Over a year ago, when I started Just Dread-full, I wrote an extensive piece about a film I’d seen recently that had more or less captivated me. The film – a low budget, atypical, but indisputably creepy horror flick – was called It Follows, and Michael and I saw the film four times in theaters when it came out. There were myriad elements of this film that made it exceptional – its deeper characters, its unique treatment of setting and theme, its distinctly unsettling, creepy ambiance – but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was, about this film that made me want to see it over, and over, and over again. Unsurprisingly, I purchased the film, and one December eve not so long ago, when I needed to take a break from course work, I watched it again. And it occurred to me, after re-processing one of my all-time favorites, that It Follows, more than your typical horror movie, deals, both directly and symbolically, with our near-universal and immanent fear of death’s imminence, its inescapable closeness and the insidious fact that it could consume us, any time, without warning. Don’t get me wrong: most horror movies use the possibility of death as a vehicle for frightening us. But It Follows does so in ways that are careful, intentional, and cut to the core of our fear that just as the devil chases down rock n’ roll stars (at least, according to some of their lyrics) death is always following us, snapping at our Achilles tendon in hopes that we’ll bleed out completely and wink out from life on this earth. And wouldn’t that be terrible. But that is the beauty and terror of a film that is modest, subtle and independent, but remarkably genre bending and genre defining. Continue reading “It Follows, or Death Embodied”
The Big Ten: Looking Back on Some Popular Just Dread-Full Posts
Well, it’s official. I’ve written an uneven 73 posts on Just Dread-Full since the blog’s inception in late October of 2015. Now, before I continue, I had a different introduction written in this piece, but the ghost of Miss Jessel is apparently bitter about how I depicted her in my piece on The Innocents, because she’s crawled out of the movie and consumed my laptop. Really. Michael and I lost my laptop in the transition from his parents’ house to his house (one of us was carrying the bag). We, and his parents, have searched every conceivable place, and it’s simply disappeared. As such, I’m typing from his laptop, and I have to start this piece over again.
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Apparition or Illusion? Ghosts and Neurosis in The Innocents
We’ve all seen it before – and it’s a frustrating trope. One person (often the insightful, level-headed, observant wife) believes that the house, child, etc., is haunted (or possessed). Annoyingly, the cynical, often condescending detractor (the husband, usually, in contemporary horror) remains completely unfazed by whatever alarming occurrences are taking place and refuses to take helpful, significant action (see Sinister and The Shining, for just a couple examples of this phenomenon). The equation stems from, I believe, a contemporary cultural awareness of sexism, and our understanding that maybe the “little lady” isn’t crazy when she senses that something’s truly wrong (with the hotel, the house, the kid, and so forth). But let’s crank the clocks back to a novella written in the 19th century, long before the Women’s Rights Movement, and then a bit ahead again, to 1961, when the movie based on the novella was released. The Innocents, based on Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” is either a soul-chilling ghost story or a complex jaunt into the frenetic world of acute neurosis, depending on whether or not you think Mrs. Giddens (Deborah Kerr), the governess and leading lady, is imagining things. We are not frustrated viewers who want the protagonist to believe his “pesky” wife in this film. Rather, we’re not sure we believe the female protagonist’s suspicions of haunting. Of course, “The Turn of the Screw,” and even the film, The Innocents, were products of a time in which women were often labeled hysterical and neurotic, so we should hardly be surprised that the film’s intrigue stems, in part, from the prospect (though, I would argue, not the certainty) that our female lead is severely unhinged. Continue reading “Apparition or Illusion? Ghosts and Neurosis in The Innocents”
Problematic Presumptions in The Purge
Ahhhh, election year. This year, Americans get to see an irascible, iridescent orange man with floppy straw hair standing behind a podium spewing vitriol and grandiosity while waving (rumor has it) little sausage fingers. And his harlequin fantasies of “having them” build a wall to “protect” our border (somehow, “we’re not gonna build it, they’re gonna build it,” he asserts) and banning over one billion members of a major, 1,406-year-old religion from entering our country, while punishing women who seek abortions, might make some wonder, what will he think of next? There are myriad possibilities. While I don’t think what I’m about to suggest would actually happen, policy ideas like his make me imagine, wildly, that anything could happen. Perhaps he would legalize one night a year for murder, to let resentful Americans release their stores of seething hatred. And if that were to happen, we’ll have Ethan Hawke and The Purge series to thank, a semi-dystopian horror series about what would happen if all crime was legal for one night of the year, including the big “Red Rum.” Continue reading “Problematic Presumptions in The Purge”
20 Years of Gore and Glory: Why I Love Scream
One of my favorite quotes from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (which is one of my all-time favorite books) goes like this: “One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.” Coelho’s words are often wise – this quote is just one example – but they’re probably meant, in this case, to encapsulate human relationships. No matter: they can easily be applied to art, cinema, music, etc. One can offer much in-depth critical analysis of a piece of art, but in the end we “only have to let that soft animal of [our] body love what it loves” as Mary Oliver says in her poem, “Wild Geese.” Criticism, commentary, and speculation are all ancillary relatives of that fundamentally satisfying, sometimes calm and refreshing, sometimes frenzied and excited feeling that wells up inside a person when she finds what she loves – in literature or the fine arts, cinema or music, or, to be genre specific….in horror.
