All the Horror: Women in Horror Month 2020

All the Horror Presents Women in Horror Month!

Jump to the article of your choice below.

During the month of February, a group of podcasters and writers, including yours truly, are highlighting many leading women and final girls of horror films! Be sure to follow @AllTheHorror18 on Twitter for the links to all the podcasts and written articles from the participants in this limited time engagement. Each week starting on February 3rd, I will provide you with a character analysis of some of my favorite women in horror, and hopefully some of yours too! For the sake of simplicity, I will add each article to this blog entry. Be sure to visit last year’s Women in Horror article for character analyses of Nancy Thompson, Ellen Ripley, Annie Wilkes, and Clarice Starling. The horror genre, from its inception, has consistently been the most candid, progressive, and powerful of all the genres. Furthermore, it possesses an innate ability to be more truthful than a typical drama because we give it permission to challenge us in intimate ways. While there are many reasons for the timelessness and thought-provoking nature of horror, we are here to specifically focus on the women of horror. You don’t want to miss any of the great content coming your way during the month of February. Enjoy!

Click Below to Jump to the Article of Your Choice:

  1. Elvira (Feb 3rd)
  2. Sidney Prescott (Feb 10th)
  3. Lin Shaye (Feb 17th)
  4. Annie Graham (Feb 24th)

Elvira

In terms of horror movie hosts, there is probably no one more famous than Elvira the Mistress of the Dark (brilliantly played by horror legend Cassandra Peterson). While the character of Elvira only starred in two movies, she left two huge impressions on the horror community of fans. And it’s for her contribution to the community that I want to highlight her in my Women in Horror series. Many, if not most, horror fans love bad horror movies. There is something to be said about a schlocky horror (or science-fiction) movie that unites us in laughter. Perhaps it’s the infectious energy of the room to which we are drawn. These are the kinds of movies that we enjoy because they are usually made by fans of the genre, not unlike ourselves. Part of the experience of these movies is laughing at or along with it because it’s just so over-the-top or highly campy. Elvira knew this, and she found a way to package these movies in such a way that inspired a generation of filmmakers and lovers of the genre. From hosting late-night horror movies to starring in them, she is the perfect way to start out Women in Horror Month 2020.

Before the cult classic Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Elvira began hosting Elvira’s Movie Macabre where she would host B-grade (and even lower) horror and sci-fi movies. This is where she took essentially what Vampira did, and improved upon it, in the opinion of this critic anyway. Vampira certainly has her dedicated fans too. While many in Hollywood and around the world would so quickly dismiss these movies as television or cinema fodder, she breathed new life into them! In a manner of speaking, she is chiefly responsible for teaching us to appreciate these bad movies then and now! Podcasts like School of Schlock specialize in highlighting these terrible movies that we cannot help but love. Aside from her trademark provocative look, Elvira resonated with audiences because she would say the very things that we were already thinking. B-horror movies aren’t ones that you sit silently soaking in–you and your friends form the peanut gallery and lampoon everything from the actors to the script to the costuming, set design, and more! Elvira took what was happening in your living room and movie theatre, and channeled that, put her sultry, satirical valley girl spin on it, and championed it! And of course, she loved her double entendres and jokes about her two biggest assets.

After several years of hosting her TV show, Peterson co-wrote Elvira’s cinematic breakout role as the title character in 1988’s Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. Without getting into the plot specifics, Elvira’s big screen debut was crafted in such a manner that it embodied what we loved about her TV series–her poking fun at bad horror movies–all the while the story is incredibly clever in its subversion of horror conventions and even includes a heartwarming subplot and theme of diversity and acceptance. Elvira is truly the medicine that the uptight, puritanical small town needed in order to grow as a community. Specifically, Elvira is the source of character-driven conflict that upsets the sense of normalcy in the town. As personable as Elvira is with everyone, although she does throw shade when needed, most of the townsfolk refuse to accept her. While town leader Chastity Pariah (yup, that’s her name) calls her “slimy, slithering succubus, a concubine, a streetwalker, a tramp, a slut, a cheap whore” because of her different style of dress and loud personality, the film shows us that it’s the town that has a problem.

True to her character in this movie and her hostess self, she was always so much more than her sultry, overly sexed appearance, she shows audiences that you can be courageous, vulnerable, strong, crafty and still wear low-cut dresses all at the same time. These are the qualities we love about our final girls, and she embodies all of them. Despite the constant barrage of sex and tits jokes, she is a great example of the feminist heroine. Elvira also inspires us to strive for a positive body and self image through how she takes complete pleasure in (1) who she is (2) what she has to offer to the world and (3) the refusal to conform to antiquated societal norms or expectations. Elvira teaches and learns from the community but never loses herself or forgets who she is. After Elvira saves the town, she inherits the money she needs to open her Vegas show! So at the end of the movie, she experiences her dream  and performs in Las Vegas! This highly entertaining moment is a brilliant reminder that success is often only achieved when you believe in yourself, even when nobody else around you does.

Cassandra Peterson’s Elvira also inspired a long-running theme park show at Knott’s Berry Farm as part of its Halloween event Knott’s Scary Farm with her headlining. She is also a fan favorite for her high level of interaction with fans through her former Knott’s show as well as making regular convention rounds. Her trademark big hair, big boobs, cleavage-showing black dress, and high contrast makeup paired with her witty sense of humor and twisted optimism transformed her form one-time obscure horror movie hostess to a global brand! But she is so much more! Her influence reached beyond movies, TV, and theme parks. She became a cultural phenomena and icon in the gay community. And not just for drag queens; although, many drag queens–still to this day– love to impersonate her trademark physique as an homage to her positive impact on their lives. The gay male community (and the same can be said for the queer community at large) is often attracted to characters (or actors) that have to overcome societal prejudices, withstand ridicule, being thought of as less, and encouraged to simply conform for the sake of the larger community of people. Both in her debut movie (less so Haunted Hills) and TV series, she championed the ideas of positive self-worth, expression, inclusivity, acceptance, and sticking by one’s personal convictions. Her shows and movies aren’t about these ideas per se, but the subtext is consistently alive and well.

Before I close out the article, here is what some of Elvira’s fans love and respect about her:

Shawn of the Brunch With the Halliwells and Movie Geek and Proud podcasts states “I grew up watching Elvira’s movie and I have been to her Knott’s show countless times. I love Elvira for being a sexy and sex positive role model who is proud of her body. I love seeing a strong woman who dresses how she wants, and is strong willed and confident.”

Kahlib of the Macabre Media Podcast states, “Always love having diverse voices in the discourse and entertainment. Having a woman in mainstream horror convo breaks away from the male centric perspective.”

And Ph.D. in Criminology candidate Cassandra at the University of South Florida states, “to be perfectly honest, I’ve never seen her TV show or movies, BUT as a member of this society, I even know that Elvira has transcended past the niche market to which she technically belongs. Yes, she is campy, but she is highly respected for her being a touchstone of pop culture. She may not the traditional symbol of sexy; but her punk rock, gothic, busty self exudes confidence that we can all appreciate.”

As you can see, Elvira is loved by her fans for not only how much fun she showed we can have with “bad” horror and sci-fi movies, but she was and is an icon of positive body image and confidence. Furthermore, she paved the way for the subculture of horror fans to let their freak flag fly, so to speak, in mainstream culture. One could say that she is the intersection of mainstream pop and geek subculture. Because Elvira loves her fans, you can often find her at Comic and Horror Conventions such as Spooky Empire, at which I had the privilege of being a guest panelist last year. For the longest time, Elvira never revealed to fans what HER favorite horror/sci-fi movie of all time was, and in a 2016 interview with People Magazine she revealed that her favorite horror movie is the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, a movie that I saw for the first time over Christmas break with my family. Can’t say that it is a favorite of mine, but I can see why she is proud of it! Elvira used B and even C horror and sci-fi movies to inspire us to be proud of our guilty pleasure movies and the uniqueness that makes us who we are.

Sidney Prescott

Ghostface “Do you like scary movies?”

Sidney “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.”

That opening question and brilliant rebuttal is synonymous with Wes Craven’s masterpiece Scream. It also sets the groundwork for the meta horror movie that we are about to watch in that it is fully aware of the traditional rules of the horror game. Not only was Scream a pivotal horror film that redefined the versatility of the genre, but Sidney stepped into the shoes of all the legendary final girls before her, and took the role in a new direction that cemented her in with the likes of Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, and others. Unlike other Craven final girls, she stands as the only one to survive a Wes Craven franchise. Yes, Nancy is brought back in New Nightmare but she is killed off in Dream Warriors. While the final girl conventions had been well-defined up to this point, Wes Craven used the character of Sidney as a conduit for the audience since the rules of slasher horror were all too cliche at this stage in the evolution of the American horror film.

Much like with past final girls, Sidney is resilient, resourceful, sensible, and has an uncanny survivor’s reflex that is so incredibly well developed that she can simultaneously manage life’s complications and death with demonstrable hyper-focus. Furthermore, Neve Campbell’s Sidney was a powerful character for women because she demonstrated strength amidst adversity and responsibility when faced with difficult decisions. However, Sidney is not always the “good girl.” One of the longtime tropes of a final girl is one whom is chaste, but Sidney has had sex with her boyfriend prior to her mother’s brutal murder; however, she chooses when and only when she is good and ready, and when she isn’t dealing with the demons of her past or the serial killer of the present. Much like in the vein of Nancy Thompson, Sidney’s ability to outwit and survive Ghostface is based upon her cunning, not how “good” she is. She is ready and willing it fight for her life, and will stop at nothing until she rescues herself. 

