Simple Mistakes Afflicting Too Many Short Horror Films: All Premise, No Story

I am always eager to enjoy every short horror film that catches my interest. Whether the title grabs me, or the short description of the story, or the endorsement of a website or reviewer or friend whose tastes I generally trust, or a recognizable name behind or in front of the camera, if a short film gets me to click the “play” button, it has me ready to meet it halfway toward thinking it was pretty good.

Despite this, too many short horror movies lose me by the ending. Sometimes well before, despite the abbreviated run time.

I feel I must emphasize that I’m saying “too many.” Not most. I haven’t watched all short horror films there are in the world, so I wouldn’t be able to accurately make a statement about “most” of them even if I wanted to. I’m not even saying “many,” merely “too many,” which is, of course, subjective and relative. For instance, one punch connecting with my chin would be, from my perspective, one too many, whereas a dozen total punches landing in a twelve-round boxing match between two other people wouldn’t strike me as very many at all. Too few, in fact.

With that in mind, when I say “too many” horror shorts are afflicted with the problems I’ll be diving into in the next three posts, I’m saying that these problems are popping up in enough of these flicks to begin to drain my enthusiasm for short horror movies. Because instead of clicking play and solely being eager to enjoy what I’m about to watch, there’s a small part of me preoccupied with anticipating the pitfalls I’ve seen time and time and time again.

Let’s begin with probably the most fundamental element of storytelling, having a story to tell.

All Premise, No Story

“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”

So goes the infamous “shortest horror story ever written,” Frederic Brown’s “Knock”. Except that’s not really the entirety of Brown’s story, just the most famous lines, which happen to bookend the tale. Many people do consider those two sentences a complete flash-fiction story on their own though, and while I’ve never been sold on it completely, I won’t go so far as to disagree. It has a protagonist (last person on Earth, survivor in the post-apocalypse, likely resourceful, probably very lonely), it has a setting (the room which has a closed door and is likely the man’s sanctuary, at least in the moment), it hints at a background (whatever reduced the global population to one), and at least suggests a potential conflict, drama, or development courtesy of the knock on the door (coming from, presumably, an unexpected fellow survivor, or the thing responsible for killing every other person). It does probably leave many readers wondering, “And then what?”, but that’s a question that could be asked of virtually any modern story of any length ever told, regardless of how satisfying and complete its ending may be. That’s why some old fairy tales used to end with, “And they lived happily ever after,” to try to kill off that question.

It’s possible, then–though difficult–to tell an ultra-succinct story that’s barely more than a premise and leaves your audience wondering, “And then what?” But if you tell an ultra-succinct story that’s barely more than a premise and leaves your audience thinking, “Why, and how, and what, and where and who?”, there’s a chance you didn’t actually tell a story. You shared a formative premise. You’ve filmed a the beginnings of an idea.

Here’s a small test: ask yourself if your short film would pass for a satisfactory story if told to a bunch of elementary school kids around a campfire? Or would it, instead, come off like so: “There was a woman who lived in a house. And then one day, she saw a ghost. But when she looked away, the ghost wasn’t there. But when she looked again, the ghost was there again! But closer! But when she looked away, the ghost was gone again. But when she looked back, it was right in her face! And then I think she died! The end.”

In short horror films, this is often the tale that gets spun. Undistinguished person X encounters some sort of inexplicable ghostly phenomenon, experiences an escalation of the threat posed by said phenomenon, then succumbs to said phenomenon. Cue credits. Often this unknown person has all of this happen to them suddenly in their home, which shows no signs of a recent move or anything else that would hint at the cause of a spirit or demon or what have you just randomly appearing in the house. Instead, the way it’s presented in the film, it just looks like this person’s been living here years with no problems, and then out of nowhere, “Oh shit, there’s something scary in the kitchen!”

I’ve stated elsewhere on this site that I’m a fan of ambiguity in horror fiction, but there’s a significant difference between a story that leaves some things unexplained, and a “story” that feels like the unfinished notes that should precede a first draft.

Granted, this is a challenge intrinsic to the short film format. Even the most anemically plotted feature-length film is all but forced to tell an actual story due to its length, even if it does so poorly. Short literature, meanwhile, can more easily bypass the “show, don’t tell” rule (which isn’t really a rule) of fiction. See the above story, “Knock.” Try to picture a film trying to match its brevity without resorting to narration.

