I call this series “James Bond Plays By The Rules.”
The development process was a pleasure from beginning to end. And I have to say, there was a lot of other notes in between. The cannibals thing was so easy. It wasn’t even a note; it was just a conversation. They said, “This is wonderful. You have a fantastic cast, you have the beginning of a fantastic work. We don’t think you need the cannibalism.” And I had already started to sense that. You know what I mean? The development process was already pointing in that direction. It wasn’t an ultimatum.”
From an interview with Loren Bouchard about Bob’s Burgers.
Feeling this in a biiiiig way, re: ~The Creative Process~, life, etc.
Spooky Books I Read for the 1st Time This Year
A companion to my spooky movie reviews.
Turn of the Screw - Henry James
I went into this fully prepared to give the governess the benefit of the doubt, but sorry lady, it seems like the creepiest things about this story are 1) you and 2) the terms of your employment. You can’t contact your boss for any reason? How do you even know when…you’re done. With the job. Is the job…never done??? Anyway, I tell you what, most of what happens in this book is hugging. A truly surprising amount of hugging.
The Exorcist - William Peter Blatty
The real horror here, more than the supernatural, seems to be the generalized fear that comes from something being wrong and not understanding what it is. I read it immediately after the eerily similar memoir Brain on Fire, and the sheer terror of seeing someone transform, unbidden is scary enough without any supernatural influence. Since we spend more time with the characters’ inner monologues than we do in the movie, they feel a lot more dated (A LOT MORE DATED), distractingly so even, but Blatty has a gift for suspense that makes it forgivable.
Carrie - Stephen King
Oooh what an ugly ugly place this novel goes to. Carrie White lives on that fine line between pity and repulsion (see below: Frankenstein) that makes her such an uncomfortable character. King doesn’t disentangle abuse, bullying, and revenge, but instead inserts you right into the gross, nasty, upsetting thick of it. I haven’t read enough King to speak on him as An Author, but this one did a number on me.
Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury
Dreamy and sinister, Something Wicked is equal parts a celebration and indictment of nostalgia. Bradbury recognizes childhood as the liminal, destabilizing time it is, the fears you can have that you’re running behind or getting too far ahead. Time is a helluva thing, even when it moves how it is intended to move—to alter it is the greatest perversion. Layered with haunting details and the strange matter-of-factness which let’s children process and make sense of even the wildest occurrences, Something Wicked lingered with me. I didn’t pick a favorite on the movie list because I didn’t have one; here this is the easy winner.
The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson
There is something comforting about the tropes of horror, of watching characters behave not like real people, but like characters in a ghost story. “Not me,” you can think and shrug it off. Jackson’s ingeniousness is to refuse you any such comfort. The characters react like people do: they get scared and then laugh about it, making jokes while the bed is shaking, screaming and then talking about how weird it was to react like that. They approach terror so rationally that they don’t try to remove themselves from danger.
Jackson’s other great move is the house itself, everything built just a tiny bit wrong, a little off. Spaces have such a power to influence the mind (that same, unconscious influence that sound can have) without doing all that much. Reading this I was reminded of a diner I occasionally went to when I was in school that I called The World’s Uncanniest Diner, the perverse thrill I got from being in a place that just seemed wrong. Hill House brought all that back, and then some.
Night Film - Marisha Pessl
I was disappointed by this novel as one can only be disappointed by something that seems so perfectly theoretically for them. A dense, spooky, cinephiliac journey into the murky depths is everything I’d want in a novel, but this somehow wasn’t that. There is a wealth of good material in Night Film, and it’s clear Pessl had an incredible time researching and planning it, but there’s no getting around that fact that this novel does not want to be a novel. It’s all of the novelness (characters, plotting, narration, dialogue) that falls completely flat, and I couldn’t help wishing that it had just been an ARG on the Cecil B. DeMille level, something dense and expansive and expensive. Pessl’s attempt at an interactive, multimedia experience seem cheap and poorly executed, but what I wouldn’t give to see them carried out on a bigger, more collaborative scale. A real late night, creepy internet k-hole, instead of a simulated one. The sequence at The Peak is genuinely immersive and frightening; I wish the rest of the book were equal to it.
