October Horror – The Supernatural

I’m running through my favorite horror films of the past decade or so, in honor of October and Halloween. These next two movies both deal with childhood, albeit in very different ways.

House of the Devil

House of the Devil

In 2009 writer/director Ti West came out with “The House of the Devil.” Samantha, a college student, takes an unusual babysitting gig because she needs rental money. It just so happens that this job coincides with a lunar eclipse. As the evening goes on, Samantha realizes that perhaps she’s made a mistake. Set in the ’80’s, this film starts out slow and creepy, then explodes in a bizarre finish involving a satanic ritual.

The Ring

The Ring

A horror movie that managed to do very well at the box office in 2002, “The Ring” was directed by Gore Verbinski. This is a rare instance where I prefer the remake over the Japanese original. The story of a cursed VHS tape involves the journalist Rachel, who races to discover the truth about the tape before her own son potentially falls victim to the curse. One of the strengths of this movie is how effectively the filmmakers created subtly disturbing imagery on the tape itself. Then, of course, there’s the matter of the girl climbing out of the TV screen. Can evil always be defeated, or do we need to compromise sometimes in order to survive?

Next up – some levity is injected…

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October Horror – Child Issues

I’m running through my favorite horror films of the past decade or so, in honor of October and Halloween. These next two movies both deal with childhood, albeit in very different ways.

The Abandoned

The Abandoned

“The Abandoned,” which came out in 2006, was directed and co-written by Nacho Cerdà and filmed in Bulgaria. Marie, who lives in America, is told that she has been left a farm in Russia. She travels to see the abandoned house and meets a stranger there, Nicolai, who tells her that he is her twin brother. Once there, both are trapped in the house and are haunted by creepy doppelgangers. This is an incredibly chilling tale that circles back to the early childhood of both protagonists. The story touches on the question of destiny – can we change our fate, or are we destined to only follow one path in our lives?

Eden Lake

Eden Lake

In 2008, the English film “Eden Lake” was released. Written and directed by James Watkins, the movie is notable for starring Michael Fassbender, who would go on to star in movies such as “Shame” and “Prometheus.” In “Eden Lake,” schoolteacher Jenny and her boyfriend Steve are spending a romantic weekend by a remote lake surrounded by woods. A group of children interrupt their solitude, and when they become obnoxious, Steve reprimands them. Events escalate until the couple are attacked, and Jenny must run for help. This movie explores some different issues, such as group-think and the corrosive effect of violence. How would we respond if threatened? The answer may surprise.

Next up – supernatural goings-on…

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October Horror – Women Who Surprise You

I’m running through my favorite horror films of the past decade or so, in honor of October and Halloween. There’s more than a fair share of horror movies where the females only seem to exist to scream and wail and run aimlessly away from the villain (when they’re not foolishly investigating that dark basement). But not these movies – oh no…

The Descent

The Descent

In “The Descent,” a 2005 movie from English writer/director Neil Marshall, a group of female friends set out on an annual spelunking trip. One year earlier, one of these friends, Sarah, lost her husband and daughter in a car accident. She’s still lost in her grief, and her friends hope that maybe the trip will help her. When they get to the cave, Juno reveals that it’s an unknown cave system, and she very much wants to be the first to explore it. Despite some of the women’s trepidations, they decide to go ahead. And then they discover that they’re not alone in those caves – blind creatures who like how humans taste are in there too. “The Descent” is primarily the story of Sarah and what she must do to survive, but all of the women in this film are strong characters. The bonding and betrayal between the different women are what truly make this movie stand out.

Inside

Inside

“Inside” is a horrific gem that came out in 2007 from French directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury. Here again (!) the main character Sarah has lost her husband in a car accident (no children though). She’s pregnant, and it’s Christmas Eve. Sarah has settled in for a quiet evening when a stranger knocks on her door, asking to use the phone. When Sarah refuses, the woman attempts to persuade Sarah to let her in. Sarah is not convinced, and calls the police. What ensues as the night goes on is a savage battle that only becomes more and more intense as this unsettling tale unfolds. Showcasing the attack on a pregnant woman is, of course, a taboo that very few (if any other) movies have attempted to portray. And this disturbing movie doesn’t stint on the violence. Both actresses give incredible performances, including Beatrice Dalle as the unhinged attacker.

The Woman

The Woman

Finally, I’m including a movie that I just saw a couple of days ago, “The Woman.” This film was released in 2011 and directed by Lucky McKee, the director behind “May.” “The Woman” deals with a family who seems normal, but is actually anything but. Under the father’s genial demeanor is a violent and demanding tyrant, and his son is learning fast. The mother is a hollow shell and the older daughter is very sad about…something. The youngest daughter is the only genuine ray of light in this family. When the father foolishly decides to capture and bring back a feral woman he found in the woods, none of them will ever be the same. Pollyanna McIntosh knocks it out of the park as the feral Woman – her eyes almost glow in the dark. The gender politics here are not subtle by any means, but it’s an interesting (and disturbing) ride.

