Monthly Archives: October 2010

A last-minute Halloween treat

Here’s a fun fact: I sometimes watch movies, but don’t write about them online. Right now, however, I’d like to correct that discrepancy. As October inches closer and closer to its official end (although really, October is just a state of mind), here are a few horror movies I saw during the past month that have yet to be discussed on Pussy Goes Grrr.

  • The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006): I’m a sucker for giant monster movies, having suckled at the teat of Godzilla, so I was naturally inclined to like this skewed take on the subgenre. It gets a little saccharine and manipulative every once in a while, but that’s more than made up for by the film’s warmth, humor, and political satire.
  • Psychomania (Don Sharp, 1971): I previously knew it only as George Sanders’ last movie. Turns out it’s also totally ridiculous, almost impossible to follow, and batshit insane. Sanders plays a butler; for convoluted reasons, his employer’s son commits suicide and comes back the same… only invulnerable. WTF! It’s amusing, but also really bad.
  • Red Eye (Wes Craven, 2005): This is less of a horror movie and more a standard psychological thriller. Assassin Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy) plays mind games with a hotel manager (Rachel McAdams), his seatmate on a Dallas-Miami flight. Much of the screenplay is laughable – especially as the film approaches its finale – but Murphy and McAdams are professionals, and their back-and-forth achieves Hitchcockian levels of suspense.
  • Fright Night (Tom Holland, 1985): Chris Sarandon is a sleazy vampire who moves to the suburbs with his lover?/henchman; William Ragsdale is the teenage neighbor who pledges to defeat him; Roddy McDowall is the over-the-hill TV vampire hunter who helps him. It’s such a good-natured, fun-loving movie that I couldn’t help but love it. Kind of like John Hughes meets Goosebumps, but so much better than both.
  • Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009): Raimi finally returned to Evil Dead territory with fantastic results. Alison Lohman is a banker suffering from a gypsy curse who does a lot of bad, bad things in her effort to get rid of it. Unsurprisingly, it’s comically gory and self-consciously pokes fun at EC Comics-style morality tales; a very worthwhile return to form from an old master.
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985): Like entries 2 and 3 on this list, its storyline makes virtually no sense. Still, the underlying teen angst (and repressed but white-hot homoeroticism) make this sequel stand out, as does the Cronenbergian scenes of extreme body horror.
  • Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987): Holy shit, Clive Barker! What the fuck is your problem?! But seriously, this is a very different, very kinky kind of horror movie, maybe like a mix of Little Shop of Horrors, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Salò. Yeah, let’s go with that. It has a slasher plot about an undead sociopath manipulating his brother’s wife, but it’s all wrapped up in a bizarre, ultra-violent mythology about a race of hellbound beings who clean the doors of perception for their human clients. The film also has Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who’s a very convincing final girl.

So there’s a taste of the other stuff I watched this month. Exciting! And with that, I say happy October and happy Halloween.

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Addicted to Fear, or Why I Am a Horror Junkie

It’s Halloween. The best holiday of the year. So I’d like to wax autobiographical for a minute here, and talk about my own personal relationship with the horror genre. If you’ve spent any time peeking around Pussy Goes Grrr, you know that Ashley and I are horror junkies. We crave all the neurochemical releases that accompany a good scary movie; few experiences thrill us more than discovering an new, bold horror masterpiece that scares our socks off. But, you may ask, where did this cinematic bloodlust come from? What childhood disease did we acquire that made us seek out things that scare us? If Andreas is so terrified of insects (it’s true!), why the hell would he intentionally watch any iteration of The Fly?

The answers, of course, are long and complex. I don’t even know all of them. Where do any artistic preferences come from? How do you account for any taste? But I would like to talk about a few childhood experiences that probably contributed to my critical idiosyncrasies. You see, a lot of my cinephilia stems from the kind of family I grew up in. When I was in elementary school, a common family activity was indulging in a VHS of some Universal horror, or a 1950s Vincent Price vehicle, or something bad like Plan 9. (My childhood arrived at the tail end of the VHS-and-video-store era, so despite being born in 1990, I still get to be nostalgic for their distinctively analog delights.)

