Watch this movie: The Babadook

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Horror movies are our modern-day fairy tales. They use dark imagery to highlight our blackest fears in order to help us manage them. For a horror movie to work well, it must tap into one of these universal fears or struggles, otherwise, the movie ends up being an incoherent, gloopy mess.

The Babadook, a strange little Australian horror flick, had me confused at first. It’s the story of single mother Amelia raising a difficult son, Samuel, who is about to turn seven. Samuel is rambunctious and annoying as hell, going on and on about having to protect his harried mother from invisible monsters ad generally getting into trouble. Watching Samuel in action made me never want to have children. During these first minutes of the film, his antics left me wondering what the hell this supposed horror movie was supposed to be about.

Then The Babadook shifted, subtly and brilliantly. I can’t remember what the exact moment was — most likely it was a small series of moments that built up until the change was undeniable. And I realized what the heart of this particular horror was: Amelia was burdened with grief for her husband who died while she was in labor en route to the hospital. Those invisible monster Samuel was always fighting was real — it was his mother’s suppressed grief, grief which kept her removed from her own life, and her son’s as well.

babadook 2.jpgOf course that’s not what literally happened in The Babadook. It’s a horror movie, after all. A monster called the Babadook possessed Amelia, causing all sorts of cringeworthy madness and mayhem. Kudos to the writer and director for capturing truly horrific moments, from a cockroach infestation to a nasty bit of self dentistry.

But while the outward plot — a monster invades a house and must be defeated — was well handled, the meaning behind it all was what elevated this movie. Parts of it hit mighty close for me. I know what it’s like to be a child in a situation where you have no control, where you feel like you’re being tossed around in a storm, burdened by someone else’s unresolved pain, and this movie, through Samuel, captured that experience.

Even the resolution nailed it. Horror movies are notoriously difficult to resolve. Often the killer comes back, again and again, or some thoroughly unbelievable event wraps up the story, killing all believability. The Babadook managed to avoid these pitfalls, while also keeping true to the horror at the heart of the story — the failure of a woman to mourn the death of her husband, and the wreckage bequeathed to her son.

What’s the single scariest moment on screen?

Horror/suspense fans out there, I’m talking to you.

Admit it. We love watching scary edge-of-your-seat movies for the same reason we love roller coasters: that rush of adrenaline, that supreme thrill that gushes through your body when fear jumps right out at you. I know I do.

Lord knows there are way too many chilling, thrilling moments on TV and in the movies (mostly movies) to catalog them all, but Flavorwire has taken the brave and controversial step of compiling the top 12. And they’ve done a solid job.

Among the better choices (and the ones that definitely made me jump the first time I saw them):

–The reveal of the demon-eyed urchin in Rosemary’s Baby

–The gut-busting birth of the baby alien in Alien

–And the final scene at the grave in Carrie

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All great choices. All iconic images. But for me, one of the most terrifying moments came in a movie that was hyped, if not overhyped, when it first came out. 1999s The Blair Witch Project was made on a shoestring budget. It was the first movie (or at least the most prominent) to be filmed and marketed as “found footage.” Sure, now it’s a cliche, but back then it was a novelty. And what got me about it was that so much of the movie took place in darkness and shadows. When we finally saw the big bad (or at least some version of it) at the end, though still grainy and dark, it was a shock. I definitely jumped out of my seat.

So for me, believe it or not, the low-budget nearly forgotten flick The Blair Witch Project gets my vote for scariest on-screen moment.

Blair Witch

Genre TV: a golden age or too much of a good thing?

It is a sad fact that there are too many great books in the world, of all genres, that I will never have time to read. I’m sure that I’m missing out on some life-changing classics, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

Star TrekWhen it comes to TV, though, there used to be a time when you could be up on all the great TV shows. For fans of all things sci-fi/supernatural/horror like myself, it wasn’t that hard, because there were so few TV shows that had a sci-fi or supernatural theme. Back in the 1950s you had The Twilight Zone and in the 1960s came The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and in England, Doctor Who. Along the way there were a smattering of other TV shows, notably the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the ’90s, but with only a handful of networks (and the BBC in England) the options were severely limited.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

That’s all changed. Now there seems to be a new network popping up every week, along with new TV shows. When Lost premiered, it reinvigorated the genre by making it commercially and critically viable. As flawed as Lost was, the emmy-winning series showed the powers that be that genre shows could make money and win awards.

Lost

Since then, there’s been an explosion of genre shows. A few decades ago, who would have predicted that two of the most hyped television shows would include dragons and zombies? These two shows, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are worldwide cultural events. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead bring more than just supernatural/fantastical/horror elements: they have high production values, are well acted, and have great writing.

Walking Dead

And these are just two of the latest and greatest. The past couple of decades have given us so many great genre shows, from SyFy’s Farscape and the Battlestar Galactica reboot, to BBC’s relaunched Doctor Who and BBC America’s Orphan Black. I should be happy, right?