Next up – it’s a grab bag, folks…

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October Horror – Zombies of a Different Stripe

I’m running through my favorite horror films of the past decade or so, in honor of October and Halloween. These next two films are both zombie-related, though that word as such does not come up.

28 Days Later

28 Days Later

In 2002 director Danny Boyle gave us “28 Days Later.” Danny Boyle is, of course, the well-respected director of award-winning films such as “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” as well as “Trainspotting,” “Shallow Grave,” and “Sunshine.” Cillian Murphy is Jim, a young man who wakes up in a hospital and discovers a very different world than the one before his accident. A group of animal rights activists unwittingly let a monkey infected with a new and exciting virus escape, and that infection spread frighteningly fast among humans. The infection happens fast once the victim is bitten, and these “zombies” move more quickly than Romero’s. But the real twist of the knife in this film is the violence inflicted by humans on each other. There’s a biting (ha-ha) subtext regarding the military, and performances by Naomie Harris and Christopher Eccleston, as well as Murphy, are stellar.

[Rec]

[Rec]

In 2007 the Spanish film “[Rec]” came out. In “[Rec],” Angela is a reporter profiling a fire station. She goes on a ride with some of the crew, as well as her trusty cameraman, to an apartment building. It soon becomes clear that people in the building are infected with…something. And then the entire building is sealed off – they’re being quarantined. The nature of this infection isn’t fully explained – you’ll need to see “[Rec] 2” for that – but this is a very smart movie. Scary too.

Next up – the weaker sex??

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October Horror – Slashers and Slayers

I’m running through my favorite horror films of the past decade or so, in honor of October and Halloween. These next two films both involve psychotic killers, but they couldn’t be more different.

American Psycho

American Psycho

“American Psycho,” directed by Mary Harron, came out in 2000. This film is, of course, based on the notorious Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name. The star of this movie is Christian Bale, who never fails to sculpt his body for a role (have you seen “The Machinist”?). Beyond the physical, of course, Bale is a great actor, and he thoroughly chomps the scenery in this movie. Bale is Patrick Bateman, a man who has it all – a great job on Wall Street, money coming out of his ears, and a beautiful fiancée. And yet, when business rivals or prostitutes stop by, he just can’t help putting on a little Huey Lewis and the News, dancing about a bit, and then lethally swinging a golf club at his prey. Set in 1987, this movie is not only a great horror film, it’s a biting commentary on the excesses of the ‘80’s. There’s also a passel of recognizable actors in this – Justin Theroux, Reese Witherspoon, Chloe Sevigny, and Jared Leto, among others.

Wolf Creek

Wolf Creek

For a completely different change of pace, there’s “Wolf Creek,” an Australian film that came out in 2005. Written and directed by Greg Mclean, this movie follows three young folks who set out to hike through Wolf Creek National Park in the Australian Outback. When they have some car trouble, a local helps them out…and you can probably guess what happens after that. The local bushman turned killer is played by John Jarratt, and he is truly menacing – all the more so for seeming such a folksy, helpful guy in the beginning. The Outback landscape is both beautiful and desolate. When these hikers need help, there’s nowhere to turn. The plot of this movie is also stellar – you probably won’t be able to predict how it turns.

Next time, two takes on the latest trend du jour: zombies…

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October – a Time to Celebrate Horror

October is my favorite month. Here in Kentucky, the leaves turn beautiful colors of scarlet and gold, fall vegetables like butternut squash and pumpkin emerge, there’s more festivals and fairs than you can shake a stick at, and the sky is a heartbreaking shade of striking blue. October’s prime holiday, of course, is Halloween, and for the past three years I’ve been celebrating October’s advent by trying to watch as many horror movies as possible, from Italian giallo to Japanese white-skinned waifs to American slashers, searching for a new favorite to join the ranks of all the other horrors I hold dear.

I have a few friends who are also into horror. A special light comes into their eyes when we discuss a new movie we’ve just discovered that scared us anew. My other friends shake their heads and roll their eyes when I try to explain why I like horror so much. It’s not easy to elucidate, but I think part of it has to do with the fact that in horror, the characters aren’t dealing with the mundane facts of life that beat so many of us down – paying bills, getting to work on time, disciplining a child, marital difficulties, etc., etc. Nope, in horror, it’s very pure – do you want to live? The characters in a horror movie have to make that decision, and then they’re tested, often very thoroughly. Horror movies often deal with mental issues as well – is a character going insane, or did they really just see a ghost? The physical, mental, and spiritual stakes couldn’t be higher.

I thought I’d share with you some of my favorite horror films – and I realized as I started tallying them that there’s quite a few from the past decade or so, so I’m going to start with those. Over the next few days I’ll share these wildly varying movies with you, and I would love to hear what your favorites are. Here we go…

Session 9

“Session 9,” directed by Brad Anderson, came out in 2001. This movie was mainly shot in Danvers State Mental Hospital, and apparently the film crew had to do very little to make the location look creepy (unfortunately, soon after Avalon Bay Properties purchased the hospital and tore it down to make way for apartments). The hospital is a truly imposing structure in the film, and that alone gives “Session 9” a lot of power. But the plot definitely hooks you in – an asbestos abatement crew has been hired to work on the hospital. They’re a crew who have known each other a while, and each of them have their issues. One of them discovers and starts to play the session tapes of a former hospital patient who had multiple personalities. And the fun, I assure you, definitely takes off from there. The movie features David Caruso of “CSI Miami” (and “Jade”) and Josh Lucas.