Now, I’m not usually fond of bashing someone else’s work, particularly the work of aspiring artists who are behind most short films. So instead of singling out and sharing what I think is an example of bad storytelling in short film horror, I’m going to share what I think is an example of good, complete storytelling, The Maiden.

Again, in case someone’s mostly skimming through this and might have missed it in the preceding paragraph, the short film below is an example of good horror storytelling in a short film.

It’s not perfect, but it is a complete story, despite the questions deliberately left unanswered. There are some ultra-short horror films that would have cut off at the 45-second mark because they only exist to show off the cool effect that the director can’t wait to show off. Here it is merely, properly, prologue. Because it tells a full story, it has room for more than one scare, and thus isn’t simply an impatient exercise in trying to execute one big payoff. It even has room for humor and actual character motivation, the latter of which I’ll be spending more time on in the next post.

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My Favorite Horror Movie Trailers: GHOST STORY

The film adaptation of Peter Straub’s novel is unsurprisingly simplified in comparison to its source material. While it has its moments, including a fairly well executed and suitably gruesome climactic reveal, and Alice Krige is pretty magnificent in it, it also has more than its share of corny scenes doomed by bad shot selection, or oversold acting, or questionable (even unnecessary) dialogue. There’s an opening scene featuring a man plummeting to his death that’s laughable even by 1981’s “We’re still sketchy on how best to execute believable falling scenes” standards. A later scene of someone falling off a bridge ends with the same clumsy impact seen when a character takes a dive in Les Miserables thirty-one years later. Apparently, in this one very, very specific area, we haven’t collectively learned much in the past three decades.

All of that out of the way, I’ve nonetheless always liked the trailer for Ghost Story. From the opening micro-monologue (which is one of the few elements that is even more effective in the movie than it is in the trailer), to every glimpse and hint it gives us of something horrific waiting to be seen, to the effectively mysterious tagline, it does a good job of selling the film.

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My Favorite Horror Movie Trailers: BODY PARTS

I’m a sucker for a certain level of audaciousness, and the premise of Body Parts has audacity in spades. It belongs to the “possessed limbs” sub-sub-genre of horror. While “posessed arms/hands” are most memorably used to mine gruesome humor from a horror story, Body Parts, is entirely oblivious to its ludicrousness, as you can see in the trailer below.

The most famous “killer arm/hand” in horror cinema history probably belonged to Ash in Evil Dead II, and its presence was played for gruesome laughs. The most famous in movie history of any genre might belong to Dr. Strangelove, where it was also a comedic device. Body Parts said to Hell with that, and the result is captivating enough to almost be mistaken for effective.

Jeff Fahey, ever-watchable and as indefinably suspicious-looking as ever, puts in an overqualified performance as a man who gets into a violent car accident that causes him to lose an arm. Fortunately, he’s given an impossible arm transplant. Unfortunately, said arm was involuntarily donated by a serial killer, and despite the assurances of Fahey’s wife, Kim Delaney, that he has the killer’s arm, but “[not] his personality,” this innocent, ordinary man finds himself plagued with visions of the killer’s acts and becoming increasingly (and involuntarily) violent.

If you told someone with no knowledge of the movie and actors that this was a parody trailer released within the last few years, I think there’s a good chance that they would believe you, and find it perhaps the best example of its kind. There are some risible lines here that are delivered so well they get funnier on repeat viewings. When the surgeon tells Fahey something stunningly obvious (“That arm can’t do anything you don’t want it to.”), he replies, with uncannily believable indignation, “How do you know that?” There’s no overacting or mugging involved when he delivers that line. There is, instead, real emotion; recognizable frustration and concern. This guy really believes that this damned medical professional who performed miracle surgery on him is being too arrogantly dismissive of his impossible accusation.

