solitude, the very few times I’ve lost track of my buddy or group. This is tough to do in the crystal waters of tropical reefs, but somehow I’ve done it. Only for a minute or two. But it is terrifying. There are procedures for locating other divers — e.g., look up, because everyone exhales and those long bubble ribbons can be seen from far away — but it is still heart-pounding. Much easier to lose people in murky water or cave systems. Which is why I don’t dive those without a really good reason. 

Because of all this danger and unique ways to meet one’s end, there’s a long tradition of underwater horror in fiction. In film you can go back at least as far as 1955’s It Came from Beneath the Seaprobably further, though the technical challenges of filming underwater — hell, the technical challenges of breathing underwater — really only made using it as a film setting possible from the 1960’s onward.

Why do I love this sub-genre so dearly? Maybe because you don’t need much: simply, the environment surrounding you is a threat, an antagonist, a killer. Strictly speaking filmmakers don’t need a monster or a homicidal maniac or a ghost after their characters. The water itself wants you dead. There are a few films that go this route where this water vs. humans’ inability to live in it is the entire plot. See, for example, Open Water and its sequel. (This may also explain my fascination with space horror. The vacuum also wants you dead. More on that in a moment.)

Travelers, here I am mostly interested in movies that take place underwater. There are lots of ways to tell these stories, so here are some general categories organized by exposure where the majority of the movie takes place underwater as opposed to mostly on top of or near it.

  1. occasionally underwater (e.g., The Reef, The Shallows, Piranha, Jaws)
  2. mostly underwater (e.g., Deep Blue Sea, Sea Fever)
  3. underwater in a vessel/ship/outpost (e.g. No Way Up, Underwater, Below, The Poseidon Adventure)
  4. underwater only in self-contained breathing apparatus (these are very rare! e.g., The Deep House, 47 Meters Down)
  5. underwater supernatural (e.g. Aquaman, The Little Mermaid, no full-length horror movies of this type though there is the delightful non-sequitur of Fulci’s shark-fighting zombie)

One interesting question to ask when watching underwater horror is: if all this water were replaced by the void of outer space would anything be different? In general, if the answer is no you are watching not a great movie. If yes, then you are at least in store for water-based kills and other aspects of the marine environment that make it uniquely terrifying. Indeed many of the scripts for what became sea stories started as outer space stories. The conversion is not very difficult. Sometimes the film-viewing public seems to want stars and planets, but sometimes, like in 1989, they only want saltwater and sea bubbles.

Let’s backstroke a bit to the year 1989. Something was in the water, for sure. It’s been called the B-Movie Sea Monster Wars where we got at least six underwater horror flicks all in one year. What the hell? Why?

The public may have been primed for undersea tales of doom by the discovery of The Titanic in 1985 by Bob Ballard. That’s one theory. Hard to deny is that after Aliens in 1986 there was a surge in sci-fi movies centered around blue-collar workers finding themselves up against terrifying creatures, usually in a dark, dank, remote setting. Around 1987 everyone in Hollywood apparently that knew James Cameron, coming off of The Terminator and Aliens, was making an underwater flick, which would eventually be called The Abyss, for a summer release in ’89. It wasn’t initially known whether it would be horror like Aliens mostly was. Of course, The Abyss when released was straight sci-fi. But rival filmmakers couldn’t have known as they ramped up their efforts. So we got a lot of underwater horror in a single year that no one really asked for. Let’s swim on over to the films to wrap up this shanty!

DeepStar Six (Jan. 13, 1989)

This creature feature is basically a Friday the 13th reunion.  Sean Cunningham, director of the original Friday directs here; Kane Holder, the Jason Voorhees in the later films is the stunt coordinator; even Ronn Carroll, who played the policeman at the very end of the first film is in this flick. 

The story here is about to become familiar: a crew is stationed underwater — in this film it is a military installation installing nuclear missiles — when they encounter something nasty. In this case it’s a creature of unknown, possibly alien original. 

The character of Snyder played by Miguel Ferrer is a likable horrible person. He tells the ship’s computer that they are under attack at which point the military-minded computer suggests a nuclear counterattack, which Snyder does. This only serves to basically ruin the station with a shockwave. Snyder eventually meets his end by trying to escape in a pod that somehow is not pressurized. He explodes on ascent.

The creature design here is very practical, cool, and gross. And unlike many of the films of 1989 it actually does feel like the setting is on an undersea station rather than a soundstage. Lest you have forgotten its Friday the 13th connections the conclusion of DeepStar Six is a strikingly similar shock ending to that film, which also involved water.

