Since I’m noticing trends these days (and why not, I’ve got nothing to do but stare at the ceiling while contemplating civilization and life and the meaninglessness of time), here’s another one.
Is it just me or is there a thing about horror movies and thrillers hinging on some kind of subworld? Especially since the year 2000. Stranger Things has the “Upside Down”. Insidious has the “Further”. Coraline has the world of the “Other Mother”. Get Out has the “Sunken Place”. Even Us had a subworld with its secret lab maze under the carnival. I didn’t see Don’t Blink, but I guess that has some kind of Bermuda Triangle thing going on. And there’s the room in 1408, although I think that might just be haunted.
I know alternate dimensions are nothing new in speculative fiction, but it seems horror especially has been using this as a trope lately. Why? Usually horror movies prey on fears that consume us in our current society. But I’m not sure which one this is or why it’s coming up now. Is it preying on the fear that there’s some kind of other society that we know nothing about that could rise up and invade any time?
Is it rooted in climate change? The “Upside Down” does look pretty polluted.
Is it manipulation? In both Get Out and Coraline, the extra dimension is used as a way to placate the victim, luring them somewhere so the bad guy can parastically use them.
Is it… is it… ghosts? I’m sorry, I can’t think of anything for Insidious. That movie was so stupid (and the impetus for this article) I had to write something about it. I mean, the bad guy is called “lipstick-faced demon”.
Aren’t we a little old and jaded to be scared of “demons” and “ghosts” anymore? Didn’t Buffy put that whole genre to rest? Nowadays, horror’s family-oriented (The VVitch, The Babadook, Us, A Quiet Place) or functional relationships (It Follows, Get Out). Not ghosts and goblins.
Or maybe it’s just me who’s old and jaded. I’m so jaded Indiana Jones tried to steal me to put in a museum.
I have no idea where or when I saw this, but I know I must have. Because when I was perusing old short horror films available on YouTube, this little gem came back, and I immediately had a Vagrant Story reaction (that’s an inside joke I don’t expect you to get).
My dad must have recorded this off of HBO (he recorded everything, we had over 200 video cassettes in our house) and then taped over it, because I only remember seeing the end. But the end is the scary part anyway. Strips of film from reels and cassettes come alive (in glorious stop-motion, I might add) and wrap around this guy who I always assumed was a film editor. Then they either suffocate him or consume him. Very evocative of my previously mentioned fears of drowning and lingering deaths when you’re trapped and alive but can’t do anything about it.
I never knew if it was the end of a movie or what, but HBO would air these short films very early in its life, presumably when they needed to fill gaps in-between movies. I don’t think my dad intended to record it. He probably fell asleep in the chair and forgot to hit “stop” (he did that a lot). But thanks Dad for this unintentional snippet of childhood fear.
Either Dad had this on tape for a time, I just occasionally saw it while channel flipping. And I’m not alone with this scene being a sore point for many kids. I wasn’t into Superman, so I just caught it by chance. Especially since any good stuff happens near the end.
Again, we have our good friend stop-motion being used to portray a super-computer melding into a woman. The metal sears to her face, wires in her skin, while she screams. Even the most horrific animes at this time weren’t this bad. Like, what did she do to deserve this? Comic book villains are goofy, they don’t get tortured like this. All she did was fall backwards. Looking back now, this should have been Braniac, but it’s a poor excuse for filmmakers pulling their punches.
I often had insomnia when I was a kid. Probably from drinking too many Diet Cokes (that was what my mom bought) and not knowing what caffeine was. Not to mention an overactive imagination. So sometimes, if my parents had gone to bed, I’d sneak into the family room and watch late night TV. Not like Johnny Carson or Saturday Night Live. I mean the 1 AM “what do we fill time with” cable stuff. Honestly, the TV guide was as entertaining as the other programs.
The only TV that didn’t require much comprehension were horror movies. TNT or TBS was usually a good bet for these. I remember once I watched three in a row: some modern wolfman movie in a cave, “The Spookies” which I didn’t understand, and Invaders From Mars. That sounded like a simple movie. Maybe it was like War of the Worlds. With a goofy title like that, it had to have something in it for kids.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Well, the title came from a cheesy 1953 film. But this is a remake. It’s the difference between Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Night of the Living Dead (1990) directed by Tom Savini. The first movie (which I’ve never seen) had big-headed green-skinned Martians and capitalized on the alien invasion/”Red Scare” trend. But the second is directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), written by Dan O’Bannon (Alien), and special-effected by Stan Winston (every good movie ever).
The plot is essentially The Faculty or Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Tommyknockers. Of course, I hadn’t seen any of those (or they weren’t yet created) so this is the first time I saw the paranoia plot, and was thus terrified. And it combines well with the “no one listens to kids” trope. All the adults around little David are suddenly acting weird, and they all have scars on their necks. Of course, no one will believe him, because he’s a kid. The only person he can get on his side, after much struggling, is the school nurse.
