Roughly one month ago I set out to fill my October with horror. Admittedly, I got sidetracked by reading (still horror — Stephen King’s Night Shift anthology) and by a frankly unhealthy amount of Dragon Age Inquisition. So instead of getting a weekly terror update, you’re getting a postmortem.
Again, while I have grown to dislike the idea of rating for quality, I figured I’d toss in an appraisal of enjoyment, a la the Goodreads system. So: 1/5 Didn’t like it, 2/5 Meh, 3/5 Liked it, 4/5 Really liked it, 5/5 Loved it.
Saw (2004). I loved this movie. I loved it enough to be get mad at its money-grubbing legacy, because I’m firmly convinced that had the franchise not led into a seemingly endless trail of gratuitous violence and voyeurism, this would have gone down as one of the best crime thrillers in decades. While subsequent movies have reveled in disgusting you with on-screen macabre, Saw opts mostly for subtlety: you are given the setup, the premise of something terrible, and then it’s up to your imagination to follow things to their gruesome conclusions. The film is a slow, almost plodding mystery, and even at its most twisted it’s a story about redemption. No one wants to wake up in one of Jigsaw’s traps, but the message of those traps is one worthy of consideration: most of us take our lives for granted. We shouldn’t. 5/5
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962). I find that horror is frequently more aptly categorized as suspense or thriller (depending on whether the dread is creeping or relentless). As such, this classic “horror” tale of a crippled actress and her caretaker-cum-jailer of a sister isn’t so much frightening as upsetting, taking a long time (perhaps, by today’s standards, too long) to truly become the film you want it to be. It’s not the easiest movie to watch, but if you have the patience I daresay Bette Davis and Joan Crawford deliver a third act well worth sticking around for. 3/5
American Psycho (2000). Years after having “Hip to Be Square” permanently associated with axe-murdering courtesy of a youtube clip, I finally got around to watching that movie in which Christian Bale should probably see a psychiatrist about the dark secret behind his late-night activities. No, the other one. Ultimately, I have to say I was mostly disappointed. The use of music (and Patrick Bateman’s jarringly incongruous history lesson monologues) to accompany moments of fetishistic violence is intriguing, but for the most part the film feels pointless and banal, an exercise in ego and shock more than crafty storytelling. 2/5
The Blair Witch Project (1999). I still remember hearing classmates discussing this movie when it first came out: utterly terrified, especially of the woods, and especially at night. Sixteen years later, I’ve finally seen it, and while it hasn’t made me any less apt to stumble into a forest (dark or otherwise), it has impressed me. This was the first of what became a nauseating (sometimes literally) array of shaky-cam found footage “documentary” horror, and it’s probably the best I’ve seen. About two-thirds of the way through the film, I suddenly remembered that these were actors with a script, and smiled at how real the acting and filming was. There are smarter movies out there, but it’s rare to see such vision and talent make the most of a shoestring budget, or to see such believable character development over such a short period of time. 4/5
The Babadook (2014). I have lost track of how many people and publications I heard going on and on about how terrifying and original The Babadook is. A single mother and her child read a picture book that they perhaps ought not have, and it isn’t long before the imaginary monsters Samuel has been fighting turn out to not be imaginary. The film certainly has its moments — the book’s mysterious return and, shall we say, updates, for example — but for the most part it felt rather predictable and not so much frightening as creepy. A well-conceived tale, for sure, but hardly the masterpiece others have painted it. 3/5
Crimson Peak (2015). Imagine if Emily Brontë had played Silent Hill before writing Wuthering Heights, and you’ll essentially have Guillermo del Toro’s latest movie. Despite the advertising, this is not really a horror movie. It’s a dark gothic romance with horror moments. Yes, there are gruesome deaths and the odd haunting here or there. But those are merely window dressing to a story about people and forbidden passion. A strong cast is upstaged by the staging itself — “gorgeous” and “breathtaking” do not really do the aesthetic of the film justice. Ultimately, Crimson Peak is a place you want to visit in spite of all the reasons to stay far away from it, and it was a highlight of my October. 5/5
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994). I truly did not intend to watch any of the Freddy Krueger films until I’d seen the first one (which, eventually, I did; see below), but it simply turned out that I saw his last film first (not including the ones that followed, right?). I was warned that the goal of this movie had been to give Freddy a better ending than the one he received in the movie that had killed him, and that Craven had wanted a more sinister, less funny version of the knife-fingered wonder. So I expected this to be “gritty” and “serious” in a way it really, really wasn’t. If you’re unfamiliar with the premise, get ready for something very meta: this is a Wes Craven movie starring Freddy Krueger about the people who make Wes Craven movies starring Freddy Krueger trying to make a Wes Craven movie to stop Freddy Krueger from escaping. It also stars Wes Craven. It goes about as well as you could hope for with a premise like that: a little too cheesy, a little too self-aware, but not unwatchable. I’m just glad that Craven moved on to make Scream next, because it’s a far better showcase of his talent and understanding of the genre (and, for that matter, the medium). 2/5