We witness the emotional turmoil inside Sidney early on in the first Scream film when she decks Gale Weathers for asking her about the testimony that ostensibly put a man in prison for Sidney’s mother’s murder. When Ghostface threatens to take control of Sidney’s life, she responds by taking command of the stalking—to become the stalker instead of the one whom is stalked. Throughout the movie, we observe how Sidney displays strength of agency in her relationships with her boyfriend, friends, family, and others in Woodsboro. Although she turned down Billy when he wanted to have sex, early in the film, she finally determines that he has earned that privilege, and questions her decision not. This isn’t her first time with Billy, but the first time since her mother’s murder. Sidney isn’t the typical good girl or a superhero-like character in that she has complex emotions, many flaws, makes mistakes, and doesn’t always instantly know the best course of action to take. Even when she is at a loss of what to do, and feel overwhelmed, she never allows herself to become a victim of circumstance. Further evidence of her strength is shows by Sidney’s ability to laugh in the face of danger and love in the face of heartbreak and death. All of her qualities point to the desire to survive.

Prior to Scream, slashers rarely targeted a single victim. For example, Laurie Strode happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in Halloween, the same can be said for Alice in Friday the 13th. Less so with Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street where Freddy eventually targets Nancy because she discovers his vulnerability. Even different from how Nancy was eventually targeted, Sidney was the sole focus of Ghostface from the very beginning. This target on Sidney means that killing her is the singular focus of Ghostface; and like Sidney’s internal need to survive, Ghostface will stop at nothing until Sidney is dead. But because Ghostface (Billy and Stu) has a flare for the theatrical, he torments, manipulates, and singles her out until Sidney finally fights back in that climactic third act where she turns the tables on Ghostface by using his own tools and knowledge against him. From using his own voice modulator on strategically creepy phone calls to using his own costume to frighten him, Sidney makes intentional decisions that greatly effect the balance of power. While Ghostface holds significant power in the beginning, Sidney erodes that power and takes it for herself.  She proves that she has an even greater understanding of horror movies than Ghostface himself, or perhaps the versatility of the rules. Eventually audiences witness Last House on the Left levels of revenge. Interesting because Last House on the Left is Wes Craven’s breakout writing-directing project and redefined the genre with its sexploitation revenge plot.

More so than any other Wes Craven (or horror movie in general) final girl, Sidney feels. She feels deeply. As mentioned earlier, even before the movie begins, she is dealing with the loss of her mother and the effects it has had on her other relationships, including her boyfriend Billy. From the moment we meet her to the last moment on screen, she is going though her own personal hell. Pressures are mounting all around her, but she never caves under them. Even when her friends and classmates are getting killed by a deranged masked killer, she rises to the occasion to face off with Ghostface. And not because she is endowed with superhuman strength, agility, resilience, or other uncanny ability, quite simply she knows that she has no other choice but to fight. Without seeing the film, if someone was to read my description of her actions, one may be inclined into believing that she is so strong and courageous that she is unrelatable or unbelievable. Not true. Upon watching the iconic film (or its sequels, of which Scre4m is the best IMO), it becomes clear just how believable and relatable she is. Never once does any of her actions come across as easy or convenient. Sidney earns every moment of survival through smart work and determination.

While a lot of the attention paid to Sidney involves her relationship and confrontation with Ghostface, she is the conduit through which we explore the power dynamic in romantic relationships as well. And the fact that her boyfriend is also her tormenter, offers bountiful material to explore. In many ways, the relationship between Billy/Sidney and Ghostface/Sidney parallels one another. Ghostface wants to penetrate Sidney with his knife, but she refuses to give up on resisting; likewise, Billy desires to penetrate Sidney with his own weapon but she withholds until she has worked through her personal demons. Billy attempts to make Sidney feel guilty for not engaging in her “girlfriendly” duties, as a misogynist such as Billy would put it; likewise, Ghostface tries his best to make Sidney feel guilty for the death of her mother. These parallels are why Sidney defeating Billy/Ghostface is so important and meaningful. Not only does she kill the demons that are presently haunting her, this defeat also allows Sidney to finally close the book on the demons of her past trauma.

I asked #FilmTwitter what it thinks of Sidney, and here are some of the responses I got!

Ian states, “Sidney Prescott is the final girl who breaks the rules and gets away with it. She’s tough, vulnerable, and will take things into her own hands. A great entry into the canon.”

The Boy, Booze, and Blood podcast states a rather contrarian opinion, but I appreciate it nevertheless, “I can’t stand Sidney in the first two movies…she’s so pompous…like, she’s too good for this to be happening to her. I love when she overhears the cheerleader in the bathroom that knocks her off her [high] horse…I’m team Gale all the way.”

Lydia states, “I think she was the 90s attempt at a Jamie Leigh Curtis type heroine. Tough, no nonsense, with the character development to show the impact the events have on her life and mental health. Much like you see with Laurie Strode.”

Charles shares these thoughts, “I thought it was very telling that Sidney wasn’t the most popular girl. She road the bus home, seemed very studious…but a very beautiful young lady obviously loyal but her spirit wounded. Maybe she actually KNEW about her mother’s affairs…that’s why she didn’t wanna have sex with anyone, not Billy, no one. Her convictions, smarts, and strength carried her through the murders.”

I love the variety of opinions on Sidney! One thing’s for certain, she will never be killed off in a Scream movie because Wes Craven stated explicitly in his will that no more Scream movies were to be made after 4 (however, MTV got around that with the TV series). Even though there was the short-lived TV series, the character of Sidney cannot be included and killed off. She will live eternally! Perhaps she isn’t among the most talked about final girls, but she definitely left an indelible mark upon the slasher genre.

Lin Shaye

Do you love Lin Shaye? If not, I urge you to reevaluate your priorities because she is incredible! There’s no arguing that Lin Shaye isn’t the matriarch of horror–our Horror Queen! From A Nightmare on Elm Street to 2001 Maniacs to Insidious to Room for Rent and even the remake of The Grudge. she has been delighting audiences with her memorable characters and creepy performances that keep us wanting more. Differing from a scream queen, a horror queen is a female actor whom has played numerous prominent, scene-stealing roles in horror, whether or not she is a “final girl”! Very early in her acting career, she began with A Nightmare on Elm Street as Nancy’s teacher–I mean, come on–it doesn’t get any more iconic than that! Not only did Shaye appear in one of the greatest horror movies of all time, but Freddy Krueger quite literally runs through her veins because she is the sister of New Line Cinema founder Robert “Bob” Shaye who took a chance on a Wes Craven screenplay, and literally made history! Lin was supportive of her brother back then, and continues to honor his legacy of horror in her own outstanding career that has spanned four decades. Her career is also a testament to all those who think they are too old to begin something. She didn’t begin acting until she was in her 30s, and the best years of her career didn’t truly happen for another 30 years. Sure she was working regularly, even appeared in films such as There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, but she wouldn’t become the household name she is today until Insidious. Although she has appeared in films outside of horror, most of her performances have been in horror and horror-adjacent pictures. And she wasn’t just in them; every scene she is in, she instantly takes command of the screen and your attention. She has a way of instantly drawing you into her characters through her unapologetic authenticity and genuine emotion.

Placing horror queen Lin Shaye in a movie is essentially a guaranteed box office success for audiences and investors. In a manner of speaking, what we are dealing with here is a legitimate movie star. Truth be told, 21st-century cinema does not see movie stars in the same way that the early and mid 20th century did. In early days of cinema, films were built on the back of the studio system stars. It was a Betty Hutton film, a Humphrey Bogart movie, a William Holden picture, a Bette Davis film, etc. I’d argue that Tom Cruise is the closest to a contemporary era movie star in the traditional sense that we have. But by extension, you can apply the same attributes to Lin Shaye by the cache that she brings to her films–she IS the box office draw for the films in which she is featured. Her name alone, attached to a horror movie, is enough to excite audiences and drive ticket sales. She is so much fun to watch in all of her horror movies. She is often portrayed as a kind-hearted grandma-type, but beneath that facade is often a sadistic executioner, wicked witch, or tortured soul. Tho, sometimes she is the hero as well, as we have seen in the Insidious movies. Perhaps she isn’t the lead in most of the movies that she is in (Room for Rent being an exception), but she steals the screen every moment she gets. No matter what kind of role she plays, she consistently looks as if she is having the time of her life playing all her serious and ridiculous characters.

Like Robert Englund, Lin Shaye’s characters have always been quirky (There’s Something about Mary), delightfully odd (Insidious), and even sinister (The Grudge), or a combination of all the above, which is the case with her character in 2001 Maniacs. She also kicks other franchise installments up a notch with movies such as Ouija: Origin of Evil and The Grudge. If nothing else, what we can learn from her legacy is how much fun she is having! Whether it is a schlocky horror flick or the next contender for an award, she gives her characters 100%. Never phoning in a performance. Go big or go home. And it doesn’t look like she has plans on taking it easy anytime soon, Lin Shaye laughs as she remarks, “now that I’m 146 years old, I’m in demand. I love the fact that in a way, I’m defying people’s expectations. It’s great to be my age. I love that I’m 76 years old and I’m proud of it, but that isn’t my focus” (The Hollywood Reporter). She isn’t solely focussed on defying expectations, she isn’t fixated on being a leading lady, she doesn’t get caught up in her celebrity or making appearances on TV to stay in the eye of the public, she is focused on supporting horror and having the time of her life while doing it. She truly cares about her audience and fans more than simply working for a paycheck or earning credits.

