Category Archives: Ramblings on Horror

Chucky Scares Everybody

Chucky

So I finally got around to watching Curse of Chucky, and like most of the reviews said, it was awesome. It was the refreshing return of Chucky as a true figure of horror, as opposed to his comedic spoof portrayals in the two films previous. Chucky was a sinister, malevolent abomination, not only dangerous, but truly evil. I’m kind of a puss-bag when it comes to haunted houses, but it actually takes a lot for a horror film to honestly creep me out. Curse of Chucky accomplished this in spades.

chucky 15

Curse of Chucky abandoned the parody of Chucky that had become popular in the last decade. This was the true return of an icon that horror fans have been wanting for years. Whereas Leatherface, Myers, Voorhees, and Freddy were all given somewhat generic reboots, Curse of Chucky not only revived the interest and original tone of the series, but did so in a way that continued the franchise’s legacy instead of scrapping it. It was an inspired effort that, frankly, should have seen a theatrical release.

“Is this guy trying to get in my pants? What’s happening here?"

“Is this guy trying to get in my pants? What’s happening here?”

But despite the film’s popularity, a statement on the commentary track by series creator Don Mancini brought up a recurring criticism leveled at the series, one that I’m sure will spoil some fan’s post-viewing afterglow in the near future. As beloved as Chucky is among horror fans, there’s a segment of the audience that insists that the character simply isn’t scary. They say that as creepy as Chucky may look, he’s still just a doll. Doll-sized, doll-shaped…in all ways, a toy. As Don Mancini pointed out in the commentary, and as a few of my friends have said as well, the dominant mentality behind the criticism is that Chucky is so small, simply kicking him should resolve whatever threat he could pose.

“Chucky just can’t be scary!” they say.

“Wait wait wait wait wait…they said what now?”

“Wait wait wait wait wait…they said what now?”

It’s time someone called that bullshit out.

Chucky is scary as hell. That’s the exact reason he’s so popular, despite the efforts of terrified critics to label him as a “cult villain” or “inexplicably enduring.” He’s an icon because he’s absolutely horrifying. They know it, you know it. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.

Oh, you think you could punt the crazy killer doll away? Then please, by all means, I encourage you to test your hypothesis. Wedge a steak knife between a couple of bookcases and kick at it, as hard as you can. Even with steel toe boots, are you positive you won’t miscalculate and give your ankle a bold, stylish piercing? Go ahead, take a swing. I can wait.

“Seriously, I got time. Let’s do this.”

“Seriously, I got time. Let’s do this.”

Oh, what’s that? You’re saying you wouldn’t be kicking for the knife, you’d be kicking for Chucky? Okay, yeah, I totally get that. So here he comes, waving a knife around like a foam finger at a college football game. Go ahead, swing. Kick for the maniacal figure swinging a blade in a murderous frenzy. Go on, take him down. I’m confident that the serrated edge won’t snag on your Achille’s tendon. And there’s clearly little chance that Chucky will bury the point of that painful-looking knife deep inside muscle or bone. Go for it. Kick him!

Do it, or your lady’s gonna think you’re a punk.

Do it, or your lady’s gonna think you’re a punk.

Oooooh, shit, you’re gonna need stitches. What? How could I have known he was gonna stab you? What, is he known for that or something?

 The cord represents any band of connective tissue in your body. The knife represents a knife.

The cord represents any band of connective tissue in your body. The knife represents a knife.

Alright, hobble over to the corner, ya big ol’ daffodil. Man, do you have to cry?

Alright, anyway, so kicking him isn’t the best idea. Oh, a baseball bat? Well, yeah, I could see that working. A good ol’ Louisville slugger or a solid nine iron should do the trick pretty…

“I call it Slugger 2.0.”

“I call it Slugger 2.0.”

…ah. Well, nevermind.

“Oh, come on,” you say. “I can totally take him! He’s still just a doll. Doll-strength* and everything! I can totally beat him down!”

*(Note: this is something I have actually heard people say. Admittedly I’m not sure if they were stoned or not.)*

Okay, wait…doll-strength? Motherfucker, did you just say doll-strength? What the hell is that? This fucking thing is possessed by a voodoo-practicing serial killer, how the hell do you know what it can and can’t do? Do you, like…routinely wrestle dolls? How strong would you say the average doll is?

 “Come at me, bro!”

“Come at me, bro!”

Okay, so yeah, you should be able to wrestle this thing, I can grant you that. Probably shouldn’t have any problem hurling him across the room, provided he hasn’t buried his god-awful child’s teeth gum-deep into your arm. Losing a wad of tissue is serious business, but admittedly it is something you can possibly recover from. Tear the little bastard loose and throw him out the window! You can worry about nerve and muscle damage later. Might wanna check the blood loss, though. Maybe get a few shots while you’re at it.

Or not. He looks like he brushes regularly.

Or not. He looks like he brushes regularly.

“But…but if I had the right weapon…!”

STOP. Yes, if you had the right weapon, you could easily take care of Chucky, but that’s a pointless argument because it applies to everything. Get your hands on an elephant gun and Michael Myers is suddenly a lot less invincible. Jason would quickly meet his match against a stick of dynamite. Dream yourself up a herd of polar bears and Freddy Krueger isn’t nearly as threatening as he was a second ago. Make up the Ultimate Nullifier off the top of your head and Galactus becomes less threatening than my grandmother’s overweight Pomeranian. The right weapon fixes everything. Or, you know, it would, provided whoever’s wielding it isn’t a fucking idiot. Either way, it’s a moot point.

 “What’s wrong? Gun jammed?” (Cue trademark, soul-shattering laughter.)

“What’s wrong? Gun jammed?” (Cue trademark, soul-shattering laughter.)

We both know what you’re doing here. It’s the same thing that one asshole at every haunted house has to do while everyone else in the group is trying to have a good time. You’re puffing up your chest and bleating “Í’M NOT SCARED,” when no one else really cares. You perceive something as a threat because it creeps you out, so you’re reacting like a toddler, yelling “NUH-UH!” and getting all huffy. You’re a twentysomething-year-old baby.

“Mmmm-hmmmm!”

“Mmmm-hmmmm!”

Look, I get it. It’s okay. You’re scared of him. Everybody fuckin’ is. It’s Chucky. He’s this terrible little knife-wielding goblin who sneaks around and ruins everything for everybody. He’s armed and dangerous and somehow lurking under every piece of furniture in your home. Even Redman admitted the little bastard gave him the willies.

“NO! I’M NOT SCARED OF…”

 Yeah. Yeah, you are.

Yeah. Yeah, you are.

“No! Seriously! I’M NOT SCARED OF CHUCKY!”

 “Motherfucker, please…”

“Motherfucker, please…”

Chucky is every child’s secret nightmare and every adult’s unspoken fear. He’s the kernel of evil we know lurks behind the façade of innocence. He’s the scurrying footsteps that we tell ourselves are just squirrels in the crawlspace. He wields the sharpened blade that will hamstring us when we step out of bed. He’s the reason we fearfully scan the floor when we know we’re alone.

 He’s also an accomplished hibachi chef, but that’s really more of a side gig.

He’s also an accomplished hibachi chef, but that’s really more of a side gig.

