What I'm Watching: Horror Marathon

I enjoy Horror and Suspense all year long, but during October I revel in it.

For the past few years, I’ve tried to watch at least thirty-one horror shows. It’s festive and fun.

I’m going to share the first part of this October’s selections. Instead of writing exhaustive reviews, I’ve decided to take a looser approach.

Goosebumps: “Calling All Creeps”

I’ll confess that I picked this one because it was short. I was running out of time on the first, and I wanted to squeeze in a show. I missed the glory days of the Goosebumps era. I suspect I was too old for it. Obviously, I am way too old for it now. It didn’t frighten me and this episode’s focus on bullying was somewhat laughably innocent, but I’m still glad I saw it.

Horror for kids seems like an important thing to offer. I remember hungering for it when I was young, but adult horror can be way too intense for the little dudes. I’m not sure if I’m cut out for it or not, but I’d like to try writing some YA or MG horror sometime.

In the meantime, I’m going to reread Bunnicula by James Howe because it’s awesome.

John Dies at the End

I read the novel and it was a bit of a mixed bag, but one I ultimately enjoyed. I laughed out loud quite a few times and I cringed a lot---sometimes simultaneously. My main issues with the book aside from it lasting just a bit too long, was the sheer, um, volume of scatological humor in the mix. I’m not a fan of it in general.

Thankfully, the movie eases up on that part. It is still gross. It still has some genuinely creepy moments. And it is still really funny in places. The meat monster is wonderful. Solid performances by the actors certainly help to sell the movie. I don’t mind that some of the special effects are a bit cheap looking. In fact, I think that’s a bonus.

The movie is a strong example of how to meld humor and horror and the importance of pushing to the edges as hard as you can.

Girls Gone Dead

Calling this a B movie would be kind. This is an example of a piece that identifies itself as a horror comedy and fails on both fronts. It isn’t even unintentionally funny. It’s strictly T&A with some attempts at gore thrown in. Boring.

Scream queen Linnea Quigley is in the cast, but she isn’t given much to do. Ron Jeremy makes a cameo appearance and my reaction was pity—I hope his check cleared. That should tell you what I think of the quality of the film.

What I learned from this: don’t telegraph the big moments, strive for realistic dialogue, develop your characters, and don’t suck.

V/H/S

This is a collection of shorts loosely connected by a controlling conceit: one group of characters finds a video (or is it more than one tape?) containing the other stories. It’s essentially a found footage piece. I can see how that style can communicate a sense of immediacy, but I’m not a big fan—mostly because it seems like a crutch. Anything that can encourage lazy storytelling isn’t that great. This movie handled that challenge better than some. There are a few creative uses of the style that I had fun with, even if the movie as a whole didn’t wow me.

V/H/S is an interesting example of what can happen when most of your characters are unsympathetic. I cared about one, maybe two characters in the whole film. It makes it easier to sit through the gore, but it sacrifices suspense for that distance. The characters were mostly just blood bags and that isn’t all that fun for me. I need to keep that in mind when I write stories that have violent or gory elements in them. Managing identification and empathy is an important aspect of the genre.

Truth or Die

I picked this one because I thought the premise was interesting. I like the idea of games getting twisted up. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this at all. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for it. It veers perilously close to the torture porn side of the spectrum (in attitude at least) and I don’t much enjoy that. The plot itself didn’t work for me.

The movie got me to think about the pitfalls of trying to manage thrillers and twists.  A writer has to nail both the timing and the degree of information given in reveals. If you tip your hand too much in terms of backstory or character motivation, you can lose suspense, but if there’s too much ambiguity the piece can feel contrived.

Scream 4

I picked this one because it was available on Netflix. I was skeptical about it because I figured the franchise would have run out of steam by this point. It isn’t a perfect movie, but I thought it was quite enjoyable. I’m a sucker for meta-fiction and I’ve always enjoyed how self-aware this series has been. Tackling genre tropes and playing around with them is one of my favorite things.

This installment managed some clever twists. I got some laughs out of it and there were some very nice moments of suspense.

Evil Dead 2

This was also available on Netflix, much to my delight. This movie is a treat. I prefer this one to the original. Despite the greater emphasis on humor, I think the creepiness is still there. The setting and the sounds in particular are jarring. It’s the contrast between the horror and the playful absurdity that makes me fall for this film every time I see it. 

I’d like to incorporate that kind of claustrophobic dread into a story. I’d really like to write a character as fun as Ash someday.