Pulse

Pulse

The Japanese movie “Pulse” also came out in 2001. Kiyoshi Kurosawa wrote and directed. “Pulse” was later remade in the U.S., but believe me, you shouldn’t accept any substitutes – the original chills me to the marrow. It’s a slow-moving tale of a few young folks in Tokyo who start seeing ghosts, not only in the physical realm but on computer screens. What’s so chilling about this movie is the vision of death as a place that can be not only too crowded, but also where nothing really…happens. This is a film where the viewer needs to settle in and pay attention – but is it scary? Oh yes.

Next up: two very different slasher films, including one that made the music of Huey Lewis and the News tunes to slay by… 

Don’t forget to let me know your favorite horrors!

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Favorite Writers I – Kelly Link

So I grew up reading A LOT of fantasy – Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffrey, Tolkien (of course), Lloyd Alexander, C.S. Lewis, anthology after anthology. I finally got to a point where it seemed every fantasy novel I read would inevitably diverge into a trilogy. The last few pages would lie before me, but I would begin to suspect that the plot lines would not be wound up. I would page to the end and see those dreaded words – “To Be Continued.” “Noooo,” I would want to shriek like Luke at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.

Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link

Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link

So I stopped reading fantasy for a while. In my grad school days my reading was taken over for a time anyway – mountains of assigned reading, none of it remotely fantastical. After that I read what I tend to term “straight” fiction for a while – contemporary fiction minus dragons, spells, wardrobes to another world, or anything weird at all.

But I had to go back to the weird stuff. It called to me, tugged at me. And while I was gone, the fantasy of yesteryear had morphed and twisted into wonderful new shapes. There’s a school of writers now that are sometimes called “The New Weird” (Conjunctions has termed them “New Wave Fabulists,” but that’s rather a mouthful) or slipstream writers. These writers encompass a wide range, everyone from China Mieville to Aimee Bender to Jeffrey Ford to Jonathan Carroll to Elizabeth Hand to Jeff VanderMeer.

What seems to be a common denominator with these writers is a blurring of genres, combining elements of what used to be termed strictly fantasy with those of science fiction, horror, or both. These writers blend and meld together disparate components to create strange new shapes. The result is a surreal, anti-twee atmosphere. If delicate elves start scampering about in one of these stories, chances are they’re soon going to sprout fangs.

I’ve found a lot of these writers inspirational. One of the tippy-top ones is Kelly Link, the author of two seminal short story collections, Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners. Stranger is Link’s first collection, but I actually read Magic first. Reading Magic demonstrated to me how strangeness can be woven into a story in subtle ways, surprising the reader with the resulting twists and turns.

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

For example, the story “Lull” begins with a group of men playing poker. Palindromes are mentioned, forwards-and-backwards music plays on a cassette, and then they request a story from a phone sex worker.  This story has the requested elements of the Devil and a cheerleader, who is living her life backwards. She’s already had kids, been married – now she’s moved back in with her parents. She’s tunneling back to the womb. But right now, she’s just played spin the bottle and is in the closet with the Devil.

“Tell me a scary story,” the Devil says. “A funny, scary, sad, happy story. I want everything.” He can feel his tail wagging as he says this.

“You can’t have everything,” the cheerleader says, and she picks up his paw and puts it back on the floor of the closet. “Not even in a story. You can’t have all the stories you want.”

True, that. But “Lull” does give quite a few different tales within its structure, all wound around the concept of how time moves and the comfort of story. The next tale concerns one of the poker players and his estranged wife, who’s learned how to clone herself. Then Ed, the poker player, starts to tell his wife a story. Then we loop back to the Devil and the cheerleader. Then back to the poker players – the phone sex worker’s throat is getting scratchy. Like concentric circles created by the splash of a stone into a pond, story moves backward and forward in “Lull.”

The story “Magic for Beginners” tells of a riveting television show called The Library. A group of teens are dedicated fans – but the thing is, they’re on a television show themselves, called The Library. Here again, story and “real life” are intertwined. “Stone Animals” concerns a family who have just moved into an isolated house. Gradually, objects such as the soap in the bathroom and the TV set become haunted – the family members can’t use them anymore. The haunting slowly but surely grows throughout the story, until each member is isolated in their own world. And “The Hortlak” is about two teenage boys who work at a convenience store frequented by zombies. One of them has a crush on a girl who works at an animal shelter and gives car rides to doomed dogs. The zombies don’t attack, they just…exist.

The weirdness in these stories is thoroughly integrated into the fabric of recognizable “real life.” This strangeness can be thrilling, or chilling, but it’s always unique and can take you by surprise in wonderful ways. I’m a huge fan of Kelly Link because of this, and I’m hoping she publishes a novel in the near future.

How about you – what do you think of the concept of New Weird writers? Do you like any of these writers? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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