Look, I get it. A brave front in the face of terror is instinctive. The thing you gotta understand, though, is that the more you front about how much Chucky doesn’t scare you, the more obvious it is to everyone that he does. Most people are able to laugh off their fear and recognize Chucky for what he is: a fictional character, designed to give us the cathartic release we’re looking for when we watch a scary movie. But when you insist, without provocation, that Chucky isn’t scary…when you say it over and over again…you’re telling everyone around you that what you feel goes deeper than simple fright. You’re acting tough because you perceive a threat. Do you get that? You think he’s a threat. Chucky isn’t real, but you can’t make yourself emotionally understand that.

 Though to be fair, it is hard to ignore him when he’s constantly screaming at you.

Though to be fair, it is hard to ignore him when he’s constantly screaming at you.

Do you see what I’m saying? Your affected bravado is announcing to the world that you literally think that Chucky will kill you.

 Which he totally will.

Which he totally will.

And it’s okay to feel that. We all have that one irrational fear we have a hard time shaking. It ties into the natural defensive instincts that keep us alive. Open yourself up to it. Let yourself, you know, “feel your feelings.” Allow your fear to surface, and let it work itself through you. If nothing happens, your brain will process this and conclude that there’s nothing to actually be afraid of. I’m not kidding, either: that’s straight-up what happens. “Face your fears:” there’s a reason people say that. Within reason, it’s a mindset that can make this world a substantially more enjoyable place in which to live. So do that. Let yourself feel afraid. Be honest with yourself. Be scared of Chucky. And when your brain realizes he isn’t really coming to get you, you’ll finally be able to sit back and let yourself in on the fun.

 And while you’re distracted, Chucky will absolutely literally kill you in real life.

And while you’re distracted, Chucky will absolutely literally kill you in real life.

And if, after all that, you’re still scared of Chucky, that’s okay too. Like I said, we all have one stupid thing we’re scared of, like clowns or spiders or my neighbors’ kids. (I’M JUST GETTING THE MAIL, STOP RECITING MY DREAMS TO ME YOU TOWHEADED FREAKS.) There’s no law forbidding you from ever being scared of anything. Hell, I know grown men who can’t fall asleep unless they shut their closet door. It’s okay, really. Just try not to ruin scary things for the rest of us. Don’t be that asshole loudmouth making stupid jokes in a movie theater, or the dumbass yelling “Come at me!” at every single actor in a haunted house.

Don’t be that guy. People hate that guy. You don’t need to be snarky or macho. All you need to do is relax. You’ll be fine.

 At least until you’re asleep…

At least until you’re asleep…

Chucky scares everybody. Don’t be that tool who tries to say otherwise. No one believes you. We’re just hoping you’ll shut up so we can enjoy the movie.

"Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to keep the noise down. And I swear to God, if you spill anything before you leave..."

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to keep the noise down. And I swear to God, if you spill anything before you leave…”

– The Awful Writer

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Filed under Non-Fiction, Ramblings on Horror

Your Work is Crap! Will You Be My Friend?

So I put up another book review over at The Horrifically Horrifying Horror Blog, which Ms. Audsley so graciously allows me to do because, well, she’s just a generally awesome person is my guess. Here’s a link to it, because I’m vain and self-promoting, but also because Emma’s blog is a great multifaceted horror site and you really should take the time to explore it.

I enjoy the review writing. The free books are a plus, for sure, and it helps me maintain something of a coherent writing schedule when my personal creative river isn’t flowing. I also won’t deny that my ego swells when people leave comments and rate what I write. But to be truthful, it’s kinda nerve wracking sometimes, knowing I’ve said some negative things and that those things are going up for all the net to see. I know, I know, reviews must be honest if they’re to showcase any kind of integrity, but I still can’t shake the feeling that I’m being a jerk to someone on a deeply personal, private level. Stories are instances in which someone has bared their soul, and here I am, some random goblin at a keyboard, tearing into their sweetbreads as loudly as I can. I can’t help but worry that, well…honestly, I worry that I might hurt someone’s feelings.

Is that childish? Maybe. I guess. I dunno. Kindness and niceness are two extremely important concepts to me. Don’t misjudge, I give people the finger sometimes and I’ll shout back if someone gives me a hard time, but if I interact with someone who has done me no harm, I try to consider them a good person until I know otherwise, and treat them accordingly. And though any writer worth her or his salt knows that reviews are, generally, not a personal form of attack…still, I worry sometimes.

One thing I do to avoid this guilt is ignore the author’s name until the review has already been written. This can be nigh-impossible with a novel unless I’m careful, but with anthologies it’s a piece of cake. It may not make much sense, but if I’m criticizing a story with no knowledge of the author, it just seems, like, fairer, you know? Now, I may do some quick research on the writer to see if any personal experiences may have tied into the work, but if I do that, I do it only after I’ve set my opinions down and affirmed to myself that I will stand by them unless a presumption of mine is directly contradicted by concrete information. Does that make sense? It does for me, anyway, so I guess that’s what matters.

I wonder how I’ll react if the day ever comes when my work is criticized. I’ve had positive reactions from some people to what I write, but I’ve never had any real, hard-nosed “this could be better” style criticism. I know I have flaws in my writing, and honestly, I think it’d be refreshing to hear someone say “this story sort of stinks” to me. I mean, how can something become better if no one’s willing to break it down?

Anyway, there are kids selling stuff for school in the neighborhood, and I’m pretty sure that’s them who just knocked. Maybe I can assuage my guilt by overpaying for cheaply printed kitten calendars.

…yep. Worked like a charm. Dawww, this one’s dressed like a little cowboy, you guys!

 

–          The Awful Writer

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Filed under Miscellaneous, Ramblings on Horror

The Importance of Gore in Horror

gore hand

I’ve always appreciated the use of good, splashy gore in horror. I’ve never hidden it; I’m a die-hard gore hound, and while some may scrunch their face in unpleasant squeamishness at the sight of organs flopping out of a bisected victim, I absorb it without pause, shoveling pizza and popcorn into my gullet with every ounce of the abandon I possessed before the movie even started.

It’s never bothered me, really. On nights as a child when I would sneak into the family room and watch graphic video nasties (the scary kind, not the porny kind) while my family slumbered, I never became terrified at the sight of splashing blood or axes cleaving through flesh. Sure, some injuries would frighten me – the sight of sliced skin here, the image of a skinned corpse there – but for the most part, I could handle it. I enjoyed it, even – so long as the gore stayed fictional. If I cut my thumb in reality, however, I almost always howled like the ill-fated teenagers in the horror shows I secretly watched by moonlight. But as long as the slicing and dicing stayed on the screen, I ate it up. I still do.

There is plenty of debate out there about the use of gore – how much should be used, how little it should be used, whether it should be used at all, etc. I love the stuff, so that point’s moot as far as I’m concerned. But there seems to be little popular discussion about how gore should be used.

How, then, should one use gore…responsibly?

***

            First off, you don’t need gore to make a good horror movie.

Look at The Wolf Man. Excellent film, widely regarded as a classic. There’s violence, sure, and though it’s implied that the werewolf savages his victims, there’s no actual sight to accompany the implications. The brutality is largely left to the viewer’s imagination; even when Lon Chaney Jr. tears out the throat of a gravedigger, there is no actual blood seen, as Chaney obscures the violence with his own body, and the camera never lingers over the slain character.