Jack the Reaper

This one stood out because the description mentioned a field trip to learn about the industrial revolution. For some reason, I found that notion very entertaining. Unfortunately, I fell into a self-made trap. I let my imagination run wild and what I got wasn’t what I’d dreamed up. That isn’t the movie’s fault.

I just need to work through the inspiration I got from the copy. I'm thinking a steampunk horror could be a very amusing thing to write. And there has to be something in the tensions of the industrial revolution to run with…  

As for the film itself, it did have some fine atmosphere and a creepy carnival. I think carnivals are unsettling, so I'm going to be on edge in that milieu no matter what. An interesting little twist or two can be found and a character development surprise or two keep this from being awful...but I wouldn't run out to see it. 

The Tall Man

It took a very surprising turn and became something rather unique—or at least something a bit more than your average chase or slasher. I'm not going to say I loved it or anything, but I am tempted to try to ground at least one story in clear, real-world socio-political issues.

Cabin in the Woods

I adore this movie. It is smart, funny, and has real suspense. I love how it builds on all these tropes we know so well, exploits them (and our expectations of them) so expertly, and then gives them a twist. It is also fun. I like a solid dose of fun in my horror spectrum. 

The Maze

has a wonderful setting. Corn mazes are frightening to me. I have almost no sense of direction, don't take to uncertainty, and am not all that fond of the outdoors (unless it is a good seaside, lakeside environment—something a corn maze is most definitely not). This isn't a great film, but I have to say that I enjoyed where it *ahem* planted its roots and where some of the story went.

Playback

apparently holds the record for the lowest box office take--$252. It played for one night. I feel kind of bad for the movie. It wasn’t awful. I can only imagine there were other forces and decisions involved. 

There is potential for a fine story here--the idea that a malevolent force can possess people through watching a playback--is interesting. There are some good research and discovery moments (I'm a sucker for those). It does fall a little flat and I didn't like the ending, but it sparked some ideas. 

I guess that's faint praise because you can get inspiration from a McDonald's menu...but, still.  

Bikini Girls on Ice

 I shouldn't give this entry a real place because we didn't finish watching it. Still, Bikini Girls on Ice deserves a mention. My husband picked this out because he thought it would be more lighthearted. It really isn't. 

I did laugh for a long time over how hard the story worked to develop a reason to have all those women prancing around in bikinis. Watching a whole bunch of them file off that broke down school bus to explore the sketchy gas station....was hilarious.  

I use movies like this to bolster up my love of the absurd and to keep in mind that sexy is one thing, but when you veer too far into blatant exploitation it can get dicey. (Heh).  

The Changeling

is from 1980 and stars George C. Scott. I am a big fan of this movie. It’s an old-fashioned spooker--a haunted house film. It has absolutely incredible atmosphere. The visuals are impressive, but it is definitely the use of sound that puts this over the top. It has a very satisfying slow burn. Add in emotional complexity and how a character deals with grief, human connection, and art...and you've sold me. 

I turn to this movie when I want to revisit the art of creating dread and uneasiness with smaller controlled details. It's also a fine example of pace. Slow can be just as mesmerizing as breakneck speed.  

The Mist

I like this movie a lot. It is atmospheric and brutal. The ending always gets me.

It combines a few things I tend to respond to. There is horror in the menace of the mist and the creatures in it, but it’s what happens to the group that is truly terrifying. It’s the dome scenario-- the disaster/apocalypse/survivor story. Watching how characters act under pressure is so powerful. I love how there can be so many different kinds of bravery, decency, and heroism. I like seeing them coming from unexpected people. I am fascinated by group dynamics. I despair at the usual breakdowns of decency and humanity.

Add in some Lovecraft style dread and you’ve got me.

I want to write something that explores the possibilities of the locked room/survival shelter story some day.

Hannibal (TV)

I'm not a fan of the movie, but I'm digging the tv show in a big way.   The performances are top notch and the visuals are stunning. The core pieces of the show are all about empathy, intellect, relationships, and navigating the perils of both the interior and exterior landscape. It is stylized but maintains a gritty realism too. 

The conceit of using menus and food is chilling and brilliant. I am repelled and inspired to cook. That is amazing.  

"This is my design" is a captivating hook line and hits just the right tone for the series.  

I've tried to collect my thoughts about it, but I am too busy being wrapped up in delight. Sometimes I just need to let my fangirl flag fly free.  

----It's been a lot of fun so far. I'm going to keep going.

This is one of my favorite times of the year for good reason. The best of the batch was The Changeling , but there were some strong contenders.

I'll update later this month. Until then, fellow horror fans, I hope you're having a deliciously awful time.  I know I am.