As you can probably tell, my family’s viewing choices hewed to older fare, so I was inculcated into a very specific kind of old-fashioned horror fandom. John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and even George Romero didn’t mean much to me until after I started college; instead, as I grew to really appreciate scary movies, it was all about Tod Browning, James Whale, Roger Corman, and other such pioneers. But before my understanding of film became that sophisticated or auteur-centric, it was all about the images. That’s what I’m really here to address. Iconic horror movie images became displaced in time, space, and authorship. They become universal possessions of the collective unconscious. It’s a beautiful, mysterious process.

So: when I was little, we had all these books about horror movies sitting around. My father had accumulated them over the years, maybe from bookstores or thrift stores or book sales or forever. I still have the cover of John Stanley’s Revenge of the Creature Features Movie Guide burnt somewhere inside my brain. The books’ titles consisted of every possible permutation of the words “scary,” “horror,” “movie,”  and “guide.” Maybe, on occasion, “flicks” or “encyclopedia” would worm their ways into the titling algorithm. For the most part, they were generic compilations of short reviews, cast listings, and black-and-white stills. These stills were really the selling points: they were one-frame money shots, showing off the most hypnotic, gruesome artistry the movie had to offer.

They were also one of my first exposures to horror’s perverse, forbidden, slightly erotic pleasures. Horror movies showed me deformed faces, exaggerated bodies, and every other conceivable mutilation of the human form – all with a strangely sexualized twist. Even though all of pre-1968 cinema was supposed to be clean and safe for kids’ enjoyment, it actually contained festering, potent traces of sensual yearning and sinful desire. And, in its own illicit way, this unspoken aspect of horror was also very educational. I’m an outspoken advocate for the (usually) secret-but-pervasive sexual side of horror, and it’s partially because as I reflect on my childhood, I realize how profoundly it influenced me as a person.

Here are a few of those images. They’ve all taken on curious, shadowy lives of their own in the mind of pop culture. They’ve all acquired a set of meanings and associations in the years since they were created. And they all have strange and powerful significances to me as an individual.

There is so much I could say about Bela Lugosi in Dracula. It’s the role that defined his career, and the film set the stage for every horror talkie that followed it. It also codified the image of an aristocratic, caped vampire. It has enormous resonance for me – in fact, resonance above and beyond almost all other horror movies. I can’t help it. It’s not because of how well it’s made; that’s a nonissue with Tod Browning films, and there have been far better adaptations of the source novel. (Like, say, both versions of Nosferatu.) Maybe it’s some combination of the dilapidated castle, the Karl Freund camerawork, and Lugosi’s body language that drilled this movie into my brain. Despite his classical training, Lugosi always looked like such an outsider in American movies. Maybe the inherent pathos and tragedy of the Lugosi persona struck me through this movie. I couldn’t say.

This remains, I think, one of the most inexplicably compelling, mystifying, and disgusting images in all of film. Even going beyond Freaks‘ moralizing showmanship, just trying to look at it rationally… all logic fails when applied to this image. It appeals to something deeper than logic. This might be what draws me so forcefully to Tod Browning: even though his films are often nonsensical, amateurish, and tawdry, they nonetheless get to something in the bestial recesses of the human mind. Cleopatra’s incomprehensible, dehumanizing fate is so psychosexually loaded, because a “beautiful” woman has been forcibly and maliciously transformed into a voiceless, ambiguous being. It’s all intensified by the real question: how did the freaks do this?

I saw Janet Leigh’s screaming face years before I ever saw Psycho. Like the image of Freaks, it depicts a woman’s body being mutilated; it’s explicitly sexualized violence. But it’s also laden with intertwining threads of meaning. It’s not just an expression of unadulterated misogyny. (Those who pelt the horror genre with tired accusations of unadulterated misogyny are really underestimating the depth of these films. Although, of course, some horror movies are full of straightforward misogyny.) Consider part of Carol Clover’s argument in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: in a slasher film, the viewer is constantly shifted in identification between the attacker and the victim. It’s not just that we see ourselves in Mrs. Bates as she hacks into Marion, because we also see ourselves in the dying, shrieking Marion. It’s about fear and vulnerability. It’s about gender anxieties and sexual curiosity.

This is just a little hint of why I love horror so much, but the main reason is that I love to be scared. Yes, it’s perverse (in the truest sense of the word) and yes, it’s very counterintuitive. But fear is important and it can be useful. By watching something that scares you, you can learn more about yourself and your relationship to the world around you. I believe that for several reasons – industrial, aesthetic, and otherwise – horror is also sometimes capable of saying more than other genres. In short, I love horror movies. Happy Halloween.

