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.
Your October HORRORSCOPES
Aries (March 21-April 19)
October will be a social month for Aries. Look forward to making lots of new friends, many of whom already live within the walls of your own house.
Taurus (April 20-May 20)
Careful, Taurus! The call is coming from inside Venus’ Twelfth House, so make sure to change all the locks and keep your kitchen knives sharpened. An inauspicious month to take on any new babysitting clients.
Gemini (May 21-June 20)
The movement of the planets into the houses of family this October makes this an ideal time to revisit your birth records, old family albums, or call your creepy Aunt Agnes to catch up and reflect on the past. Probably the circumstances of your birth and childhood were all normal and regular and average, and you almost certainly don’t have an evil twin.
Cancer (June 21-July 22)
There is nothing spooky about crabs. Enjoy a relaxing month!
Leo (July 23-August 22)
This month is the perfect time for bonding with a loved one you’ve been neglecting. Take your totally normal son out for a pleasant outing to church or the zoo, so he can meet God and all His creations and be warmly welcomed by them, like the regular human boy he definitely is.
Virgo (August 23-September 22)
If you’ve been thinking about taking it to the next level in a relationship, there could not be a better time to postpone it! Speaking of postponing, maybe wait on the road trip to the cabin/lake house/remote B&B that you and your promiscuous friends have been planning. In the meantime, focus your energies on knitting, homework, rescuing animals, and anything else that establishes you to the audience as a model citizen.
Libra (September 23-October 22)
A transformative month. You may be struggling to keep two sides of yourself in balance, whether it’s work and family, patience and ambition, good and evil, or human and wolfbeast. It’s a good time for self-reflection, a bad time to experiment with taking a new medication. Maybe try a fun new hairstyle.
Scorpio (October 23-November 21)
You will be covered in scorpions, ugh, so gross. Take your vitamins, and avoid making any major financial decisions.
Sagittarius (November 22-December 21)
A past mistake will come back to haunt you. Beware of anyone you may have stabbed in the back, literally or metaphorically, because the wheel is about to turn. Plan a vacation around the 14th.
Capricorn (December 22-January 19)
It’s been a tough year for you, Capricorn, but don’t worry—October will provide plenty of opportunities for you to turn your luck around, provided you are willing to take initiative and make the necessary sacrifices. *wink* Talk to that eccentric, old couple who live down the hall from you in your pre-war apartment building about how! No need to keep your spouse informed. Hail Satan.
Aquarius (January 20-February 18)
Who knows what lurks in the depths of…your imagination! That’s right, Aquarius, October is a month for you to spread your creative wings. The 25th is a spiritually advantageous day for experimentation, whether with a bold new look, a redesigned kitchen, or a scientific discovery that has the potential to challenge THE FORCES OF NATURE ITSELF, LAUGHING MANIACALLY IN THE FACE OF GOD. You’ll have to iron out a miscommunication with a loved one around the 12th. Be the bigger person, and take full responsibility.
Pisces (February 19-March 20)
You’ll be full of energy this month, so do something that challenges you, like exploring an Antarctic ice mountain or a black lagoon or a mysterious cave or your city’s very own sewer system, or really anywhere you might find
monsters or other horrifying mutants adventure! Take a flashlight!
Here is a Halloween anecdote
I’m not too good at Halloween. In theory it should be my favorite holiday because I love outfits and spooky things and hell, even candy corn. But the fun Halloweens with great costumes and fun parties kind of have eluded me since I hit puberty, so I’ve more or less given up on the holiday.
A couple years back I made an exception, because the stars had aligned such that I had a party to go to and no school/work/rehearsal obligations that night. I figured I’d know most everyone at the party, and since they were largely college theater types, figured I could get away with a silly, unsexy, and esoteric costume, so I went as Little Edie. I’m going to go ahead and brag about how good this costume was, because it was damn flawless.
When I arrived at the party, I realized that I knew maybe three people there and that there were already not one, but two sexy fairies present. I had made a huge mistake.
The two most common guesses I received about my costume were:
"Are you supposed to be a babushka?"