Michael and I watched Scream the other night, and I’ve integrated part of the film into a lesson plan on writing reviews with a group of students, so I know how many online reviews of Scream there are, and I’m not hubristic enough to think I could add much fresh insight to two decades of commentary. As such, I decided to keep this post really, really simple. Even if, according to Coelho, I don’t need a reason to love the film I love, I’m going to tell you, in list format, why I do. If you’ve seen it before but it’s been awhile, perhaps you’ll revisit it. If you missed this 90’s cornerstone of violence and postmodernity, let me try to tell you why I think you simply must give it a watch. I have no set number limit to adhere to, and I’m listing my reasons in no specific order (I’m not much in the mood for organizing and planning right now). So here’s my on-a-whim explanation of my love affair with West Craven’s Scream. Continue reading “20 Years of Gore and Glory: Why I Love Scream”
Fear Goes Deep in The Shallows
About one third of the way through The Shallows, Michael turned to me and whispered, “This movie’s horrible.” By “horrible” he did not mean “bad” – but rather “incredibly disturbing” (my words, though I believe they’re correctly inferred, and, I would add, the movie was so “incredibly disturbing” that it was frickin’ awesome!) To be fair, it’s hard to create a contemporary incarnation of Spielberg’s esteemed Jaws, and Jaws is the lofty barometer against which any shark film (save perhaps Sharknaodo) will be measured. There is, to be sure, only one Jaws, but The Shallows is excellent because it never imitates, never pretends to be some millennial version of the Spielberg classic, and never shies away from being its grotesque, gut-wrenching but semi-hip self. No bearded fisherman smoking, fighting, comparing scars, and singing “Show me the way to go home…” in this film—no. We only see sexy, svelte, but terrified Nancy (Blake Lively) sprawled out on a rock, panting, contemplating what she needs to do to survive in the middle of a sparkling, shark-infested ocean. Continue reading “Fear Goes Deep in The Shallows”
The Thing: Isolated, Claustrophobic Paranoia
For much of my life, I had no real urge to see John Carpenter’s The Thing. Just the name of the film seemed blasé. I mean, how scary could a so-called “thing” be in a supernatural realm of ghosts, vampires, and demons? However, my interest piqued, both as I got older and as I started thinking more broadly about the horror genre. I began to wonder: Okay, so what exactly is “the thing,” and what can it do compared to other dangerous entities? After all, I’d seen Halloween, so I knew John Carpenter was more than capable of making a compelling horror film. (And, well, I love Lauryn Hill’s 90’s hit, “That Thing.” That has to matter, right?) A few nights ago, then, with those thoughts in mind, I grabbed The Thing off the rack at our local Family Video (yes, Michael and I still support brick and mortar video lenders) and the two of us settled down for what turned out to be a lengthy, in-depth study of partly-explained infestation and unchecked paranoia.
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Jack Attack: Contrasting Versions of Jack Torrance in Two Renditions of The Shining
Shhh. Wanna get sued?
That’s Groundskeeper Willie’s response to Bart when Bart says the name “The Shining” in the canonical Tree House of Horror episode parodying the film, instead of replacing the title, “The Shining,” with the slightly more comical title the episode adopted: “The Shinning.” To be honest, every time I hear the title, The Shining, I immediately want to shout, “Shhh. Wanna get sued?” So I may have been fishing for an excuse to use Willie’s quotation in the opening of this piece.
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Malevolence or Malarkey? Bathsheba Sherman and The Conjuring
A long, long time ago a vile, angry woman worshiped the devil on her family farm and sacrificed the life of a precious infant to her dark lord, seeing the infant not so much as a human child, but as a gift to Satan that could increase her power. She was an ugly woman, with masculine features, haggard wrinkles, and glowing eyes, and shortly after killing the innocent infant, she hung herself from a tree by the farm’s lake, where those who are in touch with the world of the dead can still see her hanging, her decrepit, gnarled gray feet waving in the wind. To this day she haunts the farm, invading the bodies of caring mothers and compelling them to kill their children. Beware. Should you set foot on her farm, you might be the victim of this restless spirit’s demonic ways. (Insert hyperbolic ghost howl here).
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Exorcising Fear: The Vatican Tapes
I have a self-imposed challenge as an avid horror viewer: I must find an exorcism movie that truly terrifies me. Huddled with a group of giggling 12-year-olds when I was in seventh grade, I watched in near-disbelief while Regan spewed unthinkable profanity and did immodest things with a crucifix in The Exorcist. Assuredly, I was not old enough to watch the movie without being flung into a shock-provoked state of uncomfortable laughing fits (a twelve year old is hardly mature enough to take those scenes seriously), but something about that reaction seems significant when I reflect upon exorcism films almost 20 years later: Namely, the film was shocking, unorthodox, compelling – and indisputably ground-breaking for the era – but The Exorcist, along with, I think, every other exorcism film I’ve ever watched, has never really scared me. I find them interesting, and essential from the standpoint of someone who makes it a (humble, wage-less) second-living to know and review horror fare (albeit for a small number of readers), but for some reason I’ve always found ghosts a lot scarier. Don’t get me wrong: conceptually, the devil is terrifying (to the extent that I believe he exists, at least), but films rarely do justice to the horror of the demonic. The Vatican Tapes, a fairly average film, was no exception to this trend. If you like exorcism movies, it may be worth seeing, at least for comparative purposes. But, there was a small, hopeful part of me thought I might feel afraid during The Vatican Tapes. As it turns out, I did not. Read my discussion below (which, admittedly, has some spoilers) to find out why.