“Black Christmas” (2019) Horror Movie Review

The gift of the season too horrible for even Scrooge, pre-visits from the Christmas spirits. It’s pretty much a horror movie that Krampus gives away because it is so horrifyingly bad. Last year, I watched for the first time and reviewed the Bob Clarks’ cult classic Black Christmas (1974), and found it to be an outstanding horror film. Then I watched the 2006 remake and thought that no remake could be as bad as that one. I. Was. Wrong. Enter: Black Christmas (2019). This movie is a prime example of bludgeoning the audience with a message/agenda 2×4 with a complete disregard of proper storytelling. Gone is the terrifying atmosphere of the original or schlockyness of the remake. All that we have here is a post-modern sexist message of hate full of one-dimensional characters. To say that there is a plot–even a bad one–is a vast overstatement. This movie is neither entertaining nor empowering. If you watch it, you will ask yourself what Jason Blum and Universal Pictures thinking. I suppose they are thinking of a potential house at Halloween Horror Nights 30 next year. And on that note, I agree that this movie will translate to a fun HHN30 house. But that’s pretty much it.

There is ZERO subtext, no nuance, no likable characters, and when it takes a supernatural turn, you will sit back with your eyes rolling around. And let’s address the PG-13 rating. Had this been rated R, then the kills would have at least been a little better, as they are, they lack anything memorable. A horror film, like this one, rated PG-13 simply works against it from the onset, not to mention the travesty the (if you can call it this) story is. This movie does the title Black Christmas harm. If for no other reason, perhaps the good thing to come out of this one is that horror fans will seek out the original! This movie’s heavy-handed cash grab and irreverent treatment of the #MeToo movement is offensive in and of itself. How can anyone take the movement seriously when movies like this perpetuate an obnoxious caricature of it??? Speaking of perpetuating negative development, this movie also preaches a sermon of post-modern sexism in which women can say anything about and do anything to a man simply because he is a man. However, if a movie like this were made that gender swapped the characters, then it would be protested to the highest degree.

I’m not here to negatively critique this movie because I dislike the agenda-driven message, but I am here to provide a review of a poorly written and directed movie. Being a cis gay male, I often identify with female characters, but I couldn’t connect to any one of these women. As far as acting, it’s par for the course for a bad horror movie. To call this movie a slasher, is disrespectful to the genre. It is not a slasher. Had this movie stuck to the original plot, but brought it into the 21st century, then I think it could have actually been pretty good. Such a great opportunity to play around with an iconic property. In terms of the representation of women, horror has always been on the forefront, a pioneer in writing strong female characters that are brave, smart, vulnerable, and cunning all at the same time. So I am not sure why this movie felt the need to preach strong female characters. Hello! The term “final girl” is derived from horror films. Where this film could have been clever is to subvert our expectations and have a “final boy” and female villain instead, if it truly wanted to flip this property on its head. The female empowerment message could have easily come from that setup. A female slasher killing off frat guys that mistreat their girlfriends or hookups. That already sounds better.

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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Sinister Summer: “The Exorcist” Retrospective Review

Pea soup anyone? Not only one of the most profitable horror films of all time, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist remains timeless. Celebrating its 45th anniversary last year, this truly is the definitive possession horror film. Thematically, it takes the concept of the external “monster” and moves it into the mind and body (of a little girl). In many ways, Linda Blair’s Regan takes the psycho-social horror of Psycho and combines it with a classic monster and adds in a Rosemary’s Baby spin. This trifecta of excellence works together in order to provide the plot and characters of The Exorcist with substance. Much like Psycho was the first modern horror film and proto-slasher, The Exorcist is widely regarded as the first modern possession film. There are elements of possession in Rosemary’s Baby, but I don’t technically consider it a possession film. This film also takes the idea of the “home invasion” to the next level by having the innocent Regan’s body invaded. There are many past horror films that were once viewed as terrifying, but over the course of time, do not evoke the same degree of fear in contemporary times; however, this is a film that remains nightmare-inducing for many who are brave enough to watch it. Furthermore, adjusted for inflation, it remains among the top 10 highest grossing films of all time.

For more than 40 years, this was highest grossing horror film of all time (until 2017’s IT), this is the one that started the possession film sub genre of horror. A visiting actress (Ellen Burstyn) in Washington, D.C., notices dramatic and dangerous changes in the behavior and physical make-up of her 12-year-old daughter 9Linda Blair). Meanwhile, a young priest (Jason Miller) at nearby Georgetown University begins to doubt his faith while dealing with his mother’s terminal sickness. When the little girl begins to spiral violently out of control, lashing out at her mother and everyone in the Georgetown manner, and even levitating, her worried mother seeks medical help, only to hit a dead end. The young priest, however, thinks the girl may be possessed by a demon. The priest makes a request to perform an exorcism, and the church sends in an expert (Max von Sydow) to help with the difficult job.