And the infinitely more offensive:
"Are you supposed to be an Orthodox Jew?"
Yeah. I know. I KNOW.
After I had tried to explain who Little Edie Bouvier-Beale was for the thousandth time, only to be met with the thousandth awkward smile and the word “Oh,” I threw in the towel. I took off the head scarf and put my short shorts on outside my pantyhose. So at this point I was wearing a brown turtleneck, tiny shorts, and a faux fur coat. And you know what? Nobody (NOBODY) asked what I was supposed to be (which, to me, says fucking everything about why Halloween is kind of garbage).
But it doesn’t end there. With my semi-attractiveness restored, I set about salvaging my night. I met a cute guy, and we chatted and flirted, and things were going pretty well. We both had separate places to go, but he added me on Facebook and we talked about tentative plans for future hangouts.
I came home hours later feeling pretty good about myself. Against all odds, I’d had a good Halloween. My roommates were downstairs watching Night of the Living Dead, and I went up to my room to change. I hopped on the computer to accept said cute guy’s friend request, and lo and behold, when I saw his profile, he was listed as In a Relationship, and not only that, with [redacted lady whose name I can’t remember anyway, actually I can’t remember the guy’s name either, come to think of it, but that’s beside the point].
I went back downstairs with a stormcloud over my head and caught the end of Night of the Living Dead. Do you know how that movie ends? Let me tell you. It ends with one survivor, the guy who has managed to withstand and obliterate the zombie horde, outliving all his compatriots. And then he gets shot by the rescue party.
And did I over-identify with that ending and make it all about me? You’re damn right I did. Happy Halloween, chumps.
Some horror films and the best circumstances under which to view them
- Psycho: You are sixteen. You are in a room full of other sixteen-year-olds, many of whom are reluctant to watch the movie. There is at least one person in the room besides you who develops a guilty crush on Anthony Perkins over the course of the film. In the end, all the jaded teenagers are won over, but everyone remains confused about what a “fruit cellar” is.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (original): You are with your kid sister. You are wearing a crop top sweatshirt, much like the one Johnny Depp wears in the film. At a crucial and terrifying moment, the bed you are sitting on seems to break (you hear a bang and it jolts down a few inches), but upon examination, NOTHING IS WRONG WITH THE BED.
- Suspiria: You and your best friend from college are hanging out, drinking martinis. You are terrified. You keep texting the guy you are seeing about how scary this movie is. You have a horrible nightmare that night, and when, later that week, you go into a Forever 21 on a rainy day only to hear a song playing that samples the score from the movie, you bolt out without buying any cheap, trendy clothing at all, thereby making the film a good financial decision.
- Rosemary’s Baby: Whenevs.
- The Shining: Your best friend since childhood has come to visit you. Your roommate and his boyfriend suggest watching the movie after you all have finished watching Sunday School Musical, which you were all worried would be too bad to even be enjoyable in a terrible way but which was in fact hilarious, in no small part because it was clearly poorly dubbed in its entirety. The friend is wary, since she is even more easily scared than you, but she is eventually persuaded, and a good time is had by all.
- Killer Klowns from Outer Space: You are at your friend’s house, and both of you are recovering from radical disturbances of your respective sleep schedules. You have taken said friend up on an offer to hang out that you are reasonably sure was meant to be an empty offer, so you kind of feel like you invited yourself over. He makes pasta for the both of you, and you sit in the dark, watching the movie and joking around. The sexual tension is overwhelming and will remain unbroken until approximately one year in the future. Later, when he is your boyfriend, you will both struggle to come up with a good reason why you didn’t make out that night. There were a few, but they will seem flimsy in retrospect.
- The Ring: You are fourteen. Your friends are fourteen. There are approximately eight of you, since fourteen-year-olds never seem to roll less than six-deep. You are all at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. After it is over, your snobbish assertion that it wasn’t even a good movie will add a layer of guilt and embarrassment to the terror that keeps you awake all night.
From the archives! A post I wrote on my old Tumblr around this time last year. Seasonally appropriate once again.