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Link Dump: #10

Let me just get this out there: I love the movie Cat People. I love it so much that I’d be OK with it if, every time I was aroused, I turned into the movie Cat People. Don’t question how that’d work. The point is that I really, really love that movie. I love its brevity, its odd visual poetry, its confusing but wonderful morals; I love Tom Conway’s sleaziness and, most of all, Simone Simon’s fractured innocence. Cat People is complex, poignant, perverse, and really sexy. I fucking love Cat People. Anyway, I just wanted to talk about that because I haven’t touched on that movie at all this month. Oh, and I have some links! Read them at your leisure.

  • Have you bought issue 10 of Paracinema magazine yet? If not, look at this. Now are you convinced?
  • Wow, even Fangoria hated the I Spit on Your Grave remake! Then you know it’s bad.
  • THIS is an incredible video and I love it. It’s just so in-your-face and totally refuses to bullshit. Fuck hate! Fuck yeah! (Share it with everyone you know who can take the word “fuck”!) [Via Four of Them]
  • Here’s another great video, this one being an ultra-NSFW song by MC Sex about period sex, accompanied by clips from dozens of gory horror movies. [Via Hold onto yr genre]
  • This is a really, really stupid NYT article that just wastes space. Oh no! We don’t have lines like “Stupid is as stupid does” in movies anymore! How can we endure?
  • Christopher Nolan is finally disclosing some Batman 3 – excuse me, “The Dark Knight Rises” – details. I’ve been back and forth about Nolan lately, but I have to admit a measure of excitement for this movie. And I, for one, thought it was obvious that he wasn’t going to use the Riddler, since 1) how would lime green fit into the Nolanverse color scheme, and 2) wouldn’t another joke-cracking villain be redundant??
  • Neil Gaiman on Arthur. This makes every fiber of my being happy; while watching it, I was literally giggling with joy.
  • And speaking of Gaiman, want to be one of his most iconic characters, Death from The Sandman, for Halloween? Well, The Powder Room’s Locus Ceruleus Media will tell you how with this awesome makeup tutorial.
  • Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, here’s a listing of some great Japanese horror movies, including a few we’ve talked about on this blog. Any list that includes Jigoku is good enough for me!
  • A few sites have pointed out this video of a Texas NBC station asking the leading question, “Will acceptance of gays lead to the downfall of America?” Jesus. Fucking. Christ. It’s pretty abhorrent and unbearable, and it just gets worse toward the end. People like this make me fucking sick.
  • There comes a time in every boy’s life when he has to explain the Internet to a 19th century Cockney street urchin. This flowchart should help.
  • To tie it back to Paracinema, their blog has been doing a Halloween Countdown of their own! It’s got snuff films, Japanese wackiness, Vincent Price, and more. And on a related note, Stacie Ponder of Final Girl is rounding down her list-tastic Shocktober lists. Read both of these for some great movie suggestions as Halloween arrives! (Just two days.)

On the search terms front, we had some weird shit this past week. One searcher complained that “women never have sex with men”; another creepily wrote, “my daughter in law has good pussy.” I saw the perfectly unpleasant instruction (?) to “pull my pussy n hurt it grrr,” as well as the more reasonable injunction of “don’t piss off your plastic surgeon.” I’m sorry to say that I don’t know what “professor & the sexy girl japanese movie” refers to.

My mention of Ava Gardner’s performance as a real estate agent in The Sentinel earned us such anomalies as “real estate agent rape scene” and “simulated ava gardner naked fucking” (??!). Finally, my favorite two of the week: “licentiously yours,” which I think should replace “sincerely” or any similar sign-off in correspondence, and “recorded in bathroom, guitar, died, fall,” which is just… I don’t even know. What does that mean? I think it means “Happy Halloween.” So yes. Happy Halloween.

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“Lord, I am tired!”

This week’s pick for Hit Me With Your Best Shot at The Film Experience is a movie that’s very near and dear to my heart: Charles Laughton’s sole film as director, The Night of the Hunter (1955). I’ve seen it probably a dozen times, and it just gets better and better. It’s the story of psychotic “preacher” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) and his pursuit of two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), who know the whereabouts of $10,000 stolen by their father. (“It’s in my doll, it’s in my doll!”) It’s a horror movie, film noir, document of Americana, religious allegory, morality tale, folktale, fairy tale, and more. Shot with expressionist flair by Stanley Cortez, it’s also one of the best and most beautiful films of any kind.