At the end, it’s only the boy. Everyone else has been turned, even the army, so they’re no help. Your parents are your enemies. Your teachers are your enemy. He’s utterly alone and supportless, sneaking around the spaceship that buried itself in the desert (a little like the end of The X-Files movie or Predator 2), and there’s all this freaky spaceship stuff and giant aliens that are just walking mouths. And at the end he confronts the leader, whose essentially a giant brain on his throne (reminded me a bit of “A Wrinkle in Time”). I forget what he does, either the aliens are vulnerable to salt, or he busts open a power core.
But what prevents this from being its own entry is the stupid stupid “Phew, it was all a dream” ending. Not only that, but the spaceship lands again just like in the beginning, like he’s about to relive all these events, but for real. Even an nine-year-old isn’t fooled by that kind of lazy storytelling. Well, mostly.
I never liked math, but I never missed an episode of Square One. Well, occasionally I’d change channels once Mathnet came on–not a fan of detective stories. But every time Mathman came on, I had to flip away for a minute or two. I don’t know why, maybe it was something about that music, or the ominous coin-slot drop, or the black screen, but it scared the crap out of me. It hit that sweet spot of uncanny dread and fascination like I had with Braingames.
It didn’t help that the bad guy almost always won and ate the good guy. Maybe that’s why I could never watch it–Mathman was doomed. He’d would solve a few correct solutions, then chomp something wrong. (And being too young to understand fractions, his demise was unpredictable but inevitable. It was never a matter of if, but when). And suddenly the bad guy (him being a tornado didn’t help) would get the go-ahead to chase him. Being a maze, there was no escape, and as decreed by fate, the bad guy would eat him. (Really, he just covered him and Mathman would expand into pixels and fade out). But seriously, fuck that tornado guy.
Fun fact I just learned: the company that produced this segment was Blue Sky Studios, which has since made Ice Age and other average CG-animated movies.
House II: The Second Story (at least the ending)
In the same way I caught Night of the Creeps and Invaders From Mars, House II was also frequently featured on afternoon TV. But I always caught the end of it. And as one might expect from an afternoon movie, it can hardly be called horror, unless you’re a small boy with nothing to do.
I’m not sure I was so much afraid of this as I was weirded out. From what I can remember, the ending sequence starts with a kind of revolving wall gag with a beautiful woman (who’s meant to imply woman trouble for the main character, who I think was the straight guy from Perfect Strangers? Or at least looked like him) disappearing and reappearing. There’s a green dog puppet, who’s super-cute until you realize it’s probably undead. There’s another puppet too but I forget what it is. And there’s an old man who looks like the guy on the cover of Phalanx.
And he’s undead too. Green mottled skin, rotten teeth. Like a zombie prospector or something. Like he got lost on the way to Mad Dog McCree. My guess is this guy’s an ancient relative of Perfect Strangers who got resurrected/summoned into the house and hijinx ensue, like Down and Out in Beverly Hills or Uncle Buck.
And there’s a big climax at the end, but I forget what it is. I think it’s got to do with being sucked into the afterlife or some other dimension. But the grandpa sacrifices himself, and then Perfect Strangers is holding him as he dies (again?) saying he’s sorry, but the old man says not to be. “I got to meet my great-great-grandson.” Then there’s a gravestone. And Perfect Strangers, his two supporting cast (including the girl who I think might be a “Imprinted Love Interest“), and the puppets ride a wagon off into a field, which seems to be nowhere near the titular “house” where everything happened. Like did they fall into the bad dimension? Or get trapped in the past and now where are they going?
I’ve never seen the first House or this movie all the way through. I’m not sure it would make any more sense if I did.
The Vacuum from Mr. Mom
Jaws was absolutely verboten to watch. Not because my parents wouldn’t let me, but I wouldn’t let me. I knew it was too scary for me. Even the music was scary. And I already had that “going down the drain” thing. Add a shark to that and forget it. But in the early eighties, people were still copying all the iconic bits. You may not have seen the movie, but you knew the music, which also sent down an occasional shiver.
I also had a blankey. It was white. It was made by my grandmother. Baby pictures show that it had a scene from Bambi on it, but it was worn off by the time of my first memory. I carried that thing everywhere. It was my cape, my sword, my whip, my blindfold, my all-purpose rope, and my lovey. Technically I still have it, or what’s left of it, which is a strip of wrinkled fabric, no heavier than a washcloth. In short, Linus was my idol.
Now Mr. Mom is a movie about a stay-at-home dad, which was progressive for 198-something (see also: Baby Boom). And of course, there’s the requisite scene where everything’s gone butt-knuckle crazy. Like in that Goofy cartoon “Father’s Day Off“. The baby’s crying, the sink is flooding, the phone is ringing, and so on and on. But what’s notable is that the vacuum starts taking off of its own accord. I don’t think vacuums could do that, then or now, but it was a “thing” in old comedy. My house had a similar vacuum with the gray dust bag and headlight for scaring the cat.
But when this vacuum took off, it started playing the Jaws theme. And it goes right for the son’s blankey. Vacuum + Jaws + loss of blankey = DO NOT WANT.