Halloween is famous for being a fairly gore-free movie as well, despite the violence of the picture and the brutality in the sequels. For ninety minutes, Michael Myers chops, stabs, strangles, and impales people with wanton abandon, but almost no blood is actually seen.

Even today, gore isn’t a necessity for an effective horror film. The Innkeepers, except for one scene, is entirely bloodless, and it’s so terrifying it caused me and a roomful of friends to reflexively lift our arms to cover our eyes.

So, clearly, graphic violence isn’t inherently necessary for a good horror movie. The same goes for literary horror – except for the collection of body parts from which to assemble the creature, the novel Frankenstein has almost no descriptions of gore in it. The creature primarily kills his victims via strangulation.

But, on the flip side, this doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any gore in a good horror story. Though it’s largely a sci-fi flick, the absence of gore would have absolutely robbed John Carpenter’s The Thing of most of its visual power. Without the sight of mangled bodies and spilled blood, The Evil Dead wouldn’t have been the shocking hammer blow of a horror film that it was, and An American Werewolf in London would’ve simply been a light-hearted, comedic romp, instead of a cross-genre masterpiece. Night of the Living Dead was pretty much about the dangers of slow-moving old people until we witnessed the ghouls feeding on the strewn remains of their victims.

The same goes for many of Hammer Studio’s early horror features – it was the gore, showcased in those generally bloodless days, that hooked fans and gave those films, some great, some trite, their staying power.

Peter Jackson’s (yes, that Peter Jackson) Braindead, known here in the States as Dead-Alive, is so graphically over-the-top with its level of gore that it approaches a nearly schizophrenic level of jubilation as it washes the camera with organ scrubs and body fluid rinses. But even in its ridiculousness, the gore there still serves a purpose, in this case to make us laugh at its purposeful absurdity.

So while one doesn’t need graphic gore to drive home the horror, completely omitting it would clearly rob other films of their impact, and would cheat audiences out of understanding the level of threat the films showcase. But in the latter case, is it the gore that people enjoy so much, or what the gore represents?

***

            Gore is certainly used gratuitously in horror. The Hostel series was made entirely to show cruel, graphic violence being inflicted on innocent people. Friday the 13th exists solely to display the dismemberment of horny camp counselors at the machete-wielding hands of horror icon Jason Voorhees. Lucio Fulci used gore to such a degree that it nearly gives horror fans the violence equivalent to diabetes; in one particularly nauseating scene from City of the Living Dead, a woman is forced to vomit her own intestines in a scene where actual sheep intestines were used. Fulci was even brought up on charges of animal cruelty after the completion of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, being accused of having used live dogs for a scene in which canines are sliced open, their glistening, pulsating organs exposed to the light. His effects artist, Carlo Rimbauldi, was forced to bring in the props used for the scene in question in order to save Fulci from a two-year prison sentence.

But while there’s no question that the gore in those features is presented solely for gore’s sake, it becomes difficult, at least for me, to determine when gratuitous gore becomes excessive gore.

I know that for a lot of people, there is no level where gore becomes excessive. But while I love a good, spurting decapitation as much as the next guy, there are some scenes, like the intestine purging in City of the Living Dead, that can outright nauseate me. But considering that, in some cases, gore is being presented with the intention of sickening an audience, is the gore really excessive if it was presented to purposefully illicit the feelings that result?

In my own writing, when I write scenes of violence, I’ll often include descriptions written expressly to repulse me. And while the feelings themselves that arise are unpleasant, there is still that rush that comes from feeling them, the rush that comes with feeling any emotion, and even if I do not like what I am describing, I still receive that pleasantness that occurs from the simple act of feeling. Thus, despite some instances of gore in horror being regarded as almost universally repulsive, there are typically large swaths of people who will express enjoyment over it. Troma Entertainment would have a paltry audience otherwise.

One could argue that it is a matter of personal regard. Violence is only excessive to individuals based on each person’s individual taste. While some may see The Beyond as entertaining and satisfying, others may throw up, or even cry, and reject the film for its visual assault. While many people enjoy the rushing sense of wrenched emotion, there are others who will simply be sickened, without any accompanying thrill, and will experience only displeasure at what they are seeing. For them, then, the violence is clearly of an excessive nature, regardless of context.

And while I wave my gore hound flag high, even I have moments when I’ll see a film and think “Well, that didn’t need to be in there.” As much as I appreciated the savagery of The Wolfman (2010), some of the violence bordered on the ridiculous. In particular, the scene when the werewolf eviscerates a man with his teeth struck me as not only gratuitous, but distracting to the feel of the film. The same goes for Land of the Dead, where a coherent story regarding friction between social classes seemed to be almost interrupted at times by outrageous and borderline comical gore.

What I’m saying is, I appreciate gore, but I appreciate it more when the gore is used to help tell the story.

***

            John Carpenter’s The Thing is a sci-fi masterpiece, a brilliant, spooky story about a group of researchers trapped in Antarctica with a shape-shifting monstrosity. The film uses its set-up as an allegory for the futility of paranoia, as the men’s doom comes chiefly from their inability to cooperate against the extraterrestrial threat. But aside from the clever themes of isolation and distrust, the film also boasts some of the most impressive prosthetics and animatronics committed to film.

To be sure, the effects are gory. When the Thing transforms, it often does so by splitting open its body and mutating its organs into mouths with teeth. The famed “Dog Kennel Scene” features the alien, in the shape of a husky, initiating its transformation by splitting open its canine head into something resembling a bloody flower. Later, a team member is revealed to have been taken over by the Thing when his chest opens up into a fanged mouth, tearing the arms off the camp doctor. The man’s head forcibly detaches from the rest of his body, spewing fluid as it rips its flesh trying to escape. The scene is graphic in the extreme (by 1982 standards, anyway) and though some critics complained that the effects distracted from the story, I found that the opposite generally held to be true. The film’s premise promises an extreme and otherworldly threat, and whereas I feel like a lot of sci-fi films fail to deliver the cosmic satisfaction that they promise, The Thing achieved it via the use of its graphic effects. Anything less to achieve its scenes of transformation would have been a cop-out.  Plus, were the effects not as grisly and bizarre as they proved to be, the horrible nature of the men’s predicament, as well as the scope of the threat that they faced, would have been too subdued to be enthralling. When this creature took them over, it didn’t just make them inhuman – it transformed them into true monstrosities, horrifying the audience and making us believe that the terror the men felt would drive them to madness and self-destruction. The Thing didn’t just change you: it ate you whole, and whatever was left would never be you again.

By contrast, the gore and brutality of 2010’s The Wolfman served only to pull me out of the story. While I feel like a high degree of carnage was required – this is a werewolf movie, after all, and werewolves are supposed to be violence incarnate – and while I was completely fine with shredded corpses and even the occasional disemboweling, the violence in the movie seemed to go on a bit longer than was necessary. The Wolfman’s attacks almost seemed to pause in order to allow the cameraman time to show the intricacies of the creature’s violence – a stomach pulled from an open wound here, bone plucked from a rib cage there. I wouldn’t have minded one or two shots of this, but the extended sequences of gore seemed to actually slow the film down, and turn it from a neo-classical horror picture into a high-end showpiece of gore-porn. Again, werewolf movies need high levels of violence – the werewolf’s entire appeal is that it is a pure, violent predator – but when showcasing the violence, even if it is extreme, two things must be considered.