While many films prior to The Exorcist depicted the occult, few (if any) have endured like this icon of horror has. Perhaps what frightens us most about this film is the fact of how close to home it hits. The MacNeil family could be our own or our neighbors. By default, the very setting and atmosphere of the film is relatable and realistic. There is a high degree of vulnerability on display. Not only can our homes be invaded, but our bodies can too. Whereas some may only see the effects of the demonic possession and focus on them (the vomiting, masochistic behaviors, or focussed vulgar profanity), these are all incidental. The point of The Exorcist is to provide social commentary on dehumanization and how evil forces and behaviors can affect us in such a way that we feel like animals unworthy of God’s love. But no matter how dark times get, redemption is possible. Whereas demonic possessions are not a daily part of our lives, by extension, this can be explored as a metaphor for the dehumanization witnessed today such as sexual assault, physical/emotional abuse, and other ways in which people are devalued.

There are few films that I would say this about–The Exorcist is a perfect film. Other examples are AlienPsycho, Sunset Boulevard, and The Shining. Compared to the schlock-fest horror movies that we often get today (until more recently with films such as Hereditary, Midsommar, and Us), this is a beautiful, bold work of cinema that pushed the envelop then, and even pushes the boundaries by today’s standards. There is a sense of prestige about this film; and not just a classy for the sake of pretense–there is a sense of purpose in this motion picture. Do all horror films need to mean something deep or provocative? Certainly not. Some have the purpose to simply entertain, frighten us, or even make us laugh. But The Exorcist is a special horror film in that there is immense depth to the story that takes us to incredibly dark places–to the point of no return if you will. Then in a brilliant fashion, turns it into a story of sacrifice and redemption. Not only was this one of the most frightening movies of all time when it was release din 1973–commonplace as possession movies may seem now–this was groundbreaking back then, it was also nominated for multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture! This was the first time that a horror film had ever been nominated for this most prestigious award. Furthermore, there are few other films that come with such an infamous status inspiring legends, curses, and more. Much like with Poltergeist, this film has also spawned macabre rumors. Everything about this film: direction, screenwriting, cinematography, cast, set design, score, and the editing work flawlessly to combine to become one of the greatest films ever made.

In screenwriting, there are two types of plots: action-driven and character-driven. That isn’t to suggest that an action movies don’t have great characters (Die Hard certainly has great characters) nor does a character movie lack gripping action (Nightcrawler has great action sequences), but the principle focus is on one or the other. Look to see wherefrom the conflict is derived. In a character-driven film, the conflict is derived primarily from characters, whereas in an action-driven movie, the conflict is primarily derived from the action. The characters of The Exorcist are utterly fascinating and relatable. We might remember Regan the most from the movie, but the other lead and supporting characters are also incredibly interesting. Part of the reason why this film resonates with us so, and is the material of nightmares, is because of how realistic it is, despite the supernatural element; this realism is brought to life by the incomparable performances. There is so much more to this movie besides the spinning head, spiderwalk (in the director’s cut), and the famous pea soup scene. Those scenes, and others, contribute to the overall experience of the film, but it’s the character-driven conflict and relationships that keep us coming back. Not only do we come back to the film over and over for the character, but we were able to experience memorable scenes and action sequences for ourselves at Halloween Horror Nights 26 at Universal Orlando.

Before we talk about the most famous character from the film Regan, let’s analyze the other two leads and chief supporting character: Regan’s mom Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), the young priest Damian Karras (Jason Miller), and the exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow). Both Burstyn and Miller were nominated for Academy Awards for their respective performances.

Chris MacNeil is first and foremost a mother, but her acting career is also important to her. But when her daughter needs her, she is willing to put her career to the side to go to great lengths to help her. Beyond her role as a mother, she represents a person whom does not have faith in God. She is also faced with the life crisis of growing frustrated with her divorce and career as a mainstream actress. Father Karras is a highly educated man of faith, but his faith is strained because of his mom’s illness and death, causing a crisis. He is struggling with what many of us struggle with: if God is love, then why do bad things happen to good people? Furthermore, he represents the qualities of self-sacrifice and redemption, as well as personifies the empathy of psychiatry and a pragmatic priesthood. By extension, Father Karras can also be read as someone whom exemplifies that “science” and “faith” are not independent of nor negate one another. Lastly, Father Merrin is not only the very silhouetted image that is engrained in your mind when you think of this movie, but he is the inverse of Father Karras in that–whereas Karras is a pragmatic priest, Father Merrin is a zealous priest. Because Merrin was unable to defeat the demon Pazuzu (the one that possesses Regan), he is faced with his own redemption story. He is also going through the life crisis of failing health.

All three adults are each faced with their own respective crises that are explored through the possession of this little girl whom is also facing her own biological life crisis of puberty. Without knowing much about any of these characters during the first act of the film, we know that each one is vulnerable and doubts their own abilities and the direction they are going in life.

