Thursday, October 24, 2013

On Birthdays and Thinking About What "Getting Older" Really Means

"Go away! Stop looking at me! MOOOOOOOM!"
I started this week in a foul mood. I'm not going to sugar coat it; it was my fault, entirely. It seems that I, for the first time in my life, forgot how old I was. Naturally, I was rounding down, instead of up, and even though my integer was only off by one year, it shook me up.

This has been a bad year, kinda, sorta, in that I sidelined several personal goals to handle some business for other people. Some of it was creative, and a lot of it was economic. But I've not been driving my own bus for about nine months now and I just recently wrested control of my vehicle back, to belabor a metaphor.

I didn't want any hoo-hah for my birthday. I'm turning 44. No, really, that's the actual number. Forty-Four. 4-4. Symmetry be damned, I was just not feeling it. So I told everyone that it was going to be just another day.

Thankfully, my wife chose not to listen. And since I didn't tell anyone else, the well wishes came rushing in via email, text, tweet, and a veritable deluge of FaceBook posts. I had a great breakfast, a good lunch, got a massage (which I desperately needed, it turns out), and basically took a mental health day. The few cards I got in the mail were all awesome, most especially the hand-made card my sister sent me that must have taken her a week to build. I got to catch up on some NCIS, and napped a little. Turns out, I needed all of that.

Happy Birthday, O Bringer of Food and Treats!
Is that for me?
Now it's the end of the day, and I just found out that Cathy and I have been cast in a radio theater production of "It's a Wonderful Life!" for the Backdoor Theatre's Christmas show. We're super thrilled about it, because we have been dying to do some radio theater for several years now.

Oh, and it looks like I have found a home for my Sailor Tom Sharkey stories. More details on that when everything is locked down.

2014 is going to be an aggressive expansion for me. Lots of things coming out for you to read and enjoy. I'm looking forward to 44. My bad mood was just that: mine, and mine alone. I don't feel old. I certainly don't feel any older. I'm not about to start attempting to "be" old, because of this weird idea that I'm just supposed to. That's not who I am. Never has been, so why start now? Pfft!

Thanks to all of you dear friends, family, fellow writers and artists, and chums from all over the world, for the great birthday wishes. I'm grateful for whatever brought us together, and I love you guys in whatever amount of affection isn't considered creepy and strange.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

13 Days Until Halloween

I've been pretty busy writing these Top 5 Lists lately, and so with 13 Days Until All Hallow's Eve, now is a good time to stop and recap for the season. Here's the full list, just in case you missed anything:

My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies

My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies

I've been researching old spook
shows lately. I'm thinking of
putting one on at the theater.
 You will notice it is far from complete. For example, I don't have any Mummy or Frankstein movies listed, and that's because I'm going to start working on a book in my spare time that will cover all of the above, and much more. The as-yet-unpublished lists will include things like Creatures From the Deep, Creatures on the Loose, Comedy-Horror, When Animals Attack, and a bunch of other, really specific lists, like the Top 5 Horror Movies that Need to be Remade, and the Top 5 Worse Horror Movie Remakes, and a bunch of other things like that. So, if you don't mind being patient with me, I'll drop some occasional lists in for your consideration, and we'll see about getting this booger published somewhere, okay?

And hey, as long as we're talking about it, if you think there are some Top 5 Lists I need to cover in this as-yet-untitled movie guide, please share them with me and if I use your topic as a list, I will include you in the acknowledgements in the book.

In the meantime, for those of you who like to build up to it, there's a lot of inspirational movie watching in the above lists to get you in the Halloween state of mind. Thanks to everyone who favorited, forwarded, or otherwise commented on these blog posts. We'll do it again soon!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies

Another Doozy from Vincent Price.
Before the modern slasher, these
kinds of movies had much stronger
and more traditional mystery plots.

In the last great renaissance of horror movies, roughly 1978 to 1888, we saw the emergence of a new kind of monster: the masked maniac, and they were legion. Inspired largely by the movies on this list, a horde of second, third, and fourth tier quickie, no-budget films literally spewed out of Hollywood like a Tom Savini neck wound, muddying the waters and diluting the quality, and incidentally, setting the bar for horror for a generation of people. Sympathetic monsters, like Frankenstein and poor Larry Talbot, were right out. In its place was the mute, force of nature, hulking menace wielding gardening implements straight out of the Sears and Roebuck catalog.