The Rift (aka Endless Descent — March 1, 1989)

It’s possible the best thing about this film is its tagline: “YOU CAN’T HOLD YOUR BREATH & SCREAM AT THE SAME TIME”. And yet, this is not true, I scream underwater all the time.

The plot: an experimental sub is sent to find a lost experimental sub but in the process stumble upon a whole submarine laboratory devoted to genetic engineering experiments. R. Lee Emery (drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket and later installments of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise) is the stand-out here, though his ability to ad lib demoralizing insults is underused. 

There are some underwater sequences outside the sub, though it is clear the budget demanded that they find an air-filled cave several miles under the sea where they could film more normal walking-around scenes on a dry set. All effects in The Rift are models and practical, though literally nothing would suggest they were on a submarine — almost as though they were going for a 1950s sci-fi look. 

One thing that made me chuckle is that the filmmakers basically avoided the problem of dialogue when underwater. Everyone talks to each other normally with regulators in their mouths. OK. It’s almost like the filmmakers didn’t even care that the story was supposed to be underwater. Like, how is there a lidless aquarium on a submarine? How are people still breathing after a massive, fiery explosion in an underwater cave?

Leviathan (March 17, 1989)

The Rift was released two weeks before our next film, Leviathan, and was also produced by DeLaurentis. Leviathan’s budget: $30M. The Rift’s budget: a hell of a lot less. The plot is basically the same though. Do investors think “You know what, this is a good story, but I think it would do better with laughable production design” because that’s essentially what happened here. Or maybe it was a kind of A-B test: let’s see which film style audiences like more?

In any event Leviathan has a stellar cast: Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, Daniel Stern, Hector Elizondo, Ernie Hudson. But most importantly, Stan Winston and his team did the effects — and oh my did they. The genetically engineered creature is The Thing amped way up. It’s basically a slimy, clawed, tentacled mass of flesh that assimilates anything it comes in contact with. Just wonderful grotesque body horror. Also of note are the deep sea mining scuba suits, which are used to fun dramatic effect. We can thank Winston for these as well. 

If you see only one of these six movies Leviathan should be it.

Lords of the Deep (April 21, 1989)

This film produced by Roger Corman could easily have been made in 1973, aesthetically. There’s a definite Space: 1999 vibe here. Here’s the thing: this isn’t a well-made movie, but it is a well-done movie. If shlock isn’t your thing may I suggest you watch this via Mystery Science Theater 3000 which did a hilarious job annotating it in season 12?

Hard really to know what’s going on here. There’s alien goo and impending global natural catastrophe (as the opening crawl tells us  “In the year 2020 – Man has used up and destroyed most of the Earth’s resources.”) Also there’s a homicidal computer, ala HAL, and an insane station commander.

You might enjoy the earnest overreacting of Priscilla Barnes from late era Three’s Company. Or you might enough the truly laughable puppetry of the creature. Or you might not. One thing is for sure when it is all over you will still not be sure who the lords of the deep are.

Alien from the Abyss (May 27, 1989aka Alien from the Deep)

Never count out the Italians when there is a horror film trend to be capitalized upon. This was one of the last films in the storied career of Antonio Margheriti who brought us Castle of Blood and Cannibal Apocalypse, among other gems.

The story here follows a Greenpeace camera crew investigating a volcano where the military is dumping radioactive waste. It’s basically one extended jungle chase sequence. Lots of snakes. So much so that it doesn’t go underwater until more than halfway through the film and even then not for long. 

You may be thinking radioactive waste dumped into a volcano — this is a 1950’s-esque mutant film right. Incorrect. The baddie here is an alien under the sea. Huh? I have no explanation, but there is great gore and the Kaiju-like creature is pretty great once we’re allowed to see more than its claw. The ending is ripped straight from Aliens as our Greenpeace activists do battle with front loader heavy machinery.

Honestly this was a pretty good film, even if it barely fits into any of our underwater horror categories.

The Evil Below (July 1, 1989)

This is also an Italian film, dubbed as horribly as you’ve comfortably come to love in giallo films. 

The premise here is promising: a crew is searching for the shipwreck of El Diablo, a ship whose cargo included stolen religious artifacts. But also a curse! You see, this is a haunted shipwreck. There are underwater sequences, but they are so poorly shot it is nearly impossible to see much less figure out what’s happening. I’m not sure what the evil was in The Evil Below, but it was below. So no misleading advertising here.