Orphan Black Tatiana Maslany

In a way, I’m not. There are SO MANY genre shows out there I can’t keep up. And neither can the people who are writing them. The Walking Dead has given us the derivative Z Nation. The second season of SyFy’s Helix was a mess (a glorious, batshit crazy mess, but still a mess). And Netflix’s Hemlock Grove was half-baked camp. We’ve got a glut of genre shows out there, some of which should have never been made, and others that could have used a little more seasoning.

helixNot to mention that I don’t have the time to watch the vast majority. I’d love to watch The Strain, and there’s a new Salem TV show with Lucy Lawless that looks interesting. But between work, writing, play, family, how could I possibly fit all these shows into my life?

Maybe Hollywood needs to scale back a little — if not in the number of shows, then at least in the number of episodes. In the UK, it’s a common practice for TV shows to be short runs. Each season is perhaps six episodes, and the TV shows only run for a few seasons, if that. What you get is concise storytelling that does not require a lifetime commitment of the viewer. I’d fully support this idea; even the best shows suffer from episode bloat and could use some trimming (I’m looking at you, Walking Dead).

It Follows: hype and (no) story

I’m a sucker for a good horror movie. Give me some chills and thrills, but not too much gore, and I’m into it. but good horror movies are hard to find. Too often the thrills are just obvious and trite. Every scary story has seemingly been told.

it-follows-movie-posterThat’s why when I caught word of the new horror film It Follows, I was excited. io9.com, one of my go-to websites, called it absolutely must-see horror flick. They gushed over this movie so much (as did other media outlets) that I couldn’t wait to see it. So I forked over $14.50 and went.

First, the premise. Set in a typical middle America suburb (in Michigan), 19-year-old Jay (played by Maika Monroe) is dating a mysterious guy named Hugh (played by Jake Weary). After they have sex for the first time, he ties her up and tells her that he’s passed on a curse to her. A mysterious, slow-walking demon-like creature that can take the form of any human will follow her, and if it touches her, she will die. If she dies, then the curse will revert back to Hugh. The only way she can survive is to pass the curse on by having sex with someone else.

A killer premise, right? But premise doesn’t equal plot.

Before I deconstruct the hype, I’ll talk about what works.

It Follows is beautifully shot. It comes off like an expertly made indie flick. the imagery, from dull suburbia to decaying Detroit, are all lush and inviting.

–The soundtrack is both jarring and creepy. It Follows is scored by Disasterpiece, and it is filled with sudden electronic bursts, thumping synth beats, terror and pounding hearts gone ragged.

–The cast is generally appealing. This movie is not filled with the too-pretty Hollywood types we’re used to seeing. They’re good looking enough to be believable, and the actors all do fine jobs.

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–The pace of the movie is steady. I never felt bored or hurried.

–There were some genuinely creepy elements. The way the creature would stalk Jay was unsettling, and it stayed with me long after the movie ended.

–Early in It Follows, after Jay is first infected, she is scarred by the fact that Hugh attacked her and tied her up. The actor who plays Jay relayed the shame and horror of that all-too-real occurrence in a way that left me shaken.

it follows jay

But while watching the movie I was acutely aware of the fact that while the premise was strong, and the production was excellent, the plot was thin. Many horror movies fail when it comes to crafting a compelling narrative. Too often the movies simply turn into repetitive scenes of the hero trying to elude or battle the monster, a back-and-forth that just ends suddenly, leaving the viewer unsatisfied. It Follows fell into this trap.

Part of the problem was that the characters were underdeveloped. It took me a good 45 minutes before I realized that the blond girl’s name was Jay — and she’s the main character! There is no backstory, and the movie suffers as a result.

Then there’s the theme. All horror movies have a theme, a primal fear that the writer and director exploits. For It Follows, it was clearly sex. The curse is passed on through sex. But this is a well-worn trope that has almost become a cliche. In my opinion, the writers missed a great opportunity to offer a twist on this. As I said earlier, I was moved by Jay’s traumatized reaction to her attack. It was real and visceral. What would have It Follows been like if they explored the theme of sexual trauma?

Maika Monroe and Jake Weary in It Follows

One of the most compelling scenes is when Jay and her sister and friends track down Hugh, the one who passed the curse along to her. The group sits in the grass as Hugh explains what happened to him. Rather than a villain, Hugh came off as a tortured, terrified soul. I couldn’t help but wonder what this movie would have been if it had spent more time on the characters of Jay and Hugh, and explored the repercussions of their sexual/relational traumas. There were also hints of a Freudian/Oedipal undercurrent, as the creature takes the form of parents of two of the characters. But this was too fleeting to leave much of an impression.