As great as that moment is, the undisputed apex of the trailer comes later, at the 1:48 mark, with Fahey screaming “I want this arm off!” Again, it’s actually pretty well acted. He delivers the line with conviction; this guy really wants that surgeon to put him back under the knife to lop that arm off. And instead of responding with something along the lines of, “Okay, sir, it’s going to be all right, we’re going to get you some help,” while discreetly pushing an emergency call button to summon some burly orderlies, she says, “Don’t you realize what I and my team have accomplished with that arm?” As if annoyed that he doesn’t appreciate her work. Which is sort of understandable in a vacuum–you could imagine her muttering that to herself after the nurses and/or security has taken down Fahey–but it’s so far removed from a sensible response that it immediately identifies her as the villainous mad doctor in this story who will later drone on about how her macabre experiments are being done for the benefit of all mankind.

Beyond the trailer, the movie itself almost stumbles into an interesting, reverse-engineered-Frankenstein story. Instead of assorted dead parts being assembled to create one living, monstrous body, a living monster is disassembled and his live parts are scattered to be joined to several separate bodies. There’s also a psychological element at play: I imagine being given a serial killer’s hand would be a strange experience, as you’d literally have had a hand in several murders. The old silent film The Hands of Orlac explores this much more capably. With Body Parts, all of these potentially interesting ideas are forsaken so the movie can eventually turn into an early-90’s-thriller take on The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.

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Well…This FLATLINERS Remake Looks Unerwhelming

I’ve mentioned it on here a time or three, but I’m not automatically averse to remakes. While people speak as though it’s a relatively new blight upon the world of cinema, there is a long, rich tradition of remaking movies in and outside of Hollywood, dating back to at least the 1920’s. Years pass, new technologies come along, new potential audiences come along, you try to update something that came before and, hopefully, make it even better than it was the first time. That last part is usually where the problems come in–when you’re remaking something that was already great, you better have a fantastic take on the material in store, otherwise people are likely to consider your efforts a waste of time at best.

Fortunately for the folks behind the new version of Flatliners, the movie they’re remaking wasn’t great to begin with, but had a premise loaded with potential. Unfortunately for them, this first trailer makes their efforts look like an uninspired waste of time.

I’ve written here before about a work I’ve read that tackles the same idea, and takes it far out into unexpected territory (perhaps too far out). So there’s certainly potential for such a story to be truly memorable. The trailer for this remake looks like it’s more in the vein of forgettable mid-grade work like 2015’s The Lazarus Effect, however. We get some midday hallucinations, a hand-slamming-window jump scare, an unearned scare-sting to accompany the image of the word MURDERER floating at the bottom of a pool in the most standardized office font you can picture. We get Ellen Paige giving us a Blair-Witch-esque weepy recorded confession, and then later we see her getting dragged backwards into the darkness by an unseen force, reminiscent of [Rec]. And look, I know that criticizing a movie for showing us some stuff we’ve seen before elsewhere is a bit foolish–there are no purely original ideas in fiction, after all–but when you’re remaking a movie with this premise, the first impression you make shouldn’t convey that even your execution is bland.

That MURDERER bit really stands out to me for how flavorless it is. It’s the kind of thing that comes off as a misguided effort to be subtle. Take note, when you have a character hallucinate seeing a word–in giant letters–that directly accuses them of something they feel guilty about, you have forsaken all hope of subtlety. Might as well do a Smooth Criminal lean in the other direction and try to make those letters really pop, and make the moment worthy of the scare chord you’re falling back on to sell the moment.

Speaking of the music, I will say that I don’t mind the chanting backing this trailer starting at the 1:45 mark. It’s little too grandiose for what we get, and would be better used in service of a trailer for a giallo flick.

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My Favorite Horror Movie Trailers: PUMPKINHEAD

Special Effects guru Stan Winston poured his best efforts into horror flicks ranging from the obscure or ill-regarded (The Bat People, Darkness Falls), to the cherished and influential (The Thing), but he only directed one horror movie during his career. Pumpkinhead is a well-built, country-gothic chiller with a memorable, somewhat laughable title that still makes me wonder if the general dearth humor in the film is a missed opportunity. Granted, it’s hard to inject humor into a premise that is essentially “What if the father from that Pet Sematary book couldn’t resurrect his son and resorted to conjuring a vengeance demon instead?”