At the time, there was an emerging body of scholarship devoted to these films, and I readily tracked down whatever I could. Most of the popular opinion regarding the newfound fascination with horror was divided between the appeal of the Grand Guignol, or theater of blood, from Victorian France, and a resurgence of the kind of morality play that was performed during the Reformation and eventually transmogrified into fairie tales, proverbs, and in the 20th century, urban myths. Essentially, the gist of the story was this: good girls are spared, and bad girls get punished. The good are spared, and the wicked get what’s coming to them. An eye for an eye, literally.

All of this was gleefully, if not consciously, sublimated into films like The Driller Killer, Prowler, Maniac, Pieces, and one of the all-time cult classics, Sleepaway Camp, a film that almost made my top 5 list. It was the age of Fangoria, and these movies were meat and potatoes for the masses.

Then came the sequels...and oh god, the sequels...and no, really, the terrible, awful sequels...were any of them good? Not in terms of the larger story, but as movies? My short answer is no, no they were not. I know you probably have a favorite, and you watched all of the series, but they weren’t scary to you, were they? It was hard to take any of them seriously because of that unkillable nature. So, without considering the success or failure of what has become the new horror franchises, here’s my top five list based on jump scares, tension and quality filmmaking, and overall effectiveness of the first time we are introduced to the murderous maniac in question.

Dr. Phibes, unmasked at the organ. Seems familiar, huh?
The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971)
A cool throwback from the shaggy-haired 1870s, starring the late, great Vincent Price in a role that closely resembles the turn he did in the less successful Theater of Blood. The film opens as a murder mystery, with prominent doctors being killed in weird and gruesome ways that end up being Biblical plagues. The evidence mounts and the madman is revealed, with some grim and grisly goings on in between.

Just a few years later, we’d get a new kind of masked killer that is inarticulate (see below), but playing ghoulish murderers was something Price excelled at for years. Dr. Phibes was one of his best, and certainly one of his most famous turns in this vein. It’s also one of the last times such a murderous maniac will have a shred of sympathy applied to him.

Don't mind us. We're just here for a wild party. Oh, and
to piss off the person who'd most like to kill a bunch
of irresponsible teen-agers.
Friday the 13th (1980)
This low budget slasher quickie really kicked off the Teen Slasher craze. Everything is great out at Camp Crystal Lake, except for those persistent rumors about the one kid that died, all those years ago... The first Friday the 13th is also noteworthy in that the series character that followed, one Jason Voorhees, isn’t actually the killer. Not yet, sorta. Kinda. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching.

Granted, the deaths are gruesome and the movie is certainly informed by the earlier Halloween, but that doesn’t keep it from being and effective (and gory, thanks to special effects wizard Tom Savini) opening salvo for this particular brand of horror film.

Nice thousand-yard stare on young Michael Myers, there.
Who would dress their child up as a clown, anyway?
Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter created a modern suspense-filled masterpiece with the first Halloween film. Take a creepy kid, straight out of the genre, and lock him up for twelve or thirteen years, and then have him get out on the eve of anniversary of his horrific murder, and add a teenaged Jamie Lee Curtis. Movie magic ensues.

Expertly shot with a minimum of gore, never mind what you think you remember, Halloween ratchets up the suspense and jump scares like a good roller coaster ride, with just a hint of the macabre and the supernatural provided by veteran British actor Donald Pleasance. I love Rob Zombie to death, but this is a movie that didn’t need to be remade.

"I'm your boyfriend now, Nancy!" Still one of the best scenes
in the whole movie. Too bad Heather Langenkamp was a
block of wood. A beautiful, empty shell of an actress.
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven was already a known commodity when he created Fred Krueger, the child molester and murderer who was burned alive by the parents of his victims. But Krueger didn’t die, as you well know, and he’s haunting the dreams of the children in the neighborhood.

Inventive special effects, dream logic, crazy visuals, and best of all, a compelling reason for the maniac to be unkillable (how do you snuff a dream, anyway?) made Nightmare on Elm Street an overnight sensation. A baby-faced Johnny Depp didn’t hurt, either, but the acting takes a serious back door to Freddy and his dreamworld.

Leatherface's victory dance. See that light? Magic hour!
It's not all blood and guts and questionable casting choices.
There's some art to the movie, even if it's a lens flare.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Long before Michael Myers and Jason and even Freddy Krueger, there was Leatherface. Tobe Hooper shot this low-budget horror film in Texas in 1973, based very loosely on the Ed Gein murders in Wisconsin in the 1950s, and kids in small Texas towns have been swearing that the “actual murders” took place just down the road ever since.