I didn’t watch Mr. Mom until decades later, at my girlfriend’s (now wife) house. And obviously, it wasn’t as scary as I remember. But I steered clear of that movie for a long time. Didn’t hurt that I didn’t understand the material at the time anyway.
On a very boring Saturday, our cable was out. I don’t remember why. Maybe we had cancelled it early in anticipation of moving. Anyway, this was one of those odd days where there wasn’t anything to do, and the timing was right (I remember it started at noon exactly), so I sat down in front of the floor model, wood-paneled, 198-something Magnavox and watched the best thing that was on. The best thing on was “Night of the Creeps”.
Usually I channel flip, but this time I didn’t (what would be the point with only five stations?). And Fox was still a young network at that point and in those days, the newer channels usually had the best stuff. Not like CBS’s “The 700 Club” or some press roundtable or sports or, god forbid, “local programming”. Most of the time it was some dumb adult program like “Born in East L.A.” and “Three Fugitives” and “The Secret of My Success” but on rare occasions, you could catch “The Great Muppet Caper” or “Raggedy Ann & Andy”. However, you were lucky if you didn’t join in when the movie was half over. But this time, I was able to catch it from the start, which added to the novelty. And let me reiterate, I had nothing to do.
The problem when you’re a ten-year-old is that you don’t know what “camp” is yet. You don’t know what bad special effects are. Everything looks real. Life hasn’t trained you to see the puppet strings, the wires, cheap reverse motion techniques, plastic make-up. And this was not the first time a horror movie would bite me in the ass like this (see all previous Kindertrauma entries). You’d think I would know better at this age. I guess I thought I was old enough to handle it at this point.
It wasn’t until I was older did I appreciate Tom Skeritt’s performance, or the references to other horror directors, or its homages to B-movies. The “oven scene” is a beautiful piece of film-making you don’t see in regular movies, let alone bad eighties ones. It’s all showing, not telling. There isn’t even much movement, just a slow tightening on the open stove while you wonder “what is that hissing sound?” Also, it was weird to see Mr. Futterman in something other than Gremlins.
From nose to toes, the movie scared the hell out of me. It’s a basic concept–little slugs are spreading on a college campus, turning people to zombies. A nice guy named Chris wants to date a [GIRL] but the Jerk Jock stands between them. Think Animal House meets Night of the Living Dead. I could not get it out of my head for days, giving me insomnia. Every night, scenes would replay them in my head, like a second run. Here are some choice ones.
• The good guy has a friend named J.C. who uses forearm crutches (indicating a lifelong disability). He gets quite a bit of non-PC mistreatment by the preps, but he’s a true friend. At one point, he excuses himself from Chris and [GIRL]’s walk to go to the bathroom. But an infected janitor stumbles in and cracks his head on the porcelain floor, letting a bunch of slugs escape (the slugs incubate in brains). J.C. can’t get out as they’re darting back and forth on the tiled floor like blind rats. In a desperate move, J.C. falls out of the stall and crawls as fast as he can (which is not fast, given he only has his arms). Cut to one of the slugs wriggling in front of him. Cut back to him. Zoom on slug. Cut to him. Zoom on slug. The slug leaps. Commercial break.
• Sequel to the above scene. Good Guy Chris finds an envelope with “LISTEN” hastily scrawled on. It’s a cassette with a message from J.C. Besides the fact that this means the victims have consciousness after infection (which hasn’t been shown before and challenges zombie lore), the message is haunting as hell. It plays in one shot, one take. The hero’s face drops as he listens to the shaky and fading words of his only friend. The last time he’ll ever hear them:
Chris. There’s one inside me. It got in through my mouth. I can feel it. It’s in my brain. I don’t have a pulse or a heartbeat. I think I’m dead.
I killed one. I lit a match to it. I think fire will kill them. I’ve gone to the furnace room, the basement. If I don’t come back… heat will kill them.
I walked, Chris. All by myself, I walked.
I love you. Good luck with Cynthia.
• But here’s the finale. Chris actually goes down to the basement, straight out of Freddy Krueger’s nightmare. He finds the body of his friend around the corner, lying face down. Near his head are the melted remains of some slugs, still hissing and smoking. We don’t see J.C.’s face and that’s the scariest part.
• As with all horror movies, there’s a spring-loaded cat. The first one is nothing, just to establish that one of the sorority sisters owns one. Then later, an obviously real/not dead cat comes in. She picks it up again, but this time it cuts to its face–eyeless, ragged, bloody, snarling, maggots curling up in the empty eye socket. It’s obviously a prop, but ten-year-old me can’t tell that in a half-second shot. The weird part is that there is no follow-up–the scene just ends. This happens in the middle of the movie, before the big swarm. No one ever mentions this. You never find out what happened to living dead cat.
• The bully boyfriend gets “creeped”, but everyone’s too distracted about the party. So no one looks at him for the two seconds it would take to notice his gray skin, his white eyes, pallid sunken eyes.
Then the girlfriend–STILL not looking–takes him by the hand to sit on the stoop (she touches it!), thinking he’s here to talk about the fight they had. While she’s rambling, his head is spitting out black slugs like the world’s worst PEZ dispenser in the out-of-focus background.