One: do not allow the picture to grind to a halt simply to feature exceptionally violent gore. It can take an audience out of their suspended disbelief, and can prove detrimental to the movie’s impact.

And two: maintain a consistent level of violence in your film. It’s okay to have one or two extra-violent sequences, but care must be taken to avoid an extreme between the casual violence used throughout the film and the level of violence used in showpiece scenes. Otherwise the atmosphere of a film can suffer, and audiences can be stirred out of the rhythm that had hooked them into the story up to that point. You may think that’s a good thing, but it is seriously detrimental to a horror film’s quality of entertainment.

Remember: no matter what level violence you want to showcase, the violence can’t take over for the story. The story is what makes your movie a movie. Without it, you’re simply filming an exhibition. Which is fine, I suppose, just don’t make the mistake of confusing plotless gore-porn for a coherent film.

***

            Excessive gore can work occasionally – the self-aware Wrong Turn sequels feature elaborate, over-the-top scenes of violence, particularly the bisection of a reality star at the beginning of Wrong Turn 2. Those scenes work because Wrong Turn has been a shock-horror slasher series since the first movie, so audiences familiar with the series expect the gore and gross-out scenes that are provided.

The problem with gore used at a consistent level of high exposure is that, if it’s done poorly, it can take an audience out of a film as quickly as gore that is out of sync with the tone of the feature. Several zombie movies are guilty of this – apparently there isn’t a single spot in the human body that isn’t packed to the brim with tendons. And too many films to count apparently forget that human beings have bones, considering how easy it is to lop off limbs in some flicks. And I frequently bitch about how flippantly many horror films show people gushing blood with no real indication that they’re ever going to bleed to death. I get that excessive attention to realism can be pejorative – following a medical textbook would render the film sterile and without personality.

But simply acknowledging medical facts can greatly help a piece of horror. Some of Stephen King’s most well-known work involves an almost clinical understanding of human biology, and he frequently consults with doctors in order to depict as many of the consequences of bodily harm that he can. Jessie in Gerald’s Game almost dies of shock after she has degloved her hands in order to escape from her handcuffs. Mike Hanlon in It is stabbed in the leg, an unimportant injury in most stories, but a mortal one here, as King acknowledges the massive blood vessels that course through the thigh. Mike nearly bleeds to death, from an injury most writers have their characters walk off.

I’m just saying, I know action movies frequently have characters shrug off gunshots to the shoulder, but this is horror: show us the true awfulness that comes with these injuries.

***

            These are just opinions. I’m not one to insist on arbitration for the creative works of others. But it seems to me that, while it is important not to limit the amount of gore that can be showcased in horror, it is even more important to focus on the application of gore, as an effective means of furthering the energy of a film.

Violence without gore is unrealistic and artistically irresponsible. Excessive gore can work, but there must be a reason behind it. And while extreme and gross-out gore has its place, it’s important to resist the impulse to include it without first considering its effects on the overall feel of the film or story.

There can, and should, be exceptions. As a fan of gore in horror, I love a surprise splash of unexpected blood. But it’s possible to get tacky with it, and gore ceases to be enjoyable when it’s done in a clumsy manner. Don’t just dump buckets of blood everywhere, guys; put some thought behind your efforts. Think about why your scenes need violence, and what kind of violence your project should showcase to achieve its goals. Dario Argento used gore to an artistic degree, so don’t tell me blood can only be used for a superficial thrill.

I’m not asking for masterpieces, mind you. I just want fictional violence to be done in a way I can believe. I don’t want excessive cruelty; I just want someone to understand the original function that gore served. Gore, when used right, is used to pull us in, so that we can clearly see the stakes that horror loves to raise.

– The Awful Writer

@TweetTheHorror

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It’s a Shame Most “Devil’s Rejects” Fans Don’t Realize Rob Zombie is Scolding Them

devilsrejectsposter

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

            The Annual Nashville Tattoo and Horror Convention rolled through town last week, bringing with it many colorfully decorated characters to the downtown area (to mingle with the equally colorful attendants of the Middle Tennessee Anime Convention). So the past few days around town have seen a mix of scary costumes, horror film screenings, and genre-specific celebrity appearances. I didn’t participate much, but I did manage to squeeze in a midnight showing of “The Devil’s Rejects” at the Belcourt, a local indie theater. The opportunity to see Zombie’s masterpiece on the big screen (which I missed on its original release), was made all the more special by the attendance of mother fucking Sid Haig and Bill Moseley.

The two men were exactly as most people describe them: Haig was a no-bullshit, gruffly-lovable badass, Moseley was witty, genial, and retrospective, and both men swear the way most others tell jokes. Of course, twentysomethings still swooning over “Repo!” justifiably honed in on Moseley, but one of the more insightful attendees asked Haig about his experiences on “Spider Baby” with the legendary Lon Chaney Jr., a man Haig knew personally and clearly had a tremendous amount of affection for. I’m still kicking myself for failing to ask him about his experiences on “Jackie Brown,” however; guess I’ll have to keep an eye out for future convention appearances (and grow some balls).

One of the more interesting parts about the meet and greet with Haig and Moseley was listening to their take on “The Devil’s Rejects,” brief as they were. While Haig was sentimental to a degree about Captain Spaulding, Moseley clearly did not showcase the same fondness for his own character, the far-less-likable Otis. Not to say Moseley despised or resented the role – quite the opposite, he appreciated the artistic importance of the character, and has stated multiple times in the past that, as far as steady work flow goes, he would have loved for the character to have survived. But I think that Moseley “got” what the character was: someone you shouldn’t like, and someone you shouldn’t make yourself like, either. It also seemed like he realized a lot of fans didn’t get that, despite the unjustifiably horrible things the character does. There are still hordes of horror fans who cheer when they see Otis.

otis driftwood

When this guy shows up, all wholesomeness comes to an end.

***

            “The Devil’s Rejects” is the sequel to Zombie’s debut film, “House of 1000 Corpses,” though by no means do you need to see one to understand the other. And whereas “House of 1000 Corpses” served as more of a showpiece to homage grind house horror, “Devil’s Rejects” is an introspective, brutally confrontational deconstruction both of horror archetypes, and of people’s fascination with them. At times, the film borders on scolding the audience for enjoying what it’s presenting, though one could also say that the film is simply forcing viewers to ponder disquieting questions that are frequently push to the back of our minds, and refuses to provide the comfort of a definitive answer.

The story is this: the Firefly family, disparate but close-knit serial killers, is finally forced to pay the wages of sin as Sheriff John Quincy Wydell (the most badass western character ever, played to perfection by William Forsythe) and his forces raid the family’s ranch. Confronted with a force superior to themselves (possibly for the first time), the family initially panics, but soon fall into a strategy that they apparently formulated some time ago, judging by the body armor. After a vicious firefight, Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sherri Moon Zombie) are forced to retreat, while Rufus (Tyler Mane) is killed and Mama (Leslie Easterbrook) is captured. Tiny’s (Matthew McGrory) fate is left unseen.

Seriously, look at that badass motherfucker.

Seriously, look at that badass motherfucker.