Here’s a handy reference chart for our journey through this unique moment in cinematic history:

Well, travelers, it’s time to surface. I hope you enjoyed our excursion under the waves. Let’s take this slowly and gently. Exhale on ascent. Don’t look down. Who knows what swimming up beneath us?

The Ghosts of Colorado

The Terror Tourist is my occasional segment on the Heavy Leather Horror Show, a weekly podcast about all things horror out of Salem, Massachusetts. (Segment begins at 12:12, but you’ll enjoy the whole thing!) These segments are also available as an email newsletter. Sign up here, if interested.

Hail and well met, travelers! I am your guide, your troubadour of horror, for The Terror Tourist — an itinerary of dark destinations, a travelogue of dread, a must-see list of ghastly locales worldwide. Each episode we’ll explore a new place — real or imagined, geographical or psychological.  With these surveys of the macabre as inspiration I encourage you to strike out and blaze your own trail through the darkness!

Today our journey takes us through the state of Colorado, a rectangle of diverse vertical and horizontal lands in the Mountain West of the United States. While your association between Colorado and horror may begin and end with the music of John Denver, I assure it is so much worse. Let’s go for a hike!

Millions of years before it was known as Colorado this land was covered by a great inland seaway plied by the most terrifying creatures ever to make water their home. Take Xiphactinus, the 24’ long angular death machine the inside of whose serrated maw would be the first you ever saw of it and the last sight of your sorry life. Or the fierce mosasaur, a 50’ long monstrosity whose thirds were essentially giant crocodile, whale, and eel — and which even the largest sharks gave a wide berth. None of these creatures survived the meteor impact of 66 million years ago, you may be grateful to know, but their fossilized skeletons — and teeth, so many shed teeth! — form a rich, literal foundation of terror beneath your hiking boots in this land we now call Colorado.

Mosasaur and Xiphactinus, Dinosaur Resource Center, Woodland Park, CO

You might have noticed the signpost at the trailhead for all the supernatural destinations upcoming. We’ll get there soon enough, but, sadly, there are plenty of waypoints of real life horror I want to note here for your future exploration:

In the 19th century colonizing settlers waged a genocidal campaign against the native inhabitants of the lands here, culminating in the atrocity known today as the Sand Creek Massacre. I will not provide detail except to say 1) This slaughter was actually praised in histories and monuments as an act of near-inevitable nation-building until shockingly recently and 2) The belief in Manifest Destiny has justified more horrific acts than the sum of every movie this podcast has or ever will review. (As an optional detour, I point you to the film Blood Quantum, which centers the Native American experience during a zombie apocalypse. Though set in Canada rather than Colorado it is a most creative reimagining of the concept of an Indian reservation.)

You’re not cold are you? You did dress in layers for this hike, right? See, it’s not just human behavior to fear here. The state itself seems to have it out for you. The most 14,000 foot-plus mountains in the continental US of course delivers brutal cold, blinding snowstorms, avalanches, piercing winds, and deliriously low levels of oxygen at altitude. Oh it’s also super dry, so you’ll dehydrate if all the other things don’t get you first. 

The sheer mountain faces of Telluride, Colorado

Did you hear that? That rustling in the underbrush? Don’t panic. Apex predators have mostly been sacrificed at the altar of industrialized agriculture, but we do have bears (no grizzlies though!) and just recently the gray wolf was reintroduced as an experiment in ecological rebalancing. Moose and elk can kill you by sheer size, but they don’t necessarily want to kill you. Actually moose might. The tip here is to walk noisily. Most animals don’t want anything to do with you … unless you sneak up on ‘em and they get startled. 

You may think we’re hiking through the middle of nowhere. But a lot of these places were once raucous somewheres. Only to eventually become ghost towns. Hundreds of ghost towns, from piles of rubble barely discernible in the brush to actual towns full of rotting structures seemingly frozen in time, dot the landscape. Of course ghost towns are spooky, full of memory and loss — ready set-pieces for tales of actual ghosts. Surprisingly few films to my knowledge have actually used these locales at least in Colorado. 

The ghost town of St. Elmo, Colorado

For me, what’s more interesting to ponder is why these booming burgs went bust. Usually it’s some sort of sudden resource scarcity — like the gold veins went dry, or the silver market crashed — or a technological change — a new rail line bypasses the town or a new road with a better grade makes it easier to get someplace else. The idea of these places grimy with miners, entrepreneurs, charlatans, prostitutes and barkeepers one day — and then nothing virtually overnight is the real scare for me. Our market economy is a cheery midwife and a merciless executioner. 