Maybe it was lightning in a bottle, but the movie really struck a nerve with the viewing public. It was lionized and pilloried in equal parts for its graphic violence and nighmare imagery, but those reviews don’t give director Tobe Hooper his due credit. Believe it or not, there is a kind of subtlety underneath the screaming and the revving of the chainsaw. It’s a more clever movie, technically, than most people think it is.

But in the end, it is a movie about a cannibal family, and there’s something gleefully unhinged about Leatherface that is hard to pinpoint. Freddy is certainly clever as a nightmare tormentor, and while Michael and Jason don’t say anything, they take on the roles of silent “forces of nature” in stride. But Leatherface’s inarticulate bellows and his childlike glee reveal a kind of animal cunning that is truly unsettling. Anyone who is a fan of these kinds of movies cannot pass the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre up. Now, the sequels, on the other hand...

Drew Barrymore's bait and switch was a perfect way to
open the film. We're not going to follow the innocent-looking
blonde around. Instead, we're going to root for the
dangerous-looking brunette.
Bonus movie! Scream (1996)
Wes Craven’s return to horror, an all-star cast (or, at least, they would go on to be an all-star cast), and a post-modern deconstruction of the genre he helped to invent make Scream one of the most successful movie maniac horror franchises of all time. There are so many nods, winks, and asides in this film that you really need a score card to keep them all straight. But Jamie Kennedy’s recitation of “The Rules” takes the film into meta-movie territory, as it’s the first time a horror movie actually played with its own tropes in the narrative.

Scream also subverts the genre in taking the seemingly supernatural and unkillable masked maniac to task with a Scooby Doo style solution. The film is equal parts slasher flick and murder mystery, and Craven mines the subject matter deeply. When we find out who’s actually doing it, we don’t stop to think that we’ve crossed over into Creepy Kid territory.

Scream certainly belongs in the masked maniac genre, but in fact, it really isn’t that kind of movie. Personally, I love that it plays with all of those conventions and yet is also almost a fair play mystery, something none of the masked maniac movies ever successfully tried to do. Ghost Face is no Michael Myers, but he was never supposed to be in the first place.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mark and Gloria's Final Word on Miley Cyrus

Punk hair, toungue out,
image carefully crafted to foment
shock and outrage from the
concerned parents of the world.

I’m taking a quick break from all of these Top 5 Lists to Weigh In on Miley Cyrus, the zombie-like non-story that refuses to die. First, here's some wisdom from Gloria Steinem that sort of inspired this blog post. It's short. Check it out here.

I’m glad that Gloria Steinem has scratched this off of everyone’s To Do list. I think she’s one hundred percent correct, by the way, but let me just add this to the mix: if you’re over the age of 30 and you are outraged about Miley Cyrus’ career trajectory, I want you to punch yourself in the face, really hard. Not because I want you to hurt yourself, but because I want you to wake the hell up.

As someone who grew up watching Madonna re-invent herself literally every 4-5 years, this is all just amusing and stupid in equal parts. But never mind that—there are probably more of you who can recall the crop of Mickey Mouse Club graduates that went on to become very famous and scandalous celebrities in their own right, right? On second thought, maybe you don’t. Here’s the wikipage. Go look and be amazed. Ryan Gosling? Yeah, even him.

None of this is new. There isn’t a child actor on the planet that hasn’t rebelled against their handlers as soon as they could do so. And when those handlers are Walt Disney, one of the most restrictive, manipulative, and calculating of our New Corporate Overlords, well, let’s just say, the pendulum always swing back the other way, doesn’t it?

But more to my original point, why on EARTH do you even care? This is music made for children pretending to be adults, made by children pretending to be adults, backed by actual adults with deep pockets and market research. I need you to really understand this: Hannah Montana was never, ever real. It was all made up, and it was done so with profit in mind. 

Remember the outrage? Album sales soared. It's all an act.
I think the thing that was the most upsetting to me was that there were people my age (over 40) watching the MTV Video Awards that night, and actually tweeting and posting about it as it was going on. Really? Seriously? I won't get into a rant about how youth culture is marketed to adults almost as much as it's marketed to youth, and how the only goal is to turn children into good little consumers. You can imagine how that would go already. But seriously. That whole event is one big televised press conference, a chance for the media conglomerates to roll out the new models and let everyone take them on a test drive. 