Dracula - Bram Stoker
Oh, Dracula. So many things to so many people. Vampires may be over, but there has never been a better time for Draculas. (There’s that show though, right? Yeah, I’m not going to watch that show. Even though Jonathan Rhys Meyers has the kind of oiliness that makes him a solid casting choice.) Dracula is kind of a disaster, but a lovable one. Halfway through his epistolary novel, Bram Stoker writes himself into a corner and realizes that the characters need to discuss everything that happened prior to move forward in the plot. So they type up and organize their notes and then proceed to read…the first half of Dracula.
So much to love here. Van Helsing is a great character, a kind of Glinda the Good Witch who, rather than solving problems immediately, goldbricks with extended demonstrations, saying “You wouldn’t have believed me” afterward. The Best Friends Vampire Fighting Club of Arthur Holmwood, Dr. Seward, and Quincey Morris is lovely. No vampire can defeat ~fRiEnDsHiP~. Word to Francis Ford Coppola for making the only adaptation that includes Quincey, my favorite character, the cowboy what kills the dracula. He and Mina are the only pragmatic people in this entire novel, and I love them. I have no rational feelings about Dracula. I love every stupid thing about this deeply stupid book. At some point I’ll probably give it the special treatment it deserves in an essay of its own, but for now, this.
Frankenstein - Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Less a frightening tale than a sad, unsettling one. There are no real villains here, unless you count human frailty, which under the circumstances, I think you have to. If Dracula is about having healthy and ennobling responses to grief, Frankenstein is just the opposite. People hurt in Frankenstein. And they don’t deal with it well. I felt for Victor, and I felt for the monster, and I so desperately wanted them both to stop. What makes the cruelty and cynicism in Frankenstein so painful is how closely it exists alongside love and compassion. A thought-provoking downer of a novel.
The Masque Of The Red Death (1964) (by roppasmoka)
Youtube has the entire film, starring Vincent Price, based on Poe’s short story. I felt compelled to go look for it because of Tessa’s capsule review.
Go follow Tessa, btdubs.
Get. Up. In. This.
Spooky Movies I’ve Watched for the 1st Time This Year
Spoilers, yes of course spoilers, we’re not children here.
The House on Haunted Hill
Of all the Vincent Price characters, Frederick Loren is the Vincent Priciest. You know the premise because it is The Premise. $10,000 a head for sticking out a [host-described] “spend the night ghost party.” William Castle has a way with mid-century gimmick cinema (original screenings had a skeleton rigged to the ceiling that would zoom above the audience), so I was surprised at how beside the point much of the horror seemed. The real discomfort is being stuck in the midst of a feuding couple, think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf played out on an allegorical scale. Droll as hell.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The movie! Yes, the movie, the movie Joss Whedon hates, the movie he says they ruined. Guess what! They didn’t! It’s great! It’s delightful! Donald Sutherland is at his crusty best, and Kristy Swanson is a charismatic smart ditz who has more in common with Cher Horowitz than Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy. Funnier and punchier than the show at its best (which, despite being out of my circle of beloved TV at this point, I can admit certainly had its moments), it makes a compelling argument for Joss Whedon having his artistic visions foiled, or at least tampered with.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The first one, the one that changed everything. This movie does more with sounds and textures than most do with, well, anything. Deeply suspenseful (like maybe the closest comparison would be Deliverance in terms of movies that made my entire body hurt from tension), and really and truly gross. The matter of factness of the killers/tormentors and of the camera’s eye make it feel more like watching a snuff film (I would imagine??? and also prefer not to) than a conventional movie. One of the rare slasher movies where people seem to behave like actual people, displaying the kind of irrationality and clumsiness borne of mortal fear rather than a filmmaker’s convenience.