Central to The Exorcist is Regan (played by Linda Blair). Regan is both our central character and our character of opposition. Technically the character of opposition is Pazuzu, but the demon is manifested in Regan. Much like with her adult counterparts, Regan is also facing a crisis. She is experiencing what every young person goes through (to a greater physiological extent, girls)–puberty. As we know, at that stage in life, the human body undergoes what can be equated to psychological and physiological trauma. This trauma is manifested in the behaviors that we witness on screen from Regan’s explicit language and masochistic sexual assault. Regan can also be read as a home that has been invaded by an external monster, but this monster has not only defiled a home but has gone further, and more intimate to defile an innocent girl. Essentially, we’ve taken the idea of the external monster and placed it in the mind and body to exponentially increase the level of trauma and terror. Through another lens, we can witness the conflict that exists between parents and adolescents in which parents may view their kid(s) as a monster that has taken over the previously agreeable, obedient child, and how both parties must work through the conflict in order to emerge healthier and closer.

From page to screen, the cinematic excellent continues. The Exorcist is full of nightmare-inducing special effects that stick with you for the rest of your life. Not only does the very image of the transformation terrify the eyes of the audience, the minds of the audience are also confronted with the frightening realization of what the demon is doing to Regan’s body. From swearing at the central characters every chance it gets to displaying severe traumatizing masochistic behavior, the brutality is intense as you have sympathy for this young girl that you established a connection with from the beginning of the movie. One of the elements that I find particularly interesting, given the extent to which special effects are used, is just how real the movie feels. The supernatural elements of the story could have very easily pushed the film into the unbelievable category (like many others), but William Friedkin’s cinematic masterpiece stays grounded in reality. Looking to the characters themselves, the performances are so genuine that you feel that you are going through the very same crises that are on display. For those whom believe possession is real, it hits scarily close to home; and for those whom are skeptical, it is an equally terrifying possibility.

The showdown and realization of the film are just as deep as the first and second acts by playing around with the externalization of that which was internalized and the physical and mental journeys of the characters. Not only is duality and possession shown through the context of demon possession, but the film also comments that internalized physical and psychological trauma can be a powerful force that ostensibly takes control on ones body. And that is another reason why it still terrifies audiences to this day.

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!

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Halloween (2018) Full Horror Film Review

Happy Halloween Michael! David Gordon Green’s Halloween truly is the sequel that we have been waiting for in the Halloween franchise. Green set out to direct a Halloween movie that he desired to work both as an homage to the original whilst crafting an original story that could do more than be a great horror film, but be a great film period. And suffice it to say, he delivered in spades (or knives, as it were haha). Words cannot even begin to capture the energy of the auditorium last night. From screen to entrance Studio Movie Grill Tampa (my regular cinema) was filled with a level of energy that I’ve only ever witnessed at JurassicAvengers, and Star Wars movies. Twitter is all a’buzz this morning with those who saw it at pre-screenings and those of us who saw it at 7 o’clock last night. When I’ve been asked what I think, I am quick to respond that you need to throw out the rule book because Michael is writing this story. From echoes of the original (and some of Halloween 2) it still succeeds in providing longtime fans and those newly discovering the franchise with an original story that will hook you from the very beginning when you realize that all bets are off because no one is safe. It’s thrilling, engaging, and fun. It may lack Dean Cundey’s brilliant cinematography from the original (he was also the cinematographer for Jurassic Park, Carpenter’s The Thing and Back to the Future), but visually the film has those quintessential moments that act as a throwback to Carpenter’s original groundbreaking slasher. From the vintage opening title sequence accompanied by that iconic score to the showdown, Blum House’s Halloween is a brilliant addition to the franchise and is destined to be a future classic.

For my conversation about Halloween with the guys across the pond at the Movie Drone Podcast, be sure to watch for that episode dropping on Sunday wherever you get your pods.

It’s been 40 years to the day that Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney), the boogeyman, committed the infamous Haddonfield Halloween murders and 55 years since Judith Myers was stabbed to death. On Halloween night, Michael escapes from a bus that was transferring him from Smith Grove to a maximum security prison when the transfer goes horribly wrong. News of this escape puts Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) on high alert as she knows he is heading for Haddonfield. Only this time, she is ready for him. Laurie is challenged with protecting herself while also protecting her daughter’s family. More than protecting herself and her family, Laurie is out for blood. With it being so long since the infamous murders, the town has largely let its guard down. History has faded into myth. But Laurie knew that Michael would be back one day, and she is fully prepared to face-off with the real-life boogeyman.

From the moment the film cuts to the vintage titles and the smashed jack-o-lantern becoming whole again, after the prologue, I knew that I was in for a real treat. That music is so incredibly iconic; those familiar chords are enough to strike fear in those who listen. Although many in the general audience may overlook the power of an opening title sequence, the typeface, transitions, music, and jack-o-lantern work together in order to communicate to the audience that David Gordon Green recognizes and respects the original and knows that you will love this installment that goes back to what made the first one work so well. It’s as if he is stating to the audience “I’ve heard you and I love the original too.” Instead of falling in line with current trends in horror films, Green is communicating to the audience that he is taking this franchise back to the roots. and back to the roots, he did. For fans of the franchise, you will undoubtedly recognize some easter eggs and other moments in the plot and kills that are nods to the original. Nods with a slight twist. I love the moments that connected me to the original. Same may call it shallow fan service, but I call that branding. Branding is important to a franchise, because those are the moments that are quintessential to the experience. And these moments in the film, that I see as branding, connect us to the original. Holding back on that branding would inhibit the nostalgia from shining briefly here and there. So much of Michael and Laurie’s identities are connected to those branding moments. However, don’t allow the return to channeling what made the first one work so well lead you to believe that you have it all figured out. While the soul of the original is there, the plot is full of twists and turns because just as Laurie was ready for Michael, he was ready for all of us sitting out there in the dark.