By all rights, The Night of the Hunter deserves a comprehensive, in-depth review on this site – and, with any luck, I’ll write it in time. For now, however, I’ll just explain my favorite images from it, and then abide. And my “best shot” is…

Keep in mind, The Night of the Hunter is so visually perfect that even its “worst shot” would probably outdo most whole films. It has countless images with similarly striking compositions and measured use of light and shadow. But something about this one really catches my eye and hangs onto it. Maybe it’s how Laughton and Cortez, working on a studio set, made a sunrise that looked more beautiful, more powerful, and more real than any real sunrise. Maybe it’s the tiny silhouette of Powell, riding his stolen horse along the horizon, singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Seeing him like that makes him feel like a feature of the landscape, an omnipresent boogeyman, a mythical figure of the worst kind of evil.

Maybe it’s the way the barn door creates a frame within a frame, turning the outside world into its own little movie, which is then split into light and dark halves. (You start to see how carefully they thought out every single shot of this film.) Or maybe it’s how John is sitting upright, protecting his sister from the monster she accepts as her father. This shot is a self-contained narrative, a melodrama of the home (the barn) threatened by looming external forces. And I’m still so enthralled by that sunset. But I can’t content myself to one image. Here’s another of my favorites.

This image proves to me that Laughton and Cortez had a profound understanding of film noir, and an even more profound insight into the cultural currents at work in postwar America. Ruby (Gloria Castillo), the eldest of the foundlings cared for by Ms. Cooper (Lillian Gish), is going downtown under the pretext of sewing lessons. Obviously, no sewing lessons are involved. Just look at the crowd of men who fill out the shot, or the words around them: “DRUGS,” “Restaurant,” “Magazines.” Look at the lights about the magazine rack, or the brick facade behind it. This is a picture of temptation at work: the temptations of neon lights, worldliness, and all pleasures money can buy (whether that refers to a soda at the drugstore, or something more).

This shot reminds me of the strip show witnessed by Powell at the beginning of the movie, since they’re both so emblematic of everything the modern city has to offer – everything that Powell and his nemesis Cooper are morally opposed to. Film noir is all about those offers and temptations. And like The Night of the Hunter, film noir (as a set of hundreds of disparate films) doesn’t take a unified attitude toward them. Sometimes it indulges and embraces; sometimes it rejects them. Maybe you could consider The Night of the Hunter as a moral skeleton key to the whole genre. A couple more notes: after rewatching this movie, I see the “Mama Sunshine” household in Palindromes in a totally new light; also, I’m dying to write about its treatment of gender and sexuality. Expect that soon. Now I’ll close with a couple of visual tricks-and-treats.

At least in these shots, Laughton and Cortez are working right out of the Fritz Lang playbook. And fantastically so. Finally, this shot rang a tubular bell for me. Look familiar?

I think Regan MacNeil would agree: it’s a hard world for little things.

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The Best and Worst of the Treehouse of Horror

As part of my pre-Halloween festivities, I’ve been watching Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episodes. Well, I recently finished rewatching all 21 of them! Believe me, that’s not an easy task, especially since most of the later ones are something of a slog. Thus, to celebrate The Simpsons’ outstanding achievement in the field of horror excellence, here’s a breakdown of the worst and best “Treehouse of Horror” segments. (For the woefully uninitiated, each “Treehouse” episode consists of three segments, sometimes with introductions or interstitial jokes.)

The Worst

Pretty much everything after season 9 or so gets pretty mediocre, but a few late-season segments stand out as utterly abominable. Generally, it’s because they 1) think that “scary” means “has endless, meaningless bloodshed”; 2) think that “no rules” means “none of it needs any internal logic whatsoever”; and 3) they just aren’t funny, at all. Pretty bad offenders include “B.I.: Bartificial Intelligence” from Treehouse of Horror XVI, “Married to the Blob” from XVII, and “How to Get Ahead in Dead-vertising” from XIX. Each one has numerous pointless deaths with little compensation in the form of, say, humor or wit. The last one is also completely incoherent – especially when compared to the earlier segment it’s ripping off, VI‘s “Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores.”