If you remove/replace Lin Shaye in the Insidious series, for example, the movies would likely not play out nearly half as well as they presently do. Lin and her characters are such a staple in the horror genre; she has regularly breathed life into numerous B-movies and indie films from campy to downright nightmare-inducing. You have to look no further than Critters, Dead End, or Midnight Man to witness her powerful screen presence. While she has appeared in far more B-movies and indie films than commercial blockbusters, it is clear that the producers of the Insidious movies recognized her pull with audiences because in each and every movie after the first, her character of Elise continues to rise in prominence. That really says something, ya know? It says something about her fanbase–it’s very much youthful! The target audiences for many horror movies is, I’d say 20 and 30-somethings. Of course, horror transcends the generations to continue to be a crowd favorite period. But the bulk of her fanbase isn’t our parents or grandparents, it’s us (speaking as a 30-something)! Perhaps that’s because of when she began to regularly pop up in commercial and indie films. Shaye attributes some of her success to her very youthful fanbase. She often remarks she is deeply touched that so many young people love to watch her films. How can we not?!? She continues to penetrate our emotions and thoughts with every character, with every film, with every horror convention.

Not only is Shaye a prolific actor, but she is not satisfied in abiding by all the rules that came before her. She seeks to redefine what it means to be a “scream queen.” Prior to David Gordon Greene’s Halloween and Blumhouse’s Insidious, the term scream queen was largely used to describe a teenage or young adult female actor who was most often the “good girl” or final girl in a horror movie. While the term has some under increased scrutiny because some see it as something that a young female actor shouldn’t want to aspire to, I argue that it is an honor to be considered a scream queen! These are the characters that we love to remember and talk about. For the longest time, it did not seem that an older female actor could become a queen later in life, as there weren’t many movies or significant roles for older female actors. As progressive as the horror genre has always been–and yes, that means more progressive than straight dramas–there was an absence of defining roles for older female actors. Even older men had prominent roles in the genre. Think Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger–and you know what, that’s great! But, where were the roles for older women?

Enter 2010’s Insidious and 2018’s Halloween. In addition to being crowd favorites, and not just great horror films, but great films period, both of these films intentionally made the lead/chief supporting characters older women. And with that, Lin Shaye and Jamie Lee Curtis redefined what it meant to be a queen in the horror genre! I would be remiss to not mention Toni Collette’s Annie Graham in Hereditary and her Sarah Engel in Krampus and Vera Fermiga’s Lorraine Warren in the Conjuring or Norma Bates in Bates Motel as being more evidence that older women can capture our imaginations and give us nightmares! I love how the horror genre, more than any other, is giving these women a platform to exhibit such outstanding talent! Whether they are screaming or making us scream, all of these outstanding actors are pushing the boundaries, and redefining what being a scream queen (or horror queen) is all about. And these women are not playing some different iteration of the same character, each of these characters is unique! What they share in common is a fierce independent spirit and a strong refusal to become a victim.

I asked #FilmTwitter what it thought of Lin Shaye, and here are some of the comments!

Andrew from FriGay the 13th podcast states, “We [Andrew and Matty] met Lin Shaye at HorrorHound and she was the nicest, kindest, funniest person…her lineup of films throughout her career is unimaginable! A class act! And even in bad films, she is the standout.”

Take Too podcast exclaims, “a true horror movie icon!”

Drinking and Screaming podcast states, “Lin Shaye is a delight to watch on screen. Her career spans over [four] decades, making multiple iconic horror films along the way, making her a true Scream Queen. The Insidious series would NOT be the successful saga that it is without her.

And the Final Boys said, “Ohhhhh boyyyy 🙂 Lin Shaye is a legend! She truly embraces and embodies the horror genre.”

Lin comments on the secret to her success, “I love finding my character, no matter what. I never really made a distinction between bit player and a big role. I’ve always just been obsessed with storytelling and feeling like I had an ability and talent to step into other people’s lives and live as that character. And that for me, that was always the fun. I become that other person and Lin sort of disappears in the background” (LA Times). Shaye is an incredibly talented character actor! Her level of talent, entertainment, and thrill is consistent. You are never disappointed by any of her performances. No matter how big or small the role, Shaye takes the fantastic and mediocre horror films to new levels to transform them into cinematic experiences that are incredibly enjoyable.

Annie Graham

“I am your mother!”

And the Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role…ironically did not include the BEST performance of 2018, Toni Collette’s Annie Graham in Hereditary. And not just best performance in a horror film, but best performance period. The Academy mostly, but also the big award shows in general, continue to ignore horror genre when it comes to nominating motion pictures. While I could write an entire article on the greatness and relevance of the American horror film (as that is my area of expertise), I want to focus on the character of Annie Graham (and Collette’s performance) specifically. Her performance and character was a watershed moment, of sorts, for the American horror film. It had been quite a while since horror delivered such a complex character brought to life in a command performance. Not that this was the first outstanding lead performance in a horror film, but it was the first in a long time. The character of Annie is a true-to-life relatable character because she is going through grief, not unlike the grief that we experience when we lose a loved one. Because this is a film, it was necessary for Ari Aster to externalize all of her emotions. Motion pictures are a visually driven story medium after all.

Collette’s captivating, terrifying performance as Annie Graham is one that certainly screamed Oscar contender. We are hard-pressed to find and encounter another more compelling and gritty performance.  Annie is both a tortured daughter and reluctant mother, and provides us with so much material to analyze. Whether talking horror or other genres, the role of Annie Graham will go down in the record books as one of the most gut-wrenching characters of contemporary cinema. Collette’s performance is spellbinding as you get forcibly sucked into this twisted world of a family-heirloom evil. From the crazy outbursts to the intense brooding, lingering moments, Annie is our conduit for facing greatest fears of the far-reaching effects of loss in this unapologetic exploration of how hard it can be to cope with major losses while managing a marriage and motherhood. Being a mother is tough, sometimes on the best of days; and when great loss and a disconnect to that which was familiar happens, it tests the mind and heart’s ability to cope.

We cannot truly discuss the complexities of Annie without addressing that which isn’t even explicitly shown on screen. In order to fully understand Annie, we must first take time to acknowledge the context clues that point to the trauma of her past, a trauma that already existed even before the loss of her mother and daughter within a short time of one another. Part of Annie is stuck in this tortured past that is hinted at through the miniaturized, dollhouse-like pieces of art she crafts with meticulous precision. This is Annie’s method for coping with the ghosts of her past. We do not know precisely what happened to Annie as a girl, but she most likely grew up under the watchful eye of an overbearing, controlling mother. Only this depiction is one that she can control. But when events happen that are out of Annie’s control, she loses that sense of control and all hell breaks loose. We can relate to her on this level because we also go a little mad–“we all go a little mad sometimes”–when we cannot control the conflicts, struggles, and obstacles around us. I doubt many, if any of us, could keep composed when losing our mother and a child (or sibling) at nearly the same time. Annie is real, gritty, and transparent. While she may be collapsing under pressure, she refuses to give in to ending her own life, which she expresses a desire to do after she discovers the headless body of her daughter in her car.

Loss, guilt, isolation, and grief are three of life’s experiences that we can all connect on because we all encounter them on out own journeys. And when we are suddenly hit with one (or more) of them, we grasp at straws trying to figure out how to cope. It’s a disruption in the patterns and rhythms by which we live our lives. What I love about the character of Annie is her determination to (1) deal with the trauma of her past (2) navigate the ocean of emotions associated with the two losses suffered and (3) maintain her marriage and motherhood of her son. She is unrelenting in her refusal to become a victim. This struggle to not fully give into the uncontrollable anger is not without its consequences or outbursts of a loss of momentary control. She is human. And she wanders the murky, windy path of grief, looking for answers to why. Of course, it’s this quest for answers that leads her down a dark road that Annie cannot possibly control. We cannot control how we manage grief, we have to allow the coping to take a natural course. Just like Annie, we too look for ways of overcoming the psychological and emotional pressures that come part and parcel with the effects of the loss of a loved one.

Even when Annie tries to get her family to believe that she is a medium and can contact the dead, they either do not believe or choose not to believe. There are plenty of times in the movie that Annie simply wants someone to listen to her, hence why she makes the connection with Joan. When you listen to someone (not just passively hear them), but actively listen, you form a connection. It’s a means it heal the broken connections caused by loss and grief. And that is tangible evidence that Annie is searching for. Visible connections to begin to re-establish her life and role as a mother. Like Annie, we too desire to form meaningful connections. Without human connection, we can so easily lost our way or retreat into isolation. Annie’s fights these feelings of being isolated by her family, but she has an incredibly difficult time. We can relate with her struggle, as we too have experienced similar feelings. Annie is truly us in so many ways, and that is the power of the character. Genuine pain and anguish is depicted in the film and Annie responds to it in ways not unlike our own.

Perhaps the character of Annie will not be as memorable as other leading ladies of horror, but the performance by Toni Collette will certainly be talked about for a long time. Annie teaches us that navigating the complicated paths of loss, grief, guilt, and isolation can be difficult and take an immense toll on the human mind and body. I appreciate how she externalizes so much of what goes on inside the human mind.

Ryan teaches 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! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

 

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Ryan’s Top 10 Horror Films of 2019

From blockbuster sequels to art house cinema, 2019 has been a solid year for horror. Seems every month in 2019 had a horror (or horror-adjacent) movie or two hitting cinemas. For purposes of this list, I am not considering any direct-to-streaming movies (e.g. Velvet Buzzsaw). Furthermore, I am not considering any high drama that many (not including myself) consider horror (such as The Lighthouse or Parasite). I’ve done my best to curate a well-vetted list of new releases for purposes of ranking them based upon a comprehensive approach including factors such as entertainment value, technical achievement, originality, atmosphere, and provocativeness. Here we go!

10. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: Everyone loves a good ghost story, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has several ones that remind me of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? on steroids! This is a surpassingly frightening horror movie! It takes the very practice of passing along scary stories generation to generation, and explores the far reaching effects that the power of story has in a manner that it as insightful as it is visually terrifying. Directed by Andre Ovredal with a superlative screenwriting and story team including Guillermo del Toro, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark relies upon a more classical approach to a horror movie by building upon old fashioned ghost stories. You know, the kind that you sit around the camp fire or on the floor of your childhood sleepover and tell one another. These are stories that have been shared and passed down so prolifically that they feel alive.