• There’s a bus taking a bunch of frat guys (in cheap tuxes) to the sorority party. A zombie dog sits in the middle of the road and causes it to crash, killing everyone on board. Then the dog walks into the bus to let his slugs do their thing. Does this mean the slugs have intelligence? How do they know what a bus is? How do they know it can crash? Are they controlling the body’s movements (which runs counter to J.C.’s actions)? Is it actively trying to create dead bodies? Or is the dog just that malicious?
• Early in the movie, during the “setup”, there’s a throwaway line where one of the sorority sisters needs to store some jars for biology. The jars are full of brains. The stereotypically girly girl goes “ew” and tells her to put them in the basement. This never comes up again. Not even remotely. Until the climax when, after killing frat boys with lawnmowers, the girl and guy see some slugs running for the basement. Then the girl remembers what’s there.
The heroes go downstairs, and there is a five-foot high mass of slugs in the corner, all wriggling and writhing, crawling over each other like maggots on a corpse, presented in classic stop-motion (which is scary by itself–all that unnatural movement).
• But wait, there’s more. Cool guy detective is down there too. He’s got duct tape over his mouth and is dousing everything in gasoline and letting out gas. He’s about to make a heroic sacrifice, and starts counting down (letting everyone get out of the house). Some of the slugs start reaching outward, ready to jump. As he clicks the lighter, the slugs leap toward him. Then big bada-boom.
• But wait, there’s still more! Unbeknownst to everybody, the cool guy detective stumbles out of the burning wreckage, smoking and burnt beyond recognition. He falls face first on the pavement. His skull cracks open. The slugs got him. (Why didn’t he put the duct tape back over his mouth?)
• But wait, there’s yet still more! They skitter out and speed under a gate. The camera pans up and we see that it’s a graveyard. My little mind realizes how many tasty brains there are in a cemetery, plenty to start the whole thing over again, dooming the Earth.
• But wait, there’s yet stilladditionally more! During the pan up, a spotlight suddenly snaps on a headstone. It sweeps over the graveyard. It’s coming from an alien spaceship, slowly searching for the slugs. Now, this should fill one with a little hope–the aliens are taking responsibility for their experiment and trying to fix things. But when I was a kid, I didn’t get this. Maybe the beginning prologue was cut from the TV version, or maybe I had just missed it. But either way, this felt like a Twilight Zone ending. The creeps are alien in origin? Stop the planet, I want to get off.
So yeah, this was a smorgasbord of childhood trauma. Of course, now I can look back at it and laugh and get the in-jokes and appreciate it. But back then, this was my Exorcist.
No, not actually “Faces of Death”. I wouldn’t learn about that franchise until I was in high school. And then it was more fun figuring out which vignettes were fake and which were real (this was before YouTube). No these are the terrifying moments about kindertrauma to someone’s face, usually in the form of it coming off.
The first was in Beetlejuice. I can’t believe my mom took me to see this in the theater. I was seven years old. Did I express some kind of interest in seeing this? I must have. It was the same director as Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Maybe she just wanted to get me out of the house for a while. Anyway, I distinctly remember it not being terribly scary EXCEPT for when Geena Davis is hanging in a closet and rips off her own face.
Her eyes fall out of their lidless sockets. Her musculature glistens around her lipless mouth. And then there’s that blood-curdling scream. I think this was the first jumpscare I ever had. And it’s a direct contrast to the… well, not lighter, but at least not grosser tone that preceded it. Nothing promised in the movie so far indicated that we’d be getting gore like this. It didn’t turn me off from the movie – it’s one of my defining works. Nothing afterward made me jump — not the faces stretching or the sandworm business. I never see it on lists of kindertrauma so I wonder if it was just me. Or maybe others had moms with better sense.
But I do see the face-picking scene from Poltergeist on lists. This takes any face trauma you might have had and turns it up to eleven. After seeing a steak wriggling on the counter, one of the ghost hunters goes to wash his face and sees a skin tag. He pulls it off. And then more and more. He can’t stop. It’s like a compulsive’s worst nightmare. As the water runs, the sink fills up with bloody chunks of flesh until his face is just ragged meat. Eyes bulging, teeth grinning.
The funny part is, when you see it as an adult, you can see how fake it is, especially the ending with the torso and head jiggling like a mannequin. I don’t remember where I first saw this scene. I think my Dad must have been watching it on TV and I might have been younger than seven. But it turned me the fuck off so I couldn’t even look at the word “Poltergeist” until I was in high school. The scary clown toy and the kid getting eaten by the tree didn’t help. (I thought he was covered in blood, but my dad told me it was sap. I’m still not sure I buy that.)
And finally, the piece de resistance is Old Man Toht’s face melting like wax after seeing the Ark of the Covenant (don’t forget your eclipse glasses, kids!) For some reason, it’s Toht, not Dietrich (the other guy) that I remember most. Maybe it’s because of the hat and glasses, makes it more human, more real. Maybe the way it was shot, or the colors in the shot — black background, red blood, white skull, orange fire lighting. But, like Poltergeist, I refused to watch this movie until puberty set in. Late stage puberty.