Written by Green, Danny McBride, and Jeff Fragley, this installment in the Halloween franchise was written to be a true continuation of the original story, ignoring everything that came after it. On that note, I like Halloween 2 and Halloween H20 but I am also equally pleased that this one essentially takes all the sequels and chalks them up to fan fiction. Could H2 and H20 have been included and the film still play out just as original and powerful? I think so, but at the same time, I did not find myself missing those installments. By placing this story 40 years after the original, it was able to remove all the absurdities of most of the others and start afresh. Missing from many of the other sequels was the playful nature of the original. Horror movies are supposed to be fun! Scary but fun. Even though there is murder and mayhem in a horror movie, that does not mean that it should be without those humorous moments. Fortunately for Green’s Halloween, the screenplay provides us with a simple revenge plot with a fantastically complex cast of principal characters. There is this refreshing exuberance I felt in the experience of this film. It was almost the same feeling that I got when I watched the original Halloween for the first time. The reason horror is used in events like Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream is because there is a high level of amusement in it. And the screenplay of this film has perfect levels of horror and humor to keep you hooked and entertained for the whole time. Beyond the excellent direction Green provided, Jamie Lee looks so incredibly satisfying reprising her breakout role, we get a throwback Michael, and more. The key to the success of this film is the solid screenwriting. Moreover, this is not only a fantastic horror movie, it’s a solid film with no clarifier needed.

Before getting into content that requires me to talk spoilers, I want to explore the characters of Michael and Laurie specifically. Entire theses could be written on this subject, but let’s look at some of the main points. You may have asked yourself “what makes Michael tick?” The short answer: we do not know enough about his psychology, sociology, or physiology to know for sure. And that is a good thing! Why? Because if we knew too much about his mind and body, he would cease to be the boogeyman. And being the boogeyman is so important to, not only this franchise, but horror in general. That little bit of mystery and fantasy allow him to remain a monster to be feared and never truly understood. You see what happens to people in the film who seek to understand Michael better–hint–it’s not good. But since we are voyeurs who are obsessed with knowing, here is the long and short of what we know. According to Casandra Dodge (Ph.D. in criminology candidate at the University of South Florida), Michael likely suffers from and displays signs of a combination of antisocial personality disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorder. We do not know enough to draw these conclusions, but there are signs of a combination of these psycho-social disorders.

Laurie is even more fascinating in this film than she was in the original. In many ways, she takes on some of the characteristics of Dr. Loomis from the first movie. He warned everyone about Michael’s violent behavior and would not be swayed into thinking that he could be rehabilitated. He was ready to kill Michael at every turn. Like Michael likely suffers from OCD, Laurie and Dr. Loomis also show signs of this disorder. Moreover, Laurie also displays signs of being a psychopath herself. Loomis, Laurie, and Michael could all be psychopaths. But contrary to popular belief, very few psychopaths are violent. In fact, careers for people that could be classified as psychopaths include: lawyers, surgeons, law enforcement, professors, artists, and more. Albeit I am overly simplifying, psychopathy means that you are predisposed to thrill-seeking behaviors and tend to be self-centered (among other characteristics). Laurie is less the final girl in this movie than she was in the original because she is very masculine and protective from the very beginning. There is no one defining moment that she sheds her (heteronormatively speaking) feminine self and takes on the traditional role of a man in stories to save the day and ultimately survive the killer. She is out for revenge the whole movie. I also appreciate how her character provides commentary on the realness of PTSD, and and the affects it has upon the whole body. On the note of revenge, the plot of this film aligns more closely with a revenge plot than a morality play. No mistaking it, Laurie Strode is back, and more phenomenal than ever! I love her character.

(spoilers ahead)

Substance and commentary. The original slashers such as HalloweenFriday the 13thA Nightmare on Elm Street, and other horror films (that do not fall into the slasher genre) hold up so incredibly well because there is a high degree of subtext that provides a solid foundation upon which to build the more superficial elements of the plot. At its core, the traditional slasher and is a morality play. And this morality goes beyond have casual sex and die or do drugs and die. But the aforementioned are recurring themes in these films. What I appreciate about the new Halloween is not following that approach–at least, not in the same way. It would be all too easy to pick-out the murders based upon that theoretical framework, and Michael is not about to have that. Characters you think will die do not, and other characters that you may not think will die, wind up another Haddonfield victim. The best example of this abandonment of the more traditional approach to slashers is the first kills. One of the past tropes of horror films is that if you are a kid or gay (or queer) you don’t die. Guess again, the 12yo boy who happens upon Michael’s transport bus who prefers dancing to hunting (tipping the hand to the fact he is likely gay) becomes one of Michael’s first victims. This is an indicator that all bets are off–no one is safe. Furthermore, the babysitter that is killed is someone whom is rather likable. She’s a good babysitter–loves her kid–and even when with her boyfriend comes over to the house, they do not engage in anything beyond “dry humping” and some weed smoking. No sex or hardcore drug usage here. Such a great approach because we like the babysitter; however, she winds up a victim anyhow. And Allison’s (Laurie’s grand-daughter) boyfriend kisses another girl at the school dance, but he does not wind up a victim. Although I would have preferred that he died, I like the fact that the rule book is thrown out.

