WHY HORROR? (Preface)

My book exploring why we love horror so much is taking longer than I originally projected, but I thought I would share the preface with you. If you like the preface, then you’ll want to purchase the book when it releases! At the time of this posting, I am on Chapter 12.

PREFACE

“What’s your favorite scary movie?” (Ghost Face, Scream). There is something to be said about the measurable energy of an auditorium at the cinema when a crowd is energized for opening night of the latest horror film. Moreover, the same can be said about your own living rooms when gathered with friends to watch a horror movie on-demand or through a streaming service. We turn into quasi participants because of the strong physiological and emotional responses to the stimuli on screen. Best enjoyed in a group setting, these movies are the stuff of nightmares and fond memories!

The American horror film brings so many people of all ages together from a bevy of ethnic, cultural, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds unlike any other single film genre. Spawning conventions, theme park events, inspiring indie and pop artists, the fandom of horror is incredibly diverse and stratified. While the science-fiction/fantasy fandom is large and vocal, it does not often display the level and degree of diversity that horror does both presently, in our culture, and has for more than a century. From the dawn of cinema, horror has been a staple for big studios and small production companies alike.

By analyzing horror films, we can learn a lot about our past, our present, and even our future. While film is largely a reflection of life, horror is the best cinematic mirror of all because it forces us to face our fears. The monster in a horror film, may just be the manifestation of a force or idea in the real world delivered to us through a terrifying cautionary tale.

Even when a bad horror movie gets released in theatres, the auditoriums are usually full on opening night–even through the weekend–before the numbers fall off, and that title is available on-demand in a few weeks. The influence of horror on our society is witnessed throughout the decades. A great example of this is seeing fans from across four decades all gathering in one place to watch 2018’s Halloween.

Unlike other critical and box office successes in recent years, this particular franchise boasted a 40 year old legacy that brought fans and spectators of all ages together. I remember sitting there in my seat, simply in awe at the sea of people and feeling a kinetic energy surge through my mind and body, especially when the Halloween theme music began to play. What other genre generates this?!?

In order to best explore why horror brings so many people together, we need to first look what the formula is for the American horror film and then at why we are attracted to it. From there, we can travel through the decades to learn how and why the horror film developed in the manner that it did.

Understanding what comprises the American horror film will support our exploration because it will create a theoretical framework through which we can analyze the popularity and fandom of horror. When I lecture on horror to my film studies and screenwriting students at the University of Tampa, where I’ve taught since 2016, I describe the makeup of the American horror film this way:

(Art movements of) German Expressionism + French Surrealism = horror’s aesthetic

(Writings of) Sigmund Freud + Edgar Allan Poe = horror’s content

At its root, all genre horror films can be traced back to these aforementioned elements and formulas. This chapter will focus on horror’s aesthetic, while the next chapter will focus on its content. 

Ask anyone, and the single most famous scene in all of cinema is the famous shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho, widely regarded as the most pivotal horror film in all cinema history. The aforementioned scene gains a greater eerie feel upon the close of the movie when the audience realizes that Norman has little to no control over his mind and actions.

The studio responsible for solidifying the horror film as a popular genre, and you could say is the parent of the American horror film is Universal Pictures. Not only is horror the most bankable genre of film, generally speaking, it is also one of the most fascinating to analyze because many horror films written in the classical sense are social metaphors.

Throughout this book, you’ll learn about the current events that preceded a particular movement in horror, and how those fears and anxieties were explored through characters and plots. For example, it was the space race of the mid 20th century that inspired many of the alien movies of the 1950s. And with the space race, came a fear of what lies beyond our atmosphere.

Although the “modern” horror film began with Psycho, horror was an influential genre and box office draw from the dawn of cinema. In fact, many of the characters you enjoy watching today in horror films has their first appearance in the early 1900s.

“Oh no, don’t go into that house!” “Watch out! He’s right behind you.” Some of the most memorable movies of all time are the horror films. They draw our eye’s attention to that which would otherwise repulse us in real life. At the same time, our own eyes are being threatened with disturbing or bizarre imagery.

But why does that which would repulse us in real life and that which is terrifying to behold, bring us together? That is what we are here to explore together! So join me as I lead you on a journey to dive deep into why horror brings us together.