As parents, you're forgetting the number one rule that has been true for generations and is as bad as it ever was: if you hate it, the kids will love it. Your fear, your disgust, your confusion is like Ambrosia to them. If you can't understand why Miley is suddenly popular now that she's a "little tramp," it's because you think she's a "little tramp." 

But hey, there are a few earnest folks out there who genuinely, if inexplicably, love her music and think she has the voice of an angel and blah blah blah. If you’re a parent, and your child is confused about what’s happening with Miley or that demented little incubus, Justin Bieber, and why they suddenly seem so hurtful and nasty and no longer 14 years old, this is a GREAT opportunity to talk to them about media and the way content is manufactured, for profit and consumption in this country. It’s an important and necessary lesson, and the sooner they get it, the better off they will be as humans on this planet. Heck, while you’re on about it, throw in a discussion about advertising, too. In the end, it’s all the same thing, really.

Shocking. Scandalous. And carefully
crafted by the studio. Nothing is real.
Please don’t think this is some sign of the apocalypse. People were initially upset with Annette Funicello when she wore a two-piece bikini in Beach Party. She recovered. We all did. Most child stars are permanently damaged by the experience. Lindsay Lohan continues to be a slow-motion car crash in progress. The only thing I feel for these people is sadness, and maybe some pity. It's too much to put on the shoulders of a child and expect them to not get banged up by the process. Only a few have survived in modern times, and it's because they went ahead and acted out the childhood they never had, which included rebelling against their parents. It's just that when you build an artificial person and have a corporation for parents, that rebellion is usually well funded and capitalized, and done in the public spotlight. See also Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. But they've come through it, more or less. It’s just a phase.  When you grow up in the spotlight, your “phases” become tabloid gossip, and in the end, just like most monsters that live under your bed, it all has exactly the power you assign to it.

Monday, October 14, 2013

My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies

One of the better creepy kid
movies out there. Just barely
edged off of the Top 5 List.

Nothing delivers good scares like a creepy or a killer kid movie. The reason is simple: there is a persistent mythology of childhood that is part of the American gestalt. The reasons are legion, and the culprits are many, but chief among them is the notion that kids are supposed to grow up in this Mark Twain-esque, Norman Rockwell-like setting where the colors are all saturated and there’s good fishing at the pond, and teachers still get apples on their desks, and children completely innocent and devoid of negative images, feelings and emotions until they magically turn eighteen and then are eligible to be killed in foreign wars.

This is all crap, of course. All kids are born feral and require constant vigilance to ensure they don’t turn out to be creepy or killer kids. They all play with bugs, poop, and dead things, and they see and hear all manner of stuff that they shouldn’t, often without context or explanation, and so they form their own weird associations with things like death and violence.

And that’s why Killer Kid movies are so scary. They show us the thing that we don’t ever want to acknowledge or admit to ourselves, and it’s this: the myth of childhood is actually a lie. We can’t protect our children from death, from dying, from craziness. That’s frightening to most people, and it’s largely the reason FOR the myth in the first place.

The best movies in this category exploit that to a tremendously successful degree. Again, my yardstick for quality here is pure scare: does the movie stay with you after you stop watching it? Also: there are a number of movies not on this list, that have creepy kids in them, but for one reason or another would also fit on another list. Ginger Snaps is a good example in that the sisters are pretty screwed up and creepy, but let’s face it: Ginger Snaps is a werewolf movie, not a creepy kid movie. So, if you don’t see what you’re looking for on this list, let me know and I’ll tell you why.

That's just not right. Creepy Kid on Creepy Kid violence
is doubly disturbing.
The Brood (1979)
Who doesn’t love David Cronenberg, especially pre-Dead Ringers Cronenberg? All of his movies benefit from his wacky fascination with the human body and the amount of goo it can produce under duress.

Oliver Reed stars as a prima donna psychotherapist trying to fix a troubled housewife with a lot of issues. Her husband and their little girl are getting by, but it’s when grandmother gets killed—and by what—that things get really interesting. This is a think-piece initially, but once the murder happens, the movie really takes off. These killer kids are as disturbing as the one non-killer kid in the movie, who is creepy in her own, quiet way. This is an overlooked movie from Cronenberg, but it’s also really effective.