Creepy, with a heavy lean on the xenophobic elements of Dracula (surprise surprise, Weimar Germany). These early Draculas, Max Schrek’s Count Orlock and Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula, divide right along the line between grotesque and sexual, and ne’er the twain shall meet until Gary Oldman. Love all three; you’re all my precious children of the night. Visually more thrilling than Browning’s Dracula, v. gif-able.
Shadow of the Vampire
Kind of a forgotten treasure, this one. “Max Schrek was actually a vampire” is such a simple premise, and it’s treated with equal parts humor and terror. Willem Defoe’s performance turning on a dime from goofy oddness to genuine menace. Malkovich’s F.W. Murnau is great—turning the Stanislavsky Method into an actual act of violence against his actors would be a heavy-handed metaphor, except that it’s done so deftly. The film is brisk and compact, a tidy little present that left me awed and unsettled.
The Masque of Red Death
Roger Corman’s reputation as the n’est plus ultra of B movies makes it easy to forget that the man had one hell of an eye. It’s not just that he could work with a low budget, but that he could make a low budget look good. The imagery in The Masque of Red Death is lurid and genuinely unnerving, and the movie gets a lot of mileage out of its skimpy (though visually rich) source material. Geoff described this one to me as “The most Tumblr movie that Tumblr hasn’t discovered yet,” and I get what he means; it’s almost infectiously screencappy. Plenty of ~socioeconomic relevance~, if you go in for that, and I usually do.
The Devil’s Advocate
Expensive, high camp, as only the ’90s could bring us. The days of these opulent, misguided studio dramas are basically over, and it breaks my heart a little. This movie is such an artifact of that era. Pacino’s rants are as great as advertised, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. The hamfisted symbolism, the unconvincing casting, the way every single actor says the word “fuck” the way an eleven-year-old, proud to be getting away with something, says the word “fuck.” There’s just so much to love. They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
Bride of Frankenstein
Rarely have I been so taken aback; this one was both weirder and more moving than I ever could have imagined. Full of perverse touches, like an assortment of homunculi in jars (including a miniature king that looooves mischief) nestled right up against moments of heartbreak (the monster experiencing his first, all too brief moments of kindness), it’s a disorienting balance, but an exciting one. Elsa Lanchester brings her doe-eyed oddness in equal measure to the parts of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and The Bride. Imagine the crushing despair in being a monster and having another monster look at you and go “eww.” I don’t have to imagine, because I was a teenager once. Great movie. Highly recommended.
The Evil Dead
Oh-ho did this one ever push the limits of the amount of gore I can tolerate! I didn’t find myself as invested in it as I wanted to be, but I will say this: there aren’t a lot of movies that I can say are shot funny, but Evil Dead definitely is. I appreciated its madcap, funhouse-y quality* more than I did its over-the-top grossness (I get the appeal—I just don’t feel it). As a declarative statement by a young filmmaker, it’s great, an endearingly excessive demonstration of imagination (I felt the same way watching Dead Alive).
The Blair Witch Project
Nope. Boo. Yes, it’s always disappointing watching an influential movie over a decade later, when its pervasiveness has already become overwhelming. But there is a clear delineation between something that was good at the time and something that was never good, and this is the latter. Not only is its found footage format unjustified (because guess what—THE FOUND FOOTAGE FORMAT IS ALWAYS UNJUSTIFIED), the movie spends untold amounts of energy desperately trying to justify it, at the expense of telling a good story. And look, I’m terror > horror to the grave (HAHHH), but if you want your audience to make up the difference with their own sick imaginations, you have to give them something to work with. A hint. Anything.
And noooot to get on a soapbox about it, but this whole movie is about a woman who is a big whiner, a shitty leader, and a poor navigator. Come on now.