9. Child’s Play: “Hi, I’m Chucky, wanna play?” It’s a fun horror movie, flaws and all. Let’s address the white elephant in the room. This is not as good as the original; however, instead of primarily focussing on what did not do right, I’d like to highlight what it did well. At the end of the day, this is a highly entertaining horror movie that brings Chucky’s origin into the 21st Century. Unlike the trajectory of the Child’s Play franchise after the original sequel that embraced the camp effect, 2019’s Child’s Play attempts to go full-on horror. Unfortunately, it should have gone the camp route, because I feel that would have been received more favorably. There are moments that you question whether or not they are supposed to be funny. And it’s that ambiguity that leaves us uncomfortably in the middle during many moments in the movie.

8. Us: The followup to the horror masterpiece Get Out ultimately falls short of the bar set by its predecessor. But don’t worry, there is still plenty to like in Us. Whereas Get Out was a horror film built upon compelling, thoughtful social-commentary on the uncredited, forced appropriation of one ethnic group by another, Us plays as a straight forward horror film, complete with all the thrills for which you hope to experience. There is certainly an attempt by Peele to comment on class, MAGA, and other important social topics, but the film tries to do too much, and winds up not accomplishing what it so desperately wants to do. Keep your eyes peeled for details, because you are going to need them in order to best appreciate the ending.

7. IT Chapter II: The larger, less terrifying chapter. Return to Derry, Maine with the Losers Club as they once again face the nightmarish clown Pennywise. With expectations set incredibly high from the critical and box office success of the first chapter, chapter 2 had some major clown shoes to fill. And was it successful? That is mostly up to the individual audience members; however, from a critical perspective, the second chapter falls short of the first one in both character and plot. While there are some scary moments (mostly driven by jump-scares) and some good character-driven moments, as a whole, the movie feels bloated for time, poorly paced, unintentionally campy, and not nearly as creepy as the first one. I appreciated the original for expertly crafting the atmosphere of dread and delivering terrifyingly creepy moments not primarily reliant upon jump-scares; but this second chapter seems to fall victim to sequelitis and revert to using jump-scares more than the art of crafting suspense with the camera.

6. Room for Rent: Lin Shaye would kill to find a decent man. Directed by Stuart Flack and written by Tommy Stovall, Room for Rent takes you on a journey into the twisted mind of a grieving widow and her delusional methods to cope with her loneliness. From the moment that Joyce Smith (Shaye) appears on screen, it is clear that Shaye is completely immersed in the character, much as we have come to expect from her more than 90 feature length films (many of which are horror).A tremendous amount of depth exists in this story if you look beyond the surface. Unlike many slasher or psychotic killer movies, in which the plot or characters are not realistic, the entire plot is stepped in realism and Joyce is a believable central character. Moreover, the tenants and neighbor are also believable. Perhaps what makes this movie frightening is the notion that this could very well happen. It will at least make you think twice before renting a room from an elderly woman off Craigslist or AirBnB.

5. Pet Sematary: “Sometimes dead is better.” Unless you’re back from the dead with a vengeance! Brace yourself for the spine-chilling, immensely terrifying 2019 adaptation of the best-selling novel Pet Sematary by the legendary Stephen King. Whereas many remakes/reboots of earlier horror films often suffer, this one emerges from the soured soil as a force to be reckoned with. Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer deliver a heartpounding rollercoaster of a nightmarish experience as Pet Sematary opens everywhere this weekend. Instead of a direct from page to screen adaptation, much like the fantastic 1989 original version (and yes, it still holds up), this version takes some creative liberties; however, the soul of the novel and even the 1989 version is clearly there. This creative latitude enabled the film to deliver new, surprising scares that are sure to frighten you. If you haven’t seen the extended trailers–DON’T–cannot say that enough. It’s best to go into this film with only the name and the initial teaser trailer in your mind.

4. Crawl: So much fun! Crawl is that horror movie that comes out of nowhere to wow audiences! It’s so simple, yet incredibly clever, exciting, and rewatchable. When it seems that old-school creature-features are a thing of the past, Crawl emerges from the murky depths to prove that we love to see man-eating monster-like creatures on the big screen. This movie know that it is B-class, and totally rocks it! It delivers precisely what we want out of this sub-genre of horror in a brilliantly unapologetic fashion that is destined it make this a future classic. It possesses a delicate balance of seriousness and camp that is seldom struck–a great example of lightning in a bottle. Not since Lake Placid have I enjoyed a creature feature this much.

3. Midsommar: Ars gratia artis. The latin inscription around MGM’s Leo the Lion is the best way I can describe Ari Aster’s Midsommar. For fellow cinephiles, this is the type of film that reminds us of the power of the moving image and the art of visual design. Film is a visually driven medium, and Midsommar exhibits that in spades. Although it was predicted to be then confirmed by the director to be a companion piece to Hereditary there is little similarity except for one important point: the theme of grief. Furthermore, Midsommar also comments on relationship revenge and drug culture. I’ve heard this film described as one long acid trip by folks on Film Twitter, and that is not entirely inaccurate. From edibles to cocktails, many of the scenes are viewed through the lens of a drug-induced reality that creates a fever-dream-like state of being. Trippy, is putting this cinematic experience lightly. And it is that. A cinematic experience unlike any other that I have ever witnessed. Whereas, in my opinion, this film’s greatest flaw is the lack of a compelling plot–and that’s a big deal, no mistaking it–the film excels at typifying film as art.

2. Ready or Not: Outstanding! Ready or Not is a brilliant horror comedy from start to finish. Fantastic screenplay, cast, direction, effects, everything works flawlessly. Probably the most fun movie of the summer. It’s a no holds barred dark comedy full of entertaining, campy dialogue and gruesome kills. Not since the cult classic Clue, has there been such an excellent horror comedy heavily influenced by the concept of a game. Samara Weaving slays audiences as the wedding dress wearing Grace as she transforms into this movie’s answer to Kill Bill. Although most of the other characters are relatively flat, you forgive them because of the endless jokes about the insanely rich and the non-stop bloody comedy. Does the film have shortcomings? Sure does–the cinematography and lighting, for examples; however, this movie is so incredibly charismatic and it’s hilarious enough to more than makeup for the technical faults in this movie. When I state “everything works flawlessly,” I suppose it’s a bit hyperbole because it’s not a perfect film, but it knows its strengths, and those strengths support everything else to deliver a movie that will keep you highly entertained for the entire run time that is non-stop antics and action.

Honorable mentions before my pick for the No.1 horror film of 2019:

And the No. 1 of 2019 is… Doctor Sleep: A brilliantly unsettling and crisp horror film! Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is both an adaptation of the Stephen King novel, by the same name, and a direct sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. This highly anticipated film had the unusual task to fit the Kubrick film and King’s novel The Shining, since it is well known that King was not happy with the Kubrick adaptation. Although many unplanned sequels to iconic classics are challenged to justify their own existence, and often fail to live up to the magic of the original, Flanagan defies the fate that so often befalls sequels and delivers a compelling film worthy to be connected to Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece. There is something irresistible about returning to the infamous Overlook Hotel, and this film knows that you are mostly in the auditorium because of anticipating the trade mark carpet, Navajo-deco interior design, and bloody elevators, and holds that ace up its sleeve until the third act. Whereas the storytelling could have taken the easy way out, knowing that you would blindly accept virtually everything as long as you get to check back into The Overlook, it still offers a compelling, challenging narrative that brilliantly sets up the showdown at the most infamous hotel in all literature. Combining the best of the King novel with the haunting imagery and ominous atmosphere of Kubrick’s masterpiece, this film surpasses the expectations and apprehensions most of us had when we knew the legacy shoes this sequel had to fill.

Be sure to checkout my Top 10 Films of 2019 List as well!

Ryan teaches 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! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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All the Horror 2019 Movie Challenge

It’s that time of year again! Time for the 31 horror movie challenge! During the month of October, I am planning to watch, and I challenge you to watch, 31 horror movies. Each day, I will add a movie with a brief (and yes, I know I am not known for being brief) analysis. Instead of a separate blog entry for each of the 31 movies, I am going to add to this entry, then post what I watched/reviewed on Twitter (RLTerry1). So, if you’re not following me on Twitter, now would be a great time! Remember to use the hashtag #AllTheHorror  #31HorrorMoviesChallenge or #31HorrorFilms31Days when you post about your horror movies this month! Also be sure to follow AllTheHorror on Twitter!

Last year, I began with Nosferatu and followed the history of horror movies up through Scream; this year, I am picking up where I left off to continue my exploration of the history of the American horror film. You can find my ATH2018 article here that covers horror from its earliest days up through the mid 90s. This article will pick up in 1997 and go from there!

Movie 1 (10/01)

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). It’s been more than 20 years since I Know What You Did Last Summer convinced us to pay attention to the roadway at night or else risk the wrath of a meathook handed slasher, and this is consistently one of those 90s horror movies that is either loved or despised. Won’t find much middle ground here. Personally, this ranks highly for me when talking 90s horror. While this movie has not seen the legacy and timeless influence that Scream has, there is still a lot to like if you are a slasher fan or simply enjoy the excellent chemistry in our lead ensemble cast. For instance, we would not have Scary Movie if it wasn’t for I Know and Scream, we may not have the Hash Slinging Slasher from Spongebob Square Pants. Believe it or not, there is a hidden strength in the story that rarely gets talked about. It’s a great psycho-social commentary on perception as reality and the cognitive elopement of a young adult. Moreover, I Know’s real genius is in how it confronts each of the lead cast with questions that all of us ask ourselves, such as simply knowing who we can trust, fight or flight, and varying degree of self-centeredness. It functions very well as a study of every individual teen’s mental state. Just like the characters in the movie, we (the audience) are wondering exactly who can be trusted. Sure, if you think too much about the plot, it falls apart, but isn’t that the case with many slashers? Everything from the twists and turns, to the suspense, to the red herrings, a murderer screaming “you’ve got no place to hide,” not to mention the classic horror score, deliver a movie that is fun to watch, highly entertaining, and even rewatchable.