This movie always reminded me of the classic Star Trek
episode "Miri." Remember? "Bonk Bonk on the Head!"
Children of the Corn (1984)
The 1980s may well be remembered as the decade of crappy Stephan King movies, for they were legion at this time. They ran the gamut from, “That wasn’t really a Stephen King movie,” to “this was freaking terrible and I want a time machine to keep me from ever having seen it.” There were, of course, a couple of exceptions, and Children of the Corn is one of them.

The film tends to deviate sharply (as they all did in those days) from the really effective Stephen King short story of the same name (which is part of the problem, right there; it’s a short story that they had to pad out into a ninety minute movie). The combination of creepy kids and backwater religion are a good mix, even if the ending is a bit of a mess. I’ve not seen the sequels, but really, has anyone?

This is how most girls looked at me in High School. Exactly.
Village of the Damned (1960)
This movie may well be the origin of why blondes scare me sometimes. This British based movie is an effective sci-fi/horror combination that was remade somewhat successfully by John Carpenter decades later.

There’s an event in a small village that knocks everyone out at once. When they come to, a number of women are suddenly pregnant. They all give birth on the same day to a crop of blonde freaks. And the rest of the movie is the town dealing with the kids, and vice versa. This movie does a lot with very little, and the story is interesting and tense. 

When modern horror movies use a little inventiveness and
don't treat the genre like a ghetto, you get movies like this.

Orphan  (2009)
A young couple dealing with the loss of their child decide to adopt a very sweet young girl. Simple enough, right? And then the crazy stuff happens and it’s pretty upsetting and bleak.

One of the most recent entries in the genre, and whoa baby, what a weird-ass movie! Some people have criticized the film for its “anti-adoption” bias, but I really don’t see that as being an issue, since the creepy kid in question is something I’ve never seen in a movie before. That’s right—a unique take on the creepy kid film, but be warned: if you don’t buy the premise, you won’t like the ending. If you do buy the premise, then hang on to your hat, because this is a corker.

Yeah, these girls start out "not quite right" and it only gets
worse as the movie goes on.
Spider Baby (1968)
Subtitled “The Maddest Story Ever Told!” and featuring an elderly Lon Chaney, Jr. and an opening song called “Cannibal Feast” that would seem at first blush to be a novelty song, but then it really isn’t. That same dynamic could well apply to Spider Baby.

It seems, at first glance, to be a low budget mish-mash of other stories, but it’s actually the performances in Spider Baby that make this movie so good. The kids, Elizabeth and Virginia, are perfectly played as not being quite right from the get-go, and brother Ralph, played by a young Sid Haig, almost seems as if he’s a hold over from Todd Browning’s Freaks. Lon Chaney, Jr. is the caretaker of the Merrye house and its children, and when other interested parties swoop in to divvy up the spoils, things get a little dicey, to be sure. Spider Baby  is a classic, certainly informed by earlier movies like The Bad Seed, but never quite duplicated for being a lot more disturbing than the filmmakers were probably intending. 

Fred Gwynne, trying to work out how he ended up in this
cockeyed movie, while Denise Crosby wonders if it's too
late to go back to the Enterprise.
Bonus Film! Pet Semetary (1989)
Remember when I said earlier about the 1980s Stephen King movies sucking? Here’s Exhibit A, right here. Flat script, flat acting, and flat pacing really suck most of the life out of this movie. That is, until Gage comes back. After that, it’s great. But frankly, it’s almost not worth slogging through the first half of the movie to get there.  Fred Gwynne is wasted in this movie. Denise Crosby should have stayed on Star Trek: the Next Generation. This was not the leap into movies she thought it would be. (See Also: the career choices of David Caruso.) And yet...Gage’s “No Fair!” will stick with you and almost overshadow the rest of this terrible movie. Almost. Bonus points for the Ramones’ song, “Pet Semetary,” but still not enough to save it.

Discussion: Fear on Film, from 1982

(From L to R) the moderator, Landis, Carpenter, and
Cronenberg on the set of this TV program that ended
up being a huge influence on me. How strange.
When I was growing up in Abilene, Texas, there were limited resources for a kid that was into weird stuff. Truly, had it not been for the baffling ability for Abilene to pull in KTVT  channel 11 and WFAA channel 8 from Dallas, along with KERA channel 13, the PBS station that ran Star Trek and Dr. Who and Monty Python's Flying Circus, I don't know if I would have turned out like I did. Well, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have had as deep a pop cultural education, in any case.