I wish that the writers had gone through a few more drafts. This could have been a truly great horror movie. As it stands, I’m going to buck the hype. It Follows, while well made, is not a brilliant horror film, and not one of the best of the decade. It is well made, chilling, but ultimately unsatisfying. Watch it on Netflix, and save your $14.50.

The Walking Dead: Ecstasy and agony

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I’m late to The Walking Dead. It’s not that I don’t like zombies — I do, ever since I watched Night of the Living Dead as a five year old. But there are so many shows out there, as well as an endless supply of zombie-themed shows and books. When it came to The Walking Dead, I just couldn’t be bothered.

But I decided to binge watch the show last Thanksgiving, and just before Christmas I caught up. (Part Walking Dead Castof that time was spent in bed with a fever — zombie shows make for surreal fever dreams). My verdict? The Walking Dead does several things great:

–This show manages to put a fresh spin on the beaten-to-death zombie trope. How? By focusing on the nuts and bolts of survival in a slow-moving apocalypse. Zombies are only one danger. Other humans are nearly as bad (hell, they’re sometimes worse).

–Rick Grimes (as played by Andrew Lincoln) is a hero who is both resolute and plagued by doubt. He is human and relatable. This is a tricky mix that the writers, and Lincoln, pull off.

–With its ensemble, revolving cast, its characterizations can be uneven. Some have remained cardboard over several seasons (I’m looking at you, Glenn and Maggie). but then we get amazing characters like Michonne. Michonne petsShe will be remembered as one of the iconic horror characters decades from now. And then there’s Daryl, who has been consistently bad-ass, and consistently compelling. Finally, there’s Carol, who has morphed from a mousy abused woman to a woman with a backbone of steel. Carol has seen the worst of life and she has learned what it takes to survive in this horrific world.

But… The Walking Dead, like Lost, is one of those maddening TV shows that is blessed with brilliance and plagued by arrogance. This show is great, and the writers know it, which trips them up.

Take the episode “The Grove” from season 4. Carol and Tyreese are holed up in an idyllic country cottage with two young sisters. As often happens on this show, things go south. Way south. This episode was sharp and smart and beautiful. It was gut-wrenching and caught me off-guard. It was not a fast-paced episode — The Walking Dead often walks very slowly. But it was one of the most jarring hours of television I’ve seen.

And then The Walking Dead serves up an episode like “Them,” the latest in current season 5. In “Them,” the gang is reeling from the deaths of two beloved members. They’re wandering, starving, thirsty, and trailed by ambling zombies. And they have angst. And doubt. Basically nothing much of note happens for most of this episode, except for our heroes acting out in small, supposedly symbolic ways. Plus, we get a perverse motivational speech from Rick that is about three seasons too late in coming.The writers were aiming for deep symbolism and small epiphanies. They missed. Instead we got an hour of pouting and navel gazing.

Still, the worst episode of The Walking Dead is better than 99% of other TV shows. Here’s hoping the writers don’t repeat mistakes like this. Please — give us more ecstasy and spare us the agony.

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Why I can’t read any new Stephen King

This isn’t an easy thing for me to write: I will never read a new Stephen King novel again.

I grew up on King. When I was a teenager I devoured his books: Carrie, Firestarter, Thinner, The Talisman, Eyes of the Dragon, Pet Sematary, It. He was (and still is) a fantastic storyteller. He creates characters who feel real and alive, and in his horror, he captures real fears we all have and relays them to us in ways that keeps us awake well past dark.

I stopped reading him for several years — no real reason, except that there are so many other books out there. Then about five years ago I picked up The Dark Tower. Wow. It floored me. The Dark Tower was King at his best — wild, madcap, bursting with imagination, and populated with characters who seemed as real as you or me. Roland Deschain, the gunslinger and hero of the seven book Dark Tower series, is one of my all-time favorite characters. The seven books of the Dark Tower series weren’t perfect. There was way too much fat. And partway through the series he introduces a character named Stephen King, a writer of horror movies. This was his only major misstep in the whole series; it nearly broke the illusion for me. But I was able to overlook this. Even the ending, controversial to some, was brilliant to me.

Then I made the mistake of reading Under the Dome, his book about a town that’s mysteriously trapped beneath an impenetrable dome, and I realized a few things:

–I’m tired of reading about small-town Maine. The characters in Under the Dome were way too similar to those in his earlier books.

–King’s world is black and white. I like gray.

–King’s writing is devoid of all hope.

That last part is crucial. First, let me be clear: King’s talent and skill are undeniable, and his work ethic is something we should all emulate. But when I write, I must come from a place of hope. Even in the darkest stories I write, there exists a thread of hope, no matter how thin. In Under the Dome, there really was none. The basic message was this: the world sucks, people suck, and ultimately we’re all powerless. I trudged through the 1000 plus pages, hoping for at least a stellar ending, but the ending I got was one of the worst I’ve ever read. It wasn’t even good enough for a bad Twilight Zone episode. It was arbitrary and it made me regret wasting my time.