Movie 2 (10/02)

H20Halloween H20 (1998). Up until last year’s H40, the often maligned H20 was actually my favorite sequel in the Halloween series. Twenty years later, Laurie Strode (once again played by Jamie Lee Curtis) and her son (played Josh Hartnett) have moved clear across the country to southern California to be the head mistress of an exclusive boarding school where Michael finds her on–you guessed it–Halloween. Only Michael isn’t the only boogeyman haunting Laurie, she has turned to heavy drinking to cope with the trauma; this dependency on alcohol has become another monster in her life. Much like IKWYDLS borrowed from Scream, it is clear that the writers of H20 also reworked the Halloween movie for the Scream generation. If for no other reason, you watch this movie for Curtis’ performance as Laurie (a role she wouldn’t reprise again until H40). She gives it all she’s got! One of the things that I think this movie got right was how vulnerable, how human Laurie was. Often times, a legacy final girl might seem like she’s quasi superhuman, but not this one. She makes many mistakes and continues to allow fear and anxiety to all but consume her every moment. Horror movies are not always scary movies. Some horror movies are just fun, and this is a great example! Taking the kills to the next level, H20 had some of the most intense kills in the franchise up to that point. Many of which exceed the violence of the previous ones. When the opening scene has a kid (Joseph Gordon Levitt) with a hockey skate blade lodged in his head, you know that the bar has been set high! Here’s an item you may not have noticed in your past watches, but Curtis’ mom, the original scream queen, Janet Leigh appears with her daughter as the school secretary. Leigh is famous for being Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Yup, she’s the one in the famous shower scene. And get this, she also drives a similar (if not the same) car as she did in Psycho. Two legendary scream queens together on the screen, mother and daughter!

Movie 3 (10/03)

The Haunting (1999). With the critical success of Netflix’ The Haunting of Hill House last year, I thought that it would be fun to rewatch the movie that is also a remake of a 1963 horror film by the same name. With three iterations, you will certainly find the one you like most. Odds are, it’s not going to be this one, but to be fair, it’s not as bad as its reputations seems to be. Interestingly, the review from Roger Ebert praised this film on the basis of its locations, art direction, production design, and sound design, but it did not land as well with horror fans and general audiences. To be fair, the first half of the film is quite good! It’s atmospheric, tense, creepy, and haunting. Where the film loses the ability to keep you engaged is in the second half. Fortunately, all the elements that Ebert praised do hold the film together–albeit barely–when the screenwriter seems to have fallen asleep at the keyboard. Momentum should increase as we reach the showdown, but thanks to clunky dialogue and a lack of writing leanly, the pacing remains stagnant until the anti-climactic climax. What I appreciate about the first half of the film is the intriguing mystery about the history of Hill House and the Crane “family.” Had the film continued to build upon the successful suspense coupled with the puzzle solving and thought-provoking imagery and ideas, then it may have been stronger in the second half. With a powerhouse cast, excellent location, and big budget, there was such a potential to truly produce an old-school ghost story, but that would have required a writer whom cares from beginning to end.

Movie 4 (10/04)

The Faculty (1998). So this one is a little out of order because for some reason I thought it came out in 1999 or 2000, but Hartnett had a busy year of horror since this shares the same release year as Halloween H20The Faculty is an often forgotten gem in 90s/2000s horror discussions. One of my favorite components of the experience of watching this movie is just how much fun it is! Is it Sci-Fi? Is it horror? Perhaps it’s a hot mess of both, but this mashup of the two genres makes for an entertaining time with a great cast that has the perfect blend of chemistry. I love the original interpretation of this combination of Invasion of the Body SnatchersThe Thing, and even The Breakfast Club. Each of the aforementioned are tentpole films in their respective genre, but The Faculty weaves them together in an out-of-this-world entertaining horror movie. In addition to the A-list names amongst the students, it’s really the actors portraying the teachers that steel the show. And amongst those teachers is a name of horror royalty Piper Laurie! If you do not know, Piper Laurie played the role of Carrie’s mother in Brian de Palma’s Carrie.There are many moments in the film that have an almost self-referential quality to them. For instance, the lead cast seems to be familiar with the rules of horror movies and even play up the satirical side pretty well. There is an endearing quirky quality to this film as well, what with freeze framing and commentary on the characters and all. Again, this gets back to the reason to watch this movie: the fun factor. Since there isn’t much of a compelling story here and the ending is a little clunky, it’s important that a movie like this hooks you quickly and never lets you go for the duration of the run time. So, don’t worry about pacing, this film never lags.

Movie 5 (10/06)

Final Destination (2000). With volunteering at the iHorror Film Festival on Saturday, I had to watch movie 5 last night. So I will have to double up tonight haha. The movie I’ve selected for my fifth horror movie in my 31 day challenge is Final Destination. It quite the surprise for me, I had the pleasure of meeting screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick at the film festival on Saturday and got to talk to him a little about the movie! I am pleased to report that he is a very nice man whom is generous with his time. I appreciate him taking time out to speak with me at the festival. Some of you may know this, but I certainly didn’t, the screenplay for the movie was originally an episode for the X-Files! However, when feature potential was seen in it, it was then turned into the screenplay that would eventually become the quintessential early late 90s/early 2000s movie that would spawn many sequels and (the second one) forever cause us to avoid following logging trucks on the roadways. The original Final Destination took horror in a new direction that has often been copied and parodied but never successfully replicated with the same quality as the original and first sequel (which Reddick wrote the story for, but not the screenplay). This “dead teenager movie” is smart, witty, darkly funny, and sharp. Unlike many horror movies of this era, the dialogue is clever and never feels forced or gimmicky. Truth is, this is a character-driven horror movie that is punctuated with visceral horror, but the gore never takes center stage. The story is about the relationships, reactions, and patterns between all the characters. I also love how very much live a living Rube Goldberg machine this movie feels. The story is paced quite well, and includes dark comedy without ever venturing into parody or satire territory. The whole idea of “you can’t cheat death” has forever changed horror.

Movie 6 (10/07)

The Sixth Sense (1999). “I see dead people.” How many of us do not know that immortal line and the movie from which it came! It’s the movie that cemented M. Night Shyamalan as a powerhouse director (nevermind that many of his films have not lived up to the precedent set by The Sixth Sense). Believe it or not, this modern icon of the horror genre turns 20 this year. Not only did it serve as the breakout film for Shyamalan, but it was a smash hit at the box office. Much like the big reveal in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the shockingly big twist in The Sixth Sense remains one of the worst kept secrets in the world of cinema, yet the film is still incredibly rewatchable. Although there are moments of sheer terror and horror in the movie, it is largely character-driven with fantastic dialogue exchanged between Cole (Haley Joel Osment) and Dr. Crowe (Bruce Willis). I just love how this film centers in and around the fantastical idea that we can control our own narrative even after death with the help of a clairvoyant whom seeks to help the dearly departed mend relationships, complete tasks left undone, and any other unfinished business. These actions allow the living and dead to rest in peace. Emotions run high in this film as audiences come face-to-face with tortured souls of the living and dead variety. Furthermore, this film seeks to provide psycho-social commentary on grief and that which we cannot possibly fully understand when exploring death. Even knowing the big twist, we are still captured by the tension of the scenes between Dr. Crowe and his wife. We know that he is dead, but we still empathize greatly with the inability of him and his wife to communicate. The strength of this movie is that it successfully taps into the dark corners of our psyche to explore that which we do not understand yet impacts our very lives every day.

Movie 7 (10/07)

What Lies Beneath (2000). Although most of my selections are clearly in the horror genre, every once in a while, there is a noteworthy horror adjacent movie that is worth covering for a challenge such as this one. Robert Zemeckis’ What Lies Beneath starring Harrison Ford and the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer is truly a horror-adjacent gem! And it has Michelle Pfeiffer, how could I not include it?!? Clearly Zemeckis was going for a Hitchcockian thriller meets old fashioned haunted house movie, and it mostly pays off. Whereas this film may not have received highly positive reviews when it came out, today it is one that is often brought up when discussing underrated horror movies. Some of the Hitchcock-inspired tropes in this movie are the whole Rear Window scene, innocent people showing up to startle the central character, and mysterious characters showing up in a mirror. The biggest difference between what Zemeckis did and what Hitch would have done is that Zemeckis went the supernatural route and Hitch would have explained it through paranoia, trauma, schizophrenia, or some other psychological means. The strength of this film may not be in the writing as much as it is the excellent visual storytelling, that builds tension through the cinematography, and the exceptional casting choices. My favorite scene in this movie is the one immediately following Norman (a Hitch nod) paralyzing Clair with the experimental new drug that was foreshadowed earlier in the movie. As the water covers her face, and all we are left with is her eyes barely above the water, we can feel the sheer terror Clair is experiencing. Until the last minute, we are anxiously wondering if she will survive. Another notable sequence is when the camera lingers on the sideview mirror of the car as we see Norman’s body rise up in the house while we are aware that Clair is running for the truck. Perhaps this movie does not hold up as well as most of Hitchcock’s thrillers, but it is clearly inspired by Hitch and his ghost is felt throughout the story. While some find the supernatural element absurd, I don’t mind it because that is what helps this to be more horror-adjacent than it would otherwise.