Story by M. Night Shyamalan, which should be enough of a goofy draw, but it’s so much more. People stuck in an elevator, but one of them is tHe DeViL, as though a bunch of 15-year-olds were rounded up and asked to pitch movies and this is the one that was chosen. The presence of the Devil is demonstrated by a character throwing a piece of toast (found in a security room?) only to have it land butter-side down, SEE? Don’t you SEE IT, you can’t turn a blind eye to this STUNNING EVIDENCE. This puppy is a well-oiled machine of bush league ideas, and it’s a real delight to watch. The Devil is the old lady because of course it is. She escapes at the end. I imagine her flying above Philadelphia in her sensible shoes, cackling wildly as Our Protagonist, he of the dead loved ones and the drinking problem and the lapsed faith, forgives the man who killed said loved ones in a hit and run and oh man how can I do this justice?
To sum up, Devil is like watching a high school play of itself, and that alone makes it worthwhile.
Children of the Corn
You know how sometimes you look at a title and think “That is, if not a metaphor, than a demonstration of some kind of indirectness, because it’s not possible that it is a literal description of the movie I am about to watch.” Well strap in, buckaroos, because Children of the Corn is about children and corn. That’s all I’ve got to say about it.
Dressed to Kill
Brian De Palma does Psycho, and it makes you wonder why, after that, anyone would think they actually had to remake Psycho. A snappy little thriller with some unpleasantly retrograde attitudes toward trans* people (the villain gets correctly gendered more often than not, however, which is…something??). Lotta great outfits in this one, and some really super scenes of suspense. It’s not a controversial opinion to say that De Palma’s always been gunning for the Next Hitchcock pedestal, and the guy has the chops. This movie is a good object lesson in making heavy-handedness work for you.
When I finish watching a movie for the first time, I like to take to Wikipedia afterward, because hey, you learn a lot of good things that way, and sometimes movies have truly incredible pages. This is one where I’d recommend going there first because while there’s something to be said for going into a movie this notoriously bonkers blind, I found that the context (like for example, that the writer wrote in English although she didn’t have the firmest grasp on it and was also trying to express her anger at her vegetarian friends through cinema) only heightened my appreciation.
If I had watched this while still living in a house in the Valley, I wouldn’t have been able to sleep. It is THE suburban slasher, where terror lurks into the ten foot distance in the dark between you and the outdoor laundry room, or behind the tall windows, which, missing the natural light that makes them so desirable, turns them into prosceniums for a play you can never be sure you aren’t acting in front of a shadowy voyeur. Pleasantly surprising how well it holds up in spite of its familiarity. It leans a little heavily on third act character stupidity, but the scares are real all the same.
Pleasantly surprised by this one as well. In-jokey and self-referential while still being genuinely scary and subversive, it’s basically the movie that a lot of very wrong people told me Cabin in the Woods would be. Watching Wes Craven lacerate the genre that made him (all the while very much serving that genre) is exciting in a way that watching Joss Whedon point at a trope and say “That trope” could never be. Look at everybody’s precious ’90s faces. Skeet Ulrich, hope he’s out there somewhere, having drinks with Claire Forlani and talking about what might have been. The biggest disappointment of this movie was finding out that Breckin Meyer was up for Jamie Kennedy’s role and didn’t get it. Could you imagine, could you EVEN IMAGINE the warmth he would have brought to that role? David Arquette shoulders the warmth burden just fine. Did he and Courtney Cox meet on that set? Was it their Cruel Intentions? Rose McGowan should never be blonde, not ever.
*Fun fact about me: The first time I was ever in a funhouse I had to be bodily lifted out the window into the arms of my mom because I was absolutely not having it. Circus aesthetics are creepy enough in themselves, but I remember being wholly terrified at the idea that the only way out was through, which is why I was also scared of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and why every time the L train is delayed under the East River it takes years off my life.
I was working in the lab late one night
When my eyes beheld an eerie sight
My monster from his slab began to rise
And suddenly, to my surprise
(He did the mash!)
The fucking monster mash