From Nosferatu to (my favorite icon) Freddy Krueger and beyond, the American horror film continues to leave a huge footprint in our collective zeitgeist.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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THIRTEEN LIVES docudrama mini review

Interesting. Ron Howard’s big screen adaptation of the true story of the daring rescue of the Thai youth football (soccer) team from the flooded cave is faithful to the wikipedia page, but with an impressive addition of underwater cinematography. Thirteen Lives chronicles the seemingly impossible rescue that captured the attention of the entire world in summer 2018. While Howard’s docudrama is well-made all the way around, what audiences will find most fascinating is the mechanics of the rescue. It took thousands of volunteers in the labyrinth of caves, mountain peaks, and basecamps to bring all the boys and their coach to safety. Although none of the performances particularly stand out, the film delivers solid casting. Thirteen Lives is a different kind of “based on the true story” film, because it does not have particularly strong plotting to map-out the narrative. On one hand, it is a simple plot rescue the boys, but the film ultimately plays as a blow by blow description of what happened. Upon viewing the film, I thought to myself, why not just make a documentary instead; and then it occurred to me, that there would have been little to no footage of the inside of the caves. Therefore, docudrama was the way to go. There really isn’t much in the way of connective tissue between plot points; events just happen. That’s not to say that what we are watching isn’t terrifying in places–it certainly is–especially if you have kids; but at the same time, it doesn’t feel like a cinematic story in the conventional sense. Even though we all know how the true story ends, the film focuses on the steps that were taken in order to rescue the youth soccer team. Is it good? Well, it’s not bad. It just kind of is. Often we see based on a true story films that take so much dramatic license that it’s no longer a faithful big or small screen adaptation; sometimes, character or situational nuances or motivations are lost in translation. Thirteen Lives is so incredibly focuses on a dutiful adaptation, that it sometimes forgets that it’s also supposed to be finding the narrative amongst the facts. I wouldn’t wait to see this on the small screen, catch it during its limited theatrical run because the visuals are impressive.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

NOPE horror film review

Nope, no plotting here. With a sensory explosion of stunning shot composition, outstanding sound design, and unnerving score–combine those with a refreshingly original expression of the classic monster movie–and you should have a great horror film, right? That was almost the case here, had it not been for the meandering narrative and thoughtless plotting. Brilliant idea, but poorly mapped out. There is so much to like about NOPE, but the full potential of this beautifully looking film is ultimately held back by screenwriting mechanics. Peele’s NOPE feels like a combination of The Birds, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Signs. Unfortunately, it lacks the structure and substance of any of those. Clearly, Peele had a wonderfully original idea for his latest feature film, but his idea fails to deliver narratively. The plotting is all over the place; there are scenes that simply do not pay off dramatically. Individually, each scene is meticulously crafted, but many are not connected methodically to the rest of the film. What we have here is a film, that clearly demonstrates a love for horror cinema and film history, that pushes experiential boundaries, but the plotting leaves much to be desired. Moreover, there is a disconnect between the performative element of the mise-en-scene and characterization. Fantastic performances; but the characters, as they are written, are not very well developed. The pretense of the film is one exuding cinematic gravitas, but the pretense is the equivalent of a beautiful house with a shaky foundation and infrastructure.

To go into why this film’s plotting does not work would be incredibly spoilerific, so I cannot go into many details. All throughout the film, I thought to myself “I can tell that this is supposed to mean something, perhaps subvert something, but those idea are not being communicated effectively.” What this film will likely become is one of those that a pretentious cinephile or armchair critic will respond to those that express difficulty in following the plot with “it’s not for everyone” or “you just don’t get it.” Whenever I hear those remarks in defense of films that objectively fail to deliver narratively (plot+story), it makes me want to vomit. They are copouts for explaining away why a film doesn’t have to follow established storytelling conventions; furthermore, the “you just didn’t get it” is a tool for the cinephile to establish intellectual superiority over the individual rightly questioning the screenwriting of a film.

Caretakers at a California horse ranch encounter a mysterious force that affects human and animal behavior.

Where the film excels is in the very concept of the film itself and the technical achievement! Upon watching it, I was reminded of great films such as The Birds, Signs, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Moreover, I was also reminded of the sci-fi/horror movies of the 1940s and 50s. Because I was reminded of those, that demonstrates Peele’s love for classic horror cinema! And I applaud him for attempting to craft something for modern audiences that feels familiar yet fresh. To the best of my knowledge, there has yet to be a film (classic or more contemporary) that expresses the alien plot in the manner that Peele does. Where the films to which he’s harkening surpass NOPE is in the plotting. Original ideas are very much needed in 21st century cinema, but these ideas need to be paired with coherent plots.