Movie 8 (10/08)

American Psycho (2000). Not only a great horror film, but a great film period. The movie that was once protested by women was, in fact, directed by a woman. Directed by Mary Harron, American Psycho is a brilliant cinematic work that is just as relevant today as it was when it was originally released. At its heart, this film is a provocative artistic work that comments on materialism, narcissism, and the empty feeling that comes with them. Many, including yours truly, characterize the film as a dark comedy that forces us to reconcile our aspirations for wealth, power, and what happens when we fail to make genuine emotional connections with other individuals because we are completely consumed by image and status. Furthermore, there is a fascinating character study here on trying to fit into a society that you really don’t want to fit into, but don’t know what the other options are. Therefore you act on impulses instead of recognizing them to critically analyze if they indeed are the right things to do. One of the qualities of the experience of watching a horror film compared to other genres is the power it has to force us to face our fears, look in the mirror (pun intended), and question the world around us. Moreover, it allows us to explore hard-to-talk-about subjects because it approaches them in creative, visual ways. that force us to think about some societal observation in new ways. In many ways Patrick Bateman is us; the us we are when no one is looking. Perhaps most of us are not serial killers, but we certainly have a running commentary on the world around us. Also like Bateman, if we are not careful, we can fall prey to our own animalistic, self-centered instincts. I also love how this movie parallels the vicious nature of Wall Street with the murder sprees of Bateman. In this movie, it’s Wall Street, but it could very well be any number of work places. Perhaps there is little relatability to the characters on the surface, but dig a little deeper and this film is quite the microcosm of the world we live in.

Movie 9 (10/09)

Lake Placid (1999). Largely absent for more than a decade, the old fashioned creature feature returns. And it’s bigger, funnier, bloodier, and more romantic (?) than before! When you thought it couldn’t get any better, Betty White shows up! What more could you ask for in a throwback creature feature that is still so much fun to watch. Nevermind that it failed to impress the critics of the day, this movie was made to entertain, and entertain it certainly does. Often times, horror movies like this one do not improve with age; however, like a fine wine, this movie has developed more of an audience as it has aged. This is in part due to the solid direction by Steve Miner, the sharp screenplay by David E. Kelley, and the excellent cast. And at less than an hour and a half, this movie never wears out its welcome. The pacing is brisk, not a moment wasted, eery scene sets up the following scene and continuously points to the showdown. Still in the early years of CGI, Miner chose to pair the CGI of the day with animatronics. Good thing too, because this combination helps the film not to look terribly dated. Sure the CGI is rough around the edges, but since we are not staring at CGI the whole time, we are more willing to accept it. You know what else makes this film fun to watch? Betty White. Her feisty character is in stark contrast to the otherwise serene landscape, and you gotta love her obscene one-liners. She goes full Betty White in every scene. I truly appreciate this movie for how it told the story more than what the story is about. It successfully paired an old school subject with a post-modern approach that delivers a fresh horror movie to audiences.

Movie 10 (10/10)

The Others (2001). What a fantastic haunted house film with a twist ending! Although this formula has been copied in other movies, The Others still holds up very well. At the time it came out, most horror movies were slasher or supernatural schlock fests, but this one chose to go the more traditional route of building a foreboding atmosphere complete with unsettling characters. Tension is high throughout this entire movie until the twist ending is delivered in spades. Nicole Kidman shines as the central character who completely convinces us that she is a normal person whom is living in a bizarre mysterious world. This is a thinking man’s horror movie that would probably be much more successful at the box office today than it was when it came out because audiences are gravitating toward art house horror in numbers that haven’t been seen before. While this film has bene accused of plot that lacks direction (and to some extent, I have to agree with that assessment), the lack of focus is made up for by the expertly crafted ominous mood and haunting ambiance. Capturing the atmosphere is the excellent cinematography and candlelit lighting. Often overlooked in horror movies is costuming, and Kidman’s Grace has some absolutely gorgeous attire–simple in design–but does not go unnoticed. The strength of this film, outside of the production design, is the relationship and conflict between Grace and her kids as well as the new servants. It had been a long time since I watched this movie, but I am pleased to report that it still holds up well on a rewatch. If you are searching for an atmospheric horror film to watch one evening, then this is still a good one to select.

Movie 11 (10/11)

Jason X (2001). This is one hot mess of a Jason movie, but it is so much fun to watch! What happens when you combine Alien with Friday the 13thJason X. Of all the creative deaths in the Friday the 13th franchise, this one has my personal favorite: the liquid nitrogen kill! You know the one I’m talking about. Although this series lacks the quality of writing in the Halloween and Elm Street, there is a beauty in the simplicity of Jason Voorhees as a Freudian superego that goes around punishing horny teenagers for their sexual promiscuity. One of the more hilarious aspects to this movie is just how little fashion and culture has changed from the early 21st century to the 25th century. Whereas fashion may not have changed much, technology certainly has. Straight out of Star Trek TNG is a holodeck that recreates Camp Crystal Lake to distract Jason. In this scene, we also get a simple kill that works so well. Never enclose yourself in a sleeping bag. One of the biggest differences between this installment and the previous Jason movies is that this group knows who Jason is. And believe it or not, we do end up caring about these characters a little more than usual. In the end, it takes itself a little too seriously to be truly satirical, but it’s also too silly to be taken seriously by longtime fans of the franchise. If you’re looking for something fun to watch on a lazy afternoon, then this movie works well.

Movie 12 (10/13)

Ghost Ship (2002). What a shocking opening! Although the opening to Scream may still be the best opening in a horror movie ever, the opening to Ghost Ship is right up there with it. Talk about a razor sharp opening that truly hooks the audience in for the ride and tells them precisely what kind of movie this is going to be. Alien is a haunted house movie (that meets Jaws) in space and Ghost Ship is a haunted house movie set on an ocean liner right out of the 1960s. Perhaps this movie suffers from terrible characters and a vapid plot; however, what it lacks in those areas it more than makes up for in atmosphere. Truly, this movie boasts some of the best atmospheric shots, art direction, and production design that 2000s horror has to offer. There is almost a Titanic like feeling when moving throughout the ship, and it’s even creepier because we know precisely how all the passengers died. The theme of greed versus prudence is woven throughout the plot. Witnessed in how and why  characters meet the demise that they do, this theme is integrated well into the plot, and helps to setup the big twist at the end of the movie. From a technical perspective, the movie got a lot of things right. One might say that it’s among the best to come out of the early 2000s, but still not as good as you hoped it would be, considering the brilliant opening and setup. I guarantee that you will never look at a tension wire in the same way again.

Movie 13 (10/13)

Signs (2002). The alien movie that really isn’t about aliens at all. Despite the crop circles on the poster and the catalyst of aliens on earth, the movie isn’t about that at all. And that’s why it works so incredibly well! Signs by M. Night Shyamalan is a brilliant motion picture that possesses the power to create tension out of seemingly nowhere and keep driving that tension up until the strategic time that the punch is to be delivered. What Shyamalan achieved in this film was the ability to evoke strong fear, anxiety, and other emotions through the use of the camera. Suspense with a camera as Hitchcock whisperer Jeffrey Michael Bays would put it. There is a power in the direction, acting, cinematography, and score in this film that sets up audiences to fear that which is not even seen. Sometimes we find ourselves looking and listening to something that isn’t even there, but that’s the beauty of this film. Shyamalan uses strategically places moments of silence much in the same way that Hitchcock would do in his films. Speaking of whom, there is no score in The Birds. Whereas the technique of using TV or radio broadcasts to deliver exposition can come across as lazy or forced, because the programs still leave room for subtext, they work very well in this film. So, if this film isn’t about aliens, what kind of film is it? It’s a character study on the stages of grief and redemption. The plot is incredibly simple, yet our characters highly complex. That’s why this film works so incredibly well!

Movie 14 (10/14)

Cabin Fever (2002). The directorial debut from Eli Roth! This gory horror movie may look like Evil Dead but it does not go the supernatural route. Instead this movie features a flesh-eating bacterial disease. So often when we are in a cabin in the woods, we encounter a demon or maniac, but I like how this body horror movie uses something incredibly realistic (albeit exaggerated). For fans of Boy Meets World, you’ll recognize Rider Strong as our central character. For all the gore that is in this movie, it’s not the focus. Co-written by Roth, this movie never loses focus on the relationships between the characters. I love how we witness the complete deterioration of friendships because of paranoia, fear, and self-preservation. The tension in this movie is real! You can cut it with a butter knife.

Movie 15 (10/15)

House of a 1000 Corpses (2003). After experiencing the house at HHN29, I just had to add it to my 31 Horror Movies Challenge this month. Ordinarily, I am not a fan of Rob Zombie’s movies, but this one has such a great cast including the late Sid Haig. Hillbilly horror meets teen slasher in this movie. It’s a nostalgic tribute to Texas Chainsaw Massacre that doesn’t have much else going on in its plot. The strength in this movie is in the character actors. Due to Zombie’s penchant for shooting on film stock, this movie has a sort of homespun morbid charm that certainly helps in the viewing experience of this pretty much torture porn movie. Something else that I appreciate about this movie is that you can you see the hand of the artist in eery scene. Much in the same way Zombie writes and performs his music, this movie is also raw, graphic, loud, and violent. Perhaps his music is not to my personal liking, but there is no denying that his signature brand of entertainment is all over this movie. Whereas the plot may be greatly lacking, the movie makes up for that with a rather brilliant production design and art direction. This is probably why it was such a successful translation from movie to house at HHN this year.