But for violent, unfunny incoherence, nothing can really top XVIII’s “Mr. and Mrs. Simpson” and XIII’s “The Fright to Creep and Scare Harms.” Here’s why: “Mr. and Mrs. Simpson” is just a one-note joke with no connection to Halloween in which Marge and Homer kill people and then try to kill each other. It’s also even more mean-spirited than the segment that precedes it (“E.T., Go Home,” in which Homer happily kills an entire army of aliens), as they murder Chief Wiggum and make love on his corpse. How did this turn into a particularly awful episode of Family Guy?

“The Fright to Creep and Scare Harms,” though, is somehow worse, beginning with its pun clusterfuck of a title, and continuing through its non sequitur-laced storyline. Lisa doesn’t know Billy the Kid’s real name? Billy the Kid opposed gun violence in his epitaph? Lisa can ban weapons, just like in Treehouse of Horror II, except now she doesn’t need the monkey’s paw? Cowboys can come back to life of their own volition? Five gun-toting skeletons is all it takes to conquer Springfield, and that merits using a time machine? Jesus, it’s just so bad, and negligible as entertainment. It’s fitting, I guess, that Treehouse of Horror XIII ends with Kang and Kodos making a cryptic “joke” about how a skull-shaped island looks like their number 4.

Granted, I think some enjoyment can be gleaned from later Treehouse episodes. The stylized homages that end XVII and XIX (of the 1930s and Peanuts, respectively) show a little artistry, and I think the ending of “Heck House” from XVIII makes it easily the best Treehouse segment of the past decade. Other than that, though, it’s a chore to get through joyless dreck like “Reaper Madness” or “Survival of the Fattest.” So let’s stop being so negative, and hit up the segments that are brilliant, hilarious, and nightmare-inspiring…

The Best

10. “Bad Dream House” from Treehouse of Horror I

The very first Treehouse segment, it reflects some of the growing pains that afflicted the series’ first couple seasons, but is nonetheless a keeper. It’s a parody of haunted house movies like Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror as the Simpsons move into an ultra-cheap house that happens to drip blood and whisper murderous thoughts into its tenants’ ears. The segment after it – “Hungry Are the Damned,” introducing Kang and Kodos – is also rich, but I’m a sucker for haunted houses, and Harry Shearer really wrings out the pathos in the house’s dilemma. (“Life with the Simpsons. What choice do I have?”) Marge’s outbursts, the interdimensional vortex, and the knife fight confirm the first-ever segment as one of the best.

9. “Lisa’s Nightmare” from Treehouse of Horror II

As I alluded to earlier, this segment sees the family trip to Marrakech lead Homer to purchase a wish-granting monkey’s paw, à la W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw.” I love how this episode gives every family member a chance to shine (except Marge) via their deepest wishes: Maggie for a golden pacifier, Bart for wealth and fame (which becomes a meta-fictional moment as the Simpsons grow too ubiquitous), Lisa for peace on earth (showcasing her naïve idealism, since it’s promptly conquered by aliens), and Homer for a turkey sandwich and nothing but a turkey sandwich. Great moments include the sharply satirical joke about escalating weaponry (“bigger boards and bigger nails…”) as well as Flanders’ happy ending.

8. “The Devil and Homer Simpson” from Treehouse of Horror IV

I recently wrote about The Devil and Daniel Webster, which this segment parodies; here, Flanders unforgettably stands in for Walter Huston as the Author of All Lies, complete with horns and a forked tail. Homer’s gluttony finally gets the better of him, as he eats an entire scrump-diddley-umptious donut in exchange for his soul. When he goes on trial for his soul, the Simpsons must battle Lionel Hutz’s sleazy incompetence and a jury of the damned. Hell is exceedingly well-animated here, as are Flanders’ demon henchmen, and the ending combines emotional sincerity with bitter irony. Just like the novel/movie it’s based on, “The Devil and Homer Simpson” sneaks plenty of commentary about the American family into its tale of infernal bargaining.

7. “The Genesis Tub” from Treehouse of Horror VII

This segment – based on “The Little People,” a Twilight Zone episode I’ve never seen – is disturbing in all the right ways. An improbable scientific mishap (static electricity + a tooth submerged in coke?) causes Lisa to accidentally create a microscopic civilization, which advances at a fast pace. Soon they’re experiencing religious schisms (“I’ve created Lutherans!”) and using spaceships to attack Bart in his sleep. It’s akin to the Futurama episode “Godfellas,” but gets the job done in 1/3 the time, and ends in the same unresolved fashion as many of the greatest Treehouse triumphs. “Citizen Kang,” the segment that comes right after “The Genesis Tub,” came close to making this list, if only for the politically trenchant line “I voted for Kodos.”