The film also toys around with the idea of the Final Girl by playing around with the hard definition that we’ve recognized for all these years. And it pays off! Furthermore, we have some excellent commentary on and foreshadowing of the role Allison will play later on in the film. She and her boyfriend go to the high school Halloween dance as Bonnie and Clyde–with a twist! They gender bent the costumes. Showing Allison in the pants, foreshadows that she has that same androgynous image that Laurie had in the first film, tipping the hat that she is our final girl. However, she is not the only final girl. We have final girls in this movie. But this concept runs deeper than just the simple fact that we have a trifecta of female heroines. There is pattern established in the movie that when one faces Michael alone that he cannot be defeated. While the journalists at the beginning may seem like mere plot devices through which Michael gets his mask returned, they are so much more. They start the pattern because by themselves, they cannot defeat Michael, and die. The babysitter couldn’t defeat him alone, and her boyfriend died trying to protect his girlfriend. All of them on their own. Even Laurie, though being a solid match for Michael, cannot defeat him on her own either. It’s only when Laurie teams up with her daughter and grand-daughter that Michael can be taken down. Love this!

We also have some poetic justice kills. Loomis’ protege who seeks to use Michael for his own personal gain in the fields of science and academia. He is so incredibly prideful in the capabilities of his brain that his kill is symbolic that Michael will not be used to further his pretentious intellect. He stomps on his head like a pumpkin and the brain matter explodes like pumpkin seeds n a flash on screen (note: this is the most graphic kill). Likewise, the journalists who were using Michael to further their own careers by attempting to be smarter than Michael and even patronizing, wind up dead with primarily injuries to the head. Incredibly symbolic! Furthermore, there are other kills that serve purposes to comment on behavior and intention as well. In addition to symbolic kills and homages to the original, there is a recurring pumpkin and jack-o-lantern motif in the film. I need to watch again, but I believe we have a jack-o-lantern in nearly every scene like we do in the original. In fact, two of the heads of victims are turned into jack-o-lanterns with a flashlight shining out through the decapitated heads. While much of what I have described sounds grossly violent, there is far more violence off screen than what we actually see. Even the kills that are on the screen do not linger. This is important because lingering violence detracts from the narrative and becomes shallow spectacle. Green has a nice balance between narrative and spectacle. He truly showcases he art of storytelling all through Halloween.

Do yourself a favor and go see this movie! It was everything that I wanted it to be. Not only is it a great horror film, it’s a great film period. From the writing to the direction, production design, music and more. It is destined to be a future horror classic worthy of many rewatches.

Profile_PicRyan 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! If you’re ever in the Tampa area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“The House with a Clock in its Walls” full movie review

Whimsical and terrifying. A departure for the maestro of gory horror movies, Eli Roth’s foray into children’s horror-lite cinema is a hit! The House with a Clock in its Walls is the film adaptation of the 1973 novel, by the same name, written by John Bellairs. While there is a childlike wonder about the film, Roth’s trademark stylistic direction is clearly seen in brief glimpses into the movie’s much darker and disturbing moments. Already a rumored house for next year’s Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood and Florida, this film provides many opportunities to adapt the house and its inhabitants into a fantastic haunted house maze. Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are incredibly entertaining, and offer an incredible banter that will leave you wanting a friendship like the one shared by these two characters. Our leading young star Owen Vaccaro is less interesting to watch and displays terrible crying skills; however, he does deliver a performance that shows he has potential to grow as a child actor. Although the movie largely takes place within the victorian mansion, it never feels limiting or redundantly boring. Eli Roth’s expertise for visual storytelling makes every room just an interesting as the previous one. For a children’s horror movie (what I’m calling horror lite), it has some scares and twisted moments that are actually terrifying if you stop to think about it. Roth takes this PG movie as close to a PG-13 movie without ever crossing that line. Never evoking strong emotion, you will still find moments that you will laugh and jump!