As the story progresses, the surviving psychopaths must deal with the unholy wrath of Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), who seeks to avenge his brother George (Tom Towles), a deputy murdered by Mama in the previous film. Meeting up with family patriarch Captain Spaulding (played iconically by Sid Haig), the Fireflys cut a violent path of degradation as they attempt to claw their way to escape.

***

            The film is gritty and savage where the first film was schlocky and gratuitous. While “House of 1000 Corpses” reached more for horror tropes and shock value, “The Devil’s Rejects” aims instead to shake you apart my movies end, effectively rocketing you through the spectrum of human emotion as you witness scenes that will make you chuckle and acts of humiliation that will leave you silent with horror.

When making “House of 1000 Corpses,” Rob Zombie said that the character Otis was designed to oppose the feelings of comfortable familiarity horror fans inevitably assign to iconic horror villains. Seriously, what horror fan doesn’t cheer on Chucky, Freddy, and Pinhead? Those guys rock balls. And while Captain Spaulding was clearly designed to elicit those kinds of cheers, Zombie made Otis purposefully horrible beyond the commonly held level of acceptance for most horror fans. Whenever audiences would begin to feel comfortable with the pace of “House of 1000 Corpses,” Otis would arrive to do something shocking and terrible, as if to remind the audience that they’re watching a story that would have no comfort zones if it occurred in reality.

C'mon, how can you NOT cheer when you see that guy?

C’mon, how can you NOT cheer when you see that guy?

And while that approach didn’t entirely work in “House of 1000 Corpses,” Zombie mastered its application for “The Devil’s Rejects.” In this film Otis truly becomes a character impossible to cheer for: he murders an elderly waitress for her car, aggressively bullies people even after he is obeyed and treated cordially, and in the film’s most unnerving scene, sexually humiliates and rapes a woman in front of her husband.

Since the film’s release, however, I’ve been consistently surprised by how many people didn’t seem to get that they weren’t supposed to like Otis. I volunteered in a professional-grade charity haunted house for two years after the film’s release, and several of the volunteers were die-hard fans of the Fireflys. Not just the movies they were in, mind you, but the characters themselves. For both years the haunt ran a “Devil’s Rejects” inspired room, where I played the designated Otis-type character. Without fail, whenever I quoted the famous “Run, rabbit, run!” line, customers would howl and cheer and give me energetic hoots of “Hell yeah!” They were clearly fond of having been reminded of the character.

They cheered for our Baby lookalike too. Not hard to imagine why.

They cheered for our Baby lookalike too. Not hard to imagine why.

            I don’t point that out as a criticism; dictating how an audience should respond to any character introduces a level of artistic arbitration that I despise. But sitting in the theater over this past weekend, there were moments where the audience, enthusiastic as they were to cheer the villains on (as any responsible horror fans would), was stricken silent by the material in the film. Otis’ rape of Gloria Sullivan (Priscilla Barnes), in particular, had a sobering effect. Even the two (count ‘em, two) audience members who tried to lasciviously cheer the scene were silenced by others. You could tell, too, that the jovial, almost congenial atmosphere that had developed up until that point had completely evaporated after that sequence. Even if they would soon forget after the credits rolled, for the duration of that viewing, most of us were reminded that this was not a film that fell into comfortable archetypes.

Moseley expresses outright repulsion over the scene in the DVD commentary, and frequently says in interviews that the characters got what was coming to them by film’s end, as does Haig. And while the film’s climax – where the Rejects are gunned down by a sheriff’s blockade to the tune of “Freebird” – is frequently referred to as a “blaze of glory” by some fans, others view the final frames of the film – showing the Fireflys dying brutally, violently, and ugly – as an attempt by the filmmaker to show that there is no glory to be gained here by these characters. The life of the Fireflys was nothing but a waste, and for all their delusions of horrific grandeur, all they’ve gotten in return is a miserable execution under the harsh and unforgiving Texas sun.

But yet: there are still people who refer to their demise with the exact phrase “blaze of glory.” And not just on Wikipedia. They do it on fan sites, message boards, blog posts. Not everyone, mind you – plenty of people believe the Rejects were simply gunned down ingloriously, like rabid dogs – and though, again, I’m loathe to chastise people’s artistic interpretations, I can’t help but feel like those fans glorifying the deaths of the characters seem to have missed some point Zombie was trying to make.

Certainly, the characters become more sympathetic after their ordeal with Sheriff Wydell, but they don’t become actually sympathetic by any stretch. While it’s implied that their torture at the hands of the sheriff lasts for hours, and while said torture is gruesome and cringe-worthy, it clearly doesn’t compare to the tortures the villains have put their own victims through. Certainly not in scope – the title alone of the first film tells you that – and considering Otis’s particular taste for sexual humiliation, hardly in context, either. The villains are left broken by the end of the ordeal, and though it’s up to the viewer to decide if they got what they deserved or not, the film seems to imply that they got off light. As he beats Baby and attempts to burn Otis and Spaulding to death, Sheriff Wydell is driven into a frenzied rage, screaming that the Rejects must be made to feel every ounce of pain they’ve caused others to feel. Though the character is killed, it seems as though he dies not as penance for his actions, but as a natural consequence of losing control – just as the Fireflys will ultimately pay for their inability to reign in their psychotic urges.

There are two general interpretations of the movie that I align with. One, that Rob Zombie is subtly scolding viewers who love violence in horror films without understanding the deeper, disturbing issues such violence represents. Though Zombie, I’m positive, would be loath to criticize anyone for enjoying a good horror movie, it seems like he was determined to show in “The Devil’s Rejects” that there is a certain level of brutality that shouldn’t be enjoyed, but often is. Enjoying horror fiction is one thing; obsessing over real-life serial killers, pouring over crime scene photos, and lingering over the details of reported sexual assault is another. There’s a line between the two types of behaviors, and Zombie seems to be saying something about those who refuse to acknowledge or respect it. It is possibly tragic that those same people aren’t likely to ever understand such chastisement, however.

The second interpretation strikes me as more likely, and that is that Rob Zombie is simply presenting us with uncomfortable themes in an effort to force us to evaluate our views on horror as entertainment, and reflect on our own boundaries between what is acceptable to enjoy and what isn’t. I’m sure someone, somewhere, is likely to say “There shouldn’t be any boundaries,” but even Rob Zombie calls people tools. He’s also an ethical vegetarian, so clearly the man has a personal concept of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, even if it’s not one that would necessarily match everyone else’s. And let’s speak plainly here: there IS a line between what’s cool and what isn’t cool, and you’re a doofus if you think differently. The hard part, for nearly every fan of horror (and anyone else, really), is coming to a concrete decision on their personal limits regarding enjoyment from horrific stimuli. Why do you want to know so much about the serial killer that was just arrested? Do you want to stay informed, or is your pulse quickening because you know the gory details are coming?