Peele’s eye for shot composition is exceptional. He knows precisely how to frame and shoot a scene dramatically, even when the shot is largely static. What makes his shot compositions work so well is that the shot is a direct extension of the emotion of the scene. The camera isn’t merely documenting the course of events, but is ostensibly an active participant in how the scene unfolds.

The brilliant sound design and unnerving score work in tandem to draw the audience into the film, especially when watching the film in Dolby Cinema (which is what I did). No sound effect or bar of score is wasted. Every sound, every note is intentionally selected as an extension of the action or emotion of a scene. Although a film should not rely upon a great score to carry the story, sound and music are two very important tools in a filmmakers tool belt to increase the sensory stimulation of the film.

Peele is such a gifted director, but I hope he chooses to work with other screenwriters in the future to take his original ideas and map them out methodically and chronologically (whether linear or nonlinear) more soundly. We need refreshing ideas such as his, but we also need them executed in more conventional ways. Have the thoughtful subplot and subtextual theming that will inspire discourses, but make the outside/action plot more accessible because it’s the vessel through which the subplot and theming is communicated.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

MRS. HARRIS GOES TO PARIS motion picture review

A peerless delight! A throwback motion picture as exquisite as the House of Dior itself! Refreshing, uplifts the human spirit. A film to inspire dreamers and doers. Easily one of the best pictures of the year. Slip into Director Anthony Fabian’s meticulously crafted film that is sure to make a beautiful statement in any cinema! Lesley Manville delivers a command performance as the title character that will tug at your heartstrings. While the setting may be in the pretentious world of haute couture, this adaptation of Paul Gallico’s timeless novel takes audiences on a journey that is just as relatable and relevant as it is whimsical! When so many films depict the fate of the world at stake, preach a woke-filled sermon, or rely on showmanship over substance, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is an endearing fairy tale that feels very close to story in which we could find ourselves. Realistic enough wherein we effortlessly buy into the story with just the right about of fantasy that it serves as a much needed cinematic respite from the deluge of larger-than-life movies overcrowding cinemas across the country. Simple, yet complex. It’s a perfect drama that provides audiences with hope and hutzpah.

In 1950s London, a widowed cleaning lady falls madly in love with a couture Dior dress, deciding she must have one of her own. After working to raise the funds to pursue her dream, she embarks on an adventure to Paris that will change not only her own outlook — but the very future of the House of Dior.

Whimsical, yet relatable. Pretentious, yet authentic. That is the magic of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. Films depicting central characters setting out to realize a dream are in no short supply; the examples over the nearly 125 year of cinema are seemingly endless. But what makes this film so special is just how within arm’s reach it feels. Our central character of Ada Harris (Manville) is an everyman–one of us–fears, dreams, and all. She comes from a world not unlike the one in which you and I may find ourselves. Grated, we’re not all housekeepers, but we’re either presently or have been the invisible, under-appreciated worker within our respective vocational fields. We know what it’s like to have a dream, and work to make it happen. That’s the key here–work.

From the moment Mrs. Harris lair eyes on the Christian Dior dress in one of her employer’s wardrobes, she knew right then and there that she needed to own a Dior original! Not to impress others, but because it was so beautiful! For some, it’s a designer dress, for others it may be a particular automobile or work of art. We all dream of owning something that has special meaning to us–it makes us feel happy! But the real accomplishment is when it is the result of hard and smart work. Mrs. Harris is a hard, dedicated worker who values the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to provide for oneself or craft something beautiful for the world to see and appreciate. Mrs. Harris also reminds us that it’s okay to want something exquisite or beautiful because of how it makes (or we believe it will make us) feel. Treat yourself! Moreover, Fabian’s film also provides commentary on the dangers of placing one’s identity into material possessions or status symbols. There is a healthy balance, and Mrs. Harris lives that out! She is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside.