Halloween (1978). Music in a film isn’t everything (see above re: American Psycho), but having good music doesn’t hurt. And when John Carpenter’s piano theme starts playing, I smile. The story of Michael Myers, revenant psychopath whose homecoming is something nobody asked for, makes very little sense, from the opening moments in which a person incarcerated since he was six years old manages to successfully steal (and subsequently quite adeptly operate) a car he should by no means be able to drive. We don’t really have any justification for his choice of victims (they’re not even living in his old house). All we get is a creepy, silent guy, with a pasty (almost, almost comical) mask, who likes standing across the street and staring at the people he will eventually try to (and, often, successfully) kill. And I guess it works, because they have made an awful lot of these movies. For what it’s worth, I also watched Halloween 4, in which (among things) Myers impales someone through a wall with a gun and shoves his finger through someone’s skull (not their eye, their skull), so sensibleness really doesn’t seem to be the target for the franchise. 3/5
Child’s Play (1988). It took twenty years, but I finally faced my fears and watched the movie whose advertisement alone gave me two weeks of nightmares as a kid. And boy was it stupid. I’ll give the film credit for at least trying to incorporate mysticism into its monster (something Halloween didn’t care to do), and there are some good heh heh heh moments (read: batteries). But the movie stays in a comic mode for the most part, rarely becoming actually frightening, frequently going over-the-top on purpose (did you hear the one about the doll who leveled an entire building?). And while this isn’t necessarily the movie’s fault, it’s obnoxious that a string of sequels followed, because the mythology explaining Chucky’s possession (and subsequent defeat) was neatly-wrapped and didn’t really provide for his resurrection. Knowing that the doll comes back cheapens things for me, but maybe I’m still not over my childhood trauma. 2/5
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). “Never Sleep Again,” the film warns and promises, though a few hours after watching Freddy Krueger’s inaugural slashing spree I was sleeping (alone, in the dark, in the basement) quite contentedly. The film teeters between unnerving and ridiculous, and as with Saw I can’t help feeling that the fear is more rooted in the conceptual — what if “it’s only a dream” didn’t work anymore? — than in what actually is happening on the screen. The special effects in this film deserve the recognition they often receive; it’s difficult to make someone being pulled up a wall and onto the ceiling not look completely ridiculous (never mind actually frightening), but seeing the real-world repercussions of Freddy’s dream-world machinations was always impressively believable and, accordingly, legitimately suspenseful. The ending is stupid in the way only horror movies can winkingly be (shoutout to Evil Dead for a similar “REALLY?!”-inducing final scene), but then I’d already lost hope in franchise movies bothering to be reasonable. 4/5
Friday the 13th (1980). I’m just going to go ahead and put this out there: This movie sucks. Not “it hasn’t aged well,” or “it’s cheesy.” It is simply not a good movie. From the obnoxious “ch ch ch ah ah ah” soundtrack to the squeezing of all exposition into the final five minutes to the fact that everyone is dead before anyone even recognizes that people are dying, I honestly cannot fathom how this movie was popular enough to become a perennial classic. As the credits rolled, I scratched my head, wondering seriously how a franchise about a hockey mask-wearing Jason with a machete got launched by a movie featuring, really, none of those things. 1/5
Last night, I watched someone livestream her attempt to play Konami’s P.T. for the first time. She relied frequently on the pause button to catch her breath, asking if she could please stop and play something else (it was a charity stream; the answer was no). She had wrapped herself up in a blanket and was curled up as far from the TV as the room permitted, and had to nearly strain her neck to see over her knees and the controller which she had pulled up close to her face. Someone in the room jokingly yelled off-camera, and she legitimately screamed. There was a real fear there, an actual anxiety, a deep-seated loathing of what she was seeing. Or, rather, what she might see, or thought she might see. Because, in fact, P.T. involves little more than walking down empty hallways for the first twenty minutes or so. Nothing had even happened. Yet, terror.
Watching last night, it struck me that not only had I never felt this emotion to that extent, but I might never have experienced it at all. As I scrolled through reviews of that Stephen King collection (after posting my own), I saw readers confess that they could not read these stories after nightfall. I saw some say they’d been unable to finish. Having done most of my reading after midnight, when everyone else in the house was asleep upstairs, I legitimately cannot comprehend the experience others have had with this same material. And if it’s true of games and it’s true of books, then I have to guess it’s true of these movies. What I laughed or yawned or rolled my eyes at last month, others have doubled their electricity bills and seen psychiatrists over.
As November takes the reins and I turn my focus elsewhere, my mind goes back to the six year-old child, unable to look away from the television screen as a toy races to the bottom of a slide while holding a butcher knife and laughing. It took me two decades to confront that horror and when I finally did, I laughed. And so I wonder: would everyone else laugh too, if they could just stick it through to the end? Is it really just the imagination — the fear of what might happen — that lends this genre the grip it has? Does seeing the monster also defeat it? Are the reviews I read simply so many adults who haven’t learned to stop being children?
I’ll have to sleep on that.