One of my most important early resources for news and information was Starlog magazine and Fangoria magazine. These early issues weren't so press release heavy back then; in fact, they often had to go find stories and make content for the magazine, which led to some really great articles about a lot of interesting stuff. One of those articles in an early issue, (maybe issue #9?) was called "Fear on Film" and it was a partial transcription and report about a round table discussion between John Landis, David Cronenberg, and John Carpenter. This was in 1982, and Cronenberg was the "old hand" at the time, having successfully made Rabid, Shivers, The Brood, and Scanners. Landis was white hot coming off of American Werewolf in London. And Carpenter had made a little movie called Halloween and also The Fog, and was working on The Thing. Talk about three directors at the top of their game. 

The article was interesting, and I never forgot reading it. But yesterday, I stumbled across THIS on the interwebs. Oh, thank you, sweet Interwebs!

This was a great discussion, and if I had any complaints, it would be that it was only a thirty minute talk. The moderator is pretty good, but the three guys are good speakers and eager to talk about their work. Very interesting stuff, particularly from Cronenberg, whom Landis and Carpenter seem deferential to. If you've never seen it, give the interview a watch. 

It's telling to me that all of this is happening before Landis' tragedy on the set of the Twilight Zone Movie (though he may have been about to work on it), before Cronenberg made Videodrome and the Fly, and before Carpenter went off the rails completely. Basically, they are still young enough that they've got stuff to prove and talk about, and hadn't been completely eaten alive by Hollywood yet. 

I miss the early days of Fangoria. If I'd had a decent amount of art training, I might well have ended up a contestant on Face Off. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies

An overlooked film from the 1980s with
a lot going for it, and then some.

Possession and a loss of personal control, as I said earlier elsewhere in this series, are one of the things that most scares me in horror movies.  It’s no surprise, then, that I approach the subject of demon possession movies with some trepidation. I think with these movies, the phrase “Your Mileage May Vary” is terribly appropriate, because if you aren’t scared by these movies, or the ideas they contain, your list will be very different from mine.

Demons and devils in movies seem to be of two different varieties: The havoc-wreaking kind, and the possessing and controlling kind. There is frequent cross-over, too, as some uglies will possess a victim and then use that person to wreak havoc.

Curiously, there are very few “deal with the devil” movies, although that motif is still widespread in literature and short stories. I wonder why that is. I love those stories, myself. But these movies below kept me up at night, thinking and wondering, and concocting elaborate contingency plans for what to do if I ever come across a moldering old tome in a deserted cabin.

See, I wouldn't want to walk down that hall, either.
Night of the Demon (1957)
Adapted successfully from the M.R. James story, “Casting the Runes” Night of the Demon (the slightly shorter Curse of the Demon is the American release of the same movie) is high on the list despite being mostly atmospheric and moody until the big reveal at the end.

As a story, it’s well-done, even if every single still and ad campaign I’ve seen for the movie insisted on spoiling the surprise at the end. Gifted director Jacques Tourneur filmed Night of the Demon like a film noir movie, which really helps with the atmosphere. Emphasizing form over function, Night of the Demon is evocative, if not terrifying, but it’s still really good and satisfying as a movie.

This movie was not good for Mia Farrow's health.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Arguably Roman Polanski’s most famous movie, and the film that made Mia Farrow a star, Rosemary’s Baby is a study in paranoia straight out of the Cornell Woolrich playbook, even though the book was written by Ira Levin. Maybe my favorite thing of all about the movie is that it’s produced by the legendary William Castel, who should need no introduction to anyone reading this list.

Unfortunately, while the paranoia is spot on, the pacing is positively glacial. If you’ve never seen it before, you’ll sit on your hands wondering what’s going to happen next. After you’ve seen it, you may want to fast forward through the middle hour of the film. However, the payoff, when it finally comes, is pretty disturbing.

That's the worst Carol Channing impression I've ever seen.
The Evil Dead (1981)
The movie that put Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi on the map is also a cult classic by any definition you’d care to use. Like the other horror movies in Raimi’s canon, the first Evil Dead movie has a little bit of everything, including humor. Maybe the humor is there because Raimi also chose to include a scene wherein a demonic tree rapes one of the girls. Who can really say?