Horror fans tend to revere villains with an almost supernatural level of awe. “The Devil’s Rejects” comments on this several times, most pointedly when Baby, after fatally wounding Gloria Sullivan, points out that the gun she was holding was never loaded (though Otis’s clearly was). “It’s all mind power,” she gloats to the dying woman, following a failed effort on the victim’s part to turn the gun on Baby. An important point the film wants to make is that the villains are just human. Violent humans, but still only human. There’s no supernatural edge provided to them from their use of violence: we simply give them that edge when we submit, whether in fear or in awe. The characters in “House of 1000 Corpses” (a film that did, admittedly, include supernatural plot points in its narrative), are routinely criticized for being almost totally docile throughout the film, and are frequently said to have been so easily picked off because they provided only a limited amount of resistance. And though Otis eventually overpowers Adam Banjo  (Lew Temple) and Roy Sullivan (Geoffrey Lewis) when they attempt to kill him in “Rejects,” it is primarily chance that gives him back the advantage.

When the Rejects are eventually caught, they are shown to be practically helpless before the forces against them. Sheriff Wydell and his mercenaries are prepared to use superior levels of violence to capture the Fireflys, but more importantly, they are shown to lack the mystical awe and fear that other characters have displayed. They view the Rejects simply as people, sick people who can be overpowered as easily as anyone else. The same surprise tactics that Baby uses to overwhelm her victims is used against her by Rondo (Danny Trejo), a character even more stealthy and lethal than she is. Spaulding is dismissively hobbled by Sheriff Wydell, after a chest-thumping show of bravado in which he attempts to intimidate Wydell into doubting his own tactical advantage. And Otis, the truest bully in the group, is completely overwhelmed by Rondo’s hulking accomplice, Billy Ray Snapper (Diamond Dallas Page), and thrown through a window. Their resolve, bolstered by the complete domination they’ve become accustomed to having over their victims, completely disintegrates as Wydell tortures them, despite initial bluster. The Rejects are emotionally, mentally, and physically brutalized, and despite their earlier empowering, if rambling and contradictory, exultations of their supernatural imperviousness, they are completely at Wydell’s mercy. Even after they’re saved and Wydell is murdered by Tiny, the mirage of power that generally fuels them is gone. Tiny allows himself to die in the fire, and despite the efforts of Otis, Spaulding, and Baby to go down fighting at the film’s end, they die as little more than gunshot victims, the film’s final freeze frame showing that, essentially, the “legend” of these characters is just an illusion others insist on projecting onto them. They are shredded by irreverent gunfire, filed away as a closed case, and there is no more hope for glory.

***

            I think “The Devil’s Rejects” is working through the tail end of a cycle of misinterpretation, similar to what happened following the publication of Brett Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho.” Too many see it as a reverent homage to the grittiness and violence of grind house cinema, not understanding the comments and questions Zombie raises in the film.

After assaulting Gloria, Otis throws her aside, laughs, and says “You sicken me.” Was he saying this to a woman whose humiliation he was clearly enjoying, or to an audience enthralled with the violation he was inflicting on her?

“The Devil’s Rejects” is a masterpiece, an important and intelligent commentary on horror. It is introspective on the nature of horror fiction, and touches upon the instances of horror that creep into reality. It’s brilliant, bloody, and occasionally humorous, but always unforgiving. It forces you to confront your own feelings about violence, gore and inhumanity, and refuses to spoon-feed you any easy answers. It tears down your conventions and holds your eyes open, forcing you to see what’s really about to happen.

It’s an intellectual sledgehammer of a horror film. And it’s entertaining as hell.

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What the Next Few Days Will Bring

Hey-o! So, #TheHorrorInGreen got pushed back a bit into April, because the hotel I work at was crazy busy the last few days. I would complain, but the functions pay and feed well. Also a leggy number asked me out for a drink during one shindig, and that was nice. The fact that I didn’t pick up on her signal until hours later, when I was already back at home, however…less nice.

Whatever. There’s more to life than sexy times. Like locking myself in my bedroom for days and writing at my laptop. Wait, wait, don’t slit your wrists yet…it’s not social awkwardness that keeps me at my keyboard (not entirely), it’s a new novel I’m working on, which will be…#3 for me, I believe. I’ll post part of it sometime, to see if I can snag a few bits of constructive criticism from someone. But don’t tell Brad about it. Brad can go to hell.

In other news, I’ve completed a werewolf story that I’ve been laboring over for months, struggling to get right. I’ve no idea if I’ve succeeded or not, but the experience was a unique one. Writing it was one of the most miserable exercises I’ve ever undertaken, artistically speaking, but the result was a story that, while it might not impress others much, entertained me more than anything else I’ve written before. Maybe something happened while I worked on it – I just hope that something doesn’t turn out to have been me plateauing. I’ll post it for a few days next week, for anyone interested in werewolves, amateur horror fiction, and/or crushing the dreams of a starving artist with unduly harsh criticism.

Anyway, back to the Twitter serial: #TheHorrorInGreen is a direct attempt to cease the “month-centric” theme I’ve been on. But I’ve also told myself I’m not going to cheat: #TheHorrorInGreen will not serve as two-months’ worth of serial just because of overlap. Keep an eye out two weeks after #TheHorrorInGreen concludes for April’s horrific exercise. And check @TweetTheHorror or #TheHorrorInGreen on Twitter to keep up with the story starting March 30th.

Last thing: I’m going to a local midnight showing of Rob Zombie’s masterpiece “The Devil’s Rejects” tomorrow. I’m excited, in no small part because Bill Moseley and Sid Haig will be in attendance as well. I’ve told myself I have to come up with challenging questions for the two of them, questions that will merit well-reasoned and introspective answers from both actors regarding their experiences with the film. However, the theater serves alcohol, so it’s far more likely I’ll pee on myself, black out, and wake up by the grease pit behind the restaurant next door. Because I’m a sexy boy.

Memories (if any exist) of the experience will be shared, both here and on Twitter, so if the antics of a boring twenty-something is your cup of tea, stay tuned. Fair warning: I am both an American and a Millennial, and as such I believe I’m both more important than I actually am, and I am painfully NOT aware of my own ignorance. Be prepared to roll your eyes at the myriad idiotic things I will inevitably postulate on.

(Postulate. See? There I go already.)

Peace. I’m off to find a Sonny Bono wig.

–          The Awful Writer

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Feminism in Horror: “American Psycho” and “I Spit on Your Grave”

radical indeed

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

            Gender politics and social issues are becoming a dominant topic in the national conversation again, and with good reason. Despite the enormous progress made during the Women’s Rights Movement in the 70s, women are still treated as second-class citizens in myriad aspects of post-modern life. Residual sexism and resentment from old chauvinists continues to rear its head. The rise of ironic sexism as a satirical device has had the unfortunate side-effect of fostering legitimate sexism within a new generation of men who should (and used to) know better. Public apathy increases the difficulty of raising awareness of these issues. And horrid misinterpretations and outright misrepresentation of religious dogma has fostered a nearly psychotic zeal in some to subjugate women’s basic level of humanity.

Plus you have those ignoramuses who think that women “already got what they wanted,” as though civil liberties were party favors. You only have to follow Twitter feeds like @EverydaySexism or hashtags like #IAskedPolitely to get a quick look at the enduring prevalence of sexism in society. Though the optimist in me believes that women’s rights will inevitably become as sweepingly popular as gay rights is now, resistance to women’s liberties, in all their forms, are still sources of concern for me, no matter how small said resistance is.