Pretty much something from each element in this movie showed up in one childhood nightmare or another. Like all the other Kindertrauma in my life, I blame my mother. But not for the reasons you think.
She was attending college and took a class in horror movies. That meant trips to the video store and not caring if we were in the same room as her or not. There’ll be more on this later, but thanks to her ambitions, I got exposed to several episodes of Tales from the Crypt, Tales from the Darkside, Halloween, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and others. Bad enough I’d already been warped from VHS boxes and her Stephen King books. Ironic that I didn’t realize this was another work of his until later.
The first scary image occurs after a boy has been yelled at by his father for that comic book trash (the titular “Creepshow”) he keeps in the house. After being sent to his room, the “Creeper” appears outside the kid’s window…
No, not that one… That’s the attempt to make Joker into a superhero.
“Come to my window, crawl inside, wait by the light of the moon…”
The lightning flashes and there is he is, like a tall, grotesque grim reaper (or a burnt mannequin). And the kid smiles because he recognizes his savior. His God has come. It’s a comfort to him, making the whole thing scarier. It made me not want to look at my window when going to sleep.
After this prologue is the Father’s Day vignette. I remember the whole story felt a bit off, maybe because it’s a slasher film sped up. The deaths don’t have a lot of build up like they do in Friday the 13th or Halloween, where the fear is in the stalking. The most horrible part is the corpse itself, more rotted and filthy than any I’ve ever seen. This is not your father’s blue zombies from Dawn of the Dead.
Jordy Verrill is the second story, and at this age, I didn’t know what camp meant. Or redneck. I thought Jordy Verrill was a likable, lonely farmer. Not very smart, but well-meaning.
And then the creeping death starts to cover his shack. The kicker is that it’s innocent grass, but it’s growing like The Blob. It covers his fingers, his hand, his remote, it’s unbearably itchy, unbearably alien. There’s nothing worse than being killed by degrees.
After he takes a fateful bath as his last ditch attempt to cleanse himself, he can no longer move or breathe for being covered with the stuff. What I remember of the ending is that, after he positions the shotgun under his chin, the shot cuts away to the house and the blast is heard. So I must have seen the edited version. But that is scarier to me, because what you don’t see is scarier than what you do. Also it’s the dread of the fact that he had no other choice. That he goes out rasping, “Please… God… just this once.” Haunting.
I knew Leslie Nielsen from The Naked Gun and Airplane movies my father showed me. Seeing him in a serious role itself is disconcerting. But add that he’s a bad guy, torturing Ted Danson (also an eighties staple) by 1. forcing him to dig a hole in the sand 2. Bury himself in it 3. Before the tide comes in, inevitably drowning you (3½. Nielsen mentions he might be able to survive this… if he can hold his breath long enough; and little me thought this might be a possibility, making Danson’s death sadder.) 4. While your wife’s death on the other side of the beach plays live via CCTV. I hate these slow deaths of dread.
And then that’s not enough — the corpses come back, blue and bloated, covered with seaweed. They pursue Nielsen around the house until they corner him with a fade to black. The final shot? He’s suffering the same fate as they did, buried up to his head while the tide comes in.
Now that I look back on it I have no idea why I was ever scared of it. It looks like a cheap gorilla mask someone left in the microwave. Maybe it’s because the cinematography is about what you don’t see. It’s called The Crate. Not “The Monster in the Crate”, just “The Crate”. You don’t see what’s in it when a hapless janitor gets pulled in by a furry clawed hand and blood spurts out.
Then there’s a twist where the henpecked guy gets a spine and drags his embarrassing alcoholic wife to it. You don’t know if he’s going to successfully get her down there. You don’t know if you want him to. And then he’s knocking on it, banging on it, and you expect him to be the one eaten because he’s closer. Then there’s a pause, nothing happens. Maybe the monster’s not coming out. Maybe it’s already escaped and it’s behind him. But it jumps out, mugs for the camera, then drags her in like Audrey II.
Since the version I saw was edited, the cockroach story was removed for time so I have no memories of it. Even so, I strangely think this might have been the one story that wouldn’t have scared me. I don’t care about bugs unless they’re on me and the Midwest has no cockroaches, just mosquitoes. The story was confusing anyway–not high concept enough.
So for me, Creepshow ended when the trashmen discover the comic book and see that someone’s clipped out the “voodoo doll” coupon. Cut to Dad spontaneously choking in the kitchen while his son upstairs stabs the little straw doll in the neck. The little sociopath killing his own father while laughing maniacally. (BTW doesn’t this kinda prove the dad’s point?)
So yeah, start to finish, everything in this movie stayed with me. Jesus Christ, no wonder I’m warped.