The original trailer for Pumpkinhead is near perfect. It establishes the stakes, gives you everything you need to know about the story without spoiling much at all, sets the appropriate tone for the grimness of the movie, and gives us teasing glimpses of the creature, and lets us know that it plans to play with where the audience’s sympathy should lie,  all in less than 90-seconds. Only at the very end, with the forced, unnatural echo of the old witch saying, “Now it begins” while the shot choppily zooms out does the trailer trip itself up. Although I have to imagine that some audiences in 1988 might have snickered at the reveal of the film’s title after all of the shadowy, muggy, serious hellishness that preceded it.

Interestingly, hearing it spoken aloud by the great Don LaFontaine in the inferior follow-up trailer imbues the name with a befitting balance of gallows amusement. It sounds like some old, absurd-yet-dangerous backwoods cryptid. Something that doesn’t sound so intimidating in the light of day, but if you’re walking alone late at night and sense a creature stalking you, you might think to yourself, “Damn it, I’m going to be so embarrassed if I get killed by something called Pumpkinhead.”

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The new “IT” Trailer isn’t half bad

The new full trailer for the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s It came out today, and it’s a reasonably solid trailer. Nothing exceptional or new, no surprises, but we get some glimpses of some solid set pieces and what could be some effective scares. The carousel slide projector scene is the rightful centerpiece of this trailer, and I like that the trailer (and possibly the scene in the film, that remains to be seen) ends without a full reveal of Pennywise’s face. It maybe should have cut off just a bit sooner, leaving it as more of a hint in the trailer, particularly if that’s also how the scene plays out (I doubt that, but it’s possible), but I’m nitpicking there.

There’s also a scene involving hands trying and failing to break through a door that ties directly to one of the more harrowing moments from the book that I don’t believe was in the TV mini-series adaptation of It (been a while since I’ve seen that series, so I could be mistaken).

Some people are fond of saying that it’s pretty easy to come up with a good trailer, even for a bad movie, but I disagree with this. Perhaps it should be easy, but I’ve seen enough trailers that are either pitiful or forgettable to disbelieve that churning out a solid trailer requires little thought or effort. This trailer has its shortcomings and is fairly predictable, and as horror trailers go, it’s nowhere near as horrifically, hideously memorable as the first trailer for Sinister, for example. And its conventional approach means it can’t get within sight of the legendary, bizarre trailers for The ExorcistThe Shining and Alien. But it’s a solid trailer, nonetheless, and gives me at least an ounce of hope for the film, which means it’s doing its job.

Update: And now that a few weeks have passed and I’ve had a Pennywise-related nightmare, I might have to reconsider how memorable this trailer is. Something triggered the dream, after all. So well done, trailer-makers, well done.

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‘Baskin’ May be as Close as We’ll Get to a Good Silent Hill Movie

While the pull-quotes in the trailer for the Turkish horror film Baskin compare it to Hellraiser, the actual content of the trailer is more reminiscent of the best of the Silent Hill games. It appears to be a story about location that is damnation incarnate, and the story kicks off due to a car accident involving someone suddenly appearing in the middle of the road. Check out the IFC Midnight trailer and the shorter, TIFF trailer below. Neither is graphic enough to enter red-band territory, but if you’re on the squeamish side of things, you may want to brace yourself.

Of course, comparing Baskin to either Silent Hill or Hellraiser simultaneously pays it a compliment and–at least potentially–does it a disservice. After all, who’s to say that this slice of cinematic Hell won’t edge the other two as a genre classic? Unlikely, of course, but it’s worth rooting for just the same.

The alternative is that the movie lands in Event Horizon territory: horrifically splendid visuals, but otherwise a missed opportunity. Based on the trailer, that also strikes me as unlikely. This looks inventive and brutal. I’ve seen a couple of blogs refer to this as an “extreme” horror film, at least based on initial impression, but I’m hoping this deserves a better description. Granted, it’s probably a product of my own bias, but when I think of “extreme” horror films, I think of unimaginative flicks that set out to be gore-fests, as opposed to clever, creative works that just so happen to be gory. Plenty of silly slasher flicks could qualify as “extreme” given the blood and guts on display, for instance, whereas the aforementioned Hellraiser is brutally, disturbingly graphic, but the gruesome images are in service of the film; they aren’t the point of the film.

Some reviews from the film’s showing at the Toronto Independent Film Festival are less than enthusiastic, and even one of the positive reviews that provided a pull-quote isn’t exactly effusive1 Still, I can’t help but keep this on my radar.