And now I just finished his latest, Revival. Where do I begin?

First, the good. King is a master of a unique premise, or, at least a premise that would have seemed obvious, but for some reason wasn’t. For this book, he infuses horror into the well-worn cliche of the faith healer. You would think it’s been done to death, but I can’t think of another case. And he works in clever homages to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the cold horror of HP Lovecraft.

But first you have to sift through the boring life of one Jamie Morton, who is well meaning enough, but nothing more than a way for King to relay the glories of his small town baby boomer generation. I grew up in the shadow of the baby boomer generation. Never again do I want to hear about how cool or special their lives and culture were. Thank God for that skill known as skimming pages.

Jamie aside, King gives us Pastor Charles Jacobs. In Jacobs we have someone who is much more compelling — a man of God who loses all faith when his wife and son die in a horrific accident. King deftly describes the accident, sparing none of the gore. And he paints a brilliant picture of a man shattered.

Unfortunately it’s told through the bland eyes of Jamie, whose motivations are never quite clear or understandable. There’s an attraction between him and Jacobs, something that keeps them coming back to each other over the years, but it’s never explained. We’re just expected to go along until the bleak, bitter end.

And what an end it was. The world of Revival is one of utter horror, with no hope of escape. In the end, Jacobs and Jamie glimpse the afterlife, and its a hellish afterlife awaiting every man, woman and child. I’m not a psychologist, but I’m guessing Stephen King hates religion. I’d bet he doesn’t even believe in God. Fair enough. A belief in God is by no means a prerequisite for a good and happy life. But what King gives us is an inversion of God and religion. Not only is there no purpose to life, but we are insignificant, and will suffer cruelly no matter what we do.

Revival, similar to Under the Dome, is a book about being utterly powerless. It is a book that contains not a single shred of hope. In fact, hope is systematically killed off until nothing but despair remains.

Revival left me feeling pretty low. Yes, I know it’s JUST A BOOK. But one of the reasons we read books, watch TV, go to the movies, listen to music, etc, is to feel transformed. We’re looking for something to feed our souls, to make us feel alive, to affirm the beauty and goodness of life. King’s Dark Tower series did this for me. But these last two books — Under the Dome and now Revival — did the opposite. All they did was bring me lower.

Stephen King is a wildly talented and successful writer. I can’t speak for his state of mind (I wouldn’t presume to do so) but I hope he’s not living in a place of darkness. I’ve loved being a part of his literary word, but it’s time for me to let him go.

Archie vs Predator?

Call this post mash-ups gone wild.

What are two things that should not go together? Two things that absolutely MUST go together.

The latest proof — there’s a new comic series coming out that combines that all-American wholesomeness of the Archie comics with…. the sci-fi horror classic Predator.

Predator Archie

Say what???

According to this link at io9.com, Archie and friends will be forced to battle the Predator aliens while on vacation in Costa Rica. Sounds good to me.

When I was young, I loved the Archie comics. There was something so normal, so ideal, about Archie and his life. It was an experience I wanted. And of course I loved Predator. Badass Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting badass aliens? What’s not to like?

I hope Hollywood (or at least SyFy or the Spike Channel) have optioned these books. I would love to see Jughead’s severed head hoisted aloft.

Archie Predator

Hellraiser: behind the scenes

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I was a teenager when I watched Clive Barker’s iconic horror movie Hellraiser. It freaked me out, to say the least. I’d never seen evil presented on screen in such a visceral, repulsive way. What made it so scary? First, several years of Catholic school had conditioned me to be afraid of hell. Second, the villains — Pinhead and the rest — were not just mindless monsters. They were human. Too human.

This movie has stayed with me after all these years. I haven’t watched it in a long time. Maybe I should. But will Hellraiser hold up? Sure, it was low-budget, but the core element of pure horror will remain as strong as ever, I’m guessing.

In the meantime, I came across this article in io9.com that details some behind-the-scenes tidbits about the movie. Here are a few highlights:

–Clive Barker sold the script for Hellraiser based on the idea alone. He’d never directed a movie — he didn’t even know how. Unfortunately the two books in the library on directing were both checked out.

–Jennifer Tilly auditioned for the role of Kirsty. But Barker wanted Ashley Laurence, an unknown actor, to play the part. He had to fight for her. Obviously he won.

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–Doug Bradley, who played Pinhead, did not want to take the role. Why not? Number one, the hours of makeup required. Number two, with all the makeup, who would recognize him? Now that Pinhead is an icon, I bet he’s glad that he took the role.

–The original title was The Hellbound Heart, but the studio heads worried it would be mistaken for a romance. If only.

–The costumes were inspired by those seen in S&M clubs. Then again, that’s not a surprise.

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