When I was little, there was a video store not too far from our house. I can’t remember what it was called. Mr. Movies? Video Update? I know it wasn’t a Blockbuster because the color scheme was red and white. Anyway, as those who grew up among VHS knows, the place was like an art museum. It wasn’t bad enough to have enough selection to give a nine-year-old option paralysis or sucker him into picking “My Pet Monster“. But they had to make every rectangle a beautiful magical portal to another world, each more enticing than the next. And no section had more intrigue than the Horror section.
I mean, that’s what they were meant to do — appeal to the visceral primal nature of fear and evil. Those pictures inflamed my senses with images of deformity, darkness, evil, bare shoulders, shiny knives, thick blood, bulging eyeballs, and rotting skulls. What was in that basket in “Basket Case”? Why did that face look so skewed? How did the Critters go from a needle-toothed fuzzy animal in the first movie to some amorphous multi-faced ball in the second? What was in that baby carriage? Why was that toy monkey so angry? Why was Santa carrying an axe down that chimney? What possessed someone to stab that shoe?
But for some reason the Ghoulies cover struck me hardest. As when you are a little kid, silly stuff scares you. Mostly stuff that involves the disappearance/disposal of things and not knowing where those things go. This may also explain my fear of escalators and bath drains.
And toilets belong to that category. I don’t remember being afraid of toilets. But they were definitely mysterious, for two reasons. One, it involves poop, which is bizarre in the first place (“I make this from my body, but it smells bad, and I want to leave it behind”) and 2) the toilet sucks it down and makes it disappear (“Where does it go?”). And then there’s the big question that any decent scientist proposes: if it brings stuff down, can anything come back up?
Enter Ghoulies. I wonder how much time I’ve wasted staring at this cover. I was a big fan of Gremlins — I don’t remember a time I hadn’t seen that movie — so this seemed like a page from the same book.
But these weren’t cute fuzzy mogwais with bizarre life rules. This was a slimy, skull-like baby-thing. And it was climbing out of the swirling portal of mystery, where things fall into the black hole of mystery and they don’t come back out. They’re not meant to come back out.
So this is something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time, but my passion for finding an answer hasn’t reached the level of putting down words until now.
So let’s imagine you’ve got a horror movie. And your movie needs a scary killer. Something palpable and not en masse (not zombies or plague). Something like a big spider or a hillbilly cannibal or a pale kid ghost. Here’s the question: do you give that bad guy an origin?
Here’s why I ask. Is it scarier when you don’t know where the bad guy came from? What his/her/its motivations are? What its nature is? Or is that just lazy writing? I’ve heard criticisms both ways. The first that explaining the bad guy makes him less scary. The second from critics, who say that because you don’t know what it wants, it’s not scary. You don’t know where it came from or why it’s there or the reasoning behind its strength and weaknesses. Why does Jason seem to be able to teleport? Why does Pennywise only appear every twenty-seven years? How did a white-boy criminal learn the voodoo to put his soul into a doll?
Or you could say that the lack of definition enhances the fear. The time when things are the scariest are when you don’t know. You don’t know if something’s in the dark. You don’t know why the devil inhabits this little girl. You don’t know what the Blair Witch is. You don’t know why the Babadook has a little book (why can he get published and not me?). You don’t know why the It in “It Follows” is following you. Is it a gypsy curse? A confused ghost? Is the film itself just allegorical?
Let’s look at some scary movies to see if we can find an answer. You can’t count some franchises like Friday the 13th, Nightmare Before Christmas on Elm Street. I applaud these movies for keeping things as fresh as possible, especially Freddy. But you can’t have this many sequels and not have backstory come out. To the point where it stops being horror and starts being action and/or science fiction (e.g. Resident Evil, Jason X).
“Dear! Are you going out in that?!”
I give Halloween a pass because A) it started the eighties horror rennaissance B) I consider only the first two part of the mythos. Number three had no Michael Myers. Four + Five + Six add some weird cult/curse/prophecy thing that was so tainted with studio interference and poor production that I can’t bear to include it. Seven and Eight you could make an argument for, but they’re essentially milking a dead cow for nostalgia. And the Rob Zombie movies are real reboots (and add way too much backstory).
Anyway, my point is that Halloween (I & II) do not explain where Michael Myers came from, why he kills, etc. All Dr. Loomis can say is that he’s absolute evil (not very professional, but effective storytelling). He’s like a force of nature. He’s there, but you don’t know why, and you don’t know the reason for his mask, or why he wants to kill family. It launched an entire decade of genre so it should be effective.
Some others that are scary, but do a decent job of explaining the character’s origin are The Exorcist, The Shining, The Ring, and Psycho. Yet, there is an element of the unexplainable in all these. Norman Bates’s psychosis is abnormal, so as much as the psychiatrist bores us to death tries to explain, you still don’t get the unnatural connection to Mother. Umbrella Corporation still seems to be in business after seven games and a thousand zombie outbreaks. Hasn’t someone complained to the Better Business Bureau by now? Why does Samara care more about getting her tape out than avenging her death? How does a hotel go from Indian curse to directing a father to murder his family?