So where does horror get shoehorned into this? Horror is often used as an allegorical device, and I feel like it is particularly effective when it explores feminist topics. The horror genre seems exceptionally suited to capturing the often literal threat posed against women as they simply go about their lives, and two works in particular stand out as powerful and graphic allegories for the brutality with which society pushes back against women’s demands to be recognized and counted: “American Psycho” and I Spit on Your Grave.

“American Psycho”

American Psycho

“American Psycho” is a notorious book, primarily because of its graphic violence. The book is considered such an intense work of fiction that in some areas, it’s sold in shrink wrap. Patrick Bateman, the novel’s protagonist (though by no means its hero), is a vain, egotistical, womanizing Yuppie, who moonlights as a sadist, a rapist, and a serial killer. Throughout the novel, Bateman shows zero empathy for other human beings, and is exceptionally horrible towards women. He tortures and mutilates animals and vagrants, sexually assaults women, and kills wantonly. Bateman’s inhumanity only degenerates as the novel progresses, as he resorts to sadistic sexual mutilation, child murder, necrophilia, and cannibalism to satiate his increasingly violent psychosis.

When Brett Easton Ellis’ masterpiece was published in 1991, its feminist overtones were overlooked by most critics in favor of its scathing satire of 1980s consumerism and superficiality. The outright chauvinism and misogyny of the primary male characters, and especially the violence perpetrated against women by the novel’s protagonist, was unfortunately misconstrued as an endorsement, or at the very least a glorification, of treating women inhumanely. Feminists were rightly shocked by the violence of the novel (and believe me, it’s likely the most brutally violent novel you’ll read for a while), but were unrightly outraged at what they perceived as an attack against the popular perception of acceptable treatment of women. Many, though certainly not all, failed to understand that the novel clearly presented the graphic treatment as a reprehensible thing, and that Patrick is clearly not a character intended to model acceptable human behavior.

Post-modern reflection, however, has brought a new feminist appreciation for the novel’s themes, especially for its condemnation of sexist attitudes towards, and objectification of, women. Feminist Mary Harron even directed the film adaptation (which I will defend unto death). “American Psycho” is absolutely fearless in confronting male attitudes that prevail even today. The book explores to literary extremes the tendency on the part of men to view women as items to consume, and the often violent resentment men feel at being rejected. Bateman, at one point, even makes a necklace out of the vertebrae of a woman he’s killed, providing a sickening metaphor for how many men see relations with women as little more than conspicuous consumption. The character also masturbates while wearing his cadaverous jewelry, showcasing a sexual urge that, while clearly not the norm for male sexual attraction to women, makes a grotesque visualization of many men’s sexuality being wholly concerned with the physical manipulation of a woman’s body. In such instances, a woman’s individuality bears no impact on the man’s sexual satisfaction, unless her personality comes into conflict with such satisfaction.

If you read “American Psycho” and you find yourself becoming outraged over the trauma inflicted on many of its female characters, remember: you’re supposed to be outraged. That was Ellis’s intent. You’re supposed to find yourself disgusted at what’s being presented. You’re expected to get mad, because you can only fix a problem when you’re made aware of what the problem is.

I Spit on Your Grave

I Spit on Your Grave

Also known by its more cinematic release title Day of the Woman, I Spit on Your Grave was blasted by feminists and critics as exploitative filth that degraded women and, according to Roger Ebert, “made men want to rape women.” I saw the original as a teenager, and I gotta tell ya, it did not give me much of a taste for rape when it was over.

The film is hard to watch, to be sure. The rape sequence may not have the shock of the tunnel sequence from Irreversible, but it is violent, ugly, completely unerotic, and it lasts for half an hour. You watch the rape unfold like you’ve run across the crime itself, witnessing a degrading assault against an innocent woman’s humanity by four men inhuman enough to not only disregard her obvious physical pain and humiliation, but actually enjoy whole-heartedly what they inflict on her. And their enjoyment isn’t only sexual; the rapists take time to torture Jennifer as they take turns raping her, with Andy clearly becoming excited from the woman’s screams and Johnny mocking Jennifer’s work as a short story writer. The men go out of their way to degrade every aspect of her that they can: they belittle Jennifer’s work, flaunt their power in superior numbers, revel in dashing any hopes she has of escaping or seeking help, destroy her personal belongings, and refuse to acknowledge anything that makes her more than a object on which to vent their darker impulses. Jennifer’s body is completely savaged, and she is left for dead when it’s over.

It’s a movie that will leave you numb, and for good reason: it’s probably the most accurate portrayal of gang rape ever committed to film. The movie makes you see it all, so that you have no illusions as to how horrible this crime is. The rapists aren’t just seeking sexual release; they’re out to totally destroy Jennifer, to the core of her being. They want to obliterate everything about her that’s good, forever. They’re vile, shallow, unimportant, insignificant men, who inject themselves into a random woman’s life for the convenience of transforming her, in their minds, into a repository for their evil.

This is another work that’s held up well thanks to post-modern review. Audiences and critics today are able to see the film for what it is: a clear denouncement of violent male sexuality, and a brave attempt to showcase to the public how absolutely evil and destructive rape is. Reviewers often note how even those who came to the theater in the 70s expecting titillation were shamed into horrified silence as the film dragged on. Though they missed recognizing that as the film’s intent, the movie today, while maybe not the best vehicle for female empowerment, is a damning critique of chauvinistic attitudes towards women, particularly with regards to male sexual access to women’s bodies.

I Spit on Your Grave is one of the more effective films at engendering male sympathy towards female vulnerability in rape culture. While empathy, by its definition, is impossible, sympathy is something that can, and should, be encouraged, and I Spit on Your Grave leaves you practically begging the film to stop what’s happening to Jennifer, and cheering when she starts taking butcher knives to her rapists’ erections.

In subsequent interviews, writer and director Meir Zarchi revealed that he was inspired to make the film after coming to the aid of a woman who’d been raped in Central Park. After debating whether to take her first to the police or the hospital, Zarchi and his friend took her first to the police. Zarchi regretted this decision, as the incompetent officer who handled the case insisted on questioning her before providing medical attention, even though the woman had a broken jaw. The woman’s father later offered Zarchi a reward for his help, but Zarchi declined.

Even without knowing this, however, I Spit on Your Grave stands out as one of the more responsible and socially conscious horror films ever released.

I’m under no illusions that either story helps to “solve” the problem of rape culture, but each work helps to illuminate the problem. They don’t celebrate the violence and the constant threat women often find themselves under, but rather they use the violence as a means of chastising viewers for not recognizing the depth and severity of the problem around them. These aren’t just pieces of entertainment – these are scoldings, telling us we should have known better. Telling us to shape up, or things will only get worse.

As chilling as each work is, they’re also quite refreshing. Considering the sheer volume of female exploitation that permeates the horror genre, any piece of horror fiction that advocates for the rights and liberties of women is a welcome change in tune.

–          The Awful Writer

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Movies that Warped Me

It takes a lot to disturb me. That’s not a macho thing, just a bare fact. I’m generally pretty numb to intensity in film. That being said, there have been a few movies in the day that, for one reason or another, fucked my shit up. Sometimes the movie’s just that scary; other times something was touched on that was personal for me.

The following films, in no particular order, all share a single, common trait: they, for whatever reason, all caused me to sleep for at least one night with a light on, when I was younger and more fearful of the dark things that creep in shadow.