When Lewis’ parents are killed in a tragic accident, his estranged uncle Jonathan (Black) send for him to move to his mansion in Michigan as he is the only family Lewis has. After Jonathan uncouthly picks him up on the bus, Lewis begins to wonder what he’s gotten himself into. Nothing could have prepared him for what he was about to encounter in the mysterious mansion. In very little time, Lewis learns that his uncle and their intelligent, feisty neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett) are practitioners of of the magical arts, to the highest degree! With his eyes now opened to the fascinating world of magic, Lewis expresses an interest to learn magic himself. Struggling to make friends in his new school and neighborhood, Lewis tries to impress the student council president by raising the dead; but unbeknownst to him, Lewis unleashes an evil warlock who seeks to bring an end to humanity. It’s a race against the mysterious, hidden clock within the walls of the mansion to stop the warlock from destroying the world and all its inhabitants.

A perfect way to introduce kids to horror films, Eli Roth’s The House with a Clock in its Walls strikes a perfect balance between maintaining a kid-friendly plot while strategically including terrifying imagery. Although I watched Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone with my mom growing up, it would be a while before I truly found that I absolutely loved horror films. Fortunately, kids of the 90s had more options for gateway horror than kids today. When I was a kid, I had Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps to introduce me to horror. Sadly, there do not seem to be nearly as many options for today’s kids to discover a love of horror early on. Mainly, that’s because filmmakers are more concerned with creating horror movies and TV shows for teens and adults due to  the increased gory, sexual, and disturbing content. Thankfully, one of the masters of horror took it upon himself to channel his 10yo self in order to adapt his penchant for popular, cult classic horror to provide a great experience for kids. And Roth did a superb job! Perhaps Roth does not bring his trademark torture porn and queasy horror to the screen in this children’s movie, but he does apply that same ability to scare us to the macabre puppets, man-eating topiaries, and demonic hand licking. That tongue was soooo Roth. Love it.

The production design is brilliant! Instead of relying upon digitally conjured terrifying or whimsical effects, this film largely delivers practical effects against the backdrop of a tangible set. That’s not saying that there isn’t CGI in the film, there is quite a lot. But it never takes me out of the world that Roth created for the screen. As I am not knowledgeable in architectural design, I am not sure if the setting is more Baroque or Victorian, but it’s gorgeous! The setting was quite immersive for a children’s movie, and gives the film a sense of dimension that is so often lost in 21st century movies. Editors and graphics designers are so preoccupied with whether or not they can achieve the effect that they don’t stop to think it is will detract from the believability of the setting and set-builds.

With Roth directing, this film benefits from its emotional beats, turning points, and moments of shock and terror being placed and executed with precision. Whereas a gateway children’s horror film cannot have much, if any, true body horror, it can include imagery that lends itself to more conventional horror such as evil Jack-o-lanterns, clown puppets, and ventriloquist dolls. Think of this film as introducing young audiences to those same tropes, that adults love about horror films, but in innocuous ways that may be just above a kid’s head but close enough that it may ignite an interest in horror films. Sometimes Roth’s more horrific elements of this film are witnessed as lurking in the shadows. Sort of a nod to his legacy but everything is still masquerading around as a family-friendly horror movie. In addition to talking about the horror and magical elements of the film, the plot is pretty simple and is ostensibly about the true sprit of family. Although each of our three main characters could, in many ways, not be any more different from one another, they all have a love of magic, education, and loyalty. Furthermore, each of them has suffered the loss of loved ones that leaves an empty hole in their respective hearts. Through these common interests, Jonathan, Mrs. Zimmerman, and Lewis form a bond that enables them to form a new family. If there is something conspicusoly missing from the plot, it is more of an exploration of post WWII trauma.

If you’re looking for a family-friendly gateway horror movie to watch, then definitely check this one out. The House with a Clock in its Walls proves that there is a need for more TV and film programming that is suitable for younger audiences who want a good thrill just like you and me. One thing is for sure, this film sill undoubtedly prompt young audiences to open their minds to the amazing world of horror movies, or perhaps scare them away.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Halloween Horror Nights XXVIII Full Review

What an opening weekend! This past weekend saw the grand opening of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 28, and it has got to be the busiest weekend that I can remember in the last several years. Headlining this year’s HHN is Stranger Things and Poltergeist followed by eight other licensed and original IP houses. Boasting more houses than ever, HHN28 has got to be one of the best years yet. Although there is some disagreement on whether Stranger Things or Poltergeist is the best IP house or Slaughter Sinema or Scary Tales is the best original house this year, there is little (if any) disagreement on the level of attendance reaching epic proportions! Wait times for Stranger Things reached 150mins, and many other houses also had extreme wait times. Often, opening weekend tends to be less busy than the following weekends, but HHN fans were turning out in droves to attend Friday and/or Saturday nights. The energy level was incredible! Fans from all different age groups were all excited to enter the gates as the theme music from Stranger Things, Halloween, and Poltergeist filled the air. Armed with my Express Pass for Friday night and Rush of Fear HHN ticket, I was excited to meet up with my annual HHN crew for a night of frights and fun set to the beat of 1980s music and horror. One might even go so far as to say that this year’s HHN is an entertaining love letter to everything we loved about the 80s.