So then we have movies that have nil or just about nil story/background/characterization to the bad guy. The Babadook and It from “It Follows” have obvious allegorical meanings, but that’s metaphysical. Where did they come from in the universe of the movie? Why does the Babadook look like Ryuk with a little hat and coat?
Is their ship name “Babaryuk”? Or “RyukDook”?
Why does the It from “It Follows” follow? If It from “It” follows “It Follows” and It from “It Follows” follows “It” then it follows It follows “It Follows” follows “It” following It from “It Follows” follows “It”. I don’t know what I just said. None of those words have any meaning anymore to me.
The Blair Witch has no identity or origin as the kids look for her. The fear comes from what they find during their journey into the woods. And the movie was criticized for this. For as scared as people were, there were as many that said “a pile of rocks and popsicle-stick men aren’t scary”. And if you didn’t catch the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “standing in the corner” line from the beginning, the ending is lost on you. For them, the absence of meaning behind these actions was silly rather than scary.
In Jaws, there’s no explanation why the shark has entered populated waters. It contradicts what’s known about sharks. We know it’s bigger than normal and it’s behavior is aberrant. Why? No one knows. But this didn’t change the fact that it was scary. What it could do was more important than why it did it.
Okay, lightning round now: Night of the Living Dead – no explanation for zombies (the “comet” line is pure conjecture). Paranormal Activity (the first one, see above explanation about franchises) – no explanation. Funny Games – no explanation for why the serial killer preppies are doing this (but then it gets negated by the metaphysical remote control interruption). Cloverfield (doing web searches for the ARG doesn’t count). The Birds. Five Nights at Freddy’s. Silent Hill.
And then a few that are on the fence: does Texas Chainsaw Massacre count? Do we need more backstory if it’s based on a historical figure? Do we need to know what planet Xenomorphs originate from? Or how they survive with acid for blood and the evolutionary reasoning for two mouths? Does “Death” in Final Destination need something more or is that just torture porn anyway?
I think it’s more important what the characters do than where they came from. If there’s meanings in the actions of the bad guy, that makes not only an effective bad guy, but an effective movie. Random shit happening is just random shit. If you can’t attach meaningfulness (and in horror movies, meaningfulness means threat or doom), then it’s not scary.
The funny part is that “Cabin in the Woods” — arguably the best horror movie in the past decade — is nothing BUT explanation of the scary killer.
Are the “It” from “It Follows” and “It” from “It” related? Asking for a friend.
OMG, I think The Rescuers and the Rescue Rangers are somehow related. Maybe they’re like rival companies? The Rescue Aid Society is the big business and Rescue Rangers is the offshoot startup. I think I’ve got my next Disney crossover.
What would happen if you ate the One Ring? Would it just pass through your system or could you digest it? I know stomach acid isn’t lava, but still, I don’t know what’s special about Mount Doom’s lava. Or would it just stay there? And would it make you invisible? You’re not wearing the ring but the ring’s wearing you.
I mean, I don’t think I ever had empathy for people. I don’t give one hoot if they’re here or gone. I always assumed this was because I was bitter and depressed and angry for most of my life. But now that I’m on medication, I’m noticing that this not-caring is not going away.
It’s not like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. I don’t think I have Asperger’s Syndrome or some sort of autism “thing” where just part of my brain is funny. I’m not sure I ever had it. Maybe this is why horror movies don’t affect me in the same why. I never understood why people think “The Exorcist” is the scariest movie ever. I mean, you’d think I’d be all up in that — possessed by a personality not your own. Even more now that I’m a father of a daughter. But it just seems silly to me. “Hello, Reagan, I’m Father Karras-” “-AND I AM THE DEVIL. Now kindly undo these straps.” I mean, isn’t it peculiar that the devil is constrained by leather straps. This is the guy who fought God — the immortal creator of the cosmos. It’d be like me taking on Cthulhu. If I could win against something that turns you mad by looking at it, would straps really be that big a deal? I always thought I wasn’t scared because A) I’m an atheist and B) there’s nothing scary about Regan — all she does is throw up and spin her head. She doesn’t even get up. Someone like Jigsaw is scarier because he manipulates you into doing it yourself.
Oh no. She’s in a bed. Someone save me.
I’m more scared by something like “The Shining” but not for the reasons you’re thinking of. I don’t care one whit whether or not Wendy makes it out of there. I can’t sympathize with her plight. I’m more worried people are going to see me as Jack Torrance. Especially my wife — that’s why I won’t let her watch it (not that she needs any encouragement on my part). We have way too many similarities to make me comfortable — amateur writers who seem to have trouble getting inspired, like being isolated/alone with thoughts, maybe we drink a little more than we really should, bothered by the drudgery of our jobs, thinning hair, creepy smiles, liking the cold (although he liked it a little too much).
Well, I guess there’s worse things than looking like young Jack Nicholson.
So this lack of empathy makes things difficult sometimes when writing stories. Empathy means you feel for your characters and take them places where they have to triumph or fail. And then make the reader feel the same emotions about those triumphs or failures. Might be why I’ve been having trouble connecting to the main character in naga story, because she’s nothing like me. It’s mostly an action plot. So I guess we’ll have to see what happens when the story becomes fleshed out.