EDIT: By the by, these posters for the movie are terrific. The keyhole poster up top is the better of the two–and will likely be among the best movie posters I’ll see all year–but I appreciate the retro appearance of the one below.

 

Baskin-Movie-Poster-Can-Evrenol

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Candyman

Have you ever seen something that you believed only you could see? Something that should have been seen by others, but somehow was not?

In the fall of 1992 I was thirteen-years-old, feeling increasingly ostracized at school, and feeling homesick away from school. The cause of my homesickness helped keep my pain in perspective, though. Hurricane Andrew had slammed into the Florida coast in August. In September, my mother and one of my brothers, both in the Air Force at the time, had been called down to help with the relief and rebuilding of the demolished Homestead Air Force Base. Living along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, with the specter of hurricane season hovering every August–a specter darkened and magnified by the local mythology of Hurricane Camille–my sympathies were with the people of Florida.

My father was already stationed overseas at the time so there weren’t many options for where I could stay. All of my other relatives lived in Texas and my mother was only supposed to be gone for a month or two. One of my mother’s friends–a married woman with three kids–volunteered to keep me for the time being.

The family I stayed with through September and October was pleasant. They took me to church with them, brought me along to a couple of family functions, and I somehow ended up joining them on an awkward hospital visit to see one of their elderly family members. They treated me well, but I was a slightly odd kid, often stuck in my own head, a bit sickly, shy–when I wasn’t feeling clumsily talkative–and prone to occasional, unconscious obnoxiousness. I shared a bedroom with the son, who was two or three years older than me and a player on football team of the small Catholic School we attended. I was on the JV team at the time, but to call me a “player” would be generous. We had little in common. I had even less in common with the two other kids, sisters, one about three-years-old, the other maybe twelve. I don’t think I could have been anything more than an intrusion to any of them, and I was aware of it, but didn’t know how to minimize it. Gradually, I started asking if I could just stay home instead of joining them when they went to the son’s games or went to dinner with relatives, and they would let me.

I had no friends at school at this time, just a circle of kids who kept me around for easy jokes at my expense, which I accepted. A year prior things had been different, and many of these same kids had seemed to regard me well, so a part of me figured I could flip back to being “cool” again if I just rode out this wave of unpopularity. My best friend went to a different school and lived down the street from my house in Ocean Springs, but my mother’s friend who’d taken me in lived too far away from me to visit my friend, being on the other side of the Biloxi Bay Bridge. I wouldn’t say that this was a difficult stage of my young life, just a very strange one.

All of this left me even more mentally vulnerable to bizarre, intense or terrifying sights and stories than I already was. So when the night came that I first saw an ad for an upcoming film about a hook-handed nightmare who haunts a housing tenement, my mind was all too eager to pass my imagination along like a relay baton and let Candyman sprint away with it.

I can’t remember the specifics, what night of the week it was, why I was alone that evening, or what show I was watching when I saw the ad. I know the weekend was looming, so it was either a Thursday or Friday, and I want to say I was watching Martin, which debuted that year and was the popular show among the group of kids I orbited. More than any of that, I vividly remember the queasy, visceral sense of being drawn toward and into the television as I watched the commercial, like I was part of some new rule of physics: an object that wishes to retreat must come forth. I remember being mesmerized and frightened by the dreamlike scene of Virginia Madsen crawling out of the open-mouthed mural. The quick glimpse of the hook hand. The suddenness of a man crashing backwards through a window. And, right from the jump, the damned mirror summoning.

I think I will always feel a unique, almost nostalgic dread at the thought the summoning a spirit by saying its name while staring into a mirror. When I was a first-grader, having been in Mississippi for barely a year, a classmate of mine told me that Bloody Mary lived in a dilapidated two-story house a few blocks from my own, right behind the neighborhood Hardee’s. Being a gullible six-year-old, I believed him. I’ll save the details of my obsession with Bloody Mary for a later Confessions entry, but she was the first bogeyman to plague me. Well before I turned thirteen I had outgrown that particular obsession, but the Candyman commercial resurrected that first critical fear.

I remember sleeping poorly that first night, seeing the painting of the Candyman’s face in a feverish, disjointed dream. But what happened the next day at school, simple as it was, made the fear more personal and affecting.