Prior to arriving at the archway, I just had get to the park. A lot easier said than done. There were so many horror fiends heading to HHN that the exit ramp from the 4 to the park was backed up to the driving lane. Not to mention the 40mph traffic all along I-4EB for miles and miles that I drove through. Once I finally got to the auto toll plaza for parking, I thought everything would move a little more smoothly. Nope. Although each of the toll booth holds two team members, from what I could tell, each booth had ONE–yes one–team member. After I finally parked, I looked at my watch and realized that nearly 45mins past from the exit ramp to the parking spot. Tip to Universal: please fully staff the booths to move cars through the plaza more efficiently. Once I made it to the archway, I had to pickup my tickets from the will-call kiosk. And just like usual, at the kiosk, neither liked my QR code nor my confirmation number. I encounter this problem every year. Any tips from those of you who do not have problems with the kiosk would be appreciated!

Finally, I was at HHN! Phew, what a process. But it was all worth it! One of my favorite things to observe is the variety of horror graphic T’s. So many different horror movies and fandoms represented. There is truly a sense of community at HHN. Maybe you don’t think about that at first because of the long standby (and even Express) wait times this year; but for those of us who love horror, this is the time of year (and the event) that we feel that we are not weird as characterized by popular culture at large. Even before I arrived, I had many fellow #FilmTwitter #Tweeps who hoped to see me, and I them, at the event. Unfortunately, I didn’t run into any of my Twitter followers at HHN this year, but I had a lot of fun following them, and reading what they thought about the different houses. Even though I did not end up meeting up with any of those I follow (or follow me) on Twitter, I felt connected to them through exchanging comments as we were all experiencing HHN at the same time. What I would like to see emerge from the Twitter and blogging communities as well as the #PodernFamily (podcasters) is to make an effort to connect in person as much as digitally. Perhaps many of us are covering HHN for our various media outlets; but at the end of the day, we are all there to have fun and should exhibit that same sense of community in person as we do through social media. Be social in real life!

(Twisted Tater has sense been added to the event)

Before I get into my brief review of each house, there is one other item of mention that I greatly missed at this year’s HHN. Twisted Tater. Yes. That spirally, starchy, fried goodness that has been a staple of HHN for what seems like forever. It was nowhere to be found. At least, I never found it nor did I see anyone post about it. Thankfully, my friend Dani and I had Twited Tater back during Mardi Gras, but we were both saddened that it was not part of HHN this year. Speaking of food, I do not feel that the selection of HHN food was as strong this year as it has been in the past. Yes, that Stranger Things cookie-like treat was popular on social media, but most of the HHN food seemed to skew towards sweets moreso than savory or starchy. In the future, aside from Twisted Tater returning, a nice balance of foods for any fix that an HHN guest may have, should be added. Oh yeah, Pizza-dogs need to return too! The fries just don’t do it. Speaking of fries, fresh cut fries would be a great addition to the food lineup!

Although it’s the houses that typically get the most attention running up to and during the event, after last year’s success of the elaborately immersive Trick ‘r Treat scare zone, the scare zones have begun to get an increased level of attention. Like with last year’s Trick ‘r Treat, it stands to reason that scare zones can definitely be used as a testing ground for future houses. The concept of testing an IP or concept for a house in a scare zone the previous year is not new, but it seems to be becoming more of the case over the last couple years. Scare zones this year are: The Harvest, Vamp ’85, Killer Clowns from Outer Space, Twisted Traditions, Revenge of Chucky, and I also count the annual chainsaw wielding clowns in Springfield.

The Harvest: Here you’ll encounter all the horrors you have ever feared were in your grandparents’ barn. I feel that this scare zone was a little weak compared to what is typically in this same area, but still a fun scare zone to get you in the mood for your night of horror. One of the best parts of the scare zone are the variety and amount of jack-o-lanterns! They are everywhere. It feels very much like Halloween!

Vamp ’85: Ring in the new year with 1980s vampires and music! Loved the small stage show! With many of the houses having roots in the 80s, this zone worked extremely well to continue that immersive love letter to the 1980s. Make sure to stay for the countdown but watch out for big haired vampires in flashy clothes!

Killer Clowns from Outer Space: My pick for favorite scare zone! Absolutely loved this scare zone, and I know you will to. Based on the cult classic, this scare zone has the best costumes and atmosphere. It successfully strikes that balance between horror and comedy, and works as a fun way to cleanse the pallet from the much darker areas of the rest of the park.

Twisted Traditions: Best part of this scare zone is the creepy church building! I walked though this scare zone a couple times, but unfortunately, I never felt that it actually accomplished what it set out to do. Only the church building is memorable. Couldn’t name one unique costume.

Revenge of Chucky: I was pretty hyped for this scare zone because I like the movies so much, but it was a bit disappointing. However, the interactive Good Guys display with Chucky was great! And that man baby you’ve probably seen on Twitter of IG was truly disturbing. I think it could have used a little more scare factor. Maybe even a Chucky jumping out at guests or something. It was okay, just not quite what I expected.

Now for what you really want to know about–the houses!

GET THE EXPRESS PASS even if just for one night, which is what I did. It is definitely worth the cost.