Movie 16 (10/18)

This next film represents the last time the legend that is Robert Englund haunted our nightmares as Freddy Krueger until The Goldbergs Halloween special last year. Freddy vs. Jason (2003) is an incredibly fun movie starring two of our favorite slashers that helped define the genre. Fans got to experience the movie at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 25 in 2015; and what Universal did that was extra fun and heightened the suspense was randomly changing who won! Sometimes it was Jason and other times it was Freddy. Nearly 20 years since Freddy first started haunting the nightmares of the children of the Elm Street parents that burned him alive and more than 20 years since Jason started terrorizing camp counselors to avenge his mother’s death, this movie explores what happens when the teens of Elm Street are no longer afraid of Freddy because a new drug prohibits dreaming while allowing for restful sleep. Without dreams, Freddy is without his main source of power. Furthermore, the inability to enter dreams means that he is all but a distant memory for Elm Street. After a chance encounter with Jason in Hell, Freddy concocts a devious plan. Under the impression that he can control the iconic hockey masked killer, he sends Jason back to Elm Street to make the teens scared of him again. Instilling this fear in them will make Freddy Stronger. Unfortunately, for Freddy, things quickly get out of his control and the two icons of horror rack up quite the body count before turning on one another. The final battle between Freddy and Jason is one of the best battle sequences in horror! New Line Platinum pulls out all the stops in this epic final battle between two characters that helped define a genre and decade of cinema.

Movie 17 (10/18)

Saw (2004). Every decade there seems to come a film that will define the state of the genre and serve as a touchstone that pioneers new ways of tapping into our fears and commenting on what we are facing as a society. Often times, this same movie will create a new subgenre of horror that inspires other movies and even spawn sequels. Until A24 started bringing us art house horror films in the last few years, two films broke new ground for horror: Saw and Paranormal Activity. While neither of these films, and the countless sequels and quasi brain children of them, are to my liking, there is no doubt that they were the most influential over the last 10-15 years. That being said, I do appreciate the original Saw for its minimalistic production design and  innovative storytelling; but I don’t like the barrage of torture porn movies that came after it. Saw works because it has a compelling story and the focus is NOT on the gruesome violence; however, many of the movies that it inspired shifted the focus from the narrative to the torturous kills. Still, there are interesting aspects to consider from this series and ones it inspired like Hostile. For instance, as repulsive as Hostile is, there is a thought-provoking exploration of the mediation (as in media) of society and what happens when people are reduced to commodities.

Movie 18 (10/19)

The Descent (2005). Often cited as one of the scariest horror movies over the last 20 years and one that was a critical success–including high praise from Roger Ebert–is The Descent. While it was not released in the US until summer 2006, it was released in the UK in 2005. Not only does this brilliant horror film have the thrills, violence, and fear-inducing moments, it delivers a well-developed plot with excellently crafted characters and outstanding direction. Not to mention the production design, score, editing, cinematography and everything involved in taking the fantastic story from page to screen. This atmospheric horror film completely immerses you in the depths of the descent into the bowels of the cavernous underground. Talk about an effective title! One particularly notable element in this film is the all female cast. Strong female characters are no stranger to horror–in fact–horror long liberated women from being damsels in distress before mainstream movies and media. Ever heard of the final girl? Thought so. Many of the scene in the movie take place in near-darkness, but the director never leaves the audience feeling completely lost. Sometimes the audience may be bewildered or anxious about the direction, but that’s the point! This film engages the minds and bodies of the audience in such a way that the audience can feel the claustrophobia and fear of the characters.

Movie 19 (10/22)

The Hills Have Eyes (2006). Before Alexander Aja would give us campy horror hits like Piranha 3D and the critically acclaimed Crawl (2019), he thrilled audiences with his revisitation of The Hills Have Eyes, originally written and directed by Wes Craven. Although many, including yours truly, will argue that the original is superior, Aja stays true to his source material. On the surface, this movie is about a family encountering a cannibalistic group of isolated desert hill billies, but beneath the surface beats the heart of a movie that comments on isolation, nuclear fallout, and yes even family and neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the larger budget did not pave the way for anything innovative or substantive, unless you’re talking substantial buckets of blood. There was such an opportunity for Aja to go by way of John Carpenter’s The Thing in his remake of Craven’s original, but instead it plays off as derivative and schlocky. Where the movie does work, is when Aja is in his world of campy gore.

Movie 20 (10/22)

Trick ‘R Treat (2007). I don’t know about you, but this movie is one that I have to watch each Halloween! This year, I am watching it earlier than usual, but its been part of my Halloween since I was introduced to it by a friend. Michael Dougherty delivers a brilliantly innovative anthology movie with several smaller stories all woven into one giant narrative commenting on the power of tradition. In this case, the traditions surrounding Halloween! Fans of the movie were able to experience it at Halloween Horror Nights 27 as a scare zone and HHN 28 as a house. Personally, I preferred the scare zone to the house. Trick ‘r Treat is full of fantastic scares, entertaining characters, and an engaging plot. While few writer-directors could handle a nonlinear film as their directorial debut with such precision, Dougherty does precisely that! And what is the result? Instant cult classic. Couldn’t ask for a better start to your career. I love everything about this film: the costumes, set design, lighting, cinematography, the editing and more! Truthfully, it reminds me of something that Tim Burton would have done in the hayday of his career in the 80s and 90s. The costume designs are absolutely out of this world! I love how unnervingly exaggerated many of them are. And the atmosphere crafted by Dougherty is the perfect place for all these characters to interact with each other and their surroundings. Forming the solid foundation upon which this story was visually executed is the solid screenplay written by Dougherty. While there was such a risk of s story such as this one going by way of the camp route, never once did anything feel cheesy. In fact, there are homages paid to past horror movie staples that horror fans will enjoy. During a decade that seemed to be frocked with uber gory, violent, torture, blood fests, this film is a refreshing look at the strength of original storytelling where the focus is on the characters, conflict, and relationships, not simply guys and gore that seek to torment the viewer. There is something for everyone in this film, and it’s relatively appropriate for a wide age group. Maybe it’s not a conventional horror movie, but it’s certainly a brilliant Halloween film!

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, he’d love to plan to see a movie with you. 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!

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“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” horror movie review

Everyone loves a good ghost story, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has several ones that remind me of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? on steroids! Don’t let the August release date fool you, this is a surpassingly frightening horror movie! It takes the very practice of passing along scary stories generation to generation, and explores the far reaching effects that the power of story has in a manner that it as insightful as it is visually terrifying. Directed by Andre Ovredal with a superlative screenwriting and story team including Guillermo del Toro, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark relies upon a more classical approach to a horror movie by building upon old fashioned ghost stories. You know, the kind that you sit around the camp fire or on the floor of your childhood sleepover and tell one another. These are stories that have been shared and passed down so prolifically that they feel alive. Ghost stories are such a part of our childhood and teenage years, and this film explores the idea of these stories coming to life. A terrifying prospect. Despite the one-dimensional characters, this movie keeps the audience engaged because of the incredibly fun plot and nightmarish visuals. And no, the end of the movie is not tied up with a nice little bow. Traditional narratives follow: order–>disorder–>order again, but horror often takes on an order–>disorder–>order–>disorder path. While there are elements in this movie that may predispose you to thinking that it’s an anthology like Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, it is one linear narrative. Scary Stories is  thoughtful horror movie that is a throwback to the tales of old, when hauntingly spooky was more important than grisly gore.

Pennsylvania 1968 on Halloween, and change is blowing in the wind…but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley, where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion, on the edge of town, that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories she passed along to children whom would talk to her through the wall of her foreboding mansion. In addition to passing down the stories orally, she wrote them down in book that truly immerses the reader into the terrifying plot. When a group of teenagers accidentally stumbles onto Sarah’s book of scary stories to tell in the dark, they realize that these stories are become all too real, and they find themselves strapped in the pages of these stories that transcend time and reality.

On one hand, this movie may appear overly generic to the casual observer, given the chief elements that make up the story. You have a group of misfit teens in small town middle America, lots of period nostalgia (that is thankfully not even more of the already proliferated 80s), a cursed object that torments its readers, and a haunted house. Everything that a writer needs to create a forgettable horror movie that goes directly to streaming services is here. But that is where you would be wrong to presume it is just another generic haunted house movie. The premise may not be exuding originality but the expression of the premise is. Combine the original expression of a plot template with the stunning visuals that we’ve come to expect from the del Toro brand, and you have one fantastic horror movie. Clearly exhibited in each and every scene, there are many signs that this movie was built by writers and a director who cares about the story and the audience experience. The degree to which this haunted house movie works for audiences may one day be seen in Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. So many visual elements in this movie lend it to a haunted house (definitely more than the upcoming Us haunted house). Even if you did not grow up reading the Scary Stories books, you probably read Goosebumps or watch the TV version of the former or Are You Afraid of the Dark? and that is all you need to know or be familiar with. Go in with a love of good old-fashioned ghost stories, and you will have a fun time.

This is the second gateway horror movie that we have seen in the last couple years. Last year, we had The House with a Clock in its Walls, which worked as a gateway horror movie (albeit less so than this one). Ever since the TV shows referenced earlier went off the air, there has been a need for PG and PG-13 horror for younger audiences that also appeals to adults. Most of the horror movies over the last couple of decades have large been aimed at older teens and adults. The trick is to write a story that is appropriate enough for general 12-17 viewers, but still contain the macabre elements that 18+ viewers want to see. And that doesn’t mean gore, it means a thoughtful approach to crafting a fun horror movie that genuinely frightens you. Spooky atmospheres, ghostly apparitions, and tormented characters have been a staple of the American horror film from the days of Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera. But in recent years, haunting production design and memorable monsters have taken backseat to schlock fests. This movie seeks to bring back the old fashioned haunted house ghost movie to foster an appetite in young audiences for the fantastic world of horror.