Lesley Manville’s Mrs. Harris is loved by nearly all whom meet her, because of her genuine spirit of kindness, graciousness, and generosity. Those whom have trouble with Mrs. Harris find her authentic spirit unfitting, disruptive, or something to be taken advantage of. When those with the best of intentions, come to disappoint Mrs. Harris. What I love about Mrs. Harris’ internal and external journeys is that they don’t simply fall into place through some deus ex machina methodology. She’s met with some serious setbacks and heartbreaks along the way. Even when you’re sure it’s gonna work out like it does in the movies, it’s more like one step forward and two steps back. But she doesn’t let that defeat her. Even her great apprehension about leaving her comfort zone, does not stop her. Still, she demonstrates inner-struggles when faced with the comfort of the status quo, or taking a chance on something wonderful!

Even though this movie harkens back to Hollywood’s feel-good movies in a post-WWII world, the characters are not one-dimensional caricatures from a bygone era. Our lead Mrs. Harris, her best friend, and Dior staff all have multiple layers about them…each goes on a journey of self-discovery paired with tangible goals. In others words, in screenwriting terms, each has a well-defined external goal and internal need driving the character. Is every character that well defined? No, but importantly the central and chief supporting ones are. Perhaps you’re a Mrs. Harris, maybe you’re a Natasha (the model), Mrs. Colbert (the legacy employee), or Mr. Fauvel (the accountant), You will likely find yourself as one of the prominent characters in the movie. It’s possible that you may be one of Mrs. Harris’ various employers (which will give you some pause to evaluate how you treat your employees).

Underpinning the A Story, is a story of worker exploitation. Even though the film could have spent a great deal of time on employer-employee relations, the backdrop of workers;’ rights serves as a conduit through which the film is able to comment on how employers should treat employees and even adapt with the changing times. It’s not a heady-handed message, and does come off a little hokey, but it works tonally in this film. There is a documentary by the title Dior and I, and I recommend watching it as a companion piece to this film as it will give you a greater appreciation for Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. Furthermore, you may want to search for the 1992 adaptation starring Dame Angela Lansbury. Manville’s expression (and Fabian’s expression) of the character and story are not the same as the 1992 film, so you can appreciate both for all they respectively bring to this timeless story.

Between Top Gun: Maverick and Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, we are seeing the power of timeless stories brought back to the big screen! That’s why these two films work as well as they do: some stories are just that–timeless. Each has a simple plot and complex characters, entertains and inspires. Both of these films uplift the human spirit in ways that seek to bring people together instead of dividing them apart.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

THE BLACK PHONE horror movie review

Delivers on atmosphere and tension, but the characters are largely one-dimensional. The solid lead and chief supporting cast do their best to convince audiences there is more here than what you actually get. Who’s even the audience for this???

Blumhouse sets out to terrify audiences with their summer horror offering; and while it has some fantastic moments of tension and an ominous atmosphere, it fails to deliver on both plot and character. In a manner of speaking, writer-director Scott Derrickson, took a page out of the typical A24 handbook, and place far more emphasis on aesthetics than story.

Finney Shaw is a shy but clever 13-year-old boy who’s being held in a soundproof basement by a sadistic, masked killer. When a disconnected phone on the wall starts to ring, he soon discovers that he can hear the voices of the murderer’s previous victims — and they are dead set on making sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to Finney.

On one hand, this movie would’ve been more enjoyable had it really leaned into the camp factor that is present, but because of the subject matter, an intentional camp approach would have been even more tasteless than this movie already is. What camp would’ve afforded is overcoming plotting problems. After all, we don’t watch campy horror movies for the brilliant plotting. But when you take, what should’ve been camp, and make it something to be taken more thoughtfully or seriously, then it suffers from identity crisis and is relegated to something to perhaps ben seen once, then forgotten shortly thereafter.

Our lead cast struggles to connect with audiences because of how unrelatable they are. Films such as Stand By Me work across ages because of how relatable the boys are. Moreover, the dialogue for the all the characters is lazy and base; nothing about the way these kids speak or act feels even remotely believable. Furthermore, the central conflict of kidnapping goes to incredibly dark, cringeworthy places that are borderline inappropriate for the age group of our lead cast. While the subject matter of the film is for 17+, in my opinion, the characters do not connect with that audience.

The release time of this movie is bothersome as well, because it was Father’s Day on Sunday, yet we have two sinister examples of adult men whom each have respective father issues. Tasteless. In an era in which it is increasingly important to showcase healthy father-child relationships, this film seeks to undermine any efforts to shift the predominant and unhealthy narrative spun over the last couple of decades. There are far more great men and fathers out there than abhorrent ones. Let’s write those stories. For more on the toxic ways of how men are portrayed in TV and film, checkout my article The Man Vanishes.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1