Enjoy.

  1. The Exorcist – If you’re tempted to say “But the Exorcist wasn’t scary!” then stop right now, because you’re clearly a liar, and you’ve completely compromised your reliability. “The Exorcist” is horrifying, and a solid example of a truly timeless movie. The themes it covers – faith, love, commitment, struggle – still resonate heavily, forty years after its premiere, and the film’s intelligent exploration of supernatural themes has yet to be surpassed in terms of quality. Plus, JESUS CHRIST; Demon Regan is still one of the all-time creepiest images ever committed to celluloid. The head-turning scene – the first one, I mean, when the demon traps the mother in the room with her possessed daughter – left me terrified of the darkness in the largely empty theater I was watching it in. Later, during a jump scene, a few girls in back screamed, and I’ve never been more relieved to hear screams in my life.
  2. The Evil Dead – The cartoony and hilarious sequels sometimes make people forget how bone-chillingly terrifying the first film is. Halfway in, the characters are whittled down to just one man, ALONE, in a cabin, in an entire FOREST, trapped in a spot of light amid an ocean of isolated darkness, completely cut off from any form of help. Trapped, as the corpses of his friends rise, possessed by hellish demons intent on shredding his flesh, destroying his sanity, and damning his soul. The stark darkness of the film and its overall theme – that “everything dies,” to quote star Bruce Campbell – is harrowing, and no comfort or resilience comes from re-watching it, no matter how many times you restart the DVD.
  3. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – A film that reputedly left some viewers in a state of shock after seeing it, and I can understand why. One is left feeling like they’re watching a horrible carnival of depravity as the family of grave-robbing, cannibalistic murderers butcher and consume the young kids who wander onto their property. The true disturbance comes from realizing that this is a sustained sickness, that this depravity has gone on so long that the family has not only normalized it, but actively endorse the vileness with perverse pride and false virtue. The movie has a peculiar quality of realism to it, as though this is a horror that one has every possibility of stumbling upon while going about the errands of their day, in small town America.
  4. Child’s Play – CHUCKY. I was mortally afraid of this little goblin until I was thirteen, and even now, his image still elicits a certain amount of nervousness in me. The little bastard has the creepiest face imaginable. And save your bravado; for all your talk about how you’d handle a doll-sized psychopath, you’re likely to keep that knife of his in the forefront of your mind as he maniacally swings it in front of himself, slashing madly at your legs, lopping off fingers as you vainly try to defend yourself. And as the knife goes into you, again and again, that freakish, sneering, wild-eyed face will be the last horrible thing you’ll see before you finally close your eyes.
  5. The Innkeepers – An initially light and disarmingly engrossing movie, “The Innkeepers” starts out as light entertainment, as you meet the main character and her coworker, two employees of a hotel that is slowly preparing to shut down. The first half of the film has quirky character development and engaging humor that borders on gentle comedy – and it leaves you completely unprepared for the fear that comes in the second half. Initially the film revels in everything that makes the idea of ghost hunting so intriguing for most people, and then shifts the tone from our fascination with ghosts towards our deeper feelings of horror about them. The effectiveness comes because the film knows exactly how to come after you: by showcasing virtually every dark, horrific scenario that’s ever run through your mind when you’re somewhere dark and alone. The exact nightmare images that run through your mind in those moments play out onscreen, driving a white-hot lightning bolt of recognition through your screaming subconscious.
  6. The Silent House – Forget the fuck-awful American remake. This astonishingly-filmed Uruguayan horror movie will imprison you in whatever bed or chair you watch it from until daybreak. Filmed in one continuous take, by a cameraman named Pedro Lopez (who is able to play his camera like a goddamned flute), the film opens as a father and daughter prepare to spend the night in an old, neglected house, which they intend to fix up for sale. Quickly the girl is cut off from her father and his friend, as whatever dark presence shares the home with them begins to stalk her through shadowed rooms haunted with memory. The Silent House is terrifying, heartbreaking, and breathtaking, and the final image will leave you doubting your own perception of the world.
  7. The Amityville Horror – Though the legendary ghost story is now largely considered falsified, the story itself, taken as fiction, is still terrifying. The themes alone that it explored were unsettling – families turning against one another, the perceived invasion of family units by step-parents, the disconnect between parents and their children, the helplessness of parents to protect their brood from forces greater than themselves – these are deep and cutting themes that strike us on a basic, instinctive level. The film’s RIDICULOUSLY unnerving soundtrack added to the tension, and just hearing it from the other room is enough to make you want to check the shadows with a flashlight. The windowsill hand-smashing scene is cringe-inducing, and the youngest daughter’s friendship with “Jodi” is chilling, as the actions the girl says her imaginary friend encourages grow more and more destructive. And during the film’s climax, as George Lutz fights to save family and dog from the evil presence of the house, the stare of a demonic pig – “Jodi” – drives home how truly unholy the forces at work against the family are.
  8. The Silence of the Lambs – The entire film is a tour de force into the rotten core of human depravity, and it’s brilliantly done. From the unflinching portrayal of the inhuman patients Dr. Lector shares his confinement with – and none of them are human, not anymore – to the shock-inducing scenes of Buffalo Bill’s psycho-sexual torture and madness, one scene truly stood out for me, and drove home the depth of evil that Clarice Starling was up against, from both sides: as she investigates an abandoned storage unit, and opens a long-unused car, she discovers, impeccably preserved, a human head, casually stored with the rest of the junk. The film operates on a level rational minds have to reach to comprehend, and that no one can truly understand, unless they never want to sleep again from the dread such knowledge would bear.
  9. Hellraiser – I feel like this one needs little explanation. “Hellraiser” is a warped tour de force of depravation, mutilation, and decomposition. Those three themes are evident in every frame of the film – from Frank’s unwholesome desire for his niece Kirsty, to Julia’s lust for what is, essentially, a walking corpse, and finally to the deterioration of all things good and virtuous by film’s end. The Cenobites were so visually startling that they became instant icons in horror, with Pinhead’s surreal, nightmarish visage eternally linked to pulse-climbing terror. The uniqueness of the Cenobites – creatures neither good nor evil, but simply nihilistic and carnal beyond human comprehension – disturbed audiences as much as it horrified them. For my money, I can’t imagine anything looking more horrific than Butterball and the Chatterer, though Pinhead unnerves me more for the feeling of calm, torturous precision he exudes. But what really turned my stomach to ice when I first saw this movie was the Engineer, an utterly unholy monster that scaled walls and gave Kirsty Cotton her first glimpse of the perversity she was up against.
  10. A Nightmare on Elm Street – People forget why this film was so effective. Yes, Fred Krueger’s horrifying face helped, as did that unbelievably sadistic glove of his. And the idea that you will die if you fall asleep – making your dark fate completely unavoidable – carries a deep dread with it. But what hit my fear button for this flick is how spot-on Craven was in presenting common nightmares on the screen. The ground turning to mush as you try to run, strangers who are always faster, always stronger than you, can always reach you, worlds where gravity means nothing and anything can menace you – these are presented organically and graphically, and as you watched, you subconsciously realized that the dark figure that stalked your nightmares had been Krueger all along, and that you’ll never be truly safe in your bed again.

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Filed under A Writer's Take on Movies, Ramblings on Horror