Poltergeist: MY FAVORITE HOUSE at HHN28! Such a successful translation from screen to live experience. All the moments from the movie that you want to see and experience are there! I wonder if real skeletons were used in the HHN house like in the movie, hence the curse and lore that follows Hooper and Spielberg’s movie to this day. You start in the back of the house in the pool then make your way through the infamous suburban home. The scares are perfectly effective and the production design is right out of the movie.

Stranger Things: This is likely the house that you may be looking forward to experiencing the most, as it is the other headliner house this year. The demogorgon will chase you throughout the house. All the scenes and locations from the show that you want to see are in the HHN28 house. And the lighting and special effects are spot on. From the living room with the Christmas lights to the Upside Dows, you will feel completely immersed in the world of Hawkins! The only negative criticism I have is the lack of live cast members. Yes, much has to do with an inability to cast kids in a house, but the absence was noticeable.

Halloween 4: With the highly anticipated Halloween (2018) releasing next month, Michael Myers once again returns to HHN! This is the third Michael house in the last few years with Halloween 1 and 2 with 3 being skipped since Michael is not actually in it. It’s a fun house for sure! And you get lots and lots of Michael. It’s been a while since I’ve seen H4; but from what I remember, this house does capture many scenes and elements of the movie. However, ultimately I feel that this house feels like more of a Michael Myers tribute than a “Halloween 4” house. This may be the case because HHN will be going on a Michael break for a while.

Trick ‘r Treat: In short, it works better as a scare zone than a house. That being said, it’s still a solid house with many of the scenes you want to see recreated. You’ll encounter Sam several times and you’ll get to see some of your favorite kills from the movie.

The Horrors of Blumhouse: If you need to skip a house for the sake of time, skip this one. Better than last year, but still (and according to most polls and reviews I’ve seen on Twitter) the least liked house at HHN28. At this house, you walk through Happy Death Day and First Purge. HDD was repetitive. Yes, I realize that is the point because the movie is a twisted Groundhog Day, but as a house it gets old quickly. And then The Purge movies just don’t translate well to a house, with the exception of the first one, which was more of a home invasion.

Scary Tales: My pick for best original house! From the moment you enter the Wicked Witch’s castle as she flies overhead, you will be completely immersed in the absolutely impressive production design that works perfectly around every corner. Each and every fairy tale was twisted beautifully. The effects were fantastic and the attention to detail was unlike anything I’ve seen in an original house before. What I find most interesting about the experience is that this house actually gets back to the original idea behind these tales in that most fairy tales were darkly cautionary stories told to influence a child’s behavior. Many are quite scary! So, this feels like an exaggerated version of how these tales were received back when originally written.

Slaughter Sinema: Close runner up to Scary Tales. Ever wanted to visit the world of those schlocky horror films of the 1980s??? Now is your opportunity to get inside the screen. Such a great house! While waiting in queue, you’ll get to watch trailers of some terrible, great horror movies. My personal favorite is Attack of the Swamp Yeti. The movies are so bad that I want to see each of them. Too bad that they are completely made up for this event. You’ll enter this house through an old drive in movie theatre then walk through each of the movies. There are some excellent kills and the production design is impressive!

Seeds of Extinction: Life after people! Visit an Arizona that is overrun by predatory plants and see you as their next dinner. A post-apocalyptic house is not entirely new, but this is a new twist on a past concept. We are used to being chased by zombies or creatures, but now you must fear plants. Some will eat you whole and others will shoot you with poisonous darts like the plants in Jumanji.

Carnival Graveyard: What is more terrifying than an abandoned carnival inhabited by hillbillies and killer clowns? Not much, haha. This house successfully combines the best of circus and hillbilly horror for one nightmarish house. Of all the original houses, this one is probably the most detailed. Even more than Scary Tales. The scares are so good! I like how the characters are extensions of the setting itself instead of feeling like their are just stuck in there to frighten us.

Dead Exposure: Ehh. This is a concept that has been done before, and like before, it fails to ever be truly scary. The idea is that you have been given an inoculation to prevent you from turning into a zombie after an outbreak at a facility. This shot is said to have nasty side effects such as disorientation. And on that, the house delivers in spades. The lighting design and special effects were so disorienting that I legitimately had trouble walking around to the point that is was annoying and not playful.

I did not experience Academy of Villains. And that is by choice. I felt like Harry Potter talking to Snape when he exclaims “how dare you stand where he stood…” That is how I felt because it’s now located in the stadium where Bill & Ted used to be. A horror comedy show that is built upon satire and parody is missing from the HHN28 lineup. If for no other reason, this show served as a means to take a break from the macabre and cleanse the pallet for more frights! I hope to see a show along these lines return one day.

Well, there you have it folks! A comprehensive review of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights XXVIII. You definitely need to get out to HHN while it is going on. Fortunately for you, it just opened so you have several more weeks of HHN on select nights. With a variety of tickets and passes to choose from, there is a ticket for nearly every budget. If you can only go one night, I highly recommend getting the Express Pass. Otherwise, you may only make it to 2-3 or at the most 4 houses during your night.

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