Again, the kids I hung out with at school weren’t my friends and weren’t above ridiculing me, and every so often shoving me around. But they weren’t cruel. In hindsight, it was a simple matter of convenience and lack of imagination. People in general, and adolescents in particular, love an easy target, and there I was, a tall, lanky, underachieving, socially inept, brainy black kid living in the Deep South who “talked white.” At the time, fitting in simply wasn’t an option for me. Still, I spoke with them as though we were friendly, even though  anything I said or did might open me up to a flood of jokes. So I asked the people I knew at school if any of them had seen the commercial for a cool, creepy-looking horror flick called Candyman last night. They all said they hadn’t seen it.

This was peculiar. Again, I can’t remember what I was watching when I was introduced to Candyman on the small screen, but I know it was something reasonably popular. Something that at least a few other people must have been watching as well. How had I been the only person to see it? Well, everyone else had just been doing something else during the commercial breaks, of course. Or hadn’t paid any attention to it. Or hadn’t been impacted by it the way I had, so they’d forgotten about it. But you couldn’t have convinced my thirteen-year-old self this. Nor could you have convinced me that it was some sort of small-scale prank. Their answers were too nonchalant, and such a ruse, though simple, would have required more spontaneous imagination than I thought any of these kids possessed. A lie is a story, after all.

I tried to shrug it off, and by the end of the day, the cloud of dread from the Candyman movie that only I could confirm existed had dissipated. But I found myself alone in my host’s house again that evening, in this place where I didn’t think I belonged, and again I saw it on the television.

Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman…

Candyman-poster

I called my best friend. The person I felt I could trust. I called under the pretense of just wanting to chat because we hadn’t spoken to each other in a while, hadn’t seen each other in a longer while. But really I wanted to know if he had seen it. I asked. He said it sounded cool, but no, he hadn’t seen it. I was unreasonably incredulous–“Really? It’s come on two nights in a row.”–but he couldn’t tell me anything other than the truth. He hadn’t seen it. Only I had.

Melodramatic, I know. Foolish, too. Of course other people had seen it, just not anyone that I knew or had spoken to. But by then the obvious answer rang false to me. This thing had found me on my island and latched onto me. It knew I couldn’t turn to anyone. It knew that it could silence me, because silence would be the only way I could obtain a semblance of refuge. If I stopped asking other people about it, then I wouldn’t have to hear again that I was the only one who had seen it. Who could see it.

For the next few days I avoided the television, afraid the commercial would come on while I was accompanied in the room, and the person with me wouldn’t acknowledge it, and then it would be undeniable. I tried not to look directly at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. In the dark, in the space between waking and dreaming, I saw chaos, hooks, and a painted, hungry face with its mouth wide and eyes indifferent. Flat eyes that exemplified the attitude expressed in the film’s opening quote, which I thankfully hadn’t heard Tony Todd say yet, otherwise I might have melted down completely.

They will say that I have shed innocent blood. What’s blood for, if not for shedding?

My mother’s friend, who’d volunteered to take care of me, worried about me. I wasn’t sleeping. I was quieter than usual. I was making myself sick as the weather chilled and asthma hugged my lungs. And I couldn’t tell her what troubled me. It would sound absurd to her and do me no good.

Were this a work of fiction, I suppose it wouldn’t end so anticlimactically, but well, it is what it is, so brace yourself. Days went by and I thankfully managed to avoid seeing another Candyman spot on television. Then one day at school, in the midst of the standard morning routine, someone mentioned to me that they finally saw the commercial for the horror flick I had asked about, and that I was right, it did look pretty cool. Soon enough, Candyman became one of the hot topics for October among my classmates. The more people spoke of him, the less terrifying he became. He wasn’t my own demon anymore. He belonged to everyone, and I couldn’t have been happier to share him.

A few years later, when I finally saw the movie and could admire it for the classic it is, I noted the irony that, in the film, Candyman draws his power from the collective belief and whispers of the community. He is brought to life because his name is on the lips and minds of so many.

In my experience with the character, he could never be more real than he was when I first encountered him and believed he was unknown to anyone else.