This is the start of the “Five kids head out to a cabin in the woods” genre, which the recent remake thankfully kept intact, and the brilliant Cabin in the Woods referenced so reverently. The film is violent, bawdy, colorful, funny, and yeah, it’s even scary in places. The shoestring budget and subsequent effects may turn off new viewers, but if you’re going to watch horror movies and you don’t watch The Evil Dead trilogy, then you’re not doing it right.

Yep, that's Alice Cooper, and he's the least of your worries.
Prince of Darkness (1987)
John Carpenter’s demonic particle physics movie got uneven reviews when it first came out, but if you know anything about experimental physics, and if you’ve read any Lovecraft or similarly cosmic horror, then you were probably completely unnerved by this strange and creepy movie.

A priest dies, the last of his order, and the church finds something strange in the basement. Scientists are called in, including members of the college physics department, and they start trying to figure out what’s inside. I’m going to let you figure it out for yourself, based on the movie title. When it gets out, it behaves in a very un-liquid-like fashion and that’s when the trouble starts. For me, the scariest parts of the movie are the dreams that everyone starts receiving. I was afraid to close my eyes the first time I saw the movie, and it’s creeped me out ever since.

Gross. Just...gross.
The Exorcist (1973)
Two priests, one young and one old, a little girl with an imaginary friend, and a concerned high society mother are the focus of William Friedkin’s version of William Peter Blatty’s novel. It’s a long film, with lots of apparent side trips, but in the end, you’ll see, it all comes together. Special effects legend Dick Smith created the complicated and subtle make-ups for the movie, and it’s mostly through the special effects that the jacked-up horror comes across, and very convincingly, at that.

The movie is legendary, and widely considered to be one of the scariest movies of all time. It benefitted at the time from the trend in Hollywood filmmaking towards realism and a kind of stylized “no style,” which gives the movie a kind of dull flatness to it. When the demon hits the fan, it’s such a marked contrast to the rest of the movie that it’s legitimately shocking and off-putting. Despite numerous attempts to make a franchise out of the success of the first film, the original The Exorcist remains the best by a considerable margin. All other possession movies are compared to it, as a result. 

Only in Hollywood does she get to play the "ugly duckling."aaaaaaaaaa
Bonus Movie! Jennifer’s Body (2009)
I almost feel sorry for Megan Fox. I’ve seen her act in some smaller, art-house movies, and you know what? She’s got pretty good acting chops. It only she could have kept her mouth shut, and her prima donna attitude in check, about those Transformer movies. Oh, well. It’s probably because she needed the money that she agreed to star in this wonderful flawed masterpiece.

Amanda Seyfried plays the ugly duckling to Fox’s swan as friends in high school. One wild night at the club, listening to that devil-music rock and roll, finds Jennifer in possession of a malevolent entity with a real appetite for youth, both literally and figuratively.

What makes the movie work, despite a couple of leaps in logic, is the sharp and witty script by Diablo Cody. Jennifer’s Body fits more on the great fun end of the spectrum than the screaming terror end, but it’s got some moves and some great eye candy, to boot.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies

Sure, it's on the list. But the Spielberg
stuff in the movie keeps it out of the
top 5. But Oh, that Clown Doll...

Ghosts are everyone’s first exposure to the horror genre, unless you came from weird parents. Despite the proliferation of Vampires and Zombies, ghosts and ghost stories remain the most prolific (and oldest?) form of horror story. Even children’s picture books include stories about ghosts. They are, figuratively (or literally) everywhere.

Maybe because ghost stories are so commonplace, it’s easy to dismiss them as “not that scary” or effective as a vehicle for blood-curdling horror. I, of course, disagree with that. In fact, I think ghosts are the most versatile means of scaring the bejeezus out of someone. 

A good ghost story, in print or film, should linger long after you’ve finished it, like heavy garlic in a pasta salad. Done well, a good ghost story will have you questioning your perceptions of what constitutes reality. And it doesn’t hurt if it makes you not want to sleep for three days, either.

One of the many tortured visuals that add to the mood.
The Haunting (1963)
The Haunting is one of the great “something out of nothing” movies, a film that manages to be scary and suspenseful using something that Hollywood used to value called acting. Based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the adaptation isn’t so important here (although it is actually very accurate) as the strong psychological sense of dread that director Robert Wise creates. This movie makes it onto everyone’s Top Haunted House Movie lists, and with good reason. This is the perfect thing to show to teenagers who think old movies can’t possibly be scary.