The central character and our character of opposition are two opposite sides of the same coin. Driving their decisions is a love of storytelling and family issues. Of course the familial issues differ greatly, but they complement one another nicely. When developing central and opposition characters, it’s important for the screenwriter to remember that often both characters need to share some common traits, and even common goals, but the difference is in how that desire to achieve the goal is expressed through action. There appears to be ab attempts by the movie to provide opportunities for the characters and plot to comment on the society and politics, but it’s never fully developed. Underscoring many of the scenes in the film is the 1968 presidential election and the controversial Vietnam War. I feel that the socio=political elements were not used as effectively as they could have been, so it would have been better just to leave them out as those moments don’t add anything to the overall story.

The power of story. It was Cecil B. DeMille who stated that the “greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling,” and Scary Stories takes its cue from the timeless words from a  Hollywood great. Films were always about breaking ground in visual technical marvel, the almost oxymoronic photorealistic animation, or grisly violence; they were about telling stories. Not unlike the ones that got orally passed down. And these stories helped to shape generations of current and future storytellers. When you tell a story enough, it begins to have a life of its own, there is a place for some evil to be contained as we creatively explore the human condition, sexuality, gender roles, faith, psychology, and sociology through the American horror film. We already have a movie about what happens when the stories die (see my article on Wes Craven’s New Nightmare), so this one takes the approach of what happens when you steel someone’s storybook but pairs that with the healing power of storytelling. To get into how and why would reveal too much about the showdown of the movie, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. At the end of the movie, you are left with wondering about the stories that you have passed down, and power to terrify or to heal that comes along with them. You may even find yourself wanting to get a group of friends together to tell ghost stories.

If you love a good ghost story, then you definitely want to catch this while in theatres to truly appreciate and experience the nightmarish visuals of the monsters and the beauty of the production design. Get into the Halloween spirit a little early with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as you enjoy a throwback to a more classical approach to the American horror film.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and teaches high school TV/Film production. 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!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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Sinister Summer: “The Birds” Retrospective Review

“You’ll never look at birds the same way again” (Jurassic Park). Although Dr. Grant was referring to velociraptors, you can say the very same thing about Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature length films, only two of which are horror (Psycho and The Birds). However, he is widely credited, and rightly so, as the director who ushered in the modern horror film, with Psycho being regarded as the first modern horror film. On the heels of the success of Psycho, a film that revolutionized so much about the movie-going experience from movie start times to “not spoiling the ending” (now where have we recently heard that???), Hitch set out to deliver another horror film at the height of his powers. But what would it be about? He turned to past collaborator Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, Hitch’s first American film. Her best-selling novella The Birds had previously been adapted for radio and stage (I’ve actually seen the stage adaptation, and incidentally I prefer the film), but Hitch decided to adapt it (loosely I might add) for the small screen. That’s right, small screen. He originally intended The Birds to be adapted for his wildly popular and successful series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But like Jordan Peele did with Us, which I am convinced started out as an idea for his Twilight Zone series, Hitch decided to take the idea from TV to the cinema! So with the decision to adapt du Maurier’s novella into a cinematic experience, Hitch made history. Not only is it one of the most famous films in cinematic history, it sowed the birdseed for all the “when nature attacks” movies to follow including Jaws and Jurassic Park. This film was also influential in John Carpenter’s The Fog and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. With the question of why did the birds attack never being answered, it leaves the events of this movie lingering in our minds as a possible reality.

To hear a conversation with me on the CineMust podcast chatting about the must-see status of The Birds and Jaws, click HERE.

When wealthy well-known socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedron) finds herself to be the brunt of a practical joke played by lawyer Mitch Brenner (Taylor) at a bird shop while searching for a gift, she decides to return the favor by buying a couple of birds and dropping them off at his apartment. Upon finding that he spends the weekends with his younger sister and mother (Jessica Tandy) north of San Francisco in the small community of Bodega Bay, she drives to the remote town in order to deliver the birds. Soon after her unannounced arrival, the birds of the town begin to act incredibly strangely. Following a seagull attacking Melanie, and Mitch’s mother discovering her neighbor dead from an apparent bird attack, the town realizes that the birds are a real threat. Eventually birds, in the thousands are attacking anyone without reason or explanation as to why this is happening. Trapped in the Brenner household, survival becomes the number one priority for not only our central characters but everyone in the town.

At the heart of The Birds is relationships. Relationships ranging from romantic to familial and then between an outsider and the natives of a close knit town. Paranoia is a common theme in this film as well. The characters and their relationships between one another are so incredibly strong and well–developed that you can ostensibly remove the birds from the equation and the movie still works. Now, it doesn’t work as a horror film, but it works as a drama. The strength of this screenplay, written by Evan Hunter, lies in the complex characters and simple plot. Although the plot is largely changed from du Maurier’s novella, the setting, character dynamics, and the idea of the home invasion are extrapolated from the source material. Outside of the terrifying element of the attacking birds, the film’s subplot is about an outsider invading a close knit community and a de facto love quadrangle between Mitch, his mother, his sister, and his ex. Essentially, Melanie upsets the normal order of the town much in the same way that the birds upset the pecking order of humans vs nature. The screenplay also delivers some outstanding tonal shifts that are seamlessly woven together. Way before the first bird attacks, The Birds begins as a screwball comedy right out of the 1930s, then changes into a soap opera, then suspense, followed by horror. Lastly, the movie takes one final tonal shift from horror to apocalyptic, complete with dead bodies, foreboding birds, and a lack of resolution. This movie has legitimately inspired the real fear of birds (ornithophobia) in how the scenes were shot and the lingering possibility that this could happen in your own town.

There is a brilliant lack of explanation of why the birds are attacking not is there any real means of escape for the townsfolk of Bodega Bay, all while chaos reigns supreme in this otherwise innocent seaside landscape. Yet, this cinematic work is a permanent resident of our sociological zeitgeist. Even those who have not seen the film are aware of its existence. And it has gone from screen to live experience at the former Universal Studios Florida attraction Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies. The reason why we don’t focus on the lack of an explanation for the birds bizarre and violent behavior is for the same reason that we don’t ask why Bruce (Jaws) is attacking people. We accept it because the film is more concerned with its theme than points of origin expositional dumps. We don’t care about why the birds are doing what they are doing–that’s part of the horror. It’s the same reason why it’s important that we don’t know too much about Michael Myers; if we knew too much about him, why he ticks, then he would cease to be the boogeyman. These birds would cease to be terrifying if there was some sort of natural or supernatural explanation. The unknown is frightening. There have been many hypotheses over the years as to what the birds represent. The most popular one is rooted in the red scare or communism. And perhaps that is true, but the real villain (character of opposition) is not the birds but the townsfolk of Bodega Bay. The birds are the personification of the mistreatment of and unwelcoming attitudes of the residents toward Melanie. In a similar fashion, the villain of Jaws is the mayor because he is the personification of the folly of man.

When the true oppositional character in a screenplay is an entity, force, or idea, that component has to be personified in a character(s) because film is a visual storytelling medium, so the outdated, nationalistic attitudes of the locals is personified in the birds. Moreover, the ornithologist in the diner stated that if birds of different species flocked together, then all hope would be lost for humanity as we couldn’t stand a chance against them. That foreboding prediction came to pass as both crows and seagulls (who do not mix together in real life) massed together and terrorized the town and its people. As the birds are the original inhabitants of Bodega Bay, the humans represent the outsiders. This symbolism is also witnessed in how the townsfolk banned together to force Melanie out of the town and in how Mitch’s mother urges him to send Melanie back to San Francisco. All through the movie, there are images and sequences of the way outsiders can be marginalized by the majority of the native inhabitants. Human civilization has long sense been guilty of stigmatizing or marginalizing outsiders. At the root of the symptoms of intolerance is fear. So, Hitchcock took that root cause of unwelcoming attitudes and mistreatment and adapted it into a timeless horror film. It holds up so well because fear is still evident in how certain groups of people treat another in our lives today. Hitchcock used a combination of blue screen and practical effect technologies to bring the terror to life. And of those two approaches, it’s mostly practical-effect driven, all the way down to the real birds that were used during the production (with proper bird trainers/wranglers).

Three scenes that I want to highlight are the birthday party, downtown attack scene, and the upstairs room at the showdown. Nowadays, these scenes would be full of CGI and other post-production work. The actors would be acting with no birds on set, or very few anyway. For authenticity, puppets, mechanical, and real birds were used for these scenes to increase the realness and give the actors something to truly be afraid of. In fact, so many real birds were used that there were multiple large bird enclosures on the set that used as the temporary home of the stars of the film. In addition to bird wranglers, the American Humane Society was on set every day to monitor the treatment of the birds. The birthday party scene was composed of rotoscoping birds, blue screen shots of birds, papier-mache birds, and birds that were tied to actors and even more birds that were freely flying within the enclosure built around the set. Although most of the birds remained in the aviary, a few got out. And to this day, there are decedents of those birds living in the rafters of that sound stage on the Universal lot. In much the same way, the students fleeing the schoolhouse and down the hill to the town center–that scene–was accomplished in very much the same way. However, with this one, the added pyrotechnics were incorporated. The iconic phonebooth was covered in birdseed and shrimp to get the birds to go completely crazy. The upstairs bedroom scene at the end of the movie was completely constructed inside a giant aviary with hundreds of birds. In addition to the birdseed and shrimp that was strewn about the room, real birds were thrown at Hedron. The terror in her eyes that you see in the scene is all too real. No amount of acting can replicate that authentic fear. Despite the very real attack of the birds, Hedron is eternally grateful to have been a part of cinematic history.

The single scene that find is the most fascinating and shows the power of Hitchcock’s innate ability to create suspense with a camera is the scene immediately preceding the schoolhouse evacuation–the scene with Melanie sitting on the park bench with the jungle gym int he background.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches 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!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

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