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Halloween Recommendation: “Kill, Baby, Kill”

Horror fiction comes in a lot of different flavors: ideal Halloween horror is, I think, suitably scary, but not oppressively dire. It’s a fairly festive time of year, after all. I want to watch or read something that makes my skin crawl, but not necessarily something that makes me want to weep for humanity. I have no problem with “heavier” horror stories, but there’s a time and place for everything, and I’m not sure Halloween is quite the time for Ligotti levels of  super-grim, gut-punching, mind-chewing horror. That said, everybody’s tolerance level for that sort of thing is different, so just bear all of that in mind as I pitch these books, movies and random other things to you for the rest of the month.

Enough preface and yammering: Today’s recommendation is Mario Bava’s film Kill, Baby, Kill. The title sounds worthy of a ridiculous exploitation flick, something involving bikers and revenge and scantily clad women. But it’s actual a period-piece horror flick set in a small European village where people are dying (or, more specifically, killing themselves) under mysterious circumstances. Well, not so mysterious to the locals. They have no illusions about what’s causing these deaths. But there are a couple of newcomers in town who will need some convincing that what’s taking place is supernatural.

Bava, for any who may not know, was basically the grandfather of the Italian horror boom of the 60’s and 70’s. His most famous horror film (and likely most famous in general) is the black and white gothic horror flick, Black Sunday. But Kill, Baby, Kill is, for whatever my opinion is worth, the better movie. Hell, Scorcese calls it Bava’s masterpiece, so it at least has that going for it.kill_baby_kill_1966_poster_01

The story of Kill, Baby, Kill is wonderfully simple: there’s a vengeful spirit in town that is liable to surface and kill anyone who goes into the wrong place, or who speaks of the ghost aloud. A doctor and a prodigal daughter come to the town at the same time as the latest kill and are immediately entwined in the mystery. Don’t expect any plot twists or developments you haven’t seen before, but that’s kind of beside the point. The fun here is in the execution and the visuals. Bava paints the picture with colors that are beautifully lurid, and luridly creepy. In some scenes it’s almost like a gothic, golden-age comic come to life. Bava has all sorts of eerie fun with shadows, contrast, giggling ghost girls, spiral staircases, creepy dolls, and a brief chase scene that pops up out of nowhere in the middle of an already surreal moment that finally drives our stoic lead over the edge. The special effects are patently practical, and all the more effective because of that.

For all the death and omnipresent dread saturating the atmosphere of the film, it’s not a dour picture. In fact, it has its moments that some might call campy. I simply think it has gusto. If you were waiting for the weekend to kick off your early October, Halloween horror binging, Kill, Baby, Kill isn’t a bad place to start. And at less than 90 minutes, it will fit nicely on either end of a double-feature night. For those of you with Netflix, it’s currently available to stream. So stop reading and go put it on your viewing list.

I’ll be back soon with a fresh recommendation.

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Quick Movie Recommendation: Pontypool

Pontypool is a horror movie (labeled a “psychological thriller” on Wikipedia… presumably because it has really good reviews, and is intelligently and patiently presented, so clearly it can’t be a horror story, even though it has all of the obvious qualities of a horror story. Okay, rant over), that you can watch right now on Netflix.

Set in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario in the midst of a mini-blizzard, it takes places almost entirely within a radio station where a “no punches pulled” talk radio host finds himself besieged with reports of strange and violent happenings taking place in the typically quiet little town. Much of the story’s initial dread is built up through second-hand accounts of what’s taking place outside the walls of the radio station (which is actually located in the basement of a church), which would seem to violate the “show don’t tell” rule that is particularly applicable to films, but it’s insanely effective nonetheless. In fact, hearing about what’s happening builds up the tension better than seeing might, given how often and unimaginatively such scenes of horror are often presented in movies. I’ll spare you the spoilers, but it’s well acted overall (the leads in particular are excellent), sells the hell out of the scares when they start coming. It’s witty, it’s creative, it’s stark, and it’s reasonably unpredictable. It has a moment or two of needless exposition (one that clumsily and abruptly spells out the whole mystery a little early in the film, when there was still a bit more suspense to be mined). But it also has some moments of sincere emotion, which is something too many horror movies don’t seem all that interested in at all (odd, given that horror is an emotion). Not much more you can ask for.

 

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