Oh, and it should go without saying, but avoid the remake like the plague. It make no sense and isn’t really based on the same material, thus begging the question: why do it in the first place?

Having Cole do much of the spook investigation added
to the suspense in the movie. And she really scared me.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Released the same year as the terrible remake of The Haunting, this is the movie that put M. Night Shyamalan on the map (and kept him there for probably far longer than usual). And with good reason. This is easily his best film, and it’s also a cracking good ghost story with a terrific Serling-esque twist at the end. Even if everyone knows it now, at the time, it was quite the mind-blower, especially since Shyamalan plays fair with the audience the entire time.

What makes this movie so good is that the ghosts, even as they are “pictures that can’t hurt us,” are still genuinely frightening because of how Shyamalan films them. They appear suddenly, and once we get to know Cole better, we find out they are all around him. Those creepy glimpses into Cole’s worldview are well-done. The Sixth Sense is not intensely scary during the watching of the movie, but it does make you reluctant to turn off the light at night.

This is not Doctor Strange's Astral Plane.
Insidious (2010)
Well, if you’re going to re-do a “done to death” genre, here’s a good way to do it. Director James Wan (who gave us the first Saw movie) takes a few good whacks at a ghost story with a meat cleaver and manages to make a pretty good stew.  The plot of the movie bears more than a general resemblance to Poltergeist, probably because that’s become such a template: average American family + creepy old house – one of the children = dramatic tension we’re all forced to care about.

Thankfully, Insidious makes new assumptions and conclusions around this creaky old plot, and serves up some genuinely disturbing imagery and a nice combination of jump scares and psychological moments to keep this movie rolling. Granted, Insidious covers no new ground, but it re-imagines things in a fresh way that make me all squirmy inside.

Incredible. two girls in a hallway. And yet, we pee our
collective pants. That's why Kubrick is a genius.
The Shining (1980)
One of Nicholson’s finest efforts, along with one of Kubrick’s most sensational films. Stephen King recently kicked Kubrick’s corpse for the utter disregard for his novel in making the movie (and sidebar: there’s an amazing conspiracy theory around this), but he’s wrong, and here’s why: when the two-night mini-series of The Shining was made, two decades later, it was very faithful to King’s book and utterly not scary at all. Kubrick, 1. King, 0.

I don’t think anyone but Kubrick could have made this movie scary in the way that he did. He really uses space, symmetry, and structure in all of his movies, but in The Shining, we see that by repeating an image or a shot, and then putting new things in that shot, we get a sense of both intrusion and a sense that the new thing should not be there. This is how you make twin girls suddenly very scary. This movie still chills my spine to this day, thanks to the masterful slow burn unwinding of Jack Nicholson and the subsequent hysterics of Shelly Duvall.

I can't show you any more than this. It's too scary.
Ju-On (2002)
What IS it about those wacky Japanese? Their pop culture is so alike, and yet so different from us. For instance, their ghosts do not play by the rules. Forget that “they are just pictures, they can’t hurt you.” No, in Japan, the ghosts can do a lot of damage, especially ghosts who harbor a grudge.

Ju-On (literally, “the Grudge”) is a movie I almost walked out of. It’s creepy as hell, from start to finish, and my god, what strange, freaked out visuals. This is one of those movies that you have to see for yourself. Cathy and I both had nightmares after watching it. The white child ghost? Brrrrr. Still freaks me out. The American remake is good, but largely unnecessary. You’ll get your money’s worth, right here.

Cronenberg never saw this coming in Videodrome.
Bonus Film! The Ring (1998)
This is another Japanese import—really, the first one that started it all. You probably know the plot: anyone who watches the whacked out images on the video tape will die shortly after seeing it.

The visuals in this film are frankly, amazing. When the supernaturalness shows up, it’s brilliantly done. However, what’s missing for me is a little bit of explanation. Is the tape haunted? Or does the tape summon the unquiet spirit? It’s all confusing, and I suspect, got lost in the translation. When it was remade by an American company, they provided some needed scenes that explained for me what was probably implicit in the original film if you were a native speaker or culturally immersed. But what the American version adds in explanation, it takes away in alien horror.

I like both films—flaws and all. But I still don’t quite know where to put this movie on my list. Ghost story? Demonic possession? Techno-Lich? It’s a corker, to be sure. But the film’s key spooky pieces are tremendously effective and worth seeing.