There are two can’t miss destinations coming up before our journey ends. 

Let’s walk back in time to the mid 19th century on the outskirts of the booming new city of Denver. About 160 acres of land is set aside as Mount Prospect Cemetery just southeast of the central business district and what would become the state capitol. And just as Denver is swelling with people coming to the Rockies looking for gold, silver, and a new life, the city cemetery is swelling with those who instead found disease, bullets to the head, and death. By 1898 there are about 5,000 bodies in the dirt here, but times are changing in urban design and this is era of the City Beautiful movement where parks, leafy boulevards, and neoclassical design are all the rage in proving that your city is to be taken seriously. So Denver wants to turn the cemetery — no longer on the outskirts of the growing city — into a beautiful new park. Surely you see where this hike is headed, fellow traveler. 

Photo: Denver Public Library

The city undertook the task of moving the 5,000 graves, but the effort was bungled from the start. The movers were paid by the coffin so enterprising gravediggers would dismember corpses and shuffle parts into smaller, more numerous child-sized boxes. When the city discovered this, they dismissed the whole crew and admitted they were out of money to move the remaining 2,000 bodies. The city gave family members a few weeks to claim bodies, but as many of these graves were of the indigent and unclaimed victims of crime, few people came forward. So, the park conversion continued, bodies still in the ground. (Sidenote: the segregated far southwest of the cemetery filled with the corpses of Chinese immigrants who came to help build the transcontinental railroad was dutifully disinterred by the small Chinese community here and all bodies shipped back to China.) 

Walk with me over here and, if our location and the angle of the sun is right, you can still make out divots in the rolling hills of the park where the graves have ever-so-slightly subsided. Every day, not two blocks from my house people lounge and dogs run about oblivious to the corpses beneath the picnic blankets and volleyball nets. Part of the former cemetery, now called Cheesman Park, was given over to create the Denver Botanic Gardens whose construction expansions over the years continue to unearth graves and corpses — most recently in 2022. Ghost stories in this park, unsurprisingly, are plentiful. I’m willing to believe.

Photo: Denver Post, “Four preserved skeletons unearthed at Denver’s Cheesman Park, once a cemetery“, 2010

There’s an unsubstantiated rumor that the unmoved graves and subsequent development of this park was an inspiration for Poltergeist. Who knows? What is substantiated is the story behind the 1980 film The Changeling, which takes place in a mansion that directly sat on Cheesman Park. Starring George C. Scott trying his hardest not to be irascible, this classic haunted house film was inspired by a story written by a composer named Russell Hunter who was renting the Henry Treat Rogers House in 1968. His recounting is nearly identical to the story in the film: bouncing balls in hallways, a sealed-over door leading to a hidden room, the discovery of a diary from a person locked away from public view, a psychic medium, and ultimately the revelation of the child-swap. The Denver Public Library has tried to verify any part of this tale — to no avail. But it made its way to film and a great one at that! The mansion was demolished in the 70s for a sad high-rise condominium building. Poltergeist and The Changeling — this park has something for everyone, I tell you!

The final stop on our hike brings us to the unavoidable importance of Colorado to Stephen King’s and Stanley Kubrick’s very separate masterpieces called The Shining. Up in the mountains here in a small town called Estes Park is a gorgeous old hotel called The Stanley. Originally created as a retreat for wealthy Easterners suffering tuberculosis and other ailments, the hotel eventually became a high-end stopover for tourists on their way to Rocky Mountain National Park, established in 1915. Given the massive amounts of snow at elevation the hotel was only open in the summer months (until 1983). But back in 1974 the author Stephen King, coincidentally, happened to book a room at the Stanley the day before it was being shuttered for the winter. He roamed the halls of the near-desolate hotel, had a drink at the bar with a bartender named Grady, and spent the night in room 217. The rest is mostly history, though of note to those who know the sizable differences between the book and the film, The Stanley did actually partially explode in 1911 due to a gas build-up. Clearly King learned this during his stay, providing him with the novel’s conclusion. 

The Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado

The hotel itself is in no way scary. I’ve stayed there several times and it is just a beautiful, Federalist-style set of buildings that seem more at home on the east coast than the mountain west. If you’ve seen the terrible 1997 miniseries of The Shining directed by King (or the 1994 film Dumb and Dumber) then you have seen The Stanley. No hedge row labyrinth, no art deco ballroom, really nothing but the original bar that evokes dread. For decades the ownership of the hotel shied away from its associations with the book and film, especially since none of the latter was filmed there. But eventually they came to embrace the notoriety, planting their own very short hedge maze, offering Shining tours, and even now throwing an annual Shining Ball (which my wife and I have attended). But hotel management is all in now: in a partnership with the horror film production company Blumhouse the hotel is building out a 80,000 square foot film center and museum devoted to horror cinema. It should be open in a few years. I want to work there.

As for the other Stanley, Kubrick, he didn’t have much use for Colorado in his film. Not only was it not filmed here but even the one location-specific reference in the film — the story of the Donner Party that Jack recounts to his family on the ride up to the hotel — takes place in California. There’s a brief establishing shot outside the Torrance’s Boulder apartment — still there looking the same right next to the University of Colorado — but that’s it!

As terror tourists, however, you will likely care to know that Kubrick did use much of the mountain west as inspiration. He cribbed the design of the lobby and Native American iconography from the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park in California (for real, like down to the location of individual light fixtures), gathered exterior shots from the Timberline Lodge atop Mount Hood in Oregon, filmed the opening title sequence at Going-To-The-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park, and maybe even stole the red bathroom from the Biltmore Hotel outside Scottsdale in Arizona. That said, 98% of the film was shot on a soundstage at Elstree Studios north of London.

This is where I leave you to hike on your own, listeners. There are plenty of other sights for you to explore of course. I’ll note the excellent The Black Phone from 2021, set in 1970s Denver, the Day of the Dead remake from 2008 which isn’t awful, and the unrated Snowbeast from 1977 set in Crested Butte, Colorado. This film is awful in the very best way possible. I highly recommend it. 

Good luck on your travels. Remember to hydrate and stay wary!

Holiday Frights 2022

My neighborhood theater, The Esquire, setting the right tone for the holidays.
(Of note, I consider Gremlins a Christmas horror movie, fight me.)

Welcome to another annual edition of recommendations for your spooky Christmas needs. (Click here to skip right to the reviews.)

Last year I mentioned the few contemporary remnants of the Victorian-era love of wintertime ghosts, but the linkage between short, dark days and the urge for flesh-tingling storytelling goes back a lot further than that. Shakespeare in A Winter’s Tale (1611) notes “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one. Of sprites and goblins.” Yule logs, mistletoe, the Christmas tree itself — all pre-Christian celebrations of the winter solstice, symbols of a time for gathering in a space where you could only see to the limit of a fire’s flame. And what to do around this fire, huddled close? Tale-telling, naturally. Those tales, as the setting rather begs, historically have been about ghosts and other haunts. This tradition wound its way into Christianity and the modern era, as Colin Fleming notes as a series of

… readings for the season—but not really of the season … a rather more pleasing terror—the ghosts, even when they mean to avenge themselves upon us, also seem to have dipped into the nog a time or two, with their own playfulness in evidence. Sure, they can kill you, but they do so with a joke or two at the ready. These are the short days of the year, and a weird admixture of pagan habits and grand religiosity obtains. There is also booze. People didn’t have TVs: people drank, people got to telling tales, someone told a tale and someone tried to tell a bigger one, and then, lo, we got a whole ghost story Christmas tradition.

Holiday ghosts were fading away by the early 19th century until Charles Dickens famously brought them back as time-traveling tour guides in a grand morality tale. A Christmas Carol is the last major vestige — a tomb marker, if you will — of a tradition that was far weirder and scarier than any of Dickens’ four ghosts. And yet, A Christmas Carol is part of the cultural atmosphere of Christmas, there even when it isn’t in the foreground: scrooge-as-a-verb, being shown how behavior can spawn multiple timelines, the inspiration for the Grinch, and countless adaptations (including this year’s Spirited with Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell — worth a watch). It’s embedded in our childhood psyche in a way unlike any Halloween ghost story.

Here’s my personal proof. Christmas Day, 1982. My siblings and cousins retreat to the basement to create our own adaptation of Dickens’ classic. It was the dawn of VHS cameras, the noonday of wood-paneled suburban decor, and the dusk of my short career as a playwright. This grainy, budget-less masterwork, a Christmas gift to you, will likely be the most disturbing thing you watch as a result of this newsletter.

You may think that Halloween has the monopoly on horror media, but it isn’t even close (at least in the USA). There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of Christmas-themed horror movies from barely watchable home movies (ahem) to legit masterpieces — the true legacy of those bards of yore and their campfire frights. Let me tell you about some.

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.