6. “Clown Without Pity” from Treehouse of Horror III

This is based on a Twilight Zone episode I have seen, “Living Doll” – which is scary as hell and stars Telly Savalas (both good things). It hits all the bases: it makes fun of Grandpa, references Gremlins, and attacks corporate irresponsibility. Like the best Treehouse segments, it also manages to be razor-sharp in its comedy and absolutely terrifying at the same time. Just look for the fangs on the Krusty doll, or listen for the nonstop flood of one-liners, like Kent Brockman’s pollution update, Patty’s deadpan reaction to seeing Homer naked, Krusty’s seduction of Malibu Stacy, etc., etc. – and all this in just 7 minutes.

5. “Homer³” from Treehouse of Horror VI

This segment is justly famous for its pioneering use of computer animation, but that’s not the (only) reason it’s on my list. Despite the laughs, which (like donuts) are plentiful, I found it intensely scary in my childhood, and that impression has not abated during the intervening years. While trying to escape Patty and Selma’s impending visit, Homer slips through a portal behind the bookshelf and gets trapped in the third dimension. I’m not sure why, but primitive 3D animation is inherently pretty scary. When it sort of collapses on itself, then it’s really scary. When it breaks Homer into fragments (including a mouth that goes on screaming “CRAP!”), that’s when we reach intensely scary, and when it drops Homer into real-world Los Angeles in the mid-’90s and rolls credits… well, that’s a conclusion that mystifies and terrifies me to this day. Which, after all, is what Halloween’s all about. Well done, “Homer³”!

4. “Terror at 5½ Feet” from Treehouse of Horror IV

Inspired by one of the great Twilight Zone episodes (the Shatner-starring “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”), this segment is damn near perfect and deeply, viscerally scary. As observed on the segment’s audio commentary, the animators succeeded in making the gremlin work within The Simpsons‘ established visual aesthetic, and that contributes a lot to the story’s success. The gremlin’s demonic appearance and behavior are even worse when mixed with Skinner’s doubts about Bart’s sanity, and all the hilarious little touches (Hans Moleman’s grisly death, the flares in Martin’s shorts, Homer’s air horn) make it that much better. And, whew, the ending. That’s just fucking nightmarish. “Heidily-ho, Bart!”

3-1. “The Shinning,” “Time and Punishment,” and “Nightmare Cafeteria” from Treehouse of Horror V

I already wrote a long, detailed essay on why I love this episode, so there’s not much else to say. Every time I watch it, I just sit back and marvel at the genius. I’m blown away by how the Simpsons writers and animators could integrate horror and comedy so well, packing so much dense, allusive humor into just 22 minutes, and I’m grateful that they did. This episode contains easily my three favorite segments, and every part of it – from the opening credits to the bloody musical finale – continues to scare the shit out of me.

So, what did I miss? (For starters, “The Homega Man.”) What are your preferred tricks and treats from the Treehouse canon? Comment below and let the world know.


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The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh

From its first scene, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. It’s a film of extreme highs and extreme lows, often in very close proximity. With surprising swiftness, its characters travel from a wish-fulfillment shopping spree to a run-in with red-eyed zombies, and from a bucolic reverie to the loss of one of their own. Although it’s nearly two hours long, the film never really lets up, but that doesn’t stop it from including a few crucial character-building moments. As in much of Boyle’s work, this is humanity under the worst possible duress. (See: heroin addiction, poverty, being trapped under a boulder.) But it also retains a dark sense of humor and a sincere interest in human relationships as it explores life in England’s, nearly a month after its population is decimated by a zombie epidemic called the Rage virus.

The film follows a hardy group of survivors: Jim (Cillian Murphy), Selena (Naomie Harris), Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). Jim, who spent the titular period of time in a coma, is just as clueless as the audience, but quickly learns about the situation under Selena’s tutelage. After they meet Frank and Hannah, they reluctantly agree to drive toward Manchester, per the request of a mysterious radio message. Along the way, they gradually form a surrogate family – a notion literalized by the bittersweet image of four wild, uninfected horses running around a field. Emotional shorthand like this threatens to become cloying, but the actors are so good that they efface the screenplay’s rough patches. As important as the special effects and postapocalyptic environment may be, this is a film built on strong performances.