I saw V/H/S: Viral last night, and I had to rant about my disappointment.
I’ve been a real fan of this series from the first. The anthology format lends itself well to the genre. The best horror stories are short stories — “The Call of Cthulu”, “The Raven”, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”, “The Monkey’s Paw”, “The Lottery”. Short and sharp, like a knife stab, seems to be the best medium for fear. Five Nights at Freddy’s is essentially a short story in game form. Even stories of two sentences can have poignancy.
But all these stories are solid. They don’t have to fill in everything, but a good horror story — a good STORY — has to allow you to put two and two together. Viral doesn’t do that. And that’s one of the flaws of any found footage movie. But I haven’t seen it so prevalent as here.
The biggest problem with found footage, one that a lot of filmmakers seem to forget, is that the whole point is that this could have happened. Someone taped it and found it and uploaded it somewhere. The Blair Witch Project says it all: “A year later their footage was found.” But all the subsequent movies are eschewing that for the difficulties found footage gives. But V/H/S allows experimentation. And the premise lends itself to the very plausible short amounts of cam footage in a variety of settings. And no story lingers too long to wear down suspension of disbelief. Except for this film.
The first movie had some great stories that properly used the medium. The first (which stars Hannah Fierman, who I’ve mentioned before) consists of a group of teens trying to make an amateur reality porn by picking up girls at a club. It evokes memories of a similar scene in Leaving Las Vegas, where the college boys immaturely hire a hooker so they can tape it. In VHS, though, it ends badly (of course), but not in a “karmic vampire death” kind of way. And the medium enhances that. Just like it does for all the stories — a Skype communication, a slasher that can only be viewed THROUGH a video camera, a honeymoon recording, a Halloween party.
The second one wasn’t as good, in my opinion. There are fewer segments, and they are hit and miss. The “eye implant” was too slow and confusing and the alien costumes in the last segment were ridiculous. But I liked the “zombie with a GoPro” for its originality and “blood cult documentary” for the body and mind horror. The acting is worse and the characters are less likable but production values are higher. At this point I felt I could always count on SOME gold in these movies, and I looked forward to Viral, hoping that it would address a new premise — online video and viral sensations.
Nope. It’s essentially confusing garbage. None of the segments made any sense. The wraparound doesn’t give any character background, just meaningless, cheesy shots with bad acting, straight out of Cloverfield. He’s supposed to be obsessed with viral videos, but there’s no evidence of that until there’s some nearby ice cream truck going in circles on a police chase, mowing down helpless pedestrians who get in its way. And somehow its passing makes cell phones initiate some kind of call or video that acts like Stephen King’s “Cell” or Pulse and the main character’s girlfriend is in the phone yelling or suffering or something.
You can’t broadcast to cell phones via a local van. That shit has to go up into space. It’s not like a television. It would have to be some kind of computer program. And what is this thing trying to do? And the annoying white kid ends up being “the chosen one” to upload all the VHS videos and end the world? I don’t get it.
It’s not without some merit. “Dante the Magician” was good, but it’s derivative. It follows the District 9 semi-documentary format. But there are times where it eschews even this to provide cinematic shots. And there is no better way to take the audience out of a found footage film than a shot that couldn’t exist.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon did this, but at least there was a clear transition. Two-thirds of the movie is basically a Nightline profile on a Jason Voorhees type. Not via third party either — she actually interviews the guy, stays in his house, asks how pulls off tricks like appearing in two places at once or faking death. But the last third, once the twist is revealed, becomes a regular movie, because… that’s what it became. The documentarians are now part of the story. But Dante becomes a forgettable Twilight Zone episode. But there’s a transition there — you know what it’s doing and why.
The two others (yes, there are even fewer segments this time) have good premises, but end badly. A “twin from a mirror universe” story has tremendous potential, but uses hand-puppet penis monsters for cheap, unexplained body horror. The last had potential too — some stoner teens set out to make a Jackass-like video — but the characters are unlikable and it ends up as a plotless gory action scene. And I’m not even going to talk about “Glorious Vortex” — the last segment that was so “out there” it couldn’t even be included in the full movie.
This isn’t like El Topo or something by Kubrick where it’s an intricate puzzle or a film that’s art and symbolism, with characters that are stand-ins for bigger meanings. This is a horror movie meant to shock, scare, and provoke visceral reaction. And I can’t have a reaction if I don’t know what’s going on. Confusion is not equal to fear.
It upsets me and that’s why I had to write about it. I could have come up with way better ideas for segments than what was produced here. How about a vlog series that goes wrong? Teens react to a snuff film? A Twitch TV gaming stream is rife with horror potential, from Swatting to “Freddy becomes real”. Unboxing videos, unwanted exposure that ruins lives, gang videos, devil babies, parkour body horror, cause promotions. It’s a deep well.
I once read that writers should read both “best books” and “worst books”. The best books leave you inspired, but thinking “I could never write that”. The worst leave you motivated, saying “I can write better than that!” This is clearly the latter.