Alas, this also makes 28 Days Later an incredibly nerve-wracking film. The main characters are all so identifiable and lovable that it afflicts me with anxiety every time they step outside. Boyle does a good job of making the constant danger very palpable. Even though some zombie purists assert that the infected aren’t zombies, they fucking are, and their speed – scrambling and loping toward whatever or whoever they can destroy – perfectly suits this movie’s purposes. The tunnel scene, for example, is one of the movie’s most effective because of the zombies’ madly feral dash over the heaps of garbage; it drives home the humans’ complete vulnerability. So many have died already, including all the characters’ loved ones, that there’s no doubt about whether this is a life or death situation.

This unyielding suspense and emotional attachment combine to make an intelligent, self-aware rollercoaster of a movie. They also enable the film to makes its most profound statements. This is, after all, a film about surviving the most dire crisis imaginable – the end of civilization as we know it. Each character must determine his or her own priorities. The film doesn’t harp on this, but lets it evolve out of who the characters are: Jim, the newcomer, still holds vestiges of old world values like family and love; Selena, the jaded survivalist, both teaches and learns from him; Frank, selfless and gregarious, wants what’s best for the group (and especially his daughter); Hannah suffers from severe, ongoing PTSD and wants people around her to depend upon. Over the course of the film, they learn the price of having each other; they also come to enjoy simple, sensory pleasures – like, for example, raisins.

For these reasons, I find the film both thrilling and moving. I enjoy it in the same cathartic way that some people enjoy movies based on Nicholas Sparks books. Except 28 Days Later is much, much better. It’s also full of searing, sometimes prescient political commentary, whether about the government’s handling of the epidemic and its aftermath, or about the military compound where the film ends up in its third act. The treatment of Major West and his men, while still very dark, is slightly comedic; as played by Christopher Eccleston, West is a frazzled leader making promises he can’t keep and exercising his authority just to make sure he still has it.

The men, meanwhile, prove that even when civilization collapses, rape culture remains. Although only a few of the men are especially boorish and malicious, their self-aggrandizing machismo turns out to be more contagious than the Rage virus, and their behavior toward their guests is as much of a statement about the military mindset that the film needs to make. I’m consistently impressed by how well the film weaves together its tense, nonstop action and its many well-developed subtexts. It’s one of the most successful, insightful postapocalyptic films made of late and it still has time for one zombie attack set-piece after another.

Some other things I like about 28 Days Later: it’s integration of high-angle, surveillance-style cinematography with conventional shot/reverse shot patterns; its eclectic but never overbearing score; how it draws on Romero’s Living Dead movies and Matheson’s I Am Legend (as well as its film adaptations), but still marks out its own unique territory while saying “We are the real monsters” with more subtlety than Romero ever has; the fruitful invocation of haunted house movies during its climax; and, of course, the beautiful Cillian Murphy.

This film just preys so well on my fears and my loves. I can’t help but be strongly affected by it. As Jim wanders around an empty London, his surroundings reveal the panic that once consumed them; this is an apocalypse that feels believably lived-in. Boyle applies a certain strange realism to his zombie apocalypse, and maybe that’s what makes it so resonant. It’s a distinctly 21st century vision of horror. But it still hangs onto a little hope, billowing in the breeze. I’ll close on an optimistic note with a gratuitous picture of the beautiful Cillian Murphy.


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Short Film Showcase: Creep

Lately, Ashley and I have been enjoying FEWDIO Horror, a collection of short independent horror films. They’re of widely varying quality, but since most of them are 3-5 minutes long, it’s an acceptable time investment even if it’s got a stupid twist ending. This one, “Creep,” is my favorite. It’s very understated but also intensely creepy, and a great realization of an old urban legend. It shows what kind of great horror can be made with a minimal budget and a little bit of ingenuity.

For other really good FEWDIO shorts, I suggest starting with “Mockingbird” or “Bedfellows,” and from there you can jump around. They’re a fun, scary assortment of videos, and they’re a perfect example of how YouTube can be the ultimate tool for reinvigorating horror cinema. I hope this adds to the quality of your nightmares as October